Historical novel about Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry the Eighth. I abandoned it after 25 pages — I think it’s well written, and I would probably have enjoyed it a lot when I was a teenager, but it simply didn’t hold my interest enough to keep reading it when I have a two year TBR mountain.
62) Reginald Hill — Ruling Passion
Third of the Dalziel and Pascoe books. At the end of the last book Peter Pascoe had got back together with old flame Ellie, and now they’re invited to spend a weekend with four of their old university friends. They’re late because Peter’s been tied up with a serial burglary case that looks as if it’s escalating to violence.
What they find when they finally arrive is a scene of carnage. Three people are dead, the fourth is missing in circumstances that lead the local police to make him chief suspect. Pascoe’s involvement in the case is officially as a witness, but he can’t help but get involved in the investigation, even if unofficially. These are his friends, after all, and he can’t believe that one of them could really have changed so much as to commit murder. As the case progresses, Pascoe finds his ambiguous status of use to the official investigation, but an ever increasing source of frustration for himself. And Dalziel wants him back in Yorkshire, the more urgently because the burglary case has turned very nasty indeed.
The nature of the plot means that the book focuses strongly on Pascoe, with Dalziel largely present as a supporting role. It nevertheless shows the growth in the relationship between the two men, in a story that twists and turns until the various plot strands finally come together. This is a superb study of a policeman struggling and frequently failing to retain his professional detachment in the face of a crime that strikes only too close to home.
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. I’d read one of the later books first, which felt more like a mystery genre novel, and by comparison this one strikes me as aiming more at the literary genre, with more overt meditations on life in southern Africa. While it’s written by a white man, it’s written by a white Zimbabwean who’s worked in Botswana, who is writing what he knows. What he’s written is a loving portrait of Botswana, both the good side and the bad, framed through a woman who respects many of the old ways but thinks change can bring good.
The structure is a series of small cases interspersed with chapters looking at how Mma Ramotswe came to set up the detective agency with an inheritance from her father, and how her father came to have the money to leave to her. Some of the individual cases have serious consequences, but it’s largely a gentle and subtly funny novel. It feels almost like a series of short stories within a frame story, although some of the story threads run through the length of the book. As such, it makes for easy reading, even though there’s a lot of thoughtful social commentary worked into the narrative. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.
42) Agatha Christie — A Murder Is Announced
Miss Marple novel. A murder is announced at the home of Miss Blacklock, by way of an ad in the local paper announcing the time and place. It’s assumed by Miss Blacklock’s household that it’s some sort of unpleasant joke, and by everyone else in Chipping Cleghorn that it’s announcing a murder mystery party. A large contingent contrive to drop in at the time announced — only to see a real attempted murder and suicide. But was it suicide, or was the young man who shot at Miss Blacklock simply a cat’s paw for someone else who then disposed of him?
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.
40) Jacqueline Rayner – Doctor Who: Winner Takes All
Third in the New Who novel line. Now this was a definite improvement over the previous title in the series. It’s a revisit of the Last Starfighter scenario, but with some nasty twists, and not just the one you find in Ender’s Game. Rose and Nine drop in to the Powell Estate to visit Jackie, and find that there’s a new video game being promoted by people in porcupine costumes, using scratchcards given away with any purchase at local stores, no matter how small. Mickey is one of the people who’s won a console, and as he explains, the console has only one game, but it’s still good value, because it’s so realistic, and complex enough to be a little different every time you play. Of course the Doctor can’t resist showing off and beating Mickey’s score, doing so thoroughly that he becomes number one on the aliens’ list of useful humans to acquire.
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. Robert is a young teenager, complete with young teenage boy anxieties and fantasies, and his interior monologue is wince-inducingly realistic. He’s someone a lot of fans will be able to identify with.
Enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. This one I’ll probably re-read.
This is the first of a 4 book anthology series, where the series concept is to have a set of four stories from each author, one per volume, which can each be read as individual stand-alone stories, but which together make up a story arc. It was published in 1974 and was edited by Roger Elwood, which is an entertaining and informative tale in itself.
I bought my copy of volume 1 about thirty years ago, and for various reasons (including the dreaded “it was only going to be in storage for a year or two”) I probably haven’t read it for close to twenty years. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that I only remembered two of the stories — the one by Philip Jose Farmer, which I don’t actually like very much and don’t think works as a standalone; and the story from Anne McCaffrey, which is the first part of what later became The Crystal Singer, and which I’ve thus read a fair number of times in the novel. The others seem completely unfamiliar to me. This is surprising, because there are some good stories in here. I read a library copy of volume 4 a few years after buying this volume, and can vaguely remember something about the closing stories of only those two authors as well. (I think I liked the Farmer sequence better for having seen the end of the arc.)
Philip Jose Farmer – Stations of the Nightmare
Guy shoots at quail flock in his neighbour’s field, and hits a very small flying saucer instead. It escapes into the woods but releases a golden pollen-like substance, and it eventually becomes clear that guy has been contaminated by it. Except nothing much actually happens, and this story doesn’t seem to have any closure that makes it work as a standalone.
Poul Anderson – My own, my native land
Coming of age story on a recently colonised planet. The settlement is up on a plateau where the atmosphere is breathable for Earth-born humans; one of the colonists has had to crashland a survey shuttle down on the plains, where the conditions are barely survivable without some form of life support. The colony can’t spare another shuttle to retrieve the salvageable parts and datatapes by air, but it’s still worth taking them out by road. The problem is having to cut the road first, in an environment that’s not actively hostile but requires immigrant colonists to wear life support if they want to do any heavier labour than slow walking. The shuttle pilot recruits one of the locally-born teenagers to go back with him for the salvage parts. Enjoyable as an individual story.
Chad Oliver – Shaka!
A trading company’s spaceship finds a way around the prohibition on cultural contamination in order to protect their trading partners on a primitive planet from an aggressive neighbouring tribe. They use an obvious historical model — but some time later have to find a way to ameliorate the effects of their cultural tampering. Enjoyed this.
Thomas N Scortia — The Armageddon Tapes
Now this one worked as a standalone for me, while leaving me wanting to read the rest of the arc. Someone who was as a child part of a group abducted by aliens and integrated into their spaceship’s ecology has recently been returned to Earth, and is being interrogated by the minions of what is clearly a deeply unpleasant dictatorship. The interrogation is not exactly going according to plan…
Anne McCaffrey – Prelude to a Crystal Song
This is the first segment of what later became the novel The Crystal Singer, although MacCaffrey re-wrote large chunks of the anthology series material, in particular giving it a different ending. I always loved this short story and the novel that grew from it, in part because the heroine really isn’t always likeable – and the author knew it. But in spite of Killashandra having, as McCaffrey says, a generous portion of the conceit and ego needed for her chosen profession of opera singer, she also has courage, the self-understanding to recognise her self-pity for what it is, and the maturity to indulge herself just a little with self-pity after a crushing disappointment at the end of her time as a music student and then move on to practical consideration of what else she might do with her life. Fate hands her the opportunity to take her inborn talent and hard-won skill to another profession, one where the rewards – and the risks – are a worthy challenge.
Gene Wolfe – The Dark of the June
Very short piece that can’t be reviewed without spoilering it.
Edgar Pangborn – The Children’s Crusade
Thirty years after a limited nuclear war combined with biological warfare has drastically reduced the population, the people in a small Vermont village are mostly getting along fairly well with the level of tech they’ve managed to retain. Then along comes the Children’s Crusade, led by a man who was a very young child at the time of the war. He’s not an evil man, but he certainly has the potential to be a threat. Two of the villagers join the Crusade as it leaves the village after staying for a few days. I’d like the story a lot better of the author didn’t openly hector the reader about what I presume are the author’s political views – and I say this even though I either agree with or am neutral about most of them. Notable for discussing the issue of global warming back in 1974.
Dean R Koontz – The Night of the Storm
Four members of a robot civilisation go on a hunting expedition where part of the point is to deliberately cripple their senses and physical strength so that the hunt is a more equal match between robot and animal. They tell each other campfire stories, including the story of the legendary “human”, a creature that is an animal that can think. And as with all good campfire ghost stories, they start to see things in the shadows, where it’s just that little too dark for them to see clearly… Loved this, and it would be my main reason for keeping the anthology in order to re-read.