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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The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – Michael Swanwick

OK, let’s get this thing back in gear.

Unfortunately, it’s with a DNF.

I enjoyed the beginning of this, although it confused me. I enjoyed the premise, and the dragon, and although the darkness and grimness of the setting had me on edge, I could appreciate the fact that it did so. If that makes sense. It wasn’t my preferred type of setting – I like there to be just a little light somewhere, and I admit I do prefer to like a character or two in what I’m reading – but it was well done and fascinating.

I was confused because it’s never explicitly stated where and/or when this book is set. There are elves and dragons and invisible boys, but one of the elves wears an Italian suit. I don’t recall any of the characters mentioned being plain vanilla humans (although I think Jane was perceived as one?), but the young ones (those not enslaved in factories, at least) still have to go to school. And the teind is a thing, treated alarmingly like The Bachelorette. But, again, I could appreciate the craft, whether I enjoyed it or not.

It was when Jane, our heroine who allies herself with the title’s iron dragon, gets out into the world and into school that the book took a sharp downward turn for me. It actually got darker and darker – the world that this is set in is a horrifying, dismal, dangerous, ugly place, and Jane – understandably not a sweet and wholesome girl to start with – adapts to the horror and darkness and danger in ways that made her more and more difficult to read about. A line which perfectly captured it was “For all that she’d had no great expectations for it, sex was turning out to be even more squalid, tawdry, and cynical than she had suspected it would.” I gave up somewhere around the 50% point, I believe – I just couldn’t push through. This is not due to the book – it’s a case of “it’s not you it’s me”. I just didn’t enjoy it. My decision about rating a book I don’t finish is always case by case. There are times I won’t leave a rating. If the book is dreadful enough that I can’t or just won’t finish it, I’m not going to hesitate to express that in the rating: it’s usually going to be a single star. If I fail to finish a book because it’s simply not to my taste, it’s usually two-starrer. I think I’m just going to leave this one starless – what I appreciated was very good. The rise and fall of the meryons was marvelous. I am sorry not to find out what happens. But I got out because I was beginning to feel soiled reading it.

A quote and an idea that I did love:
“So you’re saying … that I’m living a story in which I don’t get financial aid? Is that it?”
He shook his head. “It’s not you. The secretary is living a story in which she doesn’t give you financial aid. It’s a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. It gives you an out.”

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

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Sandy Hook happened

Please don’t watch NBC tonight.

Please.

If you haven’t heard, as I wish I hadn’t, the new host of whatever news magazine they air on Sunday nights (I’m not looking it up) is debuting an interview with a … person … who believes the US government was responsible for 9/11, that the Holocaust never happened, that the moon landings were all a hoax, and – painfully horrible as these are, this is the one that makes me truly, deeply, viciously, personally angry – that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 at about 9:37 AM, in which staff members and twenty children aged six and seven – –

Let me repeat that, in hopes of making this impact properly: twenty children aged six and seven

… never happened.

I live in Connecticut. I’ll never forget that day. It happened. No sane person can doubt that.

And while everyone has the right to believe otherwise and state that belief, no one has the right to torture people who have already been through hell by claiming their hell never existed.

No one should give this sort of mentally disturbed, heartless individual (whose name I refuse to use) a platform from which to continue this torture. Because this person has been given a platform, his poison has spread, and the families of the children who died – really, actually died; they weren’t spirited off to an underground complex as this person seems to believe; they were killed by multiple rounds from an assault rifle – have been harassed as a result. I have no words to encompass how deep this wrong is.

Please, please, please do not watch Megyn Kelly. Spread the word to anyone you can communicate with not to watch Megyn Kelly.

Watch this instead. It’s available on Netflix.

And think of:

Rachel D’Avino, 29, teacher’s aide
Dawn Hochsprung, 47, principal
Anne Marie Murphy, 52, teacher’s aide
Lauren Rousseau, 30, teacher
Mary Sherlach, 56, school psychologist
Victoria Leigh Soto, 27, teacher

Students
Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
Ana Márquez-Greene, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

Think of their families. Think of the survivors. Don’t give even implicit support to anyone who offers them more harm. Don’t watch NBC tonight.

Please.

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Anne with an E

It’s going to be a minute before I get back into the swing of finishing and posting book reviews – so, in the meantime, I’ll go back to my Anneish roots.

– The credits are glorious. And here’s why.

There has been news floating on the interwebs about a new Anne adaptation for quite a while. I had heard there was going to be something set in the present day, which worried me; “Green Gables Fables” was cute, but I don’t know how it would work in a more professional effort. And then I saw the first online posts about “Anne with an E”. Welp, I figured, I have Netflix and an hour, let’s give it a shot.

I loved the first episode. Actually, I was a little giddy after the first episode. Amybeth McNulty is amazing. Honestly, I prefer her appearance and performance to Megan Follows’s, and I never thought I’d be able to say that. Tall, skinny, carroty (sorry, luv), big shining eyes, and the acting chops to pull off Anne’s speeches – I was thrilled. (Not the kind of thrill you get from finding grubs under rocks, mind you – that came later.)

It doesn’t take long to come across the word “gritty” when looking for information on this series. And I get it. It’s not exactly “The Wire”, but Anne suffers flashbacks – PTSD? – that in the first episode I applauded. I’d spared a sympathetic thought for Anne’s treatment by the families she’d lived with before Green Gables, but I can’t say I’d ever thought about it much. LMM doesn’t ever dwell on it. On Netflix, you’re not given a choice. Her life was horribly harsh before Mrs. Spencer took her away, and where it’s not so much glossed over as put firmly behind in the book, it bubbles up here. A baby screaming on the train to Bright River sends her right back to life with the Hammonds. And (was it this episode?) “quiet as a mouse” becomes a phrase to cause full-body shudders.

And I thought it was good – important. Realistic. She had no real upbringing – she was there to take the brunt of the work, and she was an all but complete autodidact. And, really, even I admit there’s only so much you can get from books.

There is a flashback scene in which other girls at the orphanage, fed up with her flights of fantasy, dangle a dead mouse in her face … that was hard to watch, but, again, realistic. Not, upon reflection, true to the spirit of the book, in which Anne overcomes not only time and space but any objections, and wins over all comers – but realistic.

The biggest departure from the book in Episode 1 was the Incident of the Amethyst Brooch. In the book, she’s been at Green Gables a little while, and is very much looking forward to her first picnic, held by the Sunday School. When Marilla’s brooch disappears, she blames Anne; Anne denies any knowledge. Marilla (headachy, if I recall), doesn’t believe her and tells her there will be no picnic unless she confesses. Whereupon Anne retires, invents a wonderful confession, and then is shocked when that does not get her passage to the picnic but in fact greater punishment. And then Marilla locates the brooch and all is forgiven and forgotten in time to get Anne to the picnic, where she has a simply scrumptious time.

In the series, the brooch disappears mere days after Anne’s arrival; Marilla blames Anne, who denies any knowledge – and Marilla tells her she will be sent back to the orphanage unless she confesses. So Anne, facing that choice, makes up a pretty decent confession on the spot – and is horribly shocked to find herself on the back of a cart headed for the train. Only then does Marilla find the brooch, and immediately Matthew gallops off to try to intercept her. End of episode.

Okay, I thought. That’s different. But … after all, I thought, it wouldn’t be that easy to convey onscreen what was so clear in the book, that Anne wanted, needed, this picnic with all the strength of her being, and that being denied it was nearly as harsh a blow as being sent back to the orphanage might be. (Well, no, not “nearly”, but it would feel like it to her.) “Confess or you go back” is a clear and immediately understandable threat. I was all right with it. I was not so much all right with Matthew’s heroic ride – a man in his sixties with a heart condition being sent off so was kind of horrifying. But as the first episode ended I was still pretty happy. I wasn’t enthralled by the Barrys – what the heck? – but I kind of liked her animosity for Jerry, the hired boy; I thought it was only sensible that he ought to be an actual character instead of a name in the background.

Then I watched the second episode.

The escapade continues: Matthew misses the train, and his horse is exhausted, and he hitches a ride, and he is run over by a carriage and taken to an apparently quite wealthy house to have his injuries tended to, and then he gets up and gets on the ferry, and gets to the orphanage and nobody knows where Anne is until he happens to meet the milkman and the milkman mentions the fact that he gave a little girl a ride and Matthew catches up to Anne at another train station where she is trying to get to Bolingbroke and is reciting poetry for train fare and she yells at him because of what he and Marilla have put her through but then he calls her his daughter and they go home.

And that’s only the first half or so. I kept waiting for the rich folk who helped Matthew to turn out to be Josephine Barry and family, but they never even got a name. Matthew and Anne get home, Marilla is stolid and doesn’t really welcome her or apologize, they go to the picnic and barely make it within its perimeter before the snickering and nasty remarks drive Anne off running for shelter, to sob in the forest. The Barrys hold Diana from going forward to meet her; even the minister makes a snide remark; everyone questions her character and the Cuthberts’ sanity. It’s ugly. Marilla goes and finds Anne, and at the end of the episode she and Matthew ask Anne to sign their Bible and take their name. She decides to be Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, and the episode ends on what the guys from Mission Log call a laugh and a freeze frame.

Oh… kay… This episode bore almost no resemblance at all to the book. The only point of comparison is that there was a picnic – and this picnic was a disaster. The people there were not the natives of Avonlea that I have always known and loved. I was much less happy after this episode, but Amybeth McNulty in particular kept me hoping.

Then I watched the third episode.

Hm.

I will probably come back to that. I need time to process how incredibly awful it was in some ways. Not, I hasten to add, in quality or intent, I suppose, but … *shudder* In the meantime – happythoughts, happythoughts – look at these credits!!

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The Green Mill Murder – Kerry Greenwood

Let’s see, what was my history with Miss Fisher before this book … I adore the Corinna Chapman series, and was surprised and impressed by Out of the Black Land, set in ancient Egypt. I did not, however, much enjoy the first Phryne Fisher novel, Cocaine Blues, for some reason. I think it was just discomfiture with the utterly unique and I-don’t-careness of Miss Fisher, and her way of breezing in, solving things, sleeping with any attractive man, and breezing out. Still, loving the author, I stocked up on all the books, and have been nabbing them as often as possible on Netgalley. Oh, and I have been loving the Australian TV series, which is QUITE different in some ways. Looking for something reliable and quick, I landed on The Green Mill Murder, and – sure enough. I’m a convert.

Phryne Fisher is marvellous.

Kerry Greenwood, too.

I have to get this out of the way first: I’ve not read the three books in between Cocaine and Green Mill, so I don’t know how the novels treat the relationship between Miss Fisher and Robinson (“Call me Jack”), but in the TV series Jack doesn’t say “ain’t” and doesn’t use double negatives. This is not that Jack. That took some getting used to. I missed him. (I was also a bit startled by the appearance of a Mrs. Butler, but not in a bad way.)

And much as I enjoyed the episode based on this book, I’m kind of happy to say I enjoyed the book more. Characters’ motivations were clearer, and the extra time I got to spend with them was appreciated. And there was no wombat in the episode.

The adventure into the Australian Alps and Phryne’s time there (note the tap-dancing to avoid spoilers) were wonderful. “I’ve got a dog and a horse and all the silence in the world.” I want that … I really want that, “Lovely and high and far away”.

Oh well.

I always seem to learn something from these books; the origins of the words “jazz” and “ragtime” here are nice little bonus tidbits. And I’d never heard of a baby car before – by heck, they were smaller than Mini Coopers, and much as I want one of those I’ve never been sure I’d feel safe in one.

It’s wonderful to have all those Phryne Fishers waiting for me.

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

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Saddle Up for Murder – Leigh Hearon

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, about a rather cantankerous horse trainer who genuinely prefers the company of her animals to that of other people. I empathize. This one didn’t succeed quite as thoroughly with me, but it was still enjoyable.

Some things bothered me just a little. One of my benchmarks for any book in which horses – or, really, any animals – appear is whether they’re given names. That’s easily achieved here – there are lots of animals, and they’re all named and have at least some indication of personality, so: excellent. Also, the breeds of dogs and horses are always given: bonus points. Another benchmark, though, is what kind of pronouns are used in referring to these animals. And that’s odd in this book, because it’s inconsistent. In the space of two sentences, both “her” and “it” are used to refer to one of Annie’s horses. Considering the book is told solidly from Annie’s point of view, and considering Annie’s life’s work and passion, I found the occasional “it” jarring. I would never refer to a mare as “it”, and I doubt this character would.

What bothers me a lot more are the spelling errors that litter the book, and which I just checked via Google Books: they’re apparently still in the published manuscript. “Discrete” is used incorrectly at least four times – “Annie trained a discrete glare in Dan’s direction”. “Annie discretely made a U-turn”. Et cetera. And then “everyone hussled inside” – ouch. Annie pours through a newspaper. The fire in the first book “preempted the horses’ hasty removal” – should that be “prompted”? It’s all very depressing.

More to the point, I was kept pretty confused by the murder victim and her circle of friends. In one place they seem to be described as very young, perhaps sixteen – but then there is a reference that makes them sound older. And then they sound like children again. Someone mentions “talking to sullen adolescents”. Finally they’re specified as “people who are barely out of their teens” and then “four irate twenty-one-year-olds”, but even then they are written as often extremely juvenile.

The plot was a bit predictable. Annie’s character seemed a bit less clear this time out than last time. I don’t know. I have a feeling if this had been the first book I’d read by Leigh Hearon, there wouldn’t have been a second.

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

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Scarweather – Anthony Rolls

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading and listening to anything I thought might be useful, filling homemade notebooks with all sorts of stuff, and finally took the test on Thursday. Surprise – I thought it was at 8:00 – and it was. 8:00 PST. 11:00 here. Oops. It’s odd, because I’d swear the times were always given in local time before. At least I didn’t show up at eleven to find that I’d missed it at eight. And this gave me the chance to see an online concert by someone I discovered a little while ago, S.J. Tucker, who is pretty wonderful.

Oh, the test? I screencapped each question like I always try to do, so I’m pretty sure I got 32 out of 50. Which feels pretty sad – I don’t think I ever got a D on a test in my life – but I don’t think I could have done any better. I got a couple right I thought were wrong (including a baseball question and one I can credit to all that outside-my-wheelhouse “studying”) and missed one or two I maybe should have gotten, so it balances. We’ll see.

I can’t work up too much enthusiasm about this or anything else right now, with what happened in England last night (and in Manchester less than two weeks ago) (though I’m suddenly and unexpectedly a real fan of Ariana Grande) … and with the response from our … “president”, the Pavlovian barking about travel bans, only followed almost ten minutes later (what, did someone say “Uh, sir?”) with the afterthought of “oh, right, and what happened was bad and we’re on your side”. (I know, Pavlov’s dogs didn’t bark, they drooled. I’m sure he does that too, if someone offers him really good chocolate cake.) I … I’m very nearly as nauseated by our commander in chief as I am by the terrorism. I won’t be able to take four years of this.

Anyway. Test over, now I can get back to normal reading and reviewing. Yay.

So, Scarweather.

Dorothy L. Sayers loved the writing of Anthony Rolls, so I went into this with expectations. And the writing was excellent – I enjoyed the way Rolls (that is, Colwyn Edward Vulliamym using the pen name Anthony Rolls) strung words together. Believable characters, believable dialogue, tension and humor both.

The reason I didn’t rate this higher or enjoy this more is that once the characters’ roles were sorted out – for the apparent murder victim was not who I expected it to be – I foresaw pretty much everything that was to come. Funnily enough, it’s as though Rolls anticipated this: “Does the reader now perceive the shadow of these events? If so, I congratulate him upon possessing a swift and practical imagination.”

Still, the writing was excellent, everything you could ask of a solid Golden Age mystery. “Their boy, Peter Laud Ellingham, was about twelve years old—he was not more offensive than the average boy of twelve.” “We spent our time very harmoniously and pleasantly, and in a manner that was decidedly sociable without being too restrained. It has always been my belief that only intelligent people know how to enjoy themselves.” The glancing blow at the Great War and the narrator’s part in it is kind of wonderful. I felt an actual pang when I realized who the murder victim was; I was worried about what would happen to the star-crossed couple who obviously belonged together. Dorothy Sayers wrote about him, “he handles his characters like a ‘real’ novelist and the English language like a ‘real’ writer—merits which are still, unhappily, rarer than they should be in the ranks of the murder specialists”. Unhappily, that hasn’t changed, so actual good writing still has a worth far above rubies or pearls.

I look forward to tracking down as much as possible by this author, under whatever name I can find him.

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

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A Death by Any Other Name – Tessa Arlen

Wow, I made a lot of notes and highlights on this book – over 100. As I say all the time, this is either a sign of a good book or a terrible one.

They always warn not to quote from an ARC without checking against the published work – so I did. I was horrified by the comma abuse in the book, so I checked. And unfortunately, it’s still there. “Clementine smiled at the thought of her grandsons, it had been nearly six months since she had last seen them.” Run-on sentences, comma splices, all the usual things that make my eyes burn – it all appears to be unchanged from the Netgalley proof. It’s a little shocking that no one at what I thought was a pretty solid publisher got a handle on this nonsense. It ranges from the annoying (“he ate an entire dish of lampreys or what we would call eels” or “Good afternoon, I am Mrs. Jackson, you asked for me?”) to the unreadable (“Clementine blessed her husband’s unruffled and farsighted view, and his ability to put a firm foot down where Althea’s gadding-about was concerned and only prayed that her cousin Clarendon had the strength of character not to be persuaded otherwise by their strong-minded daughter.” Wut?)

A good editor taking some time to make this more readable would have rebuilt sentences like “Etienne is a generous man about how much time his wife spends with us.” Or, oh Lord, like “She relaxed, he was onboard then, but there would be a stipulation, of this she was quite sure.” Or “Clementine was not only too happy to answer his every question but with as much detail as she could provide.” Or “She felt quite uncomfortable by this outward expression of emotion.” (Felt uncomfortable by – ?) Or ” I know the kedgeree was not spoiled it could not possibly have been…” Or … so many more. The writing was demanding only in that it took some unraveling now and then to figure out not what was being said but what the author was trying – and failing to say.

When it didn’t border on gibberish, it could be awfully laborious. In one paragraph, someone was startled by a man’s sudden appearance, and jumped. Done well, this moment could be as startling to the reader as to the character – but not the way this was written, where it took three sentences.

It feels very broken-record-ish to add that there are also moments where the language felt wrong for this period mystery. “I don’t want you to get steamed-up” – why is there a hyphen, and why not find a solidly non-anachronistic way of saying “don’t get angry” (like “don’t get angry”)?

“…Rum cove.”
“I have never quite understood what that meant,” she said.
“It means that he is a bit of a rogue…”

– No, it doesn’t.

I wonder how one is supposed to pronounce the name of the home of Lady Montfort, Iyntwood. It’s so awkward in print – it made for a stutter every time I hit the word in my reading.

Unsurprisingly, there are other problems. There are two main characters, “Lady Montfort and her redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson”, and the author thinks nothing of head-hopping between them. Actually, one note I made was on what I called a head LEAP. Reading good writers, I never had a problem with this habit so many writing guides warn against; a good writer can, will, and does give you enough information to know whose thoughts you’re supposed to be reading at any given time. Tessa Arlen does not have that skill, and I lost count of how many times I had to reread a paragraph or a page because the point of view switched without warning from Lady to housekeeper. (This might – might – be at least partly down to Kindle formatting issues – but I don’t think so.) Even within the same point of view there were inconsistencies that were annoying – one moment it was “Lady Montfort”, and then in the next paragraph she was referred to as “Clementine” (it took me some time to figure out who the hell Clementine was the first couple of times it happened). This might have been a good way to differentiate the points of view – when it was with her, she could be called by name, in the housekeeper’s POV sections called by her title – but no.

And of course it was repetitious. When someone was attacked midway through, the story was told over and over, ad nauseam. I think I know why – there was a detail that the intrepid sleuths, and the determined reader, was supposed to pick up on. In fact, I did pick up on the detail – but I thought it was yet another poor choice of words by the author. Another aspect of this was over-use of words; “lovely” was used thirty-two times, usually in the same context.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to like Clementine/Lady M or not. I think I am. But I don’t. She’s a bully. “Did [Mrs. Jackson] mind being involved in her inquiries? She had fleetingly pondered this before.” Only fleetingly, of course – what possible difference would it make if Mrs. Jackson objected? She was the help.

Since the book was largely about the breeding of roses, I would have rather expected to come away with a bit more knowledge about the subject than I had going in. This didn’t happen.

I’m genuinely surprised I didn’t rage-quit when I came across “a small flair of anger”. (I just checked – it’s in the final text.)

Or when the outbreak of WWI was referred to as “what a tempest in a teapot”.

Or when “chaffing” dishes were mentioned. (That’s still in as well.)

All this complaining accounts for maybe half my notes – and makes me wonder why on earth I gave this thing two stars. Reading over the run-on sentences I saved has been awful – how on earth did I finish this thing, and why? I’m knocking a star off, and will be avoiding this author like the plaguiest plague.

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

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Murder Is for Keeps – Elizabeth J. Duncan

This is, unfortunately, in in the “against” column for cozy mysteries. It wasn’t horrible. But for a three-hundred-page cozy, it was one heck of a slog, and seemed to take me forever.

One of the most important things in a cozy is the cast of characters, and … the characters in this book did nothing for me. I actually found most of them mildly off-putting. Main character Penny was strangely amorphous, never leaving any kind of strong impression on me at all. She’s an artist, of enough impact that when she offers a set of paintings for a fund-raising auction they are happily accepted, and they set off a bidding war – but that’s not what she does. (One highlight I made: “My paintings will never do it justice. It’s got something that’s impossible to capture.” Not if you’re a decent artist, it doesn’t.) Her income apparently derives from a spa of sorts she and a friend own and operate – though it sounds more like simply a hair and nail salon than a spa, unless I wasn’t paying enough attention (absolutely possible – there was much skimming involved in finishing this book). (This could have been revealed better, for someone who hasn’t read – and won’t read – the preceding seven books: it took some figuring to realize her position – I had assumed she painted for a living. It’s a challenge, providing exposition in a series that will orientate the newbie while not boring the regular reader – and the author failed, I think.) The fact that at one point Penny needs to literally count on her fingers to figure out a date just made me sad.

And then, of course, as another sideline Penny investigates mysteries, for which her partner at one point gives her the sort of talking-to I would expect from a mother to a naughty child, not one middle-aged business partner to another, ticking her off for taking time away from the business to investigate a murder. And yet a little while later she had a complete reversal, and not only encouraged Penny to take a day off to go investigate but volunteers to go with her.

Her one-time (almost?) lover Gareth, now a retired DCI who is having trouble entirely letting go of the job, is also having trouble adjusting to the friendzone Penny has put him in. It was extraordinarily awkward to read about these two people who love spending time with each other, do all sorts of things together, rely on each other in every way, and then kind of clumsily fumble through do-I-kiss-you-or-what-I’ll-just-leave-now moments. This might be a good one for my “Just TALK TO EACH OTHER” shelf. They do, talk that is, a little – but it’s all … well, stupid. My notes on the Kindle featured such things as “A MAN HAS NEEDS, PENNY”… And then, a few pages later, “NEEDS, I TELL YOU.” All caps and everything. When I take the trouble to go all caps and put in the comma on a Kindle note, you know I’m serious. (“‘Still, I thought he was devoted to me, and I didn’t really expect this.'” My God, woman.)

Det. Inspector Bethan Morgan, who took Gareth’s job when he retired, was another yo-yo character. She absolutely did not want Gareth’s help with the investigation, nor Penny’s – despite the fact that the latter found the body … until she absolutely did want their help, and then she all but turned the case over to them. It was completely unconvincing.

I felt that the writing was strangely uncertain for something that is the eighth book in a series; it seemed to me like some sections were feeling their way toward where they needed to go. Sentences were badly constructed, commas popped up where they shouldn’t and failed to appear where they should, and – oh, look, there’s Captain Obvious. “…A rusty red blur emerged from the dense woodland behind the castle. It moved with a swift, agile gait, carrying its bushy whitetipped tail horizontal to the ground, as it headed in the direction of the stable yard. A fox, she thought with delight.” And here I thought it might be a wildebeest. That’s actually kind of typical. The author doesn’t seem to trust her readers much, and I found it annoying to be taken by the hand and led through situations baby step by baby step. I don’t know if this is an issue of the uncertainty I mentioned, or an inability to write decent exposition, or that desire to make absolutely, completely, and utterly sure that the picture in the reader’s head is exactly the same as the picture in the author’s. Maybe it’s all of the above. It doesn’t make for a fun read.

Or maybe it’s just sloppy writing. Like this: “… passed round sandwiches, cheese, and biscuits from the cooler. ‘Have we got any biscuits?’ ‘We do,’ said Penny, holding out a packet.” That would be those things that were just passed around with the sandwiches and cheese. Oh, and “‘I’d hate for this paint to fall into the wrong hands.’ ‘No, I’m sure you wouldn’t,’ said Penny” … Um. That doesn’t mean what you meant it to mean.

When one young man appears on the scene, his introduction is … well, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a failure. The initial description is perfectly ordinary. And then suddenly in the midst of talking to our heroes he shuts down and demonstrates behavior that makes it obvious that he is mentally and/or emotionally handicapped – but it was so out of the blue that I was completely knocked out of the story. It’s later made clear that this character’s challenges are obvious to anyone who meets him, but the only indicator the reader is given is that he stumbles over a long-ish word in one of the first bits of dialogue he’s given.

As soon as I read that Gareth was being sent in to clean the debris out of a fireplace in the mansion where he’s volunteering, I had a horrible feeling that some priceless piece of evidence would be found stuffed up the chimney. And so it was. That’s much the way the whole mystery is solved – through “why, look what I have found!” and coincidence, and a fourth-hand account of something that happened (*counts on fingers*) ninety years ago, of which they have no real proof.

The setting is something else that should be very strong in a cozy – I mean, these things are pretty much the point in this subgenre, aren’t they? But apart from names like “Eirlys” and “Bethan” and “Gwrych”, and a smattering of Welsh … this could be picked up and set down in any English country village without disturbing a stick or stone of the story. Which is not, of course, to say that I wanted everyone’s speech written out to reflect the dialect, or for anyone to burst into Welsh more often than happened – but there had to be a reason the series was set in Wales, no? I’d have liked to have seen it.

Something that could be considered very much a cozy mystery “thing” – and which became really tiresome before long – was the fact that just about every passage – not every chapter, every passage – seemed to begin with, end with, or otherwise feature food. I may not know much about these characters, but I sure know what they ate.

Finally, I was just deeply annoyed by what was a clever pun the first time I saw it, over five years ago, but … really, “Game of Thorns” has been done.

No – one more thing. I wonder what the connection is between Elizabeth J. Duncan and Jeanne Dams, author of the Dorothy Martin mysteries – because Dorothy and her husband Gareth make a really odd and rather pointless-seeming cameo appearance in this book. It was weird.

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

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It’s oh so quiet …

Around this blog, I mean, not the rest of my life. (Really, dear neighbors, what ARE you doing to make such a racket? Are you playing soccer in your living room? Or just wrestling? Perhaps other Summer Olympics endeavors? And does that child own a police whistle, or is that noise really the product of her vocal cords? *sigh*) Reason number one was the busy period at work – month-end closing leaves me lightly toasted for the first week or so of the month, and also keeps me from sneaking in any notes while at the office.

And now that it’s officially over? Well, see, the Jeopardy spring online test is coming up at the end of the month, and I still don’t know what the capital of Namibia is. I don’t know how useful it is to study, but I am still practically a blank slate when it comes to most sports and most geography; these things just do not stick. But capitals and rivers and bits and pieces about golf and basketball (and opera – I’m also an idiot about opera) are pretty easy to cram, and I would hate to miss a question that I could easily have learned the answer to…

To that end, I will be reviewing these books:

(Wait – *gasp* – should I be giving away my secret weapons? Ah, why not – when the tide comes in, all boats rise)

The Smart Girl’s Guide to Sports
A Night at the Opera
The CIA World Fact Book
The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge
How the States Got Their Shapes

I’ll be printing out blank maps and drawing all over them – or maybe trying to freehand copy maps… that might make things stick a bit harder.

And I need to revisit this YouTube series:

He’s only up to G, but it’s fun and painless.

I also have a bunch of  Dorling Kindersley children’s books, the Eyewitness series – they’re gorgeous (and out of print).

Actually, my greatest fear is having a question – or, rather, an answer – along the lines of “She was Hamlet’s mother” or “This is the state where Captain Kirk was/will be born” come up, and drawing a blank. That would be when I take up heavy drinking.

So, how about it, my friends? Anyone else up for the torture – er, challenge?

Come on – you know you want to.

Start here: The Practice Test! They formatted it just like the online test, just with 30 questions instead of 50. If that goes okay, then: Register!

Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you in New York, for an audition – – or in LA, for a taping!

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