Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz


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2017 was a year of mysteries for me–I spent some time re-reading old reliables, eagerly awaited the latest volume in some of my favorite series (it was a harsh blow when J.K. Rowling did not announce a release date for the upcoming Cormoran Strike novel–Jo, please, PLEASE release it soon!!!), and gave some new series a shot.  But honestly, as much as I needed to read mysteries last year, I struggled in my search for new books.  None of them were really scratching my mystery itch.  So I was very excited when Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders came out.  Horowitz is a prolific mystery writer.  He’s written several young adult series, was trusted by the Conan Doyle estate to write some new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was a screenwriter for Poirot and Midsomer Murders on BBC, and created one of my favorite British mystery series, Foyle’s War.  So you see why I was optimistic.

Briefly, the novel is two novels in one, really.  The main novel weaves the web of mystery around best selling mystery author, Alan Conway’s 9th and final Atticus Pund mystery, last in part due to his recent death.  His editor, Susan Ryeland, receivs the manuscript with the last few chapters missing.  As she searches for the chapters, she becomes increasingly convinced that Alan’s death was not as natural as originally believed.  Interspersed within the main plot is this last novel, so we as readers work with both Pund and Ryeland as they rush to solve their respective mysteries.

Honestly, I had some mixed feelings about this novel.  It’s a very clever conceit, and I was excited to see the execution.  The Pund novel-within-the novel is painstakingly  traditional–there are shouts of Foyle’s War and Agatha Christie, and Conway’s Pund apes Christie’s Poirot in almost every way.  The writing, the characters, and the 1950’s setting are self-conscious and self-consciously British.  Everything was just so, almost too so.  Everything in this novel felt like a veneer, bloodless and hollow, like the characters were just running through the motions.  I never could decide whether I thought this was on purpose or not.  It was a solid, British country mystery, but something just felt missing.

The current-day novel surrounding the Pund story is much more relaxed in it’s writing, when Horowitz felt less tied to the traditional style.  I really loved how Ryeland, the editor, became the detective.  There’s always a thrill in reading mysteries that you, the reader, could become the detective and solve it first, and that literally happens here.  I loved the moments when she tried to replicate what she knew of solving big crimes from being Conway’s first reader.  The final revelation also had some real tension, and there were a few moments, particularly in that revelation, where had anyone spoken to me on the train, I would have been completely unaware.

However, like the Pund novel, there were things that felt hollow or superficial.  Ryeland’s relationship with her long-term boyfriend, Andreas, felt very television stereotypical–he’s a free spirit, she’s more buttoned down, etc., etc.  Additionally, her boss felt very one-note and was not nearly fleshed out enough a character for the level of role he played in the narrative.  I realize these are not terribly specific or wide-ranging examples, but that’s kind of the problem–it was all fine, but a little generic.

It’s really interesting to read through reviews on Magpie Murders.  Some readers loved it, LOVED it, and thought it was perfect.  Others viewed it as a complete let-down, simply a lower-level Masterpiece Mystery in book form without much effort put in.  And some viewed it as a send up of the British “cosy” mystery, the type of mystery that Horowitz writes for television, and that it should be read with a wink and a nod.  I don’t know that any of these capture my feelings.  To me it was good, but not great.  It was fun, exciting, and dull.  Fine.  It was fine.  Just not what I wanted it to be.  But if you are really just looking for something that plays out like your favorite British television mystery and doesn’t require a ton of close attention, it will hit the spot.


Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson


When I was in college, my program required us to take special versions for various courses as part of our degree requirements.  So instead of math, we took “Plan II Math”; instead of logic, we took “Plan II Logic; instead of bio, we took “Plan II Bio” and so forth.  But the beast, the make or break class for many Plan II-ers was Plan II Physics taught by Gleeson.  Not Dr. Gleeson or Professor Gleeson.  Just Gleeson, said with both reverence and fear.  (At least in my section.)  And I have to be honest, I was SO excited when I got into Plan II Physics because our special topic for the semester was Einstein’s papers on relativity, and I though, “YES!  A literature-based science class!  This will be easy!”  Silly me.

It was not easy.  It was really hard.  I hadn’t had physics since junior year of high school, and I was woefully unprepared for the onslaught of advanced physical concepts Einstein was hurling at us in his papers.  Now I worked really hard and must have understood enough of it to earn a good grade (that and we were allow to bring a note card with anything we wanted on it to exams), but it really was the make or break class everyone said it would be.  I don’t remember any of it now.

So why am I telling you all of this?  Because all of the physical concepts related to Einstein’s theories that I was so overwhelmed by in college pop up in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s excellent Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  Tyson has built his career, like one of my favorite childhood tv personalities Bill Nye the Science Guy, on making science accessible to the general public.  This does not mean dumbing it down at all but rather explaining it (it being an awfully broad and ineffective term in this case) in creative and engaging ways that make sense to someone without a degree in astrophysics.  He continues this quest in his latest book, and suddenly I was understanding the physical concepts Gleeson was trying to to teach us through Einstein’s papers…mostly.  Part of it was that it was all within the context of the birth of the universe.  This was awesome because 1. I love space.  A lot.  and 2. it created more practice context around what sometimes felt like pretty abstract theories and examples.

This is not to say that the entire book is a rip-roaring, never-ending-thrills page turner.  Some of the concepts are dry.  There’s no getting around it.  But Tyson’s knack for describing these topics in unexpected, contextualized ways, along with his sense of humor, make for a much more enjoyable read with the added bonus of increased comprehension for the science layperson.  Tyson is the perfect scientist: a top expert in his field who can actually communicate and teach his subject.  He is a gifted writer and speaker who is a master manipulator of language.  And it is so clear how much he values science education and how important it to him that he use his position and celebrity to advance that cause in a way that gets people, young and old, excited to look up at the stars and learn about how a star is born or discover what’s inside a cell or understand how we impact the world around us.

So, if reading about protons, neutrons, and electrons and atomic particles is not your cup of tea, be warned.  There’s a lot of that in this book.  But maybe if you don’t like those topics, you should still give this book a shot–it might explain things in a way that makes way more sense 10 years after your first attempt to learn the subject.  (And then check out Tyson’s Star Talk podcast–it’s super fun!)

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer


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So unfortunately, my ignoring of my book blog also meant that sometimes I didn’t take as good of notes as I usually do when I finished a book.  (Read: No note.  No notes taken.) Such is the case for David Hackett Fischer’s fantastic Paul Revere’s Ride.  But this book has stuck with me, surprisingly so for a non-fiction book, and so though this review may be short on details, it is of a book I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up.

Last August, I went on my first ever visit to Boston.  (How you get to 30 years old without ever visiting Boston I don’t know, but it happened.  Even my parents were surprised I’d never been.)  Michel was excited, but I was really excited.  I love early American history, and I had plans to see as much of American history as I could, including walking the entire Freedom Trail in under 7 hours.  We were going to be right in the middle of it all, so clearly I needed to read something to prep me for this complete immersion in the Boston theater of the Revolutionary War.  My friend, Diane, recommended Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, and, at first, I was like…meh.  I know about the ride!  One if by land, two if by sea, the British are coming, the British are coming, Paul Revere single-handedly saves the day!  (Thank you, Mr. Longfellow.)  But then I started reading the description and realized I knew NOTHING about Paul Revere’s actual ride!  I mean, yes, Paul Revere was involved, as was the Old North Church, and there were horses and British soldiers, but otherwise, it was COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from what I had learned (or at least remembered) from school.  (Lies, Mr. Longfellow.)

So did you know that:

  1. Paul Revere was one of many militia men who were out and about that night, riding from town to town to awaken the citizens.  He was, in fact, one of the main architects of this highly sophisticated alarm system that functioned like a horse and rider version of the giant haystack beacons in The Return of the King.  The timing was incredible–“Paul Revere’s alarm” had spread hundreds of miles up and down the eastern seaboard by the time the first shots were fired, and militias kept coming all day.  These alarms triggered a specific set of actions in each town the riders rode through, leading to a large, mostly orderly, and responsive American militia descending on Lexington and Concord.  Which brings me to my next point.
  2. The Americans were highly organized.  This was not some scrappy, rag-tag bunch of farmers and colonists who through sheer pluck, stubbornness, and determination beat the strongest military in the world.  These were trained and organized farmers and colonists who developed sophisticated military hierarchies in their local militia where everyone had a specific job (some as the towns’ alarm riders) and engaged in clear, well-organized military drills.  They also had built in time and practices for democratic decision making should they ever be called to arms.  There was no specific leader of these militias–they decided as a group whether or not to take up arms, and the majority of local militias did. Additionally, I remember learning in school about the American’s use of guerrilla warfare, but it’s because they knew the land and had practiced for it.   These Americans meant business.
  3. Paul Revere and some of his riders were captured that night.  Most of them escaped due to British incompetence.  And, because the alarm system relied on an intricate network of riders, processes, and decision that had been previously established and disseminated, it still worked even with those disruptions.
  4. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were supposedly the targets of the British march to Lexington, where they were trying to evade arrest.  They were ultimately successful, despite Hancock being a prima donna about wanting to fight and not wanting to leave until he’d eaten.  It was Adams who really put him in his place, saving both their lives while Revere dragged Hancock’s trunk full of top secret papers through the middle of a fire fight to safety.  So raise a glass to Sam!
  5. British General Thomas Gage’s American wife, Margaret Gage, is thought to be an American spy!  Dr. Joseph Warren, another leader of the Sons of Liberty, had a source high up in the British command, and while it has never been confirmed that Margaret Gage was his source, his information lessened after her sudden departure to England on her husband’s orders.  It if was her, she’s the one who shared the entire British plan to kidnap Adams and Hancock and burn the colonists stores and supplies at Concord.  #whoruntheworld #girls
  6. The Boston accent…has always been the Boston accent.  They know this because many colonists spelled phonetically rather than using standard spelling.  And my favorite examples?  The phonetic spellings of “chattaer” (charter) and “Bast’n” (Boston).  Say them out loud…

There is a ton more packed into Fischer’s exhaustive account, but it never lags or becomes boring.  This may sound weird, but reading Fischer’s account of the events surround Revere’s famous ride is like listening to an adventure radio play.  You’re not quite so immersed in it that it’s like a movie, but it’s pacing is much more thrilling than your typical non-fiction book about a military episode.  More importantly, it provided a ton of important context about events, people, and motives during this time in history, which made walking the Freedom Trail so much more meaningful an experience.  I remembered particularly the section where Fischer discussed Revere’s efforts to cross the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge to begin the main part of his journey as we walked across the Charles just above where the British ships dropped anchor, effectively blockading the city.  Standing in the Old South Meetinghouse meant so much more having just read about the impassioned speeches delivered there before and after the Boston Massacre.  Alternately, I was able to understand the paths the Sons of Liberty took through the city and the challenges they faced in their movements when I was able to walk the same streets shortly after reading about them.  Context is so important when engaging with history, and Fischer’s account, covering so much more than just Revere’s ride, really affected how I experienced my first trip to Boston, despite discovering that

  1. The first public school in the United States, Boston Latin School, is now a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
  2. Anne Hutchinson‘s house, later the famous Old Corner Bookstore, is now a Chipotle.
  3. Lobster is not cheaper in Boston.

Clearly I recommend this book.  It was great.  I loved it and would have really enjoyed it even without visiting Boston.  But I also think that taking the time to read something about the places you are visiting, either before or after, is a great way to deepen and personalize the experience.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


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Alright.  I admit it.  I’ve been a slacker.  Here we are in mid-January 2018, and I have not posted a review in months.  I’m horribly behind, and the following review is of a book that I read in August 2017.  However, I’m glad I have the opportunity to review it now.  This is a glorious book, a book for learning about experience and empathy, the kind of book that is increasingly necessary in our world.  And so I give you Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is one of those books that has been floating around my periphery for a few years now.  Every few months or so, someone says, “Oh, you HAVE to read Americanah!” and I will say, “Sounds great!” but I never got around to doing it until this summer.  A friend at work had it on her desk and offered to let me borrow it when I commented on it.  Deciding there was no time like the present, I took her up on her offer.  I’m so glad I did.

Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians in love who leave Nigeria for the US and London respectively, dreaming of higher education and professional success.  In the US, Ifemelu, finding success in academia, discovers the complexities of living in a racialized country and grapples with what it means to be black (but not African American) for the first time in her life. Obinze heads to London with plans to join her soon, but immigration challenges in a post-9/11 world leads to life as an undocumented worker stuck in the UK instead.  They reunite 15 years later in Nigeria, navigating the gulf their lives have created between them as they explore a new relationship.

I loved this book.  Loved it.  Adichie’s language is like music, rhythmical and cadential, and I just slid into the story, immediately immersed in the beauty of Adichie’s storytelling.   The book begins with Ifemelu, present-day in America, then alternates chapters and later full sections between Ifem and Obinze both past and present, all punctuated with some of Ifem’s blog posts on what it is to be a non-African American black woman in America.  The structure and non-linear timeline really emphasize the unexpected nature of life lived as opposed to life planned.  We learn all of the in-and-outs of Ifem and Obinze’s journeys, successes, and tragedies, but it was really Ifem who I wanted to know more about.  As much as it is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, it is really Ifem’s story: a story of her identity, her independence, her self-realization, her establishment of presence in a place that is both home and not.  There was so much that was familiar to me and yet so much that was not of my experience, and I found that to be incredibly compelling.  On the other hand, I found Obinze as hard to know as a reader as did his friends.  Yet his story is important, both in the role he plays in Ifemelu’s life and as a counterpoint to her experience.  His is the realization of the American Dream–leaving home for a better life only to find yourself lower than you ever thought and then rising again to success–all played out on a non-American playing field.  The familiar and unfamiliar battle to create a reading experience of learning and empathy.

My one issue with the book is the end and some of the choices that Ifem and Obinze make, seemingly without thinking or caring about the impact on others.  And one might argue that Obinze thinks about that impact a lot, but still the ultimate choices seem to be lacking that.  However, I can’t talk much about it without giving things away, but I do wish that they had chosen a slightly different path to their final decisions.  That’s just me, though, and I’m sure others will feel differently.

I’ve written before about how reading fiction teaches children empathy and to value of others’ experiences, and that is one reason why this book is so important.  It is, in itself, about the diversity of experience and the value or judgment we place on experience, opinion, thought, and belief depending on how close or familiar or lived those experiences are for us.  This is the point of Ifem’s blog–my experience is not your experience, and we must see and appreciate that in order to see and appreciate each other.  This book is filled with experiences I will never have but are important for me to know and, if I can’t understand, acknowledge my lack of that experience.  Even so, there are universal human experiences that all readers can find in this story

We live in a world where our president chooses to denigrate with foul language people and places he chooses not and probably cannot ever understand or try to know.  This author and this book come from one of those countries.  It is vital that we as individuals and as a country continue to strive to learn about unfamiliar experiences, to take advantage of the gorgeous literature, art, music, culture, everything being created to share those experiences, so that we can resist and rise above the cretinous model currently on display.  Even without that need, this novel is worth reading, just as a master-study on story craft and the beauty of language.  So I say don’t walk, run to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan


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I admit, I have a weakness for WWII stories.  I also have a weakness for stories about scrappy English villages coming together in the face of adversity, a la something you’d see on Masterpiece on PBS, as well as stories about music and choirs.  So despite my friend wrinkling her nose when I told her about Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, I was quite excited to start it, especially after my disappointing go with my previous book.

“As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.” (Once again, Amazon’s description is quite perfect.  I’ll stop relying on them, I promise, but I couldn’t describe it better this time.)

Sounds lovely, right?  And it is lovely.  And totally expected.  Not that there is anything wrong with that.  Ryan has clearly done a ton of research and writes beautifully and lovingly.  I deeply appreciate the accuracy of her language around the music and the choir.  Voice parts are accurately described, the musical language is mostly correctly, and the rehearsal process seems on point.  (It is worth noting that not all authors writing about music pay attention to these things.)  The characters are, for the most part, fully-realized and individual (and some a bit tiresome, though authentically so), and each one has their part to play in the narrative.  I did feel that the “conniving midwife” of the blurb above felt the most out of place.  She was certainly the most unlikable, but what I really struggled with was that her part of the story was there to create drama and tension, but that drama and tension felt artificial and not necessary or in keeping with the rest of the story.

That mis-characterization aside, what really shines in this story are the relationships among the women in the choir and the way music becomes a balm and therapy for them as they deal with the very close and very real horrors of war.  I think Ryan must have been a part of a women’s choir, or at least a mixed choir.  She writes about the importance of the choir to these women and their community as if she herself has experienced both the intense joy of creating a beautiful choral experience with others and the friendships that come from that.  And I like that because I have, too.  I have been in choirs my whole life, and some of my most important experiences and friends come from those choirs.

Like I said, this is a very lovely, expected, comforting book, but call me sentimental: I liked it.  I don’t think it’s for everyone.  I think some will be bored by it.  I don’t think it’s a major entry in to that ever-growing subgenre of WWII fiction.  But I think those of you who know and appreciate music and making music with others will be happy to spend some time with the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie


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I have been trying to make use of the library more, and sometimes that means waiting and waiting and waiting for a book.  Such was the case with Kamila Shamsie’s novel, Broken Verses.  It popped up on the library’s monthly recommended books list, and I wasn’t fast enough with my hold request, leading to a multi-month wait.  But finally it came in, all mine—at least for 3 weeks.

Broken Verses tells the story of Aasmaani, a 30-something Pakistani woman whose mother, Samina Akram, was a famous activist during the revolution, electrifying the country with her passion, mystique, and relationship with the beloved Poet.  2 years after the Poet was killed by government operatives, Aasmaani’s mother disappeared, too, leaving Aasmaani to deal with both a sense of abandonment and the burden of being Samina’s daughter.  Now an adult and drifting through the world, she begins work at Pakistan’s first independent television station right as a beloved actress is making her soap opera return.  The actress, Aasmaani’s mother’s former best friend, shares an anonymous note she received, written in the secret code used by Samina and the Poet and known only by them and Aasmaani, setting off a string of events that could lead to the truth about Samina’s disappearance and closure for Aasmaani.

Ok, I’ll be honest.  This should have been right up my alley.  Strong female protagonist—check.  Blend of historic and modern day—check.  Fiction strongly rooted in real history—check.  A mystery—check.  An epic love story—check.  Set in a part of the world that I’m always interested in learning more about—check.

So what’s the problem?

I just didn’t care about the characters.  It’s not even that I disliked it.  I just didn’t care.  I don’t know if it was how they were written or the mood I was in or what.  (I’ll admit, I was in a bit of a reading funk this summer.)  But I never could work up any sort of meaningful response to Aasmaani and her story.  She felt contrived.  Even the office romance being set up felt forced and clichéd.  So I stopped reading.  I don’t know how the story ends.  I don’t know if she finds her mother and forgives her or discovers what really happened or finds out the letters are a hoax or what.  I don’t know, and I’m not bothered by that.  Life is too short to waste on books you don’t respond to.  But what that also means is that I don’t know if I can recommend it or not.  Some of you may love this book.  Some of you may hate it.  Some of you may feel just fine about it or feel nothing at all for it.  You’ll just have to give it a shot to find out, but I won’t blame you if you don’t finish it.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky


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What I appreciate about Mark Kurlansky is that his titles tell you exactly what the book is about.  Cod. Salt. Paper. The Big Oyster.  There is no beating around the bush here.  What I also appreciate about Mark Kurlansky (and yes, I will keep using his full name) is that he often takes completely mundane topics, topics that you think, “Why would I want to read a whole book about that?”, and reveals things about those topics that are more exciting and unexpected than you would ever think.

Case in point: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

Things I learned about cod from Mark Kurlansky’s biography about cod:

  1. English explorer John Cabot was actually Italian and named Giovanni Caboto.
  2. There are lots of different preparations for cod dating back to Viking times. A lot of them sound terrible.  But if you want to try them, Mark Kurlansky has provided recipes.
  3. Salt cod and dried cod are not the same thing. And you had to know which type of cod to sell in which European market.  Otherwise, they would not buy your cod.
  4. More seriously, cod was a vital part of the Atlantic trade system and a vital food source for slaves in the Caribbean and American colonies. It was so vital that when the cod trade to the US was temporarily halted, thousands of slaves died from starvation.
  5. Overfishing has been a major concern for a long time. However, during both World War’s, fishing in the Grand Banks and the North Sea were halted due to most fishing vessels being conscripted for naval service.  This led the cod population to rebound sufficiently enough each time to mask real effects of the commercial fishing tactics, and so now we are dealing with such a low cod population that it may not recover.
  6. And finally, there were not 1, not 2, but 3 Cod Wars between Iceland and the UK in the 20th century.  And despite how acrimonious and even violent they actually were, I am still slightly tickled by the idea of trawlers and tug boats fighting guerrilla naval battles in the North Sea.

Wow.  Cod.  I had no idea you were so important.

When I read Cod, despite all of the amazing things I was learning (and there are a ton more than what I listed above), I felt it was a little slow, and I was a little restless reading it.  I honestly don’t think I was really in the mood for a non-fiction book at the time, and I think I would have enjoyed the reading experience more had I been.  However, the more I think about it and the longer I sit with it, the more I realized I liked the book.  Kurlansky’s research is meticulous and exhaustive.  He also is purposeful and thoughtful in putting a human face on the topic, interviewing fishermen dealing with the economic, social, and life strains of working in a dying industry.  The recipes that end every chapter seems just quirky at first but also serve to underline the huge importance of cod in diets at all socio-economic levels and through a lot of human history.  This is not your average “biography”—it is an exploration of the effect of one creature on so many disparate parts of human experience.

So just as this book was recommended to me, I recommend it to you.  It’s a different and refreshing take on what could be a straightforward history of an industry, and I appreciate Kurlansky’s unique voice and creative approach.  And please don’t be turned off by the topic.  Cod really is the fish that changed the world.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden


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The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel (Winternight Trilogy) by [Arden, Katherine]Apologies for the long hiatus from reviewing.  I’ve definitely been reading, but it’s a lot easier to read on the train than to try to find time for all the reviews.  But never fear!  I hope I’ll have several posted in the next few weeks.

I am a sucker for anything related to fairy tales, folk tales, mythology, and the blurring between the real, spiritual, and magical worlds, even more so when the novel in question is being touted as a spectacular debut.  I started Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale with expectations high, and I was thrilled to find it lived up to those expectations.

From Amazon: “At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasya doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales…Wise Russians…honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil. Vasya’s new stepmother, fiercely devout and city-bred, forbids her family from honoring the household spirits…Crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasya’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. As danger circles, Vasya must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.”

One of the reasons I have put off writing this review is that this book is hard to describe without going overboard.  I usually prefer to write my own descriptions, but with this one I couldn’t leave anything out.  So I finally decided Amazon’s blurb was good enough, but don’t let it fool you into thinking this is a tale as simple as good and evil.  That is the beauty of this book: nothing is quite as simple and straightforward as it seems.

Take the battle of the spirit world: the novel is set in 14th century Russia when the Russian Orthodox Church was quickly gaining power yet Russians in rural areas still practiced the old ways of leaving offerings for the house spirits and wearing charms to protect them from the evils of the forest.  And at first it seems as if the book might be arguing that traditional beliefs are better than the more “modern” Christian ones.  The arrival of the Church in the forms of Vasya’s step-mother and the new young zealot of a priest conflict with these old traditions, and their messages of intolerance cause the villages to disavow their old beliefs.  This, in turn, weakens the house spirits and their protections.  However, Arden introduces a small historical character, an actual patriarch in the Russian Orthodox Church, who reveals a message of balance and love.  So we see it is not simply old vs. new that creates the problem.  It is because in their fervor, the step-mother and village priest experience and spread fear and intolerance, which allows the evil of the spirit world to creep in and begin to push out both the good protections of the home spirits and the message of God’s love.

This book is a celebration of otherness and a reminder that when we condemn that or who we don’t understand, we are opening ourselves up to not just hate but loss of what could have been.  We are the ones who lose when we shun or reject others.  We are the ones who suffer, who lose ourselves, when we give into our fear.  And if you think that’s too deep for a fairy tale, I suggest you go back to the “original” tales collected over the years.  Fairy tales are meant to teach us things: how to be good, how to solve problems, how to survive when we have to go into the woods.  And so this novel does.  It is beautifully and lovingly written, full of incredible historical details and richly created characters.  The time and place feel both of the past and of now, allowing Arden’s message to ring just as true today as it might have in Vasya’s 14th century Russian village.  I highly recommend this book, both as an escape and as a temporary balm for our times.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron (and Dead Lions–Slough House #2)

After the last disastrous attempt to find a new mystery, I was still on the hunt late this spring and was intrigued when I found Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first in his new-ish Slough House series.  It traces the lives and exploits of the “Slow Horses”, MI-5’s rejects who for some reason can’t be fired but can be exiled to Slough House, where they push paper and scan computer screens all day.  The motley crew, led by the vile and disgusting yet surprisingly human Jackson Lamb, stumbles upon a supposed terrorist plot after an unexpected victim is kidnapped.  River Cartwright, the grandson of intelligence royalty and relegated to intelligence obscurity for accidentally crashing King’s Cross Station, leads the mission as the team races against time and the higher ups at Regent’s Park determined to put Slough House back in it place to save the victim, unmask the true masterminds, and prevent an international incident.

This was an interesting book.  I think the genre of “spy thriller” can be hard to pull off in novel form, unless you are John Le Carre, even more so when your spies are basically pencil pushers and desk jockeys.  On top of that, this spy thriller is trying to say something and something important.  It uses the frame-work of its terrorism and kidnapping plot to explore the radicalization of individuals and communities via the internet.  The novel argues that it’s not the radical voices that are necessarily dangerous but those listeners and readers who take the radical rhetoric to its logical–or, it could be argued, illogical– dangerous, and scary end.  Essentially the internet allows people to find community in a much broader, even global way than previously, particularly those who have been or feel victimized.  In some ways, this is positive–it allows actual victims and allies to find each other, provide support, and effect change, such as was seen with this year’s Women’s March.  In other cases, the internet also allows people to gather and turn something that’s not really a problem into a problem and themselves into victims, with fear, belief, and entitlement overtaking fact and critical analysis.  An example is the radicalization of young, straight, white men, seen recently in Gamergate or, in the case of this novel and world politics, as the drivers of the populist and anti-immigration movements in Europe and the US.  Whether or not you agree with the premise of Herron’s argument, research and, indeed, experience is increasingly showing us the effect of the dark side of the internet has on socio-cultural beliefs and human interaction.  (If you are interested in some of the psychology behind what makes humans lie and be susceptible to lying, fake news, and our current political and cultural climates, check out National Geographic’s excellent article, “Why We Lie” from their June 2017 issue.)

This is really important stuff to be talking about, and I applaud Herron for using a piece of popular writing to alert his readers to major societal concerns.  For genre-fiction as social polemic to work, however, the actual novel has to be really strong, and unfortunately, in this case, it’s not quite.  The novel begins in medias res and reveals character’s backstories slowly, as if Herron wants to spin out the suspense as longs as possible by just dropping crumbs here and there.  Oddly, though, this makes it extremely exposition heavy yet not a lot of the exposition is particularly interesting or helpful.

Additionally, the exposition doesn’t allow for much real character development, so it was hard to care for these spunky misfits who are the only thing that stand between us unsuspecting civilians and the next world war.  For example (and here be spoilers), two characters flip sides, and I hardly remembered who they were by the time I finished the novel, let alone now as I’m writing this review.  Another one was killed, and my response was not one of emotional connection but more of, “Oh, I guess that character is dead now.  I wonder why they were in the book at all.”  Even the main character was not well developed to the point that I did not realize who Herron was talking about when describing him at the end of the novel.  The most memorable character is the leader of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, but only because he is absolutely disgusting as a human being.

The pacing was a bit of a challenge as well.  The first 150 pages were super slow, but not bad enough to stop.  Rather it was just good enough to keep going to see if the pace would improve.  After that it picked up to near breakneck speed, and I didn’t want to put it down just because there was no point in stopping by then.  I must say, the last several chapters, alternating perspective between the Slough House team and the kidnapped victim, were incredibly thrilling and sickeningly horrifying and would make for an excellent film sequence.  And (here be more spoilers) the ending was really great–for the victim, at least.

This was just a really interesting reading experience.  I found the book to be extremely prescient, basically predicting (or at least recognizing early?) Brexit and extreme right-wing white/nationalistic anger.  But as a platform for a message, it undermined what it was trying to do by not meeting the high standards it set for itself in terms of novel structure.  But I liked how pulpy it was and its devil may care vibe.  It was fun at times.  I’m honestly not sure if I liked it, but I kind of want to read the next one.  So I guess I liked it enough, and you may, too.

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

So I read the second one, Dead Lions.  And I continue to not really know how I feel about this series.

In Dead Lions, we’re thrown back to the Cold War when one of Britain’s low level Cold War agents dies, and Jackson Lamb, head of Slough House, suspects foul play.  An impending visit from a Russian oligarch and whispers of a long-debunked fake Russian spy reappeared put Lamb on high alert and send the Slow Horses into action…sort of.

So Dead Horses fixes some of my character concerns from the first installment.  Herron doesn’t try to make a major social point with this one.  He’s just focused on spinning a good tale.  We also spend more time with characters other than River Cartwright and Jackson Lamb, getting to better know Louisa Guy & Min Harper, Roderick Ho, and my favorite, Catherine Standish.  Yes, that’s right.  The character development is enough this time that I now have a favorite, and I immensely appreciate that the most bad-ass Slow Horse is an unassuming yet imminently capable middle-aged woman.  She is absolutely the smartest person in the room, and you would never know it until she has you trapped.  Awesome.

However, a few problems still remain.  The pacing demonstrates different challenges this time: it moves more quickly than Slow Horses but takes much longer to charge into gear, so long, in fact, that the ending feels a bit sudden and perfunctory.  And even with the improved development, I still cared very little for most of the characters.  The stakes felt lower in this one than the first, and at the end, I didn’t really feel the need to continue the series.

The problem is that it’s not a terrible series, though.  Not great but not terrible.  And Herron does know how to write a thrilling near-end action sequence.  So even though I’m not really feeling it, there is a part of me that’s like, “Hey…you’re two books into the series…it’s fluff, so why not just continue when you’re looking for something light?”  We’ll see how powerful that voice turns out to be, but for the time being, the effort it will take to get the next book is outweighing the desire to keep reading.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

One of the reasons that I read is that there is so much about this world and the people in it that I don’t know, and books, even novels, offer a window on the world, to crib my local PBS station’s motto.  In fact, I particularly love a thoroughly researched and well-crafted historical fiction novel because it allows me to learn about a time I may or may not have much knowledge of within the context of a personal experience I most likely have not experienced.  It highlights why storytelling has been such a huge part of human culture since ancient times; we tend to learn and apply more when we feel a personal connection to the story or lesson or event.  So to that end, I continued my effort to be a more diverse reader and read more diverse literature and learn more about our world and my fellow humans this year with Min Jin Lee’s gorgeous Pachinko.

Pachinko tells the story of teenaged Sunja, who falls in love with a mysterious, wealthy gentleman in her small Korean village in the early 1900’s.  When she finds out not only is she pregnant but her lover is married, she risks societal dishonor and refuses to be his kept mistress.  She ultimately accepts an offer of marriage from one of her mother’s borders, a kind, gentle, sickly minister on his way to Japan to minister to the Christian Koreans making their way to a new land of opportunity.  Her decision sets off a four-generational saga of a family experiencing love, joys, and loss and struggling to find their way in a new country where they don’t fit and exiled from a country most of them don’t know or remember.  The choices Sunja, her sons, and her grandchildren make takes the story careening from the Korean ghetto and street markets in Osaka to the most elite Japanese universities and the mafia-fronted pachinko parlors (the parlor game of pachinko representing the randomness and lack of randomness of life) and explores the role of the family, culture, and society in forming individual identity.

First, let me say this book is near 500 pages but you should absolutely not be daunted.  It is absolutely gorgeous, as I said before, but not sprawling.  Instead, the narrative is very contained and controlled, much like Lee’s characters strive to be.  As a result, the book is quiet yet intensely emotional.  These moments of emotion, whether joy or sadness, fear or courage, were unveiled so purposefully, intentionally, and beautifully, like a rose unfolding, that as a reader, I felt the emotions as intently as the characters–or at least as close as I could without actually being them.  There was a particular moment when a fissure of tension finally cracked and pushed the family apart, that I was left breathless with the very real pain of it.  It has been a long time since I have read an author who writes the everyday, human emotions we experience with such depth, grace, and truth.

Structurally, this is the second multi-perspective book I’ve read recently, and this one fared much more successfully.  The characters weave in and out of the narrative and the timeline much more naturally, and Lee uses the character’s perspective to help signal major time period shifts.  Her mastery at this really emphasized the flowing nature of time and how much life can pass before we realize it.  A few of the characters, however, only had 1 section in a near 500 page book, so unfortunately those sections felt more forced and out of place in the larger narrative.  They weren’t necessarily unnecessary, but the information (or major plot points, as was sometimes the case) could have probably been conveyed differently by an existing character and to greater effect.

Finally, as mentioned above, I learned a lot about a piece of world history that I frankly knew nothing about.  I knew a little about the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korean from Simon Winchester’s Pacific, but I knew nothing of Korea before that point: the large immigration of Koreans to the more economically stable Japan in the hopes of finding opportunity and growth for their families, the discrimination faced by both immigrant and Japanese-born Koreans once in Japan, and the inability of many Koreans to go back home due to the challenges, violence, and economic instability of both North and South Korea post-WWII.  Lee masterfully educates her reader on this time period by using her main family to explore the cultural history of displaced Koreans and the impact of socio-political policies in Japan, all within the dichotomies experienced by her main family: the tugs of war between past and future; the older and younger generations; Korean-ness and Japanese-ness; Asia and “the West”; rich and poor (and new and old wealth and even acceptable and unacceptable wealth); real family and “real” family; obligations to one’s self and to one’s family and culture.  I could go on, and it’s a lot, but Lee does it without rancor or blame or anger toward any of her characters or the cultures and country.  Instead she presents this history and these tensions with an openness that allows the reader to connect with many facets of this history and the characters’ representative experiences, ultimately coming to one’s own conclusion about the story presented.

Honestly, it was an honor to read Pachinko, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I feel like the NPR review describes it nicely.  “In fiction we seek a paradox, the familiar in the foreign, new realities that only this one particular author can give us. Pachinko is the kind of book that can open your eyes and fill them with tears at the same time.”