Archive for May, 2011
Where I got it and why: From the library, on the strength of a recommendation from bookshelves of doom.
Recommended? If you’re a fan of noir detective stories or high school settings – crazy high school settings.
Review: It took me until I was at least five chapters in to decide I actually liked this book, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. Partly I think that’s because it’s set in a kind of weird high school alternate universe dystopia: all the cliques are running rackets, even the teachers are in on it, and everybody takes a teenage private dick perfectly seriously. I found it hard to get settled in to the book, not knowing what kind of reality we were in. (Maybe I just read too much SF, and if I didn’t it would have been easier.) It was sure as hell fun, though.
Dalton Rev is a private detective, and he’s transferred into Salt River High to investigate the death of Wesley Payne, one of the only kids in the school who wasn’t involved with some racket or another. Everyone says it’s suicide – everyone but Wesley’s sister Macy, who’s Dalton’s client. (Private Dick Handbook, Rule #12 – Never get involved with a client. You know, that rule that gets broken every time.)
And from there it’s one noir fiction cliche after another, with snappy dialogue and crazy slang, double-crosses, mysterious motives, femmes fatale, and more intrigue than you can shake a reasonably large stick at. It was fantastic. I had a hard time remembering this was supposed to be a YA novel, actually; the references to old noir came fast and thick. (I was amused to discover that, although there is a glossary in the back, defining the slang and interpreting most of the references, there is no entry for Bogie. Not that Bogie needs interpretation, mind.)
Weirdly enough, the book this reminded me most of was Jo Walton’s Among Others. There’s the same sense that, although the narrator presents everything as fully real, there’s a possibility that the fantastic elements are actually a figment of the main character’s imagination, that what you’re reading is the complex narrative of a teenager attempting to cope. They’d be an interesting pair of books to read one after the other, I think.
Where I got it and why: Library. I actually picked this up at the same time as Strong Poison, because I was under the strange impression it was the next one. Oops.
Recommended? Oh my god, yes, to everyone in the world. Women and scholars and mystery fans and romance fans and everyone.
Review: This book, you guys, THIS BOOK. I finished it almost a week ago and have not been able to write my review about it until now because all I can think to say is THIS BOOK. This book is amazing.
Harriet Vane was introduced to the Lord Peter Wimsey series in Strong Poison, returned in Have His Carcase, and has her time to shine here in Gaudy Night. She’s been invited to her Oxford college’s Gaudy, a sort of reunion weekend, and when she gets there she finds (as you do) that everything is exactly the same and everything has changed. She no longer has much in common with her old best friend, but her old professors are as delightful as ever. The college is still filled with students, younger and more modern but with much the same problems. Oh, and someone is sending horrible threatening letters to students and faculty and wreaking havoc whenever possible.
This is most definitely a mystery novel, but it’s also a deeply feminist novel. The whole thing is from Harriet’s point of view, as she contemplates returning to academia, her career as a mystery novelist, her obligation to investigate the crimes at the college on behalf of a faculty who’s terrified of what the bad publicity would do to one of the few women’s colleges in existence, and her potential romance with Lord Peter Wimsey. The plot keeps the whole thing going with plenty of suspense, but it’s the depth and intelligence of Harriet that makes this one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I’m often disappointed when I read period feminist books, not because of anything to do with the book most times but because I’m disappointed that it still seems so relevant today. Surely feminism ought to have progressed since 1935? I don’t feel that way about Gaudy Night, though, and I think part of the reason is that the book is feminist because of its subject matter, but it deals with issues that everyone ought to care about, but seem to become women’s issues by default. The question of what happens when professional standards and ethics intersect with family and romantic interests is a very different one when applied to men than when it’s applied to women.
Also, I am not ashamed to admit that I squeed like a fifteen-year-old fangirl at all of the scenes with Harriet and Peter together. Punting! Picnicking! Reading one another’s books! Discussing literature! I do believe they have one of my favorite relationships in fiction, and I cannot wait to start Busman’s Honeymoon when they will both finally agree with me.
I’m only a little behind the times, I suppose, but I wasn’t this annoyed before today.
So, as you all know, the world did not end on Saturday, and Harold Camping and his followers were not raptured, and everyone’s been having a grand old time laughing at him for it. I just haven’t been able to, and this book is pretty much the reason why.
I was an anthropology major in college; I studied the way people think, particularly in groups, and the way they organize their lives. My focus was on religion, because religion is one of the most important things in many peoples’ lives, and it fascinates me. My adviser did her research in Papua New Guinea, studying the cargo cults there, and it was that research that led her into her research on UFO cults, Christian sects, and other new religious movements in the United States. It was great fun, I have to say; people are always stranger than you think they might be, but they’re always people.
We read this book in one of her classes. It’s a classic in the field for a number of reasons, but the relevant one right now is that it’s the study that coined the term cognitive dissonance. That’s that thing that happens when all of a sudden the world is not what you believe it to be, and there are very few options left to you once it’s happened. You can admit you were wrong, but people don’t like to do that. It’s hard, and the more strongly you believed before you were proven wrong, the harder it is. Or you can carry on believing, and deny the world. That happens a lot. It’s what happened to most of the people in this study.
Festinger and his colleagues were studying a group of apocalypse-believers. The details of their beliefs aren’t important, they’re as common as dirt, they thought the world was coming to an end. They set a date. They prepared themselves, their friends and relations, and waited for the end to come. And has always happened so far, the end did not come. And they were left with two options: forsake the belief system that had been their sole support for years (because you lose a lot of friends when you go around telling them that UFOs are going to destroy the world, until you don’t have any friends left except the ones that agree with you), or carry on. And unsurprisingly, they carried on.
So the world didn’t end on Saturday, and Harold Camping has set a new date, and his followers are, for the most part, still following. I can’t be surprised at this; it’s what happens every time. I can’t laugh at it either, though. Harold Camping may be a delusional idiot and probably is, but his followers are also his victims. They started following him because what he was offering was the only thing they needed, and he led them down a path that could only end in failure. Saturday was the worst day of their lives, and whatever they do now, whether they continue following because they have nowhere else to go, or whether they give up their greatest source of support, they’re stuck with it.
That’s the problem with anthropology. You get into it and next thing you know, everyone’s a human being, and you can’t laugh at their misfortune any more. When Prophecy Fails is the first book I read that really gave me an insight into what people are going through when they’re a member of one of these fringe groups, and it sure doesn’t look like fun. I’m trying not to sound like I’m scolding people who did make fun of them, because it is pretty hilarious, and I know I’m a little over-sensitive to mocking people’s strongly-held beliefs. But if you found you have any more interest than mere amusement in fringe apocalyptic groups after this, I’d recommend this book as a good place to start.
Where I got it and why: from the library. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but Jo Walton just recently reviewed the whole series over at Tor.com, and that provided that final kick.
Recommended? Hell yes! Anybody who loves second-world fantasy, unusual worldbuilding and magic, and character-driven plots will love this.
Review: A Shadow in Summer is the first of the Long Price Quartet, and Daniel Abraham’s spectacular first novel. It’s of the genre I’m inclined to call “epic fantasy,” except for most people that means swords and elves and Good Versus Evil, and what I mean by it is just second-world fantasy with a huge cast and extraordinary world-building. And let me tell you, this has it in spades.
It’s hard to say who the main characters are because everyone is important in their own way. There’s Amat, the aging overseer for House Wilsin, who was good friends with the head of that house until she found herself objecting to his political tactics, and Liat her apprentice. Maati, the apprentice to the poet Heshai, and his extraordinary relationship with the poet’s slave, the andat Seedless. And the remote Khai, the ruler of the city; the vile pimp who Amat finds herself working for for a time; and not least, Otah, who could have been a poet but refused the brown robe.
Aside from Otah’s prologue, the action all takes place in the city of Saraykeht, one of a number of loosely allied city-states each ruled over by their own Khai. The cities of the Khaiem have one thing in common that holds them together against other nations like Galt, and that is the andat. The poets describe the andat as “an idea translated into a form that includes volition.” They’re essentially the embodiment of an idea that has been described and enslaved by the poet, who is then responsible for holding and controlling the andat. The andat for Saraykeht is Removing-the-part-that-continues, called Seedless — and he’s central to the city’s dominance of the in the cotton trade. No cotton gin for them, they have an andat to pull the seeds from the cotton.
And Galt, a nation whose dominance is in military rather than in economic matters, knows that the only way to conquer the cities of the Khaiem is to remove the andat. House Wilsin is their tool in a plot to drive the poet mad and force him to release Seedless, destroying Saraykeht, and the plot of the novel revolves around not only this plan but on all the characters’ various reactions, objections, and desperate attempts to halt or at least avenge the Galtic scheme.
It’s an amazing world, based on Asian cultures in the same way that most fantasy is based on European cultures, with no direct parallels to real-world cultures and nations but providing the overall shape of the culture and history of the world. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn, and for the most part intelligent – I do so hate following around people who can’t see what’s happening in front of them. And the sequels! I’m about a hundred pages into A Betrayal in Winter, and the sense one gets is that the whole of A Shadow in Summer was necessary just so that you could understand what is happening in this book. It’s glorious, and I love it.
I am just plowing through this series, aided by the wonderful observations of Sarah Monette. (Be warned, the commentary is full of spoilers, which are mostly but not all warned for.) So most of my comments on Have His Carcase are derived from the discussions over there.
One of the most interesting things about the Lord Peter Wimsey series is the way it develops, from being fairly straightforward Golden Age mysteries (think Agatha Christie) to being much more complex novels that also happen to be mysteries. This book is all about the difference between formula mysteries, novels, and real life; the novel opens with mystery writer Harriet Vane (who is clearly based on Parker herself) discovering a body on the beach, after all.
And the novel progresses from there, weaving back and forth between the mystery plot and the ongoing plot about Harriet’s relationship with Lord Peter. And in amongst all the worrying about motives and times (timing is very important in this book) and making up stories about how the victim might possibly have been killed, there is this wonderful scene with the two of them. It’s heartwrenching, and wonderful, and tremendously realistic. It would seem out of place in one of the earlier Wimsey books; here it fits, but only just.
I am promised that this trend continues with Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, and I cannot wait.
Source: public library, local branch this time (this series is spread all over the system…)
Also read: Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Five Red Herrings, a classic Golden Age mystery based entirely around the complexities of train schedules. (I am reading them in order, however much I miss Harriet when she’s not there.) Which I did not enjoy nearly as much, sorry.