the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘mystery

Genius Unlimited by John T. Phillifent

published in  1972

where I got it: purchased used.

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Hitting up the used bookstores is much more fun with a friend in tow. Otherwise how would my friend have had the opportunity to recommend John T. Phillifent’s Genius Unlimited to me? A what a fun and entertaining book!

Interstellar Agents Rex Sixx and Roger Lowry always get the crap jobs, the gigs that no one else wants.  This new bodyguarding assignment seems like a cakewalk, so why did it fall in their laps? This should be as easy as the furlough they just came off of.  The secretive colony of Iskola has asked for assistance and consulting, and all  Sixx and Lowry need to do is get special agent investigator Louise Latham to Iskola on the planet Martas, make sure no harm comes to her while she is consulting with the Iskolans, and bring her home.  What could possibly go wrong?

To start with, Miss Latham isn’t your average investigator and Iskola isn’t your average colony. But at least Sixx and Lowry already know a little about Iskola. A private island colony, the only way to gain residency is to pass a battery of tests and prove you are a genius. Privacy is a very big deal there, and no one seems to be sure exactly what happens on the island other than genius residents solving problems and minding their own business.  Iskola brings in an income by consulting on large problems, such as the recent one of erosion and soil degradation on the mainland continent. That one in particular was a disaster, because the agricultural experts on the mainland weren’t interested in being told that their slash and burn methods of deforestation had destroyed the thin layer of topsoil. Even a genius can’t be telling an expert how to do their own job, now can they?

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rising stars novelRising Stars by Arthur Byron Cover (based on the graphic novel by J. Michael Straczyinski

published in 2002

where I got it: purchased used

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Every so often we all need a fluff read. You know, something that will entertain you without challenging you? Fluff reads for me are usually media tie-ins, and the best kind of fluff read is a direct novelization of a comic book or movie that I liked.

A few years ago I read J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars graphic novels, and loved them. I don’t usually go for superhero stories, but Straczynski is alittle like Whedon for me – if he writes it, I am probably going to like it no matter what the subject matter was.
The novelizations of the graphic novels are by Arthur Byron Cover, but like the artists of the graphic novels, Straczynski’s story and backstory are the star of the show. It’s a little sad, actually, that I had no idea from reading this if Cover is a good author or not. But again, that’s the nice thing about really fluff novelizations – I don’t need to worry about if the author is any good or not. Cover does flesh out the world building and a lot of the character background, which I appreciated. For example, we get much more information about the political situation of the country in the late 1960s, far more time is spent follow the children during the 1970s, and characters get more inner monologue and depth.

In the late 1960’s, a meteor crashed to earth, exploding over a small midwestern town. No one thought anything of it, until a few years later. You see, all the children who were in utero at the time of the meteor were imbued with special powers. Some kids could fly, some kids were invulnerable, some kids had telepathic powers. One hundred and thirteen Special children, all who could do something different. Or least, mostly. Some children who were born right on time never manifested anything. Who knows, maybe there wasn’t enough special powers to go around? The government descends on the town to study the children, and keeps them at a local summer camp turned boarding school.

I really liked the dynamic of that these children gained superpowers simply by being in the wrong place and the wrong time. None of them have any of the classic or expected comic book superhero youth stories. None of these kids are orphans, none of them are wealthy heirs, none of them are aliens or anything. Their parents and their older siblings and their neighborhood was completely normal. But these kids are Specials. As the kids manifest and develop their powers, the government needs to ensure the Specials use their powers for the good of the country. But who decides what’s good?

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bennett_company-man-hcThe Company Man, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published in 2011

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher

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In an alternate early 1900s, in an amazing metropolis in the Pacific Northwest, a new industrial revolution has begun. In Evesden, The McNaughton Corporation holds patents for the most amazing technologies, everything from airships to subterannean trolleyways, to telecommunications. The Corporation holds their secrets dear, and at times has held the world hostage, and that same world flocks to Evesden and the McNaughton Corporation with dreams of a better life and a career with the company that is reinventing the world.

Found in an Indian prison and given a life of luxury in Evesden is McNaughton’s most valuable employee, a Mr Cyril Hayes.  Hayes works from the shadows, making the corporations problems disappear. He spies, he blackmails, he knows better than to ask questions of his superiors, and they know better than to try to keep him out of the opium dens or to let on that they know he shares information with the cops.

Hayes’ newest assignment comes with an assistant, the young and sheltered Samantha Fairbanks. She’s his secretary, but she’s also supposed to keep him under control and out of trouble. Their mission is to interview employees suspected of Union organization. No arrests, no threats,  no mention of Unions, just talk about how everything has been going lately.  Hayes sits in on the interviews, but he isn’t really listening. At least, not with his ears. There’s a reason Hays lives alone in a giant warehouse, there’s a reason he’s anti-social, there’s a reason he escapes into hazes of opium and alcohol.  The longer Hayes spends with someone, the more the person’s thoughts invade his mind. It becomes easier and easier for Hayes to talk like that person, act and walk like that person, become that person’s new best friend, their confidant, their confessor.  Hayes can count on one hand the number of people who know about his ability.

the way people react to Hayes when they find out what he can do gave certain scenes almost and X-Men type feeling for me.  Hayes closest friend Inspector Garvey is completely accepting of the fact that Hayes can “read minds”, while Hayes’ supervisor refuses to be close quarters with him for more than a few minutes. Others respond with anger, disgust and fear. There’s a point where in the eyes of the company Hayes ceases to be an employee, and becomes a thing, a tool, a weapon, a closely guarded and dangerous secret. The saddest thing, is that he knows it.

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An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe

published in 2008

where I got it: purchased new

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Struggling actress Cassie Casey has just met the man of her dreams. Well, men, actually.  First she meets handsome Gideon Chase, who hires her to help him spy on the mysterious and wealthy Bill Reis. In return for her help, Gideon will make Cassie a star of stage and screen. When Cassie eventually meets Bill, she instantly dislikes him, more-so as he showers her with attention and expensive gifts.

An Evil Guest is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. As expected with a Wolfe, we are given some vague hints early on – the story takes place in the future, Gideon might be working for the Government, we’ve met another intelligent race on another planet and in some areas (but not all), their science is ahead of ours, but in general life seems to be going on as normal on planet Earth.

The story is told nearly one hundred percent through dialog, conversations between Cassie and either Gideon or Bill Reis, conversations between Cassie and the other members of the theatre company. Entire chapters are nothing by dialog. The scenery, the world building, it’s all very shadowy.  At times I felt like I was listening to a radio play, where the sound effects for a thunderstorm are made with a rain stick and a thin sheet of metal.

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Jhegaala, by Steven Brust

published in 2008

where I got it: had an ARC from way back when

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On the run from the Jhereg, Vlad needs to lay low for a while, preferably outside the Empire. Conveniently, he’s always meant to visit the country his mother is from, and there’s no time like the present, right? Vlad knows his mother’s maiden name and the village she came from, and that’s about it. With the help of a few spells and charms, no one will be able to find him, provided he’s able to avoid using witchcraft until the trouble back home blows over, if it ever blows over.  And who needs witchcraft when you’ve got two jhereg familiars on your shoulders, right?

Jhegaala is The 11th book (chronologically the 8th)  in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. If you’re a beginner in this series, you’re probably best off starting here.  Already read a  few Vlad books? go ahead and dive into Jhegaala, but know that it’s quite a bit different than the previous stories. For one, it takes place completely outside the Empire, and is more of a hard  boiled detective story.

In a paper-making village in the eastern Kingdoms, Vlad is completely and utterly surrounded by his own kind, and he’s completely and utterly out of his element. Even worse, he’s an ex-assassin, with the habits that tend to come with the job, including rampant paranoia, unbridled suspicion of everyone and everything, and carrying unconcealed weapons.

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Clockwork Phoenix (anthology) Volume 3, edited by Mike Allen

published in 2010

where I got it: gift from a friend (and she got it autographed for me!!)

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This is Mike Allen’s third volume of beautiful and strange short fiction. In previous volumes, he showcased new works by authors such as Mary Robinette Kowal, Saladin Ahmed, Catherynne M. Valente,  and Tanith Lee. And volume three continues in this vein, offering an intriguing collection of short fiction by well known authors such as John C. Wright, Cat Rambo, Gemma Files and Marie Brennan, along with works by lesser known folks that I am thrilled to have gotten to know a little better.  The theme to these anthologies is “tales of beauty and strangeness”, and Allen has certainly chosen works that match that description.  Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, we can look forward to a fourth volume of beauty and strangeness, the surreal and the fantastic.

Anthologies tend to run hot and cold for me. It’s like buying an album (did I just date myself?). You buy the album for one song, and hope the rest of it doesn’t suck. I’m the same way with anthologies. Out of the fifteen  short stories, maybe 3 of them were just okay for me. And the rest? The rest were pure winners.

In no particular order, here are my thoughts on a handful of my favorite short stories in the collection:

Murder in Metachronopolis, by John C. Wright – one of the longer works, and purposely presented in an unusual way. Jake Frontino has been brought to the city outside of time, Metachronopolis, the city of the Masters of Time, to work for them as a Private Investigator. They’ve sent him through time on missions to stop terrible things before they happen – to kill the mothers of dictators, to foil marriages and stop meetings from taking place. The Masters of Time supposedly have no enemies, but Jake has met those enemies, been party to their plans for a coup. The story is written in numbered portions, so the reader immediately knows we are not getting the story in chronological order, we are not getting “the truth” in the right order. And you know what I did the moment I finished this story? I read it again, flipping the pages back and forth so that with the help of the section numbers I could read it in chronological order, in the order that things happened to Jake. And it was a completely different story. I love it when that happens, when I can experience the same story in a completely new light.
The Gospel of Nachash by Marie Brennan – This is a retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden. I’m a sucker for any kind of old testament mythology, so this tale was right up my alley. Among its other twists, is the story of the Expulsion is told from the serpent’s point of view.  The serpent, Nachash, was also a creation of God, was also in the garden for a specific reason. Nachash and God’s Daughter watch Adam and Chava’s lives after the garden, and they witness the birth of Chava’s two sons. How will this tiny mortal family populate the earth, with no other women? God’s Daughter has a plan, and Nachash is at the center of it. But that’s not the twist, oh no, Brennan’s got an ever better trick up her sleeve.

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Orca, by Steven Brust (book 7 in the Vlad Taltos series)

written in 1996

where I got it: purchased used

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I am slowly making my way randomly up to Steven Brust’s latest novel, Tiassa. I own about a half dozen book in this series, have already reviewed a few of them, and feel the urge to reread what I can before diving into Tiassa.

Steven Brust is probably the author who got me into fantasy all those years ago. Seriously. I was once a hard core “Scif and only scifi!!” reader, and hubby put a copy of The Book of Jhereg (reviewed here ) in my hands and said I probably wouldn’t like it because it was about an assassin who didn’t like his job, but was incredibly good at it.  20 pages later, I was a fan. by the end of the book I was addicted.  The series follows the adult life of one Vlad Taltos, easterner, witch, assassin, and lover of good cooking who has found himself away from his own kind and living in the Dragaeran Empire. His episodic adventures allow readers to jump around in the series, and as most of the novels weren’t written chronologically, there is much discussion between fans regarding the order in which these books should be read. Some titles are sadly becoming hard to find, so I read them in whatever order I can find them.

The short novel Orca seems to take place around the middle, chronologically.  For readers new to Steven Brust, this book probably isn’t a good starting point due to some major plot line revelations right at the end, and I suggest starting with any of the first 4 books that were written: Jhereg, Taltos, Yendi, or Tekla. Ahh, but for those of you who are already into this series? What a treat Orca is!

Orca differs from the earlier books in the series in that it doesn’t take place in Dragaera City, and we get points of view other than Vlad’s.  Also, Steven Brust can see the future. Observe:

As usual, the story opens because Vlad is in more trouble than he alone can handle. From a previous adventure, he has collected a young boy who suffered a traumatic event and has become somewhat catatonic. Hoping to avoid the authorities and explanations, Vlad’s only option to help the boy is to find a hedge wizard or sorcerer who won’t ask questions. And he does. She lives in a hideous blue cottage (yes really. The characters take turns describing it as such, and it becomes a very funny in-joke), and is about to lose her home to a property management organization that is cancelling her property lease. Their agreement is she will attempt to help the boy if Vlad attempts to help her keep her property.

With the help of his thief friend Kiera, Vlad begins his investigation.

The man who owns the property management organization, along with a few dozen other small businesses that may or may not actually exist?  He’s dead, possibly murder, possibly not.  His other businesses? shut down. The banks he borrowed obscene quantities of money from to run said possibly non-existent businesses?  Closing their doors, cancelling the savings of senior citizens, and generally leaving town like the place is on fire.

Many of the hints Vlad and Kiera uncover lead in opposite directions, and if that old lady is going to keep her horribly ugly cottage, two thieves (along with Vlad’s ever helpful familiars Loiosh and Rocza) will need to figure out why banks and other lending institutions keep breaking the laws, and why the government of the Empire seems to be covering up for them in such a convoluted way.  Orca was written in 1996, but much of this sounds strangely familiar.

The chapters switch back and forth between Vlad and Kiera’s points of view. As I’m so used to only Vlad’s point of view, that took some getting used to for me. But I’m happy Brust put the story together that way, as it was invaluable to see how Kiera and some of the other Dragaerans view Vlad, a short lived foreigner. Also, there are a few letters and conversations between Kiera and Vlad’s estranged wife Cawti, which I highly enjoyed as well.

Don’t expect much in the way action or intrigue or fight scenes or the like in Orca. it’s not that kind of book. It’s a convoluted literary mystery, with character revelations, emotional discussions on morality, and much left unsaid.  I can only hope that while Brust was writing this, that he had as big of a crooked smile on his face as I did when I was reading it.  Yes, this is some mightily serious stuff, but so cleverly presented that you can’t help but smile.

I can’t get enough of Brust’s sly humor, of his subtle dialog, of his characters who say more in a raised eyebrow while puttering about preparing dinner than some other characters say in an entire novel. Vlad may not say it outloud, but he cares deeply for the people he loves, and puts his life on the line more than once for them.  For a tough guy, he sure makes me cry a lot.  And that’s the point: when it comes down to it, Vlad isn’t just an assassin. He isn’t just a witch. he isn’t just an easterner. He’s just a guy.  Just a guy who is still madly in love with his estranged wife, he doesn’t know how to fix things with her, he doesn’t know how he got to this point in his life, and all he knows how to do is move forward, one step at a time, one day at a time, one mistake at a time. And should he lose his way, no doubt Loiosh will say “hey idiot, we’re lost”.

If you’ve never read any Brust, I can’t recommend him highly enough. The more I read of him, the I want to read more of him.


2014 Hugo Awards

I reviewed some Hugo nominated stuff. Click here for the list.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.