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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.

Reading progress update: I've read 202 out of 320 pages.

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

Opium:  It seems no matter what form you take, all roads lead to morphine.

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

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

Nicotine.  Two Three thoughts come to mind after reading this chapter.  The first:  I have to wonder how many possible medical applications we could have found throughout the ages if we'd studied nicotine before we started smoking tobacco.  I can't help but think medicine has been set back by our own vices.


The second though is less virtuous.  It occurred to me while reading this chapter that the American Indians may have gotten their own back just a little bit by introducing Europe to tobacco.  It certainly doesn't come close to balancing the scales, but it does appeal to me that the exchange of devastating, life-altering diseases wasn't entirely one-sided.


The third thought pertains to the comment Harkup made towards the end, about cigarettes today containing less tobacco and more nicotine that cigarettes from the 30's.  Apparently today they use reconstituted tobacco and additives, which means that really, people today are pretty much smoking the tobacco equivalent of chicken mcnuggets.



Charmed Bones (Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery, #18)

Charmed Bones - Carolyn Haines

They can't all be winners, but man, this one was extra-disappointing.


I don't care for romance for the sake of romance, but I do enjoy a good sub-plot, if the characters have chemistry and it's well written.  Many books ago, Sarah Booth had an almost-romance with a character, and I was hooked on their dynamic, and bummed when it didn't work.  Then after many, many books and many other romantic interests, I finally got my wish; sadly the joy was dinged by one of the most badly edited stories I've seen on paper in a long time (not being a reader of self-published books).


This could have been an amazing story: witches, spells, poisonings, there's-something-in-the-woods, huge claw marks on doors, old houses with secret rooms and tunnels, and my favorite romantic interest back in the saddle.  But if this story wasn't rushed to press, it was definitely neglected by management; major re-writes took place and nobody followed up with proofing to check for continuity.  The results include characters who explicitly remain behind only to suddenly be participating in conversation, and Sarah Booth commenting on kicking the bad guy, giving him a limp, when she never actually kicked him.  Unfortunately, these are just the two I remember - there were others, including a scene where characters change mid-paragraph).


Continuity errors aside, the plotting was a little bit of a mess too: too much going on and not tightly enough written, so the reader really has no hope of following events.  To be fair, Sarah Booth struggled too, so maybe this was deliberate and I just don't care for the device.  I also don't care for the plot twist at the end; it's the second time in as many books where it's been used, and it leaves me feeling played.


If not for the characters, whom I love (although I'm over Tinky and her baby angst), and the familiar landscape of Zinnia, the rating for this would be so much lower.  It's obvious that Haines didn't phone this in: nobody just phones in a plot as convoluted as this, but her editors and Minotaur screwed her and her readers by printing this half-finished effort.  And that's tragic; Haines is worlds better than this and after 17 books, readers deserve better.


Here's hoping #19 reflects previous efforts, and 18 is just an aberration.

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.