Half a Crown – Jo Walton – John Keating, Terry Donnelly

It’s 1960, and fascism has settled comfortably over England – and much of the world, apparently – like a pea–souper. And – being a completist at times – I listened to this third book despite not being thrilled with the second one. Looking at my notes, I see a lot of capital letters. Not good. In fact, I hated this book with a passion that still simmers a little.

Oh, this is not a good narration … Terry Donnelly gives a very deliberate, measured, extraordinarily prissy performance for the Elvira portions of the book. I was so hoping there would be a brush of the Cockney now and then, but instead she sounds a very young teenager trying to be Maggie Smith. It’s excruciating. (I’ve listened to samples of other books she’s read – and they’re fine. Lots of Irish–accented books, a couple of American, a couple of English, all listen–to–able. This…) The upper class is painful – the lower class is … *shudder* I also made note of one part in which someone is supposed to be shouting “Police!”, which ought to have been an urgent, probably harsh call, as it was some members of a rioting crowd warning others. Instead, it was a languid, drawled sort of a word, more like Bertie Wooster hailing a cab, and in fact not deserving of the exclamation point. Nearly all audiobooks have moments where the narrator’s intonation does not match the tone of the narrative – things like “Is he ever!” being read as “Is he ever?” But there seem to be more in this book, and some that were less understandable and … just odd. “Ogilvie realized this too”, which should have had “Ogilvie” emphasized, came out as “Ogilvie realized this too”.

Those Elvira portions of the book were altogether unpleasant. Even aside from the narration, I hated the character so much that she is largely responsible for my hatred of the book. Her mother left when she was six, and her father died when she was eight. Know how I know? BECAUSE I WAS TOLD SO, SEVERAL TIMES. In fact, if I wasn’t told so in every Elvira chapter for the first two hours, it certainly felt like it. So that was exasperating. Then there was the simple fact that the girl herself was a nasty, ungrateful little wretch, and apparently completely self-centered. Her attitude toward Carmichael (and Jack), who took her in out of the goodness of his heart (and guilt) after her father was shot, was appalling. The fact that even though she lived with them in a less-than-palatial flat she had no idea the two of them were lovers was, I feel, more due to her egocentricity than the façade of clandestineness on the men’s part. “Could they have any lives outside this room, the only place he ever saw them?” It was kind of hilarious when someone asked her, “You haven’t observed anything that made you suspicious?” No, she hasn’t, because she’s an idiot eighteen-year-old girl. The Cinderella nonsense surrounding her wore thin very fast; at one point she complains about having to wear a polyester dress, in circumstances that rendered the whining offensively silly. Oh, good, I took down one quote regarding a coat, given her to cover the paper prison dress: “It was much too big in the shoulders, of course, and I’d never normally wear a beige coat, but the height was just right to be fashionable.” My God.

The treatment she receives at the hands of the authorities loses any power to trouble me, because it simply isn’t realistic that even a militant fascist state would suspect this bubbleheaded irritant of a girl of terrorism.

Carmichael was all right, I suppose; at least, I don’t have any notes expressing hatred for him. Except for one note after he forgot to ask her about something vital (“Whatever else it was [Elvira] might have known, which he’d forgotten to ask her about” – OH MY GOD YOU MORON). But his lover/valet Jack was a paradox. Far be it from me to disbelief an autodidact – but I did. He came off as not very bright, but there were carefully added details about his extensive studies or whatever that made little sense. And he was used in one of the tropes which annoys me the most: I’m always disgusted by fictional spouses of cops (and doctors and other professionals who have wildly erratic hours) who become petulant over those erratic hours. Look – for the most part you knew what you were getting into; it’s not the spouse’s fault; shut up. In real life I’m sure it’s extraordinarily difficult, and I sympathize. In fiction, it’s intensely boring.

The alternate universe – in which AXIS won WWII – was not badly done; there’s talk of airships instead of airplanes, and “Britain and Japan should divide America between them” (Oy. You try it, mate.) However, shouldn’t Edward VIII have been a little higher up or something, cozy as he and Mrs. Simpson were with the Reich? And, as with the preceding books, there simply wasn’t enough attention given to the differences between this world and that. It would at least have been a distraction from despising Elvira if I’d been kept off-kilter by the alien reality of a fascist, Hitler-led England. (My fingers ache just typing that.)


Attention all British authors, past, present, and future, who try their hand at American characters: We do NOT all sound like Foghorn bleeding Leghorn. (I’m looking at you too, Conan Doyle.) We do NOT say “mighty” in every other sentence, and it’s astonishingly irritating – and offensive – in a character whose American accent and dialect was formed at Princeton. Which is in New Jersey. Which is not a place you would hear “The countryside is mighty pretty…and London sure is entertaining.” I was born and raised in Connecticut. I have never in my life heard anyone who was not pretending to be a cowboy say “mighty”. And then there was “In his American accent”. So… in almost 94 thousand square miles, the UK has more accents than I can count, but in America’s THREE POINT EIGHT MILLION square miles we supposedly have … one? Get a clue. Now.

Thieftaker – D.B. Jackson – Jonathan Davis

This review needs a Foreword, I think; I was writing this as I listened, enjoying the book less and less, until at a certain point about two thirds of the way in I gave up, closed the player, went to the link in my Audible library that says “Didn’t like the last book you listened to? You can return it” – and got my money back. I’m going to discuss why with spoilers at the end of this, so be warned.

On the author’s website it says that this series is “sure to appeal to readers who enjoy intelligent fantasy and history with an attitude.” Unfortunately, the intelligent, the attitude, and the history all are lacking.

Intelligent? I don’t think that pertains to the Hero, Ethan Kaille. A child, eight or nine years old, approaches Ethan out of nowhere, and proceeds to talk to him with a canniness and vocabulary well beyond her years, and apparently with an accent that is not that of a waif. Yet it takes Ethan till the end of a pretty lengthy conversation to realize that there’s anything off about the child – the kid doesn’t cast a shadow, and he never does seem to take any notice of anything else odd about her.

He is beaten soundly by his rival thieftaker’s men, and uses his conjuring skills to heal some of his injuries. He refrains from healing more because his landlord, who doesn’t know he’s a conjurer, saw him right after; if all the bruises disappeared it would give him away. But … why not heal all of the injuries that aren’t visible? He continues to straggle about aching and stiff, when … well, it’s the 18th century. People wore a lot of clothes. The only things visible on a regular basis would be his face and hands. There’s no earthly reason why every other injury couldn’t be made to just go away. There’s no reason in the world to traipse about with broken ribs.

And why, almost immediately after the beating, refrain from casting a spell because it meant drawing blood – when he was covered with injuries, since he did refrain from healing himself? There had to be a way to surreptitiously reopen one of his many cuts or scrapes and use that. (Which reminds me: instead of constantly hacking up one’s arms with a knife, why not keep a hangnail open or something – so that every time one is cornered one doesn’t have to draw one’s knife, or get prevented from doing so?) And I have to say, blood magic makes me extremely uncomfortable, as does holding a ghost in thrall. It seems such a very short step from using one’s own blood and whatever life is held in leaves and grass – to using something else’s blood, or someone else’s blood, and whatever life is held in more complex life forms. (The idea of a man using his own blood in spells, which means that if he is injured he can use blood from that injury to not only heal himself but to attack, and then can use his opponent’s shed blood against them as well – it’s fun. I like it. But it’s not well used here.)

And I’m not too sure about the intelligence of the writing and the story. Example:
Page 175 – “…Those who paid for her services assumed that she used her powers to find matches for them. Ethan had asked her once if this was in fact true. Janna refused to answer.”
Page 180 – “‘Killed a goat once. For a love spell, I think it was.'”

(Then there’s the rest of that last speech: “‘Some wealthy man wanted a girl, an’ she didn’ wan’ him. Took all th’ power I’ve got.'” Really? That’s pretty dark. Not only the animal sacrifice, but the fact that she agreed to coerce a girl into a match with a man she didn’t want. She doesn’t say anything about marriage, either, or that little thing called love (remember “love is magick”?); he wanted her. He apparently got her. What he did with her is left to the imagination. J.K. Rowling had it right with love spells – that’s fairly evil.)

“Sephira Pryce had me to supper today.” No, she didn’t; it was midday. She had you to dinner.

“He heard the bone in the man’s nose break.” No, he didn’t; there is no bone in one’s nose. It’s cartilage.

The humor in the book, like a little practical joke Kannis plays on Ethan … it’s … not funny. At all. It’s the definition of lame.

Apart from the predictable “shipping” of Ethan and Mr. Pell I’ve seen other reviewers talking about, I honestly see no reason for Pell to be brought into the story. His predicament – being a young minister who is capable of magic – I mean magick (sigh) – is the most interesting thing about him, but if the relationship between him and “look how straight I am with all these girlfriends” Ethan isn’t going the way of the shipped, then … I don’t know. “Ethan needed to speak one last time with Mr. Pell” – why? What could the boy possibly know?

As to the “attitude” mentioned above … I don’t see it. Ethan’s not exactly a badass. He starts out pretty well, with a brief fight and a nifty illusion, but before long he’s being beaten to a pulp for … really, no good reason except to make sure the reader knows Sephira Pryce is a stone cold bitch. It’s the first of several beatings. Ethan’s magic seems lightweight, severely limited. And, to quote a moldy oldy, he’s “torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool”. He occupies himself in Kannice’s bed and is quite fond of her, and decides that he doesn’t love his erstwhile fiancée anymore, but the former continues to be green-eyed hissing-and-spitting jealous of the latter anyway. Is this why some reviewers out there hate love triangles so much? I’ve never felt strongly one way or another about them, but this – this just feels worn and dusty. Oh, lord, there he goes again – is this the fourth or the fifth time, at 62%, that Ethan is confronted by/threatened by Sephira’s men? It’s so boring. (And why don’t they pinion him? I mean – duh. After the first time he manages to do his magicke without using his knife, um … duh?)

And surgeons make him queasy? A man who routinely cuts himself and uses the blood in spells is made queasy by a healer? How … odd.

In the middle of one of his fights, he creates a ring of fire around himself, and then realizes that wasn’t such a great idea. Brilliant. I’ll bet he’s prone to painting himself into corners, too. Why wouldn’t they just start shooting into the ring? Why wouldn’t he carry the makings for spells with him? You’d think after the first – or second, or third – time he was set upon in the streets that he would take some kind of precautionary measures. You’d think.

And oo, how original: a female Black Hat who attempts to use sex as a weapon. It would have been so much more impressive if she had been a middle-aged spinster with mousy hair and the mien of a librarian. And spectacles. That I would read, and happily. Instead, there’s hot-stuff Sephira – God, as I was writing that in some disgust, still listening to the book, came the line “Even now as she was threatening his life, she was as beautiful as any woman he had ever seen”. Gag. She’s petulant (of course! She’s a woman, after all), ham-handed, as subtle as a sledge-hammer, and … really, really boring. And … why, exactly, does she have Ethan beaten up for taking a job when it was she who recommended him for the job?

“‘I’m beginning to think you’re not as good as thieftaking as I first thought.” Right??

And going back to the history: I read Alexander Hamilton, and then re-watched the HBO John Adams miniseries, and found myself craving more. I wanted good, meaty fiction set in and around the Revolution. I had realized a long time ago, after reading a very dear old favorite called The Sherwood Ring, that there just isn’t that much out there. I wanted gossip about Washington and Revolutionary zeal and tricorne hats and all that. I didn’t want April Morning, or Johnny Tremain. I wanted something as good as Blindspot. So I was delighted when I remembered Thieftaker. Fantasy set in 18th century Boston? Perfect!

No … No, it’s not. It’s 1765, and those madmen who are beginning to talk about breaking away from England are just troublemakers and rabble-rousers. (Oh, look, there’s Sam Adams. I didn’t know he had a palsy.) Ethan is certainly not “one of those so-called Sons of Liberty” – he wants nothing to do with them. And apart from that, the setting, the incendiary time and the significant place, has very little impact on the story. There seems to be no real need to place this story in Boston in 1765. Ethan served a term of forced labor on a Caribbean sugar plantation – but he could very easily have been a thieftaker in 3rd Era Lorbarrow City, and not long ago forced into Dreamsalt excavation in the Lightmarshes. Or something. What a wasted opportunity.

It simply seems off that Sephira strides the streets in breeches, and Janna all but advertises herself as a conjurer, with absolutely no repercussions.

A lazy-sounding, muted, leisurely narration by Jonathan Davis – positively drowsy, at times – did not help matters. While children’s voices can be horrible, he read that afore-mentioned young street urchin’s part as if the eight or nine year old girl was a middle-aged upper-class businesswoman. It’s not a terrible narration – character voices are nicely done, for the most part, though I questioned a few accents – but it’s extremely low-key. The touches of Bahston in a couple of his character voices are the only (probably anachronistic) things that tie this thing at all to a particular city.

There is only a weak back story for how Ethan comes to wield “dark arts” in a time and place where just about everyone assumes magic – oh, sorry, “magick”; that’s one of the benefits of audio, not having to look at that spelling – is one of the “forces of hell”, and if he’s doing good it’s almost accidental. (“T. Windcatcher, Marriage Smith. Love is Magick.” I’m going to be ill.)

The writing leans heavily on common tropes and phrases. Ethan is attacked (for the umpteenth time), hears a scream, and – say it with me – realizes it is his own. *sigh*

Interesting that Ethan refers to the Evil Conjurer as “he”. That made me believe it’s a woman.

Names are odd for Colonial Boston – Kannice Lester? Sephira Pryce? Kelf Fingarin? Even Jennifer doesn’t seem right. (From Wikipedia: “Before 1906 the name was fairly uncommon, but it gained some recognition after George Bernard Shaw used it for the main female character in The Doctor’s Dilemma.”) Tarijanna Windcatcher has some basis in its character’s background, but it’s still oddball. And all the men’s names are soft: Ethan, Devren “Diver” Jervis, Trevor, Holin, Nigel, Abner, Reginald. The fact that Nigel is a big rough tough thug just feels off-kilter.

Speaking of names, Ethan isn’t exactly stellar in his creativity in that area. He sort of has two dogs named Shells – creatively nicknamed Shelly – and Pitch. Pitch is – wait for it – black. Shells is named for similarly-colored shells on the beach. Seems like there was another example, but I can’t find it.

“Dressed only in his breeches, shirt, and waistcoat” – why, he’s practically a streaker. It meant that he was out on a cold night without a coat – – but it sounded foolish.

I still don’t understand the need for a ghost like “Uncle Reg”.

I don’t understand why an evil spell caster would decide to kill the girl who started this whole thing. Jennifer Berson was a rich girl, and – more importantly – a rich man’s daughter. When she turns up dead, of course he wants to move heaven and earth to find out who killed her, and he has the resources to do it. Why would a smart Evil Conjurer not use street kids or prostitutes or others who either would not be missed or who would be missed by those who could do nothing about it, in the time-honored tradition of the serial killer?

“‘Get him already!’ Sephira shouted”… Indeed. Please. And finish the job, you incompetent idiots.

I was writing this review as I listened. And here come the spoilers, in case you’ve made it this far into a long review and still care.

So… Here’s the thing. Ethan is getting beaten up YET AGAIN (the book went beyond italics or boldface and required caps there), and he’s lying there on the ground, all hope is lost, the ghost/illusion Anna is looming over him in classic scary child fashion, a child is in trouble, oh dear oh dear whatever will happen. Then one of those dogs Ethan sort-of kind-of owns (though not really) comes along for no particular reason. My first reaction was “But the dogs hate the ghosts”, which may or may not be valid; this Anna thing could well have been an illusion and not a ghost like “Uncle Reg”, so – fine. But the dog shows up, and stands across the street. I … well, I’ve never had a dog that would have just stood there. In my world, when one of my dogs saw me on the floor, the first response has always been “Woo hoo! We’re playing!” – I would have expected Pitch to at least come trotting over to give Ethan a sniff. “Dude, you’re acting weird, what’s up?”

My first impulse was to say that Ethan wasn’t that powerful, but then I thought a little more about the pyrotechnics he managed by pulling the life force from a handful of grass. He was able to do quite a bit more with blood, his own or that spilled by others. But the dog, just standing there with his head cocked across the street, was not mentioned to be bleeding. Just standing there, minding his own business. So – my question here is twofold. If he could draw off the life of a dog across the street, why could he not draw on the life forces of the men attacking him, or Sephira Pryce as she manipulated them – is it an all-or-nothing thing, where there’s no way to do it without killing that from which the life is drawn? Second question: if he was pretty powerful with leaves, and more powerful with blood, you’d think he’d be unstoppable using life. You’d think he’d want to spend his beloved sort-of-pet’s life usefully. So what does he do? “Blindness, conjured from the life of this dog”. Blindness. Not “Reduced to a charcoal briquet”; not “Every bone in body broken”, not “Deader than the deadest dead thing” … Blindness. Is this a temporary or permanent blindness? Who knows? (Actually someone who finished the book might.)

“Every conjuring had to draw upon its source, be it one of the elements – fire, water, earth, or air – for the simplest spells, or something drawn from a creature or plant for living spells.” See, this makes no sense. “Something”? What? There seems to be no consistency. Ethan can use grass or a leaf to fuel a spell. I didn’t notice and can’t now find what happens to the leaves when he uses them. He uses them up, that I get, but – do they crumple into dust? Shrivel up? Anything? The dog just keels over when he drains him (bastard). Blood disappears. There’s no logic to it that I can see. There are bacteria in the air and on surfaces; there are micro-organisms everywhere. Dust mites. Why can’t they be used? I know, I know – in 1765 they don’t know anything about things they can’t see, but why aren’t they being used without the conjurer realizing, perhaps assuming that there’s a latent amount of energy in air or water or whatever that can be used … why am I wasting time on this?

But then, to put the cherry on top of the nonsensicality of the magical “system”: I was morbidly curious, wanted to see what benefit killing the dog gained the little twerp, and I’d already returned the book – it was gone from my library. So I went to Google Books. And apparently about fifty pages on he is attacked yet again, vomits from pain … and then conjures a spell from “my sick”.



Reining in Murder – Leigh Hearon

I guess the “girls in love with horses” thing is a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they’re true. I was obsessed when I was a child, and still suffer from a nostalgic longing to go take riding lessons again. Basically what this means for me now is that when a book comes my way in which horses feature prominently, I’m all over it. If I see it on Netgalley, I’m requesting it – and only afterward will the realization come along that this could be a major mistake. Horses + cozy mystery could have been awful.

Fortunately, it wasn’t.

Of course there were a couple of nitpicks; it is mentioned a dog’s breath “reeking of meat and onion”, when according to my vet onions are poisonous for dogs. And the genders of a litter of puppies got somewhat confused. And Annie does at one point forget to tell someone something extremely important which … well, it stretched my credulity a bit that she would forget it. It’s a trope I loathe – “Oh, well, I’ll tell him next time I see him” – and then one or the other person involved dies, or whatever it is becomes otherwise irrelevant. This sort of string of complaints would normally indicate a book I was not happy with – the fact that I did enjoy the book in spite of quibbles is testament to other good qualities.

Annie Carson has nearly the life I’d ask for, working with horses and seeing more animals than humans. She doesn’t like children – I don’t like children. She loves horses – I love horses. The writing is smart and fun. The plot is engaging and doesn’t strain credulity. I think I’ll like this series.

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

London’s Glory – Christopher Fowler

I really enjoy Bryant and May. I really enjoy Fowler’s writing. It’s such a shame that the author finds it necessary to run his mouth as obnoxiously as he does on his blog. But it’s his blog, so he can say whatever he wants, and I can stop reading it whenever I want. Which was when his “those Americans have trouble brushing their teeth because they might have to put down their guns” attitude got up my nose.

Oh! Speaking of which: “In Britain, we have ‘equality of arms,’ which allows the same resources to be made available to both defence and prosecution, and broadly speaking this idea of balance filters down through the system. There’s a reason why the Old Bailey’s statue of Justice holds scales. It means we don’t get such outrageous courtroom dramas as O. J. Simpson fiddling with a glove, but the end result is often fairer.”

Why am I reading this guy again?

There have been discussions out there about whether and how an author’s politics or personal behavior or whatever affect whether and how people read his writing. I guess in this case the fact that the author literally makes me physically ill means that I’m done with the series. Oh well. On the plus side, he mentioned lots and lots of classic authors I can go explore instead.

I had notes on this book. I had lots to say, about the old fart (and surprisingly racist) main characters and the entertaining supporting characters, and the weird and twisty plots, and … so on. But I … don’t care anymore. And yeah, my rating for this (and all of his other books)? Oops. Had a little slip there.

The only note I feel I have to retain is on this quote: “… after the dark realities of the previous two books I needed to write something lighter and funnier, so this is one of Bryant and May’s ‘sorbet stories’—something refreshing after a big meal.”

The story is about a dead baby.

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

Famine – Monica Enderle Pierce

I havered over this book on Netgalley, and finally decided to be optimistic and request it. I really ought to have learned by now to go with my gut. This isn’t a bad book, though it has problems; it’s just not for me.

Hopefully, the errors that kept nudging me out of the story were fixed before publication, but I have no real way to check. There was a bit of tooth theme with some; in the middle of what was supposed to be a pretty intense scene, I was sitting there wondering what exactly “dental molding” was. I looked it up: it’s “DENTIL”. What a difference a vowel makes. Then a little while later the butler is polishing his boss’s beige toothpicks, and again I sat there going “Wha-?” The ensuing paragraph indicates that these are shoes, which makes more sense than, you know, actual toothpicks, but I wandered around the internet for a good bit of time without finding any style of shoes that has ever been called “toothpicks”. I don’t know. Anybody?

The problem that made me put the thing aside for a while, if not forever, is comma abuse. It was starting to make me alternately whimper and grumble every time it showed up, which was just about every other page. In common English usage there are places a comma is not used, such as in places where two adjectives are used to describe something. The author constantly uses two adjectives to describe people, places, and things, and in about ninety percent of these instances a comma is improperly used. “White, linen”; “shiny, black”; “droopy, old wives” (!); “massive, framed”; “palm-sized, tin”. And on, and on, and on. It drove me crazy. And it’s not consistent – now and then it’s done correctly (“black leather case”).

I have to say exposition is done pretty well; the background for the story is provided well enough to keep me afloat in what’s going on while maintaining mystery and tension, and I daresay holding back a few surprises.

I’m not sure I can give that much credit for characterization. The jury is still out on whether I like Bartholomew enough to spend the rest of the book at his side. There’s a whiff of iZombie about him – he consumes souls, or parts of souls, or something like that, and takes on some of the character of the person off whom he’s fed. And since he chooses blackguards to drain, he becomes a bit blackguardly. The servants felt a bit stereotypical, though the governess was beginning to take on some personality when I gave up. The villain, Famine, was … just another fairly standard all-powerful blood-sucking (is there a name for it? Homnivorous? Hey, that is a word) monster; there were the standard incredibly nasty hard-to-kill henchmen.

And then there was the little girl. Matilde is a child from the slums of New York’s Five Points who is destined to be … important, endangered by Bartholomew’s attention but then saved by her and adopted by her. She gave me pause. There were times when her dialogue came off as a young girl raised in the slums … and there were times when her dialogue came off as a middle-aged upper class matron. Sometimes in the same paragraph. And was “Matilde” a plausible name for a child from that neighborhood, with parents who did not seem to be French immigrants? As far as I could tell it wasn’t even “Matilda” given a French accent by Bartholomew.

I just have too many books in my to-be-read pile to keep on fighting. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but … no, thanks.

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

Circles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San Francisco

Who doesn’t love a carousel horse? One of my fondest dreams has always been to get my hands on one. Do I have room for it? Nope. Do I still want one? Second only to a sword, yep. Actually, if I really had my wish I would have gone into carousel restoration, but that’s a whinge for another day.

Carousel horses are never the common chestnut, that uniform brown that has always made me perk up anytime I saw a gray horse entered in the Kentucky Derby. No, these horses forever frozen in mid-leap are always glorious, gorgeous splashes of color and dramatic markings – or, if brown does occur, it’s a rich red or golden brown that’s hard to ignore.

The three San Francisco-area carousels, by my favorite companies/artists Looff and Dentzel and Herschell Spillman, each receive just about a third of the book; a single page of text outlines the history, followed by page after beautiful page of photos of the circular menageries – the horses and rabbits and tigers and giraffes and goats and camels and cats and even more fantastical animals, bedecked with ornate saddles and bridles and flags and mascots and – my favorites – occasionally armor. Even those parts of the merry-go-rounds that always interested me least, the scenery panels from the center and top canopy and chariots, are shown to their best advantage. I was expecting much less from this book, and was delighted to find over 100 photographs. I couldn’t ask for more.

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

Die Like an Eagle – Donna Andrews

I read the first book in this series a while back, and since I remembered enjoying it quite a bit I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong skipping ahead in the series (to the twentieth book! Wow) for Die Like an Eagle. I was right – it was a lot of fun.

I did have some quibbles – starting with a comment by heroine Meg that “Until lately, the only Biff I knew was a character in Death of a Salesman” – but … but … Have you never seen Back to the Future? Ever?

The plot involves our detecting heroine and her husband and their twin sons’ involvement in – no, not Little League: Summerball. Which is being run, or run into the ground, by aforementioned Biff, who skews everything in such a way to give him the most power and, wherever possible, the most money. Because of this, the field and grounds are in terrible shape, including the fact that there is a grand total of one (Biff-owned) porta-potty serving the kids and their families at any given game. And no one wants to use it, because it makes the image in your head when I write “porta-potty” look pretty rosy by comparison. That becomes a huge part of the plot, the Battle of the Bathroom(s), especially when a body is found there.

All the way through the book I was muttering there has to be a law. Well, I don’t know if it’s law or simply Federal guidelines, and if the latter how binding they are, but I found a website called americanrestroom.org (my browsing history gets more and more interesting), on which I found the following:

For Special Events for which there are no permanent toilet facilities, PSUs should be provided as follows.
1 For a typical distribution of men, women and children, there must be 1 toilet for every 300 people.
2 For an Event attended primarily by women and children there should be 1 toilet for every 200 people.
3 For an even distribution of men and women at an event where alcoholic beverages are served, there should be 1 toilet for every 240 people.

Heck, FEMA has a chart.

There also has to be a law regarding handicap accessibility; I know for retail or office space there certainly is.

The other main quibble I had was that a woman totters, drunk as a lord, into the police station, makes a scene, and is stopped outside as she’s about to drive away – and pulls a gun on the two officers who approach her. But five minutes later – or, you know, about a day – she’s out. “Wasn’t she in jail?” “Once she sobered up we let her out on bail”. I’m … sorry, you did what now? She was about to drive while under the influence and then pulled a gun – a loaded gun – on police officers, and waved it around, thereby endangering anyone else within a 360 degree radius … and you let her go? Ever?

I don’t know. I enjoyed it; I enjoyed the hijinks of the good guys trying to get around Biff and his machinations; I really enjoyed the Summerball official who swooped in for a visit. Sure, there were plenty of things that strained suspension of disbelief (really? You can actually accommodate that many people at the last minute? And then again a day or two later?), but it was okay here. I was kind of exhausted by the end – how these people got so much done in so few days is baffling to me, and I needed a nap just reading about it. Overall it was a fun book, and one of these days I will definitely fill in the 18-book gap between this one and the first.

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

The Eight – Katherine Neville

I read The Eight a long time ago, and loved it. It’s happened before with Open Road books on Netgalley – I like to request books I know and give a bit of a boost to their reissue. It’s also nice to know that I’m going to like a book going in rather than taking the gamble a Netgalley book usually is.

Unfortunately, this time it didn’t work so well. The first half or so was a wild ride, smart and fun and fascinating, and I kept thinking this is what The DaVinci Code so very much wanted to be. But somehow somewhere in there I started to flinch every time I clicked a page over and saw a new chapter set in the 18th century. The 1970’s portion still had me – but the tale of Mireille and her pantheon of the greats of France and America of the 1780’s just kind of left me cold this time around. It was such a parade of 18th century notables… Even Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton got a mention. (Yes, I too now hear “Alexander Hamilton” sung to a certain tune.)

And the digressions within the jumps backward (“There’s a tale that goes with it”, said someone, and I whimpered quietly) were painful.

It wasn’t the writing – that was always solid and clear. Characterization was kind of magnificent; I mean, in one line Neville said more about Lily than most writers would be capable of in a full chapter (“Lily was the Josephine Baker of chess. She had everything but the ocelot and the bananas.”) The only character who got somewhat short shrift was the 20th century first-person narrator, Cat; she didn’t seem quite so well-rounded.

It was just that the story did not simply have a beginning, middle, and end in a straight line. It more resembles a Celtic knot, or one of those flourishes one of those 18th century notables might have made under their signature to (if I recall correctly) discourage forgery. Maybe it’s because I don’t often have the solid blocks of time to devote to a book that I did when I first read this, but it made me tired.

And it was just a bit frustrating that, with guns blazing all around them and bodies dropping right and left, Cat and Lily keep on trucking by themselves.

“I still think we should go to the police. After all, we have two bullet holes to prove our point.”
“Never,” cried Lily in agitation, “will I admit that I’m not up to solving this mystery on my own. Strategy is my middle name.”

It’s all very dated, of course – or rather period, I suppose. This came long before 9/11, so the zipping about among countries was easier, and security at events and in buildings was much lighter. And a cell phone here and there would have made a huge difference in the more modern plot.

But I have to say, something I usually complain about, the Dread Recap, is skillfully avoided in this book. Katherine Neville is good at keeping the reader afloat in a vast and sometimes choppy sea of plot.

I’m not much of a chess player; I won a game once, but I’m pretty sure my opponent wasn’t paying attention. But the trappings, the history of chess is wonderful to read about, and, happily, The Eight does not depend on a reader’s prowess to work. And it does work. It really is everything the DaVinci Code longed and miserably failed to be.

Quote I want to see turned into a painting:
On the fourth of April in the year 782, a wondrous festival was held at the Oriental Palace at Aachen to honor the fortieth birthday of the great King Charlemagne. He had called forth all the nobles of his empire. The central court with its mosaic dome and tiered circular staircases and balconies was filled with imported palms and festooned with flower garlands. Harps and lutes were played in the large halls amid gold and silver lanterns. The courtiers, decked in purple, crimson, and gold, moved through a fairyland of jugglers, jesters, and puppet shows. Wild bears, lions, giraffes, and cages of doves were brought into the courtyard. All was merriment for weeks in anticipation of the king’s birthday. – – It needs a Pre-Raphaelite painter, I think.

I have to say I took great geeky pleasure in the etymologies peppered through the book, from the obvious (how did I forget “Vermont”?) to the huh! (The Rooks, or Castles, were called Rukhkh, the Arabic word for “chariot”) and the “aha!” (“Islam” comes from the same root as “shalom”). (One more: “Venice was founded by the Phoenicians—whence we derive our name”.) And the chapter heading quotes (there’s a name for those, isn’t there?) were terrific. (“Skeletons of mice are often to be found in coconuts, for it is easier to get in, slim and greedy, than to get out, appeased but fat.” —Chess Is My Life: Viktor Korchnoi (Russian GM); “Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.” —Savielly Tartakover (Polish GM))

Note of worthless trivia: my high school French teacher christened me Mireille for her class. I hated it because no one (including me) could pronounce that “R”. So this was kind of weird.

Something which was probably intended as comic relief, but which made me uncomfortable and then began to make me a little angry, was the way Lily’s little dog Carioca was handled throughout. That poor little fuzzball was thrown, dropped, kicked, dunked, squashed, and lord knows what all else. I really hated it.

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

Murder at the Manor – Martin Edwards

As with so many (most) (the vast majority of) story collections, this has high highs and low lows and quite a lot in between; I can’t remember the last time I read a collection in which I loved every story. So often the way with story collections. The best thing about this one is that it provided a list of authors to be pursued later. (And a few to remember to ignore.)

There’s something about the English manor house that just cries out to have murder mysteries set in it. Wealthy people cavorting are such a tempting target, and then there are the occasional fish out of water, the person of middle–class or American or other foreigner trying to stay afloat in alien waters (that’s a mixed metaphor, isn’t it…), people sneaking around the hallways at night conducting clandestine affairs, and of course the servants who must be avoided, got around, and taken into account. Many rooms, plenty of acreage, so many places to hide – so many rooms to get locked into and then murdered.

A couple were kind of brilliant – I loved “The Mystery of Horne’s Copse”; that was a page-turner.

And I learned a couple of things. A Zingari blazer is something I’ve never heard of, but I’ve seen ’em. (They’re not forgettable.) I still don’t know what an “I.Z. tour” is, but “clock golf” is “a form of golf in which you putt from positions arranged on the circumference of a circle around the hole”. Thus endeth my annotations.

I adored the line “there stood on this table a thing not often met with in a private house in England. It was a small, portable electric fan, such as one finds on board ship or in the tropics.” Great scott! A fan! Revolutionary!

And I enjoyed the sort of meta fourth-wall-breaking “Mr. Ponderby–Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter I. Vulpine in his secretiveness, he was porcine in his habits, saturnine in his appearance, and ovine in his unconsciousness of doom. He was the kind of man who might easily perish as early as paragraph two.”

Overall, very worthwhile.

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

Murder in the Museum – John Rowland

The victim of the Murder in the Museum is a Shakespeare scholar, who held a theory that “Shakespeare’s plays were written by two people together— one was Shakespeare himself and the other Kit Marlowe”. So obviously I was pleased when he was killed. At least he wasn’t an Oxfordian; I would have had to stop reading, because the death wasn’t brutal enough.

This is a reissue of a Golden Age mystery which involves poison, kidnapping, and a cross-country high-for-its-time-speed pursuit; it features some of the good aspects of the subgenre – a clever detective, some nice writing; and also several of the not-so-good ones – like the mores and mindset of the time, which means that whenever someone who is Jewish comes on the scene or is spoken about, it’s jarring. (Be warned.)

I’m not sure if I’ll hunt out more John Rowland novels – this one didn’t win me over completely – but I’m certainly not sorry I read it. There’s much worse out there. Much.

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