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Blood and Circuses–the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd…and a murder

Blood and Circuses

by Kerry Greenwood

blood and circusesBlood and Circuses is my second foray into Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Phryne Fisher is recruited by some carnival workers to investigate mysterious problems with the circus they work for, a failing endeavor named Farrell’s. The mystery begins commonly enough, but as Phryne goes undercover as a bareback rider, she learns about the stratified and well ordered world of the circus. There, the trapeze artists have the most prestige, carnival workers are second class citizens, and Gypsies are low life.

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Sargeant Terence Grossmith, and Constable Tommy Harris are up to their necks with gangster warfare and the disturbing murder of a circus member known as both Christopher and Christine. The source of these crimes seems to connect with the troubles of the circus, but it is hard to discover just how they are related.

In the process of these investigations, the reader learns more of Phryne’s background–some of the things that helped form her character. Several moral issues are addressed: an audience’s hunger for disaster in the circus ring, the need of people to order their society in classes and then discriminate based on the labels they attach to each group, the disparagement of people who are different with the label of “freak,” and the emotions and needs of those born with a physically inconclusive gender. Phryne faces personal issues when she chooses to live in deprivation, giving up her creature comforts, her safety, and her status in the name of relieving her boredom and helping others.

Blood and Circuses is a convoluted mystery, but all of the plot lines are explained in the end. It is not just an exciting tale of adventure. There are philosophical elements which invite Miss Fisher and the reader to engage in a bit of self-examination without even a touch of preachiness.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Poisoned Pen Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery, Historical Fiction

Notes: 1. #6 in the series, but could be read as a standalone

             2. some bad language and a number of sexual encounters, but the emotions are described more than the physical aspects of the encounters.

Publication:   March 7, 2017–Poisoned Pen Press

Memorable Lines:

Sargeant Terence Grossmith was huge. His expanse of blue tunic was as wide as a tent. He had thinning brown hair and large limpid brown eyes, which seemed to hold an expression of such placid benevolence that hardened criminals had occasionally found themselves confessing to him out of a sense of sheer incongruity.

[speaking of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson]…always at the start of a case, he felt downhearted and tired. There was so much evil in the world. “O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right,” he quoted to himself. The Mechanics’ Institute English literature classes which his wife had taken him to, much against his will, had been very useful. A man could always rely on Shakespeare to hit the nail on the head. Robinson wondered how he had done without him.

Phryne speaking: “…what’s fascinating about the circus is the people. And I don’t expect you to like them, Dot. They aren’t respectable.” “That’s why you like them,” commented Dot. Phryne looked at her companion’s reflection in the mirror and grinned.

Bitter Harvest–second book in the series lives up to expectations

Bitter Harvest

by Wendy Tyson

Bitter HarvestCozy mystery series frequently have themes–a tea shop, scrapbooking, dogs, etc. The best of these appeal to readers outside this narrow interest, perhaps even widening the reader’s horizons.  The Greenhouse Mystery Series created by Wendy Tyson is a perfect example. Honestly, neither the title of the series or of the book I just read, Bitter Harvest, holds a particular attraction for me. I’ve done my fair share of mucking about in a large vegetable garden and have raised an assortment of farm animals. I am also a fan of organic vegetables. But, READ about them? In a mystery? Turns out the answer is a resounding double yes!

Bitter Harvest is a page turner as former Chicago lawyer Megan Sawyer returns to her roots in Winsome, Pennsylvania, to try to piece together a living from an organic farm, a café, and whatever else comes her way to make her farm a viable enterprise. The plot has multiple threads, but they all seem to center around Winsome’s first Oktoberfest. Don’t get too comfortable with the idea of small town friendliness, because a heated argument erupts at the café and Megan discovers evidence of a stalker looking down on her property–all in the first chapter. From there events move quickly as Megan’s grandmother discovers one of the town’s brewers is dead; no one is sure if it was an accident or murder. In Winsome, business and personal relationships swirl around like dust devils, never quite settling down.

The writing in Bitter Harvest is excellent. The setting varies from small town to farm and further afield as Megan tries to discover who is behind the crimes occurring in Winsome and what the motivation could possibly be. Megan is a war widow starting life again, but she still has to deal with a complicated past as she tries to understand why her mother left their family when she was eight years old. The characters are interesting, believable, and likable. The romantic attraction in the story is a handsome Scottish vet whose skills are invaluable in several crisis situations.

Wendy Tyson does a wonderful job of bringing the reader into Megan’s life. If you read the first book in the series, A Muddied Water, you get subtle reminders of events that occurred in that book. If you are jumping into the series with Bitter Harvest, you are quickly brought up to date without feeling like you just got a history lesson. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to the next one in the series, Seeds of Revenge, with projected publication in fall of 2017.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Henery Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery, General Fiction (Adult)

Notes: part of a series, but works as a standalone

Publication:   March 7, 2017–Henery Press

Memorable Lines:

Megan called to Sadie and Gunther. Gunther, better trained every day, came immediately and sat before her, the obedient livestock guardian dog. Sadie looked at her, sniffed a flower, peed next to a bush, and then trotted her way toward the house, stopping twice to investigate something interesting. For Sadie, obedient livestock guardian dog was clearly not a career aspiration.

“Trolls.” She handed the phone back to Emily. “That’s all they are. Sad, lonely people with nothing better to do than leave mean reviews and comments online. The web allows strangers to bask in the safety of cowardly anonymity. Hurtful, Emily–but not meaningful.”

The Case of the Curious Cook–good, but not recommended as a standalone

The Case of the Curious Cook

by Cathy Ace

The Case of the Curious CookThe Case of the Curious Cook rather stumbled along for me until about halfway through. At that point the mystery took off and the characters gained new life. I enjoyed the occasional Briticism, the many Welsh references, and the view of upper crust life. I was particularly pleased with the conclusion of the book, giving a glimpse into the future for the characters as well as resolution to the several entwined mysteries. My reservations about The Case of the Curious Cook stem from my reading this book as a standalone. My enjoyment would have been much enhanced by a better introduction to the characters, which probably occurred in the first two books of the WISE Enquiries Agency Series.

The mystery centers around the murder of an artist by her brother, the unexplained and unwelcome donation of books, the discovery of miniatures, and strange occurrences at a retirement home. The plot and setting are excellent and the pace is quick in the last half of the book. I probably would like the main characters, a diverse group to be sure, if I felt I knew them better. I did appreciate their concern for each other and their efforts to work together respecting each other’s strengths.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Severn House for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: Should be read as part of the series

Publication:  March 1, 2017–Severn House

Memorable Lines:

Even when he was cleansed, shaved, moisturized and dressed, he still felt grubby; that was how anger made him feel–as though he was rolling around in the filth where he’d been raised.

Your mid-sixties was a time when activities like working, traveling, and even hiking and hillwalking were still real possibilities, and when there were still enough years ahead of a person for them to make plans.

It became increasingly clear Mountain Ash House was filled with widows whose children were either non-existent (rare), living too far away to visit often (more likely), or happy to ignore them (too frequent).

You can’t take books to the dump. They aren’t something you just dispose of like so much rubbish. A book means something. It does. Someone wrote it, printed it, bound it–not to mention the ones who read them, held them and maybe cried into them. I love books I do, they’ve all had a life–like a person.

Dead in the Water–dive into a forensic crime mystery

Dead in the Water

by Annelise Ryan

dead-in-the-waterDead in the Water is the eighth mystery in the Mattie Winston Mystery Series. As I read, I suspected it was not a standalone, but I was unaware of the number of books preceding it. The author fills the reader in on the background of characters from previous books very effectively and efficiently.

Some readers refer to Dead in the Water as a cozy mystery. It deviates from the typical cozy mystery in its focus on forensic investigation of crimes, as is found in two popular television shows: the more current C.S.I. and the older series Quincy, M.E.  Initially as I read the descriptive portions, I could hear echoes of my teenage self: “Eew! GROSS!” and I determined that I could not possibly rate it with 5/5 stars. As I read on, however, I became absorbed by the complex mystery, interesting characters, and complicated relationships. I even came to admire the way the author handles the depictions of dead bodies and autopsies–just graphic enough for visualization without unnecessary repetition or exploration of details.

Another different feature of this cozy mystery is that the main character, Mattie, is an employee of the medical examiner’s office. Her job description is “medico-legal death investigator.” That position gives her access to medical and investigative information that would normally be denied to the general public. It also gives her a reason to be involved in the discovery of so many crimes, as opposed to the typical, hapless female lead who unbelievably, repeatedly stumbles into crime scenes. Her job makes her able to work WITH the book’s love interest, Detective Steve Hurley, rather than have to work around him. In this book, the tension about flow of information, normally assigned to the heroine and the investigative romantic interest, is taken on by a reporter who has developed a rapport with the crime fighting duo.

By the end of Dead in the Water, I was sold on the merits of this book despite queasiness at its post-mortem perspective. The author even manages to introduce a touch of humor in the midst of death. Ryan is inclusive of a variety of non-traditional families in a way that feels like an attempt at being politically correct. Although the writing is good, with so many interesting mysteries waiting to be read, I will probably not read more books in this series. I do recommend it for those devotees of forensic science mysteries.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: mystery

Notes: forensic science emphasis

Publication:  February 28, 2017–Kensington Press

Memorable Lines: 

I’ve attended a lot of classes over the past year and a half in an effort to learn more about forensic science and crime scene investigation. Most of them were great, but a few classes were so boring they could’ve been listed on a death certificate as a cause of death.

There aren’t many avenues for positive intrinsic feedback in this line of work, but seeing justice done is one of them.

A jail cell is my mother’s worst nightmare, not because she’s afraid of being incarcerated, per se, but because she is a raging germophobe. In her mind, sitting in a jail cell is akin to eating out of a petri dish at the CDC.

Fatality by Firelight–writers’ retreat, readers’ delight

Fatality by Firelight

by Lynn Cahoon

fatality-by-firelightFatality by Firelight, the second book in the Cat Latimer Mystery Series, is appealing in so many ways, but primarily because it is an all round good mystery with twists and turns and abundant surprises. I had many interruptions during my reading of this book, but I was always anxious to return to the story and I always remembered where I had left off. Both signs of a good book.

The main character is Catherine (Cat) Latimer, a young, widowed, former professor.  Her ex-husband’s apparent betrayal and death form an underlying mystery that ties in with strange current occurrences. Other important folks you’ll meet are Shauna, Cat’s longtime friend turned business partner and chef for the retreat, and Seth, Cat’s high school sweetheart who has entered her life again and also has a major role in the writers’ retreat.

The book deviates from a typical cozy in two ways. Although Cat does want to solve the mysteries that present themselves to her, that is not her main mission in life. She is a writer and tries to pay for upkeep on a Victorian mansion she inherited by hosting a weeklong writers’ retreat once a month. The other deviation is the male romantic interest in the book. Usually that role is filled by some type of legal professional–a sheriff, detective, private investigator, etc. No so in Fatality by Fire. There are attractive men in her life, but her legal connection comes in the form of her Uncle Pete, a likable and supportive college town police chief.

I recommend this book for its plot with mysteries on two levels, its snowy Colorado setting, some quirky characters who attend the retreat, and its writer’s theme which is appealing to readers. Fatality by Firelight delivers an interesting story, a strong female lead, and a dose of humor as a bonus.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: Second book in series, but worked well as a standalone

Publication:   February 28, 2017–Kensington Books

Memorable Lines: 

No matter what kind of turmoil Cat was experiencing in her real life, typically writing made her forget everything and concentrate of the story.

[talking about a writer’s retreat] …the magic is in the process, not the accommodations or the distance you travel from home.

Okay, so this was all conjecture, but that was her job. As a fiction writer, she filled in holes, and this story had more holes than a pasta strainer.

“Well, you know what they say: if it doesn’t kill you, and you’re an author, you use it in a book.”

The Art of Vanishing–cozy mystery with professorial excellence

The Art of Vanishing

by Cynthia Kuhn

the-art-of-vanishingCynthia Kuhn has done it again! The second book in the Lila McClean Academic Mystery Series is as good as the first.  This cozy mystery emphasizes the pressure placed on assistant professors to publish, receive high administrative approval, and achieve tenure. The main focus of The Art of Vanishing, however, is the mystery itself which evolves into multiple mysteries.  Thematic elements are great. Characters in a cozy should be interesting and developed. An appealing setting is always a plus. A little romance gives extra spice to the story. I will give The Art of Vanishing an “A” in all those categories, but Cynthia Kuhn receives an “A+” for the mystery at the heart of the book. Just when it seems that there will be resolution, the waters are muddied and everything has to be viewed in a new light. At the conclusion, all loose ends are tied up satisfactorily. The reader is not left hanging, but would certainly look forward to another book in the series.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Henery Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: Part of a series, but works as a standalone

Publication:   February 28, 2017–Henery Press

Memorable Lines: 

“The tenure thing is simple: be professional and do what’s expected of you.” “Sure, if you don’t count the personality conflicts,” I said. “And all of the political subcurrents,” he replied. “Or the jealousies.” “Or the secret alliances.” “Or any number of factors we know nothing about.” “Yeah,” he said, “not counting those.” We looked at each other for a moment and burst out laughing.

The implication of my impending failure filled the room, making it harder to breathe.

My mother had always done outrageous things; that was part of her modus operandi as an artist.  If there was a rule, my mother was going to break it. A line, she’d step over it. It had been very difficult to rebel when I was a teenager because she herself was all about rebellion.

Banana Cream Pie Murder–a little too sweet?

Banana Cream Pie Murder

by Joanne Fluke

banana-cream-pieI went into this book with the assumption that there would be a recipe for Banana Cream Pie and there was–plus 24 more recipes. Folks in the little Minnesota town of Lake Eden like their food! Most of the recipes sound delicious, and they are highly detailed with helpful tips so that even a novice cook could successfully make each dish. Banana Cream Pie Murder has been described as a “culinary cozy.” I agree but have to add that the emphasis is on food with the mystery playing a supporting role.

I am confused about the reputation of the book and the author. Joanne Fluke is the pen name of a New York Times best selling author. Based on this book, I am not sure why. Banana Cream Pie Murder  is the latest in the Hannah Swensen Mystery Series  which has 23 books. Obviously it has appeal for a certain group of readers. I appreciate a book with no sex or profanity, but this was just too sweet, too gentle. The simplistic dialogue was a model for how kindly we wish people would talk to each other and even think of each other. Unfortunately the civility I long for in today’s society was unrealistically portrayed here.

Banana Cream Pie Murder doesn’t work well as a standalone. Several important characters are a part of this story with the assumption that the reader should know who they are. Looking back in the text, I confirmed that they were never introduced; you just had to have read the previous books. If the author feels that by the twenty-fourth book it is just too redundant to remind the reader of the various characters, then I would suggest a simple listing of recurring characters with name, occupation, and relationship with other characters.

I really am not a fan of this book nor would I have considered reading a sequel to it, but then I got caught. At the very end of the book a new unsolved mystery is introduced, a hook to drag me into the next book. All through this book, I felt little impetus to get to the next chapter to see what would happen. Now I really am anxiously anticipating the development of this new mystery.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5

Category: Mystery


1. Joanne Fluke has published additional novels, sometimes under other pseudonyms: 11 suspense, 7 romance novels, and 7 young adult/teen horror.

The reading level of the Hannah Swensen books is low making it a good fit for an adult or teen who struggles with reading.

Four Hallmark movies have been made from the Hannah Swensen Mystery Series.

Publication:  February 28, 2017–Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

You’d do what you had to do. Everyone’s stronger than they think they are.

Mother thinks chocolate is a food group.

If you weren’t in a hurry, and you stood in an aisle long enough and listened to the conversations that were all around you, you might overhear an important clue.  She would call this phenomenon the “unseen shopper trick.” It was almost as good as the invisible waitress trick, when Hannah and Lisa walked around The Cookie Jar, refilling coffee cups, and their customers didn’t seem to notice that they were there and went right on talking about private matters.

Death by Chocolate Lab–humorous cozy mystery

Death by Chocolate Lab

by Bethany Blake

death-by-chocolate-labI realize there are a lot of cozy mysteries that feature dogs or cats, but I had never even picked one up. Death by Chocolate Lab caught my eye because I am a sucker for basset hounds, and there was one soulfully staring at me from the cover of this book. How could I resist? Right from the start I knew I would enjoy this book as it humorously begins with Daphne, a petsitter with a PhD. in philosophy, walking her charges, three Rottweilers. These huge dogs are being corralled by a tiny somewhat mangled Chihuahua, a foster dog who is really just scheming to be picked up. They are accompanied by Daphne’s personal “sidekick,” a wise basset hound named Socrates.

Although there is a serious murder, with the victim discovered by Daphne, that starts a series of investigations led by handsome detective Jonathan Black, there is an undercurrent of humor throughout the book. Daphne is a semi-hippie vegetarian with a “vintage” pink VW van who lives on a farm with her type A personality veterinarian sister.  Other interesting characters include her girlfriend, hair stylist Moxie, and her sister’s vet assistant Dylan, an equally laid back former surfer with whom Daphne has a nebulous relationship.

Death by Chocolate Lab is a mystery with lots of twists and turns, interesting characters, and a good dose of humor throughout.  I am looking forward to reading the second book in the series, Dial Meow for Murder which is due for publication in September of 2017.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: Book #1 in the new Lucky Paws Petsitting Mystery series

Publication:  February 28, 2017–Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

Was it odd that one of the things that brought us together was knowing we could be apart?

She was walking with my basset hound sidekick, Socrates, who considered himself above group walks and never hurried. He shambled along at Piper’s side, his droopy, solemn eyes fixed on something in the distance. He might’ve been interested in the dark clouds gathering ahead–a storm was definitely brewing–but I suspected that his real focus was inward. Socrates wasn’t the type of dog who obsessed about where his next treat was coming from. I was convinced that he dealt with more profound issues.

Was there such a thing as mal de vivre?

We Were the Lucky Ones–Jewish Family in Poland, WWII

We Were the Lucky Ones

by Georgia Hunter

we-were-the-lucky-onesWe Were the Lucky Ones tells the story of a family of Polish Jews during what was arguably the most difficult time for Jews in European history. This work of historical fiction is written by Georgia Hunter, a descendant who spent years researching, traveling, and interviewing family members to uncover this amazing story of rare survivors. As the author notes, “By the end of the Holocaust, 90 percent of Poland’s three million Jews were annihilated; of the more than thirty thousand Jews who lived in Radom, fewer than three hundred survived.” Although it is fiction, it has been closely based on facts. The author also intersperses short paragraphs summarizing the historical events of World War II as they relate to this family and notes at the beginning of each chapter the date and location of the events in that section. We Were the Lucky Ones begins in March 1939 and concludes in 1947.

The novel moves through history by telling the story of each family member at various times through an excruciating eight year period. Some experience prison and the torture of interrogation; others endure Siberian work camps, life in a Polish ghetto, extermination by pogrom. The family members are subjected to various extremeties: death, disease, starvation, persecution, betrayal. Through all of these trials, one of their greatest pains is not knowing the fate of their loved ones. A constant theme is their unending love of family.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to the Penguin Group (Viking) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Historical Fiction, General Fiction (Adult)

Publication: February 14, 2017–Penguin Group (Viking)

Memorable Lines:

But after a few days, they found they had little left to talk about. The chatter ceased and a funerary silence settled upon the train car, like ash over a dying fire. Some wept, but most slept or simply sat quietly, withdrawing deeper into themselves, encumbered by the fear of the unknown, the reality that wherever they were being sent, it was far, far away from home.

And suddenly, the consequences of this war were undeniably real–an understanding that sent Halina spiraling as she wrestled with the knowledge she both feared and loathed: she was powerless.

Nechuma used to reassure herself that they had lived through pogroms before, that in time, the fighting, the bloodshed would pass. But with the news from Lodz she’s come to understand that the situation they are in now is something entirely different. This isn’t just being subjected to profound hunger and poverty. This isn’t persecution. This is extermination.

The Green Mill Murder –witty, sexy, intrepid private eye

The Green Mill Murder

by Kerry Greenwood

the-green-mill-murderI am delighted to belatedly discover that Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries were novels before they were films.  Usually I find that in such cases the book is better than the movie. This is true in The Green Mill Murder which is the fifth in the series by this prolific, award winning Australian author.  I should add, however, that I have very much enjoyed the films and having seen them added to my ability to visualize the setting and beautiful dresses and accessories that the heroine, Phryne Fisher, wears.

Phryne Fisher is quite a character. She is rich, but down to earth. She shares her wealth and offers personal help to those in need. Her morals are outrageous (in the 1920’s); and although she is clearly a lady, she never lets her gender limit her actions.

The Green Mill Murder has a basic mystery: a man is killed by unknown means in a dance hall during the waning hours of a dance marathon in plain sight. Phryne is there and so is able to help the detective Jack with his investigation. In the process, several more mysteries arise, which include issues of a missing husband, blackmail, and inheritance.

I so enjoyed this mystery starring a witty private investigator who can conceal a flask or a small gun as needed in a sexy outfit one day and fly a Gipsy Moth the next. The Australian English (e.g. collywobbles) and the 1920’s laws and customs add to the interest.

Phryne’s independence is exhilarating, and I look forward to more of her adventures. Greenwood says she will keep writing Miss Fisher mysteries as long as readers want more. Currently there are twenty mysteries in this series, thirteen of which have been made into movies for television.

I would like to extend my thanks to and to Poisoned Pen Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery & Thrillers

Notes: There were various earlier publications of this book

Publication of Current Edition:   February 7, 2017–Poisoned Pen Press

Memorable Lines: 

“She enjoys bad health, Dot. the woman hasn’t been well since 1915, and she’s as strong as a horse.”

Vic had been delightful, but he and his surroundings were a passion to be indulged in sparingly, like absinthe, which sooner or later sent the drinker mad.

“Oh, how clean I am and how lovely hot water is! Great invention. No wonder the Romans ruled the world.”

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