It Could Happen to Anyone

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

My book club read this novel for our May meeting and I loved it. I never watched (and won’t watch) the HBO series based on the book, and I’m glad I didn’t. I formed a very clear picture of each character in my mind, and I wouldn’t want that to be distorted by HBO’s casting choices.

This is not a mystery, a thriller, a crime novel, or domestic suspense, but there are elements of all those subgenres. I would call it a book of suspense. You know there’s a dead body, but you don’t know who it is until the very end. Likewise, you know one of the characters is the killer, but you don’t find out that person’s identity until the end, either.

Big Little Lies tells the story of a group of kindergarten moms: how they feel about their spouses, themselves, each other, and of course, their kids. And not just how they feel about everyone else, but how they treat everyone else. There’s bullying going on in the school, and it mirrors the bullying going on among the parents—both men and women. Of course, (most of) the adult bullies are far more subtle than the kids, but their digs and barbs cut as deep as any physical wound. A particularly nasty petition drawn up by some of the parents circulates, and battle lines are drawn based on who signs and who doesn’t.

As the story unfolds, it is clear that something sinister has taken place at the school’s Trivia Night. The action in the story starts six months before the Trivia Night, and the suspense ratchets up as the clock ticks down to the night in question.

The three main characters in the book are Madeline, Jane, and Celeste. They form a friendship from an early chapter in the book and they couldn’t be more different. Madeline is fiesty and not afraid to give voice to her thoughts. Jane is the young mom, a newcomer to town. She’s quiet and hangs onto a deep-seated feeling of shame over a life-changing event that took place several years before the book starts. Celeste is beautiful and generous with her friendship and her money, but is hiding an ugly secret.

There are numerous secondary characters, all of whom are important to the story. In fact, readers learn a great deal about the main characters from their interactions with the secondary characters. There is even a cast of tertiary characters, and these are the ones who share their thoughts and opinions about the plot of the book. They’re fascinating and they reveal a lot about human nature.

The novel is an attention-getting and disturbing exploration of domestic violence, the abuse of women, bullying, the age-old and often-unspoken tug-of-war between working moms and stay-at-home moms, and the innermost thoughts of a group of mothers bound together by tragedy, circumstance, and the place they call home. It’s both easy and hard to read: easy in the sense that the book is written in plain language that leaves little room for doubt; hard in the sense that it addresses topics that are scary and difficult to discuss.

The author does an incredible job showing the waffling, back-and-forth thoughts that run through the mind of the abused wife in the book, and that serves as a tacit and sad-but-common explanation of some of the reasons behind Why Women Stay.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I was satisfied by it. I didn’t guess the person who died until just before the reader sees it happen, and I certainly did not guess the perpetrator.

In sum, this is a book about human behavior. Every society, every community, every school, has parents and kids like the ones in the story. There are good people and reprehensible ones (sometimes they’re the same person). It is a story of hope and hanging on.

I would recommend the book to anyone who likes psychological or domestic suspense with sharp, often witty, dialogue. If you have read it or watched the HBO show based on it, please let me know what you thought of it.

A Mystery of Old San Francisco

No Refuge from the Grave by Nancy Herriman

I have so missed Celia and Nick!

In this meticulously researched book, the reader is transported back to nineteenth-century San Francisco, where nurse Celia Davies and Detective Nick Greaves pair up once again to solve a baffling string of crimes that include murder and arson.

When Celia Davies and an acquaintance stumble upon the dead body of a well-known loan shark on the front lawn of the acquaintance’s house, Celia is propelled into the investigation into the man’s murder and the mystery of what he was doing at that particular house on the night of his death.

Strangely, at the time of the man’s murder, Nick is investigating a fire that he is convinced was a case of arson, committed as part of an insurance fraud scheme. It just so happens that the insurance agent whom Nick suspects is the very same person who owns the house where the loan shark was found.

And when another body is discovered in the same neighborhood, the clues become even more confounding as Celia and Nick try to piece together the threads of a crime that goes deeper than anyone suspected.

Oh, and Celia’s husband is there to make life even more difficult…again.

This tale goes from the comfort and opulence of the places frequented by San Francisco’s wealthy and influential to the seedy areas of the city where money changes hands in the dark and nefarious deeds are part of everyday life.

The characters in this book are brilliantly drawn and play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a way that is engaging and kept me turning the pages. Celia is strong (and headstrong!) and brave, but she knows she’s going to need Nick’s help to get through this puzzle. And Nick—well, he knows he needs Celia’s help and insights, but his feelings for her make it difficult for him to be around her.

If you like historical novels with three-dimensional characters, witty and sharp dialogue, an ingenious mystery, and a perfect denouement, you will love this book. I highly recommend it. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the series, but if you do, that makes the reading experience even richer.

A Bewitching Read

Sister of Wales by Cynthia Raleigh

Yarrow Pickering is the proprietor of the Lanthorne Ordinary, an inn located in the small hamlet of Milthorpe, Connecticut, in the 17th century. She’s also a skilled and gifted healer, an herb woman, and a witch.

In this second book of the Lanthorne Ordinary series by Cynthia Raleigh, Yarrow finds a glass orb nestled in the sand along the beach not far from her home. Upon close examination of the object, Yarrow knows this orb is more than simply a glass bauble. Its center is glowing and it is wrapped in a tattered piece of fabric that had obviously belonged to someone at one time.

Yarrow’s discovery of the orb sets in motion a series of otherworldly events that have Yarrow concerned for her own safety, as well as that of her sister and the villagers of Milthorpe.

First, a villager is attacked by a beast no one seems to be able to identify. It’s too big to be a wolf…but what else can it be?

Then the injured villager and his wife go missing under suspicious and eerie circumstances: will either of them be seen again? Where did they go and why did they leave the village?

The arrival of an English ship in the harbor of Milthorpe is reason for excitement among the villagers, but at least one of the passengers seems to have business with Yarrow. Who is he and what information does he seek? Is he there for good or for evil?

I could go on, but I won’t because I want you to read this engaging and riveting story for yourself. I said this (among other good things) when I reviewed the first book in the Lanthorne Ordinary series, Summoning the Winds: I am not normally a reader of paranormal or supernatural fiction. But as with Summoning the Winds, I could not put this book down. Cynthia Raleigh is a masterful storyteller with an uncanny knack for description and setting. The reader feels Yarrow’s trepidation, unease, and fear as she faces the prospect of confronting the beast in the woods, as well as certain people in the village who may turn out to be friend or foe.

This story reaches back into the legends of Yarrow’s Welsh ancestors as she learns more about her mother’s legacy and her own responsibility as an herbal woman. The tale does not disappoint.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves suspense, dark secrets, historical fiction, and a story that unfolds like a beautiful tapestry from the past. You need not be a lover of paranormal or supernatural fiction to love the story, which is lush with legend.

The Bee’s Knees

Aconite, Queen of Poisons by L.M. Jorden

This mystery featuring main character Dr. Josephine Reva is captivating enough, but knowing it is based on the real life of the author’s grandmother, the first female doctor in Brooklyn, NY, makes the story even more delightful.

It’s the Roaring 20s. The world is changing rapidly, and with those changes come disputes over everything from alcohol use to public health to a woman’s place in society. Enter Dr. Reva, a determined young woman who rose from a Little Italy orphanage under the tutelage of Mother Cabrini to become a medical doctor. She stands up for what she thinks, she is vocal in expressing her belief that the medical profession needs more female doctors, she’s whip-smart, and she’s an all-around spitfire. I liked her from the first page.

When a dead body is found not far from Dr. Reva’s home in Brooklyn, she arrives on the scene thinking she can provide medical help. She’s too late for that, but she realizes the victim is someone she knows. In fact, it’s someone she had just spoken with mere hours before his death.

It’s not long before the detective working the case fixes his sights on Dr. Reva, in part because the victim died from poisoning by a plant—and it just so happens Dr. Reva is a student of homeopathy and the use of plant derivatives to promote health and healing.

Things go downhill from there for Dr. Reva. She’s been framed, and she is forced to start asking questions and investigating on her own behalf before she ends up in prison. And when a second victim is found dead, the race is on to find the real killer before he or she can strike again.

This mystery was such a fun read. Not only did I love Dr. Reva, but I found that the secondary characters added rich layers of texture to the story, too. Reading about their relationships with the doctor lent insights into the doctor’s personality and gave me even more reasons to root for her.

The pacing was perfect. The action builds up steadily with the mounting number of suspects, and it was thrilling to read about the simultaneous exhilaration and danger of visiting speakeasies and poking around in some rather seedy places.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a strong female sleuth, mysteries set in the 1920s, and a terrific and unique whodunit.

Do You Know what BSP Means?

A Traitor Among Us by A.M. Reade

BSP means Blatant Self-Promotion and I am not above doing it.

It’s not often I highlight my own books on my blog, but because A Traitor Among Us was released two weeks ago, I thought I’d share one of the reviews with you. I’d also like to remind everyone how important reviews are to authors—they figure prominently in the algorithms used by book retailers in advertising and in choosing the books which those retailers promote to their legions of readers. If you’ve read A Traitor Among Us and haven’t left a review, I encourage and ask you to do that. It’s easy! Just a few lines about why you liked the book is enough. Thank you in advance!

I hope you enjoy this review as much as I did:

“A beautifully written Revolutionary War era mystery, told from the point of view of a young woman, which really sets this novel apart from others. The story unfolds through thoughts and narration as if the characters were speaking to us from the 1770s. Etta Rutledge, the main character, is a strong and capable young woman with quite a lot of responsibilities helping her family run an inn. Her words and thoughts completely immerse us in the Colonial era, and give us a fresh voice and a new perspective on life in Cape May County, NJ. I truly loved this main character, Etta, and how she interacts with her sweet and vulnerable sister Prissy, who has a disability (I am happy to read more disabled characters in books), and it’s clear there’s a strong protective bond between the sisters. The brothers are also well portrayed, and we immediately care about Etta and her family and friends. The Rutledge family owns the tavern and inn, the central place in the story, and what a fascinating place it is. Ms. Reade [sic] describes it well from the ambiance to the drink, food, and talk. The dialogue is plain style, as befits the times, and the author clearly researched everything and makes us feel as if we are right there in the 1770’s. The Rutledge inn is where Loyalists and Revolutionaries gather, and as the war looms, the suspense builds when a body is found, and then another. Etta’s courage during a turbulent time is amazing as she tries to find the murderer as the war threatens to break apart her family. We care about Etta and are drawn into her life and the lives of those close to her. A wonderful story, and I look forward to continuing to read many more books in this wonderful new series!”

Thanks to “Mondi” for the review! I appreciate it so much!

As usual, I’ll close this post with a recommendation. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical mysteries, mysteries set in the American colonies, or tales set during the Revolutionary War.

Twisty and Heart-Pounding

The Secrets We Share by Edwin Hill

This book takes place in two time periods—1995 and the present day. The reader first meets Natalie Cavanaugh as a 14-year-old girl in 1995. She has a younger sister, Glenn, and they live in a mostly-undeveloped development in a Boston suburb. There’s only one other house that’s been built so far; it belongs to the Sykes family and it’s right next door to Natalie’s house. At the beginning of the story, all we know is that Natalie has a secret that causes her stomach to hurt. We know the secret by the end of the first chapter, but I’m not going to spill it here.

Fast forward to the present day, and Natalie Cavanaugh is a detective who never strayed too far from the suburb where she grew up. Glenn lives nearby and is a wife, mom, baking blogger, social media influencer, and soon-to-be cookbook author (though not necessarily in that order).

When Glenn’s daughter, Mavis Abbott, finds a dead body (one who obviously did not die of natural causes) on her way to school, Natalie is assigned to the case before anyone realizes she’s related to Mavis. Mavis’s discovery of the body sets in motion a heart-stopping chain of events that reaches back into the past and keeps everyone in the present day in an icy-cold grip of fear.

There are so many things to love about The Secrets We Share. The first is Natalie Cavanaugh. She’s tough, but she’s got some serious issues of her own and they make her a vulnerable and sympathetic character. She’s got a lot riding on this case, and not just because her niece is at the center of it.

There’s also Glenn, the sister who seems to have everything…but as they say, you never know what goes on behind closed doors. She’s the polar opposite of Natalie and always has been, but the sisters share not only a fierce (if not always obvious) love, but also something that keeps them tied to the past.

There’s Angela White, Natalie’s boss and a strong, take-no-nonsense woman in her own right. She’s the one who trusts Natalie’s detective instincts but not necessarily Natalie’s personal judgment.

There’s Zane, Natalie’s partner and mentee, who keeps Natalie on an even keel when she would go off half-cocked. Zane is also a fan of Glenn’s baking blog, so he has things in common with both sisters.

Best of all, there are the twists. So. Many. Twists. Everyone in this book is harboring secrets, and the way the author unravels these secrets is the reason I was up late into the night to get to the last page. Edwin Hill has a way of keeping a tight rein on the reader’s interest and absolute NEED to find out whodunit.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a fast-paced thrill ride of a story, with tons of suspense, tons of intensity, and a jaw-dropping ending.

A Delightful English Mystery

Murder at Melrose Court by Karen Baugh Menuhin

I normally read Christmas books in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I picked this one up well after the new year. I had seen it advertised on Amazon and I liked the look of the manor on the cover. Plus, the blurb says the book is a mixture of Agatha Christie and Downton Abbey, with a bit of Wodehouse and “a dog of distinction.” Um, four of my favorite things mixed together? Yes, please!

Major Heathcliff Lennox finds a man’s body on his doorstep one wintry day. He has no idea whose body it is or what the man may have been doing at Lennox’s house. The lining of the dead man’s jacket holds a piece of paper with a woman’s name written on it. Lennox tells the police he does not recognize the name, but in truth he knows very well who the woman is.

When Lennox reluctantly accepts an invitation to spend Christmas at Melrose Court with his uncle, Lord Charles Melrose, he is startled to find some unexpected guests staying there—some welcome, some not. And when the first murder at Melrose Court occurs and Lennox finds himself the prime suspect, things start to go downhill.

And while he’s at his uncle’s estate, Lennox just might find a connection to the dead man on his doorstep.

As you may have guessed from the art deco cover elements, this mystery is set during the 1920s. It’s got everything a good English mystery should have: a big, old manor house, a cast of characters that includes people both crusty and beguiling, and a good deal of snow. There’s also Mr. Fogg, (Lennox’s dog), a juicy connection to the Russian Revolution, and missing jewels.

This was a fun read that had me laughing out loud in parts. The cast of characters isn’t overly large, and each character is well-drawn and distinctive. The secondary characters all have reasons to be suspected of murder, so they add a nice layer of richness and interest to the book.

The mystery is well-crafted and there are plenty of red herrings. I did not guess whodunit until close to the end, and I love it when that happens. Though the story takes place around Christmastime, I don’t think you have to wait until then to read it.

If you like a traditional mystery with all the English countryside tropes and superb characters, this is a good choice. I hope you enjoy it if you pick up your own copy!

Careful What You Wish For

The Mother Next Door by Tara Laskowski

I had the pleasure of reading The Mother Next Door when I moderated a panel of authors for the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival back in early March (to watch the panel, click here). Tara Laskowski was one of the authors on the panel and since she was the first person to send me a copy of her book so I could prepare for the panel, hers is the first one I read.

And what a book.

Tara is an award-winning author whose other books inclue One Night Gone, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons, Bystanders Stories, and a number of works in short story anthologies. The Mother Next Door is the first book of Tara’s I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. I’m especially eager to read One Night Gone.

In The Mother Next Door, Theresa, her huband Adam, and their teenage daughter, Lily, have moved to town for Adam’s new job as the high school principal. They settle in the tony cul-de-sac called Ivy Woods and Theresa is soon drawn into the clique of moms, called the Ivy Five, who all live in the neighborhood.

Each year the Ivy Five host a showstopping Halloween block party, and this year the head of the clique, Kendra, is determined to make it the best party ever.

As Halloween approches, the women are busy with preparations, to-do lists, and a million details that will make the evening a smashing success. But their excitement turns to unease when they begin receiving anonymous emails hinting at something the Ivy Five have hidden beneath the manicured surface of the suburban idyll they call home.

I read this book in two sittings. It would have been one, but I had to force myself to get some sleep. It seems almost everyone in this book has secrets they want to remain buried—even Theresa has a past that is getting closer and closer to catching up with her. But there are people who know what lurks beneath the sophistication and outward perfection of the cul-de-sac…someone’s getting ready for the big reveal, and someone else hopes it never happens.

Relatability is one of Laskowski’s many strong suits. The Ivy Five could be any women, anywhere. The reader recognizes the setting because we’ve all seen places just like Ivy Woods and we all know people just like each of the women in the book. Everything is eerily familiar.

Told mostly from the points of view of Theresa and Kendra, this book is dark and twisty and terrific. It’s also a fascinating look at the underbelly of mom/women cliques and the social hierarchies they promote. I highly recommend it and I hope you enjoy it!

Starting with a Classic

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

A dear friend surprised me recently by sending me a paperback copy of Death on the Nile. It’s been years since I read the book, and I loved re-reading it and finding all the things I missed the first time around. My friend and I were planning to read the book at the same time and compare notes, but we haven’t had a chance to do that yet. I thought I’d begin this new iteration of Reade and Write by offering my thoughts on this classic mystery.

In case you weren’t aware, 20th Century Studios has released a new adaptation of Death on the Nile starring Kenneth Branagh as the famous detective Hercule Poirot. I have not seen the new movie, but I have seen the 1978 version many times. In that star-studded homage to the book, Peter Ustinov played Poirot alongside co-stars ranging from Maggie Smith to David Niven to Bette Davis and many others.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I tell you I like the book better.

To summarize briefly: A luxury cruise down the Nile River ends in murder. Three murders, to be precise.

The first murder, in which the victim is a beatiful and fabulously wealthy young woman, is the catalyst that sets off a chain of events culminating in the deaths of two other passengers. As luck would have it, Hercule Poirot, one of the world’s greatest detectives, is on board and is, of course, asked to investigate the crimes and unearth the culprit or culprits. Though most of the action takes place on board the boat, there is a signigicant amount of backstory which takes place on dry land. How fortunate that the intrepid Poirot is present for some of that backstory. As the mystery unfolds, of course, Poirot discovers there are more suspects than anyone realized. His job: solve the crime before the journey ends and a killer gets away.

In case you haven’t guessed it by now, I loved the book.

The most amazing thing about Agatha Christie is her ability to tell the reader something important without the reader ever knowing it. Even having read the book and seen the movie before, there were things I missed. Poirot’s logic is impeccable—and though he may start from the wrong assumption, he has the self-confidence to admit it and change course when necessary.

The pacing in this book is perfect. Christie doles out each juicy clue or piece of information at just the right time, and the action keeps the reader engaged and interested from the first page to the last. I found it a little challenging to keep track of all the characters, but eventually each one gels sufficiently to retain a grasp of who’s who.

If you haven’t read the book and haven’t seen the movie, allow me to suggest that you read the book first! Having seen the movie, I found it hard to separate the actors from the characters in the book. For example, I doubt I’ll ever be able to read the book again without hearing Angela Lansbury’s voice every time Mrs. Salome Otterbourne is speaking. Ditto with Mia Farrow as Jacqueline de Bellefort and Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Bowers.

If you love a great whodunit with a lush Egyptian backdrop, a touch of romance, and an added hint of geopolitical intrigue from the 1930s, grab a copy of this book and settle in for a great read.


New Look, New Blog!

I’m back! It’s been a while since my last post, and I’ve spent a lot of time these past months thinking: it’s time to take this blog in a new direction.

Beginning in the next few weeks, I’m going to focus more on reviewing and recommending crime fiction and mysteries, as the new subtitle of the blog suggests. It’s my niche, it’s where I’m most comfortable, and crime fiction is one of my favorite topics. I’d like to shine a spotlight on the mysteries I enjoy and share them with others, and my hope is to attract like-minded people who love to read.

You’ll probably see mysteries from a range of subgenres here: historic, cozy, Gothic (the three subgenres I write in), domestic suspense, traditional, and true crime. From time to time I may include author interviews, as I did on my former blog.

I hope you’ll accompany me on this new adventure, and I hope you’ll invite your mystery-loving friends.

Cheers

Amy M. Reade is the USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of historical, cozy, and Gothic mysteries. A former practicing attorney, Amy discovered a passion for fiction writing and has never looked back. She has so far penned fourteen novels, including three standalone Gothic mysteries, the Malice series of Gothic novels, the Juniper Junction Holiday Cozy Mystery series, and the Cape May Historical Mystery Collection. In addition to writing, she loves to read, cook and travel. Amy lives in New Jersey and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. You can find out more on her website at www.amymreade.com