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.

A Perilous Perspective (Lady Darby Mystery, #10)

A Perilous PerspectiveA Perilous Perspective
by Anna Lee Huber
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780593198469
Series: A Lady Darby Mystery #10
Publication Date: April 19, 2022
Pages: 389
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Argyll, Scotland. July 1832. After a trying few months in Edinburgh, Kiera and her husband and investigative partner, Sebastian Gage, are eager to escape to the Highlands with their three-month-old child. Kiera is overjoyed for her cousin Rye and her detractor-turned-friend Charlotte who are being wed in a private ceremony at the estate of Rye’s great-uncle, the Marquess of Barbreck, in what seems to be the perfect wedding party.

But when Kiera is invited to peruse Barbreck’s extensive art collection, she is disturbed to discover that one of his most priceless paintings seems to be a forgery. The marquess’s furious reaction when she dares to mention it leaves her shaken and the entire house shocked. For it turns out that this is not the first time the word forgery has been uttered in connection with the Barbreck household.

Matters turn more ominous when a maid from a neighboring estate is found murdered where the forged painting hangs. Is her death connected to the forgeries, perhaps a grisly warning of what awaits those who dare to probe deeper? With unknown entities aligned against them, Kiera and Gage are forced to confront the fact that they may have underestimated their opponent. For they are swiftly made to realize that Charlotte’s and Rye’s future happiness is not the only issue at stake, and this stealthy game of cat and mouse could prove to have deadly consequences.


Well, that was, frankly, disappointing.  Even taking out of account the babbling about the baby, this just wasn’t anywhere near as good as her first 8 books were.  The potential was there – I really enjoyed the art forgery backdrop; that was genuinely interesting and really well done.  But the character development just wasn’t.

Huber seems to be stuck on a need to constantly give Kiera (and Gage, to a lesser extent) some kind of melodrama anxiety.  For the first 8 books it was the fallout from her late husband’s scandalous behaviour – and that worked well while it lasted.  Book 9 was a fantastically over the top drama about Kiera’s impending motherhood and how it would mix with their inquiry business.  This book, it was all about her mom, who died when she was 8, and someone’s attempt to gaslight her about it.  It was completely unnecessary to the plot, it was silly and it detracted from the story.

The plot of the murder was so tissue-thin transparent I can’t believe it got through a beta read.  I never once, for a second, doubted who the murderer was.  And the climax … oh the problems I had with the climax.  Huber broke the first rule every American is taught about handguns – you don’t carry one unless you’re prepared to use it.  She also tried to belie the adage “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight”.  It was preposterous, and the whole thing was unbelievable.  Which is a shame; written better, it would have been diabolical, as I’m certain she intended it to be.

I went with three stars, because I’d say I enjoyed about 50% of the story; the other half would have been better had it not been so over-written.  I think I’m still going to want to read the next one, but I am definitely not feeling the excited I previously felt for the newest release.

DNF: A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder

A Fiancée's Guide to First Wives and MurderA Fiancée's Guide to First Wives and Murder
by Dianne Freeman
Rating:
isbn: 9781496731609
Series: Countess of Harleigh Mystery #4
Publication Date: October 8, 2021
Pages: 295
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

For Frances Wynn, widow to the late Earl of Harleigh, life has a cosmopolitan flavor of late. No sooner has she sent her mother and daughter off on a shopping trip to Paris than she and her fiancé, George Hazleton, are socializing with visiting members of the Russian royal family. Yet amid this whirlwind, scandal also comes calling when Inspector Delaney turns up outside Frances's house with a young French woman with a shocking claim: she is Mrs. George Hazelton.

As the future Mrs. George Hazelton, Frances assumes the woman is either lying or demented. "Mrs. Hazelton," aka Irena, makes other outrageous statements. Among them, she insists that she is the illegitimate daughter of Russian royalty, that she has been abducted and held for ransom many times, and that someone is sending her threatening letters. When George arrives, he clarifies that he is certainly not married to Irena--though he can confirm her royal parentage. But even as he agrees to investigate whether Irena's life is in danger, her claim proves tragically true. Irena is found strangled in Frances' garden.

To uncover a killer--and clear their own names--Frances and George must determine which of Irena's outlandish stories were based in fact, and who stood to benefit from her death. And as the search reaches a shocking conclusion, they may find that villainy lurks all too close to home...


It’s rare that I DNF a book, and I enjoyed the first three of this series, but I got 45 pages in and … a big fat no.

I’m never going to be able to suspend my belief enough to read about a spoiled rotten by-blow of the Russian royal family who baldly lies about being the MC’s fiancé’s wife so she can blackmail him into investigating someone sending her letters.

In an age where a woman would be sent to a sanitarium for merely reading the wrong book, the idea that this silly child could successfully throw this tantrum and manipulate the main characters is beyond ridiculous.  I don’t care that she does end up dead, it’s a terrible, weak premise.

The Impossible Impostor (Veronica Speedwell, #7)

The Impossible ImpostorThe Impossible Impostor
by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593197295
Series: Veronica Speedwell Mystery #7
Publication Date: February 15, 2022
Pages: 327
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

London, 1889. Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian beau Stoker are summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Special Branch. He has a personal request on behalf of his goddaughter, Euphemia Hathaway. After years of traveling the world, her eldest brother, Jonathan, heir to Hathaway Hall, was believed to have been killed in the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa a few years before.

But now a man matching Jonathan’s description and carrying his possessions has arrived at Hathaway Hall with no memory of his identity or where he has been. Could this man truly be Jonathan, back from the dead? Or is he a devious impostor, determined to gain ownership over the family’s most valuable possessions—a legendary parure of priceless Rajasthani jewels? It’s a delicate situation, and Veronica is Sir Hugo’s only hope.

Veronica and Stoker agree to go to Hathaway Hall to covertly investigate the mysterious amnesiac. Veronica is soon shocked to find herself face-to-face with a ghost from her past. To help Sir Hugo discover the truth, she must open doors to her own history that she long believed to be shut for good.


Not every book in a series can be equally excellent, and while this one was good, it wasn’t nearly as good as the first 6.  I suppose it was inevitable that a story line about Veronica’s illustrious past came into play, but I think Raybourn could have done a better job than mirroring Veronica’s experiences with Stoker’s so predictably, and I found Veronica stewing in her own guilt and emotional angst unpalatable from such a normally headstrong and independent woman.  I know nobody can get through life without some naval gazing, but it’s not the stuff I generally tend to enjoy reading about.

I also found the ending way too convenient and tidy, and I particularly dislike that Raybourn seems to have plans to play one brother against the other in the next book.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book for the characters and once I got a few chapters in, I lost myself in the adventures, even if I found myself critical of them.  My problems with the story in no way diminishes my enthusiasm for the series nor my anticipation of the next book.

My … 10 days in reading? Part 2

The first half of my re-reading binge was inspired by Moonlight Reader’s comment in her posts about wanting to get back to reading Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series.  This is a series I’d gotten caught up in years ago, but abandoned for reasons I couldn’t remember.  She put the series back on my radar, and I got to wondering whether I could get caught up in it again, or if I should just mark that series as abandoned, so I had MT pull the 9 books I have down from the shelves and buried myself in 19th century England.

Rather than try to review all of the books again here, I’m just going to list the book and include a thought or two about each one.  Because this is still going to make for a physically long post, I put it behind a ‘read more’. Suffice it to say that the series was very hit and miss for me up through book 9.  I remember the qualities that drove me to set the series aside originally, but there is also a lot to like about them (most of them, anyway).  Will I continue?  I’m still not sure.  Maybe.  At least, I might try one more.

Continue reading My … 10 days in reading? Part 2

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (Her Royal Spyness, #15)

God Rest Ye, Royal GentlemenGod Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen
by Rhys Bowen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780440000082
Series: Royal Spyness #15
Publication Date: October 7, 2021
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

 

What to say?  This is one of Bowen’s books that has layers.  On the one hand, it’s very Christmassy, so it ticks that box; on the other hand, I was ready to say that the mystery really wasn’t much of a mystery.

The first half of the book focuses on Christmas at Sandringham, with casual mentions of accidental deaths that took place the year before on Boxing day.  Another death occurs half-way through the book that smacks of accidental death, even though readers know it won’t be.  But it’s not until the final 25% that the story gets really interesting.  The author takes the story in a direction I wouldn’t have said most cozy writers had the courage to go, and ends it in much the same way.  I liked it, and it bumped my rating .5 star.

It might have been a higher rating but the book wraps up with cliched character development.  I suppose it’s part of the natural order of things for most people, but I’ve rarely read murder mysteries that make procreation work to the advantage of the series.   I say rarely, but I can’t think of one mystery series that brought babies into the mix that I can do more than tolerate.

The author, as usual, involves a note at the end, detailing the parts of the story that are historically accurate and the parts where she mixed the real people with fictional events – I always appreciate these clarifications, because sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Murder at the Royal Botanic Garden’s (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

Murder at the Royal Botanic GardensMurder at the Royal Botanic Gardens
by Andrea Penrose
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781496732507
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #5
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a Countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?

Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go . . .


 

I still like this series, but what started out as a string of compelling mysteries is starting to lose its edge.  Blame it on the editor, reader feedback, or change of perspective on the part of the author, but the whole narrative has become entirely too idealistic to be reasonably realistic.  There was an excess of repetitive statements about the family you choose, the power of love, and an awful lot of lamenting over the death of an objectively heinous individual.  All of these ideals are wonderful and worth striving for, but considering the early 1800’s setting, I doubt very much they were worked quite so thoroughly into the mindset of anybody living at the time.  The result was a book that felt entirely too much like a religious genre novel.  Only with murder and (light) swearing.

What I did enjoy was the botanical setting of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and the impetus behind the plot being the race for a game-changing medicinal plant that enhances the effect of cinchona, or quinine, against malaria (plant being entirely fictional).  I really enjoyed the name drops of real historical figures, including Alexander von Humboldt – and was tickled to see the author recommend Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature in the story notes.

The plot was going rather well until I neared the end, when the author suddenly felt the need to work in a slave-trade angle that felt like a bolt from nowhere.  Looking at the story as a whole, it felt like the author needed to wrap up some loose ends from the previous book, needing to kill someone off while keeping the current book’s plot going.  I don’t know, but it just felt super clumsy.

I’ll read a 6th, should it appear, because I really do enjoy the cast of characters, but if this idealistic stuff continues to the point of incredulity, I’ll add this series to the “done for me” list.

Murder Most Fair (Verity Kent, #5)

Murder Most FairMurder Most Fair
by Anna Lee Huber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781496728494
Series: Verity Kent #5
Publication Date: August 31, 2021
Pages: 384
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

 

I think this book ended up with a 4 star rating because I liked the ending.  Looking back as I write this there were several things that probably put this more at 3.5 stars.

There were some editing issues; I’m pretty sure the German Aunt central to this plot started out being on Verity’s mother’s side (references to her mother’s German family) and then suddenly, she’s Verity’s father’s Aunt.

But mostly the story was just so melancholy.  It fits with the time period – post WWI – and all the books have been tinged with an appropriate air of pain, confusion and recovery, but Huber just piled on in this book.  We have the veterans trying to adjust to life after the trenches, we have Lord Ryder wallowing, passed-out drunk in the uncertainty that his father might not have been a loyal peer of the realm before his death, we have the culmination of a 5 year breach between Verity and her family, and Verity’s inability to confront her grief over the loss of one of her brothers during the war.  It’s all very heavy.

Buried underneath all this depressiveness is, actually, a really good mystery, albeit a very slow moving one under the weight of all the above, about the murder of her German Aunt’s personal maid, during a holiday gathering at the family estate in the Yorkshire Dales.  Huber touches on the bigotry in the aftermath of war, and the inability for some to differentiate between a person and a government.  It was a well-crafted plot, too, in that I should have seen the killer before I did, but missed it.

So, really probably a 3.5 star read, but laziness will keep it at 4.  A good story bogged down by what would be normally be compelling side lines on their own, but taken together felt altogether too depressing for a cozy mystery.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2021 and it fits the Country House Mystery square, as it’s set at the family estate in the Yorkshire Dales.

The Cannonball tree Mystery (Crown Colony, #5)

The Cannonball Tree MysteryThe Cannonball Tree Mystery
by Ovidia Yu
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781472132031
Series: Crown Colony Mystery #5
Publication Date: June 3, 2021
Pages: 313
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Constable

 

Blame it on being written, and punished during a pandemic, maybe, but this one wasn’t nearly as good as the last, The Mimosa Tree Mystery.  There were serious issues with editing and continuity, both within the story and with the overall series.  In the previous book, Hideki tells Su Lin her mother was the youngest of the cousins, but in this book he is said to have looked upon her as “an older sister or mother figure”.  The first murder victim in this book is the sister of Su Lin’s aunt by marriage, but the victim is referred to several times as Su Lin’s Aunt and as ‘being married to your uncle’.

There are at least half a dozen more instances where a character does or says something on one page and then is said to have said/done the exact opposite a page or two later.  I don’t know if this is poor story editing, or if it’s meant to reflect the hysteria of war time in an occupation where anybody could be shot for simply now bowing deeply enough.  If it’s the latter, then the editing still failed as the narrative left me confused about my confusion.

The storyline itself also failed to compete with the compelling storyline of Mimosa Tree, which involved war time codes, rebel forces, POW’s, treasures and a murder that happened just hours before the story started.  In this one, the first murder didn’t take place until well over 100 pages of household drama – pretty horrific household drama, I’ll grant, but overall, not worth the 100+ pages it was written on.  The last 200 pages have moments that are far more interesting, but not enough to really shine; I kept reading because I kept waiting for interesting things to happen, and they rarely did.

Most disappointing of all was the absence of Le Froy, a primary character of the series, obviously modelled after Sherlock Holmes.  While absent for 99% of Mimosa Tree he was a guiding and motivating force for Su Lin and the plot.  Here, his name was barely mentioned and only then in passing introspective thoughts.  It’s as if with the absence of Le Froy, the story – and the author – lost it’s focus, organisation, and its logic.

But then again, this book takes place in 1944, when the axis countries started to fall apart, and perhaps this books disorganisation is a reflection of the unraveling  of the Japanese Empire towards the end.  Who knows?  I only know it wasn’t nearly as good a story as I know the author is capable of.

 

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2021.  I’m using it for my Truly Terrifying square by invoking my Amplification spell card.  Ovidia Yu is a Singaporean author and qualifies as a diverse voice from an historically marginalised community.

The Mimosa Tree Mystery (Crown Colony, #4)

The Mimosa Tree MysteryThe Mimosa Tree Mystery
by Ovidia Yu
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781472132024
Series: Crown Colony Mystery #4
Publication Date: June 4, 2020
Pages: 311
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Constable

 

Even though I’ve enjoyed the previous three entries in this series, I hesitated over this one.  The first three were pre-WWII, but The Mimosa Tree Mystery moves the series into Japanese occupied Singapore.  I couldn’t see how Yu would be able to write a story that maintained the gentility of a traditional mystery in the middle of a Japanese occupied war-torn setting and maintain any semblance of authenticity.

Yu not only managed, she outdid her previous efforts.  There’s no sugar-coating the atrocities perpetuated by the Japanese during that time – Su Lin and her family are Chinese, and the story starts in the middle of a roundup into a killing field – but by focusing on Su Lin and the murder mystery the author avoids the story being overwhelmed by the horror of the times.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this story.  I liked the previous ones, but I had a hard time becoming invested in the characters.  This time around it wasn’t a problem – the story was riveting enough and the pace fast enough that whether I became wholly invested in the characters didn’t matter.  My only complaint was the denouement scene.  I understand that the point was the murderer wasn’t rational, but Yu did the job too well and it became extraordinarily difficult to follow along with who supposedly was working with whom and who ordered what, etc.  It was a small thing in the overall enjoyment of the story, but it was at the end, so it stuck.

I now find myself eager to dive into the next book, The Cannonball Tree Mystery to find out what happens next with Su Lin, her family, and (former) detective, now POW, Le Froy.

 

I read this for 2021 Halloween Bingo.  It fits the Tropical Terror square rather well, as it is set in Singapore (Tropical) during the WWII Japanese occupation (Terror).