Another Christie Classic

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

There’s a reason Agatha Christie is the best-selling mystery author of all time. She’s that good.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the fourth Hercule Poirot novel, and features the inimitable Belgian detective at his best. He’s moved to the town of Kings Abbot to pursue the growing of vegetable marrows, but soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation of a most perplexing murder. There are suspects aplenty, so Monsieur Poirot’s famous little gray cells are put to the test in sussing out the culprit.

The characters in the book are expertly drawn, as one would expect from Dame Agatha, and each of them harbors a secret (some more shocking than others). M Poirot makes it his mission to uncover each character’s secret, and he does so (as he does in all his appearances in Christie’s stories) with an abundance of well-earned self confidence and faultless logic.

The solution to the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd lies in that faultless logic, and it makes the path to figuring out whodunit especially fun for readers. Many of you have no doubt read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (as I have, but I’m on a mission to reread all the Christie novels) but I urge you to read it again and pay special attention to the way in which Christie lays out the clues. It’s ingenious. Even more ingenious is the twist at the end, one of the most famous plot twists in modern literature.

The British Crime Writers’ Association has voted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever written. I wholeheartedly recommend it to every reader who appreciates a good mystery.

The Philadelphia Story

Pretender ’56 by Jane Kelly

If there’s one thing this terrific book reinforces, it’s the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The United States in 2022 isn’t all that different from the United States of the 1950s—there are bright lines between social classes, there’s a dichotomy in the way different parts of society experience the justice system, and powerful people often hold more influence than they deserve.

You’ll find all these issues, in addition to a murder mystery, in Pretender ’56, Book 2 in Jane Kelly’s Writing in Time mystery series. Amateur detective Tracy Shaw and her aunt Julia are sleuths with a mission to see justice served in the double murder of two young people who may have angered some powerful people in the city of Brotherly Love.

I thoroughly enjoyed every page of this tension-filled tale. The story of what really happened the night Cassie Kelly and John Brien were murdered, while the eyes of the world were on the magnificent royal wedding of another Philadelphia Kelly (Grace, that is) to the Prince of Monaco, is filled with suspense and puzzling clues. The pace is spot-on and the main character, Julia Tracy, is beguiling and clever in her search for truth and—maybe—justice.

The author does a brilliant job describing the world of 1950s Philadelphia, with its changing social mores and distinctions between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a fascinating look at a microcosm of American life during the mid-twentieth century.

I highly recommend this book to mystery lovers, and particularly those with a fondness for more recent historical fiction and those who love Philadelphia, PA.

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.

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.


A Review: The Spymistress

I recently finished the book The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini. Though it was the first of Ms. Chiaverini’s books that I’ve read, it will not be the last. I can’t believe how much I learned from it (it’s a novel of historical fiction) and for days now, I’ve been regaling anyone who will listen with tales of Civil War spies. Luckily, I had four Boy Scouts in a car with me on a trip to Washington, D.C., over the weekend and they were more or less a captive audience for my stories.

The Spymistress is a book about Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman who actually existed. She was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, in a slave-owning aristocratic family. She was also a spy for the North during the Civil War and this book tells the tale of how Elizabeth became a spy, how she managed to remain a spy, and how she survived the Civil War as a spy in the South. There is also a very interesting note of Ms. Van Lew’s life after the War. I was quite surprised by the events of the later years of her life.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a brave woman who embodied the ideals of equality and freedom long before they became rallying cries in the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements. Though she and her mother technically “owned” slaves, it was only because a clause in her father’s will prevented his widow and daughter from selling them. They therefore paid their slaves and treated them well and showed them the respect they deserved. She was shrewd, too, managing to convince Southern officers and prison adminstrators that her kindness and charity for northern soldiers was because of her Christian duty to them and not out of any misplaced loyalty to a bunch of Yankees. And she used her wealth and social status to her advantage, gaining access to northerners who needed her help and managing to get other Union sympathizers into positions of authority in Richmond prisons.

I liked the rising tension in the book that came from the main characters living in a house of Northern sympathizers as the Civil War progressed and as their neighbors and the citizens of Richmond became increasingly entrenched in the fight for Southern independence. The author does a great job describing the atmosphere of Richmond as it goes from elation and hope to concern to desperation and despair, and she also conveys nicely the physical appearance of Richmond during the War. As was the case with the last novel I reviewed (Anything But Civil), it is obvious that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book–not just research about Richmond, but also research about troop movements and prison conditions and Civil War heroes and villains.

I would recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and Civil War buffs.

Has anyone read any other good books lately? Share them in the comments!

Until next week,

Amy

P.S. Update from last week’s post: still no birds. But I will persevere! Also, thanks to the person-who-shall-remain-nameless who pointed out that robins are really wormatarians, not seed eaters. I should have known that.

A Review: Anything But Civil

Last week I finished Anna Loan-Wilsey’s Anything But Civil. It is the second in a mystery series featuring traveling secretary Hattie Davish. I won a copy of the book at a Facebook “tea party.” The author mailed it to me and was kind enough to inscribe the front of the book with a lovely message.

Anything But Civil cover 2   Anything But Civil note

 

Here’s a quick synopsis: Ms. Davish is secretary to Sir Arthur Windom-Greene, an Englishman with a love of American history. He is working on a biography of General Cornelius Starrett, a war hero from Galena, Illinois.

Sir Arthur and Hattie travel to Galena to meet General Starrett and to interview him, as well as to visit other places in Galena of interest to Civil War scholars, including the home of Ulysses S. Grant. While in Galena, Sir Arthur and Hattie have the dubious honor of meeting General Starrett’s son, Captain Henry Starrett, a blustering hothead with a grudge against a member of the community who was branded a traitor during the Civil War by some citizens of the town.

It’s not long before Hattie finds herself dragged into a murder mystery involving old wounds that reach back in time to the War. Convinced that Captain Starrett has something to do with strange and violent events that occur in town, Hattie must walk a delicate line between investigating the mystery, staying focused on her work for Sir Arthur, and not getting herself hurt or killed in the process.

Oh, and Sir Arthur is a suspect in the murder. And it’s Christmastime. And Hattie also has to decorate Sir Arthur’s house, plan menus for the holiday, and buy and wrap gifts from herself and Sir Arthur. She has a lot on her plate, to say the least.

My verdict: I loved the book.

Anna Loan-Wilsey does a great job of intertwining the story lines and the characters, and the amount of research (on not only the Civil War, but also on the town of Galena, the clothing of that period in history, the holiday customs of that era, and the rules of social interactions during that time) that obviously went into this historical cozy is staggering. I was very impressed. I did guess the identity of the killer, but not until the very end, about a paragraph before the answer was revealed. Just like Hattie, I kept running lists of the possible suspects and red herrings. The book was a fun read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction or historical cozies.

I haven’t yet read the first book in the Hattie Davish mystery series, A Lack of Temperance, but you can be sure I’m going to. Anything But Civil, though it’s the second book in the series, can be easily understood without reading the first book, but I’d love to learn more about Hattie’s background.

Incidentally, the third book in the series is called A Deceptive Homecoming, but it hasn’t been released yet. I’m looking forward to it!

Until next week,

Amy

 

A Review: The Impersonator

I am a member of Goodreads, a website I’ve mentioned on this blog before. As a quick review, there are lots of things I like about Goodreads: first, once a reader reviews a certain number of books, the site offers suggestions of books to read that are specific to the reader’s preferred genre(s). Second, the site allows readers to tag books that they want to read, books they’ve read, books they’ve reviewed, and many other categories. Third, readers can make friends on Goodreads that also post their reviews, suggestions, and reading progress. Fourth, a reader can join as many groups as she’d like. These groups have discussions that can be very interesting.

One of the groups I’m part of on Goodreads is called Gothicked. I’m also a member of the group called Ladies & Literature and one called Retro Reads. On the Gothicked feed one day, I came across a woman by the name of Mary Miley. She caught my attention because she asked me a question about one of my books. She indicated that she’s also an author of The Impersonator, a Roaring Twenties mystery. Not long after I heard from Ms. Miley, I went to Virginia to the Suffolk Mystery Writers Festival. While I was there my husband took our three kids to Colonial Williamsburg and explored the sights in the village. One of their stops was a bakery, where they bought me a treat – one of the best muffins I’ve ever tasted. It was a sweet potato muffin, and it’s not something I ever would have ordered. But it was delicious. At that bakery they also bought me a souvenir – a cookbook featuring recipes of some of the goodies at the bakery. Alas, the sweet potato muffin recipe wasn’t in the book, but something else was: the foreward, written years ago by none other than Mary Miley.

I emailed Ms. Miley and asked her if she was the same person who wrote the foreward to the cookbook and she answered that yes, she was the one who wrote it, long ago in a former life when she worked in Colonial Williamsburg.

It seemed like a sign: I was running into Mary Miley everywhere, so I needed to read her book.

I’m so glad I did.

The book follows the story of a young woman who is hired to play the role of Jessamyn Carr, the daughter and heiress of a couple who drowned at sea in the early 1900s. Jessamyn, or Jessie, herself disappeared in 1917 at the age of fourteen. Whether she ran away, fell to her death along the rugged Oregon coast where she lived, or was the victim of some other mishap, no one knows.

Well, almost no one.

Almost seven years after Jessie’s disappearance, her maternal uncle, Oliver Beckett, thinks he recognizes Jessie in a vaudeville performance. When he approaches the actress after the show, he finds out that the actress is not Jessie, but is, in fact, Leah Randall, who has been in vaudeville since early childhood. Oliver, a hard man with a love of money, asks Leah if she would be willing to take on a new role: that of his niece, Jessie. If Leah, a dead ringer for Jessie, can convince the trustees of the Carr estate and more importantly, the rest of the family, that she is really Jessie, then she and Oliver can live out their lives in leisure. There are only a couple problems: the charade has to go smoothly and quickly, before Jessie’s twenty-first birthday (at which time her cousin will inherit the fortune), and there’s a lot to learn. Oh, and there’s at least one person who really knows what happened to Jessie, so that person will know Leah’s an impersonator.

Leah initially refuses Oliver’s suggestion, but after she finds herself out of work and out of money, she agrees to take on the role. As the days and weeks go by, Leah finds that being part of a family, something she’s never experienced, has its highs and lows. She has made a promise to herself that she will find out what really happened to Jessie, and her investigations lead her into speakeasies, the seedier areas of 1920s-Portland, and some very dangerous circumstances.

I loved The Impersonator. Ms. Miley does a beautiful job exploring the worlds of vaudeville and Prohibition-era speakeasies. I love the descriptions of the Oregon coast and the house Leah moves into; it’s fun to read about the lives of the wealthy in the 1920s. Leah and the members of Jessie’s family are a group of well-developed characters; Leah is tough, but spunky and kind; her cousins, twin girls, are naive and fascinated by her; her male cousins are less so-they have a hard time believing that Leah is really Jessie and aren’t afraid to tell her so; Jessie’s aunt is cautious and can be overbearing; Jessie’s grandmother can be distant, but is shrewd and has a soft spot for Jessie.

The book is fast-paced and never feels like a history lecture. It had me guessing up to the very end, and what a satisfying ending it was! I found myself suspicious of almost everyone at one time or another, and it was great to be kept on my toes throughout the novel.

The Impersonator was the bee’s knees!

Until next week,

Amy

A Review: The House Girl

I hope everyone had a happy, safe, and relaxing Thanksgiving. My family had a great holiday and it was surprisingly relaxing, given the eighteen people who were there. The day after Thanksgiving was low-key since I try to do as little shopping as possible on the day that has come to be known as Black Friday.

But I did discover something new on Black Friday. At least it’s new to me. Want to know what it is? Wait for it…

I have a new top-ten Christmas movie to add to last week’s list, with thanks to my sister and her kids. It’s Eloise at Christmastime, an adorable movie starring Julie Andrews as Nanny and Sofia Vassilieva as Eloise. Eloise and Nanny live in the penthouse at the Plaza in New York City. Eloise’s mom travels often, so Nanny is Eloise’s second mom and the two of them make a perfect team. The story is based on the book of the same name by Kay Thompson. I would have enjoyed Eloise at Christmastime with or without my kids, but kids make it even more fun!

So on to this week’s topic, which is my review of The House Girl, a novel of historical fiction by Tara Conklin. The story alternates between two time periods: the mid-nineteenth century and the early twenty-first century. In a very basic nutshell, the novel tells the stories of Josephine, a house slave in Virginia, and Lina, a lawyer in a big New York firm. The lives of the two women intersect following a search to find the real artist behind a collection of works allegedly painted by Josephine’s “owner” and Lina’s search to find the perfect plaintiff for a slavery reparations lawsuit being handled by her firm.

I liked the author’s use of the alternating time periods to tell the stories of Josephine and Lina. There are some surprising parallels between the two women that are revealed as the novel progresses, but this is a no-spoiler zone. Believe me when I tell you that the reader is swept into the horror and seeming impossibility of Josephine’s situation and also feels deeply Lina’s pain and confusion over her own past. The history I learned in the book was eye-opening, too, especially one ingenious method possibly used by the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to freedom. Several important truths are revealed in the book in the form of letters written in the past and preserved for the present and future. I loved the letters- they are written in a beautiful and authentic nineteenth-century style. The last letter, arguably the most important, is wonderfully written and holds tragic secrets. I only wish the writer of the letter had been revealed a bit earlier, since trying to figure out the author of the letter distracted me from its actual words.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a novel with a solid historical basis and an intriguing dovetail of past and present.

What are you reading?

Until next week,

Amy