Death in Brittany (Brittany Mystery, #1)

Death in BrittanyDeath in Brittany
by Jean-Luc Bannalec
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250088437
Series: Brittany Mystery #1
Publication Date: May 31, 2016
Pages: 318
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

Commissaire Georges Dupin, a cantankerous, Parisian-born caffeine junkie recently relocated from the glamour of Paris to the remote (if picturesque) Breton coast, is dragged from his morning croissant and coffee to the scene of a curious murder. The local village of Pont-Aven—a sleepy community by the sea where everyone knows one other and nothing much seems to happen—is in shock. The legendary ninety-one-year-old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec, owner of the Central Hotel, has been found dead.

A picture-perfect seaside village that played host to Gaugin in the nineteenth century, Pont-Aven is at the height of its tourist season and is immediately thrown into uproar. As Dupin delves into the lives of the victim and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy and silence that belies the village's quaint image.


 

I’m pretty sure I have one of the books in this series floating around a TBR pile somewhere, but I couldn’t remember which one, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t the first one, so I checked it out from the library.  If I do have one of the series (and I didn’t give it away) it’s one that I’ve picked up and put right back down again for ages, but the titles always appeal to me, so I made myself read this one.

It was pretty good!  Not great, but entertaining, and a pretty solid mystery.  The writing style (3rd person) reminds me a little of the Provence mystery series written by M.L. Longworth, although I suspect that’s more just the power of suggestion (one series set in Provence, the other in Brittany) than any actual resemblance.  But I’d class these as traditional mysteries, not cozy; they’re all about the mystery plots and very little about the characters, although the descriptions of the countryside were a little eye glazing.

The main character of the book is an obvious tip of the hat to Poe, as his name is Dupin.  To my everlasting relief, however, he is as unlike his classic namesake as can be.  There’s no expounding, or soapbox monologues; the mystery plot spans 4 days and every one of them is non-stop showing and almost no telling.  A Gaugin masterpiece is at the centre of the murder plot, and mysteries about art are catnip for me, so when it felt slow going, the art kept me reading.  I say slow going, but that’s not really accurate; the book isn’t divided into chapters, but the 4 days of the investigation, and if you’re a stop-at-the-end-of-a-chapter reader like I am, discovering the first ‘chapter’ is 97 pages long makes it feel like it’s taking forever.  Once I figured that out, I adjusted my habits and the book and I got along much better.

I’m definitely interested in the rest of the series.  I need to figure out if I do, indeed, have a book and which one it is, and whether or not my library has the entire series or is going to torture me with random entries.  No matter though, I definitely have a new series to look forward to.

One Fine Fae (Mystic Bayou novella, #4.5)

One Fine FaeOne Fine Fae
by Molly Harper
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Mystic Bayou #4.5
Publication Date: January 1, 2020
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Audible Originals

Charlotte McBee knows she’s in for a challenge when she accepts a job as midwife for a dragon and a phoenix shifter. Being a fairy herself, it isn’t the supernatural world that scares her. It’s the thought of delivering a giant metal dragon’s egg, which has her gritting her teeth in pain for poor Jillian, the anxious mother-to-be.

While preparing for the big event, a handsome town resident catches her eye. Leonard is kind, charming, and a little bit mysterious. He’s also suffering from a highly unusual condition brought on by an ancient fairy curse, and he’s too wary of Charlotte to allow her to get close.

Will love overcome fear before the end of her assignment?


 

So I thought I’d closed my Audible account last year, but it turns out, nope, I didn’t.  One of their emails got through the spam filter last week and informed me that I had 12 credits sitting there.  Of course, I had to use them all before I shut the account for good, so I went on a bit of a spree and bought a bunch of titles, and I made sure Molly Harper’s books accounted for at least a few.

One Fine Fae is, really, not a 4 star read – it’s closer to a 3.5 star, but I think Amanda Ronconi does such a fabulous job with the narration of these that she gets the .5 star bump.  Jonathan Davis narrates the male POV and I rather wish he didn’t.  He reads awkwardly, often mangling sentences with his oddly placed pauses, and he’s terrible at female voices.

The story itself is about what you’d expect from a novella: short and shallow, relying on established characters for any real depth while the newbies have their meet cute and establish a relationship.  There’s no tension, or plot, other than the birth of Gillian’s daughter, who is half dragon and half phoenix, and that wasn’t at all tense.

All in all, just a light and amusing way to kill a few hours while driving and ironing.

The Sugar Queen

The Sugar QueenThe Sugar Queen
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780553905243
Publication Date: May 20, 2008
Pages: 210
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Penguin Books

Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night. . . . Until she finds her closet harboring Della Lee Baker, a local waitress who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother.

With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey’s narrow existence quickly expands. She even bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who is hounded by books that inexplicably appear when she needs them—and who has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush. Soon Josey is living in a world where the color red has startling powers, and passion can make eggs fry in their cartons. And that’s just for starters.


 

The last of Sarah Addison Allen’s books (to date) that I’ve read, it’s also the one I like the least.  Which is what I expected, and why I waited so long to read it in the first place.  Something about the whole secret addiction to sugar turns  me off, which is ironic, really, since I used to go to great lengths as a child to sneak and hoard sweets.  But then again, I was a child, and Josey is an adult.

What I loved was Chloe’s ‘affliction’.  If one is going to be saddled with an affliction, having the books you need at that moment not just show up, but follow you around, seems like a pretty good one to be saddled with.  Embarrassing, maybe, but definitely one I could cope happily with.

There’s a plot twist involving Della Lee that was obvious to me from their first conversation.  It seemed so obvious to me that I was sure I was going to be proven wrong, so I guess that kept me reading.  I thought the entire story line with Julian superfluous and detracted from the story line, rather than added to it.

Overall, an easy read I was able to complete in a day, and perfect for what I needed it for that day.

A Bookshop in Algiers

A Bookshop in AlgiersA Bookshop in Algiers
by Kaouther Adimi
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788164696
Publication Date: June 1, 2020
Pages: 146
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

A Bookshop in Algiers celebrates quixotic devotion and the love of books in the person of Edmond Charlot, who at the age of twenty founded Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth), the famous Algerian bookstore/publishing house/lending library. He more than fulfilled its motto 'by the young, for the young', discovering the twenty-four-year-old Albert Camus in 1937. His entire archive was twice destroyed by the French colonial forces, but despite financial difficulties and the vicissitudes of wars and revolutions, Charlot carried forward Les Vraies Richesses as a cultural hub of Algiers.

A Bookshop in Algiers interweaves Charlot's story with that of another twenty-year-old, Ryad, who is dispatched to the old shop in 2017 to empty it of books and repaint it. Ryad's no booklover, but old Abdallah, the bookshop's self-appointed, nearly illiterate guardian, opens the young man's mind.

Cutting brilliantly from Charlot to Ryad, from the 1930s to current times, from WWII to the bloody 1961 Free Algeria demonstrations in Paris, Adimi delicately packs a monumental history of intense political drama into her swift and poignant novel. But most of all, it's a hymn to the book and to the love of books.


 

Apparently I was in the mood to challenge myself when I went to the library.  I’ve moved now from South Africa to North, to Algeria, and again find myself waffling between 4. and 4.5 stars.

Translated from the French, the writing via translation is beautiful, or, at least, beautifully engaging.  The story is divided into flashbacks in the form of journal entries, written by the Edmund Charlot, the original owner of the Les Vraies Richesses (the Bookstore at the center of the story), a present-day timeline told in the third person, and a third that I don’t know how to describe; something akin to a transitional voice-over; NPR calls it a communal third person.

Over the course of this small book, the reader travels with Algeria and the bookstore through pre-war French colonialism, WWII, and Algeria’s war for independence, coming out into the present day in a city that feels like it’s in stasis (although there are early references to the economy suffering because Algeria’s oil reserves have dried up), and the people are holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next. Edmund Charlot comes across and a wonderful man; kind, generous, and someone who followed a vocation rather than a profession, and  while I worried about his naiveté at the start of his career, and felt for him when things were so impossible in post-war Paris, I mourned with him at the senseless destruction that ultimately took him out of Algeria.

I ended up going with 4 stars because the ending did my head in.  I really feel like I got a taste of Algiers, and I definitely felt Abdallah’s pain as the bookstore was slowly dismantled with so little feeling by the young intern, Ryad, sent to “throw everything away”.  But the end … the end left me flipping pages and saying “what the hell?” to myself.  I really want to be able to ask the author to explain herself.  What was her motivation with this ending?  Or perhaps I missed some nuance, some metaphor; perhaps I took then ending to literally.  Either way, it was abrupt.

In spite of this, the book is the kind that will stay with me for some time to come, and I’ll “see” it in my memory as if it was something I experienced, rather than just read.  I just have to forget about that ending.

Recipes for Love and Murder (Tannie Maria Mystery, #1)

Recipes for Love and MurderRecipes for Love and Murder
by Sally Andrew
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781925240092
Series: Tannie Maria Mystery #1
Publication Date: September 23, 2015
Pages: 378
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Text Publishing

Tannie Maria used to write a recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Then Head Office decided they wanted an advice column instead, so now she gives advice. In the form of recipes. Because, as she says, she may not know much about love, but food—that’s her life.

Everything has been going well. A tongue-tied mechanic wins his girl with text messages and Welsh rarebit. A frightened teenager gets some much-needed sex ed with her chocolate-coated bananas.

But then there is a letter from Martine, whose husband beats her, and Tannie Maria feels a pang of recognition and dread. This may be a problem that cooking can’t solve…


 

I found this at my local library and the synopsis had me excited to read it.  About 25% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it; at the end, I’m eager to get to the library and check out the second book, and likely buy them for my personal library.

The biggest hurdle for me with this book is my almost total ignorance about South Africa.  I know it’s in Africa; I know it’s in the south; I know it was colonised by the Dutch, and I know about apartheid and Nelson Mandela.  Oh, and they (and the rest of Africa) are tied with Australia for coolest animals.  Beyond that, I got nuthin’.  That made a lot of the cultural references a mystery to me and there was a time or two where I struggled to understand.  The list of things I need to research to cure just a tiny fraction of my ignorance is long.  I was helped a bit by a familiarity with Dutch, which allowed me to decipher some of the Afrikaans vocabulary that is liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

The other hurdle I initially had with the book was understanding the MC, Tannie Maria.  I just couldn’t get a handle on what kind of character she was meant to be; a time or two she came across as slow of mind, but she’s not.  She’s got a tragic background she survived, but she has this kind of passive strength and spirit that frankly leaves me confused.  This could be fallout from my cultural ignorance in the same way that my BFF’s husband sometimes leaves me confused (he’s Dutch) and a few Aussies too.  Different environments influence different personalities.  I liked her; I just didn’t understand her.

I really waffled between 4 and 4.5 stars, but ultimately settled on 4 because of the above and because there was a bit too much sentiment about the power of love towards the end.  It’s beautifully written, but not the kind of thing that resonates with me.  The mystery itself was pretty good, though I’d argue it’s not strictly a fair-play plot.  The style is what I’d call a ‘gritty cozy’ if forced to describe it.  There’s a dark side to the crimes and spousal abuse is a strong theme, but the characters and mood are uplifting, with food playing a major role in the story.  There’s a side story that almost stole the show for me at the end, and there’s a low-key romance brewing between the mc and the detective that I have a hard time getting excited about because, frankly, he has a handlebar moustache and those things creep me out.

But what really makes the book is the atmosphere; the author brings the veldt to life on the pages in a way that kept me glued to the story when the language and cultural references left me floundering.  When I wasn’t sure I cared about the characters, the Klein Karoo kept me coming back for more.  By the end, it was the characters, the writing and the Karoo that makes me want to pick up the next book in the series, The Satanic Mechanic.

The Good, The Bad, and the Undead (The Hollows, #2)

The Good The Bad And The UndeadThe Good The Bad And The Undead
by Kim Harrison
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780061744518
Series: The Hollows #2
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 464
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperCollins

To save herself and her vampire roommate, former bounty hunter Rachel Morgan must confront six feet of sheer supernatural seduction—the vampire master—and dark secrets she’s hidden even from herself.


 

This is a better written book than the first one – a tighter plot, a (slightly) more likeable MC.  But I’m still giving it 3.5 stars because I find the whole situation with Ivy deeply disturbing and the author hasn’t justified it to my satisfaction.  I don’t dislike Ivy, but the dynamic – even with the story-line geared toward engendering sympathy – just feels really exploitative.

Rachel’s personality, while improved, still failed to click with me.  I have to believe, still, that future books are better; there’s an “Extras” at the end of this ebook (from the library) that had two “articles” written by Rachel Morgan about vampires and fairies/pixies, and her voice in these – dry, funny, a little snarky – is what I expect her voice to be in the books, and so far, it’s definitely not.

In both books so far, Rachel is rather strident about the line between white and black magic and her morals appeared to be set in stone, but when the rubber hit the road in this one, she crossed that line in order to achieve a greater good.  But boy, she caved quick; she didn’t waste any time offering and accepting a rather dark deal. View Spoiler »  She has a massive fear of ley line magic, but once she figures out she can do it, she starts playing with it in a scene with the pixies that was great, but didn’t do a lot to establish her creditability or integrity as the heroine.

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy the book; as I said at the start, it’s a much better story.  I just haven’t found my groove with the characters yet, and I’m definitely up for book 3.  I continue to see hints that future books are going to be more my jam.  But I’m glad I can get them at my library; if I’d bought these first two, I’m not sure I’d be willing to go further.

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, #1)

Dead Witch WalkingDead Witch Walking
by Kim Harrison
Rating: ★★★½
Series: The Hollows #1
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 432
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperCollins

Vampires rule the darkness in a predator-eat-predator world rife with dangers beyond imagining—and it's Rachel Morgan's job to keep that world civilized.

A bounty hunter and a witch with serious sex appeal and an attitude, she'll bring 'em back alive, dead . . . or undead.


 

I remember starting to read this years ago, and I wasn’t able to finish it – I was bored before I got much beyond the 3rd chapter.  Speaking to my sister the other day, she mentioned that it had taken her 3 tries to get through the first book, but after that got hooked on the series.  So I figured I’d give it another try, since the ongoing UF series’ I enjoy are getting thin on the ground, and I checked it out from my library.

I got through it this time but as a first book, it’s weaker than most.  Ultimately, it’s enjoyable, but Harrison makes you work for it by introducing an MC that’s supposed to be a badass witch, but is so timid it boggles the mind she survived her job as long as she did.  She goes out on her own and partners with a living-vampire named Ivy and the two spend the book hovering in this weird quasi-sexual-assault dynamic that was chewing on my last nerve before the half-way mark.  Hard to really get on-board with a heroine that acts like she’s about to suffer the vapours for most of the book.  Jenks the pixie, was, as least, a consistent and delightful character and I was charmed by his entire family.

Things did pick up right towards the end, when Rachel finally found some spirit, but honestly I was on the fence about whether or not I’d read book 2 until I read a sneak peak at the end, for a book much further into the series, containing enough mini-spoilers to actually get me seriously interested in continuing the series.  Guess that sneak peak paid for itself in this case.

Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous RegimentMonstrous Regiment
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780385603409
Series: Discworld #31
Pages: 352
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Doubleday

'Trousers. That's the secret...Put on trousers and the world changes. We walk different. We act different. I see these girls and I think: idiots! Get yourself some trousers!'

Women belong in the kitchen - everyone knows that. Not in jobs, pubs or indeed trousers, and certainly not on the front line.

Polly Perks has to become a boy in a hurry if she wants to find her brother in the army. Cutting off her hair and wearing the trousers is easy. Learning to fart and belch in public and walk like an ape takes more time. And there's a war on. There's always a war on.

Polly and her fellow raw recruits are suddenly in the thick of it. All they have on their side is the most artful sergeant in the army and a vampire with a lust for coffee. Well ...they have the Secret. And it's time to make a stand.


 

Monstrous Regiment has the distinction of being the first Pratchett book I just fell into.  No fighting with the narrative, no initial struggle to follow what was going on.  It all just worked from the start.

In spite of this, something … wasn’t missing so much as, I suppose, this was a different kind of story than I was expecting, based on my one Sam Vimes book so far.  This was much more satiric than my first City Watch, and really, much more blatant a satire than any of the Discworld books I’ve read so far.

Between this book and Carpe Jugulum I learned something about myself: I love good satire about the ‘smaller’ things in life, like politics, academia, and social mores, but I struggle to embrace satire about the ‘big’ things like religion and world politics.  I think there are some things that are too big or too complex, to be effectively satirised, no matter that they make themselves such easy targets with their outsized human fallacies.  Of course I’m not an advocate for war, nor am I an advocate for religion-for-profit, or religion-for-power, but I don’t believe that all, or even most, governments eagerly search out reasons to go to war, nor most followers or seekers of faith and guidance are less than sincere – though I’ve met more than a few of the latter in my life.

Now that I’ve said that, though, I want to give all the credit to Pratchett for what I felt was his attempt to be brutally, objectively, honest about his satire in Monstrous Regiment.  A cynical reader might start reading this book and think ah, here’s the sop to feminism just about every bestselling male author writes anymore.  A cynical reader would be wrong — which delights this cynical reader to no end.  Truely, this is a book about how women can do anything men can do – and do it better. Pratchett’s just honest enough to point out that isn’t always something to be proud of, and he does it in the most extraordinary way.

His bitterness towards organised religion is as apparent, and almost as scathing, here as it was in Carpe Jugulum, but there’s also what feels like a newfound acknowledgment of the power of faith.  Towards the end, it feels as though the author is wrestling with himself through his characters about the importance of belief in something greater than oneself.

This internal debate felt apparent to me not just in matters of faith, but in matters of politics and government.  Polly’s realisation that she must play an ongoing, active part in her country’s fate, that lasting change doesn’t just happen because people want it to, that it’s a process that is forever going forward and backwards, feels like it’s a truth that’s only starting to be considered, rather than a wisdom being imparted to readers.

Then again, what do I know?  Maybe I was just seeing zebras instead of horses, and disappointed by the lack of ginger root and oxen.  What matters is that it’s a damn good story, and a more obviously philosophical one than any other discworld book I’ve read so far.

Heroes

Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and AdventuresHeroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures
by Stephen Fry
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Pages: 462
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Penguin / Michael Joseph

 

Well, with the lockdowns, it took me not quite 6 months to finish this on audio (I can only listen in the car), but I finally did it.  It was, of course, worth every minute, and I’d recommend the audio version to anybody who even wants to like Greek mythology.  Especially those who want to like it, but always struggled with the names, and the who begat whoms, and the who married whoms.  Fry unapologetically tells the listener to ignore all of that – there won’t be a test at the end – and just enjoy the stories.  His narration makes this all the easier, as he’s absolutely brilliant at it, even if the Greeks are speaking with Scottish, English and at one point what I think was a distinctly cockney accent.  In fact, the hint of Monty Python in some of the stories made them all the more enjoyable for me, because they made me chuckle.

I’ve never been all that interested in the Trojan War, but I’m sorely tempted to check out his version with the next book in this ‘series’.

Synchronized Sorcery (Witchcraft Mystery, #11)

Synchronized SorcerySynchronized Sorcery
by Juliet Blackwell
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780593097953
Series: Witchcraft Mystery #11
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Pages: 335
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Strange things are happening in Lily Ivory’s San Francisco. First, she finds a vintage mermaid costume which dates from the 1939 San Francisco’s Treasure Island World’s Fair – and which gives off distinctly peculiar vibrations. Next, she stumbles upon a dead man in the office of her predecessor, and as the community’s new leader, she feels compelled to track down the culprit. Just when Lily thinks things can’t get any stranger, a man appears claiming to be her half-brother, spouting ideas about the mystical prophecy involving San Francisco and their family…

When the dead man is linked to the mysterious mermaid costume, and then yet another victim is found on Treasure Island, Lily uncovers ties between the long-ago World’s fair and the current murders, and begins to wonder whether the killer might be hiding in plain sight. But unless Lily can figure everything out in time, there may be yet another body floating in San Francisco Bay.


 

I don’t know if this just wasn’t one of her best ones, or I just wasn’t feeling it.  Things at work have been pretty damn dismal the last couple of weeks, so it’s entirely possible it was just my sour mood colouring my enjoyment of a normally favorite series.  But there was a little something; some slowness, or lack of focus, to the plot, that kept me from really losing myself in it.  And her familiar was acting like a spoiled brat throughout the book, something that at the best of times I have no patience with.

But still, probably more me than the book.