The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
Though I was, of course, aware of the fervor surrounding this series, I’d never read it until now, nor have I seen the movies. (I do own some nail polish inspired by it, though!) Still, I managed to absorb a few facts through cultural osmosis.

1) The heroine is named Katniss.
2) There is also a boy called Peeta.
3) There is an MC lady with pink hair.
4) A competition and various districts?

I came close to immediately casting the book aside when Katniss casually admits to having once attempted to drown a kitten in a bucket, but this turned out to be an effective way of showing how her impoverished, hardscrabble existence in “the Seam” of District 12 has forced Katniss (now 16) to become ruthlessly practical in order to keep her family alive after the death of her father five years previously in a mining accident.

Katniss lives in Panem, which we learn “rose from the ashes of a place that was once called North America.” There were originally thirteen districts, but when they rebelled against the Capitol, District 13 was obliterated and the Hunger Games were established to discourage future rebellion attempts. Each year, during a ceremony called “the Reaping,” a boy and girl from each District are selected to fight to the death in the games, which are televised across the nation. Watching them is mandatory. It’s the Capitol’s way of saying, “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do.” The person Katniss loves most in the world is her 12-year-old sister, Prim, so when it’s Prim’s name that gets drawn at the Reaping, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place. A boy who once showed kindness to Katniss when she was starving, Peeta Mellark, is chosen as the male “tribute.”

I’m extremely thankful I didn’t abandon this book at the outset, because what ensues is fascinating YA dystopia at its best. Katniss and Peeta are assigned a drunken mentor named Haymitch (a past victor from District 12) who advises them in various aspects of strategy, part of which is keeping Katniss’ archery prowess a secret from her competitors and part of which is creating a narrative that the two of them are actually in love. Katniss believes for a long time that Peeta is faking it every bit as much as she is, but that’s not the case.

Katniss is an extremely resourceful protagonist, and watching her brainstorm solutions to tricky problems reminded me a fair amount of Sarasa in Basara, which is quite a big compliment. There was a little more of the romance stuff than I really wanted, mostly Katniss being confused about what her real feelings for Peeta are and what that means for her relationship with her hunting buddy, Gale, back home. But most of the time, she’s extremely capable and badass and yet not emotionally closed off.

I loved learning about her world and am sufficiently worried that she’s now under increased scrutiny from the Capitol due to her actions in the games. I cannot possibly start book two soon enough.

Catching Fire
As Catching Fire begins, Katniss and Peeta—rich, famous, and hated by the Capitol—are about to embark upon their victory tour. After President Snow puts in a personal appearance to inform Katniss that she and Peeta must convince the nation that they defied the Capitol simply out of love for one another, they do their best but are unsuccessful. Unrest continues to foment. As Katniss debates whether to flee with her family or stay and fight, President Snow announces the rules of this year’s Quarter Quell, a special Hunger Games that occurs every 25 years. This time, the tributes will be chosen from past victors, which means Katniss and Peeta are going back in.

I found the first half of the book to be pretty slow. Katniss spends a lot of time being wishy-washy regarding her feelings for Gale and Peeta and it becomes tiresome. There’s literally a line that says, “I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.” “NO YOU CAN’T, KATNISS,” I wrote back in my notes. However, the action picks up considerably once the rules of the Quarter Quell are announced.

This time, Katniss has half a dozen allies in the arena, so doesn’t have quite as many opportunities to solve tricky problems entirely on her own. (Mostly, she’s focused on keeping Peeta alive and has extracted a promise from Haymitch that this time he will prioritize Peeta’s survival over her own.) Yet, she is the one who understands what brilliant Wiress, who struggles to communicate clearly, is trying to tell the group about the arena and, later, quickly grasps what inventive Beetee is really trying to achieve with his electrical trap.

I did not see the ending coming at all, and while I don’t think this book is quite as strong as the first, it still ends with our characters in an interesting place. Haymitch has broken his promise and saved Katniss because she is the one who’s the face of the rebellion and she’s absolutely furious with him, and yet is that something she can walk away from? Meanwhile, Peeta is in the grip of the Capitol. Onward to the final installment!

Mockingjay
Mockingjay is quite a bit different than the other two books in the trilogy, and wound up being my favorite. Katniss, Finnick, Beetee, and a small group of survivors from District 12 find themselves in District 13, which had not been destroyed as the Capitol claimed. Katniss blames herself for the destruction of District 12 and spends the opening chapters in misery, not knowing whether Peeta is alive or dead, hating everyone and herself most of all. Meanwhile, she’s being pressured by the rebels to take on the symbolic role of the Mockingjay to unite the districts against the Capitol. It’s only after Peeta appears on television, calling for a ceasefire, that Katniss agrees to the arrangement, forcing President Coin (leader of District 13) to agree that Peeta won’t be executed as a traitor and also hoping to negate his influence on the populace.

I loved that District 13 is not some utopia, and is almost as controlling as the Capitol. I loved that Katniss, a volatile teenager, isn’t actually leading the revolution, but is initially just a figurehead who features in propaganda videos designed to inspire the districts. I loved the scenes where the people of District 13 flee to caverns during an air raid, and the fun-starved citizens are entertained by the antics of Buttercup chasing a flashlight beam. I loved Prim’s growing skill and confidence as a healer. I loved Finnick and his revelations about how Snow abuses victors, particularly attractive ones, and how we see a totally new side to him when he’s able to finally marry the woman he loves. I loved that, after the districts are united against the Capitol, the rebels have no more use for Katniss and intend to leave her behind until she manages to complete a grueling training course and qualifies to go to the Capitol as part of a sharpshooting squad, led by Boggs. I really loved Boggs, who acts as a sort of father figure to Katniss and wants to protect her from President Coin’s machinations. I loved all the scenes of battle in the Capitol, especially the fact that Katniss doesn’t storm the president’s mansion and take Snow out single-handedly. The ending is great and very satisfying.

I didn’t love the romantic triangle stuff, though it’s obvious by now that it isn’t really a triangle anymore. Katniss loves Peeta, but she hasn’t realized it yet. Things are complicated when he is rescued from the Capitol and immediately tries to kill her, having had his memories altered as part of Snow’s torture. It takes a long time for glimmers of his real self to emerge, but once that happens they begin to grow back together. I did feel that some of this was rushed at the very end, which is a complaint I could also make about the deaths of some major characters. I realize that in the heat of battle there’s no time to stop and grieve, but it was still kind of a bummer.

All in all, this is an excellent trilogy. I regret that it took me so long to read it but am happy that I finally did!

Note: Ten years after Mockingjay was published, a prequel was released. Alas, reviews are not good and I’ve decided not to potentially sully my opinion of the series by reading it.

Two by Caroline B. Cooney

cooney1The Face on the Milk Carton
The Face on the Milk Carton was first published in 1990, but though I actually was a young adult at the time, I was unaware of its existence. The basic plot is that lactose-intolerant Janie Johnson rebels one day at lunch and has some milk, only to see her own face on the carton alongside the name “Jennie Spring” and a 1-800 number for missing children. She begins to remember things about her past, but is racked by indecision because her parents are so lovely. Could they possibly be capable of such a thing? And what does it say about her that she was lured away willingly with the promise of an ice cream sundae?

It’s interesting to compare the way this book is written to how it would be today; a modern version would probably be in the first person, for example, and would not contain fifteen-year-olds who believe that “dumbbell” is an age-appropriate insult. Possibly it would involve genuine peril. In comparison, Face comes across as a bit chaste, though there are allusions to how far Janie and her boyfriend have gone in their making out. Perhaps “mild” would be a better word for it.

There are some things I liked and didn’t like about the book. As if there were no other way to solve Janie’s dilemma, we get an extremely contrived solution in which she a) puts an account of her abduction down on paper and b) slips it into an envelope onto which she has previously typed her actual return address and c) decides to address it to her birth family though she intends to take it home and put it in the attic and d) promptly loses it and must assume that a good Samaritan will affix a stamp and send it for her. Eyeroll. I did like that Janie’s boyfriend showed his true (and shitty) colors by getting all huffy that her inconvenient kidnapping trauma was cutting into the attention/action he was getting. Alas, though her “drop dead!” reaction was satisfying, she was soon feeling bad about it. Eyeroll again.

Still, despite my complaints, I did think it was a pretty enjoyable (and quick!) read, and I’m interested to see what happens next.

cooney2Whatever Happened to Janie?
While the first book in this series had some suspense to it, Whatever Happened to Janie? is 100% family drama. Because the family that raised her, the Johnsons, has no legal claim to her, Janie is returned to the Spring family after an absence of almost twelve years. The book is primarily about her struggles to adjust to different parents, four siblings, and a life less affluent and cultured than the one she left behind.

Janie feels intensely loyal to the Johnsons, and thus doesn’t try as hard as she might to get along with the Springs. Indeed, she is frequently hurtful to them on purpose. We do get the points of view of her two older siblings, which I appreciated, as they show that the Springs are truly a very nice family that simply had unrealistic expectations about what would happen when Janie came home. Surprise! She’s still as much of a brat as she was when she was three.

There were some subtle moments I enjoyed when she did start to think of the Springs are her real family, but just as she makes real progress, she decides she’s going back to the Johnsons. The Springs consent to this, and everyone plans to continue visiting and corresponding, but it still strikes me as a weird arrangement. Is she going to live the rest of her life as Janie Johnson, then? Will she get her name changed legally? What kind of documentation did the Johnsons provide to enroll her in school in the first place, come to think of it?

Anyway, I’m thinking about it too much.

After this, I did plan to continue on to the next installment in the series, The Voice on the Radio. I checked it out from the library more than once, but just could not summon any enthusiasm for a book about Janie’s shitty attention-seeking boyfriend, Reeve, getting a job at his college radio station and blabbing all of the painful details about Janie’s experience to his listeners.

The Thursday Murder Club, Books 1-2 by Richard Osman

Can I resist a mystery series about a quartet of septuagenarians at a peaceful retirement village solving crimes? No, I cannot.

The Thursday Murder Club
Coopers Chase is a posh retirement community nestled amidst the rolling hills of Kent. It’s a bustling place with many activities for the residents to engage in, including the Thursday Murder Club, established by two ladies with a background in law enforcement (one as a detective and the other seemingly as some sort of top-secret government agent). When Penny (the detective) becomes seriously ill and is transferred to the on-site nursing home, Elizabeth (the government agent) approaches new resident and former nurse Joyce with a question about one of Penny’s cold cases and thus, Joyce becomes the newest member of the Thursday Murder Club. As the book progresses and the Thursday Murder Club offers their assistance in a murder investigation connected to Coopers Chase, Joyce’s diary entries are regularly interspersed throughout the narrative.

One reviewer described The Thursday Murder Club as “utterly charming and very, very clever,” and on the whole I must agree. The four members of the Thursday Murder Club—which also includes fastidious Ibrahim and impassioned Ron—are very endearingly drawn, each with their own set of strengths and foibles. I didn’t anticipate that the police characters would also be endearing, but they are! Donna is ambitious and funny and Chris, overweight and extremely self-critical, was a particular favorite. I loved a certain twist about their relationship that comes at the end of the book; with a 25-year age difference I was a little concerned how I’d feel if they got paired off romantically, but happily I needn’t have worried on that score.

The book also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the inescapable fact of mortality, as Elizabeth tries to cope with her husband’s gradual decline and grief-stricken widowers or soon-to-be widowers figure prominently. You also get passages like, “Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was much to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is much to do and only so many days left.” So yes, this book is amusing, but it is also sometimes bleak. At the same time, however, it’s not without hope. These characters are capable and useful and there are some things they can do and get away with precisely because of their age.

The actual mystery itself is rather unnecessarily convoluted, and there were a couple of minor characters whose actions in the past didn’t exactly correlate with their actions in the present. One was simply, “If Joyce’s daughter thought her mother moving into Coopers Chase was a bad idea, then why did she purchase her flat for her?” but the other tied into the murder itself. Also, I didn’t really get why the Thursday Murder Club was going to notify the police about one person but were content to not notify the police about another person. However, I didn’t guess the final solution and was successfully lulled into forgetting about something introduced early on, so kudos there.

In the end, I enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club very much and look forward to not only the sequel but the movie in the works.

The Man Who Died Twice
When Elizabeth’s ex-husband Douglas arrives at Coopers Chase seeking protection from the money launderer from whom he has stolen diamonds worth 20 million pounds, the Thursday Murder Club is thrust into a case that’s equal parts murder (Douglas promptly turns up dead), mafia, inexpertly knitted friendship bracelets, and scavenger hunt.

Until nearly the end, I felt that The Man Who Died Twice was actually a stronger book than its predecessor. Early on, Ibrahim is mugged by some teenagers in Fairhaven, and I appreciated both his subsequent psychological state and that his friends were determined to exact revenge on his behalf. There were some pairings or groups of characters we hadn’t seen before—I quite liked Donna going to talk to Ibrahim about her loneliness—and though the mystery was largely solved by Elizabeth, Joyce had a not insignificant part to play. We learn more about Elizabeth’s background in MI-5, and I was glad this was addressed now rather than continuing to drop hints about it indefinitely. And of course there was the blend of amusing writing and poignant reminders about death and dementia.

But things unraveled just a bit towards the end. The Thursday Murder Club executes their plan to deal with the money launderer, the mafia, the teenager, and the local drug queenpin that Chris and Donna have been trying to nab, and I was surprised by who the killer ultimately turned out to be. But there were also some things that bothered me. One moment, Ibrahim is insistant that he will never leave Coopers Chase again. The next, he’s driving Joyce to go adopt a rescue dog. What did she say to him to change his mind? It had seemed like this was a world without a pandemic, a choice I’d wholly support, but then COVID is mentioned in a joking aside. If you introduce COVID and your protagonists are septuagenarian residents of a retirement community, then that opens up a lot of questions that were totally ignored. Lastly, while the diamonds’ ultimate fate was satisfying, I did wonder why they were not seized as evidence.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed this sequel as much as the first book and eagerly anticipate book three, which looks like it might be out in the fall.

Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, Books 9-12 by Deborah Crombie

now_may_weepNow May You Weep
Gemma is invited by her friend and former landlord Hazel Cavendish to a “cookery weekend” in the Scottish Highlands at a bed and breakfast managed by one of Hazel’s old school friends and her husband. Little does Gemma know, however, that the whole event has been arranged to bring Hazel back to the area where she grew up so that she might reconnect and explore her connection with her first love, Donald Brodie. Meanwhile, back in London, Hazel’s husband Tim figures out what’s going on and resolves to do something about it.

The book begins slowly, introducing us to larger-than-life Scottish stereotype Donald and the other guests and lingering quite a while on the history of a pair of local distilleries. (Nothing will ever convince me that whiskey tastes good, and consequently I couldn’t get too interested in this aspect of the book.) Eventually, Donald is shot and killed at point-blank range and Gemma must watch from the outside as a local Detective Chief Inspector takes charge of the case and doesn’t avail himself of her assistance. Of course, she gets involved anyway.

Now May You Weep is a decent book. I didn’t guess the culprit, but I thought some aspects of the conclusion were a bit far-fetched. Revelations that might’ve had impact somehow did not. Too, I was saddened that an element of the supernatural has crept back into this series in the form of Hazel having dreams about her great-grandmother that lead her to uncover the truth behind the feud that kept Donald’s father from approving of their long-ago engagement.

Still, it was sufficiently enjoyable that my enthusiasm for the series remains undimmed.

in_dark_houseIn a Dark House
These columns sometimes take a long time to complete, as exemplified by the fact that over 2.5 years have passed since I finished Now May You Weep. In the interim, I got obsessed with podcasts, but my book fervor has returned and, man, was I ever in the mood for some Deborah Crombie. Thankfully, In a Dark House is very good.

When a body is found in a burned warehouse owned by a prominent politician, Duncan is assigned to investigate. Meanwhile Gemma, traumatized by recently having failed to find a missing child, learns about a missing woman who lived nearby. Could she be the unidentified victim of the fire? But wait, here are two more missing women and a kid, to boot. Of course, everything ends up being related, and past a certain point, some of it was kind of predictable, but it was also satisfying.

I enjoyed spending more time with Duncan’s new Sergeant, Doug Cullen, as well as the introduction of Maura Bell, the local inspector who should’ve had the case before Duncan turned up. I hope to see more of them both in future installments. I continue to love Gemma, and loved that she was able to regain some confidence with this case. I loved that we saw Duncan being kind of an ass a few times, and how there are some unresolved things between them at the end of the book. I also loved that one suspect’s desperate actions due to custody arrangements eventually prompted Duncan to realize there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to keep his son, Kit, with him.

I didn’t love that it was super obvious that the case was going to prevent Duncan from making it to Kit’s custody hearing on time. It’s one of those things where you wish you could shake a fictional character. Gemma yelled at him, but not enough, I thought, and then started feeling she’d said too much. It was all very frustrating. I also thought Crombie tipped her hand with one specific character, who gave me suspicious feels the moment they were first introduced. Still, on the whole, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and vow to not let so much time elapse before the next one.

water_like_stoneWater Like a Stone
It was only 1.5 years between books this time. Progress!

It’s Christmas, and Duncan, Gemma, the boys, and the dogs have all made the trip to the cozy town of Nantwich to stay with Duncan’s family for the holidays. On the night of their arrival, however, Duncan’s sister Juliet discovers the entombed body of an infant while working on renovating an old barn for some clients. Meanwhile, she’s contending with her atrocious husband who believes what his slimy business partner has been telling him about Juliet, namely that she’s been unfaithful. Actually, until about the 75% mark, most of Duncan and Gemma’s part of the story is just accessory to family drama, as Juliet’s troubled teen daughter Lally also figures prominently.

That makes sense, of course, since Scotland Yard has not officially been called in to assist with the case. And, happily, the investigative team from Cheshire CID (and here I also include the pathologist) are extremely well drawn and enjoyable characters. I liked them so much, in fact, that if I learned Deborah Crombie was going to start a spinoff series focusing on them, I’d be ecstatic. Before long, another person is murdered, and then we wait for the detectives to put everything together.

I want to emphasize the “we wait” part, because my one major complaint about this book is that the solution to the mystery is pretty easy to guess. Granted, it took me longer than it should have to realize what had happened with the infant in the barn, but the identity of the character whose anonymous and deranged (cruelty to animals warning!) point-of-view we occasionally access was quickly obvious, and I knew that the sporadic mentions of a teenager’s death by drowning one month prior were going to pay off eventually. I still enjoyed the book very much despite this, though!

where_memoriesWhere Memories Lie
Erika Rosenthal, Gemma’s friend, came to England fleeing Nazi Germany. Her father, a jeweler, stayed behind but gifted her his latest creation, an exquisite diamond brooch, though this was stolen before Erika even made it out of Germany. Now it has turned up for auction in London and Erika has asked Gemma to investigate the matter. The day after Gemma makes her inquiries at the auction house, the employee she spoke to is intentionally run down by a Land Rover while crossing the street on her way home. Convinced this has something to do with the brooch, Gemma prevails upon Kincaid to take the case.

As Gemma and Kincaid work the case in the present—assisted by Doug Cullen and Melody Talbot, whose points-of-view I was glad to see, even though Doug is bitter and abrasive—a parallel investigation unfolds in 1952 involving the murder of David Rosenthal, Erika’s husband. I don’t know whether I’ve read too many mysteries in general or too much Crombie in particular, but I found the solution in both cases even easier to guess than in Water Like a Stone. The three chief suspects in the present each appear so thoroughly innocent that one starts to look at background characters. Who could it be that we’ve seen enough for it to be a satisfying solution? Really, there was only one person and from there the whole motive unfurled.

That said, I still really like the characters in this series, particularly Gemma. I’m also glad we got to know so much more about Erika. As the novel begins, Erika’s daily struggle is described as “the balancing of each day’s small, luminous joys against the ever-threatening beast of despair” but Gemma’s efforts afford her not only closure regarding what happened to David but also another lost romantic opportunity, initially “too painful to contemplate even now.” By the end of the novel, Erika seems to be opening herself up to the possibility of love again, and I hope she’s able to find some happiness. The great thing about Crombie is that she’ll be sure to keep us updated—I’m still super grateful she’s never forgotten the cat Duncan adopted in, like, book two.

If I Stay, Books 1-2 by Gayle Forman

If I Stay
Mia has a perfect family (hip parents, adorable younger brother) and a perfect boyfriend (Adam, a sensitive punk rocker) and is a perfect cellist (surpasses multiple teachers!) whose perfect audition landed her a spot at Juilliard after graduation. Her perfect life (well, okay, there’s a modicum of tension with Adam about her moving away to New York in the fall) is destroyed when a car accident on a snowy day claims the lives of her parents and brother and leaves Mia in a state of astral projection, able to see what’s happening to her body while she struggles to decide whether to stay and live out her life after such a devastating loss or die and potentially join her family.

I’m not sure what I expected from If I Stay, exactly. Perhaps something spookier? Instead, it mostly alternates between Mia reflecting on memories with various loved ones and observing the goings-on at the hospital, including an episode in which Adam, instead of simply asking Mia’s grandparents to help him get in to see her, stages an elaborate distraction involving a rock star singing in the corridor outside the ICU. It’s as cringey as it sounds. I also wasn’t fond of the suggestion that it’s inherently virtuous to like classical music.

Despite my complaints, though, I didn’t hate it. Mia’s “this can’t be real” terror is conveyed well and I did get unexpectedly verklempt a couple of times. The book also gets much better once Mia’s best friend, Kim, is introduced. It’s through stories about Kim that we finally start to see Mia as someone less than perfect, which is decidedly welcome. I do find, though, that I wish the whole book had been about Kim in the first place! I find her much more interesting than Mia.

In any case, I did like this enough to check out the sequel.

Where She Went
Where She Went is quite a lot better than its predecessor. Told from Adam’s perspective, it’s set three years in the future as he—now a world-famous, Grammy-winning rock star and yet totally miserable—runs into Mia in New York City. It turns out Mia dumped Adam only a few weeks after she went off to Juilliard and never told him why, which completely destroyed him for a while until he channeled his pain into a batch of songs that would catapult Shooting Star’s major-label debut into multi-platinum status. They each have one night before they’re due to head out on tour and Mia suggests they spend it checking out some of her favorite spots around the city.

I thought Adam’s mental state was conveyed well. He’s hurt, he’s angry, he’s closed off, he’s sick of being tabloid fodder, and he no longer feels any love for music. Although he once vowed to let Mia go if she would just stay, it’s clear that he hasn’t been able to do that. Throughout the course of their conversation, however, he’s finally able to see that the person who’s really been harming him all this time is him, not Mia. The payoff here felt well-earned. Also, Mia does not come off as perfect here as she did in the first installment, which I appreciated.

In a series with some supernatural touches around the edges, it’s notable that the thing that really stretched my credulity is that everyone is so ridiculously successful at such a young age. Adam is a huge celebrity. Mia was extra special even at Juilliard and their meeting occurred at a concert she was giving at Carnegie Hall. Not only that, she’s somehow famous enough that a journalist from the rock scene knows about her and wants the scoop on her and Adam’s relationship. Even Kim has become a war photographer who sells her photos to The New York Times.

Still, this was quite good and made me a bit sniffly, which I perversely enjoy.

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.