ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Cozy Mysteries, History, Mystery, Romance, Suspense, Women's Fiction, Young Adult

October Reads 2022

OK, this turned out a bit blurry! Sorry about that…

The facts are these: sometimes I’m in a reading mood, sometimes I’m in a blogging mood. Lately I’ve been in a reading mood! A lot. I will highlight a few from this month’s literary adventures.

Best Thriller: Daisy Darker, by Alice Feeney. Yes, this extremely popular book lives up to the hype, even though it was nothing like what I expected. In true Agatha Christie fashion, a group of dysfunctional relatives gather at Grandma’s house for a weekend. Many go in, but few go out. All seen through the eyes of 13 year old Daisy. Great writing with a surprise ending. Recommended! (Some language.) 4.5/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Classic: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, by R.A. Dick. I only recently discovered that one of my favorite classic films was first a book. And it was great! There are definitely some differences, as to be expected, but I really enjoyed this as original source material. It was fun to watch the movie again after reading it. 4/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Cozy Mysteries: Send in the Clowns/Watching the Detectives/Cold as Ice, by Julie Mulhern. These are books 4-6 in the Country Club Murders series and they are just as fun as the ones preceding them. If you’re looking for a smart, escapist series, this is a great one! The writing is terrific and you’ll love the main characters, the headstrong Ellison and Detective Anarchy Jones. 4/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Romantic Comedies: Pumpkin Spice and Not So Nice AND The Accidental Text, both by Becky Monson. They’re clean, there’s depth, and they tug at your heart. Pumpkin Spice and Not So Nice is a companion book to Jennifer Peel’s The Pumpkin and the Patch (which I read last month and loved.) The Accidental Text is about a twenty-something young woman who has recently lost her mother. She texts her mother’s phone number, pouring her heart out, as a way to deal with her grief. What she doesn’t know is that the number has already been given to someone else. I really loved this one. I recommend both books for a combination of clean, light romance with a splash of emotion. 4/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Clean Romance: Mulberry Hollow, by Denise Hunter. This is an author whose work I want to pursue more. I just finished this book yesterday morning. It’s proof that you can have a romance with attraction, emotion, tension, and a satisfying story without steamy scenes. It could be marketed as a “Christian Romance,” but the Christian aspect is pretty minimal. The main characters, Avery and Wes, felt so real. I loved the privilege of looking into their lives. 4/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Steamy Romance: Yours Until Dawn, by Teresa Medeiros. To be clear, I don’t go looking for steamy books. Sometimes, like in this case, the steam shows up halfway through the story. But, despite the blush-worthy scenes (which just about hit my steam limit) this is a fantastic historical romance. A young woman is employed to care for a recently blinded soldier. He’s cantankerous, demanding, and stubborn. She is undaunted, but also a bit mysterious. Then there’s a shocking twist I never saw coming (and I’m usually pretty good at predicting twists.) Again, there are some R-rated steamy scenes. I really wish there was a sanitized version because this is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. 5/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Young Adult: Not If I See You First, by Eric Lindstrom. Another blind protagonist, high school junior Parker Grant is snarky, a runner, and bluntly honest. She’s high maintenance and she knows it. She also has a fierce love for those who stood by her in her darkest hours (literally) when she lost her sight at age seven. Navigating a new normal after she is orphaned, Parker must deal with her relatives, the drama of high school, and her own heart. The author does an amazing job writing the character of this complex girl. I was completely immersed in her world. (Some language.) 4/5 Stars on Goodreads

Best Fiction: Take Me With You, by Catherine Ryan Hyde. I love books that pair unlikely adults and kids together. Catherine Ryan Hyde is a master at this kind of story. Here we have a divorced science teacher who goes on a cross-country road trip, grieving for a son who recently died. While getting his RV serviced, he strikes up a conversation with the surly mechanic, a single father of two boys. When the mechanic reveals that he’s off to serve a prison sentence, he pleads with the man to take his sons on the road. It’s unusual, heartfelt, and keeps your attention. I recommend it. 4/5 Stars on Goodreads

The other 4 Star books are also worth your time, but these are the ones that affected me the most. Now, what will November bring? I have a few reads mapped out, but only time will tell!

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery, Romance

Beyond the Moonlit Sea, by Julianne MacLean

AVAILABLE June 14, 2022

I’ve never read a book by Julianne MacLean before, but she is an author I will definitely seek out in the future. I absolutely LOVED Beyond the Moonlit Sea. It is nothing like what I expected, but that’s OK. It’s fun to be surprised and intrigued!

The synopsis said it is about a woman named Olivia Hamilton whose husband, Dean, goes missing around the Bermuda Triangle in a plane he was piloting alone. True. It also said there was a woman named Melanie Brown, a student doing a dissertation on why planes disappear in that section of the ocean. Also true. I knew these women’s paths would eventually intertwine–which they do–but not all at like I initially guessed. I like being wrong! Predictability is much less entertaining.

This novel has the mystery, romance, high-quality writing, and momentum of The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave, which is one of the highest compliments I can offer. I could NOT put it down. Many plots have multiple points of view from different characters, but this one did it expertly, allowing the reader to really see inside the minds of Olivia, Dean, and Melanie. We get a glimpse of the three main characters’ motivations and inner turmoil over several years. We’re also reminded that sometimes our circumstances are the results of our own choices and sometimes by the choices of others. Sometimes a tangled combination of both.

Beyond the Moonlit Sea is a winner and one of the best novels I’ve read all year. Thank you to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for the advanced copy.

9.5/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery, Suspense

214 Palmer Street, by Karen McQuestion

AVAILABLE April 5, 2022

Imagine you’re trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. You have no idea what it is supposed to look like. Painstakingly, you continue working. When you’re about 30% done the frustration really starts. What is it supposed to be?

Unfortunately, that is my metaphor for this book.

214 Palmer Street is a book that required a lot of patience. I doubt I would’ve finished it if it wasn’t for my agreement with NetGalley to review it. By one-third completed, I was still full of questions, confused by so many characters, and getting whiplash by the POV format that jumped from one person to another. Finally, finally the pieces started to fit together. But the more they did, the more predictable it became. By then I just didn’t care.

Sarah Aden is seen lurking inside the house of Josh and Cady Caldwell. They’re on vacation. A neighbor is suspicious. Who is this woman and why is she there? We discover Sarah is recovering from a head injury–an assault–and is becoming more and more mistrusting of her husband, Kirk. She’s discovering things about his past that do not add up.

Over time, more characters are added. Each tells their part of their story, pressing the rewind button on tedious scenes you just read. Then there’s the mysterious, unnamed “Her,” who I first assumed was one person and then changed my opinion (correctly.) All of the main characters are terrible people. Even the protagonist, Sarah, was unlikable.

This is my third Karen McQuestion book and, sadly, my least favorite. There’s no real hope, no real solution, no hero. I do not have a lot of experience with the suspense genre, but I know readers need something more than what we get here. I longed for a strong character to be the moral center, but there was none.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bookouture for the advanced copy. I wish I enjoyed this one more.

7/10 Stars

Mystery

The Word is Murder ( A Hawthorne and Horowitz Mystery Book 1,) by Anthony Horowitz

“Words are, I suppose, my life.”

Everyone has choices. To be honest or to lie. To live for yourself or for others. To fulfill your own dreams or become part of a legacy. To follow the rules of convention…or not.

And what about the rules of writing a mystery? Reading this book made me think of them for the first time. Are there rules? Who makes them? Can any be broken when the story is everything?

Why is this important? Because in this book “about the creation of a book” the author creates an entirely new set of rules. He is the writer, the character, the sidekick, the filter, and the visionary. In real life, Anthony Horowitz is a novelist and screenwriter. In the book he is too. He, like this alter ego of the same name, worked on shows like Midsomer Murders (great show) and Foyle’s War (in my queue.) But in the book he accompanies a fictional Hawthorne–rumpled, evasive, brilliant, retired detective Daniel Hawthorne–on a murder case he is consulting on for the police. The outcome may or may not be the core of the upcoming novel. Diana Cowper has been strangled. Not very original, except she was murdered six hours after meticulously planning her own funeral.

The relationship between the fictional Horowitz and the detective Hawthorne is mercurial, to say the least. How does an author create a character based on someone when he refuses to divulge personal details? These two bicker like an old married couple, but they admire each other too. And, while the murder’s solution isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, this is more about the journey than the destination. A unique and entertaining journey.

9/10 Stars

Fiction, Mystery

The Moonlight Child, by Karen McQuestion

There are those who are placed in horrible situations, yet remain good. There are those placed in good situations, yet remain horrible. Both types of people are profiled in Karen McQuestion’s The Moonlight Child.

There are also three families, broken in their own way and navigating life after loss. Like people we have all come in contact with, most of them are decent humans who are doing their best. One is not. Really, really not.

I am going to keep this review brief and vague. Just know that The Moonlight Child is a riveting story that has you holding your breath until the end. The characters are living, breathing, and multi-faceted. You will root for most and be appalled by one. But all of them are worth your time.

Carve out a few hours because this one is hard to put down.

9.5/10 Stars

Cozy Mysteries, Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections

Her Royal Spyness Series, by Rhys Bowen

I have spent the last month devouring this series. It is, perhaps, the most delightful, entertaining series I’ve ever read. If you like cozy mysteries with a bit of Phryne Fisher and Downtown Abbey tossed into the mix, these books are for you.

Set in the 1930’s with the effects of World War 1 still felt and and the shadow of World War 2 looming in the future, our heroine is Lady Georgiana Rannoch. She is the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, granddaughter of the Duke of Rannoch on one side and a retired policeman on the other. At the beginning of the series she is living in Scotland in the drafty family castle, Castle Rannoch, with her half-brother and his unpleasant wife. Her prospects seem bleak.

But Georgie has an ace up her sleeve. Despite being a minor royal (34th in line for the throne,) she is well-liked by Queen Mary (grandmother to the current monarch, Elizabeth II.) Between minor assignments from the queen to keep an eye on “that American woman” trying to seduce her son, David (the future Edward VIII,) running into her flamboyant mother who ran out on her; sassy best friend, Belinda Warburton-Stoke; her hopeless maid, Queenie; and the mysterious but handsome Darcy O’Mara, each book brings a new adventure. We journey with Georgie from Scotland to England, France, Bulgaria, Italy, Ireland, and even Kenya.

I recommend this series highly and suggest reading the books in order. There are ongoing subplots that necessitate it. The first is available with an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription, while others may be in your online library. Of course, they’re available to purchase too.

There are many aspects that make this series fun, but, if you know a bit of British history, you’ll enjoy constant run-ins with the royal family and Mrs. Wallis Simpson (who enjoys a healthy social competition with Georgie’s mother, Claire.)

All in all a wonderful group of characters to cozy up with during the winter months.

9.5/10 Stars

P.S. There is also a short prequel “book 0.5” called Masked Ball at Broxley Manor. It’s only 40 pages and not essential to the story, but still enjoyable.

Fiction, Mystery, Women's Fiction

The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave

Rarely does my impatience for a book motivate me to buy it instead of waiting for it to become available through the online library. But 65,000 stellar ratings on Amazon cannot be wrong, so I held my breath and purchased The Last Thing He Told Me sight unseen. I was not disappointed.

We all know there are things in life that are unreliable, but we hope for a few constants. In Hannah Hall’s life it was Owen, her husband of 18 months. Until it wasn’t. Owen has disappeared, leaving only a cryptic note. “Protect her.”

The rest of the story takes us on a seesaw of flashbacks of their courtship and the present, while Hannah pieces together clues that might lead up to why her life is suddenly spiraling out of control. Few can be trusted, but her past eventually prompts her to make a final, life-changing decision.

If this sounds vague, it’s only because this novel contains one of the most engrossing stories I’ve ever read. I could not put it down. The less details you know, the better. It’s a book to be experienced and that experience is quite the ride. Be aware that the language is of a PG-13 rating.

9.5/10 Stars

Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections, Young Adult

Truly Devious, by Maureen Johnson

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What you lack in any investigation is time. With every passing hour, evidence slips away. Crime scenes are compromised by people and the elements. Things are moved, altered, smeared, shifted. Organisms rot. Wind blows dusts and contaminants. Memories change and fade. As you move away from the event, you move away from the solution.  –Truly Devious

This book was recommended by “The Clockwork Reader” Booktube channel. Hannah, the channel’s creator, was so passionate about how good it was that I decided to give it a try. She reads a lot of fiction and comments on a great variety within the genre. That, plus her soothing voice, are making me a return watcher of her channel. Plus, I desperately needed something to balance out my two previous reads.

Advertised as a YA mystery novel, the story in Truly Devious is so slick and the characters so well crafted, that adults would love it too. So, yes, my first Booktube recommendation was a complete success.

Set at Ellingham Academy, a distant cousin to Hogwarts minus the magic, the school is as unique as its students. Built in the 1930’s by newspaper tycoon Albert Ellingham, the school earned unwanted notoriety when the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped shortly after its completion. A few years later an overly-curious student is murdered, presumably by the same person, a teasing riddler using the pseudonym of “Truly Devious.”

Fast forward another few decades. The crimes remain unsolved, making them the prime focus and school project of new student, Stevie. She, like all other Ellingham scholars, was chosen as part of an elite program. Plucked from high schools around the country, those admitted are allowed to pursue their own educational paths. Each has a talent, a project, and a goal. The academy’s job is to help them reach those goals.

Stevie is all about solving mysteries, listening to true crime podcasts, and reading the classics by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Her instincts are sharp and her perception is honed. The Ellingham crimes are the perfect cold case.

Truly Devious is masterful storytelling. The author, Maureen Johnson, creates an automatic challenge by having so many smart characters, and she meets that challenge with both grace and gusto. The story tick tocks between time periods. There are the days after the initial kidnappings in 1936 and modern day with Stevie and her classmates.   Each time period has a very specific style and it is almost like you’re reading two books at the same time. I also loved some of the poetic rhythms in Stevie’s thoughts and the subtle creativity the author uses in students’ names, especially “Hayes” and “Ellie.” If you read it, you’ll understand.

But be warned, the reader is toyed with almost as much as the characters. The end of the book is not the end of the story. Some questions are answered, some are not, and new ones appear. In any other circumstance that would be maddening. Not here. The next book in the series, The Vanishing Stair, will be released in January and it’s already in my calendar.

9.5/10 Stars

 

Children, Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

book-cover

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

–Oscar Wilde, from Lady Windemere’s Fan

Two of our deepest longings in life, whether we acknowledge them or not, is (1) to be connected to someone or something in a world where it is too easy to feel adrift and (2) to be heard and validated through some means of communication.

Then there is the subject of communication. How do people communicate? Through a specific language, either written or spoken using an alphabet or gestures, like American Sign Language. There’s also Morse Code, Braille, semaphores, hieroglyphics, and many others. Humans have a great need and desire to communicate with one another and have, therefore, created many ways to do so. To be unable to communicate is to be isolated, even in a room full of people.

Enter the two main characters in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, Rose in 1927’s Hoboken, New Jersey, and Ben in 1977’s Gunflint, Michigan. Two twelve year olds in different cities, fifty years apart. How are they connected?

The way Brian Selznick achieves this is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ben’s story is told through the written word. Rose’s story is told through incredibly impressive and expressive pencil drawings done by the author. The drawings leave no room for misinterpretation.

Despite their differences, both children are on a similar journey with similar challenges. Both are trying desperately to fulfill those longings for connection and communication. The pacing is excellently done using the different modes of storytelling. So excellent, in fact, that the reader is aware of the overlap in the children’s stories as it’s happening (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) And, while the story feels like a fantasy, there’s still a sense of it could happen.

There is a lot of potential discussion to be facilitated between teachers and students using Wonderstruck as its source. I think it would work successfully in both a classroom or a home-school setting. Amazon Prime just released the movie version a few days ago, but I believe the movie works better as an addendum to the book. There is a sweetness unique to the book that is lacking in the movie, as well as a layer of truthfulness regarding Ben, because only in the book do we hear his inner dialogue. But I will say the young actress who plays Rose in the movie is mesmerizing to watch.

Overall, I recommend Wonderstruck with confidence. I was even more impressed when I read about the amount of research Brian Selznick employed in its creation. It is an award-winning middle school book, but I think it would be entirely appropriate for younger, emotionally mature children. If a parent or teacher has specific questions before sharing it with school-aged children, please feel free to contact me or leave your question in the comments. I will answer it promptly.

9.5/10 Stars

P.S. A 55-page summary and study guide of Wonderstruck is also available on Amazon, but I have not read it.

 

Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections

Maisie Dobbs: Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear

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In Birds of a Feather, the second installment of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, our heroine is much more introspective. Not only does she ponder her unsolved cases, but she also spends a fair amount of time pondering the direction of her own life. She notices her father, Frankie, getting older. She sees the satisfaction her assistant, Billy Beale, exhibits about his thriving family.

These musings, plus Maisie’s ever-present memories of her nursing experiences during World War I, affect her view while working on her newest case. She has been hired by prominent, rags-to-riches businessman, Joseph Waite, to locate his missing daughter, Charlotte.

What seems like an open-and-shut case becomes complicated when Charlotte’s three old friends turn up dead. Suicide? A serial killer? Will Charlotte be the next victim? Or is she responsible? These are the questions Maisie must answer during her quest to locate the missing woman. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s father is impatient and anxious for answers.

Despite the high-quality writing and engaging supporting characters, I found myself trudging through this book. Any time an author creates a series, they take on the enormous task of maintaining a certain momentum. The main character must be appealing, sympathetic, and hold the reader’s interest from one adventure to the next. This reader was distracted by a lack of momentum and, perhaps, too many supporting characters and peripheral story lines that did not contribute to the central plot.

The ending, while satisfactory, was only somewhat surprising and not especially dramatic compared to the one in the first book. Although, in all fairness, that ending was pretty spectacular and would be a tough act to follow for any author.

If you read the first book, the eponymous Maisie Dobbs, you are probably invested enough to want to see what happens to her. If you didn’t, Birds of a Feather still stands on its own two feet. Though slightly less impressive, I am willing to forgive the author and move on to Book 3. It will be my gauge in determining whether or not to pursue the rest of the series.

8/10 Stars

Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

{9343A4B5-D99F-4C3C-9A7C-38EAE5CE2AEC}Img100(Recently I joined a newly-formed writers critique group called Writers Haven. This review was written on January 30, 2015, but I saved it for publishing so I could use it as a submission for my fellow group members.)

I finished Maisie Dobbs this morning—in my car outside the gym. After nearly completing it while walking briskly on the treadmill, I knew I had to give its ending just a few more quiet minutes.

Maisie Dobbs is a book with heart, from the first page to the last, even though the book’s beginning is not the true beginning of Maisie’s story. We are introduced to her as a young woman in the late 1920’s. She is quiet and independent, establishing herself as a lady detective in London.

Her first case, and the subject around which the rest of the story is centralized, involves a home for WWI veterans called The Retreat. While seemingly innocent–a place where soldiers with facial injuries and shell shock can live quietly without society’s judgement—it is up to Maisie to decipher if everything is as it appears.

Then suddenly, the story takes a sharp u-turn. The reader is hurled into the pre-war past. We learn about Maisie’s family, her early years in service, and the two people who saw her potential and took her under their wings. One is Lady Rowan, owner of the estate where 13 year old Maisie works as a maid. The other is Maurice Blanche—physician, criminologist, and Lady Rowan’s friend who becomes Maisie’s mentor. Their influence takes the reader though the years that shape Maisie into the woman to whom we are first introduced.

While initially perturbed at this abrupt time change, I forgave the author when events from the past and present began to weave together. As I mentioned, this is a book with heart, and you observe how people who fade in and out of Maisie’s life impact her as a person and a detective. Her chosen profession is not just about earning a living, but making positive changes in her clients’ lives and absorbing wisdom that will, hopefully, affect her next case.

First and foremost, that is what Maisie does. She absorbs. Under Maurice’s tutelage she has learned that the smallest nuances have meaning: a look, a touch, a word. Sometimes the most meaningful hint is the one that’s missing.

All of these plot points, including strong supporting characters and one of the best endings I have ever read, add up to a very enjoyable reading experience, one that stays with you. Fortunately, this is only the first in the Maisie Dobbs series. Jacqueline Winspear has definitely struck gold with her likable, highly observant protagonist.

9.5 out of 10 Stars