The Hanover Square Affair

By Ashley Gardner

Hanover_Square_AffaireAnother good British mystery for free on Kindle (courtesy of BookBub, of course), though not set in Brighton this time. Captain Gabriel Lacey has returned to London from fighting in the Napoleonic wars, with military honors but very little else. At loose ends, he runs across a tragedy and alleged murder, and through a strong sense of honor and nothing much else to do, he throws himself into investigating and trying to right wrongs. (As a quick aside, I often don’t even see the covers on my kindle, so I saw it for the first time when pulling the photo for this review, and I don’t recognize a connection to any of the characters, plot, or mood, so truly do not base this book on the cover.)

The mystery is very well plotted, with complex twists and turns, and the mood is nice and noire, with a cynical protagonist battling against an uncaring world. It is that protagonist that really makes the book, though. Captain Lacey is a complex character; from a poor but genteel family, he found patronage in the army that allowed him to rise in ranks. At the time of this first novel, though, he has been injured and discharged, severed from his patron, and has no money and no real way of making it.

The mixture of circumstances has given him access to a wide cross-section of society. He rents a room in a dilapidated boarding house surrounded by prostitutes and thieves, but receives invites to society events feting any returning war heroes of note that the hostesses can get their hands on.

Additionally, he describes himself as suffering from ‘melancholia,’ and it is fascinating, though somewhat agonizing, seeing the Victorian perspective on depression. Lacey is generally thoughtful and considerate of others, until he suddenly isn’t, and is either washed away in mindless rage, or completely debilitated, pushing all friends away from him.

The thing is, I tend to avoid books that give any more than a cursory description of depression. As someone with mild depression myself, reading about other people’s struggles can bring my own to the forefront. To some degree, it sucks because I miss out on finding familiarity and understanding, but it just isn’t worth it to me.*

All of this to say I probably won’t continue with this series, though I do still highly recommend it.

*As a solid GenX-er, I’m not always as open to the new concepts coming from the millennial generation as I’d like to be. It’s also clear that I’m not alone in struggling with the concept of “triggering.” Conservative pundits love to drag out being triggered as synonymous with being offended or insulted. I myself had thought of it in terms of veterans with PTSD panicking at fireworks, and that using the term in lesser circumstances was a bit overblown. However, the truth is that I don’t like to read about depression because of the likelihood that it will trigger my depression. It isn’t catastrophic if it does happen, but it makes my life a little harder, so I avoid it, and I have greater understanding now of others trying to do the same.

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.

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.

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.

Bullet Rain

By Robert Swartwood

Bullet_RainI don’t know what inspired me to get Bullet Rain from the BookBub deal – I even had to pay a dollar for it! It is the sort of tough-guy genre that I generally don’t like: ex-military (usually sniper) loner gets coincidentally caught up in a bad situation and kicks all kinds of ass. I mean, I like a badass loner as much as the next reader, but these books invariably also have the sassy but naïve (read: dumb) young woman to be rescued by our loner, and she always gets on my nerves.

Bullet Rain checks off all of these points, and yet I still got a kick out of it, and I can’t explain it at all. I think it might have been the very first chapter, which opens with a sniper enjoying an audiobook while waiting for his target, and spends more time describing the audiobook than the gun. I figured this was probably a novel that had priorities more in line with mine than usual.

Main protagonist Nova is a recently retired black-ops assassin who is sort of aimlessly traveling across the US when his car breaks down in very rural Nevada. One of the first things we find out about Nova (in this book*) is that he is a fan of Guns ‘N Roses, and is a little embarrassed by that fact. When his car gets two flat tires, he is as annoyed as the rest of us would be to find that his cell phone has no service — and he doesn’t have any special military equipment or McGyver-esque tricks to fix this. So, as someone who both likes Guns N’ Roses, and has gotten more than her fair share of inconvenient flat tires, he was pretty immediately in my favor.

Of course, he soon meets attractive young Jessica, who of course needs his rescue, though she is then obnoxiously ungrateful for it, which I suspect was supposed to be “feminism.” She is clearly out of place in the small, rural town, and has her own hidden agenda. Jessica is ridiculously out of her depth, and I would consider her incredibly stupid if she wasn’t quite so young, and if she didn’t have a pretty solid motivation. It helped, too, that Nova himself seemed to view her similarly.

There is little romance, and while there is a lot of violence, it is not bogged down with gruesome details, so Bullet Rain is a very serviceable book that does its genre better than most.

*Bullet Rain is apparently a one-off novel about a side character from another series from the author, but I didn’t feel that I lacked any information. I don’t think it is the type of series that sets up complicated plot arcs over multiple books.

Nora & Kettle

By Lauren Nicolle Taylor

Nora_and_KettleThis is another BookBub offer, so available for free on kindle, but it is quite a bit different from the light entertainment I’ve gotten before. Amazon describes it as a reimagining of Peter Pan (Kettle = Pan), but I wouldn’t have gotten that on my own. There is no light-hearted whimsy, and the children live in anything but a dreamland. Set just after World War II, Kettle is a Japanese-American teenager trying to make do on the streets after having been separated from any family he had in the internment camps. Nora is the daughter of a wealthy but violently abusive councilman. The author includes a trigger warning at the beginning of the book for graphic depictions of domestic abuse, and she isn’t kidding around.

A minor spoiler, and additional trigger warning: a kitten is introduced briefly, bringing a spark of joy to the life of one of the peripheral characters – one of the Lost Boys, a gang of Japanese-American orphans hiding out in the subway tunnels. As soon as the kitten is introduced, I feared for its safety, and sure enough, it is killed in its next scene. That’s the kind of book this is.

The writing is very good, and I was so invested in the characters and storyline that I couldn’t put it down, but the book sort of dragged me down the whole time. As good as it is, this was not a welcome addition to a year that is already sucking ass.