#REVIEW: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall

I first encountered this book through Twitter, and I’ve completely lost track of how; I’m not even sure if it was specifically recommended to me or whether I just happened across someone being enthusiastic about it. At any rate, I’m mad at everyone else who has read it. Why? Because all of you should have recommended this book to me– yes, to me specifically, whether you know who the hell I am or not– because I’m pretty sure this book was written for me and me alone.

This is another “tell you the premise, and then I’m done” sort of book. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, starring a bisexual, amoral sorceress named Shaharazad Haas in the Holmes role and a transexual gay man(*) named John Wyndham in the role of Watson. The book starts off as a clear homage to A Study in Scarlet, as Wyndham arrives in the city of Khelathra-Ven as a wounded veteran of a war in another dimension, in need of a job and housing, and ends up answering an ad for a place at 221B Martyrs Lane, where he meets Haas.

Who immediately attempts to shoot him.

You may have noticed the word sorceress. Wyndham is very Victorian British in his comportment and his morals, and Alexis Hall’s ability to mimic the writing style of the Holmes stories is flat-out uncanny, but the rest of the book is pure eldritch horror, where I want to compare it to Lovecraft but the simple fact is that I think Alexis Hall out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. He does forbidden knowledge Man is not meant to taste very, very well, and Haas might be the single most memorable practitioner of magic I’ve ever encountered. They end up in Carcosa for a while. There are byakhees. And vampires. And Wyndham fights a shark. Their landlady is an intelligent swarm of bees inhabiting a corpse. Well, two, actually, as one rots away enough to become useless over the course of the book and she needs to acquire another.

It’s absolutely delicious.

So, yeah, while it goes without saying that this book gets one of my highest recommendations; I will admit I have some slight criticisms of the overall structure of the story. Affair starts off with five suspects for a blackmail and then has basically five sub-quests where people are progressively ruled out; it sounds weird to both say that I loved a book and that it could have been a bit shorter, but any time you build in that structure where there are Five Things to Be Accomplished, you end up with a book that sort of has the feel of a video game and by the end of it the reader kind of wants to get to the point. I combatted this by reading the book somewhat more slowly than I might have expected from something I was enjoying as much as I was; I actually dragged this one out a bit rather than devouring it at a sitting, which is my normal move.

But … God, you need to read this. I think right now it’s planned as a one-shot, which is a damned shame if it’s true, because (much like Watson) Wyndham is writing this story from the perspective of twenty years in the future, when Haas is actually dead, and there are tons of references to other mysteries and other adventures. I want to read these stories; I have got to have more of Shaharazad Haas in my life, because she is utterly fascinating as a character. Another thing I haven’t mentioned is the humor; there’s more than a little of Douglas Adams’ DNA in this book. In fact, I took this picture and sent it to a friend of mine who I was pitching the book for, and I might as well include it here as a quote:

Wyndham’s unwillingness to swear or repeat profanity in the text of the story, and his squeamishness around women, and his frequent asides to his editor are all fantastically dry humor, and I laughed out loud several times while reading the book, once loud enough that my son emerged from another room to ask me what was so funny. The boy notices nothing, so this is quite an achievement.

Anyway, yeah, you want this one. Go pick it up.

(*) I actually need to have a conversation with someone about the trans angle, because, I admit, I completely missed it on my first read, and upon seeing some references to it on Goodreads went back and reread the first chapter, where a single sentence refers to Wyndham “becoming himself for the first time,” or something very similar. I don’t think I missed a ton of references, and that sentence strikes me as something that’s going to have immediate salience for a trans reader that it might not for a cisgendered one. Then again, I read Gideon the Ninth twice and Harrowhark the Ninth once before realizing that Harrowhark was Harrowhark and not Harrowhawk, so occasionally I am absolutely a blinkered idiot.

In which I finished two books yesterday

I never got around to writing a post yesterday, at least partially because I spent damn near the entire day with a book in my hand. First off: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, which I started a few days ago and finished the last 200 pages or so of yesterday. I’ve already reviewed the first book in this series (I don’t know if there are more planned; they are stand-alone enough that there doesn’t have to be, but sci-fi and fantasy writers tend to think in terms of trilogies or longer, so…) and Children of Ruin is every bit as strong of an effort as the first book. I read a lot, y’all know that, as this year the blog has really morphed into a book review site, and if there is another author out there who writes genuinely alien cultures better than Adrian Tchaikovsky does I’m going to need you to let me know who they are right now. As it is, the guy’s got another book on my shelf and a ten-book series that I’ve never read and another trilogy, so I’ve got enough books by him out there to last me a while, and believe me, I’ll be getting to them. This book adds two different alien species, one an octopus-based intelligence and the other … well, there’s another, and I feel like discussing it is a spoiler, to the human and spider cultures from Children of Time, and it’s amazing how differently each of them feel. He’s got a great knack for the little stuff, and I’m glad that I sort of cheat with my end-of-year list and put sequels and main books on the same spot on the list, because otherwise that job would be even harder than it’s going to be already.

(An example: at one point one of the octopodes makes reference to 6/8 as a fraction. At first the math teacher in me was mildly annoyed by the fact that he didn’t reduce the fraction, and then it hit me– the damn things have eight legs, so of course they use base-8 mathematics. He could have just used percentages and left this out, but he didn’t. That kind of thing.)

Anyway, if for some reason you haven’t read this series yet, get on it.

Meanwhile, don’t ever tell me that Twitter doesn’t sell books. I don’t know off the top of my head how long Daniel M. Ford and I have been mutual follows, but it’s been a while, and for some reason one of his tweets caught me at the exact right moment a few weeks ago and I ordered one of his books. Now, this is always a tricky thing for authors, and I think most of us have learned that even if we find out that a fellow writer has ordered one of our books, you never, ever ask if they’ve read it yet or what they thought. I absolutely hate it when I don’t like the books of writers I know, particularly indie writers (Dan writes for an independent publishing house, but I don’t know that he’d style himself an “indie author,” at least not the same way I do) and there’s always some trepidation whenever I start to read the book because of that, especially since I record everything I read on Goodreads and people tend to notice. Another issue in this case was that the book is a detective/procedural mystery, a genre I dabble in from time to time but am not generally a huge fan of.

I, uh, read the book in a single sitting, starting it around 8:30 last night and finishing it just after midnight, and I’ve already preordered the sequel and ordered a copy of the first book of his fantasy Paladin trilogy. So, yeah, I guess I liked it. The real victory here is the main character himself, Jack Dixon, who lives on a houseboat and thinks apples and protein-infused peanut butter measured precisely by the tablespoon counts as a meal, and yet who somehow felt like a real person who I knew within a chapter or two of the start of the book. I am typically more story-focused than character-focused as a reader, but Jack’s persona is compelling and clearly-drawn enough that I want to know more about him. Ford’s lean-and-clean, no-frills prose is perfectly suited to writing a detective novel, too; it’ll be really interesting to see how he handles a fantasy novel, which tend a bit more toward the flowery. My only gripe is that the ending felt a bit abrupt to me– the actual mystery is solved around the 80% mark and the end of the book is more like a coda and setup for the next book than anything else, but as there is another book coming it’s not as big of a weakness as it might be as a pure standalone.

So, yeah. ‘Twas a good day for reading yesterday.

I been readin’: some reviewlets

4169sZXxF0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I spent a lot of time reading this weekend, which is the best way to spend a weekend; I managed to read two complete books cover to cover basically before even getting into the shower yesterday, and knocked out another one this afternoon.  I know I keep saying it, but it’s nice not working weekends.  I didn’t even put my watch on today!  That’s how awesome this weekend has been.

At any rate, seeing as how I really enjoyed all four of the books I’ve finished, but I don’t want to write four full book review posts, y’all get some quick reviewlets instead of a solid week of book posts.

We’ll start with Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant, who is also Seanan McGuire.  I’m a big goddamn fan; I know I’ve talked about her under both pen names around here repeatedly, so I’ll cut to the chase on this one: it’s her best book.  ITDD is kind of a book designed to push my buttons in a lot of ways; all of the characters are scientists (and damn near all of them are women scientists, which is even better) and the book is a great mix of research-intensive oceanographic geekery, cryptid speculation, and gut-wrenching horror.  It takes a lot for a book to scare me, to the point where I can only recall praising one book in the past for how scary it is.  This is right up there.  It’s also insanely movie-friendly.   I want to see this movie on the big screen so bad I can taste it, and some Hollywood bastard needs to shovel a ton of money at Seanan and get this on screen now.

410o6yuEykL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_ My love for Tor.com’s novella line continues to grow with every book they release.  I have damn near an entire shelf of them by now, and I’m at the point where I’m putting them on my Amazon wish list the second I find out about them regardless of who the author is or the subject matter.  That said, P. Djèli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums is a perfect exemplar of what I love about the line: an author I’ve never heard of (I have found so many good authors through these novellas!) writing an alt-history featuring characters that are generally underrepresented in genre literature.  In this case, the book is set in an antebellum, independent New Orleans, in an America that is split into at least three or four different factions, with airships and steampunk and, oh, right, orisha magic.  The main character, a young girl named Creeper, is possessed by Oya, an African god of wind and storms, and occasionally is able to manifest magic powers.

Oh, and there are nuns who are basically spymasters, which kinda rocks.

51UnBCky8WL._AC_US436_QL65_I have actually already read most of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries, but it’s been a really long time and I’ve been slowly working my way through his books over the course of this year.  This is the third one I’ve read and the second of the Rawlins mysteries.  It’s weird; the last time I read a lot of Mosley was in college, and for years I’ve been telling people that he was an author where I was really fond of his sentences and paragraphs but that I didn’t necessarily love his books.

College Luther was kinda dumb, I guess.  Or he was half right, at least, since Mosley remains a brilliant craftsman as far as the beauty of his writing goes, but I really wasn’t giving his skills with plot and story enough credit.  I’ve been enjoying these books much more on the second pass-through than I did when I first read them, and even back then I recognized how good the guy was.  There will be more Mosley to come this year, that’s for sure.

81LZP9WQ7yL-1I encountered Ismail Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche through Twitter, and specifically through my friend Anne Leonard, who Tweeted out a link to this New York Times profile of the book.  It caught my interest as well, and when Barnes and Noble actually had the damn thing when we popped in on Saturday I took it as a sign and bought it.  Kadare’s book is the one I’m most conflicted about out of everything I read this weekend, mostly because I feel like I didn’t quite get everything that was going on: the book was written in 1978, and only recently translated into English, and while it’s supposedly about the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, it’s actually about Albania in the 1970s.  Albania in the 1970s was a client state of Russia and controlled by a dictator.  This is therefore not only literally translated from the Albanian it was written in, but is metaphorically complicated as well; the book demands to be read on a couple of different levels and the simple fact is that I’m not in possession of the necessary background knowledge (I just told you everything I know about Albania) to be able to read the book with the understanding and background knowledge that it probably deserves.  I four-starred it on Goodreads, but it could have been a five and it might end up in my 10-best list at the end of the year anyway.  It’s just kind of a rough book to form a snap opinion on.

What’s it about?  Severed heads.

Just trust me.  🙂


20821043.jpgI have, I think, read all of Tana French’s books, or at least I’ve read all of her Dublin Mystery Squad books, and if I find out she’s got novels outside of that series I’ll be picking them up with a quickness.  The series is interesting; each book follows a different detective in the Murder division of the Dublin police force across a single case, frequently introducing the protagonist of the next book along the way.  Folks keep showing up, of course, and one of the key witnesses in this book is the daughter of the protagonist of the third book in the series.

THE SECRET PLACE is set at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Dublin, and the entire book takes place across a single day, when a clue from a cold case ends up on Detective Stephen Moran’s desk.  Moran takes the evidence to the investigating detective on the Murder squad and the story heads off from there.

It’s a murder mystery, of course, so I’m not going to get into details, but what fascinated me about this book is that the detectives spend the day interrogating high school girls about a murder that took place on the school’s grounds the year before.  There are eight different kids in two separate cliques that occupy the bulk of the book’s attention, and as a teacher who has spent a lot of time having to question young women about how some particular incident of bullying or meanness or boyfriend-stealing went down, I can say with some degree of authority that French captures the shifting alliances and web of lies one can run into in these circumstances perfectly.  I read probably the last 300 pages of this in two big gulps last night and this morning because I didn’t want to put the book down.  All of French’s previous books have been good– there’s a reason I’ve kept buying them– but this one upgrades her to “buy in hardback” status, I think.

(The other thing, by the way, is that one of the books rattling around in my head is a murder mystery– there’s a sci-fi twist to it, of course, this being me, but I was trying to read this as a writer too, to try and dissect how she does things.  The book has convinced me that I should never try to write a mystery because this is too goddamned good and I can’t touch it.  Frustrating to me, great for French.)

At any rate, this is the first entry on the shortlist for 2016’s best new reads.  You should check it out.

Oh, one more thing

…what exactly might be the impetus for doing a Google search for “piss for big jet tumblr,” and do I actually want to know the answer to that question?

There’s a first-page hit to my blog if you do that, by the way.