Unmentionable – Therese Oneill

I still remember how crushing it was the first time someone felt it would be fun for my own good to pop my Disney–and–Robin Hood–blown bubble, and let me to know that those marvelous castles I was always admiring, those perfect settings for all my dreams, were actually massively drafty, stinkingly unsanitary holes. To my every “Yeah, but – ” there was another quelling response. No, really – living in a castle in period was horrible (and living in a castle now would be the very definition of “money pit”).

So now, why not? Let’s eviscerate all those glowing visions of the Edwardian and Regency and Victorian eras. It’s fun!

And – while it is surprisingly difficult to apply this new knowledge to Jane Austen and Upstairs Downstairs and so on … it is fun.

I was a little surprised that the author bounced not only through time but through space; it was as though she wanted to make sure the worst example available was used for any given situation, and in a lot of cases that was in more recently settled America rather than what I automatically expected: England. It was a little disconcerting at times to find I wasn’t reading about where I thought I was reading about – I do wish she had made that clearer.

The author’s voice – that of a snarky, just-you-wait-till-you-hear-this guide, sympathetic to the reader’s dismay but also a bit gleeful about popping the bubble – was, according to some reviews, annoying to some, but I had a good time with it. There were times I needed that “oh, my sweet summer child” presence – “they did what? With what? How? Wha -?”

We live in a world in which things are discussed which in earlier times were taboo. Verboten. Distasteful. Tacky. Maybe it’s my age – but I don’t think so, because some of my coworkers are in the same bracket. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up. Maybe I’m just a prude – I really don’t know. But on a daily basis my coworkers shock and horrify me with the way they talk about … everything. Loudly. Their sex lives. In detail. Their urinary misadventures. Their hot flashes – there’s a general alert with every one from every woman. Their complaints about their children or husbands or boyfriends. Things which in my little insular world ought to be private, personal, nobody else’s business. You see, I don’t want to know that one coworker with a bad cold had bladder slippage every time she coughed – but when she said this another coworker chimed in – loudly and with detail – about how the same thing happened to her. I don’t want to know that this latter experience was every time she threw up with that last bout of whatever illness – I really, really don’t. This is in an office with nine people, not all her friends, and one a man. There is not enough brain bleach in the world to eradicate the details I’ve heard about various and sundry from various and sundry. Want to hear more? I’ve been here three years. I’ve got more. Reams.

I’m not even going to talk about those Charmin commercials with the disgusting cartoon bears. One of my aunts used to watch the evolution of tv, aghast, and commented that next thing you knew they’d be modeling tampons in commercials. We’re almost there.

So … when did this happen? About a hundred years ago, no one would have dreamed of talking about these things except MAYBE in extreme privacy with her mother. And, yes, there is very much something to be said about more information being public about sex and health and sanitation; some of the things that doctors got away with as described in this book can’t (or almost can’t) happen now, and it’s surely better for women to know what they’re in for on their wedding nights or when menopause hits, or to know what they’re not the only person something happens to, etc. – more knowledge is almost always better (as opposed to Too Much Information). But … There has to be a middle ground somewhere between utter vulgarity and Victorian frigidity, where the information necessary for health and comfort is widely available without being wallowed in. Maybe we’ll get there.

Or maybe I’m just a prude.

Anyhow. This stuff is great to know, especially for writers (or time travelers)… For readers, maybe not so much. I’ve always figured that if you’re sitting there wondering while you read how and where a book’s main character is going to relieve herself in a given situation, you’re not paying enough attention to the book. Like one of those people who can’t resist pointing out every continuity error in a movie or tv show – that wine glass had three quarters of an inch more wine in it when they shot from that other angle! – you need to just relax and not worry about it until and unless it becomes relevant.

I think, in the end, that I’m glad I’ve been schooled – while mores may have slipped badly, we’ve come a long way in other words, baby – but I’m also disgruntled that the more I know the less appealing a trip through time in the TARDIS becomes. I don’t think there’s a time period in history I much care to see firsthand anymore. Ah well – there’s always the rest of the universe.

If you know something unsavory about the Madillon Cluster or Shallanna, don’t tell me.

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

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The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

I didn’t make a single note on this book, didn’t save a single highlight. That’s unusual for me; I usually take full advantage of my Kindle’s abilities to augment my memory.

Then again, I don’t really need notes in order to remember this book. I’ll remember it for a long time. It’s a sweet, sad book set in the middle of WWII about a girl sent to a mansion deep in the English countryside that has been converted to a hospital. They’re quarantined there, with an alarming disease – which is why Emmaline’s family can’t come to visit her. (Right?) She passes as much time as possible with her best friend, an older girl named Anna, drawing and talking about everything – including the beautiful winged horses they both can apparently see behind the many mirrors in the mansion.

Emmaline’s life is soon taken over by interlocking crises. One of the horses from that mirror world has crossed over to ours fleeing from the terrible Black Horse, and, badly injured, and only Emmaline can help her. Meanwhile, Anna’s health falters, and the only person Emmaline can turn to for help with the quest involved in rescuing the injured horse is the one she fears most, the local boogeyman. All the while, Emmaline must also fight the doctor and the nurses who for some reason keep trying to curtail her nighttime trips into the hospital’s grounds in the snow…

That, of course, is the surface story. Beneath it is so much more. The Black Horse is genuinely frightening – I can only imagine the scars it would have left on my horse-obsessed child self – but despite that I wish I had been able to read it then, because just as real as the fearsome enemy is the magical world through the mirrors. I can guarantee I would have been looking at anything but my own reflection for months, hoping for a glimpse of a feathered wing or a whisking tail. (Which would be a far more enjoyable side effect than the outright covering of mirrors after that Doctor Who episode … )

But then again – no. I don’t think I would really want to inflict the pain and grief in this book on my younger self. The war, the epidemic – are the horses a metaphor? Or could they, might they be real, a grace note of hope in a dark world?

It’s a heartbreaking book, gorgeously illustrated with deceptively simple black and white drawings. No, I think it’s just as well I couldn’t read this when I was smaller. It would have been crushing.

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

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Waking Gods – Sylvain Neuvel

I loved Sleeping Giants more than words can say. I loved everything about it – the story and how it was told, the characters, the humor, the suspense, the robot. So when someone gave me a heads–up that Waking Gods was also available on Netgalley, I was there before the pixels faded.

And … oh, okay, I gave this five stars as well, and I’m kind of surprised, to be honest. I’m not touching that; Sleeping Giants earned enough stars that it can lend Waking Gods one; I wouldn’t have rated the latter less than four even at my harshest. But … I … didn’t love it nearly as much as I did the former.

The storytelling is still in the same format, through interviews and transcripts and so on. The characters are largely the same; a shocking reveal at the end of SG is fully explored in WG. And the inspiration for one character’s name is revealed, and it made me happy. The humor is still the same –

—Do you like squirrels?
—I ask for your help in preventing a conflict of apocalyptic proportions and your answer is: “Do you like squirrels?”
—Yes. I have a good squirrel story.
—Of course. By all means

– but now the suspense is ramped up, and there is an apocalyptic element introduced which … I don’t know. That’s part of why this wasn’t as huge a success with me. Maybe it’s because the curtain is pulled back and we see the wizard, so to speak… In Sleeping Giants, the setting was basically “twenty minutes into the future”, almost completely familiar; in Waking Gods it felt less so, especially once destruction begins. I’m never going to enjoy seeing cities I’m fond of (in the abstract, at least) being leveled, or – to risk a spoiler – characters I’m fond of being wiped out. If the first book seemed to show that nobody was safe, this second book proved it. And the revelations about who was behind the robot(s) and their motivations were strangely anticlimactic. Like many a promising mystery novel, once the mystery is dispelled, so is a lot of the promise. In short, I wasn’t happy once it all morphed into an almost standard sci-fi plot.

One topical comment (in two parts): where in SG it is noted in passing that the president is a woman (DAMMIT), another throwaway line mentions “His Majesty’s Government”. I just thought that was interesting. And given an imminent threat to America’s participation in the U.N., and maybe to the U.N. as an entity, I wanted to save this quote: “This institution was founded in the wake of the most devastating war in human history, to promote peace by allowing nations to resolve their disputes here, in this room, and not on the battlefield. It was also created so that we could pool our knowledge and resources and achieve great things none of us could dream of achieving on our own.”

It’s relevant.

So – I didn’t enjoy this as much. But the humor and intelligence of the writing was still strong. (—Can you stop interrupting? It’s a story. There’s a fairy in it. No, I don’t know what species of fairy.) The geekery was still strong – as evidenced in the dedication and the revelation of who Vincent was named for, thus ensuring that I will never forget his name. It was, in the end, a satisfying story – and I don’t feel that the losses suffered along the way were gratuitous, however much I hated them – but the place where it all ends up is not somewhere I want to be. I’m sure I’ll read the third book whenever it comes along, out of loyalty and out of a desire to find out what the survivors do with this place.

A couple more things I saved, and will want to save:

However, the French had long likened slow and clumsy work to that of a man wearing wooden shoes, or sabots, and Pouget, in his report, coined the term sabotage.

While I am reasonably confident you are not “the chosen one,” you are without doubt one who has been chosen.

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

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The Impending Possession of Scarlet Wakebridge-Rosé

I loved parts of this book. Scarlet was a marvelous character – a woman of common sense who spends idiotic amounts of money on shoes and purses (her Louboutins are mentioned several times); a lesbian who is not defined by that tag; a wife and mother who has been very good at both those jobs in the past but has faltered lately; an apparent workaholic who does not hesitate to kick her work responsibilities to the curb when more important things – like her life, and those of her wife and daughter – come to the fore.

That last is something I’ve seen done very badly in the past. A non–millionaire character has to have a job in order to provide grounding for the nuts and bolts of her life, but when the events of the plot pick up she ignores that job with absolutely no regard for what will happen when everything’s over. I kind of understand an author forgetting about how a character is going to pay for her home when she gets fired because she was busy dealing with a demon – but, living paycheck to paycheck as I have as often as I have, I have a hard time swallowing the character forgetting. And Scarlet doesn’t forget. She probably wouldn’t have a money problem for a while (failing all else she could always sell the Louboutins; one pair would almost pay my rent for a month), but she does have a position of responsibility, and she is shown to give consideration to that fact. It’s a small thing, takes only a paragraph if that – and it grounds the character and allows me to keep believing in her as a human being.

I mentioned above too that Scarlet is a lesbian without necessarily being the poster child for lesbians. She’s a woman who happens to be married to another woman. This circumstance is not waved like a banner; the only impact that her gender orientation has on her presentation as a character is that it colors her interaction with and anticipation of her interaction with the Catholic Church – the reader is not battered with this aspect of her life any more than with the fact that she’s black, or almost fifty, or whatever her job is. And … well, isn’t that kind of the way things should be, that gender orientation, while important, is not what should determine how someone is treated or perceived? I really enjoyed Scarlet’s relationship with her wife.

There are a few things, though, that I didn’t enjoy as much. Kelton, the assistant in the exorcism game, was almost a complicated character. As stolidly prejudiced against Scarlet as the most clichéd of Catholics (and, seriously, it is a cliché that writers should be ashamed to lean on), he is devoted to the priest, he lets his strong convictions cancel out any compassion or impulse to duty he might feel – and he has his secrets. Come to find out, he is in an apparently abusive relationship with his wife. To be clear, she seems to be abusing him. This could have been a really interesting thing to explore, even if only as a B-plot (or C-plot) … but it isn’t. Even a chapter – or even part of a chapter – more digging into that situation would have been great – but no.

And, finally, the resolution of the plot bothered me a great deal. It wasn’t Scarlet’s fate that bothered me, though – that worked. Without spoilers, the way this book was fitted into the author’s universe was, I felt, unfortunate. The story of Scarlet’s impending possession was fascinating – until the end and the revelation of more information, at which point I just got annoyed. And the whole “Fearmorph” thing annoyed me even more – after the serious jeopardy throughout the whole book, this just sounded silly.

Up until the last few chapters, I was all in. I had a great time. But that resolution undid a lot of it. Pity.

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

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A Study in Scarlet Women – Sherry Thomas

Sherlock Holmes is kind of like a chocolate chip cookie. There’s a basic recipe which has been around forever and which everyone loves. (Well, I don’t love the original, but work with me here.) And people can never, ever resist taking that basic original recipe and playing with it – there are hundreds of variations. Some add ingredients – here’s Sherlock Homes vs. Jack the Ripper. Some swap out one kind of chip for another – Watson’s a woman! Some go gluten-free or dairy-free or sugar-free – Holmes in the 21st century. And some change the focus to one flavor or another – Mrs. Hudson is the main character, or Irene Adler. (Some add nuts – “I’m a high-functioning sociopath”…)

Here, though, Sherry Thomas takes the basic recipe, pulls it apart, and puts it back together again (with some new additions) so that I don’t even know what to do with the metaphor: Sherlock Holmes is actually Charlotte Holmes, disgraced noblewoman.

The book didn’t start well. Charlotte’s disgrace comes about because she is tired of the nuisance of her parents’ constant attempts to push her into the marriage market. Uninterested, wishing to spend her time as she likes, she makes herself ineligible for a good marriage via a plan which is coolly and logically thought out – and which made my jaw drop with its sheer stupidity.

‘Course, it might not have been so dumb if things had gone to plan. She is taken by surprise, and in such a way that her life could never be what it was – which was a bit ironic, since one of her motivations in taking a step to avoid marriage was to continue on much as she had. But with a violent father and a reputation in tatters, she was forced to strike off on her own. Unfortunately, she had no saleable skills, little money, and that soiled reputation, and she floundered, until she had an encounter with a woman who would change her life.

One drawback, for me at least, to this kind of retelling is that I keep looking for all the landmarks of the original tale. The description of Charlotte as resembling “a foreigner who found native customs baffling and, on occasion, patently ridiculous” rang true. Oh, look – Baker Street. Ah, Watson. “My niece… moved to Paris to study medicine” – hmmm … Doctor Watson? I find it detracts from the story I’m actually reading when I can’t stop tracking it against others.

I made a note in the middle somewhere that Charlotte’s crutch is food, rather than the cocaine Holmes relies upon. And I’m trying to decide whether that works or not. Doyle foresaw the same sort of problem rock stars have faced since touring became a thing – once the high of performance, the constant work and activity, instant feedback, cheering crowds, noise and energy is ended for the time being, it leaves a craving, and without more work on hand the only recourse seems to be drugs. Holmes injects a seven-percent solution to compensate – and Charlotte sits down to tea. “The butter disappeared into the soft, spongy interior of the warm roll. Such a sight had always comforted Charlotte before—and turned her mind blissfully empty when she bit into it.” (I’ll give you a moment to cool off from such explicit food porn. Fan yourself. Go get a roll of your own if you have to. Or a chocolate chip cookie.) Was it this kind of oblivion that Holmes looked for in the ampoule? But sugar and cholesterol are not very beneficial to thought processes …

The writing was not entirely reliable. There were a few moments I stopped to look at a word used in a way I did not expect (example: “You will regret it relentlessly” just doesn’t seem correct). The main annoyance I found, though, was an odd recurrence of “and how”. This is a phrase I associate with kids of the fifties and sixties – think Opie Taylor. Yet here is the tale of a young lady of late 1800’s London, and … “Charlotte never thought she’d salivate over a cup of tea—and how.” (According to Merriam Webster the first known use was 1865; another website says 1924 and calls it an Americanism. Not to disparage Merriam Webster, but I’m with phrases.org on this one.)

So … I don’t know. It was an entertaining take on the Holmes legend, but it was jarring in some ways to try to fit the two together. I enjoyed it, mostly … but I’m not rushing out to get the rest of the series. We’ll see.

And in case you’re wondering, as I did, the Wheatstone machine was an early telegraph. Which was kind of obvious in context.

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

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Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy L. Sayers – adapted by Alistair Beaton

There is an amazing wealth of …stuff to listen to out there. The BBC Radio website alone could keep me happy for months.

As, for example: the three-hour BBC Radio adaptation of Busman’s Honeymoon. (It’s not available on the site as of this writing, unfortunately.) It’s always a little iffy when a beloved book is dramatized – things are going to be lost, of course, as a 400-odd page book is pared down to fit six half-hour slots; but this worked very nicely.

The cast is lovely. Ian Carmichael, of course, does a marvelous job with Peter – he can piffle up a storm, and then a minute later put real emotion in his voice as he allows himself to realize that he has his Harriet, he truly does. And I really like Sarah Badel as Harriet, showing genuine affection for her Peter and holding up her end of the piffle. I didn’t remember Superintendent Kirk being so adept at piffle himself in the book – what fun. And Bunter sounded very Bunter indeed.

I’d forgotten about the dreadful case of Miss Twitterton. Her deeply misplaced love for Frank Crutchley is portrayed as both pathetic and hilarious. I honestly don’t remember how it was handled in the book – has it been that long since I read it? That must be remedied! – but it’s initially a joke to Peter and Harriet, with sympathy and empath only being aroused in them when more facts come out. Hers is a horrible story, though, almost a throwaway.

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My Name Is Markham – Jodi Taylor – Piers Wehner

Oh my.

A jaunt into the past by the St. Mary’s crew; a really nice close encounter with a major historic figure; chaos and calamity with a happy ending – it must be Christmas! Well, it was when it was released, and it was in the story, at least.

By now, the crew of St. Mary’s are dear old friends, and it’s tremendous to get inside Markham’s head for this go-round. (If Ms. Taylor ever gets bored, she could start from the beginning of the story and flip POV’s – [book:Just One Damned Thing After Another] through Dr Bairstow’s eyes, for example… Oo. That would be fun.

And this is fun. More fun than should be lawful. Chaotic, hilarious, moving, exciting – my lord, I love these books.

I was a little sad going into this because it wasn’t narrated by Ms. Taylor’s usual St. Mary’s narrator, Zara Ramm – but she’s Max, so that would be silly, so they got Piers Wehner. And … Someone, please, I’m begging you, find him many, many more books to read to me. I was going to say “books like this”, but nobody does it like Jodi Taylor, and Jodi Taylor mostly uses Max’s point of view, so he won’t have much work there – but this man needs more books that let him be funny. More books, period. He’s terrific. He was thoroughly in character, giving a little laugh here and there, putting in exactly the right pauses and inflections. Whoever is doing the casting for Jodi Taylor’s audiobooks must absolutely love her, because every single book has been nearly perfect at worst. Although I’ve got every one of Jodi Taylor’s books, I’ve never read a word she’s written, just because of this. And I’ve loved every word.

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Dragonvein – Brian D. Anderson – Derek Perkins

I might have mentioned at some point how deeply bored I get during fight scenes in books. The more the author tries to make them exciting by including lots of detail, marking a battle stroke by stroke and blood droplet by blood droplet, the more utterly bored I get.

There was a lot of fighting in this book.

It’s one of my favorite conceits, the idea of someone being whisked from one world to another where they have to find allies and figure out which side they’re on and so on. I wish this had taken advantage of the idea better.

Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that nobody trusted anybody from the beginning. Everybody tromped through the landscape just completely brassed off with everyone else, making hollow threats and snarky remarks, and nobody told anybody anything for chapters and chapters. “Why are you helping us?” Growl: “I have my reasons.” *sigh*

And the whole book was a trail of question marks, not in terms of unanswered questions (though there are plenty of those as well) but more of “What??” moments. It just didn’t make sense that a boy from 1944 Earth could see a little dragon, as he does on his first morning, and never say anything to anyone for days. It doesn’t make sense that he never talked about the dreams he kept having (to the point that I dreaded every time the author sent him to bed), especially after Jonas told him his mother used to have prophetic dreams. It made no sense that Jonas never asked how much time had passed since he left – and the book never said, as far as I’m aware. (I might have zoned out at some point while listening, but I don’t think so. Wait, there it is at 6 1/2 hours into the audiobook: more than 500 years.) And it took forever for all of them to discuss the brief period before they all went through the portal back to Whatsit. It made no sense that Ethan never protested what Jonas said about his mother – he knew the people who raised him were not his blood parents, but there should have been at least one squawk of “what?!” when it seemed like Jonas knew who his birth mother was – and he never so much as acknowledged it. It didn’t make sense that Ethan also never asked about elves and dwarfs (or did the author use the Tolkien-esque “dwarves”? Probably); granted, in 1944, pre-Tolkien, maybe it wasn’t such a Thing, but Ethan still should have known what they are, and been surprised they were real, and want to know more. It’s silly that Ethan trompled through this fantasy land with a sword on his hip, but though he spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to use a magical ability he might not even have, it never occurred to anyone to teach him the rudiments of how to fight with a blade. Ever. That’s … just dumb. (The only advice given Ethan is a less pithy version of GRRM’s “Stick ’em with the pointy end”. Hmm… The HBO GOT episode aired 6/5/11; Game of Thrones was published 8/1/96. Dragonvein was published in 2015. Gosh. I smell a … coincidence.)

(The first book in the Dragonvein series was only published just over a year ago, and it’s already up to book five? Wow.)

Names like “Cynthia” and “Jonas” in the midst of this setting – Medieval Fantasy™ – were possibly more jarring than the ones people like to make up and fill with apostrophes and random capital letters.

Ethan came from a pre-Tolkien date, but Brian D. Anderson does not, and my boredom turned to annoyance as Ethan’s introduction to the elves strongly echoed a certain scene in Mirkwood. Maybe Ethan grows up to come back to Earth as Tolkien, and that’s why the elves were almost indistinguishable from those of Middle-earth (except for what sounded like comically large ears – seriously, I wouldn’t want to try to depict that. It would be almost impossible to make them look legit). There was even something damned close to the Book of Mazarbul. Honestly, I would think a fantasy author would make a powerful effort to avoid close brushes with Tolkien, out of pride if nothing else.

Even more than of fight scenes, I’m bored by So-Evil-for-the-Sake-of-Evil. Even Nazis, the original enemy Ethan was fighting, were not uniformly evil, and not all evil just because evil was fun; it was (technically) for the Fatherland, for the Fuhrer, for the good of the many in their minds.

And even more than that I’m bored by a plot which consists largely of Our Hero getting himself and his friends into deep trouble, and then having his chestnuts pulled out of the fire by unexpected intervention. After the third, and fourth, and especially the fifth or sixth time, then really there was no more tension to any situation, no suspense of how are they going to get themselves out of this?! – because I learned to rest assured they were not going to get themselves out. They would be gotten out. Danger was irrelevant. The good guys might end up a bit battered, but someone always came rushing up to save the day. My eyes – they roll.

It’s strange that while the author focused obsessively on fights, two of the biggest conflicts – including the most climactic scene toward the end – featured Ethan’s point of view. And Ethan passed out. So everything went dark. And then we got told what happened along with Ethan when he came around again. It was a very odd, rather anticlimactic method of storytelling.

It was repetitive. There were echoes of words throughout, the same phrasing used over and over (and clichés like “a long moment” were used over and over), people kept asking the same questions twice… and the same things happened over and over. People took lots of cleansing breaths (which seems out of place in 1944). Both boring and repetitive is to have people toss off a comment about something non-Earthly, to which Ethan responds “What is/are – – ?” And I became deathly tired of the “Boy Scout” tendencies of Ethan. I mean, they were laudable and all that, but it got old – someone is in trouble, they should leave it alone lest they get in more trouble too, they help someone with everyone but Ethan grumbling, and everything works out for the best as the new waif and/or stray becomes a valuable member of the questing company.

And it was predictable: I figured out where Ethan’s friend Marcus was pretty quickly. And the choice of the king of the dwarfs was telegraphed as clearly as anything Western Union ever sent. And as for that climax … *sigh* Yup. Saw it coming sixteen miles off.

I was not fond of Kat (Cat?), the thirteen-year-old girl who joined the quest; her personality was wildly inconsistent, going from coolly competent thief to petrified child to giggly teen to sultry seductress and cold-blooded killer to the one who saved the day to timid child to unrequited awkward and ineffectual flirt. There’s a Star Trek podcast (Mission Log) which talks about the Gumby-fication (Gumbification?) of certain characters to force them into whatever role was needed for a plot. The story needs someone who’s a smooth operator? Voila. Next episode needs someone who’s a total idiot about women? Voila – same character. And so on. Kat was like that – token female character who was whatever was needed in a given scene. This situation came to a head when she became viciously, stupidly, hatefully jealous to the point that I almost jettisoned the book less than an hour from the end. She needed a good kicking – physical violence seemed to be the only language she really understood, given the frequency with which she punched and slapped other people (especially Ethan).

Ethan, who was supposed to be the chosen one and the one all of this land has been waiting for and so on and so forth, just didn’t seem too bright. He was just a kid, of course – I couldn’t help thinking the book would have been much better if he’d been just a few years older – but he was kind of an idiot. As mentioned, he kept things quiet when he should have been telling someone; he told people things when he should have kept his mouth shut; he passed out about half a dozen times; finally, again in the last half hour of the book, he drank something a complete stranger hands to him. I didn’t care who this person turned out to be, Ethan had just said himself that almost everyone he ran into on this world tried to kill him, and the drink he tried here is a distillation of some kind of mushroom – he should have been twitching and frothing a minute later.

Two-thirds of the way through the book (and boy was I disappointed that it wasn’t closer to the end), Ethan was given a chance to give a rousing speech … I wished he hadn’t been. And not long after someone tells a long and heart-felt story, complete with sniffling, about how when she was young she fell in love with a grown man and he was too honorable to take advantage of her and so left her unrequited – which is very much to the point, until she adds that shortly after she married another man, who was horrible to her and “the day he died was the best moment of my life”, or words to that effect. Which kind of negates the lesson of the story, since if the first guy had “taken advantage” he would have been kind about it, and saved her the agony of the second guy.

One constant annoyance was either a quirk of the writer or of the narrator’s, not sure which: an insistence on possessives of names ending with “S” to be rendered as Marcus’ instead of Marcus’s. Example: “Marcus'” – which sounds like “His room was empty. So was Marcus”. Poor Marcus. It just bugged me throughout – and there were several names ending in “S”, two of them main characters. Oh, and constant use of “laying” instead of “lying” made me want to slap somebody too. (Maybe that’s why Kat was as violent as she was.)

I did like that the portal magic responsible for Ethan’s evacuation and return was not exactly favorably looked upon. I liked that the portal was completely unpredictable, that there was no way to know or find out what it did with Marcus – it was a great idea, with lots of possibilities. It was a bit unfortunate that what actually happened was predictable. I did not like the use the dwarfs were revealed to have made of portals long long ago: there was an elephantine infodump in the dreadful last half hour of the book which made a standard Tolkien rip-off into something sillier.

As happens so often, there were pieces of something good floating around in this stew, some good ideas and interesting sparks which, handled very, very differently, might have made a good book. Unfortunately, as it is, it’s not much better than annoying.

The narration by Derek Perkins is excellent, making as much of a silk purse as possible out of a sow’s ear. He reminds me strongly at times of Simon Vance, with much the same tone and facility for characterization, the same warmth. But the sow’s ear was still very much a porcine auditory organ, however well read.

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We Are All Welcome Here – Elizabeth Berg

The first book I ever read by Elizabeth Berg was something I read in one sitting, and was blown away by. That was Range of Motion, and it was a long time ago, and I don’t think I’ve loved any of her books quite so much since. But she’s still on my List, because even when I don’t love a book of hers I still enjoy her ability, her writing; one of my GR friends used a phrase I want very much to steal, but instead I’ll just say something about the beauty and depth of her use of words. And so there was no question about whether I’d buy this when I had the chance.

But… I have to say I sighed a bit when I realized that the voice of the book is that of Diana Dunn, a precocious, rather amoral, self-centered 13-year-old girl. The basic groundwork for the story is that Diana’s mother, stricken by polio just before giving birth, is a quadriplegic. And since they can’t afford to have someone in to help them full time, they have someone during the day … and, since Diana was very young (VERY young), no one at all at night.

And that messed with my mind in many different directions.

I of all people understand not having the money to manage 24-hour care – and finding that the amount the state considers enough is very much not. I also understand misappropriating some of the funds to use for groceries and whatnot. I do. (I haven’t, but I understand.) But … I’m sorry, Diana’s mother is paralyzed. From the neck down. Requiring full-time electronic assistance to breathe. This isn’t merely “disabled”. This isn’t something that can be surpassed or overcome with willpower or a burst of adrenaline. All of the million what-ifs went through my head – What if, obviously, there was a fire? Would Diana get out, or die with her mother?

What if Diana got sick?

Or fell?

Cut herself badly?

What if someone broke in at night?

I think this was the aspect of the whole thing that bothered me the most. She was a child. Even the most accountable and selfless child can’t fend for herself under every circumstance – this wasn’t an Arthur Ransome novel. And Diana did not strike me as the most accountable, for the most part. I’ll come back to the issue of selflessness. If there was any possibility of a chance that she could have a life approximating that of an average child, she should have had that chance. If there’s any possible alternative, a child should never be forced to shoulder the kind of responsibility described in this book.

I’m quite sure my takeaway from this book was not meant to be that nearly everyone in it was extraordinarily selfish – and that the one person who was consistently selfless was ridden over and taken advantage of and given the fuzzy end of the lollipop every bit as consistently. I’m sure I’m supposed to look at this as a heroic struggle against blahbitty blah. Wait, there’s a quote to prove it: “…valuable lessons about love, honor and the real meaning of family…” I didn’t get any of that. Honor? Really? That’s rather rich. And “the real meaning of family” … I suppose by the end Diana gets it, but it’s kind of too late by then in many ways.

The book just … made me angry. Diana was pretty much introduced in the midst of plotting harm against her mother’s carer, Peacie – which plot she then proceeded to act upon. It wasn’t her fault that she waited too long and wasn’t able to actually do damage – she meant to. From there she proceeded to whine her way through the book, complaining about – oh, everything, from having to put herself out to go get groceries to not being able to buy Lay’s potato chips, and escalating to outright theft and the most heinous piece of spying I’ve come across in a while. I disliked Diana through nearly every line of the book, and in that moment of eavesdropping and peeping-Tomishness I hated her as much as any character I’ve seen in a book in months. Maybe years. (I hated her friend Suralee, too, but in the end not as much, I think, despite everything.) Diana’s selfishness and nastiness was a constant irritant, and pretty much all of the other characters did things that annoyed me deeply as well, leaving me in a fairly continual slow burn against all of them. I mean, you win a nice amount of money, and the first things you decide to buy are a typewriter and a bleeding canopy bed? What about an icebox to replace the ancient and malfunctioning one that took up just about the entirety of one chapter? (Dell turned out to be a horrific piece of work, but I still disliked Diana more.) (I did really like LaRue, at least.) And then the book climaxed with a piece of deus-ex-machina that made me roll my eyes so hard I think I hurt myself. It was terrible.

And, of course, a portion of the anger this book engendered in me was for The System. That’s what makes it impossible for a mother and daughter to afford the coverage of care they need and still manage to buy groceries. But their social worker was portrayed as earnest, honestly trying to help – and the three of them in that house made almost a game out of pulling the wool very thoroughly over her eyes.

Now, the book is based on a true story; a woman wrote to Elizabeth Berg asking her to write her mother’s story. Berg warned her that she would fictionalize it, using only elements of the real story – basically, I think the whole background. Which leaves me with two big questions. Is the woman who sent that letter to Berg happy with how incredibly awful Diana (basically the letter-writer) is in the book? And was that shockingly stupid climax remotely, unbelievably true? I wish Berg had made that clear; if anything like what happened in the book actually happened to the woman who wrote her, my dislike would be at least slightly abated.

I listened to this in CD format, read by the author. I was uncertain about how well it would be read, but hoped that, having written the book, Berg would be 100% accurate with emphasis and intonation – who would know better than Elizabeth Berg how her book should be read? As it turned out, she wasn’t 100% accurate; there were definitely instances of the wrong word being stressed in a sentence, and so on – but it was overall very good.

I think, though, that I might have learned that one amazing book does not necessarily mean I’ll love everything a writer writes.

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Relic – Preston & Child – David Colacci

I feel like I’ve heard amazing things about this series (though I couldn’t tell you where)… But I can’t say I’m impressed. Relic is a thriller, a sort-of mystery in which the murderer isn’t going to be the butler or anyone else remotely as ordinary but something entirely Other. It’s not a genre I ordinarily go in for, but since I’ve picked up an installment of the series here and there in various formats I thought I’d start at the beginning.

It didn’t begin well. It opened with the sort of prologue that usually makes me sigh, this one in a South American jungle with an expedition going sideways and pear-shaped all at once. And then it picked up and dropped down in Manhattan, as bodies began to drop.

One question: How can you get ballistics on blood spatter? Because Preston & Child seemed to think that’s a thing.

Some of the science and technology in the book seemed … kind of adorable. Originally published in 1995, you wouldn’t think it would be quite as outdated as it was – but it really was. The information gained from the DNA analysis seemed pretty far-fetched. Can you really tell from reading the DNA how long a gestation period is, or whether a species’ estrous cycle is suppressed? Or even the average weight of a given creature?

The storytelling was at times very nice. I made a note at one point: “What the hell happened to that guard?” He was placed in apparently imminent danger, and then … not mentioned again for long enough that I honestly started wondering if he’d been forgotten by the authors. And then, “Oh. There he is. Nicely done.” But I have to say I was pretty surprised when what I assumed was the climax of the book came eight hours into a twelve-hour book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that in the midst of all the action there is substantial damage done to the museum and, of course, to a number of exhibits – and that hurt. Artifacts thousands of years old, smashed to bits for no good reason. That always hurts – more, in some cases, than character deaths do.

There’s a fair amount of repetition in the style of writing. There were at least a couple of mentions of how the creature looked just like the little figurine from South America – and then someone who should know better asks “what does it look like?” And if the New York FBI agent had given the same directions to the SWAT team one more time I would have started swearing. The whole plot was a little predictable – although there was at least one death I didn’t expect. At one point Pendergast murmured “not yet” to himself over and over as he waited for his shot … which was absolutely moronic given how often everyone stressed the creature’s enhanced senses. He might as well have been yelling “Hey! Come kill me over here!”

It was such a shame that the old botanist told our heroes about the Mbwun legend, and then a few minutes later (audiobook time) the long-lost journal told almost the exact same story. There was no new revelation, no surprise, despite the fact that it was a first-hand account from someone who seemed to actually have experience of the terrible bargain the Kathoga tribe made. Nothing. The story of a bargain with the devil in which people have to eat their own children should not be boring, but, told for the second time in the space of a handful of chapters, it was.

I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement about the characters; they skirted the borders of cliché at times, with the irascible cop, the high-handed Fed who swanned through doing what he needed to, the scientists so focused on their jobs that they’ve forgotten about life, the journalist who … well, ditto, in his way. Margot not quite but almost escaped being a token Girl. I will say I grew to enjoy FBI agent Smithback, with his Southern gentility and complete disregard for anything trying to get in his way.

I wish the journalist in the group hadn’t chosen to act like an idiot journalist at a really stupid time. It would have made so much more sense for him to be helpful and useful, and then capitalize on that later for a story. And were the mayor’s fine words real, or because he just heard the reporter called out as such? I don’t believe that was ever clarified – in this book, at least.

There was a sort of anti-sexism that surprised me, and kept surprising me – both in its usage and in how it affected how I absorbed the book: the redoubtable Miss Rickman is consistently referred to as just “Rickman”. And almost every time, right up to the end, I kept thinking they were talking about a male character. Women just aren’t often referred to by their last name alone (I think it happens to my brother all the time, but to me only once at one job, because there were two of us with my first name and the other one came first). What particularly made it odd was that Margot Green is consistently referred to as Margot, but Rickman is Rickman.

I know there are plenty of real examples of Evil Bureaucracy putting profit, pride, and publicity before public safety, and so on – but it gets old. They’re never my favorite stories. They’re not unrealistic – and maybe that’s why they’re not my favorites. I don’t understand why, say, the directors of a museum would insist on proceeding with an exhibition opening when doing so might put thousands at grave risk. Or why an FBI agent in uncharted waters would fail to take heed of every concern, no matter who it came from, when thousands of lives were about to be at grave risk.

I think it would have been a lot of fun to have everything going on below the surface – the beast or whatever cornered and captured in the basements, everything fixed and solved by the heroes of the piece while the nasties celebrate uninterrupted above, and then the good guys showing up disheveled and blood-spattered and exhausted, maybe damaged – and triumphant.

The sound effects in the audiobook were incredibly obnoxious: echoes in the basement, a muffled overlay for someone on the phone or walkie, etc. Please. Don’t. It was especially annoying because it was obviously meant to add a touch of realism – but something that could more naturally have added realism and urgency, a simple amping up of intensity in the narrator’s voice in speed and timbre, didn’t happen. Part of the climax was read as calmly and sedately as the places in which emails and computer readouts are read. The delivery of Smithbeck and his accent was enjoyable, though.

After a while, that extended climax began to feel like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure or something, with several discrete groups struggling to survive against a force greater than they are, amounting to a disaster. It just kept going, and going, a difficult situation becoming almost impossible, becoming almost unsurvivable. On the whole, it wasn’t entirely my cuppa. I think I will keep going with the series, though; there was enough there that gave me hope for later stories that no longer involve the plot points of this one and its immediate sequel. Anyhow, I own ’em – I’ll probably get around to ’em.

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