Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman

Read April 2021
Recommended for fans of cozy-type mystery
★  ★  ★

After a slow start, the Rabbi came through. A red herring or two, a couple of likable characters, and a not-incompetent police chief made for some interesting stops along the way.

It begins with a group of Jewish men, waiting for the tenth so that they can start morning prayers.

“The rabbi… strolled up and down the center aisle, not impatiently, but like a man who has arrived early at the railroad station. Snatches of conversation reached him: talk about business, about family and children, about vacation plans, about the chances of the Red Sox. It was hardly the proper conversation for men waiting to pray, he thought, and then immediately rebuked himself. Was it not also a sin to be too devout? Was not man expected to enjoy the good things of this life? the pleasure of family? of work–and of resting from work? He was still very young, not quite thirty, and introspective, so that he could not help raising questions, and then questioning the questions.”

Interestingly, despite being the titular character, we don’t spend as much time as I expected with the rabbi. Instead, the third person limited narration is shared. We spend a few scenes with Mr. Wasserman, “the elderly president of the congregation,” as he tends to the question of whether or not they will renew the rabbi’s contract for another year. There’s also a couple of chapters from the very-much-alive Elspeth Bleech, who unfortunately will not be alive much longer, as well as a couple centering on the temperamental Al Becker, car dealership owner, and Stanley Doble, chief maintenance man for the temple.

Even more interesting is that it takes so long to get to the actual murder (spoiler: chapter something, for those with bad memories). Definitely a different pace than what I’m accustomed to. Between the viewpoints that act almost like character studies and the pacing, it felt a little be more like an exploration of life in a small town.

What really sets it apart is the focus on Jewish culture, in the ethnic, cultural and religious senses. Though the rabbi is young, he finds he’s often in the role of instructing much older members of his congregation. In fact, early on in the story, there’s a dispute among two members and Wasserman encourages them to bring it to the rabbi. The rabbi suggests a Din Torah, which is a hearing, or judgement, on the case, using the Talmud as a reference for the principles of damage and responsibility. It becomes an interesting little example of the dynamics of how the rabbi works and the dynamics of the members of the synagogue.

Unsurprisingly, issues of ethnical and religious perception by the community at large continue to be raised throughout the story. For a 1965 book, it remains rather sedate, but shows the degree to which communities are often intolerant of the ‘Other,’ particularly when it reminds them of their own failures.

There’s a few easy plot points–I won’t list, for risk of spoilers, but I thought them tolerable. I was surprised at the murderer, so good on Kemelman for that.

I remember seeing these books when I was a kid, in the paperback carousel at the library. Since the Rabbi series has been around since1964, I can’t say for certain if I ever read any of the books. But with an e-deal on a four-box set (I don’t even know what that means), I had a feeling it would be worth it. I’m glad that I have three more in store.

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The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell

The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell

Read April 2021
Recommended for fans of McDonnell
★  ★   1/2

 

While I was a fan of McDonnell’s first book, A Man With One of Those Faces, the follow-up did not work as well. My First Big Clue was an extremely gruesome crime scene, so bad that it had poor Detective Wilson upchucking. Clue Number Two with the chapter two, a rapid “catch the reader up to speed” coupled with adolescent-type dog-poop humor. Making it worse was actual storytelling, which consisted of both narrator and time shifts. I hate to be such a downer, particularly when so many of my friends enjoyed it, but I was never able to overcome the choppiness in narration or tone to really enjoy the story.

I don’t often do gross-jokes at the best of times, but trying to shift gears from someone who has their eyelids cut off to laughing at flinging poop just doesn’t work for me. Once we’re able to leave the sadistic killer behind and focus on Paul’s investigation, it improves somewhat, but periodic peeking into the police investigation has us continually jumping back into that atmosphere. I welcomed Paul’s dialogue with his friends to bring back the sense of fun and cluelessness. Memories of Bunny were particularly amusing: 

“What did I always tell you, back in your hurling days?”

“If the ref doesn’t see it, it didn’t happen?”

“No!”

“Whack it and hope for the best?”

“No!”

 

But then McDonnell had to try and get extra humorous and bring some more feces into it:  “The woman behind the counter pulled a face like Paul had just shat in her hand and asked her to clap.” I ended up looking up McDonnell’s history, and when I saw he had extensive work as a stand-up comic, it all started to make an unfortunate sort of sense.

A particularly problematic scene is when Bunny uses a particularly vulnerable position (literally) to convince a local politician to listen to his counter-proposal. This scene was very uncomfortable, and not in a good way, as it’s so clearly rooted in fear of sexual assault. Don’t believe me? Try swapping out a character and you’ll see. It was basically another instance of lowest common denominator humor, and it doesn’t play well against a character we’ve known for about five minutes.

So tonal shifts and humor aside, does it work? Only if you like your story broken up into mini-bites. There are fifty-nine chapters, and each chapter is a different point of view. Paul, Brigit, Detective Wilson, a third person with Mavis and Bunny, Councillor Kennedy, Councillor Smyth, Detective Burns, Paddy–and this is only by Chapter 17. Add in that some of these are a few years earlier and some are in the ‘now,’ and I found it to be a challenge to sink into. Add an easily derailed police investigation, an attempt to tie it to Dublin politics and perhaps Irish counter-culture, and it feels like a hot mess.

I did like the shout-outs to nursing (“he’d moved over here a couple of years ago and the nurses considered him good, nurses being the only people who can really tell”) and almost every scene involving either Phil or Dr. Sinha, our chatty E.R. doctor from the first book. They provided that same sweet humor I loved in the first book, and are basically the reason I was able to keep going.

“Oh super,” said Paul, “well, I’ll be docking that from your pay. Seeing as you drove the getaway car for the bloke you were supposed to be following.” “Ye know,” said Phil. “I know you don’t mean it, but your tone can be very hurtful at times.”

I loved the daffy humor of the first, but this did not work at all, either on story or on humor. I’ll be taking a break before taking a peek at the third. My sincerest apologies to buddy readers Nan and William, who enjoyed it far more than I did. 

 

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Short Story Round Up, Part 3

‘They’re Made of Meat’

by Terry Bisson
Read January 2021
Recommended for fans of humor
 ★     ★    ★    ★    

 

It’s made of meat, and I still prefer not to eat it.

“Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?””

Five days or less, refrigerated?

A fast little piece, it’s bound to make you chuckle. It more or less confirms everything I’ve ever thought about alien life.

First in Omni, 2015, now on his blog

They’re Made of Meat

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‘’Metal Like Blood in the Dark’

by T. Kingfisher
Read February 2021
Recommended for A.I.s
 ★     ★     ★   1/2

An interesting look at a couple of newly created A.I.s and what they do with their freedom and parameters. It felt a little predictable at first, but I should have trusted Kingfisher, because it turned a corner and got much darker. Solid second half.

Metal Like Blood in the Dark

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‘Color, Heat, and the Wreck of the Argo’

by Catherynne M. Valente
Read March 2021
Recommended for Valente fans
 ★     ★    ★     ★   

 

It’s a little extravagant, but toned down for Valente, and her effusive description is used to good ends describing a filmmaker’s purchase of an ancient video camera.

“It only takes these weird old tapes,” someone said from outside Edie’s warm lightless innards. A friendly, well-hydrated, nicely-brought-up male voice, full of solicitude, exhausted, heartbroken, hanging in there, like the orange kitten in the old poster.”

The trouble is, the camera enables her to see things that are impossible for her to let go, and no one can convince her otherwise.

Color, Heat, and the Wreck of the Argo

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The Colonel

by Peter Watts
Read March 2021
Recommended for people who are reading Echopraxia
 ★     ★   ★  

 

The Colonel is a quick little piece about Colonel Moore, the absentee father of Siri, main character in Blindsight. He’s on a mission (but not from God) in the jungle of Ecuador, trying to prevent the insurgents from setting up a hive network. It’s a little bit of military fiction and a little bit of sci-fi AI fiction and thoughts about what might be a hive mind. What it mostly feels like is more snippets that came later or didn’t make it into Echopraxia.

The Colonel was part of our group read of Blindsight and Echopraxia, billed as ‘1.5 in the Firefall series.’ I’d go with Nataliya’s definition: it’s chapter 0 of Echopraxia. You want to read that? Read this first.

https://www.tor.com/2014/07/29/the-colonel-peter-watts/

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‘With A Golden Risha’

by P. Djèlí Clark
Read April, 2021
Recommended for fans of pirates
 ★     ★    ★     ★   

 

A delightful story, almost novella-length, about a somewhat indulgent musician and a ship of pirates.

“‘I owe you thanks,’ he said graciously. ‘I would have starved out here. You must have been sent by the One.’ He paused and then hastily added, ‘Or the Many.’ People could be touchy about religion. Best to cast a wide net.”

Despite being published in what seems like early career, it feels very polished. The story, while largely predictable, has an interesting undercurrent of economic awareness that isn’t often present in fairy-tale, djinn-like settings. Another fine example of Clark’s skill.

https://www.heroicfantasyquarterly.com/?p=1742

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‘To Be Read Upon Your Waking’

by Robert Jackson Bennett
Read April 2021
Recommended for fans of secret woods, old gods
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

 

Interesting, perhaps a little sad. A little predictable, dialogue a little awkward, but other than that, very good. I enjoyed almost all the words, and even though epistolary stories aren’t really my thing, Robert Jackson Bennett’s writing is. A failed Cambridge archeologist and adventure hunter writes his love from his new home, the falling-down Anperde Abbey in France.


November 4th, 1949

I am so excited. I can only imagine how you are reading this letter—- I assume you have slept late, as always, and the postman has dropped it by and you are scratching your head and squinting at it (because I do not think you ever get letters—- I cannot remember any). But before you see my name and react, my darling, just imagine this:

A forest stiller than any forest has ever been. Gray dawn light pours through the trees. They are slender, with smooth gray trunks. The sky is contemplating snow, loosing a few flakes just to see what it’d be like. And in the center of the trees, dark and crumbling but magnificent, are many columns, and part of an old, old arch.

Reminds me a bit of Mythago Wood, only a hundred times less sexist, mostly because it’s about two men. The dialogue seems a bit forward for 1949. I wonder why Bennett chose to root it so in space and time?

https://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/summer_2012/to_be_read_upon_your_waking_by_robert_jackson_bennett

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Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow

Read March 2021
Recommended for
★   1/2

I stalled.

Why?

Because it contains one trope I hate,¹ a character type I dislike,² and a plot choice I dislike³ with what is looking to be a fairly predictable story that’s lingering in the wrong spots. In short, promising beginning, but an execution that was empathetically Not For Me. Despite Harrow’s often lovely writing and wonderful imagery, I don’t know when I’ll return.

¹ Mental institutions

² Milquetoast

³ Twue Wov

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Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Read March 2021
Recommended for sincere, devoted Peter Watts fans
★   1/2

If it wasn’t for my co-readers of Blindsight encouraging ourselves onward, this would have been a solid DNF. While Blindsight explored what individuality and personality, Echopraxia mostly just explored Watts’ navel.

I started it with enthusiasm, looking for a continuation of the story of Siri and his father,  Colonel Moore. When it opened with a scene following the parasitologist Daniel Brük around his live-animal traps in the desert, I could not have been more pleased. The state of the Earth and of civilization in ten years or so post-launch of the Theseus gradually becomes clear. Unfortunately, there aren’t many details that carry over from Blindsight. Group minds have developed further, although that’s somewhat unclear, and a semi-religious order, nick-named the ‘Hive,’ has a nearby monastery where they have a controlled tornado. We also learn about the slow decay of the shared computer-reality Heaven, and the fast-moving environmental decay of the planet. There have also been plagues, with resultant zombie-like people remaining. It’s a bleak, but not implausible vision.

Narrative is largely limited to Brük, although we occasionally jump to another. What is truly unfortunate for the reader, and I’m echoing a number of other reviewers here, is that Brük is largely clueless about what is happening, and literally ends up going along for the ride. A sudden attack drives Brük toward the safety of the Hive monastery and that’s when the ‘plot’-I use the term very loosely–begins. The attack coincides with the Hives’ desire to know more about the Theseus’ fate, and the Colonel’s desire to know more about his son’s.

“Moore had told him as much as he could understand, Brük supposed. There would be more. Solutions to problems no baseline could even see, let alone solve. A careful clandestine exit stage left, while unwitting pursuers followed a bright burning decoy toward the land of the comets. All spread out across the curve of his own personal diving belt, numbers and diagrams”

Once in space, things get less coherent. Brük finds himself engaging in philosophical debates with one of the highly augmented contractors, Sengupta. Many who read this talk about Watt’s exploration of the philosophy of minds, and some of that comes into play here. I’ll be honest with you though; unlike Stephenson who likes to stick with an idea and explore with endless detail, Watts seems to be more of a disciple of the two-beer school of thought: drink two beers and write down all the ideas that you and your friends talk about while hanging at the bar. They’re cool ideas, but do they mesh? Form a cohesive whole, the way they did in Blindsight? I’d give a resounding ‘no,’ on that one.

“Truth had never been a priority. If believing a lie kept the genes proliferating, the system would believe that lie with all its heart.”

I realized I was in trouble when I realized how much I disliked the books’ main character, Brük. While I thought at first he might be on a journey of Personal Transformation, it became clear he’s Everyman, a viewpoint to express and argue ideas. Not only does he lack plot agency, he’s also not likable. He dislikes almost everyone he encounters in the story, and those he supposedly ‘likes,’ he often actively antagonizes. He refuses offers of helping hands, yet is wounded when hands are extended to him. He is blatantly, excessively contrarian, hypocritical and oh-so-very human, and is easily the least enjoyable character in the book.

Side characters were actually far more interesting. The intensity of Valerie the vampire had her stealing her scenes. Lianna, ambassador between Hive and ‘baselines,’ actually acts as more of an emotional center and explainer, translating for the reader. There’s very little humor, but some of the few moments come from Sengupta:

 “And then, more cheerfully: ‘but if the mission does go pear-shaped, wouldn’t you rather die in your sleep than be wide awake and screaming when you get sucked into space?'”

As always, Watts occasionally hits poetic beauty with his writing, and while it was often self-indulgent, I couldn’t help but admire it.

And the ending. I stuck with it, hoping for a pay-off at least in plot, and perhaps details on The Theseus and the lifeforms from Blindsight. What was most frustrating is that while it was interesting, so much feels unresolved. Because Brük is left out of the discussion and missions, the reader is left with third-hand cluelessness as to plot details. We have to infer events after Brük encounters the fallout.

So, it barely works on plotting. Does it work on a philosophical front? I’d say no. Again, this is the 2 beer school of philosophy, where you sit down and draw upon a decade or two of wide-ranging knowledge in conversation, tugging on various strings and seeing where your ping-pong of ideas takes you. Unlike Blindsight, nothing here feels particularly cohesive, except perhaps some of the discussions about group mind/processing. Mostly it’s scattershot and annoying. While I hold up Blindsight and Starfish as stellar excellent examples of sci-fi done right, I’ll never recommend Echopraxia.

Many, many thanks to Phil, for the bon mots and wise thoughts, Nataliya, for the sympathetic frustration, and for Stephen and David on the sidelines, sympathizing.

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Read March 2021
Recommended for sci-fi
 ★     ★     ★   1/2

It’s complicated.

I bought Ancillary Justice awhile ago, knowing I needed to read it. Everyone, it seemed was raving, from the Hugo/Locus/Nebula Awards to the Incomparable Podcast to the friends who are responsible for 4.11 average rating. And while I get parts of the love–it’s far more readable than I expected–it feels very much like a first book, with the accompanying challenges in world-building and plotting.

There’s a dual narrative, a prior timeline and a current timeline. Leckie uses a classic sci-fi approach and drops the reader into it with the past timeline which takes place on the last assimilated world of the Imperial Radch, and shepherds the reader a little more with the second timeline on a snowy, more isolated planet. The reader gradually understands that the narrator is a ship artificial intelligence who has multiple bodies in the past timeline and only one single humanoid body, ‘Breq,’ in the current. One of the tensions of the story then is not only understanding the past society of the Radch, but how the narrator changed circumstance so drastically.

“Except for those hours when communications had been cut off, I had never really lost the sense of being part of Justice of Toren. My kilometers of white-walled corridor, my captain, the decade commanders, each decade’s lieutenants, each one’s smallest gesture, each breath, was visible to me. I had never lost the knowledge of my ancillaries, twenty-bodied One Amaat, One Toren, One Etrepa, One Bo, and Two Esk, hands and feet for serving those officers, voices to speak to them.”

I felt a lot of echoes of other works. Definitely The Left Hand of Darkness in setting and theme (snow, intimacy, gender studies), but also Star Trek‘s The Borg and Seven theme (one of many), and more recently, Wells’ Murderbot. But Justice lacks the subtlety and world-building of LHD, the danger of the Borg and the humor of Murderbot. What Justice really has is one obvious big hook of gender non-conformity, and a clever plot point told in an engaging way.

“Which, since I didn’t exist as any sort of individual, was not distressing to me.”

One of the best points about the story is that despite the dual timelines and empire, Leckie is an engaging writer. By using a pastiche of the familiar, the reader is able to fill in a lot of the details. The story read much more quickly than I expected. As the story progressed, the characters gained emotional complexity, leading me to change my mind about continuing the series. Would I continue for information about the Radch Empire? No. Breq/One Esk? Yes.

I quite thankful to my group of fellow readers for many reasons, but one thing that became clear as we discussed is that many of the underpinnings of the story don’t hold well under stress. The most obvious point is the language device of an A.I having trouble telling human gender and defaulting to female when forced to linguistically choose. Ultimately, it seemed unlikely for my for an A.I. that’s been interacting with humans for over two thousand years. Regardless of whether you accept it, it became obvious just how arbitrary it was when Leckie has Breq continue to use the wrong pronoun after others would point out the correct one. That, my friends, is just an asshole maneuver. And if the Radch were truly a society where gender didn’t matter, wouldn’t they have a gender-free pronoun? 

“She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered.”

A significant plot problem surrounded the ending. At the risk of spoilers I won’t say more on my WordPress review, but Stephen astutely pointed out the logic error. There were also smaller story-telling problems. Specifically, there was one section where Leckie had been organically building up her plot points and world in the past, and then one of the Lieutenants comes in and literally summarizes everything that just happened. On the one hand, I guess it was nice to have the comprehension check, on the other hand, what the hell, comprehension check?

Ultimately, good reads pass the ‘interesting’ test, along with the ‘not-offensive’ rider, and Ancillary Justice certainly does that. Leckie did an interesting enough job with relationships that I want to continue with Ancillary Sword. However, should it stand among the must-read greats? I’m doubtful.

 

Major shout outs to my reading team who motivated, kept me oriented (haha), and provided thoughtful discussion. Thank you, jade, Jessica, Nataliya, Stephen (with guest appearances by David)! You all are the best and make reading so much more fun.

 

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Fugitive Telemetry

Read April 2021
Recommended for fans of sci-fi, humor and AI
 ★     ★     ★    ★    ★   

 

2021 is looking to be a pretty special year. No, I don’t mean the vaccine, although that’s pretty amazing. No, I mean Murderbot is back in a solid novella. While I’m contractually bound to not repeat the approximately 80 highlights I made while reading, I can assure you that it is filled with ‘Bot’s trademark sarcastic thoughts on humans, slow thought processes, and complicated facial expressions.

“Oh good, maybe the security level would go from barely adequate to mostly adequate. I didn’t make an expression because I knew Indah would be more annoyed by me not reacting than by me reacting.”

In Fugitive Telemetry, ‘Bot is on Preservation Station and has recently discovered a dead–cough, deceased–human. This is odd, because they appear murdered on a station with a threat assessment of 7% “(to make it drop lower than that we’d have to be on an uninhabited planet.)” ‘Bot jumps right into the investigation, spurred on by concern that GrayCris might be involved. In this case, it’s somewhat constrained from using full capabilities due to general unfriendliness of the human Station Security team and its honor system. It has some new humans to work with, although a few of our familiar friends make an appearance. In timeline terms, it seems likely to have taken place before Network Effect, mostly because that book has such big events happening.

I received notice of my ARC approval after a marathon day vaccinating people (10 stations, 673 people, thank you all very much for getting shots), and while fulfilled, was quite exhausted. I waged a brief debate with myself: do I read? Do I save it as a reward after I write my two other reviews and finish my two other less-interesting books? Or do I go for it?

I think you know what I did.

While I read, my day fell away, page by page, replaced by sarcastic observations and extremely dry wit. ‘Bot, how I’ve missed you. 

“I hadn’t had as much relevant experience in that time. But what I did have were thousands of hours of category mystery media, so I had a lot of theoretical knowledge that was possibly anywhere from 60 to 70 percent inaccurate shit.”

The only real question was how long until I re-read all the novellas? 

Endless thanks to Netgalley and Tor/Forge Books for an ebook ARC. All thoughts are mine (although if you like, we can have a philosophical debate on that one) and all quotes are subject to change.

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A Man With One of Those Faces by Caimh McDonnell

A Man With One of Those Faces

Read March 2021
Recommended for fans of comedies & mysteries
 ★     ★     ★    ★   1/2

 

I don’t think I’ve had this much fun since Murderbot’s All Systems Red. That’s right: you heard me. Dublin, Ireland and The Corporation Rim are literally light-years apart, but they both couple a wry sense of the absurd with a fast-moving mystery.

Paul Mulchrone was finishing up his weekly visit to the hospice, doing his granny-whispering routine, when Nurse Brigit wonders if he could see one more patient–a man dying of lung cancer who hasn’t had a single visitor in the three weeks he’s been there. Brigit’s still a little confused as to how everyone seems to think they know Paul.

“‘Oh no, Sherlock, you’re dead right. I was going to say exactly that. You can’t just have ‘one of those faces’—everybody’s got a face. Yours is nothing special. No offence.”
“You do realize that just saying ‘no offence’ does not magically make whatever you say inoffensive?'”

But Paul obliges, in exchange for a ride home (thus saving him 3.30). Unsurprisingly, Mr. Brown seems to recognize Paul (this time, it’s “Gerry’s son”), but surprisingly, Mr. Brown seems to have a grudge. From there, events steadily go farther off the rails until the end, when it’s almost, but not quite, bananas.

 “Paul said nothing, in a way that left nothing unsaid.”

It’s well told, using a third-person narrative that is primarily in Paul’s voice but occasionally switches to that of lead Detective Inspector Jimmy Stewart (he’s heard the jokes: “they’d killed a bit of time and given people something to do around the station… He’d not really minded.”), with a rare appearance by Brigit.

Side characters were really well done. Although Paul and Brigit are the main characters, there are a number of side ones that pop in and out of the plot. Dr. Sinha rapidly became my favorite guest appearance:

“Sinha’s cheery demeanour changed and Paul instantly felt guilty–like he just dropkicked an excited puppy.
‘Sorry,’ Dr. Sinha said. ‘I have a tendency to become overexcited about medical issues, leading to an inappropriate bedside manner.’
‘I wouldn’t say that.’
‘Well, somebody did,’ said Dr. Sinha. ‘I was quoting from the report I got at the end of my probationary period.'”

Much more would give it away. I’ll just say that like early Lisa Lutz and Janet Evanovitch, I was frequently chuckling as I read. Yet, McDonnell still manages to maintain tension, creating a story I had a hard time putting down. I’m excited to start the next.

“Aren’t corpses supposed to be freezing? When they were kids Barry Dodds had told him that when he knocked his granda’s body over at the wake, it was like being buried under a dozen frozen turkeys. Mind you, he had also told Paul that groping a woman’s breast felt like squeezing a roast chicken. Come to think of it, that kid had a weird obsession with poultry.”

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Voodoo Killings by Kristi Charish


Read March 2021
Recommended for UF who want something a little different
 ★     ★     ★     1/2

Always on the look-out for something new in urban fantasy, Charish did not disappoint with her light-hearted take on death magic. I had previously read two books in her Owl series, a fun take on a thief trope with a more mythological/archeological focus. Verdict? Diverting. It’s a quick, summer-drink kind of book that focuses on the personal.

In true middle-rating fashion, I find myself both uninspired and lazy with little to offer in the way of summary. Tadiana has a great review that lays out the parameters of the story.  In short, Kincaid Strange, roommate to the ghost of a Seattle grunge star, is saddled with a suspiciously alive zombie as the most likely maker–her former mentor–has disappeared. There’s a very second-to-tertiary plot line with a former boyfriend that puts it firmly outside the paranormal category, which is a plus in my book.

What I will offer instead is comparisons. The set up feels just a little like early Anita Blake. Remember when she raised zombies to help resolve inheritance disputes? (you know, back before group sex). That’s where society is now with zombies. There’s ghosts, ghouls, and poltergeists (oh my), but no weres or vampires yet (a feature for some, a detraction for others). The magic system actually reminded me a great deal of Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series. I’m not entirely sure that Charish has worked out all the finicky details with souls, religion, and such, and I’m okay with that. However, she has created a very interesting vision of an underground and undead Seattle that I found intriguing (although perhaps not on my TripAdvisor list).

What is more of a challenge is the writing style. It’s improved since Charish’s early writing, certainly. She occasionally spends too much time with adjectives, and the internal voice is that of a snarky twenty-seven year-old, but mostly it’s this strange kind of UF style that feels like inexperienced writers, or writers without editors (which sounds like a bizarre gang). It’s not bad; it’s just not great. But hey, it was better than a number of the books I tried (and even read) under quarantine brain. A random early sample (and yes, the line breaks reflect the book spacing):

“‘He glanced up from his mug, the sun catching the yellow flecks in his eye. ‘Everything comes with a price. You know that.’
And sometimes the steepest price isn’t monetary. What had Cameron had to pay?
As if reading my thoughts, Max added, ‘All you need know is we reached a mutually beneficial arrangement.’
Yeah, I’ll just bet. ‘And the fact that your services could gain you some publicity and validation was nothing to you?'”

So, read it; don’t. No skin here. You could certainly do both better and worse. But in the crowded UF field, there’s something to be said for an entertaining book without a vampire or were in sight. I’ll definitely check out the next.

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A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

A really fabulous idea, lots of potential but awkward execution. For a book that is ostensibly about Tavia, a young woman recently relocated from LA to Portland, and her bestie, Effie, there’s an awful lot here that has nothing to do with plot. Tavia is a siren, a non-mythical but closeted species (?) and Effie is her bestie who is wrestling with demons of her own. Narrative is first person and trades back and forth between the two as they go from their shared home with Tavia’s parents, their high school and Effie’s swim practice.

I picked this up thinking the premise was amazing. I mean, a little obvious, but brilliant. The power of voices, right? And while I didn’t know Effie was the swimmer, not Tavia, there’s still a water connection. As I read more about the book, it turns out that it is a thinly-veiled allegory for women’s voices within the BLM movement and the tensions there. I didn’t reach far enough for that to get through, although I did notice there is a rather explicit and prevalent amount of racial teaching in the first few chapters.

Still, none of that is a problem for me. What’s a problem is the writing. Oh, the writing. I don’t know if I can explain how disjointed this is. It is as if a young teen vomited her life onto a page and turned it in for grading. Here’s a bit from page 30 about Tavia in her chorus group at school:

“‘Whatcha watching?’…[two paragraphs of explanation of the non-history between the two girls. Literally—they just grew apart so they don’t have any intimate connection, for better or worse].
‘Hair vid,’ I say because no one in this room, or maybe the entire IB track, would know Camilla Fox’s name.
‘What’s a hair video?’ one of the Jennifers asks, and both of them join Altruism behind me.
‘It’s a video tutorial that teaches you how to do your hair,’ I answer while we all stare down at Camilla, who’s talking about how she got two perfectly symmetrical braided buns while wearing rainbow overall shorts over a flowy-sleeved crop top.
Ugh. She’s so dope.
‘That’s wild.’ It’s a Jennifer again. ‘I didn’t know people needed to be taught how to do their own hair.’
‘That’s because all of mainstream media has been a white-girl hair tutorial all of your life,’ Allie says. ‘It’s invisible to you.’
‘Wait, is that for real?’ A symphony of bangles chime before a finger jabs in from behind me and accidentally pauses the video. ‘She legitimately has millions of subscribers! She’s famous!’
‘Yeah.’ I unpause it. ‘She’s kind of a big deal.’
‘I’ve never even heard of her!’
This is apparently really mind-bending for the Jennifers, but I refuse. I’m not up for educating anyone on how many things exist that they don’t know about or support, even if we are basically friends. Camilla Fox time is me time.
I scroll down to ‘like’ the video and leave a supportive comment, but I immediately regret it.
The comments section that’s always been the happy exception to the never-read-the-comments rule is bursting at the seams. It’s always a hub for conversation and generally gassing each other up (while of course giving all praise to Camilla, too (but the huge bricks of text and deep threading of replies has nothing to do with her hairdo or her outfit or the product she briefly reviewed.
I can feel the three girls breathing behind me, and I wish I’d listened to my father. I scroll faster, hoping they won’t see the name, but it’s everywhere, no matter how far down I go.

Rhoda Taylor.
Rhoda Taylor.
Rhoda Taylor.
 
‘They’re doing minute-to-minute updates from the courthouse now,’ Allie says, almost gently. However loudly we were all speaking before, it’s like this new subject is sensitive and she knows it.”

 

This is not far in the book–page thirty–and yet I found myself stumbling. So much awkward. Why does wearing rainbow overalls affected the symmetry of the buns? Who believes girls anywhere don’t learn beauty tips by Youtube? Why has this teen decided “educating others about all the things they don’t know” is a thing (clearly, her voice is that of a much older person). Why does the author think she needs to describe how Youtube comments look? Why would Allie say a racially sensitive subject ‘like [it] was sensitive?’ This writing is so awkward, it gets in the way of reading.

At the same time that there is a ridiculous amount of detail on unnecessary scenes, the backstory is ignored or only worked into the current situation in a sentence or two, though everything that is happening is because of it. Somehow there’s a tradition of Black women being sirens through history, though this has only recently come out into the open (maybe?) and the case alluded to above is a new prosecution of a Black woman and siren. Tavia is trying to get in touch (in a mystical way) with her grandmother who is a siren and who she has never met. The disaster in L.A. was caused by Tavia letting out her siren voice, maybe because she had to, but her parents absolutely don’t approve and are always trying to control her.

I know, I know; these ideas sound great, don’t they? They do–young Black women and their voices, fantastical creatures, swimming, etc–but it utterly fails to deliver. You look around reviews and you will notice two things. One, that people who loved the book loved the representation. As the above example illustrates, Black voices are central to the plot, and issues of marginalization, hair, education, “say her name,” privilege, and so forth are regularly discussed. Some of it is too topical and will likely limit the book ‘s relevance/understanding to a particularly moment in time. Two, even people that loved the representation express confusion about the world-building.

It doesn’t help that it’s a first person narrative shared between two teens living in the same house and going to the same school. I’m not sure Morrow ever achieves much difference between the two, and a number of reviewers note the same.

Anyway, I can’t. I so wanted to like this, I kept it longer than I should have, risking the wrath of the librarian gods, hoping I would find some motivation to tackle it again. No go. I would literally rather watch a hair video.

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