BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay Faye

BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Art of Detection, by Lyndsay FayeTitle: The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Mysterious Press
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Internationally bestselling author Lyndsay Faye was introduced to the Sherlock Holmes mysteries when she was ten years old and her dad suggested she read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Speckled Band. She immediately became enamored with tales of Holmes and his esteemed biographer Dr. John Watson, and later, began spinning these quintessential characters into her own works of fiction—from her acclaimed debut novel, Dust and Shadow, which pitted the famous detective against Jack the Ripper, to a series of short stories for the Strand Magazine, whose predecessor published the very first Sherlock Holmes short story in 1891.

Faye’s best Holmes tales, including two new works, are brought together in The Whole Art of Detection, a stunning collection that spans Holmes’s career, from self-taught young upstart to publicly lauded detective, both before and after his faked death over a Swiss waterfall in 1894. In The Lowther Park Mystery, the unsociable Holmes is forced to attend a garden party at the request of his politician brother and improvises a bit of theater to foil a conspiracy against the government. The Adventure of the Thames Tunnel brings Holmes’s attention to the baffling murder of a jewel thief in the middle of an underground railway passage. With Holmes and Watson encountering all manner of ungrateful relatives, phony psychologists, wronged wives, plaid-garbed villains, and even a peculiar species of deadly red leech, The Whole Art of Detection is a must-read for Sherlockians and any fan of historical crime fiction with a modern sensibility.

 In the broad light of day, I could not give his tale nearly so much credence as I had granted it when sitting rapt before a midnight fireplace whilst the tempest without erased the natural world.

One of the things I love about Lyndsay Faye’s books are that they evoke the atmosphere of the period of which she writes. Especially her Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Somehow she manages to capture Doyle’s style with a sense of freshness that especially makes The Whole Art of Detection really feel like lost Holmes mysteries. After reading Dust and Shadow and Jane Steele, I wanted to read more of her works and jumped at purchasing The Whole Art of Detection not long after it was released. I read a story or two here and there for the next couple of months because I wanted to savor it, and I’m glad I did. If you enjoyed the original stories, this collection of stories feels like a more intimate peek into the lives of Holmes and Watson. Where the originals seemed to gloss over the “domestic stuff and conversations,” this collection doesn’t shy from it.

A few of the stories that stood out to me were the these: “Memoranda Upon the Gaskell Blackmailing Dilemma” takes place during The Hound of the Baskervilles and is Sherlock Holmes’s perspective while he takes leave from the Watsons during that story. It’s so much fun to read a story from another character’s perspective, and even more so to have that perspective be the elusive Holmes himself.  “An Empty House” is heartbreaking and bridges the gap between the Reichenbach Fall and Holmes’s return. “The Adventure of the Memento Mori” is creepy, thrilling, and shows us readers once again that Holmes has a heart underneath that cold, calculating exterior he tries to project. “The Adventure of the Lightless Maiden” captures Doyle’s obsession with the supernatural, and I thought it was just really well done overall.

All of these stories feel at once rooted in time and timeless, and Faye manages this with her effortless, captivating writing. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes in any capacity and love a good historical mystery, read this right away.

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemists of Loom, by Elise Kova

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemists of Loom, by Elise KovaTitle: The Alchemists of Loom by Elise Kova
Series: Loom Saga #1
Published by Keymaster Press
Published: January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 395
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Her vengeance. His vision.

Ari lost everything she once loved when the Five Guilds’ resistance fell to the Dragon King. Now, she uses her unparalleled gift for clockwork machinery in tandem with notoriously unscrupulous morals to contribute to a thriving underground organ market. There isn’t a place on Loom that is secure from the engineer turned thief, and her magical talents are sold to the highest bidder as long as the job defies their Dragon oppressors.

Cvareh would do anything to see his sister usurp the Dragon King and sit on the throne. His family’s house has endured the shame of being the lowest rung in the Dragons’ society for far too long. The Alchemist Guild, down on Loom, may just hold the key to putting his kin in power, if Cvareh can get to them before the Dragon King’s assassins.

When Ari stumbles upon a wounded Cvareh, she sees an opportunity to slaughter an enemy and make a profit off his corpse. But the Dragon sees an opportunity to navigate Loom with the best person to get him where he wants to go.

He offers her the one thing Ari can’t refuse: A wish of her greatest desire, if she brings him to the Alchemists of Loom.

 Don’t let the shadows of the past smother the possibility for a bright future.

Elise Kova’s The Alchemists of Loom follows Ari after the five guilds fall to the Dragon King. She meets Cvareh, who is wounded, and she thinks she can kill him off as some kind of revenge, but she decides not to when she learns he can grant her the boon she wants if she takes him to the Alchemists of Loom.

Premise of this is amazing and right up my alley, but something about it fell short for me. Most of it has to do with the fact that we’re thrown in media res without much explanation or world building. We’re just supposed to piece it together with the help of a glossary in the back (which one might not know about if one’s reading a digital copy) or through hints made throughout the story. I don’t mind it if a world is built as sort of an unfolding, but this was like opening up a single folded sheet of paper. You open it and it’s all there like glitter and you’re supposed to keep it all together while trying not to let it spill everywhere. It took me to get about halfway through the book until I felt familiar enough with the world and the characters and the rest of the details to start enjoying the book. I kept reading only because I wanted to know what Cvareh would do.

This book falls under the steampunk fantasy variety and features an indistinct world in which everything happens. There are five guilds with distinct practices, a Dragon king (and I was a little bit disappointed to discover they weren’t actually dragons), shady characters, some light romance that felt entirely forced (oh yes the main girl and the main guy argue all the time and clash all the time so of course they’ll automatically like each other).

Ari reminded me a lot of Celaena in Maas’s Throne of Glass series before she became Aelin, and Ari in this novel is a well-known criminal with an intent to restore Loom to its former glory before the Dragons took over. Her motive is unclear though, and I don’t really find a connection or sympathy to a character who has a mission. She is unyielding to that mission, but she has no clear motive for what she does, just that things must be made right. Okay? But why? Her sidekick/lover/girlfriend/??? Florence is more interesting and believable than Ari. Cvareh is the trickster sort of character who seems to flip flop between wanting to save himself, work for the Dragons, or help Ari, and the most interesting twists of the story seem to come from his actions.

The story’s action moves at a brisk pace, and I enjoyed that about the book. I just wish I had a bit more of Ari’s backstory to connect her motive with her actions and reactions because a lot of Ari’s life and relationships read completely unclear. I am going to see what the reviews are for the second one to gauge reactions to what happens next before I pick it up, but I hope it focuses more on Cvareh’s side of things!

Overall, it’s an enjoyable fantasy if someone’s ready to take a step up from “YA” fantasy and try something new.

A review copy of this book was provided to me for review by Netgalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

BOOK REVIEW: The Collapsing Empire, by John ScalziTitle: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Series: The Interdependency #1
Published by Tor Books
Published: March 21st 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 333
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Goodreads

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-newuniverse.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

 It worked because on a social level, apparently enough people wanted it to, and because at the heart of it, billions of humans living in fragile habitats prone to mechanical and environmental breakdowns and degradation, and with limited natural resources, were better off relying on each other than trying to go it alone. Even without the Interdependency, being interdependent was the best way for humanity to survive.

I feel like I should preface this by saying that other than this I have only read Old Man’s War (and his twitter/blog), so for a second excursion into someone else’s work, I was hoping for the same kind of humor, wit, and intelligence that I saw in Old Man’s War. And I did. I also felt like his writing strengthened all around, which is an excellent thing to see going from a debut novel to his most recent. (And now I feel like I really should get the ball rolling on reading everything else he’s done!) His work was pitched to me as SF101, something easy enough for the unseasoned science fiction to access but something even well-read science fiction readers will enjoy for the references and subversions of the genre’s tropes. Fun fact: I teach Old Man’s War in my science fiction freshman seminar!

The Collapsing Empire is the start to a new space opera series about a whole smattering of planets across the universe connected by something called the Flow, which bends the rules of physics and allows for relatively speedy space travel between systems. As one might imagine, trade develops between the planets, an interplanetary government is set up (called the Interdependency), and everything appears to be stable. But stability apparently is only an illusion.

In addition to his accessible science fiction, Scalzi is a master at creating a cast of characters with whom you’ll laugh and for whom you’ll root. Kiva, who swears like it’s going out of style, is probably one of my favorite characters in sf. Cardenia is the newly-throned Emperox who is easy to relate to because no matter how hard we try, we’re never really prepared when the big, difficult things happen.

The Collapsing Empire reflects on current events, especially climate change, political leaders, interplanetary/international politics, and the consequences of those things if we’re not careful and considerate. It also shows us the humanity behind those making the decisions and those affected by those decisions. The private lives of these characters are explored in an unrestrained way and are allowed to be whomever they are, and it feels weird to write that even today because a lot of sf tends to fall into “traditional” tropes of black and white ideologies. It’s nice not to bat at eye at the idea of bisexual characters, or characters on any part of the spectrum. It’s nice to find humanity in double-crossy, deviant, sweary merchants. And while feeling fresh on many levels, it feels like an homage to traditional space opera stories, making it a lot of fun.

My only major qualm with it is that the first book ends abruptly. Like literally right when the action ramps up. I wouldn’t mind it so much if the second one was coming out soon, but the wait is going to be agony! I need to know what happens next!

Little List of Reviews #6: Short Fiction

It’s time for another little list of reviews! This time I’m focusing on some short fiction that I’ve read recently, from a classic, to science fiction, to a modern fairy tale.

Little List of Reviews #6: Short FictionTitle: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published by Riverhead
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 231
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed, Work
Goodreads

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.

Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.

 Exit West seemed to be all over the place once it was released, and with everyone I knew talking about it and a lot of people at work buying it, I thought I should give it a go because it sounded timely and relevant to today. Mohsin Hamid’s lyrical writing draws you into a world that ultimately you as a reader only catch glimpses of the heartache, the fear, and the love each of the two main characters experience for themselves and with each other. In a style that bends time and space to fit the journey, the two main characters escape what is a war-torn country in the Middle East, and we follow them as they make their way westward. It is all at once a tale that speaks of the plight and routes refugees take from Syria and other nearby places and a tale that speaks to the ultimately human journey to adulthood and discovering oneself. It is a story of discovering what it means to have an identity and of holding onto love when it’s necessary and learning to let go when it’s time to let go, no matter how unprepared you might be for the end.

 

Little List of Reviews #6: Short FictionTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Modern Classics
Published: October 1st 2009
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 158
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a Gothic novella about the Blackwood family home and the lengths Merricat, the youngest Blackwood, goes to in order to preserve their way of life. Throughout the book, you get the sort of foreboding feeling that something is not quite right about Merricat’s behavior, especially when cousin Charles comes to visit, and while the story plays into a lot of the Gothic genre’s tropes, it doesn’t fail to thrill. It’s an exacting commentary on the preservation of oneself and one’s family in the midst of change, either in the house or in the world beyond. It asks the question what does identity mean? The meaning of identity is not generally answerable in itself but in the implications and complications that arise in the midst of everything else. Why else would Merricat say she put “death in their food and watch them die?”

 

Little List of Reviews #6: Short FictionTitle: We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ
Published by Penguin
Published: January 1st 1970
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 128
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

When I saw the covers of the Penguin Worlds science fiction classics collection, I knew I had to get them all. Not only for the covers but for the selections as well. One of my areas of research is science fiction because I feel like it’s an underrepresented genre in the grand scheme of the great literary canon, and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… is a masterful novella about the agency a woman has, doesn’t have, and should have over her own body. Instead of conforming to the little civilization her companions decide to form in the wake of a spaceship crashing on a relatively unknown planet, the narrator decides to learn how to die when all hope is lost. Reading this book today feels very trope-y and cliché at times, but it’s important to put this in the context of the genre today. It plays with those tropes, gives a woman agency over her own life instead of submitting her body to be a vessel for reproduction, and shows us the very humanity in deciding on whether or not to live or die when you know there’s ultimately no hope for rescue or survival anyway.

BOOK REVIEW: The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine Lowell

BOOK REVIEW: The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine LowellTitle: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Published by Touchstone
Published: November 22nd 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In Catherine Lowell’s smart and original debut novel—“an enjoyable academic romp that successfully combines romance and intrigue” (Publishers Weekly)—the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary treasure hunt to find the family’s long-rumored secret estate, using only the clues her father left behind and the Brontës’ own novels.
Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her eccentric father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family—a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.
But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from the past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own works.
A fast-paced adventure from start to finish, The Madwoman Upstairs is a smart and original novel and a moving exploration of what happens when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

 This was not an office. It was a small library, two stories high, with thin ladders and impractical balconies and an expensive ceiling featuring a gaggle of naked Greeks. It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for.

Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs has been on my radar for a while, and when BookSparks sent me a copy of this book and a lovely Penguin English Classics edition of Jane Eyre to celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s birthday, I was super excited to finally read it. I mean, how could I not? It’s about the last descendant of the Brontë family and the discoveries and revelations the main character has along the way.

The Madwoman Upstairs is literally a literary treat to me. In some ways, it reminded me of a light-hearted, quirky version of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and I adored reading it. The narrator has such a great voice, and I thought Lowell captured the voice of a young, headstrong, stubborn woman thrown headfirst into a world she has been trying to avoid since her father’s death. But as it happens, it’s entirely difficult to leave the past in the past, and inevitably it will come back to you.

Generally, when one thinks of the Brontë family, one might think of Charlotte or Emily before thinking of Anne, so I liked the twist of Anne being more of the focus of this treasure hunt Samantha Whipple goes on after receiving a strange little bookmark from her father’s papers. The Madwoman Upstairs is very much a fun campus novel with twists of romantic comedy and literary intrigue, and it was an enjoyable read from start to finish!

I received a copy of this book from Book Sparks and the publisher for review. All opinions are my own.