Review: The Mystery of a Butchers Shop by Gladys Mitchell (1930)

mitchell_mystery_of_a_butchers_new

When Rupert Sethleigh’s body is found one morning, laid out in the village butcher shop but minus its head, the inhabitants of Wandles Parva aren’t particularly upset. Sethleigh was a blackmailing moneylender and when the peerless detective and renowned psycholanalyst Mrs Bradley begins her investigation she finds no shortage of suspects. It soon transpires that most of the village seem to have been wandering about Manor Woods, home of the mysterious druidic stone on which Sethleigh’s blood is found splashed, on the night he was murdered, but can she eliminate the red herrings and catch the real killer?

Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley is a wondrous creation. She’s gnarled, rich and wickedly humoured. She’s also interfering. These qualities makes her a perfect candidate of a detective. And like Christie or Doyle Mitchell was quite prolific.

To give you an idea Vintage have already published 13 books featuring this devilish detective and and this month are going to be releasing 20 more (4 normal paperbacks with 16 as print on demand and all are available as ebooks). They’ve been coming out quite sporadically up until now with Vintage choosing their favourites before filling in some gaps.

This is to explain why I’m now reading Mrs Bradley’s second appearance (my next read is the first  the series Speedy Death) but from the ones I’ve read so far it doesn’t seem to matter what order you read them in as Mrs Bradley doesn’t have any development but is more a mechanism to let the other characters kill each other and then nose around until she finds the murderer.

I read this one in two parts. The first half I read last year (around Halloween) but I picked it back up a few days ago and devoured the rest. Partly what I struggled with in the first half is the habit Mitchell has of dropping you into a scene with lots of dialogue but not grounding you in the scene by having the characters give some context to the scene.

It’s not something I struggled with from reading her other books and I think Mitchell got lots of  opportunities to practice her technique. But maybe it was me as well as I was much more comfortable with the cast of characters and what was being described when I picked it up again. Maybe it just took some time to get up to speed? As for the murder itself as it says in the blurb it looks quite simple but pinning it down takes Mrs Bradley some time.

The cast of characters here is entertaining with their personalities all quite different. Mitchell is great at exploring motivations and giving them layers of problems and interest so that no character feels like a cardboard walk-on. And when I got to the end I was annoyed in a good way as Mitchell manages to keeps you on your toes. Mrs Bradley is no goody two-shoes and the ending proves it.

As a book which is 84 years old you may think it would have dated but it doesn’t really. It doesn’t have modern obsessions with gore, flawed detectives, and its glamour is understated rather than gaudy. It feels classical if that makes sense.

I honestly can’t wait to see where Mitchell places Mrs Bradley next.

Review: The Line of Polity by Neal Asher (2003)

line+of+polty[1]

Neal Asher has to be one of my favourite authors, notice I didn’t say SF authors (why add an unneeded label), but I’ve been reading his Polity series in a bit of an odd order.

Here is the internal chronological order:

  1. Prador Moon
  2. The Shadow of the Scorpion
  3. Gridlinked
  4. The Line of Polity
  5. Brass Man
  6. Polity Agent
  7. Line War
  8. The Technician
  9. The Skinner
  10. The Voyage of the Sable Keech
  11. Orbus
  12. Hilldiggers

Plus a collection of Polity-focused short stories

The Gabble and Other Stories

And here is the order I’ve read them in so far:

  1. The Gabble and Other Stories 
  2. Prador Moon
  3. The Shadow of the Scorpion
  4. The Skinner (audiobook)
  5. The Voyage of the Sable Keech (audiobook)
  6. Hilldiggers
  7. Orbus (audiobook)
  8. The Technician
  9. Gridlinked
  10. The Line of Polity

The reason that I mention my reading history is that I’ve already seen the aftermath of some of the events in The Line of Polity from reading The Technician but probably not realised their significance. The same can probably said of Agent Cormac as The Shadow of the Scorpion explores the Cormac as he’s manipulated (or should I say shaped) into Agent Cormac.

I’m not unhappy with my reading order though as The Skinner, The Voyage of Sable Keech and Orbus make up their own trilogy and Hilldiggers and The Technician are stand-alones. And The Gabble is a great introduction and if you like short stories they really hooked me into flavour of the Polity.

What it has done is make me want to re-read The Technician again, in fact I want to re-read all Neal’s Polity books. There is something about the continual exploration/evolution/enjoyment of Asher’s Polity that makes it fascinating to read – though also makes me read his books slowly (when I’m not listening to the audiobooks) so I can digest everything.

The plots themselves, like The Line of Polity, are pacy, and the details that are absorbing. And in this one we have Agent Cormac again called on to deal with the alien known as Dragon (though not the same aspect as found in Gridlinked) at the same time as the planet Masada is going through a slow rebellion in the hope that the Polity will intervene.

Neal weaves three main threads, which really start off as the two mentioned above, before Cormac underestimates the skills and knowledge of a biophysicist called Skellor who brings a whole new danger with him.

What I like about Asher’s stories is that he has a passion for biology and uses that to inject new variations of life on to the worlds he presents. This time we have deadly creatures, who have said mostly away from the human inhabitants of Masada until chaos unfolds drawing their attention.

He also shows a love of technology and layers different levels of advancements with the Theoracy having low worn out tech, there is an outline station, Miranda, that is old by Polity standards but above Theocracy, and then we have Dragon whose is able to construct creatures with advanced DNA and then we have what Skellor initiates.

The level of thought and details always makes Asher, for me, slow reading as the plot wants to zip but I want to enjoy the ideas and the settings. It’s quite a skill I think to give you a pacy plot that you want to slow down so you can take everything in.

The current paperback is 660 pages and towards the end you come to realise that it’s not going to be a neat ending. And that the next one, Brass Man, has to pick up certain bits left behind, as does The Line of Polity in some respects.

The danger of intertextual conversions is that the author cannibalises their own ideas so much they end up as skin and bones, but from experience of the Splatterjay trilogy Asher digs deeper, which is why I said earlier that I really want to get round to rereading but first I think I need to catch up with the canon.

One thing I haven’t really mentioned is there is an underlying anger with religion (or so it seems to me) as the echelons of the Theocracy literally live above the people that prepress in the name of God and are deluded that their belief their faith will one day make the Polity crumble.

Asher cover a lot. Highly recommended for SF fans who like explosions, technology, biology, and knowing that the author is a fun.

Review: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris (2014)

gospel-of-loki.jpgJoanne Harris, of Chocolate fame (which you knew already, right?), has written her first adult fantasy novel, which introduces us to the life of the world’s most infamous trickster, Loki.

I know what you’re thinking and it starts with H cough Hiddleston cough and as great as the on-screen version of Loki is Harrison recounts of life with the Gods of Asgard as if you were having a drink with him in a pub, which is something you’d never get from Hollywood.

And what a tale it is. Odin calls forth Loki and is bound to him as a brother (yes BROTHER) and takes him to Asgard though Loki never quite fits in. But the Father of Lies isn’t EVIL as such he’s just misunderstood plus it’s in his nature to be disruptive.

Harris sets the tone at the start with Loki’s slightly snarky though charming introduction of the cast of characters we’re going to encounter before interrupting the recounting of the ‘authorised’ version of events of told by ‘The Prophecy of the Oracle’ (her (very loose) verse translation of Voluspá) before moving on to the main event and telling us all the lessons he’s learnt from his life as the Bringer of Light.

It’s a big task for Harris to introduce readers to a whole pantheon of characters who may be unfamiliar when compared to the likes of Loki, Thor and Odin but she manages it with ease. And then manages to recount Asgard’s entire history without it feeling like a stale history lesson. Quite to opposite.

Loki is a silver-tongued storyteller as each mini-tale (or lesson as he frames them) builds and builds revealing more and more of the Loki’s nature and his motivations but also sets out the tests and trials that Odin has him endure for the good of Asgard.

He does bring a fair bit of it on himself but you are left wondering how much of what happens is the gods’ own self-fulling prophecy and how different it would have been if they’d just built him a hall of his own treated him as one their own instead of a constant scapegoat?

I dare you not to fall for his charms and feel sorry for him by the time this tale is done. Though you may not agree with what he ends up doing especially when you how lovely his wife.

There are some amazing set pieces, which I’ve been very tempted to research and compare but you know I’m just going to enjoy the ‘reality’ The Gospel of Loki for a little bit longer.

It’s hard to convey in this review how enjoyable Loki is but hopefully a bit of his ‘wisdom’ via his lessons will give you an idea:

Love is boring. People in love even more so …

&

Friendship is overrated. Who needs friendship when you can have the certitudes of hostility. You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won’t betray you. It’s the ones who claim to be your friends that you to beware of.

&, finally

Never Trust a wise man to do the work of a felon.

And on that note I’ll wrap up. Harris’ Loki has redeemed what has started off as a bit of a shaky reading year with an epic tale of Gods, demons, and the end of the world. I couldn’t be happier or more enthralled by The Gospel of Loki and his bringing of Ragnarök to the gods of Asgard.

SFR: Drive by James S. A. Corey (2012)

Edge of Infinity Title:  ‘Drive’
Author: James S. A. Corey
Source: Edge of Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: DVD-extra

One Line Review: The origin story of how space ships in The Expanse universe got to go a little bit fast is a mixed with a  story of love and companionship.

One Paragraph Review: I’ve not read Leviathan’s Wake yet, which is the first novel in this universe, but after reading this short I’m not sure that I’m much wiser about the setting. The only thing that is clear here is that it’s more ‘realistic’ than I’m used to in terms of space travel and exploration. We’re on a colony on Mars and time scales for Earth sending ships is given in months rather than hours or days which took me back a bit showing how much I’m used to the idea of faster travel. The collection’s theme is about the next big leap from Earth into our Solar system and ‘Drive’  describes when became available but at a cost. It’s sweet and romantic (which distracts slightly from everything else for me if I’m honest) as it tells the formation and continuation of a relationship. You also get to see snipped of politics and threats to Mars colony from Earth and the pressures that could be applied to get Earth’s way in negotiations. I’ve called it a DVD-extra as I think you have already introduced to The Expanse rather than take this as your first experience.

SFR: Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris (2010)

A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of StringTitle: ‘Wildfire in Manhattan’
Author: Joanne Harris
Source: A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris

One Word Review: Positive 

One Line Review: Harris gives us a gentle reminder that it’s always a good idea to ask a damsel if she needs saving.

One Paragraph Review: We’re dropped into a world where gods wear Aspects to walk among us and the aspect of wildfires meets his brother as they are reconnected with an ancient danger in modern day Manhattan. I think this is set in the same setting as Runemarks – at least I hope it is because as I was reading I was thinking I’d like to see more of this idea. The fun aspect was the idea of rune magic and it was more flingy than Tolkien. But mostly it shows men being all protective  and ‘manly’ disregarding if the person they are protecting actually needs their help. I don’t think that spoils it but might give you something to think about as you read it.

Review: Ghosts of the Citadel (The Copper Promise Part 1) by Jen Williams

Ghosts of the CitadelIt’s strange to see a large publisher chopping up a book and publishing as a serialisation in ebook but having read Ghosts of the Citadel it works. Mostly as Jen Williams has written the novel in parts and this bit definitely tells complete incident but not the whole story.

Ghosts of the Citadel grabbed me with the opening chapters due to its playful Sword and Sorcery setting. After you get past the first chapter’s torture scene you are in classic territory of hired swords, leather, magic and mysterious places to explore.

We join hired-swords Wydrin of Crossheaven and her business partner Sir Sebastian Caverson who are accompanied (and paid for) by Lord Firth as they explore the magically-protected Citadel and try to access its secrets. What makes it  feel alive isn’t the setting, as it’s nothing that new, but the characters of Wydrin and Sebastian, who feel like people that you’d enjoy going on an adventure with.

Williams has a knack for the playful and the banter between them keep the whole thing moving along with an enjoyable tone. There are some nice moments of revelations about the characters pasts. And Lord Firth has an unshared agenda, which has unforeseen consequences, and is the reason to read the next bit (Children of the Fog). But even as mysterious as he is definitely going to play a central role in what’s the come as he gets moment in the spotlight.

That’s not to say it’s all light as Williams doesn’t pull her punches either and she’s a tricksy writer.  Something happens and I had to check in my proof of the whole book if a character did actually die as I was that concerned about them.

This part is only short, 87 pages perhaps, but for 99p gives you a mini-adventure, lets you know Williams’ style and, I think, makes you want to read what happens next.

SFR: Crouch End by Stephen King (1993/1980)

Nightmares & DreamscapesTitle:  Crouch End
Author: Stephen King
Source: Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King

One Word Review: Transgressive

One Line Review: King successfully enters the world of Lovecraft with a woman who reports her husband as missing at a police station.

One Paragraph Review: Two policeman are on the nightshift when a distressed American women comes in telling them the story of how her husband disappeared after they took a cab to Crouch End and find themselves abandoned and lost in a strange desolate series of streets until they heard something strange moaning. To be honest it’s hard to make Lovecraftian-horror terrifying, and this story is chilling, mildly unnerving, haunting but does invoke the sense of terror the main character feels from events. It’s narrated third person watching over the women and one of the young policemen as he’s introduced to the strange events that he hadn’t come across up until now. A worth effort with a nice slippery ending.

Reading Round-up: Broken Homes, Wolfound Century, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Artful

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (audiobook), Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie and Artful by Ali Smith.

Broken HomesSeven days in to the new year and I’ve finished listening to Broken Homes, polished off Wolfhound Century and read Artful and Haroun and the Sea of Stories for the Hear…Read This! podcast. I’m not planning on keeping this pace for year but I thought that seeing as I had a batch of books to talk about I’d experiment with a group review using a more conversional reviewing style. We’ll see how it goes, eh?

Audiobooks are funny beasts as some people don’t classify listening to the book the same as reading one and I guess they are right, mostly because the choice of narrator can enhance or spoil the book’s flavour. I don’t think I’d be able to actually read a Peter Grant novel. I’ve experienced all four books in the series so far through Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s portrayal of the London PC and apprentice magician. The trouble with me and audiobooks is that I take ages to listen to them, which explains the stock-pile I’ve got of audible credits I’ve amassed – I’m currently listening to Mitch Benn read his novel Terra, and loving his alien pronunciations – another case where audiobooks can beat straight novels.

Anyway back to strange things happening in London, after Whispers Under Ground listening to Broken Homes feels like a less complex affair and it feels better for that as it somehow it had room to breath.

It’s obvious though that this isn’t going to be an introduction to the world of the Folly, the Faceless man, and the more magical side of Aaronovitch’s London. A murder and a separate break-in point to an architecturally curious high-rise estate called Skygarden, which Peter and Lesley move into to have a snoop around, but not before they guard a very interesting gathering by the river Thames.

What I love is all the threads and layers that are slowly weaving around or pealing back (depending on what Aaronovitch is doing at the time) from earlier books are forming something special . He’s created a humorous distraction in the character of Zach Palmer, who in Whispers Under Ground acted as go-between, and you can see the whispering fruits of his labours here but there is also something a little darker and that brings me around to the ending.

Some authors sneak things up on you and you shout, ‘no!’ or ‘how could you’  well this has one of those moments.

For fans of the series Ben Aarnovitch is going from strength to strength and I’m curious where Foxglove Summer is going take us next because we are left is somewhere quite surprisingly uncertain.

Wolfhound CenturySpeaking of uncertain things, Wolfhound Century is one of those books that sounds strange: an Inspector Lom is summoned to another city, Murgorod, to a catch a terrorist. Lom has been chosen because he’s an outsider from a city several days travel a way. He’s also an unintentional trouble maker as he’s no corruptible. What he show us as readers is a world of trolls, fallen angels from a war that raged above the earth, ancient forests with their own agendas and that’s just that start.

Higgens is exploring something that feels very Russian, at least to my ear, as Murgorod slowly unfolds to be a police state with records being kept on everyone and people encouraged to report on their friends and neighbours. The technology is early twentieth century with horse and carts and telephones and lots of manual record keeping.

Higgens has a brutal storytelling style as he tells his tale in short chapters (83 over 336 pages) and shows little mercy to his characters, which mixes in with the sense of place that he’s very good at. It’s refreshing to see powerful fantasy transported away from Medieval Europe into something more contemporary and interesting.

We’re dropped right in to the action with first two alternating chapters showing us Lom and Kantor, the man he’s sent to catch, but we’re not overwhelmed.  The world-building is done in passing as we focus on Lom and Kantor and their associates as they go on their separate and inter twinning missions.

One of the strengths here is that Lom seems impervious to the dangers around him but the reader is made aware of the bigger picture and the real trouble that he could, and does eventually, end up finding himself in.

As the opening to a sequence it has a very curt ending, which shuts one door and invites another to open, rather than leave on a cliff hanger. Not that Higgins needed to leave the characters in a precocious position as there is lots of dangers and trouble for Lom to get himself straight back into into especially with Kantor (and his angel patron) having an agenda they are fair from completing and the issue  bleeding of one world into the potential of another.

Oh, didn’t I mention the bleeding of realities? I didn’t mention the scary stone angels enough, or the use of angel skin. I didn’t mention that the water seems alive and the forest is interfering too.

Wolfhound Century left me feeling that I’d read a special combination of an inspired writer with a skilled imagination.

Haroun and the Sea of StoriesSpeaking of skilled imaginations I read my first Salman Rushdie thanks to the Hear…Read This!’s January Book Club Choices. The first of which is Haroun and the Sea of Stories and it reminded be very much of The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, so much so in fact that I wonder if Catherine Valante had read it a some point? I don’t mean the story but in the way that a child from ‘now’ interacts with a hidden fantasy world.

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this one, though I wasn’t keen on starting Artful either, as I didn’t know how Rushdie would handle telling a children’s story and I was totally surprised how wonderful it was. Haroun’s father is the greatest of all storytellers but one day something goes wrong and all his stories dry up, something that Haroun feels is his fault but he gets the chance to visit the Sea of Stories and to restore his father’s story tap.

And it’s as bizarre as that, unlike Valente which resists the modern, Rushdie includes machines and mechanisms that ground his imaginative world.  Rather than being a lone child’s adventure Haroun has an unexpected family member around him. And that gives it a very different feel. Rushdie’s quirky characters mix with the sense of India (though one of initials and valleys) to create something completely removed from reality to form a place of pure storytelling pleasure. It’s not a dark tale, though are elements of ‘danger’ but nothing that’s going to scar small children. It has some nice, but not laboured, moral messages, especially about girls/women having to hide who they really are to get on in a man’s world and another about the power of stories to change the world.

If you have any imagination and you love a fairytale then Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one for you.

artful-by-ali-smithThe odd one out in this list is the very literary Ali Smith’s Artful, well you may think that, but you’d be wrong. It’s very much in No Cloak’s Allowed territory as it starts with a ghost story, a story that weaves its way around four linked lectures. Smith is playing with form and function here and at the beginning I couldn’t understand the switching from the narrator telling us their story and then switching to the lectures on time, on form, on edge and on offer and on reflection but there was a point where I stopped being annoyed by the lecturing tone and relaxed into taking on board what was being said, even if the messages were being mixed together.

You see the narrator is reading you the unfinished lectures from her partner and ghostly visitor, which makes it quite moving the more you read.

I was left thinking that people haunt themselves with the idea of the dead but if the dead actually did haunt them they’d react and cope completely differently – a lesson our narrator leans quite harshly in the end.

And that’s what I’ve been reading. Now to finish ‘Crouch End’ by Stephen King and to write that next short story review.

SFR: Payment Due by Francis Hardinge (2012)

Under My HatTitle:  Payment Due
Author: Francis Hardinge
Source: Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron ed by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: Sharp

One Line Review: When a girl’s gran can’t afford her bills her granddaughter takes revenge, which Hardinge does in an imaginative way.

One Paragraph Review: This 15 page short introduces us to a girl who lives with her gran and while at school her gran lets in a bailiff. What happens from there shows Hardinge has a bit of a twisted streak. The granddaughter takes matters into her own hands and well…sorts it out. A nice little twist happens as it veers off into a more magical direction than I expected. The ending line is perhaps a little too mirroring but Haringe doesn’t seem the sentimental sort. My first Hardinge but not my last as I’ve been hearing lots of very good things for a while.

SFR: A Handful of Ashes by Garth Nix (2012)

Under My HatTitle:  A Handful of Ashes
Author: Garth Nix
Source: Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron ed by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: Enchanting

One Line Review: A privileged teenage witch picks on less privileged one, which sets the victim on a race against time to save Ermine College

One Paragraph Review: Over 41 pages this YA tale manages to invoke a witches school, a lead character you want to root for and has a challenging, but not oversized, ordeal for the heroine to go through. Magical schools are overshadowed by JK Rowling’s creation but there is always scope for other writers to tell their own unique tales. And this one does, you immediately see how unfair things are for Mari as she is summoned as a servant and then humiliated seemingly because she’s a poor student and not a rich one but Nix uses that disparage to unsteady and to give a moral lesson to the reader – not a heavy handed one as it’s nicely done. He also shows imaginative flare with flying witches, bone wands, and the meaning of ash.

 

Enjoyable. 

… and so should you! :D