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: Dark Turns, by Cate Holahan

Dark Turns
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nia Washington is a 22 year old ballet dancer recovering from an injury and a romantic breakup. She takes a temp position at a posh private school as assistant to the director of their elite dance program, until she’s strong enough to returning to auditioning for pro companies. Nia’s very first day on the job is marred by her discovery of a student’s body floating in the campus lake, apparently strangled. Dark Turns focuses upon the aftermath, as she tries to glean some insight into who might have committed the murder.

As a mystery, Dark Turns reads rather like a novel for teens and young adults. Nia is a likeable, earnest young woman who enjoys her contact with the students in her class. The other adults in the book come across according to type, including the school’s stern director, the officious head of campus security, and the local “just the facts, Ma’am” police. Somewhat more natural is Nia’s new love interest, Peter Anderson, English teacher. Scattered liberally through each chapter are explanations of dance terms, description of dancers, dances, and costumes, and details about the relationships among Nia’s students. The plot line is stretched pretty thin, and there is little attention paid to developing any of the characters. Also scattered about are thinly-veiled “tells”, from which the reader can can come up with a viable suspect but Nia apparently cannot.

Dark Turns would probably be better appreciated by teens, dance aficionados, and mystery readers who expect a more complex tale.

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Historical Fiction: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Essex Serpent has the distinction of being one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever come across, and I’ve been reading them for a long time. The critical reviews for it are stellar. The language is eloquent and frequently lyrical, reminiscent at times of Dickens, Austen, Hardy, and G. Eliot. The characters, though ordinary, are thrumming with life, and each represents a different aspect of English life in late Victorian times. Its narrative is an internal one, as it hops among their minds and their separate reactions to the same incident. Much of it is sad, yet it escapes being dismal. Into the mix, the author deftly inserts social and existential issues, which are just as relevant today as they were in the book’s own time frame. But the plot, that all important feature in any work of fiction, is skeletal.

While I savored all the good things about The Essex Serpent, I kept wishing something would happen. When two momentous somethings finally did, they played out in such an understated fashion that their impact was all but blunted. The conclusion, though not surprising, left me wondering if the author was considering a sequel. If so, I’m not sure if I’d choose to read it. But I’m glad I read this one, if only to discover what influenced all the stellar reviews.

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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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It’s a Mystery: The Detective’s Daughter, by Lesley Thomson

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Detective’s Daughter  does not have a straightforward opening, which is off putting to many readers. It reads as a collection of unrelated short stories, and requires some patience until things start to become clearer. These are backstories, and they’re well worth the wait.

On a sunny day in 1981, young mother Kate Rokesmith is found murdered along the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith. Hours later, her little boy, Jonathan, is found huddled at the foot of sculpture he always enjoyed visiting, and police deduce that he probably witnessed to killing, but the trauma leaves him unwilling/unable to answer their questions.  A single witness, a neighbor,  saw the pair head off for their walk, but otherwise there is a frustrating dearth of information. The police suspect the husband, but lack any semblance of evidence, and the case goes cold. This is one of the cases that has  obsessed former DCS Terry Darnell for thirty years, even into retirement. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, his semi-estranged daughter, Stella, owner of a professional cleaning business, sets about clearing his house, and a box  of papers she was sorting through indicates that he was actively pursuing the case. When she hires  Jack Harmon to serve a cleaner to her new dentist, Stella finds him decidedly quirky, but surprisingly effective and efficient. It isn’t long before he becomes as interested as she is in the unsolved crime. What ensues is a distinctly cerebral mystery that grows harder and harder to put down. Along the way, Stella learns things about her dad as well as herself that she had never before considered or even recognized. More than a simple police procedural, The Detective’s Daughter is a book about relationships, with vivid, realistic characters, eerie surprises, and several genuinely suspenseful moments.

While reading this novel, I did a web search about the setting, finding many evocative photos that helped bring the story to life. Finished the book this afternoon, and now I’m off to start Ghost Girl, the second book in this series, eager to know more about how Stella and Jack develop as characters. Can’t wait!

It’s a Mystery: Under a Dark Sky, by Lori Rader-Day

Under a Dark Sky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still reeling from her husband’s death nine months earlier, Eden Wallace finds among his papers a reservation for the lodge at Michigan’s Dark Sky Park, a star gazing resort, scheduled for what would have been their wedding anniversary. Eden is petrified by darkness, but decides to face her fears by keeping the reservation and facing up to them at the park. She’s dismayed and disheartened from the moment she arrives and discovers that the accommodation is comprised of individual suites with shared public spaces. A mini college reunion has also been booked, by a 6-member coterie of former students seeking to rekindle their once-close friendships. They’re no happier than Eden is about the situation, and while they must accept her, they treat her with undisguised hostility. Eden chooses to stay overnight and depart for home early the next morning. Sounds like a plan, until, in the middle of the night, she is awakened by screams emanating from the kitchen. One of the men is lying dead on the floor with a screwdriver protruding from his neck. Now, no one is free to leave.

This is a small town with a small police force inexperienced in investigating murder. They are suspicious of all of the lodge’s residents, who are all suspicious of one another. During the course of their inquiries, it will become apparent that all of them have their own deep, disturbing secrets, Eden included. Watching the cat and mouse game unfold provides surprises for the reader and for the characters themselves. This is an intriguing mystery, narrated solely in first person by Eden, who arrived overwrought and grows ever more so as the tension ratchets up. Each character, whether police or suspects, are finely drawn, believable in their actions and reactions, with personalities all their own, and this is the strength of this novel. The suspects in particular must come to terms with their pasts, which, of course, some accomplish better than others. Parts of the narrative grow repetitive and verge on hysteria, and probably could have been edited down a bit, but otherwise, this is a reasonably tight, well crafted plot that holds attention right to its ending.

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It’s a Mystery: The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society (Secret, Book, & Scone Society #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although it may not be official, ever since Fried Green Tomatoes, circa 1991, became a hit book and movie, a growing sub genre under the heading “cozy mysteries” appears to have developed. Most of these books sport catchy and cutesy titles (Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society et al), revolve around a reasonably complex local mystery, and feature small teams of flawed but strong and charming women who are determined to set things right. Sometimes a touch of magical realism is present to spice up the plot. The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams, fits squarely into this category.

The title derives from the businesses and past histories of four women protagonists living in Miracle, North Carolina, all of whom are trying to forget painful pasts and get on with their lives as best they can. Although they patronize each other’s shops, they don’t really bond until a man, a newcomer to town who briefly crosses paths with them, winds up dead on the town’s railroad tracks. Was he murdered, did he jump, or was he pushed? This questions bothers them as individuals, and in the immediate aftermath of the death, they decide to band together to discover, or uncover, the truth. During this process, the back story of each woman emerges as they develop trust, understanding, and support for each other. The mystery, involving murder and fraud, serves as the vehicle through which Ellery Adams develops her central characters, who become relatable and loveable in spite of, and because of their all too human flaws. While ancillary characters do lean toward the stereotypical, and the mystery is not all that difficult to solve, the main quartet and the actions they take are more than strong enough to maintain the interest of readers to the end.

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