The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Tam Lin
Pamela Dean

Readercon book club selection and a neglected classic, this is a truly wonderful portrait of American college life in the late 20th century. If it were new, it might well be my choice for the best book of 2013.

Tam Lin is a college novel whose protagonist belongs and thrives at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. The campus is Carleton, but I remembered many, many of the finely observed details – from room lottery tensions and dining hall rituals to ritual throwing of birth control pills into the local river — and I was at Swarthmore. Some of the dialogue is brilliant, some hilarious, and some dexterously borrows its voice from Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night without making any show or fuss over the matter.

The hero of the campus novel, from Tom Brown’s School Days to Allegra Goodman’s Intuition and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, not to mention Harry Potter, has always been at least mildly unfit for their school. That gives the author good opportunities for observation, since round pegs need not record very much about round holes, but it leaves little room for the joys of learning. Here, however, Janet Carter is perfectly suited to the school. She already knows its peculiarities and rituals because she has grown up on campus, eldest daughter of an English professor. Dean set herself a difficult task and pulls it off brilliantly by leading us through detailed discussions of topics – the Roman de la Rose, production practices in Hamlet, or classroom management in Ancient Greek I when the class ranges from a Classics major who has no business taking the course at all down to a pair of dolts without any aptitude for language whatsoever – that really do consume students. I believe the volume’s editor was Terri Windling, and he deserves great praise for indulging these long, long academic passages that indispensably explain why Janet, our protagonist, is in love with college.

Janet and her two roommates discover their dormitory’s ghost, but this causes no particular trouble. They discover some very nice (though strange) young men, and this causes some trouble at first. Of course, one knows from the title that someone on campus must be a bit stranger than they seem, but that, too, is handled with grace and naturalism and works very well indeed.

December 27, 2013 (permalink)

Charles Palliser

The 1863 diary of an unpleasant young man, Richard Shenstone, who has just been sent down from Cambridge under a cloud of very unpleasant circumstances to which, since this is 1863 and this is a drama of the family circle, we need hardly allude further. Charles Palliser’s new neoVictorian novel is very much in Sarah Walters territory without the madness or the lesbians. Here we have certain new postmodern delights amid the discomforts of the remote marsh-side house to which the Shenstones have been relegated on the death of Richard’s father. Richard is a most unreliable narrator, he basks in self-pity, he is selfish and uncaring. He has no empathy, at several points he cannot quite decide whether someone is laughing or crying, and throughout this novel of red herrings he invents and discards wild explanations for the behavior of nearly every person in the neighborhood. He may well be paranoid. He may be a psychopath. And yet: something is not right in Thurchester, and we realize it had been wrong for some time before Richard’s unexpected arrival.

December 10, 2013 (permalink)

Nick Hornby extols these charming letters in his wonderful (but, it seems, suspended-again) book column in The Believer. Thirty years back, Nina Stibbe was a nanny for a literary London family. She was fresh from Leicestershire and wrote frequent letters to her sister Vic, letters collected here. Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn live down the way, Alan Bennett lives across the way and drops in to dinner just about every night. Nina’s charges, Sam and Will, seem intelligent and rather witty.

December 2, 2013 (permalink)

Tony Hillerman’s daughter picks up the threads of his wonderful series of Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels set in and around the Navaho reservation. This novel fits seamlessly into the late Hillerman’s late canon; indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if Anne Hillerman had a hand in The Shape Shifter. The plot revisits (and twists) some of Hillerman’s best early books, we travel a bit more than was the elder Hillerman’s habit, and perhaps we occasionally have a bit more exposition. If you’d like more Chee, this book’s for you.

November 26, 2013 (permalink)

A richly imagined monologue by a tired, elderly woman whose son was executed many years ago. She is beset by importunate men – she does not, as a rule, like men, though she deeply misses her husband. These men are misfits like those her boy gathered about him and who now eagerly bend her story to their own purposes. Their lies frighten her.

The audiobook edition is performed brilliantly by Meryl Streep, who was born for this part.

November 16, 2013 (permalink)

In the first volume, Taylor established her heroine’s stubbornly independent intelligence with exemplary speed. Here, she nearly squanders that accomplishment.

Taylor has set herself an unreasonable task: the problems of a trilogy’s middle book are well known, but to these she has added the problem of a depressed protagonist. Karou is weirdly passive and pointless through these days of blood and starlight, as she obeys the orders of a leader she despises in the service of a cause she mistrusts and to which she is indispensable. She used to be, standing athwart the Charles Bridge in Prague and shouting “stop” to a legion of angels, but now she sits in her room and does as she is told. She has every right to be depressed, but it’s not nearly as much fun to watch – and even less fun since we know where this is leading and we’re going to have to wait some months more for the final volume to appear.

The first volume seemed clearly intended as a response to Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This volume raises doubts. Pullman’s The Subtle Knife is about childhood’s end, the discovery that you cannot rely on either your parents or your faith or your friends. This volume seems the conventional middle passage of a romance.

November 12, 2013 (permalink)

Veronica Roth

Lightning doesn’t strike again in this conclusion to the trilogy that began promisingly with the first half Divergent. In that beginning, we set out from a wild premise – an urban dystopia about a society built entirely on high school aptitude tests – and enjoyed some fine world-building. Unfortunately, the crazily schematic world plan turns out to mask the author’s weakness for thin characterization. The world of Divergent is childish but convincing, a society bound together by summer camp ritual and tasty treats, and its depth perfectly suits the stock characters and stock plot points. But Roth demolishes the world and, without the schematic depth, the cardboard sags.

Worse, it’s now clear that Roth created a love interest for her heroine and proceeded to fall in love with him; this is Tris’s story but we’re so enamored of her friend Tobias that Tris is pushed to the background. As she fades into a supporting role, Roth needs to reach for some character traits to attach to her. Tris has already led two revolutions, and tomorrow will bring a third. She has been isolated from her beloved, they have reconciled, and now at the end of the world and at childhood’s end they finally fall into each other’s arms and into bed – and Tris collapses into a sudden anxiety of self-doubt and loathing over the size of her breasts. Never mind the absurdity of the idea that young Dauntless, daredevils who live for today and scorn thought of the future, would “save themselves.” The world is ending. Their friends and family and comrades have been dying almost daily. We’ve spent nearly a thousand pages establishing Tris as a wonderfully competent soldier with a preternatural ability in combat to do what must be done and the athletic talent to do it; now, as she finally undresses her beloved, she’s panicked because she’s too flat-chested?

The first half of Divergent is a terrific novella. Get the book, read it through the end of bootcamp, and then work out what happens for yourself.

November 5, 2013 (permalink)

Second reading of a book that deserves to be a classic – a superbly crafted and complex, lyrical exploration of marvels and wonder. Fascinating in its conception, The Night Circus is a realist fantasy with none of the archness of Grossman’s The Magician or the nostalgia of Walton’s Among Others. Many fantasies makes you wish for a terrific film version; The Night Circus makes the film superfluous.

October 29, 2013 (permalink)

A fascinating response to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, this is the opening of a trilogy about the next Armageddon. Taylor has one of the most economical openings since The Hunt For Red October and uses it to establish that her heroine, Karou, is talented and supernatural and young and in control of her body and her life. We’re coming of age but it’s not about lost virginity.

The first half of this volume is formally a thriller, the second a genre romance. Karou is made for the first and both she and Taylor are sometimes at sea with the latter – especially because the romance gives sparse opportunities for world-building aside from buckets of exposition. We end (as The Golden Compass ends) at the bridge between two worlds, an uneasy resting point at best, but Lyra arrives there through her terrible error while Karou is here because of what her lover has done. The result eerily conjures the pre-teen to so many movies: can we skip the mushy stuff, since we know how that ends, and get on with it?

The book offers an unforgettable moment when Karou, staring down to enemy angels on a bridge in Prague, finds out that she is of the devil’s party though she did not know it. In fact, the fantasy of the ideal art student in Prague — rich, beautiful, independent, proud, and charmingly vulnerable — is every bit as fine a fantasy as the wings and the magic.

October 22, 2013 (permalink)

Poppy Z. Brite

The cooks from the New Orleans restaurant novel Liquor are back. The local DA is nosing around their mentor, a new food critic is panning their restaurant for no apparent reason, and an old flame is offering big fees (and fancy cowboy boots) for a week of consulting at his struggling Dallas restaurant. Naturally, things are not what they seem. Like Liquor, this page-turner is not quite a mystery or a thriller. The book is lots of fun and offers a terrific portrait of a gay marriage; it has more plot than it needs, but that’s not a terrible failing.

October 22, 2013 (permalink)

Verity Price, fresh from rural Oregon, occupies a tiny semi-legal Greenwich Village sublet whilst pursuing her avocation for professional ballroom dancing and her studies in the zoology of creatures most people assume to by mythical. The streets of New York, it turns out, are quite full of obscurely supernatural beings: boogymen who own strip clubs, dragon princesses who work as waitresses, brownies who run a breakfast bakery.

But what girl doesn’t have a few problems? Verity’s problems include a tribe of intelligent mice who devise arcane religious ceremonies around her family, a telepathic cousin, an International Order that is sworn to exterminate the people Verity studies, a little sister named Antimony who likes to play with snares and pitfalls, and of course the dance competition judges. This confection could bear with a little more dance and a little less Buffy, but it’s good fun.

October 8, 2013 (permalink)

Poppy Z. Brite

A pair of young, gay, line cooks, broke and recently canned, are sitting on the New Orleans levee and musing about starting their own restaurant, Liquor, where every dish is based on a drink and no idiot manager would harass them. They know it will never happen. They get a new job, cooking in the back of a friend’s bar. Their calvados-soaked stuffed dates get some attention from food critics, from potential investors, and from one of their former managers — a fellow with a big grudge and a small connection to the mob.

Formally, this isn’t quite a mystery and it isn’t quite a thriller. It’s got plenty of plot, though, and some really fine food.

October 3, 2013 (permalink)

This interesting and pleasant examination of the art of personal narrative hinges on the understanding that, while in fiction our narrator may be unreliable or unlikable, in memoir he cannot.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

This distinction is useful in thinking about writers like Orwell whose personae turn out to differ from the person one met on the street, since an unpleasant person can create a pleasant voice just as a perfectly nice novelist can write a villain.

September 26, 2013 (permalink)

Rhiannon Held

Lightly buzzed at Readercon, this novel is superficially dressed as an urban fantasy but its concerns are primarily political and it handles those concerns well. Andrew Dare is enforcer for the Roanoke Pack, a society of werewolves that spans most of the East Coast. He tracks down a wounded intruder, a crippled and insane female werewolf he calls Silver. She has been cruelly tortured; Dare’s job is to find the perpetrator.

These werewolves are powerful, stable, and live apart from humans. We rarely see or think about humans, and we’re not much concerned with their affairs. What matters is dominance within the pack, and the subtle diplomatic maneuvers between packs, choreographed by cell phone and smoother through elaborate codes of protocol.

September 23, 2013 (permalink)