Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Catriona McPherson

"My writing about the 1920s and 30s was born from a love of the contemporary literature, especially the mysteries. My Dorothy L Sayers are dog-eared from re-reading. Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple too. 

I do have a passion, as well, for some aspects of the actual 1920s and 30s. Unlike many enthusiasts, though, it's not the clothes. I adore the vintage clothes of the 40s, 50s and 60s (Doris Day in a pair of gingham capris is my style icon) but, oh my grated floor soap, I love 20s houses. Especially the kitchens, laundries and sculleries; the products and recipes; the vegetable gardens and garages; the sewing baskets and washing lines. 

There's quite a bit of tramping round stately homes, castles and mansions in the course of researching Dandy Gilver and the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms are all very well. But show me an attic floor of servants' bedrooms and a back stairway to the basement and I'm (a) in heaven and (b) wondering who set the trip wire at the top and sent who tumbling to the bottom and why and how Dandy's going to catch them."- Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland, Edinburgh to be precise, unlike her famous sleuth Dandy Gilver, who just moved to Scotland upon marrying her husband Hugh Gilver. She lived in Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, and Galloway before emigrating to the United States and settling in in California three years ago, though she's still coming to grips with how big our country is, though she might just beat me for number of states visited... nope, just checked, I'm at 29, she's at 22, let's see who's the first to 50! Married to another artistic soul, she is a little peeved that despite being a writer she isn't the most artistic member of her household. She loves reading, gardening, cooking, baking, and practising an extreme form of Scotch thrift, from eating home-grown food to dumpster-diving for major appliances. Catriona should really stop by Wisconsin in a few weeks when it's college moving time... great deals to be found in the gutters.

But more importantly is that not only has she just released the eighth book in the Dandy Gilver series in the UK, but she's winning some seriously awesome and well deserved awards, such as being the recipient of this past year's Agatha for Best Historical Novel! How awesome is that? And then in just random coolness, she's totally awesome to follow on facebook, so you should go do that. I am beyond jealous that she has the amazing Jessica Hische doing her cover art for her. She likes Doctor Who and Jane Austen to name just a few! Oh, and finally, her new book, As She Left It, is published by my bestie Amy's company Llewellyn Worldwide under their Midnight Ink imprint.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tuesday Tomorrow

Harbinger: A Book of the Order by Philippa Ballantine
Published by: Ace
Publication Date: July 30th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The Deacons of the Order are all that stand between the wicked spirits of the Otherside and the innocent citizens of the Empire. They are sworn to protect humanity, even when they cannot protect themselves…

After the Razing of the Order, Sorcha Faris, one of the most powerful Deacons, is struggling to regain control of the runes she once wielded. The Deacons are needed more desperately than ever. The barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is weakening, and the Emperor has abandoned his throne, seeking to destroy those he feels have betrayed him.

Though she is haunted by the terrible truth of her past, Sorcha must lead the charge against the gathering hordes of geists seeking to cross into the Empire. But to do so, she will need to manipulate powers beyond her understanding—powers that may prove to be her undoing…"

Ok, so I haven't actually started this series yet... but my love of Pip Ballantine's Ministry Series is SO STRONG that I not only picked up the first in the series, but heartily encourage you to do the same!

Fairest Volume Two: The Hidden Kingdoms by Bill Willingham
Published by: Vertigo
Publication Date: July 30th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 128 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"New York Times bestselling, award-winning creator Bill Willingham presents a new series starring the female FABLES. Balancing horror, humor and adventure in the FABLES tradition, FAIREST explores the secret histories of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Snow Queen, Thumbelina, Snow White, Rose Red and others.

In a stand-alone tale, Beast must hunt a beauty, but what is her relation to his past? And then, in a 6-part epic, Rapunzel lives one of the most regimented lives in Fabletown, forced to maintain her rapidly growing hair lest her storybook origins be revealed. But when word of her long-lost children surface, she races across the sea to find them--and a former lover."

Ok, so as you may know, I now have a full blown addiction to Fables. Sadly, I'm all caught up. But luckily the spin off series Fairest is just as awesome. Volume One kicked some serious ass and the coda with Beauty and the Beast means I'm WAY excited for this collection. Like way way way excited, pre-ordered in in December excited. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review - Elizabeth Speller's The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (Laurence Bartram Book 2) by Elizabeth Speller
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: May 1st, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Laurence Bartram has been invited by his friends the Bolithos to come to Easton Deadall. William, despite his injuries from the war, has found a job. He is restoring the cottages in the village as well as creating a monument to the fallen. Easton Deadall lost all their men in the Great War, though the sad tragedy of the town goes back to before the war, when the five year old Kitty Easton was kidnapped out of her bedroom in the manor house and never seen again. While Laurence may question William's idea that a maze is the best tribute to the fallen, he is intrigued by the church he has been asked to look at. The carvings and the hastily tarred floor have secrets. They have pagan accents of green men and labyrinths. Yet inside the house is a world of hurt and pain. Kitty's mother still clings to the belief that her daughter is alive, while the rest of the household cannot move forward while Lydia clings to her dreams. Lydia is a sick woman, often laid up in bed, and the thought of her daughter is all that keeps her alive while it sinks the house into the quagmire of the past.

The arrival of Laurence and the Bolithos, as well as the return of the youngest Easton, Patrick, brings some much needed life and change to the house. Yet it also stirs up the past. When an excursion to London and the great 1924 British Empire Exhibition leads to the disappearance of the household's young maid, Maggie, the disappearance of Kitty, all those years ago, is brought even more into everyone's mind. The discovery of a dead female at Easton Deadall and a hidden chamber beneath the church lead to more questions and perhaps the possibility of finding out what happened to Kitty all those years ago.

I always find it interesting that my expectations versus the reality of a book can vary so much. I was not prepared to adore the first book in this series, The Return of Captain John Emmett, viewing it more as the book I had to read to be able to get to The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, which I assumed would be my dream book. I mean a country house in Wiltshire, land of chalk and Terry Pratchett (yes, that's how I refer to it in my head), a mysterious disappearance years earlier, and mazes! I mean, that maze is what was really selling it for me, seeing as I have more then a little obsession with mazes and have built more then my fair share in cardboard, paper, and metal over the years. So yes, you might say me and mazes, and labyrinths in particular, are buddies. But when it came to the book, I just felt it didn't live up to the promise of the first book. Maybe it was my expectations, but while I enjoyed this book, it lacked the spark and originality of The Return of Captain John Emmett. It was less unique and more a mish mash of other things. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton was a bit of the Lindbergh kidnapping, deformities included, very much a strong helping of the Inspector Lynley episode "Limbo," and then to top it of, quite a bit of Gosford Park, at least with Digby and his darkness that mirrors Michael Gambon to an extent.

Now lets get to specifics. One aspect of the book that really annoyed me was the layout of the manor house, Easton Deadall. Now, I don't know if Speller intended the layout of the house to be a bit confusing to mirror the history of the house and its connection with mazes, the name itself perhaps a bastardization of Daedalus, but it just really got under my skin. I don't really get the layout at all. Were the gardens, terraces, maze, pond, basically all in front of the house? Because that doesn't really fit with, well, any kind of English architectural style. Usually they were behind the house with terraces, gardens, then tamed wilderness, to indicate mans taming of nature in successive steps from the full control of the house environs to the return to nature the further away you got. And William Bolitho, being an architect, would have commented on this rather strange set up in my mind. I need a place that I can get my mind around, a place of respite in the land red herrings and mysterious machinations, and the competing architectural styles combined with what Laurence saw out of certain windows drove me a little round the bend. His view from his room seemed to randomly change. Also, don't get me started on that oppressive maze. I like a maze, more then the next, but the setting was too confusing, labyrinthine and oppressive and instead of adding to the feel of the book, it just set me against it.

Yet, the manor house and all it's issues was nothing to what I found as the main flaw in this book. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is seedy and debauched. I couldn't get around this fact. While you might take the view that exposing the aristocracy and their flaws would be historically accurate and liberating to an extent, there's handling it with kid gloves and making it fascinating, a la Gosford Park where we absorb the horrors without them being explicit, and then there's exposing us to this world and going into vibrant detail about beatings and sexually transmitted diseases, pederasts and whore houses. No thank you! This also feeds into my issue of character development. Speller is a master of unique and individualized characters, but here, in the suffocating world of Easton Deadall, they are so beaten down and depressive, that I wanted to run there and give them all happy pills. Where was Laurence's wise cracking friend Charles when he was desperately needed? Speaking of favorite characters from the previous volume... one of the characters does something that I will not forgive Speller for writing. Is it realistic, yes. But you know what, in this horrid little bleak world she has created, I needed something good, someone good to hang onto. To take that away from me... that was the last straw. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton may have kept me absorbed, but it did not keep me happy, which is what a great book should do.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review - Elizabeth Speller's The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett (Laurence Bartram Book 1) by Elizabeth Speller
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 4th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Laurence Bartram survived the Great War, his wife and child did not. In the years since he has become more and more recluse ostensibly working on a book about churches while in his garret of an apartment. A letter from his past is about to bring him back into the world. Mary Emmett, attractive and nymph like younger sister of his former classmate John Emmett has reached out to Laurence as perhaps the one person in the world who knew her brother well. This past winter John killed himself after a stay in a sanatorium and Mary wants to know why. Laurence insists that he is not the right man to make these inquiries on her behalf because long before the war he lost touch with John and he wouldn't possibly know where to begin.

His affection for Mary and what might have been reluctantly enlists his help, and she does have a suggestion for a starting point. John left three bequests in his will to people other then his family. A Captain William Bolitho, a widow named Mrs. Lovell, and a Frenchman the solicitors were never able to find, a Monsieur Meurice. With these three names Laurence starts to piece together a horrific event that happened during the war, an event that still has ramifications as those who were present start turning up dead. Sadly Laurence realizes that John Emmett has ended up being more important to him dead then alive... just as he is to a mysterious figure in a coat and hat.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a good old fashioned murder mystery that I could not put down. Phone calls went unanswered, emails were not replied to. I had a desperate need to just absorb this book into the very fibers of my being a la evil Willow in Buffy. In fact, I thought of the day I found this book at my local used bookstore and all I could think was, who could ever sell this awesome of a book? It had everything you could want! Atmospheric London right after the war, unrequited love, mysterious deaths, suicides that might not be as they seem, mistaken identities, adultery, murder, paternity issues, poetry, villains, heroes, humor, insane asylums, quaint rural pubs, love... everything!

What the meat of the book hung off of was the amazing character development. Each and every person was so unique and individual. While I think it might be a sin to say that Laurence wasn't my favorite, I mean, he was stolid and trustworthy and so sweet in how he seemed to always get the wrong end of the stick and he just stumbled into answers versus actually solving them, but my heart is with his best friend Charles. Firstly, Charles is a rabid Agatha Christie fan (even if she had only written one book when this book was set, not more, a historical accuracy oops). Yet Charles' love of mystery fiction doesn't go into too much of the cliched Watson and Holmes shtick that so many golden age mysteries suffer from. Instead it's manifest in his rapid love of the case and his suggested reading materials to Laurence. Plus, having Charles around would be wonderful, he always has a cousin who knows all the gossip, plus a car to get around. Sorry Laurence, you are trumped in the sleuth category in every category by Charles. Yet that's why I love this book, it's like Watson is the protagonist! But these are just two of the amazingly multi-faceted characters that are too many to be mentioned. From John Emmett's father and his very Mitford-esque nature, to George Chilvers, the power hungry possessive son of the owner of the secure facility that John Emmett was locked in, to the fiery red-head Mrs. Bolitho who was a nurse during the war and has very progressive political ideas. Not one person was flat and lifeless, they just emerged from the page fully formed and instantly became my friends.

Though the heart of the book is how Speller deals with the more difficult topics of what war does to someone. How to some, like the newspaperman Brabourne, it's just a phase in a life that will be reminiscences to his grandchildren, where to Emmett, it forever changed him and lead him to his grave at that folly in the countryside. Then there is Laurence, who has shut himself off from the world. This investigation he undertakes helps to bring him back to the world and out of his shell. Because of a simple letter asking for help he is slowly reentering the world. The strong characterization of each individual in the book let Speller examine the effects and tolls on myriad people, all who are different and unique. Life is a house of cards and one wrong rotten thing can ruin it... for some. Sometimes we can not be held accountable for everything that happens. We cope, we deal in our way. For some it's poetry, for others photography, some prefer isolation, and for others still, it is surrendering to your base animal instincts. Yet Speller handles all these sensitive issues and more without being preachy. She has created real people and through them we understand.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tuesday Tomorrow

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication Date: July 23rd, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A tender, sweet, and hilarious novel about growing up with a loving family and a perfectly rambunctious dog, from an author who “has set the standard of brilliance” (Horn Book).

When she was eight, Binny’s life was perfect: She had her father’s wonderful stories and Max, the best dog ever. But after her father’s sudden death, money is tight, and Aunty Violet decides to give Max away—he is just too big for their cramped new life. Binny knows she can’t get her dad back, but she never stops missing Max, or trying to find him. Then, when she’s eleven, everything changes again.

Aunty Violet has died, and left Binny and her family an old house in a seaside town. Binny is faced with a new crush, a new frenemy, and…a ghost? It seems Aunty Violet may not have completely departed. It’s odd being haunted by her aunt, but there is also the warmth of a busy and loving mother, a musical older sister, and a hilarious little brother, who is busy with his experiments. And his wetsuit. And his chickens.

You’ll delight in getting to know Binny and her charming, heartwarming family in this start to a new series from the inimitable Hilary McKay."

Hilary McKay is awesome, that cover, wow, awesome, hopefully the book is awesome too!

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory
Published by: Touchstones
Publication Date: July 23rd, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 544 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Caught between loyalties, the mother of the Tudors must choose between the red rose and the white.

Philippa Gregory, #1 New York Times best­selling author and “the queen of royal fiction” (USA Today), presents the latest Cousins’ War novel, the remarkable story of Elizabeth of York, daughter of the White Queen.

When Henry Tudor picks up the crown of England from the mud of Bosworth field, he knows he must marry the princess of the enemy house—Elizabeth of York—to unify a country divided by war for nearly two decades.

But his bride is still in love with his slain enemy, Richard III—and her mother and half of England dream of a missing heir, sent into the unknown by the White Queen. While the new monarchy can win power, it cannot win hearts in an England that plots for the triumphant return of the House of York.

Henry’s greatest fear is that somewhere a prince is waiting to invade and reclaim the throne. When a young man who would be king leads his army and invades England, Elizabeth has to choose between the new husband she is coming to love and the boy who claims to be her beloved lost brother: the rose of York come home at last."

I totally thought that the Cousins' War series was over... guess I was mistaken and it wasn't a trilogy.

Carniepunk by Rachel Caine et al
Published by: Gallery Books
Publication Date: July 23rd, 2013
Format: Paperback, 3448 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Come one, come all! The Carniepunk Midway promises you every thrill and chill a traveling carnival can provide. But fear not! Urban fantasy’s biggest stars are here to guide you through this strange and dangerous world. . . .

RACHEL CAINE’s vampires aren’t child’s play, as a na├»ve teen discovers when her heart leads her far, far astray in “The Cold Girl.” With “Parlor Tricks,” JENNIFER ESTEP pits Gin Blanco, the Elemental Assassin, against the Wheel of Death and some dangerously creepy clowns. SEANAN McGUIRE narrates a poignant, ethereal tale of a mysterious carnival that returns to a dangerous town after twenty years in “Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid, and the Open, Lonely Sea.” KEVIN HEARNE’s Iron Druid and his wisecracking Irish wolfhound discover in “The Demon Barker of Wheat Street” that the impossibly wholesome sounding Kansas Wheat Festival is actually not a healthy place to hang out. With an eerie, unpredictable twist, ROB THURMAN reveals the fate of a psychopath stalking two young carnies in “Painted Love.”"

Could be interesting... could be terrifying.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Elizabeth Speller

"As for why I love the period –which is the same thing really as why I set my books in it: I had read all of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh's books while I was in my teens!

What novelists enjoy is putting their characters in jeopardy and then seeing how they get out of it (or don't!). The 1914-1918 Great War put everybody in jeopardy; it changed the lives of everybody in Britain; not just because of the huge casualties but because new ideas emerged - about a woman's place, about class, about foreigners. It offered exciting new possibilities in technology, in travel and in entertainment: cinema, jazz, recorded music. What followed in the 1920's was a fast-moving time of revolutions, economic disasters and a devil may care attitude among the elite.

There were too few men to provide husbands, too few who wanted to be servants in big houses. Heirs had been killed, once grand families were hiding the fact that they were nearly destitute.

In Golden Age fiction, which I have loved practically since I could read it, there are stock characters: the spinster, the brash incomer with new money, the injured war veteran, the outsider –usually a nattily dressed European. Mistrust of strangers, bequests, inheritances, false identities, lost letters and unsuitable marriage were very real issues but wonderful for a fiction writer.

What I like is that these situations and these characters, who were actually created by the aftermath of the war, appear in novels set in the 20's in quite traditional privileged surroundings: an Oxford College, a country house, a cathedral close, an exclusive school; apparently un-changed, closed societies and perfect places for tensions and a dramatic tale to unfold and to create atmosphere.

One of my books, The Return of Captain Emmett, concerns a young officer trying to settle back into peacetime but finding himself confronted with the death of a friend, the past and its violent mysteries. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is set in a struggling country house where the men who worked on the estate have almost all been killed in the war and a child has disappeared. In my next book, At Break of Day, (comes out in autumn) one character is a wealthy Englishman who has long lived in New York, escaping a potential scandal back home. In 1915 he is called up to serve his birth country and, returning to England, his secrets start to unravel." -  Elizabeth Speller

Elizabeth Speller is the author of three novels (one forthcoming this fall, which I am excited to read even though it doesn't star Laurence Bartram) and four non-fiction books, one of which is a memoir. She is also a poet and recently won the Bridport poetry competition and was short-listed for the Forward Prize in 2009, which led to her sensitive handling of poets in her book The Return of Captain John Emmett. Elizabeth Speller had the envious opportunity to read Classics at Cambridge as a mature student where she received a post-graduate degree in Ancient History. She has had numerous jobs, one of which, making a survey of inscriptions in a large village churchyard, I am sure helped with the creation of Laurence Bartram, and most definitely contributed to his own fictitious book on churches.

Elizabeth is currently the Chair of the Criticos Prize (for an outstanding book in English about, or inspired by, Greece) and holds a Royal Literary Fund fellowship at the University of Warwick. She divides her time between Glouchestershire and Greece, working in a restored shepherd's hut in an old apple orchard on the edge of a Cotswold valley and in a small cottage on the Ionian island of Paxos. The Return of Captain John Emmett is an astounding mystery that will rivet you to your seat and was actually chosen as a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club pick in 2011, though I would hope you are more swayed by me then Richard and Judy... This book was followed up with the labyrinthine The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, which I am hoping fervently will not be the last we see of Laurence Bartram. I am honored to have Elizabeth Speller as the first of many authors participating in my Golden Summer, a place rightfully reserved for her and Laurence!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Continuing the Tradition

While the "Golden Age of Detection" has come and gone, we can always revisit it by opening the pages of these hallowed classics. But the problem is, once you have read all these books, there is no more. There is a finite number of these classics, and once read, well, you can obviously re-read them many times till the covers are worn and frayed, but you will always know whodunit. Thankfully there are authors who have come to answer our plight. In literature there is, I wouldn't say a new, but currently a very prevalent trend, to go back and live within this golden age. To have mysteries once more set within the heyday of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. New fresh stories with modern twists on old tropes. A balm to our hearts that are yearning for more.

My "Golden Summer" will now shift it's focus from the old doyennes and masters of the craft, to those authors currently writing in the genre that was created by these great luminaries. I have been blessed with not only loving these author's works, but having the joy of when I reached out to them to have them not only contact me back, but enthusiastically agree to take part in my blog this summer. There is nothing more wonderful then the thrill of sending an email out to an author and getting a little ping back in your inbox. While I could keep you waiting to see who is participating... I view that a little as cruel and unusual punishment, therefore, without further ado, I present my Golden Summer lineup: Joanna Challis, Carola Dunn, Kerry Greenwood, Catriona McPhearson, J.J. Murphy, and Elizabeth Speller. This is quite literally my dream lineup, but while I told you who is participating, you'll have to come back to see why they set their books when they do. I know, I'm such a tease!

Remember to check back often as I'll have guest posts from all these authors, and don't forget to enter the giveaway. You want free books right?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Tuesday Tomorrow

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant
Published by: Random House
Publication Date: July 16th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 528 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Italian Renaissance novels—The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts—has an exceptional talent for breathing life into history. Now Sarah Dunant turns her discerning eye to one of world’s most intriguing and infamous families—the Borgias—in an engrossing work of literary fiction.

By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood and Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless."

Ever since 2005 when I read and fell in love with Dunant's The Birth of Venus I have been in love with her books. So how excited am I that she has a new one? Very is the answer... she is one author I really look forward to.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by: VIZ Media LLC
Publication Date: July 16th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Science fiction and fantasy stories about Japan by the multiple-award winning author and New York Times best seller Catherynne M. Valente.

A collection of some of Catherynne Valente’s most admired stories, including the Hugo Award-nominated novella Silently and Very Fast and the Locus Award finalist “13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time,” with a brand-new long story to anchor the collection."

This isn't so much a "go buy this book" (which I probably will anyway, it's Cat Valente afterall) but a STOP USING THIS FONT! It's one of the fonts from the Lost Type Co-op... and yes, they are beautiful, but so overused that now every time I see one I cringe.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review - Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: 1929
Format: Hardcover, 967 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

The Continental Op has arrived in Personville, being sent by the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco office for their new client Donald Willsson. After setting up their meeting, but before the arranged time, Donald Willsson is killed. The Continental Op approaches Elihu Willsson, Donald's father, to try to get to the bottom of his client's premature demise by lead being pumped into him. Elihu admits that Personville's nickname of Poisonville is pretty accurate. While still the town founder and czar, to all intents and purposes, the town is run by several competing gangs. The town is as corrupt and villainous as you can imagine. Donald was trying to use the newspaper to expose this corruption, and it seems that this is why he died. The Continental Op gets Elihu to hire the agency to clean up Personville. He cunningly has him sign a document so that even if Elihu tries to go back on the deal the Continental Op has the reigns and no one to answer to, except the boss back in San Francisco, but hopefully he won't notice the lack of a daily report for a little while.

Soon the Continental Op is deep within the rivaling gangs. Rumors and hearsay, as well as rigging a boxing match, are all it takes to set them off. Lead whizzing through the streets and gunfire soon become an even more common occurrence in this little corrupt town. The bodies start to pile up all while Elihu tries to get his erstwhile employee back to the city by the bay. But Poisonville has gotten under the Op's skin and he feels he has a score to settle. When it looks like they won't get the Op in a body bag, the corrupt police try to frame him for murder. Poisonville is going to burn, if it's the last thing the Continental Op does.

Up until now I have been concentrating my reading on the other side of the pond. The cozy mysteries of the British Isles set in a manor house with, in all likelihood, a locked room and a corpse. Yet the Golden Age of Mystery wasn't just relegated to our forefathers across the waters. America had a very strong literary tradition during the Golden Age, with authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Yet there was a distinct shift in the type of writing. Here in America it was grittier, more gang related, more hardboiled, with a distinct authorial voice that would later come under the Noir heading. While this style is more associated with the 30s, 40s, and 50s, which modern writers like James Ellroy have emulated in their neo-noir books like L.A. Confidential, Dashiell Hammett coined this style with his Continental Op, which would be the forerunner to that most archetypal of Noir characters, Sam Spade.

Reading Red Harvest, I was easily swept up into the Noir style, I could almost hear the first person narration as a gritty voice over as the Continental Op walked through Poisonville planning his next move. I could almost see Hammett, obviously in black and white, sitting in a dingy office, smoke rising above his head, as he typed out the story. While yes, to say all this is now a bit cliched as to my imagery, I was still amazed with the distinct style, which for all it's tropes running around in my head, felt just as fresh and vibrant as if it had just been written. Though the book did have it's rough spots. Red Harvest was Dashiell Hammett's first book. Prior to this he wrote short stories, many of which featured the "hero" of this book, the Continental Op. This fact did not help him, nor did the fact that this book was serialized in four parts in the pulp magazine, Black Mask. Instead of a cohesive whole, the book is basically four interconnected short stories, which makes the narrative choppy, and almost makes you not want to continue reading because everything was brought to a close and then a new aspect of the story was brought into play in the next section. While Poisonville gives an overall framework, everything else would fall under the heading, "and meanwhile in another part of town...."

Then there's the, how should I put this, cavalier attitude the Continental Op has towards death. I mean, I'm used to death in things I read and watch, heck Midsomer Murders is one of my most favorite television shows and the bodies pile up in that County like nowhere else in fiction... till now. I mean, holy geez people, I don't even know what the end death toll was. I lost count somewhere around twenty. Yes, twenty people are dead and the Op doesn't bat an eyelash. Gangs gunned down left and right and at the center is the Op stirring the pot, getting one group to go after another. If his plan to clean up the town was to eliminate every person in the town, then, well... he's succeeded marvelously by the end. He went all blood simple as Hammett coined and the Coen's later used for their first movie. Yet, I have to ask, was this moral ambivalence meant to be a reflection on the Pinkertons? I mean Hammett worked for them and the Continental Detective Agency was unambiguously them... so was he trying to make a statement? The Pinkertons don't have the most sterling of reputations and where to be feared in that at one time their combined forces outnumbered the US army. So was Hammett writing to the new style he was creating, exposing corruption, or perhaps biting the hand that fed him?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dashiell Hammett

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in Maryland and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Despite being later known for his literary fetes, he left school at the young age of thirteen. During his early years his chief form of income was working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a job he would always fall back into from time to time. He served in WWI till illness had him invalided out. While recovering he met his future wife who was a nurse. Though his chronic illness of TB often kept the couple apart, though some would say it wasn't just the TB, he would always support his wife and daughters financially no matter where or with whom his affairs would take him.

After working for the Pinkertons, he took up a job in advertising, though he was far more likely to pick up a bottle. When Hammett started writing he used his experiences working for the Pinkertons as inspiration. The Pinkertons role in union strike-breaking disillusioned Hammett and he would soon become outspoken in politics. Although he wasn't as fervent in his Communist beliefs after WWII, he was still blacklisted by McCarthy and even served some time in jail. Life had worn him down, as did his alcoholism, TB, and time behind bars. During his decline he was too ill even to write. But he would leave behind a legacy as "the dean of the... 'hard-boiled' school of detective fiction." His characters of Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade would be some of the most memorable characters in fiction ever to be written. While most would call him the king of noir amongst his other titles, there is no ambiguity that he was one of the Golden Age of Mystery's greatest writers. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review - Lisa Lutz's The Last Word

The Last Word (The Spellman Files Book 6) by Lisa Lutz
ARC Provided by the publisher
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: July 9th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Izzy thought that sweeping in and wresting control of her family's company would bring a new sense of purpose to her life and more control over her wayward parents. She just wanted a little respect. Instead everything is a thousand times worse. Her parents are acting out, spending more time thinking of ways to infuriate their new boss, aka their daughter, then actually investigating cases for their clients. Rae has suspiciously asked to return to work for the business, despite having sworn it off entirely in the past. Izzy's one reliable worker, D, is stressed out and up to something. And then Izzy is accused of embezzling money from her top client Mr. Slayter. How could she embezzle the money? She doesn't even know how to balance her company's accounts let alone do something so nefarious on such a large scale. Everything is in jeopardy, the business, their sanity, and quite possibly even their lives. It's just another day for the Spellmans.

If you follow a series long enough you hope that each installment will be better then the previous. Building on the characters and their foibles as the author's writing gains strength and assurance. I feel a personal connection to this series as I've been a reader since the beginning, even sending away for a signed book plate from Lutz's website prior to finally meeting her in 2009. As Lutz's writing has matured she has also become more assured at her author signings. From the sleep deprived writer asking high schoolers what their handout they were filling out for their class was back in 2010 at Boswell books to the witty and well dressed author describing how she would defend her home from burglars, even dealing with a brain hemorrhage to hilarious effect, at the event in Madison for this most recent book, see has matured along with her writing. And while I anticipate her newest non-Spellman novel, having previously enjoyed Heads You Lose, it's the Spellmans that will always hold my heart.

While this is actually not the final volume as many previously thought, the book's title did lend an ominous finality to the series, there does come a time when a series should end. We, as readers, don't want the Spellmans to overstay their welcome. We want them to end on a strong note and not degenerate into a shadow of themselves. Each book has evolved their story and their relationships and there comes a time when a happy medium will be reached and the end will be nigh. The Last Word handles the "big topics" more then previous volumes. Death, loyalty, and acceptance being high on the list. This is one of the many reasons I thought this might be "the end." And yes, I was sad, because I did think this was surely the end and I wasn't quite ready, but then I had a Rae (ha ha) of hope. If the next book goes with Rae and gives us another viewpoint it will enliven the series, but I still have to brace myself for a time when their stories will end. But I will hopefully be better prepared then I was for this ersatz ending.

The biggest topic the book handles is Albert's Cancer. This is the impetus to bring the waring family back together. To me it felt a little trite. Yes, your family, if they love each other, will certainly rally around in times of a health crisis, but it felt like Lutz had forced her characters so far apart that something cataclysmic was the only way to bring them back together. So, while Albert and his health have always been a source of comedy and concern throughout the series, using his health to effect a reunion just seemed too pat. Yes I was momentarily concerned Lutz would kill him, again thinking this was the last book, but the truth comes down to I don't like Cancer being used for reconciliation. Perhaps it's just having been raised in a house with my mother battling Cancer twice before I was even in Junior High, but to use the disease in this way and then not really handle the illness in more detail, well, just too trite.

Oddly enough the most painful part of the book for me was Henry, Izzy's on-again off-again boyfriend. I love Henry. I love Izzy. I love the idea of Henry and Izzy. But in reality they never quite worked and I was unwilling to truly let them go their separate ways. I felt like they belonged together in the true love that never dies way. Of course the happily ever after I wished for them was completely unrealistic given their personalities and their life goals. I give Lutz big props for being willing to break them up and keep them broken up. The ending she chose with Henry finally finding happiness, it was realistic. To have Izzy and Henry walk off into the sunset, that would have been just too trite, and we've already had one incidence of that in this book, so here's to something new and different. I just hope that they can remain friends because I love Henry too much to see him never grace the pages of a Spellman book again.

To me, while Izzy's growth is a barometer of how things have changed over time in the books, I look more to Rae. Rae started out wild and out of control and she has now found a maturity that I didn't think would ever be possible. I am actually quite sad about losing the old Rae. Rae, to me, was the most fully formed character I have ever read. At times I expected her to quite literally walk out of the book, sit down next to me and hustle me for money or candy or both. But she is no longer wild and out of control. She is reasonable, sensible, and actually helpful. I'm glad she's grown up, but it has made me wistful. Yes, her parent's behaviour did help bring back some of the feeling of the old Rae... but her maturity makes me realize that when the time comes I will be able to let go of this series. It will be a sad parting, but I am hopefully prepared.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Last Word (The Spellman Files Book 6) by Lisa Lutz
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: July 9th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The latest installment of the New York Times bestselling Spellman mysteries, a “series that keeps getting better and better” (Publishers Weekly), finds private investigator Izzy Spellman on the verge of losing everything.

Isabel Spellman is used to being followed, extorted, and questioned—all occupational hazards of working at her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Her little sister, Rae, once tailed Izzy for weeks on end to discover the identity of her boyfriend. Her mother, Olivia, once blackmailed Izzy with photographic evidence of Prom Night 1994. It seemed that the Spellmans would lay off after Izzy was fired for breaching client confidentiality, but then Izzy avenged her dismissal by staging a hostile takeover of the company. She should have known better than to think she could put such shenanigans behind her.

In The Last Word, Izzy’s troubles are just beginning. After her hostile takeover of Spellman Investigations, Izzy’s parents simply go on strike. Her sister, Rae, comes back into the family business with questionable motivations. Her other employees seem to be coping with anxiety disorders, and she has no idea how to pay the bills. However, her worst threat comes from someone who is no relation. Within months of assuming control of the business, Izzy is accused of embezzling from a former client, the ridiculously wealthy Mr. Slayter, who happens to have Alzheimer’s, which Izzy and he are diligently trying to keep under wraps. Not only is Slayter’s business and reputation on the line, but if Izzy gets indicted for embezzlement, she’ll lose everything—her business, her license, and her family’s livelihood. Is this the end of Izzy Spellman, PI? The answer makes The Last Word, hands down, the most thrilling book in this bestselling, award-nominated series."

The Spellman Series by Lisa Lutz is HANDS DOWN one of my favorite series out there. I wait and wait with baited breath for each new installment. I can finally breath right again... until I devour this one and the wait starts all over again. Perhaps I'll have to read them all again to slack my need.

The Executioner's Heart by George Mann
Published by: Tor
Publication Date: July 9th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"It’s normal for Inspector Bainbridge to be called to the scene of a crime, but this is the third murder in quick succession, each with the victim’s chest cracked open and their heart torn out. Bainbridge suspects there’s a symbolic reason for the stolen hearts, so he sends for special agent Sir Maurice Newbury and his determined assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes.

Unfortunately, neither of them are in much shape to take the case. Veronica is busy trying to find some way to alleviate the mysterious forces hounding her family. Newbury's been retained by a private client: Edward, Prince of Wales, who's concerned that his mother is losing her grip on the nation.

Eventually, though, it is determined that someone has hired a mercenary known as the Executioner to kill current and former agents of the Queen. The Executioner—French, beautiful, and covered in tattoos, her flesh inlaid with precious metals—is famed throughout Europe, with legends going back for years. Something is keeping her in a form of living stasis, but her heart is damaged, leaving her an emotionless shell, inexplicably driven to collect her victims’ hearts as trophies.

Why is Veronica acting the way she is? Why has she stopped trusting Bainbridge? What does the Prince of Wales really want? These are just some of the mysteries that Newbury and Hobbes will confront on the way to unearthing the secret of the Executioner’s Heart."

Not only I am beyond excited for the new Newbury and Hobbes, but I'm kind of in cover lust land too. Tor has outdone themselves again!

Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier
Published by: Knopf
Publication Date: July 9th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Neryn has finally found the rebel group at Shadowfell, and now her task is to seek out the elusive Guardians, vital to her training as a Caller. These four powerful beings have been increasingly at odds with human kind, and Neryn must prove her worth to them. She desperately needs their help to use her gift without compromising herself or the cause of overthrowing the evil King Keldec.

Neryn must journey with the tough and steadfast Tali, who looks on Neryn's love for the double agent Flint as a needless vulnerability. And perhaps it is. What Flint learns from the king will change the battlefield entirely—but in whose favor, no one knows."

Cover lust. Well, plus the description looks awesome, but mainly, it's all about that cover!

Hollow Earth: Bone Quill by John Barrowman and Carole Barrowman
Published by: Aladdin
Publication Date: July 9th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In this thrilling sequel to Hollow Earth, Matt and Emily must stop someone from unleashing an army of mankind’s worst nightmares.

In the Middle Ages, an old monk used his powers and a bone quill to ink a magical manuscript, The Book of Beasts. Over the centuries the Book, and the quill, were lost.

Twins Matt and Emily Calder are Animare—just like their ancestor, the monk. The things they draw can be brought to life, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now Matt and Em are being watched—hunted—because only they can use The Book of Beasts and the bone quill to release the terrible demons and monsters their ancestor illustrated.

And someone is tracking down the lost Book of Beasts, page by page, and reassembling it. Matt and Emily have no choice: They must get to the bone quill first…before somebody gets to them."

Oh, I hope they do another event in Milwaukee! So awesome to meet the siblings Barrowman last year!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Ashford Affair Blog Tour

I shall now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming (ie, Golden Summer) for a very special reason. Today I am the blog stop for the official virtual Lauren Willig tour (be sure to check out the rest of the stops too). That is correct, gentle readers, a blog tour for that most wonderful of books, The Ashford Affair. As you may recall, I spent April devoting my blog to Lauren Willig's first stand alone novel, The Ashford Affair, which I gather you all liked seeing as my blog analytics tell me that it was my second highest ever for hits in a single month. Personally, I know exactly why, Lauren is awesome. Also, it makes sense to have a little Lauren oasis during my Golden Summer... it was because of reading The Ashford Affair that I got on my 1920s kick, first with Mitfords then with mysteries, and eventually I ended up devoting the summer to 1920s whodunits. A nice progression of events and reading I must say. But let me tarry no longer, I reached out to you, my readers and asked what do you want to know from Lauren. Of course I slipped in one or two of my own questions, but I couldn't help it. Without further ado, I bring you Lauren.

Question: Seeing as The Ashford Affair is set in Kenya during the ‘Happy Valley’ days, if you were to have a dinner party with the Happy Valley Set, who would you invite? Might you leave Isak Dinesen off the guest list?

Answer: Yes, let’s leave Isak Dinesen at home! After reading up on that crowd, you do get the impression that she wasn’t quite the sympathetic character she was made out to be in the movie version of Out of Africa (although she did have some provocation). You get the sense that when people heard she was on her way, there was a muttered, “Quick, Karin’s coming—out the back door!”

Bror Blixen’s second wife, Cockie, on the other hand, sounds like she’d be fun to have around. We’d have to have Beryl Markham and Denys Finch-Hatton, of course: adventurers with stories to tell. And no Happy Valley party would be complete without Idina and Joss Hay, who, for all their hedonism, were both well-read, charismatic characters.

I’d leave out Alice and Frederic de Janze, though—he’d probably write a depressing book about it, and she might shoot someone.

Question: It seems that every person who settled in Kenya had a need to write a book, from Dinesen to Markham. What do you make of this phenomena?

Answer: Personally, I’m rather grateful for it, since it made my research much easier! It’s a skewed data set, though. When you look at the number of settlers who made their way to Kenya, the memoir writers were actually a fairly small percentage. In fact, that was one complaint that popped up as I was researching the period: that the flamboyant Happy Valley types overshadowed the fact that the bulk of the settlers in the region were hardworking farmers who kept their heads down and their farms running. For every Idina Sackville or Bror Blixen, there were a lot of people just minding their plows, but the gang who boozed it up at the Muthaiga Club left a disproportionately large footprint.

One thing I do find particularly interesting is the tilt, not just towards memoir-writing, but towards fictionalized memoir writing. One of my favorite sources, as I was reading up on the area, was Elspeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika. It’s part memoir, part make believe, just like Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, the real and the fictional woven together in the guise of truth. In terms of physical details of life in Kenya, these books were gold mines, but I think there’s also something very telling in the fact that the line between fact and fiction in the narrative structure gets blurred. It goes to your next question, below, about the mystical lure of Kenya. Those settlers we’ve been talking about built a self-consciously mythologized image of the region and of their own place in it.

Question: What do you think is the mystical lure of Kenya? From English settlers back in the day to books set there, and even television shows like In the Heat of the Sun, what is the obsession with Kenya?

Answer: For the segment of English expats I was writing about, a lot of it had to do with escape and an attempt to rebuild or reclaim a romanticized version of their own past. The Great War had just torn through all levels of society and the old aristocracy was watching their estates become forfeit to death duties and rising costs. In 1919, the British government held a land lottery for plots of land in Kenya (then British East Africa). Larger plots could be purchased for relatively small sums. To the old Etonians who flocked to Kenya, Kenya was both a way to escape the horrors they had seen back in the old world and to rebuild their fortunes.

Some were straight out fortune hunters, hoping to make a killing in coffee or indigo (which generally worked out badly for them), but many harbored a romanticized vision of Africa as somehow untouched and unspoiled, a demi-Eden where a pre-war past could be recreated. That aspect comes out very clearly in their writings—there’s a lot of explicit comparison between the local tribes and medieval feudal societies—and also in their naming of their homes. Joss Hay, the Earl of Errol, one of the key members of the Happy Valley set, calls his plantation Slains: the name of the castle in Scotland his family had lost.

Question: Did your love of coffee make a book set on a coffee plantation inevitable?

Answer: It had less to do with my being a caffeine junkie and more to do with formative years spent watching the Britcom As Time Goes By. As I was writing Ashford, it was a running family joke that I should just call it My Life in Kenya, a la Lionel’s memoir.

Question: You have mentioned that a fair bit of The Ashford Affair set in Kenya was sadly a victim of edits, might we loyal readers someday see these pages as an extra on your blog?

Answer: In the past, I’ve rescued snippets of my Pink Carnation books from the cutting room floor, but those bits were small and discrete scenes. The cuts in Ashford were much more extensive—about a hundred pages set in Kenya in the late 20s and 30s. When I cut those segments, I reworked the rest of the novel to make up for those gaps. I felt like those chapters made sense in their original context in the novel, but they don’t stand on their own as fun little anecdotes, the way the Pink outtakes do. Those deleted chapters also make explicit incidents that, in the reworked version, are deliberately left ambiguous. So, the short answer is, probably not—although I might revisit those chapters at some point and see if there’s anything that can be salvaged for the outtakes section.

I will say that writing Ashford made me nostalgic for the doorstop novels of the 80s, when an author could safely write a thousand page tome. The original plan for Ashford involved a triple narrative—Clemmie, Addie, and Bea—in which we would follow both Addie’s and Bea’s threads right up through World War II. But the fashion right now is for leaner books, so the more ambitious and all-encompassing narrative had to be abandoned.

Question: Ancestry and our roots seem to be a big craze right now, what do you think it is that makes books revolving around family secrets so irresistible? 

Answer: My instinct is that it has something to do with the present being so uncertain. We live in uneasy times. The economy is shot, our sense of opportunity has been shaken; people are facing the prospect of rocky futures and straitened retirements. In those circumstances, there’s something very reassuring to turning to the past, to seeing what our grandparents or great-grandparents managed to struggle through and triumph. When you think of it, the last big era of the family saga and intertwined present/past narratives (Barbara Taylor, Judith Krantz, and so on) was back in the 70s and early 80s, which was another era of economic uncertainty and murky prospects. I think reading these books, especially the ones in which characters manage to fight their way from adversity to prosperity (or, in many cases, from prosperity, through a fall to poverty, and back to prosperity again) provides a sense of encouragement and hope, and that we as readers—in a parallel journey with the modern characters in the books—draw strength and a deeper understanding of our capabilities through comparison with the past.

Question: Now that you have successfully broken the limitations of writing just the Pink Carnation Series, what other stand alones do you see in your future?

Answer: I have another modern/historical hybrid (I’ve been told the au courant term is “time slip”) coming out next year, but since you ask about that below, I’ll skip the thumbnail sketch here.

As to what comes after that, there are three potential plots I’m playing with right now, all, surprisingly, twentieth century: one 1920s, one 1930s, one 1940s. I’m not quite sure which of these plot ideas is going to win out (each has its own particular allure), but, if I have my way, the next stand alone will be purely historical, with no modern component. As much as I’ve enjoyed writing the dual narratives in Ashford and the Victorian Book (aka stand alone #2), my real interest lies in the historical side, and that’s where I’d like to head next.

Question: Can you tell us more about the Victorian ‘Work in Progress’? (Miss Eliza added note, and have you finally watched Desperate Romantics, the Entourage of Victorian England?)

Answer: I have a weakness for what I think of as “house” books. I love books where the heroine inherits—or rents, or house-sits, or otherwise occupies—an old house, the dingier and more history crammed the better. If she can find some sort of mysterious artifact leading to a secret hidden in the house’s past, so much the better. (I blame this on a youth spent devouring Barbara Michaels novels.)

I also have a weakness for the Preraphaelite painters, for their lush compositions, their fascination with mythology, and their brash idealism.

The Victorian Book is a house book with a lost Preraphaelite painting. Basically, it’s my equivalent of chocolate with chocolate in it.

(Note to Miss Eliza: Nope, I still haven’t watched Desperate Romantics—I want to wait until the manuscript is all tied up and copyedited before I watch the show, so I can be sure that I’m not unconsciously letting it influence my portrayal of the painters. I’ve heard that it’s great fun, but not the most accurate.)

Anyway, here’s the thumbnail synopsis of the Victorian Book: it’s 2009 and my modern heroine, a financial analyst, has lost her job in the downturn. She inherits a house from an unknown great aunt in a suburb of London and goes out there to sort it out, with plans to sell. In the clean out process, she discovers not only some rather suspicious cousins and a disturbingly cute antiques shop owner, but also a Preraphaelite painting wrapped in crumbling paper, hidden behind the false back of a wardrobe. Her quest for the painting’s history takes up back to 1849, to the early days of the Preraphaelite movement and the tangled lives of the people who lived in the house back then.

For my Pink readers: the disturbingly cute antiques shop owner is one Nicholas Dorrington. Yes, that Dorrington. I snuck in a descendant of Miles and Henrietta as my (modern) leading man….

Question: Is Dare Me still a possible project?

Answer: Poor Dare Me. A contemporary romance novel that I started writing just for fun two summers ago, Dare Me has been a casualty of my souped-up publication schedule. (For those of you who haven’t seen it, you can find the first six chapters here.

Right now, I’m on a tight, two book a year schedule, which means that projects for which I’m not currently under contract fall by the wayside. That being said, I’m hopeful that I can find some time to work on Dare Me once the eleventh Pink book is safely in to my editor this fall. Now I just need to speed up my work on that Pink book….

Question: Do you usually have a couple in mind and an ending and then build the in-between parts or does the story unfold along the way and do you ever find yourself surprised by where your characters have taken you?

Answer: It varies book by book. Sometimes, I’m caught by a character and just need to follow that character and see where she—or he—goes. That was definitely the case with Miss Gwen in The Passion of the Purple Plumeria. In writing her book, I was primarily interested in seeing how her character unfolded and developed over the course of events. Other times, it will be a quirky historical incident I just need to use (like the underground Irish resistance managing to blow up their own headquarters in The Deception of the Emerald Ring), or a “what if” scenario, such as “what if a modern woman were to discover that nothing about her family was as it seemed?”

For the most part, though, I’d say I’m a character driven writer, which is why my books tend towards the latter scenario you mentioned: I’m constantly surprised by where my characters take me. I’ve learned that I’m best off being flexible and revising my plot plans as the story goes along, since the characters often develop in ways I would never have imagined. It can be nerve-wracking—I never know quite what’s going to happen, which is pretty scary when you’re only a few chapters in and a deadline is looming—but also keeps the writing fresh and exciting.

Question: Which book was the most fun to write and research?

Answer: That would be two different books. The most fun to research? Absolutely The Betrayal of the Blood Lily. I loved learning about the tangled intrigues of the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1804. With a mad ruler, a semi-insane vizier, an all female platoon of soldiers, and wet-nurses turned master of ceremonies, so much of what I was reading fell into my favorite category: when truth is stranger than fiction. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the most fun to write…. It would be a toss-up between The Masque of the Black Tulip and The Mischief of the Mistletoe, both of which had more than their fair share of madcap comedy.

Question: Now that the Pink Carnation series is winding down to an extent, do you plan to write more Pink novellas to bring back old characters?

Answer: There are still at least two books to go in the Pink series, Pink XI and Pink XII, so we’re not quite wound up yet. (Pink XI is Sally Fitzhugh’s book, slated to come out in August 2014. Unless something changes, Pink XII should be Jane’s book, presumably 2015, but I don’t have any hard and fast news about that yet.)

I’d love to revisit the older Pink characters with more novellas, but it all depends on timing. Now that I’m on the doubled up writing schedule, there is, sadly, less time to write just-for-fun novellas. On the plus side, it does mean two books a year rather than one; on the down side, fewer extraneous extras.

Question: *Note: stealing this one from Tracy Grant's interview of Deanna Raybourn on her blog: What four book characters (other authors, not yours) would you invite over for dinner and why?

Answer: Lord Peter Wimsey, for his ability to speak glorious nonsense; Elizabeth Peters’s Jacqueline Kirby (as a librarian, she’d have some excellent book recommendations); Jane Austen’s Emma, for all that gossip; and Mr. Rochester, because he smolders so nicely.

Ask me again tomorrow, and you’d probably get a different batch….

Question: What book by another author are you in love with right now?
Can I cheat and name multiple books?

Satisfying the gothic craving in me, I am deeply in love with Simone St. James’s two 1920s-set ghost stories, The Haunting of Maddy Clare and An Inquiry into Love and Death. I love ghost stories and these are particularly well done, just the right sort of prickles on the back of the neck with the Dorothy Sayers-esque 1920s tone.

Moving from windy nights to sunny beaches, the other book I’m in love with right now is Beatriz Williams’s A Hundred Summers, set in an upscale beach enclave in the 1930s as a young woman struggles to deal with her former fiance’s reappearance—as the husband of her former best friend. (Lily and Budgie in A Hundred Summers have a great deal in common with Addie and Bea in Ashford!)

Thanks so much for having me back here, Miss Eliza! It’s always a joy to visit Strange and Random Happenstance.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review - Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery by Anthony Berkley
Published by: The Langtail Press
Publication Date: 1927
Format: Kindle, 214 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Roger Sheringham is about to go off on holiday with his cousin Anthony when his editor calls. The Daily Courier has gotten wind that the accidental death of a Mrs. Vane in Ludmouth might not be quite so accidental, as Inspector Moresby has been seen poking around after the inquest. Roger bullies Anthony into accompanying him, because a holiday is one thing, a holiday that doubles as a murder mystery is quite another.  Upon arriving in Ludmouth, Roger quickly runs into Inspector Moresby, whom he knows from the Wychford Poisoning Case, and the two discuss the fact that it is obvious that Mrs. Vane had to have been pushed from the cliffs in order to die. This wasn't an accident, and it certainly wasn't suicide.

The prime suspect is the comely cousin of Mrs. Vane, Miss Cross. Anthony soon makes her acquaintance and comes to the conclusion that such a pretty face is a harassed innocent, and Anthony and Roger soon go to great lengths to protect her and find another suspect, because the evidence very strongly points to her. Though the only other suspects would be the late Mrs. Vane's husband, Doctor Vane, or his lovestruck yet efficient secretary... or perhaps the oddly talkative Reverand Meadows, who reminds Roger of a goat. Roger has a new theory every day, and a new article for the Courier every night... but another murder throws all his what-ifs into question and he realizes that maybe he is wrong or maybe a careless word has led to another death... or maybe crime solving should be left to the professionals... no, Roger would never admit that.

Right about now you're looking at the disparate ratings between the first Anthony Berkeley book I read, The Layton Court Mystery, and this one, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery, and probably thinking, oh my, what is going on, has she cracked? Though your surprise is nothing compared to my own. I was girding my loins as I reached for this book just imagining how atrocious it might be... and perhaps it's the fact that my expectations were so low, I mean, lower then the gutter low, that I really enjoyed it. I mean, sure, there was a bit of a rough start when I realized that there were quite a few similarities to the previous book, what with an accidental death/suicide not being as it appears and the murderer escaping justice, yet again, but somehow I had already come to grips with my gripes.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is actually the third book in Berkeley's series staring that "keen-witted if slightly volatile Roger." For some unknown reason the second book, The Wychford Poisoning Case, which is referenced in this volume, has disappeared into the ether of time... perhaps it was for the best if it was on par with The Layton Court Mystery. So why have I done a 180 on this series? Well, I'm going with my fickleness as a reader as my defense. The problem I had with the first volume was all the flaws of Roger that just needled me till I wanted to slap that man silly... with some sort of cudgel that would result in pain and death. So going into reading another book with Roger I was well aware of his flaws. I now view Roger as that one friend you have, and don't say you don't have one, I know you do; everyone has a friend that says just the wrong thing at the wrong time, never censors what they say, and in most cases is just downright rude. The kind of friend that needs a disclaimer attached. Yet over time, you get used to their offensiveness. Sure, you've tried to curb it, but in the end, you just live with it. So Roger has become my friend whose flaws I know, but I put up with anyway.

As for the innumerable flaws, the belittling of his "idiot friend," his desire to hold important conversations in the middle of nowhere, his ludicrous theories coupled with the fact he is invariably wrong and blind to the obvious; they somehow work in this volume. His "stupid friend" in this instance is his cousin Anthony. And for some reason I feel the bickering and belittling between relatives more natural and tolerable then between friends. Also, instead of an underlying feeling of anger, their repartee has the feel of the long time association between family that let Anthony give as good as he got. Plus, the addition of Inspector Moresby can not be overlooked. Here is someone who Roger views as his "equal" so that he actually treats the Inspector mildly ok. They have a kind of Japp/Poirot relationship where Roger doesn't belittle his cohort... too much. Also, I have a niggling little feeling that Roger might be Moresby's "idiot friend" and that just tickles me to death that Roger doesn't realize it. Therefore it's more cohorts in crime solving, then the Roger Sheringham offends everyone show. And as for his weird desire to hold conversations in out of the way locals? For some reason perching on a rock looking at the cliffs seems more natural, like they're taking in the sights, then obviously going to a bench in a garden to conspire. Also, I love that his theories about the "weaker sex" come back to haunt him.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery carried on the meta nature of the first book, with actual crime versus fictional crime in a crime novel, but by thankfully dropping the Holmes and Watson bit Berkeley used ad nauseum in The Layton Court Mystery. This meta nature was able to not only exploit the obvious plot twists that you could see coming a mile off, but was then able to give you a twist at the end that you didn't see coming. In fairness to Berkeley, he stayed true to his writerly code, and you could see the ending if you didn't view the case through Roger's eyes, and I found this a little bit brilliant. While the romantic reader in me would have preferred the interpretation of the facts as Roger and I saw them, I can't help but love that Moresby smacks Roger down and points out to the writer that there is the mentality of a police officer and the mentality of the writer. These two mentalities are at odds, and sometimes it's better to not have too much imagination.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review - Anthony Berkeley's The Layton Court Mystery

The Layton Court Mystery by Anthony Berkeley
Published by: The Langtail Press
Publication Date: 1925
Format: Kindle, 222 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Because of his friend Alec, the author Roger Sheringham has been invited by Victor Stanworth to be a part of his house party at Layton Court. Victor has rented a lovely house for the summer and has surrounded himself with friends. So why do they find Victor locked in his library with an apparently self inflicted gunshot wound to the head and a suicide note? Despite the fact that all the windows and doors are locked from the inside, Roger thinks that perhaps it was murder and it would be fun to play at being a sleuth. He has to have a Watson to his Holmes, someone who will be a dumb sounding board and willing to be berated constantly. Alec grudgingly takes up this mantle and they set about solving a crime that they aren't sure even happened. At one time or another they suspect all of their fellow guests, and even a mysterious "Prince." With the clock running against them till the inquest and their imminent departure from Layton Court, can an amateur sleuth and his reluctant Watson solve it in time?

When I sat down here at my computer and hammered out the details to my Golden Summer, I added Anthony Berkeley for the reason I have had a copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case sitting on my bookshelf for... well, I don't know how long it's actually been there, but a dash long time. Yet when I got to reading up on Berkeley I found out that The Poisoned Chocolates Case was not the first Roger Sheringham book as I had thought. Because of Berkeley's propensity for writing under pseudonyms, or in this case, sometimes anonymously, The Poisoned Chocolates Case is either the forth or fifth book with Sheringham... so obviously, I had to start at the beginning and my poor copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case would be neglected for some while more.

My initial impressions of The Layton Court Mystery was that it had more then a few striking similarities with A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery, which I had just finished and loved. Sadly, where that one had wit and originality, this was just labored and had an angry tone throughout... or maybe it was my rage reading because everything grated on my nerves. I was more then once struck by how this reminded me of an episode of the BBC's Comedy Showcase called "Felix and Murdo." In the episode the hilarious actors Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong, are Edwardians looking forward to the 1908 Olympics in London, this being aired to spur the fervor for last year's summer Olympics. The thing about the whole episode was that it was trying too hard to be witty and ended coming out crap. That's how I felt about this whole book. It was trying too hard. That and the fact that seeing as both Milne and Berkeley worked for Punch, that there is no way Berkeley didn't realize how similar his book was and I think Milne should have taken him out back, not necessary for a dust up, but maybe to school him in the ways of actually writing a good book. Or perhaps it's crappiness was why it was published anonymously...

There is just so much wrong with this book I literally don't know where to start... shall I dissect the horrid characters or the plot... decisions, decisions... ok, let's go with characters, because their stupidity made the plot drag and drag until I could barely stand it anymore. Roger and his "friend" Alec are the two most unlikable people ever. They are mean and snipe at each other constantly. I would say that they quite literally hate each other. I would never treat a friend in the manner they treat each other, a mortal enemy, maybe... but still, it wouldn't be as harsh as these two. Also, they act against character all the time. They say they are not prone to sentimentality, yet the act that Alec commits is the definition of being a sentimental fool and rushing in to save the damsel in distress. But luckily, they aren't sentimental...wtf? Not to mention Roger is a bigoted jackass, and a hypocritical one at that who calls others bigoted! He looks down on the servants, whom having a discussion with "would be as ineffective as to harangue a hippopotamus." Also, his views on women... oh dear me. Women are all crying milksops that need a big strong man to protect them, and with their inferior mental capabilities "there's always the chance that a woman will" give away a clue. Though nothing compares to how Roger's antisemitism comes out. The line was so offensive I can't even bring myself to quote it. Unlike the pervasive racism that is in the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, Berkeley's was like a slap in the face. I literally cannot think why anyone would say something so offensive.

Now to the plot... or what I gather you would call a plot. It's really just two guys arguing and then arguing some more and at the end of the day, well... nothing happens at the end. It just sort of stopped. All the plot problems are because of the idiocy of Roger and Alec. Their attempt to solve the "murder" of their host is like a how-to guide on how not to solve a mystery. They look at the scene of the crime and then retreat into the garden and talk things out, repeat ad infinitum. Because obviously they can't be overheard in a garden? Why is this garden so damn secretive? Is it in fact The Secret Garden? NO!?! Well then, anyone with any sense can hear what you're saying. As for your host and resident corpse... you didn't figure out that his circle of friends are all people he is blackmailing till about 150 pages in? Well, I figured it out 10 pages in. Haven't you seen Clue? Ok, no... you wouldn't, but still, it was obvious. Also, why would you discount the fact that the killer was probably among the house guests? Why would you think an outside person was the perpetrator? Ug. But the worst of all, why would you think that a suspect would have the name "Prince?" I mean, the SECOND I read that name I was like, dood, that's an animal, as it turned out to be a bull, I was spot on. In fact, everything about this book was either bang my head against the wall obvious or so offensive that I wished to throttle the author. And here I go... getting ready to read his next book... am I a masochist? Yes, I think I might be, but it's all for you, my gentle reader.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Arrivals by Melissa Marr
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: July 2nd, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The Arrivals is the second novel for adults by internationally bestselling author Melissa Marr.

Chloe walks into a bar and blows five years of sobriety. When she wakes, she finds herself in an unfamiliar world, The Wasteland. She discovers people from all times and places have also arrived there: Kitty and Jack, a brother and sister from the Wild West; Edgar, a prohibition bootlegger; Francis, a one-time hippie; Melody, a mentally unbalanced 1950s housewife; and Hector, a former carnival artist.

None know why they arrived there--or if there is way out of a world populated by monsters and filled with corruption.

Just as she did in Graveminder, Marr has created a vivid fantasy world that will enthrall. Melissa Marr’s The Arrivals is a thoroughly original and wildly imagined tale about making choices in a life where death is unpredictable and often temporary."

Interesting idea... I will read it, but seeing as my friends gave her first adult novel very mixed reviews, I'm not that excited by this. 

Tarnished and Torn by Juliet Blackwell
Published by: Signet
Publication Date: July 2nd, 2013
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"As the owner of a popular vintage clothing store, Lily Ivory can enjoy a day of antique jewelry shopping and still call it work. But as one of San Francisco’s resident witches, searching for hidden treasures can sometimes lead to dangerous discoveries…

When Lily arrives at an antique jewelry fair, her bargain sensors go off left and right—but she also picks up a faint vibration of magic. Could the hard-bargaining merchant Griselda be a fellow practitioner? It certainly seems that way when a sudden fire sends panic through the crowd, and Lily discovers Griselda murdered in a way that nods to an old-fashioned witch hunt…

A crime that hits close to home turns into an unwelcome flash from the past when the police bring in their lead suspect—Lily’s estranged father. Though he may not deserve her help, Lily is determined to clear her father’s name and solve a murder that’s anything but crystal clear."

Call me a sucker for witches, pet pigs and San Francisco.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck
Published by: Dial
Publication Date: July 2nd, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 224 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Newbery Award-winning author Richard Peck is at his very best in this fast-paced mystery adventure. Fans of The Tale of Desperaux, A Little Princess, and Stuart Little will all be captivated by this memorable story of a lovable orphan mouse on an amazing quest.

The smallest mouse in London’s Royal Mews is such a little mystery that he hasn't even a name. And who were his parents? His Aunt Marigold, Head Needlemouse, sews him a uniform and sends him off to be educated at the Royal Mews Mouse Academy. There he's called "Mouse Minor" (though it's not quite a name), and he doesn't make a success of school. Soon he's running for his life, looking high and low through the grand precincts of Buckingham Palace to find out who he is and who he might become.

Queen Victoria ought to be able to help him, if she can communicate with mice. She is all-seeing, after all, and her powers are unexplainable. But from her, Mouse Minor learns only that you do not get all your answers from the first asking. And so his voyage of self-discovery takes him onward, to strange and wonderful places."

Another mouse book by Richard Peck? Yes please!

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