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Vilja Reads

I'm a student, so I don't have nearly as much time for leisure reading as I'd like. If I manage to read an entire course book instead of just the assigned chapters, I'll review that here, too.

My short stories on Kindle!

Boxcutter: a short story - Tuulia Saaritsa Strong Coffee: a short story - Tuulia Saaritsa Me and Susannah - Tuulia Saaritsa Double: a short story - Tuulia Saaritsa
— feeling amazing
"Boxcutter" will be free until Thursday.

Currently reading

Lair of Dreams (Libba Bray) so far has the same good points and bad points as The Diviners, the first book in the series. The introduction of Ling was actually really well done, but the rest of the time the description is too cinematic to be immersive.


I know it's easier to criticize others than do better, but there you have it. I would also like more physical description, at least some detail to hang a mental image upon. So far there is only one new character that has had a properly evocative description, and I'm pretty sure he's about to be eaten by a demon to provide motivation for Ling.


And it still bugs me that they capitalize Diviners as if they were a brand. But the radio show recording bit was pure gold.

Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die

Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister - Andro Linklater

In 1812, during a crucial period before war might be declared between Great Britain and the United States over British harassment of Atlantic trade, the British prime minister was shot in the House of Commons. The assassin was a gentleman, a merchant from Liverpool, who never tried to resist arrest. 


A lone nut, driven by a personal grievance, killed the man who was both Chancellor of the Exchequer and the First Lord of the Treasury at a time when the king was mad and the prince regent weak; a man whose quest to choke out the slave trade had plunged Britain into depression and driven it to the very brink of war. 


Linklater's style is as dramatic as my own here, and his implication the same. There is some evidence that John Bellingham was financed, if not motivated, by an interested party. The story that unfolds paints a psychological portrait of the killer and the victim, as well as illuminating the political pressures and contentions of the time - a time when British economy was expanding rapidly after the Napoleonic wars had opened up the international waters and Britain possessed possibly the greatest navy in the world - an expansion fueled by slavery, slave-trading, and slavery-produced cheap goods. It was a testament to Spencer Perceval's entrenched political power that he managed to keep up his fight to stamp down on slavery for as long as he did. His followers did not. 


Linklater's style is engaging and entertaining, though it's a matter of taste whether one likes conspiracy theories and personal histories or a drier, more academic work. I'm not saying his research is faulty - I'm sure it's not. I was just a little but put off by the sensationalist handling of the subject. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was very informative on a number of points I hadn't considered before.



I am excited!

Mary Borsellino's new book Thrive is coming out in a few days. I was lucky enough to read an early version of it and it blew me away.


Sadly, she's saying it will be her last novel (for now?), but if you've never heard of her, look up The Devil's Mixtape. Seriously. Do it.


I cannot recommend Thrive (or Mixtape) warmly enough. It's about young women in post-apocalyptic and dystopian (two different things) world who refuse to follow the script society hands to them, and who do the hard work of building a better world.


In a time and place where the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has grown painfully wide, Olivia lives a life cushioned with abundance… until the day she is kidnapped by Hannah, a girl from a very different kind of life. Olivia discovers a taste for things not condoned in her world: black-market books, daring friends, wild creativity.

From the depths of factory oppression to the dizzying heights of vigilante rooftops, Olivia travels the margins of society, where the misfits gather and fight to make a life worth living.

Holy controversy Tueday: Ebooks-tree and the great fanfiction scrape.

So it turns out that a shady website with a shadier website behind it is suddenly hosting ridiculous amounts of stories scraped from Archive of Our Own and Wattpad. Some of these "stories", if you check the original, are 100 word drabbles or fanart posts. Either way, massively unethical and probably illegal, even though the works were posted for free.


As someone who posts original content online, I can't guard myself against that content being reposted elsewhere. I depend entirely on netiquette and obscurity to protect me. Yet the idea sets my teeth on edge. I feel a lot more strongly about copyright violations when they're taking content belonging to an individual rather than a huge media conglomerate. I'm strongly against book piracy. Spider-Man gifs, not so much. So let's not make any mistake here: I am upset on the behalf of the ficcers, not on behalf of whoever holds the copyright for the characters they write about. Their stories are theirs.


I hope most people online would instinctively know not to download anything from a site like ebooks-tree, but if they were after clicks, they've certainly got them. Fans are up in arms and showering the site with take-down requests. 


What a world we live in.

I may be a little behind the times here.

Any thoughts on K. Tempest Bradford's challenge to read no straight white cis men for a year


I'd have to specify that as nothing by people who as far as I know could be straight white cis men. Sexuality and cis status aren't always covered in the author blurb. Even so, I'd have a ton to read. And honestly, if I didn't have to read books for school, I'd probably manage it without even thinking.


I checked this, because one of the side effects of living in a sexist society is that when a group is 50% women, women are seen to dominate. According to my shelf, of the last sixty books I read, not counting mandatory reading, 17 were by men, and one had male and female contributors. I don't know the sexual orientation or cis status of most of those men, and for many I don't know their race - but when I do know, they're white, cis and heterosexual.


To make this into a real challenge for me, I'd have to break it into segments. Say, 5 books by non-white men, 5 by trans men, 5 by non-binary trans people, 5 by non-heterosexual men, 5 by disabled people, 5 by non-white women. Because reading white non-heterosexual women would be completely within my comfort zone. 

Dying in the Wool (Kate Shackleton

Dying In the Wool - Frances Brody

Kate, a still-young, well-to-do war widow has found herself doing amateur detective work here and there. An old VAD friend asks her to do so professionally. Her father has been missing for years, presumed a suicide. Kate has a tight schedule to solve a disappearance before the Braithwaite wedding. 


The first chapter of the novel does not flow and does a great deal of showing-not-telling while I was still reeling from the first person past tense. That alone was worth docking a half-star. Readers, do not let that deter you! The story will pick up pace very quickly, and while it's not on par with the later Kate Shackleton novels, it's entertaining and fun to read.

Readsy and Hemingway

I posted this on my personal blog elsewhere, but thought you guys might get a kick out of it, too. It IS about reading and writing!




Spritz is a mobile application for fast reading, which flashes a text by you word by word at a given rate. Readsy is a web version which works with uploaded PDF and TXT files or a URL. I've been using Readsy to sprint through my reading assignments whenever I can.

There is a learning curve. At first, I didn't get the entire content of the text as it whizzed by. My attention wandered and I started to get sleepy. I noticed it helps if I do something with my hands at the same time, such as braid and rebraid my hair. But the key is just heightened attention. You have to pay proper attention to the words.

Even when paying attention, you will not be able to read words you're not familiar with. The process depends on you recognizing a word's shape rather than each individual letter. I noticed this while sprinting through a text on paleolimnological research into arctic lakes: Constant reference was made to a particular microscopic water creature that started with C. (I didn't go back to check...)

Some PDFs don't work as well as others. It of course has to be machine-readable, but additional coding attached to it, such as DRM, will also make it unreadable for Readsy. I've had success in copy-pasting a text and printing to PDF on Word. The one time I tried to upload a TXT, it didn't work.

Another constant source of annoyance with Readsy, when using it to read scientific articles, is that you can't make it skip attributions or image texts, or even page numbers. If you want an uninterrupted reading experience, you'll have to clean the text up first.

Of course reading the text in its original form is better. But Readsy is faster, and my reading list is sometimes enormous. So I do find it useful.

Hemingway is a web and a desktop app for streamlining your writing. It highlights adverbs, over-complicated sentences, passive voice and superfluous words. I went for the desktop app and run it on Windows 8.1. I would say use the online version instead. On my desktop app, highlighted words or sentences sometimes hover over the base text in a way that makes it difficult to edit that text. And with the beta online version, you can do everything you'd do with the desktop app, so it's really only if you often use your PC offline.

I don't take its instructions as dogma when writing fiction and obviously not for poetry, but for anything like an essay it can be very useful. Maybe not so much for me, since most of my essays are in Finnish, not English. And it can certainly help improve fiction as well, though you have to be your own final judge on whether to go for clarity over the beauty of the language for a particular scene. There's a reason this app is called "Hemingway".

I started on Kate Shackleton's first adventure...

Oof. Let me tell you, the author has improved by leaps by A Medal for Murder, and bounds by Murder in the Afternoon. (Perhaps tellingly, the latter is dedicated to her assistant, Amy Sophie McNeil.) If I hadn't read those two before starting this, I might never have gone on - which would have been a shame! Here, the characters and the setting are just as well thought out, and I expect the ensuing mystery will be just as cleverly constructed, but the storytelling is amateurish, expository - the worst kind of telling-not-showing. And, were I the author, I would have thought twice about having so many references to manure in the first chapter.

Murder in the Afternoon (Kate Shackleton)

Murder In The Afternoon - Frances Brody

A long-lost relative shows up on Mrs Shackleton's doorstep asking for help: Her husband is missing, perhaps dead. Reluctantly, Kate is drawn into an investigation that reveals the interplay of relationships and secrets in a little country town, as well as putting her face to face with a part of her own past that she'd hoped to forget. 


While I unashamedly enjoyed the previous installment in this series, I can tell that between A Medal for Murder and Murder in the Afternoon there's been a conscious effort to improve. Character introductions and scene settings seemed more tactile. While before I wasn't ever sure a shift between narrators was necessary, here it was instrumental in distributing information. The plot is a slow reveal as secret after secret falls into place, without, once more, giving away the solution until Kate has all the information she needs. These novels are not puzzles to be solved, but stories - and I am fine with that!


Brody is a knack conjuring scenes and characters that seem tangible and memorable. That's something I find essential in a story; too often in detective novels characters fade into faceless game pieces.


I may be too generous. I often end up rating according to how much I enjoyed a story, and I enjoyed this quite a lot. I could also appreciate Kate's hesitation about Marcus. She's much too sharp and decisive to be shuffled into a position she won't enjoy, simply because it's the done thing. I can't explain it, but somehow that makes me trust Brody - to think I will continue to like Kate, and to like reading about her. We'll see. 



A Medal for Murder (Kate Shackleton)

A Medal for Murder - Frances Brody

Mrs Shackleton's second professional case involves tracking down a thief who robbed a pawnshop in bright daylight. The murdered man she stumbles upon outside a Harrowgate theatre seems, at first, unconnected. But that isn't the way detective novels work, is it? Kate is dragged into an investigation in which she has to choose between the truth and justice more than once. 


The writing was not flawless, nor did the novel obviously follow the formula of a classic detective novel or provide a clear puzzle for the reader, but I was entertained from start to finish. I have a fondness for the very specific genre of "1920s lady detective novels written by women" so I might be a soft touch, but I don't have to make any excuses for liking this one. I was a little thrown off by the first person narration interspersed with scenes from other points of view, especially since those extra scenes weren't entirely necessary, but once I got used to it it was not an issue at all. Besides, even if not necessary, those extra scenes were in themselves entertaining - especially the flashbacks to the Second South African War. 


I missed the first novel in the series but am well into the third now. Kate is a reasonably wealthy woman in her early thirties and childless, her husband having been lost in the war. Beyond this, I know very little about her aside from what arises from the narration. There isn't anything very spectacular about her, save for her powers of observation. This isn't a criticism. I felt comfortable slipping into her skin. She is independent, her own boss (and that of her assistant), and has a capacity for compassion without being soppy. I'm likely going to keep reading these until I run out of money or into one of my dealbreaker tropes.




Cover Her Face (Inspector Dalgliesh)

Cover Her Face - P.D. James

At a country house, the family is tired of waiting for their ailing husband and father to die. Each have their own dissatisfactions and secrets. Meanwhile, a new maid with a fatherless child and a penchant for causing trouble is not making it any easier for any of them. The situation culminates into murder, and Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate.


I found this work difficult to rate. On the plus side, it abides with those often quoted rules of writing detective fiction - showing, not telling (most of the time); setting up a puzzle and giving the reader all the clues to solve the mystery, while not making it too easy; and not mucking up the narrative with too much romance. It even has some of features I have particular preference for, such as not splitting the characters up into heroes and villains, but allowing them dimensions. Stephen is heartless but often well-meaning, Hearne is a war hero sick with the memory his past deeds, Mrs Riscoe is snobbish and affects detachment, but cares about other people more than she wants to. And so on. I can't deny that it's a quality piece of classic form detective fiction.


But I was not entertained. I couldn't like any of the characters, though I felt sympathy for desperate, unloved Catherine and the cruel, ambitious Sally. Furthermore, I had narrowed the possible suspects down to two by the novel's midpoint, and guessed the culprit soon after. 


I can't tell if you'll like this novel. Though I recognized the craftmanship behind it, I did not.

Raffles: Annotated & Illustrated

The Complete Raffles - E.W. Hornung, Sarah Morrissey, Genevieve Morrissey

Gentleman thief and cricketer A.J. Raffles strikes up a criminal partnership with a down-and-out gentleman, Bunny Manders, who faithfully Watsons his criminal Holmes. Together they rob the rich and give to themselves, until it all comes crashing down. 


Written back before detective fiction and crime adventure hadn't parted ways, these stories are part adventure, part puzzle, with either dominating depending on the story. The emotional thread that runs through them is the precariousness of Raffles and Bunny's situation - every new risk means risk of exposure, but taking the risk in the first place is what sustains their illusion of respectability, i.e. wealth. As the chronology progresses, Bunny goes from agonies of guilt to stoic acceptance of his own criminality, and finally to grief that goes beyond the question of right and wrong. In the end, what began as morally grey adventure series becomes a love story between a charismatic, corrupt man and a weak, corruptible one.


In this edition, Sarah and Genevieve Morrissey provide a whopping 1,052 footnotes which give context to Raffles' world, pinpoint his references, expand on the setting, and contextualize the characters' words and actions. And, full disclosure, I copy-edited the notes myself. I promise I'm not getting a cut; I'm talking this up because I actually believe it's a great resource. They also include dozens of illustrations that appeared in the original magazines. There is a wealth of work and research here that's born out of genuine love of the stories and desire to understand the culture in which they were produced.


If it wasn't for the enormous and wonderful work of the Morrisseys, I would not give the work a full five stars, because as can be expected, the usual warnings for racism (Mr. Justice Raffles is particularly antisemitic) and classism apply to this as any other late Victorian English fiction. The emotional core, however, especially the sense of impending loss that is wholly deserved, gives these stories a unique and exciting flavour. It's why I'm a fan.


Pardonable Lies

Pardonable Lies - Jacqueline Winspear

London, 1930. Psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs is hired to prove that a wartime aviator really died when his plane went down years ago, an investigation that leads her back to France for the first time since she served there as a nurse. She has to confront those memories in order to bring peace not only to her client but to herself. 


This was a pleasant, if slow-moving read - but slowness is not always a bad thing. The mystery is easy to guess, not so much from clues left behind but from the shape and thrust of the story, and each guess is confirmed one by one as Maisie patiently and diligently works to unearth proof of what really happened. Not that there weren't any surprises - there just also wasn't much of a puzzle. It didn't really bother me, since I don't read detective stories for the puzzle but for the journey. As a character, Maisie is cautious, non-judgmental, conservative and not at all flashy, which in itself is refreshing. 


There were elements that were not to my taste. Although Maisie is the protagonist, she still seems to think of herself as an apprentice to her old mentor, Maurice. She does not claim her own authority. Moreover Maisie, Maurice and presumably the author believe that there is a correct, healthy way to confront tragedy and conduct one's life: either settle down into more or less conservative life or suffer mentally. It's comforting, but a little too easy - everyone and everything put into their individual boxes marked "happiness". This is entirely personal and not even exactly a complaint. Stories should have happy endings, I agree. I just don't like being told what the right answer is, or that there even is always an answer which isn't fundamentally just the lesser of two evils.  


This was one of those books I paid for but put in the library's book exchange shelf after reading. I enjoyed it, and would like others to get the chance to enjoy it too, but I don't expect I'll ever want to re-read it - though I might well want to pick up another Jacqueline Winspear.


Short stories and novellas online

I've read a few amazing short stories free online recently, so here are links! Highly recommended - and pretty grim, because that's how I roll.



Before the Rains Came

by Jack Hollis Marr


An eerie meeting of a boy and a unicorn, seeped in the expectation of violence. A short story.



Always Left Behind

by Jack Hollis Marr


Any description would ruin it. Just read. A short story.



A Fire in the Heavens

by Mary Robinette Kowal


Neither Katin nor anyone she knows has ever seen the moon. Her persecuted religion talks of it, but surely it's just a metaphor? Now she's financed a long voyage to the other side of the sea to look for her people's ancient homeland, and on the horizon there's a bright, eerie light.


A novella. Don't let the design of Kowal's website fool you: This is not a romance. 



The Hound of the D'Urbervilles

Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles - Kim Newman

Professional soldier, casual murderer and all-around lout Colonel Sebastian Moran arrives in London and is extended a one of a kind offer: To join the "firm" of Professor Moriarty, the undisputed king of London's criminal underworld. His job: To kill whoever the professor tells him to kill. 


The money is good, Moran gets access to the girls in the downstairs brothel, what's not to like? And if he nearly gets killed every few months on the job, that's what he lives for, isn't it? The moment when it's just him and the prey locked in deathly combat.


The book is broken up into adventures that mirror those of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, but from the point of view of the hired criminals, but doesn't stop there: the book's villains' gallery of Victorian popular culture rivals that of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Classic characters get their bow in the limelight from Tintin's Bianca Castafiore through Raffles and Bunny to Irma Vep of Les Vampires. Even Van Helsing makes an appearance - as a necrophiliac with an undead fantasy. No-one gets a free pass from Moran's caustic tongue, or Newman's determination to strip characters of their heroic glow.


There is a type of author who will downplay just about every character in the book to make his author stand-in character look cool - I'm talking about Martin Amis. Other People was ridiculous. Come on, Martin Amis. But I don't really see this being a problem in The Hound of the D'Urbervilles. Both Moran and Moriarty show up ridiculous as well as corrupt and scary. Irene Adler may be a talentless, low-class singer, but she's still the smartest person around, the unbeatable Woman (or Bitch, as the Moriarty team knows her). You can expect everyone to be tarred with the same brush. 


And Sherlock Holmes? He barely registers.


I did genuinely enjoy this book, though it should come with a number of warnings. The nihilistic, violent mind of Sebastian Moran is not a nice place to stay. And while he never, to his own knowledge or by his own admission, rapes anyone, he is very rapey, and I for one found it hard to imagine him innocent of sexual violence. This is kind of a dealbreaker for me, so I can only be grateful the book never went there, in so many words. Moran is completely unlikable, and yet you do sympathize with his concern over his diminishing usefulness to Moriarty, and there is something of fantasy fulfillment in his ability to bounce back from injury. So gauge your own limits, and if you're quite all right with insulting the good name of popular characters and entering the mind of a debauched murderer to commit heinous crimes framed as boys' adventures, this might well be the book for you.


And if anything, at least for once A.J. "bats and bowls" Raffles isn't written heterosexual.