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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.

For the Classic Mystery Fans ...

Otto Penzler has announced the establishment of Penzler Publishing, making its "debut this fall with the launch of American Mystery Classics, a line of newly-reissued mystery and detective fiction from the years between the first and second World Wars, also known as the genre’s Golden Age."


This is a link to their inaugural catalog/list, but titles include:

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan - Stuart Palmer  The Red Lamp - Mary Roberts Rinehart  The So Blue Marble - Dorothy B. Hughes  


Looks like some oldies and goodies are getting the love they deserve. 

Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything

Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything - Nancy Martin

I enjoyed this as much as I did because I really love Nancy Martin's writing, her Blackbird Sisters series was one of my all-time favorites.  Unfortunately, it ended after the last book and even though the title of this one had me raising my eyebrows, I thought, why not?


Story wise... meh.  It didn't quite work, mostly because the twist at the end felt like an afterthought, bringing the whole story to an unrealistic conclusion.  The romance aspect didn't quite work either - the chemistry was there, but the manufactured obstacle's resolution lacked emotional sincerity; I was left wondering why it even existed at all.


But I did love the setting, the characters and the writing, which made it easy to lose myself for a couple of hours, so no regrets.  Mostly, this book felt like an accomplished writer experimenting; stretching her boundaries.  Not up to snuff, but not a waste of time, either.

A Magical Match (Witchcraft Mystery, #9)

A Magical Match - Juliet Blackwell

I debated between 3.5 and 4 stars; there's the whole boyfriend-in-peril trope being used, and the mom angst, but both ended up being sort of minimal to the story, and the idea of a doppelgänger was just too interesting.  Bonus points for possibly the weirdest use of silverfish ever.


The plot was less focused than Blackwell's usual fare, but it was still an enjoyable few hours and that's pretty much the sum total of my expectations for cozies.  A fiendishly good murder plot is a bonus, and this one lacked that, but great characters make up for a lot.  

Reading progress update: I've read 156 out of 320 pages.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Eserine, Hemlock and Monkshood.  Decisions, decisions.  Definitely not monkshood.  It seems the height of common sense to avoid any plant called the most poisonous plant in Europe.  And a horrible way to go.  Hemlock sounds painless and dignified if you believe Plato's description of Aristotle's death, but as Harkup points out, there are many different types of Hemlock; get the wrong one and it's a nasty, painful way to go.  Even the "right" Hemlock might not be as painless as historical records would have us believe.  All in all, too high a margin for error.


My personal "pick your poison" would have to be Eserine; while completely undignified, all anecdotal evidence points to a painless death.  Victims have even been described as 'docile'.  Even more in its favor, Eserine has a very high recovery rate if caught quickly, with no lingering effects.  Sign me up for the "E" option should I ever find myself in a totally fictional world where I'm forced to pick my poison.  Real life never looked so cheerful!


Themis-Athena points out in her update that the Hemlock chapter is rather more spoilerific than Harkup claims.  I definitely don't refute that, but having read the Hemlock chapter with an eye towards this possibility, and having not read Five Little Pigs (yet), I will add this for anyone concerned about the possibility:  I did not find anything in the chapter to be spoilery... BUT given what TA said, I suspect if I read Five Little Pigs in the very near future, there'd be enough in what little Harkup said and didn't say, to make the pieces slide together faster.  Your mileage may vary, but I know that between now and my reading of Five Little Pigs I will have long forgotten the details.

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling - David Wolman

For language lovers and orthographists, this is undoubtedly a good introductory read.  It's the story of English spelling as told from the slant of spelling reform through the ages.


Wolman is writing from the perspective of a bad speller and laments that English is so complicated, with so many exceptions to standardisation.  Why must it be so hard to spell?


While I was never at risk of winning any spelling bees, I've never found spelling particularly challenging, but I enjoyed the history (80-90% of all English words aren't English in origins; we are the supreme linguistic magpies), and the debates, efforts and arguments to simplify spelling were ... interesting.  I didn't agree with most of them, but I admired their tenacity and passion. 


I found some of Wolman's assertions over simplified; for example, that the 'd' in words like sledge, wedge, edge, judge, and fudge is silent, so why is it there?  An unscientific and ad hoc survey of friends shows that the 'd' is subtle, but not silent; it hardens that g sound just a tiny bit, enough that sledge sounds different that slege.  The 'd's' absence becomes even more pronounced in wedge (wege) and edge (ege).  There are better examples of his argument about extraneous silent letters, but even those can be argued to be useful.  Not/knot for example - that 'k' is definitely silent - but handy when reading sentences like: Better not tie the knot too tight.  


I guess what I'm trying to say is that this is a good book, but its strict focus on just orthography limits its scope and its argument.  A conversation about spelling that doesn't take into account reading comprehension is really only half a conversation.  I am, admittedly, a prescriptivist; I feel strongly that there are correct spellings and incorrect spellings, and that there's a time and place for 'text-speak', but it should not be on school exams.  I think this puts me dangerously on the edge of 'fuddy-duddy', but I'm still rebel enough to drop all those u's the Brits are fond of, and I still insist on swapping my 're' for 'er' (meter/metre, etc.) so I'm not quite ready for the cane-waving just yet.  ;-)


I have several of David Crystal's works (whom Wolman cites frequently), and I think this book will have served as a terrific jumping-off point for Crystal's titles.

Sleepy Head: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night

Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night - Henry Nicholls

As one or two of my BL friends might know, I have narcolepsy; I was diagnosed almost 5 years ago, but it's likely I've had it most of my life - because I don't suffer from cataplexy (the uncontrollable bouts of muscle paralysis), we all just thought I was lazy.


That sounds like a jest, but it isn't; so little is known about narcolepsy, cataplexy and all the other sleep disorders that science is just beginning to focus on, that society tends to equate someone being tired during the day with being lazy, hungover or a new parent. I don't overindulge and I'm not a parent, so ... lazy.   Except it turns out I'm not, something my sleep doctor has been trying to tell me for 4.5 years, but I didn't really believe until I read this book.


Now I know, really know, that I have been the unfortunate victim of an auto-immune response run amok.  My immune system killed off the areas of my brain responsible for making hypocretin, probably because the cells looked too much like strep, or flu.  As Nicholls explains, hypocretin does a LOT for us, not the least of which includes making sure the body is either asleep or awake (not both), modulates dopamine and serotonin, and controls the trigger for REM.  The upside for narcoleptics: we're a little less likely to suffer addictions; the downside: it's a moot point, since we don't need drugs to hallucinate.  


This was the thing I wanted most from this book and I got it - I have a much greater understanding of what's going on at a chemical level in my brain.  I am also left with no doubt as to whether or not I really have narcolepsy.  This is a spectrum disorder, and I am solidly on the spectrum.


But I learned so much more, because this book isn't just about Narcolepsy; the author spends a solid amount of time and focus on other sleep disorders too; those that are intimately familiar to a large number of people, like insomnia, and those that are just now beginning to be formally identified, like Restless Leg Syndrome and the rare but terrifying Fatal Familial Insomnia; a prion disease that stops sleep completely and is always fatal.


This isn't a self help book, or a book of strategies for dealing with sleep disorders, but the author does discuss a few different avenues science is taking towards sleep management, and these apply to pretty much anyone searching for healthy sleep.  I could wish for more coverage of current medical treatments, but honestly, there really aren't that many, though research tantalisingly looks to be on the right track.


If you're interested in sleep disorders in general, and the science of sleep, this is a good introduction to both, though the author's battle with narcolepsy is what gives the book its focus.  He includes a very thorough notes section with complete citations, and a section of recommended further reading that includes several titles aimed at the broader topic of sleep's importance to everyone's health, as well as a few titles more explicitly aimed at specific sleep disorders.  While this is not one I'd generally recommend to everyone, it's definitely informative to anyone suffering from a lack of healthy sleep.

The Flat Book Society: List is open September nominations.

Just a note to say the voting list has been cleared and is open for nominations.  This is for the September book, because we like to plan ahead.  Way ahead.  


The Flat Book Society: July read announcement

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

The membership has spoken and it seems The Flat Bookers are feeling catty.


By a resounding margin, our July Group Read will be The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions by Thomas McNamee


Our feline companions are much-loved but often mysterious. In The Inner Life of Cats, Thomas McNamee blends scientific reportage with engaging, illustrative anecdotes about his own beloved cat, Augusta, to explore and illuminate the secrets and enigmas of her kind.

As it begins, The Inner Life of Cats follows the development of the young Augusta while simultaneously explaining the basics of a kitten’s physiological and psychological development. As the narrative progresses, McNamee also charts cats’ evolution, explores a feral cat colony in Rome, tells the story of Augusta’s life and adventures, and consults with behavioral experts, animal activists, and researchers, who will help readers more fully understand cats.

McNamee shows that with deeper knowledge of cats’ developmental phases and individual idiosyncrasies, we can do a better job of guiding cats’ maturation and improving the quality of their lives. Readers’ relationships with their feline friends will be happier and more harmonious because of this book.


This read will begin July 1st, so if you're interested in learning more about how cats tick, please feel free to join us at The Flat Book Society.



Reading progress update: I've read 43 out of 352 pages.

Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night - Henry Nicholls

Early in - not even up to chapter 2 yet, but so far, it's really good.  I have a vested interest in the subject, but the author states up front that the book is aimed at investigating general sleep disorders, not just narcolepsy, and so far, this is proving to be the case.

Reading progress update: I've read 108 out of 320 pages.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Life has been distracting lately, so I'm behind in my reading, but I've finished up through the Cyanide and Digitalis chapters.


The Cyanide chapter didn't offer anything startlingly new to me, but I enjoyed the refresher in chemical reactions that cause cyanide to be so deadly so quickly.  


The Digitalis chapter - and I remember this from the first read too - was more of a struggle to get through.  For some reason, chemistry fascinates me, but anatomy, not so much.  The breakdown of how the heart works should have been something to fascinate, instead I found myself fighting the urge to skim.


Harkup rewarded me though, towards the end of the chapter, with this gem:


"...a post-mortem is ordered, but Poirot doesn't bother to wait for the results.  His superior brain is capable of solving the crime before it is confirmed that a crime has even been committed."


Me thinks maybe Harkup is a Miss Marple fan?

Reading progress update: I've read 31 out of 211 pages.

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling - David Wolman

Good so far, but more importantly, this is the second book this month I've pulled off one of the TBR ranges that was not on my BookLikes shelves.  I suspect when I go to add them, I become distracted with updating the book record and forget to hit the "Planning to Read" button.


Multitasking is an urban myth in my world.


But I'm getting a little anxious about just how far off my BL shelves might be relative to reality.

"All Glory to the Science Rules of Science!"

From a column in NewScientist magazine (which is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, sorry)**:


Meanwhile, chimeras are possibly the most controversial human brain surrogate. Deep ethical concerns about them have been growing. In 2017, an investigation found that tiny human brain pieces had been implanted into rats and mice, raising the hackles of bioethicists who worried about the prospect of human-like brain tissue maturing in rodents.


Suddenly, Seanan McGuire's Aeslin mice don't seem so mythical or cryptozoological. 





**(For those interested, Discover Magazine also has an article concerning the bioethics of tiny "brains" grown in a lab, with references to Ed Yong, whom the Flat Book Society members might recognise as the author of I Contain Multitudes.)

Source: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23831761-500-why-growing-human-brain-tissue-in-a-dish-is-an-ethical-minefield

The Circular Study

The Circular Study - Anna Katharine Green

In my unofficial quest to read all of Anna Katherine Green's work, The Circular Study is my first Amelia Butterworth mystery.  Amelia Butterworth is credited as the prototype of the spinster amateur detective, a category that includes Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver, and Christie's infamous Miss Marple.  Green is also credited as the first to develop the series detective with her Ebenezer Gryce (of the New York Metropolitan Police Force) series of mysteries.  This book is also my first introduction to Gryce.


Compared to The Mayor's Wife (the only other full-length AKG book I've read so far, published 7 years after this one), the writing is far more florid, but the plot is ahead of its time.  This is a straight up murder mystery, with no romance, but there is a fair amount of romantic narrative, in the form of a character's statement.  This was really heavy handed; a reader could be forgiven for thinking the woman described was a contemporary Blessed Madonna (no, not the singer, the other one).  There were also a few scenes between Gryce and Butterworth that became a bit thick with mutual appreciation.  There was a lot of sunshine being blown up a lot of skirts in those scenes.


But the plotting makes up for a lot of it.  The eponymous Circular Study is a room full of secrets: a panel of buttons that controlled the color of the electric lighting (this was 1900, long before electric lighting became common, never mind coloured lighting), secret panels and ... bird cages.  There's a deaf-mute butler, and a talking starling too.  Behind it all is the mother of all schemes.  One that could be called diabolical.


In addition to the issues I had with the writing, as mentioned above, the book presents additional problems, but these issue primarily from the 118 years between publication and my reading.  Contemporary attitudes, social structures, and morays all struggle to translate to a modern sensibility, but though I liked The Mayor's Wife better overall, this is still a mystery well-worth reading, especially for those aficionados of the genre.  That she blazed the trail for mystery writers including Doyle, Christie and Sayers, but has since been languishing in obscurity is a tragedy in itself.  Luckily for those with e-readers, Project Gutenberg has most, if not all of her work available; those with a preference for print should be able to source copies of this amazing writer with be no problem, if my experience is any indication.  Highly recommended.

3 Thirds of a Ghost (Jupiter Jones, #2)

3 Thirds of a Ghost - Timothy Fuller

I think this is one of those books I just stumbled across somewhere (probably Mysterious Books)  that was inexpensive enough, and caught my attention with the title (spoiler alert: not a ghost story).  I'd never heard of Timothy Fuller and I just lost about 2 hours of my life trying to find out something about his career.  I finally found a standard biography on an Italian website (which has been added to the author's bio here on BookLikes, with full source credit), and the following, which I found by, in desperation, trolling images in hopes that I'd find a pic of the "About the author":




Those were the golden days, eh?  When you could be outwardly snarky and a tiny bit sexist in your back-of-the-cover bio and nobody thought anything of it?  Well, the story itself goes a bit further, as one of the main characters, and suspects is a ... wait for it...




Yep, fellow golden age mystery lovers, Fuller was a rule breaker.  And maybe just a teensy bit racist, but I can't feel confident about that.  The book has a large satirical streak, is self-referential, and openly acknowledges the trope and stereotype of the Chinaman in mysteries.  So, while I flinch just seeing the word Chinaman, I suspect in the context of this book it's not bigotry on the part of the author, just part of the story's self-referentialism.


Now that I've done such a good job of selling it, I do have to say it's worth reading.  It's fun, it's well written, and it's sprinkled with surprising moments of social commentary.  For example:


We've just been discussing the public reaction to a murder of this kind. There's bound to be more excitement than sorrow. Quite usual, perhaps, but is it the result of the popularity of mystery fiction? Which came first? Was the public educated to its interest by the mystery story or was the mystery story the result of a public demand for more mysteries?


or this rather profound, yet short-sighted view of one of the characters:


There won't be a new type of crime and therefore the mystery story is on the way out. There've been three stages of its development. Novelty, a believable realism, and lastly the fad of the puzzle. The novelty couldn't last, realism went out with their mass production, and a mere puzzle can't stand up for long in book form.



And this take-no-prisoners observation:


Obviously Burton and Day had exhausted their talk about Newbury's murder during the course of the evening and until something new developed Jupiter was ready to forget it himself. The ease with which he could put it out of his mind was not surprising to him. If the human ability to forget could cause a second World War it was no trick to abandon a couple of murders.


There's a bit of an Edmund Crispin vibe to the writing and setting (albeit in Boston rather than Oxford) although it's not as tongue-in-cheek as Crispin.  It's a slim tome, only 127 pages, but it's a full mystery; any longer, and frankly, I think there'd be problems with pacing.


The plotting was superb; not precisely fair-play, but close enough that the reader doesn't feel cheated.  I had not. a. clue.  The ending was fantastic but not unique (although in 1932 it might have been).


It turns out that this is the 2nd book in a series centered on Jupiter Jones, the protagonist.  The books are out of print, which is a shame - they're definitely worthy of being amongst the reprinted classics in my opinion (at least, this one is).  Luckily, they seem to be easily and affordably available online as used hardcovers and paperbacks.  I'll be seeking out the rest of the books in the series.  Definitely recommended for the Golden Agers out there.

Reading progress update: I've read 70 out of 320 pages.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

The Belladonna chapter is much shorter than the Arsenic chapter, and I raced through it last night.  I know the basic gardener-level stuff about Belladonna, the nightshade family and atropine but I appreciated the refresher on the alkaloid's interactions with the body at a cellular level.  Even though I read the book for the first time last year, I'm benefitting enormously from the re-read; so much of the chemistry didn't stick the first time around.  I particularly like how she covered atropine as a poison and an antidote, clearly illustrating the fine line between a substances ability to be a saviour, or an executioner.

BookLikes friends are the BEST!!!

BrokenTune did the nicest thing a couple of months ago - she surprised me by getting a copy of Kathryn Markup's book - our current Flat Book Society read - signed for me by the author, when she attended an event. 


There was some postal dramas (AusPost sucks) but today MT came home with:



BT and I have been WAITING for this to arrive and I've been nagging MT all week: did it come today? did it come TODAY?? and FINALLY today was the day he pulled out the envelope.  Inside (in perfect condition):




There are not enough nice words - BrokenTune planned this out of the blue and frankly, I was totally gobsmacked when she told me.  I'm so excited to add this to my library and to BT: massive, massive thanks; if there's such a thing as book karma (and postal karma), you're solidly in the black!  :D


Danke für das schöne Geschenk.   (God, I hope that's right!!!)