I’ve long enjoyed reading and listening to the Charles Lenox Victorian mystery series by Charles Finch, and this prequel is a great entry into the series. Set in London and Kent in 1853, gentleman Charles Lenox, 26, along with his valet Graham, is learning to be a private detective, even though he doesn’t need to charge for his services. His good friend, Lady Jane, lives next door and supports his new endeavor. The Vanishing Man of the title could refer to two mysteries; the theft of a portrait of a former duke and the disappearance of the current Duke of Dorset, whose London mansion is close to Parliament and the Thames River. Lenox is in search of both, and an even more intriguing mystery relating to William Shakespeare. I enjoy the audiobook narration of James Langton, as well as a strong sense of place, very appealing main characters, and a clever plot. Recommended for historical mystery readers and Anglophiles. The first prequel is The Woman in the Water, and the first book in the main series is A Beautiful Blue Death.
Actor and film producer Reese Witherspoon has written a love letter to life in the south. Reese grew up in Nashville, where she learned to enjoy music, food, and holidays, and learned the importance of manners and community. I listened to the audiobook, cozily narrated by the author, and glanced at the photos and recipes included as a document on one of the discs. Many of the recipes are from her grandmother Dorothea who was an inspiration to Reese on how southern women can be strong and beautiful. Menu suggestions for all kinds of celebrations and events are included, from a Kentucky Derby party to a book club gathering, along with music playlists and gift suggestions (especially monogrammed items or cake plates). Reese talks about her happy childhood, how she learned that you don’t have to be good at everything or bake from scratch, but be sure to be hospitable, respectful, and have some fun, maybe even catch some frogs. This is a charming, family-friendly look at southern life.
For lighter reading, I enjoy cozy and historical mysteries, often as audiobooks. Here are some recent reads you may enjoy:
The Christmas Cake Murder, by Joanne Fluke is a prequel to the popular cozy Cookie Jar mystery series set in small town Minnesota. This is a good place to begin the long-running series, before Hannah opens her bakery and acquires a cat and two boyfriends. It’s great fun reading about how Hannah and her family get started as amateur sleuths. Recipes are also included.
Toucan Keep a Secret, by Donna Andrews. Meg Langslow is locking up Trinity Episcopal Church one night while her pastor is on maternity leave and hears a disturbance behind the building. Meg’s large extended family in Caerphilly, Virginia all help solve crimes in this very funny series that’s up to 23 books and counting.
The Darling Dahlias and the Poinsettia Puzzle by Susan Wittig Albert. This historical series is set during the Depression in Alabama, with the members of the local garden club working together to solve crimes. In this book, there are hints of corruption out at the local prison camp, and little Cupcake, Violet’s adopted daughter, might be taken away. Liz Lacey, part-time legal secretary and secret novelist, has a possible beau or two. I think it’s fine to start with any book in this series.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women, by Emily Brightwell is a recent book in another series that doesn’t need to be read in order. The servants and neighbors of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Witherspoon investigate behind the scenes and give their information to housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries and Constable Barnes. The group has solved many mysteries, but their latest case is six weeks old and may interfere with plans for the Christmas holiday.
Two coworkers unknowingly connect on a dating website and start chatting online daily. Merry Knight is a data entry temp at a Seattle firm, saving money to finish college. Due to a human resources mistake, her name tag says Mary. Jason Bright, nicknamed Jay, is a vice-president in his uncle’s firm, and isn’t very nice when asking data entry staff to work overtime or take down holiday decorations. Jay/Jason was a lonely rich kid sent to boarding schools and summer camps; his cousin Cooper is his only friend. Merry/Mary lives with her parents and adores her 18-year-old brother Patrick, who has Down Syndrome. Merry’s love for Christmas is contagious, but things go badly when the online pair agree to meet in person. I enjoyed the narration of the audiobook by Em Eldridge, with alternating chapters from his and her points of view, but it was confusing telling Mary and Merry apart. Light and cozy, this is a charming holiday read.
Growing up on a family apple orchard in Wisconsin, Mary Frances Lombard wants everything to stay the same. Her beloved father Jim and his cousin Sherwood will have big arguments twice a year, and their families will never get together at holidays. The scary Aunt May Hill will continue to fix the equipment and the hay will always get stacked in the barn before a storm comes. And most importantly, Mary Frances and her brother William, who loves video games and computers as well as harvesting apples, will run the orchard when they grow up. If her librarian mother makes her go to drama camp, she won’t speak to her, but will participate in the drill cart team. Mary Frances (or Frankie, Francie, Marlene, or M.F.) is quite dramatic enough without going to camp, especially when she competes with cousin Amanda in a geography bee. Readers of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries will enjoy getting to know Mary Frances. I liked getting to know the eccentric members of the Lombard family, but I wanted to read about what happens next for Mary Frances and the orchard. I listened to the audiobook, and enjoyed the different voices Erin Cottrell used for each character.
Although this is the 20th book in the Phryne Fisher series, this mystery could be a fine place to start. The books are set in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and the city is vividly described. Asked by Detective Jack Robinson to help investigate the murder of a choir director, Phryne joins the choir, which is preparing to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah. During rehearsals, lunches, and parties thrown by the flamboyant soloist “Auntie” Mark, Phryne considers the possible suspects. In a parallel story, Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician in town to give lectures on the science of deduction has had some close calls. Phryne dislikes the very arrogant Sheffield, but his assistant, Dr. John Wilson, was a dear friend of hers in World War I, where she drove an ambulance and he was a medic. The reader learns that not only is Sheffield a former intelligence agent for MI6, but so is Phryne. Phryne’s assorted household, including the dog, helps with the two cases, and Phryne plays matchmaker for Dr. Wilson. Phryne and her friends are always good company, and so is the choir. I was even inspired to listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Stephanie Daniel. The print book will be coming out in May, several month after being published in Australia.
The summer of 1927 in America was a momentous one, wonderfully recounted by Bill Bryson. Readers will be amazed, informed, and entertained. The most exciting event was the successful flight of Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in May. Many others attempted to fly across the Atlantic; most failed. Lindbergh, 25, became an instant celebrity; the last thing he wanted. His visit to New York City of his return to receive a medal was broadcast on radio nationwide.
In the most catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River in history, over 700,000 American were displaced, but no federal funds were provided. Herbert Hoover was sent to oversee relief efforts, helping him get elected President the next year. “Silent Cal” Coolidge spent three month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, fishing and wearing a cowboy outfit, and declined to run for re-election as President. The carving of Mt. Rushmore began.
Sports and theater captured America’s attention in 1927. Large and elaborate movie and Broadway theaters were built, hundreds of silent movies were filmed and Broadway shows with huge casts were popular. Al Jolson spoke on screen in the first “talkie”. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led the New York Yankees in a record-breaking season. The Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney boxing match was a huge event.
In 1927, crime also fascinated America. Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were put on trial, Al Capone’s Chicago outfit brought in more than $100 million, and the Snyder-Gray murder trial got more publicity than the Mississippi River flood. All told, the summer of 1927 was quite memorable.
The audiobook is narrated by Bryson, an excellent narrator.
Never Go Back is good advice for Jack Reacher, though he’s unlikely to take it. This is the fourth book connected to the events in 61 Hours, a great place to start reading the Jack Reacher thrillers. There are now eighteen books in the series, plus a couple of short stories. Reacher has finally made it from South Dakota to the Washington, D. C. area to meet Susan Turner, the voice on the other end of the phone in the previous books. Major Turner has Reacher’s old job as commanding officer of the 110th Military Police unit. Oddly, but not coincidentally, Turner has been arrested just before he arrives, and Reacher is recalled to military service and threatened with a very old crime and a paternity suit. He’s innocent of one and curious about the other, although I kept thinking the paternity suit could have been settled quite easily. I also wondered about the irregular recall to the army. The army brass thinks he’ll run, but Reacher is more interested in proving Turner’s innocence and concerned about the incompetence of her temporary replacement. He and Turner head to Los Angeles for answers, with soldiers in hot pursuit. For most of the book, it reads more like a mystery than a thriller, with little violence until action kicks into high gear, with Susan Turner along for Reacher’s quest for answers and justice. Dick Hill is the excellent narrator for the Reacher audiobooks.
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.
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.