Review: Of Spice and Men by Sarah Fox + Giveaway

Review: Of Spice and Men by Sarah Fox + GiveawayOf Spice and Men by Sarah Fox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Pancake House #3
Pages: 256
Published by Random House Publishing Group on November 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Lights. Camera. Murder? Wildwood Cove’s star turn is soured by a sneaky killer in this delicious cozy mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of The Crêpes of Wrath.

Bonus content: includes original recipes inspired by the Flip Side Pancake House menu!

With a Hollywood film crew in town to shoot a remake of the horror classic The Perishing, the residents of Wildwood Cove are all abuzz. Even Marley McKinney, owner of The Flip Side Pancake House, can overlook the fact that the lead actress, Alyssa Jayde, happens to be an old flame of her boyfriend. After all, the crew loves Marley’s crêpes—so much so that Christine, the head makeup artist, invites her onset for a behind-the-scenes tour. But when Marley arrives, the special-effects trailer is on fire . . . with Christine inside.

The cops quickly rule Christine’s death a murder, and Alyssa a suspect. Marley’s boyfriend insists that the actress is innocent, but when Marley sticks her nose into the complicated lives of The Perishing’s cast and crew, she discovers more questions than answers. It seems that everyone has a hidden agenda—and a plausible motive. And as the horror spills over from the silver screen, Marley gets a funny feeling that she may be the killer’s next victim.

Sarah Fox’s addictive Pancake House Mysteries can be enjoyed together or à la carte: THE CRÊPES OF WRATH | FOR WHOM THE BREAD ROLLS | OF SPICE AND MEN

My Review:

One of the things that makes cozy mysteries so cozy is that they are often set in small towns where there are lots of quirky and interesting characters and everyone knows everyone else’s business. One of the dilemmas of cozy mystery series set in small towns is that sooner or later the reader starts to wonder why anyone would continue to live in place where the odds of becoming either a murder victim or a murder suspect are so disproportionately high.

Could there be any remaining residents in Midsomer County who have not been involved in murder at some point? Or Cabot Cove?

In Of Spice and Men, the third book in the Pancake House mystery series, the author has solved the problem by bringing a film crew to the tiny town of Wildwood Cove. This is the kind of thing that really does happen, and lives in the town’s memories for decades after.

(If you are ever in tiny Micanopy, Florida they still have plenty of memorabilia from the local filming of the 1991 film Doc Hollywood on display)

The movie being filmed in Wildwood Cove is the remake of the cult horror classic The Perishing (apropos title, all things considered!), and the little coastal town has plenty of Victorian houses to use as stand-ins for the creep-o-rama. The film shoot is a lot of excitement for Wildwood Cove, but things get a bit too exciting when our amateur sleuth, Marley McKinney, finds the first victim in a burning trailer on set.

Marley tried to rescue the woman, but she was already dead when Marley found her. And even though Marley couldn’t have saved her, she still feels guilty that she didn’t. That’s enough to get Marley started on the case, even though, as usual, the sheriff would rather she resisted her impulse to conduct yet another amateur investigation.

When Marley discovers that the heroine of the movie is her boyfriend’s ex, that said ex is the prime suspect in the murder, that she expects Brett to “take care of things” with his uncle the sheriff, and that, most unnerving of all, Brett seems to be going along with her demands, Marley sees red. And green. Particularly as Brett keeps defending the woman, refusing to admit that she had both opportunity and motive.

After a lot of soul searching, Marley decides that solving the murder is the fastest way to get Allison Jayde out of her life – whether by landing her in jail for good or absolving her so that she doesn’t need Brett’s help. And who can blame her?

But the deeper that Marley digs, the more complicated the case gets. There are too many people who might have had a motive to kill the victim, and even more people who had a motive to pin it on the selfish and shallow Allison Jayde.

As Marley frequently complains, she has way more questions than she has answers. Right up to the moment she finds herself face-to-face with the murderer, and suddenly it all makes sense.

Unfortunately for Marley, it also makes sense for the murderer to make sure that she can’t reveal what she’s figured out to anyone else. Ever.

Escape Rating B: In the end, that I am still following this series boils down to the fact that I like Marley as the main character. Not just that she’s both plucky and nosy, but also the way that she has taken on the changes in her life and made a new life for herself in a new place with new (and interesting) people.

It takes as much courage in real life to immerse yourself in new surroundings with new people and especially take on the ownership of a business as it fictionally does to poke her nose into murder.

I like just how grounded Marley is, and how responsible she is. She genuinely does care about her town, her friends and her business – and occasionally that caring gets her into trouble.

It is interesting that all of the crimes she has poked her nose into, at least so far, have touched on her life directly in one way or another. Her first time out she was investigating the death of the cousin who left her the Flip Side Pancake House (The Crepes of Wrath). In her second “case” she investigated the death of a local misanthrope because Marley herself was the prime suspect (For Whom the Bread Rolls). Now in her third “case” she’s looking into the murder in order to get her boyfriend’s ex out of town as fast as possible.

No one’s circle of acquaintances in real life is quite this murder-prone, but it does make for quirky mysteries.

The case that Marley is stuck in this time has a lot of twists and turns. And this time out the victims, suspects and witnesses are all outsiders, so Marley has a difficult time finding out who wants to do what to whom. There’s plenty of drama (and melodrama) both onscreen and off, and Marley has her hands full sorting out what is real and what is make believe.

But she’s likeable and always fun to watch. Enough so that I’m looking forward to her next adventure.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica LockeBluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 307
Published by Mulholland Books on September 12th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A powerful thriller about the explosive intersection of love, race, and justice from a writer and producer of the Emmy winning Fox TV show Empire.

When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules--a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.

When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders--a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman--have stirred up a hornet's nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes--and save himself in the process--before Lark's long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.

A rural noir suffused with the unique music, color, and nuance of East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is an exhilarating, timely novel about the collision of race and justice in America.

My Review:

It has been said that the mystery genre is the “romance of justice”. Bluebird, Bluebird is the story of one man who has devoted his career to defending that justice, even though he is all too aware that it seldom applies to him. Not just because he’s a cop, but because he’s a black cop, a Texas Ranger, in rural East Texas.

And pursuing justice, for a black man murdered in a small town, and for himself, is a fast way to run afoul of his bosses at the Rangers, of the local white police who have already decided how things are going to be, and of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas who have multiple reasons for wanting to gun him down.

Not just the obvious one, that he’s a black man with authority and a gun. Or even that he’s a black man who is trying to help take them down. Not that either of those reasons, or just the simple fact that he’s a black man, isn’t enough of a reason for members of this militant arm of the old KKK, with better armaments and access to entirely too much drug money.

That alone is plenty of reason for Darren Mathews to want to take them down, instead. And with more justice.

Although Bluebird, Bluebird is written as a mystery, it’s really all about race relations, a subject that the Texas Rangers as an organization refuse to acknowledge or even talk about.

While at first it seems as if the mystery is all wrapped up in the very sorry state of relations between the black and white populations of tiny Lark, Texas, in the end it turns out to be much more about relations in general, as despite all of the political and social restrictions that attempted to separate the races, the fact is that the entire town, black and white, are all related, and have been for generations.

And that someone has used “the way things have always been done around here” to hide a crime that is about anything but the way things have always been done. Except that it also is.

Mathews finds himself walking a tightrope. Being a good cop requires following the trail of evidence wherever it might lead. Being allowed to remain a cop, good, bad or otherwise, requires that he accept the locals’ willingness to sweep the murder of a black man under the rug in order to prosecute a man who is certainly guilty of the murder of a white woman.

He discovers that he can’t let it rest, even if it means that he loses both his badge and his family. Only to realize, at the end, that the problem at the heart of the mystery has followed him home.

Escape Rating A: This one is a thriller. And a thrill, from beginning to end.

Mathews is a man caught in the middle. Multiple middles, and they all contradict each other. Being a black cop, a black Texas Ranger, is to be a walking contradiction in too much of East Texas. He can’t be an authority figure because he’s a black man, and yet, as a Ranger he outranks all the local law enforcement – including the ones who have to fight the impulse to shoot a black man with a gun on sight.

He has to walk a fine line between the way that things are done and the things that need to be done. The difficulty of straddling this particular line is easily seen through the reactions of the widow of the victim, a black woman from Chicago with an international reputation as a fashion photographer who expects to be paid deference, and who instead has to watch Mathews do his best, which often isn’t very good, to provide just enough deference to keep from getting shut out, or just shot, while still hanging onto at least a scrap of his pride.

The crimes are as puzzling as any mystery. What seems contradictory to the reader, while at the same time feeling completely true to life, is the way that the white authorities have decided the outcome before the investigation even begins – in fact without conducting an investigation at all. As far as they are concerned, it must have happened a certain way because that’s the way that things always happen – even if they didn’t.

The reader wants to rail at the pages, to force someone to see things as they are, instead of as they want them to be – and of course that’s not possible. But it does make the reader empathize with Ranger Mathews as he tries to find a way to make things right – when that is not the outcome that anyone around him gives a damn about.

Mathews is a fascinating and flawed character, who realizes at the end that the person he has deceived the most in this entire investigation is himself. The story ends with a chill that forces the reader, as well as the protagonist, to re-evaluate everything they thought they learned. The hallmark of a terrific story.

Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford

Review: Tramps and Thieves by Rhys FordTramps and Thieves by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: M/M romance, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Murder and Mayhem #2
Pages: 210
Published by Dreamspinner Press on September 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Whoever said blood was thicker than water never stood in a pool of it.

Retiring from stealing priceless treasures seemed like a surefire way for Rook Stevens to stay on the right side of the law. The only cop in his life should have been his probably-boyfriend, Los Angeles Detective Dante Montoya, but that’s not how life—his life—is turning out. Instead, Rook ends up not only standing in a puddle of his cousin Harold’s blood but also being accused of Harold’s murder…and sleeping with Harold’s wife.

For Dante, loving the former thief means his once-normal life is now a sea of chaos, especially since Rook seems incapable of staying out of trouble—or keeping trouble from following him home. When Rook is tagged as a murder suspect by a narrow-focused West L.A. detective, Dante steps in to pull his lover out of the quagmire Rook’s landed in.

When the complicated investigation twists around on them, the dead begin to stack up, forcing the lovers to work together. Time isn’t on their side, and if they don’t find the killer before another murder, Dante will be visiting Rook in his prison cell—or at his grave.

My Review:

Tramps and Thieves is a terrific follow up to its series opener, Murder and Mayhem. And it gets off to an equally explosive start. Last time it was a shoot out over a misidentified Wookie, this time it’s a prank heist that turns up a real murder, and nearly turns into one as well.

Rook Stevens has been fighting with most of his newly re-discovered family ever since his rich and eccentric grandfather discovered his existence back in the first book. His grandfather’s insistence on Sunday family dinners at his over decorated mansion have kept all the relationships on the boil – and none of them are brewing anything tasty.

So when his slimy cousin Harold winkles a collectible Maltese Falcon out from under Rook’s nose, Rook has to get it back. Being able to exercise his disused skills as a thief is just a bonus. Until Rook finds Harold in a pool of his own blood, with the contested Falcon resting on his corpse.

His killer tries to take Rook out on his way out, but when Rook calls the cops, he gets yet another variation of asshole who is just sure he must have committed the crime, and seems willing to bend the rules to make it stick.

LAPD Detective Dante Montoya rides to his lover’s rescue, and they find themselves in the midst of yet another pissing contest with a bad cop, and another trail of dead bodies that leads right to Rook’s door.

This time the question is whether it’s his own past that has caught up to him, again, or if it’s someone else’s. As Rook gets caught by one close call after another, he retreats to lick his wounds while Dante chases down the villains. Only to discover that it was Rook they were after all along.

And that he might be too late.

Escape Rating A-: If you like your romantic suspense with a heaping helping of chaos and destruction, this series is a winner from that first downed Wookie. In Tramps and Thieves, Rook and Dante are driven from crisis to crisis from the very first page, and the action doesn’t let up until the story winds to its breathtaking conclusion.

Where the first book, Murder and Mayhem, was all about Rook’s past reaching out to grab him, and his final decision to let it go, this second book is all about family. And both birth family and family-of-choice.

We see the influence of family-of-choice in Dante’s police partner’s reactions when Dante decides to investigate Rook’s sudden rash of problems on his own. They are partners, and the man rightfully will not let Dante go it alone, even if it is safer for his career.

Speaking of Dante’s partner, he is the link between this series and the fantastic Cole McGinnis series. And in a roundabout way, Cole almost gets dragged into this case. It’s always nice to hear that old friends are doing well.

But the heart of this case turns out to revolve around the birth family that Rook never knew he had until he stepped out of the shadows of his old life.

There are all sorts of variations on this saying, but the one that applies here is “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Rook may be the spitting image of his grandfather as a young man, but the family that has gathered around Archie Stevens hoping for a piece of his massive estate hates Rook with nearly every fiber of their collective being – some of them with more reasons than others.

He has stepped into a stew of boiling resentment, one that splatters onto him because no one wants to challenge the old man. And it’s in that stew that the bodies are bubbling. It’s messy from beginning to end, and an absolute page-turner.

I can’t wait to see what kind of chaos finds Rook and Dante next. If you want to get in on their action, there’s a blog tour for Tramps and Thieves going on now, giving away $20 gift certificates at every stop. There’s also a bit of a prequel story being spun out over the course of the tour. Check it out!

Finally, I gift you with an earworm. I have had this damn song running in my head ever since Rhys sent me the eARC for this book. As the song very much fits Rook’s shady background, I had to share, even though I know that no one will thank me later.

Review: Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Secrets in Death by J.D. RobbSecrets in Death (In Death, #45) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, mystery, romantic suspense
Series: In Death #45
Pages: 370
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A new novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series: Lt. Eve Dallas must separate rumors from reality when a woman who traffics in other people’s secrets is silenced.

The chic Manhattan nightspot Du Vin is not the kind of place Eve Dallas would usually patronize, and it’s not the kind of bar where a lot of blood gets spilled. But that’s exactly what happens one cold February evening.

The mortally wounded woman is Larinda Mars, a self-described “social information reporter,” or as most people would call it, a professional gossip. As it turns out, she was keeping the most shocking stories quiet, for profitable use in her side business as a blackmailer. Setting her sights on rich, prominent marks, she’d find out what they most wanted to keep hidden and then bleed them dry. Now someone’s done the same to her, literally—with a knife to the brachial artery.

Eve didn’t like Larinda Mars. But she likes murder even less. To find justice for this victim, she’ll have to plunge into the dirty little secrets of all the people Larinda Mars victimized herself. But along the way, she may be exposed to some information she really didn’t want to know…

My Review:

Watching the trees whip back and forth in the wind, waiting out Tropical Storm Irma, I scrapped everything I was planning to read and went looking for comfort, for books that I knew would sweep me into their worlds from page one – because I’d been there many times before.

Lucky for me, I had a copy of Secrets in Death in the towering TBR pile, and I can always get caught up in Eve Dallas’ near future New York, whether any particular entry in the series is stellar, or as they sometimes are, just a visit with some very dear old friends.

Secrets in Death, while not quite at the top of the series, was a terrific way to kill a hurricane day by losing myself somewhere else.

As the story begins, Eve is having drinks with forensic anthropologist Garnet DeWinter at an upscale wine bar that Dallas normally wouldn’t be caught dead in, when a dead body literally drops into her lap – or at least dies in her arms. The DB (dead body) is instantly recognizable, not just to Eve and Garnet but to nearly everyone in New York City. Larinda Mars was a screen (read that as TV) gossip reporter with an ear for finding the worst dirt on the best people – or perhaps the other way around.

Even as little as Eve plugs into popular culture, she’s aware that there are plenty of people who will be happy to learn that the scum-sucker is dead – and that’s before Eve learns that Mars didn’t put all her best stories on the air. It turns out that the victim had a sideline, an extremely lucrative sideline, in blackmail.

Larinda Mars had plenty of victims. It’s all too easy for Eve to guess that one of those victims finally turned Mars into theirs. But which one? The line forms around the block, not just the block where Mars ostensibly lived, but also around the block where she hoarded her ill-gotten gains. She liked digging the dirt, she loved having people under her pwoer and she relished making enemies.

But she was incredibly good at judging her marks. Not just who would, and could, pay. But who would be willing to pay (and pay and pay) in order to protect not themselves, but to protect someone else that they loved. Because Larinda didn’t just go for current scandal. That was too easy. She specialized in combing through people’s pasts for secrets buried by decades. And if there wasn’t any current vulnerability, she was more than happy to manufacture evidence to link those scandals to the present.

Larinda Mars was scum. But now she’s Eve’s scum. And it’s up to Eve to find justice for the dead – even as the living cry out for their own.

Escape Rating B+: This was an absolutely delicious story. And more than a bit perverse in that deliciousness. Because, like Eve, the more we find out about Larinda Mars, the less sorry we are that she’s dead.

In order to discover the motive for Mars’ death, Eve has to wade through the deep shit (and there is no other word for it, crap does not even come close!) that made up her life. Mars had an absolute genius for discovering people who had something to hide. But hers was a peculiarly insidious type of genius, because she looked for especially vulnerable people whose secrets protected someone else.

She dies in the middle of one of her shakedowns. And we end up feeling much sorrier for her escaped victim than we do for her. And he’s just the tip of her very slimy iceberg.

A big part of the pleasure in this particular book is watching this disgusting woman’s empire of sleaze unravel. There’s a guilty pleasure in the whole investigation – at least until there’s a second victim. It’s only then that the reader, or possibly anyone investigating the cases, feels any regret. Mars was such a scum-sucker that it’s almost impossible not to see her death as some kind of divine retribution – or merely karma being an absolute bitch.

The second death is nothing like the first, but it does expose the murderer. And it’s a good thing that the story wraps up quickly at that point, because after all the glee of tearing down Mars, the takedown of the actual murderer is more than a bit anticlimactic – as is the individual.

Two final comments about Secrets in Death. This was the second book in a month where death was caused by severing the victim’s brachial artery. The first was in Thief’s Mark. For two books that have to have been in separate pipelines for several months if not years to use the same relatively uncommon (at least for fiction) cause of death was coincidental. But it bothered me until I remembered what the other book was.

Gossip columnists, and the damage they do, have been around a long time. That they would continue to be popular and hated in Eve Dallas’ near-future is not really a surprise. But there was something about this story that tickled an old memory, not related to the cause of death. If you’ve ever heard the song Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley, you’ll recognize all the things about gossip columnists that we love to hate. Some things look like they are never going to change. If you’ve never heard the song, I’ve included a parody video here that really plays up all the aspects of this kind of “news” that people love to hate. And while the video is a parody, the song in the background is the real song. Even though “Dirty Laundry” is now 35 years old, it still rings true. And probably will in Eve Dallas’ time.

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

My Review:

I really wish that the Atticus Pünd series existed, because the one we got in Magpie Murders was absolutely marvelous. I’d dearly love to read the rest of the series.

What we have, however, is the final book in the series, encased within a framing story about the death of the fictitious author of this fictitious book, and the many, many ways in which art seems to be imitating life – or vice versa.

The story begins with its frame. Susan Ryeland, editor at a small but prestigious publishing house, settles in for the weekend to read the latest manuscript by her least favorite and most favorite author. Susan loves Alan Conway’s work, but the man himself is far from lovable.

As Susan settles in to read, we do too. We read Magpie Murders by Alan Conway right along with her. And it is a marvelous take on the Golden Age of mystery, reading as though it should sit on the shelf beside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The detective, the perpetual outsider, comes to a small English village to investigate what turn out to be a series of murders. It’s an absorbing case, and the readers, along with Susan herself, are sucked right into the mid-1950s, the mind of the detective and the murderous goings on of this otherwise unremarkable little place.

Until the story ends abruptly, and we, as well as Susan, are left wondering “who done it?”. The last chapter of Magpie Murders is missing. And its author has just been found dead, an apparent suicide.

So Susan begins by hunting for that missing chapter, and finds herself hunting for the truth about Alan Conway’s life, and about his death. By the time those missing pages are found, Susan has uncovered much more than she, or anyone else, could have bargained for.

After all the times when she has blurbed that “reading such-and-such’s latest book changed her life”, just this once, it’s all too true.

Escape Rating B+: Magpie Murders is really two books in one. There’s a classic historical mystery sandwiched within the pages of a contemporary mystery thriller. And for this reader, the historical mystery wins out.

I absolutely adored Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. It was both a wonderful homage to the mysteries of the Golden Age, and a terrific case itself. Atticus Pünd would make a wonderful addition to the ranks of series detectives, right up there with Poirot, Marple, Wimsey and the rest. In its post-WWII time period, it takes the reader back to a simpler but no less deadly time, and its play on the locked room/locked house mystery keeps the reader guessing.

It gave me a tremendous yen to pick up a “real” historical mystery at the first opportunity. It reminded me how much I love the genre, and gave me a hankering to return. Or just to re-watch Poirot.

The abrupt ending to Conway’s novel jarred me almost as much as it did Susan Ryeland. I felt cheated. I wanted to know who the killer was every bit as much as she did. But I had a difficult time getting into the framing story.

In fact, I started the book once, couldn’t get into it, and then picked it up on audio. Listening to it got me over the hump, to the point where I was so captivated by Pünd’s story that I changed the audio back for the book, so that I could find out whodunnit that much more quickly – only to be disappointed when Susan discovers that the final chapter is missing.

Susan’s own quest turned out to be fascinating as well, but for some reason I didn’t find her as sympathetic or interesting a character to follow as the even more fictional Pünd.

The problem is that Pünd, while a bit distant in the traditional detectival mold, is a sympathetic character and seems to be a generally nice man. We want him to succeed. Alan Conway, on the other hand, will not be missed by anyone, except possibly his publishers.

Conway’s series is the marquee title for small but prestigious Cloverleaf Books. It’s their one big moneymaker, and it tides them over an awful lot of less successful ventures. Conway, or rather Atticus Pünd, pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But no one likes Conway. There are certainly people who benefit from his death in the direct, traditional way, but there are even more who are just happy at his absence from this earth, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with Susan’s lover. While there are plenty of people who will miss Atticus Pünd, no one will miss his author.

Susan finds herself with plenty of motives, too many suspects, and a police investigation that is all too happy to consider it suicide and close the case. There’s plenty of evidence to support that theory, and damn little to support anything else.

Until Susan starts digging, and nearly digs her own grave. In the end, no one is certain that good triumphed and evil got its just desserts. Not even Susan. And that’s what makes the contemporary thriller less satisfying than the historical mystery it contains. Mystery, as a great writer once said, is the romance of justice. Good is supposed to triumph, evil is supposed to get those just desserts. When that formula is subverted, as it is in the contemporary frame for Magpie Murders, it feels wrong, at least for this reader. While there may be a metaphor in there about the world being more complicated than it used to be, or that the real world isn’t half so neat and tidy as fiction, the framing story is also fiction. I want my neat and tidy ending, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t there.

But we do finally get to read Atticus Pünd’s last chapter. And that was well worth waiting for.

Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + Giveaway

Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + GiveawayThief's Mark (Sharpe & Donovan #7) by Carla Neggers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Sharpe & Donovan #7
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


A murder in a quiet English village, long-buried secrets and a man's search for answers about his traumatic past entangle FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan in the latest edge-of-your-seat Sharpe & Donovan novel

As a young boy, Oliver York witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents in their London apartment. The killers kidnapped him and held him in an isolated Scottish ruin, but he escaped, thwarting their plans for ransom. Now, after thirty years on the run, one of the two men Oliver identified as his tormentors may have surfaced.

Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are enjoying the final day of their Irish honeymoon when a break-in at the home of Emma's grandfather, private art detective Wendell Sharpe, points to Oliver. The Sharpes have a complicated relationship with the likable, reclusive Englishman, an expert in Celtic mythology and international art thief who taunted Wendell for years. Emma and Colin postpone meetings in London with their elite FBI team and head straight to Oliver. But when they arrive at York's country home, a man is dead and Oliver has vanished.

As the danger mounts, new questions arise about Oliver's account of his boyhood trauma. Do Emma and Colin dare trust him? With the trail leading beyond Oliver's small village to Ireland, Scotland and their own turf in the US, the stakes are high, and Emma and Colin must unravel the decades-old tangle of secrets and lies before a killer strikes again.

New York Times
bestselling author Carla Neggers delivers the gripping, suspense-filled tale readers have been waiting for.

My Review:

Thief’s Mark is the seventh book in the Sharpe and Donovan series. I’ve read the entire series and have enjoyed every single one. The series has been a combination of mystery with just a touch of romantic suspense. In the first book in the series Saint’s Gate, undercover FBI agent Colin Donovan runs into art expert, ex-nun and current non-undercover FBI agent Emma Sharpe on an art crimes case that involves their hometowns in Maine.

It’s the start of a beautiful relationship, one that finally results in their wedding at the end of Liar’s Key. Thief’s Mark takes place at the end of their honeymoon. At the end of my review of Liar’s Key, I speculated that it was highly unlikely that Emma and Colin would manage to have an uninterrupted honeymoon, and I’m pleased to say that I was right.

But this case isn’t really about them. Like so many long-running mystery series, part of what keeps readers coming back for more is whether or not they enjoy the adventures of not just the heroes, but whether they like the surrounding cast of characters who inevitably become involved in those adventures over time.

Whether it’s the residents of the small town in a cozy, or the other cops in the shop of a police procedural, if we don’t like the supporting cast, the series eventually loses its charm. At least for this reader.

So, while Thief’s Mark is definitely a part of the series, the mystery that has to be solved is not one of the art crimes that the FBI usually has Emma tackle. Instead, the mystery is that of the long-ago tragedy that set their friend and sometime frenemy Oliver York on the road that led to his becoming a high-class art thief and eventually an MI5 agent specializing in blood antiquities.

When Oliver was 8 years old he witnessed the murder of his parents in their London flat. He was kidnapped by the killers, dragged to Scotland, and escaped while his captors argued about his ransom. The tragedy altered the course of his life.

As this story begins, one of the killers is found dying on the front steps of Oliver’s Cotswolds farm. And Oliver bolts from the scene, leaving his friends behind to await the police and worry about what’s happened to him.

What’s happened is that his entire life has just unraveled, and a few words from a dying man have made him question everything he thought he remembered about that awful night so long ago.

Emma and Colin, dragged to Cotswolds at the end of their trip, find themselves in the midst of an investigation that spans the local police, and MI5, as well as opening up on surprising fronts in Dublin and back home in the U.S.

Thirty years of lies are about to become unraveled. So many assumptions are about to come unglued. Many long ago wrongs finally have a chance at being made right. But at what cost?

Escape Rating B+: I have enjoyed every book in this series, and Thief’s Mark was certainly no exception.

One of the interesting threads in this book was the pivot. The relationship between Emma and Colin, and whether they could manage to get together and stay together, in spite of two meddling families, undercover assignments on his part and a family of interfering detectives on her part who mess with and occasionally mess up their cases. Now that they finally managed to get married at the end of Liar’s Key, some of that tension has to shift somewhere else in the story.

In Thief’s Mark, it shifts to Oliver York. In many ways, Thief’s Mark is really Oliver York’s book, and to a significant extent Emma and Colin are side characters in his story. They are operating in England on the sufferance of MI5, they have no jurisdiction, and Oliver has been a bit too involved in some of their previous cases for them to be considered neutral observers. And Emma’s famous grandfather and Oliver are friends enough that Wendell Sharpe helps him when he’s on the run.

Things are a mess, but it’s definitely Oliver’s mess. Emma and Colin are mostly onlookers. And that’s more than okay. The originating event was Oliver’s tragedy, and the person who needs resolution out of all the current issues is Oliver. And he’s been an interesting character throughout the whole series, from his initial introduction as a mythology expert to his unmasking as the thief who bedeviled Wendell Sharpe to his current incarnation as MI5 consultant. He’s had a rough life and it’s time for his world to get straightened out a bit.

What made this particular mystery so fascinating was just how big it eventually became, and how much it unraveled by the time all the loose ends were tied up. Oliver was not the only person affected by that tragedy, even though he was the one affected the most. He also wasn’t the only one with questions that needed to be answered, and it was good to see that all those dangling messes (along with the red herrings) got cleaned up by the end.

As the story unfolds, Oliver finds himself to be both the thief and the mark.

That the story and the case focused on Oliver rather than Emma and Colin also made for a bit of fresh air blown into this long running series. There are plenty of other interesting characters among Emma and Colin’s band of usual suspects, and I’m terribly curious to see which long-standing mysteries in whose life get untangled next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Thief’s Mark to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Review: Glass Houses by Louise PennyGlass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #13
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a cold November day in Three Pines, Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, knows something is seriously wrong. Yet he does nothing. Legally, what can he do? Only watch and wait. And hope his mounting fears are not realized.
From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover if a debt has been paid or levied.
In the early days of the investigation into the murder, and months later, as the trial for the accused begins in a Montreal courtroom on a steamy day in July, the Chief Superintendent continues to struggle with actions he’s set in motion, from which there is no going back. “This case began in a higher court,” he tells the judge, “and it’s going to end there.”
And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he must face his own conscience.
In her latest utterly gripping book, number-one New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny shatters the conventions of the crime novel to explore what Gandhi called the court of conscience. A court that supersedes all others.

My Review:

I started Glass Houses while waiting for the eclipse to reach totality. And read it all the way home (there was a LOT of traffic). For this reader, the new Gamache book each year is every bit as much of a fascinating treat as the eclipse, with the added bonus that there’s a Gamache book every year, while the next eclipse won’t happen over the U.S. for another seven years.

I was not disappointed in either event.

As with several of the books in this series, Glass Houses is about more than it seems, and has its roots far back in the past. Not just Gamache’s past, but the past of the Sûreté du Québec, the agency that he loves, and to which he has given his life and his career.

How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyThere’s a saying that “the fish rots from the head down”. In many of the previous books in this series, culminating in How the Light Gets In, Gamache, while solving normal cases, or as normal as anything gets in Three Pines, is in the middle of getting rid of that rot, no matter the cost. And even though he does manage to get to the heart of the corruption, the fish has been rotting for 30 years. That rot has done a lot of damage, not just to the Sûreté, but to the people of Quebec.

The rotting fish was on the take. Unfortunately, not really a surprise. But what comes as a terrible surprise to Gamache and his inner circle is the terrible result of that rot, that taking. As this story begins, Gamache is now the head of the entire Sûreté du Québec, and not merely his own little corner in the Homicide Division. And what he has discovered is that the rot has gone on too long, and that it was rooted too deeply in the drug trade.

They’ve already lost the War on Drugs. They’ve passed the tipping point, and there’s no going back. Unless Gamache and his inner circle are willing to risk everything on one last throw of the dice. If they are willing to sacrifice  their reputations their careers and even their lives on one final million to one chance. If they can lure the drug kingpins, the snakes in their grass, into one final, fatal error.

Winner take all.

Escape Rating A: As so many of the books in this series, Glass Houses begins in Three Pines, that lost village near the U.S. border. And, also like many of the books in this series, it starts small. Someone is standing in the middle of the village green, black robed and black masked, terrorizing the village. Not by doing anything menacing, but simply by standing there, unmoved and unmoving, watching everyone in the village.

It, whatever it is, is there for someone. But whoever it is there to accuse, or warn, or menace, it is terrorizing everyone in the village with its ominous faceless gaze. And Gamache, now a full-time resident of Three Pines, can do nothing. Not that he doesn’t want to, but he really can’t. Standing on the village green in a mask is not illegal by itself. But when someone dies by its hand, or because of its presence, only then can he act. When it is seemingly too late.

The trial that results, from beginning to end, is a farce. But a farce with a purpose. Gamache and his colleagues, his co-conspirators, are ready to spring their trap. That they must subvert the cause of justice in order to save it is just one of the many tragedies wrapped inside this utterly compelling story.

Gamache is, as always, a fascinating character to watch. Although some of the early books in the series, beginning with Still Life, seem like more traditional mysteries than the later ones, there has always been a psychological element to the stories. Gamache solves crimes by searching for the why first. He’s a thoughtful observer, always looking for the thing or the person out of place. Once he knows why a crime occurred, from there he determines the who and the how. And the answers are never the obvious ones – and neither are his solutions.

(If this type of mystery appeals, then also try Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie, like Gamache, looks for why because she searches out who and how. And her stories always have a deeper underlayer below the surface mystery, as does Gamache’s story)

A huge element of what makes this series so marvelous is the village of Three Pines and its quirky inhabitants, including Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie. Added to the mix of villagers (and often well-stirred into that mix) are Gamache’s two principal lieutenants, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command at the Sûreté as well as his son-in-law, and Isabelle Lacoste, his handpicked successor in the Homicide Division.

For those of us who have followed this series from its beginning in Still Life, we know these people intimately. They are all old friends, and it is always wonderful to see them, even in the midst of yet another crisis. Their friendship provides support for Gamache, as well as surprising insights into events. There is always an undercurrent of wry humor, no matter how serious the case, and that humor is rooted in how well we know these people, and just how well they know each other. And how much they care. Just as we do.

They are all FINE, as the crazed poet Ruth Zardo puts it. Where FINE is an abbreviation for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical. Because aren’t we all?

Review: Cat Shining Bright by Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Review: Cat Shining Bright by Shirley Rousseau MurphyCat Shining Bright (Joe Grey #20) by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Joe Grey #20
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on August 15th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The stakes are higher and more personal than ever for feline investigator Joe Grey when death comes to his beloved coastal California town in this twentieth installment of the enchanting cat mystery series.
While new father Joe Grey is overjoyed to teach his three young kittens about the world, he misses his cop work — secretly helping solve crimes alongside his human friends at Molena Point P. D. But when beautician Barbara Conley and one of her customers are found dead in the salon, Joe makes an exception, he heads for the crime scene. He has no idea that the kittens are following him, or how they will complicate the investigation.
But this is not the only danger to the kittens. A stranger is lurking around the home of Joe’s tabby lady, Dulcie, where the kittens were born. Both parents’ backs are up and their claws out, ready to protect their babies and to protect Wilma Getz, Dulcie’s human housemate.
As the death of the beautician becomes entangled with a gang of thieves working the village, Joe, Dulcie, Kit and Pan are all into the investigation; and they are led to unexpected connections, to the building of the new cat shelter and to a neighbor who becomes suddenly an unexpected part of the tangle.
Joe Grey fans will relish this latest installment following their favorite feline detective and his growing group of friends.

My Review:

There are two threads in Cat Shining Bright. One is indeed a bright shiny thread, and the other is dark and twisted. A fairly fitting combination for this series.

The bright and shining thread revolves around talking feline detective Joe Grey, his tabby lady Dulcie, and their three kittens, born at the very beginning of the book (also at the very end of the previous book, Cat Shout for Joy.

Joe Grey, Dulcie, and their feline friends Kit and Pan are talking cats with human-level intelligence. Also with human-level emotions, maturity and conflicts. They walk a very fine line between feline instincts and human complications.

As for why these particular cats, or for that matter the feral clowder of cats that congregate at the old Pamillon Estate, all have the capacity for human speech, no one knows. Which brings an air of suspense to the birth of Joe Grey and Dulcie’s kittens. Everyone, both human and feline, hopes that they will be speaking cats like their parents, but there is no certainty until they open their little mouths and something comes out besides “meow”.

Because cats mature relatively quickly, a big part of this story encapsulates all the joys and trepidations of parenthood into a brief four-month period, as the three kittens, Buffin, Striker and Courtney grow from blind, mewling fluffballs to young adults ready to strike out on their own.

While Joe Grey worries about his new family, and Dulcie is both contented and stir-crazy hovering over the kittens during their early months, a gang of sophisticated car thieves preys on Molena Point and the neighboring small towns along the California Coast.

Their pattern is insidious. They strike a town, and for two or three days steal as many late-model cars as they can, while trashing all the cars they can’t steal and robbing the trashed cars of any valuables. After a two or three day rampage, they move to the next town, and the one after that. A few weeks later they return and start all over again. And even though the police manage to arrest a few members of the gang each time, the gang itself seems to continue unimpaired.

While Dulcie is cooped up with the kittens, Joe Grey, Kit and Pan do their best to help the police track the gang, at least whenever they hit Molena Point. Meanwhile, Dulcie’s human friend Wilma is threatened with a problem of her own, one that puts Dulcie, the kittens and possibly all the speaking cats in grave danger.

It’s not until Joe Grey and the police are able to connect ALL the dots that both cases can come to their proper conclusion. And unfortunately, not until after grand theft auto escalates to murder most foul.

Escape Rating B: I love this series, and I really enjoyed my visit to Molena Point to see both the cats and the humans are doing. As Cat Shining Bright is the 20th book in the series, and I’ve read them all (including the semi-sorta-prequel The Catswold Portal) I feel like these two and four-legged people are all friends and I’m always glad to visit and see what everyone is up to.

If the idea of a story featuring a sentient (and often smart-alecky) cat sounds like catnip to you, start with Joe Grey’s first adventure, Cat on the Edge. A lot of what makes Cat Shining Bright work for fans is the emotional investment, and that just takes time to develop. You could probably start anywhere in the earlier books, but the last four rely on previous knowledge and involvement with the series to really come together.

As much as I enjoyed Cat Shining Bright, it felt like both threads of the story were a bit blinded by that shining brightness.. Your mileage may vary.

On the mystery side of the equation, it doesn’t feel quite so much like Joe Grey and the Molena Point PD solve the case as that the solution falls into their laps (at least for those of the two-legged persuasion who actually HAVE laps, that it). The criminals were fairly ingenious in their methods, the cats were distracted, and the humans just couldn’t catch a break. At least not until everything broke all at once.

And I’m not sure we ever got the full story on Wilma’s problem. It ended, but for this reader it felt like some of the whys and wherefores were missing.

The feline side of the equation had a lot more bright spots. Listening in on Joe Grey’s thought processes as he deals with fatherhood and watches the kittens grow up in what to humans would be accelerated time works well. We feel for his dilemma. Joe Grey is a warrior and a protector. He wants to protect his family, his humans and his town, and those drives come into conflict. He also loves his kittens but recognizes that he has to not merely let them, but actually help them, grow up. And he’s “human” enough not to want to.

The fates and futures of the kittens are tied up in prophecies made the wise old cat Misto near his end, during Cat Shout for Joy. Misto’s wisdom and the kittens various powers are tied in with the feral speaking cats at the old Pamillon Estate, with the ancient past of the speaking cats, and with the events of The Catsworld Portal and an earlier book in Joe Grey’s series, Cat Bearing Gifts. It looks like little Courtney is going to be the cat that connects that particular set of dots, so there’s a lot left hanging.

One final note about the human side of the story. One of the issues for the humans in this story is what to do about the secret that they are the caretakers for. There is a small circle of humans that knows all about the cats’ talents, including Joe Grey’s people, Clyde and his wife Ryan, Dulcie’s human, Wilma, and Kit and Pan’s human family, the Greenlaws. The vet John Firetti also knows, which is both convenient for the cats and necessary for parts of this particular story. As their humans have found life companions, the circle of people in on this dangerous secret has slowly widened. That’s what happens here, as the speaking ferals take it upon themselves to let Scott Flannery in on their secret so their friend Kate can have her happily ever after. Kate was right that it would be impossible to have a good marriage with a lie that big at its heart.

Which begs the question, what about Charlie and Max? Charlie knows the secret, and has known for a long time. But her husband Max does not know. Max is the Chief of the Molena Point Police Department, and everyone is afraid that if Max discovers that his best snitches are Joe Grey, Dulcie and Kit, that he will stop letting them help him, which would certainly contribute to a rise in the Molena Point crime rate. But how long can this go on?

Hopefully we’ll find out in one of Joe Grey’s future adventures, hopefully sometime next year.

Review: Another Man’s Ground by Claire Booth + Giveaway

Review: Another Man’s Ground by Claire Booth + GiveawayAnother Man's Ground (Sheriff Hank Worth, #2) by Claire Booth
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The next taut, witty mystery featuring Branson, MO’s new sheriff Hank Worth from acclaimed author Claire Booth.
Called out to investigate the theft of elm tree bark (who knew it made a valuable herbal supplement?), Branson, MO Sheriff Hank Worth meets the talkative and combustible property owner, Vern Miles, who is trying to make enough money off the land he just inherited to pay the taxes on it.
The thieves have stripped so much of the bark that the trees are now dying, so Miles decides to go ahead and cut the whole grove down. The only thing is, he uses undocumented workers to do it, and when Hank and Sam stop by the clearing in the woods to check on things, the whole crew takes off like a flock of birds. One unfortunate runaway laborer tumbles into a deep crevice and lands on not one, but two bodies—a month-old rotten corpse and a decades-old child skeleton.
Hank suddenly finds himself in the midst of two separate murder investigations, not to mention tree bark theft, all while running for re-election as county sheriff.

My Review:

I really like slightly beleaguered Sheriff Hank Worth, to the point where I just spent a good fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether there will be a third book in this terrific new mystery series.

Alas, that is still a mystery, so in the meantime, let’s explore Another Man’s Ground.

There are two stories in Another Man’s Ground and those stories compete with Hank’s, and the reader’s, attention from beginning to end.

Hank is not merely the new sheriff of Branson County, but he is also merely filling out the remaining term of the previously elected sheriff, recently promoted to the state senate. To remain the sheriff, and remain in Branson, Hank needs to run for election. But he absolutely hates everything about politicking. He wants to solve crimes and keep people safe, not make speeches and curry favor with local politicians. He hates making speeches and he detests a good chunk of the local politicians, and with good reason.

But he is the best man for the job – his competition, one of his own deputies, is no good as a deputy and absolutely in the pockets of the politicians. He doesn’t want to actually do the job, he just wants the perquisites.

Hank’s future isn’t the only one that’s riding on this election, either, which just adds to the pressure. He and his wife Maggie moved back to her Branson hometown after her mother died of cancer. Maggie’s family has lived in Branson for three generations, which still doesn’t quite make her “one of the locals”, but close, especially since her late mother was an absolutely beloved school principal in town.

Hank needs to stay in Branson. Maggie is now a surgeon at the local hospital, and her dad, Duncan, needs them around. Equally, they need him, because he’s the one taking care of their kids while they are both working all the hours of the day and night.

Hank’s chief deputy needs him to win the election, because she’ll be lucky just to be relegated to jail guard duty for the rest of her life if Hank loses. The good-old-boys really, really don’t like Sheila, because she’s smart, gifted, female and black. They’ll make her life hell if Hank is out of their way.

And into the middle of all of the election shenanigans, a murder case drops on Hank’s head. Or rather, someone running from the scene of what seems to be an entirely different crime drops on the murder victim’s head – along with the rest of his messily decaying corpse.

In the process of investigating the crime scene where “Rotten Doe’s” body is found (this corpse is particularly ripe), Hank and his technicians uncover another body buried under the first one. The second victim becomes “Child Doe”. While no one seems to mourn “Rotten” very much, everyone grieves “Child Doe”, including the six local families with long-unsolved missing children’s cases.

The two corpses lead Hank and his team on a not-so-merry foray into not just one but two of Branson County’s long-standing hot spots. The Kinney property, where the body is found, and the Taylor compound. Jasper Kinney is the last of a long line of local landowners who once had a lot of power and a lot of clout, and still seem to, mostly out of inherited fear among the locals. The Taylors are just no good – every member of the family has a long rap sheet. The sheriff’s department has always been sure they were cooking meth somewhere on their property, but never had probably cause to search.

Now they do. And when they do, things go tragically wrong, just as so many of the decisions that Hank makes on this case do. But in the end, he figures out the solution. Delivering it is something else again.

Escape Rating A-: I have squeed a lot about this book. I did about the previous book, The Branson Beauty, too. I think I just like the characters, and enjoy watching them work.

I also don’t think you absolutely have to read The Branson Beauty to get into Another Man’s Ground, but who can resist any book that starts with half the crew humming the Gilligan’s Island theme, and with good reason?

The case that sucks Hank and his team in was a real page turner. There was so much going on, so many tempting red herrings, and so much local history that Hank can’t help stepping in. Everything goes way back, and it all matters.

I also enjoyed the way that the case starts rather small and slightly crazy. It begins with tree bark, segues into rising prices for herbal remedies, takes a detour through illegal immigration, trips over drug trafficking, and crashes through a long-simmering feud that feels also too much like the Hatfields versus the McCoys. All while Hank is desperately trying to solve two murders and not totally screw up his election prospects. It’s a daunting challenge.

I will say that when the focus was on the mutating ramifications of the original cases, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. But when it came to the campaign shenanigans, like Hank himself, the events and incidents seem to take forever to finish, even when nobody screws up. I may have felt for Hank just a bit too much in those scenes, because I’d want to be out of there just as badly as he did.

But the way the mystery unfolded, and the way it was finally solved, well, that will keep me hunting for Hank’s next outing.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Another Man’s Ground to one lucky US/Canadian commenter. I hope the winner enjoys this series as much as I do!

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Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire BoothThe Branson Beauty (Sheriff Hank Worth, #1) by Claire Booth
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #1
Pages: 310
Published by Minotaur Books on July 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Branson Beauty, an old showboat, has crashed in the waters of an Ozark mountain lake just outside the popular tourist destination of Branson, Missouri. More than one hundred people are trapped aboard. Hank Worth is still settling into his new role as county sheriff, and when he responds to the emergency call, he knows he’s in for a long winter day of helping elderly people into rafts and bringing them ashore. He realizes that he’ll face anxiety, arguments, and extra costs for emergency equipment that will stretch the county’s already thin budget to the breaking point.
But he is absolutely not expecting to discover high school track star Mandy Bryson’s body locked inside the Captain’s private dining room. Suddenly, Hank finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, with the county commissioner breathing down his neck and the threat of an election year ahead of him. And as he wades deeper into the investigation, Hank starts to realize he’s up against a web of small town secrets much darker and more tangled than he could have ever imagined.
In her captivating debut novel, Claire Booth has created a broad cast of wonderfully compelling characters, and she perfectly blends humor with the emotional drama and heartache of a murder investigation.

My Review:

The Branson Beauty is an old paddle-wheel showboat, and the book about the events of her last cruise will stick the reader as fast between its pages as the poor old boat is stuck to the shoal its grounded on.

It really was supposed to be a “three-hour tour”, so when the Branson Beauty runs aground, and her passengers find themselves stranded aboard for much, much longer, the number of rescue workers who end up humming the Gilligan’s Island theme seem inevitable. Also hilarious.

But Sheriff Hank Worth stops finding any humor in the situation when he discovers the ship’s captain comatose and locked inside his piloting cabin. The situation turns downright grim when the Sheriff discovers the dead body of a local track star locked inside the captain’s private dining room.

Mandy Bryson was supposed to be away at college in Norman Oklahoma, running track and studying English at Oklahoma University, not dead on an aging cruise ship with finger-shaped bruises clearly circling her throat.

Worth is literally the new sheriff in town. When the previous sheriff moved up to the state legislature, his term as sheriff needed to be filled. Hank, an experienced officer from Kansas City, thought he was ready for a management role. He was certainly ready to move from KC to Branson, where his father-in-law was available to serve as a live-in babysitter for Hank and his wife Maggie’s children. Maggie is on constant call as a surgeon in the local hospital, and Hank’s hours as sheriff are far from predictable at the best of times. Her father needs a bit of their help, and they need heaping helpings of his.

Between the grounding of a local institution, and the murder of a home-town heroine, Hank has his hands overfull. This is his first homicide in Branson, and the first local homicide in a long time that wasn’t a screamingly easy case to solve of drug deals gone wrong or domestic battery gone deadly.

This case is a puzzle from beginning to end, not because the victim had no enemies, but because there are too many competing means, motives and even crimes for Hank to zero in on what parts thwarted young love, stalking, affluenza and insurance fraud played in Mandy’s death.

Or perhaps all of them did.

Escape Rating A-: This one grabbed me from the first undertone hum of “a three-hour tour” and didn’t let me go until I turned the final page. The mystery at the heart of this story kept me turning pages every spare minute all day long.

And that mystery is convoluted as it unfolds, but makes complete sense once it is all revealed. It kept me guessing from beginning to end. The red herrings are all delicious, and all the more convincing for often being partially correct while not necessarily contributing to the solution of the whole.

The author also does an excellent job of conveying the depths of the grief and sadness that consumes not just the family but the whole small community when a young and promising life is cut short so senselessly.

But The Branson Beauty, in addition to being a crackerjack mystery, is also the first book in a new series, and has to introduce its setting and its characters, preparing readers for the stories yet to come. We need to learn who these people are, and why we should care about what happens to them.

In that regard, The Branson Beauty is off to a good start, but there is plenty of work yet to do. This case is overwhelming, and Hank Worth is often overwhelmed by it as well as the responsibilities he has taken on as the sheriff of Branson. He’s still adjusting to his new job and to the small town politics he now must contend with. When his appointment is up in a few short months, Hank will need to run for re-election. To do that he not only has to please his constituents, but has to learn to play with the politicians who are both his peers and his rivals, and in some cases even his bosses. The county commissioners, after all, set his budget.

So while there’s a murder to be solved, that’s not the only crime that Hank uncovers, nor is it the only trail he has to follow. Some of those trails lead him into the murky undergrowth of political corruption and influence peddling, and the reality that the county’s biggest employer has too many ways of influencing people and institutions to look the other way as he bends and even breaks the law. Hank has a tough road ahead of him, and he’s only taken the first steps – possibly even the wrong ones.

The one place where The Branson Beauty needs a little work is in the development of the characters who inhabit Hank’s world. Only one member of his police force stands out, and only because she seems to be the lone female in the ranks, even if she is Hank’s second-in-command. Likewise, it took me quite a ways into the book to figure out whether the female at home Hank referred to was his wife or his daughter, and what she did and where she fit. (It’s his wife and she’s as overworked as he is) I left the story still not certain what the precipitating event was that sent Hank and Maggie to Branson, but I know there was one. I’m looking forward to discovering the answers to all these questions and more in future books. The next book in the series, Another Man’s Ground, is already on my reading schedule this month.

While the boat may have run aground, the story never does. It chugs along quickly and compellingly from its comic opera beginnings to its inevitably sad but ultimately satisfying resolution. I can’t wait to see what mystery Hank has to solve next.