Saturday, July 28, 2018

Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

A young American man named David is in the South of France, his girlfriend having just left to return to the US. David is about to return to Paris where Giovanni is being executed. He reveals the story of how he met Giovanni at a gay bar he visited with his friend Jacques, and how he began a relationship with Giovanni, eventually moving in with him. He knew it wouldn't last as his girlfriend Hella was in Spain only temporarily and would return, but Giovanni hoped otherwise. Eventually we learn what a huge mess David has made of everything and why Giovanni is being executed.

This is a very short book (my edition was 170 pages) but one packed with beautiful language and emotion. The atmosphere was one of a sort of tragic hedonism. David and his friends Jacques, Guillaume, and of course Giovanni drank a lot and drifted about aimlessly and hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. The language almost romanticized it at times, but also sharply conveyed the more sordid and ugly parts.

Considered a gay classic, Baldwin's publisher apparently initially balked at it because of the content. More recently, it has been acknowledged to be bisexual - it seems weird that it wouldn't have before, but I guess it took a while to accept that bisexuality is actually a thing. David had a relationship with a boy before when he was young, but he also loves Hella and does want to marry her. Even Giovanni also had a woman in his life before he and David met, and one with whom he shared a loving relationship before it ended with tragedy.

This is the cover of the edition I read and it's a little odd - I never understand occasionally an author's photo appears on the front cover. I would understand if the novel was more autobiographical, but I don't thing this one is. Also, from what I can tell, the characters are all white. (David is described as blond and Giovanni is Italian.) But of course this is just one of many editions, I just really enjoy a beautiful cover and this one doesn't do justice to the story within.

I can't believe I haven't read James Baldwin before. Why did nobody tell me how lovely his writing is, and how compellingly genuine his characters? I know he also wrote a lot of nonfiction in the form of essays, as well as short stories, plays, and poetry, so there's a lot to choose from. If you have suggestions about what I should try next, please let me know in the comments!

July Wrap-Up and Plans for August




Reading


I read THREE books from my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list, which is making me smug. This is what happens when I don't have any assigned reading for book groups or whatnot - I read things that I've been wanting to read for a while! Most notable was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I think everyone in America should read.

Listening

Boston Harbor Island view

I listened to the audiobook of the new Alyssa Cole novel, A Princess in Theory, which was even better than I expected. Another audiobook I enjoyed this month was the teen book Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson.

In between audiobooks I'm continuing to listen to my regular podcasts, including the newest one in my rotation, Slow Russian. I don't know how much I'm picking up from this because I feel like there are so many new words and expressions in every episode, but if I keep listening regularly I'm sure I can't help but increase (or rebuild) my vocabulary.

This month I also got to listen to Janelle Monae live! This is the second time I've seen her perform and she is just fantastic. The first time was a few years ago when she opened to Prince, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you how great that show was.

Watching


I saw the RBG documentary, which was great. I really didn't know a ton about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so I was very happy to learn about all her early cases that she chose because they advanced the rights of women. I also learned that she survived pancreatic cancer, which I didn't even think was possible, and that gives me a lot of hope that she might be immortal.

This month I also finished watching The Handmaid's Tale season 2, and continued with Poldark and Parts Unknown. If you're interested in travel to unusual places and you like food, I highly recommend that show.

A while ago a friend recommended the movie Mudbound, and I also finally watched that. It's about two families in Mississippi - a black family and a white family - during World War II. It's very upsetting, but also very good.

Cooking

Corn Fritters

Very little, mostly fritters. I had a lot of social plans this month which means I didn't have a ton of time for cooking. I ate a lot of things like tacos and pasta with pesto. But I did make the Zucchini-Cornmeal cakes from Dinner by Melissa Clark, which were actually a lot of work but very tasty, and the Corn Fritters from the Smitten Kitchen website, which were also delicious but easier to make. It was nice to be able to buy fresh ingredients from the farmer's market that's near my work. The only thing I cooked that wasn't fritters was the 8-minute Pantry Dal from the Oh She Glows website. Don't be fooled by the title, it takes a lot longer than 8 minutes. But you can use up whatever vegetables you have on hand and it is very easy to throw together in a pot, and then you can relax while it simmers away. I'll be making this again. And probably the corn fritters too.

In addition to all my social plans I've been making a concerted effort to cut down on food. When I pulled out all my summer clothes this year I found that some of them didn't fit. I've been using an app called MyPlate to track calories, though I'm not restricting myself as much as the app suggested because that's just not sustainable. It worked out fine this month, but I had little cooking time anyhow. I'm not sure how it will go when I do have more time for cooking and baking, but I probably won't find that out until fall. At any rate, I have a lot of cookbooks with options for pretty healthy fare so I'm not very concerned.

Doing


As I mentioned, I had a lot of social activities. July 1 was an annual day trip with friends to the Boston Harbor Islands, followed by a delicious seafood dinner in Boston. The following weekend I went to a party, and then spent an afternoon with a friend I hadn't seen in a while and we did an escape room, which was WAY more fun than I thought it would be. I had evening dinner plans with various friends throughout the month and then this past weekend was a friend's birthday and we went to the Janelle Monae concert.

Sock in progress
After not having gone to a yoga class (or my gym at all) for a year or close to it, I went to yoga this month and it felt amazing. I'm hoping I can get back into the habit of going!

In knitting news, I finally finished that second sleeve! All I have to do now is sew in the sleeves, sew up the hems and cuffs, and make and attach the elbow patches.

I have also begun another project! First time in close to two years, so this is big news. I started a black sock, because I am in need of black socks. I've been working on it on the bus and while watching tv, so it's moving right along already. It's the Chain Rib pattern from my old friend, Sensational Knitted Socks.

Plans for August


I'm actually posting this a little early, because I'm ending July and beginning August with a trip to Prince Edward Island. I've never been there before and I'm really looking forward to relaxing, eating, and enjoying nature.

Later in the month we'll be going camping again since we were a bit shortchanged by the weather last time. And I have unspecified plans to take a day trip with a friend one Saturday, so I'm sure we'll end up doing something fun.

How was your July?

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016)

It's the end of the 19th century, Cora Seaborne has just been widowed, and she's never been happier. She takes her companion Martha and her son Francis to Essex to get away from it all and it is there she meets local vicar Will Ransome, with whom she becomes fast friends. This despite their very different outlooks on religion and the local fear of a deadly serpent said to be haunting the sea and causing all sorts of strange happenings. Cora is an amateur naturalist and wants to believe the fears are founded and there is an undiscovered species lurking in the waters. Will is just as convinced it's all in their heads, and they just need to strengthen their religious convictions and see that there's nothing there.

I read the first 100 pages - about a quarter of the book - and put it down in favor of something else. It didn't feel like it was going anywhere and I didn't think I'd finish it. But then I bored of the other book, and felt inclined to pick this back up again. I stayed home sick from work one day, and read the last 200 pages in one day. So I guess I liked it after all.

It was rather atmospheric, what with unexplained phenomena and a character with consumption and a missing teenage girl.  Cora's son was also very unusual - I think these days we'd say that he's on the spectrum - but in the context of this book, his behavior just added to the air of mystery. Will's daughter Joanna was a bright young girl just coming into her own and had been friendly for many years with Naomi, a fisherman's daughter. Together they played at casting spells, but Joanna was starting to outgrow this mysticism for more serious studies, creating a rift in their friendship. Then Naomi went missing.

Cora's friendship with Will was central, and complex. He was married and Cora loved Stella too, as did Will. But it was also clear that Cora and Will's friendship was special. Cora was also friendly with a doctor, Luke Garrett, whose feelings for her were much stronger and he was vexed at her new friendship with Will. Cora's companion Martha also seemed devoted to Cora beyond the usual way. Cora had a lot going on, and many of the people around her grew impatient with how she was handling her newfound freedom, dressing in ways unbecoming to a lady and tramping about England doing whatever she wanted. I was very happy for her. Her husband was an ass and she was finally free of him, and she wasn't about to start acting in accordance with everyone else's expectations now. Although this novel was set in the Victorian period, the characters' behavior and relationships aren't what I expected to encounter - for instance, there was some casual sex - and I found that refreshing.

This isn't a fast-moving story with a complicated plot, and I think the reason I put it aside for a while was that I wasn't in the mood for it. Which is what I suspected at the time, as I couldn't point to anything specific about I didn't like. As I said, it's atmospheric, and focused on relationships, and the writing was of a fairly literary caliber. When I began I felt like I needed to concentrate, but I think I've just read a lot of books in a row written in a much simpler style, so it was a bit of a shift. This has been on my To Read shelf on Goodreads for a while - well, it think it was the first thing I added when I started using that shelf again - and I am quite glad I finally got to it.

Sarah Perry's new novel, Melmoth, will be out in October. It takes place in Prague and involves a dark legend and a missing person and sounds like it might have a similar feel to The Essex Serpent.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (2017), narrated by the author

Jade accepts every opportunity that comes to her way, because she wants to make sure she has every chance at success. She takes a bus across town to attend a private school on scholarship, and she is now asked to join a mentoring program called Woman To Woman. She joins, but is resentful that it's for "at-risk" kids and she's not at risk. She is, however, one of very few black kids at a mostly-white high school and can't help but think that's why she keeps being asked to take opportunities that are supposed to help her. Jade thinks she is completely capable of helping others, and what she wants most is to be asked to participate in the study abroad program and use the Spanish she studies so diligently while taking part in a volunteer project.

As if it wasn't enough she didn't want to join Woman To Woman in the first place, her mentor Maxine keeps standing her up, and taking long phone calls when they're together. At the same time she's very supportive of Jade's art, spectacular photo collages.

Jade has recently befriended a girl named Sam who takes the same bus across town to school. Sam is white, and sometimes doesn't understand the things that Jade complains about. When they're shopping together and a salesperson exhibits racist behavior toward Jade, Sam tries to explain it away. As much as Jade likes Sam, these interactions make her very uncomfortable.

A major theme in this book is Jade's unwillingness to speak up for herself. She internalizes unfairness, slights, and racism and doesn't ask for the things she wants. She's a smart creative person who has a lot to give to the world and I really liked seeing her grow stronger and begin to find her own voice and take the scary step of confronting people and asking for what she wanted. It felt so liberating!

Although her relationship with Maxine was sometimes strained, Maxine helped Jade to take this initiative. It was rough though. Maxine had to convince Jade she was worth spending time with, and had to convince Jade's mother that she wasn't overstepping her bounds. Jade's mom worked really hard but was also a great mother, and didn't appreciate being treated like she wasn't there for her daughter, who consequently needed another adult woman to help her out. But eventually mom and Maxine got to know each other more and the relationships all solidified a bit. It was an interesting dynamic to watch unfold.

The audiobook was narrator by the author, who doesn't sound like a professional narrator, but I liked listening to her. She had a casual, conversation tone that sounded appropriate for a teenage girl.

This was only about 5.5 hours long, so it only took me about a week. I usually just listen on my commute, but I found myself carving out time at home to listen while doing other things. Jade was a great character, and I loved seeing her come into her own and really start standing up for herself. She'll go far, and she doesn't need any more well-meaning help to do it.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Good Luck With That

Good Luck With That by Kristan Higgins (2018)

I know Kristan Higgins from the very enjoyable Blue Heron series, but now she's writing outside of the romance genre. Good Luck With That is the story of three friends who met as teenagers at "fat camp" and have stayed close over the years. Marley and Georgia especially so, but Emerson has kept her distance a bit. When they are reunited at Emerson's deathbed, she leaves them a final wish: complete the list of goals they made when they were teenagers. The list was called Things We'll Do When We're Skinny and included items such as "eat dessert in public," "get a piggyback ride from a guy," "tuck in a shirt," and various other things they felt they had to be skinny in order to do.

Emerson's death was directly attributable to her vast weight gain, causing difficulty moving her from the house to the hospital and requiring a specially sized casket after her death. When Marley and Georgia arrived at the hospital to visit Emerson, they were shocked and appalled at her condition. I was very taken aback in those early chapters and wondered if the book was going to be fat-shamey, but stuck it out. I didn't yet know Marley and Georgia, and had I been able to get to know them before they appeared at Emerson's bedside I think I would have felt better about their reactions to her condition. Although she dies early in the book, we do get Emerson's story through the journal entries she left behind. It was a pretty sad story, and isolating herself from her closest friends made it all the more worse.

Marley and Georgia weren't without their own struggles. Georgia was the thinnest of the three, constantly being encouraged/shamed by her mother, who arguably had her own serious eating issues. Georgia, an attorney turned preschool teacher, was once married to a fantastic man, but basically sabotaged the marriage because she was so uncomfortable with herself and didn't think she deserved him. Now, he has appeared again in her social sphere and she realizes she still doesn't have closure over their failed marriage. Marley is a personal chef with her own business, who pines after her brother's coworker, a guy who she's slept with a few times but who keeps his distance in public. Marley is probably the most well-adjusted and ok with herself character in the book.

I really liked Georgia and Marley's friendship, and the way they honored Emerson's memory by working to complete the items on the list - but not waiting until they were skinny. This isn't a book about weight loss, but rather about the relationship women have with food and their weight and the pressures to be thin, and the way we think we need to be a certain size in order to deserve love and happiness. Sometimes it made me uncomfortable, which is not a bad thing, but mostly I got really sucked into these women's stories. Kristan Higgins is noted for her humor, and there were many many funny moments in this book. It was super easy to get into and I couldn't put it down for the very few days I was reading it. There was a lot going on in the characters' lives - much more than even what I've mentioned - and I was very invested in their stories.

The style reminds me a lot of old school chick lit, which I really miss. Although there are serious issues, it's told in a light and upbeat way with a lot of humor, and although it's not a romance there is definitely romance in the story. It's a perfect summer read.

Good Luck With That is due out in August. I received my copy courtesy of the publisher, and was not compensated for my review.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Four Tendencies

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How To Make Your Life Better by Gretchen Rubin (2017)

I listen to By the Book, a podcast hosted by two women who read and live by self-help books for two weeks at a time and then talk about it on their show. It's hilarious! They haven't done this book, but many of their fans have mentioned it in their Facebook community. I'm familiar with Gretchen Rubin because I used to read her Happiness Project blog back before she ever got a book deal (although I stopped when I had had enough of the relentless pursuit of happiness), and I'm always interested in understanding personality types. So I thought this might be helpful.

Rubin has boiled people down to four basic types, or tendencies as she calls them, according to how they meet expectations from themselves and others. Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations; Questioners meet inner, but not outer, expectations; Obligers meet outer, but not inner, expectations; and Rebels basically refuse to meet any expectations.

What this means in practical terms is that, for example, Obligers will be dependable at meeting deadlines set by their boss but may struggle to go to the gym regularly. However, if they have a gym buddy they're supposed to go with, they'll go because they won't want to let that other person down. According to Rubin, most people are Obligers. Questioners need reasons for what they do, so they don't meet expectations from others unless they are themselves convinced that it makes sense. They also tend to be the people who will research something to death before making a decision about it. Upholders regularly meet inner and outer expectations. They are rule-followers who tend to form new habits fairly easily. Rebels are the opposite - they are all about freedom and doing whatever they want in the moment, resisting expectations from themselves as much as they resist expectations from others.

If you know me at all, you'll immediately recognize me as an Upholder, which as far as I can tell, is the very best tendency. I may be biased. We are the ones who are often accused of being rigid. It's true that I like to have a plan and stick to it, even if that plan is going home and putting on my pajamas at 7pm and reading all evening. That is just as legit as what someone else wants me to do.
But I'm super grateful that I happen to find my own expectations just as important as the expectations of others - I rarely, if ever, fall into the trap of saying "yes" too much until my plate is too full and I'm overwhelmed. I also do tend to form habits fairly easily and stick to plans, though I have recently gotten better at allowing myself to drop things when I no longer think they're helpful or relevant. In case you're wondering, my husband is most definitely a Rebel and according to Rubin, the Upholder/Rebel pairing is pretty much the worst combination of tendencies to have in a relationship. So there you have it.

Obviously, not everyone in each category is the same, and there is overlap. (I think I have a little bit of Questioner, for example.) Plus of course, people have other aspects of their personalities that can dilute or mitigate their tendencies. But what I like about this, and other personality-sorting such as the Enneagram, is that it's a tool to take a closer look at why people do the things the they do and act the way they act. In terms of interpersonal relationships, I find it very useful to look at people in different ways. I'm a manager and of course I immediately tried to sort people in my department into categories, although to be honest, these categories are just giving me names for things I already knew about them. (And I thank my lucky stars I don't have to supervise any Rebels.) But for people I don't know as well, it might actually be helpful in figuring out their motivations. This kind of personality analysis is also helpful in understanding oneself too, of course. Upholders are a pretty small group, apparently, and I definitely fall into the trap Rubin (also an Upholder) mentioned, in which I don't understand why people can't just do the thing they've said they want to do, or are expected to do. Just do it! Do the thing! Do all of the things! Make a list and follow it! Yeah, that's apparently not how most people operate, so I need to realize that I'm actually the weirdo in sticking to things I've decided I want or need to do, sometimes regardless of whether it even still makes sense.

Although I found this book fairly interesting and helpful at the beginning, the long sections devoted to each type were a bit bloated and I got especially bogged down during Obliger. It got very repetitive - how many times must you repeat that Obligers meet outer expectations but not inner expectations? It felt like this fairly short book would have been better as a lengthy article. But maybe it's just because I'm not invested enough in the idea that I need such thorough explanations and numerous examples.

If you're interested in learning your own tendency (though you may already recognize it from my descriptions above) you can take the quiz here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)

I first heard of Bryan Stevenson back in 2014 when I read the book No Choirboy, a teen book about teens on death row. Stevenson is an attorney who was mentioned in the book because he's an advocate for people treated unfairly by the justice system. He also appears in the documentary 13th, which is about racial inequality in the U.S. justice system. I've admired him ever since I heard of his work, and recently I finally made a point to read his book.

Stevenson's passion for justice is clear and unwavering and he has spent his entire career helping those who need it the most. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides representation for prisoners who were wrongly convicted or didn't receive a fair trial. We learn about many of these case in the book, and they are all horrifying.

The story focused on the most is that of Walter McMillian, a black man convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At the time of the murder he was at a fish fry with many friends and family, but their testimony was completely disregarded and he was convicted on the basis of one witness who was obviously lying, but he was white and everyone wanted to convict someone for this terrible murder. It was obvious to Stevenson that McMillian's trial had been a farce, but even so it took quite a while to get McMillian set free.

Other stories are equally as horrifying. A 14-year-old girl accidentally started a fire in which two people died and was sentence to life without parole. An intellectually disabled woman was charged with killing her baby and, facing a capital charge, took a plea for life in prison - but there was no baby. She had never even been pregnant. A 13-year-old boy shot a woman (she lived) and was sentence to life without parole. He was sent to an adult prison and because such young prisoners are often targets for abuse, he was put in solitary confinement and kept there for 18 years.

Although Stevenson won some of his cases, he didn't win them all. He wrote about one death row inmate he wasn't able to save. He visited the man on the last night of his life and then witnessed his execution. He reflected:

"In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn't implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would. I couldn't stop thinking that we don't spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves."

I learned about so many terrible things from this book. Black defendants having all-white juries at their trials, and racist jurors not being excluded. That by 2010 the state of Florida had sentenced over 100 kids to life without parole. Kids! That between 1990 and 2005 a new prison opened in the United States every 10 days. That the drugs used for lethal injection had been banned for animal euthanasia because they caused a painful and tortuous death, which led to correctional authorities obtaining them illegally for executions.

I knew that our justice system was flawed. I've read The New Jim Crow. But reading this...I felt like it's more than flawed. It's completely broken and useless. Why hasn't there been a huge outcry? Why hasn't it been fixed? Do other people who work in the system not care? Thank goodness for people like Bryan Stevenson and the other attorneys at his organization who are trying to fix the horrible injustices that have been allowed to take place.

It was very hard to read, especially in the current political climate in which the current administration seems determined to undo the social progress we've made. But I also think it's very important to read - Americans need to understand that this is happening. I know there's a strong movement against mass incarceration and towards prison reform, and I only hope it can result and real and lasting change.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Princess in Theory

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole (2018), narrated by Karen Chilton

Busy, working graduate student Naledi starts getting emails claiming she's betrothed to an African prince, which she deletes because of course they're spam BUT THEY'RE NOT SPAM. Prince Thabiso has to travel to New York on business and decides to seek her out in person, which goes terribly awry when she mistakes him for a new hire at her waitressing job and he plays along with it only to set a table on fire. Needless to say, it's not a good impression. But when he turns up in the apartment next door to her and offers to cook her dinner, they smooth things over and soon it starts heating up between them. But she still thinks his name is Jamal and he doesn't reveal his real identity, or their shared background, so that's rather a ticking time bomb.

Naledi only remembers New York. Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was very young and she grew up in a series of foster homes. None of them stuck and she is without family, struggling to complete her education. She needs an internship and hasn't heard back from the person she's supposed to be interning for, and this is a great source of stress, in addition to the demands on her time with school and two jobs. Even as she becomes more and more attracted to the guy she knows as Jamal, she is convinced that their relationship won't go anywhere.

The setup alone was enough to get me to read this book, but the execution was fantastic. Naledi definitely has some self-esteem issues when it comes to relationships, and the knowledge that Thabiso was lying to her about such huge issues really hung over me throughout the story. But not too long - this isn't one of those stories where it all comes out very late in the book and then they get over it and live happily ever after. No, there is a lot more to this story and that's what makes it so good.

When all is said and done we learn about Thabiso's country and his life, the issues facing them and why they're all counting on him to get married, the whole story behind Thabiso and Naledi's childhood betrothal and, finally, why Naledi's family fled Thesolo and started a new life. Throughout, Naledi tried to come to terms with Thabiso's lies, her attraction to him, and how the situation would affect - or not? - her life. They were both such great characters. Naledi down-to-earth and practical, but passionate about her work in public health, Thabiso raised to have his every need served but still empathetic to the needs of his people.

Literally the only thing wrong with this book is that when Naledi learned Thabiso's real identity she never expressed concern about what happened to the real Jamal, who probably really needed that job. (Thabiso intercepted him outside and paid him something like $20k to not go in, so he's fine. She just doesn't know that.)

The audio narrator was great (she did the accents, though I have no idea if she based the Thesaloian accent on a real African language) and I thought this was a great choice for audio. I mean, there were some sexytimes that were fairly graphic and I always feel a little weird listening on the bus even though I know nobody can hear what I'm hearing. But overall it was a fun and satisfying listening experience.

Fun fact: Alyssa Cole is known for her great dresses, which she buys from an Etsy shop called Adorned by Nicole. The dress on the cover is actually a dress designed by that shop. So if you love it (and why wouldn't you?) you know where you can get one.

The book I've been reading in print at the same time as this one is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which is all about our horrible broken justice system and innocent people being executed. But we have to also read things that make us feel good and remind ourselves why life is even worth living in the first place. So do yourself a favor and pick up a story that you know is going to end well - like this one. As much as we need to pay attention to horrible stuff happening around us, sometimes we also need to escape for a little while.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by Robert Galbraith (2013)

This is the first crime novel by J.K. Rowling, who initially published it under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I've heard great things about it - about the whole series - and I love all of Rowling's other books, so it was only a matter of time before I read it. Of course it's fairly long so I kept putting it off, and it ended up on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list.

The story opens on the aftermath of an apparent suicide. A famous model has jumped from her balcony, and police and paparazzi swarm the street outside her London home. But her brother refuses to believe she killed herself and hires private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate. One witness, a resident of the building's first floor, claims to have heard Lula Landry arguing with a man before falling to her death, but is this witness credible? Is there something suspicious about Landry's down-and-out friend Rochelle, who seems like she doesn't want to be found? And what of Landry's estranged boyfriend? The police consider it an open-and-shut case of suicide, but to Strike too many unanswered questions remain.

Cormoran Strike is in the midst of his own difficulties. As the story begins, he's just begun living in his office after a devastating breakup, business not healthy enough to support his renting an apartment. He has a new secretary sent by a temp agency, Robin, who is fascinated by Strike's work and dreads being moved on to her next job. This tension permeates the novel, as Robin proves herself worthy of more than just administrative duties due to her cleverness and resourcefulness, but Strike knows he can't afford to keep her on. Robin is engaged to a guy named Matthew who disapproves of her working for Strike, and I kept hoping she would dump him. It's a sketchy situation really, working for a guy who is clearly living in his office but trying unsuccessfully to hide that fact. He also tries to hide his prosthetic leg, crankily urging Robin to leave when he's been walking a lot and just needs to take his leg off for some relief but refuses to do so with her there. I loved seeing their very different personalities interact, especially as the story progressed and they got more comfortable with each other.

Along the way, we learn a lot about Landry's life. Her adoptive family, as well as her reconnection with her birth mother and search for her biological father. We also meet her friends, both the unlikely - Rochelle, who she met in rehab - and the other models as well as a designer she modeled for and had a close relationship with. We also learn about Strike's life: the son of a groupie and a rock star, everyone knows who his father is and mention him whenever they meet Strike, but he himself has only met his father a couple of times. The similarities between Landry's and Strike's life were apparent, but so were the vast differences, but both characters were fully realized even though one was already dead when the book began.

It was long, as I mentioned, but not unnecessarily so. The mystery of Lula Landry's death had many twists and turns and it took Strike - with Robin's help - a long time to investigate all the leads. It did take me a long time to read, but it was definitely worth it. There are two more books in the series, with a fourth to come later this year, so I look forward to picking those up at some point.