The One with Obsessive Journalism

David Grann, The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession (2010)

This book was among the new acquisitions at the library and the name Sherlock Holmes was enough to make the book jump into my arms. Since my teens I’ve been a sucker for all things Sherlock, and while I’m very aware that this is totally fiction (I know that some die hard fans may not be aligned) the idea that these were real investigations related to Sherlock Holmes was fascinating to me.

In truth, the title is rather attention-seeking and even misleading. Only one story is related to Sherlock Holmes and the others stray rather far away. The common link is about quirky, often intense people stuck in weird, life-engaging situations. And the author dives into each case with an engagement bordering on obsession.

There’s the scientist who wants to find the giant squid (or raise its babies) even if it means fishing nights and days in a storm and getting bankrupt. There’s the Haitian military leader in exile who has committed violent terror against its fellow countrymen, but has been supported by the US and even allowed to settle down in the US. There’s an arson expert who might save or damn a prisoner on death row. There’s an astonishing case of faked identity. There’s this Manhattan firefighter who miraculously survived 911 but who is consumed by guilt and grief because he can’t remember how he saved his life. There’s this group of workers and engineers who work underneath New York to keep the water network flowing (engineering stories may seem boring from the outside but this one is positively hair-raising – also, claustrophobic please abstain). There’s this Polish man who might be a genius avant-garde writer, or just a sociopath killer who could not resist writing the story of his crime into a book.

Not all stories sucked me in but most did have a page-turner quality: it was a great new reading experience for me, as I read little non-fiction and that such in-depth investigations printed in tiny fonts in The Atlantic or the New Yorker or similar periodicals where they were initially published can’t sustain my attention.

Make no mistake, when the subtitle speaks of tales of murder, madness, and obsession, the obsession is as much for the journalist himself as for the subject of his investigation. All in all, I found that David Grann could well be a modern day Sherlock Holmes. I will certainly look into investigative journalism with a lot more interest.

The One with the Genial Laziness

Kendra Adachi, The Lazy Genius Way: Embrace What Matters, Ditch What Doesn’t, and Get Stuff Done (2020)

I was genuinely excited when I heard from Instagram and podcasts that this book was out, as I’m following its author on social media. I received it at the end of year, started almost immediately the first few pages, and then… I put it on a shelf where it lingered for months. It didn’t stop me from watching some more IG videos and listening to her podcast, but I had some difficulty to sustain the bubbly enthusiasm of Kendra Adachi when reading it on paper. I bet the audio-book experience is much more fun, as I realize much of what makes the message interesting is in Kendra Adachi’s personality.

The principles behind the catchy sentence of “Lazy Genius” are simple enough. They focus on women (especially mothers, but not only) who are perfectionists and are on the eternal quest for the one miracle step-by-step routine to have it all together. And when they fail they blame themselves and go to the next system. But Kendra Adachi reminds us that it is not the “how” but the “why” that makes a routine successful.

What I enjoyed:

  • the friendly and humorous voice
  • the author is not prescriptive but lets every reader defines her own priorities, her method is suited to almost every situation or phase of life
  • there are some very moving pages about authenticity
  • the book is both practical and philosophical
  • I’ve tried it and it works (which is the whole point, I guess)

What I didn’t enjoy so much:

  • the target reader is an American Christian suburban stay-at-home mother, and I’m definitely not in those categories, so many examples didn’t talk to me, but the principles are still applicable
  • the book seem to repeat itself at some points, it’s the kind of read that is best when you dip in and out for a quick few pages once in a while
  • too religious in the few last chapters, I didn’t come for that
  • many ideas are not fundamentally new or ground-breaking per se, I guess that it’s the combination of them that make this system successful

I’m afraid this is once more a case of expectations set too high, especially for books written by bloggers / podcasters / social media influencers. It doesn’t make the book terribly bad, and I’ll probably follow some of its advice, but I’d have been content with the Cliffnotes version, or a long Youtube video series. Still, a comforting self-help book which proves useful without being judgmental is well worth a quick read.

The One with Too many Witches and Vampires

Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life (2014)

And so it is over. After an intriguing first volume, and a rather entertaining second volume, I’ve saved the final volume of this trilogy for the third lock-down, hoping that it will indeed be the last (I hope I don’t jinx it by posting it publicly). Indeed it took me very far away from my allowed 10km perimeter, to London, Venice, French countryside, Upstate NY, New Orleans, in a whirlwind. The characters travel by private planes from Europe to the US and back for one reason or another, blissfully unaware of any virus except for certain genetic diseases that I will spare you the details. For the lock-down, nobody can predict that it won’t return again (keeping fingers crossed for vaccinations soon!), but for this trilogy, I can safely say that I won’t return to it.

It was surely a difficult task to finish this mammoth story and to tie all the plot lines. But this is one big mess of a story, and 560 pages of it! There are way too many things happening in the book, far too many characters springing out of nowhere (oh by the way, I forgot to mention my best friend, whom I haven’t talked to in a year, and I obviously forgot to tell him that I fell in love, got married, ditched my job and got pregnant… and he’s taking it all in strides, even as I tell him I’m in fact a witch…) or disappearing altogether.

It is a page-turner, but this time I mostly turned very fast to be done with it and to get answers to my questions, which I didn’t really get in the end! The pace also is very uneven, and the story has many inconsistencies. I believe the writer is trying to push her luck and provide enough material for other books, but, really, no thank you. It finally pushed me over the edge, from benign amusement to real annoyance. I can suspend my disbelief for paranormal romances to some extent, but there’s only so much I can take, especially when the main characters become rather bland and too perfect to be honest. I’d say that the main weakness of this third volume is the lack of a powerful plot arch. Diana and Matthew are so good and powerful that I was never worried that they would succeed.

If you’re not into vampires and witches and you want to have a good laugh, there are hilarious 1-star reviews in Goodreads about this volume. It also redeemed the hours I spent on the book. Now, I would love to be swept off my feet by another big book, even without vampires. What would you recommend?

The One with the Lincoln Lawyer Hoarding TP

Michael Connelly, The Law of Innocence (2020)

I’m not going to pretend that I can do any kind of objective reviews for Michael Connelly’s books. They are my special treat, and this one was as satisfying and comforting as I expected.

I think it was Laila who first alerted me that there was a new Mickey Haller book. It was last year, deep into the pandemic dreariness, and from that moment on I started to look forward to reading it. [Spoiler ahead, I won’t say anything much about the plot, but still] I expected 100% escapism, and I was so surprised that the book addressed current events! I had never read a Connelly book so recently after publication and so I had never paid attention to the time setting. (The sense of location is, on the other hand, so completely obvious).

Connelly drops hints about the pandemic throughout his book, and it of course goes crescendo. First a mere mention in the news of some faraway Chinese town of Wuhan, then people hearing about some weird new disease, then older family members being sick, then face masks and social distancing. Mickey Haller is arrested on suspicion of murder: his stay in prison puts him at higher risk of catching the virus in close, unventilated quarters. But there are other dangers waiting for him. His career and his life are at risk!

It made me realize that I had never thought those fictional characters had any common experience with mine. I’ve never been in L.A., I’ve never seen an American police station or tribunal. To me they all could have been on another planet altogether! Now, imagining them worried about facemasks and hoarding toilet paper and going through empty supermarket aisles is something of a stretch for me. It added a new dimension to the (usual) courtroom drama and thriller full of twists and turns. I really couldn’t put it down!

The One with the Piglet’s Return

Robert Kondo, The Dam Keeper: Return from the Shadows (2019)

It is a cliché that the pandemic made us all lose all sense of time. I couldn’t remember when my kids and I read the first two volumes of this trilogy. I remember it was warm when we read it, and that we got it from the library, so it couldn’t be from March to May, but otherwise, I could only trust this good old blog: it was actually in July!

I’m glad we found the final volume at the library, and I’m glad that the long journey of the piglet and his friends brought them all back home. It gave the reader a sort of emotional closure, after a really dark and bumpy story. It was visually splendid, and a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions. The themes of friendship, family and courage are laid out very nicely. Sometimes courage can turn into pigheadedness (ah ah) or vanity, when some people feel that they know better than other people how to save everyone. I believe that such nuances would be lost to the little kids who might be otherwise attracted to the beautiful pictures and the kawai characters.

But somehow it felt slightly dull. There was really no big surprise in this final book, and this was a bit of a let-down after the two first volumes. I wish the ending would have been more developed instead of being so very straightforward. I still recommend the series to kids from 8-9.

The One with the Three Kopp Sisters of Pennsylvania

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)

I chose this book to go with the February prompt of the Unread Shelf challenge: a book I got for free, as I got it from a dear friend, but it could have also met the January prompt: a book with high expectations. This novel is a typical case of high expectations… which were not entirely met. (Luckily for the books I chose in January, my expectations then didn’t let me down). My high expectations came with the Elizabeth Gilbert’s blurb, calling it “smart, romping, hilarious”, and with the stylish cover art showing a short hair girl with a gun.

I should have known better than to trust blurbs, and a quick read of the back cover informs me that the action takes place in 1914, which is not at all the style of hair and hat that the book cover presents. (Yes, I am a stickler with historical fashion faux-pas, and all sorts of anachronisms). I’m sorry for the author, but the publisher’s choices are plain misleading. The book is smart, but romping and hilarious it is not. I found it rather slow-going, which is also fine except when one expects romping. The book sticks closely to the historical facts, and realistic history is rarely romping and hilarious per se. And because the author takes her research seriously enough to provide source materials at the end, I’m sure she is as sorry as I am about poor hair choices of the cover art.

I am surprised that the novel was published in 2015, because it seems that I have heard a lot of glowing reviews about it in 2019 and last year, and I had not noticed it so much when it first came out. Anyway. The book had attracted my attention by being presented as a historical crime fiction based on the little-known but true facts of the first female deputy sheriff. I was therefore disappointed that the book was more about the three sisters Kopp, who led a dull and isolated life on a small farm of New Jersey with no professions of their own. The bulk of the book does not feature a deputy sheriff at all, this is actually what the next book might well be about.

Still, there’s a lot of good things about this book. The research I already mentioned makes living in New Jersey in 1914 very true to life. We see how few prospects respectable girls had, and how any straying from the rightful path might be punished socially for years. We see three girls who have been raised by a very strict immigrant mother from Austria, who defined rules and behaviors and limited her daughters’ choices so much that even beyond the grave the girls can’t really decide for themselves how they want to lead their life. Constance Kopp’s slow awakening from these rigorous Victorian rules is interesting: the fact that only an unlucky close encounter with thugs and crime opens her eyes to who she wants to be makes her an endearing character, one who has a lot of potential for new adventures. I’ve just checked and it seems that there are now 7 books in the series (!!), I’m just not patient enough to follow it through.

The One with Greater Non-Human Powers

Octavia Butler, Collected Stories, from Library of America (2021)

I jumped on the opportunity to read Octavia Butler’s short stories when I saw this Library of America volume on Netgalley. I rarely read true science fiction (I do some fantasy, some time-travel and some post-apocalyptic novels, but aliens and flying saucers? No thank you!), yet Kindred had been such a memorable book for me in 2019, and I couldn’t pass the chance to read short stories of this author. I was sad to learn that she has published so few short stories, preferring to publish bigger volumes and even series. I enjoyed this compiled edition edited by Gerry Canavan, and with an interesting preface by Butler’s friend Nisi Shawl, although the barebones ARC format makes it difficult to go back and forth within the volume. I didn’t read Fledgling, although I intend to come back to it one day.

The book collects all seven stories from Bloodchild collection, as well as Childfinder (from Unexpected stories). The themes and genres are very wide, and none are related to Kindred. Each story is followed by a short afterword by Butler who presents the context of the story, or why she chose this theme. I liked the Utopian vision of The Book of Martha, where God addresses a female writer (Octavia herself?), so that she would chose the destiny of humans. It was by far the lightest story of them all, and readers should be warned that the worlds Butler creates are often dark and disturbing. I was awed by Butler’s imagination in Bloodchild, when she imagines a sort of love relationship between a human young man and a powerful creature. Speech Sounds is more like a standard postapocalyptic book, but I liked the metaphoric themes. Childfinder felt more like an excerpt of a complete novel. And The Evening and The Morning and The Night dealt with the consequences of a rare genetic disease.

In all those stories, I could not help but wonder at the unique point of view that Butler takes. A bit like Ken Liu, humans are often weaker creatures who have little choice but to obey to greater alien powers, but the relationship with others is not just a confrontation, there are complex feelings on both sides and plot twists that are voluntarily uncomfortable for the reader.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One about the Second Life of Florida’s Monica Lewinsky

Gabrielle Zevin, Young Jane Young (2017)

If I go to my Goodreads account, I see that I started this book at the end of November and finished it at the end of January. If I add that I had it on my nightstand from mid-October, that should tell you something. Either something about the book or about me. I was clearly not taken in by this novel. I was indeed curious to read about a young woman, Aviva Grossmann, whose choices are very similar to those of Monica Lewinsky (except that as an intern, she’s having an affair with a Congressmann and not the POTUS), and to learn what she made of her life afterwards. But I should know myself better. I’m not very interested in politics, even less in American politics, and I’m not really interested in scandalous affairs and their long-term consequences. I don’t normally read this kind of plots. I was willing to make an exception because I’d heard good reviews on several podcasts, but clearly it ended up being a poor fit.

I didn’t know that the characters of this novel were Jewish and in my naivety I didn’t even know that Florida has a big Jewish community (from my Euro-centric standpoint, I had only heard of the Cuban community); and in a weird way the novel found echo in the memoir I read back in December by Pamela Druckerman, who also comes from a Jewish family in Florida. I found Aviva’s mother a bit of a caricature, but she made me laugh, and overall I liked that every character has some nuances and is not portrayed all good or all bad, with the notable exception of one particular character in Maine.

I liked the idea of switching perspectives along the book, but I didn’t really enjoy the execution. Some parts are clearly stronger than others. During the middle part, Ruby (the 10yo daughter of Aviva) is writing emails to an Indonesian pen-pal, and it was just unnecessary and boring, and the Choose-your-own-adventure section was really not the right form for me.

Still, it made me think about the weight of mistakes early on in one’s career (especially for women) and how social media makes it near impossible to turn a new page and start over when you have this kind of blemishes on your resume. I don’t know what the real-life Monica Lewinsky is doing now, and if I have learnt only one thing by reading this novel, is that I won’t Google it, because this young woman deserves to lead a good life far from the spotlights if she chooses to.

The One with Shakespeare’s Vampire Friend

Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night (2012)

Oops, I did it again! I’m sorry I couldn’t resist (the book, and the Britney Spears’ pun). That’s all Covid’s fault I’m sure. The virus and the accumulation of bad news made me do it. After A Discovery of Witches, I couldn’t stop there. I had bought the trilogy on Kindle (an economic choice, as the trilogy was hardly more expensive than the first book), so I had to continue.

What is any good? I certainly can’t pretend to be objective. Well, for the people who enjoyed the first tome, it was a lot more of the same with a change of scenery. For people who found the first tome ridiculous, I don’t think the second will have any redeeming value. Witch Diana and her vampire lover Matthew have chosen to travel back in time at the end of the first volume, hoping to discover more about the coveted manuscript of Ashmole 782, and to escape their enemies. And so they arrive in… 1590, where Matthew used to have lots of friends like Christopher Marlowe, Henri Raileigh, Shakespeare etc. They spend time observing their surroundings with a lot of name dropping and details about clothes and food, like in the first volume, and then lots of shenanigans occur. Not very logical, nor very plausible shenanigans, but enough to keep turning the pages.

I’m all for a change of scenery. I don’t have witches and vampires on my heels, I just have a global pandemic and a very likely third national lock-down. So at this stage I have nothing against Elizabethan England, and lots of details about food and clothes. I readily confess that this is not a highly intellectual motivation nor a very challenging read, but this book is pure fantasy and escapism, and in that respect, it delivers.

Thank goodness there is yet another volume in the trilogy! I will probably start it if/when the government orders the third lock-down. I hope that will be the last lock-down before vaccine, because no more Diana / Matthew frolics after the next book!

The One with Fangs and Wands in Academia

Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches (2011)

How is it possible to both enjoy a book and be aware at all times of its problematic nature? This book is a bit like a guilty pleasure, not only because it is a romance, but because it is not the kind of romantic relationship I would condone in real life. But hey, it’s about vampires and witches, so I’m just throwing realism to the windmills anyway.

If you want to have a bit laugh, go and read some of the one-star reviews of this book in Goodreads. Go ahead, I promise you’ll have a great time. I did, and I laughed, and I did not stop me from devouring the whole book and buying the trilogy. Alright, I might be weird.

In fact, I’d watched the series on dvd before, and I agreed with Mr. Smithereens that it was too schmaltzy. I could practically hear him roll his eye on the sofa. I didn’t really enjoy Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop, but I sure did enjoy Downtown abbeyesque Matthew Goode as Matthew de Clairmont (how confusing that they have the same first name!). But it was one of those stories where the book has to be better than the series, because the action on the page is much more forgiving and the suspension of disbelief more effective. Also, I wanted more alchemy and more bookish details and I suspected these had been edited on screen.

On the ahem side, I can’t imagine that a relationship between two heroes would still be written this way in a post me-too world. If you concentrate on facts only, Matthew de Clairmont is borderline abusive, stalkerish, sneaky, and the way everyone is ok with him having his way with his girlfriend raises highbrows. Apparently consent is not vampires’ forte. Diana is annoyingly naive.

On the positive side, it’s a sweeping romance among people who love books, libraries, tea and history. And also magic. And time travel thrown into the mix for good measure (Outlander, anyone?). I am aware that my positive arguments are twice shorter than my negative ones, but it does not reflect the fun I had while reading it. Clearly, it could have been edited and details about clothes and food are largely unnecessary, but it still is quite a page turner and I ended up wanting more.