You Should Be Reading: Sofie Kelly

When Lilian Jackson Braun passed away last year, she left behind not only a lengthy legacy known as The Cat Who…series, but a gaping hole in the Detective With Supranormal Cats sub-genre of cozy mystery fiction. Sofie Kelly’s delightful little series, known simply as The Magical Cats Mysteries, which first appeared in 2011 with Curiosity Thrilled the Cat, seems poised to step into that hole and fill it.
Curisosity Thrilled the Cat

To me, cats and murder mysteries go together really well—cats are naturally curious, always investigating minute spots on the floor or what might possibly be under a couch cushion. I draw the line at anthropomorphizing the cats, a la Rita Mae Brown (I may talk to my resident feline all the time, but if she ever starts answering me in anything other than yips and meows, I’m heading straight for the nearest psych ward, and if she ever starts narrating her own adventures, I assure you we’re ALL in deep doo-doo), but I am not adverse to cats sniffing out the occasional clue. And cats and librarians seem to go together particularly well.

If you’re not a fan of cats and mysteries, you might still find this well-written series to your liking. Kelly is generous with clues for readers who like to sleuth along, and her characters are well-developed, a little quirky, and generally affable folk who populate a small town called Mayville Heights in Minnesota. One thing Kelly does right from start to finish is to create a town—she gets the small town stuff absolutely right in all of the books. The little cliques, the importance of a town festival, the close-knit neighbors, the central points for socializing—they’re all here.

Copycat Killing

Copycat Killing

The featured character is Kathleen, the librarian, but unlike many series with librarians at the center, Kathleen is also new to Mayville Heights and something of a fish out of water there at first as she works at adjusting to Midwestern winters and small town life. As the series continues, Kathleen’s relationship with the town develops as much as her relationships with her friends do. As cozies go, these books are quite successful in bringing together all of the usual elements, including a love interest with the hunky town cop, but they go that extra step as well: by the time I got to the third book (2012’s Copycat Killing), I felt like I was among friends in a town that I knew.

That’s a really important element in this type of series—cozies tend to run to a certain formula with standard tropes, and so it is vital for an author to find a way to keep the audience involved with a series. Some do it with recipes, some do it scrapbooking or quilting or herbs, but to me, the really successful ones do it by establishing a relationship between the audience and the characters. Lilian Jackson Braun did that—The Cat Who… books continued to run up the bestseller list long after the author had lost her touch at creating intriguing puzzles. Kelly is at the beginning of her career, but she’s wasted no time in establishing that link between the reader and her characters.

Cat Trick

Cat Trick

Oh, and about those cats—Owen and Hercules also have their quirks (one’s a catnip addict, the other one loves Barry Manilow music), but they also have magical abilities. One appears out of thin air, and the other can vanish through solid walls and doors. On the other hand, my cat appears to do that as well, so you’ll have to decide for yourself just how magic Owen and Hercules are. But they are certainly a big help to Kathleen as she noses through mystery after mystery.

The fourth Magical Cats mystery, Cat Trick, is due out in February. Which means that there’s plenty of time to catch up on this series before then.

You Should Be Reading: Simon R. Green’s Ghost Finders

Ghost of a Chance

Ghost of a Chance

Simon R. Green is, of course, the author of the wildly popular and well-regarded Nightside series and the equally popular Secret Histories that features the James Bond parody Eddie Drood.  His most recent entry in the fantasy games is the newer Ghost Finders series, which features three British ghost busters who battle things that go bump in the night.  Ghost Finders has received more mixed reviews than Green’s other work—most of the complaints I’ve seen deal with the lack of character development and repetitive plotting, valid criticisms of a series.  In this case, those criticisms are not exactly on point.  The Ghost Finders books are meant to be cheesy, popcorn fantasy, and in that they succeed.

Anyone looking for something high-minded and literary shouldn’t read these books because there’s absolutely nothing of the sort to be found within their pages. This is straight-up adventure fantasy, with over-the-top plotting, and it’s meant to be fun.  They’re formulaic, to be sure, and the main characters are more caricature than realistic.  If you’re thinking at this point, “Wait.  WHY are you telling me to read something like this?  Where’s the merit?” then I’m going to respond, “The merit is in the utter ridiculousness of it all, that’s where it is.”

I read Ghost of a Chance when it was first released, and my first impression, about 50 pages in, was “He has got to be kidding”, thought in a much more sarcastic tone than I can convey on this page.  By page 100 I realized he was kidding, in a good way, and I settled in to enjoy the ride.  Ghost of a Chance is almost a spoof of traditional horror novels.  I say almost because it gets pretty bloody and ugly at the end, when all the joshing and jokey dialogue suddenly runs up against some seriously nasty stuff.

Ghost of a Smile

Ghost of a Smile

The second entry, Ghost of a Smile, takes a different turn—it’s a bit more sci-fi than horror, and we meet the Mr. Evil of this set piece for the first time here.  By the third entry, Green goes off on yet another tangent—Ghost of a Dream is part Steampunk hat tip (steam trains, mediums, steam-driven science, Victorian villains) and part Nancy Drew mystery, all served up with a heaping helping of a wink and a nudge, as if he’s saying “watch this if you want to have some fun.”

If you’re anything like me, sometimes some cheese just goes down really well.  We have three people here—a technogeek girl named Melody who has nothing lyrical about her, a depressed, neurotic telepath named Happy, and their charismatic leader JC (who always wears flowing white garments and has long hair…)—who are so standard it’s silly.  It also can’t be an accident that they’re written like Scooby Doo characters and placed in similar plots—Green is a much better writer than that.

Ghost of a Dream

Ghost of a Dream

So I am forced to conclude that all of this is deliberate on Green’s part.  And why not?  He’s proven in his previous work that he’s a clever, clever writer.  Once you get past the idea that there should be something serious about all of this, you can see the glee just dripping off the page.  The guy’s having a good time writing these, and it shows.  They’re engaging, you don’t really have to think while you read them, and they have just enough substance to keep them from completely floating away.  In the most recent entry, Ghost of a Dream, for example, the action takes place first at a haunted train station, followed by a haunted theatre.  You kind of expect some old guy to pop up at the end, shaking his fist at “those meddling kids” in a setting like that, but instead what you get is Green’s most interesting creation, The Flesh Undying, an otherworldly creature determined to destroy all of humanity in order to return to its own dimension, and, at the root of it all, a rather serious theme about how dreams of fame and accolades for oneself, when placed above the needs of others, can lead to tragedy.

One other notable characteristic about this series.  In general, stories involving the supernatural or creatures from another dimension tend to imbue their ghosts with monster-like tendencies.  They attack because they can; it’s in their nature to destroy because they are miserable or angry, either at the idea of being dead or at being trapped in a dimension they don’t want to be in.  The chills and horror come from that unpredictable nature, and even the best ghost stories seldom give shape to their spirits beyond a physical manifestation and a goal of scare the crap out of the characters.  Green goes well beyond this.  His ghosts are not all monsters (although some of them most certainly are monstrous), and in a rather amusing bit of irony, are often better developed characters than his trio of heroes.  Some are scary, like The Flesh Undying and his corrupted minions, and others from the series are sweetly human, like Kim, the ghost-girl JC falls in love with.  Still others are invested with a dignity that invokes sympathy in the reader.  The comparison between his ghostly creations and his human ones suggests to me that Green finds the possibilities in those other dimensions more worthy of exploration than the ones we already know in the here and now.  And you know, when you look at it that way, we probably are fairly two dimensional, cardboard-like creatures by comparsion.

I freely admit that this series is not going to work for everyone, and people who are huge fans of his Nightside and Deathstalker series are especially not going to appreciate what he’s doing here.  Plus, Green’s shenanigans can get a bit tedious, and the complaints about repetitive plot bits really are valid—JC, Happy, and Melody are limited in what they can do to bust those ghosts—but as something to amuse yourself with on a rainy Sunday, or to cleanse your palate after something a little more serious, you can do worse.  Make yourself a big bowl of popcorn, put up your feet, and go adventuring with JC, Melody, and Happy.  Have a little fun.

 

 

My copies of Ghost of a Chance and Ghost of a Dream were generously provided by the publisher during my tenure at RT Book Reviews and initially reviewed for that publication.

You Should Be Reading: Colin Cotterill

Killed at the Whim of a Hat

Killed at the Whim of a Hat

Colin Cotterill is responsible for the acclaimed Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series, but he’s lately branched out to feature a new character, former Bangkok crime reporter Jimm Juree. Despite Cotterill being a multi-award winning (and oft-nominated) writer, he seems to be one of those authors relegated to cult status in this country—not a bad position to be in, certainly, to have a devoted following. But these books deserve more of an audience. They’re well-constructed, well-written mysteries with some meat on their bones. As a British ex-pat living in Thailand, Cotterill uses his knowledge of the locale to great effect in the Jimm series. If you’re not reading these books, you should be, especially if you enjoy exotic locations, quirky characters, and a feisty heroine.

So why else would you want to read these books? Two words: they’re funny as hell. Okay, that’s four words, but still. How can you resist a book titled Killed at the Whim of a Hat or Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach? Or one where the main character’s self-deprecation is also mixed with great doses of hubris and bravery? Or one where her mother rescues scraggly dogs, her brother the weightlifter is so timid that he’s practically a recluse, her other brother is now her sister whose entire life is lived on the internet and whose talents include computer hacking, and whose best friends are her nearly silent grandfather, retired from the traffic police, and a guy who describes himself as the only gay cop in Southern Thailand?

And I want to be clear about something—in a lesser writer’s hands, the overload of eccentricity would not work. It would come off as too over the top, trying too hard, cheesy, or all of that. Cotterill has the skillz to pull it off though. Yes, these people are beyond quirky, but his point seems to be that, in our own way, we’re all a little different and that’s a good thing. That’s what makes life so darned interesting. So they’re eccentric just like they’re Thai—it’s just part of who these people are. A good bit of the humor comes from these characters, but it feels organic, not forced, and, importantly, it’s never at the expense of who they are.

Beyond the humor—and believe me, there’s plenty to chuckle at in both books, starting with the quotations heading the chapters in Killed at the Whim of a Hat—Cotterill takes a good look at some serious subjects, from the Burmese immigrant issues in Thailand to its police and political corruption. And ultimately, he also lets the reader in on a little secret: the downtrodden or overlooked in society often have much to contribute to it if the rest of us would just let them. Jimm’s family and friends have all been cast aside in some way or another, but they still have plenty of life left in them and much of value to offer their small community.

Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach

Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach

The plotting is so skillful in these books that you’ll never notice it, and Jimm is a witty, spunky, fish-out-of-water narrator. The setting would seem to be exotic, but the author exposes the grit beneath the shining surface, which gives these books a bit of unexpected edge. You might think, “Hey, that’d be a great place to live,” and it certainly has its plus side. But it’s not all ocean breezes and palm trees and pristine sand, either. There is poverty, corruption, bigotry, and oppression a plenty, and no amount of humor can erase the image of a group of immigrants, for example, captured and enslaved, or the waste of a bright young woman reduced to gutting fish for restaurant meals that people in their rural community cannot afford to buy.

My first encounter with these books left me giggling and recommending them to friends who love a good mystery, but they’re also the kind of books that stick with you because there’s plenty of substance under the humor that will sneak up on you when you least expect it. When Jimm laments being forced to give up her job in Bangkok to move south with her family, for example, she may voice that lament in an off-the-cuff, jokey manner, but Cotterill is skilled enough with words to make you realize four sentences later that yes, Jimm truly feels she’s wasting her talents gutting fish in a backwater town, but knows that taking care of her family is as important as writing about crime. And she’s smart enough to know she can do both if she can just figure out how.

Jimm’s complexity is apparent from the first few paragraphs of Hat—she can’t resist snooping in a local puzzle, even though she knows she should be helping at the resort and keeping an eye on her family. She’d like to have a man in her life, too, which presents problems: she feels she’s beyond the more simple men of her village, but she’s also smart enough to know that she’s not in a position to be choosy about male companionship given her family obligations. Her logic, whether applied to social problems or criminal miscreants, is all there for the reader to see. So, she may not be thrilled with the men in her village, but she looks for the good in them, and in all of the people around her. She’s a little bitter, but accepting, and wily enough to keep her wits sharpened with what mysteries are given to her, even if it’s something as basic as who kidnapped a local guy’s monkey or the identity of the man her mother is entertaining at night in secret. She knows she’ll eventually figure out how to make all of this work for her. She’s really quite an extraordinary character. I encourage you to take the time to get to know her.

 

All of the novels mentioned in this review were generously provided by the publisher during my tenure with RT Book Reviews and initially reviewed for that publication.