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The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The Toadhouse Trilogy

Those of you who know me will understand books like The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey are not my usual reading fare. This is both a book intended for the young adult market and it’s self-published (available from Amazon). Under normal circumstances, either of these factors would predispose me to ignore the title. But I’m something of a fan of the author’s fiction for adults. She writes rather good murder mysteries. So I thought I would look at how she approaches a different market. Before starting to read, I confess the fact she had not found a conventional publisher for the book is disconcerting. When someone with talent and a track record of now nine published books, fails to place a book through her agent, this suggests either that there’s something wrong with the book or the publishing industry is irrationally turning its back on a good book. With that thought in mind, I begin to read.

The obvious point of comparison for this book are the Thursday Next and associated novels by Jasper Fforde. These are great fun with the older Ms Next able to use a Prose Portal to enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. A part of the humour is the self-awareness of the characters in each book and the ability to rewrite the text — for example, the ending of Jane Eyre is changed. Jess Lourey develops this trope by allowing her protagonists to change anything they want in a book they visit but, if they do, this destroys the book and all the characters in it.

Because this book is explicitly YA, it has two children as the protagonists: Ania, aged eleven, and her blind brother, Spenser, aged nine. As a form of homage to To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, we start off in Alabama during the Great Depression where, with the disappearance of their mother, they are being cared for by their supposed grandmother, Gloriana (think Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). They travel from one book to another with the help of the enigmatic Gilgamesh, who pilots a magical room in the shape of a garden toadhouse (it miniaturises the travellers who then take exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds to resume their usual size, a potentially dangerous delay if you look like food to a passing predatory bird or animal). They acquire a ten-year-old “stowaway” called Tru — it’s a reference to Truman Capote. Ania has the Enigmata on her hands, i.e. she has a Gort imprinted on to the flesh of each hand. The Gort is the twelfth letter of the Ogham alphabet — sometimes called the Celtic Tree Alphabet — and places us firmly in a fantasy story drawing on Irish faerie mythology in general and the Tir Na Nog in particular. To get to this land, heroes needed luck or a helpful guide. Our heroes have to play the book version of the video game, solve clues, and find three “treasures” hidden in plain sight inside classic novels.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

The mandatory evil enemy is Biblos Skulas (or Βίβλο σκουλήκας which translated from the Greek means Bookworm). This appears to the children to be a giant man, i.e. he follows in the footsteps of Piers Anthony’s “adult conspiracy”, first introduced to the world in Crewel Lye, as the adult who devours rather than savours books. He will stop at nothing to capture Ania, killing Gloriana in the first section of the book. Indeed, later on, Ania meets refugees from other books. Many have been tortured by Biblos in the hope they will reveal where our heroes have been hidden. Although it’s not the fault of the children, this does not prevent the survivors from being somewhat bitter.

There’s a great deal of adult sophistication on display in this book. For example we meet Kenning in Ellipses. But instead of descending to the level of punning adopted by Piers Anthony (increasingly excruciating as the Xanth series has progressed), this author is embedding knowledge in the work. If readers are curious, there’s an entire world awaiting exploration both in the language she uses and the books she draws from and propels her protagonists into. For those of you into the technical side of writing, this is a work of intertextuality, extensively revising the work of others to fit into this story.

We first trespass into The Time Machine by H G Wells where we avoid direct interaction with the time traveller. His machine has been pulled inside the sphinx, so all they have to do is get the door open. Except, of course, it’s not that easy and requires a brief diversion into the Indian epic, The Ramayana. Then needing medical attention, we pass through A Tale of Two Cities on to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson. You should have the message by now as we jaunt off to the Sinbad books.

The syntax is relatively rich and, in vocabulary terms, is probably ahead of the lower end of the young adult market. This is good. Younger readers should be stretched. Showing them the range of words and their meanings helps them to grow. Choosing to make the book longer also indicates an older age. I’m not sure where this leaves us in terms of market. It flirts with unpleasant truths but sees our small band of heroes making steady progress, although not without some struggles, which makes it suitable for younger readers. It gently explores some potentially significant moral issues and, in conceptual terms, plays with some interesting metaphors that would be relatively incomprehensible to most young people. I’m therefore left with an ambivalence. I think it falls between the two stools. It has elements that certainly fit into the YA niche, but in terms of language, concepts and length, it’s tending to adult fare. Except it lacks the “meat” to be an adult book. It pulls its punches too much as it stands. Given that this is the only book written so far in the trilogy, I class it as an interesting failure. But there’s real potential as a dark fantasy for adult readers in the mechanisms of creating, amending and ending books. Rewritten this could become something powerful. The backstory as to the origin of Biblos points the way.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see
November Hunt
December Dread
January Thaw.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

January Thaw by Jess Lourey

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

January Thaw by Jess Lourey

Well, here we are again with January Thaw by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2014) the ninth in The Murder-By-Month series, happy as can be, all good friends and jolly good company in Battle Lake. It being Minnesota, it’s snowing. Mrs Berns is acting like Cassandra and predicting the thaw to release the town from winter’s icy grip even though everyone knows spring won’t arrive until March. Christmas has passed with the garlands stored for next year’s celebrations along with the left-over candy canes for Halloween. Mira James has finally taken the plunge with Johnny Leeson (several months too late, some may say), a local attorney actually employs her as an investigator when the need arises (although she’s not yet formally qualified as a PI) and, given the way Death has pursued her over the last eight books, there’s been a lull. Yes no dead bodies for at least a week. For those of you who enjoy this series, you’ll understand this is worth an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

As a “full-time” occupation, librarianship still holds her in its deadly thrall although she’s tempted to bid for the local franchise as a mortician. That is until she and Mrs Berns answer the call of a kitten mewling in an alley. Some people are just born suckers as Police Chief Gary Wohnt is quick to point out. Then there’s Kennie the town’s Mayor and her narcoleptic dog who’ve decided to branch out into plant healing. And finally, we get to the Winter Wonderland festivities (surprisingly, the town has a lake — can’t think how that happened) which Mira is to write about wearing her part-time journalist’s hat for the Battle Lake Recall (there will be questions asked at the end of this review to see how much you remember). To add to the celebrations, thanks to the work of Carter and Libby Stone, the Prospect House and Civil War Museum is formally to open its doors to the public. After this, everyone is due to jump on the lake with their boots on and skate to their heart’s content — yes, the ice really is that thick in Minnesota, particularly when the lake is on the shallow side. After a night’s consumption of alcoholic anaesthetic, brave townies then crack the ice and jump into the lake to prove their vital bits won’t drop off when exposed to water during the winter months. Except, as you would expect, everything has to be put on hold when Mira finds another body (which, unfortunately, albeit temporarily, includes a pullback from hot sex with Johnny). Fortunately, there’s always a Nut Goodie to ease sexual tensions, even the unwelcome ones.

This is another delightful conflation of murder, mystery and light-hearted banter as our intrepid investigator, ably assisted most of the time by her geriatric sidekick, sets off to untangle murder, drug trafficking and a cold case from the past. With the possible assistance of a previously unrecognised ghost, our dynamic duo make new friends, look after old ones when they get hurt, and practice their breaking and entering skills (not so much of a challenge when you know where the spare key is kept). The result solves the various cases in hand and advances the cause of justice across the generations. In the process, we see more of the town of Battle Lake and watch a new calmness replace our heroine’s uncertainty. Those of you following this excellent series will know she’s been not a little traumatised by events in the last few months and is distinctly twitchy about life — not even being prepared to risk sleeping on top of the bed in case the sky falls on her. But with mature words of wisdom from Mrs Berns and a new shoulder to cry on when a bereaved mother and two young children come into town, she manages to rediscover some of the gung-ho self-confidence that went missing from her life before Christmas. January Thaw therefore sees her beginning to emerge from the winter emotional cave where she’s been hunkering down. In the end, she’s charging into danger again like none of last year ever happened. This is good to see. The residents of Battle Lake were worried about her and we readers get to see a newly restored heroine ready to face the next month’s challenge, whatever that may be.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

December Dread by Jess Lourey

December Dread by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2012) book 8 in the Murder-By-Month series and we’re back in Battle Lake, Minnesota as Mira James, our heroine, continues the demanding task of trailer-sitting, freelancing for the local newspaper, keeping the library shelves in order, and solving enough murders to justify the nickname Mortuary Mira. With only ten killing days to go before Christmas, she’s watching the elves carefully to see when they will deliver the next body. Except all she gets is what may be an invitation from the Candy Cane Killer — he’s the one who only kills brown-haired women about the same height and weight as our heroine during the month of December. Ah, so she could be the body. That would be a good switch — a kind of Ghost where she and Patrick Swayze get to make out while solving her murder. As a foretaste of the killing spree, two bodies are discovered over in White Plains — the woman and her dog — about an hour’s drive away. Unfortunately, that’s not a safe distance when it comes to dedicated serial killers. So she goes to show her invitation to Police Chief Gary Wohnt but discovers the card she received is part of a genuine marketing campaign. This doesn’t stop her from hitting the library’s computer. Before you can say Dagnabit or whatever her password is, she’s knee-deep in news about the killer. So because she fits the physical profile, Battle Lake conspires to send her home to her mother in Paynesville where she’s supposed to feel safer. Shame there’s Kevin Bacon and not Patrick Swayze on her old bedroom wall. The other advantage is the chance for her to go through the certification course for qualifying as a PI. If she gets a licence, she can legitimately earn a little money as an investigator rather than having to solve all these murders for free.

Jess Lourey by Jane Bailey

Then the next body appears. Santa’s really speeding up his deliveries this December, and he’s always thoughtful. This victim is the homecoming queen. Mira knew her at high school. It kinda keeps the death in the family. So, after some initial reluctance — the consensus seems to be you leave serial killers to the FBI — she and the indefatigable Mrs Berns decide to set a trap. Why leave it to the professionals to have all the fun. Yet there’s also the question of the orange begonias tugging at the back of her mind. Candy’s a bit crude in messaging terms. In Victorian times, flowers and their colours had specific meanings so, when people sent each other a bunch, they were actually sending each other coded messages. For the record, begonias were symbols of warning and orange is a reference to passion or desire. Not that this captures the meaning of Mira at all. She’s been practicing abstinence. In fact, it says something about the sender’s view of the women who received them. For those who can read the symbolism, they are being warned they are acting in a sexually inappropriate way.

I confess to becoming something of a fan of Mira James and so, by extension, Jess Lourey. As Mira demonstrates during both the PI course she goes through and in the real-world investigation, she has a flair for quick assessments of people and situations. Give her more time to think and she works through the available information and usually arrives at the right answer. As to Jess Lourey, she has a flair for creating an entirely credible cast of characters. Too often, you read a book and only encounter cardboard cutouts and stereotypes. December Dread is full of people you could meet in any small town anywhere in the world. As a final thought, I should explain the title. You can see it at two levels. If a serial killer with a known profile for selecting victims sends out candy calling cards, there’s bound to be dread in the community. But, in this instance, it’s also a reference to Mira’s need to overcome her fears about who she is and what she wants out of life. This is not simply a case of the girl coming back to her home town and facing those she knew as she was growing up. She should also make sober decisions about what to do about her love life. Sometimes, fear holds you back and stops you realising the potential in your life for happiness. December Dread is great fun with a nice puzzle for our heroine to solve. It’s definitely worth picking up! As a final thought: if you have a wooden leg, always hide it in plain sight.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

November Hunt by Jess Lourey

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m only a few pages into this book and I feel a need to check out definitions. Naturally, I follow in the footsteps of our young folk and pick up my copy of the Oxford English. That kontiki thing set up by Heyerdahl and the great white wales was on strike recently. Who can trust such a fly-by-night site with something as vital as human knowledge? Anyways up (or down, if you prefer) I was curious to see what meaning is currently given to “genre”. It seems, despite the best efforts of the marketers to introduce certainty into the different classifications (otherwise how are we mere mortals to know what style of book we’re to buy), the word itself remains flexible. Indeed, those subversive dictionary folk think a book can simultaneously belong to several genres. Now that creates problems for those poor people in bookshops whose job it is to place books on the right shelf. Just think. Bookshops might have to buy multiple copies of the affected titles and place one or more copies on each genre shelf. That’s potentially good for the publisher’s business although more returns to handle.

So why get all excited, you ask. Well, November Hunt by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink, 2012) is a humourous book about PIs with some romance mixed in. Disconcertingly, our heroine’s defences melt. Her bruised lips and ears come under attack. . . albeit it’s all described in the best possible taste. Now everyone and his dog knows PI novels are hardboiled with laconic and violent people slouching around the landscape doing noirish things to catch bad guys and, most importantly, never showing fear to anyone. They are not about young lady librarians who are afraid of thermostats and have strong hands on the small of their backs. Yet, that’s what we have here. The publishers have given their marketers and book shelvers a real headache with this one. It’s a wisecracking breath of fresh air into the normally stale back rooms where tough guys duke it out with crime bosses or their henchpersons. And, the air is certainly fresh in the sense of cold as we start off this story in the November snows of Battle Lake, Minnesota with what might look like a hunting accident to the local police. Except, of course, one of the deceased’s family harbours suspicions and needs a quiet investigation. Enter Mira James who, as a result of this commission, may finally be on her way to picking up that elusive PI licence.

Jess Lourey with her back to the wall

November Hunt is the seventh in the series featuring this investigator. She started off on May Day and is well on her way to December. Fortunately, she’s surrounded by opportunities to show off her crime-solving abilities while struggling to keep her head above water financially and hoping she’s found the right man for herself — on that front, she’s testing out the abstinence theory. It therefore makes a pleasant change to have someone relatively normal as the investigative wizard. Anyone who checks out PIing for Morons before starting off is my kind of person. Except, of course, like a doctor who finds strangers at parties asking for an immediate diagnosis and treatment, wannabe PIs can be offered unusual commissions, e.g. to find a lost mojo.

Putting this happy badinage to one side, books of this genre (sic) ultimately depend on the quality of the mystery to be solved. No matter how amusing or romantic in the touch-me-not-my name’s-temptation sense of the word, there must be real ingenuity in the puzzle to be solved. Equally important is the need for the author to play fair. Once the facts of the puzzle are established, we should be able to look over the heroine’s shoulder as she navigates from bafflement to that satisfying Eureka moment when all becomes clear. In this instance, there’s no clear indication there’s a murder to be solved. We simply set off on each day with half an eye on what people are saying or doing. In the process we discover a source of pot if we should ever be in the mood for a hit and that vitamins bought from the internet may have unintended side-effects. The interesting feature of this investigation is that we’re never directly interested in the first death itself — no rooting around the crime scene, if such it be. The death remains in the background as our PI grows increasingly proactive, inserting herself into various situations around town until she works out why someone might have wanted the man dead.

I think the motive that underpins the entire plot is particularly ingenious. It’s one of these “in plain sight” factors but, unless you were in that situation, it’s not something you would immediately think about. Sorry, I should personalise that. Being unlucky enough only to have a ten-watt light bulb for a brain, it didn’t occur to me. There’s a nice switch about identities in there too. The only vague feeling of dissatisfaction is the element of contrived melodrama at the end. I know it’s conventional to have our heroine metaphorically tied to a railway track as in the Perils of Pauline, but these deus ex machina resolutions leave me cold. I prefer my PI to type up her recipe for a whodunnit solution and post it to her editor before the deadline.

Put all this together and we have a genuinely enjoyable read. Yes, November Hunt blurs the genres but that’s no bad thing. Jess Lourey lets the spirit take her where it will. In the end, the test is whether a book is good or bad. In this case it’s excellent.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see:
December Dread
November Hunt
The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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