Religious Orders


Posted: Tuesday April 16 2013 @ 7:53am

Religious Order: Books

Reading Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software gave me some pleasant flashbacks to some of my favorite classes from getting my degree. But it also has some problems.

The first part of the book is delightful. It builds up the various pieces of a computer CPU, starting with something as simple as the telegraph, moving through logic gates to transistors and beyond. Eventually, you end up with a pretty functional CPU. It's great. (We went through a similar process in an old class on CPU design, albeit in an abbreviated form.) I highly recommend this section. And then things start to fall apart.

He goes from this delightful built-up to describing the entire opcode set for a real-life CPU. Oh, yeah, that's interesting. Actually, for me, it wasn't all that bad, but nor was it good. If I wanted to read opcode descriptions, well, there are plenty of places to do that. (Hell, somewhere I still have my C-64 Reference Manual with all the 6510 codes defined.) I just don't get why this section is here. Sure, some exposure to various opcodes is valuable, but an examination of each and every one? It brings the whole book to a screeching halt.

After this torturous chapter, he moves up a level to describe the other parts of a computer. This section bored me. It lacked the delightful build-up of the earlier sections. It also showed off the age of the book, which is over a decade old. It was just kinda dull. (Which also reminds me of several classes in my youth.)

My advice? Give it a read, but stop after a couple of opcodes and move onto another book.

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Gulping Down More Roaches

Posted: Tuesday April 16 2013 @ 6:39am

Religious Order: Books

I'm a big fan of Mary Roach's books, so I obviously had to pre-order Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. This won't be a long review. Basically, if you liked her earlier books, you'll like this one. It's not as good as Bonk or Stiff. It's better than Spook.

She's not quite as hands-on with her subject matter in this book, although she does go to prison to learn about hooping.

The approach is a bit scatter-shot. I was expecting the topics to linearly traverse the canal itself. Instead, the first half of the book jumps back and forth between mouth and stomach, with a jump to the end for the latter half. Not a huge problem, but I did find myself occasionally wondering if we were ever going to pass the pyloric sphincter, as it were.

Let me close with one of my favorite things about eBooks. When you pre-order an eBook, it just shows up on your device on the release date. It's awesome!

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Posted: Tuesday April 16 2013 @ 6:20am

Religious Order: Books

Just finished reading Debbie Reynolds' latest autobiography, Unsinkable: A Memoir. Despite the title of the post, it is indeed quite readable. Ain't really great, though.

Here's the deal, the book has two sections. The first section is Debbie talking about the latter part of her life, namely getting married for the third time, buying a hotel in Vegas, and attempting to find a home for her vast collection of Hollywood costumes. The second section is simply Debbie going through each and every one of her movies, telling you a little about each and the folks involved.

I did get a chance to visit Debbie's hotel while she owned it. (I was attending Comdex. Debbie's hotel was on the walk from the Strip to the Convention Center.) We didn't spend much time. We tried their breakfast buffet, which was awful. We dumped a couple bucks into a kinda neat video blackjack machine that actually had seats for multiple players. But, other than that, there wasn't much there there. Despite that, I have often wondered what the deal was with it. Why did she buy it? Why did it fail?

If you, too, have wondered this, you'll get some value out of the first section of the book. But it's also a sad tale and Debbie often seems clueless as to her own culpability in it all. (Sometimes you just want to shout at her "Get a financial advisor already!")

The second section is a nice breezy read. Some of it you've likely heard before. Some will surely be new. Which actors had huge genitalia? Which actress was being orally serviced by two men when Debbie walked in on her? All that and more!

That said, much of it gets old after a few iterations. Each movie takes the form of: Here's what the movie was about. I worked with X, Y, and Z. X and Y were wonderful and we remain great friends. Z was problematic and here's why. (Optionally, Z later apologized and we remain great friends.)

The whole section feels tacked on, as if she got to the end of the first section and realized she didn't have enough for a full book.

Despite all that, it's still plenty readable. Debbie's writing style is very plain, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Sure, this isn't sophisticated writing, but it's also easy to ingest in huge gulps. It's sad in places, funny in others, and entertaining throughout.

(I should note that Debbie has an earlier autobiography that, if the few reviews I've read are any indication, is a much more developed and cohesive work.)

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Spoiler Alert!

Posted: Tuesday April 02 2013 @ 10:21am

Religious Order: Books

So, I was reading an article about books that contain spoilers for their own plots, and The Sparrow was mentioned. The story is that earth receives radio signals from a nearby star and Jesuits decide to send a mission to it while the rest of the world natters around discussing and then dismissing the idea. And then things go wrong.

The way the story line works is to split it and bounce between events leading up to the climax and the events following the climax. As the former nears, the latter distances itself in time while revealing more. Well, Jesuits in Space and a weird plot structure? I'll give that a try!

So, is it any good? Well sorta kinda...

The Sparrow

I'll be honest, lots of folks simply love this book and a few folks really hate it. Then there's a segment into which I fall who found it an okay read, with an interesting premise and methodology dragged down by some pretty hefty flaws. Let's look at the flaws first!


A major fault is the enormous amount of time spent establishing unrealistically likable characters. Fully half the book is dedicated to it, and yet none of the characters have any real flaws. Yeah, okay, one is too logical (until later, when emotion is needed to propel the plot). Another is mired in a sense of machismo which serves to draw out the events following the climax. I liked them all. How could I not? They're all very nice, but they weren't very interesting.

Oddly, given the number of pages devoted to it, the author eventually devolved to large blocks of exposition to fill in backstories. It's weird. This exposition starts in the form of well done character dialogue, but then it's as if the author simply tires of the effort and resorts to the aforementioned narrative blocks. (I was not at all surprised to learn, upon reading the author notes at the end, that the near-saintly Anne was a Mary Sue.)

Of course, the point of all this build-up is to make you sad when horrible things happen to these folks. Alas, while lots of folks die, it really isn't all that horrible. I mean, yeah, it's horrible, but not horrible-horrible. Plus, the two big reveals at the end aren't really a surprise. One is plainly obvious, the other heavily hinted at.

There's a parochial morality to it. It's not a book from the 50s (published in the late 90s), yet it seems to exude a stilted morality, including far too much time trying to justify celibacy. And, honestly, are folks still amazed and confused by the concept of relativistic time dilation in 2060?

Other flaws include, frankly, piss-poor sci-fi featuring the world's most inept attempt at first contact. Their plan? Fuck it, let's just land somewhere! There are other groaners as well, and they're crucial to the plot. So it's painful in places.

Okay, so enough with the flaws. Is there anything to like? Well, sure...


While the characters are lacking in depth, they're still charming. The dialogue between them is fun, if unrealistically sincere. While it was plainly obvious I was being set up to like these folks in order to provoke an emotional reaction later, it was still fun to read about them.

The alien society is well thought out, which isn't surprising as the author is an anthropologist. The big reveal at the end doesn't come as a total surprise, but it's still an interesting idea.

The overall quality of the writing is high, despite the thin characterization, and the short-cuts taken regarding them. It's an enjoyable read. Well, the ending isn't exactly enjoyable, still...

And the overall schtick of the split plot is handled well. It drags a bit in places, but not enough to seriously hinder my reading. While I was able to anticipate the big reveal at the end, it didn't spoil the reading, although it obviously blunted the impact.

So, is that it? No, wait, I haven't talked about the religious aspect!

The Religious Aspect

The basic idea here is that people like to attribute good things to God, but then are all confused when bad things happen. How do we reconcile this?

There's a series of Calvin and Hobbes strips that actually deal with this same issue, just in a smaller way. In the strips, Calvin finds a raccoon that has fallen from the nest. He brings it home hoping his mom can save it, but, alas, it dies. It ends with Calvin pondering the purpose of putting the bird on this earth, only to let it die. Calvin's conclusion? It's either mean or it's arbitrary, and either way I've got the heebie-jeebies.

But Calvin is missing a third possibility. In addition to God either being an asshole sadist (mean) or non-existent (arbitrary), there could be a vast plan we can neither see nor understand in which it does make sense. Which is basically the author's view, through the lens of her conversion to Judaism. She throws good things at her characters, which they assign to God's grace, then she fucks with them, leaving them to ponder why.

How you react to that will depend highly on your own religious views. Being an atheist, my response is that, lacking any evidence, I'll go with arbitrary. Other folks will likely view it differently.

Oddly, the characters in the book seem scared of considering the arbitrary possibility and I can't figure out why. The same is true in the real world. Many folks just can't conceive of there not being a God. Meanwhile, it seems obvious to me. I had hoped that this book might have worked for me as a bridge to understanding. It didn't. The lone atheist in the book is really an apatheist who takes no part at all in any theological discussions.

So, while I don't have a problem with the author's conclusions, I am disappointed that the atheist option is more or less dismissed out of hand. (Or denigrated, in at least one instance.)

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Out of Timely...

Posted: Sunday March 31 2013 @ 5:40pm

Religious Order: Books

So, a friend of mine, who is an excellent writer, was in this wee collection of time travel stories. And I bought a copy and read it and then didn't write a review in a timely manner. Then she pestered me about it, so here is it, a bit late...

Out of Time

Out of Time is a small-ish collection of five time travel stories. It's cheap, at 99 cents, and 100% of sales proceeds are donated to Doctors Without Borders, so, y'know, just go buy it, eh?

Oh, wait, you want to know if it's any good. Well, yeah, it really is.

The first three stories are good and solid. They didn't blow me away, but they were all fun and enjoyable to read. If that was all there was, my 99 cents would still have been well spent. The fifth and last story was one of the genre of the whip-smart looping plotline. And it's a good un at it, a really fun read.

But it's the fourth story that stands out. Now, bear in mind that this is the one my friend wrote, so I'm probably a bit biased. That said, it's a really powerful and moving tale. It's not a high-tech sort of time travel tale. It's about regret. It made me sad, even a little teary-eyed. (Just teary-eyed, no actual tears were shed.) It stands out in that the time travelling is just an enabler of the story, not really the story itself. It's really good, easily worth the whole 99 cents all on its own.

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A Pretty Awful Tale

Posted: Wednesday March 06 2013 @ 8:37am

Religious Order: Books

So, some pretentious tech blog recommended Pink Noise. I really wish they hadn't. This isn't a good read. It's certainly a pretentious read, though.

The first thing you need to know is that, while the eBook clocks in at 160 pages, only the first 100 pages are the actual story. The rest is back-up material. I'll get to that, but let's start with the story.

The main character is one of those human-consciousness-upload-to-a-computer thingies. It's a doctor who is tasked with reviving a girl who had a chunk of her brains blown out. The HCUtaC thingie melds with her, filling in the blown out chunks, and they go on to have an escape-and-rescue adventure.

The stuff leading up to the mind-melding is not bad. It's not all that good, but it's readable. Alas, then things fall apart. The story originally derived from a poem and it shows. Tons of flowery language tries to be mind-blowing, but instead is just tedious. Much of the plot is simply filled-in with blocks of character exposition, as if the author couldn't think of a way to make it into poetry and simply punted. There are some good imaginative descriptions, but they're few and far between. The whole plot itself is minimal.

And then you get to the end. It's only 100 pages but sure feels like more.

But wait, you're not done! Now comes the back-up material. Again, keep mind that this makes up over a third of the whole book.

It starts with the science behind some parts of the main story. There's a section on spontaneous self-organization in systems far from equilibrium. It's actually interesting, although marred by asides about the existence of God, which seemed out of place, as well as flat out wrong.

But, just as in the book itself, things then go wrong. He switches over to talking about the plasma universe, which is, frankly, fringe crackpot science. Now, there's nothing wrong with writing stories based on weird ideas. It can lead to some excellent work. There is a problem with appending a long treatise on how all the mainstream scientists are totally wrong and your favorite crackpot theory is the actual truth and how can those other folks be so stupid. Which is, exactly, what he's done here. Ironically, he has a Ph.D. in math from MIT yet still goofs up the application of electrostatic forces weakening over distance as compared to gravity. Actually, it's not ironic, because what he's doing is blindly applying math to physics without really understanding the physical limitations. (No, I'm not so smart that I just know this. I read it somewhere. I did do a little debunking research.)

Following this is a long bibliography, with one source for every three pages of story.

Then, there's a really long glossary, because there isn't this thing called Google, nor does my eReader have built-in dictionary functionality. To be fair, some of this is explanation of terms from different cultures. Those probably aren't in the built-in dictionary.

Speaking of different cultures, next is a quick pronunciation guide to the names and other foreign words used in the story. This is a nice touch, although I'm not about to go reread the story itself just to use the correct pronunciation. It would have been more effective to preface the story with a guide to specific character names, with a reference to this material.

And then it wraps up with some acknowledgments and info about the author. (And the illustrator, although the artwork didn't translate well to an e-paper screen. So I make no comment on the quality.)

So, in the end, it's a skeletal plot on which the author hangs poetry and bad science. If that turns your crank, give it a shot.

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Time Escape

Posted: Wednesday February 20 2013 @ 2:05pm

Religious Order: Books

Timescape - Gregory Benford

Read a blog post somewhere about really mind-blowing novels. Timescape was mentioned. I've read a couple other books by Benford, so I took a shot.

The bottom line? There's a really awesome novella here, mired in a lot of boring attempts at characterization.

The main idea is that the world is in an ecological mess but tachyons have been discovered. (Tachyons are theoretical particles that always travel faster than light. This makes them also go back in time. No, they most likely do not exist, but the math would allow them to exist.) So, some scientists try to send a message back in time to warn folks to avoid the dangers.

Let's look at the plus side first. The science is spot-on. Once you accept the reality of tachyons, pretty much everything flows believably from there. (With one wee exception, which I'll detail at the end.) The descriptions are accurate, mainly because the author's also an astrophysicist. The idea is audacious and handled well. A character has a great realization, while in an airplane. It's fairly obvious to a well-informed reader of science today, but viewed with 1980 eyes, it's an opener.

All the usual plots turns are there. I mean, the plot really isn't all that different from any other one in which folks receive transmissions from afar. Someone happens onto it. After awhile, she realizes it's a message. No one believes her. Eventually, she perseveres and they believe her and the day is saved. However, the time aspect totally revamps the genre.

If that's all this book did, I would have mostly loved it. But, no...

Instead, the books is saddled with just horrible characters. It's almost as if the author sat there and asked himself Now, what qualities can I give this character to make the reader not like them in the least? Everybody fares poorly, but the women more so. One male character fucks anything that moves and nearly all the women give into him. The only one who doesn't? Well, the lesbian of course. It's not just that the characters are louts. There are pages and pages detailing their lives. I don't care. None of them are interesting enough for me to want to care. I found myself eventually skimming over much of the interpersonal drama in order to get back to the actual story. It got so bad that there were points at which I contemplated abandoning the book.

While the poor characters are the biggest problem, there are others. Half of the story takes place in 1998, but the technology seems old. I don't mean that he's done a poor job of predicting 1998 technology from his actual real timeframe of 1980. No, I mean that the tech in 1998 seems outdated compared to the actual tech available in 1980. Even in 1980, I wouldn't have tapped out Morse code by hand for hours at a time, day after day, after day. Seriously, had he not heard of the Jacquard loom? I dunno. Maybe it was a stylistic choice. If it was, it was a poor one.

There are also sections I thought were clunky. I lost count of the number of times one of the main characters had his momentum blunted. It's not a bad turn of phrase, just overused. (Just counted. He only used it four times. Still, that was enough to make it stand out.) It's the character-based writing which was the clunkiest.

The ending is also weak. There's no real resolution. After wading through all that characterization, I wanted some resolution. Alas, I didn't get much, which leads to my last complaint.

At one point, they conduct a test to see if they can, indeed, change the past. But there's no control. So they don't really know. They know they can contact the past, but still remain clueless as to whether they can change it. Unfortunately, this weakens the already weak resolution further. (It's possible that this is all on purpose. I doubt it, though.)

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Posted: Wednesday February 20 2013 @ 8:04am

Religious Order: Books

Destination: Void - Frank Herbert

Okay, let me say this up front: I've never read any of the Dune novels, nor have I seen the movie adaptation.

That said, I read a blog post somewhere listing some non-Dune Herbert books to read. So I chose this one, more or less at random.

The idea is that a ship full of clones is being sent off to colonize a planet. The onboard ship-controlling brains die, leaving the rest of them in a lurch. The crew are faced with not only deciding what to do but also with determining the true nature of their mission.

Did I like it? Well, enough to finish it, but not enough to want to read the next book in the series. There's a ton of character introspection, some of which is interesting, some of which consists of meanderings on the nature of consciousness. The meanderings are boring, a bit like A Voyage to Arcturus without the benefit of being really fucking weird, man.

I enjoyed the slow reveal of the actual mission. I didn't enjoy the dated technical descriptions. (The book is from 1966.)

I enjoyed the personal introspection regarding crew relationships. I didn't enjoy the philosophical meanderings.

I enjoyed getting to the end. I didn't enjoy the climax, straight out of a bad Star Trek episode.

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The Erotofluidic Age?

Posted: Friday February 01 2013 @ 7:46pm

Religious Order: Books

So, a few weeks ago, I reviewed Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press 2008-2012. My only complaint, really, was that the sex itself was pretty plain vanilla.

Following my review, one of the authors in the collection sent me a message suggesting his own The Erotofluidic Age as a rather kinkier alternative. Of course, I had to take him up on his suggestion.

Structurally, the book is basically three linked novellas, and this serves the stories fine. But you don't care about that! You want to know about the fucking, right? What did I think about the fucking?

Fucking weird-ass shit, man! No, really, this is some weird stuff. It's not tentacle porn. Oh, no, tentacle porn isn't nearly strange enough. Think mutated gooey ducks, phonetically. I'll say no more, just, really, the sex is weird. And I'm fine with that. The strap-on scene is, well, wow. Just wow.

(I'll note that, while weird, the sex isn't violent or mean. It's a happy, good-natured weird. But it is really fucking weird.)

So, is that it? A seriously weird wank book? Well, no, there's more to it than that. It's billed as a pornographic steampunk comedy, and, to be sure, it's pornographic. But what about the rest, you ask? It's also a darn good steampunk yarn. The descriptions and dialogue feel right. Authentic, if you will. I'm not the world's biggest steampunk fan. Even so, this went down smooth. (Phrasing!) All that steampunky goodness is melded nicely with the sex, making it, well, steampunk sex. Weird Victorian steampunk sex. And there's a hilarious throw-away joke about goggles.

Oh, right, is it also funny? Yeah, it is. It's not a joke-a-minute sort of book. Rather, there's a fun amusing quality throughout, punctuated at intervals with full on hilarity. I laughed aloud at several points.

(Side-note: Why don't we write LA for laugh aloud instead of LOL?)

In the end, the real test is to ask whether the book would be worth reading without the sex scenes. For me, the answer is a big thumbs up. I would have been perfectly happy with it had the story been less explicit. The explicitness was just a bone-us!

But, fair warning, if you find the thought of really weird sex to be disturbing, then you might find that it detracts from the rest of the book. It didn't for me, but I'm pretty fucking weird at times, too.

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January 2013 Books

Posted: Tuesday January 29 2013 @ 9:01am

Religious Order: Books

Thirteen - Richard K. Morgan

I've read earlier books by Morgan and always found them to be entertaining. This one is no different. Instead of the distant future body swapping of the Takeshi Kovacs books, this one is more near future, dealing with genetic enhancement. Whereas Kovacs, the protagonist in the those earlier books, has tech and special training to make him a super bad-ass, the protagonist of Thirteen has enhanced genetics and special training to make him a super bad-ass.

That's a little harsh. I mean, it's true, but it doesn't mean this isn't a fun read. Plus, this book actually delves into issues of whether Wolverine-type characters are actually useful to society without dogmatically coming to any actual conclusion. So, it's a pretty sophisticated book, as well as being a slab of action-packed goodness.

I also maintain that Morgan writes sex scenes far better than most sci-fi writers.

The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor - John McPhee

A friend recommended I read this. It's from 1974. The book bounces between being a biography of Taylor and an examination of the state of the nuclear industry regarding security. Both topics are interesting as well as frightening. In the end, you'll gain an appreciation of the risks taken in the early years of atomic weaponry. You'll also start worrying more about nuclear terrorism. Finally, you'll grasp the meaning of the curve of binding energy and have your mind blown by this:

He said that Carson Mark had once pointed out to him a number, a fact, that brought with it the most astonishing realization he had ever experienced in physics. It had to do with binding energy, and it was that when Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki the amount of matter that changed into energy and destroyed the city was one gram - a third the weight of a penny. A number of kilograms of plutonium were in the bomb, but the amount that actually released its binding energy and created the fireball was one gram. E (twenty kilotons) equals m (one gram) times the square of the speed of light.

I should note that it's actually more than a third of a modern penny. Old pennies have a mass of just over 3 grams. Newer pennies are 2.5 grams. So, it's 40% of a modern penny. Or, just say less than half a penny to be safe. But, in any case, I just sat back with my mouth literally hanging open after reading that. Well, my mouth was literally hanging open, but I was reading in bed, not sitting.

The book makes predictions about the direction of the nuclear energy industry. It would be interesting to check those against how the industry has actually developed over the past few decades. Not that I'm going to do that.

One, Two, Three...Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science - George Gamow

The Curve of Binding Energy makes many a reference to Gamow, including this non-fiction gem from 1947. It's a look at science covering a wide range from numbers themselves, hence the title, to the physical world from micro to macro scales. It's enhanced by illustrative drawings by Gamow himself, which are delightful.

What I really loved about the book is that it's from an era far removed from my childhood. If you read enough science non-fiction, you get used to certain analogies being used to describe various things. This book far pre-dates anything I've read before on the subject. So the descriptions are new and novel to my eyes.

It's also entertaining to see where future developments show him to be wrong. Some are technical, for example, the wrong hydrogen to helium fusion reaction for the sun. Some are more, well, almost philosophical. Gamow argues that protons and neutrons may well be the indivisible building blocks of nature. (Quarks don't show up until the 60s.)

This probably isn't the book for a layperson looking to learn about science stuff. Rather, it's a book for the casual science fan who wants to see how science looked from the viewpoint of an earlier era.

Walk the Plank (The Human Division #2) - John Scalzi

Well, it's clear that I cannot continue trying to review these as standalone books. The second release in this series is a good read, but doesn't really work at all as a standalone story. It's also annoyingly written in the form of a play, I guess. Maybe a transcript? But, it doesn't actually seem to do anything with the chosen format. I dunno. Maybe I'm missing something. It reminded me of Scalzi's attempt in Redshirts to write a story in the second person. (You read this review. You ask yourself What is the second person perspective anyway?)

Anyway, the story itself is good. It has a totally different feel than the first chapter. It's not breezy. It's blunt and raw. It's clearly setting up things for later chapters and if I view it solely as being the second chapter of a larger book, I really enjoyed it, apart from the weird experimental format.

That said, I shalln't be reviewing subsequent chapters. Rather, I'll wait until the book is finished.

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

I read The Andromeda Strain back in my youth and had fond memories of it. So, I recently grabbed an eBook version to revisit it. I'm not exactly sure from where the fond memories came. It's not that great a book. On the positive side, there are few female characters so Crichton's misogynistic streak is mostly absent, but that's about it.

Dialogue is sparse and flat. Characters aren't much better. Crichton seems more intent on showing off his research than about telling a compelling story. The whole thing is written as a report, which gives it an air of authenticity. Unfortunately, this also makes it like reading a report. In other words, it's somewhat dry and boring. I still found it readable, but I actually kinda like dry and boring. Still, this was too dry and boring, even for me.

The story doesn't have the usual climax. The important thing is the journey, not the destination. But, again, the journey itself isn't exactly gripping.

I guess I should now go revisit the movie adaptation of which I also have fond memories. Hope they're not dashed. (I just now realized that there was also a TV mini-series a few years back.)

Agony of the Leaves - Laura Childs

Well, it's been months since I started this one and I've felt no desire to return. I've been reading her series of tea mysteries all along but not for the mysteries, which are just one level above the Hardy Boys. I read them for the characters and the tea. I read them for the descriptions and interactions. I read them for the ambiance.

And this one just rubbed me wrong. It's 4-5 chapters in, I think, before we even get to the tea shop. No one seems true to character. The situation seems contrived. It doesn't feel homey; it feels rote.

It may just be a rough spot for Ms. Childs, or it may be that she has exhausted this particular niche in this particular genre. I hope it's just the former.

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