London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

26162300Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories but also non-fiction “Letters from London” for The New Yorker. Her New Yorker obituary observed: “Other correspondents were writing about the war, of course, often with great power and conviction, but they dealt with large incidents and events, while Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war, of what the government was doing, of the nervous sound of the air-raid sirens, of the disappearance of the egg, of children being evacuated – of all the things that made life in England bearable and unbearable.” In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field.

Review:

I love primary sources and I’ve been wanting to try a book from Persephone, so London War Notes was just the thing.  Panter-Downes lived in and around London during World War II and wrote weekly articles for The New Yorker, describing the state and mood of the city.  This 459 page book is an edited collection of those pieces.  I’m not big on military tactics or strategy but real, lived experiences on the home front are exactly my thing.

Panter-Downes paints a vivid picture of what London was like from the first rumbles of war, through the Blitz, up to VE Day.   Her attention to detail serves well, and single sentence scenes bring the war to life.

It has always been a strange and startling sight to see middle-aged Kensington matrons in fur coats standing grimly in line waiting for six pennyworth of gumdrops, as though it were Biblical manna.

There were so many things I hadn’t even heard about.  Blackout deaths, where vehicles would strike and kill pedestrians on the dark streets.  Double summer time, a two hour version of daylight savings, was put into effect to try and conserve energy.  And at one point newspapers were forbidden from printing weather reports, as it was feared it’d give the enemy an advantage.

The detail is paired with humor to make each entry pleasantly readable, despite the circumstances.

The Christmas dinner isn’t going to be so particularly festive, either, from all accounts.  Turkeys are difficult to find, though it’s rumored that tinned ones will be available – a bleak prospect for those who can’t work up any suitably seasonable emotions at the thought of getting out the yuletide can-opener.

And when she aims your heartstrings, she hits.

Old men and women call to find out if that can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn’t easy. “Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them” is the official explanation – a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.

Once more London finds itself a blitz city.  A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy night to find out if they’re still there.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend London War Notes to someone with little interest, but if you’re curious about the lived home front experience it’s a great place to start.

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The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

18726080The United States government is given a warning by the pre-eminent biophysicists in the country: current sterilization procedures applied to returning space probes may be inadequate to guarantee uncontaminated re-entry to the atmosphere. Two years later, seventeen satellites are sent into the outer fringes of space to collect organisms and dust for study. One of them falls to earth, landing in a desolate area of Arizona. Twelve miles from the landing site, in the town of Piedmont, a shocking discovery is made: the streets are littered with the dead bodies of the town’s inhabitants, as if they dropped dead in their tracks.

Review:

While I’ve watched Crichton before (ER, Jurassic Park) I hadn’t read any of his novels.  The Andromeda Strain is a natural entry point for me – medicine! science fiction! – and I ended up really liking it. The story is easy to sum up: the US government searches for organisms in space… and finds them.

The good:

  • The plot starts coming and it just keeps coming.
  • Medicine and doctors are important in figuring out what the Andromeda strain is and I got a kick out of thinking about diagnoses along with the doctors.  In that sense it’s puzzle mystery, and we get much of the info needed to reason things out as the story moves along, often in primary source format.  Huzzah for MDs writing fiction!
  • The book was written almost 50 years ago and it’s interesting to see what aged well and what didn’t.  Many of the medical gadgets still feel high tech while the computer references come off as quaint.  I don’t hold this against Crichton, quite the opposite, it strikes my fancy.
  • Andromeda StrainWhile the writing isn’t amazing it fits the mold aimed for, namely narrative nonfiction of a past event many people may have forgotten or never known about.  In that sense it reminded me of Command and Control.
  • Despite that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There are a couple of moments I said “Oh.” along with a character, and there are some laugh out loud funny lines as well.  And the “References” listed at the end are a fun touch.
  • Crichton respects the reader.  He hints and points at things obliquely for us to figure out… and lets them be.  No knocking facts over our heads, no “did ya see that there, hmmmm?”  When a writer respects the reader I’m much more likely to respect them.

The not-so-good:

  • Not a lot of time is spent on characterization.  The space given is used well, but I’d like to see more.
  • Major Bechdel test fail, and I don’t remember a single character of color.  The 1971 movie took steps to correct this, making one of the scientists female and casting several people of color.
  • The “Odd-Man Hypothesis” is stupid idea and needs to die like now.
  • The ending is abrupt and bound to annoy some people.

All in all an engrossing read, perfect for a lazy summer day, a plane ride, or breaking a reading slump.  Especially recommended if you’re into medicine, or science fiction with a side of thriller.

Over Tumbled Graves by Jess Walter (Caroline Mabry #1)

18918083Spokane, Washington: a bustling city split by hurtling white-water falls. During a routine drug bust, Detective Caroline Mabry finds herself on a narrow bridge over the falls, face-to-face with a brutal murderer named Lenny Ryan. Within hours, the body of a young prostitute is found nearby, dumped along the riverbank. Then another. And another. Soon Caroline and her cynical mentor Alan Dupree are thrown headlong into the search for a serial murderer police have nicknamed the Southbank Strangler. But while Caroline hunts a killer, he may also be hunting her.

Review:

This is the perfect book for someone that has read a ton of police procedurals and gripes that they’re too “same-y”.  Walter starts down that road but by the halfway point he’s subverting some tropes and dissecting others, exposing them to the light.  I haven’t read enough murder mysteries to do it justice in this review, but I’ll try.

Caroline Mabry is a new-ish detective that finds herself in the middle of a serial murder case.  Along with her philosophical mentor and a technologically savvy greenhorn, they hunt down a killer who is offing prostitutes and hiding their bodies after rubber banding some money to their hand.

When the body count starts to rise Mabry is sent to consult with Blanton, an expert profiler of legend.  He reminded me in some ways of Robert Ressler in that he’s known for getting into the minds of men who commit these heinous acts over and over again.

Blanton is not too happy that a woman has been sent, as:

I’ve never met a woman who contributed much to these kinds of cases. Fortunately for them, they don’t have the capacity for understanding this type of killer, for understanding the fantasy.

In other words, something about raping and killing people is inherently male, a fantasy that every guy harbors in some part of his (hopefully subconscious) brain.

Disturbing, no?

Maybe there were no monsters. Maybe every man who looked at a Penthouse was essentially embarking on the same path that ended with some guy beating a woman to death and violating her with a lug wrench. No wonder Blanton was dubious of Caroline’s role in the investigation. If she couldn’t imagine the violent fantasy, what could she imagine? The victim. The fear. And what good were those?

Over Tumbled GravesBlanton continues in this vein, echoing stuff that I’ve read in nonfic about profilers and remaining very disturbing.  By framing the book from a female detective’s perspective the unease settles in our bones, and I may never look at serial killer cases the same way again.

It bothers Mabry that the victims are seen as a collection of clues and not people – the number dead matters more than who they were.  She concentrates on those killed in stead of blindly following the profilers on her way to solving the case.

Walter made me think about serial killer literature in a new way.  If you’re well read in the genre I’m sure you’ll find more flipped and subverted tropes than I did.  On top of that the writing is a cut above and Spokane, or more accurately its waterways, is a character itself.

Eventually, the water prevails, even in cities of the dead. Eventually, the water comes for us all, washes over the statues and through the crypts, topples the headstones and tumbles the graves.

Plotty with well-characterized protagonists and much to mull over, Over Tumbled Graves is a heckuva book and is perfect for my Serial Killer Summer.  I’m looking forward to returning to it once I have more murder mysteries under my literary belt.

Syncopation by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #1)

37648566Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Review:

I absolutely loved Syncopation and gobbled it up.  There’s so much good here. Speaking of…

The good:

  • A nonbinary author writing about a queer rock band is all.the.yes. Loads of rep including aromantic, gay, and pansexual.
  • This is the first time I’ve read a romance with an aromantic character and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work.  The dynamic that develops between Zavier and Ray is wonderful and let me grok what one version of an aro relationship may look like.  It’s one of those cases where fiction gets something into your brain better than non-fiction ever could.Syncopation copy3
  • Ray doesn’t know that he’s into BDSM kink and Zavier guides him there with support and consent all the way.

    “I don’t want to be manhandling you and pressing you against a wall if that is not your thing.  Consent is sexy.”

  • I love not just the main relationship but the entire band.  Zabo fleshes the characters out and, at the same time, leaves you wanting more.  HEAs for everyone, I say!
  • This book has the best anaphylactic shock scene/rep I’ve seen in fiction.  If you suspect allergic shock Epipen first (while someone else calls an ambulance), ask questions later!  This is how you save lives, people.  All of the hospital stuff was thoughtfully done and this medical interpreter appreciates it.

The not-so-good:

  • The manager had so much more coming to him.  I needed more catharsis after all his crap.

I’ve never read Zabo before and I’m excited to check out more of their writing!  The next book in this series, Counterpoint, is an instant add to my TBR, and they have some backlist, too.  Oo.

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

31684565Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm, and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

Review:

While reading I kept thinking, “this is the perfect category romance, filled with LGBTQIA+ folks that make it even more awesome.”  So much to love.

Cassidy is in the mold of a Harlequin Presents hero, a high-powered New York lawyer that works hard and plays harder.  She wears exquisitely tailored suits by day and plows through a large swath through the NY lesbian scene by night. Katie, on the other hand, has become unmoored from her social network after her engagement is broken off by her cheating fiancee Paul.  She pulls herself together to do the lawyer thing and ends up in a boardroom negotiating with Cassidy, another firm’s counsel.  Their immediate connection makes Katie wonder if she’s ever truly known herself, while Cassidy wonders why she can’t toss Katie aside like her other lovers.

So we have an alpha heroine, another heroine that wants more from life, glamorous work in a stunning city, topped off with a meet-cute.  Straight-talking best friend? Check. Romantic weekend getaway? Check. Two people falling in love, both because and in spite of their best efforts? Check and check.

It reads fast, is perfectly plotted, and kept me invested in the love story throughout.  The characters are well-rounded and have fully-realized motivations, and there’s no Big Misunderstanding that makes me want to smack a heroine on the upside of the head.  Katie and Cassidy’s love is earned, and it is delicious.

The writing is good, too:

Katie had never been a fantasizer of any kind.  She was more of a planner, a doer. She was a pleaser of others – not one for exploring self-pleasure or whatever….

But Cassidy was hot. And the only other women Katie ever thought of as hot were the ones she wanted to be. Not do. Be.

She could almost see the other photos in a family album somewhere, of the two of them bullet-belted, toting rifles, flashing huge grins over some enormous dead animal. They were the kind of guys Cassidy would cross the street to avoid because her intolerance of them was palpable, yes, but also in fear they’d attack her for sport, too, if she came too close.

I love When Katie Met Cassidy and hope Perri keeps writing books in this vein – brava.

Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Translated by Srinath Perur

30267604A young man’s close-knit family is nearly destitute when his uncle founds a successful spice company, changing their fortunes overnight. As they move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house on the other side of Bangalore, and try to adjust to a new way of life, the family dynamic begins to shift. Allegiances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background.

Elegantly written and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humor, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings—and consequences—of financial gain in contemporary India.

Review:

This book has been on my radar for a while so when it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award I was happy to pick it up on audio.

Ghachar Ghochar may be short, clocking in at 128 pages, but it packs a punch. The history and current circumstance of a rags-to-riches family is built in layers.  Mosaic, non-linear chapters give the sense that something is going on here, and Shanbhag leaves spaces for your mind to fill with the most diabolical possibilities. I blew through the book and thought about it for days.

On one hand I’m glad I listened to the audio, as the male narrator has the accents and pronunciation firmly in hand.  The male voices are especially varied and fun to listen to. On the other hand there are times I feel the prose would pop even more on a page than in my ears, and the narrator only had one female voice that he pitched up and down for different characters.

Overall a very good read, one I may find myself returning to in print form.

The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #9)

35497678Reisz is one of my favorite authors, so much so that I ration out her books, saving them for 14-hour flights and other such “emergencies”.  After a particularly difficult day at work I started The Chateau and it was just what I needed.

If you like erotic romance get thee to The Siren, the first book in the Original Sinners series, of which The Chateau is book nine.  The story is a flashback so you don’t need to read the previous eight books but the more you know about the characters the more you’ll enjoy it.  For reference I’ve only read through book five (I know!  Rationing!) and only a line or two at the end left me with a ‘huh’.

Anywho, The Chateau!  Here we follow Kingsley in 1989 when he’s doing secret missions for France’s special forces.  He’s asked to extract someone from a sex cult and… things happen.  From an author Q&A included with the advance copy:

Q: Inside the cult’s chateau, women reign and men are their willing slaves.  How did the idea for such a community come about?

A: Wishful thinking?

It’s a gender-flipped and toned down take on The Story of O.  Everything I love about Reisz’s writing is here – amazing characterization, hot and kinky sex, and beautiful writing that packs a gut punch.  Her favorite devices also take a turn including stories within stories and an exquisite mind fuck.  As with all the books in this series there’s own voices bisexual rep.

An idea that runs through all of Reisz’s work is that sex should be fun and enjoyable for everyone involved.  You should be able to crack jokes in bed and delight in your partner’s pleasure as well as your own.  It shouldn’t feel revolutionary but, sadly, it kinda is.  Here we see many people having sex, both as part of the main plot and side stories, and everyone is having the time of their life.  The only shame is for causing someone (unwanted) pain and anguish, and let’s just say that guy is dealt with justly.

Props all around for another kinky, sex-positive novel-length addition to an amazing series.  Reisz has two more books coming down the pipe – western contemporary and fantasy-esque erotic romances – and I cannot wait.

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #4)

34431673Dr. Garrett Gibson, the only female physician in England, is as daring and independent as any man—why not take her pleasures like one? Yet she has never been tempted to embark on an affair, until now. Ethan Ransom, a former detective for Scotland Yard, is as gallant as he is secretive, a rumored assassin whose true loyalties are a mystery. For one exhilarating night, they give in to their potent attraction before becoming strangers again.

Despite their vow to resist each other after that sublime night, she is soon drawn into his most dangerous assignment yet. When the mission goes wrong, it will take all of Garrett’s skill and courage to save him. As they face the menace of a treacherous government plot, Ethan is willing to take any risk for the love of the most extraordinary woman he’s ever known.

Review:

Kleypas is one of my comfort read authors.  Her historical romance is always solid, and now and then it’s really good.

This one is great.

The good:

  • This is a ‘historical not in a ballroom’.  A good chunk doesn’t even take part in a nice part of town, a change of pace from the usual.
  • Garrett knows what she wants and goes for it.  She wants to tend to poor people in a sketchy part of town so she takes self-defense lessons and is mean with a staff.  A couple of times Ethan is like, ‘You shouldn’t come’ and she’s all, ‘Nice of you to this so, I’m coming anyway’ while never falling into Too Stupid To Live territory.
  • The heroine is based on a real person that I totally have to research now.
  • Ethan says the right thing at the right time but it doesn’t feel forced or fake.

    “In case you weren’t aware, my good fellow, you are in the company of one of the most skilled and accomplished women in England.  In fact, I would say Dr. Gibson has a male brain in a woman’s body.”

    Garrett grinned wryly at his last comment, which she knew had been intended as a compliment.

    “Thank you, Doctor.”

    “Despite my short acquaintance with Dr. Gibson,” Ethan said, “her brain seems entirely female to me.”  The remark caused Garrett to stiffen slightly, as she expected a mocking comment to follow.  Something about how a woman’s mind was changeable, or shallow, the usual cliches.  But as Ethan continued, there was no hint of teasing in his tone. “Keen, subtle, and quick, with an intellect strengthened by compassion – yes, she has a woman’s mind.”

  • We get to see some characters develop over these four books in the Ravenel series and it’s done well, especially with West.  He has blossomed and is almost too awesome now, and to think the next book is his!  I can’t wait.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • This installment has a bit more suspense than other Kleypas novels in that there are happenings all the way through instead of a single, isolated event.  I’m not the biggest romantic suspense person but it still worked for me.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing in particular!  One event is rather unlikely but it’s addressed on the page so I’ll let it go.

My favorite Ravenel book so far.

Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

36142487Six years ago, Moss Jefferies’ father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media’s vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.

Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration.

When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

Review:

An amazing gut punch of a book.  Heads up – Oshiro faces police brutality (including murder by cop) straight on.

The good:

  • The author is queer, Latinx, and lives in Oakland where the story takes place, so all kinds of own voices representation.
  • Overall the range of rep is as wide as can be – black, brown, Latinx, queer (including bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans, ace, and nonbinary), undocumented immigrant, and adoption (specifically interracial adoption).  One character uses a wheelchair, another has a chronic invisible illness, another wears a hijab. There’s rep for anxiety and mental illness as well.
  • Specifically in regard to a nonbinary character, I love that Oshiro describes them in such a way that there is no clue what their assigned gender at birth was, or what gender people perceive them to be.  It’s pure – they are them, and that’s just how they want to be.
  • I had my heart ripped out and stomped on in the best way.  It almost seems dystopian in a “this can’t be real” sense, but then you think about news you’ve seen recently and you realize it’s happening right now.
  • The writing is solid.  I believe all of these characters as people, and even though there are a ton of secondary characters I was able to keep them straight.  Many got a turn in the sun and a chance to show their awesomeness.
  • And the themes – the power of family, the power of friends, the power of gathering, the power of women in making change, the power of teenagers, the power of love.  The power of saying their names.

My brain is still wrapping itself around this one so I’m having trouble finding more to say – just know that Anger is a Gift is amazing.

Thanks to Tor Teen and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)

32718027I normally have two or three books going at a time but once I got into The City of Brass I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else.  “Why would you want to start another book?  What is this one lacking?”  Nothing.  So I kept reading.

Nahri lives in 18th century Cairo and ekes out a meager living as a con artist, diagnosing mysterious aliments and driving out spirits.  She doesn’t believe in spirits but her marks do, so no harm, right?  That is, until one day she inadvertently calls a djinn warrior to her side and they are forced to go to the titular city of brass, Daevabad, while being chased by nasties of every description.

Huzzah for own voices Muslim fantasy!  I know next to nothing about this time and period which is just pitiful.  So many other series riff off the the same European medieval-eque fantasy that the setting nearly paints itself, but here my only cultural frame of reference is the Disney movie Aladdin.  I am so, so glad to expand on that.

The story is epic and has everything – fights, political intrigue, a varied cast of characters, and a touch of romance.  There are discussions of religion, colonialism, poverty, and governance.  What sway does your past hold over you, even when you can’t remember it?  Can the cost of standing up for your beliefs run too high?

It’s nuanced and absorbing.  There are no heroes or villains – nearly every character has made choices both admirable and abominable.  There’s so much that I may have to reread The City of Brass before moving on to the next book, scheduled to be published later in 2018, but I’m very much looking forward to it.