mystery

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.17.2016
Book from: Lent by E.

Much goodness. The Legend of Beka Cooper trilogy is a Tortall prequel (set 200 years before the main Tortall books) that combines rookie cop procedural, gritty medieval slums, subtle magic, and a dual murder/kidnapping mystery, all written in a journal format using wonderfully earthy, pungent Old English slang.* (Women and men are “mots” and “coves,” for example, while loose women are “puttocks.”) If you’ve never read any of the other Tortall books, this stands alone well, though there are plenty of tidbits to delight and reward longtime readers.

Tamora Pierce’s fantasy adventures, driven principally by tough young women, were a staple of my young adulthood. But this was my first time returning to her work since 2008 or so, when I’d tried picking up later entries in long-beloved series, and eventually gave up when I found them stiffly written and contrived-feeling – well-meaning, but a bit Very Special Episode-ish in their approach to social issues.

So I was frankly taken aback at how good Terrier was – tight, funny, thoughtful, subtle, suspenseful. Narrator/journal-writer Beka Cooper, a trainee within Tortall’s nascent police force, is pensive, driven, and capable. She’s a likable and admirable heroine to trail, with a voice that’s, again, made especially memorable thanks to the street slang. The combination reminded me actually of Karen Cushman’s obstinate historical heroines (Catherine Called Birdy, my love forevermore).

I had forgotten how well Pierce can pull off mysteries (Magic Steps also worked as a fantasy-crime hybrid), and it was particularly fun here to watch her play out cop tropes (even good cop/bad cop makes an appearance) in the context of a early lawkeeping force. As the Provost’s Dogs were established only a few decades ago, affairs are still quite rough ‘n’ ready: the Dogs are ill-paid, expect high mortality, and mix freely with criminals. All of this contributes to a captivating and convincing sense of a raw, violent world of fast-changing alliances and widespread cruelty (the disposability of children’s lives in particular is a troubling theme throughout), but a world that’s nonetheless a warm home for Beka and her friends, and where they can occasionally strike victories against violence and injustice.

Altogether, this is a solid, feel-good read – one of those books that feels trustworthy and good-hearted, without cloying (except for some silly bits about kittens). Viva tough women, good friendships, and young folks making smart decisions and beating up slimy villains. I can’t wait to find the sequels.

* Coincidentally, when reading the Old Kingdom prequel Clariel just a week before, it had struck me as mildly amusing that everyone still talked the same 600 years earlier in the Old Kingdom. So props to Pierce for the linguistic experimentation, when most high-fantasy authors do tend to keep their worlds drifting in the same medieval linguistic and technological twilight regardless of the passage of n eons.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.15.2012
Book from: Borrowed from cousin

or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia: being a revelation of matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, including extracts from the intimate diary of a Noblewoman and the sworn testimony of a Lady of Quality

Dear Reader,
We are having the most wonderful time on our tour of Europe with our new husbands, Thomas and James. We’ve been shopping in Paris, sightseeing in the Alps, and riding gondolas in Venice – there’s nothing like exploring the Continent!

However, there have been some troublesome moments. There was the midnight intruder who left behind a fashionable Turkish slipper. We also always seem to be running into the same peculiar people on our visits to ancient sites. And, oh yes, there was our discovery of the mysterious parcel that hints at a murderously magical plot of international importance!

Clearly, this isn’t quite the calm and relaxing journey we were expecting. But this Grand Tour is turning out to be the best adventure of our lives!

Love,
Cecy and Kate

The Grand Tour is an equally witty and fun sequel to the classic Regency fantasy Sorcery and Cecelia (my review). Plotwise, it’s over-reliant on convenient coincidences to move things along – the first half of the book verges on tiresome in this respect, as the girls and their husbands meander from attraction to attraction and just keep on bumping into those “peculiar people.” Eventually, though, the protagonists do go on the offensive and start trying to think one step ahead of the evil conspirators, as the extent of their plot becomes increasingly clear. But even before then, the affectionately combative dialogue, occasional brushes with danger (thieves! highwaymen! societal embarrassment!), and opportunities for secondhand touristry (there’s plenty of amusing and curious detail on 19th-century European travel, with the bonus of magical conveniences like anti-flea charms) kept me trundling on through the pages.

One of my only disappointments with Sorcery and Cecelia was the authors’ exceedingly light touch when it comes to fantastical worldbuilding, so I was gratified that The Grand Tour, with its international stakes and post-Napoleonic anxieties about war and rulership, goes a bit further in weaving magic into the world’s political and historical fabric. Its climax, especially, hints intriguingly at the depth of ancient magical practice.

Mostly, though, The Grand Tour is happy to remain a character-driven romp. The epistolary form rarely generates any real plot tension, since dramatic events are necessarily recounted after the fact, so I found that more tension arises from any distress the characters might be feeling during the events, than from the events themselves. This is especially so since the universe is a quite moral one, and threats to life and limb of the main characters are rarely serious and never permanent. Very comforting.

I did previously also complain about it being difficult to distinguish the personalities of the main characters; it turns out the nearly 500 pages’ worth of sequel is an effective cure for that, especially when one of the major subplots is Kate’s continued efforts to overcome her nervousness at all social obligations. This is resolved in a heavy-handed but still charming way.

The last page of the book suggests, of course, the possibility of another sequel, which I’ve only just realized was released in 2006: The Mislaid Magician, or, Ten Years After, which I’ll have to keep in mind for the next time I’m looking for the bookish equivalent of a frothy cup of hot chocolate. All three books have recently been released as ebooks with beautifully designed covers (link includes an interview with Stevermer on the trilogy).

Go to:

Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

Go to:
Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various dates between November 2010 and spring 2011
Books from: Personal collection, or borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewed here be:

Chew, Volume 1: Taster’s Choice (2009)
Chew, Volume 2: International Flavor (2010)
Chew, Volume 3: Just Desserts (2010)

Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a humorless detective who has the unfortunate ability to gain psychic impressions from anything he eats (except beets). Recruited by the FDA – now the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency in the wake of an avian flu pandemic that took hundreds of millions of lives – for his singular talent, Tony finds himself taking bites of stranger and stranger substances as his casework, increasingly muddied by connections to shadowy criminal organizations and possibly extraterrestrial conspiracies, takes him from New York chicken speakeasies to Siberian research stations staffed by vampire ladies in ushankas to tropical dictator states. Add in a generously embarrassing family, an exhaustingly cheerful cyborg partner, and a hate-filled boss, and life just won’t let up on this by-the-rules cop.

Man, this series. I had no idea what I was in for when Kakaner eagerly gifted me the first two volumes, but it proved to be a delicious combination of hyperkinetic art and zany-bordering-on-surreal world-building. Layman and Guillory are an inimitably weird team: to match Layman’s tireless inventiveness (one of the best parts of reading is trying to predict what absurd food-related superpower will next come into play), Guillory’s art is full of odd angles and wildly energetic gestures and the most! excellent! facial expressions, thanks to his characters’ crinkly, mobile features. His backgrounds, too, are stuffed to bursting with silly details (inexplicable graffiti, stray notes and photographs, etc. etc.), and as is only appropriate for an obsessively food-themed series, the distinctive color palette always reminds me of citrus popsicles:

(Even when Tony is getting a barf facial, apparently.)

The plot is obviously going somewhere, but frankly I’ve been so distracted and entertained and perplexed by the moment-to-moment madness of each volume that I haven’t been working all that hard to piece the bits together – though the gathering momentum was obvious by the end of volume 3, and left me hoping for some interesting developments IN SPACE.

I also have to single out Chew‘s creators for the fact that even though they make merry with pulp/genre stereotypes (well hello, melon-breasted Asian lady assassin, nice to roll my eyes at you again) and just-plain stereotypes (the female assassin is exaggerated to clearly satirical proportions; I’m far less comfortable with the fact that the only recurring black character in the series is, straighforwardly, a cowardly criminal), having gone for the Chew/Chu pun, Layman and Guillory obviously committed thereafter to representation of a varied cast of Asian characters. In other words, they didn’t let Tony’s ethnicity stay a one-off joke and then pat themselves on the back for being inclusive by way of one nonwhite protagonist. Which, frankly, I think plenty of other writers, especially in comics, would have done.

I give them heaping points, of course, for having a cool, competent male Asian protagonist in the first place; discounting of Asian men in pop culture as comical, emasculated etc. (if they’re not ninja/samurai) is a major pet peeve of mine. (I did a count once of the number of female Asian superheroes [ooo, so exotic!!] vs. male once, and the ratio was pretty dismal.) But from there, numerous members of Tony’s family, immediate and extended, have also gotten plenty of pagetime, including his cheerfully self-aggrandizing chef brother and adorable, NASA-employee twin sister.

Though character development takes second seat to conceptual and narrative whimsy in Chew, most of the characters are amply buoyed by the series’ manic energy and humor. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see a broad cast of Asian characters getting the same treatment, and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of a series that already leaves me grinning at every turn.

Go to:

John Layman: bio and works reviewed 

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Date read: 7.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from a cousin
Reviewer: Emera

Incomplete read – one of those books that you start to get a bad feeling about as soon as you notice the back-cover blurbs are all by third-rate authors and obscure newspapers. The Arcanum is a supernatural thriller that attempts to gather together Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, renowned voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau (who died 38 years before the book is set, but oh well), and H. P. Lovecraft on the trail of some mystery involving the Cthulhu mythos. Blah blah blah, all been done before.

I skimmed about three chapters, and it reads like mediocre fanfiction or The Da Vinci Code, full of dun dun DUN chapter breaks and phrases like “carnal treasures” and “In a swirl of a black topcoat he was gone.” It does make a lot of sense if you consider that Wheeler is primarily a screenwriter, not a novelist.

Go to:
Thomas Wheeler

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Date Read:4.27.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A newspaper runs a peculiar advertisement calling all “gifted children looking for special opportunities ” to audition for a most prestigious and mysterious institution. Many respond to the ad, most of whom are goaded by their parents, but in particular, it is four family-less children who pass. Soon, they find themselves on a mission to save the world as undercover spies on an isolated island trying to bring down an evil institution from the inside. The children must use their extraordinary talents to circumvent barriers and gain the trust of the enemy, while discovering more about their own pasts and each other.

Review

Just as the reviews claim, The Mysterious Benedict Society reads like a fusion of childhood favorites– Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket– with strong “Codename: Kids Next Store” vibes, yet manages to retain a voice and characterization that is wholly unique. It features an ensemble cast of orphans– protagonists whose appeal have been proven time and time again by successful series such as Harry Potter, The Boxcar Children, and A Series of Unfortunate Events—  whose resourceful and quirky members are sure to engage any reader. The tale is a rather straightforward intrigue-filled adventure with a clear inception  and purpose. I found that although it was deftly and winningly told, it lacked some of the magical twists, turns and subplots that really set apart other children’s series. On the other hand, the writing was very intelligent, such that I felt like the reading level could cater to adults and children alike. Stewart is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and it is obvious that the substance of his literary education supports each word. Throw in terrific twists, mindbending (literally) obstacles, Cartoon-Network-esque acronyms, a world domination conspiracy, and you have a hefty contender for a childhood favorite. The Mysterious Benedict Society is absolutely captivating and casts a wide net, ensnaring the bold and shy, nerdy and adventurous.

I am not-so-tentatively labelling this as my new successful children’s series find- it is fresh, intelligent, exciting, and from what I hear, the second installment is even better than the first!

Go To:

Trenton Lee Stewart

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Date read: 6.11.08
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell - Sebastian O

“One must commit acts of the highest treason only when dressed in the most resplendent finery…”

After over four years of squalid captivity, the infamous dandy Sebastian O escapes from Bedlam Asylum, determined to seek revenge for the treacherous destruction of his Club de Paradis Artificiel, an association of “free-thinkers.” Battling officers of the Queen and crazed assassins alike, Sebastian makes his way through several wardrobe changes and the sewers and railways of an alternate Victorian England, where a strange conspiracy is beginning to make itself known.

Sebastian O is one of the earliest contemporary steampunk creations, as well as being an obvious tribute to Oscar Wilde. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of my absolute favorite comic series – I love sneaking re-reads of it whenever I’m feeling down and in need of some amoral, witticism-wielding libertines in my life. Unfortunately, it’s quite short – only 3 issues – and though Grant Morrison does excel at packing a lot of content and tight plotting into his mini-series, you’re left wanting much, much more of the characters and settings, all of which are colorful and vividly imagined. On top of that, it’s out of print, though used copies run cheap.

Artwise, I’m lukewarm on Tatjana Wood’s pastel palette, but it does work with Yeowell’s delicately lined, Beardsley-inspired art – one gets, appropriately, the sense of a brittle confection of spun-sugar. I also enjoy how Yeowell renders facial expressions, particularly Sebastian’s perpetual air of weary self-possession and amusement just a little too slight to be called mockery.

All told, Sebastian O is a perfectly paced, literarily aware romp through decadence and dandisme, full of gadgets, duels, one-liners, and speculative-fiction braincandy. I would love to see a full-length return to Sebastian’s London, but unfortunately, it looks unlikely to happen.

Go to:
Grant Morrison

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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Date Read: 12.26.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Margaret Prior becomes a “Lady Visitor” at the Millbank prison. There, she takes in the prison experience, from the food to the garb to the treatment of the prisoners and takes steps to befriend and be a source of comfort for many of the inmates. As her visits progress, she finds herself drawn to one girl in particular, a spirit medium Selina Dawes, convicted of spiritualistic fraud and assault. Soon, between her own declining health and the nature of her friendship with Selina, Margaret finds herself hopelessly committed to the Millbank prison and tangled up with mysterious spirits.

Review

Well, I don’t really know how to approach this review. I could either review it superficially and not give away the story, or try to convey everything I want to and ruin everything by implication. I’ll… just… charge ahead as best I can and see where it takes me.

Overall Affinity was a much easier read than either Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith because it was so linear and set in one place– the prison and Margaret’s house were the only settings and the prison was the only plot. As a result, the circumstances definitely called for a slow, steadily snowballing story.

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Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

Go to:

China Mieville

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