24 February 2020

A Conspiracy of Bones / Kathy Reichs

In attempting to determine a faceless man's identity and cause of death, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan comes across several cold cases of missing and abducted children and is drawn into the world of the Dark Web, conspiracy theories and underground bunkers. Aside from her accustomed allies, Andrew Ryan and Skinny Slidell, she joins forces with an unlikely sidekick: her mother.

When Kathy Reichs' debut novel Déjà Dead was released in 1997, it felt like a breath of fresh air. By telling a crime story from a point of view that had been little exploited at that time, seamlessly inserting complex scientific contents into a dramatic setting, and by transcribing her main character's disconnected, meandering inner dialogue onto the page in a relatable way, Reichs had found her own unique voice.

Alas, after the first few novels, it became all too obvious that this voice had morphed into a rigid template, turning each publication into a parody of itself...

So, in A Conspiracy of Bones, Tempe does it again: stumbling into a mystery, poking her nose in other people's business, facing challenges in her personal and professional lives, disregarding common-sense precautions, getting attacked, etc. Whether this constitutes a positive or a negative depends on your degree of tolerance for formulaic writing. Unfortunately, my own patience ran out around book #6 in this series. These ingredients made our early adventures alongside Tempe unexpected delights — but this dish has been warmed over a few too many times.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, in exchange for an honest review.

rating: **

This novel will be released on March 17, 2020.

31 December 2019

2019, the year of audio

This year, I fully embraced the delights of audio.

I finally acquired a smartphone, which means I can easily borrow and listen to audiobooks. They make exercising far more tolerable, and accompany me in my daily tasks. Thus far, my preference has gone to non-fiction, and I highly recommend these:

- At Home by Bill Bryson, a delightfully eclectic study of the domestic space (read my review here)
- Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a fascinating comparison of human and other minds
- Stiff by Mary Roach, a funny and irreverent but never disrespectful look at what happens to us after death

As a longtime fan of podcasts, I'm always happy to add new ones added to my feed. These are the ones I found over the course of this year:

- Shedunnit, a celebration of Golden Age mysteries with an emphasis on women's contributions
- Words to that Effect, about the written word in all its multifaceted glory
- The Memory Palace, always food for thought
- Literary Friction, which feels like eavesdropping on two smart, funny friends having a literary conversation
- Finding Fred, a touching look at beloved TV figure Fred Rogers and his lasting legacy of being a good neighbour

Despite my love of podcasts, I'd never realised before this year that there was such a thing as audio dramas! I've fallen headlong down the rabbit hole and have made amazing discoveries, with superb voice acting and mind-blowing sound design. Give these a listen if you're curious!

what: Staid Inspector Archibald Fleet and plucky journalist Clara Entwistle's (mis)adventures in Even Greater London under the reign of cyborg Victoria (& Albert)
listen while: nibbling on ginger buns
in two words: steampunk comedy

what: Tell them a good story and pony up the cash, and they'll fake your death
listen while: sipping cocoa
in two words: this review isn't happening

what: Cantankerous Rudyard Funn and his perpetually gloomy twin sister Antigone ran the only funeral home in the village of Piffling Vale, until (almost) universally popular Eric Chapman moved across the street
listen while: enjoying a hot water, strong
in two words: Enjoy yourselves!

what: A chronically overenthusiastic young man inherits a ramshackle tavern run by a crabby troll; what could go wrong?
listen while: tucking into seagull on toast
in two words: absurd fun

what: A team of strangers was sent to a remote area with a specific task; what happened next is told through their audio and video recordings and written notes
listen while: thawing your fingers on a mug of coffee
in two words: addictively terrifying

16 December 2019

At Home / Bill Bryson

Prompted by the discovery of a small door leading from the attic out to a tiny platform utterly invisible from the ground, Bill Bryson uses the layout and history of his house, a rectory built in 1851, to muse on the structure and concept we call "home." This is not so much a short history of private life (as the subtitle would have us believe), but a short history of the domestic space. Bryson takes us on a tour of the home, focusing on each element in turn (hall, kitchen, scullery, fusebox, drawing room, dining room, cellar, passage, study, garden, stairs, bedroom, bathroom, dressing room, nursery...) to conclude, fittingly, in the attic, always bringing it back to his house and its original owner, the Reverend Thomas Marsham. What emerges is the realization of how profoundly society has changed over the last 200 years.

Following at times circuitous routes, Bryson deftly and relevantly manages to touch just about every topic under the sun, from guano to arsenic and from archeology to clerics. His writing is erudite yet approachable, and he possesses a warmth and a contagious inquisitiveness that I found irresistible. Although some may find his rambling irritating, I enjoyed these tangents, since he's so eloquent and entertaining.

This was my first encounter with Bryson, and it completely charmed me. The audiobook, read by the author himself, was such a treat to listen to that I had to ration myself! I simply didn't want it to end.

I borrowed this audiobook from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

Rating: *****

25 November 2019

Midwinter Mysteries / coll.

Set between 1850 and 2019 in locales ranging from Prague to Galway, London and other points on the UK map, these short stories feature a variety of mysterious goings-on. Whether you prefer straight-up crimes or strange ghostly manifestations, you'll find something in this collection to keep you entertained. The standouts for me were J.C Briggs, Linda Stratmann and Marilyn Todd. Although some of these stories are truly excellent, a few are definitely weaker, which explains my overall rating.

[I received an electronic copy of this novel from the publisher, Sapere Books, in exchange for my honest opinion.]

rating: ***

14 October 2019

The Warlow Experiment / Alix Nathan

This book's basic premise: A wealthy horticulturalist devises an experiment in which a man will remain in a suite of exquisitely-appointed underground rooms for 7 years, never seeing or speaking to another human being. His every need regarding food, laundry, wood and coal, etc. will be attended to. He will have a collection of books as well as an organ at his disposal. He will write down his thoughts in the journals provided. At the end of the experiment, he will receive £50 annually for the rest of his life.

What this novel is actually about: A rich asocial dude treats a human being like one of his beloved plants, and everyone involved in the project is obsessed by sex, and then everything goes to hell.

I borrowed this e-book from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

rating: **

7 October 2019

Tidelands / Philippa Gregory

Abandoned by her husband in a place that's neither land nor sea, Alinor depends on her skills as a midwife, her knowledge of plants and herbs, and her resourcefulness to survive along with her two children. Inevitably in these troubled times of the English Civil War, rumours circulate about her among her neighbours: how she was responsible for her sister-in-law's death in childbirth; how she cast an impotency spell on her husband; how her children are faerie-born; how much she dreads deep water... Such talk intensifies when, seemingly overnight, she's able to purchase a boat, her son becomes part of the wealthiest household in the area, and her daughter is betrothed to the only son of a rich farmer. Surely, such good fortune can only come to a witch! Alinor does have secrets to hide — her own, and those of the Catholic priest whose life she saved.

I loved all the details of the humble, everyday existence, the ordinary tasks and the work that Alinor had to carry out to survive and to feed herself and her children. However, I rolled my eyes many times as her naivety and at the frankly stupid decisions she and other characters took, making their lives far more complicated by their own fault. I suppose I was the naive one for expecting people who had grown up in such circumstances to have more common sense and to be more realistic... I confess that I skimmed those sections that dealt with the politics of the time, and that I skipped the king's trial entirely. The "romance" aspect of this novel felt very contrived. As for the ending, it was frankly confusing. I'm giving this book three stars only because of all the interesting, well-researched domestic details.

I borrowed this e-book from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

rating: ***

30 September 2019

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories / Martin Edwards (ed.)

What better way to add a gentle thrill to the familiarity and comfort of our end-of-year festivities than with a collection of Christmas-themed crime stories that can be enjoyed between more intense bouts of holiday activity?

This collection of short fiction from the Golden Age of the genre explores now-familiar tropes from a variety of points of view and features a good diversity of sleuths, both amateur and professional. Country houses, multiple suspects and misdirection all make their expected appearance, although there are a few surprises in store even for crime connoisseurs. While I enjoyed the stories overall, I found this selection rather uneven, with only three truly standing out from the lot ("Blind Man's Hood" by Carter Dickson, "Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech" by Cyril Hare, and "Crime at Lark Cottage" by John Bingham) thanks to an interesting twist.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, in exchange for an honest review.

rating: ***

23 September 2019

Little / Edward Carey

In this fantastical fictional autobiography of the founder of London's famous Madame Tussauds wax museum, Marie (nicknamed Little) recounts how she found and lost her father, how she first met the rather strange Doctor Curtius, from whom she learned the art of wax modeling, how she moved to Paris with him, how she came to be Madame Elisabeth's teacher and live at Versailles (in a cupboard) for several years, how she fell in love, how her talents were called upon during the Revolution, how she cast the heads of many famous and infamous people whether before or after their death, how she was imprisoned then freed, how she at last had a family, how she left half that family behind to start afresh in London, and how she opened her museum and prospered. Along the way, Marie illustrates her narrative with wonderful drawings (made by the author himself).

As I started to read this novel, it made me think of Dieu et nous seuls pouvons, the absolutely amazing book by Michel Folco which tells how an abandoned baby boy originated a famous dynasty of public executioners. Both infuse reality with a finely calibrated dose of oddity and a gallery of unforgettable characters.

Edward Carey filled in the gaps in the known lives of historical characters in such an original way that at first it's a bit bewildering, but once I gave in to it, I absolutely loved this novel — most of all Marie herself who, although exploited in so many ways throughout her life, feels very little self-pity even in the worst situations. She behaves with a quiet dignity that shows true inner strength. Little is definitely one of my favourite novels of the year.

I borrowed this e-book from the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

rating: *****

16 September 2019

Snap Shot / Marilyn Todd

from the publisher's site:

1895, London

Taking risqué photographs is the only way Julia McAllister can retain her independence as a young widow in London.
But one by one, her models are dying — and now she is being framed for their murders.
The relentless Inspector Collingwood is on the case and Julia knows he’s watching her every move.
With young women still dying, and her own life on the line, Julia must unmask the real killer before it is too late…
Can Julia clear her name? Will Collingwood believe her?
Or will the dark secrets of her past come back to haunt her…?

This is anything but the typical historical novel set during Victoria's reign. Julia McAllister defies all expectations of what a "proper lady" should be; she's opinionated, vocal, forthright, sensual, and definitely has agency over her own life. The brisk repartee between herself and Inspector Collingwood and Bug, the street urchin who insinuates himself into the role of her assistant, were a delight. I appreciated how the author exposes, in various ways, the vulnerable position of women in society at the time. Although I found that the minor storylines unnecessarily muddied the plot and that the conclusion was rather rushed, the psychology behind the crimes felt credible. I look forward to reading the second book in this series.

[I received an electronic copy of this novel from the publisher, Sapere Books, in exchange for my honest opinion.]

rating: ***

9 September 2019

The Corset / Laura Purcell

Two women trapped by society meet in prison: wealthy Dorothea Truelove, whose father disapproves of her "good works" with female prisoners and wants to marry her off, and sixteen-year-old seamstress Ruth Butterham, who is awaiting trial for murder.

Dorothy listen incredulously at Ruth's astonishing claim that she can channel her emotions into her stitches, and that she's therefore to blame for the deaths of her baby sister and her father, her mother's blindness, one of her old schoolmates' lingering disease... and most recently the illness that killed her mistress. But surely, each of these events can be rationally explained away?

Ruth is convinced that she can influence the lives of those around her through her sewing; indeed, the corsets she makes become both a source of strength for herself and a means of revenge towards others. Dorothy swears by phrenology, which asserts that it's possible to know people's true character by the bumps on their heads, and wants to conduct an experiment by measuring Ruth's skull. Both women's beliefs will be put to the test.

As she did in The Silent Companions, Laura Purcell explores female madness from an unusual perspective. I love how she provides "natural" and "supernatural" explanations, leaving the reader to vacillate between them as the novel progresses. There's an insidiousness about the narrative, constantly giving rise to doubts about who can be trusted, and there always seems to be something else going on just out of reach or sight... And oh, that conclusion!

I purchased this book online.

Rating: ***