The Storybook Coroner by A.J. Schaar


The Storybook Coroner by A.J. Schaar
Publisher: Black Chicken Unlimited
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Kidnapping. Robbery. Death Queens. PsychoPumps. Master Plans. Hell Holes. Gods. Dragons. True Love. Sandwiches.

This is a tale full of irreverent humour, with a broad cast of gods introduced, mysteries uncovered, and grand rescue plans concocted… Easily readable and whimsical… An interesting and entertaining romp through mythology, with a modern twist.

Love conquers all…right?

Greek gods like Hermes and Pan were included in this tale, but the narrator made sure to describe them in ways that were understandable for all sorts of readers. One didn’t need to have any prior knowledge of the Greek pantheon in order to find this amusing, but readers who did know a little – or a lot – about the topic would discover additional layers of meaning. That is a difficult balance to strike when writing about this sort of topic, so I tip my cap to the author for figuring out how to make this appealing on so many different levels.

The storyline seemed non-linear at certain points, and the portions of it that were shared in chronological order didn’t always make sense to me until I learned some other details about those scenes later on. I had trouble keeping track of what happened when, especially for characters who weren’t always clear about when their memories happened. While I commend the author for taking risks with how they pieced together this tale, this reader often found the execution of it to be confusing and more complex than it needed to be.

Some of the most interesting scenes were the ones that described the romance. They were perfect for a teenage audience and felt so much like developing a crush or falling in love for the first time. The excitement and uncertainty of that stage in life is a wonderful, if also sometimes bittersweet, experience. I thought the author did a great job capturing that stage of life and how it can affect everything else that’s going on in someone’s life – or afterlife – at the same time.

The Storybook Coroner was a unique tale that made me reminisce about life as a teenager.

A Soupçon of Poison by Jennifer Ashley


A Soupçon of Poison by Jennifer Ashley
Publisher: Self-published, Amazon Kindle
Genre: Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Rating: 3 stars
Review by: Fern

London, 1880
Kat Holloway, highly sought-after young cook to the wealthy of London, finds herself embroiled in murder when she’s accused of poisoning her employer, the loathsome Sir Lionel Leigh-Bradbury. Her only help as she works to clear her name comes from the mysterious Daniel McAdam, a handsome man-of-all-work who seems to know everyone and always happens to be in the right place at the right time.

Kat and Daniel investigate the crime, but the mystery of Daniel’s background might be just as elusive and dangerous as the poisoner bent on framing Kat for murder. Prequel to the Kat Holloway Below Stairs Mysteries.

Kat Holloway might be young for her position as Chef of Sir Lionel Leigh-Bradbury’s household, but she knows her way around a kitchen and has spent years honing her skills. After strongly knocking back Sir Lionel’s amorous advances, she finds his requests for outlandish meals with only a few hours warning growing increasingly difficult – to the point where she turns to a little known friend – Daniel McAdams for help. At her wit’s end, Kat is determined to have it out with Sir Lionel and she is almost ready to leave, only to be woken in the middle of the night by the maid to find Sir Lionel has been murdered – and Kat is the prime suspect as murderess. Can Kat and Daniel uncover what really went on that fateful evening?

I picked up this short story on a whim and by the second chapter found myself engrossed in both the setting and characters. I enjoyed that Kat was a strong and fairly independent young woman and there was quite the mystery surrounding Daniel as well. There was clear chemistry between the two characters but I was also glad this didn’t turn into more of a romance novel but rather kept it’s main focus on the murder mystery and unraveling this aspect to the plot.

I do admit this was a fairly light book – readers looking for deep intrigue or a vastly complex plot might not find this fits the bill, but readers more interested in a light mystery with a strong historical context and a strong female lead character should enjoy this as much as I did. I was glad this book is definitely a stand alone style of novel. There is a whole series based around Kat and Daniel but that appears to be completely separate from this short story so readers should definitely feel able to just pick this up on a whim – as I did – and delve right in. I admit that I enjoyed it enough I plan to purchase the second short story – which appears in a similar vein as this one and to stand equally well alone – and I am also eyeing off the connected seven book series with these characters as the main protagonists as well.

This book ticks a number of boxes for me being a historical novel with strongly written characters as well as a good murder mystery at its heart and just a flutter of romantic chemistry, I feel it should appeal to a wider range of readers and I’m eager to try more by this author around these characters. Enjoyable.

Hello Around the World by Sindhu Narasimhan


Hello Around the World by Sindhu Narasimhan
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

“Hello Around the World: Learn to Say Hello in 20 Languages – A Practical Guide with Pronunciation, Flags, and Traditional Dress for Kids Across Cultures” offers an immersive learning experience for children aged 2-6. This paperback book is designed to open young minds to the richness of global cultures and the power of simple greetings.

Saying hello can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I appreciated the pronunciation guides for saying hello in all of these different languages. It made it easy to sound them out and practice this greeting with all of the characters I met in this picture book. I was surprised by how many syllables are required for this greeting in some languages as well as how similar some of the answers were depending on which parts of the world they came from and how closely related they were to similar tongues. What a fun discovery that was!

It would have been nice if the children’s names were given the same treatment. While I already knew how to pronounce some of them, others weren’t so familiar to me. Knowing someone’s name is such an important part of socializing and learning about other cultures, so I wish there had been some assistance here as well. I would have chosen a higher rating if this had been included.

This little book was the perfect length for toddlers or young preschoolers. Those aren’t always easy ages to write for by any means, so I commend the author for condensing his messages about kindness, inclusion, and learning small pieces of new languages down to something that can be read in a few short minutes and adapted to even the shortest attention spans. What a good job he did with that. I look forward to seeing what he might come up with next.

Hello Around the World made me smile.

The Plague Maiden by Kate Ellis


The Plague Maiden by Kate Ellis
Publisher: Piatkus
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

A stir is caused in Tradmouth when a letter arrives at the police station claiming that the man convicted of murdering the Vicar of Belsham is innocent. DI Wesley Peterson already has his hands full with threats made to local supermarket chain, Huntings – the last thing he needs is an alleged miscarriage of justice to investigate.

Meanwhile, Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson, uncovers a medieval plague pit at a site near Belsham church earmarked for Huntings’ new superstore. As Wesley’s investigations continue, he begins to suspect that the vicar’s murder, the disappearance of a woman and the threats to the supermarket may be linked in some way.

Dr Neil Watson and his archaeology team uncover what they believe to be a plague pit in an open field earmarked as the site for a new local supermarket. Despite the growing number of bodies, DI Wesley Peterson is relieved, since the bones are clearly mediaeval and solving their deaths is not his problem. Wesley’s plate is already quite full, with his wife due to deliver their second child any day now, new evidence found that clearly shows an innocent man has been in jail for a decade for the murder of a vicar he can’t have committed, and an unknown person leaving infected products at the local Huntings supermarkets which has killed a number of people. When Wesley begins to find more and more connections between all these cases he will need every talent he can draw on to uncover what’s really going on.

This is another book in the DI Wesley Peterson series and I have been really enjoying them so far. Many of the books are primarily a British police procedural style with a good hit of history/archaeology running through the plots and this book is no exception. While some of the connections between the team members and Neil with the various other characters does have plenty of history from the previous books, I strongly feel this story can be picked up easily by itself and really enjoyed. The plot and central focus of the investigations are well contained in this story.

Readers looking for something very heavily historical might not find this quite suits their purposes. While Neil’s archaeology dig and investigations does indeed create quite a strong sub-plot there are a number of modern mysteries and police investigations that take up the main aspect to the plot in my mind. I feel the author has given a good balance between the past mystery and the current problems facing Wesley and his team but readers wanting something more historical might feel this balance isn’t quite right. I also could appreciate there were a number of cases that interwove here and that took some exceptional writing both to make it believable but also to knit it all together. In such a small town it makes sense that seemingly unconnected events actually could have cross over in parts since with such a small pool of people, the interactions and connectedness really would make sense to cross over into all aspects of the town’s life.

I found this to be a well written and strongly plotted police procedural with a number of interesting plots and a strong and equally interesting historical aspect too. I’m very much enjoying this series and am eager to get to the next book.

Winter Solstice in the Crystal Castle by Jennifer Ivy Walker


Winter Solstice in the Crystal Castle by Jennifer Ivy Walker
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Historical Romance
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Rose

Gabrielle is a flame haired, fire hearted French princess who dreams of becoming a Valkyrie warrior queen like her Viking ancestors from Normandy. Sent to Paris to learn the proper etiquette for a future French queen, she is called home to le Château de Beaufort for a forced marriage to a man she loathes when her father the king’s precarious health takes a sudden turn for the worse.

Chivalrous, solitary knight Sir Bastien de Landuc suffers an impossible love for Gabrielle, the unattainable princess he can never have. Without a title of nobility, he is ineligible to compete in the tournament for her hand in marriage, despite his unparalleled equestrian skills and inimitable swordsmanship.

Yet, Yuletide wishes for a wondrous winter solstice in the glorious Crystal Castle might make impossible dreams come true.

Can the valiant knight win the coveted hand of his Viking Valkyrie?

Ms Walker takes us into the time of King Arthur and introduces us to friends and family of Sir Lancelot. Lancelot’s mother and two of her friends have their own wishes for the upcoming winter solstice.

Gabrielle is called home because her father, King of Finistere, has suddenly become ill and wants to see his daughter safely married before his death. Unfortunately, there are many men who would like to get their hands on the princess and her kingdom, so the king devises a plan for her to be sworn to a winner of a joust.

It is obvious from the beginning that Gabrielle and Bastien de Landuc, her champion and her protector, are meant for each other, but there are numerous things that stand in their way – Bastien’s lack of nobility, forces from without. Ms. Walker leads us through the twists and turns of bringing them together with her wonderful storytelling ability.

I thoroughly enjoyed the research that went into this book and the scattering of French phrases lends a touch of realism. There were, however, some words and phrases that, in my opinion, were overused. This could very well be because I’m an editor in my other life and may be more conscious of things like this than the normal reader, so it may be something that wouldn’t bother any other reader.

If you enjoy medieval romances, winter traditions, and a helping of passion, give this book a try.

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Stonebridge by Linda Griffin


Stonebridge by Linda Griffin
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Paranormal, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

After the death of her mother, Rynna Dalton comes to live with her imperious great-grandmother and her bookish, disabled cousin Ted at Stonebridge Manor. Almost immediately she is aware of a mysterious presence, which she believes is the spirit of her mother’s murdered cousin, Rosalind. Rynna is charmed by Rosalind’s lawyer son Jason Wyatt, who courts her, and she agrees to marry him. Meanwhile, Ted and Rynna become good friends.

But Stonebridge holds secrets that will profoundly affect her future. Why is Ted so opposed to the match? Why does Rosalind seem to warn Rynna against it? And how far will Jason go to possess Stonebridge—and the woman he professes to love?

Family is forever.

Ms. Griffin had a smooth writing style that makes reading her stories a delight. She seemed to know exactly when vivid details were required and when it was better to allow the audience to imagine certain moments for themselves. That is not an easy thing to balance, but it’s one of the reasons why I try to request as many of the books she submits to Long and Short Reviews as I possibly can. Whatever else may happen with the plot, I know that I’m always going to want to read just one more page of the polished stories she writes.

I would have liked to see more character development, especially when it came to Rynna. She had a habit of making rash decisions and not listening to the people around her who had serious concerns about her life choices. While this flaw definitely made her interesting to read about, I also wondered why she behaved that way and why she was so stubborn at the worst possible moments. If only that had been better explained, but this is a minor criticism of a tale I otherwise found enjoyable.

It was amusing to see how the author mixed the romance, mystery, and paranormal genres together. The plot weaved its way among all three of them. While more attention was paid to the first two, the third one popped up in some creative ways as well that other readers should discover for themselves so that I don’t spoil anything for them. There is definitely something to be said for blending so many different types of storytelling together, especially when they all bring out important aspects of the plot that might have otherwise not had a chance to shine.

Stonebridge was a memorable and exciting read.

The Skeleton Room by Kate Ellis


The Skeleton Room by Kate Ellis
Publisher: Piatkus
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

When builders converting Chadleigh Hall, a former school, into a luxury hotel discover a skeleton in a sealed room, DI Wesley Peterson is called in to investigate.

Soon Wesley has a second suspicious death on their hands: a team of marine archaeologists working on a nearby shipwreck off the Devon coast have dragged a woman’s body from the sea.

As Wesley investigates Chadleigh Hall’s past and the woman’s violent death, both trails lead in surprising directions. Matters are further complicated when a man wanted for murder in London appears on the scene – a man who may know more about the case than he admits . . .

DI Wesley Peterson is called in to investigate when the building refurbishment of an old girls’ school in preparation to become a ritzy hotel finds the skeleton of a young girl walled up in a small room. Unsure exactly how old the skeleton is, DI Peterson soon finds himself quite busy when the body of a woman washes up off the coastline, and the skeleton is found to likely be from the 1960s and still requiring investigation. With an old shipwreck being dived and excavated by his archaeologist friends the small country town is soon bustling and very busy just before the summer tourist season begins once again.

I’ve been enjoying this series and found this British small town mystery book to be yet another excellent addition. While I did find in this installment the archaeology took a bit more of a back seat than I’m used to, I was pleased that the two main mysteries – that of the schoolgirl skeleton and the suspicious death/drowning of the young woman were both logical, interestingly written and very much front and center for most of the book. The shipwreck – and slight sub-plot involving the genealogy investigation surrounding this – all added a good bit of extra mystery and overall, I found the book quite the page turning. It certainly held my attention as these various plots all revolved around each other and appeared in places to cross over.

The main cast of the police team, Wesley’s wife and child, and Wesley’s old school chum Neil all worked very well together, and I was doubly intrigued when one of the previous detectives who had left for the bright lights of London and the Met also turned up. I feel readers should greatly enjoy the many moving parts to this story and feel it can certainly be picked up as a stand along from a plot perspective. There is a bit of history and connection between the network of characters though I feel that is all clearly and well explained and so readers who haven’t read any of the previous books should feel comfortable picking this book up by itself.

With a solid series of plots and a good small town/British police procedural feel to it this is a great book and one I enjoyed.

The Housekeepers by Alex Hay


The Housekeepers by Alex Hay
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group UK
Genre: Historical, Action/Adventure
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

Mrs. King is no ordinary housekeeper. Born into a world of con artists and thieves, she’s made herself respectable, running the grandest home in Mayfair. The place is packed with treasures, a glittering symbol of wealth and power, but dark secrets lurk in the shadows.

When Mrs. King is suddenly dismissed from her position, she recruits an eclectic group of women to join her in revenge: A black market queen out to settle her scores. An actress desperate for a magnificent part. A seamstress dreaming of a better life. And Mrs. King’s predecessor, with her own desire for vengeance.

Their plan? On the night of the house’s highly anticipated costume ball—set to be the most illustrious of the year—they will rob it of its every possession, right under the noses of the distinguished guests and their elusive heiress host. But there’s one thing Mrs. King wants even more than money: the truth. And she’ll run any risk to get it…

After all, one should never underestimate the women downstairs.

Mrs. King has worked in the most illustrious home in Mayfair since she was a teenager. Now the housekeeper, having worked her way up throughout her whole life, she is suddenly dismissed with no character and no references. Determined to take her revenge, she knows exactly who to turn to – other working women who have been similarly treated poorly. So on the night of the biggest ball for the season, these women are planning their own grand event, the biggest heist of the century.

I am always a sucker for a really good heist novel and the fact this book was set in the middle of 1905 and has a cast predominantly of women – and “downstairs” working women at that – only made me more eager to give this book a try. And I was really happy with the story as a whole. The characters were believable and multi-layered, the plot was logical and for the most part quite believable too. This is the author’s debut novel and the story stood very well by itself and I didn’t feel like I’d missed anything from previous installments. I was really happy with the story.

The first half or so is the preparation phase really. The cast had to all get together and for such an enormous task there was obviously a lot to set up and prepare – so getting to see the workings of all this was really good. I also felt the pace of this part of the story was really well handled. The author didn’t skim by it which I was pleased about since this is clearly a massive part of the plot and the story itself. But I didn’t feel like this part dragged too slowly either. Much like any heist movie the setting up of the parts, the organizing and planning beforehand is of almost equal importance to the actual “go night” itself. Without proper planning and structure put in place the main event simply won’t happen. So, reading through all that really helped sell the book and event to me. Equally – the actual heist night was about the latter half of the book along with the repercussions, so I felt this was really well handled as well.

With interesting, complicated characters who all have their own reasons and agenda’s along with a lovely plot of the heist itself this was an interesting and many layered story that I really enjoyed and can strongly recommend.

A Painted Doom by Kate Ellis


A Painted Doom by Kate Ellis
Publisher: Piatkus Books
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

Teenager Lewis Hoxworthy discovers a disturbing painting in a medieval barn; a find which excites archaeologist Neil Watson, who is excavating an ancient manor house nearby.

But when a man is found shot through the head in Lewis’s father’s field and Lewis himself goes missing, it is Neil’s friend, Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson, who faces one of his most intriguing cases yet.

It seems that the Devon village of Derenham is full of secrets, both ancient and modern. As Neil uncovers the story of Derenham’s medieval past, it becomes clear that the Doom, a 500-year-old painting of hell and judgement, holds the key to the mystery. And as events reach a terrifying climax, Wesley has to act swiftly if he is to save a young life . . .

Newly promoted DI Wesley Peterson is enjoying a rare slow period, relishing the chance to catch his breath before the tourist season begins once again. Only the peace is shattered when ex-rock star Jonny Shellmer is found shot in the head in a farmers field. When a local teenage boy disappears – the son of the farmer whose field the rocker was found dead in Wesley and his team need to sort out what might really be going on in the small village.

This is the sixth book in the DI Wesley Peterson series and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the British mystery series. While the plot and mystery can certainly be easily read as a stand alone – and there is no cliffhanger or dangling threads to deter readers picking this book up by itself – I must admit some of the relationships between the police team, and Wesley and his wife, does have some aspect of history to it and so readers should be aware they might miss a few of the smaller points in these respects.

That said I felt the plot itself was very well handled and I really enjoyed it. Complicated enough I didn’t guess what was happening straight away, but not so convoluted I got lost, I felt he author had a really good balance in this book. I admit some of the archaeology took a bit of a back seat this time around in the story but that didn’t bother me because the mystery part to the plot really was larger in this book and so it didn’t feel like anything was being padded out or embellished a little too much.

A really strong series and a great British police procedural this is a great book and an author I am definitely addicted to.

The Skull by Jon Klassen


The Skull by Jon Klassen
Publisher: Candlewick
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Holiday, Paranormal, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Jon Klassen’s signature wry humor takes a turn for the ghostly in this thrilling retelling of a traditional Tyrolean folktale. In a big abandoned house, on a barren hill, lives a skull. A brave girl named Otilla has escaped from terrible danger and run away, and when she finds herself lost in the dark forest, the lonely house beckons. Her host, the skull, is afraid of something too, something that comes every night. Can brave Otilla save them both? Steeped in shadows and threaded with subtle wit—with rich, monochromatic artwork and an illuminating author’s note—The Skull is as empowering as it is mysterious and foreboding.

Would you spend the night in a haunted house?

Otilla was a brave girl who I quickly grew to like. She was kind and sweet even when she was afraid. That’s not always an easy thing to accomplish, so it made me more curious to learn about where she came from and why she was running away from something that frightened her in the first scene. The more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know.

Some of the scenes in this picture book were pretty intense, especially since this was rated for ages 4 and older. I would be hesitant to read this with younger kids without first figuring out how much horror they can handle. Certainly some of them would love it, but I also felt that the talking skull’s biggest fear in life was much darker than what is typically written for preschoolers and elementary-aged readers.

Otilla’s friendship with the skull was sweet. Both of them had pasts they didn’t want to talk about and seemed to find difficult. It was rewarding to watch them figure out they had this in common and decide they were going to protect each other. Few things are better than having a friend who behaves so loyally!

I would have loved to see more character and plot development. The eerie setting had a nice Halloween vibe, but there weren’t a lot of explanations about who the skull was when it was alive and still had the rest of its body or how they were connected to the grand old mansion that was now slowly falling apart. As an adult, I was able to make certain assumptions about what the author might have meant based on subtle context clues, but I don’t think a lot of kids would necessarily pick up on enough of them to make sense of everything without help.

With that being said, I did enjoy the scenes that explained what the skull could and couldn’t do. For example, it could taste tea, but it could not keep tea inside of its mouth because it didn’t have a body or a stomach to digest it. There were multiple examples like this, and each one made me smile as I added more details to my mental file of what this character’s abilities and limitations were.

The Skull was a spooky Halloween read.