Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

I came to this series from a really roundabout way.

I was introduced to Charlaine Harris around the time the True Blood series started and it was one of the first series I ever tracked and bought every book from and even though things went off the rails towards the end and had issues throughout, I was hooked. I occasionally saw the Aurora Teagarden series mentioned on her website but never looked into it. When I saw those books at the library I noticed a lack of vampires and walked on by.

Fast forward a few years and I’m looking for something from the Hallmark channel to watch online because sometimes you just need something that will be ok in the end no matter what happens. I watched the first Hallmark adaptation of Real Murders and kept watching them because they were just the right amount of ridiculous to put on in the background while I baked or cleaned the kitchen.

Fast forward again to this year when I decided it was time to try reading the books. I don’t think I regret it but also I wasn’t missing much.

Harris’s trademark slut shaming and judgmental heroine combo comes through full force with Aurora Teagarden, whose name conjures images of embroidered pillows and tea cozies. This is the character who has an opinion about everything, is pursued by everyone, and gets in everyone’s business. She’s a Sookie Stackhouse prototype if I’ve ever read one. The book has some cringey moments where it really showed its 1990 sensibilities regarding race and sexuality. The concept of having a true crime friend group was interesting, especially when you look at the time period which was pre-My Favorite Murder or Netflix docs making serial killers a topic of interest people casually announce without fearing judgment. I don’t feel compelled to continue the series because I don’t really care about Aurora in the way I somehow did care about Sookie. But if you want to read some classic Harris with interesting crimes, this is a series for you.

Review: The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

It’s time for another book club book review! We read The Department of Sensitive Crimes in September for our Humor genre. I was the only one who liked it but I don’t begrudge my fellow book club members for not enjoying it. It was, for all intents and purposes, a hard book to get a grasp on in a lot of ways.

Let’s start at the start with a quick synopsis. The book focuses on a Swedish team of investigators who look into Sensitive Crimes (aka weird and of no huge consequence but can’t be ignored crimes). The main character is Ulf Varg (Wolf Wolf)(Not a werewolf)(Wasted opportunity? Je pense oui) and he is our primary perspective throughout the novel as he and his team investigate who stabbed a man in the back of the knee, the mysterious disappearance of a girl’s boyfriend, and werewolves(?).

Going into the book I anticipated it to be a bit of a Law & Order satire but that isn’t really what happened. It sort of felt like The Office mixed with a Cozy Mystery mixed with a very dry British comedy except instead of British they are Swedish and there are fish jokes. There was an almost-romance subplot between Ulf and his married cohort Anna which I dreaded. It never came to fruition but it feels like something that’s going to happen eventually and he’s just drawing it out. I could write an entire post about my hatred of investigation partners having sex and catching feelings (and how it ruined my reading of Tana French’s In The Woods) but this is not the post for that.

Maybe what I loved most about this book, other than laughing at some of the absurd but lowkey things that happen throughout, was the therapist character.

Guys, it is so hard to see a therapist depicted well in media. In movies and shows they’re either lampooned or just throwing out Deep Sincere Buy-it-on-a-LOOKHUMAN-mug quotes or they’re screwing their patients which is nausea inducing to me, a therapist. This therapist puts his foot in his mouth a bit. He doesn’t have all the right answers. He does offer new perspectives. He also has this bit about wondering about what his clients lives are like when they leave his office which hit me right in the middle of my (at the time) nearing graduation and terminating with all of my clients heart. We only see this character at the beginning and ending of the book but I adored him.

I also liked the book because I didn’t know how to feel about it. I couldn’t settle into a certain mindset or tone with it because I hadn’t read a book like this before. For most of my book club members I think this was unsettling and contributed to their dislike of it, but for me it was exciting and I embraced it. I want to read the next in the series when it comes out next April, The Talented Mr. Varg, to see if I still enjoy it and if it feels different reading it now that I have context.

Review: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

This is another third book in a series and another series that I collect!

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan is a beautiful story of a rake and a scientist and growing beyond the facades you build to protect yourself.

Sebastian Malheur is a rakish playboy and, more scandalously, a scientist who specializes in genetics. In the Victorian era this is considered especially brazen because it references reproduction. If there’s one thing worse than a male scientist it is a female scientist which is why Sebastian actually a front for his childhood friend Violet’s research. In truth she is the scientist and he is just the way for her to communicate her findings. It’s an intriguing twist on a nom de plume and offers an interesting conflict for the characters when Sebastian announces that he will no longer play along with her charade. His reasons are understandable, as is her anger and fear over his choice. I always feel that the best conflicts are ones where there’s no one clear right or wrong person but rather a situation where both people are responding reasonably based on their experience and circumstances and finding a way through it will require growth and courage on both people’s parts.

Another conflict is that Sebastian, for all of his philandering and raking about, has been in love with Violet for years. Meanwhile Violet, believing herself undesirable and also just plain too busy with her work, has survived a horrible marriage and has sworn off romantic relationships with people both for her heart and her body’s safety.

Quick note – If you may be triggered by discussions of domestic violence and miscarriage, please skip past this book or make sure you’re in a good place mentally before reading. It isn’t gratuitous by any means but Violet’s experiences are treated with the correct amount of solemnity and her grief may be especially hard for people who can relate to her circumstance.

The challenges these characters have faced, in their personal lives and with each other, makes their Happily Ever After all the more satisfying. I also appreciated that the HEA for Violet includes recognition and professional happiness just as much as romantic happiness. Milan does a brilliant job of ensuring that each of her characters have lives outside of their relationships while still making the romance a driving force of the plot. Every book in this series would be interesting enough to read without the romance just based on the characters and their challenges, but the romance doesn’t feel unnecessary or forced. Courtney Milan is an author whose books have yet to disappoint and is one of the few authors I automatically and without reservations recommend when people are dipping into the Romance genre.

I will be writing a review for two more of the books in this series (including the first one) coming up so look for more Milan gushing then!

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been planning on starting a book club since I was in undergrad and am so proud to announce that this year I finally jumped in and started one! I tried googling to find advice about how to run a book club but didn’t find much that was helpful so I ended up making something that has worked so far for us. Each month, going in alphabetical order, someone gets to choose the genre for the month and then everyone can submit choices of novels for us to read in that genre. We then vote for the book we want to read and whichever one wins, we read. The only set rule is that the books have to be no more than 300 pages to accommodate people’s schedules. It’s an imperfect system but we’re seven months in and it’s going ok! The genre for our first book club was Fantasy and the book we ended up reading was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was the second of Ishiguro’s works I’ve read, having been introduced to him in undergrad when we read The Remains of the Day. This is a very different novel, however, and I think I ended up liking this one better than the other.

Though it is genuinely a fantasy novel it is not the typical dragons and swords book that comes to mind (though both a dragon and swords are in this novel). It is set post-Arthurian Britain and the main characters in the novel are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who find themselves losing their memories at an alarming rate and choose to try and go in search of their son who they can hardly remember and have been filling in the gaps with their own projected desires or beliefs. There is a mist that has spread throughout Britain complicating matters and we follow the couple as they journey to find answers and companions on their quest including a former Knight for King Arthur and a boy determined to find and save his mother.

This book left me feeling deeply, deeply, sad. But not in a bad way. In a reflective way that sort of feels good in its own strange, aching way. I related to Axl a great deal and his quest to make everything be ok and fight hard to refuse change. The novel also brings into question what being a hero is and who you can trust, including yourself, in times of chaos. I enjoyed the choice Ishiguro made to have the main characters be elderly because so often, especially in fantasy, the protagonists are in their prime and at the start of their journey, looking forward more than they look back.

Not everyone was affected by The Buried Giant in the same way I was though it still caused a good conversation and everyone took something away from it.

Review: The Rose by Tiffany Reisz

Y’all.

This book.

Tiffany Reisz truly never disappoints.

The Rose is a sequel to The Red though in this instance it takes its inspiration from Greek mythology instead of classic art. The basic premise is that the daughter of the heroine from The Rose, Lia, is all grown up and is gifted an artifact, a Rose Kylix, which one of the guests at her party, August, informs her is a sacred relic that will make her life out her deepest fantasies if she drinks from it. Lia (obviously) chooses to try it, not believing it will work, and finds herself throughout the course of the novel living through various erotic fantasies based in and around Greek mythology with August by her side. There is also a really great friendship and lady love based subplot as well as a getting closure on a shitty ex subplot.

As with The Rose, I appreciated the sheer creativity and quality of storytelling in this novel. There was the risk of the heroine being overshadowed by the presence of her parents but Reisz does a great job of incorporating the former characters to provide context while also giving this heroine a unique journey of her own. She also gives her unique sexual encounters similar to (though perhaps tamer than) the first novel. The book felt like a much quicker read than its 400 pages so if you’re looking for a quick read, don’t be turned off by the page count. As with all of Reisz’s works I’ve read so far, I found it creative, well-written, and over with far too soon.

Review: Slouch Witch by Helen Harper

I chose this book because I needed something to fulfill the Because Witches category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. Before this one I DNF’d Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz. In all honesty, I almost DNF’d this one and still read another witchy romance because I didn’t feel this could actually fulfill that category.

First of all, here’s the Amazon synopsis:

“Let’s get one thing straight – Ivy Wilde is not a heroine. In fact, she’s probably the last witch in the world who you’d call if you needed a magical helping hand. If it were down to Ivy, she’d spend all day every day on her sofa where she could watch TV, munch junk food and talk to her feline familiar to her heart’s content.

However, when a bureaucratic disaster ends up with Ivy as the victim of a case of mistaken identity, she’s yanked very unwillingly into Arcane Branch, the investigative department of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment. Her problems are quadrupled when a valuable object is stolen right from under the Order’s noses.

It doesn’t exactly help that she’s been magically bound to Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter. He might have piercing sapphire eyes and a body which a cover model would be proud of but, as far as Ivy’s concerned, he’s a walking advertisement for the joyless perils of too much witch-work.

And if he makes her go to the gym again, she’s definitely going to turn him into a frog.”

Here’s the thing, I had some misgivings right from the jump with this synopsis. Some HB’s had highly recommended it to me so I pushed past it but I got a real meh vibe from this summary. Whenever a character’s voice starts with “let’s get one thing straight” I have a knee jerk eye roll reaction. It just feels like that kind of high school not-like-other-girls tone that really irks me because I was 100% that girl. I could appreciate that she wants to relax and hang out with her cat because I am 100% that grown woman. Through reading the book I found the mystery compelling but the heroine and hero irritating in different ways. She gives too few fucks, he gives too many, and I understand they’re going for an opposites attract vibe but it didn’t play for me as it was supposed to. Also the romance felt thoroughly unnecessary and unrealistic. There were some side characters I felt they could have done more with and by the end of it I didn’t feel compelled to read further into the series. I think my biggest concern was that it felt sometimes like the author was trying too hard to impress upon the reader that this character was Too Above It All To Care and I can appreciate that in a character to an extent but it became a bit repetitive. The book was also written in first person so the author ended up telling more than showing which is a common problem I have with first person narration (both writing and reading).

Ultimately I don’t regret reading it but I don’t intend to keep going and as I said I did end up reading another witch-based book that was actually a romance to fulfill this category.