Musical Chairs, by Amy Poeppel*****

We need more writers like Amy Poeppel. Her previous novels, Admissions and Limelight, are whip-smart and hilarious; both involve well-developed characters stuck in odd but credible situations. Her new novel, Musical Chairs, shares these attributes, but it’s even funnier, and even more insightful. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s available to the public August 1, 2020.

Our protagonists are Bridget and Will; they are family to one another in the modern sense, the sense that sometimes we adopt our most important friends and declare them to be kin. They’ve been together as performers in the Forsyth Trio since college. Bridget has never married; Will is divorced. They have seen one another through thick and thin, and well meaning outsiders think they must surely harbor romantic feelings for one another. Will has no children, but has served as a father figure to Bridget’s twins, both grown.

Summer is here, and Bridget is preparing to spend it in her summer house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend, Sterling, will be joining her; she thinks that he may be the one. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Sterling dumps her on her ass without a moment’s hesitation, and both of her children descend on her unannounced. Her octogenarian father lands in the hospital. Nothing that happens is the way she had planned it.

At the same time, Will has been looking forward to some time on his own in the city, but Bridget is in distress and so he drops his other plans for her. Not one thing goes as planned.

I don’t usually enjoy books about rich people, and Bridget’s family is wealthy indeed. This one works for me because the disparity in wealth between Bridget and Will, who is an ordinary starving artist, is addressed in a natural, organic way throughout the narrative; but beyond that, I feel I know Bridget, and so she is not the rich woman, not the heiress, but instead she is Bridget, and she feels like a friend. We always forgive our dearest friends for things that are generally deal breakers with others. Finally, Poeppel has no tolerance for pretension, and more than anything, her honesty turns a good story into a terrific one.

The pacing here never slackens; one crisis is nearing resolution when another one pops loose. At one point I am convinced that Poeppel is driving home a message about the destructive nature of secrecy, but by the ending I can see she’s done no such thing. Sometimes secrets are great. Sometimes they work out well. And sometimes they are only secrets for a while as their owner waits for an appropriate time to reveal them.

The side characters here are brilliant as their perspective contrasts with that of the protagonists. The internal monologue involving Bridget and Will is personal, even intimate, and so we see everything as they do; but then Jackie, the ambitious young assistant that Edward has hired for the summer, looks these folks over and weighs in, and her observations make me laugh out loud. In fact, this book marks the first time since the pandemic began (at the beginning of March, here in Seattle) that anything I’ve read has made me laugh. It felt great! Then later, another side character’s pet parrot Ronaldo pipes up and it happens again. (My laughter woke my husband, and I was a little bit sorry, but also not.)

The dialogue between Edward and Will near the end makes me shake my head in awe.

At the outset, I am puzzling over the title. Musical Chairs turns out to be a website for job-searching musicians, but later I see a broader reason that this title was chosen. Throughout the chaos that unfolds for Bridget and Will this summer, the characters are constantly changing places, rotating, and assuming new positions, and it’s fine, because—and here’s our real message—change is not failure.

The references to the musical “My Fair Lady” are icing on the cake.

Highly recommended, and likely to be one of this year’s best books.  

The Talented Mr. Varg, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of mystery writers whose work falls within the cozy subgenre, but none of them hits exactly the right note the way Alexander McCall Smith does. His feel-good vibe is engaging, but it’s never smarmy or cloying; the reader feels respected. Add to that a spot here and there that is straight-up hilarious; I can think of no better time to read his work. This is the second in the Detective Ulf Varg series, and it is every bit as delightful as the first. Can you read this book alone even if you missed the first? Yes and yes.

My thanks go to Edelweiss and Pantheon Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Detective Ulf Varg leads a quiet sort of life; after all, he’s a cop, and this is Malmo, Sweden, hardly a hotbed of crime. He is the lead detective for a special bureau, one that was introduced to us in the first in the series, The Department of Sensitive Crimes. Often the matters under investigation involve misunderstandings, deceptions carried out to avoid embarrassment, and cultural miscues. Ulf spends his down time teaching his deaf dog, Martin, to read lips and taking him to therapy for his depression.

There’s a lot of that in Sweden, you know. Northern latitudes.

And so, it is from his dog’s psychiatrist that Ulf receives a tip of a possible counterfeit dog breeder. Someone out there is breeding husky/wolf mixed dogs, which are then sold to handlers that furnish trained wolves to appear in movies and television shows. Fraud! This could be Varg’s biggest case yet. But then, that wouldn’t be saying much.

Meanwhile, Varg longs for intimacy with his partner, Anna, but he mustn’t act on his feelings. There are departmental policies to be observed, and she is married. Oh, how he pines for her, quietly and in private. He dreams of a woman that will hold his hand as he falls asleep at night, a woman that will touch her toes to his under the covers and wiggle them. There are other women of course, but none like Anna. So when Anna needs a matter of her own investigated on the down-low, Ulf is ready and willing.

The most amusing thread here, as far as I’m concerned, involves Varg’s struggle with bureaucracy. You’ll have to find out the particulars for yourself.

Smith’s novels are my favorite bedtime material, subtle humor that unknots my twisted muscles and helps me gain perspective on whatever worries of the day have climbed in with me. I daresay he could do the same for you, too.

Highly recommended.

Pretty Things, by Janelle Brown*****

Nina is a second generation grifter, a talented thief that uses social media to spot and follow the conspicuously wealthy, then set up an opportunity to rip them off. But now Nina has gone straight; her college education has made it possible to earn an honest living. However, her mother’s chemo bills are stacking up, her mom too weak to find and execute her own ten-finger specials, and so Nina finds herself back in the game.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

Vanessa Fucking Liebling is an heiress, a spoiled daddy’s girl that has found an avocation as a social media influencer. She thinks nothing at all of dropping tens of thousands of dollars for a single dress that she will wear once; she is courted by upscale manufacturers of women’s clothing, accessories, and you-name-it, and she flies free of charge to famous cities around the world with a small coterie of women like herself, the chosen ones that have the Instagram followers that make their endorsements so valuable. But when her father dies, Vanessa soon learns that the money problems he’s tried to tell her about are indeed real. With her party budget in the crapper and a schizophrenic brother to look after, Vanessa ditches the New York fashionistas and heads to the family’s vacation home, Stonehaven, located in Lake Tahoe, California. She is about to come nose-to-nose with destiny.

Our two protagonists, Nina and Vanessa, are featured alternately in the first and third person respectively; in addition, we catch snippets of their earlier lives and the critical events that have molded them.

Though Nina is a crook, I find her easier to like and bond with than Vanessa. Nina, despite her dishonesty, cynicism, and the immense chip on her shoulder, is an underdog, a scrappy fighter determined to better herself and to take care of her mama. She isn’t a violent offender, and the marks she steals from are so filthy stinking rich they hardly notice the loss of a wristwatch here, an antique vase there. It’s hard not to feel that if the world were a fairer place, the dilettante wouldn’t have that much stuff to start with, and Nina wouldn’t have to scramble to get by and take care of her sick mother.

Vanessa, by contrast, is a much harder sell. Brown develops the hell out of this character, showing her gradual awakening as she realizes how shallow her entire existence is, and how devoid she is of any true friends. At first I am having none of it. Poor little rich girl indeed; cry me a river! But Brown keeps chipping away at my resistance, and eventually I see Vanessa as a flawed human being with problems, rather than a rich person that deserves whatever karma comes her way.

My first book by this author was Watch Me Disappear, a glorious work of suspense that kept me enraptured till the last twenty percent, at which point I was consumed by dismay. Therefore I read this book with avidity, and yet at the same time I am on the alert, wondering if this story will also be resolved with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me ending. My fears prove groundless. The main storyline as well as the smaller bits all come together in a way I find deeply satisfying. The ending is a complete surprise.

My one small criticism at the outset was the schtick about Nina’s mother’s chemo. It’s been done, and done again, and done again. I’m thinking I’d like the story better if she would just let the grifter be a grifter, rather than carrying on about poor, dying mom. However, there’s an additional twist at the end that I did. Not. See. Coming.

In the end, this book is the total package. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

Highly recommended. Get this book now!

Girls Like Us, by Cristina Alger***-****

I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin last summer. Since I received it after the publication date, I moved it to the back burner in order to prioritize galleys whose publication dates could still be met. January came, and I still hadn’t opened the book. Deeply ashamed, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it in the evenings while preparing dinner. The audio version is three stars, but I suspect that if I had stuck to the digital review copy, it might have been closer to four, so I am rounding my rating upward.

FBI agent Nell Flynn, our protagonist, returns home after ten years away in order to bury her father and deal with his estate. She and her dad were estranged, and her mother died when she was a child; she has no siblings; she is also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the fallout from an earlier case. I assumed incorrectly that this earlier case must mean that Nell Flynn either had, or was about to have her own series, yet no mention is made of this; as far as I can tell the PTSD has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with any other aspect of the story. Her boss urges her to seek treatment; she doesn’t want to because she’s hard-boiled, and yada yada. Moving on.

The body of a young woman is found, and then there’s another; since she happens to be visiting Suffolk County, her father’s partner asks Nell to lend a hand. She is recruited as a consultant, but she gets the sense that the local veterans don’t want her to dig deeply. Her father’s partner is a relative newbie, not part of the old boys’ network, and so she and he work together to try to solve the killings, but she is obstructed at every turn. Is there a cover-up taking place, and if so, is it because her father was culpable? First one thing and then another makes her wonder whether he might have killed them, and while she is at it, she also wonders if he had a hand in her own mother’s death many years ago, when she was quite small.

The thing that makes this story unique is the fact that the cop is investigating her own dead father. I also like the way the author deals with the mystery woman that her father’s will includes. I thought I saw how that thread was going to play out, and I was not even close to being right. I like Alger’s subtlety here.  I also like the medical examiner, who is female too.

The main challenge for me was as a listener. The reader that performed the audio version has a painfully wooden delivery and pronounces a couple of fairly common words differently from anyone else that I’ve heard, and each time she said them I was distracted away from the story line. The way Nell’s father’s old friend, Dorsey, is voiced sounds like a bad John Wayne imitation. So, should you read this book? If you enjoy crime fiction that’s character based, particularly with a female cop or detective, you could do worse. I wouldn’t pay full jacket price for it, though, and I don’t recommend the audio version.

The Museum of Desire, by Jonathan Kellerman****

I’ve been reading the Alex Delaware mysteries since Kellerman wrote the first in the 1980s; The Museum of Desire is the 35th installment in a successful, long-running series. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Kellerman was a child psychologist before he became an author and he brings his knowledge of children and families when he creates characters and situations. This is a reliably strong mystery series and I always smile when Alex’s BFF, Detective Milo Sturgis, barrels into Alex’s kitchen and starts eating his food. I feel as if I am receiving a visit from an old friend also.

The premise here is more shocking than most, and I find myself a bit squeamish when reading it. In reviewing the others he’s written, however, I can see that this isn’t a lot more extreme than usual, and so I conclude that perhaps I am more sensitive than I used to be. Those with doubts should read the promotional blurb carefully before making a purchase.

That said, the dialogue here is first rate, and pacing is brisk, as always.  Kellerman maintains credulity deftly by avoiding having Delaware tote a gun or tackle bad guys. In real life a kiddy shrink would be in his office, in the police station, or in court, period. But that’s dull stuff, and so the author has to strike a balance, creating fictional situations that don’t strain the reader’s ability to believe. He doesn’t wear a Kevlar vest or carry out other tasks that are clearly the work of on-duty cops; he provides his professional insights and does some extracurricular research, but the latter is the sort that a semi-retired professional might choose to do for a good friend. I had no trouble engaging with the story.

If I could change one thing, I would include more of the affluent, troubled teenager. Crispin is an interesting kid, but he pops in and out of the story in two very brief spots. Kellerman’s strongest suit is developing abnormal child characters, and I think this story would be more compelling if it had more of this bizarro kid in it.

One way or another, this is a solid entry in an already solid series, and I recommend it to you.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

The Man That Got Away, by Lynne Truss*****

This is the second entry in the Constable Twitten series, and my fourth book by this writer. Truss is a reliably funny author, but this is her best yet. My thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. You can buy this comic masterpiece now, but first you should read A Shot in the Dark if you can, because the background information you will find there will make this book even funnier.

Constable Twitten is the only capable, driven cop in Brighton, a small seaside tourist town in England. Steine, his boss, is unwilling to recognize that crime exists here at all; he is possibly the most gullible character to appear in fiction. For example, he believed an April Fool’s Day newscast about the spaghetti weevil, said to be ruining the spaghetti harvest. The other officer is slightly better, but when his dream of going undercover finally comes true, he becomes so immersed in his new role that he forgets he is supposed to be fighting crime. He is posing as a musician and spends all his time at the club performing or practicing; he doesn’t even bother to check in at the station. Twitten is left virtually alone to deal with Brighton’s crime wave.

Here is a pattern I’ve seen with Truss’s novels. The beginning is usually lame. The first time I read her work, I saw so many not-funny lines in the first ten percent that had I not owed a review, I might have been tempted to abandon it. However, even though I had decided that this was probably a pretty stupid book, I noticed a change as it went on, and by the last thirty percent or so, I was laughing out loud. Consequently, I was expecting a progression in this novel, from not-funny to slightly-funny to actually-pretty-funny to gut-splittingly-funny. I reminded myself that patience would pay off here, and I opened the book…and laughed on the first page. This book starts out at ten and it stays there all the way through.

There are several threads that are good here; we have the blind wax sculptor that makes dreadful likenesses for the wax museum, and there’s Inspector Steine being duped into believing a con woman is his long lost niece. But the most memorable, achingly funny bits are centered around Mrs. Groynes, the police station’s secretary who is also the janitor, and also the brains of an organized crime ring. Twitten knows this, and Groynes knows that he knows, but he cannot persuade another living soul that it’s true, and so there she remains, unhindered, using her job to obtain intelligence that in turn helps her underworld minions avoid detection.

 It isn’t difficult.

Those that love excellent satire need look no further. I highly recommend this hilarious book to everyone.

The Secret Guests, by Benjamin Black****

It’s World War II, and the Blitz has begun. The Royals are torn, wanting to remain with their subjects and share their misery, but not wanting the risk the well beings of their daughters. It’s decided that the girls must be moved, but with the shipping lanes and skies fraught with peril, where can they go and be safe? Ah, a fine idea: they’ll send them to a cousin in Ireland.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As historical fiction goes, this is lightweight material, based on almost no historical event other than the war itself. However, as general fiction goes it’s terrific, immensely entertaining and droll as heck. I figure it’s 3.5 stars for historical fiction, 4.5 stars as general fiction; thus my 4 star rating.

Our protagonist is Garda Strafford-With-An-R, a marginally competent Irish detective who resembles Stan Laurel, tasked with the security the estate where the girls will be housed. Secondary characters are Celia Nashe, a British cop equivalent to a Secret Service agent, who is assigned to serve as personal security for the princesses; an arrogant, sleazy ambassador named Laschelles; and Strafford’s boss Hegarty, who resembles Oliver Hardy. We also have clueless but entitled Sir William, the girls’ host; two bored princesses that get up to things when nobody’s looking; some household servants that know more than they are supposed to; and a few local people that also know too much.

The fact is that I’m entirely burned out on World War II fiction, and that fact nearly prevents me from requesting this galley. But the spin—Ireland, which remained neutral and flirted with taking the side of Germany, what with its enmity toward the British—proves irresistible. The greatest surprise is how much wit is employed and how fast the story moves. I have never read Black’s work before, and this guy is hilarious. He shifts the point of view often, always from the third person omniscient but varying several times within a single chapter, so we get snippets of the person that’s bored, the person that’s nosy, the person that’s confused and so forth. The word smithery is so original and clever that I cannot put my highlighter down. Highlighting is pointless when I highlight close to half of the text, but I can’t help myself. And best of all, the cliched ending that I think I can see a mile away isn’t happening.

Those of us in the States have a three day weekend right around the corner, and the weather will be too miserable to want to go anywhere. This novel might be just the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation soon, this would also be a fine beach read. But the humor will be a terrific pick-me-up for those stranded indoors with a case of the grumps. I recommend this book to you, and I would read this author’s work again in a heartbeat.

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves***-****

This mystery opens a brand new series by Ann Cleeves. I haven’t read this author before, but when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review, I hopped on board. This book is for sale now.

Detective Matthew Venn is called upon to investigate the murder of a man found on the beach. His queries force him to return to the strict evangelical Christian community in which he was raised. The Brethren cast him out because he is gay, and so returning in a professional capacity brings back all sorts of memories and feelings.

The last person to see the victim prior to his death may have been 30-year-old Lucy, a woman with Downs Syndrome. This character is engaging as is her adoring father. Lucy rode the bus to The Woodshop each day with this man, and this produces some consternation when her father learns of it. As a mother, I can appreciate his concern.

This is a solidly constructed mystery fashioned by a pro, and yet for some reason I had difficulty engaging with the protagonist. I’m rounding my rating up to 4 stars because I have a hunch that if I had read the printed galley provided me, I might have understood it better and therefore might have found it more interesting. I fell behind in my reading and reviewing over the summer and obtained audio books of a few titles whose publication dates had passed, figuring to catch up. It took me a long time to figure out that The Woodyard was actually not a lumberyard or hardware store, and so some of the plot left me scratching my head. If I’d read with my eyes instead of my ears, I might have caught on sooner. Once I figured out all the pieces, I could follow what was happening and recognized the red herrings as they passed by. The ending was reasonable and the whodunit surprised me.

This is a decent work of crime fiction and I recommend it to the author’s faithful readers.

Potions Are for Pushovers, by Tamara Berry*****

I loved Berry’s first Eleanor Wilde mystery, Seances Are for Suckers, and so I looked forward to this one. Ellie, our protagonist, makes a living as a sham medium and pusher of herbal potions. She arrived in this tiny English town in the last book, hired by the wealthy Nicholas Hartford to scam his family, but they fell in love and so she stayed here. Business is on hold, however, until the murder of the local battle ax has been solved; until Ellie can sell her potions again, she can’t make a living, and the heat is on.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The glory of satire is that the most tired, trite elements of a mystery can be trotted out and placed on full display, the more overdone the better. Add into it an overflowing supply of snark, swift pacing, a hint of confusion and the very teensiest, briefest moment of sentimentality and the result is, well, magical.

At the same time that Sarah is murdered, pets begin to disappear. A grisly surprise is left in Ellie’s herb garden, and her cat Beast, a menace if ever there was one, is nowhere to be seen. Cats, pigs…what’s next?  Her sometimes-friend the local constable is irritated that Ellie doesn’t pass along the finer details of what she learns, but she points out to him that witches and law enforcement have a problematic history. Crackle crackle, she says. Burn burn.

The best new element is Lenore, a pesky but gifted adolescent that wants to job shadow Ellie. Together with partner Rachel, she embarks upon local werewolf research, and this thread makes me guffaw out loud multiple times. (At one point Lenore decides she’d rather be called Lenny because it sounds more like a gumshoe; my reading notes suggest that Rachel should then become Squiggy. Boomers will understand this reference if nobody else does.)

My affection for Ellie increases when she eats an entire chocolate cake. I’d been watching that cake since she received it, waiting for the typical cozy plot point to play out. Most authors would either have Ellie serve or gift the cake to another recipient, or have it smashed in some sort of hilarious accident before she got a single bite. Berry, however, is not your typical cozy mystery writer. It’s the slightly edgy bits that make this series so successful.

The series is written for adults, but teachers and parents looking for engaging reading for their own gifted adolescent should be fine here. There are no torrid sex scenes, no use of vivid profanity.

Sadly, my own review copy disappeared with no trace from my kindle, so I can’t access juicy quotes; happily. I did use the Goodreads update system, which provided me with the particulars listed above.

There are few authors that can make me laugh out loud every single time I read their work, and that alone makes this writer more valuable to me than most. I await the next Eleanor Wilde book with gleeful anticipation, and whether you have read the first book in this series or not, I recommend this one to you wholeheartedly.