Monday, November 28, 2011

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever
by Julia Quinn
HarperCollins, 2007
237 pages

This light and fluffy Regency Romance is one of Quinn's Bevelstokes series. I read What Happens in London some time ago, and absolutely enjoyed it. I thought The Secret Diaries was good, but not nearly as good as the former. I am realizing this about Quinn's writing: most of the time it's good, sometimes it's stellar, occasionally it's mediocre. I would put this in the good camp, which is always a little disappointing because I know what it could be.

Miss Miranda Cheever is the childhood BFF of Olivia Bevelstoke. Olivia is everything Miranda is not: beautiful, vivacious, and likely to marry very well. However, this doesn't get in the way of their relationship; Olivia relies on Miranda to keep her entertained and down-to-earth, because in addition to being gorgeous, Olivia's quite a bit more intelligent than most people expect. Miranda relies on Olivia for companionship; by extension, Miranda relies on the entire Bevelstoke family, because she is the only child of a very distracted father. She's practically part of the family. Which is why no one is particularly worried about her relationship with Olivia's elder brother Nigel being inappropriate. They're practically siblings, right? Well... not quite...

I really liked Miranda especially. She's got all the hallmarks of a good Quinn heroine; feisty, smart, funny, and pretty but not too pretty. She's also the closest to a modern woman in Regency clothing that I've seen Quinn write, at least in some ways. She's quite a feminist; there's a scene in a men's bookshop that would be funnier if it wasn't so believable. She's also a pragmatic woman, and a realist, with few illusions about the way her life will be. The thought of what will probably happen makes her quite wistful, though. I do like that this is a fell-in-love-as-a-child romance, where Miranda holds a torch for the hero from the moment she meets him, and it actually ends up happily for her. It's a sweet story, and the fantasy of every ten-year-old child who has a crush on someone.

Nigel (or Turner, as he prefers to be called), on the other hand, I found difficult to get a handle on. As did Miranda, so that makes sense. He's mercurial, and in contrast to Miranda's forward-thinking ways, Nigel's probably the most traditional male I've seen from Quinn. It's an interesting contrast, and it does make me examine my love of Regency romances a little. If most men were like Nigel, but more so, I find that ... an unpleasant set of characteristics. Paternalistic, protective, and uncommunicative. Not sexy. Nigel did have some redeeming qualities, mind you -- he is a hero, after all.

Once again, we have our conflict, which I think maybe went on a bit too long (this is why Secret Diaries is not as good as What Happens in London) because it really started to feel manufactured at the end. Then the rather dramatic climax, which... well, actually, was pretty believable as something that might have happened at that point in history, so points for that. It fits a bit better with the story and the time period than some of Quinn's climaxes do, and while dramatic isn't ridiculous.

Overall, a good bit of fun, even though I probably won't feel the need to read this one again. It does, however, make me want to read What Happens in London again. I do believe it's also available for e-lending. Off to the virtual library I go...

Monday, November 21, 2011

White Rapids by Pascal Blanchet

White Rapids
by Pascal Blanchet (translated by Helge Dascher)
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007
156 pages

This was a somewhat random read for me. fishy has been bringing home various graphic novels from the library, and I knew nothing of this book before it appeared on the bedside table. Apparently, however, Pascal Blanchet is a rather famous graphic novelist in Quebec; this is, I believe, the first of his work to be translated into English. Because fishy and I read it so close together, and are reviewing it at nearly the same time, we're going to respond to the others' review, too -- fishy has his own blog over at Nominally Robotic, if you're curious to see what he thought (beyond what he's said below). We also tried not to contaminate the other's impressions prior to writing our own reviews, though we were only marginally successful. Since we're both home and spending a lot of time and brain energy looking after smallfry, one of the adult, intelligent conversations we tend to have is about whatever we're reading at the time.

I quite liked this book, overall. It's a very quick and easy read, and doesn't have much of a plot, exactly. It is more of a window on the real town of Rapide-Blanc, a town that was built by the Shawinigan Water and Power Company in the 1930s to house the workers needed to run an extremely remote hydroelectric dam, and their families. In the 1970s, when the dam was taken over by the Quebec public hydro utility and the dam automated, the town was shut down and the families forced to leave. White Rapids reflects on the construction of the town, life in it over the fifty years it was in existence, and the end.

What sticks out for me is the atmosphere of the book, and the depiction of the setting. The graphic work is very polished, deliberate, and absolutely gorgeous. It feels perfect for the era it is describing, right down to the faux-wood-panelled endpapers. The colouration is perfect, shades of orange plus white and black. The drawings of the buildings, particularly the dam, are absolutely stunning. I would describe a lot of the architectural drawings as elegant and very evocative. Blanchet is by far at his strongest when drawing the bold, static lines of man-made structures. His work with people is slightly less successful, but I think perhaps that's only because the setting is so very successful.

And unfortunately, I have to mention the font work. Which I hated. Every page has a different font, and I honestly can't imagine why. In some cases, the text is integrated right into the images, and while sometimes that made sense and worked well, at other times it didn't. Some of the fonts were nigh on impossible to read without squinting. I am sure there were reasons for the choice to do the fonts that way, but it was the only thing that really detracted from the enjoyment of the story for me.

White Rapids was charming and interesting, and I love the idea of it -- a peek into a time and place that no longer exists, without being overbearingly melancholy. Plus, I learned about a rather obscure piece of Canadian history, which is always a bonus. Font fiasco aside, this is a book well worth finding.

***

And now... husband-and-wife discussion time! fishy and I had a bit of a conversation via email regarding our reviews (his can be found here):

kiirstin: I like your thought of just having the book be about the views, as opposed to trying to stick in a plot and characters. I think maybe the views could have told the story, although to be fair I'm not sure the views alone would have done it -- the people are necessary to breathe narrative life into the tale. None of those buildings or structures existed in a vaccuum. The town was built to house the workers; you can't really have a book about the town of White Rapids without the workers.

fishy: Well, certainly you can have a book about the buildings of White Rapids, though. They have their own sort of narrative of place and style. The most human point in the whole piece for me was the moment with the empty bedroom which you can tell had been a child's room. It had atmosphere and history and narrative all in a single image.

There is no question if you took out the characters then you wouldn't know much about their lives and histories and personal stories, but... did you get any of that here? If you had just shown views of the hunting lodge and the porches and so on, then I think the reader would have substituted a more interesting reality than his explicit one. To be fair, there were a number of places where his depictions of humans was nice - the cocktail party would have been hard to do any other way, I think. Though there, as most places, the text could have gone.

kiirstin: I did love that image of the empty room; it was, for me, more memorable than pretty much any other image in the book. You're right, it had a perfect quality and told a whole story in just that panel.

The thing about taking the people away is that I'm not sure I would have bought the town as "lived-in" at that point. The empty room would have meant nothing if we didn't have a sense that there were humans behind it, that there had been someone who lived and loved in that room. I'm not sure that the previous scenery work had established enough to sell the sweet melancholy that the image otherwise provided.

The text is a different thing. Font aside, the text itself often didn't add much that couldn't have been done, and done more elegantly, with the images. I do wonder if something was lost in translation.

...

Drawn and Quarterly has published a book called The Native Trees of Canada which is just page after page of lovely painting of a single leaf. So perhaps plot is not necessary.

fishy: I don't think you need to discard the plot along with the humans. Chris Ware has frequently dedicated sections of story to just depicting place over time, or views of place in a narrative way, Seth has combined narration with objects to tell stories, I am sure many others have too. I think it would be hard in non-graphic fiction to tell a story with no human or anthropomorphized characters, but in graphic fiction you can tell fairly complex stories with images that don't contain the human form.

kiirstin: I can buy that, though not for this particular piece. I think that's why it felt imperfect: the place component was beautiful, but lacked (generally, not always) soul, and the people component was not quite up to the challenge of providing that soul.

...

Incidentally and a minor thing: I liked The General. Maybe because it was a cliched trope and I'm nothing if not forgiving of those, but I thought the fish added just the right touch where the human "characters" failed.

fishy: I could definitely enjoy a good story of man's struggle to catch the big one, right from Moby Dick on down. It was the ham-fisted symbolism of the fish that took me out of the story.

kiirstin: All right, I can concede that it was a bit heavy-handed. I still liked him. He probably wasn't necessary, and as you say in some cases may have detracted from the true story, but to me he added the soul that I felt was lacking elsewhere.

...

I wonder if we were trying to infuse this story with a gravitas Blanchet was never going for? I mean, the suspense at the beginning set a tone, but I wonder if the whole thing was meant to be more light-hearted than we took from it. Which may be a failing in the writing, but might also just be us.

fishy: It is possible, he did have a bunch of cartoony moments, right down to a couple of explicit Chuck Jones references. There is something very nice about a light comic romp with a nice sombre moment in the third act, and in some ways this does achieve that.

kiirstin: I think it might have achieved it better without the manufactured suspense at the beginning, but otherwise I think it succeeded in just that sort of lighthearted/bittersweet dichotomy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

 Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
166 pages

Whee! Kate Beaton! I preordered this when I knew it was coming out, and I loved pretty much every bit of it.

If you're not familiar with cartoonist Kate Beaton, get thee over to her website posthaste and remedy that. Her comics poke fun at literature (both the literature itself and the people who write it), history, and occasionally contemporary things. I can almost always get a laugh out of a Kate Beaton strip. In fact, I think some of her work -- enough of it to note -- is absolutely brilliant. Which is excellent, although it does mean that if she posts a rather mediocre strip it's even more devastating. Generally, the work in the book is the best, although there are one or two middling bits. I wouldn't worry about these, I only sigh because I know she can be so good.

The nice thing about the book, too, is that it compiles related strips in one place. So all of the French Revolution stuff is in one place, and all of the superhero bits, and all of the Teen Detectives bits, and (some of my favourites) the Goreys, where Beaton has taken a whole bunch of book covers drawn by Edward Gorey and then riffed on them -- judging books by their cover, to excellent effect. Often at the beginning of a set, there will be some commentary included, and what makes me happy about this is that it's not exactly that Beaton is explaining her jokes, so much as adding to them -- so what could be unfunny or too much information actually adds to the overall experience. Sometimes the strips are even better having read the commentary. Beaton is one funny lady.

Okay, so not a deep read by any means. But smarter than your average comic strip, and in some cases I even learned things. Those of you who like books, or history, or both, and have a sense of humour about things like the guillotine, should definitely check this collection out.

I leave you with this.


Seriously, go look at the website. Buy her stuff. Buy her book. Please make sure she keeps publishing stuff because a world without Kate Beaton's comics is a sad, sad world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 2001 (originally published in 1902)
240 pages

No one can sate my appetite for mystery quite the way Sherlock Holmes can. As stated before, I love the character despite, or maybe because of, all of his flaws. I like Conan Doyle's writing, the the action and the unsolvable mysteries and the atmosphere of time and place. Actually, I think it sometimes gets lost in the shine of the Great Man, but Conan Doyle was really an excellent writer. He could sketch a character in just a few words (partially with the help of the idiotic pseudoscience of physiognomy; if one takes those tenets as truth in his stories, it's very easy to get a feel for a character just from their physical description), he could establish a mood for a piece very quickly, he could surprise with a very clever solution to a seemingly simple crime. The writing can somehow disappear, even though the narrator is talking directly to the reader. It makes me think I should be reading some of the other things he's written at some point, to see if I'm still as enamoured of his talents when Holmes isn't present.

About this novel itself: I have read this before, but it seemed an appropriate read for this time of year, and is my non-participatory nod to Carl's fantastic R.I.P. Challenge, which I believe finished a over week ago. I chose to read it instead of the short stories simply because of the fact that I happened to be browsing the library's e-shelves, and there The Hound was. I would argue it's Holmes' most famous case, at least somewhat familiar to everyone, even those who haven't read any Holmes and never will. And I, of course, couldn't remember what happened at all, other than that there was some sort of dire curse on the Baskerville family that involved a giant hound. It occurs to me as I write this that I think my family listened to it in the car on a road trip at some point, and perhaps I never read it myself.

For those who aren't familiar with the actual plot: Holmes is engaged by a country doctor named Dr. Mortimer to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of a baronet by the name of Sir Charles Baskerville. Dr. Mortimer was a personal friend of Sir Charles', and after his untimely demise, the last surviving heir to the Baskervilles' vast lands and wealth is coming home to claim his birthright -- and Dr. Mortimer is extremely concerned for his welfare. For the death of Sir Charles' was not at all natural, and the circumstances surrounding it were terribly sinister and perhaps even supernatural. Holmes, of course, scoffs at the idea of the supernatural, but the case is bizarre and unusual and certainly engages his interest; however, embroiled in important cases in London, he sends Dr. Watson to keep an eye on things in his stead.

Thus we end up with a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Sherlock is barely present for much of it. I'd forgotten that, specifically, and I loved spending time with Watson. Those who portray Watson as a bumbling idiot, well-meaning but dense, would do well to spend some time with this novel. Watson is hardly dense. He's a mere human, which would make anyone look somewhat dense next to Holmes. But Watson does some fine detecting in this story on his own, requiring only that Holmes confirm his suspicions.

I love the melodramatic setting, the foreboding, the use of the countryside to prey on the mood and courage of the characters. Everything here is bigger and more sinister, from the original curse, to the moor, to the solution of the mystery. It's ridiculous; I've read that some Holmes scholars view The Hound of the Baskervilles as being ridiculous and overly dramatic, a sign of how bored Conan Doyle was getting with the character that was taking over his writing life -- that the mystery in The Hound is bordering on ludicrous, along with Holmes' actions. I don't think I agree, however -- plenty of the early Holmes stories are as far-fetched as this one. And for me, only "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" can match this one for sinister good times.

Normally I strongly dislike the "supernatural" mystery that is wrapped up and explained away by logic and science, but Holmes (or should I say Conan Doyle?) can do no wrong. If you're a Holmes fan and have somehow managed to avoid this novel thus far, do pick it up. It's fun. If you're not a Holmes fan yet, you could do far worse than pick up this as an entree into the canon.

(Also, don't you love that cover? The cover I had on the e-book was just a giant Penguin, but this is an edition I'd love to have. It's one of the few that don't attempt to portray the hound, which is better left to the imagination; yet it still has a wonderful reference to the contents.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison
by Dorothy Sayers
Harper & Row, 1930
252 pages

So, I can't say that it was Connie Willis who introduced me to the idea of reading Sayers; that was Nymeth, quite a long time ago. (She also introduced me to Connie Willis, incidentally, which I suppose means she's doubly responsible for me reading this right now.) For someone who considered herself to be quite up on the mystery genre, I'm ashamed to say I hadn't even heard of Sayers or Lord Peter Wimsey before that. It feels like a rather large omission. But thankfully, Nymeth and Connie Willis conspired to introduce me to another favourite mystery author, and here I am.

Harriet Vane is a young woman accused of murdering her ex-lover by arsenic. It doesn't help that she is a detective novelist, and her latest manuscript describes in detail a murder by arsenic; or that in the course of her research, she purchased it several times using pseudonyms shortly before the young man died. The police and prosecution believe the case is airtight; Lord Peter Wimsey doesn't believe a word of it. Luckily, neither do some on the jury, and Lord Peter has one month to investigate the case and prove Miss Vane's innocence.

I loved Strong Poison. I really, really enjoyed it. I loved the setting, I especially loved the characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery. The writing is charming and intricate, rife with slight details and hints that are easily dismissed unless one is paying attention. But even better than the mystery? The humour. This book was a good sight funnier than I expected, and not always in obvious ways. Once again, I've discovered an author with a dry, straight-faced delivery that cracks me right up. I wish I could provide you with an example of something that made me laugh out loud, but unfortunately the library only had one copy of Strong Poison, and it's got a steady rotation of holds on it. And no, I didn't have the foresight to write down my favourite parts.

My absolute favourite part? When the Dowager Duchess, Lord Peter's mother, holds forth on censorship. It's a little jab at those who would censor books couched neatly in dinnertime conversation, a remark made by a character who has a tendency to be a little verbose and wandering. It's perfect. It delighted me utterly.

Which brings me to the characters, which I think are this book's strongest point. Lord Peter, of course, is marvellous. He's not a perfect character by any stretch. In fact, Arachne Jericho did a splendid series on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in fiction over on Tor.com, and Lord Peter starred in one of her excellent articles. This particular aspect of his character doesn't make much of a show in Strong Poison, but it's enough to know that it's there. He can also have the appearance of shallowness, and a definite sense of entitlement that I suspect could be slightly irritating if he wasn't so damn charming.

Aside from Lord Peter, the supporting cast is excellent. I think one of the advantages of coming at a series from the middle (something I almost never do, and only did this time because Nymeth did it... lemming I am, yes) is that the long-running secondary characters are established and comfortable in their own skin. At least, if the author is good -- otherwise there is sometimes an assumption that the reader already knows the characters, and so sketches are found in place of true characterization. And Sayers is good. She takes the things she knows about her secondary characters at this stage in the series and uses this knowledge to create full portraits even if we only see the character once.

There was something about Lord Peter's family and the other secondary characters that reminded me strongly of Deanna Raybourn's March family in her Lady Julia Gray mysteries. The debt is of course the other way around, if indeed it is there at all. Suffice to say, I like me a well-fleshed-out, maybe quirky, maybe just distinct cast of secondary characters.

I am absolutely delighted to find a new-to-me mystery author I like so much, and I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I may go back and read them from the beginning, now that I've had a taste; I'd like to see Lord Peter's character arc through the series. Fans of mystery who have somehow, like me, missed out on Sayers shouldn't hesitate to pick this book up.