The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts. This week’s check-in is here!
What are you currently reading?
I’m trying to only have one or two books on the go at the moment, so I’m only actively reading Death at Victoria Dock, the fourth Miss Fisher mystery by Kerry Greenwood. It’s pure comfort-reading for me — they read so fast, and Phryne’s so fun. I’ll probably take a break after this, but we’ll see: I’m trying not to be too prescriptive in my reading, so if I read them all in one fell swoop, well, that’s what I wanted to read and that’s good.
What have you recently finished reading?
I got the new Harwood Spellbook novella by Stephanie Burgis from Netgalley this morning, and proceeded to read it in one fell swoop. It’s cute; I need to write my review properly, and that’ll probably be up soon, so… keep an eye open if you’re interested!
What will you be reading next?
I just picked up Sword of Destiny, by Andrzej Sapkowski, so the chances are high that I’ll jump into that soon. Looks a little longer than the previous book, so maybe I won’t read it all in one fell swoop… but maybe I will, who knows. I didn’t pick up the next book, which I think is the first proper novel in the chronology, as I’m trying to be conservative and only buy books I’d like to read right away. But I can easily pick it up once I feel like reading it!
This is the follow-up to The Abyss Surrounds Us, and it picks up almost where it left off. Just three weeks later, the Minnow is hiding out to give Bao time to forget the ship and leave them. But suddenly, the Minnow spots a hell of a thing: a wild and untrained Reckoner, quickly dubbed a Hellbeast, which attacks them. Suddenly it’s obvious that the Minnow was far from the only ship to buy a Reckoner pup, and the other ships weren’t lucky enough to run across a Reckoner trainer to use to safely train it up. Now it seems like it’s in everyone’s best interests for Cas to work with the pirates and find the Hellbeasts.
In the midst of all this, Cas also has to deal with her relationship with Swift, damaged at the end of the last book by one of Santa Elena’s well-timed bombshells. Throughout the book, Santa Elena plays the two of them against each other, letting them build things up only to shatter them again. The relationship between Cas and Swift is well done, and I especially appreciate that the ambivalence isn’t magically ironed out in a super-happy ending. It’s far from instantaneous love, and though their bond formed quickly, it’s not at all clear that it will last.
I still have some doubts about Cas’ personality/motive flipflops. To some extent, teens are just like that; her moody behaviour does ring true for someone struggling out of adolescence and into adulthood. As an adult reading about her, I cringe at the obviousness of some of her realisations… but I do remember that’s what being a teen was like.
There are some great battle scenes, and the ending comes out about as well as you’d expect, without sugar-coating things; it’s pleasing to see Cas’ family dragged back into it, after she seemed to almost forget about them on board the Minnow. It’s also a pleasing ending for Cas, Swift and the other trainees: not perfect, but just bittersweet enough to seem right. I read this one in almost one big gulp as well, and found it very enjoyable. It’s definitely YA in tone and structure, and it works well for what it is. As an adult reader, I wanted a little more complexity at times, though I appreciated the relationships that don’t just come straight out of a cookie-cutter shape.
I came across this because I was trying out various science podcasts and tried listening to some of the early episodes of This Week in Virology (link goes to the episode about West Nile virus). I was curious to dig in a little more, and lo and behold, this book was on Kindle Unlimited. It discusses the earliest outbreak of West Nile virus in the US, which happened in New York during a hot, dry summer, and was somehow transmitted there from Israel. The podcast actually fleshes out the theory a bit more, while this book focuses on a wider look at the virus, its ecology and implications.
It’s probably a fairly dry read if you’re not interested in emerging infectious diseases, but since I am, I quite enjoyed it; I found it fairly simple, so if you’re just interested in diseases for the sake of it without a professional interest, I think it’s completely understandable for a layperson. It was a little basic for me at times, in fact.
Overall, it was a little scatterbrained somehow; it wandered off into discussing other diseases like malaria, without really tying it into the discussion of West Nile very well. I’d probably recommend the podcast over the book for that reason, but it was still interesting to dig in a bit deeper on some of the points mentioned in the podcast.
I’ve had this on my TBR for a while, but it ended up as the pick for a book club read. So I plunged on in, and… accidentally read it in a day. It follows Cassandra Leung, who has been raised training kaiju Reckoners, big sea monsters that protect ships from pirates. She’s on her first solo mission at the start of the book when a pirate ship attacks, having already weakened their Reckoner; she’s recognised as a trainer by one of the pirates, who drags her on board their ship, the Minnow, to raise their very own illicitly-obtained Reckoner pup.
The pirate captain, Santa Elena, is skilled at pitting people against each other and using their feelings against them, and she quickly puts Cas’ wellbeing under the aegis of one of her protegés, Swift. If Cassandra fails, she dies… and so does Swift. The psychological set-up there is pretty good, and the way they have to work together and the enforced intimacy creates a bond between them which feels pretty real: it’s strong, but it’s confused and ambivalent as well.
The turnaround from Cassandra’s intentions at the beginning of the book to her actions at the end feels… a bit too fast. Sure, there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome there, but it feels like Cassandra’s family have very little hold on her compared to Swift. Part of that is the fact that she’s crossed the point of no return, of course, but that capitulation felt too soon as well. Part of it is the pace of the book — it speeds along, and if you’re not paying close attention you can miss that weeks (perhaps months?) are passing as Bao (the Reckoner pup) grows.
I’m not totally sure how I feel about the ending and set-up for the next book; Swift and Cas’ relationship will be interesting, but I’m not sure about Cas’ motivations. At the same time, I hope it starts where it left off, with Cas sure of herself, because more vacillating now she’s supposed to have decided will be annoying. I’ve picked up the second book, so I guess I’ll see where it goes!
I picked this up because it’s one of the British Library Crime Classics, of course, but also because I remembered one of the others in this series by Bellairs being pretty entertaining. Surfeit of Suspects begins with a bang, literally: dynamite is set off in the buildings of a small struggling joinery company, during a meeting of the directors. Scotland Yard get called in once the presence of dynamite becomes apparent, and Superintendent Littlejohn starts to pick his way through the tangled web of shell companies and marital mishaps to figure out what the motive might be.
It takes quite a long time to actually see the culprit; I never really suspected most of the potentials, though, because their motive didn’t seem clear enough, so surfeit of suspects is a bit of an exaggeration. There were lots of characters who could’ve done it, but you either suspected they didn’t have the guts or it was just too obvious and therefore obviously wrong. It’s not a bad set of thumbnail sketches of characters, though: you can almost smell the fug of old tobacco coming off some of them.
Bellairs was pretty workmanlike, and his writing is satisfying in that way I find specific to these Golden Age mysteries: you know that there’ll be no hanky-panky, you’ll find out whodunnit, and there’ll be a nice little puzzle along the way. The policemen are professionals, and there’ll be no intimidating of witnesses — though there might be (and there is) a clever scene in which the suspects are gathered to flush out the real criminal.
It’s a good thing I rate by enjoyment, rather than originality or any kind of objective measure like that, because I’d feel bad giving this a low score. If the formulaic nature of these Golden Age mysteries bothers you, most of the Crime Classics series won’t be for you; personally, there’s something very comforting about the world being put in its place. It’s all a mirage, of course — there never was a simpler time quite like this — but it’s a satisfying picture postcard of the past all the same.
Aaand straight on to the third book. This introduces two more steadfast characters, Ruth and Jane, along with a new adventure for Phryne featuring chloroform on a train, hypnotism used to pull young girls away from their families to be raped and abused, and a young girl with a strange gap in her memory… It opens on the train, with Phryne waking to the smell of chloroform and desperately shooting a hole in the window to get fresh air in. She ends up taking under her wing a woman who was badly burned on her face by the chloroform, and agreeing to investigate the murder of her mother.
That gets her into all kinds of hot water, and into personal peril as well, with a horrible struggle between Phryne and the murderer at the climax of the book. It also brings her two adopted daughters, a cat, and a new lover. The fond amusement of her household is a joy, and as always she’s competent and (mostly) fearless and in control. When she doesn’t know what to do, she fakes it ’til she makes it.
It’s hard to keep describing these books in different ways, because in many ways they’re the same: it’s the cast of characters that makes them a joy. Bert with his secretish heart of gold; Cec with his love of waifs and strays; Mr Butler, with the right cocktail always on hand; Dot, who couldn’t be more different to Phryne, but adores her all the same…
It’s a little found-family, so of course it pulls on my heartstrings.
Apparently, all I feel like reading at the moment is the Phryne Fisher books, all rereads for me — and that’s fine with me. This one is the second, and it features a couple of mysteries at once: the kidnapping of a young girl called Candida, whose father recently won a large sum of money, and the death of a man whose wife asked her to “do something!” about her son’s vague threat to “remove” his father. Red herrings a-plenty, of course, as Phryne plunges in with her usual ruthless practicality. Gain the respect of the angry son by doing a controlled dive in an aeroplane and then walking out along the plane’s wings? Fine. Tie herself to the back of a car? Yep.
As always, she’s fashionable, well-fed, well… made-love-to, and capable of the most amazing feats of derring-do without batting an eyelid. There’s also an interesting little portrait of a man swept up in something criminal more or less against his will; I feel like his story isn’t wholly plausible (if he objects so much to certain aspects of the job, why did he agree at all?), but I enjoyed him and his protection of Candida nonetheless. Sometimes it’s nice to think that people aren’t all bad, and Mike gives us a chance at that.
One of the odd things that I noticed and really enjoyed this time through is also Phryne’s appreciation of Candida’s teddy bear; there’s a whole paragraph which shows she fully understands the importance of the bear. As someone still very much attached to my childhood teddy (or teddies, in fact, though I did have one main friend, Queen of all the others), I appreciated this bit a lot — and it makes one like Phryne all the more, if you have a bear of your own whose judgement you trust.
Of course, this week was not wonderful: against my will, I have been stripped of my European citizenship. It is really difficult seeing other bloggers rejoicing about it, and really hard to keep those feelings from affecting my interactions with those bloggers. In case you’re wondering, my wife is currently allowed to stay, but she does not have settled status (and no, us being married doesn’t make the tiniest bit of difference at any stage in this process).
Still, the week has had its upsides: this week was the start of the Six Nations! I hope you’re all cheering for Wales with me… You must’ve been, since we pasted Italy! And my wife bought me a present: a triceratops footstool! Now I never thought about it that much, but my preferred reading posture is actually sitting up, with my feet on something to bring my knees closer to my chest. I can credit Matilda (after Robot Wars’ house robot) with some very comfy reading sessions this week.
–WWW Wednesday. In which I mostly discussed The Luck of the Vails and The Last Wish.
Out and about:
–NEAT science: What is R0? A hopefully reassuring explanation of the supposedly terrifying R0 of the novel coronavirus first found in Wuhan, China. This was written at the start of the week, so there have been more scientific papers since that might have changed the landscape, but it’s mostly still relevant.
That’s it for this week. How’s everyone been doing?
The first time I read this, it completely got on my every nerve. I don’t know what prompted me to try it again after that, but I’m glad I did, because this is now my fourth reading or so, and it’s a solid favourite. Phryne is a great character; her faults are all strengths as well, or only faults if you happen to disagree with her views, and that can be a little annoying — how can she be so cool and collected and capable of doing everything?
But it’s awesome to imagine, too; she’s refreshingly competent, in contrast to other female detectives set in that period. I can’t help but compare her to Carola Dunn’s detective: I enjoy Daisy Dalrymple a lot, really, but she gets by on coincidence, guileless charm and shameless bias. Phryne is deliberate in everything she does, even if it’s foolhardy, and clear-eyed about people and what they can be like. Daisy’s probably the easier to get along with, but there’s something delicious about Phryne’s pure determination. She expects she’ll get what she wants, so she does.
This first book introduces the characters who will appear again later (Jack, Cec, Bert, Dot…), and solidly sets the stage for Phryne’s love affairs and dalliances with her passion for Sasha (undeceived by his wiles though she is). She’s asked by a friend of her family to look into why their daughter seems so ill, and they hint that her husband must be poisoning her. It seems like a good break from the tedium of Britain, so Phryne agrees and sails off to the land of her birth, Australia. There she gets embroiled not only in the case she’s gone there for, but also in Bert and Cec’s concern over a girl’s botched abortion, the woes of a young housemaid (Dorothy), and the toils of a drug lord.
Near the end, the mystery is rather neatly turned on its head to give the reader a bit of a shock (but if you’re in on it, you get to watch the hints), and then all’s well at the end — all in all, it’s exactly the comfort-read I needed. Phryne’s too good to be true, but that’s the best part.
The Luck of the Vails is fairly slow, taking its time to build up an atmosphere to set the characters against. Harry Vail is the heir to his family, and he’s just found the most miraculous treasure: a cup called the Luck of the Vails, originally owned by a rather wicked ancestor and said to give the owner luck — whilst putting them in peril of fire, frost and rain. A rather lonely person before, he finds a close friend in his elderly uncle, and begins to go around in society and make friends there as well.
There’s just one slight hitch: an old story about his uncle and the accidental death of a man who happened to be in debt to him. It lies like a shadow across things, colouring Harry’s meeting with a young woman who happens to be the dead man’s daughter…
I was surprised that at every turn the author ducked the obvious next piece of events. Instead of scorning Harry and his uncle, the young woman forgives it all, despite her mother’s whispers of murder — indeed, instead of the characters dodging around it, trying to avoid the revelation, they get it right out in the open. Later, instead of doubting Harry for long, the young woman wrestles with her conscience about it and realises what a stupid mix-up has been made. It’s rather refreshing.
I can’t say too much about the characters or where the plot tends toward without giving it away. I did find myself very curious in the first third or so as to where things would go wrong, but once they did, they did so very obviously. The first third might lull you a little, but the clues are pretty obvious after that, and it’s just a matter of how things come to pass. I did thing the somewhat ambiguous characters were fascinating; there’s genuine affection between a would-be murderer and the victim, and a rather ambivalent character who sounds like a villain but becomes an ally.
It wraps up much as expected, and there’s nothing really stunning about it, but I did find it interesting, and appreciated the avoidance of certain tropes.