Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: Appleby and the Ospreys

Appleby and the Ospreys
Michael Innes
Fiction

Like Black Land, White Land, this is an older book that I picked up at the very fine Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Unlike Black Land, White Land, it was a pleasure to read. Michael Innes, in private life, was the Cambridge don J.I.M. Stewart (and as a youth studied under J. R. R. Tolkien), and he wrote with donnish wit and donnish elegance about donnish murders. Appleby and the Ospreys is, I believe, the very last of his Sir John Appleby mysteries (1986). It's not a major work, and the mystery is not extremely mystifying, but there's one quite clever bit--involving hidden treasure, forsooth!--and the writing is quite up to snuff. Overall, a quick and enjoyable diversion.


Innes wrote several well-regarded novels; Hamlet, Revenge! is perhaps the best-known.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
David Grann
Crime, History

David Grann's previous book, The Lost City of Z, is an extraordinary saga of Amazon exploration, lost civilizations, and mystery--one that wouldn't be out of place in a pulp adventure, except that it really happened. Killers of the Flower Moon is likewise almost too good to be true, but it's a darker and harder story: not adventure, but noir.

At first blush, the two books might seem wildly disparate. What do lost pre-Columbian jungle cities have to do with Oklahoma in the 1920s? At a closer look, though, there are things that unite them. Like its predecessor, Killers of the Flower Moon has an iconic, little-remembered central figure (the lawman Thomas White). It has some searching detective work and follow-up by David Grann himself. Most crucially, it shares a theme--the theme of Euro-Americans' blind persistence, and persistent blindness, in trying to force this continent's natives into a particular narrative mold.

I don't want to go into more detail, because I don't want to spoil the book. David Grann is a terrifically kinetic writer; like The Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon goes from zero to unstoppable within a chapter. He also has a gift for describing highly colorful events without resorting to highly colorful prose, while still bringing out their full dramatic--and, in this case, genuinely shocking--resonance. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is not a cheerful read, but it's a good one. It's a real-life detective story. It's a sad but illuminating look at an almost-forgotten episode. It's hard to put down. It's harder to ignore.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: Black Land, White Land

Black Land, White Land
H. C. Bailey
Mystery

There's a well-known Agatha Christie work, Partners in Crime, in which each chapter riffs on one (or more) fictional detectives of the 1920s. Some of the riff-ees are still famous; many are now forgotten. Among the latter group is Mr. Reginald Fortune. Even I had never spotted him in the wild--until now.


I'd love to be able to report that this literary oblivion was undeserved, a wrong in need of righting, a deuced shame, and an all-around blot on the old escutcheon. I can't do it--not, at any rate, on the basis of Black Land, White Land. The writing is distinctly period, with the word "arch" nudging irresistibly to mind. There's no attempt at characterization. The detection is somewhat confusing to follow and not all that surprising.

In short, this is a book whose interest is mainly historical. I'm glad to have found it on that basis. I might prowl around for some of the Mr. Fortune short story collections, which are reputed to be more characteristic. For the general run of mystery reader, though, this is at best a curio.

A genuinely unjustly-neglected writer, of a slightly later period, is the clever and understated Cyril Hare. Try Tragedy at Law or Suicide Excepted.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: Abbadon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate
James S. A. Corey (pen name)
Science fiction

Short version: same as the first.

Long version: same as the second, except no space zombies.

Series summary: Firefly meets Aliens.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.


The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
Neal Stephenson, Nicole Galland
Science fiction, fantasy

[I can't speak to coauthor Nicole Galland's contribution; I don't happen to have read any of her books.]


Okay . . . see . . . Neal Stephenson writes these books that are . . . it's kind of hard to explain, but it's . . . well, the ideas are always . . .

Let's start again.

Did you ever want to read a book in which, for perfectly logical reasons, there is a beautifully-done alliterative poetry Norse Saga entitled "The Lay of Walmart"?

So, yes, it's deadpan funny. Other Stephenson touches: 
  • multiple points of view
  • multiple timelines
  • sarcastic takes on bureaucracy
  • historical exegetics
  • not maybe the strongest ending in the world
For the rest, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is fast-paced, very readable, and decently if not deeply characterized (the characters are maybe a little more likable than is common in N.S.-land). The elements it's assembled from are a trifle, ah, shopworn; it will remind genre readers of, among others, some of Connie Willis's novels, except not pointlessly and interminably muddled. Within the Stephenson ouevre, it's not far in plot and complexity from Reamde, but funny; a longer and less-gonzo Zodiac is perhaps a fair comparison. I enjoyed it very much, but it's a book that will stand or fall on whether you enjoy the actual writing.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: The Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief
Charles Stross
Fantasy, horror, humor

In which the Laundry goes pear-shaped.

Really, there's not much more to say about this one. It's black humor, heavy on the black. It features our original protagonist, Bob Howard, and shows the ways he has and hasn't changed. It's quite definitely on the arc towards the series climax.

If you like the series, you'll like the book. If you don't know the series, this is quite probably the worst place to start, since it's bringing together threads from not one but several previous entries. (The author suggests starting with The Atrocity Archives or The Rhesus Chart.) If you haven't tried the series . . . how does a paranoid cynical Lovecraftian bureaucratic comedy spy thriller satire pop-culture horror novel sound to you? 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Victoria

Victoria: A Life
A. N. Wilson
Biography

[That's Queen Victoria, in case you were wondering. Not, say, Victoria's Secret. Crossovers are left to the imagination of the reader.]

The reviewers loved this book. I liked it quite a bit. I didn't quite love it.

The good parts are easy to identify. Victoria is very well written: easy to read, sometimes witty, quick-moving, and thorough. It has a large cast of characters and generally manages to keep them straight, which is really hard and thoroughly admirable. It's sometimes insightful and always entertaining.

Thematically, one of Victoria's strengths is how thoroughly it brings out the connection between Victoria and the royal breeding population of Europe--and, especially, Germany. She herself was three-quarters German, her husband was German, her daughter married the son of King-subsequently-Kaiser Wilhelm I, she had native-level fluency in the language, German was often spoken around her household . . . honestly, a mid-19th-century observer who heard that the 20th century would feature two major European wars could have been pardoned for predicting that they'd involve England and Germany as allies. This is not new--readers of Robert Massie, for example, will know the particulars--but it's well presented.

A second major thematic strand involves what we might term the domestication of the crown--Britain's transformation, over the course of the 19th century, into a modern democratic/constitutional monarchy. Wilson's analysis here is mildly toasted with academic Marxism, in the sense that he sees everything through the lens of class:
. . . Melbourne and all the Whigs would have fought to the death to defend themselves against radicals, plebeians, trades unions--anything which diminished their power in any way. Their only reason for siding with the liberals was self-preservation.
Fair enough; but I don't think that Wilson's case is as strong here. He wants to argue that Victoria was indispensable to the process. By his own precepts, the changes in power and in wealth that occurred between 1837 and 1901 made change inevitable. Victoria's role, while certainly not passive, doesn't seem to me to have been crucial in shaping it.

Conversely, Wilson doesn't give Victoria quite enough credit for something that really was attributable to her personally: she made the monarchy Respectable (capital R intended). Nowadays people tend to think of royalty as a thoroughly bourgeois institution, and act shocked when Prince X or Princess Y does something even mildly scandalous. Royalty, it is now thought, should confine itself to its traditional duties of smiling, waving, supporting worthy causes, wearing funny hats, opening shopping centers, etc. Anyone who knows anything about European history should recognize how absolutely wildly novel this idea is! Victoria's predecessor, William IV, cohabited with an actress for twenty years and ten illegitimate children, and that wasn't even especially scandalous. Wilson touches on this facet of QV's reign, but he leaves it only half-explored.

Wilson also has some authorial, um, idiosyncracies. He has a tendency, particularly in the earlier chapters, to wander away from his topic into some side issue, and thence into another side issue, before (sometimes) zooming abruptly back to his main point. There I was, for instance, reading peacefully about Lord Palmerston; then, suddenly, I found myself deep in the background of the painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter. 

Finally, Wilson is writing for insiders. He refers to issues, interpretations, characters in abbreviated form, assuming that his readers already know what he's talking about. On the micro level, he doesn't think it worth his while to translate quotes from French into English, and he loves his offhand literary-historical references. On the macro level, he has a tendency to explain how he's affirming or reviewing some conventional historical view, which is only interesting if you actually knew already what that view was.

So I had a few reservations. At the same time, I want to emphasize that this was a spiffing effort, well done that man, top hole, and all in all a jolly good read. That makes up for any number of sins.