Friday Book Whimsy: Murder at Mallowan Hall

I’ve loved author Agatha Christie since i was 12 years old. I’ve read all of her mysteries, many more than once. Or twice. I am unfailingly impressed at how she weaves her stories, how she carefully tosses out her red herrings, and how she wraps the mystery up at the end of the book.

Murder at Mallowan Hall, by Colleen Cambridge, is the first in a new historical mystery series that takes place at Mallowan Hall, the fictional home of famed author Agatha Christie and her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. In real life, Christie and her husband remained happily married in their rural English estate until Christie’s death, though it was not called Mallowan Hall.

In the novel, Christie hires her personal friend to be their housekeeper and manage their estate. Phyllidia Bright and Christie are long-time friends, and Bright is hired because she has the author’s complete trust. For her part, Bright is protective of her friend and faithful as all get-out. Plus, she has a crush on Hercule Poirot.

Things are fine until one day, Bright is opening up the house, and stumbles upon a body in the library. She recognizes the person as a fellow who had shown up late the night before uninvited and a stranger. The Mallowans are having a house party that weekend, and no one wants to make a fuss. They allow the man to spend the night, but the good intentions have a tragic ending.

Bright does all the right things. She calls the police. She alerts her employers. She does what she does best: manages the crisis. However, when it becomes clear to her that the local police are inept at best, she begins working on solving the crime herself, with Christie giving her own advice and input. And when a second person is murdered — this time a member of the staff — Bright realizes the murderer must be someone attending the house party. Who could be next?

I found the plot to be clever and fun, or at least as fun as a murder mystery can be. I liked the fact that it wasn’t Agatha Christie who solved the murder, but instead, her intelligent and faithful friend.

Murder at Mallowan Hall is purported to be the first in a series, and I’m looking forward to book number 2.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Black Cake

During World War II, my father served in the Navy on the Island of Trinidad. I love to see the photos of he and his buddies in the Navy band as they lived in the tropical paradise surrounded by nature.

Black Cake, a debut novel by Charmaine Wilkerson, tells the story of Eleanor Bennett — called Covey — the child of Chinese immigrants to Trinidad. The story begins following the woman’s death. In her will, she leaves her two children, Bennie and Byron, her recipe for Black Cake, and a recording made by her in which she tells her children the truth of her life.

Covey is abandoned by her mother as a small child and left to be brought up by her father. Unfortunately, he is addicted to alcohol and gambling, and Covey is left to fend for herself much of the time, with the help of family friends.

When Covey is still a young girl, Covey’s father pays off his gambling debt to a very bad man named Lin by arranging a marriage between him and Covey. She is desperate to escape that fate, but has little control over what happens in her life. However, during the reception, Lin dies from food poisoning. Knowing she will be blamed, Covey escapes with the help of the family’s housekeeper, and runs away to England.

In England, Covey begins a new life with a new name and a new made-up history. She lives in constant fear that someone from her island home will recognize her and she will be forced back to Trinidad to live her life.

Black cake is a type of dense cake made from dried fruit and rum. It is typically made in the Caribbean Islands, and because of the time it takes for the fruit to soak up the rum, it is made primarily on special occasions, such as Christmas or birthdays.

In the book Black Cake, the cake becomes symbolic of the celebration of life that Covey was able to enjoy despite her tough background. Despite all of the difficulties she faced — abandonment, rape, loss of love, reinventing herself — she rises to the occasion with joy and determination.

By listening to their mother’s voice, her two adult children find joy in one another and learn things about their mother that they never would have imagined.

I am a big fan of this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Shop on Royal Street

Karen White is one of my favorite authors. She writes everything from romance to mystery, and does it well. Some of of my favorite books from her were what was called the Tradd Street books. The series included seven novels that took place in Charleston, South Carolina, and featured Melanie Trenholm (nee Middleton). Melanie was a real estate agent who has OCD, and therefore likes her living abodes clean and modern. She inherits an historic home in the heart of downtown Charleston that not only comes with history, but also with ghosts. It is in the first book of the series that Melanie realizes that she has the power to see into the spiritual world, something she inherited from her mother.

White ended the series after four books, much to my dismay. It was a delight, therefore, when I learned that the author was coming up with a new series featuring Melanie’s stepdaughter Nola, who doesn’t have the gift of sight, but also isn’t afraid of ghosts. Her lack of fear turns out to be a good thing, because when Nola moves to New Orleans and buys a fixer-upper, it becomes immediately clear that the house is haunted.

While Nola can’t communicate with the ghosts, her once-upon-a-time boyfriend Beau Ryan can, though he is unwilling to admit to his gift. Still, since Nola bought the house from Beau, the two are thrown together again with the goal of solving a mystery that is keeping the ghosts alive.

I enjoyed this first book in the so-called Royal series. It isn’t a horror book at all. It’s quite a light-hearted portrayal of the spiritual world. It isn’t quite a romance novel either, though there is definitely a romantic tension between Nola and Beau. The story is a bit of a romp and the characters were charming. I particularly liked Nola’s roommate, who is a southern bell with grit, an ability to cook, and the manners of a southern princess. The portrayal of New Orleans is appealing as well.

The Shop on Royal Street is a fun novel to kick off summer.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love

When I was a child, I had a pen pal. I found her name in the back of a magazine sent to our house by one of the insurance companies used by my parents. In that magazine, there were postings for youngsters who wanted someone with whom they could correspond. I don’t remember the name of my pen pal. What I do remember, however, is how much fun I had writing those letters to a total stranger. And it was even more fun to open up the mailbox and see an envelope addressed to me in her lovely cursive handwriting.

That would have been in the late 1950s or early 1960s, right about the time that 27-year-old Joan Bergstrom sent a fan letter to 59-year-old Imogene Fortier in the book Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love, by Kim Fay. Joan is a single career woman who has just begun a career writing in the food section of a Los Angeles newspaper. She sends Ms. Fortier the letter because she has enjoyed reading the older woman’s simple missives about life on an island off the coast of Seattle in a Pacific northwest magazine.

The letter captures the attention of Imogene because Joan has included in the letter a sample of the spice saffron, something completely unfamiliar to her. It is the 1960s, where women were the cooks, and foodstuffs that we take for granted now were foreign in some parts of the country. Imogene had never tasted fresh garlic, so saffron was a completely unique experience.

That letter was the impetus for a relationship between two women who, despite their age difference, are drawn together by food and friendship, shared via letters. Through their correspondence, they become familiar not only with one another, but with their lives and their challenges and their loves and hates. Joan challenges Imogene to look at food a bit differently, and Imogene accepts the challenge with joy. Imogene’s joy is shared with her husband, a typical mid-20th century man who has never cooked a meal in his life, and who looks at his life as a predictable drudge. But he takes on the initial challenge of saffron, and his life is never the same. Pretty soon he’s preparing foods from other cultures and using ingredients that they have to work hard to find.

I really liked this book. I enjoyed the way their lives were presented to the readers via letters. The author allowed us to share in the excitement of cooking, and to learn how food can draw people together. Having grown up in the midwest, I was also amused to realize how different the cooking styles were then than they are today. It was the rare cook who left the safe lane of everyday cooking.

If you are a foodie, read this book. Imogene and Joan are a lot of fun, and a good example of true friendship.

Friday Book Whimsy: Billy Summers

I liked two things about the novel Billy Summers: 1) I love the complexity of characters who do very bad things but are inherently good and likable; and 2) I’m never endingly impressed with the story telling abilities of author Stephen King.

Billy Summers is a hit man. A skilled sniper trained in the military, he kills for a living, and has ended the lives of many people. He has one rule, however. Strange as it might seem, Billy only kills people who have done very bad things.

Even with this rule, Billy is ready to hang up his assassin rifle and move onto a simpler life. He is coerced, however, into one more assignment — to kill an especially bad man while he is being transported from jail to the courtroom where he will be tried. Reluctantly, Bill agrees to this assignment because of the evilness of the man involved, not to mention the million dollars he would be able to carry off to his retirement somewhere where no one would find him.

He sets the stage by portraying a man working under deadline on a novel in an office with a clear shot to the courthouse exchange. Since he has time to kill (no one is certain as to when the trial will take place), Billy decides to actually try his hand on writing.

The result of all of this is a compelling story about a multifaceted man who tells the reader much of his story via the book he is writing. To make matters even more interesting, following the successful hit, Billy meets a young woman named Alice who was brutally raped by three men and dumped in front of the apartment where Billy is hiding out until the dust clears.

The relationship between Billy and this young woman is tender, despite the gritty nature of their life together. It is not romantic, but more of a uncle/niece type of relationship. Alice saves Billy and Billy saves Alice.

I love Stephen King’s writing, though I have no interest in his horror stories. His characters are realistic, and the stories are always unique. The book was slow reading in spots, and quite long, but overall, getting to know Billy Summers was worth some slogging.

I recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Saints of Swallow Hill

It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and while the country is falling to pieces, the people who live in the forest areas of North Carolina have it better than many. The laborers work the trees to harvest the sap necessary to make turpentine, the resin that gave North Carolina the nickname the Tarheel State. Author Donna Everhart paints a clear picture of life in the 1930s’ turpentine camps in The Saints of Swallow Hill.

Rae Lynn Cobb hasn’t had the easiest of lives. She grew up in an orphanage and was never adopted. Still, she and her husband Warren have a small turpentine farm in North Carolina, and they make a living. That is, until Warren critically injures himself because of carelessness. Despite Rae Lynn’s desperate attempts to save him, Warren dies, leaving her not only homeless, but in danger of being arrested for murder.

In an effort to save herself, she cuts her hair and dons her husband’s overalls and flannel shirt. She drives Warren’s truck away from her home into Georgia, and keeps driving until she feels safe. Disguised as a man, she finds a job as a laborer at Swallow Hill, a turpentine farm in Georgia, herself Ray.

Though the camp is run by a decent enough fellow, her supervisor is mean and dangerously bitter about being forced to hire someone he considers a small weakling named Ray. Otis Riddle instills terror in all his employees, except for another new employee named Delwood Reese. Reese is escaping his own struggles, but is a strong and an independent thinker who can see through Otis’ evil behavior. He takes Ray under his wing.

Reese, Ray, and Otis’ abused wife Cornelia eventually learn that Ray is not a young boy, but is a woman. The three band together for support and friendship, and eventually make plans to get out of the camp and make it on their own.

I felt the story dragged a bit, but the characters were colorful and interesting. I learned a lot about turpentine, something I had never given a lot of thought. I like learning new things from novels.

I recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Maid

Any time that I’ve spent a night or two at a hotel, I have appreciated the housekeeping help. At the same time, I have been so glad that wasn’t a job I had to do. I tip heavily.

The Maid, by Nita Prose, offers readers a character that they can’t help but like. Molly Gray is a maid at a hotel, a job she has held for many years. Though she lacks any social skills and is clearly on the spectrum, she does her job with efficiency and, well, joy. She was brought up by her grandmother who helped guide her through life, but who passed away a few months earlier. Now Molly has to manage on her own. She gives it all she can, and is one of the best employees in the hotel.

One day she enters the room of one of the hotel’s frequent visitors — a wealthy man who has a nasty way about him — and finds him dead in his bed. She knows that people are going to believe it was his wife who killed him, but Molly doesn’t think that is possible. Nonetheless, Molly is thrown right in the middle of the investigation, even being one of the suspects.

The story line is clever, but what makes Prose’s novel so delightful and so readable is Molly Gray. The way she looks at life is straightforward, somewhat naive and refreshing as can be. While she has few friends, the ones she has surround her with love and support. The story shows the reader what is important in life.

Molly Gray is a quirky protagonist that I won’t soon forget. The Maid is a wonderful book. It will be one of my favorite reads in 2022.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Magnolia Palace

Author Fiona Davis has made her writing career by setting her stories in famous New York City landmarks. From The Dakota — famous apartment coop where John Lennon lived and was gunned down — to the New York City Library — with its famous lions and which, unbeknownst to me, has a live-in apartment within, Davis makes the iconic landmarks come alive.

The Magnolia Palace takes place in one of NYC’s renown mansions — the Frick mansion, home to steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. The millionaire was a famed patron of the arts, and his home eventually became The Frick Museum, which is home to many well-known pieces of art.

Lillian Carter had been the model for some of NYC’s most famous statues. Upon the death of her mother, along with her becoming older and less interesting for artists, she is unemployed. She stumbles into a job working as the personal assistant for Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of Henry. Helen is irascible and independent, but endlessly tries to win the love of her father. Unfortunately, her sister died at a very young age, and her parents spend too much time mourning her loss. Helen can’t seem to measure up.

Though Lillian hadn’t expected to have such a job, she basically becomes not only Helen’s assistant, but an expert on art too. She guides Helen through her difficult times.

Meanwhile, some 40 years later, model Veronica Weber, like Helen, is having trouble finding success as a model. One night she gets locked into the Frick Museum, which is without electricity because of a blizzard, and meets up with a young art expert, Joshua. Together, they solve several mysteries.

All of Davis’ novels take place in famous NYC buildings, but most don’t use real-life characters. While the author tells the reader up front that the story is a novel and she makes up story lines that aren’t based on fact, the novel is lively and contains many truths.

I hope that the author doesn’t run out of famous buildings to use as settings in many more books. Let’s see, the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the Chrysler Building……

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Bluebird, Bluebird

Goodreads or Pinterest or Google, or some other social medium that apparently tracks my reading habits, fed me information about a new book by author Attica Locke, called Heaven, My Home. It seems to be exactly what I like to read. However, I noticed it was second in a series called the Highway 59 Series. In and of itself, the name of that series would have caught my attention, because it just sounds cool. Highway 59 runs down the eastern part of Texas, from Texarkana to Houston, through some of the poorest and most racially charged areas of the state. I prefer to start a series with the first book, so I read Bluebird, Bluebird. Like the series name, the book title itself would have interested me.

Darren Matthews is a bit of a rarity in east Texas. He is black, well educated, and a Texas Ranger, a well-respected law enforcement agency in Texas. He is asked by an acquaintance to look into the murder of a black man and a white woman in a small town north of Houston on Highway 59. He is not well-received by the town’s white Aryan Nation, the town’s sheriff, or, surprisingly, the Black victim’s friends or family. To further his troubles, he is currently on suspension from his Ranger job as they investigate whether or not he lied under oath to help a friend who was being harassed on his property by a White racist. And then there is the drinking and and marital issues. All-in-all, Darren is having a tough time of it. Nevertheless, he is unwilling to let these suspicious deaths stay in the hands of the small-town White sheriff.

In addition to high praise for her debut novel, Black Water Rising, Attica Locke is a well-respected screenwriter and producer of a number of television programs. Sometimes I think that it’s difficult for authors to make the leap from screenwriting to novels, but Locke makes it look easy.

Her protagonist, Darren Matthews, is complex and severely flawed. Still, his earnestness about the treatment of the poor and Black people makes him forgivable, and even likable. There are clearly good guys and bad guys in the novel, but rather than being black and white, there is a lot of gray. And I’m not speaking about skin color.

While I had a bit of trouble getting into the novel at first, once the Texas Ranger got permission from his boss to work on the murders, things got very interesting.

I enjoyed the novel very much, and will certainly move onto the second in the series.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Man Who Died Twice

Elizabeth, Ron, Joyce, and Ibrahim are at it again, as the elderly quartet spice up their days at the senior facility at which they live by tackling another mystery in The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osmond. This time, the murder hits a bit closer to home for the Thursday Murder Club.

Elizabeth’s charming but devious ex-husband turns up unexpectedly to visit. He, like Elizabeth was M-16 secret agent. He has learned of the existence of millions of dollars worth of diamonds, and he wants to get his hands on them. He knows Elizabeth is the one who could help him do so. Unfortunately, he was killed before he can find the diamonds. Or was he?

In the meantime, gentle Ibrahim is mugged and beaten up by young thugs who steal his bicycle and leave him for dead. He survives, but is hospitalized and, perhaps worse, traumatized. Elizabeth, Ron, and Joyce are determined to find the perpetrator and even the score.

What they don’t know is that the two situations are related.

Osmond’s storylines are so believable and interesting, and his characters are so much fun. While Joyce appears to be scatterbrained, and they all seem to enjoy their wine a bit too much, but they love one another and we love them.

The Man Who Died Twice is the second in the Thursday Murder Club mysteries, and I can’t wait to see what the four get up to next.

Here is a link to the book.