Book log 2015: 16) James Runcie — Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death

First of the Grantchester Mysteries series, about a Church of England vicar who solves mysteries in collaboration with one of the local police detectives. The first book is a set of six short stories, each a standalone about an individual case, but with an overall arc running through them. I bought it because I’d seen and enjoyed a couple of episodes of the tv adaptation. This doesn’t always mean I’ll like a book, but in this case I’m very glad I bought it. It’s an excellent period cosy mystery, written by someone who knows the minutiae of Anglican clerical life. The ebook for this one is often low price as a hook for the series, and well worth getting.

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Kobo

Advertisements

Book review: Diana Green – Bronze Fox

Posting well out of order since this is a review copy. I may or may not get earlier book log done…

Note: I received a copy of the book from the author through Reading Alley in exchange for an honest review.

Tobias is both a fox shapeshifter and a rifter – someone who crosses the rifts between worlds. He works as a field agent for a covert organisation that tries to control rift traffic, but he’s of an independent mind even if he’s loyal to the organisation. He needs a partner agent suited to him, not one chosen for him to suit others’ views.

Etty’s from the slums, barely earning a living by disguising herself as a boy and driving her dad’s hackney carriage after he was injured. She’s driving the nearest cab when Tobias needs a quick getaway one night, and her world will never be the same again.

Tobias may have stumbled upon the perfect sidekick, but first he’ll have to convince the people who pay his wages. And even if he does, there’s a baptism of fire waiting for the new partnership. There’s a whisper of new technology that could change the rift worlds forever — and it’s in the hands of a vicious criminal.

This is an excellent fantasy thriller with a strong romance subplot. The lead characters are engaging and well drawn, and I finished the book wanting to spend more time with them. There’s some good world-building, with the main setting being roughly Victorian with low key magic, but references and scenes that make it clear the rift links to worlds at different levels of social and technological development.

This is the first book in a series, and sets up the universe and series arc. It does an excellent job of wrapping up its own story without an annoying cliffhanger while still pointing the way to the next book. I’ve been annoyed of late by too many books that tried to force me to buy the next by not giving me the resolution to the story – this book does it the better way, by making me want to spend more time in this world.

I’ve only two minor criticisms; there’s a scene that’s flat out “beautiful blue-eyed blonde girl awes the primitive natives”, and there are some formatting glitches in my copy that made two chapters very difficult to read. It’s a measure of how much I was enjoying the book that I persisted through the section with scrambled formatting.

Overall a very enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

44) Shamini Flint — Inspector Singh Investigates: A Curious Indian Cadaver

Fifth installment of the series about Inspector Singh of the Singapore police, forever being shipped off elsewhere to get him out of his superiors’ hair. This time he’s on compulsory sick leave, and thus can’t claim pressure of work to avoid being dragged by Mrs Singh to a family wedding in India. But the Singhs arrive only to find that the bride-to-be has disappeared. The last thing her immediate family want is the police involved, because of the social stigma — the obvious motive for the young woman’s disappearance is to avoid an arranged marriage. For the family patriarch, worried about his granddaughter’s welfare as well as her reputation, an investigation by a family member who just happens to be a member of another country’s police force is a much more appealing prospect.

Then a corpse turns up, and the local police are involved whether the family likes it or not. But Singh keeps digging, and finds a tangle of motives that he’s not willing to ignore.

Once again Flint has blended a police procedural with a sensitive look at the ramifications of a real life tragedy. This book is deeply rooted in Sikh culture, and that includes the ongoing after-effects of the 1984 riots and massacre in India. But the latter does not overwhelm the book — it is only one strand in a complex story about a complex society. A particular feature of the book is that it is quite openly an outsider’s view of India, complete with an outsider’s prejudices and reactions — but the outsider here is not a white European, but a member of the Indian diaspora of Singapore. Singh finds India at once both alien and familiar, and this colours his reaction to the things he encounters during his investigation.

Singh is a joy of a character to read about, and Flint has created yet another fascinating twist to her series hook of a police inspector who frequently ends up investigating murder well outside his official jurisdiction. The Singaporean Sikh is a marvellous addition to the ranks of maverick detectives in mystery fiction, and I’m very much hoping that there will be a sixth book in the series.

http://www.librarything.com/work/11236931

2011 book log: 102) Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions

I feel rather guilty about taking so long to write my review of this one, partly because Pomegranate were clearly hoping for timely reviews to drive sales for Christmas gifts, and partly because so many of my friends would doubtless have been very happy to help with the “Christmas gift” sales figures…

102) Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Pomegranate provides a treat for Gorey fans with this new edition of a title from 1973 which has been long out of print as a standalone book, although it was available in omnibus format. Hamish, a beautiful young man who likes being outdoors, opens the wrong envelope one day, and finds himself on a path to fame and fortune in films. He finds this to be less appealing than one might imagine, and prefers to raise lions… The story is told in a bare 14 pen-and-ink illustrations with one sentence per illustration, and can be skimmed in a few minutes, but Gorey does a great deal with those 14 illustrations. It’s not as blatantly macabre as some of Gorey’s work, but still has that eerie, off-kilter humour that was his trademark. And the book might take only a few minutes to read the first time, but you could lose yourself for hours looking at the detail in the drawings and thinking about the things implied therein.

There are other books which are more accessible to new readers and I’m not sure this one would be ideal as someone’s first introduction to Gorey, but you don’t need much familiarity with his body of work to appreciate the faintly sinister whimsy of The Lost Lions.

At US$13, this edition isn’t cheap, but you do get what you pay for. Pomegranate have a done a superb job on the physical production side. The book is a small hardback with high quality paper in sewn signatures, and crisp reproduction of the pen-and-ink illustrations. It’s laid out with one sentence and illustration facing each other per page spread, on a 6 inch square page size that makes it easy to take in the whole illustration at once while still being large enough to see the fine detail. The cover illustration is in colour, but the interior illustrations are in the original black and white. If all you want is access to the story, there are other options, but Pomegranate’s new edition is a gorgeous presentation that’s a joy to handle. This is a perfect “indulgent treat” for anyone who loves both beautiful books and Edward Gorey.

My review copy came packed with two Pomegranate catalogues, and one of their Edward Gorey bookmarks, which was a nice item in its own right, and I think well worth the $2 catalogue price if you like nice bookmarks. It’s crisply printed on heavy stock, and comes in a heavy plastic protective sleeve, from which it can be easily removed if you prefer to use it without the sleeve.

Hardcover smyth-sewn casebound book, with jacket. 32 pages, 6½ x 6 inches.

ISBN 9780764959578

Edward Gorey — The Lost Lions at the publisher’s website.

Librarything entry, with more reviews.

Book review: Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

79) Pati Nagle – Pet Noir

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Short fix-up novel about a genetically engineered cat whose creation is commissioned by the security chief of a large space station. The chief wants an undercover agent who’ll be overlooked by criminals who might be suspicious of humanoids. A Maine Coon who’s been genetically engineered to have human level intelligence, opposable thumbs, and a tongue that can wrap itself around human language is a useful thing to have loitering around fast food outlets and in cargo holds, picking up the gossip. An ordinary-looking cat won’t be suspected because the high cost of gengineered animals means they’re still rare — but it’s a price that’s worth it for someone who wants to bust a drug-smuggling ring.

The book is structured as a series of short stories covering the first year or so of Leon’s life, a first person retrospective from the day the Chief collects a know-all kitten from the labs to a year or so later, when Leon’s experienced enough to understand how very inexperienced and naive he was that day. The general tone is that of a hard-boiled detective story, only here the hard-boiled tone is distinctly feline-flavoured and the setting is futuristic.

It’s a lot of fun following Leon’s emotional and intellectual development alongside his cases, and the cases themselves mostly make good stories. There are some good observations of feline behaviour worked into this. Leon’s mostly plausible as a portrait of a cat with boosted intelligence, and his relationship with his human partner Devin, a mix of self-centredness and genuine affection after a rocky start, works well. However, there are two flaws which badly broke suspension of disbelief for me.

The first is that Leon is not just super intelligent, at 4 weeks old he speaks fluent English and he’s already showing a better grasp of human culture than a human ten year old. Yes, cats develop much faster, but there hasn’t been time for him to physically assimilate that amount of information, even if he does spend all day in front of the tv.

The second is that Leon speaks to other, unenhanced animals, who appear to be also human level intelligence in their conversation, even if they’re speaking in cat rather than English, which rather undermines the point of him being genetically engineered for human level intelligence. There also appears to be a single human-level language across at least three species who are not regarded as fully sentient by the humans and other sentient species on the station. It felt as if the author was trying to appeal to readers who like to think of their cats as being just little humans in fur coats.

One of the things I did like about the book is that it touches on the ethics of uplifted animals. It’s a very light touch, and anything stronger would have unbalanced the book, but it’s made clear that Leon is under an indentured contract and is required to pay off the costs of his creation by working for whoever owns the contract. He’s effectively the property of Gamma Station Security for several years, and he’s unimpressed by this.

Overall, something of a mixed bag. It’s a fun light read, and has some laugh out loud moments, but there are some niggles which mean I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. A free sample consisting of the prologue and first chapter are available for download at Book View Cafe, which will give you a reasonable idea of the style.

LibraryThing entry

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)
LibraryThing entry

book review: James Goss — Torchwood: Ghost Train [audiobook]

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”.

Rhys has a problem in the form of missing fridges, which to begin with looks like perfectly ordinary pilfering. But as Rhys looks into it, the mystery starts acquiring enough weirdness round the edges to make him think it could be Torchwood territory. Pity Torchwood’s having a really bad day, and he can’t even get advice about how to investigate his own little problem, never mind actual assistance. Rhys turns private investigator, and finds himself couriering packages that were delivered to Cardiff railway station – after midnight, on a long disused platform. It turns out that there’s a Torchwood interest after all, but Torchwood proper is missing or dead, and only Rhys is in a position to put things back the way they should be.

The story’s very entertaining, with a perfectly balanced blend of humour and horror, and a lot of running gags that turn out to be plot elements as well. Those plot elements are part of a carefully constructed story where various small details which have been layered in become important as the story gradually unfolds. And it’s wonderfully read by Kai Owen. But along with all this, we get some lovely pieces of characterisation. The story revolves around Rhys, but we also see Rhys’s view of Gwen and her job, and Ianto and Jack. A great story with plenty of re-listen potential. This entertaining audiobook easily justifies its cover price.

LibraryThing entry