In the Middle of Hickory Lane

In the Middle of Hickory LaneIn the Middle of Hickory Lane
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250774651
Publication Date: July 26, 2022
Pages: 308
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Emme Wynn has wanted nothing more her whole life than to feel like part of a family. Having grown up on the run with her con artist mother, she’s been shuffled from town to town, drawn into bad situations, and has learned some unsavory habits that she’s tried hard to overcome. When her estranged grandmother tracks her down out of the blue and extends a job offer—helping to run her booth at an open-air marketplace in small-town Sweetgrass, Alabama—Emme is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to plant the roots she’s always dreamed of. But some habits are hard to break, and she risks her newfound happiness by keeping one big truth to herself.

Cora Bee Hazelton has her hands full with volunteering, gardening, her job as a color consultant and designer, and just about anything she can do to keep her mind off her painful past, a past that has resulted in her holding most everyone at arm’s length. The last thing she wants is to form close relationships only to have her heart broken yet again. But when she’s injured, she has no choice other than to let people into her life and soon realizes it’s going to be impossible to keep her heart safe—or her secrets hidden.

In the magical neighborhood garden in the middle of Hickory Lane, Emme and Cora Bee learn some hard truths about the past and themselves, the value of friends, family, and community, and most importantly, that true growth starts from within.


This one was not my favourite Heather Webber magical realism story, but that’s purely a matter of subjective taste for the theme.  I’m not interested in reading about con men (women), even unwilling ones seeking redemption.  But it had a garden with a dead body in it, and magical realism, so I was willing.

Putting aside the bits about living the life of a con, and keeping secrets, etc. there was a lot to like in this story.  Once I wrapped my head around just how huge the cul-de-sac had to have been to accommodate the garden described, it sounded magical, and all the characters, as usual with Webber’s writing, come to life on the page.  There is, as usual, the theme of ‘love conquers most everything’ but until the end it wasn’t dominant.

The dead body is discovered on page 1, but then just sort of lurks there in the background, while the police work at identifying the remains (they’re old).  But things come together at the end and I have to say I wasn’t really expecting them to come together in quite that shape.  I love when an author is able to surprise and blindside me.  It bumped the story up .5 a star.

I didn’t read this for Halloween Bingo, but looking at my card, I have Country House Mystery unread, and curiously, no desire to read anything for it, and my Lottery wild card still un-used, so I think I’ll use it and swap out Country House Mystery for the Home is Where the Hurt Is square, since this story definitely involves crimes that occur in nice, normal families.

 

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 Last Graduate (Scholomance, #2)

The Last GraduateThe Last Graduate
by Naomi Novik
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781529100891
Series: Scholomance #2
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 388
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Del Ray Books

At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year--and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .


While the story remains a good one, the tendency to natter continues.  Randomly flipping to a page, there’s a few lines of dialog at the top of page 202, and then nothing but introspection and inner-dialog until page 208.  That’s a random page, so it’s not a rarity, and it happened at least once in the middle of not only a scene, but a conversation; by the time I got to the character’s response I had totally forgotten there was a ‘scene in play’ and I had to flip pages and pages back to figure out what the character was responding to.

I dinged the story itself 1/2 star from the first one because it’s meh.  Not quite as good as the first, although El’s attitude improved exponentially.  She also gets a mouse familiar who is loaded with sass, but neither is enough to pull the story up.

Though I’m damning with faint praise, the last one in the trilogy is out later this month and I’m willing to reserve it at the library to see how the story ends.  I’ll probably skip anything else by the author though.

I read this because it was sitting on my coffee table; it isn’t readily fitting any available squares on my Halloween Bingo card, so I’ll leave off shoe-horning it in somewhere unless I need it later (I might, for Country House Mystery and a Wild Card usage).

A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in TimeA Stitch in Time
by Kelley Armstrong
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781989046210
Publication Date: March 1, 2021
Pages: 322
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Self-published

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.

Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.


Tannat recently read this, and it has ghosts – and most importantly, cats, that feature prominently enough in the story line to make the story qualify for the Black Cat square in Bingo, so I snagged an ebook copy from my library.

It’s an easy read, well written, and totally not my jam.  Ghosts or no ghosts (and there are ghosts) this is a straight up romance, with really nothing else to interfere with that romance – even the Victorian age murders didn’t detract from, or distract me from, all the love and devotion.  The cats, ember and Pandora, were the stars of the show though.  That they were calicos just made it even better.

While I found the story to be ‘meh’ – that’s a personal taste; to my friends that enjoy the romance genre, this is a story that might be worth checking out.

As I mentioned at the start, I needed a book for my Black Cat square for Halloween Bingo 2022, and this fits the bill perfectly, so thanks go to Tannat for saving me a lot of angst and a wild card.  🙂

A Deadly Education (Scholomance, #1)

A Deadly EducationA Deadly Education
by Naomi Novik
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781529100877
Series: Scholomance #1
Publication Date: March 4, 2021
Pages: 320
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Enter a school of magic unlike any you have ever encountered.

There are no teachers, no holidays, friendships are purely strategic, and the odds of survival are never equal. Once you're inside, there are only two ways out: you graduate or you die.

El Higgins is uniquely prepared for the school's many dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out untold millions - never mind easily destroy the countless monsters that prowl the school.

Except, she might accidentally kill all the other students, too. So El is trying her hardest not to use it . . . that is, unless she has no other choice.


Let me get this out of the way right up front: the amount of introspective, meandering, narrative in this book is crippling.  There is a 12 page scene devoted to El just walking the length of the book stacks in the school library.  Granted, it’s a magical library, and part of the point in this scene is the schools way of stretching space when it wants to, so this scene is effective at making the reader feel the interminable-ness of El’s trip to the end of the row to see what’s attacking the other kids, but while she had the benefit of adrenaline, I was just bored after 6 pages of it.  And there are several further instances of the narrative just wandering away from the main subject or banging on way too long about one thing or another.

And El is … well, someone needs to tell El to pull her head out of her own ass.  She’s rude – unspeakably rude – to people who don’t deserve it, and then bemoans in all her endless inner dialogs about how much she just wants friends, to be liked.  The prophecy, in my opinion, isn’t convincing enough a reason for her to act like such a bitch.

Saying all that, it’s a heck of a good story.  If I was irritated while reading it, it was because the Scholomance construct, how the school works, and the other characters were so fascinating, and I felt like the eternal inner-narrative and El’s occasionally appalling rudeness got in the way of the greater story.  When I wasn’t drowning in El’s attitude, I was having a rollicking good time with everything else.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 and while it’s a perfect fit for Dark Academia, I’ve already read for that square, so I’m going to use it instead for Murder & Mayhem by the Book.  Much of the action takes place in the school library, and El finds a spell book that becomes important to her and her friends in the second half of the book.

 

A Spear Of Summer Grass

A Spear Of Summer GrassA Spear Of Summer Grass
by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780778314394
Publication Date: May 1, 2013
Pages: 373
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Harlequin

Paris, 1923

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming—yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders—and dangers—of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for—and what she can no longer live without.

Don’t believe the stories you have heard about me.

I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking.

And I never meant to go to Africa.


So many random thoughts; I picked this up at the library purely on the strength of Deanna Raybourn and my enjoyment of her other novels.  I knew it wasn’t a mystery, but I grabbed it anyway because it was set in Africa, and I really enjoy Raybourn’s writing; the dry wit, the sass.

The only thing this novel had in common with her Julia Grey / Veronica Speedwell novels is the male love interest; it’s safe to say Raybourn has a type, and she sticks with it.  Brisbane, Stoker and Ryder could all be the same character with different hair styles.  As for the rest of the story, it’s utterly different from anything else of hers I’ve read.

A Spear Of Summer Grass starts off slowly – so very slowly – and its plot is tenuous, at best, for the first … 70% of the book?  For that first 2/3, it was a 3 star read and that was because Raybourn captured the romance of interwar Africa (Kenya, specifically) perfectly for a reader whose chance at experiencing it herself has been postponed.  The main character, Delilah, is not a typical Raybourn heroine.  She looks like it on the outside, as she does what she pleases and apologises to no one, but it’s not coming from a core of strength; Delilah’s core is pretty amoral when it comes to sex.  She’s Phryne Fisher without a purpose.  Eventually, the reader learns where this comes from, but Raybourn makes the reader work for it.

Round about that 70% mark it’s clear that this story comes closest to a coming of age story mixed with a romance, whose chemistry is also every bit like the chemistry between the characters in her other books.  There are also some developments that really work towards ratcheting up the pace – and the reader’s interest.  Some of the secondary bits and characters were clunky, but for that last third of the book, I was hooked; I was invested, and I was sorry to see it come to an end.

Would I recommend it?  I don’t know.  I’m glad I read it – it was beautifully written, well researched (even if some of her research came from funny sources), and ultimately it was a good story – but I think it’s one the reader has to be in the mood for more so than for most books.

 

I did NOT read this for Halloween Bingo, and it doesn’t fit any of the squares.

Crowbones re-read (World of the Others, #3)

CrowbonesCrowbones
by Anne Bishop
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593337332
Series: The World of the Others #3
Publication Date: March 8, 2022
Pages: 368
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

I don’t typically re-review re-reads, but my first reading of Crowbones left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied; in spite of a returning cast of characters I loved, the story felt disjointed and scattered.  I knew as soon as I finished I’d need to re-read it to be able to determine of it was the story, or it was just me.

I’m happy to say, it was just me.  While my thoughts from the first review still stand overall, the story felt more cohesive and not at all disjoined the second time around.  Some of this new found clarity is because it’s a re-read, of course; Bishop has a tendency to switch to the 3rd person POV of “them” without naming “them”.  When this works well, it adds a bit of buildup to the story; if the author doesn’t nail it though, it can muddle things.  This time around, I knew who all the “them”s were, and I knew who the mystery guest was, which just made everything jell nicely, making it easier to immerse myself in the world and the story.

I still think it’s a 4 star read: as much as I enjoyed it, it’s still not on par with the previous books, but it’s a 4+, rather than a 4-.

I’m going to use this for my Raven/Free Square on my Halloween Bingo 2022 card.

South of the Buttonwood Tree

South of the Buttonwood TreeSouth of the Buttonwood Tree
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250198563
Publication Date: July 21, 2020
Pages: 335
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Blue Bishop has a knack for finding lost things. While growing up in charming small-town Buttonwood, Alabama, she's happened across lost wallets, jewelry, pets, her wandering neighbor, and sometimes, trouble. No one is more surprised than Blue, however, when she comes across an abandoned newborn baby in the woods, just south of a very special buttonwood tree.

Sarah Grace Landreneau Fulton is at a crossroads. She has always tried so hard to do the right thing, but her own mother would disown her if she ever learned half of Sarah Grace's secrets.

The unexpected discovery of the newborn baby girl will alter Blue's and Sarah Grace's lives forever. Both women must fight for what they truly want in life and for who they love. In doing so, they uncover long-held secrets that reveal exactly who they really are--and what they're willing to sacrifice in the name of family.


Of all the Heather Webber books in the Magical Realism genre, this is the one I put off reading because it appears to centre on an abandoned newborn, which failed to appeal to me.  It turns out that the newborn is really a catalyst for the rest of the story, one that ends up touching on a lot of themes like family, poverty, death and, of course, love.  There are a couple of romances here but they’re so far on the back burner as to not even be on the stove.

The structure of the book is the typical for Webber of dual POVs, but there’s an added little bit at the start of each chapter from the POV of the judge that’s overseeing the custody case of the found infant.  They’re rarely a page long, but each one is a conversation between the judge and someone from the community wanting to get their opinion of the custody case in the judge’s ear.  I thought this was a successful device for letting the reader gain insight into the townsfolk of Buttonwood, good or bad, but it also allowed a tiny bit of wry humor into the story as the judge is often cornered in unexpected places and his patience is sorely tried.

All in all, I enjoyed it – better than I expected to.  I love the magical realism of being able to find lost objects, or houses that talk to you, or trees that give advice on buttons.

I’m going to use this one for Halloween Bingo 2022 on the Genre: Supernatural square.  It’s also a gimme for Magical Realism.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane and the Midnight MurderMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder
by T.A. Willberg
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781409196648
Series: Marion Lane #1
Publication Date: June 10, 2021
Pages: 320
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Books

They were a band of mysterious private detectives who lived beneath the streets of London in a labyrinth of twisted tunnels and ancient hallways, the entrance to which no one had ever found. The Inquirers were something of a myth, a whispered legend that may or may not exist, depending on whom you asked. They were like ghosts, some said, these sleuths who guarded the city...

London, 1958:

Elaborately disguised and hidden deep beneath the city's streets lies the world of Miss Brickett's, a secret detective agency, training and housing the mysterious Inquirers. From traversing deceptive escape rooms full of baited traps and hidden dangers, to engineering almost magical mechanical gadgets, apprentice detectives at Miss Brickett's undergo rigorous training to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to solve the mysteries that confound London's police force.

But nothing can prepare 23-year-old apprentice Marion Lane for what happens after the arrest of her friend and mentor Frank on suspicion of murder: he has tasks Marion with clearing his name and saving his life. Her investigation will place Marion and her friends in great peril as they venture into the forbidden maze of uncharted tunnels that surround Miss Brickett's.

Being discovered out of bounds means immediate dismissal, but that is the least of Marion's problems when she discovered that the tunnels contain more than just secrets...


Meh.  Brilliant idea but mediocre execution.  I wanted to like it, and the really cool premise of the underground detective agency kept me reading when it felt like a slog, but unfortunately, the characters, while all likeable, failed to click with each other; there was no spark.

In better hands this would have been an amazingly fun book and start of a great series.  I don’t regret reading it, but I don’t regret getting from the library either.  There’s at least one more, but I can’t say I’m at all curious about it.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022’s Darkest London square – it’s a perfect fit for it.

Blood and Moonlight

Blood and MoonlightBlood and Moonlight
by Erin Beaty
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: June 28, 2022
Pages: 442
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills―for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into a dangerous chain of events where the only certainty is that the killer will strike again. Assigned to investigate is the mysterious and brilliant Simon, whose insights into the mind of a predator are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between killer and detective while hiding her own secret―a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims...


Thanks to Whisky in the Jar for putting this book on my radar.  I finished it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The characters make this a YA murder mystery with a side of romance, but the plot has some dark and disturbing elements that are touched upon (sexual violence/incest) that put it at the older end of YA.  The setting is supposed to be, I think, medieval, but it worked better for me to imagine it as an alternate reality, thereby making anachronisms less anachronistic.  This was easy to do as the city/country names have little to no similarity to real ones, and the religious system is based entirely on the sun and moon.

Mental illness is a very prominent theme in the story and though I have no first, or even second-hand experience with it myself, the inclusion in the story didn’t feel disrespectful or heavy-handed.  The moon magic was interesting and felt like a fresh take on magic systems; the mystery plotting was a little clunky, possibly over-complicated, but overall it kept the story moving along.

In general, I thought it was a good read and if the author were to make a series out of it (could easily go either way) I’d read the next one happily.