Book Review: LITTLE DARLINGS is Satisfyingly Creepy

Little Darlings
by Melanie Golding

Little Darlings by Melanie Golding was a perfect novel to read in the lead-up to Halloween. This book is creepy, scary, and unsettling, in the vein of traditional fairy and folk tales. Each section begins with an excerpt from such a tale to set the disturbing mood.

During the worst drought since 1976, Lauren Tanter gave birth to twins. The hospital where she delivered didn’t allow her (rather useless) husband Patrick to stay overnight (is this normal in the UK?), so she was alone, drugged after hemorrhaging. In the middle of the night, she heard a woman singing a creepy lullaby to her own newborn twins. On the way to the bathroom, Lauren asked her to quit singing as it could disturb the other patients. Strangely, the woman’s bay had no hospital bed. She was dirty with stringy hair and her babies were in a basket. The woman asked her to switch one baby. The Tranters’ babies had every advantage; it wasn’t fair. Lauren gathered her twins, barricaded herself in the bathroom, and called 999. The responding officers determined no one was in the ward and referred the case to Mental Health Services. DS Joanna Harper, though, thought it worth investigating, even though the psychiatrist chalked the incident up to postpartum hallucinations.

Frightened, Lauren stayed in her house after she was discharged until she finally met her friends Rosa and Cindy at Bishop Valley Park. Lauren took a walk after her friends departed. Waking up, the twins’ stroller was missing. DS Harper rushed to the park and found the twins with a woman who was struggling with the stroller at the edge of the water. When DS Harper came upon them, the woman ran. Quickly captured, she claimed she wasn’t kidnapping the twins at all; she had found the babies and was returning them.

At first, Lauren was overjoyed. Then, she took the stroller and started running towards the river, convinced that the babies weren’t hers; they’d been replaced with the dirty woman’s creatures. Despite everyone’s attempts to convince Lauren otherwise, she believes that her babies aren’t her own. And, as DS Harper investigates the abduction, she begins to see evidence herself that the boys might not be the real babies.

Little Darlings has lots of provocative elements: changeling babies, a drowned city, a mysterious and similar crime from 1976. Even better, it’s ending is satisfying but ambiguous enough that it leaves the reader unsettled and disturbed, perfect for a horror tale.

Thank you to Netgalley and Crooked Lane Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LIGHTS! CAMERA! PUZZLES! a breezy mystery

hall, parnell - lights camera puzzlesLights! Camera! Puzzles! A Puzzle Lady Mystery
Parnell Hall

Cora Felton’s ex-husband, Melvin, has written a tell-all memoir, Confessions of a Trophy Husband: My Life with the Puzzle Lady, documenting their fiery marriage, though he’s kept secret the biggest scandal of all: Cora, the Puzzle Lady, can’t solve a crossword to save her life. Still, the book paints Cora poorly, and she’s lost an endorsement deal that provided most of her income. When she learns that Melvin’s book is being made into a movie, she signs on as an associate producer, partly to influence how she’s depicted but mostly because she needs the money.

Cora’s first day on the movie began with auditions for “present day Cora” and she was grumpy as she compared herself to the parade of actresses ushered to and from the stage by a production assistant. She’s called back to the theater by her friend NYPD homicide sergeant Crowley when one of those PAs is found murdered. The screenwriter had given Cora a crossword puzzle he’d found; Cora was convinced it was supposed to be planted on the body.

As director Sandy Delfin tries to keep the shoot on track while Sergeant Crowley haunts the set, additional murders plague the production making everyone wonder who will be next and why a killer targeted the Untitled Puzzle Lady Project.

Lights! Camera! Puzzles! is an entry in the long-standing Puzzle Lady series, and while reading the previous books isn’t necessary to understanding and enjoying this addition, I believe it would help give context to the returning characters and their relationships.

Though there are multiple murders, the book doesn’t have violence or gore so would be ideal for mystery lovers looking for those features. Solving the murders relies not on forensics or profiling but on observation and logic, and Cora excels at that, though her access to crime scenes strains credibility.

Cora communicates through witty, raucous banter, primarily with Sergeant Crowley, an ex-boyfriend, and it’s often funny, though at times it can be quite cutting and a little harsh for my taste. The characters that populate the movie set are a little stereotypical, especially when it comes to sex and gender, and these conventions feel outdated, but even more almost in deliberate defiance of changing expectations around equality and sexual harassment.

As a Puzzle Lady book should, Lights! Camera! Puzzles! includes puzzles for the reader to complete—a crossword by Fred Piscop and a Sudoku by Will Shortz. The book is quick and light-hearted and a good choice for an undemanding airport diversion.

Thanks to NetGalley and Pegasus Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: BURIED ANGELS, new evidence in a decades old missing persons case

Lackberg, Camilla - Buried Angels (2)Buried Angels
Camilla Lackberg

In 1974, the Elvander family mysteriously disappeared from a boarding school they ran on Valö, an island near Fjällbacka, Sweden. They left their Easter dinner on the table and one-year-old Ebba alone in the living room.

After Ebba’s young son Vincent tragically died, she and her husband fled to Valö, transferring all their grief into the physical labor required to transform the dilapidated old school into a bed and breakfast. However, when they pulled up the floorboards in the dining room and found blood stains, the decades old crime came to light. Only days later, someone set fire to the house while Ebba and Tobias were inside sleeping.

Although he had little evidence, Patrik Hedström was convinced the family’s disappearance, Ebba’s return, and the arson were all connected. And when someone shot at at Ebba through her kitchen window, he felt he was racing against time. His only colleague though was the famously lazy Gösta Flygare since Martin was on sick leave and Paula on vacation. Surprisingly, though, Gösta showed an interest in this case that he’d never displayed in the entire time Patrik had been with the Tanum police.

Five students had been on the island during the Easter weekend the family disappeared, and they happened to converge in Fjällbacka. Patrik and Gösta plus journalist Kjell Ringholm are convinced they know more than they admitted in their interviews at the time. However, they have even more to lose now. One of the group, Sebastian Månsson, is a wealthy businessman, and another, John Holm, is a leader of Friends of Sweden, a neo-Nazi political group.

Patrik’s wife, true crime novelist Erica Falck, long interest in the Valö mystery, insinuates herself into the investigation, perhaps putting it, herself, and others in danger.

For me, Buried Angels began slowly, and really didn’t capture me in an I-can’t-put-this-down way until I was about halfway through the book. By then, I was invested and curious enough that the rest of it went very quickly.

I’ve read all of the Fjällbacka mysteries (with varying degrees of recall, I must admit), and Buried Angels improves on the dialogue, which in past volumes was choppy and abrupt. Although I assumed it was a translation artifact, it wasn’t present in this entry, at least not so that I noticed.

However, Lackberg did seem to return to two of her favorite themes: Nazis and secrets among groups of old friends. Certainly, these themes are deployed differently in Buried Angels than in other books in the series, but I would like to have more variation.

Being the eighth book in the series, the characters are fairly well-established. Mellberg is often presented as a caricature of a buffoon, though the rest of the cast is likable if sometimes flat. Gösta, though, long written off as a disinterested and lazy officer, gains some depth in this book.

Buried Angels has two parallel stories–the contemporary investigation, and a chronicle that begins in 1908. Lackberg uses the historical sections to create small cliffhangers, but sometimes they are never resolved. For example, Ebba receives a threatening postcard, and though readers ultimately learn who sent it, we are never told what it said.

The historical sections themselves are interesting, though they might have been even more interesting if they’d had more contextual information about the times in which they were written.

Like many of the books in the series, the characters in Buried Angels struggle with fair division of labor within relationships. It’s a constant internal refrain for Erica, though she doesn’t communicate about it with Patrik.

Also present in this book is the pain from losing a child and how difficult it can be for the parents to individually heal and at the same time repair their relationship.

Buried Angels is not the best, but not the worst book in the series. It’s definitely something fans should read. Those who haven’t read Camilla Lackberg before should begin with The Ice Princess.

Book Review: SAVE ME FROM DANGEROUS MEN, inaugural book in new series with tough private eye, Nikki Griffin

Lelchuk, SA - Save Me from Dangerous Men CoverSave Me from Dangerous Men
SA Lelchuk

In Save Me from Dangerous Men, tough and independent Nikki Griffin owns The Brimstone Magpie, a used bookstore in Berkeley, where she’s created a community around the books that give her comfort and reassurance. Nikki is also a private investigator. Determined to protect victims of domestic abuse, Nikki’s unpaid specialty is extracting women from these relationships and ensuring the abusers know the costs of contacting the women again.

Her paid jobs require her to follow cheating husbands or track down missing people–until Greggory Gunn enters her office. CEO of Care4, an up-and-coming tech firm producing cutting edge baby monitors, he suspects Karen Li, an employee, of corporate espionage and needs Nikki’s help learning who she is working for. Although some of Gunn’s story sounded slightly off, the $20,000 cash retainer he offered convinced her to accept the case.

Distracted by her heroin-addicted brother and wanting to help Zoe, an abused woman who entered her orbit, Nikki began surveillance of Karen Li. She saw Karen meet two giant, intimidating men, and was sure that Karen looked not just nervous but terrified. Next, Nikki followed Karen to Mendocino, and saw her meet with the same two men on the beach. When one of them pushed her to the edge of the nearby cliff, she broke cover to intervene. Later, she initiated contact with Karen who told Nikki she had no idea what she’d waded into, but if Karen wasn’t successful, people were going to die.

Now, Nikki counted Karen among the women she had to protect, but that put her and her loved ones in mortal danger. Nikki didn’t know who her enemies were or who would die if she couldn’t stop what seemed to be an irrevocable chain of events.

The plot was fast-paced as Nikki seemed to leap from one dangerous situation to another. Her wild sideline was grounded with trips to the bookstore where she bantered with the ZEBRAS (the Zealous East Bay Ratiocinating Amateur Sleuths) and always was able to recommend the perfect book to customers. Save Me from Dangerous Me included a bevy of literary references, but for the most part they were simple mentions instead of integrated into the plot or described, and that might have been overdone a bit.

Although I figured out some elements of the mystery early on, other parts were a surprise to me. Nikki’s backstory and motivation for her work unspooled throughout the book. Nikki herself had some stereotypical elements: she was beautiful, wounded, had difficulty connecting with men, was intelligent and determined. She had an almost preternatural way of anticipating the behavior of others. All this was a tad unrealistic, as was her ability to continue her vigilante work without any consequences. And the book contains several fighting scenes and descriptions of violence which may trouble some readers.

That said, Save Me from Dangerous Men is a high-octane ride, analogous to an action movie where certain rules of reality can be suspended. As much as I was troubled by Nikki’s methods, there was a part of me that was rooting for her and pleased when she achieved vengeance. This is expected to be the first book in a series with Nikki Griffin. I expect I’ll return to read more about her adventures.

Thank you to NetGalley and Flatiron Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WATCHING YOU, a satisfyingly creepy mystery

Jewell, Lisa - Watching YouWatching You
Lisa Jewell

On March 24, police are called to Melville Heights, an exclusive neighborhood in Bristol, England where they find a body in a pool of blood. . . .

In this tony neighborhood, privacy was only an illusion. Joey Mullen and her new husband, Alfie, moved in with her brother Jack, and his wife, Rebecca. Joey always thought Jack would marry an outgoing, lively woman, but Rebecca, often quiet, is more likely to stay in her home office than interact with the rest of the family.

When Joey notices her neighbor, Tom Fitzwilliam, the handsome head of the local school, she develops an unhealthy fondness for him. Although she believes no one knows about her feelings, Tom’s teenage son, Freddie, an aspiring spy, watches the neighborhood with high powered binoculars from his bedroom window.

Mr. Fitzwilliam, well-known around the community, is regarded as a hero because he turned around the ailing school, but Jenna Tripp is not convinced he’s the beneficent spirit he appears. Jenna’s friend, Bess Ridley, has a crush on Mr. Fitzwilliam, and in Jenna’s eyes, Mr. Fitzwilliam has responded inappropriately. It doesn’t help that her mother, Frankie, suffering from mental health issues, believes that Mr. Fitzwilliam is the head of a group of people who is organizing gang bullying against her. Her surveillance of Fitzwilliam isn’t subtle; she sits in a lawn chair across from his house.

Moreover, Mr. Fitzwilliam’s wife, Nicola, appears to be subservient to Tom, and Freddie sometimes hears sounds from his parents’ room at night that sound like fighting.

Watching You traces the story of the murder as it developed from January. Traditional chapters are interspersed with police interview transcripts, and it is only after several characters are interviewed that the identity of the body is evident, though who the murderer is remains unclear. Despite the number of people watching, no single commands the entire mosaic.

Although at times events strain credulity and the book can give unclear messages about the appropriateness of adult behavior towards teenagers, Watching You has the qualities I want in a mystery/thriller: it is fast-paced and entertaining. Added to these are the quirky characters in the mix and the unusual situation of the civilians, not the police, having most of the answers. With Watching You certainly satisfying, I will likely pick up another Lisa Jewell novel.