A clever (perhaps too clever for its own good), twisty (ditto) post-Cold War thriller by the late, great John Ford. I think this is his only non-sff novel, though it is arguably alternate history and possibly sf of the techno-thriller variety.

It juggles a lot of complex puzzle pieces, action set-pieces, and short, sharp character sketches into a whirlwind of a story concerning double agents, a newly discovered play which may be by Christopher Marlowe or may be a clever hoax, secret codes, war games, theatre, academia, the complications of love, spies in Elizabethan times, spies in Cold War times, and spies in the 1980s.

I had read this before, and recalled enjoying it but not having a clue what was going on, and I forgot the plot immediately upon finishing it. I finished my re-read fifteen minutes ago; I enjoyed it, but I still don't understand much of what happened or why. I can follow the general outlines of people running around, shooting at and betraying each other, and unraveling complex codes and schemes, but neither the details of how they're doing it or the overall reasons why, let alone who's really on which side.

Ford was undoubtedly much smarter than me (I am pretty sure he was much smarter than nearly everyone) and I don't expect to understand all the details and allusions and subtext, or even a lot of the plot, the first time I read any of his books. He tends to leave out a lot of stuff that other writers would put in, necessitating that the readers infer from the signposts he left, in lieu of an actual trail.

But this book depends more on plot than most of his; the characters exist to serve the plot rather than the other way around. It's set up as a mystery, but I didn't understand about two-thirds of the solution.

It's well-written but too subtle to quite work as a mystery/thriller. On the other hand, without Ford's usual depth of character and allusion, it feels a bit lightweight. It's definitely worth reading if you're a Ford completist, and is way more easily obtainable than it used to be, with cheap used paperback copies on Amazon. But it's a distinctly minor work.

Just a few of the many things I didn't understand:

Read more... )

The Scholars of Night
A noir mystery so well-written and cleverly structured that it overcame my usual dislike of reading about narcissistic hipster yuppies, not to mention my usual dislike of multiple plot elements which are too spoilery to mention.

Nick’s wife Amy has vanished without a trace, and Nick’s very first chapter contains unsettling musings about the beauty of her skull and the confession that he lied repeatedly in his interview with the police. His narration, which begins the day vanished and continues forward from there, alternates with Amy’s diary, which begins when they first met and also continues forward. Nick is clearly concealing some secrets, but did he kill her? Amy’s narration seems more subtly unreliable, detailing how she makes herself into a paper-thin image of the perfect woman, as portrayed in the shallow magazine quizzes she writes. Is she really fooling herself?

I guessed the main twist upon hearing the premise, and another about a quarter of the way into the book; if you’ve read a lot of mysteries, you will have come across these twists before, though probably not half so well-executed. So the pleasure for me was in the excellent prose and the suspense of the unfolding, in the details rather than the broad strokes. I knew where the story was headed, in general terms, but the smaller twists took me by surprise. I was up till 3:00 AM reading, and have no regrets.

Warning: even for noir, the characters are incredibly unlikable. I did care what happened to them, but not because I liked them.

You can read the beginning of the book here.

Giant spoilers lurk below.

Read more... )
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.

In Madeleine Robins' alternate Regency mysteries, Sarah Tolerance became a Fallen Woman when, as a teenager, she ran off with her fencing master. When the series opens, she is a young widow who has created a new role for herself as an investigative agent, solving mysteries with the help of her wits, her knowledge of society... and her awesome swordfighting skills.

This witty, clever, immersive, and sometimes quite angsty set of novels is one of those series that could have been a huge mainstream hit, but wasn't. Perhaps it was because of the horrific cover of the first book, Point of Honour, in which Sarah Tolerance appears to be either a vampire or a zombie. Perhaps marketing was lacking, or wrongly focused. Or perhaps it was chance. Whatever the reason, they got a small cadre of devoted fans, then fell out of print.

However, the series has been re-launched with a new novel (print only, from a different publisher) and Kindle editions of the old ones. They don't have to be read in sequence, but I'd recommend it. In order, they are Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and the new one, The Sleeping Partner.

The Sleeping Partner has less suspense and swordfighting than the previous two, and focuses more on Sarah Tolerance's past and her present relationships, and on the place of women in society. It's absorbing and thoughtful, and has a nice surprise!historical figure cameo near the end. If you liked the previous novels, you will like it.

Can someone who knows the period and has read the books explain to me the differences in Robins' alt-Regency and the real one? I get that the actual regent is different, but I don't know enough to be able to tell how that affected the society and how that enables Sarah to do what she does.

Robins has also released several regular Regencies on Kindle. I haven't read any of those.
The compassionate Maisie Dobbs, once a nurse in WWI, becomes a private investigator ten years later, relying on her understanding of psychology to crack cases. Her first one, naturally, involves the damage done by the war, both to the people who served and the ones they left behind.

This well-written, thoughtful book works better as a novel than it does as a mystery; the sleuthing is very basic and the villain barely concealed. Some of the details of Maisie's history are a bit much - she began life as a servant but was lifted into a higher class because her employers were just that bowled over by how amazingly smart she was, and her thoughts about psychology sometimes sound more New Age than period - but all the parts dealing with the war and the wreckage it left in its wake are perceptive and moving. I'd read more in this series.

Maisie Dobbs
Rarely have I been so glad that I checked a book out of the library rather than buying it.

I picked up this bait-and-switch "mystery" because of the intriguing premise detailed on the back cover:

Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, land the first big murder case of their police careers: a 12-year-old girl has been murdered in the woods adjacent to a Dublin suburb. Twenty years before, two children disappeared in the same woods, and Ryan was found clinging to a tree trunk, his sneakers filled with blood, unable to tell police anything about what happened to his friends. Ryan, although scarred by his experience, employs all his skills in the search for the killer and in hopes that the investigation will also reveal what happened to his childhood friends.

SPOILER: Ha ha! Thought you'd find out what happened when he was a kid, right? Ha ha!

The majority of the book is about Ryan investigating a current mystery whose solution seems quite obvious and cliched, and having a cliched and annoying affair with his partner. Periodically, he tries to dig into far, far more interesting mystery of his past, and also the question of why he still can't remember anything about it. He regains tantalizing snippets of memories while investigating and finally figuring out the incredibly obvious solution to the current mystery, which I guessed a hundred pages before he did.

The current mystery comes to a deeply unsatisfying resolution, Read more... )

And then I metaphorically hurled the book across the room with great and metaphorical force.

I have ranted about this before (see hirshberg tag), but I HATE it when something is set up as a mystery which will have a solution, and then the author fails to solve the mystery and instead writes, "Like real life, some things are unknowable and some mysteries are never solved, so this too will have no resolution."

IT'S A MYSTERY NOVEL. It's up to the AUTHOR whether or not to solve the mystery.

I don't mind open-ended conclusions and having to draw my own conclusions about some things, but I very much dislike it when something is set up as a puzzle, and then not solved because it's "realistic." All else aside, in real life things aren't so clearly set up as puzzles!

Why this won the Edgar is beyond me.

In the Woods
Massey, a biracial (Indian-German-American) woman, used her experience living in Japan and dealing with cross-cultural issues to create a series of mysteries featuring a biracial Japanese-American woman antique dealer living in Tokyo.

I read the first bunch years ago and was charmed by the vivid and down to earth depiction of Tokyo, which was very close to my own experience of the city. The novels themselves are fluffy mysteries with romantic elements, each focusing on a different aspect of Japanese culture, such as ikebana in The Flower Master. I recall them as fun but not terribly well-written, and may also be quite dated by now judging by my experience with the one I just read.

Bride's Kimono, The is mostly set in American, as Rei Shimura gets a job shepherding a set of valuable kimono from a museum in Tokyo to one in Washington DC; naturally, a kimono is stolen, someone is murdered, her ex-boyfriend appears, and she’s accused of being a prostitute (!) and must clear her name, find the kimono, pick a man, and solve the crime, all the while stumbling through culture clashes with both Japanese and American people.

The new setting took away a lot of the fun of the series for me, though I did enjoy the details about antique kimono. I was a little boggled that in a book written in 2001, Rei had never used a computer and didn’t know what a mouse was; this was presented as slightly eccentric but not bizarre.

Nothing special, but I was entertained.
I have been using Book Mooch to collect out of print books that I long-ago bookmarked from other people's recs-- especially [livejournal.com profile] coffeeandink.

I have often admired Peter Dickinson's writing, but it strikes me as distanced and cold. This is the first book of his that I've liked as well as admired, because the tone fits the subject matter.

Ispector Pibble has recently been forced to leave the police department. It's not explained why in this book, but as it's a series it probably was in the last one. He pays a courtesy call, a favor for his wife (who never appears onstage) to an institute for children with cathypnia. This is an extremely convincing fictional genetic disease, somewhat similar to narcolepsy, which makes the children fat, constantly sleepy, and doomed to die young. Also, perhaps, telepathic.

Pibble notices the possibly telepathy almost immediately-- one of the pleasures of the book is how quietly sharp he is-- and is easily drawn in to experiments going on at the institution, as one of the doctors thinks Pibble is a "sender" who can match with the kids, who are "receivers." The children are convincing and unsentimentalized-- as is Pibble.

This is a very difficult book to discuss without spoilers. It reads like a very atmospheric novel of low-key suspense, but there's a lot going on under the surface. It's very intelligent, very well-written, and, by the end, very disturbing, but probably not in the way one might expect from the set-up. Though there are elements of that, too. I recommend it.

Ginormous spoilers )
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( May. 12th, 2006 09:18 pm)
My, I am in a spammy mood! Perhaps I am wishing for human contact in a language I speak. I was so delighted when I went to a Japanese restaurant in Madrid with Sara and Lawrence, because I had been bummed about my Spanish being so horrible and I hoped for a chance to speak a foreign language I can actually kind of speak. Except the waitress we got was Korean and didn't even know the Japanese word for plum. (So comment away!)

Today I read C. J. Cherryh's Gate of Ivrel, an earlyish work, I suspect, in the drenchingly romatic style of Leigh Brackett or early George R R Martin, but in Cherryh's spare-formal prose style (she has others) and with her usual tendency to never let her heroes get a decent night's sleep or a bite of satisfying food.

Vanye is a... hmm, sort of a ronin, though the culture on his backward planet is not Japanese-ish.. he's an outlaw warrior who must swear himself to some lord for a year of duty. He's still unsworn when a deer he shoots staggers between the shimmering air of a magic cursed gate, and a tall pale woman rides out: Morgaine, last seen a hundred years ago and not aged a day, nor remembered fondly. The gates are the destructive remnants of an ancient dead civilization who used them to travel in space and time, she is on a mission to walk from world to world, closing each gate behind her lest they destroy the universe, until the end of time, or her death, or the last gate closes behind her.

She is cold and harsh and the last survivor of her mission party; he is brave, in the sense that he has fear and does the right thing anyway, and more gentle than is healthy; he can't understand exactly what she's doing and why, and he's going to follow her anyway, no matter what. I think Oyce would especially like this.

Victor Appleton: Tome Swift: The Astral Fortess. Pulp sf I enjoyed as a kid wand was delighted to find used. It's fun. You're all too old to read it. Here's a sample:

Benjamin Franklin Walking Eagle, Tom's co-pilot and best friend, was already checking the stratling information Aristotle had described by running it through the Exedra's main computer. Ben's face bore the same intense look of concentration that his Indian ancestors had worn while stalking buffalo so many generations before.

Lindsey Davis, Silver Pigs. Mystery set in ancient Rome, in the wisecracking private eye style, about an 'informer'-- aka private eye-- Marcus Didius Falco. This works surprisingly well. The voice is great, the details seem authentic, and the relationships between the characters are wonderful.

Donna Leon, Blood from a Stone. Murder mystery set in contemporary Venice, starring a police commissioner. Very well-written and atmospheric, but suffers from an overdose of noir corruption and angst, so that the protagonist does not solve the mystery himself, but has the solution handed to him by a powerful figure in the know, and then can't do anything with the information. Also, the mystery concerns Senegalese immigrants, and everyone keeps bemoaning that they know nothing about them, but no one ever so much as gets online to google some basic info on their country of origin.
Three suspense novels, all of them entertaining reads, none of them in the first rank of those author's works. I'd recommend any of them as airplane reads, since they'd keep you glued to the pages, but could be abandoned without too much of a qualm when you're done. Well, personally, I wouldn't abandon the Holland, but that's because it's out of print and you'd never be able to find it again if you wanted to re-read it.

See my overview of Barbara Michaels for more details on her work. Be Buried in the Rain is mid-range Michaels, with some intriguing elements but somewhat awkward plotting and a less-than-compelling romantic subplot. Julie is a medical student who gets stuck spending her summer break caring for her grandmother Martha, who has had a stroke, on her picturesquely decaying Virginia mansion with attached Spooky Historic Graveyard (TM). When Julie was a child, her mother left her with the physically and emotionally abusive Martha for several years. At that time Martha managed to cripple Julie's self-esteem, and later destroyed her relationship with a guy named Alan. Alan, now an anthropologist, has returned to Virginia, intent on excavating the Spooky Historic Graveyard (TM); naturally, the romance rekindles, although the most compelling relationship in the book is between Julie and a stray dog she adopts.

This is a little difficult to describe without spoilers, but my problem with the main plot, which involves a mysterious female skeleton found holding a baby's skeleton (Aieeee!), is that it trundles along without much input from Julie, so that her story doesn't seem very integrated with the suspense plot until near the end. If you read this book, I recommend not doing so as bedtime reading. I finished it in bed, and the fucking creepy final paragraph terrorized me not only that night, but for about the next three nights.

Isabelle Holland's Bump in the Night is a non-Gothic suspense novel about Martha (yes, another Martha), an alcoholic divorced mother whose son is kidnapped by a pedophile. It sets up that in order to save him, she must remain sober, but actually the fact that she remains sober throughout the book turns out to be more of a personal victory than the means to saving her son. The son has a more active role than one might expect, which I kind of liked but which also, rather like the Michaels book, made Martha a marginalized player in her own story. This is one of those books which would have had to be substantially rewritten if cell phones had existed at that time, as interminable amounts of verbiage concern people waiting for phone calls and trying in vain to call each other. There are animals in this one too-- the son's cat and a neighborhood cat lady's cats have minor but significant roles.

The hero of Dick Francis' Second Wind is a weather forecaster whose decision to accompany a friend who wants to fly his private plane into the eye of a hurricane sucks him into an elaborate suspense plot. The plot in question doesn't really hang together for-- I swear I really did read all three of these books in quick succession-- the same reason as the two above: the plot would have worked out in pretty much the same way if the protagonist hadn't existed. Also, the romance is perfuctory. There's a great shipwrecked on a deserted island sequence, though. This one doesn't have any characters named Martha, but a filly and a herd of cows play supporting but crucial roles.
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