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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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.

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.

Book review: Soonchild by Russell Hoban (illustrated by Alexis Deacon)

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Russell Hoban’s Soonchild was an impulse purchase I made a few years ago when a bookstore had a sale on. Deacon’s artwork intrigued me, plus the book’s spine creaked when I opened it. Unfortunately, my first and second reading of the book left me unsatisfied, and so the novel was relegated to a shelf until last Halloween when, in a fit of boredom, I decided to read it again.

My feeling was that I’d “missed” something that turned Sixteen-Face John’s story from the merely curious to the charming. I’m still not sure what element it was, but that Halloween reading changed the way I experienced Hoban’s story. Maybe a part of it was that I stopped expecting something from the fable and just enjoyed it. In that enjoyment, I found a surprising depth of meaning.

Billed as a young adult novel, but more fable-ish than anything else, Soonchild tells the story of Sixteen-Face John’s search for the world songs to coax his unborn child from her mother’s womb. The journey takes Sixteen-Face John (so called because he has sixteen faces with which to be afraid) deep into the north’s world, and into himself. Along the way he faces dangerous foes, of which fear proves to be the biggest one.

It’s hard to classify the story. It’s funny, wise, wry, sarcastic, cautionary and clever in turn. Alexis Deacon’s illustrations really bring it to life, sparse and extravagant as the story demands, helping you follow the barnacle-goose children over the ledge of fiction, fantasy, fable, phantasm and faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Soonchild
Author: Russell Hoban (who passed away in 2011), illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Publisher: Walker Books, 2012.
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.76/5)
The best feature of the book: Its surprising spiritual depth; its wry turns.
The worst feature of the book: It can be confusing.
Trigger warnings: You’ll be tempted to think of it as a children’s book – it really isn’t. It’s surprisingly gory.
You’ll like this if… You like fables and reading books like chewing good food.

The enduring mystery of secondhand bookstores

 

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Buying books is great, period. The ruffle of new pages and fresh ink. The creak of an untested spine. The velvety texture of untouched paper. The intrigue of an undiscovered world only hinted at in the blurb on the back. The hush of the store, usually an oasis of calm in a sea of shopping centre din. The weight and feel of a book about to become your own.

If buying new books is an adventure, then buying old ones is a mystery. The dusty air and narrow corridors of your typical secondhand bookshop lend itself well to an atmosphere of the unknown, the puzzling and the uncanny. Books, once new, now curl and rustle with age. Their smell sours. Their covers are tarnished with dirt, their once glossy titles pitted and scratched. Their pages are dog-eared, sometimes scribbled on, often thickened with the spill of some unidentifiable liquid. Names and dates adore title pages. The book’s spine has been cracked, once, twice; pages threaten to spill out and seek solitary solace.

The books themselves can be any and often every genre; a secondhand bookshop does not discriminate. Bestsellers share shelf space with obscure titles. Westerns and YA lit regard each other uneasily from across the room. Classics leer at Danielle Steeles. The surplus Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer novels prove that even as forgiving a market as the book market has its limits.

Yet the books themselves aren’t the end of the mystery. Their histories are an intrigue on their own. Where, one wonders of the Afrikaans poetry volume warped with green-tinted water, did you sit before you came to my shaky little bookcase? And you, William Golding volume, practically unopened and probably never read – who were you an unwanted Christmas present from?

Sometimes the books will share some of their secrets, yet these only deepen the mystery rather than resolving them. Old letters, cards, newspaper clippings, donation slips, brochures, even photographs will often tumble from an old book’s pages. Proving, perhaps, that readers are an inventive sort: anything can be used as a bookmark. Some of the secrets shared are lively. A book about prayer hinted at a woman’s early history, from her beginnings as an eager student enthusiastically involved in church activities, to her stint in the military and her marriage (dutifully reported in the local paper, the clip laminated and saved).

Other secrets are not as happy. I remember a book lovingly inscribed to a husband. It was filled with various birthday and Valentine’s Day cards and other romantic notes. In one, the wife thanks him for an exercise machine he bought her. Her handwriting is big and bubbly, with hearts dotting her i’s. Where are these spouses now, that such a large chunk of their relationship could be abandoned in the annals of a secondhand bookshop?

Not inappropriately, secondhand bookshops are filled with a thousand stories. The march of old children’s novels and academic textbooks tell their tales of growing up, the fantasies changing from knighthood and solving mysteries to more practical subjects like computer engineering and mathematics. The diet and exercise books are always either over or underused. Recipe books often come splattered with a sampling of the recipes they contain, their spines beholden to a family’s favourites. There are gardening books for all seasons; history books too historic; outdated travel guides to other places: Europe and Asia and the Cape. Foreign languages languish without someone to keep learning them. And the religious section – filled with shelves and shelves of daily devotionals, old hymnals falling apart at the seams, their songs now unsung, and small inspirational hardcovers that, if their sheer number is any indication, failed to inspire.

People may wonder how I could spend hours browsing a used bookstore. It smells funny, they may say, and they’d be right. It’s too dirty, they may point out, and I wouldn’t argue. But while my hands become sticky with the grit of books who’ve lived real lives before I met them, I’m also thinking about the person (“M de Jager”) who donated their entire Anne Rice collection to our SPCA’s charity bookshop. The novels are old, unglamorous paperbacks with yellowing pages and thick, outdated typeset almost as cheesy as their content. What, I wonder, happened between this person and Anne Rice’s vampires? Was the breakup sudden, or was it a long time coming? What replaced these books, if anything?

But as I turn Interview with the Vampire over in my hands, most of all I wonder this: where oh where will I find space for all these books in my house? It remains the deepest mystery of all.