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Reviews & Comments: 4 by Rex Stout, & Why Language Matters

And Four to Go (Nero Wolfe, #30)And Four to Go by Rex Stout
Review by CJ Verburg

Four short novellas or long stories, each fun in a different way. Rex Stout was at his (long-lived) peak in the late 1950s, so these are vintage Nero Wolfe capers. Oddly, the first three are holiday-centered, whereas the fourth opens on a random Tuesday in the fashion business. In “Christmas Party,” Archie Goodwin strikes fear into his boss’s heart by announcing he’s getting married. “Easter Parade” features (you guessed it) orchids. “Fourth of July Picnic”–in which Wolfe leaves home to make a speech–and “Murder Is No Joke” both involve women named Flora. My favorite moment comes in “Fourth of July Picnic,” when Wolfe and Goodwin give us brief impromptu autobiographies. A treasure for Stout fans; a good intro for newcomers.

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Pen vs. Sword, or Why Language Matters

Mystery Reviews & a Freebie: Boris Akunin’s The Winter Queen, Rex Stout’s Where There’s a Will, & Disarmed

by C J Verburg

The Winter Queen (Erast Fandorin Mysteries, #1)The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Winter Queen is is the first of Akunin’s books featuring Erast Fandorin, a minor government functionary who starts out young and hapless, yet is sharp and dogged enough to find himself steering events he’s assigned to help decipher. Evidently each book in the series represents a different subgenre; this “conspiracy mystery” opens in Moscow, 1876. I was intrigued to step into such an authentically unfamiliar frame of reference: time, place, social assumptions and preoccupations. High points include the old-fashioned chapter titles (“in which many difficulties are encountered”), and Akunin’s use of common tropes (orphanage, British charity patron, femme fatale, rogue boss) in unexpected ways, along with his deft plot twists. On the other hand, the characters’ obsessions — particularly with nuances of rank — felt so remote that I didn’t care all that much about them or how things turned out.

Where There's a Will (Nero Wolfe, #8)Where There’s a Will by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rex Stout never wrote a Nero Wolfe mystery I didn’t love. His standard ingredients are outstanding: intriguing characters and situations, a fast-moving plot, and Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone full of orchids, gourmet meals, and books, all presented to us by this Sherlock’s smart-alecky Watson, the clever, charming, resourceful Archie Goodwin. Where There’s a Will was particularly interesting to reread because it’s an early book, written before Stout got fully up to speed (pub date 1940). Therein lie my quibbles: a plethora of characters became a challenge to keep sorted; and the most intriguing oddity of the eponymous will remains a loose end. On the other hand, in spite of Wolfe’s horror of women, and the biases of the time, the three Hawthorne sisters are as capable and impressive as they are distinctive. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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In the mood for a quick summer sleuthing adventure? “Disarmed: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery Story” is FREE on iTunes, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, and most other e-outlets. (Amazon insists on charging $.99.)

Clash of the Titans: Apple & Google Refocus on Books; Amazon Reloads Audio

by CJ Verburg

Suddenly Amazon’s facing some potentially serious competition.

As 2018 started, Apple announced several significant changes to the company’s approach to books. According to Mark Gurman in Bloomberg, they plan to retool their reading app, making it easier to read (and buy) e-books or listen to audiobooks on the iPad and other Apple devices. This accompanies a plan to morph iBooks into Apple Books, with a fresh design to echo Apple Music. Heading the new effort is Kashif Zafar, a senior vice president from Audible, Amazon’s market-dominating audiobooks business (see below), who previously was a content VP at Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader division.

Meanwhile, Google has launched Google Play Books, which will compete for audiobook sales with Apple Books and Amazon’s Audible. Michael Schaub reports in The L.A. Times that Google’s plan is to enable “readers in 45 countries to play audiobooks purchased through the service on several platforms, including Google Home, the company’s popular smart speaker.” The Google Play Books listener also benefits from automatic syncing — you can start listening on your way home from work on your Android or iPhone, and pick up where you left off on your home speaker or computer.

Amazon, as always, remains a moving target. According to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, they too have audiobook innovations in the pipeline. Coming later this year are the first hot new audiobooks that will precede the release of the print or e-book. Now that many “readers” are listeners, Amazon is working with (or twisting the arms of) publishing companies as well as authors to bring content straight to consumers’ ears:

Audible is pitching literary agents on the benefits of using its services, saying authors will get a competitive bidding process that could mean more money in their pockets, and . . . adding pressure on book publishers to hold on to a modest but growing area of an otherwise challenged book industry. In the first eight months of 2017, publishers’ revenue from audiobooks grew 20% from the same period a year earlier, while print books only rose 1.5% and e-books slipped 5.4% . . .

For those of us with a stake in the outcome, it’s useful to keep in mind a contrast in corporate strategy noted by Bloomberg’s Gurman:

Apple’s renewed effort highlights its different approach to software services and hardware, compared with Amazon. Apple sells e-books to make its high-priced devices more attractive, making money on the sale of the hardware. Amazon churns out new versions of Kindle devices at or near to cost and tries to make money selling content.

What outcome is likely for authors? As Sancho Panza remarked in Man of La Mancha: Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s bound to be bad for the pitcher.

Southern Noir: Crooked Man & Palm Beach Poison – reviews by CJ Verburg

Crooked Man (Tubby Dubonnet, #1)Crooked Man by Tony Dunbar
This is the second Tubby Dubonnet novel I’ve read, & I plan to keep going. The New Orleans setting is great fun, & the characters & plot have an appealing whiff of Elmore Leonard — that blend of suspense, sardonic humor, & gritty charm. Crooked Man features a bunch of crooked men, some lurking in the shadows & some fairly open about it, plus an up-against-it woman who doesn’t realize how strong she is until push comes to shove.

Palm Beach Poison (A Charlie Crawford Mystery, #2)Palm Beach Poison by Tom Turner
Well paced & written enough to pique my interest for about half the book. But it’s clear from the start who’s behind the first nasty deaths, & then who’s pulling the strings, so the only suspense becomes, What horrible fate will strike somebody next?

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My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell – Review by CJ Verburg

My Family and Other Animals (Corfu Trilogy, #1)My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Of all the books I can imagine which mainly comprise richly descriptive recollections of the insects, plants, and other diverse critters discovered on a Mediterranean island by a ten-year-old boy, Gerald Durrell’s is undoubtedly the most compelling. That said, when I realized I’d only read 120+ of 614 pages, I was distracted by an impulse to reread his brother Larry’s Alexandria Quartet instead.

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The Secret Life of Nancy Drew, Part II: Book Review by CJ Verburg

The confessions of a teenage sleuthConfessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Readers of Carolyn Keene’s version of my life’s events may be surprised to learn that Ned Nickerson was not the love of my life.” That opening sentence epitomizes this book: Not only is fictional titian-haired teenage sleuth Nancy Drew a real person, but so are her equally fictional biographer and boyfriend. This parody of the youth-sleuth series churned out by a syndicate under the pen name Carolyn Keene mimics not only the novels’ comic-book plots but their somewhat plodding style. And, as a parody should, this one digs up our memories and then flips them upside down. Housekeeper Hannah Gruen is younger than we thought. Ned is needier. Nancy — who ages chapter by chapter, marries, has a child, but never gives up sleuthing — is a bit pompous, really.

I had the same reaction as several other reviewers: this book was such an inspired idea, I hoped it would be funnier. It’s even more lightweight than the original series, although author Chelsea Cain stirs things up by tossing Nancy into some political ferment in each era: “The Clue in the Nazi Nutcracker, 1942.” “The Mystery of the Congolese Puppet, 1959.” “The Haight-Ashbury Mystery, 1967.” Other highlights include cameo appearances by the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy’s feud with Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, her ambivalence about Ned, and her comical blindness to what any of us could guess about her chums Bess and (especially) George.

If you were a Nancy Drew fan growing up, you’ll get a kick out of this book.

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C J Verburg’s Mystery Review of A House of Her Own by Patricia Dusenbury

A House of Her Own: A Claire Marshall NovelA House of Her Own: A Claire Marshall Novel by Patricia Dusenbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This multilayered New Orleans mystery weaves together suspense, romance, and superstition in a colorful setting filled with diverse characters, including a possible ghost. When Claire Marshall buys a bargain house to restore, she doesn’t know what a Pandora’s Box she’s opening. Embarking on a practical project, she finds herself responsible for decisions that will change the people around her, as well as her own future. I enjoyed every twist in both the action and the love story, and was happily surprised that all my guesses turned out wrong. A House of Her Own is a book worth reading not just for the fast-paced plot, but for its insights into the powerful struggle that each of us confronts over trust vs. betrayal. The evil here doesn’t come from villains, just ordinary people whose bad experiences and fears scare them into deadly choices.

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The Secret Life of Nancy Drew

If you grew up with Nancy Drew, girl detective, you may be as tickled as we were to discover Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. Nancy’s adventures are so over-the-top, in their mincing conventional way, it’s hard to imagine how Chelsea Cain could parody them. Yet it’s also irresistible. How’s this for a first sentence?

“Readers of Carolyn Keene’s version of my life’s events may be surprised to learn that Ned Nickerson was not the love of my life.”

The Secret of the Old Clock: 80th Anniversary Limited Edition (Nancy Drew Book 1) by [Keene, Carolyn]       

If you’re a publisher, your curiosity deepens quickly from artifacts and take-offs to backstory. What was the deal with Carolyn Keene, anyway? By now we all know “she” was a syndicate. But it took Wildside Press, LLC, to spell out the particulars. This revelation comes from their 2014 Bobbsey Twins Megapack:

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Gorey On Stage now available from Ingram

Good news! CJ Verburg’s newly revised Edward Gorey On Stage: A Multimedia Memoir is now available from Ingram.

Praised by reviewers as “delightful,” “a joy to read,” and “a must have…[for] all Gorey enthusiasts,” Edward Gorey On Stage follows this legendary artist and author through half a century of theatrical adventures, from the Poets Theatre he helped co-found at Harvard University to the numerous “entertainments” he wrote, designed, and directed on Cape Cod. It’s a treasure trove of original drawings and script notes, rare color photos, even film clips and music.

If you’re a reader, your favorite bookstore can now get this “thoroughly enjoyable” mini-biography for you faster than you can get it online.

If you’re a bookshop proprietor, you can skip right over Amazon and order returnable copies from Ingram at 55% booksellers’ discount.

Enjoy this fascinating peek behind the scenes at a unique artist at work, narrated by Edward Gorey’s close friend and collaborator CJ Verburg.

“All you could ever want from a murder mystery” – Review of Another Number for the Road

Thanks to writer Leigh Verrill-Rhys for this generous review of Boom-Books author CJ Verburg’s new Cory Goodwin mystery!

Featured Book: Review

CJ Verburg’s Another Number for the Road  has all you could ever want from a murder mystery set in two iconic periods of American history: the 1960s: Free Speech, Free Love, Stop the War, Civil Rights and sex, drugs, rock and roll; and 1980s: Reaganomics, Cold War Collapse, Punk Rock, big hair and bigger shoulders.

Rock journo cum detective, Cory Goodwin (who has as many names as identities) goes on a “Magical Mystery Tour,” and then some, to recover her true inner self which has been consumed and subsumed by the demands of her multimillionaire son-of-the-founder-of-a-cosmetics-conglomerate husband’s boardroom betrayal of all they meant to each other as writing romantics who eloped in creative Paris and crashed in corporate necessity in Boston.

Cordelia Goodwin Thorne had many years of protest activism and rock star groupie antics to keep her from sinking into the paradox of her journo daydreams and her cosmetic charity dinner reality.

She joins the “Magical Mystery Tour” when she learns that The Rind is the mystery band—a group she interviewed for a magazine as a teenager. She aims to rekindle her past admiration for the much-maligned strongman of the band, the appropriately named, Dan Quasi, who, after the brutal murder of his friend and co-band member, Mickey Ascher, takes a runner and hides out for the twenty year hiatus, having lost his wife and his French bit to aforementioned co-band member.

Did this Quasi musician kill his best friend? Or was it the French bit? Or possibly her jilted lover and third band member, also appropriately named, Roach? Or has the mild-mannered Terry, fourth band member, been hiding a violent temper all these years?

The process of discovery is further energized by the author’s experience as a playwright and director. CJ Verburg makes use of the theatrical technique of juxtaposing two scenes on stage at once: flashbacks, backstory, supposition and real time, one upon the other, while skillfully  juggling a cast of characters that would daunt Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffiths.

Another Number for the Road  will satisfy all fans of complex, convoluted whodunits who remember the Sixties with longing and survived the Eighties, Nineties and are in deep with the Twentieth Century.