Why would you apologize for what you read for pleasure? Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work -- why isn't that something to be respected? - Nora Roberts

I Tweet not, neither do I Like. OK, so now I Tweet. So sue me.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

To Have and To Hold, by Patricia Gaffney (romance?) (long, get a drink)

You are warned: rape, sexual abuse of other kinds, emotional abuse, imbalance of power, imprisonment - could be triggers.

I cannot tell you how many people have told me about this book, which is the middle book of a trilogy. It seems to be polarizing. People love it or hate it and not much in between and seem to feel the need to explain their response to it. I was in the mood for something meaty, something not fluffy, something well-written, and - frankly - something I might have a strong opinion about. Everything I read these days tastes like oatmeal. Nothing wrong with oatmeal but it needs something to make it more assertive. I'd like to feel something other than this constant sadness and low-level background dread all the time.

So without even sampling, heaven help me, I downloaded the Kindle version. Well.

For the three people in the universe who haven't read the book, here's the blurb from Google: Rachel knew all about helplessness and sexual degradation. Her husband's death had freed her from that nightmare, but 10 years in prison for his murder was only another form of torture. Now, a jaded viscount [Sebastien] was offering her freedom, but at a price--a cynical, unkind bargain. Neither of them guessed how the tables could be turned.

First, Sebastian is not a rake. He's a predator. Serious family of origin issues have contributed to his being a cynic who sees the world and the people in it as existing only for his amusement. Still, there are glimpses of another, better person in there. He is unkind to his mistress but draws the line at blatant cruelty. He finds himself mildly interested and mildly concerned about the ancestral pile he's come into and the people who depend on him. We've all read worse men, far worse. But the cold calculation with which he sizes up Rachel, standing accused of vagrancy when she can't find a job after being released from prison, made me blink a couple of times. He sees her as strong, but fragile withal, brittle perhaps is a better word, and he wonders just exactly what it would take to make her shatter like old glass. How interesting, how very amusing it would be to break her entirely. He will take his time about it, savor it. He will learn all he can, listen carefully, as a predator knows his prey well before he strikes, and a catlike predator will strike a little and back off, strike a little and back off, before the blow that finishes. Good entertainment. (Although he wonders a bit at himself over this, disapproves of it, but shakes it off.)

So when he sees Rachel about to go to jail and from there to the workhouse (nightmares both, and Rachel has promised herself the release of suicide if she has to go back to prison), Sebastian offers her the job of housekeeper at his run-down home, making it clear from his gaze that there will be special benefits for him if she accepts. Rachel has pretty much nothing left to lose, and accepts the job. She was raised a lady. She's done bookkeeping. She'll … deal. Can't be worse than prison, can it?

It is a sign of her deadness to herself that she doesn't think, well, maybe I'll just endure and save my wages and move to the West in a few years like my brother did to start over. She just … goes along, 99% of her not really caring what the consequences may be.

Sebastian plays with her for weeks. He is turned on by her past and her numbness. Meanwhile, Rachel begins slowly to come back to life. I cried when she saw her new room, with a window to open and close when she wanted, a fireplace to give her heat if she wanted, clean sheets on a soft bed, a chair, a bowl for flowers or fruit if she wanted. Choices: glorious but unexpectedly hard to make after years of no choices. After years at Dartmoor, forbidden to look up or to talk, treated very harshly, simple fresh air coming through the window is a wondrous thing. She learns her job. She waits for what she knows will come, and keeps ready that cold place inside where she can hide when it does. She knows how to disappear inside herself. But she senses that he wants more than just her body. He's after her soul, in his way. 

There were three scenes that made my stomach turn over. Sebastian decides that it's time to cash in on the sexual benefits of having a slave, and there is a long and detailed scene- oh, called it forced seduction if you want to, I call it rape - which he enjoys, both for her helplessness and her unwillingness to respond emotionally or fully physically, and for the opportunity it gives him again to ask her what, exactly, did her husband do to her, please give details and discuss. There are ways of being brutal that have nothing to do with bruises or blood, you know?, and this is brutal, this invasion of her mind as well as her body.

Later, some of his - good Lord, unsavory! - friends come by for a little vacation at his place, and he insists that Rachel attend dinner and the evening entertainment. There is another scene of rape, this time solely of Rachel's mind, her life experiences made objects of fascination and titillation for the group. Sebastian is complicit in this game of interrogation, giving his non-verbal approval, not stopping it. I nearly vomited.

Both of these scenes are all the more abhorrent -- can't think of a different word, repellent maybe -- because the writing is really quite spare. No hysterics. No sensational language. Not really a lot of description. Just a telling of how it went down. This is what happened. Just the facts, ma'am.

In any event, this scene and the one that follows it cause Sebastian to have a come to Jesus experience. He gets thoroughly drunk and stays that way for some days. He sees himself reflected in the behavior of his friends and he is sickened. He does not want to be that person. He has a non-religious conversion experience, one he has been edging toward during the entire book, and vows to be the person he knows he can be, throwing himself into improving the place and the lots of the people who depend on him, and trying, in his way, to woo Rachel now. He gives her presents. He gives her a bubble bath. He gives her a puppy, for all that's holy (this made my eyes roll, but it does demonstrate that he listens when she talks, a rare quality). He plans to attach a greenhouse to the house, because Rachel used to dream that her cell was a greenhouse. He continues to approach her sexually, intent on giving her an orgasm.

And you know, that's real nice and all very well and good, but he's still trying to control her. He still wants to be the author of her happiness (instead of her misery), source of all good in her life. I suppose I should calm down and just accept the story, but dammit, it really rubs me the wrong way when people seek happiness outside themselves, or seek to be the other person's reason to be. But that's is putting late 20th century psychology onto a story that takes place in mid-Victorian England, and may not be fair. I'm not sure.

Eventually they do fall in love. Oh, how I wanted to give them a gift certificate for five years of weekly marriage counseling, because they're going to need it. Rachel finally - when Sebastian betrays her once again (the third scene that made me sick) - sees him for the coward that he is, and takes off. Things happen and the wording at the end is that they will have their HEA. Well, probably no more dysfunctional than most marriages, I guess. Neither one of them has a pattern of happiness in marriage to follow, but perhaps their friends the vicar and his wife will model for them, mentor them.

There are some small points that bothered me: how the heck rich is Sebastian anyway? He settles **100,000 pounds a year** on his mother and sister when his father dies. That would be millions of dollars now [an inflation widget says current value would be 110 million pounds]. A year. He must be like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined. We do see that he is careful about finances and that his current wealth is self-made through good investments. Still, jeepers! If I had that kind of money and a crumbling house, I'd use some of the money to fix the damned roof, you know?

Another thing was the murder of Rachel's husband. I can't believe she was found guilty of this when the perp was obvious from their first appearance in the book, and even the why was moderately obvious. Then we learn that someone had known all along who the murderer was, but sat on that knowledge for a decade while an innocent person went to prison. I had a problem with this.

I couldn't figure out the source of Sully's animosity.

But, oh, the writing. This is good writing. I could smell the flowers. Not too descriptive, no poetry, no flights of fancy, no details about her dresses or hair to the point that I fell off my perch. It's … claustrophobic, a bit. Not only the prison description, but this is a very small world, and the author makes us feel it, feel the walls, so close, the judgment of others, so close, the potential for true disaster, so close. He stands so close to her, constantly invading her personal space both physically and mentally/emotionally, whether he's trying to break her or woo her.

It's almost two books, definitely two halves. The first half is just brutal. The second half evolves (devolves?) into what's almost a standard romance as he woos her (still selfishly, until the last scene, selfishly, me-centered).

There are OCR errors or typos in the Kindle book, some missing words, a few wrong words. Nothing that threw me out of the story, but still, sloppy. This was just released in ebook form a couple of years ago, so lazy editing and sloppy. Even for my $4, I expect better nowadays. It ends at the 95% mark with samples from the two other books in the trilogy. I did not see any errors in grammar. Nothing bad happens to the dog, who makes his appearance to show a point and then pretty much disappears.

Well, you could write a book about this book. The whole idea of power, class power, male power, power of the community, for example. I wish I knew whether this was a standard romance for the genre 20 years ago. I rather get the feeling that it was not, since I see people talking about it turning the genre upside down. Perhaps in reference to the male main character's actions? We could talk for days about consent in sexual relationships, whether this was rape or only questionable consent (I say rape). The way the book changes halfway through. Is it a even romance at all (it has a HEA, but …)?

I do want to read the first book in the series, since it has as its hero a vicar and I do love a good vicar hero. All that strength, intelligence, integrity, awareness of self and others, bone-deep decency. Yowsa, catnip! I don't hear people talk much about the third book.

But now I'm going to read a cozy mystery or something I can feel superior to understand more easily to restore my balance and try to get that interrogation scene out of my head.

ETA 5/25/15: I have now read some other reviews of this book and had some Twitter conversations. Please see this excellent post at Something More/My Extensive Reading, and be sure to follow the links, and if you're really interested, read the comments for truly enlightening discussion. Something More:

Also, I may have given the impression that I didn't like the book. While I found the book so uncomfortable to read that I'm resisting the desire/need to read it a second time, I'll go on record as saying that this would definitely be in my list of top 100 best-written fiction I've ever read, and honey, I've read a lot in my seven decades. It is masterful writing. It is amazingly subtle writing. I cannot imagine forgetting the book, and how I felt when I was reading it. I could talk about this book more or less endlessly because there is just that much to it. But I'm going to try to shut myself up. :-) 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Frederica, by Georgette Heyer (second time of asking) (Regency)

OK, so I haven't been blogging because I was/am simply overwhelmed by … stuff … life. (There are those ellipses again.) But I made a commitment to do the TBR Challenge wendythesuperlibrarian.tbr-challenge, and I do try very hard to keep my promises. Which is why I'm generally pretty careful about what I promise.

This month's TBR challenge is Old School romance, a book at least 10 years old. I had a Barbara Cartland freebie (The Saint and the Sinner) that had been languishing on my Kindle for almost 3 years, so I thought that might fill the bill, but honest to Pete, the heroine was so barking stupid and the pace so slow that it was heavy going, and the way the author constantly interrupted the heroine's speech with hyphens, as if she had a terrible asthmatic condition, drove me right up the wall. A review of the book would have been something like "Pandora, orphaned, growl, snap, bite, pansy eyes, room temperature I.Q, snarl, evil aunt." It would not have been pretty.

[insert mental image gif of Taz from Looney Tunes here] [The growling, snapping one, not the one where he's kissing Ms. Taz.]

So, motivated by the ongoing Twitter joke about Restorative Pork Jelly, which I apparently am not going to understand to its hilarious fullness unless I read Heyer's Frederica all the way to the end, I returned to this DNF feeling hopeful, resigned, and slightly sulky [the facial expression for this combination is on the final exam at The Actors Studio]. You all have read the book so I'm not going to do a big plot summary.

Alpha male arrogant marquis, perfect in every possible way except for his notable self-centeredness and cynicism, always has the last word, and is bored (I could relate). Nothing entertains him for long, unless it's twisting the tails of his nasty rotten selfish sisters. Of course, he has a hidden heart of gold. Of course he does, or there would be no book. In comes shirt-tail relative, on the shelf, full of common sense, completely oblivious to thought processes not her own, has managed the family for years but needs help launching her young incredibly beautiful (and stupid, and by the end of the book tiresome) sister. Hero thinks helping heroine will irritate his sisters most entertainingly (to him), so he agrees. Lots of things happen, hero and heroine become friends, and by the end of the book, they're in luv. HEA ahoy.

OK, fine. I like it when there is not instant love/lust. I like it when we can get past page 50 before H/h start setting the sheets on fire. I like a gradually growing relationship. I like a stately pace, really, I do. I don't mind the hero being significantly older than the heroine, as long as she is an adult. I don't mind kids in the story, and these were interesting kids, pretty well done. But there were things about this book that just annoyed the heck out of me. Let me count the ways.

The biggest pain was the abundance of Regency cant/slang. I'm reasonably well-read and can generally figure out things by context, but gosh, this was annoying. Nearly every sentence has slang, some sentences almost nothing but slang. I don't mind informal speech; probably this blog is about as informal as I get, but I am capable of having entire conversations without using slang, and I'll just bet that Regency people were able to, also. I agree that it's irksome when Regency characters use "okay" or say that they were "tasked" to do something, using 21st century speech. But jeepers. This reminded me of the scene in the movie Airplane in which the lady intervenes to interpret a conversation from the Jive.

It strikes me a bit like being around a person who is insecure in their intelligence or education. They have to keep impressing you with their knowledge. They have to be the authority on every darned subject that arises. They correct your pronunciation and your opinions. Not from a desire to help, but because they're terrified that someone in the room is smarter. I figure that you don't have to flaunt it. If you're bright, people notice. You don't have to hit them over the head with it.

I found the excessive use of Regency slang offputting to the point that it soured the whole book for me. It was as if the author had to make sure that I knew that she had done the research. Showed her work. Look, I don't want to see the stitches, okay? I don't want to see this particular type of sausage being made. Anne Perry used to annoy the daylights out of me when she would stop the plot to do four or five pages on how laundry was done in 1888. This was similar, except salted throughout rather than served in slabs. It's a pity, too, because the non-dialogue writing was quite good.

Something else that got on my nerves was this: Hero admires heroine's resourcefulness and strength, so he can't wait to rescue her so that she never needs to be resourceful or strong again. Huh? It's like: I love your beautiful long raven hair, so let's cut it off and dye it red. Add to that some truly unpleasant, one-dimensional characters (those sisters, my lord!), and … well, I just didn't have a good time.

On the other hand, there were scenes that I am sure most people would find amusing. I didn't, but I could see the intent. The main characters are complex. Ms. Heyer shows a good understanding of the vagaries of adolescent behavior. I especially liked the way that the hero's love for the heroine did not cause him to do a 180 degree change: he still is who he always was, warts intact, but has learned to love and to think about someone other than himself. And this is very much the hero's book.

But the dialogue style just was too much for this old philistine to tolerate. I read fiction in order to relax, and that's true now more than ever. The story was nice, but there are nice stories being published every day that are a lot easier to read.

Please note, on this blog we may criticize the book but never the one who reads it. I'm delighted that so many people enjoy this prolific writer's output. One reader rejoices in the pleasure of another reader. But it's like one of my friends who thinks that all opera is just a fat lady screeching. You can play her "Au fond du temple saint" from The Pearl Fishers and she'll think it's a fat woman screeching. We all have our blind spots. So I think this may be a parting of the ways for Ms. Heyer and me. Honestly, Ms. Heyer, it's not you, it's me. Or maybe it is you, I don't know. But we'll be happier apart. Far apart.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is slightly stronger. He was able to walk about 200 feet (about 60 m?) the other day, although it wore him out to do so. He's not quite as short of breath. He can get up out of a chair without help, a great blessing. His kidneys have still not recovered from the contrast given to him 6 weeks ago, and the delay in recovery is worrisome, but he is contented and in no pain. He even made a mild joke today, something he hasn't done in months. The cat Henry is very funny, extremely active, and, well, a handful. Silly me, I thought a 6+ year old cat would spend most of his time sleeping in the sun, not climbing Mt. St. Refrigerator and doing NASCAR in the hallway at 3:00 a.m. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Blog hiatus - again (not a review)

Folks, it's been a heckuva year. In talking the other day with a friend I haven't seen in years, I started listing the losses/changes we've had in our lives in the past three years, and I guess I can see why I'm tapped out mentally, physically, emotionally.

I have reached last straw stage. It's almost funny. We adopted - over the phone and via third party - so I'm very much at fault here - what we thought was going to be a 6 month old stray kitten, healthy. It turned out to be a 1-2 year old feral cat with some treatable health problems. (At least it didn't turn out to be a rabid porcupine.) I do not have the energy to socialize a feral just now. I helped a friend do it some years back and know how much work it is. It's not a matter of letting them find their way, it's much more complex than that if it's to be successful. Cat is still under the bed, 24 hours without water intake or litter use, growls and tries to bite if approached.

This became my last straw and I had a complete meltdown last night. Couldn't think, couldn't reason, couldn't stop crying.

But it's been coming on for awhile. I find that I can't think straight half the time, can't remember things, can't find my way through simple problems. My I.Q has fallen by 80 points. Part of this is sleep deprivation. I'm lucky to sleep three hours a night. Mostly though I'm just so damned tired of being brave all the time. I have no more energy to be cheerful and optimistic when every aspect of my life has imploded.

This is carrying over into my reading. I can't seem to finish a book. I've been re-reading some books but find myself skimming even old favorites. I don't have an opinion about the books I have finished. It's all - oh Jesus I almost said shades of gray. Yikes.

I'm not depressed, not hopeless or helpless, but I am very, very sad, and just worn out. I'm used up. What energy I have needs to go to Mr. Bat, who is ... well, he's dying, but his quality of life is improved now, a bit. He still needs care 24/7 and can't be left alone. Pretty soon I'm going to have to see if someone from palliative care can spell me two hours a week so I can get a haircut or see the dentist.

So once again I'm going on hiatus. From blogging, from Twitter, from a few websites and blogs I still follow. For his sake, I'm walking away. I cannot continue to scatter my limited resources.

Your friendship and support have meant the world to me. You got me through some very dark and scary days. Thank you for listening to me bitch and moan and whine. Thank you for your prayers and positive energy. But I'm just ... tapped.

May your next book be a keeper.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Call Me Saffron, by Talia Surova (contemporary with erotica elements, short novel)

This is for Super Librarian Wendy's TBR challenge Wendy's TBR Challenge which for April is a contemporary. I intended to read and review Sweet Dreams (Colorado Mountain Series Book 2), by Kristen Ashley because I liked the premise (older woman starting over after nasty divorce) but we'll file that book under Not For Me. The hero's attitude and actions sent up way too many red flags for this old nurse who used to work with battered women, which was the primary reason I DNF. The writing was also problematic for me. I know she has a lot of fans and she won't miss me. :-)

So I was casting about for a contemporary that I could afford and not finding much. Waiting lines at the library were too long, and I don't have any unread contemporaries on my Kindle. I'm not a huge fan of contemporaries. Then Cecilia Grant mentioned on Twitter that Call Me Saffron was selling for 99 cents, and while she had not read enough of it to actually recommend it, what she had read she found interesting.

I looked at the blurb and I was hooked for one reason: I had a roommate in college (only for two semesters) who was a grad student working her way through by being a call girl. The setup in this book involves a call girl roommate. Sold.

Here's the premise: Samantha is a young architect, just getting started in her career. She carries with her the burden of family of origin issues (no childhood sexual abuse) with sudden death, trauma, suicide, and emotional neglect. She says she does not do relationships but also does not like one night stands. Her roommate, Jeanine, is about the only person she lets in to her life. Jeanine is working on her grad degree in psych and, oh BTW, is working her way through as a call girl. She's careful and selective. Jeanine, being the nurturing person she is, would like to see Samantha have a real relationship with a man instead of her drawer full of vibrators.

One night Jeanine has an appointment with a well-to-do new client, but she is sick as a dog, and she talks Samantha into taking her place. (Yeah, I know, but go along with it.) Purpose is solely to have sex, hot sex, good sex. No attachments, no dating, no commitment, no emotions involved. Just good sex. Samantha is nervous but allows herself to be talked into it. After all, she has nothing against sex, just relationships.

The client, Dylan, is (of course) gorgeous and intelligent and really somebody special. He's never done this before, turns out he's coming off a very bad divorce, but they have a spectacular night together. Fireworks, unicorns flying over rainbows, earth shifting on its axis, and unexpected emotional closeness as well. It's the emotional closeness that scares the living daylights out of Samantha, and early in the morning she takes off while he's in the bathroom. End of story, she thinks. She'll forget Dylan in a few days. It was nice, but it was just sex, after all. She goes back to her life but she does continue to think about Dylan, the sex, but also the emotional connection.

Six months later, who walks in to the firm where Samantha works but Dylan. He's a successful businessman (not a billionaire, thank you very much) and needs to have some storefronts redesigned. He is astonished to see Samantha, but he clearly hasn't forgotten her, either. They end up having a quickie in an empty office (and how she managed not to get fired over this is absolutely beyond me) and Dylan wants Samantha to be assigned to the project. (Blondie singing "One way or another" going through my head during this part of the book. There's today's earworm for you. No, no, don't thank me. All part of the service.)

You can imagine where it goes from there. A lot of push-pull. Dylan does not want to let her go, knowing there is something special here, or something that could be special. Samantha is not about to give even a tiny corner of her heart to someone who will eventually just leave her. After all, everybody leaves her. Everybody. She edges closer and then runs away, repeatedly, but every time a little closer. They become friends, sort of.

Don't read this book thinking that there is going to be any realism about being a call girl. The ones I've met, both through my roommate and the ones I worked with as a direct or indirect result of their profession carried their own baggage and knew that being beaten up or having some non-consensual aspects to their "date" every now and then were part of the package, no matter how careful or selective they were. I found the portrayal of Jeanine to be too cheerful, too easy. But -- that may be taking this book more seriously than it is meant to be taken. After all, it's a love story, not a documentary.

Once you get past the original premise, it's really a fairly standard love story with the expected HEA. There's a lot of sex in the book - well, of course there is -- but the sex scenes, while detailed, were not clinical. They were as much about emotion as mechanics. One was even mildly amusing.

I liked Samantha and Dylan. They're good people, and like virtually every person in the world, they have their burdens and their hang-ups. They're honest about them, as honest as you can be when you're too close to see well. They care about their work. They care about other people. They've been hurt and struggle not to let their pain rule their lives. Most authors can't do a whole bunch of backstory and explanation in this short a piece, and I found that I wanted more backstory. [ETA: One of the things I liked in this book is how seriously Dylan takes Samantha's work. He respects her talent.] 

Kindle formatting fine. Told in the first person. There may have been one or two objective case pronoun problems but my reading of this was interrupted many times so I can't be certain. There wasn't anything that set my teeth on edge. The characters had chemistry. There are some secondary characters who no doubt will have their own books later on, and they seemed interesting. There was a good bit of character development. There is one short scene in which Dylan is drunk as a skunk (after something has caused him to finally see his ex-wife for what she is) and gets a little bit pushy, but nothing really bad happens and it did not trigger me, although it did make me wonder a bit about him. I know some people would see this mini-scene as evidence of his feeling all masterful and possessive, or simply the result of being drunk after a painful episode, but. Well, there it is. I didn't get the feeling that he would have hurt Samantha. Both Samantha and Dylan make their share of mistakes in building this relationship. You can see that it's not going to be an easy road for them, but it will be worth it.

Although this type of book is not my cup of tea, Call Me Saffron was worth the time I invested in it.

Personal note: Mr. Bat's kidneys took a serious hit from the contrast material used during his procedure last week and we're still dealing with that. We're adjusting meds daily and remaining optimistic that this will all be worth it, at least for a time. Please forgive me for not responding to your comments. He's needing care pretty much 24/7 right now and time is hard to come by.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

First Grave on the Right (Charley Davidson #1), by Darynda Jones (PNR? UF?)

[Trying to get back to normal here. Trying.] Not a big fan of paranormal romance, and I'm not sure if this is PNR or a paranormal with romance elements, or maybe it's urban fantasy with comic aspects, but several people recommended it and it was available for Kindle through the library, so I thought I'd try it. Bit of a gamble, given that Mr. Bat and I are doing our own little dance with Death right now, so far being able to hide behind the potted palms, but my rather dark and snarky sense of humor (what's left of it) has been one of my best lifelong coping mechanisms so why not.

Charley is a Grim Reaper, a person through whom the recently dearly departed are able to see the Light and then go to it. She's like catnip: nearly all the souls are irresistibly attracted to her. Assuming all works as it should, and heaven knows Murphy's Law applies to nearly every situation. Sometimes people get stuck and they want Charley to do something before they'll go to the Light. Sometimes they simply refuse to believe they're dead. She does her best. Bit of a drag, and she sure didn't ask for this, but there it is.

She's also a private investigator, mainly domestic things I gathered. Her father is retired from the police force, and her uncle is still a police officer. She has helped both of them in their murder cases to the point that they rely on her sub rosa. As they said in those old Looney Tunes cartoons, "Well, it's a living." One of her uncle's colleagues is deeply suspicious of her and all her works and all her ways, while at the same time being obviously sexually attracted to her. Ditto a young police officer who has a jealous and protective child ghost following him around.

Recently Charley has been, not troubled exactly, but challenged and intrigued by some vivid erotic dreams featuring the same man whose face she never sees but she gets the full impact of the rest of him, believe me. And we get to hear about it. Kind of a lot. The dreams are nice in their own way, but also disconcerting, and then of course there's the sleep deprivation to deal with. Then the guy starts following her into the shower, and gets in the way of interactions with live humans when she's awake, up against the wall with a bang in the living room. [I used to tend bar, and after Harvey Wallbangers came along, there were drinks like Sloe Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall with a Bang as alcohol moved on from basic Mad Men type Manhattans and Martinis to drinks that taste like pop. But I digress. Again.]

I wasn't very far into the book when I realized that it's primarily a setup for remaining books. Too many characters, too many plotlines. I've spent way too much time here repeatedly typing and deleting a summary of the plot but it's all over the place. Basically we have the murder of three lawyers (cue the standard lawyer jokes, starting with Shakespeare, I kid you not) possibly related to an old murder that was supposedly committed by someone Charley knew briefly who is doing life for it but now he's comatose on life support that's going to be shut off in three days so she has to hunt down his sister to block that, and he may be the guy who is in her dreams, but he also may be something else, and what about this blurry figure that has saved her from death several times, and whose side is her uncle really on, and … oh, I almost forgot, we have human trafficking and a woman Charley tries to help escape an abusive husband. I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Oh, yeah, the ghosts that won't go to the Light. Including an elderly aunt of Charley's who fixes her pretend-coffee every morning. And there's an evil stepmother. Well, it's complicated. There's more plot but as Mick Jagger said in a completely different context, my tongue's getting tired.

As I recall, the Kindle formatting was okay and the grammar wasn't terrible, nothing I made note of anyway. Charley is a smart aleck and wisecracks her way through the book but the jokes are mostly so corny and old I remember them from my childhood. But then, everything old is new to someone, so maybe the recycling is okay. Her constant sarcasm and "kiss my ass" got real old. Enough already. So you're kick-ass and smarter than the average bear and you're your own woman and we got that right away, now just … enough already. Point made and pounded in. She names her body parts. Srsly, her breasts and ovaries have names. Now, you're either going to find that hilarious or you're going to roll your eyes so far back that they get stuck that way, just as your mother told you they would.

There's a good plot buried (whoops) in this mess. The idea is good and the writing, while all over the place and a bit clich├ęd at times, is not terrible. The idea is intriguing. Props for that. Props for a kick-ass woman who owns her sexuality. [I'm coming off a string of Kindle freebies with writing so bad it makes one weep.] At times I felt some echoes of the early Queen Betsy books or the better Stephanie Plum books: that slightly tilted worldview, fast action, heat level.

Sensitive readers should know that there is a rather unexpected very short scene in which rape is threatened in order to intimidate Charley. The reader knows, and Charley kind of knows, that the threat is only for show, well, probably only for show, but there is some rough touching and the threat. It did not bother me, not enough to trigger an unpleasant response from me, but YMMV.

I also had a problem in that Charley's gift supposedly is a Big Dark Secret but then she goes around telling everyone, and it's pretty obvious that she helps her uncle find dead bodies and gives him details of the murder, so … what?

At the end, there's a Big Reveal about the dream lover. I saw it coming a mile away but again, I've read a lot in a lot of different genres and they all get predictable by the time you're my age. The Big Reveal turned me off entirely. It does set up a plotline for Good vs. Evil in subsequent books, if that appeals to you.

Oddly enough, the bits about death (not capitalized) did not bother me or make me feel sad. Most of that part of the plot was written with some sensitivity, with a cheerful matter of factness and even optimism that made me smile. So I wouldn't shy away from the book for that reason, and if you're up for a multi-book series with some near-cliffhangers and multiple plotlines, and you like snarky if slightly corny humor and a reasonable amount of sex, and you like PNR or urban fantasy-lite with murder mystery aspects, this book may be a decent read for you. I did finish it, and after my recent string of DNFs, I guess that's saying something. I have now looked at other reviews, and about 75-80% of them love this book, so there's that.

ETA 4-26-15: This was a 2012 RITA award winner for best first book. So there you go. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Home, sweet home! (completely personal, not a review)

Oh my stars, the sweet and profound peace of being home with the person, animal, or thing you love best.

Mr. Bat had his procedure Monday morning and it did not go as expected but the very experienced and skillful doctor found a different way to accomplish the goal. His heart is now beating in a synchronized rhythm instead of beating all over the place. I notice that his hands are warmer (he's so cold all the time).

He was/is a brave man in a quiet way, reassuring me that he was not afraid, willing to talk about possible bad outcomes, no whining. He makes it very easy to love him and care for his needs.

He is extremely sore in both shoulders because they ended up using a variety of methods to get the pacemaker wires into the heart. Normally this would just be some soreness, but he has serious arthritis in both shoulders -- we were considering shoulder replacement surgeries right before he got sick last year -- and the prolonged positioning of arms back and overhead has him miserable. Of necessity, his arms had to be put into positions they haven't been able to achieve in at least 10 years. He isn't able to take much for pain due to bad kidneys, bad liver, bad heart, bad lungs, so we're making do with a single dose of Tylenol every day and a lot of ice packs. He does not complain, bless him. He has a nice recliner chair that supports his head, neck, and shoulders well, and that's a big help.

Because they had to use blood vessels in both shoulders, he can't raise either arm for 30 days, which is a darned nuisance, since our microwave is over the range/oven, our dish cupboards are high (at 5'10" I have to use a stepstool to get to all but the bottom shelf), and our living room drapes are hard to open and close. He's just crushed that he can't do dishes for the next 30 days due to reaching. :-) No lifting, no reaching, no pushing, no pulling, can't open doors for me (which is killing him), can't drive (he doesn't anymore anyway), no suspenders to hold up his jeans, no nothin' for 30 days.

He remains quite weak but I think once the sedation completely wears off, he's going to look better. His kidneys took quite a hit from the contrast material but seem to be bouncing back to their previous damaged but working state, although his weight is back up about 10 pounds, all fluid. He is short of breath from that. This should resolve. Says so right here. 

Neither one of us has slept at all for several days, and we're planning an afternoon nap today and an early bedtime. Today he started walking with a walker, with me to support him. Up and down the hall, perhaps 200 feet total. He's done it twice this morning and while it wore him out, he tolerated it well otherwise.

I don't know how we could have done this without your support, good thoughts, and prayers. My work friends, my social friends, my family, my internet friends: what a debt I owe you for your kindness and thoughtfulness! I hope you never need repayment, but if you ever do, I stand ready to do whatever you need. Thank you.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A little bit about a lot of things, mostly personal

Forgive me, please, for not responding to your comments. I do read them, and I appreciate your leaving comments. I'm just not up for two-sided conversation these days and most of the time what I write doesn't make sense. But I do appreciate your being here and offering comments as the spirit moves you.

Today we are putting our last pet, our cat, Abby, to sleep. Put down. Euthanized. Whatever term you prefer. She's 15. She has, we think, kitty Alzheimer's and probably an abdominal lymphoma that causes her pain when she eats. She limps on her back legs and right front. It's time. It's been time for awhile, we think, but now she is starting to lose weight and isolates herself quite a bit.

It's odd, this process, the deciding, the knowing ahead of time. Judge, jury, and executioner.

Still, I worked oncology in the bad old days before hospice, when narcotics were denied or given only sparingly for fear of addiction (addiction a problem in a person with days to live???). A close relative begged me to give her an overdose, a memory that will haunt me to the day of my own death. I don't know whether I would have done it, but I did not have access to the necessary drugs. I did what I could to keep her comfortable. It was never enough. So my thoughts and emotions on euthanasia of pets are rather bound up in those experiences. On the whole, it's a kind thing to do. Mr. Bat commented that both of us will be lucky to have such a quiet and comfortable end.

But there are no more pets for Casa Bat. We're too old, and they're too expensive for us now on such a limited income, and honest to God, I have it in me to do this one.last.time for this sweet cat, but I don't think I can do it again.

In other news, I read Longing, by Mary Balogh, which is a reprint of a 1994 (?) book. I still haven't made up my mind about it. I think it probably was exceptional for its time. I haven't decided whether the heroine was stupidly stubborn or incredibly brave. Perhaps a bit of both? I did not like the way the one love interest controlled her with sex and the other with threats of violence against her. I did, however, very much enjoy the complex characters - none of them all good or all bad - and the rich secondary characters, the overall plot, and the setting of Wales. I looked up the song, Longing, on YouTube and found myself, yes, longing for a place. I liked the way the book speaks of home, finding your home, the place you belong. I'm glad I read it but I don't see it as a potential re-read. As is usual with her books, the Kindle formatting wasn't the greatest, but I've seen much worse and for the most part it didn't bother me. There is explicit sex. There is violence, including a sickening episode of violence toward the heroine in which the one love interest is complicit. Still, overall a decent read.

I spent two months of my book budget and actually bought Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who is a recovering alcoholic. It was highly recommended to me and I read it once through at top speed, and am now going back over it slowly. I'm going to try to find a paper copy, because this is a book I may study. For all her appearance (tattoos, muscle shirts, jeans) she is at base a pretty by-the-book Lutheran in her theology. Her understanding of grace fascinates me. She is definitely cranky and I'm not sure I'd want to spend a lot of time with her, but she's a no B.S. person and the love of God does shine through her.

I also read It Happened One Midnight, by Julie Ann Long. This author drives me right up a wall with her errors in grammar and word choice, and her very modern attitudes and dialogue, but I do love her characters. This book had great characters. The author has become a library-only or 99 cent-only buy for me, but the book was helpful in getting me through some tough hours.

Mr. Bat is going to have a procedure on the 6th that is a different kind of pacemaker. Unfortunately, they have to remove the existing one - that shoulder is going to be agonizing for a couple of days and then just very painful for a couple of weeks - and put in a new one with another wire. The goal is to have both sides of his heart beat at the same time - they are not beating at the same time now and he's filling up with fluid, and even his liver is starting to protest now. He has to have contrast material for the procedure, and last time the dye caused his kidneys to fail completely, so we're a little nervous. There are more risks associated with implanting this kind of pacer. It works for about half the patients who have it. For the ones who have success, the results are astonishing, and that's what we're hoping for. A friend was on death's door when he had his done a couple of years ago, and you'd never know now that there's anything wrong with him. So - we have hopes. There's a chance I'll lose him simply due to the procedure, but life is full of risks, and as he says, there's a risk simply in driving down the road to the hospital. He's all for it. I'm quietly terrified. At this point, we're both dreading the day and simultaneously wishing it were today. Waiting is hard. If this does not work, we're pretty much out of treatment options. Well, time passes, whether you want it to or not. 

I've kind of given up on his dietary restrictions for the last few days. His appetite is very limited, and while we know he'll be more comfortable staying fairly close to the restrictions, I'm letting him have anything he wants. Even half-portions of the things that sound good to him are too much food for his tiny appetite, so we're not going over the restrictions by much. He knows after the procedure we'll need to be more compliant again.

I don't know where I am on this Jane from Dear Author/Jen Fredricks situation. On the one hand, hey, good for her for being a successful author. I don't know where she finds the time, working full-time, taking care of a child, is married, has the huge blog. On the other hand, the lack of transparency -- from someone who has pilloried people she thinks lacked transparency -- is bothersome. I can see how she would want to keep it private, especially to begin with, and then as things snowballed, couldn't figure out how to out herself. I feel very sad for some of the folks who write reviews there, since they clearly did not know and some feel blindsided, among other things. I really can see multiple sides to this, I see everyone's point, and I just feel bad for everyone. People have lost trust and are feeling betrayed, and people are feeling the need to defend someone they think is being unjustly attacked. Lots of unhappy people, and this is not a Twitter Kerfuffle of the Day, it's a genuine issue. I feel bad for everyone involved.

Well, now I have to go remove all the cat photo websites from my favorites and block Emergency Kittens for awhile. At least I didn't buy that 2015 cat calendar I was looking at. Unopened cat litter and food will be put in the common area downstairs for some other cat to use. Cat carrier and her blankets will go to the vet with her and they can dispose of them. In exactly 5 hours that brave little heart will stop beating. Damn. I'm sorry: too much change for this old lady in too little time.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Five Stages of Falling in Love, by Rachel Higginson (contemporary)

This is a Kindle 99-center. God knows why I picked it up. I don't care much for contemporaries, and the subject matter should be totally off limits for me right now. (For those of you who just tuned in, my husband is terminally ill.)

First, I have to get this off my chest. I was still a fairly young nurse in oncology when Kubler-Ross's research on grief became a popular subject. Kubler-Ross did not intend that the 5 stages of grief should be carved in stone, or that they were to be lived sequentially. A grieving person steps in and out and back and forth in the stages and at times can be holding all 5 in their head at one time. It is not a sequence, people! Not, not, not! You are not "doing it wrong' if you do not slip from one stage to another, never to see the previous stage again. Okay? Remember this, because people, and even some grief counselors, don't know this and it's maddening to have someone look at you and say, knowingly and superiorly, "Oh, you're in Bargaining." I mean, maddening, claw at the walls maddening! I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I've had to start over with people from square one in their work of grieving in order to get that pushed out of their heads, because they think they're doing it wrong and/or going crazy.

But for the purposes of this pretty good book, we'll let the author go sequentially.

Elizabeth and Grady Carlson had a marriage that exists only in dreams, or Hollywood. They were soul mates. Liz said that when Grady did something, there were fireworks. He called her Light and Life. They had 10 years together, 4 kids in 8 years of marriage. He ran a construction company and built them a custom home, perfect. She was a SAHM. He was an involved father. They complemented one another perfectly. And then Grady got a brain tumor and after 2 years of hell, he died.

He died.

And left her alone to raise 4 kids under the age of 8.


Liz has a sister, Emma, a grad student, who loves her and the kids and helps as much as she can, since her schedule has a little flexibility. But grad school, as we know, is no walk in the park, either. Liz is having trouble getting out of bed, nevermind getting the kids to school on time, planning meals, getting clean clothes into the drawers, mowing the lawn. Her MIL, also a widow, and her BIL, now running the business (into the ground) are grieving so hard that while they love her and worship the kids, they can't help much on a practical level. Her parents live in Florida. Mainly it's Liz and sometimes Emma against the ocean of grief, the mountain of responsibility, the sheer weight of the air and the burden of breathing it in and out.

We see Grady's death in the prologue. In Chapter 1, it's been about 6 months since he died, and Liz is doing her best, trying hard for the sake of the kids, but in pain, so much pain. She sees her older son trying to be adult for her and worries that she relies on him too much. She sees her older daughter starting to act out in school, and the younger daughter still thinks that Daddy is coming back from heaven some day. Liz hates it that the baby will not have any memories of his daddy. And there's the lawn to mow. (Why her friends and neighbors don't pitch in here I don't know. Maybe they did and then after a couple of months figured it was time for her to move on, I don't know. It's astonishing how fast other people think you should get over grief.)

The house next door has been for sale, and now Ben has moved in. Ben is about 35, attorney, a no-drama guy, friendly enough, decent enough to the kids. There's a kind of meet-cute scene that would have been funnier if I hadn't been so worried about Liz.

We watch Liz cope, and fail to cope, and then cope some more, and then dissolve into tears, the helpless kind as grief slips its knife between the ribs, leaving us on our knees, unable to breathe, gagging with the impact of it. We see Ben trying to help out just out of common decency, opening his pool to Liz and kids, later shoveling the snow. Sometimes bringing over a bottle of wine and listening. Sometimes ordering pizza for all when the fridge is empty because Liz couldn't face grocery shopping with 4 little kids in tow. He helps with math homework. He becomes a sounding board. He falls in love with the kids and with Liz.

But it hasn't been that long since Grady died, not even a year, and Liz is appalled and terrified about what she is feeling, what she is doing. She panics. Ben tries to give her space. She advances a bit and then retreats, feeling disloyal, feeling as if she is contemplating adultery. It gets complicated. We wonder if there will be a HEA for Liz and Ben (there is), and we worry about those kids, too.

I couldn't stop reading this book and got through it in one go, with a break for a cup of hot vanilla and a cookie. Might have been two cookies.

Well, clearly, I was up to my ears and drowning in this book from page 1. I'm not sure I can even judge whether it's well-written because I was so emotionally involved. I will say that at no point did I feel manipulated emotionally. The kids are not just plot moppets. They're good kids and they're real. They love their mom. They miss their dad. They're confused. At no point did I want to kick Liz in the butt and tell her to get over it. She was doing the best she could, and who can do more than that? If she'd had her way, she would have died with Grady, or spent the rest of her life in bed, trying to die also, but she loved her kids fiercely.

Kindle formatting fine. Oddly, at about the 2/3 mark, we have a short run of apostrophe plurals, and then no more. Of course, I couldn't help being annoyed that Liz did not get counseling. Money wasn't a concern. Surely she and the kids saw a physician or ARNP during this time for routine things. Why no counseling? There's no violence. No gory medical detail. A little bit of sex, short, not real descriptive, but too much for the clean-mostly tag. Hot kisses. Heaven is mentioned generically as the place where Daddy is, but there's no God talk, for those of you who are sensitive to that. The ending was a little bit abrupt, but then, when Liz was ready to look at the possibilities in her life, there wasn't much more to tell, I guess. This is not Liz and Grady's story, this is not Liz and Ben's story. This is the story of Liz, and how she learned to live again when she did not think she could.

Ben may have been just a touch unrealistically good and kind, but I know to my own certain personal knowledge that there are good and kind men out there, so who is to say.

This is painful reading. It's intense. Or it was for me. It was too intense for me to cry over. For me, it was a book that is going to make it hard to pick up another book right away, certainly won't be fiction at any rate. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates (non-fiction, memoir)

Amazon blurb: [Forgive me, please. Energy, physical, emotional, intellectual, is hard to come by these days, as is time.]

Shakespeare professor and prison volunteer Laura Bates thought she had seen it all. That is, until she decided to teach Shakespeare in a place the bard had never been before — supermax solitary confinement. In this unwelcoming place, surrounded by inmates known as the worst of the worst, is Larry Newton. A convicted murderer with several escape attempts under his belt and a brilliantly agile mind on his shoulders, Larry was trying to break out of prison at the same time Laura was fighting to get her program started behind bars. Thus begins the most unlikely of friendships, one bonded by Shakespeare and lasting years—a friendship that, in the end, would save more than one life.

Shakespeare and I became buddies when I was in 6th grade. I fell obsessively in love with him and memorized huge swaths of the plays and poems, writing parodies/pastiches - I mean, I was in luv. But all things pass, and dating an English major in college pretty well put an end to my obsession when it became clear that literary analysis - or even understanding literary analysis - was never going to be my strong suit. (As you know.) I haven't read any Shakespeare in over 40 years, but I do quote him from time to time, and I remember him as one remembers an old friend not seen in years, fondly, perhaps dimly.

When I saw this title at the library, of course I got myself on the waiting list immediately. It was an interesting read, although I do find myself conflicted. On the one hand, what an amazing thing to do and an amazing outcome. On the other: what exactly is everyone's motivation here? Do they even know, themselves?

Ms. Bates was a young professor of English, teaching kiddie lit to primary ed majors by day, traveling to a prison by evening to teach Shakespeare to inmates called the worst of the worst, men living in windowless concrete cells for months and years. Having been turned down for tenure on the first time of asking, she was motivated at least in part by her need to make tenure with its job security and increased salary (aging parents), and need to publish. So here's a goldmine for publication, right? Still, I have to think that her primary motivation was to provide an outlet for these forgotten people, part perp, part victim, to bring literature she loved to a population some people would say is better forgotten - at best.

While we see reactions from other inmates, the focus of the book is one Larry Newton, already a career criminal in his teen years, sentenced to life in prison at age 17, signing away any chance for appeal or parole in exchange for his life, after the random murder of a college student. Repeated escape attempts and the knifing of a guard put him into solitary, not just solitary, but supermax, for more than 10 years. (Think about what you were doing 10 years ago. Think of how much time has passed, how many birthdays, pizzas, holidays, bottles of wine, dinners with friends, changes in you in 10 years. Now think of 10 years in supermax.) (Nauseating, isn't it?)

Larry's understanding of Shakespeare is quite remarkable, especially given his lack of education and deprived background (mother worked 2 jobs to stay off welfare, stepfather regularly beat the crap out of him). His reading of Shakespeare is transformative for him. His insights and talent for teaching cause other inmates also to view their lives differently, to take at least some responsibility for what they have done, to see that moment of decision, and to try to pass that new insight and knowledge on to young people at risk. What is honor? What is integrity? What is true courage? How do you fight peer pressure? When is revenge justified?

For the reader there are also questions. How is it that someone not yet old enough to buy cigarettes was allowed to actually sign his life away in a plea bargain? How much of our justice system is based on rehabilitation, how much on vengeance? Is educating lifers worth the tax dollars required, and if no tax dollars are directly involved, is it fair to put more burden on the guards and the system to protect the volunteers from these people with a history of random violence? Do "hardened criminals" deserve this education when children of middle income parents can't scrape together enough money to go to college?

The book is well enough written although it could be tighter. The impact of the story is reduced the longer it goes on. No errors in grammar :-) and no Kindle formatting problems. The prose is fairly dry. No flights of fancy here, no poetry, perhaps to better showcase Shakespeare? There are photographs and drawings that came through well enough on my old Kindle. If you've never been in a prison, or visited anyone in a prison, you may find some of the conditions, even some of the photographs, shocking. Sex is mentioned, a little bit, and violence is mentioned, but no graphic detail of either one. The realities of having groups of men warehoused in environments that surely violate the most basic humanitarian standards are shown here. The book is a little self-congratulatory at times.

I could have done without the personal journey of the author, but I think probably many or even most people would want to hear it. Other than trying to figure out her motivation, it didn't interest me particularly. Again, I think it diluted the focus of the book. I do give her proper respect for her achievements, and for facing her fears. At one point she tracks down the site of the murder Larry committed, and she does comment on the senselessness of it. But her focus is on Larry and the program. I do applaud her also for objectively reporting what she saw and experienced, no preaching. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions for the most part.

I enjoyed reading different insights into Shakespeare's tragedies. Some of the things the inmates said, and especially how a person gets sucked into violence, comments on Hamlet and MacBeth, were quite interesting and I'm still thinking about some of them. Need to do a serious Bard re-read. Maybe this coming winter will be a good time for that.

In the end, what did I feel? Mostly I felt sad for the waste. The waste of the lives of the men behind bars, and the waste of the lost lives of the people they killed, and the impact these acts had on their families and friends. Whether victim or perp, your family and friends are never the same, never ever the same. You have to pick your causes and concentrate on a few, and prison reform has never been one of mine, but - damn. How do we make right what can never be made right? Are we fools to even try? How can we not at least try?

Here's some background and excerpts: huffingtonpost shakespeare-saved-my-life-excerpt

And her TED talk: TED talk

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King (mystery)

This is for Wendy the Super Librarian's 2015 TBR Challenge. The March challenge is to catch up on a series. Wendy's Challenge   [Yes, I did two books for this challenge.] 

I couldn't decide which series to catch up on. I am easily bored, and I find that usually after three or four or maybe if I'm lucky five or six books in a series, the writing quality falls off sharply, the author having lost interest or something. It's rare for me to continue a series past the 5th or 6th book. However, I found the Mary Russell series from Laurie R. King to be of unusually high quality, and since I've been a Sherlock nut from a single-digit age, I was in hog heaven.

But Locked Rooms, the eighth book in the series, seemed to me to finish the story in a satisfying way. I tried one or two of the subsequent books and simply could not get into them. Wordy and downright weird. However, I'd heard good word-of-mouth on Dreaming Spies, the twelfth book in the series, so I jumped over four or so books and picked this one up from the library. It's pretty good.

If you have not read the Mary Russell series, this is not the place to start. The books are best read in publication order. Definitely start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the first book. The idea is that Sherlock Holmes, retired from public but not the King's service, has semi-retired in the country to raise bees. Along comes 15-year-old Mary Russell, a half-American, half Cockney Jew heritage smart-ass bluestocking, planning to major in theology, orphaned and living with a careless and sometimes cruel aunt, and they form a very unlikely but still believable partnership. If this idea is anathema to you, then nevermind. Nothing is for everyone.

Here is the Amazon blurb for this book:
After a lengthy case that had the couple traipsing all over India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on their way to California to deal with some family business that Russell has been neglecting for far too long. Along the way, they plan to break up the long voyage with a sojourn in southern Japan.[…]

Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman the Earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer [. …] And then there’s the lithe, surprisingly fluent young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. She agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that Haruki Sato is not who she claims to be.

Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the glorious city of Tokyo to the cavernous library at Oxford, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire.

Russell has grown up some since Locked Rooms. She's softened - slightly - some of the attitudes and habits that irritated me. Well, she is no longer so very young. Their relationship is tender, fond, and respectful - from both sides. They work together here, and with less of the competition and one-upmanship I've seen before. On the other hand, the characters have relished the competition, so far be it from me to say that they can't have it. Still, snotty superiority in an overly-bright and socially isolated and uncomfortable adolescent is almost to be expected. In a woman in her early to middle 20s it's just obnoxious, so I'm glad that the character has grown a bit, or at least learned to stifle some of her oh-so-superior attitudes.

Ms. King has fallen in love with Japan, and who would not? In the 1920s, Japan was emerging from several centuries of self-imposed isolation, and although it is an ancient civilization, was very young and new in the pre-Depression 20th century. Seeing the old ways giving way to some new ways, but retaining the sense of honor and duty, was interesting to me and I thought well-written for a book that is, after all, a mystery novel and not a history text or sociological study. Ms. King writes with some insight and much admiration.

The mystery kept me guessing all the way through, as it did Holmes and Russell. They kept seeing pieces of the truth, but never enough. I was well entertained.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar perfect. Dialogue very good. Enough description to let me know where I was without boring me to death. No sex, really, except for some BDSM books that shock the daylights out of conventionally-raised Russell (very short mention of this, no real descriptions). Not much violence, and not much description of what there is, thank goodness. There is an suicide that we hear about but do not witness. Russell's time in the library at Oxford is described as only a book lover would describe it, and I drooled, and made promises to myself with respect to my next life.

The pace was quite a bit slower than I'm used to in a Russell story. The time on the ship felt a little claustrophobic, which reflects how Russell was seeing it. I loved the Japanese poetry included.

If I weren't so invested - or at least I was in the past - in this series, I probably would not have enjoyed this book as much. I enjoyed seeing Russell grow. As always, I wished there were more Holmes in the book, which is a common complaint about the more recent books. However, it was good enough that I checked out book #11 from the library to read it. Sometimes it's fun to read something, anything, that is written well, with no errors in grammar, no howlers, simply good, skillful writing, regardless of the subject. I was coming off a series of Kindle freebies so bad that every one of them was a DNF, and this, despite its faults, restored my will to read. However, this is far from the best of the Russell novels, and is certainly no place to start.