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


Thursday, May 13, 2021

A Feisty Heroine in a New WWII Mystery Series


Electra McDonnell # 1
Ashley Weaver
Minotaur Books
May 25, 2021

A Peculiar Combination introduces a very unconventional heroine in Electra McDonnell. She is far from being aristocratic, coming from a working-class London background at the beginning of World War II. Orphaned in infancy by a double tragedy, Electra was taken in by her uncle Mick, a locksmith, and raised by him in a loving, close-knit family. Her cousins, Colm and Toby, are like brothers. Both are off fighting the war, so Electra is the only one at home and locksmithing is slow. Uncle Mick has hidden talents; he is a gifted safecracker, and he has passed on his skills to Electra. She is conflicted about their activities but enjoys the thrill and challenge. When Uncle Mick hears rumors of a Mayfair home that will be empty, he and she set out in blacked-out London to do the job. Electra has a bad feeling about it, and she is right. They are arrested, red-handed, at the mark's home by several dark-suited men driving a government vehicle. They are whisked off to meet Major Ramsey, who has a proposition for the two. There is a highly-placed individual who the Major thinks is a double agent. The night's misadventure will be forgotten if they can retrieve papers from the suspect's safe. The papers, if passed on, would do great harm to the war effort. It's a proposition the two can't refuse.

Electra and the entire McConnell family are captivating characters, despite their dodgy activities. Uncle Mick has provided a good education for Electra, and she has the ability to fit in almost effortlessly into any strata of society. She is confident in her abilities, and the upright (and undeniably attractive) Major Ramsey does not know what to make of her. The two form an unusual partnership in a case that has multiple twists and turns. Electra is also a patriot who has no intention of giving up, even when she fears losing her life in the effort.

I highly recommend A Peculiar Combination. It is an auspicious first book in a new series from Ashley Weaver. Thanks to NetGalley and Minotaur for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own,

4.5 rounded up to 5 Stars

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Norfolk Marshes Yield Up Secrets


Ruth Galloway #14
Quercus UK
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt USA
Elly Griffiths
June 29, 2021

I was late to discover Dr. Ruth Galloway from the talented pen of Elly Griffiths. After binging the series, I was impatiently waiting for The Night Hawks. Thanks to Quercus for an advance digital copy. Dr. Ruth Galloway, an archaeology professor, has returned to her beloved Norfolk fens after a year-long stint teaching at Cambridge. She is back at North Norfolk University, this time as department head. Of course, her 11-year-old daughter, Kate, seems happy to be back and seeing her father regularly. Her father is DI Nelson, who Ruth met when he needed her help in an investigation. Their one-night encounter produced Kate, and eventually, the girl was accepted by Nelson's wife and two grown daughters.

Nelson and Ruth have collaborated on numerous cases over the years. She is an expert on dating bones, and those turn up regularly in the marshy landscape of Norfolk. She is called out to examine what might be an Iron Age hoard turned up by The Night Hawks. The Night Hawks are metal detectorists who have to be licensed in England. Nelson is much more interested in a nearby body, a young man Nelson thinks might be an asylum seeker. Then he turns out to be a local, recently paroled from prison. A second call comes shortly after to the scene of a murder-suicide at the isolated Black Dog Farm. Then, the members of the Night Hawks start dying one after another. Can the two cases be connected somehow, and or is the spectral black dog of British folklore real?

The Night Hawks is a pivotal book in the Ruth Galloway series. It ends with somewhat of a cliff-hanger, as least as far as the Galloway-Nelson relationship is concerned. Things aren't going so well in the Nelson marriage, and Nelson is being pressured to retire. I know how I want it to go, but other people may feel differently. I don't think Nelson and Ruth could exist for 24 hours in the same household. Of course, many of the characters we love make appearances, especially Cathbad, a self-declared druid and all-around wise soul. I highly recommend The Night Hawks, as I do the rest of the series.

Thanks again to Quercus and NetGalley. The opinions are my own.

RATING-5 Stars