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.

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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: “Ohio” by Stephen Markley

“Do you ever review fiction?” my husband asked the other day. As a matter of fact, I do (and have, here, here, here, and here). It just seems to be an easier task to get hold of good non-fiction. There must be a LOT of reviewers vying for the approval lists for fiction titles. Sometimes, I get lucky. And sometimes, I get very lucky. “Ohio” is one of those latter instances of a lot of luck. I may be having a bear of a time finding employment, but at least the reading list stays interesting.

“Ohio” is the debut novel of author Stephen Markley, a man so mysterious that his biography contains less factual content than the first two sentences of this post. I would love to know why he decided to set his story in the fictional midwestern town of New Canaan (for fact lovers: there is a Canaan, Ohio, although I cannot say how much or if at all it has influenced the description of the setting in the book). I live only one state over, however, and many of the problems of the area more or less affectionately named “the Rust Belt”, like dying industry and shrinking agriculture, apply across the swath of the upper Midwest.

The novel drops us into a memorial parade for a young soldier, a son of New Canaan, killed in action only a handful of years after high school graduation. Ah, you think to yourself, this is about the dead kid! It could have been, but it isn’t. The next chapters introduce us to people from Rick’s circle, both close and not so close. As each character has his or her story told, the voice changes accordingly. If you are easily confused by storytelling techniques such as this, you’ve been warned. Aha!, you might exclaim, it’s about something that connects all these kids! Definitely warmer. There is indeed a common thread here, at first barely perceptible, but naggingly present, even if its true meaning is not revealed until much later.

There is also a character study here, although it’s not of people, it’s of a town. Sure, you nod, there are lots of points to New Canaan that I recognize. And you will, as I did, but again, don’t take things at face value here. This is not about The Town Next Door, so to speak, but goes much deeper. New Canaan is a place that breeds its own kind of horror and tragedy, and what will hook you in and make you stay with the narrative until its breathtaking conclusion is the realization that, perhaps, nobody who has spent any real time in this town gets away unscathed – not even minor characters.

Adjectives like “breathtaking,” “heartstopping,” and the ever-overused “stunning” give me goosebumps, and not for a good reason, but where “Ohio” is concerned, they are not only applicable but true. When I finished the book, I felt as if someone had clonked me in the head with a shovel: I was unable to do anything but sit there and breathe, until I had collected myself. That is why “Ohio” is hands down THE best novel I have read this year, and why you should not miss it when it comes out in August!

“Ohio” is published by Simon & Schuster. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Woodcutter” by Shaun Baines

From the publisher’s description:

“SOME FAMILY TREES ARE MEANT TO FALL…

On the run from his criminal family, Daniel Dayton returns home to Newcastle Upon Tyne when his abandoned daughter is attacked.

But his family have problems of their own. Targeted by a brutal mercenary, their empire is destined to be destroyed should Daniel refuse to help.

Betrayed by his parents. Despised by his brother. In love with his sister-in-law. Home has become a dangerous place to be.

Daniel wants his daughter safe. And he wants his revenge, but in the shadowy streets of Newcastle, things are never what they seem.”

If you want to know what Shaun Baines’s debut novel is about, this blurb will give you the right idea without me having to provide spoilers. At first, I found it somewhat difficult to really get into the rhythm of the story, primarily because the writing reminds me very much of the German dimestore publication, “G-Man Jerry Cotton”, which is full of gangster jargon and clichés. Then again, ol’ Jerry has been going strong since 1954, so clearly, this type of writing does not necessarily speak against a book. In fact, as I continued reading, I eventually stopped noticing (or possibly, Mr Baines hit a more literary stride in his writing style). Mind you, this says nothing at all about the quality of the story yet; just be forewarned that if you tend to be as picky as I am, you may have a tough time enjoying Woodcutter.

‘Yeah, yeah, but what about the STORY?’ Well, dear readers, here you are in luck: Mr Baines skilfully weaves a tale of conflict and deception, with clever twists and turns that maintain the suspense. By the middle of the book, I was so engrossed that I felt compelled to keep reading all the way to the end! The deviousness of those aiming to use Daniel Dayton for their own purposes runs deep, indeed. I am pleased to say that although I am not aware of any plans for a follow-up, Mr Baines has certainly left himself the option to write one (or more), having established his characters, some future conflict, and even potential storylines.

Woodcutter is published by Thistle Publishing. I received an advanced copy for review; all opinions are my own.

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