Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Ravenmaster is Pure Pleasure

My Life With the Ravens at the Tower of London
Christopher Skaife
Harper Collins
October 2, 2018

The first thing I have to say about The Ravenmaster is that it has been a very long time since I have enjoyed reading a book so much. Spending a few hours with The Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife, and the ravens of the Tower; Munin, Merlina, Erin, Rocky, Jubilee II, Gripp II, and Harris, is pure pleasure. I learned so much that I never knew about ravens, their lore and behavior. Both the Ravens and the humans living their lives in the Tower are fascinating.

Christopher Skaife served his country for 24 years in the British Army all over the world before moving on to a new career as a Yeoman Warder at the Tower. He knew nothing about ravens, but the former Ravenmaster had a notion that the Ravens might just like Skaife. He began apprenticing for the job and eventually moved into it, finding not only a new career but his passion. Skaife has introduced many new innovations into the Raven's lives, including an improved night enclosure and a change in the trimming of their wings, resulting in greater freedom. This last has caused no end of trouble for him when trying to get them into the enclosure at night, but he considers it well worth it. The position of Ravenmaster is in addition to his regular duties, leading 3-4 tours a day, and his day begins at 5:30 in the morning and ends when all the Ravens are settled for the night. He has read widely and assembled an encyclopedic knowledge of ravens, the City of London, and the Tower. He clearly loves the Ravens and cares for them faithfully. As he says of himself, he is a "glass full to the brim" sort of person. He also has a gift for storytelling, a useful attribute for a Yeoman Warder and writer.

Reading The Ravenmaster brought back memories of my own visit to The Tower years ago. At the time, I was focused more on the Crown Jewels, like most tourists, I suspect. If I have an opportunity to return, I will pay more attention to the avian residents. I do recall a pleasant conversation with our guide who, like me, thinks that King Richard III got a raw deal from the historians. He very kindly pointed me toward some reading on the subject that I was unaware of.

RATING- 5 Stars

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Shakespeare and Murder in a Hampshire Garden

A Potting Shed Mystery # 7
Marty Wingate
Random House Alibi
November 6, 2018

It's MIdsummer in Hampshire, and the villagers are agog over the outdoor staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the garden of a local country house. The garden is never open to the public, as the owners are absentee and the resident gardener is reclusive. American transplant Pru Parke is excited by the prospect of finally seeing the garden and the villagers by the casting of a telly star of years gone by. The gardener is upset, however, by the actors trampling around his treasured garden and abruptly quits. When Pru is offered the opportunity to be the "stage designer' by advising on and providing plants for the performance she jumps at the chance. Pru is even a little stage-struck herself.

The company, Shakespeare au Natural, is led by Max Sterling, a legendary director who has been out of the business for some years due to the terminal illness of his beloved wife. He hopes the production will re-start his flagging career. Max is a person of great charm and charisma, and he is supported by a group of old friends who are also hoping Max can succeed. Most of them have worked together for years and have a tangled web of personal relationships both as friends and former lovers. There are some new additions of younger actors, but most seem to be dedicated to making a performance to remember. The one exception is the actor playing Lysander, who is both a womanizer and lacks a work ethic.  When death strikes the company, inveterate sleuth Pru, abetted by her police inspector husband, Christopher Pearse, is in a prime position to untangle the web of relationships.

It's hard to believe that this is the seventh in the Potting Shed Mysteries, a series that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Pru and Christopher are likable characters who gather friends and allies wherever they go. The mixture of gardening lore, mystery, and a little romance, this time with theatrical settings, make another great read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Alibi for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 5 Stars

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Move Over Sherlock

A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop # 4
Vicki Delany
Crooked Lane Books
November 13, 2018 (kindle edition)

Its the height of summer in West London on Cape Cod and transplanted Englishwoman Gema Doyle is very busy with customers at her bookshop, which specializes in Sherlockiana and other mystery fiction and non-fiction. Gemma staggers home late one night, only wishing to fall in bed but her dog, Violet, needs a walk and has other ideas. While on their stroll, Gemma and Violet pass a local historical home, Scarlet House, which operates as a small museum. They smell smoke and see flames and quickly report the fire. After a brief investigation, the fire marshal determines that it was probably started by a docent who carelessly locked up and left a candle burning. There is a lot of damage to the house, but Gemma doesn't see anything suspicious about it. That changes when Gemma, and her partner, Jayne, are asked to host a tea and silent auction to benefit the museum for needed repairs and replacement of lost items.

During the organizational meeting the tensions within the museum staff and volunteers surface. There has been a recent forced change in the leadership of the Scarlet House organization, with accompanying ill-feeling. The new head, Kathy Lamb, is competent, if prickly. Gemma puts that down to a recent messy divorce that has left Kathy much reduced in her circumstances. When she is murdered at the auction, the ex-husband is the prime suspect for a while, but there are plenty of suspects to go around, including the ex's wealthy new wife. A second murder leads Gemma to do what she does best, ask questions and make deductions, causing friction with her policeman boyfriend, Ryan Ashburton. 

I highly recommend this series with its Cape Cod setting, well-rounded characters, and twisty puzzles. I did not catch on to the real perpetrator until the very end of A Scandal in Scarlet. Gemma herself is a bit of an acquired taste with her confrontational style and reckless determination to get to the bottom of things. One of the things I appreciate is the reading suggestions Gemma gives her customers. Even though I am a Sherlock fan, I always discover new books to check into.

Thanks to Crooked Lane and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4 Stars

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Murder on the Picturesque Oregon Coast

A Britton Bay Mystery # 1
Jody Holford
Lyrical Underground
October 30, 2018

When big-city newspaper editor Molly Owens walks into her apartment and finds her boyfriend in a compromising position with his ex, she decides it's time for a change. Molly is an army brat who has never put down roots anywhere. Britton Bay, a seaside town in Oregon is looking for a new editor for its local paper. Molly thinks this will be just the challenge and change she needs. The paper, though of long standing in the community, has been neglected by its owner and needs to be dragged into the 21st century. All of the small staff is welcoming, with the glaring exception of Vernon Wise, who makes it clear immediately that he is not interested in any of Molly's ideas or direction. The staff photographer, Clay, who turns out to be Vernon's son, is welcoming, but creepy. There are all sorts of undercurrents in the newsroom, especially between Alan Benedict, the owner, and his assistant, Elizabeth Grover.

Molly jumps right in with suggestions, backed fully by Alan, for a new direction for the paper. Her first order is to Vernon for an interview with the matriarch of Britton Bays' founding family, the Phillips. Vernon agrees, under protest and with ill grace. Molly thinks that Britton Bay is an excellent choice and quickly rents a charming carriage house, finds new friends, takes in an adorable stray puppy, and meets Sam Alderich, a dishy auto mechanic. The day after the interview with the Phillips matriarch, Vernon calls in sick and on the next day is a no-show. Molly finds him bludgeoned to death in his home, and in her mind, the interview and murder must be connected. She feels somewhat responsible, even as she uncovers blackmail and possible extramarital affairs in the mix at the newspaper.

I enjoyed the setting and found the mystery to be challenging. Molly herself is likable, even if overly responsible for events beyond her control and unmindful of her own safety. The instant romance with Sam was a little too easy, considering her previous experience with men. Deadly News is a fun, complete escape read and I look forward to another visit to Britton Bay.

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

RATING- 3 Stars

A Series that Continues to Improve

A Pancake House Mystery # 4
Sarah Fox
Lyrical Underground
October 30, 2018

A new pancake restaurant is opening in Wildwood Cove and the owner of the Flip Side, Marley McKinney, is a little uneasy about the competition. The self-proclaimed "Waffle King" is making a lot of noise and Marley wonders if there is enough business to go around. Wally Fowler, the owner of the new restaurant, grew up in Wildwood Cove and made no friends there. Marley thinks that the much-loved Flip Side will survive just fine. But when Wally is murdered inside his restaurant, suspicion quickly grows around Marley's best friend, Lisa, and her gruff chef, Ivan. A second murder makes the situation worse.

The Pancake House Mysteries have continued to improve with each book in the series. Yeast of Eden has all the ingredients for a successful series: a colorful setting, memorable, mostly likable characters, and a twisty puzzle. I particularly enjoyed the secondary story of two girls who disappeared decades before. Marley's attempts to solve both mysteries get her into real danger this time. 

Thanks to Lyrical Underground and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4 Stars