Alchemy of Desire … could’ve been so good

This was a preview copy from Netgalley, thank you. (This is actually quite an old review that never got here, somehow.)

10438535I have a habit (bad? Maybe) of requesting advanced readers’ copies of books or such, downloading them in ebook format, and then forgetting everything their blurbs said about them. So it wasn’t until I opened the epub of The Alchemy of Desire that I realized that it was from Carina Press, which I afterward discovered is a sort of PNR subdivision of … Harlequin. Oh dear. I mean, yes, the title should be a dead giveaway that it’s a romance, but somehow it wasn’t (the man on the cover is fully clothed!) (I quite like the cover, actually), and I braced myself.

And the beginning was good. So good. It was an alternate-19th century urban fantasy set in New Orleans post-Civil War. And this was not Ken Burns’s Civil War; the main issue of the war seems to have been neither slavery nor states’ rights but a fight between those who can wield magic (Wielders) “the Confederacy“ and those who can’t and use steampunk machinery instead (Machinists): the Union. (The Machinists’ Union? Really? What local?) I loved the beginning. There was a lot of good stuff there, despite some typos I hope were corrected for a paper edition.

Then the story left New Orleans.


There was so much scope in that setup – it was deep and rife with possibility. I didn’t expect that. Finding it unexpectedly makes it even more of a shame that the possibilities were unexplored.

The two brothers at the heart of the story, Diah and Cager, are forced into going off to hunt the White Buffalo, and for this they need a guide. And the only guide willing to have them is Oni, a half-Lakota woman who is a bundle of secrets and Issues. She’s not taken terribly seriously, at least by the elder and more obnoxious of the two brothers, Cager, because she’s a woman and because she’s a half-breed. She’s an illegal, unlicensed Wielder (like Cager; Diah is an Alchemist – hence the title). She’s a shapeshifter. And she has no intention of taking them to kill the White Buffalo, because the White Buffalo is sacred to her tribe. Oh, and she killed a guy who tried to rape her, and begins almost at once to fall in love with the younger brother, Diah after an initial reaction which seems paranormal but is never explained.

(The brothers’ names are actually nicknames for Jebediah and Micajuh or some such, which is a stretch. I was pronouncing “Diah” as “dee-ah” in my head, because otherwise it’s somewhere between “die” and, I’m sorry, “diarrhea”, but if it’s short for Jebediah it probably is “die”. And “Cager” is just … odd.)

From the moment the trio of the two brothers and their Sacajawea set foot on a boat to begin their journey after the White Buffalo, the Harlequin roots begin to show. There is a great deal of teasing and frustration and timely – or untimely – interruptions, and bulges and pools of wetness. Unfortunately, the latter two items are verbatim; I began to wish for Oni’s sake that Depends had been invented in the 1860’s sometime.

There were parts of this that were a lot of fun. As I said, the setting and storyline of the beginning was dandy. The setting up of Alchemists/Machinists and Wielders is something I wanted more about. (Pity – it seems to be a standalone.) Once the focus moved west and to the R of PNR, it quickly became less interesting to me. I shouldn’t complain, because it does after all say on the tin that it is what it is, and what it is isn’t bad. But if this had been a steampunk Western with an integral romance instead of a Western romance with elements of steampunk it could have been something really special.


Posted by on July 16, 2014 in books


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Austenland – Shannon Hale

9462728I might have given this another star if I had rated it sooner, after finishing it but before a night’s sleep. It was cute (charming, even), and nicely written (except for a few typos, like “snuggly” for “snugly”). I liked Jane and her list of “boyfriends”, some of whom weren’t, and her bemused adventures in Austenland. I liked the characters in general. I liked the concept of a sort of an exclusive Jane Austen theme park, I liked the flow of the book.

Austenland has a lot of the advantages of a time travel novel without such drawbacks as (for the characters) a lack of modern conveniences or (for the writer) such a wide array of anachronistic pitfalls. The reader can enjoy an Austen-esque novel without having to suppress a modern POV. The characters can enjoy (or not) the atmosphere of an immersive Regency environment, while still being able to take hot showers and sleep on modern mattresses. And anything that crops up which does not belong in a Regency setting is actually kind of a good thing; the characters, even the actors, aren’t necessarily going to be 100% flawless, and some anachronisms are built into the place. (For example, paint in tubes (not “pain in tubes”, as I keep typing, which is a whole other kettle of fish) was not invented until 1841, over thirty years after the setting for Austenland – but am I complaining? Nope.) So, well done.

But a deeper realization of the concept is disturbing. Austenland is a place where women (exclusively women?) spend a great deal of money to wear a corset and an Empire waist and pretend with all their might they are strolling through a Jane Austen novel. But by the end it becomes clear that the majority of women who come into the experience are married, looking for … something. And that something may include soulful gazes and genteel flirting, or it might include a non-Regency level of necking, and indeed seems to be supposed to include a proposal of marriage.

248483“We do not run a brothel here, miss,” says the proprietor of Austenland near the end of the book, and no, technically, I guess not … But someone’s comment about “a locked hotel room with [one of the Austenland actors] spread out on the bed” comes shortly after, so given everything, I am tempted to disagree. Does Austenland dress actors in tight breeches and hire them out for sex? Not as such. But it does dress actors in tight breeches and hire them out to pretend deep devotion and affection, and that’s just sad.

That lack of diversion annoyed me, a little. How is it that the patrons haven’t complained about that, and indeed how is it that that hasn’t been planned for? 21st century people need more stimulation than those living in the actual early 19th century; why aren’t the actors playing the hosts trained to keep the evenings a little more lively? Even an occasional game of charades might have been helpful. Drawing should have been encouraged among the guests, not something that Jane had to have help to get back into. If I planned to try opening (or writing about) a Jane Austen Experience I would do my damnedest to be a little more creative in the recreational activities available to clientele – boredom is deadly. (Perhaps literally, judging from the description for book 2.) Boredom is something a good hostess would not allow. Also, boredom could lead to … unauthorized activities.

Another ball might have been helpful.

And I can’t help finding it odd, very odd, that while most things down to clients’ underwear is strictly a la mode for the time period, there is a combination of oil lamps and electricity in the house. Why both in the same room? Why not either make life easier on everyone and go all flame-like light bulbs, or go all-in for authenticity and make them light candles and lamps (and make the servants clean and fill the latter)? Why allow showers, but not something as subtle as air conditioning? Granted, it’s England, which is rarely as hot in summer as more southerly climes, but if the clientele is generally rich and spoiled they are going to be as used to air conditioning – and heat in the winter; is that out too, or is Austenland strictly summery? – as they are to breathing oxygen; I was very surprised there wasn’t at least air conditioning in guests’ rooms, or in the ballroom for the final ball. I get allowing makeup – these women are out for flirtation (at least), so they are not going to be seen without their cosmetics. So why not allow modern undies instead of bloomers?

I think my rating slid downward a bit because, overnight, the froth and giddiness of the (really very sweet) ending wore off, and the patheticness at the heart of the program. Austenland isn’t something like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, intended as pure entertainment for fans of the books – – and that’s kind of what I was hoping it was. I’d love to see that, in reality or fiction. No, though, it seems it’s not really designed to entertain, given from the amount of sheer boredom everyone experiences in the Regency-authentic evenings. It’s designed to make rich women feel loved by a handsome man from another age for a few weeks. That’s horrifying. It’s degrading to the women, even if they’re doing it to themselves (and why on earth would Jane’s great-aunt think this was such a great idea?). More, of course, it’s degrading to those men in tight breeches … “Back to work.” In slightly other circumstances, they’d be called gigolos, no? Ew.

Really, the whole concept doesn’t do Jane Austen any favors, either. So, yeah. Four stars because it was a fun read on the surface; downgraded to three because thinking too much about the whole thing makes me a little queasy.


Posted by on July 15, 2014 in books, Chick lit


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Anatomy of Ghosts – Andrew Taylor

8947952This is the tale of a chain of events, a sort of horrible Rube Goldberg device in which the drowning death of the young son of bookbinder John Holdsworth leads directly to the dissolution of Holdsworth’s business and loss of his home and suicide (or at least death) of his wife. His wife’s depression and mania for trying to contact the spirit world – and of course the spirit of her son – leads directly to Holdsworth’s somewhat obsessive, somewhat vindictive authorship of “The Anatomy of Ghosts”, uncompromisingly refuting the existence of spirits and the legitimacy of the mediums who take advantage of the bereaved by claiming to contact their dead. The publication of the book leads directly to a visit to Holdsworth’s shabby rooms by a mysterious man with a mysterious commission – and that is, in a way, where the story begins again. The commission is from Lady Anne Oldershaw, whose son has evidently been driven mad by the sight of a spirit on the grounds of Cambridge, and Holdsworth is bidden to come and bust, or hunt, the ghost. He doesn’t have many options, and so to Cambridge he goes.

I’m not sure what it is about this book that didn’t sit well with me. It’s well-written, and I didn’t make note of anything specific about the plot or characters or setting, or writing in general, which put my teeth on edge; the closest I can come to explaining is that it was like driving a car with a small clog in some hose somewhere, or one tire slightly off balance – just a bit off. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, but (except where it was supposed to) it never amounted to outright dislike. The story is set in 1786, and Taylor seems to have a good feel for the period. He creates a properly creepy setting for the rituals the proto-frat house holds; he does a nice job of drawing some properly sinister characters and some well-rounded weak characters (that looks odd: weak in nature, not in depiction), and some characters who can’t quite be trusted, however prominent they are in the narration. But even though it all does follow, event after circumstance after happening, there is just something askew about the storytelling I can’t put my finger on, especially at a bit of a remove.

Bad? No. Something I’ll reread, or which will send me off after other books by Andrew Taylor? No.


Posted by on July 13, 2014 in books, historical fiction, mystery


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This looks familiar, strangely familiar…

6629551This felt so very much like … well, several books I’ve read before, but especially Silent in the Grave: Both were in the first person. In both, a Victorian lady is widowed, doesn’t mind very much, finds out much later poor old hubby, Philip, Viscount Ashton, was murdered, and conducts investigation alongside husband’s friend (with whom there are sparks) while stressing constantly about what to wear and when can I get out of mourning for heaven’s sake it’s not like I loved him. In both, I wound up with a deep impatience for, if not outright dislike of, the heroine.

Emily’s first reaction to news of her husband’s death is relief. He wasn’t a bad fellow, but she only married him to get away from her mother’s constant nagging, and hey – a couple of years wearing ugly mourning colours, and now she’s free and clear and can do what she wants. Yay. Unfortunately, as time goes by, Emily succumbs to her husband’s friends’ opinions of him, and begins to fall morbidly in love with his memory, the ideal image of the man she never bothered to get to know. He genuinely loved her; that’s enough to start her falling. Too late.

In her fervor of self-flagellation for being unable to face Philip’s friends and family, she begins to throw herself into his passions. Well, two of them; she still can’t abide his beloved hunting (which would have been quite a can of worms if he had lived), but she plunges into the study of ancient Greek and the appreciation of ancient Greek art. In about five minutes she begins to uncover what must be a forgery ring, and, fearing her husband might have been involved, investigates.

18903941She is shaken, trying very hard to reconcile this criminal activity with her green worship of him. Then the book catches up to my prediction (based on the classic soap opera warning “did you see the body?”) and she is told Ashton might still be alive, despite his best friend’s insistence that he was there and watched the man die. She is thrilled, determined to move heaven and earth to find him and nurse him lovingly back to health. A little ways into that process, I had an intuition that he couldn’t be alive after all – and I was right. I’ve said it before: if I can predict how your book is going to turn out, you’ve done something wrong. And so he is revealed to yes, be dead, and in fact, have been murdered, and she basically shrugs her shoulders and swans off to revel some more in her romantic ideal of the widow who, see? Really did love her husband after all (if too late).

Excerpts from Ashton’s journal never really pull their own weight; they are mostly inconsequential, unrelated to the chapters they proceed, and never echo what Emily thinks about them. Though I suppose I should be happy the author spared me the long and boring passages about hunting, still, on the flip side there was remarkably little about the wedding night. Which isn’t said out of prurience, but just because Emily was sort of looking forward to what he wrote.

And the ending … the wrapup of the story was satisfying enough, but once everything was explained away there were still far too many pages left. And it just kept going. All through the book Ashton’s friend (whatsit) had been encouraging Emily to go to Greece, to the villa in Santorini Ashton had prepared for her. I had rather expected that to be the next book – it would be perfect, I thought, to build it up, maybe have her planning the trip as this book ended, and then set the second book in the series on the island.


820943The book was quite readable, which is why I did read it through. But it was disjointed. As a friend pointed out in her review, there was a great deal attempted, and not really succeeded at. And one major thing keeping this book from a higher rating was the completely incomprehensible handling of the forger. He is stunningly gifted, and has no problem selling copies of ancient work: he makes no pretense that they are the real thing, after all, and what his buyer does with the work once it’s his isn’t the artist’s problem. Which … is a nice way to look at it, if you can manage it, but isn’t very realistic. Up to that point it reminded me very strongly of the case of the artist Alceo Dossena and his buyer, his dealer, Alfredo Fasoli. Dossena claimed ignorance of the ultimate dispositions of his work, too, but he wasn’t quite so cheerful about the fact that while he got a pittance for the art his dealer would sell it on, as original, for thousands. He sued. This guy? He has absolutely no problem with the fact that his name is still unknown, that the scores of hours of work and talent invested in every piece is being attributed to others, and – least likely – has no problem with living on the edge of poverty while his dealer is raking it in. Worst, though, is the fact that this one forger handles several different media, no problem. Sculpture? Got it. Black figure urn? No problem. And so on. I went to art school; I’ve always been interested in art forgery and I’ve read a bit about it. I know full well that artists are more than capable of great things in more than one medium – but the likelihood that a man would be so very, very good at pottery AND sculpture as to have his work pass for the best of the best among the ancients, including Praxiteles, is incredibly small. For him to be so gifted and still not be able to make a living for himself without being completely unscrupulous… maybe it’s not unrealistic, but it seemed so.

Suddenly, about three quarters of the way through the book, Emily develops a very lawyerly turn of mind, knowing instinctively finer points of what is and is not strictly legal and what will and will not convict a man. The reformation of a female main character from fluffy-headed clotheshorse at the beginning to strong and capable independent woman by the end is no new thing in fiction, but (or maybe “and so”) it has to be handled well to be really believable. I’m not so sure about Emily.


Posted by on July 12, 2014 in books, mystery


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A Discovery of Witches

Odd – I read this quite a while (tried to), but I apparently didn’t post the review here. So here we go.

I don’t know. I just don’t know. This is one of those books where a connecf099b0417f9626702a412da206a3164ftion with the writing seems to be thisclose … but not quite made. The buildup has been excruciating; I would much have preferred even just a little more forward motion in the plot to what I have instead: an awareness of how much spandex the main character owns and the tale of every time she’s gone rowing.

I get it. I do. Diana Bishop is from a very old family of witches in a world where there are, including witches, three types of “creatures”, the other two being vampires and daemons. Witches are pretty much what you think and are born so, and vampires are pretty much what you think (except, no fangs? Then how…?) and are made, and daemons … are weird brilliant creatures which pop up unexpectedly in otherwise completely human families, start showing signs of what they are in puberty (of course), and, if they’re lucky, find out what they are before they self-destruct. Okay.

Diana, however, is different. This is not just because her parents were both very powerful witches (the term being unisex), or because she’s a Bishop, a family associated with witchcraft since Salem. She’s different because she blames magic for the deaths of her parents when she was very young, and as a result has determined never to use her own considerable power. Never mind that it’s not something that can be punished (“My parents died because of you! Bad magic! Bad! I’ll teach you!”) or that can really be contained (she finds herself making just-this-once exceptions, or simply using it unintentionally several times a year – she keeps obsessive count). Never mind that having spurned training she has basically turned herself into a loose cannon and a danger to herself and others (powerful but untrained? Never good). Never mind that every. Single. Non. Human. Around. tries to tell her what she’s trying to do is a Very Bad Idea, and no matter how much she protests she’s not using her power (much) they won’t leave her alone. She won’t use magic, and that’s that, darn it. Well, just this time, but never again! Well… no, really, that last time was it!

Frankly, she’s driving me up a wall.

I’m all for occasional irrational behavior in fictional characters. It helps them feel more real, and which makes them interesting. Makes them human. (Ironically.) However, if the character in question is a main character (and in fact the person with whom the reader is sharing headspace), and the irrational behavior is so irrational as to actually be just stupid, it may still be realistic but it stops being interesting and becomes frustrating.

And see, it’s the whole “humans vs. creatures” thing I’m not entertained by. I know; in Harry Potter it was all wizards and poor blind helpless powerless muggles, but somehow reading Rowling made the reader feel like part of the wizarding world. I doubt there are too many Potterites who haven’t, even if just in the back of their minds, pondered which House they belonged in (Ravenclaw; maybe Hufflepuff) (ETA: Pottermore sorted me into Hufflepuff. Go Badgers!) or what their patronus would look like (a beagle, or maybe a horse). You’re not a muggle while you’re reading Harry Potter. Here, though, I feel very ordinarily human, and it’s not a good feeling. We’re so dull, and pointless, and stupid. (Silly? Sure it is. But however silly it may be, it isn’t fun.)

It’s not fair to this book that so many books written (mostly, I think) later but encountered sooner feature vampires who must learn to control their appetites around the squishy and vulnerable and delicious women they come to care about as something other than dinner – but the fact remains that there is Matthew, every sense at attention as Diana realizes she has a tiny bleeding cut. How strangely familiar.

I made it to 43%, and … honestly, as Diana learns that she’s not just powerful but just about all-powerful and continues to use abilities she didn’t even know she had with no harm to herself or others … I have too much else I’d rather be reading. Maybe someday I’ll come back to this. Probably not, though.


Posted by on June 29, 2014 in books, fantasy


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Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

So let’s see. I need to post a review about something I liked. *scans list of recent reads* Nope… nope… no, not that either… Ah.


There are some writers who feel they need to inject a little geekery into their books, trying to claim geek cred they haven’t really earned; I’ve seen more sadly misused references to LotR and Star Trek and so on than I care to think about, the sorts of things that would make someone as unfamiliar with the referent as the writer nod knowingly, but which make a geek like me long to send the writer brownies dusted with iocaine powder.

But Ben Aaronovitch is the legitimate and true owner of a TARDIS-load of honest-to-Eru geek cred, so when Peter Grant remarks to Toby the dog that “We’re living in Isengard”, or remarks on something’s similarity to modern Gallifreyan (“They looked disturbingly like the payload zones of a demon trap and even more disturbingly like modern Gallifreyan”), it’s just a happy happy thing of beauty.

Broken Homes is another excellent installment in an excellent series. The hunt continues for the so-wonderfully-named Little Alligators; another “Falcon-related” death comes the way of the little strange-crimes unit housed in The Folly; life goes on much as usual. Until Peter and Leslie are called upon to go undercover in an apartment complex called Skygarden, long known to be a locus of probable criminal activity, and now revealed as a possible locus of magical activity.

There is, perhaps, a bit more than is actually fun of Aaronovitch/Peter’s 1234favorite hobby horse, architecture – but it is relevant. And it is acknowledged that other characters’ eyes pretty much glaze over when Peter rabbits on about it, so that’s okay then.

I confessed in a Goodreads update that Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice reduces me to a state of squeeing fangirl; it’s an understatement, I admit.

Though what Peter/Aaronovitch has against Dire Straits – and Queen – I don’t know. I will overlook it because Peter is otherwise kind of awesome and he is very young. And a music snob. I blame his father.

As seems to be usual, the plotline is the weak area of the book. Characterization, setting, world-building, all of that stuff is terrific, but in Broken Homes the plot has the same flaw as one or two of the other books in the series: it meanders a little. It just feels like the plot could use a bit of tightening.

But, as usual, I had enough fun with the rest (especially KH-S, of course) that I don’t care.

What I do care about is the meaning of the title. I wondered about it now and then. I mean, “The Rivers of London” is pretty obvious, and the rest make good sense as well … so, I wondered briefly here and there, what homes are broken here? Well, I found out, I did. And it made me say “No, oh no no no…” out loud. It’s bad. Not to spoil anything, but it’s really bad.

*ahem*sniffle* Anyway.

This installment moves the story forward substantially – things are happening in the hunt for the Faceless Man and the Little Crocodiles, and I think Peter might say “shit’s getting serious”. (Sorry.) It’s going to be a long, long wait until the next book.


Posted by on June 28, 2014 in books, fantasy


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A Beautiful Blue Death – Charles Finch

I never reviewed this? But reviews of the books I dislike always go faster! Well, here it is.

Alas, suckered in yet again by a beautiful cover and really good title. The title, however, is pedantically explained away very quickly in the book – and that is pretty much how the rest of the writing runs as well. Repetition and a strong case of the “Captain Obvious is obvious” make up the dominant style here: the first chapter is spent largely on explaining how Our Hero Lenox has just come home and it’s cold and he doesn’t want to go out again. He wants to stay by his fire with a book. He would rather not go out in the cold again. “I say, Graham, it’s cold out.” [Graham, the butler does not say:] “Yes, you bleeding twit, you’ve said that four times already.” And Lenox does go out, and – lo, and behold: it’s cold.

And so on.

One character, McConnell, whom Lenox brings in for medical advice, is a drunken failure. And oh, he’s a doctor. And he drinks. And he is despised by many as a failure. Because he drinks.

And so on.

There is a summary description of the downward spiral of the man’s marriage, with no more emotion than the description of Lenox’s study, and no insight or empathy: simply a list of events.

There is no artistry to the writing. Which in and of itself can be fine – I don’t expect (or want) every line to drip with poetry. But some flair, something to distinguish the style from a generic children’s book or textbook might be nice – something to indicate that the author actually has a reason to want to be an author rather than an actuary or arborist. Instead, much of it consists of a section of dialogue, brought to a complete standstill by a paragraph or two describing a room minutely, or talking about the history of the police force: very much see-Spot-run.

There is one sentence that stood out for me as a great example of why I just didn’t enjoy this book: “You could have knocked Lenox over with a feather.” The narration constantly brings me into it – “you” this and “you” that, and it started feeling like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. And such a cliché… Personally, I’d work very hard to avoid such a vapid chestnut. Finch does not.

There were small – and not-so-small – errors scattered throughout. Example: the description of a place with awnings up in midwinter. A snowy midwinter. That’s not a good idea; they wouldn’t stay up for long. Example: Lenox is attacked by two men. One of them has a very prominent tattoo – a hammer alongside his left eye. Earlier in the book, someone made mention of a gang of roughs called the Hammer. Hmmmm. And yet – Lenox never mentions the (extremely prominent) tattoo when he talks about the attack, and he wonders and he ponders on whoever could have done it. Small examples: “McConnell! Lenox! A toast!” – but there isn’t one. And “I’ll use the old call” – a signal he and his brother used as children – which consists of yelling his brother’s name. These boys and their cryptic private codes …

There are two threads running, quite annoyingly, through the whole blessed book: Lenox has bad boots which leave his feet cold and wet, and every meal or snack or beverage he partakes of is detailed. (Not even lovingly detailed – just … detailed.) It goes back to the feeling that this is a children’s book: “and then Charles had four pieces of toast!” (not an actual quote). And for the love of Bob, man, you’re rich and you live in London – you have no excuse – stop your whingeing and go get a decent pair of bloody boots.

ETA: Speaking of food, one sentence I marked was: “They ate very simple food – cold sliced tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and milk” – ew ew ew ew ew.

It seems to take forever to get through the solution of the mystery, and then it finally ends. But there is still a good-sized chunk of the book left. And then comes another ending. And another. The piecemeal wrap-up and coda are painful.

I find it a bit of a stretch to believe that this drunken failure of what used to be a good doctor (remember him?) could take a five-minute look at the corpse and pronounce it death by bella indigo, repeatedly stressed to be a rare and expensive poison. It might be easier to swallow thinking of it by its more common name, deadly nightshade – but why on earth did I have to look that up? Why didn’t the revelation go something like: “Ah! I believe it was bella indigo.” Lenox looked blank [as I imagine he often did], and McConnell clarified, “Usually known as deadly nightshade.” “Oh – well, that I’ve heard of.” And why such an emphasis on the cost of it? Forty pounds a dose or whatever, fine – but I daresay it could also be found growing in assorted fields and hedgerows, and wouldn’t take overmuch technique to render into a usable poison. Or maybe it would. I have no idea – and, after reading this book, I kind of think I should.

However, maybe the doctor intuits the real poison used because, though a drunk, he’s just that awesome. Quote: “My own opinion is that one day even a single speck of something will tell us everything about it”. Really. Gosh. How perspicacious of you.

There are several things that just don’t feel right for the time period this is set in. They may be just fine; they may be down to Lenox’s odd character (or Finch’s attempt to be unique); it all just felt very off. Example: Lenox, a gentleman, straggles down to breakfast – and other meals – in his robe and slippers. Example: Lady Jane promises Lenox the first dance at some shindig, and then partners someone else. I don’t care if that someone else is the host, I thought that was the height of bad manners. Example: People drink a great deal of water in the book, which may be just fine, but maybe I was thinking of medieval London, when to drink water was to court some brand of dysentery. I just found it very, very odd that, for example, waiters were circulating about a ballroom with trays of glasses of water. If nothing else I would expect something like that to prompt scandalized and shocked whispers about the host’s parsimony and lack of hospitality.

And one more: Lenox belongs to multiple clubs. I went back and collected them: The Athanaeum Club, the Savile, the Devonshire, the Eton and Hammer, the Oriental, the Marlborough, the Oxford and Cambridge, and the Travelers. Seriously, eight clubs? Maybe it’s possible – each of these is apparently slanted toward a different interest – but in my limited experience with fiction of the period I’ve never seen a character who belonged to more than one. That was kind of the point of a club, I thought – to belong, for there to be a sort of pied-à-terre or comfortable place away from home. Eight boltholes seems a bit excessive, especially for a man who loves his home and seems a bit of a homebody.

Next door to Lenox lives his best friend, called Lady Jane, who brings him into the case. He-who-was-Richard points out in his review that, really, “Lady Jane Grey” is only called that to be cute. “Her husband had been Captain Lord James Grey, Earl of Deere”, so she ought indeed to be “Lady Deere” (or something). This mistake does not boost confidence in the author (but it does line up with other small mistakes, like those above). Jane is supposed to be feisty and independent and intelligent – and I know this because I’m told so. This is the sum total of her characterization. Now, naturally, a relationship such as Lenox and Jane have could easily be seen as “inappropriate”, i.e. sexual – but it’s okay! The author makes sure to hammer home the fact that they’re just friends! It’s ok! They have a special relationship!

Another special relationship for Lenox is that with his butler, the aforementioned Graham. In other reviews folks noted that Lenox is supposed to echo Lord Peter in some ways, and I have to say I feel that that is pretty silly. The closest point of comparison is this man-manservant relationship, but … no. The bond between Bunter and Peter was built over the course of the whole series of books, with a revelation of their past here and a present-day moment there, and it was beautiful. Here, the whole past and present of the relationship is vomited out in one chapter. Also? Graham is no Bunter, and I can’t believe the universe even allows me to put Lenox and Lord Peter in the same sentence.

Charles Lenox. I’m sorry, he’s just dull. The single solitary real Lord-Peter-esque thing about him is that he’s the younger son of a peer who investigates crimes as a whim. But he’s just such a schlub. He plans exotic trips that never happen. He muddles on very happily in a lovely city home and buys whatever he wants (except a decent pair of boots). The way Lenox treats his books did not endear him to me. He repeatedly knocks piles of books off desks and whatnot, and leaves them there. Lord Peter would flatten his nose for him.

And his investigative skills? There’s the main reason that the Lord Peter comparisons make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Not out of fear or whatever, but more in the manner of a really pissed-off dog’s hackles rising. He’s not a smart man, Lenox, or at least he’s not written as such, though I think the reader is expected to think him ever so clever. His method of interrogating suspects is to ask “Did you kill her?” He seems convinced each time that he’ll receive an answer other than an outraged “No!” Oh, and the initial crime scene? Lenox mocks the pinch-hitting detective for believing in a suicide – but how can he think otherwise when a) no one points out the pen thing (which yes he should notice, but almost no one did); b) he has no way of knowing for certain the girl was illiterate and couldn’t have written a suicide note; c) most importantly, Lenox took away evidence that was sitting there. Lenox and McConnell also undressed (and redressed?) the corpse. This kind of tampering with a crime scene would be literally criminal if this book had been set in even a slightly later age.

So, no, the man is no Lord Peter. He’s no Sherlock Holmes, either, God knows, although he plays at it, making Sherlockian deductions based on observation. The difference – well, the difference reminds me of Much Ado About Nothing: “And then they laugh at him, and beat him.” Holmes disarms people, and frightens some, and impresses everyone when he tells them details he couldn’t possibly know. Lenox tries it a couple of times, and just annoys people.

Just as he annoyed me.

I really need to review something I LIKED.

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Posted by on June 18, 2014 in OT


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The Three Musketeers (insert sad trombone noise here)

Here’s the sad trombone noise…

61HkYyXY5KL._SL300_My rating for this surprised me, and I imagine it might be a surprise to others.



One star?? A swashbuckling adventure novel beloved for a couple of centuries? Yeah, well.

I’ve tried to read this before. It had “me” written all over it: aforementioned buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth. But I never penetrated very far. There was a tone – perhaps to the particular translation I tried, perhaps to the work itself – that just put me off, exemplified by the instance of D’Artagnan selling the yellow horse after his father impressed upon him how he must never do so, and he promised faithfully that he would not. It was such a dishonorable, dishonest, ugly thing to do, in a book I had expected to be dripping with honor – and it was just the beginning.

Last year I finally went with the audiobook, on the theory that classics that have not held a huge amount of interest for me go down better read aloud. I hold the reader, John Lee, responsible for my being able to finish it with as much tolerance as I did; if I’d been just reading words on a page I think it would have ended up in the trash by page 200. I hated this. I truly, deeply hated this. I’ve seen at least a couple of movie versions; I’ve enjoyed them, somewhat, as frothy swashbucklers, of course. I always expected the book to be better, though.

One of my two Goodreads comments on the book was:
“These people are all horrible – honorless, slutty morons. And this is a classic, beloved by schoolboys for – what, over 200 years? God help us.”

3473426And that’s my biggest problem with the book. Perhaps it was supposed to be ironic, some kind of commentary on honor and courage and standards and morality through the depiction of noble swordsmen who were actually men you wouldn’t trust alone with a coin or a woman. I don’t remember ever coming across that take on it, though.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan. These are the heroes I wanted to read about. The brave and loyal soldiers, the champions of right and defenders of womanhood and of France … I have no idea where my ideas came from – the movies, perhaps? What I found as I listened to the book was that Athos was a hypocritical prig, Aramis was a hypocritical pseudo-religious, Porthos was a gluttonous gambling dandy, and D’Artagnan a cocky young jackass. They were all four drunkards, given any opportunity; they were all womanizers, cuckolding widely and wildly, dropping whatever girl they had been bedding to move on without a pause or juggling as many as possible simultaneously. And the much-vaunted all-for-one loyalty? I didn’t see it. Every single one of them was as likely to throw his buddies under the 18th century equivalent of a bus as to support them, or to leave them in assorted lurches. Then get a good laugh out of it. And the interactions between these four and the man-servants they could barely afford but NEEDED made The Comedy of Errors seem like a shining illustration of workplace harmony. It was depressing.

D’Artagnan in particular was a letdown. The whole situation of swiving the maid in the room adjacent to her mistress, and vice versa – I wanted to throttle him. A lot. For one thing – seriously? They’ve let prepubescent boys read this for centuries? Oh, that’s just awesome. So, buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth? The swashes were askew at best; the romance was not the way Anne Shirley defines it (nor me), the doing wasn’t so derring. I only made it through the whole thing because it was an audiobook with a good narrator, and because I gritted my teeth in determination to see it all the way through. It was a deep disappointment, and I hated it.

My other Goodreads comment:
“Chapter 67: Conclusion
Oh, thank God.”


Posted by on June 16, 2014 in books, Classics


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With love and thanks to Dorothy L. on her birthday.

Clouds of Witness isn’t my favorite of the Lord Peter novels – but I think I’ve said before that’s like saying “my least favorite chocolate” or “my least favorite Beatle”. And this does have some of my favorite Peter-Bunter scenes, and gave me the name for one of my blogs.

This isn’t so much a review as gathered musings on a book, a cast of characters, and an author near and dear to my heart.

Peter is thirty-three in this book. At the very beginning it mentions “he had followed Sir Julian Freke’s advice and taken a holiday”:

From Whose Body?:
“Ah! Your nerves are not all they should be. …Nothing to be alarmed about, but you must exercise care while undergoing this strain, and afterwards you should take a complete rest. How about a voyage in the Mediterranean or the South Seas or somewhere?”

The man may have been a murderer, and probably a psychopath, but he knew his field. Dorothy L. Sayers wasn’t afraid to make her murderer someone you didn’t really want to see in that role; I don’t remember my first reading of this, but I think there is, for a while, a genuine concern on the reader’s part along with Peter’s that Gerald might actually have dunnit.

Among other things, Lord Peter Wimsey is known for blather. For nonsense. For, as Harriet Vane said, piffle.

“Yes, old, thing?” said Peter affably, returning.
“Happen he’ll set dog on tha.”
“You don’t say so?” said Peter. “The faithful hound welcomes the return of the prodigal. Scene of family rejoicing. ‘My own long lost boy!’ Sobs and speeches, beer all around for the delighted tenantry. Glees by the fireside, till the rafters ring and all the smoked hams tumble down to join in the revelry. Good night, sweet Prince, until the cows come home and dogs eat Jezebel in the portion of Jezreel when the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces. I suppose,” he added to himself, “they will have finished tea.”

In the seventy-six words of the above piffle (not counting the sensible first and last sentences), there are hits on the Bible (the prodigal son, and Jezebel; interesting she should come into the picture right here), and Shakespeare (Hamlet, “Good night, sweet Prince”), though the cows are a separate entity, inspired, one imagines, by the setting, and possibly a poem called “Edessa” (‘My own long lost boy!’), and “The hounds of spring are on winter’s traces” is from the poem Atalanta in Calydon (1865)”. I believe the hams are from Peter’s own head, riffing off something, I have no doubt.

It’s nonsense – goodness knows what all jumbled together in a stream of consciousness irruption. From another character, another author, something like this might cause my back to go up and/or my eyes to roll, or other physical manifestations of annoyance. Peter is, the reader is told shortly, “a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of small skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist”. He has had an upper-class turn-of-the-century classical education, and is well able to process reams upon reams of poetry and prose in Latin, Greek, French, English, and I’m not sure what other languages – from nursery rhymes and music hall tunes to Plato and Voltaire – and in other hands than DLS’s I don’t but doubt I might inform such a character or author where they might insert their classical education and go hang out with Harry Dresden. (My version of a Lord Peter would produce piffle largely based off yes, Shakespeare, but also Doctor Who. And would without doubt say at some point “I swear by my pretty floral bonnet”.) But Peter’s piffle isn’t meant to intimidate or put down a reader, or Peter’s interlocutor, I don’t believe. It’s just Peter. It’s Peter’s Rube Goldberg mind that takes a warning about a farmer setting the dog on him: dominos fall, and a marble rolls down a channel, and a pulley slips down a string, and a bucket fills and tips and sends a little toy monkey waddling mechanically forward clapping cymbals which hit a switch, and at the end a flag goes up. Or something. But in a way it’s the same kind of thought process, the same kind of association game that might be found in the head of anyone who has packed his brain for a long and rich lifetime journey. Only Peter vocalizes.

He uses well-aimed piffle to confuse the hell out of people, and to make himself look harmless, and to make himself to look like an idiot – and just because. Maybe this example falls into the category of “making himself look harmless”; the farmhand is perhaps less likely to set the dogs on Peter after his exclamations, making him appear too effete and insubstantial to even worry about, than before.

I thought it interesting that both Peter and Parker think to buy their sisters (well, Peter’s sister-in-law) crêpe de Chine scanties. It’s perfect: Charles wanted to please his spinster sister with something pretty and rare which she would probably never buy for herself, which she could take sensual delight in wearing under her sensible clothing and no one else would ever know about it. (There’s such a pathos to that “no one else”.) Meanwhile, Peter wanted to shock his prudish sister-in-law by announcing in front of her guests that he planned to buy her something pretty and rare which she would probably never buy for herself, which she would disdain as frivolous and bohemian and for women of another, need I say lower, class altogether and wants to make sure everyone knows she would never wear such a thing. She irks him so thoroughly, and all he wants to do is blowtorch a hole in that frigidity. Scoring a hit in front of others would be perfect.

I love that Parker is well able to conduct inquiries in France on his own. His French is not perfect – he is uncertain about his accent, and intimidated about the lingerie shop (though he goes for it anyway, bless him). And he flatters himself, pleased, that his accent is improving. I can just imagine a salesgirl taking him under her wing and thnking him totes adorbs. (Wait, that’s not French, is it? I love Charles Parker.

Though not as much as I love Bunter, and especially Peter. Their relationship is wonderful in this book.

For one thing, there is this line:

“Lord Peter stretched out his hand impulsively, but Mr. Bunter was too well trained to see it.”

It’s easy to go in all sorts of directions with that line, and – to me – the obvious direction (shipping) is astoundingly stupid. This occurs right after Bunter reveals a bit about himself that Peter never knew – and realizes he has never looked into: Bunter’s family. In all the years they’ve known each other, and Bunter has served him, Peter never inquired about his past. “Your mother, Bunter? I didn’t know you had one. I always imagined you were turned out ready-made so to speak.” That is – as per usual – flippant, but I think a moment later Peter’s conscience smites him and he feels a need for Bunter’s forgiveness. Friends don’t neglect to ask after friends’ mothers; friends don’t fail to ascertain whether friends’ mothers are in fact living or dead. Friends know how many siblings friends have. And these two are friends, despite the class divide and the fact that one is in the other’s employ – they have been through the proverbial thick and the metaphorical thin together, and saved each other’s skins, and owe each other a great deal. And Peter didn’t know Bunter’s mother was “seventy-five, my lord, and an extremely active woman for her years”. I have to say I’m a little surprised at this; I would have said it’s not like him. Perhaps it’s simply that Bunter is so much a part of his life, a part of him, that he honestly never thought about his existence before the War. Bunter arrived fully formed into his life, has never been so gauche as to intimate he has any other existence, and is always there. For the most difficult part of Peter’s life – most, in fact, of his adult life – Bunter has always been there, and as such a fixture in Peter’s landscape has no separate reality: there was no Bunter before there was a Bunter-and-Peter. He’s not the type, Mervyn Bunter, to chatter, and with six other siblings has no need to take time away from a job he loves to go and tend for his mother. Bunter’s former home life has never been thrust into Peter’s range of vision before.

Also, I came across an really excellent online conversation which, in this, concentrates on that word “was”: “I was one of seven.” They posit that the use of the past tense indicates that at least some of the siblings have died – of influenza, or in the War. I’m not sure about that – it could simply be “I was one of seven at home” or “I was one of seven children she bore” without the more sober connotation. It’s a very good theory – I like mine better, though: Peter puts out his hand in supplication, wanting to apologize for his ignorance about something he should have known. And Bunter, whatever was in his head, refrained from officially noticing; whether that means all is forgiven, or Peter didn’t have to ask, or all is not forgiven… well, that’s another set of speculations. When he leaves the room Peter is in high spirits, at least, so perhaps it can be inferred that whatever Bunter’s mien and posture was as he ignored the outstretched hand, it was not a rebuff.

And can I just say that this is one of the reasons I love DLS so much. There just aren’t so very many authors in my experience (especially those best known as mystery authors) whose books spark that much thought over one line of text, and for whom such speculation is so rewarding.

This Open Road text reads as a nice edition of the book, although peppered (as usual) with punctuation and transcription errors – but in checking text in another I find that it is sorely lacking in one thing: “This re-issue of CLOUDS OF WITNESS (which has received some corrections and amendments from MISS SAYERS) has for a Preface a short biography of Lord Peter Wimsey, brought up to date (May 1935) and communicated by his uncle PAUL AUSTIN DELAGARDIE.” This edition has the brief bio and heraldic information, but not the essay from Uncle Paul. It’s a crime that this is left out.

And of course I love the following so very much that I named a blog after it. In fact, let me go see if the name is available elsewhere … I’m not much of a cat person, but bompstable cats? Oh my yes.

But now he had really got the formula he wouldn’t forget it again. The connection was just there – close, thick, richly coherent.

“The glass-blower’s cat is bompstable,” said Mr. Parker aloud and distinctly.

“I’m charmed to hear it,” replied Lord Peter, with a friendly grin. “Had a good nap, old man?”

“I–what?” said Mr. Parker. “Hullo! Watcher mean, nap? I had got hold of the most important train of thought, and you’ve put it out of my head. What was it? Cat–cat–cat—-” He groped wildly.

“You said ‘The glass-blower’s cat is bompstable,'” retorted Lord Peter. “It’s a perfectly rippin’ word, but I don’t know what you mean by it.”

“Bompstable?” said Mr. Parker, blushing slightly. “Bomp – oh, well, perhaps you’re right – I may have dozed off. But, you know, I thought I’d just got the clue to the whole thing. I attached the greatest importance to that phrase. Even now – No, now I come to think of it, my train of thought doesn’t seem quite to hold together. What a pity. I thought it was so lucid.”

And, not to be repetitive, I love this:

Parker’s eyes wandered to the photographs. “I don’t believe it,” he said obstinately. “I’m damned if I’m going to believe a word of it.”
Woop – there goes Charles, I believe.


Posted by on June 13, 2014 in OT


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Badly behaving author alert – sort of: “Smith Publicity”

So I had an email a day or two ago from, apparently, an entity called “Smith Publicity” plugging two books (for what it’s worth, The Mortis by Jonathan Miller, and The Confessional by Reiny Pierson). I responded asking that my email address be removed from whatever list it had somehow gotten on, and also asking how they got hold of it in the first place. I would have let it all fade into oblivion if the response had not been: “Your information was obtained by our intern who researched reviewers.”

If there’s anything worse than spammers, it’s spammers who data-mine indiscriminately. I wouldn’t have read either of these books before this; now I am actively anti-them.

So here’s my PSA for the day: you might want to block the email addresses and Since they’re acting on the authors’ behest and, I assume, on their nickel, I wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw ‘em either. Miller’s a Goodreads author; that worries me a little. I will have to investigate to see if I can figure out where my email address was found; on Goodreads it’s available only to friends, and I’m not seeing that it’s available at all on LibraryThing, Booklikes, or here. Or Amazon. Hm.

I should have asked that when I poked the troll. I sent a snarky email back to Smith Publicity berating them for spamming, and this was such a great response that I have to add it here: “It’s not spam just because I sent you an unsolicited email asking you to review a book”.

The definition of spam: “Unsolicited e-mail, often of a commercial nature, sent indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, or newsgroups; junk e-mail.” Stupid trolls are so cute.


Posted by on June 13, 2014 in OT


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