You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2017.

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd
This is the second book in the Bess Crawford series. Bess is a nurse who solves mysteries in her spare time during World War I. I know, right? Well, in the first book she solved a mystery while she was on medical leave after she broke her arm. This time she’s back in England to transport some wounded soldiers and at the train station she happens to notice a woman she recognizes from a picture pinned to one of her patient’s tunics: it’s his wife! But the man she’s with is not the patient (i.e. not her husband)! Later, Bess learns that the woman has been murdered and the police are seeking information from anyone who saw her that day. That’s how Bess gets involved. Why Bess stays involved is probably the real mystery here. I mean, it’s a decent enough mystery with the lady getting murdered and all, but after a while, the idea of Bess single-handedly solving the case long-distance while she nurses soldiers in France started to seem a little silly. I’ll probably read more in this series because it’s kind of fun, but I hope the war ends soon so Bess isn’t stretched so thin. 3/5 stars

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson
I read two Swedish books last year that weren’t utterly depressing, which made me think I could pick up this crime novel and possibly enjoy it. For the record, I don’t think I am capable of enjoying Swedish crime novels. This one’s about a lawyer who returns to the remote village she left in disgrace years before due to a mysterious scandal the reader knows not. She doesn’t want to be there, but she’s helping out a friend whose brother was brutally murdered (and mutilated–ew) in the church he helped to build. There’s lots of intrigue with the church leaders and political types and plus there’s the Deep Dark Secret of the aforementioned lawyer. It’s intriguing, up to a point, but the point of view shifts sort of randomly. I can handle multiple points of view. I’m not confused by multiple points of view, but I am annoyed when the POV shift seems, well, random. Apparently this book won an award for Best First Crime Novel, and maybe it was the BFCN in Sweden that year, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. 3/5 stars

The Silent Cry by Anne Perry
This is book 8 in the William Monk series. I did not realize when I picked it up that it was book 8 in a series, but I enjoyed it so much that I had to go back and start the series from the beginning. As should be clear from the previous sentence, the book works fine as a stand-alone, but I think one would appreciate it even more in context. (After reading the first seven books, all of which I shall eventually review for you, I went back and re-read this one, and yes, I did appreciate it even more.) Monk is a Victorian-era detective (former policeman, now a “private inquiry agent”) who is asked to investigate a series of rapes of prostitutes in a poor London neighborhood. Meanwhile, a police officer is investigating the murder of a wealthy gentleman and the attempted murder of said gentleman’s son in the same area. Are the two cases actually related? What do you think?? Though there are no graphic scenes of violence, the narrative addresses some pretty brutal acts. I enjoyed the procedural aspects of nineteenth century detecting, as well as the social commentary. The recurring characters are great, and I shall discuss them in more detail below. (Just be patient.) 5/5 stars

The Trespasser by Tana French
This is Book #6 in the Dublin Murder Squad series, which I had been binge-reading and so you may remember it from psycho-killer editions of Mad’s Book Club. Or you may not. This one features Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, who both appeared in The Secret Place–my least favorite of the series–but this time Conway is the narrator. She’s the only woman in the Murder squad, and to say she’s not well-liked is an understatement. In fact, she’s pretty sure all of her co-workers are out to get her, except for her partner, Moran, and even him she’s not necessarily sure about because, hey, she’s got trust issues. A pretty blonde has been murdered, and the squad is pressuring her to arrest the girl’s boyfriend, but Conway thinks there’s something fishy going on. Plus, someone seems to be stalking her. Is it just her imagination? Is she just paranoid? Or is everyone actually out to get her?? I really enjoy French’s books, for the development of the characters even more than the mysteries themselves. Even characters who aren’t particularly likeable become sympathetic in the end. 4.5/5 stars

A Suitable Vengeance by Elizabeth George
This is #4 in the Inspector Lynley series, but it takes place before the events of Book #1. A flashback! In this story, Detective Inspector Lynley, aka the Earl of Asherton, has brought his fiancee to his family home to meet his mother, from whom he has been (mostly) estranged for the past fifteen years. While he is there, a journalist is murdered and circumstances force Lynley and his BFF, forensic scientist Simon St. James (this is all so British), to get involved. Things get really hairy when evidence starts to point to members of Lynley’s own family. Scandal! This is pretty great back story for the recurring characters, but it stands alone as well. 4/5 stars

The Keepsake, Tess Gerritsen
This is Rizzoli & Isles #7. A local museum finds a mummy in its basement. In the process of authenticating it, they discover it’s not an ancient mummy but a rather recent murder victim! Suffice it to say, she’s not the only one. Someone with extensive mummification skillz is murdering ladies, and it’s Rizzoli & Isles’s job to find out who. This story is okay, up until the end, which was kind of a mess, with one plot twist too many. I mean, it might not have been too much, but I was kind of already over the story and ready for it to end, so I didn’t appreciate the further intrigue. Also, nitpicking (not a spoiler): At one point Rizzoli thinks about calling for backup and decides against it because she doesn’t want the local cops to think she’s a wuss or whatever. HELLO, this is book #7 in the Psychos Trying To Kill Jane Rizzoli Series and YOU STILL THINK YOU DON’T NEED BACKUP?? I think that’s when I lost patience. 2/5 stars

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry
Remember when I said how much I enjoyed William Monk #8? Well, this is William Monk #1, and it’s fantastic. It starts with Monk waking up in a hospital; he has been in a carriage accident, but he remembers absolutely nothing about himself or his life prior to waking up in the hospital. From his interactions with hospital staff and a visit from his boss, he deduces that he’s a police detective, and he decides that it’s in his best interest to a) go back to work, since he needs to make a living doing something, and b) not tell anyone that he has amnesia because who wants a detective with amnesia? From my description, you may be thinking that this premise is either silly or awesome. Well, it’s awesome, actually. Monk still has his mind, but not his memories, so while he can still detect, he is working by reason and not experience, except what is instinctual (which he doesn’t understand). He has to learn things about himself without letting anyone else know what he doesn’t know. His first case back on the job is the murder of a Crimean war hero who’s been beaten to death. Over the course of his investigation, he meets a former Crimean war nurse, Hester Latterly, a very sassy and independent lady; they don’t like each other at all, but Hester proves to be a useful contact, and therefore they must continue to spar and also solve a murder. THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. 5/5 stars

A Dangerous Mourning by Anne Perry
Monk #2: An aristocrat’s daughter is stabbed in her own bed. It’s up to Monk to bring the murderer to justice, but it looks like the person responsible must be a member of her own household–and not a servant, but her own family! Awkward. Also, how much fun is it to investigate the rich and powerful for murder, let alone arrest them? I’ll give you a hint: it tends to be a career-limiting move, and Monk’s supervisor is eager to see him fail, for any reason. Nurse Latterly manages to make herself useful again, much to Monk’s chagrin, as does barrister Oliver Rathbone, whom I neglected to mention in my last review, but he is another recurring character who serves as Monk’s foil and friend. 4/5 stars

Defend and Betray by Anne Perry
Monk #3: General Carlyon is murdered at a dinner party, and his wife has confessed to the murder. She says it’s because she was jealous of his flirtation with another woman, but Hester Latterly’s not buying it. Whom is the wife protecting? She asks Oliver Rathbone to represent the wife, and Rathbone hires Monk to learn the truth of the matter. Monk and Hester work together (again), but Monk is distracted by snatches of memory about his former life (you know, before he got amnesia). The accused reminds him of a woman in his past, and while he is trying to solve this case, he is also trying to work out who this other mystery woman was to him. 4/5 stars

That’s it for psycho killers, kids. Tune in next time for Romance!

Yes, gentle readers, it’s been entirely too long since I inundated you with a list of all the books I’ve been reading. I don’t know why I always put it off until it becomes such an onerous task I can hardly imagine performing it, but here we are again.

In my last book club post, I left off somewhere in the middle of October. In this post I shall begin to regale you with my reading pleasures (and displeasures) from the rest of October through December. We shall start with the non-fiction and highbrow (or at least non-genre) fiction.

Non-fiction

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This was the book everyone was talking about to explain the rise of Trump. Yes, I know, it’s a painful subject. This memoir tells a story of growing up among the poor working class in Ohio. His grandparents had moved to escape poverty in their native Kentucky, built a reasonably good life for themselves in Ohio, where a local factory supported the economy, only to have it all go to hell in a generation or two. Vance’s mother was intermittently employed and struggled with addictions and the men in her life. Vance describes the long-term effects of his unstable childhood and how he was able to overcome the destructive habits of his culture and eventually graduate from Yale Law School. It’s a compelling story. It’s also very sad, because the truth is that Vance got lucky. He worked hard to succeed, of course, but along the way he had nurturing grandparents and mentors in the army and in college who taught him how to navigate the world he was trying to enter. (I guess you’d call it “middle-class success world.”) His book is more descriptive than prescriptive, but it’s a frank discussion of the obstacles created by a dysfunctional culture. 4/5 stars

The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men by Carol Lynn Pearson
I wrote about this book extensively in a post at By Common Consent. The Reader’s Digest Condensed version is that Pearson has written a meditation on the cultural and theological implications of polygamy among contemporary Mormons. The institutional LDS church abandoned the practice of polygamy around the turn of the 20th century, but has never repudiated it; as a result it remains a theoretically viable principle that many Mormons have to come to terms with. (A lot of Mormons never think about it, of course; that remains the most attractive option.) Pearson is more poet than scholar. This makes her writing more accessible than that of a more academic bent, but it ranges from profound to painfully cheesy. The bottom line, though, is that this is the only book of its kind (that I know of), and that reason alone makes it important (and worth reading, if you are a Mormon; if you aren’t a Mormon, I imagine you wouldn’t give a crap one way or the other). 3.5/5 stars

Fiction (highbrow and perhaps middlingbrow)

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
I kept reading about what a great book this was, what a classic, etc., so when it went on sale for Kindle, I bought it and read it, but to be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I suppose when it was written, it was probably fresh and provocative, talking about all the problems faced by teachers and students in urban schools: poverty, violence, a paucity of resources, bureaucratic bullcrap, etc. Kaufman based the novel on her own experience as a public school teacher. There are some funny parts, and there are some sad parts. It’s not a bad little book, but neither did it set my world on fire. 3/5 stars

Married Sex: A Love Story by Jesse Kornbluth
This is another book I read on a whim. I don’t remember why. Maybe I was feeling saucy. I really can’t think of another reason I would read something called “Married Sex.” (Not even if it was called “The Viscount and the Debutante Have Married Sex.”) David and Blair have been married 20 years; their one child has gone off to college, and they are discovering the joys of being empty-nesters. Here’s where it gets kinky: they have a long-standing agreement that if either of them is tempted to cheat, they will invite this potential lover to engage in a threesome. I’m sure you see where this is going, and no, it does not end well. As I write this, I honestly can’t remember why I thought reading this book was a good idea. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d enjoy at all. But this book is neither romance nor erotica. It has moments of profound insight about marriage. But overall, I didn’t like these people, and threesomes are definitely not my kink. (Note: I don’t actually have a kink.) Content warning: Just about exactly what you’d expect. 2.5/5 stars

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I had read two other Sittenfeld novels before this one, and to be honest, they had made me a bit wary. I enjoyed her writing very much, but Prep left me feeling depressed and hateful, and An American Wife frustrated me for reasons that are perhaps too complicated to get into here. Eligible is actually pretty clever, as modern retellings of Austen novels go. I don’t necessarily recommend it for die-hard Austen fans. Die-hard Austen fans should probably stick with Austen. But if you’re familiar with P&P and enjoy contemporary romances with a little (subtle) social commentary, go for it. 3.5/5 stars

The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond
I picked up this YA book at my 11-year-old’s book fair because I don’t know how I’m supposed to resist a book about a 16-year-old American girl working as a spy and Nazi assassin during World War II. EXACTLY. At first Girlfriend was uninterested, but then she had me read it aloud to her, and let me tell you, it is exactly as exciting as it sounds. It’s pretty violent for an 11-year-old. I censored it a little bit for that reason, but it should be fine for most teenagers, I think. (Unless your young teenager is sensitive to violence, as my 11-year-old is.) We both enjoyed it. There is plenty of action, of course, and there are plot twists, and then there are PLOT TWISTS. I predict it will make a great movie someday.  4/5 stars

Carol (alternate title: The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith
Another book I picked up on a whim because I didn’t feel like reading anything I already had on my Kindle, and this was available from the library. A young woman in the process of getting engaged meets a glamorous older woman who is in the process of getting a divorce. They become fast friends and decide to go on a cross-country road trip together. At some point they fall in love. Complications ensue. I’d never read any Highsmith before, and I have to tell you, this would not be the book I’d choose to sell somebody on her. It is perhaps the dullest story of the dullest lesbians in history. Carol (the older woman) remained more or less an enigma; the younger woman (whose name I can’t even remember) was a twit. I really can’t abide twits, lesbian or otherwise. It’s basically 300 pages of pure angst, interspersed with descriptions of hotels. Content warning: IT IS SUPER BORING.  2/5 stars

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
This book was on a couple “best books of 2015” (or something) lists, so when it went on sale for Kindle, I snatched it up. It’s about a 15-year-old girl who’s in state custody and potentially facing a murder charge for assaulting a police officer (or something). The book opens with her being taken into custody and she’s covered in this officer’s blood, only she says she didn’t do it. She meets a bunch of other kids who are also in state custody, and in retrospect, it’s unclear to me whether this was a facility for criminal youths or just youths without guardians (some of whom happen to be criminal maybe?)–it’s unclear because a) I don’t remember and b) it was all kind of confusing. It’s a sad story about dysfunctional young people, and it occasionally has some profound commentary about loneliness and, I dunno, dysfunction. There’s some sinister government action at work as well. I can’t say much of it stayed with me beyond the depressing stuff. I don’t know why anyone would call it a best book of any year, unless they really like depressing stories about surly teenagers. (Whatever happened with the potential murder charge? I have no idea. Possibly nothing.) I must have respected the craft involved because I gave it three stars on Goodreads, but…meh. Content warning: sexual violence. 3/5 stars (or is it really 2.5? How should I know?)

Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor
It took me a long time to finish reading this book because Frank O’Connor has written approximately 4,000 short stories. That’s what it seemed like to me, anyway. Fortunately, they are all good stories. I really don’t think there was a dud in the whole collection. Some were funny, others were sad. Some were funny and sad. The only one I’d seen before was “My Oedipus Complex,” which is a good story, but there are so many great ones here that I wondered how I hadn’t come across more of them. It’s almost like there are millions of books in the English language or something. As I recall, every story is set in Ireland. Themes of religion and family and politics recur. I recommend taking it in small doses–a story or two here, a story or two there–but read them all eventually. 5/5 stars

And that’s it for this part of this edition. Coming up next: Psycho killers!

Talking about politics is so 2017. Unfortunately, it seems to be unavoidable. Probably because it’s still 2017.

There’s just so much political to talk about. Donald freaking Trump is president. I mean, that’s crazy, man. It’s crazy. He hasn’t even been president a fortnight, and so much has happened that people feel like they have to comment and argue about. I go on Facebook and literally 80% of my feed is about Donald Trump. It’s worse than when he was campaigning!

I feel like I should just try to forget Donald Trump is president, but that would require staying off the internet altogether, and I’m not really prepared to do that. The other thing is that as unpleasant as all the political talk is, it distracts me from what’s going on or not going on in my personal life. I’d write more about what’s going on in my personal life, but most of it involves my daughter, who is now an adult, and really, over the last few years I’ve tried to write less about anything that could be construed as an invasion of my kids’ privacy. Probably one of the reasons I’ve written less, period. Because my whole life centers around my kids—unfortunately! Suffice it to say, I’m facing some challenges as the parent of an adult. I’d tell you more, but that would definitely be an invasion of her privacy and therefore make me a worse person than I already am. I know none of you wants that.

So it’s sort of a toss-up—do I think about my failures as a parent, or do I think about America’s failures? America’s failures it is! That doesn’t mean anyone else wants to read about it. But is anyone reading anyway? Doubtful.

One of the advantages of living in Oregon has been that I haven’t had to call any of my congresspersons to ask them to oppose some crazy thing Trump has done, because they already do it automatically. Unfortunately, this knee-jerk opposition will include opposing Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Since I much prefer Gorsuch to the other dudes Trump was considering, I would like to ask my congresspersons to reconsider their reflexive opposition to every single thing Trump does. Unfortunately, I’m still a socially awkward dullard who hates to use the phone, so it looks like I shall be abdicating my responsibility as an informed citizen. Yeah, I’ve already given up. I just know I’m never going to pick up a phone and try to talk to a complete stranger about Supreme Court nominees. I may as well plan to give up carbs again. (I’m never doing that, btw.)

In November I voted to re-elect Ron Wyden as a senator from Oregon. I believe that made him the first Democrat I have voted for in the last 20 years. What can I say? It’s a strange time. The bar for candidates has been lowered to “not a complete nutter.” Ron Wyden and I disagree on a lot of things—maybe most things—but he strikes me as a person of integrity and someone interested in defending civil liberties, which is an increasingly rare cocktail among politicians, and also, he is not a complete nutter. So really, there’s my decision right there. I believe this is the first time I have ever voted for an Oregon politician who won something. So that’s kind of cool.

Anyway, I like Senator Wyden. I do think, however, he’s gone a little overboard with his opposition to Neil Gorsuch. I mean, I’d expect him to oppose anyone Trump nominates, but what he said was,  “Gorsuch represents a breathtaking retreat from the notion that Americans have fundamental Constitutional rights.” Obviously, he’s coming from a place where any Republican nominee must represent a breathtaking retreat from the notion that Americans have fundamental Constitutional rights, but I really wish he and the rest of the Democratic opposition in the Senate would try looking at things from a place where Republican nominees could be a lot worse. I mean, that’s the place I’m at. Donald Trump is in the White House, kids. When that’s your base line, it ought to change your perspective on some stuff.

If Democrats decide to block Gorsuch as payback for what the Republicans did with Merrick Garland, it will be no worse than what they (i.e. the Republicans) deserve. What the Republicans did in the case of Garland was disgraceful. Personally, I’m happy not to have Garland on the Supreme Court. These “law and order liberals” are the worst of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. But the President is the President until the next guy becomes President, and there’s just no excuse for refusing to hold a hearing for his (or, theoretically, her) nominee. Unless said nominee is a serial killer or incompetent, said nominee should probably be confirmed too, but that perhaps is an overly quaint notion.

So if Democrats want to get back at Republicans for blocking Garland, I understand completely. Since that’s the childish way American politicians do things, I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge them the satisfaction. But I’d advise them to wait for the next SCOTUS nominee (assuming there is one—there are some awfully old people on the court these days), who is bound to be worse. Revenge is a dish best served cold, after all. Actually, I suggest that when the next vacancy comes up, they say something like, “Nah, it’s too close to the election. We should let the next President decide”—no matter how far away the election is. Because, as I said earlier, that argument is bullcrap. But also as I said earlier, Republicans will deserve it.

As a friend said on the Facebook, Democrats should certainly not be under the illusion that any magnanimous gesture they make here will be appreciated or reciprocated by the Republicans. (Why would it be? If the situation were reversed, magnanimity would be equally wasted on them.) They should confirm Garland because it’s the right thing to do, but that’s almost irrelevant in this day and age. I’m arguing that it would also be the strategically advantageous thing to do because a) as Trump nominees go, we could do a lot worse than a dude who’s skeptical of executive branch power and a critic of “overcriminalization” and b) it may not impress Republicans, but it will impress moderates, whom Democrats will need if they want to win some more elections.

I mean, Democrats will win more elections. It’s not like their party’s dead in the water or something. Their presidential candidate, an extremely unpopular person, won the popular vote! But showing a little bi-partisan good will goes a long way with moderates, of whom I think there are probably more than ever these days. We’re a week and a half into this administration, and ordinary Americans are already sick and tired of fighting. We can’t keep up this breakneck pace indefinitely. Does Trump look like he’s going to stop doing crazy stuff anytime soon? I don’t think he does. So save the outrage for the crazy stuff. You can’t take it up to 11 for every normal Republican thing that happens. This isn’t Mitt Romney’s America. (You should be so lucky! Harumph!)

But I reckon that, as always, the debate will come down to abortion. We can whittle away at the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments all we like, but as long as abortion remains legal or gets illegal, that’s all anyone will care about. Bah! It’s enough to make me contemplate my own personal problems.

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