A funny thing happened at lunch in Panera’s

A Big 4+ review: Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-plotted mystery with a tinge of romance, a splash of humor, and a woman who’s finding herself as well as the perpetrators.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/12/2021

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

From the publisher: Edgar-Award nominee Elle Cosimano’s adult debut Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is the first in a witty, fast-paced mystery series, following struggling suspense novelist and single mom Finlay Donovan, whose fiction treads dangerously close to the truth as she becomes tangled in real-life murder investigations.

It’s not the first time I’ve read the premise: someone overhears a mystery author talking to someone else at a restaurant about her novel and thinks they’re talking about a real murder. This is the first time I’ve seen it taken on so effectively, and the novel is an enjoyable jaunt as Finlay Donovan considers the unthinkable because she’s been pushed into a corner.

The brochure had featured photos of happy families hugging each other on quaint front porches. It had used words like idyllic and peaceful to describe the neighborhood, because in the glossy pages of a real estate magazine, no one can see through the windows to the exhausted stabby mommy, or the naked sticky toddler, or the hair and blood and coffee on the floor.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Elle Cosimano’s descriptions of the struggles of a mother with young chlidren are quite funny; the opening segment of how Finlay is trying to deal with her five-year-old’s attempt to cut her own hair is one of those insane things parents do when sleep-deprived. Not everything in the book is as original, though. The cheating asshole of an ex and the conniving bitch the ex left Finlay for are fairly standard characters (perhaps because they’re not unknown in real life), but other characters in the book make up for it, and the writing is crisp.

Sylvia was everything you’d imagine New Yorkers to be if you watched too much television. Probably because she was from Jersey. Her office was in Manhattan. Her shoes were from Milan. Her makeup looked like it had flow in on a DeLorean circa 1980, and her clots might have been skinned from a large jungle cat.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Probably my favorite character in the book is Vero, the nanny cum accountant who is completely unflappable and utterly competent, able to wrestle babies, exes, criminals, and cops with equal aplomb. Finlay, by comparison, is just making it up as she goes along, and doesn’t seem to have a clue about much of anything. However, it’s her growth over the course of the book that makes it stand above the typical murder mystery of its type.

Because banging your real estate agent isn’t a reason to want your husband dead. It might be a legitimate reason to want his balls maimed in an accident involving a Weedwhacker, or to wish him a horrific veneral disease hows symptoms include the words “burning discharge.” But killing a man for cheating on his wife would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

The mystery itself is fairly far-fetched, but executed well enough that it didn’t make me feel the need to stop reading. Most people can believe that a woman would be willing to do anything to hold onto custody of her kids, but the mechanics of the deaths in here give me some pause. On the other hand, it was hard to sympathize with the level of guilt as much as the anxiety about being caught, as the victim was a terrible human being.

My back stiffened, one chilled muscle at a time. As I lifted my head, my focus jumped from the van to the garage door. The details of the night before were still fuzzy in my mind, blurred by champagne and panic, as if someone had taken an eraser to the edges, but I remembered.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

My biggest gripe about the book is that it felt like it had ended at least three times before it actually had. You shouldn’t turn the page and think, “What, it’s not over?” It would have been nice had not each of the next to last three chapters hadn’t ended with lines that sounded like the ending, but rather lead into the next one. But that’s a relatively small complaint.

All in all, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.


Still trying to live up to dad

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go adventuring with a young female bard who latches on to a group with daddy issues.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 479

Publisher: Orbit

Series: The Band

From the publisher: Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown. When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard.

It’s more difficult to gauge a sequel to a book that you loved—or, for that matter, any book you approach with higher expectations than usual. I think this is a better than average book, but my initial response was to downgrade it because it wasn’t nearly as absorbing as the first in the series, Kings of the Wyld. Luckily, this is one of the few books my husband read first, and, although he agreed with the comparative rating, he supported a higher rating when comparing it to books overall.

Why the disappointment? First, the first two-thirds of the book are more serious in tone than the first book ever was. The tone of Bloody Rose isn’t as tongue-in-cheek until it gets closer to resolution, at which point the silly allusions start flying fairly thick, and even then, it still feels more grim than its predecessor. Not that grim is an issue; it’s a matter of expectations.

Funny, Tam thought, how different a thing could seem at a distance—how beautiful, despite the ugly truth. Was it worth it, she wondered, to look closer? To examine something, or someone, if doing so risked changing your perception of them forever after?

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

The second major difference, for me, was the protagonist point of view. Both books are written in close third. Clay Cooper, the character followed in Kings of the Wyld, is a retired mercenary who’s seen it all and done it all and really has not interest in doing it again, which is a far cry from Tam Hashford’s ingenue bard point of view. I assumed Clay would be the protagonist again (bad reader), and going back to a more conventional coming of age POV was not as interesting to me as the world weary Clay.

Shadrach had controlled them through fear, and, although fear bred subservience, it did not beget loyalty.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

So both of my major gripes with the book have nothing to do with it if treated as a standalone—and it could be read as one. When I approach it from that angle, it’s quite a good book. The characters are all fully realized and distinctive, and the plot is well executed. The world building is still well done, although the difference in overall tone made the referential humor feel a little more out of place—things like the line on the cover, “Girls just want to have fun,” dropped in the middle of a battle sequence, are more likely to get an eye roll than a chortle.

“You’re a legend now, girl, and legends are like rolling stones: Once they get going, it’s best to stay out of their way.”

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

Let’s talk about the cast. The daddy issues of the eponymous Rose, still dealing with the problem of being a celebrity’s child and Tam, whose dad was also in the biz, just not as famous as Rose’s dad Gabe, are evident from the outset, but the majority of the rest of the band will prove to have problems with their dads as well, but I feel like going any further is spoilery enough to leave it at that.

Fuck her, Tam thought. Everyone suffers. We’ve all lost people we love, and it’s not always—or ever—fair. But only a monster paints everyone with the same bloody brush. And only a madwoman wants the world to suffer with her.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

Rose’s love, the Druin Freecloud, is cool and efficient, a great match for Rose’s fire, and probably the most reserved member of the band. Brune, the shaman, takes the shape of a bear in fights, but is a teddy outside of battle. Roderick, the manager, is a fast-talking, insecure satyr, but ultimately the manager you want. Cura the ink witch is an injured soul who tries to keep everyone away but will do anything to help her bandmates. I didn’t love all of them, but I enjoyed reading about them.

Some people knew how to kill a conversation. Cura, on the other hand, could make it wish it had never been born.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

The theme of “what makes a bad guy” is intriguing, and is an interesting development for this world’s history, illustrating how time can reframe your perspective. Other themes explored are the notion of what constitutes family and how to grapple with childhood trauma as a young adult. (See, I told you it was more serious than the first one.)

Glory fades. Gold slips through our fingers like water, or sand. Love is the only thing worth fighting for.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

My first thought is to recommend reading Bloody Rose first, then Kings of the Wyld as a prequel, but you’d still have the problem of expectations because of the mismatch in tone. Reversing the reading order might not fix a sense of disappointment with the second book; it’s probably best to say they’re simply set in the same world.


Until the vaccine comes, there’s this

Big5+ Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I want a satisfying and optimistic fantasy tale of a man finding out what really matters to him.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 393

Publisher: Tor

From the publisher: Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

This was the book I didn’t know I needed. It touches on themes that have been painful this year, but redeems them in a way that restores hope in humanity without ever being glib or ignoring the ugliness that can be part of the equation.

This year has fairly vibrated with a sense of powerlessness. Can I, just one person, do anything about all of the big issues that are facing all of us? What can I do about institutional racism, or the pushback against LGBQTIA+ people that runs from casual verbal cruelty to outsized paranoia over what bathroom to use? How can I keep me and mine safe from COVID-19 when people are pretending it doesn’t exist? Then there’s the tick-tick-tick of climate change in the background.

“It’s not only this village, Mr. Baker. Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Into all that mess comes this sweet and positive tale that doesn’t pretend change is easy or fast, but asserts strongly that change is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s something that each individual can contribute to. Linus Baker, the everyman protagonist of the tale in a close third narrative, does his moral best within the context of his limited powers, but doesn’t really look past his immediate surroundings to see what kind of consequences there might be, the quintessential well-meaning soul who unintentionally contributes to the status quo. His life is upended by a special assignment to the eponymous house.

He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone. It was their lot in life, and Linus had figured out, at the age of twenty-seven, that it seemed to be that way for him.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Self-deprecating, isolated, but dedicated to his job because of a fundamental conviction that children deserve to be safe and cared for, he’s easy to root for. His character growth is fundamental to the story, and it occurs incrementally and believably. I generally hate it when characters have sudden changes of heart because of one particular dramatic incident; those can help, but my life’s experience tells me that people must already be in motion for a drama to move them to a new position.

Then there are all the other quirky and charming characters, as well as the people you love to hate. T.J. Klune has a gift for sketching memorable characters quickly, so small roles such as Ms. Bubblegum, J-Bone, Marty, the train conductor, and the post office guy are almost as memorable as the main cast. There’s the yearning-for-purpose Chauncey, spiders-in-the-brain Lucy, singing-to-the-earth Phee, nibbling-to-communicate Theodore, I-want-to-be-round Talia, and future poet laureate Sal. These children are all lovable, but I must confess some favoritism for Chauncey and Sal.

Many considered them to be nuisances, and for a long time, they were hunted down, their heads used as trophies, their skin made into fashionable shoes. It wasn’t until laws were enacted protecting all magical creatures that the barbaric acts ceased, but by then, it’d almost been too late, especially in the face of empirical evidence that wyverns were capable of emotionally complex reasoning that rivaled even humans.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Arthur Parnassus, however, doesn’t appear to play favorites. The father figure and teacher who heads up the school Linus must investigate is the guy we’d have all wanted to have our backs as students. However, he’s probably the least well-developed character in the book, but that I can forgive that because 1. we’re seeing him through Linus’s obscured vision and 2. it’s necessary for plot reasons.

He was as fresh-faced as the young people who came into DICOMY with their shiny degrees and ideas about how things should be done rather than how they actually were. They quickly learned to fall into line. Idealism had no place in government work.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Then there are all the characters who only appear in a scene or two, and yet they are memorable. Klune has a knack of adding just the right details to sketch them quickly and convincingly.

She was a stern woman, hair pulled back so severely that it brought her unibrow up to the middle of her forehead. He wondered every now and then if she had ever smiled in her life. He thought not. Ms. Jenkins was a dour woman with the disposition of an angry snake.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The bit that made it hard for me get get going on the book was the music (although, to be fair, once I got past the first third of the book, I could not put it down). It mostly put me in mind of the first time I watched A Knight’s Tale. As a hardcore history buff (or antiquarian, if you want to go with my history prof’s label), I was startled when Queen showed up at a tourney:

Yes, in the purely fictional world (I’d thought) of The House in the Cerulean Sea, all of a sudden The Everly Brothers’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is playing in this other reality. Of course, fictional music would not have had the same emotional impact as “Beyond the Sea” or “You Send Me,” so it made a certain kind of sense, but it was a bit jarring, just like “We Will Rock You” showing up in what I thought was a period film. (Yes, my expectations for A Knight’s Tale were all wrong.) On balance, I see why Klune made that choice, but I wish there had been another way to get the effect he wanted.

As Bobby Darin sang about watching ships from golden sands, Linus moved through the dream, fingers tracing along the books on the table. He barely glanced down at the titles, entranced by the telltale scratch of a record spinning.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The other jarring note was the use of the exact phrase that was born of 9/11: “See something. Say something.” I, too, found this formulation disturbing in our world, and to hear it echoed in the book brought me out of the fantasy world Klune had made. Perhaps it was to point to the thematic links between the worlds, but it felt like a moment where he was jumping up and down and saying “Look what I’m saying about the US,” taking focus from the story to the author and his message.

Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

All that aside, at the core of this book is a question man has debated for centuries (and probably woman as well, but we didn’t get recorded much until recently): Are we born evil or made that way? Can we rise above our genetic/hereditary/nature? Can people change? This is not just a philosophical jaunt. The side you take on the debate seems to have endless ramifications about how you treat crime, poverty, drugs, and a slew of other questions with practical political applications. I believe, on some level, it is the answer to that question that lies behind all of the current conflict in the US, because how you treat humanity at large (as opposed to the folks you actually know), really depends on the answer to that question.

Linus has avoided this question about the nature of humanity and is forced to confront it, if only implicitly. Despite the two types of intrusions where our realities overlap, I loved this book. And I learned that buttons are awesome. Nope, not going to explain; read the book and know the power of a button.


Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.


The problems of foreign aid

The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly

A prepublication Big5+ review

r/suggestmeabook: I want political intrigue where a not terribly politic warrior princess is fighting to save her country.

Movie rating: PG-13

Publication date: 1/12/2021

Publisher: HarperVoyager

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

From the publisher: A princess with a powerful and dangerous secret must find a way to save her country from ruthless invaders in this exciting debut fantasy, the first novel in a thrilling duology packed with heroism, treachery, magic, and war.

Greta Kelly spins an engaging yarn about Askia, a woman with a claim to a crown who has had to flee her country because her cousin has been installed as a puppet king by a foreign power—and that foreign power has been absorbing its neighbors for years. The favored weapon to bring each country to its knees? Sealing up a city and burning all the inhabitants to death. Desperate, Askia seeks help from her godfather, the emperor of a major empire to the south, hoping he will save the present for the sake of the past.

Our homeland, pillaged and burning and crawling with invaders, lay less than a mile north of here. But with the jagged peaks of the Peshkalor Mountains shading my back, I might as well have been a hundred miles away. The strangled screams of everyone I’d left behind echoed through the passes, reverberating through my skull.

Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown

How Kelly handles powerful women is interesting. The protagonist, Askia, is something we see a lot in fantasy: the warrior maiden who has learned how to fight like the boys and basically shoots the finger at the dominant patriarchal society. She does this well, for even though she sounds suspiciously contemporary, it’s not problematic for me, because, despite the setting, everyone sounds pretty contemporary. The other powerful woman, Queen Ozura, must exercise her power indirectly from the harem, which is a much more traditional way women had to exercise power—from the shadows. But Kelly doesn’t treat her as somehow lesser because the society she’s in has required her to take a less straightforward approach.

I let their indifference slide off me. I wasn’t in Eshakaroth for them. I was there for the Vishiri envoy. My father once told me the Vishiri emperor had a weakness for the exotic and the strange. So I would do my barbarian best to catch his interest from a thousand miles away.

Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown

The main characters are clearly drawn and likable, despite the fact that they tend toward stock characters. Stock characters are fine when well done, as Kelly has—none of them feel forced or clunky. I’d have liked to know more about some of the secondary characters, but since this is a first person narrative, Askia’s lack of interest in the backgrounds of the people around her works. She’s so focused on solving her immediate problem, and doesn’t always think through how to best utilize the contacts she has, that it makes sense to me that she doesn’t sit down and ask, say, Nariko, the woman who is her primary contact with the local culture, about her life and motivations.

It was being done so casually, so openly, that I could ahve kicked myself for not realizing it sooner. Queen Ozura hadn’t sent Nariko to serve me. She’d been sent to spy. I knew I should be angry, but it was all so ridiculous, I couldn’t muster the emotion.

Greta Kelly, The Frozen Crown

The book is paced well and has clean, clear writing. This is a book that plays into the expectations of the reader in a good way—not exactly predictable, but definitely solidly within the genre. There are some nice twists, and Kelly does a nice job of making you feel as though Askia is being pressured into a corner.

The biggest problem I’d predict someone would have is that it’s definitely a first installment, so if you don’t like waiting to find out what happens next, you may want to wait until the entire series has been published. Overall, this fantasy is well-executed and fun, and I can’t wait to see how it ends.


Alone

A Big5+ review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wistful, melancholy stroll through the life of a perpetually young and alone woman.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 442

Publisher: Tor Books

From the publisher: France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

I had a hard time reading this book.

No, it has absolutely nothing to do with V.E. Schwab’s writing style, which is some of the most elegant writing I’ve read. She manages the balance between explicit and implicit, decorative and spare in a way that makes her books a pleasure to read. Not only that, her exercise of her craft never makes you feel as though she’s self-conscious of her mastery, like a master cook making a simple classic perfectly (yes, I just finished the season of GBBO).

She will not remember the stories themselves, but will recall the way he tells them; the words feel smooth as rivers stones, and she wonders if he tells these stories when he is alone, if he carries on, talking to Maxine in this easy, gentle way. Wonders if he tells stories to the wood as he is working it. Or if they are just for her.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

No, it wasn’t just the melancholy that pervades much of the book, although that was what I told myself when I broke off and read three other books from when I started The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and when I ended it. Granted, I didn’t realize that The Fifth Season would be such a kick to the solar plexus, and The Salt Fields punched over its weight class, but, even so, neither of these books got under my skin the way The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue did.

The words ache, even as she thinks them, the game giving way to want, a thing too genuine, too dangerous. And so, even in her imagination, she guides the conversation back to safer roads.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

The problem was the shape of the melancholy in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. The Fifth Season and The Salt Fields both included tragedies that have touched on my life, and had I known that, I might have avoided them, but those reads were still important for the paths to understanding they offer. However, in both reads, the oppression that girds those stories is one I can get enraged and shamed and indignant about, and rail against the inhumanity that shapes that pain, but it is not a pain that I, in my more privileged status, have often experienced, and certainly not one that shaped me from childhood.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was an extended view of a more personal type of pain, that of the perpetual outsider. It resonated far more with my own psychological pain, and, thus, was much more uncomfortable for me. It’s not an uncommon type of pain among those of us prone to depression. I felt this book like an ache in the bones.

There is a rhythm to moving through the world alone. You discover what you can and cannot live without, the simple necessities and small goys that define a life.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

So as I took up the book for the final siege, at about 80% (thanks for nothing, Kindle) of the way through, Schwab’s skillful foreshadowing kept ratcheting up the tension I don’t usually experience in a non-horror, non-thriller book, a book someone described as “slice-of-life,” a description that doesn’t work for me because I experience those as more impersonal.

I was so tense even talking about it I couldn’t relax enough to turn that prior sentence into shorter ones. I kept taking breaks, checking Twitter and Discord to relieve that tension. How was this story going to resolve in a way I wouldn’t be crushed?

However, my initial response upon finishing the book was “Well played, Ms. Schwab, well played.” Poor endings often have a devastating effect on how you feel about a story; here, the satisfying ending had the effect of retroactively soothing me.

Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives—or to find strength in a very long one.

V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Someone on Twitter asked last night “Why do you read?” My response was that it’s the closest thing you’ll get to a mind meld—that it lets you see the world from someone else’s perspective. But the more honest response would be, to paraphrase the words William Nicholson put into the mouth of C.S. Lewis, I read to know I’m not alone.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue did not give me that in the same way, because I over-identified with the theme of the perpetual outsider. But it gave me something else: a heroine with courage and intelligence, someone that a perpetual outsider can look at with admiration. Someone that gives you hope.

Fear and loathing in the Stillness

A Big5+ review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a gut-wrenching tale of the end of a world that has enslaved its most powerful magicians.

Apocalyptic climate fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 378

Publisher: Orbit

From the publisher: This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

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.

You probably already know all this, but some of us are perpetually late.

The Fifth Season is of those reads where you’re so blown away you can hardly form the words to discuss it immediately after finishing. It’s searing and beautiful and tragic. I’m sure a fictional world has affected me like this before, but I can’t think of one. It’s more like after the first time I saw Schindler’s List, where the horror, strength, and beauty of humanity so potently mixed.

Essun, a mother who has tried so hard to live among the stills (the normies or muggles of this reality), is reeling from unspeakable tragedy. Damala, a young girl whose world has been shattered by her unexpected power, is betrayed by bigotry allayed with fear. Syenite, a young woman who has scrabbled for each jot of dignity, who is ordered to do something all her work should have exempted her from, but her talent is too precious to waste.

The world building is exceptional, mortared stone by stone. The characters are fully realized. The magic functions in a coherent way. The world is true to itself–none of those moments where you are pulled out of the story by internal inconsistency.

And it does what fantasy and science fiction are uniquely suited for: it holds up our societal ills in a way that enhances our view of reality through carefully planned fiction. The Fifth Season illuminates the realities of ignoring our environment as well as the cruelty of an oppression which masks itself as protection, but does it so artfully that you are compelled to keep reading through to the conclusion.

An amazing, emotional read, but not for the faint of heart. Will I read the two remaining books in the trilogy? I am equal parts desire and fear.


Awards season, indies, and the tyranny of numbers

the ides of indies, a recurring discussion of indie publishing matters

Let’s talk about awards season and how indies have been faring in fiction. as well as the state of inclusiveness for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.* Kirkus Prize and the World Fantasy Awards have already announced their winners, Goodreads is in semifinal voting, National Book Awards will announce their winners on 11/18/2020, and the Booker Prize will be announced on 11/19/2020. I got award fever, so I’ll announce the Bibliostatic 2020 Year of Doom awards at the end (going to have to rethink that name—open to suggestions).

After we hear from the president of the academy and the PriceWaterhouse guys, there’ll be awards: Most inclusive award, Most indie friendly award, Sole SP award and much, much more!

But first, the analysis. I got out my handy spread sheets and did a whale of a lot of cut and paste as well as some heavy Googling (sounds like a weird sex act, but never mind). I’m sure errors have crept in, but I wanted to share what I’d learned. And, yes, I realize, it’s not a scientific sampling, but it’s still interesting.

Quick note on the data: I only took the Goodreads data from the semifinals for fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The Kirkus Prize was based on fiction nominees only. The Booker Prize information is from the longlist. For determining POC and LGBTQ+, I looked at the authors and protagonists as described in the summaries, and at the shelves on Goodreads. This is probably the part most subject for debate, because I have no idea what criteria was used for shelving.

83% of the nominations, unsurprisingly, are Big5 publications.

Not surprisingly, the Big 5 dominated the awards overall. Of 94 nominations, constituted of 90 separate books, the Big 5 took a respectable 83% (or 78 nominations) through all their various imprints. Sometimes it’s like following pirate maps to figure out which are Big 5. During my first run at researching, I thought Bookouture and Sourcebooks Landmarks were independent publishers, and congratulated them on being the only indies nominated in the Goodreads Mystery category.

Turns out, Bookouture used to be an indie, but was acquired by Hachette a few years ago. The founder was a former Harlequin marketing guy, but the website doesn’t have anything that would make you think it’s a Hachette subsidiary. It’s not until you do a little digging that you find Hachette is the parent company. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed about that tweet now.

Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, says it’s an independent publisher on its about page. Seems straightforward. As you, a seasoned reader will have guessed, it’s a little more complicated. Penguin Random House has a 45% ownership share in Sourcebooks. Is it then still an indie? Sourcebooks says yes; I’m not convinced, and I’m moving them to the Big 5 pile.

I just can’t bring myself to call Amazon’s imprints indie publications.

Then there’s Amazon. Not one of the traditional Big 5, but it’s hard to argue it’s an indie when it’s bringing in cash for book sales comparable to those hoary veterans: a whopping $5.25 BILLION compared to Simon & Schuster’s measly $830 million. (I’ll take that version of measly, please.) Granted, Amazon’s not making even most of that wad of cash from their own imprints, and it may not be quite the same kind of conglomerate as the Big 5, but it smells more like a Big 5.5, so its nominations are counted with those guys.

Genre fiction was a minority among the non-genre awards. Only a dystopia and a few arguably crime novels were nominated. Genres don’t get no respect.

And I have to talk about Shuggie Bain, and not in terms of its content. Shuggie Bain is listed as a publication of Grove Press in most awards—except the Booker Prize, which lists Picador, an imprint tracing back to Macmillan. So which one is it? Well, the novel is published in the US and Canada by Grove Press, but by Macmillan in Commonwealth countries.

That wasn’t terribly helpful to me when I was trying to decide what bucket to put it in, so I decided to look at the publication dates. Voilà! Picador/Macmillan: August 6, 2020. Grove Press: October 13, 2020. The widely recognized Shuggie Bain goes into the Big 5 pile. What a disappointment!

Follow the money.

Why do the Big 5 get so many more nominations? If you look at the total number of titles released in a year (around , they only publish around a third of all the different books published in the US each year, over 30,000 titles of the estimated 2.2 million worldwide and over 100,000 in the US alone. Oddly enough, when you look at the total sales, though, the market share of the Big 5 is (drumroll, please) 80%, fairly close to that of their nominations. Together, they make over $7 billion each year.

So, of course, they have the pull to get more attention for their books (and to make it pretty and neat). If you’ve tried self-publishing (or even book blogging), you’ll know that the challenge is being heard over all the noise. The Big 5 (and Amazon) have air horns and rock concert sound equipment. They’ll get heard.

There’s a world of difference between Grim Oak Press with its $6 million annual sales and Bloomsbury Publishing with nearly $214 million, right?

But how does that play out among indies? There’s Bloomsbury Publishing, home of Harry Potter, with the wealth that series brought, and then there are others that make far less than the million dollar magic goal. Grim Oak Press and Bloomsbury are both semi-finalists in the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Awards, along with lonely Hidden Gnome Press, Will Wight’s self-publishing alter ego. What are their chances against the other 17 books? I’m really asking; I’m no good at calculating odds—where are C-3PO or Spock when you need them?

Similarly, people of color and other traditionally underserved populations (what do you think of that euphemism?) are fighting that entrenched policy of racism and other nasty -isms. Money, power, elite…you get the picture.

Mystery, do better.

Overall, a rather surprising 35% of the titles (a total of 32) were either authored by and/or had a character in the novel that was a POC; LGBTQ+ rated 17% representation (total of 15). The standout for least inclusiveness was Goodread’s Mystery category, with no LGBTQ+ and only one Black protagonist written by the only Black author from the 20 titles in the semifinals. Interestingly, Mystery was the only group of nominees that had zero indie publishers.

And the winners are…

Award for the most nominations for a single book: Go, Douglas Stuart and his Shuggie Bain, nominated for four different prizes: Goodreads Historical Fiction category, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Honorable mention to James McBride for Deacon King Kong, which received nominations from both Goodreads Historical Fiction category and the Kirkus Prize.

Award for double appearance by single author: Jim Butcher appears twice in the Goodreads Fantasy category. Butcher’s double appearance was a result of the publisher splitting the intended single novel into two halves, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, because of the total length, to much muttering and grumbling among fans of the Dresden Files.

Award for only self-published: Will Wight is in the room, ladies and gentleman, and he brought his own damn self with Wintersteel.

Award for the greediest Big 5: Okay, perhaps I should say “most successful.” I’ll give you a hint: Unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of the Big 5. Yep, Penguin comes out on top with 28 nominations. Then there’s nearly a three-way tie: Macmillan and Hachette with 13 and HarperCollins with 12. Simon & Schuster, what the hell happened? You only got 4.

Award for most titles nominated from a single indie publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (do you see my surprised face?) takes this home with four titles: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas and Piranesi by Susanna Clark in the Goodreads Fantasy category and Apeirogon by Colum McCann and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid on the longlist for the Booker Prize.

Award for smallest of the presses to receive a nomination: Scrappy Tin House Books, whose annual revenue is an order of magnitude away from the next closest traditional indie publisher, has a nominee for the National Book Award, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

Award for most inclusive genre: Hello, Historical Fiction—13 total titles over more than one awarding group with either a POC character and/or author and/or LGBTQ+ characters. (I”ll give you a minute to sort out that sentence; suggested rewrites welcomed in the comment section below.) However, Fantasy had the most titles with both POCs and LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors.

Award for managing to avoid any indie nominees: We have a tie for the big fat goose egg. The Goodread’s Mystery category included all of the Big 5 plus Amazon, but no indies. The World Fantasy Awards listed books from Redhook, Orbit (both Hachette imprints), Tor.com (Macmillan), and Pantheon (Penguin Random Books). The tie-breaker: the award will go to the one which had the most total opportunities to include an indie. Congratulations, Goodread’s Mystery category, for your second raspberry, since you failed to include one indie among the 20 choices. (And, no, your own imprint doesn’t count.)

Award for most inclusive Award: Kirkus Prize, which only had one nominee that wasn’t either a POC or LGBTQ+ and awarded the prize to Raven Leilani for Luster. Yeah, it’s Macmillan book, but whatcha gonna do?

Award for the Award with the most nominations for indie publishers: Although several got up to 4 indie published nominations, only one had a significant percentage of them: Kirkus Prize, which nominated a striking 2/3 (or that annoying 66.66%) of its list from indie publishers. That would be more significant if it weren’t for the fact that Kirkus makes its money from reviewing books ($425-$575 a pop) and book editing ($500 minimum), and there’s potentially a huge indie market for them.


Although I had fun with this, the takeaway was all too depressing: $$=respect. Damn.

*Or whatever term you prefer; as a straight, CIS, white woman I don’t and shouldn’t have any preference, but can’t determine what the consensus is at the moment.

A tale of three gardens

A prepublication Big5+ review

r/suggestmeabook: I want a drama about women of various eras dealing with similar issues about work and love.

Edwardian, WWII and contemporary

Rating: PG

Publication date: 1/12/2021

From the publisher:

From the publisher: Present day: Emma Lovett, who has dedicated her career to breathing new life into long-neglected gardens, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton, on the other hand, is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is anxiously trying to cling to her pre-war life.

Julia Kelly expertly explores the themes of women and work in two major past periods and contemporary England through the frame of a garden. What will you give up for your dream of work or your dream of love? We used to think we could have it all, but Kelly does a good job of showing that from the dawn of professional female artists, compromises have had to be made.

With blonde hair that was beginning to streak with silver, it would have been easy to think that the woman who dressed in demure pastels and high lace collars would be compassionate. Five minutes with Cynthia, however, and anyone would have been disabused of that notion. Cynthia was made of flint and dogma.

Julia Kelly, The Last Garden in England

At first, it was a little difficult to keep up with whose point of view was being discussed, despite the labeling of each chapter with each of the five women’s names.

Venetia was easy enough, given the unique name coupled with the earlier period, but I had a more trouble remembering which of the other four names matched which woman. The tone is fairly consistent for all these points of view, despite the fact that Venetia is first person and the other four are third party close.

Another theme she explores is the one of home: what constitutes one and when do we start wanting one? All of the women have different answers, and the answers morph with their character arcs, which are developed at a believable pace, as seasons change.

The choice to explore three different women during WWII is interesting. Of late, it feels like land girls and occupied country estates have been fairly thoroughly explored, but juxtaposing the land girl, the lady of the house, and the cook for the great house helps illuminate all of them in new and interesting ways.

The garden itself is lost on me. I have a vague sense of all the plants she was describing, but not the specifics of them or what a room in a garden is. However, it still worked for me, as the love of the various characters for the garden and what it symbolized to each of them came through.

A solid piece of historical fiction—probably not one to haunt my dreams, but The Last Garden in England was a good meat and potatoes read.


An Englishman in Newport

A prepublication Big5+ review

Gilded Age amateur sleuth

r/suggestmeabook: I want a sedate journey through Gilded Age high society with a little murder mixed in.

Rating: G

Publication date: 2/16/2021

From the publisher: London, 1878. “An Extravagant Death” finds Sir Charles Lenox traveling to Gilded Age Newport and New York to investigate the death of a beautiful socialite.

Charles Finch has managed to capture the sedate pace of a period before cell phones and Google. The first ten chapters are part history lesson, part travelogue. As a denizen of the hurry-up present, that didn’t feel sedate; it felt slow, but in a way Louisa May Alcott doesn’t feel for me. Instead, it felt like a delay to get to the meat of the novel—ten chapters to get to the damn murder.

The book blurb doesn’t help: It makes it sound as though the protagonist has gone to the States specifically to solve the murder, but that’s not how it works at all.

Obviously a great deal of historical research has gone into the story, but sometimes the inclusion of the lovely bits feels a little forced, as is the case of the multiple mentions of “back log.” We meet historic personages and places with no bearing on the plot—which, coupled with the delay in getting to the main subject of the book, isn’t as interesting as it could be if better integrated into the mains storyline.

On the other hand, very young men accustomed to all their wishes being granted could be unpredictable; more than that, were one of the great lurking threats in the world, in Lenox’s experience.

Charles Finch, “An Extravagant Death”

The subtle wit is a pleasure, though, and is well-suited to evoking Victorian England and the American Gilded Age. Once the murder mystery starts to unfold, it’s absorbing enough, although there’s nothing aside from the costume it’s wearing to distinguish it.

It’s off to me that the full blurb bothers mentioning the two children, as they, and his wife, are at best peripheral. To be fair, the novel is part of a series, so the mentions of characters as though I should care about them, when nothing in this book has created any feelings for them, could be an explanation for an assumption that cursory references suffice.

Reading it as a standalone, though, I’m not engaged enough with the characters to want to spend anymore time with them than this one book. Perhaps I would feel differently if I started at the beginning, but it’s too late for that now. This is the kind of trip down memory lane that makes the past seem tedious.