Read Recently — May 2017 — Mysteries

The Body In The Library: a Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie

It is quite a surprise to Colonel and Mrs. Bantry when, as they prepare to start another day at their country house in the village of St. Mary’s Meade, the corpse of a murdered young woman is found in their library. It certainly isn’t anyone they know, (in fact, the body is quickly identified as a dancer at one of the nearby hotels (that is, she dances with the customers, not for the customers–well, she doesn’t dance with anyone anymore, I guess)) but if the case isn’t solved quickly it will reflect badly on the Colonel, not to mention anyone else caught up in the affair. Fortunately, Mrs. Bantry is a good friend of Jane Marple, who is both smart enough and wise enough to see the truth, eventually.

So far, I’ve been pleased with the Marple mysteries, and this one continues the trend. The crime is deeper and darker than it at first seems, the characters are well-written and worth spending time with, and the revelation doesn’t involve any cheating on Christie’s part. And of course for all that it’s part of a series, you don’t have to have read any other Marple stories — or, indeed, any other Christie at all — to understand and enjoy this one. Recommended.

Due Or Die: a library lover’s mystery by Jenn McKinlay

I’m gonna be honest with you: I have a thing about mysteries featuring librarians. You might have noticed that. This one’s hero is one Lindsey Norris, Library Director for the Briar Creek, Connecticut, USA, public library. Lindsey’s relatively new to Briar Creek, but she’s made some good friends, including some of her co-workers and her landlady. She’s also dealing with the issue of her attraction to tour-boat captain Mike “Sully” Sullivan, though both of them are taking it slowly, Lindsey being recently divorced and Sully presumably having reasons of his own.

Lindsey attends the latest meeting of the Friends of the Library as they hold a presidential election, and the result is a surprise upset, with former president Bill Sint being unanimously voted out in favour of Lindsey’s friend Carrie. Bill takes it badly, blaming Lindsey for his loss. which triggers a mentally unstable woman who has a crush on him to go after Lindsey. Lindsey is scared but not hurt, which is more than can be said for Carrie’s husband, who is shot through a window one night while Carrie is at a FOL meeting.

Or was she? As the spouse, Carrie is the first suspect for the police. There’s no shortage of other suspects, Carrie’s husband having been an unlikeable SOB, but they all have unbreakable aliases, and Carrie doesn’t so much. It’s down to Lindsey and her friends to find out the truth.

Tension is added when a nor’easter buries the town under a ton of snow. A dog is dumped into the Library’s bookdrop, and Lindsey has to find a new home for him. Bill Sint’s charming nephew keeps asking Lindsey out to lunch and since Sully isn’t making his move she isn’t sure if she should go for it. And a variety of weird accidents keep happening around and to Lindsey and Carrie. Carrie’s husband might not be the last victim, if Lindsey doesn’t solve the case quickly.

This is the second “library lover’s mystery”, but as I don’t seem to have read the first one I can truly say that you don’t have to read them in order. Lindsey’s a likable young woman and the rest of her friends all have their charm. The villain, when revealed, is both surprising and logical (in retrospect). All things considered, this will never be one of the great mystery novels, but it’s a decent enough read. Mildly recommended.

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Read Recently — May 2017 — Fantasy

The Dalemark Quartet: Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet is weird. It’s a series of four books, each set in the same land (Dalemark) which is divided into North and South, the North being generally regarded as more free while the South is ruled by tyrannical small lords (not that they are short or anything; I just mean that we’re not talking about Kings or anything. Dalemark hasn’t had a king for a long time). However, each of the books is only vaguely related and the series doesn’t give any order to them. You could read any of the first three in any order, though the canonical order seems to start with this one.

Cart and Cwidder is the story of Moril and his family: mother Lenina, sister Brid, brother Dagner and father Clennan, who is a singer. They wander about South Dalemark, playing music, telling news, and passing on messages. To be honest, they aren’t very interesting and Clennan is even kind of unpleasant. It’s about chapter four when things pick up: six men come out of the woods near where the family is camped for the night and kill Clennan, and secrets start to come out. Clennan was much more than he seemed to be; he takes on unexpected depth. Moril remains the centre of the story, though it takes him a while more to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing, and what he, and the big Cwidder that he inherits, is capable of.

A cwidder, by the way, is a stringed instrument, sort of a cross between a lute and a guitar. I learned that, not from the story (which never describes the thing beyond that it has strings) but from the startlingly extensive “Guide to Dalemark” at the back of the book. That is, in fact, one of the major problems I had with the book: things that should be made plainer in the text are not. Not that the story is confusing in any way, but . . . .

Anyway, it’s by Jones and it’s not bad at all, so I’d call it recommended. However, be aware that volumes in the series might be hard to find.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

A reread. Written up here. Still recommended.

Read Recently — April 2017 — The Rest

The Clown Service by Guy Adams

Adams wrote the interesting but flawed Heaven’s Gate trilogy (still not that Heaven’s Gate). This is a whole different work set in a different world, and set, as sadly too few series have turned out to be, in the cusp between Urban Fantasy and Spy Thriller. Most of those that are, are set in Britain, and this is no exception.

Toby Greene works for British Intelligence, and unfortunately he’s an incompetent. Not a humourous incompetent, but the kind who makes headaches for his section chief, as well as getting himself injured in the Middle East. He is reassigned to Section 37, his chief noting, “If the security service is the Circus, then Section 37 is where we keep the clowns.” 37, under the leadership of one August Shining, protects Britain from “preternatural terrorism”–that is, from supernatural threats. It doesn’t help that the section, now that Toby has joined, has two full-time employees, the rest being contractors that Shining hires and pays in various ways–including an Armenian refugee girl who lives upstairs from Shining’s flat (home to the Section) and provides some security for the older man.

Working Intelligence can be boring, and Section 37 has more potential for boredom than most, but fortunately(?) for Toby, an old foe is about to reactivate: a Russian agent long thought dead but actually surprisingly hard to kill, is about to bring terror to London as the dead rise. Not all the dead, of course, only those who were prepared when the Russian was last in London in the 60s, but those who rise are terribly hard to put down again. Only Section 37 can save the day . . . but at what cost?

As the book starts, this seems likely to be comedic, even though darkly comic (Toby’s section chief muses that he might make Toby no longer his problem by beating him to death) but it quickly becomes more serious, though I would never call it grim or horrific. Adams writes a solid spy adventure, more in line with the bureaucratic mode than the action/superspy mode, and goes in some unexpected directions. All things considered, I’d say this one is recommended, though with one caveat: while the story ends solidly, a major character’s fate is left unexplained and that potential sequel hook could also be seen as a cliffhanger, which I know bothers some people.

Pacific: silicon chips and surfboards, coral reefs and atom bombs, brutal dictators and fading empires by Simon Winchester

Having covered the Atlantic, Winchester turns his attention to the Pacific, though in this case specifically the modern Pacific, starting in 1950 and moving forward (though not without the action look to the past). The first chapter is American Nuclear testing; the second is the making of the first Japanese transistor radios, and what they came to mean for Japan, chapter three is about the rise of surfing, and so on.

Winchester does his usual excellent, entertaining job and I recommend this one highly.

Read Recently — April 2017 — Pratchett

The Fifth Elephant: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

There is a great deal of tension among the dwarfs of one of the largest dwarf cities on the Disc (which city, Commander Vimes of the City Watch is surprised to learn, is Ankh-Morpork due to the large number of dwarfs who have immigrated to it). This tension is related to politics, which has to do with the largest dwarf community in the world, the dwarfs under the country (actually more of a proto-country; the various individual principalities, dukedoms and baronies that make it up are more like individual countries of their own and the dwarfs and trolls are also their own countries, albeit in the case of the dwarfs a country that claims none of the surface) of Uberwald, where the Low King of the Dwarfs is about to be crowned (dwarfs would hardly have a high king, now would they?). As there is much of value to be mined beneath Uberwald, the crowning of the Low King is an event that Ankh-Morkpork can hardly miss, diplomatically speaking.

Lord Vetinari must send a diplomatic representative. Not only must the city sign a good deal with the dwarfs, but there is also the importance of the clacks (telegraph) towers, which have begun to encroach on Uberwald and which some Uberwaldians are reacting violently to. The importance of the clacks towers for trade makes them important to Ankh-Morpork. However, most of Uberwald could be described as a lawless wilderness (even the civilized parts); they have barely heard of the concept of policemen. Therefor, Vetinari could hardly send the Commander of the City Watch as his representative; instead, he’ll send the Duke of Ankh. It’s a coincidence that they’re the same person.

As Vimes prepares to practise his usual strain of blunt diplomacy, Carrot is left in charge of the City Watch. Unfortunately, he becomes . . . distracted when an old friend of Angua shows up and convinces her to leave the city with him, due to trouble with the werewolves of Uberwald (Angua’s family, in fact). Carrot sets out in pursuit, leaving Sergeant Colon in command. It may be the biggest mistake he ever makes.

I haven’t even touched on half the plot Pratchett has woven here; as usual with the Guards books its a meditation on civilization and what it means, and what its opposite is, wrapped in a funny book about fantasy tropes. One other thing it is, of course, is highly recommended.

I Shall Wear Midnight: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

A Tiffany Aching story.

For some reason, I’ve become less fond of the Tiffany Aching Saga as she aged and became an adult. Perhaps it’s because we already have the three (four) witches series and Pratchett only has so much to say with witch characters? Perhaps it’s just me. Anyway, this one has Tiffany facing off against a spirit called the Cunning Man, which inflames hatred of witches in the local people. There is a subplot involving the local baron getting married, and since Tiffany rescued him from the Elves when they were younger a lot of people assumed that they would grow up to be more than friends, and they didn’t.

All things considered, it’s a good story and a fine example of its kind, but it feels to me like there’s nothing new here for Tiffany which, as you might recall, was my problem with The Shepherd’s Crown, the next Tiffany book and also the last Pratchett book ever. But still, it is a good book, and therefore recommended.

Read Recently — April 2017 — Cops and Robbers

A Murder of Mages: a novel of the Maradaine Constbulary by Marshall Ryan Maresca

Maradaine is a large, cosmopolitan city in the country of Druthal. Satrine “Tricky” Rainey grew up poor on the streets of South Maradaine but married well, to a constable, and now could be taken for a northern lady with, certainly, no knowledge of the streets. Unfortunately, her husband was crippled in an accident — in the line of duty — and now can’t even take care of himself, never mind her and their two daughters. The only work Satrine has been offered that she’d care to take is working for the constabulary — as a clerk, the wages for which are insufficient to keep the family fed and housed.

But, in addition to her time on the streets, Satrine learned a lot more tricks when she was recruited into Druth Intelligence. She forges a letter of introduction that gets her a job as an Insepctor, Third Class — enough to live on. She is teamed up with Minox “Jinx” Welling, a brilliant detective, most of whose partners have suffered various ills (hence the nickname). This is probably related to the fact that Minox is a mage–most mages in Maradaine are “circled”, that is gathered into a group with several other mages of similar inclinations. Circles provide training and protection to the mages who belong to them, among other things refusing to cooperate with the constabulary (they also provide enemies — other circles that your circle doesn’t get along with). Minox is uncircled, and thus self-trained. However, his family are all into civil service: constables, fire-fighters, river patrol, and the like. Minox closes cases, so he’s an Inspector. He and Satrine seem to get along well, which is good: someone has started murdering circled mages, and it will take all of both their skills to get to the bottom of it. And that’s in addition to the lie that got Satrine her job in the first place. Will she get caught? What will happen if she does?

Once upon a time it was assumed that there could not be fantasy/science-fiction mysteries, because magic and high-tech would make it too easy for the writer to get away with ‘cheating’. Many have proven that wrong since then, though I have a hard time thinking of any other police procedurals set in secondary worlds. Maresca has done a good job setting up the police culture of Maradaine: there are enough similarities to how things are done in modern North America to make the occasional diffference really slap you in the face when he brings them up.

Solid work, and Highly Recommended.

The Redeemers: a Quinn Colson Novel by Ace Atkins

Between the last book and this one, Tibbehah County held an election and voted Quinn Colson out as Sheriff. The new Sheriff, Rusty Wise, is an unknown quality, but Johnny Stagg, the Tibbehah Kingpin of crime, thinks that he might be a more reasonable man than Quinn. On New Year’s Eve, however, just before the transition of power, someone steals the safe out of the back room of a rich mill owner. Using a backhoe. They just remove the whole room.

That’s spectacular enough, but they not only get away with a load of money, jewelry, and such, but they unknowingly take away a bunch of ledgers that could really change things in Tibbehah. The mill owner did business with Johnny Stagg, and he had records of a lot of the corruption in the county. The feds are closing in, and Quinn may be off duty but that doesn’t mean he won’t get involved. Stagg is going to be desperate, and dangerous.

One of my main complaints about this series is that important stuff, like Quinn being voted out, often happens between stories. The stuff that happens in this story is important, what with Stagg being on the ropes and all, but that doesn’t mean that an interesting and important story couldn’t be set around the election, either. Anyway, the increasingly desperate robbery (originally it was a conspiracy between two friends upset at the mill owner; then they have to call in a professional to crack the safe; the pro brings his apprentice; then it turns out they can’t crack the safe; then a deputy sheriff shows up–it just goes on and on with increasing frustration, complicated by basic stupidity) has a nice southern gothic feel to it and several issues in the series are at long last resolved. If, for some reason, you wanted out, the end of this volume would make a good jumping-off point. Me, I’ma hang around Tibbehah a while.

Highly recommended. However, I do not recommend starting the series here. While you should be able to follow most of what happens, I believe you will lack important context that is best supplied by starting from The Ranger.

Read Recently — March 2017 — Mystery

Murder In Three Volumes: Murder is Binding/Bookmarked for Death/and Bookplate Special: a Booktown Mystery by Lorna Barrett

So this is obviously an omnibus edition of the first three books in the “Booktown Mystery” series. The setting is the small town of Stoneham, New Hampshire (USA), the president of whose Chamber of Commerce managed to get a bunch of specialty/antiquarian bookshops to open on the town’s main drag, creating a nice tourist industry where once there was nothing. Our hero, Tricia Miles, owns and runs a mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got A Clue, which name is oddly hard to find in the opening chapters of the first book. She has one employee, Ginny Wilson, at the start of the first book, but hires an older man (who at the start just obsessively hangs around the store) as the series goes on.

The first book has her next-door neighbour, Doris Gleason, who owns a cook-book store, get murdered. Doris is stabbed with a bread knife, and left on the floor of her store; a serious effort is made to set the store on fire. Fortunately, Trish finds the body and prevents the fire. This is fortunate because a fire that consumed that store would have consumed Trish’s store (and home) as well. There is at first no real reason for anyone to kill Doris: no one really liked her, but so far as anyone can see, no one really hated her, either. She had recently purchased a rare antique cookbook, which is now missing, so maybe that’s why she was killed, but why the fire?

The Sheriff doesn’t seem interested in looking for suspects other than Tricia, so it’s up to the mystery-book dealer to find the killer herself. Distracting her from this is the arrival of her sister Angelica — her annoying elder sister whose shadow she grew up in and whom she has tried to avoid lately, but who now insists on visiting and spending time with her. Sadly, no one murders Angelica, and she settles in to be an ongoing character in the series.

In the second book, Trish hosts an author-signing event for a local-ish author who gets murdered in her store washroom. Once again the sheriff doesn’t help, so once again Trish has to deal with it all herself. The story gets more complicated when it becomes apparent that the author may have stolen the stories from someone local. Could that person, or someone close to them, have come back for vengeance? Subplots involving Ginny begin to take shape. Angelica, who in the last book was revealed to be a darn good cook, has reopened the cookbook store next door but is so still so annoying that she can’t keep staff and keeps trying to borrow from Trish. Something interesting happens to Angelica in this one, though: through her obvious affection for and loyalty to her sister she starts to become likeable (even though still staying essentially annoying). This is a really nice bit of work by Barrett, because changing a character while still keeping her essential characterization intact is difficult.

In the third book, Trish’s former college roommate crashes on her couch for a short period of time . . . that just keeps getting longer and longer and longer. Finally, Trish throws her out after catching her writing one of Trish’s cheques to her (that is, the former college buddy takes one of Trish’s cheques and forges it to steal some of Trish’s money). The friend lies about Trish offering her a reference to several local businesses, and gets hired by Angelica, who in addition to her bookstore is also running a small bistro and still having staff issues. She turns up dead in Angelica’s trash cart, having been smothered by jamming her face into a plastic bag when she was pushed into it.

Trish is already feeling a little guilty about chucking her old “friend” out, so she gets to investigating. It doesn’t hurt that the Sheriff has sent a new, and handsome, investigator to deal with the case. Matters quickly escalate, as it seems the old friend was dumpster diving for food over the two weeks she’d been in town, leading Tricia to look into local “freegans”, including her own clerk Ginny and her fiance. Then Tricia starts getting threatening phone calls, and someone shoots at her bedroom window one night . . .

To be honest, I was going to call these mildly not recommended, but looking through them and thinking about them again led me change my mind. These are solid cozies, and I like Trish and most of her surrounding cast, and even came to appreciate Angelica as I thought about her character arc in the first and subsequent books. Yes, she’s annoying, but I like her despite herself, which I think is what the author was aiming for. The mysteries all work, and develop the background characters as we go on. So, yeah: mildly recommended, and I think I’ll look for more in the series.

Read Recently — March 2017 — Lovecraft, yet again

In The Mountains of Madness: the life and extraordinary afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft by W. Scott Poole

There are already three biographies of H. P. Lovecraft out there that I know about: Frank Belknap Long’s Dreamer on the Nightside, Sprague deCamp’s phonebook-thick book, and Joshi’s version (both of the latter, so far as I remember, titled with the subject’s name). All three agree on the basic events and differ only in interpretation of some of them (Long, unlike the other two, actually knew Lovecraft). Since Lovecraft’s life was not long, pretty much all that can be said about the events has got to have been said, so anyone writing a new biography would have to bring some new element to the fray.

While Poole does look at Lovecraft’s life, and also analyses his texts (everybody does that) he also looks at H. P. Lovecraft the phenomenon, examining the effects Lovecraft and his work have had on those who came after him: people such as filmmakers Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter, writers such as Ramsay Campbell and Stephen King, and even Joshi himself. He also looks at the art produced in reaction to Lovecraft.

In terms of Lovecraft’s life, Poole does something that few others have been willing to try: he defends Lovecraft’s Mother from the charges that she screwed up her son’s life, something pretty much taken for granted by other biographers. And in looking at Lovecraft’s own art, he argues interestingly that with “The Picture In The House” Lovecraft introduced “the cabin in the woods”, a uniquely American horror element.

In dealing with non-Lovecraft elements he comes off less well, though. He doesn’t seem to get, for example, Conan; in writing about the comic-book character Dr. Fate he shows that he doesn’t understand the character nor know his history; in writing about Stephen King he makes it plain he doesn’t get King either (he discusses King’s explicitly Lovecraftian short fiction and the novel Revival, but doesn’t even twitch an eyebrow in the direction of It (there are good reasons to dislike It–I, for example, regard it as King’s worst novel–but for all its failures it still has an explicitly Lovecraftian theme) and doesn’t even seem aware of From a Buick 8, which I argue is King’s most Lovecraftian novel, though of course you have to read it to realise that and if you just superficially scan King’s oeuvre you would easily miss that element of it), and in discussing Joshi and the WFA award imbroglio he makes it plain he doesn’t understand any of what happened.

The result of all this is a fascinating book, right enough, but fascinating as much for its failures as its successes and its audacious ideas. It is well-written and well-edited, which counts for a lot. Recommended for Lovecraft fans, who will find a lot to chew over here, some of it savoury and some of it bitter. Mildly recommended for general horror fans, who probably find it less fascinating. There isn’t much here for the general reader.