The Frangipani Tree Mystery

By Ovidia Yu

Frangipani_TreeThis was both a charming and disconcerting read after my previous book. It is the first in a series of what the author describes as “a feel good history mystery without blood, sex and gore (enough of that in real life),” but which is also set in Singapore in 1936. The protagonist is a spirited and ambitious Chinese teenager attending the British-run mission school, who wants to get a job outside of her grandmother’s protective house. When the Irish nanny working for the ruling English governor dies in a mysterious fall, Su Lin cheerfully accepts the post and quickly befriends the English Chief Inspector investigating the case.

The governor’s family is precisely as racist as I would imagine a colonialist English family of the time, but Su Lin regards them with curiosity and pity, and with most of her mind focused on her charge, with whom she shares shares mutual affection, and her amateur investigations. The much older Inspector (no romance there, thank god) is clearly more aware of the impending global crises with some passing comments, but they have very little presence in this first book, where Singapore seems more of a hodgepodge of different cultures rubbing along together.

I have every intention of continuing with this series, and the fourth book has just come out, starting what the author is considering a sub-trilogy set during Japanese Occupation. I image that Yu will focus on the decency of her protagonist, her friends and family, and the richness of the Singapore culture in order to maintain a lighter tone during a time of human atrocities. (I hope very much that we see more of her grandmother who apparently runs an only semi-underground empire of illegal commerce.)

When We Were Orphans

By Kazuo Ishiguro

When_We_Were_OrphansThis was a random pickup for me, and I’m not quite sure what called out to me about it. I’ve never read any other novels by Ishiguro, but I enjoyed (in a sort of depressed way) the movie “Remains of the Day” based on his award-winning novel.

The thing is, I had got the impression that When We Were Orphans was a psychological thriller, based on the unraveling of an unreliable narrator, and it is very much not that. I intended to warn here about the misrepresentation of the publisher’s description, but then I went back and reread it:

In 1930s Shanghai, detective Christopher Banks seeks to solve his parents’ long-ago disappearance — and finds himself trapped in his own past.

While clearly not comprehensive, that is not inaccurate, and it seems I just interpreted it entirely wrong, which is actually embarrassingly on-the-nose for what the book is about. Protagonist Christopher Banks is no more unreliable a narrator than any of us are; instead of a study of one man’s fallibility, it is much more a look at how all of us see our lives through very filtered lenses, and when you have to rely on memories for any sort of objective truth, you are on very shaky ground.

The setting of the international settlement in Shanghai perfectly mirrors the theme of subjective observation as well. I went into this book remarkably blind: about halfway through, I turned to Rebecca and said, “it seems weird that the Japanese occupied Shanghai in the 1930s, but that China was with the allies during WW2 and Japan was with the axis?” A quick google search returned the answer, “whew boy, you have no idea!” Reading about the Westerners in Shanghai shrug off growing global tensions with an assurance that ‘everything would turn out okay’ and the protagonist’s slow awakening that everything was very much not going to turn out okay felt chillingly pertinent today.

I got kind of deep into themes above, but it is also a very engrossing character study and mystery of sorts. We get extensive flashbacks to Banks’ childhood with his parents in Shanghai, but after their disappearance, he is sent to live with an aunt in England, where he is determined to become a famous detective, a la Sherlock Holmes. It becomes clear that in this fiction, such famous detectives do exist, and Banks succeeds over time in becoming one. This formational part of the book is very odd, with his increasingly renowned cases being referenced without any context. It did a good job of establishing the character, while clueing in the reader that this book would not be about tidy solutions to discrete mysteries.

The tension builds gradually as Banks slowly circles around investigating his parents’ disappearance and the international atmosphere gradually shifts from relief over the end of ‘The Great War’ to amorphous dread that things might not be quite so settled after all. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of ramping up the tension, slowly at first and then exponentially faster to a quite frankly dizzying climactic crescendo. I wondered if perhaps some of the final reveals were a bit too melodramatic, but of course that thought led me right back to the novel’s them of society ignoring extreme violence and corruption as being ‘unrealistic’.

Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

The Marlowe Murders

By Laura Giebfried and Stanley R. Wells

Marlowe_MurdersWell, this novel is a fucking mess. The preview reminded me a bit of classic Agatha Christie mysteries, with a wealthy and estranged family gathered at a huge mansion on a remote island for the wake of the family matriarch. It lacked Christie’s charm, though, with every character being absurdly dislikeable, but I often find that entertaining as well. It was sort of refreshing for the protagonist—bribed/extorted by one of the family siblings into serving as a maid for the wake for mysterious reasons—to explain that everyone finds her “difficult” and for me to agree with everyone. (As a 29-year-old woman trying to get her doctorate in the 1950s, it would have been very easy to sympathize that the cards were very much stacked against her if she herself hadn’t been quite so unpleasant.)

What I found less entertaining was the glimpses of unpleasantness from the author herself. One character is overweight, which is referenced in just about every scene, and seems an especially shallow descriptor since her true defining feature, along with the other members of the family, seems to be a cartoonishly psychotic temper. If a woman is threatening me with mortal harm, her body weight is the least of my concerns. In addition to adding an ugly layer of fat phobia to an already unpleasant novel, the constant digs quickly became tiresome and clichéd.

Once the characters and scene were set and the murder committed, the plot really started to go off the rails. There’s a chapter in most mysteries where the detective is stumped and just sort of runs through wild conjectures. They usually write themselves a list to help order their thoughts and get back on track, but this protagonist seemed to just decide to go with the wild conjectures approach the whole way through. The characters all jumping from suspicion to suspicion, based solely on the newest ‘clue’ made me feel a little unmoored as well, so I guess you could say that the author created an atmosphere of sorts.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

By Kate Racculia

Tuesday_MooneyThis book deserves a better reader than I am right now. I absolutely loved Racculia’s previous novel Bellweather Rhapsody and tore through it in a few days. I loved Tuesday Mooney, too, but it took me two weeks to read because my attention span is a fruitfly at this point.

It starts a little slow with introductions of all the characters, and Racculia really excels at characters – they were all interesting, distinct, and sympathetic but also clearly flawed in their own ways that kept them from being too likeable. Five of our central protagonists are at a Boston hospital fundraiser – the titular Tuesday Mooney being a researcher for the donor relations department– when an older gentleman keels over while bidding $50k for a meet-and-greet with New Kids on the Block. (I feel like this level of detail is characteristic of Racculia, and the book continues to be a love letter to all things Boston, as well as the adventure, murder, romance, ghost story it is.)

Even though he dies in the first chapter, I count the older gentleman as one of the protagonists, because it is his post-mortem scavenger hunt that leads the rest of the story, and his own (interesting, distinct) personality is threaded through it all as well. Through the scavenger hunt, the cast of characters expands to family and friends of the deceased as well as more random hunters, and we get lovely peaks into many of their lives. It was here that I would happily sit down for an hour or so to read and feel satisfied with the story, but then turn blank-eyed to the TV afterwards, which is very much a criticism of my own coping skills and not the novel itself.

However, when the villain is revealed to both the protagonists and the reader, that’s when I really got hooked, and stayed up far too late a couple of nights. In retrospect, I realize that I like a story to have more darkness to it than the first half had, focusing on the riddle and puzzle solving. It is quite a race to the end, and in retrospect has a well-crafted pace that exponentially speeds up over the course of the book. The finale is incredibly satisfying, tying up more loose ends than I’d even quite realized Racculia had threaded (though not all of them, keeping it a bit realistic), and I plan to read this again when I’m no longer quite so hollow eyed and empty headed.

The Good Knight

By Sarah Woodbury

Good_KnightI’d downloaded the free kindle version ages ago, and just ran across it while digging through my library listlessly after two weeks in my house. Set in medieval Wales, with some king getting killed on his way to marry the daughter of another king, and only the knight who runs across the carnage afterwards can solve this crime amidst all the political scheming, with the help of the woman who loves him.

Listen, my brain has basically turned to sludge at this point. I couldn’t keep track of any of the characters because all the names were unfamiliar to me, and while it is decently written, it was not skilled enough to make me care about any of them. And yet, I still read it all the way through, when I’d had to put more critically acclaimed books down because my mind kept wandering off to nightmare news on twitter.

I do think that it helped that it was set in a sort of “primitive” time where there’s no technology of course, and also everyone seems very id-driven, simply reacting to each moment as the mood strikes them at the time. Who knew how the king would react to the death of his son-in-law-to-be? Probably badly, but maybe he’s feeling relaxed right now? As our knight protagonist points out, the assassination of a king is not an uncommon path toward inheritance in this time. The action and mystery felt very free-floating which was somewhat soothing right now.

So, I don’t know, it distracted me for a bit and it is free on amazon, and can we really ask for anything more in these times?

A House of Ghosts

W.C. Ryan

House_of_GhostsThis novel is a murder mystery, spy thriller, and ghost story all in one, and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, uneasily creepy when reading late at night, and solemnly poignant about the horrors of war. Any of these is a rare achievement, but combining all together make this something really unique. Set in England during the first world war, spiritualism is on the rise, as so many young men are missing/presumed dead on the front.

The Highmount patriarch made his fortune in weapons manufacturing during the war, but has since lost both his sons. In their grief, he and his wife have retreated to their remote island estate, which is converted from an old abbey and rumored to be haunted. They plan a house party over the holidays, inviting several spiritualists to attempt to make contact with their sons.

There are the charlatans, of course, like Madam Frey, with all sorts of tricks up her sleeves. But there are also the real deal, like Kate, friend of the family and ex-fiancé to one of the Highmount boys, who can actually see ghosts, but finds it so socially embarrassing that she hides it as well as she can. And there’s spiritualist Count Orlov, who can perhaps see ghosts but may find it more convenient to fake the séances?

Add to all that, some confidential weapons designs have been discovered in the wrong hands, and three undercover personnel, who have complicated relationships to each other, are suborned into attending the house party, under a variety of subterfuges, causing even more confusion.

Of course, there is also a light romance, which is so deftly done that I had to double check that the author is male. The two protagonists have a slow growing attraction toward each other, built on mutual respect and good communication, which is also awfully rare and a very pleasant surprise in novels.

Carols and Chaos

By Cindy Anstey

Carols_and_ChaosSince Rebecca is still catching up on reviewing holiday reading, I figure I can, too. I thought this would be a fun cozy mystery/romance for the holidays, and it could have been…if only it had been written a little better. Anstey has real promise as an author, but the writing needs more polish. We’ve found on this blog that while it is easy to review books we either loved or hated, it is really difficult to write about books that are just mediocre.

On the one hand, I liked the details of life “downstairs” as the central romance and mystery centers around a lady’s maid and a footman attached to two different households visiting for the holidays. (I’ve gotten more into books centering servants or other lower/middle class characters, and Rebecca and I were pondering whether that’s gotten more popular in general as our society loses patience with the wealthy.)

On the other hand, all the descriptions felt a bit like just throwing a bunch of adjectives at a paragraph to see what sticks:

“The driver was not Mr. Niven; he was a young man with broad, muscled shoulders, freckled cheeks, and a Grecian nose. Kate watched as his thin lips curled up in a sardonic smile, and then he dropped the reins and jumped over the bench and off the back of the bouncing wagon. He landed hard, spilling onto the road, and knocked his tartan cap off. A shock of red hair was exposed, looking bright against the fallen snow.”

Between the descriptions of shoulders, cheeks, nose, lips, hat, and hair, it all started to remind me of my favorite Mitch Hedberg bits, and this sort of writing made it difficult to picture the characters and events, much less empathize. The mystery itself got a bit lost in all the descriptions, too, so that it was difficult to piece together exactly what were important clues and what were added just for ‘color’.

I realized afterwards that the book is considered young adult, which explains both the glossary of period-specific terms in the back and the occasional diversion in the text to randomly explaining historical details. Perhaps this would have been a fun new series of books for me 30 years ago.

Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

The ABC Murders

By Agatha Christie

ABC_MurdersI was telling my mom, a big Agatha Christie reader, how disappointing the miniseries was, and she casually gave me a spoiler to the novel which made me want to read it immediately. I won’t pass along the spoiler, but I will say Christie sets up so many zigs and zags that I was surprised at almost every turn, even knowing a key part of the ending.

In the past, I’ve found Hercule Poirot just a bit too self-satisfied to be entertaining, but compared to the completely dour Malkovich portrayal, he’s an absolute delight. Like the miniseries, Poirot is older and has retired, but unlike the series, he is happy as a clam, traveling around, selecting only the very most interesting crimes to solve.

One particular scene stood out to me early on in contrast: John Malkovich shuffles around his threadbare apartment, dying his hair over a chipped and stained sink in a scene of utter pathos. Book Poirot, on the other hand, delightedly shows off his new blackening hair tonic to his friend, after being complimented on his youthful appearance. He is unapologetic and incorrigible, and I loved it!