Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Below Stairs Mystery
Jennifer Ashley
Berkley Books
July 6, 2021

The fifth of the Kat Holloway Mysteries takes the intrepid cook into the highest levels of society and government affairs. A child of the London streets, born within the sound of Bow Bells, Kat has raised herself at a very young age to the highest levels, working in aristocratic Victorian households. Her success is thanks to her hard work and skill at cooking and a mother who worked day and night cleaning. Kat was apprenticed and learned how to read. Life has not always been rosy, however. At a young age, Kat married a sailor and had a daughter. When he died at sea, Kat found out he already married, making the child illegitimate. That could have been the end of everything, but Kat asked friends to raise her.  Kat demands not one but two half-days a week so that she can be with the youngster. Her skill is such that she gets the days. So far, the daughter is a secret to her employers.

A chance encounter with the charming Daniel McAdam changes Kat's life. She met him as a deliveryman who kept coming around to see her. It soon is apparent that Daniel is not just a delivery man but a chameleon who can move from the highest to the lowest levels of society with ease. He works for a shadowy figure in the British Government, one who has something to hold over Daniel's head. Reluctantly, he has needed to involve her in his doings from time to time, and she has proved an asset. In Death at the Crystal Palace, Kat is approached by Lady Covington on an excursion to the Palace. Lady Covington thinks someone is trying to poison her. Kat has gained somewhat of a reputation for truth-finding. Meanwhile, Daniel is investigating a British nobleman who may be funding Irish terrorists. When the two investigations intersect, Kat is thrown into mortal danger.

The Kat Holloway Mysteries are extraordinarily well-written and enjoyable visits to Victorian England, full of detail of lives both "Upstairs" and "Down." The characters are vivid with all the virtues and defects of human beings in any age. I highly recommend the series and am looking forward to the next one. I fear that Kat will finally come to the notice of Daniel's employer, whom even he fears.

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Books for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.
4.5 Stars


Monday, June 21, 2021

Start The Day with a Raccoon on the Loose...


Sunshine Vicram #2
Darynda Jones
MacMillan Audio 
Narr: Lorelei King
July 27, 2021

It's a normal day in the mountainous tourist town of Del Sol, NM. Sadly, four months into the tenure of Sheriff Sunshine Vicram, she knows that "normal" means anything can happen and usually does. How on earth her parents managed to put her name in for the election without her knowledge and win is beyond her understanding. But it brought her and her teenage daughter, Aurora, back to her hometown. For good, at least until the next election, unless the Mayor decides to fire her. Sunshine's day starts with a raccoon on the loose in town, wreaking havoc. No sooner than he is captured, the day escalates into a bar fight with one seriously injured fighter and two others on the lam with another soon-to-be-dead fighter, based on the volume of blood left behind. Successful moonshine distiller and ex-bad-boy Levi Ravinder was also in the fight and seriously injured but refused to go to the hospital. Sunshine knows he isn't guilty of anything, but as usual, he isn't talking. Add to that the ongoing mystery of Sunshine's abduction fifteen years earlier, Aurora's pursuit of a serial killer responsible for several missing persons over the years, and the fact that someone in the Ravinder family is trying to kill Levi makes for an action-packed story. Not to mention the raccoon who managed to escape his cage.

I enjoyed Darynda Jones' first series, One Foot in the Grave, but I like this one even better. All the supporting characters are quirky and entirely believable: Sunshine's parents, her hunky deputy, and life-long best friend, and the other staffers at the station. Even the old lady who confesses to every crime in town is not beyond belief. Best of all is the loving relationship between mother and daughter. There are plenty of laughs in A Good Day for Chardonnay and a puzzling mystery to boot.

Thanks to NetGalley and MacMillan Audio for an advance digital copy. Lorelei King is one of my favorite narrators, so it was great to hear her telling the story. I am looking forward to the next one.

RATING-4.5  rounded up to 5 Stars.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Turmoil in 1940s Hollywood


Maggie Hope # 10
Susan Elia MacNeal
Bantam Books
July 6, 2021

The tenth book in the Maggie Hope series takes Maggie back to the United States, her native land. Not the Massachusetts of her youth, but sunny Hollywood, CA. She has come at the behest of Flight Commander John Sterling, her former fiancé. John can no longer fly, but the British Government has sent him to work at the Disney Studios in the propaganda film wing. While in Hollywood, he met a young woman named Gloria Hutton, fell in love, and broke the engagement. The young woman drowned in a swimming pool at the famous Garden of Allah Hotel. The death was declared an accident, but John is confident that it was murder. Who better to investigate than Maggie? Maggie is understandably somewhat reluctant, but when her ballerina friend, Sarah Sanderson, gets a job making a film with the famous George Balanchine, she decides to go.

Maggie arrives in Hollywood and sees an America that she never expected. Far from the united front she expected, Los Angeles is a hotbed of racism and segregation like in the Jim Crow South: if not in law but fact. Organizations like the German-American Bund and the KKK have gone underground after Pearl Harbor, but they are still active and plotting. The American Nazi Party is alive and well. Maggie's first day in 1943 Hollywood sees the first of the Zoot-Suit Riots; when American service members face off with Hispanic Angelinos. As Maggie and John investigate Gloria's death, it appears that she might be involved in all the seething politics. The notoriously corrupt LAPD has no interest in what they find, except for one honest cop. 

The Hollywood Spy is intensely atmospheric, hot and sultry, and full of secrets. I learned so many things that I had not known or of which I was only dimly aware. MacNeal does meticulous research, as witnessed by her sources at the end of the book. For example, she used the word "surreal" to describe the similarities between the societal problems of 1943 and what we are facing today. I can't agree more with that assessment. I highly recommend The Hollywood Spy, both as crime fiction and a fast-paced mystery.

Thanks to NetGalley.com and Bantam Books for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 5 Stars

Saturday, May 29, 2021

A Race to Find a Murderer in Ancient Rome

Leonidas the Gladiator # 2
Ashley Gardner
JA/AG Publishing
May 10, 2021

Freedman Leonidas is finding his way in what is a new world for him. As a youngster, he came to the games, convicted but innocent, in the death of his former master in the building trades. Since then, he became the fiercest and most skilled gladiator in Nero's Rome. When he earned his freedom, an anonymous benefactor came forward and gifted him a slave; Cassia is a skilled scribe. Leonidas and Cassia have managed to eke out a reasonable life with his work as a bodyguard and Cassia's household management. The two have gained a reputation for crime-solving as well. His former trainer, Aemil, summons Leonidas to his Ludus, and Aemil is not one to be refused. Three of his gladiators are AWOL, and Aemil wants them found. It turns out that Nero wants them found as well, and Nero cannot be refused; Leonidas finds the gruesomely murdered bodies of two, and the race is on to find the last. The search takes them into the highest and lowest places in Rome.

I happened upon this series by chance, and since I enjoy Ashley Gardner/Jennifer Ashley's other historical mysteries, I gave it a spin. It quickly became another favorite, even though Ancient Rome is not a period I have ever been particularly interested in. What does attract me are the vivid characters and descriptions. Leonidas is an open book, but Cassia is more than a little mysterious. These two are forming a relationship deeper than Master and slave, and it's fun to watch. As Cassia says, "You are a good man, Leonidas." He is a thoroughly good and decent man, despite his history.

I'm looking forward to the next in this series, and I highly recommend it.

5 Stars

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Classic Locked-Room Mystery


Yorkshire Murder Mystery # 6
J.R. Ellis
Thomas & Mercer
May 27, 2021

The Whitby Murders takes DCI Jim Oldroyd off his beaten track to Whitby in the far north of Yorkshire. Whitby plays a prominent part in Bram Stoker's Dracula; the Count leaves the ship bearing him to England in the form of a huge black dog. The ruins of Whitby Abbey overlooking the town make a perfect setting for "Goth Weekend" when tourists invade for spooky good fun. DCI Oldroyd's young adult daughter, Louise, and a group of her friends head off to one of Whitby's "escape rooms." There, they role-play and try to escape from the room with the clues supplied. Things go drastically wrong when one of a couple, Dominic, stabs his partner, Andrea, to death and escapes. The couple is known to have a volatile relationship, and CCTV says that is what happened. But Louise has a gut feeling that something is wrong. She calls in Jim, hoping that he can look into the case.

There is nothing I like more than a classic locked-room mystery, but I am afraid The Whitby Murders missed the mark for me. The plot seemed unnecessarily complicated; I had the "who" but not the "why" figured out quickly. I also thought that the Whitby detective was entirely too cooperative with Jim messing about with her case, even though they were former colleagues. That being said, I did enjoy the characters, as usual, especially Andy Carter and Stephanie Johnson, Jim's investigative team. 

Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for an advance copy. I have read and enjoyed the previous books in the series much more than this one, so this was a bit disappointing. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 3 Stars

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Holmes and Russell in Dracula Country


Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #17
Laurie R. King
Bantam Books
June 8, 2021

After Russell and Holmes' adventures with Mrs. Hudson in Monaco (Rivera Gold), Sherlock receives a summons from Marie of Roumania. Marie is Queen of Romania and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and a personage in her own right. She is taking up residence in Castle Bran, given to her by her grateful people. She has received messages that threaten Princess Ileana's life if Ileana also comes to the castle. She wants Holmes to find out just what is going on. Upon arrival, the two find all sorts of things going on; summonses from the graveyard, girls disappearing, a possible ghost haunting. But none of that seems connected to any threat to Ileana. The two take to skulking about the grounds at night to try to find the perpetrator. Of course, they know it is nothing supernatural, even more so when Mary is smashed over the head and kidnapped. When she comes to and escapes, they discover puncture marks on her neck. It's clear someone is trying to stir up bad feelings against the Queen and her upcoming visit. But how far are they willing to go?

Each book in the Russell and Holmes series is a treat for a history geek like me. Who knew that the Queen attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and single-handedly gained international recognition of Romania reclaiming Transylvania? Not me. She was a force to be reckoned with and beloved by her people. Many historical figures make appearances in Castle Shade, and all are portrayed fictionally but accurately within the context. The novels are extremely atmospheric, making me feel I had visited the far-flung places and times in each adventure with Russell and Holmes. 

Many Sherlock "purists" object to this long-running series, but I am not one of them; personally, I think Sherlock Holmes is immortal, and kudos to Laurie King for keeping the legend alive with such entertaining novels, and Mary Russell keeping him on his toes. Thanks to Netgalley and Bantam Books for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

4.5 stars rounded up to 5

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Murder and Blackmail in a Quiet English Village

Stephanie Graves
Kensington Books
December 29, 2020

World War II has fully engulfed the continent, but things are much the same in the pretty village of Pipley in Hertfordshire. Despite food shortages, rationing, and other inconveniences, the Women's Institute is determined to keep morale up and do its bit for the war effort. Twenty-two-year-old Olive Bright has bigger hopes, however. She had to interrupt her veterinary studies because of her stepmother's illness and is home helping out in her father's veterinary practice and caring for the family's prize-winning racing pigeons. The Brights hope that the National Pigeon Service will accept the birds to carry coded messages for the British Army. Failing that, she would like to join FANY and serve, as her mother did in WWI, as a nurse or ambulance driver. Her somewhat irascible and demanding father seems to have antagonized the NPS, and hopes are fading. When two young men show up asking to see the pigeons, her hopes are raised until she realizes that neither knows anything about pigeons. Instead, they offer her a chance to work with "Baker Street," a covert operation running missions with the French Resistance. She just has to prove that her pigeons are up to the task. The usual flow of village life is interrupted by murder. Local busybody Miss Husselbee, otherwise known as the "Sargeant Major," had plenty of people who found her absolute certitude on what is proper insufferable, but who among them wanted her dead? The possibility of blackmail and treason seems to be at the center of the case. Olive tries to put some of the methods of her favorite sleuth, Hercule Poirot, to the test to solve the murder.

While I enjoyed the book overall, especially Olive's love and care for her pigeons, I also thought that the plot was going in too many directions. The characters are well-drawn, and the portrayal of village life in wartime excellent. However, it bogged down somewhat. The inclusion of a love-hate relationship with her Baker Street "handler" Jameson Aldridge was one too many elements for me. He could give even her father pointers in obnoxious behavior but does redeem himself in the end,

Thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for a digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 3 Stars