Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Last Noel

 The Last Noel (1997) by Jean Hager

It's time to get ready for the annual Christmas pageant at the Community Church in Victoria Springs. Tess Darcy, owner of the Iris House Bed & Breakfast, is delegated to let the church's usual director, Claire Chandler, know that she's being repaced by an out-of-town drama professor. That's enough to make Claire furious, but it doesn't help that Sherwood Draper was recommended by her least favorite person in the world, Lily Brookside. It isn't long before the womanizing professor has most of the pageant personnel up in arms at the first meeting. His wife knows Lily wanted him to come direct the pageant so she could try to get her hooks into him and is giving them both the evil eye.. Denny Brookside isn't at all pleased at how his wife looks at this Noel Coward wannabe. The organist, Elizabeth Purcell, is incensed that she's being replaced by taped music; the children's director, Pam Yoder, can't believe he plans to ditch the children's portion of the program all together; and the choir director, Mike Tandy is so outraged that the choir has been reduced to three little Christmas songs that he gets up and leaves the sanctuary. 

The afternoon session doesn't go any better. In fact, it gets worse when Draper gets caught a little too cozy with one of the ladies in the dressing room. Sometime later he's found in that same dressing room with a pair of shears sticking out his back. The local police chief is out of town and his eager stand-in thinks he's got it all sewn up when a witness claims to have seen Draper's wife with shears that afternoon. But Tess isn't convinced he has really investigated all the angles and she's determined to be sure it's truly the guilty behind bars. 

This is the third Christmas-themed book I've read in a row--and the second to feature a Christmas a pageant (or it's rehearsals) as the venue for the crime. I have to say that I immediately spotted the primary reason Draper was killed--though I didn't see the way it shook out coming. I got completely confused about who could have been involved in the primary reason and then Hager shook the kaleidoscope a bit and changed the view of the pieces anyway. It also didn't help that life happened in the middle of my read and I may have lost my original train of thought. All told, it was an enjoyable holiday read and The Last Noel is my favorite Christmas mystery so far this season.  ★★ and 1/2.

First line: "You're the last person I expected to stab me in the back, Tess Darcy!" stormed Claire Chandler as soon as the phone was picked up, without even giving Tess a chance to say hello.

Last line: She made a U-turn at the next corner and headed for Luke's house.


Deaths = 4 (one stabbed; one car accident; two natural)

Book Challenge by Erin 18.0


First and foremost, have fun. Don't stress. No one is being judged, graded, or penalized. Even if you finish only one book the entire challenge, if you enjoy it and it's an accomplishment for you, then that's awesome.

The challenge runs from January 1, 2023 - April 30 2023. You submit your book list prior to beginning the challenge. Exchanges are accepted for the first round, but not in the bonus round (announced later). No books started before 12 a.m. on January 1 or finished after 11:59 p.m. on April 30 will count. (We live in different time zones--follow according to your own time zone.) Each book must be at least 200 pages long. Audio books are fine too. Read one book for each category. For full details see Erin's page on Facebook (link above). You will need to join the private group to view (link above).

My list:
1. (5 points) Freebie (any book at least 200 pages): Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper [252 pages]
2. (10 points) Book set in Australia or by Australian author: Wings Above the Diamantina by Arthur W. Upfield [302 pages]
3. (10 points) Author goes by three names: The Crimson Clue by George Harmon Coxe [214 pages]
4. (15 points) Book with "black" or "white" in title: The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson [214 pages]
5. (20 points) GoodReads award winner from any year: Dead Wake by Erik Larson (History/Bio Winner 2015) [430 pages]
6. (20 points) Set in small town/rural area: Murder R.F.D. by Leslie Stephan [241 pages]
7. (25 pointa) Book with "heart" or "love" in  title: Heart of the Sun by Pamela Sargent & George Zebrowski [245 pages]
8. (30 points) Book starts with first letter of your first name: Bats in the Belfry by E. C. R. Lorac [253 pages]
9. (30 points) Book with unusual narrator: Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. Obrien [233 pages]
10 (35 points) Book with prime number under 1000 in title: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome [315 pages]

Friday, December 2, 2022

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Death Beneath the Christmas Tree

 Death Beneath the Christmas Tree (1991) by Robert Nordan

Miz Mavis Lashley, a pleasant Southern widow, is looking forward to her church's Living Christmas Tree pageant. Her favorite (only) nephew Dale is escorting her and she's wearing her best Christmas finery. It will be lovely to listen to the choir and watch the little shepherds and wise men in the procession to the manger. What she doesn't expect is for one of the choir members to come tumbling out of the tree after being killed by a rifle shot from the balcony. 

Mavis and Dale are mystery fans and are quick to help Detective Charles Morgan (long ago member of Mavis's Sunday School class and more than willing to accept any help he can get). But it's difficult to see why anyone would have wanted to kill Frances Sedbury. No one at church seems to know much about her--except that she was quite, kept to herself, was faithful in attendance, and choir singing was apparently her only real interest. Fortunately, Mavis has this quality that just gets people to talk to her and before long she's learning all kinds of things about Frances and other members of the choir and church family. Then the choir direct is shot outside his home and folks begin to wonder if someone has it in for church singers. Mavis's instincts tell her that something deeper is behind it.

There are several things to like about this one. First--Mavis. I just fell in love with her and her Southern charm. And she's fairly forward-thinking for an older woman written in the early 1990s. She has a way of being interested in people without being downright nosy. I also like her relationship with her nephew Dale and how she deals with the neighborhood kids. The book is short, but Nordan is able to present the atmosphere of the south in the brief sketches he gives of the town and townspeople. The plot has an interesting twist...though I do have difficulty with what prompts the first murder. Not that I don't understand the motive or think it's realistic--it just touches on one of the topics I really don't care to read about. Any more specific than that and I'll be spoiling the ending. The other thing that prevents the book from garnering a higher rating is the lack of clues--there is one big clue that Mavis spots (and I didn't until she told us), but most of the revelations come from conversations that Mavis has with folks. And there's no mystery about the conversations. It's not like someone says something that tips Mavis off and maybe you, the reader, will spot it and maybe you won't. No--you know right then and there what the meaning of everything is, so there's not a lot of tension and mystery.

Good atmosphere and appealing main characters. I'd like to try another in the series with (hopefully) a less touchy motive for me. ★★

First line: Well, she was ready.

Last line: To think what she had been missing all these years!


Deaths = 6 (two shot; one hit by car; three natural)

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Wrapped Up in Crosswords (slightly spoilerish)

 Wrapped Up in Crosswords (2005) by Nero Blanc (Cordelia Frances Biddle & Steve Zettler)

Rosco Polycrates, private detective, is in search for the perfect Christmas present for his partner Belle. He stops, entranced, before a shop window and his canine companions are convinced that he's decided that what Belle needs is a pair of live lovebirds. The dogs are not in favor of avian competitors for their humans' affections (besides birds are prey...not housemates). So, they decide that the best way to show their displeasure is to shred feather pillows and destroy the crossword puzzle clues that Rosco is planning for the big Christmas present reveal.

Meanwhile, three escaped convicts have gotten their hands on Santa suits and have descended on Rosco and Belle's town of Newcastle Massachusetts. They hold up a gun shop owner--stealing weapons--and break into a local diner. Rosco and two of his pals from the police department (where he served before becoming a private eye) are also running around in Santa suits, collecting toys and other presents for needy children. Confusion ensues when State Troopers mistake our heroes for the bad guys. Of course, all's well that ends well and the costumed convicts will be back behind bars by the end of the story and our heroes will get the presents to the kids. But will Kit and Gabby (the dogs) have to make room in their inn for a couple of wandering lovebirds? We'll just have to see...

A very light piece of Christmas fluff with a hint of mystery thrown in--though there is very little detecting going on. Two of the crooks are caught off-stage by the "Staties" (State Troopers) and the third pretty much falls into NPD Detective Al Lever and Rosco Polycrates' laps. I'd just like to know what the escaped convict was doing in the greenhouse. Not exactly an ideal hideout in the middle of a Massachusetts winter. The book is very sweet and seems to be more focused on the relationships between all of the ongoing characters. I wasn't terribly keen on the talking dogs--that is, they talk to each other and other dogs and not to the humans (do they do this in all the stories? I don't remember animals having conversations in the others I've read in the series). But it was a pleasant day's read. ★★ and 1/2

First line: Rosco Polycrates entered the Newcastle Police station through the side door on Cabot Alley.

Last line: "I guess it's going to be cold enough for my gift after all."

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Murder in Black Tie

 Murder in Black Tie (2019) by Sara Rosett

Olive Belgrave welcomes the invitation to a house party at Parkview Hall, home of Sir Leo and Lady Caroline Stone. She's about to be homeless because the owner of her boarding house is giving up the business in favor of a new marriage and it will be good to get out of London and away from the worry about where she will live next. Parkview Hall feels like a second home--she grew up spending loads of time there with her cousins Gwen and Peter Stone. Other guests include her father and stepmother, Cecil and Sonia Belgrave; Deena Lacey, a local young heiress; Inspector Lucas Longly (whom Gwen longs for...); Captain Thomas Inglebrook, a dashing young man whom Lady Caroline prefers for her daughter; Miss Marion Miller, a dithery spinster who's often asked to help even numbers at table and to make a fourth at bridge; Lady Gigi (Gina) Alton, childhood friend of Olive and Gwen; Vincent Payne, gentleman who sells antique maps on the side; and Jasper Rimington, family friend and often Olive's partner in crime...solving. 

When Vincent Payne is found dead in the conservatory from the proverbial blunt instrument, Peter Stone is the main suspect. Peter suffers from trauma from the Great War and after having blacked out in the conservatory was found hunched over Payne's body. He has bruising around his eye and the state of the room indicates that a struggle has taken place. Peter has "episodes" where he believes himself to be back in the trenches--could he have thought Vincent was the enemy and killed him during an episode? Olive and his friends and family can't believe he did, but there is no motive apparent at first glance.

Several of the house party ask Olive to investigate and prove Peter innocent. Olive isn't sure that is what an investigation will prove, but she does want to make sure that the truth--whatever that may be--comes out. Jasper, as ever, is ready to help her and it isn't long before they discover that motives abound. Vincent's rare maps weren't quite as rare as advertised--the maps are indeed antique, but most of them come with famous autographs--that aren't as real as the maps. Would someone kill over a fraud? Vincent also liked to indulge in a spot of blackmail whenever the opportunity arose and more than one of the house party has a secret they'd prefer to keep hidden. And some of those secrets date back to the war when Parkview Hall was turned into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. 

This was another enjoyable entry in a historical mystery series that is set during the Golden Age of crime fiction. It follows the typical country house murder mystery with plenty of suspects milling around the house and grounds and lots of motives cropping up. The culprit's motive may be a typical one but the actions that provided the motive have a surprising setting and background. Olive is a clever, interesting character who has grown quite a bit as a detective since her first outing. She definitely caught a clue that missed--but given the nature of the clue, I'm not surprised that I missed it. It simply wasn't something I normally pay much attention to anyway. I enjoyed learning more background about her friends and family as well as learning about the transformation of the country house into a hospital during the war. A good, solid mystery. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: The slash of red stood out against the brown and beige of the November countryside.

Last line: "So, Jasper," I said, "have you ever considered owning a parrot?"


Deaths = 5 (one hit on head; two natural; one shot; one suffocated)

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Longer the Thread

 The Longer the Thread (1971) by Emma Lathen (Mary Jane Latis & Martha Henissart)

John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank makes his way to Puerto Rico to sort out a situation at Slax, a garment manufacturer specializing in women's pants. The Sloan has backed the company to the tune of a 3 million dollar loan and there's some dispute about which arm of the company should be managing the account. Commercial Credit has backed all of Slax concerns within the contiguous United States and the bank officers in charge feel that they know the business. International Credit takes care of businesses outside the United States and believe that Puerto Rico, U.S. territory or not, should fall under their purview. Somebody needs to bring harmony back to the Sloan family. So, Thatcher goes to Puerto Rico to see the situation at first hand. He expects only business problems.

But then the garment factory suffers a spate of "accidents" that can only be sabotage. Could the Puerto Rican workers be getting tired of the American bosses? There's been talk of a push for independence and a group of young radicals have already protested at the university. Benito Dominguez, the line foreman, seems to take great delight in the difficulties posed by the sabotaged lot of clothing and the ruined machinery, but none of the Slax management believe that he could be in league with the radicals...until Dominguez is found shot to death with a membership card for the radical group in his pocket and a handful of sand. Sand which was apparently used to doctor the lubricant for the cutting machines. Did one of the managers discovery Dominguez's complicity and kill him? Or are there other factors at work? When Harry Zimmerman, head of the New York Slax office disappears and a letter is received from the head of the young radical group claiming responsibility and making demands before he will be returned, it looks like maybe the protestors have been behind everything all along. But then Zimmerman is found killed as well and Thatcher and Captain Vallejo (the Puerto Rican police officer in charge of the case) will need to review the case from other angles.

This was quite a slog. I learned way more than I wanted to know about 1970s politics in Puerto Rico--whether they wanted independence or wanted to remain connected to the U.S. The details about the Slax company weren't all that interesting and most of it did nothing to move the plot along. And--for this being "A John Putnam Thatcher Mystery" per the book blurb, there was little of Thatcher throughout most of the book. When he was there and actually investigating (which pretty much only occurs in the last few chapters), the plot moved along nicely and held my interest. But both he and Captain Vallejo (the Puerto Rican police officer in charge of the case) disappear for a good chunk of the time. You would think the most important thing in the book was whether or not Slax was going to keep production going--not that two men have been murdered. I'm glad that this wasn't my first taste of the Thatcher books--I know from the previous book I read that the mystery is good when he's more involved. If this had been my first Lathen mystery, I doubt that I would have picked up another. ★★

First line: Wall Street is the greatest financial market in the world, and the function of the market is to provide an arena for smooth and orderly transactions.

Last line: "Well, now," she marveled, "what do you know about that?"


Deaths = 2 (one shot; one throat cut)

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The 2023 TBR Pile Challenge


Here I go again...another challenge. But I have to do this one. Really. I always do Adam's The TBR Pile Challenge over at Roof Beam Reader. It was one of the first challenges I did when I started blogging and I have to do it.

Here's the main point: If you join the challenge, then you will commit to read 12 books (one for each month) from your TBR list. Each of these books must have been on your TBR list for AT LEAST one year. None of the books may have a publication date of 1/1/22 or later. Once you submit the list, you are committed to those books with two alternates (in case you just cannot finish one or two of the titles).

For the full run-down of the challenge details, hop over to Adam's blog (click on link above), read the rules, and join me in my quest to reduce the teetering stacks.

My List:
1. It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr
2. Sidney Chambers & the Perils of the Night by James Runcie
3. Tom O'Bedlam by Robert Silverberg
4. The Pride of the Peacock by Victoria Holt
5. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
6. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
7. The Covenant of the Crown by Howard Weinstein
8. Fatal Inquiry by Will Thomas
9. I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay by Harlan Ellison & Isaac Asimov
10. Garden of Deadly Delights by Cynthia Manson, ed.
11. The War Come Home by Deborah Cohen
12. Beyond by Theodore Sturgeon

1. The Genesis Secret by Tom Knox
2. Danger at the Drawbridge by Mildred A. Wirt

Stacking the Series Reading Challenge


As a companion to Leana's other series challenge, I'm also going to try the Stacking the Series Challenge.  For examples and full details click the link above. My commitment goal will be to stack to ten. I may go higher, but will be able to claim the challenge complete at ten.

- Read a book that is part of a series, to try and create as tall a stack as possible
- ONLY series books are allowed BUT there are no page limitations so feel free to read novellas etc to make up a number
- For series books with double digits, you can use the sum of the series number [So if you read Peace Talks by Jim Butcher which is #16, you could tick off row 16 in one go, or you could count it as a 7, because 6+1=7]
- You don't have to work in order, but only rows that are complete count towards your highest number


Series Catch-Up Reading Challenge

I seem to read a fair amount of books that are part of series, so I thought I'd give Leana's Series Challenges a try. First, she has the Series Catch-up Challenge. She plans on having give-aways as well--full details at link above.

I'm going to aim for 20 points. I may do more than that, but will be able to claim the challenge finished for my 2023 tally if I complete 20.

πŸ“š ANY book that is part of a series, in any format, counts
πŸ“š +1 point if a book is a continuation of a series
πŸ“š +3 points if a book is the latest volume of an incomplete series
πŸ“š +5 points if a book is the final volume of a complete series
πŸ“š +1 point if you REREAD a book in order to continue a series (i.e. you decide to reread Chain of Iron to refresh your memory before going in to Chain of Thorns)
πŸ“š -1 point for a new series you start in 2023 (if you then continue the series it earns points the same way as any pre-2023 series)



Monday, November 21, 2022

Yuletide Spirit Reading Challenge & Readathon


Michelle at Seasons of Reading is once again sponsoring her holiday challenge & readathon. The rechristened Yuletide Spirit Reading Challenge & Readathon. In short, the challenge runs from November 21, 2022 through January 6, 2023. The books read for the challenge must be Christmassy in nature--novels, short story collections, books of poems, etc. Readathon books need not all be holiday-oriented.
Three ways to participate:
1. Challenge: Pick a level
      ~Candy Cane: read 1 book
      ~Mistletoe: read 2-4 books
      ~Christmas Tree: read 5-6 books (this is the fanatic level...LOL!)
2. Readathon: read as much (or as little as you want)
3. Participate in both!

Additional levels for watching Christmas movies and reading children's books with your kids--but you must complete one of the main reading levels to fulfill the challenge.

For more details and to join up, follow the link above.

As usual, I am joining at the Mistletoe level for Christmas books and the Readathon as well since I can also count non-Christmas books for that:

1. Wrapped Up in Crosswords by Nero Blanc [Christmas] (11/27/22)
2. Death Beneath the Christmas Tree by Robert Nordan [Christmas] (11/29/22)
3. The Last Noel by Jean Hager [Christmas] (12/3/22)
Mistletoe Level 
5. The Longer the Thread by Emma Lathen [non-Christmas] (11/25/22)
6. Murder in Black Tie by Sara Rosett [non-Christmas] (11/26/22)

The Old English Peep Show

 The Old English Peep Show
(aka A Pride of Heroes; 1969) by Peter Dickinson

Old England or the Peep Show as it's known locally, is Disney-style theme park set at a graceful country house. The servants greet visitors with a bob and curtsy, the butler makes everyone think of Jeeves, and the eccentric owners keep pet lions. There are daily duels and "live" hangings for the more blood-thirsty thrill-seekers. Everything's running according plan...until Sir Richard Clavering's manservant hangs himself. But why would the loyal and faithful Arthur Deakin hang himself in his pantry? And why didn't he leave a note? Oh...and why does Mr. Harvey Singleton (Clavering's son-in-law) insist that he heard a thud and then a drumming sound at the time of the death?

Scotland Yard superintendent James Pibble is sent to deal with the incident and he has to wonder why the local police didn't take care of a supposedly simple suicide. He soon learns that life at Herryngs (the estate in question) is anything but ordinary. Sir Richard and his brother Sir Ralph, retired admiral and general respectively, are war heroes who have gone from charmingly eccentric to downright certifiable. A disappearance and an encounter with a man-eating lion make Pibble understand that danger lurks behind the theme-park façade. And if he's not careful he may wind up next on the killer's list.

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Peter Dickinson. The very first one I ever read caused me to merely list him in my "books to be found" spreadsheet with a notation of  "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  I don't know what it was, except that it was a mystery. I don't have the title logged. I sortof suspect it may have been this one, though I haven't had quite that violent a reaction upon reading it this time (if, indeed, this was the title in question). I just find the whole thing very weird--from the behavior of the family to the behavior of our detective. I don't understand why Jimmy Pibble, an officer of the law, is willing to try so hard to ignore the signs that Deakin's death was not a suicide. He spends about three pages telling himself he's being conned, listing things that don't fit, and then choosing to say that they don't mean much and, by golly, it sure is a suicide after all. "O.K., he was going quietly. But let them stretch his conscience one notch further and the lion would feel the talons of the vulture, blunt, bourgeouis talons though they were." So, I guess he's willing to believe eight impossible things before breakfast...just don't make it nine. I, personally, stopped believing after the first two...and promptly skimmed my way through this thing just so I can count it towards challenges. But, honestly, Pibble and his investigation did very little for me here. I liked him a heck of a lot better in One Foot in the Grave

First line: Pibble thought, I am the chosen vulture spiraling down onto a dying lion.

Last line: With a noncommittal grunt (risky to be affable with a potential scapegoat) Harry Brazzil slouched into Herryings.


Deaths = 2 (one hanged, one shot)