Secret societies, Twitter terrorists and the summer of 1927

>> Monday, July 30, 2018

Not blogging for such a long time has meant a big backlog of books that I haven't reviewed (I was still reading, just not reviewing!). Many are books that are just ok, where there isn't a lot to say and I'd struggle to do a proper review that wouldn't put people to sleep. But there are also many that I really liked and would love to do a proper review of, but that's just not going to happen for all of them. So while I'll still be doing full-length reviews, particularly of recent reads, you'll be seeing a lot more of these mop-up-type posts in the next few weeks.

TITLE: The Secret History
AUTHOR: Donna Tartt

Richard Papen is a very bright working-class young man who gets accepted to a small private college in New England. Keen to leave his unromantic roots behind, he falls in with a group of privileged and elitist students. We know from the start (like, from page 1) that at some point they will kill one of their number, but we don't know how and why. The book tells the story of how they get to that point, and of what happens next.

I suppose you could describe this about being about entitled, snobbish rich kids living in their own little world, laughing at people who don't have the same privileges and being completely wastes of space, for all that they're objectively clever. And that's actually a fair description. I still found this utterly gripping and basically inhaled this quite massive (650 pages!) story. I cared about every single one of those rotten little shits and found the depiction of their friendship fascinating. I cared about their fates. I loved the setting (the 80s feel so long ago!) and was extremely intrigued by the 'mystery' plot, which is not so much a mystery plot as a plot engine that lets Tartt explore the relationships. The ending is not quite as brilliant as the rest of the book, but on the whole, this was really enjoyable.

By the way, I listened to the audiobook, which, interestingly, was narrated by Tartt herself. Now, she's clearly not a professional audio narrator, and at the beginning I wasn't sure her narration worked, but she grew on me. Her quite idiosyncratic way of speaking ended up suiting the story quite perfectly.


TITLE: About That Night
AUTHOR: Julie James

This is the Twitter Terrorist book :) Kyle Rhodes is a very privileged young man who did something stupid (brought down Twitter in a bit of a drunken tantrum) and got sent to jail, as the authorities decided to make an example of him. Rylan Pierce is an Assistant US Attorney. These two had met before and made an impression on each other, and now they meet again when Kyle becomes a witness in a murder investigation Rylan is involved in.

This was classic Julie James in that it was fun and uncomplicated, with a super competent and sympathetic heroine I was a bit in awe of, and a nice hero who was quite chilled out and easygoing. But it was not classic Julie James in that her books are usually a bit more memorable. This was one I really enjoyed while I was reading it, but proceeded to forget as soon as I finished it. I think it was that the romance was pretty unexciting. There didn't seem to be any conflict or any growing for either to do. A good way to pass the time (I read it in a couple of sittings), but nothing that lingered.


TITLE: One Summer: America, 1927
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

In One Summer, Bill Bryson travels back to the US in 1927 and explores that world. His thesis seems to be that this is the point when the US started its path to superpowerdom, and that what was going on at the time provides a lot of insight into what that path would be like.

There are gangsters, baseball players, movie stars actually speaking on-screen, floods, the start of television, and most of all, pilots. The summer of 1927 was when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. This makes up a big chunk of the focus of the book, and strands related to that event pop up even when Bryson is exploring other stories.

One Summer was great fun to read. I'm not sure the unifying theme worked that well, but I didn't even mind that it felt more like a collection of interesting things related to 1927. I just love Bryson's voice (Road to Little Dribbling notwithstanding -let's just hope that one was an aberration), and when he's at the top of his game, I'm happy to listen to him going on about pretty much anything. Well, he is at the top of his game here and the topics are fascinating, so even better.



The Fireman, by Joe Hill

>> Saturday, July 28, 2018

TITLE: The Fireman
AUTHOR: Joe Hill

PAGES: 768
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Near future, US
TYPE: Thriller / Horror

Nobody knew where the virus came from.

FOX News said it had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s.

MSNBC said sources indicated it might've been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by culty Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation.

CNN reported both sides.

While every TV station debated the cause, the world burnt.

Pregnant school nurse, HARPER GRAYSON, had seen lots of people burn on TV, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.

With the epic scope of THE PASSAGE and the emotional impact of THE ROAD, this is one woman's story of survival at the end of the world.
I love a good horror novel, but I'm picky. This one by Joe Hill sounded like exactly my sort of thing (or one of them; I love creepy paranormal as well). Apocalyptic horror? Sign me up!

We meet nurse Harper Grayson just as the world has started to disintegrate. A disease called dragonscale is spreading quickly. Those infected first get ash-like patterns on their skins, almost like tattoos. At first they're fine, but at some point, they all start to smoke and smolder and they ultimately burst into flames. And dragonscale seems more unstoppable every day.

Harper's husband, Jakob, decides that if they get dragonscale, it will be best to just end it, rather than wait to burn and die in pain. Harper, numb by the horrors she's seeing, is sort of willing to go along. But then she discovers she's pregnant and has dragonscale almost at the same time, and that doesn't seem like such a great idea. She becomes determined to stay alive long enough to give birth to her child. After all, there are rumours that dragonscale is not transmitted in childbirth. But Jakob is not willing to diverge from his plan, so Harper is soon on the run, helped by a mysterious figure called The Fireman, who seems to have a special relationship with the dragonscale.

Well, on the plus side, the writing is vivid and propels you forward, and the descriptions of how the world would react to something like dragonscale feels uncomfortably true. And I liked Harper. She's someone whose role model is basically Mary Poppins, and I like to see some variety in the all the different ways in which women can be portrayed as strong.

However, although the book has a great setup and lots of promise, I had quite a lot of issues with the execution.

My main problem is that Hill didn't seem to know what kind of book he wanted to write. Was it going to be about resisting a cult? Was it going to be about escaping from the Cremation Crews? As soon as it seemed that the book was taking a particular direction, it was as if Hill got bored of it, and just got rid of it with a gleeful bloodbath, changing tack completely. As a result, the book feels too long, as if it's a first draft, where the author was just trying out different things.

I also felt the dialogue was not great, particularly in how Hill wrote Harper. For instance, there are a couple of instances where sweetness and light Harper gets a bit raunchy and crude, which, I get it, is actually meant to be a contrast with her usual MO. But she sounded nothing like a woman. And to be clear, I'm not saying women can't be crude (I'd be an absolute hypocrite if I did), it's just that her crudeness felt very male-gazey, such as when she said something about someone wanting to plunge balls-deep into a hot piece of ass. That sounded really off to me.

I was also pretty meh about the ending. I don't want to say too much about it, but I got the feeling it was supposed to be surprising, but it really wasn't.

So, not a great one, but not one that puts me off Hill completely. I might try another by him. I hear his latest collection of short stories is actually pretty good, and I get the feeling he could be good at that format.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I actually started by listening to the audiobook, but I returned it after a while and bought the ebook. Not great, particularly the supposedly British Fireman character, who (kind of appropriately, in a weird way) sounded like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, rather than the Northerner he was supposed to be.


Bed of Flowers, by Erin Satie

>> Thursday, July 26, 2018

TITLE: Bed of Flowers
AUTHOR: Erin Satie

PAGES: 305
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Sweetness and Light #1

Bonny Reed is beautiful, inside and out.

A loyal friend and loving daughter, she’s newly engaged to her small town’s most eligible bachelor. She’s happy for herself—but mostly for her family, who need the security her marriage will bring.

An old enemy shatters her illusions.

First Baron Loel cost Bonny’s family her fortune. Now he’s insisting that her fiancé has hidden flaws, secrets so dark that—if she believed him—she’d have to call off the wedding.

How will she choose?

When the truth comes out, Bonny will have to choose between doing what’s right and what’s easy. Between her family and her best friend. And hardest of all—between her honor and the love of a man who everyone wants her to hate.
Bonnie Reed's family's fortunes changed the day a fire destroyed the warehouses round her small town's port. Her father owned several of them, and even though they didn't end up in the streets, it's been a steep comedown. Whereas they were one of the richest families in town, they are now living in what can best be described as genteel poverty. Before the fire, Bonnie's prospects were very high. She's beautiful, and with a nice dowry she would have expected a great marriage. These days, she's been half-heartedly courted by a rich man in town, who clearly can't quite bring himself to propose to someone so clearly beneath him.

The fire changed the lives of many people in town, and that includes that of the man who caused it. Until that day, Orson, now Baron Loel, didn't have a care in the world. He was the spoiled son of the local nobility. And then a simple stumble when mooring his yacht overturned a lamp and whoosh! That was it. A lot of the family fortune went in trying to compensate the town's losses, and his parents blamed him so pointedly that they tied up the estate in such a way that he could take no advantage of it when he inherited. He still lives there, and has found a way to make a living while fulfilling the terms of his parents' will (he has become a sort of orchid grower/dealer, which is a huge part of the book -see below), but it's a difficult life.

As the book starts, Bonnie's suitor has finally decided to propose (think Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth, but if you were to imagine Darcy as cruel and careless). She agrees, but then circumstances lead her to come into contact with Loel more often (he's a bit of a pariah, so she's barely seen him since the fire), and he ends up sharing some very worrying information about what her fiancé gets up to in his spare time. And now Bonnie needs to decide whether restoring her family's social position is worth her unhappiness.

I enjoyed this one very much. Satie's writing is beautiful. It's vivid and evocative without veering into purple territory. In her first couple of books I thought that, for all its beauty, the writing was maybe a bit self-conscious and on-the-nose, but that's resolved itself with experience. No such problem with this book.

I also like that Satie creates characters and relationships that feel fresh and are never clichéd. In this particular book, I was particularly taken with Bonnie's complex relationship with her family. It's clear that her parents love her, but at the same time, they don't take well her doubts about her fiancé. Their fall in social position has taken a toll on them, and when certain of Bonnie's actions threaten to have an even more negative impact on them, they're not particularly forgiving, in a way that I must say felt understandable.

I was also quite intrigued by Bonnie's friends (Bed of Flowers starts a series, and I expect the next books will be about them) and enjoyed their relationships. They've got super interesting backstories (e.g. one seems to be inspired by Sara Forbes Bonetta), and I'm looking forward to their books.

The other thing I loved was all the orchid stuff. This is set at the time of what's known as the Orchidelirium, a sort of English version of the Tulip Mania. People were going gaga over orchids, and new or particularly exotic varieties sold for huge amounts. There was a lot of money to be made in dealing in them, but also a lot of risk, because very little was known about how to grow them and keep them alive, so keeping new ones from dying on the way back to England was almost as hard as finding them. Anyway, in addition to the topic being fascinating, Loel's venture importing, nurturing and selling orchids plays a big role in the relationship between him and Bonnie, both in setting up the circumstances in which it gets started and in developing it. And by the way, in one of those lovely coincidences that life sometimes throws your way, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast had an episode about the Orchidelirium at the same time I was reading the book. Worth a listen.

So, lots of good stuff here. Unfortunately, what didn't really work for me that well was the romance itself. I just didn't feel the connection between Bonnie and Loel. My reaction to their realisation that they were in love was that I just didn't feel they knew each other well enough for that. It's not that there was something wrong with the concept of these two being together, it's just that it all felt a bit uninteresting compared to the other stuff going on.

I also had some issues with the way Satie set up a conflict between them. There's a point when Bonnie does something that Loel gets extremely angry about, and I genuinely did not get why he a) would think that of her and not believe her (really, what she explained was a lot more believable than what he assumed about her actions), and b) why he'd be so incandescently angry about it anyway.

You'd think that since this is a romance novel the main romance not quite working would ruin it, but for some reason, that just wasn't the case here. Plenty other stuff that I enjoyed, so I didn't mind not getting excited about what's supposed to be the main course. Oh well.

To finish, I'm usually annoyed about those "several years later" epilogues (oh, look how many adorable kids they have!), but this was one book where I did genuinely want to see how the main characters would get on, not so much in their relationship, but how they'd get on in a more material sense. I guess we might catch glimpses of how they're doing in future books, and I will look forward to that.



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