interim July book log part 2

The plan *was* to have a few posts today titled “book review”, but apparently the last week has taken it out of me somewhat, as I seem to have done very little today but read blogs and then read a book. So instead there is a list of what I’ve been reading over the last week in spite of my body reminding me in sundry ways that I am middle-aged.

42) Isaac Asimov — A Whiff of Death
A university chemistry lecturer finds one of his PhD students dead in the lab. At first glance it looks like an unfortunate accident with a bottle of cyanide, but it’s clear to Lou Brade that his student was murdered — and that he’s the one who had the best opportunity to do it. Lou has a strong motive to find the killer before the police fix on *him* as the prime suspect, but to do so he has to navigate the office politics that could be just as deadly to his career as an outright accusation of murder.

Published in 1958, this is now a period piece and very much of its time in its social attitudes. But it’s still a good read, both in spite and because of that, nicely dissecting the ruthlessness of the academic life. Asimov constructed his story well, and while the habits of chemists and their materials are an essential part of the plot and the story is permeated with chemistry, you don’t need to know any chemistry yourself to follow the story or to work out whodunnit.
LibraryThing entry

43) John Barrowman — Anything Goes
The first volume of Barrowman’s autobiography, which I bought not so much for fangirl reasons but because I learnt from David Niven’s work that well-written actor’s memoirs can be entertaining even if you know nothing about the actor at the time. I’ve been reading this on and off over the last few months, and while it’s not to the same level as some memoirs, it’s an entertaining read. Barrowman comes over as being possessed of both an enormous ego and great generosity of spirit — and as being much more solidly grounded in reality than many celebrities.
LibraryThing entry

44) Alexi Panshin — Star Well
This is one of my comfort reads, and I started it on Thursday night when I was getting over the migraine enough to want to read, but not to feel up to tackling something new. I also didn’t feel like pulling out my current bus book and reading that, so Star Well got pulled off the shelf. I bought it some thirty years ago, and have read it often enough that it’s probably a good thing that I committed the unspeakable crime against its paperback person of sticky-backed plastic. For those of you who’ve never heard of it, it’s an sf comedy of manners that has by now delighted several generations of sf fans, even though it’s been out of print in treeware for years. (Fortunately it is readily available as part of a legal ebook omnibus of the 3 published books in the series, either direct from the publisher or through Fictionwise.)
LibraryThing entry

Started but not yet finished:
The bus book started on Thursday was Ashes to Ashes by Lillian Stewart Carl, a book I bought several years ago because of a Blake’s 7 connection (one of the main characters is an avatar). And I’m still on actor memoirs for my bedtime reading, having now started “My word is my Bond” by Roger Moore.

interim July book log

Just so that I can keep track of the month’s books so far. Reviews may or may not follow.

38) Edward Marston — The Iron Horse
Fourth book in the Railway Detective series. Victorian era police procedural, this volume being about a very nasty attempt to interfere with the favourites in the Derby. The case starts with the discovery of a severed head in a hatbox… As with the others in the series, I enjoyed this competently written pulp, but not a keeper for me.
LibraryThing entry

39) Georgette Heyer — Death in the Stocks
Another of Heyer’s mysteries, this one being the first of four about Superintendent Hannasyde, or so LibraryThing tells me. Lots of fun, although the characters were occasionally annoyingly rather than entertainingly eccentric. I liked it enough to stay up late finishing it.
LibraryThing entry

40) Jennifer Ashley — The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie
Bought this one on the strength of the review at Dear Author. Historical romance with a hero who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Very, very well done, and the person who was going to get my copy if I didn’t want to keep it is going to have to buy her own. :-)
LibraryThing entry

41) Val McDermid — Blue Genes
First one from this author that I’ve read, and I liked it a lot. Fifth in the series about Manchester-based Private investigator Kate Mulligan. I will note that part of what I enjoyed about it was the immersion in the city I currently live in. I’ll probably go and get more of these once I’ve reduced the tbr mountain a bit.
LibraryThing entry

June 2010 book log

Yes, very, very late this month, and not yet complete as far as planned reviews go. Blame distractions like a job application, a vintage car show in the village, and Let’s Not Talk About Work Lest I Rant In Public. (I like my job, thanks; it’s just that there was something even better on offer that was worth putting in for even though the chances were low, and the office was having one of its may you live in interesting times weeks. Entertainingly so, but did use up all the available clock cycles for the day by going home time.)

Onwards to the books…

30) Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh, editors — Catastrophes!
Themed anthology from 1981 (though contents dating back as far as 1938). Reviewed June 19.

31) Bamber Gascoigne — The Heyday
The story of a young woman’s heyday one Edwardian summer, as reconstructed many years later by her grandson from her diary and photographs. It’s a sweet, gentle and often very funny mystery, with a touch of bittersweet romance. Reviewed July 4.

32) Shamini Flint — Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul
Second in the Inspector Singh murder mystery series, and a jolly good read. Reviewed June 22.

33) James Blish — Galactic Cluster
Short story collection. I hadn’t read it for some years, and the collection is older than me. Unlike some 1950s sf, it’s held up reasonably well, at least if you liked it in the first place. Reviewed July 3.

34) WJ Burley — Wycliffe and the pea-green boat [audiobook]
Read by Jack Shepherd (who played Wycliffe in the tv series). 3 CD set, generally well-read although I found Shepherd’s use of accents a bit distracting on occasion. Logged June 23.

35) Georgette Heyer — The Unfinished Clue
Country house murder mystery written and set in the early 1930s. Great fun, with an entertaining cast of suspects and some cunning red herrings. Reviewed July 3.

36) Shamini Flint — Inspector Singh Investigates: The Singapore School of Villainy
The third Inspector Singh, which was marvellous. Flint has really got into her stride with this one. Superb police procedural set in Singapore, by someone who knows the culture from the inside. It’s set in Singh’s home town, so we see more of his Sikh background, not least because a distant relative is involved in the case. Reviewed July 17.

37) Stevie Carroll’s short “The Monitors” in the erotic romance anthology Echoes of Possibilities from Noble Publishing. I still haven’t read the other stories in the anthology, so full review yet to come, but my note at the time was: I expected this to be good, and it was. A science fiction piece that deftly sketches a future culture as background for a ship’s crew shift change encounter that could just lead to something more. It’s a het piece, though not a standard issue m/f piece, as the m in the m/f is a transman in a world where trans surgery is effective but not yet cheap.

ticking off the list

At this point I am going to give in and admit defeat — I still haven’t read the the other three stories in Echoes of possibilities, the anthology containing Stevie’s “The Monitors”, because I’m having one of my bouts of being unable to read fiction on-screen. I think I’ve got it working on my Cybook now, so I may get to it later this week, but in the meantime I’m going to tick off the next item on the to-do list, which is the June book log. I’ve also got a few books from July to log now, before I forget about them. Back in a bit…

Book review: Shamini Flint — Inspector Singh Investigates: The Singapore School of Villainy

Inspector Singh is back, but for a change his superiors aren’t intent in temporarily ridding themselves of him by lending him to a neighbouring country’s police force. This time the high profile murder is a lot closer to home, in the Singapore offices of an international law firm. The overweight, chain-smoking policeman in white trainers may be a disgrace to the force, but he’s also very good at his job. Who better to lead the investigation into the brutal murder of the law firm’s senior partner?

For once he has all the resources of the police force to call upon. This is a high profile case involving wealthy, influential expatriates who bring enormous value to the country, and the police administration wants it solved. But the flipside for Singh is being forced to treat the suspects a good more gently than he’d like. Not that Singh is into police brutality, but keeping both suspects and innocents with useful information off balance is part of his toolkit. He has to think of more devious means to achieve it than simply dragging them down to the nick for a surprise interview.

But as Singh starts digging, he keeps being handed potential motives. Mark Thompson had called a after-hours meeting at short notice of the senior lawyers in the office, and it’s probable that someone killed him to stop him disclosing whatever it was he’d discovered was going on behind the scenes. Too many of the lawyers have something to hide, and their attempts to cover up their secrets only end up making each of them look potentially guilty of murder. Then there’s the current wife and the ex-wife of the murdered man, each set on blaming the other, and with good reason. It’s a long, slow process of solving each individual mystery, and Singh is going to need those resources he has on tap.

Singh has always been clearly portrayed as a Sikh, but in this book we see his home life, and his ties into the Sikh social network and culture. All the more so because by an unfortunate coincidence that causes him a great deal of grief during the investigation, the distant nephew of his wife who didn’t show up to a “meet the local relatives” dinner turns out not to have done so because he was one of the lawyers called to the meeting with Mark Thompson. Singh’s quite capable of keeping family and business separate, but others don’t always see it that way.

The book as a whole does an excellent job of portraying Singapore and its particular blend of tension between expats and locals, and between different ethnicities. Even within the law office, sexism and racism amongst the expats from assorted countries provide fuel for crime — and the racism isn’t just whites considering themselves superior to locals.

Flint does a superb job of blending social commentary with a solidly written police procedural. Singh with his understanding of human nature has echoes of the best Miss Marple and Poirot stories, but he’s very much his own man, in his own skillfully drawn setting. As with previous books, he’s a joy of a character to read about, but here we learn more about him — and about his home city. Flint has drawn on her own experience of being a Malaysian lawyer in Singapore to produce a richly detailed story with a cast of vividly written characters.

It’s relatively light in tone, although it doesn’t pull away from showing the harsher side of Singapore law, and there are some emotionally wrenching moments. A great read, and you don’t need to have read either of the previous books in the series to enjoy this one.

ISBN: 978-0749929770
LibraryThing entry
The Singapore School of Villainy (Inspector Singh Investigates) at Amazon UK
at Play.com
Inspector Singh Investigates: Singapore School of Villainy Bk. 3 (Singh Investigates 3) at Amazon US
Inspector Singh Investigates: The Singapore School of Villainy — Kindle edition (which is sold from Amazon US, but looks as if it might be available in the UK as well, along with the first two books in the series)
at The Book Depository

Book review: Bamber Gascoigne — The Heydey

For the Brits — yes, *that* Bamber Gascoigne. This was his second novel, according to the “about the author”. It’s the story of a young woman’s heyday one Edwardian summer, as reconstructed many years later by her grandson from her diary and photographs. It’s a sweet, gentle and often very funny mystery, with a touch of bittersweet romance.

Sir Benjamin’s only family since the age of eleven has been his grandmother, and by extension her staff, in particular the butler Meredith. Even in her eighties Agnes is an incorrigible flirt, and often refers in cryptic fashion to her heyday, one Edwardian summer just before her marriage to Benjy’s grandfather. A summer she spent as an actress in a travelling repertory company. Benjy has always been fascinated by the hints she’s dropped, and after her death he pores through the diaries and photographs he finds in her wicker actor’s skip. He slowly constructs a picture of his grandmother’s life that summer of 1905; first thrown into general lodgings with a family within the company, then taking up her own lodgings (in separate bedrooms but joint sitting room) with another new company member, Jimmie Blin, and finally the pair of them inviting another new boy, Edward Jones, to join them. The picture that emerges from the diaries and photos is the development of a friendship laced with a very innocent and chaste sexuality, at the same time that Benjy’s grandfather first sees Agnes and starts to court her. Benjy will not be satisfied until he finds the end of the story, and the reason why Agnes chose his grandfather over Jimmie or Edward. And then there is the mystery of Edward, who appears in none of the photographs because it was his camera which took them. The only picture Benjy has of this man who caught his grandmother’s heart all those years ago is the one painted by her words describing him.

Benjy has some help in his task of discovering his grandmother’s world and preparing it for publication, for Meredith the butler was also once an actor, in the far-off days before a stray bullet in the Great War took his stage voice. There are all sorts of little details that Meredith can explain to him, details that bring back to life a long-lost world of Edwardian theatre. Not all the details can be shared, of course, for there are some things that one just doesn’t share with the staff. And so Benjy fumbles his way to an understanding that his grandmother might have been less shocked by some of his own adventures than he had always assumed.

The best one word summary of this book I can think of is “delightful”. It’s sweet, funny, and brings a lost world vividly to life. It’s long since out of print, which is a shame, but usually available cheaply second-hand.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: James Blish – Galactic Cluster

UK edition of a selection of Blish’s short stories and novellas. This has somewhat different contents to the US edition under the same collection name.

Common Time
Short about a test pilot flight of a faster than light ship (using the Haertel overdrive, a common strand in Blish’s work). The two previous test flights left successfully but never came back, so this one is under total computer control and Garrard’s primary job is to stay alive long enough to report back. The opening sequence is a vivid description of the effect of drive on time perception, with the perceived time rate decoupled from the physical time rate. This section is very hard sf in tone. It then goes into a passage that feels very New Wave to me, even though the story predates the New Wave movement. The juxtaposition is rather disconcerting. I’ve always loved the opening sequence, but I seem to be getting old and cranky as regards the middle section.

A Work of Art
One of my favourite pieces by Blish. Richard Strauss finds himself alive again in 2161, the product of a mind sculptor. As is quickly explained to him, his personality and talent has been recreated in the body of a musically talentless volunteer. Strauss welcomes the chance to write new music, and adapts well if crankily to the changes in society over 200 years, but is not impressed by modern music. He gradually comes to realise what the true artform of this era is. A moving exploration of identity and personality.

To Pay the Piper
The survivors of an apocalyptic war have been living in deep bunkers for years. The war goes on, but one side develops a method to re-educate the population so they can survive on the plague-ridden surface. The hard part — it’s a slow process that for practical reasons is to be restricted to the troops who will be sent to do final battle, but the civilian population want *out*. A politician exploits popular sentiment to lean on the scientists to give him priority…

Nor Iron Bars
Set in the same sequence as Common Time, but somewhat further on in the development of the Haertel overdrive. Space colonisation has begun, but the Haertel overdrive is not yet fit for shipping large numbers of humans. This is an experimental flight of another ftl drive — and it too has strange effects, this time a disconnect between spatial dimensions. But this ship has passengers, giving the captain an added incentive to find a solution before the various side-effects kill people. Notable for showing an inter-racial couple in a story written in the 1950s.

Beep
Short story later expanded into a short novel, The Quincunx of Time. There’s a spreading interstellar culture, and the intelligence service is using the top-secret Dirac transmitter, a communication device that offers instantaneous transmission over unlimited distances. Any message sent on a Dirac device can be picked up by any other Dirac, anywhere. Blish explores the practical and philosophical implications of the technology. I like this a lot, but a lot of people don’t.

Beanstalk
Novella about a group of genetically engineered humans, and the problems they face in being accepted by standard issue humans. The group are tetraploids, with features common in polyploid life-forms — longevity, large size and low fertility. It’s an interesting way of looking at racial and cultural discrimination, as the group are of the same genetic stock and culture as the host culture, but are clearly differentiated by their much greater height, and have created their own sexual mores to deal with the twin problems of low fertility and the skewed gender ratio that has resulted from prospective parents being far more willing to use the treatment on male embryos than female. But it somehow falls a bit flat for me.

Overall, the collection’s worth reading, but some stories are definitely more interesting than others.

LibraryThing entry