The Flowers of Vashnoi by Bujold

flowersofvashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2018

Yay! When I first heard that Lois McMaster Bujold had decided to retire, I was horrified, but now I’m kind of delighted because apparently she’s spending her retirement writing short stories instead of novels. And they’re coming out relatively quickly.

I’ve previously reviewed her Penric & Desdemona stories that I absolutely love and am desperately awaiting more of, but apparently she was feeling inspired recently to return to her Vorkosigan universe and wrote a short story about Ekaterin.

I am so deeply familiar with this series that I’m not actually sure how much that familiarity is necessary to understanding this story, but I believe it’s intended to be readable as a stand-alone.

“The Flowers of Vashnoi” strikes me very much as Bujold revisiting her previous short story, “The Mountains of Mourning” a generation later. Both stories deal with the fall-out of social progress and the heart-breaking necessity of hard decisions with no good solutions.

I loved the story, but I think I loved it most for being another peak into the world of these characters that I love. It was good to see what Ekaterin has been doing and how life on Barrayar continues.

The Hearts We Sold

By Emily Lloyd-Jones

Hearts_We_SoldThis was a tough read honestly. It is a moderately well-written YA fantasy novel with a great title and an interesting premise. Demons are real and will grant wishes for people in exchange for a body part. Small requests cost a finger or toe, and they go up to a hand or foot, to an arm or leg. The body parts appear to get taken in a supernaturally clean amputation, and there doesn’t seem to be much lasting physical pain to the process.

Our protagonist, Dee Moreno, is desperate for the money to pay the tuition for her boarding school, which is the only thing that keeps her out of her parents’ abusive home. It seems likely this would have cost her a foot, or an arm at most, but unfortunately for her, she meets a demon who transacts only in hearts. Which of course sounds appalling, and everyone is appalled, but here’s the thing: he takes the heart on a two-year contact, during which Dee must run errands for him. Admittedly, they are life-endangering, supernatural errands, but after two years she gets her heart back. Which sounds like a much better deal than losing even a toe for life.

She joins four other teenagers, who have also lent out their hearts to run this demon’s errands, and of course one of them is a quirky, sensitive artist boy. Dee spends a fair amount of time mulling over her heartless state, though it doesn’t seem to prevent her from falling for the obvious romantic lead, and I spend a fair amount of time mulling over how I’d probably lend out my heart for two years just for the favor of not having to feel anything for two years. Which made me feel old and sad, but is probably not ultimately the book’s fault.

(I do still fully blame the book for telling, but not showing, any real consequence to being ‘heartless.’ Every time the book emphasized the awfulness of it all, I kept thinking how angry I would have been to have given a limb without knowing that the heart was an option.)

Truly Devious

9780062338051Waaaay back in 2012, I wrote a review about the first book in a new YA fantasy/mystery trilogy by Maureen Johnson. I really liked The Name of the Star but at the time the rest of series wasn’t out yet. Books two and three are now available, and I recommend tracking those down for a good supernatural mystery. Johnson’s latest book is also a mystery, but it takes a slightly different, non-fantasy angle on things.  Truly Devious follows two different story threads–in the present day teenager Stevie, a true crime aficionado, is starting the year at an exclusive and unusual boarding school that was the site of a notorious crime in the early 1900s. She wants to solve the historical crime, but gets swept up into a present-day mystery. But while we watch Stevie try to figure out what is going on in her world, we are also following actors in the original mystery and slowly uncovering what actually happened when the wife and daughter of a wealthy industrialist were kidnapped.

The downside of Truly Devious is that it ends on a cliffhanger with basically no resolution, and there isn’t even a publication date for the next one. This is clearly going to be a single story told over several books, but who knows when it all might wrap up. But this was a quick read with an engaging story and it would be perfect to read on a dark and rainy evening, since it’s a little creepy but probably won’t keep you up at night.

Also, Maureen Johnson is super fun to follow on Twitter (@maureenjohnson), where she is very funny and also posts lots of cute pictures of her dog. Plus, she just edited a YA essay compilation called How I Resist that looks really inspiring, that I may have to go track down.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Creepy, on-going mystery

You might also like:  One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus is a fun teenagers-solve-a-crime story, and if you’re looking for a quirky boarding school book, Looking for Alaska by John Green is a classic. The recent TV show about the Getty kidnapping called Trust also gets at quite a few of the period-piece thriller aspects of this. But considering that this is the story of someone obsessed with true crime, my main recommendation is the podcast My Favorite Murder, in which two mystery-obsessed women tell the stories of famous crimes to each other. Just this morning I was listening to an episode this morning about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which feels like it was a bit of an inspiration for the historical crime in this book.

The Sun is Also a Star

Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.inddWay back in early 2016 Anna wrote a review of a book called Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon, and almost surprised herself by really enjoying the sweet YA romance/coming-of-age story. I liked that book as well, and I’m here to tell you that Yoon’s follow-up The Sun is Also a Star is even better.

I had looked at the book several times but was always a little put off by the plot summary–two teenagers meet one day in New York and feel an instant connection, but she is about to be deported and what kind of future can they have? In our current political climate even thinking about immigration issues makes me feel sort of sick, plus I tend to be a cynical old lady about teenage love in first sight stories. But when I ended up desperate on a cross-country flight and decided to give this a try, I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting and loving it. The characters both feel very complete, their relationship feels organic, and Yoon does a great job setting the scene so that it feels like you’re out there walking around with Natasha and Daniel on the New York City streets.

The book also features this interesting little element where every now and then you get a flash forward or a flash sideways, I guess you’d say, to what a supporting character has going on in their lives or what will happen to them in the future. It’s a lovely effect that makes the story feel more expansive and universal than it would otherwise.

This is a quick read, and would be great for the beach or a plane or just when you need to feel a little bit better about the world.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Enchanting, challenging romance

You might also like:  Any number of other fabulous YA romance/family stories out there including Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (always a classic!), The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (which Anna mentioned back in March), Far From the Tree (this one will make you cry), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  And if you haven’t already seen Love, Simon, the movie based on that last one, I cannot recommend it highly enough–it was completely charming and featured great music by the Bleachers. It is going to be one of those movies like Easy A that I will be delighted to stumble upon on cable on a rainy Saturday afternoon and will be able to watch an infinite number of times.

The Truth According to Us

By Annie Burrows

Truth_According_to_UsI loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so much! It is the sweetest, funniest story you will ever read about an isolated community trying to recover from Nazi occupation in WWII.

When I saw that one of the authors had written a second book, also set in a small community and character-focused, I was immediately engaged. And it is super engaging! It just isn’t quite so sweet and funny. (I may have cried multiple times when reading it late at night.)

It is significantly longer, with a much larger cast of characters, just about all of whom I grew to care about, even as they got tangled into conflicts that cannot end satisfactorily for them all. Ostensibly it is about a small town trying to recover from World War I, the Great Depression, the downfall of the factory that employed most of the citizens, and the anti-union movement.

The novel cycles around the family that used to own the factory, but is now falling to ruin along with the rest of the town. Much of the story is told through one of the very young daughters in the family, trying to make sense of it, and in that narrative, it is a bit of a coming-of-age story. From the older generation, it is more of a story of laying ghosts to rest and moving on. A significant chunk, though, is also told from the outside perspective of a wealthy young woman sent to write a pamphlet about the town, as part of the Federal Writers Project, who almost immediately blunders through the various small-town quarrels due to ignorance, and it is a coming-of-age story for her, too, though a more serious one.

It is just a huge mess of family loyalty and betrayal and forgiveness, and the different types of relationships we have with the different people in our lives, and I’m just in awe that the author was able to fit it all into one (long) book!

The Arnifour Affair

By Gregory Harris

Arnifour_AffairSometimes I worry that I’m getting too cranky in my old age – that books I would have enjoyed when I was younger, I now pick apart as trite since I’ve read so many other, better books by this point. I really wanted to like The Arnifour Affair: it is a Victorian-era murder mystery featuring a renowned detective, and his partner, both in work and life. Unfortunately, it reads like someone’s Sherlock/Watson fanfic with the names changed. Which, honestly, I would be all over, if only it was well written!

I swear every other line of dialogue included some synonym for “laughed”: chortled, smirked, snickered, chuckled, etc., until they all sounded like a pack of lunatics, laughing inappropriately at every single scene. This also clinched the idea of fanfic origins for me; smirking is a favorite of amateur writers, to the extent that I now hate the very word, and think it should be given a moratorium of use for at least a decade. See what I mean about me getting cranky?

The bare-bones of the character and the plot were there, so it could have been something really interesting. The Sherlock character sticks pretty close: son of a high-level government official, he is considered too eccentric for polite society, but still admired for his top-notch detective skills. Instead of recovering war veteran, though, the Watson character is an ex-street hustler and drug addict, who Sherlock…I mean, Colin Pendragon, has rescued. This could have been an interesting dynamic if they weren’t constantly chortling at each other.

All of the characters made little sense, switching personalities fairly dramatically whenever it suited the author’s purpose (though always maintaining a hair-trigger laugh impulse). This really threw off the plot since it was really hard to predict how any character would act in any given scenario and what their motivations would be. Everyone ended up being fairly unlikeable, and yet I was somehow still offended by which unlikeable character ended up the culprit. I’m still not sure what the final motivations were for the crime, though there were enough of them floating around that it seemed like Harris maybe just threw everything at the wall to see what stuck.

The Butchered Man

By Harriet Smart

The_AlienistSo, I’d read The Alienist over twenty years ago in college, and only vaguely remembered  it being about applying the very young field of psychology to the profiling of serial killers, and that the serial killer in question preyed on young boy prostitutes. I didn’t remember any details, including any of the central characters or the final solution, so the miniseries was almost a brand-new story for me, and I loved it! The acting was all excellent, overshadowed only by the lush cinematography highlighting the dramatic differences between the very wealthy and the very poor at the end of the nineteenth century. I am very much hoping that TNT decides to tackle the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, next!

Butchered_ManAnyway, The Butchered Man reminded me strongly of The Alienist, in a good way. It takes place a good fifty years earlier and in rural England, but the two central protagonists fit right in. Giles Vernon is an ex-military man and current police chief, who is working to transition the local police from a loose watchman structure to a more organized unit based on his military experience. To that end, he hires Felix Carswell as a full-time police surgeon and forensic pathologist.

So, both characters are on the cutting edge of their professions and struggling against the status quo to push advancements. Carswell is a particularly interesting character; as the acknowledged natural son of one of the local bigwigs, he struggles with not quite fitting into any social strata. I was immediately engaged in both the characters and the mystery, and am looking forward to continuing with the series. My one caveat, though, is that the overall story does not necessarily show women overall in the best light, and I’ll be on the watch for that in the subsequent novels.

FalletAnd going back to TV, can I also recommend “Fallet” on Netflix? The preview seem to show a somewhat generically dark police procedural, but there was a subtle quirkiness to it that attracted me. Let me tell you, in the actual show, the quirkiness is not subtle: “Fallet” is an extremely funny satire of the popular Nordic mystery genre. The characters and dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny, but the actors, director, and cinematographer all play it extremely straight, which makes it even funnier. The whole season is eight half-hour episodes, so it is a quick and easy watch, though it is subtitled, since half the characters speak Swedish.