Book review: The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly (Charlie Parker #16)

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I’m afraid that this is going to a rather dull book review. There are only so many variations on “It’s a really good book” before it all becomes trite and pedantic. So, suffice it to say that John Connolly’s sixteenth Charlie Parker mystery, The Woman in the Woods, is a great read, full of his customary good writing, interesting characters and nefarious goings-on.

The Woman in the Woods sees PI and avenging angel (metaphorically if not literally, but let’s see) Charlie Parker try to solve the mystery behind the body of a woman found in the Maine woods as a favour to his lawyer. In the process of discovering her identity, Parker discovers someone else – a man named Quayle, eager to put together a map that may or may not end the world…

For the first couple of novels, Connolly’s Parker series was more or less straightforward thriller fair with some mystery elements slithering around in the woodwork. But as the novels have progressed, the mystery has become more pronounced, and nowadays Parker’s sleuthing typically uncovers things that go bump in the night. I always thought The Black Angel was the first hinge – it was a decisive step away from genre fiction playing coy, to something spookier. The Woman in the Woods (and perhaps its predecessor, A Game of Ghosts) is another such hinge, and I’m really interested to see where Connolly will take (and end) the series.

Prior to its release, Connolly released a few paragraphs of the novel in response to the growing white nationalism in the United States (a white nationalist forms part of the subplot and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of his character at some point), so the novel feels pretty contemporary. I also noticed that parts of the novel feel like Connolly apologising for his previous lackluster treatment of female characters, by way of Parker acknowledging just how shitty men can be towards women. Which is great, but I hope it will be followed up by some sort of female character who isn’t a romantic interest or a bit player.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Woman in the Woods
Author: John Connolly
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (2018)
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.59/5)
The best feature of the book: The main cast of characters, as usual. The Fulcis as comic relief.
The worst feature of the book: I’d like more spooky details, but that’s just me. Also, the whole “when a woman is a mother” thing. The problem with treating motherhood as such a virtue is that it easily becomes women’s only saving grace. No.
Trigger warnings: Murder, torture, belated Catholicism.
You’ll like this if… You’re a fan of mysteries, thrillers, detective novels, banter, or tall black assassins who set racists’ cars on fire.

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Missing

Status

Douglas Adams wrote that the knack to flying is aiming for the ground and missing. The knack to finding a good book is aiming for the bad ones and missing.

Presbytery

Status

Working theory: if you can sit through an entire meeting of Presbytery and come out of it still liking people, the work of the Holy Spirit is nearing its completion in you, my friend.

As an aside, I’m still thoroughly under construction.

 

Book review: The Six of Crows Duology (Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom) by Leigh Bardugo

If this is your first time reading a Lee’s Notes book review, it’s customary for me to preface every YA novel review with something like, “Now I don’t really read YA novels, but…” or “Sometimes I enjoy YA novels more than I hate myself for reading them, so…” But not today, Satan. I read Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology at the start of the year and to be honest, it’s the most fun I’ve had in ages. Her duology is so well written and well paced and just all in all charming, it’s easy to forgive the occasional cliche and stretched plot element to root for the romances and boo the antagonists.

Six of Crows and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom, tell the story of rising Ketterdam gangster Kaz Brekker and his unlikely band of antiheroes as they try to break into one of the most secure military strongholds in the world, the Ice Court, to retrieve a scientist. The scientist holds the key to jurda parem, a drug that super powers already powerful people with abilities known as Grisha. In exchange for this feat, Kaz and his five accomplices can expect untold riches…

Six of Crows is a heist novel, set around the group’s attempt to infiltrate Fjerdan’s Ice Court. Crooked Kingdom chronicles the fallout. Both books are high paced, but not so much that you’d lose sleep worrying about what happens. Bardugo’s characters are interesting, each with enough backstory to fill their own novels. Romance and intrigue, “will they or won’t they?” and plenty of gore made these books a great read, and I’m sorely tempted to look up the other books in her Grisha verse.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Six of Crows; Crooked Kingdom
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Indigo (2015); Henry Holt (2016)
Rating: 5/5 for both novels (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.79/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s fun, entertaining and generally more complex than your average YA novel.
The worst feature of the book: Bardugo’s written such a great story that it’s easy to forget her characters are all a bunch of teenagers.
Trigger warnings: There are a lot of adult themes: sexual violence, murder, torture, slavery.
You’ll like this if… You like YA novels, or if you’re looking for something that’s absorbing but won’t disrupt your sleeping schedule.

Faithfully cynical

I don’t think of myself as an optimist. Hardly a situation will pass without a dire warning from me on the likelihood of its going to hell, a habit not helped by the fact that my proclamations are often correct: yes, our recently widowed neighbour was trying to get rid of her tenant’s daughter so she’d have the tenant all to herself; yes, our other neighbour’s new wife used him to have a baby and now wants a divorce and for him to sign the child off*; yes, the gardener everyone was raving about turned out to be a liar and a thief. And so on. I don’t think it’s an ability so much as it is cynicism: you’re rarely disappointed when you bet on the worst of people.

One area I’ve tried my best to battle this ominous cynicism is the church. Yes, the church – which gathers the very worst of us together and sticks labels that read “free”, “saved”, “grace” and “righteousness” on otherwise bottomline bad people – has received a (relatively) free pass from me and my jaundiced eye. Ironic, because if you’re looking for the worst of human pettiness, treachery, hatred and coffee, even in the best of congregations, the closest set of church doors will usually do.

Take for instance the debacle that rocked the tea duty roster at the church where I’m volunteering. Everyone wants to have tea and gossip after the church service; you’ve gotten up at seven am on a Sunday, you might as well, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few of the people who want to have tea and coffee after the church service want to take turns serving tea and coffee to the other members of the congregation, and so the same five people ended up doing it Sunday in and Sunday out. If I hadn’t been one of those five people, and if I hadn’t been expected to spontaneously take over the tea duty roster on account of a stray vagina I happened to have in my possession, I probably would have cared less; but I am, and I had to. The situation went south rather swiftly.

Okay, we can be pointed about this, the church council decided: tea after church was cancelled. Now, a few weeks later it’s still cancelled, because despite complaints about its absence and the minister’s plummeting popularity re: all matters tea related, there weren’t enough volunteers to prompt its revival. The excuses are varied: we’re busy, I’m sure you understand; we’re men and our hands fall right off if we so much as look at a teapot; we did it before, once, two decades ago; we did it before, once, two decades ago, and swore a blood oath against its then-organiser; we don’t want to; it’s not part of the job description; what is “tea”?

The tea duty roster furore demonstrates on a small scale why so many churches empty every year: we’re bloody awful at church.

So why the free pass on my part, one wonders? There are a few reasons: I really like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and sometimes even God the Father; I like learning more about Jesus and Christianity in general; I have an otherwise fairly useless degree in theology; I want to share my relationship with Christ with other people; I can’t otherwise sing in public. And perhaps, in my heart of hearts, in a deep place that still believes in good things, fundamentally good people and happy endings outside Young Adult fiction, I cherish a hope that church could help transform me into the kind of person who I’d want to go to church with.

But there comes a point when one’s deepest hope begins to flicker like a candle left to its own devices in a breeze. It’s not an instantaneous process. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of pointless politics and small-mindedness, a lot of struggling to adapt and failing to fit in, a lot of strife and gossip and frustration to admit that church as I’ve experienced it is hardly beyond my old friend, cynicism. In many respects I’ve been the church’s unlikely champion, had to be, as a would-be minister. I always defended it on the principle that church could be good – or failing that, better – if only it were done right. But, as we stand on the precipice of a tea duty roster impasse, who knows what is right, anyway?

I still hope that Jesus will disappoint this cynicism of mine, I have to admit, and not just because I want a job at some point. I’d like to be proven wrong about life and people and religion, I think. I’d like a glimmer of the church’s beginnings as a radical, sweeping and transformative first century movement to shake my dusty foundations of tradition and obnoxiousness and privilege. I’d like to be reminded just how deep and wide and tall and encompassing Jesus’ love for bottom-of-the-barrel people such as myself can be.

So even while giving the church a critical once over, I realise that few places are more in need of grace than the church. Some would doubtless stake a similar claim for prisons, but honestly? At least prisons serve tea.


*I was literally revising this when my mother phoned with fresh gossip: the wife left yesterday morning and will be moving out over the weekend.