Read Recently — October 2016 — Secret and Confidential Agents

From A Drood to a Kill: a Secret Histories novel by Simon R. Green

Eddie Drood is searching for his parents, missing since Casino Infernale (here). Though it really takes about half the book to get going, since first he and Molly have to break into the Drood manor and demand that the Droods help (as they promised to do some time ago) and then the Drood Armourer (Eddie’s favourite uncle) dies and he has to attend the funeral. Somewhere in there, Molly disappears. It turns out that, like Eddie’s parents, she has unwisely sold her soul perhaps one too many times and the debt has been, as it were, picked up by a group called “the Powers that Be”. And they, in their turn, have planned something called “The Big Game”. Eddie was not originally invited to play, he not having sold his soul, but he manages to break into the site for the game, and that gains him an in. Both of his parents and Molly are players by default, along with several others. But now that Eddie’s involved, the four of them have enough power that they should get through any kind of competition easily, right?

Of course not. The competition involves killing all the other players; only one can emerge (alive) victorious. Even if Eddie hadn’t decided not to kill anymore, three of the players are too precious to him to risk. And who, exactly, are the Powers That Be? Can Eddie face them down?

Green is up to his usual standard here, which is to say that this is a decent time-passer if you’ve read the rest of the series, and mildly recommended. If you haven’t read the rest, you want to start with The Man With The Golden Torc.

Garrett for Hire: Deadly Quicksilver Lies/Petty Pewter Gods/Faded Steel Heat by Glenn Cook

The third Garrett Omnibus edition brings on the next three books of the series (that is, books seven, eight and nine), and everyone’s favourite sex-obsessed high-fantasy detective continues getting into trouble.

In Deadly Quicksilver Lies, Garrett is approached by his “friend” Winger, who is currently working for a rich guy up on the Hill. Said rich guy thinks that Garrett is about to be hired by a woman named Maggie Jenn and he wants to know why. Winger being Winger, she decides to take the easy route and just let Garrett know so that when Jenn hires him, he can tell Winger and she can tell her boss. Moments later, Maggie Jenn does in fact, hire Garrett, or at least someone claiming to be her. Maggie was once the King’s mistress, a couple of Kings ago. She’s rarely in town these days, but now she wants Garrett to find her daughter, who is missing, probably run away. Seems simple enough.

Things get pretty deep before they get finished. Maggie Jenn has her secrets, and so does Winger’s employer, and those secrets may be related to each other — as may their keepers. There are books involved (as there are in all really good mysteries) and a lot of flamboyant characters. One name that gets dropped and returns in future volumes is Marengo North English, leader of a Racist group called “The Call” (it’s short for “the call to arms”). One thing about fantasy settings: as Terry Pratchett pointed out, racism doesn’t usually mean one set of humans against another. Why be upset about black humans when you’ve got elves to worry about?

However, if you’re going to skip any one Garrett book, you could safely skip this one. There’s a surprising amount of homophobia in it. I mean, okay, homophobia is likely in the best of societies, but I’d think a place like Tunfair, where Ogre-human crossbreeding happens often enough for them to have their own street gangs would be a little more liberal on how humans have sex with other humans. And even if it weren’t, I’d want better from Garrett himself.

Petty Pewter Gods has Garrett selected to help mediate a quarrel between two of the lowest-ranking pantheons on the Street of the Gods. There is only one temple left and whichever one of them finds the key gets to keep it; the loser must leave and have no temple, and soon thereafter probably no worshippers, at all. And what happens to them after that won’t be nice at all.

So it’s a full-fledged divine football game with Garrett as the ball and, of course, treachery at every turn. It is, all things considered, a lot of fun, and possibly the best book in this volume.

Faded Steel Heat has Tinnie Tate finally return, in the company of Alyx Weider, Daughter of Max Weider, the brewery-owner who keeps Garrett on a retainer for security reasons. Garrett thinks highly of Max, and is quite fond of Alyx, especially now that she’s grown up a bit. It seems that the Call have been trying to extort money from the rich families of Tunfaire, including the Weiders and the Tates, Tinnie’s family (there is no chance that the Call is tough enough to extort the Tates). Alyx would like Garrett to make the Call back off, especially since there is a big family wedding coming soon (no, not her: her older brother.

But there’s more going on than just racists running protection scams. There’s yet another force in Tunfaire, one with special needs that draw it to the Weider family, and will result in tragedy before Garrett and the Dead Man can draw it out into the open.

One of the things about the Garrett series is that things progress; the stories and setting don’t reset to zero at the end of each story, as they do in some series. Most mystery series work that way, of course, but not all fantasy series’ do. In addition you get Garrett himself, a hard-boiled detective of the old school, with the Dead Man as Nero Wolfe and Morely Dotes as Hawk. All three books are all right, though I could do without the homphobia in Lies.

All told, the omnibus in itself is recommended.

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Read Recently — September 2016 — Big Finish: Ships Sink

Akira: book 6 by Katsuhiro Otomo

The American Commando team assaults the heart of the Great Tokyo Empire, hoping to snatch Akira. It is an action they soon have cause to regret, though at least not for long. We finally get to see a bit from the movie (when Tetsuo escapes from the hospital): where Tetsuo imagines, not a perfectly spherical cow, but rather a perfectly spherical American — not a condition suitable for a long and happy life. The American fleet bombards Neo-Tokyo and unleashes their own laser satellite, Floyd, on the city. This is about as effective in taking out Tetsuo as SOL was; and in fact Tetsuo drops Floyd on the flagship.

Of course, as far as Kaneda’s concerned this is all the sideshow; the real battle is between him and Tetsuo. And they are going to have it out this time. All the childhood friends gone wrong . . .

By this point in the series I don’t have to tell you whether to read this or not: if you’ve read the first five, you must read this one. The story remains sometimes opaque but you can figure things out if you pay attention and the art is superb from beginning to end. Highly Recommended.

Dead Wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

A “Dead Wake” was the term used to describe the trail of bubbles left behind by a WWI U-boat torpedo. The bubbles were caused by compressed air, fired out the rear of the torpedo to turn the propellers. On Friday, May 7th, 1915, one such wake raced towards the Cunard Liner Lusitania, heading from the US to Liverpool. A few hours later, the ship was sunk, though fewer people died than you might expect. The sinking of the Lusitania is credited with bringing the US into the war, though of course as you might expect it’s a little more complicated than that. Larson, author of the excellent The Devil In The White City and Thunderstruck does his usual work, working from documents left behind by survivors of the ship, the Captain of the U-20, which sank her, and Woodrow Wilson, President of the US at the time, who would have to make the difficult decision as to whether to take the US into the War or not.

Overall, a fascinating book, well-written and illuminating about an event that even now people know about, but don’t necessarily understand. Highly recommended.

Read Recently — September 2016 — Fantasy

The Amazing Maurince and his Educated Rodents: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

So there’s this old story, you might have heard of it: there’s this village that is overrun by rats. They spoil the food and scare the people and nothing they do can drive them away. Then this guy shows up with a pipe (musical variety) and he plays music and the rats follow him out of town. Since the Discworld basically runs on narrative, this sort of thing happens all the time there. It particularely happens in towns visited by the titular characters.

Maurice isn’t some kind of ringmaster in a travelling show, he isn’t the guy with the pipe, and he isn’t one of the rats. He’s a cat.

Maurice and the rats are educated. They grew up in Ankh-Morpork, on the trash heap outside the Unseen University (Ankh-Morpork’s magic university) and the rats became intelligent and able to speak because they were eating the magickal waste. How Maurice became intelligent remains a mystery (though we do get a solution before the end of the book) as he certainly wasn’t eating magickal waste (he’s a cat, after all. Cats have standards). They also learned to read, which led to them naming themselves things like “Dangerous Beans” and “Hamnpork”.

Maurice supplied the piper; a stupid-looking kid who he calls “Stupid-looking Kid”, or “Kid” for short. And of course, Maurice came up with the scam. The rats are organized (they have squads that find and disarm traps, squads that steal food, squads that do synchronized swimming in the milk buckets; they have a visionary genius who is creating rat-writing (the above-mentioned Dangerous Beans) and they have a sort of religion with a giant rat underground and the Bone Rat, who comes for you when you die (that one happens to be true. We’ve met the Bone Rat; he is the Death of Rats, the only sub-death who didn’t get absorbed by the Discworld’s main Death at the end of Reaper Man. And we will see him, before the end of the book, when Maurice faces Death). They even have a sort-of-holy book, Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure.) And of course they have the start of a sense of ethics, which leads them to declare to Maurice, as they arrive at the start of book at the town called “Bad Blintz”, that this should be the last time that they run the scam. They’ll divide the money three ways (one to the rats, one to Maurice, and one to the kid — the rats want to find an island and create their own culture. The Kid doesn’t care what he does, as long as he gets to play music. Maurice . . . I think Maurice just wants to win; the money is a way of keeping score) and go their own ways. Maurice agrees (since he can’t talk them out of it) but says they should therefor make this one spectacular!

But there’s something going on in Bad Blintz; there’s supposedly already a rat problem so bad that the town keeps two rat catchers permanently employed, but the rats can’t find any native rats. There are lots of rat tunnels, filled with traps and poisons, but no rats except the recent arrivals. And there’s something else . . . something new, or very old. Something that lurks beneath the town. Something tha threatens humans and rats . . . and Maurice.

Pratchett has a way of taking what should be a light-hearted kids’ story and turning it into a lesson on philosophy and humanity at both its best and its worst. That’s what he’s done here, and by now we shouldn’t be surprised. The rats, for all that they often stand in for something human, are rats, and Maurice is a cat, not just a fast-talking con man (though he does struggle with what it means to be an intelligent cat, not just a bundle of instincts). There is of course the usual Pratchettian consideration of stories vs. life, particularely in the form of young Malicia Grim, the daughter of the Mayor of Bad Blintz and the descendent of the Grim Sisters, famous storytellers, who spends much of her time in the story trying to figure out what kind of story she is in.

Overall, a decent addition to the Discworld canon and a fun, thought-provoking story. What more could you ask for? Recommended.

Lovecraft Country: a novel by Matt Ruff

To begin with, let us note that this is not a novel per se; rather it is a single tale told in a collection of stories, all of which were written specially for this volume and not published separately before (and thus it is not a short-stoy collection, or anything of that sort), which involve a connected cast of characters. The episodic format was chosen deliberately because Ruff originally intended the book as a TV series (“monster of the week”). Ironically (or perhaps not) the book has since been optioned for TV production.

The protagonist of the first story, titled “Lovecraft Country”, is Atticus Turner, a recent US Army veteran mustered out after the Korean war. He makes his way from Jacksonville to Chicago, a journey not without risk for a black man in the 1950s, where he stays with his uncle George. George, the brother of Atticus’ father Montrose, and father to young Horace, who dreams of being a comic book artist. George also publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book which tells Black travelers what places will serve them (and, of course, that places not mentioned aren’t safe). It’s also worth mentioning that George, Horace and Atticus are all science fiction/fantasy readers.

Montrose isn’t around, but he has sent Atticus a letter, saying that he has tracked down Atticus’ late Mother’s heritage, which she was never interested in. He says that Atticus has a birthright. And he says that it’s in Arkham, Mass. Now, Atticus is well aware that Arkham is fictional. He read Lovecraft as a boy, and was a big fan until Montrose pointed out how Lovecraft would have regarded them. George takes a look at the letter and determines that what seems to be a ‘k’ is in fact a ‘d’. Atticus’ birthright is in fact in Ardham, a small town in Devon County, a place which the Safe Negro Travel Guide has determined is not safe for black people at all.

Once George finds a sitter for Horace he and Atticus take off to Ardham, with Atticus’ old friend Letitia making a place for herself on the trip (and very helpful she proves to be, too). What they find is a town devoted to the Braithwaite family, currently reduced to Samuel (the elder Braithwaite) and his son Caleb, who, like Atticus and Montrose, don’t get along. They lead an organization called “The Sons of Adam”, and need Atticus to make their (magickal (they call it “natural philosophy, but it’s magic)) ritual work, because only he can usefully read the “Language of Adam” (anyone can read it, but not everyone can make it do something) and complete the ritual. Doing what he’s asked to do will probably be dangerous to Atticus. Not doing it will certainly be dangerous, but not only to him. Can Atticus find a way out?

The second story, “Dreams of the Which House”, plays off the title of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”, which I haven’t reviewed yet but it will be coming up in November’s reviews. After getting back to Chicago from Ardham, Letitia comes into some money. Her late father apparently left an old debt uncollected; now the debtor intends to pay it off. Letitia’s sister, Ruby, doesn’t trust the money (their father was not always on the right side of the law), but Letitia has a dream: home ownership. Not just an apartment, but someplace with room for both her and Ruby, and their brother when he visits, and maybe some room for boarders . . . in order to get a place like that, she’s going to have to forcibly integrate a white neighbourhood. This will bring its own problems with angry neighbours and unhelpful police, but the house that Letitia ends up with throws her a new curve: the previous owner, though certified dead, has not left, and does not want to share his home with a bunch of . . . you know what. And he, like the Braithwaites, was a natural philosopher. Will Letitia be driven from her new home? Or can she find a solution to all her problems?

“Abdullah’s Book” starts with George and Montrose going to the bank to retrieve from their Bank Deposit Box a book left to them by their Grandmother, who had been a slave. The book is, essentially, a ledger, keeping track of all the labour she did for her master, and every time he “insulted” her — whippings and such — and what she estimates he owed her for it. Every year at Thanksgiving her descendants bring the book out, calculate the new interest for the last year, and tell the story of how it came to be. But this year, the book’s not there. It has been removed by the police, agents of the organized crime squad, who left a note summoning them to a bar on the white side of town. In the bar, in addition to a trio of cops, are Atticus (in handcuffs; he’s supposed to be in Iowa) and Caleb Braithwaite.

Braithwaite is planning an alliance with the Chicago branch of the Order, whose leader is the Captain of the Organized Crime Squad (and whose former leader is someone we’ve sort of met) and to make things work they want a book found, a book written in the language of Adam, which is hidden in a secret room in the Museum of Natural History. Assuming, because the Captain doesn’t just march in and take it that there is some risk, Braithwaite intends to pass the risk off. The deal is, a book for a book. It’s basically a heist story.

“Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe” deals with Atticus’ Aunt Hippolyta, wife to George, mother to Horace, and a brilliant woman in her own right. From her childhood she wanted to be an astronomer, but a black woman in the first half of the 20th century has two strikes against her just in the question of getting the education, never mind the position. So she ends up as wife and mother, etc, though like all her family she runs missions for George, checking places out for the Guide. During a visit to Letitia’s house she finds a hidden drawer containing A Survey of Astronomical Observatories of North America with a new one to her added in in pencil, along with a set of odd numbers. Since Hippolyta has had some luck dropping in on observatories and getting good-hearted astronomers to let her look through the telescopes, she decides to give this one a look on her way home. But it turns out this place has no mere telescope, it has a gate. And using the code from the book she finds a habitable planet. And, in fact, it’s inhabited: an elderly black woman named Ida, who used to be a maid for the owner of the “observatory”. When one of the other maids ran off with the boss’ son, and none of the staff would tell him where they went, he brought rbs ..them to the observatory and exiled them to this planet of a distant galaxy. He said he would return in a few days to see if they were ready to cooperate, but he never did. Hippolyta must not only avoid the dangers of the new world and get home, but also avoid the perhaps greater risk back on Earth.

“Jekyll in Hyde Park” has Letitia’s sister Ruby get not only a new job, but a new lover. She only needs to make a couple of changes first . . .

“The Narrow House” has Braithwaite sending Montrose after the son mentioned in “Hippolyta Disturbs . . .”, and particularely some of his father’s notebooks, which he should have. But the son was killed in 1945, with his family. Of course, as we’ve already learned, being dead doesn’t keep someone out of this story . . .

“Horace and the Devil Doll” has Hippolyta and George’s son Horace come to the attention of the cops of the Organized Crime Squad, who suspect that his family is up to something with Braithwaite. They send something after Horace, something that is too cunning to let anyone else see it and too strong for Horace to defeat. And the curse won’t let him talk about it . . .

“The Mark of Cain” has Braithwaite make his final move against the Chicago branch of the Order, with the help of the Turners, et al. But while they can (maybe) get free of the Organized Crime Squad, can they get free of Braithwate? It’s another heist, basically.

This is a marvellous book, though it should carry trigger warnings for racism, violence, and child endangerment. But if I were to complain about anything (and would it be me if I didn’t complain about something?) it would be the title: we’re never really in Lovecraft Country, per se, other than the fact that Lovecraft was a racist. For that title, the story should be a reply to Lovecraft in some fashion, and other than the Turners et al being in fact people and not the subhumans that Lovecraft would have taken them for this doesn’t interact with Lovecraft at all. To expand a bit on this, in a “The Big Idea” on John Scalzi’s blog the Whatever, Ruff said, “In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.” But the book doesn’t do cosmic horror at all, and without that it’s not addressing Lovecraft but, well, all of white America. But that’s just me being a nitpicky jerk and you shouldn’t let that stop you from picking this up.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — September 2016 — Science Fiction

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Mercy brings what could be called “the Ancillary Trilogy” to an end. Breq encounters an unexpected relative in the undergarden, forms unexpected alliances, and brings her conflict with Anaander Mianaai to an at least temporary conclusion (though the conflict between Anaander Mianaai and Anaander Mianaai presumably goes on. I just love typing that name!).

All told, the best thing I can say about this book is that it is every bit as good as the rest of the series; if you didn’t like them you won’t find anything new and lovable here, but if you have enjoyed them you will enjoy this one.

Highly recommended.

Polity Agent: an Agent Cormac novel by Neal Asher

The fourth Agent Cormac novel (5th if you count the prequel Shadow of the Scorpion as the first book; I don’t) brings yet further troubles to the Polity. Cormac recovers from his confrontation with Skellor at the end of the last book; a portion of his memory is missing but can be restored to him any time he is ready to confront what he did to avoid Skellor’s fate. Mika basically becomes Jerusalem’s envoy to Dragon, who intends to confront Dragon with the news that their creators are extinct (or will be, soon (soon on a geologic scale, anyway. It makes sense if you read the book)). A haiman (human/AI fusion) named Orlandine begins an investigation of Jain technology — illegal, of course, and very dangerous, but then, Orlandine herself is very dangerous. Horace Blegg continues his investigations, and we get to see some of his very long memories. And an entity calling itself “the Legate” is distributing Jain nodes around the Polity. As its name suggests, the Legate is just a front for something else . . . something very dangerous.

This is, like the rest of the Polity novels, a re-read, and worth the time taken. Every time I return to an Asher novel I notice new things. With one book to go, the Cormac series heads to a climax; this book is highly recommended but you don’t want to start here. Begin with Gridlinked ( here).

Read Recently — August 2016 — And the Rest

Tales from the Nightside by Simon R. Green

This is a collection of Green’s Nightside short stories, including what the cover says is a new novella, just for this collection. I’ll tell you right now that they are up to the usual Green standard, which is to say interesting, but of varying quality.

“The Nightside, Needless To Say” features Larry Oblivion, Private Eye. Larry wakes up and doesn’t know where he is, or when and how he got there. But he does know one thing (or at least, it’s the first thing he finds out): he’s dead. He can’t remember who killed him, or how and why he’s still walking around. He can’t get his life back, but maybe he can get revenge . . .

“Razor Eddie’s Big Night Out” stars, of course, Razor Eddie, the Punk God of the Razor. There is trouble on the street of the Gods, so an old friend, one who knew Eddie when, comes looking for him. To set things right. Or at least as right as they can be, in the Nightside.

“Lucy, At Christmastime” has Leo Morn, professional bad boy, remembering Lucy, his first. His first what, though? Might be wiser not to ask. Anyway, Leo always spends Christmas with Lucy.

“Appetite for Murder” has Sam Warren, the Nightside’s first detective, and Ms. Fate, masked heroine and friend to Warren, tracking down a serial killer who takes body parts and who, after doing his first kill (a demigod descended from Heracles) by knife has switched to tearing the victims apart. Who is the killer? Why have they chosen the victims they did? Will this be Sam Warren’s last case? Does Ms. Fate have a secret deeper than anyone knows?

“The Difference a Day Makes” I’ve read before, in another collection. It has Dead Boy and John Taylor helping a woman find out what happened in the 24 hours she has forgotten.

“Some Of These Cons Go Way Back” has Harry Fabulous, con-man pretending to be drug dealer, falling in love . . . to his despair.

“The Spirit of the Thing” has John Taylor, during a period in which he’s hard up for money, doing some owrk for the scummy owner of the scummy bar called “The Jolly Cripple”. It’s something John soon regrets, but he isn’t the only one . . .

“Hungry Heart” has John being hired by a witch whose ex-over has stolen her heart–literally. Of course, very little is as it seems in the Nightside. This is, perhaps not surprisingly, a take on the Maltese Falcon (John had to do one sooner or later).

“How Do You Feel” is a Dead Boy story. Dead Boy was murdered in the Nightside, came back for revenge, and has been hanging around ever since. But one night in Strangefellows, Walker tells him that he missed someone. Someone ordered his death. If he wants to know why, he can go ask them.

In “The Big Game”, John Taylor is hired by the Doorman of the Adventurer’s Club to find the missing adventurers and heroes who make up the place. All of them are gone. But where? And why? Of all the stories in the volume, this is the longest, and also the least. Falling into that peculiar space called “novella”, it’s not tight enough to make a good short story and not deep enough to make a good novel. There are good novellas out there, but this one is a failure. Pity it’s the last story in the book.

Overall, these are Green’s usual fare. If you like what he does, you’ll like them. If not, you’re better off skipping them. If you haven’t read Green, don’t start here: start with Something From the Nightside for a sense of his urban fantasy stuff in general and the Nightside in particular, or Swords of Haven for the heroic fantasy stuff. Which makes this only mildly recommended.

How To Lose A War At Sea: foolish plans and great naval blunders edited by Bill Fawcett

A collection of short, non-fiction pieces on the general theme of naval warfare. While the title suggests loss is the focus, all wars and battles have two sides and you can’t write about the one without mentioning the other. These range from the Chesapeake, 1781 (titled “America’s Greatest Naval Victory?”) up to Operation Morvarid, in 1980, during the Iran-Iraq war. Trafalgar is in there, of course, as is Jutland and of course the entire Pacific war in WWII (how the Japanese went from having one of the finest naval air fleets in the world to, well, what they had at the end).

As ever, when you have a bunch of different writers working on different pieces on a vague theme, you have writing of variable quality, but a good editor can make up for that and Fawcett seems to have done a decent job Overall these are good pieces and if you have any interest in the topic this makes good, light reading before falling asleep or while in the washroom.

Recommended.

Read Recently — August 2016 — Re-read recently

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

A re-read. Originally  here Still recommended.

 

Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

 

I could have sworn I wrote this up ages ago, but I can’t find it. It’s certainly not tagged. So, here it is again.

Ehrenreich and her editor were discussing new projects over lunch one day and Ehrenreich suggested a look at minimum wage workers, perhaps from the inside. The next thing she knew she had been volunteered, and this book is the result of her experiences.

Basically, she visited certain areas of the US and, brilliantly disguised as a middle-aged divorced woman, set about trying to find housing and minimum-wage work (“Women’s work”: waiting tables, housecleaning, cooking, etc.) and seeing if she could, at the end of the month, afford a second month in the same position. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this in 2016 or 2017 that most of the time, she could not. Nor that the work she could get was most often grinding, and sometimes horrible, though she often found something positive in it, usually the people.

Ehrenreich is aware, and notes, that her experiences cannot compare to those of the people who have to live in this sort of situation: she doesn’t have to stay, can flee harassment if it happens, can afford to take time off for medical treatment, etc. But her basic point, that the minimum wage “ghetto” is difficult even for someone with all those advantages to escape from (without outside help such as the money she already started with).

Recommended.

Christianity is Not Great: how faith fails edited by John W. Loftus

Another re-read I could have sworn was somewhere on-site, but isn’t.

Loftus, a former Evangelical Christian preacher turned atheist, has edited a series of anthologies of articles on Christianity and atheism, with titles meant to echo the big works of the four horsemen of atheism. This one of course, echoes Hitchens’ God Is Not Great.

Overall, a decent group of essays from writers many of whose names I recognized (and in some cases have owned books by), marred by a few errors probably of editing, like an early one that refers to “the displacement of Imperial power from Rome to Constantinople, which was renamed Byzantium”.

Mildly recommended.

Read Recently — August 2016 — Mysteries

Maisie Dobbs: a novel by Jackqueline Winspear

Set in 1929, this book introduces us to Maisie, a girl who rose from service to the rich to become a private investigator. Preferring a cerebral, psychologically-driven approach, Maisie’s first case has a man who believes that his wife is having an affair. She isn’t; she’s visiting the grave of a first love, who came back from the war with disfiguring injuries and PTSD. He moved to a facility known as The Retreat, sort of a home for war veterans with this sort of problem. The dead man died on the site, seemingly by accident, but Maisie suspects foul play . . .

Maisie’s a decent detective and she has a large cast of characters surrounding her, from the caretaker of her building (who helps her out in her investigation) to the noblewoman who helped her go from Service to detective, to her widowered father, but neither they, nor Maisie herself, nor the mystery in question really grab, if you get what I mean. It isn’t in any way bad; unlike with many books I read all the way through this but as I write this I had to look through the book again to remember anything about it.

It sort of falls into the narrow gap between recommended and not-recommended; I really ought to create a term for that space. If I must choose something, and I suppose I must, I’d call it mildy recommended (very mildly) because it’s not badly written at all and it might, in fact, work better for you than it does for me.

Robert B. Parker’s Kickback: a Spenser novel by Ace Atkins

In the cold weather of February, Spenser is hired by a woman from the suburb of Blackburn to find out why her son was sentenced to a juvenile facility in the Back Bay (literally in the Bay; it’s on an island) for no real crime. Like Mattie Sullivan in Lullabye, she can’t afford to pay him, but she can offer food (this time a sandwich. To be fair, it’s a good sandwich). Rita Fiore and her firm are working on the legal end of things, but Spenser should be able to find out the wherefores and whys.

So this isn’t a mystery as such; we know who dunnit and we know what and why dunnit. Put like that, it’s hard to express what Spenser is really up to here. Wandering around and pissing people off, definitely. At one point he gets falsely accused of statutory rape to try to make him back off. It works about as well as you might expect

It looks like there’s more going on than just an incompetent judge. Could someone be on the take? Could the mob be involved? Will Spenser get to the bottom of it? Of course he will.

Atkins does a little better with each book. I’m looking forward to the next one. Recommended.

Lending A Paw: a bookmobile cat mystery by Laurie Cass

Minnie Hamilton is assistant director at the Chilson, Michigan, USA district library. Thanks to donations from a wealthy patron, she has managed to get a bookmobile running, and for even more fun, she gets to drive it (the bookmobile is important because Chilson is a fairly widely-distributed district, with lots of small townships wherefrom people can find it difficult to get to the main library). During the winter, Minnie lives with her Aunt Frances, who has a large house, but in the rest of the year Minnie lives on a houseboat and Aunt Frances runs a B&B (more on that later).

Minnie was recently adopted by a stray cat, who she named Eddie (he just looks like an Eddie to her). On the first day of the Bookmobile ride, Eddie follows her off the boat and into the bookmobile, where she only discovers him once she’s underway and it’s too late to take him home. Worrying about what her boss will say if he discovers that she took a cat along (this on the one hand seems a little paranoid; the boss hasn’t forbidden bookmobile pets (though perhaps only because he hasn’t thought of the possibility), but on the other hand in today’s litigious society someone who is allergic to cats or afraid of them could cost the library a lot of money). Minnie decides to keep Eddie as much under wraps as she can.

of course, Eddie doesn’t agree with this plan, but fortunately he proves to be very popular with the locals. he also breaks loose at their last stop (attendance at which is light–okay, non-existent–due to a successful local softball game) and leads a pursuing Minnie to a corpse.

The corpse in question, one Stan Larrabee, was a local man with an oddly unsavoury reputation . . . but Minnie was fond of him because he donated the money that made the bookmobile possible. And he didn’t die of natural causes. Minnie tries to leave the matter to the police, but she just can’t leave it alone and Eddie keeps providing inadvertent (?) clues (he shreds a document that would lead her in the wrong direction, for example).

To a large extent this reminds me of the “Cat In The Stacks” series by Miranda James, especially in terms of Minnie’s relationship with the Police. Minnie’s is less familial than Charlie’s is, but it is distant — which drives her efforts to investigate herself (that is, the police don’t tell her what’s going on so she feels the need to make sure that the right person is caught and/or cleared).

Now, remember how I said that the aunt runs a B&B and that we’d talk about that in a bit? This is that bit. Minnie has breakfast at her Aunt’s place every Saturday, which is the one day that Aunt Frances gets one or two of the boarders to cook for everyone. This sets up the fact that, in addition to providing her boarders with a relaxing vacation, Aunt Frances also, without telling them sets them up with someone else in the house that year. Objective: matrimony! So far, this obnoxious habit has been rewarded with undeserved success, but this year things are going wrong: not that people aren’t pairing off, but they are pairing off with the wrong partners! Gasp! How dare they! Can Minnie and Aunt Frances get them all back to the people Aunt Frances, in her infinite wisdom, has decreed they spend the rest of their lives with? Spoiler warning: they can’t. (If I seem kind of annoyed about this subplot, it’s because I am. This kind of behaviour really annoys me)

The library stuff feels realistic, and we do get to see enough of it for that to matter. Other than Aunt Frances, Minnie’s friends are interesting people (and even Aunt Frances, when she’s not trying to be the marriage broker, is pretty cool). Eddie seems like a real cat, and I liked Minnie. All things considered, there’s enough good stuff here to outweigh the marriage subplot and call this one recommended.