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Saturday, March 24, 2012

(Upstate) New York! New York!

by Anna Campbell

I love the way being part of the online romance community, including the Romance Dishes, has enriched my reading choices. I couldn't tell you how many books I've picked up and adored, thanks to a recommendation from someone whose judgement I trust who mentioned an author on a blog or a Facebook post. And often they're books I wouldn't have discovered on my own.

So long live the Internet community!

I've gone through stages in my life where I've read a lot of mysteries - I particularly remember a Dorothy L. Sayers craze and a P.D. James craze. But over recent years, I'd lost contact with mystery fiction, so it's been a joy picking up a whole new (pretty much after all this time!) genre, thanks to my social media friends.

As you'll know if you've been following my reviews here, I've become a devotee of a whole string of wonderful series, including the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters, the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and the Daisy Dalrymple series by Carola Dunn. My latest craze, which also includes a wonderful forbidden love romance (and we know how that builds sexual tension, just ask Tristan and Isolde!), was thanks to a recommendation from Janga here with the Dishes.

Julia Spencer-Fleming has written six Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries set in the very chilly Adirondacks town Millers Kill. The name isn't quite as creepy as it sounds; apparently 'kill' is an old Dutch word for creek. Although I'm sure 'kill' making us think of 'murder' is quite deliberate. I'm currently halfway through the fifth book ALL MORTAL FLESH and loving every word.

So I thought today, I'd share my thoughts on the first four books in this wonderful series.

The first book, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, introduces intrepid, occasionally reckless, but always interesting Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson as she begins her first placement as a minister at St. Alban's Church. Poor Clare! She's freezing cold, she's viewed with suspicion by many of her conservative congregation, and she discovers an abandoned baby at the church door. Clare is a former military helicopter pilot, so clearly she's no wuss, but life in supposedly peaceful Millers Kill isn't the rural idyll she expected.

As the mystery of the baby's identity deepens, Clare finds herself flung into the company of attractive but very married police chief, Russ Van Alstyne. Yup, there's the forbidden love. Both Clare and Russ are principled people and have no intention of acting on their passion, but yanno, that can be really tough when they're so often together and passion is kinda irresistible. The sexual tension as these two people clearly made for each other deny their urges really ramps up the emotional content. I think through these books, the romantic arc is at least as important as the mystery elements.

In the second book, A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD, a spate of murders of gay men arouses suspicion that Millers Kill is the site of a hate crime spree. But is it? And how do these killings relate to the building of a swish new spa on the outskirts of town? It was great to see Clare show off her helicopter skills in this story - she really is a great heroine, strong and resilient and with a wonderfully dry sense of humor that endears her to the reader. The other thing I really like about Clare is that while she's a priest, she's never preachy.

The third book, OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, would probably be my favorite in the series so far. Part of that could be that in this book, the story ranges across different time periods, between the Prohibition 20s, the 1950s and the present day. Anyone who's read my reviews knows I'm a sucker for a historical mystery! When the doctor who runs Millers Kill's free clinic disappears, long-buried secrets and scandals raise their heads to threaten the living. The writing in all these books is astonishingly good but in this one, there's an added emotional depth that just hits this particularly story out of the park, at least for me. I dare you not to shed a few tears when you're reading OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY.

The fourth book, TO DARKNESS AND TO DEATH, turns into a tragedy of errors all set during one day (brilliantly handled in terms of unity of time) when an eco-activist heiress goes missing just before she signs her family property over to the local wilderness society. The plotting in this one is amazingly clever and intricate - you really have no idea where it's all going to end up!

So why would I recommend these books to any reader, romance or not? Firstly, the wonderful characters. It's not just Clare and Russ. Everyone we meet in the pages, from Ross's dotty but lovable mother to pompous powers within the church to the occasionally eccentric locals, is beautifully delineated and comes alive in the reader's mind. The great, galloping stories so you keep the light on till late at night to see what happens. The vivid atmosphere of this small, isolated town where winter comes down so hard, it can kill you. The passion that grows between Russ and Clare, despite their efforts to do the right thing. All round, these books are fabulous reads! Give them a go!

So what's the last great series book you read? What do you think gives a series legs so that readers keep coming back again and again for a fix of their favorite characters and places?

35 comments:

  1. I'm reading the George RR Martin series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. The characters are so full of life & it's such a wild dangerous ride that I can't get enough of.

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    1. Mary, they're advertising the new series of GAME OF THRONES on pay TV at the moment. Looks kinda gory but kinda good at the same time. I've heard wonderful things about his writing.

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  2. I have started this series, but got sidetracked. I went to check out book 3 at the library where I worked and it was checked out. I went onto other books and never got back to it. I really liked the series. It takes place where I grew up (the Adirondacks) and is pretty accurate. She lived there for a while and it shows in her feel for the area and the people, as well as the weather.
    The two most recent series I read, were both read because we were going to New Orleans. I like to read books set in the area we are visiting. Our first trip I read Jennifer Blake's historical series Masters At Arms set in the 1840's. She researched it well and it showed. I could recognize the places I read about and after visiting, when I read a book, I knew right where they were standing in one scene. The characters were people you wanted to know and it was nice having everyone appear throughout the series.
    The second New Orleans related series I read was Stella Cameron's Court of Angels series, a contemporary paranormal. Again interesting characters and a good sense of polace.

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    1. Pat, I didn't know you grew up in the Adirondacks. I have to say she makes them sound really beautiful (although a bit too cold for this thin-skinned Aussie gal - I really feel Clare's pain when she tries to cope with those sub-zero temps!). I love how the setting is almost like another character in this series and it's a setting I'm not familiar with, so I'm learning stuff as well. Always like that. I'd love to visit New Orleans. I've read lots of books set there but never visited. Maybe they'll have another RWA conference there one day! That seems to be the way I see the US!

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    2. Pat, I love Jennifer Blake's New Orleans historicals. I've been a fan of hers for years!

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    3. Ooh, PJ, another rec? I'll have to buy these books!

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  3. I am just finished Stirred a Jack Daniels book. I like series because it feels like I know these people and want to know what is happening with them... I laso like Robyn Carr, Debbie Macomber and Sherryl Wood for that reason its like they are part of my family and friends...

    Donna

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    1. I feel that way about Carr, Macomber and Wood too, Donna.

      I just read the first book in a new (small town) contemporary series from Veronica Wolff called SIERRA FALLS. I've enjoyed her historical and time-travel books and am already anticipating more stories from the small California town of Sierra Falls.

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  4. Donna, you're so right. In a great series, it's like those people become part of your real life like friends or family, isn't it? I'd love Amelia Peabody to come in and take charge of my life. I think she'd make a much better job of it than I do, LOL! I haven't heard of the Jack Daniels books. I'll have to check them out.

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  5. I love the post, Anna. You know that I'm a huge fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming and have been ever since Eloisa James introduced her to the Squawkettes. I had the privilege of interviewing her back in my Romance Vagabond days and was impressed with her wit and intelligence. Both show in her books. She's a romance reader, and I'm persuaded that helps her in developing Clare and Russ's relationship. :)

    I read most of the mysteries you do. You left C. S. Harris off the list, but I know we are both fans of hers. I'm also a big fan of Southern-set mysteries. Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series is my top favorite, but I also enjoy Carolyn Hart's Death on Demand books. The protagonist, Annie Laurance, proprietor of the Death on Demand bookstore, features a painting in her bookstore related to mysteries in each book, and it's extra fun trying to puzzle out which mysteries connect to the paintings. Annie's relationship to her husband Max is very much a part of the series. Hart's Bailey Ruth Raeburn books are fun too. Bailey Ruth is a ghost sent on Heaven;s "Rescue Express" to solve mysteries. Then there are Patricia Sprinnkle's Sheila Travis mysteries, many of them set in Georgia places I know. Setting is a prominent feature in all of these.

    A more recent favorite is Marie Force's Fatal series set in Washington, D. C. They are labeled romance, but they remind be strongly of my favorite mystery series. And the relationship between Detective Sam Holland and Senator Nick Cappuano is central.

    C. A. Belmond's Rather series is charming. Her books, despite their contemporary setting, remind me of movies from the 30s and 40s. I'll stop for now. :)

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    1. Please don't feel you have to stop, Janga. I get some of my best book recs from you! :)

      I'll second your recommendation of Marie Force's Fatal series!

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    2. Janga, thank you, thank you, thank you for putting me onto these books. They absolutely would have passed me by otherwise. I was always going to read C.S. Harris because she used to write wonderful historical romance as Candice Proctor (she also does a wonderful thrillers with her husband under C.S. Graham, well worth checking out!). Just a bit of trivia about her, she lived in Australia for a few years in Adelaide and is a good friend of my friend Trish Milburn. I never met her but definitely fall into the six degrees of separation range.

      Yes, I saw that JSF was a romance reader - I think she may even have started out writing romance. I think you can tell because of the emotional depth in these books.

      Love Marie Force. And thanks for the extra recommendations. I liked the Debra Knott book (read it after you talked about it here on a blog) and will definitely read more. Keep up the recs!!!!

      Another series I really liked - recommended by Cara Elliot, seriously word of mouth rocks! - are the Nevada Barr mysteries. Again, setting is majorly important and I always learn something when I read her books.

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  6. Hi Anna! You know how I feel about a good series. ♥ them! One of my recent favorites is from your fellow Bandita, Kate Carlisle. Her Bibliophile Mystery series is seriously addictive - in a good way! I eagerly anticipate each new book to find out what's up with Brooklyn, her debonair James Bond-ish boyfriend and her quirky family. I like that each book solves a different mystery while continuing the progression of relationships initiated in previous books.

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    1. PJ, Kate's books are great, aren't they? Always give me a smile. And again, I think because she's a romance writer, the relationships really strike a chord with me. Derek is extremely WWWWHWOOOOOHAAAA, isn't he? LOL! Kate's doing so well with those books - she hit top 35 on the New York Times list with her latest a couple of weeks ago. Love it when a Bandita makes good!

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  7. Hi, Anna--I just picked up a Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery on iBooks. It'll be my first. The last series book I read was India Black and the Widow of Windsor, book 2 in the India Black, Madam of Espionage, mysteries. It's a Victorian, and India Black runs a London brothel.

    I dunno about forbidden love as a long-running motif. I might get impatient with it. I long ago figured Stephanie Plum needed to pick one guy or the other because the back and forth was becoming repetitive and annoying. Though other readers, many, many of them, apparently had no problem with it. I've felt that way about other things. When a character is unhappy with his supervisor for eight books, I begin to think he needs to get another job or come to terms with the boss's habits. I think I'm not a typical reader in that, maybe, and it's possible the Spencer-Fleming series handles it in a way that i could live with.

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    1. Nancy, believe me, the forbidden love thing goes through the wringer. It's not all longing from a distance with love unspoken. I just finished the fifth book - wow! Major developments there. Yeah, I lose patience with love triangles. I kinda think a heroine with gumption would just pick the right guy and get on with it. I like a character to develop and learn so start with a triangle and end up with a straight line, LOL! I've got the India Black books on order from the Book Depository - you and Janga are my go-to gals for recs!

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  8. Anna -

    I must admit first that my favorite genre is Historical Romance but years ago I decided to "take a break" and discovered the wonderful mystery stories of Ellis Peters who died in 1995 and her Medieval Murder Mystery series with the "hero" Brother Cadefael. I not only have read the entire collection of 20 books in the series over the years but even managed to "hook" my husband into reading all of them as well!

    If you haven't had a chance to read any of her books in this series be sure to buy the first one in the series first because oncce you start you will want to search and find every single one!

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    1. Jeanne, I LOVE Ellis Peters. And that's a series I think translated really well to TV. Derek Jacobi to me is Cadfael come alive. Love it. Have you seen them? Did you know Ellis Peters writes wonderful historical novels under Edith Pargeter - that was my introduction to her way back in my teens. There's a phenomenal trilogy about building a cathedral in the middle ages which starts with the Heaven Tree. Highly recommended!

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    2. Anna -

      They closed our local bookstore, Waldenbooks but I had checked for Edith Pargeter books on Amazon for my Kindle. Currently they only have two ebooks available so I hope you check out some used bookstores first.

      My husband is a master stone mason so I'll definately be looking for the Trilogy you mentioned! Thanks for the information.

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    3. My pleasure, Jeanne. I remember being riveted by them when I read them. I wondered if they might be out of print - definitely worth hunting up, especially if your husband is a stone mason. He might really enjoy them too. She's wonderful on creating an authentic medieval atmosphere, isn't she?

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    4. Anna -

      Sorry I didn't get you last comment yesterday. I really appreciate her detail in not only the local information and attitutde of the people in her Cadfael mysteries but also the broader history that she includes in the stoires. At the same time she does it so seamlessly you don't even realize at the time the history your learning.

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    5. Jeanne, beautifully put! As you say, she really brings the past alive. And it's pretty painless learning at the same time.

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  9. Anna, Louise Penny's Inspector Armand Gamache books are a must! The first in the series is Still Life and they take place in Quebec. I have been a Spencer-Fleming from the start. I also love all the Janet Chapman Books. I look forward to your column....keep them coming! Connie in NYC

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    1. Connie, wow, never heard of the Inspector Armand G books. I'll have to check them out. Thank you so much for the recommendation. Although sounds like I might have more cold weather waiting in my reading! LOL! And I'll check out Janet Chapman, haven't read her either.

      Thanks for saying you love the column. I have such fun talking about fave books here. I think next month is going to be another Heyer visit. People seem to love popping in to talk about her books and I've been re-reading them so have a couple I'd love to discuss.

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  10. Hi Anna, Thanks for another wonderful blog. Right now I seem to be in a Historical Romance phase, however I also read and enjoy many other genres. Mysteries are also one of my other favorite reads. I enjoy Faye Kellerman's Decker/Lazarus series and Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Bear cooking/catering series, as well The "Irish" series by Father Andrew Greely. Imagine: From A Jewish, Los Angeles based Detective and his wife, to A caterer who solves mysteries in Denver while providing recipies, then A Catholic Priest writing about a very sensual couple who solve crimes in Chicago and Ireland! So these are my eclectic mysteries within the whole of my other many eclectic reading tastes.

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    1. Flora, isn't it funny? I think because I'm writing like a loon at the moment, I'm not really in a romance reading frame of mind, although I always like that flavoring of romance in my reading even if it's not a romance as such. Thanks so much for those wonderful recommendations - I've put the first of each series on my wishlist at the Book Depository. I need more reading time! Thanks for saying you enjoyed the blog.

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  11. I love Kaki Warner's series. What I like best about series is getting to revisit some of the characters again.

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  12. QL, I've heard SOOOO much great stuff about Kaki Warner, including a rave review here on the Dishes. I'll have to grab them and read them. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  13. I have soooo many books in my TBR mountain thanks to you, Anna. LOL

    One of my favorite series is J.D. Robb's In Death series. Can't get enough of it. I have been reading it since day one, before many people even knew it was Nora Roberts who was writing it. Of course, probably the biggest reason I adore it is Roarke, one of the sexiest men to ever grace the page. *sigh*

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  14. Gannon, every time I run a contest for name your favourite hero, guess who features as numero uno? I don't think you're alone in your adoration for the sexy Roarke! Glad I'm contributing to your book addiction!

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  15. Oh Anna I couldn't agree with you more. The way she not only writes her characters but with the historical background she includes she completely draws you into her stories.

    I often wonder if the history books schools have today were as interesting as her stories if students would be better served and more interested in learning!

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  16. Jeanne, I think that's the way to fall in love with history, to see it as something alive and fascinating. I know my lifelong love of history comes from reading historical fiction. Usually, but not always romance. I remember devouring the Jean Plaidys and the Maureen Peters when I was young.

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  17. Just finished the 3rd in Shannon Stacey's series - last Undenibly Yours. Loved all the books - funny dialogue and great family series.

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  18. Pat, I've been hearing great things about Shannon's books too. Looks like I'll have to do yet another trip to the Book Depository! My poor aching Visa Card! ;-)

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  19. Thank you so much to everyone who swung by today! It's been such fun talking about such wonderful books both with people who are already fans and people who were interested to learn about this great series. I finished the sixth book last night and, wow, it's wonderful as well! Definitely recommend this series.

    See you next month for a Heyerama!

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