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The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction by David Schmid
I’ve been putting off reading this book because I thought it was going to be mainly a “how to write a mystery” guide, but it’s much better than that. In 36 lectures, Schmid takes the reader through the history and development of mystery and suspense stories—a truly herculean task which he handles masterfully. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe, he explores many (I hesitate to say “all” in such a broad field) of the most important developments in the genre, trying to explain why these developments were important and how they came to change the mystery story.
I suspect that the vast majority of the authors writing in this field don’t consciously pay attention to the “whys” that Schmid is so interested in. They set their stories in cities, or use a femme fatale, because it’s something they enjoy in mysteries. But that doesn’t mean that Schmid isn’t identifying the aspects these stories have in common and explaining why they work for so many readers.
Over the course of this book I added 16 novels to my “to read” list and 9 to my “reread” list. That in itself should convince anyone who likes this genre to read this book. If I listened to the lectures again, I have no doubt that I would find even more titles to sample. Schmid introduces scores of books and series and makes each one sound interesting. He not only looks at the big trends in England and the U.S. (the cozy, the hardboiled detective, women detectives, the criminal, the sidekick, the importance of clues, the locked room, the dime novel, etc.), he also spends several lectures looking at interesting uses of the detective novel in other parts of the world and as an opportunity to make political and social statements. I could go on and on.
I think, in the final analysis, I was also pleased by how many of these authors that he refers to that I had read and enjoyed. Now don’t get me wrong. I probably haven’t read a quarter of the books Schmid refers to here, but there is still something tremendously satisfying about having a scholar tell you what’s great about a book you’ve loved. Next time I listen to it, I’ll be able to compare my experience with even more books, to Schmid’s insights.
Oh, and if you do want to write mysteries, this book will give you a lot to think about as you craft your tale—even if that isn’t Schmid’s primary purpose in writing it.
A Heart in the Right Place by Heide Goodman and Iain Grant
Looking for a simple werewolf story? This novel is that and a whole lot more. (I guess that makes it non-simple, but you won’t mind at all.) The story purports to be about a young man and his dying father taking a father-son trip into the Scottish Highlands to try and rectify their relationship before dad dies. You quickly get the impression that neither of them really want to do this and that they are doing it for the mother/wife. This turns into an absolutely great part of the story after a fairly slow start, but it’s not, in my opinion, the heart of the tale.
That would be Finn. Finn is a totally psycho assassin who in addition to being a sociopath is also a control freak. She is fascinating from moment one to moment last. Her need to control everything never lets her quit and she is really just a delight every time she appears on a page. I feel a little bit bad liking the “bad gal” more than anyone else (and I want to be clear, I really like Nick and his Dad by the end of the book), but she is just a delightfully evil creation—not someone you would ever want to meet or even hope exists in the world, but a wonderful villain to fuel the story.
Finn has been given the not-as-simple-as-it-looks task of procuring a heart from a still living man named Oz. Nick, trying to set up his perfect weekend with his dad, has the misfortune of having the bottle of 30-year-old Scotch he purchased for the occasion misdelivered to Oz’s house by the postal service. This small misfortune will lead to some very bad decisions on Nick’s part coupled with incredibly bad luck as Finn mistakenly believes that Nick is Oz and chases him and his father into the Scottish Highlands. None of that is a spoiler, it’s just the basic scene setting for the plot.
Complicating Finn’s life is that she’s been given a minder for this “hit” and she doesn’t play well with others. The minder is a corporate type who is big on planning and is keeping one important surprise away from Finn for much of the tale. They don’t get along well, but it helps to flush out Finn’s character quite a bit.
Finally, there is the werewolf who makes an appearance early enough to inject some serious high octane into the rest of the story. Everything goes crazy once the werewolf makes an appearance and while I correctly predicted some of the consequences, I didn’t predict all of them. I love the take that Goody and Grant have on werewolves and would love to see them do more on this theme. In fact, I’m going to have to look over their other series to discover if they are as delightful as this book.
One Way by S.J. Morden
There is an interesting concept at the core of this book. The future exploration of the solar system will be built with very little supervision from NASA. And the companies getting the contracts for the building will, unsurprisingly, be far more interested in cutting costs than they are in ethical behavior or human rights. So when XO figures out that it can’t have robots assemble the research station it is contracted to build on Mars, it decides to use human convict labor instead. And since the corporation owns/controls a privatized prison system in California, it has a ready pool of convicts to draw upon and a big hammer to make them do what it wants. (Solitary confinement forever is the big punishment threat for failure to meet expectations in the very brief training program.)
Enter Frank. He’s serving something like 120 years for shooting his son’s drug dealer. The dealer was the son of a sheriff and he believed the only way to save his son was to get rid of the man. Not very well thought out, obviously, but it makes him a sympathetic convict. He ran a construction company before his crime and has critical skills that XO will need on Mars as do 7 other convicts who make up Frank’s team.
The most obvious flaw in XO’s plan is that there is no way to make certain the convicts do the job once they get to Mars. Enter Brack. He’s the thug that XO intends to keep their convicts in line. There’s just one problem. Once on Mars, what’s to keep the convicts from killing him? The answer was obvious and frankly the convicts were seriously stupid not to consider it. I knew the answer when Brack made his pitch to Frank. Brack tells him that he is making a deal with him because he’s the only trustworthy convict in the group. If he watches Brack’s back, Brack will bring him back to earth and get him his freedom. It was blatantly, embarrassingly, obvious from moment one that Brack was making this deal with every convict, but apparently none of them ever consider this possibility.
Then they get to Mars and people start dying. By the second death it was also obvious that the people who were dying were the ones whose usefulness had ended. Again, I immediately suspected Brack but he’s the one person no one considers, even when it becomes obvious that the convicts are being murdered. The reason is obvious. The convicts are a liability. There is no way that NASA would have approved using convicts for this mission so they need to be killed, preserved, and shipped back to earth where they could “die” in prison. It takes an incredibly long time for Frank (or anyone) to consider this possibility and their stupidity hurts the story which is sold as a big mystery.
So let’s be clear. There is no mystery, but it’s still an exciting story. Watching the convicts overcome their problems and establish the base was enjoyable—not The Martian level enjoyable, but enjoyable none the less. Perhaps the big difference between the two books is that Frank doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s amazingly low key and the rest of the cast is two dimensional at best. Still, I’m glad I read it.
Devil’s Desk by Mark Tufo
If you like action, attitude, and a touch of the paranormal, you’re going to love Devil’s Desk. Mike and his wife, Tracey, join their best friends, BT and Linda, on a camping trip in the Alaskan wilderness. While they are there, a massive earthquake sinks chunks of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska (and presumably parts of Canada too) setting off volcanic eruptions and tsunamis that basically cut the four (and the other campers) off from civilization. That would have been bad enough. There are a lot of bizarre personalities in the campground, including a man who turns out to be a psychopathic murderer. But the group’s problems are only just beginning. Because all of the seismic activity has also drawn a clan of yeti (or maybe sasquatches) down out of the mountains and they have quickly discovered they like the taste of human flesh.
What follows is a truly exciting adventure in which the humans try to figure out how not to get eaten while fighting continuously among themselves. BT’s wife is initially worried about harming what must be an endangered species. The college kids don’t want anyone telling them what to do. The psychopath similarly can’t play nice. BT (a cop) can’t get it through his head that this isn’t the best time to be telling the psychopath that he’ll be charged with murder when they get back to civilization. And that’s all before the extraordinary tension causes real problems to come out between the friends and their fellow survivors.
Tufo also makes the yeti actions seem highly plausible as they show they are more than animals if less than human. This low-grade intelligence makes them all the more terrifying as they tighten the noose around the humans. Things get so bad that about seventy percent of the way through the book I started wondering what the author could do with the last pages—first few chapters of anther novel?—because it seemed impossible for everyone not to be dead in the next few pages. Yet, each time what happened seemed credible, even when one of the group starts lambasting the man who keeps saving them for being a killer and therefore morally inferior to the others.
There are two elements to this story that scream for a sequel without in anyway making the book less than a standalone novel. The first is the prologue. What exactly happened in the mine? Is this the true source of the yeti as I initially suspected, or is something else going on? The second is an almost throw away line which suggests that one of the group isn’t from this timeline. I suspect that Mark Tufo has a lot more instore for us. I can’t wait to read his next novel.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Alexandre Dumas has long been my favorite classical author. He wrote gripping tales of honor, passion, ambition, and justice (often disguised as vengeance). His plots are deep and broad, filled with intrigue, adventure, and humor. And while many of his characters, such as the musketeers of this novel, have become stereotypes of the culture, in this book you will see that they have in reality fully developed personalities. In truth, even though he wrote in the mid-nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas is very much a modern author and his works are among the greatest works of literature ever written.
The Three Musketeers is one of his two most famous tales. In it, young d’Artagnan leaves home to seek his fortune among the musketeers of Louis XIII where he meets the three fascinating men of the title. All are brilliant in their martial skills and each is a tower of gentlemanly virtues. D’Artagnan joins their company and the four men have several adventures while a tale of grave injustice and evil is slowly spun out around them.
Dumas gives us high politics, daring intrigue, love and ardor, and of course, dashing adventures. His dialogue is extraordinary, his action scenes tense and exciting, and the depths of his characterizations are amazing. As the plot builds toward its conclusion the threat of tragedy and the quest for ultimate justice combines in a wonderful conclusion that truly tests the mettle of his heroes.
As if all of this is not fantastic enough, The Three Musketeers is a brilliant piece of historical fiction in which real events are woven into the narrative and brilliantly explained by the occurrences of Dumas’ fictional plot.
In conclusion, let me point out that movies, plays, television series, cartoons, and comic books have all been developed out of this famous novel. Trust none of them as not a one comes close to rivaling this epic tale. Take the time to read the original.
Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout
It’s a truism about Nero Wolf that he doesn’t like to leave his house even though he does leave it in two of the first four novels. This time, the whole book takes place outside the Brownstone and the reader gets to see just how strong a phobia being out of his own controlled environment is for the detective. We also get to see the extra burden this places on Archie Goodwin.
This is one of the very best Nero Wolfe novels. The event that gets Wolfe out of his house is the invitation to give a speech to the fifteen greatest chef’s in the world on the wonders of American cooking. But that’s just the excuse, the real reason—and it so Wolfe—is that one of the chefs has cooked a dish of sausages that was one of the great culinary treats of Wolfe’s life and he wants to try and get the recipe out of him so he can enjoy it in his own home. Keep that motivation in mind, because his desire for that recipe—plus his absolute need to get back on the scheduled train to return to NYC as soon as his speech is finished, is Wolfe’s driving motivation throughout the whole story.
And what a story it is. Just about every chef in attendance has a reason to hate one of their number—a truly despicable man who has stolen one’s wife, one’s job, and one’s assistant, plus a recipe from just about everyone else. So it’s a cinch that he’s going to be killed because there are so many possible murderers. And when that happens, it’s both a pleasure and a horror, because the men most likely to be the killer are people we like. Wolfe is trying hard to stay out of it (remember, he wants nothing to interfere with his train ride home to NYC) but when the chef with the sausage recipe gets charged with the murder, Wolfe sees a chance to obtain a treasure money literally cannot buy.
So Wolfe takes on the task of clearing the chef and this leads to the single best chapter I have read to date in all of Rex Stout’s books. In chapter eleven, he works with a—let’s call them a skeptical audience of African American waiters and chefs’ assistants—and slowly draws out startling revelations that totally break all of the reader’s preconceived notions of the case. Any one of these revelations would have been wonderful, but the totality is awesome. After which, Wolfe, having achieved his objective of clearing the chef, is ready to quit the case again without discovering the murderer, because staying on might cause him to miss his ride home. But then the murderer makes a particularly egregious error and this excellent novel gets kicked up another notch as we barrel toward the conclusion.
A final note about this book, it seems impossible to not mention the extraordinary and intricate planning Stout must have undertaken to make this book work. First there is the food. I’m not a foodie—pizza or hamburgers generally keep me happy—but Stout knows his cuisine and as the reader, you will believe that the greatest chefs in the world are preparing these meals. But what is even more impressive, Stout must have mapped out what every waiter and assistant cook did in bringing these meals to life as well, because the details just keep flowing at appropriate moments, that so-and-so served this, and so-and-so prepared that, in a way that makes the entire environment both mystifying and totally believable.
This may well be Stout’s single best Nero Wolfe novel.
The Junkie Quatrain by Peter Clines
Peter Clines has earned his zombie spurs with his superhero zombie universe series, Ex. Now in the Junkie Quatrain he has created a whole new zombie apocalypse which he introduces in 4 sharp novellas. There’s a lot to love here, so let me take them point by point.
First, the zombies are great. They aren’t the walking dead, but the shattered remains of a virus-ridden humanity. They’re fast and they will chase you until they drop from exhaustion. They are ravenous, eating anything that moves. They have a pack mentality—but not every zombie gets to be part of the pack and they turn mercilessly on their own at the first sign of injury or other weakness. And best of all, Clines realizes this is not sustainable. Hunger and the elements will eventually end this zombie threat (or at least greatly reduce it). And because it was caused by a virus it is potentially curable. All of this makes these zombies feel very different from most other series.
Second, civilization hasn’t fully collapsed. The CDC is still working, trying to find a cure. Enclaves have developed. At one point, we learn that the U.S. is looking at 92 million deaths—horrific, but not The Walking Dead. There is still hope that civilization can be saved or at least salvaged.
Third, Clines gives us great characters in each of the novellas. These are people we can sympathize with (and in at least one case that was very surprising). They also have challenges that make sense and it was easy to imagine myself in their positions in most of the cases.
Best, however, was the way that each of the novellas intersected with each other. This really pushed this collection over the top into a simply great story and shows how thoroughly Clines thought everything out. It also means, however that the story does not advance very far chronologically. Clines better be planning to write volume 2.
The Haunted Forest Tour by Jeff Strand and James A. Moore
Jeff Strand’s Wolf Hunt series comprise my favorite werewolf novels of all time, so I was quite excited when I came across The Haunted Forest Tour and was really curious to see where Strand’s crazy mind would lead us. I’m happy to say that not only was I not disappointed, Strand and his co-author, James A. Moore, blew me away.
The premise of the novel is lovingly established in the opening chapter when a homeowner and the local sheriff try to figure out how someone managed to plant a decades old tree in the middle of the homeowner’s porch. It’s a perplexing problem without an apparent solution—at least until more trees start to spontaneously sprout all around them. The image is quite gripping. In seconds, trees are reaching full growth and causing destruction all around them.
The story then picks up several years later when an enterprising American has started a tour service into the haunted forest. All kinds of fantasy creatures from ogres to demons to things that defy categorization exist within the trees. Up to now, the tours have only penetrated the perimeter of the forest, but now, to celebrate Halloween, sixty lucky individuals are going to ride straight through the center of this marvel. Unfortunately, their “luck” is not of the “good” variety.
As all great horror writers do, Strand and Moore take the time to make you like a large cast of characters ranging from a young child to a grandmother, and from tourists, to employees, to scientists. It’s fun to try and guess which ones will die and which will survive, but shortly after the disaster in the middle of the forest begins to unfold, you will start to wonder how anyone can escape this situation.
And this is a huge part of why this book is so brilliant. The tourists and employees treat the Haunted Forest as a bizarre natural wonder, but it is so much more insidious than that. There’s an intriguing mystery to be solved at the heart of the forest and the stakes are much greater than the survival of the few people trapped within it. Strand and Moore play totally fair here—doling out clues and false leads between shocking revelations fast enough to make you resent anything that interrupts your reading.
Finally, the authors pass the most important test of the horror novel—the cause of all the problems is equal to the great buildup they give it. And the solution is simply genius…
The Vampire’s Mail Order Bride by Kristen Painter
I didn’t intend to buy this novel. I noticed the title during a sale, laughed, and went right past it. A day later, I found myself looking it over again, reading the blurb, and thinking about giving it a try. The day after that, I bought it. I mean—with a title like this, it deserves some extra consideration.
So I bought the book and ended up bumping it to the top of my list and I enjoyed it thoroughly. There’s nothing in here even remotely surprising (except that the vampire can walk about in daytime), but despite being rather formulaic, it was just the sort of light-hearted read that makes me smile.
The plot is pretty straight forward. Our heroine, Delaney, witnesses a mob murder and has to run for it. While getting off the streets to hide, she stumbles into a business that arranges prospective matches between lonely men and women—a modern-day mail-order bride service. She steals a file and impersonates the bride-to-be thinking that if she can just get away for a few weeks she can figure out what to do about her mob problem.
On the other end of this relationship is a four-hundred-year-old vampire whose grandmother wants him to get married and have children so she can have some great-grandbabies. That, by the way, tells you another critical point about this book. Vampires are really just people with fangs. They aren’t evil. They don’t appear to have a particular strong bloodlust. They eat regular food in addition to blood in packets. And really aren’t vampires by most people’s definition of the word. Anyway, our vampire, Hugh, hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife four hundred years ago. And he’s angry that his grandmother is interfering in his life, but agrees to give the mail order bride she’s arranged for him a 30 day chance to win his heart.
As everyone reading this review has already imagined, the two fall instantly in love but Hugh fights his passion fearing that he will cause Delaney’s death as he did his first wife. Most of the problems—an ex-girlfriend, the mob—really aren’t problems at all. They are just foils to force Hugh to realize Delaney is the perfect woman for him.
And it works! Painter has assembled a charming little town that celebrates Halloween every day and it’s just a lovely setting for her light romance with a touch of supernatural for flavor. Despite my initial hesitancy, I’m so glad I read the novel that I’ve already picked up another one in the series.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
This is quite probably the bestselling mystery novel of all time. It’s a psychological thriller. Ten people have been brought together on an island under mysterious circumstances, anonymously accused of horrific crimes, and are being killed off one by one. Figuring out who is killing them (and whether or not that person is one of the guests) forms the basis of a gripping tale. As the number of guests dwindle, the pressure goes up, You start to like a couple of the guests. You wonder who the killer is and you feel the sense of horror grow page by page.
That being said, the solution of the problem while satisfying, does require a strong suspension of disbelief. Bullets are messier than Christie would have us believe and I for one do not believe that you could carry a “dead body” about and not realize it is not dead. That being said, Christie takes some real gambles and is willing to risk making the audience unhappy. The play did not have her courage and changed the ending. In many ways I like the play’s ending better, but I don’t want that to detract from Christie’s great novel which has inspired so many imitations.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
I was very pleased to learn that Andy Weir had written a new novel that sounded very similar to The Martian. A lone astronaut is out in space trying to save not just himself, but the entire human race. It sounded like a formula with a lot of promise, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
First, the good. There are a lot of really interesting challenges that have to be solved much as was the case in The Martian. There’s also a totally unexpected first contact situation and I liked the alien character tremendously. I also think that, even though it annoyed me at times, the back and forth between the “current” problem in space and the chapter-by-chapter revelation of how our hero (Grace) got there worked pretty well, although I really wasn’t happy with this chronological restoration of his memories.
Now for the bad. There were lots of parts of this novel that I just had a great deal of difficulty buying into and they start right at the beginning. I have trouble believing that there is any situation in which a scientist who has left his field to teach middle school becomes the principal investigator in an effort to stop an extinction level event. I realize that Weir made Grace a teacher to set up the very last scene in the book, but to my mind it undercut the whole story. Similarly, I just don’t believe that any potential cataclysm would be so great that the United States would turn the keys to their nuclear arsenal over to an unelected civilian without any safeguards. It just isn’t going to happen. I also have some difficulty with the idea that there would only be one Hail Mary and that Grace could ever have been chosen to be on that ship especially when he was totally opposed to going on a suicide mission to save the planet.
Add to all of that that the novel was very slow moving for the first two-thirds or so and you can see that it just didn’t quite work for me. It’s better than Artemis but just nowhere near The Martian.
The Santaroga Barrier by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert has long been interested in expanded consciousness and collective or hive minds, themes that show up at least in part in many of his novels (Dune, Destination Void, The Dosadi Experiment, Helstrom’s Hive, The Green Brain, etc.) and is of central interest in The Santaroga Barrier.
The setup for the story is handled quite efficiently in the first pages. Major retail and marketing firms are frustrated by their inability to penetrate the Santaroga Valley for their consumer goods. Almost everything used in the valley is produced there (there are exceptions like gasoline, but there is only one gas station in town, and it is run by a Santarogan). The retailers want in to Santaroga and they’ve hired psychologist Gilbert Dasein to do a market study on the valley to help them solve their problem. There is only one major problem. The last two people they’ve sent to do the same project have died from what appear to be genuine accidents—and yet Dasein and the reader are immediately left to wonder if something more sinister might be involved. Dasein has one major advantage over his predecessors that is undoubtedly the reason he was chosen for this task. His college girlfriend, Jenny, whom he asked to marry him, left him at the end of her studies and returned to her home in Santaroga. Dasein has a potential “in” that the marketers and retailers want to take advantage of.
Things are weird from the moment Dasein arrives. Outsiders passing through the beautiful valley on the federal highway do not feel comfortable there when stopping at its restaurants or lone hotel. Dasein gets a different response. He is almost immediately recognized as Jenny’s young man from school (despite the fact that he’s never been there) and sort of half welcomed and half not. While Dasein struggles with himself to keep an objective view of his surroundings, it is instantly obvious to the reader that he can’t. This valley is the reason Jenny refused to marry him. She wanted them to return to her home (a place she left for without him every weekend of their schooling) and he was too proud to simply give in to her wishes without a “reasonable” explanation of why they couldn’t set up their practice somewhere else. Now he has a chance to understand the mysterious hold her home has on him.
Then the accidents begin to happen. Gas leaks into his bedroom and nearly kills him. A dangerous fall caused by tripping on a turned-up carpet almost causes him to plummet to his death. Accidents? As more and more such incidents pile up, it’s really hard to believe that they aren’t part of a conspiracy to do Dasein harm, and yet, they honestly appear to have been accidents and sometimes Santarogans save him from the peril.
Where many people would have simply given up the job and left, Dasein doesn’t for two reasons. First, he is incredibly proud and stubborn. Second, there’s Jenny, the woman he’s in love with and who honestly appears to be in love with him. Yet Jenny is part of the Santaroga mystery, working in the mysterious co-op which seems to be the heart of it. Yet it’s Jenny’s friend who rescues Dasein when he breaks into the co-op and gets over-exposed to the mysterious Jaspers.
Jaspers (and it’s never quite clear just what it is) is the heart of the Santarogan mystery. It’s consumed like a spice and it’s addictive and mind expanding. But it also becomes increasingly clear that it is something much more. It links Santarogans together at least on a subconscious level and when Dasein discovers what’s happening with the Santarogan children (and that many become brain damaged by the Jaspers) the town turns on him in a truly frightening way.
Jenny understands on some level what is happening, but no one else in the valley seems to be able to consciously credit that they are creating accidents to kill Dasein. It’s the most exciting part of the novel. Jenny has begged Dasein to leave because she loves him, he refuses, and weird things start happening and people start dying in situations clearly directed at Dasein. The reader grows to understand that the valley—jaspers—is protecting itself. The question is, will Dasein be killed, escape, or ensnared into becoming one of the Santarogans? It’s important to keep in mind that in many of his books Herbert isn’t interested in a conventional victory. You simply can’t predict how this novel is going to end.
Frank Herbert once said that he wanted half the country to think that Santaroga sounded wonderful and half to find it highly disturbing. At times, as a reader, I felt both ways, so I’d say he succeeded.
The Loch by Steve Alten
I read Meg back in 1997 and enjoyed it but for some reason never picked up another Alten novel until coming across The Loch recently. In many ways, writing about the Loch Ness Monster seems to be a natural for an author who made his reputation writing about a prehistoric super shark that survives into the modern day. The Loch did not disappoint me. If you have a fascination with Loch Ness Monster, then it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy this book.
To start out with, we have a hero, Zach Wallace, with issues—his father sucks and he’s also just gotten blamed for a terrible investigation-gone-astray in the Sargasso Sea. As if that isn’t enough, almost drowning for the second time has given this marine biologist a serious case of hydrophobia. So he’s not in the best of moods when he learns that his father is about to be tried for murder and that he wants his son to come home to Scotland to offer moral support. He almost doesn’t go—and soon enough wishes he didn’t.
While his father is manipulating him to bolster his court case which one might call “The Loch Ness Monster” defense, something begins killing visitors to the Loch. Drownings are way up and now people are being bloodily murdered on land. It appears that Nessie may be real after all and she’s angry.
The best parts of this novel are when Alten gets into various theories about what the Loch Ness Monster might be and how it might exist in the freshwater loch. That was all fun. Less fun was the very poor portrayal of the Scottish legal system. I also wish Alten had decided to steer clear of the Knights Templar as I thought they were a needless complication to the story that in my opinion distracted from the true tale. That being said, this novel is a lot of fun and if you’re willing to just run with it, you’ll be glad you read it.
Starfall by David Reiss
The notorious Dr. Fid emerged triumphant once again after the events of Behind Distant Stars, but the price was horrendous. For the second time in his life, Fid failed to protect the life of a younger sibling, but this time, there is just the smallest of chances that he can rectify his error and bring Whisper safely home again. So Fid totally rearranges his life to give one hundred percent of his attention to the task of rescuing his sister, and woe be it to any foolish hero or villain who dares to get in his way. And yes, you guessed it, it’s the heroes who are going to be the major problem this time.
Reiss has clearly been thinking of this last book at each stage of writing the first two, because all of the components of Fid’s life come together perfectly here. His unbreakable will, his towering genius, and—just like some of the heroes he most despises—his willingness to go to any extreme to achieve his aim. In this last book, we get to learn once and for all who Dr. Fid is and whether or not he has actually accomplished anything with his crusade against false heroes. The fact that it is not a world at stake but “only” the life of one little girl makes him both more awe-inspiring and more endearing than ever before. Reiss has found a way to answer once and for all the question of whether or not Fid is actually better than the false heroes he’s dedicated his life to bringing down and I think every reader will be totally pleased with the answer.
Yet, that was not the part of the book that brought tears to my eyes. Fid is not the only person tested in these pages. And perhaps his legacy will ultimately depend upon whether or not any of the self-proclaimed heroes out there really meet the standards they proclaim. Fid, of course, expects them all to fail.
This is a supers trilogy to stand with the absolute best in the genre. My only complaint is that it appears Reiss is finished with the story.
Colonyside by Michael Mammay
Colonel Carl Butler is back! The man who twice launched weapons of mass destruction and is hated by half of the human race for a genocidal action that he took to save them is pulled into another complicated and intensely exciting mystery that once again involves an alien species. This time he’s hired by one of the richest men in the galaxy to find out what really happened to his estranged daughter when she went missing and was reported killed outside the dome on a small colony world. His mission is supported by the president which one would think would mean that people would bend over backward to help the investigation, but the opposite is happening. Most everyone, including the company owned by the man who launched Butler’s inquiry, are all being quietly obstructionist. Everyone appears to expect Carl to rubberstamp the previous report on how the woman died, collect his money, and go home. But obviously, they don’t know Carl Butler!
This novel is a completely worthy successor to its two predecessors, Planetside and Spaceside. The tension builds to excruciating levels as Carl gets deeper and deeper inside the mystery. And he’s finally up against an opponent who is frankly better than he is and the odds against him are crushingly high. It’s always hard to write a review that doesn’t give away critical plot elements, but I will say that I’m impressed by how deep inside Carl’s skull Mammay gets in this novel. Every single thing Carl does—correctly or mistakenly—read true right down to his stubborn willingness to die rather than be untrue to himself. In fact, death seems like a very probable outcome of the novel despite the fact that Carl is narrating the action, so if you’re like me, you’ll be looking for opportunities for him to record what he knows, and waiting for someone else to come in with the epilogue to the story. That’s how serious the action gets. I just hope there will be another book in this series soon.
The Banshee of the Atacama by Chris L. Adams
Several years ago, Chris L. Adams wrote a great short story called Blonde Goddess of the Tikka-Tikka which mixed a little of the Tarzan atmosphere with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s just published the sequel and man was it worth the wait.
Ansen Grost has the unique background of being a descendant of Vikings raised by the Arapaho at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. He’s a mighty warrior who carries a mystical tomahawk. He served in World War I and has had trouble settling down after his experiences there. In Scotland he comes across an old man looking for someone to find his missing daughter for him. It seems like a simple enough task except that the young woman, Mhairi, is lost in the wilderness of South America and she has an unhealthy interest in the supernatural. Ansen agrees to go look for her which opens the first half of the novel.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow of the book, but it’s worth noting that—as was the case with Tolkein—the journey is a significant and important part of the story. We learn a tremendous amount about Ansen and how his years away from the Arapaho have damaged him. We also meet two members of the critical supporting cast and get to understand their unique personalities. This is far more important than it would be in a typical adventure story because Adams has intertwined a truly spiritual quest with his Lovecraftian adventure and that wouldn’t have been successful without the time and care he puts into introducing these characters.
The main action of the story comes when Ansen and company finally find Mhairi, but the circumstances are not anything I could have imagined before the start of the story. There are demons and dark gods and monsters by the hundreds, but the most pivotal creature is the banshee of the title and if they can’t uncover her secret motivations, they just might trigger the end of the world.
I opened the book expecting a fairly straightforward adventure story, but Adams gave me much more. This is a deep and complicated tale which draws upon multiple world mythologies to create an adventure I will not only long remember, but return to again and again in the future.
An American Weredeer in Michigan by C.T. Phipps and Michael Suttkus
Jane Doe and her friends are back for another deer-lightful adventure. If you liked all the endless puns and pop culture references of the first book, you’re going to love this one as well as new problems come to Bright Falls. There’s a religious cult with a leader who is disturbingly open about his villainous plans who’s planning to use the magic of Bright Falls in his scheme to take over the world. Add to that that Jane accidentally promises to help hunt down and kill an earth goddess who—while not nice—is critically important to the survival of just about everything and you have the ingredients for a great adventure.
Honestly, I couldn’t figure out how Jane was going to get out of all the messes she wandered into, but the cast is so much fun—especially the gun with the angel in it—that I wouldn’t have minded her taking twice as long to resolve all the problems. Phipps and Suttkus have found a wonderfully light-hearted way to deal with some very dark issues and I think it’s this tone that puts this series head and shoulders above so many other urban fantasies. I’ve just never read anything else in the genre that feels like the Bright Falls stories. I hope they keep writing them.
Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt
I started playing Dungeon and Dragons in the sixth grade with the basic boxed set and quickly graduated to the Advanced Players Handbook and the related books. In eighth grade, I started gaming with a guy whose older brother had started playing in college and using the original books—Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc. We were all very proud of that connection and considered ourselves to be second generation gamers. So it was with great excitement that I stumbled across this book on the history of Dungeon and Dragons by David M. Ewalt.
Ewalt’s greatest strength is that he provides a coherent history of the development of the game from its beginnings as a war game, to those early days in Gary Gygax’s basement, to the development of the first of many iterations of TSR, to the intense infighting within the company, and its eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast. He also traces the development of the game through multiple editions and the influence of major figures. He even goes into some of the spinoff events and talks about the scandals. Overall, he builds the case that the introduction of D&D was a transformational event in the history of playing games.
There is also a lot of Ewalt’s personal experiences with roleplaying games, which seems to be a necessary and expected part of any book of this nature. Gamers are storytellers and they love to share their stories as much as other people love hearing them. Those stories also permit Ewalt to give a little insight into the dynamics of game play and player interactions.
While I suspect that this book appeals much more to gamers than to the larger world, if you have some interest in the subject this isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, if you’re really curious about Dungeons and Dragons, the best way to learn about it is to join a game and start playing.
I almost didn’t get this book and that would have been a terrible misfortune for me. On the surface, Maelstrom struck me as a run-of-the-mill story of beings and creatures passing between parallel earths, but it proved to be much better than that.
The novel is broken into three parts. The first is told from the POV of Elizabeth Cali, an American doctor working in rural China. Security guards at her medical center have a violent conflict with a tribesman from the nearby desert. The tribesman has brought in a sick elderly man and for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, the guards are fighting with the younger tribesman who performs feats of amazing strength and basically wins the battle. The doctor calms him down, gets security to back off, and starts to help the sick man who is dying of heart problems. She realizes that both tribesmen have deformities. Neither can speak, their skulls are elongated, and more. She gets x-rays and realizes that both are Neandertals. Excited that she thinks she has discovered a possible Neandertal tribe that has survived into the present day, she investigates further and learns that the situation is much more bizarre than that. The Neandertal have been passing from their world into ours for centuries and there is frightening evidence that more worlds are colliding with ours, opening up passes between them in a manner that will eventually destroy our planet.
The second portion of the story follows a NYC cop, named Mark, and a jogger in Central Park who are caught in the next collision of planets and transported to a world where Homo Sapiens does not appear to have risen and prehistoric lions, saber tooth tigers, and more roam what on our planet is NYC. This is both the best section of the novel and the one that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief—it seems highly improbable that for the first time a portal will open in a major city just as Dr. Cali was discovering that the portals exist. That small problem aside, I was extremely impressed by how the author, Peter Cawdron, handled this dislocation and the terrible problem of trying to help a woman trapped in the rubble of NYC buildings that collapsed when they were pulled onto this new planet. This is a painfully powerful section that had me on the edge of my seat.
The third section follows many of the people introduced earlier in the novel as they move through the portal (called a maelstrom) in China to try and figure out how to save our planet. This seemed hopeless to me when they started, but again, Cawdron has brilliantly thought through the situation that caused the maelstrom and I was totally satisfied with his conclusion. This is among the very best of parallel universe stories that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read and the three narrators in the audio book do a magnificent job of bringing the text to life. I’m very glad I bought the story and I’ll be looking up other books by Peter Cawdron.
This is one of those novels that will linger in your thoughts for decades and I don’t just mean an image or two. From the very first chapter, Koontz starts cultivating feelings of suspense and ever-increasing tension that will have your desperately turning pages, or, if listening to it in audio as I did this time, finding excuses to keep the book playing long after your commute is done. What is especially impressive for an author who made his reputation in the horror genre is that it’s not even clear that there is going to be a supernatural element for half the book. It opens with a man who finds himself hiding in the closet after apparently sleep walking. He’s sore, he’s frightened, and he has no idea what is going on. But it isn’t until he pulls himself together and sits down at his computer to continue writing his books that things get really eerie. He finds that while sleep walking he has typed page after page of just two words: “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.”
Koontz then shifts focus to a young doctor on her day off who panics and flees in a fugue state when she notices a pair of black gloves. Next we meet a retired marine who is suddenly terrified of the dark and trying desperately to hide his fear from his wife. None of these people have any apparent connection, yet they are all showing evidence of psychological suffering they can’t explain. Later in the book we meet a young child who has become terrified of doctors and a priest whose deep and abiding faith suddenly collapses so that he throws the chalice in the middle of Mass. And the list goes on. What makes this all the more frightening is it is way too easy to imagine yourself suffering these almost normal problems which means that you will enjoy a high level of empathy with each of these very well drawn characters.
As we get deeper into the novel, elements of a vast conspiracy begin to be uncovered with the real possibility of danger for the people trying to find out why they are suffering these bizarre symptoms. This ramps up the tension to a whole new level as we also began to meet people who have gone over the edge and even kill themselves as a result of the psychological harm they have suffered. At the same time suppressed memories begin to pop free in those sufferings and they separately begin to evolve plans that will ultimately bring them together to find out what incredible event triggered all of this.
I don’t want to give away the end of this novel, but I found it to have a totally satisfying conclusion. The chief villain, when he is revealed, is both frightening and believable. This is a long book—nearly 30 hours in audio—but every page is worth reading.
Wearing the Cape 8 Repercussions
The pacing and tone of Repercussions is very different than Harmon’s previous novels. Everything occurs at high speed with little time for the heroes to react and even less time for them to think. To add to the feeling of ever-growing frenzy, the point of view changes multiple times in most chapters and reflects a significantly larger number of character perspectives than we have been introduced to before. The civilized world is under attack and it is by no means clear if the Sentinels can save the day this time. Harmon has long flirted with post-apocalyptic settings—both in the visions of the Tea Time Anarchist and in the alternate realities of Team Ups and Crossovers. Within a very few chapters it becomes evident that this might just be the book that sees those dark ages introduced full time into the series. Starting in the United States and spreading outwards, the death count is higher than at any time since the first book in the series, and that number includes the heroes as well as the civilians. If you’ve grown to love the large cast of Wearing the Cape—brace yourself—everything is on the table this time and no one gets away unhurt.
So this book is everything in a superhero novel you could desire—tons of actions, great super powers, and a gritty plot worthy of our heroic cast. That being said, I do have a small complaint that I’ve had a little difficulty articulating. I have read every book in this series at least twice and am listening to the audiobooks now. I feel like I know the action and the characters very well. Yet there were many times when Harmon made references that made me wonder if there was a short story out there that I had missed (and maybe there is) and the novel was just jammed packed with facts about supers in the rest of the planet—as if after finishing the guide books to his super hero roleplaying game, Harmon just couldn’t resist feeding us information a little bit artificially.
That being said, Astra experiences a lot of changes in this novel and I found the character development well thought out and credible. I’m anxious to see what Harmon has in store for her and her friends in the books to come.
Test of Fire by William L. Hahn
In Test of Fire, William L. Hahn proves that great writers do not need to have their heroes save the planet to construct a gripping tale. What it takes is fascinating, well-developed characters willing to risk everything they have for a cause they believe in. That’s the situation that Querlack finds himself in. He’s a retired adventurer who has invested his loot from his wilder days in a foef—a bit of mostly swampy land that doesn’t appear to have much of a future. A poor investment by any contemporary standard, made more so by Querlack’s determination to better the land for the sake of his peasants, not to milk it for every coin he can extract from it.
His neighbor, Sir Cran-Kalrith Pritaelseran is a hard elf with a rigid sense of honor that basically comes down to the following—everyone exists to better him. He finds his new neighbor offensive and decides to continue a centuries old conflict and attempt to expand his own borders—a strategy he has used successfully on other neighbors. It’s a serious threat, but not the only one Querlack faces as he learns more and more about his new home.
This is a great book—made all the better by its primary focus on a relatively small territory. Hahn has always been capable of “painting” the master strokes of epic conflict—demons threatening his Lands of Hope. Now he proves he can be just as effective in small scale adventures and in doing so makes us cherish his characters all the more.
Zelazny won the Hugo for this novel and it’s easy to see why. Conrad (of the many names) is a fascinating man and the immortal of the title moving through a vividly and poetically depicted post-apocalyptic earth which is supported economically almost totally be alien tourists fascinated by earth’s history and the near destruction of the planet in the Three Day War. There is depth of thought regarding this future society evident in almost every page and yet never once did I have that experience of wondering, “Why is Zelazny telling me this now? Why can’t we get on with the story?”
The plot revolves around a rich Vegan who wants to write a travel guide to earth’s most important sightseeing spots starting with Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Conrad is an official in the government agency in charge of protecting the historical monuments. He doesn’t want to play tour guide especially after it becomes that some of the humans who attach themselves to the tour want to see the Vegan die before he leaves earth. They worry that the alien’s real purpose is to lay the groundwork for the Vegans to buy up the rest of the planet.
This is where Zelazny truly shows his depth because much of the plot revolves around a political terrorist group who have embraced the ideology of Returnism—wanting all humans to return to earth and make it an independent planet again. Conrad actually started this movement and led the terrorist cell in an earlier life, but came to a point where he believed that it was not capable of achieving the Returnist aim and set about instead exploring other paths. As with many diasporas, most humans don’t live on the planet anymore and the sad truth the Returnists don’t want to face is that second and third generation humans who have never seen earth don’t want to return there at all. Their lives are elsewhere now, but the fanatics can’t give up the dream and have become certain that killing this Vegan is the key to earth’s eventual independence.
To achieve their end they have hired a fascinating assassin named Hasan who, thanks to a quirky response to a longevity procedure, is also effectively immortal (at least he’s lived for a very long time as a young man). Conrad and he know each other well but now they are reluctantly on opposite sides of the Vegan problem.
As if this tension wasn’t enough, the post-apocalyptic earth is a very dangerous place with mutations giving rise to legends out of myth and other monsters. Over all, it’s just a delightful tale filled with Zelazny’s brush-stroke characterizations that hang in the mind years after you read the piece.
This time through I listened to an audio edition
narrated by Victor Bevine. At first I thought his slow rate of speech was going to wreck
the novel. (I never think of Zelazny’s books as slow moving.) Fortunately, I quickly
came to love the nuance with which he shared Zelazny’s prose and brought his
characters to life. Whether in print or in audio, this book is worthy of its
Hugo and well worth your time.