Review: The Woman in the Water (Charles Lenox Mysteries, #0), by Charles Finch

34953108[1]Once again I found myself at a disadvantage by joining a series in progress.  The Woman in the Water is a prequel to the Charles Lenox mystery series, and recounts his very first important case, that of two murdered women found in the vicinity of the Thames, one in a trunk, and the other, covered in flowers and laid on a door.  The latter becomes known as the Thames Ophelia because she floated down the river and was beached on the shore.

Or was she? From the very beginning, Lenox finds problems with that narrative, but because he’s an amateur, and the son of a Baronet, the police don’t take him very seriously.  Obviously they should, we all know that from the get-go since this is a prequel to a successful series of mysteries. But it’s a time-honored trope, and it does work, mostly by throwing roadblocks up and proving how resourceful the amateur really is.

Much of Lenox’s origin story is derivative. He’s essentially a Sherlock Holmes-era Peter Wimsey, right down to having a valet who also serves as a detecting partner, being the second son of a lord, and having a close relationship with his mother. Fortunately his elder brother and sister-in-law are vast improvements over the Duke of Denver and his horrid wife. And Lenox’s father seems a genuinely nice man.  Graham is an excellent Bunter analog as well.

As I became familiar with the characters I found myself thinking of the story as pedestrian, but fortunately it began to pick up as Charles takes up the case of one of the two dead women.  By the end, I thought it was a fairly clever mystery, and wanted to read more about Lenox. Finch won me over in spite of what I felt was a lackluster start to the novel.  In the end, there is a lot to like about this book, and like it I did.

The month is looking up!

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Review: A Long Day in Lychford (Lychford, #3), by Paul Cornell

34836331[1]I can’t say I enjoyed this story all that much. Because I’m not familiar with the universe and characters (I haven’t read books 1 and 2) I was at a disadvantage.  I never got a feel for the characters, or what the dynamics were between them.

I might have gotten more from the story if I hadn’t found Cornell’s writing style rather distracting.  I can’t tell you what specifically bothers me about it, but I found my attention wandering, and being more than a bit annoyed by some of his choices.  I’m not sure any of this is entirely Cornell’s fault, or entirely mine, but because of these issues I can’t give a thumbs up. Nor am I willing to give a thumbs down because it’s an interesting idea, and the writing, despite my problems with it, is clear and competent.

 

Review: The Burning Page (The Invisible Library, #3), by Genevieve Cogman

29612879[1]The third book in the Invisible Library series does not disappoint, and by the end it seems to raise the stakes in intriguing ways. I would have expected Irene’s nemesis in this volume to be Lady Guantes who, after the second book, had reason to want revenge. But the plot is more complex than that.  There is fallout from book two, but it’s not what we might expect.

I can’t say too much about the plot because that would involve spoilers.  Rather I’ll say that the character development is quite interesting. Irene is on probation at a time when the library is under attack, and is still holding Kai at arm’s length. Peregrine Vale, the Sherlock Holmes analog, is dealing with the fallout from his foray into the chaotic world of Venice. Supporting characters like Lord Silver, Inspector Singh, Bradamant, and Zayanna all have important roles to play here as an ensemble cast comes together to work through the challenges of the novel.

Do yourself a favor and read these books.  They’re well-written and fun, and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Review: Snake Agent (Detective Inspector Chen, #1), by Liz Williams

18804502[1]The Housemate has been raving about these books for several months, so I thought I’d dive in in December, a month which, so far, has not been what I would call either comforting or joyous.  Fortunately, she was dead right about the Inspector Chen novels. Snake Agent, the first of the series, is an intriguingly different sort of detective fiction which takes place in a world where magic, magical creatures, gods and goddesses, heaven, hell, demons and ghosts all have a role to play in the mystery of a young woman whose soul is stolen after her death, and wrongly sent to Hell.

Detective Inspector Wei Chen, a human detective who nevertheless is quite familiar with the supernatural, takes on the case with the help of a demonic detective who also has a stake in the outcome. Chen serves the goddess Kuan Yin, but they’re not on the best of terms because he has married a demon who he rescued from Hell.  When his beloved wife is forcibly returned to Hell, he knows he’s on his own.

I’m not as conversant with Chinese culture as I might wish to be, so much of Williams’ story was even stranger to me than it might otherwise have been.  The series has been likened to The Dresden Files books, or John Constantine’s adventures, and I think both are apt, but it’s very much outside the western fantasy sphere. It is deeply eastern, deeply Chinese in flavor, and for me that meant taking in an extra layer of meaning and experience.  It’s not difficult since Williams is a good writer, and it makes the reading all the more rewarding.

If you’re up for something different, something fantastic, mysterious, and well-written, you might want to give the first book of the series a try. The mystery is solid, the characters won me over, and the humor is subtle.  I’m anxious to read the next book in the series now.

On keeping your hands to yourself

     I understand that Democrats are wondering if they were too slow in their response to the sexual harassment charges against Conyers and Franken. I suppose it very much depends on who you talk to, but my feeling is that there is no roadmap for stuff like this. There should have been one a long time ago, but there wasn’t, and still isn’t, and we’ll have to chart this territory together. That said, I have mixed feelings about the rush to force Conyers and Franken out of Congress. On the one hand it sends a message that Democrats are more concerned with what’s right than what’s politically expedient.  On the other hand it sends a message that Democrats have no coherent policy for stuff like this.  (Republicans don’t either, but they don’t give a toss. They’re supporting a pedophile just because he’s a Republican.)  My feeling? The ethics hearings should have happened before any action was taken. And there needs to be clear procedure within Congress, applicable to all the members, not just one party, for dealing with this sort of accusation.
     However, because the pattern has been established, I am waiting for those same Democrats to denounce all the other men in government who have been accused of sexual misconduct, especially those who have paid off their accusers (some on my damn dime!)  I’m waiting for them to call out Donald Trump who has been accused multiple times, and who has tarred his own reputation with his Access Hollywood audio tape.  Yes, that was him on the tape, he admitted it well before he started to deny it, and the man he was with, Billy Bush, has confirmed that it was Trump speaking.  I think it’s past time call him out.  That’s not jumping the gun, that’s calling a serial abuser to accounts, no matter what position he holds.  I’m also waiting for Republicans to begin to call out their own, not just jump on the kick-the-Democrat-out bandwagon. I’m guessing that’s not going to happen with a party that has become so ethically bankrupt.
     Within the private sector, there seems to be some gun-jumping going on as well. Companies are distancing themselves from those who have been so accused in an attempt to make it seem as if they have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.  Sadly, I can’t help but feel that there’s an element of ass-covering going on. Many of these men are well-known abusers who have been harassing and molesting both women and men for years, decades even.  I was told about James Levine’s interest in young boys 30+ years ago.  These guys should have been called out long ago, probably were, but no one was ready to either believe or care about the accusers.  So I’m not sure I’m convinced by all the moral high ground being taken so quickly.
     Now everyone is on the bandwagon, and there may well be mistakes and false accusations made. Humans are both fallible and mean-spirited. (Though the incidence of false rape accusations is more a thing of the movies and television than real life.) For that I’m sorry, but it really is past time for people, particularly women, to be believed when they say, “He made inappropriate advances to me.” or “I was raped.” It’s past time for us to no longer be asked what we were wearing, what we did to encourage him, or to be told that we’re lying. It’s past time for us to be allowing men like Harvey Weinstein to make or break someone’s career based on her willingness to play his game.
     My basic position is this: I will never initially respond to the news that someone has been accused of sexual misconduct by doubting the victim. I will pay attention to the victim’s account to see if it rings true. I will wait to see if others step forward to make the same accusations because people who indulge in abusive behaviors don’t just do it once. It’s a pattern. I will always recognize that while harassment or inappropriate contact is wrong, it’s not assault, and my response will be tempered by that recognition. I’m not saying that I’ll take a boys-will-be-boys attitude toward anything that’s not a violent assault, but that I recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.  I will also remember that just because I like or admire someone doesn’t mean that person is a good person, or free from fault, and won’t automatically assume that such an accusation can’t be true.
     There is going to be a lot of furor about this, and there will be a backlash, there always is, particularly when it comes to women standing up for themselves. I hope things will improve, not just because abusers fear reprisals but because the culture changes. Until it does, maybe fear of reprisals is the one thing that will keep us all a little safer.

Review: Unearthing the Past: Paleontology and the History of Life (The Modern Scholar), by Jeffrey S. Martz

23550305[1]This series of lectures failed to hold my interest when I began it, but I’m not sure if that was the fault of the material or of my concentration.  When I picked it up again earlier this week, I found myself fascinated by the information, first on what paleontologists actually do, and then the timeline of the history of life on earth.

Don’t look for a professional narrator here; Dr. Martz is a pretty typical lecturer with a lot of the essential flaws of one.  He sometimes speaks quite fast, sometimes gives us asides that pull us out of the narrative thread, but nothing he does is so distracting that it took away from the course material.

A lot of people have complained about how basic the information is, and that’s true, but at a grand total of four hours and eight lectures, how could it be anything other than a basic course? I found it interesting enough that I’d like to explore more about the subject, and to me that’s a strong recommendation. If you want more than a good overview of the subject you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Bottom line here is that I learned a lot, and got a good sense of the discipline of paleontology, and the awesome progress of the evolution of life on earth.

Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe

36142530[1]This month is starting out with a whimper, not a bang, which is disappointing.  First I ended up bailing on the Carl Sagan book I was listening to, and then, though I finished this book, I found it less compelling than I had hoped.

It’s a novel, but so heavily based on real people and events that sequences that the author could never have been privy to in any way threw me out of the narrative the first few times I encountered them.

The story is primarily about Dita Adler, a fourteen-year-old girl who was sent to Auschwitz with her parents.  Dita is a tough, resourceful girl who becomes the keeper of the few books that had been smuggled into Auschwitz. In addition to a handful of print books, Dita and the people who run Block 31, where a highly illegal school has been set up for the children of Auschwitz, enlist the help of “living books,” people who can recount the events of a book so well that listening to them is very nearly as good as reading.

The other characters, most of whom were also real people, are all interesting in their own way, and the events that occur are often well-documented, and yet the narrative never really came together for me in any meaningful way. I enjoyed it, but found it often awkward (possibly a problem with the translation) and not always as involving as it ought to have been. I think the author tried to tell too many stories too deeply, and ended with a scattered narrative that kept most of the characters at arm’s length.

I wouldn’t discourage anyone from picking it up, I think it’s worth reading. I would just say that it didn’t meet my expectations.

Review: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan

17349[1].jpgHonestly, I’m embarrassed to admit that I bailed on this about two thirds of the way through. Normally I love Sagan and I was thrilled to find this book on sale at Audible because I’d been wanting to read it, but listening to it was — through no fault of the narrator, Cary Elwes — like riding a merry-go-round.  After the first chapters it was all territory he’d covered.  The redundancy of his argument became tedious; every chapter had the same message: Science is the most reliable way of understanding the world. Pseudo-science is foolishness.  And yet Sagan drew this out into nearly 500 pages. If he’d done a book half that size it would have been a trim, compelling argument. He could have done it in an essay!

Each chapter holds some kind of pseudo-science up for inspection and finds it wanting. Sagan spends a good deal of time with UFO-ology, as we might expect, and much of it is taken up with accounts of abductions, discussions about sleep paralysis and dreams.  Sagan belabors his points. His quotes from pseudo-science proponents seem endless, and his argument is always the same: These things aren’t provable. Science is the most reliable way of knowing.  The chapters also often seem poorly thought out and rambling, as if no one had edited the work and said, “Carl, you need to stick to your point in this chapter.”

In fairness, Sagan is surprisingly respectful of the things that motivate people to believe in the unprovable. He makes the point a number of times that science and religion could be effective partners in bringing people to a greater understanding of our universe. He understands that the desire to hang on to the people we love drives belief in gods and the afterlife.  His account of waking to hear his dead father calling to him made me weep because that happens to me as well, and it’s not only heartbreaking, but it makes understandable the wholly emotional desire to believe that there’s more to it than a hallucination.

I was disappointed to have quit before the end, but it seemed to me that by chapter 18 I was wasting my time.  I know that pseudo-science, the occult, and the paranormal are not reliable disciplines. I know that the scientific method is the best way we have to understand our world. I didn’t need to be told as much over and over for 400+ pages.

November 2017 Reading Recap

Photo 30We’re racing wildly toward the end of the year now, with Thanksgiving over, and the clocks back to real time as opposed to that phony DST.  I used my extra hour for reading, thanks. I finished the 150 book challenge I set myself, so it’ll be nice to relax a little in December.  Just in time for Jólabókaflóðið!

  1. Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques  by James Hynes — It isn’t just for writers, or at least I don’t think it ought to be, necessarily. Readers could benefit from listening, and learning what it is they’re seeing on the page, learning what kind of planning goes into the books they enjoy, or perhaps why they didn’t enjoy a particular book as much as they thought they would.  Yeah, I know that’s a lot of work, and no, it doesn’t have a plot or a romance, or even a happy ending where the antagonist is foiled and the protagonist lives happily ever after, but if you love fiction, why not learn more about it?  Writing has made me a better reader.
  2. Gentleman’s Agreement  by Laura Z. Hobson— It’s odd how a book can seem both dated as well as shockingly timely. This is clearly a mid-century book, right down to the vocabulary. And yet the themes are so completely contemporary — anti-semitism, shades of prejudice, racism — that there were times I had to stop reading because I would begin to feel sick that we’ve progressed so little since the post-WWII era.
  3. Men Explain Things to Me  by Rebecca Solnit — In a series of six essays, Solnit explores the current state of relations between men and women, not just in the US, but throughout the world. It’s not pretty. The title essay, in which Solnit describes an encounter with a blowhard who fails to realize that she is, in fact, the author of the book he’s recommending to her, is wryly funny. But many of the others, which deal with violence against women, are anything but. From the gang-rape, torture, and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, to a campus policeman advising co-eds not to behave like sluts if they don’t want to be raped, the accounts are horrifying, infuriating, and depressing because rape culture feels systemic and unchangeable.
  4. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown — The story of Gudrid should have been riveting. This is a woman who traveled from her Scandinavian home to Greenland, Iceland, and the area of the Americas known to Vikings as “Vinland,” for its wild grapes. In her old age, she made a pilgrimage to Rome and became a nun. But the book goes every which-way, bouncing from her life, to archeological information, to Erik the Red, and back again, never quite allowing the reader to come to know Gudrid on a level where we could feel engaged with her life and adventures.
  5. Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History  by Katy Tur — I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of presidential campaigns, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as insane and disheartening as Donald Trump’s campaign to become President of the United States and his subsequent victory. With that in mind, I decided to let Katy Tur immerse me in the whys and wherefores of his campaign in hope of understanding how a reality TV star with no political experience at all could bamboozle enough people into voting for him that he managed to beat out many more competent politicians.
  6. The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries  by Neil deGrasse Tyson — It kept me riveted for the approximately seven hours of this course. I was left wishing that it had been twice as long, and it may end up being an audiobook that I revisit during my planned re-reads next year.  Good science writing is clear and concise, and it helps the reader/listener to grasp the gestalt of the work.  This is hella good science writing.
  7. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz — I was warned that this book would make me ugly cry, but I thought “Sure, a young adult book is going to tear me open and jump on my heart.  Sure.”  Dammit, I ugly cried.
  8. The Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2)  by Genevieve Cogman — The plot of the second book is more focused than the first, and while the spectre of Alberich looms over events, this isn’t just Irene having to fight him again, which is all to the good.  We have new bad guys, and some serious political maneuverings. Cogman ups the ante in pushing Irene to the limits of her abilities, and sets up a confrontation for a future book.
  9. Bonfire  by Krysten Ritter —  I know Ritter from Jessica Jones where she blew me away with her hardass/badass characterization. I was both surprised and not to find that she also writes, and writes well.  Bonfire is a solid, serviceable thriller which, if a little predictable, still delivers the goods.  I didn’t love it, but I did tear through it in a couple of hours because her writing is smooth as silk, and she knows how to keep a scene moving, and how to create characters who are interesting if not complex.  Book 150 for the year!!
  10. Artemis  by Andy Weir — I pre-ordered this as soon as I knew it was being published, all on the strength of The Martian, which I loved. So now I can tell you that Sophomore Slump is a real thing.  Artemis isn’t a bad book, it’s just not a great book.  I’m not sure it’s always a good book, but I’m up and down about that.
  11. Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics  by Lawrence O’Donnell —  I would urge you to read this book if you’re at all interested in the people and politics of that era and especially that campaign.  I was fascinated by the portraits of the major players from Johnson, who crippled himself by adhering to a losing strategy in Vietnam to the detriment of his legacy in other areas such as civil rights, Nixon who was a brilliant politician, but who put all that intellect to work in self-serving ways, Bobby Kennedy who was opaque and manipulative, and Eugene McCarthy who was a decent human being but utterly unfit to be president.  They, and the more minor players in this drama, are wonderfully drawn by O’Donnell in this rich narrative.
  12. The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works  by Robert Greenberg — If you listen to classical music this lecture series, like Greenberg’s other series on music, can greatly enrich your listening. I always come away from one of his series with a new appreciation for a composer or a work I’d never given much thought to.
  13. Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl’s Moving Castle, #1) by Diana Wynne Jones — For those of you who, like me, have remained stubbornly ignorant of this tale, it is in brief, a story of a young woman who is cursed by a wicked witch, and who sets out to find someone who can lift her curse. Along the way, Sophie meets Wizard Howl, his apprentice, Michael, his fire demon, Calcifer, and a whole cast of memorable characters all of whom have their own agendas.
  14. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt — I can’t honestly say why I enjoyed the book, or even why I finished it.  Every time I picked it up, I thought, “Do I really want to do this?” Obviously I did, in spite of what felt like a plot so thin you could see through it. But in the end it didn’t matter. Like a Wes Anderson film, the parts proved to be far greater than their sum, and just as enticing, at least to me. The dialogue, hilariously stilted, (everyone speaks in the same voice) threw me out of the story repeatedly, and yet I enjoyed it. The characters, awful as they sometimes seemed, were still charming and funny.  It’s a dark, dryly funny story, violent, and weirdly sexual.

     

    Stats for November:

  • Books read: 14
  • Non-fiction 7
  • By women: 7
  • By PoC: 2
  • By LGBT authors or with LGBT themes: 1
  • Favorite: Playing with Fire, which surprises me. Usually I’ll pick a piece of fiction because it takes me out of myself.  But O’Donnell’s work was so interesting and compelling, that nothing else comes close.
  • Biggest disappointment: Artemis. Wow, such a disappointment.

 

Currently Reading:

So that’s it for November.  I’ve hit a total of 155 books for the year, which is darn good for me. I may not get a lot done in December but I’m still pretty proud of how well I’m doing.  Next month I’m going to be doing a year-end recap.

 

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

6294[1]Why did no one tell me how lovely this book is?  Everyone talks about the film, and since I dislike anime (and most animation) I never paid much attention. But then I saw the audiobook on sale and decided to take a chance.

For those of you who, like me, have remained stubbornly ignorant of this tale, it is in brief, a story of a young woman who is cursed by a wicked witch, and who sets out to find someone who can lift her curse. Along the way, Sophie meets Wizard Howl, his apprentice, Michael, his fire demon, Calcifer, and a whole cast of memorable characters all of whom have their own agendas.

I was delighted by the narrator, Jenny Sterlin, whose talent for voices is quite wonderful. She manages to suggest links between characters even as she makes each voice entirely its own thing. The story itself is gently humorous, and in places, genuinely tense even though you’re sure a fairy tale must end Happily Ever After.

Neither Wynne Jones nor Sterlin disappoint.