Melanie Clegg: Before the Storm

Melanie Clegg: Before the Stom CoverTitle: Before the Storm
Author: Melanie Clegg

Unable to attract suitably aristocratic suitors in London, a group of beautiful, wealthy and extremely ambitious English heiresses decide to try their luck in Paris instead. Although they initially take the city of light by storm, they soon discover that the glittering facade of social success hides a multitude of sins and iniquities while their own dark secrets could well destroy everything that they have worked so hard to achieve…

“There’s something in the air…”
Madame d’Albret nodded. “It’s the calm before the storm. And when the storm comes, nothing will ever be the same again.”

Rating: B-

I had put off reading this book for a while because I had only recently read the author’s Blood Sisters about three aristocratic sisters, caught up in the French revolution. The blurb of Before the Storm made it sound like it would be a very similar story. It’s true that I probably would have guessed that both books were written by the same author, even if I hadn’t known it. Adélaïde from Blood Sisters has much in common with Clementine from Before the Storm. They both grew up in a family with very traditional views about what women should and shouldn’t do and are unhappy with that.
Both books feature a character that is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and those character witnesses both the March on Versailles and the storming of the Tuileries. The descriptions of these events are very similar in both books. But then they do describe the same event. And while Adélaïde and Clementine have very similar characters, their journeys are very different. (And the other characters have much fewer similarities with those in Blood Sisters).

Before the Storm is a retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, a book I have not read, yet (but definitely want to do now). So I can’t tell how closely it resembles it and – more importantly – if some of the things that bothered me about this book are perhaps the ‘fault’ of the original. For example, in one chapter a character thinks about marriage and says that she might never want to marry. Then there’s a time-jump and in the next chapter, she has been unhappily married for a while. In hindsight, her motivations become a bit clearer but it still is clumsily done.

And being told things only after they happened is one of the general problems of this book. In one dramatic scene, one of the characters tells her husband that she intends to leave him. The next time they meet, she says she wants to make another attempt at saving their marriage. Then we are told that she has thought about how she would become a social outcast as a woman who left her husband and that she couldn’t bear that thought. A perfectly valid reason, especially in the 18th century, but we don’t see her making that decision, just the result of it. Some parts of the book could have benefitted from having more depth. Additionally, the book started off as one about a number of different women but over the course of it, most of them got sidelined. At the end, it was mostly about one of them and we got the occasional mention of what the rest had been up to in the meantime.

So do I wish this book had been longer and told us more about the things happening, instead of summing them up afterwards? Yes. Did I enjoy it anyway? Definitely. It was a fun read that kept me turning the pages (and grumble at anybody who tried to talk to me while reading because I need to know what happens next).

Top 10 Tuesdays – Books that I can’t Believe I Read

Most of those are also books I wish I could forget so writing about them is clearly the best option.

Cover: Lana Swallows: Fifty Shades of Sherlock HolmesLana Swallows: Fifty Shades of Sherlock Holmes

Yes. This is a book that exists. And yes the author is Lana Swallows. And yes it is pretty much what you’d expect. Holmes and Watson get caught up in a case that involves a BDSM-sex cult. It is as bad as it sounds.


Cover: Michael Wilson: Without a Trace
Michael Wilson: Without a Trace

It’s a novella about Jack the Ripper and I really should have run the moment I read the part of the introduction where the author thanked Jack the Ripper for inspiring so many authors. Then it read exactly like you’d expect a book by an author who glorifies a killer and doesn’t care about his victims to read.


Cover: Carrie Sessarego: Jurassic Jane Eyre - The Dinosaur turned me lesbianCarrie Sessarego: Jurassic Jane Eyre – The Dinosaur turned me lesbian

No, you didn’t misread the title. This is a literary mashup meets dinosaur erotica. And it is supposed to be a parody. And to be honest: it really is funny and hangs lots of lampshades about the ridiculousness of dinosaur erotica. (Who would have believed I would ever write a sentence like that?)


Cover: Claudia Kern: Sissi Die Vampirjägerin
Claudia Kern: Sissi Die Vampirjägerin

The English speaking world had Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and we got…Empress Elisabeth of Austria hunting vampires. The Vampires are all the Habsburg. And the inspiration for the book was clearly more the popular Romy Schneider movies than the true Elisabeth. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds but also somehow entertaining. I totally would have read the second part if there’d been one.


Cover Lissa Trevor: Menage á MusketeerLissa Trevor: Menage á Musketeer

Perhaps this is wrong in this category. Because I can totally believe I’ve read this. After all I have also watched the Asylum The Three Musketeers movie as well as the movie where Milady is a demon (and d’Artagnan has a magical falcon) and the series where Milady has her own bat-signal. I also hunted down every bit of the Czech musical where Richelieu sings a song in what looks like a sex-dungeon on youtube. So I can’t exactly claim it’s surprising that I make questionable decisions where Musketeers are concerned. But this book wasn’t even entertainingly magical falcon-bad. It was just boring sex-scenes bad and this book has consent issues-bad and it’s hilarious that everybody is bisexual except Aramis who is straight-bad.


Cover Alexandra Fröhlich: Meine Russische Schwiegermutter und andere KatastrophenAlexandra Fröhlich: Meine Russische Schwiegermutter und andere Katastrophen (My Russian Mother-in-law and other catastrophes)

I had bought this expecting one of those culture-clash books which I always enjoy. It turned out to be a ‘chick-lit that gives the genre a bad name’-books. I guess I should have run away the moment I realized that while this book is fiction the author was really married to a Russian man but divorced him.


Cover Berndt Riegler: Voodoo Holmes - Botschafter Der Nacht Berndt Riegler: Voodoo Holmes – Botschafter Der Nacht (Ambassador of the Night)

This was one of the bad decisions I made when I got my Kindle and saw how many free books there were. And this one had Holmes on it!
It stars Holmes younger brother Voodoo (really) who now inexplicably lives at 221B and fights crime. Only he is also very stupid and the book could have really used an editor who pointed out illogical descriptions. But then perhaps the rooms were meant to look like an Escher hellscape.


Cover John Simpson: Irish WinterJohn Simpson: Irish Winter

This was one of my first m/m romance reads that surprisingly didn’t put me off the genre completely. I should have listened to the review that complained that in a book set in 1919 Ireland the protagonists cycle from Cork to Dublin on a Sunday and purchase an Oscar Wilde book.
Full disclosure: I seem to have ended up with a revised edition that cut that bit out but that didn’t make the rest of it better.


Cover Kaitlyn Davies: The Golden CageKaitlyn Davies: The Golden Cage

This is really a placeholder for the whole Dance of Dragons Series. This is the first novella and I already found it horrible and racist. So I can’t believe I read the whole thing (three more novellas and three novels). Oh right…I had a review-copy of the whole box-set and I thought it would be unfair to judge it after the first book.
Reader, it would not have been unfair to do so for the whole series was a racist fuckfest.


Cover Oliver Schütte: Die Rote BurgOliver Schütte: Die Rote Burg (The Red Castle)

That’s more ‘I can’t believe books like this really exist’. Because I had always heard jokes about books about mediocre middle-aged men, who had young, hot women falling at their feet who all think this guy is the best thing since sliced bread even though he acts like an asshole. I had never read such a book. Until Die Rote Burg. And if you have told me about this book before I would have refused to believe that something could actually be that bad.

J. Jefferson Farjeon: Seven Dead

35659711

Title: Seven Dead
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon

Ted Lyte, amateur thief, has chosen an isolated house by the coast for his first robbery. But Haven House is no ordinary country home. While hunting for silverware to steal, Ted stumbles upon a locked room containing seven dead bodies. Detective Inspector Kendall takes on the case with the help of passing yachtsman Thomas Hazeldean. The search for the house’s absent owners brings Hazeldean across the Channel to Boulogne, where he finds more than one motive to stay and investigate.

Rating: B

There are plenty of Kendalls in the world, but I remember one who did pretty good work recently at Bragley Court, in the case of the Thirteen Guests. What I liked about him was that he didn’t play the violin, or have a wooden leg, or anything of that sort. He just got on with it.

This book stars with seven dead people. Then it gets more absurd. Then a plane crashes and then things get really weird. And as reader, you have no way of guessing how the weirdness will manifest because there are no clues beforehand.

So no, this isn’t a typical golden age mystery. No country house party where coincidentally everyone has a grudge against one party-member. I actually was reminded more of Edgar Wallace (especially the German movie adaptations). There’s a Russian nesting doll of dark secrets, mysterious characters (including an ominous –gasp– foreign silk merchant), a beautiful damsel in distress (she gets to have slightly more agency than those in the Wallace-movies but not much), lots of fog and – most importantly – nobody takes things too serious. They all joke around a lot. Especially the conversation between the inspector and his sergeant are glorious:

Your trouble isn’t that you fail to mention things, Wade, but that you mention them too late, and then incomplete. I have no doubt that, three years after your death, you will send somebody the information.

You will have to suspend your disbelief a lot, though. Even more than “Of course ten people would just accept an invitation from a complete stranger to spend a weekend at a remote island.” More than once per chapter I found myself going Oh come on but – much like in Mystery in White (whose plot looks plain and normal compared to Seven Guests) – I didn’t care. The writing is so fast-paced that that I didn’t have the time to worry about pesky things like logic and realism. But at the same time the absurdity is well-contained. There are surprising coincidences, of course, but they all relate to the crime and the reasons for it; no inspector coincidentally stumbles over an important clue because he happens to be at the right place at right time. There is no bad timing that leads to a side-character betraying important information because they just missed the announcement about who the villain is. The main characters are fairly normal characters who sometimes have bad luck and sometimes good luck.

Still, traditionalists might not enjoy this too much. It really is more Edwardian pulp fiction than golden age mystery.

ARC provided by NetGaley

Women Writer Bingo

When I saw this over at Themis Athena’s blog (made in collaboration with Awogfli) I once again could not resist:

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The goal is not to read all the authors on the card, just female authors whose name starts with the letter. I hope I can use mine to diversify my reading a bit. Thanks to romances and mysteries I do read a lot of female writers but most are still white/western.

The challenge is open-ended and I hope I can fill all the squares (but if after three years I still haven’t found an author starting with Q that interests me I’ll probably give it a pass).

Anne Meredith: Portrait of a Murderer

36269389Title: Portrait of a Murderer
Author: Anne Meredith (pseudonym of  Lucy Beatrice Malleson)

Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray’s six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve – and by the following morning, their wish has been granted. This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next.

Indeed, I have never been so much ashamed of anything, without being in the least sorry.

RatingB-

It’s hard to read the first chapters of this book without thinking of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (which was published a few years later). We have a Christmas party in a family with little love lost between the different members. Most of the children have money-troubles and unhappy marriages. And then the patriarch who is an all-around horrible person gets murdered.

However, unlike in Christie’s book, it wasn’t a carefully planned deed but simply the result of one child losing their temper after hearing yet again that they are useless. And we know that because we are there when it happens. We see what the killer does afterwards to cover up their tracks and frame a different family member and what they do once the murder is discovered.
And in these parts, the book really shines because it doesn’t portray this as a black-or-white situation. The murderer is no unfeeling psychopath. In between all the siblings who barely tolerate each other, they have a quite close relationship with one sister and try to help her. But neither are they a poor innocent soul who lost their temper only once. We see what they think about the other sibling and their own family. (And, after all, they have no problem framing someone else). Even without the murder, it’s clear that they aren’t a very good person. But we also learn about their past and how they were treated by others (especially the father) and the tragedies that happened in their life. And I couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been different if certain things wouldn’t have happened.

Mind you all that doesn’t mean the murderer is likeable. They made enough despicable decisions apart from the murder. But that was exactly what made the story so fascinating (and slightly disconcerting ) for me. Most killers aren’t the pure evil we see on Criminal Minds. Neither are they avenging angels like Dexter who only kill bad people. Most of them aren’t even the type you see in Agatha Christie novels, who plan carefully and built elaborate contraptions to make it seem like they have an alibi. Most killers are exactly like the one in this book: a worse person than the average but it’s still easy to see that if one or two things had gone differently they would have gone through life as a bad person who never killed anybody.

There are still things that are not great about this book. Like the not exactly subtle antisemitism. One son-in-law is Jewish and – of course – a banker and – of course – a fraud who ruined lots of people. Any comments about this are mostly limited to one chapter and then not brought up again. It’s also not a major plot-point, it’s just there like so often in novels from that time. I have read worse (hello Greenmantle) and I can’t deny I enjoyed the book anyway. I will think twice about picking up another book by the author, though.

Then, once the murder is committed, we don’t only follow the killer, we see how the whole family reacts to the events. It changes them. And for all the characters that were at least somewhat likeable, things get better. They decide to live their life again, their situation improves, abused children get better homes…it’s an odd contrast to the rest of the rather dark story.

And then there’s the unnecessary information. We get pages of backstory for the inspector who appears once and does little to solve the crime. We learn a lot about the things the victim did during and before the war, which would have made a good red herring in an ordinary crime-story but served no purpose here. The oldest daughter-in-law reminisces in depth about one of her maids who left the household long before the story starts. Sometimes it feels like the author is trying to make a point with these asides but I can’t make out what. Sometimes all it seems to do is fill the pages.

I would still recommend this book to everyone who wants to read a very different golden age mystery.

ARC provided by NetGalley

John Bude: The Lake District Murder

30082530Title: The Lake District Murder
Author: John Bude
Series: Inspector Meredith #1

When a body is found in an isolated garage, Inspector Meredith is drawn into a complex investigation where every clue leads to another puzzle: was this a suicide, or something more sinister? Why was the dead man planning to flee the country? And how is this connected to the shady business dealings of the garage?

RatingD

This book comes with a new introduction that proudly proclaims “This book may be a product of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it is a world away from the unreality of bodies in the library and cunningly contrived killings in trans-continental trains.” And it’s true. Meredith is no Poirot who invites all the suspects in one room at the end and lays open the sins of every single one before explaining who really committed the murder. Neither is he a detective in the vein of the pre-golden age geniuses,  who takes one look at the body and exclaims that this can’t have been a suicide because of the way the victim’s fingernails look. The case itself has also no big stakes. No innocent person will hang if the real killer isn’t caught. The fate of the world (or worse: the British Empire) isn’t in danger, either.

In fact, the whole case isn’t what you would expect from a typical Golden Age mystery. There’s no group of suspects and an inspector who has to figure out motive and opportunity. Quite early on Meredith discovers that the victim had more money than he could have made by legal means and he suspects that this lead to his death. So the whole investigation focusses on figuring out in what exactly he was involved. This involves coordinating which sergeant observes which location, in-depth discussion of various theories as to what illegal activities it could have been and a fair number of other things that are, quite frankly, boring. (One chapter is called The Inspector of Weights and Measures. Seriously).

Now, not every crime-novel needs a plot like Murder on the Orient-Express, a sleuth with Poirot’s flair for the dramatic, or Lord Peter Wimsey frantically investigating to save his brother from the gallows. In fact, I have read many mysteries that featured perfectly ordinary characters in perfectly ordinary plots. But The Lake District Murder isn’t just ordinary; it’s bland.

Meredith is an inspector. He’s married and his wife isn’t happy about her husband working for the police and really doesn’t want their teenage-son to also end up as a cop. That doesn’t stop Meredith from sending said son on errands connected to his investigation. That’s as far as his characterisation goes. There’s also a superintendent that gets involved in the case and a sergeant that Meredith usually works with. I couldn’t tell you anything about either of them.
The victim’s fiancee genuinely grieves about him but since she is only around for a few pages I couldn’t feel for her or the murder-victim. And while I do appreciate that the bad guys weren’t cartoonishly evil (as sometimes happens in mysteries), it also meant that I didn’t have that feeling of Finally they get what they deserve once they were caught.

Another thing the writer of the introduction tells us is that the title isn’t just a cheap advertising-ploy. This book is really set in the Lake District. Only it didn’t feel like that to me. Apart from a few mentions of ‘Coastal Towns’  it could as well be set in Midsomer County. No comparison to Inspector Morse’s Oxford that’s always so present it’s almost its own character and that made me want to go to see it for myself. If I ever visit the Lake District it will be because of the charming descriptions of it in one of my mysteries with a body in the library and a detective that invites all the suspects in the salon in the last chapter, not because of Inspector Meredith.

Rose Lerner: In for a Penny

In for a Penny - Cover

Title: In for a Penny
Author: Rose Lerner

Young Lord Nevinstoke enjoys every moment of his deep-gaming, hard-drinking, womanizing life. Then his father is killed in a drunken duel, and Nev inherits a mountain of debts and responsibilities. He vows to leave his wild friends and his mistress behind, start acting respectable—and marry a rich girl.

Penelope Brown, a manufacturing heiress, seems the perfect choice. She’s pretty, ladylike, good at accounting, and looking for a marriage based on companionship and mutual esteem, not love. In fact, the only rash thing she’s ever done in her life is accept Nev’s proposal.

When the newlyweds arrive at Nev’s family estate, they discover that all the respectability and reason in the world won’t be enough to handle a hostile next-door neighbor, mutinous tenants, and Nev’s family’s propensity for scandal. In way over their heads, Nev and Penelope have no one to turn to but each other—but to their surprise, that just might be enough.

RatingD-

She ached in places it wasn’t ladylike to think about.

I was so on board with this story at first. Nev enjoys drinking and gambling with his friends more than anything that looks like genuine work. When his father dies suddenly and Nev discovers the mountain of debt he inherited it shocks Nev into sobriety. He swears off drinking, gambling, and his friends, offers for the rich heiress and promises her not love but to be a good friend and companion. Penny agrees but there’s trouble on the horizon. Nev is leaving behind a mistress, he genuinely cared about. Penny has an almost-fiancee who takes the jilting not well. Nev’s mother and sister are convinced he heroically sacrificed himself and agreed to marry a horrible woman just to save the family and they have no intention of welcoming her with open arms. Once they are at the family estate Nev and Penny discover that it’s in a worse state than they feared and both begin to worry that the other might regret the marriage.

And that right there is already enough for one book but the problems don’t stop there. The neighbor and the parish priest both miss only a black cat they can stroke to be proper cliche villain-evil.

Cardinal Richelieu stroking his black cat

The estate isn’t just in a bad state due to incompetence, there’s something more sinister going on. The tenants are so discontent that they might rebell. Nev’s sister has more problems than not being fond of her new sister-in-law. Poachers are everywhere. Both the ex-mistress and the ex-almost-fiancee make their reappearances at the most inconvenient time. And of course, everybody else is also just at the wrong place at the wrong time so that every mistake or misunderstanding has the worst possible consequences. Considering I have read books by Rose Lerner before and enjoyed the absolute lack of this kind of melodrama, that was very disappointing. The characters in her other books are all refreshingly reasonable. There’s no ‘I overheard only parts of your conversation and now I refuse to let you explain the context’ or any of those cheap soap-opera plotlines.

Some gothic novels are name-dropped during the story and Penny firmly proclaims how ridiculous they are, only to end up in a situation that could be right out of one, which made me wonder if the book wants to be a parody or at least poke fun at some gothic tropes. But for that, the book just isn’t funny enough. Because when Nev and Penny aren’t caught up in ridiculous drama the worries they have about not being good enough for the other or dealing with bigger problems than they can handle are genuinely moving. And the author gives both Nev’s mother and one of the villains a good reason for their hostility but then they act again like the cliche evil mother in law or the mustache-twirling villain. I can’t just read one page of a book as serious romance-novel and the next as over-the-top parody but I had the impression that this was what how the author wanted me to read this.