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review 2015-07-28 06:35
A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark by Harry Connolly
A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark - Harry Connolly

I bought this because I loved the idea of an urban fantasy starring a 60+ year old pacifist. At the start of this book, the eccentric and rich Marley Jacobs is holding a fundraiser at her house. Aloysius, her sleazy nephew, stops by and tries to convince her to give him a love potion so he can win back Jenny, his ex-girlfriend and Marley's current assistant. Marley has always found Aloysius to be tiresome, and now she's finally had enough. She forces him to see himself for who he really is. It seems like a change for the better, except she never sees him alive again.

Although she didn't particularly like Aloysius, Marley still wants to find out who killed him and why.  For one thing, Jenny is being blamed for his murder, and Marley is convinced she didn't do it. For another, Marley is worried that her last words to Aloysius might have played a part in his death. With Albert, her nephew and Aloysius's half-brother, acting as her new assistant, she plans to figure out the truth and stop any more killings from happening in her city.

I'll start with the good. I'm really glad that a character like Marley exists. I can think of very few older female fantasy protagonists. Connolly only hinted at Marley's younger days, but I imagined her as being something like Buffy Summers, traditionally kick-butt and tough. Then things went really, really wrong, she was forced to rethink her entire way of life, and over the years she morphed into the Marley of this book. While her pacifism was sometimes frustrating, I admired her determination to never purposely hurt anyone. She didn't even bend this rule – there was no “by killing this one person, I can save thousands of lives” moment, even though there were certainly opportunities for it, and she wouldn't even let Albert kill or hurt anyone in her stead.

While Marley was nice, Marley and Albert together were even better. They had some fabulous dialogue. I loved watching Albert try to adjust to the idea that, even though he was an ex-soldier (his military career ended when his trigger finger was shot off), Marley honestly didn't want him to be her bodyguard or her muscle. She hired him primarily as her driver, her conversational companion, and her door opener, and that was it. The very first thing he had to learn, as Marley's assistant, was how to stand back, trust her, and let her do her thing. Although his fight-or-flight response was still in Afghanistan mode, he gradually got better at this.

Now for the bad. I hate to say this, but the story plodded a bit. The things that kept me reading were Marley and Albert's conversations and the occasional glimpses of how supernatural stuff worked in this world. I loved the part with the ghost, even though I wasn't fond of Marley's very broad definition of “ghost.” I also enjoyed the vampires, troll, and dragon (even though it was a little like something out of a Godzilla movie). The problem was that, after a while, I kept losing the thread of what Marley and Albert were trying to do. They'd visit one person, supernatural or otherwise, find out a little more about Aloysius's sleazy life, and then move on to the next person. There was no way to tell what was related to Aloysius's death and what wasn't, and Marley either played things close to her chest or didn't have much more of an idea about what she was doing than Albert did.

That leads me to Marley. I'm not sure what Connolly was trying to do with her. On the one hand, she clearly had tons of supernatural and magical knowledge, was acquainted with some amazing beings, and was so vastly wealthy that even her home burning down was more of an annoyance than anything. On the other hand, I was never sure whether her actions were prompted by her years of knowledge and experience, or whether she was just doing stuff because it felt right at the time. She'd do things like booby trap her own home or damage some random car, not because she had any evidence that her actions might be helpful, but because she just had a “feeling.” It got to the point where, in my mind, I read Marley's “feelings” as “authorial laziness,” and I hated them because I felt they robbed Marley of much of her potential awesomeness.

Then there were the other things that just didn't work. For example, there was the “moment” between Jenny and Albert that felt weirdly sudden (they'd literally just met, and Jenny was still twitchy over the possibility of accidentally running into Aloysius) and that never actually went anywhere. Then there was Scribe. Scribe was a terrible idea, and yet another pointless thing that could have been dropped from the story without hurting anything. I had the nagging suspicion that Scribe existed mostly to explain away any and all of the book's POV oddities.

The thing that really got me was the ending, in particular the last few sentences. It was like Connolly couldn't decide whether to end the book on a light note or a tragic one, so he decided to do both. I'm sure it was intended to be funny, but it just left me feeling angry. All I could think about was what would have to happen next. Either Marley would have to exist like that forever, or she'd have to wait for Albert to rescue her. Both options upset me, for different reasons.

I really, really liked certain aspects of this book, which was why it was so disappointing when others fell completely flat. I can still recommend this as being pleasantly outside the urban fantasy norm, but it could have been so much more amazing than it was. I'm still debating whether I want to try any of Connolly's other books.

Additional Comments:

I don't think there were more than a dozen typos, but they were all pretty distracting – usually missing words, or words that should have been taken out but weren't. In one instance, early on in the book, Marley was called “Marley Jacob” rather than “Marley Jacobs.” Also, I winced when Marley “plucked out a few locks” (200) of someone's hair. No. You can pluck a strand of hair, but you'll probably have to cut a lock of hair off, unless you plan on yanking out some of the person's scalp as well.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes and watch-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2014-03-13 23:29
Carla Kelly's "Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand"
Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand - Carla Kelly

 

Another superb Traditional Regency from Carla Kelly. The hero is to die for. The desperate trip to Gretna Green, crossing the Pennines into Scotland in the middle of winter, to evade the heroine's evil brother-in-law, is a true nail-biter. I would have preferred that the brother-in-law get more of a comeuppance for his threats to the heroine, but I guess the hero figured that the end result from the threats was so satisfying for him that he didn't need to create a permanent enemy in the neighbourhood.   

 

I think Grace Burrowes may have gotten a few ideas and techniques from this book, which was first published in 1994.  First - Burrowes' favorite word "scooted" appears in this book (just once, though), although I have never seen this word used in any Regency romance other than Grace Burrowes'. Second - Burrowes' technique of associating a distinct herbal scent with her main characters occurs in this book, with the hero often waxing poetical over the heroine's lavender scent. Third - Burrowes' technique of a theme drink and comfort food in pretty much every one of her books is used by Carla Kelly in this book, but this book predates Grace Burrowes' books by at least a decade. 

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review 2013-09-29 22:22
By the Howling by Olivia Stowe
By the Howling - Olivia Stowe

I bought this back when I was looking for non-skeevy f/f books. The description sounded promising, more focused on the mystery than on the main character jumping into bed with another woman. Now that I've finished it, I can say that the f/f aspects are pretty light. I think Charlotte has sex maybe once, but you can't even call it a sex scene, because it's completely skipped over.

When I first started reading this, I thought I was going to really like it. Charlotte was relatively new to the village, so I looked forward to seeing her inadvertently (or on purpose) stir up some trouble just by not knowing where all the eggshells were located. She was divorced and retired and, although she didn't really miss either her job or her husband, she worried that dementia might set in if she didn't fill her days with activities to keep her mind sharp. One of those activities was sailing. Another one of those activities was occasionally taking care of Sam, her neighbor's husky, because Susan, Sam's temporary caretaker, could barely be bothered to do anything for him. The sailing scenes were okay, but I loved the scenes with Charlotte and Sam. He was a sweetie.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of things about this novella that didn't work for me, annoyed me, or confused me.

One of the things that annoyed me was how long it took to find out exactly what Charlotte's job used to be. I understood why she kept it a secret from the villagers, but was it really necessary to keep readers in the dark too? Yes, it's mentioned in the book's description that she used to be an FBI investigator, but those who, like me, didn't bother to reread the description before starting the novella only found out exactly what her job was at the 57.7% mark. Prior to that, readers were left to assume what villagers like Rachel assumed, that she used to be a cop.

The 57.7% mark was also when a body was finally discovered. Before that, there was just a missing person, a mysterious woman who was maybe doing some kind of surveillance, and the possible theft of various prized items. I'm okay with the crime part of a mystery taking a while to get going, but only if the characters, their relationships, and/or the setting are interesting enough to make up for it. That didn't turn out to be the case, at least not for me. Yes, several of the characters had some serious history, but there needed to be more opportunities to see them interacting with all those relationship undercurrents at play.

It seemed like this story was mostly red herrings and potentially suspicious happenings, with a good chunk of the real evidence cropping up in the last 6%. I was left wondering whether Charlotte could really have figured out who the murderer was based on what she knew, because it hadn't seemed like she'd had much to go on. Her explanation at the end didn't really help, because a lot of the stuff she brought up had never previously been mentioned, at least not that I could remember.

The f/f aspects didn't work much better for me than the mystery did. Until the moment Charlotte decided “she wanted Brenda for more than just a casual friend” (76.3%, in chapter 8), there weren't many hints that Charlotte considered herself to be either a lesbian or bisexual. She wasn't upset about her divorce, but that wasn't necessarily an indicator of anything. She enjoyed Brenda's company, but that could have just been the joy of finally finding someone in the village who she could easily talk to. Her revelation that she wanted Brenda as a lover seemed...sudden. Or, at the very least, it seemed like it should have felt sudden for her.

I was still trying to wrap my brain around Charlotte accepting her attraction to Brenda so easily when the beginning of chapter 9 made it clear that things had gone from “we like each other's company” to “we're sleeping together.” And Charlotte was still unfazed. Heck, after her weight was brought up throughout most of the novella, I was convinced she'd at least fret about whether gorgeous, famous ex-actress Brenda was really interested. But no, the only blip in the development of their relationship was the possibility that Brenda was a murderer.

It's possible I could like later books/novellas in this series better. Part of me wants to give the series another shot and try Retired With Prejudice, and part of me is unwilling to pay $2.99 for something that's under 30,000 words and sounds a little too complicated for that kind of word count. Plus, there are the editing issues (see "Other Comments" below). I suppose I'll at least keep it in mind for my next e-book buying spree.

Other Comments:

I should also mention that there were some editing issues – typos, word choices that I'm fairly certain were incorrect, and one nasty instance of name confusion. The typos were fairly minor: things like “Their” being capitalized when it shouldn't have been, or an instance of “hove” that I'm guessing should have been “dove.” The word choice issues brought my reading to a halt as I tried to figure out why certain sentences seemed off. For example, after Charlotte asks Brenda to drive faster, there's this bit:

-----

“Brenda smiled, hunkered down in her seat, and muttered a 'You betcha' as her foot depressed on the gas pedal.” (90.3%, in Chapter 9)
-----

Shouldn't that have been “pressed”? There were at least a couple other instances where I debated a sentence's wording. The most confusing moment, however, was when a name was used that shouldn't have been. It would be a bit of a spoiler to include the names, so I'll call them Villager A, B, and C. Villager A got pregnant by B and gave birth to C. Brenda said:

-----

“'[C] wasn't married—and never did marry the father—both of which were the stuff that real scandals were made of in this part of the Eastern Shore at the time. Her father was mayor and ran the only insurance agency around, and they were supposed to be the standard setters. And yet [C] made no bones that she was going to go it alone and be a single mother.'” (52.8%, in Chapter 6)
-----

This passage made absolutely no sense as written, and it wasn't until later that I knew for sure that those two instances of Villager C should probably have been Villager A.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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