In Calabria – Peter S. Beagle

Like most people who are able to read and enjoy fantasy, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Peter S. Beagle. That’s not to say I’m a real fan, however; he’s a remarkable writer, and uses language like a virtuoso uses a violin, but I’ve just never warmed to him.

And In Calabria is a perfect example of why. It’s a beautiful book. The characters are marvelous. The intrusion of the rare and beautiful into the life of a reclusive and misanthropic man is intense and utterly real.

But, for me, there’s some … thing lacking. I have no idea what. Something holds me back, creates a distance. It was gorgeous and I’m glad I read it, and parts of it will stay with me – but, still…

In any case… while neither this nor any of the other Beagles I’ve read will ever be my very favorite book, it was still a remarkable experience. I saw one review which complained that there was nothing new here, that Beagle has “done” unicorns before, didn’t have to do it again – but I think that’s … well, insane. It’s been a while since I read The Last Unicorn, but I don’t think this bears much of a resemblance to that, apart from the obvious: the cataclysmic effect a creature of legend can have on ordinary life. It’s not a well, which can be dipped into too often – it’s a river, a force of nature, never the same two moments running. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been fonder of Peter Beagle – his extraordinarily comforting last name notwithstanding, his are simply not comfortable books.

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

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A Death in the Dales – Frances Brody

If you had told me a couple of chapters into this book that I would be giving it four stars, I would have given you the full-on Spock eyebrow. The writing was a little stiff, a little stilted, and I was pretty sure this was going to be a bomb.

It’s the seventh book in its series – I really do try to avoid doing that, and keep failing. But I think it worked on its own. I felt I was adequately introduced to Kate Shackleton and her life and career, without being completely spoiled (as far as I know) for the earlier books. I have no idea how the main character’s love interest, Lucian, was introduced and built up prior to this installment, but here things are coming to a head: her thirteen-year-old niece is recovering from whooping cough (?), and she has decided to take the girl away from the home where she would be kept busy looking after younger siblings, to a village where she might have the chance to rest and actually recuperate. And Lucian just so happens to have a cottage, left him by his aunt, which will be just the place. And if her stay there – with his frequent visits – lead her to finally agreeing to marry him, well then.

Kate is barely there a minute when a mystery falls into her lap. Apparently her reputation as a detective has preceded her, and as it turns out Aunt Freda witnessed a murder some ten years ago. Despite her eyewitness account that he couldn’t have done it, despite her constant campaigning, a young Irish laborer was arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged for the killing. Now, years after her own death, all of her notes on the case are foisted upon Kate, and whether she wants the job or not she is duty bound to try to clear the name of the man who was executed.

Meanwhile, of course, there are a number of smaller mysteries to clear up along the way, not least of which is what exactly her feelings really are toward Lucian, and which path her life will take.

By the end of the book I was surprised at how much I was enjoying myself. I don’t know if I’ll make the effort to read the rest of the series, or any books which follow this, but I admit I am curious about the Lucian story thread – so it’s not impossible I’ll read more. Not overly likely, but not impossible.

One small detail I absolutely loved was:

“Once settled, she banged her head on the pillow eleven-and-a-bit times, to be sure of waking before midnight.
“‘What you doing?’ Madge asked.
“‘Reminding meself.’”

This is a trick I’ve only ever read about before in E. Nesbit, and it’s something I’ve done ever since: if you want to make sure you wake up at nine o’clock, lift and drop your head on your pillow nine times. I’m not going to say it’s infallible – but I’m also not going to say it doesn’t work.

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

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Good Time Coming – C.S. Harris

I’ve been a lukewarm fan of the author’s Sebastian St. Cyr books for a while now, neither avoiding them nor actively seeking them out, and thought this would be a safe bet, especially with an American Civil War setting.

It was safe, in that it was – as expected – solidly written, with good, well-rounded characters and a deep setting written knowledgeably. Dialogue was natural and believable. But in the end I enjoyed it rather less than the St. Cyr books. It’s first person POV thirteen-year-old Amrie, and there were times I just wasn’t comfortable with some of the things she comes out with – would she really know that a certain Union general I’ve never heard of was unpopular with his men?

Near the beginning of the book it comes out that there is a woman in the area who must be a spy, a traitor to the South – and there’s suspicion wafting about that she might be Amrie’s mother. It’s a strange mystery that surfaces and submerges throughout the book until it kind of gets forgotten about. It starts out being one of the most important things in the girl’s life – who is it? Could it be her mother? – and then … it stops.

‘Damn this war. Damn Abraham Lincoln and every hotheaded Southerner who pushed for secession and every sanctimonious Northern abolitionist who ever thought that one sin justifies another. Damn them, damn them, damn them.’

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how painful I found the frequent disparagement of Union soldiers, and even more that of Abraham Lincoln. Oh, and Grant and Sherman owned slaves. (Prove it.) Objectively, I get it. There’s the wider lens, through which of course anyone in the Confederate States would never have a positive word for Lincoln, and of course their direct experience of the occupying army would be far stronger than any stories of atrocities by the Confederate Army. (And as to those atrocities, I really only need to say two words: “Forrest”, and “Andersonville”.) But it caused a knee-jerk belligerent reaction every time – “Oh yeah? Come over here and say that“… Know what? The South started it. The South lost. Lincoln did what he had to to preserve as much as he could. I’d drop a microphone if I had it.

I am unendingly tired of people – real or fictional – who are diametrically opposed to a cause and yet lend it their skills. Both of Amrie’s parents are adamantly anti-slavery. Amrie says of her mother “nothing riled her more than slavery and war”.So do they work to improve slaves’ lots in life? Do they abandon the South and go North to work with and fight for the Union, and make some effort to change the attitudes of the abolitionists who apparently had the right idea and the wrong execution? Nope. For obvious reasons, the unrelenting horrors faced by Amrie and her family reminded me of Gone With the Wind, except with no apology for the “peculiar institution”, no sympathy, which was good. Even better, there’s a sort of an anti-Ashley among the characters; I hated Ashley. I made a note about another book set in the Reconstruction South that when the Doctor asks me when and where I want to go in the TARDIS, I will possibly say “anywhere but then and there.” I suppose, depending on how you look at it, war can bring out the best in some people – but in all the rest it exposes nothing but bad. It’s hard to read.

What makes it even a little harder to read, and one of the biggest reasons I just could not like this book, was the author’s habit of ending nearly every single section – whether chapter or section broken out by skipped lines, or occasionally just paragraphs – with a weighty pronouncement, a one-sentence summation of the events just described or, more often, a single sentence of foreshadowing. “But God had other ideas.” “But I was about to learn that bargains don’t work any better than prayers.” And so on. And on. AND on. They were everywhere. It got to be somewhere between funny and one-more-and-I’ll-scream. This sort of thing is like salt – some is good. More is not better.

I have to say I hated the end. Which will get spoiler-y, so continue reading warned thus in five …





Last warning.

Still here? Here’s the spoiler.

In the very last pages, Amrie’s father comes home, apparently safe and sound. His family rushes to greet him. The End. And it bothered me, deeply – because there is no way he’s safe and sound. He has gone through hell, was if I recall correctly wounded and captured, and is coming back to a place that has been gutted. His home is all but gone; his neighbors have been decimated, or worse; most of his possessions are gone; his wife and daughter are not remotely the same woman and child he left behind. So, yes, it’s lovely that they all survived. But that’s not the end. And what comes after may in some ways be worse than what has gone before. The book had to end somewhere – but I felt like this was a terrible place to drop the story.

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

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Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal

I did not see that coming. I read the first book in the author’s “Glamourist Histories” series last year, and was ambivalent about it. Maybe a bit more negative than positive, actually, because when I realized this was the same author I had serious requester’s remorse. But its time came, and I was instantly hooked. It’s a remarkable, wonderful book.

Having forgotten everything about the synopsis by the time I started it, I was very pleased to discover that it’s set in the middle of WWI, both time- and place-wise. In my experience it’s an under-used setting, and Kowal utilizes it magnificently, weaving reality with her reality to the point that this fantasy seems like the way it should have been. I believed it. World-building is something usually associated with settings that come straight out of a writer’s head, but this is a beautiful example of how important it is to, if not build, recreate a historical setting for something that takes place in our very own past. Ghost Talkers explores war-torn France and the war-torn soldiers and mediums with painful realism.

The plot featured a murder mystery which was handled skillfully enough that I honestly had a doubt or two about the possibility of guilt where a lesser book would never have allowed it.

There’s a guest appearance in the trenches that could easily have scuttled the whole thing for me, if badly handled. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Someone – I won’t spoil it for you – comes onstage (so to speak), has a line or three, and departs again with absolutely no fanfare. It was well done, and it tickled me. A hint, because I enjoyed the description: “a lieutenant who seemed too bookish to be in a war”.

The relationship between the main character, Ginger, and her fiancé Ben is absolutely lovely. It features realistic and enjoyable banter, well-demonstrated affection (shown, not told!), and the end of the book left me with a tear in my eye. There might have been more than one. There might have been sniffling.There was definitely powerful longing for more. It was a solid stand-alone novel, but I would be delighted if a sequel came along.

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

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Devil’s Breath – G.M. Malliet

What a pity. I bought the first book of this series from Audible a while back, and enjoyed it quite a bit, so I was happy to grab this sixth book on Netgalley. And it was a slog.

Over and above almost everything else, the book drove me crazy with constant “accidental” puns. “The kitchen of a high-end restaurant is a pressure cooker—no pun intended.” “[The chef] would throw him in the soup, if you’ll pardon the expression”. “The chef will spill the beans soon enough—sorry, what an appalling play on words.” And so on. And on. I seem to keep using the comparison to salt a lot lately: some is usually good, but more is never better. There is so much more in this book that I wanted to smack someone. It might not have been so bad if, every single time, whoever used the pun didn’t also apologize for it.

Something else that annoyed me, perhaps more than it should have, was the effortless-seeming massive success of the main character’s wife. I seem to remember not being overly fond of Awena, the pagan expert in just about everything who ends up marrying the priest… I think it was largely disbelief in and discomfort with the concept of the pairing; again, I read the first book some time ago, but I vaguely recall some derision or mockery of Christianity from the pagan community, which is apparently more acceptable than derision or mockery of other belief systems in much the same way that it’s okay to make fun of white men and no other group.

So the “opposites attract” situation with the two of them seemed very much off, but what irked me more was that Awena seems to have become England’s Martha Stewart. (Nigella Lawson without the charm?) She has a tv show, for which she dictated all the terms to suit her and her schedule so that she could continue to be the same domestic goddess. The chef at Buckingham Palace is using her recipes. Yay. Towards the end of the book Max thinks complacently that, as usual, Awena had been right about the solution to the case – when in fact she had said something very specific about the killer which was the opposite of true. For a character who didn’t even make a firsthand appearance in the book, she bugged me deeply.

Even apart from these quibbles, I just didn’t enjoy the writing this go-round. There were echoes – the exact same wording used at least a couple of times within a short period. The idea that our priest Max’s police partner was making notes on their cases to do a Watson later was meta, but not in a good way – it brought up the same old question of confidentiality, of propriety, and about the author’s point of view of her own writing when Max muses that their cases would “qualify … only as potboilers”. Hmf. The drug aspect of the case struck me as simply absurd. “And then one night the sous- chef ran out of the icing sugar he needed to decorate his pastries. And unknowingly, he used cocaine powder from the stores in the safe room.” After a certain point my patience had dried up, to the point that a slight to Marilyn Monroe pushed several of my buttons.

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

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Death on Windmill Way – Carrie Doyle

Signs I will hate the [insert book genre here:] fantasy historical novel cozy mystery you have written:

(1) The point of view you have used is that of your main character, and your main character is:
a. Not terribly bright.
Antonia, main character of this novel, seems to have spent the last year or so of her life flinging money around like a crazed flowergirl tossing rose petals all over the congregation at a wedding. And then, because she has paid little to no attention to such matters, is shocked – SHOCKED, I say – when someone points out to her that, really, money is a rather finite thing when income is as limited as theirs is, and maybe she should stop spending quite so freely – and maybe shouldn’t have ordered furniture shipped over from England and so forth. Shocked, I tell you. Also, someone makes an actual effort to kill her, and she … just … decides to decide that “It had just been a fluke”.

b. Disgustingly judgmental.
Antonia instantly assesses the physical appearance of everyone she meeets. Reactions tend to be about 45% “oh he/she’s ever so attractive until looked at more closely but then she/he’s just average” and 45% outright contemptful “bleh”, with the other 10% swooning and all-but-literally drooling adoration for a celebrity. For example, the incredibly ugly personality bound up in the reporter who gloms onto her is enclosed in an almost-attractive personage, but he’s ridiculously short, therefore can’t be attractive at all. (I’m five feet tall. This did not sit well with me.) Now, granted, of course everyone makes such assessments of other people – but even with my low opinion of humanity I cling to hope that most people aren’t this ugly in their internal monologue. Typical example of character description: “She had the husky voice of a smoker and the yellow stained teeth to confirm it. The green apron fit snugly over her Easter egg blue sweater and her low-hanging ample breasts were making an effort to burst out of the front but instead were flopping out to the sides. She had on gold dangling earrings that softened her somewhat harsh, bird-like features.” Is that level of nastiness necessary?

c. Under the impression (s)he is a better detective than the detectives.
“I remember you used to be obsessed with your ex-husband’s cases. You were more of a detective than he was.”
“I was better at it than he was.”

d. Ridiculously vain over her appearance
She complacently notes that she doesn’t have a single gray hair, and hopes she never will have. By that point, I was hoping much the same thing – because the only way you’re going to naturally avoid gray hairs is to die young, and I was ready to kill her myself.

e. Surrounded by characters I came quickly to loathe almost as much as your main character.
This does not make for a pleasant reading experience.

(2) You apparently came across some facts in your research that you just have to regurgitate into your text, whether they make sense or not. After all, with these bits shoehorned in there, you can feel like you’ve done a public service. Or something.
I did not make note of how long the diatribe on bees went on. It was several pages, however, and for some unknown reason included ancient Egypt and multitudinous statistics.

a. However, all the research you did failed to make your writing accurate or entirely coherent.
– Bees’ nests and hives are not the same thing.
– And this makes no sense: “Throughout much of the nineteenth century the Windmill Inn had housed a tannery in the barn out back; guests stayed in the main building while their saddles were treated.” How can someone attempt to write a book in which a tannery is brought up without knowing that a tannery stank to high heaven, and any guest staying at an inn adjacent to a tannery would have most probably been those unable to afford better?
– “I have a garden out back. I love wild flowers.” – If they’re in a garden, does that not mean they’re not actually wildflowers?
– “But I was his common-law wife for five years.” No, you weren’t. Common law marriage is not recognized in the state of New York – in fact, it’s only recognized in a handful of states. So living with someone for five years – or fifteen, or eighty-two – just means you’ve lived with someone for that many years. You’re either married or you’re not. It took me less than five minutes to learn this.

(3). There are holes in your plot that could hold a spacious and overly expensive Hamptons inn.
– The owner of the inn in question prior to the piece of work that is Antonia died. Official cause of death: heart failure. Someone at some point mentions that there was swelling on the man’s face that looked like (not was, mind: looked like) a beesting; was he allergic? Antonia takes this as a statement instead of a question and goes haring off in all directions a. spreading the unfounded rumor that the man was murdered by beesting (in December) and b. that he was allergic enough to bee venom that it would kill him. At no point does anyone ever actually say “Yes, this man was definitely highly allergic to beestings and being stung would cause his death” –that “common-law wife”, the man’s sister, and a woman who worked with for many years apparently knew nothing of any such allergy … and yet Antonia takes it as a given, and a highly unlikely and unusual method of murder. “You did know he was allergic to bees, didn’t you?” But – – – seriously, was he?? And – really? Based on absolutely nothing the so-brilliant Main Character actually is suggesting exhumation of the body??

(4) Your editor sucks, and your writing badly needs a good editor.
a. This is kind of self-evident – no examples needed.
– But because I made notes of them I’ll give examples of bad writing anyway. “Maybe she just snapped one day with Gordon.” The character Gordon’s murder was not a “snappy” kind of murder – it was something that took planning and forethought. If someone “just snapped” they might have strangled or stabbed or shot the guy, but probably would not have located a bee, plotted out some way of conveying said bee to the victim’s person in such a way that it would sting him, and watched while he asphyxiated.
– “She swallowed gently as if reluctant to release the sandwich from her tastebuds to her stomach.” I’m not even starting on that. It’s a terrible sentence in every possible way except actual grammar – I think it’s technically correct. I’m just kind of afraid to go back and examine it.
– “It would make sense that he was after booze, thought Antonia. Didn’t he work at a liquor store?” Why would someone who worked at a liquor store be “after booze” someplace else?
– That’s not what “impart” means.
– “I didn’t set out to have a beehive, it just sort of happened. I kind of inherited it. And they make the most delicious honey in the world!” This is a) asinine, and b) who or what are “they”? There is no plural anything in prior sentences
– Main character orders – in her own inn – a breakfast with “all the bells and whistles”. And then hopes that the server knows what she meant. And then is content with what is brought – which, apparently, was tea and mini muffins. Given the absurd level of description in the book I would think I’d have been informed of every crumb on the tray, but no: mini muffins. That doesn’t sound very bell-and-whistle to me. It’s not even just whistle.

(5) You have littered the ground with suspects when there may not have even been any murders. Now, yes, it is accepted practice to obfuscate a killer’s identity behind a cloud of other possibilities, but this is just ridiculous.
a. “They found arsenic in the cake, which Charmaine swore must have gotten in there by accident. She had picked some thyme from the garden to add to the cake and must have mistakenly included it, she claimed.” – How could thyme a) mistakenly find its way into a cake, or b) be responsible for any quantity of arsenic?

(6) The book seems to be heavily padded.
– At one point I made a note: “oh my sweet god she ate crackers put away groceries watered a plant touched up makeup and put on lotion HELP ME”. If any of the puttering that went on in several pages worth of wasted time ever became relevant, it was after I quit. Wait – the puttering, which also included long contemplation of a mysterious box she had been given along with a lengthy examination of said plant and whether she had killed it or not, did serve a purpose: it made her much too … busy to open this mysterious box before she decided she was needed in the kitchen. And so the box went unopened. For no legitimate reason.
– See above: bees.
– Am I supposed to really care that the main character loves her Uggs and that the fabric on her chair came from a company called Quadrille of which I’ve never heard?

(7) Having a pretty cover will only make it worse that the book is bad.This has a very pretty cover. But it’s a really rather bad book.

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

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Death of a Toy Soldier – Barbara Early

Having just finished The Moving Toyshop, it seemed only right to move on to another cozy mystery involving a toyshop. I always begin a cozy mystery with a little caution, because there have been so many bad ones in my life.

And what do you know: Death of a Toy Soldier fills the bill very nicely. I started to have hope when I saw early signs that the writing was superior to most of the cozies (and half the other books) I’ve read lately – and it never let me down.

It’s a fun setting, this antique toy shop run by Liz McCall and her retired cop father – and what made me happiest about it is that Barbara Early pays attention to the nuts and bolts of it. Where I’ve seen far too many shops or inns or whatever in cozies in which the amateur sleuth owner has employees she should never be able to afford, Liz and her father employ her sister-in-law for a few hours now and then, and one young man whose work with online auctions could feasibly cover his salary. Usually the main character’s business is an airy cloud castle, a cardboard standin for employment when a realistic nine-to-five job with a realistic corporate boss would curtail all that amateur detective work

And while Liz’s involvement in the central mystery of the book stems from the fact (facts) that her father is a suspect and that the murder happened in their shop – classic motivations for the amateur sleuth to investigate, both – still, it adds a little credibility to the tale that her father was, not too long ago, a cop. He knows the town; he knows all the other cops; he knows what he’s doing. He’s not supposed to be doing it – almost as much because he’s not well as because he’s not a cop anymore – and the moments when someone on the case turns a blind eye are so much more acceptable in this setting than they usually are.

“I need something to write with,” Dad said. “I miss my board at the station.”
Cathy handed him an Etch A Sketch.

The characters’ speculation about what motivated the killing in the shop neatly served to address the fact that this could turn into something ridiculous. Was there a sadistic toy collector out there, someone asks? And, just as neatly, the author supplies information that turns the idea from ridiculous to plausible: antique toys in good condition might well be worth killing over.

I was surprised, and rather impressed, by the scraps of information Liz gives (in a first-person narration) about her childhood, and about her mother. She never dwells on any of it – but her mother’s severe alchoholism and what it did to the family. “You never forget being dragged by the ear out of a public place by a woman too drunk to stand and too angry to sit.”

I think my only real objection to this book was the mention of how someone lost, badly, at Monopoly. In all the years my family played, I don’t remember ever actually finishing a game. I don’t really remember how we wrapped up – the games just seemed to go on endlessly, and maybe someone would lose all their money (probably me), but I have no memory of a game ending in any way besides “okay, we need the table for dinner” or “you should have been in bed an hour ago”.

I loved to hate the monkey with the cymbals, “the toy consistently voted number one in the category of most likely to be possessed by a horde of demons”. I loved that this toy shop owner freely acknowledges the inherent creepiness of a room full of dolls. I also loved the involvement of ghost hunters – especially that they weren’t the primary focus of the book, and that, while the personalities involved made it something to be gently mocked, still there was the possibility out there that there was more going on than trickery and hopeful credulity.

My favorite thing, I think, in this plus half a dozen other recent books, was the entirely throwaway reference to one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a couple of sentences, entirely unexplained, and either you get it – and laugh – or you have no idea what the two characters are talking about, and I pity you. And you know? That right there is enough for me to bump up the rating I initially gave this book. It was a solid four, but this all by itself gives an extra half star. And since Goodreads doesn’t allow for half stars, well then …

Oh, and in case you find yourself wondering, as I did, what on earth “beef on weck” is, it’s a sandwich known primarily in western New York: roast beef on a kummelweck roll.

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

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Death & the Gravedigger’s Angel – Loretta Ross

Pardon me while I hop up on a soapbox.

Ladies and gentlemen, readers and especially writers of cozy mysteries, this – (allow me to wave a copy of Death and the Gravedigger’s Angel in the air) this is how it’s supposed to be done.

The object, last time I looked, of a cozy mystery is pure entertainment. They’re supposed to have a main character who is not a cop but has some sort of access to mysteries that makes sense. They’re supposed to be light in tone, or even funny. They’re supposed to be long on characterization and charm; a twisty plot is a bonus, but not a necessity.

And The Gravedigger’s Angel does it right, in spades. The titular main character, Death Bogart, is a private investigator, with an auctioneer girlfriend named Wren. Both are well-written and engaging, and are surrounded by characters I enjoy. I laughed out loud reading this, often. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since that happened more than, say, once in a book? The flying buttresses. “Yaaaarrrrgh”. The French lesson. And, best of all, the battle of the Bible verses – marvelous.

“Hit your head again?”
“Umm, no.”
“I wasn’t asking. I was offering.”

“I had a possessed rabbit once.”
“I’m not even surprised.”

It wasn’t perfect. My eyebrows rose a little at the idea that someone could forget they had sold an authentic Civil War Confederate uniform, especially early on in her career – I can’t believe I would ever forget about something like that – but I guess the reasoning was the sheer volume of stuff that was sold. And probably by the time of publication someone will fix the point that the auctioneers make that they keep records for six years, and the uniform was sold less than six years before what I assume is the setting for the book (2016-17).

But any quibbles I had with small plot holes or what-have-you were more than outweighed by the references to Star Trek and Tolkien, and indeed Lord Peter – and the fact that the story behind Death’s name was not rehashed from the first book. (If Loretta Ross was trying to earn brownie points, she totally scored with me.) On the one hand, I’m wary of the trove of puns and wordplay that can (and do) spring from the name in a series of murder mysteries… the fact that that horse Death comes to know is a gray kind of made me sigh a little … but … how can I hold it against the author when a) the man is named for Lord Peter Wimsey, and b) it would really be inhuman for anyone to resist riffing on the name now and then. Just once and a while. I mean, really. And given the conceit of the main character’s name being Death, how could anyone resist using it in the titles?

Woven in amongst the humor and book-geeky goodness is a very serious and very well handled exploration of PTSD and depression. Death has been broken, and while the pieces are coming back together, and he’s beginning to be able to see daylight, still the depression never goes entirely away – “lurking like a dark, tentacled monster under the surface of a sunny pond”. The PTSD never goes entirely away – it impacts every day. It’s not the focus of the story. But it makes for a solid foundation, a gritty background for the froth and fun. And the joy. Just as there’s a real strain of darkness in the book, so is there actual joy. That’s an accomplishment.

And then there’s a joke about teaching French using Lady Marmalade, and I’m giggling like a kid again.

And there’s a bit of a clever mystery as well, in which the non-sleuthing main character only accidentally ends up in danger (as opposed to sticking her nose into places it has no business and ending up in danger). So, yes: this is my benchmark for a cozy mystery done well. I love this series, and I hope it keeps coming for a long time.

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

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Dust Bath Revival – Marianne Kirby

I’ve developed a prejudice against books with 16-year-old protagonists. There are almost as many book synopses that start with “16-year-old so and so…” as there are book titles along the lines of Somebody’s Daughter or Wife or Sister or whatever. I’ve begun to find those descriptions immediately off-putting.

Fortunately, I usually don’t read synopses before I start books these days, so Hank, 16-year-old protagonist of Dust Bath Revival, slipped by me. I’m glad. Because this is a stay-up-past-your-bedtime kind of book, a one-more-chapter no-I-can’t-stop-now sort of book, and Hank isn’t the typical 16-year-old all those books center on. When I say that throughout the early chapters of the book she and her big brother Ben continually reminded me of Scout and Jem Finch, Marianne Kirby needs to take it as one of the biggest compliments I can give.

What is it that’s in the dust, in the dusk, that kills chickens and terrifies people so? The first few chapters, with the edge of fear under ordinary interactions, the tattered red baseball cap, and the scattering of white feathers, did a remarkable, subtle job of making it very clear that I should be afraid, very afraid… even without knowing why.

Spielberg accidentally discovered that it’s a lot scarier when you don’t see the shark.

When the shark in this case, the Reborn, is revealed – and especially when the mechanics behind the shark are revealed… then, unfortunately, a lot of the subtle, a lot of the afraid, and a lot of my compliments dried up. From the moment that something, shall we unspoilerishly say, happens to Ben and Hank begins to fend for herself, I disagreed with the way things were going. I didn’t like it in terms of the story, it didn’t make sense to me in terms of storytelling, and where it was going was not the direction I was interested in. It was as if, being thirsty, I wanted to head toward a well, and the book had me by the hand dragging me away.

And if I didn’t like the first major turn in the story, I have to say I absolutely hated where it went from there. It was still compelling to read, but where in the beginning the compulsion was positive, by the end it was partly annoyance and partly being close enough to the end that I wanted to just push on and finish.

I am probably supposed to heap kudos on the author for having a young lesbian as a main character, and I will say that I congratulate her for presenting Hank and her budding sexuality as just what it is – not as an aberration, not as anything wrong or right or sinful or correct, just what is. My only objection to any of it was the simple fact that I’m just uninterested in a teenager fumbling his or her way through first love or lust, of whatever gender, which I guess is why I generally steer wide of young adult novels. (Did I know Dust Bath Revival was YA when I requested it? I seem to think not.)

I wish I could have read the book I thought it was going to be in the beginning.

But remember: Always carry a chicken when you cross a bridge.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher for review.

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Gone – Min Kym

Gone is the story of a woman with a violin, who had begun as a child prodigy on the violin, who had found her equivalent to a soul mate in the perfect violin for her, and from whom this violin was stolen. It was a Stradivarius, and so worth a great deal of money – but, more importantly to her, it was the instrument from which she had brought music for ten years, which she had nurtured and which had nurtured her, which she had expected to die holding. Which in a moment of weakness, of illness and trust in the wrong person, vanished.

And let me tell you, that wrong person? I believe Min tried very hard to report at least somewhat objectively, and even so I wanted something dire to happen to him.

All the while I was reading this tale of her training and of the violin and of its loss and the violent effect that had on her, I was trying to think of something in my life that would hit me the same way. There are things I have lost that have hurt me – like the entire collection of my family’s Christmas decorations, gone, which still keeps me up at night from time to time – but this … I had planned to be a painter, and there is nothing I can think of, even to a sketchbook or a work in progress or finished work, which could be as tremendous a loss as a violinist’s violin.

And, while reading this, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of thieves. Do they realize what they’re doing when they’re doing it, the pain they’re inflicting, or does it simply not matter to them? I have a friend who came home one evening with her two young children to find their apartment stripped bare – people had come in and taken everything, from electronics and money to appliances to all of their clothing, to dish towel that had been hanging on the oven door handle. Did the pain and shock and horror they were leaving behind them in that empty apartment ever occur to the thieves, or was that part of the allure of the thing? Were they just looking to make as much money as possible out of the evening’s work, or were they purposely looking to make it hurt as much as possible? Given the sheer thoroughness of the job, I tend to think the latter. And what forms the kind of mindset that can do something like that – or something like stealing the means with which someone earns their living, the most important part of her life? Stealing for money I can understand, just about. Stealing from people who don’t have much, to injure – I begin to understand why sometimes the penalties for theft are greater than the penalties for murder. I doubt what I’ve just blathered on about is part of what goes into sentencing – I doubt prosecuting attorneys take a victim’s trauma much into account when looking to punish the person who stole from them – but I never took theft quite as seriously as I do right now.

In a way, my friend’s loss of just about everything she owned is as close an analogy as can be made to Min Kym’s loss of her Strad. I think I understand the importance of the violin as much as anyone can who doesn’t play. I meant to be a visual artist, and, again, there’s no equivalent in that world – steal my brushes, and it won’t be much more than an infuriating outlay of money to replace them. If nothing else, Min has done a service to musicians by laying her heart open in the pages of these books, and making it just a bit more comprehensible for those of us outside her world: to steal a musician’s instrument is to steal her life.

Someone had the stupid audacity to say to her at some point that well, she could and would get another violin. Having read this story of anguish and panic and despair at the loss of, basically, an appendage, I’m not much inclined to defend that person. The only defense that can be offered is ignorance.

My rating for this book doesn’t necessarily reflect its literary quality; it’s always hard to judge an advance copy  (I received this through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers), because they always come with the warning that the text is not final, the promise that errors will be corrected in the final proof. So I’ll put faith in the promise and heed the warning, and hope that someone sees this book as someone once saw Min – a diamond to be polished.

Because it’s an amazing story, small and intimate and immediate but also very deep in scope and applicability. Her life as a prodigy is told quite matter-of-factly, without arrogance or even really pride, as though she had little to do with it. And that’s how it seems: a prodigious talent expressed itself through her, and she has merely done what was necessary to give it a good home, hone it and allow it to shape her. The instant recognition upon picking up her Strad is like something out of a romance novel – true love at first sight. And it led to what amounted to a real marriage – each partner working with the weaknesses of the other to create something wonderful.

Unfortunately, this story is real life and not a romance novel; the Happily Ever After lasted ten years, and then: separation. Fortunately, the loss of even a Strad can be survived in much the same way lost love is – after a lot of pain, self-doubt, second-guessing, what-ifs, bad decisions… and maybe a new love to, if not replace the old one, then fill in some of the space left empty, with a new shape. This book is the exploration of the pain, and of the healing, and an examination of who Min is, with and without a violin in her hands. For the honesty and passion of the story, I couldn’t quite bear to rate this book less than five stars. And I wish the author all the best.

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