Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mini Reviews: Five Mysteries For Cozy Nights By The Fire

You may have noticed a severe lack of book reviews on the blog lately... I've been reading up a storm, but I seem to be going through a review slump. In an effort to get over my lack of motivation, I decided to write some less-daunting mini reviews! So here we have five mystery novels -- most amazing -- that are perfect for curling up with a blanket and your warm beverage of choice on a chilly December night. 

"A Curious Beginning" by Deanna Raybourn
First in the Veronica Speedwell series
First published in 2015
337 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5

Veronica Speedwell was a most delightful protagonist in this murder mystery set in England in 1887. She's quite an unconventional woman for her time: a font of knowledge, imminently practical, unusually promiscuous but equally discreet, unabashedly direct and frank -- and she proves to be quite a capable amateur sleuth as well.

Veronica, now 25, is a foundling adopted by two spinster sisters. Now both her "aunts" have passed away -- and a friendly stranger, a baron,  appears claiming to have known Veronica's mother. But he's murdered before he can tell her more. Veronica and her newfound partner in crime, a fascinating man named Stoker, set forth to solve the baron's murder -- and clear themselves of the crime.

This was a wonderful mystery! If you like badass heroines ahead of their time and historical fiction set in Victorian England, this book is for you! (P.S. Veronica is a lepidopterist, and you'll want to have your phone handy to Google all the gorgeous butterflies mentioned in the book!)

"Mr. Mercedes" by Stephen King
First in the Bill Hodges trilogy
First published in 2015
436 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5

Holy crap, this was a chilling book -- a disturbing, uncomfortable, capably written novel told from two perspectives: an intrepid retired detective and a psychopath hiding in plain sight.

It's been years and years since I've read any Stephen King, but "Mr. Mercedes" is a bit of a departure from his usual M.O. It's a straight-up crime thriller -- no aliens, no ghosts, just a really terrifying killer who could be anyman in anycity, which is part of what makes the story scary.

Bill Hodges recently retired after four decades on the police force -- and he's not taking all that extra free time well. He's at such loose ends that he's contemplated suicide. But his life takes on renewed purpose when he's contacted by a criminal claiming to have perpetrated a horrific crime -- the clown mask-clad driver of a gray Mercedes purposely mowed down a group of people waiting for a job fair -- that came at the end of Bill's career and remains unsolved.

Bill is a formidable opponent -- one of the best detectives in the city's history -- and he plans to outplay Mr. Mercedes at his own twisted game. On the way he collects two unlikely but enjoyably eccentric and bright sidekicks. I was happy to see they make an appearance in the second Bill Hodges book, this year's "Finders Keepers."

"Mr. Mercedes" was the scariest crime novel I've read in a while. King provides us with an unnerving -- and fascinating -- glimpse inside the mind of a mentally ill serial killer. I'm intrigued to see what horrors are in store for me in "Finders Keepers"!

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield
First published in 2006
406 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5

Above all else, "The Thirteenth Tale" is a brilliant piece of storytelling. The writing, the unswervingly eerie plot, the gothic dark-and-stormy-night atmosphere, the protagonist whose life revolves around books, the decaying mansion and the decades-old mystery all come together for an enthralling narrative.

Margaret reads lots of books, drinks lots of cocoa, helps her father run a used and rare books store and is an amateur biographer on the side. Elderly Vida Winter, the world's most famous crime novelist, has a mysterious past that she has managed to guard very closely despite her fame. No one is more shocked than Margaret when Vida contacts her out of the blue and asks her to write about her childhood in the English countryside -- which, as it turns out, was horrifying, fascinating and full of long-buried secrets and still-unanswered questions.

"The Thirteenth Tale" was an absolutely addicting read, made all the better because I devoured it in October on a rainy trip to the mountains, which perfectly complimented the spooky atmosphere of the story. I highly recommend this book to any fan of mysteries, historical fiction, books about books, or just damn fine storytelling.

"The Lake House" by Kate Morton
First published in 2015
495 pages
My rating: 4 out of 5

Almost three years ago now I read and absolutely loved "The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton -- and I've been vowing since then to read more of her work. The release of her latest novel -- another literary mystery set in the English countryside and dealing with long-kept secrets -- seemed like just the right opportunity.

While I didn't think "The Lake House" was quite as good as "The Secret Keeper," it was still a great read. My main gripes were that the story dragged at times and was a little longer than it really needed to be, but the plot was intriguing, the atmosphere of the English countryside -- in several time periods from pre-WWI to the present -- was great, the characters were interesting and well-written, and the resolution was perfectly satisfying.

"The Lake House" tells a handful of interconnected tales, but our main character is Sadie Sparrow, a London police detective on forced leave following a case gone wrong. She's seeing out her leave at her grandfather's cottage in Cornwall and stumbles upon a decaying old mansion, the site of a mostly forgotten cold case involving a missing baby in the late '20s, now owned by a famous British crime novelist. Grateful for a distraction, Sadie sets out to put her sleuthing skills to work on the case -- and unwittingly winds up revealing long-buried family secrets and changing the lives of all involved.

"Girl Waits With Gun" by Amy Stewart
First published in 2015
416 pages
My rating: 3.5 out of 5

"Girl Waits With Gun" is based on the true life of a pretty badass lady named Constance Kopp, who became one of America's first female sheriff's deputies at time when women were expected to stay at home stitching, baking and playing the piano.

Constance and her two sisters are on their way to town when a speeding motorcar rams into their buggy, toppling it and injuring her sisters. Constance has no idea that her simple demand of payment for the required buggy repairs will set into motion a year-long feud with the good-for-nothing owner of a silk factory and his posse of fellow loafers and criminals who find increasingly terrifying ways to harass the sisters.

I did enjoy "Girl Waits With Gun" and I liked that it was an interesting fictionalized account of a unique and pioneering woman. But the story was a little dull at times, and there were some plot points that didn't quite make sense to me. (For instance, I could swear I felt a romance brewing but it never played out.) I was a little disappointed -- the awesome cover really pulled me in and because of that I think I was expecting more of an amateur sleuth mystery. I didn't realize the novel was based on a true story when I picked it up, though, and maybe that knowledge would've tempered my expectations.


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