Monday, March 14, 2016

Two more book reviews!

I've neglected posting the past couple of weeks because there's been pretty much nothing going on. Nice and quiet and placid, yay.

But, I have been reading! Two books to report on today:

The Yarn Woman by Brooks Mencher was a title and author I found out about where else? Ravlery forums, of course. I have read my share of craft-related mysteries, and I have to say, for the most part, they haven't been all that well-written. Most have been fun and at least engaging enough for me to finish them, some are more fun than others. There have been, sad to say, a small number I couldn't finish, or even get past the first chapter. It's not the craftiness that's at fault; I suspect it's true of any mystery genre/niche-market mashup category (sailing, gardening, steeplechasing...). Even worse, I am absolutely allergic to any supernatural woo-woo in my mysteries, and the book blurb flatly states, "There are always the ghosts." So, because of this history, I approached The Yarn Woman with reservations, perhaps I should say: low expectations.

To my delight, I was completely disarmed and delighted by these three novellas!

Now, they are not without flaws. After reading it, I went back to Ravelry and found a book club there who read it several years ago. I was taken aback that most of the readers took great exception to Mencher's writing skills, particularly the "big words" he uses and especially how many adverbs he uses. (I am not blind to the two adverbs I used in that sentence.) First, my feelings about big words is that they are either used well, or poorly. If they stand out, it's poorly. But with this surprise came additional insight into my own attitude: I have a larger vocabulary than most people I know, and not one time in these stories did a "big word" stand out to me! Not one! So maybe my definition of "used well" or "used poorly" needs to change. I did mull this over. I decided that the author has no control over the working vocabularies of their readers, so there's no way, aside from deliberately dumbing down their text, they can make sure that any "big word" doesn't put readers off. I myself found Mencher's writing delightful, and I don't use that term for just any old book. I loved the characters, the settings, and the plots. I loved the descriptions. I even appreciated the handling of the supernatural elements.

Second, the adverbs. When I was writing fiction a lot (I don't any more), I did a LOT of reading and studying to improve my writing. The Adverb gets TONS of criticism. Some critics and authors go so far as to say you should never, ever use an adverb. And sure enough, when I would go through a manuscript I'd written, I'd find a lot of them I could cut and/or replace with some other way to get the same idea across that made my writing better. So if anything, I'm over-sensitive to the use of adverbs. Again, to my mind, you can use adverbs well (they don't stand up and yell at the reader) or poorly (they do exactly that, call attention to themselves and away from the story). And again, not ONCE in these novellas did I even NOTICE an adverb.

So I was charmed by the writing, and found it entirely professional and effective. What about the stories? Here's where a sensitive reader, one whom certain subjects upset, might be careful. There is child abuse here, wife abuse, and violence. None of it is on-screen nor are its effects treated gratuitously or in detail. And some of it turns out to not be what it seems. That said, I'll only give a little comment without spoilers for each. You can read fuller synopses and critiques on the usual web pages: amazon's comments, Goodreads reviews, mystery lovers' blogs.

Nat P.M. Fisher is a hard-working reporter in modern-day San Francisco, who starts out narrating the tale "Ghosts of the Albert Townsend" - I should mention the point of view does skip around some in the stories and occasionally I had to backtrack to figure out who was talking/doing, but not enough to ruin the reading for me - which involved a little girl whose nocturnal ramblings around town have brought her, wrapped in a hand-knitted shawl that's definitely the worse for wear, bloody and limp to the emergency room in her mother's arms. Fisher happens to observe their arrival, and then the very prompt arrival of quite a few policemen pique his curiosity about the case. Fortunately, an old childhood chum, Detective William Chu, is in charge of the case and he allows Fisher to tag along with the investigation. Because the shawl is unknown to the girl's mother, and it's hand-knitted, Chu calls in Ruth M, a textile forensics consultant (The Yarn Woman), to help them find out where the child had been because she's not talking. Fisher soon finds himself enthralled by the woman and her milieu: she's got a devoted - assistant? servant? chauffeur? protector? - in Mr. Kasparov, an elderly Ukranian ex-pat, and they dwell in a splendid old abandoned theatre in a tiny, hidden pocket of old San Francisco. Ruth M is indeed a yarn woman - a knitter with a stash that is no doubt the envy of half of Ravelry's members. And her knowledge of fibers and human psychology is wide and deep. Somehow connected, though how Fisher struggles to determine, the girl's story is tied in with the reappearance in the harbor of an old sailing ship that sank long ago. As I said, I am not usually at all interested in supernatural goings-on in my mysteries but this one kept me reading way past my bed-time until I could finally read the last page.

The second and third novellas, The Fisherman's Wife,  and The Boy in the Mist were just as compelling and rich-reading as the first. The characters are all colorful and interesting and the stories have heart. The Boy in the Mist has just a slight whiff of Martha Grimes's Richard Jury stories about it; that's all I'll say about that except I don't mean that in any kind of negative way at all. (I love her Jury series). This third one is also - to me - the most unsettling of the three in that it suggests goings-on that I never expected in this country, in this age, and which if true, are appalling. They remind me how very, very lucky I have been and how sheltered I still am. Unfortunately they are entirely believable. At least The Yarn Woman and Nat P.M. Fisher and Mr. Kasparov have helped a little bit, by the end.

I recommend this book to mystery lovers and yarn enthusiasts.

The other book I read last week is The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths.

My mystery book club read her The Janus Stone last year and I really liked it; I'm just now getting around to reading the rest in the Ruth Galloway series. The Crossing Places is the first in the series. Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist who becomes involved with a mystery in the wetlands she bought a small house beside. Her own personal and academic history and the history of ancient England, and the history of a disappearance the other main character, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, failed to solve ten years earlier, all entwine in a horrible and frightening situation literally in her own front yard.  I like both of these main characters and the archaeology is always fascinating. Highly recommended!

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