Sunday, October 7, 2018

Mr. Zero, by Patricia Wentworth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that going to a book signing always results in the purchase of more books. At least that is my experience at Murder by the Book. I get there well ahead of time, and then I wander through the shelves. Each visit, I check for new releases in the British Library Crime Classics series. I also check for Patricia Wentworth's books. There are some lovely new re-issues of the Miss Silver books, which I've managed to resist while I have my battered reading copies. The Dean Street Press re-issues of the stand-alone books, the ones without Miss Silver, are a different matter. Here, though, I have become selective. I've found that the earlier books, from the 1920s, are entertaining enough but sometimes a little thin for my tastes, sometimes verging on the silly. I think the books from the later 1930s and the 1940s are the best. This week I found two from 1938, Mr. Zero and Run! - the exclamation point in the title gives that one some urgency.

When I felt like a break from my recent science fiction diet, I chose Mr. Zero, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As much as I enjoy the period illustrations on the DSP editions, though, they don't usually relate to the book itself. The cover for this one is particularly misleading:

At no point does a character lounge around provocatively en deshabille, and to my mind that image looks more like the 1920s than a woman in 1938.

The "Mr. Zero" of the title is a blackmailer. His victim Sylvia Colesborough has lost £500 at cards and cannot confess the loss to her husband, who has forbidden her to play for money. Mr. Zero offers to make good her loss, on the condition that she steal a document from the Home Secretary during a weekend house party. Sylvia complies, but she is then met with a second demand, to extract more documents - from her own husband. At this point she panics, and with her sister enlists the reluctant help of their old school friend Gay Hardwicke. When Gay tries to confront the blackmailer, she walks instead on Sylvia holding a gun next to a dead body. But it is her escort Algy Sommers, a secretary to the Home Secretary, who becomes the prime suspect.

This is quite an exciting story, with a neat twist at the end. I guessed the identity of one of the villains, mainly because there was such a small cast to choose from, but I didn't expect the second to pop up. I must say that I have rarely met a stupider character than Sylvia Colesborough. Though fun to read about, she infuriated most of the others in the book. At one point the Chief Constable "Colonel Anstruther was given up to whole-hearted wonder as to why, if murder was the order of the day, Lady Colesborough had escaped."

Drawn into the case is the local doctor and coroner, Dr. Hammond. He is at home with his wife Judith, asleep next to him, when he recollects a vital clue. He wakes Judith from a dream about a child to tell her. "'What fellow?' said Judith, half cross and half forlorn. Perhaps she and Jim would never have a child. Perhaps -" I ended the book wondering if we might meet the Hammonds again, and if Judith ever had her baby. Miss Silver is always relaying news of marriages and births in her books, not to mention knitting for the babies. I don't remember any characters crossing over in the stand-alone books, though.

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I was looking to add more science fiction to my reading, Mary Robinette Kowal's books came highly recommended. The Calculating Stars was the first that I found in the bookstore, and its back cover blurb sold me on the spot:
     Pilot, Physicist, Wife
    On a cold spring day in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to Earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington, D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render Earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
    Elma York's experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition's attempts to put man on the moon, as a computer. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved in the program, it doesn't take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can't go into space, too.
    Elma's drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
This is such a great story. I am not usually a fan of dystopian fiction, but there was a terrible fascination in reading about this cataclysm and watching its effects spread around the world. Elma and her husband Nathaniel, who were working together at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics before the Meteor, quickly realize that this could be an extinction event for the Earth. However, they have a hard time convincing people that something even worse than the Meteor is coming. Luckily, the highest-ranking Cabinet member to survive, now the President, is the former Secretary of Agriculture. He knows enough about weather patterns to understand and accept their arguments.

Elma and Nathaniel, who lost almost all of their family in the catastrophe, throw themselves into their work. I loved their strong, supportive marriage. They are true partners, both in work and in their relationship. Elma needs Nathaniel's support, as they struggle against the conventional sexism of the International Aerospace Coalition, and she has it every step of the way. Her experience as a pilot in World War II, her work as a "computer" solving the complex equations that underlie their work, her advanced degrees - all are discounted because of her gender. And she is instantly dismissed when she raises the question of sending women into space, despite her argument that if the IAC intends to establish colonies and communities, women will have to be present. I shared Elma's frustration as she is dismissed and belittled, as men mock the very idea of "astronettes." That part of the story felt so very timely.

At the same time, Elma comes up against her own assumptions and prejudices when they are billeted with an African American couple (housing in the nation's new capitol is scarce). Raised in Charleston, she realizes that she has never been in a black person's home. She also comes to see that black men are excluded from the astronaut project. Trying to argue the case for women astronauts, she is introduced to a group of African American women pilots, who educate her on the discrimination they have faced. It was interesting watching Elma struggle with these new ideas, and work out relationships with potential allies, bonding in part over a shared love of flying. Ms. Kowal has talked about the push-back she has gotten from people for including one black character as a computer working with Elma's group. These people apparently missed Hidden Figures completely. Both the book and the film are included in a "Historical Note" at the end of this book. That and the bibliography that follows are adding to my reading list.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mary Robinette Kowal speak at Murder by the Book this week, at a shared event with Martha Wells. I was thrilled to get my "Lady Astronaut Club" membership card, though I can't bring myself to write my name on it yet.

Isn't that a gorgeous cover?

I already have the sequel, The Fated Sky, on the TBR stacks, and I was happy to hear there will be a third book. I also found a novella, "The Lady Astronaut of Mars," which if I understood correctly was written first. But even worse for my TBR stacks, I also found the Ms. Kowal has written a series set in the Regency, "in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality." John at Murder by the Book said they're Jane Austen with magic, and I was powerless to resist.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

This book set off my inner book evangelist. I had somehow gotten the impression that it was set in Edwardian England, but it is actually fantasy. It opens in a hospital, where Dr. Miles Singer has just gotten a memo ordering him to release sixteen of his patients by the end of the week, to make room for new admissions. Soldiers from his home country of Aeland will be returning victorious from the recently-ended war with Laneer, and many will need care. Miles, himself a veteran of the war, is concerned that the vets already under his care are experiencing fits of homicidal rage.

Then an emergency case arrives at the hospital's doors: a dying man who says his name is Nick Elliot. He tells Miles, "Help me, Starred One. I am murdered." Calling Miles "Sir Christopher," Elliot says that he was poisoned, he asks him to find his murderer, and he tells him "The soldiers . . .they deserve the truth." Miles, who has magical powers that can aid healing, sees that the man has a magical aura, a witch's aura, and before Elliot dies on the examining table, he passes power on to Miles. Watching everything from a corner of the room is the man who carried him into the hospital, who introduces himself as Tristan Hunter. When Miles realizes what Hunter has seen and heard, he panics. Accusations of witchcraft will get Miles sent to an asylum. But if he is outed as Christopher Hensley, his family will reclaim him. In the upper levels of society to which his family belongs, those with magic aren't sent to asylums, they are bound to another, who draws off the power to fuel their own. It was to escape life as a bound Secondary that Miles fled his family and changed his name, to study medicine and then join the army.

Tristan Hunter doesn't want to out Miles. He wants his help, to find out who murdered Nick Elliot and why. As a gesture of good faith, he shows Miles that he too has power, and Miles agrees to help him. Meanwhile, Miles is also trying to figure out why his veterans talk of someone inside their heads, inciting them to rage and violence. He can use his power to help them, but always at the risk of revealing himself. As the two investigations proceed, we learn more about Aeland, about Miles' world, about the war with Laneer, and about Tristan, who carries some deep secrets of his own. He and Miles form a partnership and a cautious friendship. And then Miles, forced to attend a hospital function, meets his sister Grace again. He fled his family to avoid being bound as her Secondary. Grace promises that she won't bind him against his will, but their father will not let him escape again.

I enjoyed this book so much. Miles is a very sympathetic character and also a complex one, carrying his multiple identities. He is fighting to care for his soldier patients, but he also wants the murderer of Nick Elliot brought to justice. He has spent years hiding, both his identity and his magic. He too is dealing with the effects of the war, on himself as well as his patients. It was lovely to see him slowly learn to trust Tristan, whom he finds devastatingly attractive. Their investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, linked to the highest levels of the government as well as the asylums where suspected witches are confined. It's a very timely book, concerned with the use and abuse of power. Soldiers used by the government in its war, people with magic exploited by those who with greater power - and that exploitation runs deeper than Miles can imagine. It all builds to a shattering conclusion, one that seems to beg for a sequel. I hope C.L. Polk is writing one! I would love to meet Miles and Tristan again.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

I have been collecting recommendations for science fiction and fantasy authors lately, beyond the favorites that I read and re-read. Martha Wells' "Murderbot Diaries" have come strongly recommended, and she will be signing in a couple of weeks at my beloved Murder by the Book. She will be there with Mary Robinette Kowal, whose "Lady Astronaut" books are already on the TBR stacks.

When I checked into Martha Wells' books, I saw that she has also written other series, and one about shifters immediately caught my eye. The Cloud Roads is the first. It is the story of Moon, who as the first chapter opens "had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn't expected it from the Cordans." He can pass as a "groundling," one of the many human types who inhabit the planet, and who come in a variety of forms and skin colors. But Moon has a second form that he can shift into at will, with scales, claws, a tail, and wide wings. He has to hide this form from the groundlings he lives among, because it resembles the Fell, a race of beings that attacks groundling settlements and kills all the inhabitants. Moon is himself that only survivor of an attack that killed his mother and siblings, when he was an adolescent. He has survived since by hiding his true self, earning a place among groundling groups by hard work (and sometimes a bit of trickery). But eventually something always goes wrong, someone decides he is too different, a threat, and he is driven out.

When it plays out yet again, among the Cordans, Moon is unexpectedly rescued by a being like himself, though much larger and older. From his rescuer, called Stone, he learns that he is a Raksura. Moon knows nothing about his people. They come in two types, the winged variety like Moon and Stone, also called Aeriat, and the Arbora, without wings. The Raksura live in communities called courts. Solitaries like Moon are rare, and Stone invites him to his home court, Indigo Cloud. They arrive only to discover that the court is under threat of attack from the Fell. Moon also learns to his shock that he has a special role to play in the court, one Stone recognized but chose not to tell him about.

I was drawn into this story from the first page. Moon is a very sympathetic character, an outsider in both the groundling and Raksuran worlds, simply trying to survive. We see the Raksura through his eyes, as he tries to find a place in yet another alien community, an outsider facing the same hostility he has met his whole life. At least he has Stone to support him, and he does form some alliances. But the threat of the Fell hangs over everything, threatening to bring down the court before Moon can even find his place in it.

I suppose that this series qualifies as fantasy, more than science fiction. I'm not always clear on the divide. I know it's too simplistic to say that "science fiction involves spaceships," but that's always in the back of my mind. Whichever category it falls into, I am enjoying this series very much. I already have the next books from the library, and I look forward to learning more about the Raksura and Moon's adventures with them.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ghost stories

Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire

Let's see if I remember how to do this.

I didn't sign up for the R.I.P. reading event this year, but these books would have been perfect for it. They are the stories of Rose Marshall, who died in a car accident on the night of her prom, on Sparrow Hill Road, in Buckley Township, Michigan, back in 1952. Over the decades that followed, Rose became a famous ghost, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, The Girl in the Diner. Always looking like the teenager she was when she died, she is a "hitcher," a ghost looking for rides. And sometimes the people who give her rides end up dying on the road too.

Sparrow Hill Road introduces Rose and her world of the twilight, including the different types of ghosts who share it with her, and the humans who enter into it. The author calls it "a 'fix-up,' a collection of short stories strung together by a thin narrative thread." It didn't feel thin to me. I loved exploring Rose's world, learning her story, meeting the friends she has made on the road - and the enemies - and finding out why she is compelled to hitch those rides. I've heard those kind of stories before, told around a campfire or whispered in the dark. Rose's story felt so familiar, it was hard sometimes to remember that she never really lived and died.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is a novel, building off the stories in the first book. It is about an attempt to capture Rose, to finish off something that began back in 1952, when she was driven off the road to her death. It takes Rose out of her place in the twilight, leaving her lost and alone - and alive again. She must make her way back to death, but it's not as simple as contriving an accident. It is a bigger, more complicated story, with a twist at the end that I never saw coming. Though the ending is neat, it doesn't feel like the end of Rose's story. I hope there may be more to come.

I discovered Seanan McGuire through Twitter, but I hadn't read any of her books before I found The Girl in the Green Silk Gown on the library's new book shelves. Once I realized Sparrow Hill Road came first, I of course had to read it first. I'm looking forward to exploring her other series. Tor has a handy "where to start" page here.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Immersed in the "Golden Age of Crime"

It has been six weeks since the accident, and I am doing better but not fully recovered. My leg seems to be healing well, but I have lost hearing in one ear, on the side where I had the head injury. I went through some very strange tests, involving warm and cold air blown into my ears while I was wearing a mask - at one point I started to wonder if it was all actually some sort of elaborate prank! This week I'll hear the results of what I decided must be actual tests, and hopefully get some kind of prognosis and possibly a treatment plan.

On the positive side, I was able to go back to work. While this cut seriously into my reading time, and the first week was rough, it has been very good to get back into a routine, and also to get out of the house.

Over the past weeks, I have been immersed in the "Golden Age" of crime. Immediately after the accident, I found myself unable to read, or watch, anything with violence. The murder of a child and a cat in Elly Griffiths' The Crossing Places really upset me. After that, I turned to Miss Silver, and then to Albert Campion. I re-read two of Margery Allingham's books, Police at the Funeral and More Work for the Undertaker. Then I picked up Julia Jones' biography, The Adventures of Margery Allingham. From it I learned that Allingham wrote a novel based on her family, The Galantrys (the UK title is Dance of the Years). I immediately added that to my reading list, though Jones describes it as "uneven." But then I lost interest in the biography, and went back to the mysteries.

Next I picked up The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, a history of "the writers who invented the modern detective story." He profiles the authors who founded the Detection Club, including of course Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. I recognize many of the other names from the compilations of mysteries that he has edited for the British Library Crime Classics series. I cannot resist them or their beautiful covers. (The most recent, Blood on the Tracks, a collection of railway stories, comes out in the US in August.) The Golden Age of Murder is packed full of fascinating stories, about the authors, their books, and real-life crimes that sometimes inspired them. But it's also inspiring me to set it down in favor of the books he writes about. I checked a couple of Miss Marple books out from the library today. I was surprised to read that Georgette Heyer declined an invitation to join the Detection Club. Martin Edwards suggests it was because her husband (a barrister) supplied the plots for her mysteries. I'm currently reading her Behold, Here's Poison, and I remember how the murder was done, but not who done it. I may return to Josephine Tey next. She never joined the Club, perhaps because she was rarely in London. And I was sorry to read that Patricia Wentworth was never even invited to join. I also have The Floating Admiral on the TBR shelves, the first book written collaboratively by Detection Club members. I didn't realize that they went on to write several others, which may or may not end up on the shelves as well. Martin Edwards points out that there were just as many men publishing in the "Golden Age," even though the "Queens of Crime" are better-known today. I have enjoyed some of their short stories, but except for H.C. Bailey, I haven't been inspired to read more of their work.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Life interrupted

Eleven days ago, I got hit by a car - an SUV actually. I was walking across the street from my office to go retrieve a file. Because I cross this intersection multiple times a week, and because I pay attention to traffic, I was as always careful. I waited for the walk sign, and waited to be sure no one was turning without looking, but it didn't save me that day. I don't remember getting hit, I just woke up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Because I had bleeding in my brain, I was kept in ICU for three days. Thankfully, that cleared up. Unlike Jenny at Reading the End, I didn't break my neck. But I have a fractured leg, with a large brace, a walker AND crutches. Also, an amazingly-painful cracked rib. I had no idea how bad that could be. And a head wound. I was awake when they put staples in it, but taking the staples out was exponentially worse. At least my spectacular black eye is fading. At a store the other day, an older white man gave me a Scripture citation and then asked, "Who hit you?" When I answered "an SUV," it literally rocked him back a step.

Of course, it all could have been so much worse (and still could be, I suppose, since I am still seeing doctors and haven't been medically cleared). But I have survived, and my brain has cleared enough that I can read again. Those few days, without the comfort of books, and the constant thought that, what if my mind doesn't clear - those were bleak days.

Family members rushed to Houston, and I have been so blessed with friends taking care of me, and the cats as well. Yesterday someone sent me a small box of warm cookies and a bottle of chocolate milk, and I was caught between laughter and tears (and instant greed).

I am not able to manage much right now, but I can read. I am finding Donna Leon and Elly Griffiths, new authors to me, very welcome distractions. I will probably be reading much more in e-books, since I can't get to the library on my own. Or anywhere else - the sudden dependence is sobering, despite my wonderful friends offering to chauffeur me. I don't know how much writing I will be able to do, since it's difficult to sit comfortably with the brace. But then it would probably be a good thing to keep the little grey cells moving.

Truly, life can change in an instant. I never fully understood that before.