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My thoughts on Absolution by Susan Fleet

2676 Views 24 Replies 5 Participants Last post by  Seleya
A thread very much inspired by this one,137939.0.html and the previous one by The Hooded Claw and started with his blessing, it will be the diary of my reading journey this year and a way of sharing impressions, ideas, suggestions and opinions with those so inclined.

I guess a fair share of the contents will be fantasy, then you can expect China-related books, SF, whodunnits, history and biographies and just about everything else in at least 3 languages (when discussing non-English language books I'll provide a link to available translations and translate relevant passages, of course) .

What better way to start, it being January 3, than with

I began The Hobbit a few days ago, after seeing the utter disaster of a movie that goes by the same title. I had read it once, many years ago, and was pleasantly surprised by its freshness even today.

True, the style is old-fashioned, the narrating voice here is a middleman telling a story, but for me that is part of its charm, and the basic themes of the story : friendship, loyalty, choice, and the terrible power of greed are weaved in with a deft touch.

It isn't my favorite Tolkien (that would be The Silmarillion, with the Lord of the Rings and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrùn coming close) but it's in no way a minor work in the professor's corpus either.


1 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

2 The Coroner's Lunch - C. Cotterel

3 The Woodcutter - K. Danley

4 Blood Orchids - T. Neal

5 Black Jasmine - T. Neal

6 Tea with the Black Dragon - R.A. MacAvoy

7 Fer-de-Lance - R. Stout
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Seleya, how's the formatting on that edition?  I've got a young friend who wants to read it and I thought to send him a gift as he does use Kindle.  But I thought I'd heard, when it first came out, that there were OCR problems.
Ann, the edition I bought is this one (hate the movie cover, but the illustrated edition for Kindle didn't make much sense).

The link-maker didn't bring it up but it is available in the US too I didn't notice any problems with the formatting, not even with the songs.
And it's the whole thing? Because I understand they've split it into 3 movies?
Yes, cover notwithstanding that is the original Tolkien novel, not a novelization of the movie. By the way, this edition includes some of the black and white illustrations by the Professor himself.
Cool!  I think I might have to buy it and send it to him. :)
Good luck with your project...I prefer The Hobbit to LoTR, myself.  Though it doesn't have the grand sweep of the Trilogy, I must admit.  Watch out for barrow-wights!
Thank you, Claw.
I'm happy to report no encounters with barrow-wights yet, although my second book for the year has it share of angry spirits ;).

N.2 is (actually in this edition, though

I was very intrigued by the premise of The Coroner's Lunch (an elderly doctor finds himself installed as a coroner in 1976 Laos), and grabbed this one while it was free. There are quite a few things I liked: it's not that common to have an elderly main character and dr. Siri Paiboun is interesting, I also enjoyed the banter and the colorful cast of characters, and at first the idea of a coroner that can see ghosts was appealing (I do like a dash of paranormal in my reading), but on the whole the book left me dissatisfied.

A part of it may be that this novel tries to be too many things at once: crime novel and paranormal that has elements of a cozy a la N.1 Ladies Detective Agency but a body count of 7 and a lot of political intrigue.

The paranormal element was laid in rather thick and is integral at the solution of the case, the plot tied up almost too neatly at the end, and (even more damning, for this reader) in more than one instance I could hear the voice of a Western author writing for a Western audience over the Lao characters' voices, for instance, I doubt that a Lao speaking with Hmong villagers would refer to traditional shamanic rites as 'vodoo' or that a reference to Geung, the morgue's helper (he has Down syndrome, another element not common in fiction) as ' your morgue Igor' would have been used or understood in 1976 Laos.

All in all I would say this one is 2.5 stars for me, I would have liked to be able to rate it higher. I might try the second in the series, Thirty-Three Teeth to see if the series finds its pace and a definite identity.

In the meanwhile, for readers who, like myself, enjoy crime novels that work well as windows in a different culture and world-view I suggest:

Next in my reading queue is
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I bought a bunch of the Judge Dee novels when they were marked down, but haven't got around to reading them yet.  A similar series that I've wanted to read for awhile, but have put off buying is the Inspector O series, set in North Korea.
I'm a bit frightened by a series set in North Korea, honestly, although I've heard good things about Inspector O.
I'm addicted to Judge Dee, though, in my opinion Van Gulik did a magnificent job with him, I also find the series very true to the spirit of classic Chinese crime stories.

Another series I love is Qiu Xiaolong's one with Inspector Chen Cao, starting with , it's a fascinating look into Shanghai in the '90.
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As anticipated, my third book for the year is The Woodcutter

I've always loved fairy tales and I also enjoy going 'behind the scenes' so to speak, analizing motifs and archetipes and reading older versions of the same tale or similar tales from a different background. I tried reading a couple of retellings ('fairy tale turns novel' or 'a modern version of') and I usually didn't like them, it felt to me like the magic was drained away, this isn't the case with The Woodcutter I liked it so much that I breezed through it in less than two days and I'm sure I'll read it again in the future.

I like the main character, his voice and his mindset, I love how the different archetypes come into play and the slight spin the author has given to their traditional role, although that role is mantained and has meaning in the whole of the story, I also like a lot how figures that aren't stricly part of fairy tales (although they appear in some legends or stories under a different name or as 'diminisced' selves) also are part of the novel's world and fit well into it.

I found myself fully immersed in the book and believing the world I was in and its rules, it has an inner consistency that made me go 'Of course!' after a trial was overcome or help arrived but at the same time enough twists that I couldn't foresee the denouement of the story.

Highly recommended.

I took advantage of some holiday money to add a few books to my Tolkieniana collection (these are all in paper), at the moment I'm reading

Inklings by Humprey Carpenter, right now it feels as good as I expected from the main biographer of Tolkien, more on it in a few days.
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While reading The Inklings on paper (and a fascinating reading it is, although I wish I were able to increase the font size, the print is really small), I discovered a new favorite crime writer and series on Kindle: the Lei Texeira series by Toby Neal.

Last year I grabbed as a freebie, the second book in the series, Torch Ginger (Lei Crime Series) and I liked it enough to make a note of the author's name. A couple of weeks ago the first book Blood Orchids (The Lei Crime Series) went free as well and went straight to the top of my TBR list, as soon as I finished it I bought and read the third novel Black Jasmine (Lei Crime Series) and now Mrs. Neal is on my auto-buy list.

To be clear : the Lei Texeira books aren't cozy, the crime there is serious and bloody and the books deal with pretty serious issues, what I love, though is that nothing of it feels gratuitous (or, even worse, voyeuristic) and while there are no easy answers there is always hope and the possibility of meaningful ones.

The series is set in Hawaii and the local culture is a very important part of the books, one element I like very much is that the author (herself a resident in Hawaii), doesn't exoticize the place at all, she strikes a very good (and difficult) balance between treating the reality of the islands as 'normal everyday' and explaining enough of it that somebody not familiar with the setting may make sense of the whole.

The main character, Lei Texeira is interesting and intriguing, has a very distinctive voice and a lot of demons she tries to deal with on a daily basis while doing her job the best she can. Lei is the daughter of a drug addict and a survivor of child abuse who still has flashbacks and moments in which she 'blacks out' in response to triggers (be warned, the content of the books my be triggery in itself). She is a complex individual and I found her reactions and inner voice very believable.

Mrs. Neal (a therapist herself) treats touchy topics with sensitivity and depht and is careful to avoid the trap of the 'miracle cure' that is seen way too often. For instance: falling in love and entering a relationship doesn't solve Lei's troubles, rather it adds another layer of complexity to her behaviour towards people. She is used to being alone and indipendent (" no one will love damaged goods / I don't need anyone") and simple things like letting her partner know where she goes often either chafe or slip her mind (which brings in another, if small, load of guit for not being able to behave 'like everybody else').

For all this, though, the Lei Texeira books aren't bleak or depressing, far from it, people have agency, there is friendship and support and a lot of humor, and I really like how the anchor for Lei, in many occasions is her dog, Keiki (and the fact that Keiki is a Rottweiler, a breed that gets way too much bad rep, in my opinion).

I also held Mrs. Neal and Lei Texeira responsible for my newest hobby:

Moth orchids

...I had never been tempted by Nero Wolfe's orchid growing.

One last note to readers who prefer supporting indies, Mrs. Neal is one.
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I picked up the first book as a freebie, Seleya, in October as a freebie, and I note the next two are part of Prime Lending...glad to hear how much you like them.  They've moved up on my TBR list.

Let me know what you'll think of the series, Betsy, I hope you'll like them as much as I do. :)
Two more books to add to the list, the first one is

When I happen across a book that mixes one of my favorite genres with Chinese history and culture I can't help but read it. Problem is that, given that China is my professional field, I'm also nitpicky.

There are many things I like in Tea with the Black Dragon but I would have liked it better if some little things had been different.

I loved the fact that both main characters are middle-aged (it isn't that common to have people over 50 as the MCs in fantasy), I also like the old-fashioned feeling I got from the style (the book was first published in 1983 but, had I not known, I would have said it was older). it is not that it feels outdated, far from it, but the vocabulary is richer that the usual fare of 'modern' fantasy novel (although not pretentious or purple), and the prose has a more leisurely pace, it isn't slow but alternates action sequences with more meditative, leisurely moments.

I also like the zen snippets and the fact that the moment of revelation for Mr. Long felt like an echo from a famous quote by Gertrude Stein.

What I don't like too much is Mr. Long himself, the black dragon of the title. It feels to me like the author portrayed him like a transformed Chinese dragon but what hazy about what a Chinese dragon really is and how it differs from an European one.

I cringed at Mayland Long's disconfort on being on the water, for instance, and at the hints in the book about his links with fire since Chinese dragons are known for being water-spirits in control of the rain, rivers, lakes and even the sea itself.

There are also scattered references to gold and hoarding, but Chinese dragons aren't hoarders sitting on piles of gold, they are custodians of treasures and give them freely to deserving humans.

Mayland Long tells of finding himself in human shape after a night-long vigil over the body of a dead hermit, fact is that in Chinese stories dragons have two shapes, they can appear either as dragons or as humans, at will.

The nasty surprise for Mayland should have been finding himself trapped in human shape, not having one.

On the whole I'd say 2.5 stars, it could be 3 but I'm docking an half star for the poor research on one of the main aspects of the book.
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As I mentioned, the Lei Texeira stories made me curious about orchids, I posted asking suggestions about orchid-related fiction books and, of course, the Nero Wolfe series came up multiple times.
I remembered reading one, years ago, and not being overly impressed. Given that I didn't remember a strong dislike, either, and that I read it in translation (always a caveat), I decided to try

Well, I realized that it isn't Nero Wolfe himself that I don't like, he is definitely intriguing, it's Archie Goodwin's voice I'm having trouble with.

Part of it may be that I'm not American and the dated slang gives me the wrong vibe (it feels a bit affected to me, rather than simply old-fashioned), but it is also that the impression I got of Archie was a bit juvenile, like he was a 20-something playing the hard-boiled detective after watching a Sam Spade movie.

It may have been bad luck that the start of Fer-de-Lance centers on Italian immigrants, but Archie's comments on Maria Maffei made my hackles rise, for instance: She was somewhere around middle age and looked neat and clean in a pink cotton dress and a black rayon jacket , wow, congratulations: immigrants can be civilized and wash too. Moreover Goodwin mistrust from the start a specific character because he looks like a foreigner and the look does not fit with his family name, even worse he looks like a Spaniard (there are some interesting essays about the Spaniard as the standard embodiement of evil in gothic British literature, by the way, it seems something of it carried over), of course the character in question is discovered to be the guilty party (I kept on reading hoping Archie would be proven wrong), even though Nero Wolfe seems to sympathize with him at least in part (but again I found the conclusive remarck by Archie rather callous and cold-hearted).

I may try some other Nero Wolfe in the future, given that sometimes series take a while to hit their true voice, I hope Archie grows a bit in the process (I wonder at his reaction when he comes to know that Wolfe himself is an immigrant from Montenegro, that scene I'd love to read).

I do realize that Fer-de-Lance was published in 1934 and that sensibilities back then were quite different, but I feel way more at ease with the attitudes of Watson and Sherlock Holmes than I do with Archie Goodwin.

Next: Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan
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Seleya said:
As anticipated, my third book for the year is The Woodcutter

I've always loved fairy tales and I also enjoy going 'behind the scenes' so to speak, analizing motifs and archetipes and reading older versions of the same tale or similar tales from a different background.
In that case, have you tried The Child Thief by Brom yet, a dark, spooky retelling of the Peter Pan story?
Not yet, but I'll definitely go for it as soon as my book budget resets. I see he has another one out:

Drooling on my keyboard after reading the blurbs, and Brom's illustrations are an extra treat. ;D
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Seleya said:
I do realize that Fer-de-Lance was published in 1934 and that sensibilities back then were quite different, but I feel way more at ease with the attitudes of Watson and Sherlock Holmes than I do with Archie Goodwin.
The date is probably important...It may have affected Rex Stout's perceptions. I didn't know much about Stout, but I see he was born in 1886. So he was probably affected by some national events here that took place in his youth....In 1898, America went to war with Spain, primarily over Cuba. The original agitation for war concerned Spanish mistreatment of Cubans, and it became much worse when the US battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor for no obvious reason. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst used his chain of newspapers to relentlessly beat the drum for war over the alleged abuse of Cubans, and when the Maine blew up, he relentlessly pushed the idea that the Spanish had deliberately blown up the Maine with a mine. So the United States fought a war with Spain, which we won handily, and Spain gave up colonies in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. But the non-stop propaganda demonizing the Spanish surely had a long-term effect on how people alive at the time viewed the Spanish (and Stout would have been twelve or so, old enough to understand it and be very impressionable). Of course, the old argument that you must not put the words of his characters in a writers mouth may also apply. It's quite possible Stout had a more cosmopolitan attitude personally, but may have written Archie's thoughts that way because he thought many people would see a Spaniard that way, or he may just have thought it would appeal to his readers. I know nothing of him, and I've never read any of his work.

Back on the propaganda against the Spanish, my impression is that some of the reports of Spanish mistreatment in Cuba had some basis in fact, but I am very skeptical that the loss of the Maine was anything but an accident. The combination of coal dust and often unstable propellants for their main guns made early dreadnoughts very vulnerable to exploding for no apparent reason. Most every naval power lost a couple of battleships in the first half of the Twentieth Century when they exploded in port with no enemy in sight, and there was a large explosion on the USS Iowa as late as 1989 that might have sunk a less modern ship. In Italy you lost two battleships due to mysterious explosions just during the four years of World War I.

If you want to read more, these articles probably tell more than many people want to know about it! ::)

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Thank you, Claw! I didn't know of the USA-Spain war, that definitely helps putting things in perspective, from Archie's point of view.
Thank you everso for the additional material, it's really appreciated.
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