It’s a Mystery: A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

This latest novel from Paula Hawkins truly is a slow burn. A disturbed young man, Daniel  Sutherland,  is found brutally murdered in his decrepit longboat in Regents Canal. The prime suspect is an impoverished young woman, Laura,  who suffers fromTBI and who admits to having had a one night stand with Daniel shortly before his death. The police are finding it difficult to find hard evidence against her, and soon Daniel’s neighbors and  close relatives come into the picture, none of whom appear to have motives. Laura and Daniel himself are the most fully developed characters in this mystery, and throughout most of the book, are the most  sympathetic. 

Reading Slow Fire requires patience, and the ability to keep track of suspects and motives as it progresses is no simple task. I liked this book well enough to finish it, but had to reread certain sections to keep things straight, sometimes more than once. As a study of human emotions, however, it works quite well. Once I was able to pin a specific motive to a specific character, it was not that tricky to figure out which one was the culprit.

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: The Third Girl, by Nell Goddin

My rating: ⭐️⭐️ of five.

Forty-something, recently divorced Molly Sutton moves to a classic French village to begin a new life as the proprietor of a classic French gite (B&B). She falls in love with the ambiance and the villagers and already has some bookings. When a gifted English art student disappears, Those in town are especially worried, because two other young women disappeared a year or so earlier. Is there a serial killer living among them?

The gendarmerie begin investigating, but there is frustratingly little to go on. The narrative switches between the work of the three officers and Molly’s observations of the reactions of her new neighbors. There are a few moments of mild suspense, but basically The Third Girl fits snugly into the cozy genre. While there is plenty of conversation there isn’t much action. Surprisingly when the setting is in the south of France, the author frequently mentions the beauty and charm of the village without actually describing it. With the exception of Molly herself, the characters are rather bland, and Molly is prone to making iffy decisions based upon emotion. As for the mystery, there are no clues that could lead the reader to discover whodunnit.

Yawn.

Historical Fiction: Rags of Time, by Michael Ward

                                      
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Tallant is a promising young spice merchant who has a lot going for him. After all, he is personable, intelligent, and handsome, his father owns a thriving spice business, and he enjoys working in the family trade. Returning to London from a buying trip to India, however,  he is shocked to find the city in a chaotic state. The religious and political struggles that will eventually explode into civil war are growing increasingly violent, and King Charles is too busy fighting with Parliament to intervene.  Expecting to return to business as usual, Tom soon finds himself named the prime suspect in the bizarre deaths of two business rivals. As the evidence mounts against him, he becomes desperate to clear his name, aided only by his best friend and a beguiling young woman whom he has only just met. 



Tom’s search for justice gives us a broad view of London society in the 1630’s – how to engage a Thames wherry man, attending opulent parties alongside powerful courtiers, political intrigue, crowded prison cells swamped in muck, tricks of the trade in falconry, the terrible inequalities of class.Ward clearly  knows how to research for historical detail. Particularly memorable sequences include “shooting” London Bridge; the descriptions of “taking the clergy” while pleading in a court of law, and of training falcons to hunt in pairs, were also diverting. The murder case itself is satisfyingly intricate. The thinness of the evidence against Tom makes one wonder how the accusation could be taken seriously, but because thr charges were made  by persons of influence, it was. (Some things never change.)

If you’re wondering what “rags of time” means, check out the poetry of John Donne. If you’re interested in murder mysteries set in historical times, check out Rags of Time.



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Historical Fiction: The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra

 

 

 

My rating: 4 of 5 ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

 

The Secret Supper is  a mystery that involves my favorite topics, Renaissance art, Italy, religious history, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. It’s fashionable to bad-mouth The Da Vinci  Code on literary and religious grounds, but I enjoyed both book and movie, and I don’t rely upon novels to formulate my religious beliefs. The plot of the Secret Supper is in the same genre, focusing on DaVinci’s  other masterpiece, the Last Supper. Although much of the outstanding  art of the  Renaissance  was commissioned by the church to illustrate its orthodox teachings, many painters used artistic license to express ideas of their own. The Last Supper was highly controversial during its own creation, and The Secret Supper suggests what  some of those less mainstream ideas might be.

Chief inquisitor Agostino Leyre is dispatched to Milan to discover whether persistent allegations of heresy concerning Leonardo’s work are true. Father Agostino takes up lodging at the very monastery where The Last Supper is being created, but before he can launch a proper investigation, he must first solve a cryptic riddle that was provided by the accuser, the mysterious Soothsayer. Large segments of the story therefore involve learning about signs, symbols, codes, and numerology, during which the narration devolves into tutorials about hidden secrets and meanings.  The slower chapters are relieved by action sequences involving street scenes and  nefarious murders. It came  as a surprise when the history of the maligned Cathor religious movement became central to the plot, in quite a credible way. Less successful were the portrayals of Leonardo as having purely mystical intentions, and of a young Sforza countess as a direct descendent of Mary Magdalen.

Recommended for readers who enjoy complex mysteries and  intellectual puzzles, but not those who are super sensitive about religious dogma.

Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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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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