A Trick of the Light (CBR9 #27)

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When I finished this book, I quickly posted on Goodreads my placeholder review, as I do with all books. Usually it is just the star rating and the phrase “full review to follow”. However, that wasn’t enough to wrap up how I was feeling. Instead, I wrote “It is almost unthinkable that a series can be getting better, more nuanced, and satisfying in its seventh installment but that is where we are with Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache” because this might be the best book yet in the series.

Several days later, I feel the same way. I think kella, in her omnibus review of books 7-12 of this series, nailed it when she said, “[Penny’s] characters become more and more complex with each book, as their experiences keep building. The characters are growing and changing throughout, which is probably why I can’t put these down. I’m invested now- it’s as much about seeing these people grow and interact as it is about the murder at hand.” Penny, like other great series writers, has taken the time to flesh out all of her main cast of characters and isn’t afraid to allow them to grow, change, behave, and experience pain as anyone would given the situations surrounding them. These books are going somewhere, and it is plot based, but it is character driven. Penny is offering a meditation on the human spirit and its ability to recover.

The murder this time is of a former friend of Clara and Peter’s who is found dead in their garden. There was a large party celebrating Clara’s lauded solo show but, as is often the case the past slinks its way into the present. Throughout the investigation, each new avenue that Gamache and his team head down uncovers another person whose past is affecting their present. We head down a path exploring the art world, the people who make its community, people trying to forgive the unforgiveable, those who are fighting their addictions in AA, and the continuing power struggles within the Surete du Quebec.

The book also masterfully takes on what recovering from trauma like that which Beauvoir, Gamache, Lacoste, and the other officers of the Surete du Quebec faced in Bury Your Dead, never sugarcoating the reality of profound injury, loss, and the mental wounds. Penny has used this tragedy to set some characters more surely into themselves, and allow others to shake off decisions of the past, and to grow everyone. We don’t know yet what the long term effects will be, but as with any long-form storytelling the waiting is part of the experience.

I don’t know if I will be able to hold to my previous rule of reading these in the month/season they were set. I already bent my own rule with this one, as it is set in June, but I couldn’t find that information before I got started and based my start date on the flowers described in the blurb (yes, that is the type of nerd I am) and once I realized I was reading it early I just kept going. I believe the next book, The Beautiful Mystery, is set away from Three Pines and focuses on Gamache and Beauvoir. I am exceptionally excited to spend more time with these two characters based on where we left them emotionally, and hope the next one isn’t set too much into the fall/early winter and I can get started on it soon.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, set personal goals, and review to our hearts content. Oh, and say “Fuck Cancer”, for good measure.

Career of Evil (CBR9 #4)

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OVERALL THOUGHTS

4.5 rounded up to 5 stars, because this book deserves a higher ranking than its predecessor.

I had thought the world of Rowling’s writing was done for me. And then. AND THEN. This series showed up in my life and I have the gift of her back. Writing intricate but not unsolvable mysteries where the clues are right there in front of you, and if you are anything like me only make sense to you after the big reveal.  No BBC Sherlock magic here, just good writing.

SPOILER FREE GENERAL REVIEW SECTION

I’ve gone back to my reviews of the earlier books and while The Cuckoo’s Calling didn’t blow my skirt up, I noticed dramatic improvement in The Silkworm and both shone with Rowling’s characteristic strengths: she can build the hell out of her world and build characters of incredible depth without acres of exposition. She shows, not tells. Rowling’s gotten comfortable and moved away from the paint by numbers approach (which was on full display in The Cuckoo’s Calling), while still embracing the mechanics of the genre.

Career of Evil is a step above. The Strike books are ever overly grand in their setting or pace, but this story dials it down to the point of precision of a master craftsperson.

Book three in the series finds Strike and Robin in the crosshairs of a man bent on revenge against Strike and planning to use Robin to exact it. Our antagonist’s opening salvo is mailing a dismembered leg to Robin at the office. Rowling uses the technique of laying out the antagonist’s goals from their point of view, then opening the First Act and having Strike lay out the possible suspects to draw the reader in. You have just enough information from the antagonist’s point of view to think you know who did it.  Rowling allows you to go on that way for a bit, and then layers in how ALL of the suspects fit the information you as the reader have.

And then the game is on.

This book has plenty of plot. SO MUCH PLOT. There are murders, stalkers, police investigations, road trips, narrow misses but that isn’t what pushed me to round this book up to five stars. But we’ll get there in just a second.

But before we go into spoiler land, I cannot suggest enough that you listen to these books on audio. Robert Glenister is the second best narrator I have listened to, and is only second to the incomparable Ralph Cosham who reads the Inspector Gamache books.

Here we go.

SPOILERY IN DEPTH TALKY TIMES

What this book is really about is sexism. Rowling burns down the misogyny of both daily life and violence against women. She shines a light on all of the incidental ways woman are made to suffer and are put at risk by the world we live in, and she has very obviously been heading here from the beginning because we finally have the Robin backstory reveal.

Seriously, I said spoilers.

There’s a lot of detailed violence and rape in this book, including Robin’s story of her rape and recovery. With this narrative move, laid in place way back in Cuckoo’s Calling we have the heart of the discussion that Rowling is placing under all the other violence of the book. The perpetrators are men, the victims are women, and it’s not always about outright violence.

It’s a discussion of sexism both casual and pervasive that Rowling achieves by letting us into the minds of the antagonist, a serial killer who objectifies women; Strike, a man who tries to be good and still ends up short sometimes because it’s difficult to overcome the effects of his white male privilege, history with his mother, and military training; and Robin who is objectified, victimized, and mistreated by the most important people in her life despite being more than competent.

Rowling gives us another wonderful heroine in Robin. She explores how Robin took control of her own recovery (defensive driving and self-defense courses) and we learn that she is so committed to the work that she and Strike do because she wanted to be in this field before her attack and felt as though it was taken away from her. But she’s overcome what happened to her, and she’s strong as hell (sorry for that earworm) and better able to take care of herself then either her partner or fiancé think she is. Both have their own veiled sexist ways of trying to protect her, and Robin is steadfastly not letting them put her in mothballs as she was following her collegiate rape. This however has major implications for both the mystery portion of the novel and the character driven aspects of the book.

Robin and Strike’s personal lives serve as foil for the case they are attempting to solve. Robin and Matthew’s relationship is rocky at best in the beginning of this book, and then Matthew confesses to cheating on Robin following her rape, WITH A FRIEND WHO IS STILL IN THEIR LIVES (the fucking asshole, seriously if you were on the fence at all about Matthew at the beginning of this book you won’t be at the end) their engagement is called off. Which then leads Strike to notice all the more closely how his new girlfriend of about six months just doesn’t measure up to Robin, and we as the reader are allowed to see how he struggles to keep Robin in the “coworker” box all this time. It, plus the dangers of a case where they are both targets, creates an increasing sense of tension as more and more victims accumulate.

I’m running out of words to talk about the end of the book, but it’s dramatic, and with all good mysteries the clues were there along the way, there’s no trick. The personal entanglements got the better of me as Robin goes back to Matthew and their wedding occurs.

Because still: Fuck You, Matthew for that dick move. YOU DO NOT GET TO DELETE VOICEMAILS AND BLOCK CALLERS ON YOUR FIANCEE’S PHONE, JACKASS.

I don’t know how the smile Robin gives the battered Strike while saying I do to dickweasel Matthew is going to play out, but all I can say is: Please let book four be released this year. PLEASE.

Also… on audio, which I already mentioned I LOVE, there’s 20 minutes of acknowledgements and song credits. I THOUGHT THERE WAS MORE BOOK. I AM STILL MAD/SAD THERE WASN’T MORE BOOK. I NEED MORE ROBIN, STRIKE, AND THE DELIGHTFUL SHANKER MY GOD I NEVER TALKED ABOUT SHANKER.

Ahem, I’ll see myself out for now.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We’re pretty awesome if I do say so myself, why don’t you stop on by and see what wackiness we’re up to.

A Spy in the House (CBR8 #74)

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It isn’t a book’s fault when you’ve read a version of it better suited to your own personal tastes. I feel poorly for nor liking A Spy in the House more, since as a straight on 1850s historical fiction mystery should be right up my alley. I am a fan of Alex Grecian’s Murder Squad series which starts with The Yard, which is the same basic set up, but 40 years later. But I was left underwhelmed.

I think it may be because Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series is more recently in my memory and it was quite a bit more enjoyable for me. Here’s a synopsis from Goodreads so you can decide for yourself if this book sounds like fun to you:

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

While I was finishing this book and contemplating both my star rating (2.5) and my review in general the twittersphere blew up about a YA book The Continent, and one of our favorite authors, Courtney Milan, got involved in the discussion, which meant that I got caught up quick. What it basically boils down to is that persons of color in The Continent were mishandled (racist and demeaning descriptors of POC, per the reports), and people spoke out via the methods available to them. The author and her supporters are falling back on a free expression.

But what stood out to me was Milan’s point and emphasis about reading more POC authors, which is actually how I got to this book in the first place, and realizing that I as a white reader need to be aware of my reactions to what I’m reading.  I can’t just sit back and say “I didn’t connect with this for some reason” and not look into the idea of is it simply that this book is handling a viewpoint different than my own, and different to the conventional story arc? I stepped back from this review and thought about it long and hard. Was the trouble I had because the narrative was typical and from a POC author? I’ve come to the conclusion of no, that my real struggle with this book is that it is Y. S. Lee’s first book, the pacing is slow, and it’s a bit more YA than I prefer. But if you are looking for more insight into the conversations surrounding representation in books, particularly YA, Becky Albertelli and Justina Ireland had a great threads on Twitter as well.

 

The Brutal Telling (CBR8 #64)

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My chief complaint when I read A Rule Against Murder this summer was that while it was an Inspector Armand Gamache novel with all that entails, and it featured some of the characters who populate Three Pines, the book was not set there and I felt the lack of the world that Louise Penny had spent three books crafting. Well, in book five I got my wish to return to Three Pines, and Penny makes the reader pay mightily for the return.

Mild spoilers for the book and series, I suppose, from this point forward.

Louise Penny crafts incredible prose. I have chosen to listen to the Ralph Cosham read audiobooks for as long as they last (through book 10, I believe) and sometimes while listening I actually lose track of the plot threads because my brain is busy savoring the way the words are put together. The way Penny uses language to describe art, music, and food is simply sumptuous. It is by far the best part of the books, followed closely by the character of Armand Gamache himself.

At the end of book three, The Cruelest Month, the Arnot case has been put to rest and we are left with Gamache in what is perhaps his first time truly being post-Arnot. The books move away from the inner workings and conspiracies of the Sûreté du Québec, and instead focus on the solving of the crimes at hand. I find myself missing that side of the narrative as books four and five have narrowed their focus to the cases at hand. There is some expansion of the story of the residents of Three Pines, specifically the Morrows, but it takes a back seat to the mystery.

In The Brutal Telling Gamache is called in when a body is found at Olivier’s bistro. From the beginning the reader knows that Olivier knew the dead man, whose name we do not know, while Gamache does not. Over the course of the book we watch Gamache, with his team of Beauvoir and Lacoste, and the new man Moran, piece together the seeming impossible mystery of the hermit, his cabin filled with unspeakable treasures, and who moved his body after his death, not to mention who actually murdered him.

At the end of the book I’m not sure the man who was found guilty of the crime of manslaughter actually did it, and there are plenty of characters in the book who agree with me, perhaps even Gamache. It’s interesting to watch a character we trust implicitly, Gamache, have no choice but to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it means arresting someone he considers a friend.

This book wasn’t perfect, there was a decidedly ridiculous portion of time where highly esteemed cryptographer doesn’t just do a very simple check to solve a code, and when the thing is solved it matters not to the overall case, it felt like a needless eddy in a book full of interesting eddies. There is also the problem of the case left seemingly dangling. My personal plan for these books is to read them in the time of year they are set, which means I won’t be reading Bury Your Dead until January and that is a long time to wait to find out what happens to Three Pines with one of its own in jail, and Inspector Gamache left with an unsatisfying conclusion to this case.

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

Jackaby (CBR7 #68)

I was introduced to this book via Malin’s review last November. She had my attention with sassy female narrator who does not have a romance with the titular Jackaby, investigator in the vein of a Cumberbatchian Sherlock or Matt Smithian Doctor Who. Add to that faerie folk, mythical creatures, the late 1890s and New England and I’m sold. And that cover art ain’t too shabby either.

Your basic plot summary is as follows – Abagail Rook, our narrator, has run off with her college tuition to live the life she wants. However, she finds that the life she thought she wanted at an archeological dig site is not actually what she wants. After a slight miscalculation she ends up on a ship across the Atlantic and winds up in New Fiddleham. Once arrived, she needs a job since she has run through her money in the past few months. After a day of searching all the local haunts she comes across an advertisement from a Mr. Jackaby looking for an assistant in his investigations. Little does she know that she’s about to be absorbed into a multiple murder investigation that will also bring the mythical and paranormal into her life.

While that summary may not sound like the most original thing you’ve ever heard of, there’s a lot to love with this book. Let’s go bullet point style for a change of pace (um, vaguely spoilery):

  • Abagail is an independent, self-assured, feminist lead character.
  • Jackaby is just kooky enough to be interesting without being so kooky as to be off-putting.
  • A live-in ghost.
  • A duck who was once a person.
  • Not your average shape shifter.
  • Tight pacing. All of the main events take place within 3 days.
  • A sarcastic narrator.
  • No extraneous fluff, no ridiculous red herrings (this book also clocks in at just over 200 pages).
  • Plausible historical facts and fashion (considering we’re dealing with a paranormal mystery).

Was it a perfect book? No. Was I able to see the identity of the killer about two-thirds of the way through the book? Yes. Would I happily spend more time with Abigail and Jackaby and the rest of the oddball cast of characters in this world? You bet.

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

The Cuckoo’s Calling (CBR7 #64)

I had every intention of reviewing The Cuckoo’s Calling as if I didn’t know that it was written by J.K. Rowling. But, I can’t. I do know, and more than that the book’s true authorship shows on the page. The same things that made me love Rowling’s writing in the Harry Potter series are on display here, as are some of her trademark faults. But first, let’s talk about Cormoran Strike.

The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the suicide of model Lula Landry. Or is it? Following the standard police procedures her brother John Bristow hires private investigator Cormoran Strike because he doesn’t believe it was a suicide and wants his sister’s killer found. Cormoran’s life is a mess. He is up to his eyeballs in debt, his prosthetic leg is giving him trouble, his fiancée just kicked him out, and he can’t quite figure out how he’s going to pay his new temporary secretary, Robin. For her part, things are looking up for Robin – she just got engaged, she’s living with her fiancé, and is actively on the job hunt while working temp positions to help pay the bills. Neither one is anticipating that they will be the right pair of people to solve the mystery of the end of Lula Landry’s life.

I’m going to stay spoiler free, but the conclusion to the mystery was good, if slightly predictable. What Rowling, as Galbraith, did well was what you would expect her to: the world building. I felt intimately familiar with the neighborhood of Cormoran’s office, the pubs he spent his time in, the various places he and Robin went to and the people they interacted with. It all came alive on the page. And, the mystery was relatively well plotted and the clues arrived in a satisfying pace… eventually. Because here was the drawback for me – the book was too long and there were too many extra details and alleyways. Yes, some of this is needed to keep the mystery alive, but there were time where as a reader I was sure that I was back with Ron, Harry, and Hermione in the tent on the never ending camping trip. I skimmed large chunks of Part 1 of this, and the entire first chapter in Part 2 before things started to pick up. For that reason, I am rounding this book’s rating down to a 3 star from 3.5. I am however looking forward to picking up The Silkworm and spending more time with Cormoran and Robin.

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

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (CBR6 #27)

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I finished this book almost a week ago but have been so busy that sitting down to write the review has been pushed off each day’s to do list. But, I am finally carving out some time to talk to you about a tiny blonde detective and her continuing adventures in Neptune, California.

I only joined the Veronica Mars bandwagon two years ago. I was just outside its viewing demographics when it originally aired. But, because I am not always dumb, I listened to my fellow Pajiba commenters and decided to use the power of my DVR for good, and recorded all the episodes when they used to play on SOAPnet. Yes. That’s a thing that happened in my life.

So, once I got on the Veronica Mars bandwagon I was hooked. When I found out that there were books, and that continued books depended on profits of first book, I took myself down to my local book peddler and bought myself a copy and put it away with my copy of Fangirl for vacation reading.

And it was a good beach read. Light enough to be easily enjoyable, complicated enough to keep you interested in the plot lines, and maybe most importantly, it moved forward Veronica’s story post movie. We see old friends, some if only here and there. Demons from Veronica’s past must be dealt with, and bonds are forged.

I’m intentionally not going to say a lot about the plot, because it’s a mystery, but know its well plotted and interesting. Even if the ending is a perhaps a little easy to call. But, if you’re a Veronica fan this is something you should totally read, and if you haven’t yet submerged yourself in the wonderful world of Veronica Mars, now is the time to get yourself to Amazon and get caught up.

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