The Dilemma by B. A. Paris

 

 Thank you B. A. Paris, HQ and NetGalley for gifting me this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published in the US on January 9, 2020.

A couple of words about the digital copy that downloaded to my Kindle from NetGalley as it was a bit of a jumble. There was no title page, just a few pages of reviews, a publishing page and then in the middle of a page the book begins. The bold function often over highlights into portions of the text. The body of the text is often separated out into single sentences. But the most perplexing glitch is that either the title of the book, The Dilemma or the author’s name, B.A. Paris is randomly inserted during paragraphs—often in the middle of sentences. Hopefully all this will be resolved before publishing, my version was readable but these glitches did make for cumbersome annoyances while reading.

This book is billed as general adult fiction. Ms. Paris takes a dramatic look into the domestic human psyche—a study of love, life choices, best intentions, secrets and lies—and it proved to be a “clear all decks” edge of your seat kind of read. This is the first book that I have read by B. A. Paris but I am sure to read more now that I have read this one.

Ms. Paris weaves a tale around a married couple who are each keeping a secret from the other and the efforts made to keep them that way. They both have convinced themselves that they are keeping their respective secret with the purest of best intentions—neither wants to ruin the other’s life and their family—not to mention the party.

The wife, Livia, is turning 40, she became pregnant while an unwed teenager and her ashamed parents disowned Livia and never spoke to her again. She and Adam, the father, subsequently got married after Josh was born— but these life choices totally broke to pieces the type of life that she had imagined leading. One of her biggest regrets was that she never got a “big splashy wedding” the type of which she and her mother had spent hours dreaming of and planning for—some future day.

Livia decides, promises herself, and plans for years in advance to give herself an over the top 40th birthday party instead. While Livia and Adam may have had a quick forced wedding they also had a love that endured, and their relationship grew with them as they matured.

Adam was also forced to make hard choices when the reality of life circumstance stood in front of his dreams, he gave up university and took up a trade. It took Adam a while to grow up and he still has lingering regrets about the road not taken. He only came fully to terms with the realities of fatherhood after the birth of his second child— daughter, Marnie,  which has often led to a prickly relationship with his first born son, Josh.

Josh, now a University student, is about to take an internship in America at a prestigious IT firm. Marnie, is also at University and at present is away studying in Hong Kong. Livia and Adam are facing an empty nest for the first time in their marriage.

We quickly find out that Livia is sitting on a secret about their daughter, Marnie. She hasn’t told Adam because she wants to talk to her daughter first and on some level it is not her secret to tell.

All we know at the beginning is that this revelation would destroy Adam, her family, and wreck the party. She is secretly relieved when Marnie tells her she can’t make the party and decides to solve her “dilemma” by waiting to tell Adam after the party.

Of course, Adam, realizing how much this party means to Livia, secretly arranges for Marnie to come home and surprise her mom at the party.

The story takes place over a slightly extended 24 hour timeline on the day of the party and told in a manner that allows for flashbacks and backstory. The story is told in alternating chapters between Livia and Adam. Ms. Paris also gives good denouement, the “after party”, which is an element of novels that I always appreciate.

While Adam is in town picking up his gift for Livia he hears some news that presents him with a potentially devastating secret about Marnie. But because he does not know all the facts Adam also decides to solve his “dilemma” by not telling Livia the news until after the party. Telling could mean the end of the family as they know it and he desperately seeks to give his wife this special night that she has dreamed of for so long.

I feel that sharing my opinions about how things further develop might come at the expense of supplying spoilers and this is not fair to other readers or the author. But I cannot resist a little more commentary on humanity, secrets, and lying.

This book on the surface is about secrets and lies, it is also about families, and friendships, but on a deeper level Ms. Paris is exploring elements of love and the lengths a person might go to keep a loved one from learning harmful truths.

I believe that it is an universal truth that the majority of humans will state that they always prefer to know the truth and that they do not liked to be lied to about anything. I further believe that the majority of these same humans will make the opposite decision when faced with the necessity of telling a damaging truth to a loved one, deciding to withhold the truth—until it can be told with kindness at a better time, or not at all— in order to protect this person.

Sometimes this done out of love, sometimes out of self interest, or more likely, as we see here —a combination of both.  I find this contradictory dichotomy in the human brain to be fascinating and the geek science girl that lurks beneath my surface wonders what kind of brain chemistry accounts for this quirkiness.

The notion that while I am capable of knowing this truth I think it is best not to tell *whoever* as this person can’t handle the truth and needs protected does seem a little condescending and patronizing. It deserves noting that both Adam and Livia, to their credit, fully intend to come clean with their other half but both decide to wait before breaking the news— not out of malicious intent but out of perceived kindness.

It is also worth noting that their respective decisions were not always completely altruistic as both held elements of denial as well, that longing to live a little bit longer in the imagined reality of their clueless loved ones.

Part of the “fun” of this book is how the author engages your mind as she fills up with your thoughts with decisions and judgments about how all the various characters handle their various choices surrounding these dilemmas.

For my own part, I can wrap my head around the mind set of Livia and Adam as they decided to keep their dilemma about Marnie secret from each other, but as I imagine being the spouse on the “receiving end” of the news I realized that I would be hard pressed to forgive some decisions not to tell.

How Ms. Paris resolves The Dilemma for all her various characters makes for valuable reading time well spent. I will definitely be reading her previous books.

About this Author:

B A Paris is the internationally bestselling author of Behind Closed Doors, The Breakdown and Bring Me Back. Having sold over one million copies in the UK alone, she is a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller as well as a number one bestseller on Amazon and iBooks. Her books have sold in 38 territories around the world. Having lived in France for many years, she recently moved back to the UK.

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 Unfollow Me: A Novel by Charlotte Duckworth

 

Thank you Charlotte Duckworth, Crooked Lane Press and NetGalley for gifting me this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published in the US on March 10, 2020.

This book is billed as a domestic thriller and does not disappoint.  Ms. Duckworth lifts the curtains and peers beneath the glittery posts of influencer, Violet Young—to look at the gray underbelly of social media— IRL style.

Violet is a vlogger with millions of followers—she is all over social media with accounts on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and FaceBook—all this media attention has drawn commercial sponsorship, as well.

She is the young mother to three girls, the wife of Henry-a bit of a social media influencer himself and her immensely popular vlog “Violet is Blue” is the video portrayal of her personal and family life.

It began innocently enough as a way to help herself and other mums suffering through Postpartum Depression but as she grew in popularity it morphed into a business filled with free gifts, sponsorship and not so “real” content. More often than not, this was coming at the expense of privacy, her children, and her marriage.

Then one morning without any advance warning all of Violet Young’s accounts disappear and are shut down much to the dismay of her millions of followers who feel abandoned and betrayed.

The subsequent story revolves around several individual threads:

  • a set of trolling threatening emails sent to Violet
  • a forum (a set of followers who post comments about Violet’s vlog)
  • Lily, an avid obsessed follower who presents herself as a widowed single mother
  • Yvonne, a recently married follower in her late 30’s desperate to conceive a child
  • and starting about halfway through Henry, Violet’s husband also chimes in.

These “separate”  stories are told through alternating chapters and Ms. Duckworth slowly begins to cleverly knit together these seemingly disparate threads.

While Violet is the centerpiece her voice is absent and her whereabouts remain a mystery.  The result is a slowly evolving story that certainly kept me both guessing and swiping through pages.

I enjoyed the complexity of her characters ranging from “good” bad people to behavior from the seemingly good characters that had me giving them a bit of the side eye.  I dabble at social media and am not a fan of personality based “reality” shows—my tastes run more towards cooking, real estate and Project Runway type reality shows.

However, I can appreciate the concepts/characters that the author is seeking to portray and her writing makes it all seem very real.  I can certainly relate to the obsessional stalker-like tendencies that are often brought to the forefront during human relationships both real and imagined.

I feel that sharing my opinions about how things further develop might come at the expense of supplying spoilers and this is not fair to other readers or the author. But I do have one more thought about a deeper theme.

In her book, Ms. Duckworth has one of her characters say: “Being angry is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Human life is increasingly based on imaginary concepts be it money, time, laws, rights, or social media and the human belief that we are entitled to all of this and more grows stronger each imagined day.

It is very easy to look out and find hate, there is no need to teach you how to suffer or how to inflict pain. It is very easy to lay blame and to expect others to ease your pain— allowing them to shoulder responsibility for what’s wrong in your life. 

It is very easy to feel that you deserve more, that it is your right to have what others have, thatit is their fault that you do not. You didn’t ask for this and you certainly don’t deserve it —but that’s not your fault — that when it comes to getting the things you deserve the end justifies the means.

Some humans drink this poison as part of their everyday life and some humans settle in to enjoy reading about their travails.

How Ms. Duckworth resolves this for all her various characters makes for valuable reading time well spent. I will definitely be reading her previous book, The Rival.

Charlotte Duckworth has spent the past fifteen years working as an interiors and lifestyle journalist, writing for a wide range of consumer magazines and websites. She lives in Surrey with her partner and their young daughter.

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Brand New Friend

I found the author Kate Vane via Twitter, we follow each other, and recently I read a book review she posted on her website. I liked her review as it was honest without being hurtful. So I decided to read her latest book.

Rating systems do not allow for partial stars so I am giving this book 4 stars, although in reality I would rate it in the range of 3.5-3.8. In other words somewhere between “I liked it and I really liked it”. I am comfortable leaving my rating at 4 based on the writing strength and the keen ability of Ms. Vane to draw characters and to set scenes.

I found the promo blurbs to be a little misleading so I am creating my own— because this book is different from what you are led to believe—I am not alone in this comment.

For the record, I thought it was going to be a crime mystery wherein a journalist for the BBC, would unravel the “who-done-it” before or by working with the police. And it is sort of…but this book refuses to pigeon-hole itself into one genre and I like that as it makes for a more interesting read. I am also a fan of books that flip through time with alternating storylines involving the past and the present.

Paolo, her main character, is a somewhat disaffected foreign correspondent who finds himself working as a home-based journalist for the BBC serving as a “couch sitter” on various news shows. His career has diminished due to some life altering events surrounding Salma, his Egyptian wife, a fellow journalist, and their children.

Salma, was forced to flee the Middle East in the midst of the Tahrir Square incident, but once her own family was safe, she worked tirelessly to free the colleagues she left behind. Her efforts were ultimately successful but took their toll, after which she felt the need to disappear into the oblivion of “normal” life. Paolo, understanding the need, made the necessary career sacrifices to help his wife and family heal. 

All well and good, but Paolo was having troubling transitioning from his former identity as a headline generating Middle Eastern correspondent to his current role as a well-heeled suburban family man living in Suffolk. He was at a bit of loose ends and more than a little worried about the state of his marriage.

All this ennui changes when Paolo gets a phone call from Mark Benson, a man he knew during his university days, thirty some years ago, when they were fellow members of the same animal rights activist group and hadn’t heard from since…

It turns out that instead of just being a fellow activist Mark was an uncover cop working to infiltrate an extremist organization and was now on the brink of being outed via national press coverage. Seems like old news— but Paolo was curious enough that he made the trip back to Leeds. It was during their first sit down that Mark gets a phone call regarding a dead body found in the City Garden that he manages.

This body turns out to be Sid, Mark’s old handler during his undercover days, a fact that is not divulged to the police. Mark disappears and Paolo decides to continue investigating, and from there the story emerges.

There is no black and white in this book as it is more of a character study than anything else…lots of varying shades of gray.

The story is told through alternating flashbacks and the present day as Paolo soon realizes that the key to figuring out this crime comes from revisiting his own past and the surrounding incidents that involved their tiny activist group, his fellow house mates and Mark—their Brand New Friend.

Ms. Vane is an English author and I am an American reader so at first I had a little trouble puzzling out the colloquialisms and cadence of the speech patterns of her characters. Once I got up to speed I was golden. Although I still question: wall muriel instead of wall mural.

I think that Ms. Vane did an excellent job with the ’80’s flashbacks as the activist scene—flat mates— University parts of the book were extremely well written.  Fewer people to keep track of back then was a bonus but I mostly enjoyed it because she fleshed this set of characters out in ways that all of us former ’80’s college students can relate, even though, in the US, I had a completely different play list.  I particularly enjoyed reading the chapters where Paolo contacts all of his old roommates and the “where are they now” stories.

However, the chapters that are set in the present day feature an additional abundance of minor characters and side stories and I personally had difficulty remembering who was who and their part in various plot lines—especially as things were seldom exactly what they seemed.  I was further impeded by the fact that I was only able to read in a short burst/ long pause fashion. I kept forgetting who was who and who did what, where they fit in, and how did they figure that out…

Kindle reading does not make for easy going back and checking so when my brain let me down on some of these connections I simply accepted the given explanations and did’t try to back fact check. I’m still not sure I got everything right or understand some finer details. But no spoilers.

No regrets on time spent reading this book and would read more of Kate Vane.

About Kate Vane:

Kate worked as a probation officer in Leeds for a number of years. She started writing crime fiction because she thought made-up criminals would be easier to manage (Kate was wrong).

Kate has published four novels. She has written for BBC drama Doctors and her short stories and articles have appeared in various publications and anthologies, including Mslexia and Scotland on Sunday.

Kate always loved the sea, and now live on the beautiful south Devon coast. If she's not reading or writing, she's probably in the garden.

For the latest on her writing, go to katevane.com where you can sign up for her newsletter.

 

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 Entanglement by Andrew J. Thomas

Entanglement is a warm quirky read that lifts entanglement theory out of quantum physics and says what if??? Mr. Thomas constructs a wonderfully entangled story that contains just the right amount of facts that leaves one wondering if this tale is in fact within the plane of possibility. The “actual” plane of possibility exists within the world of quantum physics and there at least theoretically everything is possible.

What the Amazon Blurb says:

Entanglement is a quirky mystery with a sci-fi twist that’s influenced by the humor of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman.David’s fiancée worries when he drops out of contact. MI5 panics when a secret airbase vanishes. Liz doesn’t understand when her research subjects go missing. Nigel is confused when he finds an ordinary house brick floating in thin air. And a woman spends her life shifting between parallel worlds. But how can all these things be connected? And why are cakes so important?
Five friends, four mysteries, three deaths, two road trips and a secret that will change the world ... Entanglement is a warm, funny, and original tale about friendship, loss and coping when you’re out of your depth. It also invites readers to ask, “What if?” What if you hadn’t answered that voicemail? And what if grass that never needs cutting wasn't being kept secret by the lawnmower companies?

My Thoughts:

I am a fan of time traveling books, the fact that two exist on my tiny “forever” shelf would have given you a clue. Add a little bit of physics and science—this book hooks me even more.

I love authors with a dry, sly, sarcastic sense of humor with a gift of a good turn of phrase. Such as when Mr. Thomas tells us that TC learned to play the piano and at best one could describe her playing as accurate—or when he describes the sky as not having quite enough energy to commit to blue.

I love all the footnotes, the cake, and the recipes. However, I can only attribute the following to the author’s evil dry sense of humor but the recipe for Lemon Drizzle Cake instructs one to use 1-1/2 eggs. I won't rant but this type of nonsense is a personal baking pet peeve.

A missing underground military base, a transported colony of moles, a floating brick and the engaging group of people trying to figure all this out on all of the various fronts quickly entangle themselves together in an increasingly page turning (finger swiping) manner.

A tale that is told in the 3rd person. The author is the disembodied narrator for all of these characters (including the moles) as he takes us through their various doings and what happens to them along the way.

We are treated to a bird’s eye view as Mr. Thomas often gives the readers insight that his characters aren’t privy to, but he also lets us peak into his main character’s thoughts and feelings about what’s going on.

Then there is TC, seemingly out in left field, whose story is told as a parallel to the above tale. She is a cake loving girl who finds herself accidentally traveling between parallel worlds. How the author melds this altogether is one of the true delights of this book.

I cannot wait until Transference (2nd book) hits the shelves.

I seldom give a book 5 stars but this one truly deserves all of the stars, it is reading time very well spent.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing a digital copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

About the Author:

Andrew J Thomas was born in Bristol, England and after writing as a hobby all his life, became a published novelist with 'Entanglement'. He's inspired by Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. His work is quirkily funny, with characters you'd enjoy a drink with, and events just strange enough to be believable. He started writing 'Entanglement' in March 2018, shared the first version with friends that October, with professional editors four months later and completed it in August 2019. During that time though, his mother had a major stroke, and his focus expanded to include giving her a copy while there was still time. Happily, he succeeded. He's written two other novels and seventeen short stories (as yet unpublished) and lives in a thatched cottage in rural Worcestershire.

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I received an advanced digital copy of White Elephant by Trish Harnetiaux compliments of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. This novel will be published October 29. 2019.

Amazon Book Blurb says:

A crackling Christmas mystery that combines murder and blackmail at a holiday office party, in a mashup reminiscent of Big Little Lies and Clue.

There are only a few rules in a White Elephant gift exchange: 1) Everyone brings a wrapped, unmarked gift. 2) Numbers are drawn to decide who picks first. 3) Gifts don’t need to be pricey—and often they’re downright tacky.

But things are a little different in Aspen, Colorado, at the office holiday party for the real estate firm owned by Henry Calhoun and his wife Claudine. Each Christmas sparks a contest among the already competitive staff to see who can buy the most coveted gift: the one that will get stolen the most times, the one that will prove just how many more commissions they earned that year than their colleagues. Designer sunglasses, deluxe spa treatments, front row concert tickets—nothing is off the table. And the staff is even more competitive this year as Zara, the hottest young pop star out of Hollywood, is in town and Claudine is determined to sell her the getaway home of her dreams.

Everyone is puzzled when a strange gift shows up in the mix: an antique cowboy statue. At least the sales agents are guessing it’s an antique—otherwise it’d be a terrible present. It’s certainly not very pretty or expensive-looking. In fact, the gift makes sense only to Henry and Claudine. The statue is the weapon Henry used to commit a murder years ago, a murder that helped start his company and a murder that Claudine helped cover up. She swore that no one would ever be able to find the statue or trace it to their crime. So which of their employees did? And why did they place it in the White Elephant? What could possibly be their endgame?

Over the course of the evening, Henry and Claudine race to figure out who could have planted the weapon, and just what the night means for the secrets they’ve been harboring. Further adding to the drama is a snowstorm that closes nearby roads—preventing anyone from leaving, as well as keeping law enforcement from the scene. And by the end of this crazy night, the police will most definitely be required…

What I Say:

The idea of the office party/ White Elephant Holiday gift exchange drew me in as my family has one every Christmas. We use slightly different rules however and certainly none of our gifts are as fabulous, mysterious, and deadly as the ones offered at this party— while it is true ours may include some drama they are nothing like this one!

I did catch a “Big Little Lies” vibe as at times it felt like some of the characters were giving interviews about the events at the party after the fact, especially pop star, Zara. I also was intrigued by the real estate angle as a guilty watching pleasure of mine is Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Listing LA. The show’s featured brokers often have celebrity clients and while they pursue clients and property with ruthless abandon I hope none of them have stooped to murder. No doubt Bravo will catch it on tape for us if they do.

What really sealed “the deal” for me was the side story of the performer, Andy Williams, and the real-life murder mystery surrounding his ex-wife Claudine Longet. Andy Williams was a favorite of my parents and I grew up listening to his music and watching him on TV. I imagine I even saw Claudine at some point. I had no idea of this real life intrigue. I was as curious as Zara and did my own fact checking.

The book certainly kept me turning pages. I enjoyed being able to look at the plot through the eyes of various characters. We hear the story from the point of view of Claudine, Henry, Zara, and the mysterious deathbed letters left by the girl friend of one of the murder victims to their love child. I don’t want to give any spoilers but the letters and the mystery gift certainly point out that at least one of the characters have come to the party with a not so innocent intent. The author plants several credible red herrings surrounding the mysterious White Elephant gift.

I also enjoyed how the author cleverly juxtaposed the present day events with the back story and flashbacks of her various main characters as this kept the suspense at a nice simmer througout. I enjoyed how the snowstorm was almost a character in itself.

Through the clues that the author dropped I was able to solve a few mysteries for myself but happily not all— which made for a very enjoyable read. I love books that provide after stories for their characters and this one did not disappoint. I would have appreciated having a better understanding of why the business of Calhoun + Calhoun was failing, we are just told that it is, with no real explanation.

Over all I enjoyed the time reading about real estate high jinx in Aspen, Colorado and consider it valuable reading time well spent. I would definitely recommend reading.

There is only one element of this story that I didn’t really “buy”.

Claudine Calhoun is portrayed as a fashion savvy, driven, ruthless, Type A, obsessive, narcissistic woman.  There is just absolutely no way a woman like Claudine Calhoun would commit such a basic fashion faux pas. Claudine would never select a pair of “Leopard print calf hair Manolos” to wear with “a tiger print Cavalli coat” as part of her Holiday party ensemble.

The standing rule in fashion regarding animal print is that it is used primarily for emphasis and the RULE is one animal print per outfit and preferably only one piece in the given outfit. If Claudine was a real person she would be appalled at this fashion gaffe as there is nothing more humiliating than a public fashion faux pas.

About the author:

Trish Harnetiaux is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her plays How to Get into BuildingsWelcome to the White Room, and If You Can Get to Buffalo have been published by Samuel French. Her latest play Tin Cat Shoes premiered at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks and she is currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction. Harnetiaux has been a resident at MacDowell, The Millay Colony and Yaddo. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and her work can be found at TrishHarnetiaux.com.

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Divorce Is Murder: A Toby Wong Novel (Toby Wong: Vancouver Island Mystery) By Elka Ray  

 Elka Ray's latest book is a gripping mystery set in Victoria, British Columbia, a tale that combines romance and murder.

Publisher: Seventh Street Books (Simon & Schuster)  Publication Date: August 20, 2019

My thanks to the author and to Henry Roi of Crime Wave Press who sent me a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

The book blurb states:

As teens, they bullied her. Twenty years on, she's not scared of them. Except she should be. After returning to her quiet hometown to care for her ailing mom, divorce lawyer Toby Wong is hired by Josh Barton, a guy who broke her heart as a teen at summer camp. Now a wealthy entrepreneur, Josh wants to divorce Tonya, the mean girl who tormented Toby all those years ago.

When Tonya is found murdered, Josh is the prime suspect. Together with her fortune-teller mom and her pregnant best friend, Toby sets out to clear Josh, whom she still has a guilty crush on. As she delves deeper into Tonya's murder, Toby keeps running into catty ex-campers she'd rather forget.

Are her old insecurities making her paranoid? Only too late does she realize she's in danger. The first entry in an addictive new series, Divorce is Murder introduces fans of mystery and romance to an irresistibly smart and sarcastic new heroine - Chinese Canadian divorce lawyer Toby Wong. 

 

Here are my thoughts:

After receiving my copy—full disclosure this is my first such review— I was understandably nervous. Wondering what if I didn’t like the writing or the story etc.  My plan was to read a couple of chapters before I committed—to see if I was going to be “in to it”.

Before I knew it hours had past— my to do list forgotten and mostly undone. The story kept me up late that night and right back into it the next morning. I finished it by early afternoon.

“Divorce is Murder” is an addictive page turner (finger swiper)  that is full of plot twists and turns.  A story that is equal parts romance, millennial, murder mystery and psychological thriller—it is short (barely over 200 pages) and reads fast.

Right book, right time. It provided just the type of read that my brain was longing for—a bit of escapism away from more serious heavy non-fiction professional reading that has recently filled my valuable reading time.

Don’t get me wrong I can find entertainment in all types of reading material but for the most part I also expect it to educate and challenge me.

But every once in awhile you need a read that wipes the slate clean, so to speak. I call these books palate cleansers—pure pleasures that leave a good taste in your mouth.

I used to spend many enjoyable reading hours snuggled in with the cosy mysteries of Diane Mott Davidson, Lillian Braun Jackson, and Mary Daheim.  Elka Ray fits right in to this mix. This is a genre that has been missing in my reading life of late. I hope indeed that Ms. Ray spends more time with Toby as I definitely would read more.

I do have a couple of remarks:

I imagine writing a short length novel comes with some necessary constraint—such writing does not leave a lot of room for expansive character development or deeper storylines. The author must provide just enough detail to color in the lines of her characters and locations— to provide a sense of personality, give a visual and to set the scene.

I personally found character development in this book to be a little lacking and at times certain characters are more like cardboard cut outs. The author provides just enough detail to keep the various plot lines a float but mostly relies on juxtaposing action scenes for forward momentum.

What I am expressing-- very poorly I imagine— is that my remark is not meant as a negative it is instead intended to simply mean that I wanted more— not just the bare bones. I loved her characters, the storyline and always found myself wanting more backstory, more detail, more interaction.  I found Toby to be very engaging but struggled with the little we learn of Josh, Ivy and many others. These bare threads left me at times a little confused. I wanted more depth and a better understanding.

For example: One chapter Josh is a multimillion dollar IT guy who in the next chapter is now making a living running a charter boat and the next doing IT consulting at his old company? Ivy’s cancer story is also very vague not to mention that Toby spends very little time with her mom during this story so one would hope that she is at the very least in remission… Nor do I buy all of the plotting devices--especially when it comes to lawyers going on dates with clients.

Several Personal Pet Peeves that irritated but did not take away from my enjoyment of this novel.

 Grievance One: 

I am a Yoga teacher and I was dismayed to find the author resorting to tired old social media portrayals of those of us who practice Yoga. Ivy was portrayed as nothing more than the often ridiculed cliched characterization...to quote the author. "The way some traumatized people find God, my mom found New Age mumbo jumbo, Yoga and astrology were her entry drugs...gypsy clothing and crystals...chanting and chakra balancing...a never ending embarrassment. 

Just for once it would be a welcome relief to see a Yogi characterized as a person that used this ancient practice as it is intended.  A traumatized person who through their practice found a strength of mind that enabled them to find a firm footing and a self-reliant life.

The science of Yoga does not promise to remove pain, it promises to help a person see things as they really are, quiet the mind, and removing suffering.

That being said I have ended relationships with teachers after they told of spirit journeys in which they met their family of spiritual guides and animals. I am not a huge fan of woo-woo spiritualism. I side with Toby on that point.

There is perhaps redemption in books to come as I was often left with the impression that the author was moving towards Toby becoming more of a believer than she wanted to admit, especially after events that occurred later in the book.

Grievance Two: 

I teach Pre-Natal Yoga, childbirth education and I am a Birth Doula. I believe that adding a very pregnant woman in a beginning chapter is akin to adding a gun to the first scene. Someone will shoot said gun before the story ends and the woman will go into labor before the book ends.

I was very apprehensive. I am a person known to stand up and yell at my TV set when faced with the outright ridiculous portrayal of birth on television, in movies, and on the internet. I would do a disservice to my profession if I do not say my piece. I only hope the author is as much into science as she claims.

I was extraordinarily pleased that the actual birth took place "off page" as this kept my disgruntlement to a minimum. I have absolutely no sense of humor in this regard.

Authors are allowed to let their fictional characters believe what ever they will and historians are stuck with whatever their subjects actually believed.  BUT the truth of the matter is that the “birth industry” is a total mess at the moment. It would be nice to see childbirth portrayed accurately --particularly by women. Women need to stand together right now and say truth.

 Near the end of the novel, Quinn is having Braxton Hicks contractions which are explained as false practice contractions. 100% not true. Early contractions such as B-H are responsible for moving the cervix, the uterus and the baby into position, they are also work with various hormones to ripen, soften, thin, and dilate the cervix. They are 100% not false. Certainly use their presence to practice various labor pain management tools. They are real. 

Speaking truth removes ignorance which removes fear which removes suffering which eases pain. 

After witnessing Quinn's B-H contraction, Toby opines that birth is one of nature’s cruel jokes especially on women.

I hang my head and cry. The Patriarchy truly has won if women continue to promote false knowledge about our bodies and birth.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ELKA RAY 

Elka Ray writes fast-paced romantic mysteries and scary thrillers - a dichotomy that reveals her belief in Yin and Yang, or the balance of opposites. A great lover of scientific facts, she may be found clutching crystals for good luck; reads highbrow journals and tabloid trash; and refuses to watch rom-coms yet moved in with her now-husband on their first date.

Elka is the author of three novels – the romantic mysteries DIVORCE IS MURDER and HANOI JANE – and the noir thriller SAIGON DARK. She also has a collection of short crime and ghost stories set in Southeast Asia – WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW.

Elka lives with her family near Hoi An, Vietnam.

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Benedict J Jones is a writer of crime, horror and western fiction from south east London. His work has appeared in magazines such as One Eye Grey, Pen Pusher, Out of the Gutter and Encounters, on a variety of websites including Big Pulp and Shotgun Honey and in anthologies from Dark Minds Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Full Dark City Press and Dog Horn Publishing. He has had more than twenty-five stories published since he first saw print, in 2008.

  The Gingerbread Houses: A Charlie Bars Thriller (The Charlie Bars Thriller Series Book 3) By Benedict J. Jones

The Gingerbread Houses is the third full length Charlie Bars thriller in this series and once again I received a digital copy compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

This round of British noir finds Charlie back at home base— the grittier side of London— once again a character in and of itself.  Mr. Jones quickly sets the scene, opening with Charlie seated in a pub—pint in one hand and book in the other.  Some time has passed since the conclusion of The Devil’s Brew and everyone is mostly healed, although Mazza is still struggling with a little PTSD from a previous violent encounter in Pennies.

Charlie and Mazza are back to work but looking for new office space. The author is not much for elaborating on regular characters or rehashing past plots but as a reader of all the Charlie Bars tales it is interesting to see how theses characters have evolved over the course of the series.

The dialog remains sharp and concise with all the usual London euphemisms.  A tale told in its usual conversational style making Charlie seem to be just your regular sort of guy…don’t be pulled into this by mistake.

Charlie is a complex character one who gains a little more depth with each subsequent outing—a man well versed in crime and violence who continues to profess a longing for a quieter life. Painting, reading, above board clients, love and family. However, circumstances always appear that drag him back down and his growing compulsion “to do the right thing” is increasingly leading him back into violence and crime.

One minute Charlie is sitting in a pub hoping for a peaceful moment with his book and his pint, the next he is approached by a former acquaintance asking for help finding information about one of Charlie’s old associates and help finding a man this potential client claims to have followed from Thailand who he believes is involved in the rape and murder of young boys.

Charlie thinks this will be an easy case and the right thing is to help get this creep off the streets, so he accepts the job. Unfortunately, or perhaps more accurately for Charlie-as per usual- not only is all not what it seems but it also turns out that his client is not the only one searching for this man.

It all becomes a complicated mess and Charlie’s choices all lead him into deeper danger and throw others into harms way as well especially after Ellie shows back up on his doorstep.

A very shady government organization who is in charge of covering up the sleazier transgressions of the higher ups is also on the trail and they are more than willing to kill to keep these secrets secret.

The dialog is sharp witty with more than a dash of humor and while dark themes abound they are not treated gratuitously there is no over the top graphic depictions of monstrous behavior or violence but make no mistake this is hard boiled noir and not for the easily squeamish. 

His accounts of violence may be short and sparse but this is by far the darkest book in the series, usually Mr. Benedict’s books feature a touch of the paranormal but here the evil is all too human.

Gingerbread Houses is the code name given to a series of locations that serve as “safe houses” for those with the money and power to indulge in sordid, inhumane and violent predilections—things that they will do anything to keep secret—a fact that is made abundantly clear to both Charlie and his client, all to soon.

I am happy to see that Ellie is back. I was also intrigued by the addition of the mysterious Hilda—a powerful semi-retired government fixer. While Mr. Jones seems to have a talent for creating fascinating powerful women on both sides of the law it also seems a waste that he often relegates these fab creations to the sidelines making them seem more plotting device than characters. They deserve much more.

My hope is that he is leaving bread crumbs (couldn’t resist the Hansel & Gretel moment) a trail to future stories.  As I said in my review of The Devil’s Brew Ellie is a fascinatingly good creation, and he teases us with even more of a hidden deeper side to Ellie here— so I continue to hope to see much more. Fair warning though—life with Charlie is not for the faint of heart.

Mr. Jones also introduces several side stories and italicized interludes that both give glimpses into the Gingerbread House past and into the violence and crime of Charlie’s own past.

This round left me with more unanswered questions than usual and a few semi plot holes.  By now I am used to “the case details” playing second fiddle to Charlie’s travails but I feel there is still some explaining left on the table. Kudos, that this is done in a way that makes me want more not less of Charlie Constantinou—so keep writing Benedict J. Jones.

If I have a quibble and it is very hard to take issue with a book and an author who continues to keep me on the edge of my seat swiping pages as fast as I can read here it is…

I felt at times the “dues ex machina” was impossible to ignore— that key characters are too conveniently awol, and IMO the behind the scene resolution is a bit tidy for the end of a Charlie Bar’s thrill ride.

 

Charlie might have had that denouement coming but one gets the sense it might be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. This was reading time well spent and I am already looking forward to the next installment.

The Devil's Brew: A Charlie Bars Thriller (The Charlie Bars Thriller Series Book 2)

I was contacted by Crime Wave Press asking if I would be interested in reading The Gingerbread Houses by Benedict J. Jones which has just been released and will make the third suspense noir thriller featuring Charlie “Bars” Constantinou.

As I like to start a series at the beginning I asked and received a digital copy of his first stand alone Charlie Bars thriller  (Pennies for Charon) which I greatly enjoyed, but if you want all of Charlie’s story I suggest starting with Skewered a collection of short stories, three of which feature Charlie Bars.

The Devil’s Brew is the second full length novel in this series and once again I received a digital copy compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

Mr. Jones continues where he left off at the end of Pennies for Charon and we find both Charlie and Mazza on the mend both physically and mentally in the aftermath of that climatic conclusion. I got just enough of Mazza during this tale to make me miss him—even though he spells trouble when he is around.

With things still a little “hot” in London Charlie skips town for a bit and holes up in a remote Northumbrian cottage in the heart of the English countryside. He hopes to get some down time, come to terms with some recent dark choices and deadly results, and hopes to get back to painting and the quiet life.

Charlie is out of his element away from London and not really sure what to make of these bare open spaces and oddly enough this shows in the writing as well as it is done in a style more reminiscent of Skewered than it is of Pennies. But the writing suits the tone of this book perfectly as Charlie is trying to take a step back returning to his paintings and his former resolve for a straighter life.

No such luck for Charlie, however, as he soon finds himself enveloped in his nearest neighbors troubles who are also newcomers to the area.  I am pleased to report that we are again treated to a dark tale with a bit of a paranormal twist. 

This time around it comes in the form of an violent, twisted family ruled over by the patriarchal grandfather who still “worships” in the old way by sipping on a devil’s brew, and making sacrifices to the horned one. He thrives on manipulating his family and during the course of this we are treated to any number of evil repulsive family doings, which ends up making this book even darker than Pennies.

A green-eyed black cat turns up at Charlie’s front door and quickly takes up residence—a beautiful creature who is perhaps more than she seems. He even manages to sneak in a bit of painting in between hitting the pub and dealing with the locals.  We definitely see a different side to Charlie.

It is hard to find fault with a story that kept me glued to the page and finishing it after a couple reads. This outing is also a little more steamy as Charlie spends some time hitting the sheets.

I am appreciative of authors who write scenes with authenticity as we see here when Mazza helps Charlie prepare for a lengthy surveillance detail. This book is not without its wee bits of humor and that is certainly welcome relief in such a brutal story.

Mr. Jones sure does know his way around writing action scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat and this novel does not disappoint.

 I hope this is not a spoiler but I cannot resist this comment.  Be forewarned.

 Mr. Jones introduces a romantic interest for Charlie in the form of Ellie Bashir, the woman who accounts as the sole form of law enforcement in this neck of the woods. She is one bad ass lady and provided of course that she survives her time with Charlie I would definitely read more about her, she has great main character potential, and she more than merits a stand alone of her own.

 I highly recommend this book and can’t wait to get started on The Gingerbread Houses.

  Pennies for Charon: A Charlie Bars Thriller (The Charlie Bars Thriller Series Book 1) by Benedict J. Jones

I was contacted by Crime Wave Press asking if I would interested in reading The Gingerbread Houses by Benedict J. Jones which has just been released. This title will make the third suspense noir thriller featuring Charlie “Bars” Constantinou. As I like to start a series at the beginning I asked and received a digital copy of his first stand alone Charlie Bars thriller  (Pennies for Charon) compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

After finishing Pennies for Charon I dug a little deeper into Charlie’s past by reading Skewered and Other London Cruelties as he is introduced as a character in the novella Skewered and is featured in 2 of the other shorts. I left a review for this book also.

When we first meet Charlie in Skewered he was newly out from his 3rd stint in prison, struggling to ride the straight and narrow, and nurturing his fledgling art career.  At the start of Pennies for Charon we see him with a new career but back to drinking, hanging in bars, and his painting projects languish unfinished off in the corner. He is oozing more into the gray every day.

This noir tale opens with Charlie and Mazza as partners now in a somewhat shady Private Investigation firm. What starts as a simple missing person case quickly turns into something much darker. A demon obsessed serial killer who wears pink socks, Ouija boards,  and a new rich barrister client that turns out to be just as suspicious of Charlie as Charlie is of him.

Charlie is fleshed even more as we meet his family, and an old flame/ working girl Lena. The suspense and the violence build steadily throughout the story and Charlie definitely takes a darker turn. The theme also continues…with a business partner/friend like Mazza who needs enemies, although after reading Skewered I understand more of his motive.

Benedict J. Jones has tightened up his writing in Pennies for Charon with the use of swift spare prose, with just enough gritty London-isms to give character and grit. If you like your noir with a little twist of the paranormal then you are in the right hands. Mr. Jones provides a great read and his writing just continues to get better.

Time to spark a Benson and take a bite out of The Devil’s Brew.

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.