Cormoran Strike 1

As I mentioned in my January Reading post, I read J.K. Rowling’s (writing as Robert Galbraith) first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013. I’d quite liked it, but never got around to reading any sequels. This year, I decided to finish up some of my unfinished series and so, to start off, I reread The Cuckoo’s Calling and then went on to read The Silkworm.

I find the character Cormoran Strike very intriguing. There’s his complicated private life with his estranged rock star father, his dead groupie mother, the aunt and uncle who brought him and his sister up – this already has a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. In addition, he also has half-brothers (and maybe sisters, I’m not sure) to contend with (or ignore) and a tempestuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has, it appears, finally broken up. They had a strange co-dependent dysfunctional relationship and it will be interesting to see if this will surface again in later books of the series. There’s also the fact that one of his legs has been amputated and how he deals with this disability – mostly by ignoring any issues with the leg until it becomes so bad that he has to be hospitalized.

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The plotline that Cormoran is the son of this famous rock star but doesn’t want to capitalize on it is well done. I can imagine that it is hard for the children of famous people to build their own independent identity. I can’t help but think that maybe the author has her own children in mind, who probably find it hard sometimes to have such a famous and controversial figure as their mother. Anyway, I like how Cormoran keeps his independence and insists on paying back a loan he got from his father, who pressured him to pay it back although he’s rolling in money. It’ll also be interesting to see if the father ever makes a more direct appearance in the series. Such potential for later novels are part of what make series so addictive to me (if they are well written – if I don’t like a novel, for whatever reason, no potential will entice me to keep following the series).

Robin Ellacott, Cormoran’s partner in his struggling private investigator business, is also a well-rounded, complex character who has a background that is only slowly and tantalizingly being revealed. Will she manage the jealousy of her fiancé, who doesn’t want her to continue working for Cormoran? Why did she break off her university degree in psychology?

In the first novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robin joins Cormoran as a temporary secretary for a week, but stays on longer at reduced pay because she finds the job so interesting, much more than the higher-paying HR job she is supposed to take up. Cormoran has just broken up with his girlfriend and moved into his small office because he is broke and can’t afford a flat. He tries to hide this situation from Robin, and she tactfully pretends not to notice. The main case of the novel is brought to him by the brother of an old deceased school friend. It’s about proving that the death of an adopted sister, Lulu, a well-known model, was not a suicide, but murder. So Cormoran, with support from Robin, investigates Lulu’s last day, all the people she had contact with, her family and friends. Another person is killed, raising the stakes.

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In the second novel in the series, The Silkworm, takes place in the publishing world. Cormoran is hired to find a missing novelist, who disappeared after his slanderous and brutal murder novel was leaked to a couple of publishers, agents and others connected with the publishing world. During the investigation, the relationship between Cormoran and Robin is strained because Robin feels unappreciated by Cormoran and she is also under pressure by her fiancé, who doesn’t like Cormoran (he’s still jealous) and who still wants her to give up the job.

I liked how the mysteries played out in both the novels. I found the supporting characters well drawn and enjoyed the thrilling bits. Am looking forward to reading the next three books.

I am aware that J.K. Rowling is criticized because of some of her statements about transgender issues. I know that some readers have decided not to read her books any longer, but I researched the controversy and discovered that on some points I agree with Rowling while on others I agree with her critics. Therefore, I’m going to continue reading Rowling and will make up my own mind about her work. I’ve always very much enjoyed the Harry Potter books, although there’s lots of things one can argue about in them (that’s half the fun in the case of the Potter books). I’ll have to see how the Cormoran Strike series plays out, but I didn’t find anything heinous in the first two books.

I think that deciding not to read an author because of their opinions is a difficult decision anyhow and needs to be individually determined by each reader. Where do you draw the line? What about classics? They often contain ideas or judgements that were either already obnoxious in their times or later became so. But they also contain brilliant stuff. I think reading about things that I don’t agree with helps me to find my own stance on issues and hones critical thinking skills about what is worth reading and what isn’t. I’m sure there are also cases where the decision is pretty clear-cut, but I don’t think that is the case with Rowling. In any case, I prefer to decide for myself and not rely on others’ judgements.

Keep safe, world.

Love Medicine

By Louise Erdrich. I read this novel early (very early) in January. It is the first part of the Love Medicine series, which is about a community of Ojibwe families who live on or around fictional reservations in Minnesota and North Dakota. The families are the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and Morrisseys as well as the Pillagers and the Lazarres. I’ve copied the family tree in the book and enhanced it with some additional information. The red circles with the numbers refer to the chapters.

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The novel is made up of 16 chapters (with the 17th as a postscript) and each chapter focuses on different characters. Some of the characters don’t have their own chapters but turn up as supporting characters (so to speak). Some of the main characters are explored in more than one chapter. The novel has an episodic structure. The first chapter deals with the death of June Morrissey in 1981 and the final chapter shows the reunion in 1985 between her son, Lipsha Morrisey, and Gerry Nanapush, her lover, who is on the run from the police. In between, the chapters range in chronological order from the 1930 to the 1980 (each chapter is labelled by year).

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The novel contains the stories of four generations. Each chapter, while focusing on one or two characters also shows additional characters, as they are all part of the community. Quite a few chapters deal with Marie Lazarre Kashpaw and Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, who are the matriarchs of their families and who are connected by their love of Nector Kashpaw, who is married to Marie, but has an affair with Lulu. The two women start out as enemies who forge an unlikely friendship in old age. The other chapters of the book deal with the lives of their children and grandchildren. They are all very different people who live very different lives. Some of them are soldiers, some are criminals; there’s an entrepreneur and a kind of shaman. Some are likeable, some are horrible, all are multifaceted and rounded, none are just cardboard cutouts. Some of the stories are tragic, some are funny, all are engaging. There are spiritual and supernatural touches from Native American and Catholic religions and folklore, but there’s also just normal everyday life. The stories that make up the novel weave a kind of web or create a mosaic. Despite the episodic structure, it’s easy to follow and there’s a sense that the parts form a whole; everything fits together.

I very much enjoyed it and it is definitively a novel that bears rereading, as it is so detailed and full of life. I’m looking forward to meeting the characters again in the next novels in the series.

Keep safe, world.

Island of Shattered Dreams

This novel by Chantal T. Spitz is the January selection of the Goodreads group “Read Around the World Book Club”. It is set in Tahiti (French Polynesia) and is a translation from the French by Jean Anderson. It was originally published in 1991 and was the first novel published by a Mā’ohi writer. It shows the effects of colonization on the Tahitian society through the history of one family from diverse cultures.

The book contains many ancient myths and beliefs and the reader is shown how these ancient myths clash with the new religion and the new way of life brought by the colonizers. The clash of civilizations brings about unrest not only between the Europeans and the Islanders, but also between the Islanders themselves, as some of them align with the colonizers for various reasons, not least a desire for power and money:

Mā’ohi of today, you stand amongst
Those who do not think any more
Those who just follow orders

Those who copy others and reject their own identity
Those who kill their own souls and sell their Land
Those who sell off their homeland for as song
Those who admire the foreigner
And think their neighbour is the better man
Those who bow before injustice
Prostrating themselves before those who despise them.

Mā’ohi, what have they done to you?
Mā’ohi, what have you done to yourself?

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 243

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The novel contains myths and poetry interwoven with the story of the family. The family story starts with Tematua, who grows up traditionally on one of the islands. As a young man, he and some of his friends and peers are enticed away to fight in Europe in WWI (or maybe it was WWII? I’m not quite sure, the novel doesn’t mention details) for the French. Some of they are killed, and Tematua is traumatized on his return, although he finds healing of sorts on his island. Later, he falls in love and marries Emily-Emere, a mixed-race child whose mother is Mā’ohi and whose father is a rich English landowner. The love between her mother and father is doomed, because her father is already (albeit unhappily) married to a white woman. Tematua and Emere build a life that mixes Mā’ohi tradition and the European way of life. They have three children, who spend their childhood living on an island in the traditional way, but then move to the city for further schooling and to France to study. There’s the first-born boy, Terii, a daughter Eritapeta and Tetiare the third daughter. Sadly, all of them grow up to find it hard to reconcile their Mā’ohi background with their European schooling:

Emere and Tematua’s children, a mixture of two cultures, will never be whole. When their minds and spirits come to understand the world of the white people, their souls will cry out with the pain of their Land and their People. Eternal uprooting of the spirit. Immortal anchoring of the belly.

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 1043

Later on in the novel, Tematua and Emere lose their land to the French, who build a nuclear testing facility on the site. Their family tries to fight against this decision, but cannot prevail, as the land belongs to Emere’s father, who is keen on making money, and because the corrupt local government accepts money from the French authorities instead of supporting their own people and saving their own land.

The reader is shown how the nuclear facility is built and how the Europeans who run it are isolated from and look down on the original owners of the land. One of the scientists, Laura Lebrun, tries to build a relationship with the Mā’ohi and falls in love with Terii, who returns her love. But their love too is doomed, because Terii cannot live with a lover who is responsible for testing nuclear bombs. Neither of them can bridge that deep gap and so they part again. Meanwhile, Terii and Tetiare study and work to learn about their own Mā’ohi culture. Tetiare eventually wants to become a writer, to tell her people their history and give them back dignity and hope. Terii tells her (because she is having doubts about the writing):

“You have to publish your story. It doesn’t matter what the critics say, and they won’t be kind, you can count on that. The dream passed on by oral tradition is dying because we can’t remember, and we must bring it back to life through writing. Others after you will write a piece of the dream and in the end it will become a reality.”

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 2194

The novel ends on a sad note with the separation of Terii and Laura, but Tetiare’s writing gives hope that things may improve for the next generations.

The novel’s mixture of myth, poetry, political criticism and one family’s story is very creative and quite unusual (at least to me, I can’t remember having read a novel like this before). Very powerful and very moving and also differentiated, finding good and bad on both sides of the cultural divide. Very though-provoking. I found it tragic in places. The vision of hope at the end seems only tentative, but at least there is some hope.

Keep safe, world.

Chain of Associations

On the morning walk with Curious Dog last Friday, I was distracted and followed CD to the left at the top of the hill in the woods where we usually go right. So, we ended up on a trail that we don’t walk too often (mainly because it’s dog-walker central and I usually like to take the paths less travelled). And I found, screwed to a tree (hope the screws aren’t bad for the tree), a wooden sign (see the photo) saying in German:

Hoffnung ist nicht
die Überzeugung,
dass etwas gut
ausgeht, sondern
die Gewissheit,
dass etwas Sinn
macht, egal wie
es ausgeht.

Having googled it, I found that it’s a quote attributed to Václav Havel. I also googled the English translation:

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

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That sign hadn’t been there the last time Curious Dog and I walked that trail which was either in December or January. I spent good part of the rest of our walk wondering who the quote was by, who had put it up and, most importantly, whether I agreed with the definition. I rather think I don’t. Hope isn’t a “conviction” and it definitively isn’t a “certainty” and I don’t see what “making sense” has to do with it, either. Still, it’s intriguing and fun to discover a random quote in the woods.

In my warm and cozy bed this morning I was reading my daily poems, not from my Irish poetry anthology, because that was too unwieldy to lug to Bavaria, but from a smaller paperback called Final Harvest, a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems which was given to me years ago by my American Literature professor. I came across poem 254:

254

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me

I prefer this way of defining hope to Václav Havel’s.

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And then I remembered a short novel I’d read a couple of years ago, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter. It’s a very short, poetic novella (although I think it was also produced as a play) about a father and his two young sons who must deal with the sudden death of their mother and wife. Desolated, they are visited by Crow, a kind of trickster figure from the poetry of Ted Hughes. I remember very much liking the novella and being inspired by it to get a copy of Ted Hughes Collected Poems, which I started reading in October 2019. I put it down for a while early 2020 because I found it heavy going and hard to understand. I do want to take it up again, it’s still on a heap of books next to my bed. It’s probably something that needs a lot of rereading.

I like it when things lead to other things, books to other books. It’s part of the magic of reading, seeing connections, going down odd paths to be delighted by things one might otherwise never have stumbled across. And isn’t it amazing when such a chain of associations is started by a random quote one finds nailed to a tree in the woods?

Keep safe, world.

Piranesi

This was the first novel I read this year. It is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, the author of Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell and it was published in autumn last year. I wanted to read it already last year, but didn’t get around to it, which was strange, because I had been anticipating its release all year.

Now, I had a rough start with JS & Mr N. I got it as a hardcover in 2004, right when it was published (maybe even as a present, I can’t quite remember). I thought it would be right up my alley, a lovely thick fantasy novel. I saved it up for my annual autumn vacation on the Baltic and then… I got bogged down after maybe the first third. I didn’t pick it up again until 2019, and then I loved it. I guess my tastes had evolved.

I think I didn’t get into it on my first reading, because it isn’t written like a typical fantasy novel. It’s written like a 19th century novel and I wasn’t into reading such a huge book in such a style at the time. It’s also not pure fantasy but also a kind of alternative history of England during the Napoleonic Wars with fantastic elements. It’s all about how England used to be a magical place, full of fairies and magicians, but from which the magic had gradually disappeared. Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange are the only real magicians left and they revive the practice of magic in England. They have a tumultuous relationship as master and pupil, rivals, and friends. Fairies (pretty terrifying ones) and fairy realms also play an important role. The novel has hundreds of footnotes referencing made-up works of history and magic which gives the world-building verisimilitude. It’s intricate and detailed and sometimes a little slow going, but it grows on you. When I started it again in 2019 I loved it so much that I looked up the author and found her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The eight stories in the collection are also set in the world of JS & Mr N and explore women magicians (who had not played a role in the earlier novel). I also loved these tales.

So, I was thrilled to find that a new novel was to be published in 2020. I got Piranesi for Christmas from my Partner and started reading it early in January.

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The novel is about a character called Piranesi, who lives in a strange, partly ruined House. The House seems to take up all the space in Piranesi’s world, at least he has never seen anything else. The lower floors of the House are drowned in seawater, the higher ones are partly fallen down and open to the sky. The sea contains fish and seaweed which is what Piranesi lives off. There are also birds and another person called “Other” by Piranesi. The Other is preoccupied with the search for a secret knowledge in the House, and Piranesi helps him with the project. Oddly, the Other occasionally brings Piranesi food and clothing that seems like it could have come from our world. Also, the Other isn’t always in the House. Piranesi spends a lot of his time exploring the House, which is like a maze, full of huge rooms that are full of statues that depict ordinary things and people from our world as well as from mythology. There are also the skeletal remains of (I think) 13 people, that Piranesi reverently looks after, kind of like someone might look after the grave of a loved one. At the beginning of the novel, Piranesi is a lovely, slightly strange and absent-minded person, who seems a little simple. But during the course of the novel, he gradually finds out more about the Other, about himself, and about the world beyond the House (and so does the reader). This gradual revelation or uncovering of secrets by Piranesi is very well done. Later in the book, the action speeds up and becomes thrilling. In the end, Piranesi has undergone a psychological transformation and is no longer Piranesi.

The novel is set in our time (it ends in 2018). Like JS & Mr N it contains many details and a few fake books that are mentioned in the text (I always like that). It’s also about the relationship of magic and reality, and the question where the magic that used to be in our world has disappeared to. It has a few allusions to The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (one of the Narnia books) – there’s a quote from the book at the beginning of the novel (together with a quote from a made-up book). The House in Piranesi reminds me of the city of Charn, the place where the White Witch in the Narnia novels hails from. It is also partly ruined and partly filled with statues. But the House seems benevolent, while Charn was chilling. Another parallel from The Magician’s Nephew is the “Wood between the Worlds”, which the House is also reminiscent of and then there is a theme about ethics in science, which also has echoes in The Magician’s Nephew. But really, these are just vague allusion that help to give a depth to the tale, but the novel can easily be enjoyed without noticing these parallels. But it’s nice if you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Piranesi is a great read and I was only sorry that it is a slim novel compared to JS & Mr N. I finished it in two days (and that was savouring it – I could have read it in one sitting). If you like reading about magic elements intertwined with our mundane world or about explorations both geographical (the House) and psychological (Piranesi’s journey to self-knowledge) or about murder and deceit, all in one book, then it’s a great read.

Piranesi inspired me to read The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth, mentioned here, because the House was like a maze and mazes remind me of labyrinths…

Keep safe, world.

Striking Poems

I wanted to quote a couple of poems (though the first one is just an excerpt) that resonated with me when I recently read them.

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

[…]

By Billy Collins in Janet E. Gardner (ed.), Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition.

That’s exactly why I started this blog (ok, some other things crept in but my original urge was to keep a kind of book journal). Pity I didn’t start sooner.

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Here’s a poem that speaks to me whenever I hear of the latest lapse by politicians and other influential people, although it applies to myself and everyone else, too:

The Design

Goodness is required.
It is part of the design.
Badness is understood.
It is a lapse, and part of the design.

Acknowledgement of the good
and condemnation of the bad
are required. Lapses
are not understood.

By Thomas Kinsella in Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.

Keep safe, world.

Monday Miscellanea

Last week was quite eventful (at least compared to other recent weeks) regarding work and the weather. At work we had a team meeting where we discussed our projects of the year and how best to divide things up amongst the team members. I’d been dreading it, because feared that it would be awfully tedious and that I’d end up with a horrid new project. It actually wasn’t bad. The meeting itself was productive with hardly any boring discussions. I did end up with the project coordination job that I had almost volunteered for ahead of time because it seemed to fit in well with my other tasks, but I also got to drop a couple of small projects that I hadn’t cared for anyway, so that was almost a win. Almost, because the project I’m supposed to coordinate appears to be extremely chaotic and there’s a high risk that it won’t keep to its schedule. Also, not much support from project management, because there doesn’t seem to be a dedicated project management. Apparently, it’s a strategically important project that’s supposed to run itself. If that sounds crazy, it is crazy. Recipe for disaster. I really don’t understand how these things keep happening. I’ve had quite a few such projects in my work experience. Sometimes they work out, often they don’t. Perhaps it will flub its first project milestones and then get reorganized – one can always hope. I already had my first meeting last week to learn what I am supposed to do and what the boundary conditions are, and when I heard about all the unclear responsibilities, I kind of regretted not declining the project and spent a bit of a sleepless night, but I’ve got used to the idea in the meantime. At least it should be interesting.

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Regarding the weather, we had a very cold week and a half. On some nights it got down to -15°C. We also had a bit of snow, about 10 cm, which hardly melted as it stayed cold during the days (around -4°C on average). When it wasn’t snowing, it was sunny with a freezing wind from the Northeast. In the North and middle of Germany, there was much more snow and it caused traffic chaos. At my cousins’ place, they had 50 cm of snow and -20°C, which hasn’t happened for I don’t know how many years. They did an experiment: throwing a cup of boiling water into the air and watching it come down as fine feathery snow (apparently this only works at these low temperatures). The snow was lovely and feathery, very small crystals, not soggy at all. It squeaked underneath our boots when we went walking. As it only snowed once or twice here, the snow on all the paths was trampled flat and grew very slippery. Rather dangerous with Curious Dog’s great talent for pulling on the leash. So, I tried out my new spikes for my Winter boots. They are a kind of rubber sole with spiky screws on the underside that are attached to one’s boots with Velcro fasteners. They worked great on flattened snow and ice; CD could pull all he liked. I got them three years ago and this year was the first chance I had to try them out. I had older ones that I used last month in Bavaria. They belonged to my Dad, but they are not as good as the new ones. It was fun walking with them on my boots. I went on a few nice long walks with Curious Dog in the afternoons. In the mornings, we only walked for about half an hour, as it was too cold for longer walks. He is, after all, an inside dog, not used to such temperatures. Neither am I.

This week the Winter interlude is ending, temperatures are rising, and I guess we’ll end up with the same old wet and muddy conditions we had before (apparently the U.S. is now affected by unusual cold weather in unusual places).

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The only thing I didn’t like about the weather was the cold wind that kept causing my eyes to tear up when we were walking and the fact that the sunny weather gave me a headache for a couple of days. Somehow highs in Winter sometimes don’t agree with me. On Friday, my day off, I woke up with a headache that then made me feel queasy. But it went away after the morning walk and an aspirin. The weekend was otherwise rather ideal. A lot of time for reading and meditation. On Friday I did half of the shopping, on Saturday the other half. I also managed to clean the bathroom on Saturday (including cleaning the partly blocked drain in the bathroom sink – revolting) and I read two books. That made me feel quite accomplished.

One book was a crime novel, The Dry, by Jane Harper. It’s set in Australia in a small farming community much affected by drought. It’s about a multiple murder/suicide that’s unofficially investigated by a policeman friend of the victims who had a shared history with the suspected murderer. Very atmospheric and full of suspense, although I did get an inkling about the real motive for the murders before it was revealed. This is quite odd for me. Usually I never work out the mystery ahead of the reveal. I read this book for my book club very quickly because it was so thrilling. I started reading on Saturday morning and finished it early in the afternoon. Then, after doing a bit of cleaning, I started reading The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. A slim book about the power of reading, which took me only about an hour and a half to finish. It gave me the warm fuzzies. This book was recommended by Steve Donoghue on BookTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3DjZDZaBaQ.

On Sunday, I did a bit more housework and continued reading my poetry anthology, my current short-story collection, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I’ve been reading for a few weeks (it’s a reread, very good). But I will write in more detail about my reading when I tally up my books for February.

I also managed to prepare two book review posts which I will post later this week and watched another couple of episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks with Partner. Partner cooked a new-for-us dish, a celeriac risotto flavoured with capers and sage. Sounds strange but was delicious. Today, Partner’s cooking another new dish, fennel with mango on basmati rice. I’m sure it will also be very nice. It’s great that Partner has become such an adventurous cook. If it were up to me, we’d be repeating the same few dishes all the time.

This week we will be off to Bavaria again (three weeks pass so quickly). My book club will take place later this week, but since it’s a Zoom meeting, I can join from anywhere. One slight upside to the Corona restrictions. Regarding Corona: the numbers in Germany are still improving, but the lockdown remains in place because of the danger of the mutated version of the virus. There are even border checks on the borders to Austria and the Czech Republic because they are so very badly affected by those mutated viruses. Not sure if it will be possible to keep those mutations from gaining more ground in Germany than they already have. Still a very uncertain situation.

Keep safe, world.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 1

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I first started reading this series by Laurie R. King while I was still at university. The first book came out in 1994, the latest in 2020. One of my best friends, who is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, first introduced me to the series, probably in the late 1990s. I’ve got the first six books as paperbacks and the next five as hardcovers as soon as they were published, because I couldn’t wait. But I hit a snag in one of the hardcovers and somehow haven’t managed to read all of them. That was ten years ago. The last of my hardbacks came out in 2011 and in the meantime seven additional books have been published which I haven’t got in any version.

As the early books were some of my favourite crime novels, I want to pick the series up again and read all the books from first to last. The series is about the adventures of Mary Russel and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is of course the character we know and love who was invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. King’s series plays after the end of Conan Doyle’s stories, after Holmes has retired to the countryside to breed and study bees. In January I read the first two books in King’s series.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice or On the Segregation of the Queen

The novel has a small, non-intrusive framing action, which is only mentioned at the beginning in the editor’s preface, written by Laurie R. King, where she tell the reader that one day she received a strange box containing a few manuscripts and some odd knick-knacks. She edited one of the manuscripts and published it but says that she cannot decide if it is fact or fiction.

The next part of the novel is the short author’s prelude, in which Mary Russell appears as the author of the book. She is in her nineties, looking back at her life with Sherlock Holmes, astonished and amused by the fact that all the world takes Sherlock Holmes for a fiction, when she has known him as a real person:

[…] I must assert that the following pages recount the early days and years of my true-life association with Sherlock Holmes.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Bantam, 1996, p. xx.

She talks of the following tale as part of her memoirs and she sets herself up as Holmes equal (not like Dr. Watson, who was always his inferior in intelligence):

Holmes and I were a match from the beginning. He towered over me in experience, but never did his abilities at observation and analysis awe me as they did Watson. My own eyes and mind functioned in precisely the same way.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Bantam, 1996, p. xxi.

So, basically, the reader gets a younger female version of the famous detective, working alongside him and is also expected to consider both as real persons. This conceit very effectively caught my imagination when I first read it, years ago, and I still think it is a brilliant idea.

The novel is narrated by Mary Russell in the first person. At the beginning of the novel she is a young girl, 15 years old, a Jewish-English-American orphan growing up with an aunt who hates and is jealous of her. She has just moved to the village to which Sherlock Holmes has retired and she meets him by almost stumbling over him out on the Sussex downs while he is studying the behaviour of some bees. After a bit of a quarrel they become firm friends and Holmes takes her under his wing and teaches her his way of detection and all sorts of other things. Hence the title Beekeeper’s Apprentice. The novel covers a few years during which Russell supports Holmes with some of his cases, some of which are quite thrilling. She also keeps up her own studies and goes to Oxford where she takes up Theology (much to Holmes’ horror) and Chemistry. Near the end of the novel, they have a run-in with one of Holmes enemies and have to leave the country for a while to regroup before managing to foil the enemy.

During the novel, the reader learns a lot of Russell’s background, how she lost her family and how it affected her; about her intellectual and academic interests. The crime elements are well done and quite suspenseful, but a lot of the focus of the novel is on the development of the characters and the relationship between them. A few of the characters known from Conan Doyle’s stories also turn up, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson, as well as Holmes brother Mycroft and the Scotland Yard detective Lestrade. There are also new characters: Mary’s friends at Oxford, her aunt (who is barely mentioned because Mary can’t stand her) and her farm manager as well as the characters they interact with in their criminal investigations. There’s also the first world war, as Russell and Holmes first meet in 1915 and the trip out of the country to Palestine – many and various are the themes of the novel.

The book is a delightful start to the series. It hooked and pulled me in. If you like mystery novels that feature two intellectuals, their interests, and their relationship in addition to crime elements, you should like the book and the series. If you are a Sherlock Holmes purist, you may not like the series, because it focusses more on Russell than on Holmes and it does take liberties with the famous detective.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women

The second in the series. In it, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes deal with one case (not a few smaller ones as in the first novel). We again have the conceit that Laurie R. King just published a manuscript sent to her (for unknown reasons) by Russell.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary Russell, still the first-person narrator, has graduated from Oxford, written her first theological essay, is just turning 21 and coming into her inheritance, so that she can throw out her aunt and live independently. When in London to deal with her solicitors, she meets an old friend from Oxford, Veronica Beaconsfield, and is drawn into the congregation of a strange woman, Margery Childe, who seems to be creating a religious Christian movement for women. Russell finds Childe quite fascinating and is drawn into tutoring her in feminist theology. Soon, however, there’s an attempt made on Veronica’s life and it appears that in the past a number of Childe’s followers, who had left their fortunes to her community, had met sudden and suspicious deaths. Russell and Holmes start an investigation during which Russell is abducted by the villain in an attempt to also get her fortune by foul means. Of course, Holmes comes to the rescue and together they solve the mystery.

In this novel, there’s a bit of theology (probably quite mundane for experts, but new and interesting to me when I first read it) and there’s a lot of focus on the changing relationship between Mary and Holmes. As I always prefer crime novel that have strong character development and show the lives of the protagonists apart from their detecting jobs, I liked it a lot.

The novel is set in December 1920 to February 1921, so 100 years before the time I read it this year, a fun fact.
I’m going to continue with the series and am looking forward to reading installments new to me (but first there’ll be four or five installments that I’ve already read).

By the way, I’ve also read the Kate Martinelli series by this author, which I also liked and can recommend. There are five books in that series, about a lesbian detective, and the last one is a kind of cross-over with the Russel and Sherlock series.

Keep safe, world.

January Reading

As I was on vacation for the first two weeks of January, I had lots of time for reading. Here’s what I read:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji
I didn’t manage to read the 100 pages for January, but I read the “Introduction” (which was very helpful for understanding the text itself) and the first chapter. I’ll catch up in February. I already think I’m going to enjoy it.

Poetry:

  • Janet E. Gardner (ed.), Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition
    I finished reading the poetry section of this anthology. An excellent diverse selection that I liked a lot.
  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
    I started this anthology last year and am continuing it for my daily poetry reading. It’s great and I’m now starting the last quarter of the book.

Short Stories:

  • Jay Rubin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
  • Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection and The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection
    I finished the first two anthologies in January (started on them last year). As I had a lot of time, I also read the whole second one of Dozois’ annual collections in January. As usual with anthologies, I liked some stories and hated others (this is true for both the sci-fi anthologies and the Japanese short stories). One of the best short stories in the Second Annual Collection was Octavia E. Butler’s “Bloodchild”. I have read all of Butler’s work and love it – her sci-fi always focusses on character development which is not the case with a lot of sci-fi and it also explores knotty ethical questions.

2021_02_09

Non-Fiction:

Patrick Conty, The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth: Architecture, Hidden Language, Myths, and Rituals
This book has been sitting on my shelves unread since 2007. It’s a fascinating and weird exploration of how labyrinth, mazes, and knots can be interpreted to explain reality and even complex theories like quantum mechanics and string theory. It was a bit beyond me in places, I must admit. It is a keeper, though, and I am sure to revisit it (maybe I will understand it better on re-reading). It has lots of graphics and photos of paintings and other artwork, so a very nice edition. I picked it up while on a business trip in Palo Alto.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
This was the selection of the “Booknaturalists” on Intragram. I quite liked it, but it was a kind of memoir that explored what the various fauna and flora meant to the author. I expected more details about the natural world and was therefore a bit disappointed.

Novels:

  • Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams
    The January selection of the Goodreads “Read Around the World” group. It’s set in French Polynesia.
  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
    One of the books I wanted to read last year in December. It features a kind of maze that inspired me to read the book about labyrinths by Conty.
  • Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
    The first of Erdrich’s books that I want to read this year.
  • Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women
    These are the first two books of King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I love the series but have some unread titles on my shelves that I want to get to. And there are lots of new installments that I don’t own yet. I want to catch up on the series. These two were re-reads.
  • J.K. Rowling (alias Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm
    I’d read The Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013 and quite liked it but never continued the series. I enjoyed The Silkworm, too and want to continue on with the series.

I had a very prolific reading month and I enjoyed all of the books I read. I even managed to read a book that’s been on my TBR for years. I’m planning to write more detailed reports on most of the books I read, so I’m keeping the list short without greater details.

Monday Miscellanea

Nothing much has been happening. It’s still lockdown, with no end in sight because of the danger of the new mutated virus strains. The numbers are falling, but there’s the concern that they will rise again quickly if the lockdown is opened too soon.

Work has been going on as usual so far, but the near future will see a sharp uptick in the frequency we have to publish updates to our document. We will be having a team workshop (online, of course) this week to consider all the projects and tasks we need to cover. It seems rather clear to me that we have too many projects and not enough people on my team for all the work. I’m afraid I’ll be saddled with something that I haven’t got much interest in and I also think that I have enough to do anyway, especially with the upcoming frequency increase. Maybe I should volunteer for something ahead of time so that at least it’ll be something I would like to work on, but I do think that I have enough on my plate without asking for more. Perhaps I should just sit tight and wait and see.

The weekend was pleasant with warm and mostly wet weather. All the walks and all the fields around here are soaked and muddy. The other day, while taking Curious Dog for his afternoon walk, we came up to a pedestrian underpass to the railway and found it flooded. Because I didn’t want to return the way we had come, I opted to go through a path in the fields. It was soggy and muddy and at one point, not sure if it was because CD was pulling on the leash as usual, I slipped and landed on my hands and knees. I didn’t hurt myself; it was a soft landing in the mud. But oh, the mess!

Today it is snowing and temperatures for the next ten days or so are to drop to 5-10°C (or lower, although I don’t believe that will happen here). The northern part of Germany is already covered in heaps of snow. There’s been an influx of freezing arctic air and conditions are chaotic. It’s snowing here too (we’re in southern Germany, nearer the middle than to the far south). Usually we don’t get much snow at all. If we are lucky, we’ll get 10 cm this time. It doesn’t seem to have snowed much at our place in Bavaria, which is lucky, because otherwise I’d have been worried. It did snow a lot at Partner’s place, but not as much as he feared. It’s very odd that after two years of hardly any Winter temperatures at all, suddenly, on top of Corona, we also get a colder Winter. I read an article today that explained that this weather was due to climate change in the arctic. Some airstream that keeps the cold artic air up North has weakened and allowed it to stream South, to us. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops in the next few days.

On Saturday, while it was still warm, with wind from the Mediterranean, we had lots of clouds and a weird, slightly yellowish light outside. It was a bit as though it was going to start snowing, except that it was too warm. During the night it rained, and the next morning everything outside was covered in a thin layer of yellow dust. My skylight is quite dirty with it, but it’s too cold to clean. The yellow dirt is dust from the Sahara. We do occasionally get dusty air from Africa, but this weekend it was quite noticeable. So, first a blast from the desert, and now a blast from the arctic.

Other than watching and pondering the weather escapades, I did a bit of reading and a bit of watching TV. Partner and I watched the last episode of The Expanse, which ended on a cliff-hanger. Looking forward to the next season. We also watched the Amazon production Bliss, with Selma Hayek. A waste of time. A very odd Matrix-like sci-fi film, not particularly diverting and not very logical.

Partner tried out a couple of new recipes which were a great success. A red cabbage dish where the chopped cabbage was cooked with red lentils and flavoured with a bit of vinegar and soy sauce (also salt, pepper, some sugar). The lentils seemed to disappear but gave a lovely silken texture to the cabbage dish. And a new type of tomato sauce with crumbled smoked tofu with rice, also very nice. On Sunday, I made my mushroom, carrot, and kidney bean stew in dark beer sauce, of which enough was left for today, which is always great. I also baked some oak cookies, but they turned out rather chewy.

Partner and I also played our Settlers of Catan card game again, which Partner won. That makes it twice in a row. But it doesn’t matter who wins, it’s a fun game. Anyway, that was our weekend. A lot of preoccupation with the weather and otherwise quite restful. I even managed to get some housekeeping done, without overdoing it.

Keep safe, world.