Category Archives: Fluff

Mini-reviews: Strings Attached and Bellman & Black

strings attached

Strings Attached – Joanne Lipman & Melanie Kupchynsky – 6/10

“Mr K had achieved the impossible: he had made us better than we had any right to be.”

A memoir after a fashion – Joanne and Melanie learnt violin from Melanie’s father, the fabled Mr. K. Famous as an incredibly tough but motivational teacher in their New Jersey school district. The writers alternate chapters, and it’s also partly a family memoir for Melanie, writing about her invalid mother and missing sister.

Coming from a half-musical, half-education background, I found a lot of the material about Mr K’s enthusiasm and teaching styles and musical tuition really interesting. I was less interested in the stories of growing up and school awkwardness and actually the storyline of Melanie’s missing sister (a heartbreaking story and I know why it was included, but it felt like an incongruous addition).

bellman and black

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – 7/10

Another e-book that spent a year unreviewed. See a theme here? Also I should start with a note – I am not a fan of supernatural storylines. And I did really enjoy another of Setterfield’s novels, The Thirteenth Tale, though there was a strong homage tone there.

William Bellman kills a rook with a catapult at the age of 11, and for years it seems to bring him good luck. Slowly his wonderful life is eroded and he spends more and more of his time at funerals, where he always sees a ghostly stranger. The stranger has a business proposition for him…

This reminded me very much of another book, and I cannot think which one it is (I think it’s a Philippa Gregory one?), in which the women are very conscious of the circle of fortune – sometimes a family is at the top, and sometimes at the bottom.

Really well written, though like Life After Life, could have done with some of the chapters having been cut down. I wasn’t a fan of the supernatural aspect and in fact found the non-resolution of it quite frustrating. But, it didn’t bother me as much as it might have.

Flying Too High – Kerry Greenwood – 6/10

“She looked like a lewd Corinthian column. She certainly looked seductive, but Isola would have looked seductive in gunny sacks tied with old rope.”

Flying Too High
Fresh from her adventures in Cocaine Blues, Phryne Fisher is taking on more mysteries to be solved, as 1920s Melbourne’s premier investigator. In this slim volume, she has to solve a murder and catch a kidnapper, while indulging her passion for flying and moving into a more permanent residence than the Windsor Hotel.

I found this plot a bit chaotic. While it all comes together neatly at the end, the kidnapping storyline starts somewhat abruptly and it’s difficult to follow for a while. The other plotline, that of the murder, is more interesting and straightforward.

The favourite characters from the previous book are back – Phryne, Dot (who has a lot more space to blossom this time), Dr Macmillan, Bert & Cec – as well as numerous new characters, with a particular focus on the Strong Independent Woman. While I appreciate the historical significant of female lawyers who struggled to get cases in the 1920s, every now and again it does feel like Greenwood is on a bit of a campaign.

I’ll definitely keep reading this series; this was a classic second book. Not quite as good as the first, but certainly not a deterrent.

Additional info

A birthday gift from The German.
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 173 pages (paperback)
Order Flying Too High (Phryne Fisher Mysteries) from Amazon*, Waterstones or Foyles
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Stone Cutter – Camilla Lackberg – 7/10

Another audiobook that it took me most of 2013 to get through (I wasn’t a quick audiobook listener – I listened to this on walking commutes and while gardening, but not much of the rest of the time). This wasn’t my first bit of Scandicrime, but definitely one of my first.

stonecutter

When an 8-year-old girl is found drowned in the harbour, fingers point very quickly at the autistic son of the girl’s neighbour; her grandmother and the neighbour have been fighting for years, and Markus saw Sarah on her last day. Local detective Patrik Hedstrom knows it’s not that easy, but between the gruesome nature of the crime, his newborn daughter’s incessant screaming and his wife’s crippling post-natal depression, he’s really struggling. Meanwhile in the parallel story, simple stone cutter Anders is forced to marry the spoilt daughter of the local business magnate after a romance gone wrong. No amount of love seems to be able to mellow Agnes.

This had all the necessary ingredients for a gripping thriller – plenty of well-developed characters with idiosyncracies, a bleak and cold setting, several turns for the worse, an unexpected death caused by incompetent policing… it really ticks all the boxes.

I had no idea this was part of a series and will, in time, look out for the others, but I don’t feel a need to go rushing out to find them.

I don’t really think the alternate story-line was necessary, it really just interrupted things and while it gave some background to the killer’s motive, it didn’t give enough motive to really justify including it.

Shout-out to the translator: it was very well translated. Enough local detail left to give us a very strong sense of setting, without it ever being incomprehensible. Also well narrated – slightly separated voices for the different characters made it much easier to keep track!

Additional info

Audiobook borrowed from a London library (not sure which one!)
16 hrs and 1 minute in length
Order The Stone Cutter from Amazon* or Waterstones
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

 

Lizzy and Jane – Katherine Reay – 6/10

“The cake and I faced each other – the last two elements of a discarded celebration. I covered it, shoved it into a corner, and started to wipe down the counters.”

lizzy and janeElizabeth is making it in New York as a chef, but something’s not quite right and she can see the writing on the wall of her restaurant. She decides to fly home for the first time in 15 years to visit her widowed father and her sister, who’s struggling with cancer. Can Elizabeth cook the family back into happiness, and will prickly Jane let down her defences enough for Elizabeth to help?

This reminded me so much of The Love Verb, that it’s not funny. Also a little bit of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (although really the only connection there is the friend as impatient patient). The writing isn’t very demanding, but pleasant enough; it tugs on the heartstrings every now and again and there is the occasional plot twist, but much of it predictable and comforting. Like hot chocolate. What I did particularly like about this is that while it looks like it’s going to be an Austen retelling, it actually wasn’t; in fact, even though the two main characters are named for Austen’s most famous sisters, neither of them is (I thought) particularly like Austen’s Bennet girls. They are much more alike, both hot-tempered, proud and indignant, but capable of great compassion.

Instead, the Austen reference is about the experience of having read Austen – what the reader learns from Pride & PrejudiceSense & Sensibility and Persuasion (and I was glad to see some references in there to Persuasion which I think is a vastly underrated Austen novel!).

The New York setting doesn’t feel that strong – but we don’t spend very long in New York. Seattle felt very small-town – they seem to walk nearly everywhere or take very short car rides – is it really that small? That said, culturally it was a pleasant and consistent depiction of a relaxed way of life contrasting with New York’s hecticism (I may have just made up that word).

One niggle (and it’s possible that this is fixed in the print version, but it wasn’t in my eGalley): in The Love Verb and other cooking-related fiction (e.g. Meet Me At The Cupcake Cafe), the author included the recipes. I would really have liked the recipes to be included in the book so I could replicate some of them at home!

Enjoyable, light; it won’t stay with you long but it’s a very pleasant read while you’re at it.

Additional information

Copy through NetGalley from the publisher in exchange for an an honest review.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 220 pages (hardback)

Order Lizzy and Jane from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Cocaine Blues – Kerry Greenwood – 8/10

“The Princesse nudged Phryne in the ribs with an albow evidently especially sharpened for the purpose of compelling attention… She was the last person in the world whom Phryne could imagine selling any sort of drug. She was so oppressively healthy.”

Cocaine Blues

The Honourable Phryne Fisher is rather bored with London society and, having demonstrated some super sleuthing at a party, accepts the commission of a gentleman of wealth to check up on his daughter in Melbourne, who seems to be being poisoned by her husband. Little does Phryne expect the cavalcade of adventures awaiting her in her hometown.

The plot in this opening novel takes a little while to get going, and Greenwood is determined to keep a side-plot rumbling along; as we are being introduced to Phryne and her crew, the slower pace is fine. It took me a while to get into the mystery of the Russian dancers, but as the pace of the book does not permit impatience, one trundles along quite happily.

Phryne is a wonderful character; a dab hand at most things, but not perfect. She rather delights in causing scandal which is usually very funny. I have to say, I love Dot – Phryne rescues her from a bad situation which has made her harbour murderous intentions, and sets her back on the straight and narrow. Dot’s a nervous creature but with a heart of gold, frequently concerned about Phryne’s wellbeing and ethics, but clearly knows a friend when she sees one. The television series appears to stay truer to the spirit of Dot’s character than to Phryne’s (I suspect Phryne is edited on screen for ratings purposes!). Bert and Cec, Phryne’s local henchmen, are also frequently a source of comedy and excellent foils for Phryne (especially the more stubborn Bert).

We are so very firmly in 1920s Melbourne here. The telephone is a source of mystery and fear for those who don’t encounter it often, calling cards are left, Phryne resides at the Windsor hotel and drives the only Hispano-Suiza in Australia. Greenwood sets a compelling stage.

Highly enjoyable and definitely recommended for Australian fans of private investigator fiction and period drama.

Additional info

A birthday gift from The German.
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 175 pages (paperback)
Order Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher Mysteries)from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

A Dangerous Fiction – Barbara Rogan – 7/10

“In the well-ordered world of fiction, murder and mayhem never arrive unheralded. For as long as men have told tales, disaster has been foreshadowed by omens and signs. But if there were portents the day my troubles began, I never saw them.”

dangerous fiction

Successfully running a publishing firm, Jo Donovan’s life seems to be coming together again after the shock of the death of her husband. When a would-be client starts stalking her, she starts to see ominous shadows everywhere. Then someone close to her dies in suspicious circumstances, and Jo herself becomes a suspect.

It’s been a few months since I read this one so I’m struggling to remember all the details, but it was very enjoyable. For a start, I didn’t figure out who the baddie was at all – massive surprise at the end. And the way that Jo’s security was taken away, step by step, was quite… not chilling, but obviously devastating for Jo.

The cast size is just about right. Rogan develops 5-6 characters enough that they could all be suspects and that Jo has thorough interactions with them, without any of them feeling like they take over the story. There are some cute bit-part characters too. I loved the ex-Marine with the guard dog.

It’s all set in New York and is very New York, though not as totally New York as a couple of other books I read later in the year (particularly Let The Great World Spin and My Salinger Year).

Definitely worth a read – it’s a quick thriller, but with a fun literary setting and pretty well done.

Additional information:

Copy kindly provided some months ago by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Penguin, 324 pages
Order A Dangerous Fiction: A Mystery from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

A Respectable Trade – Philippa Gregory – 3/10 (DNF)

“He did not know that for the first time and painfully, Frances was feeling emotions stir and warm into life.”

respectable trade

Josiah Cole needs cash and a socially connected wife. Frances Scott needs a husband. Once married, they find themselves dependent on sustaining a particular sort of lifestyle in order to keep moving upwards. They overpay for a house, over-furnish the house, all under the resentful eye of Josiah’s maiden sister.

I know very little about slavery, at any point or place, really. Only after watching Amazing Grace did I know anything about William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement here in the UK; only after watching and reading The Help did I really know anything about racial politics in 1960s southern USA, plus drawing on reading To Kill a Mockingbird at school (and I’ll admit to still not knowing very much). And I know even less about 1780s Bristol, the sugar trade or rum.

But I abandoned this after 370 pages out of 500 – so close to the end and yet I did not want to spend more time wasted on these insipid, fearful characters so bent on destroying their own lives.

I wanted to like this; I know very little of the topic and feel that I should know more. But I found the characters too irritating and undeserving of more of my time.

Additional info
Copy from Bookmooch, I think. Given that it seems to have been published in Canada.
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 501 pages
Order A Respectable Trade from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
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