Jul 232014
 

In Oliver and the Seawigs, Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre have crafted a charming children’s story in which young Oliver saves his explorer parents with the help of a mermaid, an albatross and a rambling island named Cliff.

Oliver and his parents, having finally explored everything there is to explore, arrive home, only to discover a bunch of new islands where there shouldn’t be any. Naturally, his parents hop into a boat to check them out. When they don’t come back, though, Oliver realizes he’s got to go find them.

He takes his own inflatable dinghy and lands on one of the islands, only to realize it’s actually alive, and not just because there’s an albatross named Mr. Culpepper. The island is one of the Rambling Isles which can move at will and are all on their way to the Hallowed Shallows for the once-every-seven-year competition to see who has the best seawig — the artfully arranged decorations on top of their heads (which is the part of the island that usually shows above water).

The unfortunate Cliff, however, has not much more than Mr. Culpepper’s nest, and he knows that he’s not going to win. Again. But at Oliver’s insistence and the assistance of the near-sighted mermaid Iris, Cliff is crowned by a wrecked submarine, making him a possible contender.

But then a nasty old rambling isle named the Thurlstone steals the wreck, and Oliver spies another treasure in its seawig: his own parents! The rest of the story concerns his efforts to get them back while also helping Cliff in his quest.

More adventure than mystery, Oliver and the Seawigs is delightfully illustrated, in a way that helps the reader see what’s happening without being too scary. Young chapter book readers with big imaginations will enjoy both story and pictures — maybe as much as I did.

I read an advance review copy of Oliver and the Seawigs provided by the publisher.

Jul 212014
 

One of my favorite crime fiction bloggers, Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, turns out to be a very fine crime fiction writer, as proven by her book Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles.

The book contains the stories of two characters; first, a young woman named Anna Jensen, whose intriguing neighbor Karin gets into a number of interesting and perhaps dangerous situations, and second, Anna’s farmor (father’s mother), Anna Märklin. Current day Anna doesn’t know much about her farmor and, despite her father becoming quite ill, no one seems willing to talk about her. REcognizing there’s a family secret buried here, Anna decides to investigate.

She begins with a trip to Småland with her boyfriend Lars — a man who is not entirely what he seems — where she learns that her farmor’s brother had been murdered. Obviously she was right: something deep and dark lurked in her family’s past. Later, when she finds some family papers, Anna begins to read her farmor’s life story in her own words and illustrations. What begins as a charming story of a pre-World War II childhood, however, begins to turn with the arrival of an older half brother and his friend, home from the university for vacation.

In the meantime, Anna’s neighbor Karin disappears, is featured in a scandalous news story, and reappears, only to disappear again. Like Lars, Karin is not all that she first appears, in both instances because Anna chooses to see and think of them in particular ways. Unwinding the story of her grandmother and eventually figuring out what happened to Karin gives her the strength to face what she’s kept hidden from herself. Although she goes through several difficult situations, Anna emerges a stronger and better person at the end of the book.

Finding a good book is always fun, but finding one written by someone you know (even if it’s just virtually) is even better. You can find Dorte’s e-book on Amazon.com.

Jul 172014
 

Ed Lynsky’s The Cashmere Shroud is another one of those books that I’d been meaning to read for a while, and thank goodness for the summer, a.k.a. catch-up time.

Set in Quiet Anchorage, Virginia, The Cashmere Shroud features two elderly sisters, Alma and Isabel Trumbo, who’ve each retired and returned to their hometown to share a house and a private investigator’s license. Their second case involves the death of the father of their younger partner, Sammi Jo. Ray Burl was a quiet, hardworking man who lived in a modest cinder block house and was found dead in the cashmere suit he’d worn for his wedding many years before.

That odd fact — that he even had a cashmere suit, much less why he’d be wearing it, given that his wife Mo ran off years ago — is one of the clues the ladies pursue despite the dire warnings of the local sheriff. The problem is that Sheriff Fox has a history of blaming innocent people for the simplicity of making a case against them, and Isabel and Alma think he’s going to try to pin the murder on Sammi Jo.

They may not have guns or brawn, but the sisters use their brains and social connections (local gossip) to figure out who would want to kill Ray Burl and why. In between investigations, they play Scrabble with the local park bench-sitting men, walk the new dog, Petey Samson, and comfort Sammi Jo on her loss.

Although I found the writing occasionally awkward (referring to Sammi Jo as “the wheat-blonde younger woman” for instance), the characters were quirky and the relationship between Alma and Isabel was a delight. There aren’t many older women investigators in the mystery genre, and the Trumbos are a welcome addition.

My thanks to author Ed Lynsky for providing me with a review copy of The Cashmere Shroud.

Jul 152014
 

The second book in Lady Emily Ashton mystery series, originally recommended by my friend Colleen, was a bit less intriguing than the first, but that isn’t to say I didn’t like it.

In the first book, And Only to Deceive, Lady Emily is coming to terms with the loss of her husband, and, most interestingly, only then getting to know him. She’s also establishing herself as a widow in charge of her own life for the first time, with all the wealth and power that came with her title.

In A Poisoned Season, though, her mourning period over, she’s much less focussed on her internal life as she rejoins the social season and faces pressure from almost everyone to remarry.

The mystery revolves all around the French throne. An arrogant and annoying man appears in London with a claim to the throne and an expectation to be treated like a king — which, surprisingly, he often is. Then a number of artifacts purportedly belonging to Marie Antoinette disappear from homes of English nobility. Emily decides to figure out what’s happening.

There’s just one problem: someone is spreading gossip about Lady Emily, to the point that she’s no longer being invited to the best Society events. In one sense, she couldn’t care less — she has no desire to bow to the rules (and matriarchs) of Society. On the other hand, being left out demonstrates the power of Society and the possibility of lifelong repercussions for her unorthodox actions. This problem is solved by her mother in an ingenious solution that I won’t give away but that had me appreciating her social-climbing parent for the first time.

Like Emily, I’m more amused than bound to the ridiculous rules and affectations of Society, and that’s why I was a little less infatuated by this second book in the Lady Emily series. However, I can see why Alexander had to demonstrate the power of Society to reign in Emily’s wilder notions (a woman learning Greek?); it just wouldn’t do in her time and place.

Next up: A Fatal Waltz. Definitely intriguing.

Jul 112014
 

“Foreign Correspondent” is not Alfred Hitchcock’s finest film, but it’s good enough, and interesting for its perspective on American involvement in World War II.

Joel McCrea plays Johnny Jones, the everyman reporter sent to work as a foreign correspondent in Europe by an American newspaper. Renamed Huntley Haverstock to sound more official, Jones heads off to a Europe on the brink of war knowing next to nothing about the politics or people involved — which is just as publisher Mr. Powers wants it. He imagines Jones’ hard-hitting crime reporting will be more revealing than the diplomatic tripe he gets back from his regular correspondents.

And he’s right. Haverstock steps right into the story, witnessing the (faked) assassination of a diplomat, Mr. Van Meer, in Amsterdam. He follows the assassin to a dilapidated windmill, realizes Mr. Van Meer is still alive but has been kidnapped: international spies want to know what’s in the treaty he just negotiated.

Heading for London, Haverstock falls in love with a beautiful pacifist, Laraine Day as Miss Fisher, whose activist father is Haverstock’s main contact, and throws his lot in with Carol and her friend Scott ffolliett [sic], played by George Sanders. Together they work to rescue Van Meer and the peace effort.

There are a number of iconic scenes in “Foreign Correspondent”: the crowd of raising umbrellas that trace the assassin’s getaway trail, the attempted murder of Haverstock from the observation deck at Westminster Cathedral, and the plane crash as witnessed from just behind the pilots.

But the real point of the film is Haverstock’s live radio broadcast of the Blitzkrieg from London, in which he states, “It’s as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America.” It might as well have been Hitchcock pleading on behalf of Churchill (or Edward R. Murrow).

Jul 092014
 

As I’ve said before, Lorna Barrett’s Booktown mysteries are cozies, but they’re not sweetness and light, nor are they happily ever after books. Tricia Miles and her sister always solve the mysteries, but they never seem to get their man.

In Not the Killing Type town jinx Tricia finds yet another body — the second time she’s found a victim seated on a toilet. This time, though, it’s not in her book shop, Haven’t Got a Clue; rather, she’s at the town’s recently refurbished inn, and the victim is one of the candidates running for Chamber of Commerce president against her sister, Angelica.

The third opponent is none other than long-time president Bob Kelly, Angelica’s ex-boyfriend and the man who turned Stoneham, N.H. into Booktown. Angelica thinks she can do a better job of promoting the town now by working to have Stoneham named the “prettiest village” in a regional competition. But Stan’s platform is to cut the budget and stop favoring the bookshops over all of the other businesses in town.

Of course when he’s killed the first suspects are his two opponents, but Tricia’s determined to make sure everyone knows Angelica is innocent, and so her investigation begins. The first casualty is, of course, her on-again, off-again relationship with police chief Grant Baker. She finally tells him that if he can’t trust her — even when she’s involved in a murder investigation — he can take a walk. But then her ex-husband Christopher comes to town and starts hinting to anyone he happens to meet that he’s hoping for a reconciliation. Tricia’s none to happy about that, either.

I came late to Lorna Barrett’s Booktown mystery series, but with Not the Killing Type I’m all caught up and waiting for the next one!

Jul 072014
 

Occasionally I point to Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series as the epitome of the happily-ever-after cozy mystery, and Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well makes that case for the 19th time. Thank goodness.

If you aren’t familiar with the series, Aunt Dimity is, surprisingly, dead. Through some unknown mechanism, she’s able to communicate with her heir, Lori Shepherd, by writing in a notebook. Lori lives in Dimity’s cottage with her husband and twin sons in the Cotswolds, and she’s the narrator of the series.

This book begins with the death of one long-time villager, a man no one really notices or even knows very well, whose nephew Jack appears from Australia just in time to catch the end of the funeral. His plan to clean up his uncle’s house to sell, but then he uncovers a wishing well in the backyard. But here’s the thing: everyone’s wishes keep coming true. For instance, the hardworking hangman wants only to work on a classic Jaguar, and suddenly one breaks down in the middle of the village.

Unfortunately, though, not all the wishes turn out well. In fact, the wishes seem to be tearing the tightly-woven fabric of the village apart, pitting neighbors against each other, putting stress on marriages, threatening even to break up the Handmaidens, four elderly women who’ve been best friends forever. When Lori realizes the danger to the village’s harmony, she decides to investigate: who’s pulling the strings?

Aunt Dimity, of course, offers advice that proves essential to solving the mystery.

The Aunt Dimity series may be predictable, but sometimes you want to visit a place where everyone looks out for each other and the mystery doesn’t involve a murder or even a violent act of any sort. If that’s the mood you’re in, go to the village of Finch and know that it’ll all turn out fine in the end.

Jul 032014
 

I ended up with an extra copy of David Mark’s Sorrow Bound, reviewed here. If you live in the continental U.S. and would like it in hard copy, free of charge, email me at mysterybookreviews at gmail dot com and provide your mailing address.

I liked the book a lot, and I think you will, too.

UPDATE: HM! reader Elli has claimed the book. Hope many others will read it.

Jul 032014
 

David Mark’s Aector McAvoy books are quickly becoming one of my favorite crime fiction series. Sorrow Bound, the third police procedural in the series, builds upon the world and characters of the first two and ends with a literal bang.

McAvoy is a big, bumbling teddy bear of a man (a child in one scene compares him to a character from the Disney movie “Brave” — Young MacGuffin, perhaps?), as kind and gentle as they come, yet also a cop driven to stop a series of murders that tie back to an old case.

The older case involves a horrible rapist who was almost killed by the husband of one of his victims. But “almost” is the operative word. Having no idea why one man is beating another in the street, a number of people step forward to administer CPR, staunch the bleeding, call an ambulance, and perform surgery to save the man’s life. Now someone is killing everyone who (however unknowingly) helped.

The characters in this series are well drawn, beginning with Aector but including several other police officers and people involved in the investigation. They aren’t all likable, but they each have histories, characteristics and lives that make them individual and realistic. I also like the setting, northern England, and the mysteries are well-plotted.

The predominant feature of the setting in Sorrow Bound is a heatwave that stifles nearly everyone but the criminals, Aector plods through to try to stop the killer. But the ominous, roiling storm clouds hanging over the city are indicative of something else happening in the Hull police department. Part of Aector’s unit has been working to identify and stop a new drug ring run by a mysterious but obviously well-educated and intelligent man who is slowly turning police officers to his side. Unbeknownst to Aector, his beloved wife Roisin gets tangled up with these people, with consequences that are only hinted at in the explosive ending of the book.

Needless to say, with a denouement like that, I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for Aector McAvoy #4. My thanks to the publisher for providing an advance review copy of Sorrow Bound via NetGalley.

Jul 012014
 

Maggie Hope’s American roots come deeply into play in The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, the fourth book in Susan Elia MacNeal’s World War II mystery series.

Maggie was born in England but raised by her aunt in the United States, due to a highly complicated family situation revealed in the earlier books. She returned to England and has been helping with the war effort, beginning as Mr. Churchill’s secretary. Her genius mathematical mind can’t be overlooked, though, and in subsequent books she became involved in England’s national security efforts.

As this book picks up the action, Maggie is recovering from a secret spy mission to Germany. She’s suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed or taken part in several horrible events. She’s been sent to Scotland to help train a new group of spies, but her way of dealing with her own problems and what they might someday have to go through, is to be impersonal, tough, and mean. The recruits call her “Lady Macbeth”; she calls them by their numbers.

Maggie’s operating on a very thin edge. Not surprisingly, then, during a training exercise she almost loses it altogether, and so her kindly boss sends her on a weekend trip to see her old housemate Sarah dance in the ballet. Wouldn’t you know it: the ballerina whom Sarah understudies dies a sudden and tragic death. Naturally, the police first suspect Sarah, who had the most to gain by the ballerina’s death. Maggie has to investigate to help save her friend. In the end, though, her investigation is what saves herself.

Pearl Harbor looms large in The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, with tension building as the Brits and the Americans receive and, in different ways, ignore information that could’ve prevented Japan’s sneak attack. When the bombs finally fall, Maggie feels her Americanness in a new way, and having recovered from PTSD she accepts a new assignment that has her heading back to the States. I can’t wait.

I read an advance review copy of Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent from the publisher via NetGalley.

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