Never to be told: a review of Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

In Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, social tensions, and playing-for-keeps politics form a potent, sometimes deadly milieu. And whodunit? is never an easy question in this twisty, brilliantly plotted world.Seven for a Secret

“Whimpering, Varker looked up at Val and made a timid effort to pull his hand free.
We heard a grind of loose bone, followed by a tiny shriek. My throat constricted.
My brother is a dangerous man.
‘I haven’t been paying attention,’ Val remarked in a conversational manner. ‘Damned if there wasn’t something else on my mind. So tell me—what play were you aiming to make with that snapper, drawing it like a heathen without a fair warning?'”

– Seven for a Secret, Lyndsay Faye

In Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, social tensions, and playing-for-keeps politics form a potent, sometimes deadly milieu. Floods of Irish immigrants are arriving daily to escape the potato famine; people die of starvation with regularity, and there isn’t enough work to go around. Excitement, danger, and various illegalities are the norm, and Timothy Wilde, copper star of the newly minted New York Police Department, is doing his best to figure out whodunit. But whodunit? is never an easy question in this twisty, brilliantly plotted world.

Continue reading “Never to be told: a review of Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye”

The glare of celebrity: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

 

cuckoo's calling

“Somé picked up his mint tea. ‘Why do women do it? Cuckoo, too. . . she wasn’t stupid—actually, she was razor sharp—so what did she see in Evan Duffield? I’ll tell you,’ he said without pausing for an answer. ‘It’s that wounded-poet crap, that soul-pain shit, that too-much-of-a-tortured-genius-to-wash bollocks. Brush your teeth, you little bastard. You’re not fucking Byron.'”

The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith

Well, we all know the secret of Robert Galbraith and his debut novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. Galbraith, of course, is the pseudonym of JK Rowling. (If you somehow missed the story, check out this article in the New York Times.) Unfortunately, I would likely not have heard about this book if its provenance hadn’t been revealed, but I wish I’d read it unhindered by the knowledge of who its author is. It’s impossible to read without bring a boatload of expectations and assumptions to the table. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read my beloved Harry Potter books, and yet I absolutely despised Rowling’s adult debut A Casual Vacancy. How, then, to read a mystery that was published with the specific intent of enjoying critical reviews and audience response without being associated with the Rowling powerhouse?

Fortunately, The Cuckoo’s Calling returns to Rowling’s greatest strength: compelling narrative. Rowling is a master storyteller, and in this contemporary murder mystery there’s plenty of story to go around. Private investigator Cormoran Strike is physically imposing, mentally sharp, and socially a bit gruff. His girlfriend has left him (again), he’s sleeping in his office, and he’s in pain due to the leg he lost as a Military Policeman in Afghanistan. Not to mention he can barely pay his bills, including the salary of bright, eager temp secretary Robin Ellacott. When John Bristow, an old school chum, turns up with a case, Cormoran can hardly say no, especially because Bristow is prepared to overpay him grandly. Bristow’s adopted sister, ultra-famous supermodel Lula Landry, has apparently committed suicide, but Bristow is convinced she was murdered.

Continue reading “The glare of celebrity: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith”

The haggis did it: a review of Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison

Murder doesn’t take a holiday in C.C. Benison’s Father Christmas Mysteries. In Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in his new series, Father Tom Christmas just can’t seem to find the “quiet” part of a quiet country life.
Tom, a widowed vicar, is still settling into Thornford Regis, his home for the past ten months. He’s moved himself and his young daughter Miranda to the tiny village in the wake of his wife’s unsolved murder in order to get them away from violence.

Eleven Pipers Piping

 “Dear Mum,
Something dreadful has happened—much, MUCH worse than my troubles with the Yorkshire pudding.”

 Eleven Pipers Piping, C.C. Benison 

Murder doesn’t take a holiday in C.C. Benison’s Father Christmas Mysteries. In Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in his new series, Father Tom Christmas just can’t seem to find the “quiet” part of a quiet country life.

Tom, a widowed vicar, is still settling into Thornford Regis, his home for the past ten months. He’s moved himself and his young daughter Miranda to the tiny village in the wake of his wife’s unsolved murder in order to get them away from violence. But death seems to find them. In the first installment, Twelve Drummers Drumming, a young woman was found dead and stuffed inside a Japanese taiko drum. This time around, Father Tom has been asked to officiate at the annual Robbie Burns’ Night dinner.

And he’s not terribly pleased about it. While he doesn’t want to alienate any of the influential townsfolk, he also really, really hates haggis and bagpipe music. Still, off he goes, only to be snowed in with half of the titular pipe band, the family who owns the inn, and a mysterious stranger (of course!). But all does not end well for this particular feast, for Will Moir, the hotel’s proprietor and member of the pipe band, turns up in his tower study dead—poisoned, to be specific.

Continue reading “The haggis did it: a review of Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison”

Crape, Black, and Half-Mourning: A review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart

The Maharaja is dead, the doctor has driven his bicycle into the Thames, and the pigeon pie might be poisoned. It’s all just a day in the life of the characters in Julia Stuart’s sly, crisply quirky The Pigeon Pie Mystery.

“As a matter of interest, how mad should one’s hatter be?

Tapping the tips of his fingers together, Mr. Wildgoose considered the question. “You would expect some degree of madness, of course, sir. But we advise our customers to stay clear of the certifiable. They have a tendency to overcharge, and many struggle with the brims, sir. Just nicely mad, sir. That’s what you want. Just nicely mad.”

– The Pigeon Pie Mystery, Julia Stuart

The Maharaja is dead, the doctor has driven his bicycle into the Thames, and the pigeon pie might be poisoned. It’s all just a day in the life of the characters in Julia Stuart’s sly, crisply quirky The Pigeon Pie Mystery.

The year is 1898. Daughter of an English noblewoman and an Indian Maharaja, Princess Alexandrina (nicknamed “Mink” at a young age because of her penchant for sleeping amongst her mother’s furs) finds herself without any option but to take up Her Royal Highness’s offer of a grace-and-favour warrant to live at Hampton Court Palace. Her father died in scandal and financial ruin, which has caused her fiancé to flee from the taint of impropriety. The palace is home to a number of nobles who no longer have the means to support themselves, but who have curried favour with the Queen.

Her new living quarters are free of charge though not free of intrigue, headaches, meddlesome housekeepers, and murder. Continue reading “Crape, Black, and Half-Mourning: A review of The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart”

Kicking Ass and Accounting for Cash: a review of The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton

Ava herself is one of my favourite new characters. She’s just got it together, and I love that she can by turns break noses and charm foreign diplomats, that if she needs to promise hundreds of thousands of dollars or blackmail sleazeballs, she doesn’t balk.

“I need to locate Seto. You know where he is, or at the very least how I can contact him. You have two options. You tell me what I want to know, or I’m going to make a hundred copies of that photo…and send them to your wife, your kids, your Atlanta neighbours, your parents, any siblings you have, your in-laws, and anyone you’re doing or have ever done business with.”

– The Water Rat of Wanchai, Ian Hamilton

I first caught wind of the mysterious Ava Lee on a subway poster advertising her adventures in the book The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, by Ian Hamilton. Ava is fearless, sexy, and lethal, the poster proclaimed, not to mention her profession: she’s a forensic accountant. Yay?

That was enough to pique my interest. Wuhan is the third book in Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, which are currently being published two a year. I picked up last year’s debut of the series The Water Rat of Wanchai to see what all the fuss was about. With an ass-kicking main character, an intriguing conundrum to solve, and a setting that encompasses Toronto, Seattle, Hong Kong, Thailand, Guyana, and the British Virgin Islands, Water Rat is off to a good start.

Ava is no ordinary accountant. Born in China to a successful businessman’s second wife (he has three families, each on a different continent) and brought up in a rich Chinese-Canadian community just north of Toronto, Ava Lee is extraordinary right from the start. Educated at a posh girls’ school, a disciple of bak mei, a traditional, exclusive, and highly lethal form of kung fu, fashionable and label-obsessed, gay, globe trotting, and bored with traditional accounting, Ava defies categorization. She and an older family friend, whom she respectfully refers to as “Uncle,” run a forensic accounting business: they will recover huge amounts of appropriated money for a modest one third of what they recover. And they’ll do it by any means necessary. Continue reading “Kicking Ass and Accounting for Cash: a review of The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton”

Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or “zoos.”

“The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the  colour of blood. It’s the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular…the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can’t be beautiful?”

“I settle on skinny jeans and a surprisingly tasteful black strappy top I borrow from one of the prostitutes on the third floor….when I say borrow, I mean rent. She assures me it’s clean. For thirty bucks, I’m dubious, but it passes the sniff test, so fuck it.”
– Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regular, law-abiding citizens are kept safe from the criminals, who have all been animalled.

That’s the premise of Lauren Beukes’ brilliantly conceived Zoo City. For reasons no one quite understands, when someone commits a heinous crime (it has to involve murder, it seems), their guilt manifests in the appearance of an animal companion. The human and animal share a link, and the human also derives a special power, or shavi, from this connection. Animals can range from butterflies to tapirs, penguins to panthers. Our main character, the feisty Zinzi December, has been animalled for a few years now because of her role in the death of her beloved brother. Her animal, Sloth, hangs from ropes in her squatter’s tenement when he isn’t draped around her neck, trying to keep her out of trouble.

An ex-journalist and ex–drug addict, Zinzi is out of prison and trying to pay off her substantial debts through various not-always-legal means. For starters, she and Sloth use Zinzi’s shavi, a gift for finding lost things. Zinzi can see psychic threads that connect people to their lost objects, and for a small fee she will crawl down into sewers to retrieve lost rings. But the real money is in the job she loathes: writing scripts for e-mail 419 scams, and occasionally acting the part of the rescued Nigerian princess or savvy South African business partner when the poor suckers being scammed out of their life savings show up in Johannesburg. When Zinzi is hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the missing twin sister in his youthful pop group sensation iJusi, she finds herself thrust back into her shiny, celebrity- and drug-centred old life while she also explores the criminal underbelly of her new world, and it isn’t entirely clear which part is worse, or more dangerous. Continue reading “Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes”

Murder, Mayhem, and Father Christmas: A review of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

We always get a wonderful cast in every Flavia book, be they murderous philatelists, puppeteers, gypsies, or, as is the case here, ciné folk. In Shadows, Buckshaw is being rented out by a film crew, including a famous director, actors, and their coterie.

 

“I had half a mind to march upstairs to my laboratory, fetch down the jar of cyanide, seize this boob’s nose, tilt his head back, pour the stuff down his throat, and hang the consequences.

Fortunately, good breeding kept me from doing so.”

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

Even if you haven’t read them, you’ve probably heard about the Flavia de Luce mysteries, which all started with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Set in the rural English town of Bishop’s Lacey in the 1950s, Alan Bradley’s world is a wonderfully charming place to sink into. And his protagonist, the eleven-year-old Flavia, is one of the best amateur detectives in recent literature. Young Flavia is a chemistry nut—with a special interest in poisons—and when she’s not contemplating the delightful properties of cyanide or lacing her older sister’s lipstick with an extract made from poison ivy, she’s zipping around Bishop’s Lacy on her trusty bicycle (whose name, incidentally, is Gladys) and finding her way into the hearts of murder investigations.

A review of a Flavia book really has to be about two things: the self-contained story within the book, and its place in the overall series, specifically how it forwards the overarching stories and mysteries of the de Luce household. Continue reading “Murder, Mayhem, and Father Christmas: A review of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley”