The Undertaking

By Thomas Lynch

UndertakingThomas Lynch describes himself as an internationally unknown poet, though my impression is that is fake modestly for the sake of the mild joke, since from his own accounts he seems relatively well-regarded in poetry circles. More importantly to this memoir-of-sorts, he is a third-generation undertaker in a small Michigan town. I was looking for some insight into how undertakers view death when they deal with it daily and in such a practical way. Lynch kicks the book off with a treatise on funerals that can be summed up with his repeated phrase, “the dead do not care.” It is occasional humorous, but more often, uh, bracing, like cold water or a slap in the face. It isn’t really a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one.

That is, until he goes off on tangents on wider subjects, and his old-white-maleness starts showing. Sympathizing with a friend’s divorce, he bemoans how the ex-wife seemed to just callously stop appreciating poetry idolizing her body. I started side-eyeing the author a bit there, but he really gets going at the end of the book. A lengthy screed against assisted suicide, stemming from a more interesting description of his brother’s post-mortem cleanup service, veers way off course into anti-abortion territory with a wide variety of willfully ignorant arguments that made me dislike the author quite heartily. The glib snarkiness that had seemed darkly funny at the beginning became pretty nasty towards the end.

The Zig Zag Girl

By Elly Griffiths

Zig_Zag_GirlAnother mystery series set in Brighton! I don’t know English geography nearly well enough to know why Brighton would be a popular setting for murder mysteries, but the Magic Men series has quite a different tone than Brighton’s #1 Private Detective.

For one, it is set in the early 1950s, during the recovery from World World II. Our main protagonist, Edgar Stephens was part of an undercover unit called The Magic Men during the war, where a group of stage performers create illusions to trick the Germans. (As crazy as this sounds, it is actually historically accurate, and the author gives some good background into it in the afterward.) It is a fascinating subject, and I wish the book had given a little bit more focus to it.

However, at the time of the novel, Stephens has become a detective in the Brighton Police Force. When the body of a showgirl is discovered, cut up and stored in three trunks, it brings to his mind the magic trick called the titular zig zag girl. He calls up his old friends from the Magic Men to consult, and the storyline becomes a confluence of the current mystery and their experiences during the war, which led up to this point.

While the mystery is engaging, the real strength lies in the characters and the period setting, which almost seems like its own character. It is a time of transition, and everyone is trying to make sense of the past and face the future in their own way. It’s not comedic, though it has funny scenes, and it is not grim, though the murder(s) are pretty brutal – The Zig Zag Girl just has a very thoughtful tone that really pulled me in as a reader.

I immediately picked up the sequel, Smoke and Mirrors, and it is even better – the characters have continued to grow from their experiences in the previous book, and face new challenges based on that growth. Also, for what it’s worth, the first book sets up a romance for Stephens that I don’t altogether approve of, and the second book introduces a competing romantic interest that I much prefer.

As I Descended

517Jbn75RULThis isn’t a full review, but I wanted to pop in and say that readers who enjoyed Anna’s post in the spring about seeing Sleep No More, the immersive theater take on Macbeth, might like As I Descended by Robin Talley. It’s a YA version of the story, set in a Virginia boarding school, with two teenage girls positioned as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I really enjoyed seeing how the grand story of kings and battles scaled down to the stakes of high school–theoretically smaller, but still life and death to the characters. And if every version of this story has to decide which of the more fantastical elements are happening in the characters’ heads versus which are real, this one leans heavily towards the spirits and ghosts side of things. Which makes it a great, creepy read for this time of year, as we edge into the dark of fall and winter.

Strange Practice

61KZB80mVgLAnyone who spends ten minutes reading this blog would be able to tell pretty quickly that Strange Practice was going to be right up my alley. This initial entry in a series of magical mystery stories by Vivian Shaw follows Greta Helsing (yes, yes, her family dropped the van some time ago), a London physician dedicated to treating the city’s magical inhabitants. Mummies with feet problems? Vampire anemia? Ghouls who need psychiatric assistance? She herself may be human, but she has a calling to provide health care for mystical creatures likely to have issues accessing the NHS. There is an actual mystery here (crazy monks are murdering people, there’s a sort of nameless power from the dawn of time, etc.) but the real draw of this book is the assortment of characters that end up surrounding Greta. Some of the magical creatures she knows fit better into the modern world than others, but they all have to work together to save London and protect the secrets of its less-well known inhabitants.

This is Shaw’s first novel and the writing isn’t always effortless–there were definitely times when it felt like she was trying too hard to be clever and was getting in her own way. And I found that the point of view switched around too much for me to ever really feel settled into the story. Greta is nominally the main character and she is definitely the reader’s entry point into this world, but other characters (vampires, humans, demons, the villains of the story) also get so many chapters told from their perspectives that the ratio felt off to me. I’m hopeful that Shaw was trying to cram as many cool ideas and cool characters as she could into this first book, but that as she goes along she’ll start letting things breathe a little more.

But despite those quibbles about some elements of execution, I really enjoyed the book. The overall world created here was fascinating and very specific. I was left with the impression that this version of London has many more creatures with complex lives ad backstories that need Greta’s help, and that the group of vampires, demons, and humans that circles around her is well on the way to be becoming an odd little family. My Kindle version of this book included a teaser for the next one in the series, so it looks like I’ll have the chance to see what Greta and her team are up to next.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Entertaining urban fantasy

You might also like: Anything by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews–I think the official Biblio-therapy position is that we are strongly in favor of those series. But Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural mysteries, also set in London, would be good companions to this.

Choose Your Parents Wisely

By Tom Trott

Choose_Your_Parents_WiselyOf course, the title caught my eye. It sounded cheesy as hell, but it is actually one of the most competent modern-era noir mysteries I’ve read in a very long time. Our protagonist, Joe Grabarz (the juvenile pun of his name is the weakest part of the book for me) is, naturally, a down-and-out private detective in Brighton.

My favorite thing about it, though, is that Joe is possibly the crankiest (anti)hero I’ve ever read. He has a very vague moral compass, but goes on random internal rants about everything, ranging from understandable (tourists) to completely out of left field (rice).

The story also does a very interesting plot devise, where we follow two cases in parallel. In present day, Joe investigates the disappearance of young daughter of an upper-middle-class family. This case contrasts with the disappearance of another girl from a poor immigrant family, his very first investigation years ago. The chapters jump between the two cases with very little warning, and it keeps you on your toes as a reader as the two plots weave together.

Choose Your Parents Wisely is actually the second book in what I hope will be a lengthy series, but it was a BookBub special, so I jumped on it. I enjoyed it so much, though, that after finishing it, I immediately bought the first book, You Can’t Make Old Friends. Since the second book covers two different periods in the detective’s career, this first book actually takes place between the two periods, so both chronologically after and before the sequel.

The first book even alludes to events in the second book that I think would seem confusing and out-of-place if I hadn’t read it already. The second book also refers back to events in book one, but obliquely enough that I didn’t find it distracting. The circular plotting of each book, and both books together, just make for a really unique read.

The Essex Serpent

61U76uN5PHLI was in London earlier this summer and the book of the moment, the book piled up in store displays and advertised in posters around town, was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I was worried that this would be another of those Kinsey Tells You About an Already Wildly Popular thing entries, but I haven’t heard much about The Essex Serpent here in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s really quite a good book.

I suppose you could call this a neo-Victorian novel–it’s set in England in late 1800s, and focuses on a woman named Cora. Her husband has just died–not a terribly sad occasion for her–and being a widow has allowed her the freedom to start walking the marshes and looking fossils and getting muddy and generally ignoring nice society. In the course of all this she meets the vicar of a small town on the English coast and they strike up a friendship, which is at least partly based on Cora’s interest in rumors of a sea monster (the Essex Serpent) that has been plaguing the town. What will this relationship bring? Will they ever find the serpent?

This description makes it sound like plot-driven, exciting tale! But it’s not, really–it’s not a romance, and it’s not a supernatural mystery/adventure. The basic plot description doesn’t account for how the story’s point of view moves from character to character, not only Cora and the vicar, but also their children, the vicar’s wife, and a doctor friend of Cora’s, among others. The book is really a character study, illuminating the inner lives of a variety of people that, for various reasons (gender, class, intelligence), are marginalized or limited within society.  Plus, the tiny villages and marshes of English seaside basically serve as one of the characters, giving the whole book a sort of damp, salty feeling to it. All this makes it seem odd, honestly that this is such a book of the moment in England–it’s about as far from The Girl on the Train as you could get, but it’s a lovely book and I’m glad it’s gotten so much attention. The cover is also just gorgeous.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Atmospheric Victorian tale

You might also like: The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale; or Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton; or Sarah Waters’s books, especially Fingersmith.

Learning to Swim

By Sara J. Henry

Learning_to_SwimI was pulled into this book just from the back cover description alone. A woman sees a child fall from the back of a ferry, and jumps in to rescue him. The ferry has continued on without noticing, and by the time she gets to shore with the alive but unresponsive boy, there is no one around. There are no desperate parents waiting for him, and when she calls the police, they doubt her story. I just love how simple the premise is: suddenly there’s this child, and what are you going to do?

The plot alone probably could have carried the whole book for me, but rescuer Troy is now one of my favorite protagonists. She is a journalist for a small-town newspaper in the Adirondacks, mostly covering local sports, and she lives a mostly commitment-free life with a house that she rents rooms from to visiting athletes training for various winter sports.

The writing style matches her perfectly: clear and crisp without a lot of unnecessary stylistic nonsense. A wide range of characters are introduced, as well, and they are all interesting and distinct in their own ways, and in their relationships to Troy. I can’t fully describe how realistic everything felt – the situations that came up didn’t seem particularly outlandish, and the characters were all so well-grounded.

Up until the end, that is. I did think the final reveal got a bit jarringly melodramatic compared to the rest of the book, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the book as a whole. After finishing, I immediately went and got the sequel, in what I hope will be a continuing series.

A Cold and Lonely Place

By Sara J. Henry

A_Cold_and_Lonely_PlaceIf anything the second book is even better! The mystery was more nuanced and subtle: a rich-kid tourist is discovered dead in a frozen lake, and gossip spreads about one of Troy’s roommates, who was dating him. Troy starts to investigate only enough to clear her roommate, but soon gets journalistically attached to the tourist’s life story, which unfolds along with the mystery. It is a quieter book, in all, than the first one, but even more realistic, and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, since I’ve finished it, I’ve been sulking that there isn’t a third book out.

Both books reminded me a bit of Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike mysteries, not so much in any concrete way, but just in how much I cared about the characters and was interested in their general lives, as well as the mystery.