A Beautiful Blue Death // The September Society // by Charles Finch

//published 2007//

I remember reading a couple of the books from this series a very long time ago, back when there were only three or four in the series.  It’s one that I have meant to revisit for quite some time, especially since several books have been added to it since then.  However, in the end I reread these two books and found them rather bland, and so have decided not to fuss with the rest of the books after all.

The books center on Charles Lenox, a gentleman in 1860’s London, who works as a private detective.  He’s a rather odd character because he apparently has enough money of private means to just ‘be a gentleman’ but chooses to work as a detective as well.  We don’t meet up with him on his first big case, but are dropped into the middle of his career, seemingly at random.  He lives next door to a widow, Lady Jane, with whom he also grew up.  His older brother, Edward, serves in parliament, which is actually Lenox’s dream job (which makes sense, because he loves rambling on about random stuff all the time).

//published 2008//

The main problem I had with these books was Finch’s tendency to really pontificate about random things.  I don’t mind a bit of background on a character or a few lines of description to help with the setting, but in these books it feels like every time Lenox passes a historical building or London neighborhood, Finch finds it necessary to go on for at least a paragraph, explaining the history and significance of the location, as well as all of Lenox’s personal associations with the spot.  After a while, it really began to feel like it was interfering with the pace of the story.

For instance, in The September Society, Lenox passes through a park:

Green Park, a shamrock-colored rectangle that lay behind the Houses of Parliament, was warm and beautiful that afternoon.  The willow trees bent toward the lake, their lowest branches just brushing the water, and the park’s lone wanderers and couples alike walked more slowly than they had along the fast city blocks, stopping to watch for a while.  Lenox always liked to watch the swans gliding serenely, birds with just the mix of beauty and danger that humans like in wildlife – for a swan, of course, could break a man’s arm.

Okay, a bit prosy but alright.  Except the next paragraph, rather than getting on with the story, continues with the swans!

Another curious fact about them was that every swan in England belonged to Queen Victoria.  Not many people knew it, but poaching swans was an offense the crown could punish.  The official swan keeper to Her Majesty wrangled the birds in the third week of July every year, when they were served at the Queen’s table and a few others across the isles, in Cambridge, Oxford, York, Edinburgh.  The swans were mute, but at their deaths they found voice and sang, and the long line of wranglers always claimed to be haunted by the sound.  It was the origin of the term swan song.

???  Just… this has nothing to do with the story.  And if this was the only instance of this meandering fact-giving it would be find, but it happens multiple times per chapter, and it became very off-putting to me, as it started to feel that Finch felt that it was important to insert all of his research into the story whether it fit or not.  It really, really interfered with the pace of the story.

In A Beautiful Blue Death, I was put off almost immediately when Lenox and his friend, a doctor, determine almost immediately that the murder victim’s death was caused by a very rare poison.  However, we aren’t really told how the doctor arrives at this conclusion.  He just…  knows?  After that, the detective in charge of the investigation decides he doesn’t want Lenox around.  So the whole story feels rather strange, with Lenox sort of meandering around the edges of it.

It just felt like both books lacked any urgency.  Lenox is very dry as a main character, and always felt rather pompous to me, although part of that is definitely Finch’s narration.  However, I will say that my younger brother loved these books, and his favorite part were all the asides and odd facts, so maybe it’s just a reader-preference thing.

All in all, these were solid 3/5 reads for me.  They were fine stories that didn’t feel like a waste of time, but also didn’t really leave me with any desire to complete the series.  With 105 other mystery series on the TBR, I don’t necessarily feel like I need to read ones that don’t really do something for me.

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The Jackaby Quartet // by William Ritter

//published 2017//

So in August the fourth (and final, as far as I can tell) Jackaby book hit the shelves.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three books, I was eager to reread them and then get the grand finale.  So this is mostly going to be a review of The Dire King, with some thoughts about the series as a whole.  The links go back to earlier reviews of the series (not this time around).  When reviewing the final book of a series, it’s virtually impossible to avoid some spoilers, so the brief review is: 3/5 for Dire King and 4/5 for the series as a whole.  I personally didn’t like the way a bunch of things concluded in Dire King, but that’s kind of a matter of personal opinion, as it technically worked.  But in the end I was left with a lot more questions than answers, and felt like the plotting in the final book was rather sloppy, like Ritter was hoping that as long as there was enough action, the readers wouldn’t notice gaping holes in the logic.

I really wish that Ritter had stuck with episodic stories for this series.  I still think the first book was the best of the bunch, and it was because it was a self-contained story.  The further into The Grand Scheme that Ritter got, the sloppier the stories got, and the more it felt like he was only really interested in getting us to the final book.  The Grand Scheme got really involved and complicated, while the concept of just writing paranormal mysteries with these characters would have been fantastic.

More thoughts below with mild spoilers…

I really enjoyed reading back through the three earlier books, and actually liked Ghostly Echoes better the second time around when I already had an idea of where things were going.  (Maybe I’ll like The Dire King better if I reread it??)  These books are just plain fun.  The dialogue is hilarious, and Jackaby and Abigail are a brilliant combination of characters.  There’s still a bit too much modern SJW talk, with women’s rights being handled in a very heavy-handed way, and the whole transgender thing in Ghostly Echoes that makes absolutely no sense within the context of the story and is quite obviously being inserted to show us how open-minded Ritter is.  But I’m willing to overlook these types of things as long as the rest of the story holds up, and for the most part it does.

However, the further into the series we go, the more Ritter starts to build what I think of as The Grand Scheme.  Many series – in fact, most – do this, but for me it only works if the small schemes aren’t sacrificed in the process.  Each book should still be able to stand as a solid and engaging story on its own, and while it’s okay to have teasers leading into the next book/The Grand Scheme, it can be frustrating when it feels like I only got part of a story (I’m looking at you, Robin McKinley’s Pegasus).  Ritter doesn’t quite do this, but he’s close, which is probably another reason that I enjoyed Ghostly Echoes more the second time around – it wasn’t as annoying of an ending when I had the final book right in front of me!

The thing is, it just started to feel like Ritter had bitten off more than he could chew with his Grand Scheme.  All of a sudden we’re jumping in and out of fairy land and the land of the dead and we’ve got conflicting kingdoms and factions and all kinds of critters running around and it’s not really clear who is on which side and even if there are sides and there is this whole thing that’s going to apparently blow up the Veil that separates the physical world from the fairy world and there is this guy who can make zombies kinda and this little furry critter that gives cryptic advice and no one knows or really seems to care whose side he is on and then all of a sudden this one character who was kind of a minor character turns out to be the one who betrays everyone except when did she even meet the bad guy??  Like it felt extremely weird and was never explained how she even did what she did or why so her motivation makes literally zero sense and then in the end everyone apparently is just like Oh, okay, and they all go home??!?  And what happened with the zombie guy?  And apparently there was some guy who has been keeping the Veil safe for like hundreds of years and could live that long because he was wearing this magical gem but then he… took it off??  And died?? And the whole Veil started to collapse??  So why did he take it off??

Basically, the whole book made me kind of dizzy.  Things were happening very quickly and strangely without any genuine explanations, and instead of there being this big epilogue that made everything make sense, there was an ending that I found to be VERY STRANGE and did not like AT ALL.  The ending itself dropped the entire book a half star for me, like I could not get behind it at all.

So The Dire King was a bit of a letdown for me.  It had its moments, but just didn’t pull things together the way I had anticipated.  This series could have been a lot more fun and entertaining if Ritter had stuck with smaller stories that tied together instead of attempting to pull of a very complicated and involved Grand Scheme that just didn’t end up making a whole lot of sense.  I still recommend the series as a whole, and definitely will be rereading it sometime in the future – and maybe will enjoy The Dire King more when I have a sense of where it’s headed.  And I’ll be keeping an eye on Ritter to see what he decides to write next.

The Great Shelby Holmes // by Elizabeth Eulberg

//published 2016//

This book sounded like it could be super cute and fun.  A kid named John Watson moves into a new apartment building and becomes friends with the girl next door, Shelby Holmes.  Shelby is incredibly observant and considers herself a detective.  Together, they solve a mystery of a missing dog.

I liked the concept of a kiddie version of Sherlock Holmes, in this world where the original Sherlock obviously doesn’t exist.  Young Watson was a pleasant narrator, settling into his new life (which of course involves a divorce, because we aren’t allowed to write about children with two parents any more, unless those parents are either incredibly weird or gay).  He isn’t really sure that he wants to be friends with Shelby, who is kind of strange, but he doesn’t have a lot of other options, and soon finds himself pulled into her adventures.

So, like, I think what Eulberg was trying to do was portray a socially awkward kid (Shelby) and then have Watson kind of show her how to be a friend.  But all that really happens is Shelby is so obnoxious and annoying that I couldn’t hardly stand to read about her.  She is just flat rude, way beyond just being awkward.  Is she supposed to be autistic and I’m supposed to have empathy for her or something?  I have no idea.  I just couldn’t believe what an obnoxious know-it-all jerk she was 100% of the time.

What really blew my mind was that she wasn’t just that way with other kids – she’s consistently rude and condescending to every adult she meets, too, including her own parents.  And like – all the adults just go with it?  They let her boss them around and ask rude questions and give in to all her demands.  It was quite strange.  If Shelby had showed up in my life, I would have told her where to get off.  And if I had ever talked to my parents the way she talked to hers, I would have been grounded for weeks.

I realize that the original Sherlock isn’t completely likable.  He is also rather condescending at times and not always polite.  But he’s also an adult, not a nine-year-old.  I basically got to the point where I realized that I wouldn’t recommend this book to any of the younger readers I know, because there is no way I would want them to look at Shelby as a role model.  Even though by the end Shelby is doing slightly  better at ‘being a friend,’ it’s not like she ever actually realizes what a boor she is, or apologizes for being obnoxious.

At one point, Watson and his mom go to Shelby’s house for dinner.  Throughout, Shelby talks back to her parents, makes rude comments under her breath, and is incredibly sulky and annoying.  When told to eat her green beans, she first off refuses, and then shoves them all in her mouth at once and chews with her mouth open.  When she is given a piece of pie, she takes a bite and then spits it out because it’s sugar free.  For some reason, her dad refers to her as ‘Shelly,’ to which Shelby responds, “It’s Shelby, Father.  How many times must I remind you of that, especially since you have given me that designation?”  …So apparently her dad forgets her name regularly…???  Or is Shelly a nickname that she doesn’t like???  Throughout the evening, her rude behavior is met with only mild remonstrance from her parents, who are of course portrayed as rather slow, dense, and ineffective.  And afterwards, does Watson’s mom say, “Wow, there is no way I want this kid to be your primary influence in your new home!” ??  No, of course not.  She’s just like, “Oh, wow, Shelby sure is interesting!  ::nervous laughter:: ”

I also found it really hard to believe that Watson and Shelby were allowed to just meander all over New York City without telling anyone where they were going or when they would be back.  Watson’s mother gives him strict rules about where he can go, but he doesn’t pay any attention to them since he’s just following Shelby around.  On multiple occasions he finds himself places where he is uncomfortable or doesn’t know how to get home.  None of these things seemed like actions I would want a younger reader finding acceptable.  And even when Watson’s mom finds out that he went places he wasn’t supposed to, she just sort of shrugs it off because she’s glad he’s ‘making friends.’

I had trouble deciding whether a 10-year-old would have found the mystery of the book challenging.  I found it almost embarrassingly obvious, to the point that I started to worry that maybe Watson needs some help if he can’t put together the clues that Shelby is handing him.  Again, I know it’s traditional for the sidekick to be a little dense, but seriously.  The culprit actually explains the motive behind the dognapping but Watson doesn’t notice…

As I was reading this book, I found myself thinking a lot about the child-genius-detective that I grew up with, Encyclopedia Brown.  I even pulled out a couple of my old EB books to see if he was more annoying than I remember.  But no, Encyclopedia manages to be unfailingly polite and helpful, has normal friends, does chores without complaining, and is respectful to his parents and other adults.  His dad is the chief of police, and often presents Encyclopedia with the facts of a case so EB can solve them, which he always does in a way that does not imply that his dad is stupid.

All in all, I was completely turned off by Shelby as a character, which meant I didn’t enjoy this book at all, and would never recommend it to any of the younger readers I know.  I would never want them to think that Shelby’s condescending, rude, obnoxious behavior is in any way as acceptable as it was consistently presented.  Shelby is a know-it-all jerk who spends all of her time rolling her eyes, pouting, and being dismissive of other people’s opinions and thoughts.  There wasn’t a single moment of this book where I found her to be sympathetic or likable.  2/5 and not recommended.

Blind Spot // by Dani Pettrey

Chesapeake Valor #3

I received this book from Bethany House, which does not impact my review.

//published 2017//

Back in the spring, I received Still Life from BH and reviewed it; before I read that one I went ahead and read the first book, Cold Shot.  I would definitely recommend reading these books as a series, as I think they would be a bit confusing as standalones.  They focus on the same group of friends, and their relationships build and evolve throughout the series.  I actually went back and reread Still Life before jumping into Blind Spot, just to get myself back up to speed.

Overall, I like these books and am comfortable with the 3.5/5 rating I have given them all, including this one.  They are decent mysteries with an engaging group of characters, but really lack a solid focus within the story.

Throughout the second book, I found myself irritated as the main mystery was actually quite intriguing – but Pettrey kept veering off into this entirely unrelated mystery with these people who were smuggling terrorists.  In Blind Spot, the terrorist plot becomes the main one, but this time she kept flipping to yet another completely unrelated mystery about this guy who gets murdered.  The secondary mystery in both cases comes across as filler/padding/a way to keep other characters busy and involved, and the primary mystery suffers because of it.  Switching to the secondary plot throws off the pacing of the primary, and consistently feels like we are just killing time.  I really, really wish that Pettrey would just focus on the primary mystery, because in both books this could have been filled out and made a lot more intense.

In this book, there was also this weird situation where a guy gets murdered while a bunch of the characters on a retreat.  There is a possibility that instead of murder, it’s actually suicide and the dead guy killed other people before killing himself.  Yet despite the fact that all the main characters of the book knew this dead guy really well, and despite the fact that he may be a murderer, they are all allowed to process the crime scene??  This felt completely unrealistic (since they would have a strong motive for contaminating the crime scene to make sure the dead guy doesn’t get blamed for murder), and it’s weird details like that that throw off the overall groove of the story.

Even though I’ve been griping about it, I really did enjoy reading this book.  I like all of the characters and have enjoyed watching them come together.  Throughout the first two books, we find out bits and pieces about another good friend of theirs who disappeared several years earlier.  This whole plot comes back into play in Blind Spot, and left me really intrigued to find out how things are going to wrap up in the end.

I’m looking forward to reading the fourth book when it appears, and still intend to eventually check out some of Pettrey’s other books as well.

September Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

Recently, life has felt crazy, so I’m attempting to catch up on some reviews…!!!

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

//published 1953//

This book definitely felt like Chandler had his footing back.  While it wasn’t quite as hilarious as the first couple of books, it was way better than The Little Sisterwhich was downright depressing.  In this book, a lot of Marlowe’s snarky narration is back, and there was a nice trick to the mystery.  It did at times feel like everyone was a bit too casual with the body count, but you’ll have that.

Kiss the Bride by Melissa McClone, Robin Lee Hatcher, and Kathryn Springer

//published 2016//

These three novellas were basically all very average.  Each one had some niggling thing that really aggravated me, but overall worked alright.  On the whole they were just pretty forgettable.

Playback by Raymond Chandler

//published 1958//

This is the final Phillip Marlowe book that Chandler wrote (although he left another incomplete at the time of his death – more on that to come), and fell more along the lines of the earlier couple of books, with a lot of snark and dry humor.  The mystery had a good tempo to start and I was completely engaged as Marlowe is hired to follow a mysterious woman.  However, this story had 100% more sex than the other books – in other books it’s either been bypassed (woman always seem to want Marlowe more than he wants them) or glossed over, but in this one it felt like Marlowe was having sex every couple of chapters, and it happened with at least three different women.  So that felt really weird, and through it all he keeps quietly pining for this woman he met in The Long Goodbye.  In the end, the mystery sort of fizzled out, and Marlowe suddenly gets back together with The Long Goodbye woman.  All in all, another 3/5 for an interesting read, but not one I’d visit again.

An Unlikely Duet by Lelia M. Silver

This one is a DNF at around halfway, just because it’s become so boring.  I really liked the idea of just a straightforward sequel to Pride & Prejudice that focuses on Georgiana.  The story starts well, with her meeting a charming young man while visiting Charles and Jane Bingley.  However, despite the fact that they talk all the time, the two never really seem to talk.  At one point, it seemed to me that he had stated his intentions to court Georgiana pretty clearly to her brother, but then there are misunderstandings and everyone is spirited away and they never get to talk……. the book just never really engaged me and since I haven’t picked it up in a least three weeks, I don’t think it is ever going to.

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker

//published 1989//

When Chandler died, he left four chapters written of his next Marlowe book.  In 1989, thirty years after Chandler’s death, Poodle Springs was finished by Robert Parker.  Overall, I thought that Parker did a decent job with this book, capturing the essence of Marlowe’s narrative voice and keeping the mystery nice and twisty.  The biggest difference to me was that in Chandler’s books, Marlowe is always one step ahead.  He may get caught and beaten up, but he still knows what’s what – he may appear to be wandering aimlessly, but in the end we find out exactly what he was up to.  But in Poodle Springs, it kind of felt Marlowe really was wandering aimlessly, always a few steps behind what’s going on.  In multiple places he says things like, ‘I wish I knew what was going on; none of this makes any sense.’  So Marlowe felt a lot more like a stooge than an intelligent investigator.

I enjoyed the book, even if I felt like the conclusion to Marlowe’s romance was quite weird and, frankly, illogical (‘We love each other too much to get married’???), and it ranked a solid 3/5 for me.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed my foray into the gritty detective world, but if I ever come back to these books, it will only be to the first four.  They were funnier and more engaging than the second half of the series.

Vertigo // by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

//published 1954//

Despite the fact that I do love a good Hitchcock film, I’ve somehow never actually watched Vertigo – I think possibly because I don’t really care for heights myself, and my least favorite part of any movie is the bit where someone is up high and on the verge of falling.  Going into this book I knew genuinely nothing about the plot – and it turns out that it isn’t really all that much about falling off of something tall (although it does play a part)!

The writing in this story was excellent, and the pacing virtually perfect.  I found myself gradually sucked into the story, and the setting – France at the beginning of WWII – added a perfect level of tension in the background that really gave the story depth.  It wasn’t a story that was incredibly exciting, but I found myself compelled to keep reading nonetheless.  And when the ending was revealed, my mind was genuinely blown.  It was a conclusion that made completely and total sense – but that I would never have guessed.

It was interesting to read a book that was centered on a character who wasn’t really at all likable.  Flavieres is weak and rather sly, and the kind of person who always believes his troubles are because of circumstances beyond his control.  His growing obsession with Madeline was super creepy; I loved it.

Madeline’s story, the possibility that she is her ancestress come back to life, is done so well.  As the reader, you know this cannot be true.  Flavieres knows it cannot be true.  And yet – what other explanation can there be for the things happening to Madeline?  Brilliant.

The ending was completely satisfactory, although I felt like it was a bit rushed.  So much information all at once – and then it was over.  I found myself almost startled that I had reached the ending already.

One annoyance was that, despite the fact that this book was translated from its original French, for some reason the translators didn’t bother translating everything…???  So I would get something like this –

He had only to think of her to lose his sense of proportion.  La femme a la tulipe!

And while I’m pretty sure that that means ‘the woman with the tulip,’ I’ve never actually studied French, and many of the other phrases/words weren’t so obvious.  It was rather aggravating to have to stop and try to find a quick translation from time to time.  Like I got that a lot of those instances were when Flavieres was going off on a flowery ramble and was ‘titling’ a moment of Madeline’s life as though she was portrait, but it seemed like that could have been accomplished in English by using capital letters or italics or both – Woman With a Tulip!  Although maybe it’s because leaving it in French makes it sound much more poetic than our poor prosaic English…

Anyway, Vertigo was well worth the read, and it’s one that I may read again sometime now that I know the trick, to see if I can find the clues that I missed the first time around.

Special thanks to FictionFan, whose review of this classic inspired me to add it to the list!

Fatal Trust // by Todd M. Johnson

//published 2017//

A few times a year I request a review copy of a book from Bethany House Publishers.  Back in 2013, I received a copy of one of Johnson’s earlier books, Critical Reaction.  While it wasn’t a book that completely blew my mind, it was still a really engaging thriller, and one that I enjoyed enough to check out Johnson’s first book, The Deposit Slipwhich I actually liked even better than Critical Reaction.  So when I saw that Johnson was publishing another book, I knew that I definitely wanted to read it.  And, conveniently, Bethany House provided me with a copy to do just that!  So many thanks to the publisher, and also to Johnson for providing yet another well-paced and engaging thriller.

Ian Wells is an attorney in Minneapolis who is slowly getting his practice where he wants it.  His dad was an attorney also, and dealt in ‘boring’ things like wills, trusts, deeds, etc.  (Actually, I worked for a lawyer who did this kind of stuff and it is amazing how boring it all is, so I totally empathized with Ian’s feelings).  Ian has always wanted to go into criminal defense, but when his dad passed away he felt obligated to take over that practice.  Over the last few years he’s been shifting to criminal law, but in the meantime he has had a lot of financial setbacks.  His mom has Alzheimer’s and is getting to the point where she is going to need 24-hour care.  Several other very expensive problems are cropping up in Ian’s life all at once.

And then he gets the phone call: a man wants Ian to help with the conclusion of a twenty-year-old trust fund – Ian must determine whether or not three men qualify to receive their share of the trust money.  In exchange, Ian gets a huge payoff.  Ian feels like there has to be something sketchy going on, but he’s reaching a point of desperation.

Johnson does a GREAT job pacing this book.  I found myself drawn right in, and every baby step that Ian takes seems completely reasonable – until he suddenly realizes that he’s completely stranded in a complicated quagmire.  Ian’s financial issues are involved just enough to make the story believable without making them absurd – just enough to make Ian ignore his gut and keep going.  The tension ratchets up perfectly – at first I was just moderately interested in Ian and his life, but by about a third of the way into the book I could hardly put it down.

The romance in this book was at just about a perfect level – enough to provide some motivation for characters but not so much that it derailed the actual story.  Like Johnson’s earlier books, there was nothing overtly religious in the story, but it was devoid of bad language, sex, and graphic violence, all of which I really appreciate.

I was genuinely impressed by the way this whole story came together.  Small details that seemed irrelevant at the time end up tying together at the end.  While I thought I had a lot of the story figured out, there were some extra twists that I didn’t see coming, but that didn’t feel at all unreasonable.  Knowing the ending made me want to read the book again and see the clues that Johnson left, which (to me) is always the sign of a good thriller.

The only really weird thing about this book was that it was set in 2018.  I never understand why books do this, because Johnson’s 2018 looked exactly like real-life 2017.  And who knows what is going to happen in the next year that could make the 2018 dates seem really weird.  I mean, if I wrote a book in 2000 and set it in September 2001 and the book never mentioned 9/11, it would seem really strange.  So that kind of threw me off, even if it is a more or less minor thing to pick on.

All in all, 4/5 for a really well-paced and engaging story, and kudos to Johnson who has a 3/3 record for producing 4* reads for me to read.  :-D