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jenn

Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

The Italian Garden: Restoring a Renaissance Garden in Tuscany

Italian Garden: Restoring a Renaissance Garden in Tuscany - Paul Bangay, Cecilia Hewlett, Narelle McAuliffe

In 1967, while doing some shoring up of the outer walls surrounding the Pallazo Vaj, gorgeous frescoes from the 1400's were found hidden inside the wall (one assumes it was a double wall sort of thing).  This became the later inspiration for Monash University's restoration of the Pallazo's car park, back to the Renaissance garden it originally was.  This book is a chronicle, of sorts, of that "restoration".  Explanation of the quotes later.

 

First, let me say this book is gorgeous.  Beautiful in its construction, photography - all of it.   The writing was ... adequate.  Mostly written like University professors submitting committee reports, but on a subject so rich and interesting that, with the exception of one section, it's still easy reading.  (Not sure who Luke Morgan is, and I'm willing to bet he's a delightful, engaging person when he's at home, but his writing is nothing but pretentious gibberish.  I've read articles about quantum physicals that were less opaque and obscure.)

 

So, this book would make a lovely gift - but maybe not for a gardener.  The thing is, and this is my biggest disappointment, that while the book is beautiful, the garden is most decidedly not.  I realise beauty is entirely subjective, and I realise too that this garden needed to serve as a public space.  

 

But 80% of it is GRAVEL.  Hand to god, 80%. According to the book, there were only 4 types of plants used in the entire space: box (so. much. box), jasmine, magnolia and lemon.  Lovely plants, beautifully scented, but nothing else and EVERYTHING clipped to within an inch of its life.  Even the magnolias are forced into a Christmas tree shape.

 

This is the "restored" garden:

 

I'm pretty sure you could still use that as a car park, just sayin'. 

 

So, thus my rating.  Great book, decent writing, horrific garden.  Sorry Monash Uni, that's not a garden.

Source: http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwj59sKQ-azcAhVQ7mEKHSyOBWcQjB16BAgBEAQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fartsonline.monash.edu.au%2Fexpectations-in-healthcare-testing%2Fevents%2F


The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions

The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions - Thomas McNamee

I'm going almost the full five stars on this because it's the best cat book I've read to date.  I've not read a ton, to be honest, but McNamee manages to capture both the science and the essence of the relationship between a cat and its owner.  He is undoubtedly a man coming at the subject with heartfelt appreciation and love for our feline overlords and his advice is rational, sound and passionate.

 

I learned a lot from this book.  I never knew that the sticking out of the tongue was a sign of friendship and acceptance; I always thought Easter-cat just left her tongue sticking out sometimes.  The front leg stretch isn't really a stretch, so much as it's a gesture of acceptance and friendship.  McNamee has me a little stressed out about Easter-cat's insistence on only eating dry food.  Small things like that, as well as much bigger issues like separation anxiety have given me much to think about. 

 

McNamee also talks about a lot of very sticky issues, especially regarding breeding, the cat's need to hunt, and the feral population problem that plagues communities around the world.  His overview of how Italy - specifically Rome - is tackling the issue is an inspiration, if not a complete solution.  I think he does a phenomenal job bringing home the basic idea that cats (and any pet for that matter) are not merely personal possessions or accessories; they are living creatures with as much right to quality of life and dignity as we might and arrogant humans so.

 

This book is a weaving of science and personal anecdotes about the author's cat, Augusta.  Those personal parts are brilliant, and sometimes nail-biting.  Full disclosure:  I flat-out skipped chapter 7 on sickness and death.  I'm a sissy, and the first 6 chapters convinced me that McNamee was going to write chapter 7 with at least as much passion and heartfelt sincerity and there aren't enough tissues in the world to get me through that chapter.

 

I knocked off half a star because some figures at the start seemed to fantastical to be true, and though there is a notes section at the back, those figures weren't cited, leaving me and others feeling distrustful of the data.  Otherwise, I thought this was a brilliantly written, fantastic resource for anybody who wants to be a better cat slave.



The Flat Book Society: September read Do-Over.

Ok, after some discussion the prevailing feeling of the group is that we should have a new vote to find a book for our September read.  Our first selection turned out to be hard for most everyone to source.  So I've cleared the list and added back the 2nd place book as well as 3 selections from my own shelf just to start things off.

 

Please suggest books for our September read, and/or vote for the book you'd most like the group to read together.

 

Voting and contributions will stay open until July 30th, at which point I'll announce the new winner.  Which will hopefully be easier for us to get ahold of.

 



Strange Fascination (Essex Witch Museum Mystery, #3)

Strange Fascination - Syd Moore

Consider my enthusiasm for this series dampened.  This was a very average effort, with a number of problems I couldn't overlook.

 

The biggest is the MC, Rosie.  I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt and say she probably has a long-range plan for Rosie's personal growth, but if so, she's not executing it well.  The MC has a chip on her shoulder about being from Essex and the stereotypes involved in being an "Essex Girl"; the chip is big enough to sit firmly in soapbox/crusader territory, as she frequently fights the good fight against the idea that an "Essex Girl" is cheap, trashy, and dumb.  And then proceeds to refer to vegetarians as "nut-nuts".  And utterly dismiss someone's conversation about ecology, because ... who cares?  And when people fail to fawn over her best friend for being the "black urban goddess" she is, her knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss them as backward conservatives. (They were polite, mind you, they just didn't fall to their knees in awe.)  Not sure how she can find the time to fight the Essex Girl stereotype when she spends so much time stereotyping everyone else.

 

The author also seems intent on making Rosie a bit of a dim bulb through the use of scenes and dialog that are obvious choices to highlight her ignorance without showing any desire to correct it.  Again, it's hard to square this with Rosie's righteous mandate to stamp out the cliches.

 

She also spends a lot of time drunk.  Absolutely pissed.  Bottles of Prosecco at a time pissed.  Now, I don't care what socio-economic class you are in or are perceived to be in by others - being a drunk is not classy.  I understand some cultures enjoy the plonk more than others, but sorry, drunk is tawdry in any culture and economic class.

 

So.  MC with contradictions.  It happens, and as I say, the author might have a master plan I'm just not seeing.

 

Unfortunately there were some egregious editing issues too.  Poor and odd word choices (she kept referring to the ground as the floor - is this a common interchange in UK English?), and poorly copyedited, this 3rd instalment felt rushed to press.  The pace dragged too, and the plot was all loosey-goosey.  A more severe editor would have done this book more justice.

 

I liked the story though, once I was able to dig through all the extraneous dead-ends.  I enjoy the factual elements of historical record the author uses, tying them and local legends into her modern day murder plots.  If the author dropped the hypocritical chip on the MCs shoulder, matured her up, dried her out, and tightened up her plotting, she'd have a hit series on her hands.  She might yet, but this book won't be a contributing factor.  I'll be taking a close look at the fourth one (if/when it comes out) before I commit to reading further in this series.



Notes from a desperate bibliophile

Shelving.  That elusive infrastructure that literally supports every bibliophile's habit.  There's never enough of it; it's been in perpetual shortage since the first library in Alexandria was built and a new daily lament was heard:  We're running out of room for all these scrolls!!! 

 

This bibliophile has been especially challenged by her delusional idea that it would be good for her character to live in a small home (Learning to live with less will be good for me!).  Less of everything except books, of course.  Coupled with the equally delusional: I'll never fill this small "second bedroom" with books - this will be fine!, I'm constantly challenging the laws of physics, attempting to fit an infinite number of books in a very finite space.

 

I know a lot of my fellow bibliophile friends double-row their bookshelves.  I've never been able to stomach the idea, because, of course, I will immediately want/need the books in the back row and not be able to find/access them.  But I've been thinking about this ...  

 

Last weekend was spectacular, weather wise - pure sunshine and warmish temps - so I cajoled MT into rummaging around in our shed for scrap wood.  A bit of further sweet-talking and he sawed some of it down, left me with the hammer drill, self-drilling screws and a couple of cans of left over paint. The result was two of these:

 

 

I did the bare minimum putting these together: the quickest sanding, one coat of black paint and one coat of clear.  I eyeballed the location of the legs and hammer-drilled the screws in.  What are they?  Well, they're elevated shelves that are half the depth of my bookcase shelves.  In the bookcases, they look like this:

 

 

This is not the greatest picture for depth perception, but you get the gist.  They allow me to double shelf my smaller books, but still allow me to see the titles AND easily access the books in the back.  Finished it looks like this:

 

 

With the smaller books it works PERFECTLY (those are my Agatha Christie books).  I'm not as pleased with the look when I add the larger hardcovers, as you can see them on the right.  They fit fine, but they look too 'in your face', but I didn't want to waste the space.  I doubt I'll do more of these for my hardcover fiction, but I'm definitely going to cobble together some more for my smaller non-fiction books and my paperbacks.  

 

I figure this should buy me at least one month before I have to start stressing about bookshelf space again!

 



Reading progress update: I've read 151 out of 288 pages.

The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions - Thomas McNamee

I've been stalling on finishing this one; sad times ahead - but it's going to get as read as I'm willing to read by the end of today.

 

Anyone else still reading this?  How are you going?  Have you hugged your cat today?

 

You want your book?  Well, I want some PETS!!!



The Flat Book Society: September read Crisis!!

Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA - Martin Jones

Our group voting had a clear winner for our September read: Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA - Martin Jones  but we've run into a sticky issue with sourcing this edition (which is apparently a new, expanded/updated edition of an older title).  Most everyone who has shown interest in participating in the read is unable to find a copy to read.

 

So - I need group feedback.  Do we:

 

1. Have a whole new vote?
2. Just replace this September read with the second place book? (Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees)
3. Just persevere with this book and those that can't source it sit out?
4. Other suggestions??

 

Group participation has been a bit thready as of late; summertime and busy lives, no doubt, but any ideas would be welcome.

 

I've got the Lonely Lonesome Blues...



Lost Books and Old Bones (Scottish Bookshop Mystery, #3)

Lost Books and Old Bones - Paige Shelton

Eh.  Not great, but not bad.  The MC, Delaney was pushy - I'd have gotten really shirty with her had I been one of the other characters.  Very woman-with-a-mission; even though it wasn't of the 'I can do the police's job better' variety, it was still overbearing and unrealistic.

 

I did like the Burke and Hare theme though, and I thought they mystery itself was well plotted and a little diabolical, even if part of it didn't work.

 

The murder suspect is accused of killing three patients on the table - the first one is called a botched appendectomy.  So if he isn't the murderer, how did the real murderer kill three of his patents in surgery while making it look like his fault?  If they happened post op, it was never specified.

(show spoiler)

 

I usually like these for the ambiance (Edinburgh), this history sprinkled throughout and the setting of a bookshop with an attached room of treasures, collected over time by the owner.  I'll keep reading them, unless Delaney continues to be pushy and overbearing.  



It Takes a Coven (Witch City Mystery, #6)

It Takes a Coven - Carol J. Perry

I generally enjoy the books in this series, and I should have enjoyed this one more; it had elements designed to appeal to me, like a murder of crows (collective noun not crime), an old spell book that won't burn, whose 17th century owner's ghost wants back, a current string of crimes that may or may not be connected to modern day Wiccans.  Stolen art.  

 

For the most part, I did enjoy it, but there was just a little something missing.  It could very well be my mood; I'm still displaying shades of slump now and again.  This may have affected my engagement with the book.  It could also be the wedding planning bit that's tangentially a part of the plot.  Or the egregious number of continuity errors the editor didn't catch; something I don't remember this series suffering from before.  

 

Mostly, I think, that MC just wasn't quite focused enough to really involve the reader in the story.  She had all of these intriguing things happening to/around her but for the most part, never involved her.  The exception are the visions she had throughout the story, usually whenever she looked at a reflective surface.  Her acceptance of them in this book was a relief, and I enjoyed these scenes a lot, as they imparted information about the mysteries.

 

It was a good story though, even though I keep rambling on about the nit-picky stuff.  It held my attention while I was reading it and I was interested in seeing the mystery solved. 



Murder in the Locked Library (Book Retreat Mystery, #4)

Murder in the Locked Library  - Ellery Adams

Sometimes I run across books that, in spite of obvious points of diversion from my personal taste, I can't help reading anyway.  This series is a perfect example.

 

The premise is both wonderful and cheesy as hell.  Like 70's cheesy, but still really wonderful.  The series centers around Storyton village and resort; a luxury resort centered around the love of reading.  Wonderful.  Jane Stewart is the manager and heir of the resort, as well as the Guardian of a super-secret repository of all. the. books.  Or at least all the books, scrolls. manuscripts, clay tablets, that are priceless, rare. dangerous.  This part is 50/50 wonderful/cheesy.  The super-secret repository comes complete with a super-secret security force that has access to all the toys, and they guard against other, evil, super-secret organisations that want access to the library.  Super-cheesy.

 

Still, I can't resist.  The author's love of books is obvious and she casually title-drops interesting sounding books throughout the narrative.  This book focused on books about books too, which is my personal weakness, so several titles have been added to my lists.

 

The mystery around this one was ... so-so.  A very old skeleton was dug up during excavations on site and the only known copy of a controversial book is found with it.  Then new murders start occurring.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, the author made the murderer too obvious by overdoing the hiding in plain site chestnut.  And then giving him a motive that is firmly in the cheesy camp.

 

I'm never in a rush to buy these, but when I'm in the mood for a between books palette cleanser, these work and I get to imagine how amazing an entire resort centered around books would be.



100 Books That Changed the World

100 Books That Changed The World - Scott Christianson, Colin Salter

I bought this on a whim, because it's just a gorgeous book, chock full of old book covers.  I figured I'd be interested in the contents too, of course, but was prepared, based on the title, for a lot of hyperbole.

 

Not so much really.  I'd say the editors did a fantastic job of choosing books that most people would agree significantly affected, if not changed, the course of society.  I enjoyed the narratives written for each one too; I learned at least a little something about each book, in spite of at least 95 of them being familiar to me already.

 

I knocked the rating back a little because some of the choices would have had a more localised influence than others (A Book of Mediterranean Food and The Cat in the Hat come most quickly to mind), and because there was a slight but noticeable political bias to the choices.  Whether that bias was the editors' or history's, I don't know, and I can't argue the impact most of these books had, so it's a pretty small quibble really.

 

A nice book for the bibliophile or the armchair historian who enjoys the trend of history through objects.



bookshelf

Bookshelf - Alex Johnson

Based on Alex Johnson's blog about bookshelves (theblogonthebookshelf.blogspot.com), this is a collection of the myriad styles of bookshelves as traditional cases, single shelves, furniture, and everything in between.  The hardcover edition is nicely bound and chock full of beautiful full-colour images of every piece, each with a website address for the particular designer.  At the back of the book is a further reading section listing book titles, articles and website links to related reading.

 

As a design book, it's great.  For a serious bibliophile constantly struggling for creative ways to defy the laws of physics, it's a fun book to flip through but rarely does it offer practical ideas (though there are a few gems) for anyone but those that have small collections or extraordinarily large houses.



Strange Sight (Essex Witch Museum Mystery #2)

Strange Sight - Syd Moore

Even better story than the first one, though epically bad copyediting.  Rosie is still an odd character for me to sort out, but coincidentally, I was at the hair salon today and was able to ask my stylist, a UK native, about the whole Essex thing, which he tried to explain while desperately trying to be PC about the whole thing.  I got the gist though, and it helped.  It also helped that Rosie seemed more focused in the second half of this one.

 

This story revolves around a good old fashioned murder mystery albeit with ghosts and a haunted restaurant.  Nothing to scare the reader too badly, but the historical context of the plot, (which is based on historical events, sadly) is wickedly dark and honestly, even if this wan't a cozy(ish), would be hard reading in a few places.  While this book is excellent on almost all fronts, it is also full of trigger warnings for epic violence against women.

 

I liked the ending - I liked that it didn't involve the MC doing something stupid or ending up in a woman-in-peril situation.  The very last page was also creepy as hell.

 

Can't wait for book 3!



Strange Magic (Essex Witch Museum Mystery, #1)

Strange Magic - Syd Moore

Both the titles and the covers of these books grabbed me, and as they were part of a 40% off sale, and I've been looking for new mystery series, I couldn't resist grabbing #'s 1 and 2.

 

I'm glad I did, although book 1 and I got off to a rocky start, when cracking it open the other night in bed, I read the prologue, featuring a comatose little boy suddenly 'waking up' speaking in Early English and rising up out of bed, floating in the crucifix position.  NOT what I want to read about right before turning out the lights and going to bed, thanks.

 

Fortunately, none of the rest of the book is nearly as scary as the prologue.  Spooky fun, yes, a tad creepy at times, but mostly fun.  Rosie has inherited her estranged grandfather's Essex Witch Museum, which she plans on selling as soon as possible.  Except while she's there a plea for help comes along that she can't refuse, and she and the curator, Sam (cue romantic tension) find themselves on a race to locate the remains of the original Essex Witch.

 

It's a good story - an excellent story.  My only beefs with it were the slightly forced tone of the will-they-won't-they romantic tension, and Rosie's character, to a certain degree.  The former is just personal taste, but the latter is, I think, a lack of micro-cultural understanding. Rosie is a strong, very intelligent and independent woman, but has a chip on her shoulder about being an Essex girl - and I don't know what that means.  As the book progressed I got the feeling it's sort of like an American redneck, but my lack of confidence meant Rosie came across paranoid, or at least carrying an aggressive inferiority complex.  

 

Possibly related, her internal dialogue's habit of noting every time a man looked at her breasts/body got super tedious, super fast.  Yes, men look at women's bits; sometimes they are so distracted by them they lose sight of the fact women have faces.  Yes, it's tiresome, Yes, it's deplorable. Don't care. Don't want to hear about it in my murder mystery, it's beyond irrelevant and lent a rather shallow tone to an MC that wasn't.

 

Note though that these were minor annoyances; if I understood the Essex thing better, I'm guessing they would have lent authenticity to her character, and her accounting of leers received didn't happen more than 2 or 3 times, and it's a personal tic.  The majority of the story was, as I said, excellent: fast-paced, well plotted, and my favorite literary device: based on the history of a real woman tried and hung for witchcraft, Ursula Kemp.  In the acknowledgements, the author outlines at what point the fiction diverges from the reality, and both make for compelling storytelling. Also, people throughout history have been appalling.  Truly appalling. 

 

I'm so glad I already have book 2 in hand, and I believe book 3 is scheduled for publication any day now, which means if I like Strange Sight as much as I enjoyed Strange Magic, I'll only have to wait as long as the postal service to find out what happens next.



Reading progress update: I've read 150 out of 288 pages.

The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions - Thomas McNamee

I only meant to read chapter 4 yesterday, but didn't remember that until I was half-way through chapter 5.  The two chapters really go hand-in-hand though so it made sense.

 

These chapters discuss the fact that cats are considered to be only semi-domesticated by people who consider these things (scientists, I presume) and what that means for the humans who share their lives and homes with them.  This is where behavioural issues are discussed - not in depth, but still informatively.  He spends some time in chapter 4 discussing - in a refreshingly frank and balanced way - two of the more 'famous' cat ... whisperers. (Ugh. That term.)  Both seem just this side of snake oil salesman, but as McNamee points out, it's hard to argue with some of their results.  By far, this was the most practically informative chapter in the book for me yet.  

 

The good news is I have two beautifully adjusted cats and one semi-adjusted cat.  The bad news is that the only tool offered to combat a yowling cat is shaking a can of loose coins, which is problematic on a number of levels for us, not the least of which is the effect rattling a jar of coins will have on all our sanity at 4am.

 

Chapter 5 discussed truly wild cats; the feral cat populations around the world.  Can I just say, I love Italy.  You can keep their pasta and pizza, I am in love with their cat laws.  It's illegal to euthanise cats in Italy; the government pays not only for a spay/neuter program country-wide, but also has programs set up to feed and care for the feral populations.  Now that is a country I'd willing pay taxes to.  The other incredible thing is the number of volunteers that watch over these colonies and really care for them.  The whole thing is amazing beyond belief.

 

Unfortunately, it's not the cure all we need for controlling the feral cat population, as McNamee is honest enough to point out.  Italy's program will never be truly successful (though it sounds more successful than any other to date) without a complete re-education and cultural shift of the human population.  If people don't take responsibility for the cats in their lives and neighbourhoods, there will always be a fresh infusion of feral cats.  And if Italy, with it's already fabulous philosophy and dedication requires that much more work, you can imagine how impossibly steep the curve is for the USA, where compassion for others of any species is thin on the ground, and for Australia, where if your not a marsupial they don't want to know about you.  I had to do a lot of skimming in this chapter because after Italy, the facts and stats are horrible.

 

This chapter also includes a brief discussion on the stupidity of breeding our house cats with wild cats (the possible exception being the Bengal, which was done for scientifically valid reasons; the cross breeding failed to meet the primary objective, but did result in a beautifully docile hybrid).  This, with the exception just mentioned, never ends well and is hell on both the cats and the people.  This stupidity is compounded by those that try to actually keep wild cats as pets.  There's a special place in hell for people who do this, and I hope it involves a cage.  This section was almost impossible for me to read.

 

There are three more chapters left, but there's not a chance in hell I can read chapter 7; flipping through and just catching a sentence choked me up, so I'll be pausing a bit until others in the group catch up.



A Book of Book Lists

A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile's Compendium - Alex Johnson

This was a lot of fun.  Johnson has compiled book lists, but not the usual "you must read" sort.  These are lists like Darwin's TBR, Oscar Wilde's bookshelf at Reading Gaol, the books on Scott's Discovery bookshelves (he had them in every room of the ship), books seen to be on Sheldon and Leonard's living room bookshelves in Big Bang Theory.  Fun stuff like that.

 

Some of the titles listed are no longer to be found (Henry III's books, for example; probably hard to find if not impossible, and expensive to boot), some of them don't exist (books never written list - how did The Giant Rat of Sumatra not make this list?), some have yet to be written (the future library), and some of them are all to readily available and might be the death of any reader's TBR.  Personally, I was doing pretty well until the very end, where he includes a list of books about books.  My kryptonite!  Aaahhhh...