Fiction: “A Poisoned Season” by Tasha Alexander

Poisoned SeasonOh boy, WordPress updated their posting screen again. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that this will work with Sydney the Ancient Laptop’s processors!

(For those not in the know, Sydney the Ancient Laptop is my Dell Inspiron 6400 that I bought in 2007. She still runs Windows XP and iTunes 10. She will eventually be upgraded, but I also don’t want to upgrade, because Sydney is still going … well, not “strong” anymore, but “crawling with a leg wound like Christophe Waltz’s character at the end of Spectre.” Determined to keep going, y’know?)

(Also-also, if anyone reading this wants to talk about Spectre, please reach out to me! I have many thoughts about it that I want to talk to people about!)

A Poisoned Season is the second book in the Lady Emily series, and I continue to love her and her mysteries. The first book was And Only to Deceive, wherein Lady Emily Ashton mourns the death of her husband and becomes friendly with Colin Hargreaves while solving the mystery of her husband’s murder. In A Poisoned Season, Lady Emily fully comes out of her mourning period, and the way that Society reacts to some of her habits and independent tendencies is horrifying to me, a modern reader.

For instance: now that Lady Emily has safely “mourned” her husband for a year, it might be time for her to start looking for another husband. As we learned in And Only to Deceive, Emily admired her husband but didn’t love him while they were married; she only came to love him after she discovered details about his affections towards her and his scholarly pursuits. She engages in friendly banter and the occasional kiss with Colin, but she’s not ready to marry again because she enjoys being her own woman.

Oh, WordPress’s New Posting Thingy: I am not liking you. Getting rid of the “post as thumbnail” option on pictures? Having to manually scroll the posting window down as I type more? I’m not sure I’m going to like this…

So anyway – Society wants Lady Emily to get married again, and even Colin wants to marry her, but she’s just too independent to want to get hitched again. Until she begins to realize that her house isn’t technically her house – it belongs to her husband, and when the heir to the dukedom or whatever it is comes of age, Emily’s going to be out on her ear.

In the midst of all of this soul-searching, there’s this dude who claims to be the missing heir of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette sneaking around throughout Society, trying to get people to believe him long enough to allow him to add to his Marie Antoinette tchotchke collection. Oh, and also, somebody died.

I feel like I’m giving this short shrift, and that’s not my intent. Maybe it’s because I finished reading this book like TWO FREAKING MONTHS AGO and can’t remember more of the details of the plot, or maybe it’s because it’s almost ten o’clock on a Sunday night and I have yet to take my shower and I may have gotten sucked into catching up on The Grinder, which oh my god, I did not know I could love Rob Lowe more after Sam Seaborne and Chris Traeger, but guess what guys? I DO.

ANYWAY, you don’t need to know about my night showering or newfound appreciation for Rob Lowe. I really like this series – Lady Emily is very smart and independent, she has a gentleman caller who loves her enough that even if she doesn’t agree to marry him later, she will still get his entire library, and much like I would be in this situation, the idea of receiving a personal library – look, there’s a reason my favorite Disney movie growing up was Beauty and the Beast, and it wasn’t because of the catchy showtunes. It was because the Beast gave Belle a FRICKIN’ LIBRARY. Find me a girl who grew up at the same time as me who liked to read that DIDN’T develop “getting a library as a gift” into a romantic ideal, and I will show you a cold-hearted bitch.

I think I got off track. And I’m also getting a headache. And I should really go to bed. But I’m on my last episode of The Grinder, and Jason Alexander is playing a director with a bigger Indiana Jones-fetish than me, so I’m going to wrap this up:

If you like strong women, Victorian Society dramas, and intelligent mysteries that also has a fun, romantic element, you should definitely start reading this series. I apologize that I couldn’t do this justice, but let’s look at it this way: I have a backlog of eight freaking books, and I kind of want to get caught up before the end of the year. It would be a novelty! And let’s be real: I’ll be rereading this series in a couple of years, probably, and then I’ll be able to do this review justice.

(Just like the Grinder.)

(Have I mentioned that Natalie Morales is in The Grinder? And that I love her because she played Wendy on The Middleman, which is an excellent show that everyone should watch?)

(Hey look, I got through an entire review without mentioning Hannibal — aw, shit.)

Grade for A Poisoned Season: 3.5 stars


Fiction: “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler

farewell my lovelyAfter The Cocktail Waitress, I decided to continue on my journey through some of the masters of pulp fiction. While I wouldn’t exactly call Raymond Chandler a “pulp” author – his stories are, generally speaking, regarded to aspire to a higher, more “literary,” echelon – – holy shit, Alaina, can you be more of an adjunct literary professor seeking tenure? Christ, I realize it’s 10:30 and you just took a cocktail of melatonin, Aleve, and Claritin, but come on, those aren’t supposed to interact in a way to make you sound like a fuckin’ snob.

Or like you grew up in Southie. Which you fucking didn’t.

Uh, ANYWAY. Basically, Raymond Chandler and his works occasionally get grouped into the “detective novel” genre and not necessarily “pulp” – pulp implies a more lurid tone, more explicit; more sex and violence. Philip Marlowe tends to be on the more restrained side of the equation.

You’ll hopefully remember that my first foray into the world of pulp fiction was a brilliant film by one of the best directors of our generation. I’m referring to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, written and directed by Shane Black. (Oh, did you think — no, that would be incorrect. I haven’t seen that movie yet.) If you haven’t had a chance to watch this masterpiece, please set some time aside in the near future to do so. I promise: you will not be disappointed. It takes place at Christmas, even – you can kick off the season with a bang!

DISCLAIMER: As the calendar has not even approached Halloween as of this writing, PLEASE DO NOT START CHRISTMAS EARLY.

What does this movie – starring Robert Downey Jr., in case I forgot to lead with that – have to do with Raymond Chandler and the beginnings of pulp fiction? The plot of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows Harry Lockhart (RDJ), a two-bit thief who gets mixed up in a seedy Hollywood murder mystery, as well as a missing persons case. Strung throughout the plot of the movie is the fact that the femme fatale, Harmony, had a childhood obsession with a pulp series starring detective Johnny Gossamer. The dialogue is very hard-boiled, there’s a slight Chinatown element to one aspect of the plot (think Faye Dunaway’s character), and as Harry is fond of telling his private detective mentor, Perry: the detective always starts out with two cases, but by the end of the book, boom — it’s the same fucking case.

Another relationship that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has with Farewell, My Lovely? All the act breaks in the movie are titled, and they’re all titled after Raymond Chandler novels. I believe Farewell, My Lovely may be Day 2, but I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law. It’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie.

Okay, the melatonin just kicked in. Let’s kick this into high gear.

Philip Marlowe is the private detective that stars in Raymond Chandler’s world. He inhabits Los Angeles in the late 1930s, early 1940s, and if you’re picturing Humphrey Bogart in the role, you would be correct, because Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the adaptation of The Big Sleep. Ooh, which I have on DVD now! YES. ANYWAY. Marlowe begins Farewell, My Lovely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he gets (almost literally) dragged into a bar fight by a paroled convict named Moose Malloy. Moose is looking for his lost love, Little Velma, who used to be a singer at the bar where he and Marlowe run into each other. Only the gin joint where she used to warble dried up, and she didn’t leave any crumbs behind her.

(I’d say I was sorry for that last sentence, but y’all know that I really enjoyed that.)

When no one knows what happened to Velma, Moose starts shooting up the place, then runs off in the kerfuffle, leaving Marlowe to explain what happened and why he was connected to the whole thing when the cops show up. Nulty, a cop who isn’t lucky enough to be only two days away from retirement (based on his attitude), practically shanghais Marlowe into doing his footwork for him. While Marlowe is searching for leads in the middle of nothing, he gets a call to be a bodyguard for a fellow who needs to run out of town and drop a ransom in exchange for a very valuable necklace, belonging to his (the fellow’s) lady-friend. And in this instance I actually mean friend, because the fellow happens to be gay. Marlowe agrees because Nulty’s not actually paying him squat for trying to find a lead on Moose, and everything would have gone okay except for the fact that the whole drop was a setup, Marlowe gets beaned on the head and the fellow gets dead.

As the two cases intersect and become the same fucking case, Marlowe meets two women – one becomes almost his Girl Friday, someone he almost sees himself getting serious over. The other is a classic femme fatale, full of sex and mysteries. Throughout the course of his case(s), Marlowe gets kidnapped, knocked unconscious, drugged, involved with a fake psychic, shot at, and almost drowns. But throughout everything he perseveres, because Marlowe belongs to that most rare of breeds of man: the honest kind. Keep in mind that Nulty’s not paying him, and that Marlowe hasn’t been paid for his bodyguarding work from the fellow, because the fellow is now most certainly dead. He doesn’t have any other reason to pursue either of these cases except for his curiosity and sense of justice. He may not always play the white knight (as evidenced by the deal he cuts with a shady mayor at the end of the book), but his intentions are always of the good.

It should be noted that, as the book was written in the 1940s, you will experience a fair amount of racist and derogatory terminology. So, spoiler alert, I guess.

Marlowe doesn’t have grand aspirations in his life; he’s not looking to make a name for himself, or to climb a political ladder. He’s just searching for truth and justice in a very dark and underhanded corner of our world, using the resources he had available to him while still hoping for an easier outcome:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room. [p. 238]

When the going gets tough, Marlowe puts his gun in his shoulder holster, his hat on his head, and his feet out the door. He does what needs to be done because in his town, no one else will.

Grade for Farewell, My Lovely: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Proof” by Dick Francis

Proof Dick FrancisThe second book by Dick Francis I read was Proof. Obviously, I’ve read it before — I’ve read all of his novels before — but I liked this one because while his standard genre of horse-racing is present, it’s in the background, and a topic that is very near and dear to my heart takes the forefront: wine and liquor.

Our narrator is Tony Beach, a young widower who owns a successful wine and spirits shop. Tony is a naturally … I’m not going to say “timid,” because it doesn’t really fit. He’s content in his life (in spite of desperately missing his wife, Emma), and he’s not one to go searching out trouble or ways to put himself in danger. He has a bit of guilt around his self-perceived cowardice, as he is descended from a steeplechase jockey who died on the racetrack, and his father’s father was a war hero.

In college, Tony traveled abroad to France and found he had an affinity for wine, wine-making, and wine-tasting. He had developed a parlor trick where he could distinguish different types of chocolate by taste, and his mentor had him translate that skill to wine. That opened up the possibility of building his own retail wine business, which expanded to spirits. He is occasionally hired to cater garden parties, and we meet Tony at one such garden party. He is in the middle of bringing more champagne to the tent when a horse trailer tragically breaks loose and rolls downhill, right into the tent. It collapses, and Tony springs to action. He and a new friend, Gerard, are able to rescue a good amount of people, though there are a couple of casualties. Gerard happens to be a private detective, of sorts – he is a security agent hired by corporations to solve white-collar crime without getting the police involved. And when Gerard hears about Tony’s parlor trick, he thinks he might pick Tony’s brain about his most recent case: tankers full of scotch whisky disappear from their route, and then reappear completely drained.

Tony also gets involved with having to go to numerous bars in the surrounding area, trying to see if any whiskys have been … not forged, because one can’t forge whisky, but … impersonate? No, that’s not right either — basically, seeing if what the label says on the bottle is correct. Laphroaig scotch has a very distinct taste, and if someone wants to drink Laphroaig, he had better be paying for Laphroaig and not, say, Allen’s Coffee Brandy. So the local constabulary of Scotland Yard has Tony go and sip whisky, every day, searching for fake whisky:

“You mean you might find it,” he said, “if you drank at every hostelry from here to John o’Groat’s?”

“Just Berkshire and Oxfordshire and all the way to Watford. Say fifty thousand places, for starters. A spot of syncopation. Syncopation, as you know, is an uneven movement from bar to bar.” [p. 162-163]

Much like a Johnny Gossamer novel, the missing tankers and the masquerading liquors turn out to be the same fucking case.

I really like Proof, because you don’t have to know all the jockey jargon that Dick Francis usually discusses in his novels. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t — but there are all sorts of these other avenues that Dick Francis has experience in — or at least, knows people in the arena that he wants to write about that he can ask questions of. I don’t think Dick Francis was a sommelier at any point in time, but almost everyone has had at least some wine and can appreciate that some people may have developed palates with regards to wine.

Basically, I wish I could do that – tell what wine it is by taste. Unfortunately, my palate is not developed whatsoever. Especially because I’m usually chugging it straight from the neck while Hannibal‘s on — OH GOD ONE MORE EPISODE OH GOD I MADE MYSELF SAD AND HORRIFIED — anyway, subtlety of flavors is not my strong suit. I am a Will Graham as opposed to a Dr. Lecter in that regard.

(Here’s the part where I stop talking about Hannibal – I can do that tomorrow, when I review the book Hannibal by Thomas Harris because I am ALL ABOUT SYNERGY AND MY LITTLE DEAD CANNIBALISM SHOW)

Anyway. I like the book. I know I’ll read it again someday. While Tony is a widower, and moments of grief do come into play in the story, it doesn’t weigh on Tony’s personality – which is good, as he is our narrator, and that would not make the book move quickly. The friendship between Tony and Gerard is a strong, fast friendship, and in a way, I wish I could read about another adventure they may have together, because they make a great team.

When Gerard is telling Tony about his enterprise as private detective, Tony makes this observation (via his narration):

Be grateful for villainy, I thought. The jobs of millions depended on it, Gerard’s included. Police, lawyers, tax inspectors, prison warders, court officials, security guards, locksmiths and people making burglar alarms. Where would they be the world over but for the multiple faces of Cain. [p. 162]

Yes — thank you, villainy, for ensuring that I get to keep my tax inspector job.

But I still say that wine trick would be pretty cool and could also make a lot of money.

Grade for Proof: 4 stars

Fiction: “Knockdown” by Dick Francis

So, afteknockdownr the interminable hell that was The Mysteries of Udolpho, I needed some quick things to read – basically, the less convoluted the sentence structure, the better. I’m slightly pleased with myself that I didn’t pick up something by Ernest Hemingway (because if you’re looking for lack of description, always choose Hemingway*). What I did pick up were two books by Dick Francis, 1) because it has been entirely too long since I last read something by Dick Francis, and 2) they were both mercifully, wonderfully short.

*now wait for me to actually re-read something by Hemingway and completely disprove that statement.

Knockdown is 238 pages about Jonah Dereham, a bloodstock agent for steeplechasers. Dick Francis’s novels always have some connection to horse-racing; in Knockdown, it’s direct involvement, whereas in the next book I read, Proof, it’s merely tangential. Jonah is an ex-jockey – he fell off one of his mounts and dislocated his shoulder, and jockeys tend to have an expiration date. As cool as it looks, jockeying is actually a rather rough sport (so says the couch potato). So Jonah has taken his talents with horses on the field and turned it into a fine business where he buys horses for trainers and owners and takes a commission.

The titular “knockdown” comes about when Jonah gets involved – tangentially, at first, but then directly – in an bloodstock agent ring that is intent on taking payoffs in order to drive up the prices of some of the horses they’re bidding on.

She was referring to the practice that had grown up among some agents of going to a breeder before a sale and saying, in effect, “I’ll bid your horse up to a good price if you give me a share of what you get.” Far more intimidating was the follow-up: “And if you don’t agree to what I suggest I’ll make sure no one bids for your horse, and if you sell it at all it will be at a loss.” [p. 67]

Honest Jonah tries to stay out of fighting the ring, but as he is constantly attacked, he decides to fight back. His allies are his girlfriend, Sophie, and his alcoholic brother, Crispin. Well, Crispin isn’t so much an ally as a concern and driving force for Jonah, but he’s there and important to the story.

While Dick Francis’s novels tend to get grouped in the mystery section (in libraries and yes, even my categories), not all of his novels follow the who-dun-it model. In Knockdown, we learn pretty early on who’s doing what and why (greeeeed) (sorry spoiler alert!: greeeeed). What we don’t know, and what propels the action forward, is the question: how is the protagonist going to resolve this struggle?

Not all mysteries are about finding out the solution. Many are about finding a resolution.

I feel like I should make a shallow joke about something after that uncharacteristically deep statement. But … I’m kind of tired, you guys. I gotta go to work in the morning, so instead, I’m just gonna kinda … trail off … and hope no one notices I half-assed this one.

Grade for Knockdown: 3 stars

Fiction: “Blue Lonesome” by Bill Pronzini

blue lonesomeAnother rainy day, another day of database entry; another day of surreptitiously writing reviews longhand.

So Blue Lonesome — this is a weird book for me.  Well, not that the book is weird — the book itself is fairly straightforward. My relationship with the book is weird, and rich with Alaina-History.

I first borrowed Blue Lonesome from my hometown library when I was in high school. I don’t know exactly which year it was, but I know it was the year that the library was housed in the old high school while the library was being renovated and expanded. It was awesome, because the old high school was just around the corner from where I lived at the time and I was walking there like, every other day. That summer was the same summer wherein I first read And One to Die On by Jane Haddam and The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor, and a couple of authors that have made it into my rotation.

Do you guys ever experience that type of visceral memory? I mean, when it comes to memories of reading – entire scenes seared in my brain, almost like an out of body experience, where I can see myself either reading the book or first picking up the book – I am lucky enough to have a few. I can see myself in the library picking up The Venus Throw and And One to Die On – it was a sunny, summer afternoon. It was in the second row from the windows, because that’s where the “new and notable” recommendations were, and right in front of the windows were the computers that we had to use because it was the nineties and no one had computers except rich kids and libraries, and no one had EVER heard of Wi-Fi. I guess I haven’t mentioned my memory of reading The Pelican Brief for the first time, but I was in my eighth grade Maine Educational Assessment test and I had just finished the section on reading comprehension, I think? Anyway, I couldn’t leave because it was eighth grade and teachers are practically prison wardens in that age group, so I finished reading And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, put that into my backpack, and pulled out The Pelican Brief. I can still see myself sitting in my car in the drive-through at the Starbucks near my old apartment, nose-deep into The Beekeeper’s Apprentice for the first time. And at least three Harry Potter-related memories (but here’s one for the road).

Anyway. It amazes me that I can see myself so clearly on that summer day, *mumblemumble* years ago, checking Blue Lonesome out of the library for the first time, but I can never remember any of the details of the plot.

No, for reals. This is the third? fourth? at least the third time I’ve read this book, and every time I pick it up, I remember that the impetus for the mystery is a character nicknamed Ms. Lonesome, that the bulk of the story takes place in authentic-Western Nevada, and that the entire novel is fairly bleak. I don’t remember Ms. Lonesome’s real name, I don’t remember the name of the narrator, the town he goes to, I can’t remember whodunit — nothing. The entire book is a blank. I know I liked it, so I pick it up again. I’ve done so three times in the past ten years but never remember any details. But I still know every goddamned word to the theme song to Ducktales. Granted, the latter is set to (very catchy) music, so I’m sure that helps, BUT STILL.

Oh great. Now I’m going to have that stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Okay, and before I get into actually discussing the book like I’m supposed to, please take note that the book could contain the following triggers: aftermath of sexual abuse / molestation; semi-graphic imagery of suicide; and snakes.

Blue Lonesome is both the story of Jim Messenger and his obsession with Ms. Lonesome, but also a meditation on the state of being lonesome. Jim is a CPA – a middleman in his firm in San Francisco, divorced in college and never remarried; his life has become rather routine and stagnant. Until one day, when he sees a woman in his diner who strikes him as being even more alone than he is. Jim feels … solitary, I guess; not lonely, but alone. He has friends – at work, and he dates a bit, but at the end of the day he goes back to his apartment and listens to his jazz albums and generally feels okay with his life; okay, but not necessarily content.

This woman at the diner, however – she gets to him. She eats the same meal night after night, never speaks to anyone but the waitress; doesn’t even look up from her plate. She not only exudes loneliness, but also physically and emotionally repels others away from her. And Jim becomes preoccupied with her – he sees her as a kindred spirit and wants to get to know her. But the only conversation is one-sided and slightly hostile.

And then one night, she stops coming to the diner. Jim tries to stop worrying about her, but finally gives into his curiosity. Having already followed her one night to find out where she lived (but not in a stalkery way, if that’s even possible?), he visits her landlord only to find out that his Ms. Lonesome had committed suicide the week before.

Still determined to learn more about this mystery woman, he pays the landlord $20 to view Ms. Lonesome’s personal belongings. Among them, he finds a book stamped as belonging to the Beulah, Nevada Library. He knows it’s a wild goose chase, but his compulsion makes him take his annual two-week vacation early and before he knows it, he’s driving into the town of Beulah.

Ms. Lonesome does not turn out to be the beloved missing person that Jim thought she’d be. Instead, she turns out to be – oh, shit. Jesus Christ, I only returned it to the library five weeks ago, how I have I forgotten that character’s name already?! GODDAMMIT. *Googles aggressively* ANYWAY. Ms. Lonesome turns out to be Anna Burgess Roebuck, the daughter-in-law of the town patriarch. Anna was run out of town after she was accused of murdering her husband and young daughter.

Yeah – she’s not so nice now, huh?

Jim gets involved in Anna’s sister, Dacy, and he tries to solve the mystery. He’s totally that One Guy who comes into town and Stirs Up Shit in the name of Clearing Someone’s Name, but it works here. Not just as a trope, but as a true way for Jim to overcome his own solitariness. By pushing himself so far out of his comfort zone in the name of clearing Anna’s name – because he is convinced that there is no way in hell that she would have murdered her daughter; her husband, maybe, he was kind of a shitheel, apparently, but her daughter? no way – he finds himself.

Also, Anna totally didn’t do it, because that’s how things roll.

There. Hopefully, the next time I pick it up from the library, I’ll remember what the book’s about. Or, at least, I’ll know I have a handy reference to remind me.

Grade for Blue Lonesome: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Charade” by Sandra Brown

charadeHey guys, remember when I read that kind-of-awful romance novel by Sandra Brown a couple of months ago, and I mentioned another book I had read by the same author when I was in high school? And then I said that if I could find a copy for cheaps I was gonna buy it and read the hell out of it, hoping it doesn’t suck like Demon Rumm did?

You guys! My mom had a copy!

(I had forgotten that my mother had read Charade first, and what probably happened is that years ago I bought a copy, and then left it with my mother so she could re-read it. Merry Christmas to Alaina 2014!)

(Because yes, this was the last book that I managed to complete in the year 2014, and my stats on that will be forthcoming shortly. Hooray for snow days and increased productivity!)

This may have been the first book in the “romantic suspense” genre I ever read – when I was a teenager, I had no time for “mushy romance,” and to be truthful, even up until about five or six years ago, I still preferred romance in my violence over violence in my romance. Charade had an interesting mystery and the romance stemmed from it through coincidence rather than creating a mystery around it.

Cat Delaney, the Susan Lucci of this universe’s soap opera scene, has a bad heart, and we begin the book at her heart transplant. After her recovery, she decides to retire from acting in order to give back to her community. Inspired by her own orphaned childhood, (because why not), she moves to San Antonio to head up a television segment called Cat’s Kids, which would help get children adopted in the area.

I … just read that sentence, and I guess that during the actual reading of the book, it never hit me how ludicrous that whole thing sounds. Not the soap opera actress relocating to Texas part (although if she were relocating to El Paso, it would definitely be unbelievable), and not even the soap opera actress deciding to do a weekly segment on a local newscast part. I mean, it’s not like she’s doing hard news or anything, so a journalism degree isn’t exactly required. No, the ludicrous part is the idea of showing kids who should be adopted and getting the kids adopted quickly. Maybe it was different back in the ’90s, but nowadays, there is so much red tape when it comes to adoption that while a news program would be a nice thing, there’s no way it would make a difference.

ANYWAY. Here’s where the mystery comes in: there were five other heart transplants on the same day as Cat’s, and on the anniversary of the transplant, one of the recipients dies. And this year, Cat’s in the bulls-eye.

She meets her romantic interest, Alex Pierce, on one of her fact-finding missions: he’s house-sitting for a couple who are interesting in adopting one of her Kids. (Sidenote: I get that it’s the name of her show, but man, the characters are constantly calling the show by its full name. Cat’s Kids. Cat’s Kids. Cat’s Kids. WE GET IT, IT’S THE SHOW.) Alex is a writer, and so when she shows up at 9, he’s just pulling on a pair of jeans and coming to answer the door shirtless after a long night of … writing, and Cat is intrigued, but also appalled at his rudeness. But he keeps showing up to events and being nice to Cat, trying to make up for his earlier rudeness, and when she starts to get threats related to her heart transplant, he reveals he’s a former cop and a current crime writer, so he starts to help investigate the backgrounds of the other, deceased transplantees.

Overall, the plot moves quickly, and there are only a couple of overwritten sentences. There’s a moment where Cat, in the middle of being assigned a security detail, protests by saying that she’s not an “objet d’art.” Nobody talks like that. Oh, and there was a cute moment where Cat’s talking to one of her Kids and she likes his red cowboy boots because they’re like her red cowboy boots, and all I could think of was Ted and his red cowboy boots and his determination to pull them off.

And where does the Charade of the title come into play? Well, you’re led to believe that someone close to Cat is the killer, and he comes across as a nice guy and helpful and sweet and then she thinks she’s figured it out and accuses him of being the killer, but then it’s this other person in the story. You can probably guess who is set up to be the narrative patsy, as this is a romantic suspense story and not, for instance, Gone Girl or some other mystery that actually is able to surprise you as you read it. But I’m not going to spoil it, because that’s something I try very hard to not do anymore.

And how does it stack up, nostalgia-wise? Remember, I was reading this in late high school / early college, and my tastes and reading matter have changed in those *mumblegrumble* years. (You know you’re getting older when you find yourself rounding your age up, even though your birthday isn’t for a whole fifty-nine days.) Well, it was … nice. I mean, I had read it a couple of times back then and I knew the first suspect was just a red herring, and as soon as I saw the character list I remembered who the serial killer was, so I was pretty much just going along until everything resolved itself. I did forget a bunch of incidental stuff, and I had completely forgotten that there were a number of subplots that really had nothing to do with the serial killing main plot (Who stole Cat’s transplant medicine? Oh, it was that chick because she hates her.)

As one of the first “steamy” books I ever read, reading it now, it’s actually … very tame. It’s not a Jane Austen novel, but compared to some of the historical romances I’ve read?



Overall, it was nowhere near as annoying as Demon Rumm, and I maintain that Demon Rumm was one of Ms. Brown’s first novels because the writing has definitely improved in Charade. I’m going to rate it four stars, but please take note that one star is purely for nostalgia. And for finding it when I didn’t think I had it.

Grade for Charade: 4 stars

Fiction: “Death at Gallows Green” by Robin Paige

gallows greenI’ll be honest; I wasn’t even planning on reading this title. I’m not even sure why I decided to read it. Hell, I can’t remember when I bought it — all I know is that I was cleaning house and happened to find a bag of books that I had bought … maybe at the Library book sale? I didn’t get it at Bull Moose; it doesn’t have the Bull Moose sticker on it. Anyway, this book was in the bag, I went “huh,” and somehow I ended up reading it.

And while I don’t remember purchasing it, I do remember that when I had read the first book – holy shit, five years ago! – I had wanted to keep reading the series because I had a question that needed answering. Clearly I didn’t care enough to find the next book in the series immediately.

Because seriously, this is the only thing I remember from that first book: the main character moves to England and meets a dude, and this dude has a friend named Bradford Marsden. As I alluded in the review of the first book, I have a friend whose name is very similar-sounding to the character’s name, and at the time, I really wanted to learn if the character had a middle name that I could use on my friend when he was in trouble. At the time, I was working at L.L. Bean with my friend, and he would routinely leave his time-off requests on my keyboard instead of the folder clearly marked “Time Off Requests,” and … oh yeah, bring in expired popcorn for everyone to eat. Shit like that. He wasn’t being mean, honestly, he was just being funny. He put the time-off requests on my keyboard because he would make a stink about people doing the same thing to him when he was a manager, and he’s a fan of teasing traditions. And while I know he didn’t buy that expired popcorn when he said he had (it was dated DECEMBER 2005 and he brought it in DECEMBER 2010 THERE IS NO WAY SHAW’S HAD A FIVE-YEAR-OLD BOX OF ORVILLE REDENBACHER ON THEIR SHELVES), I know he didn’t bring in expired popcorn on purpose.

So when I first learned about Bradford Marsden, I wanted to see if he had a good middle name that began with “R,” because I was tired of making up middle names for my friend (my favorite being Rutherford). The first book didn’t provide it, and I was hoping this book would give me what I wanted. Sadly, I have yet to learn the character’s middle name. So … guess I’ll be reading the third book at some point. (*looks up series on Goodreads* holy crap, there’s twelve of these? My question had better get answered)

I guess the best descriptor of this series would be as a “cozy mystery:” a mystery set in an intimate community that is solved by an amateur detective (so not a policeman), and usually there’s a lot of conversation and not much sex and/or violence. The main character is Kathryn Ardleigh, who has inherited Bishop’s Keep from her dead aunts. She goes to visit some friends and meets a shy woman who has a lot of pets, and the woman turns out to be Beatrix Potter. As I peruse the Goodreads site some more, I learn that as this series progresses, it becomes less about the mystery and more about the historical figures that Kate and her friend-slash-person-she-thinks-she-might-like-which-is-convenient-because-he-likes-her-too-but-she-doesn’t-realize-it-yet Charles Sheridan meet. In addition, the author — who is actually the pseudonym of Susan Wittig Albert and her husband, Bill, writing together — went on to write another series starring Beatrix Potter as the mystery-solver.

Good goddamn, there are a lot of hyphens and dashes in that above paragraph. I am so sorry.

ANYWAY, a constable is shot, and Charles gets involved because he’s an amateur criminologist, and Kate gets involved because her servant is the one who finds the body, and also she’s nosy. The more Charles investigates, the more dangerous the case becomes, and he becomes increasingly protective of Kate because she refuses to sit back and let the men investigate.

Also, every single man in this book (and I mean that in terms of men that are single) has something going on with Kate. Constable Ed Larkin is teaching Kate how to ride a bicycle (because this series takes place in the late 1800s, remember), and the friendship between Kate and Larkin is enough to make Charles think that something’s going on between them, so Charles takes a step back and lets Larkin pursue Kate, should he choose to do so. (Except Larkin actually has a thing for the widow of the dead constable, so that makes things slightly awkward).

And then Bradford’s kind of … y’know, I’ll get to Bradford in a minute. Anyway, Kate is starting to think she likes Charles, but she’s not sure, and it’s not really important for her — she wants to find out what happened to the dead constable more than if Charles like-likes her. Which, good for her; murder over men, I always say. (NOTE: I never say that.)

SO THE PLOT. It turns out the constable was murdered because there’s some grain smuggling going on and he got too close to figuring out who the culprit was and he was killed for it. There’s some police corruption going on, and so the case isn’t investigated to its fullest at first, but between Larkin’s tenacity, Charles’s physical evidence, and Kate’s gumption, the case is solved, and Larkin goes to marry the widow who also loves him, which takes the awkward away and Charles finds a way to approach Kate so that they might start dating.

And I just realized I mentioned Beatrix Potter but then never really talked about her. Uh, she and Kate become friends, and Beatrix becomes inspired by Kate’s independence and resolves to go home and publish her little tales herself and hopefully she’ll be able to get out from under her parents’ thumbs. So congrats, Kate Ardleigh? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen evidence of a character inspiring a real person to get herself published. (This whole, “writing real people into fiction” stuff boggles my mind at times.)

Overall, my opinion of the series remains the same: it’s very twee. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; occasionally, I am in the mood for a cozy mystery. It’s just not my typical cup of tea. I doubt that if it weren’t for the infernal question of “what IS Bradford’s middle name, this is KILLING ME (but not really),” i probably wouldn’t continue with the series.

OH RIGHT BRADFORD. Okay, so … he doesn’t play a big role in this book. But when Kate’s at her elegant dinner party, she speaks with Bradford’s sister Eleanor, who is concerned, because …

“There has been a theft, Kate. One of the servants has stolen my mother’s antique emeralds.” [p. 37]

And I didn’t think anything of it, until …

“If it is true that the footman took the jewels,” Kate said gently, “the moral fault is his, not yours. Have you taken your suspicions to your father or to your brother Bradford?” [p. 39]


“Brad did it. I MEAN Bradford did it. Duh. It’s ALWAYS Brad… ford.” [p. ME]


Yes, I dated it and initialed it. I don't want you thinking I did this just now.SURE ENOUGH and also SPOILER ALERT: Bradford took the emeralds and pawned them as collateral on a loan. That rat bastard. BUT he got the money back so he put the emeralds back and basically he didn’t learn his lesson.

Although he did think, for a moment, that he was going to marry Kate Ardleigh in order to a) finally get married, as a baron should do, and b) finance himself for life, except his mother put a stop to it because — *gasp!* — Miss Ardleigh rides a bicycle and is therefore not respectable.

And because Bradford doesn’t really love Kate, just her money, and he is easily cowed by his mother … he doesn’t ever see Kate again. He’s basically Tom shaking off Lindsay’s advances after Gob gives his sexual harassment speech before the Bluth Company Christmas Party in “Afternoon Delight.” (Arrested Development fans know exactly what I’m talking about.)

So if you like cozy mysteries, sure, go ahead and read this book. If I come across Death at Daisy’s Folly, which is apparently what the third book is titled, I’ll probably read it.  But I’m not going to actively search for it.

Grade for Death at Gallows Green: 2 stars