Book Review: A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet
Sherlock Holmes
#1
by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Classic mystery

I almost feel like I should write two separate reviews for this book, considering how vastly different parts 1 and 2 are from each other. I can’t say that Doyle’s decision to leave England and go back in time several years to show the victim and murderer’s backstory in America up close is one that makes a lot of sense to me, but I didn’t hate it like some seem to. If this had been the first Holmes story I’d read, though, I could see where it might make my hesitate to pick up another. In the end, I think that, though the Utah diversion was interesting in its own right, it felt completely unnecessary to the mystery story.

Now, outside of the trip to Utah, it was great to see the original meeting between two characters who have been duplicated and imitated so many times since. Watson learning what Holmes does and seeing the first glimpses at his methods and madness is fun to read. I liked the introduction of Watson himself too. Overall, I’ve been enjoying my first time reading these stories.

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Book Review: Canyon Quest

Canyon Quest
Last Chance Detectives prequel
by Jim Ware

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

Mike Fowler hates Ambrosia, Arizona. It’s hot and dry, there’s no snow, he has no friends, and worst of all, his dad isn’t there. Even though his dad disappeared while flying a plane in the Gulf War, Mike is certain the answer to his whereabouts is still out there somewhere. And when he makes some new discoveries shortly after his twelfth birthday, he realizes the clues he needs might be out in the desert around Ambrosia.

I really like the Last Chance Detectives. I watched The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa so many times when I was younger that when I read that book for the first time recently, several of the lines from the book I could hear perfectly from the actor/actress’s mouth from the movie. This prequel is a chance to see Mike and the others before their detective club formed, even before the four of them became friends. For that, I appreciated the book. And considering how frustrated I was about Winnie’s utter lack of a personality or really any shown contribution to the group in the other 3 books I’d read before this, I really liked her as a character in this one (though it seemed like she had a crush on Mike, something I don’t recall coming up in the books that take place later).

The author made some strange choices with the story, though. From everything I could tell, and I went back to make sure I hadn’t misremembered, Mike’s dad has been considered MIA for 6 years. I don’t know how long he and his mom have lived in Ambrosia at the start of the story, though. It seems like it hasn’t been that long, since the book starts with him counting the money he’s saved up to buy a bus ticket so that he can travel back home and stay with the best friend he left behind. But wording elsewhere makes it sound like they moved to Ambrosia shortly after his dad disappeared. Either way, his dad has been gone for six years after remains of his F-16 had been discovered somewhere in the Middle East, yet Mike is absolutely certain throughout parts of this book that clues to his dad’s current whereabouts can be found in the desert in Arizona. Uh…what? It’s difficult to allow the excuse of “he’s a grieving kid” after this many years have gone by, but even still, it’s an idea with absolutely no merit. Add to that his surly attitude and how he lets his unhappiness lead him to be rude to the kids that are becoming his friends, and it wasn’t as fun to read as the other books in the series.

While I still think the main books in the series are great for kids around age 10-14, I would say there is unfortunately little benefit to reading this prequel. For those interested, though, especially for anyone who’s a big fan of the book series, movies, or radio dramas, by all means, check it out.

*Note: The entire group of 4 kids that make up the Last Chance Detectives come together in this book. This is a departure from the original edition of the first book in the series, The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa (which takes place after this prequel), in which Spence was introduced to the other 3 for the first time. However, in the recent re-release of that book, it’s changed to show Spence as already one of the group.

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Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes
#3
by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Classic mystery

This is the first Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever read, though like many, I’ve seen various adaptations. I started with this book of short stories mostly because it was the one I owned. I’ve never been a huge fan of short stories, though, and while I wish now that I’d started by checking A Study in Scarlet out from the library, I’m still glad I’ve started reading Holmes in any form. The issue with reading this book of shorter mysteries, though, is that a lot of the clients start to blend together, as many of them talk and act similarly when they bring Holmes their case. I did spread the stories out, reading 3 at a time, then reading other books before coming back for more, and I think that helped some.

My view of Holmes and Watson, and even some of the other characters, started with an understanding based on some of the adaptations I’ve seen, and while Holmes was indeed standoffish and generally assumed he was the smartest one in the room, I didn’t think he was quite as cold as I’ve seen him portrayed. A few of the cases were really interesting, while there were a couple that I thought had a much less intriguing solution. The introduction of Irene Adler wasn’t at all what I expected, but I wonder if she’ll be back in a future story. Overall, I enjoyed reading these vignettes, and have a feeling I’ll appreciate even more the longer stories when I get to them.

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Book Review: The Twelve Dogs of Christmas

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas
Andy Carpenter
#15
by David Rosenfelt

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Mystery

When Martha “Pups” Boyer, long-time dog rescuer, is accused of murdering a man she threatened after he complained about her dogs, Andy Carpenter takes her case. Even as he pulls on threads and begins to find the truth behind who really killed Pups’ neighbor, he can’t put his finger on what motive the murderer would have. But that won’t stop him from digging.

This book sort of fell into my lap when I was looking for more Christmas reads. I haven’t read any of this series before, but saw someone say that wouldn’t be a problem, and it really wasn’t. It also wasn’t exactly a Christmas story—it just happened to take place at Christmas time. All of that being said, I really liked the book. It felt a lot like an old detective show, like the kind I watched when I was younger—Matlock springs to mind. I enjoyed the main character’s wit and snark and the colorful cast he gathers around himself to help him do his work, both long-term and short-term. The way the case unfolded made for a good story, and even the courtroom scenes, where we get to see into the mind of the defense attorney using his tricks to get the jury to see things a certain way, were interesting.

Though I’m sure that some of what was shown in this book is a spoiler for past books in the series, and while author pushes dog love way too much for my taste (I’m a cat person through and through), I do believe I’ve found myself a new series to read after plunging in at book 15.

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Book Review: Chapter and Curse

Chapter and Curse
The Cambridge Bookshop Series #1
by Elizabeth Penney

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

When American Molly Kimball and her recently widowed British mother move to Cambridge to take over the running of a bookstore that’s been in their family for generations, the last thing they expect is to get caught up in a murder investigation. But within days of their arrival, someone dies near the bookstore, and Molly’s great aunt, who invited them to England, is the prime suspect. Now, amidst trying to help the bookstore get back on its feet, learning about and meeting members of her previously estranged family, and getting to know the good-looking guy who works next door, Molly is determined to clear her aunt’s name.

Overall, the book was decent. The plot drags in some places, and the mystery seems a little watered-down to me, which is certainly not what you want in a book from this genre. I liked most of the characters, though Molly herself is sort of “meh,” in my opinion. The bookstore and the community around it were a lot of fun to read about. Aunt Violet’s friends are a little on the bizarre side, and I had a difficult time pinning down what age anyone was supposed to be. I can figure it out with some math, but a lot of the characters act similarly to each other, so it was difficult to imagine age differences between some who I assume should have been in different generations.

I don’t go into a cozy mystery expecting to figure out whodunit by the end, though that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I have a tendency to take things at face value and get too caught up in the red herrings. The resolution to this mystery wasn’t a total surprise to me, though, even while I didn’t expect it to go that way simply because it felt so bland. The resolution to the mystery and motivation behind it seemed weak, like much more effort went into setting up this location and cast of characters for future stories than into making the mystery interesting. That’s my opinion, however, and it’s not enough to keep me from being interested in the continuation of this new series, due to how much I liked the setting and characters.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Shadows of Swanford Abbey

Shadows of Swanford Abbey
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian mystery, romance

Tasked by her brother to present his manuscript to a well-known author, Rebecca Lane takes a room in the monastery-turned-hotel Swanford Abbey, where the author is also staying. And so is Frederick Wilford, an older man Rebecca once had a huge crush on. When the famous writer is murdered, Frederick, as local magistrate, is determined to find the guilty party, even if the investigation shines a light on secrets Rebecca is hiding.

As a Regency-era romance, the story here is pretty good. As a mystery, it’s only okay. My biggest issue is that it takes quite a while to really get going; so much of the first half is spent describing the abbey, hinting at things from the past that affect the present (which we won’t know more about until much later), and setting up the mystery around the murder, which doesn’t even occur until over halfway through the book. I don’t mind a mystery taking so long to get started if I spend that time trying to figure out who the victim might end up being, along with who the murderer will be, but in this case, the synopsis tells us who the victim will be. All of this led the book to feel slow for a while.

I mostly liked the characters. Rebecca had her issues in the story, mostly stemming from the task her brother insists she help him with, but this seems to lead her to not care at all about the societal conventions of her time or about her reputation. That leaves Frederick to be the most understanding man ever. He ends up having to help her in a lot of different ways, more times than I might normally prefer in a story like this, but it didn’t bother me this time, I think because it didn’t seem as contrived as it could have.

I raised my eyebrows during part of a scene that seemed to be straight out of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and found out while reading the author’s note at the end of the book that I was correct. She also mentioned other classics that she took some direct inspiration from, though those others I either haven’t read or don’t know well enough to have recognized the way she used that inspiration. Overall, I enjoyed the book and the characters and recommend it to fans of historical romance. Fans of mystery books may like it, too, if they’re not bothered by what I described above.

Thank you to Netgalley and Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Terror from Outer Space

Terror from Outer Space
Last Chance Detectives #4
by Robert Vernon

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

Have aliens landed in the desert? Though the report may be unbelievable, Sheriff Smitty can’t deny that something strange is going on, especially when he has his own frightening encounter. It’s up to Mike, Winnie, Spence, and Ben, the Last Chance Detectives, to investigate, but they won’t like what they find.

Overall, this was another solid addition to the series, with some exciting scenes and a hard, but important, lesson of faith learned by Mike. The mystery was predictable to me, but younger readers will be much less likely to guess what’s going on. If I’d been in Winnie’s shoes in this story, I probably would have passed out, or at least been found curled up on the floor crying.

Speaking of Winnie, it’s much more obvious in this book that she’s not as well developed as her three friends. The other three have a line or two explaining what they bring to the group at the beginning of the story. Mike’s confidence makes him a natural leader, Spence is clever and inventive, even Ben is said to provide fun and out-of-the-box thinking. There’s literally nothing, not even a minor attempt, made to show Winnie’s contribution to the group, and thinking about the 3 books in this series I’ve read in the last few days, I couldn’t tell you what it was either. She’s just…there.

This is the first new story to come out in a series from the 90s, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the 2 originals that I recently read, I do still recommend this book for those around age 10-14.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: October 5, 2021

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Book Review: Mystery Lights Of Navajo Mesa

Mystery Lights Of Navajo Mesa
Last Chance Detectives #1
by Jake & Luke Thoene

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

It started with a cryptic radio transmission that led to Ben seeing some green lights in the desert. But his friends, the other Last Chance Detectives, Mike, Winnie, and Spence, aren’t sure his story of UFOs in the desert is believable. Still, there’s obviously something going on out there, so it’s time to investigate!

This was a fast-paced adventure with a realistic feel to it. The kids are friends but still have arguments, one of which led to the adventure in the first place. I liked the small-town setting that goes even further into a feeling of remoteness due to being surrounded by vast desert. Though I wasn’t as baffled as Ben was when the sheriff didn’t corroborate what he saw, readers of the age group for which the book is intended will likely get swept up into the adventure and intrigue. The stakes are high and the danger is real, but nothing too intense for kids around 10-14, for whom I highly recommend this book.

I watched the movie many times in my teenage years (we only owned this one, though, so I’ve never seen/read any others in the series). I didn’t expect to remember as much as I did when I read the book. A few lines I could even hear the characters saying in my head. It was a really fun way to re-visit my childhood, and I’m looking forward to watching the movie again too (and reading/watching the rest of the series)!

Clarification: I didn’t read the version shown in the picture above, which is the original based on the movie that came out in 1994. I own the older book and had intended to read it soon, but hadn’t yet when I saw that it was being re-released, along with at least 1 other in the series and 2 new ones that I can see. For this review, I read the new release version, which does have some differences from the original.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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**Note: This book has been out since 1994, but a new, slightly updated edition will be released on October 5, 2020.

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Book Review: All That Is Secret

All That Is Secret
by Patricia Raybon

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

One year after her somewhat-estranged father’s maybe-not-accidental death, Annalee Spain leaves her home and job in Chicago to travel back to Denver and seek answers. But the truth won’t be easy to find, even for an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, and even the trip to Denver provides danger and intrigue, as well as a new companion in the form of a young orphan searching for his father.

I’m a fan of mysteries and really liked the idea of a Christian mystery story set in the 1920s. And the prologue was great, ending with such a bang, I was excited to keep going! Sadly, the rest of the book didn’t really hold up to the thrilling start. One of the biggest issues I had was with the protagonist herself. A young, black woman in a nation dominated by white men, Annalee had all the makings of a smart, compassionate, innovative sleuth. Except she told herself, while trying to solve the crime, to stop trying to solve it and let it solve itself…which is exactly what you want from the main character in a murder mystery.

There’s a romance sub-plot in this book, too, which fell pretty flat for me. For one thing, there was mention about falling in love after Annalee and Jack only knew each other for a day or two. There was also a cliched contrivance to push the romance forward, which seemed unnecessary. And I think they weren’t nearly as concerned about perceived propriety as they should have been for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’s a pastor, living in the church’s parsonage.

What tipped the scale to the rating I gave is that some things happened in the story that didn’t really make a lot of sense and weren’t explained. One character shows up somewhere in a fairly bizarre scene, and for a while, I suspected she might simply be a figment of Annalee’s imagination. It’s partially explained, but not nearly enough, in my opinion. This looks to be the beginning of a series of books with this MC, and I really wanted to be right there at the start of it. However, while I’m sure many who enjoy mysteries and Christian fiction will like this book, it definitely isn’t for me.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: October 5, 2021

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Book Review: Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu

Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu
Mr. Monk #3
by Lee Goldberg
read by Angela Brazil

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Mystery

When much of the police force calls in sick as part of a contract dispute, Monk is asked to take on the role of a captain in the department. Though this means he’ll be betraying his friends in the department, Monk can’t resist the allure of getting his badge back. Unfortunately, San Francisco suddenly seems to be in the midst of a crime spree, and the squad Monk is given command of make him look almost normal by comparison. Almost.

Well, 3 books into this series, and I’m calling it quits. For now. Maybe I’ll try again later when I’m looking for something else to listen to. I love the show and have watched it several times through. Unfortunately, that means that I’ve also seen this story done before. At least part of it. The main part. There are two mysteries that happen in this book, one being the serial killings that kick the story off. And the way it played out was the same as an episode in which Monk has his badge back for a little while (the episode came after the book was published, so it’s not a rip-off…maybe the other way around though). So that does tend to bring the enjoyment down some, considering that I easily guessed at what was going on.

The three detectives Monk is saddled with as captain, though, brought the enjoyment down even more. I guess they’re supposed to provide humor, them all being so outlandish, but seriously…it just smacks of ineptitude on the part of whoever hired them. One of them has a radio taped to her head when we first see her, for goodness sake, a full-blown paranoid conspiracy theorist. One is so old he can’t even remember his own name half the time (and that’s not hyperbole), and the other is trigger-happy. Each of them comes with their own assistant, à la Monk’s Natalie, and frankly, I can’t find the humor in any of it. It’s just too over-the-top ridiculous, the kind of thing I might cringe at but live with when watching the show, but when hearing it described by pseudo-Natalie, I just can’t.

It’s too bad, too, because there were some really funny moments early in the story. Things that remind me of why I love Monk so much. But they didn’t occur much after that, definitely not enough to elevate the rest of the book. If you’re a fan of the show and think you’ll enjoy the book, though, don’t let me stop you from giving the series a try. I don’t think you even need to start at the beginning, since I haven’t seen any real correlation between the books so far.

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