The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

the-mystic-arts-of-erasing-all-signs-of-death

Read January 2017
Recommended
 ★     ★     ★    ★

 

First there was ‘chick-lit.’ Then there was ‘hick-lit.’ I hereby dub a new sub-genre: dick-lit. No, it’s not about sex, porny-readers. I’m thinking of such books as The Goldfinch, Less Than Zero, Catcher In the Rye, and others whose titles escape me because it isn’t a genre I read and enjoy. Usually.

In the way that chick-lit is about women in their twenties finding their way, finding a job and finding a man (not necessarily in that order), dick-lit is about men in their twenties working out their lives, finding a job and finding a woman (usually in that order). In this particular sub-genre, they also tend to be unlikable during the process. Webster, the protagonist, has good reason to be unlikable. As the story comes together, the reader starts to understand, if not necessarily applaud, Web’s behavior and his travels on a sort of redemption arc. Of course, this is not the silly-girly redemption arc in chick-lit of An Entirely Different Awesome Person Embracing Change, but more like a 2.0 person, still with their dysfunctional history, still a fuck-up–just not as much of one.

“I closed my eyes for a moment, when I opened them it was gone. I looked down the street, knowing it must have just turned the corner, but unable to keep myself from thinking other thoughts. Thinking about the Flying Dutchman. Ghost ships. Haunted freighters, lost souls that manifest and dissolve, unbidden. Just the usual.”

Don’t read the blurb. It’s a disaster of a description that gives a lot of the development away, and gets details wrong to boot. The story is set around Webster, an adult who has been freeloading on his best and life-long friend, Chev. Narrative is from Web’s point of view, but because Web is focused on the here and now, explanations and mental digressions are in short supply. The reader is essentially dropped in on a teaser scene in a motel, and then returns to where the story begins with Web and Chet are squabbling like an old married couple. It becomes clear that Web is in immediate need of employment, so he takes a day-job cleaning up after messy deaths with their friend, Po Sin. In some ways it reads like a script, dialogue-heavy with little visual background. The one thing about Huston’s writing is that he is violently allergic to quotation marks (at least, I presume that’s the reason), so the structure may make or break your enjoyment of the book:

“I looked at the number.
–Caller unknown. Probably a customer. Let me get this for you.
–Do not pick that up.
I flipped the phone open.
–White Lightning Tattoo.
Chev jammed a hand in his pocket, going for his keys.
–Asshole!
I nodded my head, phone at my ear, backing from the door.
–A string of barbed wire? Around your biceps? Yea, sure, we can do that.
Chev turned the key.
–Do not say another word.
I covered the mouthpiece with my hand.
–No, it’s cool, I can handle this.
He pushed the door open.
–Give me the phone.
I took my hand from the mouthpiece.
–Sure, sure we can do that wire around your arm. We can also tattoo lameass poser wannabe on your forehead.
Chev came at me, grabbing for the phone.
I held it over my head, screaming.
–Or how about you just get a unicorn on your hip so people will know what a real man you are!

What can I say? I liked it. I liked the feel of realness in the relationship between best friends, and in the dialogue between them. I like how the male friendship was portrayed with Chet as wells as with Po. I especially liked it when Web’s friends continued to hold him accountable. I liked gradually finding out about Web through his interactions, rather than being told. The work was kind of fascinating, giving a voyeuristic insight into messy deaths, and I really wouldn’t have minded more detail there. The humor was a little adolescent at time, punching and shoving and generally being sarcastic assholes. When Web encountered someone even more dickish than himself, I admit I laughed out loud a few times at the way Web talked to him.

There’s also a complicated crime-situation thing going on where Web unsurprisingly plays the clueless hero. Since the book was a nominee for both an Edgar and Anthony Award, I’ll assume it qualifies as a mystery, although there’s really a certain sort of screwball dark comedy to it.

By the way, thought the cover looks like a dead woman, I’m almost certain everyone who died in the book was male. Just sayin’, publishers.

Dicks.

Posted in Book reviews, Fiction, genre-bender | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Harmony Black by Craig Schaefer

harmony-black

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of UF mixed with thriller
 ★     ★     ★      

For those of you who wear make-up, I have a little quiz. Quickly name three items you consider essential. Got them? Okay, now pick an additional item that you thought about but decided not quite. Were any of those items eye shadow? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

I really enjoy Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust series (first is The Long Way Down), but this spin-off for a side character, Harmony Black, felt more like a first book than the work of a published–and polished–author. That little mistake above was only one of many that stuck out to me, putting me in mind of O’Malley’s mistakes with Myfanwy in The Rook. Please, authors–if you are writing a character that may not feel, you know, natural to you, at least run it by a person of that persuasion or inclination. Because nobody, absolutely nobody, that I know considers eye-shadow part of bare-minimum make-up. I’m not obsessive or anything. It’s just a detail that doesn’t square.

You know what else doesn’t square? A kid whose family left town when she was six remembering where a motel was on the edge of the town. A woman who grew up being taught witchcraft needing to be convinced by her law-enforcement partner that ‘we can’t spread the word on the occult or people will freak out.’ Similar details prickled at me, making me quite unable to sink as fully into the story as I would have like, definitely a bummer. You see, the Daniel Faust series has been my companion on the gym recline bike, the place I go when to break up home routine and swimming, and it’s been perfectly reliable at keeping me engaged and motivated to work-out longer, just so I could read. I was hoping Black would do the same thing, thus providing me with enough gym fodder to last until spring (I really don’t go as often as I should).

That said, Schaefer knows how to keep plot moving and action sequences flowing. There were plenty of interesting developments that I certainly didn’t feel bored. A few developments felt a bit too convenient and a bit too obvious, as if investigation wasn’t really done by the agents but was instead done by Coincidence. I fell for a red herring, which is always fun, that clever turn-about of giving enough clues that perhaps the reader who thinks she is clever knows what the ‘reveal’ will be and then not having that happen.

Writing was enjoyable, with enough detail to give the feel of the setting and the action, without being bogged down by exposition and description. In this book, characters felt a little more stereotypical than in Faust, perhaps because Schafer was coloring within the genre lines of a straight-laced FBI agent brought into a black-ops group.

End of the day, not sorry I bought it, and it was entertaining enough to lead me to buy the next. Clear off the exercise bike–I’m on my way (sans make-up).

 

Posted in fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A new classic.

children-of-time

Read January 2017
Recommended for sci-fi fans, people who wanted to like Aurora and didn’t, fans of Charlotte’s Web
 ★     ★     ★    ★    1/2

 

Sympathetic spiders? Inconceivable!

–I do not think that word means what you think it means–

Nope, in this case, it pretty much does. It’s not that I have a spider-phobia–I like to think we have a truce regarding squishing and biting–it’s that something about their structure and movement speaks to some primeval instinct to run away. Children of Time popped up in friend reviews, but I’ll be honest–it wasn’t until I realized there were giant spiders and colony ships that I really became intrigued. I am usually interested in the moving island of space colonization, and the inclusion of what seemed to be genuine aliens piqued my curiosity. Could it be done? Could an author really give an alien feel and yet remain sympathetic to creatures that inspire such fear?

Yes and yes.

Aside from that general set-up, I went into Children blind. Tchaikovsky structures the premise and then alternates the narrative between the two species. Once settled into the story-telling rhythm, he adds another wrinkle. I appreciate the way he told the story, easing the reader in and then building on the concepts. The human narrative tends to be more dialogue oriented, the spider-narrative more internal. It makes for an interesting pace change that might have dragged had the entire book been one style or the other.

“She feels fear, a building anxiety that makes her stamp her feet and twitch her palps. Her people are more suited to offence than defence, but they have been unable to retain the initiative in this conflict. She will have to improvise. There is no plan for what comes next. She may die, and her eyes look into that abyss and feed her with a terror of extinction, of un-being, that is perhaps the legacy of all life.”

Characterization proved rather intriguing, particularly at first. I thought the feel of primitive spider-thinking rather believable, and appreciated the structuring of a very different world-view. I ended up believing the premise enough to enjoy the story and not feel hampered by arguing the science in my head. Also interestingly–particularly in a genre known for its sexism–the tendency of some female spiders to eat the males after mating is turned toward matriarchic ends. I was also intrigued by the spiders’ interaction with other beings on the world, as well as how they are characterized.

“She knows that individual ants themselves cannot be treated with, communicated with or even threatened. Her comprehension is coarse, of a necessity, but approximates to the truth. Each ant does not think. It has a complex set of responses based on a wide range of stimuli, many of which are themselves chemical messages produced by other ants in response to still more eventualities.”

Writing is solid. It is complex enough to convey cognitive concepts of world-view as well as philosophical underpinnings of what intelligence and interconnectivity is. I didn’t overtly realize it as I read, but I think there were parallel discussions of what humanity means and aims for, a particularly worthwhile topic for our time.

“The more he learned of them, the more he saw them not as spacefaring godlike exemplars, as his culture had originally cast them, but as monsters: clumsy, bickering, short-sighted monsters… In trying to be the ancients, they had sealed their own fate–neither to reach those heights, nor any others, doomed instead to a history of mediocrity and envy.”

I do think Tchaikovsky loses his way somewhat near the last third of the book. Still, it ended up being a book full of unexpected twists and turns. Most worked. A few did not, and I remain ambivalent about the ending. However, there were also moments when I thought, “this reminds me of Ursula LeGuin and one of her world-building, sci-fi masterpieces.” A good story, intriguing world-building and a layered exploration of humanity and civilization. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it to someone who is in the mood for classic-feeling science fiction with modern sensibilities.

Posted in Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. Or, Mostly Conceivable.

as-you-wish

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of Princess Bride
 ★     ★     ★   

Three stars? Inconceivable!

–I do not think that word means what you think it means–

It’s true; it is barely conceivable that one could not adore “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride.” But despite a deep and lasting fondness for the movie (of course I own a copy), this was a mixed adventure, much like a stroll through the Fire Swamp. Despite containing fencing, giants, and the miracle of a sleeper hit, I found it lacking in fighting, revenge and true love.

I spent an accidental Audible credit on the audio version (I didn’t cancel quite soon enough), noting it was read by Elwes. It was delightfully read; though somewhat stilted at the beginning, he soon finds his pace and story-telling voice, and it stops sounding quite so much as reading, and more like telling. His voice is charming, soothing, measured, resonant; clearly the voice of someone trained in theater. It also appears that Elwes is a surprisingly accomplished mimic, as he reads certain sections in voices of the involved people. There are also guest appearances recounting their own roles in that particular section, including the director Rob Reiner, his friend and co-producer Andrew Scheinman, author William Goldman, actors Robin Wright, Christopher Guest, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane and Fred Savage (basically, all the actors with speaking parts who were still alive).

The trouble for me was that so much of what Elwes was saying was–forgive me–dull. Elwes seems a genuinely nice guy, as evidenced by his effusive praise for absolutely everyone involved with the project. Everyone has a body of work he admires. Everyone is enormously talented. Everyone is incredibly kind to someone virtually naive to a Hollywood style production. The first chapter sounded more like someone reading an Imdb page than storytelling. Of course, his work in Spinal Tap…” “I was a big fan of… “etc.

I’m not a film buff and much I didn’t recognize nor did I particularly care as it was basically resume-listing. It isn’t that I wanted scandal, but I was looking for personal and character details that couldn’t be found in a filmography. I suspect a three-fold effect was in operation: first, that Elwes is genuinely nice; second, his recount is through the golden glass of nostalgia; and three, that he doesn’t want to burn any professional bridges. I actually tried speeding up the read at one point, something I have never done, because it was so tedious. I wouldn’t recommend it. While it did indeed go faster, I found I missed Elwes’ speaking cadence almost immediately.

The overall content was intermittently interesting. Here are the specific insights:

  • –Robin Wright is gorgeous. At the time was locked into a contract for the soap Santa Barbara. They set her free long enough for the movie, but demanded an additional year commitment.
  • –Andre the Giant was a huge person, an alcoholic, sweet, and incredibly generous. He was troubled by back pain. Note Elwes never used the word ‘alcoholic,’ but instead described the vast amounts he would drink. And his farts were epic. Hearing Elwes say the word ‘fart’ totally made my inner ten-year-old giggle.
  • –I have a suspicion that Elwes and Mandy Patinkin were very competitive on set, although most of the detail about this was left out. Practice for the swordfight took weeks.
  • –The actor that played the ROUS fighting The Man in Black caused a delay in shooting when he was picked up the night before for operating under the influence.
  • –Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) was dreadfully afraid he was inadequate after hearing the part was first offered to Danny DeVito. No official word if this was true. Personally, I think DeVito couldn’t have played it straight enough and would have failed my one of my favorite lines: “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia.’
  • –Elwes was a total dolt and broke his toe on Andre’s four-wheeler. That scene where he says, “life is pain, Highness” –totally real. He also genuinely fell unconscious when Christopher Guest (Count Rugen) knocked him on the head. No acting needed!
  • –That scene in the Fire Swamp when Robin is set on fire? Also totally real. Fire-retardant dress. William Goldman ruined the first take because he forgot the scene and over-reacted.
  • –Rob Reiner gives a lot of hugs.

Most of the content is the recounting of various emotional states before, during and after filming with details that are too hazy for people who weren’t there.  Let me ‘splain: twenty plus years ago, I was the waterfront director at a rustic girl scout camp. I remember it as absolutely glorious, and I can recount a few specific instances of when we laughed so much it hurt and a couple moments of unspeakable beauty, but on the whole, I wouldn’t expect anyone to want to listen to me recount details. I could only give enough specifics for ten minutes of good story-telling; the rest of the time, the listener would just be listening to my interpretation of my emotional state.

Overall, not sad I listened to it–it is The Princess Bride, after all–and I’m sure the details will add another layer of appreciation to the movie, and another reason for haters to be annoyed by my movie love. But I’d suggest borrowing this one.

No more rhymes now, I mean it!”
Anybody want a peanut?”

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Dissension (Echo Hunter 367) by Stacey Berg

dissension-echo-hunter

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of kick-ass women
 ★     ★     ★     ★    1/2

It is not always easy to say why some books spark our interest, is it? In retrospect, I’m not actually clear on why I added this book to my list, and even less so why I bought it. I know a quartet of reviews from friends at SpecFic drew my attention to it, and a Kindle sale undoubtedly made it an easier choice. I think it is the lure of the elusive strong female character, a woman with determination and discipline coupled with my fondness for the post-apocolypse genre that sucked me in.

I normally do a brief summary in my reviews because my memory is so unreliable, but I think this is one of those books that is unique enough to need no triggers. How to describe it? The set-up reminded me of the tv show Dark Angel

crossed with the setting and world-building of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The blurb hints at a romance, but it isn’t a romantic book about two people meeting, falling in love, yada yada, and if you expect that, you’ll be disappointed. It’s mostly one of those journeys of self-discovery of a kick-ass woman in a fast-moving plot.

“If she pinned his hand against the jamb it would be a simple matter to snap his elbow with a quick strike. The temptation was so shocking that it froze her in place. Loro saw her hesitate and misunderstood. ‘Good.'”

Berg did an amazing job, really. She drew me in with the setting, locked me in with the character and kept the action and plotting moving with the potential seeds of social–and perhaps personal–revolution. That it dovetailed with discovery, self-reliance and perhaps, love, was surprising. By the end, I think the reader knows what is inevitable, but it is no less moving for that.

“The cityens who were left were like the scavengers in the desert, crawling among the ruins with no thought of what had been lost and no goal greater than the day’s necessities. Only the Church remembered, and dreamed to make men more than they once were.”

In some ways, it reminded me a little–and just a little–of the Kate Daniels books in that there is a nice balance of character-building and plotting with a lead character that is forced into situations where she has to think things through instead of merely complete missions. A lot of the world-building is implied, built by the reader in bits and pieces. Personally, I’ve always loved the more organic approach of world-building (who thinks about where they live every day in a clear, descriptive fashion?), and I found that while much of it clarified, I’m still left with a lingering sense of curiosity (as is Echo, I think).

Overall, very well written. It’s also worth noting that there is a nice sense of ethical complexity to it, as it would have been easy to vilify one side or another. Berg has made it to my ‘authors to watch’ list.

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics by Colin Cotterill

Read January 2017
Recommended for fans of gentle investigations, socialism, Olympic fun & games
 ★     ★     ★   1/2

The Dr. Siri series follows Laos’s only coroner, a medical doctor and cynical party member of the socialist government. In the first book, The Coroner’s Lunch, Dr. Siri begins to experience dreams in which the ghosts of some of his dead clients speak to him, and for a while, neither he nor the reader are entirely sure what is true. I enjoyed the characterization of the series a great deal, as well as insight into a different cultural and political system. I read through the series until two issues in the sixth book, The Merry Misogynist were so irritating that I couldn’t force myself to the seventh. Reading Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series, however, had me nostalgic for the elderly shenanigans of Dr. Siri and his cohorts, so when I saw this offered on Edelweiss, I decided to give it a try.

What a pleasant surprise! I felt like we had returned to the sassy confidence of Dr. Siri in the first few books, along with the expected impish insubordination from him and Comrade (Minister) Civilai, one of Siri’s oldest friends, both literally and figuratively. In this book, the Olympics are being hosted by the Soviet Union, and they’ve invited all the socialist countries. Civilai is appointed the nominal leader of the delegation, but it appears Siri won’t be invited:

“‘They said they’d sooner bring in a monkey than have you represent Laos at an international event. They think you’re a liability. That you’ll embarrass the Party.'”

Without too much delay, Siri gets himself and his wife Madame Daeng invited by harassing the Vice Minister of Health:

“‘Ah, the land of opportunity,’ said Siri. ‘Just think what you might become when you turn twenty-five.’
‘I’m forty-seven,’ said the Vice Minister, more eager to correct the math than to tackle the sarcasm.”

They’re headed to Russia with the Laotian team of shooters, boxers, runners and a race-walker. The Laotians are wide-eyed country rubes in the big city, but one of the charms of the story is their fascination with city luxuries and conveniences. Civilai is there to encourage them despite their inevitable defeat:

“‘It’s not whether you win or lose that’s important, it’s how you play the game.’ He looked at the observers from the ministry. ‘Marx said that.'”

When one of the boxers appears to have murdered a local woman, things turn serious. Siri and Civilai are convinced of the man’s innocence and concerned about the inadequacy of the local investigation. Comrade Inspector Phosy is back at home in Laos and starts investigating from his end.

The humor ranges from broad to subtle, and the tongue-in-cheek tone is always one of the delights of the series. The murder mystery is decent, albeit convoluted, and made a sort of sense. At the same time, there’s more serious undertones with the Laotian government and it’s new era of reform. The characters are fun, but generally played more broadly than subtlely. Apparently Madame Daeng now has a tail from their recent adventures. There’s a small plot involving Siri’s largely absent spirit guide, but in this case it doesn’t have much effect on the mystery, only an ill monk back in Laos. Overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit, rather like having a familiar noodle dish for dinner–nothing earth-shattering, but still tasty and warming.

 

Many thanks to Edelweiss and Soho Crime for providing me a copy to read!

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Murder Among the Owls by Bill Crider

murder-among-the-owls

Read December 2016
Recommended for fans of gentle investigations
 ★     ★     ★ 

 

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged | 4 Comments

Ursula Vernon short stories

I recently discovered Vernon’s work through a friend’s enthusiastic review of “Jackalope Wives.” When she followed it up with a review of “The Tomato Thief,” I couldn’t resist temptation. I absolutely loved “The Tomato Thief,” a perfect story for the end of the year.

Mixing Native mythology with classic fairytales and the rise of the railroad can have lovely results. For a few moments, on New Years’ Eve, in the cold and dark north, I was in the hot, dry desert, baking in the sun.

“I need your old mule,” Grandma Harken told him. “The one I like to ride.”
Tomas looked at her, gazed briefly heavenward, and said, “That mule died five years ago, Abuela Harken.”
Grandma blinked. “What’d he die of?”
“Old age,” said Tomas, who was always extremely respectful but had a sense of humor anyway.”

Truly, an engrossing little story full of all my favorite elements: determination, magic, women tough as sinew, humor and a feeling of a tale as old as people. I read through a number of other reviews and suspect that what some reviewers are missing is a familiarity with both Native myths and with a particular classic fairy tale. If you are familiar with the latter, Vernon’s transformation of it in the New World is clever and enjoyable. It’s been a while since I read various Native mythology, but world origin myths are particularly… different, and I suspect don’t necessarily translate well conceptually. There’s a section in this that reminds me of those. At any rate, a fabulous, multi-layered little read.

Still, I disagree with Grandma on the value of a fresh tomato sandwich.

***************

I sought out more of her work, and found Vernon’s website, which helpfully lists and links many of her short stories. Pocosin,” the story of a woman living in an isolated, swampy location, was my least favorite. It has the shades of Grandma Harken from the other works, but feels less developed. In it, Maggie is trying to peacefully mind her own business when an injured Possum God intrudes on her porch. Intriguing hints of Maggie’s past were not elaborated, and made some of the confrontations less meaningful than I think Vernon meant them to be. Still, the writing remains something intriguing, particularly the evocative opening line: “This is the place of the carnivores, the pool ringed with sundews and the fat funnels of the pitcher plants.”

******************

I ventured on to “Wooden Feathers.” Once again I found that establishment of normalcy that ventures into surrealism. In this one, a woman who sells duck carvings is puzzled by a shabby old man who continues to by her models. There’s a few off notes here, specifically, why the old man would share his work, but part of the magic of fairy tales is that there isn’t always a reason for the magic. Wording is quite nice, solid description that is at turns bare bones and at other times ornate.  The moon was the eye of an ink-dark whale overhead, barnacled with stars.”

“Sarah’s favorite was a walrus. It was snow white, with a blue saddle, and its tusks were scrimshawed with starfish and ships. Its lumpy, bristly face was screwed up in a grin of delight. In the photo, a little girl had her arms as far around it as they could go, and she was grinning too.”

*************

The last one was “Razorback,” the story of a rural witch who found a kind of solid companionship in a friendly hog. Not quite as lyrical, it has a familiar lead; a strong, stubborn, isolated woman of power. I appreciate the acknowledgement that there are risks in that position, and that certain men will always see outliers as prey. A moving sort of romance and a nice twist to a traditional sort of cost-situation. There’s interesting self-referential remarks about the various interpretations locals have put on the tale.

*************

Her works recall both the history and the culture of fairy tales at the same time that they’ve been modernized and transformed into a recognizable and current setting. And while she does that, she works with a complex of emotions, those feelings of pride, disappointment, compassion. I’ll keep my eye out for her works.

 

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree

inspector-singh-a-deadly-cambodian

Read December 2016
Recommended for fans of Hercule Poirot
 ★     ★     ★     ★   1/2

My favorite Inspector Singh yet. If you haven’t yet heard about the Inspector Singh detective series, I recommend giving it a try. Singh is a detective with the Singapore Police with a knack for solving murders and an equal gift for irritating his superiors, often resulting in dubious foreign ‘honor’ missions. In this case, he’s been sent as a Singapore representative for a war crimes tribunal in Cambodia led by the United Nations. He’s never been to Cambodia and finds the gastronomic experience sadly lacking. When a witness is killed halfway through testimony, he finds himself working with the local police to solve the murder.

Although the cover blurb has the gall to compare it to McCall Smith’s series starring Precious Ramotswe, the two series are really quite different in philosophy. For one thing, Flint isn’t afraid to raise the emotional impact through body count. More significantly, Flint plunges right into complicated situations, particularly in this book structured around modern day after effects of the Khmer Rouge, where McCall Smith’s series tends to minimize or ignore political conflict and history.

“Chhean stood in line outside the court room, her tapping foot the only overt sign of her impatience, waiting to be ushered in by the various functionaries. The tribunal guards were dressed in light-blue shirts and heavy gold braid. She supposed this fondness for colourful costumes was a subconscious effort to forget the days when authority had worn black collarless pyjamas and red chequered kramas. If only it were so easy to dress up or disguise the past.”

The story opens with a flashback: a young girl watches her father taken in the middle of the night by men of the Khmer Rouge, and what happens when she surreptitiously follows them. Narrative then shifts to focus primarily on Singh, but also brief interludes of an assortment of others, including Colonel Menday, one of the few honest members of the Cambodian police; Gaudin, an elderly, tormented Frenchman; and Chhean, an adult orphan. While appearances may be brief, we get enough complexity of each to appreciate their struggles. The hero, Singh is quite human–an imperfect, frequently slovenly one–with a belief in justice who is often moved to compassion despite his cynicism. In short, identifiable. His sidekick, Chhean, is a dogged Cambodian journalist who is often assigned ‘odd jobs’ and spends her spare time researching old records for hints of her missing family. Intelligent, determined, focused; she was a perfect foil for Singh.

Storytelling was fascinating as it went from murder mystery, to the search for missing loved ones, and in the background deaths of former Khmer Rouge trying to live out their lives in anonymity. The setting contained the wonderful variety in most countries, from tourism-centered villages to officious administrative offices to rural landscape. I appreciated the diversity of places and people that covered, given that it’s a relatively quick detective novel.

I make no secret of the fact that I generally like my reading escapist; with a heart wounded regularly in real life by the deaths of lovely people and compassion stretched by attempting to help people that can’t help themselves, I strongly prefer happy endings and likeable characters. I was somewhat apprehensive starting this one; I knew of the Cambodian killing fields only generally, and was concerned the book might overwhelm. It turned out to be wonderfully balanced for me, mystery and sub-mystery woven through with an education in a country I know almost nothing about, and an exploration of the legacy of citizenship in such a country.

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon. Or, the Heart Thief.

A perfect story for the end of the year.

http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-toma…

Mixing mythology with fairytales and the rise of the railroad can have lovely results. For a few moments, on New Years’ Eve, in the cold and dark north, I was in the hot, dry desert, baking in the sun.

“I need your old mule,” Grandma Harken told him. “The one I like to ride.”

Tomas looked at her, gazed briefly heavenward, and said, “That mule died five years ago, Abuela Harken.”

Grandma blinked. “What’d he die of?”

“Old age,” said Tomas, who was always extremely respectful but had a sense of humor anyway.”

Truly, an engrossing little story full of all my favorite elements: determination, magic, women tough as sinew, humor and a feeling of a tale as old as people.

Still, I disagree with Grandma on the value of a fresh tomato sandwich.

Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments