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Hiss and Hers

Hiss and Hers (nook book)

Hiss and Hers: An Agatha Raisin Mystery by M. C. Beaton (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 304 pages)

“Yes,” said Agatha, acidly noting the plain hairstyle and fine wrinkles on Mrs. Freemantle’s face and wondering why she, Agatha, has wasted so much money on hairdressing and nonsurgical facelifts, not to mention a whole new wardrobe, all to lure George.

This book is one of an extensive collection of English mysteries centered around an aging, though not really older, lady detective. As is usually the situation, Agatha has her own wealth and runs a detective agency seemingly as a hobby rather than from financial need. Although Agatha is willing to work at staying attractive, she’s not likely to give up smoking and drinking. Throughout the book most of the characters were depicted pouring drinks, brewing tea and lighting cigarettes.

Enter George Marston, a retired military man who works as a handyman/gardener in the village where Agatha lives. George is distinguished looking and sought after by most of the ladies in the village, single and married. Sadly, Agatha seems to fail in her pursuit of George and she feels the need for a sure opportunity to corner him. A charity ball is her answer to the dilemma. Before Agatha’s big evening, George is found dead.

The real chase begins as Agatha takes on an assignment from George’s sister to find his killer. Agatha is brutally honest in her self-assessments as well as those that she makes of the various women whose lives intersected with George. To make matters more convoluted, Agatha has her ex-husband for a next-door neighbor and a former lover who has a key to her house that he uses whenever he wants her company.

“Oh, my mink,” mourned Agatha. “All those beautiful little vermin which were better on my back than depopulating the natural species of these islands.”

There are many non-PC comments and actions in the story, and that’s just fine. This is an English mystery for heaven’s sake!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Agatha Raisin (is an) irrepressible detective.” Library Journal

M. C. Beaton is also the author of the Hamish Macbeth Mystery series, which includes Death of a Chimney Sweep, earlier reviewed on this site.

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An Interview with Jojo Moyes

JojoMoyesMe Before You

Jojo Moyes is the English author of Me Before You: A Novel, which is already an international bestseller. Her prior novel was The Last Letter from Your Lover. She recently completed a tour of bookstores in northern California and here she answers a few questions.

Q: Tell us a little about where your ideas for your characters and their stories come from.

A: They come from all over the place. It’s often a snippet of conversation or a news story that just lodges in my head and won’t go away. Sometimes I get an idea for a character too, and then unconsciously start knitting them together. Me Before You is the most “high concept” book I’ve ever written – in that I could describe it in two sentences. But most of them are a lot more organic, and just contain lots of ideas and things that I’ve pulled together. With this book I think the issue of quality of life was probably to the front of my mind as I have/had two relatives who were facing life in care homes, and I know that in one case she would probably have chosen any alternative to that existence.

Q: Which of the characters in Me Before You do you identify with the most?

A: Well, there’s definitely a bit of Lou in there. I did have a pair of stripy tights that I loved as a child! I think you have to identify with all your characters to some extent, or they just don’t come off the page properly. But I also identify with Camilla a bit. As a mother I can’t imagine the choice she has to make, and I could imagine in those circumstances you would just shut down a bit emotionally.

Q: We love the way you draw the social distinction between Lou’s working-class upbringing and Will’s upper-class background. Did you do that deliberately to introduce humor into what could otherwise have been a deeply tragic situation?

A: Yes I did. I thought that the subject was so bleak potentially that it was important to have a lot of humor in the book. But it adds a useful tension to the narrative too: offsetting the warmth and chaos of Lou’s home life with the more formal and reserved nature of Will’s relationship with her parents. And it gives Lou an added reason to feel totally out of her depth once she arrives there. From the point of the reader, it also gives Will a subtle advantage that is vital if we are to see him as Lou’s equal, and not just an object of pity.

Q: Your books always have an incredibly moving love story at the heart of them. What is it about the emotional subject of love that makes you want to write about it?

A: I have no idea! I’m not very romantic in real life. I guess love is the thing that makes us do the most extraordinary things – the emotion that can bring us highest or lowest, or be the most transformative – and extremes of emotion are always interesting to write about.

Q: Have you ever cried while writing a scene in any of your book?

A: Always. If I don’t cry while writing a key emotional scene, my gut feeling is it’s failed. I want the reader to feel something while reading – and making myself cry has become my litmus test as to whether that’s working. It’s an odd way to earn a living.

Q: Where do you write? Do you set hours or just put pen to paper when inspiration strikes?

A: I work in roughly set hours, but with three children and a lot of animals I’ve found you have to be flexible. If there are no disruptions I roll out of bed and straight to my desk and work from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., and then again after I’ve done the animals from roughly 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. My ideal time to work would be from 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. – but unfortunately that only happens if I go away and hide in a hotel.

Q: When you form characters do you ever incorporate aspects from people you know?

A: Yes – but often without realizing (it). Luckily if you write a negative character trait people are rarely likely to recognize themselves. More often though the characters have elements of myself which I then stetch and exaggerate until they become their own. Lou, for example, contains something of the character I could well have been if I had married the man I got engaged to at 17. I would have led a very different life.

Note: Me Before You is an Amazon Book of the Month for January 2013. “(It’s) a word-of-mouth sensation from Britain.” USA Today

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Me Before You

Me Before You

Me Before You: A Novel by British author Jojo Moyes was released in the U.S. on December 31, 2012, by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. It’s already a bestselling book in 28 other countries, and is often compared with One Day: “…an emotionally powerful tale of an unlikely love affair between two people who represent each other’s last hope.” The bestselling author Adriana Trigiani (The Shoemaker’s Wife) said this:

“Jojo Moyes has written the perfect modern love story. Me Before You can be wickedly funny, and in a phrase, make you weep. You will be astonished at what you feel, and what you hope for when you are forced to face the possibility of your own dreams. It’s that good. Read it now.”

Added Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters:

Me Before You is… funny and hopeful and heartbreaking, the kind of story that will keep you turning pages into the night. Lou Clark and Will Traynor will capture your heart and linger there long after their story has ended.”

Here is a synopsis of the novel:

Louisa Clark (or Lou, as she’s known) lives a life about as big as the tiny English village she calls home. She loves being a waitress and figures she’ll eventually marry Patrick, her longtime boyfriend. When she unexpectedly loses her job, she must scramble to replace the income that her tight-knit family depends on. Out of desperation, she takes a job working for ex-Master of the Universe Will Traynor. Will used to live a life full of high-stakes deals, adventurous vacations, and beautiful women. Now, due to a tragic accident, his life is suddenly restricted beyond his control and he has lost all desire to live.

Will keeps everyone at a distance with his caustic and high-handed attitude. Unlike his family, however, Lou refuses to tiptoe around him and cater to his bad moods. Soon they become exactly what the other needs. Seeing how hopeless Will is about his future, Lou plans a series of adventures (and mis-adventures) to try to convince him that his life can be worth living. In turn, Will attempts to persuade Lou that she doesn’t have to confine herself to the small existence she’s settled for so far. As they set about changing each other’s lives, what emerges is a love story that is as complex as it is beautiful.

Tomorrow we’ll have a 7-question interview with Jojo Moyes. See you then.

Joseph Arellano

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You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

Blood Line: An Anna Travis Novel by Lynda La Plante (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99, 480 pages)

She gave him a smile and then returned to weaving in and out of the traffic, constantly using the car horn and swearing as they hit a snarl up by Ladbroke Grove.   Paul felt very uneasy and not just because of her erratic driving, although it did make him cringe back in his seat a few times, but rather because of her attitude.   Anna seemed pleased about Alan Rawlings possibly being a victim.

Betrayal is the mother of invention in this rambling tale of a missing person and possible murder victim.   Author Lynda La Plante is a celebrated and highly successful mystery writer.   Her most famous work is the British television series, Prime Suspect.   In Blood Line, La Plante takes every opportunity to delve into the psychology of each of her main characters.   She literally weaves the story among the characters and around the landscape where the action takes place.

The story line provides some rather blunt evidence of man’s inhumanity to man and to helpless creatures as well.   A reader would have to be numb not to feel an emotional connection to some of the victims – the subject of the prologue and a herd of retired circus seals.   When it comes to knowing more about the prologue victim, a handsome young man whose body is missing, the emotions felt for him may change for the reader.

Anna Travis is a newly-badged detective chief inspector who is recovering from the loss of her fiance.   To complicate matters, Anna’s supervisor is her former lover.   To say that she has raw spots in her heart is an understatement.   What begins as a missing persons report filed by an anxious father, morphs into an all-out race against evil to bring the disparate elements of the case together for a satisfying conclusion.

As a fan of the Prime Suspect series, this reviewer turned the first page of Blood Line with a definite bias toward trusting the author to provide an enjoyable read.   That trust was validated.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Blood Line was released on October 23, 2012.   “Fun, fearsome, and fiercely independent.”   Sunday Telegraph (London)

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Blood Line: An Anna Travis Novel by Lynda La Plante.

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1-2-3

Think of a Number: A Novel by John Verdon (Broadway, $14.00, 448 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the process of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at today’s criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he’s a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the tow, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial murder case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope left in their home; this envelope contains a piece of paper with the very number they thought of written down in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to the mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed on a page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s very ably assisted by Madeleine, the spouse who often sees the very things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his tricks with numbers, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict if twisted plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, luckily, will not even come close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style suspense thriller.   It’s easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and addictive story – especially so, as it’s a debut novel.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a large block of hours on your schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin to look forward to Mr. Verdon’s next satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A trade paperback version of Think of a Number was released on June 5, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download, and as an unabridged audiobook, read by George Newbern.

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Strangers on a Train

One Moment, One Morning: A Novel by Sarah Rayner (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99, 407 pages)

Sometimes, one moment is all it takes to change a life forever.

“A sudden death like that cuts right across the priorities and sensitivities of the living: one minute Karen was drinking coffee and engrossed in conversation with her husband; the next she was witnessing his last moments.”

Sarah Rayner has written a tremendously engaging novel about three women who are drawn together by an unforeseen tragedy.   The women are on the 7:44 a.m. commuter train into London when the husband of one of them suddenly collapses and dies of a heart attack.   Death happens every day, but this one brings the three together – joined by one sad moment, one morning.

“…as she opens her eyes wide to put on mascara, she is overwhelmed by an urge to cry.   It takes her aback; until now she has been fine,or fineish, operating on automatic pilot.”

If an expected death has the capacity to leave us stunned, then how much more so is it true of an unexpected one?   This is the territory that Rayner explores in her character study of three different personalities.   One woman’s been a contented wife and mother, another’s a counselor of troubled young people who’s busy hiding her personal identity, and the third’s a seemingly sharp women who wonders what people would think if they knew what her boyfriend “is capable of when he’s drunk.”   She supposes, “They’d be horrified, surely.”

Rayner’s story flows so smoothly that it’s easy to forget that this is a novel; it flows the way the best-edited films do on-screen.   She not only writes about common people in a natural way, she also presents the sort of revelations that happen to drop into our consciousness now and then:  “Some people who seem warm and friendly on first impression, turn out to be disappointedly superficial, whereas the aloof ones…  emerge as affectionate and loyal.”

This novel covers the lives of three women during one week, a week that will change everything for them in ways both small and large.   One Moment, One Morning is a book to take along with you on a vacation trip, when you can savor its warm, forgiving sense of humanness without being rushed.   It reminds us of something essential – that out of death comes a reaffirmation of life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“Oh, what a novel!   It will make you laugh and cry, it will make you want to call your dear ones to tell them how much you love them, it will make you buy it for all your friends…  Anna, Lou and Karen will feel like they are your soul sisters.”   Tatianna de Rosnay, author of A Secret Kept and Sarah’s Key

“You’ll want to inhale it in one breath.”   Easy Living

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