Four NECESSITIES FOR A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

mysteries

I think by now it is pretty clear that I love a good mystery series.  It probably started back in my Trixie Belden days, although I did read a fair amount of Nancy Drew as well.  When I was in college, I worked at a small bookstore in Geneva, Illinois.  There I got hooked on the Anne Perry mysteries.  I read a lot of different things in college for fun, but Anne Perry’s books truly solidified my love of series mysteries.  I branched out and read other authors, and the rest, as they say is history.

I currently have about fifty mystery series that I follow regularly; over the years, there have been some I have let go for a variety of reasons and I am always on the lookout for a new series.  For me, there are certain details that keep me engaged in a mystery series.  So for my completely biased opinion, these are my necessities of a good mystery series.

Four NECESSITIES OF A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

Interesting, plausible protagonist
Although I have read a lot of true crime novels, a good mystery for me is rooted in the characters.  I think that any good series must maintain strong, consistent characters to stabilize the continuity of the series.  It is what ties each book to the previous one and it is what the reader follows from book to book.  When a new release of a favorite author comes out, it feels like catching up with an old friend and visiting about what has happened since the last time we met.

I am not picky about the gender of my protagonist.  I love the female Lady Darby in Anna Lee Huber’s books and Amory Ames in Ashley Weaver’s series, but I find Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston and C. S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr just as engaging.  The key, and I know I have said it before, is that context in which the protagonist encounters a crime must be believable, it must be consistent, and it must be evolving.  I love a good cozy mystery but after a while, multiple deaths in a small town or at a certain ski resort; well, I don’t think I would put that on a place to visit!

Inquiry agents like Charles Lenox in Charles’ Finch’s series or Derek Stone in Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries, police detectives like Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James in Deborah Crombie Scotland Yard series, or even judges and attorneys like Verlaque and Bonnet in M. L. Longworth’s Provencal mysteries all have realistic reasons to encounter, and more importantly, be involved in, solving crimes.

Cozy mysteries are very entertaining and enjoyable, but they don’t have the same sustainability as something that is more grounded.  A good cozy writer should know when to quit and move on to a new series.

Historical setting
Not everything I read has a historical setting but it is definitely a huge plus in what makes a series my favorite.  Yes, I love the simpler time, the fascinating couture, the social customs and limitations, but honestly, the very best part is the lack of technology, specifically the internet.  Historical crime solvers must rely on their ingenuity and inquiry skills.  Now I am not discrediting modern detectives, but I truly love watching characters fit different pieces together.  I know that much of the detecting work could be completed a lot faster with modern tools, but what’s the point of a 50-page mystery!  I often think “why don’t they just look it up online” when I am reading a historical mystery before I remember that isn’t an option.

With characters spending days traveling by horseback or coach or waiting for letters to arrive, the tension of the story builds.  The reader often is sidetracked by the minutia of daily life and seemingly unimportant details; this adds depth and personality to the story and enables the reader to have a stronger grasp on the setting and characters and how they are woven together.

There is also something exotic and mystical about a historical setting; the grittiness seems darker and more threatening while the society and lifestyle creates a more glamorous and opulent feel.  I’ve always felt I that I was born in the wrong decade; reading historical mysteries helps me to channel my inner dreams.

Fun, quirky secondary characters
Remember, it is all about the characters for me.  Mystery books provide great opportunities for secondary characters to pop up over the course of a series.  These characters provide rich ambiance for the time period or foils for the different personalities of a protagonist.  They have the feel of that “crazy Aunt Edna” or “cousin Steve” that we all have in our families; the topic of holiday table conversations with details of their grand adventures, disasters, or both.  I think these characters add a dimension to the story to remind the readers that crime doesn’t occur in a bubble; life still goes on all around which is often what both helps and interferes with the solving of a crime.

Some of my favorite secondary characters are Bonnie Brock in the Lady Darby series, Sid and Gus in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries, and Oscar in the Witchcraft mysteries by Juliet Blackwell.  Sometimes these characters are integral to the development of the plot, sometimes they create obstacles that interfere with the progression of the inquiry, and sometimes they just add a diversion of spice and humor to a darker theme.

Just a hint of romance
Okay, call me a hopeless romantic but I like a bit of a love story in my mysteries.  I like the tension between two characters when they aren’t sure who they can trust, and then how it builds to when they discover that must trust one another.  Relationships often cloud judgement and perception and this added depth creates more conflict in a story and therefore makes it more suspenseful for the reader.  I don’t ever want a relationship in a mystery book to take away from the mystery itself, but a good author with meld the two with thought and purpose.

I like how some relationships grow over the course of the series, like C.S. Harris’ Sebastian and Hero, Tasha Alexander’s Emily and Colin, or Julie Spencer-Fleming’s Russ and Clare.  In contrast, I enjoy how Ashley Weaver’s Amory and Milo stories jump right into an established marriage.  Then of course there is Brad Parks’ Carter Ross and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; who knows if they will ever settle down!  What does Keanu Reeves’ character say in the movie Speed:  I have to warn you; I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work.  Ah, love . . .

Any other mystery buffs out there?  What are the “must-haves” for your favorite series?

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Death in the English Countryside

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Title:  Death in the English Countryside (Murder on Location 1)
Author:  Sara Rosett
Publication Date:  2014
ISBN:  978-1-500687304

Book Summary:
A degree in English literature and a fascination with Jane Austen is a fun college major but doesn’t provide many options in the career field so Kate Sharp is fortunate to have found a job as a location scout for Hollywood movies.  As a new film adaptation for Pride and Prejudice is ready to go into production, Kate’s boss Kevin travels to Nether Woodsmoor, a quaint village in England, that will hopefully provide locations perfect for the new film.  The cut-throat business of scouting requires them to be thorough, efficient, and fast.

But when Kevin fails to return after his scouting trip, Kate and office manager, Marci, become concerned that Kevin might have slipped back into his old addiction.  Knowing how lucrative the job is and with the production company calling regularly for updates, Kate travels to England in hopes of finding her wayward boss and keeping the profitable account.

Kate arrives to find Kevin’s luggage and laptop but no camera, and no Kevin.  Kate begins to travel through local pubs and stately country manors trying to retrace Kevin’s steps and find her elusive boss before the film’s pre-production crew bails on their company and Premier Locations goes out of business.

Book Commentary:
I’m always a bit skeptical of the Amazon “if you like this, then you might also like this,” but this particular series has popped up numerous times so I thought I would give it a try.  Of course, set in the idyllic English countryside and featuring a Jane Austen aficionado, the book wasn’t too much of a stretch!

I liked it!  It was a quick read that definitely falls into the cozy mystery category but it was fun with engaging characters, beautiful setting, and well-plotted story-line.  Kate is a very likable character and her quest to find her boss is logical and driven by an altruistic purpose.

Who might like this book:
If you like cozy mysteries, check this book out.  It looks like there are three more in the series plus a holiday novella.  I will be checking out more of these in the future!

Better Late Than Never

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Title:  Better Late than Never (Library Lovers Mysteries 7 )
Author:  Jenn McKinlay
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-399-58373-5

Book Summary:
Librarian Lindsay Norris feels that books back in the library for recirculation are worth the loss of any fines collected, and she organizes Briar Creek Public Library’s first overdue book amnesty day.  The flood of books is so overwhelming that Lindsay not only recruits her entire staff, but also the group of crafternoon ladies who come to the library weekly to craft, discuss books, and enjoy a lunch together.

A copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye wins the prize of the most overdue book at almost 10 years, but what is more shocking is that the person who checked it out was Candice Whitley, a local high school English teacher who was murdered.  The plot thickens when Lindsay and the staff realize that the book was checked out on the very day her body was discovered and that the killer was never found.

Always curious and possessed with a natural inclination to want to find the answers, Lindsay uses her research skills to look into this cold case.  The case may be cold, but it seems that the memories of the horror of Candice’s murder and the secrets contained are warming up and Lindsay finds her researching skills put her in the hot seat.

Book Commentary:
This is the seventh book in this delightful cozy series.  Jenn McKinlay writes three cozy series – the Library Lovers, the Hat Shop, and the Cupcake Bakery – and they all embody what makes a cozy mystery so enjoyable:  a fun protagonist, likeable characters, a fun setting, and plot that is interesting without being too complex.  Of the three series, I enjoy the Library Lovers the most; a combination of the library setting and book references interests me, and the book is also set on the Connecticut coast with several adventures on the open water.

Lindsay is a very likeable character and her rationale for research and curiosity are very believable.  The author weaves in a bit of romance with two gentlemen vying for Lindsay’s attention.

Who might like this book:
These books are perfect for the carpool lane or waiting in the doctor’s office.  Each time a new one comes out, I feel like I am visiting with an old friend.

Make sure that you read them in order!

Books Can Be Deceiving
Due or Die
Book, Line, and Sinker
Read It and Weep
On Borrowed Time
A Likely Story
Better Late Than Never

Four ALTERNATIVES TO A TRADITIONAL BOOK CLUB on Friday

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Book Clubs are denizens of our current society.  They are places for wine-drinking, socializing, and sometimes even talking about books.  I have been fortunate to be part of a number of book clubs, but I have found that participation can be very tricky.  The key to a successful book club is that all members need to have the same purpose in mind; clubs can be very disjointed when some people want to use the time for socializing and others want an in-depth dissection of a book.  Don’t get me wrong; both are fine purposes but conflict and dissatisfaction can arise when everyone is not . . . so to speak . . . on the same page.

As an alternative to the traditional book club, I have put together four different perspectives on what a gathering of book readers, book lovers, and people who just need to get their nose out of a book and socialize more . . . eh, me . . . might look like.

Four ALTERNATIVES TO A TRADITIONAL BOOK CLUB on Friday

Bring two, get two
The premise of this is very simple.  Each guest brings two copies of a book that they enjoyed, made them think, or touched their heart.  One by one, each guest shares a little about herself: the kind of books she likes to read, her favorite authors, her reading inspirations.  Then, she describes the book she has brought to share.  After everyone has shared, each guest picks two different books and now has two brand new stories to read.

I had a party like this a few years ago and it was a great success.  With a group of guests who had varied reading styles and interests, the variety of books that were presented was diverse.  I liked having two books to choose.  The first book I chose was one that I thought I would like; it was a genre that I enjoy and something similar to my normal reading routine.  The second book was a reach for me; I picked something I wouldn’t normally have even looked at.  I chose it as a challenge and based on my friend’s description of her own reading interests, I took a chance and enjoyed it.  This presented an opportunity to read something new without the pressure of having to analyze it in a group setting.  We had a great evening.

“Mystery” book
I must admit that I stole this basic idea from Pinterest . . . that evil, time-sucking website.  It is described as a “blind date with a book.”  I adapted the idea for a Halloween “mystery” theme.  Each guest brought a book wrapped in craft paper.  On the outside, the guests wrote clues about the book plot, characters, genre, and/or themes.  Once again we all shared our reading interests and then read our clues.  After everyone made a grab for a new book, we re-read the clues and then opened the paper and read the back-cover summary.

Once again I was astounded at how creative people were.  Some clues were lists, some were riddles, one had a symbolic bookmark attached, and one creative friend made a three-dimensional piece of artwork on the cover as her clue.  We had such a variety of genres!  Everyone was taking notes about books that sounded interesting to them so we really went away with even more future reading ideas.

Holiday two for one
I haven’t had this book party yet . . . but invitations will be going out soon!  Friends!  Put on your thinking caps!  I think that books and food go together well . . . okay, just about everything and food goes well together.  For this gathering, guests will bring a favorite holiday book – a novel, a cookbook, a children’s book; just something special that represents the season.   AND, they will bring a food item that represents that book.  I had originally thought that a cookie exchange – book party combination would be a great idea, but really it could be anything.  Mulled wine, homemade fudge, fruitcake!  Anything that might either represent or compliment the book.

We will celebrate the season, I will clean my house and have the motivation to get it decorated, and everyone will go home with a new book and a treat to share!  It’s a win-win situation!

Spring Cleaning purge
I think I might need to start another blog.  I absolutely love spring cleaning . . . yes, I am weird.  I love the purge of getting rid of things that clutter my space and my life.  I love the fresh, clean, simplicity of spring cleaning.  My family always gets a little nervous this time of year; they aren’t sure what . . . or who . . . might get put out on the curb!!

For this book party, my thought is that everyone brings a few books that they have on the shelf that they enjoyed but don’t need to keep.  We will swap out our old books and recycle them by having others enjoy them.  And, we won’t spend any money purchasing new books!  Granted, the book collection at home won’t be any smaller, but at least the books there will provide fresh, new reading options when the spring cleaning is done!

Anyone out there have any other alternative book party suggestions?

These Shallow Graves

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Title:  These Shallow Graves
Author:  Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher:  Random House Teens
Publication Date:  2015
ISBN:  978-0-385-73766-1

Book Summary:
Josephine Montfort is of the New York Montforts, and that means Miss Sparkwell’s School for Young Ladies, balls and galas, and finding a suitable husband.  It does not mean writing school newspaper stories about the abuses of young girls in the textile mills.  Even in 1890, after Nellie Bly’s exposés, true journalism is not an opportunity open to Jo.  However, when Jo’s father dies from an accident while cleaning his gun, her world crumbles.  Her mother descends into a depression and Jo is all but cooped up in the house of mourning.

When a chance opportunity occurs for her to deliver an item bequest in his will, Jo jumps at the prospect of visiting one of her late father’s holdings, the Standard, a city newspaper.  In awe of the bustle and excitement of the newspaper, Jo overhears the shocking accusation that her father’s death wasn’t an accident; it was suicide.  Overwhelmed by grief and confusion, Jo searches her father’s study for some indication of rationale and finds her father’s agenda.  Questioning of her uncle reveals that the cause of death was suicide but Jo continues to search for more answers.  The further she delves into the mystery, the more uncertain the facts become until Jo realizes that her father’s death wasn’t an accident or suicide; it was murder.

With the help of a scrappy ace reporter, a talented pickpocket, and a budding forensic doctor, Jo stretches out further from the home and life she has known and faces a new, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying, world.  The question is how much of her old life is she willing to let go and how much does she not want to return to.  The stakes of status, honor, and integrity are high but the threats to her sanity and life may be even greater.

Book Commentary:
I’ve read a few of Jennifer Donnelly’s adult books and enjoyed them, but this mystery book really caught my attention.  It is a young adult book but is unique in that it is a true historical mystery; mystery books are a rarity among young adult fiction.  Although I could see where the plot was going, I enjoyed how the author showed the growth of experience and knowledge in the young protagonist.  The concept of a young girl from a well-to-do family exploring the seedier side of the world is not a new one; what makes this story a bit unique is her clear awareness of both sides of life.  She realizes what sacrifices must be made on both sides while still maintaining a realistic naivety and open-eyed outlook on the world.

I found the book to be very enjoyable and I loved the gothic feel.  Amazon recommends the book for 9th grade and up and I think that is appropriate.  Although there is no sex, references and discussions are made in a youthful questioning and reflective way.  As the character learns what a brothel is, what it entails, and what it means for girls less privileged that she, the innocence is almost heart-breaking.

Who might like this book:
My daughter and I have had numerous discussions about the dearth of good young adult mysteries – historical or not – that don’t involve vampires, dystopian societies, or sappy emotions.  I think this book is a refreshing change and one that adults – both young and old – may enjoy.

Queries and Conundrums: The Re-Read

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It had been one of those days . . . you know the kind . . . the cat throws up, on the carpet; the teenager’s hair just won’t look right, and she lets everyone know; the dishwasher didn’t get run last night, and dishes are now piled up in the sink; and so on.  For me, once I get some semblance of balance back – cat puke cleaned up, teenager hair braided; I will often treat myself to a half an hour with a book and a cup of tea.  I mean, what else am I supposed to do while waiting for the dishwasher to finish??

More often than not, I will pick up a book that I have already read.  There are two reasons for this.  First, if it is a new book or one that I am currently reading, the likelihood that I will get engrossed in it is very good.  I’ve allotted myself a half an hour and we all know that the dishwasher isn’t going to unload itself . . . however, wouldn’t that be really nice.

The second reason is that there is something so comforting about revisiting with an old friend.  That is how I view my rereading.  Sometimes I will reread an entire book but more often I will reread favorite passages or scene.  It kind of reminds me of Christmas cards: you receive them once a year and even though you might not have had contact with these friends since last year’s cards, there is something soothing and enduring about that renewed relationship.  I find that when I re-read, I am revisiting old friends and renewing old memories.

There is a level of comfort and satisfaction knowing what is going to happen that enables me to reread and simply enjoy the plot, the characters, or the description instead of the anxious anticipation that often occurs during an initial read.  I also find that I can better appreciate the author’s prose and language when I already know what is going to happen.  The calming effect of beautiful words can be just enough to get me through the day.

How about you?  Any other re-readers out there?

Secrets in the Mist

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Title:                                    Secrets in the Mist (Gothic Myths 1)
Author:                               Anna Lee Huber
Publisher:                           Brightstone Media
Publication Date:              2016
ISBN:                                   978-0-997-939613

Book Summary:
To say that life is challenging in 1812 England is an understatement.  Due to the conflict with the French, the economy is struggling and many of those in the small coastal town of Thurlton resort to a second form of income – smuggling.  However, smuggling is dangerous; if caught, the culprits could be charged with treason for transporting French goods.  If someone is discovered with French goods, there is a hefty fine.  Most of the townspeople are aware of the dangers and are willing to take bribes to keep the smugglers’ actions secret, but there is one final threat that terrifies them all – the mysterious Lantern Men who roam the fens, recognizable by their wisps of lantern lights.  These mischievous spirits haunt the marshes and lure careless travelers into a watery grave.

Ella Winterton has a healthy fear and regard for those who travel through the dangerous bogs and marshes, but when her best friend Kate comes down with an illness that threatens her life, Ella has no choice but to brave the trek through the mist.  Cautious for hidden bogs and tight twists in the path, Ella focuses closely on her travels when suddenly a dark cloaked figure appears out of the mist.  Unsettled by his appearance, Ella is shocked when he allows her to pass by safely.  Ella is convinced that the Lantern Man is more man than myth and most likely involved in the smuggling trade.  His secret activities create more chance encounters with Ella and she becomes fascinated and unafraid of him.

The thought of this mysterious man haunts her mind, but Ella has more pressing concerns to deal with.  Since the death of her mother and her brother, Ella’s father spends his days consumed with grief and alcohol.  Their home has fallen into disrepair and Ella is forced to sell what she can for survival.  When Sergeant Watkins, an officer with the Board of Customs, finds evidence of contraband alcohol in her father’s possession, a hefty fine is levied.  With nothing left to sell and estrangement from her parents’ families, Ella is forced to make a decision that threatens her family’s reputation, her home and property, and even her life.

Book Commentary:
As a huge fan of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby mysteries, I admit I was bit nervous and apprehensive about this new series.  Would I like it as much?  Would it be as good?  The answer is unequivocally – yes!  Ella is a fascinating and relatable character; the reader feels for her situation but never feels sorry for her.  There is a naivety in her attitudes and perceptions but it not the wide-eyed innocence of a child; rather a woman of a certain station whose situation has faced a change in hardship so that she must have honest view of reality.  I admire her gumption and initiative but also wanted to yell out for someone to give this poor woman a break!

The rest of the characters are rather secondary but have their own individual backstories and motivations.  Ella truly drives the novel but it is the other characters who help guide, or divert her, from her path.  Huber has stated that this book series will follow in the tradition of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt.  The series has interrelated story-lines but each novel will highlight different heroes and heroines.  Any one of these secondary characters could develop into their own new book and I am anxious to see what happens next. The second Gothic Myths book is due out in 2018.

According to historical notes on the author’s website, Huber stated that the Lantern Man myth is a real myth; she plans to build the series around some other not-as-well-known myths.  I think it will be fascinating to read about the contrast of fact and fiction in them.  My interest is definitely piqued!

Who might like this book:
Secrets in the Mist has a different feel than the Lady Darby books; it is more of a romantic suspense than a straightforward mystery.  I found the inner-workings of the smuggling operations fascinating; I was amazed at how it was so interwoven in the daily lives and needs of the residents while still being a supposed “secret.”

Although the series is different than the Lady Darby books, one can’t help but compare the two.  In true Anna Lee Huber form, the essence of the story lives in the development of the characters.  Their histories, motivations, and depth make them enduring and the reader becomes fascinated by the lives and adventures they lead.