David Schickler: Kissing in Manhattan

I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to write about the fiction of Jonathan Carroll. It’s even difficult to articulate why it’s so difficult for me to write about Carroll. I’ve studied his technique and themes enough to learn something about them, but those easily-isolated surface attributes don’t explain Carroll’s bewitching power. This book — something less than a novel, but more than a set of linked short stories — provides a clue, because it uses many of Carroll’s characteristic tricks. The fantastic and surreal intrudes into the everyday, the emotional core of characters drives the story more aggressively than the plot does, and the narrative voice is often capriciously omniscient:

It was ten minutes till five on a Thursday. Donna and Lee’s office was on the twenty-first floor. It had a bay window facing south, and just before five every evening, Donna and Lee stood at this window and looked at the sunlight on the rivers. Lee, who was a lesbian, loved the East River best. Donna loved the Hudson.

One of the problems I’ve had in writing about Carroll’s books is that they’re excessively trivialized by reducing them to capsule descriptions: they wind up sounding silly. But they don’t feel silly while I’m reading them; they’re often deeply affecting, even when they contain outlandish events. I can’t explain it clearly, but the supernatural and surreal elements of Carroll’s fiction seem to obey an internal logic that gives them resonance. It doesn’t matter whether this logic is obvious to the reader or not; its presence is felt nonetheless.

I didn’t get this sense from Schickler’s work; the fantastic elements, as when a lonely young man stumbles upon a strange figure surrounded by gem stones in the basement of a sex shop, seem awkward and unconvincing. If it sounds a bit silly, I thought it was. This particular event propels the narrative and is close to the book’s thematic heart, but it doesn’t make any sense, nor does it make nonsense in a way I found compelling.

A further peeve: several of Schickler’s characters are high-powered attorneys, whom he writes about it in a way that suggests strongly to me that he’s never met one.

Needs More Demons? I dunno, but it needs more something.

Peter Dickinson: The Seventh Raven

An illustration of the power of context:

Lately I’ve been writing quite a bit about fantasy novels marketed to young adult audiences (probably to the dismay of many readers, but that’s beside the point for now). I was on the Amazon website perusing lists of people’s favorite young adult novels, and in a list with a bunch of genre authors, I found The Seventh Raven described like this: “Too bizarre to actually describe here. Let’s just say you’ll never read anything quite like it again.” I have the impression that I looked it up somewhere else and read a comment along the lines of “This is a book about . . . no, actually, it’s better if you just find out for yourself.” (I can’t find that comment now, though, so I could be wrong about that.) Anyway, the information I had was enough for me to request it from the library. It sure looked like a fantasy novel when I picked it up; the cover features a grim-looking kid wearing an elaborate raven headdress.

If I had read an accurate description of what the The Seventh Raven is “about” (plot-wise, and to some extent thematically) I never would have read it. And that would have been a shame, because I liked it a lot. It seemed quintessentially British, in a good way: precisely and insightfully written, rather dry-humored, and somewhat reserved even when depicting loud and raucous events.

The list I found it on described it as “little-known.” If that’s true (I’d certainly never heard of it, which proves nothing) I suspect it’s in part because it doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre at all. It’s a good book, I’d say, in at least two genres. Where do you file it? How do you market it?

And I agree with the source I can’t find and may have manufactured — better not to know anything at all of what genres the novel might or might not fit in. I will tell you that you’ll have a first-person 17-year-old female narrator as your guide, and mention that I recommend it doubly if you’re a musician of any stripe, and that’s all you’ll get from me. If you wind up with the same edition I read, maybe you could put some sort of slipcover on it. That way you won’t embarrass yourself showing the front cover in any public place, and you’ll reduce the risk of reading the back cover ’til after you’ve finished.

Needs More Demons? Nope.

David Hewson: A Season for the Dead

I’m a longtime fan of the Daedalus Books remainders house. I’ve learned about some of my favorite authors from their chatty, informative catalogs.

Every once in a while, though, I follow up a recommendation for a real dud. Hewson’s A Season for the Dead drew many comparisons to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, because (I surmise) it’s a thriller, it’s set in Rome (partly in the Vatican), and because one of its characters in an expert in ancient Christian texts. The Washington Post allegedly said it was “better written and more sophisticated” than Brown’s bestseller, and described it as “intelligent entertainment,” both of which strain my credulity.

This is a misleading comparison. Anyone who expects this novel to offer the sort of historical speculation that The Da Vinci Code trades in will be disappointed in that regard: A Season for the Dead starts with a gruesome scene in a Vatican reading room, but other than that, history is used almost exclusively as window dressing.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this book is that it’s not purely awful. There is some attempt to imbue its characters with inner lives, and there’s some attempt to give the plot events some thematic heft.

But these positive qualities are outweighed by the novel’s flaws, which include stilted dialogue, stock characters, and plot points both cliché-ridden and implausible. It’s the sort of book in which cops identify suspects on the basis of opportunity without considering motive or means. At one point I wondered if Hewson was setting up an especially shop-worn plot-twist, and thought to myself, “even Hewson wouldn’t stoop to that, and besides it would completely violate the continuity he’s established.” A few chapters later, he went for it. Hewson’s particularly shaky in attempting to portray the motivations and actions of the rich and powerful — you could except more nuanced and credible villainy from the average soap opera. Worse, his female characters manage between them to evoke just about every vile stereotype of women in crime fiction. Finally, there’s a lip-smacking prurience to Hewson’s descriptions of graphic violence that borders on the pornographic, and a pair of blatantly pornographic scenes that border on the ridiculous (I was reminded of the movie Team America: World Police).

Needs More Demons? Even an influx of demons couldn’t salvage this turkey.

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.