Book Review: The Body in the Casket by Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Casket
A Faith Fairchild Mystery #24
Katherine Hall Page
William Morrow, December 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-243956-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

For most of her adult life, resourceful caterer Faith Fairchild has called the sleepy Massachusetts village of Aleford home. While the native New Yorker has come to know the region well, she isn’t familiar with Havencrest, a privileged enclave, until the owner of Rowan House, a secluded sprawling Arts and Crafts mansion, calls her about catering a weekend house party.

Producer/director of a string of hit musicals, Max Dane—a Broadway legend—is throwing a lavish party to celebrate his seventieth birthday. At the house as they discuss the event, Faith’s client makes a startling confession. “I didn’t hire you for your cooking skills, fine as they may be, but for your sleuthing ability. You see, one of the guests wants to kill me.”

Faith’s only clue is an ominous birthday gift the man received the week before—an empty casket sent anonymously containing a twenty-year-old Playbill from Max’s last, and only failed, production—Heaven or Hell. Consequently, Max has drawn his guest list for the party from the cast and crew. As the guests begin to arrive one by one, and an ice storm brews overhead, Faith must keep one eye on the menu and the other on her host to prevent his birthday bash from becoming his final curtain call.

Full of delectable recipes, brooding atmosphere, and Faith’s signature biting wit, The Body in the Casket is a delightful thriller that echoes the beloved mysteries of Agatha Christie and classic films such as Murder by Death and Deathtrap.

If you’re ever on the lookout for a gentle yet lightly adventurous cozy series, this is it and the newest episode adds a dollop of fun by presenting a scenario very reminiscent of the boardgame (and movie) Clue. The Body in the Casket is a bit of a featherweight compared to some of the other books in the series—more time is spent on the lives and times of various continuing characters in and around Aleford than on the actual mystery—but it still offers a few hours of pure pleasure.

Faith has never catered a weekend-long house party before but she’s intrigued by the prospect and even more so by Max Dane’s conviction that one of his guests intends to kill him. He’s not sure who it is but he knows the potential killer is someone connected to the last musical he produced; it’s up to Faith to figure out who before the deed can be done.

A few sidestories add even more interest to the core tale, such as a fight to keep a developer from tearing down an historic building and a couple of romantic issues but, as always, it’s Faith’s sleuthing and her scrumptious food that held my attention. The identity of the killer wasn’t much of a surprise but that was okay with me as I quite enjoyed my time with Faith & company.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2017.

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An Excerpt from
The Body in the Casket

Chapter One

“Have Faith in Your Kitchen,” Faith Fairchild said, answering the phone at her catering firm. She’d been busy piping choux pastry for éclairs onto a baking sheet.

“Mrs. Fairchild?”

“Yes? This is Faith Fairchild. How may I help you?”

“Please hold for Max Dane.” The voice had a plummy, slightly British tone, reminiscent of Jeeves, or Downton Abbey’s Carson. The only Max Dane Faith had heard of had been a famous Broadway musical producer, but she was pretty sure he’d died years ago. This must be another Max Dane.

She was put through quickly and a new voice said, “Hi. I know this is short notice, but I am very much hoping you are available to handle a house party I’m throwing for about a dozen guests at the end of the month. A Friday to Sunday. Not just dinner, but all the meals.”

Faith had never catered anything like this. A Friday to Sunday sounded like something out of a British pre-World War II country house novel—kippers for breakfast, Fortnum & Mason type hampers for the shoot, tea and scones, drinks and nibbles, then saddle of lamb or some other large haunch of meat for dinner with vintage clarets followed by port and Stilton—for the men only. She was intrigued.

“The first thing I need to know is where you live, Mr. Dane. Also, is this a firm date? We’ve had a mild winter so far, but January may still deliver a wallop like last year.”

A Manhattan native, Faith’s marriage more than 20 years ago to the Reverend Thomas Fairchild meant a radical change of address— from the Big Apple to the orchards of Aleford, a small suburb west of Boston. Faith had never become used to boiled dinners, First Parish’s rock hard pews and most of all, New England weather. By the end of the previous February there had been 75 inches of snow on the ground and you couldn’t see through the historic parsonage’s ground floor windows or open the front door. Teenage son Ben struggled valiantly to keep the back door clear, daily hewing a path to the garage. The resulting tunnel resembled a clip from Nanook of the North.

“I’m afraid the date is firm. The thirtieth is my birthday. A milestone one, my seventieth.” Unlike his butler or whoever had called Faith to the phone, Max Dane’s voice indicated he’d started life in one of the five boroughs. Faith was guessing the Bronx. He sounded a bit sheepish when he said “ my birthday,” as if throwing a party for himself was out of character. “And I live in Havencrest. It’s not far from Aleford, but I’d want you to be available at the house the whole time. Live in.”

Leaving her family for three days was not something Faith did often, especially since Sunday was a workday for Tom and all too occasionally Saturday was as he “polished” his sermon. (His term, which she had noticed over the years, could mean writing the whole thing.)

Ben and Amy, two years younger, seemed old enough to be on their own, but Faith had found that contrary to expectations, kids needed parents around more in adolescence than when they were toddlers. Every day brought the equivalent of scraped knees and they weren’t the kind of hurts that could be soothed by Pat The Bunny and a chocolate chip cookie. She needed more time to think about taking the job. “I’m not sure I can leave my family…” was interrupted. “I quite understand that this would be difficult,” Dane said and then he named a figure so far above anything she had ever been offered that she actually covered her mouth to keep from gasping out loud.

“Look,” he continued. “Why don’t you come by and we’ll talk in person? You can see the place and decide then.  I don’t use it myself, but the kitchen is well equipped—the rest of the house too. I’ll email directions and you can shoot me some times that work. This week if possible. I want to send out the invites right away.”

Well, it wouldn’t hurt to talk, Faith thought. And she did like seeing other people’s houses. She agreed, but before she hung up curiosity won out and she asked, “Are you related to the Max Dane who produced all those wonderful Broadway musicals?”

“Very closely. As in one and the same. See you soon.”

Faith put the phone down and turned to Pix Miller, her closest friend and part-time Have Faith employee.

“That was someone wanting Have Faith to cater a weekend long birthday celebration—for an astonishing amount of money.” She named the figure in a breathless whisper. “His name is Max Dane. Have you ever heard of him?”

“Even I know who Max Dane is. Sam took me to New York the December after we were married and we saw one of his shows. It was magical—the whole weekend was. No kids yet. We were kids ourselves. We skated at Rockefeller Center by the tree and…”

Her friend didn’t go in for sentimental journeys and tempted as she was to note Pix and Sam skated on Aleford Pond then and now, Faith didn’t want to stop the flow of memories. “Where did you stay? A suite at the Plaza?” Sam was a very successful lawyer.

Pix came down to earth. “We barely had money for the show and pre-theater dinner at Twenty-One. That was the big splurge. I honestly can’t remember where we stayed and I should, because that’s where—” She stopped abruptly and blushed, also unusual Pix behavior.

“Say no more. Nine months later along came Mark?”

“Something like that,” Pix mumbled and then in her usual more assertive voice, added “You have to do this. Not because of the money, although the man must be loaded! Think of who might be there. And the house must be amazing. We don’t have anything booked for then and I can keep an eye on the kids.”

The Millers lived next door to the parsonage and their three now grown children had been the Fairchilds’ babysitters. Pix played a more essential role: Faith’s tutor in the unforeseen intricacies of childrearing as well as Aleford’s often arcane mores. Faith’s first social faux pas as a new bride—inviting guests for dinner at eight o’clock— had happily been avoided when her first invite, Pix, gently told Faith the town’s inhabitants would be thinking bed soon at that hour, not a main course.

Faith had started her catering business in the city that never slept before she was married and was busy all year long. Here January was always a slow month for business. The holidays were over and things didn’t start to pick up until Valentine’s Day—and even then scheduling events was risky. It all came down to weather.

Pix was at the computer. Years ago she’d agreed to work at Have Faith keeping the books, the calendar, inventory—anything that did not involve any actual food preparation.

“We have a couple of receptions at the Ganley Museum and the MLK breakfast the standing clergy host.”

The first time Faith heard the term, “standing clergy”, which was the town’s men and women of any cloth, she pictured an upright somberly garbed group in rows like ninepins. And she hadn’t been far off.

“That’s pretty much it,” Pix added,  “except for a few luncheons and Amelia’s baby shower—I think she baby sat for you a couple of times when she was in high school.”

“I remember she was very reliable, “Faith said.

“ Hard to believe she’s the same age as Samantha and having her second!” Pix sounded wistful. She was the type of woman born to wear a “I Spoil My Grandchildren” tee shirt. Faith wouldn’t be surprised if there were a drawer somewhere in the Miller’s house filled with tiny sweaters and booties knit by Pix, “just to be ready.” Mark Miller, the oldest, was married, but he and his wife did not seem to be in a rush to start a family.

Samantha, the middle Miller, had a long-term beau, Caleb. They were living together in trendy Park Slope, Brooklyn and Sam, an old-fashioned pater familias, had to be restrained from asking Caleb his intentions each time the young couple came to Aleford. Pix was leaning that way herself, she’d told Faith recently, noting that young couples these days were so intent on careers they didn’t hear the clock ticking.

Faith had forgotten that Amelia—who apparently had paid attention to time— was Samantha’s age and quickly changed the subject to what was uppermost in her mind—the Dane job. “Where is Havencrest?” she asked. “I thought I knew all the neighboring towns.”

“It’s not really a town so much as an enclave between Weston and Dover. I don’t think it even has a zip code. I’ve never been there, but Mother has. You can ask her about it. The houses all date to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I believe there’s a gatehouse at the entrance. It’s an early equivalent of the mid century modern planned communities like Moon Hill in Lexington. Havencrest wasn’t a bunch of architects like that one though. Just very rich Boston Brahmin families who wanted privacy and plenty of space. I wonder how Max Dane ended up there? From what Mother has said, the houses don’t change hands, just generations.”

“I think I’ll check my email and see if there’s anything from him yet,” Faith said. “And maybe drop by to see Ursula on my way home.” Stopping to visit with Ursula Lyman Rowe, Pix’s mother, was no chore. The octogenarian was one of Faith’s favorite people. She turned back to the éclairs, which were part of a special order, and added a few more to bring to her friend.

“I know you’ll take the job,” Pix said. “I’m predicting the weekend of a lifetime!”

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Excerpt from The Body in the Casket by Katherine Hall Page.  Copyright © 2017 by William Morrow. Reproduced with permission from William Morrow. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-three previous Faith Fairchild mysteries, the first of which received the Agatha Award for best first mystery. The Body in the Snowdrift was honored with the Agatha Award for best novel of 2006. Page also won an Agatha for her short story “The Would-Be Widower.” The recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at Malice Domestic, she has been nominated for the Edgar Award, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and the Macavity Award. She lives in Massachusetts, and Maine, with her husband.

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Giveaway

There will be 3 winners of one (1) physical
copy each of Katherine Hall Page’s
The Body in the Casket. The giveaway
begins on December 4, 2017

and runs through January 17, 2018.

Enter here.

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Book Review: How Will I Know You? by Jessica Treadway

How Will I Know You?
Jessica Treadway
Grand Central Publishing, August 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4555-5409-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  On a December day in upstate New York, the body of high school senior Joy Enright is found in the woods at the edge of a frozen pond.  An autopsy reveals that her death was not simply a tragic accident – – the teenager’s body shows unmistakable signs of murder.  The discovery upends an otherwise quiet small town.  As the investigation unfolds, four characters tell the story from widely divergent perspectives: Susanne, Joy’s mother, tries to reconcile past betrayals with their painful consequences; Martin, a black artist, faces ostracism when blame is cast on him; Tom, a rescue diver, doubts both the police and his own perceptions; and the hopelessly awkward Harper, Joy’s best friend, tries to figure out why Joy disappeared from Harper’s life months before she actually went missing.  As a web of deceit comes to light in a tiny community where there are few secrets, How Will I Know You? explores how easily boundaries can be breached and how seemingly small choices can escalate – – with fatal consequences.

In fascinating manner, the book’s sections are separated into “Before;” “After;” quite near the end of the novel “During;” and, about a dozen pages before the final page, “After – – The Last,” June 9, 2014.  “Before” (initially May 14, 2009, then jumping to September 7th, then to October 22nd and then the 31st) and “After,” initially December 7th, quite obviously, refer to the time periods before and after Joy’s murder, on the 1st Sunday of December; “During” describing, in manner to keep the reader glued to the pages, the murder itself.  The reader doesn’t discover the significance of the book’s title until nearly one-third of the way through the book:  It was apparently Suzanne’s question of her husband, Gil, before their first date.

Early on, in the pages after December 7th, and then again in the earlier time frames of May 14, 2009 and, later, October 22nd and 31st and later still, in the “After” pages, the tale is related for long stretches in first person by Martin Willett, the black man initially arrested in the case   (At one point during these pages, in mid-November, he muses “. . . now that I’ve come to the end of it, I’m no closer to understanding what might have happened than I was when I began.”  Abut mid-way into the novel, p.o.v. is that of Tom, son-in-law of the [interim] police chief, Doug, thought of by many as “Tom Carbone, the dumb jock, married to [Alison,] a teacher,” and the kindest way in which Doug thought of him.  And towards the very end, in the “During” section, p.o.v. is that of Joy, most interestingly.

The characters presented in these pages are each very well-drawn, regardless of their generation or race.  I found Martin most fascinating, as well as his art:  I had never before even been aware of “hyperreal art” or the work of “high realists.”  The pages seemed to fly by, until one has reached the end and realize how perfectly the author has brought the suspenseful tale to its conclusion.  The novel is, obviously, recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2017.

Book Review: The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams

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The Secret, Book & Scone Society
The Secret, Book & Scone Society, Book 1
Ellery Adams
Kensington Books, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-4967-1237-0
Hardcover
From the publisher—

Miracle Springs, North Carolina, is a place of healing. Strangers flock here hoping the natural hot springs, five-star cuisine, and renowned spa can cure their ills. If none of that works, they often find their way to Miracle Books, where, over a fresh-baked “comfort” scone from the Gingerbread House bakery, they exchange their stories with owner Nora Pennington in return for a carefully chosen book. That’s Nora’s special talent—prescribing the perfect novel to ease a person’s deepest pain and lighten their heaviest burden.

When a visiting businessman reaches out to Nora for guidance, she knows exactly which novels will help. But before he can keep their appointment at Miracle Books, he’s found dead on the train tracks.

Stunned, Nora forms the Secret, Book, and Scone Society, a group of damaged souls yearning to gain trust and earn redemption by helping others. To join the society, members must divulge their darkest secret—the terrible truth that brought each of them to Miracle Springs in the first place.

Determined to uncover the truth behind the businessman’s demise, the women meet in Nora’s cramped and cozy bookstore to share stories and trade support. And as they untangle a web of corruption, they also discover their own courage, purpose, and a sisterhood that will carry them through every challenge—proving it’s never too late to turn the page and start over . . .

Ellery Adams has to work really hard to write a book I don’t like and that’s not me blowing smoke. I don’t think all of her work is 100% on point but I do find something to like about every single book. Disclaimer: I’ve known the author for years from back when I had my bookstore and she lived in Richmond and, although I haven’t seen or talked to her in far too long, I think of her fondly. Having said that, I truly think Ellery Adams is one of the best cozy writers around.

One of the best things this author does is come up with settings and/or concepts that are a little out of the norm and she’s done it again with this series debut. I quite simply adore a mystery set in or around a bookstore  (how could I not, considering my background?) but to put that store in a spa town is just terrific. Better yet, the club Nora puts together is near genius, not only to solve murders and the like but to bond these women together in such a unique fashion. Bibliotherapy at its best.

Nora’s idea is that there are few problems that can’t be remedied by reading the right book—a premise I can truly buy into—and the women she has recruited for the club all need that connection to other people with a common love for books. When you get right down to it, don’t all face-to-face book clubs thrive on reading but, perhaps more importantly, on those personal relationships? And then the icing on the cake here is the chance to be sleuths 😉

Nora, Hester, June and even Estella are unique individuals, all smart women who’ve been damaged in some way but they’re open to healing and they grow to like each other in a perfect evocation of the bonds that women form when they’re very, very lucky. Along the way, they put their heads together to figure out why this man, a visitor in town, has been murdered and why the local law is kind of ignoring it. Before everything comes to a head, these women unearth a corruption they had no idea existed.

Added to the fun of sleuthing, we’re treated, literally, to scrumptious food and beverage, enough so I was really hungry while I was reading! I’m pumped by this series debut and will definitely follow it; in the meantime, it goes on my list of favorite books read in 2017.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

An Excerpt from
The Secret, Book & Scone Society

Still scanning the park square, Nora wondered where the trolley passengers had gone. The lodge’s green trolley was parked in its usual place, but no lodge guests strolled the sidewalks or meandered from the row of quaint shops on Bath Street to the Pink Lady Grill or the Gingerbread House.

Just then, a flash of red caught Nora’s eye and she groaned inwardly as a tall, shapely woman passed in front of the bookshop window. The woman yanked the door open, ignoring the riotous clanging of the sleigh bells, and settled into the closest chair like a queen awaiting the adulation of her subjects. Her pouty lips curved into a cat-with-the-cream grin. “Consider your next bibliotherapy session canceled.”

“Hello to you too, Estella.” Nora picked up the stray paperbacks a customer had left on the table next to Estella’s chair. “I assume you’re referring to the man I met on the park bench. Why isn’t he coming? Did you scare him off?”

“Me?” Estella pretended to be affronted, but Nora wasn’t falling for the act. “I didn’t even get a chance to meet him. I was up at the lodge wasting my time on a man I thought had some potential, but he’s already making payments to an ex-wife and needs to send three kids to college. There’d be nothing left for me.” She waved a manicured hand in dismissal.

Nora was itching to reshelve the books and check on the coffee. Though she didn’t dislike Estella, she was rarely at ease in her company.

Recalling the strange sensation she’d experienced as the second train whistle blew, Nora felt an inexplicable prickle of dread. She jerked a thumb toward the window. “Where is everyone?”

Estella’s grin returned. “At the train station. They’ve been drawn there like flies to sugar. The sheriff rolled in a few seconds ago, and since he and I have never gotten along, I made myself scarce.”

Nora, who made it a point not to look people directly in the eye, forgot her rule and gave Estella an impatient stare. “What happened? Just spit it out.”

Crossing her arms in disappointment, Estella murmured something about no one being any fun, but eventually complied with Nora’s request. “When your man on the bench placed an order for one of Hester’s comfort scones, he asked her to box it because he was heading over here to see you. He left the bakery, box in hand, but he never made it to Miracle Books.” Estella leaned back in the chair and smoothed the skirt of her white sundress. “I’m sure he’d rather be sitting in this comfy chair than where he is now.”

Nora knew she wasn’t going to like the answer to her question, but it had to be asked. “Which is?”

“On the tracks,” Estella declared breathlessly. “Someone pushed him in front of the three o’clock train.”

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Book Reviews: Seeds of Revenge by Wendy Tyson and Eight Days on Planet Earth by Cat Jordan

Seeds of Revenge
A Greenhouse Mystery #3
Wendy Tyson
Henery Press, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-63511-275-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

It’s time to cuddle up with a holiday whodunit. Smell the crisp pines and baking cranberries as you sip your hot apple cider. It may be the season, but the mood in Winsome is anything but jolly.

Megan Sawyer is determined to farm year-round. So much so that she braves a December snowstorm to pitch her fresh greenhouse greens to Philadelphia chefs.

And then she sees a stranger stranded on the side of the road.

But this woman is no stranger to Winsome. It’s Becca Fox. A love chemist (you read that right). She’s headed to her aunt’s house to sell her love potions at holiday events.

Or so Becca thinks.

Her sneaky aunt only invited Becca home to reunite her with her estranged father. It sounds noble and kind-hearted, until the man ends up dead.

Megan soon finds herself in the middle. She realizes Becca’s not the only one getting iced over. Megan’s own aunt, the famous mystery author, is dragged into the drama. Her novels implicate her and she’s in trouble.

Now it’s personal. Our Megan must follow a cryptic trail of literary clues, all while sifting through the victim’s sordid past. She gets closer to the truth as the murderer gets closer to her.

How’s that for a ho ho ho? Don’t let your fresh apple crisp burn in the oven because you’re lost in this holiday homicide.

Once upon a time, Megan Sawyer was a high-powered attorney in Chicago, recently widowed, but she put all that behind and moved to the small town of Winsome, Pennsylvania, to help her grandmother run her organic farm and cafe. It doesn’t seem like a natural career change but Megan has settled in well and had just been meeting with Philadelphia chefs to set up vendor accounts for her greenhouse wares when she encounters Becca who used to live in Winsome. Becca’s aunt Merry invited her to set up a holiday shop for her love potions but Merry actually had an ulterior motive, to reunite Becca and her estranged father. Megan doesn’t know any of this but she certainly notices Becca’s angry reaction when she sees her father.

When Paul is murdered, suspects and motives begin to come out of the woodwork, as it were, and Megan gets into the thick of it first to help Becca but later to help her own aunt Sarah, a mystery author, who’s one of those suspects. That suspicion is not necessarily arbitrary—she had an odd connection to the dead man—but, before long, the victims begin to pile up and Megan herself might be in serious jeopardy.

Although this series is labeled as “cozy”, I think it’s actually more in line with the “traditional” subgenre for several reasons. There’s a bit of an edge to this story and Megan’s background as a lawyer gives her a believability as a sleuth that many cozy protagonists don’t really have. It’s also a nice touch that Police Chief Bobby King is not averse to her investigating and Megan gets some assistance from staff, friends and family rather than trying to go it alone. There are no TSTL episodes, thank heavens. All in all, this was a well-crafted mystery and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Fair warning, that end is a bit of a humdinger 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Eight Days on Planet Earth
Cat Jordan
HarperTeen, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-257173-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

How long does it take to travel twenty light years to Earth?

How long does it take to fall in love?

To the universe, eight days is a mere blip, but to Matty Jones, it may be just enough time to change his life.

On the hot summer day Matty’s dad leaves for good, a strange girl suddenly appears in the empty field next to the Jones farm—the very field in rural Pennsylvania where a spaceship supposedly landed fifty years ago. She is uniquely beautiful, sweet, and smart, and she tells Matty she’s waiting for her spaceship to pick her up and return her to her home planet. Of course she is.

Matty has heard a million impossible UFO stories for each of his seventeen years: the conspiracy theories, the wild rumors, the crazy belief in life beyond the stars. When he was a kid, he and his dad searched the skies and studied the constellations. But all of that is behind him. Dad’s gone—but now there’s Priya. She must be crazy…right?

As Matty unravels the mystery of the girl in the field, he realizes there is far more to her than he first imagined. And if he can learn to believe in what he can’t see: the universe, aliens…love…then maybe the impossible is possible, after all.

In many ways, Eight Days on Planet Earth is a look at how a teenaged boy copes with the downturns in his life, including his father’s abandonment of the family, and finds hope in the most unlikely of places. When his dad runs off with his own brother’s wife, Matty reacts with a bit of a stiff upper lip and some disdain for his mom’s apparent inability to accept the situation. As far as Matty can tell, his dad has been less than a great family man for a long time but he’s not about to show his deep hurt. On top of that, he has pretty much zero chance of developing anything with his secret crush and he and his mom are having a rough road financially. What should be that wonderful last summer before senior year is turning out to be anything but.

Then he finds an almost otherworldly girl in the field next to the farm, the field where a UFO landed years before, and Priya is a puzzle on many levels beginning with why she’s in the field in the first place. When Priya tells him she’s waiting for the spaceship to come back for her, he certainly doesn’t know what to think but he’s drawn to her. Priya appears to need looking after and she’s the perfect distraction from his woes but she becomes much more to him. Matty does feel a need to protect this strange and wonderful girl but, to his surprise, a deep emotional connection begins to develop.

Those eight days are slowmoving but they also pass in a flash and the ending tore my heart out while, at the same time, it gave me a glimpse of the fine young man Matty is destined to become. This is a story of hurt and hope and love of all kinds and I’m very glad to have made Matty’s acquaintance.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 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 Review: The Deacon’s Demise by Dean L. Hovey

The Deacon’s Demise  
A Pine County Mystery #5
Dean L. Hovey
Dean Hovey, November 2015
ISBN: 97819382062
Trade Paperback

This is the fifth episode in Dean Hovey’s series of Pine County mysteries. His cast is made up of members of the Sheriff’s unit, with assistance from various local residents and other law enforcement agencies, as needed. The pace is steady, the development of the plot is logical and anyone with even passing familiarity of the Upper Midwest, will recognize and identify the characters.

The story centers around the efforts of a Pine County deputy sheriff to figure out a motive and identify a killer. The killer or killers caused the sudden death of a pillar of Pine Brook, Minnesota, the owner of the local hardware store and a long-time deacon of a local church. George Brown was an upright—some might say uptight—member of the community. He was upset that his church had begun to serve a far-away congregation in Mexico. Youth from the church were spending a lot of time south of the border building a church and George was unhappy. One evening, after again expressing his distrust and anger at the project, he left a deacon’s meeting to drive home. When he started the engine, his car blew up, damaging the church, injuring several members, and, of course, killing George.

Floyd Swenson, deputy sheriff is tasked to figure out who planted the bomb in Brown’s car and why. Early on, he learns that some children are being kidnapped from nearby towns and in neighboring states. There appears to be no connection, and Floyd is over his head with developments in the Brown bombing. But before long, several threads begin to tangle themselves in the Pine County case and the pace picks up dramatically.

The story is well-thought out and constructed, the dialogue is appropriate and the actions of the several characters make sense.

There are some typos, abrupt and unnecessary changes in points of view, and I wish a more readable type face had been chosen. That being said, I enjoyed the novel and recommend it to everyone interested in reading about good small-town characters engaged in solving local crimes, leading to a very satisfactory conclusion.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

A Passel of Teeny Reviews, Part 2

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…

 

All the Little Liars
An Aurora Teagarden Mystery #9
Charlaine Harris
Minotaur Books, October 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09003-4
Hardcover

Charlaine Harris has to work really hard to make me not like any of her books and this one is no exception. Aurora Teagarden is her fluffiest series and I was SO excited when she brought it back with this book, 13 years after the last one.

Roe is a librarian—now married and pregnant—in a small town in Georgia and, as librarians are wont to do, falls over dead bodies on a regular basis. This time, a bunch of kids have gone missing and her teenaged brother is somehow involved. I enjoyed this story even though I thought it was just a little weak but I chalk it up to the difficulties of rebooting a series and fully expect the upcoming Sleep Like a Baby to be back on top.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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Gizelle’s Bucket List
My Life with a Very Large Dog
Lauren Fern Watt
Simon & Schuster, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-2365-8
Hardcover
Simon & Schuster Audio, March 2017
Narrated by Lauren Fern Watt
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

I both read and listened to this one and was glad I did because the audio edition added a strong connection between me and the author. This is a true story and, as you can guess from the title, it’s all about this wonderful dog’s last days. Get out a box of tissues because you’re going to need them. Yes, it’s terribly sad but also joyful and uplifting as Lauren helps Gizelle do the things she loves best and those Lauren is sure she’ll enjoy before it’s too late. The love and devotion between Lauren and Gizelle are as real as it gets and I appreciate the time I spent with them.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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Smugglers & Scones
Moorehaven Mysteries, Book 1
Morgan C. Talbot
Red Adept Publishing, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-940215-87-7
Trade Paperback

Moorehaven is a bed and breakfast in Oregon that caters to crime fiction writers—what a great setting for murder and mayhem, right? Pippa Winterbourne, manager, gets pulled into the investigation when a local is killed and a boat mysteriously crashes on the rocks, leaving her to house an intriguing injured man who just might be guilty of murder. This is a delightful tale full of the history of coastal Oregon and a beautiful setting and featuring some very appealing folks. The setup with the B&B is unusual in that a trust is actually in charge so this is not the typical scenario in which the innkeeper has to scrimp and save to keep things going. That frees Pippa to do some sleuthing on her own while she rides herd on her crochety great-uncle and the current group of author guests. This is a clever, charming series debut and I’m looking forward to the next one, Burglars & Blintzes.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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Still Life
A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery #1
Louise Penny
Narrated by Ralph Cosham
Blackstone Audio, August 2006
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

When murder is done in a small town in the Quebec province, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called in to investigate. Most of the villagers think it must have been a hunting accident but Gamache is quite sure something else is going on.

I’m hanging my head in shame, I think, because I’m apparently at odds with the mystery reading world. I’d always avoided this series ( now up to #13) for no particular reason other than I have a bit of distrust when everybody raves about the first book, then the second, the third… But, I finally started feeling kind of silly about it and bit the bullet and, well, I’m kind of underwhelmed. The narrator was quite good (I understand fans were devastated when he passed away a few years ago, after recording the tenth book) and the story was good but I just didn’t connect with it. Still, a gazillion readers can’t all be wrong so I’m going to try the second book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.

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The Introvert
Michael Paul Michaud
Black Opal Books, November 2016
ISBN 978-1-626945-47-0
Trade Paperback

He’s a vacuum salesman, a quiet individual, kind of a loner but only because solitude is usually easier. He’s Everyman. He also has moments of inner rage so intense he imagines the other person “red and open” but he’s perfectly normal. Right? Well, there was that incident a couple of years ago…

{{Shudder }}

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2017.