Slavery shaped Benjamin January’s life; he and his sister Olympe were born slaves, before his mother was purchased as a mistress. It’s been a prominent part of the background of previous books. But it takes center stage here, when the man Ben least wants to meet again— Fourchet, his cruel previous owner— offers to hire him to go undercover as a slave on his plantation, to investigate a murder and possible brewing slave rebellion.

It’s the last thing Ben wants to do. But he needs the money. More importantly, if he doesn’t do it, the slaves may well end up suffering even more. (A major theme of the book is that even people who are living in horrible conditions often still have a lot left to lose, and desperately cling to what little they have.) And so Ben ends up back on the plantation, thirty years after he left. Though his act of (largely) altruism is intended to make sure the status quo doesn’t get even worse rather than to literally rescue anyone, it reminded me of Harriet Tubman returning to the scene of her worst nightmares to take others to freedom.

Hambly doesn’t stint on the physical horror of slavery, but focuses more on the psychological aspects— families ripped apart, human beings treated as non-human, and the pervasive terror coming from the knowledge that one’s master can do absolutely anything to you or your loved ones at any time. It’s also one of the best depictions I’ve come across of how people work to keep their humanity, maintain loving relationships, and find moments of happiness and humor in the absolute worst imaginable circumstances.

While I hesitated to recommend Fever Season, I would definitely recommend this if you can cope with the setting. The overall mood is way less depressing, because the story is more action-based, Ben has more inner strength and hope, and there’s more emphasis on relationships. Not to mention a way more uplifting ending. And a fair amount of secret banter between Ben and Hannibal, who is impersonating his owner. The action climax is a bit incongruous given the relentless realism of the plantation life that makes up most of the book, but as an action climax, it’s spectacular. Abishag Shaw has a smallish but absolutely wonderful part in this; sadly, Rose is barely in it. Hopefully she’ll be more prominent in the next book.

This is a very dark book (due to inherent qualities of the subject matter, not due to cement truck plot twists), but also one where the bright spots shine very brightly by contrast. It has the most moving and happiest ending of any of the books so far. Where many novels are fantasies of empowerment, in some ways this is a fantasy of justice. It’s explicitly stated to be limited to the characters we meet (and not all of them), not to mention being fictional. But it’s satisfying nonetheless. In real life, some slaves did escape, and some masters did meet well-deserved bitter ends. That was the exception rather than the rule, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to read about the exceptions. When you’re dealing with devastating injustice, both now and then, you need hope as well as rage.

Sold Down the River (Benjamin January, Book 4)
Benjamin January # 3! This one was way less grim than Fever Season. I realize that's easy to say, so I will give it an independent grimness rating.

Grimness of content: Medium. Racism and other isms, slavery, murder; child abuse is discussed but not shown.

Grimness of tone: Low. The subtitle is "a novel of suspense" and that accurately describes the tone. It's a very atmospheric mystery with some excellent action and really great characters. I loved everyone in this book, except for the villains and racists, obviously. Also, it contains a number of fun tropes, including hurt-comfort, creepy pottery, courtroom drama, spirit possession, and dodging alligators in the bayou. Plus Marie Laveau. The plot is very well-constructed and entertaining. And there's some very funny banter, plus a number of dramatic, alarming, and/or hilarious courtroom scenes.

Benjamin January is a devout Catholic and regularly prays for the soul of his sister Olympe, a voodoo practitioner. When Olympe is railroaded into jail for poisoning a man, mostly due to prejudice against voodoo, Ben gets on the case.

I really enjoyed the portrayal of voodoo. Hambly has an afterword discussing her research (she's a historian) and interviews with current practitioners where she gives a sense of how varied the practice and history is-- as is the case in any religion. From Ben's outsider/insider perspective, it's simultaneously alien and disturbing, familiar and enticing. It was a great way to convey how any religion is sustaining and ordinary for its followers, and exotic and weird to outsiders who don't understand it. Marie Laveau is one of my favorite characters in the series, and she naturally has a big part in this.

For the first time, supernatural forces appear as a (possibly) real force. The vivid scenes of spirit possession can be interpreted as simply the power of belief, but they make more sense if the Loa are objectively real. I liked the delicate balance of deniability at play through the whole book.

Since my favorite thing about this series is the characters, I'll do a check-in. Augustus Mayerling, the sword master who was one of my favorites from the first book, re-appears. Poor Hannibal is so sick with consumption that it was a relief to know while reading that he's still alive ten books later-- he spends most of the book either in bed or helping Ben with various tasks while trying not to pass out. (Someone said he's based on George Alec Effinger? Can you enlarge on that?) Rose makes some satisfying appearances, though I wish she was in the story more. Ben's awful mother Livia is still hilariously, deliciously catty. Olympe and her family have nice big roles-- I really like her, her husband, and her son Gabriel. And Ben has a really satisfying character arc.

Graveyard Dust
Benjamin January is working at a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos, and due to being endemic in Africa, many people from Africa have some level of immunity. The characters in the book are aware of the latter fact but not the former, and have no useful treatment even if they did know the cause.) Meanwhile, both free people of color and slaves are mysteriously vanishing. In more cheerful news— well, cheerful for a while— Ben meets Rose, a free woman of color running a school for girls. Rose is a great character, and their slow burn romance is lovely.

That being said, the book as a whole was awesomely depressing. Not only was it set in a yellow fever epidemic, not only did it contain a brief but absolutely horrifying torture sequence, but both the epidemic and the horrifying torture were actual historic events, ie, they really happened to real people. Also, dead children. Truly grimdark, though not gratuitously given that it’s real history. Not even Ben and Rose’s charming courtship and politicly crude policeman Abishag Shaw’s delightful way with words ("But I do think I should point out to you that even if Miss Chouteau gets cleared of Borgialatin the soup herself, it ain't gonna win her freedom,") can lift the general gloom.

I have been told that this and Sold Down the River are the darkest books in the whole series. However, I already started Graveyard Dust, and it looks like Hambly is careful to get new readers up to speed on events, so Fever Season is probably skippable if you like the characters but want to miss the awesome depressingness.

Fever Season

Spoilers: Read more... )
Barbara Hambly has written some of my very favorite fantasy novels. She’s also famous for the Benjamin January series, about a free black man who solves mysteries in 1830s New Orleans.

I never got around to reading these, despite hearing very positive things, because American historical racism— particularly in the slavery era— is something I find crushingly depressing. Just to be clear: contemporary racism is also depressing. However, there’s certain topics which I personally find really hard to handle, either from over-exposure or just because. Slavery in America is in the top five, along with the Holocaust. I am also a very hard sell on books set in concentration camps.

However, several fans pointed out to me that the Benjamin January series is not solely about racism, and that later books in the series focus more on adventuring. Also that there’s dueling, hurt-comfort, and pirates, and that really the series is about found family and community.

I give you this preface in case you’ve also been avoiding the series for fear of crushing depressingness. This book is not crushingly depressing! I really enjoyed it. Also, for those of you who like worldbuilding, it creates an engrossing, vivid, complex, and, as far as I’m aware, extremely historically accurate milieu. Lots of suspense! Great female characters. Also great male characters. Even very minor characters, who appear only for a scene or two, often suggest an entire novel’s worth of backstory.

I am horrible at following the plots of mysteries and basically read them for the characters and the setting. So I will avoid a close description of the plot. I will just say that Benjamin January was born a slave and freed as a child, became a surgeon in Paris but couldn’t make a living because he was black, and recently moved back to New Orleans after his wife died because everything in Paris reminded him of her.

New Orleans is both familiar and foreign to him after his long absence, which makes him a perfect narrator: he knows everything the reader needs to know, and notices everything because it’s all slightly alien to him. He’s a believably honorable and decent person who tries his best to do the right thing, even in circumstances that make that seem like the worst possible option.

A woman is murdered at a ball, and he’s sucked deeper and deeper into the investigation. The mystery is cleverly constructed, but it’s also an excuse to introduce the society, the characters, and their complex relationships. January is intensely conscious of everyone’s place in society, including his own; the scenes which I did find hard to read were the ones where he’s forced to abase himself to white people in order to survive. Like noir, the murder investigation inevitably uncovers the rot and injustice in society; unlike noir, people who take care of each other and try to do the right thing may well triumph.

I found the novel interesting but slow going for about the first two thirds. There are a lot of characters, some of whom have several names, and I kept losing track of the minor ones. But at that two-thirds mark, January leaves New Orleans to investigate, and the book becomes incredibly suspenseful from that point on. Also, a certain favorite thing of mine makes a delightful surprise appearance that I won't spoil.

I will definitely read more of this. Especially now that I’ve figured out who everyone is and how they’re related. I spent an embarrassingly long time thinking that Minou and Dominique were two different people rather than one person with a nickname.

(I also did this in the Lymond chronicles, which had a character named something like Edmund, Earl of Sandwich, who was alternately called Edmund and Sandwich. It took me two books to figure out that they were the same guy. You’d think I’d have less trouble with movies, but I once was startled when the black-haired, blue-eyed protagonist of a war movie reappeared after his tragic death. I then realized that there were two black-haired, blue-eyed soldiers.)

In short: if you want to read a meticulously researched historical novel in which intersectionality is essential to the story, this book is it. But if that’s all you’ve previously heard about it, I wanted to point out that it’s also surprisingly fun. Daring escapes and dramatic battles figure prominently in the last third.

A Free Man of Color
In Flying Finish, Henry Gray is a lonely, buttoned down, slightly impoverished earl with a pilot's license, a chip on his shoulder about his ancestry, and a bad attitude in general. When his sister goes deservedly ballistic on him, he attempts to shake himself out of his rut by taking a job as a groom who escorts horses on international flights.

His life starts to change when he notices an odd pattern: grooms on flights between England and Italy tend to vanish in Italy. And then, on one flight, he meets an Italian woman who smuggles birth control pills (illegal in Italy at that time) and speaks no English. It's love at first sight - probably the only love-at-first-sight story that I've ever found truly convincing. (I completely buy sexual attraction at first sight, and camaraderie/connection within a brief conversation. But Francis sells me on actual love.) Meanwhile, Henry begins to realize that the vicious young groom who's been bullying him on flights may not only resent Henry for being a lord...

Despite some oddities and dated bits, Flying Finish is one of my favorite Francis novels. The romance subplot pulls off a very difficult premise, and the climax is a masterpiece of sustained suspense. Warning for horse harm. Also for human harm.

In some ways Rat Race feels like a run-up to Flying Finish. It also features a withdrawn pilot hero and some extremely suspenseful flying sequences. But the romance, while nice, isn't as memorable, and the hero's blossoming from a going-through-the-motions existence to actually living isn't as vividly drawn. It's also hampered by a hilariously dated portrayal of a creeper hippie. (Creeper hippies still exist. It's the language that hasn't aged well.)
Re-read. This has one of Francis’s best premises, and the execution lives up to it. Neil Griffon, an antique dealer, has temporarily taken over his trainer father’s stable after his father was seriously injured in a car crash. Neil is kidnapped by a dangerous madman who demands, on pain of destroying the stable, that Neil hire his son Alessandro as a jockey… and let him ride their prize stallion in the Kentucky Derby.

The theme here is fathers and sons. Neil’s father was emotionally abusive and distant, but competent in his own sphere; Neil, forced to step into his shoes, must gain the trust of all the employees who prefer his father. Alessandro’s father is a sociopathic megalomaniac, but gave him everything he ever wanted. The heart of the book is the relationship between Alessandro and Neil, an oddly paternal one though Neil is only 15 years older, and Alessandro’s growth into becoming his own person.

Excellent suspense, plus Francis’s usual good characterization of the supporting cast. My favorite here was Etty, confident in her place as a female “head lad” in a male-dominated profession. Though Francis doesn’t use the word “asexual,” Neil describes her as having no interest in sex. The phrasing isn’t sensitive in current terms, but the sentiment is nonjudgmental.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way that Alessandro seemed to have stepped out of an entirely different novel, one where the arrogant and damaged young man is the romantic lead, and was forced to interact with Francis’s down-to-earth characters, who either didn’t notice how hot he was or noticed but didn’t let it cloud their judgment. His interactions with the no-time-for-this-shit Etty were comedy gold.

Warning for horse harm.
Re-reads, but it's been so long since I read High Stakes and Nerve that all I really remembered was that I didn't think they were in the top tier of Francis's books. Dick Francis is perfect for when you really want to read about someone having a worse day than you are. I may have bronchitis, but at least I'm not suicidally depressed/fighting off an axe-wielding criminal while I have a broken wrist/blindfolded, chained, and soaked in freezing water.


Blood Sport is the most interesting of the three. The plot isn't as well-tuned as his norm, with an unusual amount of low-stakes wandering around looking for clues, but the hero makes it memorable.

Gene is a former James Bond-type secret agent turned private eye (unusually for Francis - his heroes tend not to be professional hero types) suffering from long-term, severe depression. He spends a lot of the book trying to convince himself not to commit suicide. Treatment is never mentioned, and he seems to think it doesn't exist - at one point he muses that some day depression will be recognized as a disease, and babies will be inoculated against it. Originally published in 1967, when there most certainly were treatments for depression. However, to this day many depressed people never seek treatment, so I believe that Gene wouldn't.

In the first and best action set-piece, Gene's boss invites him on a boating trip, where Gene meets the boss's sweet 17-year-old daughter and saves someone's life in what appears to be, but of course is not, a boating accident. The boss gives him a job - hunting down a missing race horse in America - with the clear intent of keeping him too busy to off himself. There's a semi-romance with the teen daughter of the "I'll wait till you're 21" type, of which the best thing I can say is that it's less squicky than usual. There's a much better non-romance subplot involving a woman Gene's age who seems to be a standard unstable, alcoholic sexpot, but who is then given actual depth and a very satisfying storyline.

The pieces of this book don't fit together as well as Francis learned to do later. Gene has a helper who needed better characterization for his storyline to really work, and the final action climax isn't that climactic. But the depiction of depression is very realistic, and it's a good example of how to write a depressed hero without making the book itself depressing to read.

Nerve has an excellent A-plot, in which Rob Finn, a struggling jockey from a family of musicians, is the target of a plot to undermine his career. This book is impossible to put down starting from the first paragraph, in which a jockey shoots himself in front of Rob.

The B-plot, in which Rob tries to court his true love who won't marry him because they're cousins, is less successful. Francis is a bit hit-or-miss with romance. Some of his romances are fantastic. This one never quite worked for me - Joanna's "totally cousins" objection seemed a bit ridiculous and lampshading it didn't help. I never quite bought their relationship.

But the slow disintegration of Rob's career is nailbitingly readable, even though there's no physical jeopardy until about halfway through. The showpiece action sequence, in which Rob is kidnapped, blindfolded and chained, drenched in water on a freezing night, and must free himself and then race the next day, is brilliantly done. Nice comfort via hot soup afterward, too.

I had totally forgotten High Stakes before I re-read it and I can see why. Even now, it is fading from my memory. A toy inventor gets mixed up in some mystery involving racing and... um... wow, I honestly cannot remember more and I read this 48 hours ago. The romance is with a woman whose sole characterization is that she's American. The only parts I remember are the toys, which are cool, and an action sequence in the toy workshop.
Psychologist Alex Delaware gets tapped to help the police with a series of murders; his friend Milo the gay LAPD detective gets involved. So does a visiting Israeli cop, as one of the victims was the daughter of an Israeli diplomat.

I picked this up because it’s a mystery where the detective is a psychologist, and so is the author. It didn’t read differently from a book written by someone who’d just researched psychology, unfortunately. It’s set in LA, and I had the same feeling about that: there’s nothing inaccurate per se, but it’s not especially atmospheric and is somewhat cliched.

It’s clearly in the middle of the series, but I thought I could read them in any order. This turned out to be sort of true, but one of the characters, the Israeli cop, had a certain type of narrative weight that only occurs when they have been introduced very prominently somewhere else and have their own spin-off.

The book had good narrative drive, but became increasingly strange, melodramatic, and implausible as it went along. The plot turns on an evil MENSA club, of which the best I can say is that it’s at least marginally more plausible than the evil small press poets who were the villains of a non-comic novel I once read.

Delaware, who is happily married, goes undercover and is forced to pretend to flirt with an evil eugenicist sexpot. This is exactly as eye-rolly and slut-shaming as it sounds. And if a writer is going to go there at all, they need to make the hero make an actual choice between having sex or tanking the investigation. At the very least, Delaware needed to have a conversation with his wife about it. Instead, he tells her nothing, lets the Nazi slut molest him while alternately feeling self-righteously grossed out and guiltily turned on, and then, when he’s cornered by the slut-villain and seems about to finally have to make an actual choice, she is murdered by a third party. Psych!

As cop-outs go, this may be second only to the book in which the moustache-twirling sociopathic villain is confronted by the teenage pacifist hero. It looks like the latter will be forced to choose to compromise his principles and kill the villain, or keep his principles and let the villain kill his friends. But no! The villain conveniently decides to commit suicide by walking into the conveniently located ocean so the hero won’t have to dirty his hands.

Back to the Kellerman book, there is a lot of moralizing about how eugenics is wrong. Does anyone who is not a neo-Nazi think it’s not wrong? (I know, I’m sure many average people would be just fine with it. All the same, as a pressing current issue which needs a book to advocate against it, it’s an odd one to pick.) The subplot about the cop who sees such mind-destroying eeeeeeevil that he kills himself had similar issues-- the shocking reveal was that he'd had sex with exploited teenage prostitutes, which, yes, is very bad! But with the build-up it got, I was expecting him to have had sex with five-year-olds, then sacrificed them to Satan.

I am not sure I even understood exactly what happened at the climax, which was made even less coherent by Delaware being drugged and semi-conscious for it.

I was not impressed by this. Perhaps earlier installments are better? I was hoping for some actual psychology. I did like that there were gay cops and Jewish cops, but the book overall was so not good.

Survival of the Fittest: An Alex Delaware Novel
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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