Posts Tagged mystery

book review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

RATING: ****/5*

Although I read this back in March, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone makes the ideal summer read with its dreamy, cinematic imagery. It reminds me of Jane Campion’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s part mystery and part coming-of-age story.

Raised by religious, strict parents, the three Apfel sisters disappear one summer in Australia in 1992—“We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn’t the one we were trying to recall to begin with.” Were they killed or did they run away? Tikka Malloy was 11 years old in 1992. She and her sister were best friends with the Van Apfel sisters. Tikka returns home because her sister has been diagnosed with cancer. The never-solved disappearance of Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia Van Apfel 20 years ago still haunts Tikka and her sister.

This area of Australia seems one in which children got easily get lost—“Back in those days the valley had only been developed in pockets. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered out again, but the real excavation world had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. The valley was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbacks, and tea trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dogroses and gums of every kind—woolybutts, blackbutts, bogongs, blue mallets, swamp mallets and craven grey boxes, right up to the anemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.”

Tikka recalls that summer and the sisters. The Van Apfel family has plenty of dark secrets. Maybe these memories of this friendship and growing up will mean something now to adult Tikka that she’d never recognized as a child. The father seems to have most difficulty controlling middle-sister Cordelia, the most beautiful of the sisters and the most independent. That summer, Cordelia falls out of a tree and breaks her arm. That summer, a new male teacher, named Mr. Avery, arrives at their school. He’s the only male teacher. When Cordelia sleepwalks one night, Mr. Avery brings her back home. She’s only wearing her swimming outfit. Cordelia often talks about getting away from her father. She has a plan to leave.

Then there’s Mr. Van Apfel and his suspicious behavior. He seemed to have the most problems with Cordelia. He cruelly killed her pet mice by pouring bleach on them. Another time, when Cordelia was bathing, Mr. Van Apfel held her head under water “to cast away all her sins. Swimming costume sins. Sleepwalking sins. (Cold-car-engines-in-red-hatchbacks sins.) He was careful to keep her cast arm dry, and it protruded like a plaster periscope. While the rest of her shameful body was submerged and washed clean. Baptism among the bath salts and bubbles.” There’s this particularly creepy memory. On the last day of school, Mr. Van Apfel tells Tikka that Cordelia and Ruth aren’t feeling well and won’t be going. She notices that the seats are folded down in the back of the car and she sees “three long black bags zipped securely to the top.” Chills.

Nuanced and more of a character study and a contemplation on memory and experience, it’s quite the page-turner.

–review by Amy Steele


I received this book for review from Algonquin.



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book review: The Gates of Evangeline

gates of evangeline

The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young. G.P. Putnam’s Sons| September 2015| 416 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 9780399174001

RATING: ****/5*

“The last few days at Evangeline, I’ve accomplished little. I’ve met most of the staff, but no one’s warmed to me like Leeann. They see me for what I am, a college-educated woman from the Northeast out for dirt on the rich people they serve. Why would they trust me?”

New York journalist Charlotte “Charlie” Cates recently lost her young son. He died at three years old from a brain aneurysm. Charlie recently gets messages from children in danger either dying or dead or maybe not. She’s really not sure. She just knows she must travel to Louisiana after a vision she gets about a boy in a swamp. She thinks perhaps she can solve this decades old case. She leaves the fancy magazine Sophisticate for which she works and takes a book assignment about a wealthy, eccentric family and the never solved disappearance of a young child. It’s a cool Southern Gothic. Maybe because the main character is a New Yorker. There’s humor and truth in Charlie: “I blink, trying not to convey my horror. War of Northern Aggression? Is that what they call the Civil War down here? She describes her office environment at the glossy magazine thus: “I work with a lot of women. There’s a handful of gay men, and probably a straight guy buried somewhere in the ranks, but for the most part, Sophisticate runs on a very specific type of estrogen: bitchy, hypereducated New Yorker.” On her attraction to Noah, a landscaper working at the estate: “Any way you slice it, Noah’s an unpredictable choice. I’m an overeducated, liberal New Yorker. Noah doesn’t even have a college degree. He’s from Texas. He wears cowboy boots and probably owns guns Ten to one he’s a Republican.” Solid, expressive, visual writing. Wonderful characters. Exceptional setting – a bit dark, rich in history–and premise. Charlie is cool because she’s this educated New Yorker in a small town in the South. While it could’ve easily been a predictable city girl finds herself in the country story, Charlie’s enterprising and open attitude makes this novel work. Perhaps since she’s willing to examine elements others might avoid. It’s a perfect Halloween/fall/winter read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Putnam.

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The Other Woman: book review

The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Publisher: Forge (September 4, 2012). Mystery/thriller. Hardcover. 416 pages. ISBN 978-0-7653-3257-8.

Every time I review a mystery, I say that I don’t read that many mysteries and it’s true. Of the 60-100 books I read each year, only about 10% are mystery/thrillers. One of my favorite mysteries ever is The Street Lawyer by John Grisham. I lived in D.C. for one happy year while attending graduate J-school at the University of Maryland at College Park. I spend a ton of time exploring D.C. and not just the touristy places but Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle and downtown clubs etc. Grisham’s writing deftly took me back to all those places. I mention this because author Hank Phillippi Ryan fails to illustrate Boston for the reader.

Her novel could’ve been in any city. At the end she states that she “tweaked” some of Boston’s geography to protect the “innocent.” I don’t approve. There’s no need. Why can’t Mt. Auburn Cemetery be mentioned or certain well-known streets? She’d go from reporter Jane Ryland’s Corey Road apartment [a real Brookline street] to some made up streets. It all rather confused me. The novel would’ve been all that much better if she’d detailed Boston. Phillippi Ryan certainly knows Boston and could have energized it. Instead Boston becomes a dry and rather bland city that no one would even want to visit. What’s the point in even setting it here? Make up the city altogether then. Either fictionalize it all or none of it. It’s confusing to go back and forth.

The Other Woman is a fantastic mystery layered with nuances and new developments. It starts with several unsolved murders by bridges along the Charles River. Reporter Jane Ryland, who used to be a hotshot TV reporter, made a dire mistake in protecting a source who then disappeared. Ryland looked wrong. She lost her prestigious post. Now she works at a newspaper. She’s trying to make that a success and regain respect among her peers. It’s campaign season and her editor assigned her a fluff piece about a Senate hopeful’s wife. As a seasoned investigative reporter Ryland sees more to the story. She focuses in on “the other woman” she sees in some campaign pictures. Throughout the case and the novel, the other woman shifts and Phillippi Ryan’s taut first-rate thriller keeps the reader guessing. My only other concern for future novels, besides the setting, is that Phillippi Ryan focuses on character development. We really didn’t learn that much about Jane or her crush/cop friend Jake. If the reader isn’t invested in Jane Ryland it won’t matter how fascinating the next case.

FTC Disclosure: I received this for review from the publisher.

The Other Woman
by Hank Phillippi Ryan

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A Cup Full of Midnight: book review

A Cup Full of Midnight by Jaden Terrell. Publisher: The Permanent Press (August 2012). Mystery/thriller. Hardcover. 288 pages. ISBN 978-1-57962-225-1.

The photo showed a naked young man stretched across a pentagram drawn in blood. His own blood, according to the lab results. Drawn postmortem, though how you could sacrifice a guy who’d already bled out was beyond me.

Nashville. Horses. Country music. Murder? It worked in Jaden Terrell’s debut and it works in her second novel A Cup Full of Midnight. Welcome back private investigator Jared McKean, a sensitive tough guy which should appeal to a wide swath of readers. His housemate has AIDS, his son has Down’s Syndrome, he’s divorced, loves his ex and respects his ex’s new husband and new situation. He likes to ride his horse in his down time. He’s been a decent advisor/ father-figure to his teenaged gay nephew Josh.

Unfortunately his nephew’s been involved with a much older man, Sebastian Parker. Twice his age. Not really the best first relationship for a confused teen who’s just dealing with coming out to his parents while establishing his individuality and sense of self-worth. All the confusing things teens go through anyway. Then to be preyed on by a more experienced older man promulgates his issues with his parents. Draws a wedge between them. Josh recently broke up with this guy who apparently was a vampire.

Josh attempted suicide by slitting his wrists in a warm tub of water. Jared found him in time. Now Josh wants his uncle to find out who murdered his former lover-boyfriend. Of course Jared will do anything for his nephew if only to protect his nephew from further harm and hurting himself anymore.

Author Jaden Terrell takes the reader on a twisted ride through Nashville’s darker streets and seedier lifestyles in which people think they’re vampires and witches and demons. In practicing these dark arts what do these people intend to accomplish? Why did Sebastian Parker end up killed as he did? Is Jaden’s nephew involved? Is he in further danger? Plenty of details and descriptions take you right inside the ritualistic alliance. Terrific characters and a disturbing mystery makes for a solid summer page-turner.

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Death in a Wine Dark Sea: book review

Death in a Wine Dark Sea by Lisa King. Publisher: The Permanent Press (June 22, 2012). Mystery/suspense. Hardcover. 352 pages. ISBN 978-1-57962-282-4.

After her best friend’s much older and rather shady husband, millionaire Martin Wingo, goes missing [and shortly turns up dead] aboard a yacht immediately following the wedding, wine columnist Jean Ahlquist becomes engulfed in the mystery despite her dislike for the groom. She’s doing it for her friend and to satiate her own curiosity. She didn’t particularly care for the arrogant Wingo and his less than legitimate business dealings. The opinionated, independent Jean joins up with Wingo’s former techie, the very young and super geeky Zeppo. The two are a strange pair but it works. As they connect the pieces, their own lives become imperiled.

The best aspect of Death in a Wine Dark Sea is that Jean is strong and unconventional. She’s Mad Men’s Peggy in Joan’s body. I really enjoyed the main characters. The mystery revolved around too many subjects—business associates, ex-wives, mistresses and then once the reader finds out about Zeppo’s past that gets brought in– and it became confusing at times.

I just kept reading and it all worked out in the end without having to flip back and forth too often. Luckily I wanted to know what happened. I wanted Jean to get to the truth. I wanted to see how she’d fare in the end. I became invested in Jean’s journey from the beginning which is part of the secret to creating a quality character. I’ve found that if I don’t stress too much then it all unravels if there’s a skilled writer behind the story. Author Lisa King certainly holds a lot of promise in the mystery genre. If you’re a wine connoisseur or enjoy the occasional glass of wine, you’ll find it ludicrous or delightful as everything Jean eats gets paired with wine illuminated with commentary.

purchase at Amazon: Death in a Wine Dark Sea

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The Lies Have It: book review

The Lies Have It , by Jill Edmondson. Publisher: Iguana (November 2011). Mystery. Paperback, p. 252

Ex-band-member [who still happily drums in her spare time or to let off steam] turned PI Sasha Jackson ends up with the case of a murdered BDSM party organizer. The leather, whips, chains and lace type of affair. Sasha works the party with her friend Jessica. Early the next morning, someone shoots and kills an assless-chaps-wearing Ian. The bar’s owner asks Sasha to look into the case as he fears a decline in business. Did Ian’s BDSM lifestyle turn too violent and out of control or did something else happen? After some digging, resourceful Sasha finds that Toronto politics and kinky sex parties collide.

Edmondson thoroughly researches whatever she focuses on for the case. She describes Toronto like someone who lives in Toronto and loves Toronto. The good areas and the not so good areas. By reading a Sasha Jackson mystery the reader gets a true sense of place.

Toronto has some nice stretches of waterfront. Ashbridge’s Bay and Scarborough Bluffs in the east end are lovely, and Harbourfront, at the base of downtown, is pretty and vibrant, especially in summertime.

I’m not the typical mystery reader who reads mysteries the majority of the time and frequents the mystery section of the bookstores or library. I enjoy every John Grisham and the occasional Harlen Coben page-turner. It’s diverting to read a mystery to stir things up a bit. Author Jill Edmondson created a great character in Sasha Jackson. This makes me want to keep reading. Sasha keeps me in the pages. She’s honest, gutsy, liberal and independent (despite living at home with her brother and father). I can relate to her in so many ways. Other ways (her excessive drinking) I can’t.

This time around, Sasha seems quite hung up on attorney Derek. He’s out of town on a case but every time she mentions him she softens a bit too much for my liking. She also makes a point to state that she can still flirt with other men, appreciate good-looking guys etc. But I didn’t completely believe the Sasha-is-still-as-independent-minded-with-Derek-as-without. Or maybe just in a steady relationship as not in one. Of course I’m not suggesting that feminists don’t appreciate monogamy, relationships or marriage. Luckily there’s way more Sasha than there’s Sasha and Derek so I could forgive it and enjoy the twists in The Lies Have It.

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Blood and Groom: book review

Blood and Groom , by Jill Edmondson. Publisher: Dundurn Press (2009). Mystery. Paperback, 256 pages.

The navy linen slacks and white silk blouse I had on was my standard job interview uniform, from back in the days of yore, whenever I had looked for a real job, which was rarely. I think I had always been destined to work for myself. Something about rules and office politics and playing well with others had never clicked for me.

Sasha Jackson is one of the best literary characters I’ve discovered of late. She’s an edgy and unconventional ex-musician turned private investigator. I completely related to her artistic sensibilities, individuality and opinionated nature. After quitting her band and boyfriend, Sasha set up her own shop while working as a phone-sex operator on the side. She doesn’t particularly like working for other people or sticking to the typical 9-to-5 hours. In Blood and Groom, a brash art dealer hires Sasha to find out who killed her ex-fiancé.

Canadian author Jill Edmondson spins a marvelous yarn with a biting sense of humor. She shines a bright light on Toronto and uses some fabulous phrasing—“you have a pharmacopoeia cornucopia.” Biting humor, pop references and colorful characters make Blood and Groom a fun read.

Jill Edmondson site

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Blood of My Brother: quick book review

Title: Blood of My Brother
Author: James LePore
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Story Plant, The (December 28, 2010)
Category: thriller
Rating: C+

I don’t read a lot of thrillers. I’m a closet fan of James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series and I read everything John Grisham writes. Other than that, every once in a while I get in the mood for a semi-mindless page turning mystery which hovers between clandestine military operations and something contrived, simplistic, petty. I don’t like too much gore. I’m not a fan of serial killer mysteries. Blood of My Brother is about two lifelong best friends. Attorney Jay Cassio and Dan Del Colliano grew up rough and tumble in Newark, New Jersey. Several years ago, Jay’s parents were killed in an airplane crash and Dan’s support further strengthened their bond. When Dan is murdered in a professional-looking hit, Jay immediately begins to search for answers. While investigating, Jay becomes entangled with a lovely Mexican woman with [naturally] a mysterious past, drugs, money laundering and sex trade [also very South of the Border]. Blood of My Brother dragged at times with too many unnecessary details and a tired premise.

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book review: PRIME TIME

Author: Hank Phillippi Ryan
ISBN: 978-0778327172
Pages: 288
Publisher: Mira (July 1, 2009)
Category: mystery
Review source: author
Rating: 4/5

This is all for the good, I attempt to reassure myself. Melanie suspects Brad was on the trail of . . . something. Now the three of us are going to continue his quest, and if we’re lucky (as we often are), we’ll dig up the journalistic treasure at the end of the trail. Brad would have wanted it that way. After all, he sent me that e-mail. And it must be important to Melanie, too, or she wouldn’t have let us come back to her house on the very day her husband’s body was found.

PRIME TIME introduces us to 46-year-old investigative television reporter Charlotte “Charlie” McNally, an indomitable, uncompromising, clever, and dedicated reporter. She’s not without her faults and that makes her someone everyone can relate to: she worries about her career [aka the next big story], aging in a field of young, blonde whipper-snappers [television journalism can be cruel like that], her lack of a romantic life and being over 45.

Writing with riveting details, Emmy and Agatha Award-winning television reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV, Hank Phillippi Ryan deftly allows readers an all-access pass into the cutthroat world of television journalism where you’re only as good as your current story. PRIME TIME contains a multitude of twists to keep you guessing right to the last page. Ryan succeeds in crafting quite the page-turner.

Charlie is determined and scrappy and instantly someone you want as your friend. She’s that type of woman who would go above and beyond to help you solve or fix any problem that you have and that’s a true blue, special friend. She’s devoted to her producer Franklin. Charlie’s investigative journalism skills prove exceptional on this mysterious case which begins with a strange email and turns into a case of corporate fraud, murder, and imminent danger to Charlie and Franklin as they pursue the truth. Not only is PRIME TIME a fantastic mystery but it provides a compelling insider’s view of television journalism. PRIME TIME is the first in the Charlotte McNally series and I cannot wait to dig in to the next few novels to find out more about this layered, flawed journalist.

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book review: TETHERED

Author: Amy MacKinnon
ISBN: 978-0307409201
Pages: 272
Publisher: Three Rivers Press; 1 edition (August 11, 2009)
Category: mystery
Review source: publisher
Rating: 4.5/5

If I were a different woman, I could tell Mike everything. That life is complex and messy, filled with cruelties beyond even his experiences. I could try to explain what it is to live among the dead, to bear witness to their last struggles for life, fighting for one more breath even when their lives weren’t worth living at all. The way their vessels constricted within their eyes, their throats, the way a hand can be found still grasping toward another moment. Just one more. I’ve seen that yearning inside and out. Guts clenched, muscles flexed. I could describe the pearls of bruises that encircle lovely throats, the shredded spleens from shod feet, the slashes and entry wounds and multitude of crushed skulls that needed reinforcing for open caskets. I would tell Mike that never before or since have I witnessed such savagery as I did when Precious Doe was discovered.

I’ve already told author Amy MacKinnon via Twitter that I would feel honored to take a writing class with her. She’s an exquisite writer who arranges sentences with precision and care. TETHERED delves into the absolutely necessary, though some might feel morbid field of undertaking [of course if you were a fan, as I was, of Six Feet Under, you know a bit of the ins and outs, so to speak]. MacKinnon provides the pertinent details and visuals. In Clara Marsh, TETHERED has the ideal detached heroine who left her own painful childhood behind to pursue this unusual profession at a funeral home in Brockton, Mass. [her mother died in a car accident leaving her to be raised by an abusive grandmother]. She leads a quiet and solitary life and prefers it that way. She gardens and even has her own perfect secret garden that few people know about. Gardening is her escape. When a young girl, Trecie, begins hanging around the funeral home and then shows up in child pornography, Clara is reluctantly drawn into a case along with Detective Mike Sullivan. The case is also connected to an unidentified child [nicknamed Precious Doe] who died three years prior. The funeral home gave her a service and buried her. Signs lead to the Reverend and then even to Clara’s own boss who treats her as his daughter. Who really is the mastermind behind this child pornography ring and will it be too late to save Trecie from the same fate as poor Precious Doe? TETHERED is a clever thriller that keeps you turning pages and guessing to the end.

–review by Amy Steele

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