Pub Day Repost: Madam Tulip and the Bones of Chance by David Ahern

Madam Tulip and the Bones of ChanceMadam Tulip and the Bones of Chance

by David Ahern
Series: Madam Tulip, #3Kindle Edition, 368 pg.
Malin Press, 2018
Read: March 5 – 6, 2018

Many people doubt psychic powers exist, but the doubters do not include actors. Everyone in showbusiness knows that as soon as one actor learns of a casting, actors of all ages, ethnicities, creeds and genders are instantly aware of every detail. Einstein claimed that faster-than-light communication is impossible. Einstein was not an actor.

But not even the actors that Derry, Bruce and Bella knew had an inkling of the dash of good fortune heading toward Derry and Bruce — they were given roles in a movie without the need to audition, if they could get themselves to Northern Scotland and Derry might have to give a reading or two. For readers new to this, Derry played the role of Madam Tulip on occasion — giving psychic readings at parties and the like. Derry was initially reluctant to take the role, but she needed the work — and Bruce only got his job if she took hers.

So they find themselves in Scotland — a land not necessarily ready for or welcoming toward people making a film. Which almost describes the director, too. He’s clearly nuts — and not in the genius filmmaker kind of way. Many of the other professionals on set did seem to know what they’re doing, which went a long way to keeping the production running. But mostly, the antics on the set made for good comedy. Derry is given a set of bones on set to add to her gypsy character’s fortune telling routine in the historical drama.

While practicing with the bones, Derry starts to have visions, we’ll get into that later, but it’s clear that she’s gotten herself into more than meets the eye (again).

The most striking and interesting people in the book aren’t on the film set — believe it or not. As the blurb on the back says,

A millionaire banker, a film producer with a mysterious past, a gun-loving wife, a PA with her eyes on Hollywood, a handsome and charming estate manager—each has a secret to share and a request for Madam Tulip.

As usual, Derry’s desire to help people and natural nosiness gets her involved in these people’s lives (okay, she might have less altruistic motives about the estate manager). And that’s before someone tries to kill her and/or one of her new friends. Once that happens, Derry can’t help but dive into finding out what’s going on. Madam Tulip may be able to guide the direction she goes, but it’s Derry’s on cleverness that will carry the day.

In Madam Tulip, her father seems to actually believe that she had some psychic ability, otherwise it seems like a lark, something she does for giggles. But in book 2, it seemed possible that she might actually have some abilities, but there wasn’t much in the novel that was more than a hint or suggestion that she did. But here? That hint, that suggestion is gone — she sees things when she rolls the bones, her Tarot readings do say a lot that’s true (and future) about the person she’s reading the cards for. I think I liked it better when the reader wasn’t sure if she had gifts or not, honestly — but only a little bit.

I’ve been a fan of this series since chapter two or three of the first book, so you’re not getting anything really objective here (not that you ever do). But this is the best that Ahern’s done yet — there’s plenty of good comedic writing (there are lines I tried to shoehorn into this, but couldn’t, that made me laugh out loud), a mystery you can’t really guess the solution to, a little peril, a dash of romance and some fun characters. That’s not even counting Derry and Bruce. Bones of Chance is a strong entry in the series that will please fans, but it’s also a decent jumping on point for new readers. Basically anyone who enjoys light mysteries with a touch of something extra should have fun with this book.

There are times that I fear my enthusiasm towards a book doesn’t come through, and I usually don’t know how to achieve that better — this is one such time. I found myself grinning frequently while reading this — I chuckled, I even laughed out loud. I had a few theories about the trouble that Derry was getting herself into, and failed with almost all of them (a sign of a good mystery/thriller, if you ask me). If you’re not picking up my enthusiasm, that’s on me, just trust me that it’s there.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author in exchange for my honest opinion..

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4 Stars

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Sir Blunder: A Bedtime Story for Big People by Walter Kerr

Sir Blunder: A Bedtime Story for Big PeopleSir Blunder: A Bedtime Story for Big People

by William Kerr

Kindle Edition, 268 pg.
2017
Read: April 9 – 10, 2018

Where to start . . . where to start . . .

Let’s start with all the disclaimers and warnings on this book — just because something says it’s a fairy tale, that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. I don’t know why people don’t know this. See also: animation, comic books, and Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Throw in Hans Christian Andersen’s writing and the original Grimm’s Tales, while we’re at it. But, I’ve gotta say, on the whole, this novel doesn’t need all the warnings. Anyone old enough for Suzanne Collins is quite old enough for this.

So, you’ve got your basics: a couple cursed by evil magic, doomed to appear as other than they are until the curse is broken; an evil dragon; a kind and wise princess; stupid and evil royalty (okay, that’s more Shrek than Cinderella); a poor, orphan destined for greatness; noble warriors; corrupt churchmen; wicked/incredibly selfish stepmothers, and so on. Throw in a strange sense of humor, some probably satiric elements, an author who is clearly trying very hard to be whimsical and amusing — maybe trying too hard — and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an amusing read.

Kerr clearly wants to be S. Morgenstern (or maybe William Goldman), and doesn’t quite make it. But he’s not the first to try, nor the first to fail. But he’s good enough to justify reading this, and many people would have a good time doing so.

That’s what I was going to say for the first 60% of the book. But at that point, the curse is broken (minor spoiler…but c’mon, it had to happen), people are happy, the kingdoms are prosperous . . . and I figured we had just a couple of chapters of epilogue and resolution. But, no. From there Kerr goes on to fill this with some sort of pseudo-Christian nonsense (very strange morality, no redemption). I honestly have no clue what he was trying to do in the last chapters — it was a mess.

Remember that scene in Tommy Boy where Tommy tells the waitress, Helen, “why I suck as a salesperson”? He goes on to stroke and pet a roll like a pet and then gets excited and destroys the roll? That’s pretty much what Kerr did here — he has a nice little book and then kills it, reducing it to mangled crumbs.

Save yourself some time and avoid this one. Or, read the first 60% and stop, adding a mental “…and they lived happily ever after.”

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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2 Stars

Vernon the Vegetarian Lion by John Hughson, Ali Smith

Vernon the Vegetarian LionVernon the Vegetarian Lion

by John Hughson, Ali Smith (Illustrator)

PDF, 32 pg.
Spiderwize, 2017
Read: March 13, 2018

I am thiiis close to spending too much time on this one. I shall try to refrain.

On the surface, this is a cute little story about a lion cub (Vernon) who suddenly decides to become a vegetarian and since he knows he won’t find vegetarian fare at home, takes off (after telling his parents what he’s up to) in search of animals that can help him pursue this idea. He tries this thing and that — none of which get him the nutrients he needs or even works for him. Finally, when he’s too week to go on, his dad shows up and brings him home, where Mom has come up with a vegetarian meal for him. There’s some fun stuff with the various animals he tries to mimic and whatnot and a heart-warming moment at the end.

But something about this doesn’t set right with me. See, lions aren’t vegetarians — it doesn’t work. This isn’t a case of Peter Hatcher’s mother putting his plate on the floor so that Fudge can pretend to be a dog for a few days. Or at least it doesn’t seem to be. Peter’s mom knows that this is a phase for Fudge to go through, and once it’s over, he’ll be back at a table like a human. Vernon’s mother doesn’t seem to be playing along until her figures out that he can’t eat that way (which is what I thought the book was going for initially), she seems to seriously be supporting him in his malnutrition. And that seems to send a strange message to kids.

Honestly, I know that most people reading the picture book aren’t going to think of it as much as I have, but … the rationale behind this book just bugged me. It didn’t seem like good parenting. And I’m uncomfortable with the message of a children’s book being “good parents are supportive even when you’re indulging in self-destructive behavior.”

Most of the artwork is pretty good — occasionally, it gets really good. There’s a picture of a hippopotamus that I cannot stop looking at. I’m not sure what it is about it, but it’s very arresting. Either way, it should keep little ones’ attentions.

If you’re looking for a cute story, this will fit the bill. And for 95% or so of the audience out there, that’s enough. This doesn’t quite work for me though, and I suspect I won’t be alone.

Disclaimer:I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, which he might regret now.

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3 Stars

Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

My Little Eye by Stephanie Marland

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland
Series: Starke & Bell, #1

eARC, 351 pg.
Trapeze Books, 2018

Read: March 9 – 12, 2018

They say I was dead for three thousand and six seconds. They say that when I woke I was different, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that my world became a different place once every one of those precious seconds had expired.

No matter how gripping the prologue might have been, when those’re the first words you get from a character’s POV, you sit up and pay attention.

The Lover is a serial killer just beginning to plague London, and a semi-distracted DI Dominic Bell with his team are making little progress in apprehending him (he’s trying his level best not to be distracted by the press and the brass won’t let him leave his last operation in the dust). Given that the Lover’s technique is improving as the time between kills is decreasing, the pressure is mounting for Bell and the police. One group dissatisfied with their achievements are the members of True Crime London — a group of True Crime aficionados from (duh) London. Some of them have decided to take matters into their own hands so they’ll investigate these crimes themselves — some for the thrill, some to show up the Police, some to draw attention to the fact that the Police are understaffed and underfunded. Clementine has her own reasons — she’s spent some time studying these people as part of her doctoral work in psychology; she hopes to get a better understanding of online communities through this group and she has a theory about “crowd-sourcing justice” she’d like to establish.

We meet both groups (through Dom’s POV and Catherine’s) as they begin to look into the third victim of The Lover. The race is on (even if only one group realizes there’s a race) to find and put a stop to The Lover. I wouldn’t mind more time getting to know the individuals in the respective teams as this goes along — we do get to know some of the people involved in the investigation a bit, but this book focuses on Dom, Clementine and their hunts — everyone else doesn’t matter as much. I could talk a little more about the context for Dom, Clementine and the hunt for the killer — but you don’t want to know more until you get into this book.

The killer? We learn exactly as much as we need to in order that we know that the right guy has been taken care. He is not the most interesting character in the novel — I guess he might be, but Marland didn’t give us enough detail. This is such a great change from serial killer novels that dwell on the obsessions/fetishes/compulsions/methods of the killer, that seem to relish the opportunity to revel in the depravity. Marland shows us enough to be disturbed and utterly sickened by him, to believe that he’s capable of the heinous acts he’s guilty of — and no more. I’m not saying everyone has to write a serial killer this way, but I love that approach.

The protagonists are far more interesting — possibly more damaged even — than the killer. They are wonderfully flawed characters and repeatedly — and I do mean repeatedly — do things that readers will not want them to — because it’s unwise, stupid, dangerous, unethical, immoral, or all of the above. And as much as I was saying “No, no, don’t do that,” I was relishing them do that because it meant great things for the book. At times it’s almost like Marland wants you to not like Dom or Clementine, maybe even actively dislike them. Set that aside, because you will like them, because they are the protagonists hunting for a serial killer; because despite themselves they are likeable characters; and because they’re so well written, with so many layers, and nuances that it’s impossible for Marland to fully explore them and you want to know more. Both are in the middle of professional and personal crises as the book opens — and all of those crises are going to get worse before we leave them (yeah, Dom’s professional life is in worse shape than Clementine’s and Clementine’s been in crisis since just before those 3,006 seconds, so they’re not exactly parallel).

Sometimes the police investigation and the True Crime London’s investigation dig up the same information at about the same time, but on the whole the two follow very different approaches — one more methodical, careful and predictable. The other is haphazard, reckless and (at times) criminal. But both get results, and for the reader, we get a full-orbed view of the investigation which is almost as engrossing as the protagonists carrying it out.

The book is able to say a lot about online communities, True Crime (and some of those who love it as a genre), public acts of grief, criminal investigations and the media — and even a little about memory. All while telling a great story.

While I enjoyed the whole thing, the last quarter of the book was full of surprises that kept me leaning forward in my chair and completely glued to my screen as the plot raced from shock to shock to reveal to [redacted]. There’s a reveal that took me utterly by surprise, but made sense when you stopped and thought about it. There’s another reveal at the end that seemed fitting but wasn’t what you expected — and it followed an event that I never would’ve predicted. Oh, and that last sentence? I can’t tell you how many times I swiped my Kindle screen trying to get what comes next, unwilling to believe that was it.

I was a fan (almost instantaneously) of Marland’s alter ego’s Lori Anderson and that series. My Little Eye has made me a fan of the author — Broadribb, Marland, whatever names she’s publishing under, it’s an instabuy. This book got its hooks into me straightaway and didn’t let go, I resented work and family as they distracted me (however good or pressing the reason) from Clementine and Dom’s quests. I can confidently say that I’ve not read a mystery novel like this one — and that’s not easy this many decades into my love of the genre. I have no idea how Marland’s going to follow this one up — there’s no way that book 2 is a repeat of My Little Eye, but beyond that? No clue what she’ll be able to do. I don’t care — I just want to read it soon.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Orion Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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4 1/2 Stars

Don’t Ever Look Behind Door 32 by B.C.R. Fegan, Lenny Wen

Don't Ever Look Behind Door 32Don’t Ever Look Behind Door 32

by B.C.R. Fegan, Lenny Wen (Illustrator)

Kindle Edition, 32 pg.
TaleBlade Press, 2018

Read: March 10, 2018

I was excited — yes, really — to get the email from TaleBlade asking if I’d like a copy of this book. Fegan/Wen’s previous book, Henry and the Hidden Treasure, was one of my favorite books of last year. Could they live up to that one? Thankfully, they could at least come close.

In these pages, Mr. Nicholas Noo takes two children on a tour of “the magical Hotel of Hoo” showing them all the wonderful things in store and repeatedly warning them, “Don’t Ever Look Behind Door 32.” He shows what’s behind every other door in between the warnings, most of which is wonderful, some of which is just . . . odd (which I prefer, really). Unlike Disney’s Beast, however, Noo does more than tell the children not to go somewhere, he ultimately tells them why they shouldn’t go there.

I can’t tell you what a pleasant change that is — even if this book is intended for kids — to get a book where a character just tells the others characters everything they need to know to react in a responsible manner. But this isn’t the place for that rant (as tempting as it is).

This book isn’t as good as last year’s Henry and the Hidden Treasure but it’s close — the last page or so of Henry was a sweet note, this ended with a reveal/punchline. Is it bad? No — not at all, it’s just not as good in my eyes. That said, a punchline ending isn’t going to satisfy even a 3-4 year old on the 32nd read through (at least not on its own), but Fegan and Wen don’t rely on that — the book is full of jokes, clever lines, visual wonder, and lots of things to pay attention to along the way.

Sure, you want the book to be appealing to kids, but the real key to success for a kid’s book is appealing to parents/grandparents/caregivers. They’re the ones who have to read, reread, rereread, and rereread again these things. Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boyton enjoy long-lived success because adults enjoy reading them. I think I judge books like this on this standard, but I rarely do it self-consciously. This is one of those books that adults can have fun with even on the fourth “just one more time” of the night. Which has nothing to do with the big reveal at the end, but the trip you take along the way.

Wen’s art is just delightful. Really — the colors are vibrant, the characters look great, there’s something extra to grab your eye on every page. (which is also great for adult readers)

I’d say something neat about the typeface — it’s part of the look of the book, it’s fair game. But I say anything beyond “even the typeface is great looking” I’ll show I have no idea what I’m talking about, so that’s all I’m going to say there.

I can honestly say that I never envisioned having this much to say about a 32 page book, but once I got started, I couldn’t really stop. I really dug this book, you will, too — especially if you have kids to read it to.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinions about this book.

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4 Stars

Madam Tulip and the Bones of Chance by David Ahern

Madam Tulip and the Bones of ChanceMadam Tulip and the Bones of Chance

by David Ahern
Series: Madam Tulip, #3

Kindle Edition, 368 pg.
Malin Press, 2018

Read: March 5 – 6, 2018

Many people doubt psychic powers exist, but the doubters do not include actors. Everyone in showbusiness knows that as soon as one actor learns of a casting, actors of all ages, ethnicities, creeds and genders are instantly aware of every detail. Einstein claimed that faster-than-light communication is impossible. Einstein was not an actor.

But not even the actors that Derry, Bruce and Bella knew had an inkling of the dash of good fortune heading toward Derry and Bruce — they were given roles in a movie without the need to audition, if they could get themselves to Northern Scotland and Derry might have to give a reading or two. For readers new to this, Derry played the role of Madam Tulip on occasion — giving psychic readings at parties and the like. Derry was initially reluctant to take the role, but she needed the work — and Bruce only got his job if she took hers.

So they find themselves in Scotland — a land not necessarily ready for or welcoming toward people making a film. Which almost describes the director, too. He’s clearly nuts — and not in the genius filmmaker kind of way. Many of the other professionals on set did seem to know what they’re doing, which went a long way to keeping the production running. But mostly, the antics on the set made for good comedy. Derry is given a set of bones on set to add to her gypsy character’s fortune telling routine in the historical drama.

While practicing with the bones, Derry starts to have visions, we’ll get into that later, but it’s clear that she’s gotten herself into more than meets the eye (again).

The most striking and interesting people in the book aren’t on the film set — believe it or not. As the blurb on the back says,

A millionaire banker, a film producer with a mysterious past, a gun-loving wife, a PA with her eyes on Hollywood, a handsome and charming estate manager—each has a secret to share and a request for Madam Tulip.

As usual, Derry’s desire to help people and natural nosiness gets her involved in these people’s lives (okay, she might have less altruistic motives about the estate manager). And that’s before someone tries to kill her and/or one of her new friends. Once that happens, Derry can’t help but dive into finding out what’s going on. Madam Tulip may be able to guide the direction she goes, but it’s Derry’s on cleverness that will carry the day.

In Madam Tulip, her father seems to actually believe that she had some psychic ability, otherwise it seems like a lark, something she does for giggles. But in book 2, it seemed possible that she might actually have some abilities, but there wasn’t much in the novel that was more than a hint or suggestion that she did. But here? That hint, that suggestion is gone — she sees things when she rolls the bones, her Tarot readings do say a lot that’s true (and future) about the person she’s reading the cards for. I think I liked it better when the reader wasn’t sure if she had gifts or not, honestly — but only a little bit.

I’ve been a fan of this series since chapter two or three of the first book, so you’re not getting anything really objective here (not that you ever do). But this is the best that Ahern’s done yet — there’s plenty of good comedic writing (there are lines I tried to shoehorn into this, but couldn’t, that made me laugh out loud), a mystery you can’t really guess the solution to, a little peril, a dash of romance and some fun characters. That’s not even counting Derry and Bruce. Bones of Chance is a strong entry in the series that will please fans, but it’s also a decent jumping on point for new readers. Basically anyone who enjoys light mysteries with a touch of something extra should have fun with this book.

There are times that I fear my enthusiasm towards a book doesn’t come through, and I usually don’t know how to achieve that better — this is one such time. I found myself grinning frequently while reading this — I chuckled, I even laughed out loud. I had a few theories about the trouble that Derry was getting herself into, and failed with almost all of them (a sign of a good mystery/thriller, if you ask me). If you’re not picking up my enthusiasm, that’s on me, just trust me that it’s there.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author in exchange for my honest opinion..

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4 Stars