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: Terminal Peace (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse #3) by Jim C. Hines

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: DAW
Publication Date: August 9th, 2022
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The third and final book of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse follows a group of unlikely heroes trying to save the galaxy from a zombie plague.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her team were trained to clean spaceships. They were absolutely not trained to fight an interplanetary war with the xenocidal Prodryans or to make first contact with the Jynx, a race who might not be as primitive as they seem. But if there’s one lesson Mops and her crew have learned, it’s that things like “training” and “being remotely qualified” are overrated.

The war is escalating. (This might be Mops’ fault.) The survival of humanity—those few who weren’t turned to feral, shambling monsters by an alien plague—as well as the fate of all other non-Prodryans, will depend on what Captain Mops and the crew of the EDFS Pufferfish discover on the ringed planet of Tuxatl.

But the Jynx on Tuxatl are fighting a war of their own, and their world’s long-buried secrets could be more dangerous than the Prodryans.

To make matters worse, Mops is starting to feel a little feral herself…

Terminal Peace is the third in the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series by Jim C. Hines. Really, do you need anything other than the name of the series to know this is going to be great?

Premise is that humanity have been turned “feral” by an alien disease, except for a few who were naturally immune. Those became “librarians,” and have been working to free humanity from subjugation by various intergalactic powers.

Mops is a human janitor who is also the captain of a ship crewed by humans and aliens. War is imminent, and humans will suffer even more than they already have. It’s up to Mops and her crew to clean up yet another mess, but Mops is running out of time, as she’s been infected and will soon “revert.”

Mops is a delight, as are her crew. There are plenty of pop culture references, but not enough to distract from the story. This is a story of the underdog and how doing the right thing sometimes pays off, even if not in ways you expect. Mops and her crew battle their way to a forbidden planet in hopes of something that will stop the Prodryans, who want to dominate the galaxy. Can they convince the “primitive” Jynx to help them?

Hines is a good writer, and has created worlds and beings with whom you will want to spend more time. I’m hoping there are more in this series, although the ending of this book did wrap things up well.

Book Review: A Treacherous Tale (The Cambridge Bookshop Series #2) by Elizabeth Penney

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks
Publication Date: August 23rd, 2022
Pages: 288, mass market
Source: NetGalley

Lately, Molly has been feeling that she might have fallen into a fairy tale: she’s reinvigorated the family bookshop Thomas Marlowe—Manuscripts and Folios, made friends in her new home of Cambridge, England, and is even developing a bit of a romance with the handsome Kieran—a bike shop owner with a somewhat intimidating family pedigree.

Having recently discovered The Strawberry Girls, a classic children’s tale, Molly is thrilled to learn the author, Iona York, lives nearby. But while visiting the famous author at her lovely cottage in nearby Hazelhurst, an old acquaintance of Iona’s tumbles off her roof to his death.

Then, when one of Iona’s daughters—an inspiration for the original Strawberry Girls—goes missing, Molly begins to worry this story might be more Brothers Grimm than happily-ever-after. Especially after Molly learns about the mysterious long-ago death of Iona’s husband and co-author of The Strawberry Girls…could past and present crimes be linked? Molly must put the clues together before someone turns this sweet tale sour.

Molly Kimball, recent transplant from Vermont to Cambridge, is busy with her bookshop and her aristocratic beau, but when her uncle is suspected of murder, she flies on her bicycle to solve her second case.

In A Treacherous Tale, Molly is organizing an event with local author Iona York, who is coming out with a new edition of her classic children’s book. She visits Iona, only to discover the body of a local antiques dealer, who has fallen off the roof of Iona’s house, where Molly’s uncle was repairing the thatch.

Molly is a likeable heroine and has a great support system in her friends and family. While she does occasionally jump to a wrong conclusion, she generally follows the evidence and the reader is given all the clues they need to solve the case along with her. The secondary characters are important to the narrative, and don’t just serve to enhance Molly.

Penney is a solid cozy writer, and I hope there are many more in this series. I like the Cambridge Bookshop series, but I admit I’m more partial to Penney’s Apron Shop series. Both are well worth reading.

Book Review: Death at the Manor (Lily Adler Mystery #3) by Katharine Schellman

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Publication Date: August 9th, 2022
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Regency widow Lily Adler is looking forward to spending the autumn away from the social whirl of London society. When she arrives in Hampshire with her friends, Lord and Lady Carroway, she doesn’t expect much more than a quiet country visit and the chance to spend time with her charming new acquaintance, Matthew Spencer.

But something odd is afoot in the small country village. A ghost has taken up residence in the Belleford manor, a lady in grey who wanders the halls at night, weeping and wailing. Half the servants have left in terror, but the family is delighted with the notoriety that their ghost provides. Piqued by this spectral guest, Lily and her party immediately make plans to visit Belleford.

They arrive at the manor the next morning ready to be entertained—but tragedy has struck. The matriarch of the family has just been found smothered to death in her bed.

There was no one else in her room, and the door was locked from the inside. The dead woman’s family is convinced that the ghost is responsible. The servants are keeping secrets. The local magistrate is flummoxed. Lily is determined to learn the truth before another victim turns up—but could she be next in line for the Great Beyond?

Lily Adler’s third case is a death that may have been caused by a ghost. In Death at the Manor, Lily, along with her friends Lord and Lady Carroway, are on a visit to Lily’s aunt in Hampshire. There have been recent sightings of a “Grey Lady” at the local manor, so Lily and Ophelia wish to investigate. Matthew Spencer, who may or may not be a potential beau, is a neighbor of the Wrights, and assists with their investigation.

While good, this book may be suffering from sophomore slump, even though it’s the third in the series. I think this is largely due to the absence of Jack and Simon. Matthew may be a potential suitor, but he isn’t the foil for Lily the way the other two are. It was nice that Lily and Ophelia got to spend more time together, and we got to spend time with the Carroways as a couple and see more of their relationship.

I also think the book couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, a Regency romance, a cozy mystery, or a gothic. It led to some slow pacing and an overall disjointedness. That said, it’s still a really good mystery on its own merits, and if I hadn’t had the previous two to which to compare, I’d probably have rated this one more highly.

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: Peril at the Exposition (Captain Jim Agnihotri #2) by Nev March

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 12th, 2022
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Captain Jim Agnihotri and his new bride, Diana Framji, return in Nev March’s Peril at the Exposition, the follow up to March’s award-winning, Edgar finalist debut, Murder in Old Bombay.

1893: Newlyweds Captain Jim Agnihotri and Diana Framji are settling into their new home in Boston, Massachusetts, having fled the strict social rules of British Bombay. It’s a different life than what they left behind, but theirs is no ordinary marriage: Jim, now a detective at the Dupree Agency, is teaching Diana the art of deduction he’s learned from his idol, Sherlock Holmes.

Everyone is talking about the preparations for the World’s Fair in Chicago: the grandeur, the speculation, the trickery. Captain Jim will experience it first-hand: he’s being sent to Chicago to investigate the murder of a man named Thomas Grewe. As Jim probes the underbelly of Chicago’s docks, warehouses, and taverns, he discovers deep social unrest and some deadly ambitions.

When Jim goes missing, young Diana must venture to Chicago’s treacherous streets to learn what happened. But who can she trust, when a single misstep could mean disaster?

Award-winning author Nev March mesmerized readers with her Edgar finalist debut, Murder in Old Bombay. Now, in Peril at the Exposition, she wields her craft against the glittering landscape of the Gilded Age with spectacular results.

Peril at the Exposition is the follow-up to Nev March’s first novel, Murder in Old Bombay, featuring Captain Jim Agnihotri. Jim and his new bride, Diana, have moved from India to America. Jim has started work as a private investigator, and is sent to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair. After weeks of not hearing from Jim, Diana takes matters into her own hands and follows him from Boston to Chicago, where she finds danger and deceit.

I loved the first book, which was from Jim’s POV. This novel is told alternately by Jim and Diana, which allows the reader to have more of the facts and background. Jim has, perhaps understandably, become a bit harder since his move to the States and embarking on a new career. While I applaud Diana’s bravery and her ability to care for the less fortunate around her, I found her part of the investigation to be clumsy. I had difficulty believing that Jim couldn’t get a message to her for all that time, and didn’t feel like the story really needed her intervention. Her naivety imperiled those around her, as well as herself and Jim.

Still, the read was mostly enjoyable, for the story and the name-dropping of the like of Tesla. It also provided a window on the Expo and late 19th-century Chicago.

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: The Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge #4)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals – Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris’s past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son – a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.

Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

Many times, a promising series begins to fizzle out after several books. That is not the case with Allison Montclair’s Sparks and Bainbridge mysteries. The Unkept Woman is fourth in what I hope is a long-running series, and is, if anything, as strong or even stronger than the other volumes.

This time, Gwen is preparing to regain the life stolen from her when she spiraled into depression after her husband’s death during WWII. She is told that her behavior will not stand the scrutiny of the exam board, and that she needs to stick to matchmaking and avoid investigative work. Unfortunately, helping Iris with a ghost from her past may cost Gwen her son and her freedom.

This book authentically captures the struggles of working women of various classes. Even with all the war work women performed, they are still treated as second-class citizens and people with mental health issues aren’t treated much better than they were in Bedlam days.

Gwen and Iris are strong, confident characters, and the books are worth reading for them (and Sally!) alone, but the personal relationships between them, and their larger group of friends and family, provide even greater depth and examination of the culture and mores of the post-WWII austerity years. Both women are damaged, both are flawed, but both rise to overcome their pasts and are determined to be masters of their own destinies.

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.