Lindsay Jayne Ashford: The Woman on the Orient Express

The Woman on the Orient Express - CoverTitle: The Woman on the Orient Express
Author: Lindsay Jayne Ashford

Hoping to make a clean break from a fractured marriage, Agatha Christie boards the Orient Express in disguise. But unlike her famous detective Hercule Poirot, she can’t neatly unravel the mysteries she encounters on this fateful journey.

Agatha isn’t the only passenger on board with secrets. Her cabinmate Katharine Keeling’s first marriage ended in tragedy, propelling her toward a second relationship mired in deceit. Nancy Nelson—newly married but carrying another man’s child—is desperate to conceal the pregnancy and teeters on the brink of utter despair. Each woman hides her past from the others, ferociously guarding her secrets. But as the train bound for the Middle East speeds down the track, the parallel courses of their lives shift to intersect—with lasting repercussions.


He said that once I’d produced a child, my job would be over. It wouldn’t matter if it was a boy or a girl – as long as there was a baby. That was another condition of his inheriting the earldom, apparently.

This isn’t how this works. This isn’t how any of this works. Earls can’t choose who inherits their title. It will always be the oldest (I think there might be an exception if he has committed high-treason but that is not the case here). Of course, if the author had just spent one more paragraph on this and explained that only some money is entailed to the title and dad threatens to leave his unentailed fortune to somebody else it would have been fine. The son would have worried about ending up a title and a grand mansion he can’t afford the upkeep to. The plot would have still worked in our world and not only in some alternate reality Choose Your Own Earl-England. (It still would have raised the question why granddad would have been fine with a girl who couldn’t inherit the title but you can’t have everything).

But then this is only a tiny part of the book. It mainly is about three women. The three women who all have problems caused by romantic relationships with men: Agatha just got divorced and has body-image/general self-confidence issues brought on by her ex-husband’s abusive behaviour. Nancy discovered very shortly after her marriage that her husband has no interest in her and now she’s pregnant by somebody else. Katharine blames herself for her first husband’s suicide and is now afraid of what will happen if her second husband makes the same discovery her first husband did.

There is nothing wrong with a plot that focusses on these issues. After all, it is set in the 1920 – a time where a woman who didn’t have a husband had a much harder time. And I have yelled enough about historical novels that feature too-modern characters so I’m not saying they all should have said ‘Well fuck men’ but I do wish that we had gotten one main character with a problem caused by something else. No ultra-modern ‘I want to change the world and women’s place in it’-views required, simply a character who’s worried about a sibling or a parent. Just anything else.

And I wish even more that these problems – and them finding out about each other’s problems – hadn’t been presented in such a soap-operific manner but at the end of most chapters, you could almost see the Dramatic Zoom In™ on the Shocked Face™


Dramatic Zoom in from Weissensee
With apologies to Jörg Hartmann who is a better actor than the camera-work in Weissensee makes you believe


We also get a Dramatic Reveal brought on by a poisonous snake, a character who watches another character give a third one a massage, they then immediately assume the others were having sex and rushes off  (and at first tries to block off any attempts at explanations from Character #2)  as well as a character who throws themselves on their knees and buries their head in their hands before revealing their Tragic Past™. Not to mention all the single tears that are cried in this book…really, it’s a wonder the desert, where most of the book takes place in, didn’t turn into an ocean from so many of them.

And to top it all off, at the end, the character who had the most atypical life for a woman at the time suddenly gets some very typical feminine things and it turns out: deep down she wanted them all along and only now is truly happy. Of course.

Disgusted Luise Kinseher as Bavaria


Card: Crime Scene - The Orient Express from the Kill Your Darlings-game

This is also read for the Kill Your Darlings game (Crime Scene: Orient Express, where it actually checks all the boxes: the characters travel, it’s set in the 1920s and it has a train on the cover)

Ray Celestin: The Axeman’s Jazz

20727758Title: The Axeman’s Jazz
Author: Ray Celestin
Series: City Blues Quartet #1

New Orleans, 1919. As a dark serial killer – The Axeman – stalks the city, three individuals set out to unmask him…

Though every citizen of the ‘Big Easy’ thinks they know who could be behind the terrifying murders, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, heading up the official investigation, is struggling to find leads. But Michael has a grave secret – and if he doesn’t find himself on the right track fast – it could be exposed…

Former detective Luca d’Andrea has spent the last six years in Angola state penitentiary, after Michael, his protégée, blew the whistle on his corrupt behaviour. Now a newly freed man, Luca finds himself working with the mafia, whose need to solve the mystery of the Axeman is every bit as urgent as the authorities’.

Meanwhile, Ida is a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency.Obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and dreaming of a better life, Ida stumbles across a clue which lures her and her trumpet-playing friend, Lewis ‘Louis’ Armstrong, to the case and into terrible danger…

As Michael, Luca and Ida each draw closer to discovering the killer’s identity, the Axeman himself will issue a challenge to the people of New Orleans: play jazz or risk becoming the next victim. And as the case builds to its crescendo, the sky will darken and a great storm will loom over the city…


Note: I read the German translation of this book. The German review can be found on my Goodreads account

The Axeman of New Orleans is a fascinating unsolved murder case that offers much room for speculation (there is just one suspect and it’s not entirely certain if he really existed) and an appropriately creepy letter that was sent to the newspaper. The sender claims to be the Axeman and says he won’t kill anybody the following Tuesday provided there’s Jazz playing in their house. There are no murders that night but they continue later, only to stop again completely a few months later. This is a story that cries out for a novel and I was excited to see how the author would work this case in his story.

The answer is: not at all, really. The book starts with the murders of  Joseph and Catherine Maggio and we learn that they aren’t the first victims. There were others before them that were also killed with an ax. Tarot cards were left at every crime-scene and the Maggios had much more money in their home than you would expect from a couple of simple grocers.

In reality, the Maggios were the Axeman’s first victims. There were no Tarot cards and also no money. That fact-resistance continues: the non-deadly attack on Anna Schneider turns into a deadly attack on her and her husband. Joseph Romano suddenly has a wife and was murdered before the Maggios…these aren’t just small artistic licenses that one needs to take if they want to turn fact into exciting fiction. Instead, it makes me wonder why the author didn’t just invent a completely fictitious case if all he keeps are some names and the murder weapon.

The reason might be the Axeman’s letter. Celestine is so fond of it that it is printed twice in full length in the book. Or perhaps ‘Axeman’ on the cover is supposed to take in true crime-obsessed idiots like me.

Now even if you ignore that the author rather drags the name of people through the mud who were slaughtered less than 100 years ago (because in the book, none of the victims were innocent) than to simply make up a serial killer named The Butcher of Baton Rouge:

The book is bad.

None of the characters has any depth. They all come from completely different worlds (a corrupt Italian cop, a clean Irish one, Lewis Armstrong – yes, that one – his light-skinned mixed-race female friend and an opium-addicted journalist) but there’s barely any difference between them on-page. They stumble around, smoke, ask questions, smoke more, get beaten up, intimidated and locked up (by criminal masterminds that the whole underworld fears but who forget that there is still a set of hunting knives in the room they just locked them in), smoke even more and show no personality at all.

More than once I had to leaf back to check who the POV-character of the current chapter is. Everything sounds the same and even the long Jazz night reads as exciting and colourful as watching white paint dry. Additionally, in the first half, the plot gets constantly interrupted by flashbacks to things that happened to the characters before the start of the book. There were so frequent that I began wondering if the author wouldn’t have preferred to tell that story instead. Then, towards the end, there are some twists that are only surprising if you’ve never been in the same room with a crime-novel.

German ARC received from NetGalley


Lynn Brittney: Murder In Belgravia

37481550Title: Murder In Belgravia: A secret group of detectives solving crime in the seedy underbelly of World War 1 London
Author: Lynn Brittney
Series: Mayfair 100 #1

Set against the backdrop of WW1, Mayfair 100 is the telephone number for a small specially-formed crimebusting team based in a house in Mayfair. London, 1915. Just 10 months into the First World War, the City is flooded with women taking over the work vacated by men in the Armed Services. Chief Inspector Peter Beech, a young man invalided out of the war in one of the first battles, is faced with investigating the murder of an aristocrat and the man’s wife, a key witness and suspect, will only speak to a woman about the unpleasant details of the case. After persuading the Chief Commissioner to allow him to set up a clandestine team to deal with such situations, Beech puts together a small motley crew of well-educated women and professional policemen. As Beech, Victoria, Caroline, Rigsby, and Tollman investigate the murder, they delve into the seedier parts of WWI London, taking them from criminal gangs to brothels and underground drug rings supplying heroin to the upper classes. Will the Mayfair 100 team solve the murder? And if they do, will they be allowed to continue working as a team?


Grimdark cozy-mysteries are apparently a thing now. Often cozies are rather clean: the victim wasn’t a good person anyway. The only bad things that ever happened were because of the victim (and possibly the killer). Once the murderer is caught everything is fine again. Or at the very least the (well-adjusted) sleuth has figured out the perfect way to help the person who is still suffering. (To be clear: I don’t mind that. We all need a bit of escapism now and then and many people, myself included, find that in cozies.)

There are cozies that try to break that mold. They use a set-up that is more a cozy than ‘serious’ crime novel but don’t shy away from the fact that there are issues like addiction or racism, you can’t solve in 300 pages. Some are rather subtle about it and/or don’t want to go too deep into it (and while I frequently proclaim my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries, I do wish in a 20+ book series there’d been more than one gay couple and 3 or 4 POC-characters. Though the way she deals with the fallout and consequences of WWI is done very well).

This book has no such qualms. The set-up, with an unofficial team with one-half cops one-half amateurs, is something you’d expect in a cozy. But two of the protagonists are veterans who were seriously injured in the war. The story itself involves sexual assault, PTSD, addiction, pedophilia, and prostitution. Oh and the whole book is set during World War One, and halfway through the story, London is bombed. I had almost forgotten about that, which tells you all about the impact it had on me. But sentences like “Billy explained all about the damage, the dead bodies, the smoke, fire, explosions and general horror he had experienced.” don’t evoke many emotions in me. But throughout the book, the prose is like this: bland, unemotional and no character has a distinct voice.
And even if that wasn’t an issue: the book crams all these horrors into it and features some characters that suffered terribly but they find the perfect solution for all of them. And they all lived happily ever after. I just can’t buy this after tons of misery were piled on them.

And because all this isn’t enough, the book reads like it was written by an author who thinks her readers are really stupid. There is no other reason why the most obvious facts are explained at length and why information is repeated over and over again. Like when one character discovers something and then instead of a simple ‘And then he told X what he discovered that morning’ we get half a page of ‘And then he told X about event A, discovery B, and event C’. Despite the fact that we just read about A, B and C in the previous chapter.
On another occasion, two characters visit a lawyer because they wish to see a document. The lawyer, being a lawyer is reluctant at first but can be convinced that this would be in his client’s interest. Still, he is aware that he shouldn’t really be doing this so he asks one of the characters to leave the room with him to look at a painting. Anybody who has ever consumed any form of fiction now knows what is happening there. The book feels the need to explain to us that “she was being asked to leave the room with Sir Arnold on a pretext so that Beech could look at the documents on the desk.”

Something else? Oh, right the premise of this book is an unofficial police team with women (before they were allowed in the police-force) that deals with cases where e.g. a witness doesn’t want to talk with a man. For that, the men in it were often pretty sexist. And of course, those were different times and having heroes with suspiciously modern views is not the best solution. But neither is not doing anything. The men are happy because women have their “curves in all the right places” or because “being a bodyguard and making arrests appealed to his strong sense of masculinity” and have questionable views on women’s rights, votes for women etc. and all this goes unchallenged. At no point had the characters a serious discussion about this. At no point did I have the impression that the author weighed in on it. She just wrote down what the men said and thought.

ARC received from NetGalley

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Holmes #2)

Title: A Conspiracy in Belgravia
Author: Sherry Thomas
Series:  Lady Sherlock Holmes #2

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deducti.on to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?


First: if you plan to read this series start with the first book A Study in Scarlet Woman. This is not a series that can be read out of order. I was puzzled during the first chapters because I took all the mysterious hints for allusions to the events that were to come in that book but at least some of them were allusions to things that happened in the previous books.
Second: The even more sensible choice would be to not read this series at all and instead re-read A Scandal in Bohemia. Or The Adventure of Solitary Cyclist. Or one of Lyndsay Faye’s pastiches. Anything that is actually good instead of this mess. The book tries to be a crime novel that is also a Holmes-pastiche/meta and an examination of Victorian morals/hypocrisy/the role of women/the treatment of anybody who doesn’t fit in but fails spectacularly on every count.

Charlotte was involved in a scandal and is therefore not welcome in polite society (or her family) anymore. That’s not a problem for her though. She has benefactors who make sure that she has a place to live and enough money to buy French pastries. She even still gets a marriage proposal. Not for love, more as a marriage of convenience that would also make it possible to help her sisters (who are still stuck with their hypocritical parents). That gives Charlotte ample reason to explain that love-marriages are a stupid idea anyway because love is a fickle thing…and postpone her answer to the proposal over and over again…
The possibility that her parents could abduct her and lock her up somewhere to lessen the ‘shame’ she has brought over her family is brought up but thanks to her oh so superior intellect that means she can foresee anything she is never in any danger of that.

The people who are suffering because of Charlotte’s actions are her sisters who are still stuck with her parents. Livia, who is also clever but less confident and who misses Charlotte but can only exchange occasional letters with her. And Bernadette who has an unspecified mental disability and who after having lost Charlotte as attachment figure has gotten worse. (The danger that their Dickens-caricature-horrible parents would lock her up in an asylum is conveniently non-existent). But we see Charlotte barely bothered by any of this. Emotions are for other people.

As Holmes pastiche, it also doesn’t work. I need a proper ‘Watson’ as narrator for that but A Conspiracy in Belgravia jumps from one 3rd person narrator to another. Including an inspector that ends up doing nothing to solve the case. But even if you’re less pedantic about that: the few deductions Charlotte makes are ridiculously far-fetched. (And yes, I’m aware that this is also an issue in the original stories, but they still look tame compared to what Charlotte figures out). The case gets solved through a series of the most convenient coincidences.

Which brings me to my final complaint: the mystery is also shit. You can play any of the following drinking games and always end up completely wasted before the book is over:

  • convenient coincidence that helps bring the investigation along
  • a chapter ends with an ominous cliffhanger that later gets resolved in two lines
  • weird time-jumps for no reason
  • current POV narrator keeping information about things happening in front of them from the reader

I would not advice combining two or more of these unless you want to end up with alcohol poisoning. But then I would not advise reading this book at all.


ARC recieved from NetGalley

The Phoenix Born (A Dance of Dragons #3)

Title: The Phoenix Born
Author Kaitlyn Davis
Series: A Dance of Dragons #3

For the first time in a thousand years, the fire dragon has been awakened and Rhen is its rider. But after destroying the armies that threatened the city of Rayfort, Rhen is shown a vision in flames that changes everything. The shadow’s phantom armies are coming and the dragons are the only things that might stop them.

High in the castle at the top of the Gates, Jinji has learned something of her own. Janu, her long lost twin, is alive. And just as the spirit shares her body, the shadow shares his. In the blink of an eye, her quest for vengeance against the evil that killed her family has changed to one of protection. Because she knows that if Rhen learns the truth he will do what she cannot—end the shadow, and end her brother in the process.

As the shadow grows more aggressive, Jinji and Rhen fight to find the rest of the dragon riders. But with time running out, they are forced to face the impossible decision between honor and love. Alliances are formed, promises are broken, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance…


They learned how each other moved, how they flew, how they fought. But most of all they bonded, formed a friendship.
Don’t bore me with details on the character- and relationship development. That might actually give them some depth and make them interesting and who would want that?
At the beginning of the book, Jinji uses her magic powers to rebuild a city that had been destroyed in a battle and heal the people that were injured during the attack. She spends almost a day doing that before she collapses. But not because using magic is physically exhausting, but because seeing so many dead and injured people takes an emotional toll on her. Fortunately, trauma can be healed by a hug from your boyfriend so she can go on to use some magic to convince the different sides in the battle to stop fighting each other and fight the Shadow instead.
All of this happens in the first three or four chapters and makes it very clear that the characters won’t need to worry about any of the things most other fantasy protagonists do. Somebody doesn’t believe them? There’s a person with essential god-like powers who can impress them till they change their opinions. A serious injury? That can be solved with little more than a snap of the fingers? No food? Same. The only thing Junji can’t do is teleport but then the other’s have dragons that can cover huge distances in minutes. (That, or the whole book takes place in an area roughly the size of Liechtenstein). Frankly, that makes for some very boring reading.
Of course, there is still the Big Bad of the series but what makes fantasy exciting is that the protagonists have to deal with a lot of stuff besides fighting the Big Bad. Here, the only other things that are going on are Jinji and Rhen’s relationship “problems”. In quotation marks, because they can be summed up with ‘You lied to me about something major. But when I think about it for a few paragraphs I can understand why you did that. Now I have betrayed you but you also forgave me after a few pages. And it’s not like either of our betrayals had any real consequences (except the deaths of a few thousand people but let’s ignore that since we did not know any of them).’ So these parts are also really boring. Which results in an exceptionally boring book.


ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of the series so far:

The Bronze Knight (A Dance of Dragons #2.5)

Title: The Bronze Knight
Author: Kaitlyn Davis
Series: A Dance of Dragons #2.5

Princess Leena arrives in Rayfort with one thought on her mind–getting the information that might stop her father’s armies to Prince Whylrhen as soon as possible. But once there, she quickly realizes the situation is far more dire than she ever anticipated. Abandoned by Jinji and Rhen who were sent away by the king regent, Leena is left alone with an impossible decision to make. Stay in Rayfort and fight with the rest of the doomed city. Or risk a life on the run for the chance of survival.



“For the hope that one day, I’ll be able to return home, to a kingdom changed, to a kingdom that has tossed cruelty to the side and replaced it with love.”
Let me get this straight: We spent all that time establishing that the Ourthuri, in general, are evil and it’s not just Leena’s father who is an evil ruler. He didn’t decide to execute all his wives who didn’t bear him a son immediately, that’s an Ourthuri custom. He didn’t introduce slavery, that’s an Ourthuri custom. He didn’t decide that minor offenses warrant a cruel punishment, that’s an Ourthuri custom. Leena herself says about her culture that in it “each moment of beauty [is] scared by some hidden darkness.” Because those Arabs are just evil. Sorry. Of course, I mean the Ourthuri. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that Ourthuro resembles a middle-eastern place. Or that only Ourthori women wear veils which, today, is something mostly associated with Muslims. I’m sure they aren’t meant to be the evil Arab stereotype from a bad 80s fantasy novel…
Where was I? Right. Leena’s plan. She wants to help the Whylrhen defend themselves against the Ourthori attack. And then attack Ourthuro herself? Or just hope that after the lost war her people will be so devastated that she can waltz in and announce “Hey everybody! I know you hate women and never listen to them, and you will hate me even more because I broke some traditions…oh and also because I betrayed you to our enemies. But anyway have you considered being not evil?” And then everybody starts singing ‘Love, Love, Peace, Peace’ and they can live happily ever after?
That is a shitty plan. And all this could have been avoided if it had been just Leena’s father who was an evil king. Or at least the last in a line of rulers that got progressively worse. Instead, we get a people with all the depth of the orcs in Lord of the Rings (only hotter) and only our protagonist with her awesome sue-powers and some convenient cannon-fodder is speciul enough to see that and fight it. It doesn’t make sense.
Well, and the plot itself…repeated what we already know from the previous novel. Plus some new information that will probably be repeated in the next novel. I still don’t see the point of these novellas.
ARC provided by NetGalley.

The Silver Key (A Dance of Dragons #1.5)

25727975Title: The Silver Key
Author: Kaitlyn Davies
Series: A Dance of Dragons #1.5

Weeks have passed since King Razzaq discovered Princess Leena’s affair and banished her lover from the kingdom. So when Mikza suddenly appears in the golden palace, chained and bound, Leena is floored. Even more mysterious is the man he travels with—a redheaded prince of Whylkin.

Unable to control her curiosity, Leena follows the strange convoy, hiding in the shadows as they meet with her father. But what she witnesses will the change the course of her life, and the world, forever.

Taking place parallel to the events in THE SHADOW SOUL, read Leena’s side of the story as she teams up with Jinji to save Rhen’s life and seeks to escape her father’s hold once and for all.


What do you think the men fighting these battles would want? To live, knowing they helped my father destroy thousands of lives? Or to die at the hands of something greater?

Well, I would guess they would want to make that choice for themselves instead of a sad, spoiled princess making it for them but what do I know? After all, they are just peasants. And non-noble characters are just there for the canon-fodder (and to make Leena feel a bit bad on occasions). Noble men are just there to remind us constantly that this society treats women horribly. As in ‘let’s take the worst of every really existing society and mix in some bad dystopias’-horribly. Which is a) annoying because come on. This is fantasy. You can make up everything and come up with women being utterly worthless? and b)

Because this society is clearly based on a middle-eastern/Arab one and in the previous book we saw the white guys treat their women better (still not equal but definitely better) and I’m just saying the author should have thought more about their world-building.

Now when it comes to noble women: we only see Leena. Who invented feminism. And who is still the only one who sees something wrong with this society. Other women are just too vapid and silly for that. At least that’s what I assume since no other women is even mentioned (except Tragically Dead Mom(TM)). Leena has no friends, isn’t close to her sisters…nothing.


ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of book 0.5 in the series
Review of book 1 in the series