Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, Books 1-4 by Deborah Crombie

Like Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie is an American writing about Scotland Yard detectives in England. Her works come recommended by a friend who knows and shares my taste in mysteries, and now that I’ve been overtaken by a powerful urge for a mystery binge, I am finally checking them out. There are presently sixteen books in the series; I plan to tackle them in four installments.

share_in_deathA Share in Death
Newly promoted Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is in Yorkshire on holiday, taking his cousin’s place at a timeshare for a week. He intends to keep his profession a secret from his fellow guests, but when he discovers the body of an employee floating in the pool, he can no longer maintain his anonymity. And, despite his attempts to convince himself that it isn’t his case, he also cannot resist getting involved with the investigation.

In some ways, A Share in Death is a traditional British cozy mystery. Kincaid’s not an amateur, as many sleuths tend to be in those sorts of mysteries, but the action does take place in a small village and involves a finite cast of suspects, some of whom have preexisting relationships. Crombie has a way with physical descriptions that is admirable—she doesn’t expend excess words in the act, but yet I somehow came away with a distinct picture of each individual guest—and between this and the cozy feel, the experience of reading this book was rather like watching my own mental PBS mystery program!

It’s not a perfect book—one secret held by a guest was not difficult to work out, and I’m not entirely sure that everything about the resolution makes perfect sense—but it was still on the whole very enjoyable. Engaging and not intellectually demanding, it managed not to come across as fluffy or trivialize the act of murder. I very much look forward to continuing with this series, and especially hope to see more of Kincaid and his capable Sergeant, Gemma James, working together (as opposed to separated by distance, as they were here).

all_shall_be_wellAll Shall Be Well
Like the first book in the series, All Shall Be Well involves a murder that has taken place in close proximity to Duncan Kincaid. This time it’s his cancer-stricken friend and neighbor, Jasmine Dent, whose death might’ve been assumed to be natural had not Duncan been suspicious and ordered a postmortem, discovering that Jasmine died of an overdose of morphine. Suicide is a possibility, but certain details prevent Duncan from accepting that conclusion.

Again, there is a short list of suspects, with the strongest suspicion resting upon the douchebag boyfriend of the former coworker to whom Jasmine has left the bulk of her estate. And yet, the end result doesn’t feel as typically cozy as A Share in Death because Duncan’s investigation takes him far and wide in search of clues. Happily, there is also much more interaction with Gemma in this book. (I especially liked that Duncan made a point of comparing her to the aforementioned coworker and how the latter inspired parental feelings but the former certainly did not.) There is also a very positive outcome regarding Jasmine’s kitty about whom I worried for the entire book.

I am really enjoying this series so far, and looking forward to the third book, in which Duncan seems to shed his Jessica Fletcher murder-magnet ways and is actually assigned a case!

leave_grave_greenLeave the Grave Green
Okay, Leave the Grave Green is definitely my favorite of the series so far. Instead of a murder happening in Duncan’s vicinity, this time he and Gemma are assigned to the case of Connor Swan, an apparent drowning victim who also had handprints on his throat. He is the son-in-law of a famous and influential couple in the opera scene, thus Scotland Yard’s involvement.

I thought it was interesting that there was essentially no physical evidence to consider, with the autopsy being inconclusive about what exactly happened, so the case was more-or-less solved by talking to the same half dozen or so characters, over and over, with each revealing things they had neglected to mention in previous conversations until finally, Duncan works out what must have happened. It’s not as tidy of a conclusion as they could wish from a prosecutorial standpoint, but it’s satisfying enough for readers.

There was one instance where a clue about a particular family link was a little too obvious, but ultimately, I did not peg the likely culprit. I also appreciated spending more time with Duncan and Gemma’s partnership, complete with a burgeoning physical attraction that culminates in something that they have fascinatingly contrary reactions to afterwards. And, lastly, I didn’t even dare to hope that we’d get a kitty update, but not only did we, but Crombie also kindly told us who was looking after him while Duncan was away on the case. This degree of solicitude made me suspect Crombie must have cats herself and, verily, her bio confirms it.

mourn_not_deadMourn Not Your Dead
I begin to wonder whether I will declare with each successive book, “Okay, this one is my favorite now.”

Mourn Not Your Dead picks up a few days after the conclusion of Leave the Grave Green. Gemma has been avoiding Duncan, but must come into work when they are assigned to the case of a high-ranking police officer found bludgeoned to death in his home. In retrospect, the case itself isn’t terribly fascinating or twisty, but there’s a remarkably solid and memorable cast of suspects and locals, and the undercurrents between Gemma and Duncan make this quite a riveting read.

They are envisioning wildly different outcomes, and Duncan is hurt and baffled when Gemma calls what happened between them “a dreadful mistake.” I loved that he hadn’t even considered how she might worry about and wish to prioritize her career, and I loved too that he told her she had no need to apologize for what she felt or didn’t feel. It was a nice way of showing that he’s got some flaws, but also deeply respects Gemma’s agency. I also really enjoyed the way they gradually regained some equilibrium and how the case helped put some things in perspective.

I love mysteries where the leads are just as interesting as the cases, and this is definitely such a series. Onward, ho!

Shades of London, Books 1-3 by Maureen Johnson

The actual title of this post should be “Books 1-3 plus that novella that came out in 2014,” but that was rather inelegant.

name-of-the-starThe Name of the Star
When Louisiana native Rory Deveaux’s professorial parents take a sabbatical in the UK, Rory jumps at the chance to attend boarding school in London. The early chapters of The Name of the Star depict her acclimation to life at Wexford, befriending her new roommate (Jazza) and developing a flirtation with one of the male prefects (Jerome). Because the phrase “boarding school in London” is totally my cup of tea (har har) and because Rory is amusingly snarky, I was already loving the book at this point, and that’s before I even got to the part with Jack the Ripper and ghosts!

A copycat of the notorious killer is on the loose, and since Wexford is located in Whitechapel, many of the crime scenes are nearby. After a near-death experience by choking grants Rory the ability to see ghosts, she actually witnesses the perpetrator (who has mysteriously failed to show up on any CCTV recordings of the murders) which brings her to the notice of a special secret police squad tasked with controlling any unruly members of the spectral population.

Several more fun characters are then introduced, and here I must compliment the narrator of the unabridged audiobook, Nicola Barber, whose facility in accents made me feel like I was listening to a BBC show. (I especially liked that Callum, a former football hopeful now dispatching meddlesome ghosts on the Underground, sounded rather like Lister from Red Dwarf!) In fact, I think this would make a pretty great BBC show, with its mildly diverse cast and the fact that the heroine is not merely brave (she eventually assists the squad in their ghosthunt), but funny, too. Admittedly, there were a couple of moments where Rory did some dumb things, but one could argue she didn’t really have better alternatives.

I haven’t loved a book this much in quite a long time, and I am both happy and bummed that there are two more (only two more!) in the series currently.

madness_underneathThe Madness Underneath
It is with true regret that I must report that The Madness Underneath suffers from an unfortunate case of Middle Book Syndrome. A crack created at the end of the first book seems to be providing a way for the buried dead of Bedlam to make it to the surface, and Rory’s newfound skills as a human “terminus” are effective in dispatching one murderous ghost, but this plotline fizzles out partway through. (Sidebar: it’s a crazy coincidence that this article comes out the very day I finish this book!) Then Rory falls in with a cult whose philosophy and goals don’t make a lot of sense, and shortly after her costly rescue, there’s suddenly a cliffhanger ending. If I had to wait for book three, I would probably be peeved that that’s all there was.

That is not to suggest that nothing of merit happens, however. I actually really liked how Rory’s return to Wexford was handled—how she was just simply incapable of caring about things she used to care about. So far behind in schoolwork that it’s overwhelming, she can’t muster the desire to try, and yet is blindsided when it is suggested that perhaps she ought to withdraw prior to exams. So caught up in the ghosthunting gig, boyfriend Jerome’s suspicions (and then guilt over same) become just another nagging problem, so she ends their relationship. I liked that Callum feels more antagonistically towards ghosts than the others do, and yet everyone seems to respect each other’s point of view. I liked the Marc Bolan reference. And, of course, before the more serious stuff starts to happen, there are at least a dozen lines of dialogue that made me laugh. (There’s also a dream featuring ham lunchmeat that I think might be an homage to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Restless.”)

Even though this particular installment was kind of disappointing, I continue to look forward to subsequent books just as much as before.

boy_in_smokeThe Boy in the Smoke
This short novella visits four defining moments in the life of Stephen Dene, leader of the ghost police, offering insight into the thoughts and background of a notably reticent character. Some of these incidents have been referred to in previous books, but not in this much detail.

“The Forgotten Boy” recounts a time when Stephen’s parents forget to fetch him from school at the end of term. (They’ve gone to Barbados instead.) His sister Regina comes to his rescue, determined to save him from a life doing what their parents expect, but she’s erratic and Stephen soon figures out that she’s using drugs. In “The Break in the Chain,” Stephen is attending Eton when he gets word of Regina’s death by overdose. (His parents “worked out their grief at a resort in Switzerland.”) He manages to carry on for several years, determined to fulfill his duty of succeeding at Eton and carrying on to Cambridge, until a visit from his unfeeling family leads him to commit suicide (in a scene that is absolutely riveting).

“The Specialist” find Stephen recovering at a psychiatric hospital and being recruited by Thorpe to lead the reformed team. And in “The Boy in the Smoke,” Stephen has finally achieved his dream of becoming a police officer. Practically the first thing he does is search for Regina’s ghost, only to find she did not return. Lastly, he fulfills his promise to come back to visit the ghost who saved his life and this slim little book comes to an end that left me rather verklempt.

Is this book essential to understanding the Shades of London series? No, but I’d say it’s essential to understanding Stephen, and very definitely worth the time.

shadcabThe Shadow Cabinet
What do you get when you take a series that first beguiled me with London, boarding school, Jack the Ripper, and ghosts, and then remove half of those things? A book that is reasonably good but which I just cannot love with anything approaching the ardor I originally felt.

The Shadow Cabinet offers a lot more information about the cult and their goals, introduces the concept of powerful stones that prevent London from being overrun by spirits as well as a secret society tasked with protecting them, and unleashes creepy, evil siblings Sid and Sadie upon the world. More attention, though, is devoted to Rory’s personal plight. Now in hiding from family and friends after running away from Wexford, she and the team are searching everywhere for one of their own who they believe has become a ghost.

The resolution to book two’s cliffhanger is pretty satisfying, I must admit, and I found that I did care a lot about whether certain characters made it out of Sid and Sadie’s proximity unscathed. I also really liked getting to know more about Thorpe, the group’s MI-5 overseer, and that Rory apparently receives permission to tell her two closest friends from Wexford what’s really been going on. And then there’s also the part where Stephen asks the bad guys, “Do you want to test that theory?” which surely must be another Buffy reference, right?

I’m still looking forward to the fourth book, which I believe is going to be the last in the series, but I must admit that my expectations are lower now than they once were.

Uninvited by Sophie Jordan

uninvitedbook description:
When Davy tests positive for Homicidal Tendency Syndrome, aka “the kill gene,” she loses everything. Once the perfect high school senior, she is uninvited from her prep school and abandoned by her friends and boyfriend. Even her parents are now afraid of her—although she’s never hurt a fly. Davy doesn’t feel any differently, but genes don’t lie. One day she will kill someone.

Without any say in the matter, Davy is thrown into a special class for HTS carriers. She has no doubt the predictions are right about them, especially Sean, who already bears the “H” tattoo as proof of his violence. Yet when the world turns on the carriers, Sean is the only one she can trust. Maybe he’s not as dangerous as he seems. Or maybe Davy is just as deadly.

Review:
We meet Davina (Davy) Hamilton in March 2021, when she is about to graduate from her prestigious prep school and proceed on to Juilliard. Davy is a special snowflake musical prodigy who is also gorgeous, with a studly boyfriend many other girls covet. She’s also not shy about congratulating herself for these things.

Her privileged existence comes to an end when routine screening reveals that she carries the gene for HTS—Homicidal Tendency Syndrome. She is promptly uninvited from her swanky school and sent to a class for “carriers” at the local public school, where some of the kids are obviously creeps but others seem as normal and harmless as Davy insists she is. Carriers are treated poorly by society, and when an angry group of them perpetrates a mass shooting, all carriers are rounded up and sent to detention camps. Davy and a couple of classmates, however, are diverted into a program where they train to kill on government command.

While there were a few things I liked about Uninvited, I must admit that it was not especially good. Original-flavor Davy is not a sympathetic character, but she does eventually realize that she used to be a pretty crappy person and that her friends and boyfriend never truly cared about her. I also found the repeated references to music in her head puzzling—as a musician myself, it’s true that I usually have a song (or at least unformed noodling) in my head, but I thought this was normal for everyone, and not a sign of genius as we are evidently supposed to believe here.

Too, the writing is sometimes weirdly choppy, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. Is it simply bad writing or is it an attempt to convey how grim the situation is? If that’s the case, why use it during a scene where Davy’s boyfriend seems to accept her, kill gene and all?

I need this. So much. His arms. His love.

That’s just one example. I confess that I eventually started internally reading these in a flat robot voice to amuse myself. Jordan sometimes seems to mix up musical terms, too, like when Davy refers to the “pitch” of an aria, or that her body sways to the “harmony.” Plus, there were two instances of “y’all” being spelled “ya’ll.” Can you become an editor without understanding how contractions are formed? Apparently, at Harper Teen you can!

So, irritating main character, bizarre writing style… what is there to like? Well, the concept itself is kind of interesting, and because I didn’t particularly care about anyone, their misfortunes didn’t cause me any anxiety. The portion of the novel set in the training program is the strongest, with Davy becoming determined not only to become strong in her own right, but buying into the claim that if she does well enough, the government will have the neck tattoo proclaiming her as a violent carrier removed.

In the end, I find myself interested enough to read the sequel, Unleashed, though I am very grateful that this series is not a trilogy.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-book-cover-medDescription:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Review:
I am one of those people who hears about a new movie generating some buzz and, instead of going to see it, thinks, “I should read the book that is based on.” And so it was that I came to read Gone Girl without actually knowing much about it. To sum up: Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. They were happy at first, but things have not been going well recently. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears and suspicion quickly settles on Nick.

For the first half of the book, narration alternates between Nick in the present and Amy in the past (courtesy of her diary). While Nick deals with the police investigation, a steady stream of unsavory discoveries about him ensues. He has also seemingly inherited his father’s misogynist rage, even if he is better at not speaking those thoughts out loud. Amy, meanwhile, recounts how they met and the early, halcyon days of their relationship before recent entries depict her as afraid that her husband might do her harm. This segment of the novel is perhaps the strongest, as it forces readers to question whether they ought to have sympathy for Nick or not. Dislikable though he may be, some apparently damning incidents are really just due to (occasionally excruciating) ineptitude.

And then there is a big twist, which I shan’t spoil. Alas, rather than making things more interesting, it ushers in a period of boring interludes and exposes even more character flaws, of the “crass and profane” or “snivelly and petulant” varieties. Granted, no one enjoys reading about perfect people, but I usually prefer there to be at least one character to legitimately care about. Still, I carried on, but was beginning to look forward to the book simply being over already. And yet it seemingly refused to end. Something would happen and you’d think, “Okay, that’s the revelation that wraps everything up.” But then it wouldn’t be! It would just keep going.

True, the final twist was something that, although the clues were there, I failed to see coming. So kudos for that. And yet, I find I can’t really recommend the book. I suspect that the movie is much better, because the story is condensed into 149 minutes, and presumably omits Nick’s often odious inner thoughts, but I doubt I’ll ever feel the urge to watch it. I must, however, award some points for the reference to the classic Pace Picante Sauce commercial, as my involuntary reaction to anyone mentioning New York City is to think “New York City?!?!”

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

ketchup_cloudsFrom the front flap:
Zoe has an unconventional pen pal—Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.

Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe’s letters, but at least somebody will know her story—somebody who knows what it’s like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

Review:
When a complicated love triangle results in the death of one of the parties involved, British teenager “Zoe” is wracked with guilt, especially since no one realizes the part she played in all of it. Unable to keep it in anymore, Zoe ends up writing anonymously to Stuart Harris, an inmate on death row in Texas for killing his wife, figuring he will understand how she feels. As her letters, written at night in the backyard shed, proceed chronologically through the events leading to the fateful night, Harris’ execution inexorably nears.

The whole concept of this novel put me in mind of John Marsden (a compliment). Initially, I thought of Letters from the Inside, though really the similarities are few between those works. More, this resembles something like So Much to Tell You or Winter, in which a teenage heroine attempts to get over a tragedy in her past that is gradually revealed to the audience.

Pitcher does a good job maintaining the suspense, and at varying times I desperately wanted either to peek or not to peek at the ending. Better still, and like Marsden, the true focus here is on forgiveness and healing. I found Zoe a very appealing character, the funny and creative sort I would’ve liked to be friends with in high school. (Bonus points for owning a fountain pen!) True, she makes mistakes, but never does anything outright dumb. And I liked her family, too, particularly the bond between the sisters and the way in which Zoe realizes she’s got someone closer to home who can relate to what she’s going through.

Another thing I really appreciated was how Zoe behaved around the two boys in her life, brothers Max and Aaron. She was never not herself, never downplayed her own interests and enthusiasms, and it was shown to be this quality that made her most attractive. The love triangle also didn’t resolve quite in the way I was expecting to, and while I mostly really like the ending, I will always be annoyed when a guy makes a decision on a girl’s behalf.

Ultimately, I liked Ketchup Clouds a lot. This was Pitcher’s second novel, and at some point I intend to check out her first, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.

A Bevy of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the first in what will be a series of posts collecting reviews of these books in a somewhat shorter-than-usual format. In this installment: Afterimage, Bad Bargain, Blooded, Carnival of Souls, One Thing or Your Mother, and Portal Through Time. All are set during the show’s second season.

Afterimage by Pierce Askegren
I’m pretty sure Afterimage is set between “What’s My Line” and “Ted”—the former is a definite, despite the season being referred to as early autumn even though “What’s My Line” takes place after Halloween, but the latter is a guess based on a couple of thoughts Joyce has about needing to get out more, which the author (writing in 2006) might’ve intended as a lead-in to “Ted.”

The book gets off to a slow start and, in fact, not much seems to happen for the first sixty pages. Our heroes encounter some strange folks about town, and it’s pretty obvious to the reader that “Hey, these are characters from the movies being shown at the new drive-in!” but it takes quite a while for the characters to catch up. That said, around page 100 things begin to improve, which is right about where Jonathan appears. I knew he was in this, and was hoping for more of an active role. Sadly, all he does is go to the movies with Xander and then get afflicted by a mysterious sleeping sickness, along with 29 other Sunnydale residents.

Speaking of the drive-in, it occurred to me that this is totally a Sailor Moon plot. Creepy yet charismatic bad guy comes into town and advertises a free drive-in. The local residents swarm the place and then creepy guy feeds on their energy. Our heroine destroys the evil projector with her tiara machete, and the bad guy dissolves. He does not, alas, proclaim “Refresh!”

Still, this was a pretty enjoyable outing, and had some nice touches, like a glimpse at Xander’s bickering parents, a spot-on depiction of petulant Harmony, and Cordelia demonstrating her intelligence and leadership skills. In fact, while Buffy is important, I think Xander comes across more like the protagonist of this one, which is a nice change.

Bad Bargain by Diana G. Gallagher
Bad Bargain is set in season two (between “What’s My Line?” and “Ted” would be my guess) but written in 2006, three years after the end of the series, which allows author Diana G. Gallagher to use her knowledge of later events to color what would otherwise be a fairly dull tale of demonic critters infesting a rummage sale.

In another of her attempts to recapture a normal teen life, Buffy is volunteering at the school rummage sale to benefit the marching band. She’s roped Willow and Xander into participating, too, and this scintillating event has even come to the attention of Spike and Dru, who head to Sunnydale High for a spot of shoplifting. All goes awry when a spell to locate one kid’s missing amulet ends up inviting a host of microscopic Hellmouth beasties, who proceed to infect most of those present. The day is ultimately, of course, saved, though Willow theoretically suffers trauma from being parted from the cute-looking critter who beguiled her into becoming its protector. That part is kind of dumb (and I didn’t think Gallagher captured Drusilla’s mode of speech well, either).

What’s interesting, though, is that Andrew is in this. In fact, he and Jonathan have fairly prominent roles, which I thought was quite fun. In a nice bit of dramatic irony, Jonathan has become possessed by some demonic whip thing and subsequently angsts when he realizes that he nearly killed his best friend. In addition, Gallagher includes a few comments that suggest that these events spurred actions by the characters as seen in the show. For example, Oz muses about painting his van and, after the pests have been sent back where they belong, Princpal Snyder remarks, “Next year’s fund-raiser for the marching band will be something simple, like selling candy.” Hee!

Blooded by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
It’s difficult to pinpoint the timeline for this one. Angel’s stint as Angelus is mentioned, as is the death of Jenny Calendar, but he was apparently able to regain his soul in a way that did not involve Willow. (This book was published in August 1998, and I have to wonder if Whedon wasn’t willing to give away the plot details for the season two finale, so Golden and Holder had to be super vague about it.) I do think this is the end of season two—despite what Wikipedia claims—because Oz and Willow’s relationship is still new, her hair is still long, etc.

Anyway, the gang goes to a museum for a field trip and Willow ends up freeing and being possessed by the spirit of an ancient Chinese vampire-sorcerer. She gathers minions, attacks Xander, and causes her friends to fret. Eventually, Xander gets possessed by a Japanese mountain god and there’s a big battle and spells and Giles wears a headband with a kanji on it. In the end the day is saved through teamwork (yes, really).

On the whole, this book is pretty boring. However, there are a few things to recommend it. For every two or three bits of clunky dialogue, there is occasionally one that is at least slightly amusing or which I can easily hear in the actor’s voice. It was also prescient about a few things. Cordelia’s lack of skill as an actress is mentioned, which will come into play on Angel, and she makes the comment, “I’ll never admit it if you tell her I said it, but I’d hate to think about what Sunnydale would be like if we didn’t have a Slayer in town.” This is interesting, because she is the one who allows us to see exactly that in season three’s “The Wish.” There’s also some good stuff here with Willow’s desire for power and strength, and how that made her vulnerable to the vampire-sorcerer dude. Most of the resulting darkness is played as his fault, but it dovetails nicely with her eventual character arc on the show.

In the end, there are far better Buffy tie-in books, but this wasn’t too bad.

Carnival of Souls by Nancy Holder
Carnival of Souls turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting. Wedged snugly between “Ted” and “Surprise,” the story is set around the episode “Bad Eggs,” which is a great place to put it because, hey, if the book’s at least moderately good, it’ll still be on par with that notoriously rather lame episode.

The premise is that a carnival has come to town, and its proprietor is some kind of devil demon thing that uses prisms to hypnotize visitors into giving in to the temptation of the seven deadly sins so that it might feed off of their souls. Our heroes are not immune, so Buffy becomes proud, Cordelia greedy, Xander gluttonous, Willow envious, Giles angry, Angel lustful, and Joyce slothful.

Really, the specifics of the carnival itself are not very interesting. What I most liked were the many scenes of the group all together, doing their investigation thing, and how good a lot of the dialogue was. Some of Xander’s lines are especially easy to hear in the actor’s voice, and I actually laughed at one of Buffy’s mid-slaying puns. Plus, I liked that they gave Jenny Calendar something significant to contribute.

All in all, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if not for the matter of the kittens.

Early on, Giles acquires a pair of kittens with the intent to use them as payment to Clem in exchange for information, fully cognizant they’ll be used as currency in a demonic poker game. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when Angry!Giles summons a demon that destroys his apartment, no one asks what happened to the kitties, including Buffy and Willow, who were loving on them in a previous scene! Still worse, if you interpret the text in a certain way, you might conclude that Giles sacrificed them as part of the ritual. Ugh! Why?! It was absolutely not necessary to include them and taint this otherwise decent book.

One Thing or Your Mother by Kirsten Beyer
One Thing or Your Mother is the best Buffy tie-in novel that I have ever read. Well done, Kirsten Beyer! I’m sorry that, as this is also the last Buffy tie-in novel to be published, you never got to write another one.

Set between “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Go Fish,” One Thing or Your Mother finds Buffy contending with several different problems. Aside from the recurring menace of Angelus, there’s the fact that Joyce has been contacted by the school about her daughter’s poor grades (with the end result that Buffy acquires a tutor), the disappearance of a young girl followed by sightings of a child vampire, and the strange behavior exhibited by Principal Snyder that ultimately imperils the whole town. True, none of these elements is particularly exciting, but each is competently executed, and done in a way that has bearing on what’s going to happen next in the series.

Where Beyer really shines is in capturing the characters—not just in dialogue, at which she admittedly excels, but in thought as well. Too many times to count, the thoughts attributed to Buffy and the others in these books have been downright insipid, but not this time. In addition, the scenes with the Scooby Gang together in the library are so spot-on they’re just about episode quality. Granted, this doesn’t match up to the very best of Buffy—a lot of which can be found in season two—but with a little reworking and simplifying, this could’ve made a solid episode better than the worst of Buffy—some of which can also be found in season two. I also thought Beyer did a great job with Spike.

Perhaps once I’ve completed this project I’ll have to come up with the Top Ten Buffy Novels for those who only want to read the cream of the crop. One Thing or Your Mother has definitely secured itself a spot on that list.

Portal Through Time by Alice Henderson
Set between “Bad Eggs” and “Surprise,” Alice Henderson’s Portal Through Time evidently takes place very early in 1998, because Buffy is still sixteen (she turns seventeen on January 19th) and Angel has not yet lost his soul. A vampire called Lucien has done a lot of research into time-traveling magic and recruits some assistants to help him with his plan: go back in time and kill four very famous Slayers so as to disrupt the line and allow the Master (of whom he is a devotee) to rise unimpeded. Angel gets wind of the plan, so Buffy and pals end up traveling to Wales in 60 C.E., to Sumeria in the time of Gilgamesh, to Tennessee during the Battle of Shiloh, and to Paris during the French Revolution.

Sometimes being a reviewer (or at least being one who sets geeky goals) means reading things so that others don’t have to. Such is the case with Portal Through Time. Although there are some things Henderson does well—I like her attempts to recapture the feel of the show by employing quick cuts between scenes to humorous effect, for example—the overall concept of a magical means to travel back in time is just not very well thought out.

For one, if such magic did exist, you can bet that Willow would’ve used it to wipe out Warren before he could do harm to anyone she cared about. And two, even within this book there are complications and possibilities that are not pursued. Near the end, for example, Buffy stakes Angelus and then reuses the incantation to go back in time to the same spot and keep that from happening. So why does everyone seem so secure that once they’ve thwarted the vamps in a given time period the Slayer is now safe? The vamps could just go back and try again!

On top of this, Henderson’s writing is frequently redundant, like when she reiterates several times that if the vampires arrive at their destination during the day they will have to wait until nightfall to take action, and sometimes just plain bad. During an interminable passage in which Buffy is creeping through the woods around the perimeter of Shiloh, she ends up getting shot in the leg and suddenly develops a fondness for deer. Behold:

She forced herself to focus on the grand trees and shadowed valleys, golden fields in which the deer gathered at dusk… She imagined the fields and groves of trees without the thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers, but instead full of foraging deer and black bear.

I should not be snickering when there are thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers in a scene. And maybe you see nothing wrong with that quote, but to me it sounds nothing like Buffy and is just the author clumsily inserting an anti-war message.

Sometimes it can be fun to read a lousy book, but in the end this one is just too long and boring for me to recommend doing even that.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

thousand-dollarFrom the back cover:
Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

Review:
I have been a fan of Veronica Mars from almost the beginning. I tuned in about midway through the first season, after reading about the show on the sadly now-defunct Television Without Pity website, and vividly recall how it quickly became appointment television, and how absolutely riveted I was watching the season finales for the first and second seasons. I mourned the show when it was cancelled, and when a friend forwarded me the link to the Kickstarter campaign for the movie last spring, I was practically delirious with squee. Finally, a few weeks ago, I went to see the movie (after pre-ordering tickets the minute they were available, naturally).

I admit I was a little disappointed the first time through—ninety minutes just wasn’t enough time to flesh out both relationships and the case—but I did like it more upon a second viewing. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line continues the story from where the movie leaves off, and while I was a little unsure at first, I was soon won over by the characterization and the luxury of more time to spend with these characters, inhabiting their world.

A couple months have passed since the events of the movie. While Keith has been recuperating from his injuries, Veronica has been manning Mars Investigations, not that any challenging cases have come along. When a college girl in Neptune for spring break goes missing, however, a representative from the city’s chamber of commerce comes to the Mars family for help, since Sheriff Lamb’s inactivity on the case is resulting in canceled reservations and the loss of tourist revenue. Veronica’s ensuing investigation feels a lot like an episode from the third season of the show, from her dorm room interrogation of one suspect, to her tried-and-true drunk ditz routine at a party full of suspects. When a second girl with surprising ties to Veronica goes missing, things get even more complicated.

I thought the case was reasonably well executed, and the personal stakes for Veronica were intriguing, as well. Dialogue for all characters was great and easy to imagine in the actors’ voices; I even giggled a few times. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about the book being written in the third person, saying that it lacks the same feel as the series, but I found plenty of internal contemplation from Veronica that read just like the show’s voiceover narration to me. (I can only imagine this will be even more true in the unabridged audio version, read by Kristen Bell. I bought that, too, and plan to listen to it very soon.) Plus, we’re able to get some insights into her thoughts that she might not even narrate, like this nice quote about Wallace: “There weren’t many people in this world who would let you be vulnerable and still believe you were strong.”

Speaking of Wallace, another complaint I’ve seen regards the lack of Logan in this book—he’s on an aircraft carrier thousands of miles away, so it only makes sense—but I actually welcome it. The movie put their relationship front and center; now it’s time to focus on Veronica’s other relationships. To that end, we get several really nice scenes involving Mac (who’s now a technical analyst for Mars Investigations), Wallace, and Keith. There was just enough Logan to my reckoning.

I did have one complaint of my own for a while—two if you count that nobody caught Gia Goodman being referred to as Gia Goodwin. I wished we saw Veronica embarking on an even bigger case, like actively working to expose the corruption at the Sheriff’s Office or to find out who was responsible for the hit and run that injured her father and killed Deputy Sacks. However, I eventually realized that there actually was a big plot on the go—bringing Keith around to the idea that Veronica is doing what she’s meant to do (as opposed to being safe, well paid, and bored as a New York lawyer) . The ultimate resolution here is extremely satisfying, and I find myself very excited at the notion that the two of them could really function as full-fledged partners on a future case. More Keith is always a good thing!

Currently, only a second book in this series is guaranteed, and it has neither a title nor publication date at present, though Rob Thomas has promised more Logan. I suppose it goes without saying that I really, really hope for more beyond that. Give the diehard fans an inch, and they’ll ask for a mile!

Catching Up with Lynley and Havers

carelessinredCareless in Red
It’s been a while since I talked about an Elizabeth George book on the blog. I did read With No One as Witness, but spent so long digesting my reaction to the surprise ending (which had, admittedly, been spoiled for me by the author’s website) that I forgot many of the other details. And I started the next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, but as it doesn’t revolve around our main characters and is massively depressing, I quickly abandoned it. Skipping ahead to Careless in Red runs counter to my typical completist sensibilities, but I’m glad I did, even if it is rather lame in various respects.

In short, a murder has been committed in a surfing town in Cornwall where many of the residents are sex-obsessed. The culprit is revealed to be exactly who I thought it was (though I didn’t know why) and then everyone proceeds to have a sudden change of heart. The much-put-upon husband casts off his horrid wife. The rebellious son decides to make a sincere attempt at learning his father’s business. The cantankerous grandpa decides to honor his granddaughter’s wish to become a nun. (Seriously, why were they even in this book? Their only contribution to the mystery was that the victim had once made a comment to the girl that she relayed to the police.) At least Lynley is the protagonist in this one and, even though we aren’t treated to any sections from her point of view, Havers has a decent role, as well. I swear she just brightened up the whole book when she appeared. I do so love Havers.

thisbodyofdeathThis Body of Death
Isabelle Ardery, a character from Playing for the Ashes who didn’t even merit a mention in my review of that book, is back, taking on the Acting Detective Superintendent role vacated by Lynley. And boy, is she unsympathetic. She’s an alcoholic for one and makes several bad decisions (often seemingly out of pride or pique) regarding the case at hand (a young woman has been murdered in a local cemetery). She is able, though, to get Lynley to come back to Scotland Yard, and in the end the thoroughly broken pair ends up as lovers. While I do not like her at all, it is at least in character for Lynley to have terrible taste in women (Deborah, anyone?) aside from Lady Helen.

Havers has more to do this time (yay!) but I object to some extreme rationalization at the end regarding her unwillingness to call for backup. Yes, Havers is very stubborn, but I just got the feeling that George knew a reasonable officer would’ve called for backup in the situation Havers found herself in, but in order to get her big, dramatic conclusion to work, she had to get Havers to wait. Also, is George trying to insinuate that Havers is in love with Lynley? Her reaction to Lynley and Ardery’s relationship makes me wonder. I really don’t want this to be true. They should be like Donna and The Doctor.

Overall, though, This Body of Death is an improvement over Careless in Red. The case is more interesting and twisty, with various elements that connect well in ways I did not predict. The only really obvious revelation—and I’m honestly not sure it was supposed to be a surprise to the reader, given the way the book is structured—regards one character’s involvement in a past crime. Not the best Elizabeth George, but not terrible, either.

believingthelieBelieving the Lie
AUGH! I HATE DEBORAH ST. JAMES SO FREAKING MUCH! I mean, I have intensely disliked her for some time, but her idiotic actions in this book, most irritatingly excused by Lynley and Simon, have caused my feelings to progress into outright hatred. When Lynley is tasked with quietly verifying that the accidental drowning of a rich dude’s nephew really was an accident, he enlists Simon and Deborah’s help. Deborah, true to irrational form, becomes obsessed with ferreting out a secret held by one of the peripheral characters and ends up running off on her own to pursue it, which ultimately leads to tragedy. And, of course, it all has to do with having babies, which is Deborah’s primary fixation, even though she’s such a damned moron that I’d feel bad for any kid growing up under her care.

The rest of the book wasn’t so great, either. Though it finishes with much drama, it starts off terribly dull. One subplot I could’ve done without entirely involved a tabloid reporter who was having trouble finding a story salacious enough to suit his editor. He ultimately served almost no purpose whatsoever, except to give Deborah a ride on several occasions. And I was mad at myself for getting a bit misty-eyed over the resolution to another subplot, since it replicates almost exactly one that appeared just two books ago! Lynley seems to be sleepwalking through most of what occurs, and though something spurs him at the end to begin trying to move on from Helen’s death, I’m not exactly sure what that was.

Once again, the best bits were the Havers bits. The volume ends with a cliffhanger that will lead us into the next book, and I’m glad I won’t have to wait years for it. I’m a little worried that Barbara is going to do something to jeopardize her career at Scotland Yard, but if it can lead to happiness in her personal life, or even a glimmer of hope for future happiness, it will probably be worth it.

justoneevilactJust One Evil Act
I wanted so much to love this book, but it persisted in being so thoroughly frustrating and awful that in the end, I very nearly hate it instead.

Angelina Upman, mother of Havers’ sweet nine-year-old neighbor Hadiyyah, returns to her former lover’s life briefly before absconding with her daughter to Italy, where her new man awaits. Azhar (Hadiyyah’s father) does something stupid to try to get Hadiyyah back, Angelina eventually ends up dead, and Barbara does so very, very many thunderingly stupid things throughout that she’s probably tarnished forever now in my eyes, which makes me quite sad indeed. It’s completely in character for her to do what she can for Azhar. I mean, I get that, and I get how he and his daughter are practically the only thing in her life besides her job, but she persists in believing she can bend a tabloid journalist to her will, but it only ever gets her further into the shit. (Meanwhile, readers are treated to innumerable, interminable conversations between the two of them. George also throws in tons of random Italian words throughout; it’s both annoying and pretentious.)

I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer. Instead, the best parts of this book were other people, namely Lynley, who makes progress in getting over Helen, and the charming Italian detective, who seems kind of sweet on Barbara.

It literally took me months to finish this. I cannot recommend it. And yet… can I give up a series I have stuck with for so long? Time will tell, I suppose.

Tess Monaghan, Books 1-4 by Laura Lippman

In the mood for a new mystery series, I decided to check out the Tess Monaghan books by Laura Lippman. They’re compulsively readable, inspiring me to proceed to the next in the series practically immediately, but I found I hadn’t much to say about each. Therefore, a column of brief reviews was clearly called for!

baltimorebluesBaltimore Blues introduces us to 29-year-old Baltimore native Tess Monaghan, underemployed former newspaper reporter and fitness buff, who undertakes a surveillance job for a rowing buddy whose fiancée has been acting weird. There wouldn’t be much of a book if this assignment didn’t turn out to be more than she bargained for, and in due course, a famous local lawyer is dead and the rowing buddy the chief suspect.

Now retained by the buddy’s lawyer, Tess continues to snoop about. She’s just supposed to be finding enough information to achieve reasonable doubt, but is instead driven to solve the mystery. And, ultimately, she does. It was an outcome that I didn’t expect, and the various plot threads and loose ends are wrapped up reasonably tidily, though the suggestion that a second killer is still roaming free was relegated to one blink-and-you-miss-it sort of line.

Tess herself is a little bit generic at this point, but she’s likeable enough. It’s interesting that she’s an investigator who isn’t technically tied to law enforcement, so she’s not obliged to divulge full details about crimes, with the flip side that because she lacks status she probably couldn’t divulge anything anyway without irrefutable proof. Baltimore emerges as a character of its own, too, and I loved that there was a Homicide: Life on the Street shoutout. Actually, there was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reference, too. Does Lippman know how to woo me, or what?

charmcityCharm City is the second in the Tess Monaghan series, set about five months after the first book. Tess has both a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend for the first time in two years, but her boss encourages her to accept an offer to investigate how an inflammatory story, originally not on the printing schedule, wound up on the front page of the local newspaper. Eventually, deaths ensue. Meanwhile, some shady guys hospitalize her uncle Spike and stalk Tess and her family members.

The good things about this sophomore outing revolve around Tess and her personal relationships. She comes into sharper focus as a character, first of all, but also makes some serious changes and/or mistakes in her personal life. And yet, this doesn’t read like one of those chick lit mystery series—my mind goes immediately to Meg Cabot’s dreadful Size 12 Is Not Fat—where the protagonist seems too easily distracted by the male characters. Tess just seems… normal.

On the negative side, the subplot (involving the aforementioned shady guys) was a real yawner and there were a couple of instances where twists were really obvious to the reader, making Tess appear incredibly slow on the uptake. And though the final big reveal did surprise me, in retrospect it shouldn’t have, because it was essentially the same gimmick used in the first book! Is a pattern forming? As I head into book three, I will definitely be looking for a certain type of character and setting my suspicious sights on them from the start.

Overall, Charm City was a little disappointing, but certainly not bad. Onward ho!

butchershillIn Butchers Hill, Tess has set up shop as a private investigator in a not-so-great part of town. Her first two clients are looking for children—one wants to make amends to the witnesses of a crime he committed five years ago, while another wants to know that the daughter she put up for adoption is doing alright. Neither client has been completely honest with Tess, however.

This was a really interesting installment of the series. I appreciate that Lippman was able to create multiple African-American characters who feel like full-fledged, sympathetic individuals (though I do wonder what an African-American reader would make of them). There’s commentary here on race relations in Baltimore, among other things, but it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. I also like that Tess is not strictly a homicide investigator, though her cases have all involved murder eventually.

Speaking of murder, after Charm City, I was a little worried that it would be easy to predict the perpetrators in subsequent books, but actually, I didn’t see this one coming. And that’s a good thing, though the reason why I didn’t was that it was a rather implausible twist. Despite that (and the one aspect of the ending that I predicted), the conclusion to this one is surprisingly affecting. I hope some of these new characters stick around.

inbigtroubleIn Big Trouble takes Tess away from her hometown of Baltimore and into the unfamiliar environment of San Antonio, Texas. When she receives an anonymous letter that Crow, her former boyfriend, is in big trouble in Texas, Tess ends up contracted by his parents to track him down. She finds Crow in fairly short order, but he is greatly changed and is also involved with a crazy young woman whose influential local family is tied to a notorious murder 21 years ago.

This was a bit of a weird one. I can’t say I disliked it, or that I predicted anything about it, but Tess is so off-balance personally for the duration that it sort of feels like the story never really gets… grounded, or something. Unlike the others in the series, I was able to set this one aside for a long time—like, weeks—and didn’t feel any particular urge to get back to it. That said, I did think the San Antonio setting was portrayed well, and Lippman successfully instilled a serious hankering for some authentic Mexican food.

In the end, I’m enjoying the Tess Monaghan series quite a lot! I’m going to take a break here for a bit, but I do intend to return to the series in the near future.

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Book description:
It was a senselessly violent crime: on a cold night in a remote Swedish farmhouse an elderly farmer is bludgeoned to death, and his wife is left to die with a noose around her neck. And as if this didn’t present enough problems for the Ystad police Inspector Kurt Wallander, the dying woman’s last word is “foreign,” leaving the police the one tangible clue they have—and in the process, the match that could inflame Sweden’s already smoldering anti-immigrant sentiments.

Unlike the situation with his ex-wife, his estranged daughter, or the beautiful but married young prosecuter who has piqued his interest, in this case, Wallander finds a problem he can handle. He quickly becomes obsessed with solving the crime before the already tense situation explodes, but soon comes to realize that it will require all his reserves of energy and dedication to solve.

Review:
I reckon that most people would think, quite reasonably, that a mystery with a name like Faceless Killers would be riveting. Unfortunately, those people would be wrong.

I’d been aware of the acclaim that some Scandinavian crime fiction has garnered in recent years, and the Wallander series seemed the most visible—not saying it’s the best of the lot, but there is that Kenneth Branagh series on the BBC—so I decided to start there, and with the first book in the series.

It’s January 1990 when a seventy-year-old man wakes in the night, sure he’s heard something amiss at his neighbor’s house. He’s right—the couple inside has been brutally murdered, and the wife’s dying words (as well as one particular detail about the crime) suggest involvement by one or more of the many foreign refugees flooding into Sweden. Wallander and his team investigate.

I like to think I could’ve pegged this for a first book in a series even if I hadn’t known. There’s just so much to give that away. Wallander has a set of stereotypical “detective issues,” for one, including a drinking problem, an estranged wife and daughter, a crazy parent, and a thoroughly random obsession for opera. (Perhaps the specificity of “opera” isn’t quite a stereotype, but I have definitely encountered several detectives who randomly groove to classical music while on the job.) The vast majority of the policemen in the background are utterly indistinguishable from one another, with the exception of one guy who might not be around in subsequent installments. Wallander’s personal issues miraculously resolve themselves off-camera in a fast-forward that happens towards the end of the book. Occasionally, characters engage in pointless debates/rants about immigration policy. And after much plodding around, the case is ultimately solved thanks to the conveniently (and implausibly) amazing memory of one witness.

It took me ages to get through the first half of the book, but things did pick up a little bit towards the end. Wallander’s transformation into someone more positive doesn’t feel earned, as it mostly happens during that fast-forwarded period, but it does make him a character that I’d have more interest in revisiting. Until the point he got over the wife and made up with the daughter and father, I was pretty sure I would not be coming back, but if he can shed at least some of the clichéd personal baggage, there may be hope.