Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

My Review:

I really wish that the Atticus Pünd series existed, because the one we got in Magpie Murders was absolutely marvelous. I’d dearly love to read the rest of the series.

What we have, however, is the final book in the series, encased within a framing story about the death of the fictitious author of this fictitious book, and the many, many ways in which art seems to be imitating life – or vice versa.

The story begins with its frame. Susan Ryeland, editor at a small but prestigious publishing house, settles in for the weekend to read the latest manuscript by her least favorite and most favorite author. Susan loves Alan Conway’s work, but the man himself is far from lovable.

As Susan settles in to read, we do too. We read Magpie Murders by Alan Conway right along with her. And it is a marvelous take on the Golden Age of mystery, reading as though it should sit on the shelf beside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The detective, the perpetual outsider, comes to a small English village to investigate what turn out to be a series of murders. It’s an absorbing case, and the readers, along with Susan herself, are sucked right into the mid-1950s, the mind of the detective and the murderous goings on of this otherwise unremarkable little place.

Until the story ends abruptly, and we, as well as Susan, are left wondering “who done it?”. The last chapter of Magpie Murders is missing. And its author has just been found dead, an apparent suicide.

So Susan begins by hunting for that missing chapter, and finds herself hunting for the truth about Alan Conway’s life, and about his death. By the time those missing pages are found, Susan has uncovered much more than she, or anyone else, could have bargained for.

After all the times when she has blurbed that “reading such-and-such’s latest book changed her life”, just this once, it’s all too true.

Escape Rating B+: Magpie Murders is really two books in one. There’s a classic historical mystery sandwiched within the pages of a contemporary mystery thriller. And for this reader, the historical mystery wins out.

I absolutely adored Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. It was both a wonderful homage to the mysteries of the Golden Age, and a terrific case itself. Atticus Pünd would make a wonderful addition to the ranks of series detectives, right up there with Poirot, Marple, Wimsey and the rest. In its post-WWII time period, it takes the reader back to a simpler but no less deadly time, and its play on the locked room/locked house mystery keeps the reader guessing.

It gave me a tremendous yen to pick up a “real” historical mystery at the first opportunity. It reminded me how much I love the genre, and gave me a hankering to return. Or just to re-watch Poirot.

The abrupt ending to Conway’s novel jarred me almost as much as it did Susan Ryeland. I felt cheated. I wanted to know who the killer was every bit as much as she did. But I had a difficult time getting into the framing story.

In fact, I started the book once, couldn’t get into it, and then picked it up on audio. Listening to it got me over the hump, to the point where I was so captivated by Pünd’s story that I changed the audio back for the book, so that I could find out whodunnit that much more quickly – only to be disappointed when Susan discovers that the final chapter is missing.

Susan’s own quest turned out to be fascinating as well, but for some reason I didn’t find her as sympathetic or interesting a character to follow as the even more fictional Pünd.

The problem is that Pünd, while a bit distant in the traditional detectival mold, is a sympathetic character and seems to be a generally nice man. We want him to succeed. Alan Conway, on the other hand, will not be missed by anyone, except possibly his publishers.

Conway’s series is the marquee title for small but prestigious Cloverleaf Books. It’s their one big moneymaker, and it tides them over an awful lot of less successful ventures. Conway, or rather Atticus Pünd, pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But no one likes Conway. There are certainly people who benefit from his death in the direct, traditional way, but there are even more who are just happy at his absence from this earth, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with Susan’s lover. While there are plenty of people who will miss Atticus Pünd, no one will miss his author.

Susan finds herself with plenty of motives, too many suspects, and a police investigation that is all too happy to consider it suicide and close the case. There’s plenty of evidence to support that theory, and damn little to support anything else.

Until Susan starts digging, and nearly digs her own grave. In the end, no one is certain that good triumphed and evil got its just desserts. Not even Susan. And that’s what makes the contemporary thriller less satisfying than the historical mystery it contains. Mystery, as a great writer once said, is the romance of justice. Good is supposed to triumph, evil is supposed to get those just desserts. When that formula is subverted, as it is in the contemporary frame for Magpie Murders, it feels wrong, at least for this reader. While there may be a metaphor in there about the world being more complicated than it used to be, or that the real world isn’t half so neat and tidy as fiction, the framing story is also fiction. I want my neat and tidy ending, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t there.

But we do finally get to read Atticus Pünd’s last chapter. And that was well worth waiting for.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La FargeThe Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, thriller
Pages: 389
Published by Penguin Press on March 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.
Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends--or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story The Night Ocean); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan -- the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City.
The Night Ocean is about love and deception -- about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.

My Review:

Originally, The Night Ocean was a short story written by Robert H. Barlow and H.P. Lovecraft. Mostly by Barlow.

However, this version of The Night Ocean is ostensibly, although not actually ABOUT Barlow and Lovecraft. It’s a Russian nesting doll of a story, with story inside story inside story, all of them told by unreliable narrators, one more so than the others.

And yet, at the same time, much of the story is true – it just didn’t happen to the people who said it happened to them. Or did it?

Charlie Willett committed suicide. Or he didn’t. His journey parallels that of Robert H. Barlow, or it doesn’t. Or that of L.C. Spinks. Or maybe not. Or maybe Charlie just got lost along the way.

His wife (or possibly widow) Marina, finds that she can’t quite let Charlie go. There’s no body, so it is all too easy to imagine that Charlie is still alive. In order to find her closure, or expiate her grief, or both, Marina sets herself on the trail of Charlie’s last days and final quest, and that’s where Lovecraft (and Barlow and Spinks) come in.

Charlie was both a writer and a dream, and one of the things he dreams of writing is about H.P. Lovecraft, that famous, and infamous, writer of horror fiction and Weird Tales. Lovecraft was famous, among other things, for writing about mythical books, notably the Necronomicon, that bane of librarians everywhere. (It doesn’t exist, it never existed, but every generation of Lovecraftians persists in searching libraries for it)

Although the Necronomicon never existed, Charlie dreams of finding another one of Lovecraft’s mythical tomes. And falls into a wild goose chase for an entirely different apocryphal work, the Erotonomicon.

Charlie gets taken for a long, sad and ultimately costly if not tragic, ride. And Marina, whether out of love or guilt, follows along after him.

It’s a strange journey, as weird as any of Lovecraft’s tales, that winds from Arkham to Florida to Mexico City to Parry Sound on Lake Huron in Canada, with stops along the way in New York City, at the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee, and the beginnings of science fiction fandom.

And it’s only when Marina exposes the spider at the heart of this web that she has even a chance at escaping from this very weird tale. Just when she does, it drags her back in. Or does it?

Escape Rating B: This story has so many aspects, that I think each reader is going to be reading a different book, depending on which parts grabbed them and stuck. Like a jellyfish.

A lot of people are going to pick this up because of the H.P. Lovecraft connection, which doesn’t feel quite as large as the blurb makes it out to be. Characters enter this story because of their connection to Lovecraft, but it isn’t really about him. If it’s about anything in reference to him, it’s about all of the friends, fans and controversy that swirls in the wake of his relatively short and continually controversial life.

The part of this story that grabbed me and hung on was the rather deep dive into the early years of science fiction fandom. And even though the narrator of those parts of the story is completely unreliable, the story itself matches historical fact. Those were the people at the center of those early days, and that was how they behaved and what happened to them.

For those of us who have been involved in fandom, even tangentially, it is fascinating to feel like a witness to those early days, and to see people that we knew at the end of their lives as young, ambitious and more than occasionally stupid. Certainly arrogant. But still visionary, even if we never did get our flying cars.

And it is part of the seduction of the book, and of Charlie and Marina Willett that these stories are true, it’s only their setting that’s false. The characters and personalities of those people feels a bit more real than either Charlie or Marina, who in the end become vehicles to tell someone else’s story.

A story that isn’t even really theirs.

I was grabbed and startled by this book early on, when Charlie discovers the surreptitious publication of the Erotonomicon and the absolutely scathing response to it by the scandalized science fiction community. One of those scathing responses is from well-known fan (and author) Wilson “Bob” Tucker in his fanzine Le Zombie. I knew Bob Tucker in the early 1990s, and the quote certainly sounds like him. It was also beyond weird to have someone I knew appear in a book.

Ironically, one of the things that Tucker was famous for was a practice that was named for him, Tuckerization. Tuckerization is the insertion of a real person’s name (and sometimes other characteristics) into an otherwise fictitious story. Today, this is often done for charity. But now that I’ve finished the book, I find it funny that Tucker was himself Tuckerized in The Night Ocean.

Tucker’s appearance in the story added to the verisimilitude so much that I went on my own wild goose chase, hunting for the cited issue of Le Zombie. But that issue is not preserved. So it all could have happened. Just like Marina and Charlie, I too got caught up in the desire to believe this was all real.

Reviewer’s Note: I listed to the audiobook of this one, and I think it made the story more compelling, as the structure of the book is that its variations are often being told by one person to another, rather than being read or happening in the present. However, I discovered when I looked at the print copy that the audiobook narrator left out the footnotes. For those familiar with the history, the footnotes are interesting but not necessary. But a reader who is not already familiar with the early history of science fiction fandom, and admittedly that’s most people, is going to lose some of the context and the verisimilitude by the omission of those notes.

Review: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Review: Moonglow by Michael ChabonMoonglow by Michael Chabon, George Newbern
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 430
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on November 22nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Following on the heels of his New York Times–bestselling novel Telegraph Avenue, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon delivers another literary masterpiece: a novel of truth and lies, family legends, and existential adventure—and the forces that work to destroy us.
In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California, to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis of the novel Moonglow, the latest feat of legerdemain in the ongoing magic act that is the art of Michael Chabon.
Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession, made to his grandson, of a man the narrator refers to only as “my grandfather.” It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies. A gripping, poignant, tragicomic, scrupulously researched and wholly imaginary transcript of a life that spanned the dark heart of the twentieth century, Moonglow is also a tour de force of speculative history in which Chabon attempts to reconstruct the mysterious origins and fate of Chabon Scientific, Co., an authentic mail-order novelty company whose ads for scale models of human skeletons, combustion engines and space rockets were once a fixture in the back pages of Esquire, Popular Mechanics and Boy’s Life. Along the way Chabon devises and reveals, in bits and pieces whose hallucinatory intensity is matched only by their comic vigor and the radiant moonglow of his prose, a secret history of his own imagination.
From the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of New York’s Wallkill Prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of “the American Century,” Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring, his most moving, his most Chabonesque.

My Review:

I listened to Moonglow, and finished a few days ago. Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. It’s a book that makes the reader think. And in my case, feel.

One of those sets of thoughts regards belief, particularly the reader’s belief in how much of this narrative is true, and how much is fictional. And possibly where that blurry line is in the middle.

If, as the quotation says, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth” then which parts are relatively factual and which are stitched up out of the ‘whole cloth’ doesn’t really matter. The story as a whole still feels true.

It’s a story about the ongoing costs of World War II, particularly on the generation that fought and survived that brutal war. It is also a story about one particular family, a family for whom, as the narrator says, “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from.”

This is the author’s attempt to profit from that family business, both in the literal sense, the hope that the book is a success (which it is), and in the figurative sense of finally laying some of the family ghosts to rest. Or at least of getting the family skeletons out of their hidden closets and finally burying the old bones.

Escape Rating B: On the one hand, I got caught up in Moonglow. On the other, I set it aside for an entire week while on a trip where I didn’t have the chance to listen to it. On my alien third hand, I was able to slip right back into it when I returned.

What made that easier was that the story is not told in a chronological narrative. Instead, the bits and pieces of the life of the author’s grandfather (we never do hear his name) is told in flashes and slightly loopy flashbacks. The man is in the final week of his life, dying of cancer, and pumped up with some major drugs to alleviate his pain. Or make it at least bearable, yet still something that they don’t always seem to accomplish.

But the drugs open the floodgates of memory, not because the man has forgotten anything, but because he was never one to tell stories, and certainly not about himself. It is a fascinating story, one that moves to and from the old Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia to the concentration camps of WW2 to NASA to a retirement community in Florida, with stops along the way in Operation Paperclip, space booster conventions, Wallkill Prison in NY and the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of Chabon Scientific Company, where his grandfather crisscrossed the country attempting to pick up the pieces of his son-in-law’s misrepresentations and lies as a way of helping his daughter get back on her feet. He certainly didn’t do it for his son-in-law.. The author’s grandfather was a very busy man.

The parts of the story that stick in the mind, or at least my mind, were the parts about Operation Paperclip and its aftermath. The author’s grandfather was part of what was then a top-secret mission to sweep up as many of the Nazi scientists as possible and give them safe homes and sanitized backstories in the U.S. The intent, of course, was that they could continue their work, and do it for the U.S. and not the Soviet Union. Operation Paperclip, and its “capture” of Wernher Von Braun led directly to the U.S. Space Program. And also to lots of questions later about whether the ends justified the means. Those questions remain unanswered.

The harrowing scenes from this part of the story reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five. War is always hell.

But unlike in Slaughterhouse, we see more of the story after the war. And somehow the author makes what should have been a mundane life emblematic of the post-war years. It helps that the life he chronicles seems to have been anything but mundane.

And what he learns about his family, and himself, makes him re-think so much of what he always assumed to be true. So do we.

Although I can describe the plot, well, more or less, the power in this book was that while it told me the author’s hidden family stories, it also made me think about my own family. Some of the stories, and certainly some of the circumstances, parallel a tiny bit. And there are hidden stories that changed things upon their reveal. And it made me wonder how much of the circumstances of his grandfather’s life would parallel that of my own parents.

And the Chabon Scientific debacle, whether real or a metaphor, made me dredge up an old memory. The author’s references to the less than savory actions of both his father and his mother’s uncle made me think of something that my family would have said. In the end, they both turned out to be “no-goodniks from no-goodniksville”. And I hear those comments in voices that I have not heard for decades.

As I said at the beginning, the story made me think, and it made me feel. And it made me remember.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + GiveawayThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #1
Pages: 334
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new
universe.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

My Review:

My first thought upon finishing The Collapsing Empire was “Oh…My…GOD

The second was that rolling your eyes while driving is a really bad idea, especially if you do it OFTEN. Actually I had that though much earlier in the book, when I was doing a LOT of eye rolling. The ending is far from an eye roll situation, but the advice still stands.

So i’m back to the Oh My God reaction, which I’m still hearing in Wil Wheaton’s voice as the reader of The Collapsing Empire. Which I listened to, pretty much everywhere, sometimes rolling my eyes, often smiling or even outright laughing, from the surprising beginning to the even more astonishing end.

Which isn’t really an end, because it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger story, which I hope we get Real Soon Now, but don’t actually expect for a year or more.

So what was it?

The title both does and doesn’t give it away The Empire, in this case the human empire that calls itself the Interdependency, is about to collapse. Not due to warfare or anything so prosaic, but because, well, science. The interstellar network that keeps the far-flung reaches of the Interdependency interdependent is on the verge of an unstoppable collapse.. So what we have at the moment is the story of the maneuvering and machinations as what passes for the powers that be, or that hope to be the powers that become, jockey for position (and survival) in the suddenly onrushing future.

And humans being humans, while some panic there are a whole lot of people who remain so invested in the status quo that they are unwilling to act because any actions upset their positions now, and they hope, very much against hope, that the predictions are wrong. Not because they really believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE wrong, but because they want them to be wrong so very badly.

Any resemblance between the Interdependency and 21st century America is probably intended – but agreeing or disagreeing with that statement doesn’t change the sheer rushing “WOW” of the story.

That story of the empire that’s about to collapse is primarily told through the eyes of four very, very different people (not that the side characters aren’t themselves quite fascinating). But as things wind up, and as the empire begins to wind down, we get our view of the impending fall mostly from these four, or people who surround them.

The first is Ghreni Nohamapeton, the most frequent source of my eye-rolling. Ghreni is a slippery manipulative little bastard, but he is about to be hoist on his own petard. Or possibly not. He thinks he knows what’s coming, and of course, he doesn’t. Or does he?

Kiva Lagos may possibly be the most profane character it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, in literature or out of it. And her constant, continuous cursing sounds a bit much in an audiobook, but perfectly fits her character. Kiva is also manipulative as hell, and mercenary into the bargain. But somewhere between the hells, damns and f-bombs, there’s a heart. Or at least the desire to one-up Ghreni that provides some of the same functionality.

Marce Claremont is about to be the bearer of very bad tidings – if he can survive being the chew toy between Ghreni and Kiva long enough to deliver his message. And even though he knows that the delivery of it means that he really, really can’t go home again. Ever.

And finally we have Cardenia Wu, the recent and very reluctant Emperox of the Interdependency. A woman who is about to experience the very extreme end of that old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” As a great man once said, “Some gifts come at just too high a price.” And that’s true whether you have to dance with the devil to get them, or just roll dice with fate.

Escape Rating A: I listened to this, and also have the ebook. I expected to switch between, but in the end just couldn’t tear myself away from Wil Wheaton’s marvelous reading. He does a terrific job with all of the voices, and adds even more fun to a book that was already fantastic.

But I need that ebook to look up all the names. It seems as if none of them are spelled quite the way they sound. And the ship’s names are an exercise in absurdity from beginning to end. (This aspect may be an homage to the late Iain Banks’ Culture series). But the first ship we meet is the “Tell Me Another One” which is this reader’s general response to Scalzi’s work. I want him to tell me another one, as soon as possible. But also, and as usual, everyone’s leg is getting pulled more than a bit, and not from the same direction.

Lots of things in this story made me smile, quite often ruefully. The scenario is painful, and as this book closes we know that the situation in general is only going to get worse, and possibly not get better. But for the individuals, life is going on. And the characters exhibit all of the sarcasm that this author is known for.

Some of it has the ring of gallows humor to it, and that’s also right. No one is likely to come out of this unscathed by the end, and that’s obvious to the reader from the beginning, even if not to the characters.

This is also a story of merchant empires and political skullduggery. And yes, there is plenty of commentary on that aspect to chew on for a long time, quite possibly until the next book in the series. Like so much of Scalzi’s work, The Collapsing Empire makes the reader laugh, and it makes the reader think, quite often at the same time.

Ghreni and Kiva both represent different ways in which the current systems of the Interdependency have been taken to their extreme limit. But Marce and Cardenia are the characters that we sympathize with. They are both operating against impossible odds, and we like them and want them to succeed. Whether they will or not is left to the subsequent books in this series.

And I really, really, really can’t wait to see what happens next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because this is part of my annual Blogo-Birthday celebration, I want to share the love. And the books. John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and I hope he’ll become one of yours too. To that end, I’m giving away one copy of any of Scalzi’s works, (up to $20) to one lucky commenter on this post. This giveaway includes The Collapsing Empire, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Scalzi, Old Man’s War is probably the best place to begin.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Review: Hounded by Kevin HearneHounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #1) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid #1
Pages: 292
Published by Brilliance Audio on October 28th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old—when in actuality, he’s twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.
Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power—plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish—to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

My Review:

Because I love urban fantasy, friends have been recommending the Iron Druid series to me for years, and because I get perverse when people push too hard, I haven’t gotten around to it. Until now. And one of these days maybe I’ll learn to ignore that particular quirk of mine, because just like other books that friends have frequently and heartily recommended (I’m thinking of Legion and Thieftaker here), the Iron Druid series, at least on first introduction, is absolutely awesome.

Hounded is just full of the kind of irreverent snark that I expect from the best urban fantasy, while telling a great story that is anchored in the real world. And as the first book in the series, it introduced me to a fantastic character (in multiple senses of fantastic) in Atticus O’Sullivan, the last remaining druid.

Atticus claims to be 21, and looks the part, as the cover pictures indicate fairly well. But Atticus isn’t 21 years old, as he lets people assume. He’s 21 centuries old, and was born in Celtic Ireland a millennium before the Common Era began.

And all the gods are real. Not just the Celtic pantheon to which Atticus still owes some allegiance, and to some of whom he still bears some grudges. But ALL the gods of all the pantheons either existed or have existed. (If this reminds you a bit of American Gods, it does me, too).

But speaking of those grudges, one of those Celtic gods is still harassing Atticus, centuries after losing a famous sword to the Druid in an epic battle. It turns out that the Celtic god of love is actually a selfish, self-centered and manipulative arsehole. And I just insulted arseholes, but in a way that Atticus would probably have approved.

So the short version of this story is that it is all about Angus Og manipulating people and events in order to finally get the great sword Fragarach back from Atticus. The long version of the story is much, much more interesting, as it introduces us to Atticus and all the people in his world, from his werewolf and vampire lawyers (all Vikings) to his slightly dotty old neighbor, to his absolutely marvelous Irish wolfhound, Oberon, who always has his eye on his next sausage breakfast and dreams of harems of French poodles.

Along the way, we meet witches and demons, and get introduced to the gods of the Fae who still deign to mess with the lives of mortals, or at least with the life of Atticus O’Sullivan. Whether that’s for his good or his ill, or even a bit of both, is just part of the wonder of this story.

Escape Rating A: I loved this. And I can’t wait to go back. But this was such a marvelous treat, that I know I need to space them out a bit. Like Halloween candy. But even better, because no calories.

The story is told from the Atticus’ first-person perspective, something that worked particularly well in the audiobook. We hear what he hears, and we also hear what he thinks inside his own head, which is usually much snarkier than what comes out of his mouth – but not always. Listening to the book is like listening to Atticus’ own voice inside his head. It works.

One of the things that works really well is that Atticus is able to communicate with his dog Oberon. And Oberon, while slightly more intelligent than the average, is still very “doggy”. Oberon mostly lives in the now, and that’s a perspective that the 2100 year old Atticus needs to be reminded of every so often, and he recognizes it.

Also, Oberon’s comments on the events are frequently laugh out loud funny, and it’s impossible to resist smirking along with him. This can be a bit problematic if one is listening in public. Or at work.

As much as I enjoyed Atticus’ interesting blend of snark and sweet (his relationship with his elderly neighbor is precious – at least when they aren’t hiding dead bodies together) it is the action and adventure of the story that kept me on the edge of my seat, or sitting in my car waiting for Atticus to find his way out of whatever mess he’d just been dropped into. He’s been hiding in Tempe Arizona for years, and is none too happy when the Morrigan comes to tell him that Angus Og is after him yet again. But this time he decides to stand and defend the life he’s made, and it’s a marvelous tale from beginning to end.

Hexed is up next. Atticus doesn’t trust witches. And there’s a good reason. Again. Fantastic!

Review: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry GreenwoodMurder on the Ballarat Train (Miss Fisher's Murder Mystery #3) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #3
Pages: 151
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 3rd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When the 1920s most glamorous lady detective, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, arranges to go to Ballarat for the week, she eschews the excitement of her red Hispano-Suiza racing car for the sedate safety of the train. The last thing she expects is to have to use her trusty Beretta .32 to save lives.
As the passengers sleep, they are poisoned with chloroform. Phryne is left to piece together the clues after this restful country sojourn turns into the stuff of nightmares: a young girl who can t remember anything, rumors of white slavery and black magic, and the body of an old woman missing her emerald rings. Then there is the rowing team and the choristers, all deliciously engaging young men. At first they seem like a pleasant diversion ."

My Review:

I’ve watched Phryne, I’ve read Phryne, and now I’ve listened to Phryne, and she’s utterly marvelous no matter how she is experienced.

I’m absolutely certain that the “beautiful young man” in Murder on the Ballarat Train would wholeheartedly agree. Although his roommate probably would not.

That Phryne refers to the man she seduces, vamps and ravishes in this book as “the beautiful young man” multiple times is part of the reason that the character of Phryne seems much older than the 26 or so that the author purports her to be. Your mileage about Phryne’s mileage may vary.

The story in Murder on the Ballarat Train is possibly the opposite of Murder on the Orient Express, despite the similarity in titles. While everyone on the Orient Express wanted to murder that awful man, it seems that no one on the Ballarat Train hated Mrs. Henderson enough to murder her. Not even the adult daughter she regularly picked on and railed at.

It is, however, abundantly clear that the rather elderly Mrs. Henderson did not throw herself off the train, hang herself AND beat her own body to an absolute pulp afterwards. Nor did she fill the entire first-class carriage with sleeping gas. Somebody murdered her, even if Phryne can’t at first figure out how or why.

Neither can Phryne figure out who is responsible for the young girl who was hiding in the first-class toilet on that same train. The girl herself doesn’t even remember how she got there, why she hid there, or even who she is.

Phryne has multiple mysteries to solve. She’s just certain they must tie together somehow, even if she can’t determine exactly how that might be at the outset.

And she’s equally determined that no one will either abuse the young girl, or threaten the adult Miss Henderson, every again. Not while Phryne is on the case.

Escape Rating B+: In any format, the Phryne Fisher mysteries are an absolute lark from beginning to end, in spite of any of the dark corners of Melbourne or the human heart that Phryne might be forced to invade during the course of her investigation.

And it is those dark corners that keep Phryne, and the reader, on their toes. While the series is set in the 1920s, it was written in the 1990s. As much research as the author appears to have done to make sure that Phryne’s life and attitudes are those of a woman of her time, albeit an unusual and extremely adventurous one, the issues that Phryne runs into feel as contemporary to our time as they do to hers.

There are two villains in this story, and the one she finds by accident is much more evil than the one she hunts down deliberately. And while “white slavery” was often used as a scandalous threat of whispered evil in the gutter-press, it probably wasn’t as prevalent as yellow journalists made it out to be. Phryne’s investigation has nothing of the scandalized and salacious tone one might have expected in the 1920s. Instead, her pursuit of justice is coldly calculated to extract the maximum vengeance. The mesmerizing angle speaks of the 1920s, but Phryne’s reactions feel contemporaneous both to her time and our own.

I enjoyed this method of “reading” Phryne’s story just as much as I did reading it. I will, however, make one final note about the audio performance. In any audiobook where a single narrator attempts to voice multiple characters, some characters work better than others. That problem is made more difficult in the case of Phryne, as those of us who have watched the TV show already have a fixed idea of what these characters are supposed to sound like. The narrator of Murder at the Ballarat Train did an excellent job portraying Phryne, and surprisingly a fairly good job of making the male voices sound at least OK. But for some reason my ear kept telling me that Dot’s voice was completely off.

Which didn’t stop me from enjoying the whole thing immensely. I’m looking forward to picking up the next book in the series, Death at Victoria Dock, at my earliest opportunity.

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon SandersonSkin Deep (Legion #2) by Brandon Sanderson, Oliver Wyman
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #2
Pages: 208
Published by Audible Studios on November 24th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen Leeds, AKA “Legion,” is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the new story begins, Leeds and his “aspects” are hired by I3 (Innovative Information Incorporated) to recover a corpse stolen from the local morgue. But there’s a catch. The corpse is that of a pioneer in the field of experimental biotechnology, a man whose work concerned the use of the human body as a massive storage device. He may have embedded something in the cells of his now dead body. And that something might be dangerous…

What follows is a visionary thriller about the potential uses of technology, the mysteries of the human personality, and the ancient human need to believe that death is not the end. Legion: Skin Deep is speculative fiction at it most highly developed. It reaffirms Sanderson’s place as one of contemporary fiction’s most intelligent—and unpredictable—voices.

My Review:

Skin Deep is the sequel to Legion, and is set in the same universe with most of the same characters. Of course, most of those characters are Stephen Leeds’ aspects – the parts of his genius (and his psychoses) that he envisions as separate people that only he sees.

Like its predecessor, Skin Deep is also science fiction as mystery, and again, the science fictional element is in the case and not the setting. While the method that Stephen uses for dealing with his mental issues is unusual if not unique, there’s nothing particularly science fictional (or fantastic) about it. His aspects are, after all, all in his head.

Even if he does provide separate rooms in his mansion for each of them.

But the MacGuffin he has to find in this case is definitely SFnal. Or at least, I think it still is.

Stephen has been hired (read as slightly coerced by an unscrupulous friend) to find a corpse. But not just any corpse. In this case, it’s the corpse of a scientist who was experimenting with ways to use the human body as a computer. And like so many scientists, mad or otherwise, this one used his own body as his test subject.

Now that he’s dead, everyone wants to make sure that the code he embedded into his cells does not get into the wrong hands. Of course, there are several factions involved in the chase, each of whom believes that all the other parties constitute those “wrong hands”.

The body has disappeared. And it’s up to Stephen to locate it and make sure its secrets can’t be misused. Secrets that range anywhere from industrial espionage to a virus that causes cancer – and makes it a communicable disease into the bargain.

Everyone has an agenda. Including the assassin who has been hired to keep Stephen from finding that body – at all costs.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I found a work task that I could do without much thinking, just so that I could finish this book. I couldn’t wait any longer to see how it all played out.

One question for readers is just what you think of Stephen Leeds’ aspects. How do they relate to both his genius and his coping skills? And just how crazy is the man, anyway? He sees his knowledge, both of technical and scientific topics and just plain people-skills, as being embodied in one or more of these hallucinations. Which means that he also believes that if a particular aspect is not with him, he doesn’t have access to the skills and abilities they represent. Even more telling, or confusing, when one of them ‘dies’ he loses all access to whatever knowledge they possessed. Or that he believed they possessed.

It sounds confusing, but it is a fascinating way of dealing with the world. Many introverts probably will wish they had an ‘Ivy’ who is a psychologist but also seems to represent what few social skills Leeds possesses.

He’s actually a really nice guy, but his ability to interact with people is more than a bit geekishly ‘off’. We all have days when we could use an ‘Ivy’ to help us interact.

One of the more fascinating bits of the story was the point where Stephen and all of his aspects retreated to the ‘white room’ to work on the case. It is easy to fall into Stephen’s way of thinking, that all of the aspects are separate individuals, when we see all of them seeming to work independently. They aren’t real. Stephen knows they aren’t real. But some of them have difficulty believing that fact. And when they are investigating things he isn’t actively looking at, or interacting with each other to the point of having romantic relationships, it’s difficult for the reader not to fall into the trap of believing that they are real.

That way lies madness.

But the fun of this story, along with the suspense and the marvelous plot twist at the end, revolve around Stephen’s search for the corpse. A search in which, of course, nothing is as it seems.

It is the first time I’ve ever read of an assassination plot foiled by a hostile takeover. But the real solution to the mystery eluded me until the very end. As it should. Skin Deep was absorbing and a tremendous amount of fun. I sincerely hope that the author returns to these characters, because I really want to see what happens next!

Review: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion (Legion, #1) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #1
Pages: 88
Published by Audible Audio on October 2nd 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Stephen Leeds, AKA 'Legion,' is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the story begins, Leeds and his 'aspects' are drawn into the search for the missing Balubal Razon, inventor of a camera whose astonishing properties could alter our understanding of human history and change the very structure of society"--From publisher's description

My Review:

I was looking for another relatively short audiobook, and a friend recommended this one to me. I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson before, but always meant to. And after Legion, I certainly will again.

Legion is partially SFF as mystery, and partially a fascinating character study. Or perhaps I should say “characters study”. Because one of the central questions of the story is just how real each of Stephen Leeds ‘aspects’ is. Or isn’t. He treats them as real, but he is also aware that they are hallucinations.

At the same time, he insists that he’s not really a genius. That all of his supposed insights are due to the intelligence and efforts of those ‘aspects’. He just provides the synthesis. And the body that gets them around.

But he insists that most of them believe that they are real, and he doesn’t like to upset them. That he has managed to hire and actually KEEP a butler who is willing to go along with all of this is a testament to the essential sweetness of Stephen’s nature, as well as the depth of his pocketbook.

Stephen Leeds is rich. Seemingly, as they say, beyond the dreams of avarice. Whether the genius is his or belongs to his aspects, the use of that genius has brought him a lot of money in consultant fees. Also an endless stream of annoying psychology students who regularly attempt to breach his privacy by obvious trickery. The aspects catch the fakers every time.

But his new client is no faker. She presents him with a series of black and white photographs that appear to have been taken with a time machine. A photograph of Shakespeare. Another of George Washington, shaving. And the real draw for Stephen – a photograph of the woman who taught him how to manage his crazy genius and then left without a trace.

His aspects insist that the photos are real and not faked, even though the historical ones were taken long before the invention of photography. And his client, Monica, insists that her company has discovered the secret of taking photographs of historic events as they happen – but that they’ve lost both the photographer and his magic camera.

From there, it’s off to the races, as they attempt to track down the missing photographer before someone steals his invention, and before someone uses him and it to unbalance the world.

Escape Rating A-: This was incredibly fun. I found myself driving around a bit more than usual, just so I could finish it. The premise was unique and interesting, and the mystery that it wraps around was quirky and absorbing.

There’s so much to unpack in this short novella. It does lie on that cusp between science fiction and fantasy. The time-traveling camera is technology, so science fiction. But the way that Leeds ‘aspects’ act and react feels a bit more like fantasy. How do they do what they do, especially when he is not present?

But the science fiction and fantasy bits, while not window dressing, feel more like the way the author gets to the heart of the story than the actual story. At heart, this feels like a mystery. Leeds has a missing persons case to solve, he just uses a slightly more ‘out there’ cast of irregulars than is normal.

legion skin deep by brandon sandersonWhich he insists that he is. Normal, that is. Stephen Leeds believes that he is sane and that his aspects are the various forms of crazy. But whatever they are, they do have personalities and specialties of their own, and without the correct specialist Stephen doesn’t think he has access to parts of his genius.

How much the reader falls into his way of thinking is part of what makes this story work so well.

I’m very glad that I picked up Legion, and I’m looking forward to listening to the second book in the series, Skin Deep. I hope the author returns to this world to bring us more of Stephen Leeds’ adventures.

Review: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Review: The Dispatcher by John ScalziThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 128
Published by Audible Studios on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher - a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.
It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

My Review:

The Dispatcher was the inaugural audiobook for my new car. I love audiobooks, but it’s been a while since I had a car that could play them. I also don’t have a very long commute, so I wanted to ease back into things with a relatively short book. The Dispatcher was perfect for that.

It was also very, very good.

The Dispatcher was written by John Scalzi, one of my favorite science fiction authors. But except for the science fictional nature of the device that makes this whole story possible, The Dispatcher really isn’t SF at all. It’s a mystery. Specifically a missing persons case, solved by a savvy Chicago police detective and her reluctant consultant.

The device that makes this whole story possible, and gives it many of its twists, is a change to the world we know. Murder has become impossible. Death is still very possible, but murder doesn’t happen anymore. Not exactly.

About 8 years before this story begins, someone was murdered. And instead of being permanently dead, they went poof, and found themselves alive, well and naked, on their bed at home, in the same condition they were in a few hours before the shot that was intended to be fatal.

And it kept happening. Murdered people didn’t die. They poofed back home instead. Every single time. Well almost.

1 person in 1,000 doesn’t poof. Still, that’s way better odds than before the poofing began. Whatever the cause of said poofing.

Of course, people being people, this creates all new avenues for abuse. And all new bureaucracies to license the folks who become, effectively, professional murderers. They call them “dispatchers” because they, well, dispatch people.

And it all seems to be going reasonably well. At least until one dispatcher goes missing, and that detective and her reluctant consultant, the dispatcher of the title, investigate the disappearance. With a clock ticking in the background. Because while the missing man hasn’t been murdered, that doesn’t mean he can’t turn up dead.

Unless they find him first. And to do that, they’ll have to unravel a Gordian Knot of illegal side jobs, private medical “remediation” and old school ties between business and the mob.

Even with murder officially off the table, Chicago is still Chicago.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this is great fun. And it does lead the listener on a very merry chase, because nothing is exactly as it seems.

Our hero, Tony Valdez, is a dispatcher. He’s never had a failed dispatch, so what he does doesn’t feel like murder. So far, at least, everybody lives.

He’s a very reluctant hero. He wants to help find his friend, the missing Jimmy Albert, but he doesn’t want the police to get too close to his business. He’s currently legit, but there are plenty of gray areas in the dispatching business. And once upon a time, Tony seems to have explored all of them.

As the cop says, it’s a shit show. Or it can be. Legit is safer, and a bit easier on the conscience.

The way that the story unwinds is fascinating, and incredibly fun to follow. We see what the world has become, and that it isn’t that much different from now. But the differences represented by Tony’s job open up all sorts of possible ways to talk about the way things are then, and the way things are now.

People, after all, are still people.

And the conclusion is a “people” conclusion, not a technical or an SFnal one. What happens happens because of human nature, love and hate and fear and a rage against that dying of the light.

About the audio performance. The Dispatcher is currently only available in audio, and was scripted for that format. There’s a hardcover coming out in May for those who just don’t do audio (or want to have something for the author to sign), but this is a marvelous place to start if you are curious about what it is like to listen to a story instead of reading it.

The story is performed by Zachary Quinto, of Heroes and Star Trek reboot fame. He does an absolutely terrific job, not just in voicing Tony, but also in portraying the female police detective and the elderly suspect, as well as all the other characters who pass through the story. His performance, particularly his world-weary voice for Tony, add a great deal to the pleasure of this story.

There was a brief period when the audio of The Dispatcher was available free on Audible. I missed that window, so I paid for my copy. And it was so worth it.