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.

Dead Girls Don’t Wear Diamonds (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #2)

Dead Girls Don't Wear DiamondsDead Girls Don't Wear Diamonds
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451208866
Series: Blackbird Sisters #2
Publication Date: July 1, 2003
Pages: 250
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Signet Mystery

When a high society jewel thief winds up drowned at the bottom of a pool with a tacky garden gnome tied to her ankles, Nora must swing into action to save her old flame from a hasty murder charge.

The jewel-thief wife of an old college flame of Nora’s has been found dead at the bottom of the pool after a party one night.

While Nora is never really considered a suspect, she’s close to the family and the patriarch is up for a big government position so Nora once again uses her social schedule, listening to, and chatting with, people who knew the victim and who might have wanted her dead.

The plot of this one was a little bit wacky, but touches on a few darker and racier themes that are usually a no-go in cozies, but Martin does it so well the reader rarely notices.   The culmination of the mystery ends up with Nora in peril, but kudos to Martin for coming up with a rather clever method of self defence that, while wholly implausible except under the most unusual circumstances, wins points for sheer creativity.

How to Murder a Millionaire (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #1)

How to Murder a MillionaireHow to Murder a Millionaire
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451207241
Series: Blackbird Sisters #1
Publication Date: August 1, 2002
Pages: 254
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Signet Mystery

Nora Blackbird, society columnist and down-and-almost-out former debutante, reclaims her place within Philadelphia’s elite when she stumbles upon the murdered body of a millionaire art collector.

The first book in what would become a 10 book series (not counting novellas) sets the tone.  Nora is the middle sister of three who were raised in a blue-blood Philadelphia Main Line family to be debutants, but whose parents spent all the fortunes, raided their trust-funds, then stole enough money from friends to leave the country, leaving the oldest with the family furniture, the youngest with the family’s art collection, and Nora got Blackbird Farm, complete with a 2 million dollar tax bill.

With no skills but great connections, she’s given a job as the assistant to the social columnist at the tabloid newspaper, owned by a family friend.  At a party celebrating the newspaper’s longevity, she finds said owner dead in his bedroom and its obviously murder.

I like that Martin chose to make Nora the opposite of the clichéd amateur sleuth: she’s not fragile at all, takes Krav Maga for exercise, but she has a fainting problem, and being kind and classy is deeply woven into her dna.  But she can’t help but want to help people when they ask her to, and her job attending parties gives her a ready made opportunity to ask questions and listen to gossip.  I like that Nora’s obvious romantic interest is the son of a mob boss who is fighting to stay out of the family and against the criminal instincts he was raised with, and that he shows his interest with sincerity instead of braggadocio.

The mystery was well plotted with a resolution that neither transparent nor obvious, and it made sense at the end.