All Systems Red

"All Systems Red" - Martha Wells (2017) Tor - cover: Jaime Jones

“All Systems Red” – Martha Wells (2017) Tor – cover: Jaime Jones

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by the author.  This first book was published in 2017.  The series currently (May 2022) has six books in print. I think that each book in the series is also of “novella” size.  Novella is a term I do not really use – because I am old and grouchy and generally prefer easy to parse categories like short story or novel or poem.  But books the length of this work (149 pages) force me to use the word ‘novella’ and it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable like the narrating character in the story, Murderbot.

This is a short work, so I do not want to give anything away. I read the book throughout the day, finishing it just before sleep – turned out the bedside light and goodnight.  The story is the intersection of corporate work, scientific planetary research, and A.I./bots.  Since the story is told from the perspective of the bot, SecUnit (short for Security Unit), the writing is sparse and very matter-of-fact.  A security bot that really does not have the utterly human need to explain, ponder, and relationship everything keeps the storytelling breezy and straightforward.

Readers who have ever taken a contemporary philosophy class are going to feel some kind of way about how Murderbot does/does not have feelings, opinions, and humor.  A lot of times it uses words that probably would not be strictly logico-mechanical.  So, its language processing is high-level – as would be expected for a machine that was programmed in order to frequently interact with humans.  So, is it using language in the same way? Does the language it uses have the same meaning?

Well, in a sense, this is lightweight story that never drills into these questions or investigates these matters.  Like I said, this is an extremely matter-of-fact telling. The SecUnit does not “care” and well, maybe neither should the reader. Except, well, but, the lingering part of the story that is layered under all of the rest of the words is literally the quesiton of what the status of this “bot” might be.

And what if the bot is not entirely machine, but has organic components?

Anyway, the story starts in media res, there are some action scenes, but from the standpoint of the SecUnit, the events are related in a rather even – almost dull – manner. The technology is pretty cool – though none of it is at all explained, but the reader gets used to the brute fact of there being whatever technology; be it communication tech or medical tech.  The Murderbot has some quite amusing lines throughout that most readers will find relatable and amusing.

Overall, though, the story is somewhat predictable.  Even though it is enjoyable, I did not find anything here that would make me re-read the book, nor anything that would make me ponder anything in it longer than this review.  I do intend to read on in the series and I do recommend this for most science fiction fans – if only because it is short and easy breezy.

3 stars

Elantris

ElantrisI am finding this novel a very difficult novel to review.  I managed to type the title on this entry and then a lot of time passed; the fan clicking overhead, the birds outside chirping, and me:  utterly lost in my own head trying to sort out some thoughts that maybe are not specifically about Elantris, but Elantris was the catalyst.  Elantris by Brandon Sanderson was published in 2005.  It is Sanderson’s first published novel and I distinctly remember reading somewhere that he finished the first draft, at least, prior to 2000.

[Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how many times the screen-saver on this laptop has auto-popped while I have sat here after typing a sentence on this post.]

At those times when a situation seems perplexing, I can rely on my Aristotelian traditions and look at things per se; cutting out the inessential appearances for just the actual reality.  Did I like this novel – yes or no? Yes. My answer comes without hesitation because it would be untrue to say that I did not like it.  All right, what is the thing that I liked best about the novel? I liked that its a “soap opera.”  What did I dislike the most about the novel? Pacing.  Who was my favorite character?  Probably Roial.  Would I recommend this novel to others?  Yes, its a long novel so I would not recommend it to folks that I know who…….. do not have the attention span that would be needed.

The novel is a glorified soap opera.  I think most of the novels in the fantasy genre are this way.  And I recognize I have introduced the term “soap opera” as if the meaning is utterly clear. Well, when I say that term I refer to melodramatic scenes and characters within the sweeping “operatic” manner in which the timeline unfolds.  Take any fantasy novel and write the main events as non-adjectival, no qualifier points. Tell the “story” of the novel as if you are an historian writing as impartially as you can a hundred years after the fact.  In this story, we could perhaps bullet point:

  • marriage between prince and foreign princess
  • religious leader arrives for mission in city
  • unexpected medical event occurs

Far less of us readers would read that novel – because then, it is not entertaining at all. Its research, knowledge, etc.  If readers are interested in history, they want history – and usually with a depth of research and analysis folded into excellent presentation.  Readers drawn to fantasy recognize the soap opera styling and want to read about hugely melodramatic magical events and characters.

However:  and this is a stern statement to my fellow readers – do not pick up this fantasy [soap opera] and complain about it being a fantasy [soap opera].

The skeleton of this novel is that it is a zombie story placed in the context of typical nation-state wrangling for control.  Drive a thick beam of religion through the whole thing and that’s Elantris.  So, at its very base, this is a rather simple novel.  We should expect, and we do indeed get, a lot of political machinations, religious fervor and positioning, and a generally “mysterious” situation that is both key and not at all vital to the story.

One of my good friends wrote a blog review (from 2017) wherein they describe the novel as underwhelming.  They felt the author took no risks and the book ended up rather monotonous and mediocre. They gave it a 5 of 10 marks.  That’s not a spectacular rating, indeed.   However, I do have one very picky point to make:  my friend did not actually read the novel… it was an audiobook.  I strongly assert that entirely changes the novel. Nevertheless, I am going to say that some of the criticisms are valid.

Because the whole book is based on the political maneuvering of the city-states, there is a lot of potential for the author to really grab these concepts and wrangle them into exciting, intricate, and maybe even controversial postures. Instead, there seems to be a lot of hand-waving at political problems, making it read less like Plato/Socrates and more like Cratylus.  Our one political expert in the novel, Sarene, does have brief moments of fiery political opinion – but its incredibly short lived and rather more emotional than substantive. Like my friend said, no risks were taken.  So tell us, Sanderson, which political schema is the strongest, which is the best, which do you prefer, which are we going to experiment with in this book, which one of these is any different from the others?   Instead, we are somewhat led to believe the state Fjordell is run by brutal leaders, but that may or may not be truly bad. We never learn much detail about that place, anyway.

Similarly with the religious aspects – and there is a heavy amount of those in this book.  Now, Sanderson admits that his personal religious lifestyle does allow him to consider working various religious situations into his fiction.  I do not think he said anywhere that he is peppering his novels with his own religious viewpoints – you know, such as I call agenda fiction.  However, I do think that if an author is going to heavily rely on religion as a storytelling prop – and make it such a large portion of a novel – then they also need to make the religions come alive, be vibrant, be distinctive.  Frankly, as with the politics, he took no risks. More or less, the three religions in the novel are all the same, maybe differing in practice just enough to provide one with more motive than the others for being a “bad guy.”  But even that is not convincing, its just plausible. Sanderson wrote a couple of places online, at least, wherein he lets readers have a little insight into his religious storyline:

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/10977#117424)

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/11200#126503)

However, if you are going to run into this sort of territory and you want to really make your characters’ thoughts and actions meaningful, get into the religion and hammer it out, drive it home, color it up. Taking no risks with it causes the whole novel to feel a lot less impactful than its potential obviously showed.

Do not get me wrong – I absolutely do not want chapters and chapters of info-dumping and vague pontificating on the topics of religion and politics. Yuck.

None of this is bad writing, though.  It just is not very lively writing. It tends to be somewhat dull and measured. And being very measured makes the pacing seem very, very, very (600 pages very) slow. That being said, I am comfortable with the fantasy qua soap opera scenario and so I was quite content, though not enthralled, to follow the three main characters.  The novel is told in chapter points-of-view of Raoden, Hrathen, and Sarene.  I discovered (according to the All Wise Internet) that most readers disliked Sarene. She was my second favorite character.  A lot of readers just did not like this or that about her.  I liked her because she is too good to be true.  She’s really impressive – and she always, really, lands on her feet – like a cat!  Readers found her ridiculous because she seems to have endless amounts of willing helpers for no real reason. I liked this character, though, and while she is not entirely excusable, she is likeable.

Raoden is the character I liked least. I mean, maybe even more than the bad guy.  I found Raoden quite toxic and annoying and tedious.  Of the three chapters, I dreaded reading his the most.

Hrathen is actually the character that seems the most legit.  He is at once arrogant and yet insecure. He struggles with obedience and faith and job duties. He has failures in his past as-well-as successes that now he feels are failures.  He is a dynamic character and how he ends and whom he falls in love with – yes, other readers found this eye-rolling and obnoxious, but I really enjoyed it.  Again, its a soap opera, and I loved this element. It made me a happy reader. Go away you bitter, sour reader-grouches; y’all know this was utterly suitable for soaps!

Now, chapter 38 came out of nowhere for me. I was thoroughly surprised. I did not see that coming. So, when I got to chapter 38, I put the book down and commented on how surprised I was. I suspect it is because Sanderson’s measured writing in this one lulled me a bit and then surprise! I guess other readers might have suspected. But you know, and then this whole thing went sideways – yet again, so it really seemed inauthentic of Sanderson to have done that to me. But of course, it is TOTALLY what I would expect in a soap opera.

Poor author.  His first published book sold well, got a massive amount of readers, but it also opened him to a wealth of criticism.  Its over 600 pages so it gives critical readers lots of fodder for their expert (and non-expert) complaints.  At the end of the day, its easy to pull out the rapier and critique like we are all writing for The New Yorker.  We are not. We are just readers that lounge in our chairs and kibitz about books. And that is precisely what the writers and publishers want. Its an industry, is it not?

Elantris is not, absolutely not, a bad read. If you want a bad read, I am sure I can provide some awful stinkers for you to give yourself papercuts over.  Is it a great book? No. For the most part it is above-average, never taking risks, and very measured. I mean, but for a first published novel an author could do worse than be told his writing is “too measured.”  There is lots of potential here where it could have been beyond great, even.  The readers see that potential, though, and maybe that is why Sanderson has such a fanclub.  There seem to be some high expectations put on this author for some reason.  Hrathen could have been one of the greatest ever:  whispered in the list of Raistlin, Drizzt, and Allanon. I am glad I met him and hung out with him every few chapters for awhile, but I feel we were robbed of a very epic character.

I recommend it to all fantasy readers. Its an above-average novel with plenty of soap opera moments and the pacing is slow enough to make you regret your choice in books by page 250.  However, in for a penny-in for a pound, there are rewards to be had here and most soaps feel interminable, right?!

3 stars

The Unfinished Clue

The Unfinished ClueThe Unfinished Clue by Georgette Heyer is the second Heyer novel that I have read.  This one was published in 1934.  Let me state from the get-go, this is a five-star novel.  The reason why this is a five-star novel, which is not something I am frivolous in awarding, is because I cannot find anything “wrong” with it.  I am able to recognize, though, that many readers may have little interest in country house murders or historical fictions.  That is a personal preference, though, and if I am being impartial and honest, this is a really good novel.

It has certainly been said many, many times that Heyer excels at character creation and involvement.  In this novel she has a fairly large cast and yet not a single character is cardboard or wooden.  Heyer is the anti-Asimov in this regard.  She introduces us to a variety of characters that are realistic, consistent, and engaging.  Not all of these characters are likeable – in fact, many are not. But all of them are interesting and remarkable.  In particular, in this novel, the character Lola de Silva is so remarkable that her name/characterization ought to be a meme or an archtype.  Readers of all generations need to know about Lola.

I am a reader that enjoys country house mystery/murders. I do enjoy the old fashioned, upper class, non-urban settings.  I do not mind their (sometimes) slow pace nor their fixation on teas, butlers, and cocktail hours.  However, not all country house murder mysteries are done with skill.  Often, it seems forced or obnoxious.  Not Heyer’s whatsoever.  I read a manor house mysery once and complained about how dumb the characters were for all gathering ’round the fancy dagger – and then whoops! someone turns up dead! How contrived.  Heyer’s novel here is very fun and well-plotted.  The motives for the murder are all viable ones and nuild tension within the setting.  Each character, already suffering uncomfortable interactions, has to deal with the awkwardness of remaining in the manor among a bunch of “likely suspects.”

So, the characterizations are top notch and the plot is solid and well-written. The pacing seemed reasonable and there were no grammatical or ugly artistic errors, let’s say.  How could I not give this five stars?  I found it entertaining, interesting, and time well spent.  I am not sure I can say similar things about many books that I have read that were, supposedly, in my favorite genres. (Cp. science fiction, fantasy)  It is a lighter novel in that it does not tax the reader and make their brains churn.  I am OK with that and had no problem relaxing with a decent storyline.

My two favorite characters were Dinah Fawcett and Captain Francis Billington-Smith. I think most readers probably fall in love with Dinah, so saying she was one of my favorites does not mean so much.  The best part of Heyer’s novel is the fact that she gathered all of these characters into one country home and let them stew and boil over together.  Here is one of Dinah’s observations:

He went into the house, and Dinah thought, with an inward grin:  Getting too much for poor old Stephen; really, it’s more like a home for mental cases than a house party. – pg. 88, chapter five.

Dinah is observant, witty, and direct, but not rude. She often knows the correct thing to do and chooses wisely. An insightful and likeable character that we all wish to befriend.  She is often helpful in providing the comic relief for the storyline so that the story is not miserably heavy and sluggish.  I like that Heyer does not take her stories/novels overly serious. I like that Heyer herself sees the opportunity for wit and humor in these stories.  Dinah picks up the humor nicely and I do wonder if Heyer doesn’t write herself as Dinah:

“I think perhaps I had better,’ said Mrs Twining in her calm way. “I understood from Fay that I was to hold myself in readiness to answer questions the detective may want to put to me. I am really not very well versed in the etiquette of these affairs.  Does a detective come to me, or do I go to him?”

“I don’t know,” said Dinah.  “But I wish you would come. We – we rather badly want a normal person here.” – pg. 133, chapter 8.

I have a couple other Heyer novels to read; I think they are the detective mystery novels, too. I know she wrote a large number of romances and historical items, but I am really enjoying her mysteries.  They have been popular since they were published and I think that is a great thing. I can confidently recommend this book to any reader and any aspiring author.

5 stars

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

3 stars

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

UnpleasantnessThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) is the fourth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey “series.”   It was originally published in 1928. I read the 1988 printing of the New English Library edition of the novel.  It was quite hard to separate from the book itself because the bright pink cover made it very difficult to ignore!

For the first few chapters, there is some witty sarcasm about the word “unpleasantness” and Sayers was a very intelligent woman so I think this sardonic and ironic bantering has a lot of meaning. It is not just a superficial humor – although, on some level, it is that, too.  The Bellona Club is a British “club” – something contemporary Americans do not really have a concept for. I guess maybe a country club or private drinking club is some sort of vague approximation.  This particular club is for war veterans. The thing is, most Americans do not really have a solid, true experience of British life before-during-after the first World War, either, and that context is very significant in reading Sayer’s Lord Peter novels.  Simply put, the horror and magnitude and shock of experiencing the first World War is not really something that is accessible. We can read about it, but that probably does not come close to the experience. Ineffable and incommunicable lifetime event, I think, best describes that generation/society’s moment. At one point there is a small segment about Armistice Day and wearing a flower and all of this seems so distant and removed from current day that the gravity and significance that those characters would experience is nearly lost on readers today.

So, while the book has this layer of humor and wit, it is also a coping mechanism and a ironic sarcasm for the utter horrors and psychological struggles of the first World War.  That is not to say that you should not chuckle at the wit. The best readers should laugh heartily and then also shed a tear for the unspeakable horrors of that society.

Needless to say, there is a particular character, Wetheridge, that depicts the PTSD-sufferings of veterans perhaps better than the major character George Fentiman, who represents the very demonstrative examples of PTSD. At first, Wetheridge is annoying, but on the last page of the novel, Wimsey points out Wetheridge is all right and has his place among “us.”

I really enjoy reading Lord Peter, as many readers through the decades have said, I’m sure. So, spending time with him as he goes around and harasses and cajoles and banters with other characters is always time well-spent. Lord Peter, himself, as you readers who know also deals with PTSD from his time in the war.

“Exactly. He is the Most Unlikely Person, and that is why Sherlock Holmes would suspect him at once.” – pg. 148 (chapter 15)

However, this story qua story was a bit of a mess. I mean, I think Sayers really wrote a complicated plot, but it was so complicated over nothing, I think. Or, over-complicated. Or it just went on way too long. The storyline really is entangled and it becomes a bit boring to try and sort it out – especially when the red herrings are not exactly red herrings.

There are some enjoyable moments – Peter at the Bellona Club, the scenes with the Munns, any time spent with Marjorie Phelps, and of course, Peter ordering from any menu anywhere.

The end of the story had interesting resolutions to the plot threads and I cannot say that it ended unfairly or untidily. I definitely will read more Sayers, no surprise there, and I recommend this for most vintage mystery readers. However, there is something to be exasperated with here in the slightly over-worked plot.

Overall, the most subtle, and yet key, element is that nearly all of the major characters are war veterans. The doctor, the deceased, the detective, the supporting characters, etc. So, the resolution has a very bittersweet pang to it – because money is the issue. But the issue is not money….

3 stars

Death Shall Come

Death Shall ComeDeath Shall Come is the fourth novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series of books.  I have read the first three in December for three years so far and saw no reason to abandon this habit this year.  I think the first book was the best of all of them, by far.  However, the silliness and outlandishness of the stories entertains me and I look forward to my December reading.   Death Shall Come was first published in 2017.  

The thing that the end of the year (particularly these last two years) needs, is some entertaining, outlandish fun to be had. Something silly and preposterous that does not feel oppressive or dismal.  These Ishmael Jones books are utterly the best fit for my end of year reading. Every novel is basically setup the same way – a country house murder-mystery, which usually is quite gory and involves something un/supernatural.  Ishmael and his vivacious partner, Penny, end up wandering around locked rooms, long corridors, and the bodies pile up.  That’s it – that’s the story.

In this particular novel, we are given just a glimpse more into the character of the Colonel.  However, not much more – and I think nearly every page we are re-told how “military” he is.  Its tedious and I am sure impatient readers will hate the whole thing.  But it doesn’t bother me; I was weaned on Homer, do you know how many times we are reminded of the stock epithets for Achilles and Agamemnon? 

This story’s theme involves a family of collectors of ancient Egyptian artefacts.  The family’s name in the book is the Cardavans.  We are told that for generations the Cardavans have used their enormous wealth to acquire treasures and circumvent legal/monetary obstacles regarding possessing these treasures.  Readers with an ounce of history will know that the famous Howard Carter (“discoverer” of the Tut tomb) was financed by George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.  A name similar to the characters’ in this novel.  The Cardavans have acquired a freshly-unearthed mummy and are currently relishing in their acquisition.  The mummy is allegedly one of the older Cleopatras (not the most famous Greek one). 

The “twist” in this book, I guess, is that the Colonel assigns Ishmael this mission – not for the mysterious Organization, but as a “favor” to him.  And the Colonel stays with us the entire story, not just appearing in the first and final chapters.  Overall, in this particular story, he was rather flat and one-dimensional. I think I preferred him at a distance.  In any case, he asks for this favor from Ishmael because the Cardavans are his in-laws.  Meaning, we get to meet the Colonel’s wife, Chloe.  

‘What are you so nervous about?’ said Penny.  ‘At best it’s a mummy, at worst it’s a serial killer.  We can handle either of those without breaking into sweat.’ – pg 139

So, Chapter Seven actually had a moment of pulse-pounding for me. I guess I am a silly, simple reader.  Nevertheless, when the suspense was building I was really on the edge of my seat.  Its not a long segment, maybe three pages, tops, but it was fun and I liked listening to the terrifying footsteps on the other side of the door. Listening to them listening to it listening to us. 

A personal anecdote of relevance…. one of my favorite books as a single-digit monster was The Secret of Terror Castle (1964). I read the ever-living hell out of that thing. I loved it. I read and re-read that one many times.  So, I do wonder if the impact of having read that story so many times developed a strong inclination toward country-home/Gothic castle murder-mysteries.  In any case, if the story contains any elements whatsoever of The Secret of Terror Castle, chances are I will be thrilled.  And this has borne out with the fact that I rated John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931) so highly.  Anyway, it should come as no surprise that I will likely try to read the rest of Green’s Ishmael Jones series.

3 stars

The Voice and Other Stories

The VoiceThe Voice by Seicho Matsumoto (1909 – 1992) is a collection of six short crime stories.  This is the first I have read by him, but I absolutely would read everything by him based on how much I enjoyed this collection. I think the height of popularity for him was in the 1960s/1970s.  In 1952 he was the winner of the Akutagawa Prize.

This collection was just the sort of fiction that I enjoy.  One of the characteristics is that the writing is perfectly balanced – like a nice gravy. Yeah, that is an odd thing to use, I know, but hear me out.  Most gravies/sauces are too salty, too fatty, too pungent, too potent, too sweet! Every once in a while, though, you get the joy of a perfectly balanced sauce that is blended, vibrant, and balanced.  There is no one flavor or seasoning that is overpowering. The whole thing is complementary of whatever else is being eaten. In the case of these stories, I felt Matsumoto’s writing was utterly balanced:  he absolutely had the correct scaling between giving us a robust and well-formed story and not over-writing every aspect.  The writing was excellent for short stories.

The genre of crime fiction and noir stories really matches Matsumoto’s writing skills here. At the heart of each story is not some complicated situation with many actors and many victims and misdirects and red herrings. The stories here are from situations in everyday life.  Although there are a few points that rely on coincidence, most of these stories are so ordinary as to be rather boring – were it not for the skill in telling them.

  • Kyohansha – 1965 – The Accomplice5 stars
  • Kao – 1959 – The Face5 stars
  • Chiho-shi o kau Onna – 1959 – The Serial5 stars
  • Sosa Kengai no Joken – 1959 – Beyond All Suspicion5 stars
  • Koe – 1959 – The Voice4 stars
  • Kanto-ku no Onna – 1960 – The Woman Who Wrote Haiku4 stars

The first story, The Accomplice, was stressing me out as I read it. I am a silly, basic reader and I kept shaking my head as I read because the main character’s choices were digging him deeper into the scenario and it was all because of a choice he had made a long time ago that was haunting him and tormenting him.  Now, I am quite sure, many readers would scoff at my tension caused by this character.  But there is no defense, Matsumoto knew how to get his story to resonate with my reading style, I guess. Character Hikosuke was a man who created his own demise, but he made me worry about him and his errors. Without a doubt, I gave this story five stars because unlike so many stories I read, it engaged me quite a bit – and without using exaggerated writing tricks.

The Face has some similar elements to the first story – the main character is, again, the cause of his own struggles. The perspectives of characters and the skewed decisions based on such perspective drive both of these rather mundane storylines. In this story, there are some detectives that really bring the plot to life.  I like Matsumoto’s detectives, because they are not the superhuman Poirots and they are not the pompous Nero Wolfs.  There is a fantastic scene that takes place in a restaurant in Kyoto – an imobo (kind of a yam based dish…) restaurant – that caused my heart to palpitate.  It was so subtly written and yet so immersive.

The Serial started off with such an everyday and mundane beginning that I was sure that it was not going to meet the level of the previous stories. But I was wrong! First of all, I really enjoyed the brief thoughts about newspapers that used to print serial fiction. (Maybe, in a few years, I will simply be reminiscing about a thing called newspapers!) I enjoyed this one a lot because it also played on the characters’ assumptions and perspectives. I really liked the inclusion of some of the details and the way the plot built. The main character is trapped in a situation, so, of course, I pity the character.

Beyond All Suspicion was one of the longer stories, but it kept my interest the full length. Again, a character finds himself in an unfortunate situation and does not make the best choices. He chooses revenge and thinks he can outwit everyone. Poor, miserable character. As a revenge tale it works really well because it demonstrates a revenge that is long-in-coming and not some hot-headed slash-up.  It also contains a bunch of noir elements like nighttime bars, banks, taxi-cabs, and a silly song that becomes an integral part of the story.

The last two stories are the ones I gave only four stars.  I felt that The Voice started off very interesting and super noir.  However, the second part (there are two parts to this one) got a bit too convoluted, though the detective team involved really do keep the reader informed throughout the investigation. I just felt the resolution was a bit too complicated. Or, maybe “complicated” is not the most accurate word here. Perhaps I just did not like the way it all worked out. I think that is accurate.  I felt badly for the victim; she had a lot of nonsense in her life that it does not seem she deserved – plus, she was one of us:  a fellow reader!  Similarly with The Woman Who Wrote Haiku – wow, this was quite a sad story.  The crime was entirely imaginable, though. It was difficult to not feel sad for the poor woman we readers never actually met.  I supposed we ought to be somewhat glad that there were these interested parties (members of a Haiku magazine) who solved the crime.

Easily some of the best stories I have read in this year. The style of writing is exactly what I enjoy and the crime/noir was neither gross nor over-done.  Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was unnecessary. I do not re-read a lot of fiction, but I do think that I could re-read these stories.  I wish I could get my hands on all of the author’s fiction, because he has a lot of skill that makes reading his stuff an enjoyable experience.

5 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars