Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor
The second bingo week’s first book, and for the longest time it was on a solid track for a 4 1/2 or even 5-star rating. Tremendously atmospheric, with London (both 17th century and present day) not so much merely setting but additional character and two timelines tantalizingly mirroring and winding around each other like the two strings of a double helix. From early on, this is also a book that knows very well just how clever it is, but during the first 90-95% that doesn’t matter a jot … until it does in the end and Ackroyd takes “clever” a step too far into the symbolic, as a result of which the ending is seriously deflating. What a pity that he proved unable to contend himself with an actual dénouement (however cleverly constructed and meaningful) and instead chose to let narrative lift off and take flight straight into the ether instead. Still, for the vast majority of its contents, definitely a recommended read — and the beginning in particular, set in the days of the 1665 plague and tying together the plague, a satanic cult, church construction and murder (mirrored by present-day murders in the same churches), definitely packs a punch.
Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring
Another book off to a great start; if for no other reason than the fact that we get to meet Frank Abbott’s family and learn why he didn’t become a lawyer — as had initially been his chosen career path — but a policeman instead. (Wentworth takes us back to Frank’s family home in a much later installment of the series, The Fingerprint, which I had already read before moving on to this one, but that only made it feel even more of a priority to finally catch up with this story as well.) It felt good to be back in Miss Silver’s (and Frank Abbott’s) world in one of the final novels from the series that I had / have yet to read, and it was cruising along nicely and could easily have earned a higher rating, too … if it hadn’t been for the fact that (1) the murderer is fairly easily to deduce by process of elimination and by looking at it from the perspective of where Wentworth herself, as a writer, was likely going to want to take this book’s plot; (2) the conflict besetting the married couple at the heart of the novel feels terribly manufactured (first because during 99% of the book it isn’t explained at all, and then because the explanation, when finally offered literally on the very last pages, comes across as ridiculously contrived); and (3) the heroine is exhibiting serious bouts of TSTL behaviour both in connection with the aforementioned conflict and in the moments immediately preceding the big reveal.
Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering
Neither as “epic” nor as “profound” as the blurb promises, and definitely higher on the “popular” than on the “science” part of “popular science writing”. Based on his style of writing, I can very well imagine Berman as a personable guide at his local observatory or as a host of popular radio science programs; the problem is that what sounds approachable in dialogue and oral explanation just comes across as chatty in writing. (This gets better once the book has left the opening chapters behind, but it never goes away entirely, and arguably the Big Bang — which is the subject of the first single-topic chapter, i.e., chapter two — should be the last subject you want to approach with that much of a casual attitude. For purposes of the audio version, it definitely also does not help that the casualness factor is virtually automatically enhanced in oral performance — which isn’t necessarily down to the narrator; it’s just in the nature of the beast.)
In fairness, astronomy, nuclear and astrophysics will never be my strongest subjects, so as far as the actual depth of topical penetration went, it may have been a blessing in disguise that the book didn’t do much more than give an overview of the various types of cataclysms and in so doing, rarely did more than scratch the surface. (Then again, I tend to acquire both a quicker and a more profound grasp of any topic presented to me both at greater length and in greater depth than here.) Eitiher way, this was enjoyable for what it was or turned out to be, but IMHO it’s seriously being oversold in the blurb — the author himself also seems to be quite the efficient self-promoter — and I think it’s at least also fair to wonder what medical and man-made events such as the medieval plague epidemics and WWII are doing in a book explicitly setting out to deal with astrophysical and earth-bound types of physical cataclysms.
Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer
Brown’s second Ed & Am Hunter novel and the book that, thanks to Tigus’s generous gift of last year, has been pencilled in for precisely this square ever since. I truly enjoyed my return to the Chicago and Midwest of the Classic Noir era — Brown’s writing and plot construction easily stands up to that of the likes of Chandler and Hammett, and despite their less-than-bed-of-roses life experience both of his heroes are decidedly less cynical than Messrs. Marlowe and Spade, which makes for an interesting change from the classic noir approach. (Though now that Ed has had his first bruises from a prolonged encounter with a blonde bombshell gold-digger, I hope his views on women in general aren’t going to end up being overly skewed too fast.)
In this particular book, it also plays out to great effect that Brown knew the mid-20th century carney world from the inside — from the start, the setting with all of its bizarre characters and attractions and its very own language (carney talk) comes alive in a way it only can if described by someone who once used to walk the walk himself.
Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased
In my travels in the world of classic crime fiction, one of my truly overdue reads — a book rightly renowned for its dry sense of humor and truly unique way of disposing of a body. If you ever thought a crime novel set in a law office specializing on wills, trusts and property law is bound to get mired in the dust of legal lingo and technical details, think again. Given this mystery’s setting and the murdered man’s position, the motive for the murder isn’t hard to guess (though not all of the details are equally obvious), but thanks to the understated irony of Gilbert’s writing, this is deservedly one of the novels that have endured and can still be enjoyed in an era when lawyers’ deed boxes are long since a thing of the past.
Side note: Treat yourself to the print edition, not the Michael Mcstay audio — Mcstay’s preferred style of narration consists of hurling rapidly mumbled bursts of speech at the reader, which makes following his performance decidedly more of a chore than it reasonably ought to be.
Anthony Rolls: Scarweather
Quite a change of pace compared to the author’s Family Matters, the first book by Rolls that I read — but if the two books have one thing in common, it’s a sense of the unusual and extraordinary, and an incurable urge to pour the acid of satire on experts (self-appointed and otherwise) and on society’s habit of treating them, and each one of their pronouncements, as holy cows — as sages whose every word must be weighed in gold and not under any circumstances be questioned. In Family Matters, it’s doctors, chemists and forensic experts (who are bamboozled by an onslaught of unlikely medical coincidences in connection with a death occurring in the context of a breakdown of a marriage); here it’s archeologists. There is no way this book can be fairly summed up without spoiling half the plot, but if you should decide to tag along with the narrator and his Holmesean scientist friend, you’re in for quite a ride … even if somewhere between the 50% and the 75% mark you’ll probably have quite a good idea of what will be waiting for you at the end of the journey.
Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass
The week’s longest read and, perhaps surprisingly, not its best one. To start with the plus side, this novel’s most interesting characters (and its single most outstanding feature) are the cats — not merely Rowl, the feline protagonist, but all of them; not least also Naun, the giant black tomcat leader of a tribe of street (or rather, tunnel) cats whose character constituted my reason for attributing this book to the “black cat” bingo square. (Rowl is a ginger.) Butcher really “gets” cats, and their scenes come across as both laugh-out-loud funny and entirely authentic. Needless to say, almost all of the cats in this book are completely badass — Rowl first and foremost. If the rest of the book had lived up to the cats, unquestionably this would have ended up straight on my “favorites” shelf.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. And it’s not the fault of the human characters, either — particularly the three young women, Bridget, Gwen(dolyn) and Folly, as well as Captain Grimm (the eponymous aeronaut) and Gwen’s cousin Benedict — but Butcher’s own approach to storytelling. (Which, incidentally, also makes me even more wary about his Dresden Files series than I had been before reading this book.) The main characters in The Aeronaut’s Windlass are fine, and if Butcher had given them (and me) different stuff to work with, I’d be eager to follow them on their future adventures. As it is … well, let’s just say the jury is still out on that one.
For one thing, the world building here is not anywhere near as innovative as blurb writers and five-star reviews want to make you believe: Heaven knows I’m not the most ardent reader of speculative fiction, and if even I recognize some the stuff cribbed from elsewhere, there’s bound to be a lot more that I didn’t see. (Seriously, Mr. Butcher — Habble Landing as a place name and The House of Lancaster as one of the ruling families? Geez, I thought George R.R. Martin was derivative, but are we into the derivative of a derivative now? And a Discworld style guild system (only minus the satire)?? Be glad you’re not being sued by the estate of Terry Pratchett.)
Similarly, Captain Grimm and the whole aeronautics thing — warfare, tactical battle manoeuvers, ship construction and equipment, even down to the details of (aero)nautical language included — are straight out of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series: Replace aeronautics (obviously, with the sole exception of aerial ascents and descents) by early 19th century / Napoleonic Wars seafaring craft, ships, and language, and that is precisely what you get. Grimm himself, too, is so obviously a cousin to Hornblower in his more mature years and to his former Captain Pellew — and Grimm’s Predator a near-identical twin of Jack Aubrey’s HMS Surprise (plus the whole “privateer” subplot / past so obviously built on O’Brian’s Letter of Marque, as well as, incidentally, Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood) — that Forester’s and O’Brian’s (and Sabatini’s) estates should, by rights, be asking for a share of the royalties as well. To be fair, from the book’s descriptions this was the one aspect I had expected — just don’t please anybody tell me that this is anything even close to original.
Finally, while I did appreciate the whole “cinder spire” idea, and I seriously also appreciate the absence of any sort of infodumps, I would have liked to find out a lot more, over the course of the book, what happened to make Earth’s “surface” world an uninhabitable wilderness and caused “the Builders” generation to construct the spires to begin with — and I’m also not entirely clear how you get to square an alleged “democracy” (this is the exact term actually used) with a de-facto king (called Spirearch) who is quite obviously much more than merely a representative figure and wields true power.
My other gripes tie into those that I have with a lot of speculative fiction (especially sci-fi, as well as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series), so this may be an instance of “it’s not you, book, it’s me” — but anyway, the book’s plot essentially consists of an incessant series of incidents of armed combat (aeronautic and on terra firma / the spires alike), every single one of which incidents goes down according to the tried and true formular of “hero(es) drawn into fight by overwhelming enemy force — hero(es) bravely stand their ground in the face of impossible odds — after a while enemies seem to get the upper hand after all — and a millisecond before it all goes pear-shaped for good salvation for hero(es) comes from unexpected quarters”. Sorry, but this sort of stuff flat-out bores me every time it’s served up more than once to begin with (preferably only at a book’s point of climax), and that is true even more if the entire plot of a 700+ page book consists of little else. (And it is even more true if I can anticipate the precise person or group providing the last-minute rescue — even if not also the precise manner — at least a chapter or two in advance, as was invariably the case here.)
On a related note, “surviving impossible odds in battle” also seems to be the only thing accounting for whatever character growth we seem to be seeing in this book; especially with regard to the younger main characters, particularly the young women, all of whom are inexperienced recruits and barely out of their teens. OK, so Gwen has her moment of “how do I go back from all this warfare and combat to ordinary everyday civilian life” at the end of the book, and that was another moment I truly appreciated. I just would have wished there had been more of this, instead of our protagonists incessantly rushing from one fight to the next — and I would also have wished there had been some experiences for them to grow on outside the fighting stuff, as there are (aplenty) in the Hornblower and Aubrey / Maturin books.
Long story short, it’s a miracle this book hasn’t been made into a movie yet — there’s plenty of things going “boom” with a vengeance, the CGI department would have a field day, and there are also plenty of great characters to root for, both feline and human. And who knows, I might even watch that movie. But the whole thing is also so similar to the movies that made me essentially stop caring about any new blockbuster releases years (nay, decades) ago that I’m not sure whether I ultimately would go and see it. And I’m not sure I’m going to be reading the sequel to this book, either … even though Rowl (and Naun) might eventually tempt me to do so after all.
… as of today; with my “virgin” card below for reference: