The Cheltenham Square Murder – John Bude

It’s funny. With all the exploration of how murder was committed in this book, how an arrow can cause death by “entering the fleshy part of the skull” (?) and all that good stuff – still, what grossed me out the most with this book was the fact that the victim, once the arrow was removed from his head, was carried away from the scene of death to be laid out in his own room, on his own bed. And all I could envision was how horrific that bed is going to be. And who’s going to have to clean that up?

In a way, this is an inverse locked-room mystery.

It’s been a long time since I pulled a bow, and I was never an expert of any sort, but there were a few things that just didn’t sit right with the handling of archery and how it was considered in the investigation of the mystery. Like the fact that it came as a great surprise that there were no fingerprints on the arrow. “What the devil do you mean—there must have been. A chap couldn’t pull an arrow without handling it, could he?” Well … sure. Gloves. Thin leather gloves, to provide a grip while still allowing the ability to feel the string, would be no impediment in using a bow, as best I can remember.

Now and then there’s a confluence of names in a book which is just fun. A recent cozy had a character with my first name as his last and my last name as his first; a historical mystery had a character named Betty Draper, which brought back happy memories of Mad Men. (Not of the character, but the show.) Here there were two detectives who as partners came together to make me snort softly: “Long and Shanks then got into the police-car” made it sound like Aragorn had come on the scene.

So … according to this book, it’s impossible to crack a safe in the classic movie tradition of listening for the fall of the tumblers? *Paging Mythbusters*

Cheltenham Square is very much a product of its time. “Will there be anybody in next door? I had an idea that Captain Cotton lived alone.” “He does—except for his man, Albert.” My eyebrows popped up at the failure to count Albert as a person living in the house, added as little more than an afterthought. Of course he’s not, in this period – he’s staff. The problem with that is that, of course, that afterthought could have as easily been the murderer as anyone else in the book.

An other thing that especially dated this book to its moment was the attitude toward Miss Boon’s dogs. She’s a spinster of a certain age who has pack of dogs (she’s not a crazy cat lady, she’s an eccentric dog lady). She has a moment in the sun as a strong suspect in the murders which occur, but after all, her only motive for killing one of them is that he killed one of her dogs. The police pooh-pooh it – come, now, that’s no reason to murder a man. It’s not a read motive. Perhaps “an eccentric woman with an overwhelming, single-minded passion for dogs” might … nah. Not likely. And there I beg to differ. I’m fairly pacifistic – but anyone who ever laid a finger on any of my dogs would have paid. In blood. In my world it’s a more than sufficient motive.

I had some guesses about how the murder (that is, murders) happened, and also about the motive. I was on the right track with the why (mistaken identity for the first murder: it seemed so obvious to me when it was pointed out that all that was visible of the first victim was the back of his head, easily mistaken for someone else’s. It also seemed like a very cool idea for the second killing to then be a red herring, making it seem as though the first one was a mistake and therefore any motives or opportunity that applied to the first one could be washed out…, but what seemed absolutely obvious to me was that what everyone thought was the method – an archer’s shot from across the square – was, in point of fact, not. (I was convinced that what actually happened was that the person in the room with that first victim, who claimed to have just turned away for a minute during which the victim was shot, actually had an arrow on him and simply stabbed the victim. I still like my idea better … mostly. Oh! I also glommed onto the fact that golf came into play, so to speak – a golf bag would, after all, be a great place to hide arrows.)

Some of the procedural moments seemed a little off, which I imagine is due to the age of the book. Or maybe I was just totally wrong when I was surprised that the police didn’t retain the key to the building from which they thought the arrow was shot?

The writing was entertaining, and the characters got the job done. I’m still not enamored of the plot, but it did keep me guessing (even if I grumpily muttered that at least one of my ideas was more fun). But … seriously? Someone kills your dog and you won’t at least wish that person a little dead? Really? Huh.

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

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Cheers to the Publican: Repast and Present

This is a gorgeous book, unabashedly enthusiastic and wonderfully friendly. The detail is terrific – had I the resources to tackle any of the recipes included I have absolute confidence that I would be walked through it safely and successfully from start to finish.

I love the warmth of the book, the sheer contentment that breathes through the pages in the lives the authors have made for themselves, for the place that they’ve made and the community they’ve formed. It’s lovely. There’s even photographic proof throughout – the obligatory “here we are eating the things we’re telling you about” shots, as enviable and admirable as any I’ve seen. It all makes me want to become a regular at the Publican, and if I ever get to Chicago I’m definitely seeking it out.

One of my favorite things about the book is the series of profiles of “Friends of the Publican”, suppliers and other allies, each given a full page with a photo and a warm essay. It’s credit where credit’s due, in spades.

The poems are fun, too.

As a cookbook, though, it is largely aspirational. It isn’t tremendously useful to me, because as a foodie I’m frankly low-class. Between my paycheck and my lack of space, I won’t be following the directions (however clear and concise) to make my own sausage anytime soon. All throughout the text, the authors direct the reader to go to farmers’ markets, the finest suppliers, basically anywhere but the grocery store … Buy tomatoes from the guy who charges the highest prices. Don’t buy strawberries at the grocery store. Don’t buy eggs at the store. Don’t you dare buy fish at the store. In fact, have your trout flown in from San Francisco. Even the recipe that perked me up (I might be able to make this one!), calling for Yukon gold potatoes (I’ve heard of those!) specified “size C” potatoes, which … I didn’t know they were classified like that. Makes sense, I suppose, but …

I might be able to do the pork pies …

They do here and there almost apologetically bend, and say or the dates you get at the grocery store would be fine or something. And I find it delightful that in amongst the ingredients sourced from across the country and the world (not afraid of a carbon footprint, these chefs), they profess their loyalty to Hellmann’s mayonnaise. It’s adorable.

It’s actually kind of fun to read this point of view; it’s a little like reading a fantasy novel. These are people who live in as completely different a world from mine as Pern or Arrakis, and it’s all they know. Their first and only priority is food and feeding people, and they’re apparently unfamiliar with a lifestyle in which going out to eat is a rare luxury. I’m not condemning this – bless their hearts, long may they cook meals which cost what I get in a week’s paycheck. “As Herb says, it’s all about life, liberty, and the prosciutto happiness.” Cheers.

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

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Murder in Mayfair – D.M. Quincy

I don’t usually bother with too much plot summary in my reviews; it seems a bit pointless when it only takes a couple of clicks or a scroll to read a blurb. But this time I’m going to make an exception. Copied from Goodreads:

In 1810, Atlas Catesby, a brilliant adventurer and youngest son of a baron, is anxious to resume his world travels after a carriage accident left him injured in London. But his plans are derailed when, passing through a country village, he discovers a helpless woman being auctioned off to the highest bidder–by her husband.

In order to save her from being violated by another potential buyer, Atlas purchases the lady, Lilliana, on the spot to set her free. But Lilliana, desperate to be with her young sons and knowing the laws of England give a father all parental rights, refuses to be rescued–until weeks later when her husband is murdered and Atlas is the only one who can help clear her name of the crime.

I mean – come on. Look at that. That’s mildly awesome. That’s a series of bombshells. That sounds like a book that you’d remember for years.

And yet … the reason I had that summary saved on the document where I write my reviews is that I had no memory of the book when I went to do this. None. The description helps – but what happened after and around that basic outline I have almost no idea. I didn’t even take notes or highlight anything while I was reading.

I do recall that, while this was a perfect setup for an historical romance, there was actually very little along those lines in the plot – this Lilliana, the rescued damsel, is single-minded in her quest to get her children back, and in that quest she does some really stupid things. Her protector, Atlas, is an anachronism of feminist support and aggrieved patience. Apart from this … it’s pretty much a blank.

At least this means the writing wasn’t terrible – that I would remember, right? But I do wonder if three stars is a bit generous for something that is such a … lacuna. Ah well. I’ll go with my first instinct and leave it.

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

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Sixteen years ago, part II

I’m sitting here watching a documentary on the History Channel about 9/11/2001, and wondering why on earth I do this to myself – why do I insist on picking the scab? But I have to. Survivor’s guilt, maybe? I’m fine; I didn’t know anyone who was killed or injured; I have heard some first-hand accounts (you ok, Heather of Craftlit? Wish I could give you a hug… and I wonder where and how the girl from NYRF is now), but … I’m ok. And maybe I feel like I owe it to the thousands and thousands of people who aren’t ok, this moment where I rip the scab off and bleed a little each year, psychically if not physically.

And all I’ve been able to think all day has been:

And Washington DC. And Shanksville PA. But I’ve been to New York, more times than I can remember. I’ve wandered around with a friend who was as country-mouse as me, and I’ve wandered with a friend who lived there and loved it. One of my earliest memories was going to see Annie on Broadway. It’s big and bold and brash and beautiful. Then, and still, and always.

So – yeah. I’ll always mark this day with tears and grief and whatever kind of remembrance I can manage. I don’t know if I’ll always have the courage to relive it like I’ve been doing this evening – and I know I’ll never watch that other documentary with footage from inside the Towers again, with those thuds that still live in my memory – but, yeah. It feels necessary.

Aaaand I think I’m going to put together survival packs for my entire family for Christmas. USB flashlights, flasks, mini first-aid kits, whatever else I can think of…

Oh, and tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

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Sixteen years

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A Christmas Peril – J. A. Hennrikus

I had a feeling I was going to like this when the main character talks about “the traditional pantyhose dance”. I love that.

The feeling was enhanced by the fact that a secondary character suddenly popped up who had my exact name – just first as last and vice versa (and my first name spelled “wrong”). I have never seen that before. It was also fun when that character, Stewart, engaged in a Shakespeare quote battle with another fellow named Patrick; Patrick and Stewart and Shakespeare all in the same sentence is just fun.

“…Something darted out—probably a coyote … ”
“Probably a dog.”
“Whose story is this? Anyway, I veered to avoid the werewolf…”

I’m often very hard on cozy mysteries, but this has all the essential ingredients, blended to excellent effect. The main character has a good and solid foundation for involving herself in any mysteries that come her way: she was a cop. And I loved the fact that the reason her cop-hood is in the past tense is that she was basically … encouraged very strongly to resign, as I recall. She wasn’t a model police officer, nor a model wife or daughter or friend or overall human being – but her faults and failings never make her obnoxious. She’s not sympathetic, on the whole – but she is interesting, and often funny, and her self-awareness makes her a really good protagonist.

It’s not a perfect story. But it’s more than enjoyable enough that it doesn’t matter. I’ve said it before, and as long as I keep reading cozy mysteries I’m sure I’ll say it again: the plot is possibly the least important part of a cozy. If an author can sell me on a three-dimensional, five-sensate (is that a thing? It should be) setting, on well-rounded characters I’m happy to spend a few hours with and will look forward to meeting again, and on sharp and clever writing that is not over-reliant on puns – then I honestly don’t much care whodunit or why. Don’t get me wrong – there had better be an at least halfway decent plot – but if the rest of it has lulled me into a state of complacency, I’m much less likely to complain about anything else.

And the writing here is sharp and clever. “Leftover summer detriment, suntan lotion and gardening hats” – what a great, concise snapshot. It was good enough to overcome multiple issues with editing which I sincerely hope aren’t going unnoticed by people who can fix them. Y’know, it worries me a little that the Netgalley emails often remind us “don’t worry! This is an ARC! All those little grammar and spelling and punctuation things you people love to nitpick about will be fixed before the book’s published!” Well, I hope so. I wouldn’t want to see something about “breeching confidentiality” in the finished book, or about something peaking instead of peeking. Or pronoun abuse. Or apostrophe abuse. Et cetera.

Because this was a really fun book. And for once I look forward to reading a lot more.

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

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On Copper Street – Chris Nickson

Phew – it’s been a minute since I’ve done my duty and posted a review. I am absolutely going to blame terror of being nuked into the Stone Age; I’ve spent a lot of time over the past weeks playing mindless computer games and feeling sick.

That’s not the sole reason, but it’s the one I’m going with. Blame the current administration for everything possible, that’s my motto. So: On Copper Street. Not a great book to open the month with, but it’s overdue.

It’s surprising how little I remember of this book. I think I had pretty much forgotten the bulk of it within a little while of closing it for the last time. It made very little impact on me as I was reading it; I do remember it being a bit of a slog. Thank goodness for Kindle notes and highlights.

The writing was not difficult, by any means – I can’t point to anything much wrong with it. It was perfectly adequate; it was just opaque. The style was frequently choppy. There was a fair amount of statements of the obvious, and some moments which annoyed me deeply. Example: one of the key events at the beginning of the book is a man’s senseless attack on a boy in which acid is thrown in the young victim’s face. I think the strongest emotion I felt in reading this book was the disgust I felt when a character (which character I don’t know; I didn’t make a note) remarks sorrowfully on how the boy will be reminded of the attack for the rest of his life, “‘Every time he looks in the mirror—'” The problem with this is that the boy would never be looking in another mirror in his life – or into, upon, or at anything else: he was completely blinded in the attack. The character who said it knew the facts of the situation, and no one around him reminded him of how horrendous that sentence had been.

I was also pretty disgusted when some papers went missing – my note on the text was “are you telling me they were the originals”? They couldn’t exactly Xerox whatever it was in 1895, but it seemed hard to believe that valuable and important papers were made as vulnerable as these were. It was stupid things like that which shaved away at the rating of the book. It wasn’t actively bad – hence three stars … it just wasn’t better than average.

I didn’t feel any sort of connection with any of the characters. Detective Inspector Tom Harper held next to no interest for me, and I couldn’t muster much concern for his family and friends, or his enemies, either. Harper’s wife was a suffragist, and would absolutely have burned her bra if bras had been worn in 1895 – and I didn’t buy it. There was no believable passion, just an occasional dollop of anachronistic-feeling discourse.

Again, hurrah for the ability to save bits and make notes on my Kindle, because without that crutch a book like this would vanish into some dusty and cobwebby recess of my brain. As I imagine it will five minutes after I hit “post” on this review.

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

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To Catch a Stolen Soul – R.L. Naquin

Do you know what a binturong smells like?

I do, now.

R.L. Naquin’s books are like hot fudge, with or without the ice cream. She has built a world full of magic and magical people, and I love it. She has a gift for description, simile, and metaphor that is right up there with the best of them. “He was short and pudgy with a thin little excuse for a mustache that looked more like he got it from drinking chocolate milk than grew it.” Her characters are just like you and me – except that weird and wonderful things happen to them, and sometimes they’re not human. (Well, for all I know neither are you. And – heh heh heh – for all you know, neither am I.) They can be silly, brilliant, distracted, scary, heart-broken, heart-breaking, unpredictable – realistic. Even when they’re a djinn like Kam, star of this novella.

I love the world these books take place in – why haven’t I read everything yet? I can’t wait.

I highlighted a lot of quotes in this short book – but I narrowed it down to three I couldn’t bear to clear.

I glanced up at all the windows in those buildings and imagined the stuffy offices, the cubicle farms and the atriums filled with miserable plants longing to feel direct sunshine that didn’t stream through glass. A piece of me would probably die a little every day cooped up in there.
(Yes, trust me – it would. It does.)

“Haven’t you learned that you have to believe it to see it?”
She dropped the list on the table. “Don’t you mean ‘seeing is believing’?”
I shrugged. “Sure, if you want the universe telling you what to do. I prefer to make the universe my bitch.”

Was it a coincidence that the last place Pete had been tracked to was a food truck court, or was this fate flapping its arms at me trying to get my attention? I tucked my hands in my pockets to keep from flapping my arms back. Coincidence or not, I believed in fate.

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

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The Art of Selling Movies – John McElwee

It’s an absolute joy to see newspaper ads for film going back to the beginning of the medium. It’s like sifting through archaeological strata of the country’s culture. The birth of film, all the pre–Hayes–Code ads (!), the tremendous hype and fulsome praise for films I’ve never heard of, then into the 30’s and 40’s and all the beloved Golden Age stars looking fabulous. And onward.

And the lies! My goodness, the lies told in some of the ads in order to get butts in seats. The most shocking was a pair of advertisements for All Quiet on the Western Front, which I’ve never seen (or read) but was pretty sure was a pretty grim and serious film about WWI … yet was being sold with pictures of scantily–clad girls. Jaw–dropping.

It’s fascinating to see the parallels between the state of health of the movie industry – nearly killed by Depression and then again by television – and the methodologies (and level of hysteria) in the ads. I might have wished for a somewhat more clearly linear layout for the book, but it was thorough and well-researched. A fun ride.

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

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Enemy Action – Mike Hollow

Just going to get this out of the way at the beginning: as a former fan of Mad Men, I got a giggle from the name of one of the main characters here. There. Now then.

This is the tale of a man found dead in a bomb shelter the morning after an air raid in WWII London. The enemy action that killed him wasn’t German, though – it was much more local than that, and it’s up to Inspector Jago to find out who did it, preferably before he takes on the new assignment that unexpectedly lands in his lap.

It’s a bit of an odd story, this. It begins with a long section from the point of view of the boy who finds the body, out for a bit of illicit not-quite-looting – and then the boy is barely heard from for the rest of the book. The suddenly imposed time limit felt strange, too, like an attempt to inject urgency into the plot which ultimately didn’t really do it.

Another odd thing is the tendency of quite a few characters to do kind of a lot of speechifying to total strangers. At the most innocuous question, suddenly someone is giving a rather high-flown monologue about duty, or their life story, or their dreams and aspirations. Now and then might have just been the author loosing his inner poet or philosopher, but it happens frequently throughout.

All of the writing felt a bit self-conscious. There were moments where I could see what the author intended, but which did not quite come off as he wished. Certain moments were built up with little or no pay-off – they just dried up like shallow streams in a drought. Some character motivation was muddy as well; one character lies to the police with no reason that made sense except to extend the plot with their obstruction. There’s also a deal of superfluous repetition and recapping.

It just felt fragmented, like there was no real anchor for the plot. I was never sure whether I was really supposed to like the characters, or whether they liked each other, or why characters behaved the way they did, or, honestly, why I was supposed to care. I appreciated the concept of “the Blitz detective”, and the idea that it’s hard to invest much time and effort into the murder of a single individual in the midst of carnage. I’d love to read the story I thought this was going to be, with all the terror and tension of London under constant threat of horrific bombing raids. But it didn’t connect. I didn’t feel it.

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

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