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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Catching Up

I'm still reading Sei Shonogon's Pillow Book a little at a time and still enjoying it.  None of her entries are very long which makes it easy to read one, or several, within a short time.  It makes me smile to think of her interest in clothes.  The clothing for both men and women in that period (at least for the 10th c. court figures she describes) was elaborate and colorful, and Shonagon gives frequent admiring descriptions of what people were wearing.

The interest in poetry also surprises me--reciting famous poems on cue, recognizing a line from a famous poet and being able to complete the poem, and writing original poetry was both an entertainment and a challenge.  One person creates a line of an original poem, and another must come up with the first line.  Often notes were sent couched in poetry that must be replied to poetically--and the poems were read aloud and judged by an audience.  For example, if a court figure sent Shonagon a poem, she knew the poem she sent in response would be read and evaluated.  Word play is another form of entertainment appreciated by the court in both names and jokes--I frequently have to flip to the end notes to get the implied meanings.

In the meantime, I continue to read mysteries and police procedurals in a completely different manner from Shonogan's Pillow Book.  I swallow these whole.  No reading a few pages and putting down a mystery or a police procedural for me--I'm going to finish before going to bed in most cases.  

About two weeks ago, I read J.M. Gregson's An Academic Death from Endeavor Press offered through NetGalley.  I discovered that earlier books in this series are available for free in Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program and that was enough encouragement to read more.

Making a Killing is the second book in Gregson's Lambert & Hook series of police procedural series.  The cover has little to do with the book or with the murder of an estate agent whose body is discovered in a beautiful old home full of grace and character.

What I like about the series is the effort the author puts into character development.  All of the suspects have a grudge against the murdered Stanley Freeman, and as Superintendent Lambert and DS Hook investigate, the suspects reveal themselves little by little through the skillful questioning of Lambert and Hook and through their own thoughts.

First published in 1990, Making a Killing avoids graphic descriptions and concentrates on the investigation as each suspect evolves into a genuine individual.  Freeman was an unpleasant man whose actions caused grief and resentment both in his employees and his wife, and it is easy to sympathize with the grievances of each suspect.  Gregson manages to keep the field open through most of the book, relating the motives, the behaviors, and the alibis--and the failures of those alibis--gradually.  I enjoyed the skillful development of characters, the relationship of respect and wit between Lambert and Hook, the ability to visualize the scenes, and the author's intelligent and thoughtful prose.

I actually enjoyed this one more than An Academic Death (which was the 14th in the series and my first encounter with J.M. Gregson's Lambert & Hook).

And since they are free, I was on to the next in the series as soon as I finished.

Kindle Unlimited

Police Procedural.  1990/2015.  

Dead on Course finds Lambert & Hook investigating a man found dead on the golf course of the Castle on Wye Hotel and Country Club.  Once again, there are plenty of suspects and again, the plot avoids the sensational aspect of gore, concentrating instead on characters, motives, and careful plotting.

These books don't have to be read in order, each crime is conducted well within the confines of the book. The mysteries rely on astute and resourceful police work, not sensational or bizarre murders by evil or demonic characters.  The guilty party may have sociopathic tendencies--or may be an ordinary individual pushed by circumstance, but the murders are not senseless or random.  The killer has a reason for the murder, rather than killing simply for the pleasure of it.

Kindle Unlimited

Police Procedural.  1991/2015.

The Red Queen Rules by Bourne Morris is the third in the series featuring Red Solaris and the journalism department at a fictitious campus in Nevada.  It is a timely mystery that covers sex trafficking, freedom of speech issues on campus, and white supremacy attitudes. 

The issues covered are important ones and are given careful consideration, but the novel itself did not appeal to me as much as the two previous novels did.  Red, now dean of the journalism school, wants to stand up for freedom of speech when a group on campus that espouses white supremacy invites a speaker whose presence and opinions have initiated violent protests at previous engagements.   The dilemma--when does free speech become hate speech and is the purpose of the event to provoke violence?

While the issues are all quite pertinent at present and are interesting and well done, the involvement of Red strikes me as ridiculous for several reasons that I won't mention because they would reveal too much.  

Each of the three books in the Red Solaris series deals with important topics, but the romance side of the book detracts somewhat by adding unlikely scenarios.  Red's "detective" endeavors would satisfy me more if they were more realistic.

I did like the eventual response on the part of the students who opposed the philosophy of the hate group and could only wish that in this controversial period of our history people would opt for nonviolence with as much grace and determination.

NetGalley/Henery Press

Mystery/Crime.  Dec. 6, 2016.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Three Totally Different Genres: Louise Penny, Julia Claiborne Johnson, N.K. Jemisin

In between researching stuff about making handmade paper and other crafty projects, I read several good novels this past week.  And made some more paper!  

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny is now one of my favorites in the Three Pines series. Along with other followers of this well-loved series, I want to live in Three Pines and interact with Ruth (and Rosa), Gabri, Olivier, Myrna, Clara and other villagers.

The Great Reckoning takes place partly in Three Pines and partly at the Surete Academy of Quebec.  After nearly dying in his attempt to clean up the corruption in the Surete, Chief Inspector Gamache takes a new position as Commander of the Surete's Academy with the intention of getting rid of the vicious practices (and individuals) put in place by the previous adminsitration and intended to continue the corruption in the Surete itself.  The practices are ingrained and the solutions will be challenging.

As usual, Gamache's approach is unconventional.  His decisions about which professors to keep and which to get rid of and which young applicants to accept cause surprise and concern even among those who know and trust Gamache.  When some of his decisions result in unanticipated and unwelcome events,  Gamache and some of the young cadets are endangered.

I love this series, and A Great Reckoning exceeded my expectations.  This may be the best so far in this series...or do I say that too often?

Library copy.

Police Procedural.  2016.  400 pages.

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson has been on my TBR list since Lark mentioned it.  Funny, poignant, and Salingeresque are some of the terms used to describe the novel, and I found all of them to be appropriate.  

When the reclusive author M.M. Banning finds herself in financial difficulties, she knows she must write another book, the first in decades.  In order to do so, she needs an assistant to manage her household--mostly as a nanny for her nine-year-old son Frank, an eccentric genius with an unusual wardrobe, an encyclopedic store of facts, and a few other quirks that make him uniquely interesting, vulnerable, and often difficult to manage.

Enter Alice Whitley, who at the request of her boss Isaac Vargas, Banning's publisher leaves New York to join the Banning household in Hollywood.

Parts of the novel are funny and joyful, but while we may love and admire a child like this in literature and revel in his eccentricities--life isn't always easy or fun for the child or for those who love him.  Julia Claiborne Johnson makes the most of both of these aspects without going overboard with the fact that children like Frank are alienated from their peers.

Be Frank with Me was a pleasure.


Contemporary fiction.  2016.  309 pages.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison was a compelling introduction to her new trilogy.  I read The Thousand Kingdoms trilogy (reviewed here) last year and was impressed, but this book blew me away.  I was immediately engrossed, found it difficult to put it down, read until late, and finished the next morning. 

From the blurb:  

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. 

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. 

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester. 

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

Told in 3 narrative strands that you know will fit together, even though you don't know when or how, the novel begins with a mother who discovers her young son's body.  Essun is an orogene (orogenes can control the environment for good or ill and are feared or used according to the situation), but Essun who has disguised herself as an ordinary member of the community.  

Damalya's sections deal with the treatment of orogenes who are discovered in the general population and considered feral (orogenes are bred and trained at the Fulcrum).  Any orogenes found within the general population are either killed outright or taken by Guardians to the Fulcrum for training.  With this section, we gain a better understanding of Essun's need to hide her abilities.

The third narrative strand follows Syenite, a young woman trained at the Fulcrum, who has earned four rings and aspires to advance in the Fulcrum hierarchy.  She is assigned a mission with ten-ringer, and in the course of their association, learns a great deal more than she wanted to know about the Fulcrum.

A novel about the abuse of power, the artificial divisions of society, the subjugation of elements of the population, and the power of the earth.  Seems to fit right in with some of my own worries at the moment.

Library copy.

Dystopian/Scifi/Fantasy.  2015.  500 pages.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

An Academic Death and Walk into Silence

An Academic Death by J.M. Gregson is the 14th book in the Lambert & Hook series, although it is the first one I've read.

Matthew Upson, a history professor at Gloucestershire University, is reported missing by his wife.  Not that she is in any hurry to get him back. 

 Initially, the fact that a grown man has been missing for a few days does not raise a sense of alarm, but when Upson's mother seeks an interview with Superintendent John Lambert, Lambert develops an uneasy feeling that this  may be more than a missing person case.

DS Bert Hook and Superintendent John Lambert are the main draw in this book; both are likable characters whose long relationship on the job gives them a sense of camaraderie that works well.  There are some wryly funny scenes on the golf course that made me smile and the plot and minor characters kept my interest.

I enjoyed the writing and the characters in An Academic Death, and will be happy to read more.

NetGalley/Endeavor  Press

Police Procedural.  2001; 2016.  Print length:  172 pages.

Walk into Silence by Susan McBride is the first book in a series featuring Detective Jo Larsen.  

Jo Larsen has left her previous job in Dallas for a small town on the outskirts of the city with fewer incidents of serious crime.  

Patrick Dielman's files a missing person report for his wife and seems genuinely concerned about her.  (Yep, another missing person case.)  Jenny Dielman had a bad first marriage which collapsed after the death of her son. Unable to get over the loss of her only child, Jenny has battled depression and grief for several years despite her efforts to start fresh with her marriage to Patrick.

Jo wonders if Jenny needed an escape from her husband, who apparently adores her, but seems controlling, or if Jenny's grief over her son's death has finally overwhelmed her.

Jo's investigation appears to offer a third option--Jenny did not leave by choice.  And if foul play is involved, who would want Jenny dead...and why?

I found Walk into Silence an interesting introduction to a series--allowing room for further character development in succeeding novels.  

Kindle First

Police Procedural.  2016.  Print length:  370 pages. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sei Shonogon's The Pillow Book

It was not my intention to choose The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon because November is nonfiction month, but I love serendipity.

 It started with a letter from an old friend who listed some of the chores she was finally getting around to--  you know, those things we all need to do, but frequently put off.  When writing my reply and mentioning  my own compulsive list-making, I thought about Sei Shonogon, the ultimate list-maker. 

 As soon the thought entered my mind, I had to stop and pull my copy of Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay from the shelf so I could share with Penne some of Sei Shonogon's clever and funny remarks.  (I keep my own list of things inspired by Shonogon's in the back of my journals.  Strange, how simply writing annoying things down turns them into something less annoying and how listing delightful things kind of reverberates through the emotions.)

Lopate only includes a few of the items from Shonogon's lists, although there are plenty available on line.  But I'd never read the entire book itself, and so even before getting back to my letter, I ordered a copy of The Pillow Book from AbeBooks.  I wanted a cheap copy because I didn't know if I would really read the whole thing.  The book arrived within a few days, and I've been reading it ever since with such pleasure that now I want a nice hardcover copy.

The Pillow Book isn't a book that you read straight through, there is no plot line or narrative continuity, and various translators put the writings together differently. The Pillow Book is made up of brief observations, comments, and lists.  I'm only on page 79, and have read 3 novels within the same time span.  But I am reading a little every day--a few pages at a time whenever I feel like sitting down and picking it up.  Usually a couple of times a day.  :)

What has been so enjoyable about it is not simply the lists of hateful things, amusing things, pleasing things, rare things, surprising things, etc., but Shonogon's observations of Japanese court life in the 10th c.  An astute observer, Shonogon makes life a thousand years ago and in a completely foreign culture amazingly vivid and oh-so-very human.  

What I take away from each reading is not the cultural differences or the differences between 10th c and the 21st c, but the similarities, and each time I set the book down, I'm smiling.  (OK--I admit that Shonogon's comments and opinions about plants and trees, while charming in small doses, did get a little tedious after a few pages).  On the other hand, her gossip about members of the court is witty and sly, compassionate and snarky--depending on the situation and the people she is discussing.  

There was a lot of night time visiting in the court, and several entries deal with things that are pleasing or displeasing about a lover's behavior:

A gentleman has visited one secretly. Though he is wearing a tall, lacquered hat, he nevertheless wants no one to see him. He is so flurried, in fact, that on leaving he bangs into something with his hat. Most hateful! It is annoying too when he lifts up the Iyo blind that hangs at the entrance of the room, then lets it fall with a great rattle. If it is a head-blind, things are still worse, for being more solid it makes a terrible noise when it is dropped. There is no excuse for such carelessness.

A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find it is not as unpleasant as all that.)

And for all book lovers:

Pleasing things: finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.

Rare things:

A son-in-law who's praised by his wife's father. Likewise, a wife who's loved by her mother-in-law. 

The above excerpts are what first drew me to The Pillow Book when I discovered it by means of The Art of the Personal Essay some twenty years ago, but reading about the court activity is what fascinates me now. 

My translation is by Ivan Morris and includes much about the process of translation and organization of the book, as well as plenty of footnotes and additional information about the times in which Shonogon was writing.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Stalker on the Fens by Joy Ellis

Joy Ellis' first Nikki Galena book was published in 2010, and NetGalley has been releasing them for the last year here in the States.  This series has become one of my favorites, and with each NetGalley release, I have indulged in the world Ellis has created in the fens and in the characters of Nikki and her faithful team, reading and reviewing with genuine pleasure.

Stalker in the Fens, the fifth book in the series, continues the crime-fighting adventures of DI Nikki Galena and DS Joseph Easter.   Each book works as a stand-alone, so don't worry if you don't begin with the first book.  It is nice to see the development from book to book, but Ellis is skillful at developing each plot and set of characters--although there are occasional references to previous characters and events, each plot is self-contained.

Nikki's friend Helen is severely injured in a dreadful accident.  While she is trapped in a cellar and in and out of consciousness, someone speaks to her.  A man is also trapped and injured.  At first, his voice is comforting, but then he says something that shocks her.  

When Helen is discovered and rescued, her injuries are such that she remembers very little about her experience.  A year later, however, she begins having flashbacks; she remembers the man and what he told her.  The thing is--there was no one else in the cellar when Helen was found.

About the same time that Helen has begun remembering some of the events surrounding her injury, she feels she is being watched.  

Nikki and Joseph take her fear seriously, but are not certain whether her flashbacks and feeling of being stalked are real or part of post-traumatic stress.  

Another complex plot with well-developed characters.  Ellis can't write fast enough for me--I want the next one.

NetGalley/Joffe Books

Crime/Police Procedural.  Oct. 18, 2016.  Print length:  311 pages.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Saturday Thoughts

I'm still reading, but so many of the NetGalley books are not being published until 2017.  At present, I have 12 reviews scheduled through April of next year.  My last library books proved to be poor choices, but hopefully, this batch will be better.  And I have a stack of ARCs that arrived in the mail.  

My crafty and mail art activities continue, although those are mostly posted on my other blog.  My studio is complete chaos--even worse than usual and beginning to wear me down.  When I attempt to clean and organize, something turns up that I need to try, and I get distracted, start something new, and get more paste, paint, thread, and fabric all over me and my work area. 

One current obsession is making small collages and collaged tags, but collage is  a technique that seems to be impossible to keep corralled.  If I worked on only one project at a time maybe it wouldn't be so bad, but I rarely work on only one thing at a time.  Every work surface is covered with stuff for different projects--even my ironing board has become a work surface. 
When the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket, it helps to look at the positives.

I'm watching the Dakota Pipeline stories with interest...and hope.  

 Another hopeful development is a possible new treatment for AD.   Too late for Terry Pratchett and my father, but may be a saving grace for many others.

A study suggesting that "... men do not enjoy the debauchery or the “extreme shaming, humiliation, and deviance” that are part and parcel of most modern stag dos."  Another example of the way peer pressure can go wrong and this can be an element for women, too.

Girl Power!  (gallery)

God, I love these girls!  

That's all, folks


Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Delete by Karl Osberg

Have you ever wondered if the world we live in and our own interaction in it is being directed by some unseen power?  Not in a religious sense, but as if in a game?  Think The Matrix.  

That we are part of a virtual reality, a simulated computer game, is an actual scientific hypothesis and part of legitimate scientific research.  

Excerpt from the linked article:  
Researchers pondered the controversial notion Tuesday at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate here at the American Museum of Natural History.
Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said.  (Source)

The article covers some of the thoughts of philosophers and theoretical physicists on the topic.  

Delete begins with a strange prologue, but the first chapter moves into the story and introduces Chief Inspector Eisenberg, a member of the Hamburg police, when an attempt to end a human trafficking ring goes wrong.

Eisenberg's arrogant superintendent blames Eisenberg for  the debacle, and Eisenberg eventually looks for a transfer.  The opportunity that arises is to head a unit that focuses on pre-investigations and crime prevention using technology and the internet; the team, however, consists of brilliant, but fractious misfits.

One of the team members is a gamer, and when several strange disappearances occur in the online game, he is approached by a young woman who wants to find out what happened to her friend.  Was he deleted?  

An intriguing book with characters that hold potential for more episodes, but the pacing has some issues.  The translation by Carolyn Waight is excellent.

NetGalley/Bonnier Zaffre

Mystery/Suspense.  Oct. 25, 2015.  Print length:  358 pages.