Just One Damned Thing After Another – Jodi Taylor – Zara Ramm

I. Loved. This.

So much.

The early part of 2015 was just crammed with time travel audiobooks. I didn’t mean to do that; it just happened. I didn’t even know a couple of them were time travel till I started them. This? Along with Connie Willis, this is the best.

Quietly, with no fuss, no fanfare, and certainly no signature tune from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Pod 3 materialized on its plinth.

Really, a well–done reference is almost enough to boost a time travel novel up a star. JODTAA didn’t need the help. It starts with a kind of a bang – first–person narration by a rather abrasive main character with Issues. It was a little disconcerting. And while I was disconcerted, Jodi Taylor (and Zara Ramm – never forget Zara Ramm when discussing these books) made me laugh, and then while I was laughing there was a shot straight to the heart (and a Doctor Who reference or two), and I was a goner.

The disconcerting: The main character, Max, is a beautiful, wonderful, really nice example of How To Avoid Infodumping Without Being Irritating. Does she spill her guts about her childhood and her family and her Issues right off the bat? Like the new friend with the terrible childhood and family and Issues, she does not; as in the best friendships, history is teased out, thread by thread, and the threads bind, a bit closer and a bit closer till the relationship is indispensable. Do we know everything about Max by the end of the book? Nope. (Do we know everything about Max by the end of the second book, or the third? Nope.)

There are more books to come. There’s plenty of time. Meanwhile, Max is a walking open wound, with only the fragile protection of a biting sense of humor.

That humor … All I can think of is Hawkeye Pierce ordering a martini: “Dry, drier, driest. A veritable dust bowl of a martini. Mr. Kwang, make me such a martini.” Ms. Taylor has used such humor in her writing. Yes, there’s a bit of slapstick – St. Mary’s are prone to the pratfall, plus explosions – but most of the humor is in the adept turn of phrase, the agile twist of meaning. The only line I made a note of from this novel is “My room was warm and dim, a bit like me really…” Which is pretty typical. Self–deprecating, dusty dry, and chuckle–worthy.

And the shot to the heart… Oh, my. The warmth, the camaraderie, the humor – it all has a reverse side. And because the positive side is so genuine and engaging, the betrayals – and it is a plural – and the grief are all the more painful. As with the Connie Willis Oxford Time Travel series, this isn’t just a romp. It’ll break your heart. And then you’ll be laughing again in a few minutes. And you’ll want tea. Lots of tea. I want tea.

Since I brought it up… Yes, there are definitely echoes between the Oxford Time Travels and The Chronicles of St. Mary’s. Time travel (including to WWII) for historical research and observation, the discouragement by the timeline itself from interference, the slightly fuzzy–because–it’s–just–the–vehicle mode of time travel… The sense of humor, cheek by jowl with pain. Sure, all that is in both. But these are two completely different animals – the same family, perhaps, but different genuses (geni? Oh – ) genera. I’ve loved Connie Willis and her works for a long time, and I can be fiercely protective when I think it’s necessary. Here, it’s not.

Oh, there is one other line I made early note of: I never before heard “Sod that for a game of soldiers.” Is it wrong that I don’t quite know what it means but I desperately want to start using it? I won’t; my occasional “bloody” gets enough funny looks (stupid U.S.). But I want to. (Note: I looked up the phrase – no one knows exactly what it means. However, the acronym leads to the oath “For the love of St Fagos” – Saint Fagos: the Patron Saint of thankless tasks. That I am totally going to start using.)

The Girl at the End of the World – Richard Levesque – LC Kane

So, this one is a zombie apocalypse novel struggling to not be a zombie apocalypse novel; instead of some horrific virus transmitted via bites or scratches, this zombie–ism comes from horrific plant–like stalks that erupt from the the eye socket of an infected person and then blow out a cloud of spores. Breathe the spores, get infected, go crazy and attack people and generally freak out, and then die when stalks blast out of your own sinuses…

Unless you’re the “girl at the end of the world”, newly fifteen–year–old Scarlett, who turns out to be immune. Literally everyone around her winds up dead, and she has to fend for herself. And this is the part that just didn’t feel entirely believable.

It’s told in the first person, and often the language is a little too clinical – Scarlett talks about about fixating and compartmentalizing and so on, quite a few things I’m pretty sure are outside the scope of knowledge for a barely–fifteen–year–old who doesn’t seem to have been blooming into a psychology–focused Doogie Howser. She also puts forward a thoughtful and logical reason why she doesn’t go door to door and release the housepets that she can often hear, that she knows are starving to death (or will once they eat their owners) – and, once again, I just didn’t buy it. I don’t think I would have been that logical at that age; I kind of hope not. No, when I was fifteen, I didn’t know from psychology or cool reason: I would have been full on weeping oh my God the puppies and busting open doors and windows right and left. And actually I think it would have been more interesting – and gut–wrenching – for Scarlett to have done just this … to learn the hard way why this might not be a great idea.

And then there’s the zoo. See, there’s not a thing the girl can do about the people, but those pets, and the animals trapped in the zoo? I couldn’t ignore them now, much less at fifteen. Maybe I’m still a little prone to weeping over the puppies. (Who am I kidding? I lost my dog last year – I have trouble making it through a kibble commercial.)

One thought which impacted my belief in the book, in a young girl’s POV as written by an adult man: a fifteen–year–old girl from America’s suburbs would absolutely, completely, and utterly be thinking about where and how she would be relieving herself after the water supply terminated. Which led to the idea that she would also be thinking about how to handle her period. Which led to the thought of whether she was taking showers. Which led to the thought that, if not, she would have grown uncomfortable and a little disgusted with herself, after a (brief) life of probably bathing daily. Which led back to the thought I’d had while listening that she absolutely, completely, and utterly would have taken more clothing to begin with – her favorite jeans, that sweater she loved. (I’m not even going to get into other things like maybe the teddy bear she grew up with or the necklace her mother gave her or family photos…) Or looked for her friend Jen’s stuff. Otherwise, there’s no earthly reason why she didn’t find herself as many changes of clothing as she could want. (Why didn’t she thoroughly search some of those Beverly Hills mansions not too far away? Seems like a great place to find some necessities, not to mention luxuries.)

Smart: Scarlett finds a trail bike, and uses that to get past all the post–apocalyptic roadblocks. Maybe a little too smart: how does she get gas for the bike? As I recall, she was nowhere near getting her driver’s license; she never had to fill a gas tank in her life, and now she needs to siphon others’ tanks.

Also not quite believable is that Scarlett’s story begins when her father takes her to a Dodgers game for her birthday, and that’s where they come almost face to face with an early victim. It gets ugly, and the place is evacuated … and I’m sorry, there’s no way they would have gotten out of Dodger Stadium that quickly and easily, and then out of the parking lot with just as little difficulty. You can’t get out of a local theatre that easily; I’ve never been to Dodger Stadium, but I’m pretty confident it’s more challenging than the Oakdale Theatre.

And I could be wrong, but isn’t it an odd sort of parasitical fungus that kills 99.9% of its hosts?

Some of Scarlett’s thought processes do seem reasonable for her age and background; she does fairly well for a moderately intelligent teen, but doesn’t perform like a Navy Seal. Her reasoning is not flawless. For example, she regrets not having lit a signal fire, just in case there’s another survivor out there … but how would that be useful when much of the city is on fire?

This was an audiobook, and not a highly successful one for me. At one point Scarlett reaches Australia by radio, and the Aussie accent is dreadful. There is a strange cadence to the narration. Something that simply did not work in audio, but which wasn’t really anyone’s fault, was the use of homonyms for “stalk”, the thing that bursts out of a person’s eyeball: “standing stock still” “to stalk me”… I wonder if it was at all intentional.

When Scarlett meets other survivors, things get complicated … and, to be honest, it began to lose my interest a bit. In keeping with her excessive maturity, she is hyper–suspicious upon meeting a young man, the first live human she’s seen quite a little while – and I don’t know if that was the right reaction. She winds up trapped with this boy and an older woman who speaks only Spanish, and they seem to make no effort to try to talk to this woman for a ridiculously long time. I would hope that the same bleeding heart that would make me go free all the trapped puppies (and kittens and birds and hamsters) would make me try to break the language barrier, somehow; everyone knows a handful of words of Spanish, and surely Dolores knows a smattering of English? Anyway. It goes from Scarlett alone to Scarlett and a tiny handful of survivors, to Scarlett and company in a to–me much less interesting setting …

I don’t know. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t what it could have been, and it just didn’t ring true in several areas. Maybe Stephen King ruined me for this sort of story.

The Stress of Her Regard – Tim Powers – Simon Vance

I don’t recall if I’ve read anything of Tim Powers’s before; I’ve known the name forever, though. And Simon Vance narrated, so with the description listed for The Stress of Her Regard seemed like a solid lock.

But it was so very much not.

Vampires, succubi, fairy godmothers, muses – oh, and the Sphinx – all have the same origin and explanation: lamia. Done right, this could be fascinating. Done not-quite-right, and I wanted to hurt every major character in the book, and some of the minor ones. And more than that I began to develop a deep desire to spit in the author’s eye; it’s a little off-putting that some of the best creative work of humanity is only due to the lamia. Shelley and Keats and Byron, just for starters, all owe every particle of their talent and fame to these things – things which are revolting and horrifying. (Although I would like to be able to blame vampiric succubus creatures for the fact that Shelley screwed up the lie/lay thing in “Passage of the Apennines”. That just made me sad.

There was one good line: “Crawford blinked around at the steep streets and old houses and wondered what he was doing here, weary, fevered, and cabbage-decked” – and apart from that I fluctuated between boredom and tendencies to minor violence.

And when Lord Byron – Lord “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous To Know” – comes off as a repetitive bore (which he really, really does), that’s a serious problem. (And I’m not too sure it’s correct for him to be referred to as “the lord”. That brings to mind a whole other guy.) The whole thing took itself very, very seriously indeed. Almost all of the humor was unintentional. And the whole surreal episode on the mountaintop … phew. I was grateful when it was over.

Even Simon Vance didn’t seem too into it – he did everything possible with this, but he pronounced Byron’s “Don Juan” the way everyone says it, not the way Byron apparently meant it. I was grateful when the whole book was over.

Whose Body – Dorothy L. Sayers – Nadia May

Another reading, another take on the book. Nothing new and startlingly original, by any means, but it is always different having a book read to you.

And Nadia May did a truly lovely job with it. I love her as Peter. I hesitated for a bit – a woman narrating a book with few female characters? But she’s brilliant. It’s disappointing that at the moment this is the only book narrated by her that is available on Audible; I’ll have to keep a weather eye out for more – I’m a fan. And I would love to hear her take on Harriet.

Peter is positively giddy all through the beginning. Has anyone ever put forward manic depression as a diagnosis for him? Because there are some serious swings in his elevation.

And have I mentioned that the Dowager Duchess is magnificent? I think I have. And will again. Because she is.

The Disappearance of Billy Moore – Aaron Paul Lazar – George Kuch

This was an audiobook requested directly from the author on Goodreads’s lovely Audiobooks group; both description and sample sounded intriguing. And it is a good story, with a good narration: George Kuch is a unique and engaging reader. My only issue with his reading was his delivery of the toddler’s voice, which – combined with a certain brattiness to the dialogue as written – made me flinch every time the child came into a scene. The bedtime scene made me want to go get a hold of this book.

It is not a fast-paced story. The main character is Sam, a doctor who has just retired, and who is addicted to working out doors. And I use the word “addicted” advisedly: it was actually a little worrying that whenever Sam is not outdoors mowing and weeding and planting he is longing to be. The book’s entire first hour is an amiable ramble through Sam’s gardening, and huge tracts of the rest of the book are very much like it. That knotweed is a tough son of a gun.

Sam’s little brother Billy disappeared when they were, respectively, twelve and eleven, and Sam has survived the past fifty years believing that Billy was taken, probably killed, by a seriously unstable neighbor who was a relentless bully back in the day. After all these years Sam still suffers – is his brother still alive somewhere? If so, why has he never at least contacted his family? Did he suffer? What happened It’s not something that ever loses its grip on a person.

But there were a few problems as well. I found it a little hard to believe that Sam completely forgets to report something extraordinary Healey – the bully – cries out in extremis; there was a lot going on, but I would think that when someone says that his father killed his mother and made him bury her it might stick in one’s memory.

Something that kept throwing me off was the age difference between the two brothers. Again, at the time of the disappearance, Sam was twelve and Billy eleven … but Sam comes off as years older than Billy in the flashbacks. When he disappeared Billy was eleven and Sam was twelve, yet the dynamic was more like little brother with much older brother.

Apparently, from the author’s introduction, part of the inspiration of the book was that his wife challenged him to write a book from a killer’s point of view, and so chunks of the book explore the thought processes of a psychopath. There were mixed results with that technique. On one hand, he did an excellent job of masking the killer’s identity. I thought I was being fairly clever in picking up what I thought were pretty obvious clues. What I didn’t realize was that the clues were built to be obvious: it was a trap, for which I fell.

What wasn’t so successful was some of the motivation behind the killings. It got a little eye-roll-inducing. The killer’s mommy never baked him chocolate chip cookies. So sad. And I find it difficult to swallow that the worst epithet this bad guy could come up with for a man who did something terrible to a woman he loved was “the big jerk”.

It also bothered me that though Sam specifically says he fears for his grandson (not the bratty toddler, his older brother), but nothing seems to change in anyone’s behavior; no precautions, nothing. (And it really bothered me that the eleven-year-old grandson pulls something off near the end of the book which is unlikely and frankly unnecessarily ridiculous. How on earth could an eleven-year-old using his own laptop track an agent’s IP address? Okay, having done a search I find it’s apparently it’s not impossible, but still dubious. And how would the police not get there first?)

All of that being said, the writing was solid – there were some really nice descriptions, and good characterizations – I very much liked Sam and his wife. I liked the lingering effects that the horror of Billy’s disappearance still has on Sam. I liked the eventual solution to the crimes. I liked the time travel device. I wish the pace had been a little less leisurely, but there was a lot to enjoy here.

Murder in Mount Moriah – Mindy Quigley – Holly Adams

I was all set to post a one-star review of an audiobook I loathed, but – yesterday was Christmas. I don’t want to do that to someone. I’ll just stick to positive reviews for the next week or so…

This was a fast, fun listen – obviously, from my five-star rating, I loved it. It did everything a cozy mystery ought to do: It introduced a main character who isn’t Sherlock Holmes but isn’t an idiot, is a strong woman but isn’t Wonder Woman, is a career woman without being in the food industry … Lindsay Harding is a hospital chaplain, and really, that’s a great way to throw a character in the path of otherwise improbably frequent mysterious deaths, isn’t it? She’s devout without proselytizing, effective, and very, very human. I like her a great deal.

The narration by Holly Adams was perfect for the book and the character. She is now on my list of readers to search out.

The writing is sharp, and funny – not infrequently laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s uncommon. Lindsay has a depth to her that I didn’t expect, so that alongside the LOL’s there were also moving moments. And then would come something like the squirrel, and it would be back to giggling again.

And what a great beginning.

I received this via Audiobookblast.com in exchange for a review. With thanks!

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain – Jeff Hays

While I’ve long been a fan of the man Mark Twain, and know a good bit about him (living in Connecticut, it’s almost hard to avoid the latter), I just haven’t ever read much of his work. Or, you know, any. I’m not sure why, and I’m kind of surprised at the realization. In any case I was pleased to see A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in my Audiobookblast.com email, and I ran with it.

And it was utterly not what I expected.

In all honesty, it was a difficult story to listen to, especially in the beginning. First off, there was a little problem with the narration. Jeff Hays does an excellent job; I enjoyed his performance. His female voices were quite good – I loved Sandy. But. “Connecticut Yankee.” Connecticut: not a southern state. Very nearly as far as you can get from being southern. And Hartford? Almost as far north as you can get within Connecticut. And “Yankee” is pretty much the definition of “opposite of Southerner”. As mentioned, I live in Connecticut, so of course I know we don’t have accents at all. So… why in this recording did Hank have a marked southern accent? He sounded like … Mark Twain.

My favorite line

Of course, Twain wrote him with a southern accent as well. Some Yankee characteristics were mentioned in passing, but more often than New England references came references to … well, Arkansas. Though Hank’s biography as he’s introduced never takes him out of Connecticut, his slang – and his lassoing talents – are very un-Connecticut. (Trust me: you’d have to work hard to find somewhere to learn to throw a lasso around here. Even in Twain’s time Hartford wasn’t exactly wide open plains.) Example: Hank compared Sandy to a prairie fire. Something else we don’t have much experience of hereabouts: prairie fires. Or prairies.

I raised my eyebrows that he had never heard of Camelot but knew about the June 21, 528 eclipse down to the minute (never mind the whole changeover to the Gregorian calendar that made a hash out of dating prior to the sixteenth century).

But that’s not the real reason I had problems listening to the book. I grumbled a little, but the main problem was all those years I’ve invested into learning and loving the Arthurian legends. The first person Hank meets in Camelot is a mounted knight (Sir Kay) who charges at Hank. Which: no. A mounted knight who lived by the rules of chivalry would never attack an unhorsed man. Not ever. Under any circumstances. At all. That wasn’t a good beginning.

Chivalric divergences aside, Twain’s facility with the language of the Middle Ages felt convincing (“Give ye good den”) … but in a way that just makes it worse. Because his version of Camelot just hurts. I like the fairytale. I liked the brilliant jewel tones of Howard Pyle’s vision. The place where no one would ever say something like “It might bring her back to life. None that be so good and kind as ye are would do her that cruel hurt.”

Twain is well known for his incisive and sardonic point of view, and it’s all through Connecticut Yankee. The target: 19th century politics; 19th century romanticism; Luddites; 19th century lifestyle in general – you name it. I get it. I do. I was just apparently born without the satire gene.

When I was about sixteen and at my most romantic and alarmingly impressionable, I saw Richard Harris in Camelot. I think it could be safely said that it had a major impact on my life (not necessarily for the better). (It messed me up, actually.) But I really, really prefer to cling to the Camelot where there’s a legal limit to the snow, where rain may never fall till after sundown. One brief shining moment. There’s no glory in the here and now, nor in Connecticut Yankee, and I was conditioned at a young age to need it. I’ll take the “fleeting wisp of glory Called Camelot”, any day.

Thank God I didn’t read this then.

I was provided this audiobook at no charge by the author, publisher and/or narrator in exchange for an unbiased review via AudiobookBlast.com.

I found this bit particularly interesting…

Intellectual “work” is misnamed. It is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer is constructively in heaven when he is at work. And as for the musician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tide of divine sound washing over him – why, certainly, he is “at work”, if you wish to call it that. But lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same.

 

The Complete Sherlock Holmes – read by Simon Vance

As it turns out, I don’t like Sherlock Holmes very much. The idea? Some of the writing? The kernel of the character and Watson and 221B and Mrs. Hudson and so on?

Absolutely. Holmes himself and his mysteries?

Oh, God.

I’m sure it was in some small part down to the fact that I listened to the entire blessed Holmes canon in an Audible “Complete” edition. I was happy about it, because it was narrated by Simon Vance, who has done such a magnificent job voicing Holmes in sequels by other authors. And I can in no way fault the audio. Simon Vance was excellent (except when he tried to sound American). The production was dandy. It just … seemed… endless.

And apparently I had never read some of the canon before. I was under the impression I had, but I can state for fact that when suddenly “A Study in Scarlet” wandered off (for an eternity) into what was supposed to be the American Wild West… put it this way: if I had been reading this in print I would have been constantly checking the number of pages until the story got back to where it should be, Victorian London. It wasn’t terrible – but dear lord was I uninterested.

Then it happened again in “The Valley of Fear” – in some ways, almost identically: good man mixed up in a cult of heartless killers, but prevails to win the love of his woman – and I thought I’d lose my mind. Again, it might not have been so bad on paper, but listening to these two stories set in a poorly imagined and (I love you, Simon Vance, but) rather horribly accented America was stultifying. Too-late note to all the dead British authors I’ve been reading lately: all Americans didn’t speak like that. (And, particularly, black Americans did not speak like that.)

The biggest thing I find I do not like about Sherlock Holmes, the canon, is… Sherlock Holmes. I lost track of how many times listening to these stories that I muttered “You bitch!” under my breath. He is an obnoxious piece of work, Holmes is. Yes, of course he’s brilliant. Yes, of course he is capable of levels of observation that most people are not. Know how I know this? BECAUSE HE TOLD ME. Over and over. Usually in the context of pointing out to someone either how pathetically inferior a third party was – or, often, pointing out to someone how pathetically inferior THEY were. Tact? Not Holmes’s strong suit. To put it mildly. In fact, by the end of this long slog I decided that Holmes’s strongest character trait was not his skill at observation or deduction but his pure hubris.

He swans through these stories pointing out how he has developed his skills by working at them and honing them – and then constantly uses that as a brickbat with which to pummel those around him, especially the police, and most especially Watson. Modern adaptations aside, as I listened to his arrogance in his dealings with the police I kept picturing him in the setting of a modern non-Holmes adaptation cop show. Ever seen the tv show Blue Bloods? I’m picturing Donny Wahlberg’s character faced with Holmes’s high-handedness and insistence on primacy and contempt for everyone operating at a lower level. (Try it – it’s funny.)

And, in the end, it hit me: where exactly did all this much-touted supremacy get him? If these tales purportedly selected by Watson are the choicest among Holmes’s non-classified cases, I’m … not impressed. Where Holmes’s gifts seem to be most showcased is in his introductions to clients and police, and in showing off for the always admiring Watson: you came in on this train, you have a medium-sized dog, you play the harpsichord. But his case track record … isn’t great, is it? I don’t have the time or energy to run down the list to make an accurate count, but I was astonished at the number of cases in which Holmes’s client does not survive the story. It seemed to happen over and over – nice young man comes to 221B, frantic and afraid; Holmes tells him all about himself before letting him tell his story, during which Holmes acts bored; Holmes tells him that yes, there is some interest in your story, I’ll get around to it in a day or two, keep me posted on developments; young man goes off reassured that the great man is on the case (rather than utterly pissed off over the way he’s been treated), and shortly dies. Then and only then does Holmes descend from his ivory tower to find the killer.

Then there were a surprising number of cases in which Holmes does not actually contribute that much to discovering the solution to the mystery. Facts emerge independently of anything he does, or someone confesses, and he stands back nodding smugly – he knew that.

And even in the cases where he does put his finger on the Bad Guys … they have a terrible tendency to get away. Of course, in those cases the finger of justice smooshes them like bugs – their ships sink or they otherwise pay the Ultimate Penalty.

All in all, though, the main reason I dislike Holmes is his treatment of Watson. Dr. John Watson is a man who served his country in war, was wounded, became a physician good enough to build a booming practice … but when he is around Sherlock Holmes he is like a bullied child anxious not to be left out. Holmes abuses him regularly. He consistently denigrates Watson’s “little pieces”, which he writes to glorify his friend (and possibly for a few extra pounds, but the only reason he ever mentions is that he wants to publicize his friend’s abilities); they are ill-written, unnecessary, concentrate on all the wrong things, and really he doesn’t want publicity, he works for the sake of the work. But he obviously preens himself over the praise, and it sure felt like when Watson gave up the writing Holmes was a little put out. Oh, and then of course after years of Watson saying “Well, fine, write ’em yourself”, Holmes finally does – and spends a good deal of time saying how Watson would have done it better. (Ah, but did he ever say that to Watson? Pfft.)

In several cases Holmes sends Watson off to gather information. And the good doctor works his stolid behind off trying to follow Holmes’s methods and cover every base. Only for Holmes to tell him A) a blindfolded chimpanzee could have done better, but B) that’s okay because Holmes did it himself anyway. In some of these situations Watson was taking time away from his wife and his medical practice to oblige his friend – because any time his friend crooked a finger said medical practice and wife dwindled in importance – and the whole time was wasting his time.

The last point in this part of my rant is a large part of the “love” in my love-hate relationship with BBC’s “Sherlock”. Holmes disappeared two years ago, allowing the world – and Watson – to believe he was dead. And he pops up at John’s side in a ridiculous disguise, and expects his old sidekick to be nothing but happy. In the tv episode, John knocks him down. And I couldn’t agree more. For two years – two years – starting on that very first day the “Reichenbach Fall” happened – Holmes has left his best (only) friend to grieve, and grieve he does, book and tv series. On tv he sees a counselor. In the stories he just eats his heart out, replaying if-onlys. And the reason he is left in pain for two years? The same reason Holmes didn’t share vital information with him other times: in the great detective’s opinion Watson is not a good enough actor/liar to pull off a situation where he knows the truth. And okay, I get it: Holmes was in danger, and playing dead seems to have been necessary. But – really? “I almost told you but I figured you’d blow it”? I’d like to pop him in the nose myself. (“I have given you a serious shock by my unnecessarily dramatic reappearance.” And suddenly Sherlock Holmes morphs into Captain Obvious.)

The phrase “healthy relationship” was not in common usage in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. This relationship? Isn’t healthy.

(However, I begin to understand where all the ‘shippers come from. “Intimacy” had a different tenor then, but Watson does say it an awful lot. And Holmes does seem to grab his hand, put his hands on the doctor’s knees, and whisk his friend off into dark corners an awful lot. The Empty House: “Holmes’s cold, thin fingers closed round my wrist and led me forwards down a long hall … There was no lamp near and the window was thick with dust, so that we could only just discern each other’s figures within. My companion put his hand upon my shoulder and his lips close to my ear.” That’s a quote that launched a thousand ‘ships.)

Something else that stuck with me all through the stories: all of these illustrious clients come to Holmes, requiring utmost confidentiality … with Watson sitting there to the side taking notes?

Now that it’s (finally) over, now that I’ve (finally) listened to all the stories… I feel a little like the child at the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes: “But…” Holmes isn’t naked, but pretty close, and spinning some tassels and waving some feathery fans to distract the reader.

And I wholeheartedly apologize for that image, especially to anyone with Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone as the Holmes in their head. Cumberbatch fans probably enjoy it.

Corridors of the Night – Anne Perry – David Colacci

It’s been a long, long while since I read an Anne Perry, but I’ve always liked the William Monk series best. (amnesia! What’s not to like?) I was tickled to win Corridors of the Night as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer.

First off, this CD edition (CD’s!) has a lovely narrator, David Colacci. He sounded very familiar, but I don’t think I’ve listened to any of his before; for some reason – perhaps his accent? – I developed a desire to hear him read Tolkien. I’ll look for him.

As for Anne Perry and her Hester and William Monk… Again, it’s been a long time, so while they were familiar along with Oliver Rathbone, there were several new characters, and new developments for the familiar ones, which took a little getting used to. It was doable, though; Perry offered enough recaps of what had gone before that I adapted pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, that recapping was not isolated to what went on in past books. There was a certain amount of what I always refer to (and hate that I have to keep referring to it) as reality-show-recapping, the literary equivalent of the nasty tendency to repeat after a commercial break exactly what occurred before the commercial break.

And then there’s the unfortunate fact that the way the story is told – the suspenseful first half, followed by the courtroom drama of the second half – leads to a whole lot of reiteration. The whole thing unfolds, then Oliver’s butler tells him about it, then the prosecution lawyer recaps it again, then Oliver tells this Beata person … and then there’s the courtroom testimony. Yes, thank you, I KNOW the children are too young to testify. Yes, thanks, I get that blood transfusions were first tried 200 years ago – and I might never forget it, since repetition is a great way to learn things.

One more: Oliver goes to his inamorata Beata’s home, and the butler doesn’t ask why he has shown up at that hou – well, no, he wouldn’t, would he? Then a moment later “The butler did not care why he was here, and he certainly did not need an explanation.” Uh, right.

I still like Hester and William Monk. I liked the new additions to their “family”, although the adopted urchin is almost a cliché character in Victorian novels. The writing – except for what I’ve complained about – was professional and well-executed, and my deep frustration with what I complained about alternated with simple enjoyment. Perry’s novels have always struck me as a little chilly, a little emotionally distant, and this one is no different.

There will be some spoilers at the end – but first I’ll make note of two (other) things I learned from the book. You’ll want to stop around here somewhere if you want to go forth unspoiled.

Monk: “Have you ever watched her butter the cut end of a loaf and then slice it afterwards so the butter holds it together and you can do it really thin?” Well, now, that’s just a great idea. Never thought of that.

And

“Apples grow near the sea.” Really?? Thinking Washington State and here in New England, I suppose they do.

Okay, I’m going spoiler-y.

The book in brief: Hester is helping a friend by taking over her nursing duties in a soldiers’ and sailors’ hospital (know how I know that? I was told. Many times), discovers three children tucked away in a ward, learns that blood is being taken from them – lots of it – and the blood is being used to try and save people with “white blood disease” (leukemia), loss of blood, etc. In short, as a rich man is undergoing this transfusion treatment, she protests – the children are dying – and next thing she knows she is waking up from a drugged sleep to find herself prisoner in the middle of nowhere. She is given to understand by the chemist in charge of the experimentation, Hamilton Rand, that she is there to help the patient’s daughter look after him, to tend to the children, and to be kept from telling anyone. And she realizes that if the patient dies, she probably won’t be far behind.

What utterly baffled me was that both the narrator and, shockingly, Hester, kept coming up with excuses for Hamilton Rand’s physician brother Magnus. He may not have been directly complicit, but he knew damn well what was going on – and did nothing to stop it – and was only non-complicit out of cowardice, allowing his brother to hide it from him.

And then … and then Hester goes back to work at the same hospital, reporting to Magnus Rand. I understand the reasoning: not only are nurses in short supply and desperately needed, but she needs to go back to prove to herself and whoever else that she can. So, fine. I get it. But then she goes back to work for Hamilton Rand. The one who kidnapped her. The one who would have killed her without, apparently, a second thought.

The one who they strongly suspect is responsible for a bunch of skeletons dug up in an orchard on his land (hence the tidbit about the apples). “Well, all doctors lose patients.” YES, BUT THEY DON’T BURY THEM IN THEIR ORCHARD.

“I have no time for emotional games, Mrs. Monk, and I hope we are beyond that now. … This work’s important, as I do not need to explain to you. I think you are almost as well aware of it as I am. I know that you disapprove of my use of the blood of children, even though it works. I, in turn, do not bear you any grudge for testifying so powerfully against me in court.” Well, that’s awfully decent of you, old man. “You acted according to your conscience. It is childish to bear any ill will because of that.” “I wish you to assist me in this continued work from time to time as I need you.” ARE YOU KIDDING? There are bodies in an orchard; three small children terrorized; a woman strangled in a gutter; you’re still having dreams where you smell ether and blood – and you go stand at his desk?! Are you stupid or insane?

*ahem*

To wrap up (and reiterate, in keeping with my complaints about the book), intense frustration mingled with an enjoyment of skillful writing and old familiar characters. I’m not sure why Anne Perry’s novels faded from my reading list… But honestly, I don’t think I’m in any great hurry to play catch up.

Farthing – Jo Walton, John Keating, Bianca Amato

51NJRd70c-L._SL300_This was a very odd book. I enjoyed most of it, but it was very odd. It took a bit of mental calisthenics to adapt to a 1949 London in which “Old Adolph admired England and had no territorial ambitions across the channel”. Because this world’s Old Adolph most certainly had all sorts of ambitions across the channel; he was drooling to get into London and execute the entire royal family.

Rather than that straight-forward and outright horror, the horror in this book is … sneakier.

“In May of 1941, the war looked dark for Britain. We and our Empire stood alone, entirely without allies. The Luftwaffe and the RAF were fighting their deadly duel above our heads. Our allies France, Belgium, Holland, Poland, and Denmark had been utterly conquered. Our ventures to defy the Reich in Norway and Greece had come to nothing, The USSR was allied to the Reich, and the increasingly isolationist USA was sending us only grudging aid. We feared and prepared for invasion. In this dark time, the Fuhrer extended a tentative offer to us. Hess flew to Britain with a tentative offer of peace, each side to keep what they had. Churchill refused to consider it, but wiser heads prevailed…”

Wiser heads prevailed, and those damned isolationists in the US held sway, and Britain made a peace with Hitler, and now most if not all of Europe is under a blanket of fascism. Being Jewish is a very, very difficult thing, when it isn’t outright life-threatening, wherever you are. And Orwell imagines his dystopia happening ten years earlier than in this world. (That is a lovely subtle touch.) And the United States is led by President Lindbergh – which … Heaven forbid.

And it is in this universe that Lucy and her Jewish husband David return to her family’s estate for a house party, during which there is a good old-fashioned country house murder.

There were things I did not like; Lucy uses a verbal shorthand she had developed, but the reader is not clued into exactly what she’s talking about until what seemed like a ridiculous ways in. (Page 96 – looked it up. So a third of the way through the book.) It’s pretty clear through context what she means by “Athenian” and “Macedonian” and so on – but not totally clear, and a little baffling as to WHY she would be saying “Athenian” and “Macedonian” and so on.

I never warmed up to most of the characters. Heaven knows Lucy’s family didn’t deserve warming up to…they are snobs of the first water.
“How many servants do you get by with?”
“Just three,” David said. “A cook, a housemaid, and a kitchen maid. …”
“You dress yourselves??
– Goodness me. And here I thought that was something one was taught to do as a toddler.

And Lucy – one of the two point of view characters – began to grate on me. She says, often, that she isn’t too bright, though the plan she comes up with is not terrible … but her speech and behavior thoroughly agrees with the “not too bright”. Is it all a front? Does she really think she’s stupid (perhaps because her mother has taught her so) when she’s not so dumb after all? Who knows? She is rather flighty, and certainly fanciful: to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that she develops an unshakeable certainty of something about which she couldn’t possibly have a clue, and proceeds from that first moment of certainty as if what she believes is rock solid truth. Is it? Who knows?

Speaking of servants … Things are a bit odd with them in the country house where the good old country house murder takes place. I mean … they’re servants, when all’s said and done, employees hired and paid to do specific jobs, in a class structure which requires them to show respect to their social “betters”. But here the attitudes are extraordinary – and Mrs. Simons, the housekeeper, is outright offensive. Blatantly, intentionally, viciously rude. Lucy: “I didn’t like how quickly I’d resorted to threatening to sack her” – WHY? My God, are you mad? Fire that nasty cow and eject her so hard and fast she bounces twice going down the drive.

The book alternates viewpoints between Lucy, on the scene of the murder, and Inspector Carmichael, in charge of investigating said murder. And it’s all rather repetitive – not even just because of dual points of view, which is handled fairly well. “He might have committed suicide.” “Why would he kill himself?” then a little while later “He might have killed himself.” “Why would he commit suicide?” This happens over and over.

I gave this four stars to start with, but – after some time has passed, and having listened to the ensuing two books, and just looking at the notes I made while listening to this one – I bumped it down to three. Because on the whole I really, really hated this series – and, honestly, with the level of exasperation in what I wrote at the time I’m a little shocked that I did rate it higher.