Archive for October, 2013

Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova

October 31, 2013 2 comments

Box Office Poison

Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova (a pseudonym of Melinda Snodgrass) (Tor, 2013) is the second urban fantasy to feature Linnet Ellery, a human lawyer employed by a vampire firm. Looking at that last sentence gives me a warm feeling. It’s always therapeutic to suggest firms of lawyers are blood-sucking vampires but, with this book having the urban fantasy label plastered on the shingle hung outside their office, this is meant literally. Werewolves and elves, who call themselves the Álfar, are also “real” and are, to a significant degree, integrated into human affairs. This takes us a step further than the Left Hand/Right Hand Magic by Nancy Collins in which a range of supernatural creatures are living among humans but their existence is largely ghettoised. Here some of the leading celebrities on the big screen are Álfar, their agents are werewolves and vampires draw up the contracts. To a great extent, this is life in the mainstream, but it’s not without its complications.

In our world, America has been built out of successive waves of immigration, but the pace has dwindled of late. Indeed, it would be fair to say America is less welcoming than it used to be and, in some quarters, actively hostile to newcomers. This is most obviously apparent in the failure of the so-called Dream Act to gain traction on Capitol Hill. Common sense says America should embrace the people already in the country, often doing the work local people refuse to do, paying taxes and sending their children to school. So this book has three different groups who live and work in human America. Obviously both vampires and werewolves used to be human. No-one is entirely sure who or what the Álfar are. But one thing is clear. These people are taking work from the “humans” and it’s time they were sent back where they came from. As a first step, a Humans First organisation is arguing for a racial law to prevent a marriage from being valid between a human and one of these “others”, cf the miscegenation laws in some US states, Nazi Germany, South Africa, etc. In other words, this book is actually a good vehicle for exploring attitudes between different groups and the pressures for positive discrimination laws to impose greater equality than the more extreme elements in human society prefers.

Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass

On the way to solving some interesting mystery puzzles about two Álfar accused of murder, we’ve got a formal arbitration which plays the legal niceties rather well. The question is pleasingly simple. When it comes to the process of casting a film, everyone puts on a show. They all want to impress during the audition. So if one group of actors can use a glamour to make themselves more attractive in face-to-face meetings with directors and producers, how qualitatively different is this from others having cosmetic surgery or corrective dentistry to make themselves look better? And then there’s the not so mythological use of the casting couch — exploitation, yes, but a price some are prepared to pay in their search for stardom and celebrity. Who’s to say what “tricks” people may play when the outcomes to the individuals involved are so important.

This is a book written by someone who has experience in Hollywood. It has a knowing quality about some of the descriptions of the characters and the places where “work” is done. So this is me reaching a fairly radical conclusion given all the dismissive things I’ve said about most of the urban fantasies I’ve read over the last couple of years. Looks around nervously and mops a brow suddenly beaded with sweat. This is highly enjoyable! There, I’ve said it. “But why?” you wail, having legitimately expected me to rip this to shreds? Well this is not your common or garden urban fantasy with a kick-ass female first-person narrator who dispatches supernatural beasties with a flick of her manicured hand while lusting platonically after some hunky male (of whatever race or species happens to be available). Box Office Poison is an excellent legal thriller that involves a range of supernatural and human people all working together to arrive at a just outcome, the American way. Ignore the crass label stuck on by the marketers. This is a superior book no matter what the cover art or blurb might otherwise suggest.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood

October 30, 2013 Leave a comment

A Cold Season

A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2013) brings me back to a familiar question. What is it, exactly, that we look for in a supernatural horror story that relies on atmosphere rather than the more obvious gore? The answer has to come through the application of several different criteria. The first is the definition of the subgenre. In a way, supernatural horror occupies an interstitial space which borrows from the gothic which first appears in the work of Horace Walpole, adds in some weird, and watches for the appearance of “beings” or “creatures” having their origin outside the ambit of scientific explanation. For this mixture to conform to the definition, the underlying plot has to be rooted in a romance of some type. In this instance, Cass, our protagonist, has been notified that her husband is missing in action in Afghanistan, presumed dead. As part of her grieving process, she decides to return to the village where she spent some of her childhood. The first time she takes her son to the school, she meets a sexually attractive man. He’s the acting principal and she’s immediately tempted to miss out several of the steps in the grieving process by allowing this man to replace her husband in her heart.

This pitches us into a set of complex emotions as she struggles to reconcile grief with desire, missing out the guilt in sacrificing her husband’s memory. To further complicate matters, she had a difficult relationship with her father and this seems to have predisposed her to be relatively submissive in her relationships with men. In her choice of a man to marry, she picked someone who would, at the very least, organise her life if not actually control her. His loss therefore leaves her rather more rudderless than some other widows. This brings us to the second criterion. The protagonist must be vulnerable. In the right environment, she could cope with her loss and help her young son to adjust to the new reality. But she decides to make a break from the routine of life as a soldier’s wife, moving from one camp to another. This seems a good time to return to “the” village. Her approach in a car gives warning of their situation. They will be cut off from the outside world, first by fog and then by snow. Leaving is not a safe option. This increases the loneliness as many of the villagers shun her. To increase the pressure, her son begins to act in an aberrant manner. Not surprisingly, there are “creepy” children in the village who seem to be engaging her son in some strange kind of game.

Alison Littlewood

Alison Littlewood

Then there’s the oddity of the converted mill where she has rented a flat. In fact she’s the only occupant in an unfinished building. A combination of adverse weather conditions and a shortage of funds has meant the completion of the conversion has been delayed. The ground-floor flats are not yet glazed so rats (and the snow) can enter. Both mother and son hear the rodents in the walls. When she asks a local woman with an interest in history, she hears stories of witches and several deaths associated with the mill. Putting these elements together supplies the raw material for the requisite atmosphere. Of course none of this matters unless the plot is delivered with prose of an appropriately oblique nature. There does not need to be anything too explicit in the first half of the book. It can all be left to deft hints and suggestive inclusions in the descriptions. The art of the horror writer is to enable the reader’s mind to create the potential for fear. This depends on the character of the protagonist being sufficiently sympathetic that we can empathise with her, and vicariously feel the loss of husband accelerate into something more profoundly frightening.

This brings me to the first problem with the book. Our hero lacks gumption. Here she is, committing herself to rebuilding her life with her son, yet she’s indecisive and lacks real rapport with her son. Indeed, she tends to be slightly self-absorbed and not as alert as she should be in dealing with him. Of course, heroes in horror stories are supposed to do all the wrong things so they can find themselves even deeper in trouble. But there were times when I felt her best was not quite good enough. We then come to the second problem. Everything up to the last fifty pages plays the game very effectively. Indeed, although it’s becoming a little bit of a cliché, the use of the snowmen is rather pleasing. But when we arrive at the ending sequence. . . There’s an art to finding the right way to bring all the threads together and, for me, this is too operatic. If this had been left as a kind of Wicker Man (1973) story in which a village plays out certain rituals when isolated from the world during winter, this would have been a winner. That would have kept the scale of the horror manageable and the actions of those involved more credible. But this attempts something far more grandiose and I’m not at all convinced it works. Perforce, I’ll leave it to you to judge. What I will say is that Alison Littlewood is a writer of fine prose. The management of the core elements during most of the book is outstanding (forgiving the hero’s lack of intelligence at times). For me, it all gets a little silly at the end, although the last chapter as epilogue is quite interesting. This means I’m recommending A Cold Season as a very good first novel. It has its faults but it’s still worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan

October 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the fifth in the series featuring the burglar as author Charlie Howard. It’s always said an author should write about what he knows. Well, this fictional author writes thrillers loosely based on his own experiences as a thief. Because he needs to make ends meet while waiting for the next royalty cheque to arrive, he continues to delicately tease doors open, gracefully extract money from safes, and remove objects of value easily fenced through his network. After arriving in Germany, his writer’s block is being more blocky than usual so his nefarious activities have become more necessary. Not surprisingly, this rash of burglaries has not gone unnoticed by the Berlin police. Perhaps he would have been preparing to move on but he’s waiting for his agent to visit after attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. If they were the type of people to make a commitment, they would be a couple but, as is often the way in books like this, their romance remains on hold.

So it is that, on the day Victoria arrives, his fence brokers a meeting with a client who has an urgent problem to solve. It’s not something that should be a challenge to a thief with the skills of our hero. All he has to do is break into four addresses within the confines of Berlin to recover something that’s been stolen. To make it interesting, all four burglaries have to be committed on the same evening when it’s known the occupants will not be at home and the client won’t say what he’s looking for. The only helpful information the client will vouchsafe is that Charlie will know it when he sees it. So who’s the client? None other than the British embassy in Berlin. Why is potentially dangerous? Well there are these people called spies who have a tendency to violence when their wishes are ignored.

Chris Ewan

Chris Ewan

With Victoria as his agent to negotiate the fees for this task — a ladder fee for each burglary and a finder’s fee for the “object” — our hero reluctantly sets off to the first address. After thirty minutes of fruitless searching, he looks out of the window and, in the best traditions of Alfred Hitchcock, witnesses a murder through the window of the apartment opposite. Being a responsible citizen, he telephones the police and quickly exits his building. After hearing sirens arrive, he and Victoria walk past the target building, see the lights on in the right apartment, but find the police leaving, alleging a false alarm. This is surprising to our hero. He’s not used to have his anonymous word doubted. So, as he sets off to the next address, he begins to plan a return to the scene of the “murder” so he can unravel what must have happened in the few minutes between his call and the arrival of the police. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, he finds a file appropriately marked “Top Secret” hidden in the hotel room of his second target. Unfortunately, when he and Victoria return home, they find two Russian agents waiting for them. It only takes a little persuasion for Charlie to pass over the file. Fortunately, we have the rest of the book to see how it plays out.

I’m amazed that Simon & Schuster, who have been publishing this series in the UK, should have refused to pick this title up. It’s every bit as good as the last in the series. All I can say is more fool them and kudos to St Martin’s Press who have continued with the series in the US. This is a fast-paced plot with plenty of surprises and the usual smiles as we track our hero through a Berlin positively bursting at the seams with spies. The only person not clued into what’s happening is our hero, of course. The client not only failed to identify precisely what Charlie was supposed to be looking for, but also neglected to mention certain other facts which might have assisted in resolving the situation. As it is, Charlie is forced to take a couple of beatings, face intimidation and finally pick up a gun in self-defence. This is not something you would have expected of our hero who usually manages to talk his way out of trouble. These spy people are so terribly insistent when it comes to this missing “package”. So this is taking Charlie into uncharted territory where he’s going to have to make decisions about his relationship with Victoria and, perhaps more importantly, decide what kind of person he really is. Put all this together and you have a highly entertaining thriller. The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin marks an interesting, if not cliffhanging, point to pause the series. New free-standing books have begun to appear from this talented author. The first on the shelves, Safe House, has been shortlisted for The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award and is an Amazon UK bestseller. It’s on my list of books to read.

For a review of the last in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment


The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann (Tor, 2013) is the fourth in the series featuring Newbury & Hobbes, i.e. Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes. Those of you familiar with the reviewing style will know I never stoop to simplistic headlining. So this is not a steampunk Sherlock Holmes inspired mystery thriller. Its rather more subtle than that. The temptation to see this as following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle flows from the decision to set these stories in a version of Victorian England about the same time as the Great Detective ruled the fictional waves from Baker Street. So this author has an investigator who is not averse to abusing the poppy, tobacco and absinthe, lurking in a part of London. Because all those who aspire to investigative greatness need an assistant, he’s joined in his endeavours by a spunky woman who fights and shoots in the best female style (think Elementary which applies the same logic to produce a so far platonic pairing for an explicit Holmes and Watson).


If Victorian science is going to get bent out of shape, it’s not unnatural that there would be social change. Some move towards gender equality is therefore to be expected. Yet, strangely, that has not happened in the broader society described here. Even when Veronica is recognised as in immediate danger and the best course of action would be for her to occupy the same house as Sir Maurice, they all worry about what such a move would do to her reputation. This is a slight dissonance, almost an anachronism. In the real world, the watershed Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 had begun to dismantle the patriarchal assumption that women could not own property or keep the money they earned. If an author shows technology driving change in everyday life at an ever faster rate, why is this not also destablising the culture? With a Queen on the throne and women working as spies and in other capacities representing the interests of the Crown, greater freedom than allowed in 1882 would seem inevitable. There would also be significant impacts arising from the adoption of technology into industry. There would be new jobs to learn requiring an improvement in the education service, and many old jobs would be eliminated by automation leading to unemployment and greater poverty. So this book is almost exclusively upper class and dominated by white men (spunky sidekicks notwithstanding), and the culture is set is aspic without regard to the environment in which it has been preserved.

George Mann

George Mann


Of course, this is unfair. I have started on the fourth book in the series. The social dynamics may be explored in the earlier books. So what does the book actually offer? Well, in genre terms, our investigator blurs the line between conventional investigator and occult detective. Here the primary focus is on a serial killer whose signature is cracking open the rib cage and extracting the hearts of her victims as trophies, and the activities of German spies intent on stealing the basis of lasers as a “death beam” weapon. Yet the supernatural is never far away. In the last book, our duo rescued Amelia, Veronica’s psychic sister. Because he’s been able to steal a book of magic from the local Cabal, Sir Maurice is able to treat her, but the price is that he has now taken on the burden of her ability as a seer. They both now dream of the titular Executioner and see Veronica to be at risk.


As steampunk, there’s a range of technology emerging from the expected automobiles, airships and clockwork automatons, to genetic manipulation, cloning and steps towards prolonging life. But interestingly, technology on its own is shown as inadequate to make the required progress at the speed desired. Hence, the Executioner has been converted into a form of cyborg by the joint application of the mechanical and the supernatural. The heart itself may be clockwork, but the runes and other symbols inlaid into her flesh in ink and precious metals signify a different form of partnership to prolong her life. Just as the personality of the woman transformed undergoes a dramatic change, so the body of Queen Victoria is being sustained by machines while her mind is allowed to age without intervention. This may make her appear less acute as leader. Hence her son, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales and interested factions in government are positively investigating whether the Queen is actually fit to rule.


All this gives the author the chance to write something really exciting and, at times, there are some genuinely pleasing set-pieces with dark hints as to other forces at work. But it does not quite cohere. The reason? I think there are two problems. The first is the steampunk elements seem incidental rather than integrated into the social fabric being described. For example, the menagerie constructs and predatory birds are just there for a brief effect and as props in the generally excellent fight scene that follows. There’s no attempt to explore how such innovations might affect society. Even the Executioner as a walking-talking embodiment of the steampunk trope fails because supernatural powers keep her body preserved as a young, athletic woman as the decades go by. Yet the fantasy side of the novel is also peripheral. Instead of the supernatural given full prominence, this is more a political thriller with an investigative duo who are rather more reactive and positive in solving the case(s). Which, of course points to the second problem. The book is promising to give us a Holmesian detective but, apart from lolling around in a drugged state, there’s very little to show this character draws on the Conan Doyle canon. Indeed, Sir Maurice doesn’t really solve the Executioner case. He has to be told who she is and others work out where she’s hiding. Worse, in structural terms, we have a prologue that removes much of the potential suspense. That it happens to be very well written does not excuse the loss of suspense when Veronica finally decides to go to “the” address. So we end up with a scattergun of different genre tropes fired into the book and, because none of them are fully exploited, The Executioner’s Heart ends up slightly underwhelming. This is not to deny there are some excellent moments. But this is a sum of parts novel, not a great whole. Perhaps that’s the fate of all books numbered four in a projected sequence of six.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment


This review must perforce begin with thoughts about Jack Vance. Perhaps my age predisposes me to believe him one of the best genre writers of the last sixty years — I did grow up reading his books as they were published — but there’s more objective evidence of his enduring popularity with much of his work still in print (a rarity today for someone who rose to fame during the 1950s and 60s) and a recent anthology dedicated to him selling well (Songs of the Dying Earth edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois). The anthology highlights one of Vance’s strength — the high fantasy story with a sense of humour. This is not comedy writing in the same vein as, say, Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Rather it’s more ironic or potentially sardonic in the situations explored and the attitudes exposed. This is a prequel to describing James Enge (the pseudonym of James M. Pfundstein) as subVancean in Wrath-Bearing Tree (Pyr, 2013), A Tournament of Shadows Book 2. This is not, you understand, a condemnation. Someone who writes in a comparable style is not, ipso facto, inferior in producing results. But it gives you a flavour of what the author intends, namely, an episodic travelogue across a hostile fantasy land with the option to smile if any of the jokes hit the spot for you. To clarify, this book is a form of expansion on Arthurian fiction insofar as the main protagonists are Merlin and his kin.

James Enge

James Enge


The opening episode is one of these outstanding moments that settle the reader down with a contented smile, now more hopeful the rest of the book will follow at the same high level. Our “hero”, Morlock syr Theorn Ambrosius (a son produced by Merlin) has the misfortune to be at sea. For the record, he has a chronic problem with motion sickness. It’s therefore a mixed blessing for him when a local entrepreneur sinks the ship by bombarding it with the local equivalent of Greek fire. Once he gains the shore, he has the pleasure of fighting for his life. Normally, this would not be too challenging but, having lost his footwear while swimming, his feet are being cut to pieces on the rocky terrain. As the pages turn, however, it becomes clear the author has shot his bolt with the first episode and our meeting with Merlin’s daughter(s). Sadly, we slow down to a crawl. Indeed, this opening episode is almost completely free-standing. It gives us the title to the book and then is only rarely mentioned again. So we traipse after Morlock as he fantasises about having the courage to speak with Aloê Oaij only to find himself sent on a mission with her. Hurray for their mutual lust, or something.


The first half of the book therefore has the besotted Morlock not getting it on with the young woman. Then the ice is broken with some anatomically explicit sex, followed by a slightly unfortunate explanation for Aloê’s frigidity. It seems her family were under a spell so they saw nothing wrong with a cousin raping Aloê as a child but the spell was not strong enough to persuade them it was acceptable for said cousin to cool his penis in the evening bowl of gazpacho. Soup rape is beyond the pale, no matter what the strength of the spell, you understand. While not a direct example of the book’s humour, it points to the problem. The inclusion of such a dark element combined with explicit sex scenes, should predispose the reader to find this a dark fantasy. Yet the author’s actual intention is to make jokes, sometimes about sex or the results of sex. Indeed, the author is so desperate to insert humour into the book that, as an omniscient author, he interpolates comments intended to provoke a smile. He doesn’t trust his characters and the situations in which they find themselves to be amusing. He has to puff up his own wares. The result is an increasingly tedious read. When a barbarian and thief are briefly introduced to meet their doom, you get to see how hard the author is trying to milk every trope for a smile.


So, sadly, all the good work of the first book in this series is thrown away. I was really looking forward to this, but ended up bitterly disappointed. Even the inventive bits like the two-sisters-for-the-price-of one, are rather wasted as anachronisms and clichés abound to allow our mages to invent the propeller, first in pedal power and then to supply enough oomph for a hydrofoil. Magical versions of steampunk are tiresome. Even getting the generations of Merlinfolk together fails to spark interest. They argue and not very amusingly. So despite all the twists and turns on the way to the resolution of their mutual problem, Wrath-Bearing Tree is not worth the effort. Jack Vance will be cringing in his grave if he gets to read this in the afterlife.


For a review of the first in the series, see A Guile of Dragons.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)

October 26, 2013 4 comments

Elementary poster

This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013) starts with Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) at a loose end, wandering the bric-à-brac stalls with another of her friends, bemoaning the lack of a murder case to solve. Although she’s deeply embarrassed, her friend asks Watson to find Tony, a one-night stand who’s apparently a photojournalist and good in bed. When this is put to Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), his response is to go to the morgue in search of an interesting case. In the nineteenth drawer, he finds the corpse of someone killed in a road accident. How he died is not in dispute, but our hero believes he had just killed someone else. It’s all in the scars on his hands which suggest he’s used a wire garrote. When Marcus Bell runs his fingerprints, it turns out he used to be a Polish professional assassin but seems to have retired, settled down and taken up work as a nurse (under a false name, of course). There’s just one problem. Without a corpse or a missing person’s report suggesting foul play, there’s no case. Holmes and Watson therefore go to discuss married life with the grieving widow. She knew he had a dark past because of his tattoos, but believed he had found God and committed himself to good works. Holmes is hot on the trail of people our reformed assassin might have killed. The first theory is a builder with whom he had an argument. Then it’s a loan shark who lent him money from an old robbery. Who would have thought it was so hard to find someone dead.

Watson (Lucy Liu), Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) unnecessarily wearing body armour

Watson (Lucy Liu), Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) unnecessarily wearing body armour

From this brief description of the set-up, you’ll understand this is intended as a lightweight episode. There are to be no “heavy” murders to solve. This time, the scriptwriters have decided to do faint humour. We’re to smile when the crooked builder who was supposed to be working on our deceased’s clinic took the money and spent three days partying on hard drugs with “cheap” prostitutes. The moneylender who lent that money sits in his sister’s nail salon all day next to an autoclave with a padlock on it waiting for customers to come in and borrow money. The only time the script gets it right is in the last scene which gives Watson the opportunity to score a glancing blow on Sherlock’s feigned indifference.

So what is the episode really about? Thematically, we’re interested in the notion of trust. Looking first at the deceased, he had a past which involved death to order and theft from his own organisation. Could his wife really believe he had reformed? It seemed they shared the same religious convictions. They were working together to raise enough money to open a clinic. Was he really going to be able to realise their dreams? Would the moneylender really have trusted the man with $25,000? Would the deceased really have given the $25,000 to the builder knowing his track record? Then we come to Watson’s friend and her missing lover. After Watson improbably makes progress in her solo investigation, Holmes admits he was “Tony”. This happened at the beginning of their relationship when Watson had just arrived as a sober companion. Holmes did not know anything about her. Could she be trusted? So he took to following her. When she met with her friend, he decided to follow that friend after they separated, picked her up and took time to get information about Watson. That was the “ancient history”. As a result of his investigation, he found Watson eminently trustworthy and has now formed this unorthodox partnership with her. Should she be upset about what Holmes did? Should she tell her friend the man she had slept with was Sherlock?

It’s good to see the four principals have a reasonable chance to interact. Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) actually have more than the usual token lines of dialogue. Nevertheless, this is not one of the better episodes. What might have been quite an interesting investigation ends up feeling trivialised, and the metanarrative between Holmes and Watson is not constructively advancing an understanding of their relationship. Early on, Holmes met the Watson family but there’s been remarkably little attempt for him to meet the no doubt wide circle of friends Watson has (or had before she quite her job as a surgeon). If he really was investigating her, why did he not look into the surgical case which caused her to quit? There was no hint of this when the son of the man who died later appeared to “borrow” yet more money from her. Knowing what had gone wrong professionally would inevitably have been of interest to Holmes when it came to the question of trust. If she had proved incompetent, he would never have allowed her to get close to him or intermeddle with his cases. So Elementary: Ancient History comes across as contrived without any groundwork laid in previous episodes to give it credibility.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Kindred and Wings

To understand this series, you need to imagine a world where reality and chaos interface. As a physical place, this is Conhaero. In a way, it only exists out of sufferance. In other circumstances, it would probably never have existed at all. Having come into existence it could have completely collapsed back into the melting pot from which its constituent elements were drawn. But a bargain was struck which enabled land to form and persist. For all that it frays around the edges with mountains becoming plains and then lakes as random probabilities change the lay of the land, enough of the emerging continent continues in relative stability so that beings may live inside or upon it, and not perish by falling into random holes or being sucked up into the sky. These are the creatures that have their genesis in the formless void. They have come on to the land through their own efforts. They are the kindred of the title. Everything was going along well for them until different races began to arrive through the void. One was the Vaerli. Like the kindred they made a pact, granting them the right to remain on conditions. But they had seers who foretold their downfall. There would be a harrowing. The puzzle the Vaerli had to solve was how to recover after the inevitable fall.

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine (Pyr, 2013) the second in the Shifted World series finds Finnbarr the Fox (a Manesto-Vaerli hybrid) now riding the dragon Wahirangi as he searches for Ysel, the brother he never knew he had. Talyn (a purebred Vaerli) lost her people and found nothing but pain working for the Caisah, the mortal man who was granted immortality during the process later called the Harrowing. She’s changed employer but still rides Syris, her nykur steed. Now she’s abandoned the process of killing to secure pieces of the puzzle from the Caisah, she has a different mission, this time for the Phage. She acquires a scroll and, according to the Phage, the only way in which it can be destroyed is by the flame of a dragon. Since the only person with a dragon to hand is Finnbarr, this is forcing her to resume her relationship with him. Her ability to edit her memory continues to be fallible and she still finds herself reliving moments with him. Meeting up with him again will be a challenge to her peace of mind. Byre, Talyn’s brother, is still with Pelanor and, having travelled into the past, is now more positively moving forward into the future where he may finally solve the puzzle.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

Complicating matters further are the plans of Kelanim, the Caisah’s current mistress who’s being manipulated into removing the “curse” of immortality from the man she sleeps with. She hopes, if not truly believes, that as a mortal man, the Caisah will be able to love her. In his present state, he simply sees her as a Mayfly, transitorily passing through his life before dying. As they say in books, this is a tangled web but it represents a metaphor in which to explore a number of all too common human strengths and weaknesses. The problem with people who acquire power is the sense of entitlement it brings. They become defensive, looking for every possible way in which their position can be reinforced without any real sacrifice being necessary on their part. This often goes hand-in-hand with pride. They come to expect deference from others. If necessary, those in a subordinate position are expected to make the sacrifices their “leaders” should make. If one or two whipping boys fail to provide results, an arena full may bring better results. This is how the Caisah has ruled. Not only is he immortal but he also possesses such power, he’s effectively invulnerable as well. Yet there are still those who plot against him. Their treason cannot be tolerated. As a people, the Vaerli seem to have lost their ability to empathise with others. They felt themselves superior to other races and groups. This led to pride in their ability to organise the world according to their wishes.

In all this, there’s an underlying irony. The Vaerli have seers who can see their pride will lead to a fall. The puzzle is whether this is predestined or can be avoided by the exercise of free will at critical moments. If fate is implacable and they must fall, is there a way to recover what has been lost? So the book is set in the form of a quest. Those in the past are looking for a means of redemption, knowing that much, if not all, the future is set on a fixed path. Individuals are also searching for their own identity and a better sense of what their role is to be in the greater scheme of things. For some, it means they will be required to die. For other it offers a chance for salvation.

I found Kindred and Wings slightly slow to get going. It takes a while to establish where everyone is and what they are doing. However, once the basic set-up is complete, we’re off on a well-paced plot to some interesting outcomes, at least one of which was unexpected. This leaves a satisfied smile on my lips. There’s enough intellectual substance to lift the book well above average for a high fantasy with dragons. This is worth pursuing.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Hunter and Fox
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress

October 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Marvels Agents of Shield

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress demonstrates the age-old truth that unless you have intelligent dialogue in service to a good plot shown through well-produced visuals, you have a show that’s dead in the water. Let’s start with the question of the dialogue’s quality. At its heart, this series has begun to demonstrate a clear point of view preference. The default setting is Skye (Chloe Bennet). Although the theory says we’re watching the growth of a team, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the British science geeks, were effectively sidelined, Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) has a coupe of scenes with Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) aka Woodentop lurches around looking for his lost brain (assuming he was issued one on birth). This episode is all about Skye’s agenda and the deception she’s been running intended to achieve her ends. In the right hands, this plot could have been interesting as we watched her vacillate between old and new relationships. Sadly, what we heard and saw was facile and not worthy of our attention. Indeed, the dialogue bubbles in some comic stories are better than this. To show they are getting along better, Skye and Woodentop play battleships (that’s about the right intellectual level for him and he still lost). But, if you listen to the script, the male actor is incapable of displaying anything approximating actual emotion. The effort going into writing the script is therefore wasted. May and Coulson do better in their more limited exchanges (May gets to speak Mandarin in two scenes which she does rather more convincingly since that’s her mother tongue). The science geeks remain deeply annoying.

Brett Dalton and Ming-Na Wen

Brett Dalton and Ming Na Wen

As to the plot, it seems S.H.I.E.L.D. runs a list of people with ability who might be dangerous if they fell into the wrong hands. Via stock footage, we travel to Hong Kong where a generic street scene offers us a “magician” who can actually make fire. We’re supposed to recognise him as a human mutant who, like Pyro in the X-Men series, can manipulate fire. Well, in the initial scenes, the power is rather limited but, on the budget we’ve seen from the show so far, it’s a step in the right direction. Anyway, the titular girl in the flower dress gets a personal demonstration and then watches with a smile on her lips as appropriately suited heavies subdue him,. To punish him for having a mutant talent, they propose to call him Scorch. Meanwhile, back on the Bus, an agent from Hong Kong reports the “magician’s” abduction, speculating this is the work of the Rising Tide. Skye is embarrassed because she’s supposed to be a part of that organisation and should warn S.H.I.E.L.D. when any of her colleagues propose to cross the line. It’s a big organisation, OK. To prove she’s now on the side of the good guys, Skye identifies the person who hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. Leaving the local people in Hong Kong to recover the man they were supposed to be protecting, our newly emerging team set off for Austin Texas (because it’s cheaper to film generic American cities and make believe we’re in Texas).

Because he’s standing on the pavement trying not to be conspicuous, Miles, the hacker, immediately identifies Woodentop as an agent and runs off (only joking — Skye has already tipped him off). This precipitates a time-wasting chase. Skye however continues to play both sides and is waiting for Miles back at his run-down apartment. Yes, it’s the hacker and ex-lover. Later in post-coital bliss, they are arrested and taken to Hong Kong. Sorry, I was too quick to keep us in America (an irrelevant comment because none of the exterior scenes are identifiable as to location). Anyway, we’re back to the organisation from the first episode that’s trying to create a supersoldier. I think I forgot to mention it’s calling itself Centipede. With only inferior scientific abilities available, their serum is unstable, but the British science geeks speculate the pyrokenetic ability of the kidnapped mutant could stabilise the serum. Personally, that sounds an absurd idea but, in this show, I’m past caring. So now the enhanced Scorch burns a couple of people to ash (not very impressive CGI) and is then persuaded to explode. Miles the hacker, allowed out of his handcuffs at the last moment, directs the blast of flame out of the laboratory roof through the air-conditioning system (totally absurd CGI) — nothing is too much of a challenge for this guy. The team reassembles on the Bus. Miles is stripped of his money and left in Hong Kong with the ultimate in electronic tagging. Skye is on probation, finally admitting she’s trying to find out what happened to her parents. Everyone else is in limbo apart from the girl in the flower dress who is prison visiting to hint there may be some plot continuity about to develop. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Girl in the Flower Dress is not quite the worst episode so far but close to it.

For a review of other episodes, see:
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 1. Pilot
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 2. 0-8-4
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 3. The Asset
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 4. Eye-Spy
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 6. FZZT
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 7. The Hub.

Death, Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem by Diane Kelly

October 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Death Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem

Death, Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem by Diane Kelly (St Martin’s Press, 2013) sees IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway pitched into another mystery, this time with a jeweller unlucky enough to be a victim in a series of robberies. In this novella, it may only be two weeks before Christmas, but there’s no holiday when it comes to manipulating accounts to reduce tax liability. So put the festivities on the back burner, we’re off into battle as our intrepid investigator sets off into the Shoppes at Chisholm Trail Mall to audit a jewellery store run by Phillip and Deidre Freitag, who may be partners in crime and to consider the sorry state in which jilted Santa Claus finds himself. This is Chris Rasmussen, a moonlighting, hunky pediatric nurse. On the way, we add Fort worth Police Officer Megan Lutz and Sergeant Brigit, her impressive hair-shedding K-9 partner, who gets her own point of view chapters (as every good dog deserves — they’re not considered man’s best friend for nothing, it’s always for something). For those of you who have led deprived lives and have not read Diane Kelly before, Tara Holloway has two cats but they don’t get to do anything except demonstrate the truism of cupboard love, eat her houseplants, and sick up hairballs at the most opportune moments.

Diane Kelly

Diane Kelly

So here comes the pitch. Diane Kelly writes amusing mystery stories featuring Tara Holliday. There are already six in the series with the seventh due in 2014. This novella is what we might consider a crossover episode to introduce Officer Megan Lutz and Sergeant Brigit who are going to feature in a brand new series already labelled Paw Enforcement and due for publication in 2014. The point of the exercise is to strike a balance between three competing elements. There has to be enough investigation for both female leads and the dog to get their teeth into. The plot has to enable us to get a reasonable view of the new crime-fighting duo without it overshadowing the series character who travels wearing the Death, Taxes label. And there has to be an element of romance. I suppose stories of this type fly under the banner of cozy mysteries with a humorous take on sometimes serious crimes, the investigations being run by female characters. This series is slightly nonstandard cozy because our investigator is a federal agent with a gun rather than a local librarian with a flair for solving puzzles. In Tara’s defence, she’s a cat lover which more or less brings her into the fold.

In this instance, the novella length is about right. The tax evasion under investigation is not difficult to solve, merely requiring tedious hours going through digital and paper records to find the necessary evidence. There’s a shop-lifting for Megan to deal with and everyone comes together at the end for the mandatory chase with shots fired and the type of mayhem necessary to justify the novella’s title. This leaves us with the romance element. Perhaps I’m overly curmudgeonly even though we’re getting closer to the festive season, but I’m faintly sceptical Tara and Megan, having only just met, would have spent quite so much money to achieve the result. Yes to the gentle nudging in the right direction. . . hmmm to the tickets to the ball.

That said, Death, Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem is enjoyable, efficiently delivering amusement which, in these jaded times, is why most of us read books (and novellas) like this.

For a review of a novel by Diane Kelly, see Death, Taxes, and Extra-Strength Hold Hairspray.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Human Division by John Scalzi

October 22, 2013 Leave a comment


Coming into the 1940s, some American authors developed a two-bites-of-the-cherry strategy. The market in magazines for short stories was strong. They therefore worked at that opportunity first, churning out as many stories as possible in the shortest possible time. In those days, the word-rates were low so authors were only self-financing through volume. However, instead of writing indiscriminately, the more cunning authors would actually be developing one or more novels in parallel. Whenever they had enough building blocks to fix-up into a novel, they would get paid a second time for the short stories edited to make a coherent story. The best at this was A E Van Vogt with The Weapon Shops of Isher and many others leading the way. These books are actually fun to read in a roller coaster style, i.e. it’s all highly episodic with regular exciting climaxes. I’m therefore experiencing an interesting flashback to see this approach recreated by Tor. It’s going one step further than publishers like Curiosity Quills Press which persuaded their authors to allow books to be published in whole or part as first-draft serials on their websites (the completely revised books being published later). Here John Scalzi wrote a series of “self-contained” short stories that were individually published. These were then fixed-up into The Human Division which is Book 5 in the Old Man’s War series.

The resulting whole demonstrates an important feature of the writer’s craft. Some authors feel most comfortable when they can allow the plot to develop organically. They write character sketches and create an initial situation. Once the set-up is complete, they set the characters “free” and see where they go. Obviously, there has to be some guiding intelligence, but this method can allow authors to achieve considerable credibility in the way their characters act or fail to act. The brief for John Scalzi obviously went as far in the opposite direction as it’s possible to go. Every last feature of the overall plot had to be nailed down before the author started the first story so that the individual parts could be fitted together to make the whole.

John Scalzi

John Scalzi

What makes this particular fix-up interesting is the discontinuity that would have been apparent to anyone reading the individual segments as they were published. In one or two instances, we jump to completely different points of view with little or no obvious connection to what has gone before. In retrospect, there’s complete continuity, but I can sense the sly sense of humour at work in the way readers are sometimes left hanging. For those of you who have not read any of Scalzi’s work, the humour is always likely to rear its head in all his work. While this book is not quite as amusing of some of the Retief stories by Keith Laumer, it’s better than the majority, many of which are rather laboured. More importantly, Scalzi is writing today so his brand of humour is more accessible than the now quite dated humour of Laumer. That said, there’s a clear overlap. In both, we have a group charged with a diplomatic mission to the stars. There’s a balance between “diplomats” and those who are not afraid to fight if it becomes necessary. This leads to the key difference. The career “diplomat” in this book is effective whereas Retief is continually called on to rescue his missions from the incompetence of those nominally in charge. To be clear, I’m not suggesting anything more than a coincidence in the basic plot idea. The executions are significantly different.

Taken as a whole, The Human Division is great fun with the title appropriately growing ever more relevant as the book unwinds. I can do no more than applaud John Scalzi for pulling off a difficult trick. As with many of the early fix-ups, you can see the joins between the different parts stitched together. John Scalzi makes a feature of those differences. Sadly, the pulp writers were less sophisticated and just bolted the bits together, not caring whether anyone noticed the losses in continuity. That means Scalzi’s technique prevails and anyone who enjoys the older style of space opera should read this!

For the review of a freestanding novella, see Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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