Jan 15 2021

Looking Back On 2020

Y’all, I read a patently absurd number of books last year. With a final tally of 256 books logged on Goodreads, this was an increase of just under 70 books and over 8000 pages from the year before. On the one hand, I did a much better job of cataloging the graphic novels and children’s books I covered in the course of reading with my kids — tho I’m missing all the excellent No, David books still, as well as at least one art book. On the other, it’s not like there was aught much else to do in this hell year when I couldn’t hang out with my friends and discover fun new restaurants and games. Art and books filled that void for me, and were a very necessary escape from the chaotic mental space that is supervising three small children’s virtual schooling. I was very pleased to discover some brand new favorites, most reviewed on this site but not all. Since I feel like I did a slightly better job of reading new releases this year than previous (and I say this as someone regularly sent ARCs for review,) I’ve decided to organize my Top 12 list of 2020 by publication date, with the more recent ones at the top:

1. Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (August 18th 2020) — I said it then, I’ll say it again: this book is fucking flawless. Just a perfect YA fantasy novel of a young girl with a toxic mother whose ambitions lead poor Tarisai almost inevitably towards betrayal of those she loves most. Inventive, empathetic and deeply human, Ms Ifueko’s debut novel reimagines fantasy and spins its out again in Afro-centric form, with charm, suspense and just some really terrific writing and world-building.

2. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody by Barbara Ross (June 30th 2020) — Barbara Ross is one of my favorite cozy mystery writers because she never, ever phones it in. Her latest series features a recently retired accountant at a loose end in her life, who realizes that her ability to problem solve might actually be turned into gainful late-life employment. At the behest of a nervous retirement community manager, Jane goes undercover to identify and neutralize the source of the community’s discord, only to find herself faced with murder. How Jane and her friends solve that as well as their own life issues (I cried at one conversation Jane had with her friends near the end) is depicted with heart and wit, making this not only the best cozy of last year for me, but also the most heartfelt work of general fiction featuring an older lead I’ve read all year.

3. Passage West by Rishi Reddi (April 21st, 2020) — This illuminating debut novel of Indian immigrant farmers in California in the early 20th century broke my heart over and over. I wasn’t even aware of the significant presence of Indian migrants in the area at that time, much less how they suffered alongside all the other people marginalized by a white-centric capitalism and government once their usefulness was deemed negligible. I learned so much about this little-discussed chapter of American history, even as I cried my way through pages that only affirmed my belief in the harm done by restrictive immigration laws.

4. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (March 10th, 2020) — Another heartbreaker of a debut, this should be mandatory companion reading for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, as it explores the psyche of a woman who was groomed as a teenager and still views her former relationship as a tragic love story. I love Lolita because it exposes the psychology of a monster: I love MDV because it allows the victim to claim center stage and to process all her own conflicting emotions about what happened and her own role in the proceedings. Dense and complicated, it’s a necessary counterpart to the classic that will hopefully squelch for once and for all this awful notion that Lolita is a romance.

5. Lovers And Writers by Lily King (March 3rd 2020) — A wonderful actual love story is this brilliant Lily King novel. Less about the romantic entanglements of our 31 year-old heroine than about her commitment to the craft of writing, this bildungsroman is a love letter to all the people who were told to put aside their love for books and writing in order to “be practical.” Ms King sees you and loves you, even if she is punching you in the emotions as you read.

6. Dark River by Rym Kechacha (February 24th, 2020) — Another debut novel that had me absolutely captivated, this one compares the eerily similar quests undertaken by two women separated by millennia. Shaye is a Neolithic woman struggling to find the beloved father of her son as her people migrate north for a tribal ceremony. Several decades in the future, Shante is waiting for the visas that will allow her and her family to join her husband north in a city safe, or at least safer, from the devastations of climate change. Both stories are heartbreaking, and I wanted so much to hug and cherish the ones I loved immediately after finishing this haunting book.

7. All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (November 12th, 2019) — Ms Courtney would like to remind you that Muslims, and especially American Muslims, are not a monolith, and that it’s okay for people to be just as faithful as they can be because faith is a matter between each fallible person and their God. It’s a warm, open-hearted book that lightly fictionalizes so many of the dilemmas facing young Muslim women growing up in America today, offering balm and grace for any Muslimah who feels like she just isn’t good enough, and perhaps insight to those outside of the faith as to the ways so many of us really think and feel.

8. Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (September 10th, 2019) — Honestly, I would marry this book if I could. It’s a sci-fi tale of lesbian necromancers who find themselves trapped in a rivalry for divine favor with the scions of other houses/planets, which quickly morphs into a manor house murder mystery as the contestants get killed off one by one, agilely written by a whip-smart author plugged into pop culture who isn’t afraid to make demands of us readers to keep up, to figure things out as she takes us on one hell of a ride. I didn’t like the sequel, Harrow The Ninth, quite as much, but that’s asking a lot of the follow-up to a book I would marry. That said, my current Twitter avatar is Harrow, so.

9. Die Vol 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans & Clayton Cowles (June 5th 2019) — I finished this book and immediately e-mailed my oldest RPG-playing friend raving about it, which should give you some idea how deeply this struck a chord. A group of six teenagers accidentally get sucked into a D&D-type world: two years later, only five of them return. Twenty-five years later, they find a way to go back in and rescue their lost friend, but the intervening decades have not been kind. An absolute gem of a graphic novel, this one might have more resonance for gamers than non.

10. Front Desk by Kelly Yang (May 29th, 2018) — I borrowed this from my then-8-year-old, who’d borrowed it from his teacher, and oh how deeply affected I was by this middle-grade account of a young Chinese immigrant adjusting to life in America, moreso than I’ve been of books with similar themes written by adults. I cried a lot more than my kid did reading this — he probably thinks I’m a soft touch, and he’s a Pisces who self-describes as sensitive — but in fairness, my 8 year-old self probably wouldn’t have felt the same hurts either. Ms Yang also published the excellent Parachutes in 2020 but Front Desk was the better read for me.

11. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (January 2nd, 2018) — I did not think this book could live up to its hype, and boy, was I wrong! Smart, savage and seductive, the way Jude learns to survive and thrive in the Courts of Faerie is a triumph of (court) political fiction. With compelling prose and plotting, Ms Black writes circles around anyone who thinks they know how to write political intrigue, never mind fairy fantasies. I very badly need to find time to read the sequels, hopefully sooner than later!

12. The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (July 29th, 2014) — Probably the most addictive read on this list, I gobbled up all 500-odd pages in a day, so delightful was it to be in Ms Chambers’ beautifully thought-out future, following the ragtag crew of a mining spaceship as they go on a lucrative but potentially dangerous job. I also read the next two books in the series the same year, as well as her Hugo-nominated novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate, and while I really enjoyed Record Of A Spaceborn Few, her debut novel is still my favorite of her works.

The biggest commonality of my Top 12 list is an astonishing capacity for empathy, that kind that can make you both laugh and cry in the same book, followed closely by truly intelligent, audacious plotting. I am genuinely surprised that there is only one male author here, with one male letterer, but am pleased to have discovered so many brilliant new female creators from all over the world, from so many diverse backgrounds and heritages.

I also want to mention several more books published in 2020 that I’m still thinking about as the year turns. Shveta Thakrar’s Star Daughter is a terrific YA fantasy novel featuring a cast of smart, mature kids struggling with the knowledge that Hindu mythology is real. David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut noir novel Winter Counts is a searing portrayal of modern life on and around the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Sharon Doering’s She Lies Close is an absolutely bonkers deep dive into the brain of a woman who becomes obsessed with a child abduction, a topic that only feels more and more relevant as mainstream American politics becomes further undermined by lunatic conspiracy theories. Finally, Samantha Downing’s He Started It is a murder mystery and family drama that asks the important questions at the heart of all storytelling: who gets to tell stories and whose stories are considered to matter?

In all honesty, and despite the stress I sometimes went through trying to tackle it all, it was a great year for reading. Here’s hoping 2021 brings us all more books to delight and astonish!

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Jan 14 2021

Closed Casket (New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #2) by Sophie Hannah

Given how prominently the name Agatha Christie is displayed on the cover, I wonder why they don’t just call this Agatha Christie’s… oh actually, I can see why now, nvm.

But yes, this is the second novel in Sophie Hannah’s take on the beloved Belgian detective, and I found I liked it less than the two other books in this series that I’ve read. And that’s less, I think, a function of plotting than of pacing and, at least in one significant instance, characterization.

So our narrator Inspector Edward Catchpool is invited to stay at the Irish estate of Lady Athelina Playford, famed author of children’s detective novels. He’s a bit abashed to realize that Hercule Poirot has been extended the same invitation, as he’s still smarting at the battering his own reputation has taken from association with the Belgian detective. Poirot seems oblivious, but any petty considerations are swept aside when Lady Playford makes a shocking announcement at dinner. She declares that she’s changed her will, leaving her considerable estate to her sickly secretary Joseph Scotcher instead of to her adult children. Her taxidermy-obsessed son Harry seems to find the news only mildly discomfiting despite his wife Dorro’s bitter protests. The reactions of her archly contrary daughter Claudia and Claudia’s doctor fiance Randall Kimpton range somewhere between Harry and Dorro’s, but perhaps most surprising is Joseph’s response. After first demurring, he quickly proposes to his live-in nurse, also named Sophie (why do authors do this? Is it not weird to name characters after yourself, especially when they play crucial roles in the narrative?) Anyway, Sophie claims she needs time to think about it.

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Jan 12 2021

You Have A Match by Emma Lord

Whereas Emma Lord’s debut novel Tweet Cute updated You’ve Got Mail for the 21st century, her follow-up You Have A Match is a smart, modern take on The Parent Trap. Sixteen year-old Abby Day only takes one of those Ancestry-DNA-type tests out of solidarity with her best friend Leo, on whom she also happens to have a huge crush. Leo was adopted from the Philippines, and while his parents are supportive of him trying to find out more about his birth family, his sister Carla is far more ambivalent, hence his need for moral support. When testing turns up nothing for him but informs Abby that she actually has an older sister living in the next town over, she’s absolutely flabbergasted. The eldest of four kids herself, she doesn’t understand how it’s possible that 18 year-old Savannah Tully could genetically be her full sibling.

Savvy, as she’s known, is also everything accident-prone, academically-indifferent Abby isn’t. A polished Instagram star with great hair and a wealthy family, she’s just as confused as Abby, and insists that Abby come spend time with her that summer at Camp Reynolds so they can get to know one another better and figure out how all this happened. Abby is desperate for a break from her parents’ strict regime of SAT tutoring, so she accepts the invitation while dodging summer school. Little does she know that Leo is going to be at camp as well, and that this is going to be a summer of revelations and heartbreak that could turn out to be the most important summer of her life.

I had pretty low expectations going into this book, but I was blown away by how delightful it was to follow these fallible, relatable characters as they desperately tried to figure out who they were and who they loved and what it means not only to be family but also to be friends. Abby is constantly saying the wrong thing — forgivable in a 16 year-old — but she’s also extremely conflict-avoidant, and it was fascinating and heart-breaking to read how she reacted when she and Savvy finally confronted their parents, initially blaming herself for “tricking” them but exploding later in an anger born of an entirely understandable vulnerability. It’s so nice how she feels like a real person, and not a zero to sixty stand-in for an author’s grinding plot axe, as is unfortunately common in both the YA and romance genres to which this book belongs. It was also nice how Ms Lord presented Abby and Savvy’s parents as people who’d made awful mistakes but who with time were capable of overcoming the past in order to mend broken relationships.

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Jan 11 2021

Death Of A Messenger (Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery #1) by Robert B. McCaw

It genuinely felt like this book was written by one person for the first 60% and another for the last 40%. Maybe this has something to do with the book being a reissue from 2015, telling the first chronological story of the Koa Kane Hawaiian Mystery series, and perhaps being updated for 2021. What I know for sure is that there’s a definite cognitive dissonance from the first sixty percent, where Koa sounds like a moderately racist, moderately misogynistic white man in disguise, with the last forty where he wonders whether non-native Hawaiians have undergone sufficient sensitivity training in their professional fields for saying milder things than he himself has expressed or let pass without comment. I was certainly glad for the 180 in attitude, but it happened so abruptly that it made for really weird reading.

The story itself is alright: Koa Kane is a 40-something detective on the underfunded Hawaii police force, living with his seven years younger (tho the numbers get fiddly partway through the book for no discernible reason) partner, astronomer Nalani. He’s worrying about budget cuts and a pinched nerve in his neck when a mutilated body is found in a lava tube on an army firing range. Investigations lead to such disparate factions as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, as well as to archaeological black marketeers and the scientists up at Nalani’s workplace, the (fictional) Alice Observatory located on the slopes of Mauna Kea. It’s a wide-ranging look at current Hawaiian society and politics that serves as a fascinating introduction to the area. Did you know that Mauna Kea in winter features sub-arctic temperatures and snowfall? I sure didn’t! In fact, I actively doubted what Robert B McCaw was telling me for the longest time because he did not acknowledge that snow is not something you’d expect in fricking Hawaii of all places! I don’t expect to have my hand held in real world narratives but I do expect some awareness of out-group perspectives, tho I guess the constant disparaging allusions to an ob-gyn as a “baby doctor” (like, why is that disreputable? He helps bring children into the world. Is it because he does this by helping people with uteruses and heaven knows, those people aren’t to be taken seriously?) after also saying, “The army probably killed his relatives during the war. At least, I hope so” about a Japanese-Hawaiian person who dislikes the military, are indicative of blissful lack of same. And then there’s a weird bit in the afterword where I wondered whether somebody needed an explanation as to how sex can lead to pregnancy. I still also don’t understand why Kane was so hostile to the sovereignty groups, likely because their aims are never really explained in comparison to the amount of scorn heaped on them. I’m fairly certain sovereignty groups aren’t advocating for Hawaii to cut off all its electricity, as claimed in the book.

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Jan 08 2021

Lore by Alexandra Bracken

Siiiigh.

In the year 2021, is describing a book as being like The Hunger Games even a good reference any longer? Especially since, if you’re really looking for an on-the-nose comparison, Highlander would be much more appropriate?

I suppose I’m focusing on the petty business of book marketing because I don’t want to address how disappointing this book was to me overall. It’s blurbed as being The Hunger Games (sigh) only with Greek gods in modern-day New York City, and if that isn’t a cool as Tartarus description, I don’t know what is! Especially since the heroine is essentially a cage fighting orphan who thought she’d gotten out of the world of the Agon, only to reluctantly get dragged back in again when old friend/flame Castor shows up at one of her matches with a cryptic message, swiftly followed by the appearance of the wounded goddess Athena herself, begging for help. Athena promises that she’ll get Lore, our titular heroine, out of the Agon for good, as long as Lore helps her survive this latest in the cycle, due to end in seven days. Lore grudgingly agrees, binding her fate to Athena’s for the duration. Hijinks ensue.

Really great premise, completely undermined by the fact that nothing about the Agon makes a lick of sense. Some distant time ago, nine of the Olympian deities rebelled against Zeus, and in retaliation he cursed them to be mortal for a week once every seven years, during which any non-god who killed them would gain their powers instead. The bloodlines of ancient heroes train for these hunts but also seek to protect their own immortals, should one of their (male) heroes slay a deity, as the powers of a god grant not only immortality but also mystical power and influence. In the 21st century, only a few of the original gods remain, the rest having been slain and their powers usurped by humans, who have not always survived being hunted by other bloodlines themselves. Apparently, tho, should a god kill another god, the slain deity’s powers dissipate into the aether.

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Jan 07 2021

Dance Class #11: Dance With Me by BéKa & Crip

It took me a while to get into the flow of this volume, but once I was there, I was all in!

The Dance Class series revolves around three French girls — Alia, Julie and Lucie — who take the same dance class, as well as their families, friends, love interests and rivals. In this volume, Alia is exploring her budding new relationship with Evan, while Julie is trying to break up with her own boyfriend. When all three girls are given the opportunity to fly to Spain for flamenco classes, they leap at the opportunity, embracing adventures and hijinks along the way.

It’s rather slender as far as plot goes, but it’s incredibly dense with lovely details and insight into the life of three dance-obsessed teenage girls. I loved that the girls weren’t cookie cutouts and that they had distinct personalities to go with their different looks, even if you don’t necessarily find out as much about their backgrounds as you might like here. Tho with ten previous volumes to go through, there’s definitely a wealth of material to be had already! As this was my first exposure to the series, I’m thoroughly thrilled to discover that there’s more available for me to read, and as immediately as I’d like to!

Part of the reason it took me a while to get into the book tho, is that the authors are uninterested in catching you up to speed, which is fine. The narration of this book tends, like a webcomic, to read as a complete entry per page, so if you’re unfamiliar with the series, it can feel pretty disjointed as we switch between the perspectives of not only our main characters but also their supporting cast. Once I started figuring out who was who, which happened roundabout the time the story started feeling more like it had a plot than was constituted merely of a series of cute anecdotes, I was completely sucked in.

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Jan 05 2021

The Soul of Purpose: A Step-By-Step Approach to Create A Purpose-Driven, Healthy Life by Jaya Jaya Myra

New Year, New You, and if that’s your thinking as 2021 opens, then you could do much, much worse than to pick up a copy of Jaya Jaya Myra’s The Soul Of Purpose. As with all self-help books, what you put into the process is what you get out of it, and I’ll plainly state that as far as self-help books go, this one is devoid of most of the toxic nonsense that permeates the industry. While I’m not a huge fan of books that purport to be able to heal all your woes with positive thinking and special diets, I did like how Ms Myra emphasized that adopting these doesn’t mean you have to throw conventional wisdom out the door either.

Her process begins with the four-step WELL Method, which encourages you to figure out your purpose in life in accordance with the gifts you were born with. She subscribes to the Eastern belief that all people are made up of five elements — air, earth, fire, water and space (I’d say void but I’m an L5R nerd) — and that while some elements are predominant in one’s physique and personality, true health comes from having these elements exist in harmony within you. One key observation is that harmony is what you’re looking for, and not balance, as the latter implies the exhausting work of juggling and, possibly, forcing greater quantities than necessary to be present in your make-up.

She hews back to more standard Western rhetoric in emphasizing harmony also in the mental, physical and spiritual, while illustrating how each aspect feeds into the other. Atheists may not care for her firm belief in having a spiritual connection to God, but her beliefs have less to do with religion than with a belief in a higher power where you can rest your burdens when everyday life gets a little too overwhelming. I also enjoyed her embrace of both modern medicine and traditional, as she discusses the importance of exercise and breath work in maintaining all aspects of one’s health. I’m a little skeptical at the idea that deep breathing and meditation will keep most illnesses at bay, but I do appreciate that she presents these as practices to add to your everyday life and not as alternatives to going to the doctor and practicing good physical hygiene.

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Jan 04 2021

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

The thing about Stina Leicht’s latest novel, Persephone Station, is that it’s remarkable not for what it does but for what it is. The story itself is bog standard: a ragtag group of misfits is hired to defend an outpost of innocents against a group of corporate marauders whose vengeful leader has complicated reasons for the attack. In space! There are a few interesting twists and turns, but the pacing served to kill all suspense for me as we rocketed along to the ending. It’s a perfectly serviceable, perfectly fine space Western/opera with several cool but hardly groundbreaking ideas about sentience and aliens and what the future might look like.

What sets PS apart from the rest of its sci-fi brethren tho is how the vast majority of characters are female or nonbinary. It’s not merely a gender swapped sort of story, tho it certainly prompts the reader to consider how men are usually the default in, not just books like these, but most adventure stories. Each woman or nonbinary person is a whole character with an agenda, back story and motivations that make sense for them, and they’re created with such a decisive female-centered gaze that you almost forget most books aren’t like this. It’s really weirdly refreshing. It’s not that the gender roles are reversed, or that men are diminished or nonexistent: it’s just a tale of female and nonbinary adventurers fighting and/or protecting each other, kicking ass and taking names. Men exist in this universe, but in this tale, they’re supporting characters who are peripheral to the storylines, as Ms Leicht deliberately focuses on everyone else.

I’m not saying that this is the kind of book I want to read all the time, but I did enjoy how quietly subversive it is for a space Western/opera to remind readers that you don’t need guys to make for an interesting story. It’s okay to not have guys be a motivator or otherwise important part of a narrative, fictional or otherwise. It’s okay for them to shush so that everyone else gets a turn to be the hero or bad guy or best friend or secretive boss. Even the male love interests are only on for a few pages so we can get back to the meat of the story. And it’s all dealt with so matter-of-factly that you probably wouldn’t even notice how few guys there are till the end, and you likely wouldn’t care.

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Jan 02 2021

Taking Stock of 2020

Whew, what a year. I’m glad to be here to see the end of it. In late April, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, I found myself in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy that required a second surgery and several nights in the ICU. It happened like this: one Friday, I had some dental work that involved local anesthetic and true to my long-term form, I needed more than the usual amount. That left me pretty useless for the rest of the Friday, which was not entirely surprising. Saturday seemed normal, though to be honest I don’t much remember it now. Sunday I felt kinda oogly, in the way that happens to everyone from time to time and that hardly ever leads to a visit to the doctor. By 8 Monday morning I could barely walk. Somewhere in there, I had acquired a serious infection, though I didn’t know it yet.

“I’ll go to the ER just to rule out appendicitis,” I said. I listened to sense and took a taxi rather than a bicycle to the hospital, which is about a mile away. (I may have learned from a few years back when I biked a similar distance with a hairline fracture in a leg bone, because I was on the way to pick up a child from daycare that was closing in about five minutes. German closing times are emphatic.) Appendicitis was ruled in, and it wasn’t many hours later that I was wheeled in to surgery.

Modern medicine surely saved my life that day, and again later that week when the infection refused to let go easily. Social distancing saved my life every bit as surely, given that late April was just past the first peak of hospital utilization in Germany. Keeping the medical system from falling over meant that it was working when I like heart attack or stroke or other critical patients needed it most. I’m happy to be here and writing.

I was right that I would not keep up my pace of reading from 2019. I read about thirty fewer books this year, ending at 50, my lowest total in quite some time. In the early weeks of the pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and re-started by going all the way back to a book that I loved as a third grader. November and December saw me finishing fewer books in two months than I did in some weeks in, say, May. Events weighed on me, even though if asked I would probably not have said that they did.

On the other hand, it was a good year for reading in German. The “München erlesen” (“Munich selections” with a pun on the German verb for reading) series published some years back by the Süddeutsche Zeitung caught my fancy in 2019, and I read another six books from the 20-volume set this year. Eight more to go, one of which is Lion Feuchtwanger’s Erfolg (Success), 750 closely-set pages. It would be by far the longest book for adults that I have read in German.

Also in 2020, I read one book that purports to be mostly translated from German. Definite translations include seven from Japanese (manga volumes not reviewed here), one mostly from Finnish, one from Polish, one from Chinese, and one from Old English. I read 10 books written, edited or translated by women; Wikipedia says that the gender of the author of The Promised Neverland is not known to the general public.

Five of this year’s books were re-reads. I read three full volumes of poetry this year, the most in several years.

Best epic poem and best usage of the word “bro,” Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley. Best re-read, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Best use of Bavarian dialect, Die Rumplhanni by Lena Christ. Most infuriating stories of corruption, Moneyland by Oliver Bullough. Best geekery, The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder.

Full list, roughly in order read, is under the fold with links to my reviews and other writing about the authors here at Frumious.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/01/02/taking-stock-of-2020/

Jan 01 2021

The Case of the Fire Inside (Bad Machinery #5) by John Allison

My husband got me this book several years ago as I’m a huge Bad Machinery fan, but for some reason or other, I put off reading this until I felt it was the “right time.” So it’s been languishing on my dining room table for years, unready to join its kin — the first four volumes — that I hide in a special place to save from my kids’ grubby and destructive fingers, until I decided on Christmas morning, while my kids were occupying themselves with presents, that it was finally the moment!

Ofc, the first thing I did upon slipping back into that wonderful fictional world was chastise myself for waiting so long, but if I did that for every book I own that I put off reading, I’d be recriminating myself foreeeeever. And don’t think I wasn’t sufficiently punished when I went online afterward to track down the next volumes, and found myself faced with a multiplicity of editions and availabilities. Wound up buying used copies from online thrift stores because I’d waited so long to get the particular editions I wanted… and I’ve just discovered I could’ve gotten the exact copies I had in mind directly from the author’s website, oh good grief.

But this should give you some idea of the charm and hold that this series, revolving around six teenagers solving weird crimes in the town of Tackleford, England, has on the reader. Both funny and poignant, John Allison is doing some of the best work of his career with this series, and especially with this fifth installment, The Case Of The Fire Inside. Our heroes are growing up and setting aside things like their mystery-solving clubs in favor of romance and swotting up for college (well, most of them anyway: Charlotte is incorrigible as always.) Shauna and Jack have broken up, so now Jack and Linton, his best friend, spend all their time thinking about meeting girls. This doesn’t sit well with the last member of their trio, Sonny, who isn’t ready for a girlfriend and wishes they could go back to just playing with toys and having adventures. While moping at the swim party organized for his 14th birthday, he thinks he sees a girl swimming outside off the beach. He runs to see if she needs help, more or less followed by Charlotte, who is busy getting herself kicked out of the pool establishment. The mysterious girl disappears, but not before Sonny finds some weird hide lying on the seashore. Charlotte stuffs the hide into Sonny’s bag because… well, because she’s Charlotte and in her tortured logic it’s the sensible thing to do.

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