book log: Agatha Christie — A Caribbean Mystery

53) Agatha Christie — A Caribbean Mystery

Miss Marple’s nephew has paid for her to have a holiday in the Caribbean as part of her convalescence after a bad bout of pneumonia. The setting is very different to St Mary Mead, but the behaviours on display amongst the ex-pats are only too familiar. As the novel opens, Miss Marple is listening to the hotel bore, or at least making a polite show of same. She starts to pay more attention when the Major tells a story about a friend having accidentally taken a photo of someone who was almost certainly a serial murderer, but doesn’t it take it seriously until the the Major starts to pull a copy of the photo out to show her — and then sees someone and hastily puts it away. When the Major dies in his sleep that night, Miss Marple thinks there may be more to it than high blood pressure. Of course, nudging the local doctor to check whether the major really did have a prescription for blood pressure tablets is only the start. There are several potential suspects to be investigated as only Miss Marple can.

There are some nice characterisations in this book, not least being Miss Marple herself. There was some fairly acid internal monologue from Marple in the previous book (The Mirror Crack’d) about the young not having invented sex, and it continues here. On the second page:

“Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it–not talked about so much–but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.

And there’s more in that vein. This is not an unworldly spinster, whatever the world may think.

I spotted the murderer straight off, which diminished none of the pleasure of reading the book; not least because I realised who, but not why, which is neatly concealed in a shoal of red herrings. Not my favourite Marple, but still an entertaining way to pass a few hours.

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book log: John Carnell, editor — New Writings in SF 20

52) New Writings in SF 20

One of the 1972 editions of the long-running science fiction anthology series. I was always very fond of this series, but I found it hard to connect with some of the stories in #20. In fact, half way through I was thinking that there was no point in keeping it once I’d read it, as even the ones I liked didn’t make me feel inclined to re-read them.

Conversational Mode by Grahame Leman — decidedly grim short which consists of a transcript of a conversation between an involuntarily committed patient in a mental hospital and a psychiatric program running on a computer. The story is really about the potential abuse of psychiatry rather than the mechanics of such a program, but even so I was rather distracted by early 70s mainframe computer output conventions in software that is clearly at least as sophisticated as any of the AIs running in Turing Test competitions in 2010. Not one I feel inclined to re-read.

Which Way Do I Go For Jericho? by Colin Kapp — It’s the middle of a war, and a scientist volunteers for a military intelligence operation in which he will be left behind as an apparent civilian refugee after a military pullout. The aim is to give him a chance to look at a new sonic laser weapon being used by the enemy. The catch is that he will have to be a very convincing refugee, to the point of making him so starved and ill before the pullout that he will barely be able to function. It’s the sort of science/engineering problem in harsh conditions story that Kapp was so good at. I liked it but am not inclined to re-read it.

Microcosm by Robert P Holdstock — an astronaut visits an alien planet and gets caught in two time streams. I didn’t entirely understand it and didn’t like it. A complete waste of time as far as I was concerned.

Cain(n) By HA Hargreaves — long story about the rehabilitation of a young teen who has been caught for some crime which has been wiped from his memory as part of the rehabilitation process. It’s clear from what he does remember that he has been homeless and living on the streets for years, and has no clear idea of what happened to his family. Beautifully and movingly written to show how he is slowly resocialised and comes to recognise that what he initially perceives as punishment genuinely is an attempt to rehabilitate him to the point where he is fit to serve his time.

Canary by Dan Morgan — The canary in question is a human being used the same way that canaries were used in mines — he’s a psychic who’s sensitive enough to the possibility of his own death that he can be used as an early warning of the outbreak of nuclear war. There’s some nice discussion of the problems faced by the sane members of government on both sides of a cold war in trying to stop their hotheads from stirring up trouble.

Oh, Valinda! by Michael G Coney — on an alien planet, icebergs are harvested for fresh water. Since the locals sold the rights to the icecaps to humans long ago before they realised there might be any value to them, it’s the humans who transport the icebergs to the seaboard cities where they’re needed. But the unusual mode of transport requires the help of a hired local — some of the icebergs are inhabited by giant worms who ingest seawater and filter it for food before expelling it. Persuade the worm to point in the right direction and the water jet can propel the berg. But it’s a complicated business finding a worm and keeping it going…

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book log: Edward Marston — Railway to the grave

51) Edward Marston — Railway to the grave

Seventh in the Railway Detective series, about a Victorian detective inspector specialising in railway crime in the early days of the railways. As usual with this author, enjoyable pulp fiction that I won’t bother keeping but am glad to have read. In this one a retired Colonel commits suicide by walking into an oncoming train. Tarleton’s wife went missing a few weeks earlier, and is presumed murdered. The case might have come to Robert Colbeck in the normal course of events anyway, but there is a personal link — the dead man was a friend of Colbeck’s superior officer, from Tallis’s days as an army officer. Tallis wants his dead friend’s name cleared, and the person responsible for both deaths found. Colbeck has to persuade Tallis to leave the investigation to him, because Tallis is far too emotionally involved to do a good job.

The series in general tends to fairly cardboard characters, and Tallis has been something of a stock stereotype in spite of being a regular character, but Marston has finally begun to flesh him out a little in this book.

I’d note that the author tries to reflect period mores and attitudes in his historical mysteries, and this does mean that some of the characters’ reactions to various plot developments are not likely to sit well with much of my friends list. Colbeck himself is a broad-minded and humane man, but that simply means that he gets to clash with people who aren’t, such as the local rector who has no intention of allowing a suicide to be buried in hallowed ground.

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book log: Leslie Charteris – Enter the Saint

50) Leslie Charteris – Enter the Saint

Second book in the Saint series, a trio of novelettes/novellas rather than a novel. Simon Templar continues in his adventurer ways, a moral criminal who only targets immoral criminals, bringing a little justice to the world a la Robin Hood and taking a 10% fee to cover his expenses. These stories introduce the Saint’s gang of like-minded honest crooks, and one of the stories is largely about Dicky Tremayne. Great fun from the 1930s.

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book log: Agatha Christie – The mirror cracked from side to side

49) Agatha Christie – The mirror cracked from side to side

This one’s interesting not just for the murder mystery itself, but because it was written in 1962 and Miss Marple is feeling the passage of time. Change has come to St Mary Mead, with the advent of the Development, a new housing estate. Change has come to the social structure, with the slow disappearance of household servants, and the appearance of supermarkets. And age is affecting Miss Marple, who is old enough to need some personal care after an illness, but is not the completely dependent and mindless old lady her home nurse insists on treating her as. Her doctor and old friend prescribes some unravelling of knitting for her. He’s not just referring to her knitting, and soon Miss Marple has the opportunity to unravel a murder. Her friend Mrs Bantry sold Gossington Hall some years earlier after the death of the Colonel, and after several changes of ownership and some unfortunate attention from developers it has now been sold to a Hollywood film star, who has restored it to a private home. Marina Gregg intends to take part in village life, and this includes hosting a public fund-raising event in the grounds for charity, and inviting various village notables to a private reception to view the refurbishments. As the former owner of the house, Mrs Bantry is an honoured guest — which puts her in a prime position to view events at the reception that in hindsight were a prelude to a murder.

This was one where I spotted who and part of why pretty much at the point of the murder — but the misdirection was so good that I wasn’t sure until almost the very end, even though the rest of why had been laid out quite clearly part way through the book, if you know what to look for. It’s a great read that kept me turning the pages, although it has a more melancholy feel to it than the earlier Marples. Christie has written a superb portrayal of an old woman who recognises that change isn’t necessarily all bad, but nevertheless feels discomfited by it even as she does her best to embrace the good aspects. And the ultimate motivation for the murder is heartbreaking, all the more so because it appears to have been based on a real life incident.

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book log: Justin Richards — Doctor Who: The Deviant Strain

48) Justin Richards — Doctor Who: The Deviant Strain

Fourth of the new series tie-in novels. This one has Rose and Captain Jack as the companions, in a story set in a remote Soviet naval base abandoned after the end of the Cold War. The nuclear submarines were simply abandoned to rot as the cheapest method of dealing with them, as were the people from the village that had been there since before the base was built. The last real link with an unheeding government is the research institute which still receives limited funding and supplies. At least until something very odd is spotted by a satellite, and a Russian Special Forces team is sent to investigate.

The Tardis crew show up as well, because Jack has unthinkingly answered an emergency beacon’s signal. While there is some suspicion from the Russian group, this is because Nine’s psychic paper ID has declared him to be from a rival agency, and Jack is considered to be the sort of Intelligence agent who wouldn’t know a real fight if he saw it. The two groups manage to work together reasonably well in spite of the tensions, investigating a series of mysterious deaths that show all the hallmarks of a mythical monster.

Enjoyed this one a lot, and not just because it has Captain Jack (who does not get to be on the cover). There’s a good science fantasy mystery here, with the Special Forces team being more than just foils to show off how clever the Doctor is.

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book log: Agatha Christie – A Pocket Full of Rye

47) Agatha Christie – A pocket full of rye

City businessman Rex Fortescue has a nice cup of tea at the office, and dies of poisoning. The peculiar points to this are the poison used, and the fact that the dead man’s pocket had grains of rye amongst the contents. Inspector Neele sets about investigating the dead man’s household, which provides a good selection of potential suspects. Alas, one of the best suspects is next on the murderer’s list, and then there’s a third death.

Miss Marple doesn’t appear until nearly half way through the book. Her interest in the matter is the housemaid who was murdered, who happened to be one of the many girls Miss Marple has trained as a maid over the years. When she arrives to provide information on the girl’s background, Inspector Neele recognises her as someone who has a great deal of common sense and the ability to get people who wouldn’t dream of talking to a policeman to reveal secrets to her. The resulting interplay between Neele’s investigation and Miss Marple’s investigation is most entertaining. Neele’s no fool, even if he’s happy to play one in public, but it’s Miss Marple’s experience of human behaviour that allows them to unravel who, how and why.

Well plotted, with one or two twists on the resolution of the red herrings which make them interesting little tales in their own right, rather than just a distraction from the true identity of the murderer.

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book review: Alex Epstein — The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay

46) Alex Epstein — The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay

Note: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Young adult novel about what happened to the sorceress Morgan le Fay between the point in her childhood when her father was murdered by Uther Pendragon, and her return as an adult to trouble her half-brother King Arthur. The book opens at the council of war amongst the Romano-British leaders where Uter (as it’s given in the book) first sets eyes on Ygraine, wife of Gorlois. Uter wants Ygraine enough to make war on Gorlois, enough to seek the aid of the magician Merlin — and with the death of her beloved father, the child Anna finds herself sent to exile by her mother for her own safety. An exile so complete that she must change her name and tell almost no-one who she is when she arrives in Ireland. A safe place with a distant relative proves less than safe when the tribe loses a battle with its neighbours, and Morgan spends years in slavery, learning a little magic openly from the village wisewoman who owns her, and a great deal more magic in secret. Then there is escape, and a few months of peace and study with a new Christian settlement, and then a chance of love with a chieftain’s son who can appreciate the knowledge of Roman battle tactics she brings. By the time she is eighteen, Morgan has learnt a great many things, but the one thing she has not learnt is how to let go of the need for vengeance. It has, after all, kept her alive through the dark times…

I found the book a bit hard to get into at first, but once I got into the rhythm of the writing I was hooked. Epstein has taken the historical period of 500AD as the basis for his story, a time when the Roman legions had long withdrawn from Britain but many of the British still thought of themselves as Roman. He’s drawn on Irish mythology and blended it with modern Wiccan practice to create a believably consistent picture of magic, in a time when both Druid priests and Christian missionaries can draw on the power of the earth, and a young exile can learn to use it to protect herself and the people she loves. The result is a solid addition to the Arthurian legend, covering an area not much touched on, and giving a plausible reason for the adult Morgan le Fay to be who she is. Here she is a strong and sympathetic character, and it’s only too easy to understand why she makes the choices she does.

The book’s been written in such a way that it can be enjoyed both as a free-standing novel suitable for someone not familiar with any of the mythology and literature that has accreted around Arthur, and as a fascinating new contribution to that ongoing literary conversation. An excellent YA fantasy novel that should appeal to adults as well.

ISBN 978-1-896580-6-30
trade paperback at Powell’s
trade paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon UK (available now)
trade paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon US (for pre-order)
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book log: April 2011

And now that I’ve caught up on the April books, here’s the list:

30) Reginald Hill — There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union, and other stories
Collection of half a dozen crime stories first published in 1987, which has some bearing on the tone of some of them. The collection is laced with a biting humour, and some superb if sardonic observations of human nature. Logged with notes 28 April 2011.
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31) Stephen Cole — Doctor Who: The Monsters Inside
Second of the tie-ins published for the new series. It’s a Who tie-in novel, with nothing much to either recommend or disrecommend it. Not one I’m inclined to give permanent shelfspace. Logged with notes 30 April 2011.
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32) Agatha Christie — The Body in the Library
Miss Marple novel with, yes, a body in the library. The library in question belongs to an old friend of Miss Marple, but the dead blonde doesn’t. A week or so after reading the book, I listened to the abridged audiobook from Macmillan Digital Audio, read by Ian Masters. It’s a good abridgment on 3 CDs which manages to retain the necessary plot elements without signalling them too broadly. Logged with notes 1 May 2011.
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33) Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree
The fourth of the series about the portly chain-smoking Inspector from Singapore’s police service. This time Singh has been volunteered to hold a watching brief on behalf of ASEAN at the Cambodian war crimes tribunal. This is a powerful story, with characters who make you care about their fate. A worthy addition to the Inspector Singh series. Reviewed 2 May 2011.
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34) James Herriot – If only they could talk [audiobook]
First of the memoir/novels by James Herriot about life in a rural veterinary practice, abridged to 3 CD length. It’s read by Christopher Timothy, who played Herriot in the 1970s/80s tv adaptation All Creatures Great and Small, and it’s read very well. Logged with notes 2 May 2011.
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35) James Goss — Torchwood: Ghost Train [audiobook]
2 CD Torchwood story written for audio, and set between second and third series. It’s read by actor Kai Owen, for the very good reason that it’s a first person narrative from one Rhys Williams, haulage manager. What we get is not just “actor reads book”, but “actor in character tells us a story about what happened when he got mixed up in an alien invasion last week”. A great story with plenty of re-listen potential. Brief review 2 May 2011.
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36) Reginald Hill — A Clubbable Woman [audiobook]
Abridged audio adaptation of the first book in the Dalziel & Pascoe series (which I’ve previously reviewed), on 3 CDs. It’s read by Warren Clarke, who played Dalziell in the tv adaptation. This is a good abridgement, which from following along in places on the printed edition I thought cut about half the text while retaining everything needed for the plot, plus a good chunk of the characterisations. Clarke does an excellent job of reading. Logged with notes 2 May 2011.
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37) Agatha Christie — The body in the library [audiobook]
Audiobook abridged on 3 cds, reviewed as part of the review of the print edition.

38) Hyouta Fujiyama — Freefall Romance
Yaoi manga, and a Did Not Finish for me, mostly because I was half way through when I found some torn pages with large sections of the page missing, and I wasn’t sufficiently interested in finishing it to request a replacement copy. Logged with brief notes 3 May 2011.
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39) Bob Shaw — Shadow of Heaven
[NEL abridged edition]
Short novel set in a future where an act of terrorism has rendered much of the world’s arable land unusable without reducing the population. Logged with notes 16 May 2011.
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40) Jacqueline Rayner – Doctor Who: Winner Takes All
Third in the New Who novel line. The plot’s interesting and the characterisations for Nine and Rose are good. But where the story really shines for me is in one of the one-off characters. Enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. This one I’ll probably re-read. Logged with notes 16 May 2011.
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41) Ursula Vernon — Digger [graphic novel]
And this is what ate my Good Friday in 2011, courtesy of a link at Making Light — the webcomic “Digger”. Logged with notes 16 May 2011.
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42) Agatha Christie — A Murder Is Announced
Miss Marple novel. Beautifully constructed mystery, with the clues all there but skillfully disguised, in a lovely study of English village life soon after the end of the Second World War. Logged with notes 17 May 2011.
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43) Alexander McCall Smith — The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
The first of a series about Precious Ramotswe, the Botswanan woman who sets up a detective agency. Logged with notes 22 May 2011.
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44) Gary Russell — Torchwood: The Twilight Streets
Sixth of the Torchwood tie-in novels, set late in second season and with a lot of canon references. And my most favourite of all the canon references is the return of Idris Hopper, the Mayor’s secretary from the Doctor Who episode Boom Town. :-) Logged with notes 22 May 2011.
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45) Georgette Heyer – Footsteps in the Dark
One of Heyer’s mysteries, this one a stand-alone rather than part of a series. Logged with notes 22 May 2011.
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book log: Georgette Heyer – Footsteps in the Dark

45) Georgette Heyer – Footsteps in the Dark

One of Heyer’s mysteries, this one a stand-alone rather than part of a series. The Fortescue Siblings, Peter, Margaret and Celia, have inherited an old house which was built in part around the ancient priory it’s named after. They have come to spend a few weeks in it, along with Celia’s husband Charles Malcom and their aunt Lilian. But nobody has lived in the house for years, and it’s reputed to be haunted. Things do indeed start going bump in the night, and investigation finds priestholes and secret passages galore, some equipped with dry bones. But some of the party are more inclined to believe that the strange happenings are down to something much more prosaic than ghosts. Someone wants them out of the priory, probably the same someone who made an unsolicited offer to their solicitor to buy it when it wasn’t on the market. Someone who is prepared to kill to keep a secret when the hunt for clues leads to a potential witness to the real identity of the Monk.

While there’s a genuine and good murder mystery as the scaffolding of the story, a lot of the fun of this one is that it is indeed fun, with some sparkling dialogue between nicely drawn characters. I think the characterisation isn’t as strong in this one as in some of Heyer’s other mysteries, but it does the job.

There’s also a romance sub-plot, which cuts some of the tension because it’s obvious from the way the attraction between Margaret and one of the suspects is written that he’s going to be a Good Guy. But it doesn’t detract too much from the story, which is strong enough to offer pleasure in re-reading even once you know the solution.

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