Review: “Brut Force” by Peter Stafford-Bow

Sometimes, this humble little blog truly surprises me. Through my contact page, I have received offers for ARCs, which I appreciate very much, even if my list is currently quite full and pirate capers aren’t so much my genre (sorry, but thank you!). Occasionally, I get comments from people who are too shy to comment. And sometimes, I get emails from an author I’ve reviewed. Let me tell you: all that communication really makes my day! I hope you have realized by now that even if I don’t much care for a particular book, I try to be fair about the reasons why I feel that way. Rare is the book I really, truly hate, and those I would not waste anyone’s time reviewing (yes, I have axed titles from my Netgalley list even, because they were badly researched, poorly written, or worst of all, both). You should also know by now that I mean it when I say that opinions on books are my own. If you offer me a review copy and I have reason to niggle, I will.

One new title that has given me absolutely no reason at all for complaint is Peter Stafford-Bow’s latest novel, “Brut Force,” the sequel to Felix Hart’s adventures first set forth in “Corkscrew” (my review here, just don’t ask what was going on with that introductory paragraph). Young Felix Hart is now a few years older, but still living with an assortment of colorful characters in his Little Chalfont flat, still going strong at Gatesave as Head of Wine, and unfortunately for him, still entangled with wine & spirits leviathan, Paris-Blois.  When two local wine aficionados decide to pit Old World and New World Pinot Noirs against each other in a double blind tasting, the reputation of Paris-Blois’ own market-dominating wine is at stake. Never a company to deal fairly when trickery can be employed, Felix’s old acquaintances, Pierre and Sandra resort to blackmail to get Felix into the contest as a judge whose job it is to ensure that Paris-Blois comes out on top. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan, whatever the plan of the moment may be, and Felix ends up being quite entangled in not one, but several conspiracies, working hard to escape unscathed while desperately trying to sort out who’s friend or foe.

I liked the first book. It was different and amusing, even though Felix, being a typical young man in many respects, occasionally made me want to slap him upside the head. Older Felix still loves his life, his job, and the ladies, but I find him far less irritating and far more entertaining. From page 1, I couldn’t help but break out into chuckles, which some of the people passing the breakroom at work may have found odd. Mr Stafford-Bow has found a wonderful balance of humor, pacing, and plot twists to make “Brut Force” even more engaging than “Corkscrew.” The very end of the book plants a suggestion that the novelist may not be done with Felix Hart just yet, and that is a promise I’m very much looking forward to seeing fulfilled! Another point I find refreshing is the loving care given to wine descriptions, as one would expect from an author who is intimately familiar with the industry. It’s fairly commonplace these days to find a writer indulging in lengthy descriptions of fine meals (see Donna Leon or Andrea Camilleri), so why not wine? Finally, this is really more of a technical issue, but one I found quite wonderful on a personal level: the editing is superb. Normally, I find misspellings, lost words, or grammar errors, even when I’m not looking for them (believe me, I don’t look, really!); “Brut Force” was fabulously free of any of those.

Do I have a niggle? Yes, a very tiny one. I would have preferred it had they left the subtitle “The further, staggering adventures of a professional wine buyer” off the cover. Sure, it’s punny, but it seems entirely unnecessary. Would that keep me from wholeheartedly recommending this book to you? Not at all! If you love wine, mad capers, or simply a fun read, get yourself a copy. It will lift your mood and erase frown lines from your face. I’ll drink to that!

“Brut Force” is published by Acorn Publishing. I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a review. All opinions are, as always, my own.

brut force

Review: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Dear readers, I’ll tell you one thing: if I had as many real comments as spam comments, this blog would be quite lively! Alas, you are rather quiet consumers, operating -and hopefully buying books- in the background. Some real gems have made the reading list this year, and today’s book is a must-read for anyone who loves a well-told tale.

One winter solstice night, a badly injured man appears at the door of the Swan, the inn at Radcot. The small doll he seems to be holding turns out to be a girl, drowned in the river, but soon the girl who was dead becomes the girl who is alive again, stirring the imagination of the Swan’s regulars. Who is she? Could she be Amelia, daughter of the Vaughan family, who disappeared from her home two years earlier? Is she Alice, the granddaughter the Armstrongs never knew? Or might she even be Ann, long-lost sister of Lily White?

Ms Setterfield skillfully entwines the mystery of the girl’s identity with the fate of three families, each suffering from a secret that could break them apart. As in any good tale, the relationships provide the momentum: fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. The ratio of male to female characters seems well balanced, and no one particular person demands all of the readers attention.

I’m not usually a fan of big books and would probably not have picked this up at the store, even though the cover art alone is enticing. Fortunately, you cannot tell the size of a novel from a digital copy that takes mere moments to download. I “cracked open” the book and was immediately enthralled. The language is beautiful and the plot, like the often referenced river, carries the reader along, sometimes languidly, sometimes with a forceful pull that makes you realize at four in the morning that you’ve gone long past the point of “just finishing that chapter.” There are magical elements to the narrative that appear quite natural in the setting, and with these little hooks, the story will stay with you for some time. Hint: this book would make a great gift for a reader in your life…

“Once Upon a River” is published by Atria Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. You can bet that all opinions are my own, except where otherwise stated.

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Review: “The Psychology of Time Travel” by Kate Mascarenhas

THIS PREVIEW MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

In 1967, time travel ceases to be a theory and becomes reality, a triumphant success for a project spearheaded by four female scientists. Soon enough, the pioneers, Margaret, Barbara, Lucille, and Grace, hop between present and future as if they’ve never done anything else. Unfortunately, Barbara soon begins to show signs of mental instability, a side effect of time travel. To prevent any stigma to fall upon the project, the remaining pioneers decide to force Barbara into resigning.

Some fifty years later, a student finds a badly disfigured body in a locked room in the basement of the museum where she volunteers. Who is the dead woman, and why was she murdered? In order to find the answers she desperately needs to regain her equilibrium, Odette decides to join the Conclave, the organization regulating and facilitating time travel.

There is a lot to like about this novel: all the primary characters are women, which is a refreshing change of pace. The premise of the book is certainly intriguing, and the setting unique. These are the strong points of “The Psychology of Time Travel.”

The story is interesting enough to easily allow the reader to pick up what part of the plot takes place in which timeline, but all throughout, I never connected to any of the characters. While I wanted to follow their exploits until the conclusion, it was like looking into live-action panorama box from the outside, which made the experience somewhat less than satisfying.

A plot point that bothered me incessantly was the flippant way in which time travelers reveal the future to other characters and even meet their older and younger selves. Considering the rigorous selection and training process potential time travelers have to go through before joining the Conclave, it would be downright dangerous to simply spring someone’s future on them, not to mention that apparently in this story, too, you can’t really change anything about it, just as you cannot change past events.

Furthermore, the book could have benefited from vigorous editing. The writing style reads very much like the original intent was to submit a short story that kept getting longer and longer, and even as short story, this would have looked like a decent second draft at best.

Ms Mascarenhas clearly has a passion for story-telling and some refreshingly unusual ideas about alternate realities. I look forward to reading more tightly crafted novels by her in future.

“The Psychology of Time Travel” is published by Crooked Lane Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

psychology time travel

Author Interview: Emilia Bernhard of “Death in Paris”

In September, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Emilia Bernhard, whose book “Death in Paris” I had reviewed not long before (see my review here). We spoke about inspiration, creating characters, and future plans for Rachel and Magda. Ms Bernhard hails from the US, but is now living and teaching in the UK.

Stop and Smell the Pages:  So, how did you end up in the UK?

Emilia Bernhard: The simple answer is, I just wanted to be here.  I had some connections at Cambridge, so I got a job teaching writing there, and that was enough to live on until I got a real job teaching English Literature.

SSTP: You’re living in Bristol now, right?

EB: Actually, I live in Exeter.

SSTP: Oh, right! Did your cat move there with you or did you get him later? I noticed you named him after a son of the city (English poet  Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate for 30 years. He wrote a children’s story, The Story of the Three Bears, which served as inspiration for Goldilocks)

EB: Robert Southey, who is indeed a Bristolian, really, really, really loved cats; he was a huge lover of cats. He’s a terrible poet, really terrible, but I’ve always been fond of him because of his love of cats. So when I knew I was going to get a cat, I decided to call him Robert Southey – he’s just called Bob, actually.

And now he’s got a companion cat who’s named Humphry Davy. Humphry Davy was a scientist of the same era as Robert Southey, so I thought I’d keep it in the family. (Humphry Davy invented, among other things, electrochemistry, and nitrous oxide owes its nickname, Laughing Gas, to him. While living in Bristol, he became friends with Southey)

SSTP: I like that! So, one interesting thing about your novel is that as an American living in England, you chose Paris as the setting for the book. How did that happen?

EB: I have hypothesis that everybody has another country that’s not the country they were born in and not the country that they live in, and when I went to Paris, I was just very comfortable there. I used to spend a lot of time there; in the summers, when I would come to England for research, I would stop over in Paris for a couple of days. So I knew enough when I started writing the novel to set the novel there, but I did have to go back and spend more time there.

SSTP: I think you mention in the back of the book that you had to go and do a lot of research for the street layouts and those kinds of things.

EB: (laughs) I did! I have zero geographical sense; I always tell people I could get lost walking around the block! I would go to Paris and I’d walk, like I walked the First Arrondissement. When I got home, I’d be able to tell you where I had walked and the whole path, but I had no idea what the street names were, so I had to use Google Satellite. That thing is an author’s gift! It’s weird, you can get so close. It’s not like you forget you’re not there, but you can get so close that it’s weird that you’re not there.

SSTP: Another thing I liked about the novel was that your protagonists are just two regular women. There’s not the usual cop with a chip on his shoulder or anything like that. How did that come about?

EB:  That was a conscious choice. I’m 50 and I wanted the people in the book to be an age that I could write with some understanding, but also an age you almost never see in books. You see women who are fifty and above, and you see women who are maybe in their thirties, but you don’t see women who are in their forties. There aren’t a lot of women in books, generally, who don’t have children. I don’t have children, and so I wanted them not to have children. They are based very loosely on me and my best friend. I knew I wanted the heroine to be married, to have somebody to kind of balance her out, but I also knew that I wanted her to have a very specific kind of equal marriage. I didn’t want her to have his last name, I wanted to show a kind of woman that, at least at the time, which was three years ago, and I think still now, you just didn’t see very much of in books.

SSTP: Yes, that is true. I was also happy to see that you kind of hinted at possibly writing a continuation of your Death in Paris series. Are they going to be the same people in a similar setting?

EB: Oh yes! It’s planned as a whole series of books, at least three, and I would hope more. It’s planned , for example, that Rachel’s husband, who only comes in and out in the first one, plays a larger role in the second one, and people who appear in this first book will also appear in later ones. The idea is to build a kind of a world, like Agatha Christie with Hastings. It’s not just Poirot, he also comes with various other characters.

A very big part of that is, when I got an agent and it looked like the book was going to be a real thing, I decided that throughout the series every person who was in a position of power would be female. With the exception of the police detective- it was too late to change that- in this mystery and all forthcoming mysteries, anybody that they have to deal with who has a power role will also be a woman.

SSTP:  That was another point I really enjoyed, a lot of strong women characters who aren’t bystanders to the whole plot.

EB: You know, just recently in England a couple of women, I think it was newspaper critics, got together and started offering an award for Best Mystery in which no woman is killed or raped or assaulted, because they felt that the women that you see in mysteries, that’s basically what they do, they’re the victim.

SSTP: You kind of hinted at where the idea for the murder came from. It isn’t, as Law and Order used to say, “ripped from the headlines,” but it is based on a real instance, isn’t it?

EB: Sort of. Not the specificity of the murder, but that murder just seemed so weird. I understand why you would kill someone if you weren’t in their will, you’d be overcome with rage and then you’d do that, but if you were thinking at all rationally, it just seems like a weird choice. I’m working on the second novel right now, and in both cases, the solution to the mystery has been about emotion.

SSTP: How did you come up with the means of your murder, though? Chucking someone off a balcony may not be that unusual, but drowning in a vichyssoise certainly is.

EB: That happened because I wanted to make the joke! That he’d died in his sleep, when he’d actually died in his soup.  The real difficulty was figuring out how someone could actually die in their soup, so the joke kind of forced all the rest of it. [One of the other murders], I just wanted to write a scene where someone had been bashed over the head. I’d read an article about different kinds of mysteries: cozy, light, thriller, suspense, there’s all these different categories. And it said that in the cozy mystery, they never really describe the body, so I was like, “well, mine is not a cozy mystery, so I will describe the body!” As a writer, there’s just some things that you want to write. And the soup thing just made me laugh every time I read it.

There was an episode of CSI where a woman dry-drowns. And that is why there is a scene in the novel where Rachel calculates how much soup is in the bowl.

SSTP:  I’m assuming you probably did more research on this than going back to old television shows.

EB: Well, I did a lot of research at various points, things like, how deep is a soup bowl. I actually measured soup bowls. I took a deliberate trip to Paris to figure out the area. But I did a lot of research backwards. For example, when I was in Paris, I didn’t know there’d be a scene where they take a taxi cab. When I got home and wrote that scene, I had no idea what a cab in Paris looked like. The internet was my best friend. I don’t think I could have written this without the internet.

SSTP: For your police inspector, did you have anyone you talked to about police work? Or was he going to be a minor character so that you could just say ‘we’ll have him come in when we need him to’?

EB: Basically! To be honest, I’m pretty sure I got some stuff wrong. I just have to hope that nobody who actually knows anything about French police work reads the book. I’ll have to try and get that right in future. He’s just a generic policeman in this book. And also, the women are very excitable. They can’t believe their luck, having watched all those true crime shows, that something strolls along.  I needed to have somebody who sort of knew what was actually plausible, and somebody who was just very calm, and he was designed to do that.

I really love the scene where he makes Rachel another cup of tea, because up until that point, I was like “I don’t really know what this guy is here for”, and then he was there to kind of take her seriously in a way that maybe she doesn’t even take herself seriously.

SSTP: Now that we’ve talked about it, it’s more noticeable that there aren’t many male characters in there that have much of a role, but it still feels like a very balanced book. Alan being there to ground Rachel a bit and perhaps to stifle her enthusiasm about the murder, and the policeman coming in and saying “this isn’t really how we can go about things,” I think that worked out really well in the novel.

EB: Well, thank you, first of all. And second of all, that’s partially down to my editor because she noticed that in the unrevised version, Alan is actually a lot more unpleasant. That’s odd, because in life, I socialize more with men than women, but apparently, on paper I have trouble capturing men. I could really only make them sort of patronizing. If it weren’t for my editor, I don’t think Alan would be a calming influence. There’s not much to him, but he’d be even less rounded. He comes into more prominence in the next book, he takes a more active role, so he gets a little more fleshed out there. I need to write a lot more men to get used to writing men.

SSTP: Since you are teaching at the moment, I would imagine that for a good chunk of the year you’re fairly busy anyway; how do make sure you have time for writing? Do you have a routine or do you just try to fit it in whenever you can?

EB: A bit of both. As I said, I don’t have any children and I don’t have a partner, and I think it’s important to recognize how much free time that leaves you with. I don’t want people to think that I have some fantastically organized schedule because I don’t; I just don’t have anything else to do. But at the same time, you make a good point because when I’m teaching, I can’t do writing. So what I try to do, and I’m trying to do even more this time, is complete a first draft during the summer. Then while I teach, I can revise.

What also makes it easy is, I try to write 1000 words a day. Graham Greene did this, he did it all in one sitting. You just sit down and then you don’t get up until you’ve finished. That I cannot do, but I try to write a thousand words a day. I try to do a rolling outline, meaning I know where a story’s going to go up to a certain point, and that makes it much easier to write it. I’ll write up to the point that I know, then I’ll take two days off and have an idea for the next part and I’ll write that. I think Julian Barnes once said that the only things writers like better than writing is finding excuses not to write, and in my case that’s certainly true. Up until adulthood, I never really stuck at anything, so this is a change for me. I really do stick at this, and I think it’s because it’s the thing I’ve always wanted to do.

SSTP: How long was “Death in Paris” in the making?

EB: As Mr Monk would say: here’s what happened… I got dumped. Right before I got dumped, I had this novel that I had been holding on to for years and years, and I sent it out to every agent in England. Then I went to America – I was there visiting- and when I returned to England, I got broken up with. A couple of days later I got this email from the woman who would become my agent, Laura MacDougall, and the email said ‘this novel is good enough to make me want to see whatever it is you’re working on now.’ I wrote to her and I said, ‘here’s ten pages (which was all that I had) of this mystery that I’ve just started to write.’ She wrote back and said ‘I would like to see the rest of this.’ And I said… ‘there is no rest of this.’ Then I thought to myself, well, I just got broken up with, it hasn’t destroyed my life, but it’s not something I really want to think about, so I could just focus on writing the rest of this book. So, I wrote back to her and said, if you give me six weeks, I’ll give you a first draft. That’s how long the first draft took. But after that… it was not a good first draft. I feel like anybody who is a writer should know that: all first drafts are terrible. In my experience, all you’re doing is to write the first draft so you can finish the first draft and revise it. It’s the revision where all the fun stuff happens. So after that, it took basically two to two-and-a-half years to revise it. I’ve never been good with plot. I’m really good with characters and description, but the long bit in the middle where stuff has to happen, I’ve never been good at that. I’m still not good at it! There was a period where we sent it out and nobody wanted it. I said to Laura, send me all the comments, which she did, and everybody said ‘it really doesn’t have much plot.’ That was pretty close to the end of the two-and-a-half years. For a while, it seemed to be done, and then it needed to be revised. They still sit around and talk an awful lot.

SSTP: I felt that it still had a very good pace, though. Even if they sit around and talk, the reader gets to know the characters, and now that you’ve said you’re working on the next book, the reader will already know what these people are about before you get there.

EB: That is a good point. If it wasn’t billed as a mystery, it wouldn’t be such a big deal that they talk so much. But when something’s a mystery, people have certain expectations. Publisher’s Weekly called it ‘a comedy of manners’.

SSTP: For future books, should we eventually expect one of those this-time-it’s-personal novels, or is that a road you don’t necessarily want to go down? Even though, since Rachel used to know Edgar quite intimately, that has already happened in a way.

EB: I think of it this way: like you’ve said, these are just two ordinary women, there is no earthly reason why they should get involved in detection if it wasn’t someone that they knew. Now that they’re involved, they really like it. In the next one, they do get involved accidentally, but it’s not because they know someone. Essentially, Rachel just happens along right as there’s been a murder. In the third one, I’m not really sure, but I know that I want to have a firm base in which they progress as detectives, and then maybe bring it back to something more personal. It’s difficult. Are you familiar with “Midsomer Murders”?

SSTP: Yes.

EB: You’ve probably thought to yourself, the streets of that town must just be littered with corpses! I don’t want it to be that every friend Rachel ever had is murdered!

SSTP: Now that you’re published and you’ve started on the second novel, are you on a schedule when it should be finished?

EB: It should be finished by February, but the whole process takes much longer than anybody thinks. It will be out next October, I know that for sure. The first one is out in October of this year, the second one is out in October of 2019. You learn all sorts of fascinating things; my agent told me that there is this whole timetable for publishing. It just so happened that my book was accepted at a time that meant it would be published in autumn, and then they wanted a quick follow-up. And then of course when they have an author, they want to grow a following, so they like to get the first and the second [book] out quickly, and then there’s a breather.

SSTP: Are they going to send you on a reading tour?

EB: I would love that! I’ve always yearned to be a celebrity, so I would adore a reading tour. The difficulty is, if you’re a first-time author, you get two people in a bookstore as your audience. I don’t have the self-confidence to do that. The way the world of publishing has changed, there’s a lot more stuff online. They might want me to do some online publicity.

SSTP: How important IS a well-made cup of tea in the writing process?

EB: Extremely important! I would say a well-made cup of tea is essential to the living process. Not only that, but I’ll tell you how to make it, because I know that a lot of your readers will be American. Here’s the first thing: I’m sorry, America, but you’re getting it wrong. Bag first, then the water. I don’t know why, but that’s all that works. Ideally, the water should be boiling; you don’t put it in the microwave, you didn’t get it out of one those little spigots. Put the bag in the cup, add the water, leave it for ideally five minutes, although three minutes is good. Then add milk, if you happen to be a milk person. Ideally, you would add whole milk. In the UK, everywhere they’ve started using semi-skimmed, because people are fooling themselves into believing that that way they’re losing weight – so, whole milk, and you want it to turn a kind of fawn color. And you want to sit down with it and drink it slowly!

SSTP: How do you feel about lemon in the tea, though?

EB: I’m pro lemon! You obviously don’t want lemon AND milk, but it is especially good with Earl Grey.

SSTP: Thank you very much, I really enjoyed talking with you today!

EB: Oh, it was a joy!

Emilia Bernhard’s Facebook page

Emilia Bernhard Amazon author page

Review: “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton

Having a debut novel published must be a nerve-wracking event. Will readers and critics love it? Hate it? Who will they compare you to? Well, Stuart Turton certainly has nothing to worry about, and the writer he has to live up is Agatha Christie (which is, as much as I love her work, a somewhat tired comparison and probably primarily done because Christie and Turton are both British). “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” is nothing short of brilliant, a dazzling piece of creative fiction with a few excellent twists thrown in.

Aiden Bishop awakes in a strange house and a strange body, although this first strange morning ends rather soon. When next he wakes, the house looks familiar, but the body is different again. The reader finds himself as confused as the struggling Aiden, both desperate and curious to figure out what is going on. In bits and pieces, the other occupants of the house are introduced, and soon the reader shares the main characters curious ability to observe a scene both from within and without. Apparently, there is a murder to be solved, complete with a deadline. As if that doesn’t add enough pressure, there is also a conspiracy, and a menacing figure in the form of a deadly footman. Who are Aiden’s foes, and is there anyone he can consider an ally? The suspense never lets up as Turton skillfully unravels the mystery thread by thread and throws in a wonderful surprise at the very end. This is the kind of book the term “page-turner” was invented for!

Seems a bit skimpy on detail? If you really must know more, enough reviews have been written about this novel, but most of them contain, in my opinion, a spoiler so obvious, they may as well spell out the conclusion. As this is my top pick for Book of the Year at this point, I am unwilling to give away too much and ruin the fun for you. The only thing I did not like about “The 7 1/2 Deaths” was that the publisher asked readers not to post reviews too soon (I read the ARC in April)!

If you love a good mystery, do yourself a favor and get this novel.

“The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” is published by Sourcebooks Landmark. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are most definitely my own.

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Review: “Death in Paris” by Emilia Bernhard

Some books require serious commitment before you really get into them. Some require a bit of a warmup. And some start off like being dropped into someone’s cozy living-room with a cup of joe and a cookie. “Death in Paris” is definitely a coffee and cookie book!

In this utterly charming, well-paced novel, two American ex-pats in Paris find themselves suddenly entangled in a murder investigation when Rachel’s former lover ends up face first in his soup bowl. The only clue: a bottle of wine that the dead man was unlikely to have chosen to drink. When Rachel attends the reading of the will, she is presented with an entire set of possible suspects. She and her friend, Magda, decide to follow their hunches to the thrilling conclusion.

There are so many things I love about this book: the characters are well defined and thought out. The pace of the narrative feels like a comfortably brisk walk in a rainy park smelling of wet leaves (what? I for one rather enjoy rambles like that).  The events have an internal logic, something that is not a given, even in crime fiction. And there are no grammatical or spelling errors, and yes, that is so rare that it is worth mentioning. I realize that advance copies are just that and usually not yet finalized, but mistakes are distracting to me, occasionally to the point where I no longer want to finish the book.

Author Emilia Bernhard is an American living in the UK, something that accidentally spills over into the book. At one point, there is a scene describing the utter lack of decent options for a good cup of tea in Paris, something that the vast majority of my American acquaintances wouldn’t give a hoot about. Someone well familiar with the beloved British ritual of tea preparation, however, would.

All in all, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and suspenseful read which I do not hesitate to recommend to you, my dear readers. Hopefully, this will not be the last time we’ve heard from Ms. Bernhard.

“Death in Paris” is published by Thistle Publishing. I received a free copy in exchange for a review. As always, all opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

death in paris

Review: “The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade” by M.J. Trow

I thank my lucky stars that made me decide to pick up this excellent book, and whether you’re a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, love good crime fiction, or simply enjoy a well-written novel with a good dose of humor, do not let this pass you by.

Inspector Lestrade is probably the best known of all of Holmes’s police contacts, and like most of them, frequently bumbles his way through a case without the ability to see past his own nose. M.J. Trow decides to turn things on their head, certainly not a novel (ho-hum!) idea. After all, Sherlock Holmes wasn’t all he was made out to be in the fabulously entertaining comedy, “Without A Clue,” starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. In the movie, Dr. Watson is the actual sleuth who invents a fictional detective to allow him to solve crimes incognito. He hires Michael Caine’s character, an unemployed actor, to step in as Holmes. Inspector Lestrade, played by Jeffrey Jones, is the familiar jealous doofus.

M.J. Trow, however, not only gives his Lestrade a first name (Sholto), but also a personal life and enough smarts to successfully navigate his career in the police force. If anyone finds Sholto reminiscent of an Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, you are not mistaken. “The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade” is peppered with literary allusions harking back to the Conan Doyle canon. I won’t give any others away in order to not spoil your fun, but I’d like to say that I enjoyed finding them strewn throughout the text.

There is also an imposing cast of characters, from Conan Doyle, Holmes, and Watson as themselves, to familiar faces such as Athelney Jones and Inspector Gregson. A few real-life writers of the time make an appearance in smaller roles, like Oscar Wilde and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. They may be small details, but they imbue the story with a wonderful sense of playfulness, while at the same time betraying Mr. Trow’s background as a historian. A couple of scenes center around misadventures with surnames. I thought those were quite funny and not overdone.

Readers familiar with European children’s literature will cotton on quickly to the fact that the murder series Lestrade must investigate is apparently based on Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter” (Shock-headed Peter) stories. On a side note: As someone who loves those frequently gruesome tales to this day, I am more than a little appalled at the clunky and inelegant English translations which lack a lot of the charm of the originals, but I understand that in order to preserve the rhyme, certain linguistic sacrifices had to be made.

Lestrade takes more than a few literal and proverbial beatings in the course of his investigation, as the murderer seems to remain a solid step ahead of the police, while pressure to solve the case mounts as the months drag on. Red herrings abound, and the conclusion is a well thought-out surprise (at least that’s what I felt). I feel utterly satisfied on many levels by this wonderful book – it took me less than a day to race through it!

“The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade” is published by Thistle Publishing. I snagged a free copy for review via Netgalley. All opinions are absolutely my own, unless otherwise stated.

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Review: “Broken Ground” by Val McDermid

Finally, a new book! There could have been two, but I finally decided to abandon one of the two most current reads in favor of something less boring. Honestly, unless there is an actual plot or a point or at least a pointe, please don’t make me sit through endless pages of self-criticizing journaling; it’s not cute. For those of you who might get suckered in by a diary about growing up in the 60s, I highly recommend “Diary of a Beatlemaniac” which was all the things this other book was not: funny, interesting, and a great read to the end.

I’ve also been disappointed that the copy of “Vegan Yack Attack on the Go!” that I won in an online contest hasn’t arrived. Then again, there hasn’t been much forward momentum as far as giving me a start date to go to work, either. I suppose that means there is no rush on the book. Still… I was however quite tickled to find my copy of “Infinite Tuesday” in the mailbox upon our return from Cleveland, signed by author, video pioneer, songwriter and former Monkee Michael Nesmith. I realize he does that for everyone who orders the book from the Videoranch website, but I’m loving it, anyway.

I don’t know if I have made it clear that I’m a bit of a sucker for good crime fiction. No midlife-crisis-battling, rubber-boots-wearing, quirky divorcees or chicks-who-must-find-their-true-selves for me! Hm, perhaps that doesn’t quite work in this case, because “Broken Ground”‘s lead character, DCI Karen Pirie, is certainly battling a crisis of sorts in this book, and since the setting is Scotland, rubber boots do make an appearance. Early on, in fact: together with an accommodating local, a young couple set out to dig up a pair of war-era motorcycles, hidden for decades in a peat bog. Literally thrown into the bargain is a dead body, significantly younger than the motorcycles. DCI Pirie from the Historic Case Unit now has to solve this murder, while simultaneously assisting in a domestic violence incidence turned deadly.

“Broken Ground” is Ms. McDermid’s 32nd thriller, if I remember the blurb from the back correctly, and it is quite obvious why her books are so popular. I was drawn into the story immediately, the characters are fleshed out quickly and with practiced ease. The suspense is built and maintained excellently; I think it took me two days and a bit to get through this book (primarily because I do have other things to do, regrettably, or it might have been a one-day read for me). If you are a fan of gritty, rain-soaked locales, but prefer your detectives to be allowed a private life, you will love this book. I certainly highly recommend it. The only thing I did not care for so much were the final two chapters. The second-to-last chapter reads a bit like a rush job to tie up loose ends, the last chapter really adds nothing to the story, except laying out the scene of a murder as it had already been surmised by investigators earlier on. Instead of bringing closure, it just reads a bit redundant.

“Broken Ground” will be published by Grove Atlantic this December. I received an advance copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

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Review: “Flamingo Lane” by Tim Applegate

For a brief moment I labored under the illusion that my to-read list was actually getting shorter. Then I took a look at the titles my Kindle app lists as “new.” Yeah… the incredible shrinking book list it ain’t! In the interest of continuing this blog, I suppose that is definitely a good thing.

Yesterday, I finished Tim Applegate’s “Flamingo Lane,” a novel in which writer William Dieter reconnects with an old friend while working on his new novel, “Flamingo Lane.” Dieter’s previous book, “Fever Tree,” was a huge success. I can’t say whether this is also true for Mr Applegate’s prior novel of the same title. If any of his other characters are so obviously inspired by actual persons is hard to tell, and not just because of the usual disclaimer that they’re not.

So, Dieter is in Crooked River, Florida, working on his book. He has gotten back into contact with an old friend he met in Mexico years earlier, Faye Lindstrom. Back when Faye was still young and idealistic, looking to devote her life to the hippie notions of love and peace, she fell in love with a Mexican gangster. As the book starts out, she is just trying to get her life back together, having managed to escape her ex-boyfriend. Alas, unbeknownst to her, there is a paid assassin close on her heels, and he’s got a personal score to settle, as well.

“Flamingo Lane” was a super fast read for me, not because it’s super short, but because it is suspenseful and captivating. If you’re a fan of well written thrillers, don’t let this one pass you by! Having done a little research, I find that “Fever Tree,” the earlier novel, tells Dieter’s own story, from his days in Quintana Roo to his arrival in Crooked River. If ever I have time again, I may have to get my paws on that one, as well.

“Flamingo Lane” is published by Amberjack Publishing. I received a free copy in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

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Review: “Corkscrew” by Peter Stafford-Bow

I have a confession to make: there are no more cookbooks in the queue for a while. Some of my newer readers might be shocked to find that I also read other non-fiction. And assorted fiction. Call it brain candy – and no worries, there are no calories attached. This particular novel kept me engaged from absurd beginning to topsy-turvy end. Which is funny, because Peter Stafford-Bow is actually a pseudonym, and some of the events are based on the real person-behind-the-name’s real-life experiences.

“Corkscrew” is the perfect companion for an afternoon or an evening (or two) when you just want to sit back and unwind (pun not particularly original, but nonetheless intended). Young Felix Hart faces the daunting possibility of ending up a loser straight out of school, but fate has something better in store for him: a stellar career in the wine industry! Learning that he has a real knack for highly specialized retail, Felix embarks on the crazy journey of a lifetime, aided by a cast of colorful characters (I guarantee that you’ll remember Wodin, Wikus, and the Spott-Hythes long after you’ve finished the book) and a vast assortment of equally unlikely, yet wonderfully entertaining events.  Like a James Bond of viticulture, Felix always has time for little relaxation on the job, as well. You simply must stay for the outrageous climax that could end Felix’s spot at the top of the ladder, because luckily, there is just one more twist in store. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite bevvy, keep your tongue stuck firmly in your cheek, and see if you can pick up enough pointers to pass the Minstrel of Wine examination!

Grape Experiences has posted a funny and informative Q&A with author Peter Stafford-Bow for those who are interested in the story behind the story.

“Corkscrew” is published by Thistle Publishing. At this point, I really must send a special thank-you to David Haviland, who does his best to ensure his quirky titles get the coverage they deserve. I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a review. Needless to say, all opinions are my own, except where otherwise stated.

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