Malcolm’s Wine by Hugh Gilmore

Read: 22 August, 2014

A series of coincidences bind together a petty criminal and two bookshop workers. In the course of an evening, Brian’s friend is murdered and a bottle of wine – bought for his now-deceased son – has been stolen.

I received this book from the author via his wife – a friend of my mother’s who stitched together a beautiful baby blanket for my son. An odd connection given the theme of the book, but I suspect it had more to do with my mother’s need to tell everyone she meets that her daughter is “into books.”

The plot of Malcolm’s Wine hinges on an incestuously small cast of characters. If something happens anywhere in Ann Arbor (and surrounding area), it seems that at least two of our three characters will be involved. While the story was still being set up, it was rather too much of a stretch and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep reading.

Once the stage was set, however, it was no longer an issue. The characters behaved predictably and with consistent rationale as the plot played itself out. This is where the many loops and ties between the characters added to my enjoyment of the book, providing a measure of absurdist humour.

There are two really bad characters in the book, Klaus and Claudell (I’m guessing the naming was intentional). We don’t really see inside Claudell’s head, but we do see in Klaus’s, and the vision of the psychopath was – I found – very well done. He is disconnected from reality, but in a way that has internal logic. He was simultaneously pathetic and believable (though pathetic with a gun, which is absolutely terrifying – particularly when read so soon after the Isla Vista killings). Both Claudell and Klaus reminded me of bullies – unpredictable, riding a high or a delusion that gives their victims no way out. It made their scenes rather difficult to read through, though I appreciate the realism of their handling (not to mention their ends).

Unfortunately, I think the book would have benefited a great deal from a having had a strong editor. The narrative is a little rough around the edges – female characters, in particular, are a little cardboard and there’s some cringe-y assumptions of sexual dimorphism, particularly earlier on, that deserved some red pen striking – but the good ideas and reader handling shine through. My edition also suffered from a number of unfortunate typos, including one right on the back cover. There are enough of them to be noticed, though they don’t ruin the book.

Overall, I found it a very interesting read – a one-off mystery with believable characters that made me care about the outcome.

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The Dresden Files #5: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Read: 5 April, 2014

I’ve heard it said that the Dresden Files don’t really come into their won until the third book, and that they get better from there. It’s hard to tell if that’s really true, but I’m certainly getting much more engrossed in the world and characters as I get to know more about them.

The female characters, in particular, are getting much more interesting. I’ve complained before about the subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexism in the Dresden books. Well, Dresden is still a bit of an arse, but he’s getting better. Though Murphy is largely absent in this book, Dresden does at least talk to her and tell her what’s going on. It was always so frustrating in earlier books where he would bend himself completely out of shape to avoid telling her anything, just because he wanted to “protect her” (rather than, you know, helping her to protect herself by giving her the information she’d need to do so).

Susan, who features more prominently this time, is completely badass. In fact, I found it quite interesting that Dresden takes an almost completely passive role in this book as he encounters baddies who are just to big and strong for him. Over and over again, he is the one who is rescued – a few times by Susan. It’s a great inversion and makes for a nice change.

The religion stuff was a bit silly (like Nicodemus referring to the book of “Revelations”, plural), but it was easy enough to just go along with it. I did like how different Shiro and Sanya are, theologically, from Michael. When Michael was originally introduced, it was a bit of a groaner to have this perfect Knight of the Cross figure who ticked off all the stereotype checklist boxes. But Butcher adds some really interesting worldbuilding detail by having Sanya be an atheist and Shiro a sort of pantheist – yet all three are Knights of the Cross. The theology/rules are never explained (at least in this book), but it added a lot of nuance to what could have remained a very flat party.

I think that Molly was an another, less successful, attempt at this. Before we meet her, Michael’s family is presented as Duggar-perfect, but she’s clearly a rebel and isn’t going along with the image Michael and Charity project. That being said, “rebellious teen” is hardly ground-breaking material. Neither, for that matter, is Wise Old Japanese Warrior.

Still, I found that Butcher really tried to invert a lot of stereotypes in this book – including ones that he himself had used previously. It was refreshing and interesting, and shows that he’s getting more experimental in his writing – perhaps moving out from his comfort zone a little.

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Read: 29 December, 2012

Esthappen has been re-Returned to the house in Ayemenem, and his two-egg twin Rahel is there to meet him. Years have passed since the Terror and the tragedy of Sophie Mol’s death, but the wounds are still fresh.

The narrative bounces all over the place. The “now” takes place when Esthappen and Rahel are adults, but they are children through much of the book, and the narrative flows around them and other characters, giving each a biography in turn, so that the timeline encompassed is actually about a century long. Despite this, it was surprisingly easy to follow once I had a grasp of the general outline.

The writing style is heavily focused on the senses, so that very few things or people are mentioned without lengthy sense-based comparisons. It’s all rather poetic, and I found it quite interesting to follow – particularly when these comparisons are used to link people and events.

The centre of the story – Sophie Mol’s death – is revealed from the beginning, but the details are danced around through the whole novel. I found it rather frustrating, since the event is brought up again and again throughout, but what the event really was or what it meant is withheld until the very end. On the other hand, the climax revelation was far more effective once I’d come to know the whole cast of characters.

I found the writing style to be quite beautiful, though I often found myself carried away by the cadence of it and forgetting to absorb the meaning – though fatigue may also have had something to do with this.

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Knights Templar Mysteries #21: The Death Ship of Dartmouth by Michael Jecks

Read: August, 2009

Amidst political turmoil, a man has been found dead in the road and a ghost ship has been found at sea. Meanwhile, the rebel Roger Mortimer has been sending out spies, threatening civil war.

I read this rather quickly while on holidays and the details were quickly forgotten. But I do remember quite enjoying it, despite being a little disconcerted by all the rape (and there truly is a lot of rape!).

Death Ship is a solid mystery with strong characters, and the historical fiction aspect is well executed. The violence, particularly against women, is realistic without being gratuitous.

All in all, a well-written novel and an excellent addition to any historical mystery collection.

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Maigret et le marchand de vin [Maigret and the Wine Merchant] by Georges Simenon

Read: 21 July, 2009

According to my dear ol’ mum, bless her French book-reading heart, there’s an entire series of Maigret detective novels. For my own part, I’ve only encountered this one, so I’ll have to take her word for it. In this episode, the owner of a wine distribution company has been murdered and Jules Maigret is called in to investigate.

Le marchand de vin is rather different from many of the detective novels I usually read. For one thing, it’s an actual detective novel – in that the person doing the investigating is a detective in the police force. This introduces a rather different dynamic than I’m accustomed to. My detectives are usually sucked in to a mystery, often reluctantly, and half the story is trying find some way to convince the authorities to serve justice. But here, Maigret has the benefit of the authorities being on his side, but he’s also constrained by this. There are rules to follow, and tactics that are simply off-limits.

I enjoyed how dependent this novel was on conversation. The focus was very little on the discovery of clues, but rather on the interactions between Maigret and his various witnesses and suspects. The whole book reads more like a play than anything else. As a result, character development is emphasized, but also somewhat more subtle. We’re rarely told what characters are feeling, but are left to guess based on their verbal responses. This is fairly common in French literature, but I read so little of it that it made for a refreshing change.

As far as the mystery itself goes, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill. It’s written from a local’s perspective, so it doesn’t have the charm of otherness that Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now had, for example. Maigret is not especially “quirky” like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In other words, there’s no gimmick to the story. It’s just a plain detective story, albeit of a higher calibre than most. It’s well worth the read for fans of the genre, if only for exposure to how good an ordinary detective without some extraordinary selling feature can be.

Gaius Ruso Mystery #4: Caveat Emptor by Ruth Downie

Read: 22 June, 2011

A pregnant Iceni woman, a descendent of the fearsome Boudica, bursts into Britain’s procurator’s office claiming that her husband has been murdered and did not steal the tax money. Ruso, freshly back from Gaul and in need of work – any work – takes on the job of investigator. What he uncovers exposes the delicate peace between Rome and even the most “civilized” British tribes.

The Ruso series is written in a fairly straightforward and often humorous style. Ruso’s (and occasionally Tilla’s) commentary is injected into the narrative to give the series a sort of deadpan comedic element that is just so very British. But despite its similarity to other series, such as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael, Caveat Emptor lacks much of the innocence. There is a hopelessness to the series, a reminder that justice is not always served and that desired outcomes are not always possible.

Caveat Emptor is similar enough to the rest of the series to satisfy the fan, while different enough to stand on its own merits. Downie has proven that she is not to be a “one hit wonder,” and is more than capable of creating a sustainable series.

The mystery itself is good enough, but the best part of Downie’s work is the characterisations. Main characters, like Ruso and Tilla (and even Valens) are complex and distinctive, likeable despite their many flaws. Side characters are similar enough to archetypes to be recognizable, but they provide a lovely illusion of unexplored depth.

This is another great addition to the series and I look forward to reading the next one!

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Read: 19 September, 2010

I bought the book because I kept seeing it everywhere and I thought – why not? Then it sat on my shelf for a long time as I read other books on my reading list that were a higher priority.

When my dad came to visit, he was looking over my bookshelves and saw that I had The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I admitted that I hadn’t read it yet, and he told me that I absolutely must. Well, with an endorsement like that, how could I refuse?

I say this because it tainted much of my experience of the book. When I got to the anal rape scene, for example, all I kept thinking about was my dad reading it… and liking it. Yes, I know, the book is excellent and I’m sure that my father’s endorsement was not predicated on a predilection for anal rape. Still, though, it made reading about anal rape even more uncomfortable that it is normally.

Not that I normally read about anal rape…

But apart from all that, this was an amazing book. It’s a mystery – a disgraced journalist is hired by a wealthy businessman to solve the 40-year-old murder of his niece. But it’s far more than that. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a statement about misogyny and violence towards women. In one way or another, each of the book’s plots and subplots hinge on hatred towards women. Larsson strikes that very delicate balance between making his point without being it. Again and again, he shows us violence against women, but he never allows it to normalize. It’s as horrific the last time as it is the first.

And boy, is it ever horrific! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an extremely uncomfortable book to read. Larsson takes society’s dirty little secrets and shoves them right in the reader’s face with unrelenting force. But the writing is so masterfully executed that I found myself unable to put the book down, even while my head and stomach both were reeling.

When my dad was making his pitch for the book, he said that it’s incredibly long, but that the style is so accessible that he was able to finish it in under a week. It took me only a couple of days. It takes a while to get into, introducing the vast network of characters slowly, and it might be easy to give up within the first couple dozen pages. But stick with it, the payoff is well worth the wait.

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Black Man by Richard Morgan

Read: 5 June, 2010

Black Man (or Thirteen, as it’s known in the US) envisions a future in which genetically modified super-soldiers have come and gone. Carl Marsalis is a ‘Variant Thirteen’ whose escaped persecution by becoming persecutor, his job is to use his enhanced abilities to hunt down others like himself.

It was an interesting book with a rather frightening image of the future. For one thing, the US has been split apart by ideology, with a vast portion fenced off and backwards, an anti-technology society referred to as ‘Jesusland.’ The hints dropped throughout the book about how this future came about are frighteningly plausible.

Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that the book contains quite a bit of graphic violence. It did verge on the gratuitous at times, but it fights with the context. Thirteens are hated and excluded from society precisely because of their psychopathic violent tendencies.

I’ve read that the name was changed in the US to avoid the more racially-charged title. It’s a shame, because the fact that Carl Marsalis is black plays a fairly important role in the story. The whole idea of the ‘Variant Thirteen,’ people who are seen as not quite people, echoes back to the rhetoric we’ve so often heard in the context of race. To censor the title, eliminating the big neon sign pointing at the analogy of the book, doesn’t avoid racism. Rather, it just hides it – and it’s questionable just how much use not talking about a problem can have in fixing it.

All in all, a solid future-fiction with a good plot and an excellent premise.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #3: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Read: 4 October, 2009

When Gaius Petreius Ruso receives a strange letter from his brother, he has no choice but to return to Gaul. Once there, however, he discovers that he has been tricked and he’s about to find out just how dangerous “civilization” can be.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Roman-occupied Britain, but now we get a glimpse of Ruso in his own environment; and this presents its own whole set of dangers. Once again, Downie is able to stay faithful to everything I love about the series without making it seem like just another replica.

I was a bit concerned when Christianity was introduced to the story, as Tilla spends time with Christian slaves. Books with Christian subplots so often devolve into apologetics either for or against the religion. I was practically holding my breath through the whole novel! But Downie manages to handle it with great finesse, simply including it as she does other historical details, and remains blessedly non-partisan.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #2: Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie

Read: 2 July, 2009

Britannia’s Twentieth Legion is heading north, to the very edges of civilization, and taking Gaius Petreius Ruso and his slave, Tilla, along with it. As in Medicus, he soon finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. Only this time, Tilla may be connected.

Terra Incognita is a wonderful sequel, capturing much of what made Medicus such a great novel while simultaneously finding its own unique value. As with the first book in the series, the murder comes almost secondary to the comedy and drama of the characters as Ruso and Tilla explore their growing relationship.

One of my favourite things about this series is how well Downie is able to balance making the characters true to life and yet also ridiculous. It’s that subtle, deadpan British humour – and Ruso certainly does come off as the proto-typical old school Brit!

Funny, interesting, and  suspenseful, all at the same time!

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