The Silkworm by “Robert Galbraith”

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The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well whaddaya know, I guessed the killer!

Usually I never even try to guess the killer of a mystery novel; that’s not what I read them for. I like the characters, the conversations, the hidden narratives, but I don’t much care about puzzles.

Still, looking at one of the elements of the mystery (no spoilers, don’t worry), I thought I know how I’d do that if I were the killer and from there it was obvious.

Not that this ruined the book.

I confess to having a soft spot for private eye novels, even though no one is publishing them any more (supposedly). The good news is that Rowling apparently intends to continue writing the series indefinitely. Hey, she revived the boarding school genre, maybe she can make PIs marketable again.



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I have a story up at Podcastle(!!!)

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Well, how about that!

The story I wrote for John Joseph Adams’s HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!! and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects has been turned into an audiobook (audiostory? audiofic? radioplay?) and is live at Podcastle right now–“Help Summon The Most Holy Folded One”, my Lovecraftian Taco Kickstarter story.

I guess it should be listed as a radioplay, since they have an actual cast, not a single reader. And that cast has some names in it. Yikes. Imposter Syndrome, ACTIVATE!

I’m listening as I type this, and… is it embarrassing to announce that these guys made me laugh aloud?

Give it a listen, and check out the other stories they’ve done: for example, there’s an N.K. Jeminsin story that includes the disclaimer “Rated X. Contains sex and wolves.” ::sprains mouse clicking finger:: (My story is PG.)

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

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The Warded Man (Demon Cycle, #1)The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars, I guess.

I picked this one up because I wanted to see how a recent, successful epic fantasy series started. Like many others, the literal answer seems to be “With protagonists as kids”

More specifically, this seems like a promising start that goes wrong in a bunch of interesting ways.

For example, the setup: This is a pre-industrial world where demons (aka “corelings”) rise from the ground at night, hunting and killing humans. The only protection humans have is to hide behind wards, magical symbols that hold demons at bay.

Once, people had more wards that were more powerful, but as the population has been fragmented and centuries pass, much of the old weapons have been lost. It’s a war of attrition, and humans are slowly losing.

As it is, a fine setup. The story opens with Three Admirable Protagonists–as children–who need to be instructed on The Way The World Works, for the reader’s benefit, and it’s the usual slow-paced epic fantasy thing, where we have to follow them to each new place, to meet new people and see new wonders, mainly because epic fantasy readers are tourists in a made-up landscape.

But… the problems. Brett does play rpgs, apparently, but he doesn’t think about his setting the way a player would.

For instance, wards seem perfect for ingenious, demon-destroying traps, but no one tries to build them. The only traps in the book are really tame.

Also, since you can attack across wards, you might expect the people huddled behind them to be the greatest archers in the world. Nope. Bows just don’t come into it. Yeah, the corelings have thick armor that makes them hard to hurt, but what about a windlass crossbow? What about aiming for the eyes? Sure, you’ll miss most of the time, but it beats the current plan, “cower and hope”.

The corelings themselves must be dumber than dogs or cats… Wards can be thwarted by partially covering them, but none of the demons ever tries to kick dirt or wet leaves onto them.

What’s more, wards (while not exactly rare) are not nearly as ubiquitous as they ought to be. Not enough people know how to do them, and portable circles are too expensive; this shit should be everywhere, because the demand is so high. It just wasn’t believable that towns and houses had one layer of protection, or that repairing/creating wards was an occupation that could make you rich. I didn’t believe it.

Beyond the implications of the setting is the odd pacing of the story, which follows each major development in the three characters’ lives right up to the point where the author realized the book was called “The Warded Man” so best skip a bunch of things to get right to that. The main character vanishes, replaced by Tattooed Batman, and… well, let’s just say it’s a little jarring, especially since so much of his character has been completely changed.

Finally, something serious: it’s one thing to have multiple cultures engaged with a resistance to genocide put heave pressure on women to have babies. It’s not fun, but it’s not surprising. What is surprising is the appearance of fantasy Muslims, complete with burkas and merchants who love to flatter and haggle. I’m especially not pleased to see them set up as antagonists for the next book.

It’s funny. Enjoying sf/f has made me a very forgiving person, artistically. Dude in a rubber suit destroying a balsawood Tokyo? Sure, go with it. It doesn’t look real but I’m willing to pretend it does because I want that thrill.

The same goes for this novel. There were plenty of good things here, especially the supporting characters, and under normal circumstances I’d be willing to pretend that Our Hero is the first person to think of tattooing wards onto himself. But I just don’t want to revisit those warlike, treacherous, faux-Muslims again, so I’ll wait for Mr. Brett to start a new series before returning to his work.



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The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

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The Underground ManThe Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lew Archer is moving into the seventies, trying to keep up with changing times, and so are his characters.

After reading several crime/mystery novels, it was refreshing to read one that opened with real momentum, and that felt honestly earned. Archer is searching for a kidnapped boy in the midst of a California wildfire. The authorities have too much going on to offer much help, and Archer has to do the fictional PI’s work of digging through every character’s lives to work out the truth of the current crime and the obligatory crime-of-a-previous-generation.

The prose is a little purple, but it’s a pleasant hue. As a fan of private investigator novels, I like a bit of purple prose. Macdonald isn’t entirely convincing in his description of his younger character and people’s drug use, and frankly, I thought it spun on a little long, but it was still one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year.



Pick up a copy for yourself.

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

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Chelsea Mansions (Brock & Kolla, #11)Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do guys who were born and raised in Montreal really say “Fancy a cup of tea?”

Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know. It just seems a very English thing to say, from a guy who grew up in Quebec. But maybe I’m wrong.

2.5 stars for this, because it was well-structured but also sort of inert. There was no momentum, little urgency, and not much at stake. It’s one of those mysteries where everything anyone says–and everything anyone reveals as part of their personal history–turns out to be part of the solution to the mystery.

Which is fine. As a craft issue, it’s an admirable way to create a mystery, but without truly engaging characterization or a sense of momentum, it feels very rote. I realize I’m jumping into a long-running series, but it was hard to feel much interest in the characters’ dilemmas.

Did I mention that everything tied into the final mystery? Well, one thing didn’t. One of the two stars of the series catches the Marburg virus and goes into the hospital for much of the book. There’s no real reason to do this except to leave the junior partner, a woman, in charge of the investigation for a while. And of course she makes an error that gets her whole unit disbanded.

Meh. I wasn’t feeling it.

Oh! I forgot to mention that there’s a whole lot of talk about some old cases involving a deadly criminal by the name “Spider Roach.”

Now, maybe that is the greatest villain since Prof. Moriarity, but nothing about “Spider Roach” sounds promising to me.



Get your own copy of Chelsea Mansions: A Brock and Kolla Mystery (Brock and Kolla Mysteries)

A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

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A Darkness More Than Night (Harry Bosch, #7; Terry McCaleb, #2)A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unsurprising and a little disappointing.

There isn’t a lot of mystery to this mystery; obviously, the star of a long-running detective series is not going to suddenly turn out to be a secret serial killer, and the B plot makes it obvious what’s really going on. It’s creepy as hell in places, but the the only real question is where they’ll find the clues to the inevitable solution.

I’d give up on these books if people didn’t keep recommending them so highly.



Buy a copy for yourself.

9 Dragons by Michael Connelly

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Nine Dragons (Harry Bosch, #15)Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This isn’t what I was looking for, either.

Anyway, I read the first three Harry Bosch novels in omnibus form, having snatched the massive hardback for them off the front table at now-defunct Tower Books in Queen Anne. The police procedural plot was a bit predictable but clearly well-researched and the tone was perfect: a sort of morose, cynical inevitability of ruined lives and terrible grief. Yeah, the lead character smoked alone in his little house at night while jazz saxophone music played, but the cliches were effective.

I love that shit. I enjoyed the books so much, I wanted to do my own version.

In the years since, I haven’t kept up with the series, but I have occassionally bought a copy for the giant to-read pile, and I returned to the author now for another taste of that perfect tone.

Sadly, it all gets pissed away partway through the book. What starts as another police procedural about a murdered man with a family suddenly turns into the movie TAKEN, with Bosch in the Liam Neeson role (sans karate).

I can forgive the clunky prose, although this was much clunkier than I remember. I can forgive the tenuous string of clues that lets the Bosch track his daughter all over Hong Kong. I’m less forgiving about the way the Chinese characters are treated, although I guess that’s hard to avoid in a crime novel. Same again for the fridged ex-wife.

By the time the characters return to L.A., I knew the big twist was going to be that the obvious killer was obvious, and I’d lost momentum.

Still, it reads like a thriller, and I worked my way to the end.

I can’t pretend it wasn’t disappointing, but I have A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT here in my pocket, so maybe that will be a return to that bleak, sorrowful tone.



Pick up a copy of 9 Dragons for yourself

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

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A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder, #17)A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After seeing A WALK AMONG TOMBSTONES at the theater, I was looking for a novel that would make me feel as sad and as bleak as the movie did, without the unfortunate elements that I had to forgive in the theater. This was the closest option and I grabbed it.

It doesn’t have the same punch as the film, but it is very nicely done, as private investigator books go. As in most of these books, it’s primarily dialog but it’s very good dialog.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Matt Scudder, former corrupt NYPD detective and struggling alcoholic, tells a story from decades before when he was an unlicensed private investigator. He does favors for friends, and they give him gifts in return, all very under the table.

In this case, a guy that Matt knew as a kid grows up to be a career criminal. After a stint in prison, he and Matt both end up in AA, trying to stay sober and put their lives back together. Part of the AA recovery process involves contacting people you’ve hurt in the past and making amends and while in the midst of this step, the poor guy gets murdered. Matt gets “hired” to look into the list of people the victim wronged to see if any of them might be the killer.

It’s a sad book, but it’s not as bleak as the film, and that’s what I was looking for. That’s not fair, I know, but I’m still laying out 4 stars for a solid crime story where the most pressing question is whether the protagonist will make it to his one-year sobriety anniversary.

Anyway, if you like private eye mysteries set in NYC of the recent past, this is the book for you.



A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

The Health Benefits of Reading

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The WSJ has an interesting article on “reading parties,” (skip the comments). People are getting together to read in silence, which is fine, I guess?

The really interesting thing is the list of health benefits to reading, which is included in this handy graphic.

Hot-linked Pseudo-Venn Diagram of the Benefits of Reading

“Reduces stress” is vital, and “Improves listening” makes me think I should have my son read three or four times a day.

But I’m still stymied by the idea of reading parties. I get that it can be pleasant to meet new people doing the thing you love (especially if you’re the type to bring “impressive” books so everyone could see how smart you are) but it still seems like putting yourself in a position where the people around you will, with your permission, police your own behavior. “I’d never stay off Twitter for 30 minutes if I were alone, but if I have all these people watching me…”

I’m not saying there’s something wrong with it, but it’s not a choice I would make. If I realize the book I’m reading can’t keep me so absorbed that I stay off Twitter, I put the book away. Then again, I’ve never been the sort who tried to impress people with my reading choices.

ADDED LATER: I took the speed reading test. While my comprehension was perfect (partly because I knew I’d be tested) my wpm was 261, slightly above average. That surprises me, because I’ve always believed I was slower than average. I guess I’m just slower than everyone I know.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

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The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars for a book that started poorly but became compulsive reading as the story went on.

This book flies straight down the center of the genre, in that everything anyone talks about is somehow related to the main plot, it’s a long series of conversations (interrogations, really) one after another, with clues hidden in the details that don’t line up, and a crime as improbable as any.

Not that I care about a whodunit. I never try to follow the clue by clue, guessing the real killer or whatever. I just enjoy the characters and their secrets.

How *have* private eye novels been doing? I have been under the impression that they’re out of favor, and that maybe “Galbraith” is keen on resurrecting another moribund genre. It doesn’t really matter, because this book, despite a few rough patches, was great fun (once you read beyond the unpromising first few chapters). I’ll be grabbing the sequel.



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