Simpson Testimony and Steele Dossier

Oh, man! I’ve been on a kick of most excellent period-piece mysteries, but I had to interrupt it to focus on the latest, most crazy political controversy from the past couple weeks. After Senator Feinstein released the transcript of testimony from Fusion GPS CEO Glenn Simpson, I read two fascinating (and lengthy) twitter threads analyzing the transcript.

Elizabeth McLaughlin is a lawyer and CEO, and has a 60-tweet thread of her reading here: https://twitter.com/ECMcLaughlin/status/950884746082562048

Seth Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and journalist, and his 200-tweet thread is here: https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/950800455797534720

The analyses are fascinating, and the quotes from both Simpson and Steele are completely bonkers! So, a quick rehash, which I’m going to put after a break, because it gets a bit involved. Continue reading

Blackmail in Belgravia

By Clara Benson

Blackmail_in_BelgraviaIf my previous review, Death Comes to the Village, didn’t quite live up to its comparisons to Georgette Heyer, Blackmail in Belgravia feels like it fits into her style completely, just without the overt racism and covert homophobia. If you have ever read any of Heyer’s novels, you will recognize Benson’s protagonist Freddy Pilkington-Soames from every Freddy that Heyer has ever written. It must be the go-to name for an affable but not super intelligent young man of leisure in the 20s.

Part of the upper-crust, but living beyond his means, this Freddy barely manages to hold down a job as a newspaper reporter, while spending most of his time out drinking with friends. When a friend of his mother’s dies while at a dinner party with her, Freddy is prodded into investigating by his delightfully manipulative mother.

The mystery itself is rather easily guessed, but the characters are just so entertaining that it didn’t bother me at all, watching them blunder around, overlooking the obvious culprit.

By contrast, the police are actually surprisingly competent, for this type of book, which was also refreshing. They stay just a step or two behind Freddy in the investigation throughout the book, and are clearly far more professional and skilled at this. Freddy is only able to solve it for them in the end because he has direct access to all the suspects, knowing them all socially.

I highly recommend this series (having read the first two novels), and the ebook is available on amazon for a dollar. I discovered later that the same author has another mystery series featuring a middle-aged female detective with a mysterious past, which I’d read previously and found mediocre. Apparently Freddy’s mother is a side character in some of the later books in that series.

Death Comes to the Village

By Catherine Lloyd

Death_Comes_to_the_VillageThe back cover of the book had blurbs comparing it to both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, which makes sense because it features very similar characters and setting. Lucy, is the oldest daughter of a rural rector, who comes from a respectable family (her uncle is an Earl!), but without much money. She is responsible for most of the village duties of her late mother, including visiting the sick in the neighborhood.

This, of course, includes handsome, wealthy, but tormented Major Kurland, who has returned from the Napoleonic Wars broken in body and spirit. The murder mystery is introduced through a bit of a “rear window” premise, where the bed-bound major sees suspicious activity out of his bedroom window at night, and must recruit Lucy to be his eyes and ears in the village.

It doesn’t have quite the wit of Austen or the charm of Heyer; both Lucy and the major often tip over from feisty to downright cranky, and I could see myself easily losing patience with both of them. Peripheral characters are somewhat broadly written, as well. What really made the book stand out for me, though, was that Lloyd gives it just a touch a harsh reality among the genteel manners.

Lucy is intelligent and independent, and feels trapped by circumstances, both as a stand-in mother for her siblings and her religious responsibilities. Her father, in particular, is unpleasantly controlling and manipulative. The major is of course the romantic figure, but also battling very real PTSD and substance dependency. The novel manages to find a nice balance between the light-hearted and the gritty to create a very engaging read.

Small Press Expo

Rebecca and I look forward to the Small Press Expo all year, where independently published artists and writers sell their comic books and graphic novels. Each year, we assure each other that we are going to post a review on the blog about all of our excellent purchases, but each year, we get home exhausted, and stretch the reading out over several months, and never quite get around to putting together a cohesive review. But this year will be different!

…Okay, so SPX was a few weeks months ago, but we’ve still got a couple of great finds to share with you!

The Shadow Hero

By Gene Luen Yang (author) and Sonny Liew (artist)

Shadow_HeroI picked up this graphic novel almost immediately upon entering the floor, and it turned out to be my favorite purchase. The author and artist are both Asian Americans, who had discovered a very short run of what was likely the first Asian American superhero, the Green Turtle. They elaborate more on the source material in the back of the book, but the short version is that it was written by a Chinese American author during World War II, showing allied China defending American against Japanese agents. The Green Turtle himself is kept very mysterious in the original books, and is never given any sort of backstory, which Yang and Liew decide to correct in their update.

The update works brilliantly! The plot is very clever, characters are all so wonderful, and the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. I was giggling through the whole thing, much to Rebecca’s amusement and exasperation. (When she read it, she laughed, too, but also said that it might hit her second-hand-embarrassment squick a bit much for her to fully enjoy.)

Innsmouth

By Megan James

InnsmouthInnsmouth was a close second, though only the first three issues were available (the fourth one has come out in the time it took me to actually post this review), of what will hopefully be a long-running series. (The only drawback to the independent publishing is, who knows how long there will be funding for any given project. If only I were a millionaire!)

It takes place in the fictional town of Innsmouth, MA, made famous by Lovecraft in his stories. In this narrative, Innsmouth is a fairly normal New England town, with a small university, and a religious cult that worships Cthulhu, which pretty much everyone tries to tolerate by ignoring.

You can read the first issue online, introducing Randolph Higgle, who is a junior acolyte of the cult, basically doing door-to-door evangelizing, until he is forced into more responsibility than he can handle and he goes to outside help for advice. The author comments that she always loved the Lovecraft stories, while pretty much despising the man himself, so it is her ambition to capture as much of a the gloomy fun as possible without any of the racism and other bigotry.

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.