Review: The Crepes of Wrath by Sarah Fox

Review: The Crepes of Wrath by Sarah FoxThe Crêpes of Wrath (A Pancake House Mystery #1) by Sarah Fox
Format: eARC
Source: Random House Chatterbox, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Pancake House #1
Pages: 240
Published by Alibi on August 16th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

In the debut of a delightful cozy mystery series, Sarah Fox introduces a charming new heroine who finds herself in a sticky situation: stacking pancakes, pouring coffee, and investigating murder.
When Marley McKinney’s aging cousin, Jimmy, is hospitalized with pneumonia, she agrees to help run his pancake house while he recovers. With its rustic interior and syrupy scent, the Flip Side Pancake House is just as she pictured it—and the surly chef is a wizard with crêpes. Marley expects to spend a leisurely week or two in Wildwood Cove, the quaint, coastal community where she used to spend her summers, but then Cousin Jimmy is found murdered, sprawled on the rocks beneath a nearby cliff.
After she stumbles across evidence of stolen goods in Jimmy’s workshop, Marley is determined to find out what’s really going on in the not-so-quiet town of Wildwood Cove. With help from her childhood crush and her adopted cat, Flapjack, Marley sinks her teeth into the investigation. But if she’s not careful, she’s going to get burned by a killer who’s only interested in serving up trouble.

My Review:

This is a very cute start to a new cozy mystery series. On the one hand, it’s a bit light and fluffy, sort of like the pancakes at The Flip Side Pancake House. On that other hand, the red herrings are savory enough to be served at one of the dinner options in beautiful Wildwood Cove.

The story starts out a bit in the middle, but in a good way. As events begin, Marley McKinney is taking a vacation from her job in Seattle by covering for her cousin Jimmy at his pancake place while Jimmy is recovering from pneumonia in the hospital. We don’t need to see Jimmy get sick or Marley go through her decision process about helping Jimmy out. By the time we meet Marley, she is starting to think about what she’ll do when Jimmy gets out of the hospital and back on his feet. And we see that the residents of Wildwood Cove and the regulars at The Flip Side have taken her into their hearts.

Jimmy is more her mother’s cousin than hers, and Marley has very, very fond memories of visiting Jimmy and his late wife, Grace, when Marley was young. After Grace’s death, the visits tapered off, but Marley and her mother still kept in touch with Jimmy. He was one of the few relatives they have left – and he seems to have been a really nice guy.

Past tense. Because the mystery that Marley takes it upon herself to solve is the mystery of who killed Jimmy, a man that nearly everyone in the small community seems to have loved. Jimmy’s death is tied into a second mystery – who stashed stolen goods in Jimmy’s generally unused shed?

As Marley pokes her nose into places it really doesn’t belong, we get to know the good people (and the bad people) of Wildwood Cove. While Marley spent her childhood summers here, the world has moved on and there are lots of new people in this little coastal town. Some of whom are lovely, and some of whom are, as the old saying goes, “no better than they ought to be” but in different ways.

Marley is left trying to pick through the pieces of what Jimmy left behind, and what Jimmy might have been into that could have caused his death. When the news gets out that Marley inherits both the house and the restaurant, the buzzards start circling. Some want the house, some want the business, and some just want to take back anything incriminating that might be left in Jimmy’s house.

It’s up to Marley to help the police figure out which of the many frightening events, home invasions and business break-ins have to do with Jimmy’s death and which are just their own separate nastiness.

All the while trying to figure out what her own future should be. Should she keep the home and business she has come to love – even though she knows nothing about running a restaurant and has a life back in Seattle? Or should she go back to the city, knowing that she is leaving her heart behind/

And will she have to die before she gets everything figured out?

Escape Rating B+: I think this may be one of those series where if you fall in love with the people and the place, it just works. Wildwood Cove feels like a nice place to visit, and I wouldn’t mind living there. But like every small town, at least in fiction, not every person is a gem and not everyone is someone you would want as your neighbor.

Marley is an interesting heroine because her life is completely in flux. The longer she stays at Jimmy’s and runs The Flip Side for him the more she sees how hollow and lonely her life is in Seattle. She has few connections back in the city that she misses or that miss her, while in Wildwood Cove nearly everyone has become connected to her, through the pancake house if not in other ways. She’ll be missed when she goes back to the city.

Jimmy’s death changes her life. Not just because she feels compelled to investigate that death, but because Jimmy leaves her his house, his restaurant, and most of his rather significant accumulated savings. He knew that Wildwood Cove was where her heart belonged, and he gave her enough resources to make that very nebulous dream come true. She feels both incredibly grateful and terribly guilty. She always cared, but didn’t see nearly as much of him as she feels she should have. Especially now that he is gone.

Those childhood summers were clearly the highlight of her life. It feels like the icing on a very yummy cake when her childhood crush turns up at her door, all grown up and much, much handsomer than she imagined he could grow up to be. And he’s a big part of her dilemma. She wants the chance to explore what they might have as adults, but giving up her life in Seattle for a whole lot of uncertainties is a big step that she quite reasonably isn’t ready to take, especially in the midst of all the upheaval.

Again, on my other hand, the sheer number and depth of the tragedies that Marley experienced in her past felt a bit like “piling on”. They felt over-the-top and they didn’t seem to be a big part of the baggage she was carrying, at least for the depth of the tragedies. But it may be a building block for the next book. We’ll see.

And then there’s the mystery. Or rather, mysteries. Jimmy was murdered. There has been a rash of home invasion robberies up and down the coast, and some of the stolen goods were stashed in Jimmy’s shed. Someone breaks into The Flip Side after hours, and there are multiple break-ins at Jimmy’s house. Some of this rash of crimes is probably connected, but which parts?

Although Jimmy was almost universally liked, there’s a difference between almost and universally. His neighbor wanted to drive him out of his house, so he can bulldoze it and turn it into another post-modern monstrosity. Jimmy’s supposed ex-ladyfriend wants to strip the house of all of Jimmy’s valuables that aren’t nailed down. And someone is trying to run Marley off the road, out of business and out of town.

Figuring out which crimes are connected and which are coincidental keeps the reader, and Marley, guessing until the very end. And that’s a great thing for a mystery. I am very, very curious to see how Marley and this series get on in book 2, For Whom the Bread Rolls.

Great Escapes
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Review: The Bluebonnet Betrayal by Marty Wingate

Review: The Bluebonnet Betrayal by Marty WingateThe Bluebonnet Betraya (Potting Shed Mystery, #5) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Potting Shed #5
Pages: 294
Published by Alibi on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

Bestselling author Marty Wingate “plants clever clues with a dash of romantic spice,” raves Mary Daheim. Now Wingate’s inimitable gardening heroine, Pru Parke, is importing a precious bloom from Texas—and she won’t let a vicious murder stop her.   Pru’s life in England is coming full circle. A Texas transplant, she’s married to the love of her life, thriving in the plum gardening position she shares with her long-lost brother, and prepping a Chelsea Flower Show exhibit featuring the beloved bluebonnets of the Texas hill country. Technically, Twyla Woodford, the president of a gardening club in the Lone Star State, is in charge of the London event, but Pru seems to be the one getting her hands dirty. When they finally do meet, Pru senses a kindred spirit—until Twyla turns up dead.   Although Twyla’s body was half buried under a wall in their display, Pru remains determined to mount a spectacular show. Twyla would have insisted. So Pru recruits her husband, former Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse, to go undercover and do a bit of unofficial digging into Twyla’s final hours. If Pru has anything to say about it, this killer is going to learn the hard way not to mess with Texas.

My Review:

Another garden, another dead body. In real life, I think that people would be just a bit afraid to hire Pru Parke. She’s an excellent gardener with a top-notch reputation in her field, but wherever she plants her spade, a corpse pops up.

No Man's land at Chelsea Flower Show 2014 By muffinn -, CC BY 2.0,
No Man’s land at Chelsea Flower Show 2014 By muffinn

In this fifth outing in the Potting Shed series, Pru is planting her spade in the illustrious and internationally renowned Chelsea Flower Show. It’s the kind of opportunity that no gardener could possibly refuse, even if it’s only for a few days until the real crew arrives in London. A crew coming from Pru’s former home state of Texas.

That’s Pru’s connection to the group. Someone in the Austin Rocks Garden Society (ARGS!) remembers Pru from her days in Texas, and asks her to keep an eye on their Chelsea entry until their über-organized garden club president arrives on the scene. Only to promptly get murdered in the middle of the barely-started display.

Pru finds herself and puts herself in the thick of things yet again. With their fearless leader out of the picture, the somewhat shattered ARGS members turn to Pru to keep their disaster-prone entry on track. And Pru, as usual, can’t resist attempting to solve the murder. In spite of a whole lot of stonewalling by the police Inspector who takes the case. He’s one of Pru’s husband Christopher’s former sergeants, and the position he has is Christopher’s former job. He feels the need to prove himself at any cost, including ignoring the sage advice of both his former boss and that boss’s intrepid new spouse.

So Pru sticks her nose into the investigation in spite of being warned off at every turn. And Christopher goes undercover among the garden assistants, partly to help Pru investigate, but mostly to keep that investigation from putting Pru into deadly danger, as her investigations usually do.

But Pru rushes in where angels and sensible people would rightly fear to tread. As usual. And the killer very nearly catches her.

Escape Rating B+: This series is always a real treat for both cozy mystery fans and gardening mystery fans. For anyone who is a fan of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series, the frequent references to Pru’s gardening past in Texas should make those readers feel right at home.

And for those who are new to this series, unlike most cozies this is not a series where the cast of players continues from one book to the next. Except for Christopher, almost everyone in this book is new to Pru Parke and her world. Pru is always going from one garden to another, and has new assistants and new plants to work with in every book, as well as new murders to solve.

Every trick in the rook by marty wingatePart of the fun in this particular entry is the peek behind the scenes at the famous Chelsea Flower Show. I saw a bit of it once on a trip to London, and it is a sight not to be missed if one is there at the right time. It is the ultimate flower festival, and even for someone with a black thumb (like me) the displays are beyond beautiful.

One of the other things that makes this particular mystery interesting is the scientific aspect both to the display that is being created and to the crime. There are some thought-provoking points made about the use and purposes of scientific advancement in agriculture and ecology. The questions about whether the ends justify the particular means linger after the mystery is solved.

The Potting Shed is a terrific series and I sincerely hope there will be more to come. In the meantime, the author’s other cozy series, Birds of a Feather, will be continuing with Every Trick in the Rook in January.

Great Escapes

Review: For Dead Men Only by Paula Paul

Review: For Dead Men Only by Paula PaulFor Dead Men Only by Paula Paul
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: Dr. Alexandra Gladstone #5
Pages: 202
Published by Alibi on April 12th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

Hailed as “an intriguing mixture of mystery, romance, and history” by Lois Duncan, the Alexandra Gladstone series from award-winning author Paula Paul continues as an ominous horseman heralds the emergence of a secret society, hidden riches—and a string of chilling murders.   The Temple of the Ninth Daughter sits on a hill at the edge of Newton-upon-Sea, an aura of mystery lingering over its tall, gray silhouette. Villagers whisper about the treasure housed inside, protected by local Freemasons who are bound by clandestine oaths.   Dr. Alexandra Gladstone has no time for such nonsense. Between the patients in her surgery and the rounds she makes with her faithful dog, Zack, her days are busy enough. But Alexandra has no logical explanation when the Freemasons start dying, one by one, with no sign of foul play other than smears of blood on their Masonic aprons. And what to make of reports that a Knight Templar rides through the village before each passing?   After the constable disappears in the midst of the crisis, Alexandra reaches out to her dashing, diligent friend, Nicholas Forsythe, Lord Dunsford, for assistance. Is someone after the treasure, or might a more sinister game be afoot? In order to solve this puzzle, Alexandra must somehow catch a killer who shows no remorse—and leaves no witnesses.

My Review:

The title is a clue, but one that won’t make sense to most readers, including this one, until after the murderer is caught.

In the tiny village of Newton-upon-Sea, it is the late 1800s, and the local doctor is a woman. She can’t be licensed to practice because of her sex, but, it’s a tiny and remote village and Dr. Alexandra Gladstone is all they have. That she is both the daughter and the apprentice of their previous doctor is the only thing that makes her remotely acceptable to some of her patients, even after several years of successful practice.

Alexa is lucky that no other doctor, no male doctor, seems to want to start a practice in her little village.

But Alexa doesn’t just practice medicine. When murder comes to her village, she also engages in a spot of private detecting. She’s not exactly trained at it, but a logical and intelligent mind will get a person fairly far at figuring out who done it, especially in a place where one knows most if not all of the possible perpetrators and their victims.

However, in this case, it seems like Alexa is surprised up until the very end. Breaking one’s leg, and setting it oneself, in the middle of a case will do that to even the most stalwart person.

It all begins when first one man, then a second is found dead in the local Freemason Lodge. Both men were members, and both were discovered in suspiciously similar circumstances. Posed in the exact same place and position in their Lodge, Neither body seemed to have any wounds, but both were dressed in their ceremonial aprons and both aprons had blood on them.

And both of the victims were relatively young. Certainly not nearly old enough to both suffer from heart attacks. But the local police constable dismisses any suspicion of murder and refuses to investigate. Then he decamps suddenly for parts unknown. Rumors begin to swirl – either he fears becoming the next victim, or he is the perpetrator.

The case becomes even more convoluted when rumors of an old Templar treasure buried under the Masonic Lodge resurface. And when what appears to be the ghost of a Templar is spotted riding around the village.

Events are already at a fever pitch when a young woman confesses to Alexa that she believes her father is responsible for the crimes. Her reasoning seems hysterical but plausible, until her father turns up dead in the next village. Whether he was responsible for the first crimes, or for his own death, he cannot be responsible for what comes after.

Just as Alexa begins to zero in on the killer, her own household comes under attack. Either she is closing in on the truth, or someone is afraid that she is. When she nearly becomes a victim herself, Alexa finally figures out what is really going on in Newton-upon-Sea.

medium dead by paula paulEscape Rating B+: With its references to local myths and legends, ghosts of Templar horsemen, Masonic secret rituals and old-line family ties, For Dead Men Only has even more of a Gothic feel to it than the previous entry in the series, Medium Dead.

But just as with the earlier book, the real story here is firmly rooted in Newton-upon-Sea’s here and now. All the Gothic folderol is just a way for the murderer to cover up their series of crimes. And it works on both the protagonists and the reader quite well.

Just as in Medium Dead, the story rests on Dr. Alexandra Gladstone and her assorted household, with some able assistance from Lord Dunsford, who is both a practiced barrister and the local squire. He’s also sweet on Alexa, to the consternation and growling resentment of her faithful (and large) Newfoundland dog, Zack.

Zack correctly believes that Nicholas Forsythe, Lord Dunsford, is a rival for his mistress’s affections. He only declares a temporary truce when Nicholas is needed to rescue Alexa from her latest misadventure.

Although this is book five in the series, I believe that a reader could start the series here and find everything that they need to know about the personalities and positions of Alexa’s little band of irregulars contained within this story. Personally, I have only read books 4 and 5, and even though I’m terribly curious about previous events, it wasn’t necessary to have read the earlier books to enjoy the later ones.

The story, just like Alexa herself, is very much involved in the small doings of the community. Her practice provides her both with the opportunity to hear everything that is going on, and a whole lot of distractions when she reaches the point where she has to put all the clues together.

Alexa is all too often distracted or stymied by official prohibitions against a woman doctor, or even a woman professional. And she is equally condemned by unofficial but perhaps more dangerous social opprobrium against a woman who sees and does things that such “delicate creatures” are never supposed to engage in.

The author does an excellent job of making Alexa just enough of a woman of her time to experience the slings and arrows levied at her because of her sex, while at the same time making her modern enough for contemporary readers to identify with.

Readers who enjoy the slightly later adventures of Maisie Dobbs, Bess Crawford and/or Mary Russell will find a kindred spirit in Dr. Alexandra Gladstone.


Review: The Skeleton Garden by Marty Wingate

Review: The Skeleton Garden by Marty WingateThe Skeleton Garden (Potting Shed Mystery #4) by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: Random House Chatterbox, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Potting Shed #4
Pages: 233
Published by Alibi on March 15th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

USA Today bestselling author Marty Wingate’s Potting Shed series continues as expert gardener Pru Parke digs up a Nazi warplane—and a fresh murder.
Texas transplant Pru Parke has put down roots in England, but she never dreamed she’d live in a grand place such as Greenoak. When her former employers offer Pru and her new husband, former Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Pearse, the use of their nineteenth-century estate while they’re away for a year, she jumps at the chance. Sweetening the deal is the prospect of further bonding with her long-lost brother, Simon, who happens to be Greenoak’s head gardener. But the majestic manor has at least one skeleton in its closet—or, rather, its garden.
Working on renovations to the extensive grounds, siblings Pru and Simon squabble about everything from boxwood to bay hedges. But when the removal of a half-dead tree turns up the wreckage of a World War II–era German fighter plane and a pile of bones, the arguments stop. That is, until a rival from Simon’s past pays a surprise visit and creates even more upheaval. It’s suddenly clear someone is unhappy their secrets have been unearthed. Still, Pru’s not about to sit back and let Simon take the fall for the dirty deed without a fight.

My Review:

garden plot by marty wingateThe Potting Shed series has been fun from its beginning in The Garden Plot to its latest outing in The Skeleton Garden. And if you enjoy cozy mysteries with a little bit of a twist, or if you are a fan of the Rosemary & Thyme TV series, The Potting Shed is a terrific place to dig up a little gardening and a little murder.

In this book, series’ protagonists have turned a new leaf on their lives. Gardener Pru Parke, transplanted to England from Texas, has come to Greenoak to work with her long-lost brother Simon on the estate’s extensive gardens. Pru’s new husband, Christopher Pearse, has taken a step back from his very stressful job as a Detective Chief Inspector for the London Police and has become a hopefully much less stressed Special Constable near Greenoak.

Pru and Christopher are also house-sitting for friends, so they think they have a year to de-stress, get comfortable and put down roots in the community. Instead, Pru and her brother Simon are constantly at loggerheads, and, as seems to be unfortunately usual, Pru digs up a dead body.

In this case, it’s literal. When she and Simon investigate why one dying tree is not thriving, they discover that the poor thing’s shallow roots are right over, not just a body, but also a crashed World War II German plane. It only takes a little bit of forensics, and some historical archives, to discover that whoever the deceased was, he wasn’t the pilot. There was plenty of newspaper coverage of the pilot’s capture a mile or two from the plane way back when.

What’s difficult is that no one seems to be able to identify the body. But when Pru starts digging into missing persons cases from the war years, she stirs up a whole lot memories, including some that would have been better off remaining buried.

Someone wants that body, or at least its identity, to remain buried, and is willing to go to any lengths to keep it that way. And whoever it is seems to be way too active to be the original perpetrator. As Pru keeps digging, as she can never resist, she discovers that just because a secret is 70+ years old, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be worth killing for.

Escape Rating B+: As with all of The Potting Shed mysteries, this book really hit the spot. And also like the earlier books, I think it would be possible for a reader who was interested in this series to just start here. Pru and Christopher move around so much, and change their circumstances so often, that the things that do carry over from book to book are easily explained within the story.

One of those things is the strained history between Pru and her brother Simon. When Pru first comes to England in The Garden Plot, she has no idea that she has a brother in England. And Simon was told that his parents were dead. When they discover each other, it is a revelation for both of them. Now that Pru is in England for good, she has taken the opportunity presented to work with Simon, so that they can get to know each other.

The secondary plot in The Skeleton Garden is all about Simon and Pru navigating the skeletons in their own closet. They both have a whole wagonload of unresolved resentments at their parents. Simon is angry that Pru got to have them, Pru is angry that they lied about Simon, and Simon is angry that the aunt who raised him also lied to him. And as Simon’s wife puts it so well, since Simon and Pru did not get the chance to negotiate all their sibling rivalry and sibling in-fighting as children, they are going through all those stages now, and all at once.

But their issues with each other also link back to the mystery that they get caught in the middle of. It all goes back to the War. The reasons why Simon’s parents left him behind in England have direct parallels in the case they unravel.

The circumstances of the long-ago murder will be familiar to anyone who watched Foyle’s War. It’s all about the things that went wrong, sometimes criminally wrong, on the homefront while the war was going on. And that includes the problems of rationing and the black market. Also, there’s a parallel between Simon’s story and that of the young woman left behind and pregnant by the young soldier that old corpse used to be.

bluebonnet betrayal by marty wingateOne of the lovely things in this particular story was the way that the past impacts upon the present, both because the war is still much closer to people’s memories in England than is in America, but also because everyone involved, or their descendants, are all still in the area. The past, as they say, isn’t even past.

This isn’t a flashback story, at least not after the opening scene. Instead, it’s all about the impacts. The events of the war are still affecting the lives of the people in the village today. Not just Simon and Pru and their unresolved issues regarding their parents’ actions during and after the war, but every single person and their descendants is still living with, or living out, their actions at that crucial time.

And that’s what made this story so much fun to read.

I’ve just discovered that there will be another book in this series! I am looking forward to seeing just what Pru and Christopher dig up in The Bluebonnet Betrayal this summer.


Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + Giveaway

Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + GiveawayDeath of an Alchemist (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #2) by Mary Lawrence
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bianca Goddard #2
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on January 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the mid sixteenth century, Henry VIII sits on the throne, and Bianca Goddard tends to the sick and suffering in London's slums, where disease can take a life as quickly as murder. . .
For years, alchemist Ferris Stannum has devoted himself to developing the Elixir of Life, the reputed serum of immortality. Having tested his remedy successfully on an animal, Stannum intends to send his alchemy journal to a colleague in Cairo for confirmation. Instead he is strangled in his bed and his journal is stolen.
As the daughter of an alchemist herself, Bianca is well acquainted with the mystical healing arts. As her husband, John, falls ill with the sweating sickness, she dares to hope Stannum's journal could contain the secret to his recovery. But first she must solve the alchemist's murder. As she ventures into a world of treachery and deceit, Stannum's death proves to be only the first in a series of murders--and Bianca's quest becomes a matter of life and death, not only for her husband, but for herself. . .

My Review:

Actually, the title should have been “Deaths of Several Alchemists”, but that doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it, does it?

And the story really does center around one particular alchemist’s death, even though the ripples from that death take down one more alchemist, and nearly kill chemiste Bianca Goddard as well. Not to mention a very unlikeable landlady, an alchemist’s daughter (not Bianca, obviously), a ne’er do well husband and a poor unfortunate bird.

Unknotting all the threads of this case while keeping herself alive and out of jail are all in a day’s work for Bianca. What makes the case potentially life-altering is the object that causes all the trouble – a formula for the elixir of life. Too many people want it. And too many people need it. But is it a good idea for anyone to have it?

Bianca’s husband John lies in a coma in their “rent”. Bianca believes that if she can manage to interpret the arcane formula and successfully brew the potion, neither of which is at all certain, she can save John’s life from the deadly “sweating sickness”. A disease that died out long before modern medical science could figure out what it was in the first place.

But she’s not the only one in dire need. So as Bianca races through London trying to secure ingredients and equipment, someone is chasing her and the precious formula. Is her mysterious stalker in search of fame and fortune, or is their need just as dire as Bianca’s?

And why are so many people dying of mysterious, or sometimes not so mysterious, causes in the wake of Bianca’s pursuit? Bianca puzzles over the medical conundrums she discovers even as she desperately searches for everything she needs to brew the potion. All the while worried that by the time she is ready to brew the elixir, the person she needs it for, the man she loves, will be beyond healing.

Bianca races against time, and against the dictates of her own conscience. If the elixir truly gives life everlasting, is it right to go against the natural order of things? There is one figure haunting London who has lived with the answer for far too long, and hopes that the elixir, and Bianca, hold the keys to his salvation.

Escape Rating A-: If churches are sometimes referred to as “smells and bells”, then the view of the English Renaissance in the Bianca Goddard series is all the smells, with no bells at all. The series takes place during the English Reformation, and the church bells are silent. But the author makes it clear to the reader that everything stinks, and those who can afford it wear masks or carry pomanders to keep the stink away from their own personal noses.

Bianca and her husband live in the middle of it all, near the Thames in Southwark. John complains all too frequently that he wants to move someplace that stinks a little less, and Bianca responds with the sensible statement that not only is this what they can afford, but that the surrounding stinks mask the stinks created by her brewing of medicinals. Which also stink.

alchemists daughter by mary lawrenceThis is, as I said in my review of the first book in this series, The Alchemist’s Daughter, life among the groundlings, where life is often nasty, frequently brutish, and generally all too short. This was a time when medicine all too frequently consisted of bloodletting and leeches, and no one knew what caused diseases or what cured them. Bianca’s brewing of medicinal potions and poultices works by observation – she sees what alleviates symptoms, and repeats the process, but the why was beyond her or anyone in the 16th century.

Bianca also applies alchemistry methods to her brewing. Her father is an alchemist, and a spiteful basty-assed nastard into the bargain. But the processes for reduction and sublimation work for medical herbs as well as whatever the next idea is to turn lead into gold.

So when Bianca needs a master to teach her better brewing methods, she is steered to Ferris Stannum, an elderly alchemist with an excellent reputation. She arrives just as he announces that he has managed to create an elixir of life, and has proven its efficacy by administering it to his formerly sick cat, who is now capering around the place in healthy feline glee.

His announcement is followed by a trail of death, as everyone who was in the vicinity of Stannum dies in mysterious circumstances, except for Bianca and the person who chases her all over London. Because someone drops the old alchemist’s formulary into Bianca’s house, and her pursuer will do anything to get it back. Including murder.

This is an absorbing historical mystery from what we would think of as an uncommon point of view. Bianca is an average person with above-average intelligence, getting by the best she can. In this series, we see life as she sees it, not as the nobles loftily prance over it all. Getting inside Bianca’s head is fascinating and often frightening. There is so much that we know that she can’t, and we feel for her every step of the way.


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Review: Empty Nest by Marty Wingate + Giveaway

Review: Empty Nest by Marty Wingate + GiveawayEmpty Nest: A Birds of a Feather Mystery by Marty Wingate by Marty Wingate
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Birds of a Feather #2
Pages: 224
Published by Alibi on December 1st 2015
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Manager of a tourist center in a quaint British village, Julia Lanchester finds herself with more ideas than time. Her boss is the Earl Fotheringill himself, but apart from him, she doesn’t mix well with the aristocracy. Unfortunately, toxic mold forces her from her cottage and into one of the earl’s countless spare rooms at the Hall. She tries to get a handle on her overload of work, while she finds herself arguing with dinner guests, chaffing at the sudden interest the earl’s son has in running the estate, and missing her new beau, Michael Sedgwick.

Her life goes from bad to sinister when Julia discovers poisoned sparrowhawks on the expansive estate grounds. And soon after, she finds one of the Hall’s visitors murdered—felled by the same poison. While simultaneously both spooked and angry, she still can’t keep herself from snooping, and dragging Michael along into her investigation. But will she find the culprit before her own wings are clipped?

My Review:

If you like cozy mysteries in small English towns, you can’t go wrong with either of Marty Wingate’s series. Her Potting Shed series (The Garden Plot, The Red Book of Primrose House and Between a Rock and a Hard Place) all feature an American gardener who has come to England to look for her roots and get a fresh start on her life in new surroundings.

rhyme of the magpie by marty wingateEmpty Nest and the first book in her Birds of a Feather series (The Rhyme of the Magpie, reviewed here) feature Julia Lanchester, the daughter of a famous BBC bird expert and naturalist. In The Rhyme of the Magpie, Julia is starting a new life opening a tourist information center in lovely Smeaton-under-Lyme. She’s taking up a new career to get out from under her father’s formidable shadow.

As the second book in a series, Empty Nest takes us further along Julia’s journey with established characters, while providing a new mystery for Julia (and the reader) to solve.

I’m not sure Empty Nest was quite the right title for this story. Using the birding theme, “cuckoo in the nest” might have been a better bet. Most of the various nests in this story never seem to be empty, but the person filling them is never quite who anyone thought they were.

Throughout the story, Julia is in an awkward social situation that contributes to many of the misunderstandings that are part of the story. In Rhyme of the Magpie, Julia began a romantic relationship with her father’s new assistant (and her replacement in that role) Michael Sedgwick. But in Empty Nest, Julia’s own nest is empty. Her private little cottage is suffering from a toxic mold infestation, and she has found herself living at Fotheringill Castle while the local lord, who is also her boss and her landlord, gets her cottage fixed. The problem here is that Lord Linus is none-too-subtle about his wish for Julia to become the next Lady Fotheringill, and Julia is decidedly not interested. But while Lord Linus isn’t subtle, his lack of subtlety does not feel actionable. He never does anything wrong, but he arranges events so that everyone around knows that he sees Julia as his next wife, no matter how much she protests. While this situation is increasingly awkward, it’s easy to see how Julia gets stuck. She doesn’t want to call Linus out, and yet she feels constantly uncomfortable. All too many women have been in situations that feel like this.

At the same time, Linus’ pointed preference for Julia is making a lot of other people uncomfortable and they are definitely acting on that discomfort.

The new estate agent keeps asking pointed questions about every step of Julia’s plans to bring more tourists to the village. As does Linus’ son, who returns like the prodigal, unannounced and unexpectedly. In Cecil Fotheringill’s wake come his friend Freddy Peacock and his predatory mother Isabel, Linus’ first (and very definitely divorced) wife.

Julia is on the spot, as Cecil, the new estate agent Geoffrey Addleton and Lady Isabel all do their level best, for varying reasons, to poke their noses into every single idea and decision that Julia even attempts to make. Their constant oversight makes her question her own decision-making, and leads Lord Linus to question her as well.

When Freddy Peacock dies in the house under very mysterious circumstances, the police are added into the mix – questioning everyone about their movements and their motives. And when it looks like the police are narrowing in on the wrong suspect, it’s suddenly up to Julia to figure out who really done it, before they do it to anyone else – or to her.

Escape Rating B: I found Julia’s situation at Fotheringill Castle extremely uncomfortable to read. She knows she’s gotten herself into a pickle, and can’t find a way out. Not because a bald statement won’t get her out of the castle, but because she fears that telling Linus she won’t be his wife under any circumstances in the universe feels like a sure-fire way to get fired. It may not be – he seems like a better human being than that, but it’s an all too real possibility from where Julia sits. If she just grins and bears it, her cottage will eventually be ready and they can all get out of the situation without verbalizing things that no one wants to say out loud. At the same time, once Julia discovers that it looks like no work is being done, she does finally start making noise.

The way that Julia nearly sabotages her relationship with Michael also felt all too possible. She’s not sure she’s any good at relationships, so she tries to make this one break itself before it breaks her heart. It’s good that she has friends who call her on her b.s. It’s unfortunate that the cause of her near-breakup is an old friend who is a little too full of his own b.s. – even if his duplicity is what finally breaks the case open.

There’s a lot of sad and more than a bit of crazy in the way this case is solved, and the reasons that it exists in the first place. There were a lot of cuckoos in a lot of nests, and it takes Julia quite a bit of time and energy to figure out what is behind the crime spree. The red herrings keep the reader well-diverted until the final showdown.

And although the magpies were wrong in Rhyme about the gender of Julia’s new niece, her sister’s ingenious method for finding a name for the baby is both heartwarming and funny.


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In conjunction with this tour, Random House Alibi is giving away (1)eBook copies of MRS. KAPLAN AND THE MATZOH BALL OF DEATH and THE RHYME OF THE MAGPIE

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