Promised Land by Robert B. Parker

Read April 2019
Recommended for fans of Spenser
 ★     ★     1/2    

The One Where Spenser is Schooled on the Dangers of the Souless Suburban Life by Susan. Also The One Where We Meet Hawk, Who Is a Total Legit Badass.

It helps to keep these separate, you know?

Many of the early themes of the Spenser mysteries appear here: the emotional dangers of the suburbs, ethical nobility, women’s general sexiness, and the foolishness of various anti-establishment movements. Spenser is hired by Harv Shepard, a wheel-and-deal land-developer-contractor to find his wife who has disappeared without a note, and leaving their two children behind. Spenser is all alone in the suburbs of the Cape, and he is hoping that Susan will come up and join him for a relatively simple case. Only it turns out not so simple when they run into Hawk leaving Harv’s home. Spenser gets some legit information from the local cops and is able to track down Pam and her vigilante buddies. Pam’s feeling super-suffocated in the ‘burbs and Susan gets angry at Spencer’s seemingly casual dismissal of her midlife-identity crisis.

In comparison to prior books, the writing feels tighter. For instance, while we do have a fair amount of scenic description of the road to Hyannis, it’s kept down to three sentences, one briefly sarcastic.

“The soothing excitements of scrub pine and wide sea gave way to McDonald’s and Holiday Inn and prefab fence companies, shopping malls and Sheraton Motor Inns, and a host of less likely places where you could sleep and eat and drink in surroundings indistinguishable from the ones you’d left at home. Except there’d be a fishnet on the wall. If Bartholomew Gosnold had approached the Cape from this direction, he’d have kept on going.”

Strangely, it’s a story that is more resonant in series context than in any particular value as a mystery. It is very much a relationship book, where Spenser and Susan explore their own growing relationship and struggle with the comparisons to the unfortunate Harv and Pam and their love-based but dysfunctional relationship. Pam’s perspective on her self-actualization and Harv’s perspective on their history contain poignant but frustrated feelings. It’s also the start of a Spenser and Hawk friendship. Hawk is introduced here as a free-lance enforcer who has a shared boxing history with Spencer, but an exchange of solid favors lay the foundation of their future working relationship.

Of course, numerous time-period oink moments remain, with Spencer deliberately ‘not-ogling’ various female characters. But is seems pretty benevolently oinkish, as opposed to creepy. Recommended for series fans, but definitely not for the ‘mystery.’ There’s also an extended bit about women and ‘frigidness.’ No thank you very much, Dr. Not-Freud.

No, I did not read all the words. Because visualizing their dumb outfits hurt my eye-brain and I can’t read about 1970s conception of sexuality without hurting my thinking-brain. Our first look at Hawk:

” With him was a tall black man with a bald head and high cheekbones. He had on a powder blue leisure suite and a pink silk shirt with a big collar. The shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and the chest and stomach that showed were as hard and unadorned as ebony. He took a pair of wraparound sunglasses from the breast pocket of the jacket and as he put them on, he stared at me over their rims until very slowly the lenses covered his eyes and he stared at me through them.”

Ok, maybe I read all the words there. Two and a half silk stars, rounding down for general time-period oinkiness, which isn’t fair, but there you go.

 

 

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Death Doll by Brian P. White

Read March 2019
 ★     ★    

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

More specifically, they aren’t the zombies I’m looking for. But they may very well work for you. In the interests of remembering and for other future readers, I’ll elaborate.

It starts off with a farm couple hiding in their cornfield (such a good place to hide) as their house has been overrun by zombies. They were apparently doing reasonably well until they welcomed a pair of travelers into their house. The farmwife, Paula, is seething. Just as they’re surrounded, they are saved by a trio of people in their truck. They jump in back and are offered a spot in the couple’s compound, if they are willing to do their share–and once they pass quarantine. Quarantine does exactly what you think it will: gives the small group a chance to pick at each other and nurse grudges. Once they enter into the compound, they are given some insight into how things are run. And this is a well-furnished compound. There are lavish descriptions of the dishes they eat–I believe éclairs make an appearance at some point, but not at their more modest welcoming dinner– “The teens served each person what looked like a quiche, raspberries on Melba toast, and platters with sliced meats and cheeses.”  These seemingly come from “crops growing on almost every roof on the compound.”

These are not the survivalists you are looking for.

Viewpoint is third person limited and shifts around from Paula, the farmwife; Didi, the leader of the group and enforcer who has serious secrets; Issac, the hostile, streetwise black man; Pepe, the college kid who was at the farm when it was overrun; Rachelle, a teenager who idolizes Didi; and a number of others. It made it hard to really connect with any particular character. Didi is perhaps the most likable, although we’re aware she has secrets

The plot is all about the people. Shortly after Paula & Co. are out of quarantine, Didi and some folks go on a “supply run” and run into two hostile men, one of whom accepts the sanctuary offer. Since we get his point of view, we realize he’s trouble. Things spiral from there, both externally and internally. Secrets–of course–get revealed. People argue and are petty and generally suck. The book description opens with “Didi was once the darling of the porn industry,” so I was very leery about potential voyeurism and sexism. Somewhat pleasantly, it wasn’t used as I expected. I thought pacing was a little slow at the beginning, but then ramped up with some intrigue followed by sustained action sequences.

The writing does indeed feel like it needs further development, mostly in the conversational markers. Paula, for instance, is portrayed as uptight and very traditional family-oriented, but then when she eats her omelet, she “moaned with delight.” It’s a phenomenon I note with newer writers, or PNR and YA books, where writers seem to be so afraid of using, “said,” that they choose a medley of other inappropriate words. Personal peeve I guess.

These are not the words I was looking for.

I didn’t read all the words in this one, as it really wasn’t the story I was looking for. This isn’t about how to survive, nor is it about creating a community from the dregs of surviving humanity. It’s pretty much conflict in a small isolated community, and how it is handled. 

These are not the zombies you are looking for.

 

Still, thank you to the author for offering me a copy to read.

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Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Read April 2019
Recommended for fans of exploration sci-fi
 ★     ★      ★     ★   1/2    
 

‘Aldebaran’ is a red star whose name comes from the Arabic word for ‘follower,’ because it seems to follow the Pleides. Interesting choice, although like others, my reading eye slurred it to ‘Alderaan,’ Princess Leia’s world, and I had to wonder if Tchaikovsky is playing with us, just a little. In this novella, scientists have discovered an unusual object and sent a team to explore. It contains some of the best of sci-fi: astronauts, exploration, discovery. Oh, and some of the worst of what can happen.

I have no idea how to review this without spoilers, which is probably okay, because the person telling the story put in spoilers as well (which was hysterical!)

I was riveted.

I’ll re-read it.

Any comparisons may well turn out to be spoilers, so I hesitate to say what this book reminds me of. For those that want an atmospheric idea from other books: (view spoiler—-I’d say “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Plath crossed with “The Martian” crossed with “Leviathan.” It also reminded me of “The Luminous Dead.” ——-). But I will note that while Tchaikovsky might have been inspired by Mark Watney from “The Martian,” he went in entirely different directions.

For those that read it, I’d be interested to discuss some of the developments.

Four and a half aliens, strictly because it doesn’t quite suit my must-own requirements.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing for the arc.

 

 

 

 

 

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God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker

Read April 2019
Recommended for fans of Spenser
 ★     ★     1/2    

Oh, Parker. I swear, there must have been a standard in the 70s (1974, to be exact) where 25% of a detective novel had to be description. I think it’s driving Jilly nuts over in Kinsey Malone-land, but I’m finding Parker’s version of it kind of eye-watering. I mean, my idea of dressing myself back then was Garanimals, so I shouldn’t judge. But just you try and see this:

He was dressed in what must have been his wife’s idea of the contemporary look… He had on baggy white cuffed flares, a solid scarlet shirt with long collar points, a wide pink tie, and a red-and-white-plaid seersucker jacket with wide lapels and the waist nipped. A prefolded handkerchief in his breast pocket matched the tie. He had on black and white saddle shoes and looked as happy as a hound in a doggie sweater.

That’s just the start, though; later in the book, Spenser puts on a white trench coat. Spiffy! There’s also one paragraph that is literally a description of every single store seen as Spenser drives along a commercial ‘canyon,’ and it’s actually kind of fun. I mean, had I been reading it in 1980, maybe not so much. But now, sure: “restaurants that look like log cabins, restaurants that look like sailing ships, restaurants that look like Moorish town houses, restaurants that look like car washes, car washes, shopping centers, a fish market, a skimobile ship. an automotive accessory shop…” The paragraph takes up most of a page. No joke. I can’t think why it was relevant. It builds the setting of leaving the city to the Happy Sunda ‘burbs, and it lets Parker sneak in a snide comment about how Squanto might have made a mistake (in allowing the whites to settle).

I mean, that’s really why we read these oldies, right? To sort-of-sink into the mentality of the past? And I kind of dig this glimpse into the past, with Parker’s Spenser’s asides, except for the part where Spenser notes that the high school guidance counselor, Susan Silverman, has a “thin dark Jewish face.” Um, I don’t even. But onward. She does a lot of shrugging, throws in some “I don’t know’s” in response to his questioning and when they have dinner–and this was wonderful–has a second helping of gravy. It’s truly interesting to see the first appearance of a character who will one day annoy me as she nibbles on a lettuce leaf and makes enigmatic statements. 

It’s also quite interesting to have a Spenser that is a bit… slow on the uptake, and who gets/allows himself to be manipulated, and doesn’t intuit the solution.  Oh, but then it gets slightly weird again with a homosexual angle. Spenser even hangs out at a local divey gay bar trying to run into a suspect. Is it judgey? Maybe indirectly in the descriptions, but if it is, it’s less so than the implied judgement at the drunken hetro bash thrown by his clients.

I’ll read a few more. I’m curious to remember how Hawk comes into the picture, and when the writing starts to shift to the streamlined version. Maybe he eventually found an editor that said, “we need to take out all the description,” and the 1990s Spenser is what was left. Overall, an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, although I probably should have been more productive.

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Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories by Naomi Kritzer

Read February and March 2019
 ★     ★    ★     ★

 

‘Cat Pictures Please,’ the titular story, won a Hugo and Locus, and was nominated for a Nebula, which rather implies Kritzer’s short stories are something to look out for. In ‘Cat Pictures,” I enjoyed the combination of clever concept, sly humor, and human failing, all written in a very accessible style. It lead me to track down this compilation, and while it took me quite a while to work my way through, I’d say it’s worth the effort. Kritzer has a talent at taking a semi-traditional narrative to unexpected places. What was even more interesting was how well the twists and turns were convincing and organic within the story. Character voices are a strength.

Ace of Spades: war story with a solid lesson about risk-taking. “I’m a journalist,” she said. She was also American, but that wasn’t a helpful thing to advertise. Even in areas officially held by the U.S., you never knew who preferred the other side. And like many of the pacified towns in Guangdong Province, Foshan right now wasn’t held so much as caged.” 4 ♦

The Golem: A golem is created by two women during the run-up to World War II. Great atmosphere, but missed her chance at using full potential of the golem’s predictions and the unknown. “She lay on the earth from which she’d been made, breathing in the scent of the new century–mud and sour garbage and gasoline fumes.” 4♦

Wind: feels a little overwrought. ‘Air’/‘Earth’ imbalances in the soul and an ex-best friend. An unexpected visitor drops by a woman’s small family home and gets a peek into her current, but limited life. Very 2nd gen feminist feeling. 3 ♦

In the Witch’s Garden: A nice take on The Snow Queen and Hans Christian Andersen. Well written. “I heard the girl before I saw her: dry, hopeless sobs from a child unused to having anyone pay attention to her tears.” 3  1/2♦

What Happened at Blessing Creek: A challenging piece. Her afterword added some interesting and illuminating perspective, but did it accomplish her goal? I think so.

Cleanout: A trio of sisters have to clean their hoarding parents’ home, and confront their unknown background. It was … alright. Conceptually interesting. “When we asked our parents where they’d come from, they always told us they came from Bon. You will not find Bon on a map–at least, I could never find it on a map. Not a map of the former Soviet republics, anyway.”

Artifice: In a group of friends, one of the members brings in a robot-servant as her new ‘date.’ They find accepting her adjustments to his personality challenging. Interesting and uncomfortable issues about identity, programming, awareness. 4♦

Perfection: An interesting look into a futuristic society with gene-manipulation techniques that have resulted in a relatively uniform, perfect appearance. You know how all celebrities and models kind of look alike? Yeah, like that. It felt like the moral was using a hammer, but I really enjoyed the world-building and the idea of the refugee/immigrant walled conclave. 4♦

The Good Son: a take, sort-of, on Tam Lin, only modernized and with human frailty. A fae wants a mortal woman and creates a semblance of a family so he can romance her. Really a lovely story, although I didn’t like the narrative breaks. 4♦

Scrap Dragon: a fairy tale about a princess who seeks to outwit a dragon. Pleasant and semi-unexpected. Reminded me of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede. 3♦

Comrade Grandmother: interesting bit about a Russian woman fighting for her country and her husband and the bargain she makes with a witch. “I’ve come to ask for your help, Comrade Baba Yaga,” Nadezhda said. “I’ve come to ask you to save Mother Russia.” 3 1/2 ♦

Isabella’s Garden: a bit creepy but interesting. Ultimately under-performed but still good.

Bits: A modern sex-shop tries to cater to inter-species alien-human couples. A bit silly.

Honest Man: A classic start–an honest person encounters a trickster–that goes to unusual places. I rather liked the last half, and its unexpected progression. “More the look of a fox that had approached the henhouse, and found it locked.” 4 1/2 ♦

The Wall: A young woman is visited by her-from-the-future who seems to have an agenda. Interesting look at significant events. “It was February of 1989, and I was a freshman in college.” 3 ♦

So Much Cooking: the most unique take on the apocalypse yet. “This is a food blog, not a disease blog, but of course the rumors all over about the bird flu are making me nervous.” 4 ♦

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Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman

Read March 2019, sort of
Recommended for fans of ?
 ★     ★    

Sometimes, age doesn’t bring wisdom, and unfortunately, Buck Schatz (get it) is one of those cases. I started “Don’t Ever Get Old” hoping for humor–say, Grandma Muzar from Evanovich’s Plum series–or insight into aging, but unfortunately, I got neither.

Buck Schatz  is an 87 year-old retired detective who gets drawn into a case looking for Nazi gold against his inclinations. His reluctance is compounded by painful memories from time as a prisoner in a German camp near the end of WW II.

Yes, you read that right. Nazi gold. Sigh. I feel like someone should have spent some time at Tvtropes while they were dreaming up the plot. I forgave it, a little, when I learned that Buck was Jewish, and his own memories of being a POW came out during the case. But it’s a thin plot, really more of a ‘race to the treasure’ scenario than a true mystery. The villainous twist really isn’t twisty, as I saw it coming halfway through the book, and if I’ve said it once, if I can figure out your mystery, it’s probably light on the actual mystery. The race for the gold quickly becomes complicated with a series of gory, absolutely pointlessly tortured deaths. The method of killing does not make any sense–as Poirot says, “the psychologie, Hastings”–and ended up being a deal-breaker for its quality as a mystery.

But I can live with a ridiculous plot–see aforementioned Stephanie Plum books–if the characters and tone are well done. But Buck really, really didn’t work for me. It doesn’t help that the former, aged cops I run into are generally interesting people that love to tell stories. There’s probably some bitter, unreflective ones out there, but I doubt many made detective, which usually means some kind of problem-solving ability. But mostly, I felt like Friedman was doing a disservice to the 87 year-olds I meet. Frankly, Buck is unlikable. He’s unable to express positive sentiment, insults people he’s just met, and is generally irritable with the ones he knows. What was just redeemable for me where the interlude style pages taking from his memory journal that begin with “Something I don’t want to forget.” Those were touching and humanizing, but Buck was only able to translate those memories and thoughts into reaching out to his family once.

Honestly, the reviewers who say they laughed hysterically through this… I don’t know. They must be young, or not talk very often to old people. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be funny, the irony of a gun-toting 87 year-old unable to lift his gun? I found it just sad. There’s a very sad scene leaving a casino where he tries to boss his grandson around:

“You let me do the thinking for us. I have the experience.”

“I don’t trust your thinking, Grandpa,” he said, furrowing his eyebrows and leaning forward, forcing himself into my space. “Your thinking brought us out here, because your thinking was that you can tell this guy how things work in his own house. But your tough-guy bullshit was obsolete even when you could put some torque behind a punch.”

“Listen to me,” I began.

But he cut me off. “I’m through listening to you….what the hell kind of a plan was that?” 

I recoiled a little from his outburst. “I may not know law books, but I know people,” I stammered. “You don’t understand the kind of man you’re dealing with.”

My professional assessment would be that Buck is struggling with the narrowing down of his world, his physical abilities and his cognitive ones, and is not adapting well. It makes the book painful to read. I’d say the character was done well–although I’d reiterate that I don’t think I’ve met any geriatric-old cops like him (maybe the 60 year-old ones)–but he isn’t likable. I may have chuckled once or twice, but if Friedman was going for humor, he should check in with Evanovich. The shortcomings of the mystery with the unlikable man in an unlikable situation mean a skim-n-skip read.

 

 
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Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Read again March 2019
Recommended for fans of Nick Harkaway
 ★     ★     ★    ★    

Jasper Fforde is one of those writers that defies genre conventions, and even within his own body of work, he’s written some books that won’t have cross-over appeal. The Tuesday Next series, for instance, is pure fantasy silliness, based on the premise that there is a book/media world that becomes a live-action play whenever a book is read. The Nursery Rhyme series–my favorite–is equally silly, revolving around a detective solving crimes related to Humpty Dumpty and The Three Bears. Fforde’s pushed boundaries even further in the past few years with Shades of Grey and his latest stand-alone, Early Riser. I’d be hard-pressed to categorize it as either sci-fi or fantasy, as he does seem to take some pains to make his world semi-explicable according to Earth-laws, but at the end of the day, it’s typical Fforde weirdness.

The set-up is a world that swings dramatically from frigid Winter to a normal Summer, requiring the majority of inhabitants to hibernate in Domiciles during the Winter months. It’s a super-intriguing premise reminding me of Hugh Howery’s silos in Wool, but really, that’s not Fforde’s point, and there are mostly just intriguing but limited details on how the society operates. There’s a young person who becomes a member of the Winter Counsul, the group that sacrifices health to stay up and maintain order during the lean winter months. A supposedly quick mission of turning in a brain-dead ‘sleeper’ takes him and his preceptor Logan to the outlying and wild Sector Twelve, and unusual circumstances progress as they start to hear rumors of a ‘viral dream’ causing those who can’t hibernate to go crazy.

It’s a genre-bender to be sure. Sci-fi, fantasy, dreamscape fiction, apocalypse, mystery, coming-of-age; it draws elements from all. This is a book where–you may laugh–you need to read all the words if you expect to enjoy it. (I don’t always, especially with  ‘meh’ level books). It was engrossing and consuming, and took a little bit of work to read. There’s very little background or exposition, and what is there may not matter again. For instance, the story opens at the place Charlie Worthington resides, a sort of orphanage/baby-making nunnery. Does it matter? Only in context of his beginning, and perhaps in assumptions others might make about him. But you have to be able to go with the reading flow, content to understand as much as Fforde gives and possibly extrapolate the rest if you are going to enjoy it.

Definitely less silly than Fforde’s earlier books, which isn’t to say it is without humor, both incidental and situational. It took me awhile, but there’s a running joke about how awful various attempts at making ‘coffee’ on limited supplies are. There’s also a cute running gag where two characters meet and one is invested in imagining a shared history that is both funny and a little sad. As usual, Fforde has quite a bit to say about capitalism. There’s some side bits about the English and Welsh relationships as well. Thankfully, no cheese.

I found it a satisfying read, but fairly sure it isn’t one that will make it into my library (unlike The Nursery Crimes) Cross-recommendation: The Gone-Away World. Also feels a little similar to China Miéville in general boundary-pushing.

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The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

Read again March 2019
Recommended for fans of Spenser, really old school PI
 ★     ★     ★    

Ah, the first Spenser mystery, the one to start a series of almost forty books in forty years. Having started it somewhat in the middle, I went back to the beginning to see where it all began. I found writing that appealed even more than mid-series when Parker had distilled his writing down to the bare bones. Though I’m a fan for the art of minimizing in my physical life, there’s something to be said for richness in mood and setting, particularly in a mystery, and this supplies it in spades. It is also coarser, to be certain; late Spenser was sanitized and heroic, faithful to Susan. It’s clearly early Spenser, evidenced by a gratuitous torture-porn scene that literally did nothing for the plot, and Spenser’s general attitude of a swinging 70s ladies’ man.

There’s a bit of social commentary as well, which late Spenser also seems more comfortable avoiding. Spenser is consulted by a college dean who wants him to find a missing illuminated manuscript which is apparently being held for ransom. He has to spend his time hanging around radical, anti-establishment college students who are all about the dogma, man. It allows for some solid, world-weary reflections: “I felt the beer a little, and i felt the sadness of kids like that who weren’t buying it and weren’t quite sure what it was.” One of the radicals gets framed for murder, so the case rapidly shifts from a missing McGuffin to a Find the Real Killer.

It’s interesting, sometimes, to read these and feel the time period soaking through. This is a booze-soaked story, to the point of a cop offering Spenser a pint as he’s recovering in the hospital, and the cops are very period. I was kind of amused/fascinated to find an incident where the police officers transported a gunshot victim. They did that, you know, pre-ambulance days. Emergency medical services didn’t really get underway until 1970, and paramedics a bit later. I’ll be honest; the female characters are accessories, which would annoy me more if it had been long-standing through the series. No, some day, the psychologist Susan will come in and annoy us all with her anorexic eating habits, so I suspect my tolerance was indirectly the result of my irritation with future direction. Parker is also weirdly fascinated by clothes and describes what each character is wearing, even extraneous ones. Again, kind of fun in the retrospective sense.

 

“He looked like a zinnia. Tall and thin with an enormous corona of rust red hair flowing out around his pale, clean-shaven face. He wore a lavender undershirt and a pair of faded, flare-bottomed denim dungarees that were too long and dragged on the floor over his bare feet.”

Overall, a solid P.I. mystery, and a good start to a series.

 

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Read March 2019
Recommended for fans of Christie, Sayers
★    ★    ★    ★  

I didn’t know much about the Magpie Murders when Dan 2-Headphones suggested it as a buddy read. I read the description, and though it seemed suspiciously lit-fic–I was loathe to experience another Cloud Atlas–I gave it a try. The set-up is indeed a bit lit-fic: an editor sits down to read the first copy her author’s book, and then the story launches into a book-with-a-book format.

For a life-long fan of Christie-type mysteries, the first half is a beautiful, solid reproduction of an English manor mystery. Specific books came to mind, such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and After the Funeral, but mostly it felt like a Christie theme park English village, complete with wealth landowner and wife, a doctor, a vicar and his wife, the person that runs the pub, a gardener, the ‘girl friday’ (or whatever decade the cleaning person is), a mechanic, a police officer, and shopkeepers of various sorts. There are people decrying the behavior of the young, and people resenting the new development/housing. Horowitz does update it nicely by giving us a female doctor, but he can’t resist giving us a Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings, although in a semi-hysterical move, he makes Poirot into the German Atticus Pünd (honestly, I’m surprised he didn’t go with a Frenchman, just for fun). Tell me this sentence doesn’t just scream Poirot:

“Of course I do not believe the things that you suggest and it gives me no pleasure to ask you these questions. But everything must be in its place. Every statement must be verified, every movement examined.”

Then we go back to the modern mystery. For the most part, the narrative does not jump back and forth between ‘book’ and modern time, which I appreciated. There are visual cues to make it clear: page numbers, typesetting, and chapter headings all aid in differentiating the two sections. Both ‘books’ are in limited third person perspective.

Horowitz is clearly a talented writer. The homage to the ladies of the Golden Age of Mysteries is solid, without feeling syrupy or arch. The modern section has an updated linguistic feel, more introspective and more philosophical about mystery books, murder, and puzzles. I did enjoy many of the musings/insights.

“It was as if my new life was an anagram of my old one and I would only learn what shape it had taken when I began to live it.”

It’s very good stuff, but I’d agree with lucky little cat’s assessment of two flaws: first, that it dragged a bit in the second half. I had thought that was me and my preference for the classic English manor mystery, but on further reflection, I’d say some of the sections could use cutting, particularly the relationship drama. Second, that the ‘puzzle’ at the very end seemed ill-fitting. I suppose it was about shock and coarseness, but it didn’t feel integrated with the tone of the remaining story.

There truly isn’t much more to be said without spoilers, but I’d say never fear, Horowitz will not disappoint. Give it a try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

Read March 2019
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy police procedural
★     ★    ★    ★  

You should always realize that my ratings for Ben Aaronovitch are relative to his own works; his Peter Grant series is generally five-star in comparison to any other urban fantasy. In this novella, he leaves Grant behind to follow Tobias Winter, a special agent in the special division for magical enforcement in Germany. Winter is relaxing at his parent’s house when he gets a call about “possible infraction in Trier,” which is official-speak for a potentially magic-related death. He is assigned a liaison officer, Frau Sommer, and together they work to solve the mystery.

It’s an interesting idea, to base the concept of a story on the idea of a world and the police procedural structure, but to leave out any characters from the last seven books. Tobias needs to explain the whole ‘magic’ thing to Sommer, so a reader joining the world at this particular point would not be left out. In a way, that’s a nice idea. For series fans, however, I’d say this will feel slightly disappointing, as there have been so many interesting characters throughout the seven books that I could name a handful that would be a lot of fun to explore. Kumar, from the Underground; the sword-wielding Li; Madame Tang; even, dare I say, more Abagail. I know he’s been doing some of the exploration with the graphic novels (Guhleed, Nightingale, the River Twins), but those prove less character-expanding and more about the adventure.

Tobias, unfortunately, felt largely like a watered-down Peter to me. Less funny, more methodical, prone to explaining but also still prone to methodological leaps. He gets a run and a cooking interlude to help distinguish himself. Sommer felt largely bland, with portentous hints.

There’s a bit of German language sprinkled in. To be honest, I’m not sure why. It doesn’t really give much of a sense of atmosphere, and since German isn’t really a common language, it’s largely incomprehensible. Here’s one bit:

“I joined the Bundeskriminalamt rather than the Polizei Baden-Württemberg so Papa wouldn’t be able to order me about at work.” 

or

“Trier is not famous as a policing hotspot, having been voted Germany’s Quaintest Town five years in a row in the poll of popular destinations conducted by the Deutsche Zentrale für Tourismus.”

Sigh. Ben, Ben, Ben. You’re missing the point of using non-English words in your writing when you are writing in English. You are supposed to be conveying the inexplicable, or a cultural signifier, n’est-ce pas?

This is going to sound grumpy, I suppose; but you should always assume that I like an Aaronovitch book and what I have to specify are the ways in which it wasn’t a five-star read. The writing is clear and sophisticated. There’s certainly weird bullocks, as Det. Seawoll would say, but it’s used to good effect. Violence and gore for the sake of being thrilling and titillating is generally avoided, although there’s certainly some more horrific elements here than what we’ve usually seen Peter deal with. A new kind of fae sneaks in, as well as more encounters with rivers. Plot moves reasonably fast, although typically twisty, once we get Tobias out to Trier. Setting is developed decently, and definitely feels different from London policing. 

That said, I’d really prefer Grant & Co. There were just a couple of points where I laughed, one early on: 

“Despite my admiration for Förstner’s ability to insult both of us at the same time, my brain still finally managed to flag a crucial piece of information.”

I was left feeling like I spent the day with Peter’s older, more serious brother. A decent story, but I missed the sense of fun.

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