Friday, February 26, 2016

Middle Sister: Murder on the Hour and Murder on the Half Shell

Two Net Galley reviews to post this week, both with promise and both with Penny's, but neither without their problems.

Murder on the Hour by Elizabeth J. Duncan This is the seventh in the Penny Brannigan series, but the first that's come across my nightstand. There were a lot of things to like about this book: the setting: a small town in Wales, typical of the Golden Age of Mysteries that I so adore; numerous secondary characters, well crafted and fleshed out; tight plotting and pace; a trendy back story: an Antiques Roadshow-type traveling tv show for Welsh TV is in town and everyone is dragging their family heirlooms to the manor to be appraised.. A slightly unusual twist--we meet the victim very early and get to sympathize with her; I was very sad when she was murdered as I'd hoped we'd get to learn more about her. The few things I didn't like: Penny is just too perfect. I wanted to like her; she's just over 50, still working, single and dating; except for the dating part, she could be me. But she's too chic, too perfect, and I found it hard to really see the story through her eyes. At one point, instead of surreptitious snooping (what we expect in our amateur detectives), her questioning came across as just nosy and prying. And the typos! I have no idea how long this galley was available, and therefore how long before I read it that the copy had been set, but the fourteenth typo was the number for a chapter: Thrity. Yes, thrity. C'mon, folks, thirty is not an unusual word in the English language. Does nobody at the publisher use spellcheck? All in all, I like the series for the setting and the support characters, and will look for more. Perhaps Penny is warmer and more real in other titles.

Murder on the Half Shell by Shawn Reilly Simmons Another Florida mystery for me, this is the second in the Red Carpeting Catering series. First the pluses: the author did a fine of setting the scene--I felt like I was on an island in Florida (there's an awful lot of condensation on glasses and people in this novel). The plot was fairly tight, with few extraneous or unnecessary scenes, and overall the pace was good. The downside: again, I'm just not crazy about the main character. I understand she's got a reputation and a business license to protect, so lecturing her underage servers on their time off about drinking is understandable, but it felt stiff and preachy. The romance with Joey fell flat: she spends the night at his hotel, but the day before, when they both change into swimsuits, they each go into the bathroom to change. Why even mention this? All it did was underscore what I saw as a lack of intimacy between two people we are repeatedly told are a couple. Their big romantic scene at the end felt like a middle schooler asking a girl to go steady with him. Now, I am not one for lots of sex or steamy mysteries, but if there is a romance, I want it presented realistically and this one didn't cut it for me. And FYI, Ms. Simmons, there is no NJPD, or New Jersey Police Department, as she later tells us. There are municipal police departments in every city and township, and there are New Jersey State Troopers, but Joey, a homicide detective, would work for a city PD. I haven't read the first novel, so don't know if Ms. Simmons has set Penelope in a fictional town in NJ or a real one, but yikes, what a glaringly stupid or naive statement to make repeatedly. The usual problem with typos and inconsistencies: e.g., on one page, Penelope "polishes off her beer," and on the next page, she takes a sip of her beer. Am I likely to read the first novel in the series? Nope, and even if I come across it with nothing interesting awaiting me on my Kindle Voyage, I'll likely skim it really fast just to see how badly she portrays my old home state, NJ.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Middle Sister's February Net Galley Reads

I am still slogging through the Nathaniel Hawthorne book for my book group, which technically should be over by the end of February, but when I needed a break from all his heavy prose, I read two mysteries that will be published in the next few weeks (galleys courtesy of Net Galley).

Shards of Murder by Cheryl Hollan It's pretty clear from this blog that I read a lot of cosy mysteries. Shards of Murder had potential, but I think could have benefited from a strong editor. Pages and pages were spent on introducing the reader to students in a glass making class who were not really relevant to the story (used as an aside to fill in Savannah's day when not detecting could have been dealt with in a few short paragraphs)--they weren't suspects, they didn't detect, nothing. Savannah is supposed to be a great glass artist, best in her class at school, and yet she wears matronly clothes (this is what she wore to judge a juried art show: tailored black jacket, plain white cotton blouse, khaki slacks, straw hat, jute shoes--do artists even own khaki pants? This sounds like something this college prof would wear to proctor an exam) and doesn't know the term hoochy mama? Our love interest wears his pants tucked into his cowboy boots?  Never, never, never! It read like the author was trying to hoodwink the reader into thinking she was a bohemian artist herself and got the culture, but the reality is plainly different. Some informal word choices ("lastly" in a list of 2 things?) and odd verb choices, describing something as the second item of the same kind to appear when the first wasn't even mentioned until several paragraphs later--all could have been taken care of easily and would have improved the narrative. And I hated (hated is strong, but is accurate) the condescending attitude Savannah had to the the twins when the reader is first introduced to them--"it's pretty amazing that they walk from their house every day. Especially when you consider they are 87 years old," in front of them, to strangers--every near 87-year-old I know would have smacked Savannah upside the head for that disrespect. No real insider to the committee would have spoken the way he did. I wanted to like this book (it has a dog, who does agility, and a potentially really interesting setting in the juried art show, and a potentially interesting secondary character in the kid with Asperger's) but it fell flat for me on many levels. Here's my advice--drop the stupid white board, and if they have to use it, Savannah spends way too much time erasing names and reassigning tasks that the reader could not care less about, so nix all those passages that reproduce the whiteboard.Get a strong editor, tone down the lessons on glass making to just what is needed to advance the story, and bring in some humor or local color.

Skinny Dipping with Murder by Auralee Wallace A much better mystery. Funny, with characters that were much more engaging, better flow in the narrative and continuity (clearly a better editor), and only a sprinkling of typos (oddly, all at the end of the book). Erica's obsession with her teenage embarrassment did get tiresome, but I guess it is true that teenage humiliations are hard to overcome. The supporting characters are almost all well fleshed out, although I really didn't get a grasp on her mother as a hippy other than being repeatedly told she was. Vegan? So what, I know lots of vegans who aren't anywhere near hippydom. The romance with Grady has potential, and he seems like a nice guy, which I can't always say about mystery romantic leads (who tend to be a little too perfect and too smarmy, in my opinion). Freddie is a great sidekick and I hope we see more of him in future books. The mystery wasn't very mysterious (I had the murderer pegged immediately after the murder) but the pratfalls Erica experiences on the way to solving the mystery were funny, the pacing was good, and I'd be happy to spend more time at Otter Lake.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Middle Sister's January Reads

I have already reviewed two of the books I read this month, so this post will focus on the other January books. Two were successful, two were not. Let's begin with the good books.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff What a fanstastic book! It details the accidental crash of an Army plane in Dutch New Guinea during World War II. With an exhausting attention to detail that other authors should envy (ahem, W.C. Jameson from December, I'm looking at you), copious notes, survivor interviews, newspaper and film footage research, this book is a great example of investigative narration. The author's treatment of the indigenous population was exemplary. As it turns out, my friend Debbie was reading this same book at the same time, and although our tastes are usually quite different, we both loved it (despite reading it on our smartphones). If you enjoy books about history, World War II, tropical exploration, survivor stories, heck, if you just like a good yarn, especially when it's real, rad this book. Highly recommended.

The House of Worth by the Litchfield Historical Society I love historical costumes, and this catalog for a recent exhibit at the Litchfield Historical Society is a lovely book. It includes entertaining essays that introduce the women who were sent the haute couture sketches by the House of Worth as well as a brief biography of the house. My only objection: I was reading this on my Kindle Voyage, and the illustrations were not formatted for this presentation. Every single dress was cut up into multiple pieces that were shuffled like some strange Picasso sketch. Read this on your laptop or tablet. (Net Galley)

And now for the badies. I rarely give up on book. It has to be pretty bad on some basic level to make me give up on it. These two managed that.

Unleashed by Emily Kimelman I didn't care about the language (much rougher than mine but not much worse than my own sister's often potty mouth). I thought the circumstances that open the book--how the main character lost her job--were funny and familiar to anyone who has ever worked in the food service or retail industries. But the author described the main character's newly acquired dog with the same exact same words just pages apart; a minor annoyance, but I guess I just wasn't in the mood for it. I may give this one another go (I need something to read during my lunch break and this is on my smartphone).

Killer Cupcakes by Leighann Dobbs I had literally just read a review of this series in the Mystery Reader's Journal that praised the series before I started it, so I went in with high expectations. I enjoyed the first scene--heroine lets dog out, dogs wriggles out of yard and poops in neighbor's yard, heroin meets hunky neighbor. But, c'mon--she owns a pastry shop and she's not there at 3 a.m., baking? Just one person, her friend and coworker, is? Not any bakery I've frequented and given my love of all things sweet and flaky, that's a lot of bakeries. She wears stiletto heels and she's on her feet all day (and this is supposed to make me think she's a successful business woman)? I might have forgiven that stupidity on the character's part as part of her character (vanity, by the way, is not generally a likable quality in my estimation). What I couldn't forgive was this: hunky neighbor turns out to be policeman (believable) investigating the murder of heroine's ex (believable) who says to her "of course I don't think you did it" three minutes after interrogating her. Based on meeting her picking up poop, or just because he's got the hots for her? And when Lexy admits the breakup with her ex was not amicable, does he pursue it? Nope, he shuts his notebook and drops that line of questioning. And then, then--"Jack reached across the table resting his hand over hers." ARGH!!! Police harassment! Police intimidation! Does the author know what the words 'unprofessional behavior' mean? That was it. I shut the book. Look, I get some people like romance more than mystery, and this is clearly aimed at that reading populace, but in the light of how many cop shows there are n television, I think even the sappiest reader would question a cop who acts like a randy baboon rather than a highly-trained professional investigating a murder. Sorry, but I can't recommend this in good conscious to anyone who likes their fiction to even sort of resemble reality.