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In a similar vein to my non-fiction reads (see here), I thought I would provide a very quick round up of short fiction I read in the first quarter of 2018.

Jeff VanderMeer shorts

The Strange Bird and This World is Full of Monsters both take place in the same world as his last novel Borne, which I read last year and totally adored (you can read what I said about it here). I enjoyed both of these but found The Strange Bird much more accessible in terms of structure and narrative than This World, though both are beautifully written and very much worth reading.

The Murders of Molly Southborne

Oh this is a corker. Every time Molly bleeds another Molly is born and has to be disposed of; so she spends her life killing herself over and over. I found it totally compelling, as Molly explains what she has to do to survive, how this all happened and what her future might (will?) be. Just so so good, couldn’t stop thinking about it and will read it agin in the not too distant future.

A Long Spoon

It’s amazing the things you forget…. ¬†Apparently I bought this Kindle short back in 2014 and came across it when I was sorting out files on my iPad, and because I loved the cover I thought I would give it a go. Johannes Cabal is a necromancer and is heading off to a little-known part of Hell because someone is trying to kill him. He needs a guide though, and summons a demon called Zeranyia, one of my favourite characters of all time; she’s a hoot. This was a fun read, and I was pleased to discover (that memory again) that we have a copy of the first novel in the Cabal sequence.

Have you read any short works recently?

 

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I don’t find it easy to review non-fiction books so thought that I would provide a quarterly (or thereabouts) round-up so that I don’t miss any of my 2018 reading. This post covers the first quarter of this year.

  • The Midnight Assassin by Skip Holdsworth – “Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer”, this covers the crimes of the person who became known as the Servant Girl Annihilator in Austin, Texas during the period 1884-5. Never caught, there was serious consideration of this man (probably) as Jack the Ripper a few years later. So interesting I’ve gone off and purchased the novel by Steven Taylor which recreates the murders and the various trials.
  • The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – a history of the Detection Club as founded by Dorothy L Sayers and others, counting most of the greats (including Agatha Christie) in its membership. A breezy history of the club and the development of the classic murder mystery, this led me down several rabbit holes including rewatching some old TV series and finding successor authors picking up unfinished stories before creating their own. Dangerous for its potential impact on book spend.
  • I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – “A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.” So well written, totally fascinating and really sad whenever you come across sections where it’s made clear that they were reconstructed from the author’s notes. I read this in tow massive chunks one weekend. Gripping.
  • Bright Young People by DJ Taylor – this is one of the rabbit holes I mentioned above. We watched an adaptation of my favourite Lord Peter Wimsey novel (Murder Must Advertise) which has a number of characters described as bright young things, which led me to this book which gives a history of the Bright Young People, who they were, what they got up to and how they, mostly, declined. Includes various Mitfords and Evelyn Waugh for a start. I’m not sure it delivers much in terms of analysis but there is plenty of society gossip. I can’t resist tales of aristocratic ladies!

I seem to be very attracted to true crime at the moment – watch this space ūüėÄ

 

513UDubStkLWhat’s it all about?

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered.

But help is at hand in the form of her neighbour, the maths teacher Ishigawa, who has become obsessed with her. But the police get involved along with the physics professor Yukawa, who acts as an informal consultant to the police, and having studied alongside Ishigawa recognises his genius. So these two great minds battle it out and we are invited to try to work out the solution to how, exactly, Ishigawa covered up the crime.

Why did I want to read it?

I’ve recently become very interested in Japanese crime fiction (see here and here for thoughts on other books, and this was recommended to me as a particularly interesting entry in a long list of similar books. The fact that it’s quite clear from the beginning who the killer actually is adds an extra dimension.

What did I think about it?

I enjoyed this very much as a traditional crime novel with a solution that I absolutely did not see coming, and understand why it was so popular in Japan. ¬†The relationship between the two leading male characters is particularly enjoyable, though the “devotion” of Ishigawa to his neighbour is more than a little unsettling, and we are led to believe that it is heading in a particular direction which then turns into something else. I felt that his desire to help Yasuko only made things worse for her in the long run, but of course it would be a ver different story if he hadn’t stepped in.

The solution is ingenious if troubling, and I wonder if I’m alone in feeling that the final action taken by Yukawa represented a real breach of trust. I felt really unsettled by that infliction of emotional pain¬†though it was clearly intense to serve justice.

I will be looking out for more of this author’s work.

25541152What’s it all about?

A bestselling and internationally acclaimed masterpiece of the locked-room mystery genre

Why did I want to read it?

I have read some Japanese crime fiction before (this, for example) but came to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders via my recent intense interest in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction.

Although the some would say that the GACF died out in the UK (not me, it seems alive and well) the traditional forms were preserved in Japan in the form of Honkaku mysteries, where old-fashioned plot devices etc. are used in a modern setting.

Specifically, these works are determined to play fair with the reader, giving all of the information necessary to solve the crime at the centre of each story.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thoughts?

It is a very strange but utterly convincing book. I actually went off and checked whether these murders were real because the first section sets out the details alongside some new evidence in a way which made me convinced that this was based on a real-life case (which it isn’t).

So we have the back story, and when new evidence comes to light our protagonists head off to investigate this series of grisly murders – one traditional locked room mystery, one bloody home invasion and then the murder and mutilation of six young women who will be found at various sites around Japan which seem to have some form of mystical solution. All of the victims are related, and all but one is a young woman.

At a couple of points in the book the author speaks directly to the reader, stating that all of the information that you would need to solve this mystery has been provided, so basically off you go and come up with a solution before you reach the conclusion.

I won’t go into the plot more than this, because half the fun is in trying to work out what on earth is going on. The answer to how the murders were carried out is ingenious but I think you would need to be Japanese to pick up on one of the clues presented.

I enjoyed reading this very much, and it is clearly an important work in the genre. It has reinforced my interest in Japanese crime fiction and a few more have found their way onto my TBR pile.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Dame Muriel Spark has long been one of my favourite authors and I’m taking part in the commemoration of her centenary this year by reading All of the Things. If you’ve been here long enough you may remember that I tried this before and failed miserably around book 8 out of the 22 novels that she wrote. But I’m determined to finish the project this time around.

Phase 1 took place between 1 January and 28 February and covered the novels she published in the 1950s…..

The Comforters (1957)

My edition is the 1982 Penguin, and I first read this novel in 1984; this is the third time of reading.

Caroline Rose is afflicted by what she calls the Typing Ghost, hearing her thoughts being spoken back to her as if she was the main character in a novel. Is that the case or is she going mad?

I love the waspishness of this novel which basically sets the tone for all of Muriel Sparks books – there is a lot of humour and quite a bit of philosophy, especially here where the very nature of existence is in question. Interestingly, Muriel Spark experienced hallucinations herself at one point due to medication she was taking at the time, though hers manifested themselves as jumbled words on the page which, as she pointed out, would not translate well to a novel. Such a strong and refreshing first book.

Robinson (1958)

My edition is the 2003 New Directions, bought specifically to fill the gaps in my collection when I tried to read all the novels back in 2006; this is the second time of reading.

January Marlowe is writing a journal covering the events of the few months she finds herself stranded on the island of Robinson, owned by a man also known as Robinson. She is there with two other survivors of a plane crash; no-one knows they are alive and they are all awaiting the planned arrival of a ship to tell the world they are OK and help them get back to their lives. But then there appears to have been a murder, and tensions rise as they become suspicious of each other.

I vaguely remembered the plot of this one but for some reason it really resonated with me more the second time around. Even though this is a first person narrative which often screams “unreliable narrator” I really trusted January’s voice. All of the men were downright unpleasant in one way or another so I was rooting for January all the way through. The plot is nice and twisty, which I loved. Of the three, this is the one I can see myself reading again soonest.

Memento Mori (1959)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, probably one of the first of her books I bought after leaving school (which is where I was introduced to Muriel Spark through the medium of a certain Jean Brodie).

This is the fourth time I have read Memento Mori.

The novel concerns a group of elderly people, (almost) all known to each other and all experiencing the infirmities and complications of their advanced ages. A number of them receive mysterious phone calls where the caller simply states “Remember you must die.” Is this a hoax being carried out by someone they know? Or something more than that?

I first read this when I was 19 and I’m pretty sure that I was deeply impatient with the old folk, with their aches and pains and worries and constant tinkering with their wills and their habit of harking back to things long past. I’m 56 now and I find myself increasingly sympathetic to their plight and anxious for their continued well-being. And in Mrs Pettigrew we have one of Dame Muriel’s wonderfully monstrous women. Still a superb novel.

********************************************************

So, very pleased to have successfully reached the end of Phase One; looking forward to starting the next group covering her novels from the 1960s. Some of my absolute favourites are in there!

 

 

51mOgPy-TCLWhat’s it all about?

In Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, four old university friends reunite for a hiking trip in the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle. No longer young men, they have little left in common and tensions rise as they struggle to connect. Frustrated and tired they take a shortcut that turns their hike into a nightmare that could cost them their lives.

Why did I want to read it?

Amusingly, the Kindle edition of this book has as part of its title “Now A Major Film, The Most Thrilling Chiller You’ll Read This Year”, and to be fair that’s partly why I bought it. It also fitted in with some of my autumn reading which involved a mixture of Scandinavia, the supernatural, death and gore and appalling weather. You will see more of this as I catch up with my humongous backlog of posts.

What did I think of it?

I have several Adam Nevill books but haven’t got around to reading any of them until now, and as I said above this was triggered by the release of the film which, by the way, I haven’t seen.

So, these four guys are doing the male bonding thing and it isn’t going well so Hutch, the one who is leading their expedition, suggests a shortcut; this is a horror novel so of course this is not going to end well. They come across evidence of some very strange practices and there is definitely Something Out There and it is not friendly. ¬†And when you think you know where this might be going it takes a weird turn.

And then it ends.

It’s a very blokey novel and I definitely felt that I was not the target audience, which is fine, but I was mildly annoyed that all of the women referenced in the story were so, well, unpleasant. The Big Nasty was creepy and horrible and well done, and the story definitely unsettling. Although it’s not written in the first person it becomes clear very early on that Luke is the guy we are supposed to be rooting for as we see everything from his perspective, but he really is a bit of a jerk. And the book ends just at the point where it got really interesting. How is Luke going to explain all of this? Sadly, we will never know.

So it’s fine as a novel. Will be fascinated to see how it works as a film, though not fascinated enough to spend any money seeing it. I will read the other works by Nevill that I already have, but won’t be rushing out to buy any more for now.

 

 

 

 

 

28225843What’s it all about?

A novel that is simultaneously harrowing, dark, dangerous, funny and uplifting from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy

‚ÄúAm I a person?‚ÄĚ Borne asks Rachel, in extremis.
‚ÄúYes, you are a person,‚ÄĚ Rachel tells him. ‚ÄúBut like a person, you can be a weapon, too.‚ÄĚ

Why did I want to read it?

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s Southern Reach trilogy and have been very keen to read more of is work. I thought I’d start here.

What did I think of it?

I loved this book so much, I basically devoured it. It’s everything the blurb says it is, and much more too.

Our protagonist is Rachel, a scavenger in the remnants of a city ravaged by disaster (though we’re not entirely clear what that disaster may have been). She lives in a block of flats which is falling apart with her partner Wick, who knows stuff about biotech and deals in the things that Rachel finds for him.

When out scavenging she comes across Borne (as she names it), a form of biotech which she becomes attached to (not literally) and begins to nurture. It becomes clear that Borne is sentient and develops as a human child would, though with the ability  to change shape (the cover above is I guess a representation of it) and to learn about things by, well, absorbing them (ie eating them).

There is a mystery at the heart of Rachel’s story; she has memories of her past away from the city but her family is gone. There are rivalries between the various communities as they each seek dominance, and there is of course the Company that has created all of the biotech which is swarming around, including an enormous flying bear which I found hard to visualise at first but came to accept quite quickly.

Although there is a conclusion to the story (and a satisfying one at that) the plot is any many ways not the core of why this book is so good. It’s all about the characters and their relationships. This is especially the case with Rachel and Borne; the latter has a very distinctive voice which develops as he grows from toddler to teenager to young adult and learns to navigate the world.

Like I said, I loved this and can’t recommend it highly enough. Go read!

16046748What’s it all about?

Countdown City is the second volume of the Last Policeman Trilogy (read about volume one here), thusly:

There are just 77 days before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Why did I want to read it?

I really enjoyed the first novel and wanted to see how the story developed.

What did I think about it?

Countdown City continues to develop the story of Hank and his desire to help people and get to the truth of the puzzle he is presented with. On this occasion, the woman who used to babysit for him and his sister needs his help to find her husband who has basically disappeared. Of course, almost everyone assumes that like many other people he has just taken himself off to wait out the end of the world in his own way, but it isn’t as simple as that, and what Hank finds sets up some issues for the future, particularly in relation to the conduct of government agencies during this crisis. And behind all of that is the problem of his sister and her conspiracy theories.

What sets this series apart I think is the way the impending catastrophe is not at the forefront of the story. I mean, it’s obviously the reason for everything that’s happening, but the author concentrates on the human stories, how people are coping and how society is changing and what that means for Hank and his friends as they pass their last days. In a world where you would be forgiven for expecting everyone to be out for themselves, there are people who still care for wider society, and it’s clear that this is the theme that will run into the third and final volume. I’m looking forward to finding out how this all concludes.

15721904All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true.

HHhH (initials representing the German phrase which translates as¬† ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich‘) is ostensibly about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, otherwise know as Operation Anthropoid. But it’s so much more than that….

when you are a novelist writing about real people how do you resist the temptation to make things up?

I resisted picking up this much praised book for a long time, put off by the notion that this was a novel that was too clever by half, being about the author as much as its subject. I tend to resist that sort of thing because it can be very superficial (to my mind at least) but on this occasion I was absolutely swept away.

Binet is trying to write the story of the two men – one Czech, the other Slovak – who flew from London to Prague to carry out the assassination, knowing that they would almost certainly not survive and that there would likely be significant reprisals against their fellow countrymen. But Binet gets drawn in to the life, career and just general horror of Heydrich that he spends a lot of the novel giving us this background and of course interjecting himself into the narrative.

I really did not think I was going to like this at all but whether it’s the author’s personality (whether real or artificial, because once you start thinking about making things up about real people you have to wonder whether what you are seeing of the author is accurate or not) or the¬†structure of the novel with short punchy chapters, some only a paragraph long for effect, I was gripped and read the book very quickly.

A compelling story well told and one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

23154785What’s it all about?

The Annihilation Score is Book 6 in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, so probably¬†not a good place for new readers to start, but very exciting for old hands like me ūüôā

This time around the focus is on Mo O’Brien, an agent for the Laundry, which is the secret government agency which deals with occult powers and the threats they present. Mo has a very special set of skills alongside wielding a bloodthirsty possessed violin as her main weapon.

Ordinary people are developing superpowers and the Laundry needs to work with the mainstream police force to contain the potential threat. Of course it’s not as simple as that and there are consequences (with a capital C).

Why did I want to read it?

I have been reading this series since it started and enjoy watching the characters develop and the shift in tone as different threats are dealt with; everything from megalomaniacs wanting to take over the world, Lovecraftian entities from other dimensions, underwater beings and, of course, vampires. Wouldn’t miss new entries in the series¬†for the world.

What did I think about it?

I really enjoyed this entry in the series, with its shift in focus away from Bob, our normal protagonist, to his wife Mo. The story stands or falls on whether you like Mo as a character or not and I do. I¬†particularly¬†liked the fact that a significant number of the leading characters in the story are women, and that they aren’t spending all of their time snarking at each other, but find a way to work together despite tensions in their working and personal relationships.

But the great joy in this series for an old civil servant like me is the accuracy of the bureaucracy¬†that always arises when different bits of the public sector have to work with each other more closely than they would like, and the jockeying for position and advantage that results. Setting aside the whole occult thing (obviously) some of the situations will be recognisable to anyone who has worked in an office environment, especially¬†within government.¬†Gives an added depth to what’s already a good story.

I already have book seven in the stacks, and book eight has been pre-ordered, so more Laundry shenanigans to come.

Bride of the Book God

Follow brideofthebook on Twitter

Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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