Fiction: “A Fatal Waltz” by Tasha Alexander

Fatal WaltzI just chipped one of my teeth on a Dorito. Since this night’s going great already, let’s get a review ready to post, huh?

(P.S., for my readers who come here via my Facebook page and realize, “Hey, wait, I thought Alaina chipped her tooth on a Dorito back on June 24, and here it is [ENTER DATE OF POSTING HERE July 6 {holy shit am I getting caught up? I mean, no, but that’s a way better spread of time!}] – did she chip a different tooth on a different Dorito!? What are the odds of that even happening?!”

And the answer, dear readers, is No – only a single tooth(*) has been felled by a Dorito.

(*) As of this writing, which is June 24th, 2019.

(**) I should also probably mention that I have previously broken the now-chipped tooth, back when I was a junior in high school. I think the filling or rebuild or whatever you call it has finally worn down enough to need to be replaced. It has been almost twenty years since I fell off that waterfall(***)…

(***) This is only a slight exaggeration. My family and I were hiking up Angel Falls in northern Maine, and my mother was in hopes of taking my senior picture for the yearbook.(****) On the way down the waterfall, I slipped and fell head-first into some rocks, breaking my bottom teeth. I am extremely lucky that that’s all that broke.

(****) My mother is still a bit mad that I eventually submitted a picture from a roller coaster for the yearbook. It is not what was distributed to the relatives.

But as for the time difference in the tooth-chipping and this review being posted: I have gotten into a [stupid] habit of trying to be at least three reviews ahead of my posting backlog. So for instance – I’m writing this blog on June 24th, but I’ve had the reviews for Luck Is No LadySweet Toothand Persuasion in my drafts queue for a while. Once I finish writing this post, I’m going to save it, and post the review for Luck Is No Lady. And when this post finally gets published, you can rest assured that I will have reviews lined up for at least … whatever the next three books in my queue are, I can’t tell, Excel won’t open right now.

“Okay, Alaina. Yeah, okay. Okay, Alaina. So – WHY DO YOU DO THIS?!” you ask.

ron's permit-1

 

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I DO WHAT I WANT LEAVE ME ALONE.)

Anyways.

As I think I said when I reviewed the last book in this series – though it could have been another book, who knows, I’m not going back to figure it out – I have to do a couple of things better. Number one, I need to do a better job about reading the next book in a series without waiting over a year, because it takes me a bit to remember who all the players are when I’m reading it. And secondly, I need to do better about either taking notes or marking pages in books that I own, because I have no notes or dogears in my copy of A Fatal Waltz so this might be an even shittier “review” than I normally do.

(Considering I’ve wasted nearly 600 words on a) a chipped tooth, b) how that tooth was originally broken, and c) how that affects my blog posting schedule, I apparently don’t have that much farther to slide on my “shitty” scale.)

Okay. So. Lady Emily – remember, she’s a widow, in 1890s Britain – has gotten engaged to Colin Hargreaves, her husband’s best friend. (It’s cool, though – read the past two books if you’re concerned.) And she is invited to a weekend garden party in the country by her best friend Ivy. Emily hates a couple of the people who are also there – including Lord Fortescue, the mentor of Ivy’s husband – but because Emily loves Ivy, she goes.

In addition to the awful Lord Fortescue, there’s also Kristiana von Lange, an Austrian countess, who used to “work” “with” Colin.

Oh shit. I never mentioned – Colin’s a spy for the War Office (or whatever they’re calling the War Office at this point in British history). So that “work” is “spy stuff”, but also, think about how James Bond “works” with Vesper Lynd.

However, Colin is extremely faithful to Emily. But a good portion of the plot (as I remember it, nearly nine months later) is made up of Emily trying to reason out of her jealousy towards Kristiana. And Kristiana is not a good sport, who stands aside when her former lover becomes engaged to another woman. Oh, no – she tries to take her lover back, even though she know she doesn’t want him forever.

So anyway. All those awful people are at this weekend garden party, and Emily is pretty miserable whenever she’s not hiding in the hallway, discreetly making out with Colin.

But then Lord Fortescue is murdered, and the prime suspect is Ivy’s husband, Robert.

Emily is determined to prove Robert’s innocence, and the clues take her and her entourage – consisting of Cécile, a friend of her husband’s and confidante, and Emily’s childhood friend Jeremy – to Vienna, to investigate a plot involving anarchists who may or may not have been attempting a coup.

Colin is also in Vienna, working alongside Kristiana, trying to find the same information. He is not happy that Emily has put herself into possible danger, but he also recognizes that even as her fiancé, he is powerless to stop her.

I really wish I had done a better job about taking notes. I know there’s a lovely subplot about one of the artists Emily meets in a coffee shop, and how he’s enamored of a young woman but I think he needs to win over her mother, who happens to be an empress (?) – and I’m not going to look it up, it’s almost midnight as I’m writing this and I really should be asleep by now. Anyway, I do recall that the artist is eventually introduced to the empress and his sketches do in fact win her over, so by the end of the novel, they’re happily in love.

Also happily in love is Emily and Colin, jealousy over Kristiana be-damned. There’s another small subplot – more of a running gag, almost – involving Emily’s conservative, traditional mother, who has instructed Emily and Colin (not advisedinstructed) to hold off on their nuptials until Queen Victoria has given them her blessing – or maybe it’s that they need to hold off until Buckingham Palace is available. I’m not sure, can’t remember, and I’m not looking it up. But at the end of the book, Emily and Colin elope while on Santorini. And if that’s not the pinnacle of a romantic elopement, I don’t know what is.

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I mean — that is goddamned beautiful.

Overall, I’m giving the book 3 stars. I think it suffered from having Emily and Colin apart so much, but that might be my personal bias. And I promise to not wait another three years before picking up the next book in the series.

Grade for A Fatal Waltz: 3 stars

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Fiction: “The Bookseller” by Mark Pryor

booksellerAnother library book, but hey – I took pretty good notes for this one!

The Bookseller is the first of a series staring Hugo Marston, a former FBI agent who now operates as the head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. I had never heard of this series, but when the Yarmouth Library had the first book in a series, I felt obligated to check it out, because it was such a rare occurrence.

The novel starts with Hugo on a mandatory vacation. Not because he’s in trouble – but because he’s worked so much that he hasn’t taken a vacation in like, years, and the Ambassador feels like he should take a week off.

So Hugo takes a walk and goes to see his friend, Max Koch, an elderly bouquiniste – a book seller. The bouquinistes line one of the streets by the Seine, selling books and other touristy things. Hugo and Max have become friendly over the years. On this day, Max sells Hugo two books – one is a 1st edition Agatha Christie, and the second is another 1st edition, this one of “On War” by I Can’t Remember And Didn’t Write It Down.

When Hugo returns with the money to pay Max for his books, Max gets kidnapped right in front of him – kind of. I mean, the dudes don’t throw Max into a burlap sack and toss him over their shoulder and walk away, but they clearly coerce Max into leaving with them, thanks to the gun pointed at Max’s back. Hugo calls the police, but the responding officer, Capitaine Garcia, tries to make Hugo think that maybe Max and the other dudes were just old friends and decided to walk away like normal people. Garcia definitely doesn’t care what happened.

Which makes Hugo investigate on his own.

He starts by talking with some of the other bouquinistes. He learns that a lot of bouquinistes have retired or disappeared in recent months. That leads him to Gravois, the Head of the Union of Bouqinistes. He is … less than helpful, and it actually makes Hugo wonder if there’s something fishy about him.

Hugo even calls his former Quanitco buddy Tom, who has recently retired from the CIA (but still has access to a lot of CIA toys). Tom even comes out to Paris to help Hugo with the “case”, just for funsies.

One night, Hugo is approached at a bar by a pretty investigative journalist and police reporter, Claudia Roux. She thinks he might have some insight to the drug trade that’s been picking up, but he reassures her that he’s not involved in that. They begin using each other – he for her access to the police department, she for his access to high officials, and each other for sex.

Meanwhile, Hugo has sold the second book he purchased from Max at auction, and it sold for an extraordinary sum. Right after that, Hugo is invited to a fancy dinner party put on by Gérard Roussillon. Hugo assumes it’s because Gérard was the buyer of the book. But when he arrives at the house, Claudia (!) answers the door, and he learns that Gérard is Claudia’s father, and he wants to meet Hugo to see what kind of man he is.

All of these plot points eventually converge, with additional things I haven’t even mentioned. For instance, Max was a Nazi hunter! And during the war, Nazis would use books to send messages and orders to and from themselves and their collaborators. Gérard’s father was a Nazi collaborator, and he was using the Union of Bouqinistes to try and find some books that his father used to receive messages from his superiors. The Head of the Union of Bouquinistes is actually a drug lord, which gets Claudia closer to the answers for her story.

I think I’m going to cut my synopsis off there, leaving a few points unsaid (go me!), because while the plot was occasionally a bit slow, I felt it was a lot better paced than … whatever book it was I read last year where I said that Moe did it. GOD, I can’t even remember the title of that book, it was so boring!

A couple of quotes/scenes I really liked:

Hugo’s apartment gets broken into, and Tom shows up but gets his gun stolen by one of the assailants.

[Hugo] watched as the man’s finger crept tighter around the trigger.

“Tom. No!”

Tom ignored him. He took another step toward the thug, the barrel of his own gun two feet away from his chest. Hugo watched in slow motion as Tom took the final steps toward the intruder, who hesitated barely a second before he squeezed the trigger, once, twice.

No sound.

Tom reached out and wrapped his hand around the gun, twisting it up and out, wrenching it from the man’s grasp. In less than a second, Tom had the barrel pressed to the stubble of the man’s chin.

“You just met the latest in CIA smart technology, fuckhead,” Tom said. He kneed the man between the legs. “Don’t you just love having your own set of fingerprints?” [p. 167]

WHAT ABOUT A PALM PRINT

goddamn I love Skyfall I haven’t watched it in so long I SHOULD REMEDY THAT

And then there’s THIS, which makes me wonder if a certain friend of mine who abandoned his car in a parking garage for approximately 16 months should read this book:

“Start with the assumption that no one lies unless they have to. Or, put another way, if you lie, you have a reason to do so.”

“Liars have something to hide. You’re a genius.”

“Bear with me,” Hugo said. “My experience has always been that the lies about small stuff, why you wear a watch or got a parking ticket, those are the ones that trip you up. Trouble is, people don’t spot them because no one expects you to lie about those things.” [p. 247-248]

Grade for The Bookseller: 2 stars

Fiction: “Straight” by Dick Francis

straightI know I took this book with me to Fort Myers, along with Burnt Offerings. I am pretty sure I began reading Straight on my flight home, and finished it very shortly upon landing – maybe the next day. However, because I read it in one fell swoop and I’ve already read this at least once before in my life, I didn’t dogear any pages. So … this review will be fairly short.

Over the course of my life, I have read every Dick Francis mystery at least once. Any Dick Francis titles you see come across That’s What She Read are at least the second time reading it. The good thing about the Dick Francis ouevre is that the mysteries are all fairly similar in vein: the narrator is a man, trying to do his best, in whatever career that may be; the plot is somewhat tied, in part, to British horseracing; and the mystery gets wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end of the novel.

Straight‘s narrator is Derek Franklin, a steeplechase jockey, who has recently broken his leg or twisted his ankle or something – he’s injured, and he’s hobbling around, trying to recuperate so he can get back on the horse. But then his brother, Greville, dies in an accident. Derek is notified that he is the executor of Greville’s estate, which consists of a gemstone importing and trading business. Derek knows nothing about gemstones, but he also doesn’t feel that passing the business off to someone else would be the best way to honor his brother’s wishes. So, he starts learning the gemstone business.

Then Derek learns that, before the accident, Greville had borrowed a large sum of money in order to purchase some diamonds. Those diamonds are now missing, and the insurance company (or bank, or whatever) wants the payments to begin.

Additionally, the offices get broken into – everything’s rummaged through and tossed over, but there doesn’t appear to be anything missing. This leads Derek to believe that someone else is looking for the diamonds, too.

Also-also, it turns out that Greville had purchased a steeplechaser, by name of Dozen Roses. And Derek has to decide whether he’s going to sell Dozen Roses or keep him for himself. But there might be case of mistaken identity – there’s a chance that the Dozen Roses that won the Gold Cup last year might not be the same Dozen Roses running today …

Derek is a lot like the rest of Dick Francis’s narrators – good, earnest, a little tired, a little beaten up, but overall, optimistic. He doesn’t want to learn about Greville’s business – in fact, he refers to the office as “quicksand” and in the beginning of the book, regrets how quickly it’s sucking him in. But his need to “do right” by Greville overrules his desire to heal to get back to steeplechasing, so quietly optimistic he remains.

A Dick Francis mystery is a bit stronger than a cozy mystery, but it’s not as hardboiled as some of the other mystery series out there right now. There is going to be a little bit of violence (sometimes a good deal of violence – there’s one novel where the narrator/protagonist gets arrowed), there might even be some romance – but it’s not going to be over the top, and there (probably) won’t be a femme fatale. The narrator is a good person, usually in a situation reluctantly, and he tries to make the best of it.

As always, a Dick Francis novel is a good read – maybe not particularly memorable, and definitely not requiring an in-depth review; but worth the few hours it should take you to read it.

Grade for Straight: 3 stars

Fiction: “A Murder In Time” by Julie McElwain

murder in timeHello – and welcome to 2018! Or, at least, Alaina’s Reviews of Books She’s Read in 2018.

A Murder In Time was the other book I had requested from the library at the same time as The Ring and the Crown. The Yarmouth Library had the second book in the series (A Twist In Time) but not this title, the first; so an inter-library loan was requested. The plot, when I read the blurb on Goodreads, sounded like a cross between Outlander and an FBI procedural, and I was intrigued.

Reader, I was mightily disappointed.

Now, before I get into this, for all y’all who may be new to That’s What She Read, let me tell you a bit about my process. I have been reading a ton of library books in the past couple of years, which is great – it gets me out of my house, and for all my kvetching about the lack of first titles in series that Yarmouth suffers from, I have been able to find books I wouldn’t normally want to read, and in some cases, enjoy them.

However, as you’re probably aware by this point, I’m rather terrible at posting “reviews” “timely” – and yes, there are finger-quotes around both of those terms. I’ve also found that it gets harder to remember what the book was about the longer I wait to review it – and that includes any books that I’ve read that I own. So what do I do about library books, where I’m returning the book eight months prior to writing about it?

I found late last year that it’s helpful to me to take an evening – preferably at least one night before the book is due back at the library, though I’ve never been one to balk at overdue fees -, open a Word document, and type out at least the characters and some quotes I may have dogeared for later usage. If I have time or I’m on a roll, I may type up a brief synopsis of the plot as well.

“But Alaina,” you ask (and in this case the “you” is my friend Thomas, who has indeed asked me this question) – “Why don’t you just write the review before the book is due back at the library? Why do you take notes and then come back to it and rewrite it from scratch later?”

“Well,” says I, “first of all, that feels like cheating. Like I’m skipping ahead. Secondly, one of the things that sets my “reviews” apart from everyone else’s – besides the fact that my reviews tend to be of the finger-quote variety – is that I tend to take what’s going on around me and interject it into the review. In some cases, that provides context. In other cases, I let a weird event completely distract me from actually reviewing the book I’d read, but let’s be real, I’m not really “reviewing” anything anyway, so let me be me.”

So that’s where I’m at. A Murder in Time was a library book, and I can barely remember anything of the plot, save that it involved murder and time travel (I’ll get into that later). When I started to write this review, I went into my documents folder and sure enough, there was a Word doc waiting for me.

And this, dear Reader, is the entirety of that Word document’s contents:

Murder in Time

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Okay.

So – on the one hand, January!Alaina had a lot more faith in Future!Alaina than she ultimately deserved. On the other hand … for fuck’s fuckin’ sake, Alaina, get your shit together.

ANYWAY. I went to the review of the book over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books to get familiar with the plot and the characters again, and I had taken numerous pictures of quotes from the book (because I was clearly so super-lazy back in January that I didn’t even want to take the time to type anything up), so in January!Alaina’s defense, she may have left enough bread crumbs to allow Current!Alaina to “review” A Murder in Time.

Here we go.

Kendra Donovan is an FBI agent. But not just an FBI agent – a super-young FBI agent, who was a child prodigy because she was – I KID YOU NOT – a eugenics test tube baby.

If he [Kendra’s boss, and no, I can’t remember his name] felt a little squeamish about dealing with her, he was careful to keep that hidden. It had been his decision eight months ago to pull her out of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, where she’d been using her profiling and computer skills to work on the country’s most vicious serial killer cases. It had given him a jolt to meet her in person, though. He put his reaction down to her age – only twenty-six, for Christ’s sake. But he’d read her file; he knew who she was. Hell, he knew what she was. The offspring of two scientists who advocated eugenics, she’d been a child prodigy, landing at Princeton when she was only fourteen. By the time she was eighteen, she’d gotten degrees in advanced computer science, psychology, and criminology. No wonder the Bureau had wanted her badly enough to circumvent their age requirement of twenty-three to get her in. Kendra Donovan was a capable agent, Carson knew. [Oh, his name was Carson. Whatever.] [p. 3]

What is it with me and books involving surprise!eugenics?

So Kendra’s super-smart, super-determined, and has major parent issues. As we see after her mission goes tits-up and her father has to visit her in the hospital:

“What’re you doing here?” She sounded a little breathless, but otherwise steady. “I’m the one with the head injury, but apparently you forgot that you disowned me.”

“Don’t be impertinent, Kendra.” Her father’s mouth compressed into a thin line. “I received a phone call from Associate Director Leeds, who suggested that if I wanted to keep doing my research, I should visit you.”

Kendra frowned. “I’m not following. What does your research have to do with me?”

“I’m working at the Fellowship Institute in Arizona—”

“On human genome research. I know.”

“Then you should know that the government is our largest donor.”

Kendra remembered the look of pity in the associate director’s eyes. “Ah. I see. Leeds blackmailed you. That’s why you’re here.” Not because her father wanted to see her. Heaven forbid that he actually cared. And odd how that hurt. She hadn’t seen her father in a dozen years, but he still had that power. [p. 34]

He’s a Bad Dad, yo.

After a few months of recuperation, Kendra is released from the hospital and physical therapy and now she’s ready for her next mission: revenge. (The last mission she was on didn’t just send her to the hospital – it also sent quite a few of her colleagues to the morgue.) She gets a lead on the culprit and follows him to Scotland, where the culprit (no, I didn’t write his name down, because he means absolutely nothing to the plot. I’mma call him MacGuffin) is attending a fancy period dress party for no other reason than to get Kendra into period clothing.

Kendra dresses up as a maid to blend in with the crowd and follows MacGuffin into a secret staircase. There’s a weird event – like she’s falling through a vortex, or maybe she feels like she gets shot; I can’t remember if she loses consciousness at all, but something weird happens in the stairway.

When she’s able to get to the top of the stairs she comes in contact with a scientist of some sort who’s very surprised to see her. He speaks very strangely and old-timey, and wants to know why Kendra is in the room, and what happened to her hair (it’s cut in a short bob). She manages to come up with a lie that she’s a lady’s maid and he buys it, so she is sent downstairs to get her tasks.

PLEASE NOTE: At this point, I, the Reader of this book, knew that Kendra had traveled back in time. (And not just because it was on the dust jacket.) Kendra is still figuring out what happened, though, so we’ve got a few pages of dramatic irony to get through.

She meets Rose, a tweeny maid (meaning she’s between downstairs and a lady’s maid, not that she’s a tween – although she is young) and Rose takes Kendra to meet Mrs. Beeton, who I’m assuming is the Mrs. Beeton.

The older woman flashed them a hard look.  “We’re a mite busy today, Rose,” she said, and handed the iron to her assistant, who immediately transferred it to the hearth to heat up again.

“Aye, Mrs. Beeton.” Rose nodded. “But miss ‘ere needs a dress.”

Mrs. Beeton wiped the sweat from her brow. “What kinda dress?”

“Maid’s dress.”

“We don’t have time to sew a new dress.”

“She can ‘ave Jenny’s old dress. Since she ran off to Bath with Mr. Kipper and all.”

“Ooh. And a right scandal that was. Not even a by-your-leave!” Mrs. Beeton sniffed, and gave Kendra a measuring look. “You part of the temporary help?”

“Well –”

“She’s been ‘ired on,” Rose put in.

“What happened to your hair? You been ill?”

“I—”

“She’s better now,” said Rose. [p. 124]

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Here’s the thing – maybe it’s because Outlander did it better; maybe it’s because Back to the Future is a real formative influence on me. But it felt like it took forever for Kendra to catch on that she had been sent back in time somehow. And unlike Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, Kendra Donovan is not great at blending in. Between the bob haircut and her need to get involved in a murder investigation that’s going on, she stands out like an extremely sore thumb.

So yeah – in addition to strange women getting thrown into time vortexes, there’s also someone going around slitting the throats of prostitutes from London. The Duke and his nephew, Alec Sutcliffe, are trying to figure out who the killer may be, and they are very reluctant to listen to a headstrong young maid who is talking about forensics and other un-ladylike things.

As I kept reading, the investigative plot started to feel more and more like a Catherine Coulter FBI thriller, and I wasn’t exactly pleased. I mean, y’all should know how I feel about Catherine Coulter FBI novels by now. (Is it time for me to read The Target? Should I write another verse of The Rant Song?) With A Murder In Time, I felt like Ms. McElwain relied on Kendra’s internal monologue to sort out Kendra’s character, and it wasn’t smooth.

First, there’s this, where Kendra is trying to tell her new 19th century friends about profiling:

“I’d need more victims, though, before I can identify it as a signature.”

“Signature?”

Kendra hesitated. She was giving them more information than maybe she should. Though in the latter half of this century Dr. Thomas Bond would offer up a profile on Jack the Ripper, she was introducing a lexicon that wouldn’t be part of criminal investigative analysis for another century, at least. Was she changing the future?

Dammit. She didn’t know. And she couldn’t worry about it. If she was going to do any good here, she needed to think and act like an FBI profiler. [p. 186]

Towards the end of the novel, the author makes Kendra realize she’d been kind of judgy:

The doctor, Kendra realized suddenly, wasn’t the only one who’d been hampered by prejudices. If she were honest, she’d thought little of her nineteenth-century counterparts. She’d judged them and, because they were different, had found them wanting. It shamed her. These people might not have the sophisticated tools of her era, but they were all intelligent. She might not be able to trust them with her time-traveling secret, but she could trust them in this quest for truth and justice. [p. 369]

But that type of characterization doesn’t feel earned to me – it’s like the author realized, “oh, wow, Kendra should have a realization about herself just before she gets kidnapped by the killer.”

I think the most egregious characterization of Kendra’s is the really out-there references thrown in around her. For instance – and please, remember as you read this, that Kendra is in her mid-twenties, in the second decade of the 21st century:

Kendra hadn’t known what to expect from a nineteenth-century detective, but Magnum, P.I. he was not. [p. 197]

Would Magnum, P.I. be your first choice for a detective from the modern era? I guess she felt weird comparing him to Sherlock Holmes, who admittedly was a nineteenth-century detective, but … I dunno, I guess Kendra never watched Veronica Mars, which is a damned shame.

Kendra has also apparently never dated anyone, ever:

[Kendra] shook off her sense of amazement, and tried to pretend she was watching a period play. There was a lot of flirting going on, plenty of fluttering of ivory fans and eyelashes. It was weird to to think that in another two hundred years people would flirt by pole dancing, twerking, and sexting. [p. 130]

Okay, so admittedly, I have been very open about the fact that I don’t have any idea when people are flirting with me. One of my friends asked me a while ago, if one of my other friends ever tried to hit on me, how would I react, and my actual response was “he’d have to be extremely blatant for me to get that he was actively hitting on me.” Friend: “But what if he was and you got it?” Me: “I guess my first reaction would be to ask him if he’d fallen down and hit his head on something hard.” Because my instinct tells me that someone’s more likely to be suffering from a concussion than possibly be attracted to me? That’s messed up.

Having said that – I do know that people do not flirt by pole dancing, or by going up to people in bars and twerking at them without at least saying “hi” first.

(I guess some people could say that strippers flirt by pole dancing, but MY DUDE, that is a paying job that a woman has sought out and her job is to make you think she’s into you, but SHE IS NOT. Tip her, but she is NOT YOURS. Also, remember: there is no sex in the champagne room, or in the lighting booth.)

Now, compare Kendra to Rebecca, Alec Sutcliffe’s younger sister. She is ready and rarin’ to go when it comes to investigating these crimes:

“This is about the girl who was killed, is it not?”

“Becca – “

“Oh, don’t look so Friday-faced, Alec! If Miss Donovan is allowed to stay, I don’t know why I should be sent from the room. I am not a child – I’m three and twenty.” She gave both men an arch look. “And I seem to recall you applauding my study of Miss Wollstonecraft’s work. You have always encouraged my artistic and intellectual pursuits.”

“For God’s sakes, Becca, we are not having a theoretical discussion in Duke’s study or the drawing room,” Alec argued impatiently. “This is not an exercise in women’s rights.”

“Oh, but that is exactly what it is, Sutcliffe!” She was no longer smiling, and her blue eyes narrowed. “For the first time, we can take the discussion out of the theoretical and apply it to the real world. Unless you were gammoning me.”

Kendra had to admire the woman. She’d neatly turned the tables on the men. If this were the twenty-first century, Lady Rebecca would’ve made a good lawyer. [p. 184]

Within a couple of lines of dialogue, I feel like I immediately know Rebecca’s character and how she and her brother get along. Maybe Ms. McElwain could write a book about her next?

One piece of dialogue that never fails to make me think of something else (similar to whenever anyone mentions something about catching someone red-handed):

“Of course, there’s another possibility.”

The Harry Potter glasses glinted in the sunshine as he looked at her. “What, pray tell, would that be, Miss Donovan?”

“She could’ve had the stain on her coat before she met the killer,” she pointed out. “We’re assuming it happened here.”

Aldridge beamed at her. “Excellent point, my dear! Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” [p. 373]

And we all know that post hoc ergo propter hoc means “after hoc therefore, something else hoc.”

Okay, two more things and then I’ll shut up about this book. First, Ms. McElwain plays to her strengths in at least one area. In her real life, Ms. McElwain is an editor for CBS Soaps in Depth, where she focuses on The Young and the Restless. In A Murder in Time, many chapters end on cliffhangers where characters have an exclamation of something, like this:

If possible, Gabriel seemed to pale even more. “No, Thomas is his manservant …”

Rebecca lowered her handkerchief and stared at Gabriel. “I beg your pardon?”

He raked a shaking hand over his hair, disheveling it even more. “God. I’ve been a fool. A bloody fool.”

Rebecca was taken aback by the look in Gabriel’s eyes: utter despair.

“If I had my wits about me, I might’ve saved the maid.”

“What are you saying, Gabriel?”

His mouth twisted. “Thomas isn’t the monster. But I know who the monster is.”

Rebecca put a hand to her throat, felt her pulse leap beneath her fingertips. “Who?” [p. 453]

That’s it; that’s the end of the chapter. Can’t you hear dramatic organ music whipping underneath that dialogue?

And please, let me reassure you: I have nothing against soap operas! I am extremely proud of my heritage of watching All My Children for years – for years!! I refused to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer at first because I knew Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kendall Hart, illegitimate daughter of Erica Kane! Erica had Kendall at 14, following a rape; she put the baby up for adoption and completely forgot about it, only to have Kendall come roaring into Pine Valley looking for the silver spoon she felt she deserved! Kendall tried to seduce her stepfather, Dmitri, and when he rejected her she accused him of raping her, which made Erica have a flashback to her own rape, and in an attempt to defend herself and Kendall, she STABBED DMITRI WITH A LETTER OPENER!

Vintage All My Children was THE BEST, you guys.

The last thing that Ms. McElwain did that I have to mention is: she could not resist this line:

Kendra’s lips curved with an irony her audience would never understand. “I always say there’s no time like the present.” [p. 189]

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Great Scott – she had to make a time joke.

Look, overall, the book didn’t suck – there were just some parts that … could have been better. There’s a good chance that I’m probably going to read the next book in the series; but at least now I know what to expect.

Grade for A Murder in Time: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

orient expressI get my love of mystery novels from both of my parents. Dad still has in his bookcase the full anthology of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and quite a few Hercule Poirot mysteries. I had borrowed one book that had Murder on the NileAnd Then There Were None, and at least two other classic Poirot mysteries back in eighth grade, and I distinctly remember finishing And Then There Were None during that year’s educational assessment test (I finished early), and then when that was done I started reading The Pelican Brief.

Dad would also watch PBS’s Mystery! – the old version, with the introduction animated by Edward Gorey, and he loved the Poirot films where David Suchet played the Belgian detective. If you think I have OPINIONS on stuff (like Hannibal, or all of my many ~FEELINGS about James Bond), lemme tell ya – they stem directly from the many OPINIONS my dad has about Hercule Poirot. The ability to have OPINIONS is genetic, is what I’m saying.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of my father’s favorite movies in the history of everything. And not the one that came out last year with Kenneth Branagh – the one from 1974 with Albert Finney and practically every other big star at the time. We rented it years ago, and —

I was going to say, if Mom and Dad could ever figure out their DVD player, I’d buy it on DVD for a Father’s Day present, but then I remembered that they do have a TV-DVD combo in their camper trailer, and he may get some use out of it that way – but then I learned that it’s currently available streaming on Prime, so I need to remember to tell Dad that the next time I see him.

Anyway. For all of Dad’s love of Poirot, he didn’t have a copy of Murder on the Orient Express for me to borrow to read. And, in a complete non-surprise, neither did the Yarmouth Public Library?

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So Mom was awesome and got it for me from the Brunswick Public Library, and then my sister bought a copy for Dad for Christmas, so everyone’s happy.

The story of the Murder of the Orient Express, briefly: Poirot is leaving Istanbul after finishing an investigation, and he’s called back to London to investigate something else. He runs into an old friend who’s a director of the railway and manages to upgrade himself to a first-class compartment. At dinner, Mr. Ratchett, an American traveler, approaches Poirot and asks Poirot to protect him, as he believes his life is in danger. Poirot doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett at all, and refuses to take the case.

That night, the train stops because an avalanche ahead has blocked the tracks. Also, Mr. Ratchett is found murdered in his locked room, with 13 stab wounds.

I’m not going to give y’all the solution – that’s what the book (or movies) are for. What I liked about Poirot is that he did all of his investigating by talking to people and making intuitive leaps. Sure, he investigated the crime scene and Mr. Ratchett’s body, so he has plenty of forensic knowledge, but the majority of the book read like a play – dialogue going back and forth, with Poirot asking questions and being able to squeeze answers from reluctant participants with nary an arm-twist.

If you’re unfamiliar with the locked-room mystery, you should definitely start with this one. It’s excellent.

Having said all that, the Kenneth Branagh version of the movie – if you decide to watch the movie before reading the book, and that’s totally fine, guys – but it doesn’t quite follow the plot. Yes, the solution is the same as in the novel, but Branagh (god love him) wants to add a bit more theatrics and effects to the plot. I mean, the bulk of the novel is Poirot sitting down, talking to suspects, and then discussing what was just talked about with his railway director friend. If it were a play, it could be staged very minimally, because there’s not a lot of action. So Branagh makes a suspect run away into the snow-covered mountains of Croatia and almost fall off a bridge, and there is at least one gunfight.

I had asked my dad last fall if he wanted to see Murder on the Orient Express. And Dad’s response was basically a big ol’ HELL NO.

Here’s a paraphrase of my Dad, after watching the trailer for the Branagh version (and yes, it’s spoken in the same tone of voice Alaina uses when telling people that The Revenant was a terrible, terrible film):

“There’s only ONE Hercule Poirot, and he was played by ALBERT FINNEY. Suchet was fine – but FINNEY WAS THE BEST. And look at those mustaches on Branagh – THOSE AREN’T WHAT THEY LOOKED LIKE. And Poirot doesn’t run, WHAT IS HE DOING?” *sigh* “No, Alaina, I DON’T want to see that movie.”

Cut to: Me, in the movie theater, muttering under my breath, “He was right, Dad would hate this. I can hear Dad now, saying ‘That’s not how it happened,’ just like when he and I saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He’d be so disappointed.”

But when you take away the extraneous, Hollywood shit that Branagh threw in, the movie was still very good. I mean, film-wise, Branagh can do very little wrong in my eyes. (I’m resolved to no longer be mad at the fact that he cheated on EMMA FUCKING THOMPSON, QUEEN OF EVERYTHING.) The cinematography of the film was gorgeous, and I thought Branagh did a good job with the character of Poirot, mustaches be-damned.

Anyways. I liked Murder on the Orient Express, both the novel and the Branagh film. (It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the Finney portrayal that I’m not going to pass judgment on it, but based on Dad’s opinion, that’s also very very good.) If you like mysteries and haven’t read this one yet, you totally should.

Better double-check that your library has it first.

Grade for Murder on the Orient Express: 4 stars

Title: “A Test of Wills” by Charles Todd

test of willsAfter the high crazypants babytown frolics of The Tea Rose, I reverted to form and neglected to take great notes for the next book I read, A Test of Wills.

The Ian Rutledge series is one of the few series that the Yarmouth library owns in its entirety, it feels like. (Y’know, the more I bash the Yarmouth library on here, the more I wonder if they’re ever going to stumble onto this blog and learn how much they disappoint me. Then I remember that they can’t even add an Interlibrary Loan Request button to their website and I stop worrying.) So, phone in hand (to check on Goodreads for the first book in the series), I picked up A Test of Wills because I wanted to start a new mystery series.

I am not sure if I’ll continue with it.

Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard is back on the beat following his tour of duty during World War I. He has been released from the hospital and allowed to return to work, but he hasn’t told anyone that he’s been hearing the voice of a soldier he executed for insubordination mocking him in his head.

That’s … awkward.

Rutledge’s first case is the murder of Colonel Harris of Upper Streetham. Colonel Harris died from shotgun blast while riding his horse that morning. He ventures to the quiet town and starts investigating, with the assistance of Sgt. Davies, the local constable in Upper Streetham. Wherever Rutledge goes in his investigation, he meets resistance from the townspeople – they refuse to answer his questions.

The prime suspect in the murder is Captain Mark Wilton. And here’s where I got confused – because of the Britishness of it all, there were constant references to “the colonel” or “the captain”, and I wasn’t always able to tell them apart. Yes, I know that one was dead and the other alive, but when a third party is talking about an argument the two men had and it’s “colonel” this and “captain” that – I lose track of who’s who.

Anyway, Captain Wilton is engaged to marry Lettice Wood, the ward of Colonel Harris. Wilton and Harris got in a loud argument the night before the murder, and were seen arguing in the lane the following morning. But since Captain Wilton is also the close friend of the Prince of Wales, everyone in town is concerned about the fallout if Captain Wilton were to be named the prime suspect. Can’t embarrass the royalty, after all!

So the townspeople are all pushing Rutledge toward a couple of scapegoats: Hickam, the town drunk. But Rutledge learns that Hickam also suffers from shell shock, and sends him to the hospital to dry out and essentially clears him of all wrongdoing.

Option B is Mavers, the town anarchist. I see Mavers as a better-spoken Gabby Johnson. But he happens to have a shotgun, and he never locks his door.

To add to all this mess, there’s also Catherine Tarrant, Captain Wilton’s former lover. Rutledge learns that she fell in love with a German soldier who later died of influenza, and because this takes place right after World War I, it’s not cool to love a German. She is ostracized from the town’s society. Maybe she was jealous of Captain Wilton’s new love, and maybe she mistook Harris for Wilton?

But then, Rutledge learns that Harris had fallen in love with his ward, Lettice (who I want to be very clear – there is no familial relation between the two of them, Lettice isn’t like a cousin or anything). Maybe Wilton did kill Harris out of jealousy?

Here’s like, the one note I wrote down (after the character descriptions):

Rutledge is sent to Upper Streetham to find out who killed Col. Harris. Everyone suspects Captain Wilton, but everyone hopes it was some scapegoat, like Hickam or Mavers. No one will tell him anything, and he needs his intelligence to suss out the killer. Turns out it was … I don’t know, let’s say Moe.

I wasn’t really taken with the story. Maybe it’s due to the very Britishness of it all, but there didn’t seem to be any strong emotional stakes with the investigation. Rutledge was very diligent, and there’d be the occasional moment where he’d be hearing Hamish and responding to Hamish as if he were really there, but the moment passes, he shakes himself off and he goes back to work. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote “I don’t know, let’s say Moe” did the murder – I can’t remember who actually did it.  I have no idea if the rest of the series is going to be like this (and Goodreads claims that there are at least twenty more books oh god). I might try the next one and see if I like it any better, but if I don’t? I may quit this.

A couple of quotes, then I’m done. This one is Rutledge’s perspective on Mavers (remember, the town anarchist), but it almost sounds like it could be used in a New York Times article about the “forgotten man” (although I’m not sure why they’d crib from a mystery novel, they pretty much just take talking points issued by the White House and refuse to do any real investigative reporting anymore anyway, the spineless asshats):

He’d met men like Mavers before. Hungry for something they didn’t have, and ignorant of how to go about getting it, hating those who had had life given to them easily. Lost men, angry men, dangerous men … because they had no pride of their own to bolster their self-esteem. [p. 90-91]

SERIOUSLY, just shoot Mavers over to Iowa, and NYT reporters will be shitting themselves to get a quote about why they voted for the orangutan who learned how to talk the best words.

(I’m sorry; that’s incredibly disrespectful. I took that a little too far.

I’d like to apologize to the noble race of orangutans for my impulsive words. I did not mean to compare your intelligence to that of … that. You have my utmost respect, orangutans.)

The final quote is from Catherine Tarrant, talking about why she signs her painting “C. Tarrant”:

“Yes, I know, no one expects me when the artist is introduced. Everyone thinks C. Tarrant must be a man. Or one of those masculine women who wear trousers everywhere and smoke strong Russian cigarettes. I’ve considered wearing a patch over one eye and walking about with a trained ocelot on a leash.” [p. 130]

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Well, at least I got to make a reference to the greatest ocelot of all time; that’s worth half a star.

Grade for A Test of Wills: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn

silent in the graveI had heard many great things about the Lady Julia Grey mystery series – from the Fug Girls’ Afternoon Book chats, from other readers, all sorts of places. But damned if I could ever find a copy of them. I think I had the first one out from the Portland library when I still lived there, or maybe it was during that weird six months where I worked at that horrible office, but if I had checked this out at that time, I returned it unread. And god forbid that the Yarmouth library had this title in stock.

But good news, everyone! I was shopping at Bull Moose – record store of my heart, that has also expanded to DVDs, games, and bless them, books – and a hardcover copy of Silent in the Grave, the first Lady Julia Grey mystery, was on sale. And not only was it on sale, but it was on sale for $2.97.

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Now, the hardcover is heavy. It’s like, 500 pages. And I wanted to start reading it before going to My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower, but I also didn’t want to be carting around a 500-page hardcover book through airport security or on the Metro. I started reading this for real when I returned to Maine, and I read it super quick.

Lady Julia Grey is a widow in Victorian England. We know she’s a widow, because the first paragraph in the book reads:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. [p. 13]

Edward dies shortly thereafter, for all appearances, of stroke or seizure. Edward had not been well, either, so while it is a sad turn of events, it wasn’t completely a surprise. Brisbane was invited not as a guest to the dinner party that was going on, but because Edward had hired Brisbane to investigate a threat Edward had received. While the doctor declares Edward’s death due to his longstanding heart condition, Brisbane tries to convince Julia that Edward was murdered. She dismisses Brisbane out of hand and tries to get on with her mourning.

About a year later, Julia finds one of those threatening notes left for Edward, and she starts to think that maybe Brisbane was right. Julia seeks Brisbane out and attempts to hire him to find her husband’s killer, but he rightly tells her that too much time has passed since the death for any evidence or trails to exist.

But that doesn’t stop Lady Julia! She does her own investigating, and asking the doctor some questions, and also there are gypsies and –

Look, again, sadly, this review is going to suffer for my lateness and lack of note-taking. I know I did not bother to take notes on this book because I own it and thought by skimming through the book when it finally came time to review it, I’d be able to be fine with it? But I’m writing this at almost 11 p.m. on the Tuesday night before I have to go back to work after a six-day Christmas break and I really don’t feel like re-reading a 500-page novel again just so I can do a decent job reviewing it.

Note From the Future: I maaaay have started writing these reviews like, three at a time, and then posting one a day. I’m posting this today because I’m back to having four reviews in the can, so to speak, and that’s a good amount to have able to post, so – new year new me maybe this book blog backlog can be eradicated before the Oscars!

So I’m not going to talk about the plot – mainly, because I can’t remember much of it, and what I can remember, I’ll spoil the ending for you, and I don’t wanna play you like that. Instead, I’m going to tell you the emotions I remember and some other things.

First, Brisbane is a curmudgeon. A handsome curmudgeon, but a curmudgeon nonetheless. He is short with Lady Julia, and he tends to exasperate her, but later he introduces her to Hortense de Bellefleur, a patron-slash-mentor of sorts to Brisbane. A former courtesan, she delights in her newfound friendship with Lady Julia, and Julia responds in kind, not caring about what other people in society may think. Hortense also tells Julia that one of the factors for Brisbane’s prickliness is that he suffers from – well, we’d call them migraines, in common parlance. Can’t remember what they call them in this time period, and while I will look up the name of Brisbane’s courtesan friend, I’m not searching through the pages to find the euphemism for migraines.

Julia also has some ties to gypsies – a band of gypsies used to park on her father’s land when she was a teenager, and one of her maids or housekeepers is a gypsy. Somehow Julia is concerned that the gypsies may have been involved with Edward’s death, which leads her and her brother to disguise themselves to sneak into a nearby gypsy camp, where she discovers Brisbane boxing and also he’s fluent in Romany and when he discovers her there he gets super mad and also super protective and oooohhh, I see what you did there, Ms. Raybourn, it’s Next Love Interest Time!

I realize I’m sounding super facetious, but at this point I think I’m mad at myself more than at the book. I know I loved the book – much like when I skimmed the reviews for a couple of previous books, I’m shocked at how many people on Goodreads hate this book, but I enjoyed it. I thought the romantic elements between Lady Julia and Brisbane were great – a nice, slow burn, which I enjoy wholeheartedly. There’s also a subplot with Julia’s brother, whose name escapes me, and how he managed to steal a raven from the Tower of London and now the raven lives with Julia. There’s also Julia’s entire family, the Marches; her father is a Shakespearean nut, and all of the family members are named from Shakespeare characters. There’s a lot, and again, not looking it up, but I enjoyed that part of it.

I really did like this book. Unlike what some commentors on Goodreads thought, I didn’t think the multiple plotlines distracted from the story. I think this does something similar to the Lady Emily mysteries I’ve read: you have a strong, independent, almost-headstrong widow who’s determined to get to the bottom of something, but because she’s a Lady of Quality, she can’t devote every last second to mystery-solving. There are going to be subplots. Let’s face it; we all have subplots going on in our lives, we can’t devote every single second to the main action. In some cases, we may not even know whether the main action really is the main action.

The only page I dogeared in the entire novel was page 55, where Julia reminisces about her courtship with Edward. I felt that, through this paragraph, I felt akin with Julia:

I was not like the other girls; I had no frivolous conversation or pretty tricks to win suitors. I had forthrightness and plainspoken manners. I had a good mind and a sharp tongue, and I was cruel enough to use them as weapons to keep the cads and rogues at bay. As for the young men I might have liked to partner me, I was far better at repelling than attracting. I did not swoon or carry a vinaigrette or turn squeamish at the mention of spiders. Father had raised us to scorn such feminine deceptions. Like my brothers, I wanted to talk about good books and urgent politics, new ideas and foreign places. But the young men I met did not like that. They wanted pretty dolls with silvery giggles and empty heads. [p. 55]

Heeelloooo, Alaina! Like, FOR REAL. I do not know how to flirt. I am bad at it. I can’t tell when dudes flirt with me, which leads me to think that dudes aren’t flirting with me, which is also fine. But seriously: aside from literally screaming my head off at the sight of a garter snake (ask my sister, it happened, I’m ashamed but also, not apologetic for my actions), that paragraph could be describing one Alaina L. Patterson.

Again, that’s not the only reason I liked the story, and encourage y’all to read it given the chance. But it’s nice when a reader can truly relate to a character.

Grade for Silent in the Grave: 4 stars