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Books in March

Here's my reading for last month, not too shabby!

It’s Christmas time once again, and Max Mephisto is back in Brighton for a big show - not a Pantomime this time, but a variety show that features a “living tableaux” act, that is, half-naked women posing without movement to depict historical events, all to the titillation of some and the outrage of others. Lily is not one of those show girls, she’s a florist, but she shares digs with some of the girls in the show at a rooming house run primarily for “theatricals.” When she is found dead, posed in a very specific manner, it is natural for DI Edgar Stephens to turn to Max for help with the show-business part of the crime. All too soon there’s another death, and then a third, and Ed begins to wonder just how many killers might be on the loose in his town…. This is the fourth in Elly Griffiths’ “Magic Men” series, and like the previous books it’s set in the early 1950s in Brighton, which at one time had been a very attractive seaside town but which by now has fallen into, if not ruin, then at least decay. I like the way that Ms. Griffiths portrays the time and place, and I thought her description of the way the “theatricals” lived was quite interesting. Of course, the most important part of these books is the ongoing relationship between Ed and Max, and also between each of them and Ruby, Max’s daughter and co-star, and Ed’s fiancee. All of the characters are interesting and believable, and the mystery is nicely handled, but how the relationships between those three play out in the midst of a multiple murder inquiry is what gives this story its verve; recommended.

Contrary to the title, Georgia Dunn’s second book, Lupin Leaps In: A Breaking Cat News Adventure is not a single story following BCN Anchor and Cat of Adventure Lupin, but rather it’s another collection of comic strips created by Ms. Dunn for her online comic strip. I’m happy to say that her ‘strip is now in something over 100 newspapers throughout the US (alas, not yet here in Canada as far as I know) and it is attracting lots of praise and love. This collection includes some of my very favourite ‘strips, including Puck’s “right over the rainbow” ecstasy, the July bug, Lupin becoming Fluffapurrus Rex, and many many more. We are also introduced to new characters, including Tommy the Outdoor Reporter, and the two Upstairs Cats, Sir Figaro Newton and Tabitha, who speak Spanish and are also reporters with GN (the “G” stands for “gato,” Spanish for cat). Best of all, at the back of the book is “More to Explore,” a series of activity pages including Ms. Dunn’s very generous tips for drawing cartoons including her own, BCN paper doll clothing sets and more. I adore this ‘strip and therefore will not pretend to present an unbiased view of this book; instead, I will urge anybody who loves cats to check this comic strip out because you’ll fall in love with it too, guaranteed!

Diana Bishop is a witch, from a long line of witches, but ever since her parents were murdered she has determined to turn her back on her powers and achieve her goals through her own mundane efforts. She succeeds to the point of becoming a respected scholar, teaching at Yale and doing research at Oxford. But when she unearths a magical alchemical manuscript, she suddenly finds herself falling in love with a vampire while other vampires, witches and daemons all start swirling around her, hoping to use her to get their hands on the valuable tome. And that is only the start of Diana’s troubles…. I thought this looked like a fun take on magical tropes, and indeed Ms. Harkness comes up with some interesting variations on the myths surrounding such magical beings, but alas, the book is primarily concerned with the romance between Diana and Matthew, the 1500-year-old vampire she falls for. I’m really not a fan of romance novels and this one strikes me as worse than most simply because of the massively controlling nature of the vampire and what seems to me to be the submissive responses of this supposedly extremely independent and resourceful witch. I know this is the first book in a trilogy, but I won’t be continuing on to the second book. A pity.

Commissario Guido Brunetti’s father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier, is worried about the behaviour of an old family friend, who has decided to adopt a much younger man as his son in order to leave his fortune to that person. When the Count asks Guido to look into this matter, he is at first reluctant to do so, but eventually feels that he should at least determine whether the family friend is being unduly influenced or manipulated. Fortunately, after an uncomfortable conversation, Guido decides that the situation is not his business and he moves on to other things. But when the old man dies, and then a friend of the old man is murdered, he begins to wonder if he made the wrong decision…. A hint of Ms. Leon’s writing style comes when Guido is irritated at Spring weather, then hears the chirping of birds: “Joy leaped at him: it was springtime again, the birds were back.” Spring-time feels that way, doesn’t it, and what a lovely way of putting it. As always with this series, reading such prose is a delight, as the author delves into philosophical questions even while describing the difficulties and beauties of life in Venice and, in this case, the extremely arcane realm of Italian inheritance law. At the same time, some of the long-standing relationships in the series deepen, in particular between Guido and his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, which is very satisfying. Very highly recommended!

At an unnamed date in the future, girls all over the world suddenly have a new power, to create and wield electrical shocks from a new muscle in their chests; not only can they inflict pain and even death, but they can also transmit the ability to older women. Suddenly women have all the power, but it’s unlikely that men won’t find a way to fight back…. As a lifelong feminist, I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I just found it depressing. Although the author does a good job of creating a world changed by this power, and she illustrates various strata of society (religion, politics, underworld business, drugs, media, military) by the creation of specific individuals who embody those elements but who aren’t entirely one-note characters, the overriding message of the story is an old and tired one: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. She’s saying that if you think a world run by women would be an immense improvement over the millennia of patriarchal rule, you’re sadly mistaken, and that’s just…. Sad.

Out of the blue, Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid’s ex-wife Vic calls him one day; she is an academic working on a biography of a female poet who had died, apparently by suicide, some five years earlier. She is not so sure that it *was* suicide, however, and she asks Duncan to use his police links to look into the case a little more deeply. Although this incident took place away from his own patch, he agrees to ask an old police colleague to check things out, but when Vic herself dies, evidently the victim of an accident, Duncan can’t leave it to anyone else to investigate. With his Sergeant, Gemma James, he wades into the arcane world of academia, 1960s student shenanigans and anything else that comes to bear….I like the Kincaid/James series, although I don’t find it as compelling as some other mystery series such as Donna Leon’s work or Peter Robinson’s. I enjoyed this one because of the developing relationship between the two leads, and the introduction of other characters that I know will be incorporated into future stories. I had a quibble about the fact that the other police officer, ostensibly in charge of the investigation, warns Duncan away and then...we never hear from him again; that’s a bit sloppy. Overall, though, this is a fast read and an interesting take on the idea that the past is never really past; mildly recommended.

And soon we're off to rainy Northern California to see my family and friends - better than the ongoing snow and sleet of Montreal!

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