The Perfume of the Lady in Black

By Gaston Leroux

Rating: 2 stars

The shadow of the villain of The Mystery of the Yellow Room looms large over this book. The fear of Larsan causes terror and almost hysteria in almost every major character, to quite a wearying degree. It felt really overdone to me, to the point where I mostly just stopped caring. Our detective, Rouletabille, is a shadow of his previous self here, as he quakes in terror of Larsan, and some personal stuff relating to the eponymous Lady in Black, quite removing his ability to drive the plot in any meaningful way until right at the end of the book.

While I’d enjoyed The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the overwrought writing style here feels very different. The narrator is attempt to install a sense of dread in the reader. To this reader, at least, it backfired badly.

On top of that, the physical book that I had didn’t do the story any favours. It looks like a badly OCR-ed print-on-demand edition with so many typos that really distract from the story. It’s also printed on a page size larger than a standard paperback, making the lines just slightly too long to read comfortably, and is missing at least one illustration – the plan of the castle where most of it takes place, which would have been very useful in visualising what was going on (although there is a large gap in the text to indicate where it should be).

The book is in the public domain, but doesn’t seem to be on Gutenberg yet (if anyone wants to undertake that, there’s a scanned copy of the book at Hathitrust).

I’d say this may be of historical interest, but I didn’t find the plot engaging, or the characters particularly interesting.

Book details

ISBN: 9781533186461

Wages of Sin

By Kaite Welsh

Rating: 2 stars

Sarah Gilchrist is a female medical student in 1892 Edinburgh, living with relatives after being exiled by her family after a scandal, and struggling to manage her studies and the disdain of both faculty and fellow students. She also spends evenings working in a poor hospital, and when she finds one of the patients on her dissection table the next day, she can’t let it go.

Firstly, I wonder if “Sarah” Gilchrist is a reference to Marion Gilchrist, who was getting her medical doctorate (the first woman to get such a qualification in Scotland), on the other side of the country, in Glasgow, at around the same time as this book is set.

Anyway, aside from possible coincidences of nomenclature, I struggled a bit with this book, although I whizzed through it. It’s not huge, and I got through it in an afternoon off work. Sarah is incredibly impulsive, not hesitating to trail men into the worst parts of the city. And, as we learn, she should really know better. She’s also very mistrustful of men, being quick to see any action in the worst light, and being ready to believe the worst of them. We find out why this is, and what has happened to her is truly awful, but it’s still frustrating to see her making poor decision after poor decision.

And you might expect solidarity from her fellow female students, but they’re under the thumb of class mean girl Julia and keep their distance, at best. I assume that Welsh is isolating Sarah on purpose, to make us empathise more with her, but it’s also exhausting to read.

She doesn’t even really solve the mystery. The mystery solves her, more or less, and it comes completely out of the blue. I know I’m not good at figuring out whodunnit, but I don’t know that there were any clues here at all. And I also don’t really get the murderer’s actions towards the end of the book. The attempt on Sarah’s life seems entirely unnecessary, given how clueless the girl was. There was another person who it would have made more sense to silence, but maybe it was deliberate – the author showing the murderer’s judgement slipping and them making mistakes?

I’m not that familiar with Edinburgh, but enough of the ancient city has survived intact to the modern era that I was able to follow the famous streets and landmarks that Sarah lives amongst (unlike poor Glasgow which had a shovel taken to its heart after WW2). Still, it’s nice to see something set in Scotland, rather than London, which always seems to be where murderers and detectives set up shop.

So, I sympathised a lot with Sarah’s predicament – I can’t imagine the strength of will necessary to recover from what happened to her, and then deal with the scorn of trying to do a medical degree in that period as well. But I found many of her actions bizarre and unreasonable, and I never really saw why she got so obsessed with this murder over any of the others that must be happening in the city at any given time. I’ll not be searching out any more of her adventures, I don’t think.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472239822
Year of publication: 2018

Journey Beyond Tomorrow

By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 2 stars

I gave up on this book after about 70 pages, which is disappointing as I’ve got a lot of time for Sheckley and generally enjoy his work (although I do find that he tends to be better at the shorter form than the long). This very much feels like it’s talking about its own time, that being the early 1960s, although obviously the satire on the failures of the justice system depressingly apply as much today as they did half a century ago. But although the satire was on-point, I just wasn’t particularly enjoying the book, and didn’t think it would get better. I did jump forward to the last couple of chapters, and that pretty much confirmed my decision to give up on it was the right one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575041226
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1987

Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain by Postcode

By Mark Mason

Rating: 2 stars

This book sort of falls between two stools for me. It tries to be a travel book crossed with a trivia book, and doesn’t entirely succeed at either for me. It sort of felt like the author was trying to outdo Bill Bryson, and, friends, he is no Bill Bryson. Notes From a Small Island did the tour round Britain so much better, and even when Bryson didn’t like a place, it never felt like he was looking down his nose at it, the way Mason does about Belfast, Swansea or Southall.

Because I never entirely liked the authorial voice, I didn’t get on with the book. The facts are fun and all, but they’re pretty random, and while I’d hoped that the Royal Mail might act as as central theme, it didn’t really feature that much.

A bit disappointing, and, I suspect, a book that will find its way off my bookshelves, the next time they need clearing out a bit.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780228334
Publisher: Weidenfeld Nicolson
Year of publication: 2016

Driving Blind

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 2 stars

I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve read by Bradbury over the years, but this collection left me a little cold. It’s from the tail end of his career and, unfortunately, most of the stories just didn’t really click for me. Most of them were non-genre and a lot of them I just didn’t get. There was an uncomfortable degree of sexism in some of the stories (I don’t know how to read The Bird That Comes Out of the Clock in a non-misogynist manner) and more “kissing-cousins” than is strictly necessary (ie greater than zero). Bradbury’s writing always had a strong streak of nostalgia running through it, but it felt very strong in this one, to the point that I was rolling my eyes at times.

Not a great collection, to be honest. This may well not be a keeper.

Book details

ISBN: 9780671022075
Publisher: Earthlight
Year of publication: 1998

The Master Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #3)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 2 stars

I had been irritated by Ceony, protagonist and apprentice paper magician, a bit in The Glass Magician, but I found her so bad here that I nearly put the book down several times. I wasn’t convinced by the big reveal of the last book, that a magician can unbind themselves from their chosen material and rebind to something else, and the fact that Ceony uses it here almost as a superpower is just a bit dull. But beyond that, her paranoia and obsession with getting involved with things when others are perfectly competent to deal with them is almost upsetting. Saraj Prendi is the big bad here, upgraded from henchman in the previous book (and yes, I do find it slightly dubious that the only non-white character in the series is the bad guy) and she gets obsessed with finding him, worrying about her family and her mentor, Emery Thane. At one point, Saraj even points out to Ceony that not everything is about her, something which she should really have taken to heart much earlier.

The relationship between Ceony and Emery is now much more open (something which is still a bit dodgy) and to ensure that there’s no accusations of favouritism when she comes to do her magician’s test, he hands her off to someone that he had bullied as a child, ‘cos that’s going to go down well with everyone, isn’t it? Not that Magician Bailey gets much to do other than to glower and be Not As Good As Emery. The attempts by the author to manipulate us into disliking him are pretty obvious.

I’ve tried to ignore it, but the setting here has had me twitching since the start of the series. I’ve tried to palm it off as just an alternate world where Things Are Different, but there’s too much where Holmberg brings in real-world things that just break my suspension of disbelief. This very much didn’t feel like early Edwardian Britain, but more modern day America in terms of attitudes and actions. The stuff with Ceony’s sister sort of came out of nowhere, but it really felt much more like she was a 1990s rebellious teenager (complete with cigarette), not someone from the turn of the 20th century.

It’s a shame as, despite the flaws, I’d enjoyed the first couple of books in the series (although I thought the first was definitely better than the second) but this really didn’t work for me. After her stupidity throughout the book, I almost resented Ceony’s happy ending, which is not the way you want to leave a series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781477828694
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2015

How the World Became Quiet

By Rachel Swirsky

Rating: 2 stars

Urgh, I hate having to review books like this. This is another case of me really not enjoying the contents of the book, but very much appreciating its literary merits. It’s difficult to give a star rating in such a case. There’s no doubting Swirsky’s talent, but she seems to have taken to using writing as a substitute for therapy. There’s a lot of grimdark and depressing stories in this collection, far too many for my tastes. The collection starts as it means to go on, with the first story, the novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window starting with a powerful sorceress being murdered and then recalled on a recurring basis and seeing the land change over the millennia. The protagonist of that story is a very hard woman, who despises men and from a culture that uses lower caste women as walking uteruses. The second story, A Memory of Wind retells the start of the Iliad from the point of view of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, who must be sacrificed to appease the wrath of Artemis.

The collection begins with a warning that there’s explicit sexual violence in two of the stories. And while The Monster’s Million Faces softens that a bit, With Singleness of Heart is just about unbearable as it gives a close-up of rape as a weapon of war.

There are some points of light in amongst the misery. The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth is a whimsical fairy tale, and The Taste of Promises is a great little SF adventure story set on Mars, where two boys have run away from home.

There’s a lot of talent in this collection, which I mostly picked up because I knew Swirsky from her time editing the audio fantasy fiction magazine Podcastle, and from her Hugo-winning story If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love. But after reading it, I’ll not be going out of my way to find more of her fiction. As I say, a talented writer, but really not to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781596065505
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year of publication: 2013

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen

By James Goss

Rating: 2 stars

This is based on a Douglas Adams unmade script treatment, which Adams himself then recycled into the third Hitch-hikers’ book, book: Life, The Universe and Everything. The plot involves killer robots, xenophobic aliens, cosmic plots and cricket. I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, mostly because it felt very much like fanfic of The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. It doesn’t really feel like a Who story, and the characterisation of both the Doctor and Romana feels off, particularly their internal monologues. There are loads of asides that felt much more like some of Adams’ wild asides in Hitch-hikers’ than anything that fits into the Doctor Who universe.

There are several sections that deal with invasions, massacres and tyrants, and they all have a jolly, slightly ironic tone to them which doesn’t really sit well with me at all. There’s also references to another unmade Douglas Adams story, Shada, which seems like a lot for the casual reader to take in (although I’m not sure how many casual readers would pick this up).

Not awful – there were bits that made me laugh out loud, almost despite myself – but definitely not one that I’d recommend to anyone except completists.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785941054
Publisher: BBC Books
Year of publication: 2018

Touchstone (Glass Thorns, #1)

By Melanie Rawn

Rating: 2 stars

Cayden Silversun is a tregetour – part magician, part playwright, who infuses his magic into wands that his troupe can then use to perform plays. He’s also got Fae ancestry, which gives him a power of foresight – a power he can’t control. He has to fight to keep his troupe – Touchstone – together, while also fighting with himself about what futures he can change and what he must leave alone.

This is primarily a story about a group of young men finding sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and that’s a story that has never really touched me. A group of arrogant young men who think they’re going to live forever arguing about their art, while bedding a succession of nameless women and getting high. No thanks.

I didn’t particularly care for Cade, nor for the other major protagonist, Mieka, the “glisker” of the group, who uses the magic that Cade provides to create the backdrops and effects for the plays. While seventeen or eighteen isn’t that young, I mostly just thought of these people as children and their squabbles as they fight for a place on their nation’s theatrical grand tour, as profoundly boring.

The other two members of Touchstone, Jeska and Rafe get very little in the way of character development: the former is poor, good looking and sleeps with as many women as he can; the latter has a childhood sweetheart that he’s determined to marry when they make enough money on the tour. I imagine that they will get more development later in the series, but for the moment, they’re just rough sketches.

The central idea of Cade’s prophetic visions and his internal turmoil on whether he should tell the people involved has the potential to be interesting, but he just sticks to this idea that people have the right not to be affected by him, even when it’s obviously bad for them, and I’ve got little time for that these days.

The book spends the first half or so with Cade as the PoV character, and then suddenly switches to Mieka. I’m not sure if this was to let us see how frustrating that Cade could be without the benefit of being in his head to get his point of view, or if the author just didn’t want to spend time there, but it was an odd shift. And then it shifts back to Cade just before the end of the book, again without explanation.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, but I don’t care enough about these characters to find out how it’s resolved. I’m afraid that I’ll not be following Touchstone’s future career with any interest.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781166604
Publisher: Titan Publishing Company
Year of publication: 2012

Triplanetary (Lensman, #1)

By E.E. "Doc" Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I picked this up because I saw it on Project Gutenberg for free, and I needed something to pad out my e-reader for a holiday. It’s been about twenty years since I last read any Doc Smith, and, good grief, I should have left it that way. I was only just out of my teens when I read the Skylark series and I quite enjoyed that at the time. But since then I’ve developed a taste for things like plot, character development and moral consideration.

The writing here is fast-paced and breathless in its descriptions, edging on purple – with everything being “indescribable”, and “unbelievable”. There are lots of rays as well, for everything except, well, light. Relativity would be quite new at this point, but still fairly well known, but there’s no mention of the speed of light or any indication that there’s a problem in travelling between star systems (which happens at, of course, “indescribable speed…”).

The book has an odd structure, with the first three short sections describing the fall of Atlantis, Rome and our civilisation, according to the plan of the powerful Arisians, as they try to create a race that can face the evil Eddorians in a battle across time and space. The main body of the book is a space opera set in a future civilisation when the inner planets of the solar system are united under a single “Triplanetary” government. It’s full of the sort of lantern-jawed super super-scientists that Heinlein would go on to make famous. Surprisingly, there is a female character, and although she’s mostly there to provide motivation to one of the aforementioned lantern-jawed scientist secret service men, she does actually get to fight at one point.

The story was pretty slight, with lots of cycles of fighting, being captured, escaping, rinse and repeat, and there were a few casual city-wide slaughters that were casually swept under the rug at the end. I might have enjoyed this more as a teenager, but I think I’ll skip the rest of the books and just look up the plot summary on Wikipedia.

Book details

ISBN: 9781882968091

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