Monday, September 12, 2011

Mystery Monday: WICKED AUTUMN

WICKED AUTUMN by G. M. Malliet: Malliet's St. Just series is one of my favorite cozy mystery series, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the classic drawing-room mysteries, so I was very excited to pick up the first in her new series, WICKED AUTUMN. The Max Tudor series is not off to an auspicious start. While St. Just grabbed me from the beginning and had me laughing in delight, WICKED AUTUMN was a hard slog. I had to make myself keep reading so I could get to the end and write my review. Max Tudor is a former MI5 agent, now a village priest in charming Nether Monkslip. The horrid Wanda Batton-Smythe, head of the Women's Institute, is murdered. Since we are told early and often of Ms. Batton-Smythe's life-threatening peanut allergy, I hardly consider it a spoiler to disclose the method of murder. Yes, Death by Peanut. I could see that coming from miles away. Will Max need to dive into the murder investigation? Will Max have at least one potential love interest with which to flirt? Is there an obligatory New Ager with whom he gets on well despite their fundamental philosophical differences? Is there a stuffy former military man who thinks he's the center of the universe? Yes, all these and more cliches abound. Where DEATH OF A COZY WRITER subverted the genre with gentle mocking, WICKED AUTUMN seems to be trudging along in its well-worn footsteps. The major problem is character development, of which there is precious little. You might think that a former MI5 agent who decides to become a priest would be complex and nuanced, but this is sadly not the case. Max seems to be acting the part of the amateur detective with a dark past, rather than embodying it. The same is true of his supporting cast. The New Ager has no dimension beyond her New Ageyness. Likewise, wealthy antiques dealer Noah is just that -- a caricature of a wealthy antiques dealer. I found not a character with enough personality for me to relate to. This, coupled with a predicable, plodding mystery, made for a book I was glad to see the last page of.

Source disclosure: I received an ARC courtesy of the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Monday, September 05, 2011


THE STRANGER YOU SEEK by Amanda Kyle Williams:

Opening line: "The sun had not even burned dew off the grass under the live oaks, but the air was thick and soupy already, air you could swim around in, and it was dead-summer hot." Welcome to Atlanta, home of disgraced FBI profiler-turned-bail recovery agent/private detective Keye Street, recovering alcoholic, Chinese-born daughter of white Southern parents, and all-around smartass. Longtime friend Lieutenant Rauser, under pressure to apprehend the sadistic, taunting Wishbone Killer, asks for Keye's help as a profiler. Inevitably, she is forced back into contact with a hated former colleague, the "official" profiler on the case. Besides the obvious need to pull Keye into an investigation to provide plot, her foray back into profiling offers psychological insight. When Keye was a profiler, she also became an alcoholic and destroyed her marriage, so her involvement brings up a delicious stew of emotional and psychological reactions.

Atlanta and the South are fully formed and alive in THE STRANGER YOU SEEK. The atmosphere, the people, the contradictions, and the neighborhood descriptions make for a rich setting. I marked several passages (in addition to the opening line) that capture Atlanta perfectly. As is obligatory in serial killer novels, passages from the psychotic killer's point-of-view are included. These are usually my least favorite part of a thriller (yes, yes, your mommy never loved you and you're a total nutjob...we get it already), but Williams chooses a fresh approach that worked well for me. The pacing is excellent -- this is a stay-up-all-night thriller -- and the twists and developments kept me guessing. Williams has surrounded Keye with a group of quirky friends, colleagues, and family members that play off her personality in different ways.

Plot, pacing, and prose are all excellent, but what makes THE STRANGER YOU SEEK stand out from the average thriller is personality, which Keye has in abundance. She's brilliant, funny, and deeply flawed, but she knows those flaws well. An exchange between Keye and Rauser:

"He thinks he's a goddamned analyst now because he's in therapy. And he's so righteous. It's painful."
"And what was Dr. Dan's diagnosis?"
"That I can't be serious. That I have intimacy issues."
Rauser chuckled. "How'd you take it?"
I sighed. "I told him, 'I got your issues right here,' and I grabbed my crotch and walked out."

And, just like that, I have a new favorite series heroine. Lucky for all of us, this is the first novel in a series, with the second and third out in 2012 and 2013.

Source disclosure: I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Random House through Shelf Awareness.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

A Last Bit of Joy

SINISTER SCENES by P. J. Bracegirdle:
As the third and final installment of the JOY OF SPOOKING trilogy opens, Joy Wells is haunted by an inexplicable recurring nightmare. "Even if her fears about graduating were the cause, it still didn't explain the dream itself. What could plummeting into the sea possibly have to do with heading off to junior high?" Could junior high be any more terrifying than Joy's experiences in the delightfully creepy town of Spooking, which she is sure inspired famed classic horror author E. A. Peugeot? It seems likely that Joy's dream has a more disturbing source, and one closer to home.

SINISTER SCENES unfolds against the backdrop of an adaptation of an E. A. Peugeot story being filmed right in Spooking. It's a toss-up whether the disappearance of its young star or the upcoming school dance holds more horror:

"'What do you mean I have to go?' Joy demanded. 'Why?'
'Because if you don't, you'll regret it for the rest of your life,' Mrs. Wells warned gravely.
Joy looked at her mother, wearing a pensive expression. Since Joy was already hoping for an unnaturally long life, she had to weigh the possibility seriously, she decided. So she began picturing herself as a housebound old woman, bitterly wishing she had shaken her booty in a hot gymnasium with people she considered mostly bullies and bozos.
It just didn't seem likely."

Seriously, Bracegirdle cracks me up.

Joy is possibly the last child in literature I'd expect to become obsessed with being in a movie (and I mean that as a compliment), but her abiding love of Peugeot makes her excitement in accepting the lead role seem natural. She is not initially excited about the movie, since rumor has it that the movie includes vampires AND zombies "...the two monsters even Joy couldn't stand lately, mostly because every girl at Winsome had somehow come under the impression that they made good boyfriends. Pale and pensive with six-packs, they craved not blood and brains apparently, but chocolate and kisses. Joy was outraged. What was happening to the world?"

Precocious Joy is a horror fan who prefers to dress up in the clothes of her house's former occupant, adventurer Melody Huxley. As the series has progressed, she has moved from singular loathing of everything Darlington to finding its good points, even making a Darling friend, but she has remained wholly herself. She still sees ghosts and monsters everywhere (because in Spooking, they ARE everywhere), and her sometimes misguided Gothic sensibilities add to the series' dry humor, but she is undeniably becoming more complex and less of a self-imposed outcast. She relishes her movie role with enthusiasm she once reserved exclusively for the macabre. But there is plenty of the macabre to be had during filming. Rock star and mediocre actor Teddy Danger, haunted by the creepy mansion that is his home-away-from-home during filming, undergoes a radical transformation.

Will Joy finally prove that Spooking was the home of E. A. Peugeot? Will she find out the fate of Melody Huxley? Will she even survive the trilogy? Good heavens, you don't think I'd tell you any of THAT, did you? Get thee to a bookstore!

I highly recommend starting Joy's adventures at the beginning, with FIENDISH DEEDS followed by UNEARTHLY ASYLUM. Although a Spooking novice could follow SINISTER SCENES as a standalone, there is so much character development (especially with the series villains, who become satisfyingly nuanced) throughout the trilogy, that skipping the first two installments denies you an abundance of backstory.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.