Book Review: Murder by the Book ed. by Martin Edwards

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: August 10th, 2022
Pages: 304, paperback
Source: NetGalley

With Martin Edwards as librarian and guide, delve into an irresistible stack of bibliomysteries, perfect for every booklover and armchair sleuth, featuring much-loved Golden Age detectives Nigel Strangeways, Philip Trent, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and others. But readers should be warned that the most riveting tales often conceal the deadliest of secrets…

If much of the action is set in a bookshop or a library, it is a bibliomystery, just as it is if a major character is a bookseller or a librarian.
–Otto Penzler

A bookish puzzle threatens an eagerly awaited inheritance; a submission to a publisher recounts a murder that seems increasingly to be a work of nonfiction; an irate novelist puts a grisly end to the source of his writer’s block.

There is no better hiding place for clues–or red herrings–than inside the pages of a book. But in this world of resentful ghost writers, indiscreet playwrights, and unscrupulous book collectors, literary prowess is often a prologue to disaster.

Anthologies for me are usually like boxed chocolates – there are some I love, some I like, and then some that are going in the trash uneaten. With British Library Crime Classics anthologies, though, I generally devour all the stories greedily.

I’d read a few of the stories before, such as the Innes, Brand, and Crispin ones, but there was a Trent story by Bentley that I hadn’t encountered, and enjoyed. The star of the collection for me, though, was the John Creasey story, The Book of Honour. That story alone would have earned this four stars from me, even if the other stories were absolute dreck, which they were not.

Each of these stories has something to do with books. Books are sold, books are written, and books are stolen. Most of the stories are written by authors with whom the reader will be familiar, but there are a few, like the ones by the Coles and Bremmer, that are unexpected delights.

Recommended for those who love books and those who write them, and those who love a good Golden Age mystery.

Book Review: Be the Serpent (October Daye #16) by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: DAW
Publication Date: August 30th, 2022
Pages: 384, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

October Daye is finally something she never expected to be: married. All the trials and turmoils and terrors of a hero’s life have done very little to prepare her for the expectation that she will actually share her life with someone else, the good parts and the bad ones alike, not just allow them to dabble around the edges in the things she wants to share. But with an official break from hero duties from the Queen in the Mists, and her family wholly on board with this new version of “normal,” she’s doing her best to adjust.

It isn’t always easy, but she’s a hero, right? She’s done harder.
Until an old friend and ally turns out to have been an enemy in disguise for this entire time, and October’s brief respite turns into a battle for her life, her community, and everything she has ever believed to be true.

The debts of the Broken Ride are coming due, and whether she incurred them or not, she’s going to be the one who has to pay.

Toby has not had an easy time of it. She missed her daughter’s childhood when her stepfather turned her into a fish and left her in a pond. Her liege’s wife hates her and Toby is not allowed into their domain. So, in the last book, when she finally, FINALLY got a bit of happiness and married Tybalt, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Be the Serpent is not just that shoe, it’s Imelda Marcos’s entire collection of shoes dropping.

Toby’s best friend’s children are in danger, and Toby finds she may not know Stacy as well as she thinks she does. Toby’s powers have grown exponentially since the first book, as she becomes more Fae, but that might not be enough to take on her latest foe.

Toby is a hero. Toby views herself less as a hero, and more as someone who just keeps getting thrown into messes and has to do her utmost to protect her friends and family. She does an amazing job, whether she thinks so or not.

Toby has forged strong bonds with those who are not related to her by blood and most of them are more loyal to her than they are to their actually lieges. The relationships with her blood relatives? Well, the less said about most of them, the better. Who would have thought, back in Rosemary and Rue, that Toby the fish would find love with the King of Cats? She’s gained a sister (her Fetch May), a squire, a husband, and a strong team that supports her, whether she lets them or not.

It’s almost impossible to review this without spoiling it, so I’ll tell you why you should read it (and the rest of the series, if you haven’t already). The series just keeps getting stronger. Each book builds on the one before it, and this one is the culmination of so many storylines. Each character is well-drawn, and is not merely a prop for Toby. The descriptions are lush, and there’s an appropriate sense of menace throughout. You know something bad has happened. You know something worse is going to happen. The one person who might be able to help Toby is apathetic, at best, and obstructive, at worst. Frankly, I was amazed the body count wasn’t higher. I understand why the book ended the way it did, but it’s hard to see what this cost Toby and know that you’ll have to wait until at least next year for the next book. Be sure you have plenty of time set aside, because this is not a story that lends itself to stopping places.

Book Review: August Kitko and the Mechas from Space by Alex White

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: July 12th, 2022
Pages: 464, paperback
Source: NetGalley

When an army of giant robot AIs threatens to devastate Earth, a virtuoso pianist becomes humanity’s last hope in this bold, lightning-paced, technicolor new space opera series from the author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Jazz pianist Gus Kitko expected to spend his final moments on Earth playing piano at the greatest goodbye party of all time, and maybe kissing rockstar Ardent Violet, before the last of humanity is wiped out forever by the Vanguards–ultra-powerful robots from the dark heart of space, hell-bent on destroying humanity for reasons none can divine. 

But when the Vanguards arrive, the unthinkable happens–the mecha that should be killing Gus instead saves him. Suddenly, Gus’s swan song becomes humanity’s encore, as he is chosen to join a small group of traitorous Vanguards and their pilots dedicated to saving humanity.

Love, mechas, and music at the end of the world – what’s not to love? August Kitko is a loveable, awkward, semi-successful jazz musician who ends up playing a song that just might save humanking. Being a hero is all well and good, but can he save both the world and his new relationship?

This is the first book in The Starmetal Symphony series by Alex White. As the story opens, humanity is about to be destroyed by killer robots from outer space (yes, really), called the Vanguards. At one of the many apocalypse parties, August Kitko meets rockstar Ardent Violet, and falls head over heels for them. Unfortuntately, a Vanguard named Greymalkin also knocks Gus head over heels. Gus has five minutes to save the world before he dies.

Gus is an adorable everyman, caught up in something way bigger than he is and for which he seems wholly unprepared, both with the Vanguard and Ardent. The story is sparkly and fun and exciting, and you will absolutely have a soundtrack going through your head for most of the ride. Ardent is less Bowie and more Pete Burns, I felt, and Gus? Maybe Paul Simon? Gus and Ardent’s first jam had me humming “Doomsday Disco” by Lord of the Lost. I’m not sure whether I wanted the author to include the soundtrack they played writing this (if any) or if I was glad I could imagine my own.

Beneath all the shiny, there’s a sweet love story, some Pacific Rim-style fights, and the mystery of why the Vanguards want to destroy humans to solve. The story is covered with glitter and fire and light, and is face-paced and noisy. You can help but root for Gus, and Ardent, self-centered, but utterly loyal to Gus, will grow on you. Probably. If not, you’ll like them because they love Gus.

The story is told from both Gus’s and Ardent’s points-of-view, and I felt that the Ardent chapters were less successful than the Gus ones. That’s partially because almost all the mecha are in the Gus chapters, but also because, well, Ardent isn’t entirely likeable, and the action drags in their sections. I also felt that their “love at first sight” was a bit convenient, but then, hey, it WAS the end of the world, and they were immediately thrown into battle.

Fun, if a bit clunky in places. You won’t be sorry you tuned in.

Book Review: Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries ed. by Martin Edwards

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery short story collection
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: June 7th, 2022
Pages: 320, paperback
Source: NetGalley

“Curiously enough,” said Dr. Manners, “I know a story in which the detection of a murder turned on the behaviour of a bird: in this instance a jackdaw.” Since the dawn of the crime fiction genre, animals of all kinds have played a memorable part in countless mysteries, and in a variety of roles: the perpetrator, the key witness, the sleuth’s trusted companion. This collection of fourteen stories corrals plots centred around cats, dogs and insects alongside more exotic incidents involving gorillas, parakeets and serpents – complete with a customary shoal of red herrings. From the animal mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and F. Tennyson Jesse through to more modern masterpieces of the sub-genre from Christianna Brand and Penelope Wallace, this anthology celebrates one of the liveliest and most imaginative species of classic crime fiction. 

Guilty Creatures is the latest vintage mystery short-story anthology from British Library Crime Classics/Poisoned Pen Press, edited by Martin Edwards. This outing is all about mysteries where an animal is a key component of the case.

A few of the stories were familiar, but were welcome re-reads, like Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane. I’d forgotten that Doyle did occasionally have Holmes self-narrate a tale, and it’s interesting to see Holmes through his own eyes.

Some of the stories are weaker, mystery-wise, such as The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt, but the tale itself is so entertaining that that can be overlooked.

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe is another one I’d read before, but I’d forgotten the trick ending, which is a very pleasing one.

You can’t go wrong with Christianna Brand, whose Inspector Cockrill makes a welcome appearance in “The Hornet’s Nest.” This is another one I’d read before, but it’s just so good and so unexpected that it’s worth the time spent to read again.

The anthology is a mixed bag, but is well worth reading just for these gems.

Book Review: Murder Through the English Post (Beryl & Edwina Mystery #6) by Jessica Ellicott

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A rash of poison pen letters has enveloped the sleepy English village of Walmsley Parva in cloud of suspicion and paranoia. But when rampant aspersions culminate in murder, enquiry agents Beryl Helliwell and Edwina Davenport must stamp out the evil-minded epistles . . .

What began for two dear if very different friends–an American adventuress and a prim and proper Brit–as a creative response to the lean times following the Great War has evolved into a respectable private enquiry business. So much so that Constable Gibbs calls upon Beryl and Edwina to solve a curious campaign of character assassination.

A series of anonymous accusations sent via post have set friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. In her new position as magistrate, Edwina has already had to settle one dispute that led to fisticuffs. Even Beryl has received a poison pen letter, and while she finds its message preposterous and laughable, others are taking the missives to heart. Their headstrong housekeeper Beddoes is ready to resign and one villager has attempted to take her own life.

The disruption of the peace goes far beyond malicious mischief when another villager is murdered. Now it’s up to the intrepid sleuths to read between the lines and narrow down the suspects to identify the lethal letter writer and ensure that justice is delivered . . .

Poison is in the pen in Jessica Ellicott’s latest mystery, Murder Through the English Post. This time, Beryl and Edwina must investigate a rash of poison pen letters that may have caused a death.

Beryl, Edwina, and Simpkins continue to grow and their unconventional partnership is a delight. The flip side of that is that there is a LOT of introspection, mostly by Edwina, in this book, and it does cause it to drag in places. I’m very happy that Edwina is opening herself up to new experiences, such as becoming a magistrate, but I don’t necessarily want to read an entire chapter of her inner thoughts about her life.

Pretty much everyone in the village gets a poison pen letter, some deserved, some not. Readers will probably figure out the solution before Beryl and Edwina, but this is an enjoyable visit to Walmsley Parva, and a great peek into post-WWI village life.

Book Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: May 17th, 2022
Pages: 370, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

Evie, Vivien, and Gracie are the Bloomsbury Girls, a not-quite sequel to Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, although Evie appears in both novels.

It’s 1950s London. There’s still austerity, but life has more-or-less resumed as it was before World War II…and that’s the problem. Women are in the workforce in increased numbers, to the consternation, and sometimes hostility of their male coworkers and some customers.

Each woman is trying to make her place in Bloomsbury Books, which has stood for over 100 years and has over 50 unbreakable rules. In the changing society of the 50s, though, rule-breaking is almost inevitable, and each of the “girls” must decide whether to go with the status quo or fight to carve out the place she deserves among the shelves and aisles.

In addition to being a great story with characters you want to spend time with, this is a great peek into the post-war working-class society in mid-20th-century London. It does focus more on the internal struggles for each woman, but there are glimpses into the wider world and how it impacts their choices.

You don’t have to have read The Jane Austen Society before reading this, but you will want to, if only to learn more about Evie Stone.

Book Review: The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: May 17th, 2022
Pages: 272, paperback
Source: NetGalley

The elegant Miss Phryne Fisher returns in this scintillating collection, featuring four brand-new stories.

The Honourable Phryne Fisher—she of the Lulu bob, Cupid’s Bow lips, diamante garters and pearl-handled pistol—is the 1920s’ most elegant and irrepressible sleuth.

Miss Phryne Fisher is up to her stunning green eyes in intriguing crime in each of these entertaining, fun and compulsively readable stories. With the ever-loyal Dot, the ingenious Mr Butler and all of Phryne’s friends and household, the action is as fast as Phryne’s wit and logic.

Phryne Fisher is back with four new short stories in The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions. Her sleek bob and sharp wits remain unchanged, but there are minor alterations to a few of the other thirteen stories, which were previously published in A Question of Death.

Phyrne is always a joy to read. She is poised, confident, and intelligent, and uses her skills (and money) to pursue justice and solve mysteries. I wish there were more than four new stories, but it had been awhile since I had read the anthology with the others, so it was like catching up with an old friend who had exciting new news.

But Phryne does not act in a vacuum. While she may dine with the upper crust, she’s equally at home in humbler (and more socialistic) settings. She’s a chameleon, but she’s always true to herself and is sympathetic to people in unfortunate circumstances.

If you like mysteries with wit, sparkle, and charm set in the period between the World Wars, you should be reading Phryne. Even if you don’t think that’s your cuppa, try them anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: Rotten to the Core (Lady Hardcastle Mysteries #8) by T.E. Kinsey

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Publication Date: June 7th, 2022
Pages: 334, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Summer 1911. A scorching heatwave engulfs the quiet town of Littleton Cotterell and brings about an unusually early harvest. The villagers are thrilled, but events quickly turn sour when one of them turns up dead in an apple orchard, stabbed through the heart.

Amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her trusty lady’s maid, Flo, suddenly have a juicy case on their hands. Might the mysterious stranger they recently met in the village be to blame?

When a second cider-related murder takes place, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to these mysterious deaths than meets the eye. The daring duo uncover whispers of an ancient order and moonlit rituals. And evidence points to a macabre secret in the village stretching back years. A secret someone will do anything—anything at all—to keep hidden.

Something is rotten, that’s for sure. With the local constabulary baffled, Lady Hardcastle and Flo must use all their powers of wit and whimsy to get to the bottom of the dastardly deed. But can they catch the killer before any more people drop dead?

Old sins cast long shadows in T E Kinsey’s latest Lady Hardcastle mystery, Rotten to the Core. In the midst of preparations for a harvest festival, a local man is found dead in an orchard. Lady Hardcastle and her more-than-a-maid Flo are called upon to investigate. They find a benevolent society with some odd rituals, a tourist/newcomer who picks some odd local sites to visit, and more than one motive for murder.

Flo and Emily are back with the sharp skills and witty banter that we’ve come to expect and love. There are red herrings and suspects galore in this outing, indeed, maybe a few too many. But Flo and Emily persevere, and solve the case in time to enjoy cider at the festival.

I always enjoy spending time in Littleton Cottrell, and this book is no exception.

If you like an egalitarian aristocrat with an amazing jill-of-all-trades sidekick, pick up this series now!

Book Review: Prison of Sleep (Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2) by Tim Pratt

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: April 26th, 2022
Pages: 400, paperback
Source: NetGalley

After escaping the ruthless Lector, Zax Delatree has a new enemy to fight in the sequel to Doors of Sleep.

Every time Zaxony Delatree falls asleep he wakes up on a new world. His life has turned into an endless series of brief encounters. But at least he and Minna, the one companion who has found a way of travelling with him, are no longer pursued by the psychotic and vengeful Lector.

But now Zax has been joined once again by Ana, a companion he thought left behind long ago. Ana is one of the Sleepers, a group of fellow travellers between worlds. Ana tells Zax that he is unknowingly host to a parasitic alien that exists partly in his blood and partly between dimensions. The chemical that the alien secretes is what allows Zax to travel. Every time he does, however, the parasite grows, damaging the fabric of the Universes. Anas is desperate to recruit Zax to her cause and stop the alien.

But there are others who are using the parasite, such as the cult who serve the Prisoner – an entity trapped in the dimension between universes. Every world is like a bar in its prison. The cult want to collapse all the bars of the worlds and free their god. Can Zax, Minna, Ana and the other Sleepers band together and stop them?

Prison of Sleep continues Zax’s journey through multiple worlds as he tries to stop the Sleeper cult from propagating and destroying space-time. Told from the points-of-view of Zax, and his former traveling partner and lover, Ana, we get insights (and, admittedly, info-dumps) about the cult and the people from various worlds who are working to defeat it. But, can a god who can traverse anywhere be killed?

Tim Pratt is a writer who’s work is always a joy for me. I became a fan with his Marla Mason series, and have liked everything since. I read The Twilight Empire at the same time I was reading Prison of Sleep, and was intrigued by how effortlessly he builds worlds and characters.

Zax has traveled over 1000 worlds, and he has lost several companions along the way. The cult are looking for him, either to convert or to kill him, and it’s becoming harder to stay ahead of them.

Ana has also become a traveler, after surviving near-madness due to exposure of the space between the worlds. She’s a bit more pessimistic than Zax, but also less idealistic. They balance each other well, and readers will hope for their eventual reunion.

We also meet back up with some characters I thought might be lost for good after the first book. No spoilers, but they’ve joined the fight as well, and are working their way to Zax.

Despite the large blocks of info, the plot moves well and makes sense. I think possibly it could have been improved by having two parts Zax to one part Ana in the chapters, but then too, Ana’s sections give us lots of the backstory of the cult and the group working against them.

This is a good, solid sci-fi series that will appeal to readers who like to imagine alternate times and places.

Book Review: Knit or Dye Trying (A Riverbank Knitting Mystery #2) by Allie Pleiter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication Date: April 5th, 2022
Pages: 304, mass market paperback
Source: NetGalley

Business is booming for Libby Beckett and her fabulous Maryland shop, aptly named Y.A.R.N., but when a town festival brings a fatality with it, Libby gets all tangled up in murder.

As spring comes to Collinstown, the village launches a food festival to draw a new group of tourists. Libby, proud owner of Y.A.R.N., has planned a yarn event to provide an alternative option to a foodie weekend. Artisan fiber dyer Julie Wilson–known for her work with animal-friendly, plant-based knitting fibers such as bamboo and hemp as well as her brilliant use of color–will hopefully draw a crowd with a special dyeing workshop.

The festival begins, but it draws more than crowds. First a flock of sheep parades down the street, herded by farmers protesting Julie’s antiwool stance. Then Julie’s celebrity chef sister appears, and the siblings resume a long-standing rivalry. Despite all this, Julie’s workshop has sold out. Libby is thrilled, and they’re preparing for a full house. But the night before the event, Julie is found alone in the warehouse event space–dead. The witty “Watch Julie Wilson Dye” workshop title now has a terrible new meaning–and it’s up to Libby to catch a crafty killer.

A flock of protest sheep welcome Libby’s most recent celebrity guest, a well-known, and much-disliked yarn dyer, in Knit or Dye Trying, the second in Allie Pleiter’s knitting mystery series. Libby owns Y.A.R.N, and is having an event to go along with the local seafood festival. Julie Wilson is her expert guest, and Libby gives Julie access to a local warehouse so that Julie can create her special, highly sought-after, colors. Julie gets trapped in the warehouse, and is overcome by fumes. Libby feels responsible, and decides to investigate.

This second outing for Libby is every bit as enjoyable as the first. Although she hasn’t been back in town long, she’s folded herself seamlessly into the life of her town, even running for local office against her blowhard fellow business owner George. One of the strengths of the series is the relationships Libby has forged and the growth we’ve seen from the first book. Libby is likeable and is a very relatable character, as are her almost-boyfriend Gavin, Gavin’s daughter, and Libby’s mom. They feel like real people whom you’d like to know.

Libby is a great cozy heroine. She’s thoughtful, and doesn’t jump to conclusions. She looks at the people involved in the case, and makes logical deductions. Maybe it’s a knitting thing? I can knit a decent scarf, and I admire people who can work large, complex patterns. Libby is amazing at unravelling (pun intended) the knotty skeins of the crimes which have come her way.

The crimes make sense, too, and there are enough clues scattered along the way to keep the reader engaged without letting them guess the solution too soon.

It’s a wonderful series, filled with life and love. I hope there are many more to come.