Sunday, March 7, 2021

Book Review: Martinis & Mayhem by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

Martinis & Mayhem (Murder, She Wrote, #5)Martinis & Mayhem (Murder, She Wrote #5). Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain. Signet (1995). 287 pages. Genre: Cozy Mystery.

First Line:  "People who don't know Maine suffer from the delusion that it never gets hot there."

Summary:  Jessica is leaving Maine to spend a week in San Francisco publicizing her newest book.  Maine is having a heatwave and she is looking forward to the cooler weather in San Francisco.  As part of her tour, her publicist has arranged for her to visit a Women's Correctional Facility where she will give a talk on journal writing.  Jessica is feeling a bit apprehensive, but hopes she can offer some helpful information to the woman.  Most of the women seem uninterested, but there is one woman who asks some pointed questions.  When Jessica returns to her hotel later that day she discovers a journal in her handbag.  The journal was placed there by the interested woman at the Correctional Facility.  It turns out she is in prison for murdering her husband.  There was quite a bit of debate around the trial, as many thought she was innocent.  As Jessica reads the journal, she also becomes convinced the woman is innocent.  She is only in town for a short time, will she be able to find evidence to prove the woman's innocence?

My thoughts:  Spending time with Jessica Fletcher is always a treat.  This time was especially enjoyable because the book begins in Cabot Cove, so we get a taste of Maine before she heads off on her adventure.  

The bulk of the book takes place in San Francisco.  The author did an amazing job of giving the reader a feel for San Francisco.  At one point Jessica walks across the Golden Gate Bridge.  As she does so, she describes for the reader what she is seeing.  This helped me feel like I was there.  She also spends time at Fisherman's Wharf and some other landmarks in the area.  The author gives good descriptions as well as some history about some of the places she visits. 

While in San Francisco, Jessica learns that her friend George Sutherland is in town attending a conference.  It turns out that the woman in prison, Kimberly, grew up in Britain.  When she had been sent to prison, several of her family members visited George at Scotland Yard and asked him to help investigate.  George is also convinced she is innocent.  George and Jessica work together to investigate.  Along the way they discover that maybe they are interested in becoming more than friends.  Time will tell.  

The mystery was unique in that the police believed they already had the killer.  So they were not much help in the investigation.  However, Jessica made an agreement with one police officer who wanted her to read is book manuscript  and give him advice.  She agreed to read it and give her opinion in exchange for a look at some files.  There is not too much suspense, but as Jessica keeps digging, things finally begin to add up.

This was an enjoyable addition to the series.  I am reading the series in order and look forward to Jessica's next adventure. 



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Book Review: Affliction by Russell Banks

AfflictionAffliction. Russell Banks. Harper Collins (1989). 355 pages. Genre: Fiction.

First Lines: "This is the story of my older brother's strange criminal behavior and his disappearance.  No one urged me to reveal these things; no one asked me not to. We who loved him simply no longer speak of Wade, not among ourselves and not with anyone else, either."

Summary:  Wade Whitehouse has lived in Lawford, New Hampshire his whole life.  While his brother and sister moved away, Wade stayed.  Right after graduation he married his high school sweetheart.  They have a daughter, but are now divorced.  Wade would really like to see more of his daughter.  Her mother is remarried and has moved away, so Wade only sees his daughter a couple of times a month.  Although, he often gets the feeling that she doesn't want to be there.  In fact, the last time she came to see him, she asked to go home. 

Most days he digs wells for Gordon LaRiviere, unless it has snowed, then he plows roads instead.  In addition to this work, he is also the town police officer.  In his free time, Wade can often be found at one of the local bars where he drinks to excess and usually gets in some kind of altercation.  Many mornings he doesn't remember how he got back to his trailer just outside of town.  Most people just expect this of Wade and are patiently waiting until the crisis passes.  His brother, Rolfe, however is worried.  Rolfe lives about an hour away and rarely comes back to Lawton.  Many nights Wade calls his brother and tells him his woes.  

When Wade disappears, Rolfe interviews everyone who had contact with him before his disappearance to try and piece together what happened.  This is Rolfe's story.

My thoughts:  I received this book via my Used Books Monthly subscription.  As I opened the book and began reading those first lines, I was hooked.  Russell Banks is a great storyteller who is able to make you feel like you are there.  The plot is compelling.  As Wade's brother tells the story he fills us in on things he and everyone else in town knows, but we do not. He also describes the landscape, the history of the area, the town and the people.

"A fast-flowing river, the Minuit, runs south through the town, and most of the buildings in Lawford - homes, stores, town hall and churches, no more than fifty buildings in the center in all - are situated on the east side of the river along a half-mile stretch of Route 29, the old Littleton-Lebanon road, replaced a generation ago by the interstate ten miles east."

I have never been to New Hampshire, but after reading this book I certainly feel like I have. 

"For the tens of thousands of years that these narrow valleys and abrupt hillsides have been populated by human beings, life has been characterized by winter, not summer. Warm weather, high blue skies and sunshine, flowers and showers - these are the aberrations.  What is normal is snow from early November well into May; normal is week after week of low zinc-gray overcast skies; is ice that cracks and booms as, closer every night to the bottom of the lake, a new layer of water cools, contracts and freezes beneath the layer of old ice above it."

These descriptive passages not only give the reader a good idea of what the area is like, they also set the tone for the story.  This is not a happy story.  It is sad and dark and bleak.  In many stories, Wade would seem like a monster.  However, Russell Banks helps us see his humanity.  The reader can relate to him, we have had similar thoughts and perhaps done similar things. As Rolfe is trying to piece together what happened, he is also trying to make sense of their upbringing.  Their father was an alcoholic and was abusive and Wade seems to have taken the brunt of that abuse. 

The narrative passages in the story are what kept me reading.  When there was dialogue, however, it was laced with profanity.  It was difficult to read and I often skimmed over much of it.  Fortunately, there were a lot of narrative passages!  There is also sexual content in the book.  

There is a lot to like about this book, but the profanity, the sexual content and the overall darkness of the book make it difficult for me to recommend. 

Quotes:

"A country boy and the third child in a taciturn family that left children early to their own devices, as if there were nothing coming in adult life worth preparing them for, Wade from infancy had found himself, often and for long periods of time, essentially alone."

"But somehow, the sight of that shrunken old man holding the flower before him in trembling hands, unsure of what to do with it, made us briefly forgive ourselves, perhaps, and allowed us to see him as she must have seen him, which is to say, allowed us to love him, and to know that she loved him and that there was no way we could have saved her from him, not Lena, surely, and not I, and not Wade."


Sunday, February 28, 2021

February Reading Wrap-Up

 

Image credit: Roland Jordahl
Birds & Blooms


The month of February gave us a variety of weather.  The month started out average with temperatures in the 20's, but they quickly began to drop.  By the end of the first week, temperatures hovered near the zero mark.  That was the beginning of about two weeks of temperatures ranging from -25 to just above zero.  During those very cold days we were blessed with clear, bright, sunny skies.  

The picture above is a Black-capped Chickadee.  Even during the very coldest days, these tiny birds could be seen in the crab apple tree in my backyard.  They were flitting around from branch to branch calling "phoe-bee" or as I was taught, "cu-tie".  It was amazing to watch them.  The cold didn't seem to bother them in the least.  

The weather has begun to warm up and we are enjoying temperatures in the 30's!  Spring is getting closer.  

This month I read 9 books in the following genres:

Historical Fiction: 2
Mystery: 1
Cozy Mystery: 3
Fiction: 2
Juvenile Fiction: 1

Historical Fiction:

The House Girl by Tara Conklin - Carolina Sparrow is a first-year lawyer who is part of a team of lawyers working on a case involving restitution for the descendants of slaves. Josephine Bell is a slave living on Bell Creek Plantation in Virginia.  Carolina and Josephine's stories intersect in a surprising way.

The Dress Shop on King Street by Ashley Clark - Another dual timeline novel also taking place in the South.  Harper loves to sew and design dresses.  She is attending college and has hopes of graduating and opening her own dress shop.  However, things don't go as planned and Harper is forced to make some life changing plans.  Millie is a young woman in 1946, who also dreams of one day owning a dress shop.  However, because she comes from a mixed race family, she doesn't expect that dream to ever become a reality.  As their lives intersect, they begin helping one another realize their dreams.

Mystery:

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino - A man is found dead in his locked home.  His wife is out of town, but her apprentice has a key.  When the apprentice can't reach the man by phone, she goes to their home where she finds him dead.  He appears to have been poisoned, but was it suicide or was he murdered?  The mystery is well plotted and worked through step by step.

Cozy Mystery: 

Murder with Oolong Tea (Daisy's Tea Garden #6) by Karen Rose Smith - When an opinionated teacher from the local high school is found dead during the Spring Tea, Daisy does her best not to get involved.  But, since the prime suspect is someone Daisy is sure didn't commit the crime, she begins to ask some questions to try and discover who would have wanted the teacher dead.  Meanwhile, her oldest daughter and husband are learning what it's like to be parents, her youngest daughter invites a friend to stay for a few weeks and her relationship with Jonas is a bit rocky.  

A Fatal Winter (Max Tudor #2) by G. M. Malliet - It's Christmastime in Nether Monkslip and Father Max is looking forward to all the traditions associated with the holiday.  Just outside of town, something sinister is brewing at Chedrow Castle.  Lord Footrustle has invited his relations to the castle for a visit.  He and his sister Lady Baynard are lonely.  Unfortunately, most of their relations can't stand to be in the room with one another.  It is not long before there is a death at the castle.

Egg Drop Dead (Noodle Shop Mystery #5) by Vivien Chien - Lana Lee has added a catering business to her parents' Chinese restaurant.  Her first client is a friend of the family, Donna Feng.  She is throwing a birthday party for herself at her lavish home.  Since her husband's death a few months ago, Donna has not been herself.  In fact, she loses her temper with her nanny in front of all the guests.  When the nanny is found dead in the pool a few hours later, Donna is the prime suspect.  Donna begs Lana to help her find out who killed the nanny.

Fiction:

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson - Tina Hopgood has always wanted to visit the Silkeborg Museum to see the Tollund Man.  Years ago she read about him in a book and made a pact with her best friend to visit.  Tina is realizing she may never get there and decides to write a letter to the man who wrote the book.  She doesn't really expect a reply, assuming he is either very old or dead.  When the museum curator writes back explaining that the professor is dead, Tina feels she must send another letter.  So begins correspondence between the two.

Affliction by Russell Banks - After Wade Whitehouse disappears, his brother tries to piece together what happened. (Review coming soon)

Juvenile Fiction:

Surprise Island by Gertrude Chandler Warner - Grandfather has a surprise for the Alden children.  He has an island!  And they get to spend the summer there.  The children set up their "home" in a barn and get busy exploring.  Captain Dan lives on the island and has a young friend staying with him.  The children spend their days exploring the island, cooking food, swimming and creating books of flowers and shells they have spotted on the island.  

Around the blog:

My journal - I shared what I include in my journals.  Back in October I had written about how I use my journals as a commonplace book.  This article shows what else I include in my journals.

I am still working my way through One Hundred and One Famous Poems.  I have failed miserably at reading a poem a day.  I did read a few throughout the month though.

I hope you had a great February full of good reads!

~ Gretchen



I am linking up with The Monthly Wrap-Up Round-Up hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight. 


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book Review: Egg Drop Dead by Vivien Chien

Egg Drop Dead (A Noodle Shop Mystery, #5)Egg Drop Dead (Noodle Shop Mystery #5). Vivien Chien. St. Martin's Press (2020). 320 pages. Genre: Cozy Mystery.

First Line: "'I am not going to wear a qi-pao to Donna Feng's party, Mother!'"

Summary:  Lana Lee, manager of her parents' Chinese restaurant, has recently added a catering service to the business.  The summer months can be slow and catering would bring in some extra money.  Donna Feng, owner of the shopping plaza where the restaurant is located, is their first catering customer.  She is planning a fancy dinner party for her birthday and has hired Lana and her crew to provide the food. 

Since her husband was murdered a few months ago, Donna hasn't been her usual, bold self.  The night of the party she seems anxious and flustered.  Lana notices that Donna has been drinking quite a bit.  It all comes to a head when Donna's young teenage twins decide to perform cannonballs into the pool, soaking many of the guests.  Donna is embarrassed and angry.  She screams at the girls to get out of the pool.  Then she begins looking for the nanny, Alice.  The girls say they don't know where she is.  When Donna locates Alice, she begins yelling at her in front of all the guests.  After Alice apologizes, she flees to the safety of the house.  Lana has never seen Donna act this way. 

After most of the guests have gone, just a few of the people Donna hired are cleaning up.  Suddenly there is a scream from the backyard.  Alice has been found floating in the pool.  Donna is the most likely suspect as her outburst was witnessed by most of the guests at the party.  But Lana can't believe Donna would do such a thing.  Who else would have a motive to kill Alice?  Donna begs Lana to help her figure out who killed Alice.

My thoughts:  In the previous book in this series, Donna Feng's husband was killed.  Lana helped Donna find the killer, so Donna wants Lana to help her again.  The two of them had bonded during this time, so it was nice to see the relationship continue.  Most people, including Donna's friends, believe she is the murderer.  Lana doesn't believe Donna is capable of murder.  Donna has some secrets from her past that she thinks may be catching up with her now.  Nobody seems to know much about Alice or her past, so this is an interesting place for Lana to begin investigating.  The mystery is good with plenty of suspects and secrets to uncover.

This series is unique in that Lana's family owns a Chinese restaurant located in a shopping plaza called Asia Village.  Most of the businesses in this plaza are run by Asian families.  I always enjoy the role Asian American culture plays in the books.  Lana's family only plays a minor role in this installment, but they meet for dim sum every Sunday which usually leads to laughs.  Lana's relationship with Adam continues to develop.  I like the way their relationship is slowly developing over the course of the books.  

One of the interesting new characters added this time is a Private Investigator named Lydia Shephard.  Donna's husband had hired her in the past, so Lana needs to visit her and ask some questions.  Because of some of the things in Donna's past, Lana thinks she may be in way over her head and encourages Donna to hire Lydia.  I hope we see more of her in future books. 

One of the things I appreciate about this series is that the author has found a nice balance between Lana's personal life and the mystery that needs to be solved.  The main characters' stories advance, we meet some new characters and solve a good mystery.  This was another enjoyable read in the Noodle Shop Mystery series.  If you are new to this series, I would recommend starting with the first book, Death By Dumpling.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Book Review: A Fatal Winter by G. M. Malliet

A Fatal Winter (Max Tudor #2)A Fatal Winter (Max Tudor #2). G. M. Malliet. Minotaur Books (2012). 364 pages. Genre: Cozy Mystery.

First Line: "Oscar, Lord Footrustle, was in his castle, spying from the squint in his private chamber overlooking the Great Hall."

Summary:  Father Max Tudor is looking forward to returning to his home in the quaint village of Nether Monkslip and carrying on all the traditions that come with the advent season.  He has been in London speaking at a symposium on the preservation of British churches.  The train ride will be several hours, which gives him time to decompress.  However, it was not to be.  As he walked into his train compartment he was followed by an elderly lady whose accent reveals her upper-class status.  Lady Baynard has a quick mind, full of thoughts about herself that she takes pleasure in sharing with anyone who will listen.

Lady Baynard, Leticia, lives at Chedrow Castle with her twin brother, Oscar, Lord Footrustle.  Oscar has decided to extend invitations to his family to come to the castle for a visit.  He and Leticia are getting older and are often lonely.  However, his children and nieces and nephews can hardly stand to be in the same room with one another.  But, each one wants to remain in the good graces of Oscar, so they begin arriving at the castle.  The air is thick with animosity and it is not long before death arrives at the doorstep.  Lord Footrustle has been stabbed to death in his bed.  Upon hearing the news of the death of her brother, Lady Baynard succumbs as well.  

DCI Cotton has been assigned to the case and wastes no time in contacting Father Max.  He dispatches Max to the castle to support the family, plan the funerals and snoop around while he is at it.  Suspects abound, but can Max pinpoint who had enough malice to kill Oscar?

My thoughts: A murder at a family gathering in the English countryside inside an ancient castle?  What fun!  

Max Tudor, former MI5 agent, entered the priesthood to get away from the lies and violence that surrounded his former life.  However, he doesn't mind using his skills to help local law enforcement on occasion.  His profession as a priest often causes others to open up to him.  In this way he is able to learn information that law enforcement would not be privy to.  This is exactly what DCI Cotton is hoping when he sends Max to Chedrow Castle.  

As Max begins meeting the Footrusle family he realizes there is not much love between any of the members.  The family consists of Jocasta Jones, daughter of Lord Footrustle by his first wife, and her husband Simon.  Jocasta and Simon live in Hollywood, CA where Jocasta is an actress and Simon is her support.  Next, we have Gwynyth, the second, much younger wife of Lord Footrustle.  They are also divorced, but have two children, twins Alec and Amanda.  The twins are fourteen and barely know their father.  He has never taken much interest in them.  However, Alec is the heir to the title being Oscar's only son.  Gwynyth doesn't have much time for her children either, as she is so busy spending the money Oscar gave her. 

Lady Baynard, a widow,  had three children and an adopted grandchild.  Her oldest son is Randolph.  He is a photographer, which his mother sees as no kind of job for a Viscount.  Her next child was Lea.  Lea and her husband were killed years before leaving behind Lamorna, their adopted child.  Lady Baynard has grudgingly taken in Lamorna.  She tried her hand at mission work, but when that was finished she had no where to go.  In order to save herself from embarrassment, Leticia gives her a place to stay and keeps her busy with servant's duties.   Lester is the youngest son and he is married to Felberta.  The pair is known as Lester and Fester behind their backs.  There is not one person in all of these relations that has anything nice to say about another.  This is handled well by the author.  Many of these characters seem almost cartoonish.  Just when the degradation of one another was getting to be too much, the author would move us to something else.  

The mystery was complex.  On the surface the motivation seemed to be greed for Oscar's money.  But they were all greedy.  I enjoyed the way DCI Cotton and Max worked methodically through the case.  They would interview someone and then discuss what they learned, what that told them and who to interview next.  When Max finally figured out who the culprit was, he gathered all the family members and staff together and confronted them, just like Hercule Poirot.  

There are lots of literary references in this novel, which was a lot of fun.  There is also plenty of humor, which lightens things up.  Most of the story takes place at the castle, so it was a nice change when Max was back in Nether Monkslip and we got a glimpse of life in the village.  

There is some language in the book.  It is mostly by one character and only a couple of instances.

I really enjoyed this second book in the Max Tudor series. It contained a great mystery, interesting characters, a fantastic setting and a little bit of romance.  I look forward to another visit to Nether Monkslip. 

Quotes:

"Robert Louis Stevenson had written something about the heart being full of the stillness of the country, and that was what Max felt on a train.  Even short delays en route didn't bother him.  So long as he had something to read or something to gaze at out the window, he was renewed in spirit by the enforced stillness, even though his mind might be racing."

"The weather cooperated, but grudgingly.  The South West of England boasted a temperate climate that since time immemorial had drawn visitors to its shores, and this record for scenic hospitality was only now being threatened by the caprices of global warming.  The area still enjoyed what the locals called 'rainfall on tap' - rain when needed, sun when not - and the deep soil of the region meant not only good planting but good grazing for much of the year."


Calendar of Crime - January, winter scene on cover

Friday, February 19, 2021

Book Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Meet Me at the MuseumMeet Me at the Museum.  Anne Youngson.  Flatiron Books (2018). 272 pages.  Genre: Fiction, Epistolary Fiction. 

First Line:  "Bury St. Edmunds, November 22, Dear Professor Glob, Although we have never met, you dedicated a book to me once; to me, thirteen of my schoolmates, and your daughter."

Summary:  Tina Hopgood has always meant to visit the Tollund Man at Silkeborg Museum in Denmark.  She decides to send a letter to Professor Glob, who wrote a book about the Tollund Man that inspired her interest.  She really doesn't expect to receive a response, figuring that Professor Glob is probably quite old or dead by now.  

Anders Larsen, curator at the Silkeborg Museum, receives and reads the letter.  He responds to Mrs. Hopgood, explaining to her that Professor Glob is indeed dead and gives her some further information about the Tollund Man.  He doesn't expect a response to this letter, but thought it would be kind to let her know her letter was received and that the professor had died.

Tina sends another letter and so their correspondence continues.  In the course of the writing they leave off talking about the Tollund Man and move to sharing about their personal lives. 

My thoughts:  I have mixed feelings about this book.  I didn't love it, but there were things I liked about it. One of the things I liked about it was the epistolary nature of the novel.  After reading 84, Charing Cross Road last year, I have enjoyed this type of writing.  This story is somewhat reminiscent of 84, Charing Cross Road in that it consists of letters written between a man and a woman in different countries.  However, that is where the similarities end.  Of course, one is fiction, the other non-fiction.  One is about the books and the other isn't.  

I could relate to the characters' thoughts about reaching mid-life or slightly beyond and wondering if your life has meant anything and feeling a sense of loss because your life has turned out differently than you imagined.

"One of these thoughts is about plans never fulfilled.  You know what I mean - if you are still alive you must be a very old man by now and it must have occurred to you that what you thought would happen, when you were young, never did."

However, I found Tina to be someone who was void of joy and who had been putting on an act for most of her life, especially in her marriage.  She made comments about finding joy in things her grandchildren did, but otherwise she seemed to have a martyr attitude.

I spent most of the book feeling uncomfortable with the relationship forming between Tina and Anders, as well as some of the decisions made by family members.  Fortunately, some of these things resolved themselves or came to light before the conclusion of the book.  

Overall, this was just not the book for me.  Others have given the book high praise, so your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Mini Reviews: The Boxcar Children and Surprise Island by Gertrude Chandler Warner

The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children, #1)The Boxcar Children series was one of my favorites when I was young.  I don't remember how many I read, but I know I read all of the books originally written by Gertrude Chandler Warner.  She wrote the first 19 books.  There are currently over 150 titles in the series. Clearly, readers were not ready for an end to their adventures.  

The Boxcar Children summary:  The parents of Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden have recently died.  They have a grandfather who is looking for them, but they believe he doesn't like children and are afraid to go live with him.  As they set out on their own, they discover an abandoned boxcar.  This seems like the perfect place to make a home.  However, as their grandfather is looking for them they need to stay out of sight.  So they sleep during the day and set up their home in the evening.  Will they be able to avoid their grandfather?

Surprise Island summary:  School is out for the summer and Grandfather has a surprise for them.  He has made arrangements for the children to spend the summer on a island near his home.  It will be like living in the boxcar again, only this time it is on an island in a barn.  There is lots of exploring to be done and a few mysteries to uncover.

My thoughts:  These stories are still delightful.  I had forgotten that they really are mysteries.  Some of the titles have the word "mystery" in them, but they all contain some sort of mystery.  The mystery in The Boxcar Children involves their grandfather.  Who is this man?  Why is he looking for them if he doesn't like children?  In Surprise Island, the mystery involves a young man staying on the island with Captain Dan.  He claims to be a handyman, but he seems to know a lot about shells, animals, birds and Indian artifacts.  Who is he really?

I had also forgotten how industrious the children were.  They are constantly working in some way.  They each have a job and do it, but when the work is done, they rest constructively.  Sometimes this means swimming, other times they build things or make crafts.  Occasionally, they invite someone to dinner or have a birthday party.  

There is always an adventure and sometimes danger.  But, in the end, the children are safe and the problems are solved.  This was comforting to me as a child and brought back that feeling as an adult. 

When I was young, my sister and I, along with our cousins, spent time  at our grandparents' home.  They lived in a house in the country surrounded by woods.  We spent hours playing in those woods, setting up our "house" and just wandering around.  I hadn't realized how much these books inspired what we did.  

I enjoyed these stories just as much as an adult as I did as a child.  As an adult I found them to be refreshing and a reminder that it is the simple things combined with hard work that make a fulfilling life.  I highly recommend this series for children or adults.  They also make great read-alouds.