Book Review: The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A good historical fantasy adventure, woven through with elements of suspense and mythology. 3 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Fact: Five thousand years ago, the Mayans carved thirteen crystal skulls.

Fact: To protect humankind, they sent them to the four corners of the globe.

Fact: They gave a precise date for when they thought the world would end: 21 December 2012.

Fact: They said that this time the destruction will be of man’s making.

Fact: Only when all thirteen skulls are reunited can the world be saved from its fate.

For the last 500 years one skull has been missing. Now it’s about to be found …

Favourite Quote

It was only a horse, a white horse, carved in simple, flowing lines from a green hillside to show the white chalk beneath.

(From The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott, page 375)

Review

I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I just felt like there was too much going on. The dual timelines of the Elizabethan and present day, although providing the space to create a very interesting story – and it was interesting – ensured there is too much to do and see, and a lot of story to tell. This book comes in at 500+ pages and it needs to be that long to cover so much story.

Apart from that, this is a good historical fantasy adventure, with elements of suspense and mythology woven through it. The settings were were evocative: in the modern timeline they included an unexplored cave network, the White Horse of Uffington, and the ancient Ridgeway. In the 16th century, we are given a glimpse of the wider world as Cedric Owens travels from Elizabethan England, to France, then Spain, then across the ocean to the New World, to New Spain. What’s more, I could envisage quite clearly each of the locations visited, either in the past or present.

I liked a number of the characters, although I didn’t feel much of a connection to any of them. The adventure element in Cedric Owens timeline was fun and engaging, and his friendship with Fernandez de Aguilar was well-written.

I can imagine this would make a fantastic film if given the opportunity.

Rating

Book Review: Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An engaging thriller-style murder mystery that kept me guessing until the very end. A great cast of characters, a compelling setting and wonderful storytelling ensured there was never a dull moment. 4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

A man is found dead in an escape tunnel beneath an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. Did he die in an accidental collapse – or was this murder? Captain Henry ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles, master tunneller and amateur detective, takes up the case.

This classic locked-room mystery with a closed circle of suspects is woven together with a thrilling story of escape from the camo, as the Second World War nears its endgame and the British prisoners prepare to flee into the Italian countryside.

Favourite Quote

“I’ve no objection to them playing baseball, as long as they don’t do it on the rugger pitch.”

(From Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert, page 78)

Review

This story is quite different to other British Library Crime Classics I have so far read.

From the title of the book you would be forgiven for thinking is a sombre, dark story but it’s not. More in the vein of The Great Escape, this story is a light, very British tale of prisoners-of-war being held in an Italian prison camp during WWII, where rank and hierarchy are maintained and the main goals are escape and deception. That is, until one of the prisoners is found dead in one of the escape tunnels.

This was a very interesting mystery that kept me guessing until the end. The complex relationships between those being held in the camp ensure you’re never quite certain of some of the characters motivations. Not only are British POWs being interred at this camp but other nationalities too, as well as the possibility or double agents and spies. Discovery is always a danger and heightened the tension throughout.

If you enjoy WWII films, especially of the ilk of The Great Escape, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this one too. The author himself spent time in an Italian POW camp, and so brought his first-hand knowledge to the tale. It exudes authenticity and I was interested to learn the book was made into a film, which I would love to see one day.

Rating

Book Review: The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

Quick Review (read on for full review)

The Grave Tattoo is a complex, intelligent mystery with a great setting and engaging cast of characters. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

From bestselling author Val McDermid comes a modern thriller about an ancient murder set on the high seas…

After summer rains uncover a corpse bearing tattoos like those of eighteenth-century seafarers, many residents of the English Lake District can’t help but wonder whether it’s the body of one of the town’s most legendary fugitives.

Scholar and native Lakelander Jane Gresham feels compelled to finally discover the truth about the myths and buried secrets rooted in her hometown. What she never expected was to find herself at the heart of a 200-year-old mystery that still has the power to put lives on the line. And with each new lead she pursues, death follows hard on her heels….

Favourite Quote

“Jane couldn’t remember a time when Langmere Force hadn’t mesmerised her, taking her out of what ever ailed her and making her feel healed.”

(From The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid, page, 363)

[Note: Langmere Force is a waterfall]

Review

I’ve had a few Val McDermid novels on my bookshelf for a while but The Grave Tattoo is the first one I’ve read, and I must say, I wish I had got to this one sooner.

The Grave Tattoo is a complex, intelligent mystery with a great setting and engaging cast of characters.

I really enjoyed how the two mysteries, the one from 200 years ago and the one unfolding as we read, played out. All the characters were expertly crafted and their personalities and motivations came across as authentic. I also enjoyed the setting. The majority of the story was set in the Lake District and descriptions of waterfalls and hills and lakes, as always, appealed to the geography geek in me.

I found how the older tale was divulged to the reader to be clever, fun and imaginative. Snippets of a manuscript are provided at the end of the chapters, so we can get to hear the story as it was told to the one who recorded it. This way the reader doesn’t have to navigate what can sometimes be difficult changes in POV, time and setting, whilst at the same time the primary modern narrative isn’t interrupted. I thought this worked so well.

The cast of characters is extensive but necessary to the story, and is handled well by the author. I liked the unlikely friendship between Dr Jane Gresham and 13 year old Tenille, who had been written off because of her background. And with my interest in history and archaeology, I found the passages regarding the bog body, affectionately nicknamed “Pirate Peat” in the book by the forensic pathologist studying him, fascinating.

I will certainly be reading more of the author’s books because I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Rating

Book Review: Progressive Dinner Deadly by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Progressive Dinner Deadly is the second book in the Myrtle Clover Mysteries by Elizabeth Spann Craig.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Myrtle Clover is always such fun and is one of my favourite sleuths. I heartily recommend this series! 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Who wants chips and dip when they can have Dickens and Twain?

To the residents of the sleepy town of Bradley, North Carolina, hardworking Jill Caulfield seemed beyond reproach. She volunteered at the women’s shelter, worked at the church preschool, cleaned houses for extra money, and actually enjoyed yard work. And she was nothing less than a saint to cheerfully put up with her unemployed, skirt-chasing, boozer of a husband.

When intrepid octogenarian sleuth Myrtle Clover caught Jill, her new housekeeper, peering into her medicine cabinet, she should have been upset. But discovering that Jill wasn’t such a squeaky-clean goody-goody made her vastly more interesting in Myrtle’s eyes.

Myrtle would have happily continued figuring out what made Jill Caulfield tick. If Jill hadn’t foolishly gone and gotten herself murdered, that is.

Favourite Quote

“Social media is the new frontier.” Myrtle wasn’t exactly sure what social media was but she loved the complete bewilderment on Red’s face.

(From Progressive Dinner Deadly by Elizabeth Spann Craig, Chapter 18)

Review

I had been going through a bit of a reading slump before picking up this book to read. Yet, Myrtle Clover can always be relied on to remedy the situation. Although this one isn’t my favourite title in the series, it was entertaining and had me laughing out loud on a few occasions.

Until reading this book, I had no idea what a progressive dinner was, but now I know, I can say it was the perfect backdrop for a cosy murder mystery. The pace is nicely balanced to ensure it moved along nicely, though perhaps not as quickly as some of the later books.

I love the characters in this series. I’ve mentioned before that my favourite, apart from Myrtle of course, is Wanda the psychic and I was so glad she made an appearance in this one.

Also, I love the covers for these books. They are so bright and vibrant and eye-catching.

Side note: I love the Myrtle Clover books. So. Much. And it’s great to know that the series keeps getting longer. Book 18 of the Myrtle Clover books, “Death of a Suitor”, was released at the end of July (2021). Woohoo!

Rating

Book Review: Agatha Raisin and The Terrible Tourist by M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and The Terrible Tourist is the sixth book in the Agatha Raisin series by M.C. Beaton

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A fast-paced and entertaining cosy mystery, which held my attention to the very last page.  Pure escapism! 4.5 / 5

Summary (from goodreads)

Agatha Raisin leaves her sleepy Cotswolds village of Carsely to pursue love – and finds murder. Spurned at the altar, she follows her fleeing fiance James Lacey to north Cyprus, where, instead of enjoying the honeymoon they’d planned, they witness the murder of an obnoxious tourist in a disco. Intrigue and a string of murders surround the unlikely couple, in a plot as scorching a the Cypriot sun!

Favourite Quote

‘People think high tragedy belongs to the Greeks and Shakespeare, but mark my words, Aggie, it’s alive and well in the suburbs of England.’

(From Agatha Raisin and The Terrible Tourist by M.C. Beaton, page 222)

Review

It took me a little while to get into this one, and I feared my love with these books had come to an end.  The reason? When the book opens, I couldn’t quite credit what Agatha was doing. It wasn’t so much unbelievable rather that it made me cringe too much to read it.  However, I put it aside for a few days and then when I picked it up again, I couldn’t put it down!

We get to see a different side to Agatha in The Terrible Tourist as she comes face-to-face with her own self-worth. I liked Charles Fraith who we met before in The Walkers of Dembley (you can find my review here). He’s a bit tight and a bit of a cad but he also says the nicest things to Agatha, things which she needs to hear, so I’ll forgive him.  James is even more awkward than he was before, which is exacerbated by his jealousy.

As for the other British tourists they meet, they are all pretty much unlikeable, but they did not feel out of place in the story. The setting was wonderfully described and I particularly enjoyed the way the geography and historical context of the places they visited was fed through the story – by being read aloud from a tourist guide.

All-in-all, a fun and entertaining read which, once it got going held my attention until the very end. An easy, enjoyable read.  pure escapism.

Rating

4.5 / 5

Book Review: Mystery In White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A fun, solid wintry classic crime read, perfect for reading over the Christmas holiday. 3 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

This classic Christmas mystery is republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Martin Edwards.

Favourite Quote

“Miss Noyes,” replied Lydia, “suppose this house belonged to you, and you returned to it after the world’s worst snowstorm, would you rather find your larder empty or seven skeletons?…”

(From Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon, page 79)

Review

I read this story for Festive Reads Fortnight 2019 but never got around to posting the review, so I waited a whole year so that I could as I thought it would seem quite out of season to do anything else.

Mystery in White is a fun, entertaining read.  Now, if you think from the summary or even the book cover, which is just so lovely, that this story is like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, it is not. The stories are very much different.

The premise is very good and the isolated location and set up of what’s to come pulled me right into the story.  The cast of characters was interesting and varied. Each brought something different to the narrative, but that being said, I didn’t particularly warm to many of them. The setting was my favourite part of the story. Set one Christmas Eve in the 1930s, we are treated to a train ride, snowstorm and isolated country house. The story itself has a number of elements of the classic crime story: a locked room mystery, a murder, a list of suspects who hitherto have been strangers to one another, a little atmospheric spookiness…

The main problem I had with this story (and it is the same problem I had with the only other J. Jefferson Farjeon story I have read, The Z Murders – see my review here), is that the author has a habit of introducing new characters much later in the story than is often usual for a mystery.  And these characters are main characters around which the rest of the story seems to build. Most readers who enjoy mysteries, enjoy trying to solve it as the story unfolds, and that becomes a little difficult when important elements of the tale are deliberately withheld by the author.

However, it is still a fun read if you’re looking for a typically British golden age crime story, and I think it would be an entertaining choice if it was ever picked up for TV or film.

I’ve really been enjoying making a way through the British Library Crime Classics, and although Mystery in White is not my favourite out of the ones I’ve so far read, it was certainly worth a read, especially in the run up to Christmas.

Rating

Book Review: The Shakespeare Secret by J.L. Carrell

The Shakespeare Secret is the first book by J.L Carrell to feature Kate Stanley.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A complex, fast-paced adventure through the world of Shakespeare, both past and present, which kept me entertained. 3.5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

A modern serial killer – hunting an ancient secret.

A woman is left to die as the rebuilt Globe theatre burns. Another woman is drowned like Ophelia, skirts swirling in the water. A professor has his throat slashed open on the steps of Washington’s Capitol building.

A deadly serial killer is on the loose, modelling his murders on Shakespeare’s plays. But why is he killing? And how can he be stopped?

Favourite Quote

The book that had rolled from the presses at last was a beautiful thing – a blatant bid to shift the author from the rowdy, disreputable world of the theatre to the eternal truths of poetry.

(From The Shakespeare Secret by J. L. Carrell, page 55)

Review

For the most part, I enjoyed this story.  It was an entertaining tale, full of action and adventure, and with plenty of twists and turns, reminding me in no small way of the writing of Dan Brown, especially the Da Vinci Code.  I had an idea of how the story was going to end, but I couldn’t quiet guess how it would get there, so it certainly kept me interested.

The story is presented as a Shakespeare play, with the modern story taking place during the “Acts” and the historical flashbacks / contexts taking place in the “Interludes” between. I understand the reason behind doing this, but I wonder if the book might have read better without the historical scenes.  The Acts were far longer than the interludes and the modern story complicated enough without stepping back in time to another cast of characters, whose own storylines themselves were convoluted.  Political and religious intrigues of the Elizabethan era, not to mention family trees, are complex, and when there is more than one character called “Will”, or the person in question is being referred to by their family name or title…yeah, it can be hard to keep up.

If you don’t like Shakespeare, or have no interest in his plays and sonnets, you probably won’t enjoy this book. Neither will you appreciate the references to his writing and life, made throughout the story, which were cleverly woven into the plot. Also, if you take Shakespeare and everything about him quite seriously, again you might not enjoy this book, especially if you have a firm view on whether Shakespeare was really the man behind the works attributed to him. But if you can separate the fictional entertainment from the scholarly aspects of the subject, I do think you will enjoy it.

I loved all the locations the story meanders through, some of which I’ve visited myself – Stratford-upon-Avon, and some you wouldn’t necessarily think of – Valladolid, Spain. The author clearly knows a lot about the subject, and this knowledge filters down through the storytelling.

It wasn’t until I was writing the review for The Shakespeare Secret that I realised the author has penned another book featuring Kate Stanley, Haunt Me Still, inspired by Macbeth.  Having been well-entertained with the first book, I would gladly give this second book a read.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Book Review: Death at the Priory by James Ruddick

Death at The Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England, by James Ruddick.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A well-written true crime mystery and an in-depth look into the role of women in the Victorian period. Compelling reading! 4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

In 1875, the beautiful and vivacious widow Florence Ricardo married Charles Bravo, a dashing barrister. The marriage seemed a happy one, but one night, four months after the wedding, Bravo collapsed. For the next fifty-five hours, with some of London’s most distinguished physicians in attendance, Charles suffered a slow and agonizing death.  All the doctors agreed: Charles Bravo had been poisoned.

The dramatic investigation that followed was covered in sensational detail by the press. So great was public interest in the case that coverage of it eclipsed the prime minister’s negotiations with Egypt, the Prince of Wales’ Indian tour and the conflict in the Balkans. The finger of suspicion pointed at various times at suicide, at Mrs Cox the housekeeper, at George Griffiths, a stableman with a grudge, and at the remarkable figure of Florence Bravo herself.

Death at the Priory is a gripping historical reconstruction and startling portrait of a woman, a marriage and a society. The brilliant conclusion uses new evidence discovered by the author to demonstrate conclusively who really murdered Charles Bravo.

Favourite Quote

“An unhappy woman with easy access to weedkiller had to be watched carefully.”

(From Death at The Prioy, by James Ruddick, page 172)

Review

It’s not often that I review non-fiction on Sammi Loves Books, because I tend to dip in and out of it, but I read “Death at The Priory” from cover to cover, and was completely gripped by the case.

I enjoy reading about true crime, especially if in an historical context, and especially if said crime remained unsolved, and if it could be classed as a type of “locked room” mystery.  I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the death of Charles Bravo before, given my interest in Victorian history and true crime.  By all accounts, it was covered with relish in the media of the day, eclipsing events on the world stage, even.

Death at the Priory is extremely well-written.  The evidence is presented clearly, in an easy to understand, easy to digest manner, without becoming heavy or requiring the author to dress it up with dramatic prose.  Although some passages are quite graphic – yes, there is a reference to sex in the book’s subtitle – it does help in providing a context in which Charles Bravo’s death occurred.

Florence Bravo, wife of the dead man, was certainly an interesting woman to read about, with a colourful life, and a tragic ending. She had been unfortunate in as much as she’d had to endure two unhappy marriages to husbands who were abusive towards her. The prevailing opinion of the day was that this was a woman’s lot, and she had to suffer it with grace and silence.  Florence, unconventionally for the time, did not believe she had to accept this.  She believed she had a right to be happy and if that meant away from her husband, she would not be forced to remain with him…

Charles Bravo is not painted as a sympathetic character at all, and I found myself having little concern for him in his plight.  I thought the author’s conclusions in his attempt to solve the case were definitely plausible, but of course, after the passage of so much time, and with all those being involved long dead, we will never know the truth for certain.

A fascinating read, one which I recommend to those interested in true crime, or who are interested in the role of women in Victorian society.

Rating

Book Review: Lights, Camera…by Carolyn Keene

Lights, Camera…is the fifth book in the Nancy Drew: Girl Detective series, by Carolyn Keene.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Not as good as I remember, unfortunately, but worth a read just to see how the character and style has changed for a modern audience. 2.5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

I’m a detective, not an actor, so who would think I’d be involved in a crime both offscreen and on? A producer has come to River Heights to film a re-enactment of the heist that gave our town it’s name, and he thinks I’m perfect for the part of Esther, the sister of the thieving Rackham boys. So I figure, why not give it a try?

But once the cameras start rolling, the trouble begins. Food poisoning. Broken generators. And worse! If I don’t sniff out some suspects soon, this might be my final act.

Favourite Quote

I was really fired up, because hanging out on a movie set was a far better escape from shoe shopping than I could have thought up.

(From Lights, Camera…by Carolyn Keene, page 5)

Review

I used to read the Nancy Drew books when I was younger, and when I found a copy of Lights, Camera… in a bag of books given to me by a family member, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to a childhood favourite.

However, my fond memories of the books I grew up reading were not to be reinforced by my reading of this newer take on the series.  In fact, they ensured I saw what was lacking in this more modern story.  First, let me explain what I remember of the Nancy Drew books: there was a depth to the storytelling that drew a young reader in, you wanted to know about the characters as well as the plots. And the story felt believable.

This modern Nancy Drew felt very light; there was little depth to the characters and the story moved too quickly and without the necessary fluidity to pull the pace off, making it clunky.  There was plenty of action though, and I did read it to the end.  What I did find quite annoying was that almost every time an adult said to Nancy the filming has to stop because of (fill in the blank), Nancy would respond with, “but I have a friend who can do that” and save the day.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this is one of those books that works better if you’re part of the audience it is intended for…

So ultimately, I didn’t think this was as a good as I remembered, unfortunately, but it was worth a read just to see how the character and style has changed for a modern audience.  I don’t think I would be interested in reading any more, only revisiting the earlier series of the books.

Rating

2.5 / 5

Book Review: The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches is the sixth book in the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

I loved everything about this book.  Flavia is fantastic, the storyline engaging and the setting captivating.  A wonderful read.  Highly recommended.  5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

On a spring morning in 1951, eleven-year-old chemist and aspiring detective Flavia de Luce gathers with her family at the railway station, awaiting the return of her long-lost mother, Harriet. Yet upon the train’s arrival in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia is approached by a tall stranger who whispers a cryptic message into her ear. Moments later, he is dead, mysteriously pushed under the train by someone in the crowd. Who was this man, what did his words mean, and why were they intended for Flavia? Back home at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ crumbling estate, Flavia puts her sleuthing skills to the test. Following a trail of clues sparked by the discovery of a reel of film stashed away in the attic, she unravels the deepest secrets of the de Luce clan, involving none other than Winston Churchill himself. Surrounded by family, friends, and a famous pathologist from the Home Office—and making spectacular use of Harriet’s beloved Gipsy Moth plane, Blithe Spirit—Flavia will do anything, even take to the skies, to land a killer

Favourite Quote

“…But ‘kill’, as you will have observed, like ‘spy’ and ‘stop’, is really just one more of those short but exceedingly troublesome words.”

(From The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley, page 220)

Review

I’m going to keep this review fairly short, for fear of sounding repetitive, seeing as though it was only a few weeks ago that I reviewed my first Flavia de Luce book and my thoughts haven’t changed.  (You can read that review here.)  Honestly, they’ve not changed at all.  Quite simply, I love this book, love Flavia, love the storylines, love the setting, and like how science is intertwined with the narrative.  

The level of poignancy is heightened in this instalment, given the subject: the body of Flavia’s mother is returned to Buckshaw, a decade after she went missing and was presumed dead after a wartime mission.  The dichotomy between who Flavia thinks she is (a very clever small person) and what she is (an eleven year old motherless girl) really comes to fore.  With clever storytelling we get to see how Flavia processes this turn of events, as she tries to figure out her place in the world and in her family.

The family dynamics, again, are worth commenting on.  Flavia isn’t close to anyone in her family, or outside it really, apart from Dogger, her father’s valet.  There is a coldness from her father, and a distance between her and her sisters that she struggles to overcome and understand, and I can’t help but feel for her.  For such a young person, she is certainly quite isolated, but I wonder if much of this stems from the fact she comes across as unusual and strange to others. They don’t know how to be around her or how to speak to her because she is smarter than they are because they’ve never met a child quite like her.

And this leads to one of the highlights of the storytelling: witnessing how Flavia interacts with everyone she comes across.  She is indulged, told off and warned away at various points by various people, and her reaction to most of these is, ‘What is their motive?’  I like that level of analysis.  Flavia does not take the world at face value.  Yes, she does appear a little lofty at times, but she is never annoying.

I am completely hooked on this series, and can’t recommend it highly enough.  The question now, is whether to continue on with the series where I am at with it, or to go back to the beginning and start the first book…Hmm…

Rating