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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Shadow Wrack – Kim Thompson

I wasn’t sure what to make of this one for quite a while. It’s a sequel – the middle book of a trilogy, actually – and I didn’t read the first one (I keep telling myself to check these things before I request a book on Netgalley, and I keep ignoring myself), but I don’t think that was why I struggled to like this; it made what needed to be clear adequately clear without dwelling too much on what happened before. I have no problems with the storytelling in that department.

It’s a fun idea: a young girl (twelve, I believe) finds herself in a position where she has to help a group of supernatural senior citizens, keeping the centaur hidden and so on, and keeping the fairies from starting a full-scale war with the dwarves who come to rebuild the home that burned down in the first book. I liked parts of that – Willa’s calm and reasonable handling of a few situations was perfect for a tween book.

My … “discomfort” is too strong a word; it was more a sort of sad sigh … comes from the fact that Willa’s intervention was so badly required. I don’t know whether all of these beings are so fractious and childish because they’re non-human fae-type persons, or whether it’s because they’re elderly – but it had better not be the latter, because – well, way to inculcate a fear of getting old in a kid. Their behavior is extremely erratic, and – “Stop! Stop! You’re acting like a bunch of kids! …” Yes. Quite. Maybe this is why so many children’s and young adult novels focus on situations where there are few or no adults: the young main characters have the opportunity to take responsibility and make decisions without grownups having to be depicted as idiots.

Of course another problem is that I just didn’t like Willa. When a child – or any character – makes a major mistake in a story, I should be predisposed to be sympathetic with the impulse that caused it, and with her suffering through the results. Willa makes a huge misstep in the course of this story, and it just made me want to slap her.

It was the bit I quoted from above that made me shut the book and let my finger hover over “Delete” for a second; it was just so … much. I get tired when there’s any group of people behaving as stupidly as some of these characters were behaving; if it’s meant for comedy, then it completely misses my sense of humor, and if it’s because it’s a book intended for young readers then … in my opinion it’s a terrible idea.

It was two simple words which pushed me to finally quit at about 70%. One was the “super” in “Willa found she was super-hungry”. There are two speech tics which are more and more common in the recent past which I loathe – constant use of “like” and the use of “super” as a qualifier. Fingernails on a blackboard. I kept going because that’s just me, just my personal button being pushed. What finally acted as the Last Straw to make me raise both eyebrows, close the book, and finally hit delete was –

“Jesus!” he exclaimed.

I guess this isn’t considered swearing anymore? And blasphemy is just fine for a book aimed at tweens? How strange. I was surprised at how much this offended and disgusted me.

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

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Stillhouse Lake – Rachel Caine

I have loved everything I’ve read by Rachel Caine, and I can’t figure out why I haven’t read more. I’ll have to. Soon. I just need to clear my calendar and read nothing but Rachel Caine (and Seanan McGuire) for a couple of months.

You know all those tired words and phrases that are typically found in reviews of thriller-type books, like “gripping” and “edge of my seat” and “wow”? They all come into play here. I mean, I don’t know. Looked at objectively and coolly and at a distance from the action, maybe this isn’t a perfect book. But in the midst of the flow of words, with the action (to mix metaphors) galloping along through unknown and dangerous wilds, the finer points of Literature didn’t mean a thing. I’m going with my gut – my poor, roiling, anxious gut.

The story begins with a woman’s discovery that the husband she loves, the father of her children, the other half of her rather complacent American Dream life … is a serial killer. And – not that there’s a good brand of serial killer, but – his crimes are shockingly horrific in ways that I’ll be haunted by at random unexpected moments for a while to come. And, since his … “workshop” has been in the garage attached to their house, police and, worse, popular opinion is that she must have been aware of what he was doing in there – in fact, she must have been complicit. She helped. She must have. How could a woman live mere feet from that (insert less-cliched version of “chamber of horrors” here), sleep next to that man for the whole of their marriage and eat dinner and raise kids and make love and discuss bills with him without knowing what he really was?

But she did live in ignorance the whole time, and had no idea in all the world that such a thing was in any way possible … until an SUV crashes into the garage and reveals the horrors to the world. Because sometimes psychopaths are scary smart, and they can be meticulous at covering their tracks, and her husband – no: ex-husband Mel made sure she was oblivious. But a few years and a court acquittal later, Gina – now named Gwen – is living a life that was unimaginable before that SUV crashed, constantly on the alert and when necessary on the run. Between Mel’s victims’ families and the hordes of internet vigilantes – and, heaven help us all, those wingnuts who are worshipful fans of her ex-husband the serial killer – who just cannot believe she was innocent and ignorant, and Mel’s incarceration on death row isn’t enough – they want blood vengeance, and hers, or her kids’, will do just fine. (Mel’s fans, of course, don’t want to punish her for taking part in the killings. They want her punished for having found concretely damning evidence against him and bringing it to the police.) They’re legion, they’re everywhere, they’re determined, and they get together and pool their information, and every time they seem to get close Gwen has to pick up and recreate her identity and those of her children, and relocate yet again. As the book opens, she has a home by a lake – Stillhouse Lake, surprisingly enough – and it feels like it might possibly be as safe as it is possible to be. And she cautiously sticks her head just a little bit out of her shell.

She regrets it.

What follows is a roller coaster. I don’t mean one of those fun little Coney Island trips where your car goes up and down a few times and you whoop a bit and hop off and go get a hot dog. I mean one of those things that have names indicating they might kill you, that go up and down at angles which shouldn’t be survivable and then do it all backwards and flip you over a few times until the change is shaken out of your pockets until you’re deposited at the end so shaken you hit your knees and think about kissing the ground except you’re afraid you’ll collapse entirely and you won’t be thinking of food for hours. Who can be trusted? How is it possible that anyone found her? Does she have to flee yet again, or is it going to be possible to face it down this time and take the reins of her life back in her own hands?

The only real flaw I could find in the book, and maybe someone can explain to me why it’s not one, is the question of why Gwen doesn’t take her children and leave the country entirely. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK – or perhaps a non-English-speaking country would add a layer of protection; if her source could provide her with all of her new paperwork every time she regenerated (so to speak), surely he could have gotten her a set of passports.

But apart from that question, which nagged at me, I loved this book. I can’t see ever reading it again, as it was not a comfortable or … fun read, in that the suspense was powerful and terrible things happen. But the story was spun out beautifully, the characters were vivid (Mel is frankly terrifying, both in Gwen’s memory (that moment in court …) and in person), and the psychology of having survived horror and continuing to survive its aftermath seemed, to my ignorant mind, dead on. One major point for me in the story’s favor is that nothing (well, almost nothing) that happens to Gwen and her kids is down to anything they have done wrong. I think it would be easy for an author to make, say, one of the kids get tired of the strictures of what their life has become and kick over the traces, opening them all up to attack. Not here, or at least nothing major. The kids are not stupid, and they’re almost as afraid as they should be (Gwen hasn’t told them everything, or they would be every bit as afraid as they should be), and even when they grumble they do what they’re supposed to. It all goes back to the reason they trusted Mel, and loved him, and honestly believed that he had the capacity to love them: it’s hard to distrust everyone all the time. They all make decisions to extend a bit of trust to a tiny handful of people, and the one who deserves it least is a shock. I saw it coming, a little – but that could be just because I was busily and paranoiacally suspecting everyone who was not Gwen or one of her children.

I’m surprised there’s a sequel; this is such a self-contained story that it feels like it doesn’t need one. But, then again, I definitely want to know what happens next.

We always seem to want the hundredth of whatever to be special. This was my hundredth book read this year – and by golly, it filled the bill.

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

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Abigale Hall – Lauren A. Forry

This book is full of dreams and madness.

That sounds like it could be great, doesn’t it?

Well … no.

A common piece of advice for aspiring writers is “never start a book with a character’s dream”. And Lauren A. Forry didn’t. However, after a little while it seemed as though every other chapter began with a dream. Another fairly common piece advice for everyone is “your dreams are always much more interesting to you than to anyone else in the world”. By the third or fourth time a chapter opened in the middle of Eliza’s nightmare, I rolled my eyes. By the fifth or sixth time I was frankly disgusted. This was another time I was constantly on the verge of quitting, but kept reading because I wanted to know how it all would be wrapped up.

Someday I’ll learn that it usually isn’t really worth it.

The other part of my first line, madness, was something else that started to inspire disgust by the time I got through the book. By the end this book was starting to look like a DSM-5, a psychiatric diagnosis guide. I’m sure I’ve used the comparison to salt before in a review: some is good, and more is never better. This was just all much too much.

The other reason I kept going was that the writing had some merit. The gradual – very gradual – revelation of what happened to Eliza’s family, and the unspooling of how Abigale Hall got to be the place of horror as described in the book was handled well, for the most part.

But characterization was not terribly strong – Eliza’s love, Peter, was a bit like a paper doll being moved through the plot, and the bad guys were straight out of central casting for any 60’s gothic. And the madness lapping at just about everyone’s knees and splashing about on all the walls and ceilings left lots of questions throughout as to who was trustworthy and who was not. Done well, of course, this sort of uncertainty adds to the atmosphere of a creepy gothic novel. Not done well, it can cause whiplash.

And in the end the pain and aberrant behavior and horror – and dreams and madness – proliferated to the point that it became rather pointless, and … I’m tempted to use the phrase “torture porn”, especially since a great deal of the aberrant behavior and horror is focused around a young girl. After chapter upon chapter of oh no she’s not – oh, she did, I became jaded, until the big climax of the story landed with a blood-soaked thud. It was like the most brutal five episodes of Criminal Minds in which children are involved, the ones I will never ever watch again, balled together and distilled down to take out the enjoyable character moments. And I found the ending completely unsatisfying, and not something that justified ploughing through the whole book.

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

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The Tell-Tale Tarte – Maya Corrigan

This wasn’t awful. It wasn’t great, either, but it was entertaining, and a basically easy read. It’s the fourth in a cozy series, and it does a good job at it: I pretty much got the gist of what I needed to know about the characters and the setting and so on pretty painlessly (though there were some issues of painful infodump), and I don’t think the previous books were overly spoiled for me if I ever want to go back to them. (Spoiler: I probably won’t.)

The only thing I can really complain about, writing-wise, is the dialogue. People don’t talk like this. I’m a weirdo who can’t stop using the fifty-cent words in my arsenal (see?), used to getting the glazed look, and even I don’t talk like this: “I can’t imagine Granddad as docile as a Stepford wife.” Or this: “‘The next time you go out with Gunnar, wear something clingy and edgy in a bright color. It might add a spark to your stalled romance.'” (That one should be from an article in a bad women’s magazine.)

What happens is that heroine Val runs a café in a fitness club, and her grandfather is trying to create a career as an investigator (a “problem solver”). One afternoon, shopping with her (fat) friend, Val sees a man collapse in a parking lot, and he looks just like how her grandfather looked that morning, after a rather drastic makeover. (I specify that her friend is fat, because it was strongly stressed in the telling. Did I say I only had that one thing to complain about in the writing? My mistake.) It turns out that there is some deception going on, with Grandpa and, apparently, at least one other man impersonating a local big-time author called Rick Usher, who, unsurprisingly given his name, has a Poe fixation that probably could have used a good dose of some counter-obsessional medication. The other man, of course, is that fellow who collapsed – and, in fact, died. Was he murdered? Of course he was. The police don’t think so, but Val is certain, and before you can say “cozy mystery” she’s going undercover-like into Usher’s house to see what she can find out. The fact that under the circumstances it seems extremely unlikely that the people who make up the Usher ménage would even consider bringing in an outsider, no matter how tired they were of frozen dinners.

I probably shouldn’t get as hung up as I do about things like the fact that this café Val runs inside a gym is supposed to offer logically healthy breakfasts and snacks and whatnot. And smoothies do get a mention – but, seriously, so do brownies, pecan muffins, cheddar cheese cookies, bread puddings, and a whole bunch of other baked goods that would instantaneously undo any good people might get out of their exercise. There are recipes at the back of the book, of course; I can’t say I was overwhelmed with a desire to make any of them. I don’t know; I was never convinced by Val as a professional cook, and it was never entirely believable that she did the cooking for the café.

Or like the weird whiffs of misogyny that came up here and there: “Val would have run or yelled for help instead of swinging back, as most women would.” Really? The other one I made a note of is Granddad’s expressed opinion, but it was still like cookie crumbs in the bed: annoying.

Or like the annoying repetitions of annoying things like “she dashed” (Val dashes about quite a bit) or “gobbled” (which might have only been used twice, but in my opinion that’s two times too many) or Val pretending to tip a pretend hat in a peculiar little salute to her grandfather. I mean – try it. Go stand in front of a mirror and pretend to tip a hat which you’re not actually wearing. Does it look like you’re tipping a hat? Or does it just look like you’re having a small seizure? Val does that at least twice, too.

The story was … fine; the rest of the writing I’m not complaining about was … fine… I sighed over the extreme focus on Poe (a young man named Raven? Really? Help), but such is the way of the cozy. I only rather hope the rest of the books don’t have Themes like this. The B-plot of Val trying to save her café in the face of the fitness club manager’s plans to replace it with a clothing shop was not bad; I liked how she handled the opportunity to blackmail the manager. And I liked how the situation was resolved. The woman Val hires to help her is a refreshing change from the usual sort of character, with an interesting back story. I’m not sorry I read it; it entertained me while I was reading it (in between grumbles). I won’t cross the street to avoid more in the series, but I also won’t go out of my way to obtain them.

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

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Thorn Jack – Katherine Harbour – Kate Rudd

When I started listening to this book, I resisted a little. Teenage urban fantasy, I sighed, and tried to remember what prompted me to buy it. (Ah – I’d gotten the ebook on the cheap, and there was a special price for the audiobook, so I took a shot.) I tsked over some phrasing – “when they’d been young”; “since they’d been little”; “when she’d been twelve”, etc. But, on the other hand, I enjoyed things like this –

“Whatever.”
“And once again the kingdom of whatever asserts itself.”

It was clever. And funny. And intriguing. And sad. And creepy. And some of the writing achieved true poetry. I kept going.

The audiobook narrator, Kate Rudd, is overall very good, although I’m not in love with the way she reads intense scenes. Can’t put my finger on exactly why. My only real complaint is that she insisted on pronouncing Tam Lin as “Tom Lin”, which jangled against the ballad as I’ve always heard it. Well, and the fact that rather often the wrong “voice” was used for a character’s lines. (To give her credit, it takes some time to get used to the main female character being named Finn, which is usually a male name, and her best male friend being named Christie, which outside of Ireland and Charles De Lint is usually not.) Well, and the fact that I got a bit weary of Finn exclaiming “Jack!!” like Rose on the Titanic, but I suppose that one was unavoidable.

After a bit the story began to unfold in earnest. Finn and her father have moved back to the town where her parents went to school, planning to make a new start after the death a few years ago of her mother and the more recent suicide of her sister, and Finn began attending her parents’ alma mater. She found a pair of amazing friends, Sylvie and Christie, with a speed that made me sigh again. I appreciated that Kate Rudd had a solid knowledge of fantasy without feeling the need to reference Tolkien or Beagle every paragraph. I enjoyed the scents that permeated the book – people’s individual fragrances, the smell of a street at night or a lawn at high noon or an abandoned and astonishingly creepy hotel. And the imagery began to get under my skin – and I mean that in a really good way. Her descriptions were a few degrees off the common, and conjured marvelously clear images. Her command of language is light years better than all those lesser writers I’ve seen who throw the book (the dictionary, that is) at a sentence to try to force the reader to “see” exactly what was in their minds, and just end up with word salad half the time. “He was like something that had stopped pretending to be human”. “His eyes were colder than moonlight on a knife.” “Jewels and eyes glittered like tooth and claw.” Katherine Harbour writes like a painter. The imagery was so powerful I wish I’d had a sketchbook handy along with the leisure to fill it up as I listened, with things like boys filled with flowers and a hooded figure holding a rose in its hands. Maybe someday.

The names are magnificent. Leafstruck Mansion. HallowHeart. Caliban Ariel’Pan.

There is a nicely struck balance of humor and deadly seriousness. The three teenaged protagonists are wonderful characters – everyone deserves friends like these (however cranky the speed of their having been acquired made me), and their fate is never assured. They inadvertently interrupt an arcane wake, and while the reader-slash-listener knows that this could be a fatal misstep for them, the author adroitly shows that Our Heroes are all but clueless about the very real danger they’re in. They’re still not seeing the line between mundane and fae, still unaware that the world as they know it never really existed, and they do not understand that they are let off lightly when those holding the wake decide to penalize them with the lesser of three evils: mischief. It’s bad enough – little do they know how very much worse it could be.

They find out.

“Caliban and Phuagh shall escort you over the threshold.”
Finn didn’t like how Reiko had phrased that last statement. She searched for a trick. She looked over her shoulder at Jack, who said clearly, “Phouka – make sure they move safely over the threshold of this building and into Fair Hollow.”

And then someone came out and said the word “teind”, and if it hadn’t begun to happen already everything changed. “Tam Lin” (or as SJ Tucker calls it, “the 400-year-old Childe ballad about trying to rescue your baby-daddy from the queen of the fairies before it’s too late”) has been one of my favorite tales forever. Pamela Dean’s novel of that name is something I’ve probably read half a dozen times (and I need to go find it and read it again), and one of the books I’d quite possibly go back into a burning building for is my thirty year old paperback of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s [book:The Perilous Gard], one of my favorite books in all the world (this or any other – also in need of a reread soon). (ETA: It’s also available on Audible, in a really lovely narration, and now I don’t have to rush to find my paperback, or risk my life for it.) And, of course, Steeleye Span’s “Tam Lin” was a pillar of my twenties (and, to a lesser degree, Fairport Convention’s). It’s actually a theme I’m surprised hasn’t been used to death, because the lady saves the knight’s butt.

Something happened to me as I was listening to this book. You know the book (or movie) “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”? That’s kind of how I felt, only quite not in the way Terry McMillan meant it. A long, long time ago, I drew. I painted. I wrote. I made things. I was positively steeped in Steeleye Span and Phoenyx and The Chieftains, and as often as possible I dressed in bodice and boots and bells and hied me to the Renaissance Faire.

I haven’t done any of that in a long, long time. Did I “grow up”?

Why? Where’s that gotten me?

Something … something about this book woke all of it up in me.

Another added bonus from this book is that a ways into it I felt the need to go listen to the ballad “Tam Lin”, and betook myself to YouTube, intending to bring up Steeleye Span. Instead, I found Tricky Pixie, and fell straight in love, and have since become a fangirl of S.J. Tucker (Sooj!) in particular. (And in looking to expand my knowledge of where the group went after that one album (“Keepers of the Flame”), I discovered more about the aforementioned Phoenyx and lead singer and songwriter Heather Alexander; I’m still wrapping my brain around that.)

And so. Hopefully this will last. I really hope so. It felt … amazing. “Iron and salt. Poetry. Silver. Running water. Church bells, incense, mirrors, blessed ribbons, rowan wood, parsley, various other botanical varieties – these are your defenses.” Silver, iron, salt, a talisman that means something (preferably in iron or silver) – these are the things that will keep you safe from the dark things, those things of night and nothing, the unseelie court. For the night is dark, and full of ter – um, yeah, anyway.

“Do you want this world of absolutes and accidents? Of hopelessness and ugly deaths? If we die, there will be no hope. Nothing but what you see.” The sublime – something sadly absent in modern life – that’s what else the night is full of, and faerie. It can kill you – or it can make you see, really see, kind of like a night on Cadair Idris.

Music and bells, incense and roses, Tricky Pixies and Phoenyxes – these are the things that will help to open me up to the starry night, the bright fae – the magic. I think I remember the path now. Thanks, Katherine Harbour.

Tam Lin by Steeleye Span
Tam Lin by Tricky Pixie – a subtly different take! And my introduction to some spectacular people.
And if you’re a completist, here’s
Tam Lin by Fairport Convention
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

One final lesson that – depending on your outlook – might not be a bad thing to keep in mind: “Don’t ever put anything outside your house with the word ‘welcome’ on it.” Oh. Hey. Good point. (Happily, my doormat says “Hi. I’m Mat.”)

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Seducing Mr. Sykes – Maggie Robinson

I am so deathly tired of the abuse of the English language in books. If I want to hear the language butchered I can take out my earbuds at work and listen for five minutes. It’s not just in early reviewer copies, though obviously it’s more common there; it’s not just in self-published books. This one is to be published by Kensington Books, which is pretty legit, right? Yet here Our Hero reflects on being “slayed … by Sadie’s regal presence”, and “vocal chords”, and Our Heroine makes a “sinuous trip up the staircase”, carried up in the Hero’s arms. Usually one can figure out through context what a word is supposed to be, but this baffles me. If you’re not completely sure of the meaning of a word, either look it up or don’t use it. And if you’re a book editor, for God’s sake take a fine-toothed comb and EDIT the damned things.

*ahem*

That being said, this was kind of fun. It was absurd – taking place in a sort of Victorian (Victorian?) rehab village where wealthy families send their troubled scions to reform via fresh air, exercise, routine, and a lack of unseemly stimulation. The place is run by the Sykeses (father, currently abroad (and I take it that’s a book unto itself), and son), and everyone in the little village is engaged in the task of looking after the Guests to see to it they are looked after – and that they behave. The latter is the problem with Sadie, Sarah Marchmain, who has been dumped in Puddling-on-the-Wold by her father because she is bucking at the prospect of marrying the man he has chosen for her. “… [Someone’s] husband, a local baronet called Sir Colin Sykes, had taken her in hand as best he could once they were married. Sadie was determined never to be taken in hand.” So naturally when she has a meet-cute with Mr. Sykes the Younger, he is horrified at what she is wearing (stolen plaid trousers) and she is mulishly determined to buck any authority she comes up against. So, naturally, I knew they would end up together. (Well, it is of course given away in the title – which doesn’t kick in till almost three quarters of the way in.)

The how and why doesn’t matter much. This is, after all, a romance novel, and there isn’t much new under the sun in getting a couple from point A to bed or marriage or whatever the goal is. The primary thing here is characterization, and enjoyable writing – and Maggie Robinson does a really pretty good job with these. I may not believe in Puddling-on-the-Wold, but I was adequately convinced by Tristan and Sadie and their background cast.

Now, as to the writing (apart from what I already mentioned, and quibbles like detailed descriptions of what color something was when it had already been specified that all the lights were off and it was very dark) (oh, and yes of course I got cranky when Frankenstein was conflated with his monster): I laughed when the eleventh Doctor confessed that he couldn’t make a decent meringue (because neither can I). Whipping up egg whites into a froth is harder than it looks. Similarly, creating a book that is decently frothy and light and yet stands up on its own is apparently really hard, because so few people manage it successfully.

But this comes darned close. The silly plot romps along, pulling in a few serious details along the way to give it a foundation but not to dampen it, and by the end the main characters are surprisingly solid and rounded. Some of the froth was more sticky than I would prefer – Sadie continues her mulish eccentricity beyond what really seems a reasonable point, for example, and in fact just about everyone behaves at least slightly unreasonably – but on the whole it pulled it off.

And I did enjoy quite a few turns of phrase. Sadie’s old late governess is described as “at this moment no doubt giving the devil a lesson on evil and grading him harshly”. After a shock, Tristan tries to pull himself together: “Let’s see. To speak, one opened one’s mouth. Arranged teeth and tongue in familiar combinations. Pressed one’s vocal chords into service. Breathed too, somehow. All of that was quite beyond him at the moment.”

My favorite line, though, which made this just a little more than simple froth and which should in fact be everyone’s motto: “Let’s be kind to each other and see where the journey leads.”

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

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Blood and Circuses – Kerry Greenwood

In my review of [book:The Green Mill Murder] I did a little bit of exploration of how very different the Miss Fisher tv episodes are from the books they’re based on. I was about to say that the changes didn’t feel quite so drastic in this one, until I remembered the very drastic change at the beginning. Yeah, there were great big changes; I guess it was a bit streamlined to make it easier to digest on television.

And, again, I liked the TV episode – but I liked the book better.

Another thing I mentioned in the last book was that I always seem to learn something from these books, and the same held true this time out. The bit about the human cannonball made me blink for a second, and then basically go “Well, sure.” And I loved the detail about circus trick riding – I’m a little sad that wasn’t the way they went with the tv show, because that would have been beautiful. Ah well.

A note on the horses – – I’ve said before that one area in which I always judge a writer is how they write horses. Kerry Greenwood did a nice job. They had names, and gender-specific pronouns were used. I approve.

I’m still a little disappointed and disoriented by this, the original, “real” Inspector Robinson. It took a minute, but once I finally adapted, I enjoyed him. The Shakespeare quotes that pepper this one helped – how can I not love a man whose response to someone being upset at police in her home is “‘Oh, woe, Alas! What, in my house?'”

Lizard Elsie, Miss Parkes, the circus folk – these were some wonderful characters. Miss Fisher is a potent enough force to carry the whole series on her own if she had to – though she’s not invulnerable, and I like that and her awareness of the fact – but she is surrounded by lovely juicy characters who are all immense fun to read, both the series regulars and the guest stars. Love it.

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

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The Incredible Crime – Lois Austen-Leigh

Much is made in the introduction to this reissued Golden Age novel that Lois Austen-Leigh is the granddaughter of Jane Austen’s nephew. And there were moments, reading this, that I caught a glimpse of the wit and language style of Jane, and wondered whether she was doing it on purpose for a few minutes here and there the thought did cross my mind that this was a bit like the sort of mystery Jane Austen would write, with wit and romance and cleverness. (It had the kind of cursing JA might have used had she been writing a hundred or so years later: “and what the something something ’ave yer to do with me?” Heh.)

But … the cleverness of the book seemed to falter in the delivery of the actual mystery, the “incredible crime”. In fact, I had a bit of trouble figuring out exactly what was meant as the “incredible crime”. There was a lot of circumlocution about smuggling drugs in the style of all the stories of past centuries, and a lot of exploration of whether it was sporting or not (which, the consensus was, it was when it was rum or such being smuggled, but not when it’s drugs), and who was involved, and was it okay if the drugs weren’t going to be marketed, and wait really who was involved … I was a bit – pardon the pun – at sea for big chunks of the book.

One reason for my state of I have no idea what’s going on was – I admit it. I skimmed parts of it, because there were a chunk devoted to my old nemesis, bridge, and several chunks spent on my new nemesis: fox hunting. I mean, I’m largely ignorant of fox-hunting – my impression being of rich and bored people riding roughshod over the countryside and people’s crops chasing a pack of hounds which are chasing a fox, jumping over fences, falling off occasionally, and, in the end, watching as the dogs tear the fox to pieces? I could be wrong. I’m sure there’s much more to it. Heaven knows the reverence with which the process was treated in this book indicates a deep culture behind the … sport. All I can say as a 20-21st century American is that when a character asks “Does it convey what it should to you, when I tell you that in five days’ hunting the hounds have made one six-mile point—point, Harry, and two seven-mile points?” I could only say “No”.

There is some extremely uncomfortable pre-feminism … stuff, particularly in men’s attitude toward silly and untrustworthy women (“Prudence’s first impulse was to point out to him the unwisdom of belittling the trustworthiness of women in general, to the woman he apparently proposed to trust”). I was mildly dismayed by the way Prudence, the initially strong and capable woman at the heart of the story, went down a rather Taming of the Shrew path. But at least she didn’t ride astride when she hunted.

I don’t know. I liked parts. There was some nice atmosphere, some nice characterization, some very enjoyable writing … but my mental image of the plot is of a huge tangle of that really fuzzy kind of yarn that loses its integrity in places and just becomes a puff. Was there smuggling? Of what? Who was that spy fellow, and could he be trusted? Who could be trusted at all? Was the puppy okay? And who killed the man who died very late in the plot, and why? It was a mess.

One note which might help the modern, baffled reader: “sported his oak” means “shut his door to indicate he wasn’t ‘in’ to visitors”. I must have seen that in the past – I must just never have looked it up before.

Quote I enjoyed:
“This is a very serious allegation that you are making,” said Colonel Marton hoarsely. “Do you quite realize what you are saying, I wonder?”
It was quite obvious that Mary did. “I don’t know about no alligators,” she said cautiously…

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

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