Sunday, June 30, 2019

Murder by the Book - the first Beyond the Page Bookstore Mystery

Vacations and work and other things have made it difficult of late to keep up with the review for the books I've been reading, and the stack is growing - but ne'er fear, the next review is here!

Now, I have never been a big fan of "cozy" mysteries; however, once in a while, something does catch my eye and I have to pick it up.  Such is the case with the first Beyond the Page Bookstore mystery. It doesn't involve psychics or the supernatural.  It doesn't have any superheroes or comic book references. It doesn't even really appear to have a "hook" that so many cozy mysteries seem to have in this day and age. No, what caught my attention for this series is the author's bio on the inside back cover. "Lauren Elliott grew up devouring Nancy Drew..." As soon as I read that one line, I knew I had to pick up this series.

(Now, before you go getting all concerned, I don't believe she actually sat down and physically ate Nancy Drew for lunch or dinner - - I have no doubt the "devoured" means that she read one Nancy Drew book after another and couldn't get enough, so sought out as many of the books as she could find to read!)

So, did Murder by the Book meet my expectations?  Without a shadow of a doubt, yes, it did!  The protagonist, Addie Greyborne (love the name!) leaves the big city after the death of her fiance for a small New England town to take title to Greyborne Manor, the Dark Shadows-esque mansion at the top of the hill overlooking the harbor. Having inherited the manor from an aunt she never knew, Addie finds life in this small town to be a bit daunting at times - particularly when it seems that everyone knows her family name, whereas she knew absolutely nothing about this aunt or her connection to the town! But the inheritance offers her a chance at a new beginning - a fresh start after the loss of her father and and fiance.

Yet, as any reader of mystery novels knows, the secrets in this town will come back to haunt her!

Elliott provides a well-written mystery that doesn't exactly keep you guessing (although there are some surprising twists), but it does make you fall in love with the characters. Addie is every book lover's dream - someone who has the opportunity to open her own bookstore and solve a mystery!  Addie's first friend in town, Serena, who owns the tea shop next door, is the fun-loving friend that everyone wants to have. Serena's brother Mark, who is also the towns police chief, is the "Ned Nickerson" of the series - Addie has an attraction to him, but solving the mystery of who murdered the local merchant and tried to pin it on Serena definitely comes first. Martha is the curmudgeonly old woman who owns the bakery next door, who is bound to cause trouble for Addie at every turn.

Of course, two of my favorites are the lawyer - Raymond James! - and the British curator who offers Addie a job - Roger Moore! Clearly, Elliott is having a bit of fun with names in the series, since Raymond James is a financial services company, and Roger Moore is, of course, the British actor who portrayed James Bond in a number of films. I would be curious to know how many people reading the book actually picked up on those names...

Plus, we get a mysterious key, a box hidden in a secret compartment of an old desk, and plenty of other Gothic tropes that play out during the course of the mystery.

Needless to say, Addie gets into the thick of things, despite being told countless times by Police Chief Marc to stay out of it, and she ultimately finds herself at gunpoint, nearly run down, and facing danger over and over. And, as with any good Nancy Drew mystery, the suspicions she has surrounding the death of her father and her fiance are resolved, when they are revealed to be connected to the current murder mystery, and by the end of the book, Addie (as well as the reader!) gets resolution to all of it, providing Addie with a true brand new start to her life.  At least, until the second book comes out, sure to bring with it yet another murder for Addie to solve!

RATING:  9 first printings of Alice in Wonderland out of 10 for writing a cozy mystery that is well worth the read, with a strong protagonist worthy of a Nancy Drew shout out!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Cemetery Girl, Book 3 - Haunted

And so the story of the Cemetery Girl has reached its conclusion with this third volume of the graphic novel series by Charlene Harris and Christopher Golden (and beautifully drawn by Geraldo Borges).  Calexa Rose Dunhill has been through quite a bit since she first woke up in that cemetery, and now her story comes to an end as her past is revealed and the identity of the person(s) who is trying to kill her comes to light.

Haunted is the perfect title for this book (graphic novel), as Calexa has been haunted not only by the past she can't remember, but by the death and violence that lay in her wake as she tries to escape from the unknown villains who are after her.  After the revelation in the last book that she had inherited the home of Lucinda Cameron and now has a place to live.  She has also made friends with Kelner and his son Mason, who are about the only individuals she trusts.  Which is probably wise on her part, as it appears that it's not just one, but two different factions that are searching for her...

Harris and Golden open up Calexa's past as readers discover that her father has been searching for her, but someone has been hindering his private eye every step of the way.  Someone does not want Calexa ... or Charlotte, as we discover her is her birth name ... found, and will go to any length to ensure that she stays away - even if that means killing her and anyone who gets in their way!  The mystery that has been building over the past two books now reaches its culmination, and all the secrets in Calexa's past are laid bare.  But the question is - once she learns the truth, will she go back to being the Charlotte she doesn't remember, or will she stay in her current life as Calexa?

This final volume provides a very satisfying conclusion, wrapping up the story nicely, answering all the questions, and even opening the door for Calexa (Charlotte) to find a little love and happiness in her life.  No easy cop-outs, no sudden revelations, no thread left untangled.

The art, by Borges, only adds to the life of the story, and it keeps pace with the prose, moving the reader from panel to panel, and page to page, with the ease of watching a television show or movie. This speaks volumes as to Borges' talent not just as an artist, but also as a storyteller, that his panels flow and give moment, and in no way seem two-dimensional.

It's almost a shame that this is the end of Cemetery Girl. On the one hand, it is nice to have a complete story; but at the same time, I want to see where Calexa and Mason will go from here, and what happens next!

RATING: 10 chocolate-filled donuts out of 10 for revealing the truth about a haunted girl without a past - and providing a superb and very satisfying conclusion to a terrific story!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 7 - Spies at Mount Vernon

Those mystery-solving brothers, Sam and Derek, are back doing what they do best - delving into our country's history to solve another mystery! Author Steven K. Smith takes the young brothers a bit out of their element in this seventh installment of The Virginia Mysteries, as they, along with Sam's friend and classmate, Caitlin, take a trip to Washington, D.C., where they get to explore the nation's capital (while Sam and Caitlin have fun pretending to be spies, watching every man and woman very carefully). But what happens when a man they watch begins to act very shady? And what happens when he leaves behind a very suspicious clue at the Lincoln Memorial? And what happens when the three kids unscramble the code to figure out that something is going down at the historic Mount Vernon?

Well, I think the title, Spies at Mount Vernon, says it all!  See, it turns out the man Sam and Caitlin were shadowing really is a spy - and there is something that is going to take place at Mount Vernon. As fate would have it, Mount Vernon also happens to be the site of a presidential appearance, where the President of the United States will be meeting foreign dignitaries.  It is an important occasion, and it is clear something bad is going to happen.

Enter: Federal Marshal Drake! Remember him from the prior book, when Sam, Derek and Caitlin helped stop some poachers?  Well, he's back and in the nation's capital. So, when Sam, Derek and Caitlin find themselves in a tight spot with national security, it's Marshal Drake who steps in - not only to help free them from any trouble they might be facing, but also to ask their help in identifying the spy they saw and his co-conspirator.  So, from Washington, D.C. down to Virginia, the kids travel back to their home state, where they find themselves facing greater danger than ever before. Plus, they get to meet the President of the United States!

Smith once again manages to seamlessly interweave historical facts about Virginia, and this time our nation's capital, into the mystery, so it is a learning experience for both Sam and the reader. And he also ups the ante for the kids, as they must face down the danger of real spies, who are not afraid to harm others! The climactic chase, both on land and water, is well worth the read, and Smith creates some very tense moments there near the end! Yet, with all this seriousness, Smith makes sure that Sam, Derek and Caitlin still act like and talk like the kids they are. Caitlin only has eyes for the President's son. Derek gets thoroughly engrossed with a famous sports star who is at the Mount Vernon gathering. And Sam? Well, Sam continues to second-guess himself, but he isn't afraid to do what needs to be done, and he keeps his eye on the mystery all the time, no matter what is happening around him.

It is great to see this series continue, in a day and time when mystery series for children do not seem to fare well.  It's a shame Smith's books are not being carried by some of the bigger chains, such as Barnes & Noble and/or Books-A-Million - but hopefully his sales on Amazon and other websites are sufficient to keep the series going and that an eighth book will be forthcoming!

RATING:  9 crab cake sandwiches out of 10 for keeping the mysteries fun and engaging, as well as educational - for readers of all ages!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Secrets in the Mist - a Gothic Myths Novel

Ever since I was introduced to the Gothic worlds of Wuthering Heights and Dark Shadows, I have loved good Gothic mysteries. Even the Nancy Drew series has a number of Gothic elements to help build the suspense and keep the reader engaged. Dark rooms, foggy nights, ghostly cries, sinister shadows. So, when I stumbled across a book called Secrets in the Mist, labeled as "A Gothic Myths Novel," well...let's just say, I was intrigued.

I had seen the author's name before - Anna Lee Huber writes historic mysteries; but, I had never read any of her books before this one. As such, I was not sure what to expect. But the cover, with the girl in white holding a lantern in the dark and misty night, and the description of the story, about a mythical lantern man, a secret held by the local villagers, and a twisted trail of deceptions, were enough to hook me.  So, buy it, I did, and now that I've read it, I would say it was worth the price I paid.

Secrets in the Mist is the story of Ella Winterton. Her mother died some time ago; her brother died in the war; and her father has basically given up, living his like out of one bottle after the other. The only people Ella has that she can depend on are her housekeeper, Mrs. Brittle, and her best friend, Kate (even if Kate's brother jilted Ella many years ago, running off to marry a woman that clearly had no interest in him). Set in England in 1812, in a small England village, Ella has resigned herself to the fact that she will likely never get married and never rise above the financial state she is in. One by one, she has been forced to sell off all of her valuables to keep her father out of prison (his drink of choice has been banned, as it is produced by the French, with whom England is at war), and she truly doesn't have much left.

Until she meets the Lantern Man...

What I first thought was going to be a mystery involving the legend of the Lantern Man, the mysterious shadowy figure who haunted the marshes outside of the Winterton homestead, instead turned out to be a mystery involving smugglers, thieves, blackmailers, and murderers. Ella, our Gothic damsel in distress, soon finds herself involved on all of these things, and the very people she had thought she could depend on to help her turn out to be involved themselves! But not everyone is who they seem to be, and as with any good Gothic tale of mystery and romance, Ella finds her hero and is ultimately able to solve the mystery and see the villains face the consequences of their actions ... but not without a cost to those Ella holds dear.

Huber does write a good tale, and she gave me a couple of surprises along the way; however, there is not a whole lot of suspense to the tale, even though Ella ventures out into the marshes numerous times, the mists swirling around her and the shadowy Lantern Man appearing without warning. Ella is a likable character, but honestly, I found I loved Mrs. Brittle even more and wish I had seen more of her in the story.  Some of the plot points were a bit predictable, but it was fun to follow Ella as she uncovered the clues that led to some shocking revelations for her (although not so much for the reader).

When I picked this up, I had assumed that the "A Gothic Myths Novel" meant there were others or some to be forthcoming; but, as of the writing of this post, there have been no other offerings under this umbrella, leaving me to believe that Secrets in the Mist is, and will be, the only Gothic Myths novel - a one-hit-wonder, so to speak.

Is it worth the read?  If you like mysteries with a light-touch of Gothic, then yes, I'd suggest it; but if you are expecting the dark and borderline-supernatural elements present in most Gothic stories, then you may not find this to your liking.

RATING:  7 cherished pianofortes out of 10 for a good mystery, sprinkled with a bit of romance and a hint of Gothic.