Buy, Borrow, Bypass: August 5, 2013

In which my bookish expectations are exceeded (in two cases), met (in one), or wow-seriously-disappointed (in another):


Cameron Winter at Deaths HotelWinter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron (Sourcebooks, August 6)

To be honest, I hadn’t expected too much from this book, beyond the obvious fun of its conceit: a murder mystery starring Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, Louisa. But I was wrong. Very wrong. Within pages, Louisa was admiring her own pubic hair, Arthur had exited the stage, and I realized I was reading a very different book than I’d anticipated. And I was thrilled by it. The basic story is this: Arthur and Louisa arrive in New York in 1896, Arthur heads off on a lecture tour across the U.S. while Louisa, ankle sprained, stays put and investigates a series of gruesome murders. It ends up, though, being so much more than that. It’s a vivid portrayal of a woman straining against misogyny, both violently extreme (vicious killings) and cruelly quotidian (an asshole of a husband). As a setting for these struggles, Cameron has crafted a richly detailed New York packed with historical figures, queer characters, corrupt cops, upstairs-downstairs tensions, ambitious journalists, and more. In the end, the novel is surprisingly affecting—I was actually pretty messed up by the fate of one character, and that almost never happens to me—and the writing is quite lovely.

Verdict: You’ll think you should borrow it, but you should really buy it.


The Last PolicemanThe Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Like Winter at Death’s Hotel, this book surprised me hardcore. I was expecting something good, certainly—it won an Edgar, after all. But I wasn’t expecting a book this wonderfully wrought, this creative and melancholy and human. Henry Palace is a detective, investigating a murder (or was it a suicide?), which all seems pretty par for the course. Except that in six months the world will end when an asteroid, Maia, plows into Earth. The mystery unfolds, with touches both noir and heartfelt, in a crumbling community reckoning with imminent death. The book confronts heavy, difficult questions—What does obligation mean when there’s no future? How do you live what time you have left?—but always through the exhausted eyes of a protagonist both no-nonsense and deep, deep, deep in denial. The book is painful and lovely. The second installment in the trilogy, Countdown City, came out in July, so here’s your chance to read from the beginning before time runs out. (What? I needed some sort of impending-apocalypse reference, and it’s not my fault that this one sucks.)

Verdict: Buy it and Countdown City so you can read them in a row like I should have done. Learn from my mistakes, people!


Of Dice and MenOf Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt (Scribner, August 20)

I’ve come late to geekery, and I haven’t been terribly thorough about it. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, for example, but I loved every moment of D&D-obsessed Ready Player One (and I’ve played two rounds of Magic: The Gathering, so there). I expected Of Dice and Men to entertain me while catching me up on the geekiness I missed in my childhood—and I was very pleasantly correct. With its mix of personal stories and jet-setting reporting, Of Dice and Men is like a more personal, less grim, geekier version of Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis’s fantastic book about the weirdos who play tournament Scrabble. Like Fatsis, Ewalt is skilled at taking the reader (even the uninitiated reader) into the heart of gameplay while using particular moments to zoom out to consider the bigger picture. Traveling to Japan during a human rebellion against their vampire overlords to a war game convention (I’ll let you figure out which of those happens within D&D and which IRL), and beyond, Ewalt’s book offers a rolicking guide to the surprisingly awesome—and influential—world of Dungeons & Dragons.

Verdict: Buy


Bones of ParisThe Bones of Paris by Laurie King (Bantam, September 10)

I find it a bit gutting to say, but I really didn’t like this book. I expected to like it. Paris in the 1920s! Suspense! Laurie King! I loved her Mary Russell series, which deftly combined historical and fictional people in a rich and satisfying world. I found them clever and fun and well-written. I found Bones of Paris, alas, to be none of those things. The writing seems off, for one thing, like a rough draft in desperate need of smoothing and clarification. The historical setting is pretty clunky, too, with recognizable names (Picasso, Hemingway, Man Ray) and movements (Surrealism, Dada) standing in for a fully-developed fictional world. I like the idea of reading a book set in 1920s Paris, but in this case I felt like I was wandering around a diorama someone made for French class: “This is what Paris was like during the Jazz Age, and these are the cardboard famous people you would have found there!” And then, too, there are the strange leaps necessary make the plot fit together. At one point, a private investigator wonders to himself how a conversation about a missing girl ended up being about serial killing. I wondered the same thing about the novel.

Verdict: Bypass and pick up King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, instead. It’s awesome.


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