Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'dIf you’ve been around the blog a while, you’ll know already that I have a love/hate, love to hate, hate to love relationship with Flavia de Luce, which is weird ’cause she’s twelve and also fictional, but what are you gonna do. It’s been an uneven series from the start, and the seventh book was really really terrible, but still as soon as I saw this eighth book up for grabs I was like, well, okay, I’ll read that.

Things that I love about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s precocious and a know-it-all and I might possibly have some experience with that and I like to imagine that my younger self could have gotten up to some serious Adventures if only, well, many things.
2) Bishop’s Lacey. I love this little town and all the people that Flavia bothers on the regular and I like that the characters change along with Flavia’s perceptions of them and become far more interesting as the series goes on.
3) The page count. These books are very short, 300 undersized pages or so, and they read fast, so you can get your fill of murder mystery and then move on with your life.

Things that I hate about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s often incredibly wrong and insufferable about it, and also she has aged only a year during these eight books when it reads like she’s aged about five.
2) Buckshaw. I like Flavia’s sisters all right, but they’ve been sort of cast off from the stories of late, and I used to like Flavia’s dad until he got weird, but really the awful person here is Flavia’s mother — who leaves an estate to an actual child and thinks that things will still be all right at home?
3) The body count. Did I mention that there have been more than eight murders in this town (and Canada, I guess) in LESS THAN A YEAR? And no one seems to bat an eye? Is this how Jessica Fletcher got her start?

This book really takes the cake on the murder thing, too, with a dead body that reminded me of the one in The Silkworm, all hung upside down and awful looking. Flavia, of course, finds this body and starts investigating and gets in all sorts of trouble for what, in the end, turns out to be a very strange and anticlimactic solution.

It also wins for the most dysfunctional home life storyline, as Flavia returns home from Canada to find out that her father is sick in hospital and unable to receive visitors, and somehow in the four seconds that she was in Canada her sister has become unengaged and both of her sisters can’t even work up the ability to properly hate her and so of course it’s no wonder she becomes obsessed with a murder case, I guess, but also, seriously, I have no idea how Mrs. Mullet and Dogger have been left in charge of this mess without Child Services stepping in.

The Canada shenanigans, surprisingly, make for the most interesting part of this book when Flavia calls upon Miss Bannerman to help with her murder investigations in London. Very little of the top-secret-hush-hush-whatever stuff is involved, just two chemists hanging out solving a mystery, which is much of what I initially enjoyed about the series.

I kind of wish this book had been more terrible, so that I could give up Flavia for good, but instead it was just about fairly decent and I’m going to have to wait for Bradley to end this series before I can stop reading it. At least they’re very short books.

Recommendation: Oh god don’t even start this series it is a roller coaster of emotions. But if you’re caught up in the series, you’re probably going to read this one no matter what, so go ahead.

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Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

Weekend Shorts: Wayback Machine Edition

So, this summer went kind of insane on me, and I ended up reading a bunch of comics and then not blogging about them. So this post is about things I read, uh, two or more months ago and am just now getting around to writing about. Please forgive me for everything I am about to forget to mention!

Locke & Key, Vols. 2 & 3, “Head Games” and “Crown of Shadows”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key Vol. 2Man, I really do love Locke & Key. The art is amazing, the colors are amazing, the stories are amazing… it’s a complete package.

In Volume 2, our creepy ghostly Bad Guy, Zack, has failed to think about the fact that teachers remember their students, especially when said students show up in the exact same high-school age body decades later. While Zack’s cleaning up that mess, Bode finds a key that literally opens up a person’s head and lets you put things in and take them out. This is useful for both studying for a test and for removing debilitating fear, but of course these benefits don’t come without consequences.

In Volume 3, we get an awesome Bad Guy Spirit Fight to start things off, which, awesome. Then we see Kinsey making some new friends who lead her off to see some weird and dangerous stuff for funsies, and we see that Nina’s alcoholism is both out of control and maybe possibly kind of useful in this strange house. But mostly out of control. Also, even better than the Spirit Fight, we get a creepy-ass Shadow Fight, which is really kind of horrifying if you stop to think about it too long.

I’m going to stop thinking about it right now, and maybe go grab some more of these trades off hoopla. Love!

Giant Days, #13-14, by John Allison and Max Sarin
Giant Days #13After the Great Binge of Spring 2016, it took a while for new issues to show up on hoopla. But when they did, I grabbed them! (Of course, now there are a bunch more and I must go get them all!) Issue #13 is a day in the life of Esther — she’s run away from university back to mum and dad, and although it seems like a great adventure at first, it’s not uni and therefore is the worst. Luckily Susan and Daisy are on the case! Issue #14 covers the college student’s worst nightmare — putting off housing so long that there’s nothing left to find! A mad dash and a secret app may or may not get my favorite girls a home in the end. Can’t stop, won’t stop, loving this series.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThis one’s not a comic, but an audiobook. One of my book-club-mates picked this one out as an easy summer read, which, yes, but after my discovery, uh, seven years ago (so ooooold), that the series doesn’t really hold up to a second reading, I was not terribly excited. Then I discovered that I had the option to have Stephen Fry read the book to me, and I was like, oh, well, that’s all right then.

As I said oh those many years ago, a lot of this book relies on its unexpectedness, so again, it wasn’t really the most exciting re-read. But! If you have the chance to talk about the book with a bunch of people reading it for the first time, it’s totally worth it, even if the book club meeting is just people going, “42! Slartibartfast! Vogon poetry! Fjords!” Also, Stephen Fry.

Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley

StilettoHas it really been four years since I read The Rook? On the one hand, it feels like I was just in that hostel in Belgium yesterday, and on the other hand, I feel like I’ve been waiting FOREVER for this sequel. I’m sure there’s a supernatural explanation.

True story, though: I was SOOOOER excited for the sequel up until I had the advance copy in my hot little hands, at which point I realized I remembered almost nothing of the first book and thus feared I would be completely lost. As a friend re-read The Rook, I contemplated doing the same, but I have so little time for reading I decided to just go for it.

And, well, it turned out okay! I think. It helps that the book is mostly not about Myfanwy, the awesome-pants protagonist of the first novel. Instead we start off following a team of Checquy operatives (supernatural mutant-type soldier-types) as they investigate a very strange house with a very strange Oblong of Mystery in the center of it. The Checquy soldiers storm the Oblong, but things go very pear-shaped very quickly to the strains of Bruckner’s 8th. As they do.

Meanwhile, we meet up with Odette Leliefield, a teenage girl who is part of the Grafters, the Checquy’s long-time archenemy, recently come to London to, uh, make up? Odette resents being trapped in a hotel for most of her trip, but since it seems like every time she leaves she ends up with Checquy agents hating the Grafters more than they did before, it’s probably for the best. Especially since Odette has some sad and terrible secrets in her past that might affect this reconciliation more than anyone knows…

I’ll admit this book started off a little rough for me, as the opening chapters were super simplistic and oddly casually racist. I’m hoping that’s because of its advance copy nature and that you won’t see that oddness. But once the story really got going, the oddness either went away or became background noise and I found myself tearing through the novel. It doesn’t have quite the same driving plot that The Rook did, but I was still very curious to see how things were going to go.

I love the way O’Malley sets a scene and plays with language and reality, so that even if what he’s writing makes no sense, it sounds good while you’re reading it. This book doesn’t suffer from Implausibility quite the way the first one did, but there are a couple places that don’t hold up to close inspection — but then again, it’s a book about mutants and body modifiers, so.

If you’ve read The Rook, you should absolutely check out this follow-up, and if you haven’t read The Rook, you should go do so now because it is soooooo good. And then you can read this one if you’re feeling wistful for weirdness.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsIt’s no secret that I love me some Sarah Waters, so when my dear friend Amy picked this book for our book club I was super excited. I looked at the high page count, figured it would take me about two weeks to read it on breaks at work, and started it at the appropriate time.

And then I finished it in one week, on breaks at work, and I was like, oh no, what am I going to do for a WHOLE WEEK while I wait for book club? Thank goodness there are other books in the world!

So yes, it seems like a long book, but it’s a super quick read, at least once it gets going. We start by meeting our protagonist, a Miss Wray, who lives with her mother in England in 1922. The war having taken the rest of their family in one way or another, the Wrays are a bit down on their luck and so have decided to let out most of their upstairs floor to lodgers, or, if we’re being polite, “paying guests.” What a strange way of being polite.

Anyway, said guests, the Barbers are a young married couple who don’t terribly much like each other but what are you gonna do in England in 1922 except stay unhappily married? Well, if you’re a lady in a Sarah Waters book (spoiler? Probably not…) you are going to have a love affair with your lady landlord. A very sexy love affair. Which I read on breaks at work. I rather recommend against that…

Miss Wray and Mrs. Barber spend most of the book sneaking off and having assignations and generally having fun, but then, because again, Sarah Waters, things go terribly horribly wrong and the tone of the book becomes completely different and I kind of actually liked this part of the book better because it had more semblance of plot and excitement but really the whole thing is super great.

I love the way Waters plays with her characters, making them seem sort of one-note at first but then delving slowly into the backstories that have brought them to this place in the novel. I also love how well she sets her scenes; I felt throughout the novel like I knew exactly how the house was set up and where everyone was at a given time so I knew just how worried to be about the things that were happening in one room or another. And, of course, I enjoyed the sneaky history lessons I got here with respect to post-war sentiment, being a lesbian at that time, the English legal system, and especially class structures and conflicts.

There is a lot going on in this book, is what I’m saying, and it’s lovely and wonderful and you should probably go read this immediately. But not at work. It’s weird at work.

Recommendation: For fans of Sarah Waters, lesbian love affairs, and gorgeous writing.

Rating: 9/10

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in RuinsI loved Life After Life with a fiery burning passion, and when I heard there was a second novel in that universe coming out, I may have done a happy dance. I couldn’t wait to spend more time in Ursula’s strange time-altering world.

So when I realized early on that this book, which is about Ursula’s brother Teddy, that the whole reincarnation-ish aspect of Life After Life was going to be pretty much ignored, I was hugely disappointed. I had thought it would be fascinating to see how Ursula’s lives affected Teddy, but instead there’s just a brief mention near the beginning about how sometimes Teddy felt like he could see his whole life ahead of him and then a straightforward novel. Well, I mean, straightforward compared to Life After Life.

What Atkinson does here instead is jump all around in Teddy’s one life, writing briefly of his childhood and then his war years and then his married years and then his widower years and then back to the war years and then forward to the grandpa years and then some chapters from the point of view of his kid and grandkids and wife thrown in for good measure.

Many of the vignettes of the novel are told more than once from different perspectives (present, past, other characters), and it is fascinating to see how the same event can look completely different. Atkinson does this great thing, too, where she relates the story as if for the very first time, so that the variations in the story don’t get any sort of prominence and you almost have to work to remember that that one character thought something completely different had happened. I almost want to go back and read the book again, to experience the first half or so the right way (I waited a long time for the weird to happen) and to catch all the little bits I know I must have missed.

Setting aside the narrative style, the narrative itself is also a pretty good one. Where Life After Life covered World War II and the London Blitz and the horror of the war in England, this book is more about Teddy as a survivor of that war. There is plenty about his role in the war itself, bombing the heck out of Germany and presuming every flight in his plane would be the last, but there’s even more about how that part of his life is almost completely erased after it’s over. He’s expected to move on, and so he does, sort of, but the war is always in the back of his mind and on the pages of this book. And then there’s this whole other storyline about family and parenthood and what it means to love someone who doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) love you back and what love even is, really, and the whole thing is heartbreaking in a million different ways.

It’s so good, guys. I wanted it to be a different book, but it stubbornly refused to listen to me, and I’m so glad it didn’t. I may never get around to Atkinson’s mysteries (which I do very much want to read), but I will read the heck out of whatever giant historical novel she writes next, and y’all know that’s saying something.

Recommendation: For lovers of Life After Life, but especially for those who wanted to love Life After Life but couldn’t get past the reincarnation. This is your book!

Rating: 9/10

The Shadow Cabinet, by Maureen Johnson

The Shadow CabinetHas it really been two years since I read The Madness Underneath? Am I going to have to wait another two years to see how this ends?? Things are getting crazy up in this series and I don’t think I can handle it.

If you haven’t read the series, seriously, start with the first book, read the three existing books as fast as possible, and then come back here. If you read on without doing so, I can’t promise you won’t be spoiled to the best parts of the first books.

This book starts off right where the last one left off, with an upsettingly dead person. Sad face! Rory and Co. are pretty sure the UDP is a ghost now and decide to go track UDP down, but they’re already pretty busy looking for the crazy Jane Quaint and Rory’s kidnapped classmate Charlotte. Then Rory, in the midst of breaking all the rules, meets a new ghost-seer with a wealth of information about London and ghosts and even secret society conspiracy theories that are totally just wacko theories except perhaps they’re not? Meanwhile, we get the back story on crazy Jane, who helped a pair of twins murder a bunch of people in an attempt to beat death, which twins are totally dead but possibly not for long.

This book is nuts, but still awesome because Maureen Johnson does not know how to write a not-awesome sentence or a not-awesome Rory. Rory is the best, guys, even if she is incredibly terrible at following rules. And I am super-interested in all the new characters Johnson introduces and what they’re going to do in the next, last book.

This book also introduces a lot of that intrigue and subterfuge that I like, and even though I felt like things were going a little off the rails, plot-wise (Secret societies! Magic stones! Cults of personality! People who are only mostly dead!), I was still totally interested in how everything was going to play out, and it played out quite nicely. The ending was even sufficiently creepy without resorting to killing people I like! Very excellent.

Recommendation: For those who like ghost stories with subterfuge.

Rating: 8/10