Danika reviews Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

I’m pretty new to reading mystery novels, but I picked up Ellen Hart’s previous book and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give this a try. It’s part of the Jane Lawless series, which has been going since 1989! Jane is a part-time restaurateur, part-time private investigator. There is a big cast of characters, obviously growing in size as the series continues, but I found it pretty easy to jump in at this point.

I can definitely understand why cozy mysteries are popular! Reading about Jane sitting in front of a roaring fire, dog curled up her side, going over her thoughts about the case–I can see how this subgenre got its name. It was a book I wanted to read leisurely, not racing to find out the final reveal, but enjoying the ride to get there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as A Whisper of Bones, and that was primarily because of the characters involved. Although there were some that carried over who I enjoyed seeing again: Cordelia, her theatrical (in every sense) best friend, and Julia, her on-again-off-again girlfriend. Jane and Julia’s relationship is flawed and intriguing; I’d like to see how it began. The new characters, though, grated on me. Jane’s brother makes an appearance, and I’m not sure if he is a regular in the series, but I didn’t connect with him, partly because he seemed almost interchangeable with one of the suspects, Eli. [spoilers: they are both ex-drug addicts with a marriage that fell/is falling apart, and they both want to be with Kit despite that clearly being a terrible idea.]

Kit was a character who grated on me. It’s not that she wasn’t believable: I’ve known toxic people like this, and I get the allure. But it’s not just one person who is so attracted to her that they don’t notice her flaws: it’s basically every guy she runs into. This is the woman who married her boyfriend’s dad while said boyfriend was in rehab. There are some definite red flags there! [spoilers: I hope we’re not supposed to be invested in Jane’s brother as a character, because I lost all respect for him when he continued to be pulled in by Kit despite overwhelming evidence that she was in the wrong.]

I think the Jane Lawless series is strong, and I will come back to it (maybe from the beginning this time), but this one felt like a weak point to me. The mystery didn’t feel like much of a puzzle, and the introduced characters were forgettable and sometimes interchangeable. Characters are a big part of what I concentrate on in a book, so that was a letdown for me.

Vacation Reads by Julie Thompson

Part of the idea behind selecting summer reads is vacationing from our jobs, whatever they may be. I’ve already taken my longer vacation, tramping up and down the streets of San Francisco. Now, I squeeze in the odd long weekend here and there, scouring stacks of unread books for the one (or two…or five) that will share the quiet moments with me before bed or as I lounge on the back porch of a cabin rental, surrounded by trees and birdsong. Recently, I stole away into the mountains bordering Canada and Washington State. I managed to pack *only* three reads: Vital Lies by Ellen Hart, Wade in the Water by current United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and a back issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine.

Vital Lies, Hart’s second cozy mystery featuring amateur sleuth and restaurateur Jane Lawless, takes places as far away from sunshine and beaches as you can get. However, if you’re plastered to your couch in a tank top and short pants, a Minnesota winter might be just what you need to cool down. Jane and her best friend, the inimitable, Cordelia, spend the Christmas holiday visiting a friend with a rural inn. It is immediately apparent that someone is trying to sabotage its success, as disturbing incidents occur. On top of it all, Jane must decide whether she wants her English aunt Beryl to come live with her. I read this one out of series order, but I’m glad I chose it for a restive, secluded woodsy weekend. Hart has a great talent for placing readers within the scene, whether it’s among snow drifts, onstage, or at a college sorority house.

All I Want for Summer by Clare Lydon coverAll I Want for Summer by Clare Lydon, the fourth book in her “All I Want” series finds London-based Tori and Holly heading to Brighton Pride to help promote their friends’ lesbian dating app. I downloaded the novella on the 4th of July, eager for a distraction from the incessant booming and crackling of neighborhood fireworks. The women, who are challenging themselves to break out of their comfort zones, end up in involved in a series of misadventures. Holly, however, is a reluctant camper and Pride attendee (for painful reasons that end up playing a role in her holiday trip). Through it all, Tori possesses a sense of determined optimism that no amount of shenanigans can derail. A surprise ending might entice me to pick up the next book in the series, All I Want for Autumn. While I haven’t read the rest of the series, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the novella as a stand-alone. Lydon, who also hosts a fantastic interview podcast called The Lesbian Book Club, sets up character chemistry and offers a peek at Pride at the English seaside that’s a mix of humor and drama. Once Upon a Caravan is another light, quick read from Lydon that also involves trying new things over a holiday.

Kristi review Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

hallowed murder

Jane Lawless thought that walking around the Lake of the Isles would be good for her dogs and her friend, Cordelia Thorn, but things turn serious fast when she discovers the body of a young woman in the water. Worse, she recognizes the body as Allison Lord, one of the young sorority sisters of Kappa Alpha Sigma, for whom Jane is an alumni advisor. While Allison’s death is quickly ruled a suicide, her housemates insist to Jane that she has been murdered. As Jane and Cordelia begin to look into Allison’s life, they find layers of secrets that hide some sinister truths. Between hidden trysts, disinheritance threats, and religious zealots on campus, Jane must discover who actually killed Allison before she becomes the next victim.

Hallowed Murder is the first Jane Lawless book, introducing readers to the lesbian restaurateur and amateur sleuth. Characters that have lasted through the next twenty books are all introduced here: Jane’s brother Peter, a very young Sigrid, and of course the theatrical Cordelia Thorn. One of the most memorable things about Hart’s work is her ability to give the reader multiple viewpoints, from Jane to Allison’s parents to Sigrid. This panoramic view of the story builds suspense, unfolding a story from scene to scene just like a play (which Cordelia would be directing, in her own inimitable way). Hart’s device of introducing her Cast of Characters at the beginning of each book contributes to this theme. However, there is nothing truly theatrical about Jane Lawless, as she treats each case with a sincerity that emphasizes her own internal compass.

While slightly dated, as any book published in 1989 would probably be, Jane Lawless is an iconic figure in lesbian mysteries, and her stories are ongoing.

Kristi reviews Rest for the Wicked by Ellen Hart

Ellen Hart’s latest Jane Lawless mystery (20th in the series) finds Jane on her first “official” investigation. After finally scoring her PI license and teaming up with A. J. Nolan, Jane gets to do things by the book this time. Unfortunately, her first client ends up dead before she meets him — Nolan’s nephew, DeAndre Moore, leaves a message on her voicemail, then is killed behind a gentleman’s club. Nolan doesn’t even know why DeAndre was in Minneapolis in the first place, but when he ends up in the hospital due to complications from his gunshot wound (acquired while protecting Jane), Jane has no choice but to try to discover DeAndre’s last movements and find out why someone would kill him. Soon DeAndre’s isn’t the only murder involved, and Jane will have to use all of her skills, old and new, to find out what is going on before the next body comes to light.

Jane has always been a favorite of mine since I was in college, and she has certainly grown through the years. While always embroiled in some sort of investigation, she was never a character that seemed too divorced from reality. Now, by giving her an official “license to snoop,” Hart can bring more investigative depth to an already well-rounded character. Jane’s love life is always dropped into each book in one way or another, and when she is (once again) between relationships, the gentleman’s club becomes a central point for a lot of interest in this story.

As important as Jane and her mysteries are to the books, the secondary plots around her business, family, or her friend Cordelia are always entertaining and well-written, if often a bit crazy (especially those featuring Cordelia). As long as Hart keeps creating these layered stories, I will be waiting for the next Jane Lawless book.

Kristi reviewed The Cruel Ever After by Ellen Hart

Jane Lawless has had a long year. She just broke up with her girlfriend in the fall, and her relationship with her brother has been strained even longer. Her two restaurants are still running in the face of the recession, but Jane has barely had time to breathe. Surprise is an understatement when Chester Garrity walks into her place again. Married in college so that Chess could get his inheritance, Jane received enough money to start her first restaurant after their divorce.

Now Chess is back and in trouble, and the more Jane gets involved the more she learns that Chess is not everything he says he is, or was. Chess is back in town not only trying to sell some stolen merchandise, but a missing dead body. With more secrets being revealed, Jane is up against various interested parties in the looted antiques, a jealous married woman infatuated with Chess, a revelation about her marriage of long ago, and possibly the loss of one of the most precious people in her life.

Well, this whole book through me for a loop! I have been reading Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series from the beginning and never ONCE remembered any mention of Jane being married. Judging by the dialogue of characters throughout the book, it is a revelation to everyone. With chapters alternating between characters, Hart builds the suspense to a climactic finish. After 18 books, it would certainly be easy to slow a character’s story down and lose interest, but Jane’s life has been able to take enough different turns, along the supporting characters of Cordelia Chase and Jane’s family, to keep the interest of any sustained series reader.

The one minor downside to the book is that there are a lot of characters that get small side stories in this book, but Hart weaves it all together at the end. Some may also think that a couple ends were tied a bit too tightly in this book, but there was a real need for that and I don’t think there is any loss with the ending. Jane Lawless is a survivor; so is this series.

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: More New Arrivals!

I’m sorry that I haven’t been updating as much this week. I’m taking some pretty intense courses for the next month and a half (Economics?!), so I’ll probably only be posting once or twice a week. Please send in some guest reviews if you’d like to see the Lesbrary update more!

I have gotten a pile of books in the mail this past week and a half, but I’ll start with one I’ve already mentioned: Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg. This book was on the General Recommendations post, but I just bought a new copy; the first time I read it, I got it from the library. I’ve told you why I liked it, but here’s what it’s about: Pages for You follows the narrator, a 17-year-old woman, who falls in love with a teaching assistant 11 years older than her. The title refers to the narrator’s question, “What would happen if I wrote some pages for you? Each day a page…” If you’re wondering why I’m including a book I’ve already read and mentioned on the Lesbrary in a Sneak Peek, it’s because I plan to re-read it and give it its own review at some point (as with all the lesbian books I’ve read but haven’t reviewed).

I got two others about a week ago through Bookmooch. The first is Stage Fright by Ellen Hart. It’s book three in the Jane Lawless mystery series, but I’m hoping that won’t matter. This book involves investigating a murder of an actor at a theater. A description of the book says she has an “uninhibited crony” named Cordelia who helps her. I’ve still never read a lesbian mystery, though I have access to them, but I’m excited about starting!

The next book I got was, embarrassingly, a repeat. It’s called Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn, and it’s book one of the Chronicles of Tornor. I guess I didn’t take it off my wishlist on Bookmooch the first time I got it, so I mooched it again, and now I have a big hardcover ex-library copy and a little slightly beat-up paperback copy. Which do you think I should keep? Watchtower is a fantasy novel about a prince defending a kingdom, but it’s also supposed to have quite a few gay and lesbian characters, both as main characters and as background characters. This seems to have gotten a lot of mixed reviews, so I’m curious to see what it’s like.

Have you read Pages for You, the Jane Lawless series, or the Chronicles of Tornor? What did you think of it/them?