The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton*****

I am late to the party, but it’s still going strong. Stuart Turton’s masterful debut generated so much talk that I couldn’t not read this book, and it lives up to the buzz. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark.

Aiden wakes up stranded in the woods, and he has no idea who he is. Strangers rescue him and he’s taken to an aging English manor house, where a party is taking place. Everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t know any of them, and in time he realizes that he is living inside the body of another person at the scene of a murder. Every time he wakes up, he is in the body of a new host  at the same party in the same house, often someone he has already seen from the outside while he inhabits a different body; he lives through the same day he has just experienced, but through a different perspective. He will never be permitted to leave the manor or be restored to his own body until he is able to solve the mystery; he is in a competition with others in more or less the same position.  At the outset, he is inside Jonathan Derby, and everyone obsequiously attends to his needs. He is injured. He needs rest.

This story has a house-that-Jack-built quality, because each time Aiden wakes up, he can recall everything he learned when he was inside someone else. This advantage is offset by the fact that each host is more difficult to occupy, with the personality of the host warring for control over the body that he shares with them.  Several curves—including more murders—are added to the mix.  The reader has to decide which events are related to the murder, and which are extraneous; on top of that, some of the characters Aiden encounters are liars.

When I began reading I tried to keep track of the information, but soon it became obvious that I would need a flow chart to stand even a small chance of solving this thing, so I gave up and rode along, enjoying the progress of the story, but clueless as to how it would work out. Even so, it is a complex enough tale that I learned quickly not to read it after I took my sleeping pill.

Not only is it cleverly conceived and well paced, but there is character development, made possible with Anna’s back story and the humanizing of the Plague Doctor. I can only tip my hat in awe.

So Turton has a monstrously successful debut novel, but the pressure is on in terms of what he writes next. Can his second effort live up to the reputation he has created for himself? Whatever he writes, I want to read it.

Highly recommended.

Best Mystery of 2018



A Shot In The Dark, by Lynne Truss****

AShotintheThe world is a serious place right now, and everyone needs to step away from it now and then in order to stay sane. Here it is, your very own mental health break. In fact, if you look at the hourly rate of a good therapist versus the number of hours you’ll read this mystery, even at the full jacket price, Truss’s book is clearly the more economical choice, and it’s far more fun. Lucky me, I read it free courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

The story doesn’t start as well as it might. It begins with a note from the author explaining that she has written this book exclusively for the purpose of joining a particular writer’s club. It’s likely intended to be a tongue-in-cheek reference, but it comes across as an in-joke between people other than me. I almost feel as though I have walked into a party to which I am not invited.

Then, to make matters worse, the opening chapters contain some jokes that fall completely flat. At about the quarter mark, I consider skimming and then bailing, but I am reluctant to do this with a galley, so I double check the author and publisher first. That changes everything. Bloomsbury is not some small, desperate press that will take any old thing, so that gives me pause. Then I see that Truss also wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Cat Out of Hell. At this point the tumblers click into place. I liked both of those books quite well, but I felt exactly the same at the quarter mark of the latter story as I feel about this one. Truss is a writer that takes her time warming up, but she is worth the wait. Soldier through the start as she sets up her characters and puts the story in motion, because once she is on a tear there is no stopping her, and then she’s funny as hell.

Our story starts in a little tourist town in Britain. Twitten is the eager new guy on the force; Sargent Brunswick is unimaginative but sincere, shackled by the lead cop, a bureaucratic blowhard that avoids doing police work by pretending that Brighton has no crime. Since this is the first in the Constable Twitten series we know he won’t be killed, but everyone else is at risk.

Our story features performers from the Brighton Royal Theatre, a woman that works as a cleaner and occasional secretary for the constabulary, a love triangle, a playwright, and an ambitious journalist. The satire is both thick and at times, subtle. I appreciate a writer that can sneak humor into odd nooks and crannies without hitting me over the head with the fact that she’s made a joke, and Truss does that even as she lays out the larger joke in an unmissable way. Ultimately, even the captain must acknowledge that a crime has taken place:

“’May I offer you a sherry before you go?’ And then she opened the door to her front living room, and let out a scream of horror. Furniture was in disarray; ornaments shattered, curtains torn, blood dripped from the fireplace and was sprayed in arcs across the walls. There was no doubt that a life-and-death struggle had taken place inside this room–the biggest giveaway being the lifeless remains on the best Persian rug, of the magnetic young playwright Jack Braithwaite, whose own personal Gas Man had arrived unexpectedly to read his meter and collect his dues.”

The glory of satire is that instead of needing to dream up a variety of innovative twists and turns to liven up the plot, Truss instead can take the oldest and tritest murder mystery elements and make us choke with laughter as we read them.

An added perk is that this is the first in a series, and so the reader can get in on the ground floor. Just don’t trip over the corpse.

Once Truss warms up, her humor is hilarious. Cancel that expensive therapy appointment and order this book instead.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton***

TheClockmakersDaughterKate Morton is queen of the British historical mystery, and so I leapt at the chance to read and review The Clockmaker’s Daughter. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available October 9, 2018.

This story starts strong with a spellbinding first person narrative told by the woman whose spirit resides eternally at Birchwood Manor. She came here with Edward, a wellborn cad that “could make the very devil pray”, one that called her his muse. Edward seduced her, yes, but he would never have married her.

Elodie Winslow is an archivist in present-day London.  In the course of her duties, she runs across two pictures in a leather satchel. One is a photograph, quite old, and the other is a sketch of a house that seems familiar to her somehow. And so of course, faithful readers are cued right away to watch for a connection between Elodie, and the people, setting, and events that are introduced at the book’s beginning.

Find me a writer that can create more resonant settings in a British historical mystery; I dare you. For the first quarter of this novel, I was in it, steeping in the escapist paradise Morton provides, drinking in the several characters and narratives. But at the thirty percent mark, when yet another new thread, another new character—or is it an old character pretending to be a new character—is introduced, I find myself searching for a nice brick wall to smack my forehead against. It’s hard to get to know any of these characters with so many new ones added.

Usually with Morton’s books, the details and subsections are worth the reader’s careful attention because it all comes together so well at the end. Here, there’s excellent setting and a lot of secrets but not enough plot or character development, and so before the story is even halfway done I find myself eyeing the page numbers. How much longer…?

I also find myself wondering what story elements are classic, and which are simply overused. The old house with the secret doors?  I will never get tired of this element, especially when the writer is as capable as Morton. But bullies at a boarding school—meh. I am ready to be done with that one. And the sack of kittens to be drowned? I gave myself permission to skip a page, because it is. Not. Worth. It.

Many of Morton’s faithful fans will be pleased; her trademark style is unmistakable, and if that’s what you want, here it is. But a story this complex needs more legs to go with it, and less reliance on stale devices.

Am I done reading Morton? Not by a long shot. Every author has a story or two that isn’t magical. But when a story requires this much effort on the part of the reader, the payoff needs to be greater than it is here.

Recommended to diehard Kate Morton fans; even so, get it free or cheap, but don’t pay full jacket price this time.

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware****

TheLyingGameIsabel, Fatima, and Leah receive a text from Kate saying that she needs them. It’s been 17 years, and yet they answer in the only possible way:

“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’”

This one had me at hello. How many of us have a friend from childhood, adolescence, or the early years of our adulthood that could draw this response from us? I know I do, and although mine are from different times and places in my life, if I received that text I’d be on a plane, a train, or in the car. Thank you Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book was published last week.

Our protagonist is Isa (“It’s to rhyme with nicer”), and as you might infer, this is British fiction. Isa leaves Owen, a good sport if ever there was one; grabs Freya the baby, who is breast-feeding; and hops on a train. And that baby will ramp up the stakes, mostly in subtle ways, over and over throughout the story.

Kate has called them because human bones have been found in the Reach. All of them immediately know what this means, although the reader does not.

We learn about the lying game played by the foursome during their years at school together. There are points given according to whether the lie is believed, whether the victim is new, and further byzantine details; but the big rule is that they must never lie to each other. The game revives itself at odd moments during their reunion, sometimes to lightened effect for the reader, but sometimes becoming sinister.

Throughout this well-crafted tale, Ware doles out bits and pieces of what is to come, and every time my experienced eye spots a sure-fire red herring, it turns out it isn’t. I read a lot of mysteries—probably too many—but this one is fresh and original conceptually, and it becomes more riveting as the characters are developed, adding layer after layer like papier-mâché. The ending completely surprises me, and yet is entirely consistent with the rest of the novel.

There are times when I am astounded at the risk-taking behaviors exhibited by the four as adults approaching middle age once they are together again; at times I step away and ask myself whether the doctor that Fatima is now would actually do this, and whether Isa, an attorney, wouldn’t show more caution. But the foursome persuades me—are there points for this, I wonder—and I am drawn back in before the curtain twitches. There’s never a time when I see that the Great and Powerful Oz is seen back there at the control panel; the magic holds. There are times I am astonished at the risks Isa takes with Freya, going for a swim in the Reach with her pals, leaving her defenseless baby alone, asleep, in that hideous, falling down shack, but it’s consistent with the girl she used to be, the girl that is awakened to a degree as she returns to the time and place in which she came of age.

The fifth star isn’t here because the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed at times, and threatens to become funny rather than scary, which is clearly not intended. But every time I see it veering toward the ridiculous, Ware pulls back again, and so the overdone moments are a blip on the radar.
Those that love Ruth Ware’s work, and those that love a good mystery—especially women—will want to read this book. You can get it now.

Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford*****

radiogirlsFearless women change history.

Radio Girls is a fictionalized account of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the remarkable women that shaped it. As we near the centennial of women’s right to vote in the USA and the UK, Stratford’s riveting historical fiction could not be better timed. I received my copy free and in advance thanks to Net Galley and Berkley Press in exchange for this honest review. I am overjoyed to be able to recommend this new release unequivocally. You have to read it.

Maisie Musgrave is born in Canada and raised in New York City. Tossed out of the nest without a parachute by unloving family, she makes her way to Britain, the place her heritage began. She wanders into the BBC half-starved and looking for an honest way to pay for her room and board, hoping in the meanwhile to meet a man she can marry for financial security.

At the BBC she meets supervisor Hilda Matheson, who fears nothing:  “Give that woman an inch and she takes the entire British Isles,” a colleague remarks.

Under the firm and commanding wing of Matheson, Maisie’s confidence and talent grow daily. It’s a very good thing, because over the course of time, more will be demanded of her than secretarial skills and errand-running.  My busy fingers marked one clever, articulate passage after another to share with you, but to enjoy Stratford’s fresh, humorous word-smithery, you really need the book itself.

Occasional historical figures drop in—Lady Astor, who was a moving force in the development of the BBC and a champion of women; Virginia Woolf, early feminist writer and crusader. Yet Stratford metes out these references in small enough batches that it’s clear she isn’t relying on them to hold her story together; rather, they are the cherry on the sundae.

Setting of time and place, pacing, and a million twists and turns in plot make this a good read, but it’s the character development that makes it a great one. I found myself wanting to talk to Maisie and cheering her on when she broke through to higher ground personally and professionally. I feared for her when she veered into dangerous waters and nearly wept with relief each time she was able to extricate herself and move forward. There isn’t a slow moment or an inconsistent one, and the protagonist is just the character women need to see right now as we move forward too.

How much of this is based on truth and how much made up for the sake of a great story? Read the author’s notes; she spills it all.

All told, Sarah-Jane Stratford’s historical feminist tale is perfect for today’s modern feminists—and those that love us.

This book is available to the public Tuesday, June 14. Change the screen and order a copy for yourself now. You won’t want to miss it!


Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson*****

majorpettigrewHad this story not received such wide acclaim and been made into a movie (which I’ve yet to see, but I watched the Oscars), I would probably never have gone near it. I like working class protagonists, and I don’t read many romances, because often as not, they are corny, soft porn, or both. But I saw it at the library and decided to give it a try, and I quickly remembered, upon reading it, that some rules are made to be broken. So even if you usually don’t read romances, and even if a retired British pensioner is not your idea of an interesting protagonist, this should be the exception to the rule.

 I loved this story!

Major Pettigrew has difficulty with some sorts of change. He doesn’t want to see his village built up and the green spaces developed. He has lost his wife and his brother, and loss of any type is very difficult. His solitude is not splendid; he is a lonely, lonely man.

And in some ways, he seems to have lost his son, who has become arrogant, dismissive, and wants nothing more from him than his wallet and his bank card.

On the other hand, he has found something really precious, but what he has found is so controversial that the whole wide world seems to be against him.

Perhaps the hook for me was the interracial marriage, since mine is one also. But on the other hand, maybe the hook is just excellent writing. A really great writer can make us enjoy a genre we didn’t think we cared for; I believe this is one of those.

I hit a certain point in this story and could not go to bed until it was done. I usually read lying down before I go to sleep, but I was literally sitting upright on the edge of my bed leaning forward when this climax broke.

You have to read this story. It’s glorious, and it’s available to the public. Highly recommended!

The Complete Flying Officer X Stories*****

thecompleteflyingofficerxHE Bates wrote these stories during WWII; he served in the British Royal Air Force and received the unusual commission of author. His whole job was to write one short story after another. He was stationed with British pilots from 1941-1942, and he sat with them when they were between flights and listened with a sympathetic ear. He listened well, and the result is a collection of nearly 30 short stories, one of which is novella length, and they are strong, resonant fictional stories whose protagonists were inspired by actual pilots. Thank you twice to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury Publishers for the DRC. This collection is for sale now.

When I told my spouse that I was reading a collection of short stories about RAF pilots during this time period, he asked if that wasn’t a lot of stories to plow through, all on the same subject. I can understand why he—and maybe you—might think so, but the stories are all so different, and their characters so richly drawn, that it’s a bit like asking a mother of a very large family whether she might not like to trim a few sons and daughters from the herd. Although I can tell you which ones are my favorites, I also have to say there is no filler or weaker material here. Everything is very well written, and each story distinct in setting and characters from all others.

I sat down and read it start to finish, but once you have the collection, you can jump around however you like. The stories are not in any particular order. If your household has a book tucked into the bathroom or the guest room, a solid short story collection like this is a good choice, because the person that’s in that room won’t be there that long; this gives them a look at something they can finish. Most of the short stories are just a few pages, with just one toward the end in the part labeled as extra stories that might qualify as a novella.

Although I do have favorites, mine might not be the same as yours. I was drawn to “There’s No Future in It”, a story in which a father tries to dissuade his daughter from becoming involved with a pilot. It’s dark and resonates strongly. I also loved “K for Kitty”, a poignant tale about a pilot that strongly preferred one particular fighter plane; “The Young Man from Kalgoorie”, whose parents attempted to hide the very existence of the war from their son by keeping him busy on the farm and away from newspapers; and “O’Callahan’s Girl”, a young woman that loves a shy young flyer who only wants France to be restored to its previous state.

A happy surprise, given the era in which it was written, was the inclusion of a female soldier (in what is referred to as the “Russian” army, though the fact is it was the USSR and therefore Soviet Army at that time). This was a welcome addition. Unfortunately, there are two racist references, and if the stories were being written today, I would have knocked more than half a star off the rating because of them, but from the World War II generation’s Caucasians, I know (my parents having been among them) that the terms they used were thoughtless but made from ignorance rather than malice.

For example, in one story there is a brief mention made of a West Indian “boy” that used to work as a barrister. I blinked for a moment, not getting it at first. What kind of prodigy must that boy have been to have had a law career already and be out doing something else now? And then the penny dropped, and I realized this is actually a man, but he was referred to this way because of his race and ethnicity.

The second reference is to a brave pilot who nevertheless is described as being unusually ugly; his features bear some unflattering characteristics of the “Red Indian” and the “Mongoloid”.

Both of these go by in the blink of an eye, yet it’s only fair you be told in advance.

Finally, the thing that impressed me the most about these stories is that every last one of them had an unusually strong closing. The first few that left me gaping at their brilliance on the last page, last paragraph, last line were noted, but eventually it became clear that all or most of the collection was going to be like that, and of course I am not going to quote them here and ruin the stories’ endings for you. But one thing I will also say is that short stories that end with planned, maddening ambiguity are my pet peeve. For example, if a man is about to go through a door to either meet special delight or certain doom and the writer ends the story by having the man go through the door and gasp, and that’s the whole thing, he may be gasping with delight, or with horror, and we will never know which…? I hate that! And this set of short stories has none of it. Some end poignantly, some beautifully, some tragically, but every ending is in one way or another deeply satisfying and free of ambiguity.

For those that love military fiction, highly recommended.

Boy: A Novel, by James Hanley ***-****

boy3.49 stars, and my thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the DRC. The digital version of this story became available yesterday, and you can get a copy of your own if you’d like.

Boy, a tragic story that reads like a hybrid between Dickens and Melville, was originally published in 1930, and ran into all sorts of censorship. There are passages that contain sex that would not even be considered erotica now, since they avoid much specificity, but for the bourgeoisie of that time period, it was way too much. The censorship fight was where my interest came from, because I don’t generally seek out tragedy. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Any time anyone tries to keep the printed word from being accessible, my curiosity is piqued.

Arthur Fearon is an academically talented student whose parents make him leave school at thirteen even though at the time, the legal drop-out age in Britain is fourteen. His father has been on strike and had no income for awhile, and is bad at bringing his paycheck home when he has one. An only child, his parents both look to Arthur to become the family bread winner. His father finds him a position on the docks, and Arthur hates it so much that he stows away on board a ship, with the notion that he will emigrate away from England, maybe land in the United States and get a fresh start. Young as he is,it never occurs to him to learn which ship is going where. The ship he hides on isn’t even headed that way.

Issues of child abuse and in particular the way this youngster is turned away by every adult from whom he seeks help are hard on the eyes and hard on the heart.

The writing style is one that may not work for a lot of people in 2015. This was written in more or less the same era as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and it has a lot of stylistic similarities. Inner narratives run on for much longer than one might expect, because the reader of 80 years ago had a much greater attention span. There is a fair amount of repetition that was considered acceptable then but might not be appreciated by today’s readers.

One thing I can tell you for sure: if you are feeling sorry for yourself, this book will make all your own problems look like nothing at all. Just right for the reader that wants a good three-hanky novel.