A funny thing happened at lunch in Panera’s

A Big 4+ review: Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-plotted mystery with a tinge of romance, a splash of humor, and a woman who’s finding herself as well as the perpetrators.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/12/2021

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

From the publisher: Edgar-Award nominee Elle Cosimano’s adult debut Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is the first in a witty, fast-paced mystery series, following struggling suspense novelist and single mom Finlay Donovan, whose fiction treads dangerously close to the truth as she becomes tangled in real-life murder investigations.

It’s not the first time I’ve read the premise: someone overhears a mystery author talking to someone else at a restaurant about her novel and thinks they’re talking about a real murder. This is the first time I’ve seen it taken on so effectively, and the novel is an enjoyable jaunt as Finlay Donovan considers the unthinkable because she’s been pushed into a corner.

The brochure had featured photos of happy families hugging each other on quaint front porches. It had used words like idyllic and peaceful to describe the neighborhood, because in the glossy pages of a real estate magazine, no one can see through the windows to the exhausted stabby mommy, or the naked sticky toddler, or the hair and blood and coffee on the floor.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Elle Cosimano’s descriptions of the struggles of a mother with young chlidren are quite funny; the opening segment of how Finlay is trying to deal with her five-year-old’s attempt to cut her own hair is one of those insane things parents do when sleep-deprived. Not everything in the book is as original, though. The cheating asshole of an ex and the conniving bitch the ex left Finlay for are fairly standard characters (perhaps because they’re not unknown in real life), but other characters in the book make up for it, and the writing is crisp.

Sylvia was everything you’d imagine New Yorkers to be if you watched too much television. Probably because she was from Jersey. Her office was in Manhattan. Her shoes were from Milan. Her makeup looked like it had flow in on a DeLorean circa 1980, and her clots might have been skinned from a large jungle cat.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Probably my favorite character in the book is Vero, the nanny cum accountant who is completely unflappable and utterly competent, able to wrestle babies, exes, criminals, and cops with equal aplomb. Finlay, by comparison, is just making it up as she goes along, and doesn’t seem to have a clue about much of anything. However, it’s her growth over the course of the book that makes it stand above the typical murder mystery of its type.

Because banging your real estate agent isn’t a reason to want your husband dead. It might be a legitimate reason to want his balls maimed in an accident involving a Weedwhacker, or to wish him a horrific veneral disease hows symptoms include the words “burning discharge.” But killing a man for cheating on his wife would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

The mystery itself is fairly far-fetched, but executed well enough that it didn’t make me feel the need to stop reading. Most people can believe that a woman would be willing to do anything to hold onto custody of her kids, but the mechanics of the deaths in here give me some pause. On the other hand, it was hard to sympathize with the level of guilt as much as the anxiety about being caught, as the victim was a terrible human being.

My back stiffened, one chilled muscle at a time. As I lifted my head, my focus jumped from the van to the garage door. The details of the night before were still fuzzy in my mind, blurred by champagne and panic, as if someone had taken an eraser to the edges, but I remembered.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

My biggest gripe about the book is that it felt like it had ended at least three times before it actually had. You shouldn’t turn the page and think, “What, it’s not over?” It would have been nice had not each of the next to last three chapters hadn’t ended with lines that sounded like the ending, but rather lead into the next one. But that’s a relatively small complaint.

All in all, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

Spotlight on: Mint by S.R. Wilsher

Historical Thriller

From the publisher: It’s the summer of 1976, and after nine years in prison, James Minter is home to bury his mother. A history of depression and a series of personal issues has seen her death ruled as suicide. His refusal to accept that conclusion means he must confront his violent stepfather, deal with the gangster who wants his mother’s shop and, of course, face the family of the boy he killed.

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Excerpt from Mint

The shop is all so familiar. This place I should have called home, yet only ever thought of as a place to return to. The address where my mother and half-siblings lived. Never home, more an approximation. I’m not connected to it like I imagine others are theirs. I hadn’t been safe here, nor welcome. My mother had been too controlled by her husband, and Sam too in his thrall. Lara had kept me here. All the time, I’d felt like the small bird being pushed from the nest by the bullying interloper. While he’d called me the cuckoo.

I restock the fridge with some milk and butter from the nearby shop and put the bread and cereal on the worktop. I open a new jar of coffee and put the kettle on.

Outside, I hear the whine of heavy machinery starting up, and the contact of whirring metal on stone.

I leave the kitchen and go out into the back yard, through the gate and into the alleyway running along the back of the houses before entering the yard of the Mason’s next door.

Along one side, slabs of rough-cut granite lean against the high wall, while black marble and white marble are stocked horizontally, kept apart by thick wood battens.  A corrugated plastic roof built off the garden wall opposite the stacked stone extends over the yard, shielding the work bench and tools and bench-saw from the elements.

White dust fills the air, billows fussily around the head of a man in a grubby blacksmith’s apron, safety goggles, and blue facemask, who’s guiding a huge slab of white stone along a bench and through a whirling rotary saw. Water sprays onto the slab and throws globules of wet white dust onto the floor. The saw reaches the end of the cut and, as the slab breaks free, he presses a red button on the wall and the machine shuts off.

The man notices me but doesn’t pause to invite me to speak, or offer to himself.

“I’m Abigail’s son,” I say, when the whine of the slowing blade ends. The dust has reached me and the air clears slowly with little breeze to disrupt it.

The man pulls the mask free. Dust has turned his thick black hair grey and clogged the deep lines of a weathered face. Years of wrangling stone slabs has built a powerful upper body with square shoulders, and large hands that hang at the end of strong forearms.

“I know who you are. I have to make the noise. Can’t work without it. That’s the last of the cutting,” he offers, as if there’s one purpose for my visit. “Your mother didn’t mind the noise, it soothed her.”

“I’m not here about the noise.”

“She liked the idea of hearing there were other people about.”

My mother had once admitted her weakness to me. ‘I don’t like being on my own, and I don’t like the company of women much. Which means I’m vulnerable to the attention of men. And women like her see only the baser reasons for that’. It had been her explanation for why Mrs Ayles had called her a harlot.

“Thought I should introduce myself, tell you I’ll be living in the shop while I’m here. In case you see the lights on.”

“None of my business.”

We face each other with our exhausted chitchat, whilst sensing there should be more.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” says the Mason, in the unpractised way of a man who doesn’t express emotion.

“I hear you found her?”

“Yes.”

“How come it was you?”

The Mason frowns, as if the answer has a multiplicity of paths for him to choose and he’s afraid he might opt for one it will be impossible to find his way back from.

“You mother and I…” He stops, already regretting the path taken. There is no way back. “We were friends.”

“Since when?”

“Since I arrived. More so after George moved out. Not before,” he adds, as if it might be important to me. “We were neighbours, so we’ve always talked. After George left, I used to go in and watch some TV with her in the evenings. She didn’t like being alone, certainly not since all you children have grown.” He stops talking abruptly, in the way of a man who’s aware he’s over explaining.

“Did George know?”

“He didn’t need to. Our relationship wasn’t improper. It was perfectly respectable.”

“I suspect George would see it differently.”

“I’m not afraid of him.” It’s a jarring boast, stuck into the conversation like a lone weed in a flowerbed. “We watched TV, that’s all.”

I don’t challenge his statement; can’t know if it’s truth or lie. It means little if it had amounted to more than his claim. My mother had been free to live the life she chose. But what had this reticent man talked to her about? Or had she talked and he simply listened. It struck me as the likely scenario of a relationship between them if sex wasn’t involved.

I catch movement in the right rear quarter of the image in front of me. A yellow flash through the doorway, and a slender woman wearing a sunny shirt tucked into jeans, bare ankles with flat shoes, and short brown hair hitched behind one ear, comes out.

“Dad, dinner’s ready,” she declares, before turning to me. “Hello,” she says shyly, and steps forward to offer her hand.

I’m struck by the contradiction of the diffidence set against the confidence of instigating a handshake. The skin is dry and the hand firm.

“Mint,” I say, and feel stupid, as if it’s a meaningless bark of a word. “Jimmy Minter,” I explain.

“Beth. Elizabeth Green.” She mimics my awkward delivery and smiles.

I’m not sure if she’s mocking me, or sympathising with me. I’ve spent nine years apart from women and I’m like a man who’s forgotten how to walk in a straight line. The need to leave overwhelms me, her presence making me feel unwelcome.

“Anyway, I’d better go. If your dinner’s ready.” I recall a long-forgotten line from the manual of social interaction.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

Their eyes are on my back as I leave the way I came, and I’m in the shop before I remember my unasked questions. I want to return, need to get to the end of that particular conversation. I battle with the pull of curiosity and the contra-tug of my self-consciousness. 

I’ll go back tomorrow, when my sudden retreat has faded from their minds.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tours

Spotlight on: Circles of Deceit by Paul CW Beatty

From the publisher

Murder, conspiracy, radicalism, poverty, riot, violence, capitalism, technology: everything is up for grabs in the early part of Victoria’s reign.

Radical politicians, constitutional activists and trade unionists are being professionally assassinated. When Josiah Ainscough of the Stockport Police thwarts an attempt on the life of the Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, he receives public praise, but earns the enmity of the assassin, who vows to kill him.

Circles of Deceit, the second of Paul CW Beatty’s Constable Josiah Ainscough’s historical murder mysteries, gives a superb and electric picture of what it was to live in 1840s England. The novel is set in one of the most turbulent political periods in British history, 1842-1843, when liberties and constitutional change were at the top of the political agenda, pursued using methods fair or foul.

About the author

Paul CW Beatty is an unusual combination of a novelist and a research scientist. Having worked for many years in medical research in the UK NHS and Universities, a few years ago he took an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University emerging with a distinction.

His latest novel, Children of Fire, is a Victorian murder mystery set in 1841 at the height of the industrial revolution. It won the Writing Magazine’s Best Novel Award in November 2017 and is published by The Book Guild Ltd. 

Paul lives near Manchester in the northwest of England. Children of Fire is set against the hills of the Peak District as well as the canals and other industrial infrastructure of the Cottonopolis know as the City of Manchester.

Selected quotes

Hands were steadied by friends so that older Chartists might sign for themselves. Those who could only make their mark had them attested by others, who initialed the petition forms.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Of all things, he’s a Policeman, even though he went to grammar school. It’s a very common sort of profession, if you can call it a profession; even lower than being a manufacturer like Pappa.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

So now I know you, in your black and silver uniform. You who have only your fists and your pathetic stick with which to demand obedience. No rifle nor musket. No sharp sword or dagger. Nothing to protect you but the respect of the people. You are a servant, a humble servant, not a soldier, not a man of honour. You know nothing of true honour, nothing of true respect.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Josiah had often heard it said that good news travels fast, but his own experience was that good news did not often travel faster than bad news.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Small towns can have big crimes

Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook by Julie Butterfield

Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

r/suggestmeabook: I want a murder mystery in a charming English village with a displaced city girl who’s still learning old-fashioned small town ways.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 222

Publisher: Self

Series: Isabelle Darby Cosy Village Mysteries

Cozy mystery

From the publisher: When Isabelle Darby moves to the delightfully cosy village of Lower Dimblebrook, she’s searching for peace and quiet as well as a chance to escape from heartbreak.

Julie Butterfield has created a lovely world in Lower Dimblebrook, even if there’s a not-so-lovely murderer in the neighborhood. The protagonist, Issie Darby, is easy to relate to—a woman who left her city home for a small town life, but hasn’t quite become part of the town yet. Many of us probably have that fantasy, and Butterfield does a good job of making the transition believable.

She passed the small row of cottages with their uneven thatched roofs, mullioned windows and hollyhock bestrewn gardens, skirted the front of Brook House and arrived on her crunchy, gravel drive to find that she had left her front door slightly ajar. It was a habit quickly picked up in the tranquil backwater of Lower Dimblebrook, a relaxed attitude to security.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

Butterfield also makes Issie’s gradual involvement in solving the mystery quite believable—more so than many amateur sleuths. Rather than jumping into trying to catch a murderer, Issie is more concerned with her murdered friend’s reputation, and that seems like the kind of mystery that a layperson would reasonably get caught up in.

I know Fiona wasn’t having an affair and I’m going to get to the bottom of who started this wicked rumour.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The “deadly whispers” of the title make for an interesting exploration: how gossip, commonly thought of as a minor infraction, can be dangerous. The novel opens with the local gossips salivating over the murder, and it is easy to see why Issie would want to keep the townspeople at arm’s length. Doris Stokes, the prime mover of news, is saved from being a cutout character, and details of her relationship with Gertrude well-served the story, illuminating her in both good ways and bad.

In Wainwright’s experience, love was not a barrier to murder. On many occasions, it was love that set off the chain of events that resulted in death.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

Her fellow exile from the city is the detective, DI Dave Wainwright, who can’t wait to get back to a city, and who finds the instantaneous information exchanges of the village remarkably frustrating. I hope that Butterfield will develop him past being pretty but grumpy into a more three-dimensional character.

The lack of mobile signal in many areas was driving him crazy, the relaxed approach and total lack of urgency to any request was making him grouchy and village life, in general, was giving him a headache.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The novel suffers from a couple of points that are common to cozies (and many mysteries generally, both print and film). First, the identity of the murderer becomes fairly obvious about halfway through the story, so the reader is just left with waiting for the denouement. Second, as a result of this, moments when you want to yell at the protagonist not to be stupid start arising with greater frequency as the story nears the end. Or maybe that’s just me, but I get very frustrated when the protagonists are being dense given the evidence both she and I, the reader, have. However, many readers of cozies aren’t particularly fussed by the puzzle being over early, and even with the aggravation, I wanted to finish the story.

Madeleine always used bone china, she never poured milk from the bottle and the biscuits were usually served on a two-tier cake stand inherited from her grandmother. But it was rarely tea in the teapot.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The pleasant atmosphere of Lower Dimblebrook pervades the story, and the concrete details have me ready to book a cottage with the delightful Madeleine Halesowen, Issie’s landlord, murder or no. Save me some rhubarb wine.


When knowing is a burden

The Fire in the Glass by Jacquelyn Benson

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in Edwardian England focused on a defiantly independent and lonely young woman with precognition.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 494

Publisher: Vaughn Woods Publishing

Series: The Charismatics

From the publisher: For as long as she can remember, Lily has been plagued by psychic visions of the future. Never once has she been able to prevent the horrors she foresees from coming to pass. Now a mysterious fiend is stalking London. The tabloids shriek of vampires, but Lily knows the killer is a different kind of monster, one who could be caught and brought to justice before he strikes again.

The satisfaction at concluding a well told tale never gets old, and Jacquelyn Benson delivers that lovely feeling with this marvelous book. The characters are compelling and well drawn, the plot intriguing, and the prose lively. Even though this is envisioned as the first installment in the series, it feels complete in itself.

As she climbed, she watched for Cat, an enormous beast who did not belong to anyone in the house but was impossible to eradicate. Cat had a penchant for sleeping in places designated to endanger the lives of unsuspecting passersby.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The details of Lily’s estrangement from her fellows may differ from what you or I may have gone through, but the experience of feeling excluded, of being different because of factors you can’t control—that’s not so different. Lily struggles with doing everything herself, taking on more responsibility than she should, just to protect her heart, to keep from being vulnerable.

She kept trying. She fought to win her lonely battle against fate despite the steely opposition of the nannies and the guilt, grief, and gutting frustration—right up until the day her mother died.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

But those details are what makes the story intriguing, as well as the way in which she begins to face up to her fears. There’s Estelle, the neighbor who has wormed her way into Lily’s heart, making her irreplaceable and any threat to her unthinkable. Estelle introduces her to the mysterious Mr. Ash, who asks for more faith than Lily has. Lily also meets the enigmatic Lord Strangford, who has secrets of his own.

The words resonated. Lily knew that fear. It had lingered at the back of her mind for as long as she could remember. Humanity was not kind to difference.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The pace builds well over the course of the story, and the anomalies of Lily’s life as an Edwardian woman are dealt with head-on—mostly by her class and background justifying her refusal to act completely within society’s dictates.

The ton was generally happy to presume that a child conceived in sin carried the same loose morals in her blood like some sort of hereditary disease, one they apparently thought contagious.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The theme of the willingness of powerful men to sacrifice powerless women is explored within the novel, and although most of those men still find themselves justified, there are some who are enlightened in the process. There’s a darkness at the heart of the story, but it’s a darkness which is being fought.

The Fire in the Glass was a pleasure to read, and I look forward to the next installment.


Anything you can do, I can do better

A Boldly Daring Scheme by Lynn Messina

r/suggestmeabook: I want a frothy Regency mystery tinged with romance told by a female protagonist coming to grips with her own shortcomings.

Regency cozy mystery

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 263

Publisher: Potatoworks Press

Series: Beatrice Hyde-Clare Mysteries

From the publisher: Finally, Flora Hyde-Clare has wrest the narrative from Beatrice by finding her own compelling murder mystery to solve. Well, it’s not entirely her own because the victim is her cousin’s former beau.

As usual, Lynn Messina delivers. I’m pretty sure you could read this, the seventh in the series, without having read the others, as the protagonist is, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, the cousin of the Beatrice for whom the series is named.

Flora’s voice is different than that of Beatrice, upon which Messina should be congratulated. Beatrice, much more self-aware, would not make the kinds of accidentally funny comments that Flora does.

To be caught—gasp!—breathing hard was really beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. Mama might as well pack up my things and send me back to Sussex in disgrace.

Lynn Messina, A Boldly Daring Scheme

She could be unsympathetic, with her overweening concern for her standing in the ton and her desire for a particular red dress, but she is beginning to interrogate her own attitudes and actions which helps overcome the moments of small mindedness. She’s flawed, but redeemable.

Men can be so prickly in matters involving their integrity, for they are always so concerned about how others perceive them. They worry about appearing caddish more than acting caddish.

Lynn Messina, A Boldly Daring Scheme

The novel follows the usual formula of the woman trying to act independently in a world that won’t allow her to, requiring the intervention of an amused and charmed male, but that’s part of the joy of these books. There are times when a little security, a little romance, and a little formula is just the comfort read you need, and Messina excels at granting that bit of ease.


Book tour gone bad

r/suggestmeabook: I want a cozy mystery steeped in publishing and fandom focused on solving a murder.

Cozy mystery

Rating: PG

Pages: TBA

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Publication date:  June 8, 2021

From the publisher: Meeting your favorite author in the flesh can be the chance of a lifetime. But for one unlucky fan, her plum place in line at a book signing will lead to her untimely demise.

First, let’s get the disclosure out of the way: I didn’t read the first book, so some of my issues might be solved by reading it. But it won’t cure all the ills I perceive in this cozy mystery.

tldr: Flat characterization; tell, don’t show; hard-to-swallow situations

Victoria Gilbert has posed a good puzzle. Most of the clues are there at the beginning, although the key clue isn’t given until toward the end. If your taste runs to plot uber alles, then you may be fine with this story.

I’m a character junkie, and this book just didn’t give me my fix. There was very little to distinguish among the characters aside from the initial physical descriptions and names. I was constantly having that moment of “Now, who is this again?” among a cast of less than fifteen (I think), which is a magnitude lower than the epic fantasies I have less trouble keeping up with the characters.

They all have the same voice. Granted, you’re getting everything filtered through the first person protagonist, but even so, I’m spoiled by first person protagonists who have the gift of mimicking the people around them. Charlotte, the amateur sleuth and narrator, tells us often that she was a high school teacher, and perhaps that’s what we’re hearing—she flattens everyone out with the same speech patterns, making them all speak proper, grammatical English.

“Sounds like a good beach read,” Ellen said.

“Definitely perfect for that. And it is written pretty well. The English teacher in me can’t fault Ms. Nobel on her writing.”

Victoria Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

Not only that, Gilbert repeatedly violates the common mantra for fiction: Show, don’t tell. Again, in a first person narrative, I expect to hear the thoughts and opinions of the narrator, but I also expect to have enough to go on to make my own conclusions. Instead, many of the characterizations are made up of conclusory statements and it feels unskillful to write a description of a person in a way that the actions don’t speak for themselves.

For example, several of the characters are described as having bad tempers (as part of the reason they might be suspects), and yet the most I saw any of those characters get huffy was one who bangs his fist on a table. Okay, I said “several,” and it turns out there were only two. Seemed like more, perhaps because it was repeated several times and I didn’t have the names connected solidly to the characters (see flatness, above).

“She had a real bad temper, at least back then. The hair-trigger kind. She’d be all fine and cheerful, but someone would say or do something that ticked her off and bam!”—Damian snapped the twisted towel through the air—”just like that, she’d go off on them.”

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

Likewise, almost all of the background information needed for the solution of the mystery is provided in talking head sequences. There’s very little sleuthing involved, and people divulge the information in long speeches with little prompting. Little of the dialogue was just for fun, and when it wasn’t about the mystery, it seemed to often run to the mundane. Some of it was to set an atmosphere (“Would you like a lemonade?” appears to be an exceedingly common question in the summer in coastal North Carolina), but my overall impression was there was a lot of filler.

Let me get to the trickiest part of this review, something I feel I have to raise, even though I’m not really qualified to weigh in on as a white, older, middle-class female. Yes, it’s about the depiction of Black characters (I think they’re supposed to be Black—more to come on that). I would have loved to refer you to a reviewer who could, but this is an Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley, and none of the other reviewers on Goodreads (when I checked) self-identified as Black or any other POC, so I didn’t have that option.

I fretted about what to do about this, and posted about it to solicit opinions, and I can’t tell you whether the depictions are problematic. As I said in the previous post, I get that white authors have a dilemma—you don’t want to posit an all white world and erase POCs from the picture, but you also may be challenged in your depictions of those characters if you include them.

Let me be crystal clear on this: I AM NOT SAYING THE AUTHOR IS RACIST. I am saying that we live in a world that privileges whites, and that even the most well intentioned author in the world can miss the notes on this, because it is so very difficult to play the songs correctly. However, as one of the commenters on the post of doom mentioned, (I’m paraphrasing) even if there was no malicious intent (or even a positive intent), if the effect of the writing still promotes institutional racism, then there’s still an issue.

Anyway, the depictions made me raise my eyebrows, partially because of the way they were coded as Black. The flatness of character is a universal issue in the book, so it’s harder to say that they should have been excepted from the general shortcoming to be well-rounded. But the first one to come up, Alicia, is described as a “short, plump woman in her early sixties” without a job title, simply as having worked in the B&B forever. Because of the bigger problem of being trapped in my own whiteness in the world, I consciously process it, but I defaulted to thinking of the character as white.

But then there was this:

Pete and Sandy Nelson…always claimed I’d inherited Alicia along with the B and B. I suppose that was true, in a way, although it wasn’t a sentiment I liked to repeat out loud. Although I admitted that Alicia was integral to the success of Chapters, she was a person, and not some object my great-aunt could pass down, as she had the extensive collection of books that filled Chapters’s library and guest rooms.

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

I found it a little clumsy on first reading, but was pulled out of the story later when I processed that in the context of later statements, thinking, “Wait. Alicia’s supposed to be Black? What did I miss?” Am I supposed to realize that because she’s essentially Calpurnia for the B&B? Is it more racist to default to her being white if not specified? As you can see, it triggered my own concerns about how to be anti-racist, and I sought help in the afore-mentioned post and on Twitter.

It could be read as an attempt to be sensitive; it could also be read as an issue that it’s even been included. IDK.

Later, I was relieved when the narrator said this:

I frowned as I realized how little I knew about Alicia’s life before Chapters. Because you never asked, I thought, flushing with embarrassment. Perhaps I had treated her like something I’d inherited along with the house than a person with her own, independent life. At least, more than I liked to admit.

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

“So she’s going to show this as a character arc,” I thought. I can get behind that, even if I do still have some issues about how the two Black characters were coded, which, to my mind, raises questions about the extent to which they reinforce stereotypes.

But then the quoted sentiment was never followed up on. Perhaps in the next book? Maybe it’s supposed to be a flaw in the character, even if she’s supposed to be the heroine?

As I said, I can’t say anything about the Black experience or how Black readers might react, but it bothered me enough to raise it. I’d suggest referring the novel to a sensitivity reader specializing in race issues, as it may be an easy fix.

Wow. Glad to have gotten through that mess.

Last on my list of complaints is definitely the most idiosyncratic problem, and one I wouldn’t have downgraded the book on if it had been the only issue: things that I can’t suspend disbelief over. First there’s the neighbor who’s a retired spy. Again, I haven’t read the first book, so perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation for how she knows that, but the retired spy’s openness is just mind-boggling to me. I have relatives who were in various classified areas of the military, and they won’t tell their children, spouses, or parents any details, so I just can’t buy into anything but an absolute need-to-know.

Similarly, I have issues with the characterization of the police detective. She doesn’t sound like any I’ve known, but, of course, geography matters. All but one of the cops I’ve known were from large metropolitan areas in Texas, not a small-time PD in North Carolina. But it bothered me.

Believe it or not, the review is about to come to a conclusion. The writing is competent, but sterile, and the characters flat. I don’t get enough opportunity to observe the characters to determine who they are; the narrator or others mostly just tell me. Gilbert is good on plotting and descriptions of the environment, but that’s just not enough for me.


An Englishman in Newport

A prepublication Big5+ review

Gilded Age amateur sleuth

r/suggestmeabook: I want a sedate journey through Gilded Age high society with a little murder mixed in.

Rating: G

Publication date: 2/16/2021

From the publisher: London, 1878. “An Extravagant Death” finds Sir Charles Lenox traveling to Gilded Age Newport and New York to investigate the death of a beautiful socialite.

Charles Finch has managed to capture the sedate pace of a period before cell phones and Google. The first ten chapters are part history lesson, part travelogue. As a denizen of the hurry-up present, that didn’t feel sedate; it felt slow, but in a way Louisa May Alcott doesn’t feel for me. Instead, it felt like a delay to get to the meat of the novel—ten chapters to get to the damn murder.

The book blurb doesn’t help: It makes it sound as though the protagonist has gone to the States specifically to solve the murder, but that’s not how it works at all.

Obviously a great deal of historical research has gone into the story, but sometimes the inclusion of the lovely bits feels a little forced, as is the case of the multiple mentions of “back log.” We meet historic personages and places with no bearing on the plot—which, coupled with the delay in getting to the main subject of the book, isn’t as interesting as it could be if better integrated into the mains storyline.

On the other hand, very young men accustomed to all their wishes being granted could be unpredictable; more than that, were one of the great lurking threats in the world, in Lenox’s experience.

Charles Finch, “An Extravagant Death”

The subtle wit is a pleasure, though, and is well-suited to evoking Victorian England and the American Gilded Age. Once the murder mystery starts to unfold, it’s absorbing enough, although there’s nothing aside from the costume it’s wearing to distinguish it.

It’s off to me that the full blurb bothers mentioning the two children, as they, and his wife, are at best peripheral. To be fair, the novel is part of a series, so the mentions of characters as though I should care about them, when nothing in this book has created any feelings for them, could be an explanation for an assumption that cursory references suffice.

Reading it as a standalone, though, I’m not engaged enough with the characters to want to spend anymore time with them than this one book. Perhaps I would feel differently if I started at the beginning, but it’s too late for that now. This is the kind of trip down memory lane that makes the past seem tedious.

Murder by suicide

Review: The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced magical Victorian mystery with an unwilling earl and a clever magician spiced with some steamy guy on guy romance.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 204

Publisher: KJC Books

Series: A Charm of Magpies

From the publisher: A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

This book was so much fun that I’m raring to read the next one. The protagonists are adorable: tall, rebellious Lucien Vaudrey and short, clever Stephen Day. I wouldn’t say this is a cozy mystery because there’s some quite a bit of swearing and some graphic sex in it, but it’s next door to one. 

K.J. Charles manages to make everything feel fresh in the story, even though she’s riding some well-worn tropes—the unwilling heir with the terrible family, a gothic house, possible madness, and hereditary curses. Part of it is the completely frank attitude of her new earl, who has completely lost any concern for Victorian sham, and part of it is the simple joy she seems to take in the love story.

As a CIS, hetero female, I can’t say how the romance will affect those who identify more with the sexuality of the protagonists, but from my point of view, it was completely absorbing, and, dare I say it, hot. It reminds me of the tone of Gentleman Jack; the story has similar sensibilities, but without Anne Lister’s conformity to her class.

Completely irrelevant side note, but did you know magpies are classified as one of the most intelligent animals in the world? They don’t live by me, so I’m fascinated by them, but I guess they could be a nuisance if they did.

At any rate: Run and get a copy of The Magpie Lord now. You’ll thank me later.