Review: MURDER IN AN IRISH VILLAGE by Carlene O’Connor

51s23vyfr3l-_sx333_bo1204203200_MURDER IN AN IRISH VILLAGE by Carlene O’Connor Kensington, February 2016 ~ 4½ Stars

Blurb: A little slice of Heaven on the Emerald Isle…

In the small village of Kilbane, County Cork, Ireland, Naomi’s Bistro has always been a warm and welcoming spot to visit with neighbors, enjoy some brown bread and tea, and get the local gossip. Nowadays twenty-two-year-old Siobhán O’Sullivan runs the family bistro named for her mother, along with her five siblings, after the death of their parents in a car crash almost a year ago.

It’s been a rough year for the O’Sullivans, but it’s about to get rougher. One morning, as they’re opening the bistro, they discover a man seated at a table, dressed in a suit as if for his own funeral, a pair of hot pink barber scissors protruding from his chest.

With the local garda suspecting the O’Sullivans, and their business in danger of being shunned—murder tends to spoil the appetite—it’s up to feisty redheaded Siobhán to solve the crime and save her beloved brood.

Review: Twenty-two year old, Siobhan O’Sullivan manages her grieving family of five siblings and the bistro they inherited from their parents with determination and brilliance. She has enough to do keeping the “O’Sullivan Six” as they’re known in the small village of Kilbane on track when the anniversary of the tragic traffic accident that killed her mum and da approaches. She doesn’t need Niall Murphy, a known troublemaker returning to create havoc. And she really doesn’t need him demanding money from her to clear his brother’s name since he was tried and incarcerated for causing her parents’ deaths.

Niall claims to have proof that someone else caused the deadly accident. Siobhan doesn’t believe a word he says – he must be lying – his lips are moving. Then, he ends up dead in her bistro, a pair of scissors in his chest. Of course, she didn’t kill him, but she’s determined to discover who did and clear the O’Sullivan name. It doesn’t help that her oldest brother, James is a prime suspect since he and Niall argued at the pub. As Siobhan points out to the local police or garda officer, Macdara Flannery, other people fought with the victim.

In this debut novel, Ms. O’Connor describes the setting consistently and beautifully until the details pervade the story from the language to the food. Siobhan is famous for her “brown bread” not to be confused with “brown” or “wheat” bread in the U.S. Because the author didn’t explain the differences, I had to “google” the details but it looks like it would be fun to make and have with a cuppa tea since actually traveling to Kilbane is more a fantasy than a possibility.

The ensemble cast of characters delightfully enlivens the story especially when ten year old Cieran shares that they have a list of suspects back on the whiteboard in the kitchen and their neighbors promptly begin to reveal their alibis for the night in question. Siobhan suspects someone lies, but who? The suspense builds and Macdara warns her to be careful especially when the killer comes after her. Of course, she can’t back down, but readers will root for her since she’s stubborn not stupid.

Siobhan needs the truth and readers will want her to discover it too. No, that truth won’t bring back her parents, but it will provide much needed answers. Finding a killer isn’t her only concern since her landlady uses the fact that a murder victim was found in the bistro to try and cancel the lease. Hmmm, what if she’s the killer and is all an elaborate, vicious scheme to steal the O’Sullivan’s livelihood.

Readers will undoubtedly make a strong connection with these characters that are well-drawn for the most part. Occasionally, it becomes difficult to keep the siblings straight which are where more physical descriptions would help. It takes too long for us to learn what they look like and at times two of the girls sound too much alike. Yet, these are minor errors in a debut novel. Ms. O’Connor delivers a terrific story with a well-designed setting that never lets us forget where we are and hopefully she’ll return readers to the village of Kilbane for another visit very soon.

Mystery Reviews

61ge1tk-aul-_sx309_bo1204203200_In Dead End Street, by Sheila Connolly (Berkley, 2016, $7.99) the staid world of the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society is rocked by 21st Century social issues when its president, Nell Pratt, discovers that the society owns property in one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia. A visit to the site leads to a shooting and a death. The Philadephia police are ready to chalk the incident up to local gang-bangers having their usual fun and games, but Nell thinks there’s more to it, and won’t stop looking until she finds some answers. At the same time, she’s concerned about the use of the property, and how to make her organization more relevant to the parts of Philadelphia that do not have access to cultural beacons like the Museum of Fine Arts. The answer to both questions may lie with the community itself. A good addition to an intriguing series.

51lazfqmwzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_It’s family that causes the upset in Mary Dahein’s Bed-and-Breakfast Mystery Here Comes the Bribe (William Morris, 2016, $23.99). Judith McGonigle Flynn is trying to stage a wedding at Hillside Manor, but everything that can go wrong is. The father of the bride insists that Judith is his long-lost mother. The bride and groom act as if they barely know each other. The mother of the groom is in thrall to a collection of oddballs. The officiants are vague about their religious affiliation. Then the mother of the bride is found dead. Not only that, but there’s someone trying to buy up all the houses in the neighborhood at rock-bottom prices, with the hint of a major condominium development in the works. Judith’s in-laws insist on helping out with the investigation, as family relations get stranger and stranger. It’s a wild ride in the California sunshine, with a twist at the end that will have every reader gasping with laughter.

511maarv7zl-_sx308_bo1204203200_From California to Colorado, with The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala, by Laura DiSilverio (Obsidian 2016, $7.99). Amy-Faye Johnson’s reading club, the Readaholics, is reading Rebecca, the classic mystery by Daphne DuMaurier, so it’s only natural that they sponsor the Celebration of Gothic Novels in their town of Heaven, CO. Three major authors are appearing, including one who has a connection to a member of the club, one who may have stolen her prize-winning book from an aspiring fan, and one whose love life has become very complicated. When a stranger turns up dead at the costume party that was supposed to be the high point of the weekend, things get murkier than the most tangled web spun by a romance novelist. The Readaholics pool their resources, as they try to uncover the identity of the dead man and his connection to one or another of the three writers. There are digs at the arcane world of mystery writers, as well as small-town politics, gossipy neighbors, conspiracy fans, and the Colorado landscape. The solution to the mystery leads to repercussions for all concerned, and the promise that the next book the Readaholics will tackle will be something more straightforward… like a spy thriller!

51azaqzlall-_sx304_bo1204203200_It’s across the country to New England, where Sarah Winston runs garage sales, in Sherry Harris’s All Murders Final! (Kensington, 2016, $7.99) With winter coming on, Sarah thought that an on-line “virtual garage sale” web site might be a way for her to continue to re-cycle other peoples’ stuff during the inclement weather. Alas, it’s not working as well as she planned. Buyers are not coming through with money, sellers are misrepresenting their goods, and a cleaning woman who adversided on the web site may be involved in a string of local robberies. Then she discovers one of the leading citizens of the town dead, with the very tablecloth she wanted to buy stuffed in the dead woman’s mouth! Things get even odder as Sarah finds herself the target of a stalker. She hates to bring her ex-husband into the matter, but when she’s accused of stealing a car, things really get serious. Sarah’s love life gets even more tangled than the local political scene, as she discovers more about the dead woman than she really wanted to know. Motives abound, but the killer is someone no one even suspected. Tips on running a garage sale are included.

513lm0m6jalFinally, a not-so-cozy mystery in Washington DC: Stabbing in the Senate, by Colleen J. Shogan (Camel Press, 2016. $13.95) Kit Marshall finds her boss, Senator Lansford, in his office, impaled by one of his own desk ornaments. When she pulls the object out of the body, she leaves her own fingerprints and DNA on it, and is immediately accused of his murder. Now she has to prove her innocence, which means finding out who did kill the senator, who tended to make enemies in his own party as well as with the Opposition. It’s a fascinating look at the back-stage world of Big Government, as Kit and her friend Meg search for clues in high and low places. Is this murder purely political, or does the answer to the mystery lie closer to home? And what happens when the murderer is finally unmasked? Kit risks her career and her personal happiness to find out. A resourceful heroine, and a glimpse behind the scenes, even more pertinent in this year of political turmoil.

Reviews provided by Roberta Rogow for her column Roberta’s Ramblings for the Sept/Oct edition of The Book Breeze

Review: THE CHAMPAGNE CONSPIRACY

51dbfvouql-_sy344_bo1204203200_THE CHAMPAGNE CONSPIRACY by Ellen Crosby

Ms. Crosby has crafted a complex, old-fashioned mystery, languorous in pace and beautifully written. With a myriad of characters, each given a history and backstory, this languid style of writing serves the story well. Inanimate objects, furniture, wine, even an antique clock, possess personalities and pasts in this novel.

Lucie Montgomery, owner of a Virginia winery, is an unlikely protagonist. This reserved young woman is physically challenged, some might say handicapped, but nothing deters her from the resolve to get to the bottom of a one hundred year old mystery. The reader is treated to a modern day, small vineyard’s story interwoven with secrets of historical characters, past politics, lust, and greed. Just how many of the ‘facts’ are based in reality and how many are made up, is for the reader to discover. That the real and make believe are blended so artfully speaks well of the author’s talents.

Here is a dark mystery that intensifies with each succeeding page. Secrets are buried so deep and for so long a time that wrenching them free from the past catapults the living into blackmail, despair and even murder. Yet here is a story of love familial and romantic, love which triumphs in the end. The Champagne Conspiracy is well worth the read.

Review by Heather Haven

Review: BECAUSE I’M WATCHING by Christina Dodd

UnknownBECAUSE I’M WATCHING By Christina Dodd

Suspense with romantic elements Released Sept 6,2016 by St Martin’s Press

The survivor of a college dorm massacre, a woman accused of her lover’s murder, Madeline Hewitson is haunted by ghosts and tormented by a killer only she can see. At night, she works, writing and drawing the monster that slithers through her imagination, and living in fear of those moments when the doors of her mind unhinge and her nightmare lives in the daylight. 

A seasoned military veteran, Jacob Denisov lives alone in his small, darkened home, sleepless, starving, and angry. Every day he lives with guilt. When neighbor Madeline Hewitson drives her car through the front wall of his house, she breaks his house–and his life–wide open.

Jacob had given up and was simply waiting for death to find him. But with his home ripped open by Maddie’s car and no interest in leaving his chair while the workmen repaired the damage he began to watch Maddie across the street.

He found a spark of his old self in watching Maddie fight back against her demons with everything she had. His protective instincts were triggered as the odd things that were happening to Maddie began to look like they originated from an outside source and not Maddie as everyone believed.

Called heartbreaking, funny and terrifying this book lives up to the hype with page turning action, compelling characters and a backstory that perfectly seasons the story. It’s easy to see why Ms. Dodd is a New York Times Best Selling Author.

Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

UnknownGO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee Harper / Collins, July 2015 – 3 Stars

Blurb: Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—”Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her.

Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.

Review: This story picks up almost twenty years after the classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird takes place. Jean Louise aka Scout Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama on a two-week vacation from her job. She may be an adult in years, but in other ways she remains the young girl who charged through life and served as a witness when her father Atticus defended an innocent African American man accused of rape. Still “color-blind” as her Uncle Jack says, Scout shares stories of her life up north with Atticus and his young associate, Hank Clinton, the so-called best friend of her brother, Jem. Hank never appeared in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Lee explains this by saying he was only there during the school year when he boarded across the street from the Finches. Yet her first book also had scenes from those times and it seems odd to have Hank play such a huge part now, when he didn’t then.

Readers will catch up with Aunt Alexandra who now lives with and looks after Atticus. Her husband went off to his fishing camp and never returned. While Jem died of a heart attack two years before the book opens, it is easy to appreciate that Scout and Atticus still grieve for him. We never learn what happened to Boo Radley or Scout’s childhood frenemy, Walter Cunningham. Of course, he could be the owner of the ice cream shop, but why wouldn’t he say so? Calpurnia, now retired, lives in The Quarters near her family.

Set in the 1950s, the book refers to the Montgomery bus strikes and “that Mississippi business” when Scout tells her father that not getting a conviction was the worst blunder since Pickett’s charge during the Civil War. It lends credence to the notion that most white people who live in the South are violent racists. Unless the reader remembers the social upheaval of the early civil rights movement, they may draw a mental blank on Scout’s theory. It seems probable she’s talking about the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers who were acquitted of beating, then lynching the 14 year-old boy. It’s difficult to be completely engaged in a book when one needs to stop and do research the setting.

Another of the key points that Scout and her father frequently discuss relates to Supreme Court decisions that infringe on the 10th Amendment. More research if a reader doesn’t remember that this amendment deals with the separation between federal and state governments, limiting federal powers. Supreme Court decisions during the 1950s impacted the Civil Rights movement and could be considered to also impact state rights. Still, it’s not clear exactly which decision most upsets Scout or Atticus if it’s Brown vs. Board of Education or Browder vs. Gayle – bus desegregation.

In addition, in this post World War II period, several of the young men are veterans. Still, the reader only hears specifically about Jem, Dill and Hank – it’s not clear if any of the “Negroes” from Maycomb County served, although more than 1.2 million African Americans served in uniform on the home-front, in Europe and the Pacific. Another glitch is that Jem supposedly inherited his “weak” heart from his mother. Why wasn’t this medical problem discovered when he enlisted in the military? It also isn’t clear what Scout did during the war to support the troops and she would certainly remember.

Readers should recall from the media blitz surrounding it that Go Set A Watchman was actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird and provided the impetus for Lee to write what is now a literary classic. This particular manuscript was lost and then found again only a short time before publication. Despite the developmental flaws, Go Set A Watchman is an interesting read, a literary sketch that lacks the depth of To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet it provides a view of a time when and where the world began to change. People either had to evolve or expire. More foreshadowing of the ongoing cultural and social revolution would have helped the story. It remains wonderful to reconnect with Scout in this early work by Harper Lee. Regardless of the flaws, this story showcases sparks of genius so that it’s not difficult to see the emergence of an immensely talented author who told an unforgettable story.

Review provided by Shannon Kennedy for her column Shannon’s Space in the May 2016 edition of The Book Breeze.

Review: MR. SAMUEL’S PENNY by Treva Hall Melvin

51WFbK01x7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_MR. SAMUEL’S PENNY by Treva Hall Melvin / The Poisoned Pencil, November 2014 – 4.5 Stars

Blurb: It’s 1972 and fourteen-year-old New Yorker Elizabeth Landers is sent to the sleepy town of Ahoskie, North Carolina to spend the summer with relatives. Her expectation of boredom is quickly dispelled when police sirens and flashing lights draw her to a horrible scene at the Danbury Bridge. Mr. Samuel, owner of Samuel’s Lumber Yard, has driven his car off the bridge and into the river, drowning himself and his daughter. The medical examiner thinks it’s an accident, but the sheriff finds fresh bullet holes on the bridge right where the skid marks are.

Curiously, Mr. Samuel died clutching a unique 1909 wheat penny –a penny that is then stolen from the sheriff’s office. Lizbeth witnesses Miss Violet’s grief upon learning that her husband and child are dead, and decides she will help by finding the penny. Her search involves Lizbeth in the lives of many Ahoskie residents. Like the owner of the grocery store, mean old Mr. Jake, who –as all the kids in Ahoskie know –hates black folks. Plenty of pennies in his till. Then there is Ms. Melanie Neely, otherwise known as “Ms. McMeanie,” who thinks the lumber yard should belong to her. And Mr. Samuel’s handsome brother Ben, who struggles to keep the business afloat after his more clever brother’s death. Lizbeth searches through the collection plates at church and in the coin jars of crazy old Aunt Ode, a strange old woman missing one eye and most of her teeth, who keeps a flask in her apron pocket and a secret in her soul.

Review: In the summer of 1972, 14 year-old, African-American Elizabeth Parrot Landers, better known as Lizbeth and her 9 year-old sister, Helena leave their home in New York City to travel south to Ahoskie, North Carolina to visit their extended family. Barely unpacked, Lizbeth and her Auntie Alice hear a string of emergency vehicles racing to the scene of a nearby car accident. Of course they want to help, but to their horror when they arrive, they discover that Joe Samuel, owner of the local lumberyard drove off the Danbury Bridge into the river. Both he and his baby daughter, Emma perish. Shockingly, he holds a Lincoln “wheat” penny, only discovered when the police pull his body out of the water. That same penny vanishes from the sheriff’s department before the medical examiner from the adjacent county arrives.

A coin collector, Lizbeth knows the penny is actually rare; it’s not just one that shows a sheaf of wheat. She explains to her aunt and the sheriff that “the original coin was struck, or made with VDB, the initials of the designer. Three days later, the design was changed, making that initial penny very rare.” Since Mr. Samuel held onto that penny while he and his baby girl drowned, Lizbeth suspects it has great significance and becomes determined to find it and solve the mystery of the deaths. This decision leads her to search the town, involving her in everyone’s lives and their secrets. Of course, she has supporters like Auntie Alice and her husband, Uncle Frank, but Lizbeth has to deal with those who criticize others like Ms. Melanie Neely, better known as Ms. McMeanie. One life lesson follows another, causing Lizbeth to grow and change.

Lizbeth is a girl of her time, an era well described by the author. The turbulent aftermath of the 1960’s pervades the book with the ongoing Vietnam Conflict – not yet known as a war – the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation, covert and overt racism. A trustworthy narrator, Lizbeth describes what she sees and how it affects her family. She shares stories of her parents and what led them to leave North Carolina for New York. Momma is a nurse and Daddy drives a cab after working his day job as a chemist. Lizbeth’s desire to protect her family includes not always sharing everything she knows so her father won’t end up in physical danger and looking after 9 year-old Lena (Helena).

The authentic setting with its lush details adds to the story. Many older readers will remember a more innocent time when kids actually did ride their bicycles all over town, even to the neighborhood grocery. Lizbeth’s first impression of Mr. Jake, the store owner is justifiably a negative one. He does seem to hate his regular customers because of their race. Then, Mr. Jake steps up to help Mrs. Violet Samuel, the widow of the man who died, the mother of Emma. Disturbed by the sound of a baby crying, Violet rushes out of the store without her groceries. Mr. Jake follows, catching up with her in the parking lot. Slowly, Lizbeth begins to realize that people have their own stories and some aren’t easily shared.

These kinds of details add to the story and will remain in the reader’s mind. Unfortunately when something isn’t resolved that also stays with the reader, such as the fact that Pop-Pop, Lizbeth’s grandfather is mentioned at the beginning of the story and then never again. The same thing happens when Lizbeth appears to be the only one investigating the accident – especially when the reader hears someone shot at Mr. Samuel – but don’t really know what /if the sheriff is doing anything. Most readers will immediately realize that Lizbeth’s snooping could lead to disastrous results.

Of course this could all be explained because we’re in her viewpoint for the entire novel and teenagers tend to be self-absorbed at the best of times. Still, the reader was also told that Lizbeth and Lena would be moving around from relative to relative throughout the summer. Instead, they seem to remain with Auntie Alice and Uncle Frank for the duration. Considering the magical story, elegant prose, wonderful writing and superb characterization, these little bumps don’t affect the pacing. It’s to be hoped that Ms. Melvin returns soon to Lizbeth’s world and shares more of her adventures.

Review provided by Shannon Kennedy for her column Shannon’s Space in the May 2016 edition of The Book Breeze.

Review: SPINNER by Michael J. Bowler

Spinner front cover - FINAL VERSIONSPINNER by Michael J. Bowler

Young Dudes Publishing, August 2015 ~ 4½ Stars

Blurb: Fifteen-year-old Alex is a “spinner.” His friends are “dummies.”

Two clandestine groups of humans want his power. And an ancient evil is stalking him. If people weren’t being murdered, Alex might laugh at how his life turned into a horror movie overnight. In a wheelchair since birth, his freakish ability has gotten him kicked out of ten foster homes since the age of four. Now saddled with a sadistic housemother who uses his spinning to heal the kids she physically abuses, Alex and his misfit group of learning disabled classmates are the only ones who can solve the mystery of his birth before more people meet a gruesome end.

They need to find out who murdered their beloved teacher, and why the hot young substitute acts like she’s flirting with them. Then there’s the mysterious medallion that seems to have unleashed something malevolent, and an ancient prophecy suggesting Alex has the power to destroy humanity. The boys break into homes, dig up graves, elude kidnappers, fight for their lives against feral cats, and ultimately confront an evil as old as humanity. Friendships are tested, secrets uncovered, love spoken, and destiny revealed.

The kid who’s always been a loner will finally learn the value of friends, family, and loyalty. If he survives…

Review: From his wheelchair, fifteen-year-old Alex Maracles struggles with the complications of spinal bifida every day. It’s the same wheelchair that gives him the nickname of “spinner.” Somehow, he manages to take care of everything he needs to do, showering, dressing and getting himself off to school each morning. As a foster child, he doesn’t have any support at home. His foster mother incites competition, emotionally and verbally abusing the boys who live with her. She deprives them of what could be considered basic human needs. She even locks up the food and literally chains up the refrigerator. Where is the social worker who should be protecting Alex and the other boys?

In addition to the physical deprivations, Alex must contend with his foster mother attempting to document his paranormal abilities and use them for profit – hers, that is. He can “heal” injuries and unfortunately his youngest foster brother is often the victim who receives most of Alex’s treatments. Not only is Alex a healer, he also has precognitive dreams filled with gloom, despair and even murder. One of the first that he views shows the death of his beloved teacher, someone who has never made him feel less for being in a Special Education classroom, or for being unable to read very well. His friends in the class can’t help him since they suffer from the same functional illiteracy.

Like the rest of his friends, Alex is a complex, well-drawn character. The reader will easily recognize them as individuals who could be met on the street or in any school because they always remain consistent. While they label themselves as “losers”, in fact they are more truly “winners.” The authenticity of the background embellishes the story and so does the dialogue which may prove too authentic for some readers. Yes, there is swearing but it feels natural for these characters, not extraneous. The treatment of Special Education students in the public education system is all too often sadly similar to that depicted by Mr. Bowler, although not all substitute teachers are evil.

The major drawback in this story is the fact that the women and girls are so clichéd. We rarely see one with empathy and they die horribly. It becomes difficult to believe that females are either angels, or demons, or the “hoes” that the boys call them. Hmm, generally “hoes” are garden implements and prostitutes, or women who act like them are called, “ho’s” in dialect. This story has a well-developed setting, a diverse cast of male characters, good dialogue and pacing but the women characters need as much attention to detail as those that the male ensemble receives.

REVIEW PROVIDED BY SHANNON KENNEDY FOR HER COLUMN SHANNON’S SPACE IN THE FEB/MAR 2016 EDITION OF THE BOOK BREEZE.