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 Nature of the Beast (CBR11 #9)

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This is my first Inspector Gamache book without narrator Ralph Cosham. It took me a bit to get used to hearing Gamache’s voice in my head without the aid of Cosham, but after ten books Cosham is Gamache’s voice for me and once I got started it all worked itself out.

The tenth book, The Long Way Home, was a departure for both Penny and her characters and in some important ways this book is a return to form. We have at the core of this book a mystery set within the greater environs of Three Pines which opens even further the backstories of our favorite residents. But this is also a book that accepts the new status quo of the lives of Gamache, Beauvoir, and Clara.

I don’t fully know that I knew what to expect in this one, but I know that I wasn’t expecting Penny to dive into some truly horrendous baddies. There’s a serial killer haunting the periphery of the story and while other authors would use that to pile up the bodies Penny instead uses it to dig ever further into the whys of human nature. Why are we fascinated with what the serial killer did before the events of the novel, why would he kill so many, why is he resurfacing now, why is he still a threat from the SHU, and why is Gamache so afraid?

The serial killer isn’t even the main thrust of the mystery. Gamache is intent on enjoying his retirement with Reine-Marie in Three Pines, but that idyll is broken when the body of a young boy from town is discovered on the side of the road. An initial small, local search discovers things aren’t quite what they seem and something large and scary is found in the woods which brings in Chief Inspector Lacoste as well as the larger Canadian intelligence community. Three Pines is far from done uncovering her secrets.

I read an interview with Penny, and she nails what I love about these books. “[They] aren’t about murder; they’re about life and the choices that we make, and what happens to good people when such a harrowing event comes into their lives. It’s an exploration of human nature, I hope.” This book does that in spades, and while this book had to be returned over the Christmas holiday and I read it neatly in two halves I’m looking forward to book twelve, A Great Reckoning, and getting to read it all in one go.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Lethal White (CBR11 #8)

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Fan Art cover to match previous in series.

It took me much longer to read this book than I thought it would. Sure, it’s a 22.5-hour audiobook and that’s a decent amount of listening time for something that absolutely could not be “background” noise listening – my brain had to be engaged – but I started this book nearly two months ago (although I did take a two-week break). Some of it had to do with the type of story Rowling is telling, there’s a lot of plot here. Some of it is also the layers of meaning she is including and the commentary on family, loyalty, fame, and pressure.

It’s not my favorite of the series, but it’s not my least favorite either (my favorite is Career of Evil despite its very violent nature) even though I found the mystery the least engaging of the four books so far. It has the potential for an interesting set up, Rowling takes on the political sphere, growing the world of Cormoran Strike  a little larger as she goes. The book picks up immediately where the previous one left off, satisfying the cliffhanger appropriately but painfully for those of us who hate Matthew with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. Then Rowling drop kicks us one year into the future where Strike and Robin are barely speaking to each other. The firm is doing well enough after the Shackleford Ripper case that they’ve been able to hire on contract investigators and slowly Robin and Strike have developed an icy gulf between them.

Billy Knight kicks off the story when he shows up in Strike’s office asking for help in ascertaining if he really did see a child murdered and buried near his home as a child. Unfortunately, Billy isn’t a reliable witness as he is deep into an episode and shows signs of living rough. Billy sticks with Strike though, and in the process of following up on Billy he meets his brother Jimmy, which in turn bring Strike int the orbit of Jasper Chiswell and the story is truly off to the races. The Chiswell family becomes the main focus and that family’s dynamics are complicated while also a bit stereotypical for fiction. There’s a gold digging younger wife, a disgraced youngest son, two loyal daughters, and the beloved dead eldest son.  Strike investigates Chiswell’s political enemies, and never lets the dead child out of his mind, wondering how it all ties in, chewing the details over and over.

I’m continually surprised with how much story Rowling tells, and I shouldn’t be anymore. The initial case Robin and Strike are hired for by Chiswell is over before the halfway point. Most authors would have wrapped things up in their narrative around this point and I wouldn’t be mad at them for doing so. There was already plenty of story to be had, but much like her other works Rowling slowly builds a world and then slowly unpacks the details, both of our two main characters and their personal lives, but also in the various characters who make up the cast of characters in this murder mystery. Because oh yes, there is a dead body and its demise must be solved.

Rowling is usually writing intricate mysteries where the clues are there in front of you, and even if you don’t catch the signs along the way, the resolution make sense after the big reveal.  This is generally the case this time but by the time the final revelations were made it also felt like the answers were overly convoluted. I felt vindicated when even Robin couldn’t seem to put together the slightly too many tangentially related clues.

But the characters are really and truly what make these books so enjoyable. They continue to feel like fully fleshed out people, whether we’ve known them for four books or they are brand new to us in this outing. Rowling is incredibly adept at giving life to her characters, and I feel as comfortable in this series as I did with the Potter books. Robin and Strike have rich internal lives that they don’t share with others and while it’s such a small detail in characterization, it has become incredibly important for establishing their unique rhythms. I wasn’t happy reading the decisions Robin was making regarding her relationship with Matthew, or what she was choosing to share or hide (she hid everything) but it all made sense in the context that Rowling had developed in the previous books: she spent three books showing how unhealthy, codependent relationships are incredibly subtle, persistent, and destructive.

So much of the novel is about relationships – Robin and her failing marriage, Strike and his girlfriend Lorelei, Strike and Charlotte, and how Robin and Strike react to each other in the aftermath of Robin’s wedding and each thinking the other is in a happy relationship.  There are multiple dysfunctional pairs of people peppered throughout, being foils for one another and yet another facet of the investigation for Strike to chew on. We also get more information about old secondary characters (Vanessa Akwenzi gets more fully fleshed out and we get updates on Nick and Ilsa, and an important few chapters with Strike’s nephew) as well as the new secondary characters, Barclay being a standout and I’m excited to see an interaction between him and Shanker in a future book, as this one was sorely lacking in Shanker (but the nature of the case precluded the kind of work Shanker is best at).

There is something else that stood out to me in the reading, something that was very obviously a sign post and left me wishing I had read more Ibsen, something I had not anticipated ever being the case. Rowling uses quotations from Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm at the beginning of each chapter in Lethal White. This is the very first time in any of the Strike novels that all the epigraphs came from a single source (although Career of Evil is all Blue Oyster Cult lyrics it isn’t quite the same thing). I did a little digging after I finished the novel, even though I was sorely tempted to do so before I finished, to double check my instinct. Rowling did indeed take the bones of Rosmersholm and send it through the blender of her creative mind and produce the narrative of Lethal White.

I won’t go point by point, there are others who have done extensive writing on the comparisons, but Rowling is continuing to play with metaliterary creations. The major plot points and locations in Lethal White are mirror images of things in Ibsen’s work, or are building off those ideas. I will say that it gave more meaning for me to the super injunction storyline, and the general fear of the press in this and the other Strike novels. Lethal White also shares imagery with Rosmersholm, the ubiquitous white horses and the hauntings of shared memory.  As an added bit of interesting trivia Rosmersholm is returning to the London stage this spring and starring Cannonball favorite Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke, who plays Strike in the television adaptation.

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Sometimes it’s a very small world.

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Last Rituals (CBR10 #56)

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Last Rituals is the first in series focusing on Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, Icelandic lawyer and divorced mother of two. We are introduced to Thóra following the discovery of the body of a young German student Harald Guntlieb at a university in Reykjavík, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police wasted no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that they have the right person. They ask Thóra to investigate on the recommendation of her old professor and it isn’t long before the deceased’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts becomes entwined in Thóra and her partner’s research.

Beginning with a promising premise the book began to lag rather quickly. The plot in and of itself is interesting, but the narrative is structured in a way where there is virtually no suspense to keep the reader interested. The story also suffers from a lack of emotional intensity, there’s no sense of danger or excitement, with unnecessary attempts at trying to focus on the home life and opinions of Thóra aren’t successfully woven into the structure of the investigation.

For me, it was a fairly stilted and detail heavy novel. Based on the nature of the inquiry Thóra and Matthew are conducting the amount of detail thrown at the reader could have benefitted from some paring back, in many cases it just feels like an information dump. Last Rituals is essentially a straightforward recounting of the investigation of a macabre murder, but it is bogged down by wading through the intricacies of Harald’s research. As Thóra ploughs on through a wealth of documentation she uncovers more questions than answers. Which leads to one of my least favorite tropes – the slow and incomplete disclosure of information from Harald’s family particularly the significant revelations which are withheld and belatedly disclosed – it feels like a ruse to cloud the readers thinking and perhaps add a little excitement, which it doesn’t really accomplish if that was the goal.

This clearly well researched novel is unfortunately the antithesis of a page-turner, and for that reason this review probably reads harsher than my three star rating would indicate. I’m left with the feeling that Last Rituals requires a lot of effort from its readers for a fairly limited return. I am however hopeful that Thóra’s next job will involve topics with more general interest and less academic research (which in all honesty I was expecting to enjoy more – I find witchcraft quite interesting) and that Sigurdardottir leans more heavily into Thóra’s dry sense of humor.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (CBR10 #27)

I don’t scorn rereading (see please, my Harry Potter reread), it just isn’t something I do often since I joined up with the Cannonball crowd back in 2012. It is sometimes very difficult to find new words to express a reaction to a book, and now that writing a review is part of my reading process I cannot skip a review. If I read a book… I’m reviewing it (with the exception of on book back in CBRV, but I still reviewed it on Goodreads).

So, why did I dive back into the world of Cormoran Strike? Several reasons, actually. I was longing for the world of these books, having spent 18 months away from them, I was willing the announcement of the publication date of book four, Lethal White, into existence (we got it!), and I had purchased the audio of the first book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling several months ago because I wanted to own the complete series as read by Robert Glenister. Which meant that I had spent money on a book that I had already read, so I should probably read it again to help justify to myself the purchase price (worth it).

So what is The Cuckoo’s Calling for the uninitiated? It’s a classic murder mystery in its style and delivery. Strike is an injured war hero, he’s just broken up with his mysterious fiancée after a long on and off again relationship, he’s the son of two famous people but eschews the spotlight for himself, and is dead broke. He’s hardened and grizzled, and he’s clever where others aren’t. He is also dogged and determined, and endearingly befuddled like all great investigators in fiction. Robin is the eager sidekick, super competent at all things, with agency: she has desires and wants and fears and ambitions that come to life over the course of the book and series. The victim is a gorgeous supermodel who apparently jumps to her death, but her grieving brother can’t accept how the case was closed and hires Strike to find out what really happened, and hopefully before their mother passes away from end stage cancer.

On the surface it would be easy to say that these books don’t share a lot thematically with the Harry Potter books, but I would disagree with that assertion. This is also a story where the unsuspecting forces of good battle to resist the forces of fear and hate. The characters of Robin and Cormoran are rediscovering themselves, unpacking who they can be and are in the pursuit of knowledge, of truth (how more Hermione can you be?). Additionally, the writing has a similar and familiar structure, Rowling’s style of writing flows easily; she uses plenty of adjectives and humor and is very good at putting you in the room with her characters. I’m watching along with the BBC miniseries as I reread, and it is so noticeable when the adaptation moves away from Rowling’s plotting – the character motivations are diminished. The adaption for the first book, which is three episodes, should have been enough time to lay the story arc out as Rowling wrote it, there was no need to move some plot points around or change the nuance of Guy.

But I digress. My complaint about this book when I read it back in 2015 was that the beginning was too slow, I no longer agree with that assessment. As I sat in my car listening to the world unfold I was happy to have the time Rowling puts into her worlds – she is not so much a builder as a suggester, but she does quite a bit of character and world building in the first quarter of the book before launching us, securely, into her better-than-average mystery. The series works on re-read (so far) on the strength of its characters and getting to spot the clues that Rowling left for us in plain sight.

My reread of this will continue in a few weeks, I’ve got a new shortened deadline to get these read again (although I know I have to wait a bit past publication for the audio version to be released).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

 

One of Us is Lying (CBR10 #10)

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Five students walk into detention, they have little in common, other than that they were all caught with phones in class, and all five claim that they were framed and that the phones weren’t theirs. But only four walk out of that detention alive. Number five is dead and the other four all have motive and opportunity. Who is guilty? What really happened? That is the story which unfolds in One of Us is Lying.

However, it isn’t the only story that Karen McManus is telling. The book is told from the four perspectives of the suspects and the plot naturally expands from dealing exclusively with the murder to each character’s personal lives.  Here, instead of providing differing perspectives of the same scene, as many contemporary whodunits do the story lines simply separate as each character deals with the notoriety as well as the pressures after their deepest secrets are revealed.

We begin with each character in their stereotype: a princess, a jock, a brain, a criminal, and the self-described omniscient narrator.  But they don’t stay there, McManus builds these stereotypes out and deals with the pressure to succeed, having to survive on your own too young, coming to terms with your sexuality, dealing with unhealthy relationships, notoriety, mental illness, and addiction all get dealt with on the page, which makes it for an even more believable jaunt into a high school setting. It had its faults, but as a debut I can already see what McManus’s potential looks like and I’m cautiously excited in that regard.

I was able to piece together what really happened without too much difficulty, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. In fact I read this book in big gulps, it reads fast. I found myself absorbed in the goings on, interested in the various perspectives, and waiting (impatiently) for the next shoe to drop. The way that this book is structured it could translate to visual media quite easily, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it on the big screen or small screens via a streaming service limited series.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.