It’s a Mystery: Aspire to Die, by M S Morris

My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aspire to Die is the first book in the Bridget Hart mystery series, co-authored by husband and wife writing team Margarita and Steve Morris. As of 2021, the series contains seven titles, and Aspire to Die makes for a worthy intro. I worried at first that it might be a cutesy cozy, but it captured my interest very quickly. as DI Hart is assigned to her first major murder case. The body of a beautiful, popular student has been found in her college room at Christ Church College, Oxford, brutally murdered. The newly promoted DI Hart, an alumna of Christ Church, is attending the opening dinner of her class reunion, when she receives the call assigning her to lead her first major case.

What follows is an intricate puzzle of a mystery, made complicated by the college setting itself and the hundreds of alumni celebrating their reunion. Many intriguing suspects are investigated by Bridget’s equally intriguing team. Bridget’s traumatic backstory is gradually revealed, and she turns out to be a talented and formidable DI indeed.

Character development couldn’t have been better, with each major player, police or civilian, having interesting personalities and viewpoints. A plus for me is that many of the key characters are strong, intelligent, and self assured women, whether younger or older. Additionally, the details incorporated about historic Oxford and its prestigious colleges are fascinating. Finally, I appreciate that the presentation of the murder is graphic without being too blood-and-gutsy.

I’m happy to recommend Aspire to Die; now about to start the second book in this series, Killing by Numbers. Will let you know if it is equally compelling.

Mystery & Suspense: Something in the Water, by Catherine Steadman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve never read a novel that opened with the first person account of a woman digging a grave for her husband in the remote English woods, a dramatic, emotionally charged scene that hooked me from the first sentence. Something in the Water then flashes back to the early days of the relationship between Erin and Mark, which, in Erin’s view, is mostly idyllic. Both of them are riding high in their careers and planning a dream honeymoon in Bora Bora. Then Mark loses his job. They pare down their over the top wedding plans to save money, but, since the trip is prepaid, travel to Bora Bora anyway, where newlywed life is also idyllic. Until, that is, Mark finds that something in the water.

This book is filled with dynamic, colorful characters and unreliable narrators, and contains more than enough action to make a great movie or tv series. Some things are exactly as they seem, others, not so much. It is entirely up to Erin to interpret what she sees, and she often reacts impulsively and downright foolishly, especially for a woman who knows that she is pregnant . The surprises keep popping up, right to the final page, and, to call the book a page-turner is an understatement. Great entertainment by a capable, imaginative writer.

It’s a Mystery: Memory Man, by David Baldacci

Memory Man (Amos Decker, #1)

Memory Man by David Baldacci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Giving this book 4 stars, even though I was not able to finish it. The concept of a man who cannot forget absolutely anything is very intriguing, but this poor main character was afflicted with this condition after discovering the bodies of his murdered family. The writing was competent, but this character’s life was so terribly miserable and depressing that I found myself unable to read to the end. Empaths beware. Otherwise, if you don’t mind this sort of thing, this could be a great story.



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It’s a Mystery: Confessions on the 7:45, by Lisa Unger

Confessions on the 7:45Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

There has been a rash of crime novels lately that involve train rides, and Confessions on the 7:45 is one of the better ones. This is a complex, two sided tale that takes place over a period of ten years. Selena is a happily married career woman who, little by little, discovers that her husband is quite different from the man she thought he was. Hers is the story with which the book opens. Pearl is an orphaned teenager adopted after her mother’s murder by one of her mother’s kind employees. After the introduction of Pearl, the twin threads alternate in a long series of episodes that build high drama and suspense. Their stories, merging only gradually, provide the author with the opportunity to explore the myriad delusions that people adopt as reality when the truth is too painful to face. How well do we ever know the people we love and trust? How do we know when we’re being manipulated? Why and how do we ignore our own instincts? What does it take to force us to recognize and let go of our illusions? How do we recover?

This thriller is the product of a skilled writer. The plot is multi-layered, the characters well drawn and relatable. How would we react, or perhaps more importantly, act, when placed in the situations facing Selena and Pearl? There is little behavior here that does not commonly play out, to some extent, in our own lives.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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Modern Lit: The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Cottle is a civilian investigator specializing in finding children who are missing and presumed by police to have been abducted. Like many PIs in this genre, she is dedicated to her work to the point of obsession, driven by her own personal demons. Naomi’s unique set of experience, insight, and motivation stems from her own childhood, when she made an escape from the clutches of a pedophile. Her current case centers on Madison, a little girl who disappeared 3 years ago into the wilds of Oregon when her family ventured out to find the perfect Christmas tree.
While most mysteries focus on procedural details, The Child Finder is quite different. Readers do follow Naomi’s search, but her reactions and thought processes are the focus. Interestingly, those of Madison and her abductor are also revealed in chapters describing how she tries to adapt to her strange, frightening new life. Her abductor is a trapper, a loner who has learned how to live under the radar, his point of view is also presented.
Though very dark, this is a novel about the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to survive terrible, incomprehensible circumstances. The writing is intelligent, controlled, and frequently luminous. As Naomi begins to recall more of her own horrific past, as the abductor recalls his own fearful childhood, and as Madison finds creative ways to sustain herself through her own fear, it becomes possible for the reader to develop a glimmer of understanding about how and why crimes such as this occur.
Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.

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It’s a Mystery: Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter

Pieces of Her
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andrea Cooper has never wondered much about her mom, Laura, a respected speech pathologist living in a cottage by the shore. Like most of us, from time to time she’d question her about her past, in a general sort of way, always pretty sure about the woman Laura was. Then came the day when their mother-daughter birthday lunch was interrupted by gunshots which take down two customers. Understandably terrified, Andrea cowers helplessly behind Laura, and is stunned to witness her mom coolly take charge of the scene by killing the shooter before he can murder anyone else. As the media frenzy and the police investigation ramp up, Laura forces her daughter to go on the run, providing her with a detailed plan, a burner phone, and a handgun. Don’t, she warns Andrea, even think about returning to the state until she calls her with the all clear.

Thus begins a saga in which a hapless, badly frightened, and insecure young woman embarks on a harrowing mission to discover who her mother really is, and, in the painful process, discovers herself. This enthralling tale bounces between two separate narratives, one gradually revealing the shocking details of Laura’s past, and the other chronicling Andrea’s own coming of age in the present. There are countless heart stopping, heart breaking moments for each as they grapple with and dodge the deadly fallout from events that occurred thirty two years ago, shortly before Andrea’s own birth.

In an era in which strong female protagonists are valued in novels, Karin Slaughter comes in with two. While Pieces has a complicated plot, the complexities of their personalities are just as engrossing, as are the positive changes that we witness evolving within them. What fills the novel with topical relevance is that the themes over which the decades-old conflict of the plot was waged are still threatening ordinary citizens in the present day. It’s always heartening when a best selling thriller author    writes cogently about things that really matter, in addition to providing good  entertainment.

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It’s a Mystery : Not Here, by Genevieve Nocovo

Not Here (Dina Ostica Novel 1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dina Ostica, a 23 year old woman trying not to let her emotional issues control her life, is not the sort of protagonist I would normally choose to read about. When author Genevieve Nocovo approached me about reading and reviewing Not Here, the first book in a planned series, after giving it some thought, I agreed. Dina at 23 couldn’t be more different than I was at that age, many moons ago. While I followed the traditional route of earning a college degree and starting a career, Dina seems to be floating about wondering how to support herself without doing much to at least secure an entry level position with a regular paycheck. Her desire to make a living as a podcaster without a day job is unrealistic, and while she tries to be fiercely independent, she is living alone, broke and somewhat desperate, which only exacerbates her emotional instability. Hence, she makes choices that only a very young, very inexperienced, and very immature person would make. This girl needs a mentor, since she seems disconnected from her parents and is stuck in a quagmire that spurs even more insecurity and desperation.

At any rate, Dina’s pursuit of a podcasting “scoop” that will attract major attention succeeds, but not in the way she had hoped. She tries to expose a conspiracy run by a major real estate firm, aimed at getting rid of tenants living in rent controlled apartments by offing them, so the newly vacant flats can be rented at today’s much higher rates. To make matters worse, when she goes to the police, they brush off her concerns. As a result she is kidnapped and forced to work with the conspirators, knowing that when her usefulness runs out she will be killed. It is at this point in the novel that the action quickens, the suspense builds, and the reader’s interest level shoots up. Watching how Dina copes with her plight, basically alone and relying on her own resources (fortunately she trains at a gym learning self defense techniques, and where she has made a couple of friends who can help.) Her plight is truly horrific, and your heart, while stuck in your throat, goes out to her.

Not Here is a competently written debut novel, and surely its sequel will be even better, as the author hones her skills and ups the sophistication of her prose and presentation.

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It’s a Mystery: Even If It Kills Her, by Kate White

Even If It Kills Her (Bailey Weggins Mystery, #7)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crime writer/investigator Bailey Weggins is signing copies of her latest true-crime book when who should appear but a friend from college, Jillian Lowe, who dropped out following the brutal murder of her family. Bailey’s rather non-plussed, feeling guilty because she failed to provide support to or even maintain contact with Jillian 16 years ago, so when she’s asked for a favor, she feels obligated to grant it. In a nutshell, the man now serving time for the murders may be exonerated due to new and exculpatory DNA evidence, and, since the cops aren’t interested in reopening the case, Jillian hopes Bailey will assist her in identifying the true killer.

Within hours of their arrival in the small Berkshires town where the Lowes made their home, local animosity toward the two women becomes apparent. Bailey sets up a few interviews with people who knew the family when the tragedy occurred; few of them are cooperative. One of the administtra who worked at the high school that Jillian and her sister attended is more forthcoming, providing Bailey with possible leads, but less than a day later, she is killed in what appears to be a staged burglary at her home. The police chief and the assistant DA, from whom Bailey seeks support, warn her off and threaten her. When Bailey herself is assaulted, she and Jillian are afraid that the real murderer is still in the locality and knows what they are about.

There are some surprises in this account, the most effective of them an graphic attack by a vicious dog, which White describes with skill. Although it becomes painfully clear that Bailey is playing with fire, she remains determined to discover the truth. Some of her choices are nothing short of foolhardy. Not even the strenuous objections of her boyfriend, who fears she will also die, deter her. The subplot that focuses on their currently shaky relationship lends some human interest to the storyline, as does the revelation of some Lowe family secrets, the biggest of which I did not foresee. In spite of all the danger, most of the novel lacks the element of actual suspense, however, and I never doubted that Bailey would emerge battered but victorious.

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