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We Can Review It For You Wholesale (continued)

 

Sue Grafton: Q is for Quarry (continued)

…involved than that, playing a fully active role in the necessary delving through ancient history and long-buried secrets. At the same time she copes with the latest episode of the long-running saga of her estranged but would-be reconstituted family and the ups and downs of the romantic life of her elderly landlord and best friend Henry. And Henry's brother and sister-in-law.

That's where the book breaks down for me -- these soap-opera elements. I frankly don't care what happens to Henry and Co., and I can't understand why an intelligent person like Kinsey can be so stupid and bull-headed as not to sort things out with her family. Both of these subplots bore me intensely, and they take up a depressingly large part of the book.

I consider this a colossal shame, because the actual detection part of Q is for Quarry ranks with the very best of Grafton. The plot gains an additional frisson from the fact that the crime Kinsey sets out to solve actually occurred in 1969 in Lompoc, California, near Santa Barbara. Grafton also provides a meaty afterword concerning the real case, complete with a forensic reconstruction of the Jane Doe victim. Overall, I recommend the book. I guess.

Book: Mark Billingham, scaredy cat
Mark Billingham: Scaredy Cat

William Morrow (Hardcover), ISBN 0-06-621300-2

A rather clumsily written but nevertheless absorbing serial-killer/police-procedural novel, Scaredy Cat benefits from its setting -- in and around London, U.K., rather than in the U.S.A. Not one but two serial killers seem to be at work, their murders eerily paralleling each other. Detective Inspector Tom Thorne and his colleagues pursues both ardently.

The book reminded me quite a lot of the late Bartholomew Gill's mystery series about Irish Chief Inspector Peter McGarr, but I found Billingham's Thorne much more convincing as a character. In addition, this novel takes the reader on far more of an emotional rollercoaster than anything I ever read by Gill (which, to be fair, isn't all that much).

The solution to the mystery proves completely satisfying; the grittiness, admirable. The book offers excellent characterization and fascinating forays into past history and aberrant psychologies. In addition, Billingham achieves something more -- and something more admirable -- in his portrayal of the mental disintegration of one of his primary characters. This allows the reader to forgive the slightly trite conclusion and the rather ungainly writing.

M.J. Rose: Sheet Music

Ballantine (Hardcover), ISBN 0-345-45106-6

I was in two minds about this book after I finished it, and I'm still in two minds about it now. This slightly erotic, increasingly romantic and certainly gothic contemporary mystery centers on U.S. journalist Justine Pagett, who fled to Paris to escape her father and sister after the death of the mother she worshipped. There she besmirched her reputation by a gross breach of journalistic ethics.

But the opportunity of a journalistic lifetime calls Justine back to the U.S. -- an interview with reclusive, eccentric composer and large-scale classical-music mentor Sophie DeLyon. Powerful forces seem to want Justine to back off from the assignment. She receives threatening e-mails, and not long after her arrival at DeLyon's rambling estate, the composer inexplicably disappears.

The solution of the mystery involves a certain amount of rather predictable sexual revelation and a high measure of improbability. I found Rose's depiction of Justine's struggle to come to terms with the real facts of her dead mother's life much more impressive. I rather enjoyed this book, overall, but it didn't engender in me any great urge to read anything else by Rose.

Gregory Frost: Fitcher's Brides

Tor (Hardcover), ISBN 0-765-30194-6

Book: gregory frost, fitcher's brides
This is a super novel, one of the Terri Windling-edited Fairy Tale series in which writers recast traditional tales. In this instance, Frost combines Bluebeard and Fitcher's Birds to produce a fantasy that proves very much more entrancing than either.

In 1843, charismatic preacher Elias Fitcher claims the world will soon end. Everyone except those who come to dwell in his utopian community in the Finger Lakes region of New York State will be forever damned by a vengeful Lord. Among the families suckered by this nonsense are the Charters: mom, dad and their three lovely daughters (Vernelia, Amy and Kate).

Fitcher's eye first falls on the eldest sister, and she becomes his bride. But she soon disappears. Next Amy, and finally, of course, Kate find themselves "favored." The spunky, intelligent Kate succeeds in outwitting and defeating the vile sexual predator Fitcher where the over-sensible Vernelia and the flighty Amy failed -- exactly as you'd expect from a fairy tale.

Frost defies your expectation, however, by successfully turning his fable into a very full fantasy, in two principal respects: the long denouement and the bizarre, near-macabre, supposedly utopian society itself. Jekyll's Glen seems, as you read, to be simply a rather strange community. Well, what else might one expect from 19th century religious nuts? Very subtly Frost reveals its further strangeness. You accept a considerable amount of Jekyll's Glen's plausible reality before you realize just how very odd things actually are. Then you look back and discover quite how much you took at face value that you shouldn't have.

Frost's artistry is exemplary, and his tale-telling likewise. This dark and broody novel will hold you from beginning to end. Wow!

Martin Gardner: The No-Sided Professor, and Other Tales of Fantasy, Humor, Mystery, and Philosophy

Prometheus (Hardcover), ISBN 0-87975-390-0

This exceptionally worthwhile piece of publishing fills a gap in both the available science-fiction/fantasy literature and Gardneriana. At the same time the 28 short pieces here demonstrate why Gardner, so widely acclaimed for his nonfiction, garners little attention as a fiction writer.

This book inspired many flashbacks to my experience many years ago as a creative-writer tutor at weekly evening classes. These are stories which, at their finest, I would have told my students showed, well, a certain amount of promise. I find it hard to pick out any highlights when so many of the lights prove to be so low. The various squibs, like "The Virgin from Kalamazoo" (in effect extensions of his witty nonfiction science pieces), probably best represent Gardner's gifts. If you want a fun story collection, look elsewhere. At the same time, serious students of the imaginative genres will consider this little volume a must-have.

Greg Iles: Mortal Fear

Dutton (Hardcover) ISBN 0-525-93792-7

I'm not quite certain why this rather old novel (published in 1997) came to be on my to-be-reviewed pile, but I'm very glad it did. The bastardized term "techno-thriller" now means little more than "sort of near-future thriller with a lot of gizmos, usually sophisticated Stealth-type planes." Therefore it's a great treat to come across a novel to which the term can be excellently applied.

Iles chose the Internet -- in 1997, definitely, a cutting edge, near future technology -- as the framework for Mortal Fear. Harper Coles runs EROS, a high-priced, absolute-confidentiality-guaranteed cybersex forum. By the very nature of EROS, it takes Harper -- and anyone else -- a while to realize that someone is, one by one, gruesomely bumping off the forum's anonymous female clients. As soon as Harper raises the alarm, he finds himself the prime suspect. Who else but EROS's operator would know the real-life identity of his clients?

Coles' wrangles with the feds over this mistaken suspicion provide the solitary weak point of the novel. The subplot's plausibility does nothing to lessen its tedium. But once the hunt for the serial killer (a killer as strange as any you'll come across in fiction) begins in earnest, you'll find yourself feverishly turning the pages. Mortal Fear also succeeds in conveying the eroticism of the subject matter, despite the almost total lack of on-stage sex. A stunning thriller, Mortal Fear ranks as one of the very few I'm certain I'll read again.

Stephen Kendrick: Night Watch

Berkley (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-425-19167-2

In 1902, a secret ecumenical meeting in London brings together leading representatives of all the world's major faiths (including those of several Christian sects). A priest is found murdered in the church where all parties are staying. The unbroken snow around the church indicates that the murderer must be one of those inside the church.

The authorities call in Holmes and Watson. The clerics attending on the conferees include a young Father Brown. The prospect of a Holmes/Brown team-up had me salivating. The result, alas, proved to be a rather dutiful, rather tedious, double homage. The truly dedicated will almost certainly enjoy it, however.

Greg Bear: Darwin's Radio

Ballantine (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-345-45981-4

This very virtuous piece of science fiction draws its inspiration from the cutting edge of microbiology. It won a Nebula Award and spawned a sequel (maybe more than one sequel). I found it dull and unconvincing.

Scientists Christopher Dicken and Kaye Lang pursue separate but interrelated lines of research. He seeks the truth about a mysterious disease that affects only pregnant women, bringing miscarriage. He wants to know why people created widespread conspiracies and even committed murder in an attempt to guard the secrets of this malady.

Kaye researches retroviruses, those fragments of genetic material found in our DNA, which she considers might one day spring (as it were) to life again. In the manner of countless near-future, dreadful-warning doorstops of the 1970s, Bear weaves politics and science as these two cardboard characters dig out the world-shattering truth of mystery. The science proves genuinely interesting, although far from blithely conveyed. The rest suffers from the same stodginess but lacks the interest.

Lee Child: Persuader

Delacorte (Hardcover), ISBN 0-385-33666-7

Book: lee childs, persuader
This blistering thriller features Child's series character Jack Reacher, an ex-military cop who acts as a sort of vigilante-for-hire. The opening sequence of this novel ranks as the most cinematically effective I can remember reading in any thriller. After that everything else ought to be a let-down. But to Child's credit, while it would be impossible to match this opening, the rest of the tale never disappoints.

One of the vilest criminals Reacher ever tackled proves to be still alive. Reacher spots the man by chance while waiting for the lights to change at an intersection. This man turns out to be involved in Reacher's current case -- the infiltration of an organized-crime scheme to import sophisticated weapons for sale to terrorists in the U.S. under cover of a carpet dealership. Child delivers fast-paced and savage action, and an intelligent plot. Reacher must constantly use his brains even more than his not inconsiderable brawn resulting in a first-rate, helter-skelter read.

Vera Nazarian: Lords of Rainbow

Betancourt & Company (Hardcover), ISBN 1-59224-823-3

Book: vera nazarian, lord of rainbows
Vera Nazarian creates fantasy uniquely and absolutely her own, not just in terms of her imagination but also in terms of language and evocation. In particular, she excels in the weaving of colors (you need to read some of her work to understand this). You may later forget some of the details of a Nazarian plot -- as one does with all tales -- but you will almost certainly never forget the feelings you experienced while reading the story and watching the kaleidoscope of colors she presents.

So it's almost paradoxical that she sets this, her second novel, in a world where color is notable by its absence. The quest of Lords of Rainbow -- high fantasy at its highest -- involves the return of color to the deprived world. To reveal any more of the plot than this would give you the false impression that the novel is just another piece of genre high fantasy. It's not. But no mere words of mine can convey the experience of reading Lords of Rainbow. Just believe me, and read.

Steven-Elliot Altman: Deprivers

Ace (Paperback), ISBN 0-441-01093-8

A year or two back Steve Altman edited a charity anthology called The Touch, which I very much admired. The Touch posits that there exist among us people whose touch can inadvertently or deliberately deprive us of one or more of our senses, permanently or temporarily. A bunch of authors took this idea and ran with it and created one of those rare thematic anthologies where almost all of the stories qualified as humdingers.

Now Altman returns to the fray with a novel of his own, depicting the emergence of the Deprivers from the shadows of society and their efforts to establish their civil rights. Unfortunately, I cannot extol the virtues of the novel as excitedly as I did those of the anthology.

The novel can be divided in two halves. The first consists of a long and rather good novella tracing the redemption of a Depriver who used his "gift" in order to pursue a career as a paid hitman. The second presents a more general depiction of the struggle by Deprivers worldwide to gain acceptance as equal if different members of the human species. .

The novel loses conviction in its second half. I encountered similar scenarios in too many SF novels read many years ago (James Gunn's 1962 fix-up, The Immortals, for one). I gather there may be more Deprivers novels on their way from Altman in the future, and I very much hope he makes more of his excellent premise.

Christopher Moore: Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings

William Morrow (Hardcover), ISBN 0-380-97841-5

Book: christopher moore, Fluke, or i know why the winged whale sings.
There's a very good reason why critics hail Terry Pratchett as the best comic fantasist in the world. Almost all of the others are astonishingly bad. They're not all dire, of course -- think of Tom Holt, Ron Goulart, Douglas Adams, Esther Friesner and a few others. But in the frenzy of over-publication brought about by Pratchett's success readers endured countless truly woeful misses among the handful of hits.

Most of the second-raters failed in imagination. If the invention fires on all cylinders it barely matters should the jokes falter. So it's a delight to discover someone new capable of conjuring the fantastication while being uproariously funny at the same time.

Don't confuse Moore with a Pratchett clone. Nothing could be further from the truth. You'll find his humor quite different; his fantasy, likewise. Moore qualifies as a true original voice.

The heart of this novel revolves around an outrageous conspiracy theory concerning the song of the hump-backed whale and very much more besides. By the end of this novel you'll never be able to look a whale square in the eyes again -- unless, of course, you seek urgent counseling to persuade you that there's nothing actually wrong with finding a member of a different species overwhelmingly sexy. A thoroughly entertaining comic fantasy at every level.

John Grant