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Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) is a delightful historical mystery, the sixth and final in the series featuring the castrato Tito Amato — I seem to specialise in finding good things just as they are ending. This is playing in the same sandpit as Dave Duncan whose trilogy features a fictionalised nephew of Nostradamus and his savvy apprentice (it starts with The Alchemist’s Apprentice) and is also set in Venice, albeit about one-hundred-and-fifty years before this novel. It also matches the alternate history fantasy novel, The Black Opera by Mary Gentle, by focusing on the problems of getting the production of an opera underway.

The political situation in Venice has always been fascinating and is nicely explored here. Given that the local theatres depend on patronage to be able to mount their extravagant stage productions, there’s an important intersection between the arts and the powerful nobility. By subsidizing these productions, the wealthy buy the support of the pit audience who live for opera. Equally, they give themselves a platform from which to be seen and acknowledged by the people, all having private boxes at the theatres from which they can bow and accept the applause of the common man. It’s also worth commenting on the longevity of the Italian rules preventing women from appearing on stage. To get the right vocal range for singing purposes, this not only requires men to dress as women but also be castrated. In Rome, priests act as enforcement officers who inspect singers to ensure they began life as males. In the provinces, there’s no tradition of physical inspection which can lead to speculation if a singer bulges in the wrong places.

Beverle Graves Myers

Beverle Graves Myers

Our sleuth showed vocal talent as a boy so went through the process of castration and training to become a star of the opera. However, he loses his voice in an earlier episode and now spends his time assisting Maestro Torani, the director of Teatro San Marco in Venice. Their relationship is as close to father and son as it’s possible to get and, all other things being equal., the old man would like to see his protégé take over the running of the opera house. This is largely accepted by most who work in the Teatro although, for different reasons, there’s some animosity and not a little jealousy. Opera prima donnas are, by definition, emotional and aggressive in pursuit of their ambitions. At the beginning of this book, Amato is approached by Niccolo Rocatti with a politically controversial opera score called The False Duke. Deciding the beauty of the music will seduce the audience into overlooking the problematic libretto, Amato first sells the idea of the score to the Maestro and then to Signor Arcangelo Passoni who’s the Teatro’s primary patron. Approval is given, but conditional on two inconvenient factors. A spectacular stage effect is to be introduced into this pastoral setting, and the lead is to be sung by the young castrato, Angeletto. Because he’s convinced the opera will be a financial success, Amato manages to talk the stage designer into creating a shipwreck, and he recruits Angeletto even though being forced to pay more than the usual rate for someone relatively untested.

This sets us off on the initial preparations, rehearsing the cast and getting the musicians familiar with the score. Unfortunately, when a reception is held at the Passoni residence to introduce Angeletto to Venetian society, Amato finds himself required to defend the honour of a lady and, some fifteen minutes later, to receive the news the Maestro has been murdered. He’s immediately suspected by many of the influential people present who assume he would kill the Maestro to replace him. Fortunately, the senior law enforcement officer is soon able to confirm Amato’s account of events and, within the circles that matter, he’s no longer a suspect. This leaves him free to pursue his own investigation to identify the one responsible for the death of his “father”.

There are one or two mechanical problems with the plot which enable the murderer to be in the right place at the right time but, if we look past these details, the core of the mystery is multilayered with three major strands all bound together in a pretty package for us to consider. First, there’s a problem with the provenance of The False Duke. Then we have the question of whether Angeletto is a castrato or a woman breaking all the rules. And finally there’s the rivalry between the opera companies which may have gone beyond the usual skullduggery into murder. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tie either of the first two strands to a likely motive. Even the third is problematic because, if Amato is not guilty, he’s likely to be a more formidable competitor if he takes over the running of Teatro San Marco. Killing the old man would therefore seem counterproductive. So perhaps there’s another motive involved. The answers are rather pleasing. Overall, this leaves me recommending Whispers of Vivaldi. It has a good sense of this period of Venetian history and the mystery is very satisfying.

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

Castle: Season 6, episode 16. Room 147 (2014)

February 27, 2014 6 comments

Castle

Well, thanks to one of my readers, I’ve just watched my first episode of Castle: Season 6, episode 16. Room 147 (2014) — only five seasons and fifteen episodes to go and I’ll have caught up. This is not a show that’s aired on terrestrial channels in my neck of the woods, so this episode comes as a bolt from the blue. On the face of it, this is a very interesting plot idea. Because of the time constraints on “one hour” episodes, it has to compress everything into 43 minutes of screen time but, within that constraint, this manages to muddy the waters and then see through the glass clearly in regulation time. As you’ll gather from the title, there’s a murder in Room 147. A man has been shot twice in the chest. He has a bottle of water in his hand, evidently just removed from the fridge. When he fell, he seems to have pulled over a chair which is lying beside the body. So far, this is a standard murder in hotel bedroom plot. The victim’s girlfriend has no explanation as to why he was in the hotel, but one of her fellow actors remembers an incident in the street when an angry woman accosted him. The police follow this up, identify the woman and, when she walks into the police station, she immediately confesses to the murder. At this stage, there’s just one problem. She has a very credible alibi which puts her miles away at the time of death. Then a man walks into the police station and makes almost word-for-word the same confession. And then a third man appears with the same confession.

In the world of the canned mystery show, there are certain rules to follow. For example, there can’t be any supernatural explanations, there are no science fiction wrinkles with new technology able to allow people to implant memories, e.g. as in Inception (2010). There must be a reasonably credible explanation based on today’s reality. So let’s set up the problem as it first appears.

Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) and Kate Beckett confront a witness remotely

Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) and Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) confront a witness remotely

These people have the same set of memories. They admit being angry with this man and shot him.

This suggests they either had acted out the drama for some reason — the victim was an actor — or the killer wore a camera during the shooting and these three were able to watch a recording.

But even if these three viewed a recording of the event, why would they not only feel guilt, but also come forward to confess?

There’s no obvious link between them and/or the victim, so no motive for the shooting and no motive for a conspiracy to confess and thereby make a prosecution difficult. Had they not come forward, the second and third confessors would not have been identified as suspects.

So back in the real world, there must be a connection between these three and something must have interfered with their memories. I won’t spoil it for you. I’ve seen the basic idea in several other series but this is probably the most elegant version. Why? Let’s take the possibility of a hypnotist as murderer. He or she is able to implant suggestions and manipulate the suggestible individual into committing suicide or acting to his or her detriment in some specific way. If that’s what was going on here, it would mean our hypnotist recorded the shooting and then programed the three individuals to come forward and confess. That would make any subsequent investigation very difficult. In fact, the episode offers a solution that’s rather more devious and less linear. Within the time available, this is a very good example of a murder plot. It’s just unfortunate I have no idea how Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), an author, gets to spend years attached to a homicide unit and ends up sleeping with Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), a homicide detective with big hair. But I’m sure it all makes perfect sense to this who have loyally watched this from the pilot back in 2009. For those of you who missed the episode, Crown’s daughter moves back into her father’s apartment at the end so all’s well with the world again. My sincere thanks go to the reader who recommended I watch this. Castle: Room 147 was an entertaining episode even though, if this was to occur in the real world, I seriously doubt this outcome. People don’t spontaneously confess to murders.

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 12. Beholder (2014)

February 26, 2014 3 comments

Almost-Human2

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 12. Beholder (2014) begins with a terrible warning about playing virtual golf. There’s no quicker way to lose face than playing against the machine. So our pretend golfer in shorts is distracted and gets the wrong type of hole in one side of his neck courtesy of a bandaged intruder. Switch now to police HQ where Dorian (Michael Ealy) takes a call from Samantha — the woman Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) dated last night. Naturally Kennex is upset Dorian has interfered in his private life. Dorian offers the insight that the women he dates find him boring which is why they keep taking calls when out with him. This bromantic heart-to-heart is interrupted by Detective Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly) who speculates she has an unnatural death involving a chrome. Such people are genetically modified so don’t die young of heart attacks. We then get the slightly spooky view of Dorian taking a blood sample from the deceased and injecting it into himself. Of course he doesn’t have to worry about HIV or any other infection, but it’s a faintly surreal moment. Dorian’s internal CSI lab processes the blood and he announces the entry wound has been contaminated by the DNA from seven people — such bad hygiene from our killer should have consequences but this is not about the DNA. A records search reveals all seven donors are dead from natural causes.

Meanwhile, our bandaged man wearing the hoodie goes to his local unregistered physician who “fixes” his face (again). This is quite the best approach to cosmetic surgery I’ve seen in a television series or film for a while. It makes shapeshifting abilities redundant. Just one quick injection and a lot of pain, and nanobot cosmetic surgery does the trick every time. Who needs to manipulate the DNA when you can have the robots map the desired facial features from the inside of the model and then replicate the same effect inside the target human. Be still my heart — unfortunately that’s the effect the bots had on most targets. Their electrical action induced arrhythmia when injected into the models (except when those donors were prepared for the shock by the injection of adrenaline). The only drawback to this illegal version seems to be it doesn’t work on the already damaged person which is why he has to signal his continuing threat to society by wearing bandages.

Eric Lathem (Michael Eklund) gets the eyes he's always coveted

Eric Lathem (Michael Eklund) gets the eyes he’s always coveted

The theme of tonight’s episode is not so much that people make barriers for themselves and so find it difficult to relate to those around them, but rather that technology makes barriers between people. Genetic modification makes the chromes who don’t like associating with normals. Women prefer taking calls from their friends rather than talking with Kennex on a date. When Kennex rants anti-technology, Dorian reminds John of his leg (and the salad oil that keeps it working smoothly). A further application of technology is the midget inside the obese woman — you have to see it to believe it — which is a really strange life choice when, presumably, the midget could have chosen the body of a giant hunky man. Dorian proves the exception that proves the rule. He can bridge the gap with humans because he’s a walking defibrillator who can jump start a heart assuming not too much adrenaline in the target body.

All this would not be unreasonable if it were being used in service of a sensible plot. But this is mawkishly ironic and overextended. Eric Lathem (Michael Eklund) as our homicidal nutter is forcing the reconstruction of his face so he can appear perfect when he introduces himself to his online chat partner. With time running short and the police moving in for the arrest, he finally picks up enough courage and goes to meet her. It turns out she’s blind and he’s been wasting his time. She loved him for who he was as a person, not what he looked like. It’s a ghastly moment as our facial dysmorphic disorder person throws himself on the scrapheap of life, i.e. off the top of a tall building. This just leaves one thing to perfect the already perfect day Kennex has been enjoying. He finally asks Stahl to go out for a drink with him only to find she’s agreed to go out with the chrome she met earlier in the episode. Carpe diem was not his approach to life and he’s cast adrift at the end of the episode, reflecting on how slowly the plot has moved. Sadly, although there’s some character development, the episode itself is intensely boring. And despite this now being episodes running in the order intended, Almost Human: Beholder shows no plot continuity with the last episode.

For reviews of other episodes, see
Almost Human. Season 1, episode 1 (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 3. Are You Receiving? (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 4. The Bends (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 5. Blood Brothers (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 6. Arrhythmia (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 7. Simon Says (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 8. You Are Here (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, Episode 9. Unbound (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 10. Perception (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 11. Disrupt (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 13. Straw Man (2014).

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto

February 25, 2014 2 comments

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) translated by Jethro Soutar, sees the first publication of this prolific author’s work in English — there are fifty-two other books to wait for. This modest volume is subtitled, “The mystery of the severed heads” which suggests it is either a crime or horror novel. The reality is rather different. It’s set in a rundown guest house in Rio de Janeiro. Originally, it was a private mansion, but when the owner departed, Dona Dino, the woman left behind, could not pay the bills unless she admitted paying guests. To call it a hotel would be to miss the mark. It’s rather more a collection of individuals who have come together in cheap accommodation offered by an apparently benign and supportive elderly lady (and her cat). When one of the guests, an elderly man who traded in semi-precious gemstones, is found decapitated, this provokes the police into action and, as each of the residents is interviewed by Delegado Olinto Del Bosco, we’re introduced to their lives.

The primus inter pares resident is Cândido. He’s a modern-day equivalent of Volatire’s Candide, a not unworldly man who makes a meagre living as an editor for a local publishing house while volunteering to help the street kids who get into trouble. He wants to find the best in people which is why, during the course of this book, he becomes involved in defying the military police who are dealing with a mass breakout at a juvenile detention centre. On a whim, he protects a girl who escapes, involving others in hiding her, even though it makes him even more a target for harassment and possible disappearance if he gets caught. Then there’s Rui Pacheco, a political aide and Marcelo Braga, a newspaperman. Both are, in their different ways, relatively powerful. Pacheco has networked into the political class and knows the right people to get some things done. But he’s also a contradiction. He ought to be building up wealth alongside his influence yet he lives in reduced circumstances. Marcelo could write front-page opinion pieces to castigate Del Bosco for his failure to catch the killer. This would probably lead to Del Bosco being sidelined if not dismissed. But he doesn’t think an intervention worth his while. There are few men of talent in the ranks of the local detective force and Marcelo does not believe any replacement would be any more likely to find the killer.

Frei Betto

Frei Betto

This leaves us with the flamboyant Diamante Negro who’s a professional cross-dressing transformista, and Madame Larência who’s reached the age when she can no longer easily turn tricks and so acts as a pimp. Rosaura Doroteia dos Santos is a young and naive fantasist who dreams of becoming a star of one of the prevailing television soaps. While Jorge Maldonado is the general factotum around the hotel and, when no-one else seems likely to have been the killer, he’s the one arrested. He’s lucky enough to have an older bother who was a notorious, if less than successful, crook. Beating a confessional out of him seems the most reasonable solution to the case. Except, while this unfortunate is locked up, there’s a second decapitation.

In a way, the hotel and the sequence of murders is just a excuse to talk about Brazilian society. Through the characters we get an insight into the social dynamics of the culture in Rio. This is not the tourist version with street carnivals and beach parties. Rather it’s a study of the progress being by the post-junta government, highlighting the problems of the disadvantaged and marginalised. The are moments of humour and equal elements of tragedy as the stories of the different residents play out. So you should not pick up this book if you are looking for a traditional whodunnit. Although the final pages do explain who’s responsible for the killings and why, that’s of secondary importance. The real thrust of the narrative is whether Cândido can find love and redeem the girl from the streets. In this, no-one is an angel. Equally, it’s hard to single out any of those who survive to the end of the book as being devils. Everyone does what they must to survive. They may be required to do some things that, objectively, they will acknowledge as illegal or merely immoral. But people will pay such prices if they emerge with their lives intact. This makes Hotel Brasil a social commentary with some satirical ambitions and relatively unflinching insights into Brazil’s current social and political problems.

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

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 5 and 6

February 24, 2014 2 comments

The After Dinner Mysteries

Episode 5 gives us the earth-shattering news Kageyama (Sho Sakurai), our intellectually superior butler, is a fan of manga while Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina), our dimwitted detective, is now infatuated with our less than successful heiress cum detective, Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa), in her alternate persona of Ms Shao Rei from Hong Kong. Obviously the infatuated only see what their heart desires, i.e. lots of money on marrying the mysterious heiress from Hong Kong rather than the attractive woman in front of them. So now we get the introduction to the murder, this time committed in the Kunitachi Shrine, an act of sacrilege. The victim is an unknown woman, stabbed through the chest with a small knife. She has no handbag or handphone — no means of identifying her. The “brains” of the outfit sees this as a robbery gone wrong whereas our heroine speculates the killer took the handphone because it would contain evidence they knew each other.

So now we get into evidence collection where it immediately appears the victim is the author of a famous manga which has scenes set in the Shrine. Curiously, she’s been unable to finish the series leaving fans somewhat frustrated. The artist is the first and only suspect, but he seems to have a completely airtight alibi. The episode therefore has two themes. The first is the means of deconstructing the alibi which is pleasing in its own right. The second is the reason why such a good alibi came into being. This is a beautiful inversion of expectation. Although the precise circumstances of the death are easy to reconstruct given the brief prologue scene, the explanation for everyone’s motives is masterful making this episode a cut above the average. It may flirt with sentimentality, but it’s a remarkably practical way of achieving the desired end and, by any standards, worthy of being included in any hit manga (or a television detective series, of course).

Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) arrives for work

Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) arrives for work

Hotfoot into episode 6 sees our detective late in arriving at the scene of another death. This time the body of a woman is rather tastefully laid out in the greenhouse of another of these properties inhabited by the rich. But before we get into the detail of it, the brainless one has been checking into the background of the “object of his desires” and has discovered no-one named Shao Rei has come into the country recently. It seems being a detective does come with some perks (if only he actually knew what to do with them).

Now into the death in the rose garden (which looks rather beautiful, as does the corpse — but no-one would dare say anything so disrespectful of the dead). The victim is Takahara Kyoko, an ex-hostess who’s been living in the manor for about a month. It then occurs to the detectives that this death scene is a rerun of “The Curse of the Red Rose” — one of the seven unsolved mysteries of the area. We then get the usual supernatural tropes paraded before us to make fun of the dimwitted detective who’s gullible enough to believe an ancient curse can affect people today. The deductions surrounding the cat are wonderful and, to my shame, completely unexpected. Flashbacks to recall relevant statements really can be humiliating at times like this. Although this is nowhere near as successful as episode 5, it nevertheless maintains a good standard with the reasoning pleasingly specific to identify which of the three suspects must be the guilty one. The less satisfying element is the explanation of the motive which depends on such a fleeting moment, no viewer could have caught it. That said, it’s a good clue if one of the oldest motives in the book.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011) Episodes 1 and 2
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 3 and 4
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 7 and 8
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10.

Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn

February 23, 2014 Leave a comment

HEIRS OF THE BODY by Carola Dunn

Heirs of the Body by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first in the series featuring (The Honourable) Daisy Dalrymple (Fletcher) and has us firmly back in historical times all wrapped up warm in what approaches the status of a cozy mystery. As to era, we’re firmly located in the Britain of the 1920s in which wealth and privilege were still hanging on by their fingernails. Thematically, we’re caught up in the problems of the primogeniture rule for succession to a title. In the days before the suffragette movement was alarming the horses on race courses and straining conversations over tea in country houses, titles passed down the male line. In the best regulated families, husbands would bear down on their wives on a regular basis and, in due course, lots of little heirs would populate the nurseries, thereby ensuring a smooth transition of the title and the lands entailed with it. Except not all households were successful with problems of fertility, lack of interest in sex, or worse, the production of female offspring only, blighting succession. It was at this point that lawyers with an interest in genealogy came into their own, delving into dusty records in colonies and other less likely places around the world, to find the nearest male relative who might be elevated to the ranks of the nobility. In this case, the current Lord Dalrymple has reached the age of fifty and, having spent his life in pursuit of butterflies and moths, decides the chances of catching an heir are remote. He therefore sets the wheels in motion to find the male with the best claim to the title and the estate that goes with it.

Meanwhile Daisy continues in domestic bliss with her husband who, breaking the cozy rules, is a senior police officer at the old Scotland Yard. This gives our heroine the perfect excuse to get involved in all the more interesting cases falling into her husband’s care. Indeed, she’s been at this so long, not only the younger officers but also the more senior officers of London’s finest are aware of her ability to make pertinent suggestions on whodunnit. This time, the family solicitor comes up with a list of four possible claimant to the title. They are an unpleasant South African who appears to be moderately wealthy thanks to his trade as a diamond merchant, a British man and his French wife who run a hotel in Scarborough, a mixed-race boy from Trinidad, and a Jamaican sailor — his pregnant wife comes to England to protect his claim since no-one is entirely sure where he is.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

This starts well. There’s a very nice sense of the style and manners of the time with the stratification of social class ringing true. The interest is maintained as we begin the search for the heirs and first impressions as the early claimants appear are auspicious. Unfortunately, the central section loses it way. In part, this is a direct result from plot choices. In the classical detective story, we reestablish our core of series characters, meet the newcomers for this book and, usually no later than one third of the way through the book, the first body appears. This gives our heroine plenty of time to flex her mental muscles, decide what to wear for dinner, and solve the case in the library over a snifter or two. But this case is about succession. One of the claimants must think he has a poor chance of meeting the criteria for being the first male heir and so decides to eliminate the competition. The most amusing version of this trope is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which the predatory Louis Mazzini works his way through the ranks of the D’Ascoynes.

Allowing for the film being somewhat over the top, this is completely free of tension as there are reports of “accidents”, or we see the donkey race to disaster, or the butterfly net of doom almost strikes. When we do get to a death, it appears to be natural causes. Although once you put it in context, it does look suspicious. Of course it heats up again as we come into the final bend but the feeling as we cross the line is that the criminal(s) is/are remarkably amateurish — this is just too cozy with very little of the killer mentality we associate with the British nobility. Having taken the decision to eliminate the competition, you would expect the villain(s) to be better organised and leave nothing to chance. Indeed, continuing in the ineptitude stakes, the professional police officer who married into this clan of noble eccentrics comes out of this book looking less than effective. Although we’re not supposed to blame him — he’s distracted — his failure to examine the key evidence is woeful. Perhaps he’s more on the ball in earlier books.

So Heirs of the Body ends up slightly ho-hum. It promises more than it delivers on the mystery front, once the evidence comes in, the question of the heir’s identity is easy to see, and the historical background is impeccable. So if all you want is a gentle outing into the lives of one of the larger British aristocratic families of the latter part of 1920s, this is the book for you. Presumably if you’ve already read the twenty books preceding this, you’ll want this if only to see what happens on the family front.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see A Colourful Death and The Valley of the Shadow.

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

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall

NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the fifteenth Puzzle Lady Mysteries featuring Cora Felton. If you’ve read the previous fourteen, this is more of the same and you’ll no doubt pick this up, charge through it, and emerge satisfied at the end. For those of you coming to the series for the first time, the structure of the book is very accessible so there’s no difficulty in reading this cold. People who like cozy mysteries will no doubt love this. From this introduction, you’ll detect I have a certain degree of ambivalence about it.

Welcome to small town America, Bakerhaven to be precise, in which a cast of regular characters know each other and, in appropriate circumstances, help each other out. It all depends on Cora Felton. She’s of a certain age, is the face used to advertise breakfast fodder for kids, and consolidates her fame or notoriety by being known as the Puzzle Lady, i.e. she’s launched hundreds of crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles on to the unsuspecting world. Except, of course, she’s a fraud — but in the nicest sense of the word. Although she’s got a real head for numbers, and creates and solves sudoku in her sleep, she has no aptitude for crosswords. The reason for the deception is to provide a source of income for her niece Sherry. When she was on the run from her abusive husband, Cora gave her a place to stay. Sherry earns her living creating the crosswords which the Puzzle Lady markets to those who like puzzles. Indeed, this book has crosswords and sudoku puzzles embedded in the text. Solving them gives vital clues (for those of you with no skill or aptitude in puzzle-solving, the solutions are given on the next page).

Parnell Hall finding a good use for his left hand

Parnell Hall finding a good use for his left hand

This time around, someone has broken into the town hall, but there’s no sign anything is missing. Next Cora’s attorney friend is invited to nearby New York to meet with a client for the first time. Instead of going to this man’s office, she’s invited to his penthouse. Out of an abundance of caution. Cora goes along as bodyguard. Needless to say, they come out of the lift, push open the door and find a dead body with a crossword puzzle pinned to its chest. A noise alerts them to the presence of someone in another room so Cora takes out her gun (yes she packs heat) and seconds later is shooting at a safecracker as he jumps out of the window. This leaves her in a tricky situation because the bullet currently residing inside the dead man’s head is too badly damaged to produce reliable markings. Cora’s bullet followed the burglar out through the open window, so the NYPD is not a million miles from having one of these neat circumstantial cases to show Cora as the killer. Except why would a sudoku puzzle also appear? This question joins a growing list of the unanswerable? Why do people break into small-town town halls and take nothing? Why do people later kill the town clerk with a blunt instrument. How come someone can incorporate a car’s licence plate number in the first sudoku puzzle and then use a car with those plates to follow Cora? and so on.

The accumulation of questions without answers grows somewhat frustrating both for the characters and the readers. So much happens which obviously must have some explanation, but the who and the why of it remain stubbornly elusive. Now we add in the element you will either find endearing or somewhat annoying. Cora’s last relationship has ended somewhat abruptly and she’s feeling a little fragile. Even during the best of times, she’s prone to engage in what one might call “banter”. In earlier books this is moderately friendly and reasonably humorous. This time round, she’s more barbed and, at times, the characters talk at each other rather than with each other. After a while, I found this grew tiresome. You can forgive much when people are feeling vulnerable, but this got out of hand.

So NYPD Puzzle is not as successful as the last in the series. The mystery is not something Cora and her cohorts solve. Rather they have to wait until it’s explained to them at the end. So instead of producing a ta-da whodunnit moment at the end, it fizzles out as the killer(s) is/are taken into custody. Shame really. With hindsight, the plot is ingenious but it never quite engages as the characters go through the necessary gyrations to find out who’s doing what to whom and why.

For a review of the previous book in the series, see Arsenic and Old Puzzles.

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

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment

The-Adjacent-013

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Titan Books, 2013) qualifies as one of the most interesting books of the last year. In part, the interest lies in what the book is not. Ah. . . so now we immediately come to the heart of it. In some senses, this is a story about the nature of relationships rather than a book sitting comfortably in a genre such as science fiction or fantasy. The word selected as the title gives us the theme. When two or more people, places or things are adjacent, they are next to each other, perhaps even sharing a common boundary or border, but they do not overlap. You could pass from one part to its neighbour, e.g. from a city centre to a suburb or, in American terms, a more distant exurb. This gives us a potential paradox to resolve. Two people may be “close”, but no matter how intimately involved they may be, they do not physically become one person. They retain their individual traits and characteristics. Ironically, the law used to proclaim husband and wife were one person for legal purposes. So, for example, spouses could not give evidence against each other or, in some cases, property originally owned by one before marriage fell into the ownership of the other after marriage. Laws create their own fictions or distortions of reality to fulfill their social policy purposes.

When it comes to literary purposes, Christopher Priest is playing a complicated game with us. None of the first- or third-person narrators who feature in this novel are intentionally unreliable. It’s not their fault that they fail to grasp exactly who they are nor what purpose their presence advances. All they can do is tell their stories, believing them to be true, and leave it to us to decide how much of what they say might be true in the context for their contributions. We start off with Tibor Tarent and his wife Melanie. They are in a version of Anatolia, Turkey. He’s a professional photographer and she’s a nurse. In earlier times, their marriage was strong, but their enforced stay inside this medical camp for refugees puts their relationship under pressure. Normally, Tibor displaces his personal problems into the passivity of observing life through the lenses of his cameras. When the dangerous war-torn conditions outside the camp deny him this release, he grows frustrated and angry. She’s endlessly useful to those in need. He’s in the way. Unfortunately, when she leaves the camp, she’s the victim of a terrorist attack with a different type of weapon and disappears. He’s loaded into different forms of transport which carry him back to the Islamic Republic of Great Britain (IRGB). Up to this point, we might have been in our version of reality, but it now seems we’re in an alternate history version of the world in which Arab states rule Europe with Islam as the dominant, but not the exclusive, religion. Or perhaps the different forms of transport with closed windows have carried us into new somewhat Kafkaesque spaces.

Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest

It’s also at this point we become aware of another feature of the narrative structure. The IRGB Government is interested in Tibor because he met with Thijs Rietveld just before the latter committed suicide. This man was a theoretical physicist who discovered the adjacency equations. It was meant to be a defensive system which could divert an incoming missile into an adjacent quantum dimension. Unfortunately, what can be used defensively can also be modified to displace enemies into different dimensions. Having let the technological cat out of the bag, the world now faces attack by anyone with the technical skills to build the weaponised form. This use of “adjacency” randomly pokes holes in space-time. Consequently, everything gets mixed together unpredictably. When we start the story, Tibor has no memory of meeting Thijs. Later the meeting is described in detail and he has the photographs to prove it. Depending on where you stand, walk or fly, you can see buildings or not (watch shells disappear and appear). What happens in one dimension can also be an echo of events in a different dimension. Even more confusingly, Tibor may be able to meet both living and dead versions of himself. So we come back to the problem of what adjacency actually means.

One part of the story is told by a stage illusionist named Tommy Trent who makes a wasted trip to the battlefront in World War I in the company of H G Wells. He’s been asked to advise on whether it’s possible to camouflage an aircraft in flight. Dismissing the use of blue paint to “hide” the craft against a blue sky, he theorises it might be possible to use two or three planes flying close together, using one or, perhaps, two of them to distract the audience on the ground so that the third might effectively become invisible. This is adjacency used to distract attention so that a magic trick can be performed, e.g. using a beautiful and scantily clad assistant to take the eyes of the audience at just the right moment. What makes the sequence of stories interesting is the way they are placed next to each other, i.e. some elements may be distracting our attention. This process becomes all the more fascinating with the diversion into the fictional landscape of the Dream Archipelago to meet one Tomak Tallant who’s also a magician, this time with a rope trick much loved by fakirs. An avatar of Melanie flies a World War II Spitfire into this dimension which just goes to show how malleable the boundaries can be between the different spaces.

So putting all this together, Tibor could passively look through the lens of his camera and see an image of Melanie in relation to himself. Now think of this as a photograph of the street forming the boundary between the city centre and a suburb. He could actively change the image so the street appeared to be six inches or six-hundred miles wide. But changing the image we might see does not change the reality of the relationship between the city and its suburb. They remain in close proximity, divided only by the designation of a street on a map as a border. So people may resonate with each other in their relationship and, no matter whether we’re persuaded to see them as physically close or widely separated, they remain close even though a magic trick might make it appear one had disappeared. The Adjacent is strongly recommended to everyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.

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

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 11. Disrupt (2014)

February 19, 2014 5 comments

Almost-Human2

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 11. Disrupt (2014) starts off with what seems to be a subplot with Rudy (Mackenzie Crook) covertly accessing the memory core of Dorian (Michael Ealy) without the android’s knowledge or consent. When Dorian was persuaded to recharge in Rudy’s lab, there were no signs of a hidden agenda. This means motives are supposedly suspect. When Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) appears to take Dorian off on the early shift, Rudy returns to one of the memories he has extracted which has an error message attached to it — the video shows a child playing with a toy. With this running order, we have a conscious parallelism from the episode titled Perception in which Kennex is getting memory flashbacks about his ex-mistress and the loss of his leg.

We now get one of these annoyingly coy introductions to the main plot involving a smart house marketed by Synturion. Michael and Linda Bennett have arrived at the one year anniversary of the death of Aaron Kasdan. The boy was killed by the house when he trespassed in their back yard, and the occupants continue to get death threats. When Linda decides to go for a swim, she’s attacked by the house (cf Kate Wilhelm’s Smart House with its death in a jacuzzi). Michael’s efforts to intervene are interpreted as a threat by the house. He’s shot and his wife drowns. You can’t get a more secure house than that. When our dynamic duo go to the HQ of the company which has designed and installed the security system, they discover SAM (Matthew Kevin Anderson), the butler, has now been upgraded from a hologram to an android. In physical form, he can be your protection wherever you are. Peter Newsom (David Stuart), Synturion’s lawyer, and Kay Stinson (Suleka Mathew), the CEO, suggest the group called Disrupt is probably behind the hack which caused the Bennetts’ death. By coincidence, Dorian meeting SAM triggers the recall of the memory being probed by Rudy. As backstory, before he was recruited to the police force, Rudy was a hacker who used the handle “Aphid” — they may be small, but they’re destructive. This is the most hackneyed cliché we’ve seen in this show to date. The geek scientist was a hacker who’s been recruited to the forces for good. So we’re now supposed to think he’s a trojan idiot who’s playing both sides.

Is Nico (Reece Thompson) more cool than Rudy

Is Nico (Reece Thompson) more cool than Rudy

The plot, such as it is, then meanders further into terminally boring mode. Peter Newsom is killed by his own smart house using the fire suppression system to evacuate the air — can’t think where I’ve seen or read that before. A hacker called Crispin X cuts off the city’s power supply in apparent support for the Kasdan family. Conveniently, Rudy knows exactly where they can find this man and, before you can say Hack Robinson, Crispin whose real name is Nico (Reece Thompson), has been co-opted as hacker-in-chief for the good guys. He’s in cyberspace, protecting Kennex by producing distracting holograms (Rudy did that first in Blood Brothers), switching the air back on when he’s only got 5 seconds of air left (yawn), and generally being a better hacker than Rudy. Yes, that’s right. The Aphid is left sucking his sap on a distant leaf. It was the perfect opportunity for the British geek to advance his cause as protector of the just. Yet all he gets to do is lie to Dorian and make worried noises to Kennex about these memories he’s apparently found. I really can’t understand the thinking behind this show. They have one regular character missing and consequently the butt of infantile jokes. A chance to make us impressed by Rudy goes begging. Detective Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly) avoids redundancy by talking to Mrs Kasdan for ten seconds in two scenes. Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor) has a couple of lines to prove she’s still in the show. The cast is just too big to be able to give them all enough to do to develop their characters. Put all this in a trivial revenge story and Almost Human: Disrupt is embarrassingly bad.

According to the good people on the IMDb forum, one of the reasons this show is such a mess is that the running order of the episodes has been changed. It should be as shown in brackets:

1 Pilot (1)
2 Skin (5)
3 Are you Receiving?(6)
4 The Bends (7)
5 Blood Brothers (8)
6 Arrhythmia (3)
7 Simon Says (10)
8 You Are Here (2)
9 Unbound (9)
10 Perception (4)
11 Disrupt (11)
12 Beholder (12)
13 Straw Man (13)

I’m not convinced this running order would have made any better sense, but it would have been more interesting to make a judgement on the merits of the show by watching it in the order the creators intended.

For reviews of other episodes, see
Almost Human. Season 1, episode 1 (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 3. Are You Receiving? (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 4. The Bends (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 5. Blood Brothers (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 6. Arrhythmia (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 7. Simon Says (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 8. You Are Here (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, Episode 9. Unbound (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 10. Perception (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 12. Beholder (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 13. Straw Man (2014).

Transhuman by Ben Bova

February 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Transhuman by Ben Bova

Transhuman by Ben Bova is a tired book about a maverick scientists whose work simultaneously enables him to reverse both cancer and the ageing process (with different side effects). So unlike books which, whether in fantasy or science fiction, have their characters set off on a quest for longevity treatment or the fountain of youth, this opens with the scientist sufficiently far off the beaten track of academic respectability, no-one wants to believe him when he announces he can cure his granddaughter’s cancer. This forces him into a kidnapping scenario so he can prove himself right. Because he’s seventysomething, he also doses himself with the anti-ageing treatment and slowly acquires the physique of a fortysomething as the book progresses. If you’re going to run from the FBI, you need to be reasonably fit.

There are various ways in which this trope can be played out. Heroic tomb-robbers can be in competition with villains to find the Holy Grail, or villains have an evil plan which involves testing their product on unwilling volunteers with all kinds of unfortunate side effects appearing. Those who find themselves immortal (often Scottish) find life gets somewhat boring except for the occasional decapitation to liven them up, or get so depressed, they court death, e.g. as in the Company books.

Here were have a near-future scientific thriller in which the treatments appear to induce a cure or reduction in age but with dependency issues. The anti-ageing does work, but causes cancer (or perhaps it only accelerates the development of cancers already latent in the body). This part of the plot is playing the same game as in in “Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow” by Kurt Vonnegut where Anti-gerosome is a cheaply produced serum that stops ageing and produces chronic overpopulation. In this book, the ironic side effect of the cancer cure is rapid ageing. So the balancing of costs and benefits has potential interest (unlike the Newsflesh trilogy when the cure causes a zombie plague). This is one of these not-quite-panacea stories in which the rich will want to corner the market to make even more money by selling the cure to the rich. Withholding the cure from the poor is an effective way of culling the population which is necessary when too many people start living too long.

Ben Bova

Ben Bova

Having started like this, you’ll understand it’s very difficult to write a book on this theme and hold interest. It’s all been done before and, unless you’re going to get into the politics and economics, the result is likely to be a superficial thriller. So here comes our geriatric superhero (fortunately not emulating Captain Jack with his compass). He has the magic cure. Except no-one believes him. So that’s a problem. No-one in his peer group believes he can cure cancer. Better still, he’s just killed off what was left of his reputation by kidnapping his granddaughter. He’s obviously demented. So how come the White House suddenly gets all excited about the looming disaster of his treatment(s) being launched on to the market? There have been no formal trials with a range of animals, let alone humans. If you were to ask the FDA, they would tell you any launch of either version of the drug is years and tens of millions of dollars away. If there were any headlines, they would read along the lines of a crank scientist found dead of a heart attack. His granddaughter died of cancer. Yes, with this man’s track record for alienating everyone, there’s no way he would co-operate with government so he and any inconvenient evidence of his success would have to die.

I can accept the FBI might be persuaded to chase after him and his granddaughter (and the obligatory young lady doctor). If that happened, I’m less convinced his ex-students (many of whom seem to have been obsessed with the idea of sleeping with him) will risk their professional reputations, if not their careers, in helping him while on the run. Sexual interest in a seventysomething seems less than likely unless they have somehow anticipated he’s regressing in age. It’s not uncommon for young women to have a crush on older lecturers, but carrying a flame over the intervening years for a happily married man is unlikely. Of course the ageing multimillionaire willing to fund the research on the off-chance it succeeds and extends his lifespan is the ultimate cliché.

Then there’s the curious availability of his magic juice. To stock up while on the run, all our hero has to do is rattle off a few ingredients (not including eye of newt) and the next place he arrives has everything he needs for the next set of injections. This is a remarkable concoction if it can be whipped up by anyone with a good kitchen and the right ingredients. Then there are the woeful coincidences like the FBI agent just happening to be visiting the secret base when the young doctor is attacked. Put all this together and you have not just a poor book. Because it fails to even try examining the economics of the effects of this drug, it’s a really bad book. Looking at recent efforts in allied fields, The Culling by Robert Johnson did at least try to discuss the problem of overpopulation. The rookie makes an effort whereas the old dog has no tricks left. Transhuman should be avoided. It’s an old man’s fantasy in which he gets to be young again and have young women fighting over his body.

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

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