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.

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Book Review: Pekoe Most Poison by Laura Childs

Pekoe Most Poison
A Tea Shop Mystery #18
Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-425-28168-0
Hardcover

Old cities have some pretty odd traditions and Charleston is no exception. However, even though the tradition was originally for a good cause, the idea of “Rat Teas” is perhaps one of the oddest.  According to author Childs‘ latest Tea Shop Mystery, the  idea of holding fancy teas with servers dressed up in rat costumes comes from an effort to raise funds for rodent prevention early in the city’s history. In Pekoe Most Poison, the eighteenth book in the Tea Shop Mystery series, the tradition was revived by socialite and philanthropist Doreen Briggs. Although the costumed “rat Servers” are a little unnerving, the tea seems to be going quite well until a fluke accident causes a fire at one of the tables and the hostess’s husband ends up dead. Worse yet for Theodosia Browning, owner of the Indigo Tea Shop, it initially appears as though it was the orange pekoe tea that caused the death.

I have been a fan of both the Tea Shop books and Childs’ Scrap Booking series, because each puts readers right in an old American city like none other. In the Tea Shop books, it is Charleston. Over the years the author has done an excellent job of setting each book’s plot around something unique to that area. Having visited Charleston fairly regularly over the years, it is fun to see how very accurate some of her descriptions are. But setting alone won’t carry a book. The main characters need to be well developed letting readers get to know them over the course of the series. And the characters need to be true to themselves.  It is with the main characters in this book, and frankly the previous book in the series, that things have gone off track. Something is different. The characters just aren’t the same. Theodosia isn’t acting at all like herself nor is Drayton. I for one don’t like the change.

Another thing that needs to be present for a series to survive is a strong plot. Again, in the last couple of books the plotting has fallen off the mark. The idea behind this one–the Rat Tea–is fun, but that part is over very quickly leaving the rest of the book to a sort of jumble of helter-skelter actions by some seriously obnoxious supporting characters.

I will probably give the series another try, but the author needs to get it back on track.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, June 2017.

Book Review: Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany

Elementary, She Read
A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery #1
Vicki Delany
Crooked Lane Books, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-68331-096-9
Hardcover

In Elementary, She Read, author Delany introduces quite an interesting set of characters along with a new twist on mysteries set in bookshops. While Gemma Doyle is the protagonist of this new series, the history behind the story begins when Gemma’s Great Uncle Arthur seized the opportunity to buy a building at the famous address of 222 Baker Street- though this Baker Street is located in West London, Massachusetts rather than London, England. With such a well known address, it was a given that her mystery loving uncle would open a Sherlock Holmes bookstore.  When he found a bookstore alone wouldn’t make it, he expanded to include any and all things pertaining to Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, the opportunity arose to open a tea shop, named appropriately Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, next door but connected by an internal door. That shop is run by Gemma’s good friend Jayne. That is the story behind the story.

In a nutshell, the main plot of Elementary, She Read is this. The store is swamped one afternoon by a traveling bridge group, and while tidying the store after the group has left, Gemma finds an old Strand magazine that is not part of the store’s inventory hidden among the other magazines. Curious as to how it came to be there, she thinks back over the people who had just left the store and remembers one lady who was carrying a plain white plastic shopping bag that did not appear to be part of the group. She searches the store, finds the bag the woman was carrying and in it found a clue as to where the woman might be staying. Puzzled as to why the woman left what could well be a valuable magazine in the store, she puts the magazine to her home safe and sets off to find the woman. From there the plot follows a familiar path of amateur sleuths. Gemma tries to do the right thing and ends up finding a dead body or two and lands in the middle of a police investigation as a prime suspect. Eager to clear her name she starts snooping around trying to solve the murder, as well as unravel the original mystery as to why the magazine was placed in her store. The plot is well done with plenty of twists to keep readers on their toes. When the solution was finally revealed, I have to say I had figured out that the guilty person was involved but had not worked out how or why. I felt like Delany played fair with the readers by giving them clues to follow yet making the puzzle complicated enough to keep us working at it.

Readers don’t see much of Uncle Arthur in the book, and I hope that changes as the series moves forward. He seems to be a character ripe for development. Gemma is a great protagonist and has the eye for noticing details like Sherlock himself. There is a book about thinking like Sherlock mentioned several times throughout the book. The book actually exists (I checked on Amazon) and I plan on getting a copy. Readers get to know Jayne a bit but I suspect we’ll get a better read on her in future books. There were a couple of “villains” among the characters giving readers people to despise. One was a police woman who seems to have taken an instant dislike to Gemma, while the other was a fellow shopkeeper who has the need to control everyone else’s business. I’m sure we’ll get more of them as well.

There are the standard animals in the book-Gemma’s pet dog and the store’s resident cat who seems to like everyone except Emma.

Elementary, She Read is a wonderful beginning to what I hope is a long running series.

I volunteered to read and review this book which I received from the publisher.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, February 2017.

Book Review: Devonshire Scream by Laura Childs—and a Giveaway!

Devonshire ScreamDevonshire Scream
A Tea Shop Mystery #17
Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime, March 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-28166-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Catering a high-class trunk show at Heart’s Desire Jewelry is a shining achievement for Theodosia and the Indigo Tea Shop. After all, a slew of jewelers, museums, and private collectors will be there to showcase their wares and sip some of Theo’s best blends. But just as Theo settles in to enjoy the fruits of her labor, the party is crashed by a gang of masked muggers who steal the precious gems and jewels on display. The thieves disappear almost as quickly as they arrived, leaving shattered glass, scattered gemstones, and a dead body in their wake. 
 
Although the last thing Theo wants is to get involved, she can’t help but intercede when her dear friend Brooke, aunt of the victim and owner of Heart’s Desire, begs for help in figuring out who committed the brutal burglary. Though the FBI believes this daring “smash and grab” is the work of an international gang of jewel thieves, Theo is convinced that the felon is someone much closer to home…

Right off the bat, let me just say I love this cover. It’s so…so cozy 😉 Seriously, though, the combination of colors was just the thing to bring spring to my mind and I send kudos to designer Lesley Worrell and artist Stephanie Henderson.

Laura Childs juggles three longrunning series and I have endless admiration for her ability to do that and do it well. I enjoy them all but, of the three, I like the Tea Shop series the best. (By the way, she’ll be debuting a fourth series in July and there’s a preview at the back of this book. That one’s definitely not cozy so she’ll be using her real name, Gerry Schmitt, and I can barely stand the wait.) Anyway, there are a lot of reasons this series strikes a chord with me—I love tea of all sorts, Charleston is one of my favorite cities, the included recipes always sound and are scrumptious and the main character is a woman I can relate to.

Theo has a lot going for her in her personal life and in her shop and catering a high-end jewelry show is sort of the icing on the cake. When violent thieves strike, Theo is as confused and frightened as everyone else but she quickly gathers herself together and does what an experienced amateur sleuth should do, taking charge until the police and ambulances arrive and trying to keep people calm. When the first responders get there, Theo sets right in to help wherever she’s needed and it’s this kind of behavior that makes me like Theo so much.

This is, however, a cozy and, as we all know, that means our intrepid sleuth needs must do some sleuthing. In this case, Theo is reluctant to meddle as the curmudgeonly “real” Detective Burt Tidwell would call it but her friend Brooke, owner of the jewelry shop and aunt of the dead girl, makes it impossible to refuse her pleas. She soon finds herself involved with not only the local police (Tidwell knows it’s in his best interest to share information with Theo because of previous cases) but also a pair of FBI agents and they all have a lot to do to solve this case and prevent another heist, that of a Fabergé egg that’s on its way to town.

Amongst all the snooping…er, detecting…we’re given a good look at the inner workings of a tea shop in Charleston and I always love this part. It’s a curious blend of murder, mayhem and the tranquility that goes along with such an oasis of gentility and peace, a blend that’s hard to beat, and it’s extra fun to watch Burt Tidwell become a marshmallow when confronted with delectable scones and tea. I think I would enjoy having a cup with Burt at the Indigo Tea Shop and I’m definitely going to have to try the recipes for Drayton’s Devonshire Cream and Haley’s Beef Stroganoff 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

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To enter the drawing for a hardcover
copy of Devonshire Scream,
leave a comment below. Two winning
names will be drawn Sunday evening,
March 13
th. This drawing is open
to residents of the US.

Book Review: Ming Tea Murder by Laura Childs

Ming Tea MurderMing Tea Murder
A Tea Shop Mystery #16
Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime, March 2015
ISBN: 978-0-425-28164-2
Hardcover

Theodosia Browning and the rest of her crew at the Indigo Tea Shop are back for another go at solving a murder—if she can beat Detective Tidwell to it.

This time around, Theo’s boyfriend, Max, who is public relations honcho at the Gibbes museum, is fired when a wealthy contributor is murdered inside a display Max had advocated. He is a suspect in the murder, which has taken place in the middle of the gala opening of a Chinese teahouse exhibit. When Detective Tidwell’s investigation moves too slowly for Theo, she is compelled to take a hand.

As we’ve come to expect of an Indigo Tea Shop mystery, the murder seems to play second fiddle to the business of running a popular tea shop. Tea, food, and friendship fill more pages than the sleuthing. Still, it is interesting how criminal activity seems to permeate Charleston high society—in fiction, that is.

If I have one complaint, it is that there’s not much chemistry between Theodosia and Max. I often wonder what she sees in him. Also, although Theo and some of the other characters are supposed to be young, vibrant people, they strike me as being at least a generation older than they are. Some seem almost like caricatures. Still, the mystery always intrigues, the tea and food sounds elegant, and it is fun to visit for a few hundred pages with the cream of society.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Review: Sweet Tea Revenge by Laura Childs

Sweet Tea RevengeSweet Tea Revenge
A Tea Shop Mystery #14
Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-425-25288-8
Hardcover

This fun, cozy mystery, Sweet Tea Revenge, is set in charming Charleston, South Carolina, a tourist town with quaint shops and friendly people.

Theodosia runs the bustling Indigo Tea Shop where the action takes place almost daily amongst a litany of delicacies, such as tomato cream cheese tea sandwiches or Brie and Pear Crostini with Peanut Butter Scones for dessert, served up by her dapper friend, Drayton, a tea connoisseur.

But, at Theodosia’s best friend’s wedding, the groom is most brutally murdered and Theodosia takes on the task to help the inept and over-weight Detective Tidwell solve the crime. Thus begins a nonstop between Charleston’s horse-drawn carriages, strolling through haunted mansions or serving her customers Cinnamon Raisin Biscuits, and dozens of various and sundry flavored teas brewed up in antique Royale Garden Amari Chintz teapots.

Amidst gallons of tea and multi-flavored scones, her friend’s disastrous wedding, and a spur of the moment Home Tour Garden party in the murdered groom’s backyard, Theodosia unravels the clues.

Sweet Tea Revenge is a fairly good read, strongly steeped in tea and crumpets. Ms. Child weaves a plot with a satisfactory mystery, though she follows the much-expected template fairly typical in so many mysteries today. Surrounded by quirky friends and an inept police force, amateur female sleuth Theodosia, must solve the crime, and in so doing, finds herself and the killer in a hand-to-hand battle in the garden at a haunted mansion.

If the reader is a tea connoisseur, or a devoted pastry baker as well as a cozy mystery reader, she will love this book.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, July 2014.
Author of Black Cat’s Legacy.