Anne of Green Gables revisited – again

Have you seen this? I want everything on this page.

This is the edition my wonderful aunts bought me when I was about ten. Thereby changing my life.

I’ve written about Anne before, a few times. But – as with any extraordinary book – every time I read or listen to it something different sticks with me. As a source of solace at the end of a terrible, terrible year, I listened again to the Librivox recording by Karen Savage, who does such a beautiful job. I won’t say it made it all better – so many deaths, not only of celebrities that meant a great deal to me but also of family members; life changes that did not improve matters; November 8 – but it did provide a space of sweetness and calm.

Oh, Anne.

Oh, beloved Matthew.

The older I get, the more deeply I appreciate this book, and the more deeply I love it. Other good books come and they go, but Anne is one of those which runs in my veins and nourishes my heart.

Matthew is such a beautiful character. He says so little – but he’s so important. It is because of his soft heart and empathy that Anne’s life is changed, redeemed, given room to blossom. And in her blossoming, Matthew and Marilla find new life as well, in ways no one ever could have anticipated. When I got to That Chapter, the one with the rightly ominous title, I hesitated for a long time… but I had to listen to it. And it was as if all the griefs and pains of 2016 novaed within me, and there were moments when I was crying so hard I couldn’t hear the narration. But … L.M. Montgomery works through the grief with her characters, and as they endure and grow stronger and begin to find joy again, so does the reader. This death is probably the one which in all of fiction hits the hardest … and yet which also heals.

And Marilla. As a child, I don’t think I cared so much for her one way or another; the strict authoritarian who rides herd on Anne’s imaginings and flights of fancy, who has such trouble comprehending what is going on in that red head. As these things are wont to go, she just seemed old to me when I read this as a child, old and staid and intractable. Now, of course, I’m a lot closer to her age, whatever that might be, than I am to Anne’s in this book, and I get her. She hasn’t had a rich life, in any sense of the word, and it has … dried her out. Still, despite spinsterhood in a time when it’s shameful (when isn’t it?) and hard work and headaches and past heartbreak, she has that saving sense of humor. It’s only an acorn when Anne comes into her life, and the girl acts as sunlight and water on it. It’s beautifully subtle, and it’s a marvel to see it grow.

It’s interesting to notice things here and there which flew miles over my head as a child. Marilla’s frequent headaches are worrying; and then there’s the moment at the beginning when Marilla mentions how Matthew’s heart troubles him, which is one reason they were adopting a boy. These are scary moments to read, now, with hindsight.

One thing that really caught my attention this go-round was the peddler who sold Anne that infamous dye in the Incident of the Green Hair. Marilla protests letting “one of those Italians” into the house, which is at best xenophobic and at worst racist… Which is one of those things that troubles a modern reader; I think I’ve said before how troubling it was that everyone in Avonlea was suspicious (at best) of Catholics, and pretty much any other group who wasn’t Protestant Irish-Scots. Anyway. Anne reassures Marilla that she didn’t let him in, and he wasn’t Italian: he was a German Jew, who was trying to earn enough money to bring his family to Canada. And I had a bit of a thrill – not one of Anne’s lovely thrills, but one more like what Matthew describes feeling when he sees grubs in his field. Anne was written in 1908, decades before the most obvious reason for a Jew to flee Germany, but a minute’s research shows that, while there was no need to worry about being stuffed into a train car and sent off to a camp, never to be seen again – still, anti-Semitism was going strong.

Anne is a book which has contributed in a big way to the better parts of me, and which reminds me of them every time I read or listen to it. It’s the book which helped form my concept of friendship … which perhaps has been too high a standard. It’s the book – or rather series – which makes it hard to go to work and listen to that horrific excuse for a radio station which a couple of people insist on. Then there’s the world of Viagra commercials and Charmin commercials (those cartoon bears are an abomination) and The Bachelor and these strange creatures called Kardashians … and presidential campaigns … and … It’s a severe culture shock.

So now and then it’s good to wrap myself up in Green Gables, and forget about the rest of it.

May the reality always be better than your imagining, and may all your sleeves be puffed.

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Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow – Scott Brick

I feel compelled to state up front that I bought this audiobook in 2013, before the celebrated musical was much more than a twinkle in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s eye. And actually I can honestly say the musical wasn’t even on my mind when I chose this to listen to. I have been seeing the internet blowing up about Hamilton for ages now, but for me rap=No, so I never explored it. Well, three or four chapters into the book I got curiouser and curiouser, so – having accidentally signed up for Amazon Prime, and recalling that the Broadway cast album was free for members – I paused the book and queued it up.

Rap still=No, but … wow. I’m a convert. And it turns out that it was inspired by this book, and from what I can see is actually a remarkably faithful adaptation. Which is fantastic. (You know the whole “won’t throw away my shot” theme? That didn’t originate in a rap song.)

Having addressed the musical elephant in the room…

How has Alexander Hamilton gone so unnoticed, or at least under-noticed, for 250 years? His story is amazing. Seriously, wildly, fascinatingly amazing. Lin-Manuel Miranda, well done. Very well done. How did a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor Grow up to be a hero and a scholar? With a tremendous amount of luck, ample wit and skill to take advantage of opportunities and make them when they didn’t come naturally, charm and determination and an utterly brilliant mind, is how. It’s a tremendous story. It’s one of the few good things that has come out of the past couple of years, and one of the only good things that happened to me in 2016. Oh, and Hamilton is referred to as a “raging Anglophile” – that will be my new subtitle. Except on April 16.

As the book wore on, I started to get the uncomfortable feeling that I’m a little like Hamilton. Not in a “what a brilliant person with incredible drive and will accomplish so much etc” sort of way … No. “He would be devoured by dislike of someone, brood about it, then yield to the catharsis of discharging his venom in print….’The frankness of his nature was such that he could not easily avoid the expression of his sentiments of public men and measures, and his extreme candor in such cases was sometimes productive of personal inconveniences,’ observed friend Nathaniel Pendleton. Also, he was “incapable of a wise silence”. Oh, how I empathize with this… “Hamilton now reverted to lifelong practice: he would drown his accusers with words”. Yeah. Sometimes that’s all you’ve got, isn’t it? All his friends and advisers warned him off responding to the pamphlet outlining his adultery and supposed fraud/embezzlement – and instead he went with his gut and wrote, and wrote, and wrote with “a vengeful glee”. Alexander Hamilton would have had a glorious time with the internet. He would not have been a “write the email, save it as a draft, then delete it when you cool off” kind of guy. He would have been a “typety typety typety typety SEND” kind of guy.

This might sound a bit weird, but I’ve been interested in Benedict Arnold for years. The thumbnail sketch of him that everyone knows (basically: Traitor) isn’t all there is; it was when I discovered that he – called by Chernow “that poor bastard Arnold” – was a weak man, played like a tambourine by his manipulative ambitious bitch of a wife (Peggy Shippen Arnold), that he was thwarted by everyone who wasn’t playing him, leaving him even more open to be played… and that he originally lived and worked in New Haven, CT, my own back yard … I still want to write a book on the man. The Arnolds are entirely tangential to Hamilton’s story, but the little bit of focus is fascinating.

Another sidelight, on Jefferson, is also eye-opening. From this angle, he was a sniping, petulant, cowardly (!) slave-holding hypocritical bitch. Oh, and as president he was … “frumpy”. I mean … It’s a little mind-blowing.

Perhaps my favorite thing about a truly wonderful book (and audiobook, and musical) is that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is given a warm and loving spotlight. This woman … I am nearly as impressed by her as I am by her impressive husband. She was staunch. She was steadfast. She was strong. She must have felt that her world was ending when Hamilton was killed – but she prevailed. She kept going until 1854, fifty years after the duel, bearing a torch with her every single day to try to keep her impressive husband in people’s memories.

The book was a great experience in audio. To be honest, though Scott Brick is a celebrated audiobook narrator, he has never been a favorite of mine; I’m wondering if I’ve listened to samples of him reading fiction, though, because I very much enjoyed his reading of Alexander Hamilton.

“[This] bronze statue of Alexander Hamilton by James Earle Fraser was dedicated on May 17, 1923, and can be found on the south patio (Alexander Hamilton Place, NW) of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington D.C.” — Wikipedia

There was one surprise favorite moment in the book. “Near his New York home, the walls of a building were defaced with the gigantic words, ‘Damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t put up lights in the windows and sit up all night damning John Jay.'” Which rang so many bells. I knew I knew that from somewhere. And so I did – from the movie Lost in Austen: Bingley (to Darcy): “Damn you! Damn you and damn everyone who won’t put a light in his window and stay up all night damning you!” Which I wrote down because it was so emphatically viciously perfect.

There is an awful lot of talk in certain political circles about what the “Founding Fathers” intended or would have wanted or whatever. I’m not going to get political here… but I’ll just put in this quote… Hamilton convinced George Washington to run for President because he “dreaded having a mediocrity at the top”. So, then… what is it the Founding Fathers, of the time when “The intellectual caliber of the leading figures surpassed that of any future political leadership in American history” would have wanted now…? “…The rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America.” Thanks, boys. Thanks a heap.

Oh! One more amazingly relevant moment from the book: “At the end of his term, President Adams rushed through appointments for these judges, offending Republicans, who thought he should have allowed the new president to choose.” Hm.

Well, damn. Now I want to see Hamilton.

Oh. And read this.

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The Devil’s Feast – M.J. Carter

I wonder if I would have enjoyed this more if I’d read the previous book(s) that featured these characters. It wasn’t terrible, by any means; the immersion in a 19th century kitchen serving 300 or more was fascinating. The mysterious Blake was truculent and difficult. Avery, the first-person main character, was all right, if a bit dim at times. His dependence on Blake reminded me of a child separated for the first time from his mother, constantly seeking reassurance.

It was somewhat annoying to have Avery’s CV regurgitated as often as it was. Medals in Afghanistan, saved a maharajah, was with Mountstuart before he died, etc. – it seemed like every person meeting him for the first time got the rundown. At least the same wording wasn’t used each time.

I liked the fact that the economic situation of everyone is kept in mind. Within the confines of the club and its kitchen was a range of people, men and women and even a few children, ranging from the wealthiest men in England to people grateful for leftovers to bring home for hungry families, from men who would be financially damaged if the club were closed to people who would be destroyed if the club went down and their jobs with it.

I was left intrigued by Avery’s relationship with his wife. She’s back home; he guiltily prolongs his stay in London, guiltily puts off letting her know, and then upon seeing her again has absolutely no idea how to behave toward her. He still cares for her; he tries; but he has no clue why she reacts the way she does and is stymied because, not knowing what he’s done wrong, he doesn’t know how to fix it. Her obvious mental illness is well handled in the setting.

On the whole, though, it all felt like it took a bit too long, and Avery’s ineptitude and extreme insecurity were a bit tiresome. And Blake was a bit too mysterious, truculent, and difficult. It would be interesting to read an entry in the series where the two of them work together; I might look into that one of these days.

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

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Worst. President. Ever. – Robert Strauss

Was James Buchanan the worst president ever? (I’m sorry – I refuse to copy the title’s punctuation.) Maybe he was. Maybe not. I’m not sure this author is persuasive enough to make me agree with him.

Part of it is that he takes large chunks of a not-very-long book into discussion of topics that have nothing whatever to do with Buchanan or his fitness, such as a long chunk about a quarter of the way in about how he became interested in presidents in general and Buchanan in particular. Because Strauss loved sports statistics, you see, his father gave him a book about presidential trivia. Wait, what – ? (Also, if I were his daughter Sylvia, I am not sure I’d speak to him for quite a while after reading this. Sylvia does not come off as a very appealing person. Who knows – maybe Strauss used the same gimmick as William Goldman did in The Princess Bride and the daughter was fictional.) The beginning of the presidency in question doesn’t come until the sixty percent mark; the first 60% of the book is spent on the history of slavery and the country and the previous fourteen presidents. Oh, and the first sixty-odd years of Buchanan’s life. It seems to be a symptom of the fact that there just isn’t that much info about the man; in order to flesh out an entire book it had to cover him from birth, however irrelevant his childhood might be to how good or bad his presidency was.) There’s a lot of what really feels like padding; without much effort, this book could have been trimmed of 100 pages. Or cut in half.

Also padding-like is the relentless repetition. Treating chronology with blithe disregard, the author loops back around and around to the Dred Scott Decision, or the death of Ann Coleman (the beloved of the young Buchanan), or the death of Pierce’s son, or that revenue cutter named after Harriet Lane, or Harper’s Ferry…

Another problem I had with the book is that he leans, very heavily, on the few previous biographers there are out there, quoting from them liberally. It’s to be expected, I suppose, given how little there is about Buchanan out there, but it happens often enough that it begins to feel like simple regurgitation. It’s pretty funny when he disparages one biographer’s ability to “present an engaging story”.

And really, I don’t think the popularity of a president’s first name is exactly relevant when trying to determine the best or worst. It’s not like “Abraham” has been one of the top hundred baby names over the past hundred years (I checked).

The writing … This might sound hypocritical, given that I have a decent vocabulary and like to use it when I perhaps don’t really need to, but I think I know when to stop. I truly, sincerely hope I’ve never been guilty of a pompous sentence like “My contrarian antennae had been raised to their acme.” Things like “Litchfield, a town nearby Yale” are not only awkward but inaccurate; New Haven is over an hour from Litchfield. The Masons are referred to as “a somewhat secretive organization”, which is like saying Pulp Fiction is somewhat profane. I’ve never understood “horse riders”. And it seemed like a whole lot of sentences featured a minimum of three or four commas. (I’m sorry, I have to use one more quote, which is both a great example of this and also of yet another thing that was reiterated over and over: “When it became clear, though, that eventually, with all the westward expansion, the South would turn from an equal section to a minority one, abolitionists, who had just been a nuisance, started really bothering Southerners.” Seven commas.) Sometimes there are dashes. I’m not supposed to use quotes from the advance copy, so I’ll stop there, but I’ve gotten in the habit of putting one note on particularly odd or off passages when I highlight them on the Kindle: “wut?” There were a lot of “wuts” in this book.

One more thing that left me a bit gobsmacked was a quote from a former university history professor that “They certainly didn’t have the word ‘gay’ back then” … Um. They kinda did. It had a different primary definition “back then”. The author ponders how, although there is conjecture that Buchanan was homosexual, he was never rumored in his own time to be dating another man. How surprising.

He compares Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter to Kris Kardashian. I … *sigh*

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

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Smoke – Dan Vyleta

I surprised myself a little by giving this four stars; all the while I was reading it I’d fully expected to be giving it an easy five. It’s so wildly unique, a remarkable recreation of the world with one extraordinary addition. And it’s a well-built recreation, a fully realized alternative England with the vital difference of the Smoke.

The Smoke … what a fascinating, wildly unique idea. All of a person’s base thoughts and deeds manifest in wisps – or clouds, or billows, depending – of visible matter, leaving a smell in the air and soot on clothing and everything else. And it’s self-perpetuating, as its presence in the air sparks off behavior which leads to more Smoke … English culture has warped around the phenomena: theatre is so thoroughly banned that children don’t know what it is, and schools seem to concentrate as much on the amount of soot you show as on your grasp of arithmetic. They’re certainly not going to br teaching you Shakespeare. Or evolution. (Or about giraffes, for some reason.)

While I admire the tight-lipped style of storytelling – tight alternating points of view, with absolutely none of the dreded “info-dumping” – it was also frustrating at times. How and when and where did the Smoke originate? Is it worldwide? What is the science behind it? Some answers are provided, but only what the main characters discover – and they don’t dig for answers to the same questions I was asking.

What took a star away from my rating was, in the end, the direction of the plot and its resolution. As a whole the book seemed to lack a certain clarity. I think part of the problem was that the author succumbed to the temptation of giving the villain of the piece his own point of view sections, and I find that this usually serves to weaken a story. To my mind, it’s always better to keep a book’s focus on the main characters, letting the reader wonder with them what the bad guys are up to, being surprised when they are when the bad guys pop up, rather than indulging in a bit of evil gloating through the villain’s eyes, followed often by a recap of the same scene once the protagonists cover the same ground.

Still and all, it was an impressive, if somewhat chilly book.

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

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The Ill-kept Oath – C.C. Aune

I don’t understand why this book was such a slog. The writing was … fine. I had no objections. I didn’t want to wrap myself up in it and stay there forever, but there was nothing I can put my finger on that drove me off, either (except the ARC formatting, but that’s not the book’s fault) (and some unfortunate typos – the classic “discrete” for “discreet”, and … well, you can’t really lisp a sentence that contains no sibilants). The characters were … well, fine. I liked the two girls at the center of the story well enough, was fine with spending time with them, believed their tempers and stupid decisions and so on rather than being aggravated by them … but just didn’t care very much. On the whole, the thing just seemed like it must be about 800 pages – I just felt like I couldn’t make a dent without a bit of determination.

Part of my frustration with it was the manner in which information was doled out – or not. The story begins with those two fairly ordinary, clever, pretty young women who have grown up like sisters, one about to embark on her first Season in London, the other sorrowfully staying home. The latter has only her father; the former has only her brother, their parents both being long dead. And, of course, it is the story of those three dead parents that becomes very important in the two girls’ lives. Each girl almost simultaneously receives or finds a box of artifacts which belonged to their mothers, about which they are told absolutely nothing (for one of them, it was “I don’t want to give you this but here, don’t ask any questions, it belonged to your mother but despite your obvious need for more information I’m not saying anything else, no really I will not talk about it, it’s only old junk so don’t touch it or even look at it, goodness I need to go and lie down”) and things begin to change almost immediately.

While I respect a writer’s wish to avoid the dread infodump and not to baby her reader, I kept feeling as though I’d missed a page. Or a chapter. Wait – when was I told about that? Or that? Or the other? As best I can tell, unless all of my reading comprehension has gone, the answer to that question was never. Information suddenly just became part of the narrative. Characters changed at what seemed like the flip of a page, from ally to enemy or vice versa or from pauper to convenient prince, suddenly the girls knew things without the revelation being shared with the reader, and it was all very irritating. Titles like “Oathbreaker” and “Protector” suddenly become part of the conversation; Prudence determines that the last thing she wants is a trip to the Refuge, when I still had no idea what that might be, and as far as I could tell neither ought Prudence to have. The villain of the piece is not only one of the whiplash moments of “wait, what?” but is pretty unconvincing – I never felt any whiff of danger from that quarter.

There were some very nice moments. Prudence’s love affair was nicely handled; it was more romantic than most of what passes for romance novels I’ve read. “In that tiny enclosure, she couldn’t fail to notice the ragged quality of his breathing. A hint of gin in the air bespoke of nerves that had required some calming.” … “In the half-darkness, he stooped and closed his mouth over hers. Prudence sank against his body, welcoming the radiant heat of his strength. Never in her life had she felt safer than this.” There were a few quite nice scenes. A few. The language was mostly appropriate to the period, there were passages when the setting, time and place, came through very well, and there were some excellent character moments.

But just about every one of the secondary characters was enigmatic. Should the girls trust various and sundry people or not? Was Edward a buffoon or not? Was Aunt Amelia a fluttery old fool, or a sharp and able protector? Did MacNeal really have valid excuses for his disappearances? And what on or off the earth is “The Druineach Legacy” (the title of the series) supposed to mean? Oughtn’t I to have a hint by the end of the first book? Honestly, by the end, I just didn’t really care that much.

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

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These Dark Wings – John Owen Theobald

I’m just not sure about this one. I think I’m kind of getting used to teenaged (or thereabouts) main characters that I just don’t like much – and I don’t like that, either. When her mother is killed by German bombing, Anna Cooper, 12, goes to live with her uncle in the Tower of London, where he serves as Ravenmaster – maintaining the legend that if the ravens leave the Tower, England will fall. It’s something that seems more critical now than ever, given that the city is suffering under the Blitz, and any small blow to morale would be magnified.

Anna doesn’t like her uncle. She doesn’t like the Tower. She doesn’t like the ravens. She doesn’t like the other kids who live with their Beefeater fathers in the Tower, and she doesn’t like their fathers (or mothers), either. She never expresses much if any grief over her mother’s death, nor worry over her father, who is apparently serving in the North Sea.She does her utmost to make the lives of everyone around her miserable.

Part of the reason for this is obvious – it’s also part of why kids don’t want to be kids, I think: they are told nothing. She overhears little bits and snatches of things, but when she tries to find out more about just about anything – from why her uncle and mother never saw each other, to what the deal is with the mysterious man she sees lurking about. She begins to suspect that one of the guards is either a spy or a traitor, and I began to very much hope he was neither because I did not want her to be correct.

Another aspect of the story that irritated me was the author’s adherence to the he-punched-you-in-the-arm-because-he-likes-you, dipping-pigtails-into-inkwells school of young love. One of the boys sharing the compound is mildly monstrous to her, to a degree that when she went out of the Tower with him I worried for her safety, figuring he’d either do something terrible or abandon her. Yet, pardon what I suppose is a spoiler, by the end when they’re separated she finds herself pining for him. It’s not exactly a classic love story.

When the revelation comes of who the mysterious stranger is, I might have given up if the book wasn’t already almost over. It’s based on truth – but the manner of the revelation annoyed me deeply. Overall, not a book I connected with.

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

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The Mountain of Kept Memory – Rachel Neumeier

I requested this from Netgalley because of one bit from the description: “this gorgeous fantasy in the spirit of Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin McKinley”. If you’re going to say that, and live up to it, then it’s going to be amazing. (Also, Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin McKinley have very little in common apart from being … amazing, so I’m dying to see what constitutes a cross between them.)

If you are going to say that and not live up to it … I will eviscerate the book in question. Slowly. In print, of course.

But no. I think I get it. There is a certain scope and range to the story which is not unlike GGK, and a certain facility with the language which, if you squint, resembles Robin McKinley. But I wish, I really do wish, that publishers or whoever it is who puts out blurbs like that would realize that they are far more likely to be doing their authors a disservice than helping them. Because I went into this book – heck, I requested this book – with a light in my eye like “Oh, yeah? Prove it. A lot.”

And while I still can’t say I approve of using two of my favorite writers in the blurb, it didn’t take all that long for me to let it go and just enjoy the book. Because it really is a solid, unique book with lovely, lovely writing. I required it to be nothing less than amazing, and it was.

The characters are alive, well-rounded and very much themselves, just about always responding to situations in ways that I didn’t expect, but which were perfectly in keeping with the way they were built. It would have been very easy for the young princess Oressa to become a cliché of a trousers-wearing, I’m-not-going-to-behave-like-a-proper-princess rebel – and she did not. She is wonderful.

And so are her brother Gulien and the invading prince Gajdosik (who has such good reasons to invade). They all kept surprising me, they grew through the story, and they won my heart.

I read this not quite in one sitting, but not for lack of trying. The main reason is that it took me a little while to figure it out (and, I’ll admit, to get past my prejudices), but once I was sucked in I was solidly in the author’s world. It’s a remarkable invention – magic used like I’ve never seen it used before, capricious gods (or are they?), perilous artifacts – it’s deep, and wide, and hopefully has plenty of room for lots more stories.

As I mentioned, one point of commonality Ms. Neumeier has with, say, Robin McKinley is an easy grace with the language (easy-seeming – I’m sure the seeming is achieved with blood and sweat and tears) that is one reason why I read fantasy. She does not indulge in the villain’s point of view to save herself the trouble of explaining his motives; she does not ever let a character take the figurative microphone and blether on in endless infodumping. She does not choose to simply say “he was exhausted and in pain”, but shows it: “He lounged in his chair, feet up on a small table and crossed at the ankles, head tilted back against the cushions, eyes mostly closed. He would have managed to look comfortable, except that he was also ashen pale. There were dark shadows under his eyes and lines at the corners of his mouth that Oressa was almost sure hadn’t been there even a day ago.” See, kids? That’s what the old writing advice means. And the author knows how to avoid Reality Show Recapitis, in which what happened just five minutes ago is retold for the benefit of some character who wasn’t there, although I the reader very much was. “‘I believe we would appreciate the long version, eventually,’ murmured Gajdosik”, she writes, and my note was “Oh, bless”, because so many (lesser) writers would have felt the need to remind their short-term-memory-lacking audience of everything they read a chapter or two ago.

It just struck me that I can myself add another writer to the short list that nobody else really ought to be compared to, but to whom I am, to my own surprise, going to draw a comparison… Dorothy L. Sayers. There is an air of Peter and Bunter about Oressa and Gulien, with Oressa piffling away and only to the patient and observant revealing her actual level of intelligence, and Gulien solidly and stolidly moving forward whatever the obstacles. (Of course, Peter’s piffle is usually an intentional defense mechanism, and Oressa just can’t be bothered to straighten out the tangles before she speaks, but the resemblance still struck me.)

One book does not a Very Favorite Author make, but somewhere in packing boxes I apparently own two other books by Ms. Neumeier. Now I need to go find them. And I can’t wait to see if there will be more from Carastind.

I just hope no one does her the disservice of comparing her to Tolkien.

Favorite line, which won’t mean much out of context but which twisted my heart a little in: “Don’t talk,” Oressa said quickly. “Please, don’t. Look, I’ll do both parts.”

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

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A Lady in the Smoke – Karen Odden

A train goes off the rails in 1874, and the aftermath brings together people who ordinarily would never have crossed paths. I think I expected this to be much of a muchness with other Victorian-set novels, but very quickly learned how wrong I was. From the very beginning, as the horrors of the accident are detailed, it was pretty clear that this would be blazing its own trail.

Elizabeth Fraser, fresh from her fourth disappointing London Season, has her hands full and more than full with her addicted mother, and there’s another point of difference for this book. Partly to escape the oppression of looking after the woman, partly because her assistance is genuinely needed, Elizabeth lends her aid to the doctor (Paul Wilcox) who follows the casualties placed, along with her and her mother, in a boardinghouse, and then goes with him on his other calls.

That actually annoyed me a little. Whether or not Wilcox has any idea that Elizabeth is a capital-L Lady, or just a young lower-case-L lady, it seemed like a remarkably bad idea for him to allow her to go with him to the much more desperate neighborhoods he has to enter. She gets an education that night.

And, of course,she begins to fall in love with one of the more inappropriate men to cross her path.

I liked her; I liked him. I did not much care for the fact that Paul joins the ranks of Regency, Edwardian, and Victorian novel characters to have as a sidekick a young street urchin who once tried to pick his pocket. There seem to be a lot of them out there. It would be kind of nice to think that in the 1870’s a young man’s first impulse would be to put such a boy, caught in the act, to work – but I don’t have much faith in the vision.

I’m not entirely sure the whole motivation behind the mystery – this train crash not being the first of its kind of late – is entirely logical – it seemed to me that the plot would end up costing more money than it saved or earned – but then, major conspiracies (either in theory or practice) aren’t always logical. But the investigation – in which Elizabeth only takes part in ways that actually make sense, which is refreshing – is logical, and ties together quite nicely.

Though there were some hiccups in the writing – a bit of a tendency toward Recapitis (Yes. I know. You just told me that a few pages ago), a little bit of ponderousness at times – on the whole I enjoyed the plotting and the writing. The acid test for a book in a series that is new to me, by an author new to me, is whether I’ll look for more – and in this case I believe I will.

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

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A Killer’s Guide to Good Works – Shelley Costa

Honestly, by the time I got around to trying to write a review of this (which would be just now), I had to stop for a minute. I couldn’t remember a thing. It all came back after a second; there was the instant I thought “I only gave this three stars?”, followed closely by the one in which I thought “Oh, right. Yes. Three.”

It had its moments. I liked the main character, Valjean Cameron. I liked her friend Adrian (despite the fact that I kept confusing her with her brother Anthony; “Adrian” is usually the masculine spelling) and her aunt Greta, and the sharp young girl she encounters in pursuing answers. I wasn’t as enamored with Anthony Bale, perhaps because my entire Catholic background rose up in protest of his choice of lifestyle and choice of cover story.

That was actually a major drawback to the book for me. I found it repulsive that a man who might at any time be called upon to perform acts upon which any church would frown, and who apparently has (or has had) a string of bed-warmers, who openly states his agnosticism (if not atheism) – that such a man would think it was just fine to put on the robe of even a lay brother and pretend to be a man trying to be … good. I would think the hypocrisy would be hard for an intelligent man to live with, but apparently in this case it is not. It was, however, hard to read about, and I was completely unwilling to accept Bale as Val’s new love interest.

There are all kinds of comparisons to Dan Brown’s exercises in earnest silliness, to the point that I’m a little shocked I would request this. And, while it’s better written to a degree that is so large as to be almost immeasurable, there is an awful lot of common ground between That Book Which Shall Remain Nameless and this one. A secret Catholic society looking to change the world is just as silly when I like the main character and don’t cringe at most of the writing as when I want to shoot the main character in the face and most of the writing makes me whimper softly.

(It may be the fault of the ARC, but there were a handful of times when the writing did make me whimper, just a little – “Turning to face Bale, her sweater tugged across her breast”, for example. Maybe these things will be fixed.)

Also … why, exactly, does a member of a secret society (let me repeat: SECRET) get a tattoo of said society’s symbol above his collarbone? Not inside his elbow, or under one breast, or on the back of his knee or someplace else most people would never see it – nope: in a place where it would often show above his neckline.

So – it’s better than That Other Book – but that’s not a difficult achievement, after all. It falls somewhere in between it and The Eight – on the lower end of the scale, unfortunately. Disappointing.

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

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