Stewartry

Just looking around, till Goodreads does something else spectacularly stupid. On behalf of all the GR refugees, sorry about the disruptions, Booklikes!

 

I'm here on Goodreads

 

I'm here on LibraryThing

 

I'm here on Wordpress

 

and just ... here, here.

Artists in Crime audio - Marsh read by Cumberbatch

Artists in Crime  - Ngaio Marsh, Benedict Cumberbatch
If I ever finish my book, and manage to have an audio edition, I want Benedict Cumberbatch reading it. Even with all the other readers I've come across whose voices I've fallen for, BC is a little bit spectacular. And I'm not even a "Cumberbitch". This is an abridged version of the novel, which normally I feel is an abomination, but for Cumberbatch's narration? I'm in.

This was the book I heard a clip of on Tumblr, the moment when Cumberbatch "does" the voice of an American woman with a heavy Southern accent who flirts heavily with Rory Alleyn, Our Hero. It was completely ridiculous – and I pretty much headed straight to Audible to buy it. I've come to be fans of several audiobook readers, but the acting chops BC brings to the job are just marvelous. On a page, this would probably be a solid four-star read; the fifth star is all Cumberbatch.

As for the book itself: it's one I read long ago, and not since, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. This is where Marsh's detective hero meets his artist lady love, and where she is brought back into his life when a model she has employed for a workshop is murdered. This is an abridged edition, but it's well done; it's coherent and lean. I loathe abridgements, but … Cumberbatch. It's pure fun.

 

Carmen at Masada

With all the horrors unleashed by terrorists on our world - and we talk about it a lot here, as some of us read about them - and with all the bleak news, wars, and disasters around the globe, we all long for something uplifting, something beautiful. The link points to a short film, 22 min, about the production of Carmen in Masada, Israel. The music, the scenery, the voices - everything is breathtaking. Click on the link and watch. It gives an infusion of joy.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/embed/CeqWL9M3PUE?rel=0C
Reblogged from Olga Godim

New Spring

New Spring - Robert Jordan
My one note on Goodreads on this book was "Not nearly as much spanking in this as in the main series" - and that's a bit sad, considering there was still more spanking than I would consider normal in a non-erotic-type novel. (That's one thing I'll say for Jordan, is the spanking is never erotic. I think that's a plus. I think.)

This is a prequel to the WoT series, expanded from a short story or novella telling how Lan Mandragoran and Moiraine Demandred met and wound up bonded as Aes Sedai and Warder. I think I raised a scornful eyebrow when I first heard of it, simply because of the extended wait time between books - really, sir, what are you doing exploring the past when the present and immediate future of your world desperately need to be dealt with? But it is a good story. I don't believe I ever read the novella (short story?) but in the novel the tale of How Lan Was Bonded is tied up with the birth of the Dragon Reborn, and the youth of Moiraine and Siuan Sanche, and also with White Tower politics, and - most fun for me, I think, and smartest, what exactly brought Moiraine and Lan into the Two Rivers that day.

The depiction of the White Tower from the inside, from the points of view of two very different young women living and learning there, was wonderful. There was a lot of good stuff in here. I hadn't ever realized how short-changed we as readers were by the fact that Our Heroines never spent that much time in the Tower; it was startling to learn just how uninformed I was about the step between Accepted and Aes Sedai. We were never shown much of the training, and never anything at all about the later phases.

I always liked Moiraine, and it was good to see some of the formation of the personality I met in WoT. And to find out just how she dodged the bullet that was the crown of crown of Cairhien – I had wondered. As for Siuan Sanche … I never liked her all that much (early on, little more than "hard as nails" and outbursts about fish guts, later on nearly as angry all the time as Nynaeve and still more fish guts), but this was enlightening. I'm not sure how I feel about her and Moiraine being "pillow friends", or not; this is the one time I wish Jordan was less Victorian about sex in his books and would just say one way or another what the nature of their friendship was. Coyness does not become a grown man – what it does become is irritating. (Not, mind, that I have any – ANY – interest in the boys' sex lives in WoT (A-N-Y), but for Pete's sake just come right out and say it instead of putting on a fan dance.)

The story took a couple of unexpected turns, and ended up being something quite different from what I did expect. I approve – and I appreciate the story. And, sadly, it makes me wish Jordan had had the chance to explore a few other areas of the canon which might have tantalizingly received little or no attention. I'd love more set before the Breaking. Who knows? Maybe there's stuff still to be released in his papers…

 

Cookies and pastries and pies, *oh my*

Sugar and Spice: A New Recipe for Bolder Baking - Samantha Seneviratne
I hope it's not blasphemy if I say this book might be considered a religious experience. How can a cookbook be a religious experience? When I and every other person I've shown it to has gotten a look at the recipes – titles and photographs – in this book has only been able to say "Oh my God."

I only just recently connected to Blogging For Books, made my first selection, and waited for it – an actual hardcover, not digital – to come in the mail. Having a terrible short term memory, when I opened it I muttered in disappointment, "I requested a cookbook?" Thirty seconds – and a few "Oh my God"s – later, I was all but hugging the book to myself in delight: "I requested a cookbook!"

As the description says, this is a collection of dessert recipes. Most of them are quite familiar: sticky buns and strawberry rhubarb pie, chocolate chip cookies and fruitcake. Yes, fruitcake. What makes this worth getting, and more than worth getting, is the little twist to each recipe: the author builds on her Sri Lankan background as a springboard to tweak each old familiar recipe with an unexpected spice – or herb – which makes it something new and marvelous. This isn't a book I'll use once or twice, make a recipe or three, and never open again. If all goes well I would like to work my way through the whole thing, and make all of them. Including the fruitcake.

The book is gorgeous. There is no dust jacket, and thus no dust jacket to be soiled or torn in media res. It's enjoyable to read – Samantha Seneviratne has a sense of humor, demonstrated in the introductions to the recipes. The recipes are marvelous – and the photography by Erin Kunkel is completely irresistible. It's a beautiful, beautiful book from cover to cover. I'm going to have to find a better exercise program to counteract this …

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

 

Doctor Who: Feast of the Drowned

Doctor Who: The Feast of the Drowned - Stephen Cole, David Tennant
I'm very tempted to just out and out give this five stars. It's David Tennant. As the Doctor. AND in full brogue. In other words, a little slice of heaven. He does voices quite well (though perhaps not so much Rose and Mickey, but … who cares?), does the creepy bits very creepily, and is all in all a joy to listen to. Unsurprisingly.

And it was a fun story, too, about something (*cough*aliens*cough*) snatching up the drowning and doing unspeakable things to them (and the "Feast" of the title isn't a fun let's-have-another-turkey-leg sort of thing, either). The writing did a nice job of achieving Whovianness – always a concern with fan-fiction at any level up to and including authorized published tie-ins. Though … both eyebrows went up, way up, when Cole referred to "the Doctor's sneakers". Uh. He used the correct "trainers" another time, though, so I'll give him that. There was a great deal of running, and reference to the fact that running is very common with the Doctor, and that's all to the good.

But, in the end, even DT wasn't enough to make this a five-star listen. He was; the story was not.

But – brogue. There is something about the way a Scottish man says "book" that … Ahem. Yes. Very nice.

 

A Fatal Twist of Lemon

A Fatal Twist of Lemon: A Wisteria Tearoom Mystery (Volume 1) Paperback July 31, 2012 - Patrice Greenwood
This was an odd series. On the one hand, I never warmed to the protagonist; she has some irritating habits that became more annoying as pages passed. Well, actually, I couldn't stand her. Her situation is an excellent example of one of the things I hate most about cozies and comfort reads in general: she went from sitting around in aimless depression to highly successful owner of a gorgeous teashop, with half a dozen employees, in no time flat and with hardly a hiccup. This does not happen In Real Life – or if it does it's too annoying to contemplate.

The murder happens quickly, which is somewhat unusual in a murder mystery. And then follows a good deal of huffing by Our Heroine about the cops in and out of her teashop and all the inconvenience this is bringing her. Poor her, always all alone, "on my own. As usual." – except for all the tremendous amount of help she received from the murder victim and others in getting the teashop up and running. Oh, and her staff.

It's interesting that in a first-person narrative that first person, er, person comes off so unlikeable. She refers to one of her employees – and one she trusts with a fair amount of responsibility – as "the goth", and thinks it ironic that "the goth" is the only one who wasn't there when the murder occurred. Death… goths… What a … pity? She works closely with her small staff, but sniffs about being extremely unwilling to "yield to modern informality" and let them call her by her first name. She not only calls them by their first names (or things like "the goth"), but uses nicknames.

She stereotypes constantly – there's that goth, the cop, all cops, the Hispanic, those darn teenagers, Catholics (at least twice she feels she needs to make the point "and I'm not even Catholic") – oh, and motorcycle riders: "I really, really dislike motorcycles. They're noisy and obnoxious, and so are a lot of the people who ride them. They disobey traffic rules and endanger pedestrians and I just don't like them. It's a failing of mine, a prejudice. Sorry, Miss Manners, but some things just can't be helped." Yes. Yes they can.

Which made it utterly ridiculous when she came out with the line, "'What is it with everyone? Yes, I wear jeans, yes, I drink coffee. Give me credit for a little dimension.'"

One bit of stereotyping was kind of hilarious: "The waiter appeared, a young man dressed all in black, which made me look twice. I thought he might be one of Kris's crowd." Kris, of course, is the oft-cited goth. But … don't waiters often wear all black?

And her staff follows suit: "'He doesn't look like the chamber music type,' Kris observed." You'd think she'd be tired enough of being pigeonholed that she'd try to avoid it.

The main character's prejudices are married to a haughty snobbishness that just grated – and which her background and standing don't seem to justify, if such an attitude can ever be justified. She's just clueless. "We'd even talked about trying a high tea eventually, though with Julio's talent and flair it would be a far cry from the traditional hearty evening meal of a British laborer." Who would ever expect to come into a tea shop expecting a "traditional [laborer's] hearty evening meal"? That's a whole different take on tea, and not what is advertised in this place. (At least "flair" is spelled correctly.)

One note I made to myself when the murder occurred and the police descended was: "Oh please don't let this be the love interest". "Officer Arrogant", Our Heroine's nickname for the cop whose real name is Aragon, comes into the So Pretty setting of the teashop like … well, Mythbusters proved that bulls really aren't that dangerous in china shops, so let's skip the simile and just say he's obnoxious, unpleasant, belligerent, loud, and – despite being (of course) smokin' hot – all around unlikeable. What's her name – Ellen, if I may be so bold - doesn't like him. I don't like him. His rehabilitation into Love Interest never quite made sense, no matter how many justifications for his behavior came along. Bad first impressions really are hard to overcome.

I mean, he lighted into her for "removing evidence": she tried to resuscitate the murder victim, and removed an article of jewelry. Trying to save her life. I thought he was going to arrest her.

The Heroine's efforts at investigation were hard to swallow. As she begins to flail for a motive for the murder, she ponders how "It seemed unreasonable to commit murder over a house". It's badly worded: for the specific situation here it might be unreasonable, but there have probably been plenty of murders committed over houses: homes, or investments, or inheritances. It's a strong motivation. "Could you remind me of the sort of terms that might be in the deed?" she asks. The response is, "Sure." Uh, no – the correct answer to that would be "I can't tell you that, are you insane?"

And I initially really, really disliked the ghost thing. It's just another box checked off on the Cozy Mystery Checklist: woman who owns her own too-successful business; cop investigating Her First Corpse evolving into love interest; ghost. But I have to give the author credit: this was handled better than I expected. Basically, anything short of a phantom discussing the situation with the budding amateur detective is going to be a positive…

There was no real sense of the very specific setting, despite constant place names and occasional Spanish being used. It was a tea shop, almost like a British embassy: England within those walls, and irrelevant what was outside them.

Still, the writing, except for the tendency toward stereotyping and generalization, was readable. I never intended to continue with the series, but they cleverly tacked on a generous sample of Book 2 at the end of this one, and out of laziness I read it. And then sighed and bought the second one.

One thing I have to compliment highly is the title. It's very clever indeed – I like it.

She wrote mysteries too?

The Four Pools Mystery - Jean Webster
I should think of a clever shelf name for books like this and The Red House Mystery – something like "they wrote mysteries too??" Except Goodreads would delete the question marks. Jean Webster is better known for [book:Daddy Long-legs], which I loved when younger and was a little disappointed in when older. Take the amount of disappointment I felt in [book:Daddy Long-legs], multiply it by about thirty, and sprinkle generously with shock and horror, and that's how The Four-Pools Mystery left me. There is mystery; there are ghosts; there is the cocky city boy swanning in to solve the mystery… there is rampant unchecked racism. "If you have ever had anything to do with negroes, you can know the state our servants are in." At least in that sentence the less pejorative "negroes" was used. That is not the case, half the time. "Sho's yuh bohn, Marse Cunnel; it's de libbin' truf I's tellin' yuh. Dat ha'nt has fotched dat chicken right outen de oven, an' it's vanished in de air." Sho 'nuf. "One of them shambled forward….The creature was bare-footed and wore a faded suit of linsey-woolsey" … okay, that's enough. No – one more: "When he was in good humor, he was kindness itself to the darkies". Wait, one more: "…With an oath he cuffed the fellow back to a state of coherence". Guess the skin tones of the cuffing and the cuff-ee. But that's okay, apparently, because "In the first place it comes natural to < "n-word" redacted > to be whipped and they don't mind it." Well, that's sho 'nuf fortunate considering Southern plantation history. Context: The book was written in and apparently set in 1908. That doesn't make it a palatable read over 100 years later. Political correctness is one (not always good) thing; this is several others. One review comments that this is the South from the point of view of someone who had never been there; it seems like in general Ms. Webster was writing about things she didn't know much about. Someone tells the visitor, "There are half a dozen colts in the pasture just spoiling to be broken in; you may try your hand at that, sir." Has the young person ever trained a horse? Ever? This does not seem wise to me. Apparently he doesn't take the suggestion to try breaking any of the colts (yay for the colts), because he is still bored, and expresses a wish to go hunting. But "spring on a big river plantation is a busy season". It's also a season when you can't – or shouldn't – do a lot of hunting. I have little memory of the mystery and its solution. The most memorable aspect of the story is the prejudice and language. Not fun, and not recommended.

 

Graynelore

Graynelore - Stephen Moore
I don't like abandoning books, especially books I've accepted from Netgalley (because this was received free from the publisher through Netgalley for review, thank you to them). But after fighting the prose to about 15%, I decided to cut my losses and move on to one of the others.

I did not enjoy Graynelore. But I have to give it credit for helping me pin down exactly why I don't like it and similar books.

See, there are rules of writing and spelling and syntax. The rules exist for a reason. They have evolved in order to make it more certain that what one person says or writes will be understood by someone hearing or reading it. Disregarding the rules increase the chances that that pretty shiny thought gleaming in your brain will not transfer as you want it to be into someone else's brain.

That being said, good writers disregard rules all the time, all over the place. It's fun, and can be fun to read… so … what's the difference between those books that break the rules in a good way and these books that break the rules in such a way that I want to hire a skywriter to blazon "Strunk & White" from here to the horizon? (In other words, why do I complain about some and not others?) It was while reading another of this book's pages filled with sentence fragments and missing commas and misplaced modifiers that the answer came up, looked over my shoulder at the Kindle, and shook its head in despair: I have to be able to see the point to breaking the rules. Whether or not the author had a point is irrelevant if I can't perceive it. Using sentence fragments and eccentric punctuation can be a stylistic choice (though I doubt that misplaced modifiers ever are, are they?), but it needs to be clear that that's the case, and that it's all not … well, bad writing.

I think part of the object of the tone and choices in vocabulary were to make it sound … antique. Tales of old. Unfortunately, a good many words made me picture Inigo Montoya looking down at the author with his brow furrowed in puzzlement. "You keep using such words…"

Once someone asked me what I thought of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and what I came up with was "dense and chewy". I don't know if I can define that without throwing an encyclopedia's worth of words at it, but for me it's the perfect description. And the adjectives that came to mind almost immediately reading this were "thick and soupy". It has a beautiful cover and an intriguing synopsis, but by 15% I should have had a clear idea of what the story was shaping up to be. I have no idea. And I just couldn't settle into the writing in order to find out.

Two stars for what I read because I have actually, sadly, read worse, but … I use the highlight feature on my Kindle to mark text and make notes, either as criticism or out of appreciation. If I highlight a lot of a book it's a sign that either I loved it or it was driving me crazy. I highlighted a large percentage of the small percentage I read of Graynelore.

 

Insanity of Murder

The Insanity of Murder (Dr Dody McCleland Mysteries) - Felicity Young
I did not have high expectations for this book (received from Netgalley for an honest review, with thanks), I have to admit. But I had already picked up the previous in the series as an Amazon deal, and I thought I'd try this. It sounded promising: in the aftermath of a bombing in London comes investigation into disappearances at a women's "rest home".

I love period mysteries – except when I hate them. The writing and setting have to be exceptional in order for one to stand out. There have been an awful lot of semi-cozy mysteries set in this rough time period featuring plucky young women who are either nobly not working or working very pluckily in jobs women don't commonly do. I can't criticize the fact that Miss Felicity Young of turn of the century London is a coroner, as she's based on the author's ancestor. Improbable as I might find her position, it's based in fact, and that's that.

What I really dragged my heels over, which for all I know is also based in fact but which I also found improbable, was Constable Singh. I find it difficult to swallow that at this time period (1913, based on events) an Indian gentleman complete unto turban would even be able to secure a place in the police department, much less be given any level of command: "Singh's in charge with Hensman as his assistant." To be sure, he does not have an easy time of it; my hunch, though, is that it would have been much worse, if it was at all.

The highly irregular relationship between Felicity and CDI Pike …I get it, and I'm okay with it. But not when his daughter is in the house. For these two to leave her practicing music on the ground floor and go up to her bedroom and lock the door and … no. This is not acceptable. This is a recipe for disaster, is what it is.

Here be spoilers for a historical event – skip the next paragraph if you want to be surprised by what happens at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

The incident of Emily Wilding Davison's suicide came up in the book, and steam began to puff gently from my ears. I was at a full boil by the end of the chapter. There is, and was in the book, apparently some dissent over whether she intended to let herself be run over by the king's horse that day, or whether it was supposed to be just a "brave" demonstration. Apparently, according to the Guardian, she was trying to tie a suffragette banner to the horse's bridle. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/20...) What a moron. A racehorse running at full speed. I'm sorry, if you're stupid enough to walk out onto a racetrack filled with steel-shod horses running at 35 mph+, you're asking for what happens to you. It's like committing suicide by cop, or stepping in front of a train – I don't care what your motivation is, forcing someone else to be the means of your death is one of the more heinous things any human being can do. Kill yourself in some spectacular manner – more power to you. Involve others, or destroy property? You've lost any sympathy I might have ever had. For this woman to take the risk of not only killing herself but killing the jockey, the horse, and any jockeys and horses coming up behind (there were at least two, from the pictures)… was this supposed to inspire support for the Cause? How could they think that it would inspire anything but utter loathing?

The horse did a somersault, on top of the jockey. I am not trying to be amusing when I point out that horses are not meant to somersault. Nor do jockeys benefit from being landed on by horses.

Take my reaction to this event, and multiply it by a factor of 10 to get my reaction to setting a bomb to make a point. This isn't activism. This is terrorism. It's perfectly black and white in my mind: like riots after a police shooting or crashing a plane into a building, this is unconscionable. No one person or group of people has any right to destroy the lives or livelihoods of anyone else, for any reason. Lovely, fine, you're setting your explosive device in a place you expect to be deserted. That's peachy. However, the … ladies placing the bomb seem to have neglected to actually watch the location, or do any research, because they managed to kill a night watchman. In addition, they managed to mangle dozens of bodies waiting in that building for burial – forcing dozens of families to endure a hideous experience very shortly after the already awful experience of losing a loved one.

I hope this book wasn't intended in any way to inspire respect and pride for the suffragette movement. In me it inspired loathing and contempt, and made me ashamed for my gender. I think my disgust for the idiots setting the bomb in this book became diluted as events flowed on and went in another direction. Writing this has brought that disgust back to full strength. I want them in prison, and then hanged. Spoiler: this is not likely to happen. The idea that our main character's sister is one of the idiots setting said bomb – and that she's ever so sorry about the death but really it's all for a good cause and the reader will certainly understand and dear Dody will cover it all up and make every use of her influence on her detective … No.

The rest of the story that arises from the sister's involvement in the bombing and her installation in a women's "rest home", where nefarious doings are being done, feels like a whole different book.

Comma splices bug me to a possibly unreasonable degree. "Indeed, she had not chosen autopsy surgery, more like it had chosen her." Stop that. There's no earthly reason that couldn't be two sentences – or one, joined with a semi-colon or a dash. "The law was like a pendulum, sometimes she swung towards the truth and sometimes she swung in the opposite direction." STOP IT.

I was going to say that I didn't love or hate this book, and that I previously picked up one of the other books in the series in an Amazon cheapie deal and would consider getting the rest if they were put under my nose in the same way. This has, unfortunately, been one of those times when thinking about the book and stitching my notes and my thoughts on those notes into a review has made me reevaluate my rating. My irritation (and anger) with the characters (from fornication in very nearly the presence of one's daughter to blowing people up in order to get the vote), and my irritation with what I can only see as sloppy writing, have come to outweigh any liking I had for the book. I will probably, eventually, read the other book I unfortunately bought; I don't see myself buying any more.

There's one line I made a note of, and I'm still curious: "After blowing on her gloves to provide extra grip…" How does blowing on one's gloves help with grip?

 

The Georgian Menagerie - Christopher Plumb

The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London - Christopher Plumb
It must have been fun to live in a time when people believed in dragons. Elephants, you see "waded into pools of water when they wanted to give birth; a male would stand by the pool to guard the mother from their mortal enemy, the dragon." How marvelous.

Unfortunately, that seems like one of the only fun aspects of life in the Georgian period – especially for animals. In the "long eighteenth century", there was very little empathy or sentimentality expended on fellow human beings, much less animals (except where the sentimentality ran deeper than the Thames), and as is to be expected when reading about this period there were passages that will make your hair curl. Remember, this is the time period of John James Audubon, whose name has become synonymous with conservation, but whose paintings are all (I believe all) of birds he killed and posed.

But he was setting out his nets in the wilds of America. This book explores the impact of non-native animals introduced into Europe, and especially England – and particularly London. I wouldn't have thought there would be enough to fill a book – but I underestimated the potential. By combing through historical records of all sorts, including journals and letters, newspapers and wills and criminal files, Christopher Plumb has compiled a kind of mind-boggling array of creatures that made their way – living or dead – to and through London.

As pets, as exhibits, as subjects for study, as food, and as other commodities, exotic animals could be big business. They could also let their investors down in a big way; between the fragility of health of creatures being taken from the tropics to London and the cutthroat tactics involved in the trade, fortunes could vanish in what seemed like the blink of an elephant's eye. Some animals became fashionable – I felt a little silly at having to readjust my thinking about parrots and canaries, because obviously they are not native to England (canaries being named for their islands of origin), because they became so common. ("Dennis O'Kelly …died of gout in 1787. His obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine made more mention of his parrot than of his own life.") ("Wigton tried to prove the ownership of the bird by putting his hand in the cage and tickling the bird; the bird bit him and made a croaking sound just as Wigton said it would.")

The problem with this sort of history is that because the data being mined is scattered and fragmented and rather random, there is rarely a beginning and a middle and an end to the stories being told. Example: after a close-up encounter with, I believe, a leopard (somehow I failed to make a note of the animal), "the boy, 'in a gore of blood', was sent to Guy's Hospital for surgery." We are never told if he survived; the records might not have done so, if there ever were any.

Still, even as a collection of facts and anecdotes, this is fascinating. Gruesome in places (the fate of the elephant kept at the Exeter Exchange is horrifying) and repulsive in places (the whole section on bears. And civets. I mean – snuff? Snuff??), but always fascinating. (About the former, a quote: "the little elephant that had been coaxed up two flights of stairs and put in his den was now, some 16 years later, a big angry elephant". A full-grown elephant on the third floor of a city building. Yeah. You know that's not going to end well.)

The writing was erudite and served very well to stitch together the patchwork of the history, with the author's sense of humor cropping out in places. ("Its taste, God forbid, was described as 'subacrid' or 'bitterish'." Again, I stupidly didn't make a note on the highlight, but I have a horrible feeling that quote came from the civet section…) The only thing that stood out as less than enjoyable was the constant use of the phrase "the middling sort" in place of something like "the middle class".

I highly recommend this to writers of fiction set in the period. Where the historical record is a a bit scanty, there's endless room for the historical novelist to play.

 

This was received from Netgalley, free for an honest review. Thank you! 

Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs - Ken Jennings
I had fun with Brainiac. I had just gotten the call to go for this year’s Jeopardy! audition, and, being me, was in a fever of preparation. (As a few of us were waiting for things to begin, one or two people said “Gosh, I never studied or anything, did *you*??” Yes. Yes I did.)(No, it didn’t help.) So Brainiac seemed like a logical next step.

(Fair warning: I will probably not continue to properly use the exclamation point in “Jeopardy!”. It annoys me. If I get on and win I will use the “!” constantly, believe me, but till then I just don’t want to deal with the autocorrect.)

There’s more to this book than “I got famous appearing on Jeopardy”. It’s partly that; it’s partly memoir; it’s partly an informal history of trivia and trivia competition, and surprisingly filled with drama, humor, and pathos as such.

I do love reading other people’s paths to Jeopardy, because up to a certain point it’s identical to mine. No matter where it happens, whether Glenn or Maggie is in charge, it’s basically the same thing: a group of people ranging from mildly to wildly geeky together in a room with three Jeopardy professionals voluntarily taking a test that many would flee from. I like Ken Jennings. I like his story. I like his story-telling. Heck, if I wasn't utterly consumed with jealousy I might have given this five stars.

Kidding.

 

The hills are alive ...

The Sound of Murder (An Ivy Meadows Mystery Book 2) - Cindy Brown
There’s a line from Shakespeare that occasionally runs through my head at appropriate intervals: “I am amazed, and know not what to say.” (Midsummer, Act 3, scene 2) This book was one of those about which, six seconds after I hit “request”, I thought “Oh, that was a bad idea.” Despite some of the reviews I wind up writing, I really don’t choose books in order to bash them. I want to like books. I want to love books. And, after all – a mystery set around a production of a musical combining The Sound of Music with Cabaret? Come on. At the moment I hit that “request” button I was thinking “Oh, fun!” That too-late thought was “Wait… that can’t be good…”

It was good. It was so good. And it was so much fun.

I kept making comparisons to a non-Netgalley freebie I read last year. I disliked that book intensely. The funny thing is that The Sound of Murder shares a lot of superficial features with that book. Both are first-person narrated cozies. Both main characters work part time for relatives who are private investigators. Both are young and attractive and, while not stupid, not Mensa material, either.

But here’s the thing. I loathed that other main character. I loved Ivy Meadows, silly stage name and all. The former physically resembled Marilyn Monroe, and I should have done a search through the book to see how many times that was mentioned. The latter doesn’t believe she’s gorgeous (but has great legs and knows it). The former was a nurse playing detective; her actual career got no attention in the book at all, and she made a hash of her attempt at investigation. The latter wants to be a investigator, and is happily confident that she’s good at it – but she also wants to be an actress, and is confident in her talent there too. And she's aware of the conflict there. The former galumphed through her days complaining about how she was treated and – oh, everything. The latter danced. Literally.

She had flaws; she was aware of her flaws; she worked with her flaws. She treated everyone with respect – even the people she wanted to throttle. Where I wanted to stab the other heroine with a stiletto heel, I wanted Ivy to knock it out of the park.

I can almost hear someone out there saying “Okay, you liked it, but five stars? Really?” Yup. I could read this sort of thing all day, every day. The writing was completely enjoyable. The book was completely enjoyable. The mystery aspect was a fresh one, to me. Is it a serial killer, or is it a rash of suicides? I’ve never seen this demographic of victim, exactly, nor this sort of solution. It wasn’t filled with gritty realism, this book – but it was genuine. I bought into it whole-heartedly. All of the characters were nicely drawn. The settings were vivid; I’ve read so many cozies where the place the characters live and work is nothing more than a name. And the twinned milieus of P.I. office and dinner theatre were so nice. I do love a theatre backdrop. In short, it did everything I want a book to do, and a few more things, and then sang a few songs.

Speaking of which, that mash-up of Cabaret and the Sound of Music? Hilarious. With a side of really sweet. And you can sing the songs. Score. (I can’t help but mention here that I once wrote a mash-up Lord of the Rings and The Sound of Music. I know whereof I speak.)

And there was a dog. Nowadays it’s hard for me to read about dogs (or hear about people’s dogs. Or see dog food commercials). But I loved this dog.

“I never had a pet—too messy, my mom said. The depth of feeling people had for their dogs and cats had always baffled me. Sure, animals were cute and fuzzy, but c’mon, weren’t they just substitutes for real relationships? After half an hour of unconditional love from an animal who barely knew me, I now understood how real that connection could be. Lassie had sat with me and cuddled me and looked at me worriedly while I cried. The pug had wormed his curly little butt right into my heart.”

Been there. Done that. Miss it more than I can say.

The first book in the series features a production of a circus-themed Macbeth. I am amazed - but I do know what to say. I'm saying I want it.

This was a novel received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review - for which I give sincere thanks.

 

From the Queen

From the Queen - Carolyn Hart
Carolyn Hart has been on my List (of Favorite Authors) for … ever. I’ve been reading the adventures of Annie and Max and Death on Demand for, yes, ever. They are quick and easy reads. Guilty pleasures, in a way; almost a waste of reading time that could be spent on more substantial books. But enough fun to read that I’ve never much cared.

They’ve also been kind of useful, especially in those halcyon pre-Goodreads days, in building wishlists. Because the basic setting of the series is a mystery bookshop, author names and book titles are dropped like ticker tape after a moon landing.

They are rained down indiscriminately, though, grimdark thrillers cheek by jowl with mysteries every bit as cozy as this DoD series, classics alongside new releases, so as to-be-read lists go it takes some homework. In this 66-page story there are over a dozen books mentioned. It can be a little overwhelming.

It has been a long time since I visited the series, though; I can’t remember when my last DoD read was. Before I was keeping track on Goodreads, at least … wow. Good grief, the series has doubled in length since I picked one up. I’m gobsmacked.

So “From the Queen” on Netgalley (free in exchange for an honest review) was an easy request to make. A monetarily struggling fellow shop owner, Ellen Gallagher, comes to Annie one evening hoping for help with a book she has received as a bequest – a beautifully kept first edition copy of Agatha Christie’s Poirot Investigates, inscribed by the author to the Queen. Of England. Annie gently corrects her friend’s guess that it might be worth a few dollars: it’s going to be worth beaucoup de dollars.

“Just think, the Queen held that book in her hands.” And Agatha Christie, too.

Just sayin’.

And here’s where the story elevated itself a bit for me. It went from “basic and kind of fluffy cozy” to… well, that with a thin layer of social commentary, which I don’t think was all in my head. The difference this book, or rather the sale of this book, will make to Ellen is … everything. Now she has trouble paying her bills, does without, lies awake at night worrying, is always afraid that some unforeseen catastrophe will put her on the streets. You know how they say money doesn’t buy happiness? Pfft. 
 

“If it turns out to be so, I don’t have to be afraid any more. I don’t have to be afraid …”

 
Money brings security, which makes happiness more likely. Money allows one to do things for others, which brings happiness. Money means education is more easily obtained, and more and better health care can be paid for, and that one doesn’t ever need to lie awake at night worrying about what can and can’t be paid that month, or whether something absolutely must be paid at another creditor’s expense. Relief and alleviation of worry pretty much leads to happiness, I think. So the adage? Busted, as Adam Savage might say.

Anyway. The book is stolen, and I wound up yelling at the Kindle for the circumstances. It was improbable… but such is the way of cozies. Also improbable is the thinking of the thief. “She’ll never be able to prove I haven’t had a similar book for some time.” Similar … to a first edition of Poirot Investigates inscribed by Dame Agatha to Queen Elizabeth? Oh, sure. There’s bound to be more than one. But, you see, the suspension of disbelief required for this series is so high that little quibbles like these skate on by. After all, this is a series in which a woman makes a comfortable living running a small book shop (unlikely), specifically a mystery book shop (less likely), on a sparsely populated island that relies on seasonal tourism (so unlikely). So what’s a little more illogic?

“Petty crime was not much of a problem on a sea island accessible only by ferry. Crime happened, the occasional burglary in rural areas, stolen hubcaps and cell phones when the island teemed with vacationers in the summer, but burglaries on the boardwalk shops were rare.” Well, burglaries and petty crime may be rare; murders, though … Murders have led to a 25+ book series.“If it turns out to be so, I don’t have to be afraid any more. I don’t have to be afraid …” 

 

Save Kennedy, save the world

11/22/63 - Stephen King
A few years back, my image of Stephen King was entirely made up of killer clowns and rabid dogs and possessed cars (there’s a thought: Christine as a killer clown car…), the grandpappy of a genre I had absolutely no interest in. I’d read a whole two King novels, one of them because I was forced, and never felt the need to explore further.

Idiot.

I still haven’t read much of his (all those books full of treasure – what a wonderful thought!), but what I have read has made me into a still-astonished fangirl. I mean, I never would have believed that Stephen King could make me cry at work – not “Oh God there’s something under my desk I think it’s a clown” crying but genuinely moved tears. But there I was, surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I listened via Audible. More than once.

He does beautiful, surprising things with words.

“My honors kids were juniors… but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ‘Oo! Don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred!’”

“…Chased my headlights down Highway 77…”

“No wonder she looked like you could staple a string to the back of her dress and fly her like a kite.”

And:

It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock chiming beneath a mystery glass we call life. Behind it, below it, and around it: chaos. Storms. Men with hammers, men with knives. Men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss – surrounding a single lighted stage, where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

This is writing I want to wrap myself up in forever.

(I made a note of one exquisite line, and I still have to follow up on it: “Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.” And I commented that that should be on the King family arms. And then I started wanting very badly to design the King coat of arms. When I find my pencils…)

I feel a bit ashamed of the fact that I’m so surprised at the warm loveliness of some of this. “Of course it went splendidly, as cream pie fights always do.” My God, that whole chapter was a joy that left me a little giddy as a reader and a little awed as a writer.

I love “The Land of Ago”. I adore “Little by slowly”, and am incorporating it into my vocabulary.

And this made, makes me very happy:
“What might that be, Miss Caltrop?” I asked. “Because I’ve got ice cream in here and I’d like to get home before it melts.”
She gave me a chilly smile that could have kept my French vanilla firm for hours.

“That probably should have told me something, but I had too much on my mind. His story was not the least of it. That’s the curse of the reading class: we can be seduced by a good story, even at the least opportune moments.” He is of my people.

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel as well? Why does it have to bite?”

It’s beautiful – and it’s terrifying. There’s no killer clown here, no dog foaming at the mouth, no vampires. Instead there’s something called the Jimla, which in its mystery and in its explanation is deeply unsettling. And there’s a broom, which isn’t what you expect, but which is at least as awful. The writing can have a rather pure simplicity to it – and it just goes to show that you don’t need all that much to create terror if you do it right. “Something was moving around upstairs.” *shudder*

And it’s not just a masterful way with words: his plotting is equally beautiful. The long long buildup makes actually finally getting to 11/22/63 rather like the first day of summer vacation after a long, long school year. It’s not often that the main event of a book is so very far into a long book, and yet suspense is maintained throughout. “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives,” said Al Templeton, and it actually gave me chills. Because, come on: this is a cause worthy of Don Quixote. Whatever negatives can be brought against Kennedy, there’s such an aura of mythical unfulfilled promise about him that the whole premise of the book is irresistible, to Jake as well as the reader. Who knows? If Kennedy had lived, we might not have become tangled in Vietnam. We might have had a fuller, longer space program. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might not have been assassinated. Race relations might have improved faster, more thoroughly. Who knows? He was young, smart … promising. Who knows…

In the long, slow, gorgeous buildup of the book, Stephen King demonstrates that not only is he quite the expert on torturing his characters … he is also very good at torturing his readers. I don’t know when I’ve seen quite so much foreshadowing and “had I but known”: “Things between us might have progressed faster than they did, except for what happened during that halftime.” He uses this device a lot – but he’s so damned good at it, at making the outcome nothing you ever expected no matter how many hints he gave and how much you thought he was telegraphing, that what might elsewhere be an aggravation is, here, just another way of keeping up the suspense.

Al, who went first through time and taught Jake the little he has to work with, explained to him that time is obdurate. (That not-so-common word gets a workout in this book – it’s great.) The timeline as we know it fights any attempts to make changes. But, I thought, maybe all of the delays were to put Al just where he needed to be, not to try to stop him. I sigh for my innocence…

One thing I do wonder a bit is why Jake’s full concentration was on getting rid of Lee Harvey Oswald, the wretched waif, via the one method. He never seems to have considered other possibilities, which might have been a bit simpler and perhaps more foolproof. He also never seems to consider that if he had taken out Oswald earlier it would have prevented the second daughter’s conception. See “butterflies’ wings”, below.

One fun thing about listening to this while at work was that with the computer right in front of me the whole time I could jump online and look things up right away. (During one such search I came upon a website purporting to show John Connally shooting Kennedy from the middle seat. I … no.) And looking into a certain boxing match, I found this quote: ”Tiger was not the kind of guy to get zonked by an opponent who was way past his prime. Certainly not in 1963.”. And I can only say … that’s kind of the point.

And of course being online anyway meant that whenever the characters were listening to it I could queue up “In the Mood” too. I started it up while listening to George and Sadie’s first dance – and it was one of the best listening experiences I’ve ever had. There are times, like being forced to listen to some of the rancid expulsions from the work radio station, that I would give up environmental advances, women’s lib, and medical achievements for this alone: In the Mood

The flapping of butterflies’ wings, that time-honored trope of time travel fiction, is here in full force. Jake avers that he does his best to avoid any extra flapping – but, in what may be the only real flaw I can think of, what Jake doesn’t seem to think of immediately is that his taking this apartment and that, this job and that, even this car and that, kept others from taking them. That’s a pretty significant flap. This doesn’t do to dwell on… In fact, this is the tale of an intelligent man – book smart, street stupid – who goes back in time with next to no preparation and doesn’t do too badly – until he really, really does. At one point I became so irritated with Jake’s ineptitude and what happened to him because of it that images of a scathing review and greyed-out stars in the rating area danced in my mind – and then it hit me. Of course he’s inept. Exactly how ept would anyone, any English teacher from 2011, from Maine or anywhere else, with exactly no time to prepare and no history of any of the kind of behavior George Amberson is forced into – how “ept” could anyone like that be in an alien time and – eventually – place? Of course Jake is inept. That’s kind of the point.

I’m so glad I opted for the Audible edition of this. The narrator, Craig Wasson, often sounds like Jimmy Stewart, which somehow was utterly perfect. Also, there are a lot of creepy things in the world, and one of them is a voice like Jimmy Stewart’s voicing Stephen Kingisms. The janitor’s father – Dunning – sounds like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (I’m sure I’m missing a connection there.) And there were some pretty darn good Kennedy and Cronkite impersonations, as needed. Also? Chaz is awesome, cuz.

I seem to say this a lot lately, but – I learned a bit from 11/22/63. (For one thing, the mental lapse I’ve always suffered in trying to remember that date is now conquered, with the added bonus that I will always now know the birthday of the cousin who was born the day Kennedy was shot.) I didn’t expect the anti-Kennedy faction to be also anti-racist (in a paternalistic, no-really-segregation-is-better-for-everyone sort of way). I didn’t anticipate the inevitability of the fact that there were over 200 death threats against Kennedy on that Texas trip – a very relevant fact. I trust King’s portraits of the historical figures – and his sympathetic portrait of Marina takes away some of my usual unease at real people appearing as characters in novels (especially those still living, or with direct relatives still living). I couldn’t possibly have cared less how King portrayed the “waif” – and the almost reluctant (and very limited) sympathy which he also received, and which King forced me to also feel, caught me off guard.

In the end, the main thing I take away from this sprawling saga of time travel and love and fear is a deep affection for King’s characters. Harry Dunning. Al Templeton. Sadie Dunhill. George Amberson/Jake Epping. "Deke" Simmons, Ellen Dockerty, the kids. Even the Oswalds. I won’t forget them in a hurry. Ever. I’m probably going to apologize to Stephen King in every review I write of his books, because I was an ignorant twit when I dismissed his writing for all those years. Mea culpa.

Final comment: There’s a film adaptation coming! A series on Hulu – and filming started on June 9, 2015. Dang. Guess I’ll need to subscribe to Hulu.

 

The Crime of Julian Wells - abandoned

The Crime of Julian Wells - Thomas H. Cook
Well, that was pretentious.

Extended version: I didn’t get too far into this. Extremely early on comes this line, and I noted it wondering if it might be a pre-emptive strike: “I, the stay-at-home literary critic, whose primary gift was in dissecting novels that, no matter how awful, were certainly beyond my own creative powers.” Well, pttthhpf to you too.

I couldn’t get comfortable with the writing, or even reach an agreement where I acceded to be uncomfortable. It was more like a stylized play than dialogue between two people who are – I assume? - supposed to be realistic: “Not enough to have saved him, evidently,” I answered. “Which means I’ll always be silent in that boat.” She looked up at me. “I guess we all leave a trail of little pebbles scattered on the forest floor,” she said. “But I’ll always wonder where those pebbles would have led to with Julian.”

In fact, all through the short few pages I tried, I argued with the book via Kindle.

Narrator: “But why was I recounting Julian’s personal history? I wondered. What good would it do now?”
Well, duh, you’re informing the reader.

“He had always been impatient with my bookish talk”
That will happen when your every sentence carries an allusion.

“Julian had come across the case of Antonis Daglis, the otherwise nondescript truck driver who had murdered several prostitutes. For Julian, such ordinary murderers were of no interest. Tracing their crimes, he said one day while we drank ouzo in an Athens taverna, was like following a shark through murky waters, dully recording that it ate this fish, then that one. It was evil he was after…”
Killing prostitutes wasn't evil enough?

It was all highly self-conscious, presenting the story self-depracatingly and defensively and rather arrogantly all at once. I don’t know if that was the voice of the protagonist or of the author – but either way it got old very quickly.

 

Searchlights and Shadows - Classic Hollywood on the homefront

Searchlights and Shadows (Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels) (Volume 4) - Martin Turnbull
"This audiobook was provided by the narrator at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com."

Isn’t it interesting how, despite (despite?) the Hays Code, racism, McCarthyism, homophobia and faux marriages, and a studio system which can harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres… still, Classic Hollywood was far and away, miles and miles, and many times better than contemporary Hollywood. I love the actors of this era and the films they starred in, so – especially taking in the WWII Homefront aspect – this book had a lot going for it.

I learned a great deal - Ogden Nash worked on The Wizard of Oz? Bette Davis declared complete integration for the Hollywood Canteen (actually, I learned everything I know about the Hollywood Canteen from this book, and loved it). Orson Welles in this period was dating a semi-literate stripper. I learned that Errol Flynn was tried for statutory rape (I’m still surprised I’d never heard of that), and everything about Alla Nazimova.

On the other hand, Bette Davis also had conversations with the fictional main characters, Errol Flynn had an affair with one of the fictional main characters, and Alla Nazimova was like a mother to the fictional main characters. Aaannd yes, here’s the complaint I often come out with about books like this: Well, here. Here’s the thing. My family has a tradition of mock-claiming celebrities with our name – Cousin Rod, Aunt Martha, Uncle Jimmy, etc. James Stewart barely rated a mention in this (wrong studio)(no – he was MGM. How odd), but if my name was, say, Novarro, or Welles, or Mayer, or Flynn… I would be a good deal less tolerant of this book. I have to admit the backstage-Hollywood perspective was fun… I also have to admit I was a little squeamish about it. I might have preferred that all the characters were like the inserted fictional actors that starred in the fictional "William Tell”… I know, I’ll stop now.

The writing was alternately fun and exasperating. I loved the line “That bitch will take a powder so goddam fast you’ll be tasting Max Factor clear through to next week.” It still makes me smile as I write this. There was a metaphor involving a bank robber that was kind of awesome. There was very heavy use of simile and metaphor – and not all of it was this successful. There were a number of misplaced modifiers and suchlike, and sentences like “I suppose she won’t be the first staff member we’ll lose” which … I don’t think that means what you meant it to mean.

My response to: “It’s taking all of my will power not to lean over and kiss the cotton-pickin’ dickens out of you” – was “take me, I’m yours”. / sarcasm.

The celebrity characters, as I mentioned, made me a bit uneasy. I was never sure where the line was between “this happened” and “made up by the author” (and then of course when you factor in “this was a fiction created by the studio” it just gets a little hairy). The main characters were strong; I understand how those who started with the first book could feel that these folks were good friends. I’m not sure I adored them enough to go back and start from the beginning, though. For one thing – not a definitive thing, not a deal-breaking thing, just a thing I didn’t like – I kept raising my eyebrows as Gwendoline wandered the world taking notes, not admiring the clothing she comes across and planning to use it as inspiration so much as … planning on ripping it off. Moral ambiguities I can work with; I didn’t much care who the characters slept with, or who had what black market dealings. But this was disturbing.

The narration was equally alternately fun and exasperating. Characters were given distinctive voices that kept them identifiable – and, I’m happy to say, the stars were not read with an eye (ear) toward impersonation. For those with distinctive mannerisms, Mr. Axt hinted rather than going full-on Rich Little, and it worked beautifully. However, there were some pronunciation issues that did not work. “Brassiere” was pronounced “brasserie”; director George Cukor’s name is consistently mispronounced “cookur” (see: www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/..... it’s “Bowdlerizers” and not “Bowlderizers”; and, dammit, the word is NOT pronounced mischievIous. (I sincerely hope the word “epitome” was intentionally mispronounced, down to the ignorance of the character using the word and not the narrator.)

So: fun, but I don't expect to continue with the series.

One last eyebrow-raiser, proving perhaps that either monks led a very different lifestyle in 40’s Hollywood, or the author’s control of language might not be exactly what he thought it was: “For the longest time, Marcus doubted he was any good at this 'boyfriend' business, and had almost resigned himself to a monk-like life with the occasional encounter.”