Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Read January 2019
Recommended for 
★     ★     ★     ★

Unexpected. I haven’t tried Lovecraft for years, perhaps decades, so this lingered on my TBR, due to numerous reviews and blurbs mentioning how it turns Lovecroft storytelling sideways. But a female lead, magic, water, and the almost ringing endorsement of book-twin Mimi had me bumping it up.

I found it enjoyable, perhaps because I never could truly predict where it was going, the hallmark of a book I could see owning. What it reminds me of is quiet, the muffled mist-soaked morning beauty by a lake and following a winding path by the water’s edge. Easy to put down, when I needed to, it was also very easy to pick up again, and oddly captivating for a story that was not a thriller.

“My thoughts coalesced: listening to myself, I learned what I believed.”

~brief summary for those with terrible memories~

Aphra Marsh and brother Caleb are the only survivors of massacre and forced evacuation at Innsmouth many years ago. They survived an internment camp through the help of the community there, including later Japanese arrivals who adopted them. Now Aphra is living in San Francisco with the Katos and working at a bookstore owned by her friend and acolyte, Charlie. In January, 1949, an FBI agent, Ron Spector, comes calling, looking for Aphra’s expertise. He wants her help reading through the Innsmouth collection at the Miskatonic library, to see if it has information on a body-switching technique. The FBI is afraid a Russian agent has studied there. Caleb has been camping at the library’s doorstep for years, but has been forbidden access. Aphra decides to accept, out of concern that the Russians might use the technique to set off bombs, and as an opportunity to explore her own heritage. She stipulates that Caleb and Charlie will be included. Once there, they discover a number of other people have an interest in the special collection.

Emrys’ writing is pleasantly sophisticated, easily up to the task of building a world of uncertain atmosphere: “My subconscious had marked her as a predator from the first–she had a strength and viciousness almost certainly necessary to survive Miskatonic’s academic and political grottos.” There’s something slightly period about it in word choice and structure that helps it feel like it was written more mid-century and lends solidity to Aphra’s characterization.

Representation and tolerance are strengths of this book. The story has ongoing themes about family, both genetic and chosen, as well as identity/racial history, and tolerance. There’s a significant number of sassy and self-directed female characters, and a lovely assortment of developing friendships, both same-sex and male-female. A couple of romantic pairings that transcend period expectations are a side note to the main story.

Narration is first person, from Aphra’s perspective. Characterization is story-telling strength, here, and it’s nice to see the way the characters gradually grow and come to trust each other. Audrey, a woman from a nearby women’s college, provides a lot of the verbal chutzpah and ended up being a character I quite liked:

“Trumball turned her gaze on Audrey, frowning. ‘You appear perfectly sane.’
Audrey blinked. If she felt any fear or repugnance, she kept it well hidden. ‘Do people often go mad at the sight of you? That seems like it would be awkward.'”

Concerns: first, I felt the parallels between the Innsmouth people and the Japanese was not at all subtle. This is compounded by an almost off-hand reference about the creation of Israel creating greater mistrust of Jewish Americans. Maybe this is because I am old, and know something of history, but I wondered why the author chose to be so forceful with her messaging. Second, and this is almost always a problem with me and fictional spiritualism, is the mysticism. I actually thought the spiritual aspects were done exceedingly well at first, but it fell apart quite badly during the ultimate engagement. This could also correspond with Mimi’s assessment that this section went on too long.

Third, and note that I only think this in retrospect, is that everybody but Turnbull felt young. Aphra felt painfully naive for someone who survived years in a camp.  I don’t feel as irritable about the characterizations as I did with Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series–I think this is because Aphra isn’t actually old yet–but her “elders” also felt and seemed young. What an impetuous grandfather she has.

 I would recommend reading it if it sounds appealing, even if you are unfamiliar with Lovecraft or dislike his writing. It was a quietly interesting, captivating book that I could read again.

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The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read January 2019
Recommended for fans of period mysteries, period adventure stories
★     ★    1/2 

Sherlock has been enjoying a Hollywood resurgence. That’s not what lead me to pick this up, however. Vaguely headachey, I needed a reading distraction, and the appropriate story in these kinds of situations is a touchy one. I was finishing Winter Tide, but didn’t want to lose my appreciation of it’s cool and misty beauty. Non-fiction was clearly out. I could  attack the last Faith Hunter book, but I had the feeling that irritation would push into pain faster than I could say, ‘Excedrin.’ A mystery then, a weak one that demanded little and whose writing might lull rather than engage. The Connolly I had? Absolutely not. A Christie? Nah; the ones I had seemed too fresh. Wait–next to Christie was Doyle. Ah, perfect.

I mean, ‘perfect’ in the sense of a half-hearted, sleepy-couch read. I thought the tale well told, and interesting in a historic kind of way. I remembered, reading, that Watson drove me a bit batty when I read before, with his assumptions and judging. He doubtfully questions Holmes as to how he knows something, and when Holmes proves his deduction and observation powers by telling Watson about his gold watch, Watson gets all pissy and pouty. So unsympathetic. And I still don’t know why anyone makes a deal at all about Holmes’ drug use. He explains his using here, and it actually makes perfect sense to me. Of course, I happen to know all about consequences, like the cardiac damage and the brain rewiring and the gradual replacement of drugs for emotional connections, but that’s real life and this is a book. Yet many of the reviews I looked at mention this. Are we really scandalized still over a book from 1890?

Well, sort of, because Conan Doyle pulls in a–SPOILER, cripes–faithful South American Pygmy as part of the crime. First, offensive. Second, lame. That’s like the 19th century equivalent of using a schizophrenic serial killer. There’s also loads of what we’d now call racial profiling, only wrapped up in that darling Victorian-era physiognomy, complete with pejorative adjectives like ‘blackest natives’ and whatever. I mean, none of that is surprising, and this is like, 130 years ago, so it’s not like I’m seriously offended–which is clearly a privilege, right?–but at this point, I’m not mad, just extra tired and a little bored, like, ‘seriously?’ So why are we going to Doyle for source material, when he was so clearly cribbing from adventure stories from when he was a kid? Although, this was only his second book, so I should cut him a break. Plus, he was just trying to make some dough to pay off the bills, which is totally fair.

What was ethically interesting to me is that Holmes and Watson seem convinced that a mysterious treasure belongs to the daughter of a British major who was a prison warden and the son of another major,  both of whom served in India. I was immediately stuck while reading that, oh, sure, the majors came by the treasure honestly. It’s clearly evil deeds coming back to bite the majors in the butt. But they act like that’s a thing.

Anyway, it’s interesting watching Holmes retrace the crime, although mostly with the help of Toby, a talented scent hound. It’s also interesting seeing the notes of the legend, including one of his famous costume changes, research on cigarette ash, the Baker Street Irregulars, and a slightly-bumbling-but-appreciative London detective to take the credit.

Overall, I’d say at the moment, a 2.5 shots kind of book. Interesting in a historical way, and probably as a starting point of detective fiction–here are where your tropes begin, authors–but seriously, painfully dated. And not because of the cocaine.

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Black Arts by Faith Hunter

Read January 2019
Recommended for fans of vampires
★     ★    ★  

2019: past-carol. either had a much better attention span or lower standards. Let’s be honest: probably a bit of both. So what happened is that I started my cousin on the Yellowrock books and she read up as far as I had in the series (book 6) and then bought the rest. She then dropped off the rest for me to read in a spirit of ‘returning the favor,’ and I, in the spirit of cousin-ness, did not tell her that I had grown disheartened with the characterization of Jane and the continued presence of vampire politics as a main plotline. I’m not judging her taste; she has a thing for biker chicks and cats. Not to say I don’t either, but that my tolerance for all things vampy is now quite low. At any rate, I picked it up, not remembering if I read it. It wasn’t long before I was pretty sure I had, but I had a vague sense of tolerance about it.

Well, tolerance, then boredom.

I could not sustain any interest in it. Admittedly, I can see the draw for a first read: in this book, Jane’s best friend, Molly, has gone missing, and Molly’s husband and two young children have come to New Orleans looking for Molly. They end up staying with Jane and her two young henchmen. Meanwhile, Jane is dealing with the consequences of the last book (I think) where her skinwalker Beast is bound to the head vampire Leo. Leo also offers her a crazy amount of money to be the head of security in preparation for an upcoming European vampire visit to New Orleans. Also meanwhile, two young prostitutes from the house next door have gone missing, one a vamp and one a witch.

This basic (!) three-fold plotting is not aided by periodic attempts by someone(s) on Jane’s life, nor by periodic visits to Leo’s vampire residence where she occasionally takes time to fight with Leo. Hunter’s writing skills and Jane’s detecting skills are, frankly, not up to the task. About every chapter, Jane encounters something that is probably supposed to be important, as evidenced by such writing as, “something nagged at me, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was.” Alas, I had no trouble.

On the up side, there’s very adorable scenes with Molly’s witch-talented children and Jane, and this is one of the books where there is active female presences, including Jodi, the police detective; Del, a vampire from Virginia or somewhere; an antagonistic female; various female witches; and the Native women.

So while I can see why I might have enjoyed it the first time when I was in reading the series, I have to say when I pick it up as a diverting read, it just doesn’t work as well. There’s a lot of twisty stuff and stories that are continued from prior books, which makes it less satisfying as a stand-alone, and there’s a ton of vampire-related relationships (who owes what to who, areas of power, etc) that’s just zzzzz. I’m a little bored just writing about it.

Appropriate evaluation (2014 carol can suck it):

Within the series: 4 Stars
Overall: 3 stars for enjoyment

Improvement on the last book. Jane doesn’t spend excessive time in romantic agnst or moping about her extended family. More focused on problem-solving.

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The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Read December 2018
Recommended for fans of survival stories
★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

Totally Unauthorized Review

It was very good, just the sort of read I wanted. Read it if you enjoy survival stories, or caving, or psychological mysteries where people are unreliable, conflicted, and determined.

I read for three reasons:

  1. A certain unnamed good friend strongly suggested it after reading it. Here’s how she sold it: “It takes stones of steel to write a full novel with only two characters and a cave for the setting. So far, it’s done very, very well.”
  2. I confused Caitlin Starling with Caitlin Kiernan, who also has a effed up book I want to read (The Drowning Girl).
  3. The darker, the better.

Like The Children of Time, it could have played on fundamental fears–in this case, claustrophobia–but somehow, through the writing, I was only riveted. Except for the water scenes. Those were scary.

Do not read the GR book blurb, as it does give far too much away, including one plot point that happens two-thirds of the way in. I read an early copy–hopefully very early–so I look forward to re-reading a print copy that might have even more polish. Just for me–for heaven’s sake, do not read the spoilers if you intend to read–

Continue reading

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The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

Read December 2018
Recommended for fans of boozy detectives
★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

What an opening sentence. A kicker. Let me say straight out, this is a five star book; it’s just that five-star reads for me mean they need a place on my shelf and a re-read or more. This: this was beautifully written, not an extraneous word but so interestingly, humorously, perfectly descriptive:

“As I ordered a beer from the middle-aged barmaid, she slipped out of her daydreams and into a sleepy grin. When she opened the bottle, the bulldog came out of his drunken nap, belched like a dragon, then heaved his narrow haunches upright and waddled across three rickety stools through the musty cloud of stale beer and bulldog breath to trade me a wet, stringy kiss for a hit off my beer. I didn’t offer him any, so he upped the ante by drooling all over my sunburnt elbow.”

Crumley, and the narrator, C.W. Sughrue, set up an exhausting pace. C.W. is chasing an errant Trahearne for his ex-wife, who wants him back at his place and writing his next Great Novel. Trahearne seems intent on drinking his way across the west in the seediest bars possible, until he lands in this one. A fight lands Trahearne in the hospital, and the sleepy barmaid, Rosie, offers C.W. a job finding her lost daughter while he waits on Trahearne’s recovery and release before escorting him back home. The two detour through San Francisco following a lead. The plot’s a kicker; I did not expect all the places it went to.

C.W. knows how wretched much of his existence is, and his humor lessons the sadness. He also has a fair bit of compassion mixed in with the anger and the bitterness at those that exploit and are exploited. But he’s never far from a drunk, and he’s closer still to a beer and a whiskey. In these days, you did half your drinking while driving. The unencumbered sex, the porn–if you had any illusions about free love, the 1960s, and their aftermath, this will help disabuse them. Drugs? Why yes, it’ll help the booze along.

It took me a long time to finish this book, unusually long for its short length and quality–and for a mystery. All I can say is that it is because of the strength of the writing; out of very clear choices, I’ve stayed far away from C.W.’s world, and to immerse myself in it is both sad and exhausting. It’s like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas written by Raymond Chandler. 

“The next morning, the condemned man, who had slept like a child and showered like a teenager preparing for a date, ate as hearty a breakfast as the Holiday Inn could provide, then stepped outside to contemplate the delicate air and the clear blue sunshine of the high plains.”

Sad, beautiful, drunken, funny, tragic; highly recommended.

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The Last by Hanna Jameson. Well, I hope it isn’t hers.

Read December 2018
Recommended for fans of The Last Policeman
★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

I was all set to close the book (cough) on 2018; I had finished up the Peter Grant series in a very satisfactory way, was finishing up a couple other books, and was hoping to actually complete reviews for the books read, all in the same year–I know, I know. Foolish. Then I saw Robert’s review and the words ‘apocalypse’ and ‘mystery’ instantly jumped out. You could not have tempted me more with dark chocolate sea salt caramels. And wouldn’t you know it? Last was just as satisfying, a great mix of emotions and flavors.

It starts off quickly; no building of suspense, wondering when the end of the world will happen, letting our hapless characters wander around as we all get our bearings. It has happened; Jon, the narrator, begins the story three days after the news breaks. An American tucked away in Switzerland for a conference, and he and his colleagues have been routed to a somewhat isolated hotel. I hesitate to say much more; suffice to say that it unfolds quickly and seems very plausible. It combines the best of the apocalypse: a quick disaster, a prolonged sense of aftermath, the opportunity to explore self, meaning, and society, all done with solid writing.

“A lot of people confuse movement with progress,’ Dylan said. ‘I knew it was a bad idea but what were we gonna do, barricade them in? They weren’t ready to face any kind of truth.’ I leaned against the wall of the stairwell as Dylan got out his set of keys. The air in here was too thick, full of dust and last breaths. It stank. I hated the stairwell but of course the elevators weren’t working anymore; hadn’t worked for two months, not since that first day.”

I can think of a handful of books that this would compare to, and it’s no surprise that the publisher draws analogies to The Last Policeman and Station Eleven. I think that for many, however, this will be an improvement on both of those. Less bucolic and with a stronger narrative than Station Eleven,there is a definite atmosphere of fearfulness and psychological stress. Will these survivors break down? Like an inverse horror movie with the demons from within, how will they cope? Similar to The Last Policeman, the narrator is struggling with his own reactions and trauma response; though aware he is doing so, he’s not exactly doing so with great success. But he reflects and engages, and it provides interesting food for thought.

“I figure I should keep writing things down. The clouds are a strange color, but I’m not sure if that’s just me being in shock. They could be normal clouds.”

I will agree with Robert, one of the reviews that lead me to this book; the ending did feel rushed. Of course, for me, endings often feel rushed with suspense novels, as I’m speed-reading, trying to discover the resolution and relieve the tension. I’ll go so far as to say it’s a little Tana-French-ish in that the story is more about the psychological journey of the characters and less about the mystery. It is an intriguing ending, but yes; it does try to do too much too quickly, given the pacing of the middle.

Last but random note: one of the few end-of-the-world novels that integrates more than then an average white American in it.

Still, it was a fabulous way to end my 2018 reads. Definitely left me with a book-hangover. Many thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for the advance reader copy. The quotes, of course, are subject to change in the final writing, but I do think that Jameson’s style is one of the aspects that sets this above your average mystery or end of the world, and should be appreciated.

Four and a half cloudy stars


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Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Read December 2018
Recommended for fans of supernatural mysteries, Peter Grant
★     ★    ★    ★    1/2


The Post in Which I Muse on Audio Versions of Books
Stop reading the paper copy and give listening a go. You will likely not believe me; you will tell me that you hate audio books, that you lose track, fall asleep, and are 100% unable to pay attention. I believe you; until this series, you could have counted my attempts at audio books on one hand, as I suffered many of the same complaints. When I listened to Harry Potter while driving, I found myself getting sleepy. If I listened while cooking, I lost track of either my numbers or the plot (and that’s no good when it comes to spices, let me tell you). But then came Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, the reader for Aaronovitch’s books. As much as I enjoy the written version of Peter Grant, the audio is superb. 

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a deity among readers. Trained as a theater actor, I suspect his versatility shows in his voices; from the Welsh pathologist, to Nightingale’s upper-class ‘posh,’ to the saucy junior apprentice Abigail, to the breathy, Cockney accent of a new character, to the semi-insane voice of a returning one. Aaronovitch writes in a multicultural London and uses it all, and I’d say Kobna’s only shortcomings are in the American (awkward) and Vietnamese accents (comes off similar to his Sierra Leone).

I did something I’ve never done with Lies Sleeping: I alternated between paper and audio for the duration of the book. I mean, except for that tiny part where I jumped ahead to the last paper chapter to see how it ended, and except for that other tiny part when I skimmed just a tad to see how we got to that part, but other than that, I was totally faithful about alternating between the two and not getting too far ahead. Since I save audio books for the car, this was no doubt a surprise to any friends who witnessed a month-long reading adventure. 

Anyway, it was a pleasure having Kobna’s voice echo in my head as I read. Aaronovitch’s writing is clever, full of references, complex interactions, Latin words, and all sorts of things where looking at the format of the word is nice. But he loves architecture to the detriment of other aspects of writing, and if you pay attention to his dialogue, it mostly consists of ‘said.’  Witness:
“‘Burnt…,’ said Dr. Walid. ‘We were just about to excise it…’
‘You can watch if you like,’ said Dr. Vaughn.
I barely heard her beca
use I’d just recognized the shape of the tattoo…
‘G for Gandalf,’ I said….
‘And I suppose you’re fluent in Elvish?’ said Dr. Vaughn, by way of retaliation.
‘No,’ I said, ‘but G is what Gandalf stamps on his fireworks…'”

On the one hand, it is a relief to be spared the adverbs of the beginning writer, who ‘laughingly, retorts, whispers, utters, and bemoans’ their way through entire scenes. On the other, the opportunity for character enhancement is missed. Solution:

Leave it to Kobna.

“Here’s a comforting thought for you, Peter,’ he said. ‘However long you may live, the world will never lose its ability to surprise you with its beauty.'”

Technically, it’s four-and-a-half stars for me. See, not a total fan-girl.
Stop reading here if you don’t want any spoilers. Silly goose; it’s the seventh book in a series. 

************************************************************* Continue reading

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Broken Soul by Faith Hunter

Read December 2018
Recommended for fans of Jane Yellowrock
★     ★    ★    

The Post in Which I Muse on the Series.

I dropped this series a few years back. Heavy on vampire politics and with a lead character who had a fair amount of romantic angst, it just wasn’t consistently interesting. However, my cousin was looking for new reads and I started her out on the early books in this series (this is under the philosophy of being willing to have said books returned in less-than-perfect condition). She loved it so much that she bought the rest of the series–Hunter having finished it by then–and brought them back to me to read.

So here’s the thing about series: they’re very much the same. It was interesting to me to fall back into a story after a few years and feel very familiar with everything happening. In fact, the plot ended up reminding me very strongly of one of the first three book. So it was with mixed emotions that I read on: one, that I wouldn’t have to invest much in my read; and two, that there probably wouldn’t be very much that was challenging here.

Perhaps that’s why we like series, because they offer a predictable world and story in a world that is neither predictable nor coherent. Depending on the author, you can be guaranteed the outcome; that the hero will live another day, that justice will triumph, that lower-level evil will be vanquished, that love will conquer all. I like series for these reasons too but I also want to feel like there is a greater sense of purpose (going back to that lack of parallel in the real world here…).

I’d be hard-pressed to find that in the Yellowrock series. Despite starting out as a contracted vamp-killer for hire, Jane, the lead, has morphed into a security consultant for the head vampire of the New Orleans area. As such, most of her job has surrounded detailed vampire politics. Apparently, Hunter is calling the upcoming visit of the European vampires her overarching series plot, because while I remember it from earlier books, it’s brought up again here in context of a lot of security preparations. The series structure is pretty straightforward: contract to protect vamps. Preparations. Weird stuff happens. Protect vamps. Figure out weird stuff. Work with/fight vamps (there’s always the troublesome ones). Fight extra-weird thing causing trouble. The End.  The side plot usually seems to consist of Jane deciding who she wants to date, what she wants to wear on their date, the date, and then emotional fallout after the date. 

It’s pretty straightforward storytelling. Hunter is very competent at it, to be sure; I’d say far above average from what I remember of various forays into the genre. I do like that Jane is a determined, stubborn, and faithful character. I also enjoy the impact of the Beast character, and that seems to have been evolving in interesting ways. There’s steady action in this book, which maybe keeps the reader from realizing that a lot of it is just that–action–and not actual steps towards solution. I felt like the New Orleans setting was used well, and had to laugh when at one point Jane mentions that the showers never got really cold.

I just don’t care about imaginary politics; I’m troubled enough with real-life ones. There’s also a bit more detail on guns and security issues, which is a non-interest for me. There’s some magical computer hacking with a Kid Genius, which is always somewhat problematic for me (I mean, why introduce computer stuff as an issue if you are going to solve it with a talented hacker?). Jane’s also only marginally improved on the emotional security front (one chapter end: “I’ve become a girl“) which was somewhat distressing, although I appreciated the nod to the flippy skirt she bought and danced in in book one. And, as was normal for this series, there is a distressing lack of females. Jane prefers being ‘one of the guys,’ and her environment reflects that. She lives with two guys, the majority of the vamp team she works with are guys (except Leo’s new second, so naturally, they have a conversation about Leo), and many of the women seem to see her as competition (Leo’s second, Katie the vamp from book one). Her friend Jodi makes a brief appearance, as well as a woman from the government Psy division. So there are women scattered around the book; I think it’s not problematic author portrayal as much as a character that is herself problematic. She continues to resent any soul-searching and only reaches out when she needs help.

I’ll likely try the next, if only because it’s sitting on my bookshelf, courtesy of my cousin. There can be a certain comfort in a decently written but non-demanding read.

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The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly

Read November 2018
Recommended for fans of horses, Claire Dewiitt
★     ★    ★    1/2

There’s a couple of things that keep me coming back to Connolly. One, he hits my prose sweet spot.

“For after Barney Shore had spoken of her, Harlan had become aware of movement in the trees to his right, a roving darkness obscured by the falling snow, as though the mere mention of her existence had somehow drawn the girl to them. He had chosen not to look, though; he feared that was that the girl wanted, because if he looked he might stumble, and if he stumbled, he might break, and if he broke she would fall upon them both, boy and man, and they would be lost to her. It was then that he had called upon his old friend, and he could not have said if Paul had truly come to him or if Harlan had simply created the illusion of his presence as a source of comfort and discipline. All he knew was that a kind of solace came over him, and whatever had been shadowing them in the forest retreated with what might have been a disappointed his or just the sound of a branch surrendering its weight of snow, until at last it was gone from them entirely.”

The second reason is that he blends a sense of supernatural, or otherworldly, or perhaps better, supra-worldly, into the every day world. I find that a fascinating concept to deal with. And last, but very much not least, is that Parker, and by extension Connolly, very much seems to believe in vengeance. Connolly’s pretty clear cut here; though his characters might deal drugs, or do the occasionally smuggling, direct crimes against people are what’s unforgivable. While Parker isn’t always that agent, his investigative work always seems to lead him that direction.

With The Wrath of Angels, I was hoping for a bit more, well, mystical, fallen-angel type action, an elucidation of the greater mystery. Eleventh in the Charlie Parker series, it does sum up the various hints from proceeding books and complies them into a sort of world-view. It also elaborates on the various players on the stage that have become somewhat cyclic. However, I don’t think it advances the overarching story particularly. It does turn out to be an interesting story in this one, albeit slightly padded. 

These days, I suspect mood is what ultimately edges a book into ‘good’ instead of a more lukewarm ‘I liked it’ evaluation, and I had this lying around waiting for the right mood. Sure, there were a few too many narratives that kind of felt like padding. And yes, we’re running around the Maine woods again. But I rather like the Maine woods, and the other viewpoints weren’t belabored enough to become boring. I imagine Connolly gets kind of tired of telling the same story, so playing with various viewpoints, including those of the villains, the ambivalent co-conspirators, and the victims, must provide a bit of intellectual stimulation. 

At any rate, this was another enjoyable book in the series for me. I think the trick is not to read them too close together. Much better to space this one out, as the publisher intended. 



A nice review from Kealan about the book’s shortcomings

And a nice review from Mihir about it’s positives

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Hex by Maggie Estep

Read November 2018
Recommended for fans of horses, Claire DeWiitt
★     ★    ★    1/2

I sought this book out because of Sara Gran, author of Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead, mentions it in an interview listing five of her favorite books and the writing lessons she learned from them. In this case, Gran notes that she learned you can take mysteries and set them in places you know and love; in the case of Hex, the oddly conjoined worlds of Coney Island, a Queens racetrack and Julliard School of Music.

So anyway, this is good stuff. I realized rather quickly that it wasn’t really about the mystery, not very much. It’s like one of those lit-fic books that is about a group of people connected to the main character, Ruby, sort of like a Tales of the City, I imagine, with a lot less sex and a lot more mystery. Although there is quite a bit of sex for a mystery book, at least the kind I tend to read, where lone private eyes are, you know, lone. It does lead to one detraction for me–besides the fact that it was included at all–in that all the women love sex, all the men are irresistible, although many of them have various hang-ups, and apparently, no one who has sex is gay. 

All of that aside, characterization is interesting. It’s all first person point-of-view, largely from Ruby’s viewpoint, although every other chapter is from one of her friends or neighbors. Somewhat surprisingly, because sometimes it seems like there’s a certain sameness to an author’s style, the voices all feel quite different. Estep manages to make most of them feel quite human: troubled, caring, vulnerable, funny. 

The writing is solid. The stables, the subway, Coney Island; all feel very real, artfully created for the reader in a few solid sentences. As Gran mentions in her description, “Maggie took the amateur sleuth mystery and put in a world she loved and understood.” I can picture the opening scene so clearly, I feel like I’m there:

“I’m eyeing a willowy blond woman’s red wallet when the F train stops abruptly, causing two large Russian ladies sitting across from me to loose control of their grocery bags. As the Russian women make loud guttural exclamations, frozen pierogies spill out of one of the bags and all over the mottled floor.” 

I wasn’t so sure about the narrative from Ruby’s good friend Oliver at first–what was he, an addict?–but he turned out to be a fascinating, unpredictable character.

“Some days it’s so bad I can’t move, other days it’s the kind of bad where I have to move. I wasn’t quite sure which this was gonna be but the sun was streaming in, blending with the bright yellow of the walls, hurting my eyes a little with its brilliance, and though I was nauseated and had pain traveling up and down my body, I threw back the covers, got up, and put on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s first record, which I knew was the only thing that would get me moving.”

Which reminds me of a small complaint: I didn’t care for how his character was dealt with in the end. It felt more plot-convenient than realism convenient, and everything until then had felt quirky-but-possible, but that just seemed highly improbable.

I’m wandering all over, aren’t I? It’s much like this book, really; there’s a plot, certainly, but the reader has to be okay watching it wander, or waiting as pieces slowly come together, with occasional sidetracking. It’s kind of like going to ride your favorite roller coaster at an amusement park, in fact: you may have an ultimate goal, but half the point is the walk getting there.


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