Tag Archives: debut novelist

Elderberry Wine

Spunky Ladies to the Rescue

Foal Play by Kathryn O’Sullivan (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 258 pages)

Foal Play

Colleen’s heart raced. It was unusual for Sparky to run after someone unless he was feeling threatened or protecting his territory. If the man was the person who had burned and dumped the body that has washed up on the beach, she had no doubt he’d harm a dog.

The setting for this debut mystery is a small town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Colleen McCabe is the Corolla town fire chief. She and her border collie Sparky are familiar figures around town. The locale is steeped in traditions; however, a spunky female in the fire chief’s job is not exactly traditional. Colleen has 15 years of firefighting experience and is well qualified for her job. It’s only when she steps over the line and begins investigating a murder that she irritates Sheriff Bill Dorman. There are plenty of subsequent crimes to keep the reader’s attention.

To Ms. O’Sullivan’s credit, the character relationships in this most entertaining novel are longstanding as evidenced by the way she sets up her scenes and describes the interplay that takes place among the townspeople. O’Sullivan has a confident, easy writing style that draws the reader into the quaint town of Corolla and the wide range of activities that take place there. The area is home to a herd of wild horses and there is a strong commitment by some locals to protect the herd. The Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society officers are often at odds with tourists. There’s plenty of tension what with the horses, arson fires and deaths!

Well recommended.

Something Borrowed, Someone Dead: An Agatha Raisin Mystery by M. C. Beaton (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 291 pages)

Something Borrowed (audio)

She had a “county” voice and manner reminiscent of Maggie Smith playing the part of the dowager in Downtown Abbey. She had large hands and feet and a slim flat-chested figure dressed in a faded cotton shirt-waister. A large collagen-enhanced mouth dominated her face. Her hair was iron grey and cropped short.

This witty and biting tale is the most recent in a very long list of Agatha Raisin mysteries. Agatha is an aggressive and outspoken 50-something divorcee who operates a detective agency. The tales are set in modern day England but these are by no means the fussy old lady-type stories a la Miss Marple. Stuffy butlers or reticent townspeople rarely put off Agatha. She has infinite patience as she badgers the inhabitants of a Cotswold village.

Agatha works diligently to solve the murder of a very outgoing newcomer to the village who is murdered with elderberry wine. The victim, Gloria French, had a nasty habit of borrowing from her neighbors. We’re not dealing with a cup of sugar or flour; rather, Gloria borrowed and kept furniture, jewelry and other valuable items. Close on the heels of this murder come several more. Agatha and her staff are kept busy checking out the theft victims, like Lady Framington who is described above.

Ms. Beaton always delivers a charming and edgy story. This one is no exception!

Well recommended.

Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble: A Mystery by Mignon F. Ballard (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 262 pages)

Miss Dimple Picks

Back across the pond in rural Georgia in time is the World War II era and the spunky lady detective is Miss Dimple Patrick. Miss Dimple’s fourth adventure in prolific author Ballard’s series centers around the disappearance of the prettiest and sweetest girl in town, Prentice Blair. Prentice has recently broken off a two year relationship with Clay Jarrett, whose family own the peach orchard and fruit stand where Prentice has been working during summer vacation.

The characters are mostly women as the men are off fighting in the war. The basics of life – baking, canning and rationing gasoline and sugar, are always present in the action and dialogue. This may seem quaint and a bit odd for a reader who is under the age of 50. This reviewer has seen rationing stamps and heard stories of mended stockings. I’m not sure it would make sense to a younger reader.

Blair’s friends and former teacher Miss Dimple make it their mission to solve the mystery of her disappearance. Along the way, the town drunk and loony old lady go missing as well. For such a small town, the happenings seem highly improbable.

Recommended to a nostalgia-seeking older audience or a curious younger one.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Crying, Waiting, Hoping

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 448 pages)

McKenzie presents sensitive topics with such blatant honesty and humor that I found myself laughing out loud.

Kate Sanford is trying to hold on to her college days, scheduling parties instead of business meetings, when she is given an interview for the job of a lifetime as a music writer for her favorite magazine, The Line.   The night before the interview, to celebrate her potential life changing opportunity and as well her thirtieth birthday, she agrees to go out with her friends for a quick drink.   Still intoxicated the morning after, she bombs the interview but is offered an ironic opportunity.   Kate’s assignment is to go undercover and follow a Lindsay-Lohan-type icon…  in rehab!

Kate signs into rehab (drunk) and begins to go through the steps to recovery as she writes about the “it girl” Amber Sheppard and her “young James Bond” boyfriend, Connor.   Yet the story begins to spin as Kate befriends Amber as well as Connor’s perpetual assistant, Henry.   As Kate continues her assignment, she is challenged with perhaps the real reasons she is in rehab and the ultimate decision of whether her “dream job” is worth hurting those she has met along the way.

My head is spinning out questions, but I don’t have any answers.   I feel like they’re floating in front of me, but they haven’t taken shape.   And instead of making progress, I’m in suspended animation, waiting, hoping for something to happen, but unable to make it so.

Spin is a lighthearted, quick read full of interesting characters and believable experiences.   McKenzie presents sensitive topics with such blatant honesty and humor that I found myself at times laughing out loud.   Her characters are real, both the famous and infamous, with evident flaws but each possessing their own charm.   Everyone is on their own path of self-discovery and yield realistic and often disappointing conclusions as they deal with their addictions and shortcomings.   As the story unfolds they find that perhaps they have more in common than anticipated.

McKenzie touches upon the realism of chemical dependency.   Through her characters’ therapy discussions she presents scenarios on how individuals find themselves in these situations, how relationships are affected and how difficult it can be to continue down the path of sobriety.   She keeps the topics light through the quirkiness of her characters and with the flowing humorous dialogue throughout the novel.

McKenzie demonstrates Kate’s love of music with random references to songs that have particular meaning to her main character and provides “Kate’s Playlist” at the end of the novel.   This would have been an interesting way to perhaps introduce more of Kate’s past and further describe her family dynamics but I enjoyed the references for their simplicity.

If you are searching for a deep, life-changing novel, you will be disappointed, but if you are interested in a well-written story laden with real issues presented with quick wit and humor, this is the novel for you.   Spin would make a fabulous holiday or book club read.   I enjoyed the book from page one through to the end; therefore, this novel is…  Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way, and you are beginning to grasp the literary roller coaster ride that is Catherine McKenzie’s Spin.   Filled with brutal honesty and wry humour, Spin is a story for everyone who has ever woken up hung over and thought, “Do I have a problem?   Yes – I need to find a greasy breakfast.”   And by that I mean everyone I know.   Leah McLaren, Globe and Mail Columnist, author of The Continuity Girl

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Out of Control

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 272 pages)

Writer Kevin Desinger found a great setup for his debut novel.   Jim Sandusky, a good citizen and wine steward, is home one evening with his wife in a fine, quiet neighborhood when their peace is disturbed.   Jim looks out the second-story window to observe two men in the process of stealing his Toyota Camry.   Jim initially plans to go outside to write down the vehicle license number of the truck that the thieves have arrived in, but once outside he impulsively changes his mind and steals the truck….  Such is the effect of adrenaline on a once innocent man.

That’s right, our good citizen breaks the law before the two thieves get the opportunity to do so themselves; however, as one might expect, this is not the end of his problems, it’s merely the beginning as he now must deal with two violent criminal brothers (Larry and Wade Hood) and law enforcement.

It’s a great premise and starting point – but the execution doesn’t match up with the inherent possibilities.   Firstly, our good citizen Jim is a bit too calm – no make that far too calm – in the face of danger.   Even Sgt. Rainey, the police officer assigned to this strange case tells him that he’s too controlled in the midst of unforeseen events.   As a result, we never feel any actual fear for Jim’s safety, which takes a lot of the air out of this big balloon.

Secondly, there are some strange inconsistencies in the telling.   For example, Jim’s first encounter with the rotten Hood brothers occurs when he goes out to the street in front of his home in an attempt to write down a license plate number.   Yet, in the second half of the story, when he’s being staked out by someone who parks in front of his home each night in a clunker of a Mazda, Jim never thinks to write down the creep’s plate number.   This is even stranger when we remember that we’ve been told, earlier in the tale, that Jim has a pair of bird watching binoculars downstairs in the kitchen.   (This is the type of script inconsistency that’s destructive if left un-caught in the filming of a movie.)

We also see that Jim, who has never had any prior contact with those who live outside of the boundaries of the law, is pretty shrewd – as even Sgt. Rainey will be forced to admit – as he seeks to protect himself and his wife from the literal Hoods.   Yet Mr. Desinger goes to great pains to paint Jim as a foggy-headed protagonist (“…I would grope along blindingly until I simply disappeared into the fog.   I spent the day wandering through mental corridors in the fog.”), a man who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.   So which Jim Sandusky is the real Jim?

Another flaw has to do with the language.   Early on in the telling, Mr. Desinger’s style is awkward (it subsequently calms dawn) and the character dialogues never seem quite real.   Occasionally sentences feel as if they have words missing:  “…the cellar was where I kept the treasures that were no longer in distribution.   The cellar bottle was to represent what I thought the other wines were aiming for, the essence of the grape of interest.”   I’ve read the latter sentence at least 10 times now, and I still don’t know what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by it.

Truth be told, this is an engaging story but it just didn’t feel quite real enough.   The Descent of Man is like an almost great song played not very well.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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