Friday, June 30, 2017

The Things That Make Us Who We Are

Typically I respond to any hint of a book being a “cozy” (or “cosy”, if you prefer the British spelling) mystery in much the same way I approach certain other things which I hold in disregard, at best (or abject fear and/or great distaste, at worst)—Spiders. Liver (as a “food”, not a necessary part of my body). Rats (as in, not the cute-&-domesticated variety). Visits to the dentist.—I back away, shaking my head and wrinkling my nose from a safe distance. 

You see, anything that smacks of being remotely twee—which is how I tend to view that subset of the mystery genre—holds little to no interest for me. (If, of course, so-called cozies are your bag, that’s totally cool.)

It was definitely, then, with some trepidation—and a really hesitant trigger finger (hovering above the “purchase now” button on Amazon)—that I deigned to purchase what was described as a (modern) cozy, John Bowen’s Death Stalks Kettle Street. (Point of fact, though, the description—and the recommendation I’d read somewhere—sounded really good.) 


Greg Unsworth is a pretty great guy. Smart, funny, considerate, responsible, good-looking, healthy, fit—seems like just the sort of chap who would lead at least a semi-charmed life, you know? But there’s a catch: Greg suffers from a serious case of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which has basically condemned him to living a very small life. He can’t walk on cracks, lines, etc. He can’t cross streets (without first performing what usually turns out to be numerous countdowns in his head from 100, before his foot can even leave the curb). He wakes up at the crack of dawn and cleans his small, already-meticulous flat. His mug handles all have to face precisely the same direction in the cupboard. He has to close his front door several times upon entering or leaving to make sure it’s actually, really, truly closed. 

Shorter? This lovely man is not quite—but is very nearly—house-bound.

One day, however, something happens to shake up his quiet little neighborhood on Kettle Street: he learns that a neighbor—an older man, so not a huge surprise—has died a rather unpleasant death. 

Life goes on, as it tends to do, until a few days later, when Greg sees a young woman frantically yelling at the front door of another one of his neighbors—an elderly woman, with a fondness for whisky—and, after being co-opted by the agitated girl, they discover the body of that nice old lady, apparently the victim of a very bad fall. 

Another sad thing, but surely just fate, right? Both of the dearly-departed were in their golden years, and all. 

But, when yet another neighbor—one not so up-in-the-years, this time—winds up dead,  Greg can only conclude there’s more at work than a series of unfortunate coincidences. 

The highly-anxious Greg, along with his new friend, the beautiful Beth (a librarian who lives and works just a few blocks away, who’d been checking up on one of the library’s patrons--the tippling widow--on the day they met), take their story to the police… where, naturally, they’re met with skepticism and disbelief. (“A serial killer on Kettle Street? Knocking people off randomly? Pish-posh!”) All of this leaves, of course, the intrepid-in-spirit (if not in physicality) duo to try to piece together what’s going on, before the entire population of Kettle Street winds up six feet under.   

What makes things so very much more interesting is that Beth isn’t just a pretty face, either; like Greg, Beth has to deal with her own Thing. (Yes, yes, so do we all, but we’re not talking in any generic sense, here.) Beth has cerebral palsy, which renders her speech a bit off, gives a decidedly-noticeable wobble to her gait, and makes doing things with her hands a not-always-successful-on-the-first-(or-even-second)-attempt ordeal.

As these two individuals come together—first, to stop a killer, and then, as friends, once they start looking beyond their neighbors and take a closer look at each other—the story becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts (which are, in their own rights, actually pretty darn good parts).

Oh, and the denouement, when it comes? Not one I was expecting… (so, kudos to the author for keeping me guessing).


Death Stalks Kettle Street unexpectedly struck all the right notes with me. It’s a crackling-good mystery, first—with a tinge of Rear Window, in parts (one of my favorite movies, so a good thing, that). The supporting characters and other relationships are all interesting and are responsible for some nifty little twists, as well.

It’s the main characters, though—Greg and Beth—who sparkle like beautifully-imperfect diamonds, here… even under the extraordinarily-bright light which Bowen shines upon them (and all their issues, baggage, eccentricities, and just plain stuff). That each of them is a little further out of the mainstream than we generally see in mysteries (of any type) lends a wonderful dimension to the tale… and to their individual stories, as we see how they live, cope, and thrive. 

The fact that neither of their impairments is anything which can be “tidied up” by book’s end, but is something that each of them, instead, will have to continue living and dealing with forever, because those things are intrinsic parts of themselves? Leaves the reader—certainly this one—with a lovely sense that everything can still, under all sorts of odds and less-than-ideal (on paper) situations, be quite “right”. 

There is magic in that message… and I highly recommend giving Death Stalks Kettle Street your time.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When a Fairy Tale is Good... and When it Isn't

Sometimes, you really need a slice or three of your favorite pizza. (Go on, admit it.) Other times, nothing but a bowl of decadent ice cream (you know, the good stuff) can quench that craving you feel. And often, only the thought of a stiff drink at the end of a long day can put things to rights in your world.

When it comes to books, though, what is an equivalent treat/reward, when you're feeling sort of done in, when you're effectively "toast"? Something not too heady, too erudite, clearly; if your goal is escapism and guilty pleasure, you’re not exactly gonna pull out the Dostoyevsky or Hawthorne, are you?

No, for me that sort of release—the polar opposite of a trying day—is generally going to involve a fantasy… and one on the more effervescent, playful end of the spectrum rather than the elaborately-built-out-worlds end, because if it’s escapism I’m after, I really don’t wanna be tasked with thinking too hard.

So, over the past month or so, I’ve found myself flipping through two such lighthearted little bits of frivolity, in between other books and, you know, life. One turned out to be exactly what I needed; the other… eh, not so much.

And here’s the kicker: both were by the same author... with rather different results. I present, W.R. Gingell’s Masque and Spindle.

* ~ * ~ * 

The description of Masque hooked me from the start: “Beauty met the Beast and there was… bloody murder?”. (Major points for adapting a fairy tale; what could possibly be more escapist than that?)

Better yet, though, the book followed through on its promise. Lady Isabella Farrah is the perfect heroine for this sort of piece—beautiful, charming, spunky, ever-so-witty, and (conveniently, for the plot, natch) an “old maid” (at the advanced age of 28, gasp!). While her younger siblings are at home or off doing other things, she is acting as her politician-father’s aide while they’re in the capitol city seeing to political business. When, during the course of an evening at a big party, she stumbles into a murder scene—the victim being one of her friends, no less-- she finds a new/secondary purpose for herself: to (help) solve the murder.

The only problem with that? The man tasked with solving it—one Lord Pecus (Commander of the Watch, as well as rich, eligible, and suitably-mysterious bachelor)—has no desire to have her help. At all.

What follows is, of course, somewhat predictable… but who reads fairy tales (light fantasies, etc.) expecting to be gobsmacked, anyway? (Certainly not about the final outcome.) But it’s an utterly-delicious ride from those first pages to reach the end of the story, full of little twists, plenty of humor, a good sense of place, and a host of very well-drawn supporting characters.

Spindle, on the other hand, provided me with very little of what I had found so utterly fun and absorbing in the previous book.

Oh, it started off with some promise; where Masque was clearly a riff on “Beauty and the Beast”, Spindle took on “Sleeping Beauty” (which, in and of itself, was certainly fine). The problem, though, is that Spindle almost entirely lacked in great (or even, particularly good) characters.

Polyhymnia (thankfully, “Poly” for short) is the long-hidden princess who’s been slumbering away whilst under a sleeping curse… which is finally, after many decades, broken by one Luck, a—erm—rather lucky enchanter. The surprise for Luck? Poly insists she isn’t a princess. (Of course, she also insists she has no magic in her, which is clearly not the case.)

Now, it’s certainly no shock that these two are destined (by the author, if not by the reader’s common sense) to wind up together. But, as just intimated, that’s sort of an issue, here… chiefly, because neither of the two main characters acquits her-/himself in a particularly interesting manner, nor do they have any discernible chemistry. Like, none at all.

In fact, the only character in Spindle I actually found myself enjoying was a dog who… well, is more than he appears. (And even the novelty of that wore off after a time.)

Additionally, if I were editing Spindle, I could easily (and would joyfully!) have hacked off a good third of it, and suggested it be offered up as a novella rather than a full-length work. (It still wouldn’t have been aces, but removing so much sheer drudgery—page after page, chapter after chapter—of nothing of any interest or import happening, would at least have tightened up the story and made it considerably better.)

As it stands, though, I was so weary of a whole lotta nothingness that when the end was in sight—and the few things that were going to happened actually did—that I had a hard time caring.

 * ~ * ~ * 

Ms. Gingell definitely has some talent for this sort of tale, and—on the basis of Masque, alone—I’ll definitely look at some of her other works… but I’m going to need a while, because I simply couldn’t face the potential disappointment of finding I’d had the misfortune to latch onto something more like the dreary Spindle than like the delicious Masque, quite so soon. 


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Big Dreams and Even-Bigger Disappointments... That's Showbiz, Folks!

Los Angeles, California--What People (who don’t live there) Think It Is: Endless sun, beaches, surfing, skateboarding, movie and TV stars, glamourous shopping meccas, ostentatious wealth, kooks, vineyards, pot, egos, traffic, earthquakes, and big dreams.

Los Angeles, California--What It Really Is: All of the above… plus dust, smog, pedestrians, industry folks moonlighting in a lot of inglorious jobs (because they can’t make ends meet, otherwise), ratty apartments, ordinary people, fabulous diversity of foods, loneliness, and unfulfilled dreams. 

Prior to making the Golden State my home, I probably wouldn’t have come up with everything on the second list; you can’t really know a place unless you spend some time there… as author Robert Bryndza (writing with husband Jan Bryndza, this time) clearly did, going by the tale told in Lost in Crazytown.

Lost in Crazytown centers around Filip--a guy not unfamiliar in Hollywood… transplanted from somewhere else (in his case, London), trying to get over a recent breakup, youthful, gay, with dreams of making it big (as a celebrity stylist). 

Aside from having to leave everyone and everything he knows behind and moving thousands of miles to a place where he knows a total of one person, it seems like a sensible enough plan, right? Well, sure… until the plane touches down and he learns that his sole L.A. acquaintance isn’t picking him up at the airport, but is leaving the country at that very minute for a gig, tossing Filip the keys to an apartment and a rental car as they pass each other on the concourse. (It’s important to point out here that Filip’s first experience driving on the “wrong” side of a car—which must be returned the next day—and the “wrong” side of the road, will be in L.A. traffic, leaving LAX.) 

This situation is not remotely ideal. Nor, as it turns out, is much of anything else. From the eccentric gay couple (of the “have-wealth-but-lack-anything-remotely-resembling-good-taste” variety) with whom he eventually strikes up a sort of not-exactly-friendship (more out of necessity than anything else), to the fading B-list actress (desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of her former fame) for whom he winds up working, Filip finds not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (or bottom of the Hollywood sign), but rather, frustration and disappointment at nearly every hairpin curve. 

Until, that is, he somehow manages to find himself, again… and discovers what he really wants—what really matters to him—in life. 

Robert Bryndza has become an author whose works I look for and anticipate before they come out. (The Erika Foster detective series keeps getting better and better, and his lighter works showcase witty comedic chops.) So, in addition to the obvious allure of reading about a fellow newbie in Tinseltown, it seemed a safe bet that Lost in Crazytown would provide some good fun, and I wasn’t disappointed. By turns amusing (sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny) and almost unbelievable (meaning, the situations he lays out are actually just the sorts of things that happen for reals, yo), I raced through this small tome, anxious to see how it all worked out… even as I was sad to say “buh-bye” to Filip (an imminently-likable protagonist). 

For anyone who has ever toyed with the idea of living around Hollywood (or pretty much anywhere in the vast L.A. metro), or just visiting (particularly if you’re of the mindset that everything is rosy out here), Lost in Crazytown is a great little read.