Review Round-up: Smoke 'em while you got 'em

Some reviews that are united by being... written. And since this site ain't around for much longer, it is now or never! Featuring Margaret Millar's Fire Will Freeze, Bill Beverly's Dodgers, Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and Lucas Dale's First Watch. Something for everyone and/or no one, I suspect.

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13631744Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar (1944)

Utterly bonkers ‘sealed room’ mystery - think of it as punk-Christie, with an emphasis on surreal dialogue, backhanded character development, and a (surprisingly) fair use of the Detection Club rules. A busload of skiiers - of variable ages, backgrounds and levels of outdoor experience - find themselves stranded in rural Canada when their bus-driver, quite literally, runs away. When the squabbling tourists finally go chasing off after him, they instead find a ramshackle mansion, tended to by a pair of (violently) unwelcoming women.

The mystery unfolds through a series of snarky conversations (everyone is barely holding it together) and accidental discoveries (there are a fair number of bodies about). Millar has one primary protagonist, a young busybody with an overactive imagination. The point of view changes frequently and, as with the best mysteries of its type, everyone is a suspect. The weirdness ramps up quickly, not aided by the frequent shifts in perspective, but Fire is well worth the initial effort.

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Stewart, Stewart, Heyer: Touch Not the Cat, Thornyhold and Envious Casca

 Three books by two favourites: Mary Stewart's Touch Not the Cat and Thornyhold and Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca.

For more on Stewart, check out our Author Appreciation and our convenient 'field guide'. For more on Heyer, er, just read a lot of Heyer? (It is well worth it.)

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TouchNotTheCatTouch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart (1976)

Touch Not has the hallmarks of one of Stewart’s classic romantic suspense novels: a beautiful woman (Bryony Ashley), both supremely confident and utterly alone in the world; a breath-taking location (the collapsing, but beautiful, ruin of Ashley Court); a discreet problem (the Court, and its expensive upkeep - whatever is one to do with this most ridiculous of #firstworldproblems). There are even several handsome men, depicting a variety of swoony characteristics, for Bryony to inevitably choose from. And, naturally some skullduggery: perhaps Ashley’s father’s accidental death wasn’t quite so accidental after all.

In the normal Stewart formula, this would unfold in the traditional way, with a few twists, an inevitable romantic pairing, and the barest modicum of actual threat. Stewart’s novels often unfold with an aristocratic coziness that precludes actual danger: the characters are so warmly ensconced in an upper crust so thick that murder itself couldn't penetrate it. (It is, I daresay, utterly wonderful to read, and her characters' self-confidence makes them better escapism than a thousand-thousand hobbits.)

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Review Round-up: Squadron Supreme, The Bug Wars, Crownbird and Beasts of the Burnished Chain

Four reviews with nothing in common, really. Squadron Supreme, Robert Asprin's The Bug Wars, Kit Thackeray's Crownbird, and Alex Marshall's new novella, Beasts of the Burnished Chain. Featuring: Military science fiction, four-colour superheroes, colonialist espionage action, and some grimdark skullduggery!

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Squadron_supreme_titleSquadron Supreme by Mark Gruenwald and Tom DeFalco (1986)

Squadron is really quite spectacular, and every time I read it, I'm more impressed. It is, for those that missed it, a pre-Watchmen (barely) examination of superheroism. Squadron's thematic heft is made all the more weighty by the fact that the Squadron is a group of C-list Marvel heroes that are all thinly veiled versions of DC characters. That makes them expendable and strangely liberated - despite their immediate familiarity, there's no backstory, canon or future. The result is, quite possibly, the most mature, most interesting take on the Justice League that ever existed - all courtesy of Marvel Comics.

The twelve issue series begins with a world that's in bad shape, thanks to a battle between the Squadron and a mind-controlling super-villain. The Squadron steps up and declares itself 'in charge': the team is going to fix the world. From infrastructure to disarmament, they go about their utopian plan - forcing everyone to be better, if necessary. The situation becomes more extreme when the Squadron find themselves with a machine that can 'behaviourally modify' people. Now, as well as sweeping social and infrastructural change, they can now literally make individuals Be Good. The ethical situation doesn't go unchallenged, and the discussion - and fallout - is explored over the course of the series.

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Fiction: 'The Second Bullet' by Anna Katharine Green

Vogue (1919) - Georges Lepape

Georges Lepape“You must see her.”

“No. No.”

“She’s a most unhappy woman. Husband and child both taken from her in a moment; and now, all means of living as well, unless some happy thought of yours—some inspiration of your genius—shows us a way of re-establishing her claims to the policy voided by this cry of suicide.”

But the small, wise head of Violet Strange continued its slow shake of decided refusal.

“I’m sorry,” she protested, “but it’s quite out of my province. I’m too young to meddle with so serious a matter.”

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Radio Drama: 'Dangerous Assignment: Bombay Gun Runners' (1950)

Wheaties

One time I saw this thing on the internet and it was a guy on a bike and the words said ‘lyf is short, be a racist’. Obviously I have decided to apply these words into my daily life, which is why I have chosen to listen to something called Bombay Gun Runners.

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1Q84: A Very Bad Book

103575751Q84, a no longer new novel by beloved Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, is the story of Aomame, a feminist vigilante assassin who uses her seductive wiles to kill deserving if unsuspecting men in service of an aging widow with an ex Japanese special forces soldier as her bodyguard. Along with her childhood love, Tengo, Aomame is pulled into a parallel universe in which she must oppose a secretive cult in service of a strange race of alien fae. Aomame becomes embroiled in an attempt to stop these shadowy, possibly demonic figures by assassinating the leader of said cult, who is also molesting his daughter. Meanwhile, Tengo wanders through a surreal, shadowy Japan, trying to find Aomame and return safely to their original reality.

It is impossible to express from the above (accurate) summary how absolutely mind-numblingly boring this books is. You would not believe it. I don’t really believe it, and I read it. It is so insanely boring that one might almost see some spark of genius in Murakami’s ability to entirely denude potentially exciting scenes, like murdering a cultist or having sex with a changeling ingenue, into an experience akin to reading a stereo manual.  Let me be clear; I like boring books. I prefer boring books, mostly, to interesting books--but I cannot stand to be lied to. “This is not a bacon cheeseburger!” I want to yell. “This is salmon, and it’s raw in the middle!” At one point, presumably as a meta-reference to the reader’s own misery, Aomame sits in a room for a very long time and reads À la recherche du temps perdu. I would urge you to follow her example, rather than mine. Come to that, I would recommend you let someone drop Proust’s unannotated work on your big toe, rather than tackle 1Q84.

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Paris Adrift, One of Us Is Lying, All the Crooked Saints and More

Six recent reads across time, space, and genres: Maggie Stiefvater's All The Crooked Saints, E.J. Swift's Paris Adrift, Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring, Jason Rekulak's The Impossible Fortress, Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool, and Karen McManus' One of Us is Lying.

I'd say I loved them all unequivocally, but, well, then I'd be lying too.

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4 Kids Walk Into a Bank: Childhood is short, brutal and hilarious

4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 (2016) - Page 11 (1)

The age where your creativity and the ability to realise said creativity meets must be somewhere in your 30s.

I know this because the rolling wave of nostalgia in TV and film has now firmly hit the 80s and doesn’t look like it’s going to be moving on for a while.

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From Christie to Bolaño: Adam Roberts' Five Favourite Puzzle Whodunits

Adam Roberts - The Real-Town Murders

I love puzzle whodunits. On account of my crime-novel-loving mother I grew up in a house full of them, which meant that—when I ran out of SF titles—I would pick a green-liveried penguin off the shelf and read that instead: Margery Allingham; Michael Innes; Ngaio Marsh; Edmund Crispin. And of course Agatha Christie. I read huge numbers of such books growing up. I still read them today.

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50 Books on Imagining and Re-Imagining Cities

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2017-08-12/8cef1c9a-0c5b-4709-8d9f-88c5b1bf0a13.png
Moil houses from China Miéville's Un Lun Dun

I've been thinking about cities - and how we imagine and definite and interpret them - since the panel at Nine Worlds was announced. The panel itself, chaired by architect Amy Butt, and featuring Verity Holloway and Al Robertson, was brilliant and free-ranging.

One thing we didn't do is lapse into 'here are some books about cities that I recommend'. I'm grateful we skipped that because a) that's boring on a panel and b) that makes cracking blog content. Listicles are good fun.

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