Category Archives: 07. Halloween Bingo

Triple Play: More YA

A Deadly EducationA Deadly Education
by Naomi Novick
Rating: ★★★½
Series: The Scholomance #1
Publication Date: September 29, 2020
Genre: supernatural, YA
Pages: 336
Project: halloween bingo

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.

El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

I read this book for my Dark Academia square, which is one of my favorite literary tropes. This one was an interesting take on the legend of the “scholomance,” which is a fabled school of black magic in Romania, especially the region of Transylvania, built and run by the devil. The MC, El (Galadriel – yes, her mom is the sort of witch who names her daughter Galadriel) is a witch who is basically prophesied as the witch who is likely to destroy the world with her magic. The Scholomance itself is a place of desperate risk, where child-eating monsters roam the corridors and the students regularly die. Graduation essentially involves running the gauntlet of hungry monsters after 4 years worth of prep, and by design not everyone makes it through.

And man, she does have some strong magic. Everything she does, whether she intends to do it for good, more or less turns to evil. She asks for a spell to clean her dishes, she gets a spell that incinerates the kitchen. Dishes are clean, though, right?

In addition, being around her is a stressful, unhappy experience for her peers – just being in the same room with her is unpleasant. This has the effect of making El into a misanthrope – she hates pretty much everyone as a defensive mechanism, i.e., you can’t hate me, I hate you first.

However, this book has a sequel, and as the story progresses it seems that, maybe, everything is not as dire as it seems. I’m intrigued enough that I want to read the sequel, but not intrigued enough to buy it. It’s on hold at my library.

The Wide StarlightThe Wide Starlight
by Nicole Lesperance
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: February 16, 2021
Genre: fantasy, supernatural
Pages: 320
Project: halloween bingo

Never whistle at the Northern Lights, the legend goes, or they'll sweep down from the sky and carry you away.

Sixteen-year-old Eline Davis knows it's true. She was there ten years ago, on a frozen fjord in Svalbard, Norway, the night her mother whistled at the lights and then vanished.

Now, Eli lives an ordinary life with her dad on Cape Cod. But when the Northern Lights are visible over the Cape for just one night, she can't resist the possibility of seeing her mother again. So she whistles--and it works. Her mother appears, with snowy hair, frosty fingertips and a hazy story of where she's been all these years. And she doesn't return alone.

Along with Eli's mother's reappearance come strange, impossible things. Narwhals swimming in Cape Cod Bay, meteorites landing in Eli's yard, and three shadowy princesses with ominous messages. It's all too much, too fast, and Eli pushes her mother away. She disappears again--but this time, she leaves behind a note that will send Eli on a journey across continents, to the northern tip of the world:

I read this book for A Grimm Tale, although I initially hoped that it would work for Lost in Space. It really didn’t. This book has a gorgeous cover, which is basically why I selected it, along with the intriguing summary.

I have mixed feelings about the execution, though. It used several Norse fairy tales as a springboard for the story, including one of my favorites, East of Sun, West of the Moon. I’ve read several retellings of that fairy tale previously, all of which I ultimately like better than this one. These include: East by Edith Pattou, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George and Ice by Sarah Beth Durst.

This is a debut novel by Nicole Lesperance, and she definitely has potential. I’ll watch her career with interest, although this book itself didn’t 100% work for me.

Aurora RisingAurora Rising
by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff
Rating: ★★★
Series: Aurora Rising #
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
Genre: sci fi, YA
Pages: 473
Project: halloween bingo

The year is 2380, and the graduating cadets of Aurora Academy are being assigned their first missions. Star pupil Tyler Jones is ready to recruit the squad of his dreams, but his own boneheaded heroism sees him stuck with the dregs nobody else in the Academy would touch…

A cocky diplomat with a black belt in sarcasm
A sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates
A smart-ass techwiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder
An alien warrior with anger management issues
A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into him, in case you were wondering

And Ty’s squad isn’t even his biggest problem—that’d be Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, the girl he’s just rescued from interdimensional space. Trapped in cryo-sleep for two centuries, Auri is a girl out of time and out of her depth. But she could be the catalyst that starts a war millions of years in the making, and Tyler’s squad of losers, discipline-cases and misfits might just be the last hope for the entire galaxy.

This is the second YA science fiction collaboration between Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff that I have read, as back in 2018 I read their entire Illuminae trilogy in hardback. That was a really, really interesting format – not a graphic novel, but lots of illustrations to augment the texts. This one is a more straightforward narrative, that starts at the Aurora Academy, which is basically a military training program that sorts the students into various sub-specialties. Tyler Jones, the star pupil of the Academy leaves the Academy the night before the process by which squads are selected on an unsanctioned rescue mission. Being first in his class, he should have the pick of the program for his squad, but because he’s late returning, he ends up with several students that no one else wanted.

And there it is. We have our rag-tag band of heroes. The only that the book needs is a rogue secret mission where no one really knows what is going on, and especially not our heroes. Which is what comes next, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s excitement, diplomacy, a Guardians of the Galaxy style heist, and the loss of an important squad member.

I’m not a huge sci fi fan, so 3 stars from me for a sci fi book is actually a really solid rating. In the absence of the “Lost in Space” square, I would not have read this book. But, one of the things that I really enjoy about playing Halloween Bingo is that it forces me out of my Golden Age mystery/vintage women fiction rut. I pick up more of the “hot” or “current” releases in the months of September and October than probably the remaining ten months combined (that’s probably an overstatement, but not by a lot).

This basically wraps up my Halloween bingo months – there were other books that didn’t make it into a review, but I’m ready to move on, so we’ll leave it at that!

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

My Brother MichaelMy Brother Michael
by Mary Stewart
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: May 26, 1959
Genre: fiction, gothic romance, romance
Project: halloween bingo

Camilla Haven is on holiday alone, and wishes for some excitement. She had been sitting quietly in a crowded Athens cafe writing to her friend Elizabeth in England, "Nothing ever happens tome..."

Then, without warning, a stranger approached, thrust a set of car keys at her and pointed to a huge black touring car parked at the curb. "The car for Delphi, mademoiselle... A matter of life and death," he whispered and disappeared.

From that moment Camilla her life suddenly begins to take off when she sets out on a mysterious car journey to Delphi in the company of a charming but quietly determined Englishman named Simon Lester. Simon told Camilla he had come to the ancient Greek ruins to "appease the shade” of his brother Michael, killed some fourteen years earlier on Parnassus. From a curious letter Michael had written, Simon believed his brother had stumbled upon something of great importance hidden in the craggy reaches of the mountainside. And then Simon and Camilla learned that they were not alone in their search...

The ride was Camilla's first mistake... or perhaps she unintentionally had invoked the gods. She finds herself in the midst of an exciting, intriguing, yet dangerous adventure. An extraordinary train of events turned on a nightmare of intrigue and terror beyond her wildest daydreams.

I am a fan of old-school gothic romance/romantic suspense, sometimes in spite of myself. I’ve read a ton of Phyllis Whitney, a fair amount of Victoria Holt, and several of Barbara Michaels gothic romance reissues. I grew up on these books – I remember pulling the paperbacks off of my mom’s bookshelves, with their luridly appealing covers featuring young women in diaphanous gowns running from brooding mansions backlit by moonlight, and reading them deep into the night.

And then there is Mary Stewart. Somehow, Mary Stewart always seems just a tiny bit upscale, compared to the other practitioners of mid-century romantic suspense. I don’t recall reading so many of her novels, although I do remember picking up and reading her Arthurian trilogy around the time that it was published.

A few years ago Hodder & Stoughten reissued her entire back catalog for kindle. I had been keeping my eye out for them for a few years – The Crystal Cave and the other Arthurian books came out on kindle briefly, but there must have been confusion about the rights, because they disappeared, although not until after I had bought them for my kindle library. However, in around 2017, the rest of her romantic suspense catalog showed up in the U.S. kindle store for between $1.99 and $3.99 a book. I bought the whole caboodle, much like I did when Georgette Heyer’s regency romances went on sale, and I’ve been reading them ever since.

This one was a middling Stewart for me. I think my favorite is still The Moonspinners, and book which I have not reviewed here, but will at some point, when I indulge in a reread. My Brother Michael is also set in Greece – Delphi, to be specific.

It follows the Mary Stewart formula, which involves a young, somewhat ingenuous young woman who is travelling abroad alone. She becomes embroiled in some sort of local intrigue, also involving a love interest of a similar age. The settings are always very beautiful and are a very important part of the story, and there is always some sort of mystery to solve, which puts our young heroine in peril. This one hearkens back to some old WWII secrets from the Greek resistance.

Even with the formula, these books are so much fun to read. Mary Stewart is an accomplished writer and I always enjoy her books.

Triple Play: Modern Thrillers

This is not a type of book that I read a lot of – I really only venture into the genre at Halloween Bingo time. There’s a reason for that, as you are about to find out.

I don’t really enjoy them all that much.

Dark RoadsDark Roads
by Chevy Stevens
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: August 3, 2021
Genre: fiction, mystery, suspense
Pages: 384
Project: halloween bingo

The Cold Creek Highway stretches close to five hundred miles through British Columbia’s rugged wilderness to the west coast. Isolated and vast, it has become a prime hunting ground for predators. For decades, young women traveling the road have gone missing. Motorists and hitchhikers, those passing through or living in one of the small towns scattered along the region, have fallen prey time and again. And no killer or abductor who has stalked the highway has ever been brought to justice.

Hailey McBride calls Cold Creek home. Her father taught her to respect nature, how to live and survive off the land, and to never travel the highway alone. Now he’s gone, leaving her a teenage orphan in the care of her aunt whose police officer husband uses his badge as a means to bully and control Hailey. Overwhelmed by grief and forbidden to work, socialize, or date, Hailey vanishes into the mountainous terrain, hoping everyone will believe she’s left town. Rumors spread that she was taken by the highway killer—who’s claimed another victim over the summer.

One year later, Beth Chevalier arrives in Cold Creek, where her sister Amber lived—and where she was murdered. Estranged from her parents and seeking closure, Beth takes a waitressing job at the local diner, just as Amber did, desperate to understand what happened to her and why. But Beth’s search for answers puts a target on her back—and threatens to reveal the truth behind Hailey’s disappearance…

I wanted to like this book. I loved the idea of the remote, mountain-town setting. I love a foggy, dark, gothic atmosphere, like that which was promised by the plot summary. As it turned out, though, this book was not for me. It had potential, but the characters acted like idiots and the twist was easy to spot. Also, there were some plot holes that I just couldn’t get over.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the authors note which explained the inspiration for the book – what is, in real life, called the Highway of Tears. According to Wikipedia:

The Highway of Tears is a 725-kilometre (450 mi) corridor of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, which has been the location of many missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) beginning in 1970. The phrase was coined during a vigil held in Terrace, British Columbia in 1998, by Florence Naziel, who was thinking of the victims’ families crying over their loved ones. There is a disproportionately high number of Indigenous women on the list of victims.

You can find out more about that here. Unfortunately, I think that the author did not do a great job of honoring her source material with this particular book.

The Family PlotThe Family Plot
by Megan Collins
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: August 17, 2021
Genre: fiction, gothic, mystery, thriller
Pages: 320
Project: halloween bingo

When a family obsessed with true crime gathers to bury their patriarch, horrifying secrets are exposed upon the discovery of another body in his grave in this chilling novel from the author of Behind the Red Door and The Winter Sister .

At twenty-six, Dahlia Lighthouse has a lot to learn when it comes to the real world. Raised in a secluded island mansion deep in the woods and kept isolated by her true crime-obsessed parents, she has spent the last several years living on her own, but unable to move beyond her past—especially the disappearance of her twin brother Andy when they were sixteen.

With her father’s death, Dahlia returns to the house she has avoided for years. But as the rest of the Lighthouse family arrives for the memorial, a gruesome discovery is made: buried in the reserved plot is another body—Andy’s, his skull split open with an ax.

Each member of the family handles the revelation in unusual ways. Her brother Charlie pours his energy into creating a family memorial museum, highlighting their research into the lives of famous murder victims; her sister Tate forges ahead with her popular dioramas portraying crime scenes; and their mother affects a cheerfully domestic façade, becoming unrecognizable as the woman who performed murder reenactments for her children. As Dahlia grapples with her own grief and horror, she realizes that her eccentric family, and the mansion itself, may hold the answers to what happened to her twin.

This book fared a bit better than Dark Roads for me. However, the premise is over-the-top and unbelievable. It is so banana-pants that it felt almost like a parody, although one that was not even remotely funny. The characters are all bonkers, with bizarre and unrealistic quirks. None of them were “real” people to me, so I couldn’t make any connection to them. The dead sibling, Andy, felt the most potentially authentic, with his deep internal conflict rendered pretty well. The reveals and twists aren’t that surprising, given the book’s plot.

That sounds like I didn’t like it, though, and while it’s true that I didn’t fall in love with this book, it is entertaining and very easy to read. When I’m looking for a type of domestic thriller (something that admittedly doesn’t happen very often) I would potentially pick up something by Megan Collins again. At the end of the day, though, I am not the right audience for this book because I don’t really enjoy the whole “domestic-thriller-devastating-family-secrets-revealed” types of books. I ran out of steam on the genre a few years ago with the absolutely terrible The Girl Before.

Other readers will likely enjoy it more than I did. YMMV.

The Burning GirlsThe Burning Girls
by C.J. Tudor
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: February 9, 2021
Genre: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 333
Project: halloween bingo

Welcome to Chapel Croft. Five hundred years ago, eight protestant martyrs were burned at the stake here. Thirty years ago, two teenage girls disappeared without a trace. And two months ago, the vicar of the local parish killed himself.

Reverend Jack Brooks, a single parent with a fourteen-year-old daughter and a heavy conscience, arrives in the village hoping to make a fresh start and find some peace. Instead, Jack finds a town mired in secrecy and a strange welcome package: an old exorcism kit and a note quoting scripture. "But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed and hidden that will not be known."

The more Jack and her daughter Flo get acquainted with the town and its strange denizens, the deeper they are drawn into their rifts, mysteries, and suspicions. And when Flo is troubled by strange sightings in the old chapel, it becomes apparent that there are ghosts here that refuse to be laid to rest.

But uncovering the truth can be deadly in a village where everyone has something to protect, everyone has links with the village's bloody past, and no one trusts an outsider.

This was the entry in this genre that I liked the best.

The Burning Girls is my first C.J. Tudor, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was about when I checked it out of the library. I thought it might be sort of witchy but as it turns out, it’s really just a straight up mystery with an amateur sleuth. I enjoyed both Jack, the exiled Vicar (who is a woman, despite her name) and her daughter, Flo. Unlike the characters in The Family Plot, I found them complex, grounded and believable. The village of Chapel Croft is a place of darkness, and Tudors depiction of a young psychopath was chilling and convincing. I’d read more by Tudor for sure.

Triple Play: Vintage Mystery

Falling StarFalling Star
by Patricia Moyes
Rating: ★★½
Series: Inspector Henry Tibbet #5
Publication Date: July 28, 1964
Genre: mystery
Pages: 255
Project: halloween bingo

Rich, aristocratic, and at the heart of swinging London, “Pudge” Coombe-Peters has everything except a decent nickname. And in fact, he has two special attributes: He owns the narration—the drawling, deliciously snobbish, all-but-impossibly irritating narration—of Falling Star, and he has a chum named Henry Tibbett, who comes in just awfully handy when people start dying on the set of the film that Pudge is producing.

Tibbett is especially welcome because, by the second death, it’s clear that we’re not dealing merely with murder but with Impossible Crime, the kind of fiendishly clever puzzle that is killingly hard to write and even more difficult to solve. The twisty plot and gorgeously retro setting on their own would make for a splendid read, but adding Pudge to the mix puts it over the top.

This is a series that I really like – so much that I am collecting them all in paperback. Unfortunately, though, this was quite a mediocre entry, in my opinion. There wasn’t nearly enough Henry Tibbets – he doesn’t show up until the 50% mark – and there was basically zero Emmy Tibbets, and she’s one of my favorite characters. The book specific characters were insufficient to carry it. The narrator was obnoxious. And, in addition, as I have discovered through reading this, as well as a couple of Ngaio Marsh mysteries (which were far superior to this one, but I digress), I just don’t really like “theater” settings for my golden/silver age mysteries. Meh.

Traitor's PurseTraitor's Purse
by Margery Allingham
Rating: ★★½
Series: Albert Campion #11
Publication Date: March 2, 1941
Genre: mystery
Pages: 208
Project: halloween bingo

Celebrated amateur detective Albert Campion awakes in hospital accused of attacking a police officer and suffering from acute amnesia. All he can remember is that he was on a mission of vital importance to His Majesty’s government before his accident. On the run from the police and unable to recognise even his faithful servant or his beloved fiancee, Campion struggles desperately to put the pieces together while the very fate of England is at stake.

Oh, man, this book was such a bust for me because I unknowingly picked the “amnesia” book. I really dislike the amnesia trope under the best of circumstances. This was not the best of circumstances.

Rating/reviewing this book is a near impossible undertaking because I think that my decision to read it out of order and essentially in isolation was unwise. The only Campion mystery I have previously read is The Crime at Black Dudley, which barely includes him.

So, I went into this amnesia book in basically the same tabula rasa state as our sleuth, knowing none of the characters, knowing very little about Campion and, like Campion, I muddled around in confusion for some 200+ pages. I have no idea if this is a good book or not because I was so annoyed about my inability to understand what the hell was happening or who any of these people are. This was me:

So, this might be a great installment in the Campion canon (and, reading other reviews, I suspect that it is), but it not a great entry into the series. At all.

The Five Red FingersThe Five Red Fingers
by Brian Flynn
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Anthony Bathurst #5
Publication Date: October 7, 1929
Genre: mystery
Pages: 210
Project: halloween bingo

“Hard luck to be murdered just after your horse has won the Derby! Don’t you think so, Doctor?”

Julius Maitland, the millionaire horse trainer is excited about his horse’s chance to win the Derby. His wife’s horse is also strongly fancied. In a neck and neck finish, Maitland’s horse takes the race, his wife’s in second.

In a national sensation, the winner is disqualified. A telephone call the day after the race summons the police to a house where Maitland’s murdered body is found – and he has been dead for at least two days. When Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police is asked to investigate, he immediately summons his friend Anthony Bathurst. But can Bathurst make sense of a case when the stakes are this high?

As you can see, my vintage mystery picks in September were not really successful. However, as part of my bingo game, I needed a book that related to sport or games, and this one was set in the world of horse racing, so it was just the ticket. I had already bought it along with a bunch of the Anthony Bathurst books earlier this year, so all the better.

I ended up really enjoying this DSP re-issue, which all takes place in the wild world of horse racing. There were definite shades of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, with a very unlikeable murder victim, and a satisfyingly twisty mystery. The solution was a bit preposterous, but that’s not uncommon with these GAD mysteries when authors are trying mightily to keep things fresh in the face of hundreds of this same very popular style of mystery being published every month.

Horse racing can be murder, y’all.

Triple Play: Young Adult

The Once and Future WitchesThe Once and Future Witches
by Alix Harrow
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: October 13, 2020
Genre: fantasy, YA
Pages: 517
Project: halloween bingo

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters--James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna--join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.

This is the second Alix Harrow book that I’ve read – the first was The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I loved both of them, and couldn’t really pick a favorite. Ten Thousand Doors was a really interesting portal fantasy with a wonderful main character. The Once and Future Witches was also excellent. I love the fact that she seeming writes only standalones, which is somewhat unusual for someone publishing YA.

Sometimes it seems like an author writes books that are written to speak to certain readers. Harrow has nailed two separate books that felt like she could have written them just for me. The Once and Future Witness is a piece of historical fiction, set in 1893, with strong fairy tale analogues, both of which play to specific tropes that I love. It’s also overtly feminist, taking on a culture of misogyny and female oppression.

The Box in the WoodsThe Box in the Woods
by Maureen Johnson
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Truly Devious #4
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Genre: mystery, YA
Pages: 400
Project: halloween bingo

The Truly Devious series continues as Stevie Bell investigates her first mystery outside of Ellingham Academy in this spine-chilling and hilarious stand-alone mystery.

Amateur sleuth Stevie Bell needs a good murder. After catching a killer at her high school, she’s back at home for a normal (that means boring) summer.

But then she gets a message from the owner of Sunny Pines, formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls—the site of the notorious unsolved case, the Box in the Woods Murders. Back in 1978, four camp counselors were killed in the woods outside of the town of Barlow Corners, their bodies left in a gruesome display. The new owner offers Stevie an invitation: Come to the camp and help him work on a true crime podcast about the case.

Stevie agrees, as long as she can bring along her friends from Ellingham Academy. Nothing sounds better than a summer spent together, investigating old murders.

But something evil still lurks in Barlow Corners. When Stevie opens the lid on this long-dormant case, she gets much more than she bargained for. The Box in the Woods will make room for more victims. This time, Stevie may not make it out alive.

This is the fourth in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series which features Stevie Bell, teenage sleuth. Stevie spent the first three books of the series solving the mystery of Ellingham Academy, the unsolved kidnapping of the school founder’s wife and daughter from decades earlier. In this one, she has left Ellingham Academy and is spending the summer at home. And, hoo boy, is she bored. When the owner of the Sunny Pines camp contacts her to come to the camp and try to solve the unsolved quadruple murder from the 1970’s, when the camp was named Camp Wonder Falls, she jumps at the chance.

Maureen Johnson is obviously a huge Agatha Christie fan, which shows in the structure of the book.

Detective is summoned by a mysterious wealthy individual to investigate an old unsolved murder? Check. Mysterious individual has suspect motives? Check. There is a quaint village with simmering undercurrents? Check. There is a quirky friend (or two) to act as the investigative foil, a la Hastings? Check. New murders begin happening because the detective is stirring up old trouble? Check. The village is gathered for a reveal of the culprit? Check.

The real question here is: is our quirky heroine, with her anxiety issues and sartorial deficiencies a Marple or a Poirot? The Ellingham Academy mystery felt like Poirot but this one – this one feels like Marple.

The author is obviously having a lot of fun with these books and I am here for it. Well done.

Wildwood WhispersWildwood Whispers
by Willa Reece
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: August 17, 2021
Genre: fantasy, magical realism, YA
Pages: 390
Project: halloween bingo

A heartwarming novel of hope, fate, and folk magic unfolds when a young woman travels to a sleepy southern town in the Appalachian Mountains to bury her best friend.

At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah's untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

The wildwood is whispering. It has secrets to reveal—if you’re willing to listen…

This one didn’t quite live up to what I was hoping for when I read it. It reminded me of Where the Crawdads Sing in a lot of ways – another book that ultimately disappointed me (a lot).

I enjoy magical realism, so I was hoping for something like Alice Hoffman or Sarah Addison Allen. There were some similarities to those two authors, and some really beautiful writing about Morgan’s Gap and the wildwood and the wisewomen who live and do a bit of magic there. The main character’s mouse friend, Charm, I found completely, um, charming. I loved all of the animal magic in the book.

However, I struggled a lot with the heavy-handed villainy of the Sect and the Mayor of Morgan’s Gap. I felt like the author really didn’t know what she was doing in terms of handling the mystery subplot, and, as well, it was utterly preposterous that Reverend Moon would have the kind of power that was implied (view spoiler). It wasn’t his level of evil that was difficult for me to swallow, because history is replete with cult leaders who rape and abuse women, it was the completely in-your-face way of going about it.

The climactic scene of the book which takes place as a final confrontation between “good” wildwood and “bad” cult felt utterly preposterous. The magic really didn’t work for me. I don’t quite know why that was, if it was just that the author threw a bunch of hedge-witchery together without enough undergirding, or what.

It sort of felt like two books (this is why I am comparing it to the Crawdad book). One, a magical realism tale about a community in Appalachia where connection to the natural world brings a sort of a witchery to the women practicing it, I really liked; the second, a poorly done murder mystery, didn’t work for me. I wonder, a bit, if the author felt she had to put the mystery into the book in order to make it commercially viable – if that’s the case, I would encourage her to trust her own voice because the places that I feel like I was hearing from her were great – it was the stuff that felt like tacked on suspense that didn’t really work for me.

Triple Play: Noir

I’m going to try something new – instead of posts focusing on a single book, I’m going to, from time-to-time, publish posts that talk briefly about a few books that I’ve read recently. I’ll probably try to tie them together by theme, but that won’t always work. Happily, it does work here – these are all books that I would call “noir” in their sensibilities. I read them all in September, for my Halloween Bingo game.

Devil in a Blue DressDevil in a Blue Dress
by Walter Mosley
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Easy Rawlins #1
Publication Date: September 1, 1991
Genre: mystery, noir
Pages: 263
Project: halloween bingo

In Los Angeles of the late 1940s, Easy Rawlins, a black war veteran, has just been fired from his job at a defense plant. Easy is drinking in a friend's bar, wondering how he'll meet his mortgage, when a white man in a linen suit walks in, offering good money if Easy will simply locate Miss Daphne Monet, a blonde beauty known to frequent black jazz clubs.

This book has been on my TBR for years. It finally made its way to the top of the reading stack (virtual stack, to be sure, because this was a public library kindle checkout) because I have been trying to diversify my reading, and Walter Mosley is an author of color. This book was also really interesting to me because it includes the historical black perspective in a piece of noir fiction, a genre that is really dominated by white, male, American authors like Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett.

Earlier this year, I read a book called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. This is a non-fiction treatment of a part of American history that has not been widely told: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, to get away from the Jim Crow laws and other pernicious discrimination and, often, violence, to which they were subjected in the South. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and will try to remember to put together a full post on it at some point.

Having just read The Warmth of Other Suns this year brought a dimension to my reading that I probably would have missed if I had read this earlier. Many of the individuals with whom Easy Rawlins associates – his peers and friends – were part of this great migration. Easy Rawlins himself hails from the South. He moved to L.A. after his discharge from military service, having fought in WWII, returning to a community that demand he behave with the subservient attitudes that black men are expected to display. Having experienced something quite different as a soldier, and far more respectful, he couldn’t do that.

WHEN I OPENED THE DOOR I was slapped in the face by the force of Lips’ alto horn. I had been hearing Lips and Willie and Flattop since I was a boy in Houston. All of them and John and half the people in that crowded room had migrated from Houston after the war, and some before that. California was like heaven for the Southern Negro. People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn’t like the dream. Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom.

This book is really good and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The mystery wasn’t the best part of the book, nor did I feel it was really the point. The characters and setting were first rate, and seeing 1950’s Watts from a non-white perspective makes the book definitely worth reading despite it’s weaknesses as a mystery.

But I didn’t believe that there was justice for Negroes. I thought that there might be some justice for a black man if he had the money to grease it.

The Moving TargetThe Moving Target
by Ross MacDonald
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Lew Archer #1
Publication Date: March 3, 1998
Genre: mystery, noir
Pages: 246
Project: halloween bingo

Like many Southern California millionaires, Ralph Sampson keeps odd company - there's the sun-worshipping holy man to whom Sampson once gave his very own mountain, and don't forget the fading actress with sidelines in astrology and S and M. Now one of Sampson's friends may have arranged his kidnapping.

Lew Archer follows the clues from the canyon sanctuaries of the mega-rich to jazz joints where you get beaten up between sets.

Welcome to the first Lew Archer, private investigator - a roving conscience who walks the treacherous frontier between criminal guilt and human sin. You are sure to find that Ross Macdonald's "The Moving Target" blends sex, greed, and family hatred into an explosively readable crime novel.

This is the first of MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. Lew Archer is the natural heir to Philip Marlowe, and operates within the same Los Angeles as Marlowe (and Easy Rawlins, as well). A place of bars and women, dirty glamour and seediness underneath the glitz.

The back room of Swift’s was paneled in black oak that glowed dimly under the polished brass chandeliers. It was lined on two sides with leather-cushioned booths. The rest of the floor space was covered with tables. All of the booths and most of the tables were crowded with highly dressed people eating or waiting to be fed. Most of the women were tight-skinned, starved too thin for their bones. Most of the men had the masculine Hollywood look, which was harder to describe. An insistent self-consciousness in their loud words and wide gestures, as if God had a million-dollar contract to keep an eye on them.

In this book, Lew is hired by a rich woman to locate her husband, Ralph Sampson, who may have been kidnapped, or he may just have gone off on a bender. He is described thus: “Ralph?…He started out as a wildcat oil operator. You know the type, half man, half alligator, half bear trap, with a piggy bank where his heart should be.” Things go about as well as the reader should expect in a piece of noir fiction, which is to say, not well at all, especially not for our protagonist of dubious character.

The plotting in this one had some weaknesses, and the reader is blindsided at the end by a character who behaves entirely out of the character that had been built through the entire novel, but overall, very enjoyable, especially for fans of the noir aesthetic.

The Concrete BlondeThe Concrete Blonde
by Michael Connelly
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Harry Bosch #3
Publication Date: June 1, 1994
Genre: mystery
Pages: 484
Project: halloween bingo

Detective Harry Bosch was sure he'd shot the serial killer responsible for a string of murders in LA . . . but now, a new crime makes him question his convictions.

They call him the Dollmaker, a serial killer who stalks Los Angeles and leaves a grisly calling card on the faces of his female victims. When a suspect is shot by Detective Harry Bosch, everyone believes the city's nightmare is over. But then the dead man's widow sues Harry and the LAPD for killing the wrong man--an accusation that rings terrifyingly true when a new corpse is found with the Dollmaker's macabre signature. Now, for the second time, Harry must hunt down a ruthless death-dealer before he strikes again. Careening through a blood-tracked quest, Harry will go from the hard edges of the L.A. night to the last place he ever wanted to go--the darkness of his own heart...

And last, but not least, we have Harry Bosch. Concrete Blonde is third in the extremely long-running Harry Bosch series – Connelly is up to 23 books in the primary Bosch series, and 35 in the Harry Bosch Universe (HBU), which includes some of his other protagonists – Jack McEvoy, Mickey Haller and Renee Ballard. The OG series is my favorite. I enjoy McEvoy and Ballard, but I rarely manage to finish the Mickey Haller books. I usually get bored and DNF.

Concrete Blonde is a serial killer book, which is why I picked it. It’s also one of my series favorites overall, and is the point in the series when Connelly stops messing around and settles in to really write this character. It was partially adapted for the Amazon Prime series in Season One, although they leave out the meat of the very clever Dollmaker Plot, which would have made an exceptional season all on its own. There is great plotting in this book.

Peril at End House

Peril at End HousePeril at End House
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #8
Publication Date: February 1, 1932
Genre: mystery
Pages: 228
Project: appointment with agatha, halloween bingo

Agatha Christie’s ingenious murder mystery, reissued with a striking cover designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers.

Nick Buckley was an unusual name for a pretty young woman. But then she had led an unusual life. First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.

Upon discovering a bullet-hole in Nick’s sun hat, Hercule Poirot decides the girl needs his protection. At the same time, he begins to unravel the mystery of a murder that hasn’t been committed. Yet.

Peril at End House was the September Appointment with Agatha book, and is designated as #8 of the Hercule Poirot series. This numbering includes some of the short story compilations, so it isn’t just the full-length mysteries.

This is on of my favorite Poirot mysteries – and, aside from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the best so far in the series. We begin the book with Poirot and Hastings on the terrace of The Majestic Hotel, where they have gone on holiday together. It is narrated in the first person by Hastings, who sets the stage thus:

We were sitting on one of the terraces of the Majestic Hotel. It is the biggest hotel in St. Loo and stands in its own grounds on a headland overlooking the sea. The gardens of the hotel lay below us freely interspersed with palm trees. The sea was of a deep and lovely blue, the sky clear and the sun shining with all the single-hearted fervour an August sun should (but in England so often does not) have. There was a vigorous humming of bees, a pleasant sound—and altogether nothing could have been more ideal.

The Majestic is an obvious analog to The Imperial Hotel in Torquay, Devon, pictured below.

(The Imperial has sadly been remodeled and doesn’t look anything like this picture anymore. It’s a rather unattractive concrete block structure now.)

As they sit on the terrace, Poirot meets the main character, sprightly, manic-pixie-dream-girl Art Deco edition, Nick (Magda) Buckley. She tells him about a number of near misses with death that she has been experiencing, and Poirot becomes convinced that someone is trying to murder her. Vacation or not, Poirot is on the case. It doesn’t hurt that Nick is charming, both in personality and appearance.

Much of the appeal of this book is in the interactions between Poirot and Hastings. Hastings has been off in The Argentine for a while, before returning to England on his own (without Bella, his wife). I am not a Hastings fan, but I really enjoyed a lot of the tongue-in-cheek barbs being traded in this book:

“You have an extraordinary effect on me, Hastings. You have so strongly the flair in the wrong direction that I am almost tempted to go by it! You are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread. Ah, well—I shall study this Commander Challenger. You have awakened my doubts.”

Poirot to Hastings.

And this funny exchange:

“I am old-fashioned and sentimental myself, Mademoiselle.”
“Are you? I should have said that Captain Hastings was the sentimental one of you two.” I blushed indignantly.
“He is furious,” said Poirot, eying my discomfiture with a good deal of pleasure. “But you are right, Mademoiselle. Yes, you are right.”
“Not at all,” I said, angrily.
“Hastings has a singularly beautiful nature. It has been the greatest hindrance to me at times.”
“Don’t be absurd, Poirot.”
“He is, to begin with, reluctant to see evil anywhere, and when he does see it his righteous indignation is so great that he is incapable of dissembling. Altogether a rare and beautiful nature. No, mon ami, I will not permit you to contradict me. It is as I say.”

And then we have Hastings:

I reflected that Poirot’s abasement was strangely like other people’s conceit, but I prudently forebore from making any remark.

Poirot is not at his investigative best in this book – he seems to stumble a bit, and misses the point such that the murder, had he been a bit more on the ball, might have been prevented. And, with respect to that murder, the victim is one of the most innocent of Christie’s victims. It is poignant, especially a scene that occurs with the victim’s parents where Christie describes their grief in a really affecting way. The solution to the mystery is ingenious and the clueing is subtle and clever.

This book never seems to make the “best of Christie” lists, and I don’t really know why that is. I have always thought that it was a clever, well-written and compelling story, and I always enjoy reading it. End House is a classic “country house” and the holiday watering hole of St. Loo makes a great setting.

Halloween Bingo – Week 4

The State of the Card:

I made a lot of progress this week, finishing books for Amateur Sleuth, Trick or Treat, Lethal Games, Splatter, Halloween and Psych.

  • Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie: I read this one for the Halloween square. I had been planning to read one of Ngaio Marsh’s “theater” mysteries, because this particular square includes a fancy dress component, but my library holds didn’t cooperate. This is a perennial favorite, and I have read it for this square before – Ariadne Oliver is always worth reading.
  • The Family Plot by Megan Collins: I read this for Psych, although it would have fit in a number of places. It was okay, but not my favorite type of book. People who enjoy the “domestic thriller” genre will probably enjoy it more than I did.
  • Five Red Fingers by Brian Flynn: this Anthony Bathurst mystery is set in the world of horse racing, so it was a great fit for Lethal Games. I enjoyed it, although the solution was silly.
  • The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson: I read this one for Trick or Treat, which is the square that combines YA mystery & horror. Johnson is very obviously a Christie fan, and this one was very entertaining.
  • Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly: I am a Harry Bosch fan. I’ve read the entire series a couple of times, and anything in the Harry Bosch Universe (except for the Mickey Haller books, which I find meh) are an autobuy for me. This is the third book, and is where the series really hits its stride. A fantastic entry. I read this one for Splatter.
  • The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor: Female vicar named Jack, and her daughter Flo, are exiled to a weird little town steeped in darkness after Jack gets into some sort of trouble at her last parish, and someone immediately begins trying to kill them. I read it for Amateur Sleuth, and liked it a lot.

I only have four more squares and I’ll black out my card. I’m hoping to complete the card by October 1!

Halloween Bingo: Week 3

The State of the Card

Week 3 was spent mostly on vacation at the Pacific City, on the Oregon Coast. It is a very beautiful place, and there was a lot of walking on the beach, craft beer, visiting tide pools with my kids, and playing ball with my 16 month old Golden Retriever pup, Gus. There was, also, plenty of time for reading!

I finished several books:

  • Falling Star by Patricia Moyes for the Vintage Mystery square: this was the 5th book in the Inspector Henry Tibbets series. It was first published in 1964, but was only a mediocre installment. The solution to the mystery was a bit too clever, and it was told in a first-person narration through a thoroughly unlikeable narrator. I think he was supposed to be a bit of a Bertie Wooster type, but he was just ugh.
  • My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart for Romantic Suspense: Mary Stewart is a longtime favorite author. Her books were released for the kindle a few years ago now, very inexpensively. I bought them all and have been parceling them out bit-by-bit rather than just going on a binge. I always love her beautifully rendered settings, and this was no exception, being set in Greece.
  • Relic by Preston & Childs for the Free square: I bought this book for my husband years ago, and hadn’t read it. I was hoping that it would fit my Relics & Curiosities square, but it really didn’t – title notwithstanding – so I dropped it into the Free Square. I could juggle my squares a bit and move some things around to put this one in Dem Bones, but I think I’m just going to leave it be.
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for Dem Bones: This book was a lot of fun. It’s been sort of everywhere recently, and I understand why. I also read that it has been optioned by Spielberg – as I was reading it, I was imagining what a wonderful movie it would make.
  • Why Kings Confess by C.S. Harris for Darkest London: I started reading Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscolo for this square, but DNF’d at about 20% because it really wasn’t working for me at all. I’ve been reading this historical mystery series for years, and am still about five books behind!
  • Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece for Southern Gothic: This was one of my anticipated Halloween Bingo reads, partially because of the gorgeous cover. It was good, but not great – I felt like it was trying to do too any things all at once. I liked the story about the town and the wisewomen and the magical realism, but when it came to the murder mystery and the cartoon villains, I was very meh.

And that’s it for the vacation week! Fifteen books done, ten to go!

Halloween Bingo: Week 2

The State of the Card:

Last update, I had finished 3 books. I had a very good reading week this week (as is the norm when I’m playing Halloween Bingo – I just can’t read fast enough!) and finished an additional 5 books.

  • The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald: I read this for my Noir square. I’ve been reading quite a bit of hardboiled/California noir fiction recently and MacDonald does it really well. Lew Archer, MacDonald’s PI, is the natural heir to Philip Marlowe, and operates within the same Los Angeles as Marlowe. The plotting in this one had some weaknesses, and the reader is blindsided at the end by a character who behaves entirely out of the character that had been built through the entire novel, but overall, very enjoyable.
  • Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: This has been on my TBR for ages, and I’m trying to bring more diversity to my Halloween Bingo reading, which is why I selected this one. It was terrific and I highly recommend it. The inclusion of the black experience in a piece of noir fiction was really intriguing. I used a Double Trouble card so I applied this one to both Diverse Voices and Film at Eleven.
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow: I also really loved this book. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Colonial America, that has a strong connection to fairy tales and feminist themes. This is the second book I’ve read by Harrow, the other being The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a portal fantasy, which I also loved. Harrow is an auto-buy for me at this point. I used this one for A Grimm Tale.
  • The Cutting Season by Attica Locke: I thought I had read everything Locke has published, but it turns out I was wrong. This is an early stand-alone, and is my least favorite of all of her books. That doesn’t mean it’s not good, but I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. I used an Amplification card (Locke is a Black author) to fill Fear the Drowning Deep.
  • Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham: I am not knowledgeable about the Campion books, and I picked this one more or less at random, and because I could get it for free from the KU library. Mistake. This is an amnesia book, and I don’t know the series well enough to feel anything other than completely confused when dropped into a book where the MC doesn’t know his own name. I will probably revisit it when I have read more of the series. This one checked off the Paint It Black card, with its predominantly black cover.

I am on vacation for the week, and am headed over to the coast tomorrow, so I’ll still be reading, but not probably posting.