Review | Murder Gets a Makeover (Jaine Austen # 18), by Laura Levine

MurderMakeoverCoverLaura Levine’s Jaine Austen mysteries are one of my favourite go-to comfort reads. They’re fun, they’re frothy, and best of all, they feature a hilariously diva-esque cat named Prozac! Murder Gets a Makeover is a fantastic and entertaining addition to the series. Jaine agrees to Lance’s offer of a makeover only because a neighbour mistakes her for a homeless person, but she quickly regrets her decision when the stylist turns out to be hateful and mean. It’s little surprise when the stylist turns up murdered; unfortunately, Jaine accidentally gets her prints on the murder weapon and becomes the prime suspect.

Murder Gets a Makeover is classic Jaine Austen. The mystery is lighthearted and more madcap than nail-biting, and the novel is chockfull of hilarious subplots. The spotlight is turned on Prozac after she saves a toddler’s life. Really, she’d meant to steal the toddler’s chicken nugget, but with all the media attention and an invitation to a steak dinner, Jaine’s not about to correct anyone! Of course, Jaine and Prozac being who they are, Prozac’s stardom doesn’t quite benefit her owner as much as Jaine envisions, and the way this subplot unravels is a delight.

Even Jaine’s beloved Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs T-shirt gets into a misadventure of its own! One of the first things the makeover stylist does is yank the shirt off Jaine and demand it be burned. Jaine sets off on a quest to rescue the tee, and a scene featuring Jello wrestling and an opponent called Cindy the Bulldozer is classic. Another subplot, featuring Jaine’s parents and homeowner association president Lydia Pinkus, is equally hilarious, and a subplot involving Lance’s investigation into a work rival is fun.

I do wish the central mystery had been fleshed out a bit more. The best Jaine Austen mysteries are those that truly plunge the reader into a madcap world, and give us a victim who’s larger than life in their villainy and a cast of potential suspects whose motives are peeled away in layers. As unpleasant as the victim in Makeover was, she was far from iconic, and her presence barely hovers over the narrative after she’s killed. Levine does give us the usual large cast of suspects, each with their own motives, but they disperse so quickly after the murder that the investigation merely dips our toes into their individual stories rather than immerses us fully in their world. Levine’s subplots are usually just as entertaining, and at times more so, than her central mysteries, but in Makeover, they seemed to overshadow the central case more than usual.

The big reveal did take me by surprise — I had an inkling on the villain, but didn’t guess their motive at all. Their motive was set up well in advance though, so well done to Levine for sneaking that in. Unfortunately, the climactic confrontation felt anticlimactic — there was barely any sense of danger, and rather than super evil or super pathetic, the villain just seemed bland.

Still, overall Makeover is classic Jaine Austen. I love how much Prozac featured in this instalment, and I especially love that the Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs shirt got significant time in the spotlight. I don’t think it’s quite my favourite among the Jaine Austen books, but it’s a solid addition to the series, and lots of fun to read.

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Thank you to Kensington Books for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Even So, by Lauren B. Davis

Cover of Even So, with a white and pink flower against a background of blue-green leaves.Even So is more a spiritual novel than a religious one, by which I mean that it tackles themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, but there are no overt demands to turn to God, nor pray in a different way, nor even convert to a particular religion. I personally liked this approach — I grew up Catholic, and a lot of the language in the book resonated with me on a nostalgic level, as it reminded me of the guided meditations and silent retreats we did at school. And I was glad that the book stopped short of actually proselytizing, and was broader and more inclusive in its approach to its themes.

will add the caveat that the way Davis treats the themes leaves much room for interpretation. The above is how the book struck me, but I can also very easily imagine other readers who will experience the book otherwise, and possibly read it as super religious in tone. I can also imagine readers — on both ends of the religiosity spectrum — who may dislike how this book chose to tackle its themes, and feel that it was either too heavy-handed or too subtle. My experience of the book is very much tied into my personal history, and my personal relationships with faith and spirituality, and I think your own experiences will colour how you end up viewing this novel.

Even So tells the story of two women: Angela Morrison, who is unhappily married to a wealthy older man, and wishing to rekindle passion in her life; and Sister Eileen, who runs the Our Daily Bread Food Pantry where Angela volunteers. Sister Eileen is dealing with a crisis of faith — she longs to deepen her relationship with God, yet is haunted by something she did when she was much younger that she fears is unforgivable. Angela — self-centred and snobby — is someone Sister Eileen automatically dislikes, and learning to love her regardless is part of her redemption. For her part, Angela’s passion is rekindled when she meets Carsten, the handsome gardener at Daily Bread, who is young, free, and basically everything her husband isn’t. Her decision to have an affair leads to her causing a terrible tragedy that unites both women in a journey towards redemption.

There were times when I found the moralizing to be too heavy-handed. Though Davis does a good job in setting up her characters, so that the moralizing feels organic to who they are, and to where their stories are headed, it got a bit much at times, and made me just want to tell everyone in the story to chill already. Despite Angela’s clear unhappiness in her marriage, her affair with Carsten is depicted as sordid, even shameful. The novel does display sympathy for her during the fallout from the tragedy, but it’s a sympathy that felt contingent on her repentance, not just for the tragedy itself, but for embarking on the affair in the first place.

Angela did make some poor choices, but where I consider those choices to be naive errors in judgement (seriously, IMHO, Carsten was never much of a prize), the novel presents them as sinful. There was such an undercurrent of judgment through the chapters on the affair, with Angela getting passive-aggressive comments from other characters, that I just wanted to tell her to find better friends already. Not necessarily friends who’ll condone the affair, but at least friends who won’t make her feel like she was on a one-way ticket to hell. And while Sister Eileen plays coy about how Angela should respond to the tragedy, the framing makes clear that punishment is the best way to cleanse the guilt, and move towards forgiveness.

Despite that, I ultimately found the book a comfort to read. I’d mentioned that it reminded me of some of the spiritual practices and events from my youth, and that’s because, equally embedded with all the shame and guilt, was the desire to love and to be loved. Davis writes beautifully, and Sister Eileen’s reflections on the nature of love, and what it means to love even when you don’t feel like it, can at times feel like a warm hug. There’s transcendence in forgiveness, particularly when turned towards oneself, and this novel explores that theme beautifully.

And despite the heavy-handedness of the moralizing at times, I think that overall, Angela isn’t presented so much as a sinner as a human being, with all the foibles and heart that entails. Her sense of despair, as she looks on her marriage, and realizes how trapped she feels in her own life, feels very real. And when she decides to have an affair with Carsten, we are pulled right into the relief she feels, as she finally indulges in something that makes her happy. There was also catharsis in how her story turns out, and a clear sense that she’s, if not happy, at least well on her way towards happiness.

Ultimately, I found Even So to be a moving tale of sin, guilt, and redemption. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I do think there are readers who’ll find it uplifting, maybe even transcendent. Angela and Sister Eileen are both archetypes and very much human — I think some readers may be able to recognize themselves in these characters, and find succour in how their stories turn out.

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

Review | Murder in an English Glade (Beryl and Edwina Mystery 5), by Jessica Ellicott

MurderInAnEnglishGladeMurder in an English Glade is a charming historical mystery featuring an Odd Couple-type pair of private investigators: British socialite/aspiring novelist Edwina Davenport and American adventuress Beryl Helliwell. In this instalment, the investigators are hired to run a fake undercover investigation at an artists’ retreat — their client’s cousin is accusing their client’s sister-in-law of having an affair with one of the artists, and the client believes the appearance of an investigation will quell her cousin’s doubts before the accusations erupt into a full-blown scandal. Except that shortly after Beryl and Edwina arrive, the artist turns up murdered, and the fake investigation turns real.

It’s a charming premise. I’m a huge fan of genteel British small town mysteries, and I loved the chance to delve into a world where there’s an estate large enough to host a group of artists and a group of Girl Guides, and art has such cultural cache that such goings-on are simply par for the course for the ultra elite. The beginning also totally won me over, with Beryl blundering into an argument with Edwina’s housekeeper — being unused to servants, Beryl thinks she’s being helpful, but Edwina’s gardener is quick to point out her faux pas. I love that contrast between both the lead characters, and how they responded to the situation.

The mystery, as well, hooked me at first. I loved the subplot about a potential romance for Edwina, and the comedy around Edwina learning what going undercover as an artist’s model may actually require her to do. I also hadn’t realized cigarette cases were designed by painters working with models, so that was an interesting bit of history. The big reveal came as a surprise to me, and I like how all the various disparate elements came together at the end.

That being said, the novel fizzled out for me partway through. Possibly, it’s just that I had to be in a certain mood to really get into it, but the latter half felt slow to me. The mystery surrounding Beryl’s history with one of the guests didn’t really interest me much, and I wanted to see a lot more of Edwina’s potential romance. The way the reveal was structured also felt a bit confusing — there’s a major clue near the end that points to a particular suspect, but then much ado is made over figuring out the involvement of a character who turned out to be irrelevant to the reveal. And the villain’s motivation was only hinted at on-page — there were some clues leading up to it, but the key part of information behind their motivation was only brought up in the big exposition scene, which I felt took away some of the “Aha!” feeling of all the pieces clicking into place.

Overall, it’s a pretty good mystery. I found the characters of Beryl and Edwina to be interesting, and I love the set-up of the faux investigation. The second half was a bit of a letdown, but overall, the mystery was solid, and had some good red herrings and clues.

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Thank you to Kensington Books for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.