The Keepers of Metsan Valo

The Keepers of Metsan ValoThe Keepers of Metsan Valo
by Wendy Webb
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781542021623
Publication Date: October 1, 2021
Pages: 299
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

In Metsan Valo, her family home on Lake Superior, Anni Halla’s beloved grandmother has died. Among her fond memories, what Anni remembers most vividly is her grandmother’s eerie yet enchanting storytelling. By firelight she spun tall tales of spirits in the nearby forest and waters who could heal or harm on a whim. But of course those were only stories…

The reading of the will now occasions a family reunion. Anni and her twin brother, their almost otherworldly mother, and relatives Anni hasn’t seen in forever some with good reason are all brought back together under one roof that strains to hold all their tension. But it’s not just Anni’s family who is unsettled. Whispers wind through the woods. Laughter bursts from bubbling streams. Raps from unseen hands rupture on the walls. Fireflies swarm and nightmares stir. With each odd occurrence, Anni fears that her return has invited less a welcoming and more a warning.

When another tragedy strikes near home, Anni must dive headfirst into the mysterious happenings to discover the truth about her home, her family, and the wooded island’s ancient lore. Plunging into the past may be the only way to save her family from whatever bedevils Metsan Valo.

Wendy Webb is an author that shows up as similar/recommended for those that enjoy the ghost stories of Simone St. James, so when MT was headed to the library, I had him pick up the only title of hers currently available.  It was a quick read, done in a day, and it kept my attention with interesting main characters and rich atmosphere, but I have a couple of thoughts about the Simone St. James comparison.

Reading the acknowledgments at the end, the author states that this book came about much different from her others, that rather than starting with a particular house, The Keepers of Metsan Valo started from a desire to write about her Finnish mythological roots.  So that may, perhaps, explain why this is not a ghost story, or anything like Simone St. James.  This book is best described as Magical Realism, and its more apt comparative author would be Sarah Addison Allen, or maybe at a stretch, an edgy Heather Webber.

If I’d gone into this book with that expectation, I’d probably have enjoyed it more – it’s not a bad book, and I liked her writing enough that I’d probably read another.  The thing is, it appears that all the books she writes are the standalone type with overlapping characters.  I realised this midway through the book when one of the characters describes the synopsis of another of Webb’s titles that I recognised from prior research.  Unfortunately, the characters precedes to spoil that particular book’s plot.  The mc of this book also spoils the plot of another of Webb’s books, although not quite to the same degree, I suspect.  So if you want to try this author be aware that if you don’t start with the first of her books you may get more information about prior plots than you’d prefer.  The good news is that the town of Wharton is delightful, so reading more books set there might be enough to soften prior knowledge.

There were moments where the author got overly sentimental, and the characters all got a fairy tale happy ending which, for me, blunted my enjoyment of the book.  I like a HEA, but I prefer a realistic one, and this one was not realistic, and I’m not talking about the mystical elements.  This family came together with a lot of tension and they went away all happy-happy-joy-love with absolutely no effort in between.  It was all way too neat and pat.  Putting that aside though, there was enough to like that, as I said earlier, I’d read one more.

The Sherlock Holmes Companion

The Sherlock Holmes CompanionThe Sherlock Holmes Companion
by Michael Hardwick, Mollie Hardwick
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0517219166
Publication Date: January 1, 1962
Pages: 262
Genre: Books and Reading, Reference
Publisher: Bramhall House

One of my acquisitions from my visit to the Berkelouw Book Barn, this isn’t really a sit-down-and-read book, so much as it’s a handy reference of characters, story plots and a selection of quotes (which I found to be a mediocre selection, at best).  But there are two ‘chapters’ at the back that offer small biographies of Sherlock and Holmes, and one of Conan Doyle himself.

The Sherlock/Watson biographies about what you’d expect, although I’m constantly amazed, whenever I read these types of things, how much presumption is done on the part of the fans who write them, no matter how learned those fans are.  I can never get through one without periodic outbursts along the lines of give me a break!.  While this one was no different, I was, at least relieved to see that the authors dismissed the nonsense that Holmes, pre-Watson, had had a great love that died, leaving him unable to ever love again.

The chapter of Conan Doyle’s mini-biography was concise but packed with his life, including quite a few facts I’d yet to read about (I have Hesketh’s biography waiting for me on my TBR, and one of these days I’m going to get ahold of Dickson Carr’s ACD bio too).   ACD was not only an author of mythical skill, he was a truely good man who fought for pretty much any cause that needed fighting for, and a prescient man, correctly forseeing what a war with submarines and advanced weaponry would mean for the crumbling empire soon the enter WWI.  That question that makes the rounds every once in awhile: who would you go back in time to speak with, if you could?  Without question, it would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, every time.

The Corinthian

The CorinthianThe Corinthian
by Georgette Heyer
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1950
Pages: 256
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Heinemann

An amusing, highly improbable adventure with a tolerable touch of silliness.  Heyer’s romances are always entertaining (unless they’re the badly written ones) because she writes romance with her tongue firmly in her cheek, and this one was truly tongue in cheek.  A nice in-between read that was easily finished in a day.

The Enchanted April

The Enchanted AprilThe Enchanted April
by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1922
Pages: 204
Genre: Fiction, Literature
Publisher: Folio Society

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, cowed and neglected by their husbands, make a daring plan: they will have a holiday. Leaving a drab and rainy London one April and arriving on the shores of the Mediterranean, they discover a flower-filled paradise of beauty, warmth and leisure. Joined by the beautiful Lady Caroline and domineering Mrs Fisher, also in flight from the burdens of their daily lives, the four women proceed to transform themselves and their prospects.

I liked this book way more than I should have. Arnim’s ability to write a single moment right into the ground is admirable in a contrary sort of way – I mean, entire pages dedicated to describing one brief span of time, and it’s very stream-of-consciousness at times as well.  And Lotty, who starts off realistic if a bit pathetic, opens her eyes her first morning in Italy and turns into a character Disney himself would envy.  The only thing missing was somebody singing Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.  And the ending is the shallowest, basest, most unrealistic Happily Ever After I’ve ever read.  How is Frederick going to explain that unopened letter when he and Rose go home?

But in spite of all of this, the book was as enchanting as its title.  Were I but rich and idle, instead of just temporarily idle, I’d have jumped a plane for Italy before I got so much as 100 pages in.  Arnim wrote such a backdrop for these women that it was hard not to smell the wisteria as it dropped its accumulated rain drops on your head.  Even the castle, which Arnim spent little time describing overall, felt lived in.  And in spite of all the faffing stream-of-consciousness and Lotty’s Disney-esque departure from reality-land, I found myself liking, or at least sympathising with, all four women.  The men … not so much.  Even though they were supposed to have been ‘saved by love’ (ugh!), I still found Wilkins a condescending, pompous ass, Frederick pathetic, and Briggs a massive disappointment.  Somebody should have slapped that boy upside his head.

Arnim was a gifted writer, creating characters with a lot of character, so to speak, but she really shines – is absolutely brilliant – when it comes to writing about gardens, so I suspect that when I remember The Enchanted April it will be the gardens of San Salvatore that come through best and most vividly.

NB: I read the Folio Society Edition from 2002, and it included the most charming colour illustrations; they perfectly complemented the text.


by Eivind Undheim, Ronald Jenner
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781486308378
Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Pages: 208
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing

A fully illustrated guide to venom, its evolution in different animal groups, its effects and its treatments.
When we enter the world of venom, we enter the realm of one of the most diverse, versatile, sophisticated and deadly biological adaptations ever to have evolved on Earth.

Since it first appeared in ancient jellyfish and sea anemones, venom has proved so effective that it has since evolved independently in dozens of different animal groups. The authors reveal the many unique methods by which venomous animals deliver their cocktail of toxins and how these disrupt the physiology of the victims.

Jenner and Undheim also consider how humans have learnt to neutralise venom’s devastating effects, as well as exploit the power of venom in innovative ways to create new drugs to treat a variety of serious conditions. Fully illustrated throughout, this illuminating guide will appeal to all those with an interest in the wondrous world of venom.

This was not quite the book I was expecting, proving you can’t always judge a book by its cover and full colour photos.  I originally thought it would be a fast-ish read. I should have known better though because it’s published by CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research.

33 days and two nightmares later, (seriously – first time EVER a book has given me nightmares) and I can say I’d happily recommend that @elentarri check this book out if she can find it.  For anyone else out there that finds science, and especially natural sciences, fun and fascinating, and is happy to tackle a densely written narrative that falls closer to academic research paper than it does to popular science in writing style, you too should see if you can find this book.

Only 7 chapters and less than 200 pages long and filled with full colour illustrations, photos (warning: some of them are graphic) and charts, but don’t let this fool you: there’s a lot of hard science here.  As I was reading it, I got the impression that it’s mean to be a primer or introduction for science students and hard-core amateurs.  Chapter 1 discusses the definitive differences between a poison and a venom, luring the reader into a sense that this is definitely aimed at armchair scientists.  By the time Chapter 5 rolls around, though, the writers are saying things like:

Not all enzymes conserve their ancestral activity while evolving into molecular killers, however.  Some snake venom PLAenzymes, for example, have lot their enzymatic activity but they can still exert their toxic roles.

(Quote take at random from chapter 5 “Evolving Venoms”).  By chapter 3 I had learned a lot but the authors were making me work for it.  While I can say, how that I’m done, that I now have a good overall understanding of the concepts presented, it’s only a very thin veneer of all that this book offers.  This is a book I’d have to re-read several times, slowly, before I could say I had an immersive understanding of the text.

While chapter 5 is, I’d say, the densest chapter, the authors do wrap the book up with two lighter chapters that were akin to a nice after-dinner sorbet.  Chapter 6 discusses how venoms are used for traditional healing, cosmetics, recreational drug use (I can’t imagine ever thinking that smoking dried scorpions sounded like a viable option), rites of passage, spiritual vision quests, and modern medicines.  I found this chapter fascinating from an anthropological perspective.  Chapter 7 is a summary chapter that uses the honeybee as a microcosm example of all the concepts of venom relevant across the microcosm.

I have never been afraid of snakes and have always been one of the first to volunteer to interact with one, and while I’ve never been stupid about venomous ones, giving them a wide berth at all times, I’ve got to say reading this, especially Chapter 4 “Dissecting the power of venom”, planted a tiny seed of fear in me about ever running across them in any context.  What few anecdotes the authors offer are chilling and I’ve been wondering if, when I can walk again, I could feasibly bush walk in thigh-high thick rubber waders.  Maybe with some good insoles…

There are, of course, a lot of other animals covered in this book – as the authors point out, 25% of all phyla are venomous (mosquitoes are considered venomous).  I have a whole new respect for the male platypus during breeding season (must look up when that is), and the slow loris?, well all I can say is if it puts its arms up to hug you, run away – fast.  But the snakes are what leave the most indelible impression, making even the spiders look like the lesser evil.

All in all, a good book for those genuinely interested.

The Last Bookshop in London

The Last Bookshop in LondonThe Last Bookshop in London
by Madeline Martin
Rating: ★★½
isbn: 9781867231912
Publication Date: June 2, 2021
Pages: 300
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Harlequin

Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, The Last Bookshop in London is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.

August 1939: London is dismal under the weight of impending war with Germany as Hitler’s forces continue to sweep across Europe. Into this uncertain maelstrom steps Grace Bennett, young and ready for a fresh start in the bustling city streets she’s always dreamed of — and miles away from her troubled past in the countryside.

With aspirations of working at a department store, Grace never imagined she’d wind up employed at Primrose Hill, an offbeat bookshop nestled in the heart of the city — after all, she’s never been much of a reader. Overwhelmed with organizing the cluttered store, she doesn’t have time to read the books she sells. But when one is gifted to her, what starts as an obligation becomes a passion that draws her into the incredible world of literature.

As the Blitz rains down bombs on the city night after night, a devastating attack leaves the libraries and shops of London’s literary center in ruins. Miraculously, Grace’s bookshop survives the firestorm. Through blackouts and air raids, Grace continues running the shop, discovering a newfound comfort in the power of words and storytelling that unites her community in ways she never imagined — a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of war-torn London.

(I read this last year, but somehow missed copying over the review to my blog.)

This is what my brain looks like on sleeping meds, and why it’s never a good idea to book shop under the influence.

To be fair, this looked like it should have been a good book for me.  It’s about a bookshop, it’s an historical WWII setting, and it’s not a romance, though I did pause when I saw that it’s published by Harlequin.  And the story does have its compelling moments; enough of them that I didn’t DNF it.

Unfortunately, the writing is not sophisticated and the whole tone of the book could best be summed up as the print version of a Hallmark Movie.  That’s not me dissing Hallmark Movies – they’re just not my personal jam.  Too emotional, too sweet, too earnest, too …too for my overly analytical preferences.

Full credit, however, for the vivid descriptions of the bombing raids on London.  They were almost, though not quite, visceral.  And I throughly enjoyed most of the bookshop scenes as Grace rehabbed a stuffy, dusty bookshop into a social hub for the neighborhood.

Reading Status Update: I’ve read 112/300 pages of The Orchid Thief

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
isbn: 9780449003718
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Pages: 300
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.

In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.


I’m still laid up, obviously, but feeling much more human, and I was ready for something a little meatier in my reading, while also feeling like I needed a taste of home while wallowing in my bitterness over the fickleness of fate.  The Orchid Thief is fitting the bill perfectly.  Susan Orlean, with the exception of referring to Florida’s natural state as jungle (it’s not), has nailed the state in both its feral and more civilised forms.  The world of orchid collecting is also one I grew up on the fringes of, my father, and then my sister, both orchidists.  For my sister it was a fleeting interest, lasting only a decade or so, if memory serves, but for my father it was a lifelong passion and between them they created well over a thousand hybrids that were sent all over the world.  Fortunately he was, at heart, sane with a very unmoving moral compass, so none of the family had center-ring seats to the real insanity of the orchid collecting world Orleans is delving into.  But there are familiar names and references that I’m thoroughly enjoying so far.  Thankfully Larouche isn’t one of them – he’s an odd one.

Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop – 3 stories

Christmas at the Mysterious BookshopChristmas at the Mysterious Bookshop
by Otto Penzler
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781593156770
Publication Date: January 1, 2010
Pages: 257
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Vanguard Press

Each year, for the past seventeen years, Mysterious Bookshop proprietor Otto Penzler has commissioned an original Christmas story by a leading suspense writer. These stories were then produced as pamphlets, just 1,000 copies, and given to customers of the bookstore as a Christmas present. Now, all seventeen tales have been collected in one volume, showcasing the talents of:

Charles Ardai
Lisa Atkinson
George Baxt
Lawrence Block
Mary Higgins Clark
Thomas H. Cook
Ron Goulart
Jeremiah Healy
Edward D. Hoch
Rupert Holmes
Andrew Klavan
Michael Malone
Ed McBain
Anne Perry
S. J. Rozan
Jonathan Santlofer
Donald E. Westlake

Some of these stories are humorous, others suspenseful, and still others are tales of pure detection, but all of them together make up a charming collection and a perfect Christmas gift for all ages.


I’m done reading this one – my stack of Christmas TBR still looks a bit daunting, but I’ve read the first three stories, which I think are re-reads I’ve long forgotten about.

Each of the stories in this anthology was written as a Christmas present to customers at Mysterious Books.

Snowberries by Megan Abbott:  Good writing, with a noir vibe, but a weird story; more of a snippet, really.

Give Till it Hurts by Donald E. Westlake:  Silly; not in a good way.

Schemes and Variations by George Baxt: Best of the three, in terms of story (it actually had a plot).  The writing tried too hard to be witty, but sometimes succeeded.

The Newcomer

The NewcomerThe Newcomer
by Mary Kay Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250256966
Publication Date: May 4, 2021
Pages: 440
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

After she discovers her sister Tanya dead on the floor of her fashionable New York City townhouse, Letty Carnahan is certain she knows who did it: Tanya’s ex; sleazy real estate entrepreneur Evan Wingfield. Even in the grip of grief and panic Letty heeds her late sister’s warnings: “If anything bad happens to me—it’s Evan. Promise me you’ll take Maya and run. Promise me.”

So Letty grabs her sister’s Mercedes and hits the road with her wailing four-year-old niece Maya. Letty is determined to out-run Evan and the law, but run to where? Tanya, a woman with a past shrouded in secrets, left behind a “go-bag” of cash and a big honking diamond ring—but only one clue: a faded magazine story about a sleepy mom-and-pop motel in a Florida beach town with the improbable name of Treasure Island. She sheds her old life and checks into an uncertain future at The Murmuring Surf Motel.

And that’s the good news. Because The Surf, as the regulars call it, is the winter home of a close-knit flock of retirees and snowbirds who regard this odd-duck newcomer with suspicion and down-right hostility. As Letty settles into the motel’s former storage room, she tries to heal Maya’s heartache and unravel the key to her sister’s shady past, all while dodging the attention of the owner’s dangerously attractive son Joe, who just happens to be a local police detective. Can Letty find romance as well as a room at the inn—or will Joe betray her secrets and put her behind bars? With danger closing in, it’s a race to find the truth and right the wrongs of the past.


The absolute latest by Mary Kay Andrews (I told you I needed post-op easy reads), save for the somewhat disappointing novella The Santa Suit, and reading this I could almost believe Andrews has found her groove again.  It’s another mystery/romance in the same vein as The Weekenders but written a lot more smoothly with a much easier flow.  Andrews is still using multiple POVs, and they start off a bit clunky – this might be an editing issue, as I think bolder title timelines/location identifiers might have helped.  Once established though, the POVs worked smoothly, and Andrews played some small mind-games with the reader, introducing possibly unreliable narratives once or twice.  Again, a little clunky, but mostly effective.

The story is about the murder of the MC’s sister, which = mystery, but really, there’s no mystery about who killed her, just whether or not justice will be served.  That means that it’s less about investigating and more about case building, leading to some over-the-top antics that you’d like to believe are totally unrealistic, but just might not be.

I’ve read a lot of Andrews’ work now – not all of it, but enough to feel confident saying she really doesn’t write romance in the sense that the reader is swept away.  The male mc’s are mostly ‘good’ guys, but there’s not a one of them I can remember thinking I’d date him. At the end, I’m happy for the MC, but not bowled over by her HEA.

This is a beach-read worth reading; or, if you’re luck runs like mine does recently, a good solid yet light read to loll away the hours when confined to your bed.  Enough to keep you interested, not enough to tax your pain-meds-addled mind.

The Satanic Mechanic (Tannie Maria Mystery, #2)

The Satanic MechanicThe Satanic Mechanic
by Sally Andrew
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781925355130
Series: Tannie Maria Mystery #2
Publication Date: August 1, 2016
Pages: 312
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Text Publishing

Tannie Maria writes the Love Advice and Recipe Column for the Klein Karoo Gazette: words of wisdom for the lovelorn, along with a recipe for something delicious that may help.

But Maria’s own problems resist her attempts to self-medicate, even with an amazing peanut-butter coffee chocolate cake. Her new relationship with Detective Henk Kannemeyer continues to be haunted by the memory of her abusive husband, and she decides to check out a PTSD counselling group run by a man they call the Satanic Mechanic.

But then someone is murdered—poisoned with mustard sauce—before her eyes, and Tannie Maria’s quest for healing takes a more investigative turn. Which means her intimate relationship with Henk is about to get professional. And more importantly, very complicated.


The follow up to the first Tannie Maria mystery, Recipes for Love and Murder, this sophomore entry started off with the same lyrical voice and fabulous atmosphere, but a very disjointed plot.

As the synopsis says, the satanic mechanic is a counsellor specialising in PTSD, whom Tannie Maria consults about her past as an abused spouse.  But he doesn’t make an entrance into the story until Chapter 24, page 92. In the meantime, the book starts almost immediately with the murder of a tribal man whose tribe just won a major land case against a diamond mining company and a cattle company.  He’s poisoned right in front of Tannie Maria and her now-boyfriend Henk, the chief detective.  Her experience with food and cooking gives her the ability to spot how he was poisoned and this opens a rift between her and Henk.

This murder has, seemingly, nothing to do with the satanic mechanic, but his reputation as a suspected former satanist makes everybody suspicious, though Tannie Maria finds her group sessions to be the only thing that’s helped her to date, and several incidents, including another murder in the middle of a group session keeps the focus on the titular character.

Everything comes together in the end, but the journey is not, from a writing perspective, a smooth one.  The connections revealed at the end make complete sense, but getting there was a clumsy exercise in plotting.

The romance started off a bit sweet – in a good way – but veered into the eye-rolling with Henk’s manufactured drama.  I realise attractiveness is entirely subjective, but the author seems to delight in creating male characters that not only defy common stereotypes of attractiveness, but are firmly planted as far away from them as realistically possible.  But perhaps I’m totally wrong, and waxed handlebar moustaches and hirsute men are what’s hot in South Africa.  It matters little, as the characters are all well drawn with magnetic, if not attractive, personalities.

Once again though, what pretty much kept me glued to the page is the evocative atmosphere of the Klein Karoo and the little side stories that develop from letters written to Tannie Maria in her role as Advice and Recipe columnist.  I also enjoyed the somewhat spiritual, somewhat hallucinogenic connections with the African wildlife.

A lot of these first two books is built around Tannie Maria as a victim of spousal abuse (the spouse is dead when the series begins), but by the end of this book, she’s well on her way to putting herself back together, which makes me curious about what kind of book the third one will be.  It’s out now, but my library doesn’t currently have it.  Might have to go on the to-buy list for 2022.