“The Best American Mystery Stories 2019,” edited by Jonathan Lethem

Best American Mystery Stories 2019

“The Best American Mystery Stories 2019” is, as promised, full of excellent mystery stories. Although the word “mystery” in the title might be a little misleading. Many of the stories are not so much mysteries (although there are those as well) as they are suspense stories or thrillers. Strongly literary in their bent, they often hint at resolution rather than achieving it outright, and sometimes end at a most tantalizing moment. They span everything from the Civil War to a dystopian future of unnamed date, take place around the globe, and range in tone from Reed Johnson’s heartwarming story of a young girl trying to clear her father’s name, to Joyce Carol Oates’ chilling tale of a pedophilia victim who feels a special connection with her abuser.

What all the stories in this collection have in common is a keen eye and ear for pacing and plotting. All of them, whether the narrator is a vulnerable young girl or a hardened ex-con pulling off one more heist, will keep you turning the pages, desperate to find out what happens next. If you enjoy mystery, crime, or suspense, this collection offers a delicious sampler platter of different styles and subgenres. Recommended for all fans of mysteries and thrillers, as well as anyone wanting to get a taste of contemporary American fiction.

Buy it at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

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“A Parliament of Crows” by Alan M. Clark #SouthernGothic #HistoricalMystery

A Parliament of Crows

A Parliament of Crows

“A Parliament of Crows” is another installment in Alan M. Clark’s collection of “horror that happened” historical mystery/horror books. It tells the story, based on historical fact, of the three Mortlow sisters, who went on a killing spree that lasted decades.

The story could have been lurid, and there are certainly moments in the book that may cause more squeamish readers to want to turn away, but, as with the author’s books about the victims of Jack the Ripper, the focus is not on the gory details, but on the psychological development of the characters. As the tale of the sisters’ crimes unfolds over the decades, we get each sister’s perspective on what happened and why they felt like they had to do what they did. What emerges is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a trio of women struggling to survive in the South during and after the Civil War, and how psychopathology can meet extreme circumstances to create tragedy for all concerned.

The story, while spanning decades and told from three viewpoint characters, is not long, and the writing style is clean and simple, allowing the tale itself to shine through. This makes a complex story a surprisingly easy read. There are several different mysteries interwoven throughout the narrative, all of which draw the reader along and culminate in the denouement of the final chapters, when the events of the Civil War that set the sisters down their path are revealed. “A Parliament of Crows” is probably not for every reader, as it is far from cozy and fluffy, but fans of Southern Gothic and historical mysteries will find a lot to enjoy in the vivid historical detail and excellent plotting.

My thanks to the author for providing a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

You can grab the book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

“Bloody Creek Murder” by Susan Clayton-Goldner #Mystery #NewRelease #BookReview

Bloody Creek Murder

Bloody Creek Murder

I’ve been following along the Winston Radhauser series since the beginning, and have been enjoying it more and more. In this, its sixth installment, the author does a particularly excellent job of combining mystery with family drama. The mixture both brings out the pathos of the interpersonal situation the characters find themselves in, and raising the tension surrounding the mystery.

In “Bloody Creek Murder,” Detective Radhauser is called in to investigate the death of prominent local actress Blair Bradshaw. The investigation seems to be going nowhere–except into a cold case that Radhauser has been trying to solve for the past ten years. I don’t want to say more in case of spoilers, but there are multiple crimes and tragedies in the story, all of which come together, one way or another, in the figure of Blair.

As in the previous books in the series, “Bloody Creek Murder” is a murder mystery, but one with a lot of heart. It will appeal to many fans of detective stories, although it is neither gritty nor cozy, so readers who demand a strict adherence to those genre tropes may not enjoy it. Because it’s also a family story, it will likely appeal to many fans of family dramas, as well as contemporary literary fiction. Recommended for readers who are looking for a well-written mystery story with a bit of a difference.

My thanks to the author for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Pick up a copy on Amazon here.

“Y is for Yesterday” by Sue Grafton

Y is for Yesterday

Reading “Y is for Yesterday” was a bittersweet experience. Having recently rediscovered my love for the Kinsey Millhone series, which was foundational for my discovery of the mystery genre back in the 90s, it was hard to read what I knew would be the last book in the series. But at the same time, I could be grateful for having gotten 25 of these delightful stories.

The good news, especially given that there will be no Z book, is that Grafton wraps up an important plot thread here. The story with Ned Lowe, which started in “X,” comes to its creepy conclusion here, so if you’ve been waiting with baited breath to find out what happens there, wait no longer. It’s truly scary, so be warned.

Some readers may not be fans of Grafton’s comparatively slow-paced plotting and use of detail, but for those of us who do enjoy it, “Y is for Yesterday” continues with the excellent character development and worldbuilding (to borrow a term from fantasy) that have so marked out Grafton’s series. Kinsey and her friends (and enemies) feel like real people inhabiting a real place. There’s not a lot of fantasy or wish fulfillment here–Kinsey is still single and, despite having a fair amount of money in the bank, taking on low-level PI jobs while living in her same old studio apartment–but there is an intense sense of reality and groundedness that make the series irresistible.

Grafton’s prose style is, as always, deceptively spare and straightforward, so that she builds a real world with some well-chosen details, simply described. If you’re a long-time fan, you’ll probably enjoy this book, and if you’ve just discovered the series, I sincerely hope you will too (otherwise I’ll have some grave doubts about your literary taste), although you might want to do yourself a favor and go all the way back to “A is for Alibi.”

Buy it on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

“Fardwor, Russia!” by Oleg Kashin

Fardwor, Russia!

Oleg Kashin is one of those people you’d probably only find in Putin’s Russia. An ardent opposition journalist who was severely beaten for his statements and who has subsequently spent much of his career abroad, Kashin walks a line somewhere between freedom and non-freedom, between bravely standing up for his convictions and just being a crank. The existence of writers like him shows both how far freedom of the press has come in Russia over the past few decades, and how far yet it still has to go before becoming truly free.

“Fardwor, Russia!” which was completed shortly before Kashin’s infamous assault, also walks some kind of a line. It’s a bizarre tale of contemporary political satire, with a side of science fiction and magic realism. Fans of Russian literature will recognize it as being one in a long line of such works produced by Russian authors struggling to describe the surreal situations in which their society found itself. “Fardwor, Russia!” is more than a little reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs,” but if anything even zanier.

The plot is simple–but it isn’t. Karpov, a scientist, has created a serum that causes creatures to grow. He uses it on a couple of human midgets before branching out into agricultural animals, and then finally human children. The consequences for all are disastrous.

The writing style of the book is somewhere between exuberant and…over-exuberant, let’s say. The plot moves at a breathless pace, hurried along by Kashin’s use of incredibly convoluted sentences. Although Russian sentences tend in general to be rather more interesting than the bland, over-simplified structure that has become the stultifying rage in American prose over the last century, Kashin’s style is particularly unrestrained. English-language readers unused to the experience of reading in Russian may feel as if they’ve been whacked in the head as they try to follow along.

Speaking of stylistic things, the translation varies between brilliant and wobbly, and the editing of the book leaves a little to be desired. While I’m thrilled to see all these small presses putting out translations of contemporary Russian authors, I’ve noticed that the production values of these editions tends to be on the low side. “Fardwor, Russia!” isn’t terrible in that regard, but it could have used another round of close reading by a copy editor to pick up the occasional stray typo and make decisions about the consistent use of Russian vs. Ukrainian spelling for the Ukrainian names in the book.

Those nitpicking issues aside, I do recommend this book to anyone interested in reading some contemporary Russian fiction and trying to understand the current zeitgeist of a certain aspect of Russian society. Russian literature has expressed itself and its society through the use of the absurd at least since the time of Gogol; in “Fardwor, Russia!” Kashin is continuing that line.

Buy it on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

“The Innocence of Father Brown” by G.K. Chesterton

The Innocence of Father Brown

I recently began watching the “Father Brown” series on Netflix and was utterly charmed by it (I *do* have a fondness for British detective stories, both cozy and gritty), so when I saw that there was a deal on the audiobook version of “The Innocence of Father Brown,” I snapped it up.

Father Brown, for those of you who don’t know him, is a rather unprepossessing Roman Catholic priest who happens to be brilliant at solving mysteries. While the TV show has been transplanted to the 1950s, the original stories must take place sometime in the 1920s, and are full of period charm–and what these days we would call the “problematic” nature of that period’s characterizations. But such is life. If you only read works from your own era, you’ll never really challenge yourself and your mindset. If nothing else, reading things from earlier eras should make you ask yourself what will horrify people fifty or a hundred years down the road when they read *our* cultural artifacts.

The mysteries themselves have that slightly over-the-top coziness and cunning of early British mystery stories, in which the hero makes incredibly clever deductions to solve wildly improbable and extremely complicated mysteries. While there’s plenty of murder, the actual gore quotient is low. So if you’re a fan of that style of mystery, you’re likely to enjoy these.

The mysteries are good fun, and Father Brown is a singular character, but what really sets these stories apart is Chesterton’s way with words. The stories are sprinkled with sparkling gems of poetry or pithy humor. Reading them in textual form would no doubt be delightful, but I also enjoyed Frederick Davidson’s narration, which allowed the underlying brilliance of the text to shine through, while adding to it through the use of different accents and character voices. A charming mystery experience all around.

Buy the book at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

“Diary of a Snoopy Cat” by R.F. Kristi #Mystery #CozyMystery #GraphicNovel #MiddleGrade

Diary of a Snoopy Cat

Diary of a Snoopy Cat

“Diary of a Snoopy Cat” is narrated by Inca, a cat with a penchant for sleuthing. Inca is part of a large and varied pack, for want of a better word, that likes to solve mysteries.

In this installment in the series, Inca & Co. are called upon to figure out what has happened to a will. The Rottweiler down the street is worried that Ned, his favorite human, will be kicked out of the house and he’ll have to live with a much less congenial master, if the will that names Ned as the inheritor of the house isn’t found. Inca has to do some hasty problem-solving, as well as overcome her fear of the imposing Rottweiler, to solve the mystery.

“Diary of a Snoopy Cat” isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it has lots of illustrations, and the text is in a comic-book style font. The story and language are full of gentle adolescent humor, and overall the book’s genre hovers somewhere between cozy and middle-grade mystery. It’s an entertaining read, and Inca’s feline character is captured well in her internal monologues. Recommended for middle-grade readers, or anyone looking for a short, amusing mystery story with a quirky cast of characters and some zany comic moments.

You can get a copy of the book on Barnes & Noble or Amazon.