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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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.

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.)

When We Were Orphans

By Kazuo Ishiguro

When_We_Were_OrphansThis was a random pickup for me, and I’m not quite sure what called out to me about it. I’ve never read any other novels by Ishiguro, but I enjoyed (in a sort of depressed way) the movie “Remains of the Day” based on his award-winning novel.

The thing is, I had got the impression that When We Were Orphans was a psychological thriller, based on the unraveling of an unreliable narrator, and it is very much not that. I intended to warn here about the misrepresentation of the publisher’s description, but then I went back and reread it:

In 1930s Shanghai, detective Christopher Banks seeks to solve his parents’ long-ago disappearance — and finds himself trapped in his own past.

While clearly not comprehensive, that is not inaccurate, and it seems I just interpreted it entirely wrong, which is actually embarrassingly on-the-nose for what the book is about. Protagonist Christopher Banks is no more unreliable a narrator than any of us are; instead of a study of one man’s fallibility, it is much more a look at how all of us see our lives through very filtered lenses, and when you have to rely on memories for any sort of objective truth, you are on very shaky ground.

The setting of the international settlement in Shanghai perfectly mirrors the theme of subjective observation as well. I went into this book remarkably blind: about halfway through, I turned to Rebecca and said, “it seems weird that the Japanese occupied Shanghai in the 1930s, but that China was with the allies during WW2 and Japan was with the axis?” A quick google search returned the answer, “whew boy, you have no idea!” Reading about the Westerners in Shanghai shrug off growing global tensions with an assurance that ‘everything would turn out okay’ and the protagonist’s slow awakening that everything was very much not going to turn out okay felt chillingly pertinent today.

I got kind of deep into themes above, but it is also a very engrossing character study and mystery of sorts. We get extensive flashbacks to Banks’ childhood with his parents in Shanghai, but after their disappearance, he is sent to live with an aunt in England, where he is determined to become a famous detective, a la Sherlock Holmes. It becomes clear that in this fiction, such famous detectives do exist, and Banks succeeds over time in becoming one. This formational part of the book is very odd, with his increasingly renowned cases being referenced without any context. It did a good job of establishing the character, while clueing in the reader that this book would not be about tidy solutions to discrete mysteries.

The tension builds gradually as Banks slowly circles around investigating his parents’ disappearance and the international atmosphere gradually shifts from relief over the end of ‘The Great War’ to amorphous dread that things might not be quite so settled after all. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of ramping up the tension, slowly at first and then exponentially faster to a quite frankly dizzying climactic crescendo. I wondered if perhaps some of the final reveals were a bit too melodramatic, but of course that thought led me right back to the novel’s theme of society ignoring extreme violence and corruption as being ‘unrealistic’.

Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

The Marlowe Murders

By Laura Giebfried and Stanley R. Wells

Marlowe_MurdersWell, this novel is a fucking mess. The preview reminded me a bit of classic Agatha Christie mysteries, with a wealthy and estranged family gathered at a huge mansion on a remote island for the wake of the family matriarch. It lacked Christie’s charm, though, with every character being absurdly dislikeable, but I often find that entertaining as well. It was sort of refreshing for the protagonist—bribed/extorted by one of the family siblings into serving as a maid for the wake for mysterious reasons—to explain that everyone finds her “difficult” and for me to agree with everyone. (As a 29-year-old woman trying to get her doctorate in the 1950s, it would have been very easy to sympathize that the cards were very much stacked against her if she herself hadn’t been quite so unpleasant.)

What I found less entertaining was the glimpses of unpleasantness from the author herself. One character is overweight, which is referenced in just about every scene, and seems an especially shallow descriptor since her true defining feature, along with the other members of the family, seems to be a cartoonishly psychotic temper. If a woman is threatening me with mortal harm, her body weight is the least of my concerns. In addition to adding an ugly layer of fat phobia to an already unpleasant novel, the constant digs quickly became tiresome and clichéd.

Once the characters and scene were set and the murder committed, the plot really started to go off the rails. There’s a chapter in most mysteries where the detective is stumped and just sort of runs through wild conjectures. They usually write themselves a list to help order their thoughts and get back on track, but this protagonist seemed to just decide to go with the wild conjectures approach the whole way through. The characters all jumping from suspicion to suspicion, based solely on the newest ‘clue’ made me feel a little unmoored as well, so I guess you could say that the author created an atmosphere of sorts.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

By Kate Racculia

Tuesday_MooneyThis book deserves a better reader than I am right now. I absolutely loved Racculia’s previous novel Bellweather Rhapsody and tore through it in a few days. I loved Tuesday Mooney, too, but it took me two weeks to read because my attention span is a fruitfly at this point.

It starts a little slow with introductions of all the characters, and Racculia really excels at characters – they were all interesting, distinct, and sympathetic but also clearly flawed in their own ways that kept them from being too likeable. Five of our central protagonists are at a Boston hospital fundraiser – the titular Tuesday Mooney being a researcher for the donor relations department– when an older gentleman keels over while bidding $50k for a meet-and-greet with New Kids on the Block. (I feel like this level of detail is characteristic of Racculia, and the book continues to be a love letter to all things Boston, as well as the adventure, murder, romance, ghost story it is.)

Even though he dies in the first chapter, I count the older gentleman as one of the protagonists, because it is his post-mortem scavenger hunt that leads the rest of the story, and his own (interesting, distinct) personality is threaded through it all as well. Through the scavenger hunt, the cast of characters expands to family and friends of the deceased as well as more random hunters, and we get lovely peaks into many of their lives. It was here that I would happily sit down for an hour or so to read and feel satisfied with the story, but then turn blank-eyed to the TV afterwards, which is very much a criticism of my own coping skills and not the novel itself.

However, when the villain is revealed to both the protagonists and the reader, that’s when I really got hooked, and stayed up far too late a couple of nights. In retrospect, I realize that I like a story to have more darkness to it than the first half had, focusing on the riddle and puzzle solving. It is quite a race to the end, and in retrospect has a well-crafted pace that exponentially speeds up over the course of the book. The finale is incredibly satisfying, tying up more loose ends than I’d even quite realized Racculia had threaded (though not all of them, keeping it a bit realistic), and I plan to read this again when I’m no longer quite so hollow eyed and empty headed.

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?