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The White Magic Five and Dime

The White Magic Five and Dime (Tarot Mystery, #1)The White Magic Five and Dime by Steve Hockensmith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while you come across a book that you really like but you don’t really know why. This is one of those. There’s nothing overly special or unique about it. It’s a contemporary murder mystery. A woman is notified that her estranged mother has died and left her all of her worldly assets, which includes a shop in a nothing of a town in Arizona. The shop (see title) is only one of several in the area that provide psychic readings and other woo-woo services. The deceased mom was a career con-woman. The daughter would rather not be, although it is what she was groomed for. So, when it turns out that the woman’s death probably wasn’t due to a burglary gone wrong but was, instead, a targeted slaying, the daughter is not surprised, and she begins to investigate.

I like stories with clever, witty, but essentially moral protagonists. The one in this book certainly qualifies. Alanis (possibly her real name, although she’s had many aliases) is given depth in the story through flashbacks to scenes from her childhood, traveling around the country, living in hotels, and playing parts in her mother’s cons. From these you see why she is what she is, and you admire that she’s not been completely destroyed by her experiences, that she’s somehow retained both her sanity and her humanity. One of her first acts upon arriving in Arizona is to make amends with some of the people her mother conned out of money or jewelry. But I think what I find most appealing about this spunky heroine is that she’s a clear thinker, skeptical, logical, perhaps even a bit cynical. She arrives knowing that her mother, her shop, and the mystical stuff the town is known for are nothing more than ways of extracting money from credulous, superstitious tourists. But as she learns more, she wonders if the tarot cards can’t be more than just a con. In the hands of a skilled reader, perhaps they can provide comfort, or motivation, or confidence…. Rather than being used to cheat people, maybe they can be used to help them. Of course they’d need to be in the hands of someone skilled at reading people to do that. Alanis feels that she is.

There are two more books in this series. I just ordered the second, and the third is in my local library system. I’ve added both to my TBR list. I suppose you could consider that an endorsement of this one.

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The Portrait of Doreene Gray

The Portrait of Doreene GrayThe Portrait of Doreene Gray by Esri Allbritten
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The team from Tripping Magazine is investing another (possibly) weird occurrence, this time involving a pair of twins—one who appears not to be aging (much) and her sister who is. Oddly, the portrait of the younger looking one, which she keeps in a locked room, appears to be tolling the years in her stead. Her sister, who painted the thing years ago, claims not to understand why.

This is a Scooby-Doo kind of mystery, with a team of investigators looking at clues to figure out what’s really going on. Their leader (editor of the magazine) is biased toward finding the most woo-woo version of events possible. The chief writer is far more practical, and the sexy photographer is mainly in it for the fun. I wish there were more books in this series. I find them quite enjoyable.

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The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All FleshThe Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Women are dying in Edinburgh in the mid-19th Century, but is it murder? That’s the question that Will (our protagonist) asks himself after a lady of negotiable affection, with whom he is well acquainted, dies in apparent agony. His interest is both personal and professional as he has just been apprenticed to an eminent doctor who is the Victorian version of an OBGYN.

The setting and characters are believable. The story moves along well, and the plot is interesting. I was also surprised because the person I had pegged as being behind the dire events wasn’t. The fact that I was wrong and it made sense is certainly worthy of an extra star! I tend to enjoy Victorian whodunits, but it’s the historical medical details that make this one stand out.

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Book Review – Dodger by Terry Pratchett

This is something different from Sir Terry, a Victorian historical mystery and adventure story. Dodger, a 17-year-old orphan living in the slums of Victorian London, rescues a mysterious damsel in distress. The people who were distressing her want her back — or dead, and Dodger has to use every skill and contact he has to prevent this.

Dodger is a great hero who exemplifies some of the best traits of humanity. He is caring, kind, intelligent, generous… Okay, he’s picked a pocket or two, and he sees nothing wrong with retrieving items that were lost, or about to be lost, but for the most part, he’s a fine young man.

This isn’t an accurate reflection of history, but it does include fictional portrayals of historical figures, some well known such as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and Sweeney Todd, and some who are not so well known (so there is no point in naming them).

I did think Dodger might be a bit too refined at times, almost unbelievably unaffected by his deprived environment. This made him almost too good, although to be honest, this is probably why I liked the character as much as I did. He could rise above his poverty, his lack of education, and still be hopeful, considerate, and even wise.

I only have three gripes, and they are not about the story. The first is that the book was not released in the U.S. until a week after it became available in the U.K. Why is that? The second is that the U.S. cover is not as good. I’ve found this to be common with Terry Pratchett books. The U.K. cover is often great, and something far duller and less relevant to the story is used for the U.S. edition. I have no idea why this is.

My last gripe is about how this is marketed. It is not ‘YA’ in that it’s not a kid’s book. It reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books, which are also Victorian mysteries that are misleadingly labeled as YA, although Dodger is lighter and more, well, uniquely Pratchett. This book may interest some teens and exceptionally bright and well-read children, but it’s probably not going appeal to kids (sorry, Young Adults) expecting to find a comic book action story or a mindless vampire romance. I’m not saying those are bad, necessarily (although I am pretentiously implying it). What I’m saying is that a YA label may misrepresent what a great, well-written story this is.

Obviously, I enjoyed this book, but then I am a longtime Pratchett fan. There really should be more books like this, charming, witty, positive, with likeable characters doing admirable things. It is a real pleasure to read such a book.

Book Review – The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman

Sally Lockhart is a rare woman in Victorian England. She’s a single mother, competent, independent, and a successful and prosperous business owner. She has never been married, so when she is served with divorce papers, she cannot understand how such a mistake could be made. It soon becomes clear it is not a mistake. The details about her in the document are correct — all except one. She has never met the man claiming to be her husband, the man who wants to take custody of her daughter.

I would not have labeled this a YA book. There is nothing juvenile about it. It is a suspenseful Dickensian story of vengeance, greed, cruelty, and corruption, which vividly captures the social conflicts of the time. The images of Victorian London are detailed and clear. The contrasts between rich and poor, worker and owner are sharp. The only YA aspect may be a carryover from the first book in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke, in which Sally is first introduced as a 16-year-old orphan. I didn’t see that book as specifically YA either, though.

My only criticism, and it’s not a strong one, is that I thought Sally should have been a bit quicker on the uptake in identifying the real force behind her troubles. I figured it out long before she did, but then I, as a reader, understand this is a novel and therefore must make sense. Real life, of course, is not like that.

I highly recommend this book to all readers, especially those fond of Victorian mysteries. It’s a great story.

Related Post:
Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke

Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

This is the first of Philip Pullman’s Victorian mystery novels featuring Sally Lockhart. She is 16-years-old in this story, her father has just died in a shipwreck, and she finds herself in the middle of nefarious dealings involving a missing ruby, criminal gangs, fraud, piracy, and the opium trade.

Because the protagonist is young, this is often considered a Young Adult novel. Don’t let this mislead you. This is a well-crafted tale of mystery, murder, and intrigue. The characters are engaging. The prose is exceptional.

Victorian England is a great setting for stories because of the sharp contrasts it provides — from the largely illiterate poor working in sweatshops or grubbing a living on the streets of London, to the cultured gentry living on returns from investments of inherited capital. The extraordinary portrayal of this time and the details scattered throughout the scenes in this book make it seem as if they were written by someone who lived there, or who is, at least, intimately familiar with it and can bring it to life for those of us who are not.

I often find myself uncomfortable putting novels in predefined genre cubbyholes because the best of them often don’t fit. This is one. I think the YA categorization of this particular book and the rest of the series is most inappropriate. Sally is not a typical teenager and she is not a typical Victorian young lady. Neither is she a role model many people would want their kids to emulate, although I, as and adult, found her admirable. She defies convention, questions authority, and does her best in a bad situation.

The story is dark, at times, darker than I normally prefer, and although a hopeful conclusion comes a bit unexpectedly, it is not a case of “and they all lived happily ever after.”

In my opinion, this ranks among the best Victorian mystery novels that I have read. The story is suspenseful, the characters are well portrayed and believable, and the protagonist is likeable. I highly recommend it — for adults. (Some kids may like it, too.)

 

(Note: A T.V. adaptation of this book starring Billie Piper (Doctor Who) was produced for BBC One in 2006. (I haven’t seen it, yet.)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruby_in_the_Smoke)

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