Unraveled Sleeve (A Needlecraft Mystery #4) by Monica Ferris

Unraveled Sleeve (A Needlecraft Mystery, #4)Unraveled Sleeve by Monica Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite in the series so far. I enjoyed this Betsy Devonshire/needlecraft outing immensely.
Great things about the story included the sense of place–Betsy and her friend Jill drive up to a needlecraft retreat at Naniboujou Lodge near the Canadian border. This is a real retreat that hosts real stitch-ins, and it was pure escapism reading about this place. I also love how the author tends to teach me something in these books…whether it’s learning a bit about the geography and history of Minnesota, to surviving outdoors, to, of course, needlework.
Once again, I was reminded that part of what I enjoy about this series is how old fashioned the writing itself feels. It reminds me a bit of a Nancy Drew mystery. Unraveled Sleeve can definitely be read as a standalone mystery, and would be a great introduction to the Needlecraft Mystery series.

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Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery, #1) by Monica Ferris

Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery, #1)Crewel World by Monica Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I’ve just recently fallen in love with the art of embroidery, and I am always up for a good, escapist, cozy mystery. I sampled Crewel World, the first “Needlecraft Mystery” by Monica Ferris, and was quickly hooked. This book is a quick, light read. I enjoyed the setting, the real town of Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. I enjoyed the characters, and I enjoyed the needlework aspect (plus a free pattern at the end of the book).
What surprised me the most-and what I really loved-was the quality of the writing. Here’s an example of an especially lovely paragraph.
“It had started raining sometime during the play, and was still raining when they came out of the theater. But the farther west they drove, the lighter the rain became, until out in Excelsior it ceased altogether, leaving platinum puddles as markers of its passing, and tree branches hanging lower, their leaves heavy with water.”
The writing style reminded me a bit of a mystery from an earlier time….perhaps something Nancy Drew-ish or even earlier. Anyway, Crewel World was a lot of fun, and I plan to read more in the series.

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The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

The Darkest CornersThe Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishers for my advance review copy of The Darkest Corners.
As an intro: The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas, is a YA mystery/thriller with a superficial coating of grit, a Pretty-Little-Liars vibe, and an emphasis on twists and turns which left me ultimately unconvinced.
The plot centers around Tessa, who in the present day is a high school senior in Florida who lives with her grandmother. Tessa wants nothing more than to put the traumatic events of her childhood behind her, but when she gets word that her father, a criminal sentenced to life in prison, is on his deathbed, Tessa feels compelled to return to her home town of Fayette Pennsylvania, to bid him goodbye.
However, once Tessa gets “home,” she realizes she is in for way more than she bargained for. A mystery from her past, involving a serial killer who she helped put behind bars, starts to reassert itself in her present. As bad things begin to happen, Tessa decides to investigate the decade-old mystery on her own (after all, if the police haven’t been able to solve it, maybe she can!).
So where to begin? First, I was not impressed or especially drawn to Tessa as a character. Her actions proved her to be a decent, thoughtful person, but I got the feeling that author Kara Thomas was trying to add some cool angst a la the characters of Gillian Flynn. So, as well as a whole lot of “life sucks” attitude, Tessa also occasionally threw in an intentionally witty one-liner which seemed entirely out of character, and instead, like something that a writer had spent an awful lot of time crafting.
The problems I had with Tessa were amplified with the rest of the cast of characters, who never felt coherent or real to me. This was a problem for me as a reader, because the mystery is primarily character based…it’s about discovering secrets that people “you thought you knew” were hiding. Since I didn’t have a strong sense of the characters to begin with, the reveals lost any kind of deep emotional impact.
Finally, I didn’t like the ultimate twist that the story took, again, based largely on the fact that it didn’t seem supported (or unsupported) by anything that came before. It didn’t feel organic. I also had a problem with some of the logic that went into a main action sequence…I think this is one of those stories which may not bear up under careful scrutiny.
So ultimately, The Darkest Corners didn’t work for me. On the plus side, it was a fast read which kept my attention. But the characters, world, and plot, never seemed real, or absorbed my attention in the way I had hoped that they would.

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Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

Thereby Hangs a Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2)Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m so glad I discovered this super-sweet and also funny series featuring PI team Chet (a dog, and our narrator) and Bernie (his human).
The Chet and Bernie mysteries remind me in some ways of Bunnicula for adults (with the caveat that I consider Bunnicula appropriate and perhaps necessary reading fare for EVERYONE, adults included!).
What primarily makes this an “adult” book is that as Chet and Bernie solve crimes, Chet is witness to events, often not fully understood, that the reader realizes have serious implications, either regarding life and death, relationships, or even contemporary environmental issues.
Although at first glance, the story seems so funny as to be almost “fluff” reading, Spencer Quinn (a pseudonym for a well-known crime writer) actually writes with the talent of capturing deep feelings and wisdom, with a few simple, carefully chosen words.
Since the story is told from a dog’s perspective, we’ve got a narrator who is totally loveable, and also totally grounded in the things that matter in life. I loved this aspect of Thereby Hangs a Tail.
Chet’s perspective, in which the concept of worrying doesn’t make sense, in which life is full of joy and wonder, and in which his human is loved totally and unconditionally, are qualities which I value, and want to remember more in my daily life.
Thereby Hangs a Tail is a fast read, with a lot of humor, a great sense of place (the American Southwest), and two characters who will leap right off the page and into your heart. A great book to brighten your day.

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The Mistake I Made (September 8, 2015) by Paula Daly

The Mistake I MadeThe Mistake I Made by Paula Daly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly.
If you’re a fan of Paula Daly, one of the hot new domestic-thriller novelists in the UK, then you will enjoy her latest offering. Having read Daly’s two previous novels, I came to this one with high expectations.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed this book less than Daly’s previous two novels. For me, The Mistake I Made was high on the “ick” factor, with our protagonist Roz in just a bunch of awful situations. The beautiful backdrop of England’s Lake District (which also features Daly’s other novels) was not enough to lift the pall of desperation that lay heavy on this story.
On the plus side, The Mistake I Made Was gripping and held my attention. On the minus side, the novel made me feel stressed rather than offering excitement or escapism. (In this way, tonally, it reminded me of The Girl on The Train, by Paula Hawkins.)
Ultimately, several weeks after finishing the novel, I find myself unable to recall much more than the introduction featured on Goodreads and NetGalley.

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Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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The Ice Twins (May 19. 2015) by S. K. Tremayne

The Ice TwinsThe Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Ice Twins is an absorbing, fast-paced read which I debated between giving 4 and 5 stars. Although not a “perfect” book, it is one of the most interesting suspense novels I’ve read this year, and so, in some ways I think it merits 5 stars.
However, this review reflects my personal reactions to the book, and so I’ve rated it 4 stars. This is because, for all its strengths, I just didn’t love it as much as I felt I should. Below, I’ll try to explain what was great about The Ice Twins, and also, why it didn’t fully succeed for me.

First, a quick plot introduction:
The Ice Twins is told variously from the points of view of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft, the parents of identical, seven-year-old, twin girls. As the story begins, we find out that they are grieving over the death of Lydia, the quieter, more bookish twin. Nearly a year before, Lydia fell from a balcony while vacationing at her grandparents’ home in Devon. Sarah, Angus, and Lydia’s twin sister, Kirstie, have been unsuccessfully trying to recover from this tragedy ever since.
Finally, in an attempt to start anew, the family moves to a small tidal island off the coast of Scotland, which Angus’ family has owned for generations. However, moving to Eilean Torran (Thunder Island) proves to be anything but a good idea. What follows is part psychological thriller, part ghost story, part domestic noir, and part horror, as they (and the reader) begin to suspect that the apparent facts of Lydia’s death are not as straightforward, as they at first seem.

My thoughts:
Author S.K. Tremayne (a pen name for a published author living in Britain), has, in many ways, absolutely nailed it in the choice of Eilean Torran (a fictional name for an actual tidal island near Skye) as the setting for this tale.
The Isle of Skye is well known for its unusual quality of otherness and solitary beauty. Tremayne knows this area well, and has capitalized on this eerie atmosphere in The Ice Twins.
Now, I’m a reader who loves sense of place above pretty much all else. And I am enamored of Scotland. I honestly can’t ever recall having had the experience of reading a contemporary novel in which I felt that the atmosphere was overemphasized before. However, in The Ice Twins, Tremayne inserts descriptions of the light, sea, and sky, so frequently and indiscriminately, that I realized I was beginning to skim some sentences.
For me, it was the quality and the quantity of the description, rather than the fact of description itself, which was problematic. I think that the best authors create a sense of place with enough well chosen, and well-placed words. Description can be almost like poetry, with powerful lines that set a scene, or turn up at perfect points in a narrative, anchoring the reader in a place and time. But the best writers do this, and then entrust the reader with that sense of place, that imagination. It felt to me like Tremayne thought we would forget we were on a Scottish island unless we were constantly reminded.
One thing I did really enjoy was that Tremayne inserted photos of the sea, island, lighthouse, etc., throughout the novel. These pictures added to my immersion and pleasure in the atmosphere.
So this whole ‘sense of place’ thing has another important dimension. Tremayne speaks highly of Skye in the author introduction. As mentioned above, Skye is world-famous for being a “thin place,” a place of unparalleled but stark beauty. However, after reading The Ice Twins, I felt like Skye was a place of nightmare. The photos coupled with the descriptions of the characters and the place evoked a sense of primal fear in me such that I questioned my long-held desire to visit Skye.
I think this reaction goes hand-in-hand with another reason I didn’t love The Ice Twins, which is that it has strong elements of a horror novel.
While I love psychological thrillers and suspense, I am not, so much, a fan of horror. Obviously, the genres sometimes merge. For me, one of the tonal elements that I do not like about horror is the (sort of obvious) goal of creating a sense of “horror” in the reader. I don’t like being taken to a place of primal fear. The Ice Twins was a psychological chiller, a tale of domestic noir, a mind-trip, a novel of suspense. But ultimately, it left me with that icky feeling that all is not right with the world, that deep evil lurks beneath seemingly calm waters, and that none of us is safe.
More than anything, I think this is why I did not love the book. I’d love to hear other readers’ reactions to the novel, especially regarding the portrayal of Skye and its tidal islands.
Thank you to the publishers through NetGalley for my advanced review copy of The Ice Twins.

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