Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

So, this was supposed to be funny, right?

OK, just checking. I apparently have no sense of humor, or a different sort, because this brand of humor eludes me. Or maybe it’s not so much the fact that a character ignores a body lying at her feet and declines to let it interfere with her dinner, but the way she does it. Hans (it’s a fairy tale takeoff, so where there’s Gretel of course there’s Hans) is appalling, and Gretel is despicable in the most literal sense of the word. It’s as though the author happened to be leafing through an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins, liked the look of Gluttony and Vanity, threw in Stupidity, Snobbery, and General Nastiness, and dubbed it Gretel.

I would rather not talk about Hans’s friend Wolfie. I almost wanted to like the fact that he was once the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but this version of the story was so appalling that what might have been a clever touch just made the whole thing worse.

Or maybe it’s the sense that the author doesn’t like her own characters. I’ve complained in the past about having trouble getting past the fact that I hated all the characters in a book (*coughWuthering–Heightscough*), but as it turns out that might be slightly preferable to feeling like the characters were written with derision and distaste. “Here they are, these creatures I’ve come up with – I’m going to make fun of them quite a lot, enjoy.”

And then there’s the fact that most of her characters don’t like each other. Hans idiotically admires and maybe cares about his sister, but Gretel is contemptful of him. And all of the other relationships are equally rocky and uneven.

Gretel’s crowning achievement was to reveal the thief of the prints – in the midst of which she utterly betrays a confidence to a shocking degree.

It’s interesting how much time is spent talking about Gretel’s past cases, and the history of Han and Gretel, with this the first book in an apparent new series; at times it sounds like it ought to be the sixth or seventh entry. I have to give the author credit – it’s smart.

That being said, not much more time than that is spent on Gretel’s current case. More time – much, much more time – is expended on all the things Gretel eats and drinks and wears and buys. If all of that was excised, this would be a novella. Maybe – thinking of the extensive chapter about her horrific consumption of practically the entire stock of a cake shop – a short story. And my lord that ever–loving wig. I began to revert to grade school, muttering “if you love the thing so much, why don’t you marry it” – the narration even uses the word “lustful”. And it’s something she can no more afford, or need, than … well, put it this way. I have since I was small coveted a carousel horse. I want a full–sized, preferably restored, genuine wooden carousel horse. I have no explanation for it – I just do. But I don’t have space for it, or the use for it, and I certainly don’t have the money for it – so you know what I don’t have? A carousel horse. Because I’m not completely irresponsible and stupid.

Her stint as an accidental dominatrix was just annoying.

There is a description of one character that says something like “everything about him set Gretel’s teeth on edge” – and that’s very much how I felt about her. Because she’s an idiot, she flees from the policeman given the silly name Strudel. There’s a moment: “Gretel scanned the square for Strudel” – I would not have been at all surprised if this had meant she was looking for a snack. When she finally does run into him, unavoidably, it should have been tense and exciting … but the scene dragged out miserably.

When a long half hour from the end someone cries out “The wurst is coming!” I sighed. I wouldn’t, I decided, be surprised if the last twenty–nine minutes weren’t the worst.

And they pretty much were.

Totally justifiable motive for bludgeoning someone to death: someone started yelling and wouldn’t shut up. I sympathize every single day.

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The Plots Against Hitler – Danny Orbach

You know the saying “The devil takes care of his own”? My deeply Catholic mother reminds me of that one a lot when I complain about the way God arranges things; there is, she says, another power at work in the world as well. Whatever your theological outlook, you have to admit, the history this book discusses feels like proof. I mean, I suppose it’s like the thing that circulates now and then about Lincoln having a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy having a secretary named Lincoln, etc; probably any world leader has, knowingly or not, dodged an assassination attempt or three through sheer luck.

But I don’t think it can be denied that at the very least Hitler was a lucky bastard. He ascribed it to divine protection. I certainly hope not. He is a major argument for me against predestination – because if it turns out that Hitler was in some way kept alive in order to create all the circumstances that surrounded him, for the people who died to die and for those who lived to live … I am going to complain to the management. Loudly.

The seeds of the war were something I didn’t know as much about as I thought. I’ve never known much about Neville Chamberlain; I know a bit about the War, not so much about the buildup. I knew enough to associate him with appeasement. I didn’t expect to simultaneously sympathize with and revile him. I’m always left baffled by the kind of mindset which wants to rule the world – I wouldn’t take it if you handed it to me on a tea tray covered in chocolate. (I say things like “When I am queen, I will change the name of ‘common sense’, for it is not” – but not even to implement my own such plots would I actually accept a throne.) Maybe the poor bugger took power never dreaming a war would be necessary in his term – else he had no business seeking power with the outlook he had. I have to say as one who has been branded a bleeding heart, I sympathize with his pacifism, with his loathing for war and the waste and chaos and pain it inevitably brings. But … Hitler. “Peace in our time? Let us put it a bit more realistically. Chamberlain saved Hitler.” That is a powerful condemnation.

There really are just a handful of things that can be considered incontestable facts in this world of gray areas: fire is hot, water is wet, space is vast, and Hitler was evil. What amazes me right now, what I had never really seen clearly before (not having read the book in question), is that he wrote it all down and published it for all the world to read. He laid out “his master plan” in Mein Kampf. And, apparently, most of the world went “Huh”. Even some of the people who later tried to kill him apparently didn’t take him very seriously. At first. It was only later that they began, some of them, to realize he was a serious threat – and some began to be very concerned about how they were going to get out of this. Stauffenberg, the most famous of the plotters, told a fellow officer, “We are sowing hatred that will visit our children one day” – the scars Nazism was leaving on Germany would shape how the country, the people, would be perceived for generations. If nothing else, they wanted to make it clear that the country wasn’t homogenous, that there were attempts to put a stop to it. That didn’t really work, either, really. “Notwithstanding all of their efforts and sacrifice, most Germans still followed Hitler to the bitter end.”

One of my earliest memories – and I wonder now how this has shaped my psyche – is of looking through the railing of the upstairs hall into the living room where my father was watching a documentary about the Holocaust, and seeing people being put into ovens. (It’s a wonder that Hansel and Gretel doesn’t send me screaming into the night.) I remember my complete and utter shock when we finally got around to learning something in history class – six million people were killed? But – how – surely not – six million?? And – wait – what? The US turned away shipsful of refugees, sent them back to what was very likely their deaths? Impossible. Not my country. Disillusionment, thy name is high school.

I’ve come a long way in terms of what I know since that day in tenth grade, but my heart hasn’t changed much. It seems like every time I read or watch anything on World War II I learn some new horrifying tidbit I’d never heard of before. This book follows the pattern: “fifteen hundred [Polish] Jews, including women and children, had been intentionally frozen to death while being transported in open trucks”. That apparently was not uncommon.

And, fortunately, there were those within WWII Germany to whom this was as unacceptable as it is to me, here, now. There were those who … like an American electorate I could name … thought that the worst couldn’t possibly happen, that a megalomaniac fool could never get control of everything, who were baffled and stunned by the megalomaniacal fool’s victories … “The masses are ruled by idiotic indifference” is an extraordinarily relevant quote. There were those within WWII Germany who were horrified at the atrocities being committed daily – and there were those whose point of view was more along the lines of if this country continues to allow, and to commit, such acts, when this war is over we will never be allowed to lift our heads again.

Something that puzzles me – kind of random, entirely apart from “how did Trump Hitler gain power and how did he keep it” (which was addressed by the author: “As a soldier, Stauffenberg could not vote, but even a year before, in 1932, he preferred Hitler for president over Hindenburg. Just like many other German conservatives, he believed that the new leader would moderate his views after taking power”. Sound familiar?) – is … whenever conspirators were caught and interrogated, I wonder why they didn’t try throwing someone like Goebbels or Himmler under the bus.

The through-line of the book, of course, is summed up by the title: the plots against Hitler. Whatever might be said or conjectured about the characters or steadfastness of the plotters, there were certainly plots – and, obviously, since he survived to take his own life, all of the plots failed. This could easily have swerved off into something like the way I started this review – there must have been some supernatural thing or power making each plot fail when, on paper, it should have succeeded.

The writing is solidly written, obviously well-researched and scholarly while still maintaining an almost conversational tone at times. The main thing that made it hard to read was the obviously dreadful subject matter; I had to take a break for a while. The even temporary triumph of evil is hard to stomach. But, perhaps, there are lessons that can be taken from it. Even evil which seems to overcome all obstacles does not last forever. And there are always people, even in amongst those at the heart of it, who see it for what it is. And even if attempts to destroy it don’t work, even if it oozes out from under all attempts to crush it, it will implode.

There’s always hope. Even when it really, really doesn’t seem like it, there is hope.

I hope.

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

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Lay on, Mac Duff! – Charlotte Armstrong

This was so much fun. I had no idea Charlotte Armstrong wrote like this – I thought of her as “just” a writer of gothics. But this was a lovely little (in that it wasn’t terribly long) classic mystery, and it sets in me a deep need to go get more Armstrong. That’s one of the great things about reading authors who are now finished and gone – their body of work is extant and ready to be devoured.

Her character descriptions are wonderful.

– His voice was rich and deep and softly on a leash, as if there were volumes more of it, as if he could, if he wished, fill the whole stairwell with sound and as if it would be no effort at all for him to do so.
– He used a caressing (I suppose he thought it was fatherly) tone when he spoke to her, but all the time his eyes were running busily up and down on errands of their own.
– He had another man with him, a kind of echo, who stood and fastened his eyes on us as if he’d read how to do it in a correspondence course.
– “J.J. Jones?” “Clear and warm,” I said, feeling sleepy, “and bright and warm.”

Even the main character, Bessie, who is the tale’s narrator, comes off the page vividly. She is young, naïve, smart, trying to stay afloat in a new atmosphere. “It just seemed to me that somebody ought to stay home and worry.” She makes an assumption about the murder that occurs and runs away with it, perhaps fogging the truth, at least for the reader following her through the events. Before long, she’s clinging to the only solidity she can find in Mr. J.J. Jones, not sure who else to trust. (She’s actually not so naïve as all that, perhaps: “Look, Bessie, have you never read The Sheik?” “Of course I read it. It was forbidden.”)

It’s a smart book. MacDougal Duff comes into the picture as a very clever friend of Jones, who is expected to unravel the mystery. And Armstrong’s handling of his name is terrific. There’s a lesson to be learned here:

“But listen, don’t say anything to him out of Shakespeare.”
“Mac’s likely to think poorly of people who say ‘Lay on, Mac Duff’ to him. He says an intelligent person thinks of it, and realizes it’s been said, and passes up the chance. But a dumbbell is so pleased with his own cleverness, he always says it.”

(I learned another lesson as well – I didn’t know there were twenty blocks to a mile in New York. Filed away for reference.)

For so short a book, there are some wonderful mini-essays, such as on the connection between history and detection and imagination, and whether there is such a thing, truly, as cold-blooded murder. And charity – “so often a mistake unless one knows exactly what one is doing.”

This is a solid, thoughtfully told mystery, told with an assurance and flair that lets it fit very nicely into the Golden Age of mysteries. The accidental red herring of Bessie’s assumption, the way the events of the game of Parcheesi at the start of the story are told – so serious when Bessie tells it, but so easy to dismiss – so hard for someone who was not there to take seriously, but so sinister … It was just a game. Right?

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

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A Rustle of Silk – Alys Clare

For some reason, I’ve found that often when a novel is set in the 1600’s the characters bear about the same resemblance to lifelike human beings as characters in an unenthusiastic high school play. By the time the author has stamped them with the mold of “Elizabethan Character” – thee and ye and dost and old by forty and doublets and stomachers – most of the personality has been stamped out, and it becomes rather hard going to get through the book.

Alys Clare overcame that obstacle beautifully. First person narrator Gabriel Taverner is a wonderful character, a life–long ship’s surgeon who would still be mending sailors if not for the accident that destroyed his equilibrium. He’s full of life, and feels contemporary. “Very slowly and quietly, I bent forward and banged my head several times on the gleaming surface of my oak table.” I have my doubts about his abilities and commitment as a physician; he has picked up a great deal of unorthodox knowledge from the natives of a great many far-flung places, some of which runs counter to the current trends. Still, he seems to keep picking up books to hone his knowledge of “civilized” medicine, and keeps getting distracted – and when he needs to hie him off to investigate this or that or the other, he never seems to have any concern about his patients’ care during his absence.

One thing that’s rather wonderful about him is a lovely obtuseness. He is the first-person narrator of the story, and his realizations and brainstorms are realistically handled in such a way to clue the reader in. He’s a very good character; I hope he has better surroundings in another book.

Something I kept wondering about, which I know very little more about than that it existed, is the code of sumptuary laws. I first discovered them when I was getting into Renaissance Faires, when it surprised me that if I wanted to be historically accurate I had to decide where in society my persona fell and dress accordingly, avoiding certain fabrics and certain colors. (From 1562: No Englishman other than the son and heir apparent of a knight, or he that hath yearly revenues of £20 or is worth in goods £200, shall wear silk in or upon his hat, cap, night cap, girdles, scabbard, hose, shoes, or spur-leathers, upon forfeiture of £10 for every day, and imprisonment by three months.) Yet Gabriel’s sister wears the finest silk day in and day out.

There were a handful of off words sprinkled throughout – I don’t, for example, think that someone would refer to a man as being “broke”, meaning penniless. (Then again, maybe they would – the adjective has a surprisingly long history. I wouldn’t have thought it, and I think I’d avoid it because it doesn’t sound right.) “Frenchie”; “get over it” – these were the ones I made note of. Borderline – and as such, enough to take me out of the story just a bit.

There were moments when the author revealed a bit or a piece which seemed like they ought to have been mentioned earlier. It was sort of the opposite of Chekhov’s gun, with a shot going off suddenly leaving me wondering how. The origin of the murder weapon, for example – which I won’t spoil here – seemed frankly kind of stupid and, till then, not even hinted at, not something the reader could remotely guess at.

It was a quick and easy and enjoyable read, but somewhat weak in areas. I enjoyed the writer’s writing, but wish it had been more even and cohesive. There were excellent elements, but they were like beads on a long string, with thin bits in between. I’d like to try more of the series, in hopes of a stronger plot.

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

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Conspiracy of Ravens – Lila Bowen

Wow. Just … wow. I was so glad to be able to go straight into this after Wake of Vultures. The game changed entirely at the end of that first book – is it still a cliffhanger if the main character jumps off the cliff? And here the times they just keep a–changing. Nettie determines once and for all to shed the parts of her she despises, insofar as she can, and adapts to this whole new part of her which I never saw coming.

Once again, the writing is intimate, gritty, and completely believable. Nettie’s – or rather Rhett’s loyalties are tested, his abilities are stretched and expanded, and his affections are tested. As if there hadn’t been enough changes in his life, the realization that hit him – and hit him hard – at the end of Wake of Vultures turns into the biggest change at all. It leads him to a new friend – or, well, a new companion, anyway, both reluctant mentor and counter-irritant, and to a new quest – there’s trouble surrounding a moving camp, laying track across the country – big trouble, and no one to deal with it but Rhett and his companions. So Rhett basically goes undercover to try to start its destruction from the inside.

There is at least as much action as in the first book – probably more, actually – but this is even more character-driven than that first book. Here Rhett has left behind any vestiges of femininity, as though the first shape-shifting burned it away. But he still carries a torch for his friend, and keeps finding himself in strange conjunctions with the sister of his other friend, and like other reviewers I found this a weak spot, a distraction in the plot.

But when all’s said and done it’s still a truly remarkable bit of world-building and character-building. I look forward to more.

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

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Wake of Vultures – Lila Bowen

Wow. I’m not entirely sure what to say about this book. I loved it, and was tremendously impressed by it – but, oddly, I made only one note as I read it. Maybe I was just too caught up in the read to think about it.

Lila Bowen takes a corner of space and time that few others have paid attention to, and she makes it her own. It’s a ways after the Civil-War in the Southwest US, yet Nettie Lonesome is basically a slave. Black amid whites, a girl with the desire and ability to do the things only men do, utterly unloved and unremarked, when her life is changed by an unexpected, unexpectedly supernatural attack, she walks away from her old life with hardly a thought, and remakes herself. She goes with her instincts and disguises herself – successfully – as a boy: Rhett. In the best F&SF tradition, she begins to seek to create her own family where none has ever existed for her before.

And then things turn upside-down again. Ghosts, creatures, shapeshifters – after a childhood and youth of unrelentingly painful sameness, suddenly she has more excitement to face than she could ever have dreamed. And she falls in with the Rangers – who, it turns out, are primarily tasked with fighting not Indians or Mexicans but supernatural dangers.

This was a fascinating aspect of the story for me. At one point the captain muses about perception. They would follow a trace or a cry for help into a town or settlement, where something would have been having its way with the populace, laying waste and eating its fill. In would come the Rangers, and destroy the whatever-it-was – but “by the time news reaches a town, all that’s left of the monsters is sand and ashes.” A number of citizens are dead; those who saw what did it don’t believe the evidence of their own sense; the things that did do it are dead and gone. And there are the Rangers, figuratively standing over the bodies. “We keep folks safe, and they villainize us for it…”

There are lots more surprises, for the reader and for Nettie herself, all the way up to the end – which (warning!) is an all but literal cliffhanger. I have never been so glad to have immediate access to a sequel, I think, because I was fully invested in the story, the setting, and the characters – especially, of course, Nettie herself. It’s a wonderful, remarkable, unique world Lila Bowen has created out of this desert.

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

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Anatomy of a Song – Marc Myers

I love this stuff. I love learning the background, the genesis for a work, be it a book or painting, tv episode or – obviously – a song. Websites like SongFacts are huge rabbit holes that I can and do fall into and lose ridiculous amounts of time. And this collection of 45 tales, originally articles in the Wall Street Journal, derived from the author’s interviews with those who participated in the songs’ creation and recording, are (more or less) fascinating.

There’s a fairly common bit of trivia about the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, about how although everyone pretty much assumes it’s about an acid trip (the capitals of the song title are LSD!), John Lennon always denied it, said it was based on a crayon drawing from one of his kids. Similarly, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” is not, as – oh, come on, as everyone who’s ever heard it – thinks, about any mind–altering substances. It makes so much sense when you hear the story. (“Lucy” is not one of the 45 songs in this book, by the way – consider this a bonus.)

I do love this stuff. I love inside information, inspiration, in–jokes – I will never hear “Groovin'” the same again, now that I know about the Misheard–Lyric Joke the band used to make, which ranks up there with “There’s a bathroom on the right” and “Hold me closer, Tony Danza”.

I still find the selection of songs a little surprising. Despite never having heard of several, I have no argument with the songs and artists included (except for “Suspicious Minds” – I despise that song) – but I do wonder about so many artists who are not represented. Billy Joel, Simon and/or Garfunkel, Rush, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Styx, Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Michael Jackson – any of the Jacksons. Prince. David Bowie. Hell – the Beatles. I mean. There were two songs from the Rolling Stones, though. That doesn’t work for me. But it’s not my collection. I just wonder why. In a perfect world would these 45 songs be the 45 songs he would have chosen out of all the songs ever? Or did the songs choices depend on the interviews – whether people involved in the production were still alive, were willing, were otherwise available?

Why “Mercedes Benz” and not “Me and Bobby McGee?” I mean, it’s a great story, but how do I know “Bobby McGee” doesn’t have just as cool a background?

In audio format it took a bit of adjusting for me. Jonathan Yen did an excellent job of narrating, but still – knowing that the essays were based on taped interviews, it seemed off not to have the artists’ own voices telling the stories. To sit with them, talk with them and extract the answers, edit everything down and write an article, and then give it to someone else to read – verbatim, with all of each person’s idiosyncrasies – into a microphone – it just feels a little crazy. I mean, it does make sense, in that having to get the rights and permissions would have taken time and money from the book’s budget, and the edited-down versions of the interviews were, I’m sure, pretty choppy. It just took a little time to adapt to the same voice reading Grace Slick and Loretta Lynn and Stevie Wonder and Michael Stipe. I absolutely commend the narrator and the producers for the decision not to try for impersonation of any sort – no accents, none of those characteristic speech tics, only a slightly lighter voice used for women’s contributions. None of my problems with the book were due to the narrator – he was very good.

I think – apart from that – my only real complaint about this book is that it ended quite abruptly. The last song, “Losing My Religion”, is featured, and then … that’s it, no wrap up. Some kind of coda would have been nice. Other than that, it was a well–put–together compendium of articles.

But seriously, why two Stones songs?

1. Lloyd Price – Lawdy Miss Clawdy
2. Little Willie Littlefield – K.C. Loving
3. The Isley Brothers – Shout
4. The Marvelettes – Please Mr. Postman
5. Dion – Runaround Sue
6. The Dixie Cups – Chapel of Love
7. The Kinks – You Really Got Me
8. The Righteous Brothers – You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling
9. The Temptations – My Girl
10. The Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There
11. The Lovin’ Spoonful – Darling Be Home Soon
12. The Doors – Light My Fire – (7 min)
13. The Young Rascals – Groovin’
14. Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) – White Rabbit
15. The Stone Poneys – Different Drum
16. Otis Redding – (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay
17. Loretta Lynn – Fist City
18. The Rolling Stones – Street Fighting Man
19. Tammy Wynette – Stand by Your Man
20. Steppenwolf – Magic Carpet Ride
21. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Proud Mary
22. The Edwin Hawkins Singers – Oh Happy Day
23. Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds
24. Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
25. Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz
26. The Rolling Stones – Moonlight Mile
27. Rod Stewart – Maggie May
28. Joni Mitchell – Carey
29. The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself 
30. Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come 
31. Gladys Knight and the Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
32. The Allman Brothers – Ramblin’ Man
33. The Hues Corporation – Rock the Boat
34. Aerosmith – Walk This Way
35. Stevie Wonder – Love’s in Need of Love Today
36. Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
37. Elvis Costello – (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
38. Blondie – Heart of Glass
39. Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall
40. The Clash – London Calling
41. The Neville Brothers – Brother John/Iko Iko
42. Merle Haggard – Big City
43. Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time
44. Bonnie Raitt – Nick of Time
45. R.E.M. – Losing My Religion

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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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