2020 Mid-Year Reading Review and Statistics

What with the pandemic still very much ongoing, BL acting up again, MR’s and Char’s resulting posts re: BookLikes, the BL experience, and moving back to Goodreads, this feels like a somewhat odd moment to post my half-yearly reading stats.  I hope it won’t be the last time on this site, but I fear that the community to which I’ve belonged for almost a decade — longer than to any other online community — and which, most recently, has played a pivotal role in making the Corona pandemic more bearable to me, is on the point of breaking up.  And frankly, this is making me incredibly sad.

Book-wise, too, the pandemic has had a huge impact on my reading; for three out of the past six months, I pretty much exclusively withdrew into Golden Age mystery comfort reads, because I just didn’t have it in me to tackle anything else.  Though I suppose in comparison with others, who went into more or less full-fledged reading slumps, I can still color myself lucky.

That said, the past six months’ reading highlights definitely included all of the buddy reads, both for the shared reading experience and for the books themselves — as well as a number of books that I read either before the pandemic began or in the very recent couple of weeks … though I’m tempted to list every single favorite Golden Age mystery that I reread during the pandemic, too; in addition to a whole number of new discoveries.  So, without further ado (and roughly in reverse chronological order):

 

Highlights:

The Buddy Reads:

Jean-François Parot: L’énigme des blancs-manteaux (The Châtelet Apprentice)
The first of Parot’s Nicolas le Floch historical mysteries set in 18th century Paris.  Nicolas is a Breton by birth and, on the recommendation of his godfather, a Breton nobleman, joins the Paris police force under the command of its (real) Lieutenant General Antoine de Sartine, one of the late 18th century’s most influential statesmen and administrators. —  Parot was an expert on the period and a native Parisian, both of which elements clearly show in his writing, and I’m already looking forward to reading more books from the series.

French-language buddy read with Tannat and onnurtilraun — we’re now also looking into the possibly of “buddy-watching” the (French) TV adaptation starring Jérôme Robart.


The pandemic buddy reads; including and in particular:
Josephine Tey: A Daughter of Time (with BT’s and my individual add-on, Tey’s play Dickon, written under the name Gordon Daviot, which likewise aims at setting the record straight vis-à-vis Shakespeare’s Richard III) — A Daughter of Time was a reread; Dickon was new to me.
* Georgette Heyer: No Wind of Blame (the first of the Inspector Hemingway mysteries — also a reread);
* Agatha Christie: Towards Zero and Cat Among the Pigeons (both likewise rereads);
* Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (also a reread; one of my favorite Inspector Alleyn mysteries);
* Cyril Hare: Tenant for Death (the first Inspector Mallett mystery — new to me);
* Patricia Wentworth: The Case Is Closed (Miss Sliver book #2 — also new to me; this isn’t a series I am reading in publication order).

Dorothy Dunnett: The Game of Kings (book 1 of the Lymond Chronicles)
16th century Scotland; the adventures of a main character somewhere between Rob Roy, Robin Hood and Scaramouche (mostly Scaramouche), but it also features a range of strong and altogether amazing female characters.  Another series I’m looking forward to continuing.

The first buddy read of the year, together with Moonlight Reader, BrokenTune, and Lillelara.

 

My Individual Highlights:

Bernardine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other
Heaven knows the Booker jury doesn’t always get it right IMHO, but wow, this time for once they absolutely did.  If you haven’t already read this, run, don’t walk to get it.  And though initially I was going to say “especially if you’re a woman (and from a minority)” — no, I’m actually going to make that, “especially if you’re a white man”.

Saša Stanišić: Herkunft (Origin) and Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)
Two autobiographical books dealing with the authors’ genocide experience, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Burundi, respectively. Stanišić’s account — an odd mix of fact on fiction, which does lean pretty strongly towards the factual, however — asks, as the title indicates, how precisely our geographical, ethnic and cultural origin / sense of “belonging” defines our identity; and it focuses chiefly on the refugee experience and the experience of creating a new place for oneself in a new (and substantially different) country and culture.  Faye’s short novel (barely longer than a novella) packs an equal amount of punch, but approaches the topic from the other end — it’s a coming of age tale looking at the way our cultural identity is first drummed into us … and how ethnic stereotypes and hostilities, when fanned and exploited, will almost invariably lead to war and genocide.

 

Josephine Tey: The Inspector Grant series, Dickon, and Miss Pym Disposes
Having already read two books from Tey’s Alan Grant series (The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair) as well as her nonseries novel Brat Farrar in past years, and Miss Pym Disposes at the beginning of this year, I took the combined (re)read of The Daughter of Time and the play Dickon during the pandemic buddy reads (see above) as my cue to finally also read the rest of the Inspector Grant mysteries.  And I’m glad I finally did; Tey’s work as a whole is a paean to her much-beloved England — and though she was Scottish by birth, to a somewhat lesser degree also to Scotland –; a love that would eventually cause her to bequeath her entire estate to the National Trust. — Though the books are ostensibly mysteries, the actual “mystery” element almost takes a back seat to the land … and to its people, or rather to people like those who formed Tey’s personal circle of friends and acquaintances.  And it is in creating characters that her writing shines as much as in the description of England’s and Scotland’s natural beauty.

Pete Brown: Shakespeare’s Local
Another book that I owned way too long before I finally got around to reading it; the discursive — in the best sense –, rollicking tale of one London (or rather, Southwark) pub from its earliest days in the Middle Ages to the 21st century, telling the history of Southwark, London, public houses, and their patrons along the way.  The title is glorious conjecture and based on little more than the fact that the pub is near the location of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (combined with the equally demonstrable fact that Shakespeare loved a good ale and what today we’d call a pub crawl) … so it’s highly likely that, like many another celebrity over the centuries, he’d have had the occasional pint at this particular inn, the George, as well.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Love All
A delightful drawing room comedy that was, owing to its completion during WWII, only performed twice during Sayers’s own lifetime and never again thereafter, which is utterly unfair to both the material and its author — topically, this is the firmly tongue in cheek stage companion to such works as Gaudy Night and the two speeches republished under the title Are Women Human?  (I’d call it feminist if Sayers hadn’t hated that term, but whatever label you want to stick on it, its message comes through loud and clear and with plenty of laughs.)

Christianna Brand: Green for Danger
One of the discoveries of my foray into the realm of Golden Age mysteries; an eerie, claustrophobic, psychological drama revolving around several suspicious deaths (and near-deaths) at a wartime hospital in Kent during WWII.  None of Brand’s other mysteries that I’ve read so far is quite up to this level, but she excelled in closed-circle settings featuring a small group of people who all genuinely like each other (and really are, for the most part, likeable from the reader’s — and the investigating policeman’s — perspective, too), and in this particular book, the backdrop of the added danger arising from the wartime setting adds even more to the tension.  It’s also fairly obvious that Brand was writing from personal experience, which greatly enhances every single aspect of the book, from the setting and the atmosphere to the individual characters.

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
Sotomayor’s memoirs up to her first appointment to the Federal Bench.  What a courageous woman!  A trailblazer in every sense of the word — a passionate advocate for women, Latinos/-as (not just Puerto Ricans), those hindered in their career path by a pre-existing medical condition (in her case: diabetes), and more generally, everybody up against unequal odds.  Fiercely intelligent and never satisfied with second best (for herself and others alike), she nevertheless comes across as eminently likeable and open-minded — on the list of people I’d like to meet one day (however unlikely), she shot right up to a top spot after I’d read this book; in close vicinity with Michelle Obama.

John Bercow: Unspeakable
Bercow’s time as Speaker of the House of Commons was doubtlessly among the more remarkable periods in the history of the British Parliament, both on account of his personality and of the momentous decisions taken during those years; and his unmistakeable style jumps out from every page of his memoir — as well as every minute of the audio edition, which he narrates himself.  The last chapter (his attempt at outlining the odds for Britain post-Brexit) was already obsolete before the Corona pandemic hit; this is even more true now.  However, the vast majority of the book makes for a fascinating read, not least of course because of his insight into the politics — and politicians — of his time (he is neither sparing with the carrot nor with the stick, and some of his reflections, e.g., on the qualities of a “good” politician / member of parliament, would constitute ample food for thought for politicians anywhere).

 

Statistics:

As I said above, the one thing that definitely had the biggest impact on my reading in the first six months of 2020 was my three-month long “comfort reading” retreat into the world of Golden Age mysteries.  So guess what:

Of the 129 books I read in the first six months of 2020, a whopping 63% were Golden Age and contemporary mysteries — add in the 10 historical mysteries that also form the single biggest chunk of my historical fiction reading, you even get to 91 books or 70.5%.

I am rather pleased, though, that — comfort and escape reading aside and largely thanks to a number of truly interesting memoirs and biographies — the number of nonfiction books is roughly equivalent to the sum of “high brow” fiction (classics and litfic).

Another thing that makes me happy is that my extended foray into Golden Age mysteries was not overwhelmingly limited to rereads; these accounted for only 28% of all books read (36 in absolute figures), a percentage which is not substantially higher than my average in the last two years.  At the same time, as a comparatively large number of Golden Age mysteries are not (yet?) available as audiobooks — not even all of those that have been republished in print in recent years –, and as I have spent considerably less time driving to and from meetings and conferences than in the past two years, the share of print books consumed is higher than it was in 2018 and 2019.

 

Given the high percentage of comfort reading, it’s no surprise that my star ratings are on the high side for the first half of 2020 — the vast majority of the books were decent, if not good or even great reads.

Overall average: 3.7 stars 

However, my Golden Age mystery binge also had a noticeable effect on the two statistics I’m tracking particularly: gender and ethnicity.

As far as gender is concerned things still look very good if you just focus on the authors: 88 books by women (plus 5 mixed anthologies / author teams) vs. 36 books by male authors; hooray!  However, inspired by onnurtilraun, I decided to add another layer this time and also track protagonists … and of course, if there is one genre where women authors have created a plethora of iconic male protagonists, it is Golden Age mystery fiction; and all the Miss Marples, Miss Silvers, Mrs. Bradleys and other female sleuths out there can’t totally wipe out the number of books starring the likes of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn, and other male detectives of note.  Then again, the Golden Age mystery novelists actually were ahead of their time in not only creating women sleuths acting independently but also in endowing their male detectives with equally strong female partners and friends, so the likes of Ariadne Oliver, Agatha “Troy” Alleyn, and of course the inimitable Harriet Vane, also make for a significantly higher number of books with both male and female protagonists.  Still, the gender shift is impossible to miss.

 

(For those wondering about the “N / A” protagonist, that’s Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who of course is an AI and deliberately created as gender-neutral.)

And of course, since there isn’t a non-white author to be found among the Golden Age mystery writers (or at least, none that I’m aware of and whose books figured as part of my reading during the past couple of months), the ethnicity chart goes completely out of the window.  Again, as long as you just look at the number of countries visited as part of my Around the World reading challenge (and if you ignore the number of books written by authors from / set in the UK and the U.S.), the figures actually still look pretty good — and yes, the relatively high number of European countries is deliberate; I mostly focused on authors from / settings in the Southern Hemisphere last year, so I figured since tracking ethnicity was substantially impacted by the mystery binge this year anyway, I might as well make a bit of headway with the European countries, too.

Yet, there is one interesting wrinkle even in the comparison of author vs. protagonist ethnicity; namely, where it comes to the non-Caucasian part of the table: It turns out that the number of non-white protagonists is slightly higher than that of non-white authors, because I managed to pick a few books at least which, though written by white authors, did feature non-white protagonists.  Make of that one what you will …

   

Nevertheless, for the rest of the year, the aim is clear … catch up on my Around the World reading challenge and build in as many books by non-Caucasian authors as possible!

Addendum
In a discussion on the BookLikes version of this post, the question came up whether the author’s gender and ethnicity matters at all, or whether the only thing that really matters is the quality of the writing to begin with.  Here’s what I wrote there:

I used to think it [= gender and ethnicity] didn’t / shouldn’t matter, too. Since I started to put greater weight on women’s writing and books by non-white authors, I’ve come to change my mind.

1) It’s not about “chromosomes”, but about life experience. Women, even in today’s society, experience life differently from men. That is true even for women who (like me) were raised — not necessarily deliberately, but as it were “by default” — in such a way as to embrace roles traditionally reserved for men from early childhood on (which incidentally frequently put me at odds with the boys in the playground), and who work in an industry that, even when I was in university, was still substantially dominated by (white) men, and to a certain extent still is even today (not in terms of access to the profession as such, but in terms of what is achievable and who calls the shots). And similarly, it is obvious that blacks, Latinos/-as, Asians, and members of other ethnicities experience society differently from whites — it didn’t take George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement to convince me of that.

So it is only natural that women — and non-white authors — also tell stories differently from men, and from white people, respectively. Not necessarily, perhaps not even overwhelmingly, the way that Bernadine Evaristo does — a book like “Girl, Women, Other” could of course never have been written by a man or by a white person to begin with. (And that’s precisely the reason why I said these are the people who most need to read this book — because it reflects a perspective that they / we will only ever be able to understand, if at all, intellectually; never instinctively and from personal experience.) Nor do I necessarily mean that male writing is more “testosterone-soaked” than women’s writing (though bad male writing almost invariably is), or that “men can’t write women characters” (and vice versa). — In most cases, the differences between men’s and women’s writing are so subtle that, as long as you don’t pay any attention, you don’t notice them at all. But if you come from reading a lot of books written by men (as I had, when I set out on this course a few years ago) and then you switch to reading books written mostly by women, you start noticing them after a while — in details of writerly focus, in little things like a detail of an individual characters’ response to a particular situation (or to somebody else’s comment), in the way dialogue is framed, in what matters to a character in a given situation, etc. Again, none of this rises to the level of “good / bad” “realistic / unrealistic” writing, or to “men writing women as men with XX.chromosomes” (or women writing men as women with XY-chromosomes, or whites writing other ethniticities as black-faced whites, etc.), but it’s there; and interestingly, it’s there as much in, say, Golden Age mystery fiction and other 19th and early 20th century classics as it is in contemporary writing.

2) It’s about industry access and noticeability. The publishing industry is, for all I can see, still way too much dominated by “pale stale males”. Like in my own industry (the law), it’s not so much a matter of a lack of women (or non-white) writers (and columnists, critics, journalists, etc.) But in the corporate structures, the old hierarchies die hard — not only at the top (= the tip of the iceberg) — and though I don’t know a lot of writers personally, I know enough to realize how much harder it is for women — and for writers of color — to obtain the same amount of exposure that a white male author would be able to obtain in their situation. (Again, this isn’t as simple as “good / bad writing” or a matter of talent — it’s about what it takes *in addition* to talent and good writing.) So if I can do my tiny little bit to help by actually buying and reading their books — and by occasionally even talking about those books, whenever I feel motivated enough to write a review, or by deliberately tracking my reading and talking about that, I’m more than happy to do that.

// TA steps off soap box.

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/2804666/2020-mid-year-reading-statistics

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: 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

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:

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1948717/halloween-bingo-2019-the-first-week

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.

Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/04 (Day 4): Favorites from Halloween Bingos Past?

Oh man.  So many!

Biggest new discoveries:

* Fredric Brown: The Fabulous Clipjoint — huge thank you to Tigus, who gifted his Ed & Am Hunter omnibus to me.  Where had Brown been all my life until then?

* James D. Doss: Charlie Moon series (via books 6 & 7, Grandmother Spider and White Shell Woman) — tremendously atmospheric, centers on a Ute policeman (and his best friend, the [white] sheriff of the nearby town, as well as Charlie Moon’s aunt, a shaman).

* Joy Ellis: Jackman & Evans series (via book 2, Their Lost Daughters) — writing so intense it literally took my breath away; set in a suitably wild and lonely corner of the Fen country (and great characters to boot).  Just … wow!

* Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) — the deconstruction of an honor killing; an utter and total gut punch in 100 pages.  It had been years since I last read García Márquez, and I am so glad I finally picked this one up.

* Shirley Jackson — yeah, I know, late to the party and all that, but what can I say …?

* Peter May (via Lewis Trilogy book 1, The Blackhouse, and the (almost-) stand-alone Coffin Road) — wonderful writing, really brings the Outer Hebrides (Harris and Lewis Islands) to life; and great crime page turners to boot.

* Sharyn McCrumb: Ballad series ( via books 3 & 5, She Walks These Hills and The Ballad of Frankie Silver) — these had been sitting on my TBR forever, and I’m so glad I finally got to them.  Man, but that woman can write.

* Terry Pratchett: Night Watch series (via Met at Arms and Feet of Clay) — Angua rules!

* Andrew Taylor: The American Boy — great historical fiction that definitely also made me curious about Taylor’s books set in the 17th century (this one is set in the 19th — the eponymous boy is Edgar Allan Poe).

* Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black — not so much a discovery of the author but of this novel (that ending!!), and I’m definitely planning to read more books by him.

 

All favorites by year, including rereads:

2016
Isabel Allende: La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits)
Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sussex Vampyre
James D. Doss: White Shell Woman
E.T.A. Hoffmann: Der Sandmann (The Sandman)
E.T.A. Hoffmann: Das Fräulein von Scuderi (Mademoiselle de Scuderi)
Washington Irving: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Shirley Jackson: The Lottery
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw
Peter May: The Blackhouse
Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Tales
Terry Pratchett: Feet of Clay
Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh audio)
Oscar Wilde: The Canterville Ghost

2017
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (Anna Massey audio)
Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (Prunella Scales / Samuel West audio)
Raymond Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely (Elliot Gould audio)
Agatha Christie: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Hugh Fraser audio)
James D. Doss: Grandmother Spider
C.S. Forester: The African Queen (Michael Kitchen audio)
Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Bernadette Dunne audio)
Ngaio Marsh: A Surfeit of Lampreys (Anton Lesser audio)
Ngaio Marsh: Death and the Dancing Footman
Ngaio Marsh: Night at the Vulcan
Ngaio Marsh: Opening Night (Anton Lesser audio)
Ngaio Marsh: Overture to Death (Anton Lesser audio)

Peter May: Coffin Road
Sharyn McCrumb: She Walks These Hills
Ovid: Metamorphoses (David Horovitch audio)
Plutarch: Theseus

Edgar Allan Poe: The Purloined Letter
Terry Pratchett: Men at Arms
Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Christopher Lee audio)
Cornell Woolrich: The Bride Wore Black

2018
Fredric Brown: The Fabulous Clipjoint
Daphne Du Maurier: Rebecca (Anna Massey audio)
Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters (Richard Armitage audio)
Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling): Lethal White (Robert Glenister audio)
Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Frankie Silver (audio narrated by the author)
Walter Mosley: White Butterfly (Michael Boatman audio)
Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic (Nigel Planer audio)
Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Mary Roberts Rinehart: Locked Doors (Anne Hancock audio)
Andrew Taylor: The American Boy (Alex Jennings audio)

 

 

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ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1930145/halloween-bingo-2019-preparty-question-for-08-04-day-4-favorites-from-halloween-bingos-past

Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/02 (Day 2): Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies or Other?

Witches.

One of my very first literary heroine was a little witch who manages to get the better of all the bigger, older witches after having been put down by them — the heroine of Otfried Preußler’s Little Witch.  (In fact, I loved that book enough to write my very first fan letter to the author about it … and I still love it enough to have put it on MR’s “1001” list.)

Ever since, I’ve come to be interested in them because women are almost always maligned as “witches” when people are afraid of them because they — the women in question — happen to be better at something (or are merely perceived as being better at something) than others.  That’s true for the poor ladies of centuries past who just happened to know their herbs a bit better than their neighbors, potentially even better than the local monastery’s herbalist, and who, after having helped countless community members with every ailment from headaches to abortion, were duly burned at the stake for their troubles the second they even inadvertently stepped on someone’s toes.   And it’s still true for women who happen to be better at their jobs nowadays than their (mostly, but not necessarily male) colleagues.  Other slurs plainly denigrate — “witch” (and to a certain extent also “bitch”) implies an irrational element of fear.  In light of that, the transformation of witches — or their perception — from the worst of evil bogey(wo)men conceivable to a positive identification with the “women’s power” movement is a thing to behold; not least in literature.

Which, incidentally, is just one more reason why I love Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.   And along the same lines, who wouldn’t love Mr. Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and her coven?

Though, speaking of Pratchett, he has also created just about the only werewolf I can get behind (and for similar reasons) — Angua of the Night Watch.

And, well, yeah, in terms of stories that were films before they were books, Ladyhawke of course … which isn’t so much a horror as a “doomed lovers” story, obviously.

Vampires, though?  Hmm.  I mean, on the one hand, give me Dracula rather than Edward Cullen any day of the week (and I’m saying that as a confirmed non-horror reader).  On the other hand, I read Anne Rice’s vampire novels — until she turned BBA, that is — for just about everything but the horror aspect; in fact, if she’d ramped up that one I’d have been gone in a flash.  (Incidentally, Rice once revealed in an interview that Lestat’s character was inspired by Rutger Hauer’s portrayal of Etienne de Navarre in Ladyhawke.  Go figure.)

 

And zombies?  Leave me alone and get the hell out of here.  They creep me out so badly I won’t even go anywhere near them in a supposedly humorous context (like the “white trash zombie” novels that are currently all the rage).

 

 

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