Book log: Reginald Hill — There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union, and other stories

First of the books read in April…

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.

My favourite in the collection is the eponymous novella, in which Inspector Lev Chislenko arrives at the scene of an accident at a government building in Moscow, where the witnesses say they saw a man in old-fashioned clothes fall down a lift shaft – only there is no body. It’s an embarrassing case to be involved with, especially as the higher-ups want the rumours of ghosts quashed as un-Soviet. There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union. But to his discomfort, Chislenko’s investigation intended to prove the non-existence of ghosts by showing that no such accident happened even in the past leads him in a direction he hadn’t expected to go.

Other stories include “Bring back the cat!”, private detective Joe Sixsmith’s first case; “The Bull Ring”, a nasty little tale about brutal training methods used on Great War recruits; “Auteur theory”, a nominally Dalziell and Pascoe story which turns out to be meta discussion on more than one level; “Poor Emma”, which I can only describe as one of the odder pieces of literary fanfic gamesmanship I have encountered, probably as likely to infuriate Austen fans as please them; and “Crowded Hour”, about a “take the wife hostage at home” armed robbery attempt that twists and turns.

I didn’t like all of these stories, but they were all well-crafted pieces that made me think. Only half of them are ones I’d really want to read again, but I don’t regret the time spent on any of them.

LibraryThing entry

Book log: Agatha Christie — The Complete Miss Marple Stories

15) Agatha Christie — The Complete Miss Marple Stories

Does what it says on the tin – every short story about Miss Marple, collected into a single volume. We have here the collection “The Thirteen Problems”, the six Marple stories from “Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two other Stories”, and “Greenshaw’s Folly”. Twenty short stories in total, and in my edition there is also an introductory essay by Stella Duffy, which is well worth reading.

I think that reading all of these in one or two sittings would be a bit much; they would seem too formulaic. And in fact I listened to some of them in audiobook format read by Joan Hickson, and then read the others on and off over a period of a couple of weeks. But taken 2 or 3 at a time, the formula can become an asset to the story-telling, particularly in the Thirteen Problems collection. You have the same set-up in each story (a group of friends telling each other stories in the evening, and trying to guess the solution), and then the fun of watching the different approach each character takes to telling his or her story for the others to try to solve. Christie has created distinctive personalities for each of her recurring characters in these stories, and uses various quirks in their personalities to present and hide clues.

They’re short stories, so by their nature they can’t have the depth of the novels. But each story is an engaging puzzle, with the sharp observation of human nature, wittily told, that is Christie’s trademark. The quality varies from story to story, but as a whole this is a collection well worth reading.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: Edited by Josie Brown, Rose Mambert, and Bill Racicot — Elf Love

Book 3)

Anthology of 20 short stories with the theme of elf love, published by new small press Pink Narcissus Press. This is an ARC I received through the LibraryThing Early reviewers programme.

While the cover art suggests fantasy-subgenre romance stories, the contents are a good deal more wide-ranging. There’s a good sampling of traditional themes about elves, some in modern settings and some not, and the endings cover the full span from happy through bittersweet hope to tragic. The genre styles vary considerably as well. And to go with the prose stories, there’s one in graphic form.

Unfortunately the quality varied considerably as well, and for me a few of the stories were a waste of dead trees; but the best were well worth my time. There were several authors whose stories felt a bit unpolished but made me inclined to find more of their work once they’ve got a few more kilowords under their belts. Of particular note was Duncan Eagleson, who provided my two favourite prose stories in the anthology, together with the art for the graphic story (and the cover art, which I liked less than the graphic story).

There’s some violence, and some sexually explicit and some erotic content (the two are not identical) covering a range of sexual orientations, mostly not gratuitous.

In spite of the uneven quality, this is a worthwhile anthology — this is a good selection covering a range of story types, and I could have quite happily read the whole thing in one sitting without feeling that the stories were too repetitive. While my copy was an ARC, I personally wouldn’t have been disappointed had I paid the full cover price of US$15 for the trade paperback. Whether other readers feel the same will really depend on how many of the stories work for them, and regrettably I have to say that the anthology is sufficiently uneven and unpolished that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it at that price.

I’ll try to write up some detailed notes on individual stories later, but in general I’d agree with TPauSilver’s comments on LibraryThing.

Released in February 2011, but available now for pre-order direct from the publisher.

LibraryThing entry.

Book log: Agatha Christie — The Blue Geranium and other stories [audiobook]

Book 90 (there was a glitch in earlier numbering, which I’ve corrected from here on, and in the master list for the year which will be posted soon)

Re-listen of the second CD set taken from The Thirteen Problems, read by the incomparable Joan Hickson. The four short stories on this double CD set are the titular “The Blue Geranium”, “The Four Suspects”, The Companion” and “A Christmas Tragedy”. The format is a group of friends telling each other creepy mysteries after dinner, allowing the others to try to guess the solution, and then revealing the answer. Miss Marple, of course, is able to solve each by her observation of human nature. Superbly read by Hickson, and highly enjoyable, though probably best listened to one or two at a time rather than the whole lot in one sitting.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: Agatha Christie — The Blood-Stained Pavement and other stories [audiobook]

Book 55

This is a 2-CD audiobook of the first five stories from the Miss Marple collection “The Thirteen Problems”, read by the late, great Joan Hickson, who played Marple on tv in the 80s and 90s. In each story, a small group of friends gathers together each Tuesday night, and spend part of the evening with one member telling the story of a mystery they encountered, and the others trying to work out what actually happened. Miss Marple, of course, is always the one to solve the puzzle, by drawing on parallels she has seen in village life down the years.

Hickson’s reading is an absolute joy to listen to, not only because she is Miss Marple for myself and many other fans, but because she is a superb reader. Her reading is perfectly paced, and brings the characters to life. The stories themselves are entertaining enough, although are probably best taken two or three at a time rather than all at once, as otherwise the consistent pattern of the stories could become annoying formulaic rather than pleasurable. I found that I usually worked out roughly what had happened and who had done it, but the exact details of how weren’t that easy to spot — although clear enough in hindsight…

A marvellous way to spend a couple of hours, although I may go out and buy the set with the complete “Thirteen Problems” to replace this set and its companion set “The Blue Geranium and other problems”, which don’t quite cover the full 13 between them.

LibraryThing entry

Book review: Martin H Greenberg and John Helfers — Future Crimes

Anthology of sf crime short stories from the prolific book packager Martin H Greenberg. I normally like the anthologies Greenberg puts together, in both sf and mystery, but I’ve got a bad case of “it’s not you, it’s me” with this one. I can see why other people might like it, but it doesn’t quite work for me, and I think it’s because I’m not quite keyed in to the relevant genre conventions. Half way through, and I still haven’t encountered a story I’d regret not having read, and have read one or two that left me feeling I’d just wasted a small piece of my life — even though I know and like the work of several of the authors (and indeed, bought the anthology specifically because it included a short by one of my favourite authors). I’ve finally learnt that I don’t have to finish a book just because I’ve started it, so I’m bailing at this point — but even so, I think this one could work for a reader with slightly different tastes to me.

LibraryThing entry
at Amazon UK
at Amazon US

Book review: Isaac Asimov — The Union Club Mysteries

This anthology collected the first 30 stories from a monthly series of mystery shorts Asimov wrote for Eric Potter at Gallery magazine. The frame story for the series is a group of four men who sit together at their club. One of their number claims to have a background in intelligence, and has a habit of telling stories about problems he has solved for the police and intelligence services. The problems are typically in the form of lateral thinking puzzles, and Griswold invariably finishes by commenting that the answer was obvious, and waiting for his companions to admit that they can’t work it out before giving them the answer (thus also giving the reader a chance to try to work it out before the answer is revealed). With only 2000 words to play with each month, the stories are of necessity fairly pared down and low on characterisation. They’re often great fun, and I find it entertaining to watch the ongoing frame story about the narrator and his two friends trying to decide whether Griswold is telling the truth about his past or pulling their legs; but if you don’t like bad puns you won’t like a fair few of these little mysteries, and some of them have dated badly.

I enjoyed the collection, though it’s more of a book for dipping into occasionally than reading all the way through in one sitting. I find them excellent for when I want something that will occupy me for five or ten minutes without making it difficult for me to put down the book at the end of a chapter. The collection has kept me entertained through more than a few bouts of 3 am insomnia when I wanted something light and short to focus on that I could put down again as soon as I felt sleepy.

It’s not really worth going to a lot of effort to lay hands on a copy, but if one comes your way it’s well worth trying a few of the stories.

LibraryThing entry
at Amazon UK
at Amazon US