Tag Archives: mystery

Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries

I’ve been a fan of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries for years so when I saw they were making a spin-off TV show set in the ’60s about her niece, I knew I had to watch it! 

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It does not disappoint. Peregrine Fisher might lack some of her aunt’s polish, but she makes up for it with pizzazz. Joining her is Detective James Steed and the members of the “Adventuresses’ Club.”

The “Adventuresses’ Club” lacks some development (despite many members, only 3 people play a relevant role at any given time) and Detective James Steed is no Detective Jack Robinson (but then again, who is?). Despite this, the show is engaging and the mysteries varied and interested. I definitely recommend giving it a shot if you enjoy Miss Fisher. 

I only hope there will be more than 4 episodes! 


Miss Silver Mysteries by Patricia Wentworth

I don’t remember which list or blog put me on to Miss Silver, perhaps the ‘Early Female Detectives’ list from Goodreads or ‘Best Vintage Female Sleuths’ from a blog I follow. Maybe even, ‘Best Mysteries Written in the Early Nineteen Hundreds.’

Whatever the case, Miss Silver was recommended to me as a female Sherlock Holmes. And with 32 books in the series published from 1928 to 1961, I figured it was worth checking out. 

I am three books in and I am not sure if it is worth continuing. So far none of them have reached over 3 stars. 

Let’s focus on the titular heroine: Miss Silver. First off, she is not a female Sherlock Holmes. That is a bald lie. She is a very competent former governess who handles discrete inquiries and goes “oh my, we should call the police” if actual violence occurs. 

Despite the prevalence of her name, she is also not a main character, at least in the first two books of the series: Grey Mask and The Case is Closed. Replace “Miss Silver” with “generic constable #3” and not a lot changes except for some vague sexism which–to give the book credit–usually gets disproved. Book 3, Lonesome Road, made me hopeful because it introduced Miss Silver in the first chapter but her role remains somewhat vague throughout. 

Other female characters do not fare much better, even if they take lead roles. Usually they are silly creatures in need of an exasperated male to keep an eye on them. They also have flashes of ‘womanly intuition’ that lead to them solving the mystery. And in my opinion, womanly intuition is cheating

To give the series its due, I like Miss Silver. People usually overlook her or assume she cannot do what she claims because she looks like an old fashion and silly woman. And then she goes and digs up the information they need. I think if she got a more prevalent role, I would like her even more. 

But I’m not sure I will stick around long enough to find out if she gets one. 


Silence For the Dead by Simone St. James

Silence For the Dead

The Great War just ended but for many the horror still remains. 21-year-old Kitty Weekes is on the run. Determined to get out of London, she forges credentials and presents herself as a nurse at Portis House, a “madhouse” for soldiers suffering from PTSD. But Portis House hides its own secrets. The previous owners mysteriously disappeared. An unknown stalks the corridors at night. And the men all suffer from the same terror…someone coming for them at night. Someone now coming for Kitty, too.

4 out of 5 stars

Silence For the Dead attempts two things. Separately, they succeed. Together, they fall short of full success. But surprisingly, not as short as I initially expected.

First, the book presents historical fiction with a psychological twist. The plot takes place post-WW1 in a “madhouse” for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Kitty experienced abuse as a child and suffers her own form of PTSD. It all feels very realistic and well-crafted. While the heroine might demonstrate a little too much ‘open-mindedness’ for true historicity, the modern mindset towards mental health does not really permeate these pages and that helps a lot with the setting. These men—and the people around them—view themselves as cowards for giving into their nightmares. As historical fiction I found I really enjoyed the setting and the balance the author strikes. 

Second, this is a ghost story. Think And Then There Were None but with ghosts. The characters all live in isolation with no chance of escape, even the staff. Something is coming and they are helpless to stop it. The mystery of the abandoned house-turned-hospital remains an open ended question until the climax. Very intense, very eerie, and very enjoyably put together. I am as a general rule skeptical of ghosts and “mad” characters who act without rhyme or reason. They make such terribly convenient excuses for irrational actions. But the author doesn’t give into the convenience; she does a good job laying the groundwork and setting up the climax. It really pushed this book up a star in my mind.

Separately, then, two good plots. The problem comes when you combine them. It is hard to take the soldiers’ PTSD seriously when ghosts stalk around causing trouble. But on the flip side, it is hard to genuinely enjoy the ghost story when the author so carefully presents actual, psychological issues. The fantasy disrupts the realism and the realism disrupts the fantasy. I never felt the full “punch” of either story line because the other one kept dancing in my peripheral vision, distracting from the actual emotions before me.

But it works in the end. Not, perhaps, as well as it could. But well enough that I do recommend this one if either of those genres catches your interest. It was an engrossing, fun story. I’ll definitely find more by this author.

(PG-13 for a fade to black scene.)


Mandie and the Secret Tunnel by Lois Gladys Leppard

Image result for Mandie and the Secret Tunnel lois Gladys Leppard

Almost 20 years separates me from the first time I read Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. I loved this series growing up. I read every book and deeply mourned when Lois Gladys Leppard died before finishing the Mandie College Days series. I still remember the day my Mom took me up to the kids section of our local library and suggested I try the first book. I remember finding it slow at first, and then fascinating. I remember staying up till 9 pm reading Mandie books in the living room and feeling quite spooked when it came time to go to bed. I remember my joy when, after I thought I read them all, my library got Mandie and the Quilt Mystery (2002). I remember impatiently waiting for Mandie and the Missing Schoolmarm (2004) to get published. (Incidentally, I still own that one.) I remember reading New Horizons in 2010 and feeling such delight at being reunited with my old friends. For me, the Mandie series remains a dear, integral part of my literary childhood.

Heady with feelings of nostalgia, I picked up Mandie and the Secret Tunnel for a quick trip down memory lane. Unfortunately…or fortunately…well…see my reaction for yourself: (Spoilers to follow.) 

The story centers around Mandie Shaw, a 12 year old girl whose father dies and whose step-mother decides to quickly remarry. She then send Mandie to work as a nursemaid which prevents her from going to school. Finding this intolerable, Mandie decides to run away to the house of her uncle (whose existence she previously had no knowledge of) with the help of Uncle Ned – an old Cherokee Indian who befriended her father and vowed to watch over her. 

As a kid, this set up a fabulous adventure. Of course she should run away. What an evil family! However, as an adult, I sympathize with the step-mother. What do you do with a rambunctious 12 year old when you do not have food to go around? You send her to a place where she will get food and shelter and be useful. Maybe not kind by modern standards, but perfectly acceptable for the era!

Meanwhile, Mandie travels to her uncle’s home where she learns he is away traveling in Europe. The servants accept her with no questions asked (even though we later learn her uncle only recently learned of her existence, so how they know who she is I-don’t-know) and begin to spoil her. This includes making her fancy new gowns from a special sewing room in the house filled with silks and lace and buttons. (We never do learn why an old bachelor maintains such a glorious sewing room.) Unfortunately, a messenger then arrives to say Uncle John died in Europe and the lawyer cannot find his will. This leads to the crux of the plot, the search for Uncle John’s will. Meanwhile, various people show up claiming to be nieces and nephews of the deceased. Everyone knows they are phonies, but no one can apparently do anything about it. 

In fact, at one point, an old family friend blatantly informs one of the phonies that he knew the family for over 27 years and John never had a sister. Instead of kicking out the phony, the servants go, ‘eh, we knew it was smoky! Pity we can’t do anything about it.’ 

Exactly what these phonies hope to accomplish, especially if a will does turn up, never becomes clear. They really play almost no role in the plot. No one doubts Mandie’s claim as niece, so they don’t even serve to make her role more uncertain. 

Anyway, turns out Uncle John is not dead, but only pretending. Apparently he wanted to find out who was trustworthy to take care of his newly fatherless niece should anything happen to him. The niece, I might add, he completely ignored after her father’s death and left to become a drudge. As he could not know Mandie planned to run away to his house before enacting this scheme, and as the only people who appear affected by his death are his servants, I have no idea what he hoped to accomplish by his plan. Literally, it is the most convoluted, useless scheme possible. But it does create the necessary tension to keep the story going. 

This book did not age well. Uncle Ned speaks awkward, broken English that 90% of the time consists of the words “papoose” or “happy hunting grounds.” If I remember correctly, this does not change throughout the series. Joe – Mandie’s neighborhood friend who reached heights of romance in my eyes as a child with his repeated statements about marrying Mandie someday – informs her she can’t go to school for too many more years because he “does not want a wife who is smarter than him.” Also, let’s talk about the fact that he is 14 when he says this. What 14 year old thinks that far into the future? You say, ‘ah! They grew up faster then!’ I say, you can’t pick and choose when you want to be historically correct. The characters definitely use the word “boyfriend” – a phrase that would hold no meaning at the time. Finally, I’m not saying he is a gold digger, but I am saying he went from saying “I’ll take care of you” to “I’ll marry you” only after she learned she was an heiress…

Throw in several other slightly sketchy plot elements (like the way Mandie’s real mother kind of get strong armed into marrying Mandie’s uncle) or really off the wall statements (like Mandie’s mother telling her mother she could move away since she knew her mother “had the servants to take care of her”) and you get one weird book. 

But not a bad book. You see, I went in excepting a mystery novel. The plot elements baffled me because no mystery really existed, and the motives of the characters made no sense. I do not think this book ever intended to stand solely as a mystery novel, though. It resembles much more the genre of ‘adventure books for girls.’ 

From a writing perspective, it screams plot inconsistencies. From an adventure book for grade and middle school girls? Oh, it rocks. An orphan heroine, strong friendships, secret tunnels, missing wills, ghosts, wealthy relatives, fabulous dresses, a Cherokee spy network, long-lost relatives…this book contains it all! When you focus on the adventure, plot consistency matters less. What does matter is an exciting story with crazy twists and scary turns. And this book contains those elements in abundance. 

While this book lost some of its nostalgic glow (poor Uncle Ned), overall I am pleased with it. It remains a romping adventure for young girls. It made me wince occasionally, but it also reintroduced me to some of my favorite characters and awoke a bunch of dormant memories. I consider this re-read a success. 

 

 

 

And finally, to the person who told me it did not matter that Lois Gladys Leppard would write no more Mandie College Days because fans could write fan-made sequels, I’ve thought about what you said for 8 years and I disagree. It is not the same. 


Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

I picked up Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham by accident. I remembered that I had a book on my to-read list that was something-Undercover (Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown, as it happens) but I had forgotten what so I decided to check Scarlett out. Even once I figured out my mistake, I was pleasantly intrigued by the premise of the story and decided to finish it. And it wasn’t bad. However, it never lived up to its potential. 

Plot: Scarlett is a smart, fifteen-year-old Muslim-American orphan who runs a detective business. When she gets hired to investigate the suicide of a local teenager, she assumes the case will be pretty open and closed. However, she quickly stumbles into something much larger and more dangerous, something that might even lead her to solve her Father’s murder. 

Thoughts: I’m a sucker for a good noir style detective story and I was drawn to Scarlet Undercover‘s promise of just that. I was excited for the unusual heroine and I was even down with the fantasy/mythical/chosen one style mystery that went along with her. The story does live up to some of its promise. However, as the book progressed, I grew more and more confused about what was going on. There is a magical ring that plays a large role in the last half and all I could think of was: 

But seriously. Rings…cults…magic…churches…Jewish boys…guardian angels…end of the world…this plot is everywhere. It is a lot to take in. Plus, there are too many characters. I kept forgetting people. The story starts out simply enough but blows up into something enormous. Yet even with this sprawling plot, I never felt the enormity of the situation. Perhaps the problem is with Scarlett, who never quite seems to believe it either. She takes everything in stride, follows flashes of intuition, and even during the climax is confident and sassy. She never seemed to believe the artifacts were magical and so I never felt it either.
However, I really did like Scarlett. She’s tough and sassy and fun to read. She doesn’t get bogged down in angst. The romance was unbelievable but there is basically no development of it so you don’t have to put up with more than an occasional paragraph. 

Overall, I didn’t dislike anything overly much about this story, I just felt ambivalent or confused about a lot. It is nice to see some cultural and ethnic diversity in a YA heroine. I’d read more by this author. I don’t necessarily recommend this one, though. 


Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey

Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey is a charming, new, Young Adult novel set in the Regency period and written in the spirit of Georgette Heyer. I’ve been excited to read it ever since I found out it was being published. Regency? Mystery? Georgette Heyer? Check, check, check! A couple positive reviews and this book easily went up on my to-read list. 

While it wasn’t amazing, this book definitely didn’t disappoint. Love, Lies, and Spies contains the usual tropes of the genre (such as a heroine uninterested in marriage) and as many outrageous, dramatic scenes and kidnappings as could possibly fit in one novel. However, it does so almost tongue and cheek and it is hard not to enjoy intrigue and humor of the improbable situations. 

I enjoyed the characters and, for the most part, the main couple’s romance (even if it got a little sappy and definitely was aimed at female readers.) I like that the heroine was gutsy and smart. The hero was charming. Everything was kept clean and there is no language that I can think of. 

I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I would definitely re-read it but its main audience is clearly teenage girls. Fluffy but fun


2015 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 1

Based on the vast number of good books I read this year, I have broken this post into three parts to help readability. As usual, books are not laid out in any specific way, but in the random order ordained by Goodreads (and myself!) See any favorites?

Enjoy!

Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched A Hundred Years of Federalism by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips

Rarely do you find biographies so readable and uniquely connected to everyday life. Contempt of Court covers the trial and lynching of Ed Johnson, an African American accused of raping a white woman in 1906. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, a judge found him guilty and sentenced him to death. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened and eventually went so far as to hold those connected to his lynching in contempt of court. This case was the only time the Supreme Court ever heard a criminal case. United States v. Shipp did more than decide one man’s guilt or innocence. It declared the Supreme Court had authority over a state criminal court case. This both reflected and launched a new age of federal involvement. Very worth reading.

Strong Poison (book 6), Gaudy Night (book 12), and Busman’s Honeymoon (book 13) by Dorothy L. Sayers

These are all books in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. To be honest, I love them all and if you haven’t discovered the brilliance that is Dorothy L. Sayers, you really need to. Her mysteries are intellectual and intriguing and Sir Peter Wimsey is wonderful. However, these three were my absolute favorites. (If you know the series, you’ll realize all these books involve Harriet Vane. She is fabulous.) What is great, though, is that they are all wonderful in equally different ways. Strong Poison involves a cold case, where the murder happened months earlier and now Sir Peter must piece together the clues. Gaudy Night takes place at Oxford and is very soul-searching and academic. Busman’s Honeymoon is everything a fangirl could want for the couple she’s been shipping for 6 books. Oh, so good. I want to go re-read them right now.

The Science of Success by Charles Koch

Easy to understand and filled with helpful principles, this is an “abbreviated” predecessor of Good Profit. It was designed for more internal use and that comes across. Certainly worth reading for a better understanding of Market Based Management and Koch Industries. There are lots of interesting stories and it really is a good grounding in MBM. However. Good Profit is now out. Go read that one.

The Queen’s Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

If you want to be technical, only The King of Attolia (book 3) and A Conspiracy of Kings (book 4) got 5 stars from me, but the entire series is totally worth it. While the first book, The Thief, feels a little slow, it has a terrific twist at the end. Plus, the series picks up and gets better and better and BETTER. It has adventure, battles, romance, plot twists. The series will break your heart a million different ways, every one of them worth it. I can’t really give plot descriptions without giving something away, so just go read it already. (There are some mature themes, so I recommended for high schoolers on up)

Guys Are Waffles, Girls Are Spaghetti by Chad Eastham

Chad Eastham’s book Guys Like Girls Who… played an influential role in my life in high school. It was great reading him again. Guys Are Waffles, Girls Are Spaghetti is aimed at teenagers and talks about the different ways guys and girl function. It covers a myriad of topics like brain development, emotions, and relationships. Funny, serious, and easy to read, the book is a mix of stories, facts, and zany quips.  Even “outside” of the intended age group, I found it very helpful. Highly recommended, especially for teenagers.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

A dark, twisted children’s book that breaks your heart but is eminently worth it. The story is very reminiscent of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. “Plain” Kate is a woodcarver, left on the streets to fend for herself after her parents die. Her woodwork is beautiful, but many whisper that she is a witch. In order to escape the accusations, Kate makes a bargain with a mysterious man: her shadow in exchange for her heart’s wish. Gypsies, magic, and love all come to play in this lyrical story.

Disclaimer: I do not recommend this book to just anyone, and certainly not the intended age group. Plain Kate involves witchcraft, raising the dead, and sacrifices. While many of these things are treated in a negative light, I know many of my readers will not like it.