The Austen Escape – Katherine Reay

My request for this book was followed by immediate regret, but it was predictable: another story about a woman taking an Austen-themed vacation, with the lagniappe of amnesia in her friend? It’s like catnip. I was a bit sorry to be approved for it, but felt like something light and quick at the beginning of the year, so I cracked it open (so to speak).

And lo and behold, it was kind of wonderful. Actually, a couple of kinds of wonderful. I couldn’t be more surprised, I don’t think. It turned out to be the story of a woman rediscovering her path, finding a way to hit a reset button and go back to things that make her happy.

And of course it’s also a love story, and a good one. It’s the story of Mary Davies’s love for her father (and vice versa), and of a love that seems to have died out, and a love that just doesn’t seem to click. That’s a major part of it – but just about as important to the story and to Mary is the exploration of her love for her vocation, the profession she has carved out for herself with a lot of hard work, which has drifted from where it used to be and needs to be shunted back to that right path. A love of numbers.

And, naturally, it’s all about a love of Austen. Jane is vital to the book – but the book isn’t about her. She is like sunlight and water to a neglected garden, causing things to happen.

The Austen Escape has a number of points in common with a book I read a few years ago, Austenland. Both feature a semi-immersive Jane Austen experience, in which guests dress the part from head to toe, put away their cell phones, and participate in Regency-style activities. But the ethics and advisability of Austenland struck me as deeply questionable, and it all left me with a bad taste in my mouth. This book was entirely different. I loved just about every character’s arc, and found the whole thing very satisfying.

Life advice from The Austen Escape:
“He said that how people treat you is only 10 percent about you and 90 percent about them, so you need to be careful how you react and how you judge. You never know someone’s story.”

“My grandfather used to say that everything in the world could be solved at the cadence of a cast. Think about things, don’t rush them, get a feel for them, live organically. Live life like you cast.” He bent his arm again, and with fluid slow motion he shot the line straight across the pond into the slow-moving water near the far bank.

“Music is math, and once you understand that . . . How can anyone not be in awe? It’s the audible expression behind the laws of the universe. It feels like the only thing, apart from God, that lives outside time. Once released, it lives on and it can make you laugh and cry, rip you apart and heal you, all within a few discrete notes strung together. And while it follows rules, expression is limitless.”

And this made me laugh out loud:

“How did they do all this?”
“When you went up for your bath, I watched from a window.” I yanked at his hand. “Not you. This. I watched this.”

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

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Trolled – D.K. Bussell

Maybe the last thing I expected when I started this book was that one aspect of my review would include the word “humbling”. But here it is. I was pretty confident that I was pretty familiar with British slang. I’m not. I’m really not. And it was humbling to see how much not. I was fine with stuff like “bin bags” and suchlike – but I have to admit in the context I stupidly thought “well jells” meant pudgy: like Santa, with a belly like jelly and all that. Nope: jealous. Jelly. Jells. Well = Very. ‘K. “Chirpsing” was entirely new to me.

This is one of those Netgalley selections which is obviously self-published, and has the sort of slipshod editing that unfortunately so often goes along with that – but which has a level of writing that deserves better. It’s funny and fun and gritty and occasionally surprising; it made leaps between making me smile at a really lovely turn of phrase (‘ Eathon laughed. “If you loosed an arrow at me I’d whip out my blade and whittle it into an unflattering portrait of you before it hit the ground.”‘ or “The pregnant pause ran to its third trimester”) to making me snarl over some stupid mistake (like mention of a rider’s “reigns”).

This is, of course, separate from the intentional wordplay, like “Sting with his tantrum sex” – it’s pretty clear when someone is being a Dogberry and when there’s an error.

Obviously, I loved the geek cred the author shows throughout. There’s Middle-earth and Dragonlance and Monty Python and stops in between. This book does not take itself too seriously. There’s a very serious story going on – first the shocking reality that this handful of kids has been transported to another world, with no knowledge of how to get back and a deadly mission they’re supposed to pull off; then that mission, a legitimate war against horrifying monsters which seems all but impossible to survive, much less win. But the way the story is told is light, irreverent, funny. These aren’t Lawful Good characters eagerly taking up arms to fight for the good – oh, no, these are ordinary geeky teenagers who are as likely to see what they can steal from any given setting as to fight the bad guys. They’re pretty much unpredictable – which is kind of great.

Now (say it with me) if only someone would clean these books up.

One thing, though – you cant beat that cover. I adore that cover.

And remember:
“The Chosen One might be a special snowflake, but when the heat’s turned up, every snowflake melts.”

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

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The Art of Vanishing – Cynthia Kuhn

I’m a little surprised I requested this book from Netgalley. That cover looks an awful lot like the style used on so many not-to-my-taste cozy mysteries – I really don’t like that style. It might have been the “Academic Mystery” that got me – and I’m glad it did, because I really enjoyed this. The main character, Professor Lila Maclean shares several of the characteristics cozy mystery authors often give to their characters – she’s klutzy, smart, and beleaguered by her boss for no reason that is sensible to a sensible person. She has a colorful (to put it mildly) mother, with a past that serves as a great basis for this and future stories. What differentiates this book from others I’ve seen is that it’s believable. It’s – what’s that really annoying adjective? Organic. Lila isn’t klutzy to further the plot, or to make her an Extra Quirky Cozy Heroine – she just is. In fact, it makes sense that there’s a psychological basis for it. Her boss’s antagonism is somewhat out of the blue, but there is a seed of “because” in there. He hasn’t taken against her randomly – and that antagonism feels really familiar. We’ve probably all known, and God help us worked for, people just like him. and beleaguered by her boss for no reason that is sensible to a sensible person.

The story is twisty and – yay! – unpredictable. At one point I was just waiting for one character to get knocked off – I was sure of who the next victim was going to be – and I was completely wrong. And the author did that on purpose. It was a great fakeout.

It was just a lot of fun. And I will absolutely read more by this author. This is Netgalley doing what Netgalley’s supposed to do.

“You should pat the gryphon too.”
“I’m not going to—”
“Pat the gryphon, Lil,” she commanded sternly.

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

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Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women – Emily Brightwell

I know that I came across a description of this series a while back, and I found it – the idea of a detective’s housekeeper doing the lion’s share of the work to help him achieve arrests – off-putting. Perhaps because of the covers I’ve seen for the series I thought it was all played for laughs; the artwork on most of the books makes Inspector Witherspoon look completely oblivious, with Mrs. Jeffries peering in from the side. I was never interested. So it’s odd that I requested this book from Netgalley.

But I did, and in the end it was much better than I expected it to be. It wasn’t great – I can’t imagine reading 35 more along the same lines, and I was startled to read a description of a couple of earlier books in the series that sounded a whole lot like this one; there was one in which it was important that a case be solved by Christmas, and at least one other in which a case was given to inferior Inspector Nivens and, of course, botched.

I did like the characters – Inspector Witherspoon is not a nincompoop, thank goodness, and that makes all the difference. And the author did a nice job at keeping a fairly large cast of characters distinct from each other and pretty consistently interesting … though I really wish the one American character wasn’t written in the dreadful manner of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie writing an American. Goldarnit. There are a few things the Golden Agers did not do perfectly, and in which they should not be emulated.

There was a bit too much repetition of the basic ideas of “we’ll never solve this old mystery” and “I goofed off today and I’m ashamed but I’ll probably do it again tomorrow because we’ll never solve this old mystery”, and much too much whining about having their holiday plans disrupted. In that they reminded me of my coworkers, who spend half the day talking about the news and the weather and their love lives and tv and a hundred other inane things, and then complain that they don’t have time to do their work. Shut up and buckle down, and maybe you’ll manage.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read it – but I’m in no rush to go read the rest of the (astonishingly long) series.

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

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The Modern Woman’s Guide to Finding a Knight – Anna Klein

I was a devoted Rennie for many years – and would be still if I could manage it. I loved my home faire (being the one I’d been to most often) more than anything else or anywhere else on earth. Coming home from one of the first visits, I surprised my companions by saying how much I’d love to live there – and I was surprised that they didn’t feel the same way. There was nothing I didn’t adore. My first kiss came from Suleiman the Magnificent (and no, I didn’t care he was from the wrong time period. You wouldn’t have either.) I went to my Faire – in New York – just a few days after 9/11, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. You know those security questions some websites ask you, the ones that ask you to name your favorite place? Mine is Faire. There is one specific memory that would probably be what I’d use to cast a proper full patronus. That’s what Faire is to me.

And so there are days when I want to emulate Charlie Brown in his Christmas special and stand on the edge of a stage and yell, “Isn’t there anyone out there who can write a book about what RenFaire is all about?!” Because every one of the novels I’ve sampled has failed miserably to capture any part of that wonder and joy – and at their worst they turn to mockery.

This one comes closer than most to getting it. It’s not quite there – this isn’t the type of Faire I know, in its details – is this how they do it in Australia? But for moments at a time it’s a lot closer. I wish that had been carried through to the rest of the book.

I could be wrong, but I think the only blatant sign of where this book was set was a note on the Netgalley page of how much it is set to list in Australian dollars. Otherwise, as far as I remember, there was never a named city, no one ever talks about where anyone comes from, currency is never mentioned … I kind of understand an effort to make it a sort of a universal story, and to highlight the reality of the alternative world of the Faire – but I found it a huge distraction to keep coming across obviously not-from-around-here (in the US) phrases without any kind of grounding in the real world. The first, and worst, example of this is the thing that almost plows main character Connie down, from which she is saved by the gallant Sir Justin: a runaway horse float. My first, slightly startled, interpretation was that this was part of some kind of parade that would be taking place in the course of the Faire. Something like this:

Or this (probably without Joan Rivers – it would have been terrible to be run over by Joan Rivers):

My second, sillier thought had to do with ice cream and soda – obviously that couldn’t be.

I didn’t even think of a third possibility, which would have made even less sense as a deadly projectile:

What I did not think of for quite some time was this:

– Because I’ve never heard of that thing called by that name. And I’ve read a lot of horsey novels in my day. But I’ve never read a horse book written by an Australian or New Zealander – and therein lay a problem. There were a number of moments that resulted in cartoon question marks floating over my head. And … well, it was just odd that throughout the book I never caught one reference to anything at all that would have pointed up for me that this was indeed set in the Antipodes, and this led to frequent disorientation, which was very distracting. If there was anything there – from mention of a town or city nearby to any indication of accent to even a note as to what month the Faire was taking place in (summer in what I consider winter months?) I missed it. And after a certain point, I was looking for something. The author doesn’t have much of a an author page on Goodreads; all I’m getting is an .au suffix in the publisher’s website.

Anyway. I loved the love of the Faire. But there were some things that just either didn’t ring quite true or which bothered me. The details of the jousting were among the latter; I don’t know, the jousts I’ve seen were largely choreographed, and I was startled that this Faire featured a genuine competition. But both my eyebrows went up when “Justin” declared he wasn’t going to let a little rain stop him from jousting. Um. That’s the only thing that ever did stop a joust, in my experience – because rain + grass = slippery, and rain + dirt = mud and mud = slippery, and horses’ legs = fragile. If there was even the least chance of injury to horses or riders, the show most definitely did not go on. (Hell, one rainy day the living chess match, which usually featured characters battling it out for the squares, turned into a living chess insult match. It was magnificent. And no one landed on their armored butt in the mud.) Connie’s familiarity with things like proper curtsies and what I usually see called BFA (“Basic Faire Accent”) is iffy. She seems to trip on her gowns an awful lot – as if she was unused to wearing them. She has short hair – which is just weird to me in someone who spends untold hours constructing detailed garb. (Good lord, I almost wrote “costumes”. Help – I’m becoming a muggle.) My hair was three feet long, and that was the one place it was utterly normal.

The main reason I never much warmed to her, though, was one of the main props of the plot: she was ashamed of her passion for the Faire. She kept her Faire friends at the Faire, never allowing them into her mundane life, and she never let any part of her mundane life know about what she did on weekends. “Connie would sooner drop dead than tell her sophisticated clients what she really did on her weekends.” “‘It’d be great if you maybe didn’t mention to too many people at the Faire where I work? At all? I hate to ask, it’s just, my customers wouldn’t understand things like the faire,’ Connie asked, wincing at the thought of a stream of weird and wonderful people from the faire looking her up at her store.” I talked about the Renaissance Faire to everyone and anyone, because I was so passionate about it. Maybe it’s because I never encountered the derision some idio – I mean some people express toward Renaissance Faires until after I’d stopped going; maybe it’s because I’m older now and, at least in this, wiser … but I find this disgusting. And pathetic. And stupid, really. I mean, the friends she loves spending time with on the weekend aren’t good enough for workaday people to know about? She has so little self-esteem and/or confidence that she never considers that negative reactions to Faire might be sparked by her attitude? (Has she had negative reactions? I don’t think so, actually – she is just stated as considering the Faire a guilty pleasure, with no reason for it given.) I think it’s quite stupid because she could probably make a small fortune sewing for Rennies – or at least a few bucks on the side. But no. It was especially sad when at one point she defensively said she wasn’t embarrassed by her hobby, and then, explaining what she did feel, gives the very definition of embarrassment. I mean, I understand being afraid to, as friends used to say, “let your geek flag fly” … but I found it repellent to watch this character work so very hard at repressing a huge part of her personality and life, when embracing it is bound to make everything better, not worse. This is the part of the book that lingers with me, and still bothers me. She refers to the Faire as her “other home” – but not to most of the people she knows.

TL;DR: If you’re spending time with people who will mock you for something you love, you’re spending time with the wrong people.

Actually, it’s not just Connie; none of the characters seem to have a grasp on the whole authenticish Faire language thing. Thee and thou are tossed about willy nilly, and incorrectly as often as not, and – well, speaking of embarrassment, there were moments that should have been deeply humiliating for both characters and writer. I won’t even mention some of what was said in a chat session – let this suffice: “Let me know how thou liketh the tea”. My comment on this Kindle highlight was unprintable in polite company. “‘As dost wilt remember, my lords and ladies”. “How fares thee?” Even writing that now makes me want to slap someone.

Also less than authentic: Connie’s complaints about the difficulty of running through the grounds in a heavy velvet dress and a wig. Nuh uh. I ran down a hill at my Faire in garb. Once. Never did it again. I wasn’t wearing velvet, but I did have on layers (and of course I wasn’t wearing a wig) (honestly, I don’t believe I ever saw anyone in a wig) – but I was wearing a bodice. One does not run in a bodice. (At least not mine.)

And come on. Someone says “Was he hot?” in referring to a knight. I mean … duh. It’s a little like asking if a jet pilot was hot. Even if he’s not a specimen of beauty, the simple aura of being what he is adds magnitudes of hot. I would have been cheerfully … er, rescued by any of the knights my Faire ever featured. (Especially the Justins. *sigh*)

And … well, on the whole I just didn’t much like the main character. She frequently complains – often when people compliment her – about her name being long and unwieldy . “It … takes up far too much room on my business cards” … but “Constance” is nine letters. There are lots of women’s names that are nine letters – take “Elizabeth”. I kind of have a feeling that if her name was “Mia” or “Zoe” she’d be sad about it being so short.

There were a few missteps in language. Redolent: I don’t think it means what you think it means. “How’s life faring?” isn’t a thing. Unbidden: see “redolent”.

And there were some rather bigger missteps elsewhere. The string of events that lets Dominic pretend to be Justin is idiotic; it doesn’t say much for Dominic’s skill as an armorer that a shall we say “wardrobe malfunction” in armor he made for himself is the reason Connie never saw “Sir Justin’s” face. And the fact that not one of the other competitors knew Dominic or Sir Justin or any other name he might want to call himself was absurd. I mean, seriously – I sincerely doubt that in the US there are so many jousters that someone at a top level could appear out of nowhere; it might have escaped notice, but Australia’s smaller than the US. The fact that Dominic continues to pretend to be Justin begins to be as pathetic as Connie’s fevered attempts to keep Faire and Mundane separate. Connie has to control her jealousy at one point when, instant messaging with “Justin”, she oh-so-casually asks who that lady is in a photo of his – and he doesn’t immediately say “My sister”, and thus ensues a feeble but happily brief misunderstanding. (Of course he would say “My sister”. One does. But he doesn’t.) Over and over she talks about how her biggest customer’s rocky marriage pays her rent singlehandedly (which is used incorrectly, but by now that’s just a quibble) – and over and over she ponders how she feels kind of guilty about it, and usually someone has to reassure her that it’s not her fault and so on.

Worst of all was the fact that it wasn’t very long before I knew without a doubt that that “personal flair” Connie needed for her collection, that “something that really screams you”, would be Faire. The only reason I didn’t see the rest of it coming was that it tried very hard to be madcap and frothy, and just wound up a bit mad and silly. I did, however, twig to the fact that the other half of the rocky marriage was that one guy – which means that the author did a terrible job of covering up the breadcrumbs, because I am generally terrible at figuring these things out.

Well, no. Worst of all was the moment when Connie has cause to put on Justin’s armour – and it just fits. I … don’t think so.

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

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Rhyming Rings – David Gemmell

When I saw “David Gemmell” on Netgalley, I mashed the “request” button very quickly. Before I really registered that this was a completely unfamiliar title, and certainly before I read the book description, I assumed this was a reissue of one of his books, since unfortunately he’s been gone from us for a time. But no: it’s brand new, at least to the world; it’s not a fantasy, as are most of his works, nor historical, as so many of his fantasies are, but instead an honest-to-goodness mystery novel set (contemporaneously?) in 80’s London. So I was excited when I saw “David Gemmell”, and then bemused but excited about the plot. I’ve been reading David Gemmell’s books for more years than I choose to think about, though I haven’t gotten back to them for a while now.

I chose this one from my list of Netgalley books kind of at random, and it kept me up past my bedtime. It’s taken longer than it should have to pound out this review, and I’m ashamed of that. I loved it. It sucked me in completely and dragged me along a roller coaster of a story. It’s a marvelous evocation of the period (when did my childhood become a “period”?), and a marvelous hunt for a serial killer, with undertones of fantasy. The main character and narrator is almost an anti-hero – he’s not a nice guy, though he becomes more self-aware as the story wears on, and it’s wonderful to watch.

Now I just need to go back and read everything else David Gemmell ever wrote.

‘The rain has stopped and my star is shining.’
‘Your star?’
He waved me over and pointed to a bright light below the Plough. ‘That is my star. My father gave it to me, a long, long time ago.’
‘I hope he also gave you the mineral rights.’

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

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The Perfect Horse – Elizabeth Letts

This review has not taken a ridiculously long time to put together. I have no excuse; the closest I can come to a reason is that the emotions and the quality of the writing and my own back story with the subject matter all made it hard to write.

So, the story goes that when I was five or six my parents took me to a party their friends were throwing. Someone must have mentioned what a little horse freak I was, and one slightly drunken man decided to play Stump the Smartypants. I can just about remember him looming over me when he asked me to name the largest breed of horse. I’m told I responded (correctly) with all the contempt such a softball deserved. I used to trace the diagram in one of my books that charted the points of the horse, close the book, and fill in all the labels. (It’s true what they say about stuff learned when small – I can still tell a forelock from a fetlock and a cannon from a croup. I’ll bet I could still label a diagram.) My father, with extraordinary patience, used to drive me to riding lessons and wait while I gloried in learning to post the trot. (Well, no, I gloried in cantering when they let me – the trot was never fun. And that time Spiz the appaloosa ran away with me on a trail ride? Awesome.)

And when in some elementary school English class we learned about tall tales and were asked to write our own, I – being deep under the spell of Marguerite Henry, wrote a thing which must have left my teacher utterly baffled: my tall tale was about a Lipizzaner who could hold a levade for hours and perform as many caprioles as you could possibly want. This was pre–internet, so I still wonder if the poor woman had to go hit the library to figure out if I was being esoteric or just a truly weird little kid.

So obviously the horse–mad parts of this book were made for me. I thrive on details of horsemanship and stable life, and there is no stable on earth in which I would rather experience horsemanship than the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. It’s nice to be given the explanation for why there is a Spanish Riding School in Vienna. (It’s a breed of Spanish origin named after a village in Italy (which is in current–day Slovenia) and perfected in Austria.) I’m still boggled by the fact that a Standardbred can “trot the distance of one mile in less than two minutes and thirty seconds” when Thoroughbreds galloping all out take about two and a bit minutes to run the mile-and-an-eighth Kentucky Derby, doing the hour in about 1:35. That’s astonishing, although it was just a side comment; this book has lots of details I knew and also lots I never knew before. I never knew Poland was so highly regarded for its Arabs – perhaps because by the time I was born the breed had not yet recovered there (like so many other things). (And now I feel extraordinarily stupid for never processing “Polsky Arab” into what it actually means. Well, I was a kid.) I never knew that WWII actually used twice as many horses as WWI.

This was a long tale of heroism – the men who worked so hard to save the Lipizzanners and other fine horses were amazing – and of horror. The reasons the horses needed saving are just one part of the awfulness of the war; I never knew that the Third Reich’s goals of pure blood extended to horses as well; I don’t think I want to get into the corollaries between Reichian eugenics and the breeding of horses to foster certain qualities. I had no idea about the seizures of horses all over Europe – and the equine massacres that often resulted. And I’m not thrilled by how America handled the recapture, the “rescue” of thousands of horses.

I have this model, so I’ve always felt attached to the breed.

“Trakhenen, Germany’s famed ‘city of horses,’ had seen a mass exodus of all of its equine inhabitants. The owners and breeders of the famed Trakhener cavalry horses, close to eight thousand in number, had fled across the frozen Vistula River while being strafed by Russian bombers. Germany’s greatest Thoroughbred racehorse, Alchimist, was shot to death on April 15, 1945, after Russian soldiers tried to seize him and the stallion refused to load onto their truck.”

“Among the numerous heartbreaks of this terrible war, the innocent horses shot, abused, and killed would not rank among the worst atrocities—but somehow, the killing of innocent beasts, domesticated animals who existed only for man’s beauty and pleasure in a good, seemed to highlight the barbaric and depraved depths to which man had allowed himself to sink.”

Yeah. That about covers it. I didn’t fail to see how … off it was to be so outraged by horses’ deaths and abuse when all over Europe more than six million people were in the process of being murdered. But I’m not about to apologize for it. It’s similar to the human tendency to weep over the death of a single child when outright genocide might result in simple numbness. I love horses. I know horses. I want more to do with horses. Le plus je connais les hommes, le plus j’aime mon cheval – I had that on a mug when I started taking French in school. And it was, and is, the absolute truth (except for the “my” part, since, I’ve never had my own horse). Horses are innocent – as were all of the civilians killed and displaced and abused. But horses are entirely dependent on humans. They have no agency to relocate to a safer area on their own, or to fight back in any way but in the moment with teeth and hooves. We, people, have put them in the situations where they exist – to then make those situations painful, or lethal, is unforgivable.

It was horrible to read – and a relief that there was heroism to dilute the pain.

This tale reminds me a bit of a shallow stream, beautiful in places, pooling in places, in some places trickling slowly over rocks, occasionally diverted a bit before coming back on track. There are frequent recaps (where the stream flows backward for a minute before resuming), which began to feel like padding.

I was not overly fond of the author’s departures into what Capote liked to call a non-fiction novel, with notes about what subjects’ thoughts must have been here, or what someone saw there; a straightforward history might have been better. Sentences like “The two chestnuts followed Hank’s movements with their big, soft eyes”, while quite possible accurate, begin to make it sound like a novel I might have read when I was fourteen. These fictionalized moments softened the focus – and also felt a bit like padding.

(I was also a little bothered by the fact that the author consistently used the adjective “white” for the Lipizzaners. There’s no such thing as a white horse, unless it’s an albino.) (I know, I know – but I don’t make the rules.)

I got a chuckle out of one quote from Alois Podhajsky (Ah–loys Pod–hey–skee, thank you Ms. Letts), director of the Spanish Riding School: “Excited applause does not help in the least; what is needed is perfect sympathy and harmony with one’s partner.” I saw the Lipizzaners perform years ago, and the announcer specifically encouraged the audience to be loudly enthusiastic and take lots of pictures, because the stallions loved the approval and attention. They’re apparently big ol’ gorgeous hams, which is incredibly endearing – and, now that I’ve learned more than I knew then, pretty surprising considering horses in general and stallions in particular don’t tend to handle noise and flashing lights with what could be called aplomb. Or sanity. But maybe the stallions’ enjoyment of the attention increased as technology advanced. Honestly, I think Lipizzaners are responsible for the layman’s misunderstanding that stallions are easy to handle (which in general they are not.

“And to all the fallen horses— may we honor their sacrifice.”

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

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An Echo of Murder – Anne Perry

I want to say that I’ve been a fan of Anne Perry’s books for decades … but I think it’s more that I’ve been a reader of her books for that long. I’ve always liked reading them – but I don’t think I’ve ever loved them, except for maybe one. The characters have never become important enough to me that I’ll cry if they’re killed off. And actually, the first one I read after a hiatus of several years was very disappointing.

This one … I wouldn’t say that about it, but … I just don’t have any strong feelings about it. Didn’t hate it, didn’t love it.

It all begins when good old Monk is called in to a murder scene which is built up as absolutely horrific. The reactions of everyone he meets on the way in indicate that it’s ghastly, without anyone ever giving him (or the reader) a detail. Which was clever … until we walk into the room with Monk and get the first description of the scene and the victim, and it’s an anticlimax. “It’s a bad one, sir”, someone says, and then left me wondering what was so bad about it for a few more pages. I mean, once the full scope of what happened to the victim became clear, my response was “oh” – yes, it was indeed plenty awful – but might it not have been more effective to whack the reader with that all at once? Anne Perry’s been writing for … forever (oh, only since 1990; not quite thirty years (as of now). For some reason I thought it was longer), so she obviously knows what she’s doing; it just seemed an odd choice. Or maybe it’s just me.

And maybe it was just me being put off by the fact that despite a quite detailed description of the murder scene(s), I had to go back over and over to see if the many many candles placed around the room(s) were lit or not. I don’t think I ever did find out. Those candles also had me yelling at the book for them to go check out chandlers in the area, which didn’t seem to be something that occurred to anyone for ages.

I don’t really recommend reading this series the way I have. It looks like I missed about ten years’ worth of books in this series (which I always liked more than the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt books), and obviously a lot happened in those five books, leaving me saying things like “Wait, who, now?” and “Oliver did what?” and “They were in America for the Civil War?” and so forth. Perry provided a decent amount of backstory, but I wouldn’t say this worked well as a stand-alone (or stand-apart).

Obviously the exploration of intolerance against immigrants is extremely topical today. Which is incredibly sad. The discussion of what we now call PTSD is quite timely as well. Both of these threads lead to possible answers to the mystery…

What annoyed me a little was – well: “Monk was a brilliant detective; he could acknowledge that without immodesty.” Okay. The story doesn’t really bear that out, but … okay. (And no, you can’t say that about yourself without being immodest. You really can’t.)

It was an interesting mystery, this; lots of red herrings that led to interesting passages, but with a final solution I just didn’t find as interesting. Like that first murder scene description, it was somewhat anti-climactic.

The main reason I never loved Anne Perry’s books as much as others is simply the writing. It’s perfectly serviceable, although sometimes awkward; it’s workmanlike. See Spot run. I never feel the connection, not only to the characters but to the author, that I do when reading – say, Robin McKinley, or Barbara Hambly. It makes for – what was that word again? interesting reads – but not really fun.

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

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Death Shall Come – Simon R. Green

Quite a while ago I had read the first book of the author’s other series, enjoyed it very much, and somehow never got back into his work. When I saw his name pop up on Netgalley, it seemed like a fine idea to give him a try again – and, thank goodness, it actually was.

The Ishmael Jones series is a slightly mad mélange of genres (say that three times fast). There’s a science fiction element, of course, in that Ishmael Jones himself is an alien in human form, with no memory of his previous, extraterrestrial, life. And there is a fantasy element in the circumstances of the murder(s) (though not the fantasy element you might think). Otherwise, regardless of the murder weapon (of which I say no more), this was almost pure English Country House Mystery – locked and unlocked rooms, a dwindling population of characters, endless hallways and staircases and people going off when they oughtn’t.

One somewhat small thing that kept this from getting the full five stars was simply a running gag between Ishmael and his lady love, Penny Belcourt. Every now and then she felt an irresistible need to make the same suggestion about the identity of the murderer, to the point that I wanted to throw her down a handy staircase or stuff her in a sarcophagus. I think it was supposed to be cute – that she was playing on Ishmael’s tendency to take everything seriously … and this is something that might play much better in an audiobook, where the narrator could make her constant comment ‘I still say we shouldn’t rule out …’ mischievous, with Jones not picking up on the mischief … but I didn’t listen to an audiobook, and it drove me up a wall. Along with Jones.

I looked at her. ‘If I offered you a large amount of money, would you stop saying that?’
‘How large?’ said Penny.

It’s a fascinating bit of world-building, with a group to clean up after starship crashes, secret even to the secret group Ishmael belongs to. Ishmael seems thoroughly human … except when he’s really not. I’m looking forward to going back and starting at the beginning.

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

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Death by Vanilla Latte –– Alex Erickson

Here it is again – the sign of something I think is either a really good or a really bad book: I made 140 highlights and comments on this book.

Hint: I didn’t love it.

There were so many cozy mystery tropes done less than well… Like shops with punny names: Ted and Bettfast for a bed & breakfast run by Ted and Betty. Phantastic Candies for a candy shop run by a guy named Phan. Et cetera. Such things really do exist. There’s a shop around the last page of the corner from me called “Lucky Ewe”. But not every single shop has to be punny. And it all just points up the fact that the name of the shop owned by the heroine of the story, “Death by Coffee” is hardly original or clever.

Which leads me to the next trope: said heroine does indeed own a shop, and has employees (plural). I’ve said it before – I have never seen a small business-type shop like this which was able to support even one full-time employee. My mother and aunt owned a craft supply shop for a while when I was a kid, and they certainly could never have hired anyone. I briefly worked for two independently owned bookshops, and in one was paid in books, in the other less than minimum wage, and in neither could I ever expect more than a few hours a week. As I’m sure I’ve also said before – I get why cozy heroines have to be self-employed (because otherwise they’d be fired). But it’s always so wildly improbable.

Third: quirky and unreliable employees (upon whom shop owner relies entirely while she’s off playing Nancy Drew). There’s a line between “quirky” and “weird”. “Weird” can be really annoying. (So can quirky, honestly.)

Trope the Fourth: “I mean, how many people could die near me before it started to become a fatal pattern doomed to repeat over and over again until I packed my bags and left?” First off, that’s a terrible sentence – and it’s representative. Secondly: You know that it’s implausible that a book shop owner will encounter corpses on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean that you ought to have her comment on how implausible it is – unless you can find a more original way to do so.

Fifth Trope: Obviously, a book seller and coffee-vendor has absolutely no business going anywhere near a murder – but she does, of course (or there would be no book. Books.) And then she spends a great deal of time fretting about this and making excuses for it. “I was going to be a good girl this time. I swear I heard someone snicker on my left shoulder”. This alternates with a deluded smug cockiness over how magnificent an investigator she is. “… My special brand of investigative genius” indeed. ” My usual method of investigation was to walk up to someone and bluntly ask them whatever I wanted to know.” Yup. Poirot’s got nothing on you, honey.

I have absolutely zero patience for a civilian who is specifically told to butt out by the authorities, and who comes up with wildly creative justifications to ignore the orders. Even better, everyone around her waits with bated breath for her investigation to turn things up, even when she claims to be trying to obey the law and butt out. Well – she can’t let her fans down, can she? And – and – her father! Yes, he father wants to see her solve a mystery! Yes, that’s another great excuse. She can’t let him down!

And I have even less patience (we’re in the negatives now) for someone who not only ignores direct orders from the police, but actively breaks into a crime scene and touches everything. If there were any justice in the world, or at least the book, crime scene investigators would go back for a second look, find her hair and fingerprints and epithelial all over the place, and get her locked up. Things like “What harm could a few minutes of poking around really do?” just make me growl softly, under my breath. (The fact that the door to the room of the crime scene was left unlocked comes under the next paragraph’s umbrella.)

I had issues with the storytelling. An author signing is advertised the day it’s happening, and not before. Someone at the B&B claims it was much too busy for them to have noticed what was going on the night of the murder – but from the sound of it two customers would make for a busy night in this place – how could there be such a hectic rush that night that the desk person couldn’t give an answer? How could it be that “The door to [the murder victim’s] room was unlocked”? “I screamed as I tripped, falling hard on the floor” – how can you trip over a single sheet of paper on the floor, and how do you not control yourself when you’re supposed to be being stealthy?

It didn’t take long for me to start making snarky comments on the Kindle. The main character, a first-person narrator, was whingeing from the very beginning. She had a sleepless night. “My life always seemed to revolve around someone dying, and my having to deal with it. This kind of thing didn’t happen to normal people, so why me?” “Of course, when was the last time something happened just like I wanted?” Stop whining. “But darn it, it wasn’t my fault!” Whatever. And again “Why did this kind of thing always happen to me?” *slap* Nobody likes a whiny narrator, stop it.

The writing … it was coherent, but sometimes I wished it wasn’t. The narrator’s crush is nauseating – “He had that creamer-rich coffee skin tone that made me want to lap him right up.” The hard copy of the book should be packaged with air-sickness bags. In the same queasy-making vein, the whole chipped mug thing was absurd. It was supposed to be a sweet moment for the main character and her father – but all I could think was that anyone who purposely chips her coffee mugs is a moron. Not only is a chipped mug uncomfortable to drink from if it’s damaged in an awkward place, but it makes it a lot more likely you’ll find yourself holding a former mug one day, with hot coffee all down your front. And it’s unsanitary. (Well, that’s what I was always taught.)

There was the … coincidence? that the murder involves a guy being stabbed with a pen … and then a little while later the narrator has to snatch a pen away from a cat “Before he could stab himself in the roof of the mouth”. No comment about the connection there is made. And honestly, I got tired of the narrator’s father kissing her on the forehead or the top of her head. I’m not sure how you can write something that repetitive without it being noticed by someone. And why on earth is the fact that someone is exactly three minutes late cause for deep terror? A dog barks up a storm; someone talks a million miles a minute; someone’s mouth was running nonstop; lots of people babble (another annoying repetition); someone “elect[s]” an article of clothing (for what office?)…

One more incredibly obnoxious cozy trope this indulged in to the hilt: surrounding the main character with morons. (To make her look smarter without actually making her smart, I suppose?) Here, a friend of the narrator tries (unsuccessfully) to hide a new romance – but it was so obvious that it took her explaining that she was trying to keep it on the down-low for me to know that. Most unbearable, though, was “Rita”, a fan of the narrator’s father who makes Kathy Bates’s character in “Misery” look sane and tranquil. It was actually hard to read the last scene she was in.

I gave this book two stars initially, but I’m looking at the sheer number of times I actually swore at the book, its characters, and/or its author in my notes, and … yeah. One star is more reasonable. I wouldn’t read anything else from this series at gunpoint.

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

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