Julie Powell: Julie & Julia

I read this at least partly to challenge my own preconceptions about what kind of books I read. This is a non-cookbook about cooking — worse, French cooking, although I didn’t realize quite how meat-intensive it would actually be.

But it’s also a book about a crazy challenge — specifically, cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s massive Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the span of a year. And it’s a book that derives in part from an online journal and explores the metatextual ground where autobiography turns into fiction. As Powell confesses in the Author’s Note, “sometimes I just made stuff up.” These are much more interesting aspects to me. Powell also discusses the negative aspects of her marriage with a candor that I’d find distressing if it were applied to me, but grimly intriguing when it’s directed at someone else. Of course, some of her digs at her husband could be among the parts of the book that are more fiction than not, but she provides ample evidence that she has a sharp and sometimes careless tongue.

Bottom line? I laughed, I cringed, my stomach turned. I feel like i was rewarded for stepping a bit outside my literary comfort zone.

Needs More Marrow? No. (variant metric courtesy Editrix)

Lindsey Davis; Silver Pigs

Silver Pigs is a hard-boiled historical mystery set in ancient Rome, specifically, in the reign of Vespasian, just after the turbulence that followed Nero’s death.

I’ve frequently enjoyed historical mysteries, but they rarely succeed for me on both levels — either the period detail is compelling and the mystery is a bit slight, or the other way around. I appreciate the sly humor of transposing the tropes of modern crime fiction to a historical setting — the good centurion/bad centurion interview, say — but that sort of injoke can’t sustain whole a novel. Silver Pigs balances its two aspects remarkably well. We recently watched (and for the most part liked) the HBO series Rome. Silver Pigs offers similar ambiance and takes a similar tack: it looks at court intrigue and large-scale historical events from the vantage of Rome’s merchant class. The mystery at the heart of the novel is credible for the time period, and consistent with some archeological detail; the who-betrayed-whom? plot twists get positively Chandler-esque. The first-person narrator, one Marcus Didius Falco, a retired soldier turned “informer” (in Davis’s hands, the Roman equivalent of the modern detective) owes a clear stylistic debt to Chandler and Hammett’s iconic Philip Marlowe and Continental Op. But I was also reminded of Georgette Heyer’s hybrid romance/mysteries. Falco isn’t quite as cynical and embittered as he’d like to think he is, which suited me just fine, and the female characters don’t have to submit to Chandler’s bubble head/black widow dichotomy.

Up until the last 40 pages or so of Silver Pigs, I was having trouble remembering the last time I’d enjoyed a mystery novel as much. I tried to read more slowly to make it last longer. Perhaps partly because I was lingering, I felt Davis tipped her hand too much at the end; Falco almost literally stumbled over a major clue before he recognized it for what it was. There was also some significant inconsistency — Falco withholds information from the reader to increase the suspense. I don’t have any trouble with that per se, but his internal monologue doesn’t jibe with what he knows, but the reader doesn’t (yet). Even though I found the dénouement less than completely satisfying, it was certainly forgivably so (particularly for a beginning novelist). I’ve already submitted a library request for the next volume (Shadows in Bronze) in the series that Silver Pigs kicks off. There seem to be approximately 8 zillion more volumes, and I fear I may be entering into the sort of brief, torrid affair I had with Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels a few years ago.

Needs More Demons? No.

Dianna Wynne Jones: Dark Lord of Derkholm

The central premise of Dark Lord of Derkholm seems like such a natural hook on which to hang a comic fantasy that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done to death: there’s a big market for people who want to play at being a Frodo-style hero, triumphing over fearsome evil against long odds, so generic fantasylands hire themselves out for tours that provide mock heroic experiences.

Diana Wynne Jones is no run-of-the-mill comic fantasist, however, and while Dark Lord of Derkholm pokes some gentle fun at Lord of the Rings and its endless imitators, there’s much more going on here than parodying the standard episodic heroic fantasy. Jones’ characters are emotionally complex and we meet them in medias res with a lifetime’s worth of experiencing — notably including assorted rivalries and resentments — under their belts. Rather than let the reader sketch in the backdrop of his or her favorite fantasy novel, Jones provides a complex milieu that has its own unique personality, despite nods to some of the familiar genre tropes.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, but arguably there’s a little too much going on for a single volume. Post-Tolkein fantasies are often criticized for being padded with excess verbiage (after all, the gods of marketing decreed that they must all be trilogies at minimum). In contrast, Dark Lord of Derkholm often feels compressed, with perhaps a little too much elided. The book might have been stronger if Jones had juggled fewer balls — dragons & elves & dwarves & demons & griffins & horse-lords, oh my! And that’s just the mise en scène, the actual story involves court intrigue & rebellious adolescents with image issues & derring-do & temple intrigue & longtime married couples growing apart & parallel universes & … well, you get the idea.

I can’t decide whether Dark Lord of Derkholm would have been strongest cut to a single shorter volume, or expanded into two (I’m not sure there’s a natural breaking point, for one thing). Either way, I think it’s ill served by its title, which makes it sound much sillier than it is. I’d recommend it without hesitation to those who are already fans of Jones, but I think I’d still steer newcomers to Hexwood, or perhaps Howl’s Moving Castle.

Needs More Demons? Absolutely not.

Delia Sherman: Changeling

I enjoyed Delia Sherman’s young-adult fantasy Changeling quite a bit. It’s the story of Neef, who was kidnapped from the mortal world at birth to dwell in the fantastic “New York Between,” and raised as a sort of second-class citizen of Faerie. This is perhaps tired territory, but Sherman manages neat twists on some very hackneyed tropes. One element in Changeling‘s favor is that its faerie denizens draw from multiple mythologies and folklores (there’s a helpful glossary at the back). The faeries of Changeling are also not all sweetness and light; many of them are indifferent or actively hostile to mortal concerns, which feels more true to their folkloric origins than many modern interpretations (particularly those aimed at younger readers). I also appreciated the explicit nods to Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (some of whose characters have cameos) as well as the implicit reference to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Neef’s literal status as a changeling can certainly be read as a metaphor for the sense of alienation and not-fitting in that every adolescent undergoes. The book worked best for me when that was the only obvious metaphor at work — the fashion vampires of New York’s theatre district and, particularly,the Dragon of Wall Street felt forced in comparison to Sherman’s otherworldly versions of Central Park and the New York Harbor.

But even though I thought the novel’s final third flagged a bit, on the whole I found it fast-moving, funny, and surprisingly fresh.

Needs More Demons? Not a bit of it.

Justine Larbalestier: Magic Lessons

I think it would probably occur to me to compare and contrast the first two volumes of Larbalestier’s “Magic or Madness” trilogy with the first two books of Scott Westerfeld’s “Midnighters” trilogy even if I didn’t know the two authors were partners. Many novels feature teenage protagonists simultaneously blessed and cursed with special powers, but Larbalestier and Westerfeld’s systems of magic evince a rare degree of both originality and logic. (They also jointly remind me of Alan Moore’s rigorous extrapolations of superpowers in works like Swamp Thing and Miracleman, and Steven Gould’s hard-nosed explorations of a special power in Jumper and Reflex.)

Magic Lessons continues the story of Reason Cansino as she grapples with the consequences of her new-found abilitites. I was braced for a let-down when I started the book. Part of the pleasure of the first volume ( Magic or Madness) was in puzzling out how Larbalestier’s system of magic works along with Reason, and I expected the second volume to be less surprising on those terms. Even the title seemed a bit lackluster. I had similar misgivings when I started Touching Darkness, the second of Westerfeld’s “Midnighters” books, and in both cases they were completely unfounded.

Magic Lessons makes it immediately clear that it’s not a sequel-as-afterthought, and that there are plenty of additional surprises in store. It starts, quite literally, with a bang, as mysterious forces lay siege from across the globe to the back door of a witch’s house in Sydney, and it never really lets up. Magic Lessons kept me wide awake on two unturbulent airplane flights — no mean feat, because climbing through the troposphere usually puts me out like a snuffed candle. Magic Lessons doesn’t end on a cliff hanger — it’s a satisfying read on its own. But I still can’t wait for the next one.

Needs More Demons? No. Amply supplied with demons.

Maureen Johnson: Devilish

Maureen Johnson’s Devilish commanded my attention as soon as I heard first of it (via Westerblog, of course). The potent combo of demonic subject matter, a Providence RI setting, and a cover that evokes one of my favorite Penelope Houston albums added up to a heaping helping of positive associations and I requested Devilish from the library tout de suite.

comparison of covers of Maureen Johnson's book Devilish and Penelope Houston's album Cut You

I found several little things to like a lot, like Johnson’s favoring of elegant, witty descriptions of things like clothes and sports cars instead of the more common brand-name dropping. I also appreciated protagonist Jane Jarvis’s refreshingly pragmatic response to purportedly supernatural goings-on. I’m definitely interested in reading more from Johnson.

This is apparently Johnson’s first foray into fantasy genre fiction, though, and it shows a bit. The novel opens with a prologue that suggests a combination of Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree and McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, but it doesn’t quite live up to that promise, partly because the prologue gives away too many of the book’s best surprises to an attentive reader. And one of the main drivers of Devilish‘s plot is fundamentally a deal-with-the-Devil story, and that’s very well-worn territory for any fantasy/horror reader. Johnson strives for an original take on the trope, but some readers may find her gimmick (because there’s always a gimmick in deal-with-the-Devil stories) a little hard to swallow. Fortunately, it’s also a story about the parameters and limits of friendship, and it works much better on that level.

Needs More Demons? Yes. Or it needs the demons it already has to be a little more convincingly, you know, demonic.

Diana Peterfreund: Secret Society Girl

I’ve been on such a major Scott Westerfeld kick for most of this year that not only am I reading everything of his I can get my hands on, I’m subscribed to the Westerblog and I read some of the other young adult books he talks up there, too. Here’s one:

Diana Peterfreund’s debut novel Secret Society Girl wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I knew going in that it involved a very thinly-disguised Yale and a secret society clearly modeled on Skull & Bones. I didn’t expect it to involve anything supernatural per se, but partly because it was commended to my attention by a (mostly) Sci-Fi writer, and partly because of certain events in the book itself, I expected it to be somewhat less naturalistic and more conspiracy-oriented — a little more “Secret” and a little less “Society.”

Secret Society Girl had two major problems. I’m going to try to side-step spoilers in discussing them. The first is that that future events are often obvious to the reader long before they happen to protagonist Amy Haskel. In fact, one of the revelations planned for the next book (Secret Society Girl is plainly set up as a first-in-series) is telegraphed so thoroughly that’s hard to imagine that even Haskel will really be surprised when the penny drops. That has the side effect of making the book’s first third or so feel a bit sluggish, because it’s devoid of any real suspense.

Things improve considerably when the protagonist’s primary obstacle is finally introduced. The novel turns unabashedly feminist without being the least bit didactic. Unfortunately the dénoument is a bit of a letdown — a little too deus ex machina.

To balance my criticisms, I should point out that Peterfreund has a good handle on her authorial voice, a nice gimmick for chapter headings (each one starts with “I confess: …”) and the requisite ear for natural-feeling dialogue. There’s one sequence that struck me as jarringly over-written, but only one. And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Secret Society Girl gets optioned for film, or even made into one, in which case I can stop feeling guilty for lobbing a few pebbles at it.

Needs More Demons? Definitely, even if they’re not exactly literal. Haskel deserves more significant adversity to triumph over next time.

Stanislaw Lem: Mortal Engines

Stanislaw Lem is one of the many authors I’ve always meant to read something by. I’ve even picked up a handful of his books over the years with noble intentions of follow-through which have, to-date, gone unfufilled. So picking Lem’s Mortal Engine from the freebie box I’d commited to availing myself of only if I really read the books was a moderately acid test of my resolve. About as acetic, I’d say, as Coca-Cola syrup.

The stories in Mortal Engines can be be grouped into two rough categories. Many of them are fables of societies peopled exclusively by robots. Lem’s machine minds regard organic life as a bizarre and terrifying aberration, but they are themselves the polar opposties of Asimovian automatons: they’re more often ruled by emotion than logic. In spirit, Lem’s fables reminded me far more of Rabelais, Cervantes, and Swift than most science fiction: the societies he depicts are often pre-industrial, if not downright feudal, with “electro-knights” levelling “cyber-lances” at one another in duels of honor. The most striking attributes of these stories are Lem’s ability to look at humanity from an outside and contemptuous perspective (not unlike Swift’s Houyhnhnms) and the strangeness of his imagination: not only does Lem boldly modify virtually any noun with “cyber,” “electro” and myriad variants; but his inorganic life proliferates through the universe in a dizzying array of forms: intelligent crystals, gaseous beings, consciousness spread throughout cities.

Lem’s second mode is a much more conventional SF blend of action-oriented narrative with philosophical overtones. In one of the stories, his recurring space pilot character Pirx confronts a mining robot which runs amuck at a lunar base. Pirx worries not just about surviving encounter, but the moral dimensions of his struggle with the robot. Although these stories were supposedly more realistic, I found it harder to suspend disbelief in them as a 21st century reader , because the resources available to Lem’s moon colonists and other future denizens were often ludicrously anachronistic. It’s a fundamentally unfair criticism of older work, but I’m often unable to overlook what appear (from my vantage point, not Lem’s) to be obvious factual errors.

Needs More Demons? No.

John Mortimer: Charade

When I last visited Lorem Ipsum Books, they had a deal wherein for every x dollars one spent, one got to pick a book from the “free books” box. I told myself that I would only let myself take free books if I actually read them. Here, teacher, is my attempt to prove that I did so … and not just the Precipice Notes, neither.

I picked up John Mortimer’s Charade thanks to a case of mistaken identity: I confused Mortimer (for reasons I can’t satisfactorily explain) with Michael Innes (also a British novelist with a capital “M” in his name, I suppose). I didn’t much care for Charade. It didn’t seem to know whether it wanted to be gentle satire, a comic romp, or a serious coming-of-age novel. I’ve often find this sort of confusion charming, but Charade didn’t muster sufficient conviction in any one dimension. It struck me, though, that Charade, published in 1947, could well have been an influence on several things I liked much better, most notably Monty Python’s singular vision of the British Army, and the crazed film director Eli Cross, brought to such memorable life by Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man.

After that rousing endorsement, I’m sure you’ll all be delighted to learn that Charade is currently in my Bookmooch inventory.

Needs More Demons? Couldn’t hurt.

Michael Shea: The Incompleat Nifft

Once upon a time (in the 1940s), Mssrs deCamp and Pratt teamed up to write a series of short novels about the magical misadventures of one Harold Shea. The tales had a proto-post-modern spin to them: Shea would get transported into myths and pre-copyright stories like Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The Shea stories have an absurdly complicated publication history which found them in omnibus editions with titles like The Compleat Enchanter and The Incompleat Enchanter.

A month or so ago I was flipping through a book rack and spotted The Incompleat Nifft by Michael Shea. My brain registered the variant spelling of “incomplete” and the presence of “Shea” and I checked the book out of the library under the presumption that it was some sort of latter-day sequel. (I’ve made similar mistakes before — once I brought home one of Robert Parker’s novels about the detective Spencer when I’d been looking for one of Donald Westlake’s novels about the detective Parker. Oops.)

In fact, Shea’s collection of loosely-linked long short stories/short novels bears no relation to deCamp and Pratt’s creation, but evinces instead a remarkable resemblance to another fantasy series which originated in the 1940s, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two of the original cornerstones on which the “sword & sorcery” subgenre of fantasy was built (for better or worse). They are best appreciated today with a liberal dose of historical perspective. Leiber’s duo encounters tropes that have long since become dreadful “Dungeons & Dragons” clichés (the fabled temple treasure that turns out to be a monster, the mysterious shop with mysterious goods which mysteriously appears and vanishes, etc), but which were fresh when the stories were first published. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were a bit like the French Connection car-chase scene of sword & sorcery, if you’ll let me stress a metaphor. The stories were short on character development, thematic content, and even on sophisticated plot constructs. They were long on dense prose with a rather 19th-century quality — “lush” or a bit “purple,” depending on your disposition to it. Arguably, the central “character” of the stories was really Leiber’s imagined world of Newhon itself, which was richly and vividly imagined.

Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean and Barnar Hammer-Hand follow this template in virtually all particulars. Shea mixes in a touch of Lovecraft’s xenophobia, and is more explicitly grisly than Leiber, and there are sadomasochistic overtones, particularly when Nifft and Barnar go to Hell (which they do with some regularity). Shea is perhaps a better prose stylist than Leiber, which I think is the root of my strange reaction to the book. Like a “real” work of literature it takes more effort to read than most books which offer simple escapism. But I don’t think it offers commensurate rewards. Its characters are too shallow to offer any insights into human nature, and what thematic content it holds can be reduced to truisms like “pride goeth before a fall.” There’s nothing to learn from it but the details of a geography that is exotic, but wholly imaginary.

I found myself resenting not only the time I wasted reading (roughly half of) the book, but the time that Shea wasted writing it. He has an undeniable ability to write evocative prose and conjure memorable (if frequently nasty) images, and it seems to me that he ought to be able to write much better (and less derivative) books.

What bothers me about my response to The Incompleat Nifft is that I find myself making some of the same arguments that people make against the worthiness of fantasy/science fiction genres in their entirety. It has nothing to teach us. It’s decadent and valueless, a waste of time.

And I don’t feel the same way about the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories themselves. The same arguments apply, but Leiber was at least doing something that hadn’t been done before. I think what offends me about The Incompleat Nifft is the combination of its extreme derivativeness from a single template; the narrowness of its literary scope; and the amount of craft, care, and talent expended in its construction.

Which leads me to the odd conclusion that if The Incompleat Nifft had been written less well, I might have been able to enjoy it as a simple escapist lark. At any rate, I might not have felt compelled to excoriate it at (probably tedious, sorry) length.

Needs More Demons? Needs more something. Actually has a lot of demons.