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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.

Mardi Gras Murder (Cajun Country Mystery, #4)

Mardi Gras Murder: A Cajun Country Mystery - Ellen Byron

Cozy mysteries are perfect when life feels hard and you want to escape somewhere that feels fairly uncomplicated, even if people are being murdered.  This series, set in small town Louisiana, is one of the stronger ones to come out in recent years.  It's not perfect by any stretch, but it's got good bones, so to speak.

 

Mardi Gras Murder takes place very soon after a fairly catastrophic flood sweeps through, one that leaves behind the body of a John Doe.  At first presumed to have been a victim of the flood waters, an autopsy reveals he was shot.  As the town rebuilds and focuses on their Mardi Gras celebrations, a judge of the local beauty contest is also shot and killed, and in spite of any evidence, our MC Maggie has a gut feeling the two are related.  Of course they are.  After attempted murder is tried on another judge, Maggie starts looking for connections to the John Doe.

 

The beauty contest is a total red herring; that's not a spoiler either, as it's pretty obvious from the get go that it's meant to be.  The real ties that kill are much more investing that a vapid beauty contest, though the ultimate motivation behind them is just as shallow and meaningless. 

 

Still, the author writes a solid setting with strong characters - all of them, men and women, good and bad.  If the plotting and murder motivations aren't as strong as they could be, they're surrounded by a lot that is.  The backdrop and characters are why I probably rated this higher than I should, objectively speaking.  But I got happily lost in backwater Louisiana for a day or two, and I'll happily get lost in it again, should the author write another.



Reading progress update: I've read 11 out of 256 pages.

Excellent women - Barbara Pym

As I've mentioned here and there on BookLikes, life has been challenging the last few months, and last week was my first full week back and work - and it was full, hitting the ground running with 40 hours in 4 days.  All of this fun and joy has wrecked havoc with my narcolepsy, which has left me running behind in my RL domestic life as well as my BookLikes life.  Yesterday MT and I chucked it all and spent the day hiking the rain forests on the coast, which was absolute magic.

 

All of this to say, I'm WAY behind on the buddy read for Excellent Women because if I stop, I fall asleep.  But I am reading it and I'm hoping today, after an obligatory lunch date, I'll be able to do a monster catch up.

 

What little I've read so far has been just what I've been wanting to read lately.



You've Got Murder (Turing Hopper, #1)

You've Got Murder  - Donna Andrews

I've been a die hard Donna Andrews fan since the first book in her Meg Langslow series came out, Murder with Peacocks.  At about the same time that series started taking off in the early 2000's, she published another series where the MC is an AI (Artificial Intelligence).

 

Science Fiction in general is not my wheelhouse, and I'm philosophically opposed to AI, so I always shied away from these books in spite of knowing I'd like Andrews' writing.

 

Then I met her at Bouchercon, and she impressed me all over again with her no nonsense intelligence; soon after, I found this book and the third one in a local UBS and thought 'just give it a chance'.   So last week, I did.

 

Turing Hopper is an Artificial Intelligence Personality created by a huge corporation named the Universal Library.  One of their mandates is the universal digitisation of all books, so that they can then be sold to customers to read on their computers (pre-Kindle/smartphone).  UL also sells dial-in subscriptions to corporate and private users where they can speak to an AI who will answer all their questions. Each AI is a different personality, so customers can request specific AI's to suit their needs.  The company gives the AI's access to all the data available to make them as robust as possible.  

 

What nobody at UL realises though, is that Turing Hopper has evolved sentience.  "She" has become aware of herself, has a senes of past, present and future, and a conscience. When her creator, programmer Zack, goes missing, and nobody seems to notice, she starts looking for a digital footprint and finds nothing.  She enlists the help of the only two people who are aware of her sentience: the guy in the copy room, and a secretary.  Once they start looking, they find Zack's disappearance is just the tip of iceberg, and find themselves up to their ears in nefarious corporate manipulations.

 

This is not in the same vein as Andrews' Meg Langslow series.  There is no zaniness, no family shenanigans, no eccentric characters.  There's an inherent sweetness to Turing, but in the vein of all Andrews' female characters, she's strong willed, and clear-sighted.  It's telling of Andrews' style that of the two human characters, it's the 50-something secretary that is the mechanically inclined sidekick, while the younger man from the copy room is more the gopher.

 

The book is very well written, and as the story progresses, Andrews uses Turing to muse on what it is to be sentient and created in the image of humans.  Can she feel?  Can she understand human emotion?  But more importantly, are sentient AI 'life'?  The author certainly makes the reader care about the AI's in this book, though she doesn't advocate for or against them.  She also goes to great lengths to muse on the power of information, especially for those that have the power to manipulate it.  The result is a book that is both a little dates, and yet still current. And very relevant.

 

The story ends somewhat abruptly with a mildly shocking climax and a behind the scenes tie up of loose ends.  This mostly works, because, while there are obviously other characters involved in the plot, they remain off-stage, and their lines, if any, are few.  In general, I think her Meg Langslow series remains the stronger of the two, and I'm still not an AI / SciFi fan, but I have the third book, and I enjoyed this one enough to want to find the second one and read them all.  



The Spirit in Question (Lila MacLean Mystery, #3)

The Spirit in Question - Cynthia Kuhn

I enjoy this series a lot - it's cozy without being twee, and the mysteries are reasonably well plotted most of the time.  I also love that Kuhn shows way more than she tells; this might be the only reason I'd tell someone to read these in order.  The stories don't require it at all, but the author doesn't waste her established readers' time by going over all the backstory.  New readers might feel lost if they started with book 3 instead of book 1.

 

The Spirit in Question isn't anything I can rave about, it was just an enjoyable story.  My first inclination was to give it 3.5 stars, but that's more a reflection of my bias against mysteries that take place in the theatre.  It's a haunted theatre though, so that gave it an edge for me.

 

The plotting was solid; I had no idea who the killer was.  But on the other hand, the motive for the killer felt a little weak.  Possibly, maybe, one that unconsciously falls back on an old stereotype that feminists would grind their teeth over.  It didn't bother me, but I did notice it.

 

My only complaint about the series overall is that she doesn't write them faster.  I need more solid, dependable cozy/traditional series in my life like this one.



MbD is not a happy camper... and neither is Carlito

I'm late getting home from work today by ONE hour ...  ONE!  and my beautiful boy Carlito:

 

 

is a shadow of his former self:

 

Apparently, 'lito had 2 or 3 matted spots on his sides that the groomer couldn't cut out, so she and MT decided it was best to go full-on lion's cut on his poor feline self.  Because it would look better than the 2-3 bald spots on his sides.  More consistent.  Consistently awful.   

 

Somebody is in the doghouse for this one ... and it's not my poor, sweet, bald-ass kitty.  Who looks absolutely ridiculous.

 

The rest of me used to look as fluffy as my tail... why?  WHY???



Reading progress update: I've read 35 out of 394 pages.

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements - Sam Kean

Got through the introduction and into the first chapter - and remembered the slog of my first time reading it.  Nothing against Kean - it's just whenever we start talking about electrons swapping and using words like ions, I have t slow down to make sure I have the facts straight and I'm not conflating electrons with neutrons or anything stupid.

 

Not to mention constantly try to banish the 'old fashioned' orbital planets model from my head as I'm reading.

 

Huggins says READ FASTER - MY SPOON IS STILL MELTING!!



Reading progress update: I've read 80 out of 288 pages.

The Honey Factory: Inside the Ingenious World of Bees - Diedrich Steen, Jürgen Tautz

So. much. science.

 

Which is awesome.  I'm thoroughly enjoying it and getting exactly what I wanted: an in-depth, you-are-there, description of the world of honey bees and what we know so far about how they function in the hive.

 

Originally written in German, the translation is good, but it's funny because the narrative voice reminds me so much of the way one of my former colleagues in Denmark spoke English.  Grammatically perfect, but with a rhythm–dare I say melody?–that made it sound like he was ... I want to say 'talking to a  child' but it wasn't condescending; it was simply a similar cadence.  It's hard to explain, but the result is I can't hardly read this without picturing him in my head and hearing his voice.  Which is totally ok (I liked him), but a tad discordant too, as to the best of my knowledge he was not a beekeeper.  



Reading progress update: I've read 33 out of 320 pages.

The Scent Of Scandal:  Greed, Betrayal, And The World's Most Beautiful Orchid - Craig Pittman

I started this last night and I think it's one of those books you have to have a connection to in order to really get into it.  My connection is actually two-fold: I am a Florida native, born and raised in the Sarasota area, where this story takes place, and my father was an orchid grower and hybridiser who did a lot of work for, and with, Selby Botanical Gardens, the 'scene fo the crime'.  His health by the time this story takes place had deteriorated enough that he was in no way a part of it (nor would he have been anyway; his interest was creating hybrids, not obtaining rarities), but he would have known most of the players.

 

So far, Pittman's writing is straight-forward investigative journalism and reads like it.  This is fine - he's a journalist, after all - and I've read one of his other books and enjoyed his style well enough.  He started out writing for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, so he knows the area well (and is also a native); this is a bonus to a native Sarasotian - he's got the atmosphere pretty well nailed.

 

The other part he has nailed is the obsessive, fanatical, competitiveness of orchidists and orchid hobbyists.  I'd say you have to see it to believe it, but I lived my whole life with it and I still can't believe the lengths they will go to in order to obtain new specimens, or hoard the ones they have.  Whatever 'secrets' they develop to raise them successfully are just that - jealously guarded secrets.  When my father wanted to learn about orchids (in the 50's or 60's, I think) - nobody would tell him anything beyond the basics about water, food and light.  When he wanted to start hybridising - forget it; he might as well have been asking for CIA documents.  My dad being my dad, he just did his own research, experimented, created his own glove-box, tested it out, and when it worked, gave the plans and specifications for it to anyone who asked for it.  My dad was the best!

 

Still a long way to go in this book, and it's not going to be an easy, breezy read, but so far it's exactly what this native Florida girl living on the other side of the world needed.  A true virtual trip home.



Voici! or, Mischief Managed.

From atop a ladder, just after I finished putting the last of MT's books up.

 

The view from ground level.  Not as invisible as I thought it would be, but not unpleasingly overpowering at all either.  Very happy with the result, if also a tad depressed about how little shelf space this actually freed up for me.  

 

I swear the books expand to fill the space without any help from me.



Bird, Bath and Beyond (Paws to the Stars, #2)

Bird, Bath, and Beyond - E.J. Copperman

I think I liked the first one better, though this one was good.  The premise, and series name, sound more twee and cutesy than the stories themselves are, though it's definitely cozy fare.  Kay is an agent to animals used in the entertainment industry, mostly because she's from an acting family, loves animals and couldn't stomach being a vet.

 

The plot of this one was ... out there.  But here's the thing, and I don't know if I'm going to explain this correctly:  the premise was one that could have been believable, just.  

 

A famous TV actor hires a hitman to kill ... himself.  He's depressed, battling addictions, hates his job, his life, etc. but either doesn't have the courage to do the killing himself, or wants to go out making a statement about the need for gun control - the book never really cleared that up.

(show spoiler)

 

I mean, stranger things have happened.  But Copperman further complicated what was already a weird plot by adding layers of crimes and criminals.  It's my feeling that he took an already weird plot and twisted it up to make it weirder when it didn't need to be.

 

And now what will look like something of a non sequitur but will make sense in a second, when I was at Bouchercon, my sister and I sat in on a panel that E.J. Copperman was on, and he kept talking about how he writes humorous cozies, like Donna Andrews.  My sister and I were sitting at the back, so we could swap comments, sotto voce, and I said to her that I'd read most of his books and I didn't remember any of them being funny.  Not that the jokes fell flat, but that I didn't remember there being any attempt at all to make them.

 

This is the first of his books I've read since Bouchercon, and now I see what he's talking about, and now I can say they're there, they just (mostly) fall flat.  In fact, he seems to be going for a wiseass voice throughout most of the book, and it's either too heavy, or it's a NYC style of humor I fail to get, in a way that is similar to some people not getting British humor.  It didn't ruin the book at all, but it became cloying at times.

 

I wouldn't say 'no' to a third book - I like the parts of the story where Kay is interacting with clients and their owners, and the scenes at her office feel balanced and witty.  But I'm not sure if I'll rush out to get it - and it'll probably be in paperback.



Notes from a desperate bibliophile: the 2019 edition

Yesterday, I posted a teaser photo of a project I'd tackled:

 

 

Like any self-respecting bibliophile, I lie awake at night (ok, mornings) and contemplate how I can manipulate time and space to create more room for books.  Several weeks ago, as I lie contemplating, and imagining someday turning my room into a library (were we to ever renovate), I noticed the space above my wardrobes:

 

  

 

I'm thinking to myself: that's a lot of wasted space ... I could pile books up there, but that would look messy.  And desperate; maybe a tiny bit hoarder-ish.  But if I put shelves up there...

 

So I started looking around, and found nothing that wasn't cheap particleboard/MDF, and it wasn't actually cheap.  Nor anything that would look right.  Then I started imagining what "right" would look like, and I realised it didn't have to be complicated.  Sturdy, yes, but otherwise, the simpler the better.

 

I am a crap carpenter, but I can do simple.  Especially if I can get cut to measure lumber.  A quick bit of searching and I found a place 10 minutes away that would cut anything except plywood for free.  (The big box hardware store - a store I hate on principle - only does it in certain locations, though they don't tell you which ones, and charge you for each cut.)

 

I measured, then sketched out what I wanted/needed, and headed to the lumber/timber store.  An incredibly nice, patient staff member helped me out, showing me the pine posts I'd planned to use.  He got called away just long enough for me to spot the Cypress posts they had in stock, and when he returned saw me admiring them. He made the off-hand comment that they were much cheaper than the pine, which was pressure treated; something I'd wanted to avoid.  Then he helped me decide how to do the tops and fronts without using plywood, pick out all the wood, and then he cut it all to size for me.  Total cost for all the wood, some L-brackets and a packet of self-drilling screws (best. invention. ever):  less than $250AU (about$180US).

 

MT was on the sidelines due to a painful rheumatism flare-up, which he was not happy about, but while I was out running around the lumber-yard, he was using the time wisely.  He pulled all his books off the top of the bookcase they'd been piled on precariously, in preparation for their new home. 

 

 

He refused to take a picture of what they'd looked like before on the grounds that he wasn't sure he couldn't be charged with reckless endangerment after the fact.  But to give you an idea: he had 151 books piled on top of an extended IKEA Billy Bookcase (the wide one).

 

I got home and sealed it all up with a clear acrylic; cypress has to be sealed but the grain was too beautiful to hide.  At the same time, MT painted the top boards black - they were untreated pine and soooo did not match the cypress.  Not even in a funky, eclectic, non-matchy way.

 

 

That was all yesterday.  This morning, I marked everything up and stared putting it all together:

 

 

 

There are two sizes:  25cm (~10 inches) and 50cm (~20 inches).  There's a hardwood cross-bar in the front of each one to act as a back-stop for the books that sit in front.  16 screws hold each unit together.  Since they're sitting on wardrobes that are a bit over 3 meters (just over 12 feet) high, I did not stress the finishing touches, like covering the screws.

 

The hardest part was getting them up on top of the 'robes - they're HEAVY.  But once we did:

 

They fit just as I'd hoped they would, and now give us three tiers of space for the books we want to keep, but likely won't need to access more than a couple of times a year, if that.

 

We're in the process of combing through the library for the books to add, but here's what it looks like so far.  

 

 

I'll post a final picture once all the books are up there (we had to take a break; it's like the stairmaster from hell hauling the books up the ladder). 



There's an air of desperation at la casa de los libros

 

Stay tuned... hopefully this is going to work...



That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words And Their Tangled Histories

That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words And Their Tangled Histories - Ross Petras, Kathryn Petras

My 'discovery' of this book is a perfect example for the argument of using a continuity of style on book covers.  A year or two ago, I bought and read You're Saying it Wrong, book about commonly mispronounced words, and loved it (I've been saying Turmeric and Van Gogh wrong all. my. life.)  I recognised the similar cover on this, the authors' newest, and immediately snatched it up.

 

I should really rate this 4.5 stars, because in retrospect, I can recall several typographical and at least 1 grammatical error in the text, which seems especially egregious in a book about grammar.  But I suppose perfection is an unreasonable expectation even for a grammar book.  Actually, I don't believe that, but I am too lazy to adjust my rating.

 

Other than that, it's an excellent reference for word pairs that are often confused with each other, including the obvious affect/effect as well as some I'd never thought about before but were obvious when I saw them, like trooper/trouper, flair/flare and flout/flaunt. Also included are words/terms that are just used wrong, like epicentre and ambivalent.  

 

Scattered throughout the list are a few spreads that cover when to use who/whom, the correct usage of lay/lie (I found their explanation for this the most useful I've ever read), and a general guide for latin and greek plurality: when to use 'i', 'a', 'ae', and 's'.  This one sort of cleared up a running debate MT and I have had concerning the plural of 'platypus' - while we both favoured 'platypi' on aesthetic grounds (it sounds better than 'platypuses', which is what the local sanctuary has settled on), it would seem logical to follow the same rule used for 'octopus', which is 'octopodes'.  I find this a happy compromise (MT is stubbornly sticking to the incorrect but more melodious platypi).

 

Each entry includes an example of the incorrect usage, the etymological history of the word/words, and most of the time, examples of correct usage for each word as well as basic definitions of each (nb: the author's state upfront that this is based on the North American dialect of English).  It's well written, not dry, and informative.  It will be a handy reference in the future when I'm unsure which word to use.

 



Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops - Jen Campbell

I was looking for something to read last night after finishing Notes from a Public Typewriter and found this in my stacks.  I have no recollection of buying it.  In fact, not only was I prepared to swear I didn't have it, I actually did say, not 48 hours ago, that I didn't have a copy.  Excellent organisation skills I have, no?

 

Anyhoo... this was just the thing after reading Notes from a Public Typewriter - it was a similar subject, but much lighter, funnier and absolutely not philosophical.  I wavered between 3.5 and 4 stars because I'd have liked the collection to be a little longer.

 

A few of the many examples that 

... made me chuckle:

 

Customer: Do you have Agatha Christie's Death in Denial?

 

 

... made me laugh out loud:

 

Customer: Oh look, they've got a section on dictionaries.  Perhaps we should get your brother one for school, for Spanish, what do you think?

 

Her daughter: Can we get one for when we go to Scotland for our holidays?

 

Customer: They talk English in Scotland, too, sweetie.

 

 

... made me rage:

 

Customer:  I'm just going to nip to the supermarket to do the weekly shop.  I'm going to leave my sons here, is that ok?  They're 3 and 5.  They're no bother.

 

and 

 

Customer (holding up a copy of a Harry Potter book): This doesn't have anything ... weird in it does it?

Bookseller: You mean, like, werewolves?

Customer: No, (whispers) - gays.

Bookseller: ...right.

 

A quick, easy and enjoyable read.



Notes from a Public Typewriter

Notes From A Public Typewriter - Michael Gustafson, Oliver Uberti

When Literati Books opened in Ann Arbor Michigan, the owner put an old typewriter out in the stacks, with a sheet of paper in it, curious about what might happen.  In his wildest dreams, he imagined a sort of never ending story, where each patron would pick up where the last one left off; a true community built novel. Pragmatically, he figured he'd end up with a lot of nonsense or jokes about bodily functions.

 

What he got was something totally different and totally special.  People wrote some silly stuff, but they also wrote poems, posed philosophical questions, proposed, broke up, and otherwise bared their souls.  After several years of collecting the daily contributions, Gustafson was convinced to collect his favourites into what became this book.

 

Notes from a Public Typewriter is short, I think I read the whole thing in about an hour.  It's almost purely a collection of what Gustafson considered the best, the funniest, the most touching.  There are photos of the shop and patrons throughout, and every few pages, Gustafson writes a short essay-type piece to introduce context to some of the inclusions.

 

The 5 stars is because this book, for all its simplicity, moved me.  By the end, it was hard to stay dry-eyed, to be honest.  I'm sure Gustafson has collected a LOT of dreck over the years, but the simple lines he included here were honest, heart-felt, and sometimes raw.  

 

I don't go looking for books that reveal what goes on beneath the surface, so I'm really no judge, but this one worked for me.  What is on the face of it an anonymous, ever changing, mass of humanity going in and out the doors of one shop, is revealed in this short volume to be instead the very definition of a community.



The Devereaux Legacy

The Devereaux Legacy - Carolyn Hart

An early stand-alone mystery from Carolyn Hart, that was originally bought by Harlequin and marketed as a gothic romance.  This is one of those stories that is best discovered by someone who hasn't already read a fair variety of romantic suspense.  With nothing to compare it to, one might find this a very lively and escapist story.

 

Leah arrives in South Carolina after the death of her paternal grandmother and Leah's subsequent discovery that she herself has been presumed dead since she was 2.  Wanting to find out why, and the truth about what happened to her parents, she arrives at the Devereaux Plantation full of questions, discovering she still has a maternal grandmother who is thrilled she's alive, and 3 cousins that might not be so thrilled.

 

This slim volume reads exactly like a Barbara Michaels in many respects.  Hart says in the introduction to this re-issue that she suddenly found herself in a market that had no interest in women writing murder mysteries, and after 9 years of rejection, found that she could sell her books if she made them romances.  This bow to contemporary demands is apparent in the romance: it's insta-love at it's most glaring, and more than a little bit naive and awkward.  

 

Sandwiched in between in the awkward romance is, unfortunately, only a slightly less awkward mystery, but knowing what I know about Hart's real mysteries, I have no problem believing it's because she had to cram it in along the edges.  It's a good mystery; just not one that was allowed the space to unfold naturally.

 

It's definitely nowhere close to Hart's normal standards of writing, but hints of what will come in her future Death on Demand series are evident: haunting atmosphere and fully fleshed out characters that are capable of passionate acts of love and cruelty.