Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous RegimentMonstrous Regiment
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780385603409
Series: Discworld #31
Pages: 352
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Doubleday

'Trousers. That's the secret...Put on trousers and the world changes. We walk different. We act different. I see these girls and I think: idiots! Get yourself some trousers!'

Women belong in the kitchen - everyone knows that. Not in jobs, pubs or indeed trousers, and certainly not on the front line.

Polly Perks has to become a boy in a hurry if she wants to find her brother in the army. Cutting off her hair and wearing the trousers is easy. Learning to fart and belch in public and walk like an ape takes more time. And there's a war on. There's always a war on.

Polly and her fellow raw recruits are suddenly in the thick of it. All they have on their side is the most artful sergeant in the army and a vampire with a lust for coffee. Well ...they have the Secret. And it's time to make a stand.


 

Monstrous Regiment has the distinction of being the first Pratchett book I just fell into.  No fighting with the narrative, no initial struggle to follow what was going on.  It all just worked from the start.

In spite of this, something … wasn’t missing so much as, I suppose, this was a different kind of story than I was expecting, based on my one Sam Vimes book so far.  This was much more satiric than my first City Watch, and really, much more blatant a satire than any of the Discworld books I’ve read so far.

Between this book and Carpe Jugulum I learned something about myself: I love good satire about the ‘smaller’ things in life, like politics, academia, and social mores, but I struggle to embrace satire about the ‘big’ things like religion and world politics.  I think there are some things that are too big or too complex, to be effectively satirised, no matter that they make themselves such easy targets with their outsized human fallacies.  Of course I’m not an advocate for war, nor am I an advocate for religion-for-profit, or religion-for-power, but I don’t believe that all, or even most, governments eagerly search out reasons to go to war, nor most followers or seekers of faith and guidance are less than sincere – though I’ve met more than a few of the latter in my life.

Now that I’ve said that, though, I want to give all the credit to Pratchett for what I felt was his attempt to be brutally, objectively, honest about his satire in Monstrous Regiment.  A cynical reader might start reading this book and think ah, here’s the sop to feminism just about every bestselling male author writes anymore.  A cynical reader would be wrong — which delights this cynical reader to no end.  Truely, this is a book about how women can do anything men can do – and do it better. Pratchett’s just honest enough to point out that isn’t always something to be proud of, and he does it in the most extraordinary way.

His bitterness towards organised religion is as apparent, and almost as scathing, here as it was in Carpe Jugulum, but there’s also what feels like a newfound acknowledgment of the power of faith.  Towards the end, it feels as though the author is wrestling with himself through his characters about the importance of belief in something greater than oneself.

This internal debate felt apparent to me not just in matters of faith, but in matters of politics and government.  Polly’s realisation that she must play an ongoing, active part in her country’s fate, that lasting change doesn’t just happen because people want it to, that it’s a process that is forever going forward and backwards, feels like it’s a truth that’s only starting to be considered, rather than a wisdom being imparted to readers.

Then again, what do I know?  Maybe I was just seeing zebras instead of horses, and disappointed by the lack of ginger root and oxen.  What matters is that it’s a damn good story, and a more obviously philosophical one than any other discworld book I’ve read so far.

Heroes

Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and AdventuresHeroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures
by Stephen Fry
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Pages: 462
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Penguin / Michael Joseph

 

Well, with the lockdowns, it took me not quite 6 months to finish this on audio (I can only listen in the car), but I finally did it.  It was, of course, worth every minute, and I’d recommend the audio version to anybody who even wants to like Greek mythology.  Especially those who want to like it, but always struggled with the names, and the who begat whoms, and the who married whoms.  Fry unapologetically tells the listener to ignore all of that – there won’t be a test at the end – and just enjoy the stories.  His narration makes this all the easier, as he’s absolutely brilliant at it, even if the Greeks are speaking with Scottish, English and at one point what I think was a distinctly cockney accent.  In fact, the hint of Monty Python in some of the stories made them all the more enjoyable for me, because they made me chuckle.

I’ve never been all that interested in the Trojan War, but I’m sorely tempted to check out his version with the next book in this ‘series’.

Synchronized Sorcery (Witchcraft Mystery, #11)

Synchronized SorcerySynchronized Sorcery
by Juliet Blackwell
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780593097953
Series: Witchcraft Mystery #11
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Pages: 335
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Strange things are happening in Lily Ivory’s San Francisco. First, she finds a vintage mermaid costume which dates from the 1939 San Francisco’s Treasure Island World’s Fair – and which gives off distinctly peculiar vibrations. Next, she stumbles upon a dead man in the office of her predecessor, and as the community’s new leader, she feels compelled to track down the culprit. Just when Lily thinks things can’t get any stranger, a man appears claiming to be her half-brother, spouting ideas about the mystical prophecy involving San Francisco and their family…

When the dead man is linked to the mysterious mermaid costume, and then yet another victim is found on Treasure Island, Lily uncovers ties between the long-ago World’s fair and the current murders, and begins to wonder whether the killer might be hiding in plain sight. But unless Lily can figure everything out in time, there may be yet another body floating in San Francisco Bay.


 

I don’t know if this just wasn’t one of her best ones, or I just wasn’t feeling it.  Things at work have been pretty damn dismal the last couple of weeks, so it’s entirely possible it was just my sour mood colouring my enjoyment of a normally favorite series.  But there was a little something; some slowness, or lack of focus, to the plot, that kept me from really losing myself in it.  And her familiar was acting like a spoiled brat throughout the book, something that at the best of times I have no patience with.

But still, probably more me than the book.

The Cats Came Back (Magical Cats Mystery, #10)

The Cats Came BackThe Cats Came Back
by Sofie Kelly
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780399584596
Series: Magical Cats Mystery #10
Publication Date: January 1, 2018
Pages: 294
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

 

This is an adorably fun series about two magical cats and a likeable group of humans, but this entry was very average for me, mainly because I anticipated every plot development and who the murderer was well before it’s reasonable to have guessed.

That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say – it’s not a bad read, it just wasn’t as cleverly plotted as others in the series.

Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea

Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest TeaDarjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea
by Jeff Koehler
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781408845929
Publication Date: January 1, 2015
Pages: 291
Genre: History, Non-fiction, Plants / Agriculture
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Set against the backdrop of the looming Himalayas and drenching monsoons, this is the story of how Darjeeling developed its tea industry under Imperial British rule and eventually came to produce the world's finest leaves. But today the industry is battling dropping production ,a violent struggle for independent statehood, labour unrest and the devastating effect of climate change. It's the story, too, of the measures being taken to counter these challenges and save India's most exclusive and iconic brew that are nothing short of radical.

A fascinating portrait of the region and a story rich in intrigue and empire, full of adventurers and romance, it illuminates the historic, arcane and changing world of this celebrated tea.

Winner of the 2016 IACP Award: Literary Food Writing


Finished this last night and it was a solid 4 star read for me.  It might have been 4.5 save for a dull chapter or two on the colonial history between India and Great Britain.  Lots of names, dates, and skirmishes, with back-and-forths between time periods that just made my eyes glaze over.  But at 19 chapters, the book had plenty of chapters to make it up to me, and it mostly did.

Written in a ‘feature article’ style, the author frames the book and its chapters within the tea-picking seasons, called flushes.  Spring flush, second flush, monsoon flush and autumn flush, tying the trajectory Darjeeling tea finds itself into the advancement of the seasons. These ‘preludes’ to the chapters are written in a flowery, evocative style that mostly works, although at times seems to try a tiny bit too hard.

In general terms the book set out what it meant to do: educate me about tea.  As someone whose circulatory system is, at any given time, roughly 75% tea, I was shockingly ignorant about my life’s blood, so the book was destined to succeed.  I knew nothing about CTC vs. orthodox teas (CTC is the mechanical process of cut, tear, curl, while orthodox tea is still almost entirely hand processes) and while I’d heard of Darjeeling tea, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you it’s considered the world’s best tea, or that the vast majority of it is certified organic.  The importance when it’s picked has on its taste is also going to make it easier for me to find my go-to black teas; I’m pretty sure I’m a solid spring-flush kind of girl.

But what the author really succeeded in, was convincing me of the inherent romance surrounding the growing of teas in spite of all the challenges and barriers: the climate changes, labor issues and a fraught political climate in West Bengal. He touches on all of them in some depth, describing the ways owners are tackling the first two issues and trying to survive the fall out of the third, but still, it’s almost impossible not to imagine these tea gardens as romantic.

If nothing else, the book succeeded as a marketing tool: midway through I found myself online ordering 100g of a tea called “Gold Darjeeling” described by the Tao of Tea as a Light Black Tea, with a smooth, buttery, honey texture. Full-bodied brew with pleasant rose, muscatel grape-like aroma.  I’m off two minds about my hopes for this tea: of course I want to like it, but given that you can only buy it by the gram, not so much that it ruins me for all the other black teas out there.  Although, as long as I drink iced tea, I doubt I’m in any real danger of becoming the tea snob.

Death by Committee (Abby McCree Mystery, #1)

Death by CommitteeDeath by Committee
by Alexis Morgan
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781496719539
Series: Abby McCree Mystery #1
Publication Date: January 29, 2019
Pages: 282
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

 

Meh.

Several decades ago, when I started reading cozies, they were actually good; well written and well plotted puzzles that didn’t involve the grimy underbelly of society or graphic violence (the gory kind).

They’re still puzzles that don’t involve the grimy underbelly of society or graphic violence (the gory kind), but somewhere along the way – about a decade ago – publishers turned them into a commodity to be standardised; they created a formula for maximum efficiency and higher returns via quantity.  And they seemed to have completely done away with quality.

This is starting to piss me off, because as much as I enjoy a good vintage cozy/traditional mystery, sometimes I want a good cozy/traditional set in my own time, and I’m dammed if I can find one anymore (and by this, I mean new series, not the good ones that have lasted).

I thought Death by Committee had potential at the beginning, but by the halfway mark it became clear that the author (or her editor) was falling into the standard equation, and not only following formula in plotting, because sometimes there’s no escaping those tropes that work, but following a worn out formula for her characters too.  The current fad seems to be a middle aged woman riding heard on a band of hyperactive seniors.  Sophie Kelly makes this work with her series, but Morgan does not.  The seniors were flat and took advantage of the MC.  The MC’s righteous indignation failed to feel righteous, and the MC’s romantic interest failed to seem like anyone other than someone with a mood disorder.

The highlight of the book was the MC’s mastiff-mix, Zeke.

Editing was subpar, with several dropped time-lines (a memorable one is where the MC and her romantic interest make plans to meet for dinner that night and it never happens – the entire scene just disappeared).

It’s morning here as I write this, and I’m not a morning person, so let me just say this: it wasn’t a bad book.  It just wan’t a good one, either.

Lord of the Far Island

Lord of the Far IslandLord of the Far Island
by Victoria Holt
Rating: ★★
isbn: 0600872114
Publication Date: January 1, 1975
Pages: 284
Genre: Historical, Romance, Suspense
Publisher: Companion Book Club

 

This was written in 1975.

This was a mantra of mine as I read this book.  Generally, I’m unaffected by dated material, or maybe not unaffected, but aware that reading the old stuff means a likelihood of butting up against outdated social mores, prejudices and attitudes, and I try not to let it colour my enjoyment of the story.

I could not do this with Lord of Far Island.  The romantic hero drove me plum crazy.

The book starts off slow, with Part 1 a very verbose retrospective of the MC, Ellen’s, life.  It’s almost entirely telling, rather than showing.  Part 2 gets a lot more interesting, as Ellen has been invited to Kellaway Island, a deliciously gothic island off the coast of Cornwall, complete with castle and all the gothic accessories.  The Kellaway’s are her father’s side of the family and a complete unknown to her.  There she meets the “Lord” of the island, Jago Kellaway, a many times removed cousin and the romantic hero.

Also, an utter prat.

I’ll get to the prat part later, because that’s where my inability to put aside the differences between when this was written and when I read it most strongly come into play.  I also had a hard time with this romance because of the cousin thing – which I can usually shrug off, but it kept coming up, keeping it at the forefront.  Even more creepy, in my estimation, was the fact that he kept referring to her as his ward.  She’s 20 and he’s “not much more than 30”, so everybody’s well beyond the age of consent.  But her father died and he named Jago her guardian until she turned 21, and he constantly introduced her as his ward, and reminded her he was her guardian and the whole thing just started to feel really creepy.

Did I mention Jago was a prat?  Well, he was.  I can’t explain it better than he can so here’s a few quotes:

“She’ll tell your fortune. I know you like having your fortune told. All women do.”

 

“That was a fortunate release, my darling. That’s how you’re going to see it.”

 

“You go too fast.  I have not yet said I will marry you.
This is perverse of you because you know as well as I do that you are going to.”

 

It turns out I don’t like my fictional MC’s being bossed around any more than I like being bossed around myself.

I suspect if I’d read this when I was far younger I’d have enjoyed it more, but there’s been too much water under the bridge, so to speak, for me to find Jago to be anything but a prat.

Murder at the Royal Botanic Garden’s (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

Murder at the Royal Botanic GardensMurder at the Royal Botanic Gardens
by Andrea Penrose
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781496732507
Series: Wrexford & Sloane #5
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a Countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?

Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go . . .


 

I still like this series, but what started out as a string of compelling mysteries is starting to lose its edge.  Blame it on the editor, reader feedback, or change of perspective on the part of the author, but the whole narrative has become entirely too idealistic to be reasonably realistic.  There was an excess of repetitive statements about the family you choose, the power of love, and an awful lot of lamenting over the death of an objectively heinous individual.  All of these ideals are wonderful and worth striving for, but considering the early 1800’s setting, I doubt very much they were worked quite so thoroughly into the mindset of anybody living at the time.  The result was a book that felt entirely too much like a religious genre novel.  Only with murder and (light) swearing.

What I did enjoy was the botanical setting of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and the impetus behind the plot being the race for a game-changing medicinal plant that enhances the effect of cinchona, or quinine, against malaria (plant being entirely fictional).  I really enjoyed the name drops of real historical figures, including Alexander von Humboldt – and was tickled to see the author recommend Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature in the story notes.

The plot was going rather well until I neared the end, when the author suddenly felt the need to work in a slave-trade angle that felt like a bolt from nowhere.  Looking at the story as a whole, it felt like the author needed to wrap up some loose ends from the previous book, needing to kill someone off while keeping the current book’s plot going.  I don’t know, but it just felt super clumsy.

I’ll read a 6th, should it appear, because I really do enjoy the cast of characters, but if this idealistic stuff continues to the point of incredulity, I’ll add this series to the “done for me” list.

The Haunting of America – DNF @ pg. 105

The Haunting of AmericaThe Haunting of America
by Joel Martin, William J. Birnes
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 15, 2009
Pages: 400
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Forge

In the tradition of their Haunting of the Presidents, national bestselling authors Joel Martin and William J. Birnes write The Haunting of America: From The Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini, the only book to tell the story of how paranormal events influenced and sometimes even drove political events. In a narrative retelling of American history that begins with the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century, Martin and Birnes unearth the roots of America's fascination with the ghosts, goblins, and demons that possess our imaginations and nightmares. The authors examine the political history of the United States through the lens of the paranormal and investigate the spiritual events that inspired public policy: channelers and meduims who have advised presidents, UFOs that frightened the nation's military into launching nuclear bomber squadrons toward the Soviet Union, out-of-body experiencers deployed to gather sensitive intelligence on other countries, and even spirits summoned to communicate with living politicians.

The Haunting of America is a thrilling exploration of the often unexpected influences of the paranormal on science, medicine, law, government, the military, psychology, theology, death and dying, spirituality, and pop culture.


 

How do you ruin a book with a name like that?  Wrap a textbook in it.

It might not actually be a bad book if one is looking for an anthropological view of superstition and paranormal belief and their effect on the American political system, but I was just looking for some fun and slightly spooky stories about haunting in America.  You know, what it says on the tin.

Ah well, another one off the TBR; progress is progress.

No Escape Claws (Second Chance Cat Mystery, #6)

No Escape ClawsNo Escape Claws
by Sofie Ryan
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781101991244
Series: Second Chance Cat Mystery #6
Publication Date: January 29, 2019
Pages: 287
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

It’s fall in North Harbor, Maine, where Sarah owns a charming secondhand shop and sells lovingly refurbished items of all kinds. The shop is always bustling–and not just because a quirky team of senior-citizen detectives works out of it and manages to get in even more trouble than Sarah’s rough-and-tumble rescue cat, Elvis.

A cold case heats up when young Mallory Pearson appears at the shop. Mallory’s father is in prison for negligence after her stepmother’s mysterious death, but Mallory believes he is innocent and asks the in-house detectives to take on the case. With Sarah and Elvis lending a paw, the detectives decide to try to give Mallory’s father a second chance of his own.


 

A so-so entry.  Good character, great cat, small-town setting.  Sophie Ryan (who also writes as Sophie Kelly) is a decent writer, too, but the plotting was weak in No Escape Claws.

View Spoiler »

 

Overall, this is an enjoyable cozy series, as current cozies go.  This one just wasn’t one of the strongest.