The Soulwood series is probably the most original Urban Fantasy series that I've come across.
It shares the same world as Jane Yellowrock and was introduced through a Jane Yellowrock short story but, over the course of the first three books, it has established a strong, independent identity.
Nell Ingrams, the main character in the books, is not human, at least not anymore. Fighting for her freedom from the polygamous church she was born into and from men who wanted to seize the land she inherited when she became a young widow woman, has caused her to draw upon her connection to Soulwood, her land, in ways that have made her less and less human.
She is a now a probationary Special Agent in the part of the FBI set up to deal with parahuman cases. The cases themselves are fascinating but the power of the books comes from Nell's development as a person, living in a world where she has to make hard choices that will define who she will become.
"Flame In The Dark" sees Nell and the other members of Unit 18, faced with a series of attacks that may be political or parahuman or both but which always include fires at the scene of the attacks and are committed by an attacker who scorches and kills the land he steps on.
Discovering what this is about and trying to bring the bad guys down provides an entertaining, action-packed mystery that is the source of about half the pleasure I got from this book. I didn't guess where the mystery was going but I did believe the outcome. This is the hallmark of a good mystery for me.
The rest of the pleasure I got from the book was watching Nell grow and change in unique and unpredictable ways while still remaining recognisable as the Nell I met in the first book. In this book, Nell confronts the fact that she is not human and works through what this means. She starts to build closer links to the people in Unit 18 and becomes more confident in her work. She also makes some decisions about the relationship that she will have with her family, especially her younger sister who is the same kind of non-human as Nell, and with the Church she left but cannot fully leave behind. As the book progresses, Nell's non-human nature becomes more apparent, yet her appeal as a person gets stronger.
I think Faith Hunter has struck gold with this series. I hope she gives us many more opportunities to follow Nell's path through life.
I recommend listening to the audiobook version of "A Flame In The Dark" which is skillfully narrated by Khristine Hvam.
"The Bette Davis Club" is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.
Margo Just, the main character, is a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart. She's been a fully paid-up member of the Bette Davis Club for many years (I'm not going to spoil things by telling you what that means but I'm sure most of you will have met a member or two) and can't find a way to move on.
A New Yorker from the age of nineteen, Margo attends her niece's wedding in her childhood home inMalibu more for the free accommodation, food and drink than out of any sense of family connection.
When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo's financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father's classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission from her half-sister bring the runaway bride home. Ony after she accepts the mission does she discover that the jilted groom will be her driver and that her sister is as concerned to retrieve some things the bride took with her as she is to have her daughter return.
What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition.
As a backdrop to all this, we learn Margo's backstory and how she came to join the Betty Davis Club. It's the backstory that adds emotional weight to what could have been just another light comedy. When we finally see Margo in her entirety, we meet a woman on the cusp of confronting who she is and what she's going to do with the rest of her life.
I'd expected the "The Bette Davis Club" to be a fast fun read. It met those expectations and then exceeded them by constantly surprising me and engaging me more and more deeply with Margo's story.
Sadly, there are no more books by Jane Lotter. She self-published "The Bette Davis Club" just before she died of cancer. She then wrote her own obituary. You can read it here.
It seems to me that Jane Lotter was an extraordinary woman who gifted us with one extraordinary book.
I picked "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" as part of a read-my-way-into-the-Christmas-spirit effort but this book is definitely not a cosy Christmas read. It was though, thoroughly entertaining, at least up until the denouement which was clumsily presented, incredibly contrived and more than a little disappointing.
The title of the book, which I understand was changed from "Murder At Christmas" is a little misleading. Poirot doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book and, for the most part, speaks only to advance the plot or to feed the reader wild and usually false theories about who the murder is.
Christmas plays an even smaller part in the book than Poirot does. It provides a reason for gathering a strife-torn family in a country house for a few days so that a suspect-rich locked-room murder can take place but blood flows before the festivities begin, so this could just have easily have been "Hercule Poirot's Long Weekend Family Murder", although that title probably wouldn't have sold as well. The only extended reference to Christmas is a fire-side speech in which Poirot explains why the "benign hypocrisy" of pretending, for many days over Christmas, to like people for whom we do not care and who we may even detest, but with whom we are forced to eat and drink and carry out rituals that feign fun, may build up a pressure to act more like ourselves that may seek to find its outlet in violence.
Although "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" is the detectives twentieth outing, this is first of the novels I've read. My expectations of Poirot were set by David Suchet in LWT's long-running TV series "Agatha Christie's Poirot". The TV series was very much centred on Poirot and his little grey cells. I was pleasantly surprised to find that "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" didn't follow this pattern until almost the end. Instead, the story starts by showing how each of the brothers invited to the family Christmas at which the murder will occur, interacts with his wife and reacts to the invitation itself. I enjoyed these vignettes, which mostly gave me strong or intriguing woman and weak or boring men. The time invested in the characters moved to book from a rather dry-locked room puzzle to a family struggle filled with suppressed anger and resentment and long-standing feuds.
We are also introduced, by way of a chance meeting on a train, to two foreigners who do not know that they will both be guests at the murder-plagued country house Christmas part. I was intrigued and horrified in equal parts by how Agatha Christie described and uses these foreigners. There is a Spanish woman, inevitably described as a dark beauty. Her mother was English and related to the family hosting the weekend and yet it is clear to everyone that this one is in no way English. There is a South African man who described himself as "British, of course" but who knows very well that this will never make him English.
The two foreigners are the jokers in the suspect deck, unpredictable, wild and exotic and obviously not to be trusted. The Spanish woman is described as if she comes from some semi-savage place of violent passions and inappropriate manners. The men treat her as if she were an exhibit in a zoo, something wild that might be dangerous but which they'd enjoy trying to tame. The South African man does a better job of passing for civilized but his energy and aggression and used to show how the very old man who heads this unhappy family might have been in his unscrupulous youth when he was making his fortune. Both foreigners are used to show London as dirty and overcrowded and the English as dull and repressed. I suspect Agatha Christie was using them and Poirot to take shots at a society that she found stifling.
Once the death occurs and Poirot gets involved, everything becomes more predictable, except that the police were more educated and confident than they ever where in the TV series and the process of trudging through the evidence is far more protracted than any TV audience would have patience with.
I was kept amused and engaged until the very end when the great reveal occurred. It took too long and, while technically possible, was so improbable as to be insulting.
Then the book fizzled out with a lot of happily ever after exchanges that seemed unlikely and inauthentic.
I listened to the audiobook version, which was enlivened by the narration of Hugh Fraser who played Hastings in the TV series and made a good fist of the whole thing. You can hear a sample of his work on the SoundCloud link below.
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This story is deeply disturbing and brutal, yet also moving and even hopeful. It is a terrific audio book, despite the difficult themes, and at times, feels like an evil voice in your head that you just can't shake. Not for the faint of heart - the book is graphic and explicit, painfully so almost throughout. But then you think, this is surely someone's reality, and you are shamed from turning it off.