Murder in the Dark by Betsy Reavley: This look at murder’s aftermath feels as authentic as a True Crime book

Murder in the DarkMurder in the Dark

by Betsy Reavley

eARC, 245 pg.
Bloodhound Books, 2018

Read: December 10, 2018


One fateful day, Tilly, a veterinary student in Cambridge goes to the bookshop she works at to open for the day. Inside, she finds the owner of the shop, her boss, hanging and clearly dead. She calls the police, who (unlike Tilly) realize that this was not suicide and begin their investigation right away.

While the investigation goes on, we spend a lot more time with Tilly and her coworkers as well as the family of Dennis Wade than you do in most Crime Fiction. Tilly is haunted (practically literally) by what she found. Her other coworkers are focused on trying to act appropriately in this situation, or worried about their jobs. Wade’s widow, her sister, and the Wade’s son all react in very different ways. His poor widow’s life is shattered, her pain and lost-ness is palpable — just great work on Beavley’s part, although watching what Tilly goes through may be more devastating.

Meanwhile, DCI Barrett, DI Palmer and their team start their procedure — knowing full well they need to close the case early for the good of the city, the Wade family — and because no one wants to spend Christmas (which is just around the corner) finding out why a body was left hanging. When other bodies start to be discovered, the pressure builds (internally and externally) and yet the procedure has to continue. Even when the procedure involves things like thoroughly vetting Wade’s son (with a criminal record) and spending a good deal of time pursuing other dead ends.

Beavley’s work showing the way the police have to tick off every box, have to turn over stone — even when they are virtually certain that no answers will be found by doing so — just to move on to another stone. There’s no maverick cop saving the day here. No detective relying on instinct. Just dedicated professionals doing their jobs the way they’re supposed to do them to get the result they need. It’s really kind of striking that in the ocean of “police procedurals” out there, just how few actually rely on the procedure.

When the answers come — they come from going through all the steps and no one is more surprised than the detectives who uncover it. It feels as authentic as you could want. The depravity uncovered by these detectives is the kind that makes you glad this is fiction, so you can pretend that such things only happen in books. And you will keep turning the pages until you get to the bottom of everything.

You get a much better sense of Tilly, a couple of coworkers, and the Wade family than you do the detectives investigating the case — which isn’t to say they’re strangers to the reader. But by and large, these are primarily people doing a job – with the emphases on the job, not the person.

I’d have appreciated more time with the family and friends of some of the later victims — just to see Reavley get to show off a little. We get a little taste with the second victim’s family — just not as much. But their reactions are so different from Wade’s family and friends, it’d be great to get more time seeing that.

One tangent — I’m counting on readers to comment on this — there’s a golf club mentioned a couple of times in the book, “The Gog Magog Golf Club” to be specific. Now, when I read that name I think of the figures and places mentioned in Ezekiel and Revelation. Neither of which is suggestive of a stroll along the greenways or putting around. Is this the kind of names used in England? In the US, courses are named after hills, valleys — that kind of thing. Not names steeped in apocalyptic visions. It’s a minor point, but it really threw me.

This is (I believe) the second book to feature DCI Barrett and DI Palmer and their team — I’m curious about how they work together both before this case (also book related) and in the future. But this works well as a stand-alone, too. You don’t have to sign up for the long haul to get anything from this. A solid mystery, one of the best procedurals I’ve read in ages, and a depiction of the aftermath of violent crime that you won’t easily forget. A Murder in the Dark will stick with you.

—–

3 Stars


My thanks to Bloodhound Books for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided. The opinions expressed are all mine, however.

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Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi: A Winsome Tale of a Rookie Teacher

(WordPress is doing that thing again where it messes up the html in my post header. I think I’ve fixed it, but if the beginning of the post looks ugly, sorry, I’m doing my best)

Mr. Pizza
Mr. Pizza

by J. F. Pandolfi


ePUB, 298 pg.
L&A Publications, 2018

Read: December 4 – 5, 2018

On the verge of graduating from college, Tony Piza (long “I”, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes), decides he’s not ready to head to law school and would like to take a year off. Inspired by a suggestion from his roommate, he applies to teach at a Roman Catholic school near his home. He figures that it’ll be pretty easy — spout some facts and figures from the text-book, assign some homework, do a little grading, catch up on his reading. All while living rent-free with his parents and sister. Despite never having taken an education class, nor showing any previous interest in education, and some iffy interview questions, he’s hired.

Early on, he performs his duties just as he planned — and it’s as successful as you imagine. But before long, he starts to see his students as individuals, not some faceless mass. It’s just a few steps from there to caring about their education and trying to do something about it. Tony also makes some friends with fellow teachers — two other lay teachers (including the other male staff member), and one nun. They start to rub off on him — and even inspire him.

But that doesn’t mean he turns into Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr or George Feeny, he’s more like a version of Gabe Kotter or Charlie Moore. Unconventional, off-kilter, and comical — yet challenging. Both his lectures and his assignments bring out the strengths and weaknesses his students (and their parents) were unaware they possessed. They also get Tony in trouble with parents, school administrators and school board members.

Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, watching Tony’s development from someone who sees teaching as a vacation from his real life to someone truly invested in it. I don’t want to say that it’s a smooth transition or that he flips the switch and becomes the World’s Greatest 6th Grade Teacher ™. That would make for a very dull novel.

Pandolfi writes in a very smooth, assured style. There’s not a lot of artistic flourishes — that’s not a critique, just an observation. It is charming, frequently amusing, and pretty earnest. I was a little afraid after reading the description that this would be a satire that tried too hard, one of those books where you can see the writer trying to be funny (which almost never works) — but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Tony seemed to try too hard, but not Pandolfi — a character doing that is annoying, but it’s a character trait; a writer doing that is frequently a a deal breaker.

Tony’s antics and judgement are a mixed bag, as I mentioned. Early on, some of his jokes/behavior didn’t seem like fun, they seemed capricious and even mean — but so did M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (the book and movie versions, anyway). From the get-go the 1973 setting and sensibility put me in that frame of mind, so that’s where my mind went. And sure, part of the book is to show his growth from that, but it’s pretty off-putting. Similarly, I had trouble swallowing how tone-deaf he was when it came to jokes about Roman Catholics (even after being warned), yet he was reflexively sensitive to other people/problems (frequently in a way that seemed at least somewhat anachronistic).

Ultimately, I was able to get past that — and it’s possible that without me putting something about that in my notes, I’d have forgotten to mention it. Because of his growth, by that last third or so of the book, you see almost no signs of this (except when his past comes back to haunt him). So, I guess I’m saying, if you’re put off by some of his early behavior, give him a chance.

His sister, Patty, has Down’s Syndrome. I really appreciated the way that Pandolfi treated her. She’s simply a character — there’s no After-School Special moment with her, she’s not an object of pity — she’s simply Tony’s little sister. There are funny moments with her, some sweet moments with her — just like there are with Tony’s mother and father.

Tony’s students, fittingly, come close to stealing the novel from Tony. As is the case with the Bad News Bears, the Sweathogs, Fillmore High’s IHP class, etc., you have to want to see the kids do well to care about their teacher. They’re a diverse group, each having some distinctive characteristics and/or problems. They come to believe in their “Mr. Pizza” long before the staff, or even Tony — and stay his biggest supporters through the ups and downs that ensue. If you don’t like at least most of the students, there’s something wrong with you and you should seek professional help. Or just re-read the book, because you probably missed something.

The rest of the cast of characters are well-drawn and believable. There are a few that I’m glad we didn’t get much time with (Tony’s extended family, for example). His friends, fellow teachers and principal are strong characters, a couple of them are better developed. But that’s simply due to time spent with them. Pandolfi has a gift for good characters, which is half the battle in a novel.

Mr. Pizza is a charming tale of a young man maturing at a turning point in his life. There’s some good laughs, some uncomfortable moments, and some earnest emotional beats. The book is a pleasure to read and it — and it’s protagonist — will win you over and get you rooting for them both.

Disclaimer: I received this book from RABT Book Tours in exchange for this post and my participation in the book tour.

—–

3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title.

RABT Book Tours & PR

The Summer Holidays Survival Guide by Jon Rance: Heart-warming and Funny Bone-Tickling

The Summer Holidays Survival GuideThe Summer Holidays Survival Guide

by Jon Rance

Kindle Edition, 262 pg.
2018

Read: November 14 – 15, 2018

‘Oh, Dad, how little you know,’ said Liv, her head returning to her phone.

How little I know. I have a feeling this one cold, hard sentence, uttered from my twelve-year-old daughter’s lips, might sum up my life.

Ben Robinson is an art teacher, in his mid-40s, and is trying to figure out how he’ll survive the upcoming summer holidays — 6 weeks with his three kids, and a marriage who’s spark is gone out (possibly for good). Oh yeah, and an aging father with dementia moving in with them, rather than a nursing home. Meanwhile, he’s trying to prepare for a half-marathon, which is about a whole marathon more than he’s ready for.

We get a day by day (or close to it) account of how this goes for Ben. The short version is: not very well. Particularly in the beginning. Ben meddles in his fifteen year old son’s love life (with some really bad sex tips — all of which I’m considering passing on to my kids), cannot understand his twelve-year-old daughter’s social media life (and nascent pubescence), and derails his eight year old son’s summer plans without trying. Things go downhill from there, really.

His dad is having trouble remembering that he doesn’t live in the same home, or that his wife has been dead for a few years — this is a source of strain for both Ben and his father — and the relationship becomes strained. Ben is having trouble seeing his father this way, and his father is having trouble being this way. Both are trying their best, but this

Speaking of a strained relationship, the number of things wrong with his marriage keeps growing, and every thing that Ben tries to do to fix it just makes things worse. He and his wife aren’t communicating well — one of those problems that keeps feeding itself and growing worse.

Throw in an accidental participation in an anti-Brexit demonstration, a road rage incident leading to social media notoriety for one member of the family, teen romance problems, summer-altering injuries, and well — clearly, someone needs to write a survival guide.

As Ben and his family try to get through their struggles intact — and maybe even better than that — there’s plenty of fodder for humor. There’s a lot of heartwarming material, some real laughs and more than a few chuckles. There’s some really effective writing and characterization.

However, there’s also Rance’s need to go for the big laugh. And here, he basically turns Ben into Basil Fawlty — with all the wild schemes, failing schemes, shouting, misunderstandings and slapstick involved. I don’t think any of these scenes or moments worked for me. When he’s going for subtle laughs, or those that grow from character, I really enjoyed it. When the subject matter is serious (or at least non-comedic), Rance is really strong. It’s when he’s obviously trying that he falters.

‘Marriage,’ said Dad. ‘There’s always ups and downs. You just keep riding it, son. It’s like a rollercoaster. You can’t get off, so you just hold on, and do your best to enjoy it.’

‘I’m holding on for dear life, but life is harder than it was, Dad. The world has changed. The rollercoasters are bigger and scarier now. The drops are bigger, the hills higher.’

‘Oh tosh. The world might change, but people don’t. Love is still love, clear and simple. Don’t blame the world for your problems, son. Hold on tighter. Love stronger.’

That’s one of the more earnest moments — and there are plenty of them in the latter part of the novel, all set up well in the early part — and it shows the heart of the book — and there’s plenty of heart. Rance won me over, and got me to put more of his books on my list because of these kind of moments, and the genuine laughs I got from the smaller moments, I’ve got more of his stuff on the TBR.

It’s a nice, pleasant book that’ll tickle your funny bone and warm your heart.

—–

3 Stars

Small Town Nightmare by Anna Willett: A Creepy and Fast Adventure

 Small Town NightmareSmall Town Nightmare

by Anna Willett

Kindle Edition, 227 pg.
The Book Folks, 2018

Read: November 22, 2018

           She wondered how much she should reveal. Her history was painful, and rehashing it for a stranger wouldn’t really help.

“It’s complicated, but I know he wouldn’t not show.”“Not unless something stopped him?” Damon asked, finishing her thought.

“Something or someone.” As she spoke, they rounded a bend and the road tapered downwards. In the distance she could see a cluster of buildings dotted with patches of open fields and circled by forests. Night Town. The sight of it sent a ripple of gooseflesh running up her arms.

“You think he’s down there somewhere?” Damon had turned in his seat and was studying her as if searching her reaction.

“It’s the last place he mentioned before disappearing.” She gripped the wheel tighter. “If he’s there, I intend to find him.”

When your younger brother, the one you spent a few years raising yourself after your parents’ death, goes missing — you throw caution to the wind to go find him. Especially if you’re a gutsy crime reporter like Lucy. She heads of into a part of the country she’s not familiar with, into a town she’d never heard of, to find out what happened to her brother in the week since she’d heard from him last. Along the way, she comes across a helpful stranger — a drifter of sorts, like her brother — who is willing to lend a hand to the search. Lucy doesn’t care (much) why he’s willing to help, she’s just glad someone is taking her seriously.

When she gets to Night Town (such a friendly, welcoming name, isn’t it?), she’s met with general apathy toward her plight — and maybe a trace of antagonism. It’s tough to say why people are so resistant to helping her — maybe because she’s a stranger, maybe they don’t like drifters, Lucy could come up with a dozen reasons, but that wouldn’t change things. None of the local residents seem inclined to help. It’s a good thing she’s found Damon. One of the men at the local police station seems indifferent (at best) to her problem, but the Senior Sergeant is eager to take a report and do what he can to find her brother.

Now, as is the norm for small fictional towns that outsiders find trouble in, there’s one family that owns about half the town, and employs the other half. Samuel Nightmesser is the only living representative of that family at the moment, so Lucy and Damon look into him (lacking any other ideas, hoping they’ll come to them), while Senior Sergent Day investigates in a more official capacity. We don’t see much of the official investigation, but it’s reassuring to know that not everyone in town is necessarily in Nightmesser’s pocket.

It soon becomes evident that there’s more afoot than a missing drifter, and that someone in town is prepared and willing to take steps to dissuade Lucy from turning over any more rocks to see what’s underneath. The reader knows a bit more than Lucy, and learns pretty quickly that there’s more to some of the people in her life than meets the eye. From there, it’s just a matter of Lucy and her associates putting the pieces together, uncovering all that’s afoot and trying to survive — and maybe help her brother to survive, too.

It didn’t take me long to write in my notes that “this is going to get creepy soon.” It did. I also noted “this is going to have an ugly end.” It did, and not necessarily in the way I expected. I also guessed right about a couple of identities. I think most readers will guess these things around the same point I did. Doing this doesn’t make any of the reveals or the novel less effective. If anything, it helped build the tension, because you were waiting for particular shoes to fall. I should also add, that there were at least three reveals and twists that I didn’t see coming, and one of them took me completely by surprise.

The morbid and creepifying elements of this book are really well done — I’d have liked to seen a bit more of them, honestly (and I don’t typically need a lot of that — but it would’ve helped, I think). Willet has a gift for using that kind of thing to reveal character, not just to advance the plot. I should probably note there’s at least one sentence toward the end of the novel that you should probably not be eating anything while you read. Just a friendly tip — set aside your snacks during the last 20 percent of the book.

The action is fast, the book grabs your attention and keeps it throughout — there’s not a lull in the action and there’s nothing dull within a mile of the text. It’s a quick read (perhaps, too quick) and one that’ll keep you entertained.

I want to stress that I enjoyed Small Town Nightmare, and my guess is that I’m not alone in this. However, it felt rushed. It felt undercooked. If things — details, tension, mystery, relationships, etc. — had been given a little more time to develop and grow; if threads hadn’t been left dangling (or had been cut entirely); if motivations were clearer; I can easily see myself excited about recommending it. But, I can’t do that — I can recommend it, and I do think most of my readers will like it. I’m just not over the moon about it.

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided, which did not influence my opinion, merely gave me something upon which to opine.

—–

3 Stars

Kitties Are Not Good To Eat by Cassandra Gelvin: and other useful and cute advice on feline care for the younger set.

Kitties Are Not Good To EatKitties Are Not Good To Eat

by Cassandra Gelvin
Kindle Edition, 14 pg.
2018
Read: November 17, 2018

This is just adorable. That’s really all I have to say.

This is a board book — I’d honestly forgotten those existed — so dial those expectation in to the correct channel. This is a collection of cute cat pictures (you know, the things the Internet was full of before we entered the era of heightened political discourse we’re now in) that are sure to delight little kids. Accompanying these pictures are handy rhyming tips like, “Kitties were not made to fly / And they do not want to try.”

Maybe not advice you need, but for a 2 year-old this could be life changing stuff — life extending, even.

The photos are fun, the text is, too. I can’t imagine that the target audience of a board book (or their electronic equivalent) wouldn’t love to hear this read to them a few times a day. Potentially more importantly, this won’t become really annoying to the reader all that quickly (it will eventually, but what doesn’t?)

A cute book that will entertain and/or not annoy — that’s pretty much all you can hope for with a board book. Give this a shot.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest take.

—–

3 Stars

Degrading Orbits by Bradley Horner: What comes next for the Star-Crossed Axel and Helen

Degrading OrbitsDegrading Orbits

by Bradley Horner
Series: Darkside Earther, #2

Kindle Edition, 225 pg.
2018
Read: November 12 – 13, 2018

So, in each of the three books by Horner that I’ve read, he throws his readers deep into a technologically-enhanced future that requires a very specialized vocabulary. The books are chock full of what I’ll be calling SF hooptedoodle, which is cool — it can be intimidating at times, it can be overwhelming at times, but it suits his fiction well. Now, in Darkside Earther (this book’s predecessor), Horner told a sweet teen love story surrounded by SF hooptedoodle. Degrading Orbits, on the other hand, frequently feels like a swamp of SF hooptedoodle with a little bit of a human story here and there.

This is all about the fallout from the climatic events from Darkside Earther, how Axel’s parents are trying to save him, the Ring, and their careers (not necessarily in that order). They do this by putting Axel under the care of a security team to protect, heal and train him into being what his parents need him to be.

The biggest part of this protection and training takes the form of cutting off all communication with Helen and the rest of his friends and former life. Axel obviously doesn’t want this, but is unable to do anything else.

Thankfully, Helen, his friends and the large gaming community they’re part of are busy trying to hack into his brain — among other things. We don’t get to see most of what they’re up to, but we do get to hear summaries of it in the brief moments that Axel and Helen get to spend communicating. And it sounds very promising.

My biggest problem with this book is that Helen and Axel have practically zero agency — what they do has almost no impact at all on the events of this novel. And the events of the novel aren’t affected all that much (with one exception) by anything Axel does. Now, it’s pretty clear that what they did do in this novel will have huge impact on what’s to come. But here it was less useful than using a piece of crabgrass to pick a deadbolt. I know that’s how things have to go sometimes, but it’s more than frustrating in a novel.

I liked these characters going in and was looking forward to seeing how they recovered from the previous book. So I was a little disappointed in this one, but I do have every confidence that this was necessary to set up a great finale. I’m looking forward to being proven right. In the meantime, I had enough fun watching Axel get put through his paces and Helen trying to save the day. I even enjoyed trying to suss out what was going on with the SF hooptedoodle.

In the end, while this didn’t work for me as much as I wanted it to, I still enjoyed it and am looking forward to seeing how Horner wraps up this trilogy — I’m sure that this book set up things for that conclusion in such a way that the things that I wasn’t crazy about in Degrading Orbits won’t be as prominent in it. It’s a good book, even with my quibbles — but it could’ve been a little better.

—–

3 Stars

Dry Hard by Nick Spalding: Who needs to drink when you can have this much fun reading?

Dry HardDry Hard

by Nick Spalding

eARC, 293 pg.
Amazon Publishing UK, 2019
Read: November 19, 2018

Kate Temple’s in PR, Scott Temple’s a marketing director for a distillery. Both of them rely on alcohol to get through their days (and nights). They used to have each other to rely on and curb their use, but as they’ve become more successful, they have to do more things away from each other and they really don’t have anyone to watch out for them. Also, because they spend less time with each other, both have a hole they need to fill throughout their days — which usually involves more drinking.

Things are getting bad enough that they both endanger their jobs (not to mention the property and safety of others) thanks to drunken escapades. But this doesn’t give either of them much pause — if anything it drives them to the bottle even more. Their teenaged daughter, Holly, can’t understand why these two can’t see how bad their drinking is, how much it’s hurting their marriage, how much it’s affecting her life. So, at Christmas, she decides to secretly film them at their drunken worst (which starts pretty early in the evening) and then she shows it to them, hoping this video intervention will awaken them to their problem.

It doesn’t work — her parents defend their drinking, downplay the mortifying things they do on video and generally blow her off. So in a fit of adolescent pique, she uploads the video to YouTube so her friends can see it. But the video catches the attention of a couple of popular YouTube celebrities and next thing they know, Kate and Scott are a viral sensation.

This very public shaming convinces them that they need to make some changes, and decide to cut out drinking totally. Holly tries to get them public support by uploading videos chronicling their efforts to live dry for a year, attaching the hashtag #DryHard. Things do not go well — well, maybe well, but not smoothly.

Now, here’s where Spalding distinguishes himself from almost every other writer on the planet — he makes all of that hilarious. Yes, Holly’s going through a lot because of her parents, but even in the way that Spalding describes it, her hardships are funny. At the 14% mark, I wrote in my notes “I have no idea if he can tell a story, but Spalding can make me laugh!”

I can thankfully report, he can tell a story — and still makes me laugh. The comedy comes from the situations, from the slapstick-y way his characters navigate the situations, and just the way he narrates (typically through the protagonists’ voices). It’s not just one thing that he does well — he can bring the laughs through multiple channels. Yes, the couple are careening toward rock bottom, but you laugh about it; yes, they’re dealing with very serious life and death issues — but Spalding makes you find the humor in the situations; they have monumental struggles that don’t go away just because they sober up, but you’ll ber chuckling and chortling while watching them flounder.

Oh, also, this has nothing to do with the plot, but Spalding’s description of Gin Fawkes — a flavored gin using orange peel and cinnamon produced by Scott’s distillery — is enough to make me consider becoming a teetotaler. Fantastic stuff. Funny and horrifying in equal measures.

This is the story of a family in crisis and the great lengths they go to to preserve that family. That right there sells me on the book — everyone wants the same thing — Kate and Scott’s marriage to recover. There’s not one person in the family thinking of pulling away, there’s not one more committed than the rest — both spouses are flawed and fallible, even Holly makes mistakes and loses her way, however briefly. No one’s blameless, no one’s to blame, Scott and Kate have got themselves to this point together, and together they’ll make it out. Too many books like this will take the “side” of one spouse — one is committed, one is faithful, one is stupid and blind to their own faults and one is the bigger/wiser person, etc., etc. Spalding doesn’t do that — he presents the Temples as mutually dysfunctional, mutually aspirational, and human.

Unlike a lot of similar authors, if Spalding had the opportunity for an honest, heartfelt emotional scene or a series of laughs — he’d pick the laughs 99 times out of 100. Thankfully, if he could go for a fairly honest and quite heartfelt scene with laughs, he’d go for that too. If he’d gone for fewer laughs and more of the honest and heartfelt moments, he might have a more complex, realistic, and substantive novel. Something more akin to Jonathan Tropper or Nick Hornby at their best. Instead, Spalding produced an entertaining, funny and frequently hilarious novel. The substance is there — but it’s hidden and easy to miss between the chuckles.

If you take the time to look for the substance/depth — you’ll find it and appreciate its presence. If you don’t and just laugh, you’ll be fine and have a good time — either way, you win.

This was my first Nick Spalding book — it will not be my last. Fast and funny — I had a blast reading this and laughed out loud more than I can remember doing in a long time. Read this. You’ll enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Amazon Publishing UK via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars