Grave Reservations (Booking Agents, #1)

Grave ReservationsGrave Reservations
by Cherie Priest
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781982168902
Series: Booking Agents #1
Publication Date: July 19, 2022
Pages: 292
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Meet Leda Foley: devoted friend, struggling travel agent, and inconsistent psychic. Impulsively re-booking Seattle PD detective Grady Merritt’s flight, she has no idea that her life is about to change in ways she could have never foretold.

When his original plane blows up on the runway, Grady begins to suspect that Leda’s special abilities could help him with a cold case he just can’t crack. Despite her scattershot premonitions, she agrees to join the investigation for a secret reason: her fiancé’s murder remains unsolved.

Leda’s psychic abilities couldn’t help that sad case, but she’s been honing her skills and drawing a crowd at her favorite bar’s open-mic nights, where she performs her klairvoyant karaoke—singing whatever song comes to mind when she holds people’s personal effects. Now joined by a ragtag group of bar patrons and pals, Leda and Grady set out to catch a killer—and learn how the two cases that haunt them have more in common than they ever suspected.

Ever have the feeling that you’ve read something recently, forgot to write down anything about it, and can’t remember what the book was?  Me, with this book.  I only read it 10 days ago and completely forgot everything about it, including its title.

BUT, once I chased it down, it all came flooding back, so let’s place the blame on a synaptic failure, rather than the story.  Because the story is memorable, although perhaps not for the right reasons.

It’s not a bad story – it is, in fact, a really good one, with an interesting blend of amateur detective and police procedural.  I liked the psychic element too, especially since the MC is the first person to stand up and say ‘Yes! I have visions, but they’re often meaningless and almost always unreliable.’

Where it floundered for me was the characterisations.  The police detective (my inability to remember names is an across-the-board life failure), is solid, well thought out, real.  I liked him.  The rest … are a work in progress.  I hope.  Especially the MC, whose maturity level I’d put somewhere just above toddler and a bit below pre-teen.  Ok, that’s harsh.  She’s solidly in the pre-teen/adolescent range.  No sense of responsibility, no sense of self, very reactionary, and overly prone to just default to her neighborhood bar and drink to excess.  Totally floundering.  I’m not sure her BFF is any better, or maybe she just had less time on the page.

There is hope though; she takes the investigation seriously and the author effectively communicates the MC’s desire to grow up and let go of the tragedy that compelled her to agree to helping the detective in the first place.

So, while I’m making this sound terrible, it’s really not, and I definitely want to read the second book.  If the MC is still immature by the end of that one, I’ll bow out of the series, but it has a lot going for it, and I’m willing to allow for ongoing character growth.

Under Lock and Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1)

Under Lock and Skeleton KeyUnder Lock and Skeleton Key
by Gigi Pandian
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250804983
Series: Secret Staircase Mystery #1
Publication Date: March 15, 2022
Pages: 343
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.

After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.

When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

I have enjoyed Gigi Pandian’s work ever since I first picked up a Jaya Jones mystery, but it’s always been a hard-won enjoyment.  There’s just something about her writing that I can’t quite put my finger on, whether it’s characterisations, or tone, I don’t know.  Usually, by the mid-way point I’m over it and enjoying the story.   This one was more of a struggle from beginning to end.

Some stream of consciousness thoughts:  I love the premise of secret passageways, hidden rooms … who doesn’t?  I’m not so much a fan of the stage magician stuff.  I love magic and illusions, just not the usually seedy backstage stuff.  I found the ‘curse’ in the Raj family a non-starter; I just didn’t buy into it from the start and the drama Pandian tried to build out of it just continued to fall flat.  I like the cross-over of characters that takes place between this series and Jaya Jones and I liked most of the new characters too.  The ‘tension’ between the two BFF’s also felt manufactured.  Basically, whenever Pandian tried to drum up drama in the story, it backfired (for me).  I thoroughly enjoyed the veiled references to gargoyle’s (Adrian!), and the introduction of an escape-artist bunny called Abra was a nice change of pace as a series mascot.

The plot was very well done, if maybe a tad … I don’t know; I just know when the denouement came I felt nothing.  Not surprise, not annoyance, not disbelief.  Just … nothing.  But it was well crafted, and I had no hint of where things were going.  Her use of a magician’s misdirection in the plot was a tad heavy handed, but really only in retrospect.

Overall, it’s not a bad mystery, even though I’m making it sound like it might be.  This is, I think, Pandian’s first mainstream, big-publisher book, and perhaps I feel like she tried a tad too hard, but in spite of that, I will gladly read the second book in the series.

Buried in a Good Book (By the Book Mysteries, #1)


I saw this in my local bookshop last week and almost fell over in shock – I’ve never seen a cozy – especially not a mass market cozy – for sale in an Australian bookstore before.  It sounded promising, and I want to encourage bookstores here to embrace a wider variety of sub genres, so I picked it up.

It wasn’t bad – I’ll happily read the second one – but it wasn’t without its problems.  The MC thinks she’s going to be more capable of solving the crime than the local sheriff, which is always a turn off for me.  I dislike arrogance in my amateur detectives unless their names are Sherlock Holmes.  But on the plus side, she’s humbled a time or two and she’s graceful about it.  The dynamic between her and her ex-husband was a bit cliche, as was the tension between herself and the sheriff.

The plotting was ambitious; Berry made it work, but it was just this side of a stretch even for cozy mysteries.

There is a second one out now and I’ll happily give it a try to see if the kinks in characterisation is worked out, but it definitely has potential.

Disaster at the Vendome Theater (Provençal Mystery, #10)

Disaster at the Vendome TheaterDisaster at the Vendome Theater
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780143135302
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #10
Publication Date: October 4, 2022
Pages: 293
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Books

When Jean-Marc Sauvet, successful lawyer and the best friend of Aix-en-Provence’s examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque, accepted a small role in a local theater’s summer production of Marcel Pagnol’s Cigalon, he had no idea that the lead actress would be played by the great Liliane Poncet. But Jean-Marc’s excitement about rubbing elbows with one of France’s legendary film stars is quickly extinguished. The lead actor, Gauthier Lesage, is rude and unenthusiastic, and nobody understands how he got the part. Chaos reigns backstage thanks to the absentminded theater director. And everyone seems to be harboring a secret. When one of the actors goes missing for good, it’s up to the soon-to-be-a-father Verlaque and his police commissioner, Bruno Paulik, to untangle the threads of a mystery that seems to get more complicated every day…

This is one of those series best read for the atmosphere, the setting, and the characters, rather than for the mystery.  The mysteries are good and well plotted, but slow paced; not quite back-burnered, but not front and center either.  As the latest entry, this one may be the most leisurely one yet, with plotting that, to me, relies on a far-fetched hunch on the part of the police commissionaire.  It works, for reasons that are logical in the end, but that first assumption – the bit that causes the cascade towards denouement, felt like too big a stretch.  Verlaque, the titular MC, is a bit of a damp twit in this book, which feels contrary to all previous books, and is an obvious sop to the conceit that (impending) parenthood softens even the most hardened heart.

Otherwise, the book was as enjoyable to read as all the rest – a nice mini-break to France from the comfort of my couch.  Now that Verlaque and Marine have reproduced, my anticipation of future books is somewhat dampened, as I don’t think parenting and solving crimes a sensible mix, but I will happily read the next one and hope to be proved wrong.

Apparently the BBC has made a TV show of this series, called Murder in Provence, available on BritBox.  I watched the trailer the other day and … everyone is British.  I mean, I realise the BBC is a British production company, but the setting is in France, and all the characters are French, at least they are in the books.  Listening to Verlaque and Marine speak in very British accents was unnerving.  But the show did appear to be humorous, and I admit to being intrigued – possibly enough to sign up for the free month trial.

A Death in Door County (Monster Hunter Mystery, #1)

A Death in Door CountyA Death in Door County
by Annelise Ryan
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780593441572
Series: Monster Hunter Mystery #1
Publication Date: September 13, 2022
Pages: 336
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Morgan Carter, owner of the Odds and Ends bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin, has a hobby. When she’s not tending the store, she’s hunting cryptids—creatures whose existence is rumored, but never proven to be real. It’s a hobby that cost her parents their lives, but one she’ll never give up on.

So when a number of bodies turn up on the shores of Lake Michigan with injuries that look like bites from a giant unknown animal, police chief Jon Flanders turns to Morgan for help. A skeptic at heart, Morgan can’t turn down the opportunity to find proof of an entity whose existence she can’t definitively rule out. She and her beloved rescue dog, Newt, journey to the Death’s Door strait to hunt for a homicidal monster in the lake—but if they’re not careful, they just might be its next victims.

This arrived just as I was finishing my last Halloween Bingo read, and it felt like just the thing to start next.  I’ve read most of Ryan’s previous work, and I’m a huge fan of her Mattie Winston series, but I’m not quite sure how I feel about this one.  It’s fun, and it has a lot to like, but it might be a case of too much of a good thing.

First the device I didn’t care for at all:  Morgan, the MC, has a tragic past – seriously brutal.  It isn’t the tragedy or the retelling of it that I didn’t care for, but the lack of resolution.  It’s clear that this is going to be a background ‘thing’ that lurks in future books in the series.  I’m sort of over multi-book story arcs and this one, because of its nature, interests me even less than most.

Morgan as a character, though, is kind of refreshing.  She’s very pragmatic, so there’s no cutesy giddiness that has invaded cozies in the last decade.  She runs a mystery bookshop, but it’s also a shop that sells macabre and weird items, which I love, but there were a few times it felt like the author was trying to make the reader uncomfortable.  As if she’s single handedly trying to over-correct the current course of the cozy sub-genre.  This is a tactic I appreciate, but might have been done a bit more subtly.

She is also a cryptozoology consultant, and she comes at it from the perspective of a sceptic: think Mulder’s desire to believe and Scully’s need for scientific explanation rolled into one personality.  She has degrees in biology and zoology and really is a highly rational MC.  I liked her, but I feel like Ryan’s still trying to find her footing with her.  Ryan has an easier time of it with the supporting cast, who are all quirky, but also instantly likeable.  Newt the dog was awesome.  Seriously, I think he’s every animal lover’s dream dog, and Morgan every dog’s dream owner.

The plot was … interesting but not well constructed.  There wasn’t a shred of doubt in my mind what they were ultimately looking for – it was obvious from their very first boat trip.  There were moments where the author stumbled a bit, trying to meld a cryptozoological investigation with investigations into the deaths of the victims; ungraceful moments when it was clear the MC was overstepping but the story couldn’t really move forward if she didn’t.  Still, there were a few unique bits and pieces along the way, and the solution was satisfying.  I’ll definitely and happily read the next book and look forward to a fun new series (fingers crossed).

Round Up the Usual Peacocks (Meg Langslow, #31)

Round Up the Usual PeacocksRound Up the Usual Peacocks
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250760203
Series: Meg Langslow #31
Publication Date: August 2, 2022
Pages: 300
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

Kevin, Meg's cyber-savvy nephew who lives in the basement, comes to her with a problem. He's become involved as the techie for a true-crime podcast, one that focuses on Virginia cold cases and unsolved crimes. And he thinks their podcast has hit a nerve with someone . . . one of the podcast team has had a brush with death that Kevin thinks was an attempted murder, not an accident.

Kevin rather sheepishly asks for Meg's help in checking out the people involved in a couple of the cases. "Given your ability to find out stuff online, why do you need MY help?" she asks. "Um . . . because I've already done everything I can online. This'll take going around and TALKING to people," he exclaims, with visible horror. "In person!" Not his thing. And no, it can't wait until after the wedding, because he's afraid whoever's after them might take advantage of the chaos of the wedding at Trinity or the reception at Meg and Michael's house to strike again.

So on top of everything she's doing to round up vendors and supplies and take care of demanding out-of-town guests, Meg must hunt down the surviving suspects from three relatively local cold cases so she can figure out if they have it in for the podcasters. Could there be a connection to a musician on the brink of stardom who disappeared two decades ago and hasn't been seen since?

I’m giving this one the benefit of doubt at 4 stars because I went into it with reservations.  As the title implies, this mystery is sort of an homage to the first in the series, Murder with Peacocks, which I loved – and I rarely enjoy attempts at revisiting the well.

Fortunately the homage is more like just a light breeze of familiarity that wafts through the story, as Meg helps her nephew Kevin with his true crime podcast, reviewing several old cold cases in an attempt to figure out who has it in for Kevin and his co-host.  This structure works well, as it keeps Meg busy and the reader from getting bored.  In the background is the preparation for the wedding to end all weddings, with the running gag that everyone is trying to avoid Meg’s mom so they aren’t put to work.

Of course Meg solves the cold cases, and here’s the one area that stretches believability because she solves all of them.  I sort of feel like the story would have worked better had one of the cases been left unanswered; as it stands, everything is wrapped up too neatly at the end, even for a cozy.  Although it was somehow satisfying to see everything tied up neatly, even if it felt over the top.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 for the Cozy Mystery square.  When Carlito was a young teen kitten, I caught a picture of him I can’t resist including here, because it’s his version of the Cozy Mystery Square cover:


The Study of Secrets (Lila Maclean Academic Mystery, #5)

The Study of SecretsThe Study of Secrets
by Cynthia Kuhn
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781635116151
Series: Lila Maclean Academic Mystery #5
Publication Date: May 1, 2020
Pages: 225
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Henery Press

There could be nowhere more fitting for English professor Lila Maclean to spend her sabbatical than the whimsical Callahan House with its enchanting towers, cozy nooks, and charming library. Unfortunately, it also features a body in the study. The murder on the estate sets the town buzzing. Wild rumors are fueled by a gossipy blogger who delights in speculation, and further crimes only intensify the whispers and suspicions. A newly discovered manuscript, however, appears to expose startling facts beneath the fictions. When Lila steps in to sort the truth from the lies, it may cost her everything, as someone wants to make dead certain that their secrets stay hidden.

This series started out strong, as a great cozy without the cutesy vibe, with strong writing and clever mysteries.  I think, though, with number 5, I’m done. The author broke one of my personal cardinal rules by creating character relationships and dynamics that I like, and then breaking them up and shuffling them about, and then doing it in a manner that was clumsy and awkward.

The mystery plotting was complex enough, but tried to be too clever, so that by the end it felt like a Ginsu knife commercial: But wait! There’s More!.   Had the author – or the editor – pared it down just a bit, it might have offered a more suspenseful ending.

It wasn’t a bad mystery, or story; it just wasn’t great and certainly didn’t match the caliber of the earlier books.  While it might be a blip, the relationship shuffle has left me uninterested in finding out.

I read this because it showed up in my mail but it fits Amateur Sleuth, Cozy Mystery and Home for the Horrordays as it takes place in the days preceding, and including Christmas.  So I’m using it for Home for the Horrordays.

The Dark Place (Gideon Oliver Mystery, #2)

The Dark PlaceThe Dark Place
by Aaron Elkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0802755658
Series: Gideon Oliver #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1983
Pages: 200
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Walker Publications

Deep in the primeval rainforest of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the skeletal remains of a murdered man are discovered. And a strange, unsettling tale begins to unfold, for forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver determines that the murder weapon was a primitive bone spear of a type not seen for the last ten thousand years. And whoever—or whatever—hurled it did so with seemingly superhuman force. Bigfoot “sightings” immediately crop up, but Gideon is not buying them.

But something is continuing to kill people, and Gideon, helped by forest ranger Julie Tendler and FBI special agent John Lau, plunges into the dark heart of an unexplored wilderness to uncover the bizarre, astonishing explanation.

I’ve only read one other Gideon Oliver book, and it’s a much later entry in the series (Skullduggery), which I enjoyed.  I wanted to start at the beginning but after a lot of research, everyone who has ever read the first book says it’s not worth reading it, so I’m jumping in at #2.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I didn’t really read it with any particular HB square in mind.  This was a really good story, and not at all the kind of story I expected.  What starts off with 3 disappearances in the rainforest of Washington State leads to dead bodies, an unknown Amerind burial ground, and, for the first 60 pages, Bigfoot is a contender!  So much fun!

The reality, as the story progresses, is much, much more interesting than Bigfoot (no offence meant), and this mystery becomes the most anthropological anthropology-mystery I’ve ever read.  It’s short – 200 pages – but concise and fast paced.  Little is wasted on descriptive filler, although I’d have liked for the sex scenes not to have made the final edits.  I’m fine with sex scenes in general, but in a cozy, written by a man, well, for some reason it just sort of squicked me out.  But they really were the only unnecessary scenes and were pretty PG, for all I’m complaining about them.

Without giving anything away, it was just a really solid, well-written, mystery, with great characters and an even better setting.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 and beyond the obvious Genre: Mystery square it also fits Amateur Sleuth, Cozy Mystery, Dem Bones, In the Dark, Dark Woods, Monsters, and The Barrens.

I’m going to use it for Monsters because, Bigfoot!  🙂

The Mushroom Tree Mystery (Crown Colony Mystery, #6)

The Mushroom Tree MysteryThe Mushroom Tree Mystery
by Ovidia Yu
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781472132055
Series: Crown Colony Mystery #6
Publication Date: June 21, 2022
Pages: 311
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Constable

The Allies have defeated Germany in Europe, but Japan refuses to surrender the East.

In Singapore, amid rumours the Japanese occupiers are preparing to wipe out the population of the island rather than surrender, a young aide is found murdered beneath the termite mushroom tree in Hideki Tagawa's garden and his plans for a massive poison gas bomb are missing. To prevent any more destruction it falls to Su Lin to track down the real killer with the help of Hideki Tagawa's old nemesis, the charismatic shinto priest Yoshio Yoshimo.

In so many ways, this series represents the best kind of historical, cozy mystery, although a few of the 6 published so far have been average.  The Mushroom Tree Mystery is not one of the average ones.  I’d rank it as one of the best, perhaps because it’s set in a time, and in the face of events that were my area of study at university, and I couldn’t put it down.

The writing style takes some getting used to, though if you asked me why, I’d have a hard time putting my finger on it.  The narrative flows, but doesn’t; it can be choppy, or staccato, but after a few pages (or chapters) it begins to feel more natural.

It’s the tail end of WW2 and Singapore is caught between the Allies and a dying Japanese empire that would rather die than be defeated.  As if that wasn’t enough, the people of Singapore are also caught up in the internecine warfare of the Japanese; the old-school ronin and those that felt honor didn’t imply death.  In the midst of all this, Su Lin is further caught up in a murder mystery, where as a crippled straits born it would be all too easy to find herself convicted and executed.

I found this entry particularly fascinating, not only for the mystery itself, but for the perspective of someone born in Singapore, with ancestors who went through the war on the island and shared their first-hand experience with her.  I was deeply moved by the image of a people that welcomed Allied bombing of their island because it brought hope of salvation along with destruction.  To be cut off so completely from the world that a bombing was the only way of knowing that the war wasn’t truly over, as the Japanese asserted.  I was also chilled to read in the author’s notes about how close Singapore came to being wiped off the map entirely by the Japanese warlords.

Overall, a very good mystery read.

The Last Curtain Call (Haunted Home Renovation Mystery, #8)

The Last Curtain CallThe Last Curtain Call
by Juliet Blackwell
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780593097939
Series: Haunted Home Renovation Mystery #8
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
Pages: 318
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Paranormal
Publisher: Berkley

Mel Turner can’t resist the chance to bring the Crockett Theatre, a decrepit San Francisco Art Deco movie palace, back to life. But there’s a catch for Turner Construction: Several artists are currently squatting in the building, and they aren’t the only ones haunting the once-grand halls of the historic theater.…

When one of the squatters is found dead, the police department has a long list of suspects to investigate. Meanwhile, Mel and her fiancé, Landon, are remodeling an old house for themselves, and Mel finds being on the other side of a home renovation project more challenging than she expected.

When Mel discovers that the former owner of the Crockett Theatre died under mysterious circumstances, and that there just might be a connection to the ghost haunting her own attic, the case takes a new turn—one that could bring down the curtain for the last time.

One of the few remaining cozy writers and series I still find dependable.  Juliet Blackwell is a good writer; I enjoy her characters, her imagination for the paranormal, and her plots … well I can’t think of any of her plots that failed to amuse, and I can’t think of one of her books where the mystery was transparent.  Her diversity of characters feels natural (the San Francisco setting probably helps) and I’ve been reading her long enough to know that they existed to greater or lesser extent long before it was ‘on trend’ to do so.

This one made me ache to explore an old, abandoned theatre, although I’d prefer mine to be ghost free, thanks; especially the kind of ghosts who fill the theatre seats and follow you around with their blank, unseeing stares.  The connection between the theatre Mel is renovating and the house she’s renovating for herself felt a bit too coincidental, but it bothered me so very little that it amounts to nit-picking.

A fun book, and a fun series that would be perfect for several Halloween Bingo squares.