Holiday Joy: Books that make grand gifts~ Tuesday, Dec 8 2015 

Every year at this time Auntie M likes to give readers a listing of great suggestions for the readers on your gift list. Auntie M has saved some of her favorite recent reads for this year’s list and there’s something for every type of reader. Several have received Auntie M’s coveted “Highly recommended,” which she doesn’t hand out to many over the course of the year, so you know these are special reads she’s been saving for you when you see them here.

And don’t forget to pick one up for yourself. Reading a good book is one of the nicest things you can do for yourself. Reading takes us on travels, teaches us things we didn’t know before, shows us other cultures, all wrapped up in a good story. So look over these and find something for everyone. And enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate!

Sally Andrew’s first Tannie Maria Mystery, Recipes for Love and Murder, is one of the most original and interesting mysteries Auntie M has read this fall. And when she was done reading, she was already looking for the next installment, like you would like for an old, wise friend.

Set in contemporary South Africa, the Klein Karoo landscape, nature, food, language and habits of the area come alive through the eyes of Tannie (Auntie) Maria, a widow who happens to be a brillant cook. Mevrou van Harten knows that her food works magic in people’s hearts, not just their stomachs.

Her recipe column is a staple in the local paper until she’s forced to add an advice column to it, and of course, food figures heavily as she fights her own loneliness and tries to help others through food. But when she receives a set of letters from a woman being abused by her husband, they bring painful echoes of Tannie Maria’s own abuse at the hands of her dead husband and underscore her lonely existence.

Then that woman is murdered, and Tannie and her young reporter colleague forge into the murder investigation in indignation and outrage. There will be a host of characters as viable suspects and others who just muddy the waters, but all respond to Tannie Maria’s food and wisdom. There are laugh-out-loud characters and others who bring a quiet grace. And then there’s Detective Lieutenant Henk Kannemeyer, who brings his own sage wisdom to Tannie Maria’s life.

You will learn Afrikaan words and phrases, and yes, there are recipes at the end that you will find yourself looking for as you read the descriptions of the food. A wise woman and a wise book. Highly recommended.

Lisa Ballantyne’s The Guilty One was one of Auntie M’s favorite reads last year and she makes the list again with Everything She Forgot, as different from her first as it is just as special.

With a creative, original premise, Ballantyne introduces readers to Margaret Holloway, a working mom with a full plate, who is distracted on a traffic-filled road when she’s caught up in a horrific accident. When her car erupts in flames she narrowly escapes death, freed in the nick of time by a good samaritan who is not as fortunate and winds up in hospital hanging onto his life.

Despite what are externally minor injuries, Margaret’s core has been shaken and she can’t concentrate or relax, nor can she forget her rescuer and finally makes attempts to find out who he is. At the same time, an alternate storyline tells of the kidnapping of a young girl in 1985 and the days she spends with her captor, time that gradually has moments of enjoyment as the two learn about each other, until that part of the story ends dramatically.

But in the present Margaret struggles, feeling disconnected from her life, her husband and her children, as she tries to return to normalcy after the accident. Once she finds him, she’s drawn to the hospital to visit the man who saved her life, as she starts having flashbacks of memories long buried from her childhood.

Ballantyne masterfully connects the two threads–and the reader senses this before Margaret does–as she comes to see that the answers to her buried past have come full circle. Highly recommended.


Jo Bannister’s previous two crime novels featuring policewoman Hazel Best and her friend Gabriel Ash and his dog, Patience, have been two of Auntie M’s favorite reads, so she was anxious to read the third installment, Desperate Measures. Four years ago Ash’s wife and two sons were kidnapped by Somali pirates, and when Hazel Best came across him, he had left his job and struggled to maintain his sanity, not knowing if his family were alive or dead. With Hazel’s help, progress was made, along with her own situation at the police station taking a sharp turn.

The book opens with Gabriel’s knowledge that his wife is alive giving him hope and despair at once. Will he be able to save her? Are their sons still alive? And then the demands of the pirates for his family’s safe return seem impossible to fulfill, an horrific act of online sacrifice.

Once this demand is met, Gabriel’s wife and two sons are returned to England, but Hazel is left bereft and grieving, until she’s forced to pull her own life together, and in doing so, finds that all is not as it seems and once again she must be there to pick up the pieces for the young man she mentors.

There’s more here than meets the eye on several levels. At one point the reader will be as angry with Bannister for the events that unfold as Hazel is, but no one will be more hurt than Gabriel when he learns who he has to blame for the breakup of his family. The plot is complicated and it would be difficult to describe more without spoilers, so full stop here. Just get yourself a copy for a bloody good read.

A terse unusual police procedural that’s filled with suspense, Bannister’s characters leap off the page and demand your attention and devotion. Even Patience, the most unusual dog to be written on the page, comes across with her own personality. Highly recommended.

Jane Casey, After the Fire

Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series gets stronger with each entry. After the Fire follows Maeve and her irascible DI Josh Derwent as they investigate a fire at Murchison House, part of the Maudling Estate, a London tower block that has a bad association for Maeve, who is already having a difficult time trying to find a way to expose her stalker, Chris Swain.

The fire takes the lives of two victims trapped in one of the units and severely injures a young girl, left fighting for her life. But there’s another victim, the reason Maeve’s team has been called in by DCI Una Burt, who is not Maeve’s favorite superior. MP Geoff Armstrong’s body has been found shattered, lying on top of a wheelie bin. The question is: did he jump to avoid the fire or was he pushed?

The motives for Armstrong even being on this estate are suspect. A controversial right wing politician with strong views that put most people off, his presence on the kind of estate that houses the culturally diverse and deprived people he despised surely bears examining.

All of the families living on the floor of the fire will have to be investigated, and the menace grows in far too many areas as the pair go about their work, all the time aware the Maeve’s every movement is being monitored by her stalker–and it’s time for her to get her life back.

The twisted plot will surprise readers as there are threads that come together that make this ending a heart-pounding climax. And just when you think it’s over, there’s even more for Maeve to deal with. Addictive and highly recommended.

And while you’re reading Jane Casey, if you have any younger readers on your list, her newest YA Jess Tennant Mystery is a perfect choice. Hide and Seek follows Jess when her classmate is apparently kidnapped shortly before Christmas in the small town of Port Sentinel where Jess lives now with her mom.

It should be a magical time, with fairy lights and even a mini-ice rink at the Christmas market, until Gilly Poynter disappears. Is this a case of an unhappy teen running away from home, or a more sinister kidnapping?

Casey’s teens are realistic: self-centered at times, helpful at others, always with a sense that they are just this little bit away from leaping off the page and leaving their dirty dishes in your living room. Jess will find there are secrets that have been harbored for years that will affect her relationship with boyfriend Will, too, and her own future. A satisfying read for any YA reader without reservations, and for adults, too. Auntie M is giving this book to her 15 year old grand-daughter for Christmas, but don’t tell her please.

Martin Edwards, newly-inducted head of The Detection Club (congratulations, Martin!), has a new Lake District Mystery out, The Dungeon House. For followers of the series, Detective Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind have had a complicated relationship in the past that just may be smoothing itself out. His father, Ben Kind, was Hannah’s mentor as a young detective, and Ben’s presence is felt in this mystery that takes Hannah’s Cold Case team back to the recent past and then even further back than she’d thought possible.

The book opens twenty years ago in the remote west coast area of Cumbria. The Dungeon House is a mansion with extravagant gardens overlooking the fells, a nuclear plant, and boasting its own small quarry. It’s been home to Malcolm Whiteley, his attractive wife, Lysette, and their teenaged daughter, Amber.

But this is not a case of Happy Families, as Malcolm’s drinking is out of control over financial pressures. He assumes his wife is having an affair and sinks into despondency and then alcoholic rages. After a yearly barbecue at Dungeon House, where Malcolm’s erratic behavior sets tongues wagging, Lysette finally tells Malcolm she’s leaving him. But before she can, tragedy occurs when Malcolm shoots and kills her. His body is found next to Amber’s broken body at the bottom of the quarry, an apparent suicide. Did Amber hear him shoot her mother and run from him in terror, falling over the unrailed edge to the quarry’s bottom? Or was she pushed during an argument with her father, who then committed suicide?

The case worried Ben Kind and becomes handed down to Hannah twenty years later when she’s asked to look into a three year-old case of the disappearance of Lily Elstone, daughter of Malcolm’s longtime accountant. Another teen has just disappeared, related to Malcolm through his brother’s son, Nigel. It’s Nigel’s daughter, Shona, who has disappeared, and coincidentally, Nigel now owns and lives in Dungeon House, which he’s renamed Ravenglass Knoll.

Hannah’s investigation will take her to dig up a long-ago car accident that had disastrous effects for those involved, just as one of the survivors shows up in town, bringing everyone’s secrets to the forefront. There will be few happy endings when it all falls out, but Hannah is determined to get to the bottom of it all, and with Daniel’s help, she just might get there.

Martin Edwards also edited the anthology Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries. This is part of the British Library Crime Classics brought out by Poisoned Pen Press in the US which all have distinctive and delightful cover art. For any reader on your list who enjoys vintage stories, these fourteen mysteries will give them holidays without ever leaving home. Each story is introduced by Edwards, who describes the author’s life and background. There are some familiar names here–Conan Doyle and Chesterton, for example–but also pearls that are seldom seen in print, by writers such as Phyllis Bentley, Helen Simpson, and one of Agatha Christie’s favorite plotters, Anthony Berkeley. A real delight.

Lord Byron as detective? Daniel Friedman’s Byron believes his skills as a poet make him a perfect detective in the humorous and beguiling Riot Most Uncouth. The young student Byron, supposedly studying at Cambridge with his pet bear, decides to solve the gruesome murder of a young woman, one of the few females he hasn’t tried to bed.

His detecting skills are soon proven lacking by private investigate Archibald Knifing. When the bodies keep piling up, a second investigator, Fielding Dingle, becomes involved and the killings escalate. For the egotistic student detective, the challenge becomes throwing aside his assumption a vampire is running around Cambridge and settling down long enough to unmask a killer. Totally original and perfect for fans of historic mysteries who enjoy sly humor.
Auntie M met Tom Harper at one of St. Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conferences, where his papers and talks proved him to be a charming, erudite young man with a great love of history. He brings that intelligent perspective to his new thriller, Black River, and he knows how to tell a story with a great sense of setting, too, having been there.

This one’s for the reader on your list who enjoys action that never stops, as Harper introduces the happily married Dr. Kel MacDonald, a man who realizes he needs one great adventure and finds it handed to him in the lure of using his medical expertise. He’s given a chance to journey to find a lost medical expedition on their way to the fabled lost city of Paititi in the Amazon jungle.

The fact that Kel has absolutely no surivial skills doesn’t stop him from joining expedition of Anton’s crew with five men and two women– but does make him totally reliant on the others in the group.

There will be encounters with natural dangers, medical issues, and guerrillas, and Kel soon finds himself not knowing whom he can trust, but knowing his life hangs in the balance. And that’s if he makes it back to civilization. Peter James calls Harper “… a master storyteller.”

drowning ground
It might be a Cotswold setting, but this is no Miss Marple in James Marrison’s strong debut The Drowning Ground.

The fish out of water this time is native Argentinian Chief Inspector Guillermo Downes, who carried his grief across the pond to head up the police department. When a witness tells him he’s not from here, meaning Englnad, Downes tells the reader: “I get this a lot.” By having Downe’s point of view in first person, the reader becomes close to the detective and how his mind works, filled with memories of Argentina, suffused with the contrast of the two places he’s lived.

History haunts Downes. When two young girls go missing within days of each other, Downes made it his mission to find out what had happened, promising the second child’s mother he would find her daughter. In describing the case to his new sergeant, Downes tries to explain how much worse a child vanishing can be than murder: “Because the family never know, you see. There’s hope, but such hope is worse than despair. It’s poison.”

Years elapse with no progress on the case. Then a local man is found dead dead. Downes recalls his wife’s drowning, and that many in the small town felt Frank Hurst had murdered this second wife. In thinking about Hurst after looking at his corpse, killed in a most horrific way, Downes muses:
“His whole life would now be defined by this moment. You were remembered if you were murdered.”

So when a connection between Hurst and the missing girls seems likely, Downes jumps at at the chance to keep his promise.
Downes has a new Sergeant to break in, too, and as he and Graves get used to each other, the nuances of two very different men become apparent.

Marrison fills the book with visual and sensory details. With a keen eye to the life of a small English town, Marrison gets inside the head of his characters so well, your reader will be asking for the next in the series to follow the brooding Downes. A well done debut.

Many years ago when Auntie M was taking a class at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival, she wandered into Prairie Lights, the town’s premier independent bookshop with a strong literary history. It happened that a local radio station was doing their live broadcast of writers reading from their works that evening, and the guest was the debut mystery by a deputy sheriff of Clayton County, Iowa. Donald Harstad read from that first book, Eleven Days, a Carl Houseman mystery.

Now retired, Harstad’s sixth Houseman mystery hits all the right notes in November Rain. This time, though, Houseman leaves his beat in rural Iowa and steps unwittingly into the world of international intrigue.

With his daughter studying in the UK, Houseman steps up when Jane’s best friend, Emma, is kidnapped. Wanting to protect his daughter, he agrees to become a consultant to Scotland Yard. Soon he finds himself embroiled in the activities of Emma’s ex-lover, a former professor whose activism for a pair of Muslim political prisoners has had severe side effects that now extend to Houseman.

The Iowa sheriff becomes involved with Special Branch members. The use of time at scene headings keeps the reader oriented to place and to feel the pressure Houseman feels as the case unravels. Told in the first person from Houseman’s point of view, a tense procedural.

Third Sin
Auntie M is a huge fan of Aline Templeton’s Marjory Fleming series. The Third Sin explores what happens to a group who call themselves the Cyreniacs, espousing sex, drugs and pleasure as their main principle. After one young woman dies from an overdose, it appears a second commits suicide, and the group disbands.

Then a body turns up two years later in a wrecked car on the Solway mud flats. And while this man is definitely now dead, it’s a very recent death, and he couldn’t have committed suicide two years ago.

Then another death tragically occurs just as a young woman out of the country for years returns. What do they have in common? And how do they tie in to the man’s death?

With DI Fleming and her team on the investigation, she finds new cross-sectional rules sound good on paper, but cooperation from her opposite is truly absent. She faces hostility and downright obstruction as the cases cross counties. It will take all of her smarts and detecting instincts of Fleming and her team to figure out how to piece together the reality of the situation.

One of the charms of this series is following the growth of Fleming’s family: her sheep farmer husband and son and daughter, now grown and finding their way. This edition gives readers enough balance of that life for Marjory to feel fully developed and someone they can, and should, admire. Another strong entry in a great series.

Look for the next installment of Holiday Joy, where the settings will be in the US~

Fine Crime Fiction for Fall Reading Monday, Sep 21 2015 

Auntie M has been reading up a storm this summer and brings you some of the finest crime novels out there for your perusal. These have things in common, which is why these particular novels are grouped together: darn fine stories supported by great writing. Enjoy~

Luke Delany’s third DI Sean Corrigan police procedural will grab you from its creepy opening. The Toy Taker starts out strong and never lets up, with Corrigan’s team at Scotland Yard covering the sickest criminals that roam the metropolitan mecca.

Delany’s experience as a former CID investigator serves him well and makes the story jolt into reality when a young boy is discovered missing from his bed one morning in a tony London suburb. There’s no sign of an intruder and no alarms were tripped; there are no signs of a struggle. Corrigan has a knack of being able to put himself into the mind of the criminal he’s seeking, a device that seems to have left him in this installment, frustrating him, his wife, and his colleagues.

The action doesn’t let up, even when another child is taken. What is the hold this predator has over the children who appear to have gone willingly with a stranger? Tautl written and gGuaranteed to keep you up late at night.

After the huge success of Bernard Minier’s The Frozen Dead, Auntie M was not the only reader looking forward to the sequel featuring Commandant Martin Servaz of the Toulouse Crime Squad. A Song for Drowned Souls
is the kind of crime novel that presents a fascinating look at the lives of the perpetrator and of the team on the hunt.

A young man is found, stunned, sitting by a swimming pool where dolls float on its surface. He’s discovered his teacher, drowned in her bath in a horrific manner, and is arrested for her murder. Servaz is called by his former college lover, Marianne, and immediately rushes over and takes over the investigation. The arrested boy is her son and she implores Servaz to clear Hugo.

To do so, he must reopen old wounds of his time at the Marsac school in the Pyrenees at the elite school where the victim taught. He will run into former students now teaching there during the case and find a former friend and competitor for Marianne’s affections figures in the case. Servaz’s daughter has just started in the prep division there and her presence will provide both a distraction and a boon to his investigation as it soon becomes apparent there are ties between students at the school and the murdered woman.

Miner examines the way the past haunts our present in a way that is chilling and highly believable.

Even if you’ve never visited the area, Minier will have you breathing in the scent of the trees in this evocative thriller that takes police procedurals to a new height. Highly recommended.

Open Grave
Kjell Eriksson’s Ann Lindell series continues with an unusual installment, not your usual hurried murder investigation at all, in Open Grave. The idea here is one more of a series of incidents that may or may not lead to murder. And the tension is palpable.

An aging professor has just won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, yet instead of rejoicing, the announcement brings problems to the doctor’s upper-class neighborhood. There are jealousies amongst his colleagues, some who are his neighbors, and even his housekeeper of decades seems to be on on the verge of leaving. What is there about the man that causes this reason for celebration to bring out the worst in people?

Eriksson spools out the story of the participants by delving into their pasts as unusual incidents start to happen. When Inspector Ann Lindell tries to sort out what is happening, her own past rears its head into the carefully arranged present she’s trying to fashion. And the expected outcome is far from the ending twist. The author knows human nature and describes it well in this psychological study that is subtle and character-driven.

run you down

Julia Dahl’s first crime novel, Invisible City, garnered multiple award nominations and is still nominated for more. It was a highly rated debut for Auntie M last year so she was looking forward to its newest, run you down, featuring young reporter Rebekah Roberts.

Rebekah’s ties to the Hasidic community started in the first book, her interested piqued by trying to find the mother she doesn’t know after Aviva Kagan abandoned her as a baby to be raised by her Christian father. Not sure she’s ready to meet the woman she’s finally found, Rebekah is drawn into Aviva’s community in Roseville, NY, by a man who contacts her about his young wife’s mysterious death.

Pessie Goldin’s body was found in her bathtub, an apparent accident or unmentionable suicide–but her husband believes she was murdered. As she investigates, Rebekah will find others like her mother who left the ultra-conservative sect and formed their own group. Some rage about the restraints they were forced to live under in their old community. And others find themselves inexplicably mixed up with groups who would kill without a clear thought for the lives and beliefs of others.

Dahl does a lovely job of letting Rebekah tell readers her story from her point of view as an outsider to a culture she’s trying to understand, while developing a wallop of a story that is its own mystery. One aspect Auntie M particularly enjoyed was seeing the protagonist’s growth and maturity in her job and in her personal life, which adds to the compelling aspect of the mystery. Don’t miss this one.

Slaughter Man
Auntie M enjoyed UK author Tony Parson’s foray into crime novels with The Murder Man, which introduced DI Max Wolfe, his daughter Scout, and their personable dog, Stan. With The Slaughter Man,
Max returns to investigate a heinous crime that jumps off the page from the Prologue describing the horrific slaughter of an entire family, except for the youngest child, apparently kidnapped.

It’s New Year’s Day when this occurs and the day after this wealthy family is found inside their gated-community home, all dead from a most unusual method: a cattle gun, used to stun cattle before butchering. When Max visits Scotland Yard’s Black Museum for background, he comes across a murderer who used just this method three decades ago and was dubbed The Slaughter Man by the press. Could the man, now released from prison, be on a murdering rampage? And why this particular family?

The happy family included two teens and parents who were former Olympians. There’s history here and Max is determined to find out how the past of the parents has led to this slaughter, always aware that as time goes by, his chances of finding the kidnapped boy alive grow dimmer.

Auntie M marveled at Max’s ability to withstand physical punishment, but Parsons does a good job illustrating his physical prowess and workouts at a local boxing club to balance what could be seen as super-human. For Max is definitely a very human detective, devoted to his daughter and her safely and happiness, and this makes him a very real character who leaps off the page and who readers will follow anywhere he takes them. Highly recommended.

Sophie Hannah seems to be everywhere, and Auntie M says this with all due respect and admiration. Last year's The Telling Error has been published in the US recently under the title Woman with a Secret and was previously reviewed on this blog on February 1st. It’s the tale of a woman keeping a secret and brings back the unusual husband-and-wife detective duo of Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, an interesting and intriguing pair, and if you haven’t made their acquaintance yet, now’s the time to do it.

Hannah was also the author of the new Hercule Poirot novel authorized by Agatha Christie’s estate, The Monogram Murders, notable for her outstanding voice of Poirot, which so many readers miss. Now she has a standalone in A Game For All The Family, which shows her deft hand at psychological thrillers, as well as her ability to create an intriguing story from the most seemingly innocuous bits of people’s lives that somehow escalate before the reader’s eyes into full-blown terror.

Justine Merrison is moving with her family to escape London and her high pressure job to the lovely Devon countryside, home to Dame Agatha, by the way. She has huge plans to do nothing at all, at least for a while, but the family is no sooner moved in than teen daughter Ellen withdraws and changes personality.

It seems Ellen has written a story that describes a grisly murder set in the family’s gorgeous new home and just happened to name a character after herself. What starts out as a school assignment morphs into the story of someone else’s family. Her good friend is expelled from school for a trifle and when Justine goes to the school to ask the head to reconsider, she’s told the student doesn’t exist and that he never attended the school. Who is going crazy–Ellen or the school? And then the anonymous calls start, and Justine finds herself accused of sharing a murderous past with the caller whose voice she doesn’t recognize.

How this falls out is part of the fun of reading the unique novel where Justine must find out just whom she’s supposed to be in order to stop the threat to her family. Twisted and entertaining.

Helen Smith: Emily Castle, Alison Wonderland and The Miracle Inspector Sunday, Dec 7 2014 

Please welcome UK author Helen Smith, who will describe a most unusual approach to her Emily Castle mysteries.

Three Sisters 225 pixels
Are you on Pinterest? I joined a while ago and wasn’t quite sure what to do on there. I saw lovely recipes from friends. I saw interesting ideas for interior decoration and gardens. I saw clever craft projects and gorgeous book covers. I looked and admired and did nothing with the boards I had set up.

Then one day, after talking about who could play the main characters in my Emily Castles mystery series if it ever got made for TV, I got busy on Pinterest. I realized that Pinterest would be the perfect place to play the “what if” game.

I set up boards with bonus material for my books, including fantasy casting and locations. It’s a brilliant procrastination tool! But it’s fun, too. I have put the links to the Pinterest boards in the back of my books, hoping that readers who have enjoyed my stories and want to know a little bit more about the characters will visit and follow me there.

It’s an ongoing project but so far I have fantasy casting for Emily Castles, my twenty-six-year-old amateur sleuth, and her side-kick Dr. Muriel. They are the main characters in a contemporary British mystery series that starts with Emily’s visit to a party hosted by a mysterious troupe of circus performers in Three Sisters.
Alison Wonderland
I also have casting ideas for my two Alison Wonderland books, including Alison and her boss at the private detective agency where she works in London. I also have casting ideas for my dystopian novel, The Miracle Inspector.

It’s great fun. The only problem? Finding male actors to play the younger main characters in my books. All my fantasy casting ideas – except for Ben Wishaw as Lucas in The Miracle Inspector – are horribly out of date. I need someone like John Corbett in his Northern Exposure days but twenty years younger to play Alison’s love interest in Alison Wonderland and Being Light.

If you have any fantasy casting ideas for any of my characters, they will be gratefully received!


You can find Helen Smith here:

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