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A Study in Scarlet by A.C. Doyle; Clara & Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland: Reviews by CJ Verburg

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes, #1)A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Dr. John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time: 2 young men just starting out, each looking for a flat-mate, little suspect that Holmes’s lab experiments & Watson’s budding medical practice will soon be overshadowed by their shared adventures. I very much enjoyed that part of the book. But once the detecting gets under way, Doyle shifts to an American back story which felt peripheral as well as unrealistically lurid.

Clara and Mr. TiffanyClara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

One of those books I was very curious & hopeful about, but which didn’t get 3-dimensional enough for me to keep reading. Historical novels are hard to write! Although this one is full of plausible, interesting information about the characters, setting, & period, it felt more like a cross between a dissertation & a second draft than a believable story.

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Raven Black by Ann Cleeves – Mystery Review by CJ Verburg

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Odd that Raven Black’s front-cover labels it “a thriller.” Set on the remote Scottish isle of Shetland, this mystery doesn’t involve a single car chase, pub brawl, time bomb, or gunpoint abduction. On the contrary: things unfurl slowly here, where commonplace domestic worries weigh as heavily as piecing together the connection between two girls’ deaths. Everybody in this small community knows everybody, raising the creepy question: does anybody ever really know anybody?

Ann Cleeves is brilliant at building suspense out of her characters’ self-absorbed observations and assumptions. Her point-of-view choices are bold: the story opens through the eyes of Magnus Tait, a slow-witted recluse who lives with a caged raven and quickly becomes a suspect, and shifts to schoolgirl Sally Hardy, who can’t help rejoicing when her best friend’s murder boosts her social standing. Our anchor and main POV character is local police detective Jimmy Perez (who looks nothing like actor Doug Henshall, who plays him on TV). Perez is conscious of his obligation to stay objective, maintaining an overview, yet inevitably he too is biased — sometimes hobbled — by his relationships with the neighbors he’s investigating.

My only quibbles with this absorbing novel were that I wasn’t entirely convinced whodunnit, and Ann Cleeves deserves a better copyeditor. I plan to read more of her books, as well as keep watching both the Shetland and Vera TV series.

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Recursion by Blake Crouch: Review by CJ Verburg

RecursionRecursion by Blake Crouch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by Blake Crouch, and if not for a friend’s recommendation plus an advance review copy, I’d have backed off from its melodramatic sci-fi blurb: “What if someone could rewrite your entire life?” Luckily, from my POV as a former science editor, Recursion is not about the ooh-scary possibility that “someone” could “rewrite” your life. Crouch explores a much more plausible (and therefore scarier) scenario: since past, present, and future all coexist, and arguably are defined by human memories rather than that amorphous concept/entity “time,” a tech genius whose mother suffers from Alzheimer’s could find out how to shift time back, or shift back in time, to alleviate her suffering.

We know from sci-fi’s long history that tweaking time always creates deadly ripples, enabling Crouch to open this book with a dramatic human crisis. Police Detective Barry Sutton confronts a suicidal woman who’s just discovered that her happy memories of a full life are false, and she can’t live with the grim, empty reality that’s replaced them. Barry has his own human drama to cope with, and it propels him to investigate the woman’s impossible story. Meanwhile, scientist Helena Smith is offered a Faustian bargain she can’t refuse, with consequences that set her and Barry on a collision course.

Told in the present tense, third person, Recursion quickly became so riveting I could hardly put it down. Its fast-paced interwoven story lines are all the more poignant if you have, or know anyone who has, difficulties with memory. I just finished reading it, but it will be a while before I stop thinking about it.

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Death and Taxes, Désastre, and the Easter Bunny

by CJ Verburg

Today is the nineteenth anniversary of Edward Gorey’s death; and in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral is burning. Edward majored in French literature at Harvard and was as fluent in the language, art, and cinema of France as if he’d ever set foot there. If he were alive, he’d be watching the live-streamed fire in horror right now, probably while etching away at a completely unrelated drawing for his latest book or theater project.

Elsewhere across America, people are filing their taxes today. And even as the flames of homophobia, racism, and misogyny consume our heritage of aspiring to (if not attaining) liberty, equality, and fraternity, our grocery stores and pharmacies overflow with plastic baskets stuffed with rainbow jellybeans and dark-, milk-, and white-chocolate rabbits for this coming Sunday’s oddly ecumenical holiday.

Thanks to resistance from his friends, Edward Gorey’s house was not consumed after his death by the hotel next door (“The Doubtful Guest Room”?!?). Instead it’s become a very personal museum, which just opened for the season last weekend with this year’s unique exhibit of his art and ephemera: Hippity Wippity: Edward Gorey and the Language of Nonsense, which “explores Gorey’s embrace of a genre . . . that revels in breaking down any expected narratives and structures, that lobotomizes language, that confuses with inexplicable storylines and thrusts the reader into an active participation.”

If anyone asked me “What’s the one thing you admired most about Edward Gorey?” (that maddening, misleading, time-saving question so dear to interviewers), I might respond with E.M. Forster’s epigraph from Howards End: “Only connect.” Edward (and other brilliant people I’ve loved) saw behind the façade of things into the web that links them. You can sometimes discern this in his classic or straightforward nonsense, e.g., The Wuggly Ump — made-up language and creatures in the Edward Lear vein. I’m fonder of his more esoteric nonsense, where “only connect” is blatant. This occurs more often in his stand-alone drawings than stories. The relationship between elements of the scene transmutes menace into nonsense, and vice versa at the same time: the “characters” are real, but their connection is nonsensical.

Six months ago I spent a glorious hour, uncommonly mellow for a November morning, strolling around Notre Dame de Paris. Watching flames pull down its ancient, legendary spire today, I felt not only devastated but uneasily responsible, somehow, as if behind that sunshine and tranquility I should have detected the menace lurking half a year ahead.

The April 15 when Edward Gorey died was, for me, even more excruciating (double-entendre intended). Yet I can imagine happily tossing him that same double-entendre across the table at Jack’s OutBack, over his iced coffee and Tooner Sallid Samwich and my cup of chili, confident that it would be caught and chortled at by the penner of “She toyed with her beads Jadedly” and “He fell off the pier Inadvertently.”

If you can, go see “Hippity-Wippity” sometime this summer and wander through the house where so many exceptional works of art were created, nonsensical and otherwise. If you can’t, or until you get a chance, you can travel to that deceptively unthreatening spot in my books Edward Gorey On Stage: A Multimedia Memoir (nonfiction) and Croaked: An Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery (fiction) and its sequels.

Read the memoir for the facts. Read the mystery for the hidden connections.

To find out more or to order a book (print or digital), click “About CJ” above. For a free e-mystery story, click Disarmed.

Killers of the Flower Moon: a Real-Live Mystery (Review)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Reviewed by CJ Verburg

Writing about a real-life mystery is tricky. In contrast to fiction, the author can’t step into a participant’s narrative voice to help readers feel they’re watching events unfurl in real time. There are too many characters tromping in and out of the story, some central and some not, most of them without enough distinguishing features for a reader to keep them straight. And the plot can take years, even decades, to reach a conclusion — with or without the satisfaction of a climax.

The murderous scheme David Grann describes in Killers of the Flower Moon is shocking and horrifying, but not riveting. Like War and Peace, this is a book I’d have enjoyed more if I’d seen the movie, so as to connect faces and voices with the dozens of characters, and to visualize the parched, inhospitable land whither the Osage were relegated by whites until oil was discovered there. Black-and-white photos help, but not enough.

Just when the first round of slaughter is starting to be recognized and traced to its perpetrators (though in most cases, never avenged), Grann himself steps in. As he describes his own research, we become a Watson to his Holmes. His skills at digging out the truth are awesome; still, I wish he were a stronger storyteller.

Yet the systematic murder of so many people, and the role this case played in the creation of a Federal Bureau of Investigation to expand the reach of policing organizations like the Texas Rangers, is an important piece of American history. I’m glad there is a film in the works. I’ll hang onto the book to read again after I’ve seen it.

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Ngaio Marsh’s “Death of a Fool”: Mystery Review by CJ Verburg

Death of a Fool (Roderick Alleyn, #19)Death of a Fool by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming to England from New Zealand, mystery writer Ngaio Marsh was fascinated by the island’s quaint customs and rituals. Death of a Fool centers on the pre-Christian “Hobby Horse” dance-play, here depicted as the South Mardian Sword Dance. Marsh was very involved in theatre, and she shows us this Winter Solstice drama both behind the scenes and onstage (so to speak — it’s performed outdoors, around the ancient Mardian Stone, and rehearsed in a barn). Still practiced much as it was in pagan times, handed down through local families, the Sword Dance attracts the obsessively curious German-born fan Mrs. Anna Bunz to the Mardian family’s door. Through her eyes we learn the ancient ritual character by character, scene by scene. Once the Sword Dance inevitably claims a victim, Marsh’s series detective arrives to investigate: Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn (a professional police counterpart of his amateur contemporaries Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion).

Having gone to the Brontes’ village of Haworth partly to watch the Morris dancing, I very much enjoyed the performances (offstage and on) in Death of a Fool. Mrs. Bunz’s outsider’s view of ancient British customs was both comical and illuminating — she’s a bit like Hercule Poirot that way. My difficulty with the story is that understanding the eponymous murder depends on being able to picture clearly the layout of the Sword Dance, which I’m not so good at. I could follow the plot, but since I couldn’t envision the scene, I had little chance of guessing what happened and why.

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CJ Verburg reviews Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our MindsThe Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a huge fan of Daniel Kahneman’s comprehensive research summary Thinking, Fast and Slow, and the riveting revelations Michael Lewis wove into Moneyball and The Big Short, I was delighted by this compelling story of how they’re connected. The Undoing Project delves into the profound, complex friendship between two brilliant psychologists, Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, while explaining the ideas that drove their investigations into the quirks that distort human beings’ response to information.

For more, see https://carolverburg.com/thoughts-on-…

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100 Years Since Armistice Day: Wilfred Owen

by CJ Verburg

The gifted young poet Wilfred Owen joined World War I with the Manchester regiment in 1916, on the Somme sector of the Western Front. This was no action-packed battlefield, but (as C. Day Lewis described it) “a desolate landscape of trenches, craters, barbed wire, ruined buildings, splintered trees, mud, the corpses of animals and men.” Invalided out, Owen wound up at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he became friends with the older and better-known poet Siegfried Sassoon. Their mutual horror at the glamorizing deception that had lured the best and brightest of their generation into this nightmare produced a staggering body of poetry, but did not stop Owen from returning to active duty in France. He was killed in action on November 4, 2018, a week before Armistice Day.
 

Dulce et Decorum Est

BY WILFRED OWEN

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Note: Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Reviews: Rita Lakin’s “The Only Woman in the Room”; Rex Stout’s “A Right to Die”

by CJ Verburg

The Only Woman in the RoomThe Only Woman in the Room by Rita Lakin

This delightful memoir offers a rare look behind the scenes at some turning-point TV shows back when television was first taking off: Doctor Kildare, The Mod Squad, Peyton Place, The Rookies. Rita Lakin didn’t set out to be a Hollywood screenwriter — in those days, that wasn’t an option for a woman. Widowed with three young children, her urgent quest was to support her family. Not surprisingly, she got in the the back way, as a secretary. Hard work and some lucky breaks turned a few brick walls into doorways, and for the next 25 years Rita Lakin rode the roller-coaster: sometimes given a hand, sometimes kicked in the face. She shares the fun she had meeting celebrities, and also breathes 3-D life into names the rest of us only see in the credits, such as Aaron Spelling and Sydney Pollack. Not least, she reminds us that the key to success is collaboration, not confrontation — though there are moments when you do have to stand your ground, go out on a limb, or just close your eyes and jump.

 

A Right to Die (Nero Wolfe, #40)A Right to Die by Rex Stout

Nero Wolfe meets the civil-rights movement. Published in 1964, A Right to Die is a fascinating literary-historical periscope into the language and attitudes of left-leaning successful white men (e.g., author Rex Stout) when the fight against racism was first gaining traction. The politics are muted, but there’s a jaw-dropping racist outburst from one character whose prejudices have been hidden until Wolfe rips back the curtain.

This particular case enters the West 35th St. brownstone of the famous detective in the person of Paul Whipple, whom Wolfe (and his assistant and narrator, Archie Goodwin) met many years ago at Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. Then, Whipple was a student at Howard University and kitchen staffer at the Spa; now, he’s a Columbia University professor and the father of a young man who works for the ROCC (Rights of Citizens Committee) in Harlem. Paul Whipple opposes his son’s plan to marry a wealthy white volunteer. Wolfe owes him a favor; but as he sets out to repay it, a simple inquiry mushrooms into a murder investigation.

Racial attitudes and information in the U.S. have expanded so much since 1964 that this book feels more dated than most of Stout’s mysteries from that era. Still, definitely worth reading!

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Digital Book World: the Evolution of 21st-Century Publishing

When Boom-Books entered publishing in 2011 — the dawn of modern history, technologically speaking — DBW was our go-to source for information and insights on e-books: a daily newsletter we read voraciously, plus an annual conference we ignored. Seven years has switched the tail and the dog. As e-publication burgeoned, and info overload swamped the DBW newsletter, the fading conference was acquired by F+W Media. A year ago F+W Media sold it to Score Publishing, which specializes in interactive content creation, and particularly organizing conferences in that vast field. Key point: Score is perhaps best known for its VoiceFirst.FM media network, which centers on voice technology such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

The first DBW conference under the new(est) ownership will be held Oct. 2-4 at the Music City Center in Nashville. Sponsors and participants range from Amazon and ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) to Virtusales (publishing software) and Writers Boon (“a discount marketplace for writers”). Score Publishing hosted the Alexa conference last winter, and it will fold the existing iBooks Author Conference into this one.

Score CEO Bradley Metrock is a vocal advocate (aptly) of voice-first technology: the premise that consumers are depending more and more on audio as a way to find products and services. In publishing, this means “Not just audiobooks — which comprise the fastest-growing sector of the industry — but also podcasts. . . . as well as voice assistants.” (https://innotechtoday.com/digital-book-world-2018/) Metrock describes this year’s Digital Book World as “the gathering of the wide world of publishing, from trade publishing, to scholarly and academic publishing, to independent publishing, to corporate publishing across medium to large companies across the world, to educational publishing, and all the tech companies which serve publishers large and small.”

It sounds grandiose, but on the granular level it means Score has its sights aimed at every critter in the landscape, from ants to elephants. The award-nominees list alone is a microcosm of the future as Metrock and his colleagues envision it. For instance, the three nominees for Trade Publisher of the Year are HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. All three also are candidates for Publisher of the Year, competing with Audible Studios, Netflix, China Publishing Group (中国出版集团), Dark Horse Comics, Tapocketa Animation Studio, and the more traditional (i.e., book-focused) Sourcebooks.

What does all this mean for the future of content communication, the corporations that are its conduits, and the opportunities and limits looming for customers? That’s a discussion way beyond the scope of this post. For now, grab your periscope and check out Digital Book World 2018 at https://www.digitalbookworld.com/