Showing posts with label mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery. Show all posts

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Leon Chameleon PI and the Case of the Missing Canary Eggs by Jan Hurst-Nicholson

Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with Leon the Chameleon by Mélanie Watt, which I haven't read, but which is evidently a young children's story about misfits and acceptance, this is a series for somewhat older children about a different chameleon coincidentally named Leon, and who is a private investigator just like his great uncle was. Jan Hurst-Nicholson is the author of Bheki and the Magic Light which I reviewed favorably back in April 2015, as I also did her young children's fiction about a left-handed girl, The Race. I also review the second book in this series on my blog.

But back to the review in progress. Leon lives in an African forest and tries to help out various animal victims of criminal activity such as egg-napping and human abduction of forest critters. He never seems to get paid, which is par for the course for lowly PIs! He does, however, get all his food and lodging free from the forest, and he doesn't own a car, so his expenses are minimal....

This book was first published in 1993, and re-released as an ebook in 2009. It's amusingly and competently illustrated by Barbara McGuire, and this first book introduces us to the forest, to Leon, and to the local police (the Pigeon Valley Police), consisting of Constable Mole, Sergeant Loerie, and Lieutenant Crow, as well as a host of other forest creatures of all stripes, dapples, brindling, spots, and whatever. Mrs Canary left her nest for only the briefest of times, yet when she returned, her three eggs were missing! Obviously someone poached them and no one is singing! It's time to scramble the police! Call out the frying squad. No, it's actually the flying squad!

I don't know if they really have a flying squad in police departments in South Africa, where the author lives, but she grew up in Britain, so maybe she's conflating. I don't know, but either way, it's funny. In Britain, the flying squad, through rhyming slang, was known as the Sweeney, from Sweeney Todd, and was a huge hit show in Britain many years back. But I digress!

So, with eggs missing and the police struggling, Leon leaps, well quivers, to the rescue, the long tongue of the law, using his keen mind and his swiveling eyes which, to paraphrase Joseph Heller, could see more things than most people, but none of them too clearly! Nevertheless, paying close attention to the clues, Leon soon has it all figured out, and as the police run down one useless 'lead' after another, Leon closes in on the likely suspects despite some rather unfair disparagement from the law.

The best thing about his novel apart from its sense of humor and the beautiful way it's written, is the sneaky way the author slips in educational material about the animals who appear as characters. This is the way a really good children's novel ought to be done, but rarely is. I recommend this completely.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Carrots by Colleen Helme

Title: Carrots
Author: Colleen Helme
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WORTHY!

I've said frequently that you can get away with a lot with me if you tell a decent story, and this novel is a classic example of that. Now you know I'm a man of my word!

This is the first in a series about a character named Shelby Nichols. It's told in first person, which is the worst of all voices. Most writers screw it up, which makes for an obnoxious read. A few can get it right, and this author managed that, for which I was very grateful. It was an easy read and easy to empathize with this character even though she was far too focused on, nay obsessed with, clothes and looks for my taste. Neither was she very smart, but she made up for her lack of smarts with a certain amount of inventiveness and pluck. I didn't like the way she was far too ready to take a back seat to her husband. It undermined the adventurous spirit with which the author was trying to imbue her elsewhere.

On her way home one evening, Shelby stops at the supermarket for a bunch of carrots, and gets into the middle of a robbery of the bank which is within the store. She's grazed by a bullet, which skims her head. From this point on, she discovers that she can read people's thoughts if they are close by. Unfortunately, "Uncle Joey", a local mobster, manages to learn of her ability and by threatening the welfare of her family, he 'persuades' her to work for him part time, listening in on conversations he has with his lackeys, to alert him to any signs of unrest and dissent.

As if this isn't trouble enough, the bank robber is out to kill Shelby so she can't testify to his appearance in court should he be apprehended, and the new hire at her husband's law firm, Kate, is definitely after her husband and doesn't care if Shelby knows it.

I liked this story because although it was a bit far-fetched, it stayed largely true and real, and it was believable. Yes, the mind-reading is nonsense of course, but this is fiction, and that's a part of the framework for the story so I had no problem with that, especially since it was presented in an interesting and realistic-feeling way. I also liked that Shelby was married and had children, so we didn't have to deal with dumb-ass romances. That would have spoiled this story, so I felt that it was a smart decision on the part of the author.

I enjoyed Shelby's struggle to cope with the demands on her, especially in light of her new power and her subsequent 'gray-area' employment. I think her husband's acceptance of her lying to him about it was a bit to easily glossed over. I think it should have been more of a problem, and more of an argument than ever it was. Yes, he loves her and isn't about to divorce her over this, but he's a high-priced lawyer and could have helped her with this, at least by giving advice and support. He also probably would have been far more suspicious of her than he was.

The fact that she got into so much life-threatening trouble and shared none of her situation with him should have been more of a hot spot than it was, too. I also didn't like that he often tried to take over her life and control her behaviors - such as when she replaces her car and he gives her the third degree about it. Yes, she isn't too smart, but his domineering attitude and her passive acceptance of it was a bit disturbing to read. One example which comes to mind is that Shelby has some pain pills from the time she was shot in the head and later, we read: "When Chris offered me a pain pill, I gratefully accepted." This makes it sound like he was hoarding her pills and doling them out to her as he saw fit. That probably wasn't the author's intention, but that's what it read like to me! If you're a good little girl and do what I say, I'll let you have your medicine! Rightly or wrongly, that made me bristle a bit!

I had a huge problem with the cover since it in no way represents the main character in any way whatsoever other than gender. Normally I ignore covers because they have nothing to do with the writer, and you can blame their ill-fit on the publisher and the fact that the cover artist never, ever, ever, ever reads the novel for which they're illustrating the cover, but in this case it's self-published through Amazon's Create Space scheme, so I'm not convinced that we can let the author off lightly here here!

There were a lot of other problems, too, which a good book editor or even a decent beta reader might have caught. This is another author who can't tell the difference between 'stanch' and 'staunch' when she writes: "He staunched the bleeding with a bandage". The antique 'whom' shows up here not as part of the narrative, but as part of a character's speech: "...identify the guy whom...", but shortly afterwards we get "There’s too many things wrong..." when it should have been "There are" or even "There're". You can't have it both ways - either your characters are going to speak correctly or they're going to speak like almost everyone else does. Mixing it up, especially with the same character doesn't work.

We got a "My name is Detective Harris..." when his name is just Harris. It's his title that's "Detective". I know it's a minor thing and a pet peeve of mine, but little things matter, especially when there are a lot of them. Why not just have him say, "I'm Detective Harris"?! It's that easy.

There was one part where it looked like one sentence had been cut and pasted smack into the middle of another sentence: "I’d barely hung up the phone when Then they’d probably want to stay me as rang again...". Then there's the flirtatious redhead who has auburn hair! Yes, I know that technically auburn is classed as red hair, but when people think of a redhead they typically don't think of auburn, so if you've directed them down Redhead Road, it's a bit of a jolt for them to discover that they're really on Auburn Avenue! It was for me anyway!

One or two things made no sense, such as when Shelby thinks to herself that she "...could read minds. I’d know when he was around. I could make it work...." The problem was that this came right after she had failed dismally to detect an assailant in the parking garage! It was inconsistent, or it made her seem really stupid, one or the other. I liked Shelby and it was annoying to have her portrayed as an idiot on more than one occasion.
Also obsessed with saying, "the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes"

Another thing which made little sense was where it was revealed that Shelby helps her husband with legal work. This came as an announcement out of the blue because we had not been told that she was employed by the law office where her husband works. it sounded bad - like confidentiality counts for nothing in this law firm. I doubt the clients would have appreciated that their lawyers randomly have family members wander in and do odd jobs. I certainly wouldn't.

Those quibbles aside, I liked this story a lot. It wasn't something which made me desperate to read the next in the series as soon as possible (especially not now that I've seen the cover!), but I don't doubt that I will read it if I come across it on sale somewhere. This was, in general terms, an engaging, fun, and enjoyable story, so overall, I rate this one a worthy read.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Mystery of Adventure Island by Paul Moxham

Title: The Mystery of Adventure Island
Author: Paul Moxham
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WARTY!

This is a story, set in the fifties, about four kids who sail to an island just off the coast of England for some camping fun and end up investigating a ghostly presence. It’s written very much for the age group depicted in the story, so adults might find it a rather simplistic and unfulfilling read. it's number two in a series, and to me it felt very unrealistic, but my biggest problem with this novel was that genderism was rife in it.

I know it’s set in the fifties, so we can’t expect it to be thoroughly modern in all regards, but I don't see that setting it half a century ago gives the author blanket permission to put women in the back seat again. Yes, it if was 1943 and he's writing about a military operation behind enemy lines, then the chances are it was all men; however, this is in the fifties and it’s about kids, so why are the girls are consistently treated like they can’t take responsibility or carry heavy loads, and they are given to emotional break-downs and act like scaredy-cats? I found that obnoxious.

I know that one of them was very young (eight years old), but still, do they have to be presented in such a negative, passive light?! I realize that this book might be largely aimed at boys, but this doesn’t excuse the approach if the take-away for boys is that girls are second-rate or second best, not up to it, and in need of constant protection and direction. Any young girls who read this are going to get the same message.

The story begins with the boys and girls fixing up a small sailing boat and taking it to an island about three hours sailing up the coast from where they live. The problem is that this is the fifties and they're a mixed-gender group going on a camping trip, unsupervised by any adult. This struck me as odd for the era; it’s especially odd in that, given this amazingly liberal attitude towards norms and propriety for that time, we see a strongly contrasting conservative approach in how the girls are treated.

The boys are making all the decisions, they're rowing the boat, they’re unloading the boat while the girls are sent off to scout for a camping site. The girls are the ones shown to be scared of the ghost while the boys are all macho. The girls want to leave while the boys want to find out the truth about the ghost. It's not just the girls, either: at one point mom acknowledges her subservient place to dad in a grammatically odd statement:

Their mother smiled. “If you’re happy, then I’m too..."

I just found this to be painful to read and the mystery to be very simplistic with little motivation or rational for the children's actions. It’s obvious it's not a ghost, which means the kids could be in real danger. This is not some fictional supernatural nonsense, but a real person who wants them off the island. He could be a smuggler or a psycho. Neither one of those is likely to be very friendly towards - or considerate of - the kids, yet not a one of them ever voices any concern for what could be a very real threat to their own safety. This doesn’t impress me with their smarts.

They pass up the chance they have to sail away, and they merely row around the island from their initial camp site to secrete their boat in a small cave, before venturing back ashore to try to find out who this guy is. Maybe he's just a lonely guy who built the now ruined church and tried unsuccessfully to start a community on the island, but these kids don’t know that, and it’s really none of their business why he's there - and he's not alone. The kids discover another two guys and later a young woman arrives. This supposedly deserted island is positively crowded by this point!

Here’s another oddball piece of writing:

Will, who was now carrying the binoculars, peered through them. “It’s a rowboat. I can see one person in it.”
“Why would a person come to this island alone?” Joe wondered

Seriously? This is a huge mystery?!

This is part of a series of stand-alone books about these kids, so you don't have to have read previous volumes to enjoy this - if it’s your cup of tea that is - and because of that, I am doubtlessly missing some history from earlier volumes. Maybe one or more of the kids are children of cops and so have some sort of motivation from that, but that possibility aside, rational and compelling motivations - unless you count merely being meddlesome and tiresome - were not in evidence in this volume.

I lost interest in it pretty quickly. The writing is pedestrian at best, with nothing really Earth-moving going on. Maybe undiscriminating children in the middle-grade age range will enjoy it, and if so, good luck to them in finding a series that they can read, but nothing here made me think that my own kids would be interested, and I can’t recommend it based on what I read.

The Mystery of Smugglers Cove by Paul Moxham

Title: The Mystery of Smugglers Cove
Author: Paul Moxham
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WARTY!

Not to be confused with the 'Hardy Boys' story of the same name or with the Disney Press story Annette and the Mystery at Smugglers' Cove, or with the Syvanus Cobb story The Smuggler of King's Cove, this rather uninventively (and arguably ungrammatically) titled novel is set in the fifties, aimed at young children, and number one in a series of highly improbable 'adventures' which always seem to happen to the same few children. If they had been written better, they might have been a worthy read, but as it is I cannot recommend this any more than I could the first in this series, and after reading two of these in a row, I certainly have no intention of reading any more.

I had too many issues with this to rate it 'worthy'. One of these was in the quality of the writing. There were some spelling gaffs and some grammatical issues, such as using the term "...going a bit faster than her and Sarah..." when it ought to be "...going a bit faster than she and Sarah...". This may not bother some people, particularly young readers, but it jumped out at me. There were other weird sentences such as "...storm clouds moved inland towards the coast..." - no, 'the coast' comes before 'inland'. If the clouds are moving inland, they're moving away from the coast! If they're moving towards the coast then they might be threatening to move inland later - or they may be moving out to sea! It was just poor writing.

Another instance of thoughtless writing was when the boys were following a smuggler's tunnel dug from the beach up into a house on the headland. I've seen such tunnels in Cornwell, and they are tiny - even a child - which was what they used to run these tunnels, would have had to to crawl. Even if such a smuggling route had begun as a natural cave, there would have to have been some tunneling at some point to get them up to the house, yet here these kids are walking along the ridiculously roomy tunnel, and they come to a blank wall. That the wall was not natural ought to have clued them in that there was something else here, but instead of looking up (why does no one ever look up?!) we read: "Only a madman would build a tunnel that ended in a blank wall...". That they didn't get this right away - that either it had been deliberately blocked off, or there was a hatch above them just made the kids look stupid and short-sighted, and it robbed them of any credibility as mystery solvers. Perhaps younger readers won't mind that, but I hate stories that talk down to kids. They deserve better.

That the kids are not too smart is evidenced elsewhere in the book, too. At one point, we read, "The afternoon wore on, but Will never arrived. Wondering what could have happened to delay their friend, they headed back home disappointed." Never once do any of them think of going to Will's house to see if he's there or if he got sick or delayed or something. It doesn't imbue me with much faith in kids who are clearly unimaginative, especially in their ability to get things done, which is what this novel is supposed to be all about! If they cannot step-up with such a simple thing as finding out what happened to Will, and they all give-up and go home at the drop of a hat, where is my rational for believing that they can come through in resolving a smuggling case later? It's simply not authentic. The earlier actions betray the later premise. Again. this may not bother younger readers, but it bothers me that poor writing is being foisted on kids who can handle and who certainly deserve better.

There were some genderist issues such as the author writing, "Like many twelve year old boys, Joe was always on the lookout for an adventure", as though only boys have this desire for adventure, no girls need apply. The sentence could just as easily have read: "Like many twelve year old boys and girls, Joe was always on the lookout for an adventure". I know this novel is set in the fifties, which is a cool idea, but this doesn't mean we have to write to the mind set of the fifties, but this book definitely was, with the boys taking strong leadership roles and the girls just along for the ride. Yes, the girls were younger, but this doesn't mean they have to take a complete back seat all the time in all things and always be the ones who are scared and squealing. I resented this intensely.

In short I cannot recommend this novel as a worthy read.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Math Inspectors by Daniel Kenney and Emily Boever

Rating: WARTY!

This is a really short (~127 pages) novel aimed at middle graders. It's book one of a series, and although I originally rated it a conditional 'worthy' the rating was a vote for improvements in future episodes. I had two issues with it which I hoped would be resolved in future episodes in this series. They were not, hence the downgrade. The first problem was with how this novel viewed the police.

I'm writing this review on the same morning that the Dallas police escaped a massacre when a severely disturbed and unfortunately also very violent person launched what appears to have been a one-man assault on a police precinct using bombs and automatic weapons - and this wasn't even a terrorist attack as such. It was just a pissed-off guy who didn't take kindly to police interfering in his cozy little abusive relationship.

Police are human, and as such they can be clueless and idiotic and even violent, but they are all we have between us and a wild west existence where might makes right. I certainly don't want my kids living there, although all too many kids do suffer such an existence. I didn't think this novel took the right tack in portraying these police as being incompetent, arrogant, and downright knee-jerk stupid. Cops are a heck of a lot smarter than that when it comes to seeing through the foggy veil of criminal theft and violence.

The other issue I had was with the portrayal of one of the female characters. One minor problem with this story is that we don't get much information about the four main characters, young children who are really good at solving problems, using math. We didn't get an info dump at the start, for which I was grateful, but we didn't get much info doled out as the story progressed either, which I think was a mistake. Maybe the middle graders won't worry about that. One character we did learn about was Gertie. I can't imagine anyone calling their kid Gertrude these days (or Stanley, or Felix for that matter. Charlotte I can see), but my problem wasn't actually with her name, it was with the fact that she's chubby and evidently sensitive to it.

The problem is that we don't know if this is merely "baby-fat" in which case it's of no concern as long as the kid is otherwise healthy, and eating wisely and exercising judiciously, or if it's really a health problem. It would have been nice to know more, but without better information, I have to say that I was sorry to see this represented as an issue in a world where women are already pressured (and yes from that age and younger) to conform to a certain male ideal as represented on fashion runways, and in movies and TV shows - as well as in an ungodly amount of fiction.

In the US, a nation which accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, 30% of people are overweight or obese, and this is going to get worse. This five percent of the population represents thirteen percent of overweight people world-wide. America is living large and that isn't a compliment - it's a tragedy which is not only waiting to happen, it's already happening. This doesn't help those women who have a perfectly fine weight and shape (ie they are neither stick insects nor Goliath beetles) to have this added pressure of feeling like they're part of the problem. This isn't just an adult problem either, it's a children problem too, and it starts at a disturbingly young age. Most people are not overweight, and that includes most women. It doesn't make things better if young children are given to understand that they're overweight when they're really not, so I wish this novel had been clearer, or had not mentioned this issue at all if it's not going to be relevant to the story.

Okay, after that rant, let's get to the story! The four afore-mentioned, Charlotte, Felix, Gertie, and Stanley are sixth-grade friends who love math and like to solve problems. It's commendable that there are books like this showing kids doing math in the real world and getting useful, meaningful results. Frankly, I never cared how many apples Johnny had or how many friends he had to share them equally between. It never happens! But to show Stanley work out that the prime suspect could not have driven his car to the point where police picked him up if he had committed the crime as first indicated, was wonderful! I would have liked to have seen more math - and seen illustrations showing how the math problems are worked rather than the handful of illustrations showing scenes from the story, which were neither very good nor particularly helpful.

I would also have liked to have seen the work-load distributed more evenly over the group, so each of them did some math, rather than have Stanley steamer the math whiz do everything while the others, including the two girls (including the "chubby" one), serve very little purpose other than be his minions. It seems that Gertie's only distinguishing feature is that she has a good memory. I felt that this demeaned her and I would have liked to see a more equitable distribution of talent, work, and drudgery, all of which is needed, and all of which merits praise.

I liked the way that clues were dropped here and there, and that there were some red herrings and wrong turns, but like I said, I was hoping that this series improved as it went on, and instead it has deteriorated. My review of volume two was in January 2017

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune by Gaston Leroux

Title: The Mystery of the Yellow Room
Author: Gaston Leroux
Publisher: Dover Publications
Rating: WARTY!

This is an example of an adult historical novel that was actually contemporary when it was written, so it's a great novel to read to get a feel for the time and people's habits, clothing, and so on. It's also a great way to see how language has changed over time. Consider this phrase: "gay as a lark". 'Gay' was used more than once in this novel, and of course bears no relation whatsoever to the meaning which it most usually carries today.

This is supposed to be one of the quintessential locked-room mysteries, but I have to advise you that you're in for a boring read. It is really tedious, and the unnecessary secretiveness on the part of the journalist who is solving the crime is nothing short of tedious. It's really annoying and the novel had no need whatsoever to take up as much space as it did in incessant rambling and mindless drivel, such as the phrase, "...replied Madame Bernier—that was the name of the concierge—“ just a few lines - literally, after she had been introduced as the concierge.

Some small parts of this novel made no sense. I don't know if that was the translator's fault or what. I'm not going to give page numbers since this was on a Kindle app on my phone and I don't trust location numbers! Besides, who needs them when you have a search function? At one point, I read this: "...brandished in over my head a sort of mace." What? I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. I think maybe it was 'brandishing' instead of 'brandished in', which suggests that this was dictated rather than typed.

There are more of these than I want to catalog, like "...on the grass his grass!", but what intrigued me more was the consistent reference to the person who attacked Mademoiselle Stangerson as 'the murderer' when he had not murdered her. For example as in this exchange:

“And what do you think of the murder?”
“Of the murder of poor Mademoiselle Stangerson?"
and in the line, "...enormous head-lines announcing the murder of Mademoiselle Stangerson...".

The French version uses the term l'assassin, which is translated as murderer for reasons unknown, but which is equally inaccurate.

Another weird thing was in the repeated use of the phrase: Bête du bon Dieu! which means literally 'beast of good god'. I have no idea what this meant. In some places it's explicitly used to represent a cat, but at other times I had no idea what they Leroux was talking about. Maybe it always meant the cat, but then why not translate the phrase. It means nothing otherwise.

The inverse of this is where a phrase simply wasn't translated such as in this case: "...poste restante letter...". Maybe that French phrase was in use in England at the time this was translated, but it seemed weird.

At another point I read the following, which is part of a supposed transcript of the questioning of Mademoiselle Stangerson after she recovered from her head wound, hence the initials Q and A:

Q. Excuse me, mademoiselle, if you will allow me, I will ask you some questions and you will answer them. That will fatigue you less than making a long recital.
A. Do so, monsieur.
Q. What did you do on that day? - I want you to be as minute and precise as possible.

So immediately after he announces that he doesn't want to fatigue her by having her recite long answers, he demands that she recite a long, detailed answer! Poorly written.

Here's a choice snippet"

“Do you often eat here?”
He sometimes eats there often?

So in short, I can't recommend this. Had it been written better, and subsequently translated better, it would have made a difference, but what this book needs is a really ruthless editor to turn it into a short story which is all it merits once the padding is removed.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

You Know Who I Am by Diane Patterson

Title: You Know Who I Am
Author: Diane Patterson
Publisher: Airgead Publishing (no website found)
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is another in a long line for first person PoV novels - my least favorite voice. It's also part of a series, which I shy from advisedly. This is book two, book one being hilariously titled, The Sound of Footsteps and book three being Everybody Takes the Money. Given book two, book one has to be the real mystery here, but I've read nothing else by this author, so I can't comment.

Some writers can carry first person, but most of the time I find it irritating, so it's with real gratitude to the author in this case that I found it unobtrusive - it didn't feel like ME ME ME all the time. That said, I did not like this novel, and couldn't finish it.

I don't know who Airgead Publishing is - I'd never heard of them and they have no website that I could readily find, so perhaps it's an invention of the author's, but my beef with them is the covers, all three of which feature some woman's legs and nothing else, yet nothing in this particular story - as far as I read, that is - had anything to do with the main character's legs or anyone else's for that matter. If the stories are so engrossing, then why do we need a woman's legs to sell them? It's a valid question!

"Ah, but isn't that exactly what you did in your novel, Seasoning?" you ask. Yes, indeed it is, but in that case, the novel had everything to do with the main character's legs since she was a soccer player! The juxtaposition of the high heel on a soccer ball summed-up that novel exquisitely since she was a young adult woman competing in a macho man's world. I make no apologies for cutting to the chase in that case.

In this novel I do have to say that the opening chapter is really quite dramatic, but it's also somewhat problematical. The chapter starts with Colin and Drusilla Abbot, who perform a knife-throwing act in Las Vegas. They're having a spat - while the act is in progress! We learn that this is because, before the show, Dru had told him she was leaving the show, him, and Las Vegas. Given what we learn about her husband here, this simply makes Dru look stupid (to tell him right before he's about to throw knives at her?!), and I have to wonder why a writer would choose to do that to a female character if it wasn't a critical part of the story. From the part that I read, it was not.

Yes, some women and some men truly are stupid, but let's not label them so if we don't have to! It seems to me that this could have been written so that he found out about her plans without her overtly telling him. That, for me, would have been more dramatic and unnerving, and would not have announced loudly up front that the main character is clueless.

There were a couple of other issues. As it happens, Colin doesn't stab her during the act, but he does throw one knife sufficiently close that it breaks her skin. It's nothing huge, just a paper cut in effect, yet Dru is clenching her teeth to avoid screaming, and they're pulling out the antiseptic and bandages rather than just applying a simple Band-Aid! Seriously? Now she's both stupid and a wuss. Do we really need to heap this on her, and especially in the opening few pages? Do you want me to perceive her as a strong character, or merely as a clown?!

On top of this there's a third person in the act, Kristin, who's from London, we're told. She's also represented as being stupid, but that's not the worst issue here. That one arises when we're told that she's ten thousand miles from home - yet London is less than six thousand miles from Vegas! It's nowhere near ten thousand. If this novel is going to go the distance with me, a simple thing like gaging distances ought not to be a major problem.

So this novel didn't get off to the most auspicious start for me, especially not when I read, "...his fingers digging into my bicep...". Nope. Once again, it's 'biceps', folks! Although as often as I'm reading this in various novels, it looks like we're undergoing yet another change in our language caused by lazy writing habits.

Dru was a moderately interesting character, but her younger sister Stevie even more so. I think it would have made for a better story had it been about Stevie, because Dru was truly infuriating at times, whereas Stevie was genuinely interesting. We're told (not shown) how protective Dru is of her sister. Stevie has agoraphobia and some other issues, yet when Dru makes her break from Colin, she ends up picking up an actor in a bar and going off with him to his home leaving Stevie sitting alone in the bar with her glass of milk! Stevie isn't stupid, but anything could have happened, yet not once does Dru spare a single thought about Stevie's safety or welfare.

As it happens, Gary, the actor, changes his mind, but he offers Dru the use of his guest house - which is evidently what she was angling for. The problem is that there was no way she was guaranteed any of that happening. Meanwhile poor Stevie is waiting in the bar, in ignorance of Dru's plans and whereabouts as an hour or two tick by! I started really not liking Dru at this point, which I'm sure wasn't the author's intended outcome.

While I liked the relationship between Dru and Stevie (apart from that particular incident just described), the one between Dru and Colin was nonsensical. We're told at the start that the only reason they married was that Dru was short of cash and Colin was willing to pay handsomely for a marriage of convenience so he could get his green card. The problem is that Dru isn't American! She and her sister are British. It's never mentioned that they became citizens, so how is marriage to her supposed to secure a green card for Colin? Colin is Australian, although why an Australian would be seeking US citizenship isn't explained, so for me this whole thing was confusing from the off.

Maybe this was all explained in volume one, but since we're told nothing of what happens in volume one, we're in ignorance, if this is the first volume we read. As it happens, this is the last volume I plan on reading because I didn't think this one was worth any more of my time and effort - not when there are hundreds of books beckoning, all of which pomise a great story, rather than a story which grates.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Dark Prayer by Natasha Mostert

Title: Dark Prayer
Author: Natasha Mostert
Publisher: Portable Magic Ltd (website not found)
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!

p81 " Jungles' " should be " Jungles's " - since 'Jungles' is the guy's nickname, it's not a plural.

I've had mixed results with this author sometimes liking her work (two novels), other times not so much (one novel before this, now two novels). The problem in this case is that quite literally as soon as I began this novel I was simultaneously thinking that I wasn't going to like it.

A while ago I vowed never to read another novel which had a main character named Jack, and what did I read when I reached only the seventh word in chapter one? Yep. Jack. The problem is that when I made that vow, I still had a lot of novels in my reading list that I was committed to reviewing! A heck of a lot, including this one.

What's as disturbing as it is amusing is that a disproportionate number of those novels on my list seem to feature a character named Jack. Recently, post-vow, I even voluntarily took on a review of yet another novel with such a character as a favor to an author. Fortunately, that one turned out to be a worthy read, but I still didn't like the Jack character in it! I detest that name because it is the single most over-used and clichéd character name in writing history, and "Jack" - intended by the unimaginative author to be a rascal and a scalawag, typically ends up being a thoroughly obnoxious jack-ass.

It's tedious to have to keep on reading novels which suck on each other like so many incestuous vampires, re-employing so uninventive a character name just because they think it does all their work for them. It's also unrealistic, especially in this story. They're of Italian ancestry, Jack's father's name is Leon, yet he and his wife chose to name their son Jack? It doesn't flow. So here we go again!

Jack is of course (and quite predictably so) the spoiled brat ne'er-do-well son of a fabulously wealthy American businessman. He's given one last chance to reform or he'll be cut off by his father without a penny to his name. The bizarre thing is that his "job" is to fly to England to visit with an old college friend of his father's and provide whatever help he needs for as long as he needs it. This is almost as big of a mystery to Jack as it is to the reader. Why trust this perennial loser with an important task for a dear old friend? It made no sense to me, unless of course there was something truly under-hand going on and it involved Jack's own father as well as the college friend.

In England, Jack learns that the task with which he's charged is to get close to Daniel Barone's estranged daughter, Jenilee Gray. Jenilee went missing for almost two years and when she was discovered by a private investigator hired by Daniel, she was a different person, almost literally. She looked different, and behaved very differently from Jenilee, and now she goes by the name of Eloise Blake.

After she was located, Daniel had met with her and she had rebuffed him, yet he still feels a need to interfere because he thinks she's being targeted by someone who wants to kill her, but it seems more likely that he just wants to reclaim her. He sees her as a form of property. Unfortunately over the course of this novel, all we see change is that the property rights to Jenilee/Eloise are transferred from Daniel to Jack. In the end, that's killed this novel for me.

Jack is trapped in this reclamation plan of Daniel's, but his behavior still doesn't suggest that he has a decent bone in his body. Never once does he raise an objection, no matter how circumspectly, now matter how tentatively, to Daniel about how wrong it is to try and reel his daughter back in when she's made it quite clear she wants nothing to do with him. We can only guess at the reason she wanted out. Incest perhaps? Some dire family secret like misplaced parentage? Something else, like experimentation on a child? All of the above? Is it Daniel who's surreptitiously threatening her life and thereby trying to sway her back into his own fold?

The superficial reason why Jack is chosen to get close to her and find out what happened is that both he and Eloise are parkour devotees, and it may seem like a good reason. The problem is that Jack hasn't done parkour in ages, and it seemed to me unlikely that his cold and distant father would really know very much about his interests and habits, much less care about them to the point where he could bring this to his friend Daniel's attention. It's possible, I guess. Despite Kirkus's gushingly inane review of this novel (Kirkus almost uniformly positively reviews novels so their blessing is meaningless), Parkour actually plays very little part in it - at least in the portion I read, but I'm guessing it's somehow involved in a dramatic escape at the end.

My first real problem with Jack is how superficial he is. His only observation of this woman is how pretty Jenilee was, and how beautiful Eloise is. Admittedly he has at that point only photographs to go on, but this viewpoint doesn't change even after he gets to "know" her. His brainlessness is proven before we reach the half-way point by his blabbing that he loves Eloise when he barely knows her. It's pathetic, and so shallow that it's almost a parody.

I found it very sad that yet another female writer is promoting superficial looks right up front as the only important thing worth noting about a woman. I see this repeatedly in YA literature. It's abusive and it doesn't ameliorate it in the slightest to give your character odd eyes, like this 'makes her a bit ugly' so it's okay now to type her as beautiful and offer nothing else? And yes, rest assured that she does have the trope gold flecks in her eye! Here they're described as yellow, but it's still the same YA cliché that I see in almost every YA novel that has a so-called romantic angle. It's the LAW! Eyes have to have gold flecks in them! On. Pain. Of. Death! Deal with it! Sheesh!

This would not have been half as bad had Daniel given Jack a verbal portrait of Jenilee beforehand, thereby offering him something to admire, something to prick his interest or to stir his motivation, but this never happens. The meeting between Daniel and Jack is brief to the point of it being a prologue (there is also an actual prologue, which I skipped as I always do because if the writer doesn't think it's worthy of putting it right there in chapter one, then I don't think it's worth my time reading it - and I've never missed it).

The point here is that we learn nothing of the Jenilee who existed before the Eloise pushed her off stage - other than that she was overweight as judged from the photos! Jenilee 2.0, aka Eloise, is a slim & trim version because - once again the message is clear - only looks are important! All we're offered is the new "beautiful" contrasted with the old, out-dated "pretty" and that doesn't cut it any more. In fact, it's thoroughly inadequate. It's even sick. This attitude is further amplified on page 49 where Daniel's only important memory of two dead female family members is that "They were so beautiful" - because women have no other value than as set decorations. Yeah we get the message.

Women deserve a lot better than to be judged and categorized (and very effectively marginalized and dismissed from importance) by having some shallow loser named Jack rate them as "beautiful" or otherwise. It would have been a far more interesting challenge for a writer, from my PoV, to have Jack be the playboy he is, but then to fall for this woman (as we know he inevitably will because what is this if not yet another St George slaying the dragon and rescuing the helpless maiden story?) not because she's a snappily-dressed beauty queen, but because she's the very opposite: in short, that she's actually a real woman rather than a Barbie doll. Why won't writers do this? My feeling is that it's because it's a lot easier not to do all that work, that's why.

Back to the story. Superficially, it would seem that Jenilee simply got scared of something and purposefully chose to go into hiding, but we also get the story from Eloise's PoV, and it's clear that something's going on with her that makes this a bit more complex. It's like she has flashbacks or hidden memories threatening to resurface, or something, and she doesn't know what those are. She's all but living in poverty now, working on a market stall in London, and spending a lot of her time parkour running - and stealing books! Unfortunately the admirable parts of her character are all-too-quickly subsumed under the need to render her into a damsel in distress so "Dashing Jack" can rescue her. I'm really surprised that Jack isn't some sort of captain.

It struck me as odd, given the circumstances of her 'disappearance' that no one is even slightly suspicious that there must be something dangerous going on. Daniel thinks she's had some sort of dissociative episode, but he does believe that someone is trying to kill her (or at least that what the writer wants we readers to believe!), and no one seems to connect that with the curious details of her disappearance, which I'm not going to relate here. I was sorry that Jack didn't think to ask the private detective about Daniel himself and his mysterious house-mate Francis Godine. I think those two know a lot more than we're being told!

On page 72, there's a line of text taken straight from the movie There's a Girl in my Soup - a dear favorite of mine featuring Peter Sellars and Goldie Hawn, except that the line was changed in the movie from the original play (which at the time was the longest running comedy play in the history of the West End). Playwright Terence Frisby had it better: "My eyes feel like two rissoles in the snow". Unfortunately, the Americans don't know what rissoles are, so I guess that's why it was changed, but the changed version makes no sense in the context in which it's offered. The movie is very dated now (the play is from the mid-sixties, the movie from the seventies), but I recommend it; both Hawn and Sellars are priceless.

The ease with which Jack associates himself with Eloise is not credible. We're told that she's a highly suspicious person (as should be expected, given what's happened to her), yet she takes to Jack like a duck to water. I didn't buy it at all. It was too easy, especially given how they met, and soon they're bosom buddies, with Jack even resenting her platonic relationship with her muscular friend 'Jungles'.

At one point Jack harbors an unspoken snide observation about Jungles drinking green tea. He associated that with an aversion to caffeine, but unless it's decaff (which isn't specified here), green tea actually contains caffeine! Depending on how long it's brewed (which ideally is tied to quality: the higher quality being brewed for a shorter time) it can contain just as much caffeine as does black tea, so either the author or Jack isn't very well-informed here.

In the Adobe Digital Editions version of this novel, on page 97, there's a link to a New York Times article - a link which is broken. I don't know if this is on purpose because the article is fake or what. I've seen this in other novels too. It's just irritating! I suspect it's an error - a fake URL actually showing up as a real link in ADE. Anyway, to cut a long review short, the story progresses as it should, with Jack discovering more about Eloise, and becoming ever more intrigued as the mystery deepens. The big question is what's going to transpire when she discovers that he's been stalking her? Well, there's an app for that!

Eloise was not as impressive as she might sound from the early rushes. Given what she's been through, I would have expected more caution on her part, yet she displays a disturbing lack of it on too many occasions, which flatly contradicts her behavior at other points in the story. For example, one time she takes a bath and fails to lock doors even though she had a creepy (if unsubstantiated) feeling that there was someone in the house. This made no sense.

What really turned me off this story, however, was when I got into the 150 page range, where Super-Jack swoops in on poor, lost Eloise and takes over her life. It was at this point that I decided I did not want to read yet another story about how weak and ineffectual women are, and how desperately beholden they are that there are dashing men readily available to save them. I did not want to continue reading this story about a devilish guy named Jack telling a woman - a woman who had hitherto proven herself commendably independent and strong - what to do, and the woman submissively letting him take the reins because let's face it, women are really just little girls who desperately need a macho daddy figure to take care of everything for them, aren't they? That's the take home lesson here, at any rate, regardless of what sycophants at certain widely quoted review websites may claim!

I couldn't read any more of this after that point, so I can't comment on the ending except to say I already know exactly how it will turn out: Devil-may-care Jack (an American who says "Bloody!") will get his chickie. Of course he will. All I can say is I cannot in good faith recommend a novel which infantilizes women so inexcusably as this one does.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Frankie Dupont and the Mystery of Enderby Manor by Julie Anne Grasso

Title: Frankie Dupont and the Mystery of Enderby Manor
Author: Julie Anne Grasso
Publisher: Julie Anne Grasso
Rating: WORTHY!

This is an hilarious middle-grade novel which starts out with gusto and a great sense of humor. Frankie is a wannabe detective. Yes, he's only 10 3/4 years old, but hey - that three-quarters is crucial! His friend and cousin Kat - who even Frankie thinks is kinda cool - has disappeared. She was last seen at Enderby Manor. Frankie's detective dad is busy on a case. Can Frankie himself find his missing cousin?

This is beautifully written, completely captivating, and gorgeously depicted chapter book, with a neat little world created for Frankie and for the weird and wonderful people he meets. He pursues his detective occupation with dedication and smarts. He doesn’t get everything right first time, but he never gives up, keeps his grey-matter steaming with thought, and he slowly but surely zeroes in on the truth - which is rather more mysterious than mysteries usually are.

When I say 'slowly, but surely', that doesn't mean that the story is slow. No - it moves at a cracking pace, with something new popping up every page for Frankie to assess and deal with. I loved this story - which at first (judged by certain words which cropped up, such as 'tyres' for 'tires', 'dosh' for 'money', for example) I thought was British, but it’s actually Australian - another good reason to read it. It's not YASSITU (yet another story set in the USA)! It has a sense of humor, a warm and fresh playfulness, and a sterling protagonist in Frankie. I recommend it.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Genome by Sergey Lukianenko

Title: The Genome
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko / Sergey Lukianenko / Сергей Лукьяненко
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!

p77 "synoptic" should by "synaptic"

This is a novel written by Sergei Vasilievich Lukyanenko, the author of the Night Watch pentalogy, at least two of which have been made into English language movies. I had some issues with this novel even as I grew to like it as I began reading it - but then which novel don't I have issues with?! In this case, it began with the author's dedication, which is interesting in that it seems like an apology for a book which the author thinks some might deem to be "cynical and immoral". This struck me as odd. Authors can write whatever they want, so why apologize for it in advance?

I ask this because I also found myself asking: is it cynical or immoral to consistently describe women as "girls" as this author does? Is it cynical or immoral to write sentences like "If only she would change the hair, visit a cosmetologist, and replace her work overalls with a dress..." (page 37)? Or to write "Had Janet been a feminist, no one could have gotten her into a kitchen..." (page 98).

Those sentences struck me as genderist and abusive - like women don't have a place unless they're pretty and wearing make up and skirts? Like no feminist ever goes into a kitchen? What? There's also this one from page 163: "...or perhaps she did it simply out of every woman's ineradicable need to look as seductive as possible." SERIOUSLY? In the end, and especially given how poorly this novel ends, it was comments like this - not part of some lowlife character's's speech, but integral to the very fabric of the novel itself, which tipped the balance and made me rate this negatively.

I would have done so even had the story been really good otherwise, because the problem was that this kind of thing ran through the whole novel. Like when main characters Alex and Kim inevitably have sex, we read, "Alex took her four times in a row." They don't 'make love' - he takes her. That makes it sound like rape, even though at that point she's coming on to him and they're technically married. It's intended to read like he's the masterful stud and she's his toy, or his possession or sex slave. The character himself confirms this by repeatedly referring to her as "baby".

It's one thing to write a first person novel where your main character thinks like this, or having a third person novel where a specific character espouses attitudes of this nature. There are people like that in real life and it's foolish and unrealistic to pretend that there are not, but it's another thing entirely to create something which has this attitude woven into the very fabric of the novel itself I did not like that at all, and it made the novel hard to read at times.

This wasn't the only such irritation. It seemed even more weird at one point when he wrote "The black woman" (page 67) and "The black woman smiled" (page 101). We already knew that Janet was black at that point, so why raise it again when it serves no purpose? These things struck me as weird, and they interfered with my enjoyment of what was, for the most part quite an engrossing and entertaining novel. Maybe other people don't find these things odd or distracting, but I did and it spoiled the story for me.

These were not the only writing quirks. At one point, the main character uses "whom" in speech (page 65). Almost no one talks like that any more, and the main character wasn't presented as someone who did. I know it's grammatically correct in specific instances to employ 'whom', but these days it seems pretentious. It's even more pretentious to depict a character actually saying it. In some cases, it would be appropriate - for example, if the character himself was pretentious, but in this case he isn't. He's just a regular guy (with some exceptions!), and unlikely to use that form of speech, it seemed to me. I know it's hard to break what are seen as rules, but as writers we need to present our stories realistically, not write by rote.

In other news, on page 77, we once again encounter the "one gene equals one physical trait" fallacy. Yes, sometimes a single gene can influence a single trait, but more often, it's a group or network of genes which make us who we are with the specific traits that we have. This business of (in this case, for example) having a gene for speed, is nonsensical.

That rather kicked me out of suspension of disbelief for the sci-fi part of this novel, and it's really sad, because to begin with, I started liking this story almost at once, and it grew on me as I read it. In general terms it was well-written in that it drew me in, offered interesting situations and characters, and was inventive. It also had an intriguing and kick-ass female character which I always appreciate. By 'kick-ass' I don't necessarily mean literally capable of kicking-ass, but in this case she actually was, but all of this was undermined by the issues I already mentioned.

The story begins with Alexander Romanov getting out of hospital after what was apparently a near-fatal crash of the spacecraft he was piloting. Now five months on, he's been rebuilt and has recovered, and is now looking to find work. On his way from the hospital into the city, he encounters Kim O'Hara, a fourteen-year-old girl who is a "spesh" just like Alex is; they just have different specialties.

In this world, children can be genetically programmed at an early age, to specialize for a future career. How exactly this works isn't specified, but it involves the child going through a metamorphosis in their early teens, rather like a caterpillar changes into a moth or a butterfly. Kim has not been through hers yet. She's very late which means possible trouble. She finally does so after she hooks up with Alex when he encounters her on a monorail as he leaves the hospital.

Having been through his own metamorphosis, he helps Kim through hers successfully. Without his help she might have died. Whereas Alex's specialty was a ship pilot, Kim's is evidently a fighter, but after her transformation, she looks like a mature woman - which is not exactly how fighter specialists should look. They can be male or female of course, but they look like brutes, since part of their specialization is intimidation. Kim doesn't look like that, but she is without question a fighter specialist. Alex concludes that she has some other specialties built-in as well, and he's right.

Meanwhile, Alex has been job hunting and has found what seems to be a too-good-to-be-true job piloting a slick and souped-up craft. The anonymous owner requests that he has a full compliment of crew, which for this ship is six people, including a fighter and a doctor. Alex is given free reign to pick his crew - so there are oddities continuously cropping up in everything that's going on here, yet Alex, Mary Sue that he is, never seriously starts to worry that he's being set up for something. Yes, he's a bit suspicious from time to time, and he has a question or two about events, but it would seem obvious that there's something seriously adrift here, and he never really seems to get that. That was annoying.

Part of Alex's 'spesh' in being a pilot is that he is incapable of loving someone. We're given no explanation for this, and it makes no sense, because when he takes over his new craft, he emotionally bonds with it and it's all about love and appreciation. If he's incapable of love, then he can't love his ship and form that bond. If he can do that after all - and we see that he can when he first boards his craft - then he's capable of love, period. Whether there is something about the spacecraft and his specialty that brings out love which is unavailable anywhere else isn't specified in this novel, but to simply say he can't love and then have him and his ship "fall in love" makes no sense.

This novel was entertaining, but I kept tripping up over it for reasons already mentioned. What pushed this story further into the crapper for me was the ending. There is cloning in this world, and when there's a murder on the ship, a character named Sherlock Holmes comes aboard with Jenny Watson. Holmes is a clone of a man who was a detective "spesh" who modeled himself on Arthur Doyle's famous character. At this point we leave sci-fi and move to a simple murder mystery which read like the ending to an Agatha Christie novel - with all the suspects gathered into a room and the detective rambling on pretentiously eliminating all the suspects until he arrives at the killer. It was incredibly boring, and a sad end to what had otherwise (apart from the crass genderism) been a decent read.

I can't rate this as a worthy read after all that!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Crown of Serpents by Michael Karpovage

Title: Crown of Serpents
Author: Michael Karpovage
Publisher: Karpovage Creative Inc.
Rating: WORTHY!

Page 129 had some gratuitous and unnecessary objectification: "…tight black slacks and an open black overcoat revealing her service pistol holstered at her shapely waist." Seriously?
Page 265 carries the assumption that older woman not attractive! Seriously?
Yet another author doesn't get that it's 'biceps' not 'bicep'.

Jake Tununda is a Native American who is a soldier and a war hero, but he's had enough. Now he wants a quieter life and while he is still in the army, he's now working for the Military History Institute, collecting historical artifacts and oral histories, and investigating battle sites, which actually sounds like a really cool job. On his way to give a lecture and collect more information for the institute, he accidentally intercepts a call for help, and tracks down the caller to a previously unknown native American burial site which happens to be right next to limestone fissure, into which the victim has fallen.

Jake tries to rescue him, but discovers, once he gets down in there, that the vic died from his injuries. Jake thinks he's all done here once the authorities have taken over and he's given his statement, but his next port of call - to a museum to investigate a newly-discovered and major historical artifact from the revolutionary war, brings him into conflict with a powerful and dangerous native American known as Alex Nero - a man who started out gun-running, but now has built a huge 'respectable' fortune from running an exclusive casino on a reservation.

Jake doesn’t want to get involved in his own tribal politics and ritual history, but the more he tries to avoid it, the more he gets pulled in, and soon he's running after clues and treasure, trying to stay one step ahead of the extremely aggressive Nero, whose thugs know no restraint and no limits.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I had some reservations (pun intended!) about yet another novel extolling native American tribal lore and spirits guides and what-not, for which I have no time, but this novel doesn't over do it. It treads carefully between a respectful view of the people, and avoiding completely dissing traditions, which I respected, so I was impressed and thrilled to finally find a novel which, although it wasn't perfect, handled the story and native American traditions without being sycophantic or maudlin.

The plot is believable and tight, and the action and adventure coming thick and fast. The book is written well for the most part, although the scenes involving Jake's growing lust for police investigator Rae were rather objectifying, but even as I started to get irritated over those, the story looped away from physical involvement and back into the action, so that was pretty much acceptable, too.

One problem with the ebook I read is that it was far too small to show the images and maps that are included in the text, so I got nothing out of those. How they would appear in a print book or on a larger format reader than my phone is an open question!

There are always some issues. In this case, for example, it made no sense that all the doors would be locked down in an abandoned army underground bunker, nor that they would contain any army materiel. The army has abandoned the base, the new owner literally just took over that same day. Why are they locked?!!!

At one point we read of a blood stain from the revolutionary war - but it certainly wouldn't be red, it would be brown! At a later point, it makes no sense that Rae wouldn't use the fact that her captors were reduced to crawling to get through a cave in pursuit of her, to disable one or more of them or to escape. When she 'accidentally' escapes, she fails to take out her opponents even when they're shooting at her and she has the advantage; then of course, it's Jake to the rescue, so it ends up making yet another woman seem like a damsel in distress who can only be helped by a guy. I didn't like that part.

For a historian, Jake has a lousy sense of how to handle historical sites and documents. He blunders in tampering with things, moving things, making no attempt whatsoever to preserve or document anything. I know he's not an archaeologist, but that's no reason for him to be an out-and-out disaster, especially given his credentials and background, so that seemed unrealistic to me.

Having said that, overall this novel was a really engrossing and entertaining story, so I consider this a worthy read.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Model Undercover: New York by Carina Axelsson

Title: Model Undercover: New York
Author: Carina Axelsson
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!

I have to say up front that I'm not a fan of fashion stories or modeling stories because I detest the fashion and modeling world. Never has there been - not even including Hollywood and TV, a more self-centered, self-obsessed, pretentious and shallow enterprise as these. I despise those who spend thousands upon clothes and accessories when there are sick and starving children throughout the world, but fiction is not the same as the real world, and once in a while I've found a story that's interesting, and which doesn't take itself too seriously. It's those rare few which keep me cautiously coming back looking for another one! This novel turned out to be such a one.

The premise here is that Axelle, a sixteen-year-old girl, is both a model and a "sleuth" - but primarily (so she keeps limply protesting) the latter. Why anyone thinks grown-ups will respond positively - or even politely - to a relentlessly inquisitive sixteen-year-old goes completely unexplained, but let's let that slide right on by: this is fiction, after all!

Having solved a puzzle in Paris (presumably in an earlier volume which I have not read), Axelle now believes she's a brilliant detective and can solve anything, which is why she's just arrived in New York City. An extremely valuable black diamond has been stolen during a modeling shoot, and she's supposed to discover who took it. Carbonado diamonds are rare, and are thought to be formed - unlike other diamonds - in stellar explosions, so they are really intriguing - to me at least.

In amongst slurs aimed at London (referenced constantly in a rather snobbish way, but paradoxically run-down in comparisons with NYC) and at vegan cuisine, we discover that Carbonado (black) diamonds (which do actually exist)are supposedly almost impossible to cut without incurring serious damage. They are harder than other diamonds, but this doesn't necessarily mean they will shatter if you cut them. Since this particular one - the Black Amelia (named after one of its owners, who was Amelia - not black!) - is so very distinctive, the thief is going to have a hard time getting rid of it, so perhaps the theft wasn't because of the value per se of the diamond, but because the thief had a grudge against the owner, or was intent upon blackmail.

There were no security guards at the shoot (idiots!) because the owner is a friend of the editor of the fashion magazine, and the editor is evidently too stupid to hire her own security. The shoot was closed and limited to only a handful of people, all of whom were really successful in their fields, so the motive looks a lot less like petty theft, as it were, and a lot more like revenge or blackmail. Cassandra, aka Cazzie, the British editor of Chic fashion magazine, idiotically fails to notify the police (they don't want bad publicity!) and she's the only one who knows that Axelle is here primarily as a detective, not as a model.

So the author seems to have everything locked-up to explain these oddball circumstances, but there's one problem: Cassandra, aka Cazzie, is receiving texts from someone who appears to have the diamond. So why all the cogitating on Axelle's part about motive? Clearly this is the motive - to taunt and embarrass Cazzie for some reason. What makes less sense right here is that they now have someone the police could conceivably track down yet not once do they consider bringing them in. This made no sense to me. It's also weird that the texts don't start rolling in until Axelle is on the scene, isn't it?

The text-taunter tells Cazzie that there will be three riddles which she must solve or she won't see the diamond again. Interestingly, Cazzie is able to respond this time - she wasn't before - and the taunter tells her that she's pissed him/her off, so the first riddle will be delayed. The taunter never used the word 'diamond' to begin with, instead talking about 'treasure', so I began to suspect that it was entirely possible that this was unconnected with the theft of the diamond. That would have been a nice red-herring, but no - the text-taunter uses it later - after Cazzie has used it. It was at that point that I wondered: is Cazzie doing this all by herself?

Axelle gets an email which she thinks is from the same source as the texting - this warns her to butt out. I suspected that this came from Sebastian, an insufferably over-protective out-of-favor boyfriend of Axelle's, but that was just a wild guess, and it was wrong. Sebastian is a jerk and I didn't like him, even given that Axelle is flying-off-the-handle over him. The fact that she's cluelessly wrong about him is another irony. The detective - clueless?!

I have to say I find all foreign characters annoying when they're depicted as speaking perfect English yet nonetheless are reduced to interspersing it with words or phrases from their native tongue. Thus we get Miriam the maid peppering her dialog with French, which is not only pretentious, it was really annoying. If you can't depict a foreign character without being forced to make them spew a brew of Franglish or whatever language combo, then make your character English. Otherwise find a way to depict their foreign nature by doing work on the character-building instead of taking the lazy way out. Please? Just a thought.

The weird thing is that while Axelle wisely tries to get Cazzie to stir-up the text-taunter in an effort to have him/her to give themselves away, when this is going on, Axelle fails completely to station herself next to one of the suspects to see if they're texting when the taunter responds. That's just plainly stupid. If she thinks it's one of a small group, then all she has to do is be close to each one in turn during one of these exchanges. In this manner, she could at least eliminate some - those who were not texting - even if she can't necessarily zero in on the actual perp right away. This doesn't speak strongly to her smarts, but then Axelle is only sixteen and not the most worldly of people despite all her claims to being widely traveled.

Without wanting to give anything away, I chose two people as the prime suspects quite early on in this story, and one of them soon seemed unlikely. The other one, it turned out, actually was the thief! If I can get it right when I'm typically lousy at that kind of thing, I suspect the villain was way too obvious!

Aside from that, the writing in general was not bad. There were one or two exceptions, such as where I read, "...the studio was shaped like an L. A curtain..." which was misleading, because it initially read - to me - like "LA curtain - as in Los Angeles curtain! It took me a second to realize what it actually was. It would have been nice had the author put the 'L' in single quotes, like I did just then, to clarify this.

The novel moved at a decent pace and was - refreshingly - very light on fashion and make-up, which I really appreciated! It was also pretty decently plotted (in general) with a nice twist here and there. It had rather shallow, but otherwise reasonably realistic characters, so despite some early misgivings about this I was, by the end, convinced that it was a worthy read. I can't pretend that I'm waiting breathlessly for a sequel, but you might be after you've read this one!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thirteen At Dinner by Agatha Christie

Title: Thirteen At Dinner
Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: AudioGO
Rating: WORTHY!

Published as Lord Edgware Dies in Britain in 1933, it appeared in the US under the title Thirteen at Dinner. Boring as the Brit title is, it's a far more accurate representation of events than is the US title. Thirteen at dinner might have been so, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual murder and story, which is that of Hercule Poirot in pursuit of solving Lord Edgware's mysterious and confusing murder.

I was first introduced to Agatha Christie around the age of fourteen, when I was off school for the better part of a week, sick and in bed, and desperately looking for new books to read. The only ones available at the time were in the limited library of an older bother, so I got an early introduction to Ian Fleming's James Bond, and to Agatha Christie. It was an Hercule Poirot story that I read then, but I can't for the life of me recall which story it was. I don't think it was this one, but it could have been.

Note that Poirot is very much a rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, and he has a foil, Captain Hastings, who stands in for John Watson, and a less than excellent police inspector, Japp, who stands in for Inspector

I found this novel charming, a bit confusing, and entertaining, but I suspect that the bulk of the charm and entertainment came from Hugh Fraser's excellent performance in the audio book which I listened to. Normally I rail against the absurd pretension and affectation of publisher's claims that a reader is "performing" an audio book when all they're typically doing is simply reading it. Sometimes it actually is a performance, but such things are rare indeed. In this case, Fraser really turned in a confoundedly spiffing performance, what?!

This story doesn't begin with a murder, but with a request from the self-centered and self-absorbed actor Jane Wilkinson, also known as Lady Edgware, who asks Poirot to speak on her behalf to her husband and try and persuade him to grant her a divorce. Poirot does so and discovers, to his surprise, that Lord Edgware acceded to her request six months previously in a letter - a letter which Wilkinson later claims she never received.

Then comes the murder. Lord Edgware is found dead in his library with a knife wound to a critical position at the base of his skull. Naturally Wilkinson is the suspect, especially since she was seen entering Edgware's house by two people on the night of the murder - at around the murder time. The problem is that Jane was at a dinner party that night and has multiple witnesses to testify to this. It would seem clear that someone impersonated her.

It so happens that Poirot very recently saw another actor, Carlotta Adams, impersonating Jane Wilkinson on stage, and later attended a dinner party at Wilkinson's home to which Adams was also invited. Later, Adams is found dead of an overdose of a sleeping potion. There's also one more mystery: before the murder, Bryan Martin, an American actor, consults Poirot on the matter of his being followed by a mysterious man with a gold tooth. He also advises Poirot that Wilkinson is dangerous and might well carry out her publicly-voiced assertion that her husband has to die.

There are so many red herrings in this novel that I completely lost track of who was supposed to be the prime suspect at any one time. In the end, I could not figure out who dunnit and was a bit surprised to learn the answer! I also watched the Peter Ustinov movie based on this novel. It had been updated to contemporary times (for when the movie was made), and it really didn't work. I did not like Ustinov as Poirot, which is why this isn't a movie/novel review - I only review movies that I like!). Curiously, David Suchet was in that same movie playing the part of Inspector Japp to Ustinov's Poirot. Later Suchet went on to play Poirot in a lengthy TV series, and he was perfect for the role. Much better than Ustinov.

I recommend this audiobook.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters (aka Catherine Karp)
Publisher: Abrams
Rating: WORTHY!

Set in the last year of World War One, and during the deadliest pandemic the world has ever seen, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is an atmospheric, rather claustrophobic and unnerving novel about 16-year-old Mary Shelley (not that Mary Shelley, merely a namesake!) and her interesting adventures in San Diego.

Mary is forced to move there after her parents are arrested as German spies. By this neat literary device the author is free to allow Mary to exhibit her (for the time) somewhat scandalous attitudes and even behaviors which her parents would no doubt never countenance.

Mary, who for some reason is always referred to as Mary Shelley, but rarely in full as Mary Shelley Black, stays with her aunt, who happens to be only a decade older than Mary. In some ways Mary is happy to be there because it's the city in which she knew Stephen - a childhood friend who is now fighting in Europe. Stephen writes beautifully and he takes haunting photographs which he titles with anagrams so his older brother Julius will not figure out what the title is. I have no idea why he thinks this was necessary. Two of these pictures he has given to Mary. One is of a butterfly, and its title 'Mr Muse', Mary quickly resolves as 'Summer'. The other is of lightning striking water, and it's titled 'I Do Lose Ink'

Julius is a "spirit photographer" evidently of the kind who double-exposes photographic plates to make it appear to the photographic subject that the spirit of a loved one has appeared in the image with them (in exactly the way this novel's cover was made, of course!). Julius once caught Stephen and Mary in a somewhat compromising position and then exaggerated what he saw to cause problems for the two of them. Now Mary is to sit for him for another spirit photograph, and the only reason she agrees to this is to get Julius to confess his embarrassing and incriminating exaggeration about herself and Stephen to her aunt, and to give her the package Stephen left for her before he went to the front.

1918 was the year that composer Claude Debussy died, and Marie Stopes published Married Love, Manfred von Richthofen was killed in a dogfight, General Motors bought Chevrolet, 20,000 British soldiers died in one day fighting the Kaiser's army, Britain laid the keel of the world's first purpose-built aircraft carrier, and Italy and Japan fought on the side of the allies.

It was in January of 1918 that the Spanish flu (so called) was first noted in Kansas in the US (although it had already reared its ugly head elsewhere), and it spread rapidly, causing people to begin routinely wearing surgical masks and carrying posies and other pungent materials with them in a futile attempt to ward off what was actually an airborne virus.

It's hard now to imagine how virulent this plague was, when we're hearing almost daily of the deadly effects of the spread of Ebola in Africa, but that's a sniffle when compared with what this flu did. It struck world-wide and it killed millions upon millions, and the author does a rather scary job of conveying the fear and suspicion this disease engendered in people. I read Gina Kolata's book Flu on this pandemic, and I highly recommend it if you're interested in learning more.

Overall I was impressed by Cat Winters's writing. It was very atmospheric, realistic, and engaging. She's an author, for example, who knows that you can't (not intelligently, anyway!) say something like "So blue it was almost black." Instead, she correctly says, " blue so dark it was almost black."

I've seen writers (so-called!) make the mistake with other colors. Blue, for example, is a noun which describes a color, and which describes no quality of the color other than that it's blue, so it makes no sense to say that something is so blue that it's almost black. That's the same as saying it's so blue that it's not really blue. Patent nonsense! Simply amplifying how 'blue' something is relates nothing of its lightness or darkness. This isn't a matter of opinion; it's a fact which isn't rendered any less factual simply because more than one writer makes this same mistake.

Confusing the quality of brightness with the quality of hue isn't a smart thing to do, and there are very subtle ways like this in which we, as writers, can educate readers and bring them up with us instead of talking down to them. It was really nice to see a writer who gets this. There's hope that our YA writers will get there! Many of them already have.

The story draws us ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Mary, and the fate of her friend Stephen. Someone isn't telling the truth about what happened to him, and Mary, determined to discover and uncover what happened to him, becomes quite the detective.

I liked this novel in general. It wasn't the most thrilling thing I've ever read, but it drew me in and made me care about the main character, and it was well-written, and sometimes that's enough. The ending was a little bit dissatisfying, but given how strong it was overall, I'm not going to down-grade the novel for that. Mary isn't one of my great heroes, but she is a strong character who takes charge of her life and acts positively, and we need all of those females that we can get in YA literature!