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

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor (hardcover, $24.99)

The last book I read by Andrew Taylor was his first, Caroline Minuscule, and that was about 25 years ago. I'm sorry I waited so long because he's good.

Set in fictional Jerusalem College, Cambridge, England, in 1786, Taylor has constructed a period piece that, yay!, isn't awkwardly styled or stuffed with lessons for the reader to learn.

John Holdsworth has suffered tragedy early in his life and finds himself almost penniless and friendless. Because of a book he has written, The Anatomy of Ghosts -- I know, a little too twee, perhaps -- he receives a commission to help a wealthy woman's son who thinks he has seen a ghost. John travels to Cambridge, and finds young Frank Oldershaw strapped down and tortured by a "modern" man of medicine. Effecting Frank's release, John attempts to cure him. "Quack, quack" Frank says in answer to many things, then dives into a nearby river. (That's about the only humorous thing in the book, and it's actually creepily humorous at that.)

The ghost Frank thought he saw was of the recently deceased wife of Philip Whichcote, a former student at Jerusalem and current head of one of the college's dining clubs with its underlying secret society. John Holdsworth receives help from Mr. and Mrs. Carbury, the Master of Jerusalem and his wife. There are a few other notable characters, but Taylor, thank goodness, keeps his dramatis personae at a manageable level. (In the old-fashioned way that I wish had never gone out of fashion, he lists the cast of characters.)

Holdsworth represents the scientific mind, intolerant of all ghosts and things that go bump in the night. At the same time, Taylor provides the requisite ghost-appropriate setting: misty gardens; winding and dim passages; things flitting at the edge of one's vision; gloom, disorder, tragedy, and pain hanging over all. Although he is not a college-educated man, Holdsworth fits into Jerusalem surprisingly well. Despite his tragic background, he provides a mostly neutral point from which to view the other characters and situations.

This is not modern Cambridge. As Taylor says in his afterword, "The eighteenth century was not a glorious period for English universities," and in only his second piece of humor in the entire book, he adds, "by and large they managed things better in Scotland." Instead of a look at the scholarly search for truth, this book is a look into the dysfunction of a society lanced by class consciousness, at a skewed morality propped up by a hail-fellow-well-met mentality.

I lied about there being no humor, so lastly, here's an example of that humor:
"Trust youth to turn an episode of drunken adultery into a three-volume novel and present it to you before breakfast."
"Holdsworth no longer wanted to laugh. For where in God's name was the humor in a weeping boy and a drowned woman? Or, for that matter, in a pair of Barbary slippers and a gilt button bearing the motto Sans souci?"

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Wreckage, by Michael Robotham ($24.99)

Vincent Ruiz used to be a detective with the London police force. He is a private investigator but doesn't appear to be enthusiastic about it. As a matter of fact, very little seems to move him to enthusiasm, certainly not the upcoming wedding of his daughter, Miranda. Although "[t]he father of the bride just has to turn up, walk down the aisle, and hand his daughter over like she's part of a prisoner swap," Vincent manages to bungle his initial involvement in the wedding preparations. He meant to do things right, but hey, stuff happens.

Like playing good Samaritan to a young girl who proceeds to rob him of his late wife's jewelry, things Vincent had meant to give to Miranda before her wedding. Like the girl's boyfriend being brutally murdered. Like being stalked, bribed, and finding an international crisis on his doorstep. Stuff like that.

There are actually two more stories being told at the same time. One takes place in Baghdad and involves a freelance journalist, Luca*, and a UN auditor, Daniela. They meet, they fall in like, people try to kill them. Is it just what happens to people in Iraq, or have them stumbled on something more? The third story involves a mother-to-be whose husband is missing. Elizabeth North's husband works for her family's banking business in London. He's a bean counter and a steady, somewhat boring man. If he's so ordinary, then what has happened to him? Where is the notebook some suspicious types claim he has?

Above all, what do these stories have to do with each other? As readers, we assume that they are indeed related, but it isn't until two-thirds of the way into the book that the characters in the three stories begin to stumble over each other and the stories seek their mutual conclusion. After they collide, the spotlight remains on Vincent, about whom Robotham writes: "He's an intelligent man but not a complicated one." His intelligence, too, is sometimes undercut by his uppercut. He's aided about halfway through the book by psychologist Joe O'Loughlin, the main or equal character in other Robotham books.

In an afterword, Robotham explains that the idea for his book is based upon real events. My reaction: scary. I will forbear discussing what brings the stories together. Robotham does too good a job drawing everything out for me to tip his hand prematurely.

Robotham delivers the kind of complexity I like. Kate Atkinson does the same thing. They develop separate story lines that ultimately converge. The stories are usually so divergent, it's a healthy challenge to the authors to bring them together at the end, and both handle the challenge exceptionally well.

I could give you many more examples of Robotham's energetic writing or his humor, but that would involve quoting pretty much the whole book. Big fan here, can you guess?

* This is the amusing first line of the story: "The most important lesson Luca Terracini ever learned about being a foreign correspondent was to tell a story through the eyes of someone else. The second most important lesson was how to make spaghetti marinara with a can of tuna and a packet of Ramen noodles."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hell Is Empty, by Craig Johnson (hardcover, $25.95)

Man vs. nature. Man vs. man. Man vs. himself. It's all there. Especially the nature part.

Remember the last part of Cold Dish, the first book in Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series? In which Walt -- wait, not Walt, make that "Crazy Walt" -- Crazy Walt heads up into the mountains after a bad guy? In which there is much suffering on Walt's part and he sees "things"? This time, instead of just a small portion of the book devoted to Walt heading up into the mountains after a bad guy, Craig Johnson has devoted the whole book to that plot.

Read Dante's Inferno before you read Hell Is Empty. At least read the CliffsNotes version. Johnson not so subtly draws parallels to that story. Instead of Dante's trip from the dark woods down into the circles of hell, Walt journeys up from the forest into the cold reaches of the hell he finds in the mountains. There are even Wyoming versions of Beatrice and Virgil.

The whole gang you've come to know and love -- Vic, The Bear, The Basque, Ruby, Cady -- is there but just in flashes, because it's all about Walt and the mountain and the man he's after.

Briefly, a prisoner, Reynaud Shade (hello!), escapes during a transport exchange in a fairly remote area of Wyoming. Shade is a bad, bad man who sees "The Old Ones" and claims he knows Walt does too. Taking hostages, Shade heads up a mountain. Taking a soggy sandwich and a cell phone that doesn't work, Walt heads up after him. A monster of a blizzard and an incongruous forest fire are impediments. Hypothermia and concussion are nuisances. Through it all, Walt is steadfast and determined to make a final showdown on the mountain.

Boy howdy, it's a page turner. It's also graced with Johnson's humorous turn of phrase, even in the most dire of circumstances, and a sweetness as Johnson shows us the strength and determination of the heart.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Robopocalpyse, by Daniel H. Wilson (hardcover, $25) (due 6/7)

Robo=robot, pocalypse=apocalpyse. Ooooh, yeah! This is doomsday with gadgets and more fun than a barrel full of nanomonkeys!

In the not-too-distant future, Robs, or robots, are everywhere. The human-shaped ones are domestics, the others run vehicles, are toys, manufacture products, and serve the military. Until they aren't and they don't. One day a malevolent awareness develops in an experimental artificial intelligence project. Archos names itself, takes on the visual and auditory persona of a little boy, gets really upset, and then tries to eradicate all human life. Because robots have an underlying worldwide communications network, Archos has no problem reprogramming them all. Cars begin running over people, domestics sweep out their human owners along with the trash, toys turn to the dark side, and machines designed to help the military begin to destroy it instead.

In the best cinematic fashion, we have human heroes and heroines who overcome extreme odds to save humanity. There's also an unexpected alliance between humans and free-thinking robots.

We learn in the first chapter that the human-robot war is over and that the humans appear to have won. The rest of the book is a flashback presented in stories told or re-told by Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace, a human. About six or seven other characters appear in these stories, and we follow their progress over a couple of years.

This is a fast-moving story with lots of action, with plentiful information given about robotics by Daniel H. Wilson, a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, according to his biography. Not surprisingly, the story apparently will be turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg! Wilson is the literary grandchild of Isaac Asimov, but with a lot more booms and bangs.