Book Log: September 2011

I didn’t post the book log for September as I logged each book, because I was too sore to do the cross-posting. So it’s going up in one chunk. :-)

80) H.P. Lovecraft — The Call of Cthulhu

This novelette permeates science fiction culture. It’s there as part of the background, taken as given. I knew more or less what’s in it, because it’s nodded to by so many later writers, but I’d never actually read it, or anything else by Lovecraft as far as I can recall. Last month I decided that it was time to change that. There’s not really a lot I can say, other than there is bad purple prose and there is good purple prose, and this piece is very fine purple prose indeed. Now I know why it has such a grip on the fannish imagination. And I need to download a few more Lovecraft pieces.

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81) EF Benson — Mapp and Lucia [audiobook]

Abridged audiobook of the novel, read by Miriam Margoyles on 3 CDs. My first encounter with Benson’s Mapp and Lucia characters, but assuredly not my last. Hysterically funny comedy of manners following the battle of wits and garden parties between two snobs, each intent on ruling local society in a small seaside town in the early 1930s. Margoyles does a superb job of reading, bringing the various characters to vivid life.

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82) Stephen Cole – Doctor Who: The Feast Of the Drowned

Book eight in the New Series Adventures. Competent tie-in with Ten and Rose, set in present-day London. When the wreck of a British Navy vessel is recovered and brought back to a secret dock off the Thames for study, there are more than corpses aboard. The ghosts of the sailors start visiting their friends and loved ones, talking about the feast of the drowned and asking for help from the living. And the living will do anything to reach their loved ones to help them, including throwing themselves into the Thames. Ten and Rose would investigate anyway, but it becomes all too personal for Rose when she discovers that one of the ghosts is someone she knows. Competently written, but not one of my favourites of the new series tie-ins.

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83) Alan Hunter — Gently Through the Mill

Fifth in the George Gently police procedural series, set in the 1950s. A corpse is found in a flour hopper in a village bakery. Such accidents aren’t unknown, but this one isn’t an accident, and the corpse isn’t local. Gently is sent to investigate what small time gambler and crook Steinie Taylor was doing out of his ususal haunts, and why someone killed him. The local police are only too willing to tag it as a crime just passing through, but as Gently’s team starts digging, they find far too many locals with secrets to hide. Taylor and two friends had been splashing money around, but where did the money come from? Taylor’s friends might know, but one of them turns up dead. The other might have the only evidence that could convict a killer — if Gently can get to him before the killer does.

Enjoyable period police procedural with some nice observation of character. There’s a particularly poignant passage in which Gently acknowledges the pathos inherent in a dead petty crook whose biggest dream was to have a legitimate bank account.

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84) Ruth Rendell — From Doon with Death (Inspector Wexford 1)

First of the Inspector Wexford novels, first published in 1964, and very much of its time. Inspector Burden’s neighbour asks for some unofficial help when he comes home to find his wife missing. Burden’s more interested in escaping to his planned trip to the cinema, assuming that the woman has simply had an assignation and missed her bus or train home. But when Margaret Parsons is found murdered in nearby woods, Burden and Wexford have a mystery on their hands. Who would want to kill a quiet, nondescript housewife who seemed devoted to her husband? There are few clues, until they discover the dead woman had a collection of expensive books, inscribed from “Doon”. An old lover, perhaps, one who hadn’t accepted that she had moved on and married elsewhere. But finding the pseudonymous Doon is another matter.

It’s fairly well constructed and written, and while the lead characters aren’t that well developed, they do come across as distinct personalities even in this short novel. There’s a strong focus on psychological study of the various suspects and witnesses, and Wexford is shown as a broad-minded man whose uncensorious attitude to human frailities can be an asset in his job. But I found the general shape of the solution far too obvious from the very beginning of the book, and was disappointed to find that I was right.

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85) Roger Bax — Blueprint for Murder

Post-war crime novel, in which a wealthy man is found murdered shortly after his son and nephew have returned from service at the end of World War 2. The two young men are the obvious and only reasonable suspects, but one of them has the perfect alibi. So perfect that Inspector James is suspicious… This isn’t a whodunnit, because the book opens with the nephew’s flight from a German prison camp and his progress across Europe towards England — and the psychological damage he’s taken over the years of war. He’s determined to live the good life when he finally gets home, and that means planning the perfect murder in order to get his share of his uncle’s estate, and enough money to clear out to a new life in South America. The first few chapters cover how he perfects and practices his plans, with a very ingenious method of creating an unbreakable alibi. The plot then shifts to the police investigation of the murder, with the painstaking attention to detail needed to investigate the crime, and finally to the killer’s discovery that someone could expose him after all, and his hasty attempts to cover up and then escape. Well-plotted and well-paced, with a rising thread of tension as it becomes apparent that Arthur will have to kill again to escape the hangman’s noose. Bax has done a good job in creating a killer who has been hardened by his experiences and understands his own capacity for violence only too well.

86) Ruth Rendell — Wolf to the Slaughter (Inspector Wexford 2)

The second Inspector Wexford novel, and as with the first, very much a 1960s novel. It gave me even more of a sense of “the past is a foreign country” than the first one, because a major plot thread involves one of the characters renting out rooms in her house by the evening, for students to use for studying in private, nudge nudge, wink, wink, and this activity gets her threatened with being charged with the offence of keeping a disorderly house. Because in this time period, unmarried couples found it difficult to find somewhere to have sex, and renting rooms to them for such a purpose was conduct liable to outrage public decency, and thus could be a criminal offence…

An eccentric artist reports his sister Anita as missing. Since his problem appears to be largely that he’s too away with the fairies to cope without her for even a night, Burden doesn’t take it seriously, until Wexford connects it with an anonymous letter stating that a girl called Ann has been murdered. There’s no concrete evidence of murder, but the artist is adamant that his sister would have left him a note if she’d gone away for a few days, and there are other odd things about her absence that lead Wexford to dig deeper. Anita was well known to have a large selection of men friends, and it’s entirely possible that one of them has killed her out of jealousy. But even when he finds evidence that blood has indeed been shed, Wexford has trouble putting together the pieces to make a coherent picture. Too many alibis that may or may not be false, too many dangling loose ends, too many people holding clues who are frightened to tell the truth. And no corpse…

It’s a good read, with a lot of twists packed into a short novel, and a good eye for character detail. But I thought it perhaps a little too choppy as a result. And I did find the period mores oddly jarring, more so than with period mysteries from some other writers.

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87) James Goss: Torchwood: First Born

First of the trilogy of Miracle Day prequel novels, and set between Children of Earth and Miracle Day. Gwen and Rhys have taken to the hills after the birth of baby Anwen, using a selection of Torchwood safe houses to hide from people who are much too interested in the last surviving piece of Torchwood. The latest one is a caravan park in a remote village — and as they wryly note at one point, there had to be a reason why Ianto’s keyring collection included the key for a caravan in the middle of nowhere.

It’s just Gwen and Rhys in this one, but it’s still a solid Torchwood story about the use and misuse of alien technology that has fallen into human hands. As usual Goss does an excellent job with writing Rhys, and I enjoyed this one a lot.

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88) Agatha Christie — The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side [audiobook]

Audiobook abridged on 3 CDs, read by Frances Jeater. I read and reviewed the novel earlier this year, so was familiar with the plot, but I thought this abridgement would work well even for someone coming to the story afresh. It does lose some of the characterisation, particularly the minor characters, but retains all the detail needed to support whodunnit. I think where it might suffer a little is in the emotional impact when you first start to understand what the motive for the murder was.

Jeater does a reasonable job of reading, but I think I prefer other readers I’ve listened to in this series of audio abridgements.

89) Lois McMaster Bujold — Cryoburn

Fifteenth book in the Vorkosigan series, and mostly, but not entirely, “Miles happens to people”. I don’t think this book would do much for people who aren’t already familiar with the series, even though I think it’s a wonderful book for existing fans. it’s a competent enough caper novel, but if you come to it new to the series, it’s going to feel as if it’s not fleshed out. The richness comes from reader familiarity with the character of Miles, and what it’s taken him to get to this point in his life — he’s 39, 8 years on from the previous novel, married with children and getting tired of of being called away from home on the Emperor’s business for weeks at a time. While there’s still some action, the ostensible focus of this book is on economic shenanigans, of a sort Miles is well fitted to investigate because he’s a natural scam artist himself.

The real emotional punch comes in the last few pages. I knew what was coming, because I’d heard Bujold talking about it at a con a few years ago, before she’d started writing the book — but it still got me. The final 100 words made me tear up, and probably always will do when I read them again. And that is something that simply will not have the same effect on a new reader. This is not the book to start reading the Vorkosiverse with, but the one to come to after you’ve watched Miles grow to this point.

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90) Michael Swanwick — Stations of the Tide

Nicking the plot description from Wikipedia: the story of a bureaucrat with the Department of Technology Transfer who must descend to the surface of Miranda to hunt a magician who has smuggled proscribed technology past the orbital embargo, and bring him to justice before the world is transformed by the flood of the Jubilee Tides.

This won the Nebula in 1991, and I can see why. I’m sure if I’d read it in 1991 I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. But reading it for the first time in 2011, I find the psychedelic scene jumps merely irritating and tedious. I admire the world-building, which is painted in light strokes that don’t succumb to the temptation to explain all, and I liked the characterisation. But reading it was more work than I really cared for, for the amount of payoff I got.

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91) Alan Hunter — Gently in the Sun

Sixth in the Inspector George Gently series, and first published in 1959. An attractive young woman is found dead on the beach in the fishing village where she has being staying with her boss. The boss is one obvious suspect, particularly as he already has a criminal record. A young artist who had a crush on her is another. But Gently is disinclined to take the first obvious suspect without looking any further, even if both men are obviously lying. He needs to break both stories, not least to clear them if they’re lying out of fear about something else. His instincts are proven right when another, much older, murder is unearthed. Are the two killings related, and if so, how?

A solid mid-list mystery with some interesting characters, although Gently himself seems thinly drawn in this one.

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