Marshall Ryan Maresca – The Velocity of Revolution

Title: The Velocity of Revolution
Author: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.

Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.

Wenthi’s skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália’s presence as she haunts his mind.

Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion

While reading this book, I assumed this was the first in a series. Because there was no way all these problems could be solved easily (or quickly). It is set in a (Mexican or more general Central-American inspired) place which has been colonized and where the (white) colonisers have built up a strict caste-system. The less indigenous blood you have and the whiter you are, the easier your life will be. People with mostly indigenous heritage live in slums and struggle to survive, leaving them with not much energy to fight this status quo. Meanwhile, the colonisers and those light-skinned enough to live comfortably enough have obviously no reason to change it. So getting rid of the dark lord isn’t going to do much because legislative, executive and judiciary are filled with people who never went hungry under him and so won’t see any reason to change anything.

Of course, I didn’t expect to get one book about the revolution and then one about drafting new laws and parliamentary debates (because that would have a very niche market) but I did expect more acknowledgement that it’s still going to take time and effort to make things better again. As it was, over two-thirds of the book were really hammering home the “there’s no single dark lord who is responsible for all our misery” message only to take a sharp U-turn at the last moment and go “but if we press this magical switch it’s going to be all fine” and then veer slightly to the right and mumble “there’s still some vague unspecified stuff to do but really not much”. Now the magical switch felt a bit odd at first and I do wish there had been some more time to set it up but overall it did fit in the story. But I really would have wanted a slightly more open end. As it is, it tied things up far too quickly for me and seemed too rushed.

ARC received from NetGalley

KJ Charles: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting

Title: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting
Author: KJ Charles

Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.

Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.

Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.

But Robin’s cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after? 

As much as I love reading about people who fall in love while solving a murder, occasionally I do enjoy something less bloody. Especially in times like these. And especially if it is obvious that while the MCs might not solve big world-changing problems, the stakes are still high. Because – let me get sappy for a moment – somebody’s happiness is quite a high stake. And the book does a very good job at convincing me that many people in this book (not just the designated couple) would be absolutely miserable if things went wrong. And that kept me glued to the pages and once again awake somewhat longer than I should have because every time I thought “Well, I’ll finish that chapter and then go to sleep.” the chapter ended on some bombshell-twist that made me go “b…b…buuut how can that still end happily now? NOW I NEED TO CONTINUE”.

Of course, that only works if you care about the characters. And I did. A lot. And not only about the main couple but also the side characters: Robin’s sister and Sir John’s sister and his niece. None of is are just defined by their relationship to the men; all have their own thoughts, feelings and goals and are amazing characters in their own right. But they also have a great relationship with their brother/uncle and you can tell that they all truly care about each other (which is nice because sometimes it seems fiction is much more interested in destructive and unhealthy family-dynamics).

Something else? Oh right, of course, there are also Robin and John. I know, this is getting repetitive but I loved them. And to get repetitive again let me say something else I keep saying about KJ Charles romances: I loved the amount of thought that went into the balancing of the power dynamics between the two leads. John is rich and very privileged (and not fully aware just how privileged) but also shy and very inexperienced where romantic relationships (and to an extend sex) is concerned. He is resigned to not finding – and not deserving – happiness. Robin meanwhile has no privilege and nothing material to offer. But he has experience in other fields and does everything to convince John that he does deserve the kind of nice things that money can’t buy. And that’s beautiful.

E.C.R. Lorac: Murder in the Mill-Race

Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Title: Murder in the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery
Series: Robert MacDonald #37

“Never make trouble in the village” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbours’ sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.’
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice. A few months after the Ferens’ arrival, the body of Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found floating in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

I really enjoyed this…*mild exclamation of surprise*. After all, I hadn’t been overwhelmed by my previous experiences with Lorac and the first few chapters of the book didn’t make me think that this time would be different. We follow a young couple – Raymond and Anne – who has just moved to Devon because he’s a doctor and wants to take over the practice of the old village doctor who is about to retire. They meet the other inhabitants of the village, including Sister Monica who oversees the local children’s home and we’re immediately informed that they don’t like Sister Monica. They talk to each other about how little they like her. Anne meets Sister Monica again, they have a conversation and while they have this conversation we’re again told how little Anne likes her. After that she talks to her husband again about…you know. It got boring, especially because we only got to see Sister Monica being somewhat annoying but nothing that seemed to justify the level of hatred aimed at her.

Well, unsurprisingly Sister Monica gets killed and the focus shifts from other people talking about how horrible she was to Inspector MacDonald trying to figure out who killed her (and admittedly, discovering that enough people had reason to do so, so Anne’s initial assessment wasn’t exactly wrong). And the investigation is again good and solid crime novel fare, admittedly not terribly exciting but I enjoyed the backdrop of the small Devon village a lot. I have already mentioned that I think Lorac is very good at describing the settings and anchoring the crime story firmly in those and this is no exception. In many mysteries set in small villages, those places are described as really cozy and charming but this one really focusses on the claustrophobia that comes with the everyone knows everyone and everybody’s buisness which I definitely prefer. So, after a slow start, I really enjoyed this one.

ARC received from NetGalley

George Bellairs: The Body in the Dumb River

Author: George Bellairs
Title: The Body in the Dumb River. A Yorkshire Mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Littlejohn #35

A decent, hardworking chap, with not an enemy anywhere. People were surprised that anybody should want to kill Jim.’

But Jim has been found stabbed in the back near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) river has been discovered before the killer intended – disturbed by a torrential flood in the night.

Roused from a comfortable night’s sleep Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is soon at the scene. With any clues to the culprit’s identity swept away with the surging water, Bellairs’ veteran sleuth boards a train heading north to dredge up the truth about the real Jim Teasdale and to trace the mystery of this unassuming victim’s murder to its source.

The workpeople had returned to their factories and offices and the market was almost deserted now. All the bargains had gone. The man with the cheese and the chickens had sold up and was packing up his belongings and dismantling his stall. Fruit salesmen were altering their prices, chalked up on brown paper bags and stuck among the fruits on the end of a stick. Oranges at 4d. each in the morning were now four a shilling. A man who sold curtains was holding an auction sale. He was drunk already and now and then gave away a length of material for nothing.

Aren’t you fascinated by that paragraph? Isn’t it…thrilling? Especially considering nothing plot-relevant happens on this market. The investigator simply passes it at the end of his workday. And that’s one of the problems of this book; it gets clogged down with so much description of unnecessary details. It’s not enough to say that a character grabbed his coat and left. We’ll read how he got up, walked to his coat, put it on, walked to the door, opened it and went out. It’s extremely boring and there’s no good mystery to distract me from it. The murder victim is a man who turns out to have been leading a double life. He told his family that he was a travelling salesman but actually had a stall on a travelling carnival and lived there with another woman. The investigation quickly focusses on his first family and every single one is a flat caricature whose only aim is to appear as unlikeable as possible. His father-in-law is even described as having “an indescribable odour of evil and corruption around him”. Just so know he even smells evil…

Of course, these kinds of characters aren’t terribly rare in mysteries. Especially horrible family patriarch is a staple in mysteries. But the thing is that these characters usually get murdered in chapter two or three and so you don’t have too much time to think about just how flat this character really is. Sometimes there are books that have the setup “horrible person gets murdered but only halfway through the book” and honestly, I already have a hard time getting through those because I find it exhausting. Here, none of the horrible people get murdered, they just spent all their time being horrible about each other and about the victim. It’s not particularly enjoyable to read about and so the book left me feeling bored and annoyed in turn.

Erica Ruth Neubauer – Murder at the Mena House

Title: Murder at the Mena House
Author: Erica Ruth Neubauer
Series: Jane Wunderly Mysteries #1

Well-heeled travelers from around the world flock to the Mena House Hotel—an exotic gem in the heart of Cairo where cocktails flow, adventure dispels the aftershocks of World War I, and deadly dangers wait in the shadows . . .

Egypt, 1926. Fiercely independent American Jane Wunderly has made up her mind: she won’t be swept off her feet on a trip abroad. Despite her Aunt Millie’s best efforts at meddling with her love life, the young widow would rather gaze at the Great Pyramids of Giza than into the eyes of a dashing stranger. Yet Jane’s plans to remain cool and indifferent become ancient history in the company of Mr. Redvers, a roguish banker she can’t quite figure out . . .

While the Mena House has its share of charming guests, Anna Stainton isn’t one of them. The beautiful socialite makes it clear that she won’t share the spotlight with anyone—especially Jane. But Jane soon becomes the center of attention when she’s the one standing over her unintentional rival’s dead body.

Now, with her innocence at stake in a foreign country, Jane must determine who can be trusted, and who had motive to commit a brutal murder. Between Aunt Millie’s unusual new acquaintances, a smarmy playboy with an off-putting smile, and the enigmatic Mr. Redvers, someone has too many secrets. Can Jane excavate the horrible truth before her future falls to ruin in Cairo . . . and the body count rises like the desert heat?

Jane Wunderly is Not Like The Other Girls. Other girls dress up in ridiculously revealing dresses to impress men like whores. Jane has no interest in men.

Except for Mr. Redvers. I mean he doesn’t even tell her his first name, quite obviously lies to her or at least evades her questions but that doesn’t stop Jane from swooning about him while still insisting that she doesn’t need no men. Can we just stop with that? Either give me a character who says she has no interest in relationships and then sticks to it or one who says “Yeah. I want to marry (again) but I don’t want the first guy my overenthusiastic relatives who all think a woman without a man is worthless throw at me. I want to marry someone I actually care about.” In historicals that would still be unusual enough and would not give us the moral of “Actually, everyone wants a relationship and all those who say they don’t, just haven’t realized it, yet.”

So, no, I wasn’t a fan of the setup of the blossoming romance. Especially since, as mentioned, I saw no reason why she should even trust him…And if possible I was even less a fan of the mystery. I admit I’m already not the biggest fan of “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they/someone close to them is a suspect” but that wasn’t even a particularly well-done variety of that trope. It never feels like the inspector is really serious about his suspicions. He barely plays a part in the novel and the most threatening thing he does is ask her not to leave the hotel for a while. That leaves us with the “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they totally know better than the stupid police” trope, except that you could even argue that it’s not Jane doing the sleuthing but her mouth. Without her agreement. Yes, the phrase “And before I could stop myself I found myself saying X” gets overused in this book. Oh and what she finds herself saying is usually stuff she strictly speaking shouldn’t know and occasionally she does it while being alone with the suspect. Yes, Jane is one of the people you find pictured in the dictionary next to “Too Stupid Too Live”. But she still somehow survives…and solves everything thanks to a string of ridiculous coincidences. Because that what sleuths in bad cozy mysteries always do.

ARC received from NetGalley

KJ Charles: Slippery Creatures

Title: Slippery Creatures
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Will Darling #1

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again.

But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

Is “I stayed up past midnight to finish is ” enough of a review? I feared as much. Well then let me start like this: Slippery Creatures is a romance but ends with a happily-for-now rather than a happily-ever-after. The characters are more or less happy where they are but there are still things unsaid and neither of them really thought about their future and if it includes the other one. And that’s a good thing. Because this way we get a really fun and engaging mystery and a good romance that develops in a sensible and normal time-frame. I mean I love me my romance mysteries but occasionally, when I read one and really enjoyed the mystery, the romance fell somewhat flat because the big obstacle to the relationship conveniently vanished into thin air ten pages before the end. here there’s no need to rush the romance because it’s not ending with Will and Kim getting a whatever is the Edwardian pulp equivalent to a white picket fence is. Just with them having agreed that they really enjoy the time they’re spending with each other.

So there’s is lots of space for the gloriously pulpy mystery and I loved every line of it. It had everything. Coded messages! Menacing gangs with creative nicknames! A very dangerous secret! Traitors! What more can you wish for?

Throughout the story we only get Will’s POV, a somewhat odd choice for romance but it works. Because despite that, Kim’s emotions aren’t kept from the reader. It’s not as easy as him saying what he feels (what do you expect? he’s a posh English guy), but I could still read enough about him between the lines to get to know him and care about him, which I often find hard when it comes to the non-POV character in a romance.

So when is the next book coming out?

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

‘That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’
And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.
As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

Before Castle Skull I’d only read a couple of John Dickson Carr short stories in anthologies and was not exactly overwhelmed. They were a bit too outlandish for me. Of course, Carr is “the master of the locked room mystery” and those are rarely down-to-earth and full of realism but there’s “this isn’t that realistic” and there’s the “apart from a 10-step cunning plan by the villain this also requires a riddiculous chain of coincidences to work” that happened in the Carr stories I came across.

This book…well it features a riddiculous mustache-twirling villain and a series of coincidences that should have made me roll my eyes. But it also fully commited to the riddiculousness. I mean, it’s called Castle Skull for God’s sake. And the eponymous castle isn’t called like that for some strange outlandish reason…it simply resembles a skull if you look at it from a certain distance. The murder victim was shot and then set on fire and “danced” and screamed before eventually dying. This book doesn’t pretend to be a normal run-of-the-mill mystery and then hit you over the head with a riddiculous solution (which happened to me with the other Carr stories). It goes: “Do you want to read something over-the top and insane? Sit down with me. I have just the right thing for you.” And I really can’t complain about that.

ARC received from NetGalley

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Enthralled by the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian readers around the world developed a fascination with eccentric detectives and bizarre crimes. Featuring an international array of authors and characters, this compilation of 16 short stories showcases the best of the mysteries inspired by the Baker Street sleuth. Holmesians and other lovers of old-time mysteries will thrill to these tales of dark deeds and their discovery.

Who are Holmes’ rivals? One could argue for different answers to this question: other investigators who are not part of the police force, other genius detectives or other detectives who have a faithful biographer who tells their stories. This collection went for: all of the above and also really all sorts of mystery stories written between the Victorian era and the 1910s (yes, the newest story is from 1914, definitely post-Victorian), including stories about people committing crimes and stories about useless policemen who need to have the solution stuffed in their face by someone else. There’s no recognisable order to the presentation of the stories. It’s not chronological or geographical (the foreword promises stories from all over the world which means UK, US and France) and not by any quirk of the sleuth, either.

There’s also only an introduction to the whole collection (that boils down to “ACD wasn’t the only writer of mysteries”) and nothing for the single stories that would put them in some context or give additional information about the author. Why is this Father Brown story in the collection and not a different one? Who is Headon Hill when he doesn’t write uncomfortably racist story about magical Indians? (Btw, a question to which Google only has a rather unsatisfactory answer). What is going on in that Max Carrados story? It would have been nice to have those questions answered in a few sentences but there is nothing. Though some more googling tells me that many of the stories are simply the first in the series with a particular sleuth which really just adds to the feeling that this was all put together rather sloppily. It’s not that those type of stories need to be read in order for full enjoyment.

Of course there’s still the stories themselves and they are the usual mixed bag. There are well-known names and I admit that I even enjoyed some of those that were by authors I’m usually less fond of. (The Ninescore Mystery might truly be the first Baroness Orczy I didn’t dislike). There are also a few authors in there I have never heard of and those mostly fell in the categories “I have no intention of searching for more” and “I wish I could go back to not knowing about them”.

In the end, I’m again wondering Who is this book aimed at? Because if you’ve dug into Victorian (and Edwardian) detective fiction before, you’ll have heard of most of the authors before (and because so many are first in the series, chances are that you even know this exact story). And if you’re new to this kind of fiction, the lack of organisation and additional information can easily be confusing and overwhelming.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Anthony Gilbert (Anne Meredith): Death in a Fancy Dress

Author: Anthony Gilbert
Title: Death in a Fancy Dress

The British Secret Service, working to uncover a large-scale blackmail ring and catch its mysterious mastermind ‘The Spider’, find themselves at the country residence Feltham Abbey, where a fancy dress ball is in full swing.
In the tumult of the revelry, Sir Ralph Feltham is found dead. Not the atmosphere bewildered young lawyer Tony was expecting, he sets out to make sense of the night’s activities and the motives of the other guests. Among them is Hilary, an independently-minded socialite still in her costume of vivid silk pyjamas and accompanying teddy bear…
This classic country house mystery, first published in 1933, contrasts the splendours and frivolities of the English upper classes with the sombre over-hang of the First World War and the irresistible complications of deadly familial relationships – with just the right amount of international intrigue thrown in.
This edition also includes the rare Anthony Gilbert short stories ‘Horseshoes for Luck’ and ‘The Cockroach and the Tortoise’.

This story is narrated by Tony – a character with no depth and so little influence on the plot that it’s hard to remember that this book wasn’t written in a third-person POV. At the beginning of the story, he meets his old friend Jeremy. Would Jeremy live today he’d have founded several start-ups, tell every woman he meets all the details about it and – if they don’t return his calls – would complain that women never want nice guys like him. Jeremy has decided that he wants to marry Hillary – a young socialite who has not been consulted on this matter and is in fact engaged to someone else. That someone else is Arthur, a man who has slightly more depth than Tony but I didn’t feel the need to strangle him like Jeremy.

However, it seems that neither Jeremy nor Arthur will get what they want because Hillary now proclaims she wants to marry Ralph. Everybody knows that Ralph once committed a murder and got away with it but since the victim was a French prostitute his social standing isn’t completely ruined. Everybody is convinced that Ralph has some sort of hold over Hillary and he does but she doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it and it seems she would also marry him if he wasn’t blackmailing her because bad boys are cool or something. Hillary reads like a female character written by a man who really hates women which is quite an achievement since there’s actually a woman behind the Anthony Gilbert pen name. But then it’s not like Baroness Orczy liked women much.

And then I though for a while that this book goes in an interesting direction after all. Because more than halfway through the book Tony, Jeremy and Arthur sit together and talk about how someone really should murder Ralph. Since I read Portrait of a Murderer by the same author, a story where the reader knew who the killer was, I thought this would now also turn out to be a book where we witness the murder ‘live on-page’. But no, it continues like a typical murder mystery with our trio of definitely not loveable amateur detectives doing some sleuthing, find the killer and now I thankfully don’t have to read about any of them ever again because I hate them all.

tl;dr: I disliked all the characters too much to really care about the story.

Michael Gilbert: Death Has Deep Roots

Title: Death Has Deep Roots
Author: Michael Gilbert
Series: Inspector Hazlerigg #5

An eager London crowd awaits the trial of Victoria Lamartine: hotel worker, ex-French Resistance fighter, and the only logical suspect for the murder of her supposed lover, Major Eric Thoseby. Lamartine – who once escaped from the clutches of the Gestapo – is set to meet her end at the gallows.
One final opportunity remains: the defendant calls on solicitor Nap Rumbold to replace the defence counsel, and grants an eight-day reprieve from the proceedings. Without any time to spare, Rumbold boards a ferry across the Channel, tracing the roots of the brutal murder back into the war-torn past.

This book was so enjoyable, I almost forgot that this was half legal drama, which is something I usually don’t care much about. I just want to read about a detective figuring out the mystery and I only got this for half the book. But it was a quite brilliant half. As you can already guess from the tagline, this isn’t the typical murder at the manor (or murder in the sleepy village) mystery; but it’s also not a story set during the second world war, only one that’s very much about it. The motive can be found in events that happened back then and wouldn’t have taken place in peacetime. Now I enjoy the good old ‘offing the horrid family patriarch for the inheritance’ plotlines as much as the next mystery reader but since diving into the British Crime Library classics and coming across a few stories that were more anchored to a certain time, I found myself enjoying those immensely as well and Death Has Deep Roots is a great example of these types of stories.

Well, and the courtroom scenes were…bearable. As said, I just don’t care for legal thrillers that much but occasionally a crime novel will contain them and I must say that at least I found them less exhausting than e.g. in Excellent Intentions (I’m still haunted by the prosecutor’s run-on sentences) and thankfully it’s also not really a novel that’s half courtroom-scenes. The parts that featured the legal team also contained planning, discussions and bouncing theories back and forth. Almost like two detectives discussing a case 😉

Gilbert is definitely an author I will look out for and see what else he’s written.

ARC received from NetGalley