Category Archives: Mysteries

Review: The Hive (Gregg Olsen)

Lindsay Jackman is a detective in the Pacific Northwest mourning the loss of her partner/mentor to suicide when she’s called out to the scene of a murder. The young woman at the bottom of the ravine is a college student, researching a story – one that is more an expose, and that appears to be about Marnie Spellman, who hawks bee-inspired cosmetics.

The Hive note in the title is a group of five women who were closest to Spellman, the majority of whom were nurses. While the original five are no longer on Lummi island, where Spellman lives and where she creates her cosmetics lines, there are other women who live an work on Spellman’s farm and who help with the business.

As it seems all roads lead to Spellman, Jackman picks up Spellman’s first book and beings to read it. I’ll say here that this book within a book is filled with the usual pablum found in most “you’re the owner of your life” type books, except for Spellman, not only is the future female, so is the now.

This is a multi-POV book that also bounces back and forth in time. Specifically, we go from the present in 2019 to the past, in 1999, when one of the women in the Hive (Calista) died under mysterious circumstances. It appears the murdered journalist was hot on the trail of this story and had to be killed to stop her snooping. There’s a twist there that comes from nowhere, which I’m definitely not a fan of – I’ve read mysteries where the murderer is only introduced in the last ten pages or so, and to me, that’s cheating the reader out of a fundamental involvement in the story.

Meanwhile, we are told Spellman has some kind of charisma that draws people – especially women – to her, even to the point of women like Calista, who leave their husbands and their kids to go work on Spellman’s farm. I don’t doubt this happens; Spellman is, after all, running a cult, although she and everyone associate with it claim it isn’t.

As we go along with the pieces of the story told by the token cliches -a woman running for Congress, a past-her-prime actress, a woman who faked her own death, and another who blackmailed Spellman to not say anything about what they were doing on the farm. The threads begin to come together, and the reveal of the truth behind Spellman’s products is likely to elicit a shrug. It did for me, anyway, as at most I could see the nurses getting in hot water for theft, and not for making items with the ingredient. The substance cited has been in use for quite some time, with its efficacy in this particular, specific use questionable.

The murderer of Calista is eventually discovered, and the murderer of the journalist is not, thanks to a lie from a major liar and blame cast on someone unable to defend themselves. There is a short epilogue at the end that reads like a closing card on a TV show detailing what happened to the people seen on it.

Overall, it’s a moderately good read, with a little too much bouncing around in time for my taste. There is also one large issue I have with the book, since I am a beekeeper. I’ll give my rating here, and will put the bee-related kind of, but not quite, rant, below.

Three out of five stars. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Spellman’s backstory is that she had some kind of epiphany when she saw a swarm of honeybees and they lifted her off the ground and spoke to her. That’s fine: people have weird visions or voices in their heads all the time. She claims the bees tell her what direction she should go, and she does. She is, of course, known as the queen bee on her island, and the five women who are closest to her back in 1999 are of course called the Hive for this reason and because they’re making cosmetics with bee products. This is fine.

What is not fine, however, is something so basic that it is incorrect in this book not once but three times, and there’s another bee-related error as well.

“Pulsing noises lay atop each other as drones bring nectar stolen from the clouds of blossoms that hover over blackberry brambles that line the roads of Lummi Island.”

“‘contains royal jelly.’ From her reading, Lindsay knew that royal jelly was the substance drones fed a bee to turn her into a queen.”

“”Scout,” Calista said, her voice growing weak. “The most important role for a male in the hive.””

Even a cursory look at Wikipedia, or just a generic search would, in 30 seconds or less, return information on who does what in a beehive. I’d expect that a book revolving around bees would get this fundamental item correct: drones (male honeybees) do not gather nectar, do not feed larvae royal jelly or anything else, and are not scouts. Drones primarily exist to mate with virgin queens, and otherwise hang out in the hive, cared for by the nurse/worker bees – all of whom are female. All work that relates to the upkeep of a hive is done by female bees. That includes gathering nectar and pollen, caring for larvae, guarding the entrance, and scouting out new locations for a swarm. Drones, if they are still around when winter comes, are unceremoniously kicked out of a hive to save on resources.

“Nectar is honey transformed.”

Exactly the opposite: honey is nectar (gathered by female forager honeybees) transformed (by female honeybees).

Review: The Plot ( Jean Hanff Korelit)

Jacob “Finch” Bonner wrote a well-received, well-reviewed first novel. He promptly wrote a second novel that was less so. Work on the third book he’s under contract to write is virtually nonexistent.

To pay the bills, Bonner takes a job teaching an MFA class on writing. When doing the meet and greet during office hours, most students are exactly as he thought: not many good ones, according to their reading samples. Except for Evan Parker. His sample, grudgingly shown, shows that he has talent and his arrogance about it is warranted. Eventually, Parker tells Bonner the story – the whole story – and Bonner concludes that the book will be very good indeed, and that the plot is so original that no one has ever written a book using it.

Bonner manages to make it through the term, and subsequently lands a spot teaching virtual classes in another place. He can’t stop thinking about Evan Parker, and is amazed to find that Parker died shortly after that class, without ever having published that book. Bad news for him, but good news for Bonner, who decides to shanghai the idea and write his own version off it. This book becomes a huge bestseller, he lands on Oprah’s show, Spielberg has snapped up the movie rights, and so on. He also goes on a book tour. One place he stops is a radio station on the opposite coast, where he meets a woman working for the station who tells him she read the book and loved it – ditto for his other books. They flirt a bit, and we see where this is leading.

But it seems someone knows what Bonner has done, and doesn’t have any second thought about letting him know. It starts with emails, escalates to social media, and then to actual paper letters..

She moves to New York to be with him, and do all the social things, which, to his surprise, she’s great at.. Bonner continues to get the creepy messages, but keeps this from his now-fiancee and eventually his wife.

The social media portion finally makes it the food chain to his editor and the boss and legal counsel for the publishing house, where they tell him not to worry, they’ve seen this sort of thing before. But he does worry about it, as there are things only someone Evan Parker could have told the story to see. We also get glimpses of the book,with two to three pages of it here and there.within the main book. By now, we’re following Bonner as tries to track down information about Evan Parker, those who knew him well, and who could be behind the machinations to expose Bonner as having lifted the idea from Parker’s draft.

This book reminded be a bit of the movie The Words, a movie about a book about a book, with a dash of Secret Window and The Hoax tossed in, topped off with Deathtrap, by Ira Levine. It’s a bit slow to get started, and somewhat ponderous as well – I attribute this to be mimicking what I suppose is Bonner’s literary fiction style. As things progress, the writing becomesĀ  looser. The ending is something I saw coming, and there’s a cold-heartedness in the reasoning behind why some people do what they do to set things right/get justice as best they can, as they see fit. My only quibble is that the plot of Parker’s book is deemed entirely brand new, and that no one has written anything like it, ever, which is not exactly true in our world (but perhaps is true in the universe of this book).

I’m giving The Plot 4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Thanks to Celadon and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: No Going Back, Sawyer Brooks #3 (T. R. Ragan)

No Going Back is the third, and final(?) book in the Sawyer Brooks series. I’ve read one of the two preceding books – while this does work as a standalone, readers would do better to read one or both of the books that came before this one, if only to understand the emergence of The Black Wigs and how their actions have change over time.

The Black Wigs is a group of female vigilantes, meting out justice to (male) sexual predators. Previously, they only worked to embarrass such men, but here, in this book, things have taken a decidedly more macabre turn, and the group is engaging in outright torture and murder. While their reasons for doing so make sense, in the context of the world they inhabit in their heads in this book, it isn’t an easy task to take a life. However, at least one of the women in the group is psychopath who sticks to their plans without deviation, and it’s a bit disturbing that the other women, who express some hesitance in the case of one man who did indeed turn himself around and do good things to atone for his previous behavior, do next to nothing to stop his victim from killing him. There’s a lack of humanity floating in the pool at some points here, and there should probably be a trigger/content warning somewhere before the book begins.

This book identifies all of the members of the group, and we get chapters from the viewpoint of several of them – their day to day lives, their failing marriages, their thinking on the nature of the crimes they are committing, and how they’re planning the next snatch and kill. There are also a few chapters from the viewpoint of the victims – but not victims of The Black Wigs. This time, there’s a copycat engaging in their own level of justice, and impersonating The Black Wigs. As the story goes along, it becomes clear that one of the targets is in the crosshairs of both the copycat and the actual group.

Sawyer Brooks, last found being completely unaware that one of her sisters is in The Black Wigs, is now investigating the group, following leads wherever they can be found. She’s also convinced that some of the murders are not being done by the group, but by a copycat. Her sister Aria, also somehow unaware that their sister is part of The Black Wigs, assists Sawyer when she can.

Teaming up with Sawyer on the journalistic investigation is Lexi, a stunningly beautiful (of course) hard nosed reporter who has about as much use for Sawyer and Sawyer does for her – not much. Their differing styles are drawn very well, and each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The scenes where they are together are very well done, from the simmering resentment of Sawyer and the initial dismissal of her by Lexi to their eventual is not friendliness, at least respect for each others methods.

The ending comes together as both the police and Sawyer race to get to the final victim before the copycat and/or The Black Wigs do, and various loose ends are tied down.

There are a couple of false notes rung here and there (especially in one particular item in the finale, which I won’t go into for spoiler reasons) but these do not detract from the story and are not sufficient or jolting enough to take the reader out of the story.

A solid four out of five. Hopefully, this is not the last we see of Sawyer Brooks.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Girl Who Died (Ragnar Jonasson)

How could you go wrong with something that starts “Teacher needed for the edge of the world”? That sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Alas, although I am a fan of Ragnar Jonasson otherwise, The Girl Who Died just does not live up to his other books.

The teacher is Una, the edge of the world is the remote village of Skalar (population:10), and there are two girls who die, one in this time, and one in a previous time. There is – remarkably – even a hunky guy for Una to crush on, which is a good respite from the weirdos who otherwise populate the town. Her charges are two girls, and that’s the extent of her classroom. We don’t get a lot of lookins on lessons: just enough to know that one girl is outgoing, can sing, and is the swan, the other is introverted, can’t carry a tune, and is probably an embarrassment to her mother and her lech of a father, who hits on Una when she meets him.

The best thing about this book is the setting – and more specifically, the outdoor setting. The bleak and barren landscape is described with a suitable creepiness, and may as well be on the dark side of the moon on the remoteness scale.

The plot moves along – Una sees ghost her first day in town, which told me right off I[‘d chosen poorly in this instance. I’m just not a fan of ghost stories, and while Una’s feelings while in house, alone, were well-described, at times she seemed on the edge of the hysteria abyss, about to fall in.

There’s a random subplot that suddenly pops up about 3/4 of the way through, which just dissolves into nothing, and there is a death that was intended for someone else.

The end just fizzled for me, as it was terribly anticlimactic. Una may be part of the town now, but to me, she belongs back in the city.

Two stars out of five. I’m treating this as a one-off and look forward to Jonasson’s next book.

Thanks to St Martin’s and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Darkest Evening, DCI Vera Stanhope #9 (Ann Cleeves)

I love Vera Stanhope, cranky old broad and DCI.

In her latest outing, Vera drives home while a blizzard rages. After taking the wrong turn – that happens to be the road to her ancestral home – she comes across a car blocking the road, mired in the snow. The driver’s door is open, and there’s a baby in a carseat in the back, but the driver is missing. As the snow continues to fall, Vera takes the child into her car, leaves a note on the car, and carries on to said ancestral home, knocking on the door to seek harbor from the storm, and in the process seeing relatives she hasn’t seen in quite a long time.

When a young woman’s body is found on the property, it’s clear the woman is likely the mother of the child, and that the people in the house (both er relatives and the dinner guests they are hosting) probably know more about the woman than they let on.

The investigation is then off, with no shortage of suspects and Vera and her team wringing information out of people and chasing down leads and connections, no matter how slim they may appear.

We get more background on Harold, Vera’s father and black sheep of the Stanhope family, and more insight into how Vera views the familial tree (spoiler: she’s not into having to put on the facade of genteel landowner, benificent landlord). I believe these short interludes were both worthy of inclusion to the story and not disruptive to the narrative. Well done on that.

As Vera and her team put together the puzzle of circumstances, the perpetrator becomes more violent and aggressive, and the final showdown is a lulu.

Highly recommended. Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for the review copy (which was approved after I’d already bought it ).

 

Review: Heartbreak Bay – Stillhouse Lake #5 (Rachel Caine)

This is the fifth (and now final, with the author’s death) book in the Stillhouse Lake series. The first book in the series – also called Stillhouse Lake – had me scratching my head, wondering if I’d read it or any other in this series, as it sounded familiar. As is fairly usual in my case, the answer is no.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to have read the genesis of the series in order to understand this one. Even if Ms Caine had not given some quick backstory disguised as the main character’s musings while looking at the photos on the walls in her office, it would have worked just as well as a standalone thriller/mystery. I do think, however, if this books sounds interesting that reading the books in order would be beneficial, for all the little things readers might notice in each book along the way that the author may (judiciously) not mention in the later books, and to witness the growth of the characters as they move through the events of each book.

Warning, content-wise: if you’re easily put off by violence, or descriptions of violence in general, and specifically violence toward children, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re fine with violence and you like strong female characters, you might want to give it a go.

Heartbreak Bay is a multi-point of view, present tense book., and Gwen, the primary character, is now a private investigator. When Detective Kezia Claremont calls her to come to the scene of a submerged car, she can’t help but go. When the car is extracted, there are two kids, strapped in and drowned, but no sign of the mother, who was driving. This investigation by itself would be enough for a book (or more), and although I picked out the villain when they showed up in the book, this did not detract from an engaging case that tried everyone involved – as it generally is when it involves kids.

There’s a subplot involving an internet rando troll, trying to make Gwen pay for what the troll thinks she did – namely, helping her ex-husband in his serial killing ways. This subplot is ok as a device, but there’s enough stress and pressure in the primary case without it. I didn’t find this as engaging as the primary case, and that may just have to do with things external to the book (like living through the past five years, as I type this, and the sheer tsunami of nonsense online) than it does with he book itself. It does fit pretty well into the larger scope of the book, so I won’t ding it in rating it.

Overall, I found Heartbreak Bay lived up to both the thriller and mystery genres, with fairly tight plotting, good writing, and characters worth writing about.

A solid 4.5 stars out of 5, rounded to a 5 for its good qualities and no major issues.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Point Roberts (Alexander Rigby)

Point Roberts, in the Pacific Northwest, has a history – a history of murder that happened every February decades ago. Since then, the town has gone on lockdown each February: no one in, no one out. A total of fifteen people were killed, but after the lockdowns started, the murders stopped. Even when it seemed further lockdowns were not necessary, the town continued the tradition, for some bizarre (quirky!) reason.

Liza has moved to the island with her foster family. She feels a bit of a misfit, of course, and now there’s this weirdo lockdown month where no one can go anywhere and outsiders can’t get in.

She teams up with four other misfits, and the group tries to determine who the Point Roberts serial killer was – or is.

!!!!Spoilers here!!!!

The atmosphere is gloomy, as one might expect in that region in the grip of winter. Note: you must be willing to push your suspension of disbelief a little harder in this story than some others, not just during the investigation phase, but during the denouement – the killer (who you can probably guess) killing for reasons attributed to a secret and to mental illness, the presentation of which was a bit of a curiosity.

I didn’t really care for this, although I understand it can happen in real life. But the reasoning behind the murders and the secret they conceal just struck me wrong.

It’s well enough written, although I think there was a but too much effort to try to make everyone quirky, and there were a couple of tropes that bugged me (one in particular: HIV these days is not an automatic death sentence, and someone who gets a positive test will get a second one to confirm). Also, what’s the deal with this girl running around the island with four adults? that’s just…odd. There are some clunky portions, and it could have used a bit of trimming. Authors, please don’t have your climax explained in excruciating detail. If you have to explain that much at the end, you haven’t done enough before that point to lay the groundwork of the story.

I’ll give it three stars out of five.

Thanks to Alden and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Watch Her – Hester Thursby #3 (Edwin Hill)

Watch Her is the third book in the Hester Thursby series, and I will say up front that this is an exceptional mystery. While it is not necessary to read the preceding books, it would likely add even more depth to a cast of characters so already fleshed out they could, in another, magical world, simply walk off the paper and into the real world without missing a beat or seeming out of place.

Hester is an information-digging, crime-solving dynamo. Paired with Detective Angela White in a nonofficial way, Hester blazes through the book, listening to what people tell her and what they do not. Her musings on what she has been told, and what she tells other people – including Morgan, with whom she lives – are some of the finest indirect action I’ve seen in a mystery. Nothing gets bogged down, the internal dialogue doesn’t veer into infodump territory, and those dialogues are organic, exactly how I would imagine would think them through.

Hester has been hired by a wealthy family to perform what is, to her, a simple task: sorting through information to complete a project and present her conclusions. The only speedbump winds up being a police report about a breakin at that wealthy family’s house that sounds off to both Hester and Angela, and which launches us into a decades-old mystery, with a current mystery as a chaser.

There is a rather large cast – this is just a note, not a particular warning, since paying attention will keep you squared away on who is who, how they’re related, and what animals they own.

It seems that everyone in this book has a secret: the circumstances surrounding a drowned child, a secret (or not so secret) affair, a cop who did something no cop should do, a woman who has not been out of her house in years.. I’m curious as to whether the author was playing a bit on the title – Watch Her to Watcher is not a big step to make when secrets start spilling out toward the end.

The ending wraps up nicely, the only loose end being the now strained relationship between our two leads due to the events of the book. I’ve no doubt they will patch things up in their next outing, something I am looking forward to, whenever it comes out.

The only ding I’d give it would be the “Chicken Day” painting, full of blood. It’s a reference to processing meat chickens, which I myself do each year. Certainly there is some blood, but it doesn’t look like your average slasher flick.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Kensington Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Postscript Murders (Elly Griffiths)

The Postscript Murders starts off in a promising way to me, generally not a regular reader of cozy mysteries. I’ve read Elly Griffiths before, and seem to recall it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, so I decided to have a shot at another.

Natalka, a carer for 90-year old Peggy, is cleaning out Peggy’s room after Peggy appears to have died of natural causes. But, Natalka is suspicious after finding dedications in books from authors to Peggy, who styled herself as a “murder consultant”. She presents her suspicions to the police, and away we go.

The problem, for me, is that I was far more interested in Peggy’s living story, not the story of the investigation of her death by Harbinder Kaur. Don’t get me wrong: the story is perfectly fine. When writers start getting killed, Kaur gets the idea that perhaps Peggy’s death was not by natural causes after all and that there’s something larger going on. There are twists and turns, an arrest, and a final twist/informational item that I was a bit meh on, but if you like cozies and you like intricately plotted novels that are meta and feature other mystery novels and writers, you’ll find this to be agreeable. It’s just a periodic reminder that while I am willing to read cozies, they are often not my favorite things.

I’ll give it a solid four out of five stars. If Ms. Griffiths would like to write about Peggy, I’ll snap that up in an instant.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: From the Woods (Charlotte Greene)

It all starts innocently enough: a group of friends decide to go hiking/camping in an area of a national forest that is only open to a small number of people each year. Then it all goes spectacularly wrong.

Before that happens, though, Fiona has to be prodded into joining her friend Jill and her married friends Sarah and Carol. Fiona and Jill have the usual sort of non-assertive/almost bully relationship that is fairly common in fiction.

But talk her into it they do, and the four head out to meet their guides and Roz, the leader of the guide company. Of course Fiona is drawn to her immediately, and Roz to her, even with the rather brash Jill acting like a twelve year old.

At first, it’s a pleasant ride on the horses, but they hear what sounds like someone chopping down a tree – which means someone else is on the trail who should not be there. When Roz and two guides scout up ahead on the trail, they come back a bit skittish. When asked what’s wrong, they don’t say and the group keeps going until they reach the first camping area.

Fiona and Roz are in that scoping out phase of one another, and it’s one part sweet and one part trope. There’s lots of staring, the “accidental” brush of hands, etc. Meet cute in the middle of a forest.

It turns out that Roz and the guides had found runes carved into trees, and when Fiona and one of the others go to the latrines, they find more. The group now has a decision to make: do they continue, or turn back? Continue it is, even with the awareness that someone is in the forest an carving weirdo runes into trees, setting bear traps, and digging pits. This is the part in movies where someone realizes there’s a killer on the loose, and instead of barricading themselves in their house with a shotgun, they’ve left a sliding door open and hear noises in the basement, so they go down into the basement, without turning on any lights, to see what it is while you scream, “Are you out of your mind?

That should give you an idea of what happens next. People vanish from the camp site. Someone falls into a bear put. Another gets a big chomp from a bear trap.

There’s a mystery to solve, and solve it they do, although I had a hard time believing the ending, it was still an okay book. Everyone finds that well of strength within themselves, pushing themselves into doing things that in their other, “real” world they could never see themselves doing, and I think that’s a very good thing that people as a rule should be doing in their part of the world, even if it seems to them o be inconsequential: those small steps add up.

If you’re looking for sexytimes scenes, there are none in this book – something I kind of enjoyed after reading two other books with what seemed like one per chapter. Nothing against the sexytimes, but if you’re not writing erotica, where those scenes are the point of the story, throwing in too many scenes of that type in genre fiction really is a detriment to the story.

I’m giving this a four out of five, as the book is written well enough, the bad guys sufficiently creepy, and someone finds their strength that they didn’t even realize they had.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the review copy.