Review | Picture You Dead, by Peter James

PictureYouDeadThe 18th Roy Grace novel is a fun and entertaining art world caper. It begins in 2015, when an art dealer comes across a long-lost painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard: Spring, one of four that the painter created for the four seasons. Alone, it could bring in about GBP 3 – 5 million; if the full set was completed, the value skyrocketed to about ten times as much. The art dealer is killed before he could sell it.

Fast forward to 2019, when Harry and Freya, an ordinary couple who love shopping at car boot sales, stumble upon what could be another painting in the series, Summer. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, still mourning the recent death of his son, has assembled a team to investigate the cold case of the art dealer’s murder in 2015.

From fairly early on in the novel, we know who the major players are. We know there’s a ruthless art collector who’s not above using shady means to acquire the works he desires. We know his right hand man has worked with a well-known art forger, and we also know that Harry has reached out to this art forger for advice about his painting.

The direction this thriller will take is no mystery, and I don’t think I would necessarily label this a high-octane thriller. Yet it’s very much a character-driven one, and very effective at what it does. Within their first appearance, I was full-on rooting for Harry and Freya. I sympathized with their struggles in managing their son Tom’s diabetes vis-a-vis his sweet tooth, and I was especially invested in hoping that their beloved rescue cat Jinx survives whatever happens. (I’m glad to say he does, and true to cats everywhere, his role seems to be to run away from danger, while his humans are quite a bit slower to pick up on the signals.)

Some of Harry’s decisions, ironically including the ones he makes to protect his investment in the painting, don’t work out at all like he plans, and in fact sometimes end up just creating more problems. And that really worked for me. Because his mistakes aren’t totally off-the-mark; he’s not so much a totally hapless innocent as he is a regular person caught in a situation far beyond his experience. His and Freya’s desire for a better life is very understandable, and I just kept wishing they offloaded the painting to an auction house already, so they get all the money they’re entitled to, before the shady art collector and his team close in.

While Roy Grace and his detectives did play a part in solving the mystery, they almost felt sidelined to the core of the thrills, which for me, centred on the various other characters playing cat and mouse over this painting. For me, the series characters shone most in their B plots — Roy Grace mourning his son’s death and trying to learn more about his son’s final moments (I wish I’d remembered more about what happened in the last book); Grace’s protege Glenn Branson, wanting to be supportive of his fiancee’s career, but also wanting to have more kids, and clashing with his fiancee about her investigation on corruption on the force; and Norman Potting, who makes lots of off-colour jokes but is also dealing with a lot in his personal life. I was drawn by these subplots as well, and found that they gave a nice respite from the main storyline.

Overall, this was a fun book, and a great escape for a weekend. 

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Jade is a Twisted Green, by Tanya Turton

JadeIsATwistedGreenJade is a Twisted Green is a good coming-of-age story about a twenty-four-year-old Black queer woman in Toronto. Jade Brown is working through her grief over her twin sister’s death a few years ago, and the story follows her journey towards her twenty-fifth birthday, as she reconnects with past lovers, parties with friends, and pushes herself past her comfort zone. In doing so, she tries new experiences, meets new friends, and grows more confident in her ambition to become a writer.

I’m not usually one for literary fiction these days, but Turton’s writing drew me in. I liked how complex and textured her characters were. While Jade is the main character in the novel, the story occasionally flips to other characters’ points of view, and we see how many of them are also figuring their own ways through life.

I like how some of the dialogue was in patois, and I especially like how the narration pointed out where, for example, using patois and first names was unusual for a pair of characters in interacting with each other. Or in another example, the narration comments on how a character switches to the kind of language Jade notices her mom using with white folks. These little linguistic notes highlight the nuances going on in the scene, and the subtle shifts in the relationships between characters.

I was also drawn into the backstory of Jade’s sister Roze and, while part of me wished the book had had more scenes with her, I also kinda like the limited nature of the glimpses we did see. The part where the circumstances behind her death were revealed was especially well-done.

Overall, I thought this was a really good story with a strong narrative voice. I cared for Jade and her friends, I loved how much they were there for each other, and I was glad to see Jade gradually come into her own.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Always the Almost, by Edward Underhill

AlwaysTheAlmostAlways the Almost is a sweet and uplifting queer YA coming of age story and romance. Trans teen pianist Miles Jacobson has two New Year resolutions: win the annual piano competition and finally beat his long-time rival Cameron, and win back his ex-boyfriend Shane, who’d dumped him after Miles came out as trans. Things take a turn when Miles meets new boy Eric Mendez, a proudly queer cartoonist who asks for Miles’ pronouns when they first meet, and who seems to understand Miles much more than Shane ever did.

In the foreword, the author provides some content warnings, along with a content promise: this story will have a happy ending. In the afterword, the author writes that this book is all about queer joy. And indeed, even long before the promised happy ending, this book is very much a celebration of queer joy. Miles’ piano teacher comments that he plays like he “doesn’t know who he is” — the metaphor is rather obvious, but as a reader, you just get so caught up in Miles’ story that you can’t help but be drawn into his struggle anyway. The author’s descriptions of the Miles’ piano playing are powerfully evocative. Miles comes to several important epiphanies while practicing for the competition, and as a result, his piano playing isn’t just a technical feat, nor is it even just a sharing of his story; rather, each practice and each competition is a journey towards his triumph. He learns not only who he is, but to celebrate all that the totality of his identity implies.

Miles is a flawed character, and I love how the author shows him growing as a person. The book also includes some incidents of transphobia, and how Miles’ pain at times prevents him from fully being himself. But what I love is that the author also shows how his pain sometimes keeps him from recognizing and responding to other people’s pain. This plays out most obviously in his relationship with Eric. There’s a moment in the book where Miles does something that seriously hurts Eric, and causes Eric to pull away from him. In his attempt to make up, Miles focuses not on the harm he did, but rather on how much Eric’s support helps him perform well on the piano. Worse, he chooses to do so at a time when Eric is dealing with family stuff that are, quite frankly, more important than Miles’ feelings at that point. Eric rightly calls him out on such a selfish, self-centred attempt at apologizing, and Miles’ journey towards realizing what he did wrong (it took him several more chapters to figure it out, LOL) is gratifying to see.

I like how the author creates nuance in his characters — even Miles’ ex-boyfriend Shane isn’t a complete jerk, and there’s a lovely moment when Miles realizes that Shane was genuinely trying to understand what Miles was going through. Cameron and his piano teacher remain straight-up villains till the end, but I like how some of the other competitors are fleshed out as characters even though they only show up for a couple of scenes. The subplot regarding the romance between Miles’ best friends Rachel and Paige are also compelling, and I like that a secondary character involved in that subplot was also given nuance.

Overall, this is a lovely read. Queer and trans readers may want to look up the author’s content warnings, as Miles, Eric, and some of the other characters do deal with some difficult experiences. But the main impression I got (with my admittedly straight and cis perspective) is one of triumph and joy. I loved following Miles through his journey, and cheering him and his friends on towards their respective versions of happiness.

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Thank you to St Martins Press for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.