Thursday, September 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Someone Else's Skin (DI Marnie Rome, #1) by Sarah Hilary

Someone Else’s Skin is the first book in Sarah Hilary’s Detective Inspector Marnie Rome series. The first book is a pretty standard British police procedural mystery but has some notable and unique aspects. (I just realized that most British police procedurals I read are murder mysteries but there is no dead body in Someone Else’s Skin—only other several serious crimes: attempted murder, kidnapping, sexual battery, wounding and violent sexual domestic abuse.) The primary way in which the Marnie Rome books are different from most police procedurals is Marnie herself. When she was in her early twenties and working as a police officer, Marnie’s mother and father were murdered violently by an adopted son who they had fostered soon after Marnie left home at age 18. The fact that her job is to solve major crimes when she herself is a victim of one is a key difference between the DI Marnie Rome series and others in the genre.


Another strength of this first Marnie Rome book are the secondary characters. For example, her sergeant is Noah Jake, an openly gay, biracial (Jamaican-British) police detective with a handsome, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend. Her boss is Tim Welland, who was the supervising officer for Marnie’s parents’ crime scene. Marnie’s potential love interest is Ed Belloc, a good-looking guy who works in Domestic Violence Victim Support Services. Unusually, the perpetrator in Someone Else’s Skin is also a highlight of the book (typically I usually find myself less interested in the criminals in the police procedurals I read). 


The plot of Someone Else’s Skin is suspenseful. Both Marnie and Noah get placed in extremely dangerous situations and since it’s the first book, it seemed possible that one or both of them might not make it through to the end of the story without harm.


Overall, I found Someone Else’s Skin quite a strong entry in the British police crime procedural genre: I like that the main character is a female detective and enjoyed the characterization of DS Noah Jake. I look forward to reading the other books in the series. Soon!

Title: Someone Else's Skin.
Author: 
Sarah Hilary.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 423 pages.
Publisher: Headline Books.
Date Published: August 28, 2014.
Date Read: January 4, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A-.

Friday, September 10, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Tastes Like Fear (DI Marnie Rome, #3) by Sarah Hilary

Tastes Like Fear is the third book in the Detective Inspector Marnie Rome series by Sarah Hilary. This series should be right up my alley: it’s a British police procedural featuring a female protagonist set in an urban landscape with a strong, diverse cast of secondary/supporting characters. But Hilary tends to focus the central questions of the books in the psychology of the characters, not only the perpetrators but also in the investigators. It’s not that I’m opposed to psychological thrillers in general. Other authors I often read and enjoy like Louise Penny, Karin Slaughter and of course Tana French often include this aspect in their books but to me there’s something different and off-putting in the way Hilary’s depicts murderous psychoses and emotional trauma from The ways these other authors do it. I think one aspect may be that they leaven it with either humor/genuine goodness (Penny), romance (Slaughter) and incredibly smooth prose (French) while it seems to play a larger role in Hilary’s books. After reading the first and second books, Someone Else's Skin and No Other Darkness, I was somewhat ambivalent about continuing to read the series due to the way the author deploys psychology and my annoyance at her penchant of putting her female protagonist in mortal danger.

Marnie Rome is a police detective who left home as a rebellious teenager and had the horrendous experience of being called to her childhood neighborhood while on duty to discover the teenage boy her parents had adopted a few years after she left home had brutally murdered them with a kitchen knife. Her primary partner and the series' main supporting character is Detective Sargent Noah Jake, a handsome British-Jamaican, openly gay multiracial cop who many of his police colleagues think is being helped by what they call “positive discrimination” in Britain (affirmative action in the USA). Marnie has had experience being a member of an historically excluded group in the London Police and uses her position and authority to train/nudge Noah to be the best copper he can be and ignore the racist flak he gets from fellow officers and the public alike.

All that being said, I decided to dip back into the Marnie Rome series with Tastes Like Fear and I’m glad that I did. DS Jake plays a larger role in Book 3 than he did in Book 1 and since I would read an entire series built around him (Hint! Hint!) this was a plus for me. Another interesting feature of the series is that the central mystery is very different in each of the first three book so far. This time it’s about missing/runaway teenage girls who are showing up as corpses. So we spend a lot of time in the minds of messed-up teenage girls in Tastes Like Fear, but surprisingly it wasn’t as off-putting as one may have thought. Hilary also sets the story in an area of London where urban blight and runaway construction/gentrification are battling with another, which is basically another front in the ongoing class war in Britain. This is subtly well-done and another interesting part of the book.

Overall, I would say that I am glad I changed my mind and continued the Marnie Rome series by reading Tastes Like Fear. I do intend to finish the entire 6-book series at some point, with the hope that DS Jake’s role gets bigger in later entries. (I also wouldn’t be opposed to both Noah’s and Marnie’s boyfriends having a larger part in the story.) The two ongoing plot threads that are not resolved invoke siblings(Noah’s brother is trying to escape a sketchy/gang-related youth and Marnie’s murderous half-brother is now old enough for adult prison) and I am curious to see how both stories develop further.

Title: Tastes Like Fear.
Author: 
Sarah Hilary.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 416 pages.
Publisher: Headline Books.
Date Published: April 7, 2016.
Date Read: February 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).
PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller is another one of her amazing novelizations of the life of a famous (or infamous) character from Greek mythology. I had previously read The Song of Achilles, a heart-wrenching book about the most famous tragic gay love story of antiquity, that of Achilles and Patroclus (told mostly from the perspective of the latter). While The Song of Achilles can be described as a gay male equivalent of a “bodice ripper” (“jockstrap stretcher”?), featuring one of the most celebrated heroes of all time, Circe is about a less well-known and decidedly less well-regarded antihero. The genius of Miller is that she uses the protagonists of her books and their interactions with the Greek pantheon to depict mythological stories and legends as real events and occasions in the lives of her characters. Because her research is impeccable and her knowledge of the mythology is so vast, Miller is able to weave stories that readers have heard of together with others that we haven’t into a seamless, compelling whole that is educational, emotive and engaging.

All I remember knowing about Circe before reading Circe is that she was a sorceress (i.e. witch!) who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs after they landed on her island when they were sailing back from the Trojan War. She and Odysseus “hooked up” and this delayed his return to his long-suffering wife Penelope by several years. While all of that is known, Miller starts her story of Circe’s immortal life much earlier, informing us of her subject’s relationships to the more central gods of Greek mythology. Circe was the daughter of Helios, the Titan god of the Sun. The Titans, you may or may not remember, were the primordial gods who existed before the Olympians. They were led by Cronus (who had taken over by killing his father Uranus) and thus tried mightily to prevent the same thing happening to him by swallowing and imprisoning all the children he had with his fellow Titan, Rhea. However Rhea helped her favored son Zeus escape this fate and so it did come to pass that eventually Cronus’s son did usurp his father to become the King of the Gods and ruler of Olympus after the Olympians won a Great War with the Titans. The point of this background is to put Circe’s life in context; she was the daughter of a defeated Titan (Helios) and a sea nymph (Perses) who was always in the shadow of the now-ascendant Olympians and also her (evil) elder twin siblings Aeëtes and Pasiphaë. So although Circe grew up in godly dominions and in proximity to divinity she was only a demigod herself and even her godhood was of a secondary nature, since it was from a Titan, not an Olympian. In other words she was always  perceived (and perceived herself) as an outsider.

Early in her life, Circe discovers that she has powerful magical abilities through the use of herbs and incantations. Unfortunately, at a young age she uses these powers to break an important rule, by elevating a mere mortal she has a crush on to become a god (a status higher than she herself has) and turning a rival of hers into a horrible monster. When her bad behavior was revealed, an agreement was reached between Helios and Zeus to punish her by exiling her to a private, remote (but verdant) island for the rest of her very long life. 

Miller provides us context and rationale for Circe’s actions, so the reader begins to understand why she does some of the objectively horrible things she does. We also learn more about her siblings, and they are most definitely even worse. Her sister Pasiphaë births the monstrous Minotaur of Crete (after having sex with her husband's prized bull and gets a dispensation from their father to let Circe be released from her island exile to act as her sister’s midwife). Her brother Aeëtes committed murderous atrocity after murderous  atrocity to protect the Golden Fleece well before Jason and the Argonauts show up. I don’t think Miller excuses Circe’s bad actions, exactly, but we definitely learn Circe’s side of the story, especially in the most well-known tale involving her, namely that of her relationship with Odysseus and their son Telegonus.

Overall, the experience of reading Miller’s Circe is highly recommended for anyone who ever spent time in a library researching the various lives and family trees of the Greek and Roman gods. It’s an engrossing and enjoyable way to experience mythology. 

Ultimately, if you have already read The Song of Achilles then Circe compares somewhat unfavorably with that masterpiece, but there’s very few books that don’t. (If you haven’t read The Song of Achilles yet, what are you waiting for, a sign from the gods? Get to it!) That said, Miller does as good a job as one can do with an antihero like Circe as protagonist. I can’t wait to read whatever story/tale/myth she decides to tell an entire book about next!

Title: Circe
Author: Madeline Miller.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 433 pages.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company.
Date Published: April 04, 2018.
Date Read: July 29, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: After The Fire (Maeve Kerrigan, #6) by Jane Casey

After The Fire by Jane Casey is the sixth book in the British police procedural series featuring Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan. Kerrigan and her immediate supervisor Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are part of the Major Crimes Squad of the London Metropolitan Police. In After The Fire the major crime is a suspicious fire on the top two floors of a public housing, high-rise apartment complex (called an “estate”) which leads to the discovery of three corpses, two charred to a crisp and one battered from a fall from a great height.

As with most good mysteries, the question of whodunnit is just one of many questions posed to the reader. Some of the more compelling aspects of the story being told in After The Fire come from the continuation of the ongoing developments in Maeve Kerrigan’s life, whose significance is heightened by the fact this is the sixth book in the series. Due to events in the previous book (The Kill), Maeve’s love life is a bit rocky and she’s dealing with ongoing potential threats to her personal safety. Her relationship with DI Josh Derwent, her immediate superior officer and unorthodox investigation partner undergoes some surprising (but welcome) maturation in this edition of the series. Her boss is still problematic, and the tensions of being an attractive woman in a predominantly male profession is still an important part of the day-to-day activity of this police procedural series.

The structure of After The Fire is different from previous entries in the series, since it involves a deadly arson where there are numerous victims (in addition to the dead ones several other residents had their homes destroyed) some of whom become suspects as we learn more about the unsavory nature of their sources of income and why they were living in a run-down housing estate even though it’s clear they had other financial options. In most police procedurals the limited number of suspects is key and here the problem is the converse.

Overall, After The Fire is a satisfying genre book; I believe all of the central mysteries in the plot are resolved. One does find out who caused the fire and why, as well as what and whom were responsible for all the dead bodies discovered at the scene. We even get a surprising resolution of Maeve’s ongoing personal safety concern. The primary unsolved story thread involve her personal and professional lives, but by their very nature that’s not something that one would expect to remain static in a long-running series anyway. I look forward to reading more about Maeve and her attempt to obtain satisfaction in one or more of these areas in future books.


Title: After The Fire (Maeve Kerrigan, #6).
Author: Jane Casey.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 317 pages.
Publisher: Minotaur Books.
Date Published: May 3, 2016.
Date Read: August 14, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller

Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller is an unusual book for me to read and review. It is one of the few nonfiction books I have read this year and it is one of the very rare books I have ever read as an audiobook. Typically, I only access audiobooks when on vacation with my husband (since he has the Audible subscription) and this is how I read Why Fish Don't Exist. We had both heard the author discussing her book on multiple NPR shows (e.g., Radiolab, This American Life) and so when we embarked on a road trip to visit three national parks this summer (Bryce, Zion and Death Valley) Why Fish Don't Exist was on top of the list to be downloaded for the drive. It turns out to be a delightful way to experience the book; it’s read by the author herself, and being a radio person her delivery is engaging and the prose is memorable. Plus, in audio format the book only takes less than 6 hours to complete (shorter than it takes to drive from Los Angeles to Utah).

Why Fish Don't Exist is a fascinating and compelling story about the first president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, who was also one of the most prominent and prolific icthyologists (fish scientists) of his day, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was also an unrepentant and fervent eugenicist and used his fame and status to promote this vile and dehumanizing ideology in the United States and around the world. Miller includes information in the book that intimates that Jordan may have been responsible for the still-unsolved mysterious death of Mrs. Leland Stanford. One of the clear beneficiaries of the untimeliness of her suspicious demise (by poison, while on vacation on Hawaii) was Jordan himself.

Why Fish Don't Exist is an exemplar of the maxim “truth is stranger than fiction.” Miller’s book is part biography of a great man of science, part autobiographical personal memoir and part philosophical musing on the nature of science. Miller injects pathos into the book by recounting how her scientist-father’s atheistic views, that human (and all other) life is ultimately immaterial to the fate of the Universe, that God doesn’t exist and that nothing happens after people die, had a measurably deleterious impact on a young Lulu Miller’s mental health. The search for a way to understand or refute her father’s nihilist view of life fuels her book’s examination of Jordan’s life and its focus on his obsessive project to identify and classify as many new varieties of fish as he could. Both Jordan and Miller are trying to produce order out of the chaos of the natural world.

Miller is incredibly lucky in her choice of subject. Jordan’s life contains an astonishing number of extraordinary events, often catastrophic, which he suffers but shrugs off. This includes deaths of multiple family members at tender ages (two of his children, his older brother and his first wife), the complete destruction of his collection of rare and unique fish specimens obtained through painstaking worldwide travel by train and ship by natural disasters (twice!) and living through the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1905. The highs and lows of Jordan’s life are cinematic in scope and scale.

Miller is also incredibly effective at using intimate details of her own life to increase the emotional connection between her book and the reader. She describes her own suicide attempt as a teenager to emphasize the importance of her teleological search for life’s meaning. Later in the book she provides details of how her admission of a casual same-sex indiscretion led to the collapse of her first significant romantic (heterosexual) relationship and a subsequent professional downward spiral that delayed the completion of the book. It was during this period that she discovered the dark facets of Jordan’s supposedly shiny jewel of a life: the full-throated support for involuntary sterilization fueled by his eugenicist and supremacist instincts, the suspicious behavior to interfere with the official investigation into Mrs. Stanford’s death and the unseemly romantic entanglement with an Indiana University student when he was the youngest University President in America.

Overall, Why Fish Don't Exist is an informative and engaging book about the complications and contradictions of life itself. Like all good art, it allows the reader to interact with it in different ways, and different readers will be drawn to different aspects, with most people being affected in long-lasting ways. Highly recommended!

Title: Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life.
Author: Lulu Miller.
Format: Audiobook.
Length: 4 hours 55 minutes or 225 pages.
Publisher: Simon and Schuster.
Date Published: April 14, 2020.
Date Read: July 29, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.00/4.0).

PLOT: A.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A+.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has quite a lot going for it. The book jacket has blurbs from giants in science fiction and fantasy like Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin and Blake Crouch. Barack Obama included the book in his list of summer 2021 reads. Weir is most well-known for his blockbuster debut novel The Martian which became a blockbuster film directed by Oscar-winner Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. His “thing” is realistically depicting hands-on science and engineering ingenuity to survive realistic, life-threatening situations. The premise behind Project Hail Mary is eye-catching (if surprisingly far-fetched for an author whose previous work has leaned so heavily on verisimilitude as a selling point). A newly discovered bacteria called astrophage somehow is causing the luminosity of the Sun to diminish at a slow but exponentially increasing rate which will lead to the extinction of all life on Earth within a few decades. Project Hail Mary is humanity’s attempt to investigate and fix the problem, but when the book begins all the reader knows is that something has gone horribly wrong and the main character has woken up alone in a spaceship (named Hail Mary) after spending years of interstellar travel at relativistic speeds in an induced coma leaving him with no memory of where he is or why. Unsurprisingly, Ryan Gosling is attached to a possible film adapation of Project Hail Mary by the producers and screenwriter of The Martian. (No word yet whether director Ridley Scott is interested in helming his second Weir adaptation.)

The structure of the story in Project Hail Mary is brilliant; it is told in two linear time-frames near simultaneously. The reader slowly learns that the main character’s name is Ryland Grace and that he was a junior high school science teacher. Because of Grace’s amnesia, the reader gets little drips of Grace’s life prior to the Hail Mary while he’s adjusting to the situation he wakes up to. Slowly he remembers that he’s there to try to save the world by discovering why Tau Ceti is the only local star near ours which has not experienced a reduction in luminosity in recent decades. Project Hail Mary was intended to be a one-way scientific mission with three scientific experts to investigate the phenomenon and discover a solution for the astrophage infestation harming the Sun and send it in four quadruple redundant “information life boats” back to Earth. So the two timelines of the story follow Grace trying to complete his mission in the future and remembering the past when he was involved in the preparation and design of the Hail Mary, along with the amazingly dictatorial leader of Project Hail Mary Eva Stratt (who would be perfectly cast by Emily Blunt or Tilda Swinton in the inevitable film adaptation). Ryland Grace is supposed to be white, American, under 40 and average looking. I had someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tobey Maguire or Topher Grace is who came to mind as I was reading. Ryan Gosling would probably be great.

There’s an incredible and incredibly surprising development about one-third of the way into Project Hail Mary that I don’t want to spoil in this review. Suffice it to say that it moves the plot in a whole different direction and switches the book from scientific thriller to something else in addition. Without revealing anything more I can say that this development is an amazingly positive aspect of the story. It provides another example for Weir to show he is able to deploy his scientific chops to describe a scientifically complicated scenario and raises the emotional stakes of the story.

The reader learns some shocking things about Ryland as the earlier time frame unspools in his memory that causes us to question our identification with him as the main character. However, another plot twist very near the end of the book provides Grace with a dilemma that allows him to redeem himself to the reader and results in a very surprising ending (which I suspect will not survive the Hollywood film adaptation). Overall, I think that Project Hail Mary is at least as enjoyable and exciting as The Martian, and is almost certainly a better (written)  book. I look forward to reading more from Weir, and I strongly agree with President Obama’s recommendation to include Project Hail Mary on your summer reading list.

Title: Project Hail Mary.
Author: Andy Weir.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 476 pages.
Publisher: Ballantine Books.
Date Published: May 4, 2021.
Date Read: July 21, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Blind to the Bones (Cooper & Fry, #4) by Stephen Booth

Blind to the Bones is the fourth book in the police-procedural, murder-mystery series featuring Detective Sergeant Deborah Fry and Detective Constable Ben Cooper written by Stephen Booth set in the Peak District in the north of England. In the first three books, there have been three very different but compelling mysteries in that Cooper and Fry are the main protagonists and the plot revolves around each of them solving crimes.  Blind to the Bones is somewhat similar to the other books in the series but this time instead of solving crimes together, each one of them has their own assignment, which eventually they both reluctantly recognize are linked. One of the curious and compelling features at the heart of the series is the fractious relationship between these two very different police officers. They are colleagues but they are certainly not friends; they are very different people with different personalities, life experiences and views on life. But they are both members of a small police force so they often need to work together to successfully do their jobs “to serve and protect“ the public.

There are three main mysteries in Blind to the Bones: 1) Who killed the local man whose body was found in an abandoned train tunnel (at the beginning of the book)? 2) What happened to the woman who has been missing for just over two years and whose cellphone has just shown up? 3) What crimes is that family with multiple delinquent children hiding? Of course, with all good mysteries there are several other smaller questions/puzzles to be answered as well.

Blind to the Bones is an unusual entry in the series because much of it takes place in the small town of Withens, not the typical setting of Edendale, which is where Cooper is from and where most of the action in the first three books (Black Dog, Dancing with the Virgins, Blood on the Tongue ) took place. Cooper ends up being seconded to the Rural Crime Task Force to work on the dead body in the train tunnel while Fry gets assigned to deal with the delusional parents of the missing college student (who even after two years of not seeing their daughter refer to her in the present tense and have kept her things all over the house intact). Fry gets stuck working with the corpulent and indolent Detective Constable Gavin Murfin while Cooper has his own adventures in Withens and beyond.

Overall, Blind to the Bones was not as compelling a read to me as the first three books in the Cooper and Fry series. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it might have been because by having each of the protagonists work separately on their own mystery it reduced the amount of interaction they had with each other, and one of the key features of the series has been the emotional frisson between Cooper and Fry. It's also significantly longer than the median mystery novel, well over 600 pages. Another quibble that I had with this entry was that it was resolved just a little too neatly for my taste, in such a way that it seemed unlikely the reader could have found the answers on their own, which seems a bit unfair. Regardless, I do think I will continue reading the series because I am curious to see how things develop between Cooper and Fry in future books, especially now that progress has been made an important project that Fry was working on in multiple books (thanks to the actions of Cooper).

Title: Blind to the Bones (Ben Cooper & Deborah Fry series, #4)
Author: 
Stephen Booth.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 643 pages.
Publisher: Witness Impulse.
Date Published: January 7, 2014 (first published January 1 2003).
Date Read: July 8, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B/B+ (3.25/4.0).


PLOT: B+.
IMAGERY: B.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: B+.

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