Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Obscura by Joe Hart

Thomas & Mercer, 340 pages, $24.95

“Obscura” is one of those can’t-put-it-down books. It’s a sci-fi thriller. It’s a book by a male author with a credibly-voiced female protagonist. It’s a dour look at our future.

Dr. Gillian Ryan, a research neurologist, is burdened by a double tragedy. Her husband died of a new dementia-like disease, probably brought on by the increasing pollution and environmental degradation, and now her young daughter also has it. Gillian has devoted herself to finding a cure. At the same time, Gillian treasures each minute spent with her daughter. It’s a tug on her priorities.

That dilemma is further challenged when an old boyfriend, now a NASA pilot, wants her to join his team to solve an unspecified medical crisis in space. Gillian’s lab is going under, sunk by the lack of funding. Carson LeCroix has a terrible offer: permanent funding for her project in exchange for her trip to a space station orbiting Earth. Six months at the most. Save lives, win funding, maybe advance a cure for her daughter. This doesn’t sound like Gillian’s cup of tea, but in the end she agrees.

Joining Gillian is her research assistant and friend, Birk Lindqvist, a gentle Swedish giant who has trouble with American idioms. In other words, author Joe Hart works tropes into his space ensemble: heroine, hero, loyal assistant, efficient co-pilot, nasty and mysterious administrator, laconic cowboy-type, competent doctor (“I’m a doctor, Jim, not Matt Damon.”). Although Hart’s book follows a well-worn path of ensemble-in-space, his take on the genre is surprising and entertaining.

The suspenseful part begins when Gillian is the only one awake after the others have chosen stasis for their two-month journey to (sorry, spoiler alert) the actual site of the medical crisis. She begins to sense there is someone else awake on the ship. She hears doors opening and footsteps. Maybe it’s overwork. Maybe it’s the opioids to which she is addicted. Maybe it is the weaning off of the opioids. Maybe she is just nuts.

Then someone is murdered. Then someone tries to murder Gillian, again and again. Is that enough to keep you reading yet? It was enough for me.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Subterranean, 96 pages, $40 (special edition)
Available for $4.99 in digital formats

“The Tea Master and the Detective” is a novella about a spaceship with a human mind at its core. Shades of Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang.”

“The Shadow’s Child” is the ship. She has survived a traumatic loss of her crew and big doses of “unreality” in “deep spaces.” Long Chau is maybe a human. The depiction of Long Chau on the front cover of the book certainly looks human. Let’s say she’s human. She has a mysterious background and it eventually is revealed she, too, suffers from trauma. So much space trauma.

Mindships like “The Shadow’s Child” can brew “teas” to help clients overcome psychological difficulties, including handling the transition into deep spaces, or “the unknowable space shipminds used to travel faster than light.” The ship (via an avatar) offers Long Chau a congenial brew and they settle in to discuss Long Chau’s needs.

Long Chau needs to find a corpse lost in deep spaces. Any corpse. The one the ship and human find turns out to have been murdered. Traversing the hierarchies necessary to find information on the dead woman leads to an involuntary examination of both the ship’s and human’s pasts. In the end they are both put to an extreme test of their ability to hang on to their rational selves long enough to solve a case and prevent another murder.

Short and enjoyable. A complex and intriguing other world.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor

Crown, 288 pages, $27

Whoa! “The Chalk Man” is an impressive debut by British author C. J. Tudor. She takes well-used suspense tropes and twists them around. The result is a surprising story.

Tudor’s “heroes” are a group of twelve-year-old kids in the town of Anderbury, England. (With its quaint parts, dicey parts, pub parts, and foresty parts, Anderbury sounds so British. Queue up Midsomer Murders.) Eddie Adams is the narrator. His buddies are Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky (a girl). In a story reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Stand By Me,” the kids range through deep and dark woods, bicycle to each other’s homes, and work out a secret code to communicate. Several tragedies, including finding a dead body in the woods (you knew that would happen), hit them and their town.

There are two stories: one when the kids are twelve and the other thirty years later in 2016. The tragedies of 1986 are revisited in 2016 when a grown-up Eddie reconnects with Metal Mickey after not having seen him in years. That reunion sets more deaths into motion.

In 1986, Eddie and his friends are at a traveling fair. One of the amusement rides breaks and comes crashing into the crowd. A beautiful girl whom Eddie had been admiring is one of the victims. The newly arrived and exotic looking Mr. Halloran (an albino!) enlists Eddie’s aid to help save the girl from bleeding to death. Although they were strangers before the incident, Eddie and Mr. Halloran form a strange bond. They are destined to affect each other’s lives over the next few months.

The kids communicate by drawing chalk stick figures. They use different colors to indicate the sender. Suddenly, chalk is being used for something more malevolent than childish secrets. Eddie begins having nightmares in which he sees ghosts of the recently deceased. The dreams have a somber, menacing tone. Sometimes Eddie finds dirt and leaves in his house, open doors, rank smells. Remnants of the walking dead?

Tudor does a fabulous job of showing both the comfort of friendship and the creepiness of the setting. There are kid secrets and adult secrets, any of which could blow up, some of which do. Tudor creates so many possibilities without making her story impossibly complex. Tudor also is great at creating forward momentum. You want to turn that page. And the next page. And the next. Also, all her characters have psychological fiddly bits that will engage you.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

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