Drugs, sex, and a poisonous toad

Review: Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead by Christiana Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery about a witch who is learning about her powers and trying to deal with a curse.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 372

Publisher: HekaRose Publishing

Series: The Toad Witch Mysteries

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From the publisher: Mara is having the worst month of her life. At least, that’s what her tarot cards tell her and they’ve never been wrong. Before she knows it, she’s evicted from her apartment, fired from her job and banned from Beverly Hills.

This almost feels like two different books: the first half, in Los Angeles, is the tale of Mara’s impending eviction, desperate need for cash, and a fear of exercising her magic. The second half, in Wisconsin, Mara no longer has the same pressures, no longer fears her magic, but has become involved with a haunted house.

As I flipped through the Templar deck, I noticed Lyra’s face blanching at some of the images: horned gods holding skulls, winged angelic figures challenging humans, lusty women cavorting with skeletons.

“It’s a question that’s always plagued me. Is forewarned really the same as forearmed?” I tapped the deck. “Can this give you the power to turn the Hand of Fate to your favor? Or is it just another way to ruin a perfectly good week?”

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Mara is generally likable, and the first person narrative is breezy and fun for the most part. Mara’s bad luck, her run-ins with the judgmental Mrs. Lasio, and the backfiring of Mara’s magic is all entertaining. The second part of the book dragged a little more for me—rather than building tension, the repeated instances of supernatural heebie-jeebies got a little repetitive, and I was ready to get some explanations and resolution.

It didn’t take me long to drive through Devil’s Point. There was a small shopping district that included a mom and pop grocery store, an antique store, an old-fashioned diner, the movie theater J.J. had mentioned, and a bookstore. On the other side of the street, there was a hardware store, a thrift store, a bait-and-tackle shop and a mechanic’s shop that was right out of the 1950s, with an old-fashioned gas pump out front and vintage automobiles for sale. It really was an adorable, old-fashioned slice of Americana, preserved in time.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

I’m a CIS hetero woman, so I can’t say how the book would affect a gay man, but there were a few things about it that gave me pause. Mara’s best friend is a gay man, and it almost devolves into the sassy gay friend trope but for the fact that Gus often saves the day (but he could be seen as the fairy godmother, so I’ll leave it up to those affected by this trope to judge). Because Gus is heavily involved in the first half, and a frequent cameo in the second, and is portrayed mostly in a positive light, it seems clear there’s no malevolent intent, but it still could be taken negatively in execution.

I still didn’t want to do it, but Gus had his heart set on being the center of attention. I had tried to talk him out of it, but it was useless. He had been dreaming of this moment ever since he got booted out of the last coven he was in. To be the biggest deal in the center of a large pagan gathering and thumb his nose at the people who had betrayed him, (at least, that was Gus’s version of events). And he had been doing so much for me this week, I just didn’t have the heart to stomp on his inner diva and destroy his fantasy. Especially after he spotted some of his ex-coven members roaming around.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The most problematic quote for me is the one below; the usage of “queer” in this manner by Mara, even if possibly quoting someone else, made me very uncomfortable. I can deal with pejoratives when they are used sparingly and for a particular purpose (such as illuminating the past or if the context is such that it would seem like white washing or inauthentic if it were omitted), but this didn’t seem to meet any of my internalized criteria.

But according to Lupe, the guy is a raging queer. I thought Mamma Lasio was going to wash her mouth out with laundry detergent and pool water. This place has been like a soap opera ever since they moved in and I’m the one getting evicted.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The quote refers to Mrs. Lasio’s priest. Again, the description may be Lupe’s (Mrs. Lasio’s daughter), but it still bugged me (clearly, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here). I can’t say categorically that it’s offensive, because it’s not my life experience here; I can just say that it bothered me.

Unlike most of the fantasy I read, this is not a wholly imagined magical system. Rather, this one appears to be derived from Wicca, as the author notes on Amazon that “For Wiccan readers, who are curious about the quarter system used in the book, this story uses the Northern Quarter system which is based in Traditional Witchcraft, rather than the Golden Dawn Quarter system, which is more widely used in Wicca.”

Ah, yes, the toad. I almost forgot. The toad is a recurring background figure, but his magical abilities are never quite substantiated. It’s unclear if he’s really doing anything or not, but as the series is named for him, I’m guessing that will be cleared up in future volumes.

Gus was beside himself. “Grundleshanks ate! Damn you, Grundleshanks. You treacherous amphibian. Traitor of the first degree. The minute my back is turned!”

“Gus, chill. It’s just a toad.”

“I have been watching him for weeks. I have fed him and watered him and watched him and waited and nothing. Nothing. He’s shy, he says. Doesn’t want to eat in public, he says. But let a pretty girl come over…” He glared at Grundleshanks. “Show-off.”

The eyeballs on top of the mud lump calmly blinked back at him.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Overall, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead was not a book I regretted reading, but I don’t think I’ll pick any more in the series because, by the end, I’d spent enough time with Mara in Wisconsin and am happy to move on to a new world.


Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.


Sins of the past

The Jade Tiger by E.W. Cooper

r/suggestmeabook: I want a Prohibition era mystery with a woman who’s trying to escape her past.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 276

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Review copy courtesy of BookSirens

From the publisher: NEW YORK, OCTOBER 1928. The Big Apple teems with the glitter of Bright Young Things, Prohibition, and scofflaws-the perfect place for Penelope Harris to start her life over.

Reading the blurb, I thought the book would be more of a historical fiction, but if I’d paid attention to the cover, I’d have realized it was more of a mystery with a historical setting. The period was nicely evoked, though, with judiciously chosen details about New York City just as prohibition started, much about the alcohol itself, but also of the clothes, attitudes, and decor.

This was one of those books that was almost really good, but missed on a few fronts. First, the main characters, Penelope and Lund, were not as fully developed as I would have preferred. I was mostly supposed to empathize with them for extrinsic factors, such as Penelope’s attempts to avoid the press because they kept exposing her to public scrutiny, rather than really learning about their motivations.

Guests passed the windows in groups, laughing, talking. He wondered if he would see Penelope there, in a moment or two. Dancing past on another man’s arm. The quick pull of regret made him certain it had been a mistake.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The second problem I had with the story was the unnecessary switches of points of view. As I’ve said before, multiple points of view are tricky. For example, there was really little reason to include the point of view of the police officer McCain. I can only think of one scene in retrospect that couldn’t have been shown from one of the other protagonists, an argument between McCain and his supervisor about the course of the investigation, but that didn’t add enough to the book to justify the jarring nature of that additional POV.

A small clutch of guests stood near the radio without turning to take note, their laughter a little too loud, their drinking just a little too messy. That’s where Renee would be, all right—in the middle of everything, at the center of the music, where the chaos always began.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The mystery itself was more of a justification to expose the “Big Secret” that Penelope is trying to conceal than a traditional murder mystery. The “Big Secret,” when completely disclosed, is a bit anticlimactic because of the multiple retellings, diminishing the impact as each additional detail is exposed.

Last, too much of the characterization deals with things told rather than shown. Most characters are described by summarized stories of their past, rather than seeing them act in the present.

However, the plotting is good, and the writing evokes the period well, so I would expect to see books I’d like better from E.W. Cooper in the future.

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.


A changed man

An Xpresso blog book blitz & review

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced adventure through Hollywood with human turned avenging angel, private first class.

Urban fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 337

Publisher: White Sun Press

Register to win a $25 Amazon gift card at Rafflecopter during the book blitz!

From the publisher: I never asked to be an angel. Truthfully, being an angel kinda sucks.

But some angels don’t get harps. We hunt demons.

I might be a social weirdo. And okay, I black out whenever I fly and wake up naked in random places. I can only sleep in windowless rooms. I have that gun problem. Oh, and I can’t drink alcohol, since I randomly start fires.

But I, Dags Jourdain, do good. Sort of. I mean, I try.

When I’m not hunting demons, I work as a P.I. in Hollywood, California.

One night, I get in a demon fight in an alley, and accidentally save the life of a movie star, and everything changes for me.

Meanwhile, someone opened a hell portal under the Hollywood sign, a dead guy left me his dog, and a homicide detective who hates me from high school is trying to decide if I’m a serial killer.

Did I mention being an angel kinda sucks?

Thank you, Xpresso book tours, for the advance review copy.

Review

The worst part about this book: It ended before I was ready for it to. The fast pace, the clever dialogue, and the fun characters made it a ride I wasn’t ready to get off yet. Part of it was that there are so many unanswered questions, although it was a logical break point.

Be prepared, though—given the blurb about the book was done in first person, I was a little thrown when I started reading and it was a third person narration. But that lasted only momentarily, as I was immediately drawn into the story.

“You’re going to keep the dog of the guy who tried to kill you? Really?”

Dags shrugged, deadpan. “It’s not the dog’s fault.”

Julie Light, I, Angel

If you want long, lyric passages, this probably isn’t your book—but that’s not what this book is about. It’s about discovery. How to figure out what’s happened to you and your environment on the fly as you cope with what life is throwing you.

She held herself still, almost unnaturally still as she stared up at the two of them, her eyes lit by the red light in the hot tub and the firelight from the torches on either side.

Now she looked like Hell’s Queen.

Julie Light, I, Angel

It’s also not for you if you’re not fond of riddles. Most of them are not solved by the end of the novel, but it’s not like some of the books I’ve read, where it’s as if the book just stopped.

Instead, this feels almost like the end of an episode of a television show, perhaps along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the beginning of the season—or most of Joss Whedon’s series—where you’re learning about the characters and getting exposed to the world, but you’re still not sure what the hell is going on.

“Damn it, Dags. You’ve got to know it looks weird. All of this looks weird. You’re like a magnet for bad things—”

“I’m aware of that,” Dags growled.

Julie Light, I, Angel

But like Whedon, Julie Light has got you hooked and anxious to see what’s next. I have high hopes that the next installment will be even better.

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.

Female detective in 1907 Japan. -Ish.

Sara Keefe’s debut novel introduces us to the world of the admirable Helen Motosu, an alternate early 20th century Japan that will challenge your preconceptions of time and place. Helen’s strength as a sleuth is mainly her ability to read people, and as much of her time is spent in navigating social norms, managing her “help,” and working through her grief as in solving the mystery.

The mystery is charming, but what stays with me are those piercing moments when Helen’s first steps to reorient her life, coming almost a year after her husband’s death, are so authentic they glow. Those gems are uncommon in literature generally; I cannot recall ever having had the pleasure of that experience in a cozy murder mystery.

The world of Motosu differs from ours in some significant ways: far more advanced technology than was available in 1907 and more freedom for women than I would have expected (despite the obstacles she faces). I was struck by how much more open to Westerners her Japan was than I believed was the case at the period, but I’m certainly not an expert in Japanese history. But I still wondered if the Meiji Restoration didn’t occur as it did in our world, or if the Hibaya Riots of 1905 didn’t happen. Perhaps the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War had different terms, as it serves as the backdrop to the story, but isn’t fully explained.

Although the book blurb describes itself as steampunk, I saw very little steampunk sensibility in the novel but for one isolated instance that doesn’t bear on the main plot at all.  

Keefe is definitely an author to watch. I look forward to more world-building in the following Motosu Mysteries books as there are so many unanswered questions about how this Japan came to be, and how Helen found her place in it.