Review: Pleating for Mercy

Pleating for Mercy, Melissa BourbonAfter her great-grandmother’s death, Harlow Jean Cassidy has moved back to her hometown of Bliss, Texas. She’s happy to be back, but her dressmaking boutique hasn’t exactly taken off — she’s spent most of her time hemming polyester pants.

Then Harlow’s childhood friend Josie shows up needing a wedding gown and three bridesmaid’s dresses for her ceremony that’s less than two weeks away. Suddenly Harlow has more work than she can handle.

Things get worse when one of Josie’s bridesmaids is found murdered. With the help of newfound friends — and her family secret — Harlow must find the killer before it’s too late.

Nothing like a cozy mystery

When life is crazy, sometimes a cozy murder mystery is just what the doctor ordered.

Pleating for Mercy is quintessentially cozy, with fun characters, small romances, and a mystery that managed to be interesting without being overly heavy.

It’s the first in a series, naturally, and sets up some great characters and relationships.

There’s the magical “Cassidy family secret,” as well as some ghostly activity. These are both well done, and I enjoyed seeing Harlow grow into her abilities.

Two thumbs up! Now, back to cross-stitching.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. October’s challenge was to read a mystery novel, be it cozy, scary, or paranormal.)

Quickie Reviews: All the Murders!

Peak season is underway at work. My days are crazy, and I use any remaining brain power trying to remember whether or not I’ve brushed my teeth.

As you might have guessed, my reading has hit a slump. I’m hoping that the books I ordered will pull me out of that, but in the meantime here’s a few things I’ve been reading.

Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot, Ben AaronovitchModern setting with a heavy dose of magic, ghosts, and exploding faces. I read this for my book club. General consensus is that the book is good, if flawed on the world building. Interesting characters — what the hell is up with Molly, and how is she so badass? — with a diverse set of nationalities and races. First in a series.

The Cutting Season

The Cutting Season, Attica LockeWhen the body of a migrant worker is found at Belle Vie, everyone on the property is a suspect. The historic Louisiana plantation’s manager, Caren, finds herself torn between catching the murderer and protecting her daughter, who is hiding something. Excellent commentary on race, politics, history, the law, and love — plus a great murder mystery.

Right now I’m flitting from book to book, unable to land on anything I really like. Life is just so noisy. I think I need to read something quiet.

Review: The Secrets of Wishtide

The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate SaundersWidowhood does not agree with Mrs. Laetitia Rodd. A woman of her age and situation should be content to sit by the fire with a bit of sewing, but it’s simply not her cup of tea. She prefers moonlighting as a private investigator in the service of her brother, a popular criminal barrister.

Her most recent assignment, however, does not provide much in the way of excitement. Charles Calderstone, son of the well-connected Sir James Calderstone, has fallen in love with the wrong sort of woman. His parents are convinced that Helen Orme is not who she pretends to be — and they ask Mrs. Rodd to ferret out the truth. It’s an open-and-shut case.

But the walls of Wishtide, the Calderstone’s home, hold many secrets. As the bodies pile up, Mrs. Rodd discovers that nothing is what it seems.

Manners and murder

I’ll read almost anything, but I always end up back at murder mysteries — and books like The Secrets of Wishtide are why.

Author Kate Saunders has created a character with the manners of a queen, the brains of Hercule Poirot, and a spine of steel. I loved getting to know Mrs. Rodd. Scarcely less wonderful is her landlady, the unflappable Mrs. Benson. It’s like a Sherlock Holmes story, but with less cocaine and more actual investigation.

The mystery is good, if a trifle over-complicated. Saunders gets a bit heavy-handed throughout; she gives Mrs. Rodd plenty of opportunities to judge some “unfortunate” for their situation before magnanimously announcing to the reader that she’s being judgy and patting herself on the back for walking a mile in said unfortunate’s shoes.

Those complaints excepted, I loved The Secrets of Wishtide. It’s the first in what looks to be a great series. I’m always excited to read about strong female characters who kick ass and take names.

Review: Akata Witch

Akata Witch, Nnedi OkoraforFor 12 year-old Sunny, every day is a challenge. She was born in America, but her parents have brought her home to Aba, Nigeria. As an American she’s already the class freak; combined with her albinism, she’s mocked as a witch and has few friends.

Things start to change when she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. Her new friends inform her that she is a Leopard Person, born with innate magical abilities. Her albinism is an indicator of these abilities, and lets her slip between shadows and worlds as if invisible.

But Sunny cannot stay invisible for long. The four children form the youngest coven of Leopard People in history; it is their mission to track down Black Hat Otokoto, who has kidnapped and maimed dozens of children.

The coven is young, and new to magic. Can they defeat Otokoto in time, or will his dark spells bring about the end of the world?

A solid start

Akata Witch has been on my TBR list for so long that I’d forgotten what it was supposed to be about. I’m glad I finally got my hands on it.

The world building is good, if a bit overwhelming. Not only did I have to wrap my head around the Leopard People and their world, I also had to remember that the book is set in Nigeria. Both cultures involve different words and names and mythologies than I’m used to; I was probably 100 pages in before things really gelled.

I loved that the Leopard People value learning above all else, and that the things that make them strange in the normal world are the things that give them power in the magical lands.

Sunny is a wonderful character, brave and insecure and curious and stronger than she knows. The other members of the coven, and even many of the adults, blur together a bit, but Akata Witch is the first in a series — author Nnedi Okorafor should have plenty of space to flesh them out in future books.

For me, the mystery of Black Hat Otokoto was less interesting than following the kids’ education and adventures. But that doesn’t bother me; those characters are more three-dimensional and flawed and funny than a guy who’s Definitely Bad News.

I do have a couple small quibbles, though.

First, I don’t understand why the prologue is written in first person, while the rest of the book is in third person. The change put extra distance between me and the main character, delaying my eventual enjoyment of the story.

Also, the kids feel mature for their ages. Aside from two “I’m totally being a pre-teen/teenager right now” moments, I think the kids’ behavior was the littlest bit unbelievable. They also seemed to accept their “destinies” with few questions…it just rang kind of false.

That said, I still enjoyed Akata Witch. It’s great middle-grade fiction, teaches some important lessons, and overall is a fun adventure for readers of any age.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community.)

Review: The Midnight Assassin

The Midnight Assassin, Skip HollandsworthIn the early 1880s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the rise. The backwater at the edge of the United States was officially a boom town, complete with over 11,000 citizens, an air-cooled ice cream parlor, and an opera house. The town coffers were full, and the new Capitol building (under construction since 1882) was said to rival the White House itself. The city was on its way to being the jewel in the South’s crown.

Until women started dying. On December 30th, 1884, Mollie Smith was murdered in her room. Clara Strand and Christine Martenson were attacked in March 1885, and Eliza Shelly and Irene Cross were killed in May. Clara Dick and Rebecca Ramey were attacked in August — Rebecca’s 11 year-old daughter Mary was killed. Gracie Vance died in September, while Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were also injured. And finally on December 24th, 1885, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were killed.

The killer was brutal, dragging many of the women into their yards before hacking them apart with an axe and stabbing some kind of sharp object or rod into their brains through their ears.

If you think this modus operandi — female, mostly lower-class victims, incredibly savage attacks — sounds familiar, you’re not the only one. Some people believe that the “Midnight Assassin” murders stopped only because the killer had hopped the Pond to England. There he continued his vicious killing spree under a new name: Jack the Ripper.

Seriously, guys?

I love true crime, but it’s not a fun genre.

The Midnight Assassin has all of the things that frustrate me: violent crimes against women, racism, shoddy police work, and no satisfying conclusions.

These murders happened when forensic science was in its infancy: we knew that humans had unique fingerprints, but we hadn’t figured out how to use them in murder investigations. It was a time when people would routinely tromp through a crime scene, destroying what little evidence remained.

The first victims were African-American (or African-Swedish) — less than 20 years removed from the end of slavery, their lives were considered less valuable, and their murders less worthy of intense investigation.

Even after the investigation began in earnest, many of Austin’s leaders took a “head in the sand” approach to the murders. They seemed to think it would all just go away. The police arrested dozens of men on almost zero evidence, hired charlatan “special investigators,” and in general made such a pig’s ear of the whole thing that I’m not surprised the killer got away.

The mind of a killer

The Midnight Assassin was America’s first true serial killer. The country had experienced “maniac” killers before, but this man was something new: a person who targeted a specific type of victim, planned his attacks carefully, escaped unnoticed, and didn’t seem to have a typical motive like jealousy or revenge.

Psychological profilers existed, but weren’t called to help investigate murders they way they are today. Never before had America seen a criminal who killed so violently…for no known reason.

The police and media blamed the murders on “bad blacks,” the mentally ill, and Austin’s criminal element. But these murders were committed by someone clever and quick, someone who could blend in as a normal citizen during the day and slip out at night to bludgeon and dismember women. And that’s what makes this story that much more frightening.

A London connection?

It’s interesting to think about. I don’t think the Ripper woke up one day and just started killing sex workers in England; and I don’t think the Midnight Assassin woke up one day and stopped killing women in the US.

Was the Austin killer the same person who would rise to international fame as Jack the Ripper in London’s West End? I don’t think so. Yes, the Midnight Assassin killed women brutally, and there were some ritualistic elements…but the Ripper was at another level of hatred and precision. The types of violence acted out on these women were just too different — I don’t see a clear path of escalation from one to the other.

We’ll probably never know. Too much time has passed, and we just don’t have enough preserved evidence.

The Midnight Assassin is a marvelously well researched and written book that I’d recommend to Ripperologists and anyone interested in true crime in general. Just don’t expect a satisfying ending.

(I read this book as part of the Off the Shelf Reading Challenge.)