Sunday, July 24, 2016

Seth Harwood's EVERYONE PAYS

First off, why isn't every motherfolklore among you reading Seth Harwood? Seriously, he is one of the best we've got, and the crime genre he so loves to write in is lucky to have him. Any genre would be.

Harwood has proven this time and time again, in a sound and unflashy way, and then later in a spectacular way (seriously, if you are one of those types still crying that The Wire is all done and dusted, you owe it to yourself to go have a look at Young Junius, in which Harwood had the balls to go where the admittedly spectacular writing staff of that show never went, right up into the project towers).

And the guy keeps improving.

With Everyone Pays, Harwood returns to his beloved San Francisco to bring us what looks on the surface like a straight-up cops'n'killers story: a homicide detective and her partner find themselves on the trail of a serial killer. I yawn just typing that description. I cocked an eyebrow when I realized that's what my boy had written. But of course this is my boy Harwood, so lots more is going on.

For one thing, the serial killer in question is killing low-lifes who abuse prostitutes, so, Dexter-ish, he could almost become a sort of hero-villain. But that twist is not what makes Everyone Pays so special.

It's special for two reasons.

First, the way it's structured. Now, alternating points of view between hero and villain is not a new trick, and Harwood knows this, but he's gone that structure one better in a way that feels strange at first but subtly gives the experience of reading this novel more depth than I would have ever expected. As our hero, Sgt. Clara Donner, begins investigating the case, she and her partner come across crime scene after crime scene as they start piecing together who this guy is and what he's all about. Emphasis is placed more on Donner's interaction with her team members than on the gruesome details -- except, usually, for one unusual one (that's not necessarily gruesome, but is unusual enough to be the one thing you might expect these people to feel worth mentioning later on when they tell their tales at the bar or in the locker room. Aagain, not to unusual.

But then, after each crime scene, we get the crime from the killer's point of view. The strange detail gets put into context, the killer's story and motivations deepen and become (kind of sickeningly) more comprehensible, and while the first few times this happens it feels like a weird choice for Harwood to have made, it gives the novel a rhythm all its own that makes it stand out.*

So, that's pretty cool, but what really is going to make this a memorable read for me for a long time to come is how masterfully Harwood constructed a narrative about a female homicide investigator and made it work. Sgt. Donner is blue-blooded but her homicide investigator father insisted forever that homicide is no place for a woman. She became a homicide investigator anyway, but doesn't carry a chip on her shoulder about it. She gets stuff done, lives her life, seems to enjoy it, passes the Bechdel test fairly well, encounters some sexism but doesn't get distracted by it, is kind of constricted within a sexist world within her narrative but fights it with weary excellence. She's got to be twice as good and she knows it, but she doesn't resent this, just accepts it as part of her world and displays considerable skill in getting things done anyway. She's a great character and I kind of love her.

Then her quarry becomes aware of her. Her quarry who thinks God has commanded him to punish sinners and protect women from them. Her quarry whose understanding of women traps them, pacing like animals in an old-fashioned zoo, in the smallest possible space, and tries to force Sgt. Donner into a role he has imagined for her. The tension between who Donner is and who this most patriarchal of killers tries to make her be is powerful, and drives a lot of the second half of the novel.

So Harwood, in other words, is a white male novelist who has worked very, very, very hard to Get It. He's dared and succeeded to write inner city black characters with sympathy and plausibility and skill in other books; now he's turned that same sensitivity to a female character, and his work rings just as true.

And it's a hell of a good crime story. Good enough, once again, to make me wonder if maybe I shouldn't be reading more crime fiction. I run through this set of thoughts every time I finish one of Harwood's books, with the answer being "I probably should" but honestly? I have such a monstrous pile of TBR in my lifelong favorite genres (science fiction, science fantasy, weird fiction, etc), to say nothing of all of my other projects, that I just don't know how I'd ever fit in another whole genre with its own set of classics (and I've read the serious classics of the genre already. Dashiell Hammett forever, yo) and must-reads and newcomers and all that. Perhaps if I live beyond my century mark I'll pull it off, but man, do you know how much stuff I still haven't read in my chosen genres? To say nothing of the books yet to come? Motherfolklore.

But always, always, I will make time for Seth Harwood.

*At least for me, but I don't read a lot of crime fiction. It's just not my thing. I grew up in a law enforcement family, worked in the field myself for a decade, and so I just can't stand cop shows or novels. So I can't be considered an authority on them. But still, for me, this technique made the book special. Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Matt Wallace's ENVY OF ANGELS

So, if you've always wanted to know more about the pink slurry that is formed by varied and largely unknown means into chicken "nuggets" or if you think there's not enough speculative fiction about the highly competitive world of professional catering, OR if your favorite H.P. Lovecraft story just happens to be "The Festival", well, you're slightly nuts but Matt Wallace has you covered anyway, though not so much that maybe you deserve it but rather that you absolutely deserve it and the extant sequels already come and coming down the pike and ready to violate your little eye-holes.

S'all right? S'all right.

But also.caveat clowns. Possibly worse than Pennywise clowns. OMG clowns, etc

But so, Envy of Angels is the first entry in Wallace's Sin du Jour novella series, which focuses on the eldritch adventures of the owner and staff of a catering company with a very unusual (even diabolical) clientele whose tastes require extraordinary effort to satisfy. So, for instance, the crew involved in procuring ingredients are all half Indiana Jones, half Harry Dresden and half Repairman Jack. And yes, that's three halves and what part of "eldritch" weren't you understanding?

This first entry introduces us to a pair of new hires who are immediately sucked into a near impossible effort: finding a way to prepare a meal that tastes exactly like the expertly prepared flesh and blood of an angel but doesn't actually.contain any angel because who wants to kill and cook an angel?

And yes, this leads to adventure and horror and hijinks, because how could it not, you guys? How could it not?

Bonus points for some gawdawdful humor at the end, too. Holy shih!

Friday, July 8, 2016

SUNS SUNS SUNS Program Note, Or Whatever You'd Call It

Just letting y'all know, since I've had more questions about this posting series than about anything else I've ever done on this blog -- I have not abandoned this, oh no! In fact, I'm going on pseudo-vacation pretty soon (I say "pseudo" because as a person with increasing chronic pain issues, it really just means I'm going to be severely limited in my daily activities in a different location) and I'm planning on resuming this right where I left off, er, quite some time ago. So keep your eye on this space, Wolfe-ites! More junk analysis of Book of the New Sun (and, someday, Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun) is coming soon!

For those of you who want to brush up on this (as I had to do, to find my place), here is a link to the entire series to date. As always, because this is Blogspot, start at the bottom and work your way up.

Grab your sunglasses!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Christopher Bulis' PALACE OF THE RED SUN

Blogger's Note: This review may need revision later on because there might be a bit of a rubber band effect going on here. That's because this is my second attempt at a Sixth Doctor novel for this series after spending almost two months bogged down in another one that I'm not even going to name here but you can follow this link to see what it was if you really want to know. I finally got so annoyed with it that I filed it under Did Not Finish and that's all I'm going to say about that.

On to this delightful little romp, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it's a Sixth Doctor and Peri story. And yes, that means it may have even rehabilitated that character a bit for me. It helps not to have poor Nicola Bryant's actual voice actually straining after that bad American accent, I think. And also, they're not bickering quite so much. But mostly, Peri actually gets stuff done, displaying resourceful adaptability and really not whining much at all. Very refreshing!

But so, she and Sixie land on a planet or planetoid that appears at first to be just one giant immaculate English garden, zealously maintained by a staff of robots for some unknown masters. Our duo is soon separated (though perhaps not soon enough. This not, for once, a complaint about bickering, though; things just get off to a very slow start generally) and the fun begins. Peri meets some locals and looks to share their plight as despised and oppressed scavengers (who are enslaved and worked to death by the robots if caught), while the Doctor meets up with a robot gardener who has managed to develop sentience -- and to realize that there are sinister secrets at the heart of this pleasure planet.

The exposure of these secrets and their larger relevance to a framing plot that involves a galactic dictator hunting the escaped leaders of his latest conquered planet and the sleazy journalist who documents his career proceed apace, revealing some satisfying timey-wimeyness in the process. The result is a pleasant, clever read with the bonus of maybe rehabilitating a hated companion a bit.

I shall look forward to more of Mr. Bulis' Doctor Who fiction in future, and update my Arbitrary and Capricious rankings when I'm not on vacation.

Until then, see you in Time. As such.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Howard of Warwick's THE GARDROBE OF DEATH

One extremely common, perhaps even required, element of the historical mystery genre, at least since Caleb Carr took it on, is that of a particular kind of skepticism about the detective/hero's newfangled ways. Usually it's a matter of whatever science is cutting edge at the time, as Carr's hero is an early adopter of things like fingerprinting, at which the establishment still scoffs. Sometimes this is played for laughs, sometimes it is not.

In Howard of Warwick's Brother Hermitage series, it's played for laughs. Big, loud belly laughs that shake chairs and startle dogs. Because the newfangled science employed by Mr. Of Warwick's hero is reason itself, and the simple peasants, soldiers, servants and nobles of early Norman England* are such complete strangers to it that, well, let's just say if a woman weighed the same as a duck they'd try to build a bridge our of her.

The Gardrobe of Death , the second novel in Mr. Of Warwick's series, is thus already guaranteed to be pretty damned funny, just like its predecessor, because, in my book, horrible reasoning never stops being funny, but then there's the book's premise: in England's crappiest castle, surrounded by the least competent band of "guerrillas" the Saxons have to offer and ruled by the Normans' very worst specimen, a murder takes place in the crappy castle's crappiest place: its crapper. Or in the parlance of the day, its "gardrobe", a room that usually juts out from a high tower over a pretty good slope, to let the crap that emerges from its holey seats roll downhill.

Only this crapcastle's builders didn't understand that, so just put some seats with holes in them above the holes in the floor, so all that is produced there just plops down into the room below. Where the castle's priest lives. Or lived until said priest realized what had happened.

The priest hasn't lived in that room, and it hasn't been cleaned out or even opened, for years, by the way. Yeah.

And in said masterpiece of sanitation, late one night, a visiting Norman V.I.P. is murdered. By taking an arrow right up his poop chute. Insert Tywin Lannister joke here, I suppose, but I reckon this murder is way worse in every way. 

And funnier.

So yeah, in addition to the relatively highbrow yuks of reading the dialogue of characters with absolutely no grasp of abstract thought or language (or are just really stupid as when, for example, the Lord of the Manor first sees the victim and says "My god, no wonder he's dead. How on earth did he eat a whole arrow?" and then is flabbergasted when someone suggests that the arrow is on the way in, not out), we also have literal yucks. Lots of them.

This is not a book for people who get easily grossed out, is what I'm saying.

But if you can handle all the poop humor, this is another delightfully silly read, as well as being the ultimate Locked Room mystery. Think about it: with the room situated as I've described, how did someone shoot an arrow right up the bunghole of someone hunkered down on the seat of ease? Who could possibly solve such a disgusting mystery?

Only Brother Hermitage, the lowly monk with an eye for detail and next to no clue about social interaction, and his sidekick Wat, who as a dealer in pornographic tapestries is maybe the only person in Norman England with any social mobility at all.

It's tightly plotted, it's gross, it's shameless, it's ridiculous, and you'll absolutely love it. If you can handle the nasty, smelly truth of it. And if you can't, what are you reading historical mystery farce for?

*We're taking very early, like right after William the Bastard hopped the English Channel and changed his name to the Conqueror.


If your favorite bit of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was phrases like "the ships hung in the sky in exactly the way that bricks don't", have I got a book for you.

If you love the Blackadder series but don't think it was quite farcical enough, have I got a book for you.

If you love the History Channel's drama Vikings but think the characters depicted aren't stupid or violent enough, have I got a book for you.

If you love The Hallelujah Trail but wish it could have been set in the days of the Norman Conquest of England, have I got a book for you.

Howard of Warwick, famed for the Brother Hermitage books, a series of comic medieval mystery novels I'm definitely going to have to have a look at sometime, is your man, and The Domesday Book (No, Not That One) is your book. Set in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and featuring a ridiculous cast of historical and made-up figures, it's a deeply silly read that can easily be described in one choice excerpt:
From the north of Wisbech a cart load of Vikings. From the south a cartload of Normans. In the middle a band of wounded Saxons riding hell-for-leather. Well, riding as fast as most of their injuries would allow, which was actually pretty slow.
The Vikings have been dispatched on, of all things, a rescue mission; the Normans on one of capture; the Saxons, including a man of high repute wounded in the eye-or-thigh, are the targets of both. Because, you see, the knight who triumphantly brought King Harold's body to William the Conqueror's tent after the Battle of Hastings brought the wrong body, but this was not noticed until a lot of crowing and woofing had been done, and now the demented and homicidal William is demanding the real thing, loudly and violently... but in complete secrecy. Of course.

The story is mostly told from the points of view of two Saxons, Mabbut, drafted to act as a local guide for the Normans even though he's not really ever been to England, having grown up in France in the mistaken belief that his family are hostages (actually, his parents just like France better); and Siward, a village idiot and "filth man" kidnapped by the Vikings for the same purpose, even though he's never been a mile or two from home. Hilarity, mostly in the form of death threats and impatience with ignorant rustics, ensues in both storylines.

It's all deeply silly, though not quite in that Monty Python way you're probably hoping for. There's fun to be had here, but the fun is mostly for history nerds, I suspect.

I am one of those, so I laughed, often.

Monday, June 27, 2016


So for those of you who have been dying to know what would happen if Thursday Next and Doctor Who had a baby (perhaps, just for fun, midwived by the Librarians and maybe Connie "Oxford Time Travel" Willis), your wait is over! And your reward cup runneth over, cuz this is a series that is growing, Dark Tower/Expanse style, in all directions. As in later books/stories/novellas get decimal points and wedged in between existing books in series order and stuff.


I'm not 100% sure that I'm along for that whole ride, because cool as the premise of this series "The Chronicles of St. Mary's" is, there are a lot of problems in its execution that make me hesitate. But I'll get to those. What's up with THIS book, right?

Just One Damned Thing After Another*, the first book in the series, starts off with our heroine fresh out of graduate school and still scarred from a very bad childhood that she's managed to overcome mostly, it seems, by ignoring it except when it's convenient to use as an emotional shield to Keep People At A Distance. She is a historian, and soon to be a Historian; she is recruited by what seems to be just another adorably ramshackle and barely-organized English think tank but is actually the most amazing historical research institution in the world because they have time machines! And they want our girl, Dr. Miss Lucy Maxwell (since everyone there has at least one PhD she soon drops the "Dr.") to do research for them! By which they totally mean travel through time and watch stuff happen and clear up nagging questions about fact versus fancy! Who wouldn't want to do that?

But so soon complications emerge. St. Mary's is a perfectly straightforward and innocent outfit, but it turns out there are other parties with time travel capability who are not, and they're amuck in History performing various nefarious deeds that usually tend to involve active threats to the lives and limbs of members of Team St. Mary's. Hmmm! And some of the people in the (staggeringly long and detailed) dramatis personae (except the author calls it Dramatis Thingummy because she's trying to be arch and  cute and funny and Douglas Adams-ish**) are Not Who They Seem.

And of course, our Miss Maxwell is way more important than we at first thought.

All of this should be, and sometimes is, awesome. Lucy's first real assignment, for instance, is genuinely exciting and interesting and moving. She and some teammates are trained up to impersonate nurses and orderlies at a French chateau/hospital in France circa WWI's action in the Somme, there to clear up once and for all exactly whose fault it is that the complex was destroyed with great loss of life and morale and property. This is good stuff, written, paced and felt extremely well, even as it introduces several elements of the larger plot quite elegantly. It's only the hope of more stuff like this that I consider continuing with this series at all.

But then there's the other stuff. The soap opera/softcore porn stuff. And the fact that most of the male characters are pretty sloppily developed and often exhibit behavior wildly at odds with their established personalities. We're to believe, I gather, that this is because of stress, but I dunno. And just to spell it out and maybe also issue a Trigger Warning, there's a surprising amount of attempted/implied sexual assault in a book that otherwise comes off as a light-hearted romp. And no, it's not historically rapey types being historical and rapey.

And these unpleasant scenes jangle unpleasantly against the fair amount of eye-rolling romance novel dialogue ("I just want you to say you love me sometimes" "I can't do that because I love you all the time" HURL) that is shoved into this novel in places.

But as I said, that crap is very nearly the excellent mission material. This is time travel the way you and I would do it. Not let's kill Hitler, but let's save knowledge! And find out for certain whether dinosaurs had feathers! 

So, in short, this book is a bit of a hot mess, with as much to hate as to love about it. I'm probably going to have a look at the second volume sometime, just in the hopes that ultimately this settles down and becomes the awesome time traveling white hats vs black hats silliness that it really wants to be, instead of a coverall-ripper. But since this first book was pretty much half-and-half, with a pretty generous helping of Mary Sue*** in our main character, I'm not going to rush right into Book Two.

*The title is taken from an Arnold Toynbee quote, in which he describes history as "just one damned thing after another."

**And to be fair, sometimes she succeeds at this. Sometimes. But she's no, say, Howard of Warwick.

***I dislike this gender-specific, often misapplied and definitely overused term, but it kind of applies here, I'm afraid. She's adorable! She's important! Everybody wants to "get in her knickers"! She totally saves the day a lot! She finds the organization's True Purpose! And the guy in charge (well, I guess he's the second in command, because there's one guy they call "Chief" and another they call "Boss" and he's the Chief) is her One True Love! So yeah, a bit Mary Sue. A lot more so than, say, Rey Skywalker/Solo/Kenobi/Whatever is, anyway.