December 7, 2013

Yes, I Say, Yes

I have three novels remaining to read in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. As is my usual habit in December, I do not post a review because I like to relax and read a book without taking notes or doing any profound thinking. I thought I’d blog about book reviewing.

Some newspapers and magazines have stopped reviewing books, but websites devoted to book reviews are all over the Internet. What prompted me to think about book reviewing was a post by Andrew Beaujon on the Poynter website in which he discusses the decision by Isaac Fitzgerald, the new book editor at Buzzfeed, not to do negative reviews. According to Beaujon, Fitzgerald said BuzzFeed won’t do negative reviews:

“Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he (Fitzgerald) said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.

I say yes to negative as well as positive book reviews. I glanced at some online comments objecting to Fitzgerald’s stand on the matter, but didn’t have time read them thoroughly, so I can’t say if people mostly agree or disagree with him.

Reviewers are important to the book community because they help readers select books through a good analysis and tell them what to expect in terms of theme, plot, and characters. As an article “How to Write a Book Review” on the website puts it

A critical book review is not a book report or a summary. It is a reaction paper in which strengths and weaknesses of the material are analyzed. It should include a statement of what the author has tried to do, evaluates how well (in the opinion of the reviewer) the author has succeeded, and presents evidence to support this evaluation.

Good book reviews save readers time. Without them, readers would have to wade through the thousands of books published each year, a task I think most readers would prefer to avoid. Whether a book is bad or good, the reviewer should encourage the reader to read it and judge for himself. While I may not like a book, readers might enjoy it. Of course, some books are so badly written that you wonder how they got published.

A reviewer should never review a book with a predisposition to like or dislike it. He should make his judgment after he has finished reading and thought about the book. If possible, he should read it twice, first to get a sense of what it is about, and second to analyze its merits and demerits.

The book community is indeed a positive place but it cannot escape the negativity in the world by ignoring it.

Happy reading and 

November 3, 2013

The Wrong Body

I apologize for misnumbering some of the previous novels. Dead Water is the eighth not the ninth novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series.

In Dead and Buried, the ninth novel in the series, Hambly inserts a disclaimer of sorts at the end of the book: “It is not the purpose of this novel to explore the origins and ramifications—political, social, and psychological—of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, nor the entangled and tragic system of prejudice and laws that made up the one-drop rule….” Though she doesn’t explore the origins of the rule, she certainly explores the social ramifications it had on individuals and families, and, as a good storyteller should, does so in an entertaining way. To say more about the theme of Dead and Buried might spoil your enjoyment, so I will not discuss the theme, except to say that Hambly handles it very well.

The attendants at the funeral of Rameses Ramilles, a fellow musician of Benjamin January’s, are horrified when the pall bearers drop the coffin and out falls the body of a white man. Hannibal Sefton, another fellow musician, recognizes the dead man as Patrick Derryhick, a friend from his youthful, carefree days in England.

Benjamin helps arrange a party to search for Ramilles’s body because the police will not search the swamp for "A black man's corpse, particularly after a week or two in the river….” Seeing how the body of his friend upset Hannibal and wanting to know how Ramilles’s body was removed from the coffin and replaced with Derryhick’s body, Benjamin, with approval of police investigator Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans City Guards, helps with the investigation.  

It doesn’t take long for them to learn that Derryhick was with a party of Englishmen who came to New Orleans so the youngest, Germinus Stuart, the 12th Viscount Foxford, could pursue the French Creole beauty, Isobel Deschamps, whom he had met in Paris. The other two members of the party are his uncle Diogenes and the business manager of the Stuart estate, Caius Droudge.

The plot turns on the romance between the young lovers, Isobel and Germinus, and involves labyrinthine family secrets of both. They met in Paris while Isobel was visiting relatives and Germinus was vacationing. Something happened that caused Isobel to flee Paris and return to New Orleans. Soon after her return, she leaves the city for Natchitoches Parish.

After items belonging to Derryhick are found in his hotel room, Germinus is arrested and charged with the murder. He refuses to admit he knows Isobel and to say where he was when Derryhick was killed. For Benjamin, the answer to Germinus’s silence lies upriver in Natchitoches Parish, in the St. John Chapel in Cloutieville. So, once again we follow him into danger of being captured and sold into slavery as he travels without either of his safety valves, Hannibal or Shaw. He is sure that what he finds will also provide the motive for the murder of Derryhick, which will lead to the murderer.

In the subplot, Benjamin suspects Martin Quennell, brother of the funeral direct, of embezzling money from the Faurbourg Treme Free Colored Militia and Burial Society of which Benjamin is a board member and Martin the bookkeeper. Martin also may have information about a quarrel between Derryhick and another man before Derryhick was murdered. But before Hannibal can get the information out of him, Martin is killed.

No Benjamin January novel would be complete without Ben’s Catholic belief coming up against his skepticism. He often relies on folk characters to ease his fears. So it is with "Compair Lapin" or Brer Rabbit, the trickster whom he calls upon when he wants to escape danger from white planters or thugs.

Hambly hits two discordant notes in this otherwise neatly plotted mystery. In the funeral scene, Hambly tells us nothing about Pere Eugenius, the only other white man present, and doesn’t mention him again.

The ingenious method the villain uses to replace Ramilles’s body with Derryhick’s stretches plausibility but the novel is still exciting.

To readers who follow my blog: thank you.

October 6, 2013

River Adventure

Traveling up the Mississippi River on a steamboat in the 19th century was a dangerous journey. The danger came not only from debris floating in the river and sand bars but also from outlaws prowling the river bank looking for the opportunity to attack. For runaway slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad and free Blacks it was even more dangerous because the runaways would be returned to their masters if caught and the free would be captured and sold into slavery. In Dead Water, the ninth novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, Benjamin, his wife Rose, and their friend Hannibal Sefton face the dangers of river travel when they take on a case of robbery and murder.
Hubert Granville, president of the Bank of Louisiana, hires the dynamic trio, Benjamin, Rose, and Hannibal, to recovery four million dollars the bank manager, Oliver Weems, stole from the bank. For Ben and Rose, who naturally will accompanied him, it means going into the cotton country upriver--Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri—and the danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Since Benjamin and Rose deposited their money in the bank, Ben accepts the job provided that Granville will pay him $500 and agree to buy back him and Rose if they fall into the clutches of slave traders. As a second safe guard against such an eventuality, Hannibal travels with them disguised as their master.

The three travel upriver toward Memphis on the steamboat “Silver Moon.” Also on board are Weems, his mistress and partner in crime Mrs. Fischer, and two rival slave traders, Ned Gleet and Jubal Cain with their gangs of slaves—men and women chained together on deck. When the boat docks in Vicksburg, Rose remains on the boat while Ben and Hannibal follow Weems and Mrs. Fischer when they disembark along with the three trunks. After Hannibal gets a look at what’s in the trunks, he returns to the boat, leaving Ben to watch the two thieves. Ben knows he is in trouble when the thieves elude him, and he returns to the dock only to discover the boat has left. He faces the daunting task of making his way through the swamp along the river bank to spot where the boat will be near enough for him to swim to it. In addition to avoiding alligators, he must also watch out for the outlaw Levi Christmas and his gang who are searching for an opportunity to attack the “Silver Moon.”

Murder is not necessary for a good detective story, but it certainly makes a good story better and more interesting. I will not spoil Dead Water by revealing the name of the murdered character. Ben and Hannibal, in addition for searching for the three trunks full of gold, securities, and cash, must prove they are not the murderers. Luckily for them, they have Colonel Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis) who takes over the investigation and accepts Ben’s help, taking advantage of his medical and detection skills when a dead body is found on the boats big wheel.

Three elements in Dead Water made the novel more enjoyable for me. The first is the strong female villains and heroines. No damsels in distress.

The second is, in addition facing physical dangers, Ben also faces
the psychological demon that always seems to follow him. Although he is a devout Catholic and a skeptic when it comes to voodooism, he, nevertheless, often looks over his shoulder after confronting a voodoo priestess. Queen Regine puts a curse on Ben after he warns her to stay away from one of Rose’s students. Despite his skepticism about voodoo and his Catholic faith, Ben, feels Queen Regine’s presence every time he runs into obstacles that put his life in danger.

The third element is the motif of the Underground Railroad.

If you like reading crime fiction, you might enjoy reading blog posts by some crime fiction writers on the blog SleuthSayers.

September 7, 2013


Hambly may have faltered a little in her last novel Wet Grave, but she redeems herself in her latest novel in the Benjamin January series in which she uses Aztec mythology to construct a locked room murder mystery set in 19th century Mexico City. The events in Days of the Day, the seventh novel in the series, are played out against the background of Santa Anna preparing an army to fight the Texans.
The buried treasure they recovered during their last adventure allowed amateur detective Benjamin January and his new wife Rose to become moderately wealthy. Thus, when they receive a letter requesting help from their friend Hannibal Sefton, they can afford to travel to Mexico City to rescue him. He is a consumptive Irishman who self-medicates with whiskey laudanum, plays the violin with Ben at the balls in New Orleans, and is fond of quoting Shakespeare and other European poets. When the opera he and Benjamin were playing for in Wet Grave ended, he left New Orleans with the ballerina Consuela Montero, one of the daughters of the powerful, Don Prospero de Castellon, for Mexico City.

Hannibal, who was the last person seen with the mad Don Prosperos’s only living son Fernando and appeared to be handing him a drink, is accused of murdering him. The Mad Don is holding Hannibal a virtual prisoner until he can visit his son’s grave during the “Days of the Dead” festival and learn from Fernando who killed him. Hannibal also faces a threat from Captain Francisco Ylario of the civil guards who wants to capture and hang him without any prove other than everyone believes Hannibal is the murderer.

When Benjamin is accused of killing the Mad Don’s cook, he knows he is getting close to exposing the murderer. But to continue his investigation, he has to remain alive. An enraged Don Prosperos comes after him with a shotgun. Benjamin escapes from the Don’s vaqueros and hides in the Pyramid of the Dead. Rose joins him later, and they, or rather Benjamin, concocts a plan based on his knowledge of voodoo that he hopes will influence Don Prosperos’s decision on Hannibal when the Don comes to the Pyramid on the Day of the Dead festival to talk with his dead son.

As always, Hambly’s research is thorough and comprehensive. Combining the mystery genre, the thriller genre, and the historical genre is her major strength. In Days of the Day, the three genres come together in a story that holds the interest right up to the end.

For me, though not for Benjamin and Rose considering the dangers they face in Mexico, getting out of the heat and filth of New Orleans was a relief, especially since it afforded me the opportunity to learn about a different culture.

August 3, 2013

A Slight Misstep

“You know what they say of white men in Louisiana…They come here seeking fortune, but all they find is a wet grave”

Should a critic confess that he can’t pin point why a novel by a novelist he has praised in the past is disappointing? Yes, and I so confess. No matter how good a storyteller a writer is, if she is also prolific and her main character is a series protagonist, the quality of her novels will, at some point, drop. Such is the case with the sixth novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series.

In Wet Grave amateur detective Benjamin January and his friend Rose Vitrac, the deceptively beautiful and scholarly former girl’s school teacher, investigate two murders.

Benjamin’s sister Olympe summons him to view the body of an old, drunken Black woman. He immediately recognizes Hesione LeGros whom he last saw 23 years ago when he was 16 and playing the piano at a party for Jean Lafitte’s band of pirates. The two of them had hidden behind the piano when a fight broke out among the guests. In her younger days, she was the mistress of one of Lafitte’s pirate captains.

Knowing that the authorities will not come and take away the body or investigate the murder of an old free Black woman, an angry Ben with his friend Rose decides to find out who killed Hesione and why. The investigation leads them to one of Jean Lafitte’s former pirate captains named Cut-Nose Chighizola, who might tell them more about the dead woman.

The failure of the authorities to investigate Hesione’s death causes Ben to direct his anger at the one White policeman friend he has, the Kaintuck, Lieutenant Abishag Shaw. “Anger flared up in” Ben “briefly, like kindling. It ignited a bigger log, an anger that did not leap and glare but that burned slow and deep and hot.” But he knows it isn’t Shaw’s fault because, he says to Shaw, you are “doing your duty, and going where you’re sent.” In the subplot, Shaw is sent to the Avocet plantation to investigate the alleged killing of Guifford Avocet by his brother Robert.
Ben’s anger is further stoked when he and Rose learn that 16-year-old Artois St. Chinian, an octoroon Rose was tutoring, is killed because he mistakenly received a box containing guns instead of the vacuum pump he had ordered.

The investigation of the two murders propel Ben and Rose into a battle against rebelling slaves, criminals hunting for Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure, and a hurricane that brings ashore alligators and snakes.

Wet Grave is not filled with as much action as the preceding novels. The romance between Ben and Rose, though expected and necessary, slows the pace of the action somewhat. Furthermore, despite the danger in which Benjamin and Rose find themselves, I didn’t feel the tension the situation should generate and, consequently, I had no sense of relief once the danger had passed.

The slow pace is due primarily to a problem with all serial novels: the author has to repeat the backstory of the protagonist so that the novel stands alone, even though it is one in a series. At the same time, the author must provide continuity with the other novels in terms of setting and especially the serial protagonist.

A few days after finishing the novel, something still kept nagging at me in the back of my mind, clamoring that something was wrong. What’s wrong is the Avocet subplot does not fit. Hambly does a good job of completing the plot within itself, but, despite the need for it as a plot device, it often tends to distract from rather than advance the main plot.

Despite the flaws, Wet Grave is still readable due to the magic of Hambly’s storytelling. In this novel, Hambly is like a person climbing stairs and misses a step; she stumbles but rights herself and continues.