The darker side of educating young wizards

An English boarding school for the children of wizards from around the world? Gosh, where have we heard that setup before? But rest assured, as introduced in A Deadly Education (2020) Naomi Novik’s latest series is a much more dangerous and sinister place than Hogwarts.

For starters, there are no adults at Scholomance; students arrive as freshman and graduate after four years — assuming they can pass their coursework in languages, incantations, and artifice (building magical things) while dodging the endless parade of bloodthirsty monsters who infest the school and prey on the vulnerable students. Even if the students make it to their senior year — and only about half do from each class — they have to make it through the final gauntlet of killer critters who lay in wait in the graduation hall. The only chance for survival is to form alliances with other students who have different skills than you to provide maximum fighting power and protection.

I was fairly bewildered through the first couple of chapters of this book. Novik drops the unsuspecting reader smack dab in the middle of the story without explaining anything (the previous paragraph’s summary was gleaned over the course of the whole book; you’re welcome), trusting her readers to be able to go with the flow and piece things together. If she wasn’t such a good writer, that might seem like a slog. But even when I had no idea what the hell was going on, I was hooked by the first-person narrative by Galadriel, who after nearly three years at Scholomance finds herself a an outcast among her classmates and completely lacking in the sort of alliance that will be her best chance for survival at graduation.

Fortunately, I was already a big admirer of Novik’s work, having read her Temeraire fantasy series (first entry His Majesty’s Dragon, essentially the Napoleonic Wars with dragons) and her standalone retellings of Eastern European fairy tales, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I had faith that she wouldn’t leave me hanging forever, and she didn’t. In some ways, that aspect reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, where he makes no attempt to explain how the magic works — it’s just there, and the wise reader who goes along for the ride is rewarded with a thumpingly good read.

There are two more books in the series so far, and I’m definitely on board to visit Scholomance again.

The return of women to country music

You wouldn’t necessarily know it if you listen to country music radio stations today when three out of four songs are male singers belting out homages to dirt roads, pickup trucks and girls in tank tops, but not so long ago there was a golden era of success for female artists in the genre. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion of high-charting singles by women like Shania Twain, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Martina McBride, and of course The Dixie Chicks. But it didn’t last, and in Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be (2022) journalist Marissa R. Moss lays out a case for why that starts with brute capitalism and ends with our old friend sexism with the obligatory soupçon of racism.

The consolidation of radio stations around the country under the umbrella of just a couple of big corporations — primarily Clear Channel Communications — meant that instead of local deejays at each station choosing music that most appealed to them and their listeners, programming was centralized. And the use of computer algorithms to construct those playlists made things worse. A programming operations manual spelled it out clearly:

I don’t want more than two ballads in a row. I want to avoid having more than two female singers in a row.

When you limit the number of tracks by women in any given hour to just a handful, that leaves a lot of talented artists fighting for just a few seats at the table, and it means especially that women of color are largely left standing out in the hall, not even in the room.

The sexism was best illustrated in 2015 by a deejay who said that women were the “tomato” in the country radio salad, while the biggest male stars were the “lettuce.” It’s a bad sign when an industry is so sure of its monopoly that it no longer has to hide how the sausage gets made.

The answer, so far, has been for female artists to stop trying to appeal to the chauvinists in the country-music establishment and especially the all-powerful country radio wing (where they were expected to endure men ogling them and making crude remarks about their physical attributes, and occasionally looking for other “favors”) and to appeal directly to audiences through Spotify and other streaming services as well as live shows. Moss gives readers a look at how some of the biggest names today (Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Mickey Guyton) have found success by refusing to compromise their artistic visions to placate an industry that wouldn’t want them even if they followed all the rules.

This is an engaging read, very breezy in style, and I would have finished it much more quickly if I hadn’t kept stopping to open up Apple Music and search for tracks by women artists that I wasn’t familiar with. I’m not going to lie: While I found a lot I like, others of these women make music that doesn’t particularly appeal to me, for all I admire their ability to create their own success. But that’s sort of the point: When you make room for more women, you make room for music that doesn’t all sound alike and doesn’t cater to the same narrow band of listeners.

The biggest critique I have is that this book really could have used an index. Moss tells the story of the artists she features in roughly chronological order, but that means any one person’s story is scattered across the whole book. It would have been useful to have a way to hone in on a particular artist or song or event without having the skim the whole book.

For me, as a fan of country music who has no interest in modern country radio, the takeaway from Her Country was to stop thinking of radio or chart success as the harbinger of quality. There’s lots of great music getting made out there, and pretty much all of it can be found on streaming services. And when you listen that way, you don’t have to put up with constant advertising interruptions or inane deejays breaking the spell.

(Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read – The Atlantic


I’ve always joked that I have the memory capacity of a flea. One of the reasons I try to write a review for every book I read is because I never remember the key details afterward. So I was relieved to read Julie Beck’s 2018 article in The Atlantic that this is a common, unremarkable phenomenon, and it’s due in large part to the kind of memory we need in this online world.

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalized memory. “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it.

And there’s this hopeful nugget, too, from Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne:

“Writing absolutely killed memory. But think of all the incredible things we got because of writing. I wouldn’t trade writing for a better recall memory, ever.”

Of course, some books make such an impression — either good or bad — that we retain their details for longer than usual. But I feel better about my general inability to recall specific plot points from books past. On the plus side, it makes re-reading mysteries more enjoyable when you can’t remember whodunit.

What about you? Do you remember books long after you’ve finished them?

Image: “Discarded Treasures” (John Frederick Peto / Getty)

Canine tails — and teeth

I didn’t intend to read You Had Me at Woof (2010) by Julie Klam so soon on the heels of Dog Days: A Year with Olive & Mabel, but a hold at the library came in sooner than expected, so I needed to get on with it before it expired. Klam is a dog lover through and through, but I didn’t quite connect with her story as much as I hoped I would. Perhaps because she lives on the Upper West Side of New York City, perhaps because her dog breed of choice is the Boston Terrier, one of those bulgy-eyed, snub-nosed dogs (see the book cover) that aren’t my favorite canine type, and perhaps because her doggy relationships seemed quite a bit more chaotic and involved way more biting than I would personally tolerate.

Still, her stories of working with a rescue group for Boston Terriers was quite moving and she had some insightful things to say about letting the search for a perfect “furever” home gets in the way of finding a good fit between animal and human. Klam writes with a great deal of humor but can also deliver a straight line when the situation requires. Overall, a good book that fell short of the “drowning into a puddle of cuteness while reading” standard that I hold for all books about dogs.

Murder’s no match for the residents of an English retirement community

The Jigsaw Room at the Coopers Chase retirement village boasts the sort of club meeting schedule you’d expect: Art History, Conversational French, Chat and Crochet, Knit and Natter (bit of an internecine battle led to that crafty schism), Bowls Club and so on. And of course there’s the Thursday Murder Club, a diverse foursome of pensioners whose routine re-investigations of police cold cases (files provided courtesy of a former member who is hors de combat in a coma over in the nursing wing of the village) have taken a back seat to a real live murder involving the developers of the retirement village. The developers recently proposed a massive (and massively unpopular with the current residents) expansion of Coopers Chase, which will involve digging up and moving the graves of the nuns who formerly ran the convent that was repurposed into retirement housing. So lots of people have a motive, but can the Club help the police find the culprit in what may be the final hurrah of their long lives?

The murder mystery is solid in The Thursday Murder Club (2020) unabashedly cozy mystery, but the rat-a-tat comedic patter is a cut above the genre’s usual. At times it almost reads like a Lewis-Martin comedy skit, but underneath the easy humor lies some genuine feeling and emotion among these older persons whose formerly vital lives have slowed and dimmed with their advancing years. The flesh may be weak, but their spirits and their brains don’t seem to have skipped a beat on the way to octogenarian hood.

Chapters alternate between viewpoints, including a diary being kept by Joyce, the newest member of the TMC who details the investigation along with chatty asides about life in the village and the widower she has her widow’s eye on. The police who find themselves inadvertently working with the Club manage to evade most of the usual cop stereotypes and prove themselves as sharp investigators in addition to perfect comedic foils for the amateur crime enthusiasts. All in all, a very enjoyable read. After reading it, I went and put the second book in the series on reserve at the library. I’m no more ready to bid farewell to the denizens of Coopers Chase than they are to go gently into that good night.

Shattering the myth of the Secret Service

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, a historical review of the United States Secret Service, famously known for its role in providing protection for the US president and other high government officials, was published in 2021. Obviously the author, Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, researched and wrote it well before that. The January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol merits just a few paragraphs in the epilogue, presumably added soon after the event as the book was going to print. And of course there’s nothing about the crisis that exploded over the summer of 2022, related to missing texts and emails from the days surrounding the events of January 6.

However, Leonnig still sheds light on current events, particularly in drawing a line through multiple crises and scandals pretty much since its founding. In short, the current crisis didn’t spring fully formed out of nothing; the groundwork was laid over many years of mismanagement and politicization of what is meant to be a decidedly nonpartisan unit of government.

For readers not familiar with the organization of the US federal government, the initial purpose of the US Secret Service had nothing to do with protecting the president. It was formed in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln as a law enforcement unit of the Department of Treasury, tasked with combating the rampant counterfeiting of federal banknotes (known as “greenbacks”) during and following the Civil War. Its duties quickly mushroomed into investigating all sorts of fraud and federal crimes, essentially precursor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was founded in 1908. Presidential protection continued to not be one of those duties, even as another president, James Garfield, was assassinated in 1881.

Not until death threats came to light in 1894 against President Grover Cleveland did the director of the Secret Service dispatch a handful of agents to guard the president and his family — a top-secret mission completely unauthorized by Congress, who remained ignorant of the arrangement until after William McKinley was elected in 1901. When McKinley was assassinated six months later — the third president to be assassinated in 36 years — Congress finally voted to create a permanent security force to protect the president, which took effect in 1906. Protective services remained a small part of the Service’s work, with most of its resources continuing to be devoted to investigating financial crimes.

Leonnig recounts the numerous times the Secret Service agents performed truly heroic actions, during assassination attempts on Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. But she also details the many, many close calls when violent attempts nearly succeeded due to systemic failures in the agency’s organization and operation. And, of course, the most catastrophic failure of all, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The saying is that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan, but Leonnig’s meticulous documentation and extensive sources both inside and outside of the Secret Service make it clear that the blame for the organization’s sorry state over the years has parents in many parts of government. Congress has consistently underfunded the agency while increasing its scope, leaving it badly undermanned and reliant on outdated equipment. Presidents of every political persuasion have fought against allowing the agency to do its job, chafing against the “optics” of having an obvious protection detail, and making decisions on the personnel of their protective detail based on personal or political affinity rather than ability. Pretty much every director of the agency, chosen again based on personal connections rather than acumen, has failed to instill a sense of discipline into the agents who serve under them. Again and again, agents have been caught in embarrassing situation involving drunkenness, cavorting with prostitutes in foreign countries and worse.

Again and again, the primary focus of the people in charge was in covering up the problem rather than rooting it out and punishing the agents responsible. As Julia Pierson, a short-lived director during President Obama’s administration who tried to clean things up, tells Leonnig: Nobody wants to say it … but the Secret Service has a culture problem. It’s really a culture of managers failing to want to recognize a problem and deal with it. And it’s also a culture of not wanting to report up bad news and circle the wagons instead.

I found Leonnig’s research to be extensive and wide-ranging. She spoke to current and former agents and directors, as well as presidential aides who were often among the most strenuous objectors of proper (and thus, visible) protection of their bosses. She tracked down documentation of incidents that were either never made public or whose full accounting has never been reported, including close calls from attackers at the White House itself. She writes like the journalist she is, in clear, concise language mostly devoid of in-group jargon that would deter a general audience of readers from understanding the scope of the situation.

Leonnig ends the book with no hopeful suggestion that things are likely to change anytime soon. Today, the Service remains spread dangerously thin. In addition to protecting a president and Vice President and their families, and key senior leaders, the Service also protects hundreds of foreign leaders who visit the United States every year, investigates a broad range of financial crimes, assesses and investigates violent threats …, researches the traits of school shooters …, helps local police track down missing and exploited children, and much more. … The agency hasn’t been given the money, staff, or tools to do all its jobs. This neglect creates an opening for a serious attack on our democracy.

A troupe of suspects take center stage in a murder investigation

The wraparound story that sets up The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett features a Queen’s Counsel who has instructed two of his articled clerks (? — I welcome corrections of my imperfect understanding of the UK legal system) to examine a packet of written evidence used in a trial — emails, text messages, letters — to determine if there are grounds to appeal a murder conviction that the QC believes was wrongly decided. As the two clerks review all of the information, they exchange texts and emails with each other and with their boss, providing exposition to the reader in the guise of asking for clarification or talking through scenarios.

The legal case is not the only appeal that the title refers to. At the heart of the story is a village community theater group, the Fairway Players, which is run more or less benevolently by the local “alpha” family, the Haywards. They receive shocking news when their young granddaughter, Poppy, is diagnosed with cancer. Her only hope is an experimental drug treatment that has not been approved in the UK and is only available at enormous cost directly from the American doctors conducting a clinical trial. The family launches an ambitious crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds, while simultaneously rehearsing and preparing to debut the theater group’s current play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

It’s pretty clear from the setup and the opening pages that there’s something rotten in Lockwood, but we don’t find out who the victim is until quite late, which makes reading all of the emails and texts akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without being able to refer to the picture on the box. I found The Appeal to be a compelling page-turner, and it was enjoyable to continually make and revise guesses about what was really going on, to whom and by whom, throughout. (Let’s just say murder isn’t the only criminal activity going on among this lot.) The characters were fully formed and distinct enough to both distinguish from each other and allow the reader to form definite opinions about them based on their communications.

All in all, I found this a rollicking good time. Because the story is told in an epistolary style, there’s no blood or gore — the focus really is on trying to put the puzzle together and arrive at the same conclusion as the lawyers. The final chapter seemed like the perfect payoff for the setup that occurred throughout the story, which is always a satisfying way to end a mystery.

Colwin tells extraordinary stories about ordinary people

I didn’t discover the transcendent writing of Laurie Colwin until after she had died in 1992, much too young at 48. I picked up a copy of Home Cooking at a used bookstore and was transported by the way she matched domestic subjects with flights of linguistic poetry. I’ve been on the lookout for her other books ever since, and some time ago I picked up Long Pilgrim, a 1981 short-story collection.

One of the techniques I use with story collections is to jot a one- or two-sentence reaction in a notebook at the end of each story, so that even when it takes me nearly a year to finish the book, I can jog my memory of the earlier stories. These are the notes I took for this book, along with a sprinkling of my favorite quotes:

  • The Lone Pilgrim — A young single woman prides herself on being the ideal houseguest for her married friends — until she falls in love herself.
  • The Boyish Lover — How can a love affair between two attractive graduate instructors who seem to be made for each other possibly go wrong?
  • Sentimental Memory — My post-reading summary in this case was just a quote: The trouble with second marriages is rather like the trouble with new shoes: They don’t fit the way your old ones did. They pinch in places you are not used to feeling pinched in.
  • A Girl Skating — Bernadette, daughter of professors at a small liberal-arts college, finds herself the target of the benevolent obsession of the campus’ celebrated resident poet.
  • An Old-Fashioned Story — Nelson and Elizabeth, whose parents have plotted their entire lives to make them fall in love, do everything they can to resist.
  • Intimacy — An encounter with the man she loved before she married causes Martha to reflect on where her loyalty — and her faithfulness — really lie.
  • Travel — Marguerite accompanies her husband on his travels despite a fear of flying, believing that it is shared memories, no matter how traumatic, that make a marriage.
  • Delia’s Father — Georgia contemplates crossing the divide between childhood and adulthood in the company of her friend’s exotically foreign father.
  • A Mythological Subject — Nellie, a woman who prides herself on her sense of order and morality, is torn apart when she falls in love with a man not her husband.
  • Saint Anthony of the Desert — A young woman who describes her personality as “haphazard” mistakes an affair with her polar opposite as a melding of two lives instead of a tourist dallying in the sketchy part of town.
  • The Smile Beneath the Smile — Another quote description: Andrew felt it as a power and a pull — a pull toward Rachel and the power to affect her. Rachel, who had spent a year amazed that she could not get over Andrew, now realized that the bond they shared was one of awful sadness. Nothing good would ever happen to them again, no matter with what ardent innocence they approached each other.
  • The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing — Another quote: Once upon a time I was Professor Thorne Speizer’s stoned wife, and what a time that was.
  • Family Happiness — Polly grows up in an eccentric but close-knit family. She deeply loves her husband and appears to have the perfect family. So why is she having a passionate affair with another man?

A high school reunion turns deadly

I’ve been thinking of Bleeding Heart Yard (2022) as the third book in Griffiths’ series featuring Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur of London CID, following on The Stranger Diaries (in which Kaur has a very small part) and The Postscript Murders (in which she plays second banana to a motley crew of amateur detectives). But the bibliography printed in the back of this book lists the previous two books as standalone novels, making me wonder if Griffiths thinks she’s started a third series or not?

Leaving aside that question for the moment, I’m happy to say that whether it’s a series entry or a standalone, Bleeding Heart Yard more than meets the standard of quality that Griffiths has established in her previous novels. Here, the newly promoted DI Kaur is in charge of a murder squad investigating the murder of a prominent politician at his high school reunion. The case is complicated by the fact that one of Kaur’s most capable officers attended the reunion, so must be recused from investigating the case. And as information leaks out in drips and drabs, she may turn out to be a suspect as well.

Griffiths’ plotting is fine, but it’s her characters who make her books so engaging for me. That’s true of Ruth Galloway and the rest of the characters in that series, and it’s true of Harbinder Kaur as well. She portrays Kaur, a gay first-generation Sikh woman, with sensitivity but also a great deal of humor. She manages to inform her readers about the customs and traditions of the Sikh without ever slipping into sermonizing or pedantry.

Normally, I would give some advice about whether a particular series should be read in order to get the full benefit of the character development. But since I’m not clear about whether this actually is a series, I think it’s safe to jump in here if it sounds appealing without being overly spoiled about previous events. But if you like this one, and I suspect you will, you will want to go back and read the other two at some point. You’ve likely got at least a year to do so before the next standalone/series entry is published.

Underground in a magical London

Amongst Our Weapons (2022) is the ninth novel in the paranormal police procedural Rivers of London. It begins as we’ve come to expect — a crime has been committed somewhere in London, there are some oddities about the crime scene, and the Special Assessments Unit of the Metropolitan Police (which is to say, the chaps who suss out magical criming) are called in to investigate.

It’s soon clear to Constable Peter Grant, his mentor Thomas Nightingale, and apprentice Danni Wickford, that there’s something larger going on, involving a weird quasi-religious cult two founded decades ago at Manchester University, a set of magical puzzle rings, and an avenging angel who seems to possess much more magical ability than can be accounted for. And since she’s wandering around England to find the former members of the cult and kill them, figuring out from where — or when — she’s drawing her magical skills is priority one.

“It’s hardly likely to be an actual biblical angel,” he said when I’d finished.
“Why not?”
“In a world chock-full of murderous blaspheming bastards,” he said, “why would an omnipotent and omniscient deity pick a couple of obscure Brits to do away with in such a public manner?”
“Maybe they did something particularly bad?”
“Have you looked at the news recently?” said Postmartin. “It would have to have been something truly magnificent to get that manner of personal attention.”

Ben Aaronovitch, Amongst Our Weapons

Along with the main crime plot, we’ve got Peter preparing for the birth of his twins by his partner, the river goddess Beverley Brook, and trying once again to capture rogue cop Lesley May.

I’ve been struggling with an intermittent reading slump, so I decided not to attempt to re-read any of the previous books before tackling this one, and it turned out to be fine. The important plot points are signposted and were readily recalled to mind when I encountered them. This series has a cast of thousands, but Aaronovitch does a fine job of subtly reminding readers who they are without getting bogged down in a bunch of exposition.

About the time this new book was being published in April, a collection of short stories (Tales From the Folly) set in the same universe was put on e-sale and I picked it up. I think it will tide me over nicely until the next full-length novel comes out.