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: 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.

 

Review: Undermajordomo Minor, by Patrick deWitt

25142817[1].jpgI’m not familiar with deWitt’s earlier work, so can’t make comparisons, but my general feeling about Undermajrdomo Minor is that it’s strongly reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film with the same oddball characters, dry and strangely stilted dialogue and a plot that never makes a lot of sense.  Some readers are going to love it, some will hate it, many will be tempted to say, “Buh? I don’t get it.”

A picaresque novel, it follows the adventures of Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a compulsive liar and coward, as he attempts to make his way in the world.  He takes the job of Undermajordomo at the castle of Baron von Aux, a weird and forbidding place with strange rules such as, be in your room by ten at night, and always lock yourself in.  Um, why? asks Lucy.  And the answer is: because.

He soon finds out why when he meets the Baron, filthy and naked, eating a rat he’s just killed barehanded, which pretty much ensures that Lucy will never forget to lock his door.

For all his faults, Lucy has a good deal of charm, and he makes friends fairly easily. To be honest, it’s not difficult in the castle, or in the town which is surrounded by two armies that regularly battle on the outskirts. He makes friends with a pair of thieves, Memel and Mewe, and falls in love with Katja, Memel’s daughter and Mewe’s sister.  It’s his love for Katja which propels much of the last half of the novel, and sees him embarking on a new adventure by the end of the book.

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.

Review: The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, by Robert Greenberg

17251139[1]It’s been kind of a rough end of the year, and my reading has slowed down as the Swedish Death Cleaning has speeded up. But audiobooks are great companions while I’m cleaning, and Robert Greenberg has carried me through some onerous tasks, especially this month. I chose it because I simply wasn’t up to Roxane Gay or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or in fact anything that would make me feel sad or guilty or furious.

I chose well because this course of lectures shed light on a great many pieces of music that I’m already familiar with, giving me a deeper appreciation of the works and their composers.  As I’ve said in other reviews, Professor Greenberg’s understanding of music history and history in general, is deep, and he uses it to give context to the works he’s discussing. He cites Beethoven’s terrible, horrible, very bad, no good year as the impetus behind some of his greatest works, and puts Shostakovich’s work in the context of Stalinism where composing the wrong thing could earn you a meat axe to the back of the head.

Beyond that, he shows us much of the technique behind the works, which is a way of understanding the history of music itself, of the compositional standards and how they were changed as composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms found them either too restrictive or simply outmoded.

I had a moment of serendipity with the lecture on Gustav Mahler’s 5th symphony. As the lecture wound down, I found myself wanting to listen to the whole thing. But it was late and I didn’t feel like hunting it down on Spotify.  A few minutes later, I turned on the radio and found myself listening to Mahler’s 5th, and thinking about what Professor Greenberg had said about it as I lay in bed, finding it a deeper experience for having just heard the lecture.

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.

Review: Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics,  by Lawrence O’Donnell 

34346496[1]I was sixteen in 1968, and I remember being a Gene McCarthy supporter in spite of my inability to vote.  I was anti-war, as were most of my friends, I was pro civil rights, and was discovering my conscience slowly but surely.  I also lived in Chicago and have vivid memories of the bloody protests and the subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7.”  Remembering these things has given me more of a perspective on current events than a younger person might have. I understand protest and confrontation. I understand the need to be involved. I lived through Watergate and I understand the nature of political corruption.

Or I thought I did until I immersed myself in O’Donnell’s account of the events which made Richard Nixon President of the United States, a complex, difficult, often painful process of backroom deals, back-stabbing, and cynical maneuvering by virtually every actor on that stage.  I learned a great deal about history that I thought I knew well, and learned that a great many of the people involved in this drama were far less admirable than I had imagined.  Or maybe I should just say they were more human than they appeared to be at the time.

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.

One thing about this book which both amused and bemused me was O’Donnell’s jabs at Donald Trump, a thread that ran through the book for reasons not immediately clear to me. O’Donnell isn’t a cheap-shot kind of guy.  He’s thoughtful, well-informed, and pretty even-handed, so the connections to Trump should have been provoked by practical reasons, right?

Well it took me long enough to suss them out.  This book isn’t just about 1968 and Nixon, and Vietnam, it’s about the here and now.  The comments about Trump aren’t just jabs, they’re sharp and incisive parallels to the worst of the world in 1968, the things we really should have left behind us, but can’t seem to shake off.  1968 was, after all, the end of the liberal wing of the Republican party. It was the year when the Dixie-crats drew the line in the sand on integration (They were not having it!) the war in Vietnam (Yes, please.) and the role of authoritarianism in government. (They were Law and Order guys right down the line.)  It was the year when southern Democrats stopped being democratic and turned into the moderate wing of the Republican party.

The parallels that O’Donnell draws become quite clear when he discusses Richard Nixon’s greatest crime, which had nothing to do with Watergate.  He colluded with Nguyễn Văn Thiệu to keep South Vietnam out of peace talks until after the election which he expected to win (and did.)  For Nixon, American lives were far less important than his political future. What he did was technically treason, and the only reason he wasn’t called out on it was that Johnson and his advisers felt that win or lose, charging Nixon with treason would do more harm to the country than good. That collusion has clear parallels to the Trump campaign and Russia, though the extent of Trump’s involvement isn’t actually known as of this writing. And the law that made Nixon’s actions treasonous probably don’t apply to the Russia scandal, though again, that’s not wholly clear at this time.

By the end, understanding those parallels between then and now, the deep divisions in this country, the fears and concerns, the push-pull of civil rights, it was heartening to listen to O’Donnell’s epilogue in which he reminds us of the most important thing of all: Our participation in this process is what made a difference.  The anti-war movement saved lives.

Political participation is life and death.

I really recommend this book to anyone who wants to read it as history, as a cautionary tale, as biographical material, or just as a surprisingly exciting story about the ins and outs of politics.  I would cheerfully read anything O’Donnell has written, and would happily listen to his narration of any political history because he was just that good.

 

Review: Artemis, by Andy Weir

35097545[1]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.

As I was beginning it, The Housemate read me a highly critical review by the AV Club.  Most of the review was about how the main character didn’t feel like a woman. I felt that was relatively unimportant, that gender wasn’t an issue in the story as far as I’d read, and honestly I still feel that way.  Weir could have made his protagonist male and changed almost nothing about the narrative. Had this book been about women’s issues, I might have felt short-changed, but as it is, this is a pretty standard thriller, and representation is way down on the list of things one expects from this genre.

However, irony is ironic. When I picked the book up again after hearing the review, I found that it had been close to being right.  Not spot-on, just close.  None of the characters had any depth for me, mostly they were interchangeable plot devices.  Again, that’s standard fare in the genre, so I’m willing to shrug and let it go in spite of the fact that I know Weir can create dimensional characters.  But what flummoxed me was that the action sequences were so dull.  They were highly  technical, and where that worked in The Martian, it does not work here.

I found myself racing through those parts to get to the human interactions, which if they didn’t have the depth I could have hoped for, were at least more interesting than all the tech stuff. I found myself thinking that someone told Weir that “people loved all that technical stuff in The Martian, so maybe you should do it again, and do more of it.” Yeah that worked when it was a single man against the elements and ultimately against technology.  But here?  It’s kind of flat. At least that’s how it felt to me.

So in the end, while I enjoyed parts of it, those parts proved greater than the whole, and I can’t be super enthusiastic the way I was about The Martian. That makes me sad.  It doesn’t mean I won’t read the next thing Andy Weir publishes, but I’m not going to be so quick to pre-order it next time.

Review: Bonfire, by Krysten Ritter

33876540[1]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.

It’s one of those books about a woman who goes back home again and confronts her miserable past, and the people who were complicit in that misery.  Abby is a damaged creature, reminding me of Rachel from Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train.  She’s not quite the mess Rachel is, but the longer she stays in Barrens, the more we see the cracks opening up in her. She was a target for the Mean Girls, thanks to their ringleader, Kaycee, who had once been Abby’s friend, or rather had once been what passed for a friend.  Kaycee, who looms over everything in the story, remains almost more of a plot device than a fully-fleshed character.  Late revelations about her home life do help make her feel more real, but in the end, we never entirely understand what made her tick.

I could have done without the romance since it seemed like a false note, but it wasn’t intrusive. There are things about this novel that I find inexplicable, and which feel like loose ends to me.  Because of all those objections I’d probably give it 3.5 stars. But since most review sites don’t let you give fractions of stars, and since this is my 150th book for the year, I’m going to be generous and say 4 stars because I had to finish it, and I did it in two comfortable sittings.