August Minireviews – Part 3

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Uhoh, we’re into September now!!  Still trying to knock out August reviews.

A Dance Through Time by Lynn Kurland – 3*

//published 1996//

While I do enjoy romance, time travel romance is a subgenre that I’m not usually into.  This read was for the traveling book club, though, so I waded through it.  While it wasn’t a bad story, and I did overall like the characters, it just went on FOREVER.  Some of the jumping-through-time bits got a little muddled as well (they brought their horses with them from the past??).  While I didn’t mind this as a one-time read, it definitely didn’t inspire me to check out the rest of the series, and solidified the idea that time-travel romance just isn’t my thing.

Sweet Revenge by Nora Roberts – 4*

//published 1988//

I rarely worry about issuing trigger warnings for books (mainly because I don’t really read books that need them), but this book was hard to read at times as it dealt with a situation where a woman was repeatedly raped and abused.  The whole point of the story is that the main character is getting revenge on her father for the way he treated her mother, but I felt like Roberts felt way too long with the bits explaining why the daughter would want revenge.  There’s a lot here about the mother’s suffering and horrible life. Even after she escaped from her horrific husband, she struggled with depression and drug/alcohol abuse and eventually commits suicide, and it’s all quite depressing, to the point that I almost DNF’d this book more than once.  (Just to clarify, none of this was super explicit, but it’s all THERE.)  But when we FINALLY got through that section, the story really picked up.  Basically, the daughter becomes a jewel thief to pay all of her mother’s medical bills (she’s technically royalty, as her father is a ruler of a middle eastern country, so she runs in rich circles) and her ultimate goal is to steal an incredibly valuable necklace from her father – one that technically belonged to her mother, as it was his bridal gift to her.  Along the way, she runs into another jewel thief/romantic interest (my favorite character) and that whole bit of the story is really quite delightful.  I could have used a LOT more heist shenanigans and way less spousal abuse chapters.

In the end, while I actually really enjoyed the way this whole story played out, and quite liked the main characters, the first part of the story was just SO depressing and dragged on for so long that I don’t ever see myself reading this one again.

Summer at Lake Haven by RaeAnne Thayne – 4*

//published 2020//

Last December I read the entire Lake Haven series and thoroughly enjoyed them.  They weren’t groundbreaking, but they were relaxing and happy romances with likable characters and a small-town setting.  Summer at Lake Haven is the latest installment and was just as enjoyable as the rest.  My favorite part about this book was the way that the main characters actually had conversations with each other like adults instead of making assumptions and then staying mad for no reason, as so often happens in this type of book. So refreshing!  I also loved how Ian’s parents were actually super nice.  Lots of times the parents are these evil background characters, but here they were kind, welcoming, and supportive, and I thought it was fantastic.

Like the rest of the books, this wasn’t anything that will blow your mind, but if you’re just looking for a way to veg out, I definitely recommend this series.  While this one can be read as a stand alone (as they all can), all the background characters will make way more sense if you read the series in order.

Outsider by Linda Castillo – 4*

//published 2020//

Another series that I read last year, with another latest installment.  This mystery series is set in Ohio’s Amish country and focuses on the sheriff of a small town.  Kate was raised Amish but left the faith, eventually becoming a police officer and then moving back to her own hometown.  This series overall is really just excellently written.  Kate is likable, and the Amish community background is handled so well.  This particular book took a slightly different direction, as it was much more “thriller” rather than a murder mystery like the rest.  In this book, the Amish were also more background than foreground.  Still, I really enjoyed this read a lot, and hope there are many more books about Kate Burkholder to come.

While this one can be read as a standalone, it will also make a lot more sense in the context of the series, which is so enjoyable that I recommend reading them all anyway.

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1929//

I really love Tommy and Tuppence so much.  Tommy now works for “the government” in a sort of vague way/implied that he works in intelligence.  He and Tuppence go somewhat undercover by taking over a private detective agency that is suspected of being used to move “information” by a mysterious foreigner known as 16.  However, the majority of the book is actually connected short stories as Tommy and Tuppence solve legitimate mysteries to keep up their detective cover.  For each one, they take on the persona of a famous detective, which is both the fun part and the weakness of this story, as many of the detectives that were well-known in 1929 have fallen out of favor 90 years later.  Still, if you enjoy Christie’s writing, you’ll find a lot to like here as the mysteries themselves are clever.  Not my favorite Christie, but still an enjoyable read.

August Minireviews

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss – 4.5*

//published 2003//

I first read this book when it was published, and it’s one of those rare nonfiction books that I find myself returning to every few years.  Truss is just  so funny.  She tells you in the beginning how to tell if you’ll enjoy her book (have  you ever felt an overwhelming compulsion to add a missing apostrophe to a sign??) and goes on from there.  This isn’t an in-depth study of punctuation, but it is a delightful scamper through the high points of punctuation history and usage.  I always especially love the way she compares commas to border collies (gently herding phrases and words where they need to go), and her passion for apostrophes (so simple to use, yet so frequently maligned).

If you are even a bit of a punctuation freak, this is definitely worth a read.

Gentian Hill by Elizabeth Goudge – 4*

//published 1949//

I’m still slowly working my way through all of Goudge’s books. While Gentian Hill is probably my least favorite of her books that I’ve read so far, it was still beautifully written.  It’s historical fiction, so it’s a bit different from her other books, and it was rather fun to read a book set during the Napoleonic Wars that focused more on “regular” folk instead of the aristocracy.  The language throughout was beautiful as always, and there were many wonderful themes.  The main reason I wrestled with this book is because of how young Stella is when Zachary meets her and knows that she is going to be his wife someday.  I’ll grant that Zachary is also young(ish), but it still felt weird, even though it wasn’t completely unusual for women to get married in their mid-teens at the time.  Still, Goudge handles that all deftly – it never felt like Zachary was a creeper in any way, and I honestly did want them to end up together.  I just felt like the whole story would have read better if Stella had been a couple of years older when they met.

Overall, I still did enjoy this book a great deal, even though I didn’t find it to be an instant classic as I have with many of Goudge’s other books.

Gentian Hill was read #10 for #20BooksofSummer.

You Don’t Own Me by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke – 4*

//published 2018//

This is the latest installment of the Under Suspicion series, which I read last year.  The series centers on Laurie, who is the producer for a television show called Under Suspicion.  Each episode of the show looks at a cold case, inviting the people involved to tell their part of the story.  The concept is that the unsolved aspect of the story means that people close to the victim are still shadowed by the possibility that they could be the murderer.  I really enjoyed this series when I read it last year, mainly because Laurie is a great main character, and the authors have done an excellent job with the secondary characters as well.  In this book, I was glad to see Laurie’s romantic relationship progress happily.  The mystery was solid, although there was a weird secondary thing going on where Laurie was being stalked that felt superfluous to the main thrust of the story.

One of my biggest complaints about this story last year was how the host for Laurie’s show, Ryan, was the only stagnant character in the series.  The authors just made him into one giant stereotype and seemed to think that was good enough.  Consequently, I was delighted to see actual character growth in Ryan in this installment!  Brilliant!

Overall, these are great mysteries, and I’m hopeful that they will continue coming.

The Story of a Whim by Grace Livingston Hill – 3.5*

//published 1903//

Like most of Hill’s stories, this one was pretty predictable, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  I will say that I found it funny that I had just recently read Strawberry Girlset in early 1900’s Florida, and then it turns out that that was the same setting for this book as well!

This was my #11 read for #20BooksofSummer.

Shamed by Linda Castillo – 4*

//published 2019//

Earlier this year I devoured the entire Kate Burkholder series.  Set in Ohio’s Amish country, this is a great mystery series.  Kate grew up Amish and then left the community and eventually entered law enforcement.  When the series starts, Kate is the sheriff of the small town where she grew up, and also a sort of bridge between the Amish and non-Amish (“English”) communities.  I really, really like Kate a lot, which is a large part of why this series works for me.  Castillo also does a really excellent job in her portrayal of the Amish community, and I love the way that Kate is working through her heritage as well.

This particular installment was solid.  A woman is murdered and her granddaughter kidnapped – I loved the way that each chapter started with how many hours the girl had been missing; it really intensified the urgency of a missing child case.  Overall, the pacing was solid, although it felt like this book didn’t have as much of Kate’s personal life as some of the others have had, and I rather missed it.  All in all, I hope Castillo continues to write these books forever, as I really like them.

Kate Burkholder Mysteries // by Linda Castillo

First off, these books were brought to my attention by my good book-blogging buddy Stephanie.  The links in the titles above actually go to her reviews of these books, so you should definitely check out her thoughts!!

It’s been a while since I just sat down and immersed myself in a series (especially a mystery series), but I am so glad that I did that with these books!  I really enjoyed these mysteries a lot, and I’m excited because it appears that Castillo is still adding to the series, with #11 scheduled for publication this summer.

Part of the pleasure in these books for me is their setting – right here in Ohio.  The protagonist, Kate Burkholder, is the chief of police in a small town in Amish country (i.e. northeastern-ish Ohio).  Kate was born and raised Amish, but left the community at the age of 18.  Through a series of life events, she joined law enforcement, and a decade or so after she left, finds herself back in Painters Mill.  Her unique background means that she can often work as a sort of bridge between the Amish and non-Amish (aka “English”) communities, as she is familiar with the Amish culture and also speaks Pennsylvania Dutch.

Kate is overall a likable person, which is a big part of why this series works.  At the beginning, I was afraid she was going to turn into one of those dark, tortured souls who is drunk all the time and on a path to self-destruction.  Instead, Castillo decides to put Kate on a path of progress – throughout the books she is able to face various demons from her past, becoming stronger and growing as a person.

Part of this is Kate’s romantic interest, John Tomasetti.  If I’m honest, Tomasetti was one of the reasons I enjoyed the series so much.  He also comes from a troubled and tragic past, but overall is levelheaded, intelligent, and logical.  I really appreciated that Castillo didn’t feel like she had to give Kate a dumbed-down boyfriend in order to make Kate look good.  Instead, Kate and Tomasetti make a great team, bouncing ideas and theories off of each other, respecting the other’s thoughts and opinions, and providing each other with challenges to grow.

The mysteries themselves are, for the most part, well done.  There were a few times where I felt like Castillo got a little carried away (the reason Breaking Silence only got 3* was because, in my opinion, Castillo went one twist too far – instead of the solution that was logical, she tried to make it the conclusion that was !!!! and I just couldn’t get behind her reasoning for why the !!!! solution made sense), but overall she keeps things within the bounds of reason.

Throughout, Castillo’s descriptions of the Amish community feel respectful.  She neither demonizes or deifies them.  Instead, there is admiration for their strengths (strong families and communities, willingness to help and protect one another, joy in a simple life, etc.) and gentle criticism for their weaknesses (unwillingness to work with outsiders, tendency to judgmentalness, pacifism even to the detriment of justice, etc.).

I especially appreciated times when Kate recognized that her young, rebellious self may have been hard on the people in the community she was determined to leave behind.  This particularly happens with her relationship with the local Amish community’s bishop.  Kate acknowledges that when she was young she just saw him as a bossy, grumpy, judgmental old man.  Now, as an adult, she recognizes the fact that he has the best interests of his flock at heart, and works hard to keep his community safe and cared for, even at great personal sacrifice.

Kate also is able to see that while there are aspects of her former community that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, that they are still important tenets to the Amish, and are worthy of respect as a part of their personal faith.  That’s not to say that I always agreed with Kate.  If I’m honest, my faith probably more closely mirrors the Amish than Kate, who no longer claims any faith at all, and there are times that she only sees judgment from people where I can see that they are coming from a place of love.  A big example is when she and Tomasetti start living together.  Kate is offended that her brother and sister (still Amish) don’t agree with that, while I (an individual who still old-fashioned-ly doesn’t believe in cohabitation before marriage) see that her brother and sister are concerned for her and want the best for her.

In a weird way, Kate’s relationship with Tomasetti was an example of why I don’t think sleeping/living together outside of marriage is the path of wisdom.  Throughout, they are frequently on uncertain footing regarding how the other person feels, constantly questioning and confused with no clear boundaries or goals.  While I really loved the two of them together, they also drove me crazy sometimes, especially Kate (since we’re in her head the most), whose constant waffling and utterly ridiculous refusal to have basic conversations with Tomasetti (even when he was ready and trying to have them) drove me honestly crazy.  Another of the 3* reads (After the Storm) was actually a perfectly good mystery (although also possessed an unnecessary twist), but Kate’s behavior towards Tomasetti in that book got on my nerves so much that I couldn’t honestly rank it any higher.  She does things like literally sits in her office at work for hours instead of going home because she’s afraid to talk with him?!  They’re at a major crossroads of their relationship, and instead of acting like an adult, she hides like a petulant child for basically the entire book, and I just wanted to throttle her.

Besides her inability to have adult conversations, the other big thing about Kate that annoyed me was her obsession with “being strong”, i.e. not crying or showing a lot of emotion.  That’s semi-understandable in her role as chief of police, but utterly ridiculous to still feel that way toward Tomasetti when they’ve been in a serious relationship for literal years.  A true relationship with mutual trust involves emotional openness, and I just didn’t feel like Kate was there, which was fine for the first couple of books, but annoying that by book #10 she’s still thinking about how embarrassed she is that Tomasetti is seeing her cry.  Hello?  Sometimes in life things happen that make you cry, and actually one of the awesome parts about having a good relationship is that you have someone there for you when you are crying who doesn’t belittle your feelings or blow them off.  Tomasetti is amazingly supportive of Kate all the time, so her persistent and purposeful lack of emotional vulnerability just got annoying.

If there was another thing about the series that I would change, it would be to make more of a relationship with Kate and her siblings.  I feel like Kate spends a lot of time internally angsting about their lack of a relationship and feeling guilty about it… and then still never reaching out to them or visiting them.  It goes back to that whole thing where, with personal issues, Kate all too frequently just pretends they aren’t there, but still feels really guilty about them, and sometimes I get extremely tired of listening to her whine about them instead of just DOING what needs to be done.

On the other hand, there is so much about Kate to like.  She’s an incredibly hard worker, she’s brilliant at her work, she’s funny, she’s a great boss, she’s intelligent, she’s good at recognizing her own weaknesses, and she has a real heart and love for the people in her community.  These books are mostly from Kate’s first-person perspective, and I enjoyed spending time with her and her thoughts.  (Although I will say that it really low-grade aggravated me that Kate’s parts are always present tense, but all third person perspectives were past tense.  It just didn’t make sense and made everything read weird to me.)

While the series has its ups and downs, overall I would give it 4*, because I feel like Castillo is really getting into a groove.  It had been a long time since a book made me literally pace the floor while reading it, but I was so stressed when reading Gone Missing that that is exactly what I did!  The last three books thus far were my favorites from the whole series, and so far I feel like there is still so much for Castillo to explore.  I really appreciate the way that even her secondary (and third-ary lol) characters also change through time.  I’m genuinely in love with the other members of Kate’s small police force (especially Glock).

If you enjoy mysteries that are a little more intense than cozies, but aren’t full of graphic sex and violence (although there is a bit of swearing), then I would definitely recommend these.  Personally, I can’t wait for the next one to appear!!