A quick-fire round-up of eight recent holiday reads - including some vintage mysteries, a brand new fantasy, a YA that'll have you in stitches (fnar) and a saucy pirate romance. Most of these were recommendations via Twitter, so thank you all for sending them my way!
Prologue Books are one of my go-to publishers - whomever is putting together this list of out-of-print fiction is doing a cracking job. (Also, they use Amazon well, so I can find their books by searching Prologue Crime or Prologue Western, which is really helpful.) Anyway, that baseline of praise established... Jack Webb's The Big Sin (1952) might be one of my favourites so far. Webb's story ticks all the right narrative boxes: a cop versus a Big City machine, a man framed for murder, criminals being forced to choose between doing 'bad' and doing 'evil', the works. And, beneath it all, he underpins everything with a discussion of faith.
Golden is a Jewish police detective, trying to see why his department is so invested in the apparent suicide of a local showgirl. Shanley is a Catholic priest, concerned that the showgirl's suicide means she can't be buried at the church - much to her family's chagrin. The two make an unlikely, but exceedingly likeable, pair. The Big Sin discusses faith in all its aspects - how people are judged by it (including Golden, who deals with rampant anti-Semitism, a rare thing to be facing head-on in a noir pulp originally written in 1952), and how it judges others (including Shanley, who is no less hard on himself). There are other other forms of faith: faith in the law, in one's civic leaders, even in one's partners and lovers. And ultimately, in humanity's capacity to believe in - and do - good. A solid, witty, action-packed detective drama with a surprisingly substantial core.
Tom Easton's Boys Don't Knit (2015) is very cute. Very. Ben Fletcher is a very stressed out teenager - there are hints that his teen angst might be unpinned by more serious obsessive compulsive tendencies. His parents are goofy and kind, but his father's keen on raising Ben to a certain masculine idea of fast cars and football (Ben's not keen on either). When an accident - brought on by Ben's less, um, complicated - friends gets Ben in trouble, he has to take a knitting class as part of his community service. Obviously he keeps it hidden. And just as obviously (that kind of book), Ben turns out to be a natural - he is the Chosen One of knitting.
There's a hot teacher. A cute female friend. Some confused knitting companions. The crew of dumb friends and their rival 'gang'. A grumpy old lady. And a lot of hijinks. The book is sufficiently heart-warming to overcome its rising implausibility. Similarly, Ben's acerbic, but lost, tone of voice is also so endearing that it is easy to overlook the wackiness of what's happening. I actually found the knitting qua knitting to be a bit of a red herring - I like that Ben's great at it, but struggled to cheer him as the 'Katniss', given that everyone he competes against has been going after it a lot longer and, presumably, just as hard.
[Aside: The author, by necessity, treads a fine line in gender terms, as we can't have Ben be 'better' at knitting only because he's the first boy to ever want to try it. Instead, Ben's natural knitting skills come from his more unique personality factors. I think Easton does really well at juggling the - obvious - difficulty of pulling this off, and it is worth reading for that alone.]
But, knitting aside, the joy of Boys Don't Knit comes from the predictably charming, optimistic ending. Ben discovers - and this is far from a spoiler - that everyone really is on his side, and the world is basically good. Which is all very pleasant indeed. I'm not sure I'm so attached that I'll plunge into the sequel, but this is a quirky, positive book with a some cute set-piece scenes and a catchy tone of voice.
Erin Lindsey's The Bloodforged (2015) is the sequel to one of my favourite fantasies of last year, The Bloodbound. The latter combined a sort of ... deeply emotional internal narrative with a great, big whopping war. An intense love triangle and 'who am I?' conflict... and a lot of cavalry charges. Brilliantly balanced, three great central characters, and a healthy prioritisation of character and action over world-building and infodumping. Two thumbs up.
The temptation is to say something like 'And yet, The Bloodforged is even better...', and, in certain ways, it is. But that's also because it has a very different. As with The Bloodbound, this is a fantasy novel with our heroes - the undisputed champions of good - on the back foot. The triumph of The Bloodforged came from not getting flat-out annihilated. Now they're squirming around trying to maintain the status quo of 'being alive'.
In The Bloodforged, our four heroes - Alix, Erik, Liam and Rig - separate to head off on various quests. Alix and Erik head over an impassable mountain range to woo some potential allies. Liam heads in a different direction, to see what the hold-up is with a set of allies. Rig, meanwhile, is landed with the unenviable task of ensuring that their enemies don't conquer the kingdom in their absence. Their three tasks are all very different. Alix and Erik face a grim, and particularly emotionally intense, wilderness adventure. Rig's sections are a more conventional military fantasy - schemes, strategy, set-back and slaughter. And Liam winds up smack in the middle of an espionage thriller, trying to decipher the local politics and thwart some saboteurs. They're all three entertaining storylines, impressively so, given how different they all are.
The romantic shenanigans of The Bloodbound are largely relegated - or repressed - to the background, but are far from forgotten. The first book, despite the sweeping military conflict at its heart, felt far more confined - three characters that are always trapped together, often physically and always emotionally. The Bloodforged has much more freedom - although the connections between the characters provide excellent grist for the plot (especially as fuel for the twist ending). Largely, this is more a book about individual success. If the first about is about finding one another, this book is about how the find themselves. All four face challenges that stretch them, punish them, and ultimately, force them to accept who they are (and, with it, who or what they want to be). In some sense, most epic fantasy mirrors this basic quest - someone growing up/out/into the person they want to/should be. But in The Bloodforged, we see it four times over, and each time it plays out differently.
I am, it is fair to say, overthinking this book a great deal, as, fundamentally, The Bloodforged is a seriously fast-paced, seriously fun fantasy, packed with tension, swordplay, dark magic, politics and empire-spanning schemes. A slim tome by today's epic fantasy standards, The Bloodforged achieves that by eschewing info-dumping - cinematic in the sense that you're given what you need, as you need it, and by following the characters. A terrific series that balances the conventional pleasures of epic fantasy with unconventionally brilliant storytelling.
And five very quick takes:
Eloisa James' Seduced by a Pirate (2012). I love Eloisa James' romances, and her series of fairytale-inspired flirtations is an absolute hoot. This is one of her novelettes, and the story adapts to the short length by having virtually no suspense. It is a 'feel good' tale with nice people doing the right thing and getting, eventually, what they deserve. It'd be boring if the characters weren't so great, but James's protagonists are always packed with charm.
Jonas Ward's The Name's Buchanan (1956). Another Prologue, this time a Western. A drifter winds up in the middle of a fight between two families: noble Mexican ranchers and corrupt Texan scum. Fortunately, the drifter is Buchanan, who eats corrupt Texan scum for dinner every night. Twice on Sundays. Totally silly, and mostly notable for way Buchanan is used - not as protagonist, but as agent. His presence is enough to trigger total chaos, and, although he receives credit for most of what unfolds, he's very rarely directly responsible. Even Buchanan himself admits it, as he says (in the third person, no less) to the people he 'saves': "You'll understand that Buchanan was just passing through, that he's of no more consequence than one of those shooting stars that goes whipping across the sky with a lot of fireworks tied to his tail."
Michael McClung's The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids (2012). I tried, as it has been recommended by several different parties - including the r/fantasy community - but I'm afraid this wasn't to my liking. That's... probably all I'm going to say, honestly. Others have liked it more.
Carolyn Weston's Poor Poor Ophelia (1972). From Brash Books, another of my favourite mystery publishers. Also, the basis for a TV series I've never heard of (The Streets of San Francisco). This mystery features two policemen - Krug and Kellog - trying to solve the murder of a beautiful young woman. Kellog, the seasoned 'hard man', has a local lawyer in his sights. Krug, the college-educated up-and-comer, thinks there might be more to the story... What the book does well, relatively, is the relationship between the two - representatives of the changing, conflicting generations. And it also provides a compelling counterpoint from the point of view of Farr, the suspect mentioned above. What the book does less well, also relatively, is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this was structured around the rigorous examination of red herrings, with a very, very rushed (and bizarrely super-villainous) conclusion. I can see how the two protagonists could anchor a compelling series, but as a stand-alone mystery, it left something to be desired.
Roderick Thorp's Nothing Lasts Forever (1972). Also the basis for something filmed - this time Die Hard. Joe Leland is a retired detective, visiting his estranged daughter in LA. The building is seized by terrorists, and Joe goes on the prowl as a rogue agent - jury-rigging defences and trying to keep himself (and his daughter) alive. The movie is better (the movie is better than most things, really). And, also of interest, the movie takes the best parts - the connection with Al over the radio, the bare feet and broken glass, the hint of cocaine, the taped gun, the note strapped to the body... All of Leland's cleverest thinking, as well as a few of the interactions with others that make him so compelling. What the movie (wisely) leaves: Joe's crippling existential angst, including his (very weird) obsession with a stewardess that he chats up on the flight over. Nothing Lasts Forever is, presumably, less of an action novel and more of a conversation about modern (to 1975) masculinity: a lengthy examination of whether or not Joe's failures as a father and husband are 'balanced' by his ability to shoot straight and/or save the world. (Arguably, the book's conclusion is 'no'. But I'll leave that up to you.) I suppose if you say Die Hard and wondered what it would be like with a hefty dose of navel-gazing, this is the book for you.