book review: Christopher Wakling — The Devil’s Mask

59) Christopher Wakling — The Devil’s Mask

Note – I received a free review copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Historical mystery set in Bristol just after the abolition of the slave trade. Inigo Bright comes from a wealthy mercantile family, but has gone into law rather than shipping. Newly qualified, he still works for the man he was legal clerk to, on one of the practice’s major sources of income — the nitpicking investigation on behalf of the port officials of customs fees owed and paid. What seems like a routine investigation of one ship’s petty smuggling gives Inigo a minor problem with torn loyalties, because his family’s business has some investment in the ship.

He sets that aside and goes on with his investigation, only to be led into a tangle of deception, threats and finally outright violence against himself and his master. And it seems to be linked with the murdered women who have been found in the city. Inigo does the sensible thing and tries to put his information before the authorities, but finds a suspicious lack of interest. If the truth is to be brought to light, he’ll have to do the digging.

I enjoyed it enormously, but more as a historical novel with a literary bent than as a mystery. The mystery’s good, but the book’s structure gives away a lot of the solution just a little too soon for my taste if approaching it purely as a mystery. The reverse side of this is that Wakling has done an excellent job of laying out the clues and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about not just the solution to the mystery, but the society Inigo lives in. I’m partial to world-building via long, lingering descriptions when done well, as it is here, and found the book to have a good balance between plot and evoking a sense of place. The one criticism I’d have was that several characters seemed to start off as being intended to be significant players in the tale, and then more or less fizzled out. Inigo himself is an appealing character. He’s young and uncertain of himself, but has the strength of character to make difficult choices once he’s thought them through. At book’s end I was satisfied with the closure given, but wanted to know what happened to him next, which is always a good sign.

A page-turner that brings to life the physical and moral price paid for the profits of the slave trade, even after abolition.

LibraryThing entry
hardcover at Amazon UK
Kindle at Amazon UK
paperback at Amazon UK (release date March 2012)

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book log: Jonathan Swift — Gulliver’s Travels

58) Jonathan Swift — Gulliver’s Travels

Or to give it its full and proper title, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. Like many children, I had an abridged version with just the Lilliput section (probably bowdlerised), and I’d also read excerpts from the other sections. I have very fond memories, and since the complete text is available on public domain ebook sites, I decided that it was time to read the whole thing from start to finish.

I don’t have the background in history to know exactly who and what Swift was lampooning without having to look it up on Wikipedia, but it doesn’t matter. His biting satire is just as relevant to today’s politics, even if the exact targets have changed. There are places where the modern reader will probably cringe at Swift’s own prejudices, but by and large this is a hilarious take-down of bigotry, prejudice and hypocrisy that rings just as true now as it must have in 1726. The parody of the traveller’s tales books popular at the time isn’t quite as accessible, but it doesn’t require very much effort to draw a parallel with modern writing. I found the fourth section dragged a bit, but that’s partly because Swift had quite thoroughly made his point by then, and was repeating himself to some extent. But this book is a classic for good reason.

LibraryThing entry
Free public domain ebook at Feedbooks

May 2011 book log

Now I’m all caught up on posting my notes and reviews of May’s reading, here’s the summary listing:

46) Alex Epstein — The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay
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. Reviewed May 29.
LibraryThing entry

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. Reviewed May 29.
LibraryThing entry

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. Reviewed May 29.
LibraryThing entry

49) Agatha Christie – The mirror crack’d from side to side
Hollywood actress 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, Miss Marple’s old friend 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. Reviewed May 30.
LibraryThing entry

50) Leslie Charteris – Enter the Saint
Second book in the Saint series, a trio of novelettes/novellas rather than a novel. Logged with brief notes May 30.
LibraryThing entry

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. Reviewed May 30.
LibraryThing entry

52) John Carnell, editor — New Writings in SF 20
One of the 1972 editions of the long-running science fiction anthology series. Reviewed May 30.
LibraryThing entry

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. Reviewed May 30.
LibraryThing entry

54) Elisabeth Beresford — The Wombles
First in what became a series of over 20 books about the creatures living in a large burrow underneath Wimbledon Common, who make a living by collecting and re-using the rubbish left behind by careless humans. Reviewed earlier today.
LibraryThing entry.

55) Una McCormack — Doctor Who: The Way Through the Woods
I bought this one because I’ve known the writer for years and have admired her writing since back when she was writing fanfic in My One True Fandom. It should be assumed that I am not capable of giving an unbiased opinion, but this book is full of squee for me. Logged earlier today.
LibraryThing entry

56) Frank Herbert – The Eyes Of Heisenberg
Short sf novel from 1966 about a far distant future where genetic engineering has brought longer lives for all and immortality for a minority. Reviewed earlier today.
LibraryThing entry

57) Reginald Hill — An Advancement of Learning
Re-read of the second Dalziel and Pascoe novel. Review posted earlier today.
LibraryThing entry

book log: Reginald Hill — An Advancement of Learning

57) Reginald Hill — An Advancement of Learning

Re-read of the second Dalziel and Pascoe novel, previously reviewed as follows:

[2006-04-04] The second Dalziel and Pascoe novel sees the pair at a college of higher education after the discovery of a corpse under a statue’s foundation block. Naturally, life gets even more complicated, and not just because they have to wade through both student and staff politics in their pursuit of the truth. Fresh corpses are provided, and it’s up to Dalziel and Pascoe to decide which were murder and which were suicide, ideally without becoming corpses themselves.

Dalziel has no time for students, and the feeling’s mutual. But Dalziel doesn’t let his dislike lead him into underestimating his opponents, while the students make the mistake of thinking that Dalziel’s a fascist pig and therefore stupid. Pascoe’s feelings are more ambiguous, as he was a graduate recruit to the police force. His former university friends don’t approve of his choice of his career, and his liberal sympathies don’t always endear him to his colleagues, but this case reassures him that being a copper was the best way for _him_ to change the world for the better. The pair’s different experiences and views combine to form a formidable team in this setting, something they’ll need to deal with the criminal they’re trying to pin down. Even near the end, it seems that it may be a case of knowing who and how without having quite enough evidence to prove it…

This early entry in the series is a relatively simple police procedural, rather than the complex literary game to be found in some of the later novels, but still has Hill’s characteristic style and wittiness. It’s one for all fans of the series, whether your taste runs to the shorter novels or the long, psychologically complex ones, as it sets up some of the series background. Apart from developing Pascoe’s character, it introduces two of the recurring non-police characters. Pascoe is reunited with old university friend Ellie Soper, whom he later marries: and this is the first appearance of Franny Roote, who reappears much later in the series as a major character in a story arc spanning several books. And it is, of course, an entertaining book in its own right.

LibraryThing entry

book log: Frank Herbert – The Eyes Of Heisenberg

56) Frank Herbert – The Eyes Of Heisenberg

Short sf novel from 1966 about a far distant future where genetic engineering has brought longer lives for all and immortality for a minority — but at the cost of genetic engineering being both compulsory and necessary, as humans no longer reproduce naturally. Many are naturally sterile, and for the rest, there is the contraceptive gas that ensures that only the chosen few with a potentially viable gene mix are allowed to try their luck at creating a zygote for the gene surgeons to improve. The immortal Optimen have ruled, largely by consent, since not long after the first of them was created some eighty thousand years ago, but there are challenges to their rule.

This is one of the sf books I first read as a teenager, and was hoping would still hold up. I had occasional problems with suspension of disbelief, but it’s staying on the keep pile rather than going into the Oxfam box. The opening sequence with a genetic surgeon preparing to cut a new embryo with Optiman potential, and finding that it is something even greater and forbidden — that still has the power to evoke sensawunda for me. The rest of the novel doesn’t quite hit the same heights, but there’s still a worthwhile story about the price and effects of immortality. And while this short novel doesn’t have the same depth of world-building as Dune, there are still some lovely little details, such as the hand-pressure language used by the Parents Underground to communicate secretly in public.

LibraryThing entry

book log: Una McCormack — Doctor Who: The Way Through the Woods

55) Una McCormack — Doctor Who: The Way Through the Woods

I bought this one because I’ve known the writer for years and have admired her writing since back when she was writing fanfic in My One True Fandom. It should be assumed that I am not capable of giving an unbiased opinion, but this book is full of squee for me. The characterisations for Eleven, Any and Rory feel right, and there are some nice secondary characters in this tale of a town where ever since Roman times, if you go into the woods today, you’re not only sure of a big surprise, you’ll never come out again. The Tardis crew have a good idea of what’s going on, but in order to fix the problem before the woods eat more than just the odd stray, they’re going to have to find the physical source. And the only way to do that is to take the Tardis to just before a disappearance and have someone with a beacon follow a disappearee. What could possibly go wrong?

LibraryThing entry

book log: Elisabeth Beresford — The Wombles

54) Elisabeth Beresford — The Wombles

First in what became a series of over 20 books about the creatures living in a large burrow underneath Wimbledon Common, who make a living by collecting and re-using the rubbish left behind by careless humans.

I first met the Wombles in the form of the 1970s BBC stop motion animated series, which so thoroughly burnt itself into my brain that I kept flashing on scenes from the show as I was reading. Thus the otherwise delightful illustrations by Margaret Gordon were a little disconcerting, as the tv puppets are significantly different in appearance. Nevertheless, it was most enjoyable re-visiting the Wombles in written format.

The book is written for small children, and thus is on a relatively simple reading level. But it’s by no means trite — the stories discuss human behaviour without heavy-handed moralising, and the Wombles helped start an interest in my generation of children in recycling. Each chapter is an incident in the life of the Wombles, which can work almost as a standalone story, but there’s an overall story arc throughout the book, covering nearly a year. It’s primarily from the viewpoint of young Bungo, who at the start of the book has just reached the age at which he is allowed to choose a name for himself from Great Uncle Bulgaria’s atlas, and then start work as a Womble considered old enough to be allowed out of the burrow on his own. It’s an enjoyable quick read for an adult talking a stroll down memory lane. And short though it may be, there’s some lovely worldbuilding here, portraying in light but deft strokes a very slightly alien society somewhere just out of sight of our own.

LibraryThing entry.