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Shadowed Summer

3/5. Fourteen-year-old girl in a tiny Louisiana town accidentally calls up the spirit of a young man who went missing years ago, and she and her friends set out to find out what happened to him.

Slim and quick young adult, notable for a beautiful sense of place. Not just tiny town, not just Louisiana, but also summer as a place. And fourteen as a place; on the brink of sexuality and not particularly thrilled about it. There's a not really love triangle that's zero fun for anybody – our uninterested narrator and her boy crazy best friend and the boy who may like the wrong one of them – and the book is about how hard all of that is, and how to stay friends through it.

Also notable for actually startling/frightening me. The blurb made it sound like a gentle ghost story, but this ghost is not gentle. This ghost is angry.
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Winter Kill

3/5. M/M. Small town cop meets uptight FBI agent as they investigate serial murder.

This is . . . weird? There's one perfunctory sex scene about one fifth of the way through, when the characters think they are having a one night stand and have only the vaguest of feelings for each other. What ought to be the second sex scene – and a far more interesting one as they are coming complexly and reluctantly together in the middle of a stressful situation – is, get this, fade to black.

I mean, I don't read commercial M/M for the sex scenes. That would be foolish at best, because oh lordy most of these authors drop straight into fanfiction.net territory when it comes to that. But the lack of sex scenes here is just so weird that it made me focus on the other weirdness. How this is a mystery first and foremost, until about 2/3 of the way through when the book is like oh shit, hot gay romance, um hang on, gimme a sec. Which would be fine if the mystery were more interesting, but, uh. You don't read a Josh Lanyon for the mystery. Though TBF this one has a surprisingly big and well-drawn cast.

I don't know, it's not like Lanyon is knew here and doesn't know how to put a book together. This one is just clearly way more interested in the small town cop shop and the arguments over community policing versus federal policing than, like, staying on brand. O…kay?
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The Mermaid Murders (The Art of Murder Book 1)

3/5. M/M mystery romance where the young up-and-coming FBI art crimes specialist tags along – for reasons – with a profiler revisiting a serial killer case that might be active again.

This, on the other hand, I read in a day flat. It's bog-standard Lanyon – serviceable mystery foregrounding a couple where one half is the uptight hardened law enforcement type and the other half is a younger, gentler, more artistic sort. I wanted bog-standard Lanyon for the zing of sexiness and the occasional depth of emotion. This one mostly delivered, but it did leave me wondering, exasperatedly, if Lanyon gets these names out of the freaking phone book. Jason West? Sam Kennedy? The law enforcement types always have these cookie-cutter white guy aggressively American names, which got me scouring my memory for a single Lanyon book featuring a person of color, and I couldn't come up with a single freaking one. Anybody?
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Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

2/5. Books one, two, and eleven of a sorta cozy mystery series mostly set in a tiny Quebec village.

Picked up during the worst of the con crud (pretty sure I was patient zero this time . . . sorry 'bout that, Contxt) and enjoyable in inverse proportion to how healthy I was. So by the time I was getting better I was way the fuck over this nonsense and skipped ahead to find out if everyone continues to be obnoxious. What's wrong with it? I mean, it's populated by mostly kind mostly clever often literate people, some of whom are queer, and I have been known to like a mystery.

Yeah, but. You know that saying about how any book about art is actually about writing? Or is that just something one of my writing professors said? Regardless, it's pretty true. And this series is repeatedly and oh so excruciatingly embarrassingly allllllll about how haaaaaaaaaaaaard it is to be an artist who is unbelievably brilliant but no one appreciates your genius. Sooooooooo haaaaaaard, you guys, and noble and tragic and beautiful, but of course any book of such obvious unappreciated genius 'hem sorry, don't know what came over me – any truly great art will be discovered and adored as is its due. Oh god. It is so embarrassing, I do not know how she is putting these books out in the world without noticing.
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The Westing Game (Puffin Modern Classics)

4/5. Seventies YA, from before we called it YA. Sixteen tenants of a new apartment building are drawn into an elaborate scavenger hunt for a vast inheritance.

You guys, I had not reread this since my early teens, when I read it many . . . many . . . many times.

I think Turtle Wexler is my patronus.

This is so great. It is a mystery, but not really the sort you are supposed to solve. And it's a story of eight pairs of disparate people coming together. As the book might say, one of them is a thief, one of them is a bomber, one of them is a bookie, and one of them is Turtle. The book pauses to ask them, in a couple of places, who they are. They have to sign for receipt of various inheritance documents, and each time they must name their profession. And each naming is different. Who are you? the book keeps asking, and the answers start out funny, and then get more and more truthful, and in some cases more and more raw. "Person," Angela signs at one point. Ouch.

Anyway, if you want a #diversityin YA book, here's one for you. This sucker is barely sixty thousand words, at a guess, and yet it juggles sixteen main characters, and passes lightly but directly over transgenerational immigrant issues, and disability from about seven different angles, and the intersectionality of blackness and womanness, and immigrant families again, and class-climbing, and class-transgressing, and and and. I mean, I didn't always like every little gesture it made, but it caught me flat-footed at least once thinking I had spotted its ablism when nope, I really hadn't, it knew all along what it was doing, and that was something I hadn't spotted at all.

Also, Turtle. Who is twelve and neglected and smart, and who plays the stock market, and isn't scared until she is, and who can and will kick you if you get in her way.
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Fair Play (All's Fair Book 2)

4/5. M/M mystery featuring a retired FBI agent turned college professor digging into his father's radical past.

Brains are scary sometimes. I read the prequel to this book five years ago over a long night of hospital waiting. I finished the sequel on Thursday in a waiting room. During surgery this time, not after, but jeez! I totally did not plan that. Well, not purposefully, anyway.

Anyway. Needless to say, this series is tied up with medical stress for me. The sequel was as appropriate as the first book – soothing, just involving enough to be useful, emotionally satisfying. Lanyon has such a good grip on writing established relationships; the tensions between them, the push-and-pull, the sense of working together to build something difficult but lasting. They both struggle with trust in this book, and their mutual intimacy issues, and, uh, yeah, this works for me.

Now I just hope the next book isn't timed for another surgery.

Note: Kindle version is currently $3.99, which I assume is some sort of sale. Then again, M/M pricing is a continual mystery and puzzlement to me, so.

Other note: So Josh Lanyone "came out" as a woman, and . . . yeah. Thanks for that live fire demonstration of how you are utterly steeped in misogyny, pro M/M community. Jesus.
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Stranger on the Shore

3/5. M/M. A reporter investigates a twenty-year-old child abduction, and clashes sexily with the attorney of the victim's wealthy family.

A good book that wasn't to my taste. Lanyon does these standalone mysteries that exist somewhere in the hinterland between pastiche, homage, and fanfic. Here, the predecessor work is The Great Gatsby, and well, I kind of loathe Gatsby, so this book's contemplations and gestures were lost on me. I mean, our protagonist is an outsider to wealth, which is part of the point of this book about outsiderness in your own life, but honestly . . . Gatsby. Meh.

But if you like Gatsby, or the sort of book where there would be haunting music playing in the distant background of every scene of the movie version, you'll like this, because it's Lanyon, so it's actually well done.

Note: If you are such a person, looks like the kindle edition is currently discounted.
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Dreaming Spies: A novel of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

3/5. Another Russell/Holmes book of the usual formula – going back in to fill in a previous gap in the timeline with an international adventure which, in the middle of the book, catches up to narrator-standard-time in England.

Eh, you know, the charm is wearing off here.

Things I am in this series for: (1) the picture of a marriage of two very smart, very independent people who love each other, but do not need each other and they both know it; (2) Holmes's disguises; (3) partnership; (4) cleverness.

Things Laurie R. King is in this series for, these days: (1) Cultural tourism (Japan, this time); (2) set pieces.

This was competent, and I am bored. More clever sleuths loving each other but living their own lives, less travelog, please.
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Broken Harbour (Dublin Murder Squad, #4)Broken Harbour by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Proving that, along with everything else, French can bring the creepy. Investigation of a triple familial homicide reveals a house with holes knocked in the walls and cameras pointing into them, which is just the start.

This was, hm. I can't say I wasn't riveted, because I was. And I can't say it isn't a good book, because it is. It's more complicated than this sounds, but it's about the order that we keep to shut out the wild, and about where violence comes from. Our protagonist genuinely believes in victim-blaming – it's not that he won't pursue justice, he's just so very sure that anyone who gets dead did something to open up a crack in their life and let the violence in. And it doesn't take much, just the smallest slip will do it. The book is – I won't say sympathetic to him, but it is even-handed. We know why he thinks that – he has to think that – and French is very, very good at complicating the viewpoints of people with those kinds of self-serving blinders on.

But for all that, and I've said this before. I really wish she'd write a different book. Like around the 20% mark of this one, two characters began deliberately building a strong, healthy, functional emotional connection, and I knew instantly that it would be destroyed, and had a pretty good guess as to how. French writes that kind of destruction beautifully, but come on. We've seen this before. Maybe I've just read all of her books too close together, but there's a sameness to them which is frustrating given her obvious and ridiculous talent.




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Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #3)Faithful Place by Tana French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Another in her series of Dublin murder detectives. Frank Mackey is called home to the slums of his childhood for the discovery of the body of his teenaged girlfriend.

This was excellent, and I sincerely hope to never think of it again after posting this. If you want to get technical about it, this was the weakest mystery qua mystery of the three books. If you're after a puzzle, this isn't the book for it, as the killer is apparent early on. The point is not figuring that out; the point is watching Frank struggle with it through his blinders.

Which is painful enough, but that's not what got me. What got me by the throat was the exact bruise this book placed its finger on: that thing where you see your parents again after getting out in some form or other, and you can actually feel your sanity peeling off you in strips as the old vortex sucks you down again. That feeling of becoming the awful person you are underneath, that they made you into, and that you thought couldn't possibly be like you remembered. That was so precise and vivid, and so precisely not a thing I can deal with right now. Cheers to French for getting at it so well, but yeah, no, I need to forget this ever happened.




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Through the Evil DaysThrough the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of those books I snagged on release day, after two years of looking out for it. Another small town police chief/episcopal priest mystery. As usual, the A-plot is the weakest element – I swear at one point, as her usual series of increasingly improbable events piled up, that the main characters just drove in big circles for twenty pages. I was like, "I feel you, dudes – if I was stuck in a plot this overbaked, I'd opt out, too."

But I'm in it for the characters, and ugh, I just love them so much. As always, there is so much respect here for the work of a relationship. Clare and Russ have always been incredibly different people. That doesn't change the amazing thing they found in each other, but it does mean they have to work at it. Especially when they have two very different and entirely appropriate reactions to an unwanted pregnancy.

And everyone else, being scared and cornered and clever and brave and weak by turns. They are all lovely and flawed, and I want to watch all of them work at happiness for many many more books.

Even if the A plots continue to be this dumb.




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The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2)The Likeness by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Well.

Follows In the Woods. Cassie walks out of the wreckage and into a new case which sends her undercover to infiltrate the tight-knit household of a murdered girl. This is very much like In the Woods, and I'm not talking about the need to suspend one's disbelief on the premise. Both of these books are post facto first person memoirs of travail and inevitable destruction; they both examine the forging and breaking of human connections; they are both intricately written and occasionally overwritten, with a core of twisty psychological intensity.

This one didn't work on me as well as In the Woods. Partly because all the thematic underpinnings here on the creation of group identities and the struggle for happiness in the modern world just didn't interest me as much. And partly because I'm onto French now, and I was never all that impressed with her more gothic flourishings. I sighed tiredly when this book did an actual "When I dream of Whitethorne House…." Sequence.

But. All that said. There is so much to unpick from French's convolutions and turnings. And every few pages something would flash out at me, aimed just right. "I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack." Oh, Cassie, I know who you are thinking of.

At the bottom of it all, French is a tremendous craftsman, and my dissatisfaction with this book comes from my conviction that it retreads too much stylistic ground, that she has something more daring and different in her, and that I want it.




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The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11)The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The last Wimsey. Last that I hadn't read, I mean. I couldn't remember whether this one or Five Red Herrings was the truly bad one; I meant to save the worst for last, but guessed wrong, so ended up surprised by the quality of this chilly, densely-peopled, eerie book. She writes beautifully of the fens, the tiny villages, the convolutions of life around the church, the rising water, the ringing ringing ringing of the bells. I stopped reading this as a murder mystery very early and recalibrated my attention to a novel of place. That turned out to be just right, because it's a good novel of place, though I think many people will like it more than I did. And also it set me up perfectly to be genuinely chilled by the ultimate solution, even if I had guessed three-quarters of it all correctly. Ooof.

I am not, I must say, sorry to see the back of Peter's 'oh woe is me, I wish I had never carelessly wandered into this murder mystery because I'm endlessly nosy and then discovered later that real people really got hurt, oh waily waily.' I understand this is supposed to be a function of his PTSD, and this book does weave together the strands of his war recollections with the present abdication of responsibility. In fact, I think it does so notably better than Busman's Honeymoon does (Busman's Honeymoon being the obvious thematic and structural companion to this book, at least to my eye). I just don't have to like it, and for complicated reasons I deeply do not.




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In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1)In the Woods by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Ooh. You know how sometimes you read or watch a story a lot, because everyone has a version, and it's never good, and so you start assuming that the not goodness is inherent to the story rather than the tellers? And then someone comes along and does it so well that all you can do is say "oh," and go meekly away to think about it?

Yeah. The story is the one about the cop investigating a modern-day murder that intersects with a traumatic, unsolved crime from his childhood. And this book is the one that does it right.

And by 'right,' I mean ouch. This is a grinding, mesmerizing portrait of slow destruction. And one of the sharpest portrayals of the long-term effects of PTSD on personality I've ever read. It's also related by an unreliable narrator who is pitched so well, actual chills went down my spine when the shape of one of his lies to me became clear.

I'm making this sound harrowing, which it kind of is. But it's also clever and grimly funny and smart. I finished it a week ago, and little pieces of it keep clicking into place even now, illuminating the picture in new ways.

Seriously, the next time some cop procedural pitches one of these 'cop with a past' stories during sweeps, I'm not even going to be able to watch and make fun, because now I know how good this story can be.




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Cut & Run (Cut & Run #1)Cut & Run by Abigail Roux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


FBI agents are forcibly partnered to solve murders/go undercover/protect witnesses/insert law-enforcement plot device of choice here. It’s hate at first sight, until it really, really isn’t.

This was sneaky. I read the first book and went ‘yeah, okay, that was pretty good even though x and y and z were hilariously overplayed.’ And then it was like that thing where you have the bowl of popcorn in your lap, and you don’t even know you’re eating it until it’s halfway gone. It was like that, except all of a sudden I was reading the second book. And then there were these . . . feelings! And then the third book was undercover fake-gay-married-except-really-secretly-sleeping-together and it was four in the morning and what the fuck is happening to me? By the time the fourth book came around, I wasn’t having feelings anymore. I was having feels, guys. Huge difference. And then we hit the fifth book, which coincided with some business travel, and I had one of those moments of clarity where you realize a U.S. Congressman is networking kind of frantically at you on the Acela and you’re tilting your laptop screen away from him and thinking crankily, for fuck’s sake, Congressman, just let me get back to my gay porn!. True story.

Look, these are self-indulgent to the extreme, and silly to boot, and hilariously over-the-top. But they’re also slow and sweet and angry and complicated. This is one of those stories about two people who were not looking for love, let alone looking for each other. But then it happened, and the really interesting thing is how they deal. …Or don’t deal, on occasion.

I’m feeling kind of unsatisfied with this, the way you do when you have lots of feels about something and you can’t explain why because it’s too reflexive. I have been thinking and writing a lot lately about kink (in the broader emotional sense, not the narrow sexual paraphilia sense). That knot of tension deep down in the muscle of your psyche, and kink is the thing that comes and pushes at it, and pushes, and sometimes it hurts, but it’s good. These books pushed at something to do with what I value and respect in partnerships of all sorts, and about how the things worth having don’t come easy, and, and.

That’s a little closer.




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Come Unto These Yellow SandsCome Unto These Yellow Sands by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Classic Lanyon dynamic -- [insert artistic inclination here] narrator with [insert tragical condition/past here] gets tangled up in a [insert type of crime investigation] while his hard-nosed cop boyfriend glowers a lot. Here that would be poet, drug addiction, and murder, respectively.

Totally serviceable, in that way they are when the formula works for you.




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Pirate King (Mary Russell, #12)Pirate King by Laurie R. King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So this is Laurie R. King writing a book about fictional Mary Russell who has written another memoir of an adventure with Sherlock Holmes, this one about the time she went undercover as an assistant to a crew making a silent movie about a crew making a movie about The Pirates of Penzance.



By all rights, you should need to diagram out the layers of narrative and meta narrative, but you don’t. As usual, King passes but lightly over these points, and in fact pauses briefly to make fun of critical readings of narrative and identity constructs.



No, basically, this is a romp from Portugal to Morocco, with real pirates and fake pirates and a lot of actresses and a parrot. Don’t bother hoping for a classic mystery, or anything more than a desultory and deliberately silly bit of plot frippery. These aren’t critiques, mind you. I mean, this book thinks it is somewhat more hilarious and charming than I thought it was, but it was pleasingly diverting. There just isn’t much besides the frippery, and a definite lack of Holmes. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is not my Sherlock Holmes. He is hilariously functional, just for starters.





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One Was a Soldier (Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #7)One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’m going to do this series a disservice and just babble on here at the current stopping point, instead of talking about each book individually. Even though the individual books are trying a lot of different and interesting things with structure, usually successfully.



I read these in one sustained gulp through a work slump and summer insomnia. And I kept thinking confusedly “but I don’t like this sort of thing!” as I lunged desperately for the next book.



“This sort of thing” being improbable series mystery with manufactured tension of the criminal and sexual sort and no soul. And I’m right, I don’t like that sort of thing.



This is something else entirely. It’s contemporary fiction about two people who discover, beneath their age difference and the part where she’s a priest and he’s an atheist and their differing politics, that they are . . . you know. The big cheese. “The other half of me.” Except he’s married. And how they deal with that, while trying so hard to be ethical because that’s who they are, not just because they’re supposed to behave a certain way. And how they try to hold on to the amazing thing they’ve found. And how they fail. And how they deal.



And spreading out from them, it’s about their entire town – her church and his police force – about a dozen marriages, and griefs, and mistakes, and how everyone is connected to everyone else, and just . . . stuff.



She has a tendency to lean towards “issue” books. This most recent book is about returning Iraq veterans, and there’s a bit of ‘and your issue is drug addiction, and your issue is anger management, and your issue is your newly acquired disability.’ Except it’s also a book about help. About someone who has to this point been defined by what she most often says, “how can I help?” And how hard it is for her to be able to say, “now I need.” Simple stuff, prettily but simply written, and yet. Apparently I like this sort of thing.



Oh, and there’s a murder mystery in each one but you know. Whatever.





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A Fountain Filled With Blood (Rev. Clare Fergusson, #2)A Fountain Filled With Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Hey, I liked this one too!



And the thing I liked, most particularly (still not the mystery) is how this relationship is between two really different people. The most obvious way is in their politics – she’s a bleeding heart liberal, he’s a head-in-the-sand social conservative in the way some people are by virtue of pretending that a lot of problems aren’t problems. And they argue about this stuff! Like grownups! In ways that make neither of them look stupid in the long term! That is so refreshing. I had no idea how tired I was of the sameness of romantic relationships – we love each other because we think the same way about everything important.



(Although points off for trotting out one of the more damaging liberal clichés: the “I know you’re not a homophobe because you care enough to worry about the question.” Uh, no. That’s what we call self-congratulatory crap. Knowing enough to ask the question is not an inoculation against being a homophobe/racist/whatever, because the isms are systemic and subconscious. “You can’t be a homophobe, you’re worried about being a homophobe,” is a correlate to the lovely thought that brought us hipster racism. And it does not belong in this otherwise thoughtful, deeply humane book.)





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In the Bleak Midwinter (Rev. Clare Fergusson, #1)In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Hey, I liked this! I don’t like many traditional mysteries. Though to be fair, I don’t actually like this mystery qua mystery.



He’s the police chief of a tiny, upstate New York town. She’s a former army pilot turned Episcopal priest. (She’s improbable in that way that makes a character seem more real, instead of less, if you know what I mean). They solve crime, yeah, whatever. But mostly they have this slow-blooming connection. This book is about them becoming friends in this wonderful, organic, completely believable way. They are sexually neutralized to each other – he’s married and she’s a priest – so they come together free from most of the usual romance bullshit. Just two interesting, conflicted, smart, ethical people who don’t notice that they’re falling until it’s way too late.



Really nice.





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