Fiction: “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good OmensGood Omens is a story about the End Times.

Did I know I was going to be reading a book about the End Times approximately a year before the End Times actually showed up? Nope! But here we are.

Good Omens stars an angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crowley, formerly Crawley; and yes, he was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, good guess) that have forged a friendship in spite of their alignment. Eleven years prior to the beginning of this book, Crowley had been tasked with planting the Antichrist in the family of an American ambassador, setting the gears in motion towards Armageddon.

Crowley, in spite of being firmly on the side of Hell and Satan, etc., does not want Armageddon to happen. He likes what the humans have done to Earth – the alcohol, the music — and the fact that with modernization, the tempting of souls has become super easy.

Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up for themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse. Over the years Crowley had found it increasingly difficult to to find anything demonic to do which showed up against the natural background of generalized nastiness. There had been times, over the past millennium, when he’d felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look, we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down Dis and Pandemonium and everywhere and move up here, there’s nothing we can do to them that they don’t do themselves and they do things we’ve never even thought of, often involving electrodes. They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination. And electricity, of course. [p. 43]

Wow – rereading that paragraph after having watched all of The Good Place is really striking now.

Anyway. Crowley doesn’t want Armageddon to happen because he’s comfortable. He lets Aziraphale know that Armageddon has been put into motion, but Aziraphale doesn’t want to go against the Holy Plan. Luckily, Crowley is excellent at tempting people (including angels), and manages to convince Aziraphale that they should both spend the next eleven years helping to bring up the child – Crowley, in the guise of a nanny, will “try” and tempt him over to the side of Darkness and Hell, and Aziraphale will counter Crowley’s lessons with his own, of goodness and light.

And it worked!

Except there was a mix-up at the hospital, and the Antichrist was not actually given to the American Ambassador.

The Antichrist – Adam Young – grows up in Tadfield, and is overall a nice, normal boy. On his eleventh birthday, he and his playmates – known as the Them – are hanging out in the woods, like they normally do, and just as Adam says he wants a dog for his birthday, a stray dog comes bounding out of a thicket. The dog doesn’t have an owner, so Adam keeps him, and names him Dog.

What Adam doesn’t know, is that Dog is actually a hellhound. The hellhound was supposed to be named something terrifying; it would give a tenor to the Armageddon. But being named Dog … the hound is very confused.

Aziraphale and Crowley realize that the Ambassador’s son is not the Antichrist when a hellhound doesn’t show up at the son’s eleventh birthday party. So now they’re on the hunt for where the actual Antichrist ended up, and they each (yet separately) enlist the help of their covert aids, the Witchfinder Army, led by Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell. Shadwell sends his best man – and his only man -, Witchfinder Private Pulsifer, who happens to be a descendant of Witchfinder Major Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer. The olde Witchfinder Pulsifer had been the one to bring about the death of Agnes Nutter.

The subtitle to Good Omens is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Agnes had managed to predict pretty much everything leading up to Armageddon, and some other, non-related prophecy stuff. Her descendants, the Devices, have dedicated their lives to trying to stay one step ahead of Armageddon. And now, the week of Adam Young’s birthday, and the week Armageddon begins, the last descendant of Agnes, a young witch named Anathema Device, is living in Tadfield.

I really, really liked this book. I also really enjoyed the adaptation on Amazon Prime, starring David Tennant as Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale. (Plus Jon Hamm as Gabriel! Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell! And others!) What I really liked about the book is twofold (and honestly, both of them are probably attributable to Terry Pratchett and not Neil Gaiman):

(1) For a book that clocks in at just shy of 500 pages, the plot zipped along.

(2) The humor is excellent.

Now, here’s where I feel I have to be upfront and tell all of y’all that I have tried to get through American Gods I think three times, and the farthest I’ve gotten is maybe Part I. I … I don’t know what it is. I like the concept of American Gods; but to me, the plot dragged and there wasn’t a lot of personality to the characters. (Don’t hold me to that – it’s been a while since I’ve tried to get through it, and it may just have been fatigue. You know me, I’ll try to finish it again … sometime … before I die. Maybe.)

So the humor bit – I think that’s the key element that was missing from American Gods. I feel like AG may have had a lot of ironical humor, as opposed to … funny humor? I don’t know, I’m in the middle of a pandemic, my brain isn’t great anymore. But between Crowley and Aziraphale’s drunk conversation about the end of the world(*), the footnotes(**), and just … the little touches that bring characters to life without being stodgy or … or whatever, I don’t know, I just know I liked it and thought it was better.

(*) Crowley is trying to tell Aziraphale that bringing about Armageddon would destroy a lot of innocent bystanders – namely, members of the animal kingdom, including dolphins.

Crowley pulled himself together. “The point is. The point is. Their brains.”

He reached for a bottle.

“What about their brains?” said the angel.

“Big brains. That’s my point. Size of. Size of. Size of damn big brains. And then there’s the whales. Brain city, take it from me. Whole damn sea full of brains.”

“Kraken,” said Aziraphale, staring moodily into his glass.

Crowley gave him the long cool look of someone who has just had a girder dropped in front of his train of thought.

“Uh?”

“Great big bugger,” said Aziraphale. “Sleepeth beneath the thunders of the upper deep. Under loads of huge and unnumbered polypol — polipo — bloody great seaweeds, you know. Supposed to rise to the surface right at the end, when the sea boils.”

“Yeah?”

“Fact.”

“There you are, then,” said Crowley, sitting back. “Whole sea bubbling, poor old dolphins so much seafood gumbo, no one giving a damn.” [p. 62]

(**) Then there’s this discussion regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, which I think illustrates what I like about Good Omens so much – it has character points, it’s a digression that leads into the plot, involves footnotes, and just a touch of absurdist humor.

How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

In order to arrive at an answer, the following facts must be taken into consideration:

Firstly, angels simply don’t dance. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics that mark an angel. They may listen appreciatively to the Music of the Spheres, but they don’t feel the urge to get down and boogie to it. So, none.

At least, nearly none. Aziraphale had learned to gavotte in a discreet gentlemen’s club in Portland Place, in the late 1880s, and while he had initially taken to it like a duck to merchant banking, after a while he had become quite good at it, and was quite put out when, some decades later, the gavotte went out of style for good.

So providing the dance was a gavotte, and providing that he had a suitable partner (also able, for the sake of argument, both to gavotte, and to dance it on the head of a pin), the answer is a straightforward one.

Then again, you might just as well ask how many demons can dance on the head of a pin. They’re of the same original stock, after all. And at least they dance*.

And if you put it that way, the answer is, quite a lot actually, providing they abandon their physical bodies, which is a picnic for a demon. Demons aren’t bound by physics. If you take the long view, the universe is just something small and round, like those water-filled balls which produce a miniature snowstorm when you shake them.**

*Although it’s not what you and I would call dancing. Not good dancing anyway. A demon moves like a white band on “Soul Train.”

**Although, unless the ineffable plan is a lot more ineffable than it’s given credit for, it does not have a giant plastic snowman at the bottom. [p. 303-304]

Finally, the Guster Reading Challenge song for Good Omens has to be “Jesus and Mary” off of Easy Wonderful (another song I don’t think I’ve listened to). Why? Because Good Omens is clearly “a book that features angels or a rapture/biblical end times.”

Check and mate, Guster.

Grade for Good Omens: 4 stars

Non-fiction: “Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception” by Charles Seife

Proofiness

Proofiness was not on my To Read list. A lot of titles coming up on That’s What She Read were nowhere near being on any sort of radar of mine. Last spring, I got into a wonderful habit (that I desperately miss, now, in the spring of 2020) of going to the Library every Saturday. I’d meander up and down the shelves, just spending time in silence, yet surrounded by different voices, and eventually I’d pick up like three or five books and bring them home, to be put on the pile of the other three or five books I’d taken out the week before, and on and on and on.

This particular title was in the math/statistics section in the nonfiction area. How did I end up there?

Who knows? As best as I can figure, I was probably looking for another nonfiction book after enjoying Bad Blood so completely – although that was probably due more to the whole Theranos/Elizabeth Holmes and the investigative journalism of it all, not the data and stats part.

But whatever. I came across this title, and thought it was a pun on “truthiness,” from my second-favorite political commentator, Stephen Colbert. But I also recognized the author – because yes, I remembered that one of the first nonfiction books I’d ever reviewed on this here site was Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea [or whatever it was] by this same person. I also remembered – more viscerally than literally – that I enjoyed the book, because Mr. Seife was able to explain very difficult, mathy concepts in a way that someone like me could understand.

Once I read the back (or inside cover – I can’t remember which) of the book, I was also intrigued how it purported to demonstrate how savvy people can manipulate data in order to prove whatever point they wanted. And even back in rose-colored-glasses 2019 (jesus christ I can’t believe 2019 was a cakewalk compared to this year), it was so important to be able to understand statistics and polling and how data can easily lie to us.

Did I have even an inkling about how important stats and math and data were going to become to our everyday lives barely a year after reading this book? Did I ever foresee a day when multiple, multiple people of various walks of life would have to come out and remind everyone that [reads notes scrawled on hand] … you don’t drink bleach?

ANYWAY.

Mr. Seife goes through a few concepts in the book: primarily, “Potemkin Numbers”; “Fruit Packing”; and “Causistry”. Then, once you know the basics, he talks you through how those concepts can affect elections and polling and all sorts of other things.

Sadly, this book was published in 2010. I really want to see if Mr. Seife is going to write a sequel.

The first concept Mr. Seife introduces us to are Potemkin Numbers.

They’re like actors dressed up in lab coats – they appear to be scientific, but they’re fake through and through. As a result, the numbers associated with these measurements are utterly devoid of meaning. They are fabricated statistics: Potemkin numbers. [p. 15]

[p. 15]

“Potemkin Numbers” are essentially data that looks okay from a distance; but once you dig into them, they fall apart – much like a baby stroller on the steps of the … of the ….

Fuck. I’m actually going to have to look up fucking Battleship fucking Potemkin to finish that joke, aren’t I. Goddammit.

THE STEPS OF THE ODESSA.

Okay. Luckily for my sanity, Mr. Seife’s metaphor doesn’t actually come from that scourge of film and political science classes, Battleship Potemkin:

According to legend, Prince Grigory Potemkin didn’t want the empress of Russia to know that a region in the Crimea was a barren wasteland. Potemkin felt he had to convince the empress that the area was thriving and full of life, so he constructed elaborate facades along her route – crudely painted wooden frameworks meant to look like villages and towns from afar. Even though these “Potemkin villages” were completely empty – a closer inspection would reveal them to be mere imitations of villages rather than real ones – they were good enough to fool the empress, who breezed by them without alighting from her carriage.

Potemkin numbers are the mathematical equivalent of Potemkin villages. They’re numerical facades that look like real data. Meaningful real-world numbers are tied to a reasonably solid measurement of some sort, at least implicitly. Potemkin numbers aren’t meaningful because either they are born out of a nonsensical measurement or they’re not tied to a genuine measurement at all, springing forth fully formed from a fabricator’s head. [p. 15]

[p. 15]

And then he provides us with a more modern example –

The Park Service, which was in charge of giving an official estimate of the crowd size [of Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March], was already feeling the pressure to inflate the numbers. “If we say [the crowd] was 250,000, we’ll be told it was a half-million,” a U.S. Park Police officer told the Washington Post shortly before the rally. “If we say it was a half-million, we’ll be told it was a million. Anything short of a million, and you can probably bet we’ll take some heat for it.” Nevertheless, the Park Service dutifully peered at aerial photos and counted heads in an attempt to size up the crowd. As predicted, when the official tally came in – 400,00 people, give or take 20 percent or so – a furious Farrakhan threatened to sue. [p. 16]

[p. 16]

GEE

WHY DOES THAT SOUND SO FUCKING FAMILIAR

Maybe this is why it seems like this fucking shit keeps happening all the goddamned time:

Using Potemkin numbers is the most overt form of proofiness. It takes the least skill to pull off. After all, it’s incredibly easy to fabricate a number that suits whatever argument you are trying to make.

[p. 18]

Lying is so easy, even a racist, bloated, smooth-brained tiny-handed straw-toupee-wearing weathered leather faced fungdark can do it (and also his entire administration).

The final quote from the section on Potemkin numbers is this:

(This is why Potemkin numbers are so common: 78 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.)

[p. 18]

Which is true, except that it’s actually 83% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

The next section of the book discusses something called “Causistry” – where a set of data points obviously points to something but when you dig deeper into the numbers, the cause and effect correlation is incredibly skewed.

For example: a study was conducted in 2007 to determine the growth of autism diagnoses in California over a seven-year period. What the study found was that the number of autism diagnoses had risen threefold over that period. The ensuing result was, OH NO, IT’S AN EPIDEMIC!

What the study failed to take into account was:

[…] over the same period there was a corresponding decrease in the diagnosis of undifferentiated “mental retardation” – suggesting that the rise is due to the labels that doctors put on a disease, rather than any change in the children who are being born. [p. 48-49]

[p. 48-49]

Ooo, do I want to even go near the “vaccines cause autism” discussion?

BLAMMO

The antivaccine activists note a correlation: children develop autism after they’re vaccinated. Yet there’s no causation there; in fact, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. (For example, the rising number of autism diagnoses that predate the MMR vaccine’s introduction in 1988 argues against an MMR-autism link; the preservative-autism link is undermined by the fact that Denmark’s autism incidence keeps rising even though the preservative was phased out in 1992.) Blaming vaccines for autism is nothing but casuistry.

[p. 49]

Note From The Future: Between when I originally wrote this (back in late May) and today, I have watched the latest Hannah Gadsby special Douglas. In it, she discusses her adult diagnosis of autism as well as the “vaccines cause autism” finger-quote “theory”. I highly recommend you watch Douglas when you get the chance – it’s amazingly well-written and FUNNY and Hannah Gadsby is AMAZING.

Oh, PS, while we’re still talking about medical stuff – if you’re not wearing a face mask when you go shopping because “a mask is a breeding ground for bacteria” or “it forces you to breathe in your own carbon dioxide” or whatever other excuse you want to spew along with your asymptomatic Rona virus that would allow you to congregate in groups of more than five people, you can seriously and sweetly go fuck yourself.

Okay, let’s change the subject to a topic that may not be as divisive? I don’t know, but at least I can talk about one of my own experiences (of a sort).

The topic is: Does marijuana cause schizophrenia? This question was not only asked in a legislative committee meeting last year regarding Maine’s adult use marijuana program rules, but the legislator believed it so wholeheartedly, that he tried to get “can cause schizophrenia” on the label of every marijuana product sold. (I don’t think it passed.)

The reason that guy believed that so strongly most likely comes down to marketing (but not from the adult cannabis community):

It is plausible (and there’s some evidence) that marijuana might trigger schizophrenia in some people, or perhaps exacerbate existing cases. However, there’s a large amount of evidence that people with mental illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other conditions – turn to drugs (and alcohol) as a means of lessening their symptoms, a phenomenon known as self-medication. However, “schizophrenia might make your kids smoke marijuana” is not nearly as scary as “marijuana might make your kids schizophrenic.”

[p. 51-52]

(When I’m offline and in person and no longer physical distancing from everyone, please buy me a beer and ask me about the marijuana schizophrenia guy. He’s a doozy.)

Mr. Seife goes into a discussion on risk, and using false numbers to lower one’s sense of risk. I don’t want to go into it too much, but I did want to post these two paragraphs, which is the culmination of a two-page discussion about fire insurance, selling insurance to numerous clients (to mitigate your risk), then selling fire insurance to risky clients (like smokers), and then selling all of your current insurance handlings to another firm that would handle the payouts – all as a way for you to make money, and lower the amount of risk that you personally carry. Anyway, here are the paragraphs:

The moment you sold your insurance contracts to another firm [the one that would pay out claims], you stopped caring whether those contracts were risky or not. Your income depends only on the number of clients you sign up, not on whether or not they burn down their houses and make claims. You no longer have incentive to maintain a safe risk pool; just the opposite, in fact. If you only sell to nonsmokers, you have fewer clients to choose from, and fewer contracts to sell to the big insurance firm. Instead, you should sell to smokers as well as nonsmokers, the better to drive the number of contracts up. You’ll make more money that way. Heck, you can make a profit by selling insurance to fire-eaters, people who try to deep-fry turkeys every Thanksgiving, and serial arsonists. So long as you dump the contracts to an unsuspecting firm before your clients immolate their houses, you’ll make money. For the scheme to work, though, you mustn’t let the big insurance firm know that you’re contaminating the risk pool – you have to pretend that the bundle of contracts is low-risk, when in fact it’s absolutely crawling with firebugs. If you do it right, money flows from the large insurance firm into your pocket, all thanks to your clever risk management.

Instead of “fire insurance,” use “mortgages,” and all of a sudden you’ve got a (slightly oversimplified) explanation of the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2007.

[p. 83]

I read the entirety of The Big Short. I watched the film adaptation of The Big Short. As much as I enjoy Michael Lewis as an author, these two paragraphs here explained the subprime mortgage crisis to me so much better than The Big Short.

Mr. Seife then discusses in brief how proofiness – using Potemkin numbers, Causistry, cherry-picking, fruit-packing, and other tricks the media pulls with data every day – leads directly into propaganda. And not only propaganda, but echo chambers like Fox News or the fringe pseudo-science YouTube shit that I’ve been seeing.

We no longer have to confront ideas that force us to reevaluate our positions. Instead, we can only listen to the ones we already agree with. We can wallow in our myths, undisturbed by the inconvenience of doubt. Gaining knowledge need no longer be the uncomfortable by-product of listening to the news.

[p. 235]

Also in this discussion is a brief interlude on how so-called neutral arbiters of journalism provide “balance” in a news cycle – and I would like to remind y’all that this book was published in 2010.

Reporters are trained to present a neutral point of view, presenting both sides of an argument in a balanced manner. However, when the argument is lopsided, with the vast preponderance of evidence supporting one side over the other, the reporter’s “balance” is just as phony as the debate – the journalist tends to give too much credence to proofiness-bolstered fringe ideas at the expense of those in the mainstream. No matter how ridiculous one side of the argument is, no matter how dependent it might be upon proofiness, the press dutifully broadcasts it and amplifies it, giving manufactured “facts” a life of their own.

[p. 229]

He closes his book with a paragraph that was probably an empty warning back in 2010, but in 2019 when I read the book (and today, in May of 2020, where I’m compiling these quotes into a so-called “review”) it sounds like a call to arms.

The understanding that real-world numbers come from imperfect measurements can inoculate you against Potemkin numbers, disestimation, and fruit-packing – it imparts a skepticism about where numbers come from, whether they’re trustworthy, and whether they’ve been presented in an honest and straightforward manner. A little mathematical sophistication – and a little practice – allows you to recognize errors of randumbness, causistry, and regression to the moon; once you get used to spotting phony patterns and false connections, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. You’ll see how advertisers pump up their products, how bureaucrats cover their failing projects, and how would-be prophets convince the unwary to believe meaningless predictions. And while mathematical knowledge won’t stop businesses from ruining the economy, politicians from stealing elections, and court officers from undermining our justice system, it will prevent the malefactors from getting away unobserved.

Mathematical sophistication is the only antidote to proofiness, and our degree of knowledge will determine whether we succumb to proofiness or fight against it. It’s more than mere rhetoric; our democracy may well rise or fall by the numbers.

[p/ 242]

YEAH. NO SHIT, SEIFE.

[PS the Guster Reading Challenge for Proofiness is “Rise and Shine” off of the Satellite EP, for “Spending a morning reading a book and take credit for it here.”]

Grade for Proofiness: 4.5 stars

Fiction: “City of Ash” by Megan Chance

city of ash

I have had a hard time this last year knowing what I wanted to read when I went to the library. (Note From the Future: This year, the library is closed due to a freaking pandemic, so I don’t have that problem anymore.) I keep a list of “Want To Read” books on Goodreads, but when I get to the library and am going through that list, everything just comes up “meh” to me. I enjoy reading historical fiction, but I do not want to read about World War II. I like the Victorian time period, but I still don’t feel right bringing a silly little romance novel to work to read on my lunch break. (Note From The Future: Oh that’s sweet! Remember when you worked in an office?!) And I haven’t been able to enjoy reading thrillers or mysteries for a while – mainly because the world is so fucking terrible, I am trying to infuse joy into everything I do.

(Note From the Future: Holy shit I wrote this so long ago and the world is not only fucking terrible, but the terrible seemed to skyrocket this weekend. Be safe, everyone.)

(Which is why I will NEVAH apologize for enjoying the reboot of Dynasty so. damn. much.)

So one Saturday in April (Saturday is Library Day for me now, and I love that I have that as a routine), I was wandering the fiction aisles and picking up so many books that looked slightly interesting according to their spine, but then when I read the back of those books I found that they were Christian Romance novels*. And when I got to the “C” section and found this book, by the same author who wrote Susannah Morrow and Prima Donna, I was so exhausted of looking that I said “Fuck it, I’ll give this one a shot”.

*I admit that I have a built-in, untried prejudice against Christian Romance novels. It comes from my personal beliefs and distrust of religion. I’m sure some of them are very well-written; clearly, judging by the fact that the Auburn Public Library appears to have cornered the market on them, seeing as how there are full series of them on nearly every shelf, the genre is also very very popular. Look, if one of my (three) readers have read one and can recommend one to me to try, I’ll do that. But until that day comes, I will be the one picking up the book and going, “Oooh, this looks good – dammit, Bethany Books!” in my local library.

City of Ash is historical fiction, taking place in Seattle in the late 1880s. Geneva Langley, wife of Nathan Langley and daughter of the founder of Stratford Mining, was the toast of Chicago Society. She hosted salons to discuss art, music, and theatre, and was the muse and patron of many the artist. Nathan, passionate at the beginning of their marriage, has grown cold and aloof. He aspires to get into politics, using his father-in-law’s blessing, money, and reputation. Ginny sees that the love in her marriage is gone, and in hopes of being given a divorce from Nathan, agrees to sit for a sculpture by the very-up-and-coming sculptor, Jean-Claude Marat.

On the night of the unveiling of the sculpture, everyone is scandalized – clearly, it is Ginny’s face and nude body memorialized in the marble, and everyone immediately assumes that Ginny and Marat had had an affair. Instead of granting her a divorce, Nathan provides a choice: either be institutionalized, or go west with him to Seattle, where he can run the Stratford Mining division there while running for office. Not wanting to be sent to an asylum, she goes to Seattle with Nathan.

Society in Seattle has already heard of her transgressions, and does not welcome Ginny, nor provide her the fresh start she was hoping for. Instead, she secludes herself in her and Nathan’s home, trying to be as well-behaved as possible. She longs for her salon days back in Chicago, but she wants to be perceived as the perfect little wife for hers and Nathan’s sake.

One night, Nathan brings her tickets to the local theatre, as a present for not causing any more scandal (and really, how could she? Stuck in the house all day, reading novels and conferring with the cook about meals, she really didn’t have any opportunities for scandal if she tried). They go see a melodrama about pirates, and Ginny has her first happy evening in months. She meets the Readings, society people who are actually kind of nice to her, and she learns that Mr. Reading has paid another local theatre troupe to be allowed to play Brutus in a performance of Julius Caesar. (Remember kids, Theatre is Bad News Bears for Society People – the jerks. You can watch theatre, but step foot on the boards for even a second and clearly you are a depraved person whose soul is in need of cleansing.)

Nathan decides to invest in the Regal Theatre, and one night brings home a playwright, Sebastian DeWitt, to meet with Ginny and discuss a play he has written. Ginny is honored that Nathan has thought of her in such a way, and reads the play and meets with DeWitt. She loves the play and encourages Nathan to sponsor it for production at the Regal.

A few weeks pass; and Ginny meets with DeWitt a few more times to discuss the play. One night they go to a performance of … something, I can’t remember, and I’m not looking it up at this point – but anyway, they stop at a pub for a beer before returning to Ginny’s house. Nothing happens, but DeWitt is very uncomfortable.

Nathan asks Ginny if she’d like to perform in the play that DeWitt has written. At first she hesitates, but then agrees – it’s always been an unacknowledged dream of hers to act, and she’d love the opportunity. So Nathan goes to the theatre and pays to allow Ginny to perform the lead role of Penelope Justis, the play that DeWitt has written.

MEANWHILE.

The night they went to see the pirate melodrama, Nathan took notice of the second lead actress, Bea Wilkes. He comes back night after night, watching her. Bea is 29 years old, and has never had the lead role – she’s almost had it a number of times, but either another actress has cozied up to the manager or brought in a rich patron or who knows what, she hasn’t had the lead yet. So when Bea takes the notice of Nathan, she thinks “maybe this is her chance.”

Additionally, Sebastian DeWitt has approached her and told her that he has written a play for her – for her talents, and he intends for her to play the lead role. Of Penelope Justis.

Bea and Nathan have an affair, but it is not a romantic one. Nathan will claim Bea after the performance is over and pretty much ravage her back in her hotel room. Bea feels that he is punishing someone else through her, and she does not entertain any thoughts of him leaving his wife for her. She is using him too, in hopes of having that lead role she wants so desperately. Nathan does leave her presents – butterfly hairpins, and a gorgeous blue cloak.

And just when Bea thinks she’s suffered enough, and she’s been rehearsing as Penelope for a few weeks – Nathan announces that his wife will be playing the lead role.

Ginny and Bea meet, and it does not. go. well. Bea is mortified that she actually placed faith that her role wouldn’t be taken away, and takes her anger and mortification out on Ginny. Ginny tries to get in her good graces, but having never acted before, she slows rehearsal down, which makes things worse.

One day at rehearsal, Bea actually lets it slip that she’s been fucking Nathan. And Ginny does not storm off, but instead pushes down her anger and betrayal to continue to perform the scene. She confronts Nathan about it when she gets home and asks to have Bea removed from the production –

“Well, I don’t demand that you have her let go, of course. But I should think it might ruin your political ambitions.”

“What has one to do with the other?”

“I imagine it would be quite the scandal if it was discovered that the head of Stratford and Brown was having an affair with a second-rate actress.” [p. 173]

But instead of getting angry, he asks if Ginny’s feeling well, and insinuates that she’s suffering from a delusion.

The next day, Bea is dismissed from the production of Penelope Justis, but remains in the company. Nathan takes Bea out for dinner that night at one of the hoitiest places in Seattle, and at his request, wears the hairpins and cloak Nathan had given her. During dinner, Nathan asks Bea to perform a scene from a play where the lead role accuses her husband of having an affair and descending into madness. Buying into his flattery, Bea agrees, though she feels a bit uncomfortable about performing in front of people who may not realize that she is performing, y’know? But she does, and at one point a doctor comes over to ask if she’s all right or needs help, and Nathan instead walks Bea out of the restaurant – while she’s still acting the scene – and says, “I just need to get my wife home to bed.”

Because yes – Bea and Ginny look very alike – same height, brown hair, same posture. So it is very easy for strangers to mistake one for the other.

Which is exactly what Nathan wanted – a way to get Ginny put in that asylum for good. He arranged everything – the patronage of Sebastian DeWitt’s play; having Ginny meet Reading and plant the seed of her performing (which again, is a Bad Thing for Society Ladies to Do); allow Ginny to become friendly with DeWitt, hoping she would have another affair. Of course, Nathan didn’t realize that DeWitt was in love with Bea Wilkes, but he also doesn’t really care about that.

The day of the Seattle Fire, before rehearsal, Ginny is looking for something in Nathan’s study and finds a letter to Nathan from her father, agreeing with Nathan that something must be done about Ginny. They are apparently waiting for another doctor’s diagnosis in order to truly commit her. Ginny comes up with a plan to escape Seattle before that happens, and goes to rehearsal in hopes of finding DeWitt.

But after rehearsal, the Great Seattle Fire happens, burning everything in the business district to the ground – including the Regal Theatre. Bea and Ginny escape together, putting aside their differences in order to survive. When they make it past the burn line, Ginny has come up with another plan – to be dead, so she can escape.

She and Bea talk about their mutual experiences with Nathan, and learn the extent of his manipulations. Ginny breaks into her house to find cash to facilitate her escape, with Bea acting as lookout, but Nathan comes home unexpectedly. Nathan runs into Bea, and he is very concerned that he has not been able to find Ginny since the fire. Bea consoles him, long enough for Ginny to get away with the cash – except there is no cash, Nathan’s safe is cleaned out.

And then they come up together with another idea. With Ginny truly dead, Nathan would gain control of all of her assets – and Nathan does not have his own money to speak of. Wouldn’t it be better if Nathan were declared insane, and committed, and then Ginny could come back from the dead (suffering from amnesia all this time!) and take control of her life again?

Well, wouldn’t you know it – that’s almost the plot of Penelope Justis. Which Nathan has never read or seen performed.

Perfect.

I thought the book started off very slowly. It took me about a month to read it from start to finish – although in my defense, April & May have been very busy months at work, and there have been many a day where I couldn’t read on my lunch break, because I didn’t have a lunch break, I had to drive down to the State House and wait for the work sessions on bills to begin. (May was a hangry month for Alaina, y’all.) I also went to London for 30 hours, and I don’t bring library books on vacations, so I didn’t even pick the book up for a few days in there. Once the fire happened and Ginny and Bea started working together, the plot picked up a lot.

Before I end this, can we talk about Sebastian DeWitt’s name and how much it inspires Addison DeWitt and how much I hope that wasn’t a coincidence?!

[Bea] laughed. “Sebastian DeWitt. That cannot possibly be your real name.”

“Why not?”

“Too improbable. Sebastian – he was a saint of some kind, wasn’t he?”

He looked surprised. “You’re Catholic?”

“Oh no. We did a play once. ‘Slay me not with words but with your arrows –‘”

“’And to my true heaven my soul will fly.’ I know it.”

“And then, of course, there’s the DeWitt. What a name for a writer. Are you witty, Mr. DeWitt?” [p. 207]

YOU GUYS. I fucking LOVE Addison DeWitt. I want to BE Addison DeWitt when I grow up. Before I die, I will stage a production of All About Eve, and not only will I *NOT ALLOW* Addison DeWitt to speak with A SOUTHERN ACCENT HOW DARE YOU, but I will direct myself as Addison DeWitt, because he is THE BEST PART in that play.

Anyways. The book was okay – it was a slow starter, I felt. But it wasn’t terrible. So, I dunno – two stars, I guess? I’ll give it an extra half star because it made me think of Addison DeWitt and that always makes me happy.

Also, the Guster Reading Challenge song for this book was “Getting Even” off of Goldfly, for reading “a book about revenge.”

Grade for City of Ash: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “What Happens in London” by Julia Quinn

What Happens in LondonThis book is, I think, one of the best “silly little romance novels” I’ve ever read.

This book follows The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever and focuses on Miranda’s best friend (and Turner’s sister) Olivia. It takes place a couple of years or so after the first book – Miranda and Turner’s daughter has been born, and I believe they are expecting a second child – and Olivia is on her third season in London on the marriage market. She has refused numerous offers because they just didn’t feel right, and the gossip is now wondering if she’s waiting for a prince.

Sir Harry Valentine – not a prince – has just begun renting the house directly to the south of Olivia’s and her parents, and when the novel begins, Olivia has heard gossip from her friends about Harry – namely, that he killed his fiancee.

“They say he killed his first wife.”

It was enough to make Lady Olivia Bevelstoke cease stirring her tea. “Who?” she asked, since the truth was, she hadn’t been listening.

“Sir Harry Valentine. Your new neighbor.”

Olivia took a hard look at Anne Buxton, and then at Mary Cadogan, who was nodding her head in agreement. “You must be joking,” she said, although she knew quite well that Anne would never joke about something like that. Gossip was her lifeblood.

“No, he really is your new neighbor,” put in Philomena Waincliff.

Olivia took a sip of her tea, mostly so that she would have time to keep her face free of its desired expression, which was a cross between unabashed exasperation and disbelief. “I meant that she must be joking that he killed someone,” she said, with more patience than she was generally given credit for. [p. 20]

(If that passage doesn’t make you think of this –

clue threatened in public.jpg

– I’m not sure we can be friends any longer.)

Olivia feels that this is balderdash, and she does the only sensible thing – begins spying on him through her bedroom window, which looks directly into his study.

Harry Valentine was an officer in the Army; now he works for the War Office, translating documents. He speaks Russian fluently, as his grandmother was from Russia and refused to speak English around him and his siblings. Harry knows immediately that Olivia is spying on him, and instead of calling her out on it or closing the window, he decides to have fun with her, and puts on a large, funny hat while he does his translations.

This makes Olivia very confused, but no less determined to find out what’s up with her neighbor.

They are thrust together when Harry is ordered by the War Office to keep an eye on Prince Alexei from Russia – who has taken a liking to Olivia Bevelstoke.

Harry introduces himself to Olivia officially at one of the balls everyone goes to, and they have a fun, bantery conversation wherein they each basically tell the other that they don’t like them. But the next day Harry comes over to Olivia’s house and gifts her with a book (Olivia primarily reads newspapers, she doesn’t really appreciate flights of fancy): Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron.

Against her will, she starts reading it. Then I think one day she flings open her window and yells to Sir Harry – who is in his own study across the way – that a character in the book got pecked to death by pigeons. They make a deal that Harry will read the book if she finishes it, and with that, a friendship is born without either of them really recognizing it.

And then, one day, we have a farce.

Harry comes over to work at Olivia’s house, because he flat-out states that he doesn’t want her alone with Prince Alexei. He can’t tell her why he hates him so much, because that would mean he’d have to admit to her that he can speak Russian fluently and that also he works for the War Office but also he’d have to tell her the nasty things Alexei has said he wants to do to her, and that’s really the part that wins out. Olivia agrees, mainly because he gives her no option. They start talking, and have a very nice conversation where they each tell the other secrets about themselves, and before they know it, they’re making out on the couch. Olivia has to go upstairs to fix her hair (because Harry had run his hands all through it), so he stays in the drawing room (or wherever), and then Prince Alexei and Vladimir show up.

Alexei doesn’t like Harry equally, so Harry hides behind the copy of Miss Butterworth that Olivia left behind. Prince Alexei (1) demands to know what Harry is reading, and then (2) demands to have Harry read it aloud to him.

At this point, Harry’s cousin Sebastian walks in, is very amused that Harry is reading aloud Miss Butterworth to a prince, but then tells him he’s doing it wrong, so he takes the book out of Harry’s hand and now Sebastian is reading Miss Butterworth aloud.

When Olivia finally comes downstairs, Sebastian’s audience has grown to include Harry’s brother Edward, Olivia’s butler, and three maids. Harry and Olivia sneak off to make out some more, but then there’s a loud CRASH. When they return, Sebastian has fallen off a coffee table (while acting out Miss Butterworth’s hanging from a cliff) and dislocated his shoulder.

This book is so funny. I mean, this entire conversation is a gem:

“‘Purview’ is not used correctly,” Prince Alexei said. [NOTE: this is a running gag about the first paragraph of Miss Butterworth.]

Sebastian looked up, his eyes flashing with irritation. “Of course it is.” [NOTE: this will be funnier in the next book.]

Alexei jabbed a finger in Harry’s direction. “He said it is not.”

“It’s not,” Harry said with a shrug.

“What’s wrong with it?” Sebastian demanded.

“It implies that what she sees is under her power or control.”

“How do you know it’s not?”

“I don’t,” Harry admitted, “but she doesn’t seem in control of anything else.” He looked over at the prince. “Her mother was pecked to death by pigeons.”

“That happens,” Alexei said with a nod. [p. 168]

Here’s what else I liked about it – no subterfuge! Okay, yeah, Harry can speak Russian and he didn’t tell Olivia about it, but that was it. No pre-marital sexing that resulted in a maybe-baby forcing the two into marriage early! (Yes, there was one instance of pre-marital sexing, but before the actual deed, they both admitted that a) they love each other and b) they will be married, although Olivia wanted a proper proposal.) None of the “I don’t know if I can tell her I love her / I don’t want to have children to spite my father” bullshit from the other two Julia Quinn novels I just read.

It is SO REFRESHING to have the hero and the heroine fall in love with each other honestly and not have a pregnancy at the end. (I’m fine with the traditional Epilogue, I guess – you know, the kind that shows that the couple is either expecting a child, or the woman is telling the man that she’s expecting, or the couple has a brood. I don’t like it, because I still wish that there would be more historical romances where children weren’t the desired outcome, but seeing as how I read historical romances and this has been a requirement for practically forever, I’m … I guess I’m okay with it.)

I mean, how can you not enjoy this book when Harry asks for Olivia’s hand of her father with this:

“I love your daughter,” Harry said. “And I like her very much as well.” [p. 236]

i love you and i like you.gif

Even better news – you absolutely can read this book without reading The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. You should also read the next book in the series, which stars Sebastian. But you’ll see that book, Ten Things I Love About You, in a few months (or another year, who knows) on this very blog.

I almost forgot – this book’s Guster track is … a song I don’t think I’ve actually ever heard. It’s “Scars and Stitches,” off of their first album, Parachute, and it’s for “reading a used book, the more banged-up, the better.” I don’t know how “banged-up” my copy was, but … it’ll do.

Grade for What Happens In London: 5 stars

Fiction: “The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever” by Julia Quinn

Secret DiariesLast May, I went to London for 30 hours.

No, for real, I did.

I went to see Gillian Anderson play Margo Channing in a stage production of All About Eve. While I was there, I also tried to sit on the same bench that Daniel Craig sat on in the National Gallery in Skyfall, while staring at “The Fighting Temeraire” and waiting for Q to show up. It was a crazy adventure – but this blog post is not about that.

This blog post is about the romance novel I read on the plane and in Heathrow waiting for my other plane to depart.

Going to a foreign country for only 30 hours, I wanted to pack light. I brought my purse, which is big enough to hold a nightshirt, a set of leggings and a dress, and an extra pair of socks and underwear. I wore the same outfit flying out of Boston and flying back into Boston, and switched into the dress (wrinkle-resistant!) and leggings to go to the theatre. I slept in the leggings and nightshirt (although I was super cold, and couldn’t figure out the hotel thermostat so I’m pretty sure I slept in my plane shirt too). But since I was looking at two six-hour-plus flights (plus tube rides, plus bus rides to and from Logan), I didn’t want to carry three paperbacks with me, either.

So I borrowed The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever as an e-book through my library, and brought the next book in the series (which I owned) as the sole paperback book on my trip. And let me tell ya – I went through security like a dream.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever is a separate series from Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series – soon to be a Netflix series, produced in part by Shonda Rhimes, and, spoiler alert, I read The Duke and I recently and maaaan do I have opinions on that one. Anyway. Secret Diaries is the first in what is known as the “Bevelstoke” series.

We meet Miss Miranda Cheever at the tender age of 10, attending the birthday party of her best friend, Olivia Bevelstoke, and Olivia’s twin brother, Winston. Olivia’s older brother, Nigel (but don’t call him that – he goes by Turner) accompanies Miranda home to her father after the party and they share a conversation that Miranda memorizes, because she realizes that she is in love with Turner. She begins journaling, at his recommendation, and it is a habit she keeps through the next ten years. (Hence, the “secret diaries”.)

Ten years later, Turner’s wife, Leticia, has died – and by all accounts, Leticia was a terrible human being – she cheated on Turner all the frickin’ time, and when she died (thrown from her horse), she was pregnant with another man’s child. Turner does not mourn Leticia at all, and even hesitates to go through the whole mourning phase. Miranda, meanwhile, is living with the Bevelstokes in preparation for her season in London.

Turner likes Miranda – he thinks she’s funny, and a good friend to Olivia. His feelings go no further than that – until he starts recognizing that Miranda is no longer a child. She goes downstairs one night in hopes of getting a drink of sherry to help her sleep, and comes upon Turner in the study, drinking much more than a single glass. She is surprised by his presence and drops her glass, which shatters. She is about to leave when she steps on a splinter of glass, and Turner helps to dislodge it – and then they make out on the divan that always happens to be in a study.

Following that incident, they try to avoid each other. Additionally, Olivia has been trying to match Miranda with Winston, to no avail. The entire group of people end up at a week-long house party in the country, and when the hostess starts a treasure hunt and pairs people up randomly, Olivia is paired with Turner and Miranda is paired with a lord, and Olivia wants to switch. Not being able to tell her best friend that that’s probably a bad idea, considering the making out Turner and Miranda got into, they acquiesce.

One of the clues of the treasure hunt leads Turner and Miranda to a hunting lodge on the property, and then a rainstorm starts, and they have to take refuge and, well … “isolated cabin in the woods” is a romance novel trope for good reason.

Turner agrees to marry Miranda (for taking her maidenhead, after all – and don’t get me started on that), but Miranda senses reluctance. Turner asks her to notify him in case she gets pregnant, and they both return to the party and their self-imposed separation.

Miranda makes up an excuse to go back to her father’s house, and Turner goes to visit a friend in Kent. And here’s where I started taking issue with the plot.

(First of all, you may be wondering, “Hey, Alaina, how are you remembering so much detail about the plot, considering you read this book almost eight months ago [Note From The Future: It has now been officially one year since I went to London. Goddammit, I thought I’d be better at this by now], and you were on a plane while reading it, and probably weren’t able to take notes?” Well, dear reader, I re-borrowed the e-book from the library and re-read it in February 2020 [NFTF: which is when I wrote this review in the first place, and then because of my stupid “don’t post until you have three reviews in the can” rule, I’m now posting this review more than a fucking year after I read it the first time; why am I so bad at this].)

And when I say “take issue with the plot,” I re-read Secret Diaries in close succession to finally getting through The Duke and I, which, when taken together, have very similar plot devices – namely, what I am going to call “Schrodinger’s pregnancy.”

So – Miranda goes home to be with her father (an absent-minded Greek scholar; he doesn’t really participate in any of these events. I don’t think he even has any dialogue). Olivia comes and visits her because she’s bored, and while there, Miranda is “late” and has a touch of morning sickness. Olivia convinces Miranda to go visit Miranda’s grandparents in Edinburgh and kind of hide out, while waiting for whoever knocked her up to come and find her. Once Miranda’s safely ensconced (with some very understanding grandparents, given that this is taking place in the 1820s), Olivia returns to London.

At this point, Turner returns to London to find Miranda missing. He asks Olivia where she is, and when she insinuates that Miranda is less than healthy (though doesn’t mention the pregnancy, which — good on you, Olivia), Turner goes berserk and demands to know where she is. At which point Olivia realizes that Turner is the cad who knocked Miranda up and she starts punching him and tells him to go to Edinburgh.

But when Turner gets there, and proposes again, this time more for real than at the cabin, Miranda turns him down. Because a) she lost the baby (if there was even a baby to begin with), and b) she believes he is only proposing because he thinks there was a baby.

And look, a similar type of thing happens in The Duke and I – the couple sleep together (they happen to be married by that point, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing), and then the dude takes off for a time, and comes back when he finds out she is/was pregnant. By the time he returns, the woman has lost the baby and they need to figure out how to carry on.

I just – I am not a fan of “pregnancy as plot device”. Maybe I watched too many soap operas growing up (okay, only one, but I watched All My Children for years), but “fake pregnancies” are super manipulative on both viewers and characters’ emotions. And while these books don’t go into true “fake pregnancy” territory, using the promise of a child to get two characters back together is just … icky.

Anyway. Miranda and Turner marry in spite of the Schrodinger’s baby (hm – maybe I should stop using “Schrodinger” so much), and the last third of the book deals with Turner’s inability to voice his emotions properly to Miranda, because he told Leticia he loved her and look how that turned out, so instead of telling Miranda he loves her (which he does), he says shit like “I adore being married to you,” and “I love the way you make me feel”, which – bullshit.

(This was also a problem for the male lead in The Duke and I.)

And then at the end of the book, when Miranda has given birth to a beautiful baby girl and then starts hemorrhaging and almost dies, that’s when Turner finds he is able to say those “three little words”.

The more I think about how this whole plotline went, the angrier I get. Which is too bad, because baby town frolics and declarations of emotions shenanigans aside, I think the relationship between Turner and Miranda is good and cute and bantery, which is what Julia Quinn specializes in. Maybe I’m too “modern” for this type of plot now.

Whatever. The book was okay – I was able to read it completely between one flight and waiting for the next. I may have finished it on-board the flight back to Boston, but I can’t recall. (I do know I watched Ralph Breaks The Internet and took two naps while watching it on the flight home.) This book is also not the worst historical romance novel I’ve ever read (that still remains Gypsy Lord).

If I remember correctly, the next book in the series has no such baby-slash-love problems, so I know this isn’t a Julia Quinn problem. I think it’s been a while since I’ve read a romance novel where this is the struggle between the male and female leads, and I was taken aback when I read the book again.

Two more things, and then I’m done:

1) This book’s entry for the Guster Reading Challenge is “Simple Machine,” off of Evermotion, for “reading a digital book.”

2) The “secret diaries” aren’t really a plot device – it’s just the journals that Miranda keeps. Throughout the book you’ll see entries, but it’s not like it’s a plot point.

Grade for The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever: 2 stars

Non-Fiction: “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou

Bad BloodY’know how I … tend to get obsessed, with things?

Okay, yeah, I know … shut up.

Last spring I became obsessed with the Elizabeth Holmes story. I do not know how or when I first learned of Holmes. I do remember that at the time, a whole mess of information was coming out about Elizabeth Holmes and her former company, Theranos – an ABC news special, an HBO documentary, and this book.

I remember going home from a visit to my parents’ house one night and watching the ABC special on demand.

I watched a two-hour news special on demand. Me. The girl who keeps rewatching Bob’s Burgers because she doesn’t like watching anything new anymore.

And then I listened to the accompanying podcast, “The Dropout”. ME. LISTENED TO A PODCAST. Prior to this story, the only other podcasts I’d ever listened to were Welcome to Night Vale and My Dad Wrote a Porno.

(I have since expanded my podcast listens to include the Try Guys’ Trypod and Dial M for Maple, “The A/V Club’s deep dive look into Riverdale.” And yes, I am INCREDIBLY disappointed that there is no such podcast for Dynasty.

Anyway, if you’re a person who likes podcasts and non-fiction and true crime shit, I would recommend “The Dropout”, because in my head, white-collar crime is also “true crime”. “True crime” doesn’t always have to be about murders!

But if you don’t like podcasts, don’t listen.)

And then I requested this book from the library and devoured it. (I’ll take care of this now, because it’s an organic way to bring it up, but this book’s Guster reading challenge is the song I didn’t really like at first but it has fucking grown on me, “Overexcited” off of their most recent album, Look Alive, for ‘reading a book I could not wait to get my hands on’.)

Bad Blood is by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou, who specializes in pharmaceutical and health-related news. Theranos was the brainchild of Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout after a single semester. She had an idea that she was going to revolutionize blood testing: she would create a device that would have the ability to perform numerous tests on a single drop of blood, eliminating the need for traditional blood draws at labs and hospitals.

She was able to invest a whole lot of money from very wealthy investors, including Ramesh “Sunny” Bulwani, who became … I want to say, vice president and maybe CFO? of Theranos, as well as boyfriend of Holmes. Holmes and Bulwani kept their relationship a secret from employees and investors. Neither Holmes nor Bulwani had any medical research training; Bulwani’s background was in tech and investing, and Holmes was, again, a Stanford dropout.

She idolized Steve Jobs, to the point where her uniform was all black, including a black turtleneck. She purposely lowered her voice, and would speak in a deeper register – I can’t remember if Carreyrou addresses it in his book, but my assumption is Holmes spoke deeper than normal in an effort to get rich, powerful men to take her seriously. And they did – investors in her product included Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, Rupert Murdoch, just to name a few.

Here’s the problem with Theranos: the technology didn’t work. It didn’t exist.

And Theranos covered that up with lies.

Oh, the lies!! Theranos entered into a contract with Walgreens to have wellness centers in all Walgreens across the country. Ideally, a patient would go to a Walgreens, get their finger pricked, draw one or two drops of blood, and that would go into the Theranos machine (called an “Edison,” because Elizabeth Holmes’s hubris knew no bounds), and the patient would get results within an hour. And it could be any test! A1C, cholesterol, white blood counts, you name it – the idea was, any test, any time, done at Walgreens, for cheap.

But the tech didn’t work. But wellness centers were open in southern California and parts of Arizona. So instead of admitting the product wasn’t there yet, Theranos went forward – and did traditional blood draws. Then FedEx’d – FEDEX’D – the blood sample to their lab in Palo Alto. Where, in many cases, they didn’t even test the sample on Theranos machines – they used commercial Siemens machines to do the analysis!

Holmes and Bulwani would not hear any negative feedback on the product whatsoever.

Anjali [a lab tech at Theranos] repeated her concerns [to Elizabeth]: the Edison’s error rate was too high and the nanotainer [the cartridge the blood was injected into] still had problems. Why not wait until the 4S was ready? Why rush to launch now? she asked.

“Because when I promise something to a customer, I deliver,” Elizabeth replied.

That response made no sense to Anjali. Walgreens was just a business partner. Theranos’s ultimate customers would be the patients who came to Walgreens stores and ordered its blood tests thinking they could rely on them to make medical decisions. Those were the customers Elizabeth should be worrying about. [p. 172-173]

And they continued to use their lies to gain funding from investors. They told people that Theranos devices were being used in the military, in helicopters in Afghanistan, and in hospitals. Again, those were lies – Theranos devices weren’t working anywhere.

Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood. As Holmes herself liked to point out in media interviews and public appearances at the height of her fame, doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized. [p. 297]

Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes found themselves the recipient of a class-action suit made up of Theranos patients-slash-customers who received incorrect medical results from a Theranos test. One woman’s results worried her doctors that her cancer had come back with a vengeance. Another was a doctor, I believe, who was getting preventative bloodwork done and was told he was pre-diabetic. When both of them got their blood re-tested, it came back normal and healthy – no cancer, no pre-diabetes.

The number of test results Theranos voided or corrected in California and Arizona eventually reached nearly 1 million. The harm done to patients from all those faulty tests is hard to determine. Ten patients have filed lawsuits alleging consumer fraud and medical battery. One of them alleges that Theranos’s blood tests failed to detect his heart disease, leading him to suffer a preventable heart attack. The suits have been consolidated into a putative class action in federal court in Arizona. Whether the plaintiffs are able to prove injury in court remains to be seen.

These are horrifying results. And I think one of the reasons I became obsessed with this story is because at its root, this story is of rich, oblivious people making money off of people and making it seem like the hurt they are causing should be construed as benevolence.

Elizabeth Holmes had an idea – an unworkable idea – okay, to be fair, an idea that maybe could come to fruition with numerous tests and capable people handling the tech and decision-making. But no one on her board of directors had a medical degree. Most of the people she had working with her came from tech, not medicine. And instead of going through the scientific process, working her idea as much as possible until it came to fruition, or realizing that the idea wasn’t workable and quietly giving up and moving on to something that would be, she decided to … I don’t know, attempt to will her idea into happening just by talking about it.

“I’m helping people!” she wanted to yell – but she was wrapping all of her employees up in devastating non-disclosure agreements and threatened to sue them within an inch of their life if they disclosed what they knew about Theranos. “I’m revolutionizing the medical profession” – and then she hired Chiat/Day, the advertising agency who created iconic ads for Apple (Steve Jobs again), and when Chiat/Day informed her about truth in advertising, and informed her that unless the machine was conducting hundreds of tests at this time, they couldn’t state that in ad copy, Theranos quietly dropped the agency.

[This is from John Carreyrou, discussing a conversation with Theranos’s lawyers] Although they continued to argue strenuously that my reporting was flawed and inaccurate, Boies and King made two key admissions during this second meeting that strengthened our hand. Acknowledging for the first time that Theranos didn’t run all of its blood tests on its proprietary devices, Boies described the transition to doing so as “a journey” that would take the company some time to complete. The second came after I brought up several recent wording changes I’d noticed on the Theranos website. One in particular seemed telling: the sentence “Many of our tests require only a few drops of blood” had been deleted. When I asked why, King inadvertently blurted out that she assumed it was for “marketing accuracy.” (Later, she would insist she never pronounced those words.)  [p. 272]

This is the final paragraph of the book:

A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew. I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it. [p. 299]

I appreciate stories where the bad rich guy gets their comeuppance. It is rare in this day and age. And even so, who’s to say she’ll get what she truly deserves? As of late January, 2020, Elizabeth Holmes has settled with federal securities regulators to the tune of a $500,000 fine, and also settled an investor lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. She is seen in San Jose federal court as her criminal case progresses; but as for that civil class-action suit in Arizona, she represented herself over the telephone for one hearing, because the law firm that was representing her quit due to lack of payment.

I don’t know how Elizabeth Holmes’s story will end. But I will be watching.

Grade for Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup: 5 stars

Fiction: “Wonder Woman: The New 52” by Brian Azzarello and others

I do not consider myself to be a comic book nerd. I went to most of the Marvel movies (usually with my Dad), and I remember reading Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics he would let me borrow, but I never really read past that.

I was a Marvel kid – if you can call non-comic-book-nerd-me that at all. And I couldn’t tell you when I learned about Wonder Woman, or what made me like Wonder Woman; all I know is that I’ve just … really liked her.

In … late 2012, early 2013, maybe? I know I was working at Torrid in the mall, because I bought a bunch of these issues at Newbury Comics down the hall from my store – but anyway, DC Comics decided to reboot their entire line of comics. All of them. From Batman down to … I dunno, whatever hero the CW is going to go with to replace Arrow? Anyway, I purchased probably a good two and a half of these volumes when they were the actual comics, and I still have them here, in my house – in fact, I believe they are in a plastic tub in the library, waiting for their permanent home. (No, I haven’t finished unpacking. I will get to it. Eventually. If you want to know why I haven’t invited you to my house, it’s because I don’t want Judgy McJudgerson looking around at my half-empty tubs of things that still need to be unpacked and then glancing at me in pity. I’VE BEEN BUSY, LEAVE ME ALONE)

Anyway. At the same time as I was catching up with the Hawkeye series, I was also catching up on the Wonder Woman series that was relaunched again, somewhere between 2011 and 2013 that was branded as “the New 52,” referring to the 52 different heroes and book titles that DC had to reboot.

And I was excited – you know me, I love origin stories! Or, at least, reading series from the beginning! And again, I knew I liked Wonder Woman, and I knew she had a lasso of truth and bulletproof bracelets and an invisible jet, and she didn’t kill people, and as far as I could tell she didn’t turn to crime-fighting because someone murdered her parents in an alley after the opera (or whatever); but I didn’t know where she came from. So I appreciated that The New 52 would provide an origin for me to begin with Wonder Woman.

Hoo boy, did it seem convoluted at times.

Long story (six compilation volumes long) short (I’m trying): In this version of lore, Wonder Woman/Diana was not formed from clay because Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, wanted a child; Diana was the product of a liaison between Hippolyta and Zeus. Hera, Zeus’ wife, is extremely jealous of all of Zeus’s children conceived with other women. The story begins when Hera sends a couple of her minions to kill the latest girl Zeus impregnated, Zola. Hermes is there to protect her, and he sends Zola to Diana for safekeeping.

The plot appears to be a pretty banal, “protect the pregnant woman from assassins” type of deal. But as you read, you learn that Zola and her child are just pawns in a plot to take down the entire Greek pantheon of gods – Zeus’s first son, an unnamed, quasi-Titan who had been banished to … I dunno, Antarctica, let’s say, has resurfaced and is making a play for the throne. Zeus is missing. Apollo is getting his family together – including Ares, Strife, and Artemis – to call a council and determine a successor to Olympia, who he hopes to be himself. And also, Diana is there.

See, there’s a prophecy – there’s always a prophecy – that one of Zeus’s children will kill another. And they seem to think it’s Zola’s baby that will do that, which is why there are so many people aside from Hera interested in killing Zola and/or the baby before the baby is born. But surprise surprise, the prophesied god killer is actually Diana; before the end of the series, she is named a full-fledged god in the pantheon, practically against her will.

The series, as I said, is convoluted. There is occasional humor, and Diana always operates from the warmth and compassion she is known for, but … I dunno, I guess I was hoping for more standard comic book villains and not, y’know, Greek gods? Not that that’s a bad thing; it just wasn’t what I expected.

Anyway. I’m glad that Wonder Woman came out in 2017 and gave me a better origin story than The New 52 did. (Although yes, I totally agree that the third act of that movie is crap on a stick and I thank all gods, new and old, that Wonder Woman 84 has nothing to do with Zack Snyder.)

Grade for Wonder Woman, volumes 1 – 6: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J. Maas

court of thorns and rosesThis is the first book in a YA series I’d been curious about for a while. (Eagle-eyed – or really-good-memory-having – readers of the blog may recall that I thought I was requesting this book from the Yarmouth library back at the end of 2017, only to be severely disappointed.)

A Court of Thorns and Roses was available on one of my Saturday library jaunts, so I picked it up. I’m pretty sure I read it fairly quickly; but, I did not note down any quotes except for three pages of backstory, because somehow I knew that if I didn’t at least write that down, I’d never remember it.

(Didn’t keep me from noting the characters’ names or anything … *eyeroll emoji*)

The basic premise of this book is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s … I mean, it was okay. It was very young adult, I thought, in that it was trying so hard to be adult about things.

Our story takes place in a country called Prythian, which is divided into 8 realms – the 7 courts of the Faerie, and then the human world. The humans and faeries are at a very tentative peace – basically, the humans are allowed to live in the section of land granted to them by the faeries, and should they decide to rebel the entire human race (in that area) will be wiped out. Many of the humans cower from the faerie race, but there are two other factions – those that hate the faeries for sequestering the humans, and another, smaller, cult group of people who worship the faeries, hoping to be taken to one of their courts for the chance at a better life.

Our narrator is Feyre (pronounced “Fay-reh”, as best as I can tell – look, I got this from the library, I didn’t take notes; I know I should’ve taken at least a picture of the pronunciation list in the back but I didn’t, and you’re the one who’s going to have to get over it), the youngest daughter in a family of two elder sisters and a disabled father. So it’s up to Feyre to provide for the family – she sneaks into the forest and surrounding areas … to … to hunt …

hunger games katniss eyeroll.gif

Yeah.

So at the beginning of the book, Feyre is hunting, and happens upon a wolf. And she can tell, somehow, that it’s not an ordinary wolf – that it’s a faerie in disguise as a wolf. Or maybe, she’s afraid that it is a faerie in disguise, but the thought of not taking her shot (with a bow and arrow, I mean seriously, does Sarah J. Maas owe Suzanne Collins any royalties?) and missing out on all that tasty wolf meat and/or selling the pelt in the market forces her to aim for the wolf’s eye.

Anyway. At the end of the day, the wolf was a faerie. And within, like, 24 hours, a very angry faerie is pounding on their door, seeking recompense for the death of his cohort. And faeries subscribe to the eye-for-an-eye type of justice.

But after seeing the sad family, the faerie Tamlin recalls a codicil in the Treaty the faeries signed with the humans – instead of death, the debt can be repaid by bringing the culprit back to his court on the other side of the wall. And that’s how Feyre ends up in the Spring Court, Tamlin’s home base.

So these faeries – they all wear masquerade masks on their face. As far as I can tell, the faeries are all of human form, except for these masks literally melded onto their face. Feyre is told it’s the result of a magic blight, sweeping the land. And that wolf/faerie that Feyre killed? Was out searching the human world for cure.

It takes a while, but Feyre eventually softens towards the faerie race, and Tamlin in particular. She is forced to eat dinner with Tamlin and his friend, Lucien, but Lucien also takes Feyre riding and lets her explore the countryside a bit. When Tamlin learns that Feyre really likes painting, he provides her with access to the galleries in his mansion so she can practice her art.

Over the summer, she finds herself actually falling for Tamlin. But this is also where the plot starts to deviate from the strict, Beauty and the Beast retelling – because as Feyre falls for Tamlin, she learns that the seven courts of the Prythia (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Dawn, Day and Night) (I think) are controlled by a faerie named Amarantha, and she’s trying to get Tamlin fully into her clutches.

Let’s say Feyre’s been at Tamlin’s court for about seven months. (I have no idea if I’m right, just go with me on this.) They’ve shared a lot of romantic moments – he’s brought her to a couple of Faerie events and ceremonies, and I’m pretty sure they’ve slept together at least once. And then something happens (no, I can’t remember what the triggering event is, leave me alone), and Tamlin decides that Feyre’s debt has been repaid, so she can go back to living with her family, and don’t come back, have fun!

amber says whay.gif

Feyre doesn’t want to go – she feels that something bad is going to happen, and she wants to stay, but Tamlin won’t let her.

When she gets to her family, she is slightly shocked to learn that they are no longer poor. They have a fancy house and hang out with the other rich people in the human land. Her bitchy eldest sister, whose name escapes me, knows that something was up, but can’t figure it out. But when Feyre hears some gossip about a family she knew – and whose name she used as an alias when she ran into Amarantha – was mysteriously murdered, she knows that by remaining with her family, she puts them in danger. She tells her eldest sister as much as she can, and swears her to secrecy – just that if the sister hears gossip about a war between the faeries or something else horrifying, she is to take their father and middle sister as far away as possible.

Feyre manages to sneak back to the Spring Court, somehow, and runs into her former chambermaid, Alis (pronounced like Alice). And here’s where we learn about The Curse:

Essentially, Amarantha had a big hard-on for Tamlin, and hated that he didn’t want to rule the entire faerie land with her together as king and queen. Amarantha also harbors a huge hatred for the human race, because her sister fell in love with a human man, who then killed her (I think). So Tamlin, in resisting Amarantha’s latest attempt at seduction, spits in her face and says that he’d rather marry a human than her, and if a human was good enough for her sister it should be good enough for him.

So Amarantha gives him forty-nine years (why? who knows) to marry a human girl. But not just any human girl – a human girl with ice in her veins, who has killed a faerie out of sheer hatred. And because humans are attracted to beautiful people, Amarantha cursed Tamlin and all his subjects to have their masquerade masks melded to their face (because this all happened at a masquerade; how thoughtful).

It turns out all that shit about the Treaty was just a pretense to get Feyre to come back to the Spring Court with Tamlin. He was trying to break the curse, because it was getting close to the deadline. And when the deadline was up, Tamlin would be forced to rule alongside Amarantha.

There’s some crying from Alis about how stupid it was that Tamlin sent Feyre back to her family with only like, three days to go to the deadline, so now all the faeries are back Under the Mountain (an actual, capitalized place in this book) with Amarantha.

So Feyre is determined to go and rescue Tamlin, because that’s what Beauty needs to do to save the Beast, right?

Once there, Feyre is given three tasks that she needs to survive – or, if not, just answer Amarantha’s riddle. But she can’t figure it out right away, so down to the prison she goes, waiting for her tasks. And on one of them, she has to have one of Amarantha’s lackeys help her, because a) the lackey (Rhysand) doesn’t actually like Amarantha, but b) he uses this opportunity to get Feyre to agree to stay with him in the Night Court (?) for a week every month. It may be longer, can’t remember, don’t care.

So at the end of the novel, Feyre is able to answer Amarantha’s riddle, which breaks the spell Tamlin was under and he murders Amarantha toot suite, and the masks are all able to come off of the other faeries and everyone lives happily ever after – except of course they don’t, because a) this is a Young Adult series, and b) the next book is going to create some sort of love triangle between Feyre, Tamlin and Rhysand and with that knowledge I’m very whatever.

I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped I would. I enjoy retellings of fairy tales, and I don’t necessarily mind when they stray from the path of the well-known plotline. But I thought there was too much going on, and I also felt like the mere introduction of Rhysand into the plot was only there to create a possible love triangle, and – young adult authors, no, you don’t need to do that anymore, really, I mean it, let the struggle be something else besides another person.

Also, I have to give a shout-out to My Dear Friend Sarah, who wanted to rate this book only one star, because based on the placement of the words on the cover, she read the title as “Court A Thorns Of Roses And”.

As for the Guster Reading Challenge: I’m going to go with “Demons” off of Goldfly. Not only because “Demons” is for reading a book that features an evil entity or someone with evil intent; but also because at Gusterfest this year, Ryan (the lead singer of Guster) pretty much admitted that the band can play their old stuff without even thinking – “‘Demons’, yeah, but to be honest I’m checking my email in my head”, and to me, that sums up this book wonderfully: sure, there’s stuff going on, but it’s so mediocre that I’m not really paying attention anymore.

Grade for A Court Of Thorns And Roses: 1 star

Fiction: “Hawkeye: Volumes 2 through 4” by Matt Fraction and various others

It has been a while since I read any comics compilations. At some point in 2020, I’m planning to go through the Fables series again. But I learned that the Auburn library has a pretty deep selection of comic volumes, so over the course of March and April, I finished the Hawkeye series that I started reading back in 2014.

Volume 2, Little Hits (by Matt Fraction and David Aja), is made up of six issues that show what Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, the Hawkeyes, get into when they’re not working with the Avengers (although Kate is only practically an Avenger). The first issue takes place during Hurricane Sandy, but the rest show Clint in conflict with a group of the Russian mob (?) who are also involved in Kingpin.

And look, here is where I should give the caveat that a) I have watched most of the MCU, and b) I’ve watched a single season of Daredevil, so I have a bare inkling of who all these people are. Don’t “fake comics girl” me, okay?

The Russians are mad that Clint bought the apartment building out from under the Russians (I think they were hoping to purchase the building to raze it and build … I don’t know, let’s say a casino or something, it was probably in the first issue I read five years ago, cut me some slack). And then an ex-flame of Clint’s shows up and throws a wrench into Clint’s relationship with his girlfriend (or “friend-girl,” as one issue identifies her) Jessica – and I’m assuming this is Jessica Jones? But I’m probably wrong?

(Note from the Future: I was wrong – she’s Jessica Drew, also known as Spider-Woman.)

Anyway. Kate Bishop tries to keep the guardrails on Clint’s “car-crash life”, but when one of the tenants in the building gets murdered because of this war between Clint and the Russians, Kate decides to take off – with Lucky Dog – and heads out to Los Angeles.

L.A. Woman (by Matt Fraction) is Volume 3, and these six issues show the trouble and shenanigans Kate and Lucky Dog get into in California. Kate, who up till now has relied on her father’s largesse to keep her in style, finds herself stranded and penniless when dear old Daddy cuts her off. Luckily, Kate runs into Whitney Frost – who, fun fact!, was the Big Bad of the second season of Agent Carter, which I was rewatching around the same time as I was reading this series – who offers her a place to stay for a night. But Kate’s Spidey Senses are tingling, and she escapes once she learns that her benefactor is actually Madame Masque, and Madame Masque had sworn vengeance on the Hawkeyes after “what happened in Madripoor”.

What happened in Madripoor?

confused baby

Kate manages to get a job catsitting for a couple of lesbian hippies who want to attend Coachella or something, and then makes every attempt to become a private detective. In every issue, she gets beaten up and arrested or brought in for questioning. It turns out that not only are all of her cases linked to Madame Masque (“your case and my case? are the same fucking case”), but her father is also involved with Masque’s business of creating perfect bodies so your essence can live forever.

Gross.

Defeated, Kate returns to Brooklyn and the other Hawkeye. The final volume, Rio Bravo (by Matt Fraction and David Aja), shows Clint teaming up with his brother Barney and the rest of the tenants to defend the apartment building from the Russians. Kate comes back from LA in the nick of time and helps rescue Barton from certain death. At the end, Clint’s ex-wife Bobbi (apparently the same Bobbi that Adrianne Palicki played on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) helps him to purchase the building legally (albeit with a forged signature), but also Barney absconds with the money that Clint stole from him.

I’m glad I finished the series. But. I dunno. While reading them, I was able to make assumptions as to who the characters are (see where I assumed “Jessica” meant “Jessica Jones,” even though she was very clearly wearing a spider-esque costume in one scene), and even though I was wrong I was able to get the jist of the story.

But I also … I dunno, Hawkeye’s not … really … I think I finished the series to be done with it, y’know? If I have to pick a favorite Avenger, it’s Chris Evans. No, not Captain America – if I meant Captain America I would have said Captain America. Captain America is my second favorite Avenger, but I do not have the time or the energy to devote to catching up on all of his backstory. And Captain America is, like, at least seventeen points ahead of Hawkeye on the Alaina Avenger Scale, so, really, the only reason I finished reading this series is because a) the library had them all and b) why not, there were only three volumes, it didn’t take me long.

I’m sure they’re fine. I like Kate Bishop, and I hope that Disney/Marvel decides to make the Hawkeye TV series about her and not Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, for a multitude of reasons. (Not that it matters to me, I don’t have a Disney+ account yet and I’m waiting to see how long I can hold off on “needing” it. The Hawkeye series is definitely *not* going to be the thing that makes me shell out more money to that fucking mouse.) Maybe I didn’t like these volumes as much as Volume 1 because Kate and Clint are separated for most of it? I don’t know. I just know each of these books are getting a lower star grade and I needed to justify it in some way.

Look, they’re fine. They’re probably better than fine if you’ve read more than none Avenger or Marvel comic books. But I’m not that person, so “fine” is going to have to be … fine.

(Also: I didn’t assign a Guster song to these compilations – I wasn’t sure if I should do it on each individual volume or overall, and at the end of the day I really didn’t care that much.)

Grade for Hawkeye: Little Hits, LA Woman, and Rio Bravo: 2 stars

Fiction: “Charlesgate Confidential” by Scott Von Doviak

Charlesgate ConfidentialIt’s been a hot minute since I’ve read any of the Hard Case Crime titles. And by “hot minute”, I apparently mean “five years”. I need to be careful with some of the book titles – as I said in my review for The Cocktail Waitressit can be slightly awkward to be caught reading books with those covers in a communal break room (or, at my desk where people regularly come over and ask me questions during my lunch break). But I saw this one at the library, and didn’t think the cover was too salacious.

Additionally, this book takes place in Boston – and the back of the book specifically calls out “three unforgettable seasons of Red Sox baseball” – and the main plot concerns a major art heist in Boston.

So yes – I managed to find yet another book that deals with the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist. But this book takes a different twist and has it occur in the late 1940s.

Actually, what the book does – which I thought was really cool – was switch through three different years, with the switch occurring every chapter. We begin in 1946, where a couple of mobsters knock over a mob-heavy poker game. In order to stay alive, the low-level mobsters agree to help the primo mobster knock over an art museum – the Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Then the book jumps forty years to 1986, where Tommy Donnelly is living in the Charlesgate, a dorm of Emerson College. Tommy is dealing with the epic highs and lows, the triumphs and defeats of college life, including the 1986 baseball playoffs, which result in the Red Sox going all the way with the Mets to the Series. (And everybody should know what happens in that World Series.)

The book then jumps thirty-ish more years to 2014: the Charlesgate building has been turned into hoity Back Bay condos, and a murder has occurred in one of them. A police detective (or maybe he’s with the FBI) is investigating the murder.

And both the 1986 and 2014 segments of the story have ties back to the Gardner heist. In 1986, one of the mobsters gets released from prison and returns to the Charlesgate, hoping to find one of the missing paintings that was stashed there while they were on the run from the cops. Poor Tommy Donnelly gets wrapped up in the whole thing – the mobster forces Tommy to pretend to be his grandson in order to get access to the building. In 2014, the detective looks back and reads some of Tommy’s old articles in the Emerson newspaper, wherein Tommy tried to paint the Charlesgate as some spooky, ghost-inhabited dorm full of intrigue. But then the detective finds the rumor that one of the Gardner’s missing paintings may be stashed in the Charlesgate, and there’s still a reward out for its return.

I really enjoyed this book. As with any book that takes place in Boston, I always get a small dose of joy when I recognize a place that I’ve been. I don’t think the Charlesgate is a real building, but any of those Back Bay brownstones I’ve driven past numerous times could have subbed in for it. I love baseball (as all y’all should know by now), and while the Cubbies remain my number one team, the Red Sox is my number one team in the American League. And I am still intrigued by the Gardner heist, and I am even more resolved to actually go to that museum this year (I haven’t actually hung out in Boston since the Arctic Monkeys concert where I read Persuasion in nearly a single day).

So what was really funny to me was this: a few weeks ago, I went to the library, hoping to find a copy of The Night Circus (because I lent my copy to a coworker and hadn’t had it returned yet, and I needed to write the review but couldn’t remember any of it), and Charlesgate Confidential was back on the shelf. So I said, “What the heck, I can re-borrow this one too.”

When I opened it up, I found this:

charlesgate-postit.jpg

Now, when I borrow a book from the library, I do tend to stick Post Its in the front of the book, where I note the page number and a brief synopsis of the quote I want to pull for the later review. However, I usually remove them when I return the book to the library. And this doesn’t exactly look like my handwriting. I was very curious as to why someone would want to know who was recording rankings. What rankings?

But then I turned to page 127 and read:

“Hey yourself …”

“Tommy.”

“I know that. You think I’d forget the name of the third greatest album ever recorded?”

“Third? Oh, that’s right. We had this conversation. You have Who’s Next first, right?”

“Damn right.”

“And … wait, don’t tell me … second place is Quadrophenia?”

“Bzzt. Quadrophenia is top five, no doubt, but I’ve got The Who Sell Out at number two.” [p. 127]

And then I realized two things: 1) That was my handwriting, and I wasn’t asking “who is recording the rankings,” I was reminding myself of “the rankings of records by The Who”, and 2) it’s entirely possible that Charlesgate Confidential had not been checked out of the library since I returned it in March.

I would also put Who’s Next at number 1 and Quadrophenia at number 2. And to be quite honest, I sometimes forget that The Who even wrote Tommy.

Anyway. I really liked this book – the story and mystery of the missing Gardner painting was very good, and I enjoyed the little shout-outs to me that I totally made up – the baseball, the art heist, and The Who.

As for this book’s entry in the 2019 Guster Reading Challenge, I chose “Mona Lisa” off of Goldfly: “Read a book about art or that features art.” I mean, that’s a home run of a choice if ever there was one.

If you see it at your library, pick it up. Who knows – maybe your copy will also have a mysterious Post It note to decipher.

Grade for Charlesgate Confidential: 4 stars