A fun change of pace from Richard Jury. Grimes takes us to New York, into the seamy, ridiculous underbelly of the publishing industry, ratcheting up t...moreA fun change of pace from Richard Jury. Grimes takes us to New York, into the seamy, ridiculous underbelly of the publishing industry, ratcheting up the humor that's always a part of her work (but not as far as, say, Dave Barry or Carl Hiassen—but who knows what would happen if she set hers in Miami...). Not much to add except that this book has the best pair of hit men ever.(less)
There is an ocean of Austen fan fiction out there, and no book is more extended than Pride and Prejudice. We love to read what happens to Elizabeth an...moreThere is an ocean of Austen fan fiction out there, and no book is more extended than Pride and Prejudice. We love to read what happens to Elizabeth and Darcy, whether it's her doughty fight against the undead or how they deal with truly-dead bodies at Pemberley.
This book would stand with the best of them. Our hopes are dashed and restored and dashed again. We get love, redemption, missteps, the vile Wickham, and not knowing whether there will be a happy ending until the very end. And the writing! Jo Baker's cold mornings make my hands hurt just to read them.
But this book goes beyond great fan fiction, and here's why:
It takes place mostly during the same time period as P&P, but downstairs: it's about the servants. Jane Austen gave us the restrained, arch, inner life of women of heart, soul, and mind, finding their way in a society that devalues them. Jo Baker gives us the struggle, toil, and worry of people with heart, soul, and mind, in a society where even our beloved Elizabeth finds them almost invisible.
The human stories are the heart of the book. But Jo Baker also answers questions we may never have thought to ask: when Elizabeth arrives, muddy-hemmed at Netherfield, who cleans her clothes? In a world without indoor plumbing, what happens to the shit? And when Mr Bennet escapes to his library, who has to cope with his wife? The book is structured to parallel P&P; as Baker said in an interview, "When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it's prepared downstairs in Longbourn."
For me, she gives just the right amount of detail about housekeeping practices of the early 1800s. I now know that when you slaughter a pig, it's time to make soap. And I've seen it done. But I couldn't possibly do it myself.
Another thing: Books in the "canon" are necessarily contained. But here, the outside world plays a role. Servants, after all, know things, and are affected by events, which young women are protected from ever hearing about. This expands the scope of the novel. In Mansfield Park, for example, Fanny asks about slavery and is met with stony silence. Here, we learn that one of Bingley's footmen, Ptolemy Bingley, was born a slave—and we readers, with our 21st-century perspective, wonder if he's Bingley's half-brother. In P&P, the officers of Wickham's regiment, quartered at Meryton, flirt and attend balls. In this book, there is a war going on, and it affects our characters even as the Bennet girls are insulated from its horrors.
Oh: and we learn seriously juicy backstory about some of our favorite characters.
It's a joy to read, an homage, a tour-de-force. If you're an Austin fan (and you should be) it's a great read.(less)
This was my introduction to Armand Gamache, and a fine discovery he is! As other reviewers mention, it may have been better to start elsewhere in the...moreThis was my introduction to Armand Gamache, and a fine discovery he is! As other reviewers mention, it may have been better to start elsewhere in the series—for example, at the beginning:)—because there are many references to the past in this book, which must at some level be spoilers for earlier books. We'll see. I've downloaded the first in the series, Still Life.
Those other reviews mention the essentials: Gamache is a Chief Inspector with the Sûreté du Québec, which is fun in itself, a whole new milieu for me as a mystery reader. Like heroes in so many police procedurals, he has a (mostly) trusty sidekick and bosses with whom he disagrees. He's quiet and thoughtful, much more a Maigret than, say, a Wallander, and a long way from more muscular, action-oriented detectives.
The mystery is set in a monastery in the wilds of northern Québec where monks tend their gardens and make chocolate-covered blueberries. And they sing Gregorian chant. It's all about the music here, what the music does to your soul, and the conflicts that can bring.
So Louise Penny has an interesting task as a writer: how do you express the profound effect of music, and the details of the effect, in words? In general, I think she does a terrific job. It's delicate: too little and the story won't make sense; too much and we drown in words about sound. You can't really show, you have to tell. So you have to gush a little about what the listener is feeling. And you have to repeat yourself enough that the reader "gets" what's important. I imagine that the prose's effect depends on your mood when you read it, whether you're a singer, and whether listening to a piece of music has ever made you burst into tears. It might even depend on what you ate for lunch. In any case, it worked for me, and I appreciate the sheer gutsiness of writing a story where the music matters.
My quibble comes from a different direction. It's not giving away too much to say that we become interested in what's so special about the singing at this monastery. And that leads us, as readers, to speculate about Ancient Secrets. At which point we tread dangerously close to Plot Elements That Try Unsuccessfully To Carry More Weight Than A Murder Mystery Can Support. If Maigret (and not Tom Hanks) had stumbled across the whole Da Vinci Code thing, for example, we would rightly wonder whether Simenon was off his rocker.
But: "dangerously close" is not "over the edge." Louise Penny navigates this well, I think. We do eventually find out what's so special—and that is what's (a little) disappointing. As a music guy, the Big Reveal doesn't quite make sense to me. It's interesting, but the dots (literally, in this case...) do not connect.
Read the book, in any case, and see what you think!(less)
Great setting, and a time and place I knew next to nothing about. It was fun to hear the echoes of How the Irish Saved Civilization. And it's a fairly...moreGreat setting, and a time and place I knew next to nothing about. It was fun to hear the echoes of How the Irish Saved Civilization. And it's a fairly competent mystery; although the minor characters are cutouts, and like others I suspected the perp all along, I didn't really put it together until the denouement.
But I agree with other two- and three-star reviewers. The stylistic problems in Tremayne's prose are distracting, given the high quality of others in the genre. For example: he loses his grip on the point-of-view character, shifting haphazardly and unnecessarily from one to another. It would be better to stick with Sister Fidelma. Therefore you can't see the set of her mouth or the (oh, not again) flash of her green (of course) eyes.
Description is weak as well. For this period we need the sounds and smells of the place. It's too little too late, in the second half, to know that the kitchen smells of rotten cabbage. Except that the rooms are named in Latin, most of the action could just as well be in a Holiday Inn. (less)
Another wonderful Haruf. This is set some time after Eventide, in Holt, Colorado.
The style is intriguing; the author takes pains not to intrude with...moreAnother wonderful Haruf. This is set some time after Eventide, in Holt, Colorado.
The style is intriguing; the author takes pains not to intrude with his own impressions of things. You might think that other books are based on show-don't-tell, but read Haruf to see it for real. And, paradoxically, how affecting that can be. The book is deeply emotional—and it all comes from pitch-perfect direct observation. Maybe it's just that I'm old enough now to be more aware of death. I wept, plenty.
I contrast this with The Shelter Cycle, which also hews carefully to the rule. But in that case, I felt that the spare, just-the-facts prose dulled the narrative. (less)
Still reading, and will probably continue, but here's my beef:
I love Chabon's work in general, but in this one, our 1st-person protagonist, Grady Trip...moreStill reading, and will probably continue, but here's my beef:
I love Chabon's work in general, but in this one, our 1st-person protagonist, Grady Tripp, seems irredeemably caught in webs of his own making. A certain measure of this is OK and amusing: we see ourselves. We see how his ability to get it right doesn't extend as far as he would like. But it's a pinball game right now, with him careening from near-disaster to near-fiasco without ever quite going over the edge. And that is proving tiresome.
Part of that is the setting, which contributes. Tripp is an English professor in a small college. So he's allowed to be smart and witty, and we have all the arcane alien strangeness of college life. I get the feeling here (for the first time, for me) that denizens of fictional colleges are allowed to have problems that Ordinary Proles never face, or (on the other hand) just suck it up and deal with. That is, the setting, in addition giving us a social island on which a story plays out—a kind of manor-house comedy of manners—gives the characters a pass on caring about things that really matter. Instead, it gives the writer an excuse to introduce a parade of quirky minor characters and their backstories, and create alcohol- and weed-fueled perceptions and decisions. Hmm.
(added a few days later, after finishing)
One problem is that we spend 400 (iBook) pages learning clearly why the guy needs redemption, and 30 pages getting it. It is a redemption story after all, so let's be positive: Some lovely moments, including perhaps my favorite line (not a spoiler, I think): "I guess there's no point in hanging on to this tuba, then." And it was early Chabon, it turns out, so we give him a pass on the expectations created by later, better books. (less)
Another confection from Jasper Fforde, rich in acknowledged absurdities, snarky comments, and smooth social commentary. Again not quite up to the impo...moreAnother confection from Jasper Fforde, rich in acknowledged absurdities, snarky comments, and smooth social commentary. Again not quite up to the impossible standard of the first quartet, but a worthy addition to the oeuvre.(less)
This is a good, well-plotted story in the Tom Clancy tradition. And we like the characters. The good guys are good, but with flaws. The bad guys are b...moreThis is a good, well-plotted story in the Tom Clancy tradition. And we like the characters. The good guys are good, but with flaws. The bad guys are bad. And the sub operations have the ring of truth, at least to one who has never been aboard.
But somebody has to say it: Oak Ridge Publishing should treat its authors better. The look and feel of the book shouts "self-published" and "we didn't hire a copy editor." Even the best authors need editing. So you get a copy editor, who would have axed the (many) unnecessary commas and caught the consistent misspellings (e.g., carousal for carousel). And a really good one would have caught the occasional glaring errors of (non-military) fact. For example, a character cannot lug the Sunday New York Times home to read the funnies: it has none. Anyone who cherishes Sunday comics should know this!
The problem with the lack of editing is, first, that the extra commas slow down the reader and make them (well, me) reread sentences to figure out what they really mean. And second, errors in trivial facts make us readers lose confidence in the author—and in this case, it's really not the author's fault. (less)
A terrific potboiler in which you get a great combination of gothic cathedral design and construction, English perfidy and betrayal, a clear distincti...moreA terrific potboiler in which you get a great combination of gothic cathedral design and construction, English perfidy and betrayal, a clear distinction between good and evil, blood and gore, and hot sex, all delivered at about an eighth-grade reading level. Don't look for literary brilliance, but you want a fun read? Here is one.(less)
I have so liked many Tepper books, and this one raced along well enough. It has an interesting premise, with intelligent, speaking dogs, but the writi...moreI have so liked many Tepper books, and this one raced along well enough. It has an interesting premise, with intelligent, speaking dogs, but the writing just didn't hold up for me this time. Not sure why. But I felt vindicated in my opinion when I picked up the next book I was going to read, by Barbara Kingsolver, and immediately saw the difference. Could it be the mood I was in? Sure.(less)
This novel inspires me to identify a new genre in mystery fiction: the police dysfunctional.
Given the current interest in Scandinavian mystery and my...moreThis novel inspires me to identify a new genre in mystery fiction: the police dysfunctional.
Given the current interest in Scandinavian mystery and my enthusiasm for the Beck series (Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall), the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, the Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbø, and books by Kjell Eriksson, the prospect of this book was irresistible. The cover blurbs looked great, the author has a bunch of cred, what's not to like?
Let me list seven:
• It's OK to skip around in time; that's an interesting technique that lets you present parts of the story in the best order; and it can keep your reader off-balance if that's what you want. But you have to give some clues about when you're skipping ahead or back and how many years. Maybe it would be clearer to somebody who lived in Sweden at the time, but dang, at one point I thought I was in the 90s or the 00s, when somebody said there's this new disease called AIDS and I was yanked back into the 80s.
• A related issue: It is not a spoiler to say that the plot includes concerns about the safety of the prime minister. Are we told whether that prime minister is Olof Palme? We are not. Why keep it a secret? Even we Americans know that's an issue. If we were told the year instead of just the date, we could orient ourselves. It's as if we're following a character who gets a key to a book repository in Dallas and we're not told it's 1963. What? You think we're going to be surprised? No, just annoyed.
• Many important characters are identified by role, not by name: the prime minister, of course, but also his special assistant; the Stockholm Chief Constable; the assistant's mute housekeeper; and a few others. Having one of these makes sense and focuses our attention on him. Having three or more is confusing: do they have no names because they're unimportant? Because they're so important, so high-up, we're not allowed to learn their real names?
• Not to be a feminazi or anything, but there are very few women characters, and the ones we get are one-dimensional. Of course, there are a lot of one-dimensional guys as well, particularly the endless parade of racist, piggish policemen.
• It's interesting to have a character say something and then be told immediately that they're thinking something different. But Persson uses that device constanty in this book. Makes you hanker for Jane Austen, where you often sense such contradictions without being hit over the head with them.
• The story has many instances of people doing very bad things. Too many of them have no apparent motive beyond the sociopathology of the perpetrators.
• Our stereotype of Scandinavians is two-pronged: you have the sunny, blond, buff, ecologically- and sexually-aware bike-riders; and you have the Bergmanesque, dark, brooding drinkers, prone to suicide. Crime fiction naturally tends towards the latter; in a mystery/thriller, we expect the noir side. What I did not expect was a the depth of resignation and cynicism Persson can express. That is not the problem; the problem is taking 550 pages to express it. (Little Murders, in contrast, runs under 80 pages.) If I'm going to work that hard, and if I get foreshadowing of redemption until maybe page 475, I want some redemption—or at least hope. One star: for deeply disappointed.(less)
If I had not read and so enjoyed Alan Furst before, I would have like this better, but dang, Al! You can write atmospheric pre-war Paris in your sleep...moreIf I had not read and so enjoyed Alan Furst before, I would have like this better, but dang, Al! You can write atmospheric pre-war Paris in your sleep and it's lovely, so that's a given. But—and I mean this with the greatest respect and admiration—this one reads as if you had a deadline to meet for an eight-book contract or something. Too much tell, not enough show.
Two things in particular I miss in this book: the heart-pounding, sweaty-palms tension of the quiet, sneaky parts of a spy mission, especially when undertaken by an amateur who really doesn't know what to expect. And the way that you (Alan) make love grow out of the descending darkness of that Europe you know so well. We have the chance for both of these in Mission to Paris, and both are perfunctory. (less)
This book has some achingly beautiful truths about love. Good job, I want to read more from this author. The comments from Russian-Americans, however,...moreThis book has some achingly beautiful truths about love. Good job, I want to read more from this author. The comments from Russian-Americans, however, we should take seriously. (less)
I really liked this one. Fun, well-paced, with an unusual narrator. And a great plot, well wrapped-up. I'm puzzled by the reviews that complain that t...moreI really liked this one. Fun, well-paced, with an unusual narrator. And a great plot, well wrapped-up. I'm puzzled by the reviews that complain that the ending is lame, but each to his own, I guess. I am not puzzled by those that find the rapid changes from present to narrative past to longer-ago flashback confusing, but for some reason I got into the flow and didn't have a problem with that.
I loved the way Pavone treated the dilemma of the former spy trying and failing to have a normal life. Kate wants to want to be normal, but can't quite manage it. It gets to the point that we as readers wonder, with good cause, whether she's imagining things. I also appreciate a spy novel with a strong main character where she doesn't kick ass all the time. As in the Russia house, there is very little violence, but plenty of tension. And Kate's inner monologues, for example, about whether to tell her husband the truth about her past, are genuinely interesting and not overdone.
Of course I have some complaints. One is this: you know that great scene in Stranger than Fiction where Dustin Hoffman riffs on "little did he know?" It's about the device of having an omniscient narrator let the reader know something that the character does not, as in, for example, "much later, she realized that her husband didn't smoke Gitanes." A little of this, like ONE, is ok, but we have too much of it. This book is structured as a mystery, not a thriller: we don't spend time with the bad guys, we're always in Kate's head. So for the most part, we should figure things out when Kate does or a little after.
So when Pavone repeatedly steps in as omniscient narrator to give us foreshadowing, and tell us, essentially, who is lying, he deprives us of the joy of the mystery, the surprise of finding out, or, better still, the self-satisfaction of figuring it out before Kate.
An example of doing it right (and I don't consider this a spoiler): at one point, we learn of a theft of 50 million euros. Later, we discover the location of 25 million euros. Pavone does not step in to tell us: was the 50 a mistake? Are the two related? Is there another 25 somewhere? Instead, there are subtle clues that Kate sees (and therefore we do too) but does not at first understand. So in the denouement, we learn how the discrepancy, which we readers have been worried about all along even though it hasn't been mentioned, is resolved. Well done. Very satisfying.
My other complaint is about raw sloppiness. Kate is fluent in Spanish. But when she says the word for five, it comes out spelled "cinqo." (less)
Quick, funny, set-in-San-Francisco mystery. The snappy comeback comes easily to August Riordan. So does pulling out a gun or beating a punk to a pulp....moreQuick, funny, set-in-San-Francisco mystery. The snappy comeback comes easily to August Riordan. So does pulling out a gun or beating a punk to a pulp. It's well done, but too carelessly violent and too glib for my taste. Maybe I like my banter with more self-deprecation, like in the Bernie Rhodenbarr or Dortmunder novels.
The potential case of vote fraud that starts the plot is really interesting (and galling because that's what I'm writing about in my NaNoWriMo novel from last November!) and done reasonably well. Though I like mine better.
The author is clearly local, so the small geographical mistakes (e.g., a reference to the intersection of Larkin and Van Ness—the streets are parallel) are hard to explain. And tearing down the National Guard Armory is artistic license, but a shame: the fact that it's now being used partly as a porn studio seems to me to be something he could use…(less)
This is the huge conclusion to the tale begun in the huge Blackout. It has some of the glorious humor and pathos of Willis's other work, and is set in...moreThis is the huge conclusion to the tale begun in the huge Blackout. It has some of the glorious humor and pathos of Willis's other work, and is set in the same time-travel universe as her best stuff, with some of the same characters, and some brilliant new ones such as Alf and Binnie Hodbins. So it's worth reading.
At least after about page 400. Let me explain.
This is a time-travel book, which to me is a good thing. I love authors taking on this challenge and doing well. Connie Willis is one of the best.
But. Her characters spend way too much time dithering about their problems, and many of these stem from time travel, so that by the time the story started to move I felt utterly eroded by it, sick of hearing their conversations and interior monologue. Especially Polly, whom I would love to love.
What was especially galling was that these smart people did not seem to be acting "at maximum capacity," which is what we need from book characters. Polly, for example, knows things that other characters does not. And she doesn't tell them because she doesn't want them to know that something Really Bad might happen. She wants to spare their feelings, keep them from despair. As a consequence, she worries endlessly that (for example) Mike might talk to Miss Laburnum and she will tell him something that will make him suspect, so she has to tell him to go to St Paul's and she will do the errand at Notting Hill Gate tube station, etc, etc. This is OK in small doses, but I tellya, it's what seems to govern the first half of the book.
When in fact, these people are colleagues and friends in a difficult situation: they're in London during the Blitz. They're from 2060. They should level with each other, of not on day one, at least by day thirty.
Too often it seemed as if they were being dense precisely so that Willis could get them to where she wanted them. I imagined the author with a giant chart describing where everybody needed to be when, and what they knew. To write a scene, she had to get all the players to the stage with the right level of ignorance. The problem for us readers is that the details of ignorance are hard to follow: when two of the three people in a conversation know a key fact, and we do too, and one of them is set on the third not finding it out, but the second doesn't realize that, and a subsequent decision and plot element relies on that precise configuration of awareness, well, it's just too confusing.
To make it harder, there are countless details about every piece of action. If Polly leaves a building, chances are good that she will forget a scarf she needed, and realize this just as she closes the door, and wonder if it's worth going back inside to get it, but she just got away from her conversation with that woman and she might have to talk to her again if she went in, and that might not give her enough time to get to Padgett's before the rehearsal—and then wondering if she was supposed to forget the scarf, and if retrieving it will upset the time continuum—you get the idea.
To be sure, a recurrent theme of the book is the importance of small actions, the chaotic nature of history, butterfly wings and all that. But somebody—a good editor, a friend acting at maximum capacity—needed to take Connie by the lapels and tell her that her main character is getting annoying and that the book needs to be maybe 40% as long.(less)
How audacious! Who could resist? P D James channeling Jane Austen, what a treat.
And much of it is lovely, but none lovelier than the opening sentence:...moreHow audacious! Who could resist? P D James channeling Jane Austen, what a treat.
And much of it is lovely, but none lovelier than the opening sentence:
It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.
Pitch-perfect, the pithy Jane Austen voice masking one's true feelings behind some pleasant and amiable discourse.
We also learn what various characters from Pride and Prejudice have done since, and more importantly, what they think about the joyous developments at that work's conclusion, in particular, whether and to what degree (as some of us have thought for some time) the estimable and admirable Miss Elizabeth Bennet's eponymous prejudice might have been softened by the extent as well as the quality of grounds of Pemberley.
So what's not to like? Why only three stars?
I think the fundamental problem is that turning Austen towards violence is just not sustainable. This is P D James, after all, so it is no spoiler to say that there is a death, and it must be investigated. The police and justice system become involved. So things happen and get talked about that just would not arise in The Canon. One way to think about it is, there are scenes where only men are present, and they say and do things that they would never do with a woman nearby, that is to say, in a real Jane Austen novel. So although I longed for the lush, mannered, dissembling Jane, I found myself with P D—which would have been wonderful if only we were in the 20th Century with Adam Dalgliesh or Cordelia Gray.
And since I have been so bold as to criticize one of my favo(u)rite authors, let me be picky and technical about that opening sentence. That brilliant opening sentence. When I first read it, I breathed a sigh of joy: how lovely to pack into those few words our memory of Lydia's ignoble marriage to the detestable Wickham. We imagine all five daughters married, and Mrs Bennet pleased as punch, but the "female residents of Meryton" remarking to one another how un-fortunate she was in the matter of Lydia.
But no, we discover: they think Lydia is fine. Kitty is simply not yet married. The Big Coverup, Darcy's making-it-all-OK that (along with Pemberley) helped soften Elizabeth's heart was evidently successful, even with the gossips. So: did P D deliberately mislead us? I don't think so.
And yet, worth reading? If you like Jane and P D James, this book is mandatory. Besides, you get some delightful references to Persuasion and Emma. And maybe more! (less)
This is a page-turner. Swords and sorcery. Not much sorcery. Lots and lots of swords. Noble people, evil people, revenge, lust for power, pathological...moreThis is a page-turner. Swords and sorcery. Not much sorcery. Lots and lots of swords. Noble people, evil people, revenge, lust for power, pathological scheming, and a whiff of dragons. Sex. Gore. More sex. And lots and lots of descriptions of clothing, food, armor, and heraldry.
But it is not American Tolkien as some blurb-writers would have it.
But did I finish it? I did. And the next three too. Maybe I'll start number 5.
George R R Martin does write a compelling tale. I want to know what happens. But it does not transform me or haunt my thinking the way some other fantasy books have done. I attribute that to four things—I won't call them problems because I don't think the author is trying to make something deep, just fun and, in his case, lucrative:
First, the physical geography is not compelling. It's cold in the north and hot in the south. But there is no overall direction to the action; it's not a "Journey" tale. In later books, it seems as if characters are crisscrossing the map willy-nilly, and I—an inveterate map guy—stopped referring to the maps because it just didn't seem to matter where these places were. I think part of this is because we have no overview on the map pages (which way is it to the Free Cities?), part of it is because there is no particular east-west distinction, and part of it is that characters so seldom get to where they intend. They want to go to Riverrun, but oops! They get hijacked and go somewhere else—which is often not marked on the map.
Second, what we might call the relational geography is reeeealy complicated. These books are riddled with scores of families, all shifting in their loyalties. And House Frey alone is so densely populated that you need a scorecard (helpfully provided in the appendix). But it's hard to care enough to remember which Tyrell is which.
Third, the dearth of magic. I was surprised, not only that there was so little magic use, but also that it seemed to matter to me. Just about everything gets resolved through steel. And one of the things I like in fantasy is the way that the author decides that magic will work. Very little of the supernatural here.
Finally, the lack of understandable and compelling overall motivation. Now I've gone on record as being leery of save-the-world plots. But in this case, the main motivation seems to be, I want to rule, and rule as much as possible. Or, slightly more subtly, I want to enhance my family's influence. Or, a variation, I want to ruin someone who has dissed my family. Now, I can buy this for some relatively shallow characters, but when you look around at this place, why in the world would you want to rule it? The Iron Throne itself is a death trap! Contrasted with, say, the need to destroy the One Ring, it's not a terrific motivation. (less)