One of Us is Lying

 

It could be me.

It could be debra.

Punchline:

It’s both of us.

https://www.goodreads.com/read_status…

Literary fiction almost sucks me in with these titles that sound like the beginning of great stories. Or good memes:

 

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Personally, while I like to believe that it’s about ethics, it’s also because I’ve always been a bit too lazy to lie. I mean, that’s a lot of mental effort to try and remember lies, who they were told to, what they were about, etc., etc. And as every Three’s Company episode ever demonstrated, lying just leads to more problems.

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(A rare moment of non-chaos. However, note the incongruous bathrobe)

 

Which leads to another kind of problem, of course, the one where I have to deal with the ramifications of telling the truth, ie., having people be irritated by me. Such as the moment when I was at a baby shower recently.
The couple said they’ve been calling the baby ‘Azul.’ I was on the other side of the room and misheard ‘Zul,’ which I thought was hilarious. They were all, ‘what do you mean?’ so I explained I thought they felt the same way I do about babies:

 

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Whoops. Should have lied, I guess.

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The Last Good Man by Linda Nagata. Not the Last Good Woman.

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of military thrillers
★    ★    ★   

Short version: a nail-biting action thriller. Read it if you want thriller, but not to experience anything new in female characterization or military sci-fi.

“If Daniel could offer her comfort, if there was something he could say that would ease the horror of what was done and smooth the scars that mark her life, True would refuse to hear it. For eight years she’s rejected all such words. She does not need comfort. She needs her scars. But she keeps these thoughts to herself.”

A lesson in feminism: First wave: women recognizing equal rights, working to legalize equality and recognizing issues around homosexuality. Second wave: the consciousness-raising wave, particularly applied to sexuality and reproductive rights. Third wave: feminism that is more inclusive, that recognizes issues of people of color, ability issues and issues of gender identity.

Unfortunately for me, The Last Good Man is planted firmly in the second wave with it’s ‘big idea’ being a middle-aged woman in a genre male role. I read thriller/military dramas here and there, but haven’t been in the genre mood for a bit. I picked this one up on the strength of Nagata’s discussion of the book on Scalzi’s The Big Idea (found here) and the 4.33 rating among friends. I’m not immune to the power of a good action-military movie, so I was intrigued by the idea of bringing an older woman into the setting.

Alas, though extremely readable, for me it did not push any conceptual boundaries. There’s really only one woman in the action part of the team, True Brighton (naming done with tongue-in-cheek? Not sure) and once the leading mission is completed, centers on her identity as a mother. I find myself curious what the story would have been like with a male lead obsessed with his dead son. In the course of the story, True’s identity as a mother is involved in making connections and justification for her actions. The two other important women are technical geniuses, the old ‘women-in-the-lab,’ ala NCIS and Criminal Minds. Gender identity, when discussed, is made clear that it falls along normative lines only (Nagata mentions one woman on the team as sleeping with a male team member in the past. No other male team members’ sexual relationships are mentioned). Only two relationships are discussed, True’s and the leader, Lincoln (!). We get a brief mention of Lincoln realizing he’s the one-woman type and trying to restore his relationship with his estranged wife. True’s is slightly less traditional, with her husband, Alex, is ex-military and currently a paramedic, following her around the country for her job, and him waiting at home for her return. That’s about as boundary-pushing as it gets.

There’s also some talk about whether the human element is going to be phased out of conflict and replaced with smart drones with rapidly programmable algorithms and the like. Again, not a revolutionary concept; every technical advance has had similar questions as we increase the physical distance between the people fighting.

Despite a nominal lead who is forty-nine and female, it failed to demonstrate any conceptual innovation for me. Nagata reports New York publishers didn’t know what to make of it. Her interpretation was that part of that was due to the atypical heroine. Perhaps. Maybe the other part of it is that it isn’t enough of any particular thing to strongly target genre. Likely too military traditional to appeal to sci-fi fans, such as those of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame series, I could understand the marketing challenge.

Still, it’s gripping and above average for the genre. Read it for the military-type thriller and not for the gender challenges.

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The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert Van Gulik

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of Hercule Poirot and an interest in China
★    ★    ★    ★   

Who knew 7th century China could provide such fertile source material for mysteries? And who knew that it would take a Dutch diplomat to share the style with the West? Not me. The descriptions don’t quite do it justice, and the explanation behind the stories usually add another layer of interest. In this one, Van Gulik regains some of the needed pacing and action of The Chinese Gold Murders, and had me intrigued from chapter one.

Judge Dee has a new post, a border city under periodic threat from the Uyghur tribes. His entourage feels it might be more than a bit rural and possibly a step down in prestige. Their opinion seems confirmed by the populace, who takes no notice of their new judge, leaving only an old, dissatisfied servant to welcome them to dusty and ill-used quarters. Within a day of arrival, the Judge has the story: the town is under the thumb of a thug, albeit a very rich one, who is prone to beating those who can’t come up a bit of coin or free labor. A distraught father beseeches him to find his missing daughter, a son requests Judge Dee to arrest his father’s would-be-murderer, and a disowned widow needs aid in recovering part of her husband’s estate for her son.

Apparently, traditional stories often had multiple cases going at once–much like real life–and I enjoyed the Judge’s logical and organized approach to tackling the issues he faces, as well as the shenanigans by his merry band of misfits. His loyal servants, technically ‘reformed,’ included a clever thief, Tao Gan, and two former highwaymen from The Chinese Gold Murders, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai.

Done in semi-traditional style and based on a legendary figure, Judge Dee, these stories feel somewhat like The Brothers Grimm starring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Like Grimm, the story can be a bit bloody, as traditional Chinese mysteries included punishment of the villain. I’ll also note that some of his stories might have a sexual fetish involved as part of a motivation; I’d have to say the Chinese must have been far more liberal about this than the English reading public.

Overall, this one regained my faith in the series after the lackluster The Chinese Maze Murders. Recommended to those in the mood for some 7th century mysteries.

 

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Vampire Blues by Stephany Simmons

Read  June 2017
Recommended for fans of very light PNR
★    ★    ★   

Adventures of the first book over, Eleanor Figg and Lian Cairn are now a couple. They’ve decided to remodel his Irish pub into a bar and grill. As the work is ongoing, they are keeping an eye on John, the Hunter, who is currently in ICU and days away from his first werewolf transformation. Meanwhile, their friend Carl the necromancer received a threatening letter from his former ‘owner’/employer, Wilson, who most definitely wants him back. Vampires are stalking him, leading Figg and Lian to intercede, hoping a meeting with the vampire Master Olivia will solve the problem. Meanwhile, werewolves are looking for Lian, wanting to talk to him about Hunter joining their pack. Not too long after, they meet Skip the vampire, who joined vampiredom in order to save himself and the research lab he runs.

When it comes to plot, there’s a lot going on here between vamps, wolves, cops and witches. Overall, it’s generally well balanced. Description and dialogue still feels a little PNR, with Figg and Lian catching some nookie when they can. I started to grit my teeth at an angsty-type ‘he doesn’t like me anymore’ moment but it was thankfully turned on its head. Most of the plot is Figg and Lian reacting to various problems, and a couple of times  they are helpfully saved by other ‘people,’ including a magic-wielding lawyer.

Characterization is acceptable. There’s some depth with some of the characters, but this time I felt like Figg was more the wise-cracking, impetuous, ‘isn’t-her-spunk-cute’ type of character than one with any real determination/independence.

Narration once again goes back and forth between Figg and Lian. It’s well done, and Simmons is able to achieve a different tone with each one. Dialogue was fun, particularly a few bantering lines with the team that made me laugh.

“Skip and Carl had been buddying it up for the last hour or so, bonded, I supposed, as the two supes in theroom who didn’t have a time of the month.”

But there’s light, and then there’s featherweight. At times it wafted into annoying breeze territory:

“Carl Tharpe, necromancer, former cross-dressing psychic and as of late, waiter, climbed out of the passenger side… ‘Do you think they are dating?’ Figg asked me.

Carl was probably in his mid-thirties and easily six-foot-five. My best guess was that Rene was in her sixties, a diminutive five-foot-two at most. ‘I hope not,’ I told Figg. ‘That would just be…’

‘Weird,’ we said at the same time.”

But those moments were infrequent. It’s a quick read, fun and generally not too annoying for someone who avoids PNR but isn’t adverse to a quick, low-commitment read. Recommended, for those who feel like a UF that has some romance, or PNR that’s light on the sexy times.

 

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Mercy Blade by Faith Hunter. Or, Mercy me.

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of kick-ass-lady urban fantasy. And vampires
★    ★    ★   

I’m always on the lookout for the next Kate Daniels, and the Jane Yellowrock series comes close.

Like Kate, she lost parents to violence, and like Kate, she has unique skill sets, both supernatural and physical. Both are young women supposedly comfortable being on their own, working as security consultants and swords-for-hire. Yet, so much of Jane’s energy is caught up in her negative feels that it is quite distressing.

It begins with Jane and Rick, her boyfriend of a month, packing up her things in her old apartment when they both get a call to return to New Orleans ASAP. Rick drops her off with a quick kiss and disappears, presumably on an undercover police assignment. Jane is tasked with warning a prior associate of Leo’s, the head vampire, that the associate is ‘persona non grata’ in his territory. It turns into a battle with werewolves with an appearance by a mysterious supernatural. With a grudge against Leo, the werewolves are pursuing it both legally and illegally. At the same time, the African shapeshifters are in town and wanting to come to an arrangement with the city’s vamps. Jane’s duties involve security for the event, but as usual, also involve dressing up in expensive tailored clothes provided by Leo. Rick goes missing, and Jane tortures herself thinking that it is because she didn’t marry Rick before having lots of sex.

This book will likely appeal to fans of UF traditional vamps that have complicated politics, with grudges spanning decades, blood servants and secret lairs. Though Jane has spent years as a legal ‘hunter,’ killing vampires who have violated vampire/human laws, she’s been working for Leo, New Orleans’ head vampire, for some time and unsurprisingly, finds herself more caught than she would like. I generally found myself reading for the puzzle of the situation, and tried to ignore Jane’s repetitive self-doubt regarding Rick, her general attractiveness (as rated against all other vamps and weres) and her strange passiveness when another hot man puts serious moves on her.

The book comes shockingly close to failing the Bechdel test. Jane’s proud to be as tough as one of the boys–a bodyguard even mentions this with complimentary intentions, how like a man she is, except the chest part–and fit in with the bodyguard and mercenary boys. Had it not been for her ‘niece’ calling (who warned her about a male), an insane lady-vamp, and her best friend’s sister rooming in (who is interested in the man Jane is ‘not interested’ in), we’d have no positive female-female conversation at all, only females in opposition (one of them known only as a ‘were-bitch,’ a diminutive that inelegantly conceals her identity). I never think that it’s a good sign, third book in, that we can’t come up with any more lady-types to be a regular part of the team.

 

While I really wanted to like the series, I ended up stopping around book five, as vamp politics ended up playing the main role in most of the books I read. It was particularly tiring as Jane supposedly hates ‘bloodsuckers’ and yet continues to work with them (Kate Daniels took one contract from the vamps in all her books). Add the three competing lust interests and it just felt like character stagnation with changing boyfriend dynamics.

Given all that, I do like Jane’s personal mythology surrounding her shapeshifting and her Native heritage. The general world-building is usually well-done, and the humid New Orleans setting comes alive. The plotting is intriguingly complex, although it frequently relies on motivations the reader knows nothing about. One standout feature is that when it comes to writing, Hunter’s is above average for the genre, with only occasional missteps. At the end, I remain firmly on the fence. I’ll be working my way through the next couple to try and discover what went wrong.

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The Get Fuzzy Eperience

Read  June 2017
Recommended for Bucky fans (not the badger)
★    ★    1/2

 

Sometimes you just need some easy laughter in life, and what better than comics to fit the bill? I’ve enjoyed the Get Fuzzy comic strip for a while, so I’ve been working my way through the back catalog. Get Fuzzy is about an advertising guy, Rob, and his two pets, an overconfident, opinionated cat, and a somewhat clueless but loving dog.

The jokes usually have to do with the cat being a jerk, the dog misinterpreting the situation and Rob trying to keep the peace.

 

Occasionally, there’s some funny or sentimental social commentary:

 

Or just funny pet humor:

 

Overall, cute, but there’s a lot of joke repetition, making it generally forgettable.

 

 

 

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Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, and Allen

Read  June 2017
Recommended for people in the mood for fun! Pow! Friends to the max!
★    ★    ★     1/2

I’m really not one for graphic novels; the form generally misses me. But I kept seeing Lumberjanes appear on my feed, and the idea behind it always piqued my interest. Five girls camping at a residential girl scout camp with a hassled cabin leader and a intriguingly supportive camp director sounded intriguingly familiar. Luckily, the library had a copy, and off I was to the adventures at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.

It was fun.  

My first surprise was the take on Girl Scouts, beginning with a ‘Message from the High Council’ and the ‘Lumberjanes Pledge.’ I had to laugh because although I couldn’t tell you the Girl Scout pledge, I know there’s something about ‘God and country’ there, and this edition has a mock cross-out. I was always uncomfortable with that bit too, ladies. Chapter One starts with the ‘Up All Night’ badge, another fun take on the Girl Scout badge collection. It’s the kind of subtle satire that elevates it a bit above a grade school level. Billed as ‘young teen/teen,’ I wouldn’t have any problem letting a younger person read it, just note they might miss some of the subtext.

and possibly, fun but unfortunately obscure references.

Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space

 

At any rate, the Hardcore Lady Types have a lot to deal with: late night wanderings lead to mysterious encounters, a day on the river leads to a monster encounter, caving becomes puzzle-solving, and a simple hike leads to a strange tower and a nearby camp for boys. The last section is cover art from different editions, done by different artists.  Each section/edition resolves one problem, while opening an opportunity for the next. Occasionally the messaging gets to be a little heavy, but since it’s a message I support, it wasn’t very bothersome.

 

The drawings are fun, blocky, elongated, lots of primary-type colors and not going for a lot of realism/depth. Occasionally they verge on the over-busy or are a little too stylized to help differentiate what is going on. Each chapter seems to have a general color scheme, blues, browns or greens. The story is intriguing, but the overarching story doesn’t come anywhere near to resolved. In fact, I’m not entirely sure about the world-building–are these monsters a surprise to the girls/staff? I don’t think it’s supposed to be imaginary.

 

 

Overall, it was super-cute. The girls are fast friends, each one perhaps appealing to a different demographic. When they get into deep trouble, they all team up–none of this ostracizing ‘Puffy runs away and is welcomed back to the group’ plot line. I confess I had my own fondness for Riley, the one who would leap into any situation in defense of her friends, even at her own risk. Honestly, it reminded me of the days watching Scooby-Doo and Wonder Twins. Craaaack! Pow! Onward!

Disclosure: I worked at a lumberjanes camp for two years, although I and my friends were on the staff side of things.

 

 

Love always to Spryte, Flipper, Pomme

 

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The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Read  June 2017
Recommended for people who want a fast read, Scalzi fans
★    ★    1/2
 

 

Written at the proverbial, easy-to-access, reach-all-literacy-levels eighth-grade level, The Dispatcher has an intriguing core idea. Unfortunately, the writing kept it only two steps above boring for me. Dialogue-heavy, it lacks descriptors and imagery that would have made it more immersive. On the plus side, the fundamental concept is decently integrated into the dialogue, always a challenging task in sci-fi/fantasy. Yet, since description is so scanty in other areas, it does make those moments stand out. Seriously, this was pretty close to boring for me; beyond the hook of ‘dispatching,’ it was very underwritten.

Apparently, it was first conceived of as an audio story, and read by Zacharay Quinto. I read the paper edition, so I missed the dynamicism a talented actor might have brought to the story. Still, when I contrast it with Aaronovitch’s novellas and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, I can’t help but think Scalzi provided too little material for an actor to work with.

Note: I read the Subterranean Press edition which contained a few line drawings. They didn’t do much for me, and one contains a pretty solidly triggering image of a suicide right before pulling the trigger. Given a good 20K people a year suicide by guns, I’d call that a questionable choice. Stick with zombies eating brains, will ya? https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/suic…

Here’s a sample from page 32, shortly after the main character meets a police officer.It makes me a little sad to see so much love for such a poorly fleshed out story, when I think of the wonderful novella writing by Zelazny, Aaronovitch, Hurley and others. I love Scalzi’s public commentary and willingness to take his Mallet of Correction to the troll-verse, so I’m rounding this up to three stars on GR.

 

Here’s a sample from page 32, shortly after the main character meets a police officer.

“What if it was a private gig?”

“You mean, if he was working for a client directly, not through the Agency or through an insurance company.”

“Yeah. I understand that happens from time to time.”

“Sure. I definitely wouldn’t know about those.”

“Why not?”

“They’re kind of a gray area, legally speaking.”

“Do you have any private clients?”

“What part of ‘it’s a gray area, legally speaking’ are you having trouble with?”

“You can tell me confidentially.”

I raised my cup to Langdon. “I appreciate the coffee, but I’m not that cheap. Or stupid.”

“Fair enough,” Langdon said. “Who would know if he had any private clients?”

“Katie might,” I said. “His wife. You’ve spoken to her?”

Langdon nodded. “Briefly. We asked her who she knew that might want to do harm to her husband. She wasn’t coming up with anyone.”

“You might ask her again. She might have thought you were asking about someone who had a grudge against him, not one of his private clients.”

“Would she tell us?”

“She might. Jimmy wouldn’t like it, but Jimmy’s missing.”

 

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The New Bohemians: Cool & Collected Homes by Justina Blakeney

Read  June 2017
Recommended for fans of bohemians
★    ★    1/2

 

 

Hey, maybe I’m a Bohemian!

 

My friend Tracy periodically reviews decorating books, and I always end up tempted by her selections. I’m style-impaired, so I was especially intrigued by her review of this one, “The New Bohemians.”

I thought, maybe I’m a bohemian. There was a time when I was known to wear long jangling earrings, flowing skirts and was prone to leaving up Christmas lights all year long (and not out of laziness).

‘Bohemian,’ according to Blakeney seems to mean people who–well, let me have her explain: “Today’s bohemians seek to erase the distinctions between work and play, and our living spaces reflect that lack of boundaries. The new bohemian home is a multifunctional playground for exploration and experimentation: It is an office, an art gallery, a showroom, a daycare, a photo and music studio, even a pop-up restaurant… Our new bohemian lifestyle is rooted in freedom: free-spirited, free-form, and free of rules.”

Oh, that’s so me. I’m all about using my space for all kinds of things. And about ‘no rules.’ Except the one about dirty dishes. Don’t effing leave them in the sink, hey? Oh, and the rule about putting your shit away when you are done with it. But besides those.

However, it turns out, I’m not a new bohemian, because the way it is interpreted in this book means loads of textiles, a variety of both functional and non-functional items in the open, and generally enough stuff to make me want to hire a cleaner at the thought of having to dust and wash these rooms. What it really seems to translate to is lots of patterns, ‘found’ art, and repurposed items applied without regard for matching.

 

Look at that! That bedroom just yells, ‘let’s play Twister instead of sleeping!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The clutter and drapery on this vanity had me thinking ‘Miss Havisham.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I was positive I wasn’t a bohemian. Instead of feeling like I wanted to sink in and kick up my feet, I had to turn the page before I got pattern headache.

 

 

And this one! All I can say is that if this belonged to a friend, we’d be meeting for coffee instead of having drinks on her sofa. My eyes.

So, I’m not a new bohemian. I might be just a touch of a ‘modern’ one, however, because they are more prone to clean lines. This one, for instance, came the closest to my style, although still a little too busy in the textile department and not comfortable enough in the furniture.

 

All that said, I’m sure if one enjoys this style, this will be a great book. The pictures are solid and there are a lot of them. Blakeney has little ‘DIY’ projects at the end of many chapters (although why we get a recipe for daikon radishes, I don’t know), such as how to make a mosaic hanging rack, a vinyl plant holder or a tie-dye-patterened box for those who want to bring the extra personal touch to their rooms. She also has what amounts to a ‘steal this look’ at the end, with tips on curtains, etc. A couple of the houses apparently used painters’ drop cloths and repurposed burlap-bags as curtains. Other suggestions included putting your detergent in a cool glass jar with a mug to pour it out, putting a light in a birdcage for a cool lamp, using decals to make a ‘cheap stained glass’ (pro tip: you can probably find a class and make something way cooler), turning a trashcan from Target upside down and making it an end table, how to make a driftwood hanging lamp, and shopping Craiglist for bargains.

Okay, so not the most helpful of books. But that’s what you get from a modern bohemian.

P.S. I do not think ‘cool’ means what Blakeney think it means.

 

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The Haunted Monastery by Robert Van Gulik

Read  June 2017
Recommended for fans of Judge Dee
★    ★    1/2

Fresh off the case of The Chinese Gold Murders, I was rather looking forward to another of Judge Dee’s adventures. Judge Dee and his retinue are returning from their travels when they are confronted with a terrible storm that will surely dump their carts off the mountainside if they try and shelter in place. The best spot to spend the night is the nearby Morning Cloud Monastery, already on the Judge’s mental list for an upcoming visit for the deaths of three young women. Unfortunately, it’s cold and rainy, and the Judge had caught a cold. There’s nothing quite like reading descriptions of someone’s crankiness, I must say; I found myself growing as grumpy as the Judge with his pounding headache.

“The judge tugged angrily at his beard. The ghostly voice had disturbed him more than he cared to admit. Then he took hold of himself. Probably some monks were talking about him in another room or passage near there. Often the echo played queer tricks in such old building. He stood listening for a while, but did not hear anything. The whispers had ceased.”

Though published in 1961, Van Gulik tried to balance a tale that would appeal to modern mystery tastes with that of more traditional Chinese mystery stories. Traditional stories often relied on supernatural elements, were frequently highly judgemental towards both Taoism and Buddhism and usually gave away the villain at the start. Though Van Gulik avoids going so far as to share the identity of the villain, he does enjoy creating the feel of pre-communist 7th century China.

As the Judge and his retinue arrive at the monastery, the Judge glimpses a man throttling a one-armed, naked woman, but before he really understand what he is seeing, the shutters crash close and he is unable to see more. As he tries to find the room where the possible crime is committed, the monastery is celebrating its two hundred and third birthday, and the monks are enjoying the work of a performing artist troupe and their bear. Also among the guests are an older established woman who is bringing a charge to the monastery to become a nun. In a move familiar to Shakespeare fans, one of the performers mocks the senior abbot, implying his personal gain from the untimely ‘ascension’ of his predecessor. It doesn’t become a comedy of errors, sadly, so much as a peevish man trying to find a solution to a missing woman, a strange vision and the death of the prior abbot.

This all sounds rather interesting, of course, but various puzzles are solved less by cleverness than blind luck and perseverance.While I did enjoy parts of the tour through China past, I think the gestalt didn’t balance out nearly as well as it did in The Gold Murders. It was hard for the writing to overcome the prejudices of the Judge, and of his frustration with the weather and the layout of the monastery. Luckily for the reader, Van Gulik provided both building and floor maps along with cast of characters. What was particularly interesting about the Judge in this one is that while he definitely had a religious intolerance, he was particularly tolerant with unwed relationships and lesbian relationships. Despite all that, I found myself falling asleep unfortunately often for a mystery, so take that for what you will.

The edition I read (combined with the Chinese Maze Murders) also had a number of plates drawn by Van Gulik “in the style of 16th century Chinese illustrated blockprints,” in Ming dynasty style, but since block printing is a rather simplistic style, it didn’t feel like they brought any depth to the story.

 

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