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Thomas Abbey is a burnt out prep-school English teacher (who's heard one too many vapid book reports about ???The Fall of the House of Usher???) with an extensive collection of well-oiled masks but no lover. And don???t ask him about his deceased movie star father! Since childhood, the one thing that he has unreservedly loved is the work of Marshall France, a mysterious author of popular children???s fantasy books, of which Thomas??? favorite is The Land of Laughs. As Jonathan Carroll???s novel opens, Thomas has decided to go on a leave of absence, during which he plans to write the first biography of France. Will he succeed? Will Saxony Gardner, a young woman who also loves the books of France, be able to help him? Will France???s eccentric daughter Anna hinder them? How did France create such real characters and wonderful stories? Why do the people of Galen, Missouri remind one of The Wicker Man and Inkheart?
I chucklingly enjoyed the first third of the novel! It is quirky and funny, and I care a great deal about Thomas and Saxony and their biographical quest. But by the last third it becomes disturbing and by the ending disappointing, perhaps because Carroll abandons the attraction of children???s fantasy books for the creepiness of creation, and because the d??nouement is abrupt and unpleasant. Though The Land of Laughs is largely about the life and work of an author of children???s books, Carroll???s novel is not for children.
The reading by Edoardo Ballerini is well paced and varied for the different characters and situations (though a few times I confused his Saxony and Anna) and balances emotion and restraint.
Carroll???s novel is about many things: America (popular culture, gothic, small towns, big cities, etc.), writing, reading, biography, fame, fans, love, family, fantasy, reality, and the relationships between them. Is it a horror novel? An urban fantasy? A metafiction? A romance? A father and son novel? It???s a little of all of those. It is surely unpredictable and memorable.
The alien, looking like a giant spider and speaking English stereophonically out of his two leg-mouths, arrives at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in Toronto and asks to see a paleontologist. The alien explains to Dr. Thomas Jericho that his name is Hollus, that he is a Forhilnor from the third planet of the star Beta Hydri, and that he came to the museum to study earth fossils like the ROM's current special exhibit of the Burgess Shale fossils from the Cambrian period. Hollus is "a visiting scholar" traveling through space with a handful of fellow scientists and seeking intelligent species on other worlds, not to prove the existence of god (which they've already done to their satisfaction), but to find out why he/she/it has been tinkering with sentient life forms in the universe.
Hollus shares plenty of "evidence" for the existence of god. The fact that the five mass extinctions of species in earth's history have occurred on Hollus' world and that of the Wreed, another sentient species the Forhilnors encountered before arriving at earth, all at the same relative times in the histories of their worlds, is too unlikely to be coincidental. Moreover, each of five forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, and repulsion over distance, the fifth one that humanity has not yet discovered) is necessary just as it is for stars, planets, and life to exist. Hollus tells Jericho that the chances of the chain of parameters all happening just right in just the right order are less likely than winning the lottery every day for a century. So someone has fine-tuned the universe. Indeed, Hollus has trouble understanding why Jericho is so stubbornly set in his atheism. That said, the Forhilnor believe that god takes no interest in the doings of any particular individual, so they have no religion and do not pray.
The novel consists of Jericho's first person journal covering his time spent with Hollus discussing things like the history of the universe, evolution, life, and the existence of a "master designer." Into this Jericho interweaves his relationships with his wife, adopted son, and fossils in the context of his treatment for terminal lung cancer. Into all this Sawyer (or whoever is editing Jericho's journal into the book we're reading) introduces a pair of fundamentalist Christian abortion clinic bombers who would like to introduce the aliens to the Son of God: "The aliens may believe in God, but they haven't yet found Christ."
Calculating God is a novel of ideas. For one thing, there is the conundrum as to why sentient species in the universe at a certain technological stage of development tend to destroy themselves or abandon their home worlds. For another, the Wreed have no concept of mathematics because they have 23 fingers, a prime number, unlike the human ten and the Forhilnor six. The Wreed believe that God has been calculating the future of each individual in the universe by photons, like playing chess several moves ahead, spend half of their lives trying to communicate with him/her/it, and base their morality on intuition rather than on logic. They also believe that because cancer is part of the fabric of life in the universe, it must be part of God's plan, whatever that is.
But Calculating God is more than a debate between designers and evolutionists and more than a tear-jerking cancer story, because it packs plenty of humor. Sawyer satirizes the dumbing down of contemporary culture via the ROM, which has become ever more "user-friendly," to the degree that the museum is promoted as being "run by an eight-year old," which means closing the planetarium, producing Star Trek events, and making hands-on displays. More comically, Hollus's experience with American TV shows about aliens leads him to appear on earth as a holographic projection while his real body remains safely aboard the Forhilnor star ship, to joke about not capturing humans for anal probing, and to humorously prevent a pair of Canadian FBI equivalents from taking him into custody for interrogation etc. Also amusing are Jericho's many popular culture references: The Day the Earth Stood Still, X-files, Star Trek, Star Wars, Inherit the Wind, and so on.
In his preface, Sawyer mentions that his novel has upset both atheist evolutionists and fundamentalist creationists, and I can see why that is. His god-believing advanced alien species whose worlds and DNA share so much with earth and humanity may seem like too much designer deck-stacking, while his exposure of Stephen J. Gould's theory of evolution by "punctuated equilibria" as a slick play on language may seem off-putting, and his focusing on "intelligent" life forms to prove intelligent design may seem exclusive. On the other side, devout Christians may not want to be linked to clinic-bombing, museum-hating ignoramuses, and may not appreciate Sawyer setting up "god" as a super alien without any connection to Jesus. Finally, while I enjoy the play of ideas in the book and like Hollus and his relationship with Jericho, I feel that Sawyer spends too much time on the crazy creationists plot strand, which at one point turns Jericho's journal into a suspense-action movie.
Jonathan Davis gives his usual professional and appealing reading of the novel, doing cool alien voices (the Wreeds' voice via computer translator is particularly neat).
Calculating God does what good sf does, explore what it means to be human (here, to be fragile), and it has interesting things to say about language, morality, and love. People who like Star Maker and Childhood's End would probably like this book (though those books are more affecting and less humorous).
In late 12th-century England the wounds of the Norman Conquest are still raw. The victorious Normans are scorning the vanquished Saxons as bestial bumpkins (“Saxon porkers”), while the Saxons are resenting the Normans as interloping despots and still hoping if not scheming to throw off their “feudal chains.” After the failed Third Crusade, King Richard Lionheart has been imprisoned in Austria, leaving his venial brother Prince John ruling in his stead, giving the Norman lords free reign to rob, rape, and dispossess the Saxons. The “far more manly and expressive” Anglo Saxon tongue is limited to the oppressed class and has gradually merged with French to produce English, though the Normans continue ruling in French. Both Normans and Saxons hate and persecute the Jews, whose special history, culture, and nationless state confine them to finance and medicine, earning them more hatred and persecution for usury and “witchcraft.”
In this context of intercultural conflict Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel of medieval chivalry and romance, Ivanhoe (1820), opens in a Yorkshire forest with a comical pair of Saxons, a swineherd called Gurth and a fool called Wamba, kvetching about the fact that Saxon swine and oxen become Norman pork and beef, when a formidable party of Normans appears, led by the Epicurean voluptuary Prior Aymer and the scar-faced, haughty Templar commander Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, freshly back from Palestine, where he is reputed to have killed 300 infidels. When the Normans demand directions to Rotherwood, the seat of the local franklin Cedric the Saxon (Gurth and Wamba's master), the fool sends them off on a false trail. Fortunately for the Normans (and for Scott's plot), they run into a palmer who leads them to Rotherwood, where Scott depicts Cedric's proud refusal to conform or bend to Norman customs or rule, the beauty of his ward, Rowena (the last descendent of King Alfred), the prejudice against the Jewish money lender Isaac of York, de Bois-Guilbert's hatred of Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Cedric's disowned and banished son), and the mysterious Palmer's detailed knowledge of Ivanhoe.
Then follows a rousing, humorous, and gripping story that presents a large set of interesting historical and fictional male and female characters, evokes a convincing and rich vision of a past period and place, depicts a variety of exciting action (jousts, melees, sieges, ambushes, kidnappings, etc.) with a variety of narrative strategies (straightforward real-time, after-the-fact summary, eye-witness play-by-play, etc.), pays more than lip service to pacifism, and explores bigotry and tolerance among different cultures and classes of people.
Scott's "villains" are interesting. From the conflicted dark star de Bois-Guilbert to even relatively minor characters like the fanatical Grand Master of the Templars and the cruel lord Front-de-Boeuf, they are depicted more complexly than they would be in novels by lesser writers. In fact, despite giving his name to the novel, Ivanhoe is rarely on stage with his own point of view and remains something of a cardboard, battle-eating, melee-breathing, glory-seeking chivalrous prig compared to the other more complex figures.
Scott writes pithy lines: "When do you ever find Folly separated from Valour?" He incorporates neat songs, of romantic love, of fraternal drinking, of doom cursing, of comic widow courting, of roving friars, and more. He begins each chapter with apt epigraphs from Chaucer, Pope, Homer, Shakespeare etc. He often addresses the reader: "Our history must needs retrograde for the space of a few pages, to inform the reader of certain passages material to his understanding." Despite frequent reversed order in syntax and elision of the verb "to do" ("What means this?" and "I know not!" etc.) and archaic expressions ("Go thee thither" and "Laugh if ye list" etc.), Scott's prose in its early 19th and late 12th-century contexts feels natural and reads easily. That said, a few of his many extended descriptions of architecture, attire, physiognomy, and character, though vivid and well-written, seem too exhaustively detailed.
I was surprised by how funny Scott's novel is, particularly in any scene involving Wamba the Fool or the Clerk of Copenhurst (aka Friar Tuck). Perhaps the scenes involving Isaac of York are more uncomfortable than funny because Scott often makes Isaac haggle a bit too much during life and death crises. He also perhaps strives too hard for comedy relief with a late, excrescent passage about a resurrection, which, although quite funny, makes the novel perhaps forty pages longer than it had to be. But Ivanhoe made me chuckle far more than groan.
There are inaccuracies in Scott's historical depiction. For instance, his Richard speaks fluent English in addition to French, when really he spoke only French, and seems concerned about the state of England (being "no stranger to the customs of his English subjects"), when really he just saw the country as a source of revenue for his foreign wars. But overall Scott succeeds in evoking a believable and interesting historical period far removed from the present of his writing,
Michael Page does an outstanding job reading the novel, making it more natural, lively, and exciting. This audiobook, however, lacks Scott's many interesting historical and cultural notes, as well as the “Dedicatory Epistle” by his pseudonymous alter-ego Laurence Templeton to his fictional friend Dr. Dryasdust explaining why he wrote a historical novel set in the late 12th century.
All in all Ivanhoe deserves its classic status and should be read by fans of chivalry, historical romances, Robin Hood, and the middle ages.
On the fourth day of February a "stranger [falls] out of infinity into Iping Village" in the Sussex countryside and rents a room at the local inn. His body swathed in clothes, his face wrapped in white bandages, his eyes hidden behind a pair of big blue spectacles, he cuts a bizarre figure. The local "yokels" speculate that he must have suffered some kind of accident. Or that he must be a disguised criminal on the run from the police. Or an ashamed mixed-race piebald hiding his appearance. Or an anarchist working on bombs. Or a lunatic. He claims that he's an "experimental investigator." Surely he's unpleasant and irritable, possessing "A bark of a laugh that he seemed to bite and kill in his mouth," upsetting dogs and boys, and rebuffing all attempts to get to know him with curses so that he may be left undisturbed to do his work. No one even knows his name. About when wags begin walking round the village imitating the stranger by pulling down the brims of their hats and pulling up the collars of their coats and kids begin singing a Bogey Man song whenever they see the stranger, events take a surreal turn when the vicar's house is burgled and the locals put two and two together and send the constable to arrest the stranger, who then disrobes and disappears, for, it turns out, he is the Invisible Man.
Most of H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897) concerns the efforts of "the writer" to collate and interpret the testimony of various witnesses to the Invisible Man's "reign of terror" in the British countryside after the fact. Told from the points of view of countryside denizens like the proprietress of the inn and her husband, the village clock-jobber, general practitioner, reverend, and constable, and even a bachelor tramp, much of the story is a mysterious comedy of class or manner or place. When we finally learn the stranger's name and get his story from his own mouth over half way through, the tale shifts into a study of the alienated mad scientist. Even this is at a remove, however, for his monologue is narrated from the point of view of his university acquaintance Dr. Kemp, who interrupts his story now and then with questions and comments. Wells thus distances us from his scientist until, perhaps, the end of the climax of the short novel.
The Invisible Man explores themes that appear elsewhere in Wells' work: unknown wonders and terrors in the world/universe caused or explained by science may appear at any moment; people fear extraordinary things; men of science who cut themselves off from community become "inhuman"; "contemporary society" is marred by "desecrated fields" and "dank, squalid respectability and . . . sordid commercialism." It is interesting to read the novel with Wells' great short story "In the Country of the Blind," in which a sighted man enters a village of blind people and thinks to rule them, while here an invisible man thinks at first that his condition will give him wonderful advantages over the common run of sighted humanity, permitting him to perpetrate any crime and to do anything he wants.
Perhaps Wells stacks the deck against his scientist. If he had become invisible in the summer instead of the winter, if he'd been a man of calmer temper, if he'd used a different palliative than strychnine, if he'd had more money, if he'd found a less "miserable tool" than the wonderfully named Thomas Marvel, if he'd met Dr. Kemp earlier, and so on, things might have turned out differently. But because the brilliant man is self-centered, irritable, anti-social, and amoral and has become "ruled by a fixed idea" (that his experiments are the only reality), has "lost his human sympathy," has come to believe that "the common conventions of humanity" like not robbing people in their own homes "are all very well for common people," and has imagined schemes for using the "commoners" around him instead of for improving their lives, for all those reasons Wells relishes making things difficult for his scientist.
As in most of his work, Wells' writing here is concise, clear, amusing, terrifying, and literary. He provides reality-establishing scientific explanations involving optics, physics, dynamos, and chemicals for invisibility. He writes comical and vivid descriptions: "His mottled face was apprehensive, and he moved with a sort of reluctant alacrity." He applies irony liberally: "'An invisible man is a man of power.' He stopped for a moment to sneeze violently." And he is capable of harrowing prose: "Down went the heap of struggling men again and rolled over. There was, I am afraid, some savage kicking. Then suddenly a wild scream of 'Mercy! Mercy!' that died down swiftly to a sound like choking."
James Adams reads the audiobook perfectly.
People interested in the history of science fiction (this is one of the first sf stories about invisibility), in studies of criminal intellectual pride, or in compact philosophical novels, should read this book.
Ex-Airborne Ranger Jane Carver, a "bad-ass biker chick," has a reform-school past, a two-strike prison record, and a problem with authority. She has sent Hollywood screenwriter Jason Long her true story on cassette tapes, offering to let him publish it and split any profits 50-50. Long tells us that Jane (not her real name) is about 6'2" with broad shoulders and "rugged good looks." Her story begins when she accidentally kills a sexually harassing jerk and, while fleeing the police, hides in a cave, touches a strange artifact, and is teleported to another world, aptly named Waar, populated as it is by fearsome predators and bellicose humanoids. Witnessing a massacre perpetrated by one faction of purple people on another, she befriends the survivor, Sai-Far, whose betrothed Wen-Jhai, daughter of the ruler of Ora, the greatest nation on Waar, has just been bride-napped by a powerful rival, Kedac-Zir. Thus begins Jane's pulpy adventure, involving "savage" four-armed, lizard-tailed, dread-locked tiger-centaurs, "civilized," purple-skinned, hyphen-named people, and a non-stop series of raids, brawls, duels, death matches, battles, disguises, pursuits, captures, incarcerations, enslavements, entertainments, amorous advances, romance counselings, and more as she tries to help the gormless and spineless Sai reunite with his true love so he may marry her so that her father may grant Jane access to another artifact with which to return to earth where she believes she wants to be.
Needless to say, Long is affectionately riffing on Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter. Both A Princess of Mars (1917) and Jane Carver of Waar (2012) begin with the reality-claiming conceit that the heroes have given their first person stories to the authors. Both heroes wake up naked on an alien world where they have super strength and jumping ability due to earth's stronger gravity. Both encounter exotic and dangerous flora and fauna and bad organized religions. Both catalyze Big Events. Both become caught up in page-turning action that devolves into absurdity if you catch your breath and coldly examine it. (The frenetic fun of Long's book is signaled by the one-word exclamation-marked titles of the chapters, like "Hunted!" "Monsters!" and "Captives!")
That said, Long is not rewriting A Princess of Mars with a female lead. For one thing, he avoids what was one of the most interesting parts of John Carter's life on Barsoom (learning the local language) by having the artifact that transports Jane to Waar automatically make her fluent in Sai's tongue. Unlike John Carter, Jane adventures not to win her own true love but to help another person win his. For that matter, while John Carter is heterosexual, Jane is a "switch hitter," and Long explores gender and sexuality more than Burroughs. Although Burroughs seems preoccupied with race (red, black, white, yellow, and green Martians), he elides the vile nature of slavery (John Carter having been on earth the "good" master of white myth beloved by his slaves), while Long explores it. And Jane (at first) has a humane reaction to killing, unlike John Carter.
The biggest difference between Burroughs/Carter and Long/Carver lies in their writing styles. The "swamp trash country girl" Jane has a cruder and more colloquial voice than John Carter, one that comically jars with the "elegant" speech of the local nobles. Jane: "I just saved your life, pal. I'll talk to you anyway I damn well please." Sai: "Tease me not, tormentor." Long also inundates Jane's narration with American pop culture references, especially similes, as in "It looked like the inside of Liberace's brain with Elvis doing the catering." Jane similarly alludes to Ty-D-Bol, the Jolly Green Giant (twice!), Angeline Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Frankenstein, Spider-Man, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Xena, Hulk Hogan, Justin Beiber, Elton John, Arkansas jail cells, Johnny Cochrane, Andre Agassi, Mark McGwire (twice!), the Packers (twice!), linebackers (thrice!), cheerleaders, CIA cover-ups, Larry Flynt, and more, with the result that Long's novel seems very much of its culture and era, while Burroughs' work, lacking such allusions, feels more universal and timeless. (Surprisingly, she never compares anything to John Carter.)
Some references/similes seem neat: "The silver of the rooftops against the deep black of the alleys made it all look like some huge, cubist black-velvet painting." Some seem lame: "It was as beautiful as a movie." Some seem more Long than Jane, e.g., vintage references to the likes of Steve Reeves, Clark Gable, Mae West, Heckle and Jeckle, and '50s hotrod magazines and coarse and sexist references like, "I was sweating like a whore on dollar day." Jane's language is much raunchier than John Carter's, as with "Where the f*ck have you dumped me now, you f*cking f*cks?" Given her character, that's understandable, but at times I felt that when Long's female characters talk about sex they sound like male fantasies of women rather than like real women. Jane describes light and graphic porno tableaux and often feels horny, and a female pirate captain says, "Right now I need a fat c*ck to fill my c*nt and empty my brain," while a noble woman says, "Oh yes! Harder! Don't stop! By the Seven, don't stop!" Finally, the problem is that the many pop culture references decrease the exotic experience of another world and its alien culture by making them too vividly recall ours.
The reader, Dina Pearlman, does a fine job, modifying her voice slightly for different characters, speaking clearly and convincingly. And she does a great villain-laugh.
Jane Carver of Waar (2012) is a fun, guilty pleasure that I'd only recommend to fans of the John Carter books or of female fantasy/sf characters who kick ass and talk dirty.
Anthony Ryan's epic fantasy novel Blood Song (2011), first in what I hope is only a trilogy in progress, begins with Lord Verniers, the Imperial Chronicler of the southern Alpiran Empire, recounting the time he met the legendary war hero of the northern Unified Realm, Vaelin Al Sorna. Among Vaelin's many names is Hope Killer, for in battle he killed the Hope of the Empire, the Emperor's chosen successor from among his people and Verniers' best friend (at least). For that "murder," Vaelin has spent the last five years in an Imperial dungeon, and has only now been released so that he may face certain death in a duel against the champion of the Meldenean Islands. For their part, the Meldeneans want to watch Vaelin ("the Spawn of the City Burner") die because when his father was Battle Lord of the Realm he torched one of their cities along with its men, women, and children. Verniers' italicized first person narration beginning each of the five parts of Ryan's novel reveal the Chronicler's scornful view of Vaelin's "savage" culture and his hatred of Vaelin. Verniers is also fascinated by the man with "an innate inability to be diminished" and can't resist asking Vaelin to tell his life story so he can write it down as they sail towards his impending doom.
The five parts of the novel, then, narrated in third person from Vaelin's point of view, appear at first to be Verniers' version of Vaelin's story, but the farther the novel progresses, the more it becomes apparent that Vaelin is hiding things from Verniers. . . This raises uncomfortable questions the novel may not answer: why does Ryan begin by making us think Verniers is telling Vaelin's story and then suddenly reveal that he's not, and if he's not, who is?
Be that as it may, the bulk of Blood Song is the account of Vaelin's life from age 11 when he was put by his father into the monkish Sixth Order of the Faith, the Order dedicated to smiting the enemies of the Faith and the Realm. Vaelin is shaped like tempered steel into a Brother of his new "family" (the Brothers are supposed to sever all ties to their former biological families), undergoing harsh martial training, bonding with his fellow young initiates, and gradually learning more about his biological family, about the seven Orders, about the Faith (based on ancestor worship), about its "heretic" Deniers, about realpolitik, and about his "blood song," a gift or a curse that warns him when something bad is going to happen and helps him read people. Vaelin is a compelling protagonist, a person of courage, sensitivity, empathy, morality, and kindness, as well as an instinctive, skilled, and fearsome fighter, able to kill unthinkingly and then to feel his soul soiled by the act.
Ryan writes many great lines. Pithy ones: "War is always an adventure to those who have never seen it." Humorous ones: “The smell was enough to make Scratch get up and slink away.” Ultra violent ones: "[Vaelin] heard rather than saw the geyser of blood painting the ceiling and walls, as the headless corpse continued for a few steps before collapsing." Numinous ones: "He wondered if he would dream of wolves." Sublime ones: "It was the strangest and most unfamiliar landscape he had seen, a broad expanse of mostly bare rock pocked by small pools of rainwater and rocky tors rising from the undulating surface like great deformed mushrooms." And one recurring line of intense pathos, when Vaelin protests too much: "I have no father."
Stephen Brand has an appealing and affecting slight northern England accent, by which the "o" in words like love, up, and some becomes "oh," which expresses Vaelin's "barbarian" speech as heard by a "civilized" Empire listener like Verniers. In general, Brand's voice is quite appealing, intelligent, raspy, British, and sparse, a perfect match for Ryan's text. He modifies it for different characters, as with Frentice's street cockney, but never egregiously, not even when doing voices of female characters or children.
Blood Song has plenty of elements typically found in the heroic epic fantasy genre: different histories and cultures in conflict; small-scale and wide-screen graphic violence; supernatural abilities or gifts; a natural born leader hero with prodigious fighting ability, strong moral code ("I'll kill but I won't murder"), sensitive conscience ("I am a murderer"), and vital destiny; a brilliant and beautiful princess chafing in her role; a mysterious evil entity with occult evil minions; a melting pot world (no elves, dwarves, or orcs, but plenty of hunter gatherers, pirate captains, European-esque knights, British-esque longbowmen, Chinese-esque merchant princes, African or Arabic-esque nobles, etc.); and so on. But Ryan tells his story with such humane conviction, complex characters, spare prose, skillful revelations, exciting and horrifying violence, modern political vision, bracing imagination, and unsentimental pathos, that reading Blood Song was a page-turning pleasure I didn't want to end. Ryan's world creation, fantastic imagination, and narrative approach are not as weird and unique as something like J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon, but Blood Song is authentic and compelling, and fans of heroic epic fantasy should enjoy it.
The promising conceit of Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Or on the Segregation of the Queen (1994) is that Mary Russell, who possesses deductive powers and mental brilliance the equal of Sherlock Holmes, met the great detective in 1915, when she was fifteen and he fifty-four, became his apprentice/confidante, began helping him solve mysteries as a fully equal partner, and now as an old woman in the 1990s is writing her memoirs about her relationship and experiences with Holmes. King cleverly has Russell explain at the outset that because Holmes became a figment of Dr. Watson's imagination, because Watson's stories about him had taken on a life of their own, and because now people are writing their own stories featuring Holmes, her detective may differ from the one in the reader's imagination. She also points out that her version will be more accurate than Watson's, because the good doctor always viewed his friend from a position of inferiority, whereas she was never awed by Holmes' deductive powers, possessing them herself to an extraordinary degree.
The "tall, sardonic recluse" and the "gangling, be-spectacled girl" met on the Sussex downs after Holmes had seemingly "retired" from detective work to live on a farm where he could keep and study bees, and Russell, whose parents and brother had been killed (and she emotionally and physically scarred) in an accident, had begun living with an unloving aunt on a nearby farm belonging to her mother's family. Both being "blessed or cursed with minds of hard brilliance that alienated all but the most tenacious" people, they felt an immediate affinity. The plot gets going in earnest a few years/chapters later, after Holmes has tempered, tested, and trained Russell, who has also been studying mathematics and theology at Oxford University, and they take on a kidnapping case that "reeks of failure."
Jenny Sterlin gives a fine reading of the novel. I like her Holmes, slightly deeper than Russell, and superiorly wry. Missing from the audiobook is King's cute preface in which she writes about receiving a trunk full of Holmes and Russell artifacts, including the manuscripts for all the stories written by Russell, as if she (and not King) were their author.
King writes plenty of cool lines one can imagine Holmes uttering:
--"My life has been plagued by criminals with instinct but no sense."
--"Guessing is a bad habit brought on by indolence."
--"Reading that drivel of Watson's a person would never know I've had any real failures."
Russell also has plenty of good lines:
--"Holmes, this is Russell you're talking to, not Mr. Watson or Mrs. Hudson."
--"No! I refuse to accept a gallant stupidity in place of rational necessity. Go."
--"Reminders of my femininity always took him by surprise. However, I could not hold him to blame, for they always took me by surprise as well."
And King writes plenty of pleasurable sentences, as in this passage: "Sherlock Holmes had invented his profession, and it fit him like a glove. We watched in admiration that verged on awe, as his love of challenge, his flair for the dramatic, his precise attention to detail, and his vulpine intelligence were called into play and transformed his thin face by putty and paint into that of his brother."
However, she also writes a few melodramatic clunkers:
--"Eccentricity had flowed into madness as malignant as a poisonous spider."
-- "I was struck again by the size of that man's [Holmes'] heart."
And Holmes stroking Russell's hair to soothe her to sleep once let alone twice seems a bridge too far in character revision. And Russell and Holmes diss Watson a bit too often. And a certain Holy Land "excursus" may not be entirely meet.
[SPARSE SPOILER ALERT]
Worst of all, the climax is unfortunate. After King has the criminal genius nemesis of Holmes and Russell go to so much effort arranging elaborate crimes, traps, and tricks to toy with them, and has our genius heroes go to so much effort figuring out the purpose and identity of their nemesis and setting up their own elaborate trap for her, to then have the climax come down to the Scene of Triumphant Gloating followed by the Scene of Diving and Scrambling for a Loaded Gun felt disappointing. For that matter, despite being an unobservant and illogical person, I guessed the nature, gender, and identity of the nemesis before Holmes and Russell do so, which made me think that a mystery story involving genius detectives has somehow failed.
I did enjoy the relationship between Holmes and Russell. I do like a 90-something woman writing her memoirs, because it adds a fine melancholy to everything that happens. I am intrigued by her provocatively signing her "author's preface" M. R. H. Fans of pastiches and fiction featuring Holmes should like this book.
A day in the life of Eric Packer, 28-year-old "hyper-maniacal" self-made billionaire genius asset manager and founder of Packer Capital, may not sound so promising as the subject of a novel, but "Maybe today is the day when everything happens." Eric's day begins after another night of insomnia. "What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words." He walks through the 48 rooms of his triplex apartment, "past the lap pool, the card parlor, the gymnasium, past the shark tank and screening room," before tracking currencies and examining research reports and descending in the one of his two private elevators that plays music by Satie. Leaving the 89-story residential tower, Eric enters his anonymous white limousine, telling his chief of security, Torval, "I want a haircut," though the destination lies across NY City through a vast traffic jam caused by a visit from the President of the United States. As Eric's limo crawls across town in stops and starts, he is serially joined for meetings in the car by his top aides (chief of technology, currency analyst, etc.), and at one point a doctor's associate even enters the car to give him his daily health check up and rectal prostate exam. Occasionally Eric leaves the stopped limo, to visit his mistress art dealer or to eat a meal with his wife of 22 days, Elise Shifrin, banking fortune heiress and poetess, who realizes for the first time that he has blue eyes and refuses to have sex with him because the energy involved in poetic creation is "precious."
Aside from sleep increasingly failing Eric, strange things seem to be happening today. His chief of technology assures him that "our system's secure. . . we're impermeable." Why then does Eric catch a glimpse of himself in the limo spycam running his thumb along his chinline one or two seconds before he runs his thumb along his chinline? All factors must lead the yen, which he has been borrowing in massive amounts, to drop in value. Why then does it continue to rise? Eric has read a line in a poem about a city under siege that goes, "a rat became the unit of currency." Why then do grey spandex-clad anarchist performance artists start popping up waving dead rats around in the air? He believes that "Data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process," and that "the master thrust of cyber capital" would be "to extend the human experience to infinity, a medium for corporate growth and investment." Why then does he feel so much in his body and want to live in "meat space"? And a "credible threat" against his life has manifested itself. Why then does he feel so unconcerned and alive?
Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003) explores the mind of a cyber capital potentate and by extension our contemporary world, dominated as it is by "the investment banker, the land developer, the venture capitalist, the software entrepreneur, the global overlord of satellite and cable, the discount broker, the beaked media chief." But it also speculates on the human condition in general, on love, memory, identity, pain, doubt, randomness, fate, and knowledge, all influenced by metropolitan life.
DeLillo packs into this April 2000 day in the life of Eric Packer philosophical ideas (e.g., "But how can you make words out of sounds? These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link," like "Mirrors and images. Or sex and love"); speculations on "obsolete" words (e.g., skyscraper, office, and ATM); quirky characters (e.g., the stalker Benno Levin); funny and pointed conversations (e.g., "That's not why I'm unemployable." "Then why?" "Because I stink. Smell me." "Smell me."); and bizarre and vivid set pieces (e.g., a movie scene shot in the middle of the night featuring a horde of nude people lying as if stunned or dead in an intersection). DeLilo also writes many neat descriptions, like this one contrasting people and advertisements ("Stunted humans in the shadow of the underwear gods that adorned the soaring billboards. These were figures beyond gender and procreation"). And many pithy lines:
"Poems made him conscious of his breathing."
"Money is talking to itself now."
"The logical extension of business is murder."
"What did he want that was not posthumous?"
Will Patton gives a great reading of the novel, craggy and tender, a high point being the intense stream of consciousness fugue before the climax wherein Eric ponders a closed door in a derelict building.
Not all of Cosmopolis works for me. For instance, there's a long scene of a grandiose funeral for a sufi-rap star that feels forced and unsuitable for Eric's character. But readers interested in the contemporary human condition, in cities, or in dense, rich, short novels should like this one.
September 1792. The Reign of Terror is in full swing in Paris as crowds of "citoyens" enjoy the guillotining of a hundred aristocratic traitors and enemies of France per day. But wait! A plucky band of young English lords, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, has been rescuing condemned French "aristos" and their families and escorting them to England, thereby thwarting, embarrassing, and insulting the leaders of the Revolutionary government. And why? Because English nobles are sportsmen, "saving men, women and children from death, as other men destroy and kill animals for the excitement." And who is this Scarlet Pimpernel, the leader of the League, the brave, cunning, and audacious master of disguise who commands perfect love and loyalty from his followers? Faith, the French would pay dearly for that secret!
In this context, La, how dispiriting does Lady Blakeney (nee Marguerite St. Just) find her husband Sir Percy! True, he is tall, "massive," and handsome, and he is one of the ten richest men in England and is a close friend of the Prince of Wales, but, alas, he is also "a dandified leader of fashion," "an effete fop," "a brainless nincompoop," possessed of a lazy expression, an "inane laugh," and no intellectual pursuits. Why did Marguerite marry Sir Percy, when she was one of the most sought after women in Paris, "the cleverest woman in Europe," a dazzlingly beautiful young actress and hostess of a "charming salon" frequented by minds of "originality and intellect"? Because Sir Percy loved her more than life itself, and she had never before been so loved. That changed the day after their marriage when Marguerite confessed that she had caused the death by guillotine of a Marquis and his family, for in her pride she withheld from Percy the extenuating circumstances, immediately turning his love to contempt and hers in turn to despite. Thus by September 1782 they are the happily married king and queen of fashion in public, an estranged couple in private.
When French spies and agents show up in England hunting for the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel so as to become able to catch and guillotine him in France, and when Marguerite's beloved brother Armand is threatened with death in France as a traitor to the Revolution, the plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel heats up.
The Baroness must be one of the first writers of historical, romantic espionage. She works hard to generate suspense. She tosses in neat reality claims, mentioning for instance that the Fisherman's Rest hostelry/coffee room is still frequented in the 20th century and that Percy's "palatial" house in Richmond is now "a historic one." Marguerite and Percy and their fraught relationship are compelling. The Scarlet Pimpernel's "arch-enemy," "the cunning devil," "the wizened fiend," the "fox-faced" French agent Chauvelin, is interesting. Even as he hates the Scarlet Pimpernel he can’t help but admire him, and believes (not without cause) that every French aristo who escapes France will strive to generate support and money and armies with which to return the monarchy and stamp out the Revolution.
However, too often the Baroness overwrites. She uses the word "inane" to describe Percy at least twenty times and "fox" or "foxy" to describe Chauvelin at least a dozen, and paints the villain too infernally. She works too hard to make us idolize, if not worship, the Scarlet Pimpernel, possessed as he is of "that strong individuality which belongs to a leader of men--to a hero: to the mighty, high-soaring eagle," a "fearless lion," a man whose name brings a blush to the cheeks of the women of England, and we are repeatedly reminded of his bravery, cleverness, impudence, audacity, energy, nobility, and heroism. He is never unmodified; he is always "the brave Scarlet Pimpernel," "their brave rescuer," "the brave hero," "one brave man," "the brave eagle," "their brave deliverer," "a brave heart," and so on, ad nauseam.
The Baroness often writes febrile prose, as when female characters experience "nameless terror," "nameless dread," or "nameless misery." Not to mention sentences like, "Every word they had spoken seemed to strike at her heart with terrible hopelessness and dark foreboding." And passages like, "How lovely she looked in this morning sunlight, with her ardent hair streaming around her shoulders. He bowed very low and kissed her hand; she felt the burning kiss and her heart thrilled with joy and hope."
Furthermore, granted that the French Revolutionary government was, especially for people living in monarchies, a bloodthirsty regime madly plying the guillotine in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the Baroness depicts England as "the land of liberty and of hope," but in that "beautiful land of freedom" the common English "yokels" and fishermen tug their forelocks before their noble betters and punctiliously vacate the coffee room in the Fisherman's Rest for them. Something doesn't add up.
Michael Page gives a solid reading of the novel, though I wish he would pause now and then to heighten the effect of some of the Baroness' dramatic phrases and to give the reader a chance to catch his or her breath.
Finally, I remember Scaramouche (1921) by Rafael Sabatini as being a better written, less overwrought, more suspenseful, more substantial, and equally romantic (and questioning of identity) book set in the same period.
In Flyte (2006), the second novel in Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series, eleven-year-old Septimus Heap (seventh son of a seventh son), is now the Apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, happily learning everything Magykal he can, cleaning the library, and dreaming of Flyte, "the Last Lost Art." (Sage uses bold font, capital letters, and archaic spelling to make Magykal things look special.) All is not well, however, in the Wizard's Tower in the Castle. An ominous Shadow has been shadowing Marcia and her ShadowSafe is taking much too long to construct. Worse, Septimus' eldest brother Simon, who resentfully ran away to live in the Badlands and learn magic from the remains of the Necromancer DomDaniel when Sepitmus and not he became Marcia's Apprentice, kidnaps the Princess Jenna (the Heap's adopted daughter), for some nefarious purpose. Without any support from the feckless adults around him, Septimus sets off to rescue Jenna. From there Sage tells a page turning story full of laughs and frights and action that you can imagine entertaining theater audiences.
There are moments of magical writing in Flyte, as when something moves up through the Marram Marshes "ice white in the moonlight," when a lab emits "a distinctive smell that reminded Septimus of burned pumpkin," and when, after a vivid description of the sentient Dragon Boat, Sage writes, "Deep in a locked hold, which no one had opened--not even Aunt Zelda--beat her heart, silent and slow." Unfortunately, despite all the Magykal Spells, Charms, Hexes, Balms, Potions, Artifacts, Wizards, Witches, and fantastic beings, such moments are rare and lost amid much uninspired writing. There are mundane similes, as when five different times characters drop or sink "like a stone" and as when a character is swatted into the air by a dragon tail "Like a baseball sailing out of the ball park," though there's nary a hint of the sport in the pseudo-medieval magical world. Some things even act as magic-mood breakers, like the Apprentice Belts that Septimus and Simon use like Batman Utility Belts.
At times Sage's suspense doesn't work because she signals what's really happening before the characters catch on, distancing the reader from their panic attacks (by, for instance, revealing that a pursuing cloud is white instead of black). Perhaps Sage is trying to make her book less scary for kids. (She also caters to kids with plenty of "gross" humor: booger-eating bugs, dragon dung, leaky sewer pipes, Land Wurm slime, cabbage sandwiches, etc.) And although she does introduce the potentially interesting Wolf Boy and Merrin Meredith, her characters, even Jenna and Septimus, feel under-developed, partly because she is so busy writing one exciting action scene after another--which actually begins causing a suspense-numbness. Indeed, despite a fair amount of Flyte going on in the novel, I rarely felt any magical wonder or transcendent exhilaration from the activity, partly because Sage usually shows Flyte during "suspenseful" action scenes.
If the story and characters were compelling enough, I wouldn't stop to ask questions, but as it is . . . Why would any pirate, no matter how notorious, keep a merchant prisoner in the hold of his ship for seven years instead of killing him or selling him for ransom? Why is Septimus so afraid of heights but dreams longingly of Flyte? Why does Jenna save someone's life at one point and then later angrily ask Septimus why he does the same thing? Why are so many of the ghosts--but not the Queen's ghost--visible to living people? Etc. And because Sage never really explains what Magyk is or how it works, despite Septimus having been Marcia's Apprentice for at least a year, for the sake of her plot she can do anything she wants any time. As a result, I often found myself asking questions like "Why do they use Magyk to make coffee?" or "Why don't they use Magyk to lift up this sunken boat?"
Gerard Doyle is a capable reader, but less enhancing than Allan Corunder was for the first book. Though Doyle is fine doing a "low, sepulchral voice" and natural enough doing women, his kids start sounding a bit whiny. The audiobook does not include Sage's "What Happened Before. . ." afterword, in which she writes amusing and neat mini-story backgrounds for nearly all the characters who appear in Flyte.
Flyte is not a bad book. It has many virtues. In addition to being good at telling page-turning stories with a heart, Sage imagines cool things like the Counterfeits board game whose counters have minds of their own. And the ShadowSafe and Doll's House are interesting and creepy. She's good at surprises. And I like her exploration of families: biological, adoptive, surrogate, coven, camp, and more. And I do like Septimus and Jenna and Marcia and Arthel and look forward to finding out how they develop in future books. But if the third book in the series is as disappointing as Flyte, I may regret having bought books 2-7 during an Audible sale. I hope that they will have less movie-ready action and more magical Magyk.
Roughly the eighth book featuring Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold's ever-entertaining space opera series the Vorkosigan Saga is Komarr (1998). It opens about three months after the events of the last one, Memory (1997), when the brilliant, curious, hyperactive, and independent Miles apparently found his calling as an Imperial Auditor, a detective/diplomat/judge/paladin who speaks with "the Emperor's Voice." Because Miles and his eight fellow Auditors wield the authority of the Emperor without rules as they solve unusual, challenging, and politically delicate cases, it would seem to be an ideal gig for Miles. And it is, but for one small drawback: it tends to put him on the defensive and to deny him his "forward momentum" that has entertainingly (for us) helped him get into and out of so much trouble in past novels. In this one Miles has traveled to Komarr with his older Auditor colleague Vorbathys to investigate the accident which may be sabotage by which a freight space ship crashed into the solar mirror system vital to the ongoing terraforming of the harsh planet. And it just so happens that Vorbathys and Miles will be staying with the family of the older man's niece, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, whose husband Etienne is the administrator in charge of terraforming in the part of Komarr most affected by the accident/sabotage.
Bujold alternates chapters told from the points of view of Miles and Ekaterin, whose husband is a domineering, serial job-changer who refers to Miles behind his back as "the Vor dwarf" (readers familiar with the series know that an assassination attempt on his parents while he was inside his mother's womb made Miles unnaturally short and large headed). The most interesting parts of this book depict Ekaterin's unhealthy relationship with her selfish and manipulative husband (sex with whom is a nightmarish labor for which she must "hypnotize" herself via ugly fantasies into being able to respond with "natural" passion to avoid his resentful guilt-trips), her curious feelings about Miles (how did he receive and survive the myriad scars on his stunted body?), and his attraction to her (which involves sensual dreams, wistful conjugal fantasies, asides like "Down boy, don't even think about it," and rhetorical questions like "So what is this thing you have about tall women and unrequited love?") It's neat for the lonely Miles to take a back seat every other chapter to a potentially strong but hitherto "self-effacing and self-erasing" woman as she wonders, "How did I grow so small?" and begins to realize that she owns herself.
All of the above is complicated by the fact that Miles, Vorbathys, and the Vorsoissons hail from Barrayar, the homeworld of the Empire that some decades ago violently absorbed Komarr so as to be able to control the planet's many wormhole jump points, which still makes some of the native Komarrans resentful if not rebellious. And by the fact that Ekaterin's husband and their young son Nikolai have a genetically-transmitted, AIDS-like adult-onset disease, her husband having refused thus far to be treated for it because of the attendant shame on being perceived to be a "mutant" in the still too macho and patriarchal Barrayaran culture. Bujold highlights that culture by having her Barrayaran characters think of, allude to, or talk about apt Barrayaran sayings, fairy tales, epic poems, legends, and such that emphasize their dread of mutants and their celebration of self-sacrificing women and heroic men.
Throughout the novel, Bujold writes plenty of her trademark witty lines of dialogue and italicized inner thoughts:
"Tien with a plan was about as reassuring as a two-year-old with a charged plasma arc."
"How could you be lovers with someone and yet feel that every moment alone with them intruded upon your privacy, your dignity?"
"I spent a career fighting the powers that be, now I am them."
"Marriage was not an experience she cared to repeat."
Grover Garden gives his usual professional reading of the novel: nothing fancy, a limited number of voices, none of which are very different from each other, but all easy to listen to (and only his voice could belong to Miles!).
Although to move her plot forward Bujold has Miles act a few times in ways that are, given the situation and his character, unbelievably obtuse or reckless, she tells an involving mystery and an appealingly awkward romance, and I recommend Komarr for fans of entertaining, political, cultural and psychological space opera who don't require violent, large-scale, and pyrotechnic action.
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