A Pitying of Doves

A Pitying of Doves (Birder Murder Mystery #2)A Pitying of Doves by Steve Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t a bad book, but I’ve had it out on Interlibrary Loan twice now and kept it overdue quite a few weeks, and I just am not getting this read. I’m a backyard birdwatcher, so I like that angle, but I really wanted to like this series more. If I could keep it out, or if it were much cheaper as a e-book, I would probably finish this eventually and it might even get more stars. For now, though, the characters are not engaging me. And prose like this is not helping: “At times, she had the air of an art school teacher about her, though with Carrie Pritchard’s voluptuous figure leaning over their shoulders, Lindy was sure any teenage boys in her class would have considerably more on their minds than chairascuro [sic].” The misspelling aside, seriously, who thinks like that? It doesn’t help me get into their heads. So if the price comes down, I might give it another chance, but for now there are too many other things I’d rather be doing.

Book description: Why would a killer ignore expensive jewellery and take a pair of turtledoves as the only bounty? This is only one of the questions that piques Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune’s interest after a senior attaché with the Mexican Consulate is found murdered alongside the director of a local bird sanctuary. The fact that the director’s death has opened up a full-time research position studying birds hasn’t eluded Jejeune either. Could this be the escape from policing that the celebrated detective has been seeking? Even if it is, Jejeune knows he owes it to the victims to solve the case first. But a trail that weaves from embittered aviary owners to suspicious bird sculptors only seems to be leading him farther from the truth. Meanwhile, Jejeune is discovering that diplomatic co-operation and diplomatic pressure go hand in hand. With two careers hanging in the balance, the stakes have never been higher for Inspector Jejeune. And this time, even bringing a killer to justice may not provide the closure he’s looking for.

A Siege of Bitterns

A Siege of Bitterns (Birder Murder Mystery #1)A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m probably over-rating this, but I think it’s a mystery series with some real potential. The author (and the detective inspector) both have an encyclopedic knowledge of birds that goes beyond your casual backyard bird watcher like me, but it’s what attracted me to read this book. There were wonderful descriptions of the marsh and habitat. I would have liked a little more back-story on what makes our inspector so brooding. Characterization, in general, was a little lacking, but in a series, this has room to grow and develop. The plot was complex enough with plenty of possible suspects. I picked out the murderer very early on, but I think it was just luck, not a failure of the book.

Book description: Inspector Domenic Jejeune’s success has made him a poster boy for the U.K. police service. The problem is Jejeune doesn’t really want to be a detective at all; he much prefers watching birds. Recently reassigned to the small Norfolk town of Saltmarsh, located in the heart of Britain’s premier birding country, Jejeune’s two worlds collide when he investigates the grisly murder of a prominent ecological activist. His ambitious police superintendent foresees a blaze of welcome publicity, but she begins to have her doubts when Jejeune’s most promising theory involves a feud over birdwatching lists. A second murder only complicates matters. To unravel this mystery, Jejeune must deal with unwelcome public acclaim, the mistrust of colleagues, and his own insecurities. In the case of the Saltmarsh birder murders, the victims may not be the only casualties.

Death at Buckingham Palace

Death at Buckingham Palace (Her Majesty Investigates #1)Death at Buckingham Palace by C.C. Benison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just love books that feature the current Queen of England as a character. Although the idea of Her Majesty collaborating with a housemaid may seem improbably silly, it is all great fun. Jane is a plucky young Canadian taking a year off from school and staying with her great-aunt Grace in England. Short of cash, and not wanting to return home to Prince Edward Island, she gets a job in Buckingham Palace. The time period is a few years after the Queen’s “annus horribilis” but before the death of Lady Diana. Lots of humor (footmen streaking naked through the palace), upstairs and downstairs intrigue, a film crew doing a documentary on life at the palace, and plenty of red herrings for Jane to sort through. I had fun searching for images of the various palace rooms on the internet to enhance my reading experience. These are books that I would reread, and I will definitely look for the others in the series. [Note: a much older Jane Bee, now married to a British aristocrat, also appears in the author’s Father Christmas mystery series (Twelve Drummers Drumming, etc.)]

Book Description: (from book jacket) Jane Bee came to Europe for adventure, only to end up with the job of a lifetime — housemaid at Buckingham Palace. Now her greatest challenge is removing gum from State Room carpets — until she comes across a nasty accident right outside the Royal Apartments. The Queen Herself has — literally — stumbled across the dead body of Jane’s good friend, footman and aspiring actor Robin Tukes, in what appears to be a suicide. But why would handsome, impetuous Robin, having just toasted his engagement to a gorgeous housemaid, not to mention his impending fatherhood, want to die? Buck House buzzes, but only Jane — and the Royal Personage known belowstairs as “Mother” — suspects foul play. At Her Majesty’s behest, Jane launches a discreet inquiry that takes her from Servants’ Hall to the highest echelons of the Palace. Yet the more Jane uncovers, the more clear it becomes that this latest royal scandal is a real killer.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

Ten Lords A-Leaping: A Mystery (Father Christmas Mystery #3)Ten Lords A-Leaping: A Mystery by C.C. Benison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this third book in the Father Christmas mystery series, we take a break from the village of Thornford Regis. This one takes place at a manor house where Father Tom is participating in a skydiving event to raise money for his church. Unable to leave after he sprains his ankle, he becomes involved with the local aristocracy – a very disfunctional and unlikeable family. The tangle of family relationships seems much more straightforward after getting to know so many local villagers in the first two books. I did not feel the need to keep notes on the various characters this time around. We do see the return of several characters from book one – the brother of his vanished verger (Sebastian John), Lord Kirkbride (Jamie) and his wife, Jane (nee Bee). I have just found out that Jane Bee was the subject of three prior books by C.C. Benison (Death at Buckingham Palace) so I am off to find those…

Father Tom is accompanied by his daughter, Miranda, and his housekeeper, Madrun, who continues to write LOL funny letters to her mother throughout the story. I continue to find this series well-plotted, if a tad on the long side, humorous, thought-provoking, and satisfying. A bit expensive as ebooks, but I will definitely be rereading them, probably at Christmas time even though they really don’t have anything to do with Christmas.

Book Description: Although Father Tom Christmas serves his little church in enchanting Thornford Regis with a glad and faithful heart, he never expects to find himself skydiving to raise money for it. Nor, safely back on the ground, to see two of the other divers leap from the plane, then tangle in a midair punch-up and begin falling to the earth. To say that there is tension between the men in question—Oliver, the 7th Marquess of Morborne, and his brother-in-law Hector, the 10th Earl of Fairhaven—would be an understatement. But the trouble among this ancient landed family really began a generation ago, when a marquess divorced his first spouse to marry his brother’s wife, fathering in his two marriages a viper’s nest of arrogant young aristocrats. Now they have all turned up for the show to witness this shocking event in the sky. Thankfully the men land safely, but death will not be slighted. Much to Father Tom’s dismay, he later discovers Lord Morborne lying deceased on castle grounds. Rumors of bigamy, art forgeries, and upstairs/downstairs intrigue fly. So do whispers of unvicarly behavior between Tom and Oliver’s beautiful half-sister, Lady Lucinda. In fact, the vicar may be headed for a very hard landing of his own.

Eleven Pipers Piping

Eleven Pipers Piping (Father Christmas Mystery #2)Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bit hefty at nearly 500 pages for a “cozy” mystery, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Burns Night. Haggis. Bagpipers. Need I say more? Like the first book of the series, I thought this was well plotted. It is complex enough that you probably won’t figure out who done it, even if the red herrings are a bit obvious. The main characters continue to grow and develop, although I still think there is too much name dropping of superfluous villagers. Yes, I had to go back to my notes of book one to help sort them out – but that isn’t entirely a bad thing. I feel like I am being immersed in a whole village. Still, there is a certain disconnect for me between the well-developed main characters and the cardboard cutouts of everyone else. This book was a lot less “work” because the extensive back story has already been laid down. And I had my notes. I love Father Tom and I’m going to expect a love interest somewhere down the line as he continues to heal from the loss of his wife. His housekeeper is a hoot, and I love the plot device of her daily letters to her mother, complete with crossed-out typos, which gives us another point of view to the goings on. I wouldn’t categorize these books as “Christian” fiction, but since Tom is a vicar, and his is the viewpoint that most of the action is filtered through, there is a certain amount of moralizing and human angst alongside his empathy and compassion. He is a man of faith despite his own tragedies.

Book Description: Father Tom Christmas, the recently widowed vicar adjusting to life in the English village of Thornford Regis, would do almost anything to avoid attending the annual Robert Burns Supper at the local hotel. But as chaplain to a traditional Scottish pipe band, Father Tom must deliver the grace—and contend with wailing bagpipes, whiskey-laced parishioners reciting poetry, and the culinary abomination that is haggis.

As snow falls to unprecedented depths, the revelers carry on—briefly interrupted by an enigmatic stranger seeking shelter. Then Will Moir, proprietor of the hotel and a dedicated piper, inexplicably goes missing—only to be found later in the hotel’s dark tower, alone and dead from what appears to be a heart attack.

Father Tom’s own heart sinks when he learns the actual cause of Will’s demise. When word gets out, the flurry of innocent speculation descends into outlandish gossip. And, for all its tranquil charm, Thornford Regis has plenty to gossip about—illicit trysts, muted violence, private sorrows, and old, unresolved tragedies. The question is: Who would benefit most from the piper’s death? Suspicion swirls around many, including Will’s beautiful widow, their shadowy son, Will’s obnoxious brother-in-law, and even the mysterious party crasher, who knows more than she lets on about the grudges she left behind—but never forgot.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia De Luce, #4)I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This installment in the Flavia de Luce series felt more like a Christmas special than a full-length feature. We get cameo appearances of previous characters (charming but serving no purpose) all thrown together at Buckshaw during a winter storm. The plot is pretty thin, and the mystery seems very contrived. The characters involved are never really brought to life, so the murder and its resolution are relatively lackluster. Oh well. There is still plenty of charm with Flavia and her relationships with her sisters, her father, Dogger, and the Inspector.

Book Description: It’s Christmastime, and Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight.

Twelve Drummers Drumming

Twelve Drummers Drumming (Father Christmas Mystery #1)Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am usually very conservative with my ebook purchasing, contenting myself with freebies and watching for books under $2, but I actually paid full price for this one. What can I say? It was Christmas, I was away from home, the title and reviews intrigued me, and I didn’t want to wait until I could get it from the library. You could spend more on a movie and popcorn!

It did not disappoint! I love British cozies. And I love stories involving clergy and their families, since I’m a PK myself. While the story itself is not holiday-themed, we have a vicar called “Father” Christmas serving the parish church of St. Nicholas, and series titles all taken from the 12 Days of Christmas song. I will say that it took some effort on my part to keep track of all the characters – an investment that I hope will pay off as I read more of the series. There is a list of characters in the front, but after getting half-way through the book I started over and took notes as I went along. The major characters are fairly well developed, but others are mentioned once without really adding anything to the story. There are several mysteries going on throughout the book, and not all are resolved at the end. It remains to be seen if those threads will be picked up down the line. Hopefully, there will be eleven more books to come! The plot developments are somewhat predictable – it’s the characters and the backstories that made this interesting for me. Tom Christmas is most definitely not your run-of-the-mill vicar.

Setting: The village of Thornford Regis (made up) in Devonshire.

Main characters:
Tom Christmas is the new vicar of St. Nicholas church in Thornford Regis. He is lately come from Bristol where he was an inner-city team minister. His wife (Jewish and a doctor) was murdered in a violent crime there. The speculation is that it was somebody after money for drugs, but the killer has never been found. As his back-story unfolds, we learn that he was previously a professional magician (The Great Krimboni). His birth parents gave him up for adoption, and his adoptive parents died in a plane crash when he was still a baby. He was raised by his adoptive father’s sister, a veterinarian, and her partner, Kate, an American flight attendant.

Miranda – Tom’s 9-year-old daughter, who misses the French au pair she had in Bristol, and is fascinated with the French equivalent of Nancy Drew.

Julia Hennis – Tom’s sister-in-law, a local music teacher who fills in as organist from time to time at St. Nicholas. She is married to Dr. Alastair Hennis, but their marriage has been very strained. She takes Miranda to synagogue every Sabbath.

Madrun Prowse – She comes with the vicarage and is cook and housekeeper. She writes to her mother in Cornwall daily, and these letters give us her point of view on all the goings on.

Peter Kinsey – the former incumbent vicar who disappeared after serving 18 months. His parents were wealthy farmers in Zimbabwe, killed by rebels.

Fred Pike – local handyman and a kleptomaniac.

Colm Parry – organist and choirmaster. Former pop-singer in the 80s. Reformed alcoholic. Father of Sybella Parry, who is found murdered.

Liam Drewe – ex-con with a very short temper. Owner of the Waterside Cafe where Sybella was a waitress.

Mitsuko Drewe – his wife, an artist. She was born in Wales where her Japanese parents had emigrated to after World War II. Her father, retired manager of the Sony plant in Brigend, is taking Welsh lessons and involved in Welsh folk-dancing (!)

Colonel Phillip Northmore – ancient church treasurer. World War II vet – prisoner of war at Omori.

Sebastian John – the enigmatic verger with a secretive past. He is also Colonel Northmore’s gardener.

Book Description: Father Tom Christmas moves to the picturesque English hamlet of Thornford Regis to become its new vicar and to seek a peaceful haven. But inside the empty village hall, the huge Japanese o-daiko drum that’s featured in the May Fayre festivities has been viciously sliced open—and curled up inside is the bludgeoned body of Sybella Parry, the daughter of the choir director. Realizing this village is not the refuge he’d hoped for, Father Tom comes to a disturbing conclusion: Sybella’s killer must be one of his parishioners. No one is above suspicion—not Sebastian John, the deeply reserved verger, nor Mitsuko Drewe, a local artist, nor Colonel Northmore, survivor of a World War II prison camp. And over all hangs the long-unsolved mystery of a sudden disappearance, one that brought Father Tom to this picture-perfect place to live—or die.

About the author: C.C. Benison is the nom de plume of Doug Whiteway, who was born and still lives in Winnipeg, Canada. He was awarded a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Manitoba, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines, as a book editor, and as a contributor to non-fiction books. He started writing mystery fiction in the 1990s with Death At Buckingham Palace, and followed this with other novels.

The Shack

The Shack The Shack by William P. Young

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There has been a lot of buzz around this book. I probably wouldn’t have read it, except that I was intrigued after reading an excerpt on www.bookdaily.com. The first chapter was lyrical and full of wonderful imagery. So I decided to read it. Unfortunately, the author didn’t sustain that throughout the book. There were glimpses of it though. I hope this aspect of the author’s writing will grow with future efforts.

This is a book with a mission. Or a message. I’m not sure quite what that is. At times the author seems to beat you over the head with it. I almost expected devotional questions after each chapter. The mix of liberal ideas about the nature of God with conservative theology doesn’t quite work for me. Clearly the author wants to bring joy and hope to readers who are struggling with their own broken dreams and damaged hearts. And I do think this book has the ability to do that. While I don’t share the author’s theological stance, he creates room for each person to find their own relationship with God. Some have criticized that it anthropomorphizes God too much. Others, that the story is sappy and trite, and like a bad teenage fantasy novel. Yes, the story is silly at times. But it would make a great movie!

We all anthropomorphize God, creating Him in our own image, or at least in an image that is comfortable for us. Mr. Young’s depiction of the Trinity is an attempt to move people out of old religious stereotypes. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken literally. Even at the end of the book, there is a certain ambiguity about whether the encounter at the shack actually happened, or was it all the result of a blow to the head, or the aftermath of a car accident and coma? But most of the time I found myself thinking this is really silly. God doesn’t operate this way. The “miracle” of Mack’s healing was too superficial, and too “easy.”

Whatever your religious beliefs, the themes of wrestling with why God allows evil things to happen, the nature of free will, and the power of forgiveness are universal. Book clubs will find much to discuss here.

The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (The BuckShaw Chronicles, #1) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

What a delightful book! I’m giving this one 5 stars. It’s a sort of English cozy, full of historical details, with an outrageous child protagonist, who is sometimes scary with her single-minded intensity. She is at once both precocious and naive, delightful and alarming, and utterly fearless. The cast of characters with their charming eccentricities rivals Alexander McCall-Smith as does the laugh-out-loud humor. I sincerely hope this will be made into a movie, and I have already put my name on the waiting list for book # 2,  The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, coming out in March. While written for adults, precocious older children and young adults would also find this enjoyable.

Book description from Amazon:
“In his wickedly brilliant first novel, Debut Dagger Award winner Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950 – and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story — of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder — but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….

An enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a masterfully told tale of deceptions — and a rich literary delight.”