Skull Duggery (Gideon Oliver, #16)

Skull DuggerySkull Duggery
by Aaron Elkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780425227978
Series: Gideon Oliver #16
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 281
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime

Gideon is happy to be in Mexico with his wife-until he’s asked to examine the mummified corpse of a drifter thought to be shot to death. Gideon’s findings reveal that the cause of death is far more bizarre. Then he’s asked to examine the skeleton of a murder victim found a year earlier-only to discover another coroner error. The Skeleton Detective knows that two “mistakenly” identified bodies are never a coincidence. But if he isn’t careful, unearthing the connection between them could make him another murder statistic in Mexico.

Years ago – years and years ago now – this series was recommended to me by someone on BookLikes.  I never got around to hunting down the first book, but ran across this one at a used book sale a year or two later and bought it intending to hang onto it until I’d read the first 15 books.

Fast forward to last week, when I accepted that wasn’t going to happen and decided to just dive right in.

Turned out that was totally fine, I don’t feel like I missed anything at all, and best of all I was presented with a really good, solid mystery.  The pacing was leisurely, which frustrated me a bit at first, making me realising that even in books our attention spans have shrunk, but I found the characters and the writing interesting enough to dig out my store of patience.  I also put it down to read The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir when I was about 25% through, so obviously my store of patience could use some building up.

Once I picked it up again, though, it just all started working for me.  I like Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropologist, and I loved the plot structure.  I knew from the start what the first plot twist would be, but that reveal was made so early it was clear there was far more coming.  It was all so laid back I kept wondering how the author was going to manage the moment in any mystery where the MC is in peril.  When it did happen it was so fast and furious and wtf? that it seemed anti-climatic, but from there the story just got more and more nicely twisty until the ending was just clever and satisfying.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found a new series to seek out and enjoy – and it’s one that I’ll be happy to acquire at the same leisurely pace as the writing, with a sense of anticipation but not urgency.

Familiar Motives (Witch’s Cat Mystery, #3)

Familiar MotivesFamiliar Motives
by Delia James
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780451476593
Series: Witch's Cat Mystery #3
Publication Date: October 15, 2017
Pages: 321
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

After learning that she comes from a family of witches—and adopting a familiar named Alistair—artist Annabelle Britton has made beautiful Portsmouth, New Hampshire, her home. Together with her coven, this good witch is trying to put a stop to magic and murder most foul.

When Anna takes Alistair to see local veterinarian Ramona Forsythe, they meet the most famous cat in town: Ruby the Attitude Cat, spokes-feline for a pet food brand. But then Ramona turns up dead, and Ruby goes missing. It seems like the murderer used magical means, so it’s up to Anna and Alistair to catch a killer and cat-napper as only a canny cat can.

I’ve been trying to make a dent in my TBR piles recently, mostly, if I’m being honest, because I’m waiting for the new books I’ve ordered to arrive.  No matter my true motive, it’s a good feeling knowing there’s at least one or two fewer books languishing about.

This one had not only been loafing about on the hills of tbr, but it was the final book in a short-lived series, so the satisfaction of getting it read was doubled.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only real satisfaction I received from reading Familiar Motives.  The story itself was another ‘meh’ mystery – or else it was just me.  It really might have been me.  I liked the characters, I loved the cats, and the plot-line wasn’t frivolous.  But the pacing felt manic – not fast; manic – and the witty writing felt forced at times, adding to the manic feel.  I skimmed large sections of internal narrative because the pacing left me feeling manic to get to the end.

When I did get to the end, I liked it.  It was a good denouement, although the plot had too many pieces rather clumsily put together.  But to be fair, that could have been a product of the skimming I did, so I’m giving that a pass.

While it wasn’t a winner, I’m ok with that; the completist in my is happy that I haven’t left a series unfinished, and the responsible adult in me is happy to see one more book off the TBR range.  The reader thinks the book could have been better, but really, it didn’t suck either.

A Dark and Twisting Path (Writer’s Apprentice, #3)

A Dark and Twisting PathA Dark and Twisting Path
by Julia Buckley
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780425282625
Series: Writer's Apprentice Mystery #3
Publication Date: July 21, 2018
Pages: 290
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Lena’s best friend, Allison, is in a panic. On a walk in the woods by her home, Allison discovers the body of her mail carrier, an argumentative man who recently had a falling out with Allison’s husband. Lena quickly realizes that Allison has nothing to worry about as the murder weapon points to a different suspect altogether: Lena’s embattled boyfriend, Sam West.

Sam was cleared of his wife’s murder when she was found alive, and now someone is trying to make him look guilty again. Surveillance video of a break-in at his house shows a shadowy figure trying to incriminate him by stealing the weapon from his desk. Lena and Camilla work on a suspect list, but a threatening note and a violent intrusion at Graham House prove that the devious killer has decided to write them into the plot.

I read and liked the first two in this series quite a lot; as a duology they worked really well.  This book could be considered the third of a trilogy, because it wraps up the series arc, but it was far less satisfying and a lot more ‘meh’.  The author dedicates the book to Victoria Holt, who has obviously had an impact on her, and it’s clear that she’s attempting to imbue this series with that same gothic atmosphere, but what works in 1970’s romantic suspense struggles a lot in a modern setting.  The result feels a bit melodramatic; not so much that I could convince myself it was a pastiche (it wasn’t meant to be), but enough that the MC’s character started to grate on my nerves here and there.  I thought her calling a couple of other characters “outsiders” and claiming they shouldn’t be trusted because they were outsiders a particularly bold authorial choice in today’s climate.  In the context of the story, I didn’t disagree with her reasoning, but found the baldly stated phrasing jarring and odd.

The plot also harkens back to the 70’s with a suave, charismatic villain and accomplice who do everything short of rubbing their hands and cackling.  In a book I know is dated, this type of thing is fun.  In a book that’s contemporary, it just feels over the top and … well, it just failed to sell it in any context.

Still, not a bad book, just … meh.  I think I’ll probably leave this series here, at least for now.  It’s good enough that at some future point I might want to pick it up and see where the author takes the series.

Murder à la Mocha

Murder à la MochaMurder à la Mocha
by Sandra Balzo
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780727888242
Series: Maggy Thorsen Mystery #11
Publication Date: September 28, 2018
Pages: 198
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Severn House

Maggy Thorsen’s evening with her fiancé Sheriff Jake Pavlik and his parents in Chicago takes a dramatic turn when Jake’s mother falls ill, then a Chihuahua jumps in front of Maggy’s car on her drive back to Uncommon Grounds, her Wisconsin coffeehouse. Attempting to return Mocha to her owners, George and Marian Satterwite, the following day, Maggy comes face-to-face with Arial, their dog-sitter and her business partner Sarah’s niece. But something doesn’t feel right . . .

Returning to the property, Maggy and Marian make a shocking discovery. And where are George and Arial? With Jake still in Chicago and Sarah desperate to find her niece, Maggy is soon drawn into another deadly puzzle.

This is one of those cozy series that is always satisfying, but not so gripping that I’m chomping at the bit to read the next one. That sounds a bit back-handed, but I don’t mean it that way.  The characters, plotting and mysteries in this series offer me a nice balanced pleasure when I’m looking for cozy without the cloy.  They feel like a healthy habit, as opposed to the series that I binge or feel the need to purge.

It’s been awhile (years) since I read about Maggie and Sarah and Pavlic, but everything came back nicely and I was able to fall right back into things in Wisconsin.  The mysteries are solid, but the narrative is easy and light; the dialog crackles with wit and sarcasm as Maggie and Sarah trade affectionate barbs and play off each other verbally.  Maggie is the resigned owner of her college age son’s Old English Sheepdog, and finds a long-haired Chihuahua runaway one night on her way home.  The interactions between sheepdog and chihuahua guarantee laugh-out-loud moments as do the scenes at a local dog park.  Dog lovers may or may not like the mystery, but will probably find a lot of relatable moments in all the scenes involving dogs.

I was delighted to discover that I’m three books behind this long running series; I’ve ordered the next two already, happy in the knowledge that once I get them, they’ll sit comfortably on my TBR, neither nagging nor languishing, until I’m ready for another well-written cozy.

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception (Roxy Abruzzo, #1)

Our Lady of Immaculate DeceptionOur Lady of Immaculate Deception
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780312573720
Series: Roxy Abruzzo Mystery #1
Publication Date: March 7, 2010
Pages: 310
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

This is the first book in a spin-off series, of sorts, from the Blackbird Sisters; it involves a completely different member of the crime family Michael is the heir apparent to, and takes place in Pittsburgh, rather than Philly.

It’s also a much rougher, seedier flavour of cozy mystery, set in a low income area with a high crime rate.  Roxy owns an architectural salvage company, trying to support her daughter and avoid working for her uncle Carmine in the family business.

Martin created Roxy as a deeply flawed, broken woman who uses an active sex life as a weapon, but seems to enjoy it not at all.  She obviously cares a great deal, as she goes out of her way to shelter abused women, support her daughter, and keep her dim-witted friend from violating his parole, but her uber defensiveness is grating and her inability to connect with anyone makes it difficult for the reader to connect with her.  It’s a very different take from the Blackbird Sisters, which didn’t shy away from dysfunction, but still managed to engage the reader.

Different too is this story’s multiple POVs.  When it works, it works brilliantly, offering an ending that might not be expected, but when it doesn’t it leaves the reader wondering why Martin bothered, or at least wondering why certain POVs were included.

The parts were there for a very excellent read, but they just didn’t come together in a way that left me caring at all about any of the characters.  I have the second book of what ended up being a 2 book series, but when I finished my re-read of this one, I found that I just didn’t have it in me to dip into this kind of dysfunction a second time.  Maybe someday.

Murder Melts in Your Mouth (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #7)

Murder Melts in Your MouthMurder Melts in Your Mouth
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451223111
Series: Blackbird Sisters #7
Publication Date: March 4, 2008
Pages: 282
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

Down-to-earth debutante Nora Blackbird is having a meltdown. A noted Philly philanthropist has taken a swan dive from an office balcony and Nora’s friend Lexie stands accused of the murder. Then her scheming parents reappear, sending all three Blackbird sisters into a panic. Now Nora must uncover her parents’ scandalous high jinks before she winds up taking the heat.

This was a gut wrencher; again, Martin touches on edgy subjects but this time in a more seductive way.  Nora’s best friend’s business partner is found dead on the sidewalk minutes after his exposure for serious financial crimes has been made public.

Nora’s efforts to clear her friend of any suspicion are clouded by a number of factors involving her own family and the cloudiness of the victim’s family life, both of which reveal some rather startling revelations for everybody.

I remember reading this the first time and the feelings of dread and shock I felt as answers to the myriad questions were discovered; there were no happy endings for anyone in this book, although there were some hilarious moments along the way.

Having read the entire series, I think I’d say this is the best entry of the 10.

A Crazy Little Thing Called Death (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #6)

A Crazy Little Thing Called DeathA Crazy Little Thing Called Death
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451220417
Series: Blackbird Sisters #6
Publication Date: March 4, 2007
Pages: 280
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: NAL / New American Library


Nora Blackbird has made the society pages yet again. The impoverished Philadelphia heiress has agreed to wed Mick Abruzzo, son of New Jersey’s most notorious mobster. Now Nora has to help him survive the Blackbird curse: Every time a Blackbird sister marries, the groom is bound to die.

But Nora’s superstitions are eclipsed by some ominous news. Penny Devine, ex-Hollywood starlet and daughter of the Philadelphia Devines, has disappeared, and strangely, her family is very eager to have her declared dead. When it’s revealed that Nora has inherited Penny’s extensive couture wardrobe, eyebrows rise even higher. The only way for Nora to keep her name clear and save her sanity is to snoop among the snooty…until she sniffs out the truth.

While things have settled down for the characters, relatively speaking, Martin digs down again to present another unpleasant but well crafted murder plot: remains of a once famous actor are found on the family grounds during a polo match.  This time Nora’s search for journalistic truth unravels animal hoarding, and some pretty extreme psychological abuse along with the usual bevy of hidden family secrets.

Michael is a more active participant this time around which conveniently feeds into the whole Blackbird curse mythology that’s part of the series: all Blackbird women who marry are doomed to be widowed young.  Michael survives, of course, but a series of maybe accidents provides a convenient of angst for the romance angle.

The ending is well done, but a hot mess; nobody comes out unscathed by the end, with the exception of one person, who tries to offer Nora some perspective on her own life.  It’s a slightly more uplifting ending than perhaps this story deserves but it leaves the reader feeling at least a little lighter hearted.

Have Your Cake and Kill Him Too (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #5)

Have Your Cake and Kill Him TooHave Your Cake and Kill Him Too
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451217639
Series: Blackbird Sisters #5
Publication Date: April 6, 2006
Pages: 260
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

When the tycoon owner of a spectacularly tacky sports bar is killed, Nora Blackbird suspects a secretive politician, a shady former rock star doubling as a pastry chef, and a dangerous aristo-brat on the verge of stardom.

This one was sort of weird, with Martin juggling a lot of balls in the air at once.  There’s Nora’s on-again-off-again relationship with Michael and the constant tension his ties to the mafia brings; a new suitor half-heartedly trying to woo her away; her sister Emma’s continued uneasy relationship with sobriety; the bizarre behaviour of her party-planning friend, and the dead owner of the Fitch estate and a new hot-wing sports bar called Cupcakes.

Martin continues to weave uneasy topics into her plots – this one involving the disreputable dead man and his step-daughter – but mostly this felt like a transition book; more about the character development and overall arc than its own murder mystery.

From a plotting perspective, it was well done – even on re-reading I hadn’t remembered how it ended, but the result was a story that felt more than a little seedy and dissatisfying.  Good but with an unpleasant after-taste.

Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #4)

Cross Your Heart and Hope to DieCross Your Heart and Hope to Die
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451213952
Series: Blackbird Sisters #4
Publication Date: March 6, 2005
Pages: 262
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: NAL / New American Library


Nora’s next journalistic assignment: the unveiling of the most miraculous bra in fashion history. But before Nora can hand in her uplifting story, her boss is found shot execution-style and trussed up in expensive panty hose—an Abruzzo family trademark. Now Nora must find the killer before her innocent lover takes the rap. That means shadowing the most glamorous suspects in Philadelphia—including a bad-boy designer, a former child star, a high-strung ad exec, and a pair of luscious twin models. Though Nora’s accustomed to upper-crust murder, cross your fingers for the Blackbird sisters, because this time, high society has never seemed so low-down dirty.

Probably the edgiest of the series, the storyline of this book delves into bullying and just brushes the edges of sadism, with a cast of characters that are anything but cozy and charming, yet the author still manages to keep the overall tone of the book from becoming too dark, although at times it’s definitely difficult to read.  Martin also uses this book to both redeem and get rid of a loathsome recurring character, which frankly made me happy as I don’t really like the nemesis trope much.

The plotting got the job done.  I’m not sure if I was surprised by all the revelations the first time I read the book – it’s been too long – but on the second read, everything clicked along without any shocks; it wasn’t transparent, but it all made sense in the end.

Some Like it Lethal (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #3)

Some Like it LethalSome Like it Lethal
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451211743
Series: Blackbird Sisters #3
Publication Date: April 6, 2004
Pages: 310
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Signet Mystery

When the husband of a wealthy dog food heiress is found bludgeoned to death at an exclusive hunt club, Nora Blackbird is as surprised as anyone. Worse still, the evidence points toward a devious blackmail scheme-with Nora’s sister, Emma, as the main suspect. Investigating with the help of friend and foe alike, Nora uncovers the secrets of some of Philadelphia’s high-and-mightiest-and attracts the unwanted attentions of the real killer…

Nothing like a spot of blackmail amongst the upper classes.  It’s all fun and profit until someone is murdered, and Nora’s youngest sister is a suspect because she was found passed-out drunk next to the body.

Martin continues to address the themes like addiction and abuse that most cozy mysteries wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pen, and she continues to do it in a way that lends the gravitas these issues demand, while keeping the overall read cozy.  She also explores the hypocrisy of class double-standards, as Nora and Michael hash their way through why some illegal activity (mob crime) is considered worse that others (crimes of the upper crust), and how that criteria can suddenly change when it becomes convenient.  She offers no answers, just plenty to chew on for those that feel philosophical.

The plotting was good; I felt sure I knew who the murderer was – or, who I wanted the murderer to be, but I was wrong.  The murderer was craftily unexpected and, in the end, tragic, with Martin once again playing with reader expectations by questioning the meaning of justice.