In six months, Earth will be destroyed by a giant asteroid and everyone will die. Society is slowly disintegrating, with many services gone and lots of people bailing from their jobs or committing suicide. But some people are still hanging on... and one new detective is tackling his first murder case. But if everyone is going to be dead in six months anyway, does it matter if a single murder is solved?

I loved the premise of this story, which is such a great vehicle for exploring a lot of themes I'm interested in: does what we do matter if it's impermanent? What is worth doing if we know for a fact that our time is limited? What's worth doing if all the usual consequences are stripped away? And I liked the book to the degree that it explores those themes, and also to the degree that it does an interesting job of portraying life six months before the apocalypse.

That degree was mixed. Life before the apocalypse was pretty good, interesting, and convincing; things are falling apart, but not everyone reacts in the same way. My favorite moments were those concerning people doing stuff other than committing suicide in despair. (There were some of those, but John Wyndham did a more affecting depiction of that in The Day of the Triffids.) A new young cop chases a thief, gun ready, screaming, "Stop or I'll shoot, motherfucker!" and later confesses that she just didn't want to die without ever having done that; a barista sets up a game with coffee beans and paper cups for his customers to bet on where the asteroid will strike; a coroner stays on the job because it's what she's always wanted to do.

The main character, Hank Palace, also really wanted to be a cop, which partly explains his fixation on solving a case when he and the world only have six months left to live, but partly is also looking for something to take his mind off the apocalypse. The thematic issues I mentioned come up, but not in any great depth. They're suggested rather than explored, as Palace doggedly pursues leads while lots of people (but not all) question why he's even bothering. It's an issue which he seems to not want to dwell upon, which is understandable but which led me to expect him to have more of a revelation of or confrontation with his own motives at the climax. This doesn't really happen. He solves his case, which as with many mysteries is more interesting as a puzzle than a solution, and then the book ends abruptly. Not with an asteroid strike. With a "read the sequel!"

Worth reading if you like the premise, but not entirely satisfying. Not sure if I'll read the sequels; a skim of reviews suggested that they're pretty similar to this one.

The Last Policeman: A Novel (The Last Policeman Trilogy)
Koontz tends to write books with absolutely killer hooks and intros, but is much more uneven about middles and conclusions that live up to them. I am still annoyed that The Bad Place, which has the wonderful premise of a contemporary man who travels to an unknown planet or land in his sleep, sometimes bringing back riches and sometimes terrors, proceeded to an only barely related plot about detectives and genetic engineering rather than exploring the super-cool actual premise. This book also has a killer hook, and also proceeds to go in an unusual direction with it, but one which I found much more satisfying and surprising.

Jim Ironheart gets psychic commands to go save people, but doesn’t know who they’ll be or why they’re in danger until he gets there, and he never knows why that person rather than some other, out of all the people who are in danger every day. Reporter Holly Thorne finds out about him and, fascinated, approaches him to find out what the hell is going on. The two of them are attracted, but the romance takes second place to the mystery of who’s commanding Jim and why… and why they both are having terrifying nightmares that start manifesting in reality.

This is a really gripping, creepy book. It has horror elements, but it’s not really a horror novel. It’s more of a cross-genre thriller. And that’s all I can say without huge spoilers. Read more... )

Cold Fire
I have been re-reading Agatha Christie mysteries. In some cases, the last time I read them was thirty years ago (I was very fond of them as a child) and so I might as well have been reading them for the first time. Or maybe I am reading some for the first time. Who knows.

The flaws in Christie are pretty obvious: stock characters, mostly serviceable prose, sometimes mechanical plots, and problematic views of the period up the wazoo. (Not just racial stereotyping, sexist opinions, etc, but also jarring bits like offhand references to a dessert called "N-Word in his Shirt.") Also, while even her less-good books are reasonably amusing if you like that sort of thing, the quality did vary widely.

But obviously, I like her writing or I wouldn't be reading, so I'd like to talk about what's good about it.

Though she gets criticized for writing the same book over and over, she actually experimented quite a lot within the basic form of the mystery/thriller. A lot of her innovations have since become standard, but they weren't at the time. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express are famous for unexpected outcomes, but the little-known Endless Night is a creepy, atmospheric Gothic that gets a lot of mileage over breaking various Gothic rules. Death Comes as the End is a very well-done murder mystery set in ancient Egypt that benefits from the characters being completely unaware of the existence of murder mysteries. And Then There Were None, the one with ten horrible people trapped on an island, has been imitated many times but never done better. It's genuinely scary.

She did cold cases and bottle stories and purely psychological mysteries, and played a lot with tone, writing books that varied from tragedy to farce. A Murder is Announced is hilarious for much of its length, but also contains one of the most affecting and tragic deaths she ever wrote.

If you want to learn how to introduce a very large cast of characters and make sure that the reader always knows who everyone is and what their relationships are with each other, you could do a lot worse than studying Christie. She was great at that, and did it so easily that you barely notice that you're reading a short novel with thirty distinct characters whose plot hinges on the reader remembering who's secretly in love with who.

Some of her characters are stock types, but others, though lightly sketched, are more than that: Miss Marple, the sweet old lady whose very dark worldview doesn't spoil her enjoyment of life; Lucy Eyelesbarrow, the charming and efficient young housekeeper-entrepreneur; Henrietta from The Hollow, the sculptress who can't help loving her art more than any human being; Elinor from Sad Cypress, desperately in love with a man who will only stay with her if she never reveals the depths of her feelings; Miss Hinch and Miss Murgatroyd, the dog-loving lesbian couple from A Murder is Announced. I could go on. Christie's characters may not be fully rounded, complex characters, but they're often believable and memorable.

Re-reading now, one thing that I didn't notice before was how precisely placed in time the books are. You always know exactly when they are in terms of WWII-- during, with rationing and many men are off fighting; just after, when lots of items are still scarce and people illegally trade coupons for butter; years after, when there's always men who are young but prematurely aged, adrift in a world they no longer belong in, changed forever by the single year they spent on the front. I wasn't surprised to find Christie sensitive and accurate about veterans' various reactions to war, from what we'd now call PTSD to the men who loved the excitement and will now never find anything to equal it. I see that in fiction of the period quite a bit. But she also writes about something I've seen less, which is what happened to the women who went abroad, and have similar reactions with the addition that no one thinks a woman should feel that way.

Even if you don't like mysteries, I highly recommend her Autobiography. It's idiosyncratic in the very best way, shamelessly (and fascinatingly) recounting the stories she imagined for her dolls, then skipping ahead to noting that her great-grand-daughter seems to tell similar stories to her own dolls. As a portrait of a time and place, it's wonderful. The childhood sections are especially good. She remembers not only the facts, but a child's perspective. (It also confirms that yes, all those women living together in cottages in her novels are supposed to be lesbians. She mentions basing those characters in her books on women like that whom she knew as a child and only later realized were couples.)

Please spoilers at the level of "this is who the murderer is." I've read most of Christie's books, but don't always remember. ;)
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.
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.
The classic noir beginning is, "A gorgeous dame walked into my office..." This one begins with a white man walking into a bar. That beginning signals both that the world of the novel isn't the usual white one... and that the job the white man offers will be just as tangled and deceptive as the one offered by the usual dame.

A modern classic noir, complete with cynical detective, femme fatale, excellent prose, and a beautifully depicted 1948 Los Angeles in which the sun always shines and corruption and violence lurk around every corner.

The detective is black WWII vet Easy Rawlins, here embarking on his very first case. He's young but not innocent; the war and life as a black man in a white folks' world took care of that. But he does have a mortgage to pay...

One of my very favorite things about this novel was Mosley's way with genre conventions as refracted through a non-white perspective. The usual unmarked-white world of noir becomes unmarked-black. In a moment that's hilarious if you've read enough old racist mysteries in which the hero thinks something like, "That's the third time a Chinaman has been mentioned in relation to the murder - something is up!" Rawlins becomes suspicious when white people keep turning up. And the social evil in this novel is not the general miasma of corruption of Dashiell Hammett or the family dysfunction of Ross MacDonald, but racism.

I don't think I ever fully understood why everyone was killing everyone else or who all had double-crossed each other, but the extreme complexity of the plot is also classic noir. (Supposedly in some Hammett novel, the author himself couldn't tell who committed one of the murders.) But I don't read noir for plot, but for atmosphere, character, and prose. All three are fantastic here. As a bonus, it's a lot less misogynist than most noir, and not all the women who have sex end up dead.

Thanks to [ profile] faithhopetricks for the rec!

Buy it from Amazon: Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins Mysteries)
Victorian policeman William Monk wakes up in a hospital with total amnesia. Helpful nurses inform him of his name and occupation. Sensibly worried that if he confesses his memory loss, he'll be fired and then land in the workhouse or gutter, he decides to tell no one and fake his way through his life.

He's handed a difficult cold case involving an aristocrat who was savagely beaten to death with multiple blows of a blunt instrument. There is a great deal of discussion about how awful and brutal this is. That is the point at which I recalled that when Anne Perry was fifteen, she and her best friend brutally beat the friend's mother to death with multiple blows of a blunt instrument-- a sensational murder and trial commemorated in Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures.

I promptly headed for Perry's website. Her biography refers to adolescent "tragedies and errors." I immediately recalled a certain anime character referring to the time when he went insane, cackled maniacally, killed a bunch of innocent people, and nearly killed his best friend as "a mistake."

Face of a Stranger is a compelling mystery even without that really very disturbing additional knowledge, as Monk fakes his way through life, investigating his case and his own self with equal doggedness. It also has a supremely cracktastic moment about four-fifths of the way through...

Read more... )


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