Book Review: Death, the Devil and the Goldfish by Andrew Buckley

Death, the Devil and the GoldfishDeath, the Devil and the Goldfish
Andrew Buckley
Curiosity Quills, December 2012
ISBN: 978-1-62007-125-0
Trade Paperback

Death has had enough. A pub in Ireland might have something to do with that, but still, he’s had enough. And the Devil is due for another sojourn on earth, his first in a few thousand years. One week outside the confines and agonies of Hell and he can’t wait. Being the Devil, he has a plan up his sleeve. I mean, why relax for a week when you can wreck havoc? He just hasn’t reckoned on the prophetic, telepathic powers of one goldfish called Jeremiah. The problem is, Jeremiah’s memory isn’t the greatest and…oh look, someone’s put a castle in his bowl.

I have to say, this book gripped me in the first page and didn’t let go until I found the last dizzying sentence. Anyone who can appreciate the sense of humour in the UK will love this book as it is delightfully hilarious with its absurd scenarios and the way everything flies in the face of logic. Admittedly, it was sometimes difficult to keep up with the story as it zigzagged from character to character but in the end, it was well worth it. The further on the story went, the easier it was to keep a hold on who was who and what they were supposed to be doing, or in some cases, not doing. I quite liked the whole storyline with Death and his new friend Gerald, formerly a penguin but now deposited in the body of a former Olympic swimmer who met an unfortunate end via a bus and a driver called Dante. See what I mean about the British humour?

There are a lot of laugh out loud moments so whatever you do, don’t drink tea when you’re reading this book. A visitor to the house who was doing some computer work with my husband even asked me what I was laughing at since I kept disturbing them with my loud and unpredictable cackle. At one point, I checked what page I was at and realised that I had ploughed through almost 150 pages without realising. Imagine my disappointment when I knew I only had forty pages left which has to be a sign of a good read. This story is brilliantly funny with a host of characters that are interesting and have enough quirks to keep psychiatrists in business for a millennia.

If you get the chance to read Death, The Devil and the Goldfish, I heartily recommend that you do and judging from the ending and epilogue, there just might be another title coming our way. Lucky us!

Reviewed by Laura McLaughlin, February 2013.

Book Review: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer
The Chronicles of Kazam Book One

Jasper Fforde
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-547-73847-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In the good old days, magic was indispensable—it could both save a kingdom and clear a clogged drain. But now magic is fading: drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and magic carpets are used for pizza delivery. Fifteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians—but it’s hard to stay in business when magic is drying up. And then the visions start, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, everything will change for Kazam—and for Jennifer. Because something is coming. Something known as . . . Big Magic.

Jennifer Strange, who will be 16 years old in two weeks, is an indentured servant till 18 and, as such, runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management. Jennifer has a knack for handling fractious practitioners of magic and is always accompanied by a loveable critter, Quarkbeast. Quark is 1/10 Labrador and 9/10 velociraptor and kitchen blender and absolutely adores Jennifer for taking him home when she found him at Starbucks.

Then, one day, Jennifer meets a fellow named Brian Spalding who lives at the Dragonstation and drives an armored Rolls-Royce he calls the Slayermobile. Brian is  the outgoing dragonslayer and he is intent upon making Jennifer his apprentice. Apprentice for what? Well, it seems an old dragon, Maltcassion, lives in a sanctuary/wilderness known as the Dragonlands and he is supposed to die next Sunday at noon at the hands of a Dragonslayer wielding a sword named Exhorbitus. Unfortunately, Brian disappears rather precipitously before Jennifer feels quite prepared so she hires her own apprentice Dragonslayer, Gordon van Gordon Gordonson ap Gordon-Gordon of Gordon.

So why does Maltcassion have to die next Sunday at noon? Come to find out there have been three Dragonattacks and that voids the Dragonpact that has protected him. One minor detail—by ancient decree, a dragon’s land belongs to whoever claims it when he dies and that brings out the worst of greed in an awful lot of people. In this world, commerce is mightier than kings and celebrities and The Consolidated Useful Stuff Land Development Corporation is ready to take advantage of the decree.

Jasper Fforde is one of my favorite authors and I so wanted to love this book but I just can’t quite say that I do. There’s not much joy in this story even though there is a lot of humor. Heavyhanded agendas like greed, environmentalism, trashy media and product endorsements got in the way of the pure enjoyment I usually get when reading a Fforde tale and I also felt there were far too many characters, making it difficult to care a lot about most of them. Have I been permanently turned off? Of course not—the author may not have been at the top of his game with this one, his first young adult novel, but it’s just as possible that I read it in the wrong mood. The second in the series, The Song of the Quarkbeast, is already out in the UK so it should be showing up here in the US next fall and I’ll definitely be reading it.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2013.

Book Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion, May 2012
ISBN 978-1-4231-5219-4
Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4231-5325-2
Ebook

From the publisher—

Oct. 11th, 1943—A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

 

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

 

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Queenie, daughter of an upper-crust family, is a wireless operator captured as an Allied spy and facing execution if she survives six weeks of medical experimentation in a Nazi camp. In an odd twist of fate, she is being interrogated in Ormaie, France, where she used to visit her grandmother and where her great-aunt still lives and is a part of the French Resistance. Maddie is a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes and pilots but never allowed in a combat zone until the fateful flight that ended in disaster. Maddie is Jewish. In any circumstances other than war, these two women would almost certainly never have known each other and yet they have become the best of friends and trust each other completely. That trust will lead to a moment of devastation and sheer love.

KISS ME , HARDY! Kiss me, QUICK!

To say this is an engrossing story is to put it mildly. Much has been written fictionally about World War II but there is always room for more because we’re so fascinated with that piece of history. Having the horrors and the everyday routines of wartime built into the friendship of two women who find themselves in unbearable circumstances is nearly too much and I literally could not stop reading until I’d finished and then I wished for more.

Ms. Wein tells a great tale and she does so by making the reader feel that these two women are much like most of us, willing to do our part in a bad time but still just ordinary people. Little things make the story come alive, such as the detail of the first successful ballpoint pen, licensed to the RAF in 1943 and manufactured for pilots who needed a way to write at high altitudes where increased pressure frequently caused fountain pens to leak. There are also the women’s lists of top ten fears which, not surprisingly, change as they learn what is really important to them. Above all, this is the story of what one person can mean to another and the sacrifices they’re willing to make for each other. Even Verity’s Nazi interrogator has shades of humanity, something the author didn’t have to do but still a touch that lifts this book above many other World War II novels.

Is the ending of this tale a happy one? Most would say “no” but it’s an appropriate ending, one which will remain with me for a very long time. I’ll be including Code Name Verity in my top 5 books of 2012.

KISS ME , HARDY! Kiss me, QUICK!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2012.

Book Reviews: G.I. Bones by Martin Limon, The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, and Stolen Lives by Jassy MacKenzie

G.I. Bones
Martin Limon
Soho Crime, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56947-863-9
Trade Paperback

Seoul, South Korea, is one of the more exotic locales for a murder mystery, and the C.I.D operatives, Sgts. Sueno and Bascom, are two of the more different protagonists around.  This is the sixth entry in the series, but the first this reader has undertaken.

The setting is not only Seoul, but Itaewon, the red-light district, ruled by the Seven Dragons, a mafia-like group born during the Korean Conflict and following the truce in 1953, where they ran all the night clubs, prostitution and other enticements for the 50,000 American troops stationed there.  The heart of the plot is a simple one:  Sueno and Bascom undertake to find the bones of a “sainted” soldier who played a key role in rebuilding the district after the war before he was murdered, presumably by the Seven Dragons.

All other side issues seem irrelevant, but take up space and time, as the dynamic duo wander around, from time to time attempting to accomplish their main purpose.  It is a perfectly acceptable “police procedural,” however it seems at times to drag on and on.  That said, much of the writing and observations about military life are pungent, oft-times witty, and the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2011.

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The Devotion of Suspect X
Keigo Higashino
Minotaur Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-37506-5
Hardcover

Cleverly pitting the logic of a mathematician against that of a physicist, and then the physicist vs. an intuition-leaning detective, this Japanese novelist has written a clever murder mystery with an innovative ending.

There is no mystery as to the murderer:  A single mother, aided by her daughter, strangles her abusive ex-husband.  What then follows provides us with a chess match between her next door neighbor, a mathematician, who undertakes to create a scenario to provide the two women with iron-clad alibis, and a detective and his logic-leaning physicist friend, who analyzes each possible clue.  It is an interesting technique, and one that works well.

This is the author’s first major English publication (he is a big seller in Japan, where more than 2 million copies of the book have been sold), and the translation seems to have been made with the formality of the original language in mind.  “Devotion” won the Naoki Prize for Best Novel, the Japanese equivalent of the National Book Award.  Deservedly.  And it is, here, heartily recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2011.

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Stolen Lives
Jassy Mackenzie
Soho Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-909-4
Hardcover

Four subplots coalesce in this second novel featuring Jade de Jong, the South African PI who makes her home in Jo’burg, where it all comes together.  However, the story begins in Great Britain, where a Scotland Yard raid on a brothel finds six victims of kidnapping later forced into prostitution. Unfortunately, the brothel owner is not present as expected, and remains at large, and the manager escapes as well, setting off a manhunt for the two.

At the same time, Jade is retained by the wife of the proprietor of an “upscale” strip joint called Heads and Tails as a bodyguard when her spouse goes missing.  And the woman also wants Jade to protect her daughter, who manages one of the clubs.  This draws Jade into a series of situations involving the human trafficking scheme.

There is some violence in the novel, especially with Jade’s predilection for committing murder, but it is relatively unobtrusive. The writing is vivid, and the character development solid.  The plot moves forward at a steady and interesting pace, so that the novel is an excellent follow-up to Random Violence, its predecessor in the series.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2011.

Book Review: Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen

Royal Blood
Rhys Bowen
Berkley Prime Crime, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-425-23446-4
Hardcover

For anyone who likes cozies, with a little mystery thrown in, a Royal Spyness Mystery is right up his or her alley.  In a change of scenery, Lady Georgiana is asked to travel from London to the Castle Bran in Romania’s Transylvania to represent the Crown at the wedding of the Princess Maria Theresa and the Bulgarian Prince Nicholas.  It seems Georgiana went to school with the princess, who had specifically asked for her friend to be a bridesmaid.

Yes, that’s the castle reputed to be Dracula’s, giving us the opportunity to anticipate vampires, werewolves and the like, and amusement, along with royal shenanigans, sex [both requited (friend Belinda) and unrequited (Georgiana)], and other assorted goings-on. The mystery is the apparent murder by poison of the head of the Bulgarian armed forces and a favorite of the king, possibly a cause of another Balkan war.

There are some cute moments in the novel, although the formula is becoming somewhat wearisome.  Georgie’s love life (or lack thereof) is becoming a little boring, while Belinda’s is, of course, predictable. As for Georgie’s ability to solve crimes, it is more like stumbling into situations that seem to be resolved while she is present.  The writing moves the story along apace, and the 1930’s royal atmosphere is interesting.  The novel is recommended for readers, and they are many, who appreciate the genre.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2010.

Feit Book Reviews X 3

Queen of the Night
J.A. Jance
William Morrow & Company, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-123924-3
Hardcover

With a bow [by dedicating the book] to the late Tony Hillerman, who was a master at the genre of this novel (and the predecessors in the saga of the Walker family), J.A. Jance has written a murder mystery surrounded by the further development in the family’s history peppered with lots of Indian lore.

The eponymous Queen is a once-a-year blossoming cactus whose legendary beginnings, like many of the tales in the novel, are based on the culture and history of the Tohono O’odhap people of southern Arizona.  It plays a minor, but important, role in the story as the site of the contemporary murder of four people.  Meanwhile, former homicide
detective Brandon Walker inherits a 50-year-old open case from his Last Chance cold case mentor, one in which a popular coed was stabbed to death in San Diego while on a school break.

The broad sweep of the Walker saga provides interesting and deep personal observations about the characters and what motivates them.  The plot lines in the novel are fairly complex, but move forward in a logical pattern.  As usual, the writing is uncomplicated with beautiful descriptions of the Arizona terrain, and especially of the night-blooming cereus (the Queen of the Night) particularly appealing.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

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The Last Lie
Stephen White
Dutton, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-525-95177-3
Hardcover

In a follow-up to the excellent The Siege, author Stephen White not only brings back detective Sam Purdy [introduced in that standalone], but also Alan Gregory, psychiatrist and clinical psychologist and long-standing series protagonist, and his wife, DDA Lauren.

From a rather curious opening dealing with his ‘supervisory’ duties involving sessions with younger clinicians, the scene is juxtaposed with that of a party [or, as Alan will later frequently refer to it, a “damn housewarming”] at the home of Alan and Lauren’s new neighbors in the Spanish Hills section, their “quiet corner of Colorado paradise.”  The fact that new people have moved into the neighboring property is fraught with emotional landmines for the Gregory family, as the former owners were close friends, husband and wife having each been killed in separate, horrific incidents [each the subject of prior novels].

One might think of Alan Gregory as, among other things, a kind of male Jessica Fletcher, whose friends and neighbors frequently die a tragic death.  This time, however, it is not a death, but a possible rape, that occurs at his new neighbors’ house.  I say ‘possible’ because the victim isn’t sure what happened to her, only that she’d been the victim of . . . something.  The book starts off more slowly than I recall Mr. White’s novels usually do; unsurprisingly, the payoff is
worth the relatively slow build-up.

I particularly liked the descriptions of area natives:  “Colorado is home, almost exclusively, to weather optimists . . . some people wear their Boulder-ness so visibly that it is as obvious as a brightly colored outer garment.”  Alan’s personal life is again a major story line, i.e., marital issues that are being “worked through;” Lauren’s ever-worsening MS; their daughter Gracie, approaching adolescence; and Jonas, the son of their murdered neighbors, who Lauren and Alan are now raising.  Conflict-of-interest questions abound.  The usual quotient of suspense that Mr. White’s readers expect is present in ample measure.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2010.

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Moscow Sting
Alex Dryden
Harper Ecco, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-196684-2
Hardcover

There is a lot to like about this book, and much to dislike.  To begin with, it is an interesting and diverting plot, reminiscent of all the Cold War novels of the past, albeit set in present-day circumstances.  However, the characters seem wooden, caricatures filling in the blanks.  Moscow Sting is the sequel to Red to Black, with Anna Resnikov, the KGB Colonel who defected to the West to marry the assassinated former MI6 agent Finn, again playing a major role.

It seems everyone wants to find Anna who was hidden in the south of France with her two-year-old son by the French security arm, and is discovered accidentally by an ex-CIA agent who tries to sell her whereabouts for half a million dollars to the Russians, English and Americans.  She and her son are “rescued” by a private United States intelligence company headed by a larger-than-life personage, who takes them to the U.S. to “debrief” her.  The reason she is so important is the relationship Finn had with Mikhail, an informant extremely close to Vladimir Putin, and who she presumably knows.

George Washington warned against “foreign entanglements” and Dwight Eisenhower against the military-industrial establishment.  However, this novel provides strong reason to distrust the intelligence community, whether public like the CIA or MI6, or private.  Each has its shortcomings, with the latter only driven by self-interest which can be as disastrous as, perhaps, the demonstrated ineptness of employees of the official agencies.  Written at a fast pace, the tale
more often than not is exciting and enlightening, despite its shortcomings.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

Book Reviews: A Ted Feit Roundup

The Steam Pig
James McClure
Soho Crime, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56947-652-9
Trade Paperback

Before his death four years ago, the author wrote eight novels in this series, featuring a white CID lieutenant, Tromp Kramer, and his black assistant, Sgt. Zondi.  The setting for The Steam Pig was apartheid South Africa, and the descriptions of that society are poignant and overwhelming, while the plot follows the unraveling of a murder investigation.  Thanks to Soho Press, it is now back in print, along with one other in the series.

An attractive blonde is murdered in an unusual way: a bicycle spoke through to the heart, a signature method of the Bantus.  Little by little Kramer and Zondi follow a mixed trail to find out shy she was killed and by whom.  Along the way the reader is treated to subtle and not so subtle elements of the horrid aspects of apartheid in South Africa.

The interplay between Kramer and Zondi, stressing the advantages of each (the Bantu obviously is able to obtain information from his black counterparts more easily than his white superior), quietly demonstrates the inadequacies of apartheid, while the fact that the victim, who was reclassified “colored” from “white,” points up just one unfortunate aspect of the system.

The whole, of course, is more than the sum of its parts.  A good, well-written mystery, interesting characters and a very different style makes for an excellent read, which brings this reviewer next to the second book made available by the publisher, The Caterpillar Cop.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

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The Caterpillar Cop
James McClure
Soho Crime, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56947-653-6
Trade Paperback

This Kramer and Zondi novel, one of eight in the series written before the author’s death in 2006, was first published in Great Britain in 1972.  It is now reprinted for our enjoyment.  Unlike The Steam Pig, which focused on the horrors of apartheid, “Caterpillar” centers its attention on the repressive sexual attitudes of the South African regime of that time.

The case begins when a 12-year-old boy is found strangled and with multiple stab wounds, with the area around his genitals virtually destroyed.  Initially it is believed to be an act by a pedophile.  It was known that the boy was spying on someone.  As Lt. Kramer and his sidekick, Bantu Sgt. Zondi, investigate, a link develops to what is termed an accidental death of a visiting American teenager.

This novel is more akin to a traditional murder mystery, as the police procedural progresses, as opposed to the initial entry in the series, The Steam Pig.  A new twist to complement the by-play between Kramer and Zondi is the introduction of a young would-be detective, Pembroke, as a foil for the Boer detective.  McClure’s ability to offset grim
details with amusing interplay between the characters is truly remarkable, as is the smoothness with which he develops the plot, especially with the twist at the end.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

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Midnight Fugue
Reginald Hill
Harper, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-145197-3
Mass Market Paperback

Andy Dalziel (the “Fat Man”) is still recovering from the after-effects of injuries (and a coma) resulting from an explosion two novels ago.  But he ignores medical advice and returns to his duties as Detective Superintendent, albeit a little shakily.  Is it time to turn over the reins to his protégé, Pascoe?  Or does he still have that flair and intuition?

This novel takes place in a 24-hour period in which, at the beginning. Dalziel is contacted by a woman, Gina Wolfe, whose London policeman husband disappeared seven years ago.  About to be remarried after he has been declared legally dead, she receives a newspaper clipping with a picture in which her husband appears.  She wants proof one way or another that he is dead and seeks Andy’s help.

The plot broadens from this point in several ways, introducing all manner of characters from a couple of thugs to a possible future Prime Minister.  The interaction between Andy and his colleagues (not to mention the rest of the world) remains humorous and still tickles the reader’s funny bone.  Tight plotting, with twists and turns, keeps one turning pages to see what comes next. “Fugue” is on the same high plane of the other books in this series, and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

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Hangman
Faye Kellerman
William Morrow & Company, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-170256-3
Hardcover

As Lt. Peter Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus grow older (“the Loo” celebrates his 60th birthday in this latest entry in the series), their lives certainly don’t get simpler.  Peter agrees to attend a meeting between an old friend, Terry McLaughlin, and her psycho husband, Chris Donatti, from whom she has sort of run away, with their 14- year-old son, Gabe, after Chris had struck her “to give her some space.”  The meeting seems to go well and Peter returns home.

Several hours later, Gabe calls informing Peter that his mother is not in the hotel room and he has not heard from her. Did Chris kill her? Or has she secretly run away?  Peter reluctantly takes the boy home as a temporary measure and reports Terry as a missing person and begins to search for her.

Meanwhile a nurse at a local hospital is found hanging at a nearby construction site.  Soon another murder victim is found, who turns out to be a close friend of the nurse.  Are the crimes related?  Will this turn out to be one of the few serial killer cases in Peter’s career?

The two themes move forward with the new characters in the series, especially Chris and Gabe, adding some spice to the dialog.  While Rina plays a relatively minor role, she remains the interesting character she has always been, and the interplay between Hannah (the Deckers’ daughter) and Gabe is touching.  Once again, the author has provided an excellent look into police procedures to solve a crime.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.