Monday, January 30, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James

Death Comes to Pemberley
by PD James
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2011
291 pages

Funny story: none of us the wiser, my father-in-law bought this book for my mother-in-law for Christmas. She bought me a copy. I bought my mother a copy. I have since found out that two of my aunts also received copies for Christmas. I would say that PD James, judging from my admittedly small and rather biased sample size (we all love the British mysteries) has made a veritable killing on this book. Pun intended.

Not sure I'd bother to pick up another "sequel," as I quite like where Austen left things off, and there's such a glut of ... uh, forgive me, but I will call it glorified fan fiction. I'm sure some of it is good. But the reason I wanted to read this in particular is... well, PD James. Come on. I admit to a certain amount of rubbernecking here. I didn't want it to be a disaster. I really hoped she could pull it off, because I thought if anyone one could, PD James could.

So, despite it being PD James, I had tempered expectations for this book, which I think was a good thing. If I had come into it expecting brilliance all around, I would have been disappointed; PD James is not Jane Austen, after all. But I came into it expecting fun and a good mystery, and that is precisely what I got, with moments of brilliance thrown in. James can sound an awful lot like Austen at times, which is the point; I think my favourite Austen-ish moment was the following passage, referring to our, er, old friend Mr. Collins: "He began by stating that he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful."

The plot runs like so: the night before the annual ball, Lydia Wickham (not invited) shows up in hysterics: her husband had been murdered! He and his friend Captain Denny got in a fight and then there were gunshots and she's sure Wickham is dead. Naturally her abrupt arrival and dramatic disclosure disorders the normally ordered and pleasant life at Pemberley, and this story is an examination of the social and psychological consequences of murder.

It's not a standard mystery. There's no investigator, really, in that Darcy and Elizabeth are probably the closest we have, but Darcy is constrained by his ownership of Pemberley and clear connections to the accused, and Elizabeth is constrained by her status as a woman. The reader has more information than either, and I didn't figure it out. And to be honest, I wasn't terribly impressed by the thing once we discover the truth; it felt a bit hollow, which perhaps was the intent? James is pretty adamant that the murder mystery not be about the murder but about the way the survivors react, the way it changes their lives. That is precisely what we are looking at here. The mystery, and the solving of it, aren't really the focus here. The focus is on the contortions that the Darcys and those around them have to suffer thanks to the disaster of a violent death in the vicinity, and it's a bit of an examination of the forces in play that lead to the murder, all of which rings depressingly true.

James must have had quite a lot of fun playing with characters she knows so well and clearly loves, and there are sometimes little winking asides to the reader (how is it possible that she and Darcy fell in love in such a short time, Elizabeth wonders -- if it was fiction, no one would believe it) and mentions of other familiar and beloved Austen characters. I don't remember Lydia being quite so awful, but her awfulness is a logical progression from where she started in Pride and Prejudice; Georgiana has grown up, Jane is still quite herself. Elizabeth I found a little disappointing, in that the sparkling wit and acerbity I loved so much in the original seems to be lacking a bit here; necessarily James has to follow Darcy more closely than Elizabeth, because he is the one with access to the important conversations and revelations by dint of being male. She's got him down, I think, a man still battling with his pride and his prejudices, comfortably ensconced in the society he's grown up in and yet quite reasonable and relatable to a 21st century woman. What I mean to say is that James has very effectively avoided the trap of making Darcy and Elizabeth and the others modern. They're not, and because of this they feel more real.

The writing, as mentioned above, I quite enjoyed overall, though I did think there were occasions where an editor might have been a little more ruthless. There were some redundancies that felt clumsy, some rather ham-handed exposition (though this, I think, might be fairly true to the source material) and occasionally the moody foreshadowing got a bit much. However, James lays out the events of the original book with a skilled hand, such that we don't feel we're reading a blow-by-blow recap, but all the important bits are in place before we get too far along in the story. It's cleverly done. And towards the end, during the trial, I was absolutely captivated. My heart was actually racing, and we're talking about an extended scene where there's not much more going on than people talking and Darcy observing, being completely incapable of action. Writers who feel their book needs an explosion or fast chase scene or other physical action at the climax in order to be exciting should take note.

Overall, great fun. I would recommend reading the original first if you haven't already, because while this book is good it can't touch the original. But as something written carefully and lovingly by a great fan, especially one with her own authorial cred, I would definitely recommend this book to fans of Austen and fans of James.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Wimbledon Green by Seth

Wimbledon Green: the greatest comic book collector in the world
by Seth
Drawn & Quarterly, 2005
125 pages 

When I said I went a completely different direction after The Bell at Sealey Head, I meant it. I went to a graphic novel about a fictionalized group of Canadian comic book collectors, and about one of those collectors in particular, a mysterious man by the name of Wimbledon Green.

I recently recommended this book to my friend Faith, and fishy promptly suggested that I should recommend something else by Seth, not this. Wimbledon Green is not his best work, I am told, not his most polished, not his most beautiful, not his most coherent. In fact, Seth himself tells us this; it's clear, from the foreword that should probably be an afterword, that Seth sets exceedingly high standards for himself. It's a story taken from his sketchbook, an experiment. Because of this, I add to this review the caveat that this may indeed not be Seth's best work. But it is an excellent little book, a really interesting work, and a really lovely piece of art. It stands on its own, all disclaimers aside.

I think I first have to mention the artwork. Seth has a pretty distinctive style. You may have seen it before; he designed the Peanuts anthologies, for example, and the Doug Wright anthology. It's got a sepia-toned nostalgic flavour, and an economy of line that belies how intricate and beautiful a finished panel is. The world created by his pen is consistent, complete and wide, much larger than the scope of the story he tells in it. His character work is unique and distinctive, and he knows how much he needs to show in a panel background in order for the reader to build a setting.

So, what is Wimbledon Green? Well, it's a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of comics collecting, often affectionate but also somewhat cynical. There are few entirely likeable characters -- even the titular fellow is not as charming or likeable as one might think. It's a story told in vignettes, a brief "biography" of Wimbledon Green as told by many people who knew him or knew of him, with some live action from Green's life plus a few other items of note relating to Green tossed in. It's put together in such a way that there's never a true narrative, but the larger picture emerges gradually. The added complication is that the multiple narrators are completely unreliable; it's difficult if not impossible to separate out truth from fiction. The unreliable narrator is a storytelling convention I normally dislike, but here it works for me incredibly well.

The multiple unreliable narrators here add a very active component to reading. The reader analyzes things carefully: does this person have a vested interest in being honest or dishonest? Does this person strike the reader as trustworthy? Is the character who seemed trustworthy previously now starting to seem less so? Even when we finally get to Wimbledon's own telling of his story, one feels there's a lot of omissions; whether those omissions are conscious on his part is another question for the reader to puzzle over. In the end, we never feel like we have a good handle on Wimbledon Green, much the same as all the other narrators, despite the fact that we do have more information than any of them. This may sound unsatisfying, and in some ways it is, but it's fitting: Wimbledon Green is a man of mystery, and he remains that way.

I can't quite finish the review without mentioning Jonah. This character is a dead ringer for Seth in appearance and certain foibles (exaggerated nostalgia for past eras, for example.) Though, I would hate to suggest that Seth is as thoroughly unpleasant as Jonah is. I don't know the author, but Jonah's a sneak, a cheat, an opportunist who has a deluded view of himself and the rest of the world. The rest of the characters have very little nice to say about him. It's an interesting choice for the author to put himself in there in such a way, but not without its humour. Put together with his foreword/afterword, and one begins to hypothesize a case of imposter syndrome, in the same way one has spent the rest of the book reading between the lines. I am sure this is all quite deliberate.

I'd like to recommend this book as an entree into Seth's work, though the author himself surely wouldn't thank me for it. I'll read more of his stuff, though from the snippets I've seen of his other work I suspect the melancholy that is merely hinted at in Wimbledon Green is out in full force in some of his other stuff. I am not always a fan of that sort of deep sadness without some sort of levity, and I thought that this book had a nice balance.

fishy's been re-reading this book, and published a much better, more in-depth blog entry on it than I have here. His point about Wimbledon Green being a superhero himself is well-made and I feel a little ... abashed, let's say, that I missed it myself the first time around.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

The Bell at Sealey Head
by Patricia A. McKillip
Ace Books, 2008
277 pages

The odd thing about people who had many books was how they always wanted more. Judd knew that about himself: just the sight of Ridley Dow's books unpacked and stacked in corners, on the desk and dresser, made him discontented and greedy. Here he was; there they were. Why were he and they not together somewhere private, they falling gently open under his fingers, he exploring their mysteries, they luring him, enthralling him, captivating him with every turn of phrase, every revealing page?

A short time ago, Aarti discussed the practice of "skimming" through books for one of her Sunday Salon posts. I do skim, several different ways and for several different reasons, but one of the bad skimming habits I have is when I'm so caught up in a book I have been known to skim through sections to get to the end so I can see what happens faster. This is probably just fine, as long as I re-read the book in question a second time to catch everything I missed. In some cases, I skim so badly I can't even remember what the book is about, through no fault of the book's. Such was the case with The Bell at Sealey Head.

I have such a hard time reviewing these books. I can't be objective, I can barely be intelligent; these books don't lend themselves to my kinds of reviews because they are complex and different and nuanced and beautiful and hard to talk about without feeling either trite or completely inadequate. I think I have mentioned my love for Patricia McKillip's writing before. Multiple times. So I probably don't need to spend a lot of time expostulating here. I had thought, as I was reviewing The Bards of Bone Plain, that perhaps I didn't remember The Bell at Sealey Head because it wasn't as good. This was an incorrect hypothesis. The book is excellent, but I must have read it so fast that none of it stuck. Embarrassing.

Here we have a book that explores some favourite themes of McKillip's: books and stories and storytelling and the power they hold, the lust for power and how destructive it can be, the lure of the sea, the lovely things to be found in the life of the everyday folk who often get passed over in fantasy stories, the passage of time, the parallel worlds that are sometimes accessible and sometimes not. Set in the small harbour town of Sealey Head, at its heart this book is a mystery as much as it is a fantasy: what and where is the bell that rings every sundown in the town, and what is happening at Aislinn House, the grand old manor on the hill?

The story is told from the perspectives of Judd Cauley, the innkeeper; Gwyneth Blair, the merchant's daughter, and Emma Wood, a young maid at Aislinn House, as well as Ysabo, a princess trapped in ritual in the magical other Aislinn House. Each has their own private worries and dreams, and each play a role in the solving of the mystery, though the actual solving of the whole is left to Ridley Dow, a mysterious travelling scholar who comes to stay at Judd's inn.

As in any old mystery there are clues left about the narratives for the reader to pick up, and as I read I started to remember a few things, so I started looking a little harder at details and discovered that they did, indeed, point me in the right direction once I knew what to look for.

The pace is slow, the effect cumulative, and the payoff is satisfying. I was left at the end of the book feeling rather bereft; what could I possibly read next that wasn't going to pale in comparison? (The answer to that: go a completely different direction. It worked.) In fact, I think The Bell at Sealey Head is actually one of McKillip's more straightforward books, and might be a good place for a person who has never read her work to start.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn

Dark Road to Darjeeling
by Deanna Raybourn
Mira, 2010
~ 400 pages (it's a Kobo epub; I can't seem to find a way to figure out the full page count)

So, one of the things about eReading is that I can't partake of my habit (some say it's a bad, bad habit) of flipping to the end of a book that I'm not reading as quickly as I might. Yes, I do this with mysteries too. It doesn't really bother me to know how it turns out, and if I'm not swept into the book immediately I just... like to know. If it's worth it, or something. I can't really explain. Anyway.

It's a good thing I didn't do that with this book, I have to say, because I think I would have stopped reading. There are several dramatic twists, including one that, had I known it was coming, I might have quit up top to spare myself the pain. So perhaps this is a lesson: anything I want to read through regardless of the ending I should probably read on the Kobo.

This is the fourth book in Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey series. If you don't want spoilers for the first three (and I'd suggest you don't, if you're going to read this series) you'd be best to go start at my review of Silent in the Grave. This is one series you really should read in order: plot points and characters from previous books return to haunt the present book, and are sometimes quite pertinent to the current action. You could figure out what was going on by a combination of explicit recap and inference, but you wouldn't figure out everything, and there is a richness that would be lost if you skip books.

I do have to say, I didn't enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the first three. It must partially be my situation, with significant sleep and attention deficits, but there are other books I've read in this period that I didn't have trouble getting through and that I enjoyed more. Because Lady Julia is away from London, we missed many of the London characters I've grown to enjoy, including her father, her brother Bellmont (he's fun as a straight man to every other March's eccentricities), Aquinas, Monk, and even the raven Grim. This is a significantly darker book than the first two, I would say even darker than the last. And yes, it's right there in the title. I'm a little afraid about the next one.

So, from here on in be spoilers for the first three books; I will try to keep spoilers for this book out.

Dark Road to Darjeeling takes us to India, as Julia and Brisbane are finishing up their honeymoon. Julia's sister Portia and brother Plum find the couple and entreat them to come to India to visit Jane, Portia's former lover. Her husband (who also happened to be distantly related to the Marchs via their mother's family) is dead, and Jane fears for the safety of her unborn child, since the motive for Freddie's murder could very easily have been the fact that he had inherited a large and successful tea plantation. Upon arrival, it turns out that there are indeed an excess of suspects and motives, but no clear murder. There's also a rampant man-eating tiger, a mysterious Englishman in the mountains, and any number of strange and interesting characters living in the valley for Julia and her companions to work around and figure out.

Part of the advantage, let's say, of having the first three books to establish things is that Raybourn can really get into the tangled web of relationships in this book. It's dramatic (at times melodramatic), convoluted, and very much a soap opera, which at times is quite a lot of fun and at other times seems a bit excessive. I might just be a little sour because of the aforementioned twist at the end, but I occasionally felt like things were just a bit over the top here. The tiger, introduced in the first chapter or two, of course does show up... but in such a way as to be the height of drama and at the expense of veracity. That whole storyline seemed a little forced and had little to do with the rest of the book, except perhaps to force a [resolution to a?] crisis point in Julia and Brisbane's relationship.

Speaking of relationships, that's one place where this book shines. The relationship between Julia and Brisbane continues to develop apace, and there are significant bumps in the road as well as some lovely moments between the two. We haven't got a happily ever after here, though the reader suspects that there's no need to fear that the relationship is going to fall apart, either. The relationship between Julia and Portia has some really lovely moments too, particularly one where Portia takes Julia to task for horning in on Brisbane's business -- a moment that was quite welcome, because Julia is foolishly headstrong and needlessly reckless and also irritatingly competitive for much of the novel, and the reader is really glad to see Portia be sensible on the subject.

I think what has me waffling a little about my feelings on this book is that it doesn't really fit into any categories easily, which is a good thing. It's not a romance series, though romance is an integral part of the story (and not just Julia and Brisbane's romance, either; we have Portia and Jane, and Plum and his tortured, unrequited love for his sister-in-law.) It's not a cozy mystery, though there are elements -- the closed circle of suspects, the incredibly bizarre crime, the somewhat unloveable victim whose murder is the catalyst for the story but not much mourned. It's too dark to be a cozy, and too reliant on previous books. But it's not a realistic psychological suspense read, either, though it also contains suspenseful elements -- it's too much a soap opera for that. So it's a little hard to pin down, but it's also pretty successful in what it sets out to do, which is tell a riviting story with a cast of interesting characters.

I will continue to recommend this series, and I'll certainly be reading Dark Enquiry, the fifth book starring Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane. I'm looking forward to seeing what they get up to, and what the extended March family gets up to. I'm a little nervous about the darkness, and whether or not I have the stomach for it, and more to the point I think I am starting to find the dramatic twists and soap-style relationships and reveals a bit much. But I'm going to keep going because I really do like these books and I am quite confident that Deanna Raybourn has a tale worth telling. I'm looking forward to finding ourselves back in London with the attendant cast of characters.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Witches Abroad
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Corgi, 1991
286 pages

Witches Abroad was the Discworld novel I read just before I discovered how wonderful the Discworld is. I liked it well enough to decide that I would try The Wee Free Men when the opportunity arose, so while I say that it was The Wee Free Men that taught me I love Discworld, Witches Abroad was a necessary precursor. So it was interesting to read a second time, fully enamoured with the world rather than slightly skeptical.

Let me say, too, I think this is one of the better Discworld novels I've read, and is right up there with The Wee Free Men.

Upon the death of witch and fairy godmother Desidirata Hollow, witch and wet hen Magrat Garlick inherits a magic wand and a goddaughter. The goddaughter is named Ella and lives in Genua, a fair ways away from Lancre, and Desidirata instructs Magrat that Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are not to join her on her quest to make sure that the serving girl doesn't marry the prince. Of course, that means they will (precisely what Desidirata intended) and so the three set off on a journey to foreign parts. On the way they encounter several stories run amok, and find themselves pitched headlong into a nightmarish fairytale orchestrated by a formidable -- and strangely familiar -- foe.

I love the witches. My inclination is always to say that my favourite Discworld character is the one with whom I've most recently spent time, but the truth of the matter is that Granny Weatherwax tops them all. Rincewind I love, and Sam Vimes is great, and DEATH is wonderful, and Tiffany Aching will always hold a special place in my heart. But Granny is fierce and intelligent and cranky and full of depth and maddening and flat out terrifying. I feel comfortable with her, like I'm in good, if uncompromising, hands. And this is her book, very  much, and so that makes this an excellent book for me. She has a number of moments in this book that are those rare moments in a book so on pitch and on character that they are perfect and they take my breath away.

Magrat, on the other hand, is a character I often find to be vaguely irritating and uncomfortable... largely, I think, because if I was a Discworld witch I would be Magrat, and it's not exactly a flattering comparison. She is good, and well-meaning, and thoughtful, and kind, which is all lovely, but unfortunately everything is out there on the surface; she doesn't think deeply, though she likes to think she does, and she doesn't notice things because she's so busy trying to understand. I like to think I would be a Granny Weatherwax type or even a Nanny Ogg type, but the truth is that I would be a Magrat. I will work with this, I suppose. I have a suspicion that in this world, which is spherical and orbits the sun, being a Magrat isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The book is very much about tensions: tensions between appearances and reality, between characters, between youthful enthusiasm and experience and wisdom, and between narratives and reality, to name just a few. The book is fraught. It's also really, really funny. Tension is offset by things like houses falling on witches and sly homages to (or lampooning of) familiar tales.

It's also about narratives, and how powerful they can be. Pratchett makes it explicit: fairytales and other stories are entities that have agency in Witches Abroad, creatures that, tentacle-like, attach themselves to people and events and twist them so that lives turn out in a particular way -- so that the story can have a "happy ever after." But as Granny points out, there is no such thing as a happy ending. Things keep going after the events in the story come to a close, and ever after is a long, long time. The story takes away the agency of the people involved, and nothing makes Granny Weatherwax angrier than something taking away an individual's agency to live and/or screw up their lives as they see fit.

We don't have fairytales running around amok (do we?) but we do all have narratives running in our head, stories we tell about ourselves and other people, stories about who we think we are, and who other people think we are, and how we behave in the world. These stories can be extremely powerful; they can be comforting, because we can carefully slot everything that happens to us into our personal narrative. They can also blind us to realities, and in their most vicious, pernicious form they can be incredibly destructive to ourselves and those around us. I spent a lot of time this re-read thinking about how our own personal stories can remove agency from us, if we let them and forget that the only reason they have power is because we feed it to them.

Ah, Discworld. Always making me think a little deeper than I realize I am. I'd happily recommend this to the right people (namely, fantasy fans with a sense of humour). This book pulled me out of a slump, and now that I've re-read it once and found it still excellent (perhaps even better the second time) I'll be coming back for more.