Review | Jigsaw Man (A Mark Tartaglia Mystery), Elena Forbes

JigsawThe fourth in the DI Mark Tartaglia series, this book features a double mystery: a burned corpse turns out to be an assembly of parts from four different bodies and a young woman killed at a hotel turns out to be the sister of Tartaglia’s former partner Sam Donovan. I’d read and enjoyed the first book in this series a few years ago, where I commented that Tartaglia and Donovan clearly have some chemistry — from this book, I can see it had developed into something more and then ended badly, so there’s an interesting bit of tension from their shared history.

I was definitely intrigued by the plot of Jigsaw Man — in particular the stitched up bodies because how creepy and gruesome is that? There was also the interesting coincidence of Tartaglia having been in the hotel on the night of the murder, and I could just imagine a detective like Hercule Poirot having his ego completely bruised at not having noticed anything amiss. For Tartaglia, because he knew the victim, his response was more guilt than a bruised ego, and made the crime personal.

Unlike the first book Die with Me, Tartaglia’s personal life is brought front and centre in this novel, with the investigation taking somewhat of a back seat. As a result, I felt like there was so much of a backstory that I missed, and while Forbes does a good job of cluing new readers in, I wondered if the case would have meant more to me if I’d known the victim as well, or at least remembered more of Donovan’s character. As it was, it read as a fairly standard police procedural.

I mentioned in my review of Die with Me that nothing in particular about Tartaglia stood out to me, and I think that was a part of why I couldn’t really get into this book. When the story is so contingent on a mystery’s effect on the main character’s personal life, you have to care about the main character, and in this case, I just didn’t find Tartaglia compelling enough.

Again, as with Die with Me, I found Donovan to be a more interesting character. She is no longer a police officer in this novel, yet her background naturally makes her want to be involved in tracking down her sister’s murderer.  I found it annoying at first, mostly because I was no longer familiar with her background within the series and I thought she was just interfering in other people’s jobs. Later on, she then hides key information from Tartaglia because she wanted to take her own revenge, and while it’s an understandable impulse, it’s also a trope that annoys me in detective or superhero fiction, mostly because that kind of storyline always progresses predictably.

The mystery of the stitched up body parts didn’t make much of an impact on me — it mostly felt tacked on and while we follow the police procedural to solve that case, it felt more a background subplot to the actual mystery involving Sam’s sister.

Overall, I wonder if having read the other books in the series, or even having read the first book more recently, would have made me enjoy this book more. As it was, the book was okay. I found myself mostly bored by it, until Donovan’s perspective kinda takes over near the end. I may give the Tartaglia series another shot, but also wonder if Forbes may have plans of doing a Donovan stand-alone. That one, I’d definitely read.


Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee # 7: The Triad Years), Ian Hamilton

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee # 6), this review includes a major spoiler in the first paragraph about that book and the Ava Lee series in general.


King of Shanghai begins about a month after Uncle’s death in Two Sisters of Borneo. Ava is just coming out of grieving and ready to begin a new life as a partner in the Three Sisters investment business she runs with friends May and Amanda. She still feels the loss of Uncle’s mentorship, but is somewhat looking forward to a quieter life, with a steady income and without the violence that resulted from her previous work.

Unfortunately for Ava, her old life seems determined to catch up to her. Uncle’s friend and mentee Xu, the head of the Triad in Shanghai, is seeking the chairmanship of all Triad Societies, and he wants to recruit Ava as his adviser. The rest of the story unfolds in classic Ava Lee fashion — other Triad bosses don’t get along with Xu, Ava gets sucked into their conflict, various characters get kidnapped/beaten up/shot.

King of Shanghai does focus a bit more on Ava’s strategic thinking rather than her martial arts prowess, which I liked. She ends up having to strategize about the Triad, and that’s a scale beyond what she’s had to deal with in the past, I think. That being said, one of my concerns with this series is that Ava’s always been more than capable so I haven’t really seen much character growth in that regard over the series. Because she has been practically superhuman all along, there was never any doubt that she could come up with a good strategy, nor that she could strong-arm negotiations in her favour. More significantly, there isn’t much difference between the Ava working for Uncle and the Ava left without a mentor. She does mourn Uncle’s death, and there’s a great scene where she dreams about him, but in terms of character development, I didn’t really feel how Uncle’s death changed her in any way.

The appeal of any mystery and thriller series is familiarity — there’s a set structure and there’s a certain set of expectations of how the main character would react in a given situation. So in a way, I can’t fault Ian Hamilton for giving us the Ava Lee story we’ve come to expect. I think however that the story arc about Uncle’s health in previous books raised the emotional stakes in such a way that enhanced the series, and that is missing in this book. Ava’s concern over Uncle’s declining health added heart to the series and depth to Ava’s character, and perhaps it is in contrast to that that the language in this book feels oddly detached. Even moments of emotion, such as Ava’s emailing “I love you” to her girlfriend felt clinical in execution, added to the story just to remind us that Ava has a girlfriend before then going on to the business at hand.

There is also a subplot about PO, a fashion line the Three Sisters consider investing in. To be honest, I enjoyed that subplot more than the Triad part, mostly because I like fashion, but as the Triad story took off, this story was pushed to the sidelines, and it made me wonder why we spent almost half the book building up this storyline.

King of Shanghai is a solid addition to the Ava Lee series. If you enjoyed the earlier books, this has many of the elements that make the other books great, and Ava is as powerful and brilliant as ever.


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

Review | Bone and Bread, Saleema Nawaz


Beena and Sadhana are sisters orphaned at a young age and assigned to live with their uncle, a Sikh who owns a bagel shop in Montreal that people assume is owned by a Jewish family. Not only is their uncle’s traditional values at odds with their mother’s more hippie-style upbringing, but the sisters themselves seem to be inevitably growing apart, Beena feeling the weight of responsibility in her role as older sister and caretaker, and Sadhana trying to break free from her sister’s influence. Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread is about sisters — the love, the rivalry and all the wonderful complexities contained therein. It’s about family, grief and guilt, and to a lesser extent, cultural identity.

The scenes depicting Beena and Sadhana’s childhood are strong. The difference in their looks and skin colour, such that people may not necessarily realize they are sisters, is mirrored in the difference in their personalities — the stolid Beena is the obedient eldest child and the beautiful, artistic Sadhana tries to fit in with the popular crowd. Nawaz describes their relationship beautifully, balancing sibling rivalry against a deep sense of affection.

Particularly powerful is the scene of their mother’s death. This causes an irreparable, yet mostly concealed, rift between the sisters, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful, horrifying scene, one that sticks with me long after I’ve finished reading the book.

The description of the ensuing conflict between the sisters is also compelling. There’s a point when Beena, who takes her role as Sadhana’s caretaker very seriously, discovers how much Sadhana really resents her, and just that moment of realization, that searing bolt of pain Beena must have felt, was such a powerful, pivotal moment in the book.

Beena ends up an unwed teenage mother, while Sadhana becomes anorexic, and the visual tension created by Beena’s tummy growing while Sadhana’s body whittles away is striking. Both sisters are in bad shape, emotionally and physically, and much as you want them to return to the closeness they shared before their mother’s death, all you can do is watch helplessly as they pull even further away from each other.

The story falters somewhat in the present day plot. The mystery of the circumstances behind Sadhana’s death is important in terms of Beena’s sense of guilt over it, but it never really seems to matter. Beena’s issues with her son and his desire to meet his father similarly pale in comparison to her issues with Sadhana, and when Nawaz brings in a political angle to the plot, there’s just too much going on to care. Bone and Bread, particularly in the present day plot, tries to tackle too much, when the power of the story is firmly in the relationship between the sisters. Ironically, the event that set the story off in the first place — Sadhana’s death — appears to have weakened it. How would the story have been if Sadhana hadn’t died, if Beena had been forced to face her sister all the way till the bitter end? What if the story had been focused on Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, with the political subplot firmly ensconced within the sisters’ tale?

Personally, I would have liked to find out.


Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.