Book Review: A Front Page Affair by Radha Vatsal

It's the first day of ThrillerFest activities in NYC and the first day of my week of book reviews of ITW authors. Check back each day this week for a new review of great books!

"A Front Page Affair" by Radha Vatsal is the first book in the Kitty Weeks Mystery Series. As a prelude, I’ve met Radha. We actually sat beside each other at the Debut Authors Breakfast last year at ThrillerFest, where we were introduced to the Thriller community alongside our first novels. She’s a delightful person, whose company and conversation I enjoyed. After reading the synopsis of her book, I added it to my reading list. It has taken me almost a year to get to it, but finally, I have. And—oh. My. God. I can’t wait to start the next one! Luckily, it’s already out. Unfortunately, I have four other books I’ve committed myself to reading first so that I can also write reviews for them before I leave for NYC.

The novel starts out at a lavish Independence Day Garden Party on Monday, July fifth, 1915. JP Morgan, Jr. was shot two days ago and people are buzzing with the gossip while Kitty Weeks mingles with the guests. Kitty is an aspiring reporter, who thus far has been relegated to writing fluff for the Ladies Pages. She watches a spectacular display of Japanese fireworks, which showers the guests with little paper cutouts of various shapes. After the hour-long show is over, a man is found shot dead in the stables. Kitty goes with some of the others to check it out, which sucks her into a sinister series of events where nothing is quite as it seems and no one should really be trusted.

This novel has made me want to start researching the era right before America entered WWI. It is very clear while reading it that Radha did an epic amount of research for this book. Everything about it seems real—feels real—so that I can’t find seams between what is part of history and what came from her creativity. I’m not much of a history buff; much of my history knowledge comes from Stuff You Missed in History Class. I’m really excited to continue reading the series, as I’m sure it will flow over into the war since America enters it less than a year after the first book starts.

Another thing I love about it is that there is German spoken in the book. She does well at describing the German dialogue, without giving a verbatim translation after each line. Short, simple phrases are left implied, while more complicated exchanges are written in English, but it is stated that it was said in German. I thought this was a wonderful way to handle the entire scene.

Personally, I love it when I encounter a foreign language in fiction. I’m a bit of a linguaphile. I’ve studied—at various levels—Latin, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Italian, along with little bits of Chinese and Spanish. I only ever became fluent in German, and that was a long time ago. Through lack of use, I’ve lost my ability to speak most of it since I can’t remember object genders, and thus can’t conjugate verbs anymore. But, I can still read it and mostly understand it when it is spoken, or at least get the gist of it.

So, as a (primarily self-taught) student of language, I really enjoy trying to figure out foreign words before tapping them for a translation. One line said “Ich heisse…” which makes me wonder—did she research a century-old dialect of German? Another line says “Ja, gerne.” This—literally translated—means “yes, happy.” It sounds very colloquial but was not anything I’d ever learned in German class twenty years ago. Just as someone back in the day would’ve said “charmed” upon meeting a new acquaintance, it sounds out of place in modern times. This makes me dig it. This un-modern sounding German—which most English speakers wouldn’t even notice—makes me think she really did research a century-old dialect. Talk about dedicated! She’s definitely an author to watch in the future. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing great books from her for a long time to come.

There was only one small, tiny thing in the book that I noticed as possibly inaccurate. It was so minuscule, I bet the vast majority of people would never even notice it. It was so minute that it was absolutely not even worth researching. Bacon and eggs are such a common breakfast, so all-American, it seems totally innocuous to mention that she could smell bacon and eggs wafting down the hall from the cafeteria. Unfortunately, people in 1915 weren’t really eating bacon and eggs for breakfast every day yet because it would be another decade or so until Edward Bernays would come along. Until Bernays was hired by the pork industry and sent pointed questionnaires to doctors that prompted them to answer how he wanted them to. Then he used these “doctors’ recommendations” to raise the sale of bacon through advertising.

There is just twist after twist in this book. Every time I put it down, I wanted to get back to it as quickly as I could. Even though I was working every day, it only took me about four days to plow through A Front Page Affair. It kept me guessing right up until the end. I never saw it coming.

At the end of the book, there are a few extras. There is a list of further reading—real books that Kitty talks about or has read. A nice list of discussion questions is included for book groups. There is an interview with Radha where she discusses her influences and how she came to create the character, the setting, and the circumstances. There is also a long list of (just a few of) her references for researching the historical events included in the book. I loved the extra tidbits. They really drove home for me how great this book is with its cleverly woven fabric of fact and fiction.

I read it on Kindle first, but I will definitely be buying a physical copy of both books to have her sign them one of these days. As of the writing of this blog, I'm not sure if she'll be attending ThrillerFest this year, but her tour schedule has her in the area, so I hope she at least makes it for a day or two!