Thursday, 2 November 2017

Reading Roundup - October 2017

Zacharias Wythe was seen as a novelty by the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, a freed slave taught to perform magic, until he became the Sorcerer Royal. Now, he is beset by accusations of foul play, accused of the murder of his mentor and benefactor, and of doing away with the traditional familiar of his office. Worse, British magic is in an apparent state of terminal decline, the flow of power out of Faerie all but halted, a state of affairs for which his jealous rivals are quick to blame Zacharias. These problems are soon cast into the shade, however, as he becomes reluctant mentor to Prunella Gentleman, a magicien of unusual - the Royal Society would say improper - proficiency and peerless stubbornness.

Sorcerer to the Crown is a Regency-set novel of gentleman magicians, written by a Malaysian woman and featuring as its protagonists a black former slave and a half-Indian girl of questionable birth, which immediately marks it out from the crowd. It has an inventive approach to magic and a pair of sympathetic, if not exactly likeable leads to compete with a set of sneering, elitist antagonists. Also Malaysian lamiae in a diplomatic subplot which sets Zacharias firmly at odds with the Government. It's a book with substantial strengths, but not without flaws, including a tendency for Prunella to tip over from wilful rebel to gold digger to some sort of bloodthirsty egomaniac(1), and a weak romantic thread.

In truth, I would probably have enjoyed it more if it had not been so enthusiastically recommended, but while it may be all that, it falls short of the accompanying bag of chips.

Next up is Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone, which is as you might expect, a parody of Sherlock Holmes with magic in it. Dr John Watson, a half-pay army surgeon with a keen observational and deductive mind, is forced by circumstances to take rooms with the eccentric Warlock Holmes, whom he eventually learns is a form of consulting detective, an occult powerhouse of limited brain, periodically possessed by the spirit of his defeated foe Moriarty.

Through a series of short stories spoofing different Holmes adventures, Warlock Holmes strikes a rich vein of humour in pairing off Watson's deductive genius - very like that of Sherlock - against the totally illogical world into which association with Holmes and his Scotland Yard associates - vampire Lestrade and... ill-defined man-thing Gregson - thrusts him. Somewhat less successful are the more absurdist elements - the cause of the revenger's crusade in the title story is the consumption of a doughnut - and the occasional interjection of unrelated parody - such as references to 'Nexus 7' magical automata.

All in all, it's a less substantial read than Sorcerer to the Crown, itself a fairly light novel as these things go. It isn't the better book, and in its adherence to the form of the originals coupled with a slightly blokish line in geek humour has a woeful shortage of strong, female or minority characters - unless we count werewolves and vampires as minorities, which in Denning's defence, he kind of does - but in the short term is possibly more fun, if only because we aren't expected to like and admire the characters.

Ghosts are making their presence felt on the London Underground... and then shattering in a most improbable way. Police officer and apprentice wizard Peter Grant is on the case, ably assisted by Sgt Jaget Khan, British Transport Police's own resident whipping boy of the weird, Peter's occult-hacking cousin Abigail, and Toby, the increasingly reluctant ghost-sniffing dog. It soon becomes clear that someone is using ghosts to send a message. Someone is in trouble, and someone wants to help, but who? and how? and why can't they just use email?

We're probably at least another year from the next full Peter Grant release, but in the meantime there's The Furthest Station, advertised somewhat disingenuously as 'the first Peter Grant novella', in an attempt to make a half-novel seem more exciting than a full release. In fairness, this is a pretty exciting release. Like Body Work, the first of the Rivers of London comics(2), the trimming of subplots and removal from the arc narrative of the series results in a simpler, but punchier storyline. The blending of mundane crime with occult crimesolving is an interesting twist, it adds a new feature - British-to-American explanatory notes framed as footnotes for the benefit of the FBI's occult pointwoman, Agent Reynolds(3) - and lest anyone worry that the narrative has become too simplistic, there is a little digression in which Peter makes first contact with a neophyte river god. It's not a full novel, but it's a satisfying addition to the Rivers of London canon.

This month saw me finish up the Audible's Definitive Sherlock Holmes, read by Stephen Fry. Alas, it is the nature of the beast that any Holmes collection read straight through leaves the most underwhelming for last. His Last Bow includes such notable takes as 'The Adventure of the Cardboard Box', 'The Adventure of the Dying Detyective' and 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot', but is more notable for its elaborate, often grotesque, scenarios than for the quality of its Holmesing. Many of the stories borrow heavily from earlier offerings - 'The Adventure of the Red Circle' has much in common with 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', including mob connections and secret codes, while 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax' borrows The Hound of the Baskervilles device of Holmes purporting to send Watson as his proxy while following in disguise, and like 'The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton' includes Holmes affecting a singularly inelegant - not to say illegal - solution to a problem that resists pure deduction.

And then there is the title story: 'His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes' sees the great detective called out of bucolic retirement to engage in intelligence work at the dawn of World War I. It's not remotely his forte, and honestly he's a poor spy. For reasons of maintaining tension, it is also told in the third person, which makes for a weird deviation from the established norm.

The same criticisms and more can be applied to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. This last collection of stories is heavily derivative, most notably in 'The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone'. A reworking of a stage play based on elements of earlier stories, including 'The Empty House', it is told in the third person, and introduces the character of Billy the page, one of a number of informers to appear for the first time in this collection, each referenced as if they were long time regulars. Holmes's expanded network is actually an interesting twist, and it's a shame only to see it here instead of being given a less sudden introduction throughout the canon.

Other oddities include 'The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier' and 'The Adventure of the Lion's Mane', both narrated in the first person by Holmes himself. Sadly, Doyle was not able to create a truly distinct narrative voice for Holmes, and I occasionally found myself surprised that it wasn't Watson narrating. For my money, a truly definitive collection should have flown Hugh Laurie in to be Holmes. 'The Three Garridebs' is a retread of the 'Red-Headed League', and while 'The Sussex Vampire' flirts with the Gothic, 'The Creeping Man' pitches us into science fictional grotesquery with a man transformed into a kind of lycanthrope by injections of monkey glands.

The Josh Kirby cover era. Note Twoflower, depicted with four
eyes, instead of glasses.
All told, His Last Bow and Case-Book are a disappointing conclusion to the canon, and a vindication of the author's belief that he maybe should have left his most famous creation dead. That may sound a little harsh, but these last two collections definitely smack of something written more to make the mortgage than because Doyle had a head full of great ideas.

I'm still running slow on Order of the Phoenix, but I've made a good start on a re-reading/listening to of the Discworld stories of Terry Pratchett, beginning at the very beginning with The Colour of Magic.

The Colour of Magic is a bit of an oddity in the series. It is, as Tolkien might have said, merely an essay in the craft, consisting of a series of loosely connected short parodies: 'The Colour of Magic', 'The Sending of Eight', 'The Lure of the Wyrm' and 'Close to the Edge'. The narrative follows Twoflower, the Disc's first tourist, and his reluctant guide, the failed wizard Rincewind, from the twin cities of Ankh-Morpork, out into the wider Disc(4). 'The Colour of Magic' is a parody of the grubby, street-fantasy of Fritz Lieber, in which Twoflower introduces fire insurance to the venal citizens of the Circle Sea's greatest city and thus inevitably brings about its latest incineration. 'The Sending of Eight' takes our heroes - if you will - into the wilds for a clash between barbarian swordsmen and an ancient, elder god, rather in the vein of Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian. 'The Lure of the Wyrm' takes a poke at Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and features one of the only female characters in the series to legitimately dress like a Boris Valejo cover, while 'Close to the Edge' is a more generic parody and revolves more around the specific nature of the Disc.

Within the text, Harenna the Henna-Haired
Harridan is explicitly described as not dressing
the way she is drawn on the cover.
It is this last part that segues directly into the first 'true' Discworld novel, The Light Fantastic, in which Rincewind and Twoflower are returned to the Disc in order to return a critical piece of magic to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork. It introduces the wizards who will come to play a major part in future novels - albeit in a form that is substantially less 'weird, occult hierarchy' and more 'weird, academic hierarchy' than we see here, and not yet including any recurring characters besides Rincewind and the Librarian - features the transformation of the University's Librarian into an orangutan - in a scene so brief that many readers, myself included, assume that the accident was just backstory for a long time - and hints at the future 'phasing out' of the Disc's barbarian hero workforce with the figure of the ancient-yet-spry Cohen the Barbarian, greatest and oldest hero in the world, whose acquisitive desires are now more focused on hot baths and back liniment than on gold and precious jewels.

The Light Fantastic is also the first of many Discworld novels in which the Disc faces total annihilation, in this case from the near-fatal interruption of Great A'Tuin's spawning cycle by arrogant, power-hungry wizards.

The general theme that ninety percent of wizards are, at best, useless and, at worst, a liability, is continued in the last of this month's Discworld novels: Equal Rites. Arguably the first of Pratchett's political novels, rather than examining and parodying fantasy tropes in themselves, it uses those fantasy tropes and their parodies as a lens to examine a contemporary issue, in this case that of gender roles. It also introduces the woman who is, again arguably, the most iconic of all Discworld characters, Granny Esmerelda Weatherwax.

Again, it's made explicit that Granny deplores her lack of
suitably cronish features.
Equal Rites follows Eskarina Smith, the first daughter and eighth child of an eighth child, who thanks to a mix up with a piece of prognostication inherits the staff and powers of a dying wizard, which would normally be reserved for a child with a Y-chromosome. Surprisingly little of the actual narrative involves the jaded institution of the Unseen University gatekeeping wizardry against Esk. Instead, the focus is more on a more general perception of the limit, beginning with Granny Weatherwax, who has some very set ideas about gender roles... just as long as some long-bearded fool isn't trying to tell her what they ought to be.

If The Colour of Magic is an oddity, The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites kick off two of the major subseries in the Discworld canon - the Rincewind series, and the Witches. While the first may be a bit of a test case, the others are surprisingly strong for early works and already show the potential of the Discworld to assume the influential position it now holds in modern culture. They also remind me how much I miss having Terry in the world and new Discworld novels to look forward to(6).

Finally, I read the dead tree edition of Liz Braswell's As Old as Time. This is the third in Disney's Twisted Tales series, but they aren't linked and I like Beauty and the Beast, so I started here. The Twisted Tales are what if stories which reimagine classic Disney tales with, unsurprisingly, a twist. What if Aladdin never found the lamp?(7) What if Sleeping Beauty never woke up?(8) What if Ariel wasn't a self-absorbed pill?(9) And in this instance, what if the Enchantress who cursed the Beast was Belle's mother.

The book begins with a fairly straight reiteration of the opening of Beauty and the Beast, with Gaston pursuing Belle and culminating in the ambush wedding, but interleaved with the courtship of Maurice the inventor and the enchantress Rosalind in a small kingdom where magical beings live alongside normal humans. As the two fall in love and marry, les normales begin to persecute les charmants, and magical individuals begin to disappear. At last, Belle's mother curses the prince in punishment for his parents' tacit support for the pogroms, but is then abducted and held in a terrible prison. Because of their connection, Belle triggers an intensifying of the curse, nearly trapping her and the Beast in the castle, before they return to discover that les charmants were being held captive in the very asylum to which Gaston seeks to condemn Maurice.

This is probably the first Beauty and the Beast story to name drop the Necronomicon, and if nothing else provides an explanation for the bookseller in the animated film(10), as well as offering the same explanation for some of the inconsistencies as the new film (a memory charm.) Belle is reasonably convincing as a conflicted adolescent - she likes books, yearns for adventure, but a part of her still would like to have friends, and as much as his coarser qualities repel her, she is aware that Gaston is a looker - and the Beast's curse draws much more on an emergent animal nature than the mere physical transformation.

It's been a somewhat surprisingly fruitful month, which is nice to see. It's been fun getting back to Pratchett, and I've found some new authors to enjoy as well. It was definitely a stronger field than last month.

(1) Honestly, this would have bothered me less if the overall impression had not been that we were supposed to find her in all ways charming.
(2) And presumably the others, but I haven't read those for budget reasons.
(3) I do love the fact that, as the story progresses, more and more agencies are appointing those caught up in Grant's investigations to carry the can on the cases they'd rather not acknowledge more than is absolutely necessary.
(4) It's telling of the influence of the series that I feel not the slightest need to explain that the Discworld is a flat world, riding on the backs of four giant elephants turning circles on the shell of the star turtle Great A'Tuin(5).
(5) Apparently my geek level lies somewhere between being able to spell A'Tuin from memory (having only heard it on this run through,) and knowing offhand what the elephants are called.
(6) On this run-through, I will be finishing up with Making Money and Raising Steam, the last two that I haven't read yet, as well as revisiting some of the more recent ones - and Jingo - for the first time since the first time.
(7) A Whole New World.
(8) Once Upon a Dream.
(9) Okay, I made this one up. 
(10) He is a charmant watching over Belle and her father.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Reading Roundup - September 2017

Another month goes by with no progress on the 2017 Challenge. This time, it's basically because I've thrown my back out and can't afford to carry a large dead-tree volume to and from work. I've therefore invested in the first volume of the 'Emancipation' theme on Audible, so watch this space for my take on the suddenly much-discussed(1) The Handmaid's Tale.


Kalinda - Kali for short - is a trainee at warrior nun school, and thus destined to become a warrior nun unless she is claimed by one of the benefactors as a wife, courtesan or servant. She is tall and gawky in a culture of petite curves, so of course she is claimed by the Rajah to be his hundredth wife, thus elevating him to near-godly megastud status... but only after she has faced challenges from any of his roughly nine squintillion concubines who seek to claim her place. This is not a fate she would have chosen even if the Rajah wasn't a drunken douchebag, which he is, and even if her appointed bodyguard wasn't the fantasy Indian equivalent of Jet Li in The Bodyguard from Beijing(2), which he is, and who sees beauty in the form she considers gangly and awkward, which he does. Unfortunately, that is the fate she's got, and now she will have to find the holy book of an outlawed sect of magic ninjas, survive her 'rank tournament', marry the Rajah and murder him, all without getting the gorgeous Deven Nyk(3) murdered by succumbing to the gravitational attraction of dem eyes.

The Hundredth Queen - or, to give it its alternative title, The Several Hundredth Fantasy Novel About a Special Snowflake With a Destiny and a Dreamy-Eyed True Love - is... Okay, actually it's not as awful as I'm making out, but it is so very much of a type that it is not merely easy to mock, but almost impossible to take seriously. Of its ilk, it is not terrible, and it has some gorgeous imagery, but it's just so rote. Magical powers, secret relations, dreamy love interest, utterly diabolical villains. There are a few twists towards the end, as the massively oppressed magical ninjas turn out to be so over peaceful co-existence, but for the most part its all par for the course, and there's a point in the middle where our star-crossed lovers are contemplating their prospects and I just wanted to slap them both for their utter egocentrism. Deven not only declares that he can find the thing the Bhutas(4) have been searching for for years because his love for Kali is more motivation than the impending extermination of their entire race and potential release of a world-consuming evil super ninja, but turns out to be right, only for their ill-conceived plan and Kali's hare-brained rescue attempt to get Kali's best friend killed and Deven lost down a river. And do either of them ever admit that this happened because they were reckless, foolhardy and selfish? Do they bollocks.

Like The Wretched of Muirwood, there is a disconnect between the espoused values of the world and the actions of the characters. Sisterhood is promoted strongly, but while she does act in support of the other women of the royal harem on many occasions, she is also willing to skip out on any chance of affecting real change to live her sexy dream life with Deven (who, incidentally, is literally the first man she ever sees.) King paints a world in which nothing is supposed to come easily, but only a handful of characters in the book actually seem to understand the concept of sacrifice and most of those get pretty short shrift from Kali in her role as narrator.

I will say this for the book; the rampant sexism of its culture was more than an assumption. While we open with a world where women are basically chattels, it emerges throughout the book that this was not always the case. Women once held significant power, before the Rajahs and other wealthy (male) benefactors were able to promote the once-outlawed rank tournaments as a means of making women battle each other for favour. It makes a change from just imposing historical chauvinism on a world where people can set each other on fire with their minds.

A terrible conflagration forces a group of cleaners and maintenance workers to flee from the London Underground, through a door into another world. Mary is a juvenile delinquent with an iron will. Daleep is a nice Sikh boy with a formerly bright future in engineering. They, along with Bosnian track worker Stanislav, shift mum Mama, and three other cleaners find themselves in Down, not just a direction, but a destination, a seemingly unspoiled wilderness where geomancers tap into powerful energies flowing between the portals to London.

The group soon find themselves at the mercy of these competing magicians, but Dalip and Mary each find a peculiar strength in Down, Mary becoming a geomancer herself, and Dalip discovering a warrior spirit which seems to reshape his body into fighting trim. It seems that Down is a place to find yourself, although some find worse selves than others.

Down Station is hands down the best book I've read/listened to in September, coupling interesting and flawed characters with a novel and compelling form of secondary world; a sort of emergency Narnia which takes people in mortal peril out of London, but never sends them back. The reversal of expectations in making the cerebral Dalip into a fighter and natural-born scrapper Mary into the magician makes both characters more compelling, and their interactions with their various allies - especially the desperately broken Stanislav - at least as intriguing as the battle with the Geomancer and her guards. It's also notable that the book quietly eschews the standard assumption of white leads, with Mary being mixed-race and Dalip a Sikh, and their allies mostly black or Eastern European. The second book of the series, The White City, is definitely higher on my to-read list than The Fire Queen.

In fact, with The Hundredth Queen being set in fantasy India, that means that Architects of Destiny and Veil of Reality, the first two volumes of the scifi epic Cadicle feature my only white protagonists of the month. Well, and Harry Potter, but I haven't finished The Order of the Phoenix because I find it so hard to go to sleep while listening to any scene in which Dolores Umbridge is present and not being savaged to death by weasels.

The Tararian Empire is a vast, interstellar dominion, ruled by the corporate nobility of the High Dynasties and mediated by a no-longer-religious Priesthood. Christoph Seitinen is the heir to one of the Dynasties, and was born with telepathic powers that he refuses - against all policy - to deny. Indeed, his powers are substantially greater than those of most telepaths. And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach...'s dad.

After running away from home, Chris is located by the Tararian Selective Service, a sort of general purpose agency responsible for getting shit done in the Empire, and permitted to train its agents to use their telepathic powers. While in training, Chris meets a girl and they fall in love at first sight, despite her turning out to be a Dynastic scion as well. We later learn that this is because they were genetically programmed to be super hot for one another, but they don't find that out until book two. In fact... very little happens in Architects of Destiny. Chris runs away from home, gets a job on a freighter, eats street food, gets picked up by the TSS, has a training montage, then gets married.

Veil of Reality picks up fourteen years later, implying that the entire first book was a bit of a digression and that we're really interested in the future Primus Elite/Cadicle/Dragon, Will Seitinen. Chris and Kate's son is a prodigy, with vast intelligence and psychic welly. He is kidnapped by the Baksen, an alien force at double-secret war with the Tarans, who torment him with loaded hints about the real plot and apparently want him to join their team. Chris undertakes a rescue mission while Kate hunts a traitor in the TSS, and as a result all the stuff about generations of Dynastic scions being programmed to ultimately create Will in order to counter the telepathic threat of the Baksen comes out (although not the secret of the Baksen's origins; I'm calling early attempts to genetically engineer a psychic super-race, but they were unstable/too powerful/slightly off-putting with their rough skin and red eyes and got mad when the Priesthood tried to scrap them.)

I've got the third book in the same omnibus as the first two, so I guess I'll give it a go sometime, but I can't say I care that much. The absolute focus on the wealthy elite and the shady super-agency is especially egregious for having gone out of the way to introduce the idea that the populace thinks that the system of rule really sucks. The complete absence of ordinary folks from the narrative is all the more striking for the fact that the Seitinens are described as blonde haired and blue eyed, as a result of their generational drive for genetic purity. In addition, there are no strong female characters at all, with Kate's informed brilliance doing her no good at all when called on to track down the traitor responsible for trying to kill her son.

Not a great month then, apart from Down Station. Roll on October(5).

(1) And hardly irrelevant before.
(2) Or Kevin Costner, or I suppose Ryan Reynolds.
(3) As always, spellings may be off-base since I listen instead of reading.
(4) The magic ninjas.
(5) Oh, it already did.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Reading Roundup - August 2017

Nothing on the Reading challenge this month. I've got through a double bill on my Harry Potter re-read/listen, however, with arguably the strongest entries in the series: The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire.

The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to the Night Bus and the Dementors, expands on the backstory linking Professor Snape with Harry's parents and their friends, and presents us with the first concrete example of Dumbledore being wrong about something; he changes his mind when presented with evidence, but he and McGonagall are initially as sure as anyone that Sirius Black was a murderous traitor. This was also the book which first described the Quidditch Cup in a way that makes any kind of sense (see also The Goblet of Fire.) Whereas previously it seemed as though everyone but the Seeker was extraneous, here we meet the idea that accumulated total score is important. Yes, the Snitch usually determines victory in the match, but to win the season the other players need to rack up the score as well.

Probably the most memorable addition to the canon are the monstrous Dementors, who serve as putative protectors, antagonists, and as foreshadowing that not all is well in the wizarding world if law and order is in the hands of such creatures. Similarly, the prejudice against muggle-borns rears its ugly head again, accompanied by anti-werewolf prejudice as represented by Professor Lupin, the first decent Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in the series.

The Goblet of Fire begins with scenes set at the Quidditch World Cup, which initially provide a light-hearted opening – and show that in professional matches, the Snitch is not the sole arbiter of victory – before seguing into one of the darkest moments in the series. Actually, I say segue, but the fact is that there is an undercurrent of darkness from the first, with Arthur Weasley being one of the only wizards at the Cup who makes any effort to try to hide his family's wizarding nature from the mortals who own and manage the campsites around the pitch, rather than just magicking their way about and occasionally zapping someone's memory rather than inconvenience themselves. Coupled with the bureaucratic bulldog that is Barty Crouch, and the continuing influence and good name of the Malfoys, it is clear that the wizarding world is no more utopian than the muggle one.

And then comes the Death Eater rally, which was just uncomfortably apt to current events. Usually I go to sleep listening to my audio book, but even the dulcet tones of Mr Fry couldn't lull me to slumber around a subject so reminiscent of the real-world horrors of Charlottesville. There are many who say that JK Rowling should stick to writing children's books and stay away from politics, but between the Death Eaters at the world cup, tormenting Muggles for fun, the poisonous Rita Skeeter, and the seemingly affable Cornelius Fudge(1), it is apparent that even when writing children's books she has and always has had a keen pen for a bit of political satire. Even her heroes come in for some schtick, especially in this instance Hermione, whose well-meaning attempt to liberate the Hogwarts House-elves is the rankest patronisation, regardless of her good intentions.

Prisoner and Goblet represent for me the pinnacle of the series, representing a significant maturation over Stone and Chamber, and preceding the bloated misstep of The Order of the Phoenix. Actually, I say that, but I've been surprised by enough as I listened to the first four volumes of the series(2) that I am not going to write off Order just yet. I do find it chilling that the Death Eater rally seems so much less over the top than it did in the faraway past of the year 2000. Also notable in the re-read is just how many characters have much longer careers in the series that I remembered, just because their names didn't register so much in early appearances.

As a side note: Avoid Pottermore if you don't want to lose hours of your life.


The Remnant is the final volume of the Oversight trilogy, although at times it doesn't feel like it. Beginning with a fractured Final Hand, beleaguered on all sides, things rapidly go downhill for London's magic police. Even by the standards of the previous instalments, this is a pretty bleak prospect, and the more interesting as the characters are given the space to wonder if they didn't fuck up a generation past by not giving the whole thing up as a bad job and falling back to lick their wounds and rebuild their numbers. It is unusual in many ways, not least for the primary villain, the man behind the curtain who has motivated the entire plot, dying largely by accident without ever having met most of the protagonists.

Perhaps more impressive is that the series concludes with the apprentices genuinely seeming to get the point better than their mentors, and the ancient order overturned, but not entirely for the worse. Even the sluagh, the trilogy's particular take on the faerie(4), embrace some aspects of change. Moreover, those of our heroes who survive the climactic battle do so as much because of their willingness to show mercy and compassion as because of their skill and strength. All this makes The Remnant an interesting book, although in all honesty it does not feel like the conclusion of a trilogy. There are too many fleshed-out side characters whose stories and actions are left unresolved, in particular those of Caitlin and her American associates, not to mention the somewhat sinister implications of the East Coast Remnant's seemingly cult-like process of 'regulation' and John Dee's designs on both the mirror world and the West. The novel certainly leaves one wanting more, but the palpable threat that there won't be any presented by that 'trilogy' designation makes the degree of that wanting less than comfortable.

Giant Days Volumes 1 & 2 collect issues 1-8 of John Allison's virtual dead tree university opus. Following the academia-bound adventures of Tackleford's Goth princess 'Dark' Esther de Groot, grounded Northampton lass Susan Ptolemy, and the whimsical, homeschooled Daisy Wooton. The three wrestle with illness and romance, struggle with the spectres of boyfriends past, contemplate their sexuality, do battle with the forces of internet-enabled toxic masculinity, and even, on occasion, find time to study. Daisy even finds time to fall victim to a psychological condition which dissolves the boundary between reality and fiction, binging on Friday Night Lights until she becomes a down-home Texas gal, much as Shelley Winters once believed Homicide: Life on the Streets to be the true reality(5).

Giant Days is somehow both bizarre in the best way, and very down to Earth, much like its siblings in the Allison stable. It's a little odd to see that style and humour delivered with a different style, but really no more so than looking at decade-old SGR strips or – heaven help us – Bobbins. I admit I was reluctant to get into it at first, in part because damnit Esther/the Boy was my OTP and then the Giant Days webcomics turned him into a bit of a jerk, but honestly I think it's helped in that regard by providing further context to Esther's life after the Boy, in particular by going to immediately after, whereas Eustace Boyce didn't appear again until he was all growed up into a barely likeable man-child(6), which did little to endear the break up to me as a plot development.

The world might be a very different place if more people
spoke boot.
Finally for the month, the Sherlockian odyssey continues with His Last Bow, ironically the penultimate collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, including the titular oddity in which our hero is brought out of retirement on the eve of the Great War to do battle with a German spymaster. It's an oddity in part because it is narrated in the third person, and in part because it departs the familiar ground of robbery and murder to embroil Holmes in an espionage thriller. It's not really Doyle's forte and, as a result, is far from his strongest work. It's a little reminiscent of The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie's foray into the world of spies, in that regard, the trappings of a whodunit proving ill-at-ease with the less forthright lexicon of the Great Game.

The collection also includes the two-part 'The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge' and the bait-and-switch of 'The Adventure of the Dying Detective', which has its impact somewhat lessened for its inclusion in a collection which asserts in its preface that Holmes is alive and well in 1917. 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax' takes our investigators across Europe for perhaps the first time since 'The Final Problem', and sees Holmes nearly defeated. 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot' and 'The Adventure of the Red Circle' both see Holmes allowing or excusing acts of murder which is considers justified by survival or retribution. A number of these stories contain elements familiar from earlier entries in the canon, but then could Doyle really have been anticipating, even at the height of Sherlock mania, the kind of scrutiny and longevity that his work has since enjoyed?

(1) Who it turns out is actually much more sinister than I gave him credit for the first time around. Mostly he is ineffectual, but he embodies subconscious privilege with his unthinking deference to blood purity, even while notionally against pureblood supremacy, making him a classic liberal bigot.
(2) And I know enough people who reckon that Jingo(3) isn't that bad at a second glance.
(3) Once I've got through Potter, I might have a bash at revisiting the Discworld series.
(4) Or at least those of the masculine persuasion.
(5) I like that the weirdness is consistent.

(6) He got better.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Reading Roundup - July 2017

Just the one book this month, with Carpentaria actually taking until the 3rd of August to finish. Both a first look into a culture that is almost completely new to me and a weird parallel to One Hundred Years of Solitude, it blends oral storytelling with magic-realism to great effect.

This month past saw me through three more books in the Complete Sherlock Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third, and probably most well-known, of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Set during the earlier years of the partnership of Holmes and Watson, it was presented during the period of the great detective's death as a means to stave off pressure to return the character full tie. It pits Holmes against an apparently supernatural foe, and features some of the classic moments of the canon, as well as some prize examples of Holmes's dickery. He lies to Watson, and despite knowing who the killer is from the get go, holds off in search of evidence so long that his client is almost mauled to death and a young woman brutally beaten (in as much as the narrative cares after she has been revealed as the killer's – largely unwilling – accomplice; Watson is Judgey McJudgerson on this one.)

Conversely, the final novel – The Valley of Fear – is perhaps the least known and regarded of the four, despite featuring the second and final appearance(1) of Professor Moriarty in the canon(2). Similar in structure to A Study in Scarlet and, like Hound set before the fatal confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls, it swaps Mormons for Masonic trade union mobsters terrorising honest mine owners and opposed by the brave men of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, based loosely on the case of the Molly Maguires. As with many of Doyle's inclusions of contemporary secret societies or fringe groups, the depiction is startlingly black and white to modern eyes, but would have represented the first and all that many of his readers might have heard of such things. It is also of note that the main narrative doesn't even feature an actual murder until the epilogue, and that it features a police detective whose skills almost rival Holmes's own.

Finally, The Return of Sherlock Holmes was Doyle's capitulation to market pressure for more Sherlock Holmes' stories. It begins with 'The Adventure of the Empty House', in which Holmes returns to London and reveals his survival to Watson, before bringing down Moriarty's lieutenant, Colonel Sebastian Moran.

'The Adventure of the Norwood Builder' and 'The Adventure of the Abbey Grange' both feature cases in which the accused client reaches Holmes in a state of dishevelment having been set up, in the one case to take the fall and the other to provide an alibi for murders that are not, for one reason or another, ever actually committed. 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', on the other hand, belongs to that subset of Holmes stories in which Holmes' preference for intellectual rigour over action arguably results in the death of his client, a category from which 'The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist' escapes by a matter of moments.

'The Adventure of the Priory School' sees Holmes claiming his biggest ever payday when he uncovers a plot to manipulate an aristocrat's will. Also of note, ' The Adventure of the Second Stain' brings Holmes into affairs of national importance, and features a twinkly-eyed Prime Minister of no given name and peculiar perspicacity.

'The Adventure of Black Peter' is a fairly routine terrible history case, ' The Adventure of the Six Napoleons' sees Holmes tangle tangentially with the Mafia, and ' The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez' has a bit of both, as a murder leads to the uncovering of an academic's secret past in a Russian revolutionary brotherhood. Comparatively speaking, 'The Adventure of the Three Students' and 'The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter' are light fare, although the latter's seemingly trivial case of a missing rugby player resolves into a tragic denouement with no criminal component.

Perhaps the most remarkable story in the book is 'The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton', not least for Holmes's singular failure to resolve the case in hand for himself. Tasked with recovering compromising material from the titular master blackmailer, Holmes makes a reckless attempt to strong-arm the villain before finally deciding to break into his house, quite by chance on the night that he happens to be murdered by another party. It's a rare show of fallibility, with Holmes operating out of his comfort zone and stuffing it almost completely.

I've sometimes had mixed success with the work of Cornelia Funke(3), but Ghost Knight is a cracking read. It's nothing all that new – boy sent to boarding school after friction with potential stepfather, threatened by ghosts, makes a friend in the local eccentric, resolves the problem(4) and in so doing finds a way to resolve his personal issues as well – but well told and wonderfully pacey; I finished the short novel in a day.

Rosie Revere, Engineer is a book that I bought for my daughter and which, in her inimitable style, she flatly insisted that she didn't like until I practically forced her to listen to me read it, after which she asked for it every night for a week. It's a simple, but affecting, tale of young Rosie, who hides her desire to invent for fear of being mocked. Then her Great Aunt Rose – who is implied to be the original Rosie the Riveter – assures her that it's great to try and okay to fail, so long as each failure leads to another, better failure on the road to – maybe – success.

For my bedtime listening, I've been going back to the Harry Potter series(5), and have so far got through Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. My biggest takeaway from this – besides the fact that I find it odd that Stephen Fry doesn't give Professor McGonagall any kind of Scots accent, and puts the stress on the second syllable of Malfoy – is that damn those books were dark. I'd sort of blanked out just how horrid the Dursleys are, and had forgotten that even in book one we have Voldemort suckling on unicorn blood while living parasitically in the body of another human being. Then book two has children being stalked by an unseen monster, giant spiders trying to eat the protagonists, and a young girl's soul being consumed by a possessed book.

Never mind bringing a generation to reading, I'm amazed it didn't bring more of them to therapy.

These first two books are what Tolkien might have called essays in the craft, with Rowling not yet the accomplished writer she ended up. As a result the prose is a little hit and miss, but overall they hold their own among the crowded field of children's fiction, even if they aren't quite up to the standards later set by their successors.

My actual copy of this is as old as dirt and
looks like the opening credits of The Time
Tunnel
.
Finally this month, A Wrinkle in Time was another re-read, and a slightly disappointing one. The opening volume of Madelaine l'Engle's Time quar/quintet is chock full of interesting ideas, but in retrospect the dialogue is somewhat stilted and the 'love conquers all' finale is a little bit pat in a novel of cosmic good and evil. Or perhaps it's the only ending that makes any sense?

Still, it's got a lot going for it and a strongly humanist theme(6) that I approve of, and I especially like that the young protagonist Meg learns to recognise that her father is not omnipotent – and that that's okay – as well as that her 'flaws' – the 'unladylike' traits of anger and stubbornness – do not have to be weaknesses.

(1) Well, he's never 'on screen', as it were, but his actions directly affect events, rather than simply being referenced at a distance.
(2) An appearance which, notably, contradicts some of the details of 'The Final Problem' by implying that Watson and others of Holmes's associates knew of his pursuit of the Professor.
(3) Her more YA-oriented fare, such as the Inkheart trilogy and the Reckless series have generally gone down better than those aimed at younger readers.
(4) In this case by undertaking an apprenticeship with a long-dead knight.
(5) I wasn't quite an early adopter, but started reading the series around the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so I beat the absolute Pottermania that kicked in for the fourth book.
(6) The series doesn't get really Christian for a while.

2017 Reading Challenge - Carpentaria

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (read by Isaac Drandich)
Reason for Reading: A while back, I caught the first episode of a series called Cleverman, which has joined the list of stuff I Will Get Back to One Day. I've mostly put off watching it because it's a pretty dense piece of work, and quality, thoughtful TV requires more focus than I necessarily have to spare from family life from day to day. Anyway, this prompted me to add Australian literature to my challenge list, specifically seeking out Aboriginal writers. The research I was able to do with my limited time and resources turned up two significant titles: The Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, and Carpentaria.

Sometimes comic, often tragic, Carpentaria presents the struggle of an indigenous people to retain their meaning and relevance in the face of a world that wants to forget their stories. In a rambling, non-linear narrative, the novel tells the story of the town of Desperance on the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the aboriginal families of the Pricklebush live uncomfortably alongside the white folks of Uptown. Through the lives of Pricklebush patriarch Normal Phantom and of his estranged son Will, of travelling religious leader Mozzie Fishman, of Norm's wife Angel Day and of Elias, an amnesiac white man washed ashore on the beach, and through the blending of the natural world, Christianity and the ancestral spirit world of the Queensland Aborigines, Wright weaves a tale that, although set about fifty years later and on the other side of the world, is a close match for the first book in my challenge, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The parallels are not so exact as to suggest plagiarism, merely indicative of similar influences. Both are set in isolated, ill-founded towns – Desperance was created as a deep-water port, only for the river to shift course and leave it locked behind miles of mudflats and simultaneously exposed to cyclones – whose local worthies struggle against outside authority. Both towns hold strong against government interference, but capitulate to the crushing power of international capitalism; the Gurfurrit Mine takes the ancestral land of the Pricklebush mob, and offers them dangerous jobs in return. Both feature characters with their own, eccentric religious and philosophical views. They even both end with a catastrophic storm sweeping away all that has gone before. Where they differ markedly, however, is in their narrative voice, with Wright adopting the customs of oral storytelling in contrast to Garcia-Marquez's intense literary style. This is not to say that Carpentaria is less well-written than One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a meticulous piece of writing, where a deliberate rawness rubs shoulders with profound eloquence.

The next book on my list is That Deadman Dance, which is not available in audiobook or Kindle format, so will be approached in dead tree format, and an imposing format it is.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

2017 Reading Challenge - Halfway Summary

Arya is doing a summer reading challenge at the library, but due to busy
weekends is unlikely to complete it.
So, I guess the big news is that I'm about two months behind. If I can finish up Carpentaria, I'll have read 9 of my target 14 books; everything up to April and the first of two books for May.

In part, this is because really good books are much more demanding than books that are just okay, or even quite good. There's a density of text in truly great literature that defies speed reading or - in my case - casual listening. A few moments of distraction or a noisy bus can cause you to miss days of meaning. It also makes them really difficult to tackle while tired, and I am so often tired at the moment, what with parenthood and all.

I began the year with 'Magic Realism', and one of the remarkable things I've noticed is how deeply that concept pervades the other books I've approached. Gothic is the sinister twin of magic realism anyway, but if Sylvia Plath didn't coin the term in The Bell Jar, she defines it, and Carpentaria reads like the antipodean One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Moving forward, I think I'm going to ditch the monthly targets and just stick with my themes:

Australia

  • Carpentaria - Alexis Wright
  • That Deadman Dance - Kim Scott

Emancipation

  • Beloved - Toni Morrison
  • The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

India

  • A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
  • The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The Luke Cage Syllabus

  • Little Green - Walter Mosley
  • Crime Partners - Donald Goines

Africa

  • Dust - Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
  • We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Undefined Theme

  • Travel Light - Naomi Mitchison


Muslim Authors

  • Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

Mother Russia

  • Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Secret History of Moscow - Ekaterina Sedia

Poetry and Music Bonuses

  • Guante - A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry
  • Edgar Allen Poe - Collected Verse
  • Te Vaka - Havili
  • Freida Hughes - Wooroloo

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Reading Roundup - June 2017

2017 Reading Challenge
Back up to pace this month, as I finished off Wild Swans and moved on to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. In the end, the problem with these two books was that, while the world of China during the Cultural Revolution is definitely a new one to me, the two had almost identical perspectives, being written by literate city children from Chengdou who went to the mountains. They were both excellent, and of course Wild Swans had a much broader scope, while Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress cared far more about character.

It's a sort of horror-western-fantasy mashup. Damn, you'd
have to have been King to get this published in 1982.
With the movie The Dark Tower coming out soon, I thought I'd have another crack at the original, with Stephen King's The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger(1). Full disclosure, I'm not a fan of King's writing in general, although the first two volumes of the series have been the exception so far, in that I got off the first page and, indeed, through the first two (or maybe three) books before the library failed me. Maybe it was the contemporary setting in the other books - I wasn't much into modern day until I was... well, ever really; even my crime reading tends to be old noir - but the western/post-apocalyptic/horror/fantasy mashup of The Gunslinger really hooked me. Or perhaps it was the opening.

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”(2)

The Gunslinger kicks off in media res, with the titular pistoleer-paladin in pursuit of the Man in Black, a wizard and corruptor seemingly set on bringing ruin to what is left of a blasted, dying world, having already overthrown the Gunslingers' kingdom of Gilead(3). Death follows in the Man in Black's wake, wrought by him and delivered by the Gunslinger, with a young boy from modern(ish; the book is old) day Manhattan the latest in the crosshairs. The Gunslinger is the hunter, but the Man in Black has all the power, at least at this point in their cat and mouse. It's an intriguing opener, much stronger on set-up than on payoff, but there it goes; it is the start of a seven book plus two novella series, so you wouldn't expect it to wrap everything up neatly.

Oddly, the Red Riding Hood persona is only
mooted in this volume.
Next on my list was The Rules of Supervillainy, a semi-parody set in one of those worlds where superpowers are fairly commonplace. Gary Karpowsky is a happily married white collar worker who receives the magical Reaper's Cloak after its previous 'partner', superhero the Nightwalker, dies. Gary sets out on a career of crime as Merciless, the Supervillain without Mercy(4), but his idea of supervillainy is more that of a kind of anti-establishment heroic outlaw than an actual villain (or as he puts it, he's a villain, not a jerk.) This outlook brings him into conflict with actual villains - most of whom have a serious hard-on for murder, rather than wanting to buck the system that keeps the little guy down - as well as superheroes and 'antiheroes'; that subset of vigilante murderers whose targeting of villains seems to excuse their monstrous, murderous behaviour, but whose methods are a large part of Gary's motivation for eschewing straightforward heroism.

Superhero parody is ten a penny, but The Rules of Supervillainy kicks off a series with a certain something. Gary is an appealing protagonist, combining well-meaning family man with his dedication to an almost non-existent code of noble supervillainy. The superpowered action is perhaps a little lacking, with Phipps seeming more assured with the comedic and dramatic aspects of the story, but those other aspects are deftly handled and Gary's tragedy - the loss of his ex-supervillain brother, and the collapse of his previous relationship with a superheroine - complements his comedy well.

Winter Tide is a Lovecraftian novel with a twist. Growing out of the short story 'The Litany of Earth', it takes as its premise the idea that the Deep Ones of Innsmouth were a persecuted minority, rounded up by the government thanks to lies like those in 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'. Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb are the last surviving land-bound children of Innsmouth. Aphra lives with a Japanese family who were interned with them during WWII, works informally with an FBI agent seeking to foster greater ties with the Aeonist(5) community, and has begun teaching magic to the owner of the bookshop where she works. Caleb, meanwhile, has been trying to recover a vast wealth of books from Innsmouth that have been claimed by Miskatonic University. Agent Spector offers a means to access MU's 'Innsmouth Collection', if the Marshes can help him to track the possibility of a Russian spy using body-switching magic as a tool of espionage.

Devoted, yet fully woke Lovecraft fan Ruthanna Emrys brings a sincere affection to the mythos, even as she deconstructs its underlying assumptions and horrors. Through Aphra's eyes, the time-travelling, body-snatching Great Race of Yith are the sole legacy of a world whose destruction is preordained, and the one certainty that someone takes note of human(6) affairs in this uncaring universe. Innsmouth was a town of pagan fish-people minding their own business, and Miskatonic University is a bastion of elitist, intellectual snobbery. Ancient religions respect the balance of natural and unnatural forces, while the federal forces I shall call Schmelta Green are a bunch of dangerously amateur hacks(7).

Winter Tide is a melancholic novel of the search for a world long lost, as well as a threat new established. It blends Cold War uncertainty with Lovecraft's Yog-sothery to almost(8) entirely reinterpret the latter. Most of its horror, such as it is, comes from the human world, and the unchecked power of the government in dealing with 'the other', and notably most of Aphra's allies are in some sense 'other', be they Deep Ones, cripples, Jews, gays, blacks, Japanese or descendants of other human strains.

Finally, and in a similar vein to The Gunslinger, The City of Shifting Waters is the source material for a forthcoming movie, specifically the first in the Valerian and Laureline series of scifi comics, which are the basis of the forthcoming Luc Besson extravaganza Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets(9). Spacio-temporal Agents Valerian and Laureline are sent to the 1980s, the start of an historical dark age from which no records remain until the formation of the great, world-spanning civilisation that will arise from its ashes. Valerian is in pursuit of an old nemesis, Xombul, across a flooded New York. Teaming up with smuggler Sun Rae and scientist Schroeder, Valerian and Laureline must prevent Xombul establishing control of history and forever altering the timeline in his own favour.

The City of Shifting Waters suffers somewhat from a slightly haphazard Kindle conversion, but in many ways the narrative itself is ahead of its time(10). Laureline is a slinky red-head, but seldom sexualised, and Valerian admits that his problem with allowing women in the service is that they outshine old hands like him. It might be nice to assume that in the 28th century the inclusion of women in a space-time agency wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but it was written almost fifty years ago. The story is reminiscent of some of Strontium Dog's time travel stories, and it's hard to keep in mind that in fact this predated those by decades. It's impossible to see any of this in the trailers for the movie, mind you, which looks to be all about the spacio and not the temporal.

(1) A book that, in its original short story form, is almost as old as I am.
(2) Frequently listed among the best opening lines ever.
(3) I couldn't help drawing comparisons between the macho Gunslinger kingdom and The Handmaid's Tale's fascist state, but I suspect they are just drawing on the same Biblical source.
(4) It's a work in progress.
(5) Anyone who ascribes to the religion or philosophy that the Earth will host a range of dominant species through Aeons catalogued by the Yith.
(6) A category that here includes Deep Ones, who are merely a branch of humanity that sought refuge in the waters during the great population crunch.
(7) Okay, nothing revolutionary there.
(8) Only almost. The events of 'The Thing on the Doorstep', for example, are pretty much as described in the short story, but with the added note that seeking immortality by switching bodies with first his daughter and then her husband made Ephraim Waite a criminal to the Deep Ones as much as to anyone. All in all, the impression is that much of the conventional mythos fiction represents the actions of bad elements in the Aeonist community.
(9) Laureline apparently doesn't rate a mention.
(10) 1970; this one is older than I am.