Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey—and a Giveaway!

The Widows of Malabar Hill
A Mystery of 1920s Bombay #1
Sujata Massey
Soho Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-778-0
Hardcover

Summary: Perveen Mistry, while assisting her father with an estate case, uncovers family secrets and deceit among the household of wives and children left behind after the patriarch’s death. Her English friend from school assists with her investigation.

The Widows of Malabar Hill begins what will hopefully be a long series with Perveen Mistry as the protagonist. Perveen is an Oxford educated lawyer working with her father in his law practice in the 1920s in Bombay, India. While at that time women could not be admitted to the bar and therefore could not represent clients in court, Perveen was able to perform much of the paper work of the law practice from writing wills to helping clients understand their legal positions. As the book opens, that is where readers find Perveen. Her father is the executor of a recently deceased mill owner who leaves behind three widows and a number of children. The person acting as their guardian has presented a document signed by the three widows stating they wish to forgo their rightful inheritance and turn their dowry gifts over to the trust which the guardian controls. There are two concerns with the document.  First there is some question regarding the signatures and secondly, the document also changes the focus of the trust’s mission, something that cannot so easily be done.

Because the women follow the custom of purdah (complete separation of the sexes), Perveen’s father would not be able to meet with the women, but Perveen can. Perveen goes to the widows’ home to speak with each of the women separately to have them each sign an individual agreement  but also to make sure the women understand exactly what they have agreed to give up and what the stated new mission of the trust is to be. While she is visiting with the second widow, the  guardian returns, overhears what she is saying and orders her to leave. Later she realizes she has left her briefcase and returns to retrieve it only to find the guardian has been murdered. What follows is an excellent murder mystery in which Perveen enlists her English friend from Oxford now living in Bombay to assist her.

There are so many things to love about this book beyond the murder mystery.

Besides the obvious crime to be solved, there is another entire story told throughout the book involving Perveen’s earlier marriage to a handsome businessman from Calcutta. Shifting back and forth from 1916 and 1917 to the story’s present day 1920s, we learn the details of how the couple met, married and why the marriage fell apart. Through this we also have a mini look into the marriage customs of India at that time, some extreme as well as some even then archaic practices.

The historical details the author has included really puts the reader in the 1920s in Bombay. The jumble of the various religious and cultural entities that somehow manage to co-exist is interesting and quite impressive.  Many cultural traditions are included and explained through actions giving readers a sense of being there rather than lectured to.

Included at the end of the book are some historical notes from the author. I would recommend reading those before reading the book. The notes really set the stage for the book.

This was the first book  I read in 2018 and a book I was sorry to see it end. What a great way to start the year.

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

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To enter the drawing for a hardcover
copy of The Widows of Malabar Hill
by Sujata Massey, leave a comment
below. The winning name will be
drawn Thursday evening, June 21st.
This drawing is open to
residents of the US and Canada.

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Book Reviews: The Final Vow by Amanda Flower and Sip by Brian Allen Carr

The Final Vow
A Living History Museum Mystery #3
Amanda Flower
Midnight Ink, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-4592-3
Trade Paperback

A hugely important wedding is taking place at the Barton Farm Living History Museum. Museum director Kelsey Cambridge is in charge of corroborating with the wedding planner to make sure everything goes smoothly. Tough times. Not only are they contending with a supreme bridezilla, but the wedding planner gets thrown from the church steeple.

Turns out Vianna Pine was not only rather unpleasant, but was almost as demanding as her clients. Not only that, she’d just found out she was the real heiress to the Barton Farm property and people are running scared. Plenty motive for murder.

Meanwhile, Kelsey is under time restraints to have the murder solved before the wedding and so, predictably, she takes a hand in the investigation. The catch? Her ex-husband is the bridezilla’s groom.

I admit I found myself annoyed with Kelsey. For a character supposedly in charge of a project like the living history museum, I thought she lacked backbone. I’d like to have seen her much stronger and more decisive. A great many of her employees, to whom she was so loyal, were thoroughly unpleasant. And the motive for the murder seemed too light. The chemistry between Kelsey and her boyfriend Chase was almost non-existent, seemingly thrown in because she needs a romantic interest.

Even so, the book moves along at a lively pace, and is clean fun read for a summer evening.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

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Sip
Brian Allen Carr
Soho Press, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-827-5
Hardcover

What a premise! Mr. Carr has an extraordinarily creative mind to have come up with the idea of people who get high by drinking their own shadow. A sort of disease afflicting one child quickly took over the world, with only small pockets of non-addicted people. Soon, certain factions moved into domes and shut the addicts out. Trains began running in circles⏤I’ve got to admit I never did figure out the purpose of this⏤and folks began cutting off limbs and drinking the shadows these arms and legs made. Violence, destruction, and death became commonplace. And apparently nobody cared.

Except Mira, whose shadow has been stolen, and is friends with Murk, who is an addict, and they are joined by Bale, a “domer” who was thrown off a train to die because he wasn’t murderous enough. Together, they go on a quest to discover a cure to the shadow addiction, but there’s a time problem. They have to find it before the return of Halley’s Comet in just a few days.

What did I think of this story? To tell the truth, I’m not quite sure. I keep asking myself why? Why would anybody do the things they do, or think the things they think. But then I turn on the news or read a paper and it all becomes almost logical.

The characters in this story are strong personalities, each and every one. The dialogue is sharp, the frequent obscenities seeming normal in context. There are twists and turns and puzzles at every point, so you don’t dare miss a word. And the end makes sense. Don’t expect this novel to give you the warm fuzzies, by any means. But be assured this is a book that will make you think, and that you won’t forget⏤ever.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, September 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: The Usual Santas, Foreword by Peter Lovesey—and a Giveaway!

The Usual Santas
A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers
Foreword by Peter Lovesey
Soho Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-775-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

This captivating collection, which features bestselling and award-winning authors, contains laughs aplenty, the most hardboiled of holiday noir, and heartwarming  reminders of the spirit of the season.

Nine mall Santas must find the imposter among them. An elderly lady seeks peace from her murderously loud neighbors at Christmastime. A young woman receives a mysterious invitation to Christmas dinner with a stranger. Niccolò Machiavelli sets out to save an Italian city. Sherlock Holmes’s one-time nemesis Irene Adler finds herself in an unexpected tangle in Paris while on a routine espionage assignment. Jane Austen searches for the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough’s stolen diamonds. These and other adventures in this delectable volume will whisk readers away to Christmases around the globe, from a Korean War POW camp to a Copenhagen refugee squat, from a palatial hotel in 1920s Bombay to a crumbling mansion in Havana.

Includes Stories By (In Order of Appearance):
Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Martin Limón, Timothy Hallinan, Teresa Dovalpage, Mette Ivie Harrison, Colin Cotterill, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Tod Goldberg, Henry Chang, James R. Benn, Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis, Sujata Massey, Gary Corby, Cara Black, Stephanie Barron and a Foreword and story by Peter Lovesey.

Short stories are not my usual cuppa but, for some reason, I feel differently about it during the Christmas season. Maybe their brevity appeals to me because I’m so busy with other things at this time of year and like to sandwich in a story here and there, more satisfying than just a chapter or two of a full-length novel.

Christmasy short stories can be a lot of fun and those included in The Usual Santas certainly are but some of them are definitely darker and they take place around the world (as might be expected from authors from Soho Press which focuses largely on non-American work). And what a terrific group of authors these 18 are!

From Timothy Hallinan comes a story about Chalee, a street kid in Bangkok who draws a special picture for a younger child and Stephanie Barron takes us back to 1804 Bath, England, telling the tale of sleuth Jane Austen who has been invited to join Lord Harold Trowbridge’s family as they celebrate New Year’s Eve, not anticipating that she’ll become involved in the theft of a magnificent necklace. Mette Ivie Harrison offers a look at a Mormon community just before Christmas when two families’ sons are about to go out on their missions while Peter Lovesey has Fran and Jim Palmer going on a small adventure—supper with the unknown Miss Shivers—where Fran learns a secret from her past, a secret that is overshadowed by an encounter with a very special young man.

Those are just a sample of the gems in The Usual Santas and I highly recommend this anthology to anyone with a fondness for Christmas tales.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2017.

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I’d love to send somebody my very
gently used print advance reading
copy of The Usual Santas. Leave a
comment below and I’ll draw
the
winning name on Wednesday evening,

  December 20th. This drawing is open
to residents of the US & Canada.

Book Review: August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

August Snow
Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-718-6
Hardcover

August Snow is the third book I’ve read so far this year that’s going on my “Best Reads of 2017” list. Yes, I’ve read other good ones, but the “best” are special in some way.

What’s special about August Snow, is August Snow. Jones has created a truly excellent character, heroic, honest, blessed with his friends and he knows it. The problem may lie in figuring out who his friends are. His enemies are pretty obvious.

August has been gone from Detroit for a year, trying to drown painful memories in travel and booze. He’s got plenty of money, having won a $12 million dollar case against the city after he lost his job as a cop. August, you see, blew the whistle on corrupt politicians and the police force running the city and they had him wrongfully dismissed from the force. But now he’s come home to live in his parents’ old home in Mexicantown.

All too soon he’s asked to investigate what may be embezzled funds from Eleanor Paget’s wealth management bank. He turns her plea for help down, only to learn that the very next day she’s committed suicide. Or has she? August doesn’t believe it, which soon lands him right in the midst of murder and more corruption than you can shake a stick at.

You may think you’ve read this plot before⏤Lord knows there’s enough corruption in the real world to make the premise almost commonplace⏤but you won’t have had a hero like August Snow.

Twists and turns carry the reader on a wild ride. The good guys keep you hoping for justice. The bad guys will twist you in knots.

Author Stephen Mack Jones is a novelist to watch!

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: His Right Hand by Mette Ivie Harrison

His Right HandHis Right Hand
A Linda Wallheim Mystery Set in Mormon Utah #2
Mette Ivie Harrison
Soho Press, December 2015
ISBN: 978-1-61695-610-3
Hardcover

Set in Draper, Utah, this second novel draws back the curtain on Mormonism ever farther than the author’s first novel, The Bishop’s Wife. We are once again with Linda Walheim, wife of the Bishop of the ward. The Mormon religious structure is elaborate, everyone in the organization has an assigned label depending on their age, their direction and their duties to the community.

Linda’s marriage is suffering small cracks and strains due to the constant pressures placed on her husband, Kurt, even though he has assistants. The ward and the larger community encounters serious turmoil when Wallheim’s main assistant, devout pillar of the community, Carl Ashby, is found dead in the local temple. That it is a crime of passion—murder—becomes apparent and then the community is rocked to its core upon the revelation that Carl Ashby was born a woman. He had been living a lie, married to a devoted woman, the couple had two adopted children, and they were active in the church and community. Yet no one even suspected.

With the police investigation hampered by political maneuvering from church elders, Linda inserts herself into the investigation against the wishes of her husband, her church and even some of her friends. Her ensuing probes reach farther than intended and cause widespread turmoil and danger to others.

The book is written in a blunt, almost naive style that sometimes may lead readers astray. Wallheim’s voice contributes to the confusion at times because she is given to long and occasionally rambling introspection leaving this reader wondering whether she’s absorbed in herself or other members of her community. Still we are drawn to this character whose motivation is always to protect the children, her church, the family and society, and solve the murder.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: The Yid by Paul Goldberg and Burning Down George Orwell’s House by Andrew Ervin

The YidThe Yid
Paul Goldberg
Picador, February 2016
ISBN 978-1-2500-7903-9
Hardcover

A very different novel is this.  Extremely well researched, a flight of fancy, original in form and content.  It chronicles the history of Soviet Russia from World War I to the death of Stalin in three acts starring an odd collection of characters ranging from an elderly Yiddish actor to a Yiddish surgeon and a Black Yiddish-speaking American engineer.  The novel takes place in a week following a late night attempt to arrest the actor, who turns the tables on the three security personnel by killing them.  This was at a time when Stalin was planning a “final solution” to the Jewish “problem,” planning to collect the minority population, pack them in cattle cars and ship them out of the Soviet Union.  It was also the period during which the so-called “doctor’s plot” was in the news: a group of Jewish doctors were arrested and accused of plotting the murder of Soviet officials.

The actor, Solomon Levinson, is soon joined by the surgeon, engineer and others, and conceives a plot to prevent Stalin’s massive pogrom by assassinating him, cutting off the head of the serpent.  In the intervening days the group debates, remembers the past, trades banter on a variety of subjects, from Shakespeare and Pushkin to anti-Semitism and racism and the broken promises of Socialism.  The novel is strewn with Yiddish phrases and poetry (conveniently translated).

For a debut novel, The Yid is most original, a flight of fancy based on reality, filled with excellent dialogue and innovative characters.  It has to be read to be appreciated, and it is hoped this suggestion is well taken.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2016.

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Burning Down George Orwell's HouseBurning Down George Orwell’s House
Andrew Ervin
Soho Press, April 2016
ISBN 97-1-6169-5652–6
Trade Paperback

This introspective debut novel chronicles the ups and downs in the life of Ray Welter, a farm boy who rose to the top of his profession until his inner self caught up with him.  Then he tossed it all away in effort to escape everything he had left behind in Chicago: a high-paying advertising job, a wife, and a way of life with which he had increasingly become disenchanted.  He takes off to the Scottish Isle of Jura.  And rents, for six months (with the last of his funds which he hopes to spend before his wife grabs the money in the divorce settlement), the cottage where George Orwell wrote and finished the satirical novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The inhabitants of Jura are an eccentric bunch, protective of each other and their way of life, especially disdainful of outsiders, tourists and the like.  Ray’s intrusion sets up many amusing situations.  That Inner Hebrides island is known for its single malt scotch, and Ray consumes a prodigious amount in an effort to either lose or find himself.  In the meantime, not only does he have to cope with his own troubles but also deal with the foibles and problems arising from the various characters in the community.

The author uses comedy to mask the seriousness of the novel, which deeply probes Ray’s thinking, seeking to define the good and bad of his life as he knows it and distilling the results until Ray can reach an inner peace.  It is quite an achievement, rarely seen in a first effort.  Can Ray reach his nirvana?  Read and enjoy the book, which is highly recommended, and find out.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2016.

Book Reviews: Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman, Hand for a Hand by Frank Muir, and Wrong Hill to Die On by Donis Casey

Skeleton PicnicSkeleton Picnic
Michael Norman
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2012
ISBN No. 978-1-59058-551-1
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

Roland (Rolly) Rogers is a retired Kanab High School teacher and an avid pot hunter.  He is anxiously waiting for his wife Abby to get home from work so the couple could begin their weekend searching for artifacts to add to their collection.  When Abby finally gets home the couple begin their last pot hunting adventure. The couple travel into Arizona and drive into a remote area that they discovered the previous fall.

When the couple fails to show up at church their daughter, Melissa, contacts Charlie Sutter, the Kane County Sheriff.  A missing persons report is taken when Melissa says her parents left on Friday and had planned to return on Saturday night.  Sheriff Sutter phones J. D. Books, a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management, and asks that he check out the Rogers residence since it is close to him.  Books is having coffee with Ned Hunsaker, a close friend and his landlord.

Books and Hunsaker go to the Rogers’ residence only to find that someone has broken in through the patio doors. When Books gets inside, he finds that the Rogers cat has been killed and is lying in a pool of blood.  The display case for the antiquities that Rogers has collected over the years is broken and the contents have been removed.

A search discovers the Rogers’ truck and trailer at an abandoned campsite near an excavated Anasazi ruin.  Footprints and other evidence indicate that the Rogers couple had visitors at their campsite.

Inquiries bring to light the fact that law enforcement authorities in the area have identified several unsolved missing person cases involving pot hunters who have gone missing.  Books along with Sheriff Sutter and his young deputy, Beth Tanner, begin the investigation and soon find that they are treading on dangerous ground.

Skeleton Picnic is an exciting mystery with strong characters that keep the story flowing.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2012.

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Hand for a HandHand For A Hand
Frank Muir
Soho Press, Inc., November 2012
ISBN No. 978-1616951818
Hardcover

DCI Andy Gilchrist became a new favorite for me just a few pages into Hand For A Hand.  A dismembered hand is found on the golf course in St. Andrews, Scotland.  The hand grips a note addressed to Andy.  This first note is only the beginning of the terrors that Andy must face as the body parts and the notes with the strange messages continue to make their appearances.

Andy is divorced with two grown children, Jack and Maureen.  It is a puzzle as to why the murderer is targeting Andy with a personal note.  Andy realizes that the victim could be someone close to him.  He leaves an urgent message for his daughter Maureen requesting that she contact him immediately.  When he reaches his son, Jack, Andy learns that Jack had a disagreement with his girlfriend, Chloe, and doesn’t know where she is now.

To make matters even worse, Ronnie Watt is assigned to the case.  Because of an incident in the past involving Ronnie and Andy’s young daughter Maureen, Andy despises Ronnie, doesn’t trust him, and feels that Ronnie will be a detriment rather than an asset in the investigation.  Although Andy complains to his superior, he is told that Ronnie will remain on the case in spite of Andy’s feelings.

When what appears to be paint is found on the severed hand Andy’s fear increases.  Jack’s girlfriend Chloe is an artist.  When the next body part is found along with a message for Andy, Andy becomes convinced that the victim must be Chloe.

With the assistance of DS Nancy Wilson, Andy works to decipher the meaning of the notes addressed to him but before he can come up with the answer his daughter Maureen disappears.  So begins a race to find Maureen before the killer can deliver the final blow to Andy and his loved ones.

Any reader who enjoys Police Procedurals will instantly become a fan of T. Frank Muir.  I am looking forward to the next book in this series.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, November 2012.

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Wrong Hill to Die OnWrong Hill To Die On
Donis Casey
Poisoned Pen Press, November 2012
ISBN No. 978-1464200465
Trade Paperback
Also available in hardcover

In 1916 Alafair and Shaw Tucker’s ten year-old daughter Blanche is suffering from a disease of the lungs.  No matter what Alafair or the doctors tried Blanche did not improve.  Alafair’s youngest sister Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona.  Alafair cannot pass up the opportunity to see if the dry air will cure Blanche’s health problems while visiting her sister.  Shaw decides that the older children are capable of handling the farm and all the responsibilities while he accompanies his wife and daughter on their trip.

Blanche begins improving almost immediately when they arrive in Arizona.  Elizabeth is married to a lawyer and has a six-year-old son Chase.  Chase is a terror and Elizabeth seems to have no control over him whatsoever.

Elizabeth plans a welcome party for Alafair and Shaw.  The Tucker’s are introduced to Elizabeth’s neighbors and friends.  The party is okay, but Alafair soon realizes that all is not well with her sister.  Elizabeth’s marriage does not appear to be in the best of shape, the community is talking constantly of Pancho Villa’s raids, and tensions are high between the Anglo and Latino communities.

The morning after the party Alafair discovers a body in a ditch.  Most of the community knows the victim but no one knows or will admit to knowing the reason for his murder.  Alafair’s detective instinct moves into high gear and in spite of warnings from Shaw she immediately begins her own investigation.  The fact that there is a movie company from Hollywood in Tempe making a film adds another element to the puzzles Alafair is trying to solve.

Wrong Hill to Die On is a great addition to the Alafair Tucker series.  It is not necessary to read the previous books to enjoy this current novel.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, January 2013.