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review 2020-04-27 16:05
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
Broken Ground - Val McDermid,Cathleen McCarron
Broken Ground - Val McDermid

So what happened at the end there, Val?  Why that infernal rush?  Did you suddenly become aware that you were on your way towards producing a minor brick, or did your publisher tell you to cut it short?  There we were, sailing nicely along in the usual 4-stars-or-higher bracket into which this series typically falls for me, and then you first give us an arrest that couldn't be a greater possible anticlimax, taking into account all that's at stake there, and, literally as an aside, almost everything else that had been threatening to come crashing down on Karen's head is tied up super-squeaky-clean in no more than a few puny words as well??  Fie.

 

Also -- and I do realize this one is down to me, but nevertheless it does add to my aggravation -- can we please be done with Karen's new superior officer sooner rather than later?  I've had my own share of run-ins with this type of person way beyond anything I'm willing to take anymore (it also doesn't help that I've recently seen -- and am currently seeing again -- shenanigans of a different, but equally infuriating kind); so the prospect that of all Karen's problems that were still unresolved in the next-to-last chapter, this of all things is the one issue remaining unresolved, makes me not particularly rush to get the next book, whenever it's going to be published.  I seriously do NOT want to meet this person again.  And unlike poor Karen, I have the freedom to opt out here; which I may very well end up doing, unless someone tells me that the supervisor in question is getting her long-overdue comeuppance and Karen is rid of her by the end of the next book at the very latest.

 

Finally, just curious: What's your fascination with dead bodies surfacing from the depth of a peat bog?  This has to be at least the second, if not third book where that sort of thing is happening ...

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review 2020-03-15 20:45
February and Mid-March 2020 Reading Update
Small Country - Gaël Faye,Dominic Hoffman,Sarah Ardizzone
Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi,Dominic Hoffman
My Beloved World - Sonia Sotomayor,Rita Moreno
In the Country - Mia Alvar,Fidel Castro,Nancy Wu
Unspeakable: The Autobiography - John Bercow
The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922 - Mathew Prichard,Agatha Christie
Granada's Greatest Detective: A Guide to the Classic Sherlock Holmes Television Series - Keith Frankel
Dead Men Don't Ski - Patricia Moyes
Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham,Francis Matthews
Henry: Book Three of the Tudor Trilogy - Tony Riches,James Young

I never got around to doing this at the end of February, so what the heck ... I might as well include the first two weeks of March, since that month is half over at this point already, too.  But then, February was such a universal suck-fest in RL that I didn't even make it here for the better part of the month to begin with.  (Don't even ask.)  So much for my hope back in January that things might be looking up ...

 

So, lots and lots of comfort reading in the past 1 1/2 months; Golden and Silver Age mysteries aplenty, both new and from the reread department -- but I also managed to honor Black History Month and advance my Around the World, Women Writers, and 221B Baker Street and Beyond reading projects.  In perhaps the weirdest turnout of the past couple of weeks, I even managed to include two "almost buddy reads" (reading books that others had recently finished or were reading concurrently -- Patricia Moyes's Dead Men Don't Ski and Freeman Will Crofts's The Cask) and, before vanishing into my February RL black hole, a real buddy read with BT of John Bercow's excellent (though somewhat unfortunately-titled) memoir, Unspeakable

 

Number of books read since February 1: 27.

Of these:

 

Black History Month

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing

Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)

 

Around the World

-- counting only books by non-Caucasian authors and / or set neither in Europe nor in the mainland U.S.:

The three above-mentioned books, plus

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World

Mia Alvar: In the Country

Matthew Pritchard (ed.), Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

 

221B Baker Street and Beyond

Terry Manners: The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes

Keith Frankel: Granada's Greatest Detective

 

Golden Age Mysteries

4 by Ngaio Marsh (all rereads): Overture to Death, Light Thickens, Dead Water, Death at the Bar

4 by Margery Allingham (2 rereads, 2 new): The Beckoning Lady, Death of a Ghost, Mystery Mile, Black Plumes

1 by Patricia Wentworth (new): The Case of William Smith

2 by J. Jefferson Farjeon (both new): Seven Dead and Thirteen Guests

1 by Raymond Postgate (new): Somebody at the Door

1 by Freeman Wills Crofts (new): The Cask

 

Silver Age and Other Mysteries

Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don't Ski (new)

Colin Dexter: Last Bus to Woodstock (reread)

Ellis Peters: The Sanctuary Sparrow (reread)

P.D. James / BBC Radio: 7 dramatizations (Cover Her Face, Devices and Desires, A Certain Justice, A Taste for Death, The Private Patient, The Skull Beneath the Skin, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) -- all revisits as far as the actual books were concerned, as was the dramatization of The Skull Beneath the Skin; the rest of the audios were new to me)

 

Other Books

John Bercow: Unspeakable (memoir)

Tony Riches: Henry (historical fiction)

 

Of all of these, the standout entries were:

 

Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)

A short but impactful novel tracing the coming-of-age of the son of a French father and a Burundian Tutsi mother, which coming-of-age is rudely interrupted when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda spills over into Burundi.  What starts out as an endearing but somewhat unremarkable read becomes a tale of unspeakable heartbreak in the final part, in which it only took very few pages for the book to completely skewer me.

 

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World

Justice Sotomayor's memoirs of her upbringing in the New York Puerto Rican community, and her unlikely, but doggedly pursued path to Princeton, Yale Law School, and ultimately, the Federal Bench -- fullfilling a dream that had, oddly, started by watching Perry Mason on TV as a child.  I wish Sotomayor hadn't finisihed her book with her appointment as a judge, though I respect the reasons why she decided to do so; and even so, hers is a truly impressive, inspiring story of overcoming a multitude of crippling conditions (type-1 diabetes, poverty, racism, and teachers discouraging rather than inspiring her, to name but a few) to chart out a path in life that even most of those who didin't have to overcome any of these odds would not dare to aspire to.  Throughout the narrative, Sotomayor's genuine empathy with and care for her fellow human beings shines through on many an occasion; not only for her family and friends, and for those disadvantaged by society, but for everybody she encounters -- until and unless they rub her the wrong way, in whch case they will find themselves at the receiving end of a tongue lashing or two.  What particularly impressed me was that Sotomayor, though a staunch defender of Affirmative Action, repeatedly chose not to seek positions as a minority candidate but on a more neutral ticket, fearing she might unduly be buttonholed otherwise.  That sort of thing takes great strength and belief in the universality of her message.

 

Matthew Pritchard / Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

Agatha Christie's letters, photos and postcards from the expedition to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada in which her first husband, Archibald, and she were invited to participate out of the blue shortly after the birth of their daughter Rosamund.  Lovingly edited by her grandson Matthew Pritchard, and amplified by the corresponding excerpts from her autobiography, the letters in particular shed an interesting sidelight onto the thinking and life experience of the then-budding future Queen of Crime (her second novel was published while the tour was under way), and to fans, the book is worth the purchase for her photos alone (she had rather a good eye for visual composition, too) ... and for her surfing adventures, reproduced here in their full glory, and in both words and images.

 

John Bercow: Unspeakable 

An impromptu boddy read with BrokenTune; delivered in Bercow's trademark style and doubtlessly offering as much fodder to those determined to hate him as to those who regret his stepping down as Speaker.  I commented on the bits up to the Brexit chapter in a status update at the 70% point; the final part of the book contains much that Bercow had already said repeatedly while still in office, be it in interviews or from the Speaker's chair; yet, while he doesn't hold back with criticism of those whose stance he considers irresponsible, he is also scrupulously fair to all those who, he genuinely believes, are working hard to realize the political aims they consider in the best interests of theiri constituents.  In fact, the chapter about what, in Bercow's opinion, makes a "good" politician, was possibly the most surprising inclusion in the book (and the book worth a read for that chapter alone), heaping praise (and in some instances, scorn) on a wide array of politicians of all parties, regardless whether Bercow shares their views or not. --  Even if no longer from inside the Houses of Parliament, I hope and trust Bercow's voice will remain relevant and weighty in the months and years to come.

 

Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don't Ski

A huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader for favorably reviewing this book earlier this year and thus bringing it to my attention.  Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are a joy to be with, and like MR and Tigus (who has also read the book in the interim), I'll definitely be spending more time in their company in the future.  What I particularly appreciated in addition to the delightful characters created by Ms. Moyes (and the rather cleverly-constructed locked-room mystery at the heart of this book) was the understanding she brought to the book's setting in the German-speaking part of the Italian Alps, which is not only one of the most naturally stunning parts of the entire Alps but also a region fraught with a complicated history, which might have caused a lesser writer to glide off into easy cliché, but which Moyes uses rather skillfully in crafting her story's background.

 

Ngaio Marsh: Light Thickens

The final book of the Roderick Alleyn series and perhaps not everybody's cup of tea, set, as it is, in Marsh's "main" professional domain -- the world of the theatre -- and featuring a plot in which the murder only occurs at the halfway point, almost as an afterthought: and yet, upon revisiting the book, I instantly realized all over again why this (the first mystery by Marsh I'd ever read) was the one book that irresistibly drew me into the series and made me an instant fan.  This isn't so much a mystery as a Shakespearean stage director's love letter to the Bard, and to his "Scottish play" in all of its permutations; as well as to the Shakespearean theatre, and more generally, the world of the stage as such.  Roderick Alleyn (rather far advanced in his career and definitely not having aged in real time) eventually shows up to solve the inevitable murder, faithful sidekick Inspector ("Br'er") Fox in tow and quoting Shakespeare with the best of them, but the stars of the show remain the actors themselves, the play's director (whom those who read the series in order will, at this point, already have encountered in a prior installment), and ultimately, Shakespeare himself.  This may not be everybody's cup of tea in a mystery ... to me, it proved irresistible, the first time around as much as upon revisiting the book now.

 

Margery Allingham: Death of a Ghost

Unlike my reading experience with Allingham's fellow Golden Age Queens of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, that with Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series is a rather checkered one, where instances of true mystery reader's delight repeatedly follow hot on the heels of groan-inducing forays into clichéd, implausible plots populated by cardboard characters, and vice versa.  That said, even upon my first read I considered Death of a Ghost one of the series's absolutely standout entries, and that impression has only been confirmed and reinforced by revisiting the book.  Set in the art world and populated by a cast of fully drawn, quirky characters (some likeable, some decidedly less so), the book lives off Allingham's acerbic wit, which is brought out to great advantage here; and although Campion tumbles to the probable identity of the murderer when we're barely halfway into the book, Allingham easily maintains the reader's interest by keeping the "how" a puzzle, and by tying in a further puzzle whose solution will eventually provide the motive for the murder.  If there is any letdown in the book at all, it's in the murderer's ultimate fate, but by and large, this is a superlative effort.

 

As a side note, I've also concluded that the audio versions of Allingham's novels work decidedly better for me if read by Francis Matthews rather than David Thorpe.  I have no problem with Thorpe as a narrator of other books, but he takes a rather literal approach to Allingham's description of Campion's voice, making it come across almost as a falsetto, which in combination with his overly expressive narration as a whole tends to drive me clean up the wall.  Matthews's delivery, by contrast, while hinting at Campion's vocal patterns, is a bit more matter of fact overall (even though it still leaves plenty of room for characterization, both of people and of plot elements) -- an impression that was swiftly confirmed when a search for further Allingham titles recorded by Matthews threw up a non-Campion mystery of hers, Black Plumes, which in turn also confirmed my impression that some of Allingham's best writing is contained in books other than her Campion mysteries.

 

Overall, the past six (or so) weeks contained a lot of great books, regardless whether rereads or new to me.  The two most-hyped entries in the selection -- Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing and Mia Alvar's In the Country -- proved, almost predictably (for me, anyway), those that I was least impressed with: they were both still solid 4-star reads, but both episodic in nature, with only some of those episodes engaging me as fully (and consequently, blowing me away as much) as, if I'd have believed the hype, I'd have expected the entire books to do.  (I know, I know.  4 stars is still a very respectable showing, and I wouldn't give either book less than that ... and considering that I've been known to one-star overly hyped books when called for, 4 stars is even more pretty darned decent.  Still ... they both, but particularly so Homegoing, would have had so much more potential if they'd been allowed to spread their wings to the full.) -- Of the Golden Age mysteries new to me, the standout was J. Jefferson Farjeon's Thirteen Guests. Tony Riches's Henry provides a well-executed conclusion to his series about the three first significant Tudors (Owen, Jasper, and Henry VII) -- neatly complementing Samantha Wilcoxson's novel about Henry VII's wife Elizabeth of York, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen -- and the two books focusing on Jeremy Brett and the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series starring him as Holmes have given me the idea for a Holmes-related special project, which I will, however, probably only get around to later this year (if I get around to it at all, my RL outlook being what it is at the moment).

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review 2019-09-29 21:15
Gilead
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood,Claire Danes
The Testaments - Margaret Atwood,Mae Whitman,Ann Dowd,Bryce Dallas Howard,Tantoo Cardinal,Derek Jacobi

Well, that was as soul-drenching as any double bill ever was (even though The Testaments is marginally more optimistic than The Handmaid's Tale). 

 

It's not always a good idea for an author to revisit one of their standout classics decades later, but in this instance it clearly worked.  Atwood stays faithful to the original tale while supplying additional depth to the world she created there.  (Now it remains to be seen whether the TV series, in turn, is going to stay true to the story as set out in The Testaments, which is set a decade and a half later.  Though I'm not sure Atwood herself considers more than a few basic facts from the TV series "canon" as far as her novels are conscerned.) 

 

And Atwood has clearly done her homework on dictatorships, theocratic and otherwise -- which is, of course, a large part of what makes Gilead come across as so goddamned credible (and hence, so goddamned frightening).  Like the authors of other dystopias (Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Du Maurier's Rule Britannia) -- and also like Terry Pratchett in the first Night Watch novel, Guards' Guards! -- she points out that once a country's democratic foundations have been allowed to weaken, it doesn't even take a violent toppling of government for a dictatorship to take root -- and while she may have been inspired by recent events to revisit Gilead and write The Testaments, this clearly is at the heart of The Handmaid's Tale as well, as it is there that the notion is presciently first given voice.

 

I'm glad I went through both novels back to back, and Halloween Bingo couldn't have ended on a bigger exclamation mark.  I also fervently hope the world doesn't even get within the equator's total length of Gilead, however; or rather, the actually existing theocracies will eventually be rooted out once and for all and no new ones will be added, anywhere on earth.  Most especially and for the immediate future I hope the Western world will come to its collective senses and manage to make a U-turn from the course that it started to take somewhere around the mid-2010s.  Heaven knows what the participants of late-22nd century historical conferences will otherwise have to say about us.

 

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review 2019-09-23 17:06
Halloween Bingo 2019: The Third Week
Fegefeuer - Katharina Thalbach,Anna Thalbach,Angela Plöger,Julia Nachtmann,Sofi Oksanen,Thomas Thieme,Heiko Deutschmann
Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett,Nigel Planer
The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham,William Gaminara
The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations - Wilkie Collins,Anna Katharine Green,L.T. Meade,Catherine Louisa Pirkis,Theresa Gallagher,Abigail Docherty,Elizabeth Conboy,Gayanne Potter
The Magicians' Guild - Trudi Canavan,Richard Aspel
The Guilty Ones: A Jackman and Evans Thriller - Joy Ellis,Richard Armitage
Beloved - Toni Morrison
Beloved - Toni Morrison

Well, the third week really hit my bingo experience out of the ballpark this year -- and not only because it finished with my first completed bingo; that was actually just the icing on the cake.  But it included no less than three absolutely knock-out fabulous books, plus a fourth that was almost as good -- and the remaining three, though not quite reaching this level, were at least mostly enjoyable, all in their own particular way.  So without any further ado:

 

The Books

 

Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge)

Based on everything I'd previously heard about this book, it took me quite a while to get up my nerve to read it, because I knew I'd be in for a fairly merciless game of psychological hares and foxes -- which however, of course, meant that it would be a natural choice for the "Psych" bingo square.

 

Sofi Oksanen's The Purge contrasts the early 1990s' post-Soviet Union independent Estonia with that of the WWII and post-WWII era which had led to the country's being swallowed up by the Soviet Union.  The setting in which this happens is the isolated farm where one of the novel's protagonists, has been living almost all her life, and where at the beginning of the book the other protagonist -- a young woman who is obviously on the run -- suddenly appears, seeking refuge.  Although the two women have never seen each other in their entire lives (and the young refugee for all practical purposes is Russian rather than Estonian), it soon becomes clear that it is by no means an accident for her to show up in this place and none other.  What follows is a dance macabre style exploration of death, guilt, betrayal, running away from versus accepting responsibility for one's own actions, and one (or two?) families' entanglement with Estonia's and the Soviet Union's brutal social and political order in the second half of the 20th century.  This is an uncomfortable read, but it perfectly encapsulates the mental, psychological, political and social purge that every society will embark on both upon slipping into and upon freeing itself from a dictatorial system; and particularly in today's political climate it comes highly recommended.

 

 

Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards!

And talking about books that ought to be read, today more than ever, this turned out to be yet another one, right on the heels of Oksanen's.  The eighth Discworld novel and the first book of the Night Watch subseries -- but first and foremost, an exploration of just how a political system can fail and slip into dictatorships right before everybody's eyes. Whatever it was that motivated Pratchett to write this book exactly 30 years ago, in the waning days of the Cold War, it is eerily prescient and feels as if it were written this or last year; so exactly does it foretell recent events (particularly in the UK and the U.S., but by far not merely there).  There is, of course, also plenty of Pratchett's trademark pith and humor, and plenty of lines that, at least in the first part of the book, will make you laugh out loud; but in the second half, more often than not your laughter is going to get stuck right in your throat.

 

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering about my bingo square attribution, it features dragons.  Plural -- but one in particular.

 

 

Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery

Allingham's first mystery, and it clearly shows off her talent as a writer from the start.  As in the first Albert Campion book (The Crime at Black Dudley) and several of the subsequent Campion mysteries, there's an international "detour" -- here: literally so -- that is not in any way, shape and form necessary to the plot and that I could therefore have done without, and it's no particular surprise that Allingham later chose a somewhat more flamboyant hero for the series she would come to write.  But for an afternoon's (or in my case, morning's) worth of entertainment this works very nicely indeed.

 

 

BBC Audio: The Lady Detectives

See separate post HERE.
 
 
Trudi Canavan: The Magicians' Guild
The first book of Canavan's Black Magician trilogy and, while it started out enjoyable enough, another book that ultimately failed to live up to my expectations.  (It's by no means awful, but it also didn't entice me to continue with the series, however much the ending may have be trying to do just that.) 
 
The book concerns a teenage girl from the slums who in the course of an anti-magician rally with fatal consequences -- though not for herself -- accidentally discovers that (drumroll ...) she has magical powers herself and is henceforth sought out by the Magicians' Guild who (1) want to make her one of their own and (2) even if she should refuse that rather unexpeted honor -- all things magical ordinarily being perceived as something restricted to the country's ruling families -- have decided that in her own interest as well as for the common good, a clamp must be put on her magical abilities, which indeed quickly turn out to be destructive and beyond her own control (a control she can only be taught by a fully-trained magician).  The first part of the book, which essentially concerns the hide and seek game involving the magicians' hunt for the protagonist, is sprightly enough -- though even there the book is displaying its first unnecessary lengths --, but the second part, instead of kicking things into a higher gear, is riddled with lengthy and largely unnecessary exposition, and from the book's mid-point onwards the plot is entirely predictable.  The world-building, too, is only so-so: hardly original -- and it doesn't become anymore so just by giving fancy names to ordinary everyday creatures such as farm animals, crops, or certain types of city buildings such as boarding houses, taverns and brothels --, and I am seriously sick of fantasy novels that believe they're doing something clever by slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation of ordinary everyday names.  (The heroine's first name is Sonea -- pronounced Son-EE-a --; one of the magicians is called Dannyl (pronounced DANNyl.) 
 
In summary, I miight have enjoyed this a good deal more if (1) it had been only about half (or at most, 2 /3) of its actual length and (2) the second half of the book had lived up to the promise of the first half, instead of delving into banal predictability.
 
 
Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones
Aaah, but what a joy to move from the week's last so-so book to another absolute stunner!  I had every faith this was going to be the case, and Ellis delivers in spades -- in a mystery that this time comes calling so close to DI Jackman's home that in reality he would probably have had to recuse himself from the investigation.  (Obviously we can't have such a thing in a mystery, but to give Ellis her due, at least she doesn't duck the issue; and by and large she handles it more successfully here than a similar -- albeit slightly less weighty -- situation in an earlier book.)  I know that at least one other bingo participant is still looking to read this book, so I won't say a word about the plot -- and I only mentioned Jackman's personal involvement because this is essentially the setup of the entire thing and we're being told about it right from the start -- but what I will say is that this book came very, very close to competing with Their Lost Daughters for the spot of my favorite installment in the entire series; and just when I thought I had figured it all out, Ellis kicked things onto a whole new level.  Brava!
 
 
Toni Morrison: Beloved
... and finally: The book that accompanied me throughout the week, bit by bit, in both audio and the print version.  And oh, what a writer the world lost when Toni Morrison died.  This wasn't my first book by her, but it brought home her extraordinary qualities as a writer all over again: There isn't a word wasted here; Morrison even makes every single sillable stand up and be counted, and each and every one of them comes from a place deep inside her and reaches out right to the reader.  The narration is not linear; every fact unveiled simultaneously shrouds two more in allusion and "rememory" too painful to be allowed to come to the surface; and both this and the changing viewpoints make for a canvas that requires time, patience, and the reader's full attention to pull it out from its multiple layers of protection -- and the complete picture, when it is finally out in the open, is one crying out with unbearable heartbreak.
 
Much as I enjoyed listening to Toni Morrison's narration as a companion experience to the book, I would join those who counsel against relying on the audiobook alone if this is your first experience with the book: Morrison's vocal performance essentially does the same as her writing, coaxing forth and simultaneously shushing bits and pieces of the story as they come up in the text, so it adds yet another layer of complexity to a book that, based on its story alone, already calls on the full engagement of the reader's senses and awareness.
 
Whichever way you choose to experience this book, though -- if you only read one book by Toni Morrison, by all means let it be this one.  She deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved alone.

 

 

The Card

... as of today; with my "virgin" card below for reference:

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review 2019-09-16 22:45
Halloween Bingo 2019: The Second Week
Hawksmoor - Peter Ackroyd,Derek Jacobi
Eternity Ring - Patricia Wentworth,Diana Bishop
Earth-Shattering: Violent Supernovas, Galactic Explosions, Biological Mayhem, Nuclear Meltdowns, and Other Hazards to Life in Our Universe - Bob Berman,Peter Ganim
The Dead Ringer - Fredric Brown,Stefan Rudnicki
Smallbone Deceased - Michael Gilbert,Michael Mcstay
Scarweather - Anthony Rolls,Gordon Griffin
The Aeronaut's Windlass - Jim Butcher,Euan Morton

A day late (though hopefully not a dollar short), here's my "second bingo week" summary; and it's a summary of a much better week than the first one turned out to be.  (So, yey!)  For one thing this is due to the books, all of which were either outright winners or at least enjoyable on some level or other; for another, even though I finished the week with a fairly lengthy read AND RL was running really major interference, I managed to keep it to an average of one book per day, as a result of which -- and as importantly, due to the way the bingo calls have been coming in -- I've now got several sets of multiple "called and read" squares in a row or column (two of which, also with all five squares marked "read").  Obviously, even three squares marked "called and read" in a row don't necessarily mean I'll be in for a bingo anytime soon, but that one is down to the bingo gods.  All I can do is go on reading ...

 

 

The Books

 

Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor

The second bingo week's first book, and for the longest time it was on a solid track for a 4 1/2 or even 5-star rating.  Tremendously atmospheric, with London (both 17th century and present day) not so much merely setting but additional character and two timelines tantalizingly mirroring and winding around each other like the two strings of a double helix.  From early on, this is also a book that knows very well just how clever it is, but during the first  90-95% that doesn't matter a jot ... until it does in the end and Ackroyd takes "clever" a step too far into the symbolic, as a result of which the ending is seriously deflating.  What a pity that he proved unable to contend himself with an actual dénouement (however cleverly constructed and meaningful) and instead chose to let narrative lift off and take flight straight into the ether instead.  Still, for the vast majority of its contents, definitely a recommended read -- and the beginning in particular, set in the days of the 1665 plague and tying together the plague, a satanic cult, church construction and murder (mirrored by present-day murders in the same churches), definitely packs a punch.

 

 

 

Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring

Another book off to a great start; if for no other reason than the fact that we get to meet Frank Abbott's family and learn why he didn't become a lawyer -- as had initially been his chosen career path -- but a policeman instead.  (Wentworth takes us back to Frank's family home in a much later installment of the series, The Fingerprint, which I had already read before moving on to this one, but that only made it feel even more of a priority to finally catch up with this story as well.)  It felt good to be back in Miss Silver's (and Frank Abbott's) world in one of the final novels from the series that I had / have yet to read, and it was cruising along nicely and could easily have earned a higher rating, too ... if it hadn't been for the fact that (1) the murderer is fairly easily to deduce by process of elimination and by looking at it from the perspective of where Wentworth herself, as a writer, was likely going to want to take this book's plot; (2) the conflict besetting the married couple at the heart of the novel feels terribly manufactured (first because during 99% of the book it isn't explained at all, and then because the explanation, when finally offered literally on the very last pages, comes across as ridiculously contrived); and (3) the heroine is exhibiting serious bouts of TSTL behaviour both in connection with the aforementioned conflict and in the moments immediately preceding the big reveal.

 

 

Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering

Neither as "epic" nor as "profound" as the blurb promises, and definitely higher on the "popular" than on the "science" part of "popular science writing".  Based on his style of writing, I can very well imagine Berman as a personable guide at his local observatory or as a host of popular radio science programs; the problem is that what sounds approachable in dialogue and oral explanation just comes across as chatty in writing.  (This gets better once the book has left the opening chapters behind, but it never goes away entirely, and arguably the Big Bang -- which is the subject of the first single-topic chapter, i.e., chapter two -- should be the last subject you want to approach with that much of a casual attitude.  For purposes of the audio version, it definitely also does not help that the casualness factor is virtually automatically enhanced in oral performance -- which isn't necessarily down to the narrator; it's just in the nature of the beast.) 

 

In fairness, astronomy, nuclear and astrophysics will never be my strongest subjects, so as far as the actual depth of topical penetration went, it may have been a blessing in diguise that the book didn't do much more than give an overview of the various types of cataclysms and in so doing, rarely did more than scratch the surface.  (Then again, I tend to acquire both a quicker and a more profound grasp of any topic presented to me both at greater length and in greater depth than here.)  Eitiher way, this was enjoyable for what it was or turned out to be, but IMHO it's seriously being oversold in the blurb -- the author himself also seems to be quite the efficient self-promoter -- and I think it's at least also fair to wonder what medical and man-made events such as the medieval plague epidemics and WWII are doing in a book explicitly setting out to deal with astrophysical and earth-bound types of physical cataclysms.

 

 

Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer

Brown's second Ed & Am Hunter novel and the book that, thanks to Tigus's generous gift of last year, has been pencilled in for precisely this square ever since.  I truly enjoyed my return to the Chicago and Midwest of the Classic Noir era -- Brown's writing and plot construction easily stands up to that of the likes of Chandler and Hammett, and despite their less-than-bed-of-roses life experience both of his heroes are decidedly less cynical than Messrs. Marlowe and Spade, which makes for an interesting change from the classic noir approach. 

(Though now that Ed has had his first bruises from a prolongued encounter with a blonde bombshell gold-digger, I hope his views on women in general aren't going to end up being overly skewed too fast.)

(spoiler show)

In this particular book, it also plays out to great effect that Brown knew the mid-20th century carney world from the inside -- from the start, the setting with all of its bizarre characters and attractions and its very own language (carney talk) comes alive in a way it only can if described by someone who once used to walk the walk himself.

 

 

Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased

In my travels in the world of classic crime fiction, one of my truly overdue reads -- a book rightly renowned for its dry sense of humor and truly unique way of disposing of a body.  If you ever thought a crime novel set in a law office specializing on wills, trusts and property law is bound to get mired in the dust of legal lingo and technical details, think again.  Given this mystery's setting and the murdered man's position, the motive for the murder isn't hard to guess (though not all of the details are equally obvious), but thanks to the understated irony of Gilbert's writing, this is deservedly one of the novels that have endured and can still be enjoyed in an era when lawyer's deed boxes are long since a thing of the past.

 

Side note: Treat yourself to the print edition, not the Michael Mcstay audio -- Mcstay's preferred style of narration consists of hurling rapidly mumbled bursts of speech at the reader, which makes following his performance decidedly more of a chore than it reasonably ought to be.

 

 

Anthony Rolls: Scarweather

Quite a change of pace compared to the author's Family Matters, the first book by Rolls that I read -- but if the two books have one thing in common, it's a sense of the unusual and extraordinary, and an incurable urge to pour the acid of satire on experts (self-appointed and otherwise) and on society's habit of treating them, and each one of their pronouncements, as holy cows -- as sages whose every word must be weighed in gold and not under any circumstances be questioned.  In Family Matters, it's doctors, chemists and forensic experts (who are bamboozled by an onslaught of unlikely medical coincidences in connection with a death occurring in the context of a breakdown of a marriage); here it's archeologists.  There is no way this book can be fairly summed up without spoiling half the plot, but if you should decide to tag along with the narrator and his Holmesean scientist friend, you're in for quite a ride ... even if somewhere between the 50% and the 75% mark you'll probably have quite a good idea of what will be waiting for you at the end of the journey.

 

 

Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut's Windlass

The week's longest read and, perhaps surprisingly, not its best one.  To start with the plus side, this novel's most interesting characters (and its single most outstanding feature) are the cats -- not merely Rowl, the feline protagonist, but all of them; not least also Naun, the giant black tomcat leader of a tribe of street (or rather, tunnel) cats whose character constituted my reason for attributing this book to the "black cat" bingo square.  (Rowl is a ginger.)  Butcher really "gets" cats, and their scenes come across as both laugh-out-loud funny and entirely authentic.  Needless to say, almost all of the cats in this book are completely badass -- Rowl first and foremost.  If the rest of the book had lived up to the cats, unquestionably this would have ended up straight on my "favorites" shelf.

 

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  And it's not the fault of the human characters, either -- particularly the three young women, Bridget, Gwen(dolyn) and Folly, as well as Captain Grimm (the eponymous aeronaut) and Gwen's cousin Benedict -- but Butcher's own approach to storytelling.  (Which, incidentally, also makes me even more wary about his Dresden Files series than I had been before reading this book.)  The main characters in The Aeronaut's Windlass are fine, and if Butcher had given them (and me) different stuff to work with, I'd be eager to follow them on their future adventures.  As it is ... well, let's just say the jury is still out on that one.

 

For one thing, the world building here is not anywhere near as innovative as blurb writers and five-star reviews want to make you believe: Heaven knows I'm not the most ardent reader of speculative fiction, and if even I recognize some the stuff cribbed from elsewhere, there's bound to be a lot more that I didn't see.  (Seriously, Mr. Butcher -- Habble Landing as a place name and The House of Lancaster as one of the ruling families?  Geez, I thought George R.R. Martin was derivative, but are we into the derivative of a derivative now?  And a Discworld style guild system (only minus the satire)??  Be glad you're not being sued by the estate of Terry Pratchett.) 

 

Similarly, Captain Grimm and the whole aeronautics thing -- warfare, tactical battle  manoeuvers, ship construction and equipment, even down to the details of (aero)nautical language included -- are straight out of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander and C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series: Replace aeronautics (obviously, with the sole exception of aerial ascents and descents) by early 19th century / Napoleonic Wars seafaring craft, ships, and language, and that is precisely what you get.  Grimm himself, too, is so obviously a cousin to Hornblower in his more mature years and to his former Captain Pellew -- and Grimm's Predator a near-identical twin of Jack Aubrey's HMS Surprise (plus the whole "privateer" subplot / past so obviously built on O'Brian's Letter of Marque, as well as, incidentally, Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood) -- that Forester's and O'Brian's (and Sabatini's) estates should, by rights, be asking for a share of the royalties as well.  To be fair, from the book's descriptions this was the one aspect I had expected -- just don't please anybody tell me that this is anything even close to original. 

 

Finally, while I did appreciate the whole "cinder spire" idea, and I seriously also appreciate the absence of any sort of infodumps, I would have liked to find out a lot more, over the course of the book, what happened to make Earth's "surface" world an uninhabitable wilderness and caused "the Builders" generation to construct the spires to begin with -- and I'm also not entirely clear how you get to square an alleged "democracy" (this is the exact term actually used) with a de-facto king (called Spirearch) who is quite obviously much more than merely a representative figure and wields true power.

 

My other gripes tie into those that I have with a lot of speculative fiction (especially sci-fi, as well as George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series), so this may be an instance of "it's not you, book, it's me" -- but anyway, the book's plot essentially consists of an incessant series of incidents of armed combat (aeronautic and on terra firma / the spires alike), every single one of which incidents goes down according to the tried and true formula of "hero(es) drawn into fight by overwhelming enemy force -- hero(es) bravely stand their ground in the face of impossible odds -- after a while enemies seem to get the upper hand after all -- and a millisecond before it all goes pear-shaped for good salvation for hero(es) comes from unexpected quarters".  Sorry, but this sort of stuff flat-out bores me every time it's served up more than once to begin with (preferably only at a book's point of climax), and that is true even more if the entire plot of a 700+ page book consists of little else.  (And it is even more true if I can anticipate the precise person or group providing the last-minute rescue -- even if not also the precise manner -- at least a chapter or two in advance, as was invariably the case here.)

 

On a related note, "surviving impossible odds in battle" also seems to be the only thing accounting for whatever character growth we seem to be seeing in this book; especially with regard to the younger main characters, particularly the young women, all of whom are inexperienced recruits and barely out of their teens.  OK, so Gwen has her moment of "how do I go back from all this warfare and combat to ordinary everyday civilian life" at the end of the book, and that was another moment I truly appreciated.  I just would have wished there had been more of this, instead of our protagonists incessantly rushing from one fight to the next -- and I would also have wished there had been some experiences for them to grow on outside the fighting stuff, as there are (aplenty) in the Hornblower and Aubrey / Maturin books.

 

Long story short, it's a miracle this book hasn't been made into a movie yet -- there's plenty of things going "boom" with a vengeance, the CGI department would have a field day, and there are also plenty of great characters to root for, both feline and human.  And who knows, I might even watch that movie.  But the whole thing is also so similar to the movies that made me essentially stop caring about any new blockbuster releases years ago that I'm not sure whether I ultimately would go and see it.  And I'm not sure I'm going to be reading the sequel to this book, either ... even though Rowl (and Naun) might eventually tempt me to do so after all.

 

 

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