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

This installment in the Longmire saga is in essence a reprise of the first novel, The Cold Dish, with even more magic realism. It’s capably handled, though the formulaic insistence on putting the isolated hero in ever-greater physical peril claims a toll on both the author and the reader.

October 2, 2014 (permalink)

Rereading before starting The Magician’s Land. This admirable story raises the same question I’ve always held about Snow Crash: is the central character Quentin (in Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist), who seems to occupy that role and who certainly believes it’s him, or is it Julia (YT in Snow Crash), his abandoned and forgotten high school friend, who claws her way through the underground magic scene to finally reach heights unforeseen (and possibly undesired)?

From my first reading:

In this second volume of the arc that began with The Magicians, Grossman continues to explore a magical world viewed in a strictly realist mode. Our focus again is Quentin Coldwater, who has graduated from Brakebills, the secret university of magic. In the company of his classmates, he’s bored and self-involved and he’s one of four kings of Fillory, a world of magic. But things are not quite right, and neither is Quentin, though nobody (least of all him) knows quite what’s wrong. Efforts to fix things inevitably lead to worse.

The brilliant thread here lies not with Quentin (who is something of a dope) but with Julia, the girl he admired back in his Brooklyn high school and whom he forgot after she failed the Brakebills entrance exam. The sorting hat sorted her out and she was supposed to forget the whole thing. Somehow, the spells of forgetting that were supposed to erase the memory of magic don’t quite work — she’s too smart, she sees the fuzzy edges in her memories — and these lead her into a dark subculture of underground magic, riddled with drugs and desperation. It turns out there’s an underground world of people who didn’t get into a good school, a world of community college magicians who swap tips and tattoos in dingy basement hangouts.

Julia is a student who will do anything for knowledge. There is a price to pay, and she pays it, but it’s not just a big bank loan.

September 27, 2014 (permalink)

Interlinked stories of an unremarkable shore town in Maine, all loosely linked to an unremarkable retired school teacher. Memorable, though not a dramatic or even a very pleasant read. Winner of the Pulitzer prize and highly recommended by an old college friend.

September 27, 2014 (permalink)

Boy Proof
Cecil Castellucci

A slight little whisp of a novel, this story doesn’t quite have the confidence to do what it wants. Victoria calls herself “Egg” after a science fiction hero. She’s going to be valedictorian, and she’s made herself boy proof, inoculating herself against the silliness that afflicts her classmates. The world is falling apart, as anyone can see in the headlines, and she has no time for foolishness. It’s an interesting argument, but Egg is never more likely to stand by it than were the female leads of romantic comedies of the 1930s. Her capitulation simply happens; it's told buy it’s not argued, and so the book simply stands for the assertion that resistance is futile.

September 24, 2014 (permalink)

Hugh Howey

We live in a 135-story underground silo, a self-sufficient community of perhaps a few thousand people which is, as far as anyone knows, the only habitable place in the universe. God placed it with care between the toxic depths of the earth and the toxic heights of the sky, and peopled this habitable world with his chosen. The world above, glimpsed through a few precious sensors, is a lifeless place of toxic winds. Everyone knows their level and their job.

And then, one day, the IT Department tries to take over and the Mechanics go to war. A nicely-imagined and well drawn world – a planetary anti-romance – animated by a clever if overlong quest, this seems designed and destined for the movies (and, apparently, has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

September 21, 2014 (permalink)

Tom Brown at Oxford
Thomas Hughes

A readable book, but not the Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Why the first book lives, despite its overtly sentimental structure and its patently melodramatic scheme, while the second book flounders, remains an interesting question.

I’m inclined to lay the blame on Harry East, the seeming-sidekick of the first book who is, in fact, its dramatic and moral center. East leaves Rugby first, an unexplained surprise that presumably relates to unmentionable class tension. Yet East is clearly more U than Hardy, his substitute at Oxford, a man who is never unconscious of his comparative poverty. East never seems conscious of being anything other than a gentleman — perhaps of being a gentleman who doesn’t get on with everyone, but his whole point is that he’s a gentleman and yet he’s somehow not Young Brooke, a self-indulgent and thoughtless fellow. As ever, Tom meanders but comes fairly close to being right in the end.

September 16, 2014 (permalink)

Autumn Term
Antonia Forest

I’ve been reading a bunch of School Stories lately, with special attention to the modern school story. (The Victorian school story ends with graduation; the modern school story ends with the dissolution of the school.) One technical problem of the school story is that it requires buckets of exposition concerning school customs and characters; one the one hand, this is the entire point, but unless you handle things with care it also become ludicrously parochial.

To this, the modern school story adds a second problem: how do you demolish the school without harming the children? The 19th century didn’t mind killing kids; kids died all the time, they die in Little Women and in Tom Brown’s Schooldays and it’s not a scandal. But this is very dicy territory now. Anya dies in Buffy, but (a) she’s a demon, and (b) she’s a kid but she’s also hundreds of years old. Rue dies in The Hunger Games, but that’s the start of a war. It’s quite tricky even to be beastly to a fictitious child these days.

The other school stories I’ve read are either famous and beloved or new and exciting. Autumn Term, which Meryl recommended, is thoroughly forgotten, out of print, and fairly difficult to find. It’s very much in the Victorian style, and it has the further delight of featuring identical twins (cf. Sisterland and Fangirl). It’s very well written. Though it’s implicitly feminist, the book is uninterested in race or gender or class; modern Britain isn’t even on the horizon, neither War has cast a shadow, we give no thought to the colonies and we are living still in the Edwardian twilight.

The series, of which this is the first installment, is a fascinating little corner of book selling. The stories are again out of print, having been reprinted in the 90’s by Puffin and in the 00’s by a small press. They’re not wildly well known, but they have sufficient following that an old Puffin paperback in adequate condition is likely to sell for $70 or so in our newly-efficient used book market. Programmed bidding, where booksellers have their computers check competitor pricing, sometimes leads to isolated used book weirdness where some forgotten volume winds up with an astronomical price, but I suspect this is real: there’s enough demand to keep the price high, but not quite enough demand to attract the attention of a publisher and of the author’s estate.

September 15, 2014 (permalink)

A brilliant mystery that finds a new mix of humor and mystery. Funny mysteries tend to veer into silliness, in part because they’re hard to control and in part because both humor and mystery concern a broken world, but the nature of the fracture is fundamentally different. Down these mean streets a man must go, but if he is a funny guy it will be hard to take him seriously, and if no one takes him seriously the paladin will drift away like a kite. Here, we pile affliction on affliction as the bewildered sherif says, time and again, “you’ve got to be kidding!”

September 15, 2014 (permalink)

I was hoping this would be what Jo Walton calls a Good Bad Book. It’s Nelson’s Navy in Space, patched up so we can keep all the period details. For example, all the warships are crewed by men because the aliens have concocted a phage that selectively afflicts women, and Humanity has to keep all the surviving women safely in the Home Systems to preserve the gene pool. And we board ships with cutlasses in hand because bullets can break stuff. This could lead to something thoughtful and interesting to go with the action, but it doesn’t.

September 6, 2014 (permalink)

A top-flight mystery, deserving a place alonside Hillerman and McGarrity, and heavily influenced as well by the brilliant Janwillem van de Wetering, whose Commisaris fought in the Second World War, whose detective Gipstra grew up in its wake, and whose young protégé De Gier read about the War in books. Here, the war is Vietnam, and a young woman has been found dead near the highway. In her knapsack, she’s got a picture of the sherif, back when he was in country. Highly recommended.

August 27, 2014 (permalink)

A plane of contestants for the Miss Teen Dream pageant crashes on a desert island. Thirteen young ladies survive. The island is infested with giant snakes, scary idols, an absence of food and beauty products, and no people. (OK: there’s an armed compound of privatized CIA agents of The Corporation on Another Part Of The Island™, but nobody told us about that.) We’re ready for Lord Of The Flies, with girls.

The great part of this pleasantly predictable frolic is the audiobook, read by the author, in fourteen accents for the thirteen Teen Dreamers. (One contestant starts out speaking Indian British, but a close encounter with the inevitable pool of quicksand leaves her returning to her native Valley Girl dialect.) Libba Bray sure can read.

August 16, 2014 (permalink)

A TLS summer reading recommendation. George, the shepherd, has been found dead in the pasture, impaled with a spade. The flock meet to discuss this unsettling turn of events. On the one hand, George was not a particularly good shepherd. On the other hand, George read to them — romance stories, a book on the diseases of sheep — and the sheep like stories very much indeed. One of the ewes, Miss Maple, who is the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and perhaps in the world) wants to discover who would do this thing. “I think we owe George that. If a fierce dog took one of our lambs, he always tried to find the culprit. Anyway, he was our shepherd. Nobody had a right to stick a spade in him. That’s wolfish behavior.” And so a flock of sheep, working (more or less) in concert, set off to obtain justice.

August 11, 2014 (permalink)

80 Days, Meg Jaynath’s heralded game adaptation for iOS, has been much discussed lately. It turns out that I’d never read the book, and I thought it might be a good idea to sample the original before diving into its interactive steampunk adaptation.

It’s an interesting book. We all know the story, of course, and though Verne is one of the first masters of science fiction, this isn’t SF: everything in the book was quite possible in 1872. It’s fun too, to see how the Western US looked to Europeans back then, a wilderness of beauty and violence where civilization was never more than a veneer, and where Chicago itself had just risen from its ashes. Sure, it’s wildly colonial. It’s actually more feminist than I would have expected, and it’s worth mentioning that nobody raises an eyebrow at the prospect of interracial marriage,

What’s best here, though, is the interesting construction in which a French servant views his ultra-British master while the rest of the world whizzes past. Quiet shifts of time and viewpoint manage narrative stress with seeming effortlessness. Throughout, the ultimate virtues are those of a good traveller: punctuality, flexibility, openness to experience, consideration for one’s companions, but above all a willingness to accept delays and disappointments you cannot change and a refusal to worry about problems if worrying will not help.

August 8, 2014 (permalink)

A Readercon recommendation, praised for its deft handling of exposition. Also on the Booker long-list. Instead of stating a backstory, Fowler shows how the narrator’s response is skewed by previous events, events which are not yet in evidence but which can now be presented since they are.

A wonderful book. Don’t read the flap copy, and don’t read online plot summaries. Don’t read reviews. Just grab the book.

August 6, 2014 (permalink)

This was the first electronic book that I borrowed from the public library.

Summer is winding up in a small Australian town. Two high school girls get permission to take some friends camping in the outback before they return for their last year of school. The parents insist they take along at least four, preferably six, additional kids; Ellie wryly admits that this is meant to reduce the likelihood of an orgy and considers her life far less interesting than the one her parents keep imagining she has. And so they choose our motley crew of kids they’ve always known (the rowdy boy from the farm down the road, the piously Christian girl who is good at sports) and a few kids from school whom they don’t know well but who seem interesting. They have a nice week. Things go well.

They come home, looking forward to hot showers (and a few cold showers) and find instead that Australia has been invaded, that everyone has been rounded up at the Commemoration Day Fair. Nobody feels much like turning themselves in. In moments, we’re in the midst of Red Dawn.

What makes this work, and what what doomed Red Dawn, is that Marsden need not carry around the baggage surrounding rural tea-party America. These country kids are strikingly competent – our protagonist Ellie doesn’t have a license but she’s been driving tractors since she was six. She can dip sheep, shoot rabbits, and tend chickens, and make a fire for the billy-can. But she gets along with a stoner, a rowdy joker, the quietly intellectual Thai/Vietnamese kid whose family run a restaurant in town and the devout Fundie girl. This used to be us, but it really isn't anymore. Combined with the effortless sexual politics that seems a common note of Australian pop culture, that makes Tomorrow, When The War Began a nifty romp.

It’s also a thoughtful story in which characters experience violence and think through the consequences of the terrible things they’re doing. Marsden catches nicely how, when things change, they don’t all change at once. Late in the book, as we’re resting for the final combat, Ellie asks one of the other girls what she’s reading. It turns out that it’s My Brilliant Career. “She said, ‘Yeah, it’s OK. We’ve got to read it for English.’” They’re in the middle of a guerrilla war, one of them’s already been shot, but we’re still getting a head start on a school year that’s never going to come.

August 6, 2014 (permalink)

As the 1890’s draw to a close, many immigrants leave Eastern Europe and the Western Asia and land at Ellis Island. One of these happens to be a golem, masterfully constructed by a Polish hermit to serve as the wife of a furniture heir who wants to emigrate and who can’t manage to find a wife in the usual way. When the fellow dies at sea, the golem is left adrift; at Ellis Island, she is three days old.

Meanwhile, a nice Syrian woman runs a coffee house in the lower East Side. As a parting gift, her mother gave her an old but well-made copper oil flask. It’s dented and worn, and she sends it to the local tinsmith for repairs. As is often the case in such matters, there was a stowaway in the flask.

This sets the stage for a nice sentimental romance of Old New York. It might be a bit too long –it’s a long novel and it might have been just as effective as a short story – but it’s very pleasant indeed. A Tinderbox customer recommendation – thanks Derek Ittersum!

July 29, 2014 (permalink)

A biography of a vacation house on the Massachusetts south shore, long on sense of place and short of incident. Many details are precisely observed, right down to birdwatching with great-grandmother’s Peterson’s in hand, but they're so subtly rendered and so peripheral that I wonder whether people who haven’t been there will notice them.

July 24, 2014 (permalink)

Terrific, wicked, and very concise, Muriel Spark’s novel stands up well to the memory of Maggie Smith’s wonderful film and ranks among of the great school stories.

“Who has spilled ink on the floor — was it you, Mary?”

“I don’t know, Miss Brodie”

“I daresay it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you did.”

These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest in her life.

July 20, 2014 (permalink)

The Penguin History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages, a solid mainstream survey with a nice attentiveness to the lives and work of women.

September 17, 2014 (permalink)