Books read in March 2013

The Dust Bowl Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan History
Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen with annotations by David M. Shapard Classic
The Death Maze Ariana Franklin Crime
Relics of the Dead Ariana Franklin Crime
Eleanor of Aquitaine: by the wrath of God, Queen of England Alison Weir History
The Assassin’s Prayer Ariana Franklin Crime
The Shattering Karen Healey YA NZ
Gilt Katherine Longshore YA
Thus Was Adonis Murdered Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Shortest Way to Hades Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Sirens Sang of Murder Sarah Caudwell Crime
The Sybil in her Grave Sarah Caudwell Crime
When We Wake Karen Healey YA NZ
The Devotion of Suspect X Keigo Higashino Crime

Oh sure, this month the copy and paste will work!  How I love the capriciousness of WordPress!

Anyway, 14 books this morning, the year’s maximum so far, and achieved primarily because travel is a great opportunity for reading.  Highlights, lowlights, lights:

The Dust Bowl is a tie-in to a documentary of the same name, and it’s a compelling, thorough history of the United States’ greatest man-made disaster (so far).  What made it notable for me was that I didn’t know the dust bowl was caused by unsustainable agricultural methods coupled with a land boom — I had always been told it was a natural event.

I read the first of Ariana Franklin’s medieval forensic mysteries last month, and it had me eye-rolling quite a bit, but I was also keen to see what happened next.

What happened next was that I eyerolled even more, while nursing increasing contempt for most of the male characters and a good portion of the women.  By the end of the fourth book, I would have given up on the series all together, except the author’s death brought it to a merciful end anyway.

I was particularly troubled by Franklin’s portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine as a complete ninny, so I picked up Alison Weir’s biography.  I instantly found what must be Franklin’s major source for the series — some descriptions of historical figures were almost word for word — but finished it thinking that, yes, Franklin got Eleanor badly wrong.  She was a complex woman, of course, and not always likable even after one takes into account the misogyny of the men who documented her life, but she was never stupid.

Gilt by Katherine Longshore is a YA novel covering the reign and execution of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII.  Catherine’s a difficult figure, on account of how she was stupid.  Granted, she was very young — in her teens — when Henry married her, but she only had to put up with him for a few years, and then she’d have been a rich and powerful widow.  Instead, she had blatant affairs, and then it came out she had been the opposite of a chaste maiden before her marriage, and off came her head.

Gilt covers this period from the POV of Kitty, one of Catherine’s friends and ladies in waiting, and it nicely captures Catherine’s selfishness, the danger and glamour of Tudor court life, and the rape culture that surrounded it.  Longshore also makes Catherine quite likable, to an extent, without losing sight of her failings.  It was an easy read, but a good one.

I didn’t intentionally set out to read all of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar fics, but I started one, and found that I couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

This is a British series about a legal historian and a quintet (sometimes a quartet) of barristers who solve mysteries.  The Wikipedia page compares it to Enid Blyton, and seems to imply some level of immaturity and a lack of profundity.  THAT IS A LIE.  I mean, yes, it’s about as deep as a puddle, but it’s also terribly entertaining and funny (if you like that sort of thing), and if you can picture Enid Blyton writing about kinky sex, murder and international tax planning, you should probably come hang out with me so we can be best friends.

…I should say that persons whose taste for social justice outweighs their sense of irony should probably steer clear of the series, because once you’ve categorised murder as an inconvenience to probate courts and Just Not Cricket, nothing else seems very serious either.  So you have the description of Julia looking “slightly disheveled, like one of Priam’s daughters after an unusually trying rape”, and Professor Tamar’s concern that Cantrip’s educational background puts him at a disadvantage in the company of others, ie, he went to Cambridge, poor boy.  So don’t come complaining to me about how Caudwell needs to be called out on her privilege.

With the release of Karen Healey’s When We Wake, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t read The Shattering, her last book.  TERRIBLE OVERSIGHT.  But now I’ve read both, so that’s okay.

Reading Healey can be a bit disconcerting — we’re about the same age, we both live in the Southern Hemisphere, we read the same blogs — oh yeah, and we have mutual friends.  But she doesn’t know me at all.

Nevertheless, because I read her blog and follow her Tumblr, it can be quite difficult to separate Healey’s voice from those of her characters.  For one thing, I can often go through her writing and link ideas back to YA discussions and blog posts.  I guess you might say I can see her thought processes a bit too clearly.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed these two books.  The Shattering is set in New Zealand, and although I found it highly predictable, it was a good, compelling read.

When We Wake was even better — set in Melbourne of the 21st and 22nd centuries, the Australian society of the future neatly and depressingly extrapolated from the current day.

Tegan is accidentally shot, and when she wakes up, a hundred years have passed, and she’s the guinea pig in a project to revive cryogenically frozen soldiers.  Australia is now a world superpower, with gay marriage, religious tolerance — oh, and a strict policy of no migrants.  Ever.  And refugee camps in the north.  

Tegan’s an instant celebrity, but aside from the culture shock and the trauma of waking up and finding everyone she loves has died, there’s the minor problem of the fringe groups targeting her.  And the conspiracy.  Yeah, almost forgot about that.

When We Wake was a thoroughly good read, and I wouldn’t have put it down even if I hadn’t been on a plane, but fair warning: I kind of sobbed through the last third.  The flight attendants were a little concerned.

Finally, The Devotion of Suspect X is a translation of a Japanese bestseller, which is in turn part of a series, which has been turned into a drama, which I belatedly realised I started watching last year.

I didn’t much care for the TV series, because the female lead was basically an idiot, which made it hard to watch.  In the novel, both main characters are men, but that means the main female characters are kind of passive and a bit dull.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story itself very much.  I was less enchanted by the translation, which was quite clumsy in places, and, for example, referred to kanji as “Chinese characters”.

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