meh

I think I’m feeling a little cranky because I finished the complete Astreiant series, which just seemed to fit everything I like best in a novel, and now I’m vaguely disappointed in every novel I’ve read since.

Ladies’ Bane

By Patricia Wentworth

I’ve had Patricia Wentworth on the periphery of my to-read list for a while now. She’s a contemporary of Agatha Christie, and is often compared to her, and I do love my Agatha Christies! I picked Ladies’ Bane sort of random, thinking that it sounded pretty gothic, which I’m also partial to. And it was very gothic! A young lady marries a man in a whirlwind romance and disappears to his county estate, and when her cousin comes to check on her, she finds her much changed with no idea who to trust. Classic gothic! And Wentworth’s mainstay detective, an elderly ex-governess, doesn’t appear on the scene until a quarter of the way through. 

But I don’t know…I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but it very much lacked the spark of Agatha Christie. The characters were not quite dimensional enough, the mystery not quite twisty enough, and the personal touches were a little more crude and even a bit mean. I think this is why detective Miss Silver didn’t quite catch on to the extent of Miss Marple. She’s more judgmental and reproving, and her apparent signature quirk of quoting Tennyson doesn’t really help. I asked my mom, another big Agatha Christie fan, whether I was just missing something with Patricia Wentworth, and she agreed that she hadn’t taken to her at all either.

Some Danger Involved

By Will Thomas

This mystery is very consciously and closely inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Watson. It starts intriguingly enough with our Watson-figure, a down-and-out disgraced academic applying for the job as assistant to an enquiry agent who is demanding and idiosyncratic enough to run off all other applicants. The enquiry agent, the assistant, and surrounding characters are all interesting in distinct ways, but after a while I wanted deeper insight into their characters. The detective himself appears as a bit of a Mary Sue, with the universal respect he garners and his expertise in a range of martial arts. I was unsurprised to read in the author’s biography that he himself studies and practices several forms of martial arts.

The plot also centers around the Jewish community in London in the nineteenth century, and again, it was interesting, but I was a little uneasy that the author may not know enough about Jewish traditions and culture to write accurately and sensitively about it, especially with the lack of subtlety in other parts of the book. So, overall, I enjoyed the book well enough, but wanted more depth across the board. 

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You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey

By Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

Comedian Amber Ruffin relates, with her sister’s help, all the bonkers stories of racism that her sister Lacey experiences in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. As she writes in the introduction, these stories will shock white readers and relate to Black readers, and man, was I shocked! She also warns that many of the stories don’t seem to have any logical motivation behind them, that people just seem to wild out for absolutely no reason, and that is racism in a nutshell.

At one point, after a particularly enraging story, Amber writes, “I have never been able to understand why white people have such a low tolerance for hearing about racism.” And I thought to myself, I could tell her why. It’s that most of us white people have the same sense of race relations as very young Black children before they’ve been fully exposed to the onslaught. I went most of my life thinking that the vast majority of people are generally decent and trying to do right, though they may stumble occasionally. All while Lacey, her siblings, and her parents experience daily racist words and actions from people just being mean to be mean.

It is a real testament to their writing how laugh-out-loud funny the book is, and how well they capture their relationship as sisters on the page. While Lacey deals with some truly outrageous shit, she often gets her own again in satisfying ways and reassures the reader that she is doing just fine with a loving family and friends and successful career. Of course, she has her sister to commiserate with as well, and I’m just grateful that they let us readers take a peak into their conversations (not to mention the brilliant photographic evidence)! The book alternates fonts for the two, which is very effective, but afterwards, I somewhat regretted not listening to the audiobook read by the two authors. The conversational tone makes it a quick read, but I bet would really shine in audio.

The Assassins of Thasalon by Bujold

The Assassins of Thasalon
Penric & Desdemona series, part 10
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2021

I love that Bujold decided to retire, and then, in her retirement, continue to write but without the pressure of working with a publisher or a timeline. Thus the titles come out with absolutely no fanfare or marketing and I have to google search her name periodically to make sure I catch them. Amazon is letting me down: I follow her author’s page but I still haven’t received any notification that a new book is available. And this is a book, too! The first of the Penric & Desdemona stories to have the word count of a full-length novel rather than a novella. Yay!

I love this whole series and this particular one is a delight as it brings back some fascinating characters that had been introduced in The Prisoner of Limnos who I love seeing more of. It also introduces a couple of fabulous new characters as well. The plot is an amazing balancing act between complex political conspiracies and straight-forward cut-through-the-knot focus.

Another thing that really impresses me about Bujold is how she manages to show her characters aging and maturing over the course of a series and Penric is a wonderful example of this skill. We first met him in Penric’s Demon as a nineteen-year-old and now he’s a thirty-something-year-old: the same character and yet with more depth and experience. He and Desdemona remain an absolute delight.

I expect this book actually can be read as a stand-alone but why deprive yourself of the joy of the whole series? Go read it all!

Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing

By Lauren Hough

I first read Lauren Hough in her eye-opening expose of life as a “cable guy,” which is also where I learned that some people refuse to let service workers in their home use their bathrooms, and am now very explicit about inviting them to, if needed. I immediately followed her on twitter, where she is very smart and funny, and very occasionally mentions that she grew up in a cult. I’d always thought she meant it hyperbolically, like her family was very conservatively religious, but then she announced her book of essays which would cover growing up in the Children of God cult. I thought oh shit, and then immediately preordered straight from the publisher.

And, whew, this book has such a strong narrative flow that I couldn’t put it down, but then also my head was so full of thoughts and feelings that at the same time I wanted to take a moment to process them all. Each essay connects so seamlessly with the next that I also kept forgetting it wasn’t a single narrative and was slightly puzzled (though not bothered) by the jumps back and forth in chronology. While the essays are all autobiographical, they are sorted by themes rather than chronologically. So, there is some really interesting recursion, where Hough revisits the same events in different essays, reflecting on them in different ways. It feels like Hough is sharing her own recovery with us, circling closer to the trauma that came out of her upbringing, coming at it from different directions to make ultimate sense of the whole. It feels raw and personal in a way that I’m not sure I’ve read before.

Hough relates all of this in a matter-of-fact voice that reminded me a bit of the noir style of writing, actually. Like, the world can be a terrible place where terrible things happen, but individuals just do the best they can in the circumstances given them. And that, while systems and organizations are inevitably corrupt, the connections you make with other people can be life savers. It’s an odd combination of grim and comforting at the same time, and I love it in noir and I love it here.

Murderbot by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells were originally an (amazingly wonderful) four-part series of novellas that I already posted about here and here. But since then, there have been developments!

A stand-alone novel: Network Effect (2020)
A fifth novella: Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

I have been a bit off from reading books recently, just feeling sluggish and unable to focus, and then I was reminded that the newest book in this series was being published on April 27, 2021. So I started reading the previous book, Network Effect, that I had bought and loaded on my kindle when it first came out in May 2020 but never read (because sluggish and unable to focus), and it was a great! Are you living in a dystopia and just want to watch fiction all day? Well, Murderbot does too but they still have friends (some of whom are assholes, which is probably for the best because Murderbot is also an asshole) and then plot and events happen and it all works out, more or less, and there’s uncomfortable character growth and development that is hilarious and awkward and so exciting! It left me extremely excited about the new release.

Then I had to re-read the others in order to prepare for the latest.

I was a bit disappointed at first that Fugitive Telemetry was set before Network Effect rather than after, but then I discovered that it was a straight up murder mystery and there’s no room for disappointment. (Also, I can hope that when there is a sequel to Network Effect, it will be another novel instead of a novella!) I bought this story as soon as it was available and finished it within a day and it was fabulous! Murder mystery on a space station! Murderbot is suspicious about assassination attempts on their people! Station security is suspicious of Murderbot! They must work together to find out what happened!

As I was thinking about writing this post, I discovered two short stories that I had completely missed the existence of:

Compulsory” (2019), a single scene set before all of the previous stories, while Murderbot was still doing their regular assigned job and only on episode 44 of their favorite soap opera, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, watching it for the first time!
home: habitat, range, niche, territory” (2020), set before Fugitive Telemetry and, for the first time, following a different perspective, showing a slice of life of Dr. Ayda Mensah

So just, in general, I love this series so much!

It was also fun to discover, the day after Fugitive Telemetry came out, that I had curated my tumblr account well enough that I was seeing other fan responses to the release, and it made me so happy. Examples here and here and here.

Point of Hopes

By Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

Melissa Scott may be my new favorite author, and I just ran across her by chance when browsing SmashWords.* I am so, so happy to have found her now, but also wish I’d had her on my bookshelf decades ago. Point of Hopes reminds me of the books I loved as a kid, Patricia C. Wrede and Andre Norton in particular, but with more detailed and progressive world building. This is the first in a five novel series, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so thoroughly drawn into world!

First, the whole society is built around a complex astrology system. Major events and decisions are scheduled around fortuitous star positions, and birth charts can determine individuals’ job and status. For instance, if you have water signs, you will make a better sailor, and if you don’t, captains are much less likely to hire you on. Our main protagonist is the equivalent of a police officer (strong presence of planets in justice signs), and while he investigates several minor crimes as the novel establishes the setting and characters, he is then assigned to the major case of a recent slew of missing children and the simmering anger and panic it is causing throughout the city.

Speaking of simmering anger and panic, this novel (written in 1995!) features a neighborhood convinced that a foreign-run pub is somehow hiding the missing children, despite no evidence from repeated searches, eventually culminating in an armed attack. I seriously had to check the publication date again (which actually gets a little confusing, because I think it was first published in print in 1995, and then later e-published in 2012).**

Second, while the society is strictly stratified by class and the culture most closely matches the late Middle Ages in Europe, it is all subtly matriarchal. The author has a nice show-don’t-tell style, so the society comes together in bits and pieces through the perspective of our solidly middle-class protagonists. There is a queen, who is childless and expected to name a female relative as heir to the throne, and the highest positions in society, such as the city council, are predominately held by women. Overall, though, both gender and sexuality are unrestricted. Our secondary protagonist is a soldier recently decommissioned in the city, under suspicion as an outsider, but fully acknowledged and accepted as bisexual. A relationship between the two protagonists evolves over the series, but the first book simply introduces their friendship.

*SmashWords is one of the primary alternatives to Amazon for self-published authors. The website is fairly clunky and difficult to navigate, but they give the authors 85% of sales, which is worth it to me.

** I am almost positive that the eBook was generated with an automated text reader, since there are unfortunately a number of typos that would come from that process: corner turning into comer,  and ever into even, for instance.

The Postscript Murders

By Elly Griffiths

I previously reviewed The Stranger Diaries, and promptly requested the sequel, published just last year. Griffiths wisely doesn’t try the same trope of an embedded mystery story within the novel, but instead creates a sort of homage to mystery novels, their authors, and readers, and I liked it even more!

An elderly retiree dies of seemingly natural causes, but her somewhat highly-strung caretaker, already uneasy over the death, finds a business card next to the body for a “murder consultant.” She brings her concerns to Detective Harbinder Kaur, who begins to look into it partly out of curiosity and partly because the caretaker is persistent, beautiful, and flirty.

Like The Stranger Diaries, the narrative rotates through four perspectives: Detective Kaur, the practical one trying to maintain a balanced perspective; Natalka, the caretaker excited for the adventure of an investigation; Edwin, the urbane neighbor of the deceased in their retirement home; and Benny, the shy owner of a local coffee shop. Whereas before the different perspectives lead to shocking reveals, The Postscript Murders is more like a screwball comedy, which I absolutely adore!

The mismatched group together dive into an investigation of what might not be murder at all, stirring up suspicious reactions right and left, and culminating in a road trip to a mystery authors convention. Throughout the book and especially in the convention setting, Griffiths is able to gently spoof mystery writers and readers, which combined with the delightful characters, is laugh-out-loud funny.

Griffiths is doing a lot here, and I felt the ending wasn’t quite as neat a solution as I like in mysteries, but that is a small bone to pick with an overall truly delightful novel.

Who Is Ana Mendieta? by Redfern & Caron

Who Is Ana Mendieta?
by Christine Redfern & Caro Caron
introduction by Lucy R. Lippard
2011

This is a relatively short but extremely full and dense graphic novel. It’s a biography of an artist, but also a window into an artistic movement, and also a true crime tragedy, and also a demonstration of how systemic prejudice works to keep a whole demographic down. The particular art styles of both the book and the art movement that it describes are not ones that I particularly enjoy (a lot of shock value and intentionally disturbing imagery), and yet, I still highly recommend the book. It was a reminder to me of what second-wave feminism was trying to accomplish and the context it was working in.

Ana Mendieta was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, moved to the US in 1961, and died violently in 1985 (her husband was indicted for murder three times by a jury, and acquitted three times by a judge who then sealed the records.) During her life, Mendieta was a rising star in the art world and making waves. But the book also points out that she, like so many women before her, had to be their own firsts, breaking the glass ceiling, not because there hadn’t been women before her, but because the existence of those women was and is so regularly denied. This book itself is an effort to not have Ana Mendieta suffer the same fate, not just of death but of being quietly brushed aside, leaving art history to continue as a history of male artists.

So all of this to say: this book is educational, distasteful, enraging, and important.

The Stranger Diaries

By Elly Griffiths

Book cover for Stranger Diaries

Mysteries follow trends just like everything else, really. The reason “the butler did it” is such a cliché now is that for a while it was the big surprise in mysteries, that the ‘invisible’ servant in the background could be the culprit! Then there was the investigator being the murderer, leading pretty directly to the unreliable narrator. We seem to now be in a surge (resurgence?) of meta-mysteries, murder mysteries that hinge on other murder mystery novels.

In previous years, I’ve certainly read plots with allusions to other books, of course, but I think what makes this recent iteration stand out is that that the full content of this sub-book or story is embedded in the novel. Magpie Murders was my first experience with this, and probably the most notable, and it seems to me that Elly Griffiths is very much playing off it here. I don’t mean to call The Stranger Diaries derivative, because I think it is an extremely clever structure, and I look forward to reading a bunch of different authors’ takes on this trend.

The Stranger Diaries actually mixes things up pretty intriguingly by rotating through narrators including: the inspector, a smart and no-nonsense policewoman; the friend of the victim, a fellow English teacher at the local prep school; that friend’s daughter who attends the school; and finally a short horror story written by a somewhat obscure author who used to live in the school a century ago. If that seems like a lot and a bit of a jumble, it is, but it also works.

First the detective is a wonderfully practical woman who has worked her way up to a respected position as both an Indian and lesbian woman in a British police department, and she provides our most unbiased view of events. The friend and fellow teacher is more closely involved with both the victim and all the other teachers (suspects) at the school, and gets at more of the emotional impact of the crime and investigation. She is also researching and writing a book about the horror author, giving us some more background into clues that seem to tie the story to the crime. Her daughter, then, reveals undercurrents among the students of the school that are invisible to basically all adults around them. So, it isn’t exactly unreliable narrator for any of them, but just really highlights that everyone can only see a situation from their own perspective, and one can only get a more complete picture by piecing all those different perspectives together.

I’d previously read Elly Griffiths’ Magic Men series, and this book just reinforced for me how good she is at characters. They are all quite likeable while still being flawed each in their own distinct ways. I think I’ve described Griffith’s writing this way before, but though they aren’t “cozy mysteries,” strictly speaking, they feel like comfortable mysteries. Everyone (except the victim, of course) is going through their life, doing the best they can, and mostly getting by pretty well. It’s dramatic enough to keep it interesting but not overly stressful or grim. It hit the sweet spot of what I’m looking for in these already stressful times, and I’ve already put a hold on the sequel.

The Goblin Emperor

A friend once told me that he had improved his life by deciding that he would never again read a book that started with a map. I have a similar philosophy about books that start with a list of characters. If there are going to be so many people with such complicated names that I won’t be able to keep up with all them without a family tree, I am not going to have the bandwidth to enjoy the story.

And then there’s the common issue with fantasy books that Justin McElroy so neatly summarized in this tweet:

Exactly! Just tell me who has the sword and get on with it! I will never remember which mountain range the trolls originally came from! By these measures, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison should absolutely not have worked for me. It starts with a glossary and a pronunciation guide and a chapter that reads like a description of elven culture from a Lonely Planet guide. Ten pages in I was deeply skeptical. But once I got swept up into the story I was so invested that I stayed up until 2:00 AM on a Tuesday because I was so desperate to find out what to this teenage half-goblin/half-emperor I had gotten so attached to.

Maia is the youngest son of the emperor of a kingdom of elves, but after his goblin mother dies he is exiled to the far edge of the empire and largely forgotten about. Until his father and older brothers are all killed in a airship crash. Overnight Maia becomes emperor and is thrust into the intrigue of a royal court he had never been allowed to even visit. He must master everything from dinner with his advisors to foreign relations to infrastructure development, all while trying to figure out who he can trust and who might take the opportunity to overthrow a teenage ruler with no allies. But Maia is smart and kind and determined to do things differently than his father. He never really wanted to be emperor, but once he gets there he is determined to do the best job he can, and I found myself very invested in his success and well-being.

If you are reader of a certain age, chances are you grew up spending a lot of time in used bookstores, unearthing weird old dusty paperback fantasy novels that you could buy for 25 cents. The Goblin Emperor reminds me of those books in so many ways–it has the timeless feel of a classic. But it’s also a book written by a woman in the last decade, which gives it a refreshingly modern twist. Maia would never talk about “social justice,” but he is a mixed-race ruler who doesn’t understand why he should be making decisions that benefit rich nobility rather than his poorest subjects. As a modern-day reader, classic sci-fi and fantasy sometimes has to be read through gritted teeth as it casually drops weird racist and sexist ideas. It was a pleasure to read a classic fantasy story that reflected ideas of equality and justice.

The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, but I’m glad I came across it now, because in June a sequel is being released and I will be first on the list for it.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Coming-of-age court intrigue

You might also like: We’ve talked about the Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner so many times that I almost hate to mention it again, but those books are wonderful and feature the same sort of twisty negotiations and constantly shifting alliances. But I would also recommend the television series The Great on Hulu, which tells the story of Catherine the Great’s introduction to the Russian court in a quite darkly comedic way.