Carl Elliott, White Coat, Black Hat
Another medical industry expose. I appear to be addicted to them. This book is primarily focused not on any particular travesty – although he is fond of blaming Big Pharma for most of the problems with contemporary medicine – but on the overall shape of modern medicine, with all its capitalism and competition, as a problem itself. As Elliott points out, science is based on trust; scientific discoveries have to be shared in order to make new discoveries rather than wasting your time making the same discovery someone else already has. But with the profit-driven pharmaceutical and medical industries, sharing means losing your patent and your profit margin. It’s just not a good way to run a system that’s supposed to be saving people’s lives.
Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
I like the beginning and the end of this book, but the middle leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There are a couple of scenes where Marlowe has these…confrontations with women he’s trying to help, where the overwhelming sense of the scene is “why won’t these bitches be appropriately grateful?” Appropriately is the key word there; it isn’t that he wants to sleep with them (I still think Marlowe is gay) but that they’re throwing themselves at him and he’s repulsed. It’s a nasty kind of misogyny, and I don’t like it. The end, though, is classic Chandler and extremely satisfying, particularly in the way that Marlowe clearly doesn’t quite understand what’s going on here.
Jo Walton, Among Others
The library copy I got was shelved in the general fiction rather than the science fiction section. I cannot for the life of me imagine why, because I’m not sure I see the point of reading this book unless you’re at least a little familiar with science fiction and fandom. Also, there are fairies. Not metaphorical ones, real ones, that are arbitrary and helpful and thoughtlessly cruel. Wonderful fairies. If you are at all fond of fairies, or science fiction, or Wales: Go. Read. Now.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors
Well, I was on a detective novel kick, and I hadn’t read any Lord Peter yet, and anyway it was this or Poirot at the Cross Plains library. Also Mor was talking about Peter and Harriet in Among Others. No Harriet in this one, but I am now thoroughly fond of Lord Peter and shall be seeking out the rest of the series as quickly as possible. (Omnibus edition is on its way as we speak!)
Raymond Chandler, The High Window
There is something vaguely unnatural about Raymond Chandler novels. Although they’re generally very bleak, being noir detective stories with a greater than usual dose of personal trauma above and beyond the murder-for-money motives, I tend to read them through with a huge grin on my face. I know what it is, it’s the constant wisecracking and world-weary self-aware irony of Philip Marlowe. I still find it vaguely unnatural. But I adore them nonetheless.
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man
Despite my love of noir (and I have been indulging it greatly the past few weeks, I should post a list of the movies I’ve been watching, too), I have never before actually read any Dashiell Hammett. But I grabbed a copy of The Thin Man while stocking up on Bogie movies at the library last week, and I adored it. It’s not as gritty as Chandler, but Nick and Nora are wonderful, as are all the minor characters. (I was surprised at how much I ended up liking Gilbert, the morbid teenager; his fascination with cannibalism was what cemented it for me, I think.) It’s a pity Hammett didn’t do sequels, I’d love to read more of them. Perhaps I will investigate the movies.
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
This is the best book about invalids doing research that I have ever read. Okay, that sounds like damning with faint praise. I loved it. A Scotland Yard investigator is laid up in the hospital and decides to try to figure out just what the hell Richard III was doing, murdering the princes in the Tower, and comes to the surprising conclusion that he wasn’t. It’s all the best parts of doing historical research without any of the boring bits. Not a strictly noir mystery, except for the way that the accused doesn’t manage to regain his besmirched reputation — which might be close enough, actually — but extremely satisfying nonetheless.
Steven Brust, Tiassa
And a break from the detective stories for the latest Vlad novel! I have to say, I know he’s cranking these out at one a year, but it’s still not fast enough for me. I’ll just have to be grateful for what we get. Unlike last year’s Iorich, I think this would be a great introduction to the Vlad stories. You get a little bit of all the main characters (except for Morrolan, he’s been strangely absent for a while) and a little bit of each of the narrative styles: first-person Vlad POV, third person straight narrative, and Paarfi. The story itself is easy to follow if you don’t know all the background, but there’ll be plenty in there you’ll still want to find out about, to make sure you go back and read the other novels. But then, how could you not?
Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited
I picked this up while wandering randomly through the lovely Rosemary Garfoot Public Library in Cross Plains one day. (I live in Madison, but I’m working part-time in Cross Plains until one of the libraries I’ve applied to finally notices that I’m completely awesome and hires me.) The original edition of the book is from the 60s, and the rewrite from the 90s, but it’s still a startling expose on the funeral industry. It’s easy to see how corruption happens; it’s not like you’re in the mood to comparison-shop for funerals. But wow, talk about price-gouging. (Not to mention the lying: apparently it is not a legal requirement to be embalmed before cremation. I honestly did not know that, but it’s going in my will.) Also, I now understand the reference to Forest Lawn thrown out in a Raymond Chandler novel. I kind of wish I didn’t. Apparently Bogart is buried there, how depressing.
Maggie Stiefvater, Ballad
I hated this book for the first five chapters, which was terribly disappointing, but there’s not much I dislike more than “boy pines over his best friend but can’t tell her he’s in love with her.” Fortunately the teachers at Thornking-Ash (and what a name to give a music school in a faerie-infested universe) were fascinating enough that I kept going. Then the pining stopped. And then it started to get good. I stand by my assessment that these books (including the prequel Lament) are Twilight for people who hate Twilight, but they also have some of the best faeries I’ve read in a long time. They’re properly inhuman, horrifyingly selfish and violent, and charming and compelling nonetheless. Also, there was an in-universe explanation for the name of the school, which I hadn’t expected and made me deliriously happy.
Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter
While the official subtitle of this book is “The True Story of the Manson Murders,” it’s really much more the story of the Manson trial. Fair enough, for a book co-written by the prosecuting attorney. If you believe this book, the entire case was single-handedly saved from the LAPD by one Vincent Bugliosi. Which may be true, I don’t know. The stories of the trial are surprisingly fascinating, all the wrangling over testimony and cutting deals with Family members and Bugliosi’s thwarted determination to get Manson to take the stand. Manson and the girls who were tried with him were sentenced to death, but California suspended the death penalty before they could be executed, which is probably just as well. Ted Bundy was a celebrity until the day he was executed (giving a totally ridiculous deathbed interview to Jerry Falwell), while Manson wastes away in prison becoming more and more a cliche’d parody of evil. The book ends with the customary notice that Manson would be eligible for parole in 1978; as of today, no one has been willing to risk their career to give it to him. (Hey, and here’s a transcript of his 1992 parole hearing.)
Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard
This is one of the most interesting and original true crime books I’ve ever read, and undoubtedly the least exploitative. Mary Bell, along with a co-defendant, was tried for the murder of two toddlers when she was eleven years old. The other girl was acquitted; Mary was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. This book is written by a woman who had covered the original trial with cooperation from Mary herself, now a grown woman with a teenage daughter of her own. Most of the book is in fact about what happened to her after her conviction: the places she was sent, the reform schools and prisons she lived in, the ceaseless media attention that has uprooted her family dozens of times. Sereny argues that children who kill are not the same as adult murderers and we should not treat them as such. They are severely damaged children, and they need help. The stories of Mary’s life, and especially the sense one gets of her as a responsible and moral adult, are extremely compelling evidence in her favor.
China Miéville, Kraken
Oh China Miéville, I forgive you for Iron Council. This book is marvellous, the best kind of thriller — the kind where you start out with no idea what’s just happened, three quarters of the way through the book you realize that everything you’ve learned so far still gives you no idea what’s happened, and in the last quarter you get an explanation that is nothing like what you expected but makes perfect sense. It’s gloriously masterful writing, and that’s even without introducing the wonderful scenery of Kraken’s mystical London. Every bit of it is spectacular, from the Londonmancers to the familiars’ strike to the horror of the Tattoo and his minions. And the characters, everyone with a startling amount of depth and sincerity, even the people who start out seeming to be nothing more than scenery. I loved it, and I wanted to read it again as soon as I was finished. Alas, library New Book loan times…
Marjorie M. Liu, A Wild Light
Third in her Hunter Kiss series, an urban fantasy series by a paranormal romance writer. I’ve never read any of her romance novels, but I’m tempted to, because one of my favorite parts of the series is Maxine’s relationship with Grant, her long-term boyfriend. They’re together when the series starts, and their mutual support and understanding is wonderful. None of this “I have to lie to you to protect you” crap with them. Their relationship is a focus in this book, for the first time, when Maxine loses her memory of the past few years along with her memories of what happened the night her grandfather was killed. (Well, the body that her grandfather was living in was killed, actually. Her grandfather is…complicated.) And then it starts to get epic. I swear, every time I read one of these books I think, It can’t possibly get any more epic than this, and then in the next book, it does. I’m loving it.
Berton Rouché, The Medical Detectives
This is the book the TV show House is based on. You can tell, because almost every single story in this book is an episode from one of the first couple of seasons. (It’s possible some of the other stories were made into episodes later; I stopped watching partway through season three.) These are, of course, real-life stories of epidemiologists — specialists whose job it is to determine how an outbreak of a dangerous disease or medical situation occurred, so as to prevent it happening again. The story about the pesticides on the jeans (also an episode of House) has made me paranoid about new clothing for quite a while. The book is excellently written; at times Rouché constructs a narrative almost devoid of direct quotations that nevertheless allows the perspectives of the individuals involved to shine through, but when he’s got a patient or doctor who’s a good storyteller, he’ll just quote them directly, sometimes for pages at a time. I admire a nonfiction writer who knows when to get out of the way of the people they’re interviewing.
Ellis Peters, St. Peter’s Fair
Still more Cadfael — possibly the last for a while, as I’ve gone on a noir kick and Cadfael is not really compatible with Phillip Marlowe. My favorite part of these books, I think, is the strength of the characters. Like any mystery series, there’s a strong focus on the one-off characters in each story, but they’re always interesting, powerful, and strong in their own way. I particularly like Peters’ ability to write strong female characters who nevertheless fit perfectly into their role in a society that offered them fairly limited options. Strength of character isn’t in opportunities, it’s what you do with them, and the young women in these books are always holding themselves up high.
Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many
This is one of those books that I’m sure is a very different experience reading for the first time unspoiled, because it’s the first appearance of Hugh! Hugh Beringar, sheriff’s deputy, is Cadfael’s best friend for most of the series (and is played delightfully by Sean Pertwee in the first few TV adaptations), and watching Cadfael trying to decide whether or not to trust him is great fun when you know he’s entirely trustworthy. Hugh and Cadfael have a glorious battle of wits – mostly involving sneaking around the countryside – and at the end they become fast friends. I loved every minute of it. Oh yeah, and there was a murder or something too, I dunno.
Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
So the story goes that Jones was in the hospital, and working on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy at the same time, and she said, “I swear, all these books are so similar I could write the travel guide for the world they’re set in.” So she did. I was actually surprised to find that at least half of the clichés in the book were not straight out of Lord of the Rings. But still, after twenty-six years of a fondness for epic fantasy novels, there was not a damn one I was not familiar with. (Why in god’s name would you cook STEW on the road, anyway?)
Stephen Prothero, God is Not One
The sequel to his Religious Literacy which I read and reviewed here not too long ago, in God is Not One Prothero offers a brief introduction to eight of the world’s most influential religions. He calls them “the world’s rival religions,” which I’m not too fond of — I don’t think Daoism, for instance, is particularly the rival of anything — but I liked the book very much overall. He treats, in a self-defined order of importance, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religions, Judaism, and Daoism, with a short section on atheism in the back. The insight that I found particularly helpful, and one I thought supported Prothero’s position that the major religions are really very different from one another, was the way he described what each religion sees as the central human problem and the solution to that problem. Looking at it this way, you can really see a difference between, say, Christianity (which sees the problem as sin and salvation the solution) and Islam (where the problem is pride and the solution submission to God’s will) in a way that you can’t when looking only at history and practice. Also, he talks about Yoruba religions, including the facets of it still based in Africa and the Catholic syncretism in the Americas, and that’s just awesome.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
So in October I started reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my roommate, who’d never read it before. We’d finished Fellowship and started on Two Towers — got just about to where the second movie starts, actually — when a couple of our friends came up to visit and we told them about it, and it came out that the roomie had never read The Hobbit. Friends were suitably appalled, and I protested that I didn’t know, what kind of a crazy person has never read The Hobbit, and the upshot is, we started trading round the paperback, alternating reading chapters aloud all afternoon. We got through about half of the book that day, and just the other day I finally finished it. You know, I always forget how much I like Balin. He’s a decent fellow, for a dwarf. And although I was leery of it when I first heard the casting news, I cannot wait to see Richard Armitage playing Thorin Oakenshield.
Gemma Files, A Book of Tongues
I grabbed this book after just glancing through it at the public library’s new book shelf, and now I’m buying a copy and preordering the sequel. This is awesome, guys. Supernatural Old West, magic-wielding Confederate ex-Reverends, and a heavy dose of Mayan mythology to top it off. Also, gay characters who are a) main characters, b) not demonized (for being gay, anyway), and c) likely to survive to the end of the series and possibly even get a happy ending. Obviously it’s a trilogy and that last one is far from certain, but I’m thrilled at just the possibility right now.
N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms
The sequel to the excellent Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of last year, and you know, I think I liked this one even better. It seems to hang together better; the book feels a little more solid. I’d have to reread the first one to explain exactly why. (Oh the horror! *dramatic hand to forehead*) It seems, interestingly enough, that the main recurring characters in this series are the gods, not the mortals, but the POV characters in both books so far are the mortal women they deal with. I like that a lot, actually.
Simon Winchester, Atlantic
Finally, I have finished this book! This was another ARC I picked up at ALA in June, and I have been trying to get through it for months. It purports to be a history of the Atlantic ocean, but for large portions of the book it seems much more to be an excuse for the author to show off his superior knowledge of history and his extraordinarily exciting life as an investigative journalist. I was somewhat offended to find that the latter sections, while unbelievably pretentious, were also the most interesting parts of the book. Maybe he should have just written a memoir instead.
Stephen King, Misery
When did Stephen King stop being this good? No, really. I picked this up again after reading Learn Writing With Uncle Jim, where Jim MacDonald recommends it as a novel about how to write a book. And not only does it work on that level – spectacularly well, particularly the scene where Annie makes Paul burn his Serious Manuscript – but it’s also frequently tense, disturbing, and downright scary. I haven’t felt that way about any of the newer Stephen King books at all.