Tag Archives: mystery

Summer Round Up

She lives!

I’m sorry, I’ve been neglectful, and I have new found respect for all the real book bloggers out there, because after a full day at work, it’s difficult for me to muster the energy to turn on my laptop, let alone write up a book review. You guys are amazing.

The new job is great. I’m learning a ton and feel more secure in my duties with every passing day. Everyone I work with has been incredibly welcoming and so helpful, and I’m lucky to be a part of such a smart team of publicists.

Thanks to my long commute, I’ve been able to get in a lot of pleasure reading and read nearly every book on my Summer 2012 list on Pinterest. Unsurprisingly, much of what I read was in the mystery/thriller genre, which I love all year round but which is particularly good in the summer. I did manage to get in some contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and romance in between murders, though!

I reviewed quite a few of my summer reads on the blog, but here are a few others that I really enjoyed, in capsule. I’m so excited for fall!

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Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Summary from the publisher:
London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

I nearly skipped in delight when I found a copy of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in the lovely gift bag that Random House gave out at the BEA Power Reader breakfast. As a British history student who spent a lot of time studying WWII and Churchill, I was intrigued by a novel narrated from the point of view of his secretary. Someone who was so close to him in the early days of the war was sure to provide very personal insight into what was going on at 10 Downing Street. I also love war stories set on the home front, because those left behind faced an entirely different uncertainty, and it’s incredible to see people band together. And as if all the historical details weren’t enough, there’s the added element of a feisty heroine with a hidden past.

So, with my high expectations, did Mr. Churchill’s Secretary deliver?

Oh, yes. On all scores.

Maggie Hope is a wonderful addition to the “strong women in wartime” cannon. She is whip-smart, brave, and unafraid of voicing her opinions, yet all the while she’s believable and trustworthy, and you want to follow her into her adventures. I loved seeing 10 Downing Street from her perspective and watching her and Churchill gain a mutual respect for one another, and her attempts to understand Churchill’s lingo during her first weeks were particularly hilarious.

This book is so grounded in the period that you can practically hear the air raid sirens and sense the tension in the air as London waits for the Germans to finally drop that first bomb. And that tension exists inside Downing Street as well. So many of my favorite scenes occurred in those halls: Churchill collapsing into his chair with his head in his hands after he dictates the “This was their finest hour” speech to Maggie, Churchill and his aides watching London burn after the very first bombing, the radio broadcasts to boost morale that moved Maggie to tears, the feverish atmosphere in MI-Five as they tried to keep tabs on German sleeper spies and the IRA. Mixed in with the fear, though, are vibrant glimpses of London nightlife, where Maggie and her young friends, most of whom are involved in war work, try to forget, if only for a while.

The most pleasant surprise was the mystery, which unfurled with the occasional misdirections, and just when I thought I had it all figured out, there was one last twist that had my heart racing as I frantically tore through the pages. Really well done!

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a strong debut with something for everyone: history, mystery, romance. I look forward to seeing what Maggie gets up to next in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.

Susan MacNeal, you definitely do not need to buy me that cocktail.

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The Yard by Alex Grecian

The Yard by Alex Grecian

Summary from the publisher:
Victorian London is a cesspool of crime, and Scotland Yard has only twelve detectives—known as “The Murder Squad”—to investigate countless murders every month. Created after the Metropolitan Police’s spectacular failure to capture Jack the Ripper, The Murder Squad suffers rampant public contempt. They have failed their citizens. But no one can anticipate the brutal murder of one of their own . . . one of the twelve . . .When Walter Day, the squad’s newest hire, is assigned the case of the murdered detective, he finds a strange ally in the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley. Together they track the killer, who clearly is not finished with The Murder Squad . . . but why?

This book first came to my attention via a lovely ad in Shelf Awareness, and I was immediately intrigued. I’ve always been fascinated by the early days of the police force, be it Scotland Yard or New York’s finest (and if you are interested in the latter, you must read the fantastic The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye), and this had the added interest of being set directly after the Ripper murders, when London was still reeling and morale at the Yard was extremely low. By the time I got to the part about a serial killer targeting police, I was sold.

And this book delivers. Grecian really captured the ambiance of Victorian London, from the wealthy neighborhoods, to the underbelly of the East End, to the rundown dwellings of the underpaid members of the Murder Squad. He also gave a great sense of the public’s attitude towards the police and how that contempt led the murderer to undertake a sort of vigilante justice. But the most fascinating part, for me, was watching the Murder Squad solve the case without the methods we take for granted, such as fingerprinting, which, at that point, was not an accepted science, and the sequestering of evidence—there was a moment where someone almost made off with the murder weapon that had me on the edge of my seat.

The characters are also absolutely winning. There was a fearful moment at the beginning where Day and Hammersmith’s paths felt slightly divergent, but Grecian brought them together masterfully, and I really loved watching them come into their own. Day, Hammersmith, and pathologist Dr. Kingsley make a great team that I will happily follow through future cases.

This was a solid debut mystery that had me riveted all the way through. I can’t wait for the next installment in the series!

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Still Life by Louise Penny

Still Life by Louise Penny

Summary from the publisher:
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators are called to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods on Thanksgiving morning. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in this holiday season.

Louise Penny is another one of those authors who constantly showed up in my recommendations queue, but that I took forever to get to. I finally picked up Still Life the first book in the Inspector Gamache series, on a cold Friday night after an exhausting week, when my only plan for the evening was to snuggle under the covers with a mystery that was perfectly atmospheric and full of character.

There’s a blurb on the back of the book from the New York Times book review that perfectly captures what I felt about this book:

“[Penny’s] deceptively simple style masks the complex patterns of a well-devised plot.”

Reading Still Life was like stepping into the world of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, where you think discovering the culprit is going to be fairly easy, especially because of the small setting, but, much like Murder on the Orient Express (I mean, how much smaller can you get than a train?), you don’t truly have an inkling until a major confrontation with the murderer occurs. Ms. Penny masterfully redirected my attention from one potential suspect to another so that the guilty party was very much a surprise, even though I realized in hindsight that I should have seen it. To me, that’s not a source of frustration, but the mark of a really good mystery.

Much like Still Life is a modern Agatha Christie mystery, Inspector Gamache is a modern Poirot who solves his cases by a combination of acute observation skills, a keen understanding of people, and the ability to admit when he’s wrong. Everyone who works with Gamache has a deep respect for him (except for a new trainee who Gamache tries to mentor, but who, in the end, is too full of her own convictions to actually benefit from his teachings), and you can see why. I was in awe of Gamache’s patience as he worked through the case and of his contentment with life outside of work, and I was glad to finally make his acquaintance.

If I was happy to meet Gamache, I was over the moon to discover Three Pines. Remember when I said I wanted atmosphere and character? Three Pines has an abundance of both, and Ms. Penny transported me to this quirky little village where everyone knows everyone, especially through the idioms and slices of Quebecois life that she sprinkled through the narrative (all clearly inspired by her own experience as a native of Montreal).  And the citizens of Three Pines are just as charming as the place they reside. I fell in love with each of them and felt their pain at the loss of their beloved neighbor, and I desperately didn’t want the murderer to be a local, even though I knew it had to be.

I’m glad I had the presence of mind to have the second book in the series, A Fatal Grace, directly at hand, because Still Life ends with an eerie observation from Gamache:

“Life was far from harried here. But neither was it still.” (paperback, p. 312)

I hope this lack of stillness continues, because I can’t wait to delve deeper into the lives of Gamache and Three Pines.

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The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Summary from the publisher:
Small-time private investigator Ray Lovell veers between paralysis and delirium in a hospital bed. But before the accident that landed him there, he’d been hired to find Rose Janko, the wife of a charismatic son of a traveling Gypsy family, who went missing seven years earlier. Half Romany himself, Ray is well aware that he’s been chosen more for his blood than his investigative skills. Still, he’s surprised by the intense hostility he encounters from the Jankos, who haven’t had an easy past. Touched by tragedy, they’re either cursed or hiding a terrible secret-whose discovery Ray can’t help suspecting is connected to Rose’s disappearance. . . .

I can’t say how excited I was when The Invisible Ones arrived right before Christmas. Someone from the fabulous marketing team at Putnam recommended it to me because I love Tana French, and between that, the fact that it was about Gypsies in England, and the rave reviews it received in such publications as People, I was itching to pick this up. When I finally did last week, I found that it was well worth the wait.

The Invisible Ones is one of those twisted mysteries where you think you have a handle on where things are going and who the guilty parties are, only to be completely surprised when the truth finally hits you. The fact that Ray lost his memory at a crucial point in the case only heightens this, because you’re desperately trying to piece together his deductions as he remembers them. I was glued to the page, to the point where I wished my commute was just a few minutes longer so I could finish the chapter.

I really enjoyed Ray as a protagonist because he’s not your typical, brilliantly observant private investigator. That’s not to say he’s not those things—he is—but he’s also dealing with a lot of emotional baggage from a painful divorce and a previous case that went horribly wrong, and both of these things play strongly into the Janko case, causing him to be too cautious in certain situations and too trusting in others. And, of course, he has to reconcile his own past with his experiences with the Jankos and the rest of the Gypsy community. A character like this has every potential to be frustrating, but Ray never reached that point for me, rather I felt that he worked through all of his issues as he worked through the case, and when the solution finally became clear to him, he truly earned it.

What fascinated me most about this book, though, was the incredible insight Ms. Penney gave the reader into the Gypsy community through her second narrator, JJ. Gypsies are notoriously reticent towards outsiders, and having JJ’s input on what was going on within the Janko family and on Gypsy lifestyle was invaluable and really made the story special. Without it, The Invisible Ones had the potential to be a one-sided mystery about the dark and mysterious world of the Traveler. I also have to commend Ms. Penney on really capturing the Gypsy lifestyle, both from the traveling stand point and those who live “in bricks,” as she says. It’s clear that there was a lot of research involved, and it’s all presented respectfully, but truthfully.

Even though this book was recommended to me as a Tana French fan, I think The Invisible Ones is in a category all its own. It was an incredibly absorbing yarn that takes its time to unravel, and I highly recommend it.

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I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce #4)I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

It’s 1950 and Christmas has arrived in England, but instead of decking the halls of their sprawling family home, the penniless de Luces find themselves making way for a famous film director, who has offered them a handsome and much-needed sum of money to use the estate for his latest picture. Flavia, the precocious youngest de Luce daughter, is determined not to get swept up in the glitz and glamour like her sisters—she’s conducting a very important chemistry experiment on Christmas Eve to find out if Father Christmas really exists. All of that changes when the star of the film, Phyllis Wyvern, singles Flavia out for her history of assisting the police in certain high profile murder investigations. Little does Flavia know that she’s about to become embroiled in another one. One where almost everyone in town is a suspect, including Flavia herself.

I’m a little surprised that I’ve never read an Alan Bradley book before, particularly because the Flavia de Luce books have come up on my recommendation queue several times over the years, and so many of my friends raved about The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Needless to say, I am going to remedy that right away, because I absolutely adored this book. It reminded me so much of the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the case is far from simple, but it’s handled simply and left to unravel without a hundred crazy twists (although there are a few). Much as I love suspenseful thrillers, it was refreshing to find a modern author who writes like this.

There’s a certain amount of whimsy in the book, and it comes from its wonderful heroine. You can tell that Flavia takes herself very seriously, and she states her opinions with a certainty that only an eleven-year-old can possess. Even though she’s smart and knows how to mix up a chemical compound that will essentially glue Santa to the chimney, the author never forgets that she’s a child who occasionally want to use her knowledge for childish things, like getting revenge for her sisters’ teasing by slipping a little something in their tea to make them nauseous (okay, so it’s a little macabre, but you know you’d have had the same train of thought at that age). The only thing about Flavia that gave me pause was that she noticed glaring things about the crime scene that the police did not. I’m not sure if this ability is explained in previous books, and, if I’m honest, it didn’t bother me all that much in the end, but I can see first time readers taking issue with that.

The setting only added to the whimsy, and in the best possible way. From the first page, I was transported to freezing, crumbling Buckshaw, and Bradley was very successful in creating the atmosphere of a small country town at Christmas. The household staff and village regulars added wonderful color, and I hope future books acknowledge why Flavia’s older sisters harbor such resentment towards her and reveal more about Dogger’s past.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a great, old-fashioned mystery, and I look forward to reading it again around the holidays.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows was this month’s #EarlyBirdRead. Thanks to Random House for sending the book to me!

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In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French

Dear Tana French,

Thank you for making it impossible for me to pick up any of the other books on my to-be-read shelf because I have to get through all three books in your Dublin Murder Squad series.

Sincerely,
Farin
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