Tag Archives: books

Books: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

If you know anything about me and my writing, you probably know I got my start with Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved Holmes since childhood, but I won’t bother to enumerate my passions here. Let’s just say that this book came highly recommended to me by people who know my background.

This is the first in a series called… “Lady Sherlock” or something? I didn’t realize it going in. And here is where I’m going to sound like a purist snob, but it’s not my favorite thing when people decide Sherlock Holmes must actually be a brilliant woman disguised or masquerading as a man. Not because I have anything against brilliant women, or female detectives, or brilliant Victorian female detectives or any combination thereof. But because I often feel like, at that point, the author should come up with his or her own character from whole cloth rather than grafting it onto the famous name of Sherlock Holmes. Either they’re doing it for marketing power, or because they don’t have faith in their own creations, or possibly a bit of both. Whatever the reason, I’m not a fan.

So. In a nutshell: Charlotte Holmes is the youngest daughter in an upper class family in Victorian London. When she falls from grace, she must find a way to get through the world on her own. Her chief asset is her great intellect. You can guess where it goes from there.

The good: This is [mostly] very well written. I enjoyed a number of the characters and the mystery was a fairly good one.

The bad: The first few pages are somewhat garbled and confusing as they jump from viewpoint to viewpoint. Charlotte isn’t actually all that interesting a character in and of herself. It wasn’t until the second half of the book that things really took off and made me want to keep reading. And the author goes to ridiculous lengths to twist Holmes canon into this new form. We’re supposed to gasp once Moriarty is mentioned, but honestly, who didn’t see it coming? Finally, the answer to the mystery comes in a rush and via post rather than Holmes or any of her associates working it out for themselves. Sure, they did a fair amount of deducing earlier on, but the ultimate solution is laid out for them in an explanatory letter.

Part of me supposes this book is simply meant to set up the situation for subsequent titles in the series. (I know there is at least one other.) So perhaps I can forgive the laborious construction of the first half of the novel. But I think I’d honestly more enjoy a book about Lord Ingram or Inspector Treadles or even Mrs. Watson than another one about Charlotte “Sherlock” Holmes. The forced romantic angle between her and Ingram, too, did not work for me. I can believe in the chemistry—it’s well written enough to work—but *sigh*. I could simply have done without it entirely. The fact that Charlotte made such a stupid decision that caused her fall from Society, too, just makes so little sense to me, despite the attempted rationalizations. I suppose it humanizes her to have her make mistakes, but this one beggared belief. Yet the entire book is predicated on it.

So… yeah. It’s by no means a terrible book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, would even have considered 4.5 until that flat ending. The book is entertaining despite its main character rather than because of her. And I still can’t love the borrowing of Sherlock Holmes by this author when, in this case, he’s actually a non-entity. But that’s a personal bias.

Will I read the next one? Eh. Maybe? I’m in no rush for it, but if I saw it at the library, I might at least pick it up for a look. ::shrug::

Books: The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Setterfield

This is another book that was recommended to me, and… it wasn’t terrible, but… I had a difficult time staying interested. Which is strange given the author works very hard to make everything mysterious. Maybe she tries too hard?

I’m not sure I can accurately describe my feelings about this book. Let’s start with the story itself. Margaret Lea is the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer, and she helps her father in his shop. Her mother is an invalid, and the family has a secret: Margaret was born with a conjoined twin who, when cut free, died. They all pretend it never happened, but the “ghost” is there, so to speak. In fact, Margaret spends an almost ridiculous amount of time dwelling on this ghost, which is very real to her. And perhaps I’m being insensitive? But I just couldn’t feel anything about this. Maybe because Margaret herself has very little personality. I suspect this is by design, since Margaret narrates the novel, and her job is to actually tell someone else’s story. If her character were too strong, the other story would fail to shine through. It’s a delicate kind of balance, quite the undertaking by Setterfield. But Margaret is nothing more than lightly tinted glass, and that prevented me somewhat from being fully invested in her or her story.

Margaret sometimes writes little biographies of authors. These are nothing more than tracts, really, but a famous author named Vida Winter notices them and asks Margaret to come stay at her house in Yorkshire so as to write her life story. Miss Winter is known for telling many lies about her past, but she’s old and ill now, and wants to have the truth recorded for posterity or something. So then we get a different story about twin girls growing up in very strange circumstances, &tc. &tc.

And somehow this story isn’t actually all that compelling either. It’s odd, no lie, and there are twists, though I suspected as much if only because I had friends tell me they’d read this book more than once. And it’s the kind of book where, if someone reads it more than once, you conclude it must be because they want to re-read based on some new knowledge. You know, like when you watch a movie that has a big twist, you then want to watch it again and look for all the clues? As I was reading this book, the only reason I could imagine anyone would have for reading it again would be that. Of course, I’m sure many people like it well enough to want to read it for the pleasure of it, but… Overall, it felt somewhat lacking to me. It introduced many characters and pretended to delve when, in fact, we’re left with only slices of information and/or personalities. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I knew anyone intimately, except maybe Margaret, and she’s the least interesting one.

It’s not a bad book. I gave it three stars, which is to say, it’s average. There are things that I’m sure will stay with me. But overall, for me, this one was just okay. And I did feel like I had to drag myself back to it now and then because the story didn’t light a need in me to keep reading. “Idle,” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this book. If I hadn’t finished it, I might have idly wondered what happened in the story. The prose itself feels idle, languid. There is no urgency in it, and therefore no urgency was created in me to read, to finish, to find out. So much description… but so very little actual tale.

_____

I saw after finishing this book that Setterfield also wrote Bellman & Black, another book once recommended to me. That one I was never able to get into; I made it maybe thirty pages in? So perhaps this author just isn’t for me.

Books: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I’ve known about this book for a long time and had it on my Amazon wish list, but then I had this brilliant moment of realizing my library probably had a copy? And it did! With a less cool cover, but whatever.

The book (which is about a decade old now) recounts the disappearance and eventual discovery of the murder of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman. She was a British woman working in Tokyo as a hostess. Parry does a fair job of explaining what “hostessing” is, but I think it might be difficult for those who don’t know much about Japanese culture to fully understand it. It’s easy for people to jump to the idea that Lucie was a prostitute, but she wasn’t. In Japan, there are clubs where men can pay to just spend time chatting with pretty young ladies. They’ll buy the women drinks, they’ll do karaoke with them… And many of these clubs have foreigners working in them because some of the men like to talk to foreign women, even just practice their English with them.

Still, such a setup lends itself to predators in a number of ways as well, and unfortunately Lucie crossed paths with one of them.

It’s a long book, and detailed. It started strong but for me began to wobble about halfway through. Parry shifts focus from Lucie, her family, and the search in favor of the accused. Who is indeed a strange character. But I felt a lot more time was spent with this guy than perhaps strictly necessary, particularly since there is a lot not known about him. He grew up rich in Osaka, but as someone whose family originated in Korea, he also faced a certain amount of discrimination. Eventually he became a serial rapist and suspected murderer. Parry is crazy fascinated with the guy, it seems, but has never been granted an interview, so… Meanwhile, he does talk to Lucie’s family, her friends, etc. That part of the book feels richer to me, and more worthy.

The bits about the eventual trials go on for a while, too. I absolutely applaud the thoroughness of this book, but I’ll admit I started to skim at places.

As a person who loves true crime, this one was really something. It will stay with me for sure. But potential readers may want to prepare to be a tad bogged down by the minutiae.

Books: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This one was recommended by a friend, and the prologue had me hooked. I’m just sorry the rest of the book wasn’t from that character’s point of view because the voice of the prologue was, to me, far more interesting and authentic. Not that the rest of the book wasn’t, but…

Well, let’s start with the premise. Darren Mathews is black. He also happens to be a Texas Ranger. On suspension pending a grand jury’s findings in a murder. But when an FBI friend puts Darren on the trail of a small-town murder that’s possibly a hate crime, Darren heads to Lark, Texas to investigate.

I’m from Texas. Grew up in a small town then moved to a bigger town then went to to school at UT. Locke’s descriptions are spot on, her tone perfectly captures the culture. (No surprise given she’s from Houston herself.) I read some reviews saying it was all too slow and too descriptive, so it’s possible that I liked this book more than some just because of my connection to the location. For me, reading this book was like going home.

Still and all, it isn’t perfect. Darren is not a particularly interesting main character. The prologue is told from another character’s POV, one I found much more interesting, but also one that isn’t as evident in the rest of the book. Instead, the chief female character is the murdered man’s widow, and she’s every kind of irritating. Between her and Darren, I will say there were times when I was a bit bored and annoyed with the book. Not the story, mind, just the book. The story is a good one, a solid mystery, though it has a somewhat abrupt resolution. And the book itself doesn’t entirely resolve as it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I found that to be the most annoying thing about it. Because it makes me think maybe Locke intended or intends to write another one? And yet I feel more or less done with these characters. This doesn’t feel like it should be a series.

Final bit of exasperation comes from the fact the book needed at least one more thorough copy edit. A character named Mack is called “Mark” on page 19, and, well, a few other little things that probably wouldn’t bother anyone not an editor. But having worked as one, they did bother me.

I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, would have gone higher if not for that ending. This is a mystery in the vein of something like True Detective—not a fast-paced thriller, but a meandering thread that is more character based than plot driven. A bit like my Peter, in fact. If you want to immerse yourself in small-town Texas, be disturbed by the true racial undercurrents of the American South, this is the book for you.

Books: One Day in December by Josie Silver

I’m a sucker for love-at-first-sight stories and tales of destined soul mates. Which is why, when I read an online blurb about this book, I thought it would be right up my alley. And it started out well, for sure. But about 30% of the way in…

Just so you have a sense of what I’m talking about (in case this book is unfamiliar to you), let me give the setup in a nutshell: On… wait for it… one day in December, Laurie is riding a bus and sees a guy out the window at the bus stop. And it’s the aforementioned love at first sight. The guy reacts a bit slow, though, and doesn’t make it onto the bus in time. Laurie and her best friend Sarah then spend a year looking for “bus boy.”

So far so good. I liked Laurie and Sarah, though Sarah is a bit too perfect. I realize the reader is seeing her largely through the eyes of Laurie and Jack (more on that in a minute), people who love her and do believe she’s amazing, but… Please. No one is saintly enough to always have charitable thoughts about even their best friends or girlfriends. And best friends/girlfriends are not always wonderful, which is pretty much how we see Sarah 100% of the time. Blech.

Anyway, it’s not really giving anything away to say that, roughly a year after the bus incident, Sarah brings home a new boyfriend (Jack) who is, of course, bus boy.

This is where I started to struggle with the book a bit. It became harder and harder to continue to like Laurie, or to like Jack much at all. The author works hard to make them each sympathetic, and I acknowledge Silver also seemed to be laboring to give Jack and Laurie facets and depth. Unfortunately, for me it didn’t really work. I found Laurie whiney and Jack to be a jerk.

The story is told from two POVs, and that didn’t work much for me, either, because I didn’t find Jack all that distinctive in tone. It’s not that he and Laurie sounded the same—not at all. He just wasn’t interesting. Self-pitying asshole seemed to be his main mode, and I found it tough to live in such a character’s head for any length of time.

Also, the book felt like a slog through a good chunk of the middle.

I will say I liked the ending. So, in short, it started well and ended well, but the middle 50% was a trial. This book ends just as you would predict, so for books like this one, the journey toward that end is meant to be the fun bit. In this case, however, it wasn’t fun at all. I ended up giving it three stars on Goodreads, but only because the moderately amusing ending saved it from receiving two. Even now, I’m thinking this is more a 2.5-star book, but I rounded up like they teach us in school.

Maybe chick lit just isn’t my tea.

Random

Today I got frustrated and angry because someone bought my ebook and then returned it. Look, I understand that if you click “buy” on accident, or if you get a few pages in and decide it’s not for you (read the sample first!), but this person had the book for at least a week because s/he bought it at full price, and it’s now on sale. That means they could very likely have bought it, read it, and returned it. Which is a crap thing to do to an author. Especially an indie author. Publishing houses have lots of money to back them; a return or two won’t hurt. But us little guys (and gals)… Someone told me they thought Amazon had a policy that didn’t allow returns on ebooks if the reader goes past a certain percentage? Is that true? Last time I looked (and it’s been a while), it wasn’t, but maybe Amazon got smart? Then again, Amazon seems never to have been on the side of the authors.

Anyway, to distance myself from my woes and irritation, I decided to distract myself by cataloguing my various tarot and oracle decks. Final tallies:

  • 39 tarot decks
  • 7 Lenormand decks
  • 15 oracle decks
  • 9 “other”

I posted a new tarot video to YouTube, too, so please go take a look, Like, and Subscribe! Maybe I’ll do this instead of writing. (I do private readings for those who are interested. You can’t return them for a refund, though!)

Books: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Here’s another one that I didn’t realize was part of a series until I read some of the other reviews after the fact. It seems like, though, that the main female character in this book was a minor character in a previous book, so maybe I didn’t miss anything too important.

First, the pros of the prose, so to speak: I like stories where a middle-age woman gets to have a romance. And I’m a sucker for a whirlwind foreign romance, too.

That’s about all I can say that I enjoyed about this book.

The tale in a nutshell (no spoilers): 54-year-old Vivian goes to England over the Christmas holiday with her daughter who has been tapped to help dress an unnamed Duchess. This means they’re staying on the Sandringham estate, in the Duke and Duchess’ “cottage,” no less. Well, okay, I guess I can relax my sense of reality in the name of wish fulfillment. But I won’t say it was easy.

Anyway, Vivian meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. And they hit it off. And… that’s really the whole story, more or less. There are contrived conflicts, but they never last more than a couple pages because both Vivian and Malcolm are incredibly reasonable people. So there’s no real tension, just a sense of meandering as Malcolm introduces Vivian to first Sandringham and then London. And then they must negotiate their long-distance relationship, and that’s pretty much it.

What I saw in many reviews was that this book was boring, and I’d mostly agree. It’s cute, but it’s far from compelling. Neither Vivian nor Malcolm are a commanding presence on the page. The reader alternates between their POVs, but most of what we’re privy to is repetitive and fairly uninteresting. In fact, the big drawback here is that there is so much telling in this story and so very little showing. We’re told over and over again how attracted each of these characters is to the other, but I never really felt that at all. I was just supposed to believe it because they said so.

Also, a lot of these characters sounded alike. You would think a woman from Oakland, California would sound pretty distinctly different from a man serving in the Queen’s household, but… apparently not! Everyone in this book says or thinks “wow” constantly. And on one page I read “Thank God” no fewer than three times in as many paragraphs. Enough to draw my attention, anyway. Was this book rushed to print? Did it get an edit at all? Did they talk to anyone from England? “Wow” is not something I’ve heard a lot while there (and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in London).

Pffftt. I dunno. This one just didn’t work for me. I so wanted to like it, and from what I’ve heard maybe her other books are better? Or maybe her writing style just isn’t something I can jive with. ::shrug::

Books: Death Brings a Shadow by Rosemary Simpson

I picked this one up because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know it was the fourth in a series. So some of the faults I have with this book may be in part because I’m less familiar with the characters than I should be. At the same time, some of the issues wouldn’t be eradicated by that one difference.

Set in, IIRC, 1889, Death Brings a Shadow is a historical mystery/romance featuring Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter, who are apparently established characters in what’s called “The Gilded Age” series. She is the daughter of a New York lawyer, and he is the estranged son of a Southern… plantation owner? This is what I gathered, anyway; Geoffrey is now an ex-Pinkerton detective who solves mysteries with Prudence. Ostensibly there is some kind of burgeoning relationship developing there, but I didn’t really feel any chemistry in this particular book.

The story is of Prudence and Geoffrey accompanying the Dickson family to their winter home on Bradford Island off the coast of Georgia. It isn’t winter, mind; Eleanor Dickson, the daughter of the house and also Prudence’s best friend, is slated to marry a Southerner named Teddy Bennett. Eleanor’s father bought the island from Teddy’s family, but the Bennetts still have a home there (Wildacre) while Dickson also built a massive mansion (Seapoint). Anyway, when Eleanor is found dead a couple days before the wedding, at first glance it seems like a terrible accident. But then we get some juju priestesses involved, and the usual Southern resentment toward “Yankees,” and… Well, everything goes in a fairly typical fashion from there.

The plot is interesting, but the characters made it less so, unfortunately. As a child of the South myself, I’m heartily sick of the caricatures drawn of us. The heroes are always some son of a planter who saw the error of the ways of slavery well before anyone in their families. (Enter Geoffrey Hunter.) The villains are always resentful slave owners or sore losers of the Civil War. There never seems to be any gray area, or at least not any that’s well shaded. That is to say, I can see Simpson tried to make characters with some depth and dimension, but it’s a prickly area to be sure. Teddy is the closest to straddling the two extremes, but he’s fairly colorless and boring. The murderer is plain from pretty much the moment they’re introduced (leaving it gender neutral for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled). Most of the characters have one chief trait and are otherwise cardboard. And I found Prudence obnoxious. She’s supposed to be “strong,” I guess, but you can be strong without being dislikable—yes, even if you disagree with the people around you. Simpson works so hard to give Prudence the moral high ground, when I’m sure almost anyone would concede she has it without all the high dudgeon. So Prudence mostly comes off as condescending, which makes her supremely annoying.

The use of conjure women in this book, too… Again, coming from some of that background, it just really bothered me. Simpson was careful not to be disrespectful (though killing a cat? no thanks), but I guess I always feel a bit wary when seeing these things depicted because there are so many clichés and solidified falsehoods in pop culture.

Some of Simpson’s writing style just wasn’t for me, either, and that’s a largely personal thing. For example, she head hops. One paragraph will be one person’s thoughts and/or from their perspective, the next will be someone else’s. This is a dated way of writing that used to be common some 30+ years ago. Like, it happens in Dune, which is considered a classic, and which I love. It’s basically third-person, omniscient point of view in that the “narrator” seems to know what everyone thinks and feels. But authors today are told to avoid that. And since I see it so much less now, it’s very obvious when it does happen, and very distracting. Also, Simpson seems to be one of those authors who likes to show how much she’s learned in her research. Details are one thing, but the need to explain stuff just to show you know it is another, and that’s what a lot of the “details” in this book (embalming!) felt like.

Anyway, mixed feelings overall. I don’t know if maybe I’d like one of the others of this series more? Since so many of my issues with this one stems from the setting… But if Prudence is as shrill in the other books as in this one, then maybe she’s just not a character I can enjoy.