Happy World Teachers Day!

I don’t think I have much to add to what I said in May …

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Death by Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake – Sarah Graves

It’s the same old story. A cozy mystery seems to always be either abysmal or really good, with very few landing in the middle. The bad seem to outnumber the good – but the good ones are so enjoyable that I keep trying. And this one was one that made me glad I keep trying.

The author can turn a phrase like a prima ballerina’s pirouette. (I have my doubts about THAT phrase, but time’s a-wastin’.) “…The gossip wire in Eastport worked so fast and accurately that if you got a bee sting at one end of the island, minutes later
somebody was getting a pair of tweezers and some baking soda out for you at the other.” (Also – baking soda on a splinter? Interesting.) “…You could have run your tongue over any surface in the place and it would come up tasting like rainbows.” And two on the woes of telephony in the modern age: “Now any fool can start a phone company and provide the kind of high-class personal communication service once offered only by two tin cans and a length of string.” Followed by “When I tried calling back, I got the kind of fast busy signal that can only mean one of the tin cans has fallen off the string.” If deft writing is all there is in a book, that still makes it miles better than a lot of the stuff I’ve tried to read.

But the characters are wonderfully drawn too. This alone would put me on our heroine Jake’s side forever:
“You hit that dog,” I yelled, shaking Wade’s hand off my shoulder, “and I’ll break every damned bone in your stupid—”
I was so mad, I’d have grabbed that damned gun and threaded our attacker onto its barrel the long way, if I could …

Atta girl.

Also, the story is fun to read and holds interest as the plot unspools merrily. AND there’s a recipe. Best yet? Sarah Graves is pretty prolific. There’s lots of fun to look forward to.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Cold Bayou – Barbara Hambly

Barbara Hambly’s books are hard for me to review. It’s stupid and annoying that bad books are so much easier to blather on about than the good ones, but (as I say probably too often) it’s easier to pinpoint why something is not good than why it is. And honestly, all my reviews of Ms Hambly’s books start looking pretty much the same – amazing characters, superb settings I feel I could step into (but wouldn’t necessarily want to), and the sort of prose I would sacrifice a body part to be able to produce. (Depending on the body part.)

These characters … As a friend, I want Benjamin January to have an easy, happy life – but if that were the case, then as a reader I would be bereft. Rose is either someone I want as my best friend, or who I want to be (or both). And Hannibal Sefton is one of my favorite characters in fiction. Minou, Olympe and her family, Henri, Mme Janvier, and of course Abishag Shaw are all practically kin by now.

The racial and class dynamics of 1800’s New Orleans (and its environs) are an inexhaustible setting for these stories to play out. The intricacies of rank and position and society peculiar to this place and time make even a fairly common trope – infatuated rich gentleman sets out to marry a young woman less than a third his age – fresh and intriguing. No one can wage class warfare like the ladies of New Orleans, wherever they fall in the pecking order. And no one can wend their way through all of that intricacy and intrigue, keeping their heads with an often sardonic air while all those around them are losing theirs, better than Benjamin and his (dare I say) Scooby Gang.

I miss Barbara Hambly’s non-vampire fantasies – but as long as there are Ben January books, the world is a better place.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, from whom I received a copy of this book for review.

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Poetry for Kids: Robert Frost

Frost is one of those poets who is accessible to kids (if my kidhood is a good example); the rhythm of his words is easy to slip into. I know nothing about literary criticism of poetry, but Frost’s work has always struck me as more sophisticated than it appears on the surface; there’s more there there. A young reader, or someone who just wants to enjoy the words and how they’re put together, can read it for the pure enjoyment of the language, while of course others can delve into analyzing what it all means beyond the literal.

“What Robert Was Thinking” section at the end gives a very brief synopsis and clarification for each poem included – not overburdening the poetry with too much Meaning and Allegory and Symbolism, just distilling it down and occasionally asking a leading question or two.

As always, my primary focus is on the pictures. The painterly illustrations by Michael Paraskevas are sometimes lush, sometimes spare, whichever befits each poem, and always more than just pretty, enhancing the poetry and inviting the reader deeper into the world of each verse. The invitation is emphasized by the fact that so many of the paintings are without humans, or with one human walking away, or walking in the distance, whose face cannot be seen. They’re lonely landscapes and interiors – waiting for the reader to walk in.

This isn’t just for kids.

The usual disclaimer: with thanks, I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Dead Man’s Chest – Kerry Greenwood

“Dot closed her eyes. Miss Fisher was about to happen to someone again. She hoped that Phryne wouldn’t get blood on her shoes. That glacé kid was a beast to clean…”

That is the perfect introduction to the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher – and to Dot. This force of nature disguised as a flapper is striding into the fray in defense of the defenseless … And Dot, no flapper, is unflappable in support of her employer. She’s had to get blood out of Miss Fisher’s clothes before, you can tell – but she has faith that it will be only in a good cause.

I love that little paragraph. It’s wonderful non-typical character description, gets a whole lot of information about two characters into four short sentences, and shows how good a writer Kerry Greenwood is. It is the very definition of “Show, don’t tell”. Ms. Greenwood writes with a confidence and flair worthy of her heroine.

‘Who’re you?’ grunted an oaf with short blond hair, giving the fisherboy another shove.
‘Phryne Fisher. Who are you?’
The curly-headed oaf was struck with an inconvenient memory when he heard that tone. He suddenly recalled a Maori storyteller from his childhood. One of their heroes had addressed an enemy: ‘What name shall I put on the cup I shall make from your skull?’

How great is that? A sudden, isolated jump into the brain of a thug, showing him to be smarter and more observant than might have been assumed – and, again, giving a really beautiful thumbnail sketch of Miss Fisher without even directly referencing her.

These are the reasons I love Phryne Fisher, and why I love Kerry Greenwood. Well, some of the reasons. There are lots. Though I doubt Phryne would actually make a cup from someone’s skull. She could, I have no doubt, but she almost certainly knows some artisan who could make an exquisite object for her.

“Jane dropped her book — but caught it before it hit the floor.” There’s another one. This speakes volumes (pun sort of intended) about Jane.

Oh, another reason I love Kerry Greenwood? Phryne meets “a straight-backed girl, possibly, in I Zingari cricket costume, with a stick of celery in his or her lapel instead of a daisy”. That is a reference few would try, much less pull off, and it made me happy.

Yet one more reason: I learn things I never thought to learn. For example, that last quote made me look up “I Zingari”, and that was a fun rabbit hole. I also learn British and Aussie slang that is always nice to have in one’s back pocket. “That one is a wet slap and a dead loss.” Sometimes she doesn’t even make me look a new thing up: “The cup which Ruth sugared and milked contained tea which was sepia in colour and as strong as a thunderstorm. ‘Could trot a mouldiwarp on that,’ observed Tinker proudly. Phryne shuddered slightly, but she was willing to admit that a mole of moderate size could certainly have waltzed on the surface without peril.”

Another quote: “Money can’t buy happiness but it can vastly improve the quality of your misery.” It’s sometimes difficult to enjoy a character who has money to burn. The rich in reality are so often clueless unempathetic monsters. (Lord Peter overcomes his wealth by being … Lord Peter.) As for Phryne, she didn’t always have money – she grew up well and truly hardscrabble. So it’s vicariously enjoyable to watch Phryne spend – especially when the spending goes not only on expensive clothing and perfumes (I do want to try Jicky someday), but on friends and those in need.

I love Phryne. Long may she wave.

And many thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy for review (belated though the review is.)

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Alice Starmore’s Glamourie

What a spectacular book. It works on several levels:

There are lovely patterns for knitting, obviously. From subtly magical items anyone could wear anywhere, anytime, to extraordinary things which suit a magical setting (or someone bolder in their display of love of the fae) – for either, I don’t think I’ve sever seen anything quite like these patterns.

It also works as a primer on Gaelic culture. It’s certainly not definitive, and isn’t meant to be, but it’s a sampler of the flavours of Gaelic lore and legend. The stories included are wonderful.

Best of all, in my opinion as a visual person, are the extraordinary photos this book is filled with. If you don’t read a word or knit a stitch, this book is still something to be savoured. I could use up a thesaurus praising the images, but suffice to say –

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing a copy for review, which albeit late is indeed heartfelt.

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Damn Fine Story – Chuck Wendig

As you might guess from the title, Chuck Wendig uses whatever words best suit him at any given time, and some of them are of Anglo-Saxon origin. This book, and – since I quote him more than I probably ought – this review are to be avoided if that bothers you.

It’s probably a little funny that I keep on reading books about writing when I haven’t written a word of any significance in … oh, a few years now. My novels have languished, to say the least. But I am still endlessly fascinated by these books of writing advice – I did feel like a writer once. “It is necessary to know where the comma goes, and how sentence construction works to create pace and rhythm, and how to know the rules in order to break them and to break the rules in order to know why we needed them in the first damn place.” Yes, exactly – I’ll take care of commas, don’t you worry.

“Some of this book will help you. Other parts will be worthless to you. Discard what you find distasteful, and hold the rest to your chest like a beloved child. Do whatever works.” “Real talk time? A lot of writing, storytelling, and even publishing advice is bullshit—but never forget, bullshit fertilizes. Ideas have value to those who can use them. So even if I just make you challenge or reconsider your processes without adopting the specific pieces of advice, hey, I’d call that a win.” Writing: “It’s a trick. A ruse. And in order for it to work, it has to feel real. We can’t see the wires or the mirrors.”

EXACTLY.

Wendig uses Star Wars to make several points – which is brilliant. Odds are if you’re reading this book, you know Star Wars well enough to know exactly what he’s talking about when he discusses story structure. This is good writing as well as good teaching.

I have a huge number of quotes saved from this book – and as I always say (sorry, to those paying attention), if I have a lot of quotes and notes it means that a book was either really bad or really good. For this one, a lot of the quotes are because they felt like Chuck Wendig found a way to scrape the thoughts right out of my brain and word them better than I ever dreamed of.

In discussing character – possibly the strongest part of this book, or at least my favorite – he echoes something Joss Whedon (I think?) said in the commentaries on the Firefly DVD’s (if you haven’t listened to those, you need to. If you haven’t seen Firefly, I have nothing more to say to you): “Every character believes himself the protagonist.” It’s an important point, and an attitude I’ve found in some of my favorite writers. Barbara Hambly, for example. I always have the feeling that if the focus of the story were to turn on any given character, even an unnamed background character – that woman herding geese, that man gossiping over beer – that a book could feature any one of them – and it would be a really good book. Her featured characters are never pigeonholed into “sidekick” or “quirky friend” (though there are plenty of those) – they’re the protagonists of their own stories, and it’s obvious.

“Sometimes you just have to start telling the story. The act of writing, of telling the tale, is also the act of laying traps. And it is in these traps that we capture our muses. In other words, we capture them, they don’t capture us.”

Wendig goes directly from a joke involving Patrick Swayze movies to – well, this: “A story can exist without a character, but only in the way that a human body can exist without a brain or a heart. You take those things away, the body remains a body, and it remains, by some definition, a human one. It just isn’t alive. It has no purpose, it has no thought, and it certainly has no soul.” (EXACTLY.) “I often refer to a ‘give-a-fuck’ factor when writing characters — meaning, we need reasons to care.” This is why I hate reading books when none of the characters connect with me. I don’t have to like all of them – or even any of them, I suppose – but I need to be given reason to keep reading, to be interested in what happens next, and next, and after that. “Forget liking them, but do remember that we have to live with them.” Well, yes, thanks, that does say it better than I did. “Look for the little story. Look for the story about people. Then you can wrap it in a generous swaddling of space ninjas and swamp monsters and explodey-boom-boom-pyoo-pyoo-zap.”

And, obviously, this book is really, really funny at times.

If I used all the quotes I saved in this review, it would save me saying much – they speak for themselves, loudly, about the quality of this book – but it would also probably get me sued. And this would be even longer than my usual. Which is long. But I will leave you with one more quote that proves that Chuck Wendig is brilliant and this book is to be taken seriously: “The Princess Bride, by the way. Go watch it right now. Never don’t watch that movie when you have the chance.” EXACTLY.

“Rock out with your Spock out, you crazy diamond.”

My thanks to Netgalley for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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The Artful Baker by Cenk Sonmezsoy

Stunning photography makes this book well worth having even if the recipes were terrible. Landscapes relating to recipes’ origins, wonderful process photos, shots of ingredients that make them look like they should be in museums, and pictures of the finished products that range from adorable to charming to drop-dead gorgeous. Seriously, the photos alone are worth the price.

But the recipes are very very not terrible. Contrary to what seems to be the norm since the pandemic began, I haven’t had much time for baking in the past couple of years, but (once I get past the fact that my last stove blew up) I sincerely want to make every item in this book. And that never happens – there’s always something too weird or outre or with some ingredient I don’t like that I’d be fine skipping. Not here. Desserts from Chocolate Chip Cookies to macarons to something strange and wonderful called Mont Blanco; beverages from hot chocolate to elderflower cordial; recipes sweet and savory; globe-spanning foods ranging from focaccia to simit from Istanbul to Eton Mess (keep hearing about this dessert in your British television or novel consumption? Here’s your chance to make it. It looks marvelous.) And, as in the Great British Baking Show, there’s an ice cream section which could, if I allowed it, be life-altering.

I like that the recipe names basically follow the rule of “just tell me what it is”. “Carrot cake with blond chocolate frosting/’;[” – sorry, I drooled on the keyboard there. But there is also a touch of whimsey here and there – the apple cake included here isn’t just an apple cake, it’s a “Deeply Appley Apple Cake”, which is actually something I’ve been looking for for years. And “The Devil Wears Chocolate”, which when you think about it makes sense.

And if the beautiful pictures and the amazing recipes on the whole weren’t enough, there’s a recipe for making your own chocolate and hazelnut balls – “Fernando Rocher.” I need to do some shopping soon to stock up my baking essentials.

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Nothing but the Night: Leopold & Loeb and the Truth Behind the Murder That Rocked 1920s America

Authors: Greg King, Penny Wilson

I believe the authors of this book were angry when they wrote it. It comes through when they talk about how for a hundred years Richard Loeb has been fingered as the leader of the team; it comes through when they describe the actions and inactions of the judge; it comes through when they describe the behavior of the doctors brought in on both sides of the case. And, if unexpected in a non-fiction recounting of an infamous murder and its repercussions, the anger is justifiable, because in a perfect world almost nothing told of in this book would have happened.

Starting, of course, with the almost random murder of fourteen year old Bobby Franks by two slightly older boys who … what? Wanted to know what it was like to kill someone? Wanted a spike in their otherwise sociopathically monotone experience? Wanted to exert their power as “uber menschen”, and prove how superior to everyone else, especially flat-footed law enforcement, they were? (To which I really can’t resist saying: lol)

The case is, as I said, infamous: two wealthy nineteen year old boys committed a motiveless murder on a fourteen year old neighbor (and cousin to one of the killers). Was there a sexual component to the crime? Who actually struck the blows that killed the boy? Who did most of the planning? It’s intensely frustrating to explore the situation, because the two primary witnesses, Leopold and Loeb, were habitual and fluent liars.

I can’t say I’m glad I read this book. I knew about the crime; I knew about a lot of the circumstances around it; I knew about the inevitability of women “falling in love with” evil -doers. (“The gruesomeness of the crime seemed to have no effect upon the feelings of the giddy little flappers who begged to get in”.) I did not know about how awful Clarence Darrow and the judge were (Darrow: “But as compared with the families of Leopold and Loeb, the Franks are to be envied, and everyone knows it”), or about just how truly empty and despicable Leopold and Loeb were, or about their later lives. (I didn’t know the “affluenza” defense was pretty much born here: “But your honor, it is just as often a great misfortune to be the child of the rich as it is the child of the poor. Wealth has its misfortunes.” Just once, I would like my character to be tested in this way.) (Also: The only purpose that they use themselves for is to debase themselves.” There could be a lot of blame placed on the army of adults who made no effort to give these two cretins purpose.) I kind of wish I had kept it that way. The book felt like a long hard slog through a particularly fetid swamp – not because of bad writing; that was adequate. But everything about this story made it hard to think well of humanity.

The solitary person who came through this book with my respect and even some admiration was State’s Attorney Robert E. Crowe. He fought the good fight (if you can call trying to get two young men executed a good fight, and that’s a debate I’m too emotionally and physically tired to even touch on here and now), and his bafflement at how horrifically ridiculous pretty much everything involved in this case was was almost comforting – he seemed to be the only one saying some of the things I was thinking.

“I wonder now, Nathan, whether you think there is a God or not. I wonder whether you think it is pure accident that this disciple of Nietzschean philosophy dropped his glasses or whether it was an act of Divine Providence to visit upon your miserable carcasses the wrath of God in the enforcement of the laws of the state of Illinois.”

I received an advance copy of this book from Netgalley for an honest review.

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The Do-Over – Sharon M. Peterson

This is what books are for.

Yes, yes, I know, Great Literature and Deep Thoughts and Theme and Sturm und Drang und whatever. But be honest – when you pick up a book, do you always want to be harrowed and tested put through the wringer? There’s a time and a place for that sort of great book, of course, and some folks do always want that experience – more power to ’em. I think I’m too old for that s … stuff. What I’m endlessly looking for in a book is good writing, good characters, a good setting the characters can live in, a good plot the characters can live in. A satisfying, unpredictable, well-crafted ending. Sometimes it feels like that’s getting harder and harder to find.

Found one!

The description sounded like a light, fun read. And that’s exactly what it is – and in no way take that as any shape or form of negativity, or dare to put the word “just” in front of the adjectives. I haven’t used the alleged Mark Twain quote about the difference between lightning and a lightning bug in a while. It’s the difference between this book and what I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting such sharp, smart, funny writing, for one thing. I honestly can’t remember the last time I literally laughed out loud at a book – it was probably something Bria said. No, it was definitely something Bria said. Oh right: “You that guy who wears the pizza outfit and waves at people on the street?” And the Mimi-isms at the head of each chapter are keepers. (“Always choose kindness. Unless the other person’s a jackass. Then all bets are off.”—MIMI) (Good writing: check.) (One of my new all-time favorite lines, right up there with “I piggybacked from a pizza dough freezer”, is “So, I threw my Spanx on the meatloaf and I lied and said you were my boyfriend.”

I wasn’t expecting characters I’d genuinely care about. Perci is kind of a mess, and while her mess is nothing like mine the fact of being kind of a mess was definitely something I bonded with her over. Her circle of friends and family are marvelous – imperfect and wonderful and awful and heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measures. At one point the plot takes a turn that scared me enough to know that yes, I really did care about these characters – and then I started to suspect something. And it was perfect. Handled differently, that part of the book might have bene something I’d skewer the writer for, but this was – did I say perfect already? Well, it was. “I don’t have all the right answers though, and I never should have made you feel like my way was the best way. But I want you to know that I’m here . I’m not going anywhere. You can ignore me and not answer my calls, but I will still be here when you need me. Always.” I swallowed and waited for a reaction, an understanding, a coupon for free French fries, anything. “I’m done now.” – If I’d had friends like this, my life would be different. (Good characters: check.)

Perci’s home is enviable. I want an apartment in a renovated cookie factory. I want to live in this book. (Which is a pretty clear sign of: Good setting: check.)

And the plot? Check. It’s light, sure – but not so frothy that I was positive it couldn’t take a turn. It’s probably a cliche to say that it had heart, and that’s what kept it from being so fluffy it could blow away on a breeze. It didn’t hurt that my family has had losses in the past few years, and we always look for cardinals too. The ending? Left me with a smile on my face and that feeling of satisfied contentment a really good finale brings. Could I have predicted some of the ending? Sure. But not all of it, and not how it would be achieved.

The tl;dr of it all is: I loved this book. I’ve said before that it’s easier to write a long review (or sometimes to write a review at all) of a book I hated than of one I loved, and I’ve speculated that that’s because a negative review is about the book and why it wasn’t good. A positive review tends to be more autobiographical. Another aspect of it is that it’s hard (for me at least) to explain how a writer produced lightning in a bottle. It’s easy to point out flaws – they’re common. Anyone can write a bad book (except, you know, Guy Kay and Barbara Hambly and folks like that). If it was easy to pinpoint exactly what makes a book wonderful, maybe more people could do it. I wish they would. I hope Sharon M. Peterson does, many many more times.

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an advance copy for an honest review.

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