Here, There Be Dragons – James A. Owen – James Langton

61dY3jrUo5L._SL600_I am very disappointed in this audiobook. I loved the beginning – so much. James Langton was charming as a reader. No, really – charming. He read in a neutral, British-flavored voice, which perfectly set off the tones and accents he used for the characters, each distinctive and enjoyable. I didn’t realize that the physical book is illustrated; perhaps the characterizations balance that loss. (I hate discovering that books I’ve gotten in audio are illustrated. It’s such a cheat.)

I enjoyed the heck out of how the story began. The Imaginarium Geographica (is that correct Latin? It doesn’t feel right) allows for cameos by characters like Captain Nemo; it recalled [book:Silverlock] more than the other similarly-themed novella I listened to earlier this year, Legendarium. Unlike the latter, this did not aim primarily for humor (and aim low at that), and I did not loathe the characters (until I found out who they were supposed to be). Everything in the opening chapters clicked in all kinds of ways. Nice idea, nice storytelling, just lots of fun. The reveal of the other identity of the Green Knight is lovely. The repeated motif of characters waving farewell as the heroes move on to the next stage of their adventure was nice. I loved some bits:

“What’s that [constellation], there?” asked Charles, pointing. “The line that looks like Orion’s Belt?”
“It’s Orion’s Belt,” said Artus.
“Ah,” said Charles.

Successful humor.

“A smile began to Cheshire over his face” – nice wordplay.

“I say we just kill him and spare ourselves the trouble of watching our backs.”
“Seconded,” said Charles.
“Kind of bloodthirsty, don’t you think, Charles?” said John.
“I’m an editor,” said Charles. “I have to make decisions like that all the time.”
I love that.

It was because of stuff like that there that I had five stars dancing in my head for several chapters.

And yet even toward the beginning I questioned some things. Three young men find themselves on a dragon-prowed ship sailing out of London and this world in 1917, and are stunned to discover that the ship’s crew is made up of fauns. So agile and sure-footed, the captain of the ship (Aven) says. But… perhaps it’s apocryphal that sailor often went barefoot so as not to slip? The author explains that, like mountain goats, the fauns are remarkably nimble even in the midst of a storm … I don’t know. Maybe cloven hooves have better traction, even on water-slicked wooden decking.

And then the ship is captured, and all the fauns taken prisoner, and it is known that their status will be going from “crew” to “entrée” – and our heroes barely twitch. This is the first time it becomes clear that there are “lesser races” in this world, and I found that distinctly uncomfortable.

Something else I thought odd… or, rather, distasteful… Okay. In a PBS piece on Harper Lee, Oprah Winfrey talks about how astounding it was that “little Harper Lee” – with accompanying hand gesture indicating diminutiveness – had the courage to tackle Southern racism in the midst of the fight for civil rights. I’ll talk about Harper Lee, at length and adoringly, elsewhere; I likely won’t talk about Oprah anywhere ever again, and not just because she ticked me off here by seeming to equate lack of height with lack of courage. This is relevant, even apart from the fact that I’m short, because here are a couple of remarks from Here, There Be Dragons: “Their short stature made them rather disagreeable”. The enmity between elves and dwarves? “It’s a height thing”. I think there was more – and it’s particularly irritating in that this is a book aimed at young adults, many of whom aren’t very tall, after all.

I probably bring up Chekhov and his gun more often than I ought, but that’s because it’s a kind of big obvious thing, and when it’s missed it leaves a vague feeling of incompleteness. This time the gun was a guy. Very early on, Captain Aven is hissing and spitting about a Caretaker called Jamie who abandoned the Imagninarium for “playacting in Kensington Gardens”, which in light of the fact that 99.99% of Caretakers named were renowned authors made me think of J.M. Barrie. I had two guesses up in the air: Barrie, or – given the sheer venom from Aven – kin; her brother, perhaps. At the end it was revealed at last that it was indeed Barrie … and that was it. I see now that there are several other books in this series; maybe Jamie shows up in one of those. But there should have been something in here, because good grief was he ever given a dramatic build-up. I’ve never heard anything about him to make me expect it: why was he such a rebel? I guess I’ll never know.

When I began to roll my eyes, those five stars I envisioned near the beginning began to fade, one by one. The characters simply had no sense. Example: A door left open with disastrous consequences is … still left open even after the disastrous consequences.

Our hero John stresses about how terrible a student he was, because he did not take his apprenticeship as a Caretaker seriously, not seeing much point in studying dead languages when there was a war on and he was suffering from shell shock. Why did he never see much point? Because he was never told why it was important. It was even worse than all those romances where the two main characters go through hell simply because they don’t talk to each other. If someone had simply told John a little bit of what was going on … there would be no book.

And I will very much come back to that “terrible student” thing.

That aimed-at-young-adults thing I mentioned earlier became more and more obvious the further I got. There was a lightness of tone at what were to me surprising moments which I can only attribute to the intended reading level. There aren’t really any teeth to the book. It begins with a murder, and with a young man on leave from WWI trying to cope with shell shock, so as events spun out I expected there to be patches of grim reality. And – spoiler alert – there really weren’t. Well, one: a secondary character died, and it was because of a rather arrogant mistake made by one of the primary characters. But it’s okay, because the young man whose fault it was redeems himself spectacularly. Based on memories of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain I rather thought that the redemption would involve the young man losing, or at least risking losing, his life, but no. And then it was revealed that that one death was the single solitary “good guy” casualty in the big battle, although the description made it sound like a bloodbath.

There was one bit that made one eyebrow Spock up: our heroes are standing in front of a magical door with no apparent way in, but bordered by carving.
“It says, basically, ‘declare allegiance and be welcomed’.”
“Well, doesn’t it perhaps mean that the magic word that opens the door is ‘allegiance’,” said Jack, “in Elvish?”
“That’s a stupid idea,” said John. “Then anyone who spoke Elvish could get in.”

Have I mentioned how important The Lord of the Rings is to me?

I’ll come back to that, too.

As I listened to that bit, I see-sawed between “Heh, cute” and “Come here and I will slap you so hard you’ll see all the stars I’m not giving your book”. Since I’m bent on spoilerizing this book, I will go ahead and say that towards the end, as Jack and John and Charles were about to sign their names in the endpapers of the book, I made a note to the effect that Jack had bloody well better not be J.R.R. Tolkien. Well, he wasn’t. He was C.S. Lewis. (I didn’t remember that Lewis was called Jack.)

John was Tolkien.

(For some reason I did have a memory that he was called Jack.) From he got a “first-class degree at Exeter College, specializing in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic languages and classic literature.” I could be wrong, but that doesn’t sound like “terrible student” to me.

And here comes another reference to another book I listened to recently: The Stress of Her Regard. In that book, Byron and Shelley and Keats are characters, and the concept of the novel is that all of the blaze of genius in these three poets is down not to inborn talent, but … vampires. I found that as offensive and nauseating as I find the “glover’s son couldn’t have written Shakespeare” thing, and even the “clearly aliens built everything spectacular” thing. The more I think about it the more annoyed I am by the use of Tolkien as a character in this book (and Lewis) (and in fact, now I come to think about it, every other author mentioned), not only because these portrayals of Tolkien and Lewis were far from flattering (slanderous, if anything), but because it ends on a note of “hey, what a great idea, I’m going to transcribe accounts of my adventures in the guise of fantasies – like other Caretakers who became famous authors doing so!”


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Posted by on November 30, 2015 in books, Children's/YA, fantasy


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A Death in the Family – Maggie Mundy

That was a rather large disappointment. Something about the combination of cover (why did I like the cover? I don’t know why I liked the cover) and description made me really want this book on Netgalley, made me really happy when I was granted access, and made me really sad when it turned out to be another in a long line of those books that give self-publication a bad name.

I really need to try harder to remember to check the publisher name before requesting.

As I have so very often said, there was something here; there’s actually a reason I gave it two stars instead of just one. The author has some ability with characterization, and was certainly able to keep the plot galloping along. Bad books are often slow reads, but happily this was not. Well, it’s short.

The problem is that any pluses in characterization are overwhelmed by over-reliance on cliché. And the plot that zipped along so fast was riddled with utterly ridiculous twists and revelations and dead ends. The Goodreads description reveals “This thriller involves Brazilian artifacts, heroin dens and cult worship.” So it’s no spoiler to talk about how utterly silly all of the above were in the plot. (And wasn’t that an opium den, not a heroin den?) The book begins with Annabel’s aunt being murdered in front of her – though no one saw a thing, which now that I think about it is a little odd that in the middle of a crowded New Year’s Eve party no one sees anything when the hostess is stabbed and pushed over a railing into the midst of the guests. Annabel was looking at her when she fell – how did she see nothing of the killer? Yet no one questions this, not even Annabel.

When the police show up for the murder, they discover a second body, that of a young Asian man. He is never identified until later, when Annabel asks about the servant. But he seems entirely forgotten for quite a while. Then more bodies are introduced into the equation, and oh by the way the coroner has a secret relationship he reveals to them out of the blue. (His introduction was entirely odd: “I am Julian Miller. The coroner, and what you probably don’t know, but I feel I need to inform you of something else because of what has happened”. Um – what?) Of course, he shouldn’t tell her any of what he tells her, but the police are remarkably absent from this case. Never fear, though; this book doesn’t follow along the lines of Sherlock Holmes, where the official detectives are stupid and completely shown up by the brilliant amateur. The amateur in this case utterly fails to ask even the most obvious questions, much less brilliantly detective-ish questions.

There were messages written on mirrors – I’m sorry, after the first one I would have a) made sure the police knew, and b) made sure my doors were locked. Also, c) would have been very confused about the last message, which refers in the future tense to something which already happened (and which was settled in a very quick, and very silly, manner.) Moreover, d) … the messages were left on two different mirrors, in Gwen’s home and Annabel’s flat. My first move on seeing the second message, or at least the first message in my own bedroom, would have been – well, no first would have been calling the police (which Annabel never did); second would have been locking the doors, bedroom and outer (ditto) and/or changing all the locks (ditto). And putting a chair under my bedroom door’s knob. Maybe a dresser slid in front. Third would have been sitting down and thinking over who had access to both mirrors. Which would have ended the book a lot earlier by revealing the culprit. Of course, if the silly little twit never did lock a door, that rather opens up the field. To EVERYONE.

And then there were the ghosts. I suppose the point of the ghosts was to confirm things for Annabel and perhaps point her in the right direction – but I found them a silly added extra in a story already frilled with extraneous nonsense. Aunt Gwen pops up immediately – and I do mean immediately – after her death to basically give Annabel a push, then says she has to go; other ghosts come and go and are more or less communicative (one seems more like a residual haunting than the interactive Gwen), and then she pops back in again. Usually if a ghost says she has to go, she doesn’t come back. But trying to apply logic to this is a bit silly.

The “solution” to the mystery was one of the most god-awful silly things I’ve read in a while.

And, yes, even though it was an ARC I’m going to talk about the grammar, punctuation, and use of language, run-on sentences and close-but-not-quite words. I entertained minor fantasies of reworking the whole book, correcting the problems, but soon the task just seemed too big.

“Annabel walked over to the nearest lamp and held up the pebble. This was no pebble”. Then why refer to it as a pebble?

“Annabel spent the last two hours getting her taut nerves under control”

“I’m not tough enough to be policewomen” – Few people are tough enough to be multiple personalitites. But a couple of characters seem to be duplicated: “An hour later with food in their stomachs and dressed in fresh clothes, she felt so much better.”

“She wondered how his father was fairing” – is he a carnival barker?

I’m making a collection of entertaining typos, and (having reached the point where I must either laugh or cry over the awfulness of the editing) I enjoyed “surly” for “surely”. Ditto “which made her rejection easier to bare.” I’m not sure what to think of “Annabel was surprised Isaac had been so demonstrable” (Idtimwytim*), and “drugged out emaciated individuals longing” is wrong in both the typo version and what I’m guessing it was meant to be. Do you really want to say that “drugged out emaciated individuals” are lounging about? Synonyms: Lazing, loafing, relaxing, idling, dawdling… seems a bit comfortable for someone who is both starving and requiring a fix.

“Last night when my aunt died her ghost appeared asking me to solve the murder. Then this morning there was a message on my aunt’s bedroom mirror. I’ve never seen a ghost before, but I wasn’t afraid.” – Was that middle sentence supposed to come at the end, perhaps?

And then there are the sort of conversational moments, which feel like transcriptions of exactly how someone might say something … but which aren’t, you know, correct. “For now she would drink and be merry, well if not merry it would deaden the emotions somewhat.”

Do I even want to talk about the love scenes? No, it’s too near a mealtime to write about the love scenes. And there’s too big a risk of someone being in the midst of a snack while reading this. I wouldn’t want to expose anyone to that level of nausea.

In short, the hero, Isaac, is a cardboard romance novel cliché, the wounded warrior. The heroine is a cardboard and poorly executed ripoff of Phryne Fisher, with an ill-conceived paranormal element stapled on. The plot is a mess. The writing is sloppy. And why, oh why would you give your book a title like this? For one thing, it’s already being used by a very famous novel. For another, it’s also being used, word for word, by something like two dozen other novels (I stopped counting around 22, and that was only on page four of twenty pages of search results), not to mention some 350 or more books with titles very close to “A Death in the Family”. Are you trying to let your book be unfindable? Not a great sales practice. (On Goodreads, this particular “A Death in the Family” finally shows up on the fifth page of search results. Not good.) This book was provided by Netgalley for honest review, and unfortunately it goes on the list of Netgalley Regrettables.

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

* Idtimwytim: “I don’t think it means what you think it means”.


Posted by on November 29, 2015 in books, mystery


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Home Cooking – Laurie Colwin

The only thing worse than reading a book and loving it and then finding out that it’s the only book a writer has produced so far … is reading a book and loving it and then finding out that the author passed away hideously young. Reading the biography at the end of the book – and I’m glad it was at the end and not the beginning – came like a bolt from the blue: never saw it coming. Suddenly all the loving stories of her daughter made me want to cry.

Such is, I’m afraid, the case with Laurie Colwin. I enjoyed these essays immensely – and yay for the ability to highlight swathes of text on my Kindle, because I now have a cookbook gleaned from these essays. Funny, poignant, resonant, and – in terms of I’m making a grocery list as I read – inspiring… I can only hope her fiction “feels” the same. (Ooh! There’s a “More Home Cooking”! Excellent.)

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


Posted by on November 28, 2015 in books, Cookbook, non-fiction


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A Tower of Giraffes – Anna Wright

My first reaction to this book is chagrin. I’ve been planning pretty much this sort of thing in the back of my head for … well, for years, so I have no right to complain about somebody swooping in and taking the idea. Ever since I first started seeing mentions of James Lipton’s [book: An Exaltation of Larks] long long ago, I’ve collected and enjoyed these words used for collectives.

The artwork in this is marvelous – realistic, but with a jaunty cuteness that is extremely attractive (and kicks whatever I would have produced right to the curb). A mix of line, watercolor wash, and beautifully designed collage adds whimsy and kicks up the creativity. The only thing that could be better would be a sort of pattable book with swatches of actual fabric – but it probably wouldn’t work, because the pattern of each scrap is chosen carefully to work with the drawing (or the drawing is based on the fabric’s shape and pattern; it could be either). And the owls use feathers (in the most gorgeous way), which would be challenging. I want to rip off this whole style – but Ms. Wright can probably rest easy, since I’ll probably never get around to it any more than I did to writing my version of this book.

I think the only thing that keeps this from being a five-starrer is that I was hoping for more (or perhaps less) from the text. Without any basis for it at all, I expected it to be in verse. (Let’s see… “when horses gather together, we call it a herd… for a collection of sheep, then flock is the word”…) Something a small child, of picture book age, would enjoy having read to her, something the adult reader could deliver with varying intonations and maybe even funny voices. (You could totally read a page about pigs in a snuffly voice, and so on.) But instead each page gives the collective, then a small block of text about the animal which reads like a brief and slightly juvenalized encyclopedia entry. I haven’t spent all that much time around kids, so there’s every possibility I’m dead wrong, but I just don’t picture them being gripped by the text. Also, I would have loved to see the connection between the collective noun and the animal made explicit.

Example: “A Flamboyance of Flamingos … Flamingos are highly sociable and live in large groups – even up to thousands of birds! These fancy feathered friends also work together to make theatrical displays by posing like ballerinas and marching in time to impress other birds.” Which is fascinating … but how many children will get the bigger words? And depending on the grown up to be able to define “flamboyance” might be asking a lot.

Still, it’s informative, and absolutely lovely to look at. I’d buy a copy of the dead-tree book, just for my own enjoyment.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review – many thanks!

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Posted by on November 28, 2015 in books, Children's/YA


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Spiral of Need – Suzanne Wright

I liked this more than I expected to. Which doesn’t mean it instantly added its series to my list of Needs to Be Tracked Down and Read Thoroughly, but still – it was quite readable. Considering it was a Netgalley offering I waffled over for a few minutes, hesitated, hemmed and hawed, and clicked “request” – and then instantly repented – it’s more than I expected.

The characters were a bit on the stereotypical side – Ally, the wolf shifter with extra gifts and giving no … er, damns, Cain the ditto with a painful past, a wounded present, and a generally badass attitude which I can’t believe most non-fictional non-werewolf women would find in any way attractive outside a romance or PNR (but he’s hot!)… The plot was not bad, with Ally leaving her former pack and being taken in temporarily by a new one (Cain’s, of course), having to prove herself and make them prove themselves, and then being blamed for/caught up in attacks on this new pack.

This was the first in its series, but apparently the new series is an offshoot of another, so the disadvantages I tried to avoid by choosing “The Mercury Pack #1” were still in evidence: a whole setting and cast of characters that were new to me but not to readers of this author. I do try to avoid books from later in an unfamiliar series, because it’s hard to judge how good an author’s exposition is when she’s depending on readers having some grounding in her work. Here, however, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect things to be explained pretty thoroughly … and the author did a decent job. I never felt completely lost. A bit confused here and there, but never lost.

One aspect to the world that confused me was this author’s version of a pack alpha. Apparently alphas among these shifters are very different from actual wolves, as far as I know. Example: “Derren’s old pack, where Nick had once been Alpha before forming the Mercury Pack”. Why would an Alpha form a new pack? And the Alpha of Ally’s old pack struck me as kind of an awful, unlikely example, hemming and hawing worse than I did over choosing this book, nervous and twitchy, easily dictated to by others. Not exactly authoritative.

The writing was … fine. There was an excessive amount of profanity – I’m not sure why it was necessary for not only the characters to swear constantly but for various and sundry pungent cuss-words to lace thorugh the narration. “Feeling Derren’s anger so intensely, tasting it in her mouth, it was hard for Ally not to let it feed her own ire and make her lose her shit.” I can use more than my share of “colorful metaphor” (see STIV), but this I found off-putting.

The main thing I found frustrating, though, was what might be seen as a lack of follow-through in using the characters’ enhanced senses and abilities. Ally tells someone she’s aware they loathe her, to which the other responds “That’s not true.” Yeah, thing is, Ally’s empathic, so if she gets loathing off someone, there’s loathing, undeniable. The person doing the loathing was aware of her empathy, so … why bother lying? One small thing I noted was that someone went into a conflict with “claws unsheathed” … which … wolves’ claws don’t retract. I suppose this meant that the person’s hands were partially shifted, but I don’t know.

And if I had been told that to Ally Cain smelled like “oak bark, Brazilian coffee beans, and seriously hot sex”, I would have thrown the book against the wall – and then I would have had to try billing the author to replace my Kindle.

Even more aggravating was the basic “you people need to talk to each other” trope of romance novels. Cain and Ally spar and spat and fuss and bother, draw together and yank apart, and I just kept sighing. “Just SAY it. You’re mated. Just, someone, for heaven’s sake SAY IT.”

This take on the wolf mentality did not endear any of the characters to me. They did not make the book unreadable, but they certainly didn’t engage me enough to ever really want to spend any more time with them. I’ve already touched on the main two; additionally, there was evidence that most of them weren’t exactly the sharpest knives in their respective drawers. Example: Ally is in a one-on-one fight with someone who would rather like to kill her, and her supporters (yes, Ally’s allies – this is a strong argument for spelling the name “Allie” rather than “Ally”) call out encouragement and insults – and end up distracting her, to the point that she is injured. It would have been funny, allies becoming a hindrance (or Ally’s concentration being fragile enough to be broken by the heckling), if it hadn’t been a serious situation.

The book ended on a disquieting note, as a pair of prisoners taken by this pack are brought out of their holding cell, and “both … had nothing but tufts left of their hair”. Now, the two people in question did horrible things, committed terrible betrayals, and so on, and a couple of individuals in the pack took this extra step off their own bats, hacking the prisoners’ hair off (taking scalp as well in spots). It’s disturbing in and of itself – a violation of the Geneva Convention, if you will … but what bothered me most was the echo of Nazi treatment of people entering concentration camps. These prisoners, like those, were destined to die; there was no excuse for the extra degradation. No, I didn’t like these people much. I won’t be revisiting their world anytime soon.

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

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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in books


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The Sans Pareil Mystery – Karen Charlton

I made 126 notes and highlights on this book in Kindle. That’s either an excellent sign … or a really, really bad one. I sincerely wish I had paid more attention to the author’s and main character’s names before requesting this from Netgalley, because I read a free novella by Charlton featuring Detective Lavender some time ago. I loathed it. I didn’t believe a word of it, and I never would have chosen another in the series; it was with a sinking feeling that I began to recognize all the things I disliked in the writing and characterization, and with a sigh that I decided to keep reading. I honestly don’t know why I bothered to finish; duty, I suppose. Willingness to give a second chance. That’ll teach me.

Positive things … positive things … Oh! I apparently learned why a theatre green room is (was) a green room: “the soft green interior walls, which according to tradition, helped to rest the cast’s eyes after the glare of candlelight on the stage.”

And … um … nope. That’s it.

The hero of the book is Steven Lavender, a young rising star detective whose youth and whatnot I had to keep reminding myself of; he is written as a stuffy and irritating pedant. It was jarring to read that his age was very early thirties. He is cardboard.

He is clandestinely seeing a Spanish refugee who is feisty and spicy and all sorts of other clichés. The way she was written, I didn’t trust her as far as I could throw her (which, with her being a fictional character and all, isn’t far), and I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the increasingly romance-novel relationship between the two of them. I’ll come back to that. This woman hides part of her past from Lavender until the bitter end, and it’s one of the silliest examples of a silly trope I’ve ever seen. The part she wants to hide is not what I found detestable; she’s worried about the fact that she shot a couple of French soldiers who would like as not have killed and/or raped her. I felt she ought to be more ashamed of the fact that she abandoned a couple of elderly servants who fought for her. And ger husband “‘never forgave me for abandoning his parents.’” My comment: “Good for him.” At several points she talks about returning to Spain; whether this was honest or something meant to elicit a reaction is debatable. She has her son in an expensive school, and seems to only suddenly have the realization that she’ll have to pay the fees before too long, which will be a challenge without any income. She settles in what she sees as graceful poverty into a hovel, and seems not to realize that cleaning – or having her servant clean – the place might make it less of a hovel; it’s described as being cobwebby. “…She preferred to believe that she lived in simplicity rather than squalor.” I believe that would be called “delusional”.

The third wheel in the book is Constable Woods, of a mounted police unit, whom Lavender keeps co-opting for his own investigations, duties be damned. Did London have an equestrian police force in this period? It’s a bit irrelevant, really, since Woods never does his job as part of said. A superior gripes about it, but no changes are made. Woods is all of the clichés of 19th century police constablehood, rather jolly and earthy, a combination of unschooled ignorance and salt of the earth wisdom. Of course Lavender finds him indispensible. The narrative tells us that the two of them are besties – another thing I could not believe in.

It is funny, though, that mounted cop thing. Woods and Lavender spend a fair amount of the book galloping hither and yon across London, and it seemed strange. “I propose that we saddle up and go straight to Wandsworth”, says Lavender, and it struck me that I never see people riding about the streets of nineteenth century London; they always take a cab. It’s a symptom of my dislike of the book that I didn’t believe in it. With another author I might never have questioned the hero hopping on a horse and heading off.

The writing … Oh, I don’t know. The nuts and bolts were serviceable. But … Faced with a corpse that shows no signs of violence, Woods proclaims, ‘It must have been poison …There’s no other way. That’s how the bastards murdered her.’ What about suffocation?

Someone scampers about in too-large shoes, and is all uncomfortable; however, the person she swapped shoes with never seems to complain about walking in shoes two sizes too small. I’ve worn shoes that were about half a size too small (“They’ll stretch”), and it was excruciating after about ten minutes.

As so often happens, Captain Obvious pays a visit or two: “The room had been ransacked: drawers pulled out, papers thrown everywhere and the wardrobe emptied. It is possible that whoever broke in was looking for something.” Ya think?

Ah, and that romance. One note I made, at the mention of “Magdalena’s curvaceous body”, was “like the corpse”, which took me a moment to decipher. Then I remembered: the murder victim was a lovely young woman, whose curvaceous body our intrepid heroes made note of, rather ashamedly. The language of rhe “romantic” scenes was nauseating – purple, overheated, out of character, out of place. Unbelievable.

Part of the impenetrability of the book is the repetition.
location 760-760: ‘Did she have a sweetheart, or a lover?’ Lavender asked.
location 764-764: ‘Did she have a sweetheart, or a lover?’ Lavender asked again.
Fine, he had to repeat the question. Did it have to be completely identical?

The setting of the theatre – one thing which was a draw for me; I love other mysteries based around the theatre – was, for this author, an odd excuse to over-exercise the word “strutting”. I don’t know if she has a fixation on “a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”, but good … grief. (Ow.)
Strutting across the stage in men’s clothing” and “famous for strutting across the stage in men’s clothing” and “wear a pair of breeches and strut across a stage” and so on. It’s absurd. Oh, look – there’s another one: “the actors and actresses strutted across the stage”. That’s pretty bad.

Everyone’s speech patterns feel off. Lavender reads like he’s supposed to be Sherlock Lite, socially inept in a clueless and puzzled manner. He’s irritating. The members of the working class who appear combine stereotypical dropped g’s and added h’s and so on with incredibly stilted passages. Like “Prostitutes wantonly ply their trade in the Close, outside on the street and inside the rooms.” A prostitute solicits Woods – “Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”… Wouldn’t that be three backs? Just sayin’. “You’re debauched – the bleedin’ lot of you!” Really??

And everyone seems to say “Good grief”. It’s enough to put one off Charlie Brown. Those who don’t exclaim “Good grief!” cry out “Gawd’s teeth!”

Someone exclaims something (not “good grief”, this time) in a whisper.

“Several red curls were now plastered to the side of her face with wet tears.” How? “…Wiped the greasy gravy from his mouth with the sodden handkerchief he had retrieved from Mrs Willoughby.” Ew. A major plot point is that someone is bald when he should have hair – even though last time I checked it’s not that unusual for a man to shave his head. (And if hair was a major clue, it ought to have been more prominently mentioned earlier.) The real evidence comes quite a bit later.

And, oh, the comma abuse. I kept reminding myself that this was an ARC, but the kind of comma misuse in this book is as much bad writing as lack of editing.

I said I would come back to the romance element, and I’m afraid that’s where I’m going now. As I think I’ve made pretty obvious, I didn’t like Lavender, and I found Magdalena shifty and too secretive to make a relationship with her palatable, even with someone I didn’t like. To make matters worse, the writing in the love scenes was purely nauseating.

‘Is that what I am to you, Stephen?’ she yelled. ‘A lewd squeeze in a darkened room? A bit of fun?’ The suggestion he makes more than halfway through the book certainly makes it seem rather that way. It was out of character, it was all kinds of inappropriate, and I was shocked at both the proposition and the fact that the author wrote it in. It made no sense in the circumstances.

Worst of all, I called a major plot element well before it was revealed. I’ve said a hundred times that if I can predict how a mystery is going to go – I, the worst guesser in the known universe, the anti-Holmes – then the author has done something terribly wrong. Then the whole thing devolves into the world’s dumbest ever spy novel … By which I mean the spies are the dumbest and the spy techniques are the dumbest and the top-secret data being fought for is the dumbest … It was only when someone evades the following dynamic duo of Lavender and Woods by the single most asinine maneuver I have ever had the misfortune to read that I started using profanity in my Kindle notes. Why did I give this two stars to start with? I guessed most of the book’s mystery, but this I can’t figure it out. I think I was trying to be nice. I think I’d do better to be honest.

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

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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in books, mystery


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Murder by Matchlight – E.C.R. Lorac

It’s so lovely to find a new-to-me golden age mystery, and one that almost lives up to favorites of its era. Murder by Matchlight – which I received through Netgalley, thanks very much – is a Dover reissue of a book originally published in 1945, the story of a murder in a park in London as the war continues to rage across the Channel.

And it was wonderfully enjoyable. The mystery is a lovely puzzle, with the wartime setting, some fun and exotic elements, and sheer happenstance combining into just a whole lot of fun. One suspect says:

“I’d wanted to kill Johnnie Ward—which I didn’t—I shouldn’t have done it in a way that would have brought Scotland Yard to my door next morning. Oh, no. If I’d done it, no one would have been any the wiser. I may be a clown, but I’m an efficient clown.”

Which is a wonderful defense, isn’t it?

I loved the characterizations. The victim was terrific – lovable, in his way, so that the reader can find room for regret at his death … but he also had plenty of truly exasperating ways and habits, and inspired lots of lovely motives. The police refused to follow the “official detectives are always idiots” school of thought, and the young hero-suspect declined to over-involve himself in the case and become an improbable sleuth. And the theatrical folk of the boarding house where the victim (and a bunch of the suspects) lived were marvelous.

(Also: there is a character named Tracey. Mr. Tracey. Heh.)

The setting is equally enjoyable. Set in 1944 and published in 1945, this is a London where nearly every able-bodied man is either at war or on his way, and where the civilians left home are in almost as much danger as their loved ones in actual battle as bombs rain down with alarming regularity. It’s a setting in which a murder investigation – especially, in a way, this investigation – feels almost irrelevant.

“It seems to me that the fact that one ne’er-do-well has met a violent end is not a matter of supreme importance in a world which is in the throes of a convulsion which may destroy civilization itself before we’re through.”

I was almost afraid to click on the author’s name to see his – oh, no, sorry: HER other books. So often I read something by an author new to me, fall in love, and then find that there’s little (or nothing) else out in the world by that writer. But! According to her Goodreads author profile: “She was a very prolific writer, having written forty-eight mysteries under her first pen name, and twenty-three under her second.” Pardon me while I do a bit of a happy dance.

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

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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in books, mystery


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Rock Bottom – Jerusha Jones

Six books of this series were available on Netgalley, pre-approved. I downloaded the first one only, not wanting to take them all on if #1 turned out to be a dud. It didn’t take long, though, before I was back in there requesting all of them.

The tales of “Meredith Morehouse, curator of the eclectic Imogene Museum” were very enjoyable. Quick, light – but not fluffy-light – and nicely written, they were what I actually want to see in a cozy mystery. Yes, the dreaded c-word. Yes, it’s a series centered around a woman who keeps tripping over corpses and/or encounters more crime than anyone outside law enforcement realistically would. But there was enough justification provided, and moreover I enjoyed myself enough, that my usual gripe was put to rest.

The characters were delightful. Meredith, through whose eyes the first-person action is seen, is a boon companion, striking all the right notes between self-deprecation and confidence. I want her job. A lot. And I love that she not only adopted a dog who needed adopting but named her Tuppence after the Agatha Christie she was reading at the time. Sheriff Marge Stettler is kind of awesome, and utterly atypical. George the handyman was very nicely handled. And I actually worried along with Meredith over her missing intern, Greg. Emotional involvement? Score.

The setting was beautifully drawn, and written with obvious affection and knowledge (though it did take a while for me to twig to the actual location: Washington State). It reminds me of New England, only moreso. I’d love to see it.

The writing, as mentioned, was fresh and clever. Notable quotes:

I want an opportunity to steal this: “The odds may be good, but the goods may be odd.”

And this echoes my own feelings on modern art: “I heaved the punching bag onto the recliner. It looked like a giant sausage taking a nap and could easily be mistaken for a modern art installation.” Which may or may not be related to “If its proximity to the dumpster had symbolic meaning, that was best left up to the viewer.”

And this sounds like something I might want to try one of these days: “chicken, peppers and onions rolled in flour tortillas and smothered in a cheesy cream sauce, like enchiladas but better”. Any book I can get a recipe out of racks up points with me.

“You did right, George.” He turned toward me. “Right or good?

There were a couple of slips in editing (e.g. “I laid on my side”), but they’re mainly noticeable because they’re infrequent. Very nice indeed – I enjoyed this and the other five I was lucky enough to receive free, and will absolutely buy any further books in the series yet to come.

And I loved the chamberpot side mystery.

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

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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in books, mystery


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A Drop in the Night – Royce Fulmer

I love tales of WWII. I was intrigued when A Drop in the Night came up in my feeds as an Amazon freebie, the tale of an ordinary young American whose life is dramatically changed by the War. Royce Fulmer took experience as a youth as a bootlegger, transmuted his expertise with cars to expertise with planes, and eventually became a valuable member of a top-secret Air Force squad responsible for dropping people and supplies into Nazi-controlled areas. It’s a fantastic framework for a story, and a friend, Thea Rademacher, took it all down as he told it and turned it into a book.

And, sadly, it’s one of those things that with a tremendous amount of editorial attention and structure could have lived up to the fantastic framework.

The typos in this were horrendous, and endemic. “One of the most famous groups, ‘The Marquis,’ took their name from a type of scrub bush found in the high ground of Southeastern France.” I did not know about the scrub bushes – but I did know about the Maquis. There was a comment on the “high causality rate”.

Perhaps the one that made me twitch the most was the persistent error of “World War LL” for the obvious. That might be a formatting error rather than straight up typo, but the fact remains it was never caught and corrected.

A fair number of the grammatical errors in the book are down to the fact that Ms. Rademacher apparently adhered to Mr. Fulmer’s exact words in relaying his story. She retains his colorful language (lots of dropped g’s, and charming things like “You’d shit your britches seein’ how we did this at first”) and sentence structure (“If something happened, not work exactly right, then I was there to help them”). In places, though, use of quotation marks is erratic, and it’s not clear whether something is a Fulmer quote or a Rademacher narration, and so “since he last outran the police” or “the sharecroppers use to fight with knifes” are just a little dismaying.

Honestly – just personal feeling here – I just didn’t enjoy most of the horse’s mouth bits. Example, showing a bit more crudeness than I admire (that sounds prissy, doesn’t it? Sorry) along with a smidgen of “Huh?”:

“Clark Gable was there. I saw him. He went through school there; he was three weeks ahead of me. He flew a combat mission or two, but then got into photography. Girls would just piss their pants when they saw him. He wore clothes just like the rest of us. People would point him out a little bit. He lived in the officer barracks. I never did go for that movie star bit, except for Jimmy Stewart. He was a squadron commander. I heard a lot about him because he flew combat missions. He didn’t mess around with any Clark Gable stuff.”

Some of the editoral issues are almost certainly in the relation of the story. There were some accidentally hilarious misplaced modifiers:

– “One of four siblings, his father died from cancer when all the children, very close in age, were also very young.”
– “Fatherless until he was four, Lessie Mae met another man who would become Royce’s step father.”

And there were other errors that made this a less-than-enjoyable read. “They arrived at Goose Bay, a province of Newfoundland and Labrador in an area that today is in Canada. With short, mild summers that last only a few weeks…”

This all became a bit fuzzy. Goose Bay was never a province – it’s an airfield. Newfoundland and Labrador form the province of Canada, and they were an independent dominion until they joined the Canadian Confederacy in 1949 as one province, the last to join. The detail about the “short, mild summers” is apparently true of the area of Labrador where Goose Bay is located, but I can tell you from experience that at least the west coast of Newfoundland has summers that last just as long as they do in, say, the Northeastern US, and they can be just as hot and humid. It’s a big province – where I used to spend time is nearly a thousand miles south of Goose Bay.

There is quite a bit of “Captain Obvious is obvious”, for example in the section introducing the flight crew. “The pilot of the aircraft was the man in charge.” Uh … huh. “…The third officer on the flight crew was the navigator, Jack P. Barton. It was his job to keep the plane on course to its destination, giving the pilot compass headings. He was to know where the plane was at all times.” Yes, thank you. Navigator, navigating. I see. “…Most of the missions were intentionally flown on moonlit nights in an effort to reduce the risk that the low-flying plane would collide with the landscape”. Very wise.

That last bit, about planes colliding with the landscape, is key to the book. It was, of course, a very real danger, and was the cause of a great many causalities – er, casualties. But it’s repeated over and over and over, to an eye-rolling degree.

And there’s also some “Hey, I found this out in research and thought I’d share”:

“Royce and the other enlistees shared a Quonset Hut with another crew. These light-weight prefabricated barracks provided greater protection from cold English winters compared to previous barracks, a tent with a wooden floor. The shelters were easily assembled with simple tools. Quonset Huts were first produced in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. This New England town took its name from a Native American tribe that once lived there. For them, Quonset meant boundary.”

Also: “…Lambourn. Located in the southeastern part of Berkshire County, England, gold bracelets dating back to 1200 B.C. have been found here. The beloved author JRR Tolkien lived near this village.”

I’ll take British Village Trivia Unrelated to the Book for $400, Alex. I love Tolkien with all my heart, but here he was completely irrelevant.

So, yes, it’s a great story. Top-secret, highly dangerous, highly important sabotage and espionage missions into Nazi-occupied areas? Fantastic. Impressive. Thank you for your service. But the telling of this story did nothing to showcase the heroism and courage of these flight crews (the Carpetbaggers) or of the men they ferried to their missions (and women – something like 37 of the people the squad dropped behind enemy lines were women) – and in fact perhaps half the book is spent on Mr. Fulmer’s checkered past and his life after the war. While he well deserves to have his story told, and while he had a fairly epic post-war experience, I have to say it was something of a letdown to go from high-risk WWII flying to the business world and family life of post-war America … especially since I believe a fair interpretation of the book description (not to mention the cover and the title) indicates that the Carpetbaggers would be the focus of the book.

I seem to say it often: there’s something there, if it was only prepared and presented well. It made me a bit sad to read an acknowledgement someone whose “grammar skills and eye for detail are now legendary”. Oh. Dear.

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Posted by on November 19, 2015 in books


The Deathsniffer’s Assistant – Kate McIntyre

25718141I have had wildly variable luck with steampunk. So perhaps it’s just as well that The Deathsniffer’s Assistant wasn’t deep-dyed steampunk. There was a lot to like about the setting and writing, magic and the way it was used. But I couldn’t warm to any of the characters. The young hero, Christopher, was timid and insecure, and being inside his head could be almost stressful with that level of quaveryness. It was also uncomfortable watching him react sexually to … just about everyone (mainly because it made him so uncomfortable. He was a very confused young man). His extremely gifted sister, Rosemary, was intriguing, part of which being the fact that she did not react as I expected her to very often, but she was a) too young and b) not ‘on stage’ enough to become attached to. The victim’s family were kind of hideous. And as for Olivia Faraday … I don’t get it. She wore a different unsuitable outfit every day; she was abrasive and inappropriate and outright aggressively rude in ways that I found hard to fathom. “Too far!” she challenged as she spun Olivia around to face her. “Too damned far, Faraday!…” There was nothing to make any sense of it.

The book description includes the line, “It is about the relationships between broken people who clash more often than not, but manage to shape and learn from one another in spite of this.” I didn’t get that out of it. Olivia didn’t strike me as broken so much as determinedly eccentric; by the time any evidence appeared of past trauma causing her behavior, it was too late: I was already settled into a distaste for her. And unfortunately Christopher’s brokenness was not calculated to elicit any sympathy either.

What really distanced me from this book, though, was a sort of nauseous horror at the way magic was harnessed. Actually, there were two magical systems going on in this world: one was fascinating, in which each individual was sorted as a child into a sort of a guild based on his innate gifts (if any). Christopher was a wordweaver. “Some wordweavers performed well enough as fiction writers, but it was at the bottom of the authorized profession list – and tended to pay abysmally when it paid at all.” Heh. It was all very strictly controlled, and strictly enforced. Olivia was Rosemary showed early signs of a very strong gift in the whole aspect of magic in this world which made me uncomfortable: binding.

While I enjoyed the exposition of what I’ve just described, this part was less successfully explained, in my mind. The picture that finally emerged was one of humans binding elementals and such creatures to perform largely mundane tasks. Lighting, a sort of Skype using mirrors, freezing water and washing dishes, making trains and flying cabs go … running ferris wheels … and (here’s the one that made me queasy) electrocuting criminals. Problem was, the reason the creatures had to be bound was because (er, duh) they were unwilling. And, being unwilling, they constantly tried to break loose. And when they broke loose … Very Bad Things happened.

And I can’t say I blamed them at all. Kind of cheered them on, actually. If I were bound by some idiot to keep a freaking ferris wheel turning, I’d do my level best to break loose and roll that thing into the nearest river or roadway, with as many shrieking humans aboard as possible.

As mentioned, while the aspect of individuals’ abilities was well enough explained to get me through, I got a bit lost when cloudlings and ‘binders and such were spoken of with no explanation, and when creatures I’m familiar with – like salamanders and water sprites – were handled in a completely unfamiliar way. More exposition would have helped. Background. Something.

The murder mystery itself was … fine. It was another one that reminded me of a prime time cop show, where a suspect is dragged in, interrogated, turns out to have a solid alibi, and is kicked to the curb without apology … and then another … and another … Wait, now we’re back to one of the earlier suspects …

There were small problems with the writing which I can but hope will be taken care of (like “innervated exhileration” … insert Princess Bride quote here), but overall it was well phrased. If the decent writing could have extended to better character development and exposition, it could have been a lot of fun.

I received this from Netgalley for an honest review – thanks!

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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in books


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