To investigate, or not to investigate?

Death on the Lake by Jo Allen

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch how detectives balance competing cases as well as their personal/work lives in the context of a well-crafted mystery.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 392

Publisher: Self

Series: DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Contemporary traditional mystery

From the publisher: When a young woman, Summer Raine, is found drowned, apparently accidentally, after an afternoon spent drinking on a boat on Ullswater, DCI Jude Satterthwaite is deeply concerned — more so when his boss refuses to let him investigate the matter any further to avoid compromising a fraud case.

This is the sixth of Jo Allen’s DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries, and the second I’ve read, and she does not disappoint—this one is just as good as the last one I reviewed, Death at Rainbow Cottage. Allen has a talent for keeping you guessing, and, just like last time, I was constantly sure I had the riddle solved and then realized, nope, I hadn’t. In this case, there was one key fact that wasn’t disclosed that would have made the difference, but I’m okay with that, as that disclosure also would have made the whole thing rather obvious (or at least it seems that way to me in retrospect).

Shared secrets allowed you to love someone for what they were, just as confession cleared your conscience.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

I particularly enjoyed that Allen talked about the use of resources in this book, something I don’t know I’ve ever seen before. My retired cop husband’s constant bitch about TV shows involving police investigation (and one of many, many reasons we don’t watch them) is that they act like the full resources of the police are available for every case, and that every department has all of the latest scientific testing available. So having the prickly Detective Superintendent Faye Scanlon set some very difficult parameters for DCI Jude Satterthwaite’s investigation of Summer Raine’s death was quite rewarding.

Thirty-six years of insatiable curiosity had matured into a store of rock-solid local knowledge.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

I also really like the way Allen is investigating the romantic relationships of the recurring characters. Ashleigh and Jude are so much more honest about their relationship than most people are, and both understand how much a career in law enforcement complicates everything, particularly in a situation like theirs, where overtime is expected and required.

But he knew and she knew he knew, and the resulting tension was always there between them.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

Another lovely feature was grappling with the relative importance of various crimes. Police officers have a great deal of discretion, so when is it appropriate to bust someone for marijuana and when should you let it go? Which is worse, murder or money-laundering/fraud? Satterthwaite comes down firmly on the side that murder is worse, but money-laundering/fraud can, depending on the particular scam, ruin far more lives than a single murder, so which really is more important to stop? (If you’ve read anything on recidivism, you’ll know that most studies show that murderers tend to have a lower recidivism rate; my old criminal law prof joked it was because “you only have one mother-in-law.”)

There must have been a reason why everyone disliked him, but for all that he was her family.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

And then there are the characters who are around (presumably) for just this installment. The family at the center of the murder, fraud, and money-laundering questions, the Neilsons, are fascinating: a young wife trying to help raise privileged-as-hell twins of 18 with an oft-absent wealthy husband who came from the area and made his fortune after leaving. There are so many levels to explore in this family, and Allen does a good job of covering the waterfront.

It was rare she coveted anything, but the Neilsons’ summer mansion brought out the worst in her.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

And then there’s the setting. More so than the last book, the Lake District’s geography comes into play in this novel. I took some time to look at some of the landmarks Allen discusses in the book, and the difficulties the lay of the land create for observation and security become quite obvious.

Because fear, like loyalty and friendship, made you do terrible, terrible things.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

All-in-all, Death on the Lake is a triumphant installment of this engaging murder mystery series, marked both for the clever puzzle and the layers of depth in its treatment of the crimes and characters.


Weaving through the Crucchi

The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 320

Publisher: Severn House

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

WWII historical fiction

From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.

Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.

There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.

The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.

If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.

That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.

Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.


Exiled between worlds

Big 4+ prepublication review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

r/suggestmeabook: I want a political novel seared by the trauma of colonialism as experienced by a woman of color acting as an officer for the colonizing power.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 442

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 3/23/21

Series: Magic of the Lost

From the publisher: Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought. Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne. Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

This novel, graphically demonstrating the ills of imperialism, made me dream of the Amritsar Massacre and the Sepoy Rebellion (which was the name given back when I first learned of it) when I was in the midst of it, not sure which way the story was going. However, there are little frills of French, so I probably should have been thinking the Battle of Algiers. C.L. Clark’s book is that vivid, thrusting you into the point of view of what it would be like to feel trapped between a world that had trained you and an unremembered land that gave you birth.

The Balladrians could—would—flay them all alive. Or whip them just as near. It baffled her, how stupid the rebels were about the balance of power: The Qazali had nothing. Balladaire had numbers, equipment, supplies—they were winning, had been winning for decades.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Touraine has long been caught between her ambition to make something of herself in the Baladaire empire for which she has fought in many wars and her desire to protect her fellow Sands, other conscripts from her homeland. That tension is pulled to its utmost when her unit is deployed to the land of their birth, Qazal. No one wants her—not the country she’s bled for or the country she was pulled from with no say in the matter. Sometimes you just want to shake her to see things as they are (and occasionally yell at her for some ill-considered choices), but you can’t help feeling for her predicament.

Always, always someone weighed her. Always, someone looked for the flaw.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Luca, princess and arguably rightful ruler of the empire, has been sent to deal with local disturbances. I had less sympathy for her and her inability, at times, to empathize with the colony she’d come to. Having a disabled protagonist who was quite functional despite the condition that made walking or dancing difficult was a plus, but her self-centeredness was a bit off-putting. She can dress it up as beneficial to all her subjects, but those claims felt hollow.

It made Luca wonder what new boundaries people would have to make in the future—how they would call themselves, what they would find to separate themselves from each other.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It’s an absorbing story, full of devious actors. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, and the otherness that Touraine always feels is convincing and heart-rending. There’s also a lot of questioning about who is responsible for what and how to handle competing priorities and loyalties. There are some occasional abrupt shifts in pace, and times when the motivations for actions seem less than convincing. The mood is grim most of the time.

People like you and me have to remind people like her the difference between what’s important and what’s possible.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

As well as the unusual storyline, The Unbroken features a cast that’s overwhelmingly female. They all have their own quirks and personalities, and almost all of them are strong (and fragile) in unique ways. Lesbian relationships are taken as a matter of course, a pleasant feature in an alternate reality.

They never chose this. They’re not getting rewarded for valor with ribbons and raises. We just die, and when we die, we’re not even worth the wood to burn us.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Another interesting feature is that Balladaire has eliminated religion, if not by law, by a pervasive social view that it is “uncivilized.” The imperial view is in opposition to the religious nature of most of the subject countries, although the religions portrayed remind me more of the contractual types of religion (do this for me and I’ll do that for you) rather than any mystical-type connection.

Magic was a tool, perhaps even a weapon. Religion was folly dressed as hope.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It takes a while for any fantasy aspect (other than an imagined reality) to appear, and it may be too limited for some fantasy junkies. But I found it a compelling, if at times disturbing, read.


A little love, a little tolerance, and a little murder

Death at Rainbow Cottage by Jo Allen

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-crafted murder problem nestled into a tight-knit community of well-developed characters.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 392

Publisher: Self

Series: DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Contemporary traditional mystery

From the publisher: The apparently motiveless murder of a man outside the home of controversial equalities activist Claud Blackwell and his neurotic wife, Natalie, is shocking enough for a peaceful local community. When it’s followed by another apparently random killing immediately outside Claud’s office, DCI Jude Satterthwaite has his work cut out.

This is the fifth of Jo Allen’s DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries, and as a first-time reader of her work, I can say I’m immensely pleased that this works as a standalone. I generally don’t review books that are several down a series unless I’m going to read the preceding books, but I apparently missed the part of the memo that this was number five, and I’m glad I did, or I’d have passed on this delightful mystery.

Because a murder in an isolated lane was one thing, but there was nothing to put the fear of God into the local population like a violent death on their own doorstep.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

I also generally skip police procedurals, because I’m married to a retired cop and I know enough by osmosis to get annoyed. But since this is set in the UK, not the US, and really fits more into the traditional mode than a mystery that is overly wrapped up in the CSI details, again, I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.

Allen does a marvelous job of the key ingredient that makes mysteries fun to me: she creates a deft puzzle, and I had different suspects pegged throughout the book, changing my mind with new information, but never guessed the actual killer until scant pages before the reveal. All the clues were there, and seem glaring in retrospect, but were laid with such skill that none clicked.

Claud had struck him as a man who never let anything go, who worked long hours and never respected anyone else’s time off and now, it seemed, he had the proof of that.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

As if that wasn’t enough, the book is dense with great characters, none of them overly simple, and she does a good job of avoiding most of the usual tropes. It’s clear there’s more to the story than what is covered within it, but it struck me not as though I’d missed something by not reading the first four (which are now on my TBR), but more like the windup for a larger story arc that had elements yet to be revealed.

Church and folk music were Doddsy’s interests, two things that suddenly made him feel older than he was. The shadow of a mid-life crisis lengthened behind him, stealing ever closer to his shoulder.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Allen’s prose is straightforward and crisp, with the occasional infusion of dry wit, and the pace is as brisk as that sounds. The insulated world of the police department is well done, as officers do tend to flock together as much as the book implies, and there is a certain disconnect between those on the inside and those family members who just don’t quite get how running an investigation can interfere with your social and family commitments.

Jet lag was a brute at the best of times, bestowing all the privations of a hangover with none of the fun that might have preceded it.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

My quibble would be that I wasn’t sure that DCI Satterthwaite was actually the protagonist, despite the name, although I suppose the same could be said for Hercule Poirot—in the novels, usually someone else is the protagonist, with Poirot managing to confound them. But the shifts of POV took me a little work to figure out who’s story was being told, although in the end, it was effective.

Civil twilight, her father called it—daylight was done, darkness yet to come upon them. Only the glow over the Lake District fells and the light from the car headlights offered her any comfort.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

My other quibble was the representation of various mental health issues: anxiety disorder and OCD in particular. It’s not that the representation was unsympathetic; it just felt incomplete. However, the inclusion of characters with these issues doesn’t mean you have to show the total array of how those mental health issues may manifest; it just that these representations hewed a little closer to some stereotypical representations (which, in all fairness, exist as well as other versions) and may cause some discomfort for those who do have those syndromes.

She wasn’t so simple that she didn’t understand her new boyfriend’s driving passion was a slow-burning determination for revenge on the old.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

This book also is an intriguing look into all the ways people can love and mate. At the core of it, the Rainbow Cottage is what it sounds like—the home of a man devoted to promoting understanding among straight cisgendered people and the rainbow of other sexualities. These themes are brought up explicitly in the sensitivity sessions that are not particularly welcomed by the busy DCI nor the gay officer who feels like he’s being pressured to talk more than he’d like, as well as the murders themselves, which begin with a gay man and a lesbian woman.

Though even the metrosexual parents, the ones who thing they’re right up with it…even those ones are perfectly happy for everyone else to be gay but they can’t help questioning things a little bit when it’s their boy.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Allen sensibly took the time to employ a sensitivity reader for the topics, because although the protagonists and tone of the book is clearly meant to be LGBTQIA+ friendly, it touches on homophobia, particularly as a motivation for the murders, and some of the statements of certain characters are a bit distasteful. As a cisgender straight woman, I can’t speak for the experience of someone in the community, but it felt like a lot of effort was made to avoid stereotypes or tropes.

It wasn’t always self-doubt that held people back from being themselves, but doubt about the open-heartedness of their neighbors and friends, unspoken judgment behind a mask of tolerance.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Not only that, there’s the romantic life—and its complications—of Jude and Ashleigh as well as the other members of their circle. The takeaway for me was that although we can be attracted to and love lots of different types of people, the problems we face in relationships seem to boil down to the same short list of problems.

Perhaps a lot of crimes took place behind just such a curtain of perfection, dramas playing out in the heart while the window on the world was one of false happiness.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

I particularly want to give a shoutout for the portrayal of the prickly Detective Superintendent Faye Scanlon. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve worked for this bitch before (although sometimes as a bastard)—and the paranoid, ambitious boss is a great person to love to hate. You just cringe every time she walks into a room.

Faye championed equality and fairness in the workplace but only for others. In personal matters ruthlessness and her own interests held sway.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Although I wouldn’t call this a cozy, I’d recommend it to cozy mystery fans who also like Agatha Christie and the like. I vastly enjoyed my time in Cumbria with DCI Satterthwaite and the gang, and look forward to reading more of this series from the talented Jo Allen.


Survival, banditry, and a little magic

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wuxia-inspired novella about bandits trying to deal with the outcome of temple desecration in a fantasy mid-20th century Malay.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 155

Publisher: Tordotcom

From the publisher: A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

This novella has plenty to love: combat, deceit, trans rep, a corner of history largely unknown in the US, and lots of little mysteries. The writing is lucid as mountain spring water, and the characters are intriguing where not sympathetic, and mostly sympathetic (if occasionally annoying).

It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

There’s the bandit with the pretty face, Lau Fung Cheung, also known as Ah Sang, who could be Aramis of The Three Musketeers in a different life. There’s the solid and dependable Tet Sang, Lau Fung Cheung’s second, who finds himself drawn into conflicts he’d prefer to avoid. Then there’s the woman they made the mistake of helping, Guet Imm, a former votary of the tokong of the Pure Moon, a temple which has been destroyed.

Either she was on of those happy persons whose periods gave them little trouble, or her stoicism over her blistered feet extended to cramps and cold sweats.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The novel is based on the Emergency, a conflict in the former Malay Colony of Britain, which was perceived as a communist insurrection by the Chinese ethnic population in the postwar period (1948-1960) by the British colonial powers. Taking a chapter from Stalin, the British relocated approximately one million Chinese “squatters” who lived on the fringes of the jungle and were supporting the insurrectionists, who saw themselves as a liberation army. In most of the British official summaries found by a quick Google search, the relocation was benign, giving them housing and infrastructure. The truth is more complex: these “squatters” were first moved to emptied prisons and, when those grew too full, to concentration and detention camps. It was only when the British realized this was not going to be a workable solution (and the more economically advantaged ethnic Chinese began to unite to protect the squatters), that the new villages were created.

“Of course I knew there were problems. But even when I went to town and got a job, nobody talked about a war.”

“Nobody talks about it. It’s not that kind of war.”

“What kind of war is it, then?”

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The spark was racially motivated: the British were about to offer full citizenship to the Chinese Malays, but there was a popular backlash from the rest of the Malay population, and the British retracted the offer. This lead to members of the Chinese population responding more violently. This reaction didn’t come around as quickly as it sounds from this context: the Chinese in Malay had dealt with Chinese exclusion laws much like those in the US, from persecution during the Japanese occupation, and lack of adequate recourse to justice before and after the Japanese took Malay.

A bespectacled man with slick hair and alert lidless eyes of a gecko, he seemed cleanly and decent, like a clerk. At the same time, there was something off-putting about him—one would not be surprised to hear that he had embezzled funds or slapped his mother-in-law.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

At any rate, this novella of a fantasy Malay during that time partakes of aspects of the actual history. Cho uses the term “Tang” to refer to the ethnic Chinese (although it’s actually a dynasty), and it’s clear throughout the story that these are a people being singled out for persecution. The protagonists are not guerrillas; they are just displaced poor people who ran out of options for anything better.

You cannot stay rich in times like these without eating sin. If you don’t dare to do wrong, then you will suffer.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The attitude toward trans people is refreshing. It appears that during this period, transgender people were generally accepted in Malay; it wasn’t until a Muslim resurgence in the 1980s that attitudes started to change. A culture with matter-of-fact acceptance and lack of stigma is a pleasure to imagine yourself into.

Tet Sang had known members of her Order who had been dedicated to the Pure Moon at a young age but then decided they could not endure to be called sister. They had departed to join male orders or start other lives. Conversely, he had no doubt that some of the Pure Moon’s nuns had lived as men before they joined her Order. Once they entered the deity’s light, no one was particularly interested in what they had been before.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Possible spoiler here forward–no specifics, but you might find it to be one: My only real complaint about the novella is the ending; it feels as though it simply stops, rather than having a conclusion. It’s something I like about fiction; unlike real life, resolutions are almost always possible. Like most readers, an ending I dislike tends to color my opinion of the entire story. Cho has said she may return to these characters; I hope this ends up as a first part of a longer story, but even so, I’d have liked a better resting place.

He knew how dangerous it could be to assume that either women or mystics were harmless.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

All in all, it’s a book I recommend, although be warned that you may be ready to turn the last page to another chapter, and find that you’ve been left in the Malay jungle to wonder.

Want a different take? Check out Peat Long’s review of Zen Cho’s lovely book.


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.


#FridayFlashbook: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

A bookblogger roundup on a book that’s been around

Many thanks to Gary Mitchelhill of Rapidsnap at Deviant Art for the banner picture!

On Fridays, I’m going to be sharing reviews on a book on my TBR that I keep hearing about. Today I’m sharing reviews for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, often cited as an optimistic choice and nominated for many awards that don’t typically give the nod to a self-published novel.

Today’s roundup includes a thumbs down, which I’d generally prefer to do. Reviews are in alphabetical order—the audiobook review is at the bottom.

From the publisher: When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The ship, which has seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

Grab the Lapels

A rave review.

Everything about this novel is phenomenal. Not one character is alike, and all are engaging in their own ways. Chambers manages to write about culture, xenophobia, homophobia, colonialism, science deniers, religious extremists, consent, love, the nuclear family, language — just loads of stuff. And the author weaves it in so carefully that the book is never heavy handed. 

Melanie, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers,” Grab the Lapels

Logos con Carne

Not a fan.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book at all.

There are matters of taste versus quality, and there certainly are quality things not to my taste. I want to be clear that I do have complaints about the quality of the storytelling. If it was up to taste, I probably would have liked this book.

On paper, the framework is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy — a “small scruffy crew of misfits on an independent spaceship.”

Wyrd Smythe, “Chambers: Small Angry Planet,” Logos con Carne

Muse with Me

A somewhat critical review.

It’s rare that I feel so utterly positive about a book that I had a somewhat glaring issue with. Within the first 50 pages or so, as Rosemary becomes acquainted with her new crewmates and job, I was ready for the story to kick into a higher gear. Worldbuilding and introductions had been laid down, and I was ready to get a sense of what the underlining conflict to this novel might be. The titular “small, angry planet” that they’re traveling to serves more as a foreboding presence to be confronted at the climax of the story, so in the meantime, I kept waiting for a more persistent, present conflict to make itself known.

Ryan Carter “Book Review – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers,” Muse with Me

Space and Sorcery

A review from a reader who expected “Firefly vibes.”

The overall tone of the novel might appear overly rosy-hued at times, painting a picture that goes even beyond the theme of the unified, strife-free galaxy envisioned by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: as the crew of the Wayfarer is on warm and friendly terms with each other, so are the various alien races peopling this universe, and even the few exceptions don’t seem able to shatter this balance.

Maddalena, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers – #SciFiMonth,” Space and Sorcery

A Take from Two Cities

An audiobook review of the version narrated by Patricia Rodriguez, and somewhat negative.

Sadly I’m feeling rather underwhelmed by this series starter when I really expected to enjoy it. I’m a lover of sci-fi and the idea of a fun bunch of species romping the galaxy sounded right up my street and in some ways it was.How I wish, so fervently, to rise like Lazarus from the yawning depths of my shelves, that I may reach you before you sail downstream to the thread of future wherein you chance upon, This Is How You Lose The Time War. Though under the glittering constellations of my own beloved worlds, I still long to be your vanguard of yet unseen worlds, to carry once more the banner of warning upon which I break both time and heart.

Micky, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet,A Take from Two Cities

Someday I’ll get through that TBR and have a chance to review it myself—it sounds like a solid escapist read.

Happy Friday!

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.

Diversifying the voices in our heads

Inspired by Shut Up, Shealeas post on Diversity 101

I’ve always loved fiction that takes me other places, whether other times, cultures, or realities, so looking to include diversity seems a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you want fresh voices?

Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, and actively promoting diverse reading is required to help broaden our understanding of the human experience. It’s incumbent on those of us with white CIS hetero Protestant privilege to be good allies.

Shealea of Shut Up, Shealea posted an amazing primer on diverse reading, giving a call to action as well as definitions and suggested readings.

The larger call for diversity is a call for equal accessibility and opportunity for stories about marginalized lives *and* a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in.

Shealea, Shut Up, Shealea

Since I’m not in the publishing industry, anything I can do is indirect. I’d read awhile ago that self-publishing was one of the ways to help promote voices that aren’t getting taken up by traditional publishers. As long as we’re a capitalist system, the main way to create diversity is to make it a market demand. Buying, borrowing, and talking about those books is important.

If you’re an author considering self-publishing, promoting diversity can also mean affirmatively seeking out diversity in those doing the editing, cover art, layout, e-book formatting, etc. Now sometimes that’s tough—people have to self-identify first, as you don’t want to ask “Excuse me, are you nonwhite, non-Western, disabled, neurodiverse, or LGBTQA+?”

One of the people who helped me think about the question of representation in literature is Ian Hancock, a Romani linguist and activist. He pointed out was that the Romani, still frequently referred to as gypsies (considered pejorative by most Roma), lost the same percentage of their population as the Jews, but the Porajmos, as Hancock and other activists refer to the Romani share of the Holocaust, is not spoken of as often. Part of that is because the absolute number of Jews is much higher.

Hancock and others also point to the differences between the populations. The Roma have been systematically oppressed for generations, and are poor and largely illiterate, as opposed to the Jews, who have also been systematically oppressed, but are largely literate. As a result, there is no mindset for record-keeping, nor, as Hancock has put it, a Romani elite.

For him, it was necessary to have a percentage of Romani who became well educated to have representatives whose speech would be respected by the dominant Western white cultures. It’s kind of like the concept popularized by W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth.

Although there are controversies about some of Hancock’s opinions, the salient point is this: Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters. The Romani experience of the Holocaust illustrates that. The sheer number of deaths suffered by the Romani was not enough to raise awareness of the Porajmos; authors were needed to bring that forward. There is no diary by a young Romani girl; there is no parallel to Night by Eli Wiesenthal.

Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters.

As literacy grows, the barriers should be lower for those underrepresented voices to express themselves in ways that others can read and empathize with. It shouldn’t be about an elite—it should be available to help pave the way for people of all types to “live their best life,” to use a cliche. That doesn’t happen, though, without conscious thought, because the powers that be are still overrepresented in every aspect of publishing.

So it’s incumbent on all of us to read diversely and to demand diverse voices in our books, and to promote those voices. However, as an ally and reviewer, I’m sometimes in a bind—I’m not an authority on any of the experiences of these communities, but I’m passing my admittedly subjective judgment on books. My goal is to look at the writing as writing when looking at books by members of those communities—not addressing the validity of the experience so much as how well it is communicated to an outsider.

However, it’s trickier when it comes to characters from those communities. Who am I to pass judgment on the authenticity of the characters, particularly if there’s no overt self-identification by the author? Again, I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to the experts in the community. I won’t spot them all as I don’t have that finely honed sensitivity one gets about their own issues, but I feel that when a book starts rubbing me the wrong way about its depiction of a person of color or a LGBTQ character, then I should point it out.

I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Because, of course, even members of any of these communities will have different perspectives on their experiences which will shape their feelings about the characters in question. Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Shealea posed two great questions that stopped me because I rarely think of casual or nonreaders in this context, despite their existence in my immediate sphere:

  • How can you encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
  • Do you think that accessibility plays a large role in a person’s ability to read diversely?

The second issue is probably easier—yes, there is so much noise out there that finding diverse novels takes more effort than simply picking up whatever is on a rack in the drug store.

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

As to the first question: Is it a matter of providing “gateway” books (like comics or graphic novels)* by underrepresented communities to places where people are more likely to pick up a book? Or has the ubiquity of cell phones crowded out the possibility of someone picking up print places where we used to: doctor’s offices, hospitals, garages, or anyplace else where you’re trapped waiting on someone else?

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

If you’re ready to read, go to Shut Up, Shealea and find a book to broaden your frame of reference. Or, if you’ve exhausted her list, or need some other places to check out, try some of these sites:

Comments much appreciated!

(Many thanks to S., Fabienne, and HermitCrone for their assistance in helping me think through this post; however, no blame attaches to them for opinions expressed herein.)

* Not meaning any disrespect to comics and graphic novels, but they seem to be less intimidating that walls of words.