Archive for July, 2014

Two-fer Monday — The Chaplain’s War & City Beyond Time

Typically I don’t review two books on the same day by two separate authors, primarily because the voices are too dissimilar and the subject matter at hand varies drastically, but today I decided to make an exception after reading both The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgerson and City Beyond Time by John C. Wright. Both are extraordinary works, bordering on instant classic status, and have compelling voices, arguments, and stories abounding within.

city beyond timeFirst up is Wright’s City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, a collection of stories which begins with the story of a private investigator turned Time Warden. Jake Fontino is a down on his luck private investigator who, through the course of his investigation, is offered the position of becoming a Time Warden — while being recruited by their arch nemesis, Anachronists, who believe that all time travel (except for sight seeing) is immoral. A visceral tale with a deftly-woven plot, City Beyond Time stamps the “Writer to Watch” label on John C. Wright.

The best part — the absolutely best part — of this first novella is the fact that it is written out of order, and yet it works. I have no idea how the author managed to pull it off, but somewhere along the line the disjointed story of a time traveler works better when it is told out of order. I tried reading it both way– once in numerical order, and once as it was presented by the author. In numerical order, the story is a quaint piece on time travel and a man with a good enough moral compass to question both the ethical realities of time travel and the strength to do what was needed. In the order presented by the author, however, it’s an amazing tale of discovery, loyalty, inner strength and how a man must face the consequences of the decision he makes. A splendid start, in other words.

The rest of the stories follow the typical short story collection format, though the storytelling level never falls off. The final story of the collection, The Plural of Helen of Troy, is another small masterpiece in the making, with Jake Fontino fighting against time, paradoxes, and destiny all as Metachronopolis begins its fall. A masterful collection of stories, one that I am absolutely thrilled to have read. I should note, however, that while I talked about Jake Fontino the most, the character Owen Penthane, from the short story within titled Choosers of the Slain, is quite possibly the best written character in the entire collection.

Overall, this is a solid collection of works, and much like Frank Miller’s Sin City, it’s a story that you will not be able to put down. A definite A+, must buy book.

the chaplain's warNext up is Torgerson’s The Chaplain’s War, which is the story of the reluctant Chaplain’s Assistant as he struggles through war, peace, uncertainty, and questions of his own faith as humanity fights against an implacable enemy. Received as an electronic Advance Reader Copy back in May, I gobbled this one up in one sitting, and Torgerson joined my list of “Writers to Watch.”

Harrison Barlow is a trapped POW on a planet with other humans who survived a disastrous assault upon the planet by an alien race who seem to resemble mantis cyborgs. Humans, because of how we are, call them Mantis. As Barlow is tending to his flock — he continues to profess a lack of certainty involving any particular deity or religion, which endears him to his fellow prisoners of war — in his handmade chapel (while keeping his promise to the Chaplain, who died trying to protect the others), he is visited by a Mantis who calls himself Professor. He is both a researcher and a teacher, and he is very curious to learn about humanity’s faith in religion. Barlow, not sure what he can offer the Professor, tries to teach the teacher that there can be more to humanity than at first glance. Standing against the Chaplain’s Assistant is the very nature of humanity itself, as well as preconceived biases against humanity on the part of the Mantis.

Part of the allure in this story is that, unlike most SF novels with war against the aliens in it, this one is more about the search for peace, not victory. It’s a fine distinction to be had, for if victory is achieved, a certain peace could be had. However, the strategic importance in which the author lays on the “true peace” methodology over “true victory” profoundly impacts the story, and Barlow as a character. Take note: while this has action and military in it, this is less of a military science fiction novel and more of a classic Heinlein novel (Stranger In A Strange Land comes to mind). The author’s work is tremendous here, and shows the skill and prose of a writer far more mature in his years than Torgerson is.

This is also the first time I instantly messaged a writer after completing their debut novel and thanked them for writing the book. Yes, I’ll admit, I had a fanboy moment.

Another must-buy book here.

Grades:

City Beyond Time — A+

The Chaplain’s War — A

 

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Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Spirit Me Away” — Fast, Fun Mystery

Aaron Paul Lazar’s latest mystery in his long-running Gus LeGarde mystery series is SPIRIT ME AWAY. The time is 1969, the place is (mostly) Boston, Gus and his newlywed wife Elsbeth are college music students, and they encounter a strange, yet hauntingly beautiful young woman named Valerie — just Valerie — who’s lost her memory and most of her belongings, and is in need of a family, stat.

Now, Gus and Elsbeth may be young, but they have strong familial instincts. Because of them, they can’t leave her at a hospital and forget about her, as many would . . . besides, Gus has a talent for solving mysteries, and the mystery of just who Valerie is won’t let him go.

So Gus and Elsbeth bring Valerie into their lives, and into their apartment. They feed her, nurture her, and try to figure out who she is and where she came from. They want her to find her family, if she has one; until then, they will be her family.

Besides, it’s not as if they don’t already have a family of sorts around them already. There’s Byron, a black British tenor from the music school, a love ’em and leave ’em type; Lana, a sexy young Latina whose job as a “waitress” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; and Porter, a young Vietnam vet Elspeth works with. The first two are Gus and Elsbeth’s roommates, while Porter seems to be a frequent visitor.

All five of them take a solid interest in Valerie, because she truly needs the help. And over time, they find out about just enough of Valerie’s past to sincerely upset them. Valerie herself is good, but the people who’ve been in her life in the not-so-distant past definitely aren’t. And white slavers have targeted her for an acquisition due to her ethereal beauty, too . . . how will they keep Valerie away from such dangerous people, especially considering the fact that Gus is decidedly nonviolent?

All of this is a great deal of plot to handle. But it doesn’t feel unwieldy thanks to how thoroughly Lazar grounds SPIRIT ME AWAY in reality. First, Gus and Elsbeth’s romance is realistic and earthy — hey, they’re newlyweds! — and gives a very solid sense of who they are. Second, because they’re both “foodies,” the need for comfort food comes into play often. (Never underestimate the power of this, not in books, not in real life.) Third, there truly was a problem with white slavery in the late 1960s in many big cities, Boston among them, partly due to the nature of the times. And fourth, because Gus and Elsbeth already have many friends around them, it truly doesn’t seem like a hardship for them to add one more in Valerie.

So will Valerie find out where she comes from and who she is? Will her nascent romance with Porter bear fruit? And what does Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock) have to do with it all?

I enjoyed SPIRIT ME AWAY quite a bit. There’s a lot of plot here, some wonderfully realized characters, a goodly amount of romance, a whole lot of suspense, and it’s not quite as cozy a mystery as most of the others in the LeGarde mystery series (a mystery with white slavery as one of its components probably couldn’t qualify as a cozy anyway, methinks). But it’s a fast, fun, and furious read with some really good characterization and a number of excellent  musical references.

Bottom line? Whether you’ve read any of the Gus LeGarde series before or not, you should enjoy SPIRIT ME AWAY if you love mysteries — particularly mysteries mixed with a dash or two of romantic suspense.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Lady Blues” — a Warm, Comforting Mystery

Aaron Paul Lazar’s LADY BLUES is the tenth novel in his ongoing series of mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth and music professor Gus LeGarde. These are warm, comforting books full of food and atmosphere, where Gus solves mysteries partly through deduction, partly through his own friendly nature and partly because he knows everyone else in his community. (Note: an earlier book of Lazar’s that did not feature LeGarde, THE SEACREST, was reviewed here.)

The biggest part of the plot of LADY BLUES has to do with a musical mystery. Who is “John Smith,” a man with no past in a local nursing home? Why does he remember a singer named Bella (also nicknamed “Lady Blues”) when nearly all his other memories have flown? And what do his half-remembered snippets of musical knowledge have to do with anything?

The octogenarian man without a past is eventually revealed to be Kip Sterling, a musician who went missing in 1944 during World War II.  Sterling is a standout character you can’t help but root for, especially when you realize he’s taking a new drug to combat his memory loss (perhaps due to Alzheimer’s disease) . . . and the drug, Memorphyl, has actually worked.

But then, a new formulation of the drug makes every patient in the nursing home ill, and all the patients — including Sterling — start to lose their memories again. Then a friendly nurse goes missing after giving Gus samples of both the “old pills” (the older formulation, that worked) and the “new pills” (that don’t). And then, as if that weren’t enough, Sterling himself goes missing, too . . . just after Bella has been found, still alive, and wishes to reunite with him. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

So there’s plenty of plot and drama, though it’s not the in-your-face type . . . and as if that central mystery isn’t enough, there are plenty of other, smaller mysteries for Gus to solve during LADY BLUES as well.

For example, one of the biggest subplots is about a mysterious Korean seamstress named Lily. She worked in her brother’s shop for years, but he watched her like a hawk and she never learned much English. Now, the shop has burned down and her brother is gravely ill, she doesn’t even know where her legal paperwork is, and is at some risk of being deported (before the papers are found).

Why is Lily in America at all? Why didn’t her brother let her mix with other people? And finally, is her attraction to Gus’s friend Siegfried — who’s also the brother of Gus’s deceased first wife — legitimate, or not?

Mind, all of the mysteries will eventually be solved in a way reminiscent of the gentler episodes of the old TV show “Murder, She Wrote.” But plot is not the only reason to read LADY BLUES . . . oh, no. The story itself was fast-paced, well-researched, and interesting. And I appreciated all of the atmospheric touches, including the various dishes Gus makes along the way and the descriptions of a rambunctious, loving extended family.

However, there were some things that bothered me about LADY BLUES, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out.

First, at least two of the mysteries were very easily solved. I would’ve preferred a few more red herrings to throw me off the scent a bit.

Second, I also would’ve preferred a bit more obvious frustration in a few spots, such as when Sterling goes missing. Considering Gus has taken to Sterling in a big way, it didn’t make much sense that Gus was able to be so serene about the poor old gentleman being missing after the drugs that had brought back his memory were switched.

Third, I had a hard time believing that no one in Gus’s family — save his put-upon housekeeper, that is — ever gets angry or says cross words to another. (Even the housekeeper immediately apologized, the one time she snapped.) That is not realistic, even in a cozy mystery, and it snapped me out of the reader’s trance on more than one occasion.

Bottom line? LADY BLUES is an intelligent, warm cozy mystery with atmosphere galore and a hero to root for in Gus LeGarde. It’s a fun, fast read and I enjoyed it immensely. But the lack of even the most minor family arguments in a big, boisterous family did not seem plausible.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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