A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #3)

93938August 1923. All is quiet in the Holmes household in Sussex as Mary Russell works on academic research while Sherlock Holmes conducts malodorous chemistry experiments. But the peace quickly disappears as out of the past comes Dorothy Ruskin, an amateur archeologist from the Holy Land, who brings the couple a lovely inlaid box with a tattered roll of stained papyrus inside. The evening following their meeting, Miss Ruskin dies in a traffic accident that Holmes and Mary soon prove was murder. But what was the motivation? Was it the little inlaid box holding the manuscript? Or the woman’s involvement in the volatile politics of the Holy Land? Or could it have been the scroll itself, a deeply troubling letter that seems to have been written by Mary Magdalene and that contains a biblical bombshell…

Review:

I love this series. It’s been two years since I’ve read the last book and everything came back quickly – the awesomeness of the characters, the interesting mysteries, the glimpses into human nature that are striking, quiet, and earned.

The mystery is good but it’s not the real reason I’m here. I mean, I enjoyed it, of course! The setup is interesting, and it’s always fun to see Holmes surprise Russell in some sort of disguise. But the whodunits aren’t why I keep coming back to the series. It’s the characters. They live and breathe, have faults and tics and ideals and tendencies. They’re people, damnit, and I want to spend more time with them.

At the end of the previous installment the relationship of Holmes and Russell goes through a major change… a change I was afraid would squick me out. I should have known King would have things well in hand, though. A gap of four years between the last book and this means that we miss any troubles our leads may have worked through, instead seeing them now as intellectual partners that have a deeper insight into each other than before.

Are they in love? You bet. But they don’t drool over each other. It’s an intellectual and emotional partnership first, with the physical aspects falling far behind. With both Holmes and Russell being analytical minds insights abound. For example, Russell notes:

An unread paper meant an unsettled mind, and to this day the sight of a fresh, folded newspaper on a polished surface brings a twinge of apprehension.

Some parts are just fun, like Holmes writing to Russell while on a train:

“I should prefer to have the patterns reflected either by your perception or Watson’s lack thereof; however, a stub of lead pencil and this unsavory length of butcher’s paper will have to suffice. (From the expressions on the faces of my compartment mates, none of them has ever before witnessed the miraculous generation of the written word. I shall attempt not to be distracted.)”

My e-library doesn’t have this book so I ended up buying a paper copy. I liked filling it with post its, but not being able to carry it around easily meant it took much longer to finish than I would like. I think it may have been a four star read if I were able to keep the momentum and get through it faster… guess I’ll have to reevaluate when I reread it. (‘Cause I’ll totally reread it!)

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Jackaby by William Ritter (Jackaby #1)

23003390Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.

Review:

I mostly enjoyed my time with Jackaby, but after coming highly recommended I was hoping for more.

The good:

  • I enjoy the time and setting, 1890s New England not being one of my usual literary destinations.
  • The story is Sherlock Holmes inspired with a paranormal element.
  • The characters were interesting and have room to grow as the series continues.
  • Even though the story is about Jackaby and his assistant there is no wiff of romance between them, huzzah!  The titular-guy-falls-for-the-new-gal trope has been way, way over done.
  • In its place there’s the hint of a romance with another character and I like where it may head.

The not-so-good:

  • While I like the setting it wasn’t evoked very well.  I could picture the inside of houses well enough but once the action headed outside I felt lost.
  • The mystery wasn’t all that mysterious.
  • There are tons of paranormal creatures but the lack of world building makes each feel like a one off.  I don’t need a taxonomy of creepy crawlies but a hint at some structure would be nice.
  • Overall the writing and characterization were thin and obvious.  It’s a common complaint I have with YA books, but there you go. ~shrug~

While I might recommend Jackaby to my niece I don’t see myself continuing the series.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey #2)

192888Rustic old Riddlesdale Lodge was a Wimsey family retreat filled with country pleasures and the thrill of the hunt – until the game turned up human and quite dead. He lay among the chrysanthemums, wore slippers and a dinner jacket and was Lord Peter’s brother-in-law-to-be. His accused murderer was Wimsey’s own brother, and if murder set all in the family wasn’t enough to boggle the unflappable Lord Wimsey, perhaps a few twists of fate would be – a mysterious vanishing midnight letter from Egypt … a grieving fiancée with suitcase in hand … and a bullet destined for one very special Wimsey.

Review:

I loved the first Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body?, and have been doing my best not to blast through the entire series.  I’m saving them for when I need a fun, thinking, comfort read and Clouds of Witness delivers.

This time I went with the audiobook and I have a much better grasp of the characters now that I’ve heard them.  It must be hard to do British narration, having to take into account geographical accents as well as those of class, and Ian Carmichael does a great job.   The scene with a drunk Wimsey is pure gold that left me giggling.

The mystery itself kept me interested and guessing… the latter isn’t a high bar considering this is me, but hey.  I enjoyed the twists as well as the meta comments Sayers puts in here and there.

Here’s the thing, though – I don’t know if I want to continue the series in print, which shows off the writing, or on audiobook, where the characters come to life.  Have you read the Peter Wimsey series?  Do you prefer audio or print?

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Synopsis:

10112885Everybody has a Cordova story. Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova hasn’t been seen in public since 1977. To his fans he is an engima. To journalist Scott McGrath he is the enemy. To Ashley he was a father.

On a damp October night the body of young, beautiful Ashley Cordova is found in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Her suicide appears to be the latest tragedy to hit a severely cursed dynasty.

For McGrath, another death connected to the legendary director seems more than a coincidence. Driven by revenge, curiosity and a need for the truth, he finds himself pulled into a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid.

The last time McGrath got close to exposing Cordova, he lost his marriage and his career. This time he could lose his grip on reality.

ONCE WE FACE OUR DEEPEST FEARS, WHAT LIES ON THE OTHER SIDE?

Review:

The last thing I want to do is spoil anyone so please excuse any vagueness or odd hand waving. Hopefully those who have read the book will know what I’m getting at.

Like any good mystery we start off with a bunch of intriguing questions – was Ashley’s death really a suicide? Who is this reclusive Cordova guy, anyway? And what kind of guy would make such twisted films?

The (non-spoilery) good stuff:

  • The backstory. Pessl obviously put a ton of work into Cordova’s filmography and it shows. I was worried that with a dozen or so film titles being thrown around I would get confused but there was always ample context.
  • How the arc of the book as a whole mirrors… something else. While some might be annoyed with the end I thought it was fitting, especially how it related to… that something else. ~shakes a fist at the spoiler-free sky~
  • Cordova’s philosophy. I can’t say I agree with it, but it’s intriguing and made me think about how I’m living my own life. Not to mention that I need to read a certain poem now.
  • Most of the characters are on the “unlikeable” side of the scale but they didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room. All have their own motivations (however twisted) and it works.

The (zero spoiler) not-so-good stuff:

  • In the first half of the book question after question is raised but precious few are answered, and around the 50% mark I started to lose interest. Why should I keep reading if it just digs me deeper into a hole? Near the end things picked up and gave me some stuff to think about but it was a struggle to get there.
  • The extras available through the “decoder” app. A couple were neat (a filmography, primary documents) but some were maddening. An interview with a murderer was especially bad, because…
  • …the interview is poorly written. The questions sound like they’re being read in order, no matter what the subject says. The murderer in particular leaves all these juicy tidbits hanging in the air, begging for follow up, but the interviewer just goes to the next question on her list. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Terry Gross but it was beyond annoying.
  • The voice acting in the app left much to be desired. It sounded like reading, not acting out a part.

Overall it was an interesting read that left me thinking but sadly it didn’t live up to the hype.

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (Fox and O’Hare #1)

Synopsis:

16169737FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare is known for her fierce dedication and discipline on the job, chasing down the world’s most wanted criminals and putting them behind bars. And while Kate has made quite a name for herself for the past five years, the only name she’s cared about is Nicolas Fox—an international crook she wants in more ways than one.

Audacious, handsome, and dangerously charming, Nicolas Fox is a natural con man, notorious for running elaborate scams on very high-profile people. At first he did it for the money. Now he does it for the thrill. He knows that the FBI has been hot on his trail—particularly Kate O’Hare, who has been watching his every move. For Nick, there’s no greater rush than being pursued by a beautiful woman . . . even one who aims to lock him up. But just when it seems that Nicolas Fox has been captured for good, he pulls off his greatest con of all: he convinces the FBI to offer him a job, working side by side with Special Agent Kate O’Hare.

Review:

What we have here is a typical heist novel set out in the way you would expect. We meet the characters, see a previous con to see what the baddie can do, set up the Big One, put together a crew, then pull off the whole shebang in spite of complications. While the tried and true formula is a little worn in spots Evanovich and Goldberg handle it well enough.

Early on I got the feeling that they’re building a world for a long series. Kate and Nick can do all kinds of different heists, characters’ back stories can be explored, new crew members can be brought in… in other words, infinite combinations of the same thing. And isn’t that what a mystery series is about? All the setting up left some characters a little flat (a moment here for poor movie effect/blood splatter dude) but I’m sure they’ll get their due in upcoming books.

I love witty banter and Evanovich and Goldberg deliver. Some bits made me laugh out loud, like when Kate’s sister Megan asks what her dream is. Kate replies,

“Daniel Craig, a tropical island, a quart of Oreo cookie ice cream, and a pair of handcuffs.”
“Who’s wearing the cuffs?” Megan asked.

Gender is handled well throughout, which makes sense as the novel was written by a male/female team. Kate, an ex-Navy SEAL, is more likely to come up with ideas using brute force while Nick, the con man, is more likely to come up with a sneaky plan. Both use sex and charm to get their marks. Willie, who can drive anything with a motor, is female. Good signs all.

A couple things did bother me, though. Kate is described early on as someone whose stomach is “flat and toned despite her terrible eating habits”. A girl who has her cake and eats it too, grah!

The cast also contains two potential deus ex machina – Nick, with his smarts and incredible list of contacts, and Kate’s father, with a somewhat different set of smarts and an even more incredible list of contacts. I can forgive one know-it-all but two is a bit much. As a result I didn’t feel much stress as the big heist goes awry at the end of the book – someone was sure to fix everything somehow.

The Heist was a fun escapist read but if you like real thinking mysteries you’ll have to go elsewhere.

The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry (Charlotte and Thomas Pitt #1)

11639032While the Ellison girls were out paying calls and drinking tea like proper Victorian ladies, a maid in their household was strangled to death. — The quiet and young Inspector Pitt investigates the scene and finds no one above suspicion. As his intense questioning causes many a composed facade to crumble, Pitt finds himself curiously drawn to pretty Charlotte Ellison. Yet, a romance between a society girl and so unsuitable a suitor was impossible in the midst of a murder.

Review:

I’ve been on the lookout for a series I can dig my teeth into and the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries may be it.

The good:

  • I have a thing for historical mysteries, and is there any better time or place for them than Jack the Ripper’s London?
  • Perry doesn’t assume that the reader knows all the history and social mores of the time and weaves in explanations unobtrusively. We learn about Victorian gender roles, class, marriage, crime, and more.
  • All of the characters, from our heroine on down to the maid, are well developed. Everyone has strengths and flaws without being too over the top. This allows the narrative to be carried by the polite conversations of the time without bogging down or getting boring.
  • Feminism, we haz it. Charlotte questions of the ways of the world and tries to point out flaws and contradictions to the people around her. It feels good. But…

The so-so:

  • Holy crap, there’s a lot of gaslighting. It’s for the most part women being told their wrong, they didn’t see what they thought they saw, they overreacted, that things aren’t really that bad. It’s true to the time period, I’m sure, and Inspector Pitt balances it out a tad, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing.

The not-so-good:

  • The book does take some time to get into. It doesn’t bother me so much, especially at the beginning of a long series like this one, but if you like to be gripped from the first page you may want to look elsewhere.
  • The romance is slight but still feels rushed, especially considering how little time the two characters spend together.

I’m looking forward to continuing Charlotte and Pitt’s adventures and watching them develop over, lessee… ~searches~ …30+ books. Woah.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #1)

Synopsis:

91661Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes’ pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger. But when an elusive villain enters the picture, their partnership is put to a real test.

Review:

There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be an apprentice.

While studying abroad I studied language and culture, of course, but I also took a ceramics class. The studio quickly became the center of my world. I would come in during free periods to trim pots and spent most Saturdays alongside Sensei, learning how to make bigger and more intricate things while talking about every subject under the sun.

Watching Sensei at the wheel was both inspiring and utterly humbling. He made bowls rise out clay as easily as he breathed, then thoughtfully added an imperfection that only accentuated the flawlessness of his craft. The two of us spent many an hour debating, musing, laughing, and working silently side by side.

When the end of my year arrived I may have begged the University to let Sensei hire an assistant. Someone to help him do all the menial work around the studio in exchange for a bed in the dorm and a chance to be close to his mastery. “Assistant” as far as the school was concerned, but “apprentice” to me. Needless to say the University would have none of it and after a tearful goodbye (on my part, not Sensei’s) I returned to my normal life, albeit with a sense of longing for what could have been.

…but what does that have to do with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice? Continue reading “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #1)”

PhDeath by James Carse

Synopsis:

9781623160661_1eb3ePhDeath is a fast-paced thriller set in a major university in a major city on a square. The faculty finds itself in deadly intellectual combat with the anonymous Puzzler. Along with teams of US Military Intelligence and the city’s top detective and aided by the Puzzle Master of The New York Times, their collective brains are no match for the Puzzler’s perverse talents. Carse, Emeritus Professor himself at a premier university in a major city on a square shows no mercy in his creation of the seemingly omniscient Puzzler, who through a sequence of atrocities beginning and ending with the academic year, turns up one hidden pocket of moral rot after another: flawed research, unabashed venality, ideological rigidity, pornographic obsessions, undue political and corporate influence, subtle schemes of blackmail, the penetration of national and foreign intelligence agencies, brazen violation of copyrights, even the production and sale of addictive drugs.

Review:

The jacket copy calls this a thriller but I’d say it’s a mystery.  There’s been a string of murders at an elite university and the police, Feds, and a committee of professors are on the case.  Each death is preceded by a ten part puzzle from the murderer, hinting at the next victim.

The good:

  • Several of the murders are creative and spectacular in a fun way.
  • Puzzles!  You’ll probably be able to figure out a couple parts as you go, and some are quite interestingly put together.
  • The Puzzle Master of the New York Times does indeed make an appearance, and it’s glorious.
  • The scene where the Puzzler is unmasked is amazing.  I was thrown for a loop – it’s a double reveal and I was blindsided on both counts.  I went “Wait… what?  HOW?” before flipping back to see how I possibly could have missed it.  Well done.
  • Whys and wherefores are fully explained in detail once the criminal is identified.  Only one detail I was curious about wasn’t expounded upon, which is pretty good.

The not-so-good:

  • The number ten is big in this book so each of the ten puzzles has ten parts.  All ten clues have a similar theme, so once you figure out the first few you can almost skip the rest, as the method has become clear.  However each part is painstakingly covered with answers and reasoning given, even for an arithmetic puzzle.  Judicious skimming helped me get through.
  • Looking for a breezy mystery?  This isn’t it.  If you like this sort of thing you’ll call it cerebral, but it veers towards “lecture about dead white guy philosopher” too much for me.  Here and there it’s interesting, but in other places it goes on too long.

Go in to PhDeath knowing it’s a philosophizing mystery.  Enjoy the crazy deaths, skim over clues that don’t interest  you, and watch out for that reveal – it’s a doozy.

Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye by Victoria Laurie (Psychic Eye Mystery #1)

Synopsis:

574955Abby Cooper is a P.I., psychic intuitive. But her insight failed her when she didn’t foresee the death of one of her clients-or that the lead investigator for the case is the gorgeous blind date she just met. Now, with the police suspicious of her abilities and a killer on the loose, Abby’s future looks more uncertain than ever.

Review:

I picked this book hoping for a quirky cozy mystery but ended up in romantic suspense hell.

Abby Cooper is a psychic intuitive that can call on her spirit guides for advice and wisdom. She uses her ability to run a successful business advising people on everything from cheating lovers to financial matters. I like the general idea of a psychic but man, she was spot on all the time. Any little tidbit Abby spit out would be verified sooner or later, allowing her an “I told you so” smile.

In this vein many times Abby would do a reading for someone she thought didn’t believe her. A simple, “…and you should get that knee checked out, the next time you lift something heavy it’s going to pop” would have sufficed but no, she had to tell them about their wives and daughters and upcoming vacations. Always right, always on the nose, often annoying. In fact, the only time she ran into trouble was when she didn’t listen to her “crew”… they’re infallible, of course.

That time she didn’t pick up the “intuitive phone”, along with any other fishy happening, felt like it had a neon sign with “THIS IS FORESHADOWING!” painted on top. Grah.

A few lines that bugged me:

“I looked at the painted decal on the back hood.” Hoods are in the front. Trunks and tailgates are in the back. Decals and stickers are usually put on by owners, insignia and logos by the maker.

“I knew immediately that I’d have to tip the mailman extra big come Christmas.” Postal workers are federal employees and are legally obligated not to accept cash tips over $20. Getting some extra nice chocolate or maybe knitting a pair of convertible mittens would be fine, but not an extra big tip.

“In my next lifetime I wanted to come back as a guy. They always seemed to get the upper hand.” No irony, no nothing.

And I haven’t even gotten into the romantic or suspense bits. Abby goes on a date with a guy she met online who happens to be a cop. Of course, Dutch ends up being the lead investigator of a case that ends up falling into her lap. If he ends up doing anything Abby perceives as less than perfect she storms off, vows she’s done with him, and screams like holy hell the next time they meet. Yet he is still attracted to her.

I don’t get it, either.

As for the mystery surrounding an apparent suicide, Abby’s leads us via one perfect hunch after another to the bad guy. I felt zero suspense because the perfect spirit guides would never let her fail. Don’t they get annoyed with her, too? Wouldn’t they want to slip her a bum piece of info about something trivial and have a good laugh? I would, but maybe that’s why I’m not a spirit guide.

Not bad enough to abandon halfway through, but also not deserving of more than one star.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

Translated by Ross MacKenzie and Shika MacKenzie

Synopsis:

25541152Japan, 1936. An old eccentric artist living with seven women has been found dead- in a room locked from the inside. His diaries reveal alchemy, astrology and a complicated plan to kill all seven women. Shortly afterwards, the plan is carried out: the women are found dismembered and buried across rural Japan.

By 1979, these Tokyo Zodiac Murders have been obsessing a nation for decades, but not one of them has been solved. A mystery-obsessed illustrator and a talented astrologer set off around the country – and you follow, carrying the enigma of the Zodiac murderer through madness, missed leads and magic tricks. You have all the clues, but can you solve the mystery before they do?

Review:

I’m not a huge mystery person, but when I read one I want to be given all the clues up front. It really annoys me when an author holds back some essential bit of information that prevents you from figuring out the whodunit. Continue reading “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada”