A Passel of Teeny Reviews, Part 6 @nancyjcohen @JSpencerFleming @MinotaurBooks @CharlesFinch @BevLongBooks @HarlequinBooks @SusanSpann @SeventhStBooks

Once again, big surprise, I find myself with
an overload of books read but not yet reviewed
so I think it’s time for a roundup or two…

Easter Hair Hunt
A Bad Day Hair Mysteries #16
Nancy J. Cohen
Orange Grove Press, March 2020
ISBN 978-09997932-7-5
Trade Paperback

Marla Vail is visiting Tremayne Manor to do her hairstyling thing for Blinky Morris so she’ll be ready for the Easter egg hunt but, after the hunt when Marla is helping to look for unfound eggs, she finds something else, a dead body dressed as a bunny. When it’s discovered that Blinky is missing, the very pregnant Marla jumps right in to investigate,  as fans will expect. Her poor husband, homicide detective Dalton, is right by her side, knowing full well he can’t stop her.

Marla is a character that becomes more appealing with each adventure, largely because she’s an intelligent woman who takes things in stride and doesn’t continually do stupid things. Dalton is her equal and recognizes how good she is at sussing out the facts and following leads; he long ago gave up trying to keep her out of investigations and the pair make a good team. This time, they’re dealing with a plethora of clues and suspects and the twists and turns abound. I’ve followed this series from the beginning and I’m already anticipating the next book because Ms. Cohen never lets me down 🙂

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2020.

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Hid from Our Eyes
A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery #9
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 2020
ISBN 978-0-312-60685-5
Hardcover

It seems like years since the last Clare and Russ story because, well, it has been and when I first heard about this one, I was SO excited. I’m not the least bit surprised that Ms. Spencer-Fleming is still at the top of her game.

Three different but very similar cases over a period of many decades have involved three police chiefs but Russ, the current chief, was once accused of the second killing. As this third case ramps up, Russ is under enormous pressure to find the killer before suspicion focuses on him again. Are the three cases really connected in some way or could there be a copycat killer? Who were these young women and why were they targeted or is it possible one or more were, in fact, not murdered?

Russ’s wife, an Episcopal priest and mother of a new baby, has her own issues going on but of course she’s going to help Russ and she brings a lot of intelligence and creative thinking to this case, as she always does. The personal lives of Clare and Russ are given as much weight as the investigation, enough so that I felt like I was seeing old friends again but that didn’t take anything away from the mystery of these three deaths. Leads take them in all directions and I was forced—forced, I tell you!—to stay up late into the night to keep reading. An intriguing plot and great characters make for a story I can heartily recommend but readers new to the series will enjoy it more by starting with the first one.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2020.

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The Vanishing Man
A Charles Lenox Mystery #12
Charles Finch
Minotaur Books, January 2020
ISBN 978-1-250-31137-5
Trade Paperback

In this second prequel, Charles Lenox has recently become known as the young man who bested Scotland Yard in a perplexing case and he’s called upon by the Duke of Dorset to help with an art theft. It seems a second painting was left behind and the Duke is concerned the thieves will return and, if they do, it’s possible a family scandal will be revealed as well as an enormous secret involving a priceless artifact. It isn’t long before there are other crimes and Lenox must delve into long-kept secrets that threaten the family as well as himself.

Fortunately, Lenox has the assistance of his friend, Lady Jane, who once again proves herself to be an intelligent ally, and a coterie of secondary players who bring real depth to the story. This particular adventure drags a little here and there but it’s still an engaging puzzle, especially the question of why the more valuable painting really means so much to the Duke. Mr. Finch brings Victorian London and its people to life again and I really do think this is one of the very best series with the setting and time period.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2020.

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Ten Days Gone
An A.L. McKittridge Novel #1
Beverly Long
MIRA, February 2020
ISBN 978-0-7783-0958-1
Mass Market Paperback

Hunting a serial killer is no doubt one of the most difficult things a police department may ever have to do but, this time, detectives Rena Morgan and A.L. McKittridge are also faced with the nearly impossible task of preventing a fifth murder once the likely victim has been identified. Tess Lyons already suffers psychological damage from previous events and is anything but ready to understand her present danger. Meanwhile, leads in the case are sketchy at best and the detectives are caught up in a cat and mouse game with few obvious answers until they find a petition signed by all four of the murdered women. Figuring out why the petition and the ten day intervals are important may be their best chance to stop this killer.

A.L. and Rena are a well-matched partnership, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and they complement each other in their search for a wily killer. The pacing is a little slow but Ten Days Gone shows promise and is the first in what I hope will be a long-running series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2020.

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Ghost of the Bamboo Road
A Hiro Hattori Novel #7
A Shinobi Mystery
Susan Spann
Seventh Street Books, November 2019
ISBN 978-1-6338-8550-9
Trade Paperback

Even in 16th-century Japan, a list of agents, in this case the shinobi agents of Hiro Hattori’s own clan, can cause deadly problems if it falls into the wrong hands. Hiri needs to warn his clan that a rival warlord is in possession of the list so he travels to a small village where he believes a fellow agent to be on a mission. Accompanied by Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit he protects, along with their housekeeper, Ana, and Hiro’s cat, Gato, he sees that the agent is missing. Hiro and Father Mateo are then drawn in to the investigation of multiple murders that are believed to have been caused by a ghost in the eerily half-deserted village but the situation becomes even more pressing when Ana is accused of stealing from the inn’s proprietor. And where is the missing agent?

Ms. Spann never fails to entertain me and educate me as well since her stories are full of medieval Japanese history. I love the primary characters and their interactions with each other; for instance, Gato always manages to get in the thick of things but Father Mateo can only suffer around him, being highly allergic. The two men have grown to be quite fond of each other (not that they would say so) and the priest accepts the shinobi’s protection as gracefully as he can manage while Ana is irascible and, yet, attentive. The author has a way with words and conveys the times and the setting vividly, so much so that I can practically smell the tea served in the teahouse. My only regret after reading this entry is for the too-long wait for the next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2020.

Book Review: One Was A Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

One Was a Soldier
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 2011
ISBN 9780312334895
Hardcover (ARC)

The St. Alban’s volunteers served lunch to men in mechanic’s overalls and feed store caps, and to women headed to Fort Henry for the afternoon shift behind a cash register at the Kmart or the Stewart’s. They served the slow-moving, dignified elderly, and occasionally the young, darting around their mothers or fathers.

Clare tried to speak with as many people as she could, even if it was as brief as a greeting and a “Lord, it sure is hot today, isn’t it?” Pouring drinks, swiping spills off the tables, bringing diners seconds, she could feel her vocation reassembling around her, feel herself changing from a single recipient of God’s grace into a conduit, from someone clutching with tight fingers to someone giving away with both hands. She had long though that if Jesus were around today, he’d be feeding people at a soup kitchen instead of washing their feet.

At long last, One Was a Soldier, the seventh book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s popular and well-regarded mystery series, will be released this April. I’m sure I’m not the only reader thinking, “Finally!” (Actually it was more like, “Hot diggety damn!” when my mother said she had the ARC, and “Is water wet?” when she asked if I wanted it. Now that I’ve read it, my #1 thought is, “When’s the next one coming out? There will be a next one, yes?”)

When we last saw Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alstyne, at the end of the very harrowing I Shall Not Want, Clare was shipping out for a tour of duty in Iraq. One Was a Soldier is set a year and a half later, after her return. She’s not the only resident of Millers Kill to serve overseas, however, nor has she returned unscathed. One Was a Soldier follows Clare and four fellow veterans as they try to re-integrate with the lives and families they left behind in Millers Kill. Some are more successful than others.

When another member of Clare’s PTSD support group is found dead, questions arise about the cause and reason for her death. Was it murder or suicide? What could drive a young woman who seemed to have finally found a reason to live to kill herself? Alternately, who might have had motive to kill her? Unsurprisingly, Clare refuses to accept the easy explanation, and pushes Russ to dig deeper.

I was first introduced to Julia Spencer-Fleming’s work through Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/), a blog for romance novel fans, 2½ years ago. Macmillan was giving away the first two books in the series as free e-book downloads, and the pairing of a female Episcopalian minister (from Virginia, no less!) and a small-town police chief intrigued me, as did SB Sarah’s description of the pair as “Reverend Kickypants” and “Detective Angsty Thundershorts.” I was hooked by the fourth chapter of the first book, quickly bought up the entire backlist in dead-tree form, and have been a devotee ever since.

It may seem odd to promote a mystery series on a romance blog, but this series is an excellent example of blended genres – much like the way Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series mixes science fiction, mystery, and romance, sometimes all in the same book! The evolving relationship between Clare and Russ that comprises the heart of the series is a powerful draw for romance novel fans, and certainly one of my favorite parts. (n.b. to Julia Spencer-Fleming, in case she’s reading: that also goes for Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn. More, please!)  Male-female partnerships occur in other mystery series – Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers, for example, or Nick and Nora Charles – but the pattern seems to be to delineate the boundaries at the outset: they’re either firmly platonic or a pre-existing couple. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one series where we see a romantic relationship develop, and that’s between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. The slowly-building passion between Clare and Russ gives Spencer-Fleming’s series an added emotional component and a unifying thread that keeps the reader coming back, wondering where and how and when (or if) they’ll take the next step.

Fortunately, Spencer-Fleming does not neglect the fundamentals of plot that are crucial to making a good mystery series work. As the series has progressed, the mystery that drives each narrative has grown increasingly complex and multilayered, demanding the reader’s full attention; pick up any one of my copies of Spencer-Fleming’s books and you will find notes jotted in the margins and on the back pages, indicating my efforts to spot clues and connect the dots while reading along. Furthermore, while her writing is never preachy or didactic, Spencer-Fleming uses the narrative to explore larger social issues, such as the vaccination debate (Out of the Deep I Cry) or anti-gay bigotry (A Fountain Filled With Blood); in One Was a Soldier, it’s the psychological struggles war veterans face on returning home.

It’s clear that Spencer-Fleming holds servicemen and women in high regard, and her presentation of the different ways PTSD can manifest itself is very well done. However, because Spencer-Fleming is working with such a large cast in One Was a Soldier, Clare’s struggles with alcohol and prescription drug addiction and her combat flashbacks, and how these affect her relationship with Russ and her return to her position as rector of St. Alban’s, do not get the attention they should. While I love how the Millers Kill ‘verse has expanded and I look forward to seeing familiar names (see my comment above about Kevin and Hadley), Clare and Russ seem to have become more and more part of a large ensemble cast, and so less attention is given to them as individuals and as a pair. I miss the thoughtful insights into Clare’s and Russ’ characters that earlier books in the series provided, and that made me such a fan in the first place. If there are to be more books in the series, and I really hope there will be, I’d like to see things scaled down a bit to refocus on Clare and Russ. If this means that supporting characters like Kevin and Hadley end up being the leads in their own series – well, I’d buy those books in a New York minute. 🙂

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, January 2011.

Book Review: One Was A Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

One Was A Soldier
Julia Spencer-Fleming
St. Martin’s Minotaur, April 2011
ISBN 978-0-312-33489-5
Hardcover

Fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming will be delighted with the new entry in her series, One Was A Soldier.  Clare is back from Iraq.  She and Russ are trying to pick up where they left off, not an easy thing to do, all things considered.   There are the conflicts inherent in their respective jobs, which have come between them before.  Clare has some problems with her tour in Iraq, problems she can’t (or won’t) talk to Russ about.  These two sets of problems overlap when Clare knows things about a case that she can’t tell Russ, things she found out about in a confidential setting.

One Was  A Soldier is multi-layered.  There are several sub-plots.  There is more than one romance.  Spencer-Fleming gives an honest representation of the aftermath of war.  She doesn’t make everything work out perfectly; perhaps her outcomes are better overall than in the real world, but she doesn’t skirt the very real problems facing vets and their families.

If this is the first Spencer-Fleming to cross your path, please go back and start at the beginning.  While Spencer-Fleming is quite capable of making sure this book can stand on its own, there are back-stories and relationships that will make so much more sense if you’ve read at least the book before this.  Starting at the beginning is best, in no small part because it’s so much fun to read a writer as she grows.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, January 2011.