Anyway, here's what I read in December. Links take you directly to my full review. All ratings are on a scale of 1 (bad) to 5 (great).
Game of Scones by Mary Lee Ashford (Sugar and Spice Mysteries #1) – 4
After losing her job at a food magazine, Rosetta Sugarbaker Calloway, “Sugar” to friends, opens a new business with award winning baker Dixie Spicer. Together, the two will shepherd community cookbooks through the publishing process. Their first project is for the centennial of the town where they live, St. Ignatius, Iowa. However, this cookbook has heated up the feud between Elsie, a member of the most prominent family in town, and Bertie, Dixie's aunt. The two are fighting over which of their scone recipes should be included in the book. When Sugar goes to meet with Elsie to attempt to reach a resolution, she finds Elsie's dead body. Bertie is the prime suspect, but she has disappeared. Is she in danger as well, or is she the killer?
This book gets this new series off to a fun start. Sugar and Dixie are a great duo, and they are surrounded by a fun group of family and friends. I enjoyed getting to know them here, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them better in future books. The town is wonderful, with all the hallmarks of a delightful cozy setting, and I enjoyed the fact that it is in Iowa, not some place we typically go for cozies. I did feel the pacing of the mystery was a bit off, but this never lasted for long, and we had a great climax. We get a total of three recipes at the end of the book, including both scone recipes.
NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.
Christmas Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke (Hannah Swensen #23) – 3
This book is set at the first Christmas since Hannah's father has died. Hannah has dropped out of her graduate program and is home trying to help her mother, Delores, deal with life after her loss, and Hannah is beginning to worry. Fortunately, Grandma Knudson and Annie come up with the perfect project to get Delores's mind off her loss. It seems Essie, a beloved member of the community, has fallen and broken her hip. In an effort to cheer her up, Delores is asked to organize a Christmas ball, with Hannah recruited to bake the cakes for the events. While all this is going on, Hannah begins to share her dreams of opening her own cookie and coffee shop. And a novel that Essie was working on captivates Hannah, Delores, Michelle, and Lisa.
You'll note my teaser doesn't mention the mystery. That's because it isn't until late in the book that it comes into clear focus, although enough bread crumbs have been laid out earlier that we do get a satisfying wrap up. Meanwhile, we get lots of planning for the ball and Hannah getting the things that will become staples of her life as we know it from the rest of the series. It's fun for series fans, although even then I thought the book could have been shorter. Those new to the series definitely shouldn't jump in here since it is so atypical.
If You Ever Want to Bring a Pirate to Meet Santa, DON’T! by Elise Parsley – 5
When your father tells you that you are going to meet a man with a beard and a sack of treasure, he means Santa, not the pirate by the mall fountain. And even if you befriend the pirate, it might not be a good idea to ask him to join you in line. After all, he is on the naughty list. His ideas of songs might not be festive. He might want to pillage anything you are offered in line. Will he reform before you get to the front of the line?
This is another delightfully silly picture book. As the situation gets more out of hand, the more fun the book is, and the ending is priceless. The book is narrated in second person, but more as Magnolia, the main character, using her own bad experience to warn us away from what could happen. The pictures are on the cartoony side, but they perfectly capture the fun and absurdity of this story. It's perfect for Christmas, but I could see it slipping into a reading list the rest of the year.
Death of a Neighborhood Scrooge by Laura Levine (Jaine Austen #16) – 5
Thanks to her neighbor Lance, freelance writer Jaine Austen is spending Christmas at a Bel Air mansion. It's not all luxury, however, when Jaine gets roped into helping her temporary neighbor polish his script. Scotty Parker is a former child actor best known for playing Tiny Tim in a movie version of A Christmas Carol, but now he'd be a shoe in to play Scrooge, complete with penny pinching ways and fights with neighbors. Someone has had enough, and Jaine finds Scotty's body on Christmas morning. With the police focusing on her, Jaine begins her own investigation. But which of the many suspects actually killed Scotty?
Those familiar with the series know exactly what to expect here, and they won't be disappointed. The murder may take place a little later in the book than in some series I read, but we are busy meeting suspects and getting motives, so when Scotty does die, we can jump right in. Jaine once again brings the case to a satisfactory conclusion. We also have a couple of fun sub-plots involving Jaine's on-line dating misadventures and a cruise her parents are taking with their neighbors. There are plenty of laughs, chuckles, and grins. The characters lean toward caricature, but it works for this series. The pages fly by all too quickly as always.
NOTE: I received a copy of this book.
The First Rule by Robert Crais (Elvis Cole & Joe Pike #13) – 3
There have been a string of home invasions in Los Angeles, but the latest target was Frank Meyer. He and his family have been found murdered in the aftermath, and their nanny has been rushed to the hospital, barely clinging to life. However, this time, the gang behind the crimes has made a big mistake. Frank was one of Joe Pike's men from his days as a mercenary. Even though the two haven't spoken in years, Pike still feels that loyalty and sets out to avenge his friend. Can he figure out why they were targeted and who is responsible?
I tend to think of Joe Pike as the strong, silent type, probably because he famously doesn't like to talk. The plot of this book shows us a different side of the character. He's still not a talker, but he is much more active and driven in his quest to avenge his friend. Unfortunately, the result didn't quite work for me. Part of it is me since I'm not a fan of revenge stories in general. The book is dark and violent, even for this series, and the twists weren't as good, some of them feeling forced into the story. Since it was the next in the series for me to read, I'm not sorry I read it, but it isn't author Robert Crais at this best. I suspect the fans who love the character of Joe Pike will enjoy this book more than I did.
Veiled Threat by Alice Loweecey (Falcone and Driscoll Investigation #3) – 5
Giulia Falcone is on a mission when she brings her friend Laurel into the office of Driscoll Investigations to meet Frank Driscoll. Laurel's baby daughter that she and her partner just adopted has been kidnapped, and Giulia fears that the police aren't taking the threat seriously, especially since this fits a pattern spread out over several years and several states. Frank is reluctant to get involved, but Giulia dives in head first anyway. The trail leads Giulia to an undercover job just out of town. But will she get a lead on the kidnappers? Or is Frank right that the odds aren't in favor of recovering the baby?
I must admit that I was worried we would get lectures on LGBT rights given the subject of this book, but I was pleasantly surprised the focus was on the mystery as it should be in fiction. Yes, we saw some prejudice, but it wasn't the focus. Instead, we get a gripping mystery that borders on thriller as Giulia attempts to find her friends' baby. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to find out how it would end. The story is lightened by some comedy from the series regulars, including Giulia's relationship with Frank and their office assistant planning her wedding. While the suspects could have been stronger characters, that's a reflection of how much time any of them spent on the page. The rest of the cast is more than enough to pull us into the story and make us care about the outcome.
Ghosted by Leslie Margolis – 3
Ellie Charles rules Lincoln Heights Middle School. Everyone wants to be her friend and everyone wants to please her. She's top of the class academically, president of the student body, and chairperson of every committee that matters. Maybe she rules with an iron fist, but no one seems to mind - at least as best Ellie can tell.
The book opens the day of the winter dance. Naturally, Ellie is chair of the dance committee, and it is going to be awesome! However, when Ellie falls off a ladder, she finds herself having a freaky out of body experience. Suddenly, she's back five years ago when her best friend, Marley, and Marley's two dads lived across the street. Back before her father left her and her mother right before Christmas. Why is she witnessing these events again? And who is the Girl in Black who seems to be following Ellie on this trip down memory lane?
Being a big fan of A Christmas Carol, I had to give this modern middle grade take on the classic a try. While I enjoyed aspects of it, including a few clever nods to the original, I felt the book was lacking overall. Ellie is just so mean it is hard to root for her. The book spends much of the time in the past, and Ellie's sad past doesn't help things. The expected ending seems abrupt and short, so we don't get as big a pay off as we would like after our trip with Ellie. Then again, it might just be that I'm not the target audience. Either way, this won't be making my list of beloved spins on the Dicken's classic.
Murder on Cape Cod by Maddie Day (Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries #1) – 5
Macenzie "Mac" Almeida has returned to Westham, Massachusetts, after several years away, and she is settling back into the town where she grew up. She's enjoying time with her family, her bike shop is thriving, and she enjoys her weekly meetings with the Cozy Capers, a book club that reads exclusively cozy mysteries. Returning from their meeting one night, Mac stumbles over the dead body of Jake Lacey. Jake didn't have the best reputation in town, and Mac had her own disagreement with the man over a repair he had been hired to do for her. Worse yet, she recognizes the knife as one her brother owns. With the rest of the Cozy Capers jumping in to try to help solve the crime, will they succeed?
Ever since this series has been announced, I've been looking forward to it, and the debut didn't disappoint. I always love vacation destination settings, and this one is fun; now I want to visit Cape Cod. Plus, what cozy mystery fan isn't going to want to read about a club that loves the same sub-genre we do? We are introduced to a large selection of series regulars here, and it took some work to keep them all straight, but I'm sure that will get easier as the series goes along and the various supporting characters get enough page time. The suspects don't have the same issue, and it is easy to remember their motives. There are several secrets and potential motives for murder, but by the time Mac figures things out, everything is clear to us and her. While this isn't a traditional culinary cozy, Mac's boyfriend owns a bakery in town, and we get several recipes at the end of the book.
NOTE: This book is originally being released as a Barnes and Nobel exclusive, with print and digital versions currently being planned at other retailers at the end of 2019.
NOTE 2: I received an ARC of this book.
Steamed Open by Barbara Ross (Maine Clambake Mysteries #7) – 5
Lou Herrickson, a beloved member of the Busman's Harbor community, has recently died. Lou has left everything to her late husband's grandnephew, Bart Frick. That includes the mansion where she lived and the lighthouse and beach connected to it. Lou had always left the beach open to the public, but the first thing Bart does is fence off the beach. The locals who make a living by clamming are the first to discover this when they arrive to start their morning of work, and that's when Julia Snowden becomes concerned. Her family uses clams harvested from this beach in the Snowden Family clambake. Hoping to resolve things faster than a court challenge will allow, Julia goes to talk to Bart the next morning only to find him closed to reopening the beach. A few hours later, Bart is dead. The suspects range from those impacted to by closing of the beach to any potential heirs to a couple obsessed with lighthouses. Can Julia help find the killer?
I absolutely love this series, and this is another excellent entry. The mystery is strong with several competing suspects and motives to keep us from seeing the truth until Julia figures it out. A couple of sub-plots carry over from the previous book, and I liked how they were woven into the main mystery. No, you don't have to have read the previous book to understand what happens here, but it certainly helps. The characters are strong, with layers to them that unfold as the book progresses. This makes the characters introduced here more complex than in many of the series I read, and I love them more for it. We also learned a bit more about a series regular here, and I loved that added insight. There are four recipes for you to enjoy once you've finished the book, two featuring clams and two baked goods.
NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.
Lark! The Herald Angels Sing by Donna Andrews (Meg Langslow #24) – 5
During rehearsal for the children's Christmas pageant at Trinity Episcopal, Meg is surprised to find a baby in the manger. Since it is just rehearsal, they weren't using an actual baby yet. Things get even more intriguing when Meg finds the note attached to the baby strongly implying that the Meg's brother Rob is the father. This couldn't have come at a worse time since Rob is about to propose to his girlfriend of two years. Who is the mother? Why did she leave the baby in the church? And can Meg figure out who the father really is?
I'm not going to say more than this since the plot spins out in several fun and surprising directions from here. I was intrigued the entire way through. And yes, there is a crime and even murder, but the plot isn't a strict murder and five suspects. Then again, that's often the case with this series, and I love that creativity in the plotting. The usual characters are all here, although some get more page time than others, which is again a staple of the series. I did find some editing glitches in a couple of random chapters, and I thought a couple of plot points early on came out of nowhere even though Meg didn't seem that surprised by them. Then again, I could have missed something with those plot points. Honestly, I didn't care, however, because I was laughing so hard at the antics in the book. Yes, I always find this series amusing, but this is the most I've laughed out loud at a book in the series in quite a while.
"What Child is This?" by Rhys Bowen – 4
The story opens on Christmas Eve in London in 1940. It's the middle of the blitz, and rationing is in full effect, so it is looking like a very dismal Christmas for Maggie and Jack Harris. But then what little they do have is taken from them suddenly, and they find themselves on the streets. Jack goes looking for shelter and finds what looks like an abandoned house. Is it abandoned? What will Christmas day bring?
While I rarely read short stories, I had to grab this story from Rhys Bowen. Best known for her historical mysteries, this is more of a glimpse at tragedy and triumph during 24 hours. As such, it doesn't have the twists or shocks you might expect, but it is a very heartwarming tale. Jack and Maggie really shine, although I did find Maggie annoying at times. Believable, but annoying. A quick read (I read it in about an hour), this is a good way to hold on to the Christmas spirit just a little bit longer.
Flashback by Shannon Messenger (Keeper of the Lost Cities #7) – 4
As this book opens, Alvar's sentencing for his betrayal is about to happen. The entire Vacker family has assembled in the senate chambers, and Sophie and Keefe have been invited to be there as well. It becomes clear why when the sentence is read, and Alvar is sent to live with his parents and siblings, Sophie's friends Fitz and Biana. Both of Sophie's friends, but Fitz especially, don't trust their older brother and suspect a trick of some sort. But before Alvar's dwelling is even ready for him, Fitz and Sophie are attacked by the Neverseen, barely escaping with their lives. As they spend time recovering, they begin to wonder what their attack means in the group's long term plans. Can they figure it out?
I waited longer than I wished to read this book because I needed to find time to read the 850 pages we get here. I did feel the pacing was a bit off at times, especially early on, but overall this is another strong book. We learn some things that will definitely advance the story in future books, and we get some great twists before we reach the climax. Plus, we are left with some nasty cliffhangers. Flashback comes to mean something else by the end of the book, so don't go into this expecting lots of time spent in the past, although the past does come into play as the book progresses. Once again, the characters are fun, and they provided some great laughs along the way. I felt like this was funnier than the last couple of books have been, and I enjoyed that aspect as well. Fans will definitely be glad they picked up the book. If you aren't a fan yet, it's best to go back to the beginning to fully understand everything that is happening here.