Rhyming Rings – David Gemmell

When I saw “David Gemmell” on Netgalley, I mashed the “request” button very quickly. Before I really registered that this was a completely unfamiliar title, and certainly before I read the book description, I assumed this was a reissue of one of his books, since unfortunately he’s been gone from us for a time. But no: it’s brand new, at least to the world; it’s not a fantasy, as are most of his works, nor historical, as so many of his fantasies are, but instead an honest-to-goodness mystery novel set (contemporaneously?) in 80’s London. So I was excited when I saw “David Gemmell”, and then bemused but excited about the plot. I’ve been reading David Gemmell’s books for more years than I choose to think about, though I haven’t gotten back to them for a while now.

I chose this one from my list of Netgalley books kind of at random, and it kept me up past my bedtime. It’s taken longer than it should have to pound out this review, and I’m ashamed of that. I loved it. It sucked me in completely and dragged me along a roller coaster of a story. It’s a marvelous evocation of the period (when did my childhood become a “period”?), and a marvelous hunt for a serial killer, with undertones of fantasy. The main character and narrator is almost an anti-hero – he’s not a nice guy, though he becomes more self-aware as the story wears on, and it’s wonderful to watch.

Now I just need to go back and read everything else David Gemmell ever wrote.

‘The rain has stopped and my star is shining.’
‘Your star?’
He waved me over and pointed to a bright light below the Plough. ‘That is my star. My father gave it to me, a long, long time ago.’
‘I hope he also gave you the mineral rights.’

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Perfect Horse – Elizabeth Letts

This review has not taken a ridiculously long time to put together. I have no excuse; the closest I can come to a reason is that the emotions and the quality of the writing and my own back story with the subject matter all made it hard to write.

So, the story goes that when I was five or six my parents took me to a party their friends were throwing. Someone must have mentioned what a little horse freak I was, and one slightly drunken man decided to play Stump the Smartypants. I can just about remember him looming over me when he asked me to name the largest breed of horse. I’m told I responded (correctly) with all the contempt such a softball deserved. I used to trace the diagram in one of my books that charted the points of the horse, close the book, and fill in all the labels. (It’s true what they say about stuff learned when small – I can still tell a forelock from a fetlock and a cannon from a croup. I’ll bet I could still label a diagram.) My father, with extraordinary patience, used to drive me to riding lessons and wait while I gloried in learning to post the trot. (Well, no, I gloried in cantering when they let me – the trot was never fun. And that time Spiz the appaloosa ran away with me on a trail ride? Awesome.)

And when in some elementary school English class we learned about tall tales and were asked to write our own, I – being deep under the spell of Marguerite Henry, wrote a thing which must have left my teacher utterly baffled: my tall tale was about a Lipizzaner who could hold a levade for hours and perform as many caprioles as you could possibly want. This was pre–internet, so I still wonder if the poor woman had to go hit the library to figure out if I was being esoteric or just a truly weird little kid.

So obviously the horse–mad parts of this book were made for me. I thrive on details of horsemanship and stable life, and there is no stable on earth in which I would rather experience horsemanship than the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. It’s nice to be given the explanation for why there is a Spanish Riding School in Vienna. (It’s a breed of Spanish origin named after a village in Italy (which is in current–day Slovenia) and perfected in Austria.) I’m still boggled by the fact that a Standardbred can “trot the distance of one mile in less than two minutes and thirty seconds” when Thoroughbreds galloping all out take about two and a bit minutes to run the mile-and-an-eighth Kentucky Derby, doing the hour in about 1:35. That’s astonishing, although it was just a side comment; this book has lots of details I knew and also lots I never knew before. I never knew Poland was so highly regarded for its Arabs – perhaps because by the time I was born the breed had not yet recovered there (like so many other things). (And now I feel extraordinarily stupid for never processing “Polsky Arab” into what it actually means. Well, I was a kid.) I never knew that WWII actually used twice as many horses as WWI.

This was a long tale of heroism – the men who worked so hard to save the Lipizzanners and other fine horses were amazing – and of horror. The reasons the horses needed saving are just one part of the awfulness of the war; I never knew that the Third Reich’s goals of pure blood extended to horses as well; I don’t think I want to get into the corollaries between Reichian eugenics and the breeding of horses to foster certain qualities. I had no idea about the seizures of horses all over Europe – and the equine massacres that often resulted. And I’m not thrilled by how America handled the recapture, the “rescue” of thousands of horses.

I have this model, so I’ve always felt attached to the breed.

“Trakhenen, Germany’s famed ‘city of horses,’ had seen a mass exodus of all of its equine inhabitants. The owners and breeders of the famed Trakhener cavalry horses, close to eight thousand in number, had fled across the frozen Vistula River while being strafed by Russian bombers. Germany’s greatest Thoroughbred racehorse, Alchimist, was shot to death on April 15, 1945, after Russian soldiers tried to seize him and the stallion refused to load onto their truck.”

“Among the numerous heartbreaks of this terrible war, the innocent horses shot, abused, and killed would not rank among the worst atrocities—but somehow, the killing of innocent beasts, domesticated animals who existed only for man’s beauty and pleasure in a good, seemed to highlight the barbaric and depraved depths to which man had allowed himself to sink.”

Yeah. That about covers it. I didn’t fail to see how … off it was to be so outraged by horses’ deaths and abuse when all over Europe more than six million people were in the process of being murdered. But I’m not about to apologize for it. It’s similar to the human tendency to weep over the death of a single child when outright genocide might result in simple numbness. I love horses. I know horses. I want more to do with horses. Le plus je connais les hommes, le plus j’aime mon cheval – I had that on a mug when I started taking French in school. And it was, and is, the absolute truth (except for the “my” part, since, I’ve never had my own horse). Horses are innocent – as were all of the civilians killed and displaced and abused. But horses are entirely dependent on humans. They have no agency to relocate to a safer area on their own, or to fight back in any way but in the moment with teeth and hooves. We, people, have put them in the situations where they exist – to then make those situations painful, or lethal, is unforgivable.

It was horrible to read – and a relief that there was heroism to dilute the pain.

This tale reminds me a bit of a shallow stream, beautiful in places, pooling in places, in some places trickling slowly over rocks, occasionally diverted a bit before coming back on track. There are frequent recaps (where the stream flows backward for a minute before resuming), which began to feel like padding.

I was not overly fond of the author’s departures into what Capote liked to call a non-fiction novel, with notes about what subjects’ thoughts must have been here, or what someone saw there; a straightforward history might have been better. Sentences like “The two chestnuts followed Hank’s movements with their big, soft eyes”, while quite possible accurate, begin to make it sound like a novel I might have read when I was fourteen. These fictionalized moments softened the focus – and also felt a bit like padding.

(I was also a little bothered by the fact that the author consistently used the adjective “white” for the Lipizzaners. There’s no such thing as a white horse, unless it’s an albino.) (I know, I know – but I don’t make the rules.)

I got a chuckle out of one quote from Alois Podhajsky (Ah–loys Pod–hey–skee, thank you Ms. Letts), director of the Spanish Riding School: “Excited applause does not help in the least; what is needed is perfect sympathy and harmony with one’s partner.” I saw the Lipizzaners perform years ago, and the announcer specifically encouraged the audience to be loudly enthusiastic and take lots of pictures, because the stallions loved the approval and attention. They’re apparently big ol’ gorgeous hams, which is incredibly endearing – and, now that I’ve learned more than I knew then, pretty surprising considering horses in general and stallions in particular don’t tend to handle noise and flashing lights with what could be called aplomb. Or sanity. But maybe the stallions’ enjoyment of the attention increased as technology advanced. Honestly, I think Lipizzaners are responsible for the layman’s misunderstanding that stallions are easy to handle (which in general they are not.

“And to all the fallen horses— may we honor their sacrifice.”

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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An Echo of Murder – Anne Perry

I want to say that I’ve been a fan of Anne Perry’s books for decades … but I think it’s more that I’ve been a reader of her books for that long. I’ve always liked reading them – but I don’t think I’ve ever loved them, except for maybe one. The characters have never become important enough to me that I’ll cry if they’re killed off. And actually, the first one I read after a hiatus of several years was very disappointing.

This one … I wouldn’t say that about it, but … I just don’t have any strong feelings about it. Didn’t hate it, didn’t love it.

It all begins when good old Monk is called in to a murder scene which is built up as absolutely horrific. The reactions of everyone he meets on the way in indicate that it’s ghastly, without anyone ever giving him (or the reader) a detail. Which was clever … until we walk into the room with Monk and get the first description of the scene and the victim, and it’s an anticlimax. “It’s a bad one, sir”, someone says, and then left me wondering what was so bad about it for a few more pages. I mean, once the full scope of what happened to the victim became clear, my response was “oh” – yes, it was indeed plenty awful – but might it not have been more effective to whack the reader with that all at once? Anne Perry’s been writing for … forever (oh, only since 1990; not quite thirty years (as of now). For some reason I thought it was longer), so she obviously knows what she’s doing; it just seemed an odd choice. Or maybe it’s just me.

And maybe it was just me being put off by the fact that despite a quite detailed description of the murder scene(s), I had to go back over and over to see if the many many candles placed around the room(s) were lit or not. I don’t think I ever did find out. Those candles also had me yelling at the book for them to go check out chandlers in the area, which didn’t seem to be something that occurred to anyone for ages.

I don’t really recommend reading this series the way I have. It looks like I missed about ten years’ worth of books in this series (which I always liked more than the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt books), and obviously a lot happened in those five books, leaving me saying things like “Wait, who, now?” and “Oliver did what?” and “They were in America for the Civil War?” and so forth. Perry provided a decent amount of backstory, but I wouldn’t say this worked well as a stand-alone (or stand-apart).

Obviously the exploration of intolerance against immigrants is extremely topical today. Which is incredibly sad. The discussion of what we now call PTSD is quite timely as well. Both of these threads lead to possible answers to the mystery…

What annoyed me a little was – well: “Monk was a brilliant detective; he could acknowledge that without immodesty.” Okay. The story doesn’t really bear that out, but … okay. (And no, you can’t say that about yourself without being immodest. You really can’t.)

It was an interesting mystery, this; lots of red herrings that led to interesting passages, but with a final solution I just didn’t find as interesting. Like that first murder scene description, it was somewhat anti-climactic.

The main reason I never loved Anne Perry’s books as much as others is simply the writing. It’s perfectly serviceable, although sometimes awkward; it’s workmanlike. See Spot run. I never feel the connection, not only to the characters but to the author, that I do when reading – say, Robin McKinley, or Barbara Hambly. It makes for – what was that word again? interesting reads – but not really fun.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Death Shall Come – Simon R. Green

Quite a while ago I had read the first book of the author’s other series, enjoyed it very much, and somehow never got back into his work. When I saw his name pop up on Netgalley, it seemed like a fine idea to give him a try again – and, thank goodness, it actually was.

The Ishmael Jones series is a slightly mad mélange of genres (say that three times fast). There’s a science fiction element, of course, in that Ishmael Jones himself is an alien in human form, with no memory of his previous, extraterrestrial, life. And there is a fantasy element in the circumstances of the murder(s) (though not the fantasy element you might think). Otherwise, regardless of the murder weapon (of which I say no more), this was almost pure English Country House Mystery – locked and unlocked rooms, a dwindling population of characters, endless hallways and staircases and people going off when they oughtn’t.

One somewhat small thing that kept this from getting the full five stars was simply a running gag between Ishmael and his lady love, Penny Belcourt. Every now and then she felt an irresistible need to make the same suggestion about the identity of the murderer, to the point that I wanted to throw her down a handy staircase or stuff her in a sarcophagus. I think it was supposed to be cute – that she was playing on Ishmael’s tendency to take everything seriously … and this is something that might play much better in an audiobook, where the narrator could make her constant comment ‘I still say we shouldn’t rule out …’ mischievous, with Jones not picking up on the mischief … but I didn’t listen to an audiobook, and it drove me up a wall. Along with Jones.

I looked at her. ‘If I offered you a large amount of money, would you stop saying that?’
‘How large?’ said Penny.

It’s a fascinating bit of world-building, with a group to clean up after starship crashes, secret even to the secret group Ishmael belongs to. Ishmael seems thoroughly human … except when he’s really not. I’m looking forward to going back and starting at the beginning.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Death by Vanilla Latte –– Alex Erickson

Here it is again – the sign of something I think is either a really good or a really bad book: I made 140 highlights and comments on this book.

Hint: I didn’t love it.

There were so many cozy mystery tropes done less than well… Like shops with punny names: Ted and Bettfast for a bed & breakfast run by Ted and Betty. Phantastic Candies for a candy shop run by a guy named Phan. Et cetera. Such things really do exist. There’s a shop around the last page of the corner from me called “Lucky Ewe”. But not every single shop has to be punny. And it all just points up the fact that the name of the shop owned by the heroine of the story, “Death by Coffee” is hardly original or clever.

Which leads me to the next trope: said heroine does indeed own a shop, and has employees (plural). I’ve said it before – I have never seen a small business-type shop like this which was able to support even one full-time employee. My mother and aunt owned a craft supply shop for a while when I was a kid, and they certainly could never have hired anyone. I briefly worked for two independently owned bookshops, and in one was paid in books, in the other less than minimum wage, and in neither could I ever expect more than a few hours a week. As I’m sure I’ve also said before – I get why cozy heroines have to be self-employed (because otherwise they’d be fired). But it’s always so wildly improbable.

Third: quirky and unreliable employees (upon whom shop owner relies entirely while she’s off playing Nancy Drew). There’s a line between “quirky” and “weird”. “Weird” can be really annoying. (So can quirky, honestly.)

Trope the Fourth: “I mean, how many people could die near me before it started to become a fatal pattern doomed to repeat over and over again until I packed my bags and left?” First off, that’s a terrible sentence – and it’s representative. Secondly: You know that it’s implausible that a book shop owner will encounter corpses on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean that you ought to have her comment on how implausible it is – unless you can find a more original way to do so.

Fifth Trope: Obviously, a book seller and coffee-vendor has absolutely no business going anywhere near a murder – but she does, of course (or there would be no book. Books.) And then she spends a great deal of time fretting about this and making excuses for it. “I was going to be a good girl this time. I swear I heard someone snicker on my left shoulder”. This alternates with a deluded smug cockiness over how magnificent an investigator she is. “… My special brand of investigative genius” indeed. ” My usual method of investigation was to walk up to someone and bluntly ask them whatever I wanted to know.” Yup. Poirot’s got nothing on you, honey.

I have absolutely zero patience for a civilian who is specifically told to butt out by the authorities, and who comes up with wildly creative justifications to ignore the orders. Even better, everyone around her waits with bated breath for her investigation to turn things up, even when she claims to be trying to obey the law and butt out. Well – she can’t let her fans down, can she? And – and – her father! Yes, he father wants to see her solve a mystery! Yes, that’s another great excuse. She can’t let him down!

And I have even less patience (we’re in the negatives now) for someone who not only ignores direct orders from the police, but actively breaks into a crime scene and touches everything. If there were any justice in the world, or at least the book, crime scene investigators would go back for a second look, find her hair and fingerprints and epithelial all over the place, and get her locked up. Things like “What harm could a few minutes of poking around really do?” just make me growl softly, under my breath. (The fact that the door to the room of the crime scene was left unlocked comes under the next paragraph’s umbrella.)

I had issues with the storytelling. An author signing is advertised the day it’s happening, and not before. Someone at the B&B claims it was much too busy for them to have noticed what was going on the night of the murder – but from the sound of it two customers would make for a busy night in this place – how could there be such a hectic rush that night that the desk person couldn’t give an answer? How could it be that “The door to [the murder victim’s] room was unlocked”? “I screamed as I tripped, falling hard on the floor” – how can you trip over a single sheet of paper on the floor, and how do you not control yourself when you’re supposed to be being stealthy?

It didn’t take long for me to start making snarky comments on the Kindle. The main character, a first-person narrator, was whingeing from the very beginning. She had a sleepless night. “My life always seemed to revolve around someone dying, and my having to deal with it. This kind of thing didn’t happen to normal people, so why me?” “Of course, when was the last time something happened just like I wanted?” Stop whining. “But darn it, it wasn’t my fault!” Whatever. And again “Why did this kind of thing always happen to me?” *slap* Nobody likes a whiny narrator, stop it.

The writing … it was coherent, but sometimes I wished it wasn’t. The narrator’s crush is nauseating – “He had that creamer-rich coffee skin tone that made me want to lap him right up.” The hard copy of the book should be packaged with air-sickness bags. In the same queasy-making vein, the whole chipped mug thing was absurd. It was supposed to be a sweet moment for the main character and her father – but all I could think was that anyone who purposely chips her coffee mugs is a moron. Not only is a chipped mug uncomfortable to drink from if it’s damaged in an awkward place, but it makes it a lot more likely you’ll find yourself holding a former mug one day, with hot coffee all down your front. And it’s unsanitary. (Well, that’s what I was always taught.)

There was the … coincidence? that the murder involves a guy being stabbed with a pen … and then a little while later the narrator has to snatch a pen away from a cat “Before he could stab himself in the roof of the mouth”. No comment about the connection there is made. And honestly, I got tired of the narrator’s father kissing her on the forehead or the top of her head. I’m not sure how you can write something that repetitive without it being noticed by someone. And why on earth is the fact that someone is exactly three minutes late cause for deep terror? A dog barks up a storm; someone talks a million miles a minute; someone’s mouth was running nonstop; lots of people babble (another annoying repetition); someone “elect[s]” an article of clothing (for what office?)…

One more incredibly obnoxious cozy trope this indulged in to the hilt: surrounding the main character with morons. (To make her look smarter without actually making her smart, I suppose?) Here, a friend of the narrator tries (unsuccessfully) to hide a new romance – but it was so obvious that it took her explaining that she was trying to keep it on the down-low for me to know that. Most unbearable, though, was “Rita”, a fan of the narrator’s father who makes Kathy Bates’s character in “Misery” look sane and tranquil. It was actually hard to read the last scene she was in.

I gave this book two stars initially, but I’m looking at the sheer number of times I actually swore at the book, its characters, and/or its author in my notes, and … yeah. One star is more reasonable. I wouldn’t read anything else from this series at gunpoint.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Annie’s Holiday by the Sea – Liz Eeles

I went into this half-expecting a sort of knock-off of [book:The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir], set in the present. I had a moment’s hesitation on seeing use of the present tense. I hesitated – for a minute. And within a couple of pages all doubts and expectations fizzed away, and I was just enjoying the thing wholeheartedly.

Yes, sure, there are echoes of other books. It’s about a young woman who goes reluctantly to see an elderly relative out of duty, grumps about it for some time, makes a bad first impression in a few different directions, and slowly has her shell cracked wide open by the place and its people and the music they all make. It’s all been done before in one combination or another.

Doesn’t matter.

It does not matter how many other people might or might not have used an idea before you if you can use it to the utmost – can milk it for all the humor and genuine feeling that can be squeezed out of it. There are reasons some basic plotlines are used a lot – it’s because they can be good foundations for great stories. If you can weave it through with vivid and real dialogue, vivid and real characters, a vivid and real setting – it almost doesn’t matter at all what the basic plot is. And Liz Eeles has infused this book with dialogue, characters, and setting that embody all the synonyms Word gives me for “vivid”: bright, vibrant, colorful, brilliant …

Oh, here’s a good example: ”
Kayla beams with delight and gives Roger a huge hug. ‘Aw, you’re not so bad for a grumpy bastard Pom.’ ‘Gerroff,’ growls Roger, going pink but looking pleased. ‘You’re daft as a brush.’

It’s funny; it’s heart-breaking. The characters will stay with me for a long time (especially since I absolutely expect to reread these books). What can I say? I loved this.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Sons of Devils – Alex Beecroft

This book started out quite well for me by addressing the current political climate and making a dedication to Tolkien. As Ms. Beecroft quotes: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” I love that.

It was funny to read this just when I did, right around the same time I read another writer’s take on [book:Frankenstein], because while this is definitely not a rewriting of [book:Dracula] I’d still bet any money that the Alex Beecroft knows the latter book well. The atmosphere, especially throughout the beginning as protagonist Frank makes his way through the wilderness, is extremely reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s travels to Romania.

I never knew that the reason to bury a vampire – or, I presume, anyone who might return as a ghost – at a crossroads is “so that even if they do walk again, they won’t know which way to take”. Brilliant.

I found it rather intriguing that neither of the two men at the center of this book, neither Frank nor Radu, is a conventionally heroic and amiable hero. Frank is not a brave man; Radu isn’t a particularly nice man – and they make for a seemingly deeply mismatched couple – but I liked their characterization. The author has proven herself over and over to have a beautiful gift for that.

Something I also liked was that though this is a book by an LGBT publisher, and features a pair of men who seem well on the way to becoming lovers, their orientation is not the primary focus of the book. For one thing, their plotline also features a very strong female character: a heroine in an m/m novel, when it seems like a lot of m/m novels I’ve read seem to have all but exclusively male casts of characters. “She was Mirela Badi, and in a contest between herself and the world, the world had better watch out.” I like it. Also, there is a whole separate second story line in which, so far, no one’s sexuality seems to be relevant at all (except for that one eunuch). I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but what I found is a really solid, fun fantasy.

At first I was a bit put out when the book switched over without warning to that second plot, a whole new set of characters in a totally different setting. But it did not take long at all for me to become surprisingly fond of Zayd, and his mother and his aunt, and fascinated by their world and predicaments. Because it also did not take long at all for Zayd to land in one mahoosive predicament. The worst-case-scenario of that difficulty is horrifying – and I think I’m looking forward to the second book more to see how he makes out than to see what happens to Frank and Radu (and Mirela). (A favorite line: “Only after Zayd had seen the destructive glory of the idea did he remember that his own powers amounted to nothing more than the ability to write neatly in small spaces.” Poor boy.)

I admire Alex Beecroft’s skill at storytelling – that’s why I keep coming back. She has a gift for doling out enough information to maintain interest, never showing her hand too early. The mysteries of characters’ pasts – and of their settings – emerge in a natural manner, the revelations to both reader and other characters coming just as and when they should. The world in which this story – these stories – take place is coming beautifully into focus, vivid in its colors, exotic, and different in ways that … well, I was going to use the word “fascinated” again. Put it this way instead: It’s a great time, and I can’t wait for more. And, happily, I don’t have to.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C.S. Lewis, Chrissi Hart

I’ve gotten distracted from this series; I need to go back and keep working through it. There’s just so much to listen to … Anyhow. Here Peter and Susan have lost the ability to go to Narnia, and can all we nerdy, geeky adults have a moment of silence for how awful that is? Because they have grown up too much, because they have lost the wide-eyed accepting nature of children, they can no longer find the way – and if I’m remembering right, they don’t mind so much; they were just a little sad.. I can’t believe I wouldn’t be having a complete meltdown over the inability to go back.

It’s a heartbreaking idea, that loss – and a strange idea, coming from a spiritual man who is most famous for showing children a magical world.

Brief note: the line “It might be giants” made me chuckle. For a couple of reasons. And now “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is going through my head. (Here’s the video, for no reason in particular. Enjoy.)

This installment in the Narnia series reminded me of, of all things, the original Battlestar Galactica. A ship (ok, in BG it was a ragtag fugitive fleet) all alone in the big sea (in BG, space), stopping here and there (islands here, planets in BG) for various reasons and having adventures, each adventure all but completely separate from the next and the previous. (Reepicheep is clearly Starbuck. No, he’s not, I, just felt I had to say that.)

The early chapter in which the children are captured into slavery was deeply creepy from the perspective of an adult of the 21st century. Caspian is bought by a man “because of his face”, and upon being freed and taking charge seems to rather take his time tracking down the others. All I could think while he was throwing his weight around with His Sufficiency was that in a more realistic scenario the odds were good that Lucy and probably Eustace as well would have already suffered things not suitable for a children’s novel. What in reality would result in emotional and probably physical scarring and decades of PTSD all ends rather cheerfully, with a bit of retribution for the real baddies, but total forgiveness for a select one or two. Maybe Lewis was right, and Narnia is only suitable for children…

Proof that it’s good to have friends in high places: Caspian promptly puts a man in charge just because the man knew his father … despite the fact that the man bought him as a slave without batting an eyelash. Well, hey, the reason the man bought him was because Caspian reminded him of the king. Which … makes things even creepier, actually.

It’s great fun to see what a piece of work Eustace is. He’s horrendous – worse even than Edmund ever was. (Are all Lewis characters whose names begin with “E” initially horrid?) And it’s rather fun that the others don’t suffer him gladly. Edmund is more tolerant than some, because he knows what he used to be, and Lucy is kindness itself – but coping with that big a Jonah on a confined ship tells even on them. That’s one of the best things about these books, the depiction of self-centered and hateful personalities (with Lewis pulling no punches) being opened up and redeemed. I can think of a few people I’d love to send out on the Dawn Treader in hopes of the same result – but I doubt it would work … And anyway, they’re adults, and therefore barred. Actually, they probably never could have gotten into Narnia in the first place (and probably never have, even on the page).

Yes, I definitely have to pick this series back up again.

Here it is, if you’d like to too.

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Bloodstains with Bronte – Katherine Bolger Hyde

When I decided to read this, I seemed to have been doing better with Netgalley books. I hadn’t read a real failure in some time. No one- or two-star books in months.

Oh well – it couldn’t last.

Now, this book was not the worst thing I’ve ever read. It was coherent, as far as it went, adequately well-written in terms of sentence structure and use of apostrophes and so on. There was an overdependence on somewhat labored simile, but it wasn’t the worst I’ve seen. There were a few echoes – like more than one phone ringing just as someone went to pick it up. But it was the plot failed for me, and there was something under it all that just grated on me.

The setting for this book, and its series, is a mansion inherited by the heroine, which she is turning into a high-toned writers’ retreat with a literary theme. (Which didn’t make a lot of sense, financially… A literary-themed B&B would be fun – I’d go. I mean, the main character’s money won’t last forever, especially at the rate she’s blowing through it.) The author and heroine got brownie points for deciding to make one of the rooms the Montgomery room, apparently after Lucy Maud Montgomery. The only negative I can possibly lay on that is that LMM is a somewhat odd bedfellow (so to speak) for the other authors chosen: Forster, Austen, Montgomery, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and of course Brontë. (Also, I can’t quite stomach the idea of a murder centered around Lucy Maud. Which seems to be the author’s eventual plan, based on the title conceit.)

The idea of a book-lover with almost unlimited funds creating rooms to evoke her favorite authors was kind of wonderful – something I’d love to be able to do. But that’s not remotely a central part of the plot, and most of the planning and purchasing and decorating happens “off-screen”. In fact, quite a lot of it seems to be delegated to the local vendors. This deprived me of a lot of vicarious pleasure.

Part of my disconnect with the book was probably the shadow of the first book lingering in this one. By which I mean that I didn’t read that book, and references to things covered in it were meaningless. Who is this Philip in Portland? Is he dead and really a ghost, or was “ghost” another one of those labored metaphors? The events of that first book were pretty momentous for Emily, and didn’t quite get enough attention in this one – or at least not early enough to make this a true standalone.

Something I grumbled about was the way that the identity of the murder victim was telegraphed from almost the very beginning of the book, to the point that I thought it was surely a misdirect and that someone else would come a cropper. But no, the person I expected to die was knocked off just as expected – so then I figured the solution was going to be either equally telegraphed or wildly out of the blue. (Mild spoiler: it was the latter, but not for good reasons.)

Of course, the victim would never have become the victim if one other character didn’t behave a little bizarrely.

– “‘Don’t let him out of your sight,’ she whispered to Luke …”

“Luke was in the back bedroom looking for Jake when he heard the scream.”
– – Great job, Luke.

Something else that didn’t sit well: a few cliché characters, like the drama teacher. Especially the drama teacher. That characterization managed to be offensive. And unless I’ve gotten my secondary characters mixed up, she was named Cordelia Fitzgerald – which cancels out the brownie points for the Montgomery Room. Oh! And the ME! “Medical examiner was a part-time job around here and a murder victim a welcome diversion.” Really, And how did you greet the victim’s family? “Yay, a murder! I was so bored! Your son did me a solid by getting himself killed!”

I was just annoyed by the heroine’s semi-not-quite-is-it-or-isn’t-it relationship. “For a minute she wished she and Luke were sleeping together so she could deny him her bed as punishment…” – That actually made me mad. And the weird fight that they get into – or rather, that Emily gets them into – baffled me. I was going to mark it as a spoiler, but it’s in the book description:

“Listen, this is up to you, but I’d strongly recommend you get a professional crime-scene cleanup team in here. We can’t have Katie cleaning that stairwell.”
“Because she’s a suspect?” Emily was shocked at the waspish way that came out.
Luke started and widened his eyes at her. “Because she’s been traumatized.” Then his eyes dropped. “Well, yeah, and because she’s a suspect, too. At least until she remembers what happened.”

Why was this a fight? Would Emily really make this girl – who, yes, has been traumatized – mop up the large pool of blood that came from the man who died at her feet, and if that’s not enough, the man who previously raped her? And why is she so utterly outraged that a girl found standing over the body of a man, holding the murder weapon (because of course she picked it up and stood there clutching it) is kept in the suspect pool immediately after the murder? …”But she would not kiss a man who thought her Katie capable of murder.” What that should be is “Luke would not kiss a woman who was such an idiot, and at any rate it would be conflict of interest to hang out with her until Katie was cleared…”

Luke, the local sheriff and Emily’s maybe-sorta-boyfriend, is frankly crap at his job. Not only does he blow it at the very moment of the murder (you had one job, man), he lets Emily run roughshod over him in a way that even most other cozy mystery cops wouldn’t allow. Emily talks to a witness and gets her to admit something, then calls him – and then lets said witness go off to work before Luke gets there. Overall I was singularly unimpressed with his sheriffing.

I was taken aback toward the end when Katie, who is boarding with Emily, makes a major decision without saying anything to the woman who, though a friend, is also her employer and owner of the house. Spoiler: Her new love: “No problem. I can move in here.” Really. Theirs is a kind of odd relationship, Katie and Emily’s, half servant/master and half daughter/mother. Emily thinks nothing of having Katie go and fetch her tea – although then she might have Katie sit and share it with her. And then Katie can wash the dishes. Katie is allowed to decorate her rooms any way she likes – but the impression I was left with was of Emily in splendor in the best of all the bedrooms with no expense spared in décor and furniture, while Katie and her child occupy basically cramped servants’ quarters furnished from the Salvation Army.

Finally, though there is a gay couple featured in the story, who are written pretty well and (almost surprisingly) pretty free of cliché, and though Emily and the rest of the main characters fight against (or at least frown at) the bigotry they experience … still, there came this bit:

“She herself was not a hundred percent comfortable with having a gay couple as tenants, but whatever her private feelings about their lifestyle might be, they had a right to live unmolested like anyone else. But where her own faith taught love for all sinners—including herself—she knew there were others who twisted the same scriptures to teach only judgment.”


The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Trouble with Mirrors – Charlotte and Aaron Elkins

History time: I have been reading Charlotte and Aaron Elkins forever. I have quite a few paperbacks and a couple of hardcovers, mostly discovered at library sales and suchlike. I never read any of this series, though, the Alix London series; I don’t know why I never came across them. I know I always enjoyed the books back in the day; they’re light, somewhat clever, often art-related, and I always found them fun.

My relationship with the authors hasn’t really aged well, I guess. I really didn’t enjoy this. The writing was perfectly fine – the authors are extremely experienced, and it shows – but it all just felt over-wrought and over-worked. Like bread dough, kneaded too much. The involvement in the plot of the Mafia didn’t help – any kind of International Conspiracy or mob plot developments always leave me completely cold.

It also might be better to read the series in order. This is the fourth book, and maybe it would take reading the other three for me to feel any kind of connection to any of the characters, or care at all what happened to them or what they did. It was chock full of the requisite number of quirky cozy mystery characters, but I unfortunately did not find them engaging.

I remember the books I used to read as light and frothy and fun. This was light, but the froth was a bit flat, and I just didn’t have much fun. Maybe one of these days I’ll go back and see how those other books hold up.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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