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

A quick rereading in the wake of Morgenstern’s new (and widely misunderstood) The Starless Sea. This is a wonderful book, a book almost entirely concerned with the sense of wonder. Terrific writing that seldom calls attention to itself, yet with supple and dexterous shifts of time and point of view. Critics wanted the next book to be just like this one, but Night Circus stands alone and it’s sufficient to its task.

December 30, 2019 (permalink)

Late in his life, Liebling collected some of his best food writing, stories about his student year in Paris. Liebling was a hell of a fine writer, and his legacy is long: you see a lot of Liebling in Gopnik, for example, and not a little in Remnick, but there’s plenty of Liebling in Peter King’s football and in Peter Gammons’s baseball.

Liebling’s key argument is extremely interesting. If you want to think intelligently about food, he says, you must study it by eating seriously and thoughtfully. One must have enough money to eat well, but not enough money, he thinks, that it is no object. His key conundrum in memory is deciding whether at lunch to have the Tavel Superieur at 3 ½ francs and beef heart (2 ½ F), or to settle for vin ordinaire (1F) and enjoy a rare steak. This is, in fact, a nice question: even at my most bibulous, I find myself inclined to favor the food and skimp on the wine. That answer surprised me, which is a sign of a good question. (For example, I’d sort of like to return to Alinea, but this time I might forego the wine pairings in the interest of economy. I seldom think about taking the opposite tack.)

January 24, 2020 (permalink)

Ivy Gamble is a middle-aged private investigator, specializing in stakeouts. She views herself as a fuckup, a failure: her big sister was a talented mage, but Ivy has no magic. She’s the sister who never got to go to Hogwarts. Then, a mysterious death takes place at the prestigious magic academy where her big sister now teaches Magic Theory, and the administration calls in Ivy to investigate.

Gailey’s emphasis here is that the kids who attend a magic school would be much like kids at other prep schools. They experience intense rivalries and epic disasters over trivial stakes. The kids have known each other for years — for most of their lives — and so the staff has power but knows nothing of what’s at stake. Ivy has plenty of unresolved teen angst and so has plenty of sympathy with the kids. Indeed, Ivy has so much teen angst that this might have worked better if Ivy had been a teenager.

January 6, 2020 (permalink)

Minimum Wage Magic
Rachel Aaron

Opal Yong-ae is scraping by as a cleaner — a one-woman cleanout and salvage crew, bidding on rights to the contents of abandoned rentals and foreclosures. It’s a precarious living, not least because she works in Detroit, a very magic city in a world where, in the 21st century, the magic returned with a vengeance. Opal is doing this work to repay her college loans; her misfortune is that her loans are owed not to a bank but to her father, and her father is the Dragon Of Korea. In short, she’s got some family issues.

Good world-building, remarkable minor characters and entertaining (if sometimes predictable) plotting make this electronic-only debut of a new series a virtual page-turner.

January 1, 2020 (permalink)

An aging, insubordinate commander takes charge of an aged battlewagon that will shortly be turned into a museum. Suddenly, interstellar war breaks out, and the evil aliens have an answer for everything except our old ship’s outmoded technology. A brave crew, a drunken but loyal executive officer, a deadly illness and a talented political commissar round out the central cast.

There’s something to like here, but the plot is standard American military SF and the cast, if not plagiarized, takes fan fiction to an extreme. The alcoholic executive officer is particularly jarring because our hero-commander cannot afford to have a bad XO and has had a decade to find his old friend a comfortable retirement.

Why, moreover, are we rehashing the arguments of 1942 about the survivability of battleships vs. the reach of aircraft carriers? That’s been settled for nearly three generations, now: Rickover, Spruance, Nimitz, Halsey: they’re all sleeping on the hill.

December 30, 2019 (permalink)

Atmospheric, episodic, and sometimes shaggy, this new Alan Furst thriller captures one of the salient and easily-forgotten facts of the Resistance: it was improvised by amateurs, many of them poorly-suited for the roles they played. A writer of spy novels, Paul Ricard understands that he knows very little about spying, but as something must be done, he does what he can. He finds help in unexpected places, and frequently fails to find help when he looks for it. Ricard’s garret on the rue de la Huchette is perhaps too much a nod to tourist Paris to be quite right here, and I’m not sure that the class and tribal strains of the Occupation are caught precisely. Still, a good book to read as our nation embarks on its brave, doomed mission to impeach the monster.

December 15, 2019 (permalink)

In 1468, a young priest rides his old horse through the rain to a remote parish church, tasked by the Bishop of Exeter with burying a recently-deceased priest. He sees a brilliant flash of emerald in the rain, but it’s just a common parakeet.

This is our familiar medieval England, but it’s not quite right. For starters, our young priest conducts the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer, after the Lesson is read from the King James Bible: this is not the 1468 we once knew. We soon learn that, eight centuries ago, the Apocalypse destroyed the world, and all about us our clues to what happened to The Ancients.

This is a desperately sad book, speculative fiction for an age in which there’s no longer much reason to speculate. We know what’s coming. In Intertwingled, I wrote that “the future is not what it was.” And here we are.

December 2, 2019 (permalink)

Lyra is in her twenties, a postgraduate student at Oxford, and she and her daemon are not speaking to each other. That is to say: Lyra and her soul (spirit? Genius?) have fallen out. It’s a profound and thrilling premise.

Once again, I find myself reading Pullman’s exciting and engaging urban fantasy, always notable for the thoughtfulness of its characters even when they are children, and once again I realize that he’s doing something much larger and more serious than I’d thought. There’s even a hypertext fiction vignette!

November 2, 2019 (permalink)

Ninth House
Leigh Bardugo

A superb urban fantasy. Alex Stern — her name is “Galaxy” but she goes by Alex — is a troubled teen who has been mixed up with drug dealing and was found overdosed at the scene of a ghastly drug murder. Her core problem: she sees ghosts, and sometimes they see her. Word gets out, and she gets a scholarship to Yale on the strength of it.

Why? Because magic is real. The Yale secret societies perform magic to ensure the wealth and success of alumni. There’s an additional, even more-secret society that regulates all the others, and they want Alex and her unique talent.

Alex has a chip on her shoulder. She’s a poor kid, and the ghosts have driven her nearly ’round the bend. She doesn’t like the sort of kids who wind up in secret societies. She’s way over her head at Yale, and her patrol duties leave her almost no time to study properly. She’s not the sort of girl who will accept this state of affairs. A terrific book.

November 8, 2019 (permalink)