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. 

Continue reading

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mumbo Jumbo

By Ishmael Reed

This book is something else! I picked it up on the basis of a short summary: during the Jazz age, a new dance takes people over uncontrollably, sweeping through the country. And yeah, I guess that’s sort of the basic structure that holds everything else together, but it is only the top gloss of a truly sprawling narrative.

In sheer scope of characters and plot lines, Mumbo Jumbo reminded me of Infinite Jest (though much shorter, only 217 pages), and after the most rudimentary of research (Wikipedia), I think it may exemplify postmodernism. Wikipedia defines postmodern literature as a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. Mumbo Jumbo checks off every last one of those, and truly deserves to be taught alongside Pynchon, Wallace, and the rest. I only wish I’d been able to participate in a class or even a book club to go through this novel in detail!   

Reed weaves so many allusions to historical, political, and cultural events throughout the plot (and even the occasional off-hand comment) that I’m sure I missed at least half of them. The ones that I caught, at least enough to follow up on with more research (Wikipedia again) were fascinating! For example, one of the plotlines revolves around Warren Harding’s run for president and people’s concern over his Black ancestry, which was a new one for me! I looked it up and it appears to have been a rumor spread by his unhappy father-in-law (debunked by DNA testing in 2015). On the other hand, every new fact about Warren Harding I read was completely bonkers, so I highly recommend reading both his and his wife Florence Harding’s Wikipedia pages.

Other plotlines include three Harlem mystics, devotees of different beliefs, in an amicable competition for believers (at least one of whom is possibly classic hotep?); art heists of European and US museums to return artifacts to their original countries; newspapers being used to send secret messages and either foment or quell various rebellions; a Haitian routing of a US invasion; among others. Each plot has a good half dozen characters with occasional overlap, all creating an extremely complicated but entertaining web.

I worry that I’m making this sound like slog, but while it wasn’t a quick read, the whole novel is also both very funny and emotionally engrossing. I really cared about the protagonists and their endeavors, and dreaded the machinations of the antagonists. The humor is both absurd and bitingly satiric, and the laser sharp cultural criticism still extremely resonant today.

The Last Ghost Series

By M Dressler

I See You So Close

Book cover for I See You So Close

I read a teaser that this was a small town murder mystery but with a twist: the investigating protagonist is a ghost disguised as a human! I was immediately hooked, wondering how does a ghost disguise themselves as a human?! It wasn’t until I had it in my hands that I realized it’s a sequel (I’ve done this before). I decided that it looked like it was enough of a reset in plotting that I could start with it, and the author does a fairly skillful job of getting any new readers up to speed, I thought.

Our protagonist ghost, Emma Rose, is traveling west to outrun ghost hunters, and it quickly established that this is a world in which everyone is aware of the existence of ghosts, but enough of the living find them troubling that ghost hunters are sent to “blast” them much as one would bring in an exterminator. So, I’m sympathetic to our protagonist’s wariness around humans, but her trigger finger to just kill them before they try anything makes me think the ghost hunters are probably all for the best.

Emma Rose ends up in a small town so wholesome and welcoming it immediately sent up a whole bushel of red flags for me, though it takes her a bit longer to realize that there is a dark secret lurking in its gold rush-era history. It is a really interesting look at what life and existence means, whether in current or after-life, and whether a “live and let live” philosophy should be extended to those not actually currently living. For me, the characters seemed a little flat, not stereotypes exactly, more just simplified, and the plot somewhat fussy and over complicated. Additionally, I found the language a bit stilted, and even wondered whether it was the fault of a weak translation, but not only does that not seem to be the case, the various cover blurbs raved about the poetics of the language.

The Last to See Me

HOWEVER, I went back to read the first novel, and it is so much better! It is much more introspective, focusing on the parallel plots of Emma Rose in life leading to her death, and her afterlife as she works through what this existence means, both to her and others. It all takes place in the same small coastal town in which she lived and died, with a much smaller cast of characters, so the book can really delve into the themes of life, freedom, and justice in really powerful ways. Both novels are told in first person by Emma Rose, who is complicated enough to be not necessarily likeable, which gives some really nice philosophical depth to this first book. I think this same narration may have contributed to some of the flatness of the other characters in the sequel, since they are only really seen through Emma Rose’s eyes and thoughts.


Between reading these two books out of order, my twitter feed was full of  SF/F twitter justifiably furious at a reviewer for panning a sequel for not standing alone, leading to this extremely thorough and entertaining takedown. For many reasons, I did not commit nearly her level of insult (I’m writing on my personal blog with a small audience, these are not epic fantasy novels, etc.), but even in this case, it really brought home to me what a disservice I’d done to both books. I think the second book isn’t as good as the first, but now I’ll never have a chance to read that second book fresh but with the knowledge of the first behind it, so I can’t ever be sure. I enjoyed the first book much more than the second, but I think I would have liked it even more without the spoilers I picked up from the second.

Saint Young Men

By Hikaru Nakamura

With the premise of Jesus and Buddha taking a “gap year” from their divine existence to share an apartment in modern day Tokyo, I knew I had to check it out!  I was able to get a collected volume of the first 15 chapters at my local library, which has now opened for curbside pickup. According to the forward written by the Curator of Japanese Arts at the British Museum, it has been very popular in Japan for years, but has only been published in English last year. The British Museum was actually instrumental in the translation, and the forward describes the challenge of trying to accurately capture the puns and word plays.

The English edition is bristling with inline notes translating t-shirt slogans and other Japanese text within the illustrations, and post-chapter endnotes giving more extensive context for scenes, often explaining key elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and modern Japanese culture. In the end, it was these ‘translation notes’ that I found the most interesting.

At first description, I had imagined Saint Young Men as a comic book, with a single earthly adventure each issue, but it is more like a collection of comic strips with setups and punch lines every page or two. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the forward was right, that it makes it a lot harder to translate. In addition to the language itself, there are such strong cultural elements to humor that I have to admit that I was often more confused than amused. So, it wasn’t so much the funny pages for me, but really interesting to read a light-hearted take on two religions, one of which I’m a lot more familiar with than the other.

The notes on Christianity tended to be fairly basic elements, almost all of which I already knew (think allusions to ‘loaves and fishes’ and the like), and I have to assume the Buddhist ones are similarly basic, but they were almost entirely new to me (his hair is tightly curled due to his divinity – though some quick research said that at least on some statues, those curls might be snails). About halfway through the book, I wondered if I should be a bit offended that Jesus is a hyperactive, low-attention-span man-child while Buddha is more sober and reflective, but Rebecca proposed that “odd couple” setup might be a manga trope that I’m also just not that familiar with.

All in all, I don’t know that I really ‘got’ the comic the way it is intended, but I did find it a fascinating read, so it is worth it for that, if you are interested in the niche cross-section of religions and manga. When looking for a cover image, I ran across some subtitled animated scenes from the book, which give a pretty good preview of the culture-clash-based humor.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery

By Ovidia Yu

Frangipani_TreeThis was both a charming and disconcerting read after my previous book. It is the first in a series of what the author describes as “a feel good history mystery without blood, sex and gore (enough of that in real life),” but which is also set in Singapore in 1936. The protagonist is a spirited and ambitious Chinese teenager attending the British-run mission school, who wants to get a job outside of her grandmother’s protective house. When the Irish nanny working for the ruling English governor dies in a mysterious fall, Su Lin cheerfully accepts the post and quickly befriends the English Chief Inspector investigating the case.

The governor’s family is precisely as racist as I would imagine a colonialist English family of the time, but Su Lin regards them with curiosity and pity, and with most of her mind focused on her charge, with whom she shares shares mutual affection, and her amateur investigations. The much older Inspector (no romance there, thank god) is clearly more aware of the impending global crises with some passing comments, but they have very little presence in this first book, where Singapore seems more of a hodgepodge of different cultures rubbing along together.

I have every intention of continuing with this series, and the fourth book has just come out, starting what the author is considering a sub-trilogy set during Japanese Occupation. I image that Yu will focus on the decency of her protagonist, her friends and family, and the richness of the Singapore culture in order to maintain a lighter tone during a time of human atrocities. (I hope very much that we see more of her grandmother who apparently runs an only semi-underground empire of illegal commerce.)