Wow, can’t believe it took me two months to finish this edition. Actually, I can. I’d just forget the whole thing, but I hate being incomplete! (Though not so much that I can’t stand a couple of months being incomplete. But I know that when I’m on my deathbed, I’ll be desperate to catch up on my blogging. That’s who I am.)

Romance

Apparently I didn’t read a lot of romance novels during this sextile, which is good because this won’t take long.

My Fair Princess by Vanessa Kelly
I don’t usually care for the “foreign princess allowed to run wild all her life agrees to be tamed by proper English lord” trope, but this was a pretty cute story. Gillian Dryden was raised free-range-style by her scandalous mother in Italy, but now that her beloved royal Italian step-father has been murdered by bandits, Mom insists on returning to England so Gillian can get a proper British husband, as befits her station, and also to keep her safe. Is Gillian really a princess in this scenario, or are we just defining “princess” loosely for the sake of a gimmick? (This is #1 in the Improper Princesses series.) Whatever. Anyway, Charles Penley, the Duke of something or other, is charged with turning her into a proper debutante. I don’t remember why. Maybe they’re cousins? Something like that. It’s a big challenge because Gillian picked up some pretty bad habits in Italy, such as riding astride and punching people (and sometimes shooting them). Charles really doesn’t think he can handle it, especially since he’s inexplicably attracted to the minx.

The story is actually better than it ought to be. The only annoying thing  is that the author had a habit of ending each chapter on a mini-cliffhnger and then beginning the next chapter several hours or days later, resolving the previous mini-cliffhanger in a mini-flashback, like “oh, by the way, in case you were wondering about that cliff, it was actually NBD”–an odd narrative strategy, but in her defense, I did keep reading. Well, there were also those couple of times when the supposedly-smart heroine made pretty dumb choices for the convenience of moving the plot forward, but I guess we’re supposed to expect no better of a girl raised by Sicilians. (Do Sicilians ever read these stories?) 3/5 stars

It Happened One Wedding by Julie James
I don’t usually go for contemporary romances, as you know–well, you know, anyway, that whenever I review a contemporary romance, I always begin by saying that I don’t usually go for contemporary romances. But I liked this one, mainly because the heroine was not neurotic. I always appreciate a career girl who doesn’t think she’s Bridget Jones. Sidney Sinclair has sworn off commitment-phobic men. Unfortunately, she finds herself thrust into the company of a very hot commitment-phobic man, FBI agent Vaughn Roberts, who is the best man in her sister’s wedding; since Sidney is the maid of honor, this means she and Vaughn are forced to spend a lot of time together, and you know how it is when two very hot people are forced to spend time together. I know! It’s totally unavoidable. So Sidney takes her BFF’s advice (not great advice, IMO, for real life, but this isn’t real life, so whatever) to not let her search for Mr. Right keep her from enjoying Mr. Right Now. Yeah, it sounds sleazy when you put it like that.

But I found it an amusing read anyway. Again, I can’t stress how much credit I give contemporary authors for creating non-neurotic female characters. Worth a whole extra star in my book, frankly. The hot playboy magically converted to monogamy because he falls in love  is pure science fiction, of course, but then again, maybe a non-neurotic woman in 2017 is too. 3.5/5 stars

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer
In addition to “I don’t usually go for contemporary romances,” something I always say is “I freaking love Georgette Heyer.” This book is not an exception to that rule. It’s not my favorite Georgette Heyer, but even fair-to-middling Georgette Heyer is better than 90% of what’s out there, kids. Judith Tavener and her younger brother have come to London to enjoy the season, but they have to deal with the constraints of the guardian their late father appointed in his will, Lord Worth–a gentleman previously unknown to them but with whom they get off to an awkward start. Lord Worth is a typical Heyer hero–charming and roguish and invariably smarter than everyone surrounding him–but Judith thinks he’s an imperious jerk and doesn’t appreciate him having veto power over all of her suitors, nor his disdain for her long-lost cousins, whose names I can’t remember, but one of them clearly has the hots for her. (The younger one, thank goodness.) As does Lord Worth, but you probably could have guessed that.

Lord Worth is pretty high-handed, as it happens, and not super-forthcoming about his motivations, but Judith is also stubborn and kind of dim when it comes to other people’s motivations, so it’s a wash, IMO. I don’t read Heyer for the politics. I enjoyed the characters and the dialogue, and the Beau Brummel cameo was a nice touch. 4/5 stars

Truly by Ruthie Knox
Another contemporary romance, better than it ought to have been. May Fredericks hates New York. She only moved there to be with her (famous) football-player boyfriend, and after she has a very public falling out with him, she decides to run away to Wisconsin (I think) and not look back. Unfortunately, being the innocent Midwestern hick she is, she totes forgets to take, like, her purse or her wallet or any cash with her, and since she doesn’t want to risk running into any press or her boyfriend’s handlers or publicists or whatever by going back to her apartment, she decides to just sit in a bar and depend on the kindness of strangers. Yeah, it sounds stupid when you put it that way.

Actually, it is stupid, and the sort of thing that would usually turn me off, so I don’t even remember why I finished reading this book, except I must have been bored, and aside from the totally asinine premise, it wasn’t badly written. Plus there was a hot and grumpy New Yorker named Ben who takes pity on poor May because he’s trying to make an effort to be nicer to people (long story–too long for this review, anyway) and also because he might secretly actually be nice, and he made a nice foil for dumbass May, who really wasn’t quite as annoying as I make her sound, but in retrospect, seriously, what an idiot. And while I wouldn’t call this heroine neurotic, exactly, she does have a couple of hangups, body image being one of them. I always have mixed feelings about heroines with body image problems. On the one hand, I get it, all women have body image problems, unless they’re like Wonder Woman or something, and this is a legit issue, blah blah, and some men legit prefer women with meat on their bones, obviously, but only in romance novels are these dudes invariably super-hot and super-fit themselves. I get that it’s science fiction, but come on. DOUBLE STANDARD MUCH? Anyway, it still kind of a cute story about fishes out of water and country mice-city mice relationships and not annoying all the time. 3/5 stars

 

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A Sudden, Fearful Death by Anne Perry
This is book 4 in the William Monk series. I reviewed the first three books (plus book 8, since I started out of order) in the last installment of our little book club, and if you were there for that, you know that I FREAKING LOVE THIS SERIES. William Monk is an amnesiac detective in Victorian England. He lost his memory in a carriage accident and has been slowly piecing together who he is by observation, deduction, and the occasional flashback which breaks through the wall of his consciousness at inopportune times. He often works with nurse Hester Latterly, a willful, independent lady who is not at all his cup of tea, but is nevertheless his most loyal friend. Also in the mix is Oliver Rathbone, a prestigious barrister who helps in the pursuit of justice.

The plot of this book centers on Prudence Barrymore, a talented and ambitious nurse (she wanted to be a doctor, at a time when women were not admitted into medical schools) who has been strangled at the hospital where Hester is currently working. Who would have strangled Prudence and thrown her down a laundry chute? Was it some madman who found his way into the hospital? Was it another nurse who was jealous of her abilities? Was it a doctor who thought she was too uppity for her own good? (Hester wouldn’t know anything about that, lol.) This was a good story, but I did think everyone spent an inordinate amount of time befuddled and utterly missing the key to solving the mystery; I mean, I know they were Victorians and their thought processes were subject to their worldview, but HELLO, MCFLY, WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT PRUDENCE? SHE WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR! But, you know, that’s part of this series’ charm, the fact that they’re all Victorians who, despite their relative sophistication, still have trouble wrapping their heads around some things. 4/5 stars

The Sins of the Wolf by Anne Perry
Monk #6, and this time–you’ll never guess–Hester herself has been framed for the murder of one of her patients. The victim was an elderly woman whose family are sure a bunch of odd ducks, almost all of whom had some plausible motive for killing her. The one person we know didn’t do it is Hester. Can Monk and Rathbone prove her innocence in time? Complicating matters is the fact that the crime technically took place in Scotland, so she has to be tried by the Scottish justice system. Och! This is a very exciting book with lots of intrigue and recurring-character development (best appreciated if you’ve read the previous five books). The climax is action-packed and INSANE. But also glorious. 5/5 stars

Cain His Brother by Anne Perry
Monk #7. Businessman Angus Stonefield has gone missing; his wife, worried for his safety, hires Monk to find him. Actually, what she fears is that his brother, Caleb–a violent man who prefers a life on the streets to respectable work–has murdered him. Monk finds evidence that indicates foul play was most likely, but he needs to find proof of death so that Stonefield’s widow can have his estate settled. Turns out what is really going on is much weirder than anyone could have guessed. I mean, really weird. But interesting. 4/5 stars

Weighed in the Balance by Anne Perry
Monk #7. Rathbone agrees to defend Countess Zorah Rostova against a charge of slander. She says the onetime ruler of her small German principality was murdered by his own wife, who was responsible for his exile to Venice years ago. (She wasn’t the girl his mom wanted for him.) No one has any evidence of this. Rathbone doesn’t even know why he took the case, but he hopes Monk can figure out who really did it. This requires him to travel to Venice and examine the prince’s past acquaintances. I found the German politics alternately fascinating and tedious. But Perry has a way of holding my interest even when I don’t want to be interested. 4/5 stars

A Breach of Promise by Anne Perry
Are you starting to get the picture here? I’m really extremely fond of this series. And I am really extremely fond of this particular book. It’s #9. (Recall that I had already read #8 out of order, but I re-read it right before starting this one.) Rathbone has taken on another hopeless case–will the man ever learn? (Signs point to no.) Killian Melville is a gifted architect–a genius, really–who has found himself unwittingly engaged to the daughter of one of his wealthy patrons. No offense to the girl–whose name is Zillah, if you can believe that–she’s perfectly lovely, but he does not want to marry her, he cannot marry her, and he will not marry her. He won’t say why, which frustrates Rathbone no end, but perhaps Monk can figure it out.

There is a plot twist about half-ish-way through, so I can’t say much more, but much of the book is a commentary on the status of women during this time. Plot-wise, coincidence plays a bigger role than usual in the resolution–the willing suspension of disbelief is stretched quite a bit, but I decided it made for a great story, so screw it. Also–no spoilers, but the ending of this book was so good. The last page was worth a whole extra star by itself. I’m a sucker for that crap. 5/5 stars

The Twisted Root by Anne Perry
Monk #10. A young man hires Monk to find his fiancee, who fled a garden party at his family’s home and hasn’t been seen since. Monk tracks down the carriage the woman left in, and nearby he finds the coachman, who has been murdered. Why did the woman change her mind about the marriage? What did she learn that made her get such terribly cold feet–and did it lead to cold-blooded murder?? Well. Remember when I said that situation in Cain His Brother turned out to be much weirder than anyone suspected? I was just kidding. This situation is REALLY MUCH WEIRDER than anyone suspected. 4/5 stars

Slaves of Obsession by Anne Perry
Monk #11. Monk and Hester must travel to America on the eve of the Civil War to find a young lady who has eloped with the Union soldier who may have murdered her father, an arms dealer who had agreed to sell weapons to the Confederacy. But did he really do it? It sure looks like it, and he’s kind of a douchebag, so we all want to believe he did it, but he insists he’s innocent, and his fiancee (they didn’t quite complete the elopement) refuses to doubt him. They both end up getting prosecuted for the father’s murder, and Rathbone agrees to defend them. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time Monk has worked both sides of a case. This book deals with some interesting ethical questions–how far should one go when fighting for a cause, particularly when the cause has already lead to war? 5/5 stars

Funeral in Blue by Anne Perry
Monk #12. Two women are found strangled in an artist’s apartment. One of them is the wife of Dr. Kristian Beck, a Bohemian doctor Monk knows through Hester and his erstwhile benefactress, Lady Callandra Daviot. Dr. Beck is arrested for both murders. Rathbone is off in France or Italy or some such place, so he’s not available to defend him. Fortunately, Beck’s father-in-law believes in his innocence enough that he’s willing to take the case himself. You have to admit, the optics are great. Monk, Hester, and Callandra are desperate to have Beck exonerated. Monk even travels to Vienna in the hope of discovering something from Beck and his wife’s past lives as revolutionaries (!) that will shed light on the murders. This was a riveting read, right up until the end, which came out of literally freaking nowhere. After all those plot twists and turns, I felt a tad ripped-off. I would recommend this book for die-hard Monk fans and Monk completists only. Of which I am one. 3/5 stars

Death of a Stranger by Anne Perry
Monk #13. This is the book where Monk finally finds out the truth about his past. He’s learned bits and pieces over the years, but now a case involving a railroad company and fraud intersects with a past case in which he was a star player. Was Monk himself guilty of fraud, as a businessman–or of an even worse betrayal? How will the knowledge of who he once was affect who he is now? A reasonably satisfying resolution to this long-standing mystery. And yes, he still has amnesia. 4/5 stars

And no, this isn’t the end of the Monk series. But it is the end of this blog post and the psycho-killers edition of this installment. Or the psycho-killers installment of this edition. Next time: Romance!

I seem to be having some difficulty keeping up this breakneck pace of blogging more than once a month. Or so. But let’s not waste time with my usual self-flagellation. Let’s talk psycho killers.

Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen
This is Rizzoli & Isles #8, and it’s a bit of a departure for the series. Maura Isles is in Wyoming for a medical examiners conference, and feeling out of sorts with her secret-boyfriend-the-Catholic-priest, she decides to be spontaneous and go on a skiing trip with an old med school acquaintance and his daughter and another couple. Of course they get stranded in the snow in the middle of nowhere. (Is there anywhere else in Wyoming? I kid!) But as luck would have it, the middle of nowhere is not far from a hastily-abandoned religious commune. So they’ve found shelter, but where the heck are all the folks who used to live here (obviously not too long ago)? Also, there’s no cell phone service and no one knows they’re missing and one of them is seriously injured and needs a hospital, not makeshift medical care by a couple of coroners. Also, they’re not quite as alone as they thought: someone is out there, possibly a predator. It’s a very stressful situation for Maura, who is not the outdoorsy type and is also used to working with patients who are already dead.

This was a very exciting read, as I remember, but I also remember that the climactic action and the ending were kind of nuts. Every time you thought it was over, IT WAS NOT OVER. As I said on Goodreads, save something for the next book, Tess! But I appreciated how Maura’s character evolved during this story. 3.5/5 stars

The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen
Rizzoli & Isles #9. This is about a murder in Boston’s Chinatown which turns out to be connected to an old murder-suicide case that left five people dead. The (alleged) murderer-suicider’s widow always insisted that her husband was innocent and the true killer had never been caught. There’s a lot of intrigue and mystical Chinese martial arts stuff in this book. It was diverting enough, but also kind of random and frustrating. 3/5 stars

Ripper: A Novel by Isabel Allende
Should this be under the “highbrow” category? It’s a bit more “literary” than your average psycho-killer book, but in the end, it is a psycho-killer book. At the center are Indiana, a hippy-dippy holistic healer, and her daughter, Amanda, who is fascinated by the darker things in life, but she comes by it honestly, as her dad is the SFPD’s deputy chief of homicide. Indiana and Amanda’s dad have been long divorced, and Indiana has been in a long-term relationship with Alan, an older, old-money rich dude who’s kind of a douchebag, but she’s also friends with Ryan, a battle-scarred former Navy SEAL who is in love with her. There have been a string of mysterious, seemingly-unrelated murders in the city, and Amanda and her online friends (and her grandpa, Indiana’s dad–it’s a long story) start to figure out the connections. I forgot to mention that Amanda’s grandmother (on her father’s side) has foretold an ominous fate for Indiana, so it becomes extremely important that Amanda and her fellow Scoobys figure out who the real killer is, pronto.

This was an enjoyable, intriguing read, despite its leisurely pace. It took a while for me to read, and it was pretty dark, probably more so because it was so character-centered. It’s not your usual crime thriller. I felt a real sense of dread as the solution to the mystery unfolded. 4/5 stars

For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George
This is Inspector Lynley #5. Lynley and Havers are called in to investigate the murder of a deaf student at Cambridge. The student, Elena, is the daughter of a professor, and she had her secrets. Her father, who is poised for a big academic appointment, has his secrets too–including an affair with a local artist. Who had reason to kill Elena? Was it one of her (many) paramours? Was it her jealous step-mother? Was it someone else you’d never guess in a million years? What more is her father hiding?

Initially I found the mystery’s resolution a bit unbelievable. But the more I thought about it, I decided it was actually pretty interesting. I can’t say anything else without giving away the ending. 4/5 stars

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter
So this book came out in September, and I still can’t believe I totally forgot about it until January! This is book 8 in the Will Trent series, which I don’t think can be fully appreciated out of order, so if you haven’t read the first seven books, I suggest you get started. Will and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have been called to investigate a murder at an old construction site. The victim turns out to be a former cop. Evidence at the crime scene indicates that there was another victim, Will’s estranged wife, Angie, who managed to escape but left behind so much blood that it’s doubtful she has survived. Will becomes obsessed with finding Angie alive, which puts a real crimp in his relationship with Sarah. (It’s a long story. Seven books’ worth!) Much is revealed about Will’s and Angie’s pasts, and Will makes some substantial progress in his project of becoming an emotionally functional human being, despite his traumatic childhood (and, frankly, adulthood). Plus, I’m kind of a sucker for Will Trent. 5/5 stars

Missing Joseph by Elizabeth George
Inspector Lynley #6. A vicar in Lancashire is dead–officially, the victim of accidental poisoning…but was it really accidental? The allegedly-accidental poisoner has only lived in the village for a couple years, and she’s kind of an odd bird–anti-social and very protective of her teenage daughter, who is secretly having an affair with a local boy, much to her mother’s dismay. But look here, despite being anti-social, the mother is in turn having an affair with the local constable who investigated the “accidental” poisoning. Seem sketchy? Lynley thinks so, too. But everything is much more complicated than it seems.

This book can stand alone, in theory, but the reason I liked it best of all the Lynley books I’ve read so far is that in addition to the mystery plot, which is good, there are developments in the recurring characters’ story arcs which can’t be fully appreciated, obviously, if you haven’t read the other books. But there are also interesting questions about ethics and justice. Content warning: A scene of sexual violence. 4/5 stars

The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry
I so enjoy Perry’s William Monk series that I decided I would give her Thomas Pitt series a whirl. This is the first book in that series, and I have to say, I was underwhelmed. It started out promisingly enough. Women have been getting garrotted in the respectable neighborhood of Cater Street, and everyone is beside themselves with fear. Detective Inspector Thomas Pitt has deduced from available evidence that the murderer must be someone who lives in the neighborhood, so now everyone is suspicious in addition to fearful. Which of their neighbors has been garroting ladies and girl servants? Charlotte Ellison is afraid she doesn’t want to find out, but Inspector Pitt won’t leave her family alone. Come to think on it, her father and brother-in-law have been acting rather peculiar lately.

I wanted to like this story better than I did. The mystery itself was fine, I guess. I mean, the ending was sort of wackadoo, in my opinion, but the bigger problem for me was that I just didn’t care about any of the characters. Also, it just seemed to drag on and on. When I’m reading a Monk book, it goes so fast, and with this one I kept checking to see how many more pages I had left, and the answer was always too many. I’ll say this about Thomas Pitt: he’s no William Monk. Not by a long shot! 2.5/5 stars

Evelyn, After by Victoria Helen Stone
Evelyn is just an average suburban housewife. She’s married to a prestigious psychiatrist, and they have a son who is about to go off to college. One night she is woken from a sound sleep to come to the aid of her husband, who has been in an accident. He says his car hit a deer. But Evelyn discovers her husband has been having an affair, and he did not hit a deer that night but a teenage girl. If the truth comes out, her husband will be ruined, and in turn, Evelyn’s life will also be ruined, and their son won’t be too thrilled with the fallout either. So it’s tempting to do as her husband says and just keep quiet and no one will ever have to know. But she’s so pissed off about the affair that she becomes obsessed with the other woman, who was in her husband’s car at the time of the accident, and who her husband says was driving. Evelyn’s desire for revenge takes over, and she starts down a very dubious path.

This is a reasonably interesting psychological thriller, but its big flaw, in my opinion, is that Evelyn is a big dope and I didn’t like her at all. Maybe I saw too much of myself in her–frustrated artist, passively gave the best years of her life to her family, gained too much weight, doesn’t have any decent clothes–but fortunately, my husband is not an unethical, cheating douchebag, so probably I will never be tempted to do the things Evelyn ends up doing. Except re-invest in my career and buy some new clothes. 3/5 stars

I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh
This book begins with a brutal scene of a little boy pulling away from his mother and running into the street, only to get hit by a car. The next chapter has us following Jenna Gray, an artist who moves to the English coast to start a new life, hoping to escape the painful memories of her old one, especially the terrible car accident that keeps playing over and over in her mind. We learn that her ex is a jerk and she is mourning the death of her son. Meanwhile, two Bristol police officers are trying to get to the bottom of this horrible hit-and-run that claimed the life of a five-year-old child; a year later, the perpetrator is still unknown and at large.

I can’t say much more without getting into major spoilers, but suffice it to say that there’s a plot twist and then there’s another plot twist, and it’s all pretty exciting stuff. This book has been compared to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, but I think I liked it better than both of them (although I liked Gone Girl quite a bit). I could have done without the angsty relationship between the two detectives (a man and a woman–you know how that goes!), but I guess if Mackintosh ever hopes to use these particular characters in another book, it makes for good back story. Content warning: Scenes of sexual violence. 4/5 stars

Are those all the psycho-killer books I read during this two-month period? Not by a long shot, gentle readers. But all the other ones were William Monk books, and I decided to give them their own post, or this one would be way too long. Stay tuned, friends. Adieu.

Welcome, gentle readers. I know you’re all just burning with curiosity to know what I’ve been reading this year as opposed to last year. Well, let’s start with the beginning. Start with January and February, anyway. First, the sublime. Later, the ridiculous.

Non-fiction

Saving Alex by Alex Cooper with Joanna Brooks
The subtitle to this book is “When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began.” Which is a very informative subtitle. I may not even need to tell you what the rest of the book is about, but I will anyway. She starts her story by describing her Mormon upbringing; she was the youngest of several children, with several years separating her and her older siblings, so she was sort of like an only child. She got into the usual sort of teenage trouble–a little pot-smoking here and there, skipping school and whatnot–but her parents, basically decent people, really freaked out when they discovered that she was lying to them and staying out all night to be with her girlfriend. They felt Alex was out of control, so in desperation they sent her to an unlicensed “residential treatment program” in Utah, where she was held captive against her will and abused physically and psychologically. This is not a long book, and it’s not a super-profound book. It is documentation of the kind of rejection and abuse suffered by many gay and lesbian teens, and Alex’s personal story is compelling. 3/5 stars

They Shall Not Have Me by Jean Helion
French artist Jean Helion’s memoir of his two years in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp paints (figuratively!) vivid pictures of life in captivity, of the prisoners and their Nazi captors. There are poignant and humorous anecdotes, and some harrowing ones as well. Since Helion spoke German, he was able to work as a translator for the camp and enjoyed some relative privilege as a prisoner; from his position he got to know his Nazi guards as men. It is a very interesting read, and the story of his escape had me very nervous right up to the end, even though I knew how it turned out–which is the mark of a good storyteller. 4/5 stars

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
If you’ve seen the movie or the movie trailers, you know that this book is about the African-American women who worked as computers for NASA, starting in the 1940s (when it was still NACA and they were just building planes and jets) and up through the height of the space program. It focuses on four women particularly: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Gobel Johnson, and Christine Darden. I saw the movie after reading the book; I would have seen the movie in any case because it has Janelle Monae in it, and come on. I did think the movie was great, but I recommend reading the book because it goes into much more detail about the women’s work and their lives. 4/5 stars

Highbrow fiction

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
Ruth and Nat are teenage orphans, raised in a group home by a religious fanatic. Nat, apparently, can talk to the dead, and when an enterprising stranger talks them into monetizing his gift, Ruth joins the act. That’s one storyline in this book. The other takes place about 20 years later and is about Ruth’s niece, Cora, who finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy when Aunt Ruth (whom she hasn’t seen in years) shows up out of nowhere; Ruth is mysteriously mute, but she obviously wants Cora to follow her, wherever she’s going. Together they embark on a long journey by foot. Where? That’s for Ruth to know and Cora to find out.

The Cora-walking story is interspersed with the Ruth-and-Nat-when-Ruth-could-talk flashbacks, and it’s hard to tell where any of it is going. It’s basically one freak show after another, and that was my main problem with the book. I don’t mind a good freak show, but I felt very removed from all the characters, who never seemed quite real to me. It’s not a bad story, though, and I liked the handling of the supernatural elements. It was the mundanity of the freak show that got to me. 3/5 stars

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederick Backman
Backman wrote A Man Called Ove, which was one of my favorite books I read last year. This book is told from the perspective of a highly precocious seven-year-old, Elsa, whose grandmother dies, leaving Elsa with the task of delivering some mysterious letters. In the process of delivering these various apologies to people her grandmother has wronged, Elsa figures out that the fairy-tale stories her grandmother used to tell her correspond to real-life events in people in her grandmother’s and Elsa’s own life.

There are quirky characters galore, and I did enjoy the story, though not as much as I did A Man Called Ove. I liked how everything came together in the end, although it was a bit neat, but you know what, who cares? 3.5/5 stars

Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
As a Shirley Jackson fan, I couldn’t resist this (fictional) story about a young married couple who live with Jackson and her husband, literary critic and Bennington professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, for a term and get swept up in the older couple’s marital drama plus an old scandal involving a Bennington coed who mysteriously disappeared 20 years previous. It’s pretty creepy, in a Shirley Jackson-esque way. Despite the fact that it’s not a terribly flattering portrait of her persona, I think Jackson would be flattered by Merrell’s homage to her oeuvre. It’s a fairly quick read, too, so bonus. 4/5 stars

And that concludes part one of this installment of Mad’s Book Club. Part two is Psycho Killers!

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, wherein I finish reviewing the books I read in 2016 before I start reviewing the books I’ve read so far in 2017.

This installment is devoted exclusively to romances. So sue me.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal? by Tessa Dare
Now that we’ve got that song from Frozen stuck in your mind for the rest of the day, let’s commence with the review. This book is technically part of two series–two of my favorite series, as it happens–Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After. But you don’t have to have read either series to appreciate this book, which features Charlotte Highwood, who was but a child in the Spindle Cove series, and Piers Brandon, Lord Granville, who only showed up for about five minutes in Say Yes to the Marquess (CEA #2). Piers has spent the last several years on the continent in service to the crown–ostensibly as a diplomat, BUT ACTUALLY as a spy. He doesn’t have time for love! Charlotte is a spirited girl with a penchant for getting in trouble, and all she really wants is to keep her nose clean long enough so her BFF’s parents will approve of her accompanying their daughter on a European tour. Unfortunately, Charlotte and Piers find themselves forced into an engagement when everyone at the Parkhurst ball assumes they were the couple who had a scandalous tryst in the library–but they weren’t! (It’s a long story.) So Charlotte has to find out who the real trysting culprits are so she can clear her name and not be forced to marry Lord Granville, who is decidedly sexy but also has major trust issues. (Which I can tell you is true of pretty much every nineteenth-century British peer who secretly works as a spy.)

As a confirmed Tessa Dare fan, I found this book delightful in the usual ways–the characters are likeable, the dialogue is witty, the story is fun, even if the whodunnit-in-the-library mystery is a bit thin. If I had a quibble, it is that at a crucial turning point in the story, the ostensibly-sane hero does something that only a crazy person would do. In fairness, I suppose that if I had spent the last decade living a secret life as a spy, I might have moments of crazy-person behavior in addition to the usual trust issues. So I let it go..THIS TIME. (And now that you have that other song from Frozen stuck in your brain, it’s time for the content warning: there is sex.) 4/5 stars

Luck Is No Lady by Amy Sandas
Isn’t it a shame when a gently-bred young lady is forced to use her mathematical talents to procure a paid position as a bookkeeper in a notorious gambling hell in order to pay off her late father’s debts? And yet it is such a common story. I wish I could remember more about this book. That I gave it three stars on Goodreads indicates a reasonable entertainment value. Yet this is what I wrote there: “I enjoyed this story initially, but something I don’t enjoy in romance is when women put themselves and their loved ones in peril for reasons that only make sense to heroines in romance novels. This is especially annoying when the women are supposed to be smart and sensible. Also, there are subplots that serve to set up the next two books in the series but don’t enhance this particular book at all. I’m not against authors setting up their next book(s), except when the events are extremely dramatic and treated as though they were incidental because they have nothing to do with the main plot of the current book. ‘Oh, so and so was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, but she’s okay now? Phew!’ Come on, people.” Indeed. Come on, people. For that I am retroactively downgrading you a half star. Content warning: I don’t really remember, but I’m pretty sure there was probably sex. 2.5/5 stars

A Bride in the Bargain by Deanne Gist
I remember this book a lot better. The hero is a logger in 1860s Seattle who has built a prosperous business by taking advantage of a government deal that offered 640 acres of free timberland to a married man. Joe (our lumberjack hero) was a married man, but his wife died before she could join him out west, and now a dastardly judge is threatening to take away his claim unless he can produce another bride. Given that time is of the essence, it seems he has no choice but to buy himself one (as one does–or did, back in the 1860s on the frontier). Unfortunately, Anna, the woman he’s paid for, was brought out west under false pretenses: she was told she’d be someone’s cook, not someone’s wife. It’s hard to imagine that a dude who makes his living selling women would employ such underhanded tactics, but anyway, that’s the sitch. Anna is much obliged to Joe for her passage out west, and she’s happy to work as his cook until his debt is paid off, but she does NOT want to marry him, even if he is a very nice man who also happens to be totally hot (as nice men who have to buy women so often are). So Joe is left with no choice but to make Anna fall in love with him before he runs out of time and loses everything.

Does this story sound silly? It is. It’s also kind of cute. (You know, in a mail-order bride sort of way.) I don’t often go for the American frontier romances, especially those featuring lumberjacks, but I found this one sweet and diverting, even if the heroine was at times kind of annoying. I mean, really, lady: it’s 1860-something, you’ve got no family and no money, and here’s a perfectly nice and wealthy and hot lumberjack ready to marry you. What else do you have going on? Well, it’s a good thing some ladies are stubborn, I guess, or otherwise there would be no romance novels. Content warning: no actual sex that I can recall, just sexual tension and descriptions of lumberjack hotness. Actually, there is a religious theme woven into the plot, but it isn’t heavy-handed or weird. I wouldn’t sort this under “inspirational” romance, but I guess inspiration is there if you like that sort of thing (with a side of hot lumberjack). (Actually, I just like saying “hot lumberjack.”) 3/5 stars

The Escape by Mary Balogh
This is book 3 in the Survivors series, which I have read all out of order, so I don’t think it matters much where you start. This story is about Sir Benedict Harper, who survived the Napoleonic Wars, but his body and spirit are both pretty messed up. (I can’t remember if he’s disabled or disfigured, but suffice it to say, he doesn’t think he has anything to offer to any woman. Oh, these silly, sexy war veterans.) Samantha McKay is a widow at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws; she decides to escape to a seaside cottage she’s inherited, and Sir Ben agrees to accompany her–for her safety, naturally. I’m sure you can see where this is going. I’m generally a fan of Mary Balogh and of the Survivors series particularly, but this one didn’t do much for me. I never got that invested in the characters’ fates. And frankly, I don’t remember much else besides that. Content warning: I’m sure there was sex in there somewhere, but it would have been tasteful, Balogh-style sex. (I wonder how Mary Balogh feels about me naming a style of sex after her.) 2.5/5 stars

Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare
As I said earlier, I’m a huge Tessa Dare fan, though I believe she did not come into her full powers until the Spindle Cove series. This book is pre-Spindle Cove and is #3 in the Stud Club Trilogy. Get your minds out of the gutter! We’re just talking about a group of dudes who like horses. Not in that way! Just breeding them and crap. You know what I mean! Anyway, this series should probably not be read out of order, as there’s a big mystery involving the Stud Club founder’s murder that spans the trilogy. The heroine of this book is Lily Chatwick, aforementioned murdered-founder’s sister. (Are you following this?) The hero is Julian Bellamy, who has loved Lily for years, but he considers himself beneath her because she is a lady and he is but the bastard son of a nobleman. Julian’s always been sort of a scoundrel but he is determined to get justice for Lily’s brother and also to protect Lily and see that she gets a suitable husband of her own class. You can probably see where this is going too. I wrote on Goodreads that the story starts a little slow but gets more interesting toward the middle/end, as the murder is finally solved and justice starts prevailing and crap. Content warning: I also wrote on Goodreads that “the sex scenes are RI.DI.CU.LOUS.” And by “RI.DI.CU.LOUS” I don’t mean that they are ridiculously hot or something; I mean that they are literally ridiculous. If you like to read ridiculous sex scenes, this is the book for you. Not one of Tessa Dare’s better offerings, but not the worst either. 3/5 stars

The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble
Apparently Kate Noble is the author of YouTube sensation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I’ve never watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but if you have and you like(d) it, maybe you would enjoy Noble’s historical romances. This is the first of hers that I’ve read, and I did so because it was on sale for Kindle. The blurb described it as Trading Places meets Pride and Prejudice. This book is the first in a trilogy about three men who became friends while serving in the army during wartime: “Lucky” Ned Ashby, an earl; John Turner, a miller who takes a position as the earl’s secretary after the war is over; Rhys Gray, a doctor. Ned is a happy-go-lucky type who is well liked by everyone; Turner, his secretary, is the moody type, and in a fit of pique he tells Ned that people only like him because he’s the earl, and if he had to be a secretary like Turner, he’d be in a crappy mood all the time too. So on a jaunt to the country to conduct some earl-ish business, they agree to trade places so each can prove the other wrong. Turner’s bet is that Ned-as-secretary won’t be able to get a gently-bred lady to fall in love with him; Ned bets this will be child’s play. I bet you can guess what happens next!

The heroine is a gently-bred lady who was forced to seek work as a governess for the usual financial reasons. I liked a lot of things about this book. The writing was good, the characters were good, but it sort of fell apart for me near the climax. As I said on Goodreads, “I’ve never been a fan of dramatic exits followed by waiting around for two weeks before someone decides they weren’t that mad after all.” Apparently that happened. But I enjoyed it enough that I would certainly read Kate Noble again. Content warning: I guess there is sex, as the blurb describes the book as “sexy,” so take that for what it’s worth. 3/5 stars

Three Weeks to Wed by Ella Quinn
Lady Grace Carpenter has guardianship of her seven younger siblings, which makes her virtually ineligible for marriage, as no sane gentleman would willingly take on such a burden. She figures, however, that if she’s not going to get married, she at least deserves to have one night of (anonymous) romance with the handsome Mattheus, Earl of Worthington. Make that “romance,” nudge nudge wink wink. It’s a long story; suffice it to say, the opportunity presents itself, she takes advantage of it, and then she bolts before Mattheus can propose. The rest of the story is Mattheus a) trying to figure out who this mysterious lady is so he can b) convince her to marry him. On Goodreads I described this book as “Cheaper by the Dozen imagined as a bodice-ripper,” which is not as much fun as it sounds. Grace is one of those ladies who can’t be persuaded to marry a man who can solve all of her problems because she’s convinced he’s only proposing out of a misguided sense of honor. AS IF THAT MATTERS WHEN YOU HAVE SEVEN KIDS TO LOOK AFTER. This is even more annoying than if he had been a lumberjack trying to save her from a lifetime of poverty. And to be honest, I’m not a fan of stories where people fall instantly in love (even if one of them doesn’t believe it’s love, AS IF IT MATTERS). Where the “three weeks” comes into play, I don’t remember, but SPOILER ALERT, they meet the deadline. Content warning: one night of anonymous “romance” leads to more “romance.” 2/5 stars

And that brings us to the end of my 2016 books. Stay tuned for the next installment of Mad’s Book Club, in which I begin on 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.

There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” since the election. So much talk that “fake news” no longer means “fake news” but “biased articles we don’t like.” Personally, I don’t have a problem with fake news. I can tell when news is fake, and if you can’t tell when news is fake, then I don’t have a lot of confidence in your ability to deal with real news, so I give up on that score. I have even less of a problem with biased news. I expect unbiased news reports about as much as I expect Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor to walk into a bar. I assume that reporters are biased; I factor it into my analysis of their reporting. What bothers me more than fake news and biased news is crap news, i.e. “news” about stupid crap that doesn’t matter to anyone and drowns out issues that are actually relevant to people’s lives.

A prime example of crap news is whatever dumbass thing the President-Elect just tweeted about that makes no difference to anyone but only shows what a dumbass jerk he is. WE ALREADY KNOW HE’S A DUMBASS JERK. THIS ISN’T “NEWS.”

The crap news that is bugging me right now is this business about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, saying that schools need to have guns on campus to protect students from grizzly bears. All the liberals are like, “OMG GRIZZLY BEARS THAT’S SO STUPID,” and all the conservatives are like, “OMG THAT’S A GROSS DISTORTION OF WHAT SHE SAID,” and really, both of them are correct, but the most correct response would be “OMG EVERYONE SHUT UP ABOUT GUNS AND BEARS SHE CAN’T GIVE A COHERENT RESPONSE TO A RELEVANT QUESTION ABOUT FEDERAL LAW REGARDING STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES”—but that last one is more than 140 characters, so good luck.

I have four kids, three of whom are still in public K-12 schools (the fourth is at a public community college) and two of whom have disabilities. I’m as interested in the success of my disabled children as I am in my other children’s, and I’m grateful to be living in a day and age and society in which we’ve collectively made efforts to ensure that disabled students get appropriate educations. However, I am not naïve about the limitations and drawbacks of the current system under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I am totally open to new and different policy proposals for ensuring that disabled students have access to an appropriate education.

From what I’ve read, i.e. what I’ve managed to glean from reports that aren’t obsessed with her unnatural fear of grizzlies, Betsy DeVos’s general philosophy seems to be that the federal government should have less control over education and states and locales should have more. That is a general philosophy that I happen to share. No, I’m not some kind of wacko who thinks school districts should just hold bake sales and hope for the best. I’m neither a purist nor a fanatic, but I am skeptical that the federal government, as far removed as it is from most citizens’ lives, can effectively micro-manage the educations of all students. Just a healthy skepticism, that’s all I have, not a partisan axe to grind or a political hobby horse I want to ride.

The fact is that my family does just fine under the status quo. We’re above-average in terms of income and financial resources; my husband and I are both college-educated; one of us is a full-time caregiver. We have many advantages over other families, particularly when it comes to providing for the needs of our disabled children. We can supplement our children’s public education. We can afford to live in a good school district with good schools. We can afford private therapies for our children with disabilities. We can afford babysitters to watch our kids while we go to endless IEP meetings and fight with the school district over what services they’re going to provide. We can take time off work to go to these meetings. If push comes to shove, we can afford to hire a lawyer or advocate to help us navigate the process of getting our kids the services they’re legally entitled to. The federal government doesn’t need to change anything on our account.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of families in this country who don’t enjoy the same advantages we have. Whatever their neighborhood school is, no matter how awful, they’re stuck with it. Whatever the school district offers in terms of services for their disabled children, no matter how inadequate, that’s what they’ll get. These are the families who aren’t being served by the current system because they don’t have the resources to navigate it. So yes, I’m very interested to learn how a “federalist” (i.e. local) approach to education would benefit students across a spectrum of needs. I’m philosophically biased toward federalism and local control to begin with, so you don’t even need to work that hard to sell it to me—but you do have to sell it. You can’t just say, “Leave it up to the states,” like it’s some Jedi mind trick. That doesn’t even work on me, let alone all the folks who think “states’ rights” is just another way of saying “slavery” or “segregation.”

I’m not super-convinced that anyone in Washington really wants to have a substantive discussion about education policy, though. I haven’t seen reports of any particularly substantive questioning of Betsy DeVos by anyone in the Senate. I see that she can’t explain what she plans to do (or not do) to improve the lot of American students, but I also see that some dumbass from Connecticut wanted to spend his five minutes asking her what she thinks about guns in schools WHEN IT’S NOT THE EDUCATION SECRETARY’S JOB TO KEEP GUNS OUT OF SCHOOLS OR PUT THEM THERE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT SHE THINKS. Honestly, does anyone think Sandy Hook could have been prevented if the Secretary of Education (whoever he/she was at the time) had just been more pro-active about keeping guns out of school? I meant that to be a rhetorical question, but just in case anyone’s raising their hand, let me just say NO GRIZZLY BEAR OR PSYCHOPATH HAS EVER BEEN STOPPED BY THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION. Whether or not there should be guns in school or no guns in school is certainly debatable. By all means, have that debate. MAYBE IN YOUR STATES OR LOCALES, WHICH ARE IN CHARGE OF GUN LAWS.

I should probably not call the senator from Connecticut a dumbass when I’ve never met him and he’s probably a perfectly lovely person who happens to feel strongly about gun control for understandable reasons, but golly, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything can be about gun control.

I should also probably note that Trump talked on the campaign trail about banning gun-free schools, as though this is something the President should even be able to do, let alone actually do. To this I can only say NO PRESIDENT HAS EVER BEEN STOPPED BY THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION AND THIS COUNTRY REALLY NEEDS TO HAVE A COME TO JESUS ABOUT EXECUTIVE POWER. FORWARD SLASH RANT

The reality is that it probably doesn’t matter who the Secretary of Education is if this is the level of discourse we’re going to have about education policy. A meaningful discussion of the most important issues will take longer than the 45 seconds the public is willing to spend on it. SO FINE JUST TALK ABOUT BEARS.

Well, it’s the first blog post of 2017, kids. I know you thought I was never coming back. Or maybe it was I who thought you were never coming back. You may still not be here! But I am, and herewith I kick off what is sure to be a glorious year of amateur blogging!

Actually, it’s not necessarily sure to be glorious. But it always has been amateur, and there’s no reason to suspect it will ever stop being so. And with that, let the glorious year begin.

Maybe it won’t be a glorious year, but a magical year. Which would you prefer? Myself, I can’t decide.

What can I tell you that you don’t already know? I had a pretty good holiday season. I still refer to it as the “holiday season” because I’m a loyal foot soldier in the War on Christmas. Also, I don’t think I’ve posted since before Thanksgiving. I’m lucky to be getting this under the wire for Martin Luther King Day.

Talking of which, I still haven’t taken down the Christmas tree. (It’s part of my War on Christmas, to make the Christmas tree part of all of my holiday celebrations, just so I don’t have to put it away.) I know folks who put away the Christmas decorations on December 26. I don’t even understand that. I guess that maybe goes well with the tradition of Boxing Day? I mean, I know Boxing Day is when you box up stuff to give to the poor, but as long as you’re boxing up for the poor, you may as well box up your Christmas decorations? It seems reasonable, from a theoretical standpoint. But only if you’re the industrious, non-lazy type. When it comes to how long the Christmas tree stays up, I’ve always taken my cue from the soap operas, which always have their characters attending New Year’s Eve parties where a Christmas tree is still prominently displayed. If it’s good enough for the folks on Days of Our Lives, it should be good enough for us, I think. I suppose it should be kosher (so to speak) to keep the Christmas tree on display through Epiphany, but after that it does seem a bit gauche.

So yeah, I’ll start being embarrassed by the Christmas tree sometime after Saturday. My annual goal is to have it down by Valentine’s Day, and I usually make that. Low expectations are the secret to my success. (You’re welcome. That first one was free.)

In the past, I have not done well with New Year resolutions. I’ve decided that this year I am not going to make any big changes in January. If at some point during the middle of the year I decide that a change is in order, I will feel free to pursue that avenue. That’s the phrase that just popped into my head. “Pursue that avenue”—does anyone even say that? It rhymes. People ought to say it. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t have any specific goals for this year until I get to December.

In December I resolve that I will not do any Christmas shopping the week before Christmas. It matters not if the Christmas shopping is finished or unfinished at that point. What matters is that I don’t go Christmas shopping during that last seven days before Christmas. Not because it’s crowded and stressful and I’m more likely to get into a car accident (although I have had two pre-Christmas car accidents in two years; maybe my other December resolution should be to avoid driving), but because the closer I get to Christmas, the more desperate I become to find a gift, any gift, to give the loved one(s) for whom I am shopping, and the more unreliable my judgment becomes. To wit, about three days before Christmas I was in a Bed, Bath & Beyond, where I seriously considered buying a set of Football Corn Holders. In my defense, they were on clearance, and they did have the University of Oregon logo on them. But that is not a defense that would stand up in the Court of Christmas Craptastrophes. If I were actually in court, I would go with an insanity defense, which, luckily, is a scenario that popped into my mind before I crossed that particular line. I left the Bed, Bath & Beyond shaken, and without any gifts, but grateful to have survived such a close call.

I really should probably not leave the house at all that last week before Christmas, but that may not be practical. Baby steps.

But back to January. My kids are back in school, except for Princess Zurg, who goes back next week. Have I mentioned that PZ is in college now? Do you know that when I started this blog, she was in kindergarten? Just mentioning that makes me feel like I should rethink my life, so I’m going to change the subject now.

What else happens in January? The presidential inauguration, I guess. On second thought, let’s talk about how I should rethink my life. I’ve decided that I need to get a job. I don’t know yet what it’s going to be. My husband went to the bank today, and he said while he was there, he thought about how if I got a job, I should try the bank. I don’t remember any of his reasoning, except that I’m a woman. I have noticed that bank employees, especially bank tellers, tend to be disproportionately female. I don’t know why this is. Frankly, I’m not sure my female traits are at bank-teller level, but it’s something to strive for.

And I think we’ll just leave things there for now. Happy 2017, gentle readers! I’ll probably see you again after the Christmas tree is down.

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