Fear the Darkness: Becky Masterman Sunday, Mar 1 2015 

FearDarkness
Becky Masterman took readers by storm with her retired FBI agent, Bridget Quinn, the protagonist of 2013’s Rage Against the Dying, which introduced the feisty newlywed in a suspenseful debut. She returns to Tucson with Bridget and her husband, Carlo, in this year’s Fear the Darkness, and it’s every bit as suspenseful and compelling as the first.

Much has been made of having a 50+ protagonist as the center of a series, and it’s a refreshing change to see a strong woman who knows her own mind and can give as good as she gets in many circumstances. With Carlo’s history as a lapsed priest, Bridget is trying out a church with him, and making friends in the community. Their life with their two pugs is starting to settle into suburban bliss when her ill sister-in-law dies, and Bridget’s brother begs them to take in his seventeen-year-old daughter for the summer to complete the residency requirement for college. The couple’s trip to Florida for the funeral gives readers a glimpse into Bridget’s family and background, and when Gemma Kate arrives, it’s bound to change the dynamic of their home.

With Gemma Kate suddenly thrust upon them, the adjustment period is rocky right from the start. And then one of their beloved pugs almost dies just as Bridget agrees to investigate the death of local couple’s son. Could the pugs illness been a deliberate poisoning by Gemma Kate? Was the boys death a suicide, a tragic accident, or a case of murder?

Bridget and Carlo soon realize they don’t really know the stranger in their midst, family or not, nor what she’s really capable of–and then Bridget starts to have unusual medical symptoms just as her investigation heats up and she will have to call on all of her skills and training.

How the two are connected will come as a surprise to most readers, and that’s one of the skills Masterman employs in this thoroughly satisfying outing. Auntie M enjoyed seeing another side of Carlo, the professor Bridget loves, and how this later-in-life marriage and its adjustments affects them both. Entertaining and quickly read, this sequel is another thrilling winner.

Maggie Barbieri: Lies That Bind Sunday, Feb 22 2015 

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Auntie M enjoyed Maggie Barbieri’s first Maeve Conlon thriller, Once Upon a Lie, and had been looking forward to the sequel. Barbieri keeps up the promise of the first with her second installment of the Westchester baker’s life in Lies that Bind.

Who would ever think that a divorced mom of two teens, running her own bakeshop, could get into the kind of situations that Maeve does, yet once you know Maeve and her life, it all seems more than plausible. With her ex-husband and his new wife and son as part of her blended family, Maeve is very representative of a modern woman in most respects. Just don’t mess with her when she gets angry.

Maeve’s friend and bakeshop helper, Jo, is heavily pregnant, and somehow it’s Maeve taking Jo to birthing classes instead of Jo’s detective husband, Dave. This is just the tip of Maeve’s iceberg when her father, Jack, a former NYPD cop, dies suddenly. Despite his increasing dementia looming over her, Maeve thought she’d have him around a little longer. The two were inordinately close, as Jack raised Maeve after her mother’s death, the story that forms the basis of the plot of Barbieri’s first book, where Maeve unravels the mystery behind her mother’s death with startling consequences.

With Jack’s death blindsiding her now, Maeve receives another blow at Jack’s wake from the two sisters who were her arch enemies in the old neighborhood. One drunkenly suggests that Maeve had a sister she knows nothing about; the other seems to know more than she’s telling. Secrets, terrible secrets, have been kept from Maeve.

Maeve is desperate to find out if she had a sibling, and sets off to do her own investigation just as vandals break into her bakery, her shady landlord disappears, and an amputated finger suddenly appears in her bakeshop fridge. Add to that the usual issues with her daughters,stolen money, and a sudden interest from the local detective to add a little frisson to her missing love life, and Maeve has her hands very full.

The wry humor in this series balances the darkness that Maeve encounters. Maeve is a modern woman, a savvy businesswoman whose business is thriving thanks to her own incredible efforts. She’s a mother who keeps a fake personna on social media pages so she can friend her daughters and keep tabs on both teens. She’s a tiny, spunky woman you can’t help but admire, and it only seems fair that Barbieri allows Maeve to have a bit of a personal life along the way in this one, even as the baker uncovers what turns out to be a diabolical scheme. Nicely crafted fingers of the plot come together into a very satisfying ending. Highly recommended.

Wildalone: Krassi Zourkova Sunday, Feb 15 2015 

Wildalone
Bulgarian author Krassi Zourkova studied art history and wrote poetry at Princeton, the setting for her debut novel, Wildalone. After graduation from Harvard’s Law School, she’s practiced finance law, but her experiences at Princeton provide the descriptive and realistic setting for this wildly imaginative novel.

Thea Slavin is the protagonist whose journey we follow, a talented pianist in America at the tony institution, away for the first time from the protective cocoon of her Bulgarian family. With a host of universities to choose from, she’d been leaning toward attending Harvard until a relative reveals a long-held family secret: Thea had an older sister, also a talented pianist, whose Princeton experience ended in her early death. The manner of that death contains its own secret, ones Thea vows to unravel.

Within the circle of students at Princeton, she is intrigued by an elusive young man, Rhys, and his brother, Jake. Knowing them will catapult Thea into unseen layers of a sensual mythic underworld that becomes as irresistible to Thea as it is dangerous. There will be forest witches, mythic revelations, and the ultimate entrapment of men.

This is a mystery as Thea becomes more and more determined to find out the truth of what happened to her sister. But it’s also an exploration of a world that shadows aspects of Greek mythology. It is to Zourkova’s credit that she brings the reader along on Thea’s journey in a manner that allows readers to play the ultimate “What if?” game: What if dead doesn’t always mean gone forever, and people can be strung together by love and devotion in unlikely ways?

The background and history of the music Thea plays is an added bonus, evoking the emotions that she exhibits and connecting the bits of her story to the other main characters. The elements of magical realism are slowly introduced in such a way that just as Thea must come to accept that there are things beyond her ken, so does the reader. Very original and told in a deft manner.

From The Cradle: Louise Voss & Mark Edwards Sunday, Feb 8 2015 

Voss and Edwards are co-authors of four other novels, as well as over eight solo novels between them. This offering, From the Cradle, introduces DI Patrick Lennon in the first of what promises to be an interesting and entertaining series that Auntie M will be certain to follow. fromcradle

It starts out with a fascinating prologue that sets up Lennon’s home situation, which Auntie M won’t reveal here but which is fraught with anxiety, and will shadow this big case, which starts when several young children go missing.

Three-year old Isabel Hartley is snatched from her home on a tony street, taken from the front room in the middle of the afternoon. Two days later two-year old Liam McConnell is abducted from his car when his mum runs into Sainbury’s to pick up her dry cleaning and returns to find the back door ajar and Liam missing.

Then Helen and Sean Philips go out for a rare evening, leaving their teenaged daughter to babysit three-year old Frankie. When they return that evening, teenaged Alice is zonked out on the sofa, and Frankie is missing from her bed.

There will be a host of witnesses who’ve seen noting and several unreliable narrators along the way as Lennon and his partner, DS Carmella Masiello, head a team in a race against time, trying to find the abducted children. Are these the work of a kidnapping ring? Or are there different reasons for the children to go missing just now?

In a most surprising twist, what would appear to be the end of the case instead turns into an even more involved plot switch. It would give away too much to tell more specifics except to say that nothing is what it seems on the surface as buried secrets from the past will return to haunt several of the main characters and affect the outcome.

Fine characterizations, realistic situations and a compelling plot all make this series one you’ll want to watch for. The second installment is due this fall and Auntie M will be in line. Highly recommended.

My Favorite Reads of 2014: 16 Who Rose to the Top Sunday, Feb 1 2015 

Auntie M reads between 2 and 3 books a week and last year reviewed 86. Out of those reviewed, these 16 authors were her top picks for those of you looking for an author to follow. In no particular order:

Jill Paton Walsh’s fourth Wimsey/Vane mystery, The Late Scholar, gets the tone of Sayers duo just right as the couple and their two sons have grown and mystery brings them back to Oxford.

Michael Robotham’s Watching You takes psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, one of Auntie M’s favorite characters, to one of his most twisted cases yet, when Marnie Logan asks for his help.

Frances Fyfield continues to write amazing psychological crime novels with strong characterizations that never fail to surprise Auntie M. The Goldigger is a case in point.

Sophie Hannah had a banner year. Her two, Kind of Cruel and The Telling Error are vastly different but both with compelling and complex plots. She was chosen by Agatha Christie’s estate to write a new Poirot novel, and in The Monogram Murders, gets the Belgian detectives voice just right.

Aline Templeton continues her DI Marjory Fleming series with a strong entry in Bad Blood.

Elizabeth Haynes Under A Silent Moon proves that there IS a new way to tell a crime story, with this strong entry into police procedurals that includes the forms used in an investigation to follow the clues.

Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is a favorite, with two entries: The Last Girl and The Kill.

Harry Bingham’s DC Fiona Lewis brings her unusual background and personality to Love Story, with Murders.

Nicola Upson continues her Josephine Tey series with The Death of Lucy Kyte, based on a real historical murder, and filled with mid-20th century details.

A D Garrett’s debut, Everyone Lies, launched an unusual crime duo who they will bring back in Believe No One.

Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series keeps getting stronger, as evidence by this 16th offering in To Dwell in Darkness.

James Oswald’s Inspector MacLean series, set in Edinburgh, continues to be a page turner with Dead Men’s Bones.

Tana French has another strong crime novel, this one spanning just one very long day, in The Secret Place.

Tony Parson’s debuted a new series featuring DI Max Wolfe, a single parent to a young daughter, in The Murder Man.

Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler series is a continued delight. She never hesitates to take chances other writers would shy away from, and this is apparent in The Soul of Discretion.

Finally, last but certainly not least of all, we have John Harvey’s last Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, a fine tribute to the series of a well-loved detective.

Auntie M hopes if readers haven’t discovered these authors, you will seek them out!

Perfect Sins: Jo Bannister Wednesday, Jan 28 2015 

Perfect Sins

Jo Bannister departed from her Brodie Farrell mysteries in Deadly Virtues, when she introduced a new series featuring young police constable Hazel Best, and the “Rambles with Dog” character of Gabriel Ash, a former government employee whose life has been turned upside down.

The two return in this compelling sequel, Perfect Sins, along with Ash’s dog, Patience, whose thoughts only Ash can hear, but who makes the kind of measured and sometimes snarky comments that add to the tone. Bannister doesn’t overdo Patience’s comments, either, keeping them to a minimum, but they lighten up what could be a somber tone, as Ash is trying to find out if his wife or two sons, kidnapped by pirates, could possibly still be alive.

Four years have past since their disappearance but Ash remains committed to following up any lead he possibly can in order to keep his fragile sanity and continues to follow his own path of questions. With Hazel still on leave after the shooting that ends Deadly Virtues, they finds themselves visiting Hazel’s father at the gatehouse of Byrfield House, an estate that has been in the aristocracy for generations.

The plot revolves around a mound near the ice house on the grounds belonging to Pete, Lord Byrfield, that is opened by a local archeologist, David Sperrin. Hazel has known Pete for years and considers him a friend, so it’s no surprise she becomes involved when the mound turns out not to be an ancient burial mound, but the more contemporary resting place for a little boy from about thirty years ago. Just who those bones belong to bring up more secrets kept than any of the participants can possibly imagine.

As Hazel is drawn back into the police work she loves, Ash finds his own questioning has stirred up some very nasty consequences for them both that put their lives in danger. One of the nicest things is that Hazel values friendship. Hers with Ash is not a sexually charged relationship, but one that shows that men and women can truly care about each other and remain caring friends without becoming romantically involved.

Intricately plotted, and with a nice touch for the vagaries of family life and relationships, this complex plot has a few surprises to reveal and its ending packs a wallop that will have readers searching for the next installment.

Nele Neuhaus: The Ice Queen Sunday, Jan 25 2015 

IceQueen

German author Nele Neuhaus’ series with Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver Bodenstein is almost a prequel of sorts to the other books that have been translated in the series, Snow White Must Die, and Bad Wolf, the latter now in paperback.

But nothing is lost in reading them in this order as the stories are so interesting and this one is no exception. The body of a Holocaust survivor, American citizen Jossi Goldberg, is found shoat to death in his home with a five-digit number scrawled nearby in his blood.

Why would anyone bother to murder a 92 yr old man near the end of his life? Then the autopsy reveals an old tattoo on his arm, a blood marker used for Hitler’s SS. Who was Jossi Goldberg after all? A survivor of the Holocaust, as he’d lived his life, or was he really a Nazi?

While investigation his murder, two more execution-style murders of elderly people occur. The only connection between these people turns out to be that they were lifelong friends of Vera von Kaltensee, a baroness and the well-respected head of a philanthropic family.

With Oliver and Pia treading a fine line of political correctness as they try to investigate the Baroness, their trail leads them all the way to Prussia and secrets of long ago. They will encounter secrets, lies, and treachery reaching back decades as they find their way to the heart of the mess that started so very long ago.

There is an excellent mystery at the heart of this novel, one that will startle the reader as the story reaches its conclusion. A continued series well worth reading. Highly recommended.

Ursula Archer: FIVE Sunday, Jan 18 2015 

FIVE

Austrian writer Ursula Archer is a science journalist who has previously published YA and children’s books. Now she turns her hand to police procedural thriller in FIVE and readers will be very happy with her decision.

The book starts out with a bang: “The place where his left ear used to be was throbbing to the rhythm of his heartbeat. Fast and panicked.”

And the pace never lets up as police detectives Beatrice Kaspary and Florin Wenninger become involved in solving a series of increasingly confusing murders. First is the body of a woman who fell from a cliff who turns out to have GPS coordinates tattooed on the soles of her feet.

When the detectives trace the spot of these coordinates, they find a severed hand and more taunts that lead them to yet another site and more body parts. It soon becomes clear they are on the trail of a murderer who is using the sport of geocaching in a far more sinister way than usual.

The clues they are given are frustrating and obtuse, sometimes leading to a witness who then disappears, and all the time the two detectives feel the killer is playing with them. Then he starts to leave Beatrice text messages on her phone and the tension, never abated, ratchets up.

This is a clever and well-plotted mystery with the puzzle at its heart that grabs you and doesn’t let go. That the detectives are compelling figures adds to the mix. Let’s hope this is the first of a series from Archer. Auntie M will be lining up to read the next translation.

Tony Lee Moral: Playing Mrs. Kingston Sunday, Jan 11 2015 

Please welcome Tony Lee Moral, who will describe the genesis of his new mystery, Playing Mrs. Kingston:

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How Alfred Hitchcock can influence Your Novel Writing by Tony Lee Moral

Alfred Hitchcock has been a huge influence on my life, ever since I saw my first Hitchcock film, I Confess, at the age of 10 years old. I was immediately struck by the moral ambiguity of the film and the conflicted viewpoint of the central character, a priest, played by Montgomery Clift. Since then I’ve written three books on Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. Two books are on the making of specific films, The Birds and Marnie, which were made in the early 1960s and have a close production history; and a more general book called Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, which is about all of his films, for aspiring screenwriters and film makers.

So when writing my murder mystery novel Playing Mrs. Kingston, I was immediately drawn to the Hitchcockian principles of suspense and characterization. The central character, Catriona Kingston, takes after many a Hitchcock blonde, particularly Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Eva Marie Saint. She is feisty, determined, action oriented, duplicitous and mysterious. The duel identifies she plays, both Catriona and Catherine, is reminiscent of Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo. Her boyfriend, Mario Montefiore, a saxophonist at the the Stork Club, was inspired by Henry Fonda’s character in The Wrong Man, who himself was based on the real life Manny Balestrero, wrongfully accused of a series of robberies in 1950s New York, the same time period in which my novel is set.

Hitchcock often spoke about the MacGuffin in his films, a key plot device that drives the story. The MacGuffin is the engine that propels the plot. It is the object around which the plot revolves and motivates the actions of the characters. In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the roll of microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue, which both Cary Grant, the hero, and James Mason, the villain, are after. In Playing Mrs. Kingston, the MacGuffin is the stolen Caravaggio painting, which Catriona’s arch enemy so desperately wants. But the real story is about Catriona and Mario, and finding out who the killer is. But in having a MacGuffin in my novel, the stolen painting, it drove the plot forward, and motivated the characters, especially in the second half of the book, when all seemed lost.

Good writing is subtext, reading between the lines, rather than on the nose dialogue. Much of the dialogue in Hitchcock’s best screenplays, such as Notorious, Rear Window and North by Northwest, have layers of meaning. Good dialogue should be full of conflict between the chracters and have a natural rhythm that’s easily spoken, like a verbal sparring game that resembles the epic tennis match in Strangers on a Train until someone scores a point. The writing between Catriona and Detective Radcliffe is like a cat and mouse game, with Catriona trying to stay a few steps ahead of the Detective who is chasing the real Catriona Benedict, while she is in disguise as Catherine Kingston.

Hitchcock loved counterpoint and contrast and often had two things happening at once. He built tension into a scene by having contrasting situations, with two unrelated things happening simultaneously. In Notorious, a big party is taking place in Ingrid Bergman’s honor, but she is too preoccupied in showing Cary Grant the wine cellar, which holds the MacGuffin, in this case the uranium ore stored inside the wine bottles. Upstairs the champagne is quickly running out, threatening to expose the couple to Nazi villain Claude Raines, who Bergman has married, which ratchets up the tension.

A good example of this in Playing Mrs. Kingston is when both Lowry, Catriona’s old theatre boss, and Detective Radcliffe are at the Kingston gallery, and Catriona is threatened to be unmasked at any moment for who she is really is. I had Notorious very much in my mind when writing the novel, especially the big party scenes, when the moral ambiguity of the conflicted heroine comes into play, and she marries into a family full of secrets and becomes trapped in the enemy’s house. Only by using all her wits is she able to escape.

Alfred Hitchcock's Masterclass Cover
Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass is published by Michael Wiese Books

Playing Mrs. Kingston is published by Zharmae Publishing Press

Lynda La Plante/Wrongful Death and M R Hall/The Burning Sunday, Jan 4 2015 

WrongfulDeath
Lynda LaPlante’s newest DCI Anna Travis novel, at close to 500 pages, could encompass two stories and then some. The London detective finds herself heavily embroiled in a case of suicide which is reopened after a criminal awaiting trial claims he has information that proves the man was murdered. With too many suspects to count, and far too many toes to step on, Travis is treading lightly when she’s handed a partner from the US, FBI profiler Jessie Dewar, part of the same exchange program that finds Travis seconded to an FBI course in the US.

Dewar’s brash approach soon ruffles feathers in everyone from suspects being interviewed to members of Travis’ team. It’s an uneasy alliance, even as Travis realizes Dewar has solid information to contribute.

Auntie M has a love-hate relationship with these books. La Plante’s dialogue with its lack of contractions often sounds stilted and formal. Yet there’s no question the author of the Prime Witness series has a knack for complex plots and that is certainly on view here. You’ll notice Auntie M keeps reading the series, because despite the reading flaws, the stories are compelling and the cases far from simple.

Always on the side is Travis’ boss, Langton, with whom she has her own complicated history. And there will be the potential for Travis to finally have some kind of private life after the death of her fiancé two years ago. A storyline in the US is conveniently cleared after Travis gets on the case, and it remains to be seen if she will return to the US in future entries in the series.

Burning

Auntie M is a huge fan of M R Hall’s series featuring Coroner Jenny Cooper and her complicated life. He gets inside a woman’s head well and writes in a believable voice. The cases are complex and yet have the ring of truth, and along the way, readers learn what constitutes the real job of a coroner.

In this outing, it’s the cold period between Christmas and New Year’s when Jenny is called to an horrific scene: a house has burned to the ground and it’s later discovered that three members of the family were inside; two daughters and stepfather Ed Morgan. With evidence of shotgun injuries to the three bodies, it is felt that Ed killed the girls and turned the gun on himself after starting the fire. But what has happened to his young son with wife Kelly, who was off premises at work that evening?

It’s a complicated case, made all the more so by some witnesses withholding information and others not realizing how important their information may be. And how does it tie in to the disappearance ten years ago of another young girl from the same village? There will come a time when Jenny isn’t certain who she can trust and that includes members of the police force who are supposed to be helping her investigation.

Add in the twists of Jenny’s personal life, and the return of her assistant after an accident from she sustained in the last book, helping to save Jenny’s life and that of her son, and it all adds up to a complex and compelling read.

Auntie M is surprised more readers haven’t discovered this always-satisfying series. Give it a try if you haven’t yet found the delightful and compelling novels in this series.

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