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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Reliquary – Preston & Child, Dick Hill

I think the first thing I said about Reliquary was “Well, crap, this one’s got the echo–y sound effects too.” I complained about that in my review of Relic – they’re quite annoying and unnecessary. And I’ve never heard anything like them in any other audiobook. Happily.

The same strange not-quite–sexism continues. The female member of the main cast of characters, now Dr. Margot Green, is still always called Margot, while the female cop is “Hayward”. Although the society lady is referred to as Mrs. Wisher. It’s all just odd; there’s no consistency.

I was glad to see the cast of characters return. I liked them – which was the main reason I continued on to listen to this second book, and while I’ll probably one day pick the series up again. I do like Agent Pendergast, and whatever else I have to say about the narrator and the production of the narration I do like the delivery of Agent Pendergast and his accent. (The SEAL team leader sounds like Jack Nicholson, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

I appreciated that, while this was a continuation of the story begun in the previous book, the setting and circumstances are completely different. Instead of one enclosed (albeit labyrinthine) space like a museum, this takes place around – and under, especially under – the city of Manhattan. And it explores the waterways as divers begin by discovering mysterious corpses and then later SEAL divers get in on the action. I learned the difference between wet suits and dry suits, and how intensely terrifying diving in bad (or no) visibility can be. It was not only different from the previous book, but from pretty much anything I’ve read before – so that was good.

And while the experts are diving, some of the characters we know from the first book are taking their investigation underground, infiltrating the bizarre community of the homeless and disenfranchised that shelters in all the places most would never dare to go. Of course, being me, I kept thinking about the tv show Beauty and the Beast from the 80’s, which was my introduction to the idea of a whole world of tunnels below the City of New York. They’re not nearly as nice in this book.

I liked the storytelling better this go ’round, for the most part. Except …

Exploring the depths of the tunnels, the party comes upon a sort of a shrine, and on it is an object that is so significant that I immediately knew what was about to happen, so I won’t mention it here. In a way the next half hour or so were just … boring as the characters caught up to where I’d leaped. (**Spoiler** – And then Margot has the gall to say “just so you can walk?” Really, honey? “Just”? Let me give your spinal cord a good hard tweak and see how content you are in a wheelchair.)

Once again this wasn’t wall-to-wall good stuff – but there was more good stuff in this one than in the first one. I’ve picked up a few books in this series over the years, so I hope the ratio of good to not keeps going up.

Quotable quote: “I have also found that the louder a person speaks, the less they have to say.” Amen.

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The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir – Jennifer Ryan

The parallels between this book and [book: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society] are obvious – both epistolary novels about women on the homefront of England as WWII heats up, telling the story from several women’s points of view. Here there is a choir instead of a book club, but it is the story of villagers coming together to endure the horrors of the war at home.

Regardless, though, this is a lovely book. The likeable characters are very likeable, and the unlikeable ones are truly loathsome (at about the halfway point I was all but praying for the death of one). The women’s individual voices as evidenced in letters and journal entries are fairly distinct, especially the youngest, Kitty, the precocious had–been–youngest child of the local blue bloods. Her voice might be a little too precocious, a little too adult, in its language, but its attitudes are pretty much dead on.

Except … I continually find it deeply frustrating that girls and women who know better engage in the sort of behavior Lavinia (?) does. “I’m being careful”, she says. And then she is shocked – shocked, I say! – when after sleeping with her inamorato every chance she gets she finds herself – gasp! – pregnant. Never saw that coming! Passion. I get it. I do. But for heaven’s sake, why does “passionate” automatically mean “stupid”? I mean, if you go to the worst part of town and leave your car unlocked with the keys in the ignition, you have basically requested that your car be stolen. If you drink for several hours and then weave your way out to your car, you have tacitly agreed to having – or causing – an accident. If you decide to play golf with some nice metal clubs in the middle of a thunderstorm with heavy lightning, you have indicated your willingness to be struck by lightning. And if you have unprotected sex with someone who just doesn’t care … well. The girl is young – but she’s not stupid, and – as evidenced by her comment about being careful – she knows that sex leads to pregnancy, unlike girls left in ignorance in previous centuries, when sex was too awful a subject to be discussed and so girls really are shocked by what that nice man wants to do and by the result. Just once, I feel like I’d like to see a reaction from someone more along the lines of “Welp, that was predictable.”

But, still and all, it was a very enjoyable book, slotting neatly into the shelf next to “Guernsey”, with enough of its own personality to remain discrete. “We have prayer enough to light up the whole universe, like a thousand stars breathing life into our deepest fears.” Nice. Very nice.

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

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Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

So, this was supposed to be funny, right?

OK, just checking. I apparently have no sense of humor, or a different sort, because this brand of humor eludes me. Or maybe it’s not so much the fact that a character ignores a body lying at her feet and declines to let it interfere with her dinner, but the way she does it. Hans (it’s a fairy tale takeoff, so where there’s Gretel of course there’s Hans) is appalling, and Gretel is despicable in the most literal sense of the word. It’s as though the author happened to be leafing through an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins, liked the look of Gluttony and Vanity, threw in Stupidity, Snobbery, and General Nastiness, and dubbed it Gretel.

I would rather not talk about Hans’s friend Wolfie. I almost wanted to like the fact that he was once the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but this version of the story was so appalling that what might have been a clever touch just made the whole thing worse.

Or maybe it’s the sense that the author doesn’t like her own characters. I’ve complained in the past about having trouble getting past the fact that I hated all the characters in a book (*coughWuthering–Heightscough*), but as it turns out that might be slightly preferable to feeling like the characters were written with derision and distaste. “Here they are, these creatures I’ve come up with – I’m going to make fun of them quite a lot, enjoy.”

And then there’s the fact that most of her characters don’t like each other. Hans idiotically admires and maybe cares about his sister, but Gretel is contemptful of him. And all of the other relationships are equally rocky and uneven.

Gretel’s crowning achievement was to reveal the thief of the prints – in the midst of which she utterly betrays a confidence to a shocking degree.

It’s interesting how much time is spent talking about Gretel’s past cases, and the history of Han and Gretel, with this the first book in an apparent new series; at times it sounds like it ought to be the sixth or seventh entry. I have to give the author credit – it’s smart.

That being said, not much more time than that is spent on Gretel’s current case. More time – much, much more time – is expended on all the things Gretel eats and drinks and wears and buys. If all of that was excised, this would be a novella. Maybe – thinking of the extensive chapter about her horrific consumption of practically the entire stock of a cake shop – a short story. And my lord that ever–loving wig. I began to revert to grade school, muttering “if you love the thing so much, why don’t you marry it” – the narration even uses the word “lustful”. And it’s something she can no more afford, or need, than … well, put it this way. I have since I was small coveted a carousel horse. I want a full–sized, preferably restored, genuine wooden carousel horse. I have no explanation for it – I just do. But I don’t have space for it, or the use for it, and I certainly don’t have the money for it – so you know what I don’t have? A carousel horse. Because I’m not completely irresponsible and stupid.

Her stint as an accidental dominatrix was just annoying.

There is a description of one character that says something like “everything about him set Gretel’s teeth on edge” – and that’s very much how I felt about her. Because she’s an idiot, she flees from the policeman given the silly name Strudel. There’s a moment: “Gretel scanned the square for Strudel” – I would not have been at all surprised if this had meant she was looking for a snack. When she finally does run into him, unavoidably, it should have been tense and exciting … but the scene dragged out miserably.

When a long half hour from the end someone cries out “The wurst is coming!” I sighed. I wouldn’t, I decided, be surprised if the last twenty–nine minutes weren’t the worst.

And they pretty much were.

Totally justifiable motive for bludgeoning someone to death: someone started yelling and wouldn’t shut up. I sympathize every single day.

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The Plots Against Hitler – Danny Orbach

You know the saying “The devil takes care of his own”? My deeply Catholic mother reminds me of that one a lot when I complain about the way God arranges things; there is, she says, another power at work in the world as well. Whatever your theological outlook, you have to admit, the history this book discusses feels like proof. I mean, I suppose it’s like the thing that circulates now and then about Lincoln having a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy having a secretary named Lincoln, etc; probably any world leader has, knowingly or not, dodged an assassination attempt or three through sheer luck.

But I don’t think it can be denied that at the very least Hitler was a lucky bastard. He ascribed it to divine protection. I certainly hope not. He is a major argument for me against predestination – because if it turns out that Hitler was in some way kept alive in order to create all the circumstances that surrounded him, for the people who died to die and for those who lived to live … I am going to complain to the management. Loudly.

The seeds of the war were something I didn’t know as much about as I thought. I’ve never known much about Neville Chamberlain; I know a bit about the War, not so much about the buildup. I knew enough to associate him with appeasement. I didn’t expect to simultaneously sympathize with and revile him. I’m always left baffled by the kind of mindset which wants to rule the world – I wouldn’t take it if you handed it to me on a tea tray covered in chocolate. (I say things like “When I am queen, I will change the name of ‘common sense’, for it is not” – but not even to implement my own such plots would I actually accept a throne.) Maybe the poor bugger took power never dreaming a war would be necessary in his term – else he had no business seeking power with the outlook he had. I have to say as one who has been branded a bleeding heart, I sympathize with his pacifism, with his loathing for war and the waste and chaos and pain it inevitably brings. But … Hitler. “Peace in our time? Let us put it a bit more realistically. Chamberlain saved Hitler.” That is a powerful condemnation.

There really are just a handful of things that can be considered incontestable facts in this world of gray areas: fire is hot, water is wet, space is vast, and Hitler was evil. What amazes me right now, what I had never really seen clearly before (not having read the book in question), is that he wrote it all down and published it for all the world to read. He laid out “his master plan” in Mein Kampf. And, apparently, most of the world went “Huh”. Even some of the people who later tried to kill him apparently didn’t take him very seriously. At first. It was only later that they began, some of them, to realize he was a serious threat – and some began to be very concerned about how they were going to get out of this. Stauffenberg, the most famous of the plotters, told a fellow officer, “We are sowing hatred that will visit our children one day” – the scars Nazism was leaving on Germany would shape how the country, the people, would be perceived for generations. If nothing else, they wanted to make it clear that the country wasn’t homogenous, that there were attempts to put a stop to it. That didn’t really work, either, really. “Notwithstanding all of their efforts and sacrifice, most Germans still followed Hitler to the bitter end.”

One of my earliest memories – and I wonder now how this has shaped my psyche – is of looking through the railing of the upstairs hall into the living room where my father was watching a documentary about the Holocaust, and seeing people being put into ovens. (It’s a wonder that Hansel and Gretel doesn’t send me screaming into the night.) I remember my complete and utter shock when we finally got around to learning something in history class – six million people were killed? But – how – surely not – six million?? And – wait – what? The US turned away shipsful of refugees, sent them back to what was very likely their deaths? Impossible. Not my country. Disillusionment, thy name is high school.

I’ve come a long way in terms of what I know since that day in tenth grade, but my heart hasn’t changed much. It seems like every time I read or watch anything on World War II I learn some new horrifying tidbit I’d never heard of before. This book follows the pattern: “fifteen hundred [Polish] Jews, including women and children, had been intentionally frozen to death while being transported in open trucks”. That apparently was not uncommon.

And, fortunately, there were those within WWII Germany to whom this was as unacceptable as it is to me, here, now. There were those who … like an American electorate I could name … thought that the worst couldn’t possibly happen, that a megalomaniac fool could never get control of everything, who were baffled and stunned by the megalomaniacal fool’s victories … “The masses are ruled by idiotic indifference” is an extraordinarily relevant quote. There were those within WWII Germany who were horrified at the atrocities being committed daily – and there were those whose point of view was more along the lines of if this country continues to allow, and to commit, such acts, when this war is over we will never be allowed to lift our heads again.

Something that puzzles me – kind of random, entirely apart from “how did Trump Hitler gain power and how did he keep it” (which was addressed by the author: “As a soldier, Stauffenberg could not vote, but even a year before, in 1932, he preferred Hitler for president over Hindenburg. Just like many other German conservatives, he believed that the new leader would moderate his views after taking power”. Sound familiar?) – is … whenever conspirators were caught and interrogated, I wonder why they didn’t try throwing someone like Goebbels or Himmler under the bus.

The through-line of the book, of course, is summed up by the title: the plots against Hitler. Whatever might be said or conjectured about the characters or steadfastness of the plotters, there were certainly plots – and, obviously, since he survived to take his own life, all of the plots failed. This could easily have swerved off into something like the way I started this review – there must have been some supernatural thing or power making each plot fail when, on paper, it should have succeeded.

The writing is solidly written, obviously well-researched and scholarly while still maintaining an almost conversational tone at times. The main thing that made it hard to read was the obviously dreadful subject matter; I had to take a break for a while. The even temporary triumph of evil is hard to stomach. But, perhaps, there are lessons that can be taken from it. Even evil which seems to overcome all obstacles does not last forever. And there are always people, even in amongst those at the heart of it, who see it for what it is. And even if attempts to destroy it don’t work, even if it oozes out from under all attempts to crush it, it will implode.

There’s always hope. Even when it really, really doesn’t seem like it, there is hope.

I hope.

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

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Lay on, Mac Duff! – Charlotte Armstrong

This was so much fun. I had no idea Charlotte Armstrong wrote like this – I thought of her as “just” a writer of gothics. But this was a lovely little (in that it wasn’t terribly long) classic mystery, and it sets in me a deep need to go get more Armstrong. That’s one of the great things about reading authors who are now finished and gone – their body of work is extant and ready to be devoured.

Her character descriptions are wonderful.

– His voice was rich and deep and softly on a leash, as if there were volumes more of it, as if he could, if he wished, fill the whole stairwell with sound and as if it would be no effort at all for him to do so.
– He used a caressing (I suppose he thought it was fatherly) tone when he spoke to her, but all the time his eyes were running busily up and down on errands of their own.
– He had another man with him, a kind of echo, who stood and fastened his eyes on us as if he’d read how to do it in a correspondence course.
– “J.J. Jones?” “Clear and warm,” I said, feeling sleepy, “and bright and warm.”

Even the main character, Bessie, who is the tale’s narrator, comes off the page vividly. She is young, naïve, smart, trying to stay afloat in a new atmosphere. “It just seemed to me that somebody ought to stay home and worry.” She makes an assumption about the murder that occurs and runs away with it, perhaps fogging the truth, at least for the reader following her through the events. Before long, she’s clinging to the only solidity she can find in Mr. J.J. Jones, not sure who else to trust. (She’s actually not so naïve as all that, perhaps: “Look, Bessie, have you never read The Sheik?” “Of course I read it. It was forbidden.”)

It’s a smart book. MacDougal Duff comes into the picture as a very clever friend of Jones, who is expected to unravel the mystery. And Armstrong’s handling of his name is terrific. There’s a lesson to be learned here:

“But listen, don’t say anything to him out of Shakespeare.”
“Mac’s likely to think poorly of people who say ‘Lay on, Mac Duff’ to him. He says an intelligent person thinks of it, and realizes it’s been said, and passes up the chance. But a dumbbell is so pleased with his own cleverness, he always says it.”

(I learned another lesson as well – I didn’t know there were twenty blocks to a mile in New York. Filed away for reference.)

For so short a book, there are some wonderful mini-essays, such as on the connection between history and detection and imagination, and whether there is such a thing, truly, as cold-blooded murder. And charity – “so often a mistake unless one knows exactly what one is doing.”

This is a solid, thoughtfully told mystery, told with an assurance and flair that lets it fit very nicely into the Golden Age of mysteries. The accidental red herring of Bessie’s assumption, the way the events of the game of Parcheesi at the start of the story are told – so serious when Bessie tells it, but so easy to dismiss – so hard for someone who was not there to take seriously, but so sinister … It was just a game. Right?

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

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A Rustle of Silk – Alys Clare

For some reason, I’ve found that often when a novel is set in the 1600’s the characters bear about the same resemblance to lifelike human beings as characters in an unenthusiastic high school play. By the time the author has stamped them with the mold of “Elizabethan Character” – thee and ye and dost and old by forty and doublets and stomachers – most of the personality has been stamped out, and it becomes rather hard going to get through the book.

Alys Clare overcame that obstacle beautifully. First person narrator Gabriel Taverner is a wonderful character, a life–long ship’s surgeon who would still be mending sailors if not for the accident that destroyed his equilibrium. He’s full of life, and feels contemporary. “Very slowly and quietly, I bent forward and banged my head several times on the gleaming surface of my oak table.” I have my doubts about his abilities and commitment as a physician; he has picked up a great deal of unorthodox knowledge from the natives of a great many far-flung places, some of which runs counter to the current trends. Still, he seems to keep picking up books to hone his knowledge of “civilized” medicine, and keeps getting distracted – and when he needs to hie him off to investigate this or that or the other, he never seems to have any concern about his patients’ care during his absence.

One thing that’s rather wonderful about him is a lovely obtuseness. He is the first-person narrator of the story, and his realizations and brainstorms are realistically handled in such a way to clue the reader in. He’s a very good character; I hope he has better surroundings in another book.

Something I kept wondering about, which I know very little more about than that it existed, is the code of sumptuary laws. I first discovered them when I was getting into Renaissance Faires, when it surprised me that if I wanted to be historically accurate I had to decide where in society my persona fell and dress accordingly, avoiding certain fabrics and certain colors. (From 1562: No Englishman other than the son and heir apparent of a knight, or he that hath yearly revenues of £20 or is worth in goods £200, shall wear silk in or upon his hat, cap, night cap, girdles, scabbard, hose, shoes, or spur-leathers, upon forfeiture of £10 for every day, and imprisonment by three months.) Yet Gabriel’s sister wears the finest silk day in and day out.

There were a handful of off words sprinkled throughout – I don’t, for example, think that someone would refer to a man as being “broke”, meaning penniless. (Then again, maybe they would – the adjective has a surprisingly long history. I wouldn’t have thought it, and I think I’d avoid it because it doesn’t sound right.) “Frenchie”; “get over it” – these were the ones I made note of. Borderline – and as such, enough to take me out of the story just a bit.

There were moments when the author revealed a bit or a piece which seemed like they ought to have been mentioned earlier. It was sort of the opposite of Chekhov’s gun, with a shot going off suddenly leaving me wondering how. The origin of the murder weapon, for example – which I won’t spoil here – seemed frankly kind of stupid and, till then, not even hinted at, not something the reader could remotely guess at.

It was a quick and easy and enjoyable read, but somewhat weak in areas. I enjoyed the writer’s writing, but wish it had been more even and cohesive. There were excellent elements, but they were like beads on a long string, with thin bits in between. I’d like to try more of the series, in hopes of a stronger plot.

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

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Conspiracy of Ravens – Lila Bowen

Wow. Just … wow. I was so glad to be able to go straight into this after Wake of Vultures. The game changed entirely at the end of that first book – is it still a cliffhanger if the main character jumps off the cliff? And here the times they just keep a–changing. Nettie determines once and for all to shed the parts of her she despises, insofar as she can, and adapts to this whole new part of her which I never saw coming.

Once again, the writing is intimate, gritty, and completely believable. Nettie’s – or rather Rhett’s loyalties are tested, his abilities are stretched and expanded, and his affections are tested. As if there hadn’t been enough changes in his life, the realization that hit him – and hit him hard – at the end of Wake of Vultures turns into the biggest change at all. It leads him to a new friend – or, well, a new companion, anyway, both reluctant mentor and counter-irritant, and to a new quest – there’s trouble surrounding a moving camp, laying track across the country – big trouble, and no one to deal with it but Rhett and his companions. So Rhett basically goes undercover to try to start its destruction from the inside.

There is at least as much action as in the first book – probably more, actually – but this is even more character-driven than that first book. Here Rhett has left behind any vestiges of femininity, as though the first shape-shifting burned it away. But he still carries a torch for his friend, and keeps finding himself in strange conjunctions with the sister of his other friend, and like other reviewers I found this a weak spot, a distraction in the plot.

But when all’s said and done it’s still a truly remarkable bit of world-building and character-building. I look forward to more.

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

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