Monday, February 29, 2016

Welcome to the Chinese Corporate Chicago! ORPHANS by Ben Tanzer


Switchgrass Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.125* of five

The Publisher Says: With Orphans, Ben Tanzer continues his ongoing literary survey of the 21st Century male psyche, yet does so with a newfound twist, contemporary themes set in a world that is anything but. In this dystopian tale of a future Chicago, workers are sent off to sell property on Mars to those who can afford to leave, leaving what’s left to those who have little choice but to make do with what’s left behind: burnt out neighborhoods, black helicopters policing the streets, flash mobs, the unemployed in their scruffy suits, robots taking the few jobs that remain, and clones who replace those workers who do find work so that a modicum of family stability can be maintained. It is a story about the impact of work on family. How work warps our best intentions. And how everything we think we know about ourselves looks different during a recession. This idea is writ large in the world of Orphans, where recession is all we know, work is only available to the lucky few, and this lucky few not only need to fear being replaced on the job, but in their homes and beds. It is also a story about drugs, surfing, punk music, lost youth, parenting, sex, pop culture as vernacular, and a conscious intersection of Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross with The Martian Chronicles. Looking to the genre of science fiction has allowed Tanzer to produce something new and fresh, expanding both his literary horizons, and the potential market for his work. Tanzer also looks to the story of Bartleby the Scrivener with Orphans, and the question of what are we allowed as workers, and expected to be, or do, when work is fraught with desperation. Ultimately, Orphans is intended to be a contemporary story about manhood and what it means in today’s world, told from the perspective of work and family, and how any of us manage the parameters that family and work produce; but it’s a story told in a futuristic world, where our greatest fears are in fact already realized, because there isn’t enough of anything, and we are all too easily replaced.

My Review: Good gravy! That description of Orphans is pretty much what I planned to say in my review. I agree with all of it. The book is a small, rough diamond of Maleness, familiar to anyone who is approaching middle years or has passed through the horrors of middlescence into the Useless Years. I mean, I mean, GOLDEN years, GOLDEN of course haha. Tanzer's Norrin Radd (is that a 70s punk name or what?) is a father in deepest love with his child, Joey, and would do literally anything to feed, clothe, house, and protect him. His wife Shalla, although he is fixated on her presence, is not the focus of his world, nor he of hers. This is the inevitable pattern of family life, as parents struggle to figure out who they are in relation to birth families and work mates and the endlessly shifting sandbars in their home waters.

Norrin is a schlemiel, a perpetual underdog, not even beta in the pack hierarchy of maleness but more the omega. His escape is surfing Lake Michigan, renamed along with Chicago after a complete takeover of the country by a Chinese corporate hierarchy. The world hasn't really changed all that much from our own. Norrin would be begging for scraps and hustling to support his drug habit and his family in 2016 as well as this dystopic future. Norrin's love of surfing is telling: Speed is freedom, rushing along the surface of an illimitable deep gives him his only small mastery of the deeps in his life. It's all too short, and even Norrin seems to realize it's an illusion; after time on his sailboard, he sits with the wise man (humorously named Lebowski, as in "The Big") who treats him as a grown son. He's mildly impatient and endlessly willing to listen and advise. In short, he's a dad. Can't help but wonder whose dad...that'll make more sense after you've read the book, which I strongly suggest you do. After all, what other writer has the confidence to casually mention in passing that many places in and beyond the Solar System are inhabited?

Orphans is unjustly underknown. In spite of some copyediting irritations, eg "bare" for "bear" throughout the book, likewise "reign" for "rein" etc etc etc, the prose is vintage Tanzer. It is without gonfalons and ormolu cherubs or even pseudohip fake-slang, all of which date a book mighty soon after it appears. This is someone's subtle dystopia TV show (blessedly without zombies!)...maybe the Esquire Network? It could be filmed on the cheap in Detroit, and they need original programming...heck, why not Participant Media, those lovely lefties, as producers? I hate wastefulness, and that's what leaving Orphans on the shelf when it can be so much more is.

DISCLOSURE I am acquainted with Mr. Tanzer across several social-media sites. I did not solicit, nor did he or his publisher offer, a free copy to me. I paid retail like any other schlub.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

BOXER, BEETLE earns a 4-plus star review


Bloomsbury USA
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Kevin "Fishy" Broom has his nickname for a reason-a rare genetic condition that makes his sweat and other bodily excretions smell markedly like rotting fish. Consequently, he rarely ventures out of the London apartment where he deals online in Nazi memorabilia. But when Fishy stumbles upon a crime scene, he finds himself on the long-cold trail of a pair of small-time players in interwar British history. First, there's Philip Erskine, a fascist gentleman entomologist who dreams of breeding an indomitable beetle as tribute to Reich Chancellor Hitler's glory, all the while aspiring to arguably more sinister projects in human eugenics. And then there's Seth "Sinner" Roach, a homosexual Jewish boxer, nine-toed, runtish, brutish-but perfect in his way-who becomes an object of obsession for Erskine, professionally and most decidedly otherwise. What became of the boxer? What became of the beetle? And what will become of anyone who dares to unearth the answers?

First-time novelist Ned Beauman spins out a dazzling narrative across decades and continents, weaving his manic fiction through the back alleys of history. Boxer, Beetle is a remarkably assured, wildly enjoyable debut.

My Review: Pawn Stars meets Queer as Folk, directed by Leni Riefenstahl and produced by Russell T Davies.

I read this after I'd gulped down The Teleportation Accident. Whatever Ned Beauman writes, he leavens with amusing dialogue and mildly incredible situations. I've heard his work characterized as science fiction. I think of that as a compliment, yet I'm not sure that label fits. It feels to me more as though Beauman has Anglicized the South American Magical Realism, shining the black light and the strobe light simultaneously on real situations, recognizable people, and commonplace locations, thereby revealing the bloodstains, the slug tracks, and the frightened faces of bystanders to the events unfurling before us.

This strange tale of fascists obsessed with Jewish sex objects is made much more fun by the modern-day frame around it. The Nazi-memorabilia thread made the whole story come together, as there was no missing the echoes of the insanity of the 1930s in modern times.

But to me the 4ft11in Sinner Roach (a piece of word-play that only makes sense in the book's context) steals the book. A boxer who makes more money from the men he fucks than he'd ever dreamed possible, goes to New York to fight the biggest fight of his career. If he can stay sober, he'll be in the big time. Well...Sinner is aptly named, let's say. His antics in New York and London are worth the book's cost. But the modern-day outcast, Sinner's echo, good-guy hacker/thief Fishy is just as amusing as he races around London in Sinner's long-ago wake to make his own big-time score. Where the two paths converge is a very moving moment. Considering Beauman's apparent dislike of sentimentality, it's also unusual.

I can't help but complain about one thing: The Philip Erskine Malaise. As soon as he takes over the narrative, he leaches the fun and slows the pace from the narrative. His wishy-washy mealy-mouthed scaredy-cat snobbery made me cringe, roll my eyes, and snort impatiently. Hence the 3/4-star deduction from the rating. Because this started out as a 5-star read, and should have stayed one. Don't cheat yourself, though, get the book on your TBR hillock somewhere near the top.

2015 Nebula Award Finalist: Novelette THE LADIES' AQUATIC GARDENING SOCIETY

Henry Lien
Online free read

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Plot Synopsis: In an alternate Gilded Age, two outsiders clinging desperately to their places in Newport society, as controlled by Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt. The competition between Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, Boston born and bred, and Mrs. Fleming, née Contessa Contarini, is fought in the form of gardening triumphs. Each lady tries to outdo the other with more and more exotic types of garden until the Law of Unintended Results takes calamitous hold.

My Review: What a hoot! Lien made me laugh at least four or five times as much as I'd dared to hope. The title, after reading the tale, rings a tocsin instead of a laugh. This funny, accurate take on Gilded Age life contains a serious warning to the inattentive majority about the consequences of meddling with the natural world. Humans as a species have been altering and destroying wide swaths of the planet, often simply for our own gratification, often simply through ignorance of the consequences our actions have. Look at the Monte Carlo aquarium's generation-long release of a seemingly harmless kind of underwater grass: It resulted in a very large part of the northern Mediterranean Sea losing all of its native flora and fauna. All because there was no awareness of what a non-native species would do in a new environment, so no precautions were taken to confine it.

The American South is gradually being eaten alive by a Japanese plant, kudzu, as the heat and humidity of the place seems to be kudzu's idea of Paradise. Then there's Australia's rabbit apocalypse. Central Texas's juniper bush debacle. Florida's hydrilla emergency. All caused by inattentiveness or ignorance of what happens when something is taken away from its native place.

Lien's funny take on the sad, sad tale also has a second axe-blade aimed at the reader: The relegation of women to a position of uselessness. The strenuous efforts of each of these women to outdo the other in garden beauty is the sole acceptable outlet for their considerable talents and intelligence. Mrs. Fleming even says:
I have not spent my time here in meaningful endeavor. But there is so little of seriousness that women are suffered to do with their lives. I thought it would be different in this country. We should be urging each other towards useful works. Women can do Great things together.
Sadly, her call to sisterhood in action is unheeded. Happily, Lien uses that as a launching pad for a denoument that will leave you gasping...from laughter heavily shadowed by horror.

A delightful hour's read. Go investigate, step outside your normal reading habits!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Futures That Never Were: YOUR FLYING CAR AWAITS by Paul Milo

YOUR FLYING CAR AWAITS: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century

$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Talking dolphins . . . Underwater cities . . . Two-hundred-year life spans . . . Welcome to the present!

People have always imagined what life would be like in the future. Most of the time they've been wrong. Often they were really, really wrong. Your Flying Car Awaits looks at the most outrageous predictions from twentieth-century scientists, novelists, and social commentators, detailing the technologies and philosophies that led some great (and not so great)minds to think the ridiculous was achievable. Includes phenomenally inaccurate predictions such as:

Space tourism will be ubiquitous by the year 2000
Nuclear explosives will be used for commercial demolition
Engineered and man-made oceans will cover the planet
Weather will be as predictable and controllable as a train schedule

An eye-opening, fascinating, and endlessly entertaining collection of truly boneheaded scientific predictions from the past hundred years, Your Flying Car Awaits shines an illuminating light on the people of the previous century by examining the ridiculous theories they envisioned about this one.

My Review: A fast-paced, entertaining overview of how Today was supposed to look. The author's narrative voice is conversational, so reading the book is like barstool/family room sofa beer-fueled chats with your best buddy.

In my youth, predating the author's by a decade or so, I loved finding the old issues of Popular Mechanix and the others of that stripe in my father's pack-rat piles or the library's musty old boxes. The illustrations on the covers...! Oh, and the headlines: "You Will Have Robot Slaves by 1965!" "First Moonbase by 1970!" "Mars is Ours!"

The future was such a cool place back then. I was looking forward to flying TWA to the Moon Marriott. I couldn't wait to board the Concorde, which I got to do one round trip in the 1990s...noisy damned thing. It was the closest I ever got to anything I saw in the magazines. The beautiful turbine cars! The personal copters!

*sigh* Reality sucks.

But one thing I can truthfully say I'm delighted has not come to pass: Flying cars. Most people can't drive the ground cars they have with anything like expertise. Put 'em in charge of something heavy, unstable, and 500ft in the air...the mind boggles.

Another area of contention that was predicted to be a Wild West bonanza: designer babies whose genes were totally under the parents' control. It seems to be an area that makes all the atavistic need for control of our bodies go on Red Alert. Even though the possibility of ending most birth defects through gene therapy is on the horizon, in a world with anti-vaccine loopy goofs it seems likely that we'll be in for another round of silly, time-consuming arguments about "just because we can doesn't mean we should." *yawn*

All in all, reading this light essay on man's hubris in assuming he can predict the future was entertaining, enjoyable, and time I felt was well-spent.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, fourth helping of chocolate-coated crack in mystery novel form


Berkley Books
$8.99 mass market or Kindle editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: London, 1812. The brutal slaughter of eight young prostitutes in a house of refuge near Covent Garden leaves only one survivor- and one witness: Hero Jarvis, reform-minded daughter of the Prince Regent's cousin, Lord Jarvis. When the Machiavellian powerbroker quashes any official inquiry that might reveal his daughter's unorthodox presence, Hero launches an investigation of her own and turns to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for help.

Working in an uneasy alliance, Hero and Sebastian follow a trail of clues leading from the seedy brothels and docksides of London's East End to the Mayfair mansions of a noble family with dark secrets to hide. Risking both their lives and their reputations, the two must race against time to stop a killer whose ominous plot threatens to shake the nation to its very core.

As much incoherent gabbling as I did at the end of my review for WHY MERMAIDS SING, I had no way to know that Miss C.S. Harris had a nitro-fueled bullet-shaped moon rocket of a reveal in this book that would ratchet up the stakes for the entire series from here on.

It's a doozy, believe me, and it's also just too much fun and too exciting to imagine how book five will be handling this situation for you not to start NOW getting these books. The series is 11 books old now, I think, so we know we're not getting left in the lurch with no closure. (I hate that! It's why I only watch TV series on Prime, Netflix, and Acorn these days.)

As Sebastian is grieving the BIG Reveal from last book and the havoc it has wreaked on his mind, heart, and soul, he stops caring...or numbs it, anyway...about people in trouble, so stops investigating crimes. It takes his annoying Nemesis, Miss Hero Jarvis who is the daughter of England's most powerful man, to wake Sebastian up and bring out his sense of the rightness of spending his time righting wrongs for those otherwise too weak to expect help.

Miss Jarvis, meanwhile, is caught up in an obsessive need to discover the truth behind a series of murders that shake her to her core. In her efforts to make the world a better place, Hero has decided to research and write a bill to go before Parliament that will offer help to impoverished women, thus reducing the enormous supply of prostitutes in London. Speaking with these unfortunate women and girls, Hero finds herself learning more than is desirable for a gently born woman. But she found, and then watched murdered, a younger woman from exactly her class in a rehabilitation home for "soiled doves."

Hero's interest leads her to Sebastian, whom she has tangled with previously in the series. And so we're off to the races, the two frenemies careening around London one step ahead of their mysterious prey. As the sleuths don't know the why of the killings, they're powerless to stop more of them from occurring. As the clues mount up, they point to an unthinkable, horrifying motive that neither can believe could possibly be true...until the unprecedented event happens despite their efforts to warn of and even stop it.

But that is far from all there is to this tale. The original puzzle of the presence of a well-born woman in a home for fallen women has at its heart a revolting and heart-wrenching revelation. The young woman who died in Hero's arms was, in the final analysis, the most pitiable and unsaveable victim of them all. The revelation of the motive for the youngster to leave Society for a life of whoring causes both Hero and Sebastian a shock that will never leave them. The same would be true in the modern world, I promise you.

There is nothing more fun than watching an expert author, proficient in using her writing talent and marvelously, deeply involved in creating her settings and characters, blow them right out of their comfortable water in the scariest (to them) way possible.

Monday, February 22, 2016

***ADDICTIVE SERIES WARNING*** WHY MERMAIDS SING, third Sebastian St Cyr mystery, takes it up a few notches


Berkley Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It's September 1811, and someone is killing the wealthy young sons of London's most prominent families. Partially butchered, with strange objects stuffed into their mouths, their bodies are found dumped in public places at dawn. When the grisly remains of Alfred, Lord Stanton's eldest son are discovered in the Old Palace Yard beside the House of Lords, the local magistrate turns to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for help.

Ranging from the gritty world of Thames-side docks to the luxurious drawing rooms of Mayfair, Sebastian finds himself confronting his most puzzling--and disturbing--case yet. With the help of his trusted allies--young servant Tom, Irish doctor Paul Gibson, and his lover Kat Boleyn--Sebastian struggles to decipher a cryptic set of clues that link the scion of a banking family to the son of a humble Kentish vicar. For as one killing follows another, Sebastian discovers he is confronting a murderer with both a method and a purpose to his ritualized killings, and that the key to it all may lie in the enigmatic stanzas of a haunting poem...and in a secret so dangerous that men are willing to sacrifice their own children to keep the truth from becoming known.

My Review: Book three keeps on going at a very high level

This series is a continuing pleasure, I'm thrilled to say. WHY MERMAIDS SING is one of the most disturbing books I've read in a long time, right up there with THE WASP FACTORY. The things that Harris has the killer do to these young men are truly scary. Even more disturbing to me is the who and the why of these violent violations of the young victims.

Harris has, as is standard in the series, made Regency London as real as anything in this room I'm writing in. The smells, the sights, the incredible inequality of income that assaults modern sensibilities. The characters, the veneers they wear, the stark contrast between their insides and outsides. It's a pleasure to read a good writer's strong writing and follow a plot that shows inventive ingenuity of a high order.

St Cyr is a terrific guide to London, as his ancestry (he's a viscount) opens doors that his disgrace (undeserved, I assure you) would otherwise close. That's as true down the social order as it is up. The fact that he ends this book with a rather new set of problems and issues, well...Harris...that is....

Oh my heck. Jeemenee Christmas. Holy Mongolia.

There aren't words...none that I know...for me to describe this entry's Big Reveal. It is truly a reveal, and "big" is a paltry small word for what goeth on here.

It makes perfect sense, in context, but it has a wallop that rocks my world.

Yeah. Make that two big reveals, each bigger than the last and holy maloley can I ever not wait for volume four to get here. NOW!!!!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

THE IBIS TAPESTRY by Mike Nicol, a not-very-thrilling thriller that's still a good read


Vintage Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: An audacious departure for the internationally acclaimed South African novelist--a thriller with all the searing immediacy of today's headlines.

Who was Christo Mercer, and why was he brutally stabbed to death in a remote Saharan town? For Robert Poley, an unhappy writer of political thrillers, the welcome distraction posed by this question has become an obsession. With the mysterious delivery of a laptop computer and a cryptic email message, he finds himself slowly entwined in the vagaries that constituted Mercer's life and death. An illegal-arms trader haunted by his nightmares, his past, and his clandestine involvement with a ruthless rebel-- and with Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great --Mercer lived on the grand stage of history, yet remained obscured by shadows until his seemingly fated demise. Now, piece by piece, in a complex web of social, political, personal, and fictional disclosures, the intricacies of Mercer's troubled psyche begin to reveal a pattern as corrupt as South Africa's in the aftermath of apartheid--years of judicial inquiry, the Truth Commission, and continued social unrest.

With alchemical bravura, Mike Nicol turns history into fiction and fiction into history, bringing to allegorical life the haunting story of a murder emblematic of South Africa's recent past.

My Review: Well...that piece of publisher puffery isn't, in my opinon, supported by this highly literary and relatively suspenseless, badly miscategorized "thriller." There is nothing thrilling about the narrator's life. The thrilling subject of the narrator's research project is all flashback and invention, barnacled with notes, digressions, irrelevant faux-research-paper gets tedious.

But what makes this read a good one for me is the thing that I suspect would turn off the mass of American readers: Untranslated Afrikaans words, unexplained geography, facets of South Africa's rich and complex culture that will be unfamiliar. I am a little better versed in these things, as I dated a South African for a good while; but I would hope that avid readers would find it an interesting chance to learn about this amazing place.

Mike Nicol has a considerable reputation as a thriller writer. A novel of his, HORSEMAN, was hugely and internationally acclaimed. As THE IBIS TAPESTRY is the first of his works I've read, I think I'll try it before reaching a conclusion about Mr. Nicol's readerly chemistry with me. Based on this book alone, I don't think I'd be a fan. But there's a lot to be interested in here.

The arms trade is a scourge on the world. South Africa, after an arms-sale embargo was put in place by the UN in 1963, developed a gigantic and sophisticated war-machinery manufacturing sector. Industries require sales and sales require customers and customers are thick on the ground among the hate-fueled warriors infesting Africa. So it's only logical that a well-connected "Englishman" with a serious psychological problem...what we'd call in the here and now PTSD...that fixates him on the world of power players and influence peddlers in his native South Africa. The Marlowe play he obsessively reads, analyzes, revises in his own words is the epitome of England's 16th-century expansionist, imperialist self-image building. It's not too much of a leap to see this man's fascination for our narrator, a writer of thrillers in the airport-book mode. His own life and family have blown up in his face and he badly needs a complex puzzle to work out.

The complexity of the puzzle is a big part of the book's appeal for me. As our narrator moves through the steps of solving his subject's murder, he takes steps that lead him into contact with the underside of South Africa's arms trade, supplying warlords with destructive capacity and to hell with the consequences. The South African arms trade is global, but by focusing on Africa and its warring factions, Nicol manages the tough trick of illuminating the horrors and consequences of war with the minimum of gore. It is the gift of the talented storyteller to make a subtext of violence. I see the gift in Nicol's story of THE IBIS TAPESTRY. But it takes a love of puzzles to get the most from this book's complicated world.

Friday, February 19, 2016

UNSEEMLY SCIENCE, second in Rod Duncan's Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire books, is a good way

Angry Robot Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the divided land of England, Elizabeth Barnabus has been living a double life - as both herself and as her brother, the private detective. Witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess, Elizabeth resolves to throw the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook into the fire, and forget her past. If only it were that easy!

There is a new charitable organisation in town, run by some highly respectable women. But something doesn’t feel right to Elizabeth. Perhaps it is time for her fictional brother to come out of retirement for one last case…? Her unstoppable curiosity leads her to a dark world of body-snatching, unseemly experimentation, politics and scandal. Never was it harder for a woman in a man’s world…


My Review: I really liked the first book in this series, THE BULLET-CATCHER'S DAUGHTER. But you knew that already, right? Since you read my reviews regularly, right?

We're going up a half-star on this second entry in the series because I really, REALLY liked it. There are some odd pleasures to be had in watching Virtue and Propriety subverted from within and with the collusion of the seemingly virtuous. Schadenfreude, anyone? This story takes Schadenfreude to new heights as Elizabeth must, reluctantly, solve a mystery for her bosom friend Julia; protect her nearest and dearest from several groups of malefactors that she doesn't know, as well as elude the vile Duke of Northampton's hired thugs trying to return her to his...service, to euphemize, for the vast sum of 400 guineas. So you know that we're on a rollercoaster as men, women, children of all ages and stations try to get their hooks into Elizabeth, driving her into reckless (though never careless) action.

As soon as Elizabeth believes she has a moment's breathing space, her coterie of enemies and friends set her spinning in yet another direction. One serious enemy, the International Patent Office, plays a smaller role in this book than the first entry; John Farthing the Patent Officer plays a surprising role, considering how they met.

As the story rockets along, shedding layers of illusion and bringing Elizabeth closer and closer to horrible and unpunishable crimes commited in the name of Seemly Science, the urge to sleep was banished and my meals became snack foods until the horrible, chilling denoument. It is Duncan's gift to take this unlikely point of departure and people it with characters whose existence comes to matter a lot to the reader. The world he has created is such an exuberant, lively, richly detailed place, and peopled with such wonderful people, and so much darned fun to enter, how can you resist running directly to the bookery of your choice and buying all three (yes, three!) volumes? Take my word for it, UNSEEMLY SCIENCE is an excellent investment in satisfying your story-hunger.

Addictive Book Warning: WHEN GODS DIE, second Sebastian St Cyr mystery delivers on promise of first

Berkley Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Brighton, England, 1811. The beautiful wife of an aging Marquis is found dead in the arms of the Prince Regent. Draped around her neck lies an ancient necklace with mythic origins-and mysterious ties to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin. Haunted by his past, Sebastian investigates both the Marchioness's death and his own possible connection to it-and discovers a complex pattern of lies and subterfuge. With the aid of his lover, Kat Boleyn, and a former street urchin now under his protection, Sebastian edges closer to the killer. And when one murder follows another, he confronts a conspiracy that threatens his own identity...and imperils the monarchy itself.


Don't tell me about how mean I am if you get hooked.

Second outing for author and sleuth. Some surprising twists in the pretty standard plot. More slightly annoying anachronisms, but they're completely forgotten because the author called George the Regent "Prinny."

I laughed until I stopped. What a name!

This book is a bit less romancey because the plot is driven by some fascinating political realities of the period. The biggest surprises are all personally relevant to sleuth Sebastian St Cyr/Devlin; some will fester, some will free him. It's a very emotionally charged book, moreso than the first, and it's just about as surprising as an author can make it be without spoilering her next book.

I think it's possible to read the books out of order, since the author is so careful to provide backstory as needed, and without the dreaded infodump feeling to it. I'd say it's very much worth your eyeblinks.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

***Warning*** Addictive Mystery Series WHAT ANGELS FEAR, book 1

Berkley Books
$8.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It's 1811, and the threat of revolution haunts the upper classes of King George III's England. Then a beautiful young woman is found raped and savagely murdered on the altar steps of an ancient church near Westminster Abbey. A dueling pistol discovered at the scene and the damning testimony of a witness both point to one man, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, a brilliant young nobleman shattered by his experience in the Napoleonic Wars.

Now a fugitive running for his life, Sebastian calls upon his skill as an agent during the war to catch the killer and prove his own innocence. In the process, he accumulates a band of unlikely allies, including the enigmatic beauty Kat Boleyn, who broke Sebastian's heart years ago. In Sebastian's world of intrigue and espionage, nothing is as it seems, yet the truth may hold the key to the future of the British monarchy, as well as to Sebastian's own salvation....


You've been warned.

It's amazing how involving I *still* find the Regency, even after many and various outrages perpetrated on its remnant mummy corpse. People with ultramod unprejudiced 'tudes bearing titles like Lord Shavingrazorden and the Duchess of Murkwatter,entertaining. People traveling to far points without seeming to spend the required months. I mean seriously, how did all those East Indiamen get to Fort Thingummy in Malaya in a twinkling? Ye Olde Concorde?


This book does its share of anachronism-perpetuating. Devlin, our hero, is a straight (in all senses)-ahead 21st century romance hero. Doesn't make him unappealing; it makes me a little impatient, I guess.

What makes this book so appealing to me is the atmosphere, the evocation of the London that one writer characterized as " gleaming in the manure pile." Rich was better than poor by right; titles better than all the masses by right; royalty? Fuhgeddaboudit.

The characters around Devlin are all very clearly delineated, and several recur (no spoiler in that, since it's a series mystery) with evolving storylines that tie them into a unit in some unexpexcted and, honestly, some surprising and upsetting ways. Of course the female characters are single-emotion placeholders. I say of course because a first mystery usually has this minor and female character flaw, giving them shorter shrift than is advisable early on.

Withal the book is very worthy of your shelf space; the series is high quality reading; and the price of entry paltry compared to the pleasures you'll get.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Second Entry in Series, THE LEWIS MAN, scores!

Quercus (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times raved: "Peter May is a writer I'd follow to the ends of the earth." Among the many honors received, The Blackhouse, the first novel in May's acclaimed Lewis trilogy, won the Barry and Crime Thriller Hound awards.

In The Lewis Man, the second book of the trilogy, Fin Macleod has returned to the Isle of Lewis, the storm-tossed, wind-scoured outer Hebridean island where he was born and raised. Having left behind his adult life in Edinburgh—including his wife and his career in the police force—the former Detective Inspector is intent on repairing past relationships and restoring his parents' derelict cottage. His plans are interrupted when an unidentified corpse is recovered from a Lewis peat bog. The only clue to its identity is a DNA match to a local farmer, the now-senile Tormod Macdonald--the father of Fin's childhood sweetheart, Marsaili--a man who has claimed throughout his life to be an only child, practically an orphan. Reluctantly drawn into the investigation, Fin uncovers deep family secrets even as he draws closer to the killer who wishes to keep them hidden.

Already an international bestseller and winner of numerous awards, including France's Prix des Lecteurs du Telegramme, The Lewis Man has the lyrical verve of Ian Rankin and the gutsy risk-taking of Benjamin Black. As fascinating and forbidding as the Hebridean landscape, the book (according to The Times) "throbs with past and present passions, jealousies, suspicions and regrets; the emotional secrets of the bleak island are even deeper than its peat bog."

My Review: I gave this second book in the Lewis Trilogy a higher rating The Blackhouse because the amount of backstory was equal, but put in the mind, and the heart, of Alzheimer's afflicted "Tormod Macdonald." This made all the difference to my reading experience. His awful past was a gut-punch to me, and all I'll say about the matter is that the Irish branch of the Catholic Church has a boatload of apologizing and begging for forgiveness to do.

As the complexities of Fin's, Marsaili's, and Donald Murray's deeply intertwined pasts and presents unfold in front of us, accented by the heartbreaking agony for all who love a dementia suffer, the bittersweet nature of aging and its compensatory widening of the inner emotional landscape come into sharp relief:
Getting old doesn’t make them any less valid, or any less real. And it’ll be us one day.
Simple, short, and very true.

The landscape of these Outer Hebridean islands is well suited to the story May is telling. The islands are scoured by Arctic winds, rains frequently unexpected and blown horizontally by F4 and greater gales, peppered with decaying ruins of human attempts to wrest a living from this dark and angry landscape. Watching the lives of others spin out of control is a deep and shameful pleasure. This is a story full of that pleasure.

Nor is it devoid of the basic satisfaction of the whole genre: Bad people don't escape their misdeeds. In fact, retribution for past wrongs is the foundation of this story. That healing, forgiveness, and new opportunities for better days are here as well is what keeps this book from being unbearably grim. May's books show that mastery of structure that comes from screenwriting is able to translate satisfyingly to the novel's page and pace.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Peter May takes us to an Ancient Scotland in THE BLACKHOUSE, first of a trilogy

Peter May
Quercus (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 paperback, available now

Rating: 3* of five, but just barely

The Publisher Says: From acclaimed author and television dramatist Peter May comes the first book in the Lewis Trilogy--a riveting mystery series set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, a formidable and forbidding world where tradition rules and people adhere to ancient ways of life. When a grisly murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis that has the hallmarks of a killing he's investigating on the mainland, Edinburgh detective and native islander Fin Macleod is dispatched to see if the two deaths are connected. His return after nearly two decades not only represents a police investigation, but a voyage into his own troubled past. As Fin reconnects with the places and people of his tortured childhood, he feels the island once again asserting its grip on his psyche. And every step forward in solving the murder takes him closer to a dangerous confrontation with the tragic events of the past that shaped--and nearly destroyed--Fin's life.

The Blackhouse is a thriller of rare power and vision that explores the darkest recesses of the soul.

My Review: This was a huge, long slog of a story, alternating between Fin (the main character) as narrator of his life of unremitting grimness and misery, and third person limited, basically the camera-eye PoV that one would expect to find in a novel by a screenwriter. This made the pace slow for me as each time we shift, I have to hit the brakes or push in the clutch to shift up.

This isn't to say that the author is a bad writer, his prose is limpidly clear. But keep Google open while you're reading, since there are unexplained, untranslated Gaelic words all over the place. There are exciting sea scenes and tense moments of nailbiting stress during the islanders' unique rite of passage for males.

There are also characters who are unnecessary, flashbacks of unconscionable length and questionable necessity, and an ending that will break a decent person's heart...that has holes the size of a gannet in it. (You'll get the joke later.) If the ending is true, and I think it is true to the character and the build-up, the obliviousness of the responsible adults of the island is unconscionable and unpleasant.

Trigger warning for animal rights activists and the tenderhearted towards all gawd's creation, and for child abuse.