Books, huh, what’re they good for? No, wait, that’s something else. Books are good for reading, which by some amazing coincidence is just what I’ve been doing recently with some of them. To wit…
Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr (2011) This is the eighth book in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, which nearly brings me up to date – there’s one more, A Man without Breath (2013), currently available; although Kerr has not said how many books the series will eventually comprise. Prague Fatale is set during Gunther’s war years. While not a Nazi, and clearly has trouble dealing with them, he’s respected enough by his superiors to be asked to Prague to solve the locked-room murder of an aide to Reinhard Heydrich. The crime itself is plainly an homage to the golden age of crime fiction, and Gunther has little trouble working out what happened. But there’s much more going on in the novel than just a puzzling murder. Early on, Gunther rescues a young woman from an attempted sexual assault, and then helps her out a little with food and money before eventually entering into a relationship with her. He takes her with him to Prague – when all the senior officers have mistresses, and even a select brothel for their use only, why should he not take his girlfriend? As Gunther makes a nuisance of himself at Heydrich’s chateau, asking impertinent questions (not all of which are related to his investigation) and making plain his contempt of the Nazis – so he gradually works out who killed Heydrich’s aide… and how his death ties in with earlier events in Berlin. More than any other of the recent Gunther books, Prague Fatale feels like a crime novel. But it also feels like Kerr is taking the piss a little by presenting the central murder as a locked-room mystery. The solution proves to be relatively straightforward, and delivered almost in passing – but having it as the core of the story turns the book into a warped country house mystery rather than an historical police procedural. It makes for a pleasant change after the complex spy-fiction plot of the preceding novel, Field Grey (2010). Good stuff.
Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010) Much praise has been heaped on this, the first in a series, and at an Edge-Lit the author begged me to buy a copy despite it not being my thing at all (actually, he didn’t; it looked interesting, so I bought it; but Mark did sign it for me). On finally getting around to reading it, I was surprised by two things: it was more commercial than I’d expected, and it was a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be. The story opens strikingly, with a loyal warrior of a Viking king stepping from a longship to drown in mid-sea. He and the king were the sole survivors of a raid on an Anglo-Saxon monastery, the object of which was to steal a pair of twin baby boys. The king’s wife cannot give him a son, so a witch told the king where to find one – her part of the bargain was the other twin. But no one must know the true origin of the king’s “son”, so no warriors must make it back alive from the raid. Initially Wolfsangel reads like an historical novel as it describes Prince Vali’s life as a ward of a rival king – there’s a vague feeling that some of the more fantastical elements are the results of worldview rather than actual magic – but as those fantastical elements slowly begin to intrude more and more into the story so the magical side of the story begins to take over. The giant wolf’s head on the cover, not to mention the title, is a clue as to which supernatural creature is central to the book, and Lachlan’s put an interesting spin on the trope. He’s integrated the werewolf into his take on Norse mythology, and it works really well. He pulls a fast one initially, presenting one of the twins as the werewolf, only for the truth to later reveal itself. After finishing the book, I could understand why it had been so highly praised, and I’m keen to read the next on the series, Fenrir (2011). So that’s a shock – I actually thought a fantasy novel was good.
Songs of Blue and Gold, Deborah Lawrenson (2008) I put this one on the wishlist after learning that its story was based on Lawrence Durrell and his time in Corfu, and some time later I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. When Melissa’s mother passes away, she finds among her possessions a signed and dedicated poetry collection by famous author Julian Adie. Melissa knew that her mother had spent time in Corfu during the 1960s, and is surprised to discover she knew Adie, who lived there at the time. So Melissa heads for the Greek island to learn as much as she can about her mother’s time there. Adie, of course, is Durrell, and Lawrenson does a good job of fictionalising his life and stitching Melissa’s mother into it. There’s a slight mystery attached, which is neither hard to figure out, and resolved offhandedly, and the writing throughout is of a type you’d sort of expect from a novel boasting such cover art if you did have any expectations regarding prose style from the book’s presentation… I enjoyed it, but I suspect I wouldn’t have done so as much if I hadn’t been familiar with Durrell and his life and oeuvre.
Murder by the Book, Eric Brown (2013) This is the first crime novel by Brown, and the first in the “Langham and Dupree Mysteries”. Set in the 1950s, the book’s protagonist is Donald Langham, a crime writer who has churned out a dozen well-received novels. Dupree is Maria Dupree, the well-heeled daughter of an upper-class French emigré, and the personal assistant of Langham’s agent. When a series of people involved in the world of 1950s crime writing die under mysterious circumstances, and Langham’s agent is framed for one of the deaths, Langham turns reluctant detective with Dupree’s help. The template, of course, dictates that as the two spend more time together so they are drawn to each other. The murders are a succession of “book murders”, ie, the sort of tricksy killings you only really find in crime novels, especially crime novels of the genre’s golden age. But then Murder by the Book is not trying to do something different genre-wise, but is as centrally-placed in crime as Brown’s sf novels are in science fiction. The period is handled well, without an excess of detail and nothing that jumps out as anachronistic. Langham is a solid hero, likeable but not too firmly wedded to 1950s sensibilities that he’s not sympathetic to a modern reader. Dupree might be a little too good to be true, if not teetering on the edge of cliché, but she’s just as engaging as Langham and the growing relationship between them works. Not being a crime fan per se, though I’ll read the books and am certainly a fan of the oeuvres of a couple of crime writers, I have to wonder if the mechanics of the central murders occupy a similar place in the genre as “ideas” do in science fictions. The complex murders in Murder by the Book seem to operate much like “nova” do in sf, but I suspect that may be a modus operandi (so to speak) more suited to the story’s setting than the modern crime genre marketplace.
Whirlpool of Stars, Tully Zetford (1974) This is the first book in the Hook quartet, and it’s pretty much hackwork. But then Tully Zetford was really Kenneth Bulmer, who was a complete hack – as Alan Burt Akers, he wrote over fifty books in the Dray Prescott series between 1972 and 1997. Whirlpool of Stars opens with a starship breaking down – something in the engineroom blows up as a result of shoddy maintenance. The passengers and crew are forced to flee in lifeboats, though this is no orderly evacuation. Hook is aboard, and he manages to get a seat aboard one of the lifeboats. The nearest planet, however, is run by a rival corporation to that which had operated the starship, and everyone who lands would be subject high fees… which they can pay off by indentured labour… Hook evades the authorities and, with a woman in tow, runs about the planet, trying to avoid slavery and also the Boosted Men, who are after him. You can tell this is complete hackwork because it panders to the worst prejudices of the sf audience. Hook is an alpha-male protagonist, but one with a weakness – he is a Boosted Man himself, but an early iteration and his powers only operate when he is close proximity to a real Boosted Man. The women in the story exist only as set-dressing, trophies, or damsels in distress. The villains are aliens. The background is a typical right-wing corporatist future, with slavery, success oriented purely on wealth and the power it brings, a blithe disregard for the value of human life, ineffective government and murderous and overly-powerful police forces. Whirlpool of Stars is tosh, distasteful badly-written tosh, and while Bulmer was clearly doing it for the money, you have to wonder what excuse present-day writers of similar science fictions have. Oh, and I have another three of these books to read. Sigh.
The Cleft, Doris Lessing (2007) There is a phrase in Brian W Aldiss’s story ‘Confluence’, a “dictionary” of alien terms, that goes: “YUP PA: A book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it; an afternoon sleigh-ride”. That pretty much describes The Cleft. A Roman historian has been handed a bunch of writings, normally kept hidden, and which he plans to turn into a treatise of his own. The documents are purportedly the written-down oral history of the earliest human civilisation, long before agriculture, nations, cities, kings or government. Apparently, humanity was originally female-only, and they lived in caves beside a sea. They reproduced parthogenically, and would occasionally sacrifice their offspring in a nearby rock chimney they called the Cleft. Every so often, mutant children called “squirts” – ie, not “clefts” – were born and left out for giant eagles to take – presumably to feed their chicks. But when one is left to grow to adulthood, he – because, of course, the squirts are men – leaves the women to found a community of his own over Eagle Mountain. More squirts are born, the squirts and clefts discover sex, the two communities begin to interact, one squirt leader leads an expedition away from the two communities along the coast… and I really have no idea what Lessing hoped to achieve with this novel. The Roman historian interjects at various points of the oral history he is supposedly working on – this was denoted using different font sizes, but as the book progressed this seemed to go wrong somewhere until the font size was completely random. There’s very little that’s Edenic about the society in the book and the gender politics once the “squirts” appear runs along somewhat clichéd lines. This has a tendency to reduce all of those early people to one-note characters, and while Lessing throws in some interesting speculation on their physiology, their society doesn’t feel like that much thought has gone into it. Disappointing.
Thunder Rift, Matthew Farrell (2001) Matthew Farrell is really Stephen Leigh, and I suspect this book was published as by Farrell because by 2000 Leigh had become a category killer. In fact, since 2003 he’s been writing fantasy under the pen-name SL Farrell. In all other respects, Thunder Rift reads like a Stephen Leigh sf novel, and fans of Leigh’s earlier Dark Water’s Embrace and Speaking Stones will probably enjoy it. Unfortunately, familiarity with Leigh’s oeuvre does make Thunder Rift a somewhat predictable read. The titular wormhole has mysteriously appeared in the Solar System, out by the orbit of Jupiter, and the EMP generated by its sudden arrival pretty much wipes out all the technology on Earth, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet thirty years later, the nations have not only recovered, they’ve even managed to build a huge military spacecraft to send through the wormhole to see if they can find the wormhole’s creators. On this spacecraft is maverick exo-anthropologist Taria Spears, who is obsessive, uncompromising and all-together difficult. On the other side of the wormhole, the humans find an inhabited world, but its alien civilisation does not appear advanced enough to have created the wormhole. Nonetheless, they send down a contact team… but it doesn’t go very well, and the alien ambassador/chief priestess-type person will only allow Taria to remain on the world. While she tries to learn more about the strange alien culture – their eyesight is so poor, they pretty much use sonar to perceive their surroundings; and they sing a lot – the military aboard the spacecraft set about trying to explore the planet. And then the wormhole vanishes. But something doesn’t want the humans to colonise the alien world. And Taria discovers the secret of the aliens and… This is heartland sf, written with competence if not style or vigour, reliant on far too many familiar tropes and used furniture, but given just enough spin not to generate déjà vu from start to finish. There are lots of sf novels about like Thunder Rift, and they’re all pretty much of a muchness. Fans of this type of sf will likely not to be able to tell it from other books of its ilk, and so enjoy it for that reason.
Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears (2009) Pears started out writing crime novels about a detective art historian, the few of which I’ve read I found quite ordinary; but he also writes complicated historical novels which are several levels of magnitude better. The last of his Jonathan Argyll series was published in 2000, so it would seem he now writes only the historical novels. Of which Stone’s Fall is the most recent – it was preceded by An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998), The Dream of Scipio (2002) and The Portrait (2005), all of which I have read. Stone is an Edwardian industrialist, the wealthiest and most powerful in Britain, and one night in 1909 he falls from the window of his third-floor study and is killed. But was he pushed? His will makes reference to a child he had not previously known about, so Stone’s widow, Elizabeth, hires a freelance reporter, Braddock, to track down the missing heir. The first third of the book – framed as the reminiscences of Braddock, who has just attended Elizabeth’s funeral in Paris in 1953 – attempts to explain Stone’s success in business. The second third is set in Paris in 1890, and is the reminiscences of a British spy whose career began around that time, and who knew Elizabeth, a Parisian socialite at the time, and witnessed her meeting, and growing relationship, with Stone. The final section is set in Venice in 1867 and is written as an apologia by Stone himself, attempting to explain the event which led to him becoming so powerful and also documenting an affair he had at the time which… There’s a mystery at the heart if Stone’s Fall, and it’s not hard to figure out what it is, but it’s only as the Venetian section progresses that the solution slowly starts to reveal itself. Stone’s Fall is not as complex as Pears’ earlier historical novels, but it is very readable and handles its historical detail impressively. Bizarrely, someone has used Wikipedia to give historical notes for the book, most of which are blindingly obvious, rather than summarise the plot or book’s reception…