Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (audio)

I got this title off some list of bests somewhere, and queued it up behind In the Woods on the return trip from Texas. It was a delightful, weird, engrossing adventure. I am going to be careful and vague with this one, as it hinges on big reveals that I don’t wish to spoil.

Set in Victorian London, Fingersmith begins with the first-person narration of Sue Trinder, an orphan who has been raised by a household of ‘honest thieves’ and a mother figure, Mrs. Sucksby. Sue and her comrades are fingersmiths, or pickpockets (and they partake in other crimes and cons, mostly of the property reassignment category). One day Sue is invited into a masterful heist: she will pose as lady’s maid to an innocent, sheltered woman of just her own age, the also-orphaned Maud Lilly, to aid in a fellow crook’s seduction of the lady. He will then marry her, steal her fortune, and have her locked away in a madhouse (which is sinfully easy to do to women, in those times and into quite recent history). Sue has never been a lady’s maid before, so she has much to learn about the job, but off she goes. The plot proceeds, but Sue’s loyalties become split, as it turns out she rather likes her mistress.

This is just the very beginning of the complications. But then! Part two! The first-person perspective shifts, which I did not see coming. And everything the reader thought she knew about this story gets turned on its head. I will stop writing about plot now, but it continued to surprise me, repeatedly, and Waters gets full marks for this feat. Also, I was not expecting erotica, which popped up a few times to (again) surprise me and was remarkably well done. Fingersmith is absolutely a plot to get thoroughly lost in; really great road trip fodder. I did feel in the middle that it dragged on a bit longer than it needed to – especially when the victim of this or that plot must wallow in her misfortune. I could take much less of the wallowing. But eventually we stepped out of that puddle, and the story continued to twist and turn; I was riveted right until the end, and was sorry to be done. Masterfully plotted; do recommend.


Rating: 8 ink stains.

In the Woods by Tana French (audio)

Loading up on audiobooks for the big drive to Texas and back, I made an unusual call: I chose to reread a book, or rather to listen to one I’d read years before. Life is mostly too short for rereads, but: 1, I love Tana French and have read everything of hers already. 2, I found this one on a best-of list of some sort, I think specifically referring to the audiobook (or else it’s just that I discovered late that she is especially good on audio, because of the Irish accents). 3, I am that lucky mystery fan who forgets plots and can therefore enjoy them again and anyway 4, I read this one of hers first and (mostly importantly) before I had this blog. So, off on the big drive with this excellent book…

…which it turns out I had forgotten wholly, because the plot scarcely felt familiar at all past the introductory scenes. First, a prologue flashback: in 1984, in a Dublin suburb, three 12-year-old best friends don’t come home when called for tea. Two of them, a boy and a girl, will never be seen again. The third, Adam, is found with his broken fingernails dug into a tree’s bark, with blood in his shoes but unharmed. He is catatonic and unable to help the police with their investigations. He goes away to boarding school; his family moves away; and then the reader discovers that he is the novel’s narrator, now a grown murder detective who goes by the name Rob Ryan (having taken his middle name to avoid his rocky past). Hilariously, Rob believes that his career choice has nothing to do with his lost childhood best friends.

In the present, some twenty years later, the body of a murdered child turns up in the very same suburb, in the same woods (now much abbreviated by development, and under controversy as a freeway expansion runs up against an archeological dig). Ryan and his partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, pull the case, despite being rather the young misfits of the department. Unbelievably, the murder squad does not know that Rob Ryan was once Adam Ryan, the very famous found boy of that old–and possibly connected–crime. Cassie is the only one, beside Rob’s parents (whom he feels he barely knows), who knows his identity.

In the Woods is an atmospheric, contemplatively-paced mystery novel in two timelines. As Ryan works on the present-day murder, he also probes at his own lost memories of that childhood trauma. It is also the story of relationships: Rob and Cassie share a very special bond, a very special friendship, which both resists and succumbs to stereotypes. I think it’s worth remarking that I do not actually like Rob Ryan, our narrator, protagonist, and therefore one might expect our hero. He isn’t that. Cassie is a compelling and likeable character, but since she is only seen through Ryan’s eyes (we get the story from him), I fear she never quite becomes fully known–not only in the way that none of us ever really knows anyone, but also because for all his adoration and attempts to understand her, she is finally a cipher for Ryan’s own issues. Perhaps what disappoints me most about him is that even after all his complexities and soul-searching, Ryan winds up predictable after all. I do not like him in the end.

The plot is however not predictable, even to this rereader. In fact, as I think about other Tana French books, it’s not actually the whodunit solution that I remember, but the atmosphere, the experience of being in the story as it unfolds. There were times when the pacing felt a bit off, when I felt we spent too much time wallowing, and that feels perhaps familiar from other T. French novels as well, but that’s a fairly minor quibble when I think about how real these characters felt. Also, the accents are completely wonderful on audio, which I think is the best way to do Tana French.

As I write this review, I’ve let too much time pass (because vacation), and already the denouement’s details are fading for me, but the relationships – between Ryan and Maddox, and other ones – still feel very near to me, the personalities and the conflicts. And I’ll always be back for more French.


Rating: 8 home-cooked meals.

Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

With lively and appealing historical detail, this mystery turns a poor factory worker into a sleuth when a murder disrupts the party at her favorite jazz speakeasy.

In Last Call at the Nightingale, Katharine Schellman (The Body in the Garden) serves up Prohibition-era murder and intrigue with style, atmosphere and a side of bootlegged bubbles and gin. The first in a Jazz Age mystery series, this novel will appeal to readers on several levels.

In 1920s New York City, Vivian Kelly is alone in the world but for her stick-in-the-mud older sister, Florence. Vivian works for a pittance and receives less respect in a dressmaker’s factory, but at night she has a space where she can forget her poor pricked fingers and dance ’til last call: the Nightingale, a speakeasy jazz club. “She needed to feel like she belonged somewhere, to feel there was something in her life that actually belonged to her,” and the Nightingale and its staff and patrons give her just that. Vivian is “poor orphan Irish trash”; her best friend Bea is Black; bartender Danny is Chinese; and the bar’s owner, Ms. Honor Huxley (don’t call her Miss), prefers other women as her dance partners. The Nightingale is a place where anything goes, more or less–until one night that includes murder.

When Vivian discovers a body just outside the club’s back door, she finds herself thrown into circumstances beyond her usual daytime drudgery and nighttime frolics. “I grew up in an orphanage. I live in a tenement. People die faster there than on Park Avenue,” she blusters, but she’s in over her head. Arrested in a raid, she owes her bail bond to the intimidating but sexy and intriguing Ms. Huxley. Then a mysterious stranger arrives from Chicago and begins pursuing Vivian. Threatening bruisers are hot on her tail, and Florence is increasingly displeased by the younger sister’s nightlife. Vivian at first feels pressure from others to solve the murder; eventually she may need to do so to save her own life. A poor dressmaker’s apprentice, she creeps into the parlors of the powerful to poke into their secrets, and finds herself pinned between the criminal underworld and the careless menace of the very rich. Time is running out, but this protagonist is as plucky as they come.

Readers will love Last Call at the Nightingale for its twisting plot, its flair for historical detail and its inclusive cast of appealing characters. Schellman’s author’s note on historical accuracy broadens the appeal of this engrossing jaunt into murder and dangerously good times. Don’t look away, as the surprises keep coming until the final page.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 stitches.

Shady Hollow by Juneau Black

This whimsical cozy mystery set in a town of animal characters will tickle and amuse alongside its whodunit plot.

Previously published in 2015 by Hammer & Birch, Shady Hollow is the first in a series of cozy mysteries starring sweet, lovable animal characters. Juneau Black (pen name of a two-author team) will please lovers of both woodland creatures and whodunits with this gentle, plot-twisting exploration of small-town life.

The community of Shady Hollow is home to a typical cast of amiable eccentrics, including a gossip-hungry hummingbird; a good-natured, coffee-slinging moose; a timid mouse accountant; and a family of upper-crusty beavers. When a cantankerous toad turns up dead in the mill pond, however, the town’s policebears turn out to be underprepared to investigate, and it falls to local reporter Vera Vixen to uncover the murderer. Vera the fox is “an old-school journalist, despite her youth,” and though new to town, her friendship with Lenore Lee (a wise raven well-read in murder and, naturally, owner of Nevermore Books) provides a solid base for her inquiries. The more she learns about the inhabitants of Shady Hollow, however, the more complicated the case becomes, and Vera herself may be in danger.

With its charming and affable characters, Shady Hollow nonetheless serves up plenty of intrigue and danger, ending with teasing hints of what’s to come in the next installment (Cold Clay is slated for March 2022). The nonhuman cast offers an extra note of humor: accused of cynicism, Lenore responds, “I’m a raven…. If you want sunshine and melodies, go find a swallow.” This captivating tale offers sunshine and murder in perfect proportion to keep readers entertained and engrossed in deceptively placid Shady Hollow.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back Friday for my interview with Juneau Black!

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

This is the story of how my best friend disappeared. How nobody noticed she was gone except me. And how nobody cared until they found her… one year later.

Our narrator is Claudia, who returns home to Washington, D.C. from Georgia (where she spends summers with her grandmother) to enter eighth grade, and finds her best friend Monday has vanished. Monday hasn’t returned Claudia’s letters all summer, and now she can’t track her down by phone or at home. The timeline shifts between a few points before Monday’s disappearance – so that the readers gets to see their friendship – and the time after. Claudia’s first-person narration is heart-breaking: her angst, the drama and despair of teenagerhood, her isolation after losing her only friend (otherwise, social settings like school are not particularly kind to her, at least in her own view), and feels authentically like a fourteen-year-old’s voice. I found it a well-written book in general, with good pacing and tension and a sense of momentum; these 400+ pages flipped easily by.

The story of Monday’s disappearance is a mystery, even though the opening lines (quoted above) foreshadow at least one important element of the final solution. Monday’s Not Coming could fit into a few genres, including amateur detective story, as Claudia searches relentlessly for her friend even when everyone around her encourages her to give up. She begs her parents for help, tries a police detective – even Monday’s older sister tells her to just leave it. The reader slowly becomes aware of some issues Claudia herself faces, which bear on the unique relationship between the two girls – almost a codependence, in fact. Where we come to see that Monday was a strong student, Claudia struggles with her schoolwork, but has an intuitive feeling for color and design; she is a dancer, an artist and a creative thinker. “We lived in our own world,” she recalls, “with our own language and customs. We lived inside a thick, shiny bubble that no needle was sharp enough to pop.” A few reveals keep the plot moving neatly along. I have to say, though, that a final big reveal in the book’s last 50 pages felt like one step too many for this reader. I think it was gripping enough and this may have taken it a hair into the incredible. I don’t think the story needed that final complication.

Back-cover blurbs and promotional copy for this novel point out that its plot is “straight from the headlines,” in which girls of color do indeed disappear with scarcely a ripple in cities like D.C. In this regard, Monday’s Not Coming is firmly rooted in fact. How does a teenaged girl truly vanish without anybody noticing? Well, for one thing, it’s not quite that nobody notices as much as nobody seems to care, which is not less horrifying. It is to Jackson’s credit that the unbelievable is made believable in this narrative (even if I wasn’t a fan of the final wrinkle).

Claudia is a very real and painfully struggling young person, and a compelling narrator; it was an excellent choice to make hers the perspective for this story. Monday is a little bit of a shifting target. We mostly see her, obviously, through Claudia’s eyes, and Claudia comes to doubt her own truth; we are offered an idea that there was another version of Monday than the one Claudia knew (which I think is generally true of humans). Regardless of the ability of a teenaged girl – or any of us – to present multiple faces, Monday is a tragic figure and one we will mourn alongside her best friend. I was disappointed with some of the adults in this story (unavoidably), but they felt real, too. It certainly sheds a light on a very sad real-world issue, as intended. Alongside society’s failings of young women of color, Monday’s Not Coming touches on issues of class, gender representation, sexuality, and various cultural norms. I think it’s a strong choice for discussion groups (classrooms, book clubs) for these reasons.

I really enjoyed reading this one – well, ‘enjoy’ may be the wrong word for such a sad story, but I admired Jackson’s work.


Rating: 7 shades of red.

Dark Night by Paige Shelton

Piles of intrigue and secrets populate a remote town in Alaska, where an amateur sleuth hopes to reinvent herself, in book three of this cozy mystery series.

Dark Night, book three in Paige Shelton’s Alaska Wild series, continues the adventures of thriller writer Beth Rivers in the insular small town of Benedict, Alaska. Like Thin Ice and Cold Wind, this installment offers intrigue in a low-gore, cozy package.

Beth is known to the rest of the world under her pseudonym, Elizabeth Fairchild, but after an abduction and skin-of-the-teeth escape, she’s retreated to this remote hamlet to live quietly and anonymously: only the local police chief knows who she really is. With winter closing in and a few friends kept at arm’s distance, Beth tries to heal from the trauma and go on with her writing, hoping to hear that her abductor will eventually be caught. Instead, her mother turns up unexpectedly. Mill Rivers is a loose cannon, on the run from the law herself–and she may be Beth’s best hope at finding peace and finally feeling safe again. A local murder, of course, spices things up. Between Beth’s reluctant romantic interest in the comically named Tex Southern, the propensity of Benedict’s residents to keep their secrets, an ill-mannered, unwanted census taker and yet another fugitive in town, mother and daughter will have their hands full solving mysteries large and small.

Beth’s relationship with local law enforcement (and Benedict’s unconventional boundaries in this regard) allow her to act as an unofficial investigator. Mill is a force to be reckoned with in every way: another amateur detective, but with a violent streak, she still seeks her husband (Beth’s father), who has been missing for decades. The librarian is a special-ops dark horse, and the local dog sledder and tow truck driver may have a checkered history of his own. Beth is a by-choice tenant at a halfway house for female felons; the list of eccentrics lengthens from here. Benedict is the town where people go to keep their secrets, but Beth may have to open up if she’s going to learn the truth of her own past.

Shelton’s plot is twistier than a path through the dark Alaska woods. Her characters may be bumbling, but they are generally well-meaning, except when they are revealed as decidedly otherwise. Suspicions shift and suspense builds in this novel of discovery, growth, relationship building and investigatory hijinks. As a bonus, Dark Night ends with a lead-in to the next episode: Beth Rivers’s trajectory will surely extend and continue to complicate as she deepens her roots in the captivating town of Benedict.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 cheese-foraging adventures.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly (audio)

We have another mediocre showing from Connelly here, I’m afraid. This one is a departure from the Bosch series: The Late Show features Detective Renee Ballard, who is also a renegade anti-establishment figure who gets shit on by the LAPD, but with an added woman-in-a-man’s-world angle. (She is also younger.) I was once more a little indifferent as to plot for most of the novel, but I was pleased with some significant twists and reveals in the final denouement, so that was nice. The narrator again felt awfully wooden – what is up with this trend? And why are there so few contractions? (I am instead of I’m, can not instead of can’t) …Connelly’s writing feels consistently awkward over the last many books. I wonder, is it him or is it me? I keep meaning to go back and read some early Bosch (in print!) and investigate this question, whether Connelly’s writing has become less good or I have become harder to please. But devoting that time feels like asking a lot at this point.

Ballard is appealing in some ways but doesn’t quite feel fully fleshed. She has interesting relationships with other cops, and an interesting backstory, referring to various traumas; but all of this feels told and not shown. I kept feeling like I was waiting for the story to ramp up, but instead it ended.

Maybe one more experiment with this formerly beloved author before I give up, with deep regrets.


Rating: 6 and a half black buttons.

Lee Child shorts: “Public Transportation” and “Wet with Rain” (audio)

“Public Transportation” was available from Audible as a standalone short (originally from the collection Phoenix Noir), and “Wet with Rain” comes from Exit Wounds: Nineteen Tales of Mystery from the Modern Masters of Crime. They were, I think, 13 and 28 minutes respectively, give or take. Just a few quick indulgences during a drive to the next county to my local bike shop.

Classic Child, so not much to report here, but in the best ways. “Public Transportation” offers a surprise twist and no serial characters. A cop is talking with a journalist about an old unsolved murder case; we get a fairly quick summary of the crime, the investigation (in hindsight, botched), and the problematic conclusion eventually settled on by the police department. “Wet with Rain” is also Reacher-free, but slightly more involved. We get a little less context, but eventually understand that two Americans with a certain agency have traveled to Ireland to run a secret operation, about which information is doled out slowly and out of order, so that we’re still putting things together even as they happen. Each of these stories represents a sort of puzzle – for the reader and for the players involved. Only one has a quick punch of a surprise; the other is more of a slow burn. And, again, neither involves our hero Reacher. But each serves as a good example of Child’s skill with intrigue, detail, and apparently effortless storytelling (which actually may be the hardest kind), as well as a certain dark side of human nature. I enjoyed both as quick jaunts, and would love to have access to more of the same: quick, punchy stories by authors I know I love. My lifestyle doesn’t support longer audiobooks these days. Look for more podcast reviews to come, I guess…

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio)

The first, good news is that this one went over better than my last Connelly effort, Two Kinds of Truth. I found the plot absorbing throughout. I repeat my criticism of Titus Welliver’s narration, though – I’d forgotten until I reread that earlier review, but I again find him uninflected or occasionally putting the emphasis in what feels like the wrong place in a phrase or sentence. I like him onscreen but not here.

Harry Bosch has been retired from the LAPD for a few months, having been pushed out against his will; his half-brother and lawyer Mickey Haller is suing the Department on his behalf, so the blood is generally bad. (To place us in time, Bosch’s daughter Maddie is finishing her senior year of high school and getting ready to go off to Chapman for college.) Haller then asks Bosch to do some investigation work for a client who Haller is sure is innocent of the murder he’s accused of. Bosch has a strong reaction to the idea: working for the defense would be crossing a line. Defense = bad. (I easily believe that many officers feel this way, so I don’t doubt the realism, but it rankles. The whole point of the adversarial court system is to push back against all charges, forcing their proof, and protecting against false convictions. No one is served by law enforcement’s insistence that it never ever gets anything wrong [even leaving aside purposeful wrongdoing].) Bosch does come around to the idea: if this accused client is innocent, that means there’s a murderer out there roaming free. This activates his sense of justice; plus he’s gotten pretty bored with his motorcycle rebuild project. We all know Bosch needs to be crime-solving. So he agrees to just take a look at the case for Haller. And we’re off and running.

For a little added plot interest and complication, the novel mostly follows Bosch, but also switches over to the bad guys here and there, so the reader has more information than he does (although far from all), which is a fun narrative device.

I like that the title has several meanings within the story. The narrator makes reference to a crossing between murder victim and murderer, where events get set in motion; a crossing over from public heterosexual lifestyle to same-sex relations; and the crossing over that most troubles Bosch throughout this story, as he moves into investigative work for the defense. There are a number of other crossing-the-line references, which might even be considered heavy-handed – I again feel that Connelly flirts with over-explaining – but in the case of the title’s role I ended up appreciating the multiple connections.

There’s something just a little stilted about the dialog and characters here, like Bosch’s (and I think Haller’s) avoidance of contractions, but I’m not even certain how much is Connelly and how much is Welliver. There was again a bit much explaining, especially between Haller and Bosch. I understand that it’s a trick, as the writer, to let your reader in on need-to-know information without having your (expert) characters explain in dialog. I just didn’t remember Connelly being as clumsy about it as I find him here.

That’s nit-picking, though. The plot and intrigue was sufficient to keep me engaged and generally distracted from minor quibbles. Neither Connelly’s best nor his worst work; a perfectly serviceable listen.


Rating: 7 references to Walmart.

The Searcher by Tana French (audio)

Tana French never disappoints. This 2020 novel (her latest to date) reminded me quite a bit of her second book, The Likeness (2008), which is still my favorite, I think. In line with all her work, The Searcher boasts intriguing characters with shadowy pasts; a very strong sense of place; and some of the most atmospheric writing I know. What most reminded me of The Likeness was a general, foreboding suspicion about the people around our protagonist, a low-level nagging sense that we’re not sure who everyone is really and what their motivations might be.

It’s still set in Ireland, now in a rural area of tiny villages, but in a departure from her past work, French’s protagonist is American. Cal Hooper is a recently retired detective from the Chicago Police Department, trying to renovate the dilapidated little farmhouse he bought from afar, not too hopeful of making new friends but amenable to the gifted-in-gab locals like his new neighbor Mart. He talks to his adult daughter about once a week. He misses his ex-wife. The reader has to wait to find out what these dim shapes, back in the States, exactly mean to Cal. Meanwhile, he’s getting cautiously adjusted to no longer looking over his shoulder for crime all the time, but somebody’s definitely been watching him – aside from the rooks in the tree out back, whom he rather appreciates – and it’s creeping him out. His peeping tom turns out to be a 13-year-old kid named Trey. What does Trey want, exactly? It will take Cal a certain amount of interview skills to find out. And what he discovers threatens to launch him back into the kind of crime investigation he’d hoped to leave behind.

There are many layers to absorb here. In its handling of gender, The Searcher subtly offers commentary or at least food for thought; the tensions of changing times in a rural setting (technology, employment options, young people moving away, the urban/rural divide, options by gender) are a minor but important focus. Moral ambiguities and the importance of having a “code” feature throughout – other reviewers have placed this novel at least partly within the Western genre. Another slight but important thread deals with police brutality and race in the United States, too, for currency. I appreciated the natural world as… more than backdrop. Events play out against a natural world that can be cruel but only in the ways of nature, with parallels that inform the human dramas. Those rooks, which (tellingly) open the book, provide a keystone for Cal’s experiences. Finally, this rural Ireland made me think repeatedly of small-town Appalachia where I’ve settled. And of course many Scots and Irish settled in Appalachia, so it’s not too strange to think of cultural threads crossing over. But it felt a bit uncanny, and comforting.

Roger Clark’s performance on this audio edition wound up feeling perfectly pitched, although it took me a while to get used to the American accent when I was expecting an Irish one, based on past experience with French. I think Clark performed the accents well all around. There was a brief howdy-partner backwoods bit that felt put upon to me, but I’m ascribing that momentary awkwardness to French and not Clark. I still love her work in this format.

This novel has lots to sink into for the discerning reader. And there’s a compelling plot regarding young Trey and the mystery Cal finds himself roped into, and all the fine work of suspense and mood that French does best. If this isn’t her finest novel yet, it’s right up there, and more multifaceted than most mysteries. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 8 rabbits.
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