Saturday, September 10, 2011

four short stories

196. Adam by Jennifer Cotroneo-Mancuso, from Diagonal Proof magazine.    This is a taut psychological thriller told through the eyes of a hysterical woman and then her husband. It's a study in mental breakdown over the loss of a child. I can't describe it in too much detail without giving away the plot twists, but I can say that the author slides well from one POV to another in a way that just heightens the tension rather than disrupting the flow.

197. Ginnifer by Matthew Pearl from the June-Sept 2011 issue of The Strand.    I knew Matthew Pearl by reputation only. Friends have recommended his three period-piece mysteries to me, but I've yet to read them. So when I saw his name on the cover of the June-September 2011 issues of the Strand, I thought it might be a good way to test the waters.  And it was, except that this is no literature-based period piece. No Poe Shadow or Dante Club here. This is a darkly comic (in my opinion) modern day tale of a man who is accused of a heinous crime, and the woman who believes in his self-proclaimed innocence. Pearl plays out the drama (is he really innocent? what will she do once he's free?) at a perfect pace for this kind of story. Waters tested, appetite whetted: I  definitely want to read more Matthew Pearl.

198. The Audience of the Dead by Andrew Lane from the June-Sept 2011 issue of The Strand.    Not every new Holmes story published in the new Strand magazine is a worthy descendant of Doyle's original work. Then again, some of Doyle's later Holmes stories suffer compared to the early works as well. Andrew Lane has written a series of "Young Sherlock Holmes" books that are only now seeing publication here in the States, but this tale is of an adult Holmes and Watson investigating a theater full of dead bodies. Lane keeps Holmes' personality and methods pretty well according to Doyle, down to the Great Detective seeing clues we simple readers don't. It's an interesting tale with a satisfying conclusion.

199. The Second Theft of Alhazred's Manuscript by Bradley H. Sinor, from Historical Lovecraft.  Every now and then I grab this anthology off the shelf and read a story at random. It just so happens that this time it was the Holmes story in the batch. Sinor walks that fine Holmes line: is what the Detective encounters in this story really supernatural, or is there a perfectly mundane explanation hiding underneath? Holmes never quite unveils that what's happening is faked, although he expresses that opinion to Watson. But then again, Holmes' concern here is the theft of a manuscript he's been called in to rescue once before, and not whether said manuscript holds eldritch power or not. Sinor walks the line well and keeps the story interesting without either downplaying the supernatural or calling Holmes out as a fool blind to the forces of the universe. Not easy to do.

Review of The Red House Mystery

Book 51: THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY by A.A. Milne, isbn 9780099521273, 211 pages, Vintage UK (Random House), $7.95

The Premise: (from the back cover) Far from the gentle slopes of the Hundred Acre Wood lies The Red House, the setting for A.A. Milne's only detective story, where secret passages, uninvited guests, a sinister valet and a puzzling murder lay the foundations for a classic crime caper. When the local police prove baffled, it is up to a gueset at a local inn to appoint himself "Sherlock Holmes" and together with his friend and loyal "Watson," delve deeper into the mysteries of the dead man. The Red House Mystery is a lost gem from a time before Tigger and a perfectly crafted whodunnit with witty dialogue, deft plotting and a most curious cast of characters.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Thoughts: I wanted to enjoy this a lot more than I did. Sadly, I don't think it quite delivers on the promises of the back-cover copy. Which doesn't make it a bad story. There is a clever set-up, and a clever method of getting "Holmes," aka Anthony Gillingham, knee-deep in the action while remaining an outsider with an impartial eye to the murder. Milne lays out the hints all along the way, so this really is a fair-play mystery, more Agatha Christie than Conan Doyle. And there is a lot of oh-so-clever banter that makes me wonder why this story has never been adapted by the BBC/PBS (and a quick scan of IMDB tells me it hasn't), being a classic "drawing room cozy mystery."

I liked the characters of Anthony Gillingham and Bill Beverley ("Holmes" and "Watson," as they style themselves) enough that part of me wishes Milne had written further books with them. But part of me is also glad he didn't, as I think he'd have to have gone to more and more ridiculous lengths to get them involved in mysteries where they would remain the impartial outsiders unless he went the length of having them set themselves up as rivals to Holmes and Watson.  They don't quite have the feel of a Hercule Poirot or Jessica Fletcher where adventures would just fall into their laps.

The downside to the book is that Milne dispenses with "curious cast of characters" pretty quickly. Within the first few chapters the cast is pared down to Gillingham, Beverley, the "sinister valet," the cop, and the missing man at the center of the murder. The other house-guests and the house-staff are shuttled off-stage quickly, part of Milne's wish to not have too many red herrings to distract the reader. That cuts down on the mystery as well. For me, the book quickly became a case not of "whodunnit" so much as "how-and-why-dunnit."

Review of Ghost Story (Butcher)

Book 50: GHOST STORY (The Dresden Files, Book 13) by Jim Butcher, isbn 9780451463791, 481 pages, Roc, $27.95

The Premise: (from the plot description) When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn't doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin.  But being dead doesn't stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has no body, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their
own. To save his friends-and his own soul-Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic...

My Rating: 4 stars

My Thoughts: The latest Harry Dresden book was eagerly awaited, and I tore through it in just a couple of days. I have learned this lesson when it comes to Dresden: I am incapable of savoring him. I devour. Then sometimes I can go back and take things slower. This time, for instance, I found myself able to re-listen to the book on cd (this time narrated by John Glover) just a few short weeks after reading it.

Overall, I loved the book. Without spoiling the major plot points I think it's safe to say that of course nothing is as it seems. Harry thinks he's coming back to find his murderer and save three of his friends from vaguely-worded premonitions of doom (and the kicker is, he doesn't know which three friends) but when has a Dresden plot ever been as simple as that? Not since the third or fourth book, at least. So yes, there are bigger issues, and bigger machinations, at work in the background, and Harry working through the mystery while being incorporeal is pretty much the least of his problems.

Because Harry is stuck as a ghost/shade, the book has a slightly different feel to it: Harry can't just blunder in, make a mistake, and fix it later. At least, that's what we're told repeatedly: that he can't physically affect anything so he has time to slow down and not blunder right in ... except that I counted at least 3 times where he did exactly that, once to nearly disastrous results. He may be slower about making the blunders, but he's still Harry and he still manages to make things worse before he can make them better.

But, and this is an upside to the book, because Harry is stuck as a ghost, he is also far more dependant on his supporting cast than he ever has been before, and so more of them get more screen-time than some of them have had in ages. Tertiary character Mort Lindqist gets a major step-up, Butters gets some great moments, Father Forthill plays a major role, Daniel Carpenter gets to show that he is made of the same mettle as his father ... in fact, these four move the action along far more than usual co-stars Karin Murphy, Molly Carpenter, Thomas Raith and Gentleman John  Marcone. And that is a nice change of pace.  Of course, Karin and Molly are not completely ignored -- a large part of the subplot of the book centers on how these two women, who both love Harry in their own way, are suffering from his death. And they get some of the most poignant, heart-wrenching moments in the book.  But still, cast-wise this might be the most inclusive of any of the Dresden Files. Only a few beloved (or behated) characters go unseen/unmentioned. (I mean, seriously, where the hell are Toot-Toot and the Za Guard?)

There are some things I didn't like about the book, particularly in how often Harry repeats information he's already shared with us three times, as if we can't be expected to remember those details throughout the book.  I think on this score Butcher has underestimated most of his readership. Even someone accidentally picking this book up without ever having read a Dresden book wouldn't need to be beat over the head with why Harry did what he did in CHANGES as many times as Butcher has Harry retell the story with basically the same details every time. Another quibble is the characters who do go unmentioned (in addition to Toot, we also don't see or hear anything about a couple of other people/beings one would expect Harry to be curious about as he's checking in/up on those he's left behind).  But overall, these are quibbles rather than major problems, at least for this reader.

I know there are people out there also crying "foul" that this book seems to end with another cliff-hanger. At first I felt that way too, but after relistening to the book, I realized that no, it's not really a cliffhanger. We know exactly where Harry stands (or floats, as the case may be ... you didn't really think I was going to spoil the end of the book, did you?) and we have a hint as to how Butcher is going to move into the next phase of Harry's story. Butcher's always been clear that CHANGES was pretty much the halfway point, and there's still plenty of Dresden Files to be revealed. However, we're beyond the point where the books can work as stand-alones. The mythology is too dense, the core mysteries of Harry's past and present too involved, for any remaining book to be read (or written) completely without links to past and future books.

So, from me: four stars and a recommendation that if you've never read a Dresden Files book, you start at the beginning. It's worth it.

And a final question: what is it about dead wizards named Harry and train stations, anyway?

Friday, September 9, 2011


Book 48: HUNT THROUGH NAPOLEON'S WEB by Gabriel Hunt and Raymond Benson, isbn 9780843962574, 320 pages, Dorchester Publishing, $14.00

The Premise: In the sixth, and possibly final, adventure of relic-hunter, and modern-day Indiana Jones, Gabriel Hunt finds himself on a quest to rescue his estranged younger sister, who has been kidnapped by a secret society intent on returning the ancient Egyptian treasures stolen by Napoleon and his men centuries ago. Of course, things are not quite as they seem, and there's the possibility Napoleon had secreted away another Rosetta Stone. Will Gabriel rescue his sister and find an artifact that might already have changed the course of history once?

My Rating: 4 stars

My Thoughts: If this really is the last hurrah for Gabriel Hunt, he goes out in fine form thanks to Raymond Benson. As with the preceding five Hunt books, HUNT THROUGH NAPOLEON'S WEB starts out in a rush (Gabriel and a cohort in the midst of a spelunking accident) and gets faster from there. Oh, there are a few quiet moments mid-book, but like the best pulpy thrillers (both old and new)the quiet doesn't last long.

Benson's story balances the "hunting for clues" and "high adrenaline adventure" aspects pretty well, driving home the point I've made with each book: that Gabriel Hunt really is a modern Indiana Jones, albeit one with a more familial support system than Indy had in the original three movies. Of course Gabriel gets a woman, no surprise there. The least suspenseful part of the book is the "how will they end up in bed" question -- it's become such a predictable part of the books that I don't even worry my little head about it beforehand, unless there's more than one potential bedmate in the book (and in this case, there's not). Benson also provides we faithful readers of the series with a moment we've been waiting for through several books now, and it is a satisfying one.

On the downside, if this is the last Hunt book, there's at least one series-long mystery that has not been resolved and that left me a little frustrated. The background mystery of what happened to the Hunt parents when they disappeared from that cruise ship a decade ago is an intriguing one, but it's also one I'd hate to see go unresolved forever. Hopefully, publisher Charles Ardai can convince someone to bring out at least one more Gabriel Hunt book. And if Raymond Benson writes it, I'm okay with that too. (Benson, or Christa Faust, or Ardai himself -- they've provided I think my three favorite installments of the six, not that I've been disappointed in any of them.)

Book 49: AFTERTHOUGHTS by Lawrence Block, isbn 9780843962574, 320 pages, Dorchester Publishing, $14.00

The Premise: A lot of Lawrence Block's early work has been reissued recently in e-book format, and Block has written new afterwords (and in some cases forewords) to explain a bit about how the books were written. All of those pieces are collected in AFTERTHOUGHTS.

My Rating: 5 stars

My Thoughts: Every time in the past month that I told people I was reading a book collecting Lawrence Block's afterwords (and some introductions) from various ebooks, I got the same response: a somewhat quizzical raising of the eyebrows and a vague "oohhh" sound that indicated I had perhaps lost my mind, because how interesting could a bunch of afterwords be, anyway?

Very interesting is the answer.

Block is a master storyteller not matter what form or format he's working in. These essays (and that's what they are) are the next best thing to a full-on memoir. In them, he relates how each book he discusses came to be written but he also manages to tell the highlights of his life story and of course share some anecdotes about his writer friends.

What makes the book interesting is that each afterword was originally written and published separately. And so what we get when we take them as a whole is various angles on the same set of life experiences. In some hands, that could just feel repetitive. But Block doesn't tell the story the same way twice even as he manages to keep all the details consistent. By the sixth or seventh (I didn't bother actually counting) retelling of his time working the slush pile for the Scott Meredith Agency, I felt like I was hanging at the bar with an old friend listening to a story I knew the ending to but couldn't wait to hear anyway.

If you want a glimpse into what the "paperback originals" market was like for writers in the 60s and 70s, as well as a look at why someone would choose to write under multiple pseudonyms long past the time where he'd need to, read AFTERTHOUGHTS. If you want an overview of a writing life, read AFTERTHOUGHTS. If you want to get to know Lawrence Block better, but despair of ever meeting him in person, read AFTERTHOUGHTS. If you want to laugh while you glean some advice on writing, read AFTERTHOUGHTS.

Well, what are you waiting for? Go read AFTERTHOUGHTS already!