A Study in Scarlet; Scandal in Bohemia (CBR11 #37 & 38)

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My previous Sherlock experiences have all centered around visual adaptations, starting with The Great Mouse Detective (1986). My mind’s eye had a very specific versions of Holmes and Watson cobbled together over many incarnations Watson, to me, is an intelligent everyman who is aware of the things he does not know – as well as being a man of responsibility and duty. Sherlock is a bit testy, has a bit of tunnel vision when it comes to solving a problem or getting information he needs and is how I was taught the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. I got a little burst a pleasure when a classic Sherlock expression would show up. But, on the whole, A Study in Scarlet left me feeling a bit underwhelmed so I’m glad I also read A Conspiracy in Bohemia before walking away from Arthur Conan Doyle’s work.

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For A Study in Scarlet we are meeting these two iconic characters as they meet each other for the first time. Dr John Watson needs lodging upon his return from war in Afghanistan (a plot point utilized in the contemporary BBC Sherlock adaptation) and a friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who is looking for someone to share expenses at 221B Baker Street. Holmes makes his living as a consulting detective which serves as a point of fascination for Watson who becomes the de facto memoirist of Holmes. For their first mystery, Sherlock is summoned to a south London house where a dead man is found. The police are baffled by the crime and its circumstances: the body is unmarked, but a mysterious word has been written in blood on the wall. Sherlock asks Watson to accompany him so that he can understand as Holmes applies logical deductive reasoning to uncover a tale of deadly revenge.

The story falls apart for me the minute we enter Part II. Doyle decided to completely change point of view and present the backstory of the victims separately. We lose the Watson narration, and with it, the heart of the story. Add in to that the very sensational way in which Doyle presented his Mormon baddies and my modern sensibilities were not having it.

For Scandal in Bohemia the portions of A Study in Scarlet which I had quite enjoyed were present and all the things I didn’t were gone. I haven’t read enough Doyle to know if he perhaps is just a stronger writer in the shorter form (this one is a short story to the novella length of A Study in Scarlet) but a few years into his journey of writing the exploits of Holmes and Watson he had dialed down admirably into his characters and provided moments for their successes and failures.

It seems to me that Doyle is using his characters to critique various aspects of British society. He wrote them in particular ways to get at something; whether it be class structures in England or the expectations assigned to the different genders with the introduction of Irene Adler. Watson, and to lesser extents Lestrade and Gregson, are the more everymen – they have ordered outlooks on the world. Holmes is their reverse, he is unordered, without concern for the things many would be concerned with. Doyle lays out the differences in a shorthand of how the men use their reasoning, be it inductive or deductive. A Study in Scarlet; Scandal in Bohemia It seems to me that Doyle is using his characters to critique various aspects of British society. He wrote them in particular ways to get at something; whether it be class structures in England or the expectations assigned to the different genders with the introduction of Irene Adler. Watson, and to lesser extents Lestrade and Gregson, are the more everymen – they have ordered outlooks on the world. Holmes is their reverse, he is unordered, without concern for the things many would be concerned with. Doyle lays out the differences in a shorthand of how the men use their reasoning, be it inductive or deductive.

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Northern Lights (CBR11 #36)

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I’m glad the CBR11 Bingo Square is Summer Read, not Beach Read because I have a very peculiar definition of what I read at the beach and it is not vacation “light reading”! Northern Lights might not count for some (there are a few murders and a male protagonist fighting through depression) but a Nora Roberts romance will always be a Summer Read for me.

I’ve read Northern Lights before, but its been a long time. In Northern Lights we follow Nate Burke as he moves from Baltimore, Maryland to Lunacy, Alaska to take the newly founded job as the Chief of Police. Nate is also running from the death of his partner less than a year ago. As you would expect in a town called Lunacy, it is teeming with an cast of characters rightfully called Lunatics. Amongst the Lunatics are Burke’s officers, townspeople convinced that someone from Outside should not have been brought in as the Chief, and those who doubt the need for a Police force at all.

An unexpected meet cute with the always dressed in red Meg Galloway leads to what you would expect in a romance novel, but what I love about Meg is that she is entirely self-sufficient in the world which is saying quite a lot for a character who lives in remote Alaska. She is the kind of character I’ve come to expect in 2019, but Roberts had her on the page 15 years ago. It can be easy to take hits at Roberts, her books are often formulaic, and I probably don’t need to revisit many of her trilogies. Nevertheless her standalones, and particularly those focused around some sort of mystery, are reliably good reads.

This is one of those reliable reads, in Lunacy things heat up as a former resident is discovered to have been murdered 16 years earlier. Nate suspects the killer in an unsolved murder is still in town and his investigation unearths some of the secrets that lurk beneath the frozen surface of the town, further complicating his burgeoning relationships in his new hometown, including Meg. I remembered *most* of the plot but had thankfully forgotten the identity of the killer and enjoyed this book as much on reread as I had remembered doing when I decided to request it from the library. Afterall, Roberts is the queen of romance for a reason.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Bone People (CBR11 #35)

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I don’t know if I knew what to expect when I decided to read The Bone People. I knew it had won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always a great indicator if I’m going to enjoy a book or not, and that it was an Own Voices book by a New Zealand author. Keri Hulme spent over a decade crafting a story of people of Maori heritage in the part of the country she still lives in, and she was steadfast in writing the novel in the way that made sense to her – notoriously refusing to let any publishing house edit the work and finally publishing by Spiral, a small feminist collective press in New Zealand, and eventually by the Louisiana State University Press in the States.

The Bone People is an ambitious work that uses the clash between Maori and European cultures to paint the background of its world and the inner lives of its mixed heritage characters. The book focuses on the complicated relationships that develop among its three protagonists: Kerewin, a painter, who leads a hermetic, solitary life, convinced that art is sufficient to sustain her and that relationships with anyone can only lead to pain; Simon, a mute 6 year old, who has suffered a terrible wound in the past, and his adoptive father, Joe, a laborer with a nasty temper.

In its attempts to mythicize the lives of its three peculiar heroes, The Bone People never quite lives up to the introduction. Hulme’s storytelling is vivid, backed up by some poetic and evocative descriptions of the New Zealand coastline and Maori myth and legend, which allows her to explore ideas about ownership, stewardship and cultural survival that add real heft to the book. The book is also, at its core, an all-too realistic story of abuse and trauma. The craftmanship Hulme shows in the interior monologues, and even in the seemingly disjointed narratives is very obviously building to something. Then we reach the end of the first section and the reader is left adrift.

The Bone People won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature and with some judicious pruning, the book might well have been the unmistakably powerful visionary fable Hulme was after and that the judges clearly saw, but in some ways escapes me. As it is, and reading it a generation later when I cannot reconcile the extreme violence against a child with the actions of the middle of the book, it is still a very good book about love, redemption, and renewal. But it is unevenly written and considerably overlong.

Gender Queer: a Memoir (CBR11 #34)

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In March Emmalita read and reviewed Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe and it put this book onto my radar where it previously hadn’t been. I had been quietly on the lookout for Cannonballer reviews of books by or about non-binary people to help fulfill a Read Harder challenge, and while I have only read a few books by transgender authors (that I’m aware of) I had likely read none by non-binary authors (I may have, I’ve not been great about tracking that in the past).

I took my library copy with me on vacation, I was so excited to get my hands on it. I found Kobabe’s deeply introspective journey through reckoning with eir own sense of eir gender to be very relatable and also illuminating. It shouldn’t be the job of our marginalized siblings to explain to those of us who aren’t marginalized in the same way what their lives are like, but without the brave work of someone like Maia who shares what it has been like to experience life in eir shoes the literary landscape would be much more bland.  

Visually I found the work to be beautifully vibrant without being overwhelming. Honestly, its my Goldilocks’ porridge of graphic novels – it was just right for me. I wish I was more conversant in the artistic terminology so I could more accurately describe it to you, but Kobabe achieves such balance in eir work that I was able to slip into the work and devour it in one sitting, which is a rarity for me. Hunt this one down, it is incredibly worth your time and dollars.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 2 (CBR11 #32)

Since this is only the second manga I’ve read, ever, I thought it would count nicely for the CBR11 Bingo square Not My Wheelhouse. When I read Part 1 last month I was taken with Chi and her family and since my library had Part 2 available, I requested it. Why not spend a little more time with this precocious kitten?

On the whole I’m glad I picked up the next phase in the story, we follow the family as they move into their new pet-friendly apartment and Chi is learning her way around her new home. But this one lacked something the previous installation had – there wasn’t any tension to the storylines. It was 400+ pages of what its like to live with a cat, and Chi’s personality is rendered perfectly, but other than checking in episodically to see what was next for her to explore (stairs, getting her nails clipped, handling  relationship with the dog next door) there wasn’t much in the way of forward momentum.

For those reasons I found my focus wandering. For chapter at a time I was focused far more on the art than the words, sort of passively absorbing the story. It is an old habit that has held over from the days I struggled with comics or graphic novels – I would skim and go back – process the visuals, then process the narrative. That division of attention might be why I often find visually driven books lackluster, my processing is slowed and the story doesn’t always come together organically. Am I turned off manga? No, but its still not my wheelhouse.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Her Body and Other Parties (CBR11 #31)

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Her Body and Other Parties is all about expectations – both the ones on the page for the characters Machado created and for the reader as they come to the much hyped but little described work. I knew going in that the book was pushing boundaries, igniting conversations (the husband stitch, for example), and refused to stick to one genre at any given time, let alone for the entire collection.

Having completed the book I understand why reviewers have, one the whole, been relatively mute on details. There isn’t an easy way to try to capture what Machado is working towards. Her Body and Other Parties is simultaneously gothic and speculative, bending the lines of realistic fiction and fantasy. Most reviews cover “The Husband Stitch” and the novella-within-a-short-story-collection reinterpretation of Law & Order: SVU, “Especially Heinous”, which are admittedly very dramatic and easy to focus on, but my favorite in the collection is a much quieter look at the end of the world, “Inventory”. Machado takes one woman’s coping mechanism (list making) to recount a component of one’s life not often so honestly and quietly spoken of (bisexual sexual history) that in turn tells the story of the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic. It reminded me of Station Eleven in all the best ways while taking the appropriate sized bite of a narrative.

Because, that is my complaint about this collection, and it pains me to have a complaint at all with such a well-written, mechanically beautiful collection. Machado swings big in this, and sometimes it feels that she overshoots what is currently within her powers. “The Husband Stitch” plays with its origin points and makes a larger point, right up until it doesn’t – the landing is missed. Once I noticed that in the first story, I noticed it again in several other places. It is such a tough line in novellas, finding the right amount of story to tell. I’m hopefully Machado continues to refine her technique, because she is one of the few people working in this medium that I know I want to read again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.