Adventure with philosophy. Or philosophy with adventure. Your choice.

I always feel uncertain writing about classics like Voltaire’s Candide. I mean, this was a book that was cited during the French Revolution in the 1790’s, and its influence is vast. Lots of thought has gone into Candide and its philosophy.

But chances are good you probably haven’t read it. So a quick summary: this is a short adventure novel with a lot of action and a basic debate between optimism and pessimism. Should Candide be an optimist or a pessimist? But that makes it sound boring and it’s not. Like I said, there’s a lot of adventure and hi-jinks and you can read it as a straight adventure story that’s only about 100 pages long. You can choose to engage in it at your preferred level. And I liked that.

I read it mostly as an adventure story – Candide does travel all over the world after all – but with some light philosophizing. Is it better to be a pessimist and never be let down? Or does optimism drive you to be better and do more? It’s not proscriptive; you get to decide for yourself.

Recommended, because there’s not enough thinking about optimism in culture today.

A simpler tale

Of the three Lady Sherlock books I’ve read, The Hollow of Fear is the best. You get the characters, you get what seems to be romantical progress but might not actually be, and most importantly, the mystery that’s being solved has been significantly simplified.

The earlier books seemed to delight in making the problem to be solved as complex as possible so the reader didn’t figure it out ahead of time. This book still has timeline trickery for maximum confusion, but at least you’re not figuring out how three different mysteries fit together. So that’s a win.

Recommended.

Shirley Jackson is funny

I continue to adore Shirley Jackson’s essays/nonfiction chapters about raising her four kids in a possibly haunted house in small town Vermont in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Life Among the Savages lived up to all my expectations about the essays’ hilariousness and strangeness.

To wit: I was giggling audibly while reading them on the sofa next to my husband. He asked me what was so funny, so I read him the paragraph that ends with her daughters’ singing “Baby ate a spider, baby ate a spider.” Then he started laughing.

Him: Who wrote this?
Me: Shirley Jackson, you know the woman who wrote The Lottery? [You know, that story you read in high school about the woman who ends up getting stoned to death? aka NOT FUNNY – Kate]

I wasn’t expecting the first set of her essays to be so entertaining, but these lived up to every expectation I had. Definitely recommended.

Now I want to read all of the Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell You is a compilation of essays and short stories by Shirley Jackson, who you may know best as the author of “The Lottery”, a story about a stoning that takes place in what otherwise seems to be contemporary America. (In one of the essays, she talks about the genesis of that story. She’d been reading a book about human sacrifice, and, whilst walking her kids to school, started thinking about how such a thing would work in the small town in which she lived.)

It was deeply entertaining – some of the stories were better than the others – but the best part of a good book were her essays. One of the best was when she was describing the old house she and her family lived in, and its ghosts which were sometimes friendly and sometimes not, but by and large seemed to approve of them living there. The whole book was smart and entertaining.

Highly recommended.

More about the characters than the mysteries

The Lady Sherlock series is… fine? I recently read the first two books; they’re fun without being spectacular. I’m not sure I could tell you any of the intricacies of the actual mysteries, which always seem to be entirely too convoluted. One of Agatha Christie’s rules of mystery writing is that the motive should be something simple and everyday. These books do not follow that rule.

However, I’m not here for the mysteries. I’m here for the characterization of women in Victorian London figuring out how to be transgressive and get away with it. Charlotte Holmes losing her virginity and making sure it gets out so her father can’t marry her off; Mrs Watson coming from the stage; Charlotte’s sister starting to make her own living by writing down “Sherlock”‘s mysteries. Sherlock is a total fabrication created so that people will bring their issues to Charlotte.

The books are a mixed bag, and I still have the third one on hold at the library, so I’m enjoying them enough to keep going on the series.

Talking to ghosts, part 1

City of Ghosts is a middle grade ghost story that I read in the run-up to Halloween. Cassidy Blake almost died this one time; now she sees ghosts. Her parents are ghost hunters – which doesn’t work as well as you might think. They get an opportunity to go to Edinburgh, and Cassidy gets drawn into a drama in a city FULL of ghosts. Most of which, according to the author who is a sometimes-resident of Edinburgh, are local legends.

It was entertaining, and, since the framing is that Cassidy’s parents got a TV contract to look for ghosts in a number of different cities, this is only book one of many. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Can I interest you in some angry women?

Can I interest you in an angry woman? One who wants power and has been kept on the sidelines her whole life? One who gains the ability to turn people into ash, and still can’t get the men in power to take her seriously?

How about a different angry woman – this one is quiet and uses her super-power to look like other people. You don’t really know what she looks like until the end of the book, and it’s not the point anyway. But she is out for herself, and slipping between the cracks to hide after she’s taken what’s hers and that’s another kind of power.

Or maybe an angry teenager, one who is growing up slower than normal because her power to bring things back from the dead also makes her cold and her body function slower than it should. I don’t think she wants to be normal, per se, but her life is definitely not even close. She might like at least one normal teenage experience in her life.

How about two angry men, one who can control pain and the other who can heal, who are so alike it’s ridiculous, each determined to end the other?

I read Vengeful right after the Dr Christine Blasey Ford hearings. It was perfect for my mood, and it might be VE Schwab’s best book yet. It was definitely better than Vicious, her earlier book in this series, which was nothing to sneeze at.

Recommended.

Sometimes entertainment is good

If you are looking for entertaining brain candy, The Royal Runaway is your book. Princess Thea gets caught up in an international investigation when her fiancé just doesn’t show up at the altar during their wedding. Well, he doesn’t show up at all – they don’t make it to the church. Everyone thinks he’s a cad, she nurses a broken heart, and four months later she’s getting on with things. Until someone starts investigating exactly what happened to her former fiancé.

It’s got old-school James Bond style investigative fun and intrigue and it’s all told from Princess Thea’s point of view so there’s none of that icky misogyny.

Recommended for when you need something to escape from the real world.

Some beloved books are not for me, and that’s fine

You have probably read The Book Thief and loved it. It’s #14 on the NPR Great American Read list, after all. When I picked it up, someone saw me holding it and said “oh, are you re-reading that?” And I said, “I’ve never read it.”

You know what? I’ve still not read it. I got a fair bit of the way in, too. But here’s the thing: right now, I don’t need a book about Nazis doing horrible things. I don’t need to read about how society goes down that slippery slope towards hate and violence and intolerance. It’s bad. I know that, and I see enough of it happening in the world right now. And The Book Thief was not a compelling enough story to make me forget that.

Plus, the Death character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels has, apparently, ruined me for all other characterizations of Death.

The Book Thief was not for Kates.

I got so hungry reading this book

The main point of Sourdough is: don’t obsess over technology, which is alienating and takes you out of the real world. Instead, obsess over food, which brings people together.

There’s probably something intelligent to say about the intersection of the two – after all, one of the subplots is about how the main character is using a robotic arm to help her make bread, and another character is using genetic sequencing to create the perfect super-food. The technology + food equation seems to work better when the technology is supporting the food, not when it’s an end in and of itself. But also, the food will be just fine without it.

Or maybe you could enjoy a sweet story about a young woman finding her way in the world and not worry about technology and food and underlying meaning. That would work too.