Memoirs Most Charming, Part 1

I’ve read a handful of charming memoirs lately, and more are on the way!

luckyguyI’m a Lucky Guy by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
This was a reader suggestion from Anne!

Here, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. (writing without sister Ernestine, his sometime collaborator) recounts various happenings and misadventures from his early adulthood, beginning in 1929 when he’s headed off to college and ending somewhere around 1946, when he has returned from serving in the Navy and resumed his career as a newspaperman. These include things like going out for football whilst scrawny, being mistaken for a gun-toting gangster whilst attempting to hide booze (prohibition was still on) from the cops, pranking an odious professor (and, later, an odious superior officer), and repeatedly failing to live up to the standards of a demanding admiral to whom he has been assigned as aide.

On the whole, I found all of these stories entertaining, though the sole moment that made me laugh out loud was when Frank’s soon-to-be wife and mother-in-law completely excused the lascivious behavior of his friend, which a moment before had scandalized them, upon learning he was Methodist (their preferred denomination).

“You don’t think he’s a Ten Commandment breaker?” I asked.
“Why, I’d trust him any place,” Liz said indignantly.
“So would I,” said her mother. “I’ve always said that people shouldn’t be judged by circumstantial evidence.”
“You’re so right,” I assured her.
“Probably,” she continued, fishing around for a likely excuse, “probably—well, probably the doctor sent that girl over to your apartment to change the boy’s bandage, again, before he went to bed.”
I was tempted to break into a high-pitched giggle, but I looked at Liz and caught a warning.
“That’s probably just the way it happened,” I nodded gravely.

Unfortunately, it does seem Frank shares a little of the antipathy toward overweight people that his sister possesses. I don’t mind when he accurately describes a person’s physical characteristics—if a bosom is ample and an abdomen abundant, there’s really no getting around that—but when he makes comments about fellow student Sallye—whom he later proclaims to be “a real friend”—like no “male student in his right mind” would give her their fraternity pen, it’s just unnecessarily mean. True, Sallye has a tendency to be loud and overbearing, and I’m fairly sure that’s part of what he meant, but not the whole of it.

That criticism aside, I did enjoy this book and I’m glad I read it. Thanks, Anne!

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle
Initially, although it was an enjoyable read, I wouldn’t have classified this “sortabiography” from the Monty Python co-founder as charming. Idle recounts his childhood, school days, introduction to the world of comedy, the formation of Monty Python, the run of the original series, and the Python movies without a tremendous amount of detail. He does elaborate more about his independent endeavors, and I especially appreciated learning more about the creation of The Rutles. Using the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as a sort of framework, Idle chronicles the various circumstances after The Life of Brian where he was called upon to sing it, ranging from Graham Chapman’s funeral to the Royal Variety Performance to the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

As is common for a book of this type, there is a lot of name-dropping, but in this case a lot of the names were people I genuinely like, like Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, David Bowie, Stephen Fry, Peter Cook, Robin Williams, and Eddie Izzard. And, too, Idle toots his own horn rather frequently, which is admittedly justified when you’ve accomplished as much as he has, and makes sure readers know there were times in his life when he was having loads of sex.

Where he really shines, though, is penning touching tributes to friends who are no longer with us. My husband and I listened to Idle read the unabridged audiobook version together, and by the end of the chapter entitled “George,” we were both in tears. The chapter about Robin Williams is no less lovely. I cannot stress enough how wonderful these two chapters are; they alone are worth the price of admission. It does make one wonder why he doesn’t delve so deeply into the character of his comedy partners, and only makes a few mentions of Terry Jones’ dementia, but perhaps it is because they were all still living in 2018, when the book was published. I shall have to find out whether Idle penned any tributes to Jones on the sad occasion of his passing last year.

savagesLife Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
I’d heard such good things about these books, but my reaction to Life Among the Savages wasn’t what I expected. True, some of the “lightly fictionalized” anecdotes Jackson relates are somewhat amusing, like the family’s struggle to find a house to rent in Vermont, or insisting to the hospital intake person that her occupation is “writer” as opposed to “housewife,” or her son’s fascination with all the gory details after he gets hit by a car. But the vast majority of the stories involve her children behaving badly, and I had very little patience with these at all.

I imagine that other mothers sympathize with these episodes. Perhaps they see their own experience reflected, and so they laugh but also feel all warm inside, in a loving, maternal way. Not so me, I’m afraid. No, whenever the son showed arrogant condescension toward his mother, or her daughter became intolerably fixated on proper decorum, or one kid or the other was insolent and disrespectful, it just made me angry. In fact, I might have said “Shut the fuck up!” aloud a time or two. This is why it is probably a very good thing that I am not a parent.

Thankfully, Raising Demons contains less of that sort of thing (though significantly more than none). I really loved the section in which Jackson waxes nostalgic about her adolescent obsession with making clothespin dolls and her snarky description of life as a faculty wife (who is expected to have “hemming dishtowels” among her hobbies). The story of how she got a new refrigerator was a highlight, as well.

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar
Having seen and adored whimsical clips from The Amber Ruffin Show, I was very excited to see that Amber Ruffin and her older sister Lacey Lamar had written a book together. Although the topic is racist incidents the sisters have endured (mostly Lacey, who lives and works in Omaha), the approach at least attempts to be light-hearted. These aren’t stories where someone gets hurt or dies; instead, they elucidate the kind of crap Black people are just expected to swallow or forget.

I did laugh a few times, particularly at Ruffin’s effervescent line delivery—I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by the authors—but after a while, the unrelenting wave of absolutely flagrant ignorance and hate becomes overwhelming. The commentary on the stories is funny, but the situations themselves are stressful and horrible and eye-opening in the most abject, despair-inducing kind of way. I have never been one to deny that racism exists, but I admit to being surprised and horrified by a lot of these stories, espcially the awful things done to kids. A beautiful drawing torn to shreds, a group of teens accused of stealing car keys when none of them is old enough to drive, kids threatened at gunpoint by a crazy neighbor but nobody calls the cops because who will the cops believe… I also feel terribly naive for being surprised.

I’m glad I read this.

nutsinmayOur Hearts Were Young and Gay and Nuts in May by Cornelia Otis Skinner
Note: The former was co-written with Emily Kimbrough.

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay recounts the three months in the early 1920s that two young American women spend abroad in Europe, written when they are older (“Emily and I have now reached the time in life when not only do we lie about our ages, we forget what we’ve said they are.”) and nostalgic for more innocent days. It’s written in Cornelia’s voice, though Emily provides many of the details, and tells of the time their ship ran aground, the time Cornelia caught the measles and evaded quarantine, the time they met H. G. Wells and Emily made an embarrassing first impression, the time they mistook a brothel for a boarding house, the time bedbugs gave Cornelia a swollen lip “shining like a polished tomato,” the time their dogs piddled in a swanky Parisian restaurant, etc. For the most part, it’s quite amusing, but there are a few comments that expose the girls’ ignorant attitudes regarding people of other races and sexual preferences.

Rather than focusing on one particular adventure, Nuts in May is a collection of humorous yet unrelated anecdotes Skinner wrote for publications like The New Yorker. Topics include but are not limited to: actors being asked to lend their talents in aid of charitable organizations, a Protestant family’s audience with the Pope, people who laugh at anything, dizzying real estate transactions, and being interviewed by Dr. Kinsey. Occasionally, the tone turns more domestic and reminds me some of Shirley Jackson, such as in “Bag of Bones,” when Skinner’s son insists that the bones they find on a Colorado trail belong to a dinosaur, or “Those Friends of His,” about her son’s reticence on the origins of his friends who come to visit. The latter also makes reference to a car “teeming with hamsters,” which is a phrase and a visual that I adore. Indeed, there were quite a few giggles to be had, and I reckon I might seek out more of Skinner’s work in the future.

Random Reads 2/18/21

Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
Are You in the House Alone? came out in 1976 and though I totally could’ve read it when I was a teen—and thus still a member of its target audience—I never did.

Gail Osburne is a sixteen-year-old high school junior and native New Yorker who’s not at home in the quaint Connecticut village her family relocated to several years back. I knew that the plot involved Gail receiving menacing anonymous notes and phone calls, and I was expecting these events to get started quickly and the suspense to remain high throughout. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, the story is told retroactively, so we know Gail survives. Also, obvious culprit is obvious. (I hope the reveal wasn’t intended to be a surprise, but perhaps readers were less savvy about such things in 1976.) Initially, much more of the focus is on Gail’s relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, and in particular how the latter two are in the slow process of dissolution. Eventually she receives some threatening notes and creepy phone calls, gets scared, is let down by people in positions of authority, and comes face-to-face with said obvious culprit. That happens halfway through this slim novel. The rest of the book is about Gail’s recovery from her ordeal.

I thought Are You in the House Alone? was going to be fun, suspenseful fluff, but it turned out to be fairly serious and occasionally (intentionally) infuriating. I really appreciated how Peck was able to weave in a couple of threads that seemed very random at first and make them integral to the denouement, too. Ultimately, I didn’t love the book, but I kind of… respect it, if that makes sense. It didn’t go the cheap route.

automaticThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a hulking robot who was created to destroy. He developed self-determination, however, and went against his programming. Now, he’s a probationary citizen of Empire City, where mutagens and pollution have created a very diverse population. While some “biologicals” are still “norms,” others have been physically transformed (like rat-like Detective Alfredo Sanchez) and others have been changed in not-so-visible ways (like Mack’s friend, Jung, a talking gorilla with refined literary taste). Mack works as a cab driver and is trying to keep a low profile, but when his neighbors are abducted, he can’t help but try to rescue them. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, of course.

Despite its name, The Automatic Detective isn’t really much of a mystery. I suppose it’s more… sci-fi noir. Mack meets various thugs, beats some of them up, gets beat up himself, etc. Slowly, he makes progress on uncovering a huge conspiracy. At times, I felt like Martinez was a little too enamored of the gimmick he created, and places in the middle dragged a bit as a result, but the ending is pretty satisfying and overall the book was enjoyable enough, even though it’s quite far from the sort of thing I usually read.

As a final note: I really liked that Martinez limited himself when it came time to invent universe-specific profanity. Instead of the text being liberally sprinkled with words like “frell” or “frak,” the phrase “Oh, flurb” appears but once (during a moment where the meaning is 100% apparent) and made me laugh out loud.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily eager to read more by Martinez, but I’m glad I read this one.

jeeves2The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
When I read My Man Jeeves back in 2010, I was somewhat disappointed because so much of it was repetitive. While there are some common elements that recur within the eleven stories that comprise The Inimitable Jeeves, it is still so very much superior that I’d now say… forget about that first book. Start here. Go back and read My Man Jeeves for completist purposes, if that’s your inclination, but start here for the best introduction to these characters and Wodehouse’s uniquely charming and amusing writing.

First published in 1923, The Inimitable Jeeves contains a linked set of stories that typically involve affable Bertie Wooster being imposed upon by either his eternally lovesick friend Bingo Little (who is “always waylaying one and decanting his anguished soul”) or his mischief-making younger cousins, Claude and Eustace. One plot thread involves convincing Bingo’s uncle (who provides him with an allowance) to agree to Bingo marrying a waitress. Jeeves comes up with the idea to ply the uncle with romance novels featuring class differences to soften his heart, and it ends up that Bertie is compelled to go visit the old fellow and claim to be the author. In addition to containing the most elegant description of sweat I’ve ever seen—“The good old persp was bedewing my forehead by this time in a pretty lavish manner.”—this situation is referenced a few times in subsequent stories until Bingo succeeds in getting married to a different waitress who really is the author of those romance novels.

So, even though you’ve got episodic happenings, it’s rather a satisfactory conclusion. Bertie is endearing, Jeeves is competent, the writing is excellent, and it made me laugh. (I especially liked when a character was described as resembling “a sheep with a secret sorrow.”) I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the series after the first book; now I feel as though I finally see what the fuss is all about. I’d also like to give credit to the fabulous narration by Jonathan Cecil. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but I hear echoes of Fry and Laurie in his performance, and I heartily approve. I will certainly seek out more unabridged versions read by him.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
This is the second in the Jacqueline Kirby series of mysteries. I haven’t read the first, and wouldn’t normally begin with the second, but the book promised an English country mansion plus “fanatic devotees of King Richard III” so my usual routine flew right out the window.

Even before university lecturer Thomas Carter likened himself unto Watson, I’d noticed the similarities between how this tale is told and the Sherlock Holmes stories. We are never permitted inside Jacqueline’s head. Instead, we see her how Thomas, hopeful of one day securing her romantic affections, views her. It’s fairly interesting, actually, because Thomas’ opinion of her fluctuates, sometimes peevishly. “You drive me crazy with your arrogance and your sarcasm and your know-it-all airs,” he says at one point. And though he soon after claims “I’m no male chauvinist; I don’t mind you showing off,” the fact is that earlier he was grumbling inwardly about her feigning “girlish ignorance” to reel in mansplainers and then walloping the “unwitting victim” with a cartload of knowledge. It’s true that Jacqueline isn’t especially likeable sometimes, but for remorselessly trouncing the sexist louts she encounters throughout the book, I must commend her!

The mystery itself is somewhat bland, unfortunately. The leader of a Ricardian society has received a letter purportedly written by Elizabeth of York, which would exonerate Richard of the deaths of her brothers, the “princes in the tower.” He calls a meeting of the society, with each attendee costumed as one of the historical personages involved, and summons the press, planning to unveil his find with much fanfare. But someone begins playing practical jokes on the Ricardians reminiscent of the fates of the people they are pretending to be. The book isn’t a long one, and soon the pranks start coming right on the heels of one another. Because of the swift pace—and some shallow characterization—the solution is rather anti-climactic.

Still, while I’m not sure I’ll seek out any more Jacqueline Kirby mysteries, this was overall a decent read.

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown
The series of books featuring Detective Inspector Lloyd (whose first name is a secret for now) and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill begins with a short yet enjoyable mystery in which a wealthy young widow is found dead in a small English town on property she’d just inherited from her recently deceased husband. Unlike some mysteries of which I am fond, there’s no preamble where readers get to know the victim or the circumstances of their life. Instead, immediately there’s a policeman discovering the body and then Lloyd turns up to question the victim’s next of kin. This same lack of character development hampers the romantic tension between Lloyd and Hill, leaving me with no idea what motivated Hill to finally decide to act on her feelings for him, betraying her marriage vows in the process.

The mystery itself is interesting enough, however, involving long-married Helen and Donald Mitchell who have ties to both the victim, Julia—her late husband was Donald’s older brother and Helen thinks they were having an affair—and chief suspect, Chris, originally a friend of Donald’s who has fallen in love with Helen. I can’t claim to have mustered anything more than a mild curiosity as to what the outcome would be, but neither did I guess the specifics, so that was good. I liked the interrogation scenes, too.

McGown’s writing had some fun moments. I loved the super-evocative imagery of Lloyd telling Hill that her new perm makes her look like Kevin Keegan. I also really appreciated a recurring bit where each chapter ends with the point of view of wildlife. When Chris is eventually brought in by the police, his arrest is depicted from a bird’s perspective, for example. There are also ducks, a moth, a fly, a cat… I don’t know if this device recurs in later books in the series, but I look forward to finding out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
This is the second mystery/thriller I’ve read in which a single mom who is a lawyer with a cold and unfeeling mother of her own attempts to work out the mystery of what happened to a family member (the other being Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw). Is that some kind of trend these days?

Kate Baron has a demanding job at a swanky firm, but she’s trying her best to be a good mom to her fifteen-year-old bookworm daughter, Amelia. She’s shocked to get a call from Grace Hall, the prestigious private school Amelia attends, saying that her daughter has been accused of cheating, and by the time she makes her way to the school, Amelia has evidently jumped to her death from the school roof. The police are only too happy to classify her death as a suicide, but when Kate gets a text that says “Amelia didn’t jump,” she starts trying to put together the pieces of what happened.

Reconstructing Amelia has quite a few problems. Despite her better judgment (and a promise to her best friend), Amelia joins a clique of bitchy girls at school who end up publicly humiliating her and trying to get her expelled when she falls in love with someone deemed off-limits. It’s hard to muster sympathy for what she ends up going through when one remembers the cruel prank she was willing to pull on someone else as part of the initiation process (largely kept off-camera to keep us from disliking her too much, I guess). We’re repeatedly told about the great relationship Amelia and her mom share, but never shown it. The subplot about Amelia’s dad is the literary equivalent of wilted lettuce. And the fact that the new detective who gets assigned to the case allows Kate to question suspects is absolutely ludicrous.

And yet, I couldn’t hate the book, largely because of Amelia’s friend, Sylvia. For much of the book she comes across as shallow and self-absorbed, but when Amelia really needs her, she’s there. She gives Amelia this tour of “great moments at Grace Hall” to cheer up her impressive pal, right before breaking down about her own legitimate pain. I never would’ve thought at the outset that I would have such immense sympathy for Sylvia, but I do. I find myself hoping that she’ll be okay.

shutterislandShutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It sure is nice going into a book unspoiled, particularly one as twisty as Shutter Island. I was quite happy with the book as it began, with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule taking the ferry to Shutter Island to track down a patient missing from Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s late summer 1954, and these guys are manly but accessible, and surprisingly funny. Consider this relatiely early exchange that cracked me up:

Pretentious Doctor: *makes remarks on the lives of violence the marshals must lead*
Chuck: Wasn’t raised to run, Doc.
Pretentious Doctor: Ah, yes. Raised. And who did raise you?
Teddy: Bears.

For a while, all seems straightforward. Then Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s actually come there looking for a patient named Andrew Laediss, who was responsible for setting the fire that killed Teddy’s wife two years before. Gradually, one starts to doubt everything (and there was a point where all of the uncertainty got to be a little much for me) but the ultimate conclusion is a very satisfactory one.

Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Set in Iceland, Why Did You Lie? starts out with three different storylines taking place a few days apart. The first involves a photographer on a helicopter journey to take pictures of a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the second is about a policewoman whose journalist husband has recently attempted suicide, and the third is about a family who returns from a house swap with an American couple to find some of their stuff missing and weird footage on the security camera. Of course, as the book progresses, these storylines converge, and it’s pretty neat when the police activity the helicopter flew over in chapter one turns out to be almost the culmination of the policewoman’s plot thread.

For some reason, I can’t help wondering how Ruth Rendell might’ve written this book. I think Rendell would’ve done a lot more with characterization, for one thing. There’s certainly some here, especially for the anxious husband who struggles to make his wife admit something really has gone wrong with their houseguests, but the primary concern seems to be getting on with the suspenseful action. Quickly, each plot features some kind of creepy lurker and then ominous notes (variations on the “why did you lie?” theme) figure in to all three, as well. Nina, the policewoman, digs around and talks to people and works out that everything connects to a supposed suicide from thirty years ago.

The result is certainly an entertaining book, but not one I could really love. One major issue I had is being able to predict something very significant. The number of characters who could’ve been angry enough about the 30-year-old lies in question to terrorize people in the present is very small. And once the existence of a certain person is oh-so-casually mentioned two-thirds through the book, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s them, then.” And then a little later, I figured out which of the characters it must be and I was right. This made for an anticlimactic ending that was clearly meant to be a shocking one. Also, I would’ve liked to have cared more that one character ends the novel poised to move on with life but, in reality, still in jeopardy.

I still would read more by this author, though.

Jackaby, Books 1-4 by William Ritter

jackaby1Jackaby
I’ve seen this series described as “Sherlock meets Doctor Who,” and that is pretty apt. It’s January 1892 and our plucky British narrator, Abigail Rook, has just arrived in New England and needs employment. No one is hiring except for the eccentric investigator, R. F. Jackaby, who is looking for a new assistant since his previous one is “currently waterfowl.” Jackaby’s physical description is evocative of Benedict Cumberbatch in character as Sherlock, and he’s occasionally tactless, but aside from one early demonstration, he doesn’t do much in the way of deduction. Instead, he’s more like The Doctor—a kooky, scarf-wearing fellow who dashes about warning townspeople of supernatural threats while they regard him as “a crackpot imbecile.” Abigail is, of course, the companion—a clever girl who has always longed for adventure but who has until now been denied it. Happily, there is no hint of romance between them.

In this first installment, Abigail and Jackaby work together to solve a series of murders afflicting a particular apartment building. Jackaby, of course, can tell the culprit is a creature of some sort while the policeman in charge scoffs at this assertion and, at one point, locks Abigail and Jackaby up for impeding his investigation. Although I liked the characters—especially Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly resident of Jackaby’s headquarters—the mystery portion of the book was sadly predictable. “Obvious culprit is obvious,” I wrote in my notes, and though I didn’t work out what sort of creature was to blame, another character’s bestial secret was no surprise.

Still, I did enjoy Jackaby and like the characters and tone well enough to continue. I do hope the next mystery is a little less transparent, though.

the-map“The Map”
This short story takes place on Abigail’s birthday. She’s been quite clear about not wanting a fuss, but Jackaby is determined that they will have an adventure. Their first stop is a magical market, which she doesn’t enjoy much, to Jackaby’s disappointment. While there, however, they pick up a treasure map and proceed to complete a series of challenges in search of the treasure buried by the notorious rogue, the Bold Deceiver.

“The Map” may not be an essential piece of reading, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I especially liked the challenge in which they must get past the enormous hare guarding a castle—that one was sad and funny simultaneously. I also like that they’re not 100% successful with all the tasks, since centuries have passed since they were set up. On the whole, it’s worth checking out.

jackaby2Beastly Bones
It’s now the spring of 1892 and Jackaby and Abigail have been sent to the nearby town of Gad’s Valley to investigate thefts from a paleontological dig site. Abigail is mad for fossils, so is very excited about this prospect, while Jackaby must be convinced it’s worth their time. Another benefit is that Abigail gets to spend more time with Charlie the handsome policeman, for whom she has feelings, though she’s unsure what to do about him. Jenny the ghost has advised her to go for it and make the first move while Nelly Fuller, intrepid lady reporter, chastises her for thinking about love. “Do you want to be safe and happy or do you want to be great?”

As I had hoped, the mystery in Beastly Bones is a definite improvement over the first book; despite being a fine example of Chekhov’s Gun, its multiple layers made for a more complex case. Mostly, however, I liked that one aspect of it remains unsolved. Even though this series has Sherlockian elements, it hadn’t occurred to me that there’d be a Moriarty equivalent, but it looks like there is!

Still, the characters remain the main draw. Jackaby can be brash and insulting, but he doesn’t talk down to Abigail or treat her like a kid. I enjoyed his aversion to hearing about her romantic problems, and his awkward attempts to be sweet. “Buck up; you’re dreadful company when you’re melancholy.” Abigail continues to be resourceful and likable. And though there wasn’t much of Jenny, the ending finds her enlisting Jackaby to delve into her own murder. I’m very much looking forward to it!

jackaby3Ghostly Echoes
I’d really been looking forward to Ghostly Echoes and the truth behind Jenny’s murder, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d been hoping for.

True, Jenny’s murder is solved, but there is practically zero exploration of the person she was when she was alive. The plot is more about the evil council responsible (turns out that Moriarty-seeming character from previous books was only stirring things up to keep Jackaby busy so this group of dark fae could keep an eye on him) and the looming threat to mankind. Jenny did grow tremendously in both confidence and ability, and had a few genuinely badass moments in which she got to save her friends. I also appreciated her realization that she is more than a mere echo of the girl who died, but has her own thoughts and feelings. “I’m my own somebody.” I liked all of that, but I still wish she’d been the focus throughout instead of only in places.

Too, there’s not really much Jackaby, either. Yes, we learn about his childhood friend who was the Seer before him and how the council was after her too, but he just seems so… deflated. I guess it’s reasonable for him to be subdued given the case and its implications—he was worried that closure for Jenny might mean she’d move on—but I missed the humor he used to bring to situations. I reckon there shan’t be much of that in the next volume, either, in which our heroes face off against the bad guys and attempt to save the world.

The Dire King
The final entry in the Jackaby series wasn’t bad but, like the previous installment, certain character moments that I really wanted to see play out were completely glossed over.

Jackaby and company are trying to prevent the Dire King from destroying the veil that separates the Annwn and our world. This involves locating a particular magical artifact, attempting to destroy a diabolical machine, clashing armies, and lots and lots of fairies and magical creatures. I cannot possibly express how little interest I have in lots and lots of fairies and magical creatures.

There was at least more Jackaby here, and a somewhat warmer one, which I appreciated. I just wish there was much more about him and Jenny. She’s finally able to overcome her inability to touch him when his life is on the line, and there’s the suggestion that they’re going to live happily ever after once the crisis has been averted, but man, I really wish we’d gotten a scene where he pours his heart out and she scolds him for taking so long while also crying happily. Similarly, while I like where Abigail ultimately ends up, the very end is briefly pretty great but then it’s just… over.

I know cheesy epilogues get maligned pretty often, but in this case I would’ve appreciated one!

A Barrage of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the second in a series of posts collecting relatively short reviews of these books. All of the following are set during the show’s third season.

Obsidian Fate by Diana G. Gallagher
obsidian_fateIn 1520, a Spaniard conveying stolen Aztec treasure to a secret hiding place was killed by a mudslide while holding a particular obsidian mirror. Now, his remains have been found in an archaeological dig in Sunnydale. It turns out that the mirror contains the essence of the Aztec god of night, Tezcatlipoca, who quickly makes a graduate student working on the dig his High Priestess and adopts a jaguar form to prowl around and do some chomps. The gang must prevent his brainwashed followers from offering enough human sacrifices to empower Tezcatlipoca to banish the sun forever.

There were definitely things I liked about Obsidian Fate. I liked that Buffy is worrying about her friends leaving for distant universities and colleges and trying to figure out what she herself is going to do. I liked that Angel has begun to think about moving away to let Buffy live her life. I liked that Giles is still grieving Jenny. A lot of the characterization and dialogue was good—especially Oz, which is pretty difficult to do. Surprisingly, Kendra and Faith both get a mention, though the latter is nowhere to be seen (and this is all set before she goes bad). No Wesley at all. It’s also really neat that the Mayor and Mr. Trick are facilitating Tezcatlipoca’s rise!

But oh man, so many descriptions of temples and stones and boulders and pillars. It’s very tedious. Also, one of their fellow students has become temporary host to part of Tezcatlipoca’s essence and plans to sexually assault Willow prior to sacrificing her. Nobody, besides Oz, seems to be quite as pissed off about this as they should be. Lastly, a subplot about how one of Buffy’s prophetic dreams showed Angel’s demise offers zero suspense. Still, their reunion on the final page does produce a genuinely cute moment.

Is this one worth a read? Eh, it could be worse.

Power of Persuasion by Elizabeth Massie
power_persuasionThis was a bit of a clunker, I’m afraid. The awkward teen daughter of a culinarily disinclined restaurant owner grows fed up with catering to her incompetent father’s whims and, by chanting supplications whilst surrounded by random items from the restaurant’s pantry, somehow successfully summons a Greek goddess and her two muse daughters to help her change things. They proceed to compel a lot of female students (including Willow) to join their “womyn power” crusade, which mostly involves campaigning for girls to have the right to try out for the vacancies on boys’ teams that arise when male athletes keep turning up dead.

Many of these Buffy media tie-in novels have similarly mediocre plots, but are usually made more tolerable by the author having the ability to capture how characters speak and interact. Not so much here, unfortunately. I appreciated that with Willow, Giles, and Xander falling under the sway of the villains and Angel out of town, Buffy had to rely on Cordelia and Oz to help her. But, while Cordelia’s scenes were fine, much of Oz’s dialogue and demeanor seemed wrong to me. Also, some weird abilities are ascribed to vampires, like one scene where a struggling vamp leaves scorch marks where her heels have dug into the earth.

I suppose the best praise I can muster is, “It’s pretty lame, but at least it’s short.”

Prime Evil by Diana G. Gallagher
prime_evilSeldom have I read a book so starkly divided between enjoyable parts and excruciating parts!

Set after “Doppelgangland,” the plot of Prime Evil involves a witch attuned to “primal magick” who was first born 19,000 years ago and who keeps being reincarnated and gathering sacrificial followers in an attempt to access “the source.” Her current identity is Crystal Gordon, a new history teacher at Sunnydale High, and her latest crop of doomed devotees is composed entirely of students. Obviously, it’s the Scooby Gang’s job to stop her.

First, the good. Most of the scenes with the main characters are fun, with dialogue that I could easily hear in the actors’ voices. Anya and Joyce have significant roles, and there was notable awkwardness between the latter and Giles. Although this was presumably the result of their dalliance in “Band Candy,” I liked that the explanation wasn’t explicitly stated. I thought it was interesting that Crystal tempts Willow to join her disciples by promising a cure for Oz, and I did have to snicker at a scene in which Angel, for the sake of expedience in getting to safety, has to sling Xander over his shoulder.

The bad, however, cannot be denied. There are many tedious flashbacks to Crystal’s past incarnations and these quickly became literally groan-inducing. In addition, the theoretically climactic magical battle at the end is full of prose like “The great source-river of wild magick coursed in violent abandon through the orbits of comets so ancient and distant they had never been warmed by the sun” and succeeded only in making me profoundly sleepy.

In summation… zzz.

Resurrecting Ravana by Ray Garton
resurrecting_ravanaA rash of cattle mutilations has the Scooby Gang suspecting hellhound activity, but when several people turn up eaten, after each has spontaneously killed their dearest friend, it’s clear something else is up. There’s more of a mystery here than these books generally offer, with a plot that features Hindu gods, an elderly collector of magical artifacts, his lonely granddaughter, and a certain statue that can resurrect a deity who will reward one richly for this service (and whose minions will kill everyone else).

Along the way, a new guidance counselor of Indian descent is introduced (replacing the guy who got killed in “Beauty and the Beasts”). At first, I thought this was going to be another one of those “Willow falls under the sway of a new female staff/faculty member who is secretly evil” storylines, but, refreshingly, that did not turn out to be the case. Willow just talks to her about problems with her relationship with Buffy, which come to a head in a couple of full-on brawls in the library. It takes a really long time for anyone to put together that their situation parallels the murders/devourings happening elsewhere in town, but it does lead to a nice final moment for the book.

Characterization is spotty. Pretty much each character has a moment that feels especially right as well as one that feels especially wrong. Xander and Cordelia’s bickering is even nastier than usual, and it’s never outright said that they’re being affected by the same creatures who manipulated Buffy and Willow. That said, I did enjoy all of Buffy’s interactions with her mother, particularly a late-night trip to Denny’s. All in all, Resurrecting Ravana wasn’t bad!

Return to Chaos by Craig Shaw Gardner
return_chaosReturn to Chaos is a bit different from most of the other Buffy tie-in books I’ve read. Instead of a new big villain coming to town, the plot is mostly about some new allies coming to town. A quartet of Druids, specifically, consisting of an older guy named George and his three nephews, one of whom develops feelings for Buffy. George wants to enlists the Slayer’s help in performing a spell on the Hellmouth that will supposedly prevent bad things from crossing over, but he’s really vague about his plans, and it soon becomes evident that he isn’t in his right mind. The nephews genuinely are allies, though, which is kind of refreshing.

This book was written in 1998, and it seems that the author was not privy to much that was going to happen in season three. A couple of vague references are made to Angel coming back, and about Buffy trying to move on romantically, but Xander and Cordelia are still very much together as a couple. That would put this somewhere between “Beauty and the Beasts” (episode four) and “Lover’s Walk” (episode eight), except that it is very clearly spring and we know that “Amends” (episode ten) is Christmas. Oopsies. There are a couple of other small errors, too, concerning Buffy’s eye color and Giles’ glasses.

This is another book in which there’s more of Oz than I’d been expecting. Some of his scenes and thoughts are okay, and I appreciated that the author wrote a teensy bit about Oz’s family, but at other times he just seems far too verbose. (This, combined with the errors mentioned above, makes me wonder just how familiar the author was with these characters.) Cordelia has a subplot of her own, as well, in which she falls under the thrall of a former rival turned vampire. The Druids recognize that the vampire is using a “mastery” spell, which is likened to the power Drusilla exhibited when she was able to kill Kendra so easily. I thought that was kind of neat.

In the end, despite some flaws, it turned out to be pretty decent.

Revenant by Mel Odom
revenantIn 1853, 35 Chinese laborers were killed in a mine cave-in on a site owned by some of Sunnydale’s forefathers. The incident was covered up and families were unable to provide their loved ones with a proper burial. Now, the unquiet spirits of those men want vengeance on the owners’ descendants and have managed to communicate with the troubled brother of one of Willow’s friends, who enlists her help. Honestly, this plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a rich importer involved (who’s receiving help from the mayor) and chanting and statues and dragons and warehouses what go boom and demons that turn into goop.

Sometimes, Odom has a bit of trouble with characterization—Oz’s dialogue often doesn’t feel quite right, and sometimes Buffy comes off as vapid, like an early scene where she’s worried about her hair while Willow is running for her life—but other scenes are spot-on. I particularly liked a moment where Giles is forced to hotwire a truck (“I was not always a good boy”) and the final scene wherein Xander attempts to parlay his latest romantic disappointment into Buffy’s half of a Twinkie they’re sharing. Odom also incorporates and elaborates on some of the issues characters are worrying about at this point in the show: Buffy ponders her future with Angel, Xander dreads being left behind after graduation, and Cordelia seeks to avoid trouble at home by helping with research. The action scenes are easy to envision, as well.

Unlike most other books set during this season, the brief Xander/Willow fling and its fallout are acknowledged. Like the others, neither Faith nor Wesley is mentioned, and the former’s absence is particularly glaring, given the evident difficulty of the big battle. Still, Revenant ended up being a pleasant surprise.

The Queen’s Thief, Books 4-5 by Megan Whalen Turner

A new installment of The Queen’s Thief is here! That proved an excellent incentive to reread the first three books (which I deeply love) and finally tackle the fourth book as well as the handful of short stories that’ve appeared as paperback extras.

A Conspiracy of Kings
A Conspiracy of Kings is a coming-of-age story for Sophos, the sweet, scholarly boy we met in The Thief who also happens to be the heir to Sounis. Some of the barons are in revolt, and when the villa in which he’s staying is attacked, Sophos tries to save his mother and sisters but ends up captured himself. Although he’s resourceful enough to escape and hide out amongst enslaved field hands, he nonetheless is bitterly self-critical and sure his father is disappointed in him (as usual). And yet, throughout the course of the novel, he exhibits a great deal of courage, makes some hard choices, and—though still the sweet, scholarly boy underneath—ultimately becomes a worthy king.

A Conspiracy of Kings strikes me as a simpler book than The King of Attolia, probably because Sophos is earnest and idealistic rather than guarded and secretive, though that’s not to say that he’s incapable of carrying out a secret plan or clever strategy. The book does have an unusual narrative style, beginning in the third person with Sophos already in Attolia, switching to first person as he tells Eddis his story up to that point, going back into third while everyone’s together in Attolia, going back into first when he returns after claiming the throne and fills Eddis in again, and then back into third for the ending.

It occurs to me that as The Queen’s Thief series continues, the further we’re getting away from Eugenides. The Thief was first-person from his point of view, The Queen of Attolia was third-person, The King of Attolia viewed Gen and his relationship with the queen through the eyes of a palace guard, and now we have a story about Sophos in which Gen appears occasionally and spends some of that time behaving with icy formality. I appreciate the expanding world the characters inhabit and genuinely enjoy spending time with everyone, but I do love Gen best and hope the focus returns to him someday.

Thick as Thieves
After waiting so long for a new book in the series, learning that it would be about Kamet, the slave of the Mede ambassador Nahuseresh, was somewhat of a disappointment. Now, I feel compelled to apologize to the author because I really should’ve had more faith in her. Kamet is a smart, distrustful protagonist with somewhat of a superiority complex and his evolution throughout the novel is fascinating.

Thick as Thieves is most similar to the first book in the series, since it involves a road trip peppered with storytelling. An Attolian soldier has been dispatched by Eugenides to steal Kamet out of spite, and after initially planning to decline the offer of freedom (thinking of all the power he will one day wield after he is gifted to the next emperor), Kamet is forced to accept after learning that his master has been poisoned and that he must escape quickly or face torture and execution. A Goodreads reviewer describes what follows as “bloodshed, betrayal, and bromance,” and I really cannot improve on that description. Although he initially thinks the Attolian is an idiot and plans on ditching him at the earliest opportunity (rather than return to uncivilized Attolia) he comes to like and respect him very much. I also love how one little piece of information lets readers know exactly who this soldier is, although Kamet does not use his name until near the end.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s the part of the book that really shines. (Alas, the road trip does drag a little in parts.) There are quite a few surprises—including one satisfying “I knew it!” moment—and the conclusion is both sniff-inducing and exciting, as conflict is still brewing between the Empire and the small countries on the peninsula, though the latter (thanks to Eugenides) appear to have acquired some powerful allies. This is such a great series and I hope we’ll see Kamet again in what follows.

The short stories:
“Thief!”, originally printed in Disney Adventures Magazine in 2000, is a prequel short story about Eugenides as a kid. There’s not much to it, but I liked seeing Gen interact with his older brother and favorite sibling, Stenides.

“Eddis” was included in the 2007 paperback edition of The King of Attolia. In it, nine-year-old Helen—wonderfully described as round, solid, sturdy, and not too bothered by the fact that she isn’t pretty—slips away from the palace to go exploring. Her destination is a desolate temple where she is visited in the night by a trio of gods, who refer to her as “the last Eddis.” It’s a neat story that not only fleshes out Helen’s background a little bit and explains why she uses the masculine “Eddis” rather than “Eddia,” but ties in nicely with her motivations in A Conspiracy of Kings.

“Destruction” was included in the 2011 paperback edition of A Conspiracy of Kings. In this brief story, we witness the ceremony to dispose of Hamiathes’s Gift in the fires of the Sacred Mountain in Eddis. Frustrated Sounis is in attendance as is Attolia, who never takes her eyes from Eugenides. Scant though it is, I find I appreciate having a mental image for this occasion, as well as the moment in which Eugenides achieves certainty that the stone is really gone.

“Knife Dance” is included in the new paperback edition of The Queen of Attolia. In it, a juggler named Druic is coerced by his jerk of a brother to perform a certain Eddisian knife dance—”one of the Mysteries of the Thieves”—for the court of Attolia. Both the king and his god have something to say about it. I liked this one, and the ending was very satisfying.

“Wineshop” is included in the new paperback edition of The King of Attolia. It’s extremely short and depicts Eugenides enjoying his final moment of anonymity before coins bearing his likeness enter circulation and how Teleus spoils it all. There’s one part of it that makes me wonder if Eugenides knew that was going to happen. It would not surprise me.

Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, Books 5-8 by Deborah Crombie

dreaming_of_bonesDreaming of the Bones
After making my way through the first four books in this series with reasonable alacrity, I really stalled out on Dreaming of the Bones at first. A large part of the problem for me was that it had to do with the death of a poet five years prior, and was thus strewn with quotations of both poetry and flowery letters.

Once I summoned the fortitude to continue, however, I ended up enjoying the book well enough. We are introduced to Victoria, Duncan’s ex-wife, and I appreciated that both of them are painted sympathetically. Their relationship falling apart was no one’s fault in particular, and both have the wisdom now to recognize that. Victoria is on the English faculty at Cambridge and is working on a book about poet Lydia Brooke, whose death was presumed to be suicide. Victoria suspects otherwise and Duncan (as usual) keeps an open mind about her instincts and agrees to look into things even though the local police are not exactly enthusiastic about him poking around.

Although I generally prefer stories where Duncan is assigned to the case of a stranger, Vic’s involvement did offer many emotional consequences for Duncan. Too bad there really weren’t any consequences for the rule-breaking and jurisdiction-trampling he engaged in throughout. Also, I really disliked that Gemma works out the big reveal through a spate of poetic interpretation. Ugh. At the same time, there’s a scene at the end that made me verklempt, so… not my favorite, but still definitely worth reading!

kissed_goodbyeKissed a Sad Goodbye
Duncan and Gemma are assigned to the case of a body found lovingly laid out in a park on the Isle of Dogs. They soon learn her identity—Annabelle Hammond, the beautiful and determined director of Hammond’s Fine Teas who has several lovers on the go. But is what happened to her the result of romantic jealousy, or could it be tied to something else entirely?

Two months have passed since the events of Dreaming of the Bones, and Duncan is still struggling with (spoiler alert!) his newfound fatherhood. The perspective, however, is mostly on Gemma, who is having some trouble figuring out what she wants and who she wants to be. Initially this manifests in a decision to take piano lessons, but soon involves another man.

Honestly, I failed to be convinced by Gemma’s little side romance with Gordon the clarinet-playing busker, who showed up in some earlier book in a greatly diminished capacity. I recall in his earlier appearance that he was brusque and uninterested, but here we get a retcon about how he was secretly intrigued by Gemma all along. It’s played up to be this mutual attraction that she must decide whether to pursue, but he’s just not accessible enough as a character to really make this convincing.

That said, I liked the mystery itself. There were flashbacks throughout to the ’40s, when some of the characters were evacuated to the countryside as children, and they not only elucidate the present but reveal one particular character to be more sympathetic than one might ordinarily assume. On the whole, definitely worth reading, even if there were parts of it I didn’t especially like.

finer_endA Finer End
A Finer End is somewhat tough to review, because I did genuinely like some of the characters that Duncan and Gemma encounter in Glastonbury, where they’ve traveled as a favor to Duncan’s cousin, Jack, whose vicar girlfriend has been injured in a hit-and-run accident. The problem is that Jack has supposedly been receiving messages from a long-dead monk in the form of automatic writing, a claim that Duncan and Gemma accept without question. On top of this, there’s a painter who receives visions not only of one particular little girl but also the whereabouts of the thing that the monk is trying to lead Jack to find. And because the narrative confirms the verity of these paranormal happenings, other elements of the story are thrown into question. Did the “old gods” and the tribute they’re due actually play a part in what happened, for example?

It’s not that I dislike stories about the supernatural; it’s that it’s really bizarre when the supernatural suddenly shows up in the seventh book of a series about Scotland Yard detectives. It also bothered me that the one character who’s a skeptic about all of this is a flagrant asshole who eventually comes unhinged. In addition, I dearly hope that the paternity of a particular child was supposed to be glaringly obvious to the reader, because it sure was. Too, the conclusion is muddled, and the final line was so incredibly cheesy that I actually said, “Barf!” out loud.

All in all, this was profoundly disappointing and I hope it doesn’t signify a new trend for the series.

justice_noneAnd Justice There Is None
It is with profound relief that I proclaim that I really, really liked this one! There are absolutely no supernatural elements whatsoever, thankfully, and the investigation itself is a change of pace, too. Instead of being dispatched to some bucolic locale on Scotland Yard business, a murder is committed in Notting Hill, where Gemma is now assigned as a Detective Inspector. Moreover, she and Duncan and their respective sons move into a house nearby, which puts her family in proximity to the crime and, ultimately, the culprit.

The case involves the wife of a well-off antiques dealer who recently discovered she was pregnant by her lover. Duncan recalls a similar killing that took place a month prior, so he and Gemma work together on the case. Interspersed throughout is the story of “Angel,” a young woman who is orphaned in the mid-sixties and finds herself swept up in the London drug scene. All of the pieces eventually come together, and even though there’s one clue that lets readers know who the murderer is before Gemma has figured it out, she doesn’t end up seeming slow on the uptake. Rather, it adds an extra layer of menace when the perpetrator just happens to be strolling past their new house and has a chat with Kit (Duncan’s son).

And oh, what a house. I love that Gemma and Duncan are establishing their own family, especially given the new addition on the way. I love, too, that the pets are 100% accounted for, and that Gemma adopts a sweet new dog. Best of all, though, is that it’s Christmas. Duncan’s present to Gemma makes both her and me verklempt. I also liked seeing Gemma and Duncan working with other people, and hope that some of the nice people she encountered in the neighborhood make appearances in future books.

Random Reads 3/29/17

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Dairdre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption in Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and whose bodily proportions are repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Note: This is the rehearsal script edition. A definitive collectors’ edition will be released at a later date.

hp8Harry Potter and the Cursed Child joins Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight in the category of “ostensibly canon series continuations that I shall henceforth pretend do not exist.”

The play begins with an abbreviated version of the Deathly Hallows epilogue. Albus Potter, Rose Granger-Weasley, and Scorpius Malfoy head off for their first year at Hogwarts, where Albus and Scorpius are soon sorted into Slytherin. That’s an interesting development and I was still rather optimistic at this point, but sadly there’s hardly any exploration of this event before Albus is in his second year. Then third. Along the way there are brief episodes of scorn and failure and glimpses of his strong friendship with Scorpius—along with lines like “he’s all I need” that make me want to see them fall in love—but it’s all very cursory.

On the eve of his fourth year, Albus happens to overhear Cedric Diggory’s family asking Harry (now head of Magical Law Enforcement) to use a recently confiscated time-turner to go back and save Cedric. Harry declines, and Albus—who has become a surly teen full of angst and bitterness—decides that he and Scorpius are going to show up his uncaring father by saving the day themselves. Of course, they end up screwing up the timeline (though not before successfully accomplishing some things that really ought to have been made more difficult) and the adult characters must help them set things right. Meanwhile, Harry’s scar has started hurting again and he’s hearing whispers of parseltongue.

I would’ve liked this a lot more if it was a book about the boys and their time at school. As it is now, the plot’s too accelerated and simplistic, and there are some scenes with the adult characters that I really could have done without (though I did like seeing Harry and Draco work together to save their sons). That said, probably the best thing about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is its treatment of Slytherins. Not only does Draco show himself to be a decent, wounded person, but he’s raised a truly adorable, geeky son who has his share of heroic moments. Too, one of the timeline variants allows us another glimpse at Snape, still honoring Lily by fighting for the cause she believed in even when all seems lost.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read it, because I do really, truly love Scorpius. I’d love a whole book about Scorpius, in fact, provided it was a proper book written by Rowling and not more of this.

The GGK Project, Part 1: The Fionavar Tapestry

For over a decade, I would’ve named Guy Gavriel Kay as my favorite author. And yet, I have never reviewed any of his books here. Having failed to love The Last Light of the Sun when I read it back in 2004, I think my enthusiasm for him just waned, and though I bought his subsequent novels, I hadn’t felt particularly compelled to read them. Now, though, I am determined to tackle GGK’s full bibliography, from old favorites that I’ve reread before (like my most-beloved The Lions of Al-Rassan) to one that I somehow only read the once when it came out twenty-plus years ago (A Song for Arbonne) to the newer books I haven’t yet read. But I will start, as is customary, with the very beginning.

When Jordan moved in across the street from me in the late ’80s, she really did influence my life in some significant ways, not the least of which was introducing me to “GGK” through his first series, The Fionavar Tapestry. My love was deep and abiding and, because of that, I definitely had some trepidation about revisiting the trilogy. My genre preferences have evolved over the years, for one thing, and I no longer read as much fantasy as I used to. More, though, I remember this as the first series to make me cry my eyes out. Would it still have the same effect on me after all this time? As it happens, I shouldn’t have worried, because now I apparently get verklempt at the drop of a hat.

Spoilers ahead.

summertreeThe Summer Tree
We begin with a conference at the University of Toronto where a group of five students is invited to meet afterwards with one of the lecturers. To their surprise, he reveals himself to be a mage named Loren Silvercloak from a world called Fionavar, sent to bring guests from our world to a festival for the High King of Brennin. What he doesn’t reveal, while feeling guilty for the deception, is the fact that Brennin is in turmoil (a punishing and unnatural drought, an ailing and elderly king, the return of some nasty creatures, an evil god imprisoned under a mountain…) and that he feels they are needed there somehow.

The five quickly decide to take Loren up on his offer and the story’s scope widens considerably once they arrive in Fionavar. In addition to meeting one of my favorite fictional characters ever, seemingly frivolous Prince Diarmuid (more on him later), the Canadians are swiftly swept up in events, changed by their experiences as they discover individual destinies even Loren had no inkling of.

Perceptive Kimberly Ford, for example, becomes the new Seer of Brennin, inheriting the knowledge of her predecessor and destined to be the one to call “The Warrior.” Witty Kevin Laine is accepted as part of Diarmuid’s band of men, though there is more to come for him down the road. Paul Schafer is grappling with tremendous guilt after surviving a car accident that killed the woman he loved, yet an experience in Fionavar allows him to finally see that it wasn’t his fault. Emotionally guarded Dave Martyniuk finds a place he belongs among the Dalrei, the nomadic hunters of the plains, and begins to open up to friendship. And Jennifer Lowell, proud and reserved, yet not unkind, is captured by the evil god (Rakoth Maugrim) and mentally and physically violated before Kimberly is able to rescue her.

I admit Jennifer’s fate does trouble me a little. Of the five, she probably receives the least attention in this first installment before undergoing a terrible ordeal at the end. Rakoth has already issued a dramatic proclamation of his freedom and war is at hand by the time her friends learn of her fate, so it’s not as though her rape is solely responsible for spurring them into action, but they are extra motivated because of it. I do still think, though, that this plotline is ultimately about Jennifer and the choices she will make going forward.

Lastly, I’ll note that Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing style might not be for everyone. Occasionally it can be portentous, namedropping legendary figures, and maybe a little too poetic at times, but overall I still love the wistful, languid, and bittersweet feeling of his prose. There’s so much emphasis on what events mean to the characters that I got sniffly over and over again. (I found Dave’s arc especially moving.) At this rate, I will be a puddle by the third book!

wandering_fireThe Wandering Fire
Although there are many important things that happen in The Wandering Fire, I think what I like best is the continuing character development for the five Canadians. This time, it’s Kim whom we don’t see very much of, and that’s honestly fine by me, since she had so much of the focus the first time around. We spend a lot of time with Paul, whose survival of the summer tree has given him the ability to compel the lesser gods of Fionavar, and with Dave and Jennifer, too. (And I am indeed happy to report that she ends the volume much stronger for having endured all that she has been through.) But shining above all of them is Kevin.

After Kim brought them home at the end of The Summer Tree and everyone saw what had been done to Jennifer, Kevin declared, “To this I will make reply, although he be a god and it mean my death.” When they returned to Fionavar, however, and he saw how effective Dave was in battle, how everyone else had something to contribute, he felt terribly useless and bitterly derided himself for his proclamation. And then he accompanies a group on a journey to the territory of Dana, the goddess, to try to discover how Rakoth Maugrim has caused the unnatural winter that plagues Fionavar. There, he awakens to his fate as Liadon, lover and sacrifice to the goddess. It is fitting that when Paul went willingly to the tree, he needed to properly grieve the loss of the woman he had loved, and thus brought rain, and now bright and warm Kevin is the one responsible for bringing spring. It’s not his death that makes me sniffle, but the fact that he found the thing he was meant to do, and struck an enormous blow against the dark in the process. He was very far from useless.

So, too, do I love the reactions of the others to what has happened to Kevin, especially Dave, who mourns Kevin, with whom he never got along in school, to a degree that surprises him. I like to think his grief was colored with regret for so much time wasted when they could’ve been friends. My one complaint, though, is that we never see inside Diarmuid’s head. He liked Kevin, and we can tell he is upset, but we are not privy to his thoughts, nor indeed to the love he evidently discovered he feels toward Sharra, to whom he proposes. Every time Diarmuid does something brilliant and brave, which is often, my heart swells a bit with love of him, but he still remains somewhat of an enigma. The same is true for his brother Aileron, actually. For the most part, we follow the points of view of outsiders.

There’s more sorrow yet to come in the final volume, and I must ready myself to face it.

darkest_roadThe Darkest Road
In this concluding volume of the trilogy, the armies of the Light and the Dark have their final confrontation. Our heroes taste defeat, bittersweet victory, loss, glory, and pain. I am pretty sure this was the first book to ever make me cry my eyes out over a beloved character’s death, and it did so again this time. Hiding his serious hatred of the Dark under a flippant facade, Diarmuid is the first of two characters to willingly sustain a killing blow in order to deliver one. The way Kay describes this scene playing out is so cinematic, I’m left desperately hoping this’ll be the next fantasy epic to be adapted for television.

Contrasting Diarmuid’s end, where he passes surrounded by loved ones and is given a proper farewell (another vivid image is Aileron, devasted by grief, cradling his brother’s body to his chest as he carries him from the field of battle), poor Darien dies alone and uncomforted in Maugrim’s crumbling fortress, never knowing whether anyone will know what he achieved. Thankfully, they do know and the bravery of his deeds and the choice he made is celebrated in song.

Revisiting this series as an older, more attentive, reader has been an interesting experience. Only at the very, very last do we get a glimpse inside Diarmuid’s head. I doubt younger me even noticed that. Nor, I think, did I notice that alongside the three central Arthurian figures reliving their fate, another takes the part of the Lady of Shalott. Lastly, and most significantly, I have a greater appreciation for the statement Kay is making about free will. Obviously, the roles some characters play are tied to destiny, but the importance of Darien’s freedom to choose between the Light and the Dark is repeatedly emphasized, Paul chose to take the king’s place on the summer tree, Jennifer chose to have Darien and refuses to attempt to influence his decision, Diarmuid chooses to take on an impossible foe, Kim chooses not to conscript an ancient power that would surely have been an advantage, and more. I hope that I will find more to love about Kay’s other works—maybe I’ll even like The Last Light of the Sun more next time!

Stay tuned.

Two New Sherlock Holmes Mysteries from Anthony Horowitz

Officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate!

The_House_of_SilkThe House of Silk
I have read two other books featuring Holmes and/or Watson that were written by someone other than Arthur Conan Doyle, but I must say that The House of Silk surpasses them both.

Elderly Watson’s health is failing, and he is in a facility where the nurses think writing about his time with Holmes (who died the year before) will be therapeutic for him. As it happens, there is a “monstrous” and “shocking” affair which he had never previously recorded, so he makes plans to send the completed manuscript to a solicitor with the instruction that the package not be opened for 100 years. He then sets about recounting events which began in November 1890, when a man named Edmund Carstairs paid Holmes a visit.

Carstairs is a fine-art dealer who is apparently being menaced by the surviving member of a gang responsible for stealing some valuable paintings on their way to an American client. In the beginning, the book moves rather slowly and it doesn’t seem like there is enough about this case to fill a whole novel. But then one of the Baker Street irregulars that Holmes employs to keep watch over the culprit is brutally murdered, and the resulting investigation ultimately leads to a discovery that is, indeed, suitably shocking.

Horowitz has a good grasp on the characters, and though Holmes is somewhat more human here than elsewhere—castigating himself for the boy’s death, for example—it doesn’t seem out of character. Too, the various pieces of the puzzle fit together in ways that make absolute sense in retrospect but which I never could have guessed. I’m very much looking forward to the follow-up, Moriarty, though Holmes and Watson are apparently absent from that novel.

three_monarchs“The Three Monarchs”
One month before the release of Moriarty, the short story “The Three Monarchs” became available for the Kindle. (It also includes a preview chapter from Moriarty, but I never read those.)

It’s largely inconsequential—Holmes is consulted on a puzzling burglary in which the suspect (shot by an elderly homeowner) was attempting to abscond with three very common ceramic figurines celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee—and seemingly exists only to remind readers of the existence of Inspector Athelney Jones, first encountered in The Sign of Four, who will be playing a large role in Horowitz’s Moriarty. He vows to learn Holmes’ methods, but Watson notes that he soon grows ill and takes leave from the police.

moriarty-usMoriarty
Set just after Holmes and Moriarty’s meeting at Reichenbach Falls, after which both are presumed dead, Moriarty is the story of American criminal ringleader Clarence Devereux, who has come to England with the goal of taking over Moriarty’s organization, and Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase, who teams up with Scotland Yard’s Athelney Jones (back at work after a year-long convalescence) to stop him.

What I liked best was the dynamic established between Chase and Jones. As it turns out, “The Three Monarchs” was not so inconsequential after all, as the shame of having been wrong yet again spurred Jones into fanatical study of Holmes’ methods and treatises, to the point where he’s become quite good at deductions himself, while narration from Chase chronicles his exploits. Though Holmes and Watson technically are absent, their influence, therefore, is palpable.

Unfortunately, the book is rather lacking in the suspense department. That’s not to say I require suspense, but that several scenes that ought to have been suspenseful simply weren’t. For example, Chase and Jones unlawfully infiltrate the American legation and once they are caught, Jones’ career at Scotland Yard is in jeopardy, but it’s all very ho-hum, to the reader and to Jones. Moreover, a plot twist that Horowitz presumably hoped would elicit gasps of surprise instead only compelled me to triumphantly cry, “I knew it!”

I would still recommend these books to a rabid Holmes fan who has devoured everything else, and I’d still read another one if it is published, but I do hope it’s more fun than this one.