What I’m Reading: 3.12.19

These are the books that have been giving my library card a workout recently.

Apparently it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these roundups, so it’s nice for me because I have a lot to write about!

I know I went on and on about Jemisin on the podcast, so I won’t go on and on here — but these are easily the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years. I am not a huge sci-fi fan, as you know, but what Jemisin does with language and big ideas like the epistemology and colonialism blows me away. I can’t recommend her enough — but you can listen to this episode of the podcast if you want to hear me try.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Many years ago, this was the first book by Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett that I ever read, and as it turns out, my favorite: I definitely liked this collaboration better than any of their individual books. Maybe that’s partly because it’s just so much fun — that’s certainly why I assigned it for my spring book club selection for high school. (Well, that, and I want to reread it myself before the series comes out.) The End Days are here, but Aziraphale (an angel) and Crowley (a demon) have decided that Earth is too much fun to destroy. I actually listened to the audiobook this time around, which I can recommend highly.

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier

Since I’ve tentatively decided that I want to write my own chemistry textbook for next year, I’ve been trying to read more books about science. I quite enjoyed this one — well, I enjoyed the information. It was well-researched and nicely constructed and full of interesting facts, but oh my gosh, Angier’s editor needed to jump in and let her know that there is a point where the punning is just too much. So lesson learned: Fewer puns, but lots of input from real scientists because that was the best part of the book.

Snobbery with Violence by Marion Chesney

Someone recommended this to me after I read an Agatha Raisin mystery — it’s by the same author (writing under a different name), but it’s set in Edwardian London and stars a returned-from-the-Boer-Wars younger son who discovers he has a knack for solving society problems and a would-be suffragette/socialite whose season is ruined (and family furious) when she tries to publicly take down her would-be seducer. So, yeah, right up my alley. In this set-up, there’s a murder at a house party in a faux-Arthurian castle, and the two reluctantly team up to find the murderer.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

I always buy these when they are on sale for the Kindle since my paperbacks are still in a box from our last move. (More than a decade ago, so …) This one is pretty standard: A former actress/evil stepmother is murdered at a holiday resort, and the suspects include her husband, her stepdaughter, her lover, his wife, and more. Luckily Poirot is there to unravel all the tangled motives and opportunities to reveal the real killer.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I reread this for my Victorian gender and sexuality seminar. It’s such a fun story: A multilayered, incredibly complex, Dickensian story of double crosses, switched identities, and the Victorian underworld — plus Victorian lesbian grifters, which, let’s face it, was the description that inspired me to read the book the first time.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

I read this with my son, and we laughed so hard. I feel like this book (which came out in 2008) was overshadowed by A Series of Unfortunate Events, which had just recently wrapped up — there was a whole little spurt of forgettable Gothic-ish children’s literature. This one is quite fun, though: The Willoughby parents are absolutely terrible, but honestly their four children aren’t much better. So when the Willoughby parents take off on a dangerous trip around the world (an idea planted by their children, who are hoping their parents will leave them old-fashioned orphans), they’re hoping that they can sell the house out from under their annoying kids and escape them forever. Happily, they’ve accidentally hired a very good nanny, who helps the Willoughby children learn to channel their better selves and ends up rescuing the local millionaire down the road, too, who has unexpectedly found himself the guardian of an abandoned baby. 

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman  

I will pretty much always read a book of medieval history! I especially like how Tuchman has centered her story around the life of one person, a French noble named Enguerrand de Coucy VII. The 14th century is surprisingly thrilling (especially in the wake of Good Omens, when it’s the century that Crowley specifically dismisses as spectacularly boring — his fault for sleeping through most of it!): You get the black death, of course, but also a little ice age, the Hundred Years’ War, the papal schism, and Wat Tyler's Rebellion. Even if you’re fairly up on your medieval history, you’ll find this book full of new and delightful details.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro 

Charlotte Holmes is Sherlock’s great-great-great-granddaughter; Jamie Watson is John Watson’s great-great-great-grandson. They end up at the same New England boarding school, where they team up Holmes-and-Watson style after a murderer starts targeting students — all of whom have a connection to Charlotte, who has inherited some of her ancestor’s bad habits as well as his keen analytical mind. I was pretty willing to love this, but sadly, I didn’t. The problem I ran into is that it’s basically a Sherlock reshuffle — the idea of Holmes being a teenage girl might be new, but there’s nothing new about Charlotte in the book. She’s standard-issue Holmes, and Watson is pretty standard Watson of the Martin Freeman school. (It’s a good school, but most of us have already graduated from it.) Maybe the sequels hit their stride a little better?

The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

This is our next podcast read, so I won’t spoil it by talking about it here. Overall, it was a nice collection of time travel stories, including the usual suspects (“A Sound of Thunder,” “Death Ship”) as well as some stuff I hadn’t run into before.

A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa Sheinmel

Hannah can’t believe she’s been institutionalized because of her roommate’s accident, but she knows the truth will come out: Agnes was her best friend, and Hannah would never have hurt her on purpose. As the days turn into weeks and she’s still under constant watch, Hannah’s confidence begins to crack, and so does her story about her relationship with Agnes. I think I’ve read too many stories of this sort — I knew almost immediately what was happening, and there was nothing that actually surprised me.

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel

This one, though, I really loved! Emmy’s dad is MIA, and her mom is so busy explaining how other people can be great parents that she never has time to just be Emmy’s parent. Emmy is crushed when her mom ships her off to a fancy British boarding school — until she gets pulled into a mystery involving a super-secret order that may involve her long-missing father. It’s true that I’m a sucker for a boarding school book, but this is the kind of middle grades book I like best: It assumes a smart reader who can connect the pieces, and there’s plenty of action to keep the plot moving and mostly likable, individual characters who make you care about what’s happening. I recommend this one!