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.

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Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings (CBR11 #5)

Hildegard Of Bingen: Mystical Writings (Crossroad Spirtual Classics Series)

Every so often a book about faith sneaks into my reading. There was a time when I was much more involved in organized religion, but it has been a tough fit for me in the past decade or more. I have tended to hold my personal faith a little closer than that shared in a large gathering. The historian side of me is also always looking to learn more about the faith I was raised in and a couple of years ago when the ladies of the Stuff You Missed In History podcast did an episode on Hildegard of Bingen I paid specific attention. Here was a religious person from the better part of a thousand years ago who shared ideas that sound very familiar to the modern ear. I was intrigued.

I’m also embarking on the Reading Women challenge this year, and one of the tasks on that one is a translated book published before 1945. I took this as an opportunity to reach ALL the way back to Hildegard and the late 12th century and read some of her work directly, or as directly as possible when translated from Latin across 800 years. With that, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings by Hildegard of Bingen, edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies and featuring several translators published in 1990 ended up on my January to read list.

The first half of the book is a series of essays about Hildegard, her times, and the religious upheaval happening all around her both locally in Germany and stretching all the way to Rome and on to the Crusades. I am familiar with a bit of this, but it was nice to have it all packaged together as an extensive preamble to Hildegard’s own writings. The book is slim, my copy clocks in at less than 160 pages and about 60 of those were the preamble, so the writings we get are excerpts from her larger works. Hildegard wrote extensively after one of her visions instructed her to write down what she was experiencing (and she received support from local religious men). Her writings however weren’t limited in any way – she is writing about matters of state, the schism in the church with reigning popes and anti-popes, as well as the nature of faith and god, and two different medical texts.

I sat with this book for many days, pondering the nature of the divine tends to require slowing down and really absorbing what you are reading. I was also sitting on a federal petit jury during the week, weighing the evidence put in front of us and it was mentally exhausting. I don’t know that I’m any fonder of Hildegard now, but I do feel closer to a forebear in my faith. She was no nonsense in a really fun way, and I wish her books read as her letters do, I think they would be much more accessible, but I also understand the intense societal pressure to create as formal a writing as possible. Best of all to me, although they come to it from slightly different angles, she and Carl Sagan agree that we are in fact all made of star stuff.

Reading Women 2019 task 14: a translated book published before 1945

Read Harder Challenge: tasks 9, a book published before January 1, 2019 with less than 100 reviews on Goodreads, and 10, a translated book written or translated by a woman

This book was read 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.

All Systems Red (CBR10 #57)

Bless Cannonball Read, praise be for friends who you know share a similar taste in books, and let the world rejoice for Murderbot. I’ll be using a slightly modified plot summary from Goodreads because, well, I’m really tired.:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are (required to be) accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder (you’re shocked, I know), safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant (uninhabited) planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is (and go back to watching the serials on the feeds). But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.”

I have a very hit and miss relationship with novellas, but Martha Wells seems to have nailed just the right amount of characterization and world building and forward momentum of the plot without the equation going out of balance. I identified with Murderbot from very early on – Wells has written an android that has depression and social anxiety, and is generally apathetic about the whole “life” thing.

It’s subtle in the best possible meaning of the word. The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective and we are thrown into a world where we are at the whims of said apathetic android to piece the world together.  As Murderbot becomes more invested (particularly in keeping tits entertainment feed and keeping its rating from going any lower), we learn more about why the humans are where they are and why.

Murderbot’s deadpan delivery and dark humor underline how it views itself. While self-aware and in control, Murderbot still prefers to be thought of as just another piece of equipment. Due to that, it struggles to finds ways to keep itself separate from the humans while still performing its job of keeping the humans alive. I was pulled in by the sheer uncomfortableness Murderbot feels – it gets injured early in the book and I frankly aghast at its failing human parts and fluids and just wants to be left in peace to regenerate. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing and humans looking at it and seeing the details of  said personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious. This is definitely a different way into unpacking a story about relationships and our humanity.

It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”

I’ll be picking up the next three in the series for my holiday travel reading.

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.

Daughter of Fortune (CBR10 #54)

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It took me a long time to read Daughter of Fortune. By some cosmic joke, which the reading gods seem to enjoy, I had paced my book choices in such a way that this book overlapped with Jane Eyre and that is quite a lot of heavy book to process all at once. What it did for me (besides slow me down a bit) was provide an opportunity to compare and contrast two different powerhouse women writers writing about the self-determination of their female leads. Isabel Allende is a white whale author for me. I first tackled her The House of the Spirits two years ago, and was simply blown away by it. She writes in an incredibly dense style, using history, allegory, and incredibly high personal stakes to weave her narrative together. Like The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune wasn’t a novel that I could power through, or skim, or wanted to. I felt the self-imposed deadlines nipping at my heels, but this remained a book that needed and deserved to be savored.

Daughter of Fortune is the story of Eliza Sommers. It starts as the orphaned girl who was left on the doorstep of the Sommers home in Valparaiso, Chile and is raised in Valparaíso’s British colony by well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her rigid elder brother Jeremy enters her teenage years. At the tender age of sixteen she meets and falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a poor clerk who works for Jeremy and is not an appropriate suitor for a girl raised as a high class English lady. Then, as neither Joaquin or Eliza know how to proceed,  gold is discovered in the hills of northern California and Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune. Eliza discovers that she is pregnant and decides to follow and try to find him in California. The first half of the novel displays the magical realism that I expected from Allende, and we are deeply rooted in the story of Eliza and her town.

Then, we have the fortunate meeting with Tao Chi’en and Eliza’s escape in the hold of a ship to California, and her terrifying miscarriage. At this point, the tone of the novel shifts entirely, we leave behind most of the magical realism components (Tao’s faith still play into that arena) and are instead on a journey with Eliza as she truly leaves her girlhood behind, first in search of the elusive Joaquin, and then as she discovers her true self and the kinds of relationships that are truly soul-filling. As I got to the end of the book it became a little easier to call, a little more by the numbers than I was anticipating. While I was deeply engrossed in Eliza and Tao’s intertwined stories the narrative felt unfinished. We are left for the most part without definite conclusions, and while that is certainly the author’s prerogative and a sign of surety, it left me a bit cold at the end of the day. But this is still a stunning work about what defines being fortunate, what lives can be carved out of seemingly limited possibilities, and the strength of faith in oneself.

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.

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.

Kindred (CBR10 #20)

Kindred

I’ve finally made my way to reviewing the #CannonBookClub selection, Kindred.  I was ecstatic that this was the one we chose. Not that I wouldn’t have happily read any of our options for this first of two anniversary reads, but Kindred has been lurking on my to read list a long time and it fulfills two of this year’s Read Harder Challenge tasks (read a genre fiction classic, read a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author).

My review is probably going to be a bit disjointed, as I wander through my thoughts and our book club discussion questions.  As I mention above, the fact that this book is categorized as science fiction works in my favor, but it never *felt* like science fiction to me. Sometimes I wonder if I have a firm grasp on the definition of the genre itself, or if Octavia Butler’s very obvious care at historical accuracy kept the science fiction of it all out of my main view. But I do know that I am not alone, Kindred gets name dropped in a Tor.com article from last year discussing whether or not time travel stories are science fiction or fantasy.

I was won over by this novel almost immediately. Dana had such a unique voice, that even before the time travelling really got underway I was invested in her. Butler also does great things with emotions in the book. Dana and Rufus’s connection, Kevin being trapped in the past without Dana created dread that pushed my reading along. I read the book in two sittings. But perhaps the most important emotional cores of the book is Alice and Dana’s tumultuous, intertwined relationship but the simplicity and clarity of the understanding that Carrie brought to her world and her relationships pulled at me the most. Carrie’s appraisal of those around her, and her ability to communicate it (especially with Nigel) brought the later chapters of the novel home for me in a way I don’t know that I can describe. So much is happening so quickly, Alice is suffering so greatly, and Carrie has become in her own way the center of the storm.

But if Carrie is the calm center, then Alice is the raging storm front. I always took it on face value that because Dana’s time travel was sparked by grave danger (her own or Rufus’s) that she was being yanked through time to maintain a timeline, as she saw it to make sure her ancestor was born. What we witness is the destruction of one soul, in order to birth another, to preserve a third. Every single choice, experience, and sacrifice carries the weight of each of them. It is heady, and causes the reader to have to side with what we know will be the destruction of Alice at Rufus’s hands. We know, implicitly, that there is no happy ending for her, but we don’t necessarily know just what her end will be, or for that matter, Rufus’s own. Butler asks her reader to consider: was it worth it? Was their suffering worth Dana’s life? Or is it simply what was?

I still don’t know, 10 days after our book club, the answers to my own queries about Octavia Butler’s work. But I do know that it’s the sign of a five star book for me when I am continuing to chew on the book days and weeks later.

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.