The Good Knight

By Sarah Woodbury

Good_KnightI’d downloaded the free kindle version ages ago, and just ran across it while digging through my library listlessly after two weeks in my house. Set in medieval Wales, with some king getting killed on his way to marry the daughter of another king, and only the knight who runs across the carnage afterwards can solve this crime amidst all the political scheming, with the help of the woman who loves him.

Listen, my brain has basically turned to sludge at this point. I couldn’t keep track of any of the characters because all the names were unfamiliar to me, and while it is decently written, it was not skilled enough to make me care about any of them. And yet, I still read it all the way through, when I’d had to put more critically acclaimed books down because my mind kept wandering off to nightmare news on twitter.

I do think that it helped that it was set in a sort of “primitive” time where there’s no technology of course, and also everyone seems very id-driven, simply reacting to each moment as the mood strikes them at the time. Who knew how the king would react to the death of his son-in-law-to-be? Probably badly, but maybe he’s feeling relaxed right now? As our knight protagonist points out, the assassination of a king is not an uncommon path toward inheritance in this time. The action and mystery felt very free-floating which was somewhat soothing right now.

So, I don’t know, it distracted me for a bit and it is free on amazon, and can we really ask for anything more in these times?

Red, White, and Royal Blue

By Casey McQuiston

Royal_BlueOstensibly a romance novel (the first son of the United States falls into an affair with the second prince of England), Red, White, and Royal Blue is charming enough to lure the reader into some truly heart-wrenching looks at our current political climate.

Though the politics represented here are much improved over our current situation – the first female president is facing her reelection with a conservative but politically savvy Republican opponent – it still holds a mirror to how twisted our politics have gotten: where polls, focus groups, and image are everything, having completely superseded personal ethos.

This is a lot for a supposed romance novel, but it asks how much sacrifice can be demanded of individuals for a greater societal good? Is there a tipping point where the sacrifice becomes so big that it degrades the society around it? For me, it explored how asking people to hide who they truly are – sexuality in this book, but also ethnicity, religion, gender and countless other things – is not only poisonously corrosive to the individuals but weakens our entire society.

I had been looking forward to a fluffy romance to pass the time while I self-isolate in order to avoid being an additional contagion vector (how is our world like this right now?!), and was a bit grumpy to not actually get precisely that, but it is so moving, heartfelt, and ultimately optimistic that I couldn’t stay mad.

Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

SmokeThis is a tough review, because Smoke has a fascinating premise, and is certainly well written, but it took me a month to get through it and by the end, I completely hated it. I think it might just be me? Like, it wasn’t the right book for me to read at this time, and forcing myself to continue just made it worse. So, I’m stuck where I can’t really recommend it, but I can’t pan it either.

Set in an alternative Victorian era England, Smoke elaborates on the real life coal smog crisis of the time. The premise is that people’s anger and violent thoughts manifest visually as a sooty smoke emitted from the person’s body, staining their clothes and polluting the world around them. The book opens in a prep school for the children of aristocracy, where an essential lesson is to avoid all ‘smoking’ entirely. The aristocracy apparently do not ‘smoke,’ but our protagonist, Thomas, is both on the fringes of society and has poorly controlled anger.

I was initially vaguely sympathetic to Thomas, though at a bit of a distance, which I first ascribed to being old enough that it is hard to even remember the drama of the schoolroom. However, as the book progressed, I realized that I just didn’t like Thomas very much. He is angry and aloof, and it was difficult for me to get a handle on him to empathize. His best friend, Charlie, is somewhat more likeable, but no more relatable and mostly serves as a foil to Thomas.

Through a combination of coincidence and nosiness, Thomas and Charlie uncover some minor secrets about smoke, which then leads them to a wider conspiracy. The adults around them all have their own agendas regarding the smoke’s role in society, and somehow all of them rely on causing suffering to those considered expendable to a greater purpose. Any characters that don’t try to exploit those around them are written as pathetically naïve and mostly come to a bad end (all animals also come to a bad end). Vyleta does not shy away from the brutality of British colonialism, human experimentation, and extreme poverty, and it all became unrelentingly grim by the end.

It is a very…combative story, with basically everyone in conflict with each other. Even our two protagonists form a love triangle with the same girl, and reflect that it is inevitable that they will fight each other eventually. It felt very masculine, in my least favorite way, so again, it is very possible that a different reader could enjoy it. (I was curious as to who those readers would be, so I did a quick scan of the reviews on GoodReads, and they are…varied. There’s a lot of two to three stars, all starting with “this book has a great premise, but…” and a smattering of confused one and five stars wondering how anyone could either like or dislike this book. It truly is a conundrum of a novel!)

A House of Ghosts

W.C. Ryan

House_of_GhostsThis novel is a murder mystery, spy thriller, and ghost story all in one, and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, uneasily creepy when reading late at night, and solemnly poignant about the horrors of war. Any of these is a rare achievement, but combining all together make this something really unique. Set in England during the first world war, spiritualism is on the rise, as so many young men are missing/presumed dead on the front.

The Highmount patriarch made his fortune in weapons manufacturing during the war, but has since lost both his sons. In their grief, he and his wife have retreated to their remote island estate, which is converted from an old abbey and rumored to be haunted. They plan a house party over the holidays, inviting several spiritualists to attempt to make contact with their sons.

There are the charlatans, of course, like Madam Frey, with all sorts of tricks up her sleeves. But there are also the real deal, like Kate, friend of the family and ex-fiancé to one of the Highmount boys, who can actually see ghosts, but finds it so socially embarrassing that she hides it as well as she can. And there’s spiritualist Count Orlov, who can perhaps see ghosts but may find it more convenient to fake the séances?

Add to all that, some confidential weapons designs have been discovered in the wrong hands, and three undercover personnel, who have complicated relationships to each other, are suborned into attending the house party, under a variety of subterfuges, causing even more confusion.

Of course, there is also a light romance, which is so deftly done that I had to double check that the author is male. The two protagonists have a slow growing attraction toward each other, built on mutual respect and good communication, which is also awfully rare and a very pleasant surprise in novels.

Carols and Chaos

By Cindy Anstey

Carols_and_ChaosSince Rebecca is still catching up on reviewing holiday reading, I figure I can, too. I thought this would be a fun cozy mystery/romance for the holidays, and it could have been…if only it had been written a little better. Anstey has real promise as an author, but the writing needs more polish. We’ve found on this blog that while it is easy to review books we either loved or hated, it is really difficult to write about books that are just mediocre.

On the one hand, I liked the details of life “downstairs” as the central romance and mystery centers around a lady’s maid and a footman attached to two different households visiting for the holidays. (I’ve gotten more into books centering servants or other lower/middle class characters, and Rebecca and I were pondering whether that’s gotten more popular in general as our society loses patience with the wealthy.)

On the other hand, all the descriptions felt a bit like just throwing a bunch of adjectives at a paragraph to see what sticks:

“The driver was not Mr. Niven; he was a young man with broad, muscled shoulders, freckled cheeks, and a Grecian nose. Kate watched as his thin lips curled up in a sardonic smile, and then he dropped the reins and jumped over the bench and off the back of the bouncing wagon. He landed hard, spilling onto the road, and knocked his tartan cap off. A shock of red hair was exposed, looking bright against the fallen snow.”

Between the descriptions of shoulders, cheeks, nose, lips, hat, and hair, it all started to remind me of my favorite Mitch Hedberg bits, and this sort of writing made it difficult to picture the characters and events, much less empathize. The mystery itself got a bit lost in all the descriptions, too, so that it was difficult to piece together exactly what were important clues and what were added just for ‘color’.

I realized afterwards that the book is considered young adult, which explains both the glossary of period-specific terms in the back and the occasional diversion in the text to randomly explaining historical details. Perhaps this would have been a fun new series of books for me 30 years ago.

Adult Fantasy Books Not By Straight White Men

Witchmark

By CL Polk

WitchmarkWitchmark is the first of the many library holds I put on books recommended by the Tumblr’s Adult fantasy books not by straight white men! and I’m so glad that it was the first one I read!

It is a little hard to review because it is just satisfying across the board. It has a lot of the elements of a comfort read: a common-man protagonist who must rely on his hidden magic in the face of adversity, a light romance with a charming but mysterious stranger, and a truly shocking conspiracy by a shadowy society that must be revealed to the world.

Set in fictional world, it is heavily based on post-WWI London. The metropolitan has recently been wired with new fangled electricity, and a treaty has finally brought the end to a brutal war between nations. Soldiers are returning home in mass, where our protagonist Miles does his best to hide his healing magic and personal history while working at an understaffed and underfunded veterans hospital.

The book starts off as a murder mystery, with a fatally ill man being brought to Miles by his own request, and insisting to him that he has been murdered just before he dies. This probably would have been enough to hook me, but the fantasy and romance elements are woven in so deftly that it became this wonderful amalgam of genres that made me want to read the sequel immediately (unfortunately not due out for a couple of months).

Amberlough

By Lara Elena Donnelly

AmberloughAmberlough cut a bit close to our current state of affairs, honestly. Set in a fictional world inspired by 1930s Germany, Cyril DePaul is a secret agent assigned to uncover why an extremely conservative party is winning elections despite low popularity in polls. Collusion and extortion is suspected (sound familiar?), but before he can discover anything Cyril is quickly uncovered by the wealthy industrialists that make up the party leadership, and strong-armed into betraying his employer and government.

Though I was sympathetic to his plight, Cyril is cowardly and too easily compromised. His lover, Aristide, the emcee of a popular cabaret, is vicious and self-serving, using Cyril for access to state secrets that could inform his side business smuggling. The central dancer at the cabaret, Cordelia, is drawn into their schemes, and is vapid…until she isn’t.

Which is when the book shifted for me, finally becoming more about schemes and espionage than characterizations of unpleasant people. Unfortunately, this happens almost 200 pages into the book, so it was a slow start, to say the least. And then, 100 pages later, everything goes to shit, perhaps accurate of 1930s Berlin and dare I say our current news cycle, and it becomes especially unpleasant reading.

It reminded me a fair bit of Jo Walton’s Small Change series, but even grimmer and joyless. Amberlough is well thought out and extremely well written, but I hated reading just about all of it, and felt entirely depleted after finishing it.