The Book Adept

Mystery twists

I can definitely be classified as a mystery reader, but most of the series I pursue are contemporary, with a preference for serious subjects and tending towards either character-driven or procedural themes. Every once in a while, however, I branch out to see what other mystery readers are discovering in such subgenres as Cozy, Historical, Noir, or Caper stories. I have occasionally taken a segue into legal mysteries, and I also enjoy a good thriller that may be related to mystery but not quite defined by that genre.

This week I tried out a couple of different subgenres, and I have to say that I am enjoying them enough to plan on continuing reading the series after this initial review is over.

The first book I read was A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn’s series about lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. It’s a historical, set in the Victorian era, and features an intrepid spinster who has never fit into a mold, and never intends to. Veronica travels the world in pursuit of scientific inquiry, makes her own living by selling rare specimens of butterflies, and occasionally has a discreet romantic dalliance.

As the story opens, she is wrapping up the affairs of the second of her two elderly adoptive aunts to pass on, and anticipates, now that she has surrendered their cottage and has no further ties to England, embarking on her most ambitious trip ever. Her plans are interrupted, however, when ruffians attempt to kidnap her right off the street in daylight, and she is saved by a sincere but somewhat enigmatic German baron, who tries to convince her that she is in danger and offers her a ride to London. She doesn’t really give credence to his warnings, but since that’s where she was headed anyway, she’s happy to take advantage of the free trip. Once there, he places her temporarily in the care of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with hidden depths, vowing to return and reveal all. Unfortunately, before he can impart to Veronica the specifics of the plot against her, the baron is murdered, and she and Mr. Stoker are left to their own devices to figure out why someone wants Veronica dead and gone.

I was hooked on both this protagonist and her story within about 15 pages. Veronica is a progressive female determined to conduct herself on her own terms, and uses her considerable intellect paired with feminine guile to make her own way. One reviewer on Goodreads styled her as “a cool Nancy Drew for the turn of the century,” and that’s not a bad characterization! The story itself is sufficiently endowed with plenty of action and enough exciting twists to hold a reader’s interest, but the heart of its success is the witty banter carried on between Veronica and her initially unwilling partner, Stoker. The development of both of these characters is what kept me reading and led me to check out book #2 in the series as soon as I was finished with the first.

The second series on which I embarked is the Sydney Rye mysteries, by Emily Kimelman, beginning with Unleashed, although as the first book opens, Sydney is known by her original name, Joy Humbolt.

Joy has had an active 24 hours: First, she dumped her boyfriend, Marcus, a possessive schmuck who was fixated on the idea she was cheating on him (she wasn’t); then she lost her cool at work and took down a pastel-clad woman with bad hair in spectacular fashion for not understanding the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, for which she was fired; and finally, she went to the pound in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and adopted Blue, the largest dog on the premises. Two days later, she was the new owner of a dog-walking business on the Upper East Side, purchased from a friend of a friend, and 24 hours after that, she found herself embroiled in a murder mystery after golden retriever Toby (one of her dog-walking charges) led her to a dead body in an alley. This discovery would prove to be the true game-changer of Joy’s week, and possibly of her life.

Although this protagonist’s story is completely different from that of Veronica Speedwell, it is her character, combined with the vivid depiction of her environs and the details of her life that immediately grabbed my attention. Joy is, like Veronica, a bit edgy, a bit feisty, and with a similar tendency to refuse to tolerate bullshit. The way the amateur sleuth story details Joy’s discovery that she was meant to be a detective and to right wrongs is engaging, and the characters who surround her to either promote or foil her task are equally personable.

Although I can be a creature of habit in my reading tastes, I’m really glad that I stepped away from my usual preferences to try out these two original and absorbing series.

Choosing single

I was interested to read Flying Solo, the new book by Linda Holmes (author of Evvie Drake Starts Over), because of the character-related premise—a woman who has no wish to either get married or have children. Being one of those women (but 25 years further along in life than this protagonist), I thought it would be interesting to see if the author had the character stick to her guns or cave at the first sign of romance. I actually end up falling between two of those women on the age spectrum—the protagonist, Laurie, on the verge of her 40th birthday, and her beloved great-aunt, Dot, who persisted until she was 90 (although it didn’t stop her from having a lot of interesting relationships!).

Laurie Sassalyn has been living in Seattle for about 15 years, most recently with her boyfriend, Chris. They planned to wed, but as the date got closer, Laurie realized that a. she didn’t want to get married, and b. she didn’t want to marry Chris! So two weeks before the ceremony she called it off, and then spent the following months packing up and sending back the many wedding gifts. Just when she has worked through this laborious task, her great-aunt Dot dies, and Laurie ends up being the designated family member to go back to her home town of Calcasset, Maine, to sort through the massive amount of stuff Dot accumulated in her long and experience-filled life. Dot was an enthusiastic world traveler and a collector of both people and memorabilia, and her house is packed full of tchotchkes and Polaroids; Laurie has dedicated herself to putting eyes on each and every object before deciding whether to keep, sell, or discard. (Having had to do this when both my parents passed, I could viscerally relate to this part of the story as well!)

While in Maine, Laurie reconnects with both friends and former beaus from her childhood there—notably, her friend June, now married and a mother of two, and her old boyfriend Nick, who she has seen only once (an uncomfortable encounter at a mutual friend’s wedding) since she broke up with him in high school. He was married last time she saw him, but now he’s divorced, living and working back in their mutual home town, and they fall into a natural camaraderie that Laurie is determined won’t turn into something more, because she is resolute about not staying in Maine or disrupting her lovely single lifestyle.

While going through Dot’s things, Laurie comes across an unusual (for her aunt) artifact: a carved wooden duck decoy, hidden at the bottom of a cedar chest under some quilts. Laurie takes a liking to it and wants to find out more about it, so she turns to the estate-sale guy she has hired to help her dispose of such of her aunt’s belongings that she doesn’t want to keep. He investigates a little and tells her the duck has no financial value, but she is suspicious of his subsequent interest in taking it off her hands. All of a sudden the quest for the provenance of the duck decoy turns into a caper that ends up involving Nick (a librarian who does stellar research), June, and a few new friends as well. In the midst of this, Laurie has to decide: How does she stick to her resolve to remain independent and alone (and in Seattle) while being enticed by the sweet and caring (and hot) boyfriend from her past?

A 1936 model greenwing teal drake by the Ward brothers—Stephen (1895-1976) and Lemuel T. Jr.
(1896-1984)—of Crisfield, Maryland

Some readers (and reviewers) have characterized this as a “second chance at romance” book, but I saw it as anything but that. At first I thought it was going to be one of those “she doth protest too much” books where the heroine ends up compromising everything she “thought” she wanted for a man but, refreshingly, it doesn’t turn out to be that book. The characters are witty, nice (all but one), and full of common sense, and the setting is likewise warm and homey without being clichéd. The plot device of tracking down the origins of the duck gives a fun twist to the more usual “went back to my hometown and had a revelation” style of book, providing a mystery for the characters to solve together. But we still get to see the resolution of Laurie’s feelings about relationship vs. independence, and it is both satisfying and skillfully written.

The author makes a comment in her acknowledgments about “navigating the complicated and very unnerving second book blues,” but I liked this book much better than her first, and would recommend it. It’s definitely not deathless prose, but as a (somewhat pithy) cozy “relationship” book it’s better than most—down to earth, comfortable, and with some unexpected outcomes.

Openings

Los Angeles Public Library finally let me have The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, a book about which I had massive anticipation after having devoured Alix Harrow’s second book, The Once and Future Witches (review here). And while that book was about spells hidden in plain sight and this book was about elusive doorways, in a real sense both books are about openings.

The 10K Doors beguiled me from almost the first page. The language was beautiful, evocative, persuasive. The story begins with a book, which is always a way to my heart. And the door theme carried me back to every beloved tale in which someone found an opening to somewhere else and was brave enough to step through it, from the classics (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia) to more recent works (Mirrorworld, Shades of Magic, Un Lun Dun), but it particularly put me in mind of Wayward Children, the stunningly original series by Seanan McGuire that portrays a group of children who have had the experience of going through a portal to the world of their dreams, only to later be ejected and left longing to return. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the ultimate portal novel.

Like the protagonists in McGuire’s series, January Scaller is a misfit in her own life. Her childhood has been simultaneously comfortable bordering on indulgent, and immensely restrictive; while her widowed dark-skinned father travels on business for his employer, January lives a sedate, smothering life sequestered in Mr. Locke’s mansion that is filled with the artifacts and treasures her father has brought back to him from all over the world. January spends most of her young life torn between gratitude for Mr. Locke’s guardianship and patronage, and resentful that she is kept like another of his precious objects, locked up in a house with no company save for that of a repressive nursemaid/chaperone. As a person of color, January is ogled and patronized by the lily-white British society within which the wealthy Mr. Locke moves (the story begins in 1901), and she has no friends save an Italian grocery delivery boy and the enormous and fanatically loyal dog with whom he gifts her.

As a solitary child, January naturally seeks out ways to amuse herself, and becomes immersed in certain texts and books not meant for her eyes, writings that reveal a possible escape from her overweening patron. But after her father dies and Locke discovers she may have abilities he and his friends value, January must call upon all her thus-far meager resources to save herself from their plans, and also prevent the doorways she has discovered from closing forever.

Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries. This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noontimes beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.

Although the book has a somewhat slow start, and the protagonist is initially almost frustratingly passive despite her inner nature (“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it”), the story within a story of Adelaide (Ade) and Yule Ian Scholar (Julian), who find one another when Yule crosses through a door from his home into a Kentucky wheat field, pulls you first into that world and then into the possible connections with January’s, and after that it’s total fascinated attention to the very last page.

This book is almost haunting in its sadness and yearning for the freedom of a wider world, and a longing for the ability to translate otherness into belonging. The loneliness of January, motherless and separated from a father who wants to keep her safe but believes that can’t happen if she is with him; the solitude of Ade, searching relentlessly for the door that will carry her back to Julian; the alienation of January’s friend Jane, exiled from her homeland because of a promise; all act upon the reader to provoke a desperate wish that these people will get what they want, find what they seek, and in that process make the universe a more fluid place.

Doors become more than just passageways to new experiences; they are also symbols of openness and change, qualities that January considers essential while Mr. Locke deems them threatening to existence. Stagnation is antithetical to those who wish for true freedom for everyone, while to the people in power it is an essential component in consolidating their dominance. January is one girl up against a wall of opposition, but she finds unexpected resources from her past, from her few allies, and finally from within. This story connected with my dogged belief, despite the mundanity of everyday life, that there is both magic and hope out there somewhere, if only the way can be found.
It bowled me over.

Relationship fiction

This is my alternative title for the pejorative term “women’s fiction.” I was angry from the moment I first heard that term (from Joyce Saricks in Genreflecting, no less!); it segregates both the readers and the writers and makes the books seem “less than,” as if they don’t deserve to be included in the tide of mainstream fiction. Has anyone ever segregated books into “men’s fiction”? Even when they are filled with macho testosterone—Jack Reacher, Vince Flynn, Jason Bourne—no one ever suggested that only men would enjoy them. So why this?

Saricks defines women’s fiction as “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” While acknowledging that this is a solid and definite trend, especially if you include the outliers of chick lit and erotica, I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. So I decided to insist on calling this “relationship fiction.” It still focuses on the most important aspect, which is the relationships between the characters, but it would include male writers who write about relationships, and would avoid the condescending terminology.

Having settled that, I read a prime example this past week in Our Italian Summer, by Jennifer Probst. The book features three generations: Grandmother Sophia, mother Francesca, and daughter Allegra, whose relationships could use some work.

Single mother Francesca is the work-obsessed owner of an advertising agency she is convinced will immediately fail without her constant attention. Except for constant exhortations to her daughter to be the best, and impatient dismissals of all of Allegra’s interests that don’t match with Francesca’s high expectations, she has handed over the day-to-day mothering of her daughter to her own mother, Sophia. She is, of course, perversely jealous of their close relationship, and finds herself feeling shut out even though she is the one who created the situation.

Sophia spent most of her life as a supportive wife and mother, and watched her daughter show disdain for Sophia’s life choices while following in the footsteps of her father, who was somewhat absent due to his own work ethic but who appeared to Francesca as a dazzling role model of everything she wanted to be. After his death (the implication is from over-work and stress), the only constant in their mother-daughter relationship seems to be a constant state of misunderstanding.

As for Allegra, as she prepares to enter her senior year in high school she is finding that she is no longer content with the society or conversation of her somewhat vapid girlfriends from her private school, and makes some new friends, who promptly get her arrested when illegal substances are found in the car in which they are riding around. This causes Francesca to start making plans for Allegra’s summer that don’t involve any of the fun Allegra was anticipating—a job, an internship, a camp. But Francesca’s own lifestyle intervenes first, as a breakdown in the midst of a presentation at work lets her know that she can no longer work at the same frantic pace.

Sophia, with a secret worry of her own, decides that the trip to Italy she and her husband always talked about but never took would be the perfect opportunity to get her daughter and granddaughter out of their respective comfort zones and make them confront their issues with one another. Francesca surprisingly agrees, more focused on the necessity to remove Allegra from the influence of her new friends than on her mother’s grand plans to visit the country of her heritage and use the trip to fix relationships—but Sophia doesn’t care about the reason, only that they will go.

There is a lot of interpersonal baggage to work through in this novel, but it’s not all emotional angst; the book is also a lovely travelogue of Italian towns, landmarks, art, and food, with a little romance thrown in along the way. It turned out to be a pretty good balance of these two sides of the story, and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Another author whose books focus on both place and relationship in somewhat the same way is Jenny Colgan, whose stories I have previously extolled here. I made a discovery that she had written a “boarding school book” and a sequel, and released them a few years back under a pseudonym…and no one found them. So she has now republished the first two under her own name, and has plans to write two to four more for the series.

I have always had a soft spot for those, apparently in common with Colgan, who talks in her introduction about how she wistfully idealized boarding school life based on her readings of everyone from Enid Blyton to R. F. Delderfield, and decided to write her own series for adults. The first of these is called Welcome to the School by the Sea, set at a school called Downey House, which is situated in southwest England near the cliffs of Cornwall—another enticement for me, since I seek out fiction located in that idyllic county.

The book is subtitled Maggie Adair #1, Maggie being a new professor who has descended 400 long miles from chilly Scotland and a confrontational public school experience to be a live-in English professor at an all-girls’ school on the English Riviera. From the subtitle I’m assuming that Maggie will be the constant throughout the series, while the girls will come and go as students do, but in this first book we also follow the fortunes of two specific students: Fliss, a child of privilege who has been sent against her wishes, and Simone, a scholarship girl who isn’t quite sure that she should have worked so hard to achieve…this.

I enjoyed the book, although it won’t count as one of my top five favorites of Colgan’s. It follows the typical clichés of class warfare between the posh girls and the outsiders, Fliss being one of the former and both Maggie and Simone representing the two fish out of water. Maggie struggles to fit in amongst the somewhat aloof staff, sticking out as much for her youth and enthusiasm as for her Scottish accent and poor clothing sense; Simone, the Armenian child of a doting mother who overwhelms her with care packages full of sweets, retreats within herself to hide her vulnerability to the catty comments and sometimes nasty tricks perpetrated by her three roommates.

There are romantic complications—Maggie has a steady, live-in boyfriend at home who doesn’t think much of her accepting a “snob job” so far away from him, home, and family, which leaves her open to the attractions of a handsome professor from the boys’ school just a few miles distant. And the headmistress of the school, Dr. Veronica Deveral, has a secret from her past that’s about to blow up her present, should it become known.

I liked everything Colgan did with the story, and will read on in the series, but it isn’t a compulsive favorite the way some of her others have been, so I will take my time, first visiting some much-anticipated sequels to series by other authors that have just hit their publication dates.

Nat’l Read A Book Day

What are YOU reading???

Departure?

I have read many (most?) of Alice Hoffman’s books, and although there are major shifts in the tone of her writing at certain points in her career, she is consistently someone who is attentive both to detail and to character. Her book Faithful is no exception to that, but what is missing (despite erroneous labeling by Goodreads) is the element of magical realism that pops up in many of her books. There is one part of the story that I suppose, at a stretch, could qualify, but it’s such a low-level background piece of information that I don’t really count it, especially because the magic is cited but doesn’t exactly manifest. At first I was disappointed at its absence, but as the character and the story grew on me, I put that aside and just enjoyed the transformation of Shelby Richmond

I admired one Goodreads reviewer’s phrase when addressing what this novel is about: “Rather than coming of age, it’s coming to grips.” That is the plot in a nutshell. Shelby and Helene are best friends throughout most of their lives, until a treacherous, icy road under their wheels leaves Helene in a coma and Shelby trying to deal with the idea that she is walking away unharmed while her friend will never come back from this. The thought that she wasn’t damaged is, of course, not the truth at all: Shelby is overwhelmed by grief and guilt, and spends years cancelling herself out of life as a punishment for the one she believes she ruined.

The doctors and her parents can call her condition whatever they wish; Shelby knows what’s wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma.

This is a somewhat dark tale, as some of Hoffman’s later writings have tended to be (for me, the turning point was her book Here on Earth, which forsook the lighthearted, sort of wacky heroines for a more serious tone and incorporated magic that was more portentous than incidental), but it is still enlivened by moments of comic relief. In this case, it’s Shelby’s impulsive nature, which slowly begins to rescue her from emotional trauma and depression and carry her forward into a new life. I love that it takes the form that it does, but I won’t specify what that is here, because it was such a delight to read.

The people and their relationships are the essential and most engaging part of this book; Hoffman paints a vivid picture when she develops a character, and it’s hard not to become emotionally involved with them, from Ben to Maravelle, Jasmine to James, to Shelby’s mom. This is a wonderful story of the effect persistent caring can have on someone, even when they don’t believe they deserve to be the recipient.

I never really figured out the significance of calling the book “Faithful.” While Shelby is faithful to her resolution to atone for the damage to Helene, and the two men in her life are both faithful to her redemption (as are her dogs), it just didn’t seem to fit. But I’m sure Hoffman knew what she meant.

The words, the will, the way

Someone recommended The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, to me, and since it has won several enviable awards in a genre I like, I decided it would be my next book, but alas! the holds list at Los Angeles Public Library thought otherwise. But I noticed that her book The Once and Future Witches was available, so I decided to pass the time by reading that one first.

Three estranged sisters who haven’t seen each other for many years end up in the same town (New Salem) at the same event and are drawn together by a weird magical bond. The eldest of the Eastwood sisters, Beatrice Belladonna (Bella), is an introverted librarian who spends her days doing translation and transcription work for others while indulging herself by digging through the archives looking for fairy tale fragments, rhymes, and stories that appeal to her. It is her speaking one of these rhymes aloud that brings about the cataclysmic reunion. The middle sister, Agnes Amaranth, has bitterly accepted that she is not special or entitled, and works in a factory for a living, keeping to herself and letting no one in. The youngest, James Juniper, is the wild and impulsive one, angry with her sisters for leaving her behind with their sadistic father. When she arrives in New Salem (just ahead of the law) and encounters a demonstration/rally by the local group of suffragettes, she is inspired to join up with them, bringing her own background as a spell-caster to shake up their staid activities and hoping to turn the women’s movement into a witch’s movement. Then Bella’s inadvertent recitation of an odd rhyme has an astonishing result and, while it brings the three sisters together, it definitely isn’t anything with which the suffragettes wish to be associated. But June doesn’t let this stop her from recruiting women from their midst who are tired of never getting what they want and are willing to take things into their own hands—women who have the will, and are eager to learn the words and the way.

This book bowled me over. It tapped into some major threads, both for me personally and in the context of current events.

First of all, as have many ex-Christian women, I did my time exploring Wicca, and although I’m not a practitioner, I do have a soft spot for celebrating (or at least acknowledging) the Sabbat rituals, and this story played right into that. The idea that fragments of spells are concealed within fairy tales, legends, and nursery rhymes as a way to pass them on in plain sight with no one else the wiser is simply brilliant. And the book’s chapter headings, each of which is a variation on one of these spells, accompanied by the purpose of the spell and the “tools” needed to accomplish it, gave a delightful continuity to the story, as well as making you want to believe they are true. Likewise, Harrow’s fairy tale retellings, recast in a more feminist mode, made me think twice about story origins. I love it when an author takes the time and thought to make their magic both plausible and useful, and in this book everything is so organic to the atmosphere, the times, the old stories that the narrative just flows.

There are familiar themes from history in this book—the Salem Witch Trials (and burnings), the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the suffrage movement—but the story is something of an alternate history: Old Salem is a burnt-out ruin and New Salem is taking over its legacy; the suffrage ladies, while brave to a point, are exposed as the elitist, racially exclusive group that they were; and the author freely uses the historical context to serve her story without stubborn adherence to dates and facts, which I thought was fine in a book that doesn’t purport to be historical fiction. You find out late in the book that the action takes place in 1893, but it doesn’t really matter that much to the story, which is universal.

The thing that struck me, in reading it at this particular moment in history, is how cyclical are women’s issues, and how we keep getting trounced until we band together and learn (again) how to stand up for ourselves. We are at a place now where rich white men are once again attempting control over our options and our bodies, and the seditious revolution led by the three witch sisters in this story is a good example of what can happen when information and rebellion spreads from woman to woman, from group to group, to a whole nation of women fighting back.

I can’t say a single negative thing about this book. The protagonists are compellingly realistic (well, apart from the witchcraft, although that feels real as well!), the villain is truly creepy, the side characters contribute wonderful scenes and perspectives, and the setting is both dangerous and mundane in just the right balance. The pacing, the twists and surprises, the bonds between the sisters and in fact between most of the women, are all solid. I’m so glad I had to wait on her other book and took a chance on this one.

Verisimilitude

I love that word, and it’s not one that you often get the chance to use. But it perfectly describes the book Holding Smoke, by Elle Cosimano, which I reread this week after a six-year hiatus and discovered that I liked it every bit as well the second time as I did on first perusal (another good word).

I originally picked up the book back in 2016 because of its setting—juvenile hall. While I was in library school, I took a class that required racking up service hours as part of the grade, and a dozen of us started book-talking groups (like a book club, but each person reads their own choice of book) in seven of the living units there. My friend Lisa and I ran a group in one of the four maximum security units (which more closely resembled the set-up of this book), and we loved doing it so much that we ended up continuing for two years, long after both the class and library school were over.

Cosimano, whose father was a warden, really has the setting, the interpersonal relations and interactions, and the rhythms of the place down in this book. I felt like I was right back at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Facility in Unit W, but with a new group of troubled kids.

The title of this blog post doesn’t entirely fit the vibe of the book, since part of the story qualifies as magical realism. The main character, John Conlan, nicknamed Smoke, is serving time in a long-term facility in Denver, Colorado, for two murders, and although one was self defense and the other was committed by someone else, no one believed any part of his account when it went up against the damning circumstantial evidence. During the course of the event, John died for a period of six minutes and then was brought back, and during that six minutes had an out-of-body experience that he discovers he is now able to replicate. So while the other inmates are locked up inside the concrete walls of the “Y,” John is able to pass through them and wander out in the world in spirit form, tied to his body by a sort of cable that seems to be fraying the more trips he takes.

He uses this ability to good purpose by checking in on the families or business partners or girlfriends of other inmates and reporting back on their status—are they okay? are they cheating me? are they cheating ON me? No one can figure out how Smoke is communicating with his outside sources to garner this information, but they’re willing to pay in favors for his services.

He doesn’t use this ability in his own interests until, in the course of observing a drug dealer’s transactions at a bar, he meets a waitress he calls Pink, who can see and hear him in his spirit form, and with her help he begins to explore the truth around who could have manipulated the situation to put him in prison. But someone has a vested interest in keeping him there and keeping him quiet, and suddenly his existence is perilous, as is everyone’s who helps him…

The scene-setting, the characters, the pacing of this story are all visceral and gripping, and I also appreciated the philosophical elements Cosimano brings to the characters. I had no trouble with the suspension of disbelief over Smoke’s abilities, and the author makes the whole thing palpable by setting up and exploring the rules of how those abilities work. There are quite a few twists, and an exciting ending I didn’t see coming. This is a good example of gritty fiction crossed with the paranormal that will appeal to a wide range of teen readers. Although I have enjoyed Cosimano’s other books (particularly the Finlay Donovan series), I think I would call Holding Smoke her best so far.

Light but clever

Looking for a time-out from some of the more intense stories I have been reading lately, I picked up science fiction author John Scalzi’s latest stand-alone, The Kaiju Preservation Society, for some light relief, and it was just the break I needed.

Protagonist Jamie Gray, a mid-level executive of the food delivery service füd-müd (you do get the significance of the umlauts, right?), is laid off during the Covid 19 pandemic with the option to take up a “career” as a delivery driver for that same company—which he does, because there’s nothing else on offer in the closed-door economy. He is saved from this mundane and less-than-lucrative existence when he makes multiple deliveries to a former college classmate, Tom, who solicits Jamie to join his team to work at an “animal rights organization” that is targeted towards “large animals.”

Tom has all the big-brained doctors of various subjects that he needs; what he doesn’t have, due to a last-minute dropout, is someone to do the grunt work of “lifting things,” which Jamie decides is a step up from pizza guy. Tom is a little cagey about the precise details, and Jamie will have to make a six-month commitment, but it still sounds better than what he has going on. So Jamie accepts Tom’s offer, only to discover that the endangered animal actually exists on an Earth that is an alternate, parallel reality to this one, and his job is to help the team keep the animals safely on their side of the border.

The Kaiju are the creatures who served as models for the movie monster Godzilla, and they’re not just big and hangry, they also happen to carry the capacity for nuclear explosions in their guts. Naturally, there are people in our Earth reality who are wanting to exploit this, and it’s the team’s mandate to protect “the universe’s largest and most dangerous panda.”

“KPS is not, and I say this with absolutely no slight intended, a brooding symphony of a novel. It’s a pop song. It’s meant to be light and catchy, with three minutes of hooks and choruses for you to sing along with, and then you’re done and you go on with your day, hopefully with a smile on your face.”

— Scalzi’s Author’s Note.

This book is every bit as goofy as it sounds, and the suspension of disbelief is gigantic, but it’s also witty, clever, and surprisingly relevant, with great world-building, a diverse cast, some fun science talk, and a lot of entertaining banter as a counterpoint to the crapfest that was the height of the pandemic. Finally, it was refreshing, in our current context, to have the rich and entitled tool of a bad guy get his comeuppance in several ways (minor spoiler). One Goodreads reviewer described this book as “Guardians of the Galaxy meets Jurassic Park,” and that’s a pretty solid vision of this cathartic distraction.

It’s not my favorite stand-alone by Scalzi (that would have to be The Android’s Dream, which is one of the consistently most entertaining books ever), but it’s definitely a pop treat.

Hanging chads

In case you don’t get the reference: In the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, portions of the state of Florida used a punch-card type ballot that was easily misread; during the furor that followed the initially indeterminate election, the public soon became familiar with references to hanging, dimpled, and pregnant “chads,” which were the little pieces of the punch-card that were, in theory, supposed to be removed by the punch tool, but instead either hung by a corner or, worse, looked like they had been pressed on with intent, but not punched out. The recount in Florida resulted in a bunch of wrangling, with many lawsuits and counter suits between the parties, until ultimately Gore conceded, although he had won the popular vote. It’s a controversy to this day, and one wonders on what trajectory our country would be now had Gore, and not Bush, become President.

I reference it here because I just had a reading experience that reminded me of the bewilderment of the Florida election officials trying to discern the intent of the voters by interpreting the various states of chads.

You will recall that at the beginning of July I decided to go beyond her Bill Slider mystery series to explore the other genre of author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, by reading the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, an enjoyable Upstairs / Downstairs, Downton Abbey read-alike. In that review, I mentioned that the ending was “somewhat abrupt,” and bemoaned the fact that the sequel wouldn’t be available for more than a month. Well, I have just completed the sequel—The Affairs of Ashmore Castle—and it is this that has given me the unsettling feeling provoked by hanging chads!

Lest you should think I am panning the book, I am emphatically not—I quite enjoyed it. In fact, the deepening stories of all the main and subsidiary characters provided an even richer and more involving experience than did the first book in the series. The various marriages and matches made in the first volume by the ruling classes were developed and took interesting turns, the world of the servants likewise became more transparent, and I followed all the story lines with anticipation. That anticipation carried on up to the very last page, when one character asks another, “What do you really come here for, Lady Alice?” and, swiping my finger impatiently across the face of my Kindle to turn the page and discover the answer, I was instead treated to Amazon’s “Before You Go…review this book” prompt! I was in such disbelief that that could possibly be the end of the book that I actually went back to the beginning, checked the number of chapters, and clicked on the last one to see if there had been some glitch with my Kindle that had caused the last third of the book to disappear!

Nope. She really did end it there. She used the last few chapters to set up some truly urgent situations with both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” protagonists, and then left them all hanging, or dimpled, or pregnant, and JUST. STOPPED. WRITING. I haven’t been this disconcerted since I read Connie Willis’s gargantuan time travel duology, Blackout and All Clear; at the end of Blackout—or I should say, where Blackout stopped—I looked up articles about the two books and discovered that Willis had originally intended it as one gigantic tome, but that the publisher convinced her she must split it in two (the first book being 491 pages, while the second is 656, published within nine months of one another). And split it in two she did, with no warning, no wrap-up, no transition whatsoever—book one simply stopped on a page, and book two took up on the next page. It made me nuts.

What makes me even more dissatisfied with the abrupt stoppage of the Ashmore story is that I read the second volume a mere day after it was published, and will presumably have to wait a year (or more, depending on what other series she has on the boil) to discover the fates of all involved! And by then I will have read so many books in the meantime that it will probably mean a reread. Sigh. You wound me, Ms. H-E.