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Monday, March 28, 2022

Musings - Blind Date with a Book

Just what is a blind date with a book you ask?  Often we are influenced by the cover (there is a whole science to book covers to get the book sold).  Without the cover, just a basic idea of the book, we can find gems we never would have considered before.  

This is really nice for family or friends that you know they would like a book but you know they wouldn't consider it otherwise.  This is also fun for book club exchanges, if yours does such a thing at the holidays or anniversary of the club starting.  Use it for an office gift or an anonymous gift exchange - you know the game where a gift can be stolen from another, this would be perfect.  This would make reading a bit more fun for kids or  teens too.  

Here is how it works.  So easy.
  • Wrap each book in plain paper like a paper grocery bag.  
  • Attach a one or two sentence blurb about the book, note the genre, and maybe the Goodreads rating.  Include the time period if it isn't contemporary, any trigger warns, and content rating (from G, PG, R sex, R violence, X sex/violence).
  • Keep it generic without character names.
  • List things about the book like:
    • Africa
    • Adventure
    • Comradery
    • Excitement
    • Masculinity
    • Booze 
    • Brutality
    • A Masterpiece
  • Or have fun with it and make it like a single's ad:
    • I'm an epic novel.  My interests include: love, honor, deceit, violence, inheritance, and loss.  I'm seeking a willing reader to join me on an epic journey through history.

 The blind date can be as simple as the wrapped book with description or you can spruce it up.  Add-ons for a nicer blind date, particularly for the people you know, include:
  • A cool bookmark (maybe even handmade!) 
  • Some tea, special hot chocolate, or speciality coffee grind. If you know the person really well, perhaps a nice bottle of wine.
  • Kick-it up even more by including a special snack or a recipe that somehow goes with the book. I can see a container of popcorn for a thriller or maybe chips and dip, how about special chocolate (or chocolate covered strawberries) for a romance book etc.
  • Really go all out and include a scented candle (or even bubble bath) you think goes well with the book.
  • The next level would be to put the wrapped book in a basket full of goodies so you can include a mug for the drink or nice wine glass to go with the bottle of wine, a blanket to wrap up in while reading, and book/reading themed socks or t-shirt as some ideas. Let your imagination go.  You can make this child themed as well.  Attach your generalized description of the book to the outside of the basket by sticker or tag. This is so nice, it could be a silent auction item.  
I hadn't heard of this before, so when I ran into the idea at a library I just had to share it.  What are some other ideas to develop this even further?  What extras would you include?  Do you know of a situation you could use this for?

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Monday, March 21, 2022

My Musings - Favorite Historical Mystery Series Pt 1

I will be sharing some historical mysteries loosely divided by era in today's and the next few week's posts.  I love historical mysteries and if you've been looking for a new series, or wanted to jump into this subcategory of mystery perhaps this will help.

Way Back Machine (Before 1811)

Crispin Guest Medieval Mysteries by Jeri Westerson starting with Veil of
Lies.  A disgraced knight earns a meager living as a private inquiry agent in 1383 London. There are 15 books in the series so far.  Review of Serpent in the Thorns  #2 (click here
and Troubled Bones #4 (click here).  I need to read more of this series, it is quite well done!

Chronicles of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters feature a Benedictine monk who was once a soldier, Cadfael, who aids the law by investigating and solving murders.  If you love history, definitely give these a try.  Cadfael is a layered character and the mysteries are just complex enough to keep you guessing.

Elizabethan Mystery series by Amanda Carmack set in 1558. Kate Haywood, a simple musician in the employ of a princess, will find herself involved in games of crowns as she sets out to solve the murder of the vindictive queen’s envoy.  Full of court intrigue. There are 6 books in the series. 
1) Murder at Hatfield House (click here)
2) Murder at Westminster Abbey (click here)
3) Murder in the Queen's Garden (click here)
4) Murder at the Queen's Masquerade
5) Murder at Whitehall (click here
6) Murder at Fountainbleu (click here)

Merlin Investigations by J.M.C. Blair are set in roughly the years 500-1500 
1 The Excalibur Murders
2 The Lancelot Murders
3 The Pendragon Murders (click here)

Regency 1811 - 1820

Lady Arianna series by Andrea Penrose  features Arianna Hadley, although a lady, her father was disgraced and died when she was 15 when she learned to survive with street smarts that she needs for investigating murders.  This is one of my favorites. 
1) Sweet Revenge (click here)
2) The Cocoa Conspiracy (click here)
3) Recipe for Treason (click here)
4) Smoke and Lies (click here)
5) A Question of Numbers
6) A Tangle of Serpents
7) A Swirl of Shadows

Wrexford & Sloan series
by Andrea Penrose.  This series features  an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist who team up to trap cold-hearted killers in London. Great characters and plots with historical detail and a dash of humor.  Another favorite.
1)  Murder on Swan Lake (click here
2)  Murder at Halfmoon Gate (click here
3)  Murder at Kensington Palace (click here
4)  Murder at Queen's Landing (click here)
5)  Murder at the Royal Botanical Gardens (click here)
6)  Murder at the Serpentine Bridge (due out in Sept 2022)

Captain Gabriel Lacey Regency mysteries by Ashley
Gardner features Cavalry captain Gabriel Lacey who returns to Regency London from the Napoleonic wars, burned out, fighting melancholia, his career ended, and struggling with his transition from a soldier's life to the civilian world. He finds new battles to wage in catching murderers.
1) The Hanover Square Affair (click here)
2) A Regimental Murder
3) The Glass House
4) The Sudbury School Murders
5) A Body in Berkeley Square
6) A Covent Garden Mystery
7) A Death in Norfolk
8) A Disappearance in Drury Lane
9) Murder in Grosvenor Square
10) The Thames River Murders
11) The Alexandria Affair
12) A Mystery at Carlton House
13) Murder in St. Giles
14) Death at Brighton Pavilon
15) The Custom House Murders
Sebastion St Cyr
mysteries by C S Harris 
features Sebastian St. Cyr (Viscount Devlin) a veteran of the Peninsula wars with Napoleon and a nobleman who investigates murders-and who is going to argue with a Viscount that he can't? Grittier mystery, excellent characters, plot, and writing.
1. What Angels Fear 
2. When Gods Die 
3. Why Mermaids Sing 
4. Where Serpents Sleep 
5. What Remains of Heaven 
6. Where Shadows Dance (click here)
7. When Maidens Mourn (click here)
8. What Darkness Brings (click here)
9. Why Kings Confess (click here)
10. Who Buries the Dead (click here)
11. When Falcons Fall (click here)
12. Where the Dead Lie (click here)
13. Why Kill the Innocent 
14. Who Slays the Wicked 
15. Who Speaks for the Damned 
16. What the Devil Knows 
17. When Blood Lies 

-- Malcom & Suzanne Rannoch mysteries by Teresa Grant 
What happens when British Intelligence Agent Malcolm Rannoch marries a French woman amidst Napolean and the turmoil he is generating that breeds an atmosphere of intrigue and espionage with murder thrown in? You get this addictive series.
The order is a little confusing so this list should help: 
0.5) His Spanish Bride (novella)
0.6) London Interlude (novella)
1) Vienna Waltz
2) Imperial Scandal
3) The Paris Affair (click here)
3.5) The Paris Plot (novella)
4) Beneath a Silent Moon
5) The Berkeley Square Affair
6) The Mayfair Affair
6.5) Incident in Berkeley Square (novella)
7) London Gambit
8) Mission for a Queen
9) Daughter of the Game / Secrets of a Lady
10) The Mask of Night 

Atlas Catesby Mysteries by D.M. Quincy 
Atlas Catesby, youngest son of a Baron, finds he is quite good at solving murders when his chivalrous nature and strong sense of right and wrong see a woman being railroaded. To his surprise, the strong willed woman and he make an even better investigative team.  I love these characters and plots.
1) Murder in Mayfair (click here)
2) Murder in Bloomsbury (click here)
3) Murder at the Opera (click here)

Lily Adler
Mysteries by Katharine Schellman features newly-widowed Lily Adler who is returning to a society that frowns on independent women after two years of mourning. She didn't expect her new life to include investigating murders, but she isn't opposed to it.
1) Body in the Garden (click here)
2) Silence in the Library (review coming this week)
3) Death at the Manor (coming August 2022)

I hope this provided a few ideas.  Be looking for the next listing that will include Victorian era mysteries.

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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Review - A Study in Murder

When I read  reviews that said "perfect for fans of Rhys Bowen and Ellery Adams" and "has clear echoes of Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and of course, Sherlock Holmes" I just had to read it.  See what I thought of this debut novel in a new-to-me historical cozy seris.

Author: Callie Hutton

Copyright: May 2020 (Crooked Lane Books) 313 pgs

Series: 1st in Victorian Book Club Mysteries

Sensuality: mild

Mystery Sub-genre:  Historical Cozy Mystery

Main Character: Lady Amy Lovell, only daughter of the Marquess of Winchester and secretly a mystery author

Setting: 1890 - Bath, England

Obtained Through: library find

Book Blurb: "Bath, England, 1890. Mystery author Lady Amy Lovell receives an anonymous letter containing shocking news: her fiancé, Mr. Ronald St. Vincent, has been dabbling in something illegal, which causes her to promptly break their engagement.

Two evenings later, as Lady Amy awaits a visit from Lord William Wethington, fellow member of the Bath Mystery Book Club, her former fiancé makes an unexpected and most unwelcome appearance at her house. She promptly sends him to the library to cool his heels but later discovers the room seemingly empty--until she stumbles upon a dead Mr. St. Vincent with a knife in his chest.

Lord Wethington arrives to find Lady Amy screaming and sends for the police, but the Bobbies immediately assume that she is the killer. Desperate to clear her name, Lady Amy and Lord Wethington launch their own investigation--and stir up a hornet's nest of suspects, from the gardener who served time in prison for murder to a vengeful woman who was spurned by St. Vincent before he proposed to Lady Amy." 

Lady Amy Lovell, at 25 years old is considered a spinster,  writes popular Victorian murder mysteries under the pen name E.D. Burton and supports women's rights much to the shock of most.  She is just fun as a character.  Aunt Margaret, the only sister of the Marquess, is unmarried and happy that way.  She essentially raised Amy when her mother died at 10 years old. She is a delightful character and a welcome surprise when family members are usually difficult she is nurturing.  William, Viscount Wethington, is a fellow member of the Mystery Book Club of Bath and a friend who seems happy to stay single. But he develops tender feelings for Amy during the investigation.  Eloise Spencer is Amy's best friend and of the merchant class. We only begin to know her in this story but she is a long-time loyal friend. 

My Thoughts: This debut novel is a gem and a pleasure.  The mystery is just complex enough, the characters well drawn and vivid, and the era well researched and brought to life.  The romance is a slow brew which I prefer.  Amy and William are fun as everyone sees they are perfect together but they haven't admitted it to themselves yet.  This novel has a touch of humor sprinkled throughout that distinguishes it above others. The killer reveal was suspenseful enough to satisfy me and the wrap-up literally sets up the next murder to investigate.  I loved this book and it is now a favorite.  It is entertaining, well written, an overall fun excursion with a breezy style.  I can't wait to read the next in the series and I whole-heartedly recommend.

Rating: Near Perfect - Buy two copies: one for you and one for a friend.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Mystery Movie Review - ThunderHeart

One of my favorite mystery movies is  the 1992 Thunderheart.  It is based and filmed on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which I have been to and considered the trip life-changing.  I visited the Wounded Knee Memorial which is depicted in the movie.  

What it's about:
When a series of murders stuns a small Native American reservation, the FBI decides to send agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) to aid in the investigation. Ray isn't very experienced, but he is one quarter Sioux, so the FBI in it's wisdom thinks that will make it easier to gather information from the locals. The reservation police officer, Walter Crow Horse (played by Graham Greene) views Ray as an outsider while the tribal elder (Chief Ted Thin Elk) believes him to be the reincarnated spirit of Thunderheart, a Native American hero.  Gradually Ray rejects the intimidating tactics of his fellow agents, who are more interested in maintaining the status quo than solving the murder. The more Ray becomes accepting of his heritage, the locals begin trusting him.  The movie is based on actual Reservation occurrences of the 1970s (more about this in the trivia) which are in a documentary narrated by Robert Redford titled "Incident at Oglala".

Starring:  Val Kilmer (Tombstone), Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves), Sam Shepard, and Sheila Tousey
Director: Michael Apted 
Writer: John Fusco
Rating: R for language and some violent scenes

Rotten Tomatoes 89%

"Stylishly balancing thrills, mysticism and political outrage, Apted's produced his most absorbing movie since Coal Miner's Daughter." David Ansen Newsweek

"Thunderheart adds up to an absorbing and provocative thriller." Malcolm Johnson Hartford Courant

Trivia (much from IMDB)

-- Screenwriter John Fusco lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation for five years researching the script. There, he met Frank Fools Crow, a tribal elder who was the inspiration for Grandpa Sam Reaches.

-- Filming was done with the support of the Oglala Sioux people, who trusted Michael Apted and John Fusco to express their story.

-- The Indian roles are all played by Indians. Ted Thin Elk, who played an honoured Lakota medicine man, is a Lakota elder himself.  Two hundred and fifty Native Americans worked as extras on the movie.

-- The movie features the spiritual life of the American Indian: the purifying rituals of the sweat lodge, the practice of leaving bits of food for the spirits, and the mysterious ghost dance.  It also mentions the Native American belief that some could even shape-shift into an animal. Plus the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee figures symbolically in this film.

-- Filming took place over ten weeks, during which the cast endured temperatures over 100 °F.

-- The movie's activist group is called Aboriginal Rights Movement (ARM) and is based on the actual American Indian Movement (AIM), a group that fights for Native American rights. 

-- Maggie Eagle Bear is based on activist Anna Mae Aquash, who was at one point the highest ranking woman in AIM. She was murdered in 1975 on Pine Ridge Reservation.

-- The commercial television version of the movie hacked roughly 26 minutes of the movie, which angered director Michael Apted so much he insisted his name be removed from the TV version or have a disclaimer shown before the title credits, stating that he disowned that version. After legal litigation, Tristar opted to remove Apted's name and credit the TV version to pseudonymous director Alan Smithee.

-- The movie is loosely based on the Leonard Peltier case of 1975, who was a member of AIM and was conveniently found guilty (despite two of Peltier's compatriots in AIM being found innocent) of the murder of two FBI agents on the basis of evidence that many people and experts have found extremely questionable. Peltier is still in prison, despite evidence such as ballistics and witness testimony being discredited since the trial.  John Trudell, who depicts the man the FBI is attempting to capture, was actually present during the events that Leonard Peltier was tried for and was a leader of AIM.

-- Perhaps most significant, in my mind, is actor John Trudell, who plays Jimmy Looks Twice, the fugitive leader of the Aboriginal Rights Movement.  In real-life Trudell is a poet-singer-actor who served in Vietnam and helped lead the 1969 Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island and was national spokesman for and chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979.  The anger and bitterness Trudell displays in the film is very real from his life.  A few hours after Trudell led an AIM demonstration in Washington DC, his wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in a fire of unknown origin (that many believe was arson and at the hands of the FBI) that destroyed his house on the Shoshone Paiute Reservation in Nevada. 

--  [Spoiler Alert] The real-life situations that inspired the movie: During the early to mid-1970s, there were fifty-seven unsolved murders on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota due to the fighting between the "Traditionals" and Tribal government sanctioned "goons". This made the Village of Pine Ridge (Pop. 1100) on the Pine Ridge Reservation the "Murder Capitol of the Nation" with the highest number of violent death per capita in the United States.  The FBI is supposed to investigate all reservation murders but barely a handful received a cursory investigation.  The character of Jack Milton is based on Dick Wilson, the US Government appointed tribal chairman of the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1972-'76. Traditionalists tried to impeach Wilson in '73.  Dick Wilson also helped the US Government to draw attention away from the fact that he was selling off 1/8 of the Pine Ridge Reservation for uranium mining, without the rest of the tribe knowing or giving their approval.  For more details on this see the Documentary "Incident at Oglala" narrated by Robert Redford.

My Thoughts
A real FBI agent would have been rigidly by the book and Ray Levoi's character wouldn't have strayed from that.  But one of the themes is getting in touch with your roots and we see Agent Ray Levoi go from a shut down, buttoned up man who is ashamed of his heritage to a man who embraces his culture while still questioning the mystical side -- all against the background of a murder investigation with enemies everywhere and very real life-and-death situations.  The acting of Val Kilmer and Graham Greene is superlative and these two actors have great chemistry and interaction.  Plus, having John Trudell in the movie is a profound touch as he is so authentic and powerful in his portrayal it lights the screen up.  

The scenary of the Badlands makes the hard-scrabble life on the reservation visceral while also depicting what is a sacred place to the people.

The mystery is along the lines of an official investigation questioning witnesses and following leads.  There is pressure, like many experience at some point on their jobs, to follow the company line or give into peer pressure.  Ray Levoi's character decides to follow the evidence rather than the senior FBI agent's demands, which gives everybody a hero to cheer for as a seemingly open-and-shut case develops twists and turns with a more complex motive and desperate killer.

Critics of the movie claim it is too Hollywood, that fire fights by FBI agents with children around wouldn't happen - yet they did in the 1970s on the reservation.  Much of what is portrayed many Native American's say is more authentic than people want to believe. 

5 Stars: This movie is complex and has many layers.  It is a solid detective movie with a good script and directing, and wonderful acting.  Another theme is how we need to deal with our own baggage to find inner peace and inspires us to right wrongs all in a sweeping murder investigation that transports you to the Badlands. This is an oldie, but has stood the test of time.  Consider watching or rewatching this classic.

Here is the movie trailer

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Friday, March 4, 2022

Review - The Art of the Decoy

I love art related mysteries and this one involves the sort of items you would find on "Antiques Roadshow".  Although not the world of paintings and sculptures, the art of hand carved hunting decoys was still very interesting.

Author: Trish Esden

Copyright: April 5, 2022 (Crooked Lane Books) 320 pgs

Series: 1st in Scandal Mountain Antiques Mysteries

Sensuality: some allusions to intimacy 

Mystery Sub-genre: Amateur Sleuth, Art Mystery

Main Characters: Edie Brown, antiques dealer

Setting: Contemporary, Scandal Mountain Vermont-just south of Canadian border

Obtained Through: NetGalley for honest review

Book Blurb: "After her mother is sent to prison for art forgery, Edie Brown returns to Northern Vermont to rebuild her family’s fine art and antiques business. She’s certain she can do it now that her mother is gone. After all, butting heads with her mom over bad business practices was what drove Edie away three years ago, including a screwup that landed Edie on probation for selling stolen property.
When Edie scores a job appraising a waterfowl decoy collection at a hoarder’s farmhouse, she’s determined to take advantage of the situation to rebuild the business’s tarnished reputation and dwindling coffers. In lieu of payment, Edie intends to cherry-pick an exceptional decoy carved by the client’s renowned Quebecoise folk artist ancestors. Only the tables turn when the collection vanishes.
Accused of the theft, Edie’s terrified that the fallout will destroy the business and land her in prison next to her mom. Desperate, she digs into the underbelly of the local antiques and art world. When Edie uncovers a possible link between the decoy theft and a deadly robbery at a Quebec museum, she longs to ask her ex-probation officer, and ex-lover, for help. But she suspects his recent interest in rekindling their romance may hide a darker motive.
With the help of her eccentric uncle Tuck and Kala, their enigmatic new employee, Edie must risk all she holds dear to expose the thieves and recover the decoys before the FBI’s Art Crime Team or the ruthless thieves themselves catch up with her." 

Edie, has a lot of anger towards her mother, still remembers her grandparents death in a plane explosion, and is a mixed bag. At times I related with her, and at other times I felt she had impulse control problems and was reckless.  Tuck is her uncle, a dear man who loves african violets.  Kala Acosta is an intern who lists items online for sale, handles social media, computers, and research.  Shane Payton as Edie's former parole officer and former lover.

The plot is figuring out who stole the decoys under an extreme timeline, then murder strikes and the pressure is on to untangle the net quickly closing around Edie. I felt things picked up once the murder occurred. 

My Thoughts: I love paintings and sculptures, so the decoys didn't really interest me albeit I'm sure they are culturaly significant. I found myself frustrated a few times with Edie for her taking extreme risks (it was something like yelling during a horror movie not to go in the basement!)  But overall the characters were good, in particular Kala stole the show as an auxillary character.  The potential romance with Shane didn't work for me and I didn't feel anything there. No chemistry.  This is solidly an amateur sleuth as it isn't a cozy. A smidgen darker than a cozy while still being in a small town, and thus it has touches of a literary novel mixed in, which some may like.

Rating: Good - A fun read with an interesting premise and more literary, troubled character style.

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