A Curious Indian Cadaver (Inspector Singh Investigates #5) by Shamini Flint

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of detective mysteries
★    ★    ★   1/2

Yikes! So close to the end of the Inspector Singh series, and stalking checking out the website for Ms. Flint makes it clear that self-promotion isn’t in her wheelhouse. Hope that means she’s busy writing the next Singh mystery, a series that is a more modern and culturally aware take of a Piroit-style investigation.

I found this to be one of the more solid entries in the Inspector Singh series. Poor Inspector: forced to take a medical leave of absence after the calamitous ending of the last book, his wife has the perfect activity to prevent him from rattling around the house–attending a family wedding in India. Not close family, mind you, so the reader is introduced in bits and pieces to some of the concepts of family in India and acceptable social roles. Alas, by the time they arrive, the bride has disappeared during her traditional pre-wedding house arrest seclusion. When her elder brother Tanvir identifies a badly burned body as his sister, it looks like she committed suicide. But her grandfather would like to know why, so Inspector Singh is placed on the case.

As in the other Singh books, Flint deftly weaves in bits of social and cultural commentary, giving the reader the flavor of the setting, and the ways it plays into Inspector Singh’s investigation. Really, it’s a fascinating concept for a series–what is ‘crime’ in each country, and what does policing and ‘justice’ look like? I thought this story was nicely fleshed out, and slightly less farcical in regards to the Inspector’s bursting shirt buttons and his skinny, bossy wife. There’s a fascinating juxtaposition between one of the local slums and the pristine nearby factory. I appreciate that Flint doesn’t hit her readers over the head with moral judgements, although this book comes close when it looks at life in the slum.

There was somewhat of a surprise with the ultimate solution, but the set-up behind it was obvious from the beginning. One thing about the series that continues to puzzle me is how Singh is referred to as an amazing detective, yet execution of the investigation usually seems haphazard and more subject to circumstance than the little grey cells or leaving no stone unturned. Plotting here was a little smoother. Overall, it’s a series I enjoy, certainly worthy of borrowing from my library friends. I’ll be sad to see the series end.

A solid three and a half rupees.

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bellwether by Connie Willis

Re-Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of light romantic comedy
★    ★    ★    ★     ★   

I owe bellwether a review.

 

Bellwether is a book that I inevitably turn to when I want something that is light, clever, literate and sweet.

Sandra Foster has been studying fads, specifically trying to identify what started the bobbed hair crazy at some time in the 1920s.

The company administrative assistant, Flip, is pretty much the worst ever, and one day when she mis-delivers a ‘perishable’ (not ‘fragile,’ as Pip says) to Sandra, Sandra finds herself taking the package down to the Biology Department, where she meets Bennett O’Rielly, a chaos researcher who seems to be entirely immune to fashion fads.

What happens is a more than a bit of gradually escalating chaos as they each try to work on their respective projects, turn in the annual funding request to the Hi-Tek Corporation, dodge team-building meetings, and avoid Flip’s oblivious tendencies towards destruction.

Each chapter begins with a description of a fad, much like certain books begin chapters with aphorisms. I actually learned a little bit about a number of fun things, including hula hoops (1958-59), hair dioramas (1750-60) and mah-jongg (1922-24). There are numerous references to scientific discoveries, fascinating if you know your scientific history. There’s a mention of Fleming leaving a Petri dish cracked as he headed out to golf, and a researcher hiring a Polish woman named Marie Curie to help him with radiation research. It’s one of the things that elevates this beyond your average rom-com. I’ll also note there’s a definite feel of verisimilitude about this; on this reading I noted Sandra referencing SPSS software, classic software that I’ve used myself in statistics class.

As in To Say Nothing of the Dog, there are a number of running gags, including corporate insensibility (“Tell them any number of scientific breakthroughs have been made by scientists working together. Crick and Watson, Penzias and Wilson, Gilbert and Sullivan–“), bigotry against smokers, personal ads, where rivers begin, and the unrelenting cheer of Browning’s Pippa. In a nod to having a life outside of work, she weaves in her adventures at the local (trendy) cafe and her regular visits to the library.

While I understand this isn’t highbrow literature, it is one of those reads that make one feel delightfully entertained, resulting in a lingering feeling of happy once it’s over. It’s my go to read when I need something light and clever to cleanse my palate in between those nail-biters. In view of my recent review of The Trespasser, I absolutely give this five stars.

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Ghosts of Tsavo by Vered Ehsani

Read February 2017
Recommended for fans of the Parasol series
 ★     ★    1/2

An decent distraction read that will likely appeal to genre fans. I needed the distraction as I was waiting in the emergency room with my mom who had broken her arm (for those of you who know of my broken finger last year, you can tell I come by my grace honestly). So without damning it with faint praise, it worked for me, in this situation, where my normal critical thinking skills were otherwise occupied. That doesn’t mean I would have tolerated just anything, however. The tv in the E.R. room stayed ‘off.’

This is the first in a series staring Beatrice, investigator for a clandestine Society of Paranormals. The head of the society is a werewolf, so right away we’re keyed in to the dimensions of the occult. Beatrice is also haunted the ghost of her dead husband, Gideon. Alas, fortunes in the household have changed dramatically, and they must follow Father as he accepts a post in Africa. On the boat, Beatrice meets an effusive young woman. Initially off-putting with her refusal to bow to Victorian decorum, Beatrice realizes she might not have much opportunity for socializing out in the bush and should make the best of it.

“We hadn’t been formally introduced, but I was so startled that rather than ignore the person (the socially appropriate response to such an intrusive and offensive question), I turned to face a young woman with a pleasant, rosy countenance, a charmingly plump figure and dark-blue eyes.”

It’s light, it’s generally cute and ought to appeal to those who enjoy Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate. I feel like there’s might have been thing going on here with the Magical Negro and White Savior which was sadly unsurprising. Take Victorian attitudes about non-white races, and what is an author left with? Still, there’s also fierce lions, a robot and a gently developing love interest, so it has plenty to keep one distracted–although for me the love interest description became an irritation. Why must authors use ‘taunt’ and ‘smirk’ when they mean ‘tease?’ I counted at least four instances of ‘smirk’ after this one.
He smirked as if delighted to be the object of my attention.

It’s not particularly intense, which is nice for those times when one’s read is interrupted by emergency room staff. There is the feeling of the novella about it as the ending felt a bit rushed–but that could have been us getting ready to leave the E.R. It could have been the author juggling a bit much to wrap everything up, but at least there are subsequent books available.

Two and a half stars, rounding up for keeping my mind busy

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The Trespasser by Tana French

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of police procedurals
All the stars

 

What does a star rating mean? Does it mean this is a work of greatness, that deserves to be read by every generation? That each word is empathetically chosen,* each sentence crafted, each paragraph placed with an eye to flow? That through metaphor, symbolism and theme it exposes the reader to some kind of truth? That it inspires a passionate response? That at this moment, I loved it? That it made me happy?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many stars I give The Trespasser. It wrung me out like a three-day fight, playing me like an old lover, an old enemy, hinting in exactly the right ways, saying the right words, pausing at the best movement, to achieve their ends. I found myself reading every word, but forcing myself to occasionally pause, to ~breathe~ to consciously unclench the tense muscles in my neck and arms. I found myself becoming generally, non-specifically angry, just like Antionette striding through the squad room, defensive, irritable, ready to lash out at annoyances. Did I enjoy the experience? Not particularly. It was not pleasurable to be in such an angry person’s head. Was I able to break free? Not particularly. Common sense was able kick in, three hours into reading and only an hour or two to go before bed. I knew there was no way on earth I’d be able to sleep with rage like that simmering below the the surface.

Does evoking strong emotion make it a good book?

The second evening I read, I had more time, a little less anxiety; I knew I’d be finishing far before bed. And I might of peeked at the ending, because French is one of the authors I can’t quite trust; she plays by different authorial rules. I haven’t forgotten her first book, In the Woods.

Does unpredictability make it a good book?

I did notice–as I often do in a French book–that I stuttered on her mechanisms, the details of her plotting. I realized–even as I read it–that a particular device was used to allow the plot to go the direction it did. It felt a little obvious, maybe even a little cheap, but like the old, old lover/friend/enemy who knows where each button is and how to best employ it, it didn’t matter. I still finished the story exhausted, relieved, drained.

Does obvious make it a bad book? Less good? I can’t even think answer these questions of scale. What am I comparing it to? The greatest books that exist? French’s best work? That paint-by-numbers mystery I read last week and said I ‘liked’? The words ‘like,’ ‘love,’ seem ridiculously weak. Did it pull me out of the world, move me to black and blue, into a night-long, bleary-eyed wheel of emotion?

All the stars.

*You can assume all italicized words are said with emphasis, hand-waving drama and occasionally some irritable sarcasm. Sometimes the hand-waving may come close to the side of your head if you are especially obstinate.

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The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. Eh, tepid.

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of police detectives
 ★     ★    ★

Continuing on my quest for a new mystery series suitable for distraction, I hit up my librarian for the second book in Michael Connelly’s famous series centering on Detective Hieronymus Bosch. I ended up rather pleased with result, at least until the Mexican vacation. While there are moments that feel somewhat formulaic, Connelly puts enough flavor into it that I enjoyed the result.

Harry is spending Christmas alone and on-call, peaceably listening to the scanner as he makes his dinner. He hears a call go out for a homicide detective in his district and is surprised when his pager doesn’t go off. It turns out to be the body of a missing vice cop, Cal Moore. Harry had recently met with Cal looking for more information on a dead body carrying concealed bags of the newest street drug, Black Ice. Cal mentioned something about an internal investigation launched against him, had recently separated from his wife and had been by all accounts, working on a serious case of liver cirrhosis. Harry invites himself to the death scene, smooth talks his way in and promptly discovers enough to build suspicion that this is a murder, not a suicide. In about two minutes, Harry is warned off the case by both Internal Affairs and his boss, so of course, he’s even more suspicious. To keep Harry busy, his boss hands him all the open cases for a co-worker who’s decided to go off on disability due to booze. Instead of distracting him, they seem to lead him back to Cal.

Alright, so that’s enough of a summary to help me remember which one it is, because with a current twenty-one books in the Bosch series, it’s going to be easy for both me and Connelly to get them a little confused. Despite a number of standard noir elements (see Kemper’s hilarious review for The Black Echo), it felt engaging. Until the case leads Harry down to the border (now that I think about it, it must be pre-wall), when Connelly tries to pad his story with red herrings and conspiracies. Writing has definitely improved, but Connelly keeps Harry flat enough that the reader can’t tell exactly what he is thinking. Is Harry suspicious of that official? Why does he seemingly trust that one, or is he keeping him close as a potential suspect? It means the mystery isn’t allowed to grow naturally; instead, it’s like being in the fog and having it suddenly lift. It’s the difference between a dim room and sleight-of-hand.

But the good news is that I feel quite mentally stocked up on police detective type mysteries (except that most entertaining Peter Grant. I’ll make space for him any day). Time to make room for some non-fiction and sci-fi/fantasy.

 

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The Killing Floor Blues by Craig Schaefer

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy with a kick
 ★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

Hot damn, that was fun!

I don’t mean ‘fun’ in the hanging with the bestie sense, eating dinner while we dish over the latest at work. No, I mean ‘fun’ in the Hollywood blockbuster, Six Flags roller coaster kind of meaning. I started this on the exercise bike, and kept my nose in the book until I finished. The last book that did that to me was… well, it was Night Fall, only that was more ‘edge-of-my-seat, nail-biting’ kind of engaged. But neither of the recent Connelly ‘thrillers’ had me riveted, so there you go. Make no mistake, this is bloodier and more ‘hands-on’ in violence than prior Faust books. One of the many reasons I prefer books over visual media.

Did I just say I prefer books over visual media?

 

It begins as Faust regains consciousness on a prison bus with his last memories of a detention cell after arrest. It’s a great device; it allows a few minutes of orientation for the reader as Faust tries to reconcile his last memories from book four, A Plain Dealing Villain, to now. Aside from that, there is little backstory, presuming the reader knows Faust, people who are important to him and general events. I appreciate that in a multi-book series; it’s tiresome as a reader to have the author re-explain everybody for those who are starting at the current book (grumbling about catering to mass-market ensues). Although Faust is terribly out of his element in this book, away from both his friends and his city, so those jumping in should be able to catch up.

Characterization is one of the enjoyable aspects of this series. In the first scene, we meet the man with the Smile, “a man built of shadow and fog, a living negative scratched onto the film of the world,” a perfect, inscrutable and ominous antagonist. Faust does less soul-searching here about morality, appropriately accepting who he is and is becoming. There’s a wide variety of bit characters in the jail setting. Perhaps some are stereotypical, but we gain more insight as Faust comes to know them better–just like real life. I’ve had trouble at other points with Caitlin’s general niceness, but she’s all passion here, including a passion for violence. It’s actually quite fun, in an ass-kicking kind of way.

Tone again shines, with Schaefer walking the delicate balance between the awfulness of Faust’s situation and trademark humor/cynicism. Faust’s voice remains so dry, it snaps and crackles like dry ice. At one point he explains events in book four by saying, “we did our best. We didn’t figure he had a warehouse filled with living mummies in crates. In retrospect, probably should have seen that coming.”  As he walks in the prison yard, he notes, “The set-up wasn’t too shabby…I could imagine I was on a college campus, if it weren’t for the fences, the gun towers, and the razor wire.”

Just like college.

As a female reader, I have to appreciate a couple of choice incidents. One, is that Faust has no trouble owning up to being ‘a damsel in distress’ to his quite powerful girlfriend, Caitlin. Two, there’s some leftover emotional business from book four with his friend, Pixie. It was resolved completely appropriately, without Faust being a condescending jerk.

Plotting might be the most debated aspect of the book. Certainly much about the prison plot might have seemed Hollywood stereotypical, except–and this is a big one–it was interesting. Plot is balanced between the human threat of the prison and the magical threat of the mysterious Smile. I know Schaefer is creating an overarching plot for the series but in this book, the meta is left dangling. Everything else feels resolved reasonably well, however, so take that for what you will. No cliff-hangers–it’s like when the aforementioned bestie tells you a story that basically boils down to a jerk manager being a jerk. Why? Who really knows? Sometimes you just have to figure out how to play the hand, right?

In short, loads of fun, and I had to restrain myself from immediately going on to the next book. I did download it, however, for inspiration to get back to the gym.

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Night Fall by Nelson DeMille

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of thrillers, government conspiracies
 ★     ★    ★    ★  

Generally, I’m not a fan of political thrillers. You say to me, “Carol, here’s a political thriller I just know you will love…” and I will not be rushing to the library or my favorite dealer to get a copy. Frankly, I find most of them silly and poorly written. Government conspiracies? Puh-leaze.

     Not so believable.

At any rate, this one popped up in discussion and due to enthusiasm from Sharon and recommendations from Alfred (and others, I think–I lost the thread), Sharon and I decided to give it the buddy read treatment.

 

 

Probably not, because I’m completely one of those people that talks while reading. Or updates. Or tends to drop spoilers. Or really, really wants to share quotes. Warning: I generally don’t spoil the ultimate solution, but everything else is fodder for my failing memory.

 

 

 

At any rate, John Corey is a rather typical, maverick cop, an ex- NYPD detective who now works with the FBI on part of a dedicated terrorist task force with his wife, a FBI agent herself. Like all great detectives, she has a case that haunts her with its lack of resolution. She persuades John to go with her to the memorial for TWA Flight 800, a Paris-bound airline that broke apart due to ‘mechanical failure,’ killing everyone on board. At the memorial, a CIA agent that John has a highly antagonistic relationship with warns John to let the case be.

Like waving a red flag.

 

John finds himself playing devil’s advocate as Kate gradually takes him through the details of the case, but when they get to an unshakable eye-witness who swears he saw what seemed to be a missile, even John feels niggling doubts. He knows he has to work fast to make progress before he is shut down by his superiors. DeMille is clever with pacing in this book. It begins with a lurid sex scene hinting at potential video tape, and then moves into detailed background building of the investigation of a crashed plane. It could have easily been boring, but I was quickly engrossed in the details, and I enjoyed the complex motivation of justice, stubbornness and independence that keeps John on the case.

“But it wasn’t about Kate or me, or anyone else, in or out of the government. It was about them. 230 of them. And their families and loved ones, the people who had placed roses on the seats of the aircraft, and who had lit the candles and waded into the ocean, and thrown the flowers into the sea. And the people who haven’t been at the service, who sat at home tonight and cried.”

John uses old contacts in the NYPD to do some investigating, and doggedly tracks the pieces leading to the potential videotape. There was a very police procedural aspect to it; it felt real, somewhat slowly methodical, and somewhat maddening as John runs into leads seemingly dead-ended by… someone. Meanwhile, superiors at the Task Force are bringing pressure to bear and threatening both him and Kate. It morphs into a thriller, leading me to turn pages faster and faster by the end.

I enjoyed the characterization. I found John to be rather typical of the maverick detective school; the one who is willing to flaunt authority, but because of his amazing skill remains useful and not completely ostracized. He is, of course, very attractive to the ladies, but avoids further entanglements due to his commitment to Kate. Kate was an interesting foil whose lingering compassion for the loved ones sets off an investigation she is ambivalent about. Although never really fleshed out well, we get a sense that John both loves and respects her, despite occasionally antagonistic behaviors. In fact, they felt like a real couple. I immediately wanted to read more books with him and thought of starting with the first, Plum Island, but basically heard he was exponentially more of a chauvinist (or the writing was) in that one, so it’s a pass until I need a rant-read.

Plotting was solid, with a couple of quirks that will linger.

MILD SPOILER: at one point, Kate and John are sent on separate missions overseas for the Task Force. It seemed an odd authorial transition, but was most likely an attempt to bring in more question of international terrorist cell involvement. The section was generally underwritten, and didn’t seem to add much to the story, although John did lose the beer weight he was carrying.

VERY MILD SPOILER: I ended up reading faster and faster, but it was the end that was pretty much a solid punch in the face.

I looked a lot like Crowley at the end, without the cuts

Let’s just say that thanks to Tana French, I know how to take a punch. It was appropriate, but I can appreciate it pissed some readers off.

Overall, a super-engrossing read. Perfect for a sick day with a head cold, where I was completely taken out of my own physical tissue-wasting experience and not thrown back into reality by hack writing. I’ll check out more DeMille.

Thanks, Sharon!!

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Jolie Blon’s Bounce by James Lee Burke

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans
 ★     ★    ★      1/2

 

Good stuff, no doubt. Containing the wonderfully evocative writing I’ve come to expect from Burke, it built a world of mud and heat I could just about sink my toes into. Yet despite all the elements that make it a prototypical Robicheaux novel–as noted by Nanosynergy in their pointed review–it lacked a certain spice to really pull it together into exceptional.

The story begins with a young girl brutally raped and murdered, and what seems to be an obvious suspect, a young black musician who had been dating the girl and whose prints were found on a can of beer nearby. Dave Robicheaux has doubts after the kid tries to suicide and a pillar of the community decides to represent him. Before long, a prostitute is found savagely beaten to death, and it starts to look like a serial killer. The woman, Linda, is connected to a crime family, and now her father is on the warpath. However, it isn’t long before both cases are sidetracked as Dave follows the age-old private eye premise of harassing various people in hopes of seeing what shakes out. Mostly what shakes out are a lot of threats, but occasionally some beatings as well.

Perhaps because I’ve been reading more police-type procedurals (as long as Ben Aaronovitch counts), but it surprised me that there wasn’t more straight-up detecting, particularly as Robicheaux has official status. Robicheaux also feels aggressive when he meets various people connected with the case(s), which surprises me a bit from the charming Cajun I thought he was. Then again, I suppose this is book 8, so some things must have happened between book three and this one. Still, I found the general repetitiveness of the (lack of) plotting a little tiresome. Not enough to skip, but enough to put it down and wander away.

Characters are interesting, particularly the renegade Clete, inarguably Dave’s best friend and general wild card. Although Dave’s wife and daughter make brief appearances, they seem to be more of an afterthought in this book. Dave’s pseudo-addiction is a little tiresome, both from a plotting standpoint and from a psychological perspective. I’m definitely ambivalent about the reason for the addiction in this book, and if anyone wants to discuss, please let me know!

Narrative is mostly from Dave’s point of view, but there are a few others included. It’s a little strange when stories of the past–both immediate and distant–are told as Burke moves the scene back in time and tells it from an omniscient point of view, including that of women being abused. It’s very evocative, but leaves the mystery to head into literary fiction-land.

Overall, not a bad read, just one that had me wishing for a bit more of actual detecting and less from the bar-brawler.

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Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz

Read October 2016 to February 2017
Recommended for dog lovers and scent enthusiasts
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Me, non-fiction and the Kindle–we’re a match made in heaven. For naps. So the fact that it took me so long to finish the book actually doesn’t reflect on how interesting it was, only the fact that my eyelids are quite heavy, and my bed quite comfortable.

Engagingly written, it still feels like a work that could benefit from a non-professional pass-through. At times, Horowitz seems more in love with her prose and concepts rather than actual, you know, facts. Rather that just say how a molecule fits like lock and keys a memory, she says “It is the brain that knows (or doesn’t), and that swoons with the rush of a memory of hot chocolate after a long winter’s day playing outside, or balks at a urine smell in the subway, source unseen.” While I’m often one to appreciate such vivid description in my fictional prose, I prefer my non-fiction to be more exact. Giving into this kind of artistic temptation often results in losing the information or sense of a sentence. Unfortunately, that is not an infrequent occurrence

More significantly to potential readers, there is a great deal of material here that has nothing at all to do with canines and everything to do with smells and humans in general and Dr. Horowitz in particular. The first few chapters are about the physiology and the psychology of smells. She then gets down to the experience, enrolling in a scent study and talking to researchers. She joins a group lead by a professional ‘multisensory artist’ leading a group in New York City trying to teach themselves the smell of the cityscape (clearly, this was not during any garbage collector strikes). This is used as a springboard to talk about smells in relation to our environments. According to my e-reader, ‘Chapter 7: Nose to Grindstone’ is at 40% (including references) is where it begins a more in depth discussion of dogs and smell, specifically at a training facility for working dogs.

It’s followed by a chapter on dogs’ scenting in medicine, examining some intriguing and interesting studies on cancer and diabetic crisis detection. Sadly, she then segues into history of medical smelling, going back to the Greeks and their foul ‘humors,’ and following it up with a visit to a person specializing in the “Five Element strain of Chinese medicine’ which uses smelling the patient as part of the diagnostic process. This represents the pattern of much of a book; alas, dogs generally serve as a springboard for more discussion of humans. Ethnocentrism at its best.

The most interesting is the last chapter where she takes one of her dogs to scent class, helping these poor city dogs discover their ability to use their nose. It was both interesting, and a little sad, I think; I recognized most of the behaviors the ‘successful’ dogs were learning from my pit mix’s Charlie’s own scent explorations. Patricia McConnell talks about the importance of scent in stimulating the canine mind in The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs–I’ve since come to vary our walk pattern so that my dog can encounter new smells.

Overall, a very interesting book about humans and our relationship with the sense of smell, with some discussion about smell and dogs. Read for the information on people, not for the information on dogs.

***************************************

Here’s the sciency details of some of the stuff I found interesting:

It begins talking about the sense of smell, really the psychology of smell, one of the reportedly least favorite senses of most humans. “The invisibility of odors accounts for some of this reaction. We rarely search them out; we more often experience them happening to us, catching us unawares. “ That’s a fascinating point, although somewhat arguable. Because scent is so personal, it is actually possible for us to mitigate it, somewhat, compared to hearing. We can close our eyes to things we don’t want to see (literally), but I tell you, there are times when I’ve heard sounds that were almost a physical assault. At any rate, fascinating psychological premise. As opposed to hearing, vision and feeling, “when we smell something, we are really ingesting it, after a fashion: the molecule is being absorbed by the mucus layer of the nose.” She goes on to talk somewhat about how our concept of smells is connected with judgement, that “sights are information; smells are judged. Smelly never means anything but ‘stinking.'”

I enjoyed the section on how human nose works and its comparison with dogs. Deep inside the nose, “about the point where the outer nose flattens into the forehead… is a postage stamp-sized plot of epithelial tissue.” This is the olfactory epithelium where scent touches down and is sent to the brain. Dogs, on the other hand,have hundreds of millions more receptors and more kinds of receptors. Even more importantly, they have a recess in the back of their nasal passages where the air can recirculate, allowing them to parse more of each sniff. Also interestingly, olfactory neurons apparently replace themselves every thirty days or so. Perhaps this helps explain why smells are so good at triggering memory, while our eyesight dims and our hearing fades. It’s also suggested that it works so well because it is literally two synapses to get from the scented molecule to the cortex. “Olfaction is the quickest route into the amygdala, considered the emotional center of the brain. ‘The memories you get from olfaction are always emotional memories.'” Lest we think we aren’t normally smelling, data supports the thought that we are processing odors all the time and that we change our sniffing style to reflect processing on whether faint odors are good or bad.

Most interesting line: “While smells now appear to me more public–they are out there to be detected by a nose–I am evermore appreciative of the privacy of smells.”

 

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for the ARC.

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City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett.

city-of-miracles

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of Guy Gavriel Kay who wish he’d write an action fantasy
 ★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

Some authors always manage to surprise me. Bennett is one of them, with each book I’ve read a very different flavor from the other. Characterized by complex characters, his stories tend to have vivid world-building and plots that explore the relationship between mundane and divine. City of Miracles is the third book set in the Divine Cities, and although one could read and enjoy it perfectly well as a stand-alone, part of the richness in the story comes from the history of both the world-building and the individual characters.

City begins bloodily, shockingly, a definite departure from the ex-Prime Minister Shara’s study in City of Stairs, or Mulaghesh’s slovenly cottage in City of Blades. It begins with a back-alley killing and then a vicious attack. Sigurd, Shara’s bodyguard and comrade in City of Stairs, hears of Shara’s assassination while working a logging job in the middle of nowhere. He swears revenge, rapidly makes his way to the city where Shara disappeared, and sets to tracking those responsible.

Stop me if you heard this before.

It’s true; Bennett started with classic revenge fantasy, giving it, of course, his own lovely spin on the emotion and the world. Shara is “a woman so esteemed and so notorious and so influential that everyone seems to be waiting on history to get around to judging her so they can figure out how to feel about her tenure as prime minister. A person made of the stuff of legends.” The story is very much colored by Shara and her legacy, a point that probably will have the most impact for those who have read the series.

Even more than her political legacy, she was the only person remaining that connected Sigrud to humanity. “He looks down at his hands. Scarred, worn, ugly things-the left, especially, its palm brutally mutilated using a Divine torture method long, long ago. I was only ever meant for one thing, he thinks. He slowly makes fists. The knuckles pop and creak unpleasantly. Meant to practice one art. How just it feels that now I shall do so. It remains brutal while Sigrud seeks his revenge, and only folds into more gentle emotion as he discovers remaining connection to Shara and discovers the project she was working on.

I’m often hooked by the dual plot technique, the immediate mystery with a larger background and unanswered questions. The assassin is soon unmasked, but that only leads to questions about what Shara was working on and who the mastermind is. Is Shara still alive? Like Sigrud, the reader can’t quite believe that she is dead. This is the world of miracles, after all, although the age of the Divine seems to be mostly over. When Sigrud decides to protect Shara’s adopted daughter, it leads to more questions. It felt unusually plot/event driven to me, more so because I associate Bennett’s writing with detailed character memories, seemingly non-conflict focused events and general world-building. City of Miracles is very exciting and very hard to put down.

A lovely bit of writing that describes the antagonist:


The first night that humanity experienced. Before light, before civilization, before your kind named the stars. That’s what he is, that’s how he works. He is darkness, he is shadows, he is the primeval manifestation of what’s outside your windows, what’s beyond the fence gate, what lives under the light of the cold, distant moon…”

Narrative is largely third-person, focusing on Sigrud, but there are a few character viewpoints shared throughout the story, giving insight into the conflict and the character of the antagonist. Although this technique often annoys me because of its lazy application to escalate tension, in this case Bennett uses it to bring both emotional depth and tragedy to the antagonist. It’s one of the fascinating things about Bennett’s writing that seems to flavor all his works, that exploration of damage, choice and evil. The ending, while non-unexpected, is sob-worthy. Good stuff.

“Some things even a miracle can’t suppress, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if we’re little more than walking patchworks of traumas, all stitched together.” They sit in silence for a moment, watching the waves churn and roil under the overcast skies.

 

 

*Quotes taken from an ARC and may change in the published copy.

 

And for my friend, Cillian:

 

Posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments