Mike Finn
3.5 Stars
"Midnight Blue-Light Special - Incryptid #2" by Seanan McGuire
Midnight Blue-Light Special - Seanan McGuire

I enjoyed the originality and sass of "Discount Armageddon", the first book in this series about professional ballroom dancer and cryptozoologist, Verity Price and I wanted to know how Verity would fare, given the mess she'd created by the end of the book, so I picked up "Midnight Blue-Light Special" to find out.


The first third of the book failed to grab my interest, partly because it seemed to spend a lot of time repeating things that anyone who'd read the first book would already know (I hate that - readers should either read the books in order or live with catching up as best they can) and partly because telling the story from Verity's point of view, which is compulsively sassy, made it hard to get engaged with the threat to her and the community of Cryptids.


I was almost on the point of giving up when Seanan McGuire made an inspired move: she had someone knock out Verity and passed the storytelling on to Verity's adopted cousin Sarah.


This worked well because Sarah is very different to Verity. She isn't sassy, she's risk-averse and deals with conflict by avoiding it. She's also not human. She's a Cuckoo, a cryptid that can control minds and get people to see and do whatever she wants. This is a power that effectively makes her invisible but which she holds back on because she doesn't want to turn her friends into slaves. Once the story was seen through Sarah's eyes, everything was refreshed, the threat was amplified and the action became hard to predict.


By the time Verity regains consciousness and takes over the storytelling again, she's in very serious trouble, sass has been replaced by a struggle to survive and we're into well-written action scenes.


The ending was clever and plausible and moved the story arc on significantly, which means the third book will probably head in a new direction.


This was a fun read, eventually, and I still have hopes for this series.

Reading progress update: I've read 64%. Oh Hastings, my Hastings...
The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie

So you're investigating a murder, probably looking for a poisoner, probably from a fellow houseguest, when Cynthia, the young and pretty FULLY QUALIFIED PHARMACIST WITH  A COMPREHENSIVE KNOWLEDGE OF POISONS asks you to go for a walk with her.


As soon as you're alone:


"With a sigh, Cynthia flung herself down, and tossed off her hat. 

The sunlight, piercing through the branches, turned the auburn of her hair to quivering gold.

`Mr Hastings - you are alway so kind and you know such a lot.`



Immediately, your keen detective mind responds with a sudden and deep insight:


"It struck me at this moment that Cynthia was really a very charming girl! Much more so than Mary, who never said things of that kind".


Were grown men really that dumb back then or is this Hastings' peculiar talent?

Reading progress update: I've read 57%. Poor old Hastings
The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie

This piece of humour at Hastings’ expense is wicked but irresistible.



Poirot is speaking to Hastings of the cleverness of the as yet unidentified murderer:


‘We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.’


I acquiesced.


‘There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.’


I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

Reading progress update: I've read 45%. -oh the Englishness of it all.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie

Heres a fictional version of the English Upper Class during the slaughter of World War I. A splendid example.of people who wore their manners as tightly as a whalebone corset.


This is how Hastings reports on the family of a murdered old woman at breakfast on the morning after her death.


Under the circumstances, we were naturally not a cheerful party. The reaction after a shock is always trying, and I think we were all suffering from it. Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual, yet I could not help wondering if this self-control were really a matter of great difficulty.

Reading progress update: I've read 18%.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie

I decided to go back to the beginning and read the first Christie book, which was also the first Poirot book.


Although this book wasn't published until 1921, it was written in 1916, It took me a while to process that Christie wrote this during the First World War, a little over a hundred years ago. This seems so far away from the 1960's setting of "Third Girl", the last Poirot book that I read, that's it's hard to join them up in my head.


I'm at the point in the novel where the murder has occurred and Poirot is just about to be invited to investigate. So far, the focus has been on Hastings and his impressions. I'm surprised at how fresh it all feels and how modern. No wonder Christie had difficulty getting this published. It must have been leading edge in its day.

Reading progress update: I've read 46%.
A Question of Proof - Nicholas Blake, Kris Dyer

The very aptly named Strangeways has arrived to investigate the crime, which he seems to be doing by deconstructing the workings of a Public School with a sharpness that borders on vivisection while being completely free from malice.



4 Stars
"Iron and Magic - The Iron Covenant #1" by Ilona Andrews
Iron and Magic -  Ilona Andrews


I didn't want to read this book.


I mean, what would be the point? Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers is a violent, amoral, narcissistic killer who, in the previous Kate Daniels books, I'd have happily seen cleaved by Kate's sword or dangling in pieces from Curren's claws. Why would I want to read a book about a man like that?


Well, because Ilona Andrews wrote it and because I'd been told that it was a crossover book that I should read before the tenth Kate Daniels book. So it was the anally retentive pedant part of me that picked up this book, not my inner fanboy, but it's the fanboy who's writing the review.


"Iron and Magic" is surprisingly good. 


The tone is darker, more muscular and more rage-filled than the Daniels books. Kate's I-have-to-save-my-people-to-prove-to-myself-that-I-have-not-become-my-father motivation is replaced by the sceptical pragmatism of the two main characters, Hugh and Elara, who are motivated by the knowledge that To-survive-I-have-to-make-a-deal-with-these-unpleasant-untrustworthy-people-that-I-may-have-to-kill-or-who-may-kill-me.


Most of my enjoyment from the book came from the same sources as the Daniels books: strong, complex, slightly unpredictable characters locked in a frenemy conflict, a twisty plot filled with new threats, excellent battle scenes, the ability to make me care about who lives and who dies and a constant pulse of well-timed humour.


A smaller part of me was applauding the skill with which Ilona Andrews engaged me in caring about Hugh d’Ambray's fate.


It was an object lesson in how to turn a figure of hate into a (sort of) hero in three easy steps:


  1. Make him guilty and damaged
  2. Give him something to protect from something worse than him
  3. See him through the eyes of another monster


Make him guilty and damaged


The humanisation of Hugh d'Ambray began with showing him responding to the loss of his immortality and his exile from Roland by trying to drink himself to death. He's dragged from this by the senior members of the Iron Dogs. the force that Hugh built to prosecute Roland's will, who need his leadership to prevent them from being wiped out by Roland's vampires. The loyalty shown to Hugh casts him in a less selfish light and the vampires provide a credible and dislikable threat.


The guilt comes more slowly, but constantly, as Hugh starts to realise how he failed to question Roland's commands, no matter how brutal. Hugh is still a violent, dangerous man who pursues his self-interest without hesitation or regret but now that he's no longer doing Roland's will, he's forced to define the "we" that his self-interest covers and to consider the cost of his actions.


Give him something to protect from something worse than him.


Ilona Andrews knows that you make violence honourable by using it to protect the innocent. The Iron Dogs could never be seen as innocents so we get a community made up families of hippyish witches, holed up in a castle, surrounded by hostile or indifferent neighbours and under threat from the same vampires hunting the Iron Dogs. The threat is then amplified as a previously unknown force of magic-using warriors start to annihilate the surrounding villages. Now Hugh's violence is turned from the sword of a tyrant to a shield for the innocent.


The new bad guys are an inspired addition. Suddenly, Roland's people aren't the top of the food chain any more and the new Big Bad is alien, inscrutable and deeply scary. I hope they're part of the crossover to the Kate Daniels storyline.


See him through the eyes of another monster.


I think the master stroke of the book is the creation of Elara Harper, The White Lady and leader/protector of the community of witches. Elara is more dangerous and less human than the now weakened and mortal Hugh. She takes an instant dislike to him (which speaks well of her judgement) but is willing to use him and his Iron Dogs to defend her community.


Ilona Andrews version of witches has never felt wholesome. There has always been a whiff of rot and a twitch of insanity associated with them. Elara and her community carry a greater sense of threat with them than that. They seem... slippery. Elara certainly sees herself as a monster and so her view of Hugh is unique.


In a reversal of the development of the relationship between Kate and Curren, the relationship between Elara and Hugh starts with a marriage. True, it's a marriage of convenience to convince the world that these two, who each has a history of betraying allies, really are united. This device allowed intimacy without empathy between the two players and provided a framework for a "Taming Of The Shrew" theme with Elara and Hugh taking turns at being the shrew. Their mutual antagonism is credible as well as being fun. It gave a space for Hugh to continue on the path to humanity by expanding his definition of "we" to include Elara and her people and Elara's slow, reluctant growth of Elara's regard for Hugh made him more engaging.


Then there was the sex scene

Am I the only reader who'd like Audible to have a Skip-To-End-Of-Overlong-Sex-Scene button?


This book was going well. Then we had the sex scene that was almost a chapter long, almost all of which was cinematic i.e with a strong emphasis on what the sex looked like rather than what was going on on the heads of either participant. The fight scenes told me more about the hopes, regrets, excitements and fears of the combatants than this description of sweaty gymnastics provided on what was going on in Elara's or Hugh's head.


I could see that it moved the relationship between the two of them on and did so just before the big everything-hinges-on-this fight but I really didn't need a whole chapter on this.


I recommend the audiobook version.


Steve West does an excellent job as the narrator, His slightly rough, slightly Northern, very English voice for Hugh is inspired. He does a credible job with Elara and I felt like cheering when he used a Hispanic accent for the leaders of the Bouda Clan.


Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an extract.

Reading progress update: I've read 22%.
A Question of Proof - Nicholas Blake, Kris Dyer

I picked this up after reading a discussion on Themis' blog where it emerged that Nicholas Blake and C Day Lewis were the same man.


I listened to the audiobook sample and was captured by the delicious language: slightly archaic to the modern ear but razor-sharp. The narrator is in raconteur / Greek chorus mode. The text sparkles. I'm hooked.

4 Stars
A Fountain Filled With Blood - Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne #2" by Julia Spencer-Fleming
A Fountain Filled With Blood - Julia Spencer-Fleming

I really enjoyed "In The Bleak Midwinter" and knew I'd found a good new series. Coming up with a second book in a series that had such a strong start has to be a challenge but Julia Spencer-Fleming manages it well.


She continues to use two strong, likeable main characters, Clare the ex-army helicopter pilot turned Episcopalian Priest and Russ the Vietnam vet turned local Chief of Police, to power the story. She uses a regular pulse of humour makes to keep this a fun read and ups the cuteness factor by adding two Berneses Mountain dogs to the mix.


Yet the book isn't a cosy mystery. Like its predecessor, it confronts tough social issues, in this case, violence against gay men, the pollution of the Adirondacks by PCBs and the tension between providing local jobs and destroying local land. The crimes in this book are darker and more brutal than in the first book, but despite the rather off-putting title (a quote from a William Cowper hymn about washing away sin), the violence is not gratuitous and mostly takes place off-stage.


The we're-attracted-but-can't-let-ourselves-do-anything-about-it-except-feel-guilty-without-being-any-less-attracted relationship between Clare and Russ develops in a grown-up, slightly repressed but completely believable way that doesn't take over the plot but does deepen the characters. Russ's wife remains physically absent, even when the story has to be twisted a little to achieve it, which actually increases the strength of her presence as a source of guilt to both of the main characters. Russ' mother, a die-hard activist since the sixties, adds some spice to the story and rounds out Russ a bit.


I admired the ingenuity used to keep the Clare plausibly involved in the action around the crimes. It worked, even when I could see it coming. The scene with the helicopter was exciting but required an extra-special effort at suspending disbelief and some fairly heavy-handed plot-work. On the whole though, this was a well put together mystery that kept me guessing most of the time.


I'll be staying with this series and hoping that the quality stays high and the titles get better.

Reading progress update: I've read 31%.
Midnight Blue-Light Special - Seanan McGuire

This second offering in the series hasn’t grabbed me yet. I’m 30% through and we still seem to be establishing a scene that was quite well defined in the first book. 


I need new bad guys to inject some pazazz into the story.

Reading progress update: I've read 51%.
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene

The 1960s version of the Orient Express sounds drab and dreary. Sadly, it seems to have sapped the energy from the last chapter or so, which has definitely lost its sparkle. 


I'm hoping things get better in Istanbul.

"Her Body & Other Parties - fifth story - Real Women Have Bodies" by Carmen Maria Machado


"Real Women Have Bodies", the fifth story in "Her Body & Other Parties", is a vividly told, deeply disturbing story that reminded me of how edgy speculative fiction can be.


Told from the point of view of a young woman whose name we never learn, the story has a veneer of engaging immediacy beneath which flows a deeply frightening idea. The imagery is as beautiful as the content is uncompromisingly brutal.


In another world, this would be the story of a young woman, recently graduated from college, burdened by student loans and the unfulfillable expectations of her parents, working a dead-end, minimum wage job at a dress shop, who falls in love with the daughter of the dressmaker.


In Machado's world, this story becomes something more as she adds an incurable plague sweeping across America that, through means no one understands, makes women fade into silent, sentient, incorporeality.


As the love story between our heroine and Petra, the dressmaker's daughter, unfolds, the plague goes from a gone-viral horror on the Internet, through a major topic of TV News coverage, to something real and deeply personal.


No one knows how the plague is transmitted or how the women are transformed but women affected by it slowly fade from solid flesh to something that can barely be seen. The first time our heroine comes into direct contact with these women she realizes that:

"...the room is full of women. Women like the one in the viral video, see-through and glowing faintly, like afterthoughts."

The symbolism of the faded-away-but-not-gone women is open to interpretation. In part, they seem to be being pushed into invisibility by a society that values them only when they are attached to things of beauty. In part, it seems to be an abnegation that is worsened by the fatalistic passivity of the women it affects. Mostly it seems that women are falling victim to an unavoidable fate which leads me to think that this is a metaphor for America's rape culture and the normalisation of misogyny. Although everyone knows about the plague in theory, they don't let themselves think about the reality of it until it touches them or someone they know. Women continue with their daily routines and hope to be spared. Male pundits become angry at the women for letting this happen to them and thus making problems for everyone else.


The fate of these fading women is contrasted with the robust solidity of our heroine and the strength of the passion she feels for Petra. Sex is positioned as the opposite of fading away. At one point, our heroine overhears two boys talking about only being attracted to solid women. They say:


“Hips,” Chris says. “That’s what you want. Hips and enough flesh for you to grab onto, you know? What would you do without something to hold? That’s like—like—” “Like trying to drink water without a cup,” Casey finishes.

Our heroine's response to this is to think to herself:

I am always surprised at the poetry with which boys can describe boning.

Her own approach to describing sex is initially more matter of fact. She announces:

Petra fucks me in room 246, which is around the back of the building.

Her description of her first orgasm with Petra reflects the hard, tense, focus of her need. She says:

I come fast and hard, like a bottle breaking against a brick wall. Like I’ve been waiting for permission.

Later, when her relationship with Petra has developed, we see a softer side of our heroine, one she is still becoming comfortable with:


“I love you,” I say. It’s the first time I’ve said it, and it tastes strange in my mouth—real but not ready, like a too-hard pear.

Our heroine's attitude to the faded women made the story for me. She is horrified but she feels compassion as well as fear and wants, somehow, to help them free themselves. This want leads to frustration as the women fail to behave as she would like them to and our heroine rages against the plague, the women and her own powerlessness.

Reading progress update: I've read 38%.
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene

This continues to be wonderful.


It's such a long time since I read this that I'd remembered some of the incidents as short stories, without associating them with this book. 


I suspect my (much, much) younger self also failed to work out what exactly our hero's aunt did for a living until much later in the book.


Apart from the plot, one shock in being taken back to 1960s England is the idea of currency restrictions. These days I can't carry more than €10,000 in cash when I travel to another country but I can get cash out of almost any ATM. The idea that back then Britain's economy was so weak that the government only allowed you to take small amounts out of the country is more than a little surprising. If we Brexit, I wonder how long it will be before those restrictions are back in place?

Reading progress update: I've read 356 out of 356 pages.
Men at Arms (Discworld, #15) - Terry Pratchett

That was even better than I thought it would be. 


I'd like to think these books will always be in print.


I'll be thinking about this a bit and then trying to explain to myself why and how Pratchett manages to engage the "Realpolitiks Is the only real politics" part of my brain, with the angry "THIS CANNOT STAND" part of me and then, instead of exploding, have me smiling and going "I wish the world was like this."

Reading progress update: I've read 10%.
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene

My wife and I have just started to listen to the audiobook version of this, read by Tim Pigott-Smith.


I had only the vaguest of memories of reading this in the late seventies after the movie with Maggie Smith came out. Maggie Smith was only thirty-eight at the time but was cast quite successfully as the septuagenarian aunt.


I'm happy to discover that the book is actually quite funny and Tim Pigott-Smith performs it perfectly.

Reading progress update: I've read 16%.
The Lost Man - Jane Harper

A very strong start to Jane Harper's third novel. It brings home how alien the remote parts of Australia are if, like me, you've grown up in a densely populated, mostly temperate part of the world. In this book, when two brothers are neighbours, their houses are a three-hour drive apart. Getting separated from your car can mean death from exposure in less than 24 hours. This is an attention-grabbing background for a novel that I think will be packed with tension and guilt.

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