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First Clue - What Makes a Book Unreadable?

We seem to have settled into reviewing four books a week, two from each of us. While I always try and get one more in there, I typically run out of time. Not that reading three books a week is all that difficult. But reading a sizeable chunk of three or four other books as well—and then rejecting them—gums up the works.
What gets a book rejected? There are many reasons. But crime fiction can often slide into a type of morass at the midpoint, where nothing seems to be happening, or ever will. Yes, the book has another 150 pages to redeem itself, but it will have to do so without me.
Sometimes it is inaccuracy. I’m not a big stickler for details. I mean, I live in New York City, but I don’t know if 27th Street goes east to west. But when a book set in the late ‘50s has a male character attending a women’s college that wasn’t coed until 1971, I find I get thrown out of the narrative and trust the author a bit less.
There’s the casual homophobia. I was loving a cozy, until the lead character described a guy as effeminate, as though that’s a bad thing. Whaaaat?
Then there’s the casual racism. Like another cozy, where a Black woman’s hair style is described as unprofessional—with the tacit understanding that all the readers agree. Or the book where the author keeps describing Irish Travellers as gypsies.
I could go on and on, but for now let’s stop here. And hope that the next three books I download go sailing through.—Brian Kenney

Chaos and Cake
Hepworth, Sally. The Younger Wife. April 2022. 352p. St. Martin’s.
Quirky meets romantic meets WTF in this Australian import that’s brimming with character. Two very different sisters are at the center of the maelstrom. Rachel is a beautiful and successful baker who spends a week perfecting tiny roses on a wedding cake but eats two tiers of it by the fistful hours before delivery. Her sister, Tully, married with two little boys, is consumed with anxiety and a compulsion to steal. The younger wife of the title is Heather, who’s marrying Rachel and Tully’s father, Stephen Aston, and whose big day opens the novel. Stephen’s ex-wife roaming the altar during the vows is bad enough, but when the couple moves to the sacristy, a scream is heard and the celebrant reappears in the church covered in blood. Hepworth (The Secrets of Midwives) then chronicles the leadup to this chaos, a saga that involves a hot water bottle stuffed with $100,000, romance with cake-pun-loving delivery man, and hilarious observations about the million ways we sabotage ourselves. The Astons also face their share of heartaches and worse (Alzheimer’s disease, rape, and domestic violence are part of the story). For fans of domestic suspense and of the Australian show Offspring, which also features loving sisters and their interesting choices.—Henrietta Verma 
Fun with Oligarchs
Katz, Erica. Fake. February. 384p. Harper
A wonderful descent into the New York art world led by a hero you won’t soon forget. Twenty-something Emma Caan is a highly skilled artist who excels at recreating nineteenth-century paintings. She works for a studio that supplies clients, ranging from high-flying collectors to leading museums, with reproductions to protect their investment. Lest there is any confusion, each work is signed by Emma and indicates it’s a copy. Despite her expertise, the salary is lousy and she can barely afford life in New York City. Until she meets Leonard Sobetsky, Russian billionaire, renowned art collector, and one of her clients. Before she can say do svidaniya to her old life, Sobetsky sets her up as the assistant director of New York’s most important gallery, moves her into a glam SoHo apartment, and continues to feed her paintings to reproduce. Within weeks she’s doing vodka shots on Sobetsky’s private plane, heading to Art Basel Hong Kong. But since every chapter begins with a brief transcript of Emma being interviewed by the FBI, even the least attentive reader will know that something is up. The question is, how bad will it be? And while Emma is really just a copyist—true forgers take much more care, sourcing period canvas, for starters—why quibble when you’re having so much fun? A little chick lit, a little Devil Wears Prada, and a little Barbara Shapiro, Fake should find broad appeal.—Brian Kenney
A Busman's Holiday
Malliet, G. M. Death in Cornwall. October. 241p. Cannongate.
It’s been over a decade since we’ve heard from Cambridge DCI Arthur St. Just and criminologist cum mystery writer Portia De’Ath, now his fiancé. In coastal Cornwall for a mini-vacay, the two can’t resign themselves to just lying on the beach. Instead, they’re busy scoping out the town, sniffing out controversy—especially the proposed slipway the fisher men and women want to build—and meeting up with the locals. The latter includes the self-made aristocrat Lord Bodwally, who wants Portia to help him with his memoirs. But when they visit Bodwally’s grand estate, they find him lying in a pool of blood, his right carotid artery severed. And with that, St. Just is off and running as he tracks down the murderer. Given that this is a short book, Malliet does three things really well. First, we learn a lot about Cornwall and the Cornish people—the Cornwall tourist bureau should sign her up. Two, the tension between wealthy incomers—seeking a weekend home and driving up the cost of housing—and the residents is one that is playing out in many communities, and here it is especially well-handled. Finally, this is one of the few mysteries that addresses the experiences of COVID-19; most series just skip over it as though it never happened. Malliet sets the novel after what the characters call “Plague Time” and doesn’t hesitate to discuss the impact the pandemic had on this small Cornish town. It’s refreshing. Cozy readers will be happy to welcome back this duo.Brian Kenney
Great Escapes
Wrobel, Stephanie. This Might Hurt. February 2022. 336p. Berkley.
The first crime here is psychological abuse of two sisters whose father, named only as Sir, is obsessed with building their resilience (“Lord knows you’re not going to get by on talent or gifts”). Sir’s isolated, scared little girls can’t go to bed at night unless they achieve enough points. Chores count, but they must also endure “tests” like sitting in the snow without a coat for an hour, holding their breath for two minutes, and kneeling on broken glass. The abuse leads the younger sister to become obsessed with Houdini and perfect a show based on his escapes, with the psychological underpinnings of that quest not lost on her or on readers. Fast forward to adulthood and there’s possibly a new crime afoot, or at least a mystery, as one sister, Natalie, visits a Maine island where she suspects her sister, Kit, is captive in a cult led by the reclusive, mysterious Teacher. The markers of a cult are glaring, but is Kit being held against her will and what’s behind the other residents’ willingness to obey? The solution is satisfying here, and getting to it will bring home to readers Teacher’s declaration of the book’s central truth: “The difference between a cocoon and a straitjacket [is] perspective.”Henrietta Verma
Short Stories
The gives strong praise to John Banville’s latest, April in Spain. “This is a slow-burning mystery, a love story and a study of the corruption and power of the Irish political elite—quite a lot to pack into one crime novel. Banville has achieved it with grace and poise.” We reviewed the novel back in June 24 issue. 
Veteran Chicano mystery writer Manuel Ramos is profiled in the Albuquerque Journal. His latest book, Angels in the Wind: A Mile High Noir, was published by Arte Publico in April. This is the fourth in the series starring Agustín “Gus” Corral, an ex-con who is now a private investigator.
In an interview with the Cambridge Independent about her new book, 1979, Val McDermid reflects on that turbulent year, when she was working as a journalist: “I experienced sexism just going to work every day. I was absolutely determined not to give in to that sort of thing, so I gave as good as I got.” 1979, which publishes this week, is the launch of a new series featuring journalist Allie Burns.
Readers Digest Canada provides a lengthy profile of Louise Penny, from her beginnings as a mystery writer all the way to her partnership with Hilary Clinton. “Over the past year, Penny and Clinton have been collaborating on a political thriller, State of Terror, which follows a newbie female secretary of state forced to contend with a phalanx of terrorist attacks.” State of Terror publishes October 14.
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

At firstCLUE we read crime novels way in advance of their publication and share our favorite finds with you. We hope that firstCLUE will help librarians and booksellers select titles and make recommendations, and readers find that next great read. If we really love a book we put a star on it.

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