Thursday, December 2, 2021

Book 312: Jackaby


"The chief inspector did not seem like the sort of man who could ever be overwhelmed by empathy. He would fit right in to the crime adventures in my magazines. He held the little pad like a shield, stoically barricading himself from the human tragedy. I wondered why Jackaby didn’t carry a little notebook. It struck me that a detective should have a little notebook." 

Dates read: April 26-20, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Sometimes I feel like I pigeonhole my own reading. I try to read across genres, but often gravitate towards the serious stuff ("literary" fiction and non-fiction) because I just assume that it's more likely to be something I'll enjoy. And while I do like a lot of the kind of things that tend to win writing prizes, that doesn't mean it's the only sort of thing for me. I am a creature of habit, especially in my reading habits, but breaking out of a slump often reaps rewards.

What if you took a Sherlock Holmes type, made him someone sensitive to magic and occult rather than the "real world", and then gave him a plucky female Watson? Well, you'd get something much like William Ritter's Jackaby. The titular fellow (that's his last name) is the aforementioned supernatural detective. The high-spirited lady sidekick is Abigail Rook, newly arrived in Victorian-era New England from Britain. She's fled the fancy upbringing she had back home, first trying to follow in her archeologist father's footsteps, ultimately winding up in America. She needs a place to stay, which means she needs money, which means she needs a job. But no one in the town of New Fiddleham seems willing to hire her...and that's when she sees an advertisement for a detective's assistant, which leads her to Jackaby.

On her very first day, she and her new employer find themselves a case to investigate: a murder. The police (with whom Jackaby has a rocky relationship) think it probably has a mundane explanation, but the detective thinks otherwise. Abigail's keen eye makes her a valuable asset as the murders continue and the team investigates, and a budding flirtation between her and young policeman Charlie Cane keeps them clued into the official inquiry as well. There are ghosts, werewolves, banshees and more as they race against time to try to stop the killer before the next victim falls.

This isn't anything that could be called literature by any stretch of the imagination. But it's not trying to be. It's trying to be an enjoyable, easy-reading fun supernatural mystery story, and it largely succeeds. The vibe between Jackaby and Rook will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever watched Doctor Who (and if you do watch and enjoy that show, this book will definitely be right up your alley), and is blessedly free of romantic tension. Abigail's story, while definitely a familiar one, is well-told, and she feels like more than just a stock character due to Ritter's characterization. Indeed, of everyone in the story, it's Jackaby himself who feels the flattest...his aloofness renders him challenging to understand or particularly like. I think it's supposed to come off as being mysterious and Holmesian, but for me it just made him boring.

Another area where this doesn't quite succeed is as an actual mystery. I am legit terrible at figuring out the who-dun-it question in virtually every mystery I've ever read, and I was calling the big twists by about halfway through the narrative. I think it was supposed to be a fun and exciting mystery more than a genuinely suspenseful and thrilling one, but it could have leaned a little more heavily towards the latter without giving too much ground on the former. On a writing-quality level, Ritter's prose (like much in this genre) is unspectacular, though he does have a pretty good ear for dialogue. So while going into this expecting greatness, or even very-good-ness, is likely to set you up for disappointment, if you just want a tasty little snack of a book, something light and engaging, this is for you. I did enjoy reading it, enough to download the second one in the series to read later, so as long as you know what you're getting going in and keep your expectations reasonable, I'd recommend this!

One year ago, I was reading: Can't Even

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sisters of Henry VIII

Three years ago, I was reading: Once Upon A River

Four years ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth

Five years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Six years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Memories

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I've been a little lax on these lately, sometimes the topic just doesn't quite work for me, and a few times I've just run out of time to finish the post. This week, we're talking about our bookish memories. I try really hard to come up with ten things usually, but for this one I couldn't get there so here are five!


The exact layout of the Little Professor bookstore in Brighton: This was the closest local bookstore when I was growing up. I spent hours in there, from childhood on, first in the kids/young adult areas (which were up a little staircase to the right after you came into the store), and then in the full fiction and nonfiction spaces. I bought so many books there, from Goosebumps mysteries to my reading list for AP English when I was a high school senior.

Being dropped off at the library while my mom ran errands: This isn't as bad as it sounds, I was probably 12 or 13 so not a tiny child, and she would usually take my sister with her and they'd both come back and spend time in the library as well after the shopping was done. I would use the computers for the internet, look at so many books in the nonfiction section (especially the astrology books), and pick out some YA to take home.

The excitement of the book order (and the day it would arrive): I can still feel the leap in my heart I felt when the book order forms got passed out. I would go through and circle everything that looked appealing and my mom would tell me that was too many but end up buying me a ton of books anyways. I always had the biggest haul from the book order!

Going to a midnight release party for the final Harry Potter book with my sister: We were big Harry Potter fans and the Borders in Brighton was having a midnight release party. We got there at like 9 or so, I think? It was fun for the first like hour and change and then really boring until the books started getting taken out. But there was some kind of mix-up and it was taking so long to get the books out that several people left and went to the Meijer just down the road and got a copy there.

The satisfaction of finding a Baby-Sitters Club or Animorphs book that I didn't already have at the bookstore: The days before online shopping were rough! You had to go to the store and just...see what they had in stock. And there wasn't a bookstore in my actual small town, so we didn't usually place special orders because my mom was disinclined to have to make a second run in a short period of time, so I had to walk in and hope that the next BSC or Animorphs book just happened to be there at the same time I was. The agony!


Monday, November 29, 2021

A Month In The Life: November 2021

 


And the holiday season has begun! We had a fairly busy month, actually, and then next month has some stuff as well, and then it's time to hunker down and wait for the baby to show!

In Books...

  • Dumplin': I'm a little older than the target audience for this young adult book, but I found it mostly pretty charming. I thought Willowdean was a well-rendered teenage girl, full of contradictions, but her relationship with Bo was too flat to really center the narrative the way it might have. 
  • The Lying Life of Adults: Giovanna, too, feels like a realistic teenage girl, particularly in her righteousness and spitefulness. But I couldn't actually get invested in her story, Ferrante never gave me a reason to care about her. The Neapolitan setting feels rich, but the language is clunky and the narrative has no drive. 
  • Clariel: I love the original Old Kingdom trilogy, so when Garth Nix announced that he was returning to the world to write additional novels I was really excited! This was released several years back now, so I'd heard the disappointed feedback and...I don't get it? Is it quite up to the standard of the first few books? No. But it's not far off, and I found Clariel herself to be an interesting character. I liked it!
  • Shadowshaper: I didn't realize that I'd read so many books focused on teenage girls this month until I put this list together! This, for me, was the weakest one. I loved the setting, but found Sierra a deeply under-written character and the magic system to be also inadequately built out. I wanted to like it more than I actually did, I mostly got bored with it.
  • Underground: I knew vaguely of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, but had never read about it in much depth. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's way of writing about it (by conducting interviews with various people who were on the trains about their experience) was intriguing and compelling in its own way, and the interviews he did with former members of the Aum cult who carried out the attack were an interesting way to look at how it operated.

 


In Life...

  • Weekend getaway to Las Vegas: My husband has access to Raiders tickets through his work, so we took advantage of that and did a quick trip to the other end of the state. The stadium is gorgeous, and even though neither of us are invested in the team, it was fun to watch live sports! This is probably our last trip away, just the two of us, for a while so I'm glad we did it!

One Thing:

I've been living for the past few months in Old Navy's maternity leggings. I can't speak to their durability since I won't be wearing them for an especially long period of time or anything, but they go over the bump, they're comfortable, and they have pockets, which are surprisingly impossible to find on, like, any other maternity leggings south of $100.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 



Thursday, November 25, 2021

Book 311: The Lowland



"The future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator. Each year began with an unmarked diary. A version of a clock, printed and bound. She never recorded her impressions in them. Instead she used them to write rough drafts of compositions, or work out sums. Even when she was a child, each page of a diary she had yet to turn, containing events yet to be experienced, filled her with anxiety instead of promise. Like walking up a staircase in darkness. What proof was there that another December would come?"

Dates read: April 20-26, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I tend to believe Tolstoy when it comes to that stuff about unhappy families. Except that I think that there are so few truly happy families that we can safely exclude them from the data set. Pretty much every family has its own special kind of unhappiness. All of our parents screwed us up in their own ways. And their parents screwed them up, and we'll screw our own children up. The only thing to be done is to do your best to keep the damage minimal.

In Jhumpa Lahari's The Lowland, brothers Subhash and Udayan are so close that they're often confused for twins despite being a few years apart. They have a more or less happy childhood, building radios and playing in the marshy lowlands near their family's Calcutta home. As they start to grow up, they start to grow apart. Udayan becomes political, part of the Naxalite movement being repressed by the authorities. Subhash, on the other hand, turns towards school, eventually leaving India to study marine biology in Rhode Island. Separated by thousands of miles, the brothers do still write letters to each other, and Subhash is surprised to find out in one of them that his brother has gotten married. In defiance of expectations for his parents to chose a bride, Udayan has married a college student, Gauri, for love. Not too long afterwards, though, Udayan is killed.

When Subhash returns home for his brother's funeral, he finds an untenable situation: Gauri is pregnant, and his parents are planning to take the child to raise and kick her out after the birth. There's only one way out that he can see: he'll marry her, bring her back to the United States, and they'll raise the child as a family. With nowhere else to go, Gauri agrees. But this doesn't mean that everything's suddenly okay. Gauri gives birth to a daughter, Bela, and Subhash devotes himself to being a father. Gauri, though, is still traumatized by the death of her husband and the second marriage she had no real choice but to go through with. As Bela grows up, the family's tensions stretch to the breaking point.
 
This book is epic in scope, tracking Subhash through nearly his entire life and other characters, like Gauri and Bela, through much of theirs. Lahiri does her usual beautiful character work here...Udayan doesn't get a lot of narrative time until a flashback near the end, which leaves him feeling slightly unrealized, but the rest are developed in a way that feels achingly real. Gauri makes a decision that leaves her probably the least sympathetic of them, but the way Lahiri builds up to it, and what happens after, make it understandable. I also appreciated Bela's arc, the way that it seemed like she would grow up to become one sort of person because of the environment she was raised in, and then other events leading her to become a very different sort of person instead. All three of the major players were fascinating and I wanted to spend more time with them.

This is definitely one for people who prefer character over plot. Little actually "happens" besides a family coming together and coming apart. There's a more dramatic bit at the end, the part that goes back to the events leading up to Udayan's death, but I almost wished it hadn't been there or it had been told in its proper place in the chronology. I tend to think that Lahiri's writing is elegant almost to the point of being restrained, and having this part at the end feels out-of-character. That emotional remove, though, is what kept me from enjoying this novel more. It's a sophisticated work, but it deals with big emotions, and it felt like Lahiri was more devoted to keeping that style over letting the book really breathe, letting those feelings really build and explode. As it was, I admired it but didn't really connect with it. Still, it's a very well-written novel and one that I would definitely recommend to others.

One year ago, I was reading: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Two years ago, I was reading: After The Party

Three years ago, I was reading: The Possibilities

Four years ago, I was reading: In The Woods

Five years ago, I was reading: The Girls

Six years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Book 310: The Fever

 

"As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference. She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this. Lying on the floor, her mouth open, tongue lolling, Lise hadn’t seemed like a girl at all."

Dates read: April 15-20, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Teenage girls can be sociopaths. With many of the same destructive urges as boys, but less access to sanctioned casual physical aggression, we end up with a capacity for true interpersonal viciousness. I know I did some totally ice cold mean girl stuff when I was in high school, and wound up on the receiving end of something similar as a college freshman. I cut off my best friend for years over a dust-up I can't even remember. I was awful to my own little sister. Those emotions, the bad ones just as much or more than the good, are so close the surface at that time of life. I look back on it now and feel a lot of regret, but I remember how right it all seemed at the time.

I might have had smoother skin and been much thinner, but I wouldn't go back to being a teenage girl and feeling all those feelings again for anything. It's such a confusing and heady place to be, and Megan Abbott's The Fever really digs into the murky territory that friendships at that age can turn into. Deenie Nash and Lise Daniels have been best friends since they were small, but things are starting to change. They've recently started hanging out with Gabby, who a parent would probably euphemistically describe as coming from "a troubled home". And Lise has grown from a cute little kid into a pretty teenager. This has not escaped notice by Deenie, or her older brother Eli (himself the subject of significant attention for his looks), or even her father Tom, a teacher at the high school. This is all putting strain on Deenie and Lise's friendship, and then one day during class, out of nowhere, Lise falls out of her chair and has a seizure.

This alone is troubling, but then Gabby has a seizure too. One girl having a mysterious medical episode in a small town is cause for concern. Two is cause for alarm, especially as the doctors can provide no answers. Deenie thinks it might have been caused by a lake, rumored to be unclean, that all the girls spent time in together shortly before the episodes began. She worries that she might be next. Parents want to protect their daughters, start looking for a culprit. Hysteria starts to build as yet another girl is stricken, much of it focusing on the HPV vaccinations that the school mandated for the girls. The entire Nash family find themselves drawn further and further into the mystery and when it's finally unraveled, it's a doozy.

I won't spoil anything, but the real villain of this book is teenage sexuality. Specifically, teenage girls having sex. That's what the real terror of the parents over the HPV vaccine is driven by, the idea that their daughters might be sexually active. But it's not just the parental fear. The book is steeped in sex in a very realistically teenage way: girls worrying about who's having it, who isn't, if the boy you like is sleeping with someone, if you think he might want to sleep with you, wanting to do it, not wanting to do it. For all I know, boys probably have the same kinds of thoughts, but having been a girl, I know that for all of the innocence that's attributed to female-shaped persons, they are often consumed with questions of sex. Like Deenie with Lise and Gabby, you measure yourself against your friends: who's the desirable one? Who's the innocent? Who's the slut?

Thematically, this is a potent work. Abbott beautifully captures the atmosphere of small town paranoia and the thrill and terror of being what Britney Spears would call not a girl, not yet a woman. But reading this book had its frustrations as well: the tension ratcheted up too high, too soon, leaving it nowhere to really go once things got really dramatic. The plot felt slightly underbaked and the pacing was kind of stop and start. And I thought having the dad, Tom, as a main character didn't really work. I appreciated the inclusion of Eli, the perspective on teenage boys and sex made the book as a whole feel more balanced, but Tom didn't add much for me. All together, I think this was an interesting, well-written novel and I'd recommend it if teenage psychological thriller is a genre you enjoy!

One year ago, I was reading: Plain Bad Heroines

Two years ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Three years ago, I was reading: Uncle Tungsten

Four years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Five years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Six years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Book 309: Lilah

 


"And now, when I close my eyes and dream of beauty, of the milk and honey I thought I saw when we arrived, I cannot help weeping. Why is it that the most magnificent flowers conceal the deadliest of poisons?"

Dates read: April 11-15, 2019

Rating: 4/10

I've been book blogging for quite a while now, 6 years in fact! As much as I enjoy it, one of the things I sometimes regret is that I made it part of my whole deal to blog about literally every single book I read. While there are definitely upsides to this (it forces me to really think about the books I read and what works for me and what doesn't!), it's probably not hard to understand what the downsides are. Sometimes a book is just neither good enough to rave about nor bad enough to rant about, and there's just really not that much to say about it.

When I was in high school, I read and loved The Red Tent. Revisiting it on audio recently (it holds up) made me curious about other biblical fiction. Marek Halter has actually written several books based on biblical women, including Lilah. I was a little disappointed to find out that she's apparently not actually a character in the Bible, but it's not actually important that she be mentioned in order for the world she lived in to be explored. She and her brother Ezra, both Jewish, have been raised by their well-to-do aunt and uncle in Babylon after the death of their parents when they were small. Lilah enjoys her life of privilege and has fallen very much in love with Antinoes, the Persian boy who was the siblings' best friend growing up. Ezra, though, has renounced contact with the secular and gentile world, and has gone to live in the Jewish section of the city to learn from the rabbis.

When Antinoes proposes to Lilah, despite her delight, she refuses to accept until she has the permission of her closest male relative: Ezra. She loves her brother despite their vast difference in chosen life paths, but she knows he won't assent to her marriage outside the faith. Ezra has come to believe that he's meant to lead a journey of the Bablyonian Jewish community back to Jerusalem, and so Lilah endeavors to use her connections to the royal family to make that happen, as his departure will leave her free to wed. But while she does secure permission for Ezra to leave, the scheme backfires on her and she's forced to come with him. The journey is long and arduous, and it changes Ezra. Her good-hearted brother becomes more and more fanatic, and eventually demands that the Jewish men leave behind their gentile wives and children. Lilah leaves the last bit of privilege she has left to go with the abandoned families.

This book was...okay, I guess? Lilah was an appealing enough character, though not deeply realized enough to really make much connection with. She was high-spirited in a way that felt appropriate for her time in history, and I appreciated the sex-positivity of her story arc, but it didn't seem like she got much past surface level. Everyone else in the book was much worse off...Ezra's development from pious to zealot is predictable and not very interesting, Antinoes is never more than a cardboard idealized love interest, and side characters were sketched very thinly. As a character-focused reader, this did not bode well for my enjoyment of the novel.

With the underdevelopment of both plot and people, I was puzzled why the book was so short! It's less than 300 pages long...bumping it up to about 350 would have given Halter more room to create well-rounded characters and give events more momentum. There's not even much rhetorical flair to spice things up, so the book kind of just trudges along until it's over. It's not bad, nothing here was actively offensive to my sensibilities as a reader, it was just mediocre. Allegedly, this is the weakest of his biblical narratives, so I'll give Halter another shot, but I just can't affirmatively recommend this book.  

One year ago, I was reading: The Yellow House

Two years ago, I was reading: The Great Mortality

Three years ago, I was reading: Everything Under

Four years ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Five years ago, I was reading: Invisible Man

Six years ago, I was reading: Kramer v Kramer

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Book 308: The Last Romantics


"Some people will choose, again and again, to destroy what it is they value most."

Dates read: April 7-11, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Like most of the oldest children I know, I tend to feel responsible for other people. I'm always wanting to know where my husband or coworkers or friends are heading off to, and I think that's a bit rooted in growing up knowing that I needed to know where my sister was. I also tend towards bossiness and overachieving in a way that's typical of oldest kids. I'm not sure that I 100% buy into birth order theories as a whole, every family is different, but I do think there are some broad generalizations that can be made and that will turn out to be accurate more often than not.

I had just one little sister to be responsible for. There are four Skinner siblings in Tara Conklin's The Last Romantics. Renee is the oldest, the responsible one. Caroline, the next oldest, is soft-hearted and traditional. Then Joe, the only boy, the gifted athlete, the apple of everyone's eye. And finally Fiona, the baby. The Skinners are a happy family until they're not: when their father dies in an accident, their mother Noni finds out that they're not as well off as she thought, and the loss of not only her husband but the life she thought she had achieved pitches her into a deep depression. They downsize, and Noni takes to her bed. Not for a week or two, or even a month on two, but for a couple years. The Skinner children are more or less left to raise themselves during what they come to call The Pause.

The seeds of what will become of them are planted during The Pause. Renee takes her responsibilities to take care of the others seriously, and becomes dedicated to achieving at a level that will keep anyone from guessing what's going on at home, setting her down a path towards becoming a doctor. Caroline falls in with a neighbor family, forming a bond with one of their boys that will deepen into romance and marriage. Joe's talent and good looks ensure that his outward needs are met, even if he struggles to process his trauma. And Fiona learns to observe, a skill that comes in handy as she becomes a writer and poet. Noni does recover, and the family seems more or less intact, but the damage that's been done can't be undone.

I was biased towards this one from the start: this kind of following-a-group-of-characters-over-time thing is something I absolutely love in a book. I tend to find that the books that stay with me the most are ones where character is first and foremost, and this book is all about character. The siblings and their relationships feel complicated and real. Though they all had moments of being their worst selves, their behaviors felt rooted in how their experiences, particularly during their childhoods, interacted with their innate personalities. I also appreciated that the book never felt the need to have there be a dramatic confrontation between the children and their mother...it generally leaned away from melodrama rather than leaning into it, and I think there are plenty of families that do just try their best to forget the bad moments and move on.

As much as I loved this book for the most part, there were some plot elements that kept me from considering it truly great. First was that The Pause could go on for multiple years without anyone really noticing. As much as Renee was able to serve in loco parentis to her younger siblings, there are things like doctor's visits and parent-teacher conferences and signing up for extracurriculars that seem like they could have been patched over for a while but not for as long as Conklin asked us to believe. And then there was the framing device, which featured a very elderly Fiona (in a world where global climate change has changed things for the worse) interacting with a young woman who might have a connection to the Skinners. This did strike me as a little too convenient and neat. On the whole, though, this is a lovely book about the bonds between siblings and would be perfect for a reader who loves well-realized characters. I very much enjoyed it and highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: George, Nicholas, and Wilhem

Two years ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Three years ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Four years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

Five years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Six years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology