Racing the Devil, by Charles Todd

Racing the Devil is the nineteenth book in the Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery Series and a tantalizing read. Like many previous Rutledge Mysteries, in Race with the Devil, the Inspector chases after a mass murderer who attacks anyone who obstructs his or her dark ambitions. Targets include Rutledge.

THE PLOT

Seven British Army officers pledge to meet in Paris, a year after the eventual conclusion of the Great War. The five who survive the trenches find that their battles continue after the Armistice. Someone, perhaps one of the five, tries to kill the others.

A year after the Paris reunion, a motorcar belonging to one of the five crashes in a Sussex village near the lime cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, killing the driver. The local constable calls “The Yard” for assistance. Enter, Inspector Rutledge.

The novel’s subtext speaks of the wreckage left in the wake of war—depopulation, especially among the best and brightest of the young men; grotesque physical and emotional wounds among the survivors, and the remains of their families; and the rusting remnant of the nation’s infrastructure. So many horses die in the war that unemployed blacksmiths turn their smithies into automobile repair shops—a salient detail in a story focused on cars and “accidents.”

Rutledge fans will notice a diminished role for Hamish Macleod. Hamish stars in his own, recent short story: The Piper, but his scarcity may say more about Rutledge’s long-term health than anything else.

THE SERIES

Charles Todd offers his readers, in addition to a tense, absorbing mystery, a travelogue of Southeast England, circa 1920, a prose rich in imagery, and period references. The reader would be wise to consult a detailed roadmap of the United Kingdom to follow the action. Online searches for images of the local landscape and geological features can add perspective.

Todd’s time machine douses readers with frequent rain, guides them through the tents and booths of market days, feeds them sandwiches, cakes, and pub fare, and nearly drowns them in tea, whiskey, port, and the ever-looming pint. Todd reanimates regional traditions and institutions such as the town constable. Rutledge encounters an assortment of local policemen and learns the value of those who have served long and well. They know everyone in and everything that happens on their patch. Then, there are the others who guard their turf and milk it for any benefit it may bring to themselves.

A master craftsman, Charles Todd can be counted on to ratchet up the level of suspense and conflict. He leads his readers on a merry chase by introducing squads of characters with means, motive, and opportunity. Just when the guilty individual seems to have been arrested, Todd saves another major wrinkle to unfold.

Race with the Devil is never boring. It’s the type of story where the readers may glance at the clock to realize that Todd has kept him or her up beyond the normal bedtime hour. The only regret is that fans must wait another year for volume twenty.

The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

He may have died in 2015, but Terry Pratchett’s spirit lives on in more than seventy of his books. His feel-good novels consistently advocate not only for the underdog, but the under-troll, the under-gremlin, the poor, the powerless, and the downtrodden. His stories and novel-series create new worlds and even new universes. His stories cross genre boundaries of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, adventure, and eccentric history.

Pratchett’s stories customarily weave multiple storylines with only the faint wisp of kinship. He offers images that require his readers to pause, savor, and reflect until the story emerges from the seemingly unrelated details. Readers float in a sea of seemingly unconnected details from each subplot, yet the enchanting prose and literary gems darned into almost every paragraph capture his readers’ loyalty and reward their patience. Eventually, as if viewing a fragment of a magnificent tapestry—a piece the size of a page in a book—the subplot fibers, like rootlets, knit together, allowing the reader to view the novel’s grand design.

Unfortunately, The Long Cosmos, the fifth book in the Long Earth series (published posthumously, thanks to co-author Stephen Baxter), fails to sustain the Pratchett tradition. The outline came from the minds of both Pratchett and Baxter, but the reader must credit (or blame) Baxter for writing the final product.

The “long cosmos” alluded to in the book’s title includes millions of Earth-like planets that stretch across space in a long pearl-like necklace. Gifted interplanetary travelers “step” or walk from one version of Earth to the next. They need only imagine themselves on the next planet, and their bodies follow  their imaginations through space. The less imaginative may fly to distant “Earths” in a vessel called a “twain,” presumably named after Mark Twain, since one of the largest twains is called the “Samuel Clemens.”

Each variation of Earth displays a unique geological and biological evolution. Predatory reptiles like Pterosaurs may glide above, while scaly swamp creatures strike from below. Trees miles in height look down through the clouds at the mountain tops. Their wood is so light and durable that it is used in the hulls of twains.

The story takes place in a time following the 2040 eruption of the Yellowstone volcano and the years of volcanic winter that left Earth, and particularly North America in ruins. Joshua Valiente, 67, against his family’s objections, decides to go camping on a distant Earth. After he suffers a serious accident, he is nursed back to health by a collective of trolls. Sancho, a silverback troll librarian, like Don Quixote’s sidekick, nurses Joshua and educates him in the complexities of troll communication and travel throughout the necklace of Earths. These trolls look more like orangutans than they do Shrek or the Tolkienesque variety, or even the massive trolls that populate other Pratchett novels.

In another subplot, an Extraterrestrial Intelligence calls all sapient beings including beagles, humans, trolls, and the Next—a vastly more intelligent human subspecies—to “Join Us.” Although all are called to “join,” each species harbors doubts about the fitness and worthiness of the other groups. Several minor plots explore the building of a vast communications beacon and travel pods, the human interactions with other sapient groups, and Joshua’s family dynamics.

Eventually, all of the threads weave into something of a New Age coming together of the minds within the universe. The depiction of the collective intelligence of the trolls, their facility in “stepping” from one Earth to the next, and their recording of Earth and troll history in their ballad-like “long calls” proved to be the most interesting memory that I’ll take from this book.

Moriarty Meets His Match: A Professor and Mrs. Moriarty Mystery (Book 1), by Anna Castle

When writers strain their brains for new ideas, they might consider revisiting an old idea. For instance, Gregory Maguire applied the rules of “alternative fiction,” in his retelling Frank Baum’s classic 1900 story the Wizard of Oz.  Forget Dorothy, Maguire wrote from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. The result: the novel Wicked, which later appears on stage as a musical thanks to Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, and still later as a movie of the same name.

Why not revisit Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature masterpiece and reveal Sherlock Holmes for the cad he is.

And who better than Anna Castle—with a keen eye for historical context and detail, and famous for her Francis Bacon Mystery series—to expose Holmes and rehabilitate the reputation of Professor James Moriarty.

In book one of her latest series, Moriarty Meets His Match; Castle tells a tale of fleecing wolves, not lambs.  It begins at the London International Exhibition of 1862. The plot then spins a web of lupine greed and arrogance.

“Society nobs (who) had plenty of twinkle with their unsalable family jewels, but very little crinkle—cash money—in their pocketbooks,” ensnare unwary investors in schemes that are designed to enrich the nobs and soak their stockholders.

To the rescue of the lambs, rides the “not entirely respectable,” Mrs. Angelina Gould, a member of a notorious family of confidence swindlers and actors. Call it love at first sight or her setting up a mark, Mrs. Gould crosses paths with and latches onto Professor James Moriarty, mustached, preacher’s son, mathematician, athletic, unassuming and vulnerable. He “radiate(s) integrity like a warm stove.”

With an axe of a nose, Holmes, consulting detective to Scotland Yard speaks in supercilious tones, ignores facts, and seems driven by his own prejudices “He longed for an opponent who could challenge him intellectually. Moriarty fit that bill. Therefore, Moriarty must be a suspect.” Holmes generates theories that fit the facts, although they lead to erroneous conclusions, placing Moriarty in jeopardy of swinging on the gallows for his enemy’s crime.

Anna Castle will please romance fans, those who love Victorian London, and most readers in search of an exciting mystery. She repeatedly places Moriarty and Mrs. Gould in horrible jeopardy from which few authors could extract them.

Anna Castle has recently launched the second book in the Professor and Mrs. Moriarty Mystery Series: Moriarty Takes His Medicine.

The Piper: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story, by Charles Todd

The Piper: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story by [Todd, Charles]

Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery Series guides readers across early twentieth-century London, the English countryside, and occasionally on trips to the continent.  Readers observe as Scotland Yard’s ace investigator solves the cases everyone else finds impossible. Wherever Rutledge goes, Hamish MacLeod is sure to follow. Normally, Todd offers Rutledge mystery as novels. However, The Piper presents as a short story, and Rutledge is totally missing. In The Piper, Hamish MacLeod becomes a sleuth long before he meets the Scotland Yard Inspector. After Hamish rescues an injured bagpiper, the same lad is found murdered near the MacLeod croft. Hamish uses guile to trap the killer but exposes himself to considerable danger.

Weaving short stories into the fabric of a novel-based series conveniently fills in backstory and deepens character-development. Short stories may link to earlier and future works in serial novels, cement over gaps between existing novels, or offer a second viewpoint on the events.

Some of Charles Todd’s more recent Ian Rutledge novels serve as prequels to the post-World War I series. Although the author adds a new book each year, his pre-war short story—The Piper—both satisfies and intensifies the impatient fans’ hunger for a morsel of vicarious adventure.

The Piper elaborates on Hamish’s personal life and character. It illuminates the forces that shape the rugged individualism and moral strength he exhibits throughout the Rutledge series—the same courage that brings him into conflict with Rutledge.

Although remarkably beautiful, the Highlands of Scotland can challenge both beast and man. The MacLeod sheep survive outdoors on sparse vegetation, despite cold, soaking rain and raging wind. The canny highland sheep know how to hunker down behind any structure that blocks the wind. They provide Hamish’s family with the finest wool, the foundation of their subsistence. As The Piper begins, the reader observes Hamish struggling against the wind and drenching rain to open the door of his stone cottage. Without any luxuries, he roots about in the dark to stoke his fire and brighten his shelter. When he manages to find dry clothing, he hears a call for help. He returns to the storm to find a badly injured lad who he carries back to his home. These behaviors play out again in the later books of the series when Corporal Hamish MacLeod serves under the command of Ian Rutledge in the trenches of the Somme.

Ann McIntyre, a member of the Catholic Writers Guild, also uses a short story (Yes) as a link between her published novels set in the past (Lazarus of Bethany and The Feast of Pontius Pilate) to a novel in progress, set in the present. Other Guild members may find that short stories aid in rounding out their novels.

 

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

This #1 National Bestselling novel begins as Flight 613 lifts off the tarmac. Serious concerns plague more than half the travelers—concerns they set aside until after the hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes, leaving only two passengers alive: JJ, the four-year-old son of a multi-millionaire, and Scott Burroughs, an artist in his forties.

In Before the Fall, Emmy, Golden Globe, PEN, Critic’s Choice, and Peabody Award winning Noah Hawley, writer, and producer of the hit TV series Bones, applies his stagecraft and cinematographic skills to the verbal autopsy of each occupant of the doomed jet.

Like pieces of wreckage fished from the sea, he cleverly introduces fragments of backstory amplifying the scream of conflict and the bellowing suspicion as to who benefits from the disaster. A team of federal investigators from the NTSB, the FAA, the FBI, and other agencies attempts to determine the cause of the crash and assign blame. Since JJ is too young, and the other travelers aboard Flight 613 are dead, only Scott Burroughs remains to soak up censure, deserved or not.

The death of JJ’s father, David Bateman, director of the ALC news-as-entertainment-network, launches ALC-anchorman Bill Cunningham on a mission of retribution, delving into Scott’s disaster-ridden past. Cunningham spends weeks delightedly defacing Scott Burroughs’ heroic image, but Cunningham has secrets of his own.

The primary protagonist, Scott Burroughs, tries to understand how, after pulling together the rubble of his own life and finally standing on the brink of success, he stumbles into his current quandary.  More importantly, how should he deal with his damaged reputation and threats from law enforcement? The reader rides the rapids of Scott’s stream of consciousness to a dramatic climax. Have his past tragedies prepared Scott to cope with his present dilemma or will he return to his alcohol addiction and lose everything?

Written by a multitalented author, Before the Fall offers a survivor’s view of an air disaster with all of the public, legal, and psychological fallout. It generates excitement, outrage, and incredulity as conflicting agendas gather like vultures over the wreckage. It fully deserves the NY Times rating as one of the year’s best suspense novels.

Hawley’s narration often imitates a camera zooming in on an object, but when the narration zooms out, the object rests in a totally different place, time, and context. The unexpected scene change advances the story while raising suspense about the broken storyline.

Hawley weaves his characters in and out of his narrative by suddenly switching viewpoints. He carefully develops each character so thoroughly and sympathetically that every plane crash death renews the reader’s pain of loss.

 

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

 

Image of the book jacket coverElizabeth Kolbert’s journalistic style offers an exciting and thorough case study of humanity’s impact on life, and the likelihood that human behavior may extinguish all earthly life, including human life.

Not one to research in dusty museums, Kolbert meets the current extinction experts in the ecological hotspots that serve as their laboratories. She climbs the Andes, goes spelunking in the bat caves of New York and Vermont, snorkels off the Great Barrier Reef, trudges through the South American rain forests, and visits Gubbio, Italy where she explores the clay left by a dinosaurs-killing asteroid collision.

She speaks with the experts in each aspect of Earth’s changing ecology and examines the evidence left behind by Lyell, Darwin, Lamarck, and Cuvier.  She introduces the reader to a galaxy of fascinating critters, among the living and the extinct. In the process, she outlines the apparently irreconcilable theories of evolution and how with time they evolved into one substantial explanation of the origins and extinctions of the species.

When Kolbert assembles this myriad of puzzle pieces, they point to the term, Anthropocene. That is the name given to the geological epoch dominated by humans. People have secured this dubious honor because they have diverted the course of natural history toward an unnatural and moribund path.

Throughout human existence, our species has intentionally and accidentally annihilated countless species. Once abundant and successful, every Wooly Mammoth, Great Auk, and Passenger Pigeons, thanks to humanity’s relentless hunting are now extinct. Our unwitting transport of disease organisms and invasive species have eradicated vulnerable life forms distorting their native biological communities.

The ecological impact of humans will soon rival that of Earth’s collision with a six-mile wide asteroid that closed the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago. That “nuclear-winter-like” event exterminates seventy-five percent of all life forms, including every land organism larger than a cat.

The multipronged human attack on creation includes climate change, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction.

For those uncertain about climate change, the author offers solid evidence to support the notion that human activity accelerates natural cycles and in this current situation has endangered life itself on this planet. She introduces climate change’s evil twin, ocean acidification. The latter is easily measured and is found consistently in the waters of the world. Carbon dioxide’s role in the greenhouse effect and global warming is significant, but CO2 finds its way into the oceans—now thirty percent more acidic than in 1800—where it joins with water to form the carbonic acid that erodes coral reefs, drives out dissolved oxygen and otherwise alters living conditions for marine organisms.

Humans have replaced or fragmented the natural land communities of the world. Deforestation, agriculture, development have destroyed habitats and ruptured the communities that sustain life as we know it. When species disappear, it is like an ingredient goes missing. The resulting dynamic spins askew, affecting every other living thing, including present and most certainly future humans.

Those who hold life dear must realize that unless they respect and preserve all life forms, humans will lose the ultimate battle. They needn’t fear the Zombie Apocalypse or the Planet of the Apes. More likely, Earth’s next dominant species will be the rats.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert offers affirmers and deniers of climate change, an approachable, but a substantial body of evidence to support the case for climate change. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is not an opinion piece. It outlines the evidence affirming that the current rate of global warming is ten times faster than at the end of the last glaciation and all glaciations before it. The end-notes occupying the last quarter of the book offer a guide to the available data for all to examine.

Climate change deniers often cite that some scientists are not on board with the dangers of climate change and therefore we should ignore those who predict dire consequences. Kolbert clearly shows that scientists rarely agree on anything. Scientists are rivals who push their own explanations of natural phenomena. When so many scientists from every field from astronomy to zoology agree that climate change and the human role in it is the equivalent of an asteroid striking Earth, it is time to sit up, notice, and act. Humans may be helpless the next time a monster rock targets Earth, but humans can curb their own activities. It is time to raise voices to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency continues to protect the environment. The EPA can do more to keep today’s and tomorrow’s Americans safe from earthly threats as can the Defense Department. The future is in your hands.

6 Dates to Disaster, by Cynthia T. Toney

 

'Coming December 6th: 6 Dates to Disaster (Bird Face book three) Her goal is to fly to Alaska. Her family is broke. Will an opportunity to make money be the answer to her prayers—or the road to disaster? For her mom’s birthday, Wendy finds an old jewelry box at a flea market—the perfect gift for someone who loves salvaged junk. But inside the box is a cryptic note that appears to have been written recently. Who wrote the note, and did the intended recipient ever see it? Wendy’s curiosity leads her on a search with boyfriend David at her side. But Wendy needs help because her stepfather has lost his job. The family’s plan to visit Alaska on vacation is headed down the sewer like a hard Louisiana rain. How will Wendy ever see Mrs. V or Sam again? When help arrives in the form of tutoring Melissa, one of the Sticks, Wendy’s money problems appear to be solved. Until the arrangement takes a turn that gets Wendy into trouble. And in the final months of ninth grade, she might lose everything she counted on for the future.'

Life can be horribly unfair, especially if you are a teen. Or so you may think. Sometimes parents can be right, but not all adult decisions seem just and reasonable. Unfortunately, adults usually have the last word.

Cynthia Toney weaves new story lines into Wendy Robichaud’s complicated life. Wendy doesn’t always start in a good place. She can be selfish, unforgiving, and greedy.  However, as in the earlier books of the Bird Face Series, deep down inside, Wendy loves widely and deeply.

Her romantic love of David Griffin flourishes into something far beyond physical attraction. Her friendship with her stepsister Alice and her distant cousin Gayle deepen into tender generosity. Her concern for Mrs. Villaturo, who moved from their old neighborhood, drives Wendy to exhaustion as she tries to earn her way to Alaska to visit Mrs. V. and her grandson, Sam. Wendy’s former best friend, Jennifer, returns to her life, and Wendy realizes how much Jennifer still means to her.  Wendy even grows closer, mainly through adversity, to her mother and stepfather as their new family gels together.

Wendy grew up in poverty. “Salvaging and recycling (are) in (her) blood.” Her mother had furnished their tiny house with discards and flea market finds. Penny-pinching comes naturally to mother and daughter. When Cathy Robichaud married Daniel Rend in the previous book, Wendy not only gained Alice, her stepsister, and Adam, her stepbrother, but she moved to a larger house and entered a world of greater affluence.

When Daniel loses his job, Wendy shifts back to frugal mode and prepares to earn her way to Alaska. Although shunned by the “Sticks,” her wealthy and fashionably anorexic classmates, Wendy is good enough to tutor one of them, Melissa, on the sly.  For pay. What would people think if a “Stick” girl was seen with Bird Face? But word spreads among Melissa’s friends of Wendy’s abilities. Wendy exhausts herself taking money in the service of the wealthy illiterate.  What could possibly go wrong?

Everything!

Wendy suffers humiliation and rejection, but she thrives. She learns to trust, forgive, and share in ways that challenge her readers to grow up and step up. By the last page of 6 Dates to Disaster, Wendy stands taller and stronger in spite of the blows life has dealt.

6 Dates to Disaster calls out loudly for a sequel. There’s a continent of material from which to draw and many new adventures to fill the life of Louisiana’s Wendy Robichaud.

As with the previous Bird Face novels, Cynthia Toney personalizes Wendy’s story with discussion questions and resources on relevant topics. Readers will find ways to open discussion about honesty, dating, underage drinking, communication with parents, American Sign Language, and finding a mentor.

The previous volumes in the Bird Face series include 8 Notes to a Nobody and 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status.

Cynthia Toney and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. She provided me with a pre-publication copy of 6 Dates to Disaster for use in this review.