Book Review: Dying to Live by Michael Stanley

Dying to Live
A Detective Kubu Mystery #6
Michael Stanley
Minotaur Books, October 2017
ISBN:  978-1-466-88156-3
Hardcover

The sixth in the series featuring detective Kubu (“hippopotamus” in Setswana, the language of Botswana), this novel has an unusual plot:  a secret plant indigenous to the desert, for which three men are murdered, is the basis for this mystery.  The pathologist Dr. Ian MacGregor, who does the autopsy on a bushman found dead in the desert, discovers an aged body containing youthful organs.  He calls Kubu when he suspects the man was murdered.  It turns out the victim was a highly respected witch doctor who treated a variety of “patients” with a secret potion promising a long life.

Thus begins a long, complicated investigation, in which Kubu is assisted by the first female CID detective, a case that expands when another witch doctor turns up murdered and a visiting anthropologist from the United States goes missing.  As if that’s not enough to keep him busy, Kubu is confronted by another case in which controlled substances, powdered rhino horn, is being smuggled out of the country.  Kubu suspects the two cases are inter-related.

Just as important to this novel, as well as the series, is Kubu’s home life, his relationship with his wife, Joy, and his daughter Tuni, and adopted daughter, Nono, who is HIV positive and suffers a breakdown causing considerable concern until a prescribed cocktail of medicines can be formulated to stabilize her condition.  These aspects give the writing team who authored the book the opportunity to show how human Kubu is, as well as the detective’s well-known appetite.  Other constant features of the series are the atmosphere and characteristics of the Batswana (the people of the nation).  We await the seventh novel in the series after recommending the sixth and current one.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2018.

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Book Review: Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed by John Keyse-Walker

Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed
Teddy Creque Mysteries #2
John Keyse-Walker
Minotaur Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-14847-6
Hardcover

Constable Teddy Creque returns in Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed, the second book in a series set in the British Virgin Islands. The setting of these books alone makes them worth reading in the Winter. This time, readers get to go with Teddy to Virgin Gorda.

With a beach covered with fine white sand and clear aqua blue water, the section of the island known as The Baths is beautiful. Tourists with cash in hand flock to Virgin Gorda because of the beautiful beaches, so the last thing the island needs is a shark attack. But Constable Creque has been assigned to deal with just that thing. The trunk of a woman’s body has washed up onto the beach. Teddy’s assignment is to find the shark responsible and kill it.  With a multitude of people watching, Teddy goes out to track sharks and find the one responsible. A shark is caught and killed and when cut open, a human hand rolls out of its belly. But soon Teddy begins to suspect that it was not the shark that caused the woman’s death.  As one would expect, not everyone is happy to see Teddy nosing around.

Constable Creque has grown into his role since the first book in the series, Sand, Sun, Murder.  While he seems to have an innate ability for solving crimes, his methods are a bit unorthodox at times. Since his first case when he was nearly killed, Teddy has learned a bit more of what is expected of a good officer including how to get along with his bosses. Still, situations come up that are not in any manual and can’t fit into standard policing. Such is the case with this murder when Teddy’s only apparent witness is a young child who is mute. Again, Teddy figures out a way to work through the problem.

This book is, in my opinion, a much better book than the first book in the series.  The protagonist has grown into his job a bit more. The plot is well done leaving a trail of clues without giving too much away for readers to puzzle over. The entire book just seems to fit together better.

One of the best things in the first book that continues in this book is the excellent descriptions of the various places. Reading this during a bleak week of raw weather, it was a bit like taking a breezy warm vacation to the islands. If you are feeling a bit beaten down by the winter that won’t give up, let me suggest a quick trip to the British Virgin Islands.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, March 2018.

Book Review: Death of an Unsung Hero by Tessa Arlen—and a Giveaway!

Death of an Unsung Hero
A Lady Montfort Mystery #4
Tessa Arlen
Minotaur Books, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-10144-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In 1916, the world is at war and the energetic Lady Montfort has persuaded her husband to offer his family’s dower house to the War Office as an auxiliary hospital for officers recovering from shell-shock with their redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson contributing to the war effort as the hospital’s quartermaster.

Despite the hospital’s success, the farming community of Haversham, led by the Montfort’s neighbor Sir Winchell Meacham, does not approve of a country-house hospital for men they consider to be cowards. When Captain Sir Evelyn Bray, one of the patients, is found lying face down in the vegetable garden with his head bashed in, both Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson have every reason to fear that the War Office will close their hospital. Once again the two women unite their diverse talents to discover who would have reason to murder a war hero suffering from amnesia.

Time has moved on since our last encounter with Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson and England is growing weary of World War I, only halfway through the horror, although their patriotism is still high and everyone wants to do his—or her—part. When a military hospital is opened in Haversham Hall, a property owned by the Earl of Montfort, some neighbors are not welcoming. This is no ordinary hospital treating the visible wounds one expects to see but, rather, a shelter for soldiers suffering a badly misunderstood emotional affliction. Shellshock is a condition that’s newly-recognized by the medical community but many civilians see it as a mere excuse for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Still, murder seems to be an unnecessarily strong reaction.

Lady Montfort and her housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, are the perfect upstairs-downstairs team and their individual stations and personalities complement each other when they investigate. Unlike some similar situations, these women are equally intelligent and determined to seek truth and justice plus they truly like each other and work together like a well-oiled machine. Now, they turn their attention to the question of why someone would want to murder Captain Bray just when he was beginning to recover from his amnesia and who that someone might be.

Tessa Arlen has cemented her place among the best historical mystery authors and, in my opinion, each book is a wonderful evocation of period and setting. It was nice to learn more about Lady Montfort’s family and the earl has become another of my favorite members of the cast. This entry has the added drama of war and it’s clear that the author understands and has a passion for the times and her wonderful characters. I’ll be adding Death of an Unsung Hero to my list of best reads in 2018.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2018.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon // Indiebound

“The book is a delightful romp through a world of vividly
eccentric characters in a beautifully described setting. It was
pure pleasure to read, and it packed a punch.”
– Historical Novel Society

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About the Author

TESSA ARLEN is the author of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, Death Sits Down to Dinner and A Death by Any Other Name. She is the daughter of a British diplomat and had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi, and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the US in 1980 and worked as an HR recruiter for the LA Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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To enter the drawing for a print
copy of Death of an Unsung Hero,
leave a comment below. The winning
name will be drawn on Monday
evening, March 19th, and the book
will be sent after the tour ends.
Open to residents of the US.

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“The way Arlen integrates the traumas of WWI into a
golden age whodunit plot will please Charles Todd fans.”
– Publishers Weekly

Book Review: The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

The Shadow District
The Flovent and Thorson Thrillers #1
Arnaldur Indridason
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Minotaur Books, November 2017
ISBN:  978-1-250-12402-9
Hardcover

From the publisher:  In the debut of a new series from international mystery giant Indridason, the murder of a woman in Reykjavik during WWII becomes a piece in the puzzle of a contemporary killing.  A retired detective named Konrad remembers the earlier murder from his childhood, and is surprised when, assisting in the case of a 90-year-old man who was smothered in his bed, he comes across clippings that the old man kept of the murder.  It happened in ‘the shadow district,’ a rough neighborhood bordered by the National Theatre where Konrad grew up. But why would someone be interested in that crime now?  Alternating between Konrad’s unofficial investigation and the original wartime police inquiry, The Shadow District depicts the two investigations, separated by decades, discovering that two girls had been attacked in oddly similar circumstances.  Did the police arrest the wrong man all those years ago?  How are these cases linked across the decades?  And who is the old man?  A deeply compassionate story of old crimes and their consequences.

And that this surely is.  This newest standalone from Mr. Indridason will resonate with his many readers, as it did with this reviewer.

The contemporary murder is that of a young woman of about twenty, the body discovered by a local Icelandic woman and her lover, found in a box in a doorway of that same National Theatre in the Shadow District.  The investigation is headed by Konrad and Marta, a young woman with whom he had worked in the CID, and they immediately realize the similarities between this murder and the wartime killing, the two victims and the circumstances of their murders being so similar.  The ensuing tale is riveting, in this author’s distinctive style, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2017.

Book Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Glass Houses
A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel #13
Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-0-2500-6619-0
Hardcover

From the publisher:  When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a cold November day in Three Pines, Chief Inspector Gamache, who now resides there, knows something is wrong.  Yet since no laws are being broken, he does nothing.  But a shadow falls over Three Pines, and unease sets into the community.  Soon the figure disappears, and not long after, a body is discovered.  During the ensuing investigation and later, when a trial begins against the accused, Gamache considers the events he set into motion long ago, disastrous means to an uncertain end, and if there will be a reckoning.  “This case began in a higher court,” he says at his testimony.  “And it’s going to end there.”  And regardless of the trial’s outcome, Gamache understands that in the end, he will have to face his conscience.  A gripping and haunting mystery, “Glass Houses” explores what Gandhi called the court of conscience and asks us, when the chips are down, is there a court that supersedes all?

This is the 12th book in the series, all of which take place in and around the aforementioned Quebec village of Three Pines, variously described as lost, hidden in the hills, and not on any map or GPS, in the middle of nowhere, and a place where “getting lost was almost a prerequisite for finding the place.”   All the residents of the village are present, and the many fans of the series will welcome them: Gamache, former Chief Inspector of the Surete, a post now held by Isabella Lacoste, Gamache now the Superintendent, heading up the division that oversees Homicide and Serious Crimes; his wife, Reine-Marie; Myrna, a large black woman who runs a new and used bookstore and was once a prominent psychologist in Montreal [referred to by others in the novel as “a verbal speed bump”]; Ruth Zardo, an eccentric, award-winning and “demented old” poet, and Rosa, her beloved pet duck; Gabri and Olivier, the lovers who run the bistro and the B&B; Monsieur Beliveau, the grocer; Clara Morrow, an artist and portraitist; as well as Henri, Gamache’s German shepherd; Jean-Guy Beauvoir, second in command in the Surete [formerly Gamache’s second in command] and now married to his daughter; and Madeleine Toussaint, the first woman in charge of Serious Crimes and the first Haitian to head up any department. Three Pines, and its residents, remain as charming as ever.

Shortly after the book opens, a trial is about to begin, the defendant being accused of the above-mentioned murder, Gamache being a key witness, the judge one Maureen Corriveau, handling her first murder case, a murder which seemingly had no motive behind it.  The identity of the defendant is withheld from the reader until much later in the novel.  The villain in the piece, a figure known as “the cobrador,” is a fascinating creation, apparently with its origin in Spain, in fact a Spanish debt collector, who followed and shamed people into paying their debts.

There is much here that is timely, dealing as it does with issues of drug/opiod use/abuse [present in our newspapers on almost a daily basis], and political corruption, among other things of national importance today.  As always the writing is never less than elegant, and the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2017.

Book Reviews: Booke of the Hidden by Jeri Westerson, Gone Gull by Donna Andrews and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Booke of the Hidden
Booke of the Hidden #1
Jeri Westerson
Diversion Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-63576-050-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

To get a fresh start away from a bad relationship, Kylie Strange moves across the country to open a shop in a seemingly quiet town in rural Maine. During renovations on Strange Herbs & Teas, she discovers a peculiar and ancient codex, The Booke of the Hidden, bricked into the wall. Every small town has its legends and unusual histories, and this artifact sends Kylie right into the center of Moody Bog’s biggest secret.

While puzzling over the tome’s oddly blank pages, Kylie gets an unexpected visitor―Erasmus Dark, an inscrutable stranger who claims to be a demon, knows she has the book, and warns her that she has opened a portal to the netherworld. Kylie brushes off this nonsense, until a series of bizarre murders put her, the newcomer, at the center. With the help of the demon and a coven of witches she befriends while dodging the handsome but sharp-eyed sheriff, Kylie hunts for a killer―that might not be human.

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate towards witchy books but this one had a couple of things going for it before I even started—the description sounds awesome and I already knew I’d enjoy this because it’s written by Jeri Westerson. If you ask me, Ms. Westerson is one of those authors who is way under-recognized and I’ve been happy with everything by her I’ve ever read.

When Kylie finds that book, she does what anybody would do, she opens it. What follows—a coven of witches, a possible demon, murder and a bit of romance—turn this find into something quite out of the ordinary but Kylie keeps her cool, for the most part, and her interactions with Erasmus are often laugh out loud funny. Even the name of the town, Moody Bog, draws out a smile and, while the pacing is a little on the slow side, I chalk that up mostly to setting things up for the books to come. I came to feel really attached to the kind of creepy but appealing Moody Bog and its inhabitants and to the story that leads Kylie and her new “friends” down a most unlikely path on the way to solving the murder.

So, did Booke of the Hidden live up to its description? Yes, it certainly did and its essential differences from Ms. Westerson‘s other work make this a really fun departure from her  straightforward historical mysteries. Despite my slight aversion to witch-related stories, I’ll definitely be back for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Gone Gull
A Meg Langslow Mystery #21
Donna Andrews
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07856-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Meg is spending the summer at the Biscuit Mountain Craft Center, helping her grandmother Cordelia run the studios. But someone is committing acts of vandalism, threatening to ruin the newly-opened center’s reputation. Is it the work of a rival center? Have the developers who want to build a resort atop Biscuit Mountain found a new tactic to pressure Cordelia into selling? Or is the real target Meg’s grandfather, who points out that any number of environmentally irresponsible people and organizations could have it in for him?

While Meg is trying to track down the vandal, her grandfather is more interested in locating a rare gull. Their missions collide when a body is found in one of the classrooms. Can Meg identify the vandal and the murderer in time to save the center’s name―while helping her grandfather track down and rescue his beloved gulls?

You would think that this series would have begun to show signs of becoming stale and tired by now but that hasn’t happened. Donna Andrews has the magic touch and always seems to come up with fresh ideas and new things to laugh about but the early books still stick with me, especially particular characters beyond Meg.

This time, we have to get along without some of the old regulars (although two of my favorites, Spike the Small Evil One and Meg’s dad, are here) because Meg has gone out of town but her grandparents do a lot to make up for the missing. Meg’s blacksmithing has taken something of a back seat over the course of the series but it’s central to the story in Gone Gull as she’s agreed to teach classes for a few weeks at her grandmother’s new craft studio. Unfortunately, someone seems to have it in for the center, perpetrating small acts of sabotage, and no one is sure who’s doing it. Then Meg discovers a body and the real sleuthing begins.

I have to say the mystery to be solved isn’t as much in the forefront as the wild and quirky activities of the characters but it’s still a good one with some twists and turns to keep the reader occupied while chuckling at what’s going on. Oh, and the gull referred to in the title? That bird and Meg’s grandfather are the source of more than a few laugh out loud moments and, for me, was the icing on the cake. Having said that, I’ll be glad if we have Meg back in her usual surroundings next time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Grove Atlantic, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-8021-2689-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds.

It doesn’t happen often but, every once in a while, I encounter a book that just leaves me cold and this is one of them. On the surface, I should have loved it because it’s apocalyptic (one of my preferred subgenres) and follows the physical as well as mental/emotional journey of a young family trying to cope with a world gone sour. To my dismay, I couldn’t connect with this in any way.

Characters, worldbuilding and plot are the three main components of any work of fiction and there is an interesting plot here in that the protagonist and her husband and baby are forced to find a way to escape the floodwaters and the devastation that has crushed London and the English countryside. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no worldbuilding; we know the water has risen to submerge much of England but that’s all we know. What caused this? A meteor strike, global warming, some dastardly act of a mad scientist, an alien attack of some sort? It’s hard to really feel what the survivors have to deal with when we know so little.

Worst of all, the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts when no one even has a name, just an initial. To me, this is a writing style that is almost pretentious and, coupled with the first person present tense that I so dislike, well, I just didn’t care very much. I find this happens fairly frequently when I read what’s called “literary fiction”.

The one thing that helps to lift this above the abyss is the author’s attention to the bonds between mother and child and she does that extremely well. I think perhaps that was intended to be the core theme and the apocalyptic elements just got in the way. Certainly, a lot of readers and inhabitants of the publishing world have a much more favorable reaction and, although I didn’t care much for this story, I think Megan Hunter is an author to watch..

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

Book Reviews: Gin and Panic by Maia Chance and The Burning by J.P. Seewald

Gin and Panic
Discreet Retrieval Agency Mysteries #3
Maia Chance
Minotaur Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-10905-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Former socialite Lola Woodby is now struggling to make ends meet as a not-so-discreet private eye in Prohibtion-era New York City, along with her stern Swedish sidekick, Berta. When they’re offered a piece-of-cake job―retrieving a rhinoceros trophy from the Connecticut mansion of big game hunter Rudy Montgomery―it seems like a no-brainer. After all, their client, Lord Sudley, promises them a handsome paycheck, and the gin and tonics will be plentiful and free. But no sooner do they arrive at Montgomery Hall than Rudy is shot dead.

When the police arrive to examine the scene, they conclude that Rudy had actually committed suicide. But Lord Sudley can’t believe his friend would have done that, and there’s a houseful of suspicious characters standing by. So Lord Sudley ups the ante for Lola and Berta, and suddenly, their easy retrieval job has turned into a murder investigation. Armed with handbags stuffed with emergency chocolate, gin flasks, and a Colt .25, Lola and Berta are swiftly embroiled in a madcap puzzle of stolen diamonds, family secrets, a clutch of gangsters, and plenty of suspects who know their way around a safari rifle.

When I think back on this book, the first word that comes to mind is “charming” followed very shortly by “fun”. This is a pair of sleuths I loved spending time with and the plot and setting did a lot to hold my attention; overall, I was reminded of those lighthearted mysteries that take us back to the more innocent-seeming time of 1923.

Lola isn’t really the brains of the duo but she’s learning to adapt to her altered circumstances and her previous position in society opens doors to them while Berta has a knack for figuring things out while keeping the Lola ship steered in the right direction, so to speak. They have an unlikely friendship for their time but it really works for them and lays the groundwork for a successful detecting business. Lola’s constant companion, the furry Cedric, adds to the ambience.

The whole idea of someone asking them to “retrieve” a rhinoceros head trophy seems a bit outrageous in today’s world but it had me chuckling early on, imagining these two women having to smuggle such an item out of its current place of honor just to settle a grievance. Still, Lola and Berta are game, pun intended ;-), having no idea they’re about to land smackdab in the middle of a locked room mystery complete with dead body. A cache of diamonds and the bumbling efforts of our sleuths lead to enough adventure and madcappery to while away a very pleasant afternoon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The Burning
J.P. Seewald
Annorlunda Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-944354-26-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

George Ferris has worked hard to make a good life for himself and his family without going into the coal mines that shortened his father’s life. Now, a slow-moving catastrophe is threatening to take it all away. How far will he go to protect everything he has worked for? And will he realize what really matters before it is too late?

The first time I heard about coal fires burning under a town, years ago, I was horrified and I still am. It seems almost like science fiction and the idea that people would either have to live with such a never-ending threat or leave the homes and neighbors they had known for so long is little short of overwhelming.

George is a man who’s easy to understand because his whole way of life is undergoing a major transformation, beginning with the huge divide between him and his brother, Larry, a man who chose to leave his blue collar background behind. George takes pride in his life and it’s painful watching him have to make choices that he never wanted or expected to have to make. He’s watching his very existence, everything that makes him who he is, turn to ashes and not only because of the fire burning under his gas station. The frustrations that come with dealing with the bureaucracy that is more obstructive than helpful make George and the people around him begin to think they’ve been abandoned; as one catastrophe piles on another and another, it’s easy to see the despair George feels and his desperation to find solutions. Unfortunately, fear and a lingering denial, even self-pity, lead to some very wrong choices.

In the midst of devastation, the unbreakable but shaky bonds between George and Larry come to the fore and just may be the saving grace that the brothers need. The Burning is a short but intense story and, once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down; knowing it’s based on true events makes this a truly compelling read.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.