Career of Evil (CBR10 #59) (reread)

 

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Because my brain doesn’t seem to hold onto the details of mystery books the story is often new to me again. This time I didn’t have that experience though, I had already binged the BBC adaptation of the books, but I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with the characters. Once again Career of Evil is Rowling writing an intricate, but not unsolvable, mystery where the clues are right 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 story dials down its setting and pace to the precision of a master craftsperson, making a long book covering several months move quickly and evenly to its eventual crescendo.

In my first reading of Career of Evil, I pulled apart the ways that sexism and misogyny were being examined and in this reading I saw more details Rowling was using in setting up those subtexts. This book remains explicitly and implicitly about misogyny. Rowling uses the sexism of daily life and the many incidental ways woman are made to suffer and are put at risk by the world we live in to create a looming sense of dread throughout the novel. It is also a discussion of prejudicial treatment of women both casual and pervasive. Rowling places us into the minds of the men who are in the wrong, from the story’s main antagonists (including a serial killer who objectifies women); to Strike himself, a man who tries to be good and still ends up short sometimes; and Matthew’s very real internalization of white male privilege and co-dependence we take a tour of what must be endured and hopefully conquered by women every day. All of this is before we even dig into the mystery at hand or how it relates to Cormoran’s military past.

As I discussed in my The Silkworm reread review, I had previously missed that Rowling had taken what I assumed to be a non-critical character in Charlotte and instead used her as a foil for a larger conversation. Instead of merely painting a picture of Cormoran’s past (as I thought she was there to do) she was really a comparison point to Matthew. In The Silkworm Rowling as Galbraith was gently showing how unhealthy, codependent relationships are incredibly subtle, persistent, and destructive. Even though Charlotte does not appear in this book (except in a memory of Robin’s) her relationship with Cormoran is echoed in Matthew’s relationship with Robin. As I knew what to be looking for this time through I was more and more unsettled by how toxic, but entirely typical, Robin and Matthew’s relationship is (I also know that I am bringing some very personal baggage to the table here, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate).  We are supposed to see familiar behaviors and themes and gradually understand them to be the destructive forces they are. It works brilliantly layered in against the more obvious violence and abusive behaviors of other romantic partners in the book.

The other thing I didn’t talk about in my original review of Career of Evil that I’d like to this go round is Shanker. All of the character history I had assumed would only come from Charlotte is eclipsed by the revelations surrounding the character of Shanker. There’s something about the personal moral compass of Shanker (and his insistence that everyone pays for his services, regardless of history, loyalty, or friendship) that speaks to me. He lives his life on the wrong side of what most people would consider correct, but he is steadfastly about something, and often that something is something commendable, if gotten to in less than legal ways. Some of my favorite parts of the book include Shanker and I simply found him to be delightful.

I don’t know how the smile Robin gives the battered Strike while saying ‘I do’ to the ever-more-hated Matthew is going to play out, and now that the fourth book is finally out my waiting on the cliffhanger is almost over. I am however glad that I decided to read these books again before digging into Lethal White, if only to make sure then many moving parts are clear in my mind’s eye.

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

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A Study in Scarlet Women (CBR10 #52 – CANNONBALL!)

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I had read quite a few reviews of this book, and still I don’t think I fully grasped what to expect. Back in January both yesknopemaybe and sistercoyote’s reviews of this book got me to add it to both my to read list, and found it a home on my Read Harder Challenge. My exact words were “Okay, that’s it, you all win. On the to read list it goes. I’m not even that big a Sherlock Holmes fan (hush, I know, I know.)” At the end of my reading experience I’m left feeling a little unfulfilled, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve never been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan (narfna is quietly sighing in a corner somewhere, I can feel it) or misplaced expectations, or first book in a series hiccups, but while I did eventually fall in deep like with Charlotte Holmes and her compatriots, it never really sang for me and I’m landing at 3.5 stars.

Like the Arthur Conan Doyle novels it grows from, A Study in Scarlet Women takes place in Victorian England. When we met them, the Holmes family is upper class and struggling to keep up financial appearances due to poor choices of the patriarch. Lady Holmes is therefore eager to get her eligible daughters wed. Unfortunately, her younger daughters have other agendas. Following a betrayal by her father, Charlotte enacts a plan to make herself independent by becoming a fallen (or scarlet) woman and, being caught in flagrante, is to be sent away. Instead she runs away and is living as a social pariah, trying to figure out how to earn her own living in London with no training, no references, and meager resources.

Initially I had a terrible time following some of the lengthy background we’re given. Charlotte Holmes, already under the guise of Sherlock Holmes, has helped solve crimes with Lord Ashburton working as an intermediary to bring information to and from Inspector Treadles. I could not for the life of me keep the timing straight, or initially keep Ingram separate from Roger Shrewsbury, which now seems silly to me as they were written very differently. We’re meant to be joining a plot already in action, but when Thomas took a step back for a large infodump of the Holmes’ past and laying out the relationships amongst the sisters I lost the thread of the “present”.

There was also much I enjoyed about the novel. The world Charlotte lives in is complex and finely drawn, we are introduced to various characters and locales and once Thomas gets going everything is beautifully distinct. Thomas uses three voices to tell the story of the scarlet women – we hear from Charlotte, her sister Livia (although I would have liked to hear from her more in the second half of the book), and Investigator Treadles. It was always clear which character is delivering the narrative, each with rich interior and exterior lives, and learning things about themselves and the world around them in all its splendor and dinginess. But, the parallel narrative of the deaths Treadles is investigating and the life Charlotte is hoping to build to have financial independence for herself and her sisters didn’t always line up, or feel equally strong.

It is unsurprising to me that it is the characters that shine and really drew me in. Charlotte, for all her massive intellect, observational, and deductive skills, is still quite a sheltered young woman. She makes youthful mistakes and doesn’t know everything and is in need of community. The eventually revealed Mrs. Watson is thus the perfect foil for Charlotte because she has life experience and self-awareness to bring to the table. It was this novel’s version of Watson that finally sold me on the book, and the way in which she was further woven into the structure of Charoltte’s life was artfully and gently done.

I’ve added the next in the series to my to read list. The book got stronger as it went, and that’s the kind of thing I’m always willing to reward.

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 Beautiful Mystery (CBR9 #52 – CANNONBALL!)

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It turns out that this year’s Cannonball book is an Inspector Gamache book, and that seems oddly fitting.

I have chosen to spread out the Inspector Armand Gamache books instead of mainlining them. I read them in the seasons they are set, and it always proves to be something to look forward to. Following the disappointment of In Praise of Hatred I needed a comfort read, and Gamache is that for me. Luckily enough, autumn in northern Quebec is now, so we were all set.

Louise Penny stretches as an author in each book, and is often trying something new. In the eighth book in the series Penny gives us our first true locked room mystery. A monk is murdered in a cloistered monastery, and one of the brothers is guilty. It is up to Gamache and Jean Guy Beauvoir to travel to the remote Quebec wilderness to be some of the first outsiders ever admitted to St. Gilbert entre les loups to solve the case. The mystery of the murder is relatively straightforward, the biggest obstacle being to decipher what the murder weapon was and who had opportunity. Up until the final denouement, I was vacillating between two possibilities.

One would think I have learned my lesson with Gamache books: be careful what you ask for in the world of Three Pines. After A Rule Against Murder I was impatient to return to Three Pines, and The Brutal Telling put me through the ringer as the small town and all the characters I care about were raked over the coals. At the end of book seven, A Trick of the Light, I said that I was “exceptionally excited to spend more time with these two characters based on where we left them emotionally”. Well, I got my wish as Beauvoir and Gamache work this case solo, away from everyone else, making the book almost exclusively focused on their interactions and relationship. Woo boy, did it nearly break me.

Beauvoir has returned from rehab and has begun quietly dating the love of his life, Annie Gamache. Series readers (or at least ME) have been tracking this pairing since the beginning of the series, and the shootout at the Factory in Bury Your Dead serves to rattle each character’s status quo. We are allowed even further into Beauvoir’s mind in A Trick of the Light and the depth of his emotions regarding Annie. Now, we also know for sure how Annie feels, and we are treated to some domestic bliss at the beginning of the book as we see these two in the early months of a blooming relationship. We will not see it again in this book.

While investigating Beauvoir and Gamache are cut off from the rest of the world. But that does not mean their past doesn’t follow them there, in the form of memories (Beauvoir still struggles greatly with feelings of inadequacy and memories of the night he almost died) and the physical being of the superintendent. The Arnot case, and its fallout, are not as over as we may have hoped, and Gamache is under scrutiny once again. In a turn that rendered me nearly speechless, Beauvoir is turned against him. I of course looked ahead, book nine; How the Light Gets In takes place before Christmas. I will have a few months to wait to find out what the devastation is repaired for I must believe that it will be.

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

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.