The Red House (CBR6 #41)

The best things I can say about The Red House by A.A. Milne are that it is a tongue in cheek locked room mystery with an affable amateur sleuth hero and an amusing sidekick. This book was much more of a why-and-howdunnit than a whodunnit (which was a draw back for me), the charm of the work is more in the wit and friendship of the two main characters and their clever allusions to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The Sherlock and Watson stand-ins are Antony Gillingham and Bill Beverley. Antony is arriving at the titular Red House to visit his friend Bill, who is himself a guest of the owner Mark Ablett. What Antony doesn’t know is that he has stumbled upon a little country-house murder mystery. Mark’s ne’er-do-well brother is found dead in a locked office, with Mark also missing, and Antony decides to pick up the craft of sleuthing.

This novel is set just after World War I, and yet the war is never mentioned, which speaks greatly of its tone. Antony is described as the sort who never settles into any one profession for long, where Milne could have simply had him be a returning soldier to explain his lack of career. This is instead a little bit of escapist fantasy, Milne’s try at a genre that was immensely popular in the interwar period, providing an intellectual puzzle to distract the reader from the fact that their world was completely turned upside down.

While the narrative was entertaining enough, Milne did commit a few sins in my opinion. First, the murderer’s confession at the end of the book in the form of a letter left for Antony is a cop out of the first order. The second was in eliminating most of the possible suspects (including all the women, so that there wouldn’t be any love interests) by sending them away early in the story unnecessarily. This made for too few characters and possible villains to keep my attention over several chapters at a time. I picked up and put down this short novel (only 156 pages in my edition) at least a dozen times.

Had it not been for the way in which the mystery is resolved, I would have been tempted to give this ½ a star less. Sure, the culprit might be easy to discover but the how’s and why’s of the last 50 pages were much more pleasurable for me to read than the 100 pages which began the mystery. For those 100 pages I really had to push to finish. The characters were often flat, the pacing was slow and way too much of the book, in my opinion, consisted of lengthy conversations which droned on about the various theories of the crime as well as narrator asides highlighting that this was in fact, a book.

Longbourn (CBR6 #40)

I love Jane Austen. I know she’s not for everyone, but I definitely have a soft spot for the author. Due to this soft spot I limit what I partake of in the Austen companion materials, no matter how long they’ve been a part of the Austen experience. The one that seems to have the most is Pride and Prejudice.  I read Mr. Darcy’s Diary for Cannonball Read IV, but that experience and reading less than stellar reviews has kept me from reading Death Comes to Pemberley(read bonnie’s review though, it’s AWESOME), and I have not, as of yet, had anything to do with The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. But, after coming across a couple reviews of Longbourn by Jo Baker which claimed that it was good story on its own, I decided to take the plunge. This was a splendidly good choice.

Longbourn is centered on the staff hiding in the margins of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In her author’s note Ms. Baker highlights the characters which appear on Ms. Austen’s pages by name and which ones she has given names to. She also points out which characters appear frequently, and which are fleeting. From this sketch provided by Austen, and then a reasonably good amount of research about life below stairs (there are a handful of factual errors or anachronisms but nothing that took me completely out of the narrative and I’m pretty well informed) Ms. Baker sketches a story that interacts with the known narrative while simultaneously fleshing out the historical context.

But the best part, to me, is that Jo Baker took her wondering about the characters ‘off-page’ in Pride and Prejudice and crafted a story which simultaneously supports the previous work while standing alone. It has been a number of years since I have either read or watched a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I’ve been spending my time with other Austen indulgences. I was not hindered in my understanding of Longbourn because this is not a Pride and Prejudice retelling. I didn’t need to remember details about Jane, or Elizabeth, or any of the other Bennetts, I was able to sink in and enjoy the story of Sarah, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and James.

And that is the linchpin to making this a book that I was happy to return to over and over again. While Ms. Baker’s style echoes Ms. Austen’s and while the characters we’ve grown to love from Pride and Prejudice flit in and out of the narrative, it’s this new story told across a setting we well know that makes for an enjoyable read. And, on top of that it’s an interesting story at that. Sure, there’s some of the usual basking in the drudgery of the servant’s daily lives, but once the author establishes what daily life was like, and how there was such little time for happiness or joy, and certainly no idea of upward mobility for the servant class. So what happens to a staff when the family they serve will not be the one’s inheriting the property, and then what happens when the daughters of said family start to marry off and the staff is not needed at the same levels? Throw in a love story between Sarah and James, and the reveal of James’ backstory (which I’m sure has plenty of Austen purists getting their pitchforks ready) and I was all in, giving this book one of only my fourth five star rating out of forty books thus far.

Typhoid Mary (CBR6 #39)

After reading Kitchen Confidential this summer I decided to add all of Anthony Bourdain’s books to my To Read pile. Given my slightly OCD nature I went immediately to Goodreads to figure out which book was next by publication date, not knowing which came first, A Cook’s Tour  or Medium Raw (it’s A Cook’s Tour for those equally as worried about these things as I am). While looking for that information I came across another book Bourdain authored.  This one wasn’t an autobiographical work and its publication date preceded A Cook’s Tour. It looks as though in 2001 Mr. Bourdain spent some time researching the infamous Typhoid Mary, and that I would be reading all about it.

I read this book quickly (a few hours over two days), its short (only about 140 pages) and Mr. Bourdain is many things, but a historian is not one of them (he knows it too, and refers constantly to looking at Mary’s life through that of their shared experiences as cooks in New York) but it was certainly a pleasing look into a life I thought I knew a lot about, but it turns out I knew very little. Bourdain chronicles, in an almost diary fashion, the events of 1904-1915 and the rise and fall of the specter of Typhoid Mary. All told with the now easily recognizable Bourdain delivery familiar to those who have read his books or watched his television shows.

This is not a definitive work on the subject, and shouldn’t be looked at as such. It is instead an appetizer of a larger story. It highlights what the culinary world was like at the turn of the last century, hints at the Irish immigrant experience, pulls back the veil about the beginnings of the health commission, and gives a glimpse at the life of Mary Mallon, the woman who would become known the world around as Typhoid Mary. This is a succinct, adroit, and relatable biography about a seemingly unrelatable public persona.

Consider the Fork (CBR6 #38)

This is exactly the kind of book that appeals to my historian self. Yes, I’d love to read 300 pages about how the various technologies we use in cooking have changed over the course of recorded history. It’s also a boon to me when these types of books qualify as research for work and I am able to spend a couple days reading happily at work. I have done just that and with 10 pages of typed notes I have lots to work with as I move forward with my work calendar.

But, does this book hold appeal to you? Maybe. If you like history it will, if you like to cook and have always wondered why your whisk is the shape and material it is, then yes. If both of those things are completely out of your normal interest than I would say to stay away.  Here’s the recap from Goodreads to help you decide:

In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson provides a wonderful and witty tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of everyday objects we often take for granted. Knives—perhaps our most important gastronomic tool—predate the discovery of fire, whereas the fork endured centuries of ridicule before gaining widespread acceptance; pots and pans have been around for millennia, while plates are a relatively recent invention. Many once-new technologies have become essential elements of any well-stocked kitchen—mortars and pestles, serrated knives, stainless steel pots, refrigerators. Others have proved only passing fancies, or were supplanted by better technologies; one would be hard pressed now to find a water-powered egg whisk, a magnet-operated spit roaster, a cider owl, or a turnspit dog. Although many tools have disappeared from the modern kitchen, they have left us with traditions, tastes, and even physical characteristics that we would never have possessed otherwise.

Did that help? I’ll mention that if you are on the fence about this one I would probably suggest not reading it. Each chapter is probably 10-20% too long and at times can absolutely drag. But all in all I did enjoy this book and it was full of the fun tidbits I like to get out of a history monograph.  

The Duchess War (CBR6 #37)

I’m writing this review without actually finishing the book. I know, it’s unorthodox, but stick with me here. Thanks to the lovely reviews of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series I have decided to make these books my summer/fall romance reads. Based solely on the reviews I purchased all of the available books and novellas for my Nook and have been sliding these books in amongst my other reading. The Duchess War is the first full novel, second story, in the series and I am in love with it.

There’s a lot to love about these books. Courtney Milan’s style is infectious, her word choice is crisp, her grasp of humor, and how to deploy it, are top notch. Then there are the characters. I love a well written, complex, but not unknowable character. I love them. I think it’s why time and again I am drawn back into the land of Romance novels. The stories are often dictated by known tropes, but the really good ones have some of the richest characterizations you’ll find in fewer than 300 pages. And then there’s the lovely times where your expectations of tropes are turned on their head and you have what makes a truly wonderful story.

In the case of The Duchess War the trope that is turned upside down is that our male lead, Robert, portrays many of the uncertainties one would expect from the female lead. Not that Minnie doesn’t have her own tale of woe, she does. She’s had to change her name to escape a disastrous past that is beyond the simple ‘ruined woman’ trope. But it’s Robert who is afraid of love, afraid of wanting it, and afraid of having it taken away.  And that primal fear in him, placed there by battling parents who treated him like a chess piece and not a son, is what truly moves the course of the novel, not the will they or won’t they, and certainly not the question of whether Minnie’s true identity will be revealed, and if it is, how much of her life will be ruined.

And let’s not forget to mention that it’s steamy, wonderfully steamy without being time period inappropriate. And we have not one but two historical protagonists masturbating in the same book. I may be reading the wrong things, but I have never come across that before, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. And when our leads get together, that ain’t bad either. Through that in with socially aware protagonists worried about people’s rights and some lovely supporting characters who are going to be a hoot along the way (looking at you, Sebastian) and this is a thoroughly well rounded novel.

I promise not to post this review until I have actually read those last chapters. But, I can happily recommend this book to you without knowing how we get to the ending, or what the ending looks like. This book is that well written.

King of Thorns (CBR6 #36)

Back when I reviewed Prince of Thorns I had two complaints that kept my rating at a 3 instead of a 4. Those were:

  1. World-Building. If my roommate hadn’t told me about the fact that this was supposed to be in our distant future and that we’re the builders I wouldn’t have had a clue. I love Mark Lawrence’s style, but much of this novel may well have been taking place in a setting bubble for as much as I grasped from the page.

  2. Bad guy out of nowhere with 10% more book to read. We learn a LOT about what/who has been motivating Jorg in the tail end of the book (and then go on a glorious rampage) but it came out of left field, to me. I had to put the book down and walk away to make sense of what I had just read, and then go back in a day later.

I am happy to report that I had no such problem with King of Thorns. There are many more easter eggs of information waiting for the reader to give a hint at how people in the Broken Empire are making use of what remains of the Builders, and also what baffles them. There is also no new Big Bad, but that means that we are able to build on the understanding of who the baddies are to understand the battle ahead of Jorg, both for his very survival and for his ultimate goal of being the emperor.

King of Thorns utilizes the same then and now narrative device that Prince did. While it is not flawlessly executed (we stay in the past too long sometimes for my particular taste) it does serve to give us a road story as well as a battle story all in the same novel, happening simultaneously for the reader. It also works to illuminate various details slowly, making the reading as much a discovery as ‘living’ it would be for the secondary characters waiting for Jorg to tell them what’s next.

In the present, Jorg is a man with many (literal) demons and a lack of memory. Some memories have been taken from him and put into a box for safety, others he has taken out himself, hiding them from his would be assailant. Mark Lawrence takes this plot contrivance and wrings from it a great amount of tension.

Read this book, if only to hand out with Jorg some more. He’s worth it.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (CBR6 #35)

I was granted an ARC of this book via NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. This book is currently available at your local bookseller.

It took me a long time to get through How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Way too long. My ARC copy actually expired before I was able to finish. I never really sunk into this novel. I like it, but I don’t love it. There were just too many things which didn’t align for me to fall in love, like I fell in love with Shine Shine Shine. Let’s see if I can’t figure out why.

As I progressed through the novel I used the status updates on Goodreads to keep track of what I was feeling as I went. About 70 pages in the group of characters finally started to come together and stopped being disparate things. My thought at the time: “I’m wondering how Netzer will bring all the pieces together.” And the problem was that the way they were brought together wasn’t captivating. Ms. Netzer’s approach to novels is to take a familiar trope (boy meets girl) and inject it with a smidge of the fantastical (a turf war between astronomy and astrology and parents engineering soul mates). But the pieces never truly reconciled.

That didn’t stop me from appreciating the characters. By the time I reach page 263 my notes tell me: “now I’m loving these characters and angry at the wasted 50 pages”. The wasted 50 pages I’m think I’m referring to are pages 15-65 or so. In those pages our two protagonists, George and Irene have yet to meet. They are each living independent lives, but most importantly they are living with great big crazy circumstances. And it felt at the time like the novel did just spinning its wheels, attempting to set up the not-real Toledo of the title and the characters inhabit it instead of just progressing with the story. At times throughout the book the reading felt like walking through wet cement. There were demi gods, lucid dreams, crystal balls and black holes. At a certain point it just got to be too much, and robbed the narrative of necessary time.

I had concerns on page 308 (about 90% through the book): “I’m now worried about Netzer landing this one… it’s in too many different types…” This book is many types of books tightly wrapped in less than 350 pages. Each of the genres gets shortchanged. And it’s a shame, because this book could have been 4 or 5 stars. It’s got the bones of one of the most original stories I have read in quite some time. Since the love that George and Irene share was designed and engineered by their mothers even before they were born, as the story unfolds philosophical questions come up. Such as, is it possible to influence people’s actions before they even take them by putting certain things in place before hand? In the case of George and Irene their mothers seem to have taken great pains to encourage them to like the same things, do the same activities all while ensuring they grow up apart, while at the same time hoping that one day they meet and fall in love. This is certainly the basis for a very interesting book, but somehow it How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky just never lived up to its potential.

But that isn’t to say that Lydia Netzer’s writing style is anything less than beautiful. For example:

“It’s more like every electron in every atom in the universe paused, breathed in deeply, assessed the situation, and then reversed its course, spinning backward, or the other way, which was the right way all along. And afterward, the universe was exactly the same, but infinitely more right.”

Ms. Netzer has also shared with us one of the best quotes I have ever read about the writing and revising process. Her friend Susannah Breslin told her (and Ms. Netzer shared with us in her Author’s note) “If one of your kids had pooped all over the floor, would you stand there complaining about it? No, you would roll up your sleeves and clean it up. So clean it up.” I wish that in cleaning up the drafts of this novel that it had been fleshed out more and that Netzer had chosen a different/better wrap up for George and the demi-gods. And that secondary characters hadn’t fallen off the page in the final 100 pages. I so wanted it to be a 4 or 5 star novel.