A riveting true crime story that vividly recounts the birth of modern forensics.
At the end of the nineteenth century, serial murderer Joseph Vacher, known and feared as “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” terrorized the French countryside. He eluded authorities for years—until he ran up against prosecutor Emile Fourquet and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the era’s most renowned criminologist. The two men—intelligent and bold—typified the Belle Époque, a period of immense scientific achievement and fascination with science’s promise to reveal the secrets of the human condition.
With high drama and stunning detail, Douglas Starr revisits Vacher’s infamous crime wave, interweaving the story of how Lacassagne and his colleagues were developing forensic science as we know it. We see one of the earliest uses of criminal profiling, as Fourquet painstakingly collects eyewitness accounts and constructs a map of Vacher’s crimes. We follow the tense and exciting events leading to the murderer’s arrest. And we witness the twists and turns of the trial, celebrated in its day. In an attempt to disprove Vacher’s defense by reason of insanity, Fourquet recruits Lacassagne, who in the previous decades had revolutionized criminal science by refining the use of blood-spatter evidence, systematizing the autopsy, and doing groundbreaking research in psychology. Lacassagne’s efforts lead to a gripping courtroom denouement.
The Killer of Little Shepherds is an important contribution to the history of criminal justice, impressively researched and thrillingly told.
Edgar Allan Poe's great detective, Auguste Dupin, combined with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos? I had to read this novel. And I'm glad I did.
Stableford's novel, which is a first-person account by Dupin's friend, describes the unfolding mystery of the "Cthulhu Encryption," an inscription in the flesh of a dying mental patient who appears to be a prostitute but believes herself to be the legendary Isolde Leonys (of Tristan and Isolde fame). What follows is a mystery-adventure that doubles as a cultural literacy test, invoking not only knowledge of Poe and Lovecraft, but also the history of the 16th-century English occultist and medium Edward Kelley (also known as Edward Talbot) and his alchemist associate John Dee, the so-called "immortal German alchemist" the Comte de Saint-Germain of the 18th century, and both Arthurian romance and Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Did I mention there were pirates, too?
I didn't realize this was part of a series (which includes The Mad Trist, The Quintessence of August, and Valdemar's Daughter) when I first listened to the book, but I think now I may have to read the others.
Derek Perkins's narration occasionally suffers from "accent drift," and his pronunciation of Cthulhu is a bit tortured, but on the whole he offers a solid reading.
What I appreciated most was Stableford's adept handling of Victorian Gothic language and description, as well as the great texture and literacy of his descriptions.
Here is an example:
"I'm surely superfluous to requirements, and far too vulnerable to bad dreams."
"Never superfluous, my friend," he said, "and not as vulnerable as you imagine."
I was flattered by the compliment. "And we have Chapelain too," I added. "All for one and one for all - like the three musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis."
"More like Ethos, Pathos and Logos," he muttered, drawing his cloak around him to protect him from a sudden gust of wind. He had named the three components of classical rhetoric, from which Dumas had presumably derived two of his musketeers' names, but not the third. Chapelain, I presumed, was Ethos or Athos, and I was Pathos or Porthos. I hoped that the adventure confronting us was one in which a Logos would, after all, prove more useful than an Aramis.
I loved Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, and I was eager to devoir her next work. What Setterfield has produced here is, in my opinion, a work less enjoyable to read and yet similarly well worth reading.
Let me explain.
This is not a mystery in any sense, but rather a classic Gothic novel, working out its dark message with all the unflinching inevitability of works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. From the moment 11-year-old William Bellman pointlessly kills a young rook with his slingshot, the reader knows things will go badly for him. As he labors to build his adult life -- with loving wife, healthy children, and thriving business -- the reader realizes he will rise to heights only to fall. Not once was I surprised at what befell Bellman. That is not necessarily a criticism. We don't watch the proverbial train wreck because we think the tracks will mysteriously reroute themselves at the last minute; we watch the proverbial train wreck for the edifying and horrifying majesty of the collision.
For that matter, there is something hauntingly reassuring in the idea -- even as it damns all of us -- that actions, however small and thoughtless, have consequences.
Just as, in the proverbial train wreck, watching the long lead-up to the tragedy has a certain oppressive inevitability that frustrates and wears at the nerves, so too does the bulk of Bellman and Black. This is why, despite Setterfield's gorgeous prose, it is not an enjoyable read. Once the reader completes the work and gains a bit of distance, though, it comes into full focus.
Drawing from folklore and legend about rooks, Setterfield stresses thought and memory as the two most terrible costs of Bellman's childhood act of murder: for the last long portion of his life, Bellman thinks only of death as he painstakingly builds Bellman & Black's to be London's premiere mourning emporium; he loses all memory of the happy home he knew with his family and the satisfying work he accomplished at the mill. His daughter, his sole remaining tie to humanity, grows to adulthood without his attention or awareness.
Setterfield expertly twines the narrative around different aspects of the mysterious, wise, and vengeful rook, using the various collective nouns for the birds -- a parish of rooks, a clamor of rooks, an unkindness of rooks, a parliament of rooks, and ultimately a storytelling of rooks -- as both an underlying theme of and a commentary on various sections of the story. The chilling final note of the book, that we short-lived and fallible humans are an entertainment, puts Bellman and his fall in proper context from a rook's perspective.
I appreciate Setterfield's artistry in the organization and symbolic depth of her tale, as well as her admirable restraint in the supernatural aspects of the story. If you're looking to fall in love with charming characters or be caught up breathlessly in an unfolding mystery, look elsewhere. But for a sobering, bleak, and carefully crafted tale about the human condition written in the great Gothic tradition, you need look no further.
Jack Davenport provided a solid narration for this novel.
This short pastiche offers a perfectly serviceable mystery and a very familiar setting. The descriptions (of the characters, of 221B Baker Street, of Holmes's method) are all taken straight from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle. I couldn't help but think there was little "value added," however; the work is so brief that the original characters get little development, and we are treated to no deeper insights or glimpses into the Holmes-Watson dynamic, which feels very static.
It's solid enough, but I was left wanting much more. To my mind, the middling-sort of pastiches are mimicry, but the best make contributions to the Holmesian conversation. This never rose above the former.
The narrator did little to evoke the "Victorian British" sound or to distinguish the voices of different characters from one another.
This first-in-a-series novel is Ramez Naam's fiction follow-up to his nonfiction works such as More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (in which he argues that one day we will view genetic modification and other post-human advances as commonplace). It's fitting, then, that in this novel he portrays a recognizable near-future (beginning in 2040) in which post-humans are a reality. This is definitely a dystopia, but it shows none of the tired technophobia so rampant in the genre. The science isn't the cause of evil; the regimes that seek to limit it are.
In Nexus -- as in the real world -- science is amoral, capable of being greatly used and abused. Naam's larger point is that change will happen, and governments are not only unjust but also unrealistic when they act to suppress it. The best case scenario -- that is, the most innovative, helpful, and exciting uses of technology, including the nano-drug described in this novel -- will only arise in an environment of freedom.
His suggestion that the United States would be dreadfully behind the global curve on allowing such freedom is, I fear, not implausible.
I'm not a great fan of fast-paced action-thrillers that rely on explosions and fight sequences to get from Point A to Point B. That said, Naam's writing is solid enough for this genre, and I found the action less eyeroll-worthy than I could have, thanks to the compelling core of ideas at the heart of this work. Naam never loses sight of the Big Picture, and it's a very important one.
The narration is mostly acceptable. Sometimes the Asian characters sound a bit like racial clichés, however, which is off-putting, and the most "badass" (for lack of a better word) character sounds like a cartoon. A word of warning: the sequel is performed by another narrator, and he pronounces some of the names of main characters completely differently. That does not make for a smooth listening experience transitioning from one book to the next!
I'll let Nexus character Ilyana Alexander's final recorded message speak for this novel:
"By drawing a box around humanity, those in power are telling each of us what we can and can't do with our minds, with our bodies, and in the interests of our children. They're saying that they're smarter than we are, that we need their protection from ourselves.
"Needless to say, I disagree....
"The laws that limit human capabilities are exercises in control. They stem from fear -- fear of the future, fear of change, fear of people who might be different than we are, who might make themselves into something new. The result of that fear is the corrosion of our liberties, the corrosion of our right to determine our own futures, to chart our own destinies, to do the best we can for our children.
"That corrosion has consequences. If you're watching this, it's had consequences for me."
The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is a maddeningly fascinating work. It was reportedly discovered in 2008 in the possessions left to his heirs by S.G. Hulme-Beaman, a children's author and illustrator best known as the creator of the Toytown stories and their characters (including Larry the Lamb) who died in 1932. The manuscript is attributed to "James Carnac," who professes to be the real Jack The Ripper writing about his gruesome exploits 40 years after the fact. The book is made up of four parts: 1) Introductory notes apparently made by S.G. Hulme-Beaman, which explain how he came upon the manuscript while acting as executor of Carnac's estate, but failed to follow Carnac's directions to send the manuscript to a publishing house due to its disturbing and distasteful subject matter; 2) the first two sections of the narrative, which relate the story of Carnac's young life (including his father's murder of his mother and subsequent suicide) and Whitechapel years (including the Ripper slayings); 3) the third section of the narrative, produced on a different typewriter than the first two sections and written in a different, more "fictional" voice, bringing Carnac's story to an all-too-neat end; and 4) commentary by Alan Hicken and respected Ripperologist Paul Begg.
What is this book, exactly? Several possibilities exist. It might represent Hulme-Beaman's attempt at a "true crime"-inspired novel, but this seems unlikely due to both the man's workload and his personality. It might be a novel by another author that came into the possession of Hulme-Beaman. (There is no record that James Carnac ever existed.) It might be a genuine autobiography of Jack the Ripper, and either the author's name is actually a pseudonym or somehow the historical James Carnac managed to live and die without creating a paper trail. Or perhaps it is a modern-day hoax purporting to be a manuscript from the late 1920s.
I went into this with the intention of reading it much like The Lodger (1913), an early twentieth-century novel by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes, a woman who lived through the Autumn of Terror and evoked it well in her story. As such a work of fiction, The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is effective. Carnac's fascination with blood, his knowledge of his father's act of murder/suicide, his curiosity about his French ancestors' roles as executioners, and his own strange (and resisted) compulsion to kill his kind uncle set the stage well for the horrors to come.
The descriptions of his behavior as Jack the Ripper offer the most interest. Unlike most works and speculations of the time, which attributed to the Ripper complicated motives (religious fanaticism, a personal vendetta against women, a desire to undermine the police force and law in general), Carnac comes across much in the way we understand modern psychopaths today. He killed because he liked killing, and he got away with his crimes because he was smart enough to choose his victims carefully. His dark, wry sense of humor is both startling and convincing. What is more, the end of the Ripper's murderous spree has a believable justification: Carnac was badly injured in an accident with a carriage (while crossing the street to get to a paper detailing his latest crime), losing both his leg and his mobility.
What I find most fascinating about the book is how it follows and deviates from known facts about the murders. Carnac admits that he had kept scrapbooks of media coverage of the crimes, and the similarity between some of his narrative and contemporary newspaper accounts can be explained by the fact that, after forty years, he returned to his clippings to remind himself of particulars. That said, he also deviates in some critical ways from widely-reported details -- and, in one case, provides a detail only known to have been reported in one account published in New York -- which certainly creates the effect of firsthand knowledge.
The odd ending, with its vastly different tone -- and, seemingly, purpose -- is also a mystery unto itself.
It's interesting to speculate on the real nature of this work. I am not suggesting that I was persuaded that Carnac existed or that he was the Ripper, but I was impressed by the psychological insight of the text and the historical mysteries it provides.
Burial Rites is the fictionalized account of a real woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who on 12 January, 1830, became the last individual to be executed in Iceland. The prisoner and convicted murderess was placed in the home of local official Jón Jónsson while awaiting her fate. The novel follows her days as she works alongside Jónsson and his family and talks with Tóti, the young assistant priest who is charged with returning her to God's grace. Slowly her story emerges to contradict and complicate the tales told about her and her role in the violent murder of her former master.
Hannah Kent's ten years of research produced this Kent "speculative biography," which she describes as her "dark love letter to Iceland." It is nuanced and evocative, claustrophobic and melancholy, and utterly engrossing. Kent draws an intimate portrait of Icelandic culture of the early nineteenth century (including not only the "usual suspects" such as the Sagas and Christianity and the clash between education and superstition, but also well-informed insights on the plight of orphans and paupers and servants, and the power of rumor and speculation in a reputation-based society). The psychological depth and elegant prose of this work are impressive (as is Morven Christie's expert narration). I will be looking for more from Kent.
This 1971 novel won the Nebula Award and was nominated for the Hugo, but I have to confess I found it to be quite underwhelming.
Robert Silverberg offers a first-person memoir of a future human (descended from Earthlings) on a far distant planet. In his society words like "I" and "me" are considered obscenities. Burdening others with one's individuality, sharing one's self with them, is held to be a sin that should be limited whenever possible. When he meets a man from Earth with a rare and illegal drug that allows individuals to fuse their consciousnesses, the protagonist questions and ultimately rebels against his culture's taboos, and he pays the price for his heresy.
The novel has problems. First, the world-building seems poorly thought out. If individuality and personal pride and sharing are evil -- if people must deflect attention from self by saying "one" instead of "I" or "me" -- why do they have personal names and take pleasure in having namesakes, for instance? Over and over again, when inconsistencies reared their heads, it occurred to me that Yevgeny Zamyatin (We) and George Orwell (1984) offered far more sophisticated explorations of how the state or other tyrannical institutions may control language and how language in turn affects identity and self-perception, and they did it half a century before Silverberg wrote this.
Second, for the main character's "time of changes" to have the proper impact, the reader should empathize with him in some way and appreciate the depth and drama of his awakening and transformation. Instead, he's about as unsympathetic as they come: flat, uninspiring, oddly two-dimensional, and at times genuinely annoying. (I recognize there was a literary reason for his rambling discussions of his impressive genital size and premature ejaculation issues, but I won't miss them, that's for certain.)
Third, the novel comes across as dated in a way that novels a century older or more do not because of Silverberg's handling of the consciousness-expanding drug. It bears all the hallmarks of a late-sixties/early-seventies flirtation with the counterculture -- from a safe distance. Karin Boye's depiction of a "sharing" drug in 1940's Kallocain is far more nuanced; for that matter, Robert Heinlein's exploration of the counterculture in Stranger in a Strange Land (published ten years before A Time of Changes) is far more challenging.
In short, if I can be forgiven for collapsing my review into LOLcat speech, I see what Silverberg's doing there, but he's doing it wrong. Or, to be more precise, everything this novel attempts has been done better elsewhere by others.
Tom Parker's narration was perfectly solid. My negative review is not his fault!
Seven for a Secret picks up six months after Gods of Gotham, continuing the story of young Timothy Wilde, the sole detective of the "copper stars," the newly-formed New York City Police. Many of the social concerns and gritty realities of New York City first addressed in Gods of Gotham get deeper exploration here, including the graft and corruption behind Tammany Hall, the ethnic tensions surrounding the Irish question, the helplessness of children in a city run by and for adults, and the tenuous nature of the fledgling police force, threatened from without and within by politics and petty hatreds.
At the heart of this novel is the omnipresent threat of "blackbirders," who specialized in kidnapping blacks, whether free citizens or runaway slaves, and sending them to a life of enslavement in the South. When a young biracial woman rushes into Wilde's office and explains that her family has been stolen, the search and the mystery begins.
Just as The Gods of Gotham turned the spotlight on the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices of the time, Seven for a Secret considers the constant threat that the institution of slavery posed to black Americans, including those in so-called "free" states, and the bigotry built into the U.S. and New York systems. Lyndsay Faye opens every chapter with a poignant and telling quotation from the period that drives her message home.
The recurring characters such as Wilde's "party boss" brother Valentine, landlady Mrs. Boehm, and friend Julius get further development ("Gentle Jim" nearly stole the show), and the new characters are deeply compelling. New York City itself remains the central figure in the story, and Faye's well-researched and piercing gaze lays it open for the reader.
Steven Boyer's able narration lets the prose shine through.
I'm giving this four stars rather than five, because Timothy Wilde's character rang less true for me in this book than in the first. He seems to have forgotten much of his street savvy, and he repeatedly comes across as far too naive for a man who grew up with only a brother for a parent and then tended bar for years. His confusion and bewilderment serves the reader well -- surely this isn't how things are done? oh, so it is -- but it seems odd in the man who was so capable (if in over his head) in the first novel and so at home in his city.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy this novel, because I did, quite thoroughly. I'll be waiting for the next book in this series with anticipation.
This is a delightful romp in which the father of the house, who takes rather a long time in fetching milk for his children's morning cereal at the corner shop, explains his tardiness with a story of an adventure -- his adventure and the milk's. He claims that he (and the milk) were abducted by aliens, captured by pirates, rescued by a dinosaur scientist in a hot-air balloon, threatened by "wumpires," almost sacrificed by jungle villagers to appease their god, and taken forward and backward in time. The milk plays a starring role, as you might expect.
The stories within the larger narrative are appropriately funny, scary, and gross for children's tastes, but older listeners will appreciate the layered humor (including friendly pokes at both My Little Pony and the Twilight series, and mention of "great old dinosaur songs" such as "Don't Go Down to the Tar Pits, Dear, Because I'm Getting Stuck On You").
Neil Gaiman's narration is like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every possible way.
This is not a classic, perhaps, but it's a great deal of fun.
Effortless is perhaps the best word I can use to describe Kage Baker's prose. The act of reading Baker's work, too, is effortless. Her ideas are multilayered and challenging, her references sly and knowledgeable, but falling into her world and her vision takes no work whatsoever. She opens the door, and I'm there. I do admire and miss her singular talent.
She had me at this early description: ""He had spent most of his adult life in Hospital and a good bit of his childhood, too, ever since (having at the age of ten been caught reading a story by Edgar Allan Poe) he had been diagnosed as Eccentric."
The "Empress of Mars" title works in three ways: 1) it refers to the Queen of England (who technically rules Mars); 2) it's the name of the only bar on the planet, "Empress of Mars"; and 3) it's the well-deserved description of Mary Griffith, the owner of the bar. Terraforming isn't going well on Mars, and Griffith's bar resembles nothing so much as the Island of Misfit toys. That makes it the perfect place to launch and fight for a new future for the planet.
Baker's work evokes the best of Burroughs and Heinlein and Bradbury -- and not a little of Joss Whedon's take on the space western, for that matter -- with a decidedly Anglophilic twist. Lovers of classic science fiction, adventure, and subtle social commentary will find much to enjoy here.
Although this technically takes place within the universe of Baker's Company series, it stands very well on its own.
Nicola Barber's narrator is a delight!
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