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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It’s a Mystery: The Ice Princess, by Camilla Lackberg

The Ice Princess (Patrik Hedström, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern Noir is not my favorite genre. Although mysteries in this category generally tell compelling stories, they do so in a way that can be disturbing. It’s not the darkness so much as the graphic brutality that bothers me, but if the writing is good enough, I’ll stick with it and skim over the worst of the details. Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is dark and cold, in keeping with Nordic noir, but considerably less gruesome than many.

Though billed as a mystery, this novel is character rather than plot driven. The police, of course, make an early appearance, but the book’s protagonist is definitely Erica Falck, a biographer who has returned to her childhood home in Fjällbacka, Sweden for the funeral of her parents. Erica stays on to clear up her parents affairs and work on her overdue manuscript in a quiet place, and, as happens to many during the grieving process, begins to reevaluate her own life choices. But her plans are soon disrupted when her childhood friend, the beautiful Alex, is found frozen solid in her  bathtub with slashed wrists. Alex’s family requests that Erica write a piece in memory of their daughter’s life, and she begins by interviewing Alex’s friends. As new information and old memories are stirred up, Erica cannot believe that Alex died by her own hand. When the detective on the case turns out to be Patrik Hedstrom, another school chum, they combine their efforts to discover the truth.

The procedural part of the plot, until the final few chapters, is submerged in a tangle of sub-stories. These include smaller mysteries: why is Erica’s married sister no longer the free spirit she was as a girl? Why did Alex’s family abruptly leave town when the girls were in high school. What happened to the son of Fjallbacka’s wealthiest family abruptly disappear? These threads are intriguing, but there were far too many pages devoted to detailing a personal relationship that threatened to turn a murder mystery into a romance novel. The solution to the mystery was one that readers – at least this reader – could not have hypothesized because some missing clues. Nevertheless, the characters and setting in The Ice Princess were interesting enough to prompt me to try the next book in the series, The Preacher.

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It’s a Mystery: The Colony, by F. G. Cottam

The Colony (The Colony, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s nothing like an enigmatic, unsolved mystery, especially a true one, to excite public (or private) interest. Hoping to inject new life into his ailing newspaper, fabulously wealthy media mogul Alexander McIntyre mounts an expedition to New Hope Island, planning  to get to the bottom of the abrupt disappearance of a fringe religious cult that settled there more than a hundred years ago.  McIntyre believes that aliens were involved (really!), but he  hires the best experts in the fields of archaeology, ufology, epidemiology, parapsychology,  and security, building them a state of the art base camp on the barren island, to uncover the truth, whatever it is.  He also sends his star reporter along, to file up to the minute reports on the team’s progress, thereby increasing circulation among spellbound readers.  But serious, unexplained problems arise from the moment the team sets foot on the island, not the least of which is that their communications center simply will not function, leaving them marooned in the presence of some very malevolent forces. Very soon, some of team are dead and gone — literally.

F. G. Cottam is skilled at combining the genres of thriller and paranormal, and The Colony is right up there when it comes to meeting his readers’ expectations. I would describe this one as disconcerting rather than horrifying, but subtlety is something I much prefer to graphic gore. What I particularly enjoyed was the in depth viewpoints provided by the various experts, and subplot  involving the young daughter of the team’s psychic and a maritime marine museum curator. Some of the characters were one dimensional, but others were more developed, depending upon their importance in the plot. When the deaths occurred, it would have been interesting to  know what became of their bodies, but perhaps that’s to be revealed in sequels to The Colony. Overall, this is a well presented paranormal mystery, but……

Evidently, this book was initially released only in a digital version. I acquired a print copy published somewhat later, by Ipso Books. Perhaps The Colony was spookier and more suspenseful than I found it to be. The reason I’m not certain is that my attention was constantly disrupted by what appear to be a very poorly edited text. Did you know that churches have “knaves”, photos can be “matt”, and punctuation can be omitted in very long sentences? My favorite gaffe is as follows: “They were helpless, no more any of them really he feared, than prey. (Bit of a weird sentence here, doesn’t really make sense.)”

Enough said. Despite all the annoying errors, The Colony was a pretty good story, sufficient to make me ignore my irritation to soldier on to the end. Properly published, it probably would have been even better.

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It’s a Mystery: The Widow’s House, by Carol Goodman

The Widow's House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Books about books are always fun to read, and this one features three different writers, each working on their own novels. Thirty-something couple Clare and Jess leave behind their trendy loft in Brooklyn to relocate to the Hudson River Valley. Though Jess published a respectable debut novel, ten years later he hasn’t managed to complete a second. Clare would like to get back into writing, and they’re counting on this move to revitalize them professionally and as a couple. They find themselves taking on residence as caretakers at the River Road estate of a famed author who taught some classes while they were in college. It’s a happy reunion, and for a short while things go well, but from the get-go, Clare, who has always been sensitive to the paranormal, begins seeing apparitions of one of the mansion’s previous employees. Her husband encourages Clare to channel her experiences into a novel, telling her to use her imagination or her imagination will use her.

All of the Goodman books that I’ve read and enjoyed involve women academics, writing, water, and the paranormal, but no two have been alike. The Widow’s House is an amalgam of the gothic, the mystery, and the supernatural, and the story depends equally upon each of those elements. The weather and the river mists add to the ambience of the bucolic setting, as do the local history and folklore that are so prevalent in the region to this day (where the Headless Horseman and Rip van Winkle got started!) The tension builds incrementally as strange things keep occurring, and grows so strong that Clare doesn’t know whom to trust or what to believe. The same can been said for the reader, at least those who enjoy a well crafted ghost story.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.

It’s a Mystery: Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since experiencing a fascinating visit to Scotland’s Iona and Staffa Islands a few years back, I became interested in other islands in the region. Books set in the British Isles always appeal to me, and I regularly troll the new book release lists looking for new titles and/or authors. In the case of Raven Black, it was the author’s name (Henry VIII’s fourth wife)  that hooked me. Also, the names Shetland and Fair Isle have long been familiar to me as an avid knitter, so I just had to give Ann Cleeves’  Shetland series a try.

Like another popular novel series set in Scotland, Raven Black is a book involving outlanders. The first one we meet is Fran Hunter, who, following her divorce,  relocated to Shetland from London so her daughter could have contact with her father, a prominent island native.  She is struggling to find a niche in the small, literally insular, community where most families have lived for generations. Not surprisingly, it’s the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else and everybody else’s secrets, things not shared with outsiders. When she discovers the strangled body of another newcomer, high school student Catherine Ross, Fran will quickly learn what many of those secrets are.

Detective Jimmy Perez, called in from nearby Fair Isle, is the next incomer on the scene. Nearly everyone he interviews throws suspicion on an elderly local man, who was implicated but not accused in the disappearance of another young girl eight years earlier. Perez, being familiar with the way of life, resists jumping to conclusions, always observing, listening, reading between the lines.

This is a tautly plotted mystery  full of local atmosphere, tradition, and  complex characters.  Perez slowly teases out the conflicts and resentments that underlie community relationships, and he finds no dearth of suspects as well as an abundance of clues. But clues are not evidence, and not until the killer makes another move, during the biggest folkloric festival of the year, do his theories crystallize. There’s plenty of local color and attitude from start to finish, and none of the many clues are tells. The surprising  and satisfactory ending left me eagerly anticipating the sequel, White Nights.

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Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.