This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!
I was emailing with a former co-worker from the library the other day. She shares my love of a good mystery, and we were doing the usual “Have you read…” conversation, wherein I discovered that she had not yet read any of Louise Penny’s series set in the mythical Three Pines, somewhere in the snowdrifts below Montréal, Canada, and starring the inimitable Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec.
I immediately encouraged her to drop everything and start reading with the first book, Still Life, and then…I paused. I love this series almost unreservedly, and yet it is not a series that you can recommend to just anyone. It has quirks.
The first quirk is that the development of the characters is far more instrumental to the reader’s love of this series than are the individual mysteries/murders/cases pursued in each volume. With a few standout exceptions, I have released from my memory the specifics of the cases, and yet I retain every detail about the inhabitants of Three Pines and the officers of the Sûreté who make recurring appearances or simply loom as brooding, somewhat intangible threats over Gamache’s future.
The second quirk is that the mysteries themselves are weird. Victims are shot by arrows, electrocuted in the middle of a village fair, die of fright in the midst of a séance. Penny seems determined to come up with deaths so out of the ordinary that the reader must struggle a bit with “the willing suspension of disbelief” in order to continue with the book or the series.
The third quirk is more a matter of degree or intensity than it is anything unusual, and that is the level of psychological and personal involvement one develops with the character of Armand Gamache with each subsequent book. I phrased that last sentence purposefully, because the character of the man is what draws me to these books and keeps me reading. He is the hero you could wish for as the head of any police department, and yet because of his high standards and philosophical rigor, his expectations are hard to meet, and in fact many of the officers of the Sûreté not only don’t try to meet them, but purposely flout them. Those within his magic circle realize that he is as deeply flawed as they are, and that his flaws are what drew them to him as a mentor and eventually as a friend. But even those who claim friendship have never plumbed the depths of Armand Gamache, and this is what makes him forever fascinating.
I began this intending to give a review of the latest book, Kingdom of the Blind, number 14 in the series. It is true to form, in that the initial mystery is puzzling and offbeat—Gamache, Three Pines bookstore owner Myrna, and Benedict, a young builder unknown to either of them, have been summoned by a notary to discover that they have been designated liquidators (executors) of a will, but for a woman none of the three has ever met. Becoming somewhat reluctantly involved with this duty ends up leading them to a murder, and to the puzzling facts of the will itself, which bequeaths possessions not actually owned by the deceased. Running alongside this new conundrum is the leftover entanglements from the last book, in which a powerful new drug was released onto the black market, partially as a result of controversial actions by Superintendent Gamache, with the consequence that he has been suspended from his position at the Sûreté, temporarily replaced by his close associate and son-in-law, Jean-Guy de Beauvoir.
A few commenters on Goodreads expressed the feeling that the familiar characters in Three Pines are becoming redundant, and that Penny should start fresh with a new project. Although I can’t agree with this, I do think that this was not one of the 40 percent of standout books in the series. I wasn’t a big fan of the story line with the will and the historical puzzle contained within it; but I did breathlessly follow the events in this book that played out the contentious actions from the last, and watched with intrigue Gamache’s desperate attempts to remedy his daring ploy that put a dangerous drug on the streets. And an exceedingly surprising plot twist at the end may do something significant for those readers bored with the inhabitants of Three Pines….
In her afterword to this book, Penny confessed that she thought she had already written the last Armand Gamache book, and had expected to confess as much and default on her commitment of another to her publisher. Penny’s beloved husband, Michael, passed away in 2017, and she had believed that his embodiment of Gamache and his constant participation in all aspects of her writing life would keep her from going further once he was gone. But one morning, she woke up with an opening sentence in her head, and realized that, far from being unable to go on, the continuation of this series kept her husband’s integrity, courage, and good humor present in her life and in her writing.
I ended up reiterating my recommendation to my friend about the series, with the caveat that the mysteries are weird and not always satisfying, but that it is the community in which you live while you read them that will keep drawing you back. I plan to check in with her after she’s read a few, and see if she has invested in them as I have. The series is about kindness, humor, wit, love, and affection. The fact that it’s sometimes also a window into despair and inhumanity simply points up the contrasts.
I recently caught up with the Bill Slider mysteries by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles; I had inadvertently read numbers 20 and 21 in the series without having read 18 and 19, so I bought them for my Kindle and settled down for a rainy day’s read.
The first book, One Under, has a chilling plot. The opening scene is of a middle-aged man inexplicably throwing himself under a tube train at Shepherd’s Bush station, an obvious suicide. Soon after, a report comes in of a hit-and-run incident that has killed a teenage girl in a country lane far away from where she lives on the White City estate.
Normally, Bill Slider and his homicide team wouldn’t concern themselves with either of these sad but obvious deaths; but during a slack period, they are assigned to double-check that the hit-and-run was just that, and Bill Slider’s discovery that it might not be leads to all the rest.
First, he finds a case of another teenager who was found in the river but who didn’t drown; and then, as his team pursues small bits of information about these two girls, strange linkages begin to appear between them and some extremely unlikely people. Slider ultimately discovers a scene of widespread corruption amongst the upper level of British government, including the police department, and finds himself both out of his depth and persona non grata as he doggedly pursues the evidence.
Contrary to her usual practice of one mystery to one volume, Old Bones begins a new mystery while still dealing with the dangling strings of the old one. A young couple moves into a new house and, doing some renovations, discovers a skeleton buried at the bottom of the garden. The medical examiner determines that it must have been there for at least two decades; Slider’s boss, Detective Superintendent Porson, leaps upon this opportunity to keep Slider and his team simultaneously occupied and out of trouble. After all, it’s a very cold case; the likelihood of them even solving it is negligible, and the passions surrounding a missing person from that long ago are probably spent. But he reckons without the single-minded persistence of his best but most exasperating DCI.
I don’t know exactly why I find police procedurals such as these so appealing. Perhaps it is because, of all kinds of mystery or crime fiction, the police procedural is the most realistic. After all, when a murder occurs in real life, it is most likely that the police, rather than your local personal trainer or some other amateur sleuth, will be the ones to respond to the call and attempt to solve the crime.
I also enjoy the variations present when you have a team of criminal investigators, rather than one lone guy, cooperating to find the killer. A good procedural may include uniformed cops, police detectives, medical examiners, forensics experts, psychologists, sketch artists, and so on. It’s an ensemble piece, and although certain protagonists will necessarily take the lead as the more developed and therefore more interesting people, the methodology of detection is based on real police work. I enjoy the gradual ferreting out of each tiny detail that, added to a big pile of other tiny details, mounts up into irrefutable evidence.
Part of it, of course, is admiration for the character and ethics shown by the lead detective, Bill Slider. Harrod-Eagles has created a complex man with a complicated back story, and these personal details give humanity and depth not just to him but to all her characters to a lesser degree. I love the “team” the way Harrod-Eagles has written and continues to write them. And speaking of the writing, it’s clever, literate, and deliberate. Last but not least, DS Porson’s nonsensical malapropisms make me laugh out loud at least a few times per book, and I have a feeling that if I had a more comprehensive understanding of British humor, that would increase significantly.
The first book in this series is Orchestrated Death, in which the set-up for the series gives the reader a satisfying amount of detail into the back story of this obscure policeman; I have read all 21 subsequent volumes, and can only think of one that wasn’t quite up to the standard of the rest. It’s a consistent and immersive collection.
Before teaching this class, I never had to differentiate between the sub-genres of mystery to such a fine point. Yes, I knew the difference between a “cozy” and a police procedural, but the distinctions between hard-boiled and noir escaped me, and I didn’t really worry about them, since people who like one bleed over into people who like the other. But now, after reading up on it and then re-examining an example of noir, I get the difference.
Although both are dark, stark, and unsentimental, the hard-boiled mystery stars a detective, bent on solving a crime, defending the innocent and righting wrongs, while noir fiction has a different kind of protagonist—a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Although both sub-genres may feature a particular villain, often in the person of an evil femme fatale, in the hard-boiled book the detective is fighting against the corruption perpetrated by the villain or the system, while in the noir, the protagonist is just trying to survive. What they have in common is inevitability.
In Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski, former contractor to the Philly P.D. Charlie Hardie’s latest job is house-sitting an isolated mansion in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills. But when he arrives to start the gig (his description of the specifications of the job include making sure the house doesn’t burn down, while drinking bourbon and watching old movies on DVD), he is surprised to discover an unwanted guest hiding out in the house—a B-movie actress who says she’s being hunted by professional hitmen.
Charlie thinks she’s just high and paranoid. But he’s wrong.
The killers are real. They’ve tracked her to the house. And they’re not letting anyone out alive—including Charlie.
I decided on a re-read, since Mr. Swierczynski is going to be a guest speaker in my class at UCLA next week. This is classic noir: The protagonist, Charlie Hardie, is a self-destructive, hapless victim, caught in a situation he doesn’t understand and didn’t seek out. He just wants to be left alone, to drink and try to forget about the disaster he made of his former life. He’s relateable, but not particularly likeable. His co-victim, B-movie actress Lane Madden, is likewise set up for failure, driven by guilt but with a visceral need to survive. The “bad guy” is a femme fatale, and boy, is she conscienceless and mean! The only way in which it isn’t so noir is that Charlie is turned, willy nilly, into a hero, simply because there is no one else. I’m curious to find out whether “noir” is how Duane characterizes his own book. I also now want to read the two sequels, Hell & Gone, and Point & Shoot!
This coming Monday will be the fourth class out of 10 of the Readers’ Advisory course I am teaching for the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) at UCLA. To translate that last, I’m teaching the course for graduate students getting their masters in library information studies, to become librarians, and I’m teaching them how to match up readers and books, which sounds simple but isn’t.
We have spent the past three classes talking about the mysteries of readers: how they read, why they read, and what kind of readers they are; and then we have discussed two powerful methods to connect these readers with “their” books. The first is the readers’ advisory interview, which ascertains what books readers have enjoyed and specifically why they have enjoyed them, and attempts then to find other books that will please their reading tastes, based on “appeal factors.” The second is the art of book-talking, which is to find an array of books that might appeal to a particular audience and talk about them as a storyteller would, so persuasively that the listeners’ first question when one is done is to ask “But what happens next?” and be moved to read the book to find out.
In this fourth class, we will be proceeding into an in-depth study of individual genres of popular reading. We’ll be examining one genre each week, and this week is mystery. I have asked my students to read one or more book each week, selecting from the genre we intend to discuss so that they will have read at least one representative example before we break down that genre for discussion. I decided, this week, that I would join them by reading a mystery in preparation for class on Monday, and perhaps discuss it here, and so I have done; I have actually indulged myself in two.
I didn’t feel like making a second trek to the library this week, so I cast about within my own collection for something to read, and decided to indulge nostalgia by re-reading a couple of Dick Francis novels. Both I and my father were horse lovers and mystery readers. Dad always said he’d like to move to Montana and have a horse ranch (although if you knew my mother, you knew that would never happen), and I was a typical horse-mad pre-teen who had to deal with a particularly horrible birthday one year when my grandfather, a Central Valley farmer equipped with fondness but little sense, bought me an unbroken yearling stallion at auction as my gift and then had to return it when my parents, who lived with me in SoCal suburbia, flatly refused to let me accept him. (It took me a while to forgive them.) Dad and I greatly enjoyed all of Dick Francis’s books; in fact, over the course of many birthdays and Father’s Days and Christmases, I managed to gift Dad with the entire collection, start to finish, some as tattered old paperbacks and others as pristine first editions. He read them over and over again, as do I; and it was that fact that made me pick them up this week.
Often, someone who is gifted in one career will be significantly less so in another; but Dick Francis seems to have had an impressive career as a “jump jockey” (a steeplechase rider), his ultimate achievements becoming champion jockey in the National Hunt 1953-54 season, and then jockey to Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s stable. Then, after his retirement at age 36 (a typical age for jockeys to cease practicing this dangerous and exceedingly taxing pursuit), he became a journalist and began writing horse-racing novels, becoming an explosive success as a mystery writer of sport-related books. He wrote one book a year thereafter, from 1962 to 2010, the year he died. On many of the early books, he collaborated with his wife, Mary Margaret Brenchley, who did quite extensive research surrounding the plots (including teaching herself photography and how to fly a plane), and after Mary’s death in 2000, his son Felix collaborated with him on his last four.
I am giving all this background information because I am attempting to puzzle out exactly why these books retain their appeal through several re-reads for so many people. Although I am definitely a reader who re-reads favorites, there are few authors—Georgette Heyer, Margaret Whalen Turner, and Dick Francis—whose works hold up for me again and again, even when either vaguely or completely familiar. But these same authors must hold a similar appeal for others, since they are among those considered worthy of a re-release of their novels, with new covers, in trade paperback form.
The interesting thing I find about Francis’s books is that, while they are all solidly oriented in the world of horse racing, not all, or even most, of his protagonists are jockeys. He has done an extraordinary job of exploring with his characters not just every facet of horse racing life by casting jockeys, trainers, breeders, and owners as his protagonists, but also by bringing in other only tangentially related careers, such as an air taxi service pilot, ferrying horsey people to distant races; an artist who paints portraits of winning jockeys and horses; a Jockey Club investigator; an adventure book writer; a wine merchant; a banker; a jewel merchant; and more. But all of them preserve that tie to the sport that allows Francis to include the sure-fire fast-paced scene of the breathless progression of man and horse over daunting jumps and along the flat to victory at the tapes.
Francis could definitely be characterized as a “formula” writer; while he seldom repeated the same protagonist (he wrote four books starring Sid Halley and the two I just re-read featuring Kit Fielding, out of more than 40), all of his protagonists were similar: Men between 28 and 40, with a certain kind of smart, intrepid, ethical, persistent personality combined with a light-hearted charm; a love interest usually between 19 and 28, often becoming important to the protagonist within first or second meeting; and a situation that has to be figured out, confronted and overcome, usually featuring one or more villains intent on having their own way at everyone else’s expense. But although they are formula, Francis writes them as complete individuals, with personal quirks that make them stand-out characters, and most of his plot lines are clever, convoluted, and engaging.
The two books I read this week were Break In and Bolt, a duo starring the same protagonist, jump jockey Kit Fielding. What makes Kit so interesting is his associations: First of all, he is the end product of a long line of Fielding horse trainers, with a twin sister, Holly, who is married to the last scion of a competing family of horse trainers named Allardeck who, up until this marriage, were bitter enemies of his family. And while the youngest members—Kit, Holly, and her husband, Bobby—have mostly resolved their feud, other members of the family are still hotly opposed to any association between the two clans, who have been undercutting one another for multiple generations. The second thing that makes Kit’s life interesting is that he is chief jockey to a European princess-in-exile, Princess Casilia de Brescou, and this connection forms a considerable amount of the plot of both books.
In the first, Break In, someone is targeting Bobby and Holly’s horse training business, to the point where they may lose it if they don’t find out who and why. Malicious bits of gossip about them have been published in the local paper, and someone has taken the trouble to circle the gossip in red and hand deliver it to all the merchants to whom they owe money and to all their owners who have horses in their training lot. Kit comes to the rescue and begins to believe after a while that his sister and her husband are suffering the unfortunate fallout of a plot that is actually aimed at discrediting Bobby’s father, Maynard Allardeck. Once this theory occurs to him and he goes looking, all sorts of skeletons fall out of closets, and Maynard, who maintains the vicious attitude of “death to all Fieldings” as a loyal Allardeck should, proves to be a formidable opponent. But he is not the only villain involved…
The love interest in this book is the Princess Casilia’s husband’s niece, Danielle de Brescou, an American working in London as a programmer at a major news outlet. Kit meets her when she comes to the races with her aunt, and although there aren’t immediate sparks, there is definitely interest on both sides that may progress as the book unfolds.
In Bolt, the focus is more on Roland and Casilia de Brescou. Henri Navarre, the son of Roland’s long-time business partner in France, petitions Roland to sign papers that will allow their company to manufacture plastic guns. Roland, former royalty and an old-fashioned aristocrat, is horrified at the idea of having his family name associated with weapons manufacture, and refuses. Navarre, who is a brash, greedy bully determined to have his way, proceeds to threaten everyone in Roland’s household. Roland is elderly, frail, and disabled, so Princess Casilia reaches out to Kit for support. Roland’s obnoxious sister, Beatrix, who wishes Roland to sign so that she can live yet more comfortably from the family fortune than she already does on her quarterly allowance from Roland, comes to stay with the family and acts as a rat, giving away vital details about where and when everyone will be, and Navarre carries out his threats to the point where Kit and others in the family must unite to figure out how to outwit Navarre and get rid of the threat. The book is punctuated by Kit’s exciting rides in various races on the princess’s horses, and the saga of the continuing up-and-down relationship between Kit and Danielle, which is being influenced by the presence of the suave, mature and cultured Prince Litsi, a nephew of Casilia’s. And the menacing form of Maynard Allardeck still hovers in the background, intending to do Kit harm…
I feel like one of the charms of Francis’s books is their “old-fashioned” standard of upright ethical behavior. The profession of horse-racing itself is fraught with opportunities for cheating, from drugging horses to bribing jockeys or trainers to fixing things somehow at the bookies’. But Francis, while taking all that into account, pictures his protagonists as people with a genuine, innocent relationship to the center of the sport—the horses—and a pure love for their job that keeps them going despite bad weather, bad luck, and injury. When he describes the union of horse and rider up on the Downs while the horses are being exercised or schooled, there’s an idyllic quality to the whole scene that pulls in the reader, as does his narration of the exciting points of each race in which the protagonist rides. Further, the main characters possess a dedication to logic and justice that is satisfying in its resolution against the badly behaved villains of each book. And although some of the early love interests were misogynistic in their details, as he continued to write, the women in his books made progress and became individuals in their own right, which you can’t say for some writers of mystery series. The dialogue is clear and simple, touched with humor, and the plots are in many cases labyrinthine and clever. Being myself horse mad, I can’t say for sure that someone who had no affinity for horses would enjoy these books the way that I have. But Dick Francis certainly had the aptitude to make you care what happens to his characters, and that, I feel, is the one thing that makes these books so re-readable.
Because I read so many authors and follow so many series, I don’t always pay too close attention to how long it takes between books; but even I had noticed that it had been a really long time since the last Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. When the book finally arrived, I realized that although the first three in the series had been published just one year apart (2013, 2014, 2015), book #4, Lethal White, took three long years to produce! Rowling says in her acknowledgements to the book that she wrote it during the same time period she was writing a play and two screenplays, so that is a partial explanation. The other, of course, is that the book is just shy of 650 pages long, which is almost exactly 200 pages longer than any of the other three.
Several people on Goodreads expressed their hope that this series wouldn’t follow the lead of the Harry Potter books, in which each book became longer than the previous one; and while I agree with that sentiment as regards that series, I can’t really fault her for going a bit longer here. While there were probably areas that could have been edited out or tightened up without damage to the book, the truth is that the elements of this story were so complex, involving at least three separate mystery story lines as well as requiring its characters to confront the extreme messiness of their personal lives, that I doubt she could have come in under 600 pages. Still, I will hope with the other readers that the next book doesn’t run to 800!
I was completely enthralled by everything about this book, and there were few passages I rushed through to get to the next good bit. The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosts up the energy exponentially, particularly when they all seem to have certain elements tying them together.
Speaking of ties that bind, the book picks up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin (against most of her better judgement) tied the knot with the conventional and whiny Matthew Cunliffe. The description of what happens next in her relationship is satisfyingly detailed, and the reader spends most of the rest of the book wondering just when she’s going to wise up for good and ditch this guy. Of course, being in equal parts embarrassed that she went through with the wedding and guilty for not being truly committed to making it work, Robin keeps all of this to herself, and suffers both Matthew’s complaints and her own panic attacks (generated by her close call in the last book) to herself. Meanwhile, Cormoran has taken the fact of the marriage ceremony as a sign that Robin is permanently off limits to him, and although he has invited her back to work as his partner, he also labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, and seeks distraction with several other women to keep from thinking of Robin in “that way.” It gives a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation to have all of this happening as back story during the complex work the two are doing, and definitely amps up the reading experience.
All in all, I’m a bigger fan than ever after Lethal White, and hope that the next one (back to 455 pages but still just as riveting) arrives in a lot less than three more years!
One question I have never heard answered and would like to know is, why Robert Galbraith? The tradition of the pseudonym for famous authors who are trying their hand at another age group or genre is well established; but I have to say I am disappointed, given the history of women subsuming their gender for the sake of credibility, that the woman who has perhaps the best credibility of anyone as an author didn’t pick a woman’s identity as her nom de plume. I did see in an interview that Rowling commented that she was “channeling her inner bloke” when writing this series, so maybe it’s as simple as that. Still, there are so many successful male writers out there; we could have used another female one to represent.
In early 2017, on the recommendation of a librarian friend who shares sci fi love, I picked up Lock In, by John Scalzi. It was a set-up that wouldn’t seem too unlikely in the near future: A contagious virus invades society, taking down everyone who catches it with headaches, fever, and other flu-like symptoms; but a certain small but significant percentage of those who contract it are then afflicted with a follow-up condition termed “lock in.” They are completely and terrifyingly awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to any kind of stimulus. The disease, which is named Haden’s Syndrome after its most famous victim (the First Lady), attacks indiscriminately, affecting people across all spectrums.
Because of the high profile of some of its victims, researchers go all out to solve the various problems of Haden’s Syndrome. Although they haven’t yet come up with a cure, they develop several “work-arounds,” including the implantation of a neural network in the brain of its sufferers that allows them to project their conscious selves—brain, personality, however you want to term it—into mobile units or robots called “threeps” (after, of course, C3PO). Additionally, there are also certain humans who can act as “Integrators” and carry the personality of the Haden within their head, so that a Haden could hire the services of a human with this ability and training and use their body to, say, attend a business meeting, have a romantic evening, or what have you.
The scientific explanation for exactly how all of this works is a bit hazy; but the effect of the science is such a fun concept to play around with that the reader is able to suspend disbelief and go with it. The current story to which all of this is background is a police procedural in which two FBI agents, one a Haden, the other a former Integrator, are assigned a case in which a Haden-related murder may have been committed. Think of the added complexity of solving a murder in which someone else’s personality may have been “driving” the body that committed the crime!
I loved this first book. It was a delightful combination of science fiction and murder mystery—it felt like Asimov’s ‘Lige Bailey and Daneel Olivaw were back, but younger, wittier, fresh. I loved the complexity created by people who could jump from threep to threep and thereby travel wherever, or Integrate to “ride” in someone else’s head/body—it made it difficult to solve crime, that’s for sure. I also enjoyed the widening of the plot to include the changing world of the Haden society.
Last week, I discovered there was a sequel to Lock In on the library shelf and eagerly checked it out. Head On is billed as a stand-alone, but I personally don’t think you could read it without having more knowledge about this world-built view than is given in the opening synopsis.
FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann are back, investigating the mysterious death of a professional athlete during a game of Hilketa, a rather medieval sport in which all the players are Haden’s Syndrome folks, using “threeps” to play the game. (It features swords and hammers, and a lot of tearing off and punting of heads through goalposts. Yes, literal robot heads.) What follows is a multi-city investigation involving adultery, deception, personal and corporate speculation, and a sports league in which suddenly murder and violent crime are everywhere, as someone desperately tries to cover up their plan to pervert the sport for their own profit.
I enjoyed this; but not with quite the same pure sense of enjoyment I had from the first book. Again, it’s more of a police procedural than it is a science fiction novel, but with the novelty of Haden’s people being able to jump from town to car to office as long as there is a threep available to receive them, while not being able to do some of the things regular people consider second nature. As a vehicle for speculation about such wide-ranging themes as sexism, ableism, socioeconomic status, and so on, it was admirable; but for me, the story got unnecessarily convoluted with the addition of shady character after red herring after reluctant ally, to the point where I got the corporate guys’ lawyer’s name mixed up with that of a Haden caregiver’s, and misunderstood one passage rather badly until I got that straightened out. I did enjoy all the mayhem, but felt like I needed to understand a little better what was going on as it happened, instead of waiting for the big reveal at the end.
It’s an odd hybrid of fast pacing with extensive explication that I’m not sure would work for either someone in search of a thriller or someone who wanted a complex sci fi story, so a reader needs to be either a fan of both those genres, or have tolerance for one while reading it for the other. As a fan of both, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Are you a person who enjoys reading about reading? Who loves it when a book has an author as its character, is set in a bookstore or a library, or involves you in some magical aspect of story? If so, here is an eclectic annotated list for you. Some are written for teens, some appear in sci fi or mystery, and some in general adult fiction, but all are great reads for readers:
The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The planet Aka used to be a backward, rural, but culturally rich world. But once it came into contact with the Hainish civilization, abrupt changes were made by its ruling faction to transform it into a technologically advanced model society. Sutty, an official observer from Earth, has been dispatched to see if the disconnect has been too great. She learns of a group of outcasts living in the back country who still believe in the old ways and practice a lost religion called the Telling, and seeks them out, at some personal risk to both herself and them, to discover what this society is missing. (Science Fiction)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This is the story of foster child Liesel Meminger, who is living just outside of Munich during World War II. Liesel steals books (thus the name) and–once she learns to read–shares them with her stepfather and also with the Jewish man hiding in their basement. The novel is narrated by Death. The language, the imagery, the story, the unusual point of view are all stellar. I’m not sure why this was pigeon-holed as a teen book, because it’s a universally appealing story. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Thirteenth Tale,
by Diane Satterfield
Biographer Margaret Lea lives above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. One day she receives a letter from one of Britain’s premier novelists. Vida Winter is gravely ill, and wants to tell her life story before it’s too late, and she has selected Margaret to do so. Margaret is puzzled and intrigued (she has never met the author, nor has she read her novels), and agrees to meet with her. Winter finally shares the dark family secrets she has long kept hidden, and Margaret becomes immersed in her story, which is a true gothic tale complete with a madwoman hidden in the attic, illegitimate children, and some ghosts. (Adult Fiction)
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly
David’s mother has died, and the 12-year-old has only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him, leading him through a magical gateway to a series of familiar, yet slightly skewed versions of classic fairy tales and aiding him to come to terms with his loss and his new life. (Adult Fiction or sometimes shelved as Young Adult)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, falls in love with a book, only to discover that someone is systematically destroying all other works by this author. A combination of detective story, fantasy, and gothic horror. (Adult Fiction)
The Eyre Affair,
by Jasper Fforde
In an alternate-history version of London in 1985, Special Operative Thursday Next is tasked by the Special Operations Network with preventing the kidnapping of literary characters from books. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of the book by that name, Thursday is determined to prevent the trauma experienced by its fond readers. (If you like this one, there are many more in the series.) (Adult Mystery)
Inkheart (plus sequels Inkspell, Inkdeath),
by Cornelia Funke
Meggie’s father, who repairs and binds books for a living, has an unusual gift that became a curse in their lives: He can “read” characters out of books. But when he is reading a book to young Meggie, some characters escape into their world and her mother gets sucked into the story! Now it’s time for Mo and Meggie to change the course of that story, send the book’s evil ruler back into his book and maybe retrieve the person dear to them both…. (Children’s Fiction)
Not as directly reader-related, but with twisted versions of fairy tales interspersed throughout its exciting contents is Cornelia Funke’s “Mirrorworld” series that starts with the book Reckless. Again, this series was billed and sold as a series for children and teens, but it’s really a powerful and sophisticated fantasy about an alternate world that will appeal to all ages. There are three books, and more to come, according to Cornelia! (usually shelved as Young Adult Fiction, but…)
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
The historical saga of how a book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–came to be, and its storied history down through five centuries, written from the point of view of a curmudgeonly rare book conservator. Inspired by a true story, and beautifully written. (Adult Fiction)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, a website designer who has lost his job as a result of the dot-com disaster, finds part-time employment on the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore. But soon the strange goings-on at the store have Clay and his friends speculating about how the place stays in business; there are plenty of customers, but none of them ever seems to buy anything, and Clay is forbidden from opening any of the dusty manuscripts they periodically arrive to peruse. But when he gets bored and curious… (Adult Fiction)
Ink and Bone,
by Rachel Caine
This series is set in an alternate world, in which the Great Library at Alexandria never burned down. Centuries later, having achieved a status not unlike the Vatican in contemporary life, the Great Library and its rulers control the flow of knowledge to the masses. Paradoxically, although anyone can order up any of the greatest works of history from the library (via alchemy), personal ownership of books is forbidden. Jess Brightwell’s family are black market book dealers, but Jess decides he wants to play it straight by entering the service of the Library. Or does he? The sequels are Paper and Fire, and Ash and Quill. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Fikry, the owner of Island Books on Alice Island (think Martha’s Vineyard) is in a bad way: His beloved wife has just died, sales are dismal, and someone has just stolen his rare edition of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. But then an unexpected discovery—an important “package” abandoned in his bookstore—changes his perspective on everything. (Adult Fiction)
There are probably dozens more books about books, reading, and writing; when I discover them, I’ll share!
Sharon Bolton, in addition to some amazingly dark and delicious stand-alone mystery/thriller novels, has written a four-book (so far) series featuring Detective Constable Lacey Flint. What I just found out is that Bolton has been adding to that series by penning a couple of novellas (one is 79 pages, the other 81) that are available only
The first one (1.5) falls between books 1 and 2, and doesn’t significantly add to or alter the Lacey Flint story: If Snow Hadn’t Fallen is more of a slice of life quickie mystery that fits between Now You See Me and Dead Scared, and was probably written in response to the misogyny, homophobia, and prejudice that have reared their ugly heads in the news lately. A young Pakistani man is set on fire in a public park by a group of men, and Lacey, a witness, is put on the task force to solve the mystery. At first it looks like a straight-up hate crime, but as Lacy digs, she discovers something even worse.
The second novella, Here Be Dragons, features Lacey’s love interest, Mark Joesbury, of Scotland Yard’s Covert Operations Unit, in an undercover role as he tries to ferret out a massive terrorism plot. It, too, would be a simple padding of the series, except for the fact that there is a major cliffhanger at the end of this one, which readers will need to know when going into Book #5, whenever that comes out!
I’m not so sure that this is a considerate gesture to her readers; while we are all pleased by the prospect of getting more tidbits about Lacey while we wait for a major book, those fans who are paper-and-ink readers only and don’t have (or have access to) an e-reader will be left out in the cold, possibly not even knowing that these novellas exist! But for those who can read electronically, check your local library for both of these titles as e-books so you won’t have to miss out.