Fiction, Mystery, Suspense

The Last House On The Street, by Diane Chamberlain

One of the most satisfying things about reading a book is discovering a new author. One of the most frustrating is reading an excellent book that you’ve shelved for ages, wishing you’d read it sooner. With The Last House On The Street I’m two-for two. But operating on the philosophy that we often read books at the right time in our lives, I’ll be content that I eventually gave it a chance.

There are two timelines, which I understand from fellow readers is consistent with Diane Chamberlain’s books. The first takes place in modern day North Carolina when young widow, Kayla, and her daughter move into a new house in a new development. New except for one older house that has minimal activity except for a light going on here and there. Any sense of security is then shattered when an odd woman shows up at Kayla’s workplace and tells her to move, followed by disturbing notes and events around the house itself.

The second period is in the late Sixties at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Ellie Hockley, the twenty year old daughter of a prominent Southern family, has decided that her life lacks fulfillment. Then she learns about the SCOPE Project–Summer Community Organization and Political Education–designed to help and encourage Black people in poorer neighborhoods to register to vote. Against the wishes of her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, Ellie signs up with the project, convinced that this is the way to make her mark in the world.

The narration switches between Ellie and Kayla, leaving the reader to wonder how their lives will intersect. After all, their experiences are worlds and decades apart, with Ellie canvasing neighborhoods and seeing racism and violence firsthand while Kayla is dealing with her challenges forty years in the future. The dual stories meet in a clever and unique way, keeping me totally engrossed all the way to the end.

Everything about The Last House On The Street is well thought out and interesting. It’s part historical fiction and part suspense. I’ve never read a book quite like it before, but I definitely plan to read more by this author.

9.5/10 Stars

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery

All That Is Mine I Carry With Me, by William Landay

AVAILABLE March 7, 2023

I’ve been trudging through this book for days and finally finished it. A seemingly perfect family. The mother goes missing. The children are bereft. The husband appears indifferent but insists on his innocence. His law training has taught him to say things without saying them and to talk in circles whenever he’s questioned. This goes on for decades.

And that’s mostly what you read—dialogue, usually with no quotation marks—of questions and answers that lead nowhere, putting the reader in the jury box. It sounds smart, but it’s tiresome and doesn’t make for a great reading experience. Even the ending feels vague and anticlimactic. When I turned the last page and saw I was now reading the author’s acknowledgments, my first thought was “that’s it?”

All That Is Mine I Carry With Me is one of those books that I can only describe as “horizontal.” The characters are there, the descriptions and potential are there, but the ebb and flow is not. And Dan Larkin, the husband constantly under suspicion with his arrogance and passive aggressive ways, is just infuriating.

7.5/10 Stars

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Series & Collections, Suspense

Theme: Two Unforgettable Women

When was the last time you read a book that was so immersive, you felt numb after turning the last page? What about two books in a row? Numb, reeling, in awe, emotionally exhausted in a good way…that is me right now. What makes it even more unusual is that I never even heard of either of these books until very recently.

Whiskey When We’re Dry, an incredible debut novel by John Larison, and The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld, need to go on your reading list ASAP. Are they sweet, comfortable reads? No. Both deal with unpleasant subjects. But presentation is everything and even unpleasant subjects can be handled in such a deft way that the power lies within the reader’s imagination. That, my bookish friends, is high quality writing.

Each of these stories centers around a female protagonist. Jess Harney in “Whiskey” and Naomi Cottle in “Child.” Both of them are motherless and isolated, forcing them to figure out on their own what it means to be a woman. Both have been through extreme hardship. Both use that hardship in positive ways to help others. Both sacrifice greatly.

Whiskey When We’re Dry is western historical fiction. Left alone on the family homestead in 1880’s Montana, Jessilyn Harney decides to find her last remaining relative, beloved older brother Noah. Dressed as a man and armed with above average shooting skills, she and her trusty mare, Ingrid, set off on an unimaginable adventure. Along the way, Jess encounters people of every sort, good and evil. She must defend herself, but she also learns from what she sees, tucking away that knowledge for the future. The most fascinating secondary characters are the women who come and go throughout Jess’s odyssey. Because of their limited choices, women did what they had to do to survive whether it was marriage, spinsterhood, masquerading as a man, or selling their bodies. Rich and poor, submissive and rebellious, frontier women and city women, Jess encounters them all. Knowledge and wisdom is exchanged. (The weaker sex? I think not.) The jaw-dropping ending will leave you gasping and Jess’s narrative voice is one of the best I’ve ever read.

9.5/10 Stars

The Child Finder is contemporary suspense. Naomi Cottle is a twenty-nine year old survivor of childhood abduction. She is one of the lucky ones, if you can call not knowing her parents and a deep mistrust of men lucky. But she’s alive and her foster home was a loving one. Now she is the “child finder,” a private investigator who makes it her mission to rescue missing children. She’s been hired to locate Madison Culver, who disappeared at age five from the Oregon forest. It’s been three years, so the chances she is alive are slim. Meanwhile, hidden away in an old cabin, live Mr. B and the Snow Girl. Their language is silent. Their relationship is odd. Snow Girl knows something isn’t right. There is friendship and there is terror, two things that cannot coexist forever. Some missing children are found alive and make something of their futures. Some always remain victims. The brilliance of this book is the way it shows both of these scenarios, as well as the fortitude that lies dormant within all of us until it is needed.

9.5/10 Stars

I recommend both of these books most highly. I found myself transported into other times and other worlds. They are undoubtedly raw, but the writing is magnificent. Both deserve accolades and attention.

ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Women's Fiction

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott

Available tomorrow! January 10, 2023

Where do you go when you want to find pettiness, gossip, mayhem and murder? Look no further than the PBA (Parent Booster Association) in an upscale Connecticut town.

Regrets Only, by Kieran Scott is hilarious. A satirical look at a group of women who represent those committees we’ve pretty much all had to participate in at one time or another. There’s the Type A president, who ruthlessly clutches to her position as though her life depends on it (it does,) who overshadows and overachieves, basking in the glory of her success and leaving baffled and intimidated worker bees in her wake. That is Ainsley Aames Anderson. A triple Type A. Her name says it all.

With someone like Ainsley, you’re either a minion or an enemy. You do not question her. You do not compete with her. You certainly do not defy her. A tough lesson learned by her seemingly faithful entourage, Bee, Dayna, and Lanie. The outliers have a more difficult time. There’s working mother Nina, a successful accountant with more brains than charm, and the town’s prodigal daughter, single mom Paige Lancaster. Paige has returned to her hometown after being let go from a successful job writing crime shows in LA. She’s worldly and strong, the complete opposite of the submissive women who work with, um for, Ainsley. And it doesn’t help that Paige’s first love happens to be Ainsley’s husband.

Things fall apart at the PBA’s annual Parents and Pinot fundraising auction. By the end of the night the PBA president everyone loves to hate is dead. Suspects are everywhere. A surprising amount have access to weapons. Unsurprisingly, the blind adoration of Ainsley’s followers isn’t quite as blind as it once appeared. Using the alternating POVs of Paige, Lanie, Nina, and Dayna, we discover that few things (and people) are what they seem.

I really enjoyed Regrets Only. I’m giving it 9 stars because the ending fell a bit flat, but it’s still worth reading. It’s an honest commentary on suburban society. The seriousness and intensity at which these women view something as basic as a parent organization is extreme, yes, but not entirely untrue. We women can get a lot of things done, but the backroom plotting and politics are as old as time itself.

9/10 Stars

Cozy Mysteries, Mystery, Series & Collections

Theme: Strong Women in Mysteries

I admit it. I LOVE books and shows with highly intelligent, strong, capable women. I especially love it when those women stay true to their femininity, acting as worthy representatives of girly girls everywhere. Girls (ahem, WOMEN) with the hearts of a lioness.

This got me thinking about books I’ve read recently. Little by little I’ve been making my way through The Country Club Murder series, by Julie Mulhern. This series, and its heroine, Ellison Russell, have shot (pun intended) to the top of my list of favorite mystery series. (Just barely edging out the Her Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. Also great!)

It’s the 1970s. Ellison Russell is a Kansas City artist, socialite, mother, trophy wife…and widow. Cars are sleeker, women are drooling over James Garner in The Rockford Files, and the world continues to modernize. Kansas City, a place that dwells in most of our blind spots, is home to a very elite crowd of men and women. A crowd who holds fiercely to their traditions. They run charities, attend large social functions, golf, play bridge and still manage to have a hierarchy within the hierarchy. They also have their own set of rules. Ellison plays by these rules. She is, after all, the wife of a prominent banker and daughter of a very wealthy couple. But she is also observant to the plights of the underprivileged. And…she has the unfortunate penchant for finding dead bodies. Her mother is not amused.

Ellison is the beating heart of these books (16 in total, I’ve read 8.) She is classy, sharp, unwavering, and very compassionate. She holds her own with her teenage daughter, Grace. She remains unruffled to her mother’s toxic barbs and stoic in the face of stubborn male misogyny. And, at her side throughout these adventures is a dashing homicide detective–the unconventionally named Anarchy Jones. This series is a prickly joy and never boring. We get so invested in Ellison as she juggles one murder after another, along with motherhood, society’s expectations, her mercurial parents, and a budding relationship with Anarchy. It’s superb!

9.5/10 Stars for the series (So far, #7–Shadow Dancing— is my favorite. But it’s best to read them in order.)

  1. The Deep End
  2. Guaranteed to Bleed
  3. Clouds in My Coffee (Yes, Ellison has a special love for the steady male in her life–her Mr. Coffee)
  4. Send in the Clowns
  5. Watching the Detectives
  6. Cold As Ice
  7. Shadow Dancing
  8. Back Stabbers (hereby ending the ones I’ve read so far at the time I write this review)
  9. Telephone Line (finished on 12/30/22)
  10. Stayin’ Alive
  11. Killer Queen (I love this title. Queen fans represented!)
  12. Night Moves
  13. Lyin’ Eyes
  14. Evil Woman
  15. Big Shot
  16. Fire and Rain (out in April 2023)

So, if I’ve only read half of the Country Club Murder series, WHY am I comparing it to Killers of a Certain Age?

Because Killers was a bummer of a certain book. But it took some thinking for me to figure out why I disliked it so much. Highly intelligent, strong, capable women? Check. Adventure? Check. Multiple things happening at once? Check.

Again, it is the 1970’s. Billie, Helen, Natalie, and Mary Alice are all plucked from obscurity to be part of an elect group of highly-trained assassins. Evolving from WWII Nazi hunters, Resistance members, and Monuments Men, this organization is so secret that its name is never mentioned. And these four women will be its first all-female team. It’s quite an honor. Even assembling them took years. They are multi-lingual, quick thinking, highly physical, and seductive. And, because they are women, they are always underestimated.

Fast forward forty years. The quartet has aged into their sixties and are approaching retirement. Only now, instead of being the hunters, they are the hunted. They need to find out who and why.

It’s a great premise. I had been looking forward to reading this book. It was a Book of the Month selection and a Goodreads awards nominee. But after spending so much time with Ellison Russell in the Country Club series, I had become accustomed to a heroine who had both class and sass. These four lacked class in a big way, hammering continual dents into their likability. They are vulgar and arrogant. They are also interchangeable carbon copies of each other. I didn’t care about any of them. And if I don’t care about any of the main characters, the plot–no matter how clever–becomes superfluous. A huge disappointment.

5/10 Stars

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


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


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


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


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