Duck the Halls by Donna Andrews
This is a fun, fast-paced cozy holiday mystery. Meg Langslow and her husband Michael are busy preparing for Christmas with their 4-year-old twin boys and extended family in their small college town. Michael and Meg’s brother Rob are new volunteer firefighters and start getting paged to calls at local churches. One church has skunks; another has a small fire, while a third building has been filled with ducks. Meg is given the job of re-scheduling the various choir practices, nativity plays, and church services while looking for the culprit. A temperamental choir director almost puts Meg out of commission with a dislocated shoulder, and Meg’s mother is going overboard with holiday decorations. Michael is preparing for a one-man Christmas Carol reading for charity, while the little boys provide comic relief. Their days are hectic and tiring, and they long for a traditional holiday dinner with just their boys.
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
In wintry Three Pines, bookseller and retired psychologist Myrna is worried when her friend Constance doesn’t arrive for a Christmas visit. She reaches out to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec for help. Gamache and Inspector Isabelle Lacoste find that Constance Pineault, 79, has been killed at her home in Montréal. When Myrna reveals Constance’s true identity as the last of the Ouellet Quintuplets, the mystery is only beginning. At the Sûreté, things are not well. Most of Gamache’s homicide department has been reassigned, and he’s thinking of announcing his retirement. Jean Guy, his assistant, is desperately unhappy and is working for Gamache’s nemesis, Superintendent Francoeur, who may be involved in a dangerous conspiracy. As Gamache and Lacoste race to solve one mystery, other friends are looking for information on what Francoeur is plotting, and retreat to Three Pines for safety, possibly jeopardizing everyone in the small village. Gamache knows that the danger could come from young Agent Yvette Nichol, needed for her computer skills. Eccentric poet Ruth Zardo plays a larger role than usual, along with her pet duck, Rosa. The story of the quintuplets and their parents is fascinating, and a nice contrast to the tension of the unfolding conspiracy. I listened to the audiobook, recorded by Ralph Cosham, and both couldn’t wait to find out what happened and hoped the book would never end, and with it, another treasured visit to Three Pines. This may be the best book yet in the award-winning series that begins with Still Life.
Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman
In Anne Hillerman’s debut Leaphorn and Chee Novel; the story begins with a bang. An unidentified attacker shoots retired Navajo Nation police lieutenant, Joe Leaphorn, outside of his favorite café. Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito comes to his aid and promises Leaphorn that she will bring the perpetrator to justice. This is a difficult thing to do, because police protocol requires that she be removed from the case as a means to protect her from any further mental and emotional trauma. Jim Chee, Leaphorn’s protégée and truly his next of kin, is assigned the case and together he and his determined wife Bernie (who is unstoppable) set to work. As the plot thickens, someone who had been trusted by Leaphorn, Bernie, and Chee disappears and then becomes suspect in the eyes of the department. Some other people, who had been long gone from Leaphorn’s life, resurface. These comings and goings leave readers wondering if ever the two paths shall meet and will that provide answers to whodunit-who shot Leaphorn! Additionally, new characters have been thrown into the mix that are either a digression, or a lead, in Bernie and Chee’s investigation, which they logically solve by the story’s end.
It is difficult to not compare Anne Hillerman’s work to that of her award winning father, Tony Hillerman. Her father wrote the first eighteen novels in this popular Leaphorn and Chee Novel series beginning in 1970 and ending in 2006. He passed away in 2008. Like Tony Hillerman’s stories, Anne Hillerman’s book is intriguing, character driven, has multiple plots, simple dialogue, and includes only mild violence. Anne Hillerman’s story also creates a strong sense of place (in this case, New Mexico and in particular, sacred places such as Chaco Canyon). Her first novel offers historical detail and several descriptions of indigenous beliefs, much as her father’s novels do—only here, readers may find it refreshing that the point of view is that of a woman and the focus is on the female traditions of her Nation.
For those of you who think about the author as you read, you may find yourself confused as to whether or not this is Anne Hillerman’s, or her father’s voice, because overall she seamlessly continues his tradition of great storytelling. At other times, you may feel certain that this is the storytelling voice of Anne Hillerman, whose main protagonist, Bernie, encapsulates what it is to be a strong woman who must balance her professional and personal life. Bernie is a descendant of weavers. She is the Spider Woman’s Daughter, a nickname her mother has proudly given her. Perhaps, Anne Hillerman is also the Spider Woman’s Daughter—someone who “helps with life’s unexpected complications, untangling messy situations.” For when fans of Tony Hillerman’s books worried if their favorite stories had ended, the talented writer Anne Hillerman came through and she delivered an enjoyable and satisfying continuation in this series!
Readers of this fictional series may also enjoy High Country by Nevada Barr (set in breathtaking Yosemite National Park this modern murder mystery transports readers to the American West)
Blackening Song by Aimee and David Thurlo (the first in a mystery series set in the Southwest that features Ella Clah, a Navajo FBI agent who struggles with traditional and modern Navajo pressures)
White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones (the first in the Nathan Active mystery series that features an Alaskan state trooper who was born Inupiat, but raised white. Nathan has returned to his birthplace on a work assignment and finds himself caught between two worlds)
Discover more on the author’s website.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
From the title, this sounds like a dark book, and it is. A combination of horror and mystery, the novel is centered around the activities of Stanilas Cordova, a genius movie director, who produced a limited and very notorious group of films made in the seventies and eighties that were so malevolent and disturbing that they were banned from being viewed in theaters and thus could only be seen through special viewings set up by his cult of followers, called Cordovites. These viewings took place in hidden underground venues. The movies were produced on Cordova’s secluded and highly secure residence, surrounded by an twenty foot high impenetrable concrete barrier. All the actors are hired not so much for their talent as their ability to keep a secret. Cordova has not given an interview or been seen in thirty years. There are rumors that these movies Cordova has been making are “snuff” films” but there is no evidence.
The plot begins with the suicide of Stanilas’s daughter, Ashley Cordova, a gorgeous, brilliant child and a piano prodigy. Scott McGrath, a veteran journalist, suspects that Ashley’s death is not a suicide, and with two young people who knew Ashley intimately, sets out to discover the “Truth”. As they probe deeper into the Oeuvre of the secretive director, the trail leads through depraved night clubs, secluded apartment buildings and ultimately to The Peak, the mystery shrouded Adirondack estate of Cordova, which has been long been abandoned.
The book is full of page turning excitement, and not a few dark gruesome scenes. However the end of the book resembles Captain Willard’s search for the enigmatic Colonel Kurtz in the movie “Apocalypse Now”. Can the true horror of people ever be known. As Colonel Kurtz says at the end of the movie, “The Horror, the Horror”.
Death of a Dyer by Eleanor Kuhns
Will Rees has returned to his farm near Dugard, Maine. A traveling weaver since his wife’s death years ago, he has learned that his farm and his son David were neglected by his sister and brother-in-law. Now teenage David is basically running the farm while Will prepares to set up his loom, and former Shaker Lydia Jane is the new housekeeper. Will has strong feelings for Lydia, but isn’t ready to commit to marriage yet, so she lives in a cottage on the farm, and they try to avoid company. While serving in the Continental Army, Will learned he had a talent for solving crimes, demonstrated in the first book in the series, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. When his childhood friend Nate Bowditch is killed, lawyer George Potter tells Will that Nate’s wife Molly would like him to clear her son Richard of suspicion of murder. The investigation pays for help with the harvest and in the kitchen, so Will is free to travel by wagon and investigate. He learns that Nate was greatly changed from the last time Will saw him, and preferred to live in a weaving cottage on his farm, researching dyes yet neglecting his family, and he also gambled. Richard has disappeared, but his half-brother, son of a slave, is also a suspect, and Will protects him from slave catchers. Many secrets in the Maine community of Dugard are unearthed, and Will’s life is threatened more than once. Reluctantly, he accepts Lydia’s help in his investigation, and even David’s input as well. Will and David have a complicated relationship that feels authentic. The late 18th century small town Maine setting is refreshingly different, and appealing. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Richard Waterhouse, and didn’t want the story to end. Lydia and Will are excellent company, and I hope for many more mysteries for them to solve.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
I was inspired to read Jim Butcher’s first book, entitled “Storm Front” in his Dresden Files Series, after a friend excitedly introduced me to the main character, Harry Dresden–wizard extraordinaire! I am now a fan and am sure to read more in this series. Thrillers with car chase scenes just don’t grab me the way a giant scorpion (“an orthopod version of Frankenstein’s monster”) chasing a wizard does. I read this book on audio and the narrator James Marsters sounds as smooth as Butcher’s portrayal of Dresden. While this book didn’t center too much on the Chicago landscape, the series overall does. I think I’ll enjoy that aspect of the other novels that I’ll eventually get to. Some of the most pivotal points in the story take place outside of the city at a lakefront home where Harry Dresden confronts dark magic in an effort to solve two converging mysteries. The first case is of a missing person and the second is of a baffling killing spree, in which the murderer left a distinct signature mark. Lieutenant Murphy of the Chicago PD Special Investigation Unit suspects that only Dresden, her trusted wizard friend and private investigative colleague, can offer insight to this grisly case.
Other suggested audio reads of dark fantasy that has lighthearted, witty humor mixed in are Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys,” read by Lenny Henry who is superb at speaking with multiple dialects. Jim Dale’s reading of the J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” audiobook series is also intense and versatile.
The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Natural history fans that are willing to suspend their beliefs and delve into the supernatural world, mixed with some horror, may really enjoy this fast paced and entertaining thriller. FBI Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, a rather dark, yet nonthreatening and serene character, persuades archaeologist Dr. Nora Kelly to suspend her work at the American Museum of Natural History in order to help him investigate the mysterious serial killings from 130 years ago that have just come to light. Pendergast, Kelly, and William Smithback (Kelly’s boyfriend, a journalist for the New York Times) become obsessed with solving this historical case once they become certain that recent, similarly gruesome serial killings are related. As the plot thickens and the investigation goes beyond their wildest expectations, their own lives are threatened by what appears to be a mad scientist who is hell-bent on concocting an elixir for the greater good of mankind even if it means torturing innocent, human beings. At the beginning of the book, I skeptically focused on the stereotypical attributes that the characters were assigned—yet the fast pace and natural history theme kept me engaged. Almost seamlessly, the characters were later developed into complex beings that I didn’t want to leave behind when I set my book down for the day. Although the story involves the supernatural, the twists and turns that take place as new evidence is introduced during the investigation make perfect sense and chances are you will not be disappointed in the story’s end. Terms that best describe this book are: page-turner; character driven; and conclusive. Readers of this fantasy, investigative series may also enjoy the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, or if the fictional interplay between different centuries and the archaeological aspect intrigues you, give Timeline by Michael Crichton a try.
Discover more on the authors’ website.
The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie
Juggling a blended household and their jobs at Scotland Yard is challenging for Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. It’s Duncan’s turn to go on leave and take care of Charlotte, their young foster daughter. Weekend plans are put on hold when Gemma is called to a hotel in South London where a lawyer has been killed, along with Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot. When their colleague Doug Cullen falls off a ladder, Melody and Duncan both pitch in, but when Melody falls for Andy, a young musician with a troubled past, it complicates the case, especially when another lawyer is killed. The mix of police work and juggling responsibilities at home make for an appealing mystery. As we learn about Andy’s background, the connections between the killings starts to become clear. The first book in the series is A Share in Death, but I find that this series has gotten even more interesting, as the characters develop and change from book to book. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, narrated by Gerard Doyle.
Murder Past Due by Miranda James
I was happy to discover a cozy mystery featuring a cat and a librarian that I enjoyed. I do enjoy a couple of series featuring cats, including Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series and Rita Mae Brown’s Sneaky Pie series, but many others just don’t appeal to me. Widower Charlie Ward has inherited his aunt’s large house in Athena, Mississippi, and lives there with his Maine Coon cat Diesel and a couple of college student boarders. Charlie works part-time at the college library, working as an archivist, and volunteers at the public library. Diesel, who walks on a lease, gets to come to work with him. Bestselling thriller writer Godfrey Priest is in town, and Charlie is surprised to get a visit from his former classmate. Godfrey wants to donate his notes and manuscripts to the college, and to get Charlie’s help in meeting his boarder Justin. Godfrey has just learned that he is Justin’s father. Justin’s mother Julia is not happy that Godfrey wants to take his son to California with him.
Later, a body is found in the local hotel. Charlie and his cat investigate, turning up secrets all over town. I found Charlie and Diesel to be good company, and plan to read the next book in the series, Classified as Murder. Miranda James is a pen name for librarian/writer Dean James.
Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore
Necromancy isn’t pretty. That’s probably why we don’t see many characters who practice it. Most of them are villains who are expected to do terrible things. The occasional good guy who uses necromancy usually just talks to the dead with the occasional raising of an individual. In Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore, the main character shows that necromancy isn’t necessarily evil but it’s not for the squeamish.
Eric Carter was born with a knack for the dead that set him apart even in his magical family and community. His parents were murdered when he was a young adult and Eric killed their killer. He fled his L.A. home and left his younger sister behind to be taken care of by a friend. He spent the next 15 years learning more about his magic and never setting down roots. He regularly converses ghosts, occasionally visits the dead side of things which is dangerous for humans no matter what their power over the dead, and gets dead things to stop hurting the living. What he hasn’t done is thought much about what he left behind. When his sister is murdered, he’s pulled back to L.A. where he finds out the people he cared about have moved on. Two of his old friends are ready to help him out despite his abandoning them, but it’s not so easy for Eric. Neither is figuring out how to get rid of the man he thought he killed before he left.
Dead Things has been recommended to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. It has the same noir feel to it (Eric gets beat up just as badly as Harry does) and lots of magic being thrown around. The action is intense. There’s a lot of introspection but Eric sees a lot more grey in the world than Harry does.
This book gave me two things I’ve been looking for: a protagonist who’s motivated more by justice than strict morals, and necromancy being used to do more than just talk to the dead or raise armies of zombies. It’s not clear if this is the first in a series and I think I’m okay with this. As much as I enjoyed the read, it’s a very intense and dark world that may work better as an occasional side-trip than a regular destination.