Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker

The Hotel Under the Sand
by Kage Baker
Tachyon Publications, 2009
117 pages

It was actually kind of accidental that I read this so soon after reading my first Kage Baker story ever. I saw this before Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy arrived at my house, and placed a hold on it simply because the summary was so compelling to me. And then it came up just after I finished Scarlet Spy.

This, unlike the previous story, is a children's book. And it is a wonderful, wonderful children's book. I am already planning to read it with my parent-child book club when I go back to work, and even more ridiculously I am planning to read it to smallfry when she is old enough to comprehend it. (Perhaps six? seven? years from now.)

The story begins with Emma, blown to the Dunes by a storm. And this is as much as we find out about Emma's past; we know that she has lost everything, though what "everything" is remains unspoken. I think this is a good choice, because unspoken the loss is more terrible, at least given the amount of space Baker had for creating a backstory for Emma. Despite her disaster, Emma is brave, resourceful, and not about to be beaten or cowed, not even when, upon her first night at the Dunes, she encounters a ghost.

This story is an exercise in simplicity that isn't the least bit simplistic. It has a straightforward plot and straightforward characters, without a lot of flowery embellishment; there is not a single unnecessary word in this story, I don't think. This style was evident in Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, too, and it works wonderfully well for a children's story. But despite the simplicity of the writing and the plot, there are deep themes here: loss, loyalty, time, friendship, and family among them.

Emma is working through a terrible loss, and while it's not mentioned often it squats just off-stage to rear its head every once in a while. Each of the other characters, as they are introduced, have lost as well, some more than others. There is an interesting pragmatism about loss in this book, too; there is not a lot of dwelling on anguish or loneliness, but an acceptance of the pain for what it is. This means that though the mood of the story could have been melancholic or nostalgic, it is instead hopeful and forward-looking.

There's enough mystery and excitement to keep most readers riveted, I should think, and conflict as well as triumph for the characters. Not to mention that those with active imaginations are going to absolutely adore the idea of an entire hotel, an entire world almost, buried under a sand dune just waiting for the right person to come along to discover it. A thoroughly enchanting story and I'm so glad it caught my attention. Recommended for all ages, and this book has cemented Baker in my pantheon of authors I will be happy to read whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How we found the bishop's bird stump at last
by Connie Willis
Random House, 1998
448 pages

There's a lot I want to say about this book, but unfortunately the exhaustion of the past couple months is beginning to take a toll. I suspect reviews from now on may be a little [more] rambling, and I'm likely to forget important points, or harp on unimportant ones. This will clear up at some indeterminate point in the future.

It also doesn't help the rambling that I adored this book, and find it hard to be at all objective. One of my favourite reads of the year, certainly, and possibly ever. I would like to have this book's kittens. This sort of thing often leads to a rather poor review from me at the best of times, as I try to rein in my "aaljkbkjabhlksdfa LOOOOOVE BOOK" incoherent gabbling and try to elucidate what actually made me enjoy the book that much.

I have wanted to read it for a long time, and it's always such a pleasant feeling to realize that a book one has anticipated for literally years actually lives up to its reputation. This is a clever, sweet, intelligent, funny, vivid romp through the idea of time travel, the meaning of history, the love of literature, and Victorian high society.

Plus, cats. And dogs. And physics.
It [the cat] had been put into a box in Shrödinger's thought experiment, along with a doomsday device: a bottle of cyanide gas, a hammer hooked to a Geiger counter, and a chunk of uranium. If the uranium emitted an electron, it would trigger the hammer which would break the bottle. That would release the gas that would kill the cat that lived in the box that Schrödinger built.

Actually, this was one thing, perhaps minor but indicative of the quality and care taken in the details and characters of the story, not to mention the overall writing: there are animal characters, who do not speak, who are given fair treatment in the story. They don't get lost; Willis doesn't introduce them as a gimmick and then get tired of them (see, for example, Hedwig).

This could be partially because Ned Henry, our first-person narrator and protagonist, loves animals. It is an excellent case of showing and not telling, frankly: Ned never comes out and says "I happen to really like dogs." One just picked that up pretty quickly from the way Ned treats and enjoys Cyril, our canine companion.

So, before I go too much further: Ned Henry is an historian. Historians, in Willis' near future, are not dusty (or even animated) academics; they're time travellers, sent via "the net" back in time to observe history first-hand. However, the fact-finding, observational aspects of the historians of Oxford's jobs have been tossed by the wayside in favour of an all-consuming rebuild of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in the Blitz in the 1940s. A certain Lady Schrapnell has commissioned the entirety the time travel department to ensure that every single detail of the reconstruction is exactly as it was the hour of the bombing; if the historians help her out, she will donate a considerable sum to the university, which will allow them to continue and expand their research. Ned's duty in this is to find out if the bishop's bird stump was in the cathedral during the bombing, and track it down in the present day. Easier said than done, as the bird stump appears to have disappeared improbably at some point during the bombing.

So... this is how the book starts out. This isn't really what the book is about, although it is certainly about the search for the bishop's bird stump. The truth is, what the book is about, and what happens, is far too complex to summarize in a review like this. So, I'm not going to try further; you'll just have to read the book yourself.

I had, for fun and because I knew I was going to read this book eventually, read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat; I think it added to the experience of reading this one, but certainly wasn't necessary. Ned's excitement at being in the era when that book was written is infectious and instantly recognizeable to anyone who loves a particular book. There is something wonderful about exploring a place where a favourite book is set. Ned just happens to get to both the place and the time. Other literary references, particularly to classic mystery novels, are peppered throughout the book; Dorothy Sayers in particular gets plenty of time. This was the last straw for me -- I've now finally read Sayers too, thanks to To Say Nothing of the Dog reminding me that I really have wanted to for a while. The way the literature plays in to the plot is along the same lines as the animals above; it's not mentioned and then dropped, but has weight throughout.

Willis' writing is sharp, funny, and artful without being self-conscious or twee. One gets the impression that she really quite enjoyed writing this book, that she had fun with the ideas and characters and the tangled threads she created. It makes for an effortless, entertaining read that still has heft, which is a rare and precious thing.

Highly recommended, in case that wasn't obvious already.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy by Kage Baker

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy
by Kage Baker
Subterranean Press, 2011
168 pages

This slim little volume is comprised of two stories: "Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" and "The Bohemian Astrobleme" both of which feature a character named Lady Beatrice. I got it for the first tale, which I had originally heard of as The Women of Nell Gwynne's, a novella that won a Hugo in 2010. Frankly, I think the original title is more fetching; luckily, my most excellent local indie bookstore was able to track down this volume, as the original novella was out of print. Very pleased, because I'd desperately wanted to read this story since I'd first heard about it.

I think it was worth the wait; it was certainly diverting and well-written. It was a little more grim than I expected, but also funnier than I expected. Baker doesn't pull her punches, and though there's not a lot of graphic gore, there's a darkness to these stories that upon reflection makes a lot of sense -- the first story is an astute, if sideways, glimpse at a Victorian woman's life options. It's not a pretty picture. The second story is somewhat lighter, but the darkness blows in full force at the end. The humour is dark, too, in both of them, although it's also quite charming and often very dry in the way I particularly like. And both stories are exceedingly well-constructed.

"Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" (aka "The Women of Nell Gwynne's") is almost a simple character study; at least, it starts out that way. Lady Beatrice -- not a lady, nor a Beatrice, but we never find out what name she used to go by -- was a soldier's daughter. After a pretty horrific, harrowing experience abroad, she ends up on the streets. She is brave, shrewd, and highly intelligent, though, and this gets her noticed by Mrs. Corvey, the proprietress of Nell Gwynne's, an exclusive brothel that serves customers by invitation only. It also happens to be connected to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, a very secret group of highly intelligent men who are far, far ahead of their time. The women of Nell Gwynne's serve to gather secrets and occasionally blackmail the powerful into doing exactly what the Society wants them to do. In return, they have a relative measure of freedom, the opportunity to use their ample brains, and have use of some of the Society's fantastic inventions, not to mention a very comfortable living and an easy, early retirement.

"The Bohemian Astrobleme" is a story about what happens when the Society wants something. Lady Beatrice is involved, as is Ludbridge, a character we meet in the first story. It's an entertaining little piece, interesting and somewhat chilling, too. Because we like both Lady Beatrice and Ludbridge, and in this story they are pretty ruthless. There's a very good reason that this story was second in the pairing; characterization is very thin (it can be, because it is second) but the reader is left feeling a little alarmed by how easily we were charmed by both Lady Beatrice and Ludbridge, and how we still like and admire them.

There are a couple things that I liked about the first story especially: a) life as a Victorian woman isn't glamourized, nor is prostitution, which can be a trap historical fiction and fantasy of a certain kind falls into; and b) though there are steampunk elements, it also avoids the above glamour trap, which steampunk can certainly fall into. I felt like these stories both treated their time period respectfully -- affectionately, perhaps, and we weren't delving deeply into issues, but with a clear head.

Overall recommended, if you can get your hands on these stories. Definitely not for children or the prudish. I keep thinking of dark chocolate as a metaphor -- delicious, a little exotic, and slightly bitter in a way that makes the whole experience that much better. The writing is quietly excellent, and the story is original and diverting. I'll be reading more by Baker in the future.