Drama abounds at the Supreme Court in ’While Justice Sleeps’

It’s not as far out of left field as you might think for Stacey Abrams — who lost a close election for Georgia governor in 2016 and who has since kept herself busy more or less saving democracy in the state since — to write a legal thriller. Abrams has written several nonfiction books about politics, most recently Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. And she has long had a not-so-secret secondary career as a writer of romances under the pen name Selena Montgomery. But While Justice Sleeps (2021) is her first attempt at combining the two genres, crafting a political thriller centered on the Supreme Court and cutting-edge medical research.

As thrillers go, While Justice Sleeps is pretty well paced. I can’t speak to the plausibility of the biotech aspect, but the idea of a coverup becoming worse than the original crime is a familiar one. I also can’t speak to the authenticity of the way that Wynn leaves clues for Avery disguised as chess commentary, but it didn’t seem outlandish. The main weakness for me was the writing. It’s certainly not unreadable, but the pedestrian and sometimes clunky prose and dialogue were not on a par with the brisk plotting or deft characterization.

That’s when the queen became the most powerful piece, but still in service to a king. What do you think of that?”
“Of what, sir?”
“Of the queen being responsible for saving the king, but that only his life is sacred. Should offend your feminist sensibilities, no?”
Avery grinned. “My feminist sensibilities are not offended. In a game of strategy, the king is a figurehead, unable to save his own life without the aid of others. The queen is powerful and dynamic. She will protect the king, but not because of weakness. It’s because that’s what she’s supposed to do.” She added, “It was in the tenth century that the queen replaced the vizier on the chessboard. Vizier meant leader, and in the next five hundred years, she became the most powerful piece on the board. A nice evolution.”

I also appreciated the graceful way that Abrams populated her story with a diverse set of characters who inhabited their roles without calling undue attention to the specifics of their identity. It’s a fine example of the adage “Show, don’t tell.”

One of the best scenes in the book is a flashback to a conversation between Justice Wynn and his clerk, which in retrospect is laying the foundations for Avery to be able to follow the clues he will leave her to uncover the scandal surrounding the merger case. Once again, chess is the language through which Wynn communicates:

Political thrillers these days have a tough row to hoe. The outlandish plots that normally capture the imagination of the reading public can seem like small beer in the face of our extreme contemporary politics. I’m not convinced that Abrams has succeeded in overcoming that reality, but if nothing else, it is certainly a relief to read about a horrifying situation that isn’t true.

‘Neither Here Nor There’ is neither terrible nor great

Look, I enjoy Bill Bryson’s writing quite a lot. The first Bryson book I ever read was Notes from a Small Island (1995), an account of an American man’s travels around Great Britain. I remember finding it ripsnortingly funny at the time, and also on a subsequent re-read a few years later. I went on to enjoy quite a few of his other humorous travelogues over the years, as well as his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006).

So over the past few years I’ve found more enjoyment in his more straightforward histories, such as At Home: A Short History of Private Life and One Summer: America, 1927(2010 and 2013, respectively). But when I found Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe (1992) forgotten on my bookshelves, I decided to give it a try before donating it to the library book sale.

Neither Here nor There has some funny passages, to be sure. The book opens with Bryson’s nearly futile quest to see the Northern Lights in the far north of Norway without freezing to death in the process. But other sections are a little too freighted with an unattractive provincialism, as when he disparages a Swedish clerk in a train station for not speaking English, apparently forgetting that he is the one visiting her country who did not bother to learn even the most rudimentary Swedish phrases to ease his travels.

So, yeah. If you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other travelogues and don’t find them to be distastefully xenophobic, I suspect you’ll enjoy this one as well. The themes here are well established in his other work; only the names and places have changed.

They Said It: Stephen King

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting—not for the first time—on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. … The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

— Stephen King in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)

’The Chessmen’ is a satisfying trilogy finale

I read The Blackhouse (2009), the first book in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy a few years ago, and I thought it was a solid police procedural whose main attraction was the setting: The beautiful but desolate Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The detective, Fin Macleod, is currently stationed in Edinburgh, but the return to his hometown is complicated by tragedies both past and present. I made a mental note to check back in with the trilogy at some point.

The Chessmen (2014) brings some closure to Fin’s story, while leaving the reader enough hints to project into the future for the people on the Isle of Lewis. May once again pulls past mysteries together with the present to create a web of memory and danger that doesn’t seem to care who it ensnares. In this case, Fin takes a job investigating a privately owned hunting estate’s poaching problem. His task is complicated when he learns that a childhood friend may be the responsible party, and another childhood friend, long missing, turns up quite definitely dead and murdered to boot. I found the by-now-familiar melding of past and present storylines to be well-paced, though there’s a bit more jumping back and forth in time than is my usual taste.

Ultimately, I finished The Chessmen feeling satisfied with the story that May had told across all three books. They fit together beautifully, managing to advance the storyline without too much rehashing previous events. The only unanswered question I was left with was when I’ll be able to make my own visit to what sounds like a beautiful part of the world.

Literary Links: July 16, 2021

photograph of stylized metal chain links, with text "Literary Links" superimposed on top.
Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I read a lot every week, and it’s not all in books! Here’s a roundup of some of the best articles I read this week about books, reading, and words.

When Women’s Literary Tastes Are Deemed Less Worthy

If you want to argue that people in and out of publishing are sexist, you won’t get much of an argument from me. (As this recent article in The Guardian points out, only 19% of the readers of the Top 10 bestselling women authors are men.) But I’m not sure this article makes its case effectively. Rather, it does more to confirm the idea that, as the author puts it, “the authors who sell don’t get taken seriously and the authors who get taken seriously don’t sell.” Which is also a sad state of affairs. (via The Atlantic)

What Mystery to Read Based on Your Favorite ‘Clue’ Character

I played countless games of Clue as a kid, and my favorite character was Miss Scarlet. But this article draws on the characters from the 1985 movie adaptation, so there are some names that don’t show up in the board game (like Yvette the maid). I’ve never seen the movie so I don’t know who my favorite character in that context would be, but frankly, my dear, all the books sound like ones I’d like. (via Murder & Mayhem)

A Glowing Shrine to the Printed Word

The main circulating branch of the New York Public Library (meaning the one that actually checks books out to patrons rather than housing books and documents for on-site research) has gotten a facelift and despite what this snooty architecture critic says, I think it looks smashing. “The airy daylight-filled ground floor is appealing but focuses too much on the checkout desk, where those who have chosen their books online “grab and go. Wouldn’t (the architect) want patrons to linger?” is a sentence written by a man who has never had to dash in to grab his reserved books and then run to catch a bus or subway train, if you ask me. (via The New York Times)

How Marginalized Authors Are Transforming Gothic Fiction

This article caught my eye because I read [Mexican Gothic] earlier this year, and I’ve also enjoyed what I’ve read from Octavia Butler. I’ve also enjoyed some of the classics like [Dracula] and [The Picture of Dorian Gray] but I like the idea of the genre being expanded by a range of diverse voices. Of course, I could say that for just about any genre you could name. (via Tor.com)

Why Are There So Many Holocaust Books for Kids?

The headline on this article startled me, because surely we can all agree that it’s important for the most consequential historical events to be passed down to new generations? But reading the article, I can see the author’s point that the near-exclusive focus on the Holocaust denies young readers a richer understanding of all aspects of Jewish religion, and culture. Her caustic comments about [The Boy in the Striped Pajamas], in particular, were eye-opening. I don’t think she’s arguing that no books about the Holocaust should be written for younger audiences, but rather in favor of a balance between what all too often is either completely ahistorical or uncomfortably akin to torture porn and books that celebrate Jewish life in full. (via The New York Times)

Uncovering family secrets in seaside Ireland

Elizabeth Keane has been living in New York City for the past 20 years. Six months after her mother’s death, she is back in her Irish hometown of Buncarragh for perhaps the final time, tying up the final threads of her late mother’s estate. She’s already exhausted just thinking of all she has to do when she is distracted by discovering a trove of letters hidden away in her mother’s closet. The letters are from Edward Foley, the father Elizabeth never knew. On impulse, Elizabeth decides to travel to the West Cork address Foley wrote on his letters and try to learn more about the time of her life that her mother Patricia refused to talk about. From there, the narrative alternates between the present and the past, as we slowly learn the story of Patricia and Edward’s courtship and how everything goes pear-shaped.

For all that it starts as a conventional family saga, A Keeper (2018) by Graham Norton takes a turn toward what I can only term Irish Gothic in its recounting of what really happened 40 years ago that ended with Patricia raising Elizabeth as a single parent. There are so many parallels among the generational stories: Patricia raising Elizabeth as a single mother; Elizabeth marrying and divorcing, leaving her to raise her own son, Zach, in a single-parent home; Zach’s own complicated romantic entanglements. Norton deftly juggles all three storylines without losing sight of the narrative’s focus. The answers may lie in the past with Patricia and Edward, but it is Elizabeth’s present and to a lesser extent Zach’s future that form the heart of the novel.

Norton is a skillful storyteller. I was immediately engrossed in Elizabeth’s life and shared her curiosity about what her mother had been hiding all those years. And I felt equally sympathetic and interested in Patricia’s story, such that the impatience I often feel when a novel switches from one timeline to another never materialized. The ending, while just a bit on the nose in its dénouement, was nonetheless satisfying. A keeper, indeed.

Literary Links: July 9, 2021

photograph of stylized metal chain links, with text "Literary Links" superimposed on top.
Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I read a lot every week, and it’s not all in books! Here’s a roundup of some of the best articles I read this week about books, reading, and words.

Scottish Crime Debut of the Year 2021 Shortlist Announced!

I’m a bit late with this news, but the shortlist for the Scottish Crime Debut of 2021 has been announced. The winner will be announced during Bloody Scotland, an International Crime Writing Festival in September. As if I needed more books to add to my TBR. Have you read any of these? Tell me everything! (via Bloody Scotland)

’It Drives Writers Mad’: Why Are Authors Still Sniffy About Sci-Fi?

I don’t read a ton of science fiction, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve read. And I am a big fan of other genre fiction, like mysteries, so I find the snootiness of Ian McEwan (who claims his latest novel is a fiction about science, but not science fiction) insufferable. It’s right up there with people who claim that an excellent mystery or fantasy book “transcends the genre.” No, it’s just an excellent book. (via The Guardian)

In One Modest Cotton Sack, a Remarkable Story of Slavery, Suffering, Love and Survival

This new nonfiction book by Tiya Miles is definitely on my radar. It ticks all the boxes for me — about history, shining a light into the corners that don’t normally get seen in historical works. I’ve recommended it for purchase to my library, but I may have to suck it up and buy this one myself. (via The New York Times)

Liking Books Is Not a Personality

Do you remember the phenomenon of Marie Kondo, and her KonMari method of de-cluttering your home? For a while there, it seemed like every person I knew was in a frenzy to apply her rules about only keeping possessions that “spark joy” to their lives. Of course, this is the Age of Social Media Outrage when any harmless thing can become a target for some aggrieved group or another, and it didn’t take long for people who called themselves book lovers to lash out. The point of books, readers raged, was not joy as Hannah McGregor puts it in this article that also examines the racial overtones of the criticism directed at Kondo. I have not KonMari’d my possessions, but I am steadily downsizing my collection of physical books (let’s not talk about ebooks right now) and managing to do it without working myself into a lather. What sparks joy for me, it seems, is what’s actually inside the books, not the objects themselves. Your mileage, as always, may vary. (via Electric Lit)

Why Are There So Many Holocaust Books for Kids?

I never got around to watching the first season of the BBC/Amazon adaptation of one of the funniest books I’ve ever read before I canceled Prime, and now word comes that there’s a second season on the way. The good news is that the general storyline hews closely to one that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett talked about years ago, when they thought they might write a sequel. (via The Guardian)

The 100 Best, Worst, and Strangest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked

The first takeaway from this article is that there have been at least 100 cinematic/television portrayals of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective. And some of them go back to the earliest years of the 20th century, amazingly. This list has all the usual suspects—Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Benadryl Cabbagepatch Benedict Cumberbatch—but there are many more I’ve never heard of that sound interesting and horrifying in varying measures. The only thing missing is some indication of where these are available for modern viewers, whether streaming or DVD. That information would seem to be, ahem, elementary in a roundup like this. (via Crime Reads)

Mary Roach pokes her curious mind into the laboratory & the bedroom in ‘Bonk’

Mary Roach has a knack for distilling complicated scientific topics into prose that the general reader can understand. She does it with her own sense of curiosity and humor, which makes the learning fun. Previously, I’ve chortled my way through books that examined the afterlife for human cadavers (2003’s Stiff), and human spirits (2005’s Spooks), space exploration (2010’s Packing for Mars), the digestive system (2013’s Gulp), and the military (2016’s Grunt). Somehow I had missed reading her second book, Bonk (2008), although not from a sense of squeamishness about the subject. Or at least, not my squeamishness; for a long time it was the only Mary Roach book my local library did not have on the shelves.

Happily, that was no longer the case when I checked the ebook catalog earlier this year, and I was quick to add myself to the holds list. I can report that the expected mix of knowledge and good humor were present in the usual abundance for a Roach production, even as the subject once again would not seem to lend itself to jocularity. Sure, people take death and war seriously, but sex occupies a particularly fraught place, at least in modern American culture. For proof, you’ve only to look at the fact that a movie is much more likely to receive an R rating for showing a woman’s bare breasts than for showing crowds of people getting mown down with an automatic rifle.

The idea of studying sex as a scientific topic, in a lab with experiments involving real people, seems particularly fascinating. Roach provides a good overview of the difficulty in quantitatively measuring something whose most notable effects seem psychological rather than physiological. And that’s not even to get into the aversion of funders in providing money to study such a ticklish subject (no pun intended). Roach’s interest was piqued years ago when she stumbled on a medical journal article about a 1980s UCLA study that measured human sexual response. One group of men were asked to manipulate “the more usual suspect” during the experiment, while the control group was asked to rub their kneecaps at measured intervals:

Requesting that a study subject twiddle his knees is not immoral or indecent, but it is very hard to explain. And even harder to fund. Who sponsors these studies, I wondered. Who volunteers for them?

One of my favorite features of Roach’s work is how she cheerfully submits herself to observing and sometimes participating in the scientific research, the better to understand and explain it to her readers. And Bonk is no exception, although I’ll leave it to you to discover exactly how she accomplishes it. (All I’ll say here is her husband Ed must be a singularly good-natured and accommodating spouse.)

I can’t say Bonk is my favorite Mary Roach book (that’s a tie between Gulp and Stiff), but it was an enjoyable romp through the laboratories of sexuality.