Review of The Man With a Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes (1981) (Richard Jury Series)

 Bottom line: A pleasant and intriguing read with a few murders thrown in for good measure.

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

At the Man with a Load of Mischief, they found the dead body stuck in a keg of beer. At the Jack and Hammer, another body was stuck out on the beam of the pub’s sign, replacing the mechanical man who kept the time. Two pubs. Two murders. One Scotland Yard inspector called in to help. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Jury arrives in Long Piddleton and finds everyone in the postcard village looking outside of town for the killer. Except for one Melrose Plant. A keen observer of human nature, he points Jury in the right direction: into the darkest parts of his neighbors’ hearts…

Review:

Just a few weeks ago I was complaining about not being able to find new-to-me cozy mystery series to get lost in. Well, of course the next day I picked up an older book that I had gotten last year at my neighborhood’s community book swap, and found just that. The Richard Jury series by Martha Grimes has about two dozen books, and I’m looking forward to working my way through them. Some may quibble with my including this as a cozy, since the lead character works for the police, but the setting, atmosphere, and lack of CSI type talk make me feel ok about sticking this in with the cozies.

I had a few minor complaints, as I usually do, the biggest one being that I didn’t feel like the partnership between Richard Jury and Melrose Plant, who are being established as the crime fighting duo who go on to work together throughout the series, was explained or explored very well. The men seemed almost to be the same person. I would have like to see more differentiation, and a more solid foundation of their relationship established.

That being said, that was my main complaint. It met all my other criteria for a good cozy mystery, and the characters were well drawn and intriguing enough that I’m hoping to learn more about them as the series progresses.

One thing I will say is that I found this to be a fairly light read – the best way I can explain this is to compare it to something like Louise Penny’s mystery series, which always leaves me a touch hesitant to get into the next book. Not because I am afraid the quality will be lacking, but because reading those books is an emotional investment. There are some deep tragedies and pain explored (not even necessarily related to the crime being investigated) that, frankly, I just don’t always have the energy to tackle. I can’t speak to the rest of thisseries, since I’ve only read the first (though I have the second waitlisted at the library), but The Man With a Load of Mischief was exactly what I was looking for when I started searching for new cozies a few weeks ago – an entertaining read that wasn’t too draining mentally.

PS – this was set around Christmastime in a small English village (though the Christmas parts are very minor), so it may be fun to earmark to read around then.

I know I’m late to the party since this was first published in 1981, so have any of you read the Richard Jury series? What did you think?

Get it: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Book Review: Matt Archer: Monster Hunter by Kendra Highley

Bottom Line: A gritty YA fantasy definitely worth the read.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Blurb:

Fourteen-year-old Matt Archer spends his days studying Algebra, hanging out with his best friend and crushing on the Goddess of Greenhill High, Ella Mitchell. To be honest, he thinks his life is pretty lame until he discovers something terrifying on a weekend camping trip at the local state park.

Monsters are real. And living in his backyard.

But that’s not the half of it. After Matt is forced to kill a strange creature to save his uncle, he finds out that the weird knife he took from his uncle’s bag has a secret, one that will change Matt’s life. The knife was designed with one purpose: to hunt monsters. And it’s chosen Matt as its wielder.

Now Matt’s part of a world he didn’t know existed, working with a covert military unit dedicated to eliminating walking nightmares. Faced with a prophecy about a looming dark war, Matt soon realizes his upcoming Algebra test is the least of his worries.

His new double life leaves Matt wondering which is tougher: hunting monsters or asking Ella Mitchell for a date?

Review:

This is one of those books that languished on my Kindle for a very long time. I’d grabbed it on sale, but just didn’t get started on it for one reason or another. Then I found myself stranded in an airport for several hours one Saturday morning – WITHOUT my toddler – and I have to say, those were pretty much the most relaxing hours I’ve had since December 2012, when said toddler entered my life. I sat in an airport restaurant, drank my weight in tea, and read Matt Archer: Monster Hunter.

It was very, very good. It’s the classic YA tale of a normal teenager finding out he has powers, and must use them to fight for his family and his world. However, there were a few things done differently that I thought elevated it above the general YA fantasy offering. I loved that adults are fighting the evil as well, and they are mostly skeptical of bringing this kid into the mix. It seemed much more realistic than say, the Percy Jackson books, where the issue of “but where are all the adult demigods and why aren’t they doing anything?” is pretty much glossed over. I also loved its international outlook. Matt’s an American kid, and the story is based in America, but instead of everything happening in the states, there are incidents popping up all over the world.

Another issue I have with some YA fantasy series is that so often it feels like watching an old school video game. Each book is a level, and you have to make it to the end of the level to fight the boss, and then you start a new level with its boss,  then at the end of the whole game, you fight the big boss. Each book neatly wraps up one year of school or a summer between school years, with the bad guys conveniently making their move during finals or right before school starts up again, depending on the series. And while I understand authors wanting to contribute to the overarching series plot, while giving readers closure during the individual books as well, it so often just feels contrived. Matt Archer’s plot moved along in a very natural progression. He’s fighting monsters, and he’s also going to school, but it didn’t feel like the monsters were timing their attacks around the school year.

Ranting aside, Matt feels like a very realistic teenage boy. He’s likeable, has character flaws, and reacts in a very believable way to all the weird stuff that has now become his life. I loved his family and friends and hope we get to know them better.

The author, Kendra Highley (who I can claim to know slightly through the power of social media – and is a lovely person as well as talented author), was in the process of releasing the fifth and last book in the series while I was reading the first, so I’m excited to have a completed series to plow through as time, energy, and budget allows. I am a little nervous to do so because this book started off grittier and more intense (and with an older protagonist) than many YA series, and I’m guessing it follows the pattern of becoming darker as the story progresses. I don’t handle stress all that well in general, and definitely not when I’m pregnant. I mostly want everything to be rainbows and sunshine and unicorns. I’m pretty sure people are going to die in this series…people I like. Oh well.

If you like YA fantasy, this is a book that must not be missed!

Get it: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Review of Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews (2007) (Kate Daniels #1)

Bottom line: Good, but gruesome

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

Earning a living cleaning up magical messes, mercenary Kate Daniels is drawn into a power struggle between two factions–necromancers and shapeshifters–within Atlanta’s magic circles when her guardian is murdered.

Review:

This is one of those books that makes me wish I were WAY more desensitized to violence. I enjoyed the writing, the characters, and the unique setting (magical power comes and goes, alternating with technology – and her take on vampires was really interesting, and far more believable than sparkling demi-god-like figures). It is sort of a murder mystery/urban fantasy mashup, with the emphasis on the urban fantasy: both of which I love.

However, and this is a big however, it was really gruesome. There was a lot of violence, particularly sexual violence against women. The worst of it takes place “off screen”, but is no less present for that.

I’ve heard that the rest of the books in the series aren’t quite as awful in this particular way, so I stepped out on a limb and reserved the second one (Magic Burns) at the library. I’m hoping it’s less graphic, as there were many things I liked about the first book. The author nicely balanced the tension of wrapping up the story arc at the end of the first book, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions about the characters that make you want to keep reading.

Have you read the book or series? What did you think?

P.S. One of the things I loved about the character is that she dresses for practicality, not to be sexy. How could you not love a character who wears “jeans loose enough to let me kick a man taller than me in the throat”?

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Review of Sorcery and Cecelia

Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot (1988) (Cecelia and Kate #1) by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Bottom line: Delightful

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Blurb:

In 1817 in England, two young cousins, Cecilia living in the country and Kate in London, write letters to keep each other informed of their exploits, which take a sinister turn when they find themselves confronted by evil wizards.

Review:

I try not to use the word “delightful” too much (or any other word that I don’t use in real life), but with this book, I just can’t escape it. It simply is delightful: think Jane Austen with magic, mysteries, and mayhem. The entire book is told in the form of letters written between the two cousins, and the adventures they find themselves in are a fun way to explore the characters.

One of the things I loved the most about this book, apart from the introduction of magic and wizards into a traditional Regency setting, is that it is all about relationships: the girls’ relationship with each other, their siblings, their families, the men in their lives, and how all of those people interact. The plot keeps things moving along, and the humor is a very nice touch. I love Kate, who is clumsy and generally unlucky, despite being an intelligent and capable person. She’s just the sort of person who would manage to accidentally stumble into a not-quite-real garden in the middle of a ceremony and embarrass everyone.

If you like the occasional (clean) Regency romance, but sometimes find them a bit, well, boring, this is definitely a book to check out. I read it with a smile on my face, and was delighted (if I’m going to use it, I may as well over use it) to find that it was the first in a series. 

Confess: do you read Regency romances?

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Review of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Review:

C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strengthh) is the most disjointed trilogy I have ever read. That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading, or even good, but it feels more like a very loosely related collection of books than a trilogy. What makes it feel so disjointed is the tone, rather than any major plot or character devices. To me, Out of the Silent Planet feels like Lewis is exploring the idea of what life on another planet might look like. Perelandra takes that concept and builds upon a Christianity-compatible philosophic framework introduced at the end of Out of the Silent Planet. That Hideous Strength is, quite frankly, very weird. It seems to be the next step in Lewis’s thinking about philosophy, and planets, and angels and demons, but with more science AND more fantasy thrown in.

I’m still recommending these books, as they are such classic science fiction reads, and I found the first two enjoyable. I didn’t necessarily “enjoy” the last book, but I’m still glad I finished the trilogy. Lewis is, as always, a very skilled writer, and it’s incredibly interesting to get a glimpse into the way his mind worked as his characters interact with each other and explore other planets and our own.

Hard-core Tolkien fans will enjoy glimpses of his influence in this work, both in the languages and some of the names, and the character of Ransom, who was modeled after Tolkien. There are also a couple of references to Numenor.

Get it: Amazon (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), Barnes & Noble (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength),

Blurbs:

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet is the first novel in C. S. Lewis’s classic science fiction trilogy. It tells the adventure of Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge academic, who is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet’s treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the “silent planet”—Earth—whose tragic story is known throughout the universe!

Perelandra

Perelandra, the second novel in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, tells of Dr. Ransom’s voyage to the paradise planet of Perelandra, or Venus, which turns out to be a beautiful Eden-like world. He is horrified to find that his old enemy, Dr. Weston, has also arrived and is putting him in grave peril once more. As the mad Weston’s body is taken over by the forces of evil, Ransom engages in a desperate struggle to save the innocence of Perelandra!

That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength is the third novel in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Set on Earth, it tells of a terrifying conspiracy against humanity. The story surrounds Mark and Jane Studdock, a newly married couple. Mark is a sociologist who is enticed to join an organization called N.I.C.E., which aims to control all human life. Jane, meanwhile, has bizarre prophetic dreams about a decapitated scientist, Alcasan. As Mark is drawn inextricably into the sinister organization, he discovers the truth of his wife’s dreams when he meets the literal head of Alcasan, which is being kept alive by infusions of blood. Jane seeks help concerning her dreams at a community called St. Anne’s, where she meets their leader—Dr. Ransom. The story ends in a final spectacular scene at the N.I.C.E. headquarters where Merlin appears to confront the powers of Hell.

What did you think?

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Review of Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (1975) (Amelia Peabody #1)

Bottom line: A fun Victorian cozy set on the banks of the Nile

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

Set in 1884, this is the first installment in what has become a beloved bestselling series. At thirty-two, strong-willed Amelia Peabody, a self-proclaimed spinster, decides to use her ample inheritance to indulge her passion, Egyptology. On her way to Egypt, Amelia encounters a young woman named Evelyn Barton-Forbes. The two become fast friends and travel on together, encountering mysteries, missing mummies, and Radcliffe Emerson, a dashing and opinionated archaeologist who doesn’t need a woman’s help — or so he thinks.

Review:

Elizabeth Peters might be the author that I find most hit-or-miss. A few moves ago, someone at our local library had a thing for her writing and they had stocked maybe a dozen or more of her books. I read several, as they are mostly light mysteries with some romance thrown in. Longtime readers know by now that I love books that give a good sense of local ambience, especially if they’re set in exotic locations. This series is set in Egypt in the late 1800s. She has a couple of other series, and some standalone novels. Her strengths are ambience, archeology (the author had a Ph.D in Egyptology), and voice – although mystery authors seem bound by law to make their characters “quirky”, I often find hers genuinely amusing. I think some of her weaknesses are plot – the mystery part of the novel is often the weakest piece, and voice.

But wait! I just said voice was one of her strengths! This is why I find her to be so hit or miss. If she’s just focused on telling the story, I think that comes across and her characters are fun and charming and all the rest of it. When she’s making her points (she was a Feminist with a capital F), I find that the characters and story suffer – when I as a reader start rolling my eyes going, “I get it, women are equal to or greater than men, just get on with the book!” that pulls me out of my flow of reading and generally irritates me. To be fair, anything that pulls me out of the flow of reading is going to irritate me (you can ask my husband).

So some of her books are cozy mysteries at their best – light, fun, and interesting – and some of her books feel stilted, forced, and repetitive. Though I have read several in the Peabody series (by the way, if there are any series authors out there, please, please, PLEASE list the order of your books somewhere on the actual book! I hate having to dig through every novel on the shelf to try to arrange by publication date so I can find the first in the series. Even with a smart phone it’s not always easy to find quickly on the internet. Anyways, I digress…), I had never read this first one until a recent recommendation by a friend. It’s by far my favorite by Peters. If you’re interested in trying her writing, this one certainly gets my top recommendation.

Get it: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

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Review of A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007) (Three Pines Mysteries #2)

Bottom line: A strong continuation of a very good series.

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

CC de Poitiers managed to alienate everyone in the hamlet of Three Pines, right up to the moment she died. When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache begins his investigation, it seems like an impossible murder: CC was electrocuted on a frozen lake, in front of the entire town, during the annual curling tournament. With compassion and courage, Gamache digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life to find long buried secrets, while his own enemies threaten to bring something even more chilling than the bitter winter winds to Three Pines.

Review:

I went into this book expecting it the all-too-common sophomore slump – a great debut followed by a much less than stellar number two. I was pleased to discover that I enjoyed this one almost as much as the first book. I was even more pleased when I picked it up at the library in November, knowing only that it was the second book in the Inspector Gamache series (see a quick review of the first here) and discovered that it was set during Christmas. Yay!

I would definitely recommend that you read Still Life first, as many of those characters reoccur here. There were still the frequent POV changes that irked me from the first book, and several times she wrote scenes to be intentionally misleading or used words like “the object” to keep the suspense up, which I hate (though this may have been magnified since I had just read Dan Brown’s Inferno), but overall it was a very good mystery. She wove some trouble into Gamache’s life in such a way as to leave me dying to get my hands on the next seven or so books to see how that will resolve itself.

There was also an underlying theme of how brokenness can be passed down through the generations – something that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I’m finishing up my first year as a parent. Nothing will make you more aware of your own faults than raising a child and wanting desperately not to screw up too badly.

But anyways, it was very good, and I can see that I’m going to have to continue haunting my library’s on hold section as I work my way through the series. The depictions of village Christmas life were a charming backdrop to the murder – so get in the holiday spirit and read about a murder!

Get it: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Have you read any Louise Penny? What did you think?

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Review of The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber (2012) (Lady Darby Mysteries #1)

Bottom line: A powerful mystery with a great new detective.

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes.

Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage—a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl.

When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim…

Review:

This was one of those books where I finished it and had the awesome-new-author-discovery jitters. The more I look back on it, I’m able to think more analytically about it and figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like and so on, but not many books actually make me giddy with joy when I’m done with them. So, as I do my review, keep that in mind.

First my complaints – I didn’t really like the male lead, and didn’t think he was extraordinarily well handled. We get interesting hints about him, that he pretends to be shallow and pretentious, but underneath is a serious and intelligent detective, but we’re only told the former for a few pages in the beginning, and suddenly he’s the latter, with no hints as to why he would pretend otherwise in the first place. Also, I’m not crazy about the “reformed rake” style hero (or in this case “could-possibly-reform-in-the-future-for-the-right-woman rake”). My other annoyance was that this novel takes place in high society in 1830, where apparently everyone cheats on their spouses with hardly any consequences, or batted eyelashes. Perhaps that’s true to the time, I’m not a historian, but it did irritate me.

Apart from those things, I loved it. This might be one of the few novels where I’ve seen angst well handled, and certainly one of the very few novels written in recent times where this is the case. The heroine is both strong and suffering from things in her past. Her level of angst over it, as well as society’s reaction seemed very believable considering the novel’s time and place.  Remember that these were things no one would have been able to see on TV and therefore become desensitized to. (If my wording here seems more awkward than usual, it’s because I’m trying to avoid spoilers, even little ones, as is my policy.)

The murder plot/discovery was very good, as were the pace, supporting characters (for the most part), and setting. I thought the author did an excellent job conveying the time period and location without overdoing it. There were several interesting facts dropped about oil painting in that time, but again, you never felt like you were listening to an info dump. She also conveyed what was necessary about clothing to help you picture the scene without making my eyes glaze over about corsets and petticoats and whatever else people wore back then (I’m even less of a fashionista than I am a historian).

However, despite really loving Kiera, the main character, the best part of this book, in my humble opinion, was how well the author handled Kiera’s emotions after the murder takes place. Authors all too often seem to err either on the side of “character barely affected by gruesome murder” or “character overly affected by murder of someone she barely knows and spends the whole book fainting and throwing up.” The horror Kiera feels at what is a particularly terrible murder is extremely well depicted. Though I have read far more graphic and violent murders, I was drawn in to all the pain and injustice that accompanied this one, much more than in other mysteries I’ve read. Reading about Kiera’s feelings seemed to echo and magnify my own in a powerful way. So, consider yourself warned.

Clearly, as you can see by how much I had to say about this book, it was one that really did affect me, and I mean that in a good way (I’ve got book two on hold at the library). If you are at all interested in historical mysteries – or willing to try them – this one is well worth the read.

Get it: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

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Review of Inferno by Dan Brown (2013) (Robert Langdon Series)

Bottom line: Take all the negative aspects of Dan Brown’s writing, leave out the good stuff, and add in a very thorough self-guided walking tour of Florence.

Rating: Not Recommended

Blurb:

In the heart of Italy, Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon is drawn into a harrowing world centered on one of history’s most enduring and mysterious literary masterpieces . . . Dante’s Inferno.

Against this backdrop, Langdon battles a chilling adversary and grapples with an ingenious riddle that pulls him into a landscape of classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science. Drawing from Dante’s dark epic poem, Langdon races to find answers and decide whom to trust . . . before the world is irrevocably altered.

Review:

I have been on the waitlist for Dan Brown’s Inferno since its release in May, and finally picked it up from the library last week. I was really disappointed. Dan Brown’s books at their best are like an action movie – completely unbelievable, non-stop roller coasters with twists and turns and lots of suspense – combined with a fun puzzle to solve. This book was not that. There was so much detail given about settings, names of artists, museums, writers, works of art, etc. that my eyes glazed over frequently. There were so many twists and turns that it just felt tedious – oh, wait, now we’re trusting that person. Ok, now we’re not? Wait, are we again? Am I done yet? Nope, only a couple hundred pages left. The scavenger hunt from clue to clue that characterizes a Dan Brown novel felt entirely forced – there was absolutely no reason for the bad guy to leave the trail of clues in the first place. I had a really hard time caring about any of the characters, they were exceptionally wooden, uninteresting, and unrelatable. In addition, a great author will provide misdirection and red herrings while still providing the clues the reader needs to solve the mystery. In that type of book, you get to the final reveal and you’re saying, “OH! I get it! That makes complete sense and is why X, Y, and Z happened earlier!” Brown has to rely on essentially lying to the reader or using code names so he can shock them later on with the truth. Although he often uses such tactics, it felt particularly bad in this book. Also, there were a lot of heavy handed rants about overpopulation and utilization of resources. Lastly, though I won’t critique Brown’s actual writing style, I will say that if you read this book, watch out for all the whispering that happens in odd places. If I were to wake up in a hospital and the doctors were whispering to me I would be supremely annoyed.

As you may have gathered from the previous paragraph, I wasn’t a huge fan of the book. It was an ok read, but there are so many better books out there. In general, I enjoy Dan Brown’s books, but this one just felt tedious and forced. There were some fun moments – for me the best part was that the final destination ended up being a place I’ve been, so I was able to picture that scene very vividly. If you’re going to read a Dan Brown, I’d recommend The Da Vinci Code or Deception Point. Both are ridiculous yet fun, while Inferno was simply ridiculous.

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

The Da Vinci Code: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Deception Point: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Review of Whiskey Sour: A Jack Daniels Mystery (2004) by J.A. Konrath (Jack Daniels Mysteries #1)

Bottom line: Definitely worth a read for hard boiled fans who don’t mind a little cliché and dose of humor in their gruesome detective stories.

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

Lieutenant Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Daniels is having a bad week. Her live-in boyfriend has left her for his personal trainer, chronic insomnia has caused her to max out her credit cards with late-night home shopping purchases, and a frightening killer who calls himself ‘The Gingerbread Man’ is dumping mutilated bodies in her district. Between avoiding the FBI and its moronic profiling computer, joining a dating service, mixing it up with street thugs, and parrying the advances of an uncouth PI, Jack and her binge-eating partner, Herb, must catch the maniac before he kills again….and Jack is next on his murder list. Whiskey Sour is full of laugh-out-loud humor and edge-of-your-seat suspense, and it introduces a fun, fully drawn heroine in the grand tradition of Kinsey Millhone, Stephanie Plum, and Kay Scarpetta.

Review:

This book was recommended to me years ago, but I put off reading it because I was afraid it would be too gory for me. Make no mistake, this book certainly has its disgusting and violent moments, but for me the light tone interspersed throughout the book (it works better than it sounds like it would) helped me stomach the bad moments. It was suspenseful, interesting, and well written. There were several clichés throughout, but I genuinely liked the main character. It is difficult to create a tough-as-nails female cop/detective that is also feminine (in the “feels like a woman” sense, not necessarily the “pink high heels” sense) and realistic, not to mention likeable, but Konrath has managed that with Jack Daniels.

Two things that annoyed me the were the way over the top incompetent and cardboard FBI agents and the bad guy’s giggling. Other than that it was a very strong read – I will certainly be reading more of the series when I have the time.

 Get it! Amazon, Barnes & Noble

What did you think? I know the series has been around for almost a decade now – have any of you read it?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.