Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Butchers Hill by Laura Lippman

Baltimore Blues
Charm City
Butchers Hill is the third book in Lippman's Tess Monaghan series. Our girl Friday Tess has elevated herself from the part-part-time work she was doing in Baltimore Blues all the way to opening her own private detective agency. She gets two cases to work on in this novel. One job is to track down a client's daughter, a daughter the client had given up for abortion thirteen years ago. The other job is to track down some foster children who the client had harmed in the past and now wants to make restitution to.  As these things go, as soon as Tess gets involved, chaos begins.  Witnesses started to disappear, there are people dying, and family mysteries start to come unraveled.

There's a lot in this book. It delves into privacy issues for adoptees and foster children. It delves into race. There are a couple of scenes in which Tess, who is white, can't get information, so she sends in her client, who is black. Tess, who had just a scene or two previously, been joking about the impact of race on her black client, is forced to face what her own privilege can and can't get her. The book also tackles Baltimore's problems with government corruption, which is not nothing, but does get sidelined a tiny bit here.

I really enjoy the character of Tess. She's absolutely terrible at reading a room. She's kind of terrible at being a detective - it seems like she's mostly just relying on calling in favors from people to do the legwork and I'm a bit concerned about how she's going to make it work when those favors are gone.  She loves her dog, but doesn't really seem to understand her own feelings. I also love the supporting characters - her lawyer mentor, her uncle, her mom, and her aunt are all developing into people I want to hang out with.

But the story was a bit confusing, to be honest. I'm not entirely sure I understood the ending. It just seemed so rushed and didn't explain to the reader what was going on. There was a scene in which it was clear that Tess knew what was going on, but instead of taking the readers through the flash of insight that Tess had, we just followed along with her rushing around, and that insight never was explained. Also, a major event happened off page and I'm still not clear how any of that shook out (slight spoiler: there was an unexpected guest at the picnic - how did the guest know where the picnic was?).  The ending really brought this book down in my estimation.

However, I do love the world of Tess Monaghan. I'm going to keep going with this series. Maybe they'll be more explanation of this novel in a future novel!

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth
World Without End
The third (and final?) novel in the Kingsbridge series is A Column of Fire. In the first book, The Pillars of the Earth, we were introduced to the town of Kingsbridge in the 1100s as it was attempting to build a cathedral.  The second book, World Without End, moved us ahead in time to the Black Death of the mid-1300s.  A Column of Fire brings us even further ahead it time to the mid- to late-1500s when the Protestants and Catholics were killing one another and poor Mary Queen of Scots was suffering as Queen Elizabeth ruled in England.

I adored the first two books in the series, mostly because we mostly stayed in Kingsbridge and stayed with characters in the town. We learned about daily life in the city, how what was happening in London impacted (or didn't) lives of everyday people. We learned about how people lived, dressed, ate, married, and died. We were in a soap opera and there were illegitimate babies, secret daddies of babies, and people missing for years who would later just pop up out of nowhere.

This book, though. We were barely ever IN Kingsbridge. That's what I'm in it for, Mr. Follett!  I want my characters to be there, not in Hispanolia or Paris or London.  I want far, far less royal court intrigue and much, much more who's sleeping with who and who stole so and so's land.  I want less talk about religious doctrinal differences and more about how that impacts the lives of people who are married to people of opposing views.  I want less talk about naval battles and seafaring tactics and more talk about the lives of the women whose husbands are out at sea.

The soap opera feeling that I loved in the other two books just went away and there we were, stuck with a history lesson. I feel like I get the Catholic/Protestant division during this time. I really understand the line of royal succession. I do. But I wish I understood that less and understood more about our main characters, Ned and Margery, and why they even liked one another. In World Without End, we understand why Caris and Merthin want to be together and we want them to be together, but we also understand why they are kept apart for so much of the novel. In A Column of Fire, I was never convinced by the Ned and Margery relationship, outside of simple sexual attraction, which ain't nothing, but certainly doesn't keep someone going for decades.

It's just...I know Follett can write things that I LOVE. I know he can. So I was disappointed in this book. Follett's novels, Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity make up the Century Trilogy.  I think I'm going to delve into those as my next Follett reads.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Well-Read Black Girl edited by Glory Edim

I write a lot. I write for my job - endless lectures, syllabuses, assignments in which the directions have to be crystal clear, emails to students, co-workers, and administrators, I write in a daily journal every night, and I write in this blog space that makes it seem like it's 2007 all over again. I write primarily for communication at my job. I write primarily as a record of my own life in my journal. I write here mostly to keep track of the books I read and how proud I am of my dog. 

But I'm not a writer. I don't feel like part of me is missing when I accidentally forget to write in my journal at night. I don't go around thinking original thoughts that I just have to have written down.  Words don't eke out of my fingertips onto the page, as if a magical fairy has entered my body.

No, I'm a reader.  I read the way other people watch television. I don't just sit down on the couch and randomly flip on the television. I sit down on the couch and reach for my book (and, if I can, the cat - it's so much cozier to read when you have a cat on your legs, isn't it?).  I think about "my" books all the time. I talk about them all the time.

When I first looked at Well-Read Black Girl, I assumed that this would be like eating my vegetables. I'd read about how this collection of black female authors struggled as children and I'd get my dose of white guilt and that would be that. But I was so wrong. Because these aren't the stories of systematic oppression and racism, these are stories about readers.  Sure, some of these women suffered serious injustices and they write about those injustices, but they write about them in the service of telling you how they played a role in the development of their identities as readers.  So even though I was a white girl growing up in a rural area in the northern United States, I felt seen in this book. Their stories weren't my story, of course, but their stories were stories of characters who resonated (one of them cited Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I squealed so loudly my husband and the dog came to check on me), of places that spoke to them, and of being able to, if only for those hours while reading the pages, visit places more adventurous, safer, or more magical than the world in which you lived.

I read these books and learned so much about the importance of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin within black culture. I learned how much harder it is to be a black nerd than a white nerd (the scant list of sci-fi/fantasy books by black women authors was sad). I learned that we are all united in the hunt for that one book that leaves that lasting impression. 

The book also has a list of all the books mentioned in the book. I'm going to use that list as a rough sort of Introduction into Black Literature for myself over the coming books. So don't be surprised if all of a sudden I'm reading Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and starting to spout off about how I just don't have time to read all these amazing books!

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Keeper of Lost Causes
The Absent One 
A Conspiracy of Faith
The Purity of Vengeance is the fourth book in the Department Q series from Jussi Adler Olsen.  There are eight books in the series as of right now and I suspect that I'll read them all. In this series, Carl Morck is our grumpy Danish detective who is in charge of a motley crew of people who investigate cold cases.  In this case, his assistant throws a case on his desk that he was initially uninterested in, but we soon learn that it's linked to several other crimes.  Morck is still guilt-ridden about the case that killed one of friends and paralyzed another while his soon-to-be-ex-wife is attempting to con him out of money. 

Meanwhile, his cheerful assistant who we have suspected has hidden depths for quite some time, shows us a lot about his background in this novel. It turns out he has skills that make him quite suitable for Department Q and I can't wait to see how Morck begins to use these skills now that he knows about them. 

As in The Absent One, we know a lot about who committed the crimes in this novel from the beginning, so this is more of a thriller than a mystery, at least from the perspective of the reader.  Adler-Olsen spends much of the novel taking us through the criminal's justifications and reasons for the crimes. In this way, the novel is asking some deeply troubling questions.  Should you be judged for the worst decisions you've made in your life? What actions can you or should you take in revenge for people who have mistreated you? What do you do when mistreatment was sanctioned by the government?  Should the government make amends? How? And those are all the questions that come up before you start thinking about government corruption. 

So, yeah, I like this series and I like the Scandinavian noir genre.  I'm going to keep reading this series, so don't be surprised if Adler-Olsen comes up some more!

Friday, January 10, 2020

Charm City by Laura Lipmann

My review of the first book in the series, Baltimore Blues, can be found here.
Charm City is the second of the Tess Monaghan books from Laura Lippman. In this book, our girl Tess finds herself trying to find out the truth about why her uncle got beat up (he's in a coma!) and how one of her friends from her journalism days had a story that had originally been nixed end up on the front page of the Baltimore paper, the Beacon Light (frequently shortened to Blight, much to my amusement).  In order to solve these mysteries, Tess is hired on as a contractor at the newspaper, and, as always happens in these types of books, shenanigans ensue.

In the process, Tess finds herself at odds with both of her friends who work at the paper, breaking up with her boyfriend, and acquiring a greyhound named Esskay who I hope is a reoccurring character in this series. She finds herself getting shot at, getting bullied at her gym, and facing the smoke rings from the mean lady editor's cigarettes.

Baltimore continues to be an integral character in the story. Lippman clearly loves the city. There are digressions in which Tess thinks of cutesy names for neighborhoods. There are endless digressions about how a particular neighborhood came to be the mix of middle-class and rundown.  There are digressions about how Baltimore is not part of a county, but prospers and flails all on its own.  I enjoy every word of these tangential points because they are exactly the kinds of things I want to know when I'm reading about a place.

So, did I immediately request the next book in this series from the library? Yes, yes, I did. 

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss tells the tale of Mary Jekyll, who is alone and penniless after the death of her parents. In her search for money, she finds Diana Hyde, a child who has been raised in a home for foundlings. They reach out to Sherlock Holmes for some help with the mystery of how Mary and Diana are related.  As the story unravels, we meet many other characters who are related to characters from other beloved novels, including Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

This book was clever. I was enjoying catching the Easter eggs and looking up references I didn't know.  The frame of the book is that one of the characters is writing down the story as the other characters constantly butt in with their own remarks and corrections. I enjoyed the interactions between those characters. I thought the setting was well done and I could feel the oppressiveness of Victorian London, the stifling social norms that forced women to make unthinkable choices, and the formality that existed between even the most familiar of social acquaintances.

I also thought the writing was tight. I've never read Goss before and it looks like this is the first book in a planned series. She has mostly written short stories before. Apparently The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter is her first novel.  She's a teacher in a creative writing program, but this didn't come off as too incredibly workshopped to me.  I thought there was just enough poking fun of literary conventions in the interstitial repartee among the characters to show that Goss knows what she's doing, but also knows how to play with it.

That being said, I also kept falling asleep as I read this book. Admittedly, I wasn't feeling 100%, but I'd read a couple of chapters and put it down for a day.  I think it's great! I really do! But I'm probably not going to pick up any more books in the series. But I DO recommend that you read this book because it's fun, there are great female characters, and the writing is solid. 

Monday, January 06, 2020

2020 Quarter One Goals

In 2017 and 2018, I had goals that I set up for myself at the beginning of the year and I did a good job with them. In 2019, things really fell off the wagon, so I'm going to back to the system that works for me.  Here are my goals for the first three months of the year.  I definitely reserve the right to tweak these goals throughout the year.

Area One: Health
1) Work out three times a week for 30 minutes or more - Because of a dumb overuse injury in my leg, I was not able to do substantial workouts in the first quarter of last year. And then I just...didn't pick it up again.  I need to get back to at it.
2) Work out an additional two times a week for at least 15 minutes - I have in my mind that a workout has to be at least 30 minutes to be doing something, but honestly a 15 minute core workout can be just as punishing as 60 minutes of cardio for me. Mindfully moving my body for five days a week seems like a good way to improve my physical and mental health.
3) At least two strength training workouts every week- I actually like lifting weights. Dr. BB got a new weight set, too, so I need to start doing a better job of incorporating strength training into my life.

I reserve the right to add food and/or water tracking on to this list. Unfortunately, I've tried that in the past and I've always failed to do so, so I'm not sure if this exactly a realistic goal for me. However, if my weight doesn't start to decrease, I might be forced to count calories again.

Area Two: Professional
1) Get my email under control and keep it there (try to keep the inbox to 15 emails or fewer at all times) - I had some mental health issues in 2019 that led me to avoid checking my work and personal email. Because of this, my email started stacking up. There are over 1000 emails in each of my accounts right now. Most of them can be deleted, but it is a definitely a priority for me in the first quarter of the year to get those inboxes under control. I'm not a zero-email inbox kind of girl, but I'd like to stop missing things because they sink to the bottom of my inbox.
2) Volunteer position - I'm on the board for my local community center.  I'm head of the programming committee and I'd like to get a program started in 2020 and, ideally, have that program be profitable. Also, I need to communicate with everyone promptly in that role.
3) Update my resume and cover letter - Things are not going smoothly for me at work. I'd like to take the free time I will have this semester to really think about what I want to do for work.  Anyone know how to create a business plan for a small business?  Or maybe I should just take a part-time job in non-profit training. Argh.
4) Create a portfolio - I have to do this for one of the classes I teach. Right now, I just have a fake portfolio with links that go nowhere. I actually want to create a portfolio of our progress with Hannah (I can actually use this for instructional purposes, I swear). This will involve me figuring out how to do video editing, though. Egads. It sounds hard. Oh, well. Let's say it's a "goal" and hope for the best.

Area Three: Communication
1)  Post to Instagram once a day - I did this in 2017 and it was good fun. I think I'll do my best again this year. It is sometimes hard to find something new to photograph, but if all else fails, I'll take a photo of my adorable mutt.
2) Update blog at least twice a week - I posted an average of 1.4 times a week last year without tracking it. I'm hoping that I can keep a good editorial calendar and do better. We'll see.
3)  Keep track of books read - Every year people ask me how many books I read and I honestly have no idea. I read a lot of trashy books that I get for free on my Kindle (sign up for BookBub, people!), but this year I'm going to have a dedicated place on my spreadsheet for what books I'm reading and when I finish them. I generally have two books going at once - one on my Kindle for bedtime reading and one book that I have gotten from the library that I read downstairs.  I will hold myself accountable by publishing a list every quarter.
4) Send a postcard/note/letter to my two elderly aunts and one uncle every month - I've done this in the past and it's fun and I like to do it.

Area Four: Personal Improvement Projects
1) Tackle one project around the house every week - By "project," I essentially mean "something I've been putting off." The first week in January it will be taking down the Christmas tree. I also need to organize my desk, the closets, deal with a bunch of Lego sets my mother gave me from childhood that have taken over the guest room, and figure out how to declutter our bookshelves. There's a lot to do, but I just tend to ignore it because it doesn't have to be done RIGHT. NOW.
2) Duolingo every day - I've done Duolingo for at least ten minutes a day for over 300 days as of today. I would like to keep this streak going. I can actually follow basic stories in Spanish at this point.
3) Take at least three more classes with Hannah - She's so smart and tries so hard and I want her to be happy. Also, I love videos of dogs doing fun tricks and I want Hannah to be the star of one of those videos.
4) Try a new recipe every week - For real. I'm so sick of eating the same five recipes.