Seances Are For Suckers, by Tamara Berry****-*****

SeancesareforTamara Berry is the queen of snarky humor, and now that I have read the first installment of the Eleanor Wilde series, I am primed and ready for those that follow it. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Ellie narrates her own story in the first person. She explains that she makes her living through fraud, scamming those that want to talk to their dead relatives and solve their Earthly problems via séances. A referral brings her a wealthy Brit that wants a fake medium to vanquish the ghost his mother believes is haunting their mansion. Expenses paid, she flies out to join him and is delighted to find that he lives in an actual castle. His mother, however, hates houseguests and discourages them with miserably small, terrible meals and bad accommodations. As preparations are made for the séance, guests exchange furtively obtained and hoarded snacks in order to avoid starvation.

Nicholas is a hunk; he and Ellie are both drawn toward each other and repelled in classic fashion, and there’s a lot of crackling banter that keeps me snickering. Other well drawn characters include Nicholas’s mother, his sister and her teenage daughter, and a couple of other men, one of whom works for the family. When she comments to the reader, “Bless the sturdy and simple folk of this world,” I nearly fall off my chair. The narrative and dialogue are wonderfully paced and hugely amusing. The solution to the mystery is both partially obvious and wildly contrived, but since this is satire, that makes it even better. In fact, there’s more than one tired old saw that works its way into this story, but it’s with a side-eye wink every time, and I love it.

As the narrative unspools, a corpse is found and then lost, threats and warnings heighten the suspense, and we wonder along with Ellie which of these guests and family members are truly as they seem, and which might be a killer.

The scene leading into the séance is so hilarious that I nearly wake the mister with my cackling.

The only aspect I find unappealing here is the somewhat saccharine story having to do with Ellie’s dying sister. Ellie’s dishonest vocation is, she tells us, necessary so that she can pay for her catatonic sister’s nursing care, and while squeamish cozy readers may find it comforting, I am more than ready to dispatch sis to the great beyond and just let Ellie be Ellie anyway. Happily, this doesn’t hold the story back, particularly since most of the sister’s part of this tale is told at the start and is out of the way by the time we are rolling.

I can’t wait to see where life—and the wakeful dead—will take Ellie next. Highly recommended for mystery lovers ready to be entertained.

Best of 2016: Mystery

This category includes everything within the same zone: thrillers, suspense, detective fiction, crime fiction. If it’s related, I’m rating it here. I expected this to be my toughest call because I read so many books of this genre, but when I had a look at the original titles I’d seen this year, and then eliminated those crossover novels that had already been awarded as the best of some other genre on this site, it was down to three books. Unbelievable…but not at all mysterious.

MY TOP THREE:

 

Treasure Coast, by Tom Kakonis*****

TreasureCoastHugely imaginative, terribly funny, and utterly tasteless, Kakonis delivers the chortles with Treasure Coast, a comic caper that juggles numerous entertaining characters with surprising deftness. Thank you twice, first to Brash Books and second to Net Galley, for providing me with the DRC to review. This title will be available September 14, 2015 to the book-buying public.

Our tale begins with Uncle Jim Merriman, a professional gambler who can’t even manage to break even these days, and “his numbnuts nephew”, Leon Cody, “…this kid with the crop of wild hair and Magoo glasses and dippy grin”, who is in debt to loan sharks. Leon’s mother has died and left not only her body, but also her foolish son, to Uncle Jim’s care and keeping. And of course we have the shark’s collection agents, Morris “Junior” Biggs and “your badass Hector Pasadena”.

On the other hand, we have Bryce Bott, hustler of gravestones that once purchased, will never arrive and “séances” delivered with the help of his hillbilly sidekick, Waneta Jean, who feigns nearness to death as a part of the séance scam.

Of course, ultimately, the characters wind up in a messy pile trying out-scam each other. “Circles inside of circles, games within games.”

But oh, that’s not enough! We also have trophy bride Billie Swett, who within my mental movie soon became Bernadette Peters, and her obnoxious, porcine, but almost infinitely wealthy spouse, Big Lonnie Swett. Eventually we add Cheetah, to whom Reverend Bott referred as “that other intrusive fellow”. Their roles in all of this, you will have to find out on your own.

“And how do you count the ways of weird?”

This was a story worthy of patience. There were so many nasty racist comments made about almost everyone you can think of; however, they are used within the context of Junior’s vapor-brained, “Aryan” sensibilities. There are several horribly ugly sexist remarks using the worst possible terms you can imagine, but again, it is only the bad guys that use them…and a reckoning comes down in a manner I found deeply satisfying.

To put it another way: we were halfway through before I was even sure I liked this novel, but once I was on board, I was in it for keeps, flagging one clever passage after another, most of which I can’t share here. I can share this YouTube promotional clip, though:

So although I was ultimately dumbstruck by the creativity with which Kakonis wove all of the complicated strands of this story together without dropping a single one, I also caution the reader. There are some really crass, fairly specific references to corpses in this book. If you have just lost someone and the wound is still raw, this is probably not the title with which you should escape. There are repeated references to the joys of rape. If you or someone near to you has been down that brutal path, maybe this is not your story, either. And one more caveat before I can go back to singing praises: if your mother tongue is not English, you may not want to embrace this challenging novel, which despite its Keystone Cops-like atmosphere requires exceedingly strong vocabulary skills. For those that enjoy word play, it’s a real treat, but any time you have to look up more than 3 words per page, the effort will outweigh the enjoyment you receive.

With the above caveats in mind, this new release comes highly recommended by this reviewer. The only real question is how you will wait until Monday to get your copy!

Off and Running, by Philip Reed****

This little gem was released digitally today. Funnier than hell!

Seattle Book Mama

offandrunningOff and Running is a comic caper set around Y2K. Jack is a writer looking for his lucky break; Walt is an old man, a beloved American icon who hasn’t published a memoir yet. Garrett is Walt’s ill-begotten, bad-tempered adult son, the worst celebrity brat imaginable. Reed tosses them all into his literary blender and what comes out is both hilarious and at times, genuinely suspenseful as well. Thank you once more to Brash Books and Net Galley for permitting me a sneak peek; this amusing tale will be for sale in August.

Jack has had one project after another not work out. His wife, Sarah, has had it with him, and wants him to go out and get a real job. Every day she schleps out to her full time job, coming home tired and ill tempered, and she doesn’t want to hear anymore about how Jack’s latest book…

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Off and Running, by Philip Reed****

offandrunningOff and Running is a comic caper set around Y2K. Jack is a writer looking for his lucky break; Walt is an old man, a beloved American icon who hasn’t published a memoir yet. Garrett is Walt’s ill-begotten, bad-tempered adult son, the worst celebrity brat imaginable. Reed tosses them all into his literary blender and what comes out is both hilarious and at times, genuinely suspenseful as well. Thank you once more to Brash Books and Net Galley for permitting me a sneak peek; this amusing tale will be for sale in August.

Jack has had one project after another not work out. His wife, Sarah, has had it with him, and wants him to go out and get a real job. Every day she schleps out to her full time job, coming home tired and ill tempered, and she doesn’t want to hear anymore about how Jack’s latest book proposal will make money for sure. She has a change of heart when Jack’s agent sends him out to see the venerated, universally loved comedian, Walt Stuckey. Walt is choosey about who he sees and what he talks about, but over time, Jack builds a genuine rapport with him. They become friends, and Jack is accepted as Walt’s biographer. Just as Walt invites Jack and Sarah to come stay the weekend with him and his girlfriend, Mary, the unthinkable happens: Walt has a stroke. The son-from-hell Walt loves but has been unable to develop a positive relationship with takes charge. Walt is held virtually a prisoner, and it soon becomes clear that Garrett does not really want Walt to recover. He wants Walt’s financial empire, and he will be the executor of Walt’s estate when he goes.

So the first thing Garrett does is to isolate Walt. Since his own memoir is the one thing Walt is truly excited about and could give him reason to live, Garrett uses his power-of-attorney privilege to fire Jack and cancel the memoir. Mary isn’t having any of it, and once he thinks about it, neither is Jack. Jack is determined to finish this book. It’s what Walt wants, too. And most of all, Jack wants to know why the reference to Bebe Rebozo in Walt’s comedy routine caused his over the top hit comedy show, which was “funnier ‘n hell”, to be cancelled without a moment’s warning. He’ll find out, or die trying.

So Jack and Mary launch a rescue mission to free Walt from his rotten son-turned-captor, and the result is alternately suspenseful and hilarious.

There are several events in the book that strain credulity, but it’s okay, because this is not literary fiction; this is a caper. I couldn’t wait to see how it ended, and I was sorry when it did. A considerable portion of the story is set in Death Valley, and the heat, the inescapable sun, the gritty sand were all so palpable that I nearly resolved never to leave my cool damp domicile again.

We all need something ridiculous in our lives now and then. Humor relaxes us and puts our own worries into perspective. Do yourself a favor and order this book when it comes out digitally August 4. Then, you’ll be off and running!

Somebody Owes Me Money! by Donald Westlake *****

 somebodyowesme Imagine that you are a working class guy, okay, not always technically LEGAL work, and you place a small bet on a fairly frequent basis with a friend who is also a bookie. And week after week, just as with lottery tickets, it is money down the drain.

Then suddenly, the angels sing: Hallelujah! Your horse just won on some VERY long odds! You trot joyfully up the stairs to your bookie’s flat…and he’s there. Dead. On the floor. It looks like a professional hit.

So…what would you do?

If it was me, I know what I’d do! I’d run like hell! NEVER MET the guy. But not our protagonist. (And this is all right there at the start, mind; I haven’t spoiled a thing beyond the very beginning of the book). OUR protagonist is thinking of just one thing: he has FINALLY won a bet, and he is GOING to collect! So, whoever took this guy out must be the one who owes him money now, RIGHT? Well, where is he?

Westlake has made me laugh many, many times. I will miss him terribly, and am glad he wrote so much. I felt at least one of his novels should be on this list.