#REVIEW: THE ANGEL OF THE CROWS, by Katherine Addison

Katherine Addison’s two books have a theme, which is that I don’t quite know what to think about them when I finish them. I loved her debut, The Goblin Emperor, but my review reads like I hated it, and nothing I could do while working on it could remove that tone so I gave up and rolled with it.

The Angel of the Crows is one of those books where once you know the premise you know whether you want to read the book or not. It apparently started off as the literary equivalent of a palate cleanser; Addison admits in the afterword that the book was originally Sherlock Holmes wingfic, which is not a thing I knew existed: it is a subgenre of fanfic where characters are given wings, because Reasons. The main character, Dr. J.H. Doyle, is a stand-in for Watson, right down to having been injured in Afghanistan, and his roommate at 221 Baker Street, Crow, is the Holmes of the series.

Except Crow is an angel, and Doyle’s injury was dealt by a fallen angel in Afghanistan, and rather inconveniently has transformed him into a hellhound, which is not quite a werewolf because there are werewolves in the book too. And vampires. And a whole mess of other things. So this is basically Sherlock Holmes fanfic crossed with an urban fantasy book, except doing away with the standard trope of urban fantasy, which is that all of the nonhumans everywhere are generally unknown to the general public. Also, they end up hunting Jack the Ripper, because of course they do. I thought for a moment she’d found a way to work Rasputin into it too, but that turns out to not be the case.

The thing is, the book just misses being great. Its first chapter might be one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read, particularly in how it handles basic worldbuilding and letting you know what sort of story you’re in for. The problem is the structure of the book– the Jack the Ripper thing is a common thread through several more or less independent sections, each of which basically retells a single Sherlock Holmes story. As a single, unified novel, it ends up feeling really choppy, and if you are like me and you are fairly familiar with the Holmes stories, it ends up dragging quite a bit by the end of its 460 pages. The Ripper throughplot also ends somewhat unsatisfyingly, mostly because it doesn’t have room to be handled properly.

I really wish this had been a series of novellas, is what I’m getting at; crammed all together into one book it simultaneously feels too long and that each individual story is rushed, and that’s not a good way for a book to feel. As a novella series there could have been a bit more room to breathe and a bit more worldbuilding, because I absolutely want to know more about this world and see more of these characters, hopefully keeping the Holmes framework but not literally feeling the need to retell The Hound of the Baskervilles. If I find out she’s written a sequel, I’m still all over it.

The next section will involve discussing a major spoiler, so feel free to not read it if such things will bother you.

Before I say anything here, I want to make it clear that I’m using the pronouns the book uses, and that this is kind of a messy thing to talk about, so if anyone feels like I’ve screwed something up in my language, 1) you are probably right, and 2) feel free to call me out about it and I’ll rewrite if necessary.

So, Dr. J.H. Doyle, referred to almost exclusively as either “Doyle” or “Dr. Doyle” throughout the book, is … well, definitely assigned female at birth, and I could probably safely justify simply saying “a woman.” Doyle is referred to as “he” almost exclusively throughout the book, and even once it’s made clear to Crow that Doyle presents as a man because women would not have had opportunities to go fight in Afghanistan and become doctors, Crow continues to refer to Doyle as male even in private conversations between the two of them. I have seen some blurbs and commentary about this book that talks about trans characters, and that language is absent from the book and it’s not entirely clear how Doyle feels about his gender.

This gets especially weird in the retelling of The Sign of the Four, which ends with Watson getting married; in Addison’s retelling, Miss Morstan expects Doyle to propose to her at the end, and Doyle instead tells her that he cannot ask her to marry him because, quote, “I’m not a man,” and a moment later refers to himself as “my father’s only daughter.” But there is never any other point in the book, again, including in private, where Doyle seems to genuinely think of himself (there’s that pronoun difficulty again) as female, and even the conversation with Miss Morstan only happens because Doyle feels forced into a corner. There’s also not any angst at any point about having to lie to everyone; Doyle seems perfectly content with presenting as male to everyone. And it’s also clear that Doyle is at least attracted to Miss Morstan. The entire marriage expectation bit all comes off as really awkward and part of me wonders why Addison didn’t simply omit that subplot. Or, hell, pull a Some Like It Hot and make her good with it.

Also, remember, Doyle is a hellhound, so the character spends all sorts of energy on hiding his identity from people throughout the book. There is considerable angst about the hellhoundery.

This is followed up with a sequence where Crow, who is also referred to with exclusively male pronouns, explains that all angels are female, “insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings,” but that some of them basically just present as male, because … well, because Reasons, I guess; I never felt like I adequately understood what was going on there.

So, yeah, if this book landed on your radar because of trans representation, that’s not quite what’s going on here, although it’s … close, I guess? Maybe? I dunno.

12:03 PM, Sunday June 28th: 2,520,984 confirmed cases and 125,588 Americans dead.


The obligatory disclaimer: Brian Nelson’s The Last Sword Maker is another book that a publicist sent to me for free in return for an honest review.

This is one of those books where star ratings kind of fail me, because what you get out of The Last Sword Maker is going to be very directly related to what you’re willing to put into it. It is four hundred and sixty-odd pages long, I started it before bed last night, and less than 24 hours later I am typing out this review. That’s a good thing! The book is a hell of a page-turner; it doesn’t quite borrow the Dan Brown trick of ending every single chapter on a cliffhanger so that you’re compelled to keep reading, but it does borrow the classic page-turner move of short chapters– there are 44 of them, plus a prologue, a bunch of interstitial pages, and an epilogue, so you’re never dissuaded from just one more chapter. I mean, it helps that I’m a teacher on summer break during a pandemic; it’s not like other than keeping my son alive and fed I have a lot of other tasks to attend to. But! I have many books, and I did not read all of them in effectively one big gulp overnight. That’s an achievement, and if you are looking for a fast read that will keep your eyes glued to the page, this will absolutely be right up your alley.

Speaking of pandemics, though: The Last Sword Maker is about warfare and nanotech and genetics, about a bunch of very smart people and a bunch of very dangerous people trying to crack a new technology before … well, before China, specifically, because the technological edge granted by achieving self-replicating nanotech will effectively secure the winning nation’s top-of-the-food-chain status for generations to come. There are lots of references to nanobot-driven plagues that are able to target their victims based on their genetic code, and early in the book China tests that capability on a few Tibetan villages. All of the characters are therefore either scientific geniuses or hard-ass military types, and while it kind of seems like cheating to say if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing that you will like, but … yeah. Chances are, you already know, based on what you’ve read, whether you’re going to enjoy this or not.

But to circle back to that star rating thing again: I enjoyed reading this! I read it fast, and I barely put it down once I started it! Those are definitely good things. I am, however, going to try really hard not to think too much about the plot, because while one of the advantages of the page-turner is that they’re very good at hey look over here boom bang zip pow! type of stuff, they don’t always hold up all that well afterwards? And I mentioned Dan Brown earlier, and he’s again the classic example, because his books feel smart while you’re reading them but don’t you dare think about them afterwards or they’ll fall apart.

If you are, and I swear I don’t mean this as an insult, because I am frequently this type of person, particularly with respect to movies, the type of person who does not waste a lot of time poking around for plot holes or thinking too hard about whether the tech described in the book ought to work as described, or if the sudden jump from Development A to Development B might be a bit too abrupt, this may be the book for you. If on the other hand you are the type of person to notice that hey, did that really important guy get kidnapped offscreen, and nobody seems to have noticed in America? then maybe it might not be your type of book.

Also, if repeated use of the phrase the hardness makes you giggle, especially when it is used in concert with phrases such as entered him or filled him, and no it is not in the context you think it is, well … giggling is going to happen. There’s a guy; he has a thing going on. It’s not what you think. You’ll see.

It also leans really hard into the Chinese being the villains, and there are a couple of kinda sketchy ehh moments here and there with some of the minority characters that maybe could have used another pass. I don’t think it quite reaches racism, especially given how it ends and who the big monster of the book ends up being, but it’s possible that it will get to you. Or not! This book is the type of thing I always think of when I hear the phrase beach read; it’s a thriller, and it aims to entertain you while you’re reading it and doesn’t have particularly lofty goals beyond that. If that’s your thing, definitely check it out.

7:51 PM, Monday June 22: 2,306,247 confirmed cases and 120,384 Americans dead.

My most ridiculous product review yet

I swear to you, I’m not important enough to have been paid to write this.

I didn’t know Band-Aid Brand Adhesive Bandages Hydro Seal existed, All-Purpose or otherwise, so I feel like it’s possibly a thing I should tell other people about. I have had, for at least a few weeks, a vile mess of a sore on the top of my scalp. The problem is that it’s in a location where my hand automatically goes to whenever I’m thinking, reading, stressed, or really any reason at all, and as a result I absolutely could not stop fucking with the thing and it wouldn’t heal. I’d put a Band-Aid on it all day and in the ten minutes between taking it off and replacing it, I’d manage to screw it all up again. I tried to wear hats for a while; I’d literally take the hat off and mess up the sore without even realizing I was doing it.

And then I ran out of Band-Aids, so I went to Target to get more, and I discovered these Hydro Seal thingies. The phrase “multi-day protection” caught my eye. This seems helpful, I thought, since, well, if I didn’t have to take it off I’d have fewer opportunities to mess around with it.

Basically the way these things work is that the gel the bandage is made out of creates a moist enough environment for the wound that it encourages healing, and the adhesive is strong enough that they tell you to just leave it in place until it falls off– in my case, four days, including the customary number of showers and a couple of dips in the pool. And when it finally started to come off, there was a little chunk of dry dead skin left behind that pretty much flaked off immediately and afterward you couldn’t tell there had ever been a wound there at all. The only problem I see with these is they’re a little on the expensive side for Band-Aids (but we’re still talking about, like, four bucks for a box) and at least the kind I got was on the smaller side, although there’s a larger size designed to cover blisters that I assume would be fine for non-blistering larger wounds. If you’re like me and have a problem with wounds lasting forever if they’re somewhere you can reach to interfere with them, I really can’t recommend these damn things any more highly.

(Note that I am refraining from posting before-and-after pictures. Just trust me.)

8:35 PM, Saturday, June 20: 2,251,205 confirmed cases and 119,654 Americans dead. Yesterday was the worst day for new infections since May 1; today is worse than yesterday and there are still a few hours left.


Ye Gods, but I do love that cover.

I started off yesterday shit-talking 2020’s books, so naturally I’ve got two in a row I’m super enthusiastic about. The interesting thing is You Should See Me in a Crown and I kind of got off on the wrong foot. The main character, Liz Lighty (and that name really ought to lead to her having superpowers of some sort, but this isn’t that book) is a high school senior in an Indianapolis suburb. As the book begins, she discovers that she’s been turned down for a scholarship to Pennington College, her dream school, where she intends to go pre-med and play in their world-famous orchestra. Missing the scholarship basically means she can’t afford to attend, and eventually her friends will hatch a plan for her to be named Prom Queen, which will come with a scholarship fund in the same amount of money, because apparently schools in Campbell, IN are just that rich.

There is a bit of “roll with it” in the premise, I suppose.

Where the book hopped on my nerves was a super-brief reference to Indiana University, my alma mater, when Liz muses that if her plan doesn’t work she can just go there as her safety school. And, okay, IU’s a state school, I get it, but– dude! You want to play in the orchestra and become a doctor? IU might literally be the best school in the country if you want to do both of those things. Their music school and their pre-med program are stellar.

And then I found out that Leah Johnson, the author, actually grew up in Indiana and went to IU herself, so all was forgiven, because it was kind of a silly thing to get irritated about in the first place anyway. Incidentally, both Pennington College and Campbell, IN are fictional. So maybe the not-real school is better than IU at both music and medicine, I dunno.

So, yeah– this book and I didn’t start off great, and I was probably six or seven chapters in before the main character’s voice clicked for me, and I gobbled up the rest of the book in two big bites before bed last night and after getting up this morning. I have a rule about book reviews; if I don’t want to put a book down so I can go to sleep, that’s generally a book I’m going to talk about here, and YSSMIAC’s combination of a fun MC, a sweet love story, and story-based complications where the characters actually talk to each other to work them out makes for a great read. I recognize this kid– maybe not in her gestalt, but she kept reminding me of other kids I’ve had as I read the book, and while the book does traffic in some standard tropey high-school story stuff it subverts it just enough to keep things interesting. The single thing that’s hardest to buy is that there really might be a school that takes prom and the Prom court this seriously, but … yeah, there probably is. Mine didn’t, but they’re probably out there somewhere.

So, yeah: once you’re done with that da Vinci biography, which is 500+ pages so it’s gonna take a minute, You Should See Me in a Crown makes for a nice little palate cleanser. Give it a look.

10:42 AM, Thursday June 18: 2,164,071 confirmed cases and 117,728 Americans dead, and confirmed cases are undeniably trending upward nationwide again.

#REVIEW: Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

2020 thus far has been an interesting year for reading. 2019 had so many stellar books in it that I had to expand my traditional end-of-the-year Best Of list from ten to fifteen. In general, the quality of what I’ve been reading this year has been reasonably high, but there haven’t been all that many books that I was doing backflips over so far. There have definitely been standouts, of course, but nothing where I was rattling cages and shouting you must read this while running pantsless through the streets.

So it’s pretty cool to have identified my first major WHY DON’T YOU OWN THIS BOOK ALREADY of the year, finally, and even more interesting that it’s turned out to be nonfiction. There are usually a couple of nonfiction books in my top 10, but never one that I thought might be the best book of the year, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is absolutely a book that I could see being my favorite of 2020 once the end of the year rolls around. Assuming we’re all still alive, that is.

I have read one other book of Isaacson’s: I was a big fan of his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and having now read this one I’ve got my sights on his book about Albert Einstein. You may notice a theme here; Isaacson very much enjoys writing about geniuses, and one of the best things about this book is the way his sheer enthusiasm for Leonardo shines through every page. This is a book about, with no real fear of contradiction, one of human history’s most interesting people, written by someone who is utterly fascinated by his subject, and it just cannot help but being a tremendously compelling and educational read.

(Two things I learned about da Vinci: I was aware that he was able to write backwards and mirror-imaged, but I was not aware that he always wrote backwards and mirror-imaged. He was left-handed and just taught himself to write that way to save time and keep from smearing ink. Similarly, one of the ways his work is validated when its source is unclear is to look for signs that it was produced by a left-handed person. Second, and I’m not sure how common knowledge this is and it’s possible y’all are going to be surprised I didn’t know this, but he was gay. Not, like, “for the times” gay, or “if he was alive now he’d be” gay, but out and fabulous gay. There apparently exists one of his notebooks where he’s put a to-do list on one of the pages, and one of the items on the list is “go to the bathhouse to look at naked men.”)

(Also, and I’ve Tweeted at him and I’ll update if he responds, but I’d love to know how much work in language Isaacson had to do specifically to write this. I suspect the differences between Renaissance-era Italian and modern Italian are not minor, even before you get to everything da Vinci wrote requiring a mirror to read, and given his other books Isaacson may not even have known Italian before writing the book– every other book he’s written was about someone who, at least, worked primarily in English.)

I can’t pass up talking about the book as a physical object, either. I got the book in paperback, and the paper used both for the cover and for the pages is thick and textured in a way that makes the book an absolute joy to hold. In addition, it’s full of pictures, as one would imagine it would have to be, but they’re scattered throughout rather than as a tip-in in the middle of the book, and every single one of them is in full color. I don’t recall how much I spent for this book, but I’m genuinely surprised it wasn’t $40. Amazon currently has it for twelve bucks. That’s madness for a book of this high quality; this could not have been cheap to print.

I am also in love with the way Isaacson talks about art. I had to take an art history class as a random requirement to get my teaching MA, and while I honestly didn’t do terribly well in the class, reading people who really know a lot about art talking about paintings is something that I will never get tired of even if to a large extent I don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about. Isaacson can drop a paragraph about the emotional resonance of a detail in someone’s eyebrows that I can’t even see, and a good proportion of this book is dedicated to analyzing da Vinci’s artwork, both finished and unfinished. His chapter about the Mona Lisa is a masterwork. I couldn’t have written something like this to save my life; I just don’t have the eye for detail or the vocabulary for it, but it was an immense pleasure to read.

Ten stars, six thumbs up, one finger oddly pointed toward the heavens, go find this and read it right away.

1:07 PM, Wednesday June 17: 2,143,193 confirmed cases and 117,129 Americans dead.