The Wickedest Town in the West and Other Stories by Marilyn Todd

The Wickedest Town in the West and Other Stories by Marilyn Todd
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Historical
Length: Short Story (123 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sometimes, wishing someone dead is not enough.
Sometimes, you need to make it happen.
Always, there’s someone there to make you pay.

From one of the best mystery short story writers of her generation comes this sparkling collection of ten chillers and thrillers, where justice takes many forms. Whether you’re a witch (“A Taste for Burning”), a soldier in the trenches (“Michelle”) or a demure churchgoer (“The Wickedest Town in the West”), you will always know that justice is served.

Sometimes justice arrives right on time.

One of my favorite parts of “Room for Improvement” was how casually Mr .Cuthbertson requested help with speeding up the process of his divorce. This isn’t something I’d generally expect to happen in a mystery, so I was incredibly curious to find out why he wanted a divorce, why he was so nonchalant about it, and what he expected the main character to do to help. The more I learned about their unusual plan, the more I wanted to know.

There were so many things I enjoyed about this collection that I really wanted to give it a much higher rating than it received. The only thing holding it back was that almost every single tale in it had so many characters that I had trouble remembering who everyone was or how they knew each other. “Open and Shut Case” was one of the biggest examples of this. The main character, the Great Rivorsky, is a magician who had travelled for years perfecting his illusions and other tricks. When one of his companions died, he was immediately placed at the top of the suspect list. I was mesmerized by the premise of this story, but the plot included so many different people that I couldn’t keep them all straight. This made what was an otherwise interesting read hard to follow.

In “A Taste for Burning,” a community blamed all of their their troubles on a newcomer named Alizon and then burned her at the stake. Figuring out why she was chosen as the scapegoat and who might have been the instigator of that was fascinating. No sooner would I come up with a new theory about what really happened then the plot would twist again and make me reconsider nearly all of my assumptions. I also liked the fact that Alizon’s death was described in such precise detail. While some of the details made me wince, it was important to face exactly what happened to her in order to understand why the people who murdered her worked so hard to cover up their terrible acts later on.

I’d recommend The Wickedest Town in the West and Other Stories to anyone who is in the mood for some clever mysteries.

Eccentric Symmetries by Nancy Springer

Eccentric Symmetries by Nancy Springer
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Holiday, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (148 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Eccentric Symmetries, 20 fantasy short stories spanning the forty-year career of author Nancy Springer, showcases tales ranging from the quirky to the transcendent. Including mythic tales of long ago and far away such as award-winner “The Boy Who Plaited Manes,” this collection also contains wry, sometimes humorous contemporary fantasy stories such as “Rumple What?” and “Snow Spawn,” plus mystic magical realism in which cabbage roses grow down from the ceiling (“Mariposa”) and hard-edged future fantasy stories such as “We Don’t Know Why,” a tale of failing “angels.” Like our lives, the stories in Eccentric Symmetries are mostly off-kilter, even laughable, but sometimes achieve a luminous moment of perfect balance, an epiphany. In this carefully selected collection, every fantasy reader should find something to love.

Magic can be found everywhere you could possible imagine.

In “Who’s Gonna Rock Us Home?” Jephed Shue was dreading the idea of being assigned to work for the government for his entire adult life so much that he ran away from home. I was fascinated by the idea of a society choosing occupations for every young person and couldn’t wait to see what his life would be like after he refused to accept his assignment. The more I read about Jephed’s adventures, the more I wanted to know. He has such a stubborn personality that I was never sure how he would respond to the next challenge that crossed his path.

While I enjoyed how all of them began, some of these tales ended so abruptly that I didn’t feel satisfied by how everything was wrapped up. “Gilly the Goose Girl” was a good example of it. The storyline followed a princess named Gillianna who decided to switch places with her maid in order to avoid being married to someone she’d never met before. I was fascinated by this impulsive decision, but it would have been nice to see more time spent on wrapping up the ending. The final scene explained what happened to her, but it didn’t go into hardly any detail about it. I would have preferred to see those events play out in real time instead of condensed into a single paragraph.

One of my favorite stories in this collection was “You Are Such a One.” The main character in it was a middle-aged woman who found her life boring and repetitive. One day she discovered her dream house while out on a drive and struck up a friendship with the caretaker of that place. He told her something that she never would have guessed in a million years. What I liked the most about the plot was how careful it was when it came to which clues it gave the audience about what was happening. Telling too much about it would have spoiled the ending, so I was happy that the narrator was so cautious about that. I surprisingly didn’t figure out the twist ahead of time, although it made perfect sense once everything was revealed.

Eccentric Symmetries should be read by anyone who is in the mood for fairy tales that are set in all kinds of unusual places.

Death on the Trek by Kaye George

Death on the Trek by Kaye George
A People of the Wind Mystery, #2
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Historical
Length: Short Story (148 pages)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Review ed by Astilbe

The Neanderthal tribe of Enga Dancing Flower must trek south to flee the approaching glacier, but the distance is long and the food is scarce. When a venerable elder drowns crossing a flooded river, Enga suspects that it was not an accident, and that a murderer travels with them.

Someone in this tribe is extremely dangerous.

The character development was fabulous. I especially liked seeing how Enga Dancing Flower had changed since I first met her. She’s grown in all kinds of ways since then, and her new status as a fully-grown adult showed in how she reacted to the newest crime that threatened her people. It was interesting to watch her figure out that something was terribly wrong once again. She didn’t have a lot of time to catch the murderer, so I was really glad that she reacted as quickly and maturely as she did as soon as she noticed the threat.

With that being said, there were a few times when I was a little surprised by how openly the main character went about trying to figure out who the murderer was. She knew that her list of suspects was small, so talking about the clues she’d uncovered with so many different people didn’t strike me as the smartest idea. Normally she was much more aware of danger than that. This was a minor criticism of a story that I otherwise really loved, though.

It was fascinating to read a mystery set in a time when there was no such thing as a detective, judge, trial, or prison sentence. Enga Dancing Flower has to figure out what happened to the murdered member of her tribe with only very limited experience solving this kind of crime. This meant that some of her techniques for finding new clues and trying to figure out what happened weren’t at all what I’d normally expect to find in this genre, but that didn’t make them any less effective. It was refreshing to watch this character put such a creative spin on on the process.

This is the second book in the People of the Wind series. While the plot itself technically can be understood if you haven’t read Death in the Time of Ice, I strongly recommend reading this series in order because of how complex all of the family and other relationships are in Enga Dancing Flower’s tribe. The narrator only goes over them again briefly here, so there was a lot of background information that I was happy to have remembered so clearly from the first tale. Already being familiar with that stuff made it much easier for me get absorbed in what was a pretty compelling mystery.

Death on the Trek was a fabulous read. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Anyone who enjoys prehistoric fiction or complex murder mysteries should definitely give it a try.

The Artie Crimes by Jan Christensen

The Artie Crimes Anthology by Jan Christensen
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Short Story (64 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

When your profession is thievery, you’re bound to find trouble. Artie Applegate just wants to have simple heists with no complications, but the women in his life repeatedly keep that from happening. More often than not, Artie ends up trading his burglary skills for mystery-solving talents instead.

Collected here, for the first time, are four short stories previously released by Untreed Reads containing Artie’s many exploits as he attempts to pull off burglaries while solving a crime or two in the process. This collection also contains a brand-new Artie short story, “Artie and the Big-Footed Woman.”

Artie and the Long-Legged Woman

It’s been ten years since Artie had last seen his oldest friend, Henry – and the unforgettable, gorgeous legs of Henry’s wife. When Artie learns Henry might finally have bitten off more than he can chew, Artie tries to help.

I enjoyed this short story. Gritty and written in a very noir-detective style I was pleased that I could pick it up without reading any other of the Artie stories and not only understand what was going on, but also find myself drawn to the hard-boiled detective Artie. A great, quick read.

Artie and the Brown-Eyed Woman

While in the middle of a job, Artie witnesses a brown-eyed woman being kidnapped off the street. He gives chase, but can’t save her in time. Despite his best intentions, he finds himself drawn to helping rescue her. But is the beautiful, brown-eyed woman all she appears to be?

This is another good short story. I enjoyed the twist in the plot (didn’t see it coming!) and found the story fun and satisfying with an interesting plot and fun, complicated characters.

Artie and the Red-Headed Woman

While riding the bus home after a job, Artie bumps into an old childhood friend, Gina. The pretty red-haired woman looks incredibly sad and so for old times’ sake Artie decides to help her.

I really liked this short story – again there was a twist at the end which took me by surprise. The author has a good style of story-telling that I really enjoy, lean and crisp and a little noir-ish. In a very few words characters are made to come alive and the plot is quite gripping despite the short word count.

Artie and the Green-Eyed Woman

While leaving a job, Artie runs into a woman who convinces him to pick the lock on a nearby building. Even though he’s eager to get away – the woman drags him into a new mess, and Artie will need all his luck and wits to get out of this trouble.

I found this to be a great short story, with a very good lesson for Artie. I also enjoyed meeting Artie’s mother for the first time.

Artie and the Big-Footed Woman

While on the bus going home after a heist, Artie has some rotten luck when the zipper on his bag breaks and a big-footed woman nearby sees the jewels from his score. What will the mysterious woman want in exchange for her silence?

I enjoyed this story. I wasn’t at all surprised by the plot twist, but I still greatly enjoyed watching Artie deal with the tricky problem Liz presented. A great read.

Readers who enjoy straight mysteries with a hard-boiled, noir-like feeling should enjoy these short stories. I enjoyed them all and would happily read longer-length stories about Artie’s adventures and crimes. While there is a long-standing relationship between Artie and Josie there is no romance in any of these short stories – they are hard-boiled, old-fashioned, straight mystery/suspense style stories that I feel should appeal to a wide range of readers.

Lord of Dishonor by Edith Layton

Lord of Dishonor by Edith Layton
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Historical
Length: Full Length (216 pgs)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rated: 4 stars
Reviewed by Snapdragon

Lovely Amanda Amberly was a young lady of unsullied virtue–against all odds. Her bewitching mother, the Countess of Clovelly, was notorious for her amorous escapades, and every hot-blooded gentleman in society expected Amanda to follow in the Countess’ straying footsteps.

So far Amanda had succeeded in steering clear of the clutches of those eager young blades. She even had begun to hope that the eminently respectable Sir Giles Boothe might consider her a possible match. But when, by her mother’s cunning design, Amanda found herself in the arms of the incredibly handsome and charming Viscount North, the most irresistible if infamous rake in the realm, she discovered she could defend her virtue only if she refused to listen to her heart.

A rather artsy historical, Layton’s Lord of Dishonor is written in what seems a purposefully older style, which comfortably suits its setting. It stars the regency realm’s classic clash of respectability and restraint–or scandalous lack thereof.

It also stars to unlikely lead characters, with Amanda, the bubbly countess’ daughter, to Lord North, who is not exactly who he should be. Before a romance can happen, a murky past needs to … well, we really have no idea what needs to happen! Lord of Dishonor’ is unexpectedly unpredictable, with a unique and original cast of characters and some pretty unexpected circumstances, too.

Although descriptions certainly convey a sense of time and place, they are also wordy and this reader found they distracted from the main tale. If words bore physical weight, too many of Layton’s are heavy. However, this might well be because this reader so wanted to rush ahead and discover how it all turned out.  A solid historical read.

Red Jack’s Daughter by Edith Layton

Red Jack’s Daughter by Edith Layton
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Historical
Length: Full Length (233 pgs)
Heat: Sweet
Rated 5 stars
Review by Snapdragon


Jessica Eastwood’s country sweetheart, Tom Preston, wanted her to be the free and independent spirit that her gallant officer father had raised her to be.

Jessica’s irresistibly attractive distant European cousin, Anton Von Keller, wanted to mold her into a sophisticated woman of the world.

Society’s most eligible aristocrat, the dazzling Lord Leith, wanted Jessica to be the star of the London Season, a model of feminine beauty and fashion.

But before Jessica could find out which of these women she truly was, she had to decide which one of these maddeningly desirable men she really loved…

An unexpected treasure, Red Jack’s Daughter is a wonderful foray into a (sweltering) ballroom in London, at just that point in ‘the season.’ Yes; a wrap up to the annual marriage mart.

The perhaps unfortunate choice of title does not reach out and grab readers; but rest assured it is the only dull note in the entire tale. From start to finish, beginning with the not-young lady’s point of view right to final resolution, the story is entirely unpredictable and intriguing. Main character Lord Alexander Leith is inveigled to dance with the rather easily overlooked Jessica Eastwood. It hardly seems an auspicious start.

We feel at once the one’s discomposure but also, quickly, grasp his main interest’s point of view. Jessica is indeed an amazingly self-possessed heroine and (quite unlike most of the rather well-behaved ladies of the time) she will make up her own mind and pursue her own fortune. Still, we cannot but hold out a hope for the well-meaning Alex, who just set out to do a friend a favor. It all begins with a little conspiracy; a consideration of fashion (while of course avoiding the spectacular.)

Fashion and the ordering of new dresses seems like the most obvious (and dull) event given the times, but no dressmaker ever quire ran into a challenge like Jess!

The ins-and outs of London society are visited from a very different perspective in this tale. We readers begin to suspect there may indeed be reason to hope…although there is no escaping personal history…but, no spoilers here!

If you enjoy historical romances, you must put this one right at the top of your list. The writing style is beautiful; characters deep and very light, (except for rather grumpy aunty) and Layton’s perceptive touch with humor is quite perfect.

I cannot remember when I have enjoyed a dance in the ballroom of London’s marriage mart more: clever and Most enjoyable.

Blood Moon by Marilyn Todd

Blood Moon by Marilyn Todd
High Priestess Iliona #2
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (166 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

In a cave in the hills, seven candles burned, and tonight, when the moon was at its full, it would be time to light another. Oh, the Blood Moon was so aptly named…

Three ritual killings on the same night can’t be coincidence. More an attempt to sabotage the peace between Sparta and her new allies from across the Black Sea.

High Priestess Iliona has no wish to become embroiled in politics. Especially now. The son she gave up at birth has discovered her identity, and emotions she’d worked so hard to lock away have surfaced, raw and painful. But Lysander, commander of Sparta’s hated Secret Police, gives her no choice. And because she hopes that uncovering conspiracy, murder, kidnapping and adultery will help dull her pain, she fails to notice a killer on the loose with a pathological hatred of women.

Who’s picked Iliona as his next victim.

If only Iliona wasn’t such a good spy…

All Iliona wants is to serve in the temple of Eurotas and take care of the people who come to her for help. Unfortunately, she’s done an excellent job of spying for Lysander in the past, and now he has another job for her. Iliona would refuse if she could, but Lysander knows too many of her secrets. One word from him and her life could be forfeit. Iliona knows she has no choice, so she grudgingly agrees to help, but solving this mystery brings more pain that Iliona ever could have imagined.

I enjoyed getting to know Iliona better in this book. I read and enjoyed the first book in this series, but I felt that I didn’t know Iliona as well as I would have liked when I finished reading. I’m pleased to report Ms. Todd fleshes out Iliona’s character a bit more in this installment. After learning more about Iliona’s past and what she has survived, I like her even more.

While this book could possibly stand on its own, I do recommend reading the first book, Blind Eye, before attempting this tale in order to have a better feel for Iliona, Lysander, their history, and the world they live in. Also, Ms. Todd switched between a lot of viewpoints in Blind Eye, and she continues that pattern in Blood Moon. I feel I was better prepared for this having read Blind Eye first. I do think that the number of viewpoints could be whittled down a little. While the differing perspectives are interesting, I found myself wishing I could spend more time with Iliona and Lysander.

Lysander and Iliona’s partnership continues to be interesting. Iliona barely tolerated Lysander in Blind Eye, and her feelings for him haven’t changed. She definitely resents his presence in her life. That being said, I do think they worked together better this time around. Iliona seems to be developing a grudging respect for Lysander, and I daresay he is starting to like her. However, Lysander is a very secretive character, and I can never be sure what his true motivations are. I look forward to seeing what will happen to them in the next mystery.

Ms. Todd did an excellent job of weaving mysteries together. As I read, I enjoyed trying to figure out if various characters were connected or acting on their own and who the murderer was. I must admit that when the culprit was revealed, I was a little shocked with how Iliona chose to deal with the murderer. It was certainly a side of her I’ve never seen.

I truly enjoyed reading Blood Moon. It is an intriguing mystery sure to keep readers engaged. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in this series.

Blind Eye by Marilyn Todd

Blind Eye by Marilyn Todd
High Priestess Iliona #1
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (173 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

Blackmailed into spying for Lysander, head of the hated Secret Police, High Priestess Iliona discovers that the threat to her country doesn’t come from their archenemy, Athens. It comes from deep within Sparta itself.

But as she investigates, the same thread keeps turning up. Of a one-eyed giant who lives in the hills. The legendary Cyclops. So who is this man who inspires such fear? A freak? A fraud? A felon? And what does his arrival have to do with the disappearance of several young women?

The traitor lurks much closer than Iliona suspects.

Iliona works very hard serving in the temple taking care of those who come to her for help, even the “lowest of the low.” She has a good heart, and it is very easy to like her. Living is Sparta is very good in some ways, but very harsh in others, and Iliona does what she can to ease suffering when she sees it. Unfortunately, some of the things Iliona does to help the people could get her in serious trouble if brought to the attention of the authorities. Lysander has been watching Iliona closely for a long time, and uses his knowledge to trap Iliona into spying for him.

Lysander is a complicated individual. I disliked him immediately, but as the story progressed, Ms. Todd revealed some things about his history that made me rethink my original assessment. While I certainly don’t condone all his actions, I will admit that there is much more to Lysander than I thought. Iliona and Lysander spend most of their time fighting rather than working together. They barely manage to be civil to each other. Once the traitor has been dealt with, Iliona has no desire to ever see Lysander again. Unfortunately, Lysander knows too many of Iliona’s secrets, and he has no intention of letting her off the hook any time soon. I wonder what Ms. Todd has in store for this pair in the next book?

The viewpoint changes a lot over the course of this story. While seeing events unfold through different characters was interesting sometimes, it was also distracting at others. I could never be sure how important some of the things I was reading were. Also, since there are so many switches, I don’t feel as if I got to know Iliona as well as I would have liked. I think switching between two or possibly three viewpoints would have kept things interesting and would have fostered deeper character development.

There are several mysteries to solve in this tale, and most of them have satisfying conclusions. However, one of them ends up being completely dismissed without any serious investigation. I was a little bothered by that. I also felt that the plan to expose the traitor was overly complex. There seemed to be easier ways of discovering who the traitor was, but by the end of the story, I better understood why that particular path was chosen. I will say that Ms. Todd did an excellent job of keeping the identity of the traitor hidden. Iliona is certain for a long time that she knows who the culprit is. As I read, I was inclined to agree with her even though there were a few things that concerned me. However, I was truly surprised when the traitor’s identity was revealed.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Blind Eye. Iliona and Lysander are interesting characters, and I look forward to learning more about them. I’ll be picking up the next book in the series very soon.

The Bottle Ghosts by Dorien Grey

The Bottle Ghosts by Dorien Grey
A Dick Hardesty Mystery, #6
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Historical
Length: Short Story (149 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Hired to find a missing man—an alcoholic—Dick Hardesty discovers that an unusual number of alcoholic gay men have vanished within a relatively short period and never heard from again. Clues lead him to a support group for gay couples, where one partner is alcoholic and the other is not. Dick and his partner Jonathan infiltrate the group by claiming Jonathan is an alcoholic. When two more men from the group appear to suffer the same fate as the previous victims, Dick is determined to find out why…and who is responsible.

It’s not easy to solve a crime when no one knows what happened to the victims of it.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about this series is seeing how Dick has matured over time. I’ve mentioned this in a previous review, but I especially enjoyed this character’s growth in this tale because of how long he’s been trying to change. Dick has come such a long way both personally and professionally since I first met him. His hard work started to pay off in the last instalment, but it really sped up in this one. I really loved seeing so many positive changes in this character’s life after getting to know him so well over the previous five books. This was especially true when it came to certain habits of his that he seemed to be growing tired of. It was so nice to see how he finally began to conquer them.

With that being said, there were a few times when the character development overshadowed Dick’s work. As much as I liked seeing so many examples of how the protagonist has changed, I would have preferred to see a little more time spent on the case he was working on instead. There was so much going on with the disappearances that I could have used another clue or two about what Dick was discovering and how he pieced it all together. His logic did make sense, but I would have given this tale a higher rating had I known more clearly how the main character was able to piece certain clues together.

The pacing was strong and steady from the first chapter to the last one. I stayed up late to finish the last thirty pages or so because I was so curious to see how everything would turn out. There simply wasn’t a good place to take a break and stop reading, and that’s a good thing! I definitely like getting this absorbed in a plot. It’s one of the reasons why I look forward to reading Mr. Grey’s stories so much.

While this can be read as a standalone novel, I would suggest starting withThe Butcher’s Son to anyone who is at all interested in following Dick’s adventures from the beginning.

The Bottle Ghosts kept me guessing until the end. I’d recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for a challenging mystery.

Never Kill a Cat and Other Stories by Miles Archer

Never Kill a Cat and Other Stories by Miles Archer
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Short Story (116 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

One of the “folk wisdoms” that circulates among crime/mystery writers is this: While one may slaughter as many humans in pretty much any gory fashion one wishes, a writer will earn his/her readers’ undying enmity should they presume to fictionally destroy a feline. (Dogs are only slightly less verboten…perhaps dog lovers are more sanguine?)
In the title story we have an old woman, alone in the world but for her beloved felines…and she’s a serial killer in the making. They say revenge is a dish best served cold—cold as death.

This collection includes nine more tales—all of them Archer’s seventies-era “hippy” P.I. Doug McCool short stories, collected together for the first time.

Sometimes the police can’t or won’t investigate a crime for a wide variety of reasons. Who would you count on instead when this happens?

“Never Kill a Cat” was a fantastic opening for this collection. The storyline focused on a woman named Dolores whose cat suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. She had to figure out what happened to him as well as decide how to react to the person who might have been responsible for his disappearance. Dolores’ unique view of the world was what caught my attention. Her personality was so well developed and eccentric that I couldn’t wait to see how she reacted to all of the plot twists that popped up during her quest to uncover the truth.

There were a few stories that needed more clues and background information. I had some trouble telling what was going on in them because they gave me so few hints about what might happen next or why their characters behaved the way the did. “Nobody Gets Outa Here Alive” was a good example of this. It followed Freddy’s life after he witnessed a frightening robbery at a store he was shopping at. Freddy was incredibly interesting, but there were things about his personality and character development that never made sense to me because of how little I knew about his life from before the robbery.

What made “The Miller’s Wife’s Tale” it stand out the most to me were all of the little details about the people connected to this case. Some of the plot was about a string of murders that happened to women working as prostitutes, and the rest was about a woman who was trying to figure out what her spouse was up to when she wasn’t around him. I can’t say anything else about them without giving away spoilers, but knowing so much about the characters that were involved in it made it easy to empathize with what was going on. This worked great as a short story, although it also could have been expanded into a full-length novel because it was so complex and richly detailed.

I’d recommend Never Kill a Cat and Other Stories to anyone who likes short, snappy mysteries.