2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

Halloween Bingo 2020: The Rest of the Game and Wrap-Up

Sooo, that’s another bingo game behind us already!  Many thanks to our game hosts for successfully moving the game from BookLikes to a new venue and organizing one heck of a game despite that venue’s built-in limitations.  I had a great time and would only have wished I could have participated more throughout the game (particularly in October).

As I had expected, RL started to run major interference by mid-September; and while initially I was at least still able to continue reading (even though I no longer had any time to compose update posts here on WP), by the beginning of October, even reading was essentially a no-go.  Just as well that I had powered through my remaining books by that time … otherwise, this would likely have been the first year in which I hadn’t made it all the way to blackout.

Anyway — here’s my blacked-out bingo card — gained after having had to wait for Doomsday (to be called … on the game’s very last day, at that: could there possibly have been a better conclusion to this year’s game?), with my “virgin” card below and my final spreadsheet at the end of this post:

 

My Master Update Post

 

The Game’s Final Books

… (roughly) in the order in which I read them:

 

Naomi Novik: Spinning Silver


Book 2 in Novik’s series of books updating classical fairy tales (though not, actually, a sequel to Uprooted — this one very much stands on its own ground): essentially, a blend of Rumpelstiltskin, Baba Yaga, and the English / British version of the elf lore, set in a fictional Eastern European country that is, however, very clearly inspired by Russia — down to the use of proper names, titles, and other terms, which are either downright Russian or a sort of pan-Slavic bowdlerization of Russian, Polish, or other Slavic terms.

Novik almost lost me during the initial scene-setting, which struck me as overly elaborate and wordy (she’s clearly her own greatest fan where it comes to the use of descriptive language or, for that matter, even “showing” instead of “telling”); but once the story got going, I was happy enough to come along for the ride, and there were enough innovative elements to keep me interested throughout.  It was probably a good thing that both the source material and the setting were entirely fictional, though (even if heavily borrowing from Russian and pan-Slavic elements), because I’m almost certain that if Novik had aimed for an existing historical setting (as she does in her Temeraire series), she’d have had me wincing at some point or other. — I may go on to read Uprooted or another fairy tale-based book by her eventually, but it’s not a priority, and after this first taste of her writing, I am even less eager to go anywhere near Temeraire.

 

The Medieval Murderers: The Lost Prophecies


This was a reread, which this time around I liked quite a bit better than when I first read it a few years ago.  The Medieval Murderers series of round robins are the perfect books for the “Relics and Curiosities” Halloween Bingo category, as their very concept consists in following one (supposedly cursed or unlucky) item through history, from its first use or appearance at some point in the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day (or beyond); so they have become sort of my go-to series for this bingo square.  Yet, in this particular instance I was sorely tempted to change my mind and assign the book to either the “Doomsday” or the “Dystopian Hellscape” square, as it ends with a scary-and-believable-as-hell doomsday scenario set in a post-climate-catastrophe future, with half the world (e.g., all of Africa and India) essentially burnt up and turned into a scorching, uninhabitable desert, and the better part of the rest half-submerged by the world’s oceans after the melting of the polar ice caps.  (It’s also a showcase for not extrapolating too noticeably from the political order at the time of writing, though, as it was written pre-Brexit and more or less takes Britain’s continued membership in the EU as a given … oh well.)

Like in all the books in the series, the individual sections of The Lost Prophecies (which concerns a book of doomsday prophesies compiled by a 6th century Irish monk) can, at heart, stand on their own, even though there are occasional cross-references; particularly, of course, to the “dangerous book”‘s mysterious origins.  Individually and collectively, the book’s various parts take the reader on a journey from 6th century Ireland to medieval Devon, late medieval Cambridge, the Tartar Steppe, rural England in Shakespeare’s times, and, as mentioned above, the doomsday world of the “dangerous book”‘s final prophecies.  As is to be expected in a round robin — and as is typically the case in this series, too — not all of the individual mystery sections are equally strong, and I’ve found my previous likes and dislikes essentially confirmed upon this reread, even if, as I said, I liked the book quite a bit better as a whole this time around.

 

A.S. Byatt: Ragnarok


Ultimately, I decided to go with Byatt’s take on Ragnarök for the “Doomsday” Halloween Bingo square, because let’s face it, doomsday doesn’t get anymore terrifying than in Norse mythology — and I am glad that Byatt, for one, didn’t try to humanize the Norse deities, as so many other authors do in their attempt to make them understandable to modern readers.  (You can easily do that to the gods of Greek mythology — and honestly, that’s one of the reasons why as a child I found them, and Greek mythology as a whole, much easier to understand than Norse mythology; but try to assign human characteristics and motivations to Thor or Loki and you’re instantly missing their intrinsic nature.)  By the same token, I found it intriguing that Byatt herself — as the “thin child” through whose eyes we are witnessing Ragnarök here is, as she herself confirms in the book’s afterword, an only thinly-veiled edition of Byatt’s younger self — was drawn so much to the Norse version of doomsday in her younger years.  Of couse, what with WWII persistently threatening to destroy her own world, on the one hand it’s easily understandable that she would turn to the kind of storytelling that centers on precisely this sort of catastrophe; on the other hand, the thoroughly alien and hard-to-grasp Norse deities don’t seem to be the very first, logical point of identification coming to mind.  All the more thought, however, Byatt clearly put into her approach to Ragnarök, and all the more the whole thing is to the benefit of the reader … even if, like myself, that reader still comes away preferring Greek to Norse mythology.

 

Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Tom Dooley


Just as the Medieval Murderers series has, over the years, become my go-to series for “Relics and Curiosities”, Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad series is my go-to series for the Southern Gothic bingo square.  I’ve enjoyed all of the books from that series that I’ve read so far; none more than The Ballad of Frankie Silver.  This particular entry, while not a complete let-down, was thus a bit unexpected as it is the first time that I could not empathize with one of the major POV characters (which, I find more and more, is kind of crucial to my enjoyment of a book); not least because I thought her character unnecessarily clichéd.  And although McCrumb insists that — like in her other Ballad novels — the essential story is based on historic fact, she seems to have given in to conjecture here more than she usually does, which is something that I find problematic at least if, like here, it involves people who have actually lived, and have been a part of the events described, though not necessarily (or at least not demonstrably) in the way set forth by the author. — Research and faithful narration aside, however, McCrumb can still write rings around many another writer, and her scene-setting and ear for dialogue (both interior and exterior) is as flawless as ever here.

 

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats


Original review HERE.

Additional separate post HERE — Macavity, Mr. Mistoffelees & Co. in all their feline glory still very much deserve a post of their own!

 

Michael Jecks: The Malice of Unnatural Death


I’ve been a fan of Michael Jecks’s Knights Templar series for a number of years now, and although he pretty much grabbed me with the opening scene of that series’s very first book (and never mind that that particular book did come across as more of a typical “early” book later on), I keep enjoying how much better the series gets the further it progresses.  I am not reading it in order (though I’ve read enough books at this point to have a fairly solid grasp of the two main characters’ overall story arch) — so far this hasn’t greatly bothered me, but I may find it more difficult to go back to some of the earlier books after having read this particular installment, which, never mind its occasionally gut-wrenching scenes, is a veritable page-turner and darned near perfectly crafted in virtually every respect.  It’s also the perfect Halloween (bingo) read, in that it combines a (medieval) mystery — set in Exeter and the main characters’ nearby Dartmoor home — with apparent elements of the supernatural; concerning, as it does, the activities of a necromancer — an assassin claiming to be in league with the devil and using powers bestowed on him by the devil in order to carry out his murders (in the dead of winter, at that).  All told, this was definitely one of the highlights of my bingo reads this year.

 

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice


Another (re-re-)reread and, not just in its medieval setting, the perfect follow-up to Michael Jecks’s The Malice of Unnatural Death: The story of a young man professing an earnest desire to become a novice at Shrewsbury’s abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul and yet, soon revealing in his sleep that he is haunted by demons that will need to be exorcised before any decision about his future can be made — not just the decision whether he is meant for the cloister at all.

This is one of my favorite installments in Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series; I’ve revisited both the book and the screen adaptation starring Derek Jacobi numerous times … and I confess that petty li’l me always gets an extra kick out of seeing the odious Brother Jerome brought down a peg or three here when he is temporarily rendered incapable of speech.  (And I feel secure in the knowledge that not merely Cadfael but Abbot Radulfus shares that sentiment, so I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it, either.)

 

Alice Hoffman: The River King


This was, incredibly, my first taste of Hoffman’s writing — in hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have started with her Practical Magic books after all (but then again, I might be wondering about the same thing in reverse — i.e., whether I should have started with this book — if I had).  Either way, I was a bit more underwhelmed than I had expected to be — with this book, at any rate: I”ve always been much less certain that the Practical Magic books are for me, and am even less certain about that now.

This is a murder mystery with supernatural elements set in a New England prep school: I found the main characters and the setting well enough executed, but I suppose I’m just too prosaically-minded to see what the supernatural elements added to the (by and large sordid, but hardly original) story — and Hoffman’s writing at times has a downright manipulative quality that I found more and more jarring the further I progressed in the book.  I also have a serious bone to pick with the ending, which doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the victims of bullying in this (the real, not the supernatural) world — in a book that clearly aims to send a message, that is just about the last sort of message I’d want to see.

 

Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho


Another comfort (re)read (well, its been that kind of year … and fall): It was more or less “six of this, half a dozen of the other” whether I’d use this book for the “Film at 11” bingo square and something from Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series for “Read by Flashlight or Candlelight” or vice versa, but I ultimately decided to go with the more obvious focus on the book as actually written here, simply because this book’s screen adaptation is one of the Morse TV episodes I care somewhat less for than the series as a whole.  The reason is that the screenwriters’ fiddling with the plot (which is present, to some extent, in all episodes of the TV series) in this instance creates a structure that is several degrees more serpentine than the already fairly convoluted plot of the actual book — which in turn, for a number of reasons isn’t my absolute favorite in the series, either, but as a writing exercise it’s still superior to the screenplay.  (No reflection on the cast: John Thaw, Kevin Whately, and Gemma Jones are all in great form.)

Another reason for my decision to pick this book for this particular square was that the audio version is narrated by Samuel West, who does an absolutely phantastic job, as he does for the entire series.

In keeping with the theme of this square, I made this listening experience as comfortable and laid-back as possible; starting while having a bath and finishing in bed — with my obligatory black(ish) Halloween bingo good luck cat by my side. — Thanks again to Lora who agreed to flip this square for my original card’s “Stone Cold Horror” … I’d never have found a horror novel set in winter on my shelves (nor been inclined to read it even if I’d found one, this year being what it is)!  You’ve got to admit … this was the much more “feel good” version:


 

Patricia Highsmith: Ripley Under Ground


This year’s Halloween Bingo buddy read — thanks again to Christine, BrokenTune and Lillelara for the fun of reading this book together!  Somehow, that seems to be the way Patricia Highsmith’s books are enjoyed best … Though I have to say, while I struggled with Strangers on a Train, I’m getting a complete and total kick out of Tom Ripley.  I mean, sure, he’s a psychopath, and it was slightly even more fun to watch him turn into the monster that he actually is in the first book … but it was still eye-rolling good fun to watch his antics in the arts world.  (He also seems to be one of the notable exceptions to the fact that, as a rule, I have to be able to empathize with at least one of a book’s POV characters, see above.  Which is a rule that of course also applies to Highsmith’s books — hence, in part, my response to Strangers on a Train — and c’mon on, you can’t seriously root for a psychopath … or can you?!)

 

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White


Thank God for writers like Wilkie Collins, who always provide(s) me with enough options to fill at least one horror-related bingo square without having to reach for a spell card … and still read something generally classified as “horror” (or “gothic”) without actually being scared out of my wits and unable to sleep afterwards.  In The Woman in White, it’s all in the psychology: At heart, this is more mystery than what we’d call “horror” today — chiefly concerning, as it does, the identity of the eponymous “Woman in White” and the goings-on in a house that, it turns out, she used to call her home — but one character (the odious Count Fosco) alone provides enough of a creep factor to satisfy the definition as “gothic” three times over, and most of the other tropes of the genre are present as well (mysterious lonely country estate, women in peril, doomed love, fire, etc.) — For those who may have struggled with Collins’s The Moonstone: This is similar in structure in that it, too, has several narrators, but none of them have quite as many idiosyncrasies as does Betteredge, in particular, in The Moonstone; and I also found The Woman in White somewhat more tightly plotted.

 

W. Stanley Moss: Ill Meet by Moonlight

The book I’ve wanted to read ever since I visited Anógia village, high up in the Cretan Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) massif, several years ago: The first-hand account of the WWII abduction of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe near his home in Heraklion, after which Kreipe was marched all the way up the mountain and, ultimately back down again to the southern coast of Crete and, from there, into English captivity in Egypt for the entire rest of the war.  I’ve posted about this before, so by way of background I’ll let that other post say all that is necessary … for purposes of this update, let me just add that “the book itself” is a ripping great read and then some; not just because it’s all true (what need for fiction if reality can write this sort of story?!), but also because Moss’s narrative style is tremendously engaging; affable and charming, understated, and straightforward at the same time. — And for anybody wondering just how fast friends he and Patrick Leigh Fermor (only incidentally his commanding officer in the venture) really were, I’ll give you just one excerpt; straight from Moss’s diary, which forms the backbone of the text, in this particular instance, from their first day in the cave (!) where their little group awaited the arrival of “Paddy” Leigh Fermor and the rest of their contingent:

“To remain here for a few days in comparative idleness will not be unpleasant.  I have with me the books which Paddy and I selected in Cairo to take with us, and among them there is something to suit every mood.  My literary companions are Cellini, Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Tolstoi, and Marco Polo, while in a lighter vein there are Les Fleurs du Mal, Les Yeux d’Elsa, and Alice in Wonderland.  Then there are The Oxford Book of Verse and the collected Shakespeare which Billy MacLean gave us on our last night in Tara [before starting on the mission] …”

Only a person whom Patrick Leigh Fermor considered a true brother in spirit would find it perfectly normal — even indispensable — to bring (a) any books at all, (b) so many books, and (c) these books of all the books in the world on a potentially deadly mission in enemy territory (as Crete was for the Brits in WWII) … not to mention, consider Baudelaire’s controversial masterpiece and Louis Aragon’s patriotic wartime poems to his muse Elsa something “in a lighter vein.”  (And, of course, this is only one of several passages in the book that literally had me do a double take.)

N.B.: I’ve since found out that above and beyond the passage quoted in my other post, Leigh Fermor actually did end up writing his own full, book-length account of that particular mission, too … guess what went straight into my online shopping basket once I’d made that discovery.

 

J.J. Connington: Nordenholt’s Million


This was a book I instantly knew I’d be saving for Halloween Bingo after I’d read its back cover blurb. And it proved chillingly topical for our times — it sort of describes the combined effect of Brexit (and Trump in the U.S.), venture capitalism, and a rampant, out-of-control biological pest coming together.  (As a minor but significant tangent, also throw in religious fundamentalism.)

In the book’s case the pest is a bacterium that destroys the chemical compounds in which plants ingest nitrogen; in other words, it’s a killer with the capability of destroying the world’s entire food reserve (not just plant-based — animals directly or indirectly (via their prey) feed off plants, too, after all) in the space of less than a year. In the crisis brought about by the bacterium’s spread, a businessman / venture capitalist “relieves” the inept government of the reins of power — first behind the scenes, ultimately overtly — and puts in place a scheme where 90% of the British population (and 99+ % of the world’s population) are condemned to starve, while the remaining 10% of Brits — all of them, of course carefully selected — are put to use in creating a new, utopian society, which alone is in possession of nitrogenated soil and can grow plants.  (When religious fundamentalism takes hold in that community of the “select few”, the leader of the cult is first publicly unmasked as a fraud and then, literally only seconds later, shot dead in full view of the crowd he has amassed.)

I was shocked to see that this book was published in 1923; after having read the first chapters, I’d have expected at the very least that Connington had seen Hitler’s “Enabling Law” and use of the press for propaganda purposes in action, but no … and yet, he foretells them with a frightening degree of accuracy, only on the basis of the British system (which, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the book does include adjourning parliament to avoid inconvenient questions. And yes, at the moment when the crisis hits, the future dictator is an MP himself, too … by way of a sort of lateral activity, with the ultimate aim of furthering his venture capitalist interests). The way in which Connington pretty much foretells everything we saw with Hitler, and everything we’re now seeing with the combined effects of Trump, Brexit, a venture capital-based economic system AND the pandemic is scary to the nth degree … I’m glad he only ever put his ideas into this book and didn’t, himself, set about putting them into practice.

Connnington was, incidentally, a chemist by training, so he clearly knew what he was writing about as far as the scientific elements are concerned.  In fact, he was even prescient enough to foresee the use of nuclear energy — it’s the energy on which his future, utopian cities are ultimately run.  (They also consist of buildings made of other materials than stone or concrete, not unlike the building materials that are actually used today.)

If, in the final analysis, I only ended up rating the book 3 1/2 stars after all, this is based on essentially three reasons, and all of them only truly materialize in the final part(s) of the book — though some of these issues already start cropping up about halfway through:

(1) In terms of social clichés and perceptions, Connington was, alas, very much a man of his times.  There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the book contains some glaringly racist passages (and it’s not unconscious racism, either — he clearly meant every word); and, similarly, his take on women and women’s role in society is … well, let’s say, at the very least problematic.  There’s a distinct element of misogyny; even if it’s not quite as blatant as the racism (and he may even have believed he was doing something “advanced” in expressly giving one particular woman more of an active voice / role in building that utopian society).

(2) Connington, like a fair number of his contemporaries, was in favor of euthanasia — which is a fact I only know because I’ve read Martin Edwards’s two books about Golden Age crime fiction; but even if I hadn’t known this going in, it would have been hard to miss here.  However terrifying the first half of the book, the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes clear that the author himself doesn’t, fundamentally, seem to see anything wrong with starting from a “clean slate”, as it were, of hand-picked superior human material (although even he does seem to balk at the more horrific aspects of achieving such a “clean slate”).  I haven’t read anything else by Connington yet — except for one mystery short story, that is — and I’m willing to grant that, had he foreseen the extent to which the Nazis took their particular version of a “clean slate”, he, too, would have been horrified.  (He died shortly after WWII; maybe some of his final literary output can provide some guidance as to his thinking once the world had begun to learn about the unspeakable horrors wreaked by the Nazis.)  Still, it’s an unnecessarily jarring feature.

(3) The utopian society ultimately emerging from all the turmoil is presented only in the sketchiest of terms, in great contrast to the description of the destruction of the world as it had been known until then.  Granted, this wasn’t Connington’s focus, but the ending of the book still feels rushed; and I found it hard to envision how, even after the discovery of nuclear energy (for which not one but several scientists knowingly and selflessly sacrifice their own lives … really, Mr. Connington??), the whole thing is supposed to have worked out … especially without the least further social turmoil.  As Connington himself shows, human society doesn’t work like that — and it’s not just the “dumb, gullible masses” (whoever they are) who won’t be pacified by the “bread and games” approach forever.

Still, I am glad that I have read this book — and there were times when, in the first half especially, I very much felt like quoting huge passages verbatim and yelling at people: “Listen to this — and this is from a book published in 1923, for crying out loud!”

 

Julie Smith (ed.) & Various Authors: New Orleans Noir


This year’s final bingo book: an anthology of mystery short stories set in New Orleans, by some of the Big Easy’s best-known crime writers.  As is usually the case with such compilations, some of the entries struck more of a chord with me than others, but taken together, they definitely conveyed an image of how the city just might see itself — or at least, some of of its seamier sides.  In a way, it also proved as fitting a final Halloween Bingo book as Nordenholt’s Million (which I had initially expected to finish last): what I hadn’t known when I picked this anthology — but instantly learned from the introduction — was that this book was put together in support of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster aid.  And in a year largely dominated by a global pandemic, that seems as apt a way to conclude my Halloween Bingo reads as having to wait for the Doomsday square to be called in order to be able to record my full “called and read” card blackout.

 

Previous Status Updates:
Week 1
Week 2

January 2020 Reading

January turned out a bit of a roller coaster in RL, continuing the course things had already taken in December: not quite whiplash-inducing, but with several sickness-prone twists and turns (for however much I’d expected them to materialize) surrounding one major glorious event (which was, however, truly glorious; even if this, too, was something I’d had every reason to expect).

So my January books mostly were comfort reading in one form or another.  Other than the three Golden Age mysteries (or in one case, a mystery radio play collection) that I (re)visited — Agatha Christie’s 12 Radio Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and my carryover from 2019, Gladys Mitchell’s Death Comes at Christmas — and two contemporary mystery short story collections I read / listened to, I burned through all four volumes of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet in the space of a week (well, they are fairly short books), read four books of historical fiction (two of which also qualify as historical mysteries), and more books falling into the sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction subset, with classics and nonfiction bringing up the rear, with one book each.

For all that, 14 of those 18 books were by women (and one an anthology, Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, featuring both male and female authors), and I’ve added two new countries to my “Around the World” challenge — Antigua and Iceland –; even if, with two of my first three books of February (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists and Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country), I’m already doing more for the Caucasian / non-Caucasian balance in my reading than in all of January.

 


Looking at my January books individually, clearly last month’s reading highlight was the buddy read with Moonlight Reader, BrokenTune and Lillelara of the first volume of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings; a tour de force piece of historical fiction set in the mid-16th century, during the reign of England’s boy king Edward VI (the son of Henry VIII) — or rather, his guardian Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, who goverend England in his stead — and Marie de Guise, the widow of Scottish king James V, who ruled Scotland in lieu of her infant daughter Mary (Stuart).

Francis Crawford of Lymond, ostensibly the book’s (and the series’s) central character, is essentially Rob Roy and Robin Hood rolled into one, with a bit of Edmond Dantes thrown in for good measure, as well as just about every other hero of historical fiction seeking to recapture the position and estate taken from him by the connivance of his enemies. For the longest time, he wasn’t even my favorite character in the book — those honors clearly went to virtually every major female character, all of whom are fully rounded, three-dimensional and very much their own women; strong, intelligent, and more than capable of holding their own in a society dominated by men.  Yet, I have to say that Lymond considerably grew on me in the final episode of the novel.

In terms of pacing, although the book took its sweet time establishing the characters and their place in the era and events of the history of Scotland during which it is set (while assuming its readers to either be familiar with that period in history or treating them as adult enough to read up on it themselves, without having to be taught by the author in setting up the novel), once it took off … it really took off, and I whizzed through the last big chunk in almost a single sitting (pausing once more only before the final episode), all of which literally left me breathless by the time I was done.  I can absolutely see myself continuing the series, though as a first read, these aren’t the kinds of books I can seamlessly tie together one right after the other; so it may be a while before I’ll start the next book.

 

Among the month’s other highlights was the second book of Tony Riches’s Tudor Trilogy, Jasper — the volume I’d been looking forward to the least, as it essentially covers the War of the Roses from the Lancastrian POV, which is a tale of many woes and few moments of glory, even if it culminates in Henry of Richmond’s (Henry VII-to-be) victory at Bosworth. But I still enjoyed the narrative voice, empathy for all the characters, and the obviously painstaking historical research going into the writing.

 

After the disappointment that virtually every bit of YA fantasy I read last year had turned out to be, a somewhat unexpected third highlight was Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.  But I was won over by Alanna (the main character)’s personality and by the fact that Pierce’s approach to creating a fantasy world where it is possible for a woman to beat the odds and assert herself without actually glorying in violence (looking at you, Jennifer Estep); in fact, Alanna learns to use her magical powers as a healer more than as a fighter, and to employ them in order to offset some of the damage and pain she causes as a knight.

Obviously, the idea of a girl masquerading as a boy in order to be trained as a knight, and surviving years of training without ever being discovered by the vast majority of the people at court (except for a select few trusted friends), takes a bit of suspension of disbelief; particularly in the second book, where Alanna and her friends are in puberty and, if nothing else, her voice should be breaking if she were a boy (so the lack of change there, if nothing else, should unmask her — bound chest or not).  This, and the equally unlikely notion of a pseudo-Arab tribe of desert nomads firmly rooted in pseudo-Muslim principles of society being swiftly brought around to accepting women as self-determined agents of their own fate solely by their encounter with Alanna in book 3 of the series, were a bit much to take without reducing my rating somewhat.

But overall I still enjoyed the series quite a bit more than I had expected.  (Indeed, I hadn’t even really expected to progress beyond book 1 to begin with.)  I also truly enjoyed Pierce’s no-nonsense approach to not in out-Tolkien-ing Tolkien — proper names are almost without exception from our world (John, Gary, Alan(na), Tom, etc.), and there are no attempts at giving dodgy half-baked names to animals and inanimate things, either, which is something that hugely annoys me in many a fantasy series I’ve come across lately (particularly, again, YA).

 

Radio Girls, the book I began this year with (as picked by the bibliomancy dreidel in 24 Festive Tasks) started out strong, and I truly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the early days of the BBC.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t resist the temptation of bringing in the (real life) spy background of one of the book’s characters (Hilda Matheson, director of BBC Talks), as a result of which it felt like the book couldn’t really make up its mind whether it wanted to be about the BBC, about pre-WWII Nazi activities in Britain, or about women’s rights (especially general suffrage and women’s (in)equality in the workplace).  Less would definitely have been more here.  Still, overall the book was enjoyable enough.

 

Another pleasant surprise, in terms of the book itself at least, was Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Legacy, the first book of a series of mysteries / crime novels focusing on the so-called “Children’s House”, the (real) institution that processes children involved in Icelandic court cases (murder trials, custody suits, prosecutions for child abuse, etc.).  I liked Sigurðardóttir’s assured writing and well-informed approach to child (and child witness) psychology, and — mostly — also the characters she created.  After having finished the book, however, I listened to the interview she gave in the Audible Sessions series, where (somewhat to my surprise) she comes across as a bit condescending, which in turn rather dampened my enthusiasm for quickly  following up with another book by her.  But I do think I’ll give her books another try eventually.

 

Most of the remainder of my reading this past month was an exercise in Mt. TBR reduction:

By far the best (audio)book of this bunch was the first installment of the BBC’s McLevy series, which is based on the real life diaries of Victorian Edinburgh police inspector named, you guessed it, James McLevy.  It features a great cast (with Brian Cox starring in the title role), great atmosphere, and several intelligently-plotted episode-length cases, and I can already see myself coming back for more again and again.

 

Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora presents an interesting approach to speculative fiction, somewhere on the borderline between fantasy and steampunk, with an exciting plot and well-rounded characters: enough to make me at least contemplate also reading the next books of the Gentleman Bastard series.  However, this seems to be another series featuring excessive amounts of violence (at least judging by book 1), and its installments aren’t exactly short, either — at the end of this book, I felt similarly drained as after Dunnett’s Game of Kings — so this probably won’t be a high and early priority.  Still, I’m not unhappy that I’ve finally read it.

 

Martha Wells’s All Systems Red is intelligently conceived and redolent with edgy humor, satire, and questions about the nature of consciousness, individuality and, ultimately, the thing that we call a soul: if science fiction is your thing (and if you’ve been living under a rock or for any other reason haven’t read it long before I did), it’s definitely a book — and a series — that I’d recommend.  Personally, though I enjoyed Wells’s exploration of the inner life of a semi-humanoid AI security unit (aka “murderbot”) that has hacked and disabled its own main governor module, and would much rather watch soap operas than look after inept human research teams on alien planets, I won’t be continuing the series.  For one thing, if it comes to tropes, I just prefer those of the mystery genre to those of science fiction (and it seemed like every single sci-fi trope is present here); and then, I also think the pricing of the books in this series is a huge money grab on the part of the publisher (and Audible / Amazon) that I am simply not willing to support; beyond satisfying my curiosity about book 1, that is.

 

E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady was to the 1930s what Bridget Jones’s Diary is to us: Roll up Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary into one, shake thoroughly, season with a pinch or three of Emma Thompson’s character (the Duchess d’Antan) from the movie Impromptu, and with the perpetual financial woes of the landed gentry, and this (albeit largely autobiographical) book is pretty much what you should get as a result.

Delafield, one of those prolific early 20th century writers who thoroughly dropped off the radar after WWII, went on to write several more installments of the Diary: I got curious about her because of Martin Edwards’s speculation, in The Golden Age of Murder, about a possible relationship between her and Anthony Berkeley, but having read this book by her and several books by him, I can’t see more than the friendship between them that is known to actually have existed.  Quite frankly (and quite apart from the fact that they were both married to other people to begin with), judging by her writing, she strikes me as way too shrewdly intelligent to ever have been interested in him as anything other than a friend.

 

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, finally, is a short, brutal, angry dismanteling of any naive and romantic perceptions that white North American and European conceivably might be holding about her island home of Antigua.  Frankly, since I never held any such perceptions, she was pretty much barking up the wrong tree with me, and though I can empathize with her anger, I wonder whether, skilled writer that she is, she wouldn’t have served her purpose better by exchanging the verbal claymore that she insists on wielding for a foil (or at most an epée) — i.e., keep the razor sharp verbal blade, but allow for a less heavy-handed approach.  Though I’ll readily concede that probably this is a facile position to take for someone who hasn’t had to do battle with the “Caribbean island paradise” cliché all her life to begin with.

 

To round things off, my mystery comfort reading consisted of:

* Agatha Christie: 12 Radio Mysteries (BBC adaptations of 12 of Christie’s short stories, which I loved and which incidentally proved that Christie’s writing has not only stood the test of time but is also easily amenable to being transferred to a modern setting without losing any of its punch);

* Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (one of my all-time favorite entries in the Roderick Alleyn series and, it occurred to me while listening to the new unabridged audio recording published a few years ago, also a good book to start the series with for anyone curious about it — PS: it even features a cat in a pivotal role);

* Gladys Mitchell’s Death Comes at Christmas (aka Dead Men’s Morris) (decidedly not a favorite installment in the Mrs. Bradley series);

* Elizabeth George’s I, Richard (another reread, which I liked a whole lot better than when I had first read it; not only for the final / titular story, which has a contemporary setting but a historic background, namely Richard III’s final hours before the Battle at Bosworth — the true standout here is the story immediately preceding it, Remember I’ll Always Love You, where a young widow confronts the aftermath of her husband’s spontaneous suicide); and finally:

* Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance (the mixed bag that such anthologies usually are, with overall better writing than I had expected, though, some of the best pieces of which were from the pens of the lesser-known contributors rather than the big-name authors).

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/2048220/january-2020-reading

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Blackout! (And bingos Nos. 12 and 13.)

 

Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

Witih today’s call, I’ve blacked out my card, in addition to collecting my final bingos (nos. 12 and 13).

Somewhat to my surprise, after completing my books for my official bingo card at the end of September, I even managed to read enough extra books to put together a supplemental inofficial card throughout the month of October, so this year’s game has really exceeded my wildest expectations in every conceivable way!

 

My Official 2019 Bingo Card:

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week
Fourth Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

The Extra Squares / Card and Books:

13: Rex Stout: And Be a Villain
Supernatural: Jennifer Estep: Kill the Queen
New Release: Sara Collins: The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Genre: Mystery: Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective
Romantic Suspense: Georgette Heyer: The Unfinished Clue
Terror in a Small Town: Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
Halloween: Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party
Monsters: Terry Pratchett: Pyramids
Shifters: Joan D. Vinge: Ladyhawke
Sleepy Hollow: Dennis Lehane: The Given Day
Film at 11: J.B. Priestley: An Inspector Calls
In the Dark, Dark Woods: Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Free (Raven) Square: Various Authors: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives
Grave or Graveyard: Kathy Reichs: Grave Secrets
Genre: Suspense: Tony Medawar (ed.) & Various Authors: Bodies from the Library 2
Southern Gothic: Sharyn McCrumb: The Unquiet Grave
Baker Street Irregulars: Joanne Harris: Gentlemen & Players
Darkest London: J.V. Turner: Below the Clock
Magical Realism: Joanne Harris: Chocolat
It was a dark and stormy night: Peter May: The Lewis Man
Full Moon: Edmund Crispin: Glimpses of the Moon
King of Fear: John Le Carré: Absolute Friends
Serial / Spree Killer: Steven Kramer, Paul Holes & Jim Clemente: Evil Has a Name
Classic Noir: Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train
Classic Horror: Matthew G. Lewis: The Monk

Note: With regard to the extra squares, I added the image for the relevant square for every book completed (= “read”); and I am using my “called” markers for the main card to indicate “called and read”.

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
http://themisathena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post

Halloween Bingo 2019: Thirteenth Extra Square – Free (Raven / Poe) Square

Well, as it turns out I’m halfway through another bingo card with the extra squares, so I may as well try and see whether I’ll get it together until the end of the month.  So that means another Raven square … for which this entertaining Golden Age mystery radio anthology seems like just the thing.

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1968441/halloween-bingo-2019-thirteenth-extra-square

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Bingo No. 3 and Reading Blackout

* Triple Bingo Happy Dance *

Well, that went by much faster than I had anticipated … Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

I’ll continue tracking my bingos of course — and since we now have so many more great squares than can possibly fit on one person’s card, I’ll just continue reading for a few of the extra squares that didn’t make it onto mine.

And I hope everybody else is going to continue / start collecting bingos soon as well!

 

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post-bingo-no-3-and-reading-blackout

Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (eds.); Various Authors: A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales


Considering that according to the preface the authors of this collection are supposed to be exploring “the dark side” of fairy tales, most of the stories here come across as unexpectedly light and fluffy.  Maybe this is due to the fact that I actually grew up with the real thing — the Grimm Brothers’, Hans Christian Andersen’s, Charles Perrault’s and Wilhelm Hauff’s original tales, instead of their Disney versions (which the authors of this collection’s preface blame for the modern-day bowdlerization of fairy tales and our perception of them) — but even today I find those original tales decidedly scarier (and also more interesting) than most of the stories in this collection, even if I do credit the authors’ frequently original approach in giving them a contemporary context.  If it hadn’t been for the Garth Nix’s Hansel’s Eyes and Patricia McKillip’s update on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, both of which are truly superb (and do deliver on the “dark side” premise — in spades), this would have been a three-star read for me at most.

Halloween Bingo 2019: The First Week

So, on the plus side, despite serious RL interventions progress on my card is well under way, with four squares (including the centre / free / raven square) marked “called and read”; three of these in a row — plus reading for the remaining two squares of that row also in progress — and several more options in place to go for a bingo, depending how the next couple of calls come out.

On the downside, I seriously hope my book selections are going to improve.  Except for Priscilla Royal’s Wine of Violence, which delivered all that I had hoped from it and then some, most of the first bingo week’s books fell well short of my expectations.  It’s not that they were awful (with one significant exception), but they could have been so much more, and that’s obviously what I’d been hoping for.  I hope with yesterday’s spontaneous revisit of Agatha Christie’s Regatta Mystery and Other Stories and the book I started (also yesterday) for the Gothic square, Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, I’ve finally turned that corner.  (Ditto my planned read for today’s call, Black Cat — Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.)

Still, apologies if the tone of some of the below should rub anybody the wrong way — I’m moderately miffed with my bingo books so far.

N.B.: Below I am, with one exception, using the relevant audiobook covers, as with most of these books I either went back and forth between the print and the audiobook version or I listened to the audiobook throughout (even though I do also own the print version).

 

The Books

 
James Hilton: Was it Murder?

My 2019 pre-bingo read and actually a fairly decent start into the game.  And yes, this is “the” James Hilton of Goodbye Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon — actually, in a number of ways this book was probably Hilton’s dry run for Goodbye Mr. Chips.

Hilton’s protagonist jokingly describes writing a novel a young Oxbridge graduate’s rite of passage, and that may very well have been what was at work with Hilton himself here, too, tapping into the interwar period’s craze for mysteries to boot.  It’s a good thing he eventually decided to leave the “mystery” bit behind — but what really does stand out in this book is the very well-crafted public school atmosphere.

(For those who are interested, this book was originally published under the pseudonym Glen Trevor, and later also republished with the somewhat spoilery title Murder at School.)

 


Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten

A collection of short stories featuring ghosts and other supernatural elements, set in places ranging from Ireland, England and the U.S. to Sweden, Iceland, France and Japan.  (Perhaps a minor point, but why not also in the author’s own Germany and Slovenia?  Indeed, in some — though not all — of the stories the choice of the setting feels entirely random.)

The title literally translates as “Sevenstories” and turns out to be merely a fancy way of saying “this is a collection of seven stories”; it’s not an allusion to any particular feature of the book.  Based on the fact that the entry that’s obviously intended as a tribute to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray manages to get the core element of Wilde’s novel only halfway right I’m not wholly confident about the author’s research into the supernatural elements from other cultures she uses and with which I am less familiar (especially those from Japanese mythology and folklore), but that aside, I’ve spent a few moderately entertaining hours with this book.  The two standout entries are probably a fairly well-crafted Stephen King-type “Christmas horror” story and a tribute to the Icelandic troll folklore; followed by a story (randomly set in France) playing on mirrors and on the question what is real and what is perception.  By and large, though, it’s not a major loss to the non-German speaking public that so far this collection doesn’t seem to have been translated into English.

 


Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (eds.); Various Authors: A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales

Considering that according to the preface the authors of this collection are supposed to be exploring “the dark side” of fairy tales, most of the stories here come across as unexpectedly light and fluffy.  Maybe this is due to the fact that I actually grew up with the real thing — the Grimm Brothers’, Hans Christian Andersen’s, Charles Perrault’s and Wilhelm Hauff’s original tales, instead of their Disney versions (which the authors of this collection’s preface blame for the modern-day bowdlerization of fairy tales and our perception of them) — but even today I find those original tales decidedly scarier (and also more interesting) than most of the stories in this collection, even if I do credit the authors’ frequently original approach in giving them a contemporary context.  If it hadn’t been for the Garth Nix’s Hansel’s Eyes and Patricia McKillip’s update on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, both of which are truly superb (and do deliver on the “dark side” premise — in spades), this would have been a three-star read for me at most.

 


Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence

The first book of Priscilla Royal’s longstanding medieval mystery series focusing on Eleanor, Prioress of (fictional) Tyndall Priory in Norfolk.

This is a series I’ve long wanted to start and that I had penciled in as a “definite” for this year’s bingo.  In fact, by the time I began reading this book, I had already started Zen Cho’s dismal Sorcerer to the Crown (see below), and coming after two so-so short story collections and looking at a book (in Sorcerer to the Crown) that I’d definitely have DNF’d if it hadn’t been for Halloween Bingo, I decided a change of pace was more than called for.

As I was / am new to the series, of course I didn’t know for sure this was going to be the book that would deliver the goods, but I’d seen and heard enough about it to be reasonably confident, and Ms. Royal essentially won me over with her preface, where she sets out her approach — as well as the series’s real life background — and which shows just how much research she’d put into it.  And after the first couple of chapters I knew for sure I’d hit on a winner: The period atmosphere is finely crafted, the characters are fully rounded and believable (even if Eleanor — period allowances notwithstanding — sometimes comes across as a bit too worldly-wise for her age), and the mystery plotting is solid, never mind that it did peter out a bit towards the obvious towards the end.  But for a “first in the series”, this was a very satisfying read and exactly what the doctor ordered at the time.

 


Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown

As indicated above, I knew early on that if it hadn’t been for Halloween Bingo I’d have DNF’d this book, and I was tempted to do just that right until the very end.

When I began composing this post, I didn’t think I was going to write much more than “infantile drivel” in my summary of Cho’s book, but as I’ve since had an exchange with BT on it here, I might as well copy over what I said in that conversation (with a copy of minor add-ons to round out the picture):

The premise of this book sounded really good — and this shall teach me (again) not to buy into hype.  Essentially, it turns out that this is fanfiction for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (and probably also for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, though I haven’t read those books, so I can’t say for sure), written by an author who wouldn’t even know how to craft ordinary adult communication if hit over the head with it (way above and beyond “mere” TSTL behavior), and whose idea of
(1) politics (both domestic and international, including and in particular early 19th century British politics),
(2) power (including the thought processes, actions, responses, strategies and priorities of those wielding it, in politics, business / civil society associations, and elesewhere) and
(3) not least, magic (!)
is strictly kindergarten level.

Add to that plot holes and inconsistencies big enough to drive several carriages through and a complete lack of Georgian society atmosphere (note to the author: absent a coherent whole, the description of ball gowns and interiors or the mention of carriages does not replace the creation of period atmosphere), against which the use of isolated speech patters obviously copied from Austen (such as “do not you” / “is not he” interrogative constructions) comes across as nothing short of gimmicky.

The only reason why I am rating this 1 1/2 stars (instead of 1/2 or even 0) is that Cho makes the attempt to address both race and gender issues in the context of her book.  Unfortunately, however, that alone is by far not enough to salvage the decidedly less-than-workmanlike execution of the whole.

I’m not the biggest fan of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — the beginning, the end, and the world building are superb, but for me it seriously dragged in the middle — but I’ll be the first to recognize that it really does accomplish something new and original.  If there has to be fanfic for it, at least let it be something that at least halfway stands up to the original.

That said, I’ve given the audio version an extra half star and promoted Jenny Sterlin straight to my “you can read me the phone book” list of narrators, as she essentially did just that and still managed to make at least bits of it actually sound more interesting and “alive” than taken straight off the page.

 


Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow

A (largely) modernized retelling of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas, set in 1920s Mexico.  The beginning easily draws the reader in, Casiopeia is a likeable enough (and well-drawn enough) heroine, and the book has an — albeit somewhat sketchy — recognizable 1920s atmosphere with an initial rural Yucatán setting that likewise rings true.

What does eventually drag the book down significantly, however, is its absolutely casual treatment of the supernatural elements of its story and more particularly, the elements of the specific context in which it is set.  Let’s make no mistake: Casiopeia moves among the gods of the Mayan underworld; i.e., in a world that was, at least to the extent that the Mayas had integrated part of the Aztec and Toltec beliefs and rituals into their own religion, controlled by an absolutely merciless, cruel and bloody death cult; and it is precisely this cult that plays out in the Popol Vuh.  And yet we’re to believe that our heroine not only zips back and forth across Mexico alongside the supreme ruler of just that world without the slightest bit of fear but she actually talks back to him out of nothing more than spite without ever incurring his wrath (and I mean wrath, not some sort of minor dislike) — and without suffering severe personal consequences as a result?  Not on your life.

I can buy some of the scenes and exchanges towards the end of the book, because we’re told he becomes progressively more human, weaker and more vulnerable (and “of course” he falls in love with our heroine), but at the beginning and, say, during the first half of the story?  Nope.  Just — no.  Not in a million years.  (Also, the descent from all-powerful deity to something at least approaching mortality should be absolutely enormous here.  Instead of which, it barely registers.  No, nope, and no again.)  Ditto, to an only marginally lesser extent, the other creatures endowed with supernatural powers that Casioipeia encounters.  Ditto, also, the final conflict arising out of the two protagonists’ changing nature, which is only partially developed and ultimately resolved in a way too convenient way.

As a side note to those who are planning to read this book for the Creepy Crawlies bingo square: Don’t despair — the justification for this square does eventually show up, even if you have to wait quite a while for it.  Fortunately (for me at least) it’s not the nightmare-inducing sort.

 


Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories

I decided I needed a palate cleanser towards the end of the week, and there’s nothing better than a book by Agatha Christie to serve that purpose.  (Since she is also one of my quintessential “go to” bingo authors, it seemed only fitting to use this collection for the center / raven square.)  I know both this collection as such and have also listened to all of the audio recordings of each of the stories collected here, but that didn’t take away in the slightest from the joy of revisiting them.  Here’s to finding more along similarly solid lines for the rest of my bingo reading!

 


Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor

In progress since last night — off to a phantastic start.  Fingers crossed.

 


Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering

The Flat Book Society’s September 2019 read.  I haven’t progressed very far yet (so far, it seems to be along the lines of “astrophysics for total beginners”), but if it’s done one thing already, it’s demonstrated that the forces involved in the Big Bang (and similar cosmic cataclysms) more than justify its use for the Truly Terrifying bingo square.

 

The Card

… as of today; with my “virgin” card below for reference:

 

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