Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's MASTER AND COMMANDER #ReReads2013

Caveat lector: this is another re-read, of one of my favorite series ever, so 'ware gushing ahead.

Much as I love the Sharpe novels -- and it should be pretty obvious that I do by now -- there is as yet no danger that they shall supplant Patrick O'Brian's magnificent Aubrey/Maturin series in my heart, even though by all rights, as a landlubber, I should probably have more sympathy for the proper bastard infantryman than for this naval captain his best friend and ship's surgeon and their little wooden world. But there is more to Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin than their offical roles in Admiral Nelson's navy. Oh so much more.

The pair's meeting at a concert in Port Mahon has to be one of the greatest literary meetings of all time. For much of the first scene they seem likely to come to blows, but both were brought up better than that; both have been taught that manners and courtesy are most especially due where there is dislike, and it is manners and courtesy, ultimately, that triumph and let them see one another's better qualities very quickly. Well, manners and courtesy and a stroke of well-deserved good fortune on Jack's part, for I doubt much beyond a nice dinner could have come of this meeting had not Jack "gotten his step" -- promotion to Master & Commander, and command of a vessel, and the impulse to invite his new acquaintance along on his first cruise.

What follows does not so much have a grand overall plot as a series of smaller plots enacted in succession: after the Meeting there is the Shakedown Cruise on Jack's first command, the Sophie; then there are their Early Successes; then the Taking of the Shore Battery; the famous action with the wonderfully named Spanish frigate Cacafuego*; the Encounter Where Too Much Is Bitten Off to Chew:, etc. This makes this first in the series a bit of an unfortunate leader, and I see that many readers have been sufficiently put off by its odd structure so as not to want to continue with the other books and to be baffled by the enthusiasm of people like me. But come on, think of it as a cheese course: Lots of little samples that give a taste of what's to come!

But so far there is little in my description to indicate why these novels stand out from the pack of novels set during the Napoleonic wars, set in Nelson's navy, set on the high seas (though really, the relationship between Jack and Stephen is key; they are Kirk and Spock in saltwater-stained canvas, these two). For me a lot of the fun is the language, though I must confess to being at times bewildered by it, having constantly to refer to the diagram towards the front to keep all the different sails and yards straight in my head, to say nothing of the differences between a sloop and a snow and a poleacre and a... but that's not really what I mean about the language, which shines most in the dialogue; even in life-or-death situations where terseness and clarity are of the utmost importance, their speech is still highly mannered, even formal. I'm not sure anyone in Nelson's navy ever really spoke that way, but I'm not sure they didn't, either. I am separated from that world by so very, very much that I cannot be sure, but it does not matter. I simply enjoy.

Part of the fun of re-reading this series from the beginning is getting my first glimpses of various characters in their, as it were, larval stages. I know what's in store for them and marvel at the journey they'll take. It's like getting a chance to see your best friends as little children. Little children firing four-pounders and scrubbing the deck with holystones and climbing precariously high into the air and slashing at enemies with cutlasses and sabers and getting their skulls trephined, but little children all the same. And through it all, there are Jack and Stephen, here still feeling each other out, in awe of each other, not sure how much trust they may extend to one another (but needing to extend much; Stephen is a complete lubber constantly in danger of committing horrible breaches of naval etiquette when he's not in danger of getting a clout on the head or falling down a hatch or getting blown overboard; Jack newly in command and discovering for the first time that it's even lonelier than he'd always suspected), playing the violin and cello in the captain's quarters of an evening and eating ridiculously named food together: soused hog's face, lobscouse and spotted dog (the latter two dishes featuring in the title of a cookbook by which you, too, could eat like an O'Brian sailor, though I suspect these recipes are light on mold and weevils).

Then again, the other thing that really makes these novels work is the other characters, those outside or apart from Jack and Stephen's core crew. Here the two most important ones are doozies: Molly Harte and James Dillon. Molly is the wife of Port Mahon's commandant, a lovely woman, a harp player, and already Jack's paramour as the novel opens. Their liaison causes most of the troubles that follow in this first outing; the cuckholded husband holds just enough power to make life very difficult for Jack and his crew. Meanwhile, James Dillon, Jack's new lieutenant on his first command, is a figure from the Irish/Spanish Stephen's past among the rebels of Ireland. James and Stephen spend the first part of the novel avoiding each other, afraid each of being denounced; later it's Jack who has problems with James, whose guilty conscience and high dudgeon keep them from becoming friends until it's almost too late.

And now permit me a happy sigh, for I get to read all the rest of the books again now, as easy as kiss-my-hand, joy. Bring on Post Captain! Again! Again!

*I dare you not to mentally translate that as referring to burning excrement.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

John Brunner's STAND ON ZANZIBAR

Simultaneously reading like a deadly earnest Illuminatus! Trilogy scrubbed of all the conspiracy nuttiness*, a fictionalized parable of Toffler's classic Future Shock, a finger-wagging sermon about the evils of overpopulation, and a whacked-out Jeff Noon media scramble, Stand on Zanzibar is one of the coolest bits of New Wave science fiction a reader could pick up.

A lot of people who pick up a John Brunner novel -- or indeed any older science fiction novel --  in the 21st century get hung up on either the eerie prescience the author seems to have had about our contemporary world (the book was written in 1968 but set in 2010) or on what the author got wrong about it, but to do either is to miss the point here. Good fiction is good fiction, whether or not someone guessed there would be smart phones; ditto good social criticism. Stand on Zanzibar is both.

The title comes from an observation made by a wag/sage of the novel's world that the world's current population of 7 billion (yes, one of things he got right; we hit that number pretty close to the same time he projected) if stood together in one place shoulder-to-shoulder, would take up the area of the island of Zanzibar (when the book was written, the world's population could fit on the Isle of Man, a much smaller bit of land). The world he depicts will remind fans a bit of that in Soylent Green**; its be-domed New York might also make one think of the be-domed city-as-spaceship New York in Cities in Flight. And as I suggested above, I kept thinking of Jeff Noon's fiction, particularly Channel Sk1n.

The plot Brunner chooses from among the billions of possible stories on that/this overcrowded world concerns a mega-corporation that is getting ready to buy a country, the men chosen to spearhead the project (which takes a long view of a Third World nation's economic development into a new kind of global economic powerhouse as just another opportunity to increase shareholder value -- eerily, kind of the way our modern private prison industry works!), and some of their friends. Because the nation in question is in Africa, the company's single African-American (abbreviated "Afram") vice president, Norman Niblock House, gets the nod, along with the U.S.'s equally Afram ambassador to that little nation, Elihu Masters, who's been best friends with the country's president-for-life for some twenty years. Said president*** being a tired old man now, who has been pretty much single-handedly holding his little nation together since the British abandoned the whole colonialism thing and more or less forced him into the role of someone to whom they could hand off all their problems. But there is no  good prospect for a successor, so why not bring in a corporation? The project is not viewed as the president selling out so much as a father with hundreds of thousands of helpless dependents trying to secure a future for them. Believe me, it sort of works.

This is largely because there is so much else going on in this novel, which is apparently modeled on John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy ****, at least structurally, for the narrative, plot forwarding chapters are interspersed with all sorts of non-narrative interludes of pure, hypermediated texture, including extended excerpts from the works of one Chad Mulligan, sociologist, who is this novel's Austin Train figure (see The Sheep Look Up), a wise man who has gone ignored but may now be called somewhat resurgent, but only because drinking himself to death in disgust is taking too long and is actually kind of boring.

But wait, there's more!

Because Norman has a white roommate, Don, a guy with a freak gift for pattern recognition who has spent the last ten years in deep cover as a member of the U.S. Army's "Dilettante Corps" in which his job is basically being a sort of Cayce Pollard for the government. In the course of the story, Don gets called up and has to go overseas to help out with an international problem involving a fictional Pacific Rim nation with whom the U.S. is in a seemingly endless and bitter Vietnamesque war. Said country having made an announcement regarding a Great Leap Forward in eugenics and genetic engineering that holds incredible possibility and also, of course, incredible threat to the rest of the world.

For the reaction of the First World to the planet's overwhelming population problem is to plunge into eugenics with all enthusiasm. Laws governing who may have children and how many children they may have get stricter and stricter all the time -- and in the United States, differ from state to state, so, for example, Nevada is close to a free-for-all whereas Louisiana is flirting with the idea of not allowing anyone to breed who can prove three generations of residency in that state in addition to the standard prohibitions on anyone with genetic defects of any kind reproducing. As the novel opens, the latest trait under fire is color-blindness. But what everyone is really afraid of is that someday producing too much melanin is going to be a prohibiting factor.

Which is to say that racism -- and sexism, which I'll get to later -- are prevalent elements throughout the text. As the U.S. is at war with an Asian power, plenty of anti-Asian sentiment and offensive slang gets slung about (which, about the slang, get ready for that. The slang in Stand on Zanzibar could be the subject of a whole big and fascinating paper, to be pored over like that in A Clockwork Orange, but unlike Burgess' novel, all of Brunner's slang is derived from English), and blacks don't get any better treatment. It's all presented very matter-of-factly, even casually, which can be shocking but which is part and parcel of the societies we're examining. Kinship and tribalism and associated inter-group violence, sociologists tell us, tend to come very much to the fore in cases of crowding.

As is, apparently, a very casual, even cavalier, attitude towards women, the young and attractive variety of which are referred to in this world as "shiggies" and are passed around like party favors, traded like Magic the Gathering cards, apparently happy with this state of affairs and the nomadic, uncertain life they lead on the "shiggy circuit." Older women are only ever noticed if they happen by some freak of affairs to have somehow achieved serious corporate power, with a depressing few exceptions, and even the one younger-than-the-alpha female executive type who crosses our path is at first dismissed as on the scene just because her boss got tired of sleeping with her. To the slight credit of the man making this internalized observation about her, he does eventually include that she might be there on her own actual merits as well, perhaps. Partly. Ugh.

The only other reason a woman might matter, of course, is as breeding stock. But only if she's genetically OK. But hey, at least the potential father has to pass genetic muster as well. So I guess there's parity somewhere. Ugh.

But hey, all of literature has taught me how it sure do suck to be female, so I can hardly single out this book for special castigation. Especially in a year in which I have taken on Robert Silverberg. I do not cry out for a fan-edit of Stand on Zanzibar from which my gender has been removed, but, you know, yuck.

That aside, this is a pretty fantastic read, a worthy companion to Brunner's other blisteringly awful masterpiece, The Sheep Look Up. But where we could sort of, kind of, desperately cling to the idea that The Sheep Look Up was a self-denying prophecy, Stand on Zanzibar still feels like it could happen, is happening.

But we already knew that, didn't we?

Sing it, Pete.


*Which, I hasten to assure you, is still a very entertaining, if somewhat depressing, thing.

**Itself based on a novel by Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! that came out two years before Stand on Zanzibar.

***Whose name is Zadkiel Obomi, and I'll refer you to the rest of the internet for points of view on that amazing coincidence/prediction. Yawn.

****Which I haven't read but now really want to.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

John le Carre's A MURDER OF QUALITY

Quite possibly my favorite George Orwell essay is "Such, Such Were the Joys" in which our man Eric Blair recalls his days as a sort of charity case at a posh English boarding school that thought it was even posher than it actually was. He was miserable there, of course; one can see the beginnings of the great man whose every work is in some way or another a crie de couer against the banal (and not so banal) evils of collectivism. It's also, because Orwell was a prose stylist and a storyteller so close to perfect as makes no odds, a fascinating read, descriptive and honest and sort of bleakly lovely. His Crossgates was a place one survived, rather than graduated from.

It's hard, then, for someone like me, so in love with that essay, not to keep thinking of it as our man George Smiley, ex-intelligence man whose life is still very much shaped by his experiences plying his then still unofficial trade during World War II, finds himself in the role of cozy mystery detective again as he comes to a posh English boarding school, Carnes, to help figure out who killed a schoolmaster's wife in a bloody, gruesome and bizarre fashion. I always thought Bingo and Sim had more going on than poor little Eric Blair realized, don't you know, and I feel the little boy who would be come my hero sort of peeking around corners and watching Smiley at work throughout the book.* I wish he could have seen someone like Smiley, at any rate, to see that not all grown-ups are perfidious jerks. But of course, he wouldn't have grown up to be the hero he was if he'd had an easy, trusting childhood, would he?

But that's neither here nor there. Except in that it takes place at an English public school (like so many other novels and plays and films and whatnot, hmm? But as Orwell observed, for many people, their school days were the most eventful and dramatic and interesting of all their days. Poor benighted souls, they, hmm?) at which Secrets Are Being Kept. But of course, where in Orwell's essay, those secrets are largely socio-economic and class-based, in A Murder of Quality, well, there are elements of socio-economic and class struggle there, too, no doubt, and these elements are thwarting the murder investigation in true Town vs. Gown fashion, but... this is Smiley, dammit. Smiley! Come on, bust out the spy stuff!

News flash: there isn't much spy stuff, except in Smiley's back story and insomuch as it has formed his character as a careful thinker and observer and analyst -- who has a tremendous loyalty to his circle of colleagues from the War. One of whom edits and writes an advice column for a journal, and who received an alarming letter from the murder victim just before her death, a letter that may be a Giant Freaking Clue or an equally Giant Red Herring. And since the victim is very much Gown and the police are very much Town, the investigation could use someone like George, sometime academic, mild-mannered, unpretentious but trustworthy and obviously intelligent, to cut through the bulldung and figure out what happened.

Look, murder mysteries really aren't my thing. I always get a little depressed about how a person can be and usually is regarded as Only Interesting After She's Dead and only because someone Did A Bad Thing by killing her (or him). And yes, I know, a life only really takes shape when it's complete, i.e. over, and all that, but mostly I like watching lives in progress, decisions being made, actions taken or not taken, conversations had or suppressed, etc. There is plenty of this in a murder mystery, of course, but it's generally on the part of the detective, to whom the victim is usually a stranger; the detective is not, therefore, showing us the victim/stranger so much as leading us through a careful examination of the hole she has left and who might have wanted to make that hole happen. We're not really interested in the victim, but in the detective; the victim is just a means to the detective's end. See? Depressing. But lots of people like that stuff, and they're free to. It's just not usually for me.

But every once in a while, I like to take a look at a genre that I usually avoid, just to make sure that I'm avoiding it for good reasons and not just out of habit or of intellectual (or pretend anti-intellectual) posturing. And sometimes I do find that I've been unfair; witness my great enjoyment of Louis L'Amour's Sackett novels, "frontier tales" which, while not precisely westerns, are still more like westerns than most other kinds of stories, and thus are generally chucked into my mental "avoid" bin. I'm terribly, terribly glad I grew up to give those another chance.**

And so, A Murder of Quality, which basically seduced me into reading a straight up mystery novel, just out of love for its hero. Tsk tsk, Mr. le Carre. Now my guard is up, you!

That being said, there's still a lot to recommend this novel. As one could expect from a novel taking place largely at an upper-class school, there are a lot of moments in which the class-consciousness of certain elements of the community gets wickedly skewered. The best bits of these happen whenever a minor character, a teacher's wife named Shane, speaks, to wit:
"I'm never quite sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation; cherry brandy and seed cake in the parlor."
And:
"Baptists are the people who don't like private pews, aren't they?"
Oh, is she ever quotable, is Mrs. Shane Hecht. And everything that comes out of her mouth will make you want to slap her.

Strangely enough, Shane is not the murder victim, or really anyone of any importance at all, except as a mouthpiece for the gentry, struggling to reassert their dominance over English life after the great social leveling of two world wars and not coming off well at all. No apologia for the ruling class, here (another quality, one might say, that this book shares a bit with Orwell's work, no?)! No, the murder victim is another teacher's wife, who comes off as a bit of a paragon of humility and independent thought for most of the novel, until [REDACTED] is discovered.

Through it all, Smiley is Smiley. Utterly forgettable, unprepossessing, mild, hard even to notice, but with a mind tuned by years of unglamorous spy work for uncovering secrets that makes him a perfect amateur detective. We only occasionally get a hint of what he's thinking, which I appreciate, not being a fan of the omni-omniscient narrator who knows all characters' thoughts anyway. Even when a nasty so-and-so like Shane teases him about his "unfortunate" marriage to a woman far above his social station (and who just happened to have grown up in the neighborhood of the Posh School in Question), he keeps his cool and just calmly lets her think she's gotten the better of him. She can sneer all she wants; in the end she has to keep being nasty old Shane Hecht (who, now that I think of it, reminds me rather a lot of Bingo from "Such, Such Were the Joys") and Smiley gets to keep being Smiley, knower of things he doesn't tell, friend of people of actual quality versus upper-crust Quality.

I know with whom I'd choose to pass an evening, at any rate.

*This is of course odd because Orwell/Blair was a little student many, many years before the period in which this novel is set, but those English Public Schools do have a sort of timeless quality to them, don't they? One would almost think it an effect for which they strive deliberately!

**I still avoid romance novels, though. Like the plague. Unless they're written by close and dear friends to whom I can't say no and find entertaining no matter what they're doing.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S HAVOC

Starting with a desperate evacuation of a town as an invading French army completes its conquest of northern Portugal and a pontoon bridge fails and sends hundreds of civilians to their crushed, watery deaths and ending with a freakily similar battle at another bridge in which the French receive more than a little poetic justice, Sharpe's Havoc is a hell of a fine read, like all of these books are.

It's a funny old thing, though, reading a series like Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe books. But then again, the Sharpe books are rather a funny old series. For originally, there were just a few of these, and they were all set during and in the midst of the Peninsular War. Then they got very popular, so popular that they were adapted for television. The TV show, featuring the awesome likes of Sean Bean and Pete Postlethwaite and David Troughton, was very popular as well, so popular that there grew to be demand for more Sharpe books and TV adaptations of those books and somewhere in the middle of all of this came the notion that perhaps some prequel novels detailing Sharpe's pre-Napoleonic adventures might go over well and...

The result is a great heap of prose books that may be likened unto a long and convoluted run of a Big Two superhero comic book, rich with minutia and ret-conning and related geek-bait (the geeks in question this time being military history buffs, and damned if Cornwell isn't turning me into one of those. I found myself doting over the details of how Baker rifles work and the finer points of using case shot [and learning where the term "shrapnel" came from]), daunting in the extreme for the newcomer, who has two basic choices in how to approach this mass of material:* in publication order, or in chronological order. Choose publication order and you're going to be all over the place, historically speaking, starting out on the Peninsula in the middle of the Talavera Campaign in 1809, proceeding more or less chronologically for a while, but pretty soon you're lurching back and forth in time as though you had a TARDIS, not coming to, say, our man's adventures in India in  1799 until you've read a whole lot of novels. The thought of that makes my brain hurt a little, so I opted to read the novels in chronological order. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the fact that said order begins in India made that choice even more appealing.

But reading chronologically is not without its perils, too. While I'm sure the publication order readers just see an ever ascending level of quality in the writing, the characterizations, the battle scenes, etc. as they move on in the series, we chronological readers must weather lots of unexpected peaks and valleys, not to mention what seem like glaring omissions (for instance, last novel, Sharpe's Rifles, contained no references to Lady Grace, whom Sharpe wooed and won in the middle of the battle of Trafalgar, because when SR was written she had not yet been written into existence and readers are presented with a Sharpe that seems to have little experience with women except as casual whores, which is jarring for those of us who have read our man's Indian adventures and seen him happily, if still somewhat temporarily, paired with many lovely ladies). But we weather them happily, because Sharpe is awesome.

But so, Sharpe's Havoc is very much a case in point. It takes place not long after the events chronicled in SR, but while SR is a very early book (though still not the very first; the very first Sharpe novel is... the next one after SH in the chronological list), presenting Sharpe as greener and less confident than we've gotten used to seeing him, SH was written some 20 odd years later, after Cornwell had written many more novels, including the Indian prequels, and developed his firm and masterful command of the art of writing a Sharpe story.

Which is to say that from my perspective, SH looks to be one of the best, if not the best, of the Sharpe novels, and certainly my favorite since Sharpe's Fortress, the best of the three India books. Sharpe is 100% Sharpe, smart, capable, cunning, sometimes cruel, stubborn and devastatingly creative, qualities he desperately needs as he struggles not only against the French, against the deprivations and duties of wartime abroad, but also against the machinations of yet another turncoat superior officer. His main foe this time around, Colonel Christopher, can't hold a candle to Major Dodd in the scary-danger department being more of a political schemer and a misguided idealist, but that makes him all the more actually dangerous to Sharpe**, who can handle any jerk on the battlefield or in skirmishes of all sorts, but who is still pretty rough and clueless when it comes to society and the way it works -- or is supposed to work.

And of course, Christopher is far from Sharpe's only problem. His men are still cut off from the rest of their regiment and sort of juking their way through the war at Arthur Wellesley's whim. The Iberian peninsula is crawling with French soldiers. The ordinary people are unreliable; many passionately committed to maintaining their independence from Napoleon's empire but ill-trained and ill-equipped and looking to people like Sharpe to make up for their deficiencies. Generals and other superiors have high expectations for him, too, but are a bit out of touch with what he's dealing with, sometimes by nature, sometimes due to circumstances, and sometimes because of Christopher's machinations. And then there's the novel's Girl, this time the pretty young heiress to a British wine dynasty who has grown up in Portugal and refuses to leave it despite the danger. Thank goodness Sharpe is too busy to do the predictable by her, this time around, at least.

Does SH feel at times a bit formulaic? Yes, yes it does at times. Cornwell is going back to the same wells - turncoat officers, pretty women in need of rescue but not entirely helpless (thus even more attractive to Sharpe), natives/partisans of both kinds: noble/proud and gutless/scheming, big sweeping battle scenes and expertly presented representations of the ordinary soldier's life - but they're good wells to go back to, yielding high quality stuff every time. It's still mostly fresh, here, but as I read, part of me sort of longed to go back to the unevenness and occasional roughness of the earlier books as being more likely to have actual surprises in store for me. Here, everybody seems just a little embalmed. Consummately embalmed, but embalmed all the same.

Despite that, SH is a fantastic read, amusing, emotional, bloody and thrilling. If I haven't convinced you to give Sharpe a try by now, seven books into the series, I despair of you. I really do. It's everything most of my people read books for and then some.

*Well, perhaps three, if you want to count just reading them in any random order. Or many more than three if you want to treat every possible reading order as a separate choice. But come on.

**Though dude, do not make off with Sharpe's telescope, a gift from Sir Arthur Wellesley he has cherished since receiving it (and his battlefield commission) on saving the future Iron Duke's life back in India.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gareth Roberts' DOCTOR WHO: ONLY HUMAN

So, here I've been lo these many months, out of my mind with excitement that soon (but not soon enough), I'd be holding a Doctor Who novel written by my favorite living science fiction writer (that would be Alastair Reynolds*, duh, and may he live long and prosper**), and one that concerns one of my favorite Doctors (that would be the Third, portrayed by the inimitable Jon Pertwee), and I realized, hey, I've never actually read a Doctor Who novel.

So I went hunting. Concurrently with a recent mania to watch the whole of the Ninth Doctor's single TV season and an accompanying wild hair to write a novel starring said Ninth Doctor, because Christopher Eccleston is another favorite.*** And Only Human had the best blurb. This might be Jasper Fforde's fault for making me sympathize so with Neanderthals. I'm just not sure on that.

I am now dangerously close to writing a blog post that is longer than the actual novel, which is short and sweet but packed with goodies to satisfy the wibbly wobbly timey wimey longings of any Who fan, new or old, with offerings ranging from a Neanderthal lost in 21st century England (whom Captain Jack, of all people, must help to acclimatize) to a population of technologically advanced modern humans living in a Prisoneresque village in prehistoric England but strangely uninterested in the Neanderthal and Homo sapiens sapiens populations nearby unless their "popper packs" (basically a ripoff of the Penfield Mood Organs from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) compel them so to be, even though studying these populations and the charismatic megafauna that share their world is why said H.s.s. are there and then (for of course, they are time travelers, using a cheap and dirty version of time travel so cheap and dirty as to make Captain Jack's vortex manipulator look like something from the pages of Inhabitat).

But so, the Doctor and cavemen of various species. Who doesn't love a combination like that? I'm certainly in for a go, even if Rose has to come along, too, which she does, but no tale is perfect, right?****

Anyway.

Like I said, there's a lot packed into this short little book. While Captain Jack is training the displaced Neanderthal, Das, in 21st century living, the Doctor and Rose travel back to Das' time (to which Das cannot return because of reasons. And cheap and dirty time travel tech. Wibbly wobbly) to find out how/why Das got when he is and put a stop to whatever's going on because it is Bad. And they find the aforementioned Penfield Mood Organ junkies. Who are all enslaved via their Poppers by a charismatic and devastatingly (and artificially) intelligent, ruthless scientist named Chantal. Everybody wants to please Chantal. And Chantal is up to no good. Basically a Master/Rani hybrid, is Chantal. Except a bit more effective; at one point even the Doctor is drug-boozled into wanting to please Chantal -- and were this not a Doctor Who story, one might well have come to believe the jeopardy in which this places him. As it was, it was not at all easy to see how he was going to get out of his predicament. While Rose was off cavorting with cave men.

So, I wound up enjoying this little romp rather a lot. And I'll say this for my fellow Rose haters: book Rose, at least this book Rose, is rather more enjoyable than TV Rose -- not because Billie Piper did a bad job on TV or anything, just that the kind of stuff Gareth Roberts put her through would not be easy at all to pull off on TV, and is very likely way more satisfying for people who consider her dominance of the early seasons of NuWho to be their flaw rather than their glory.

Heh.

*I say this not only because it's true, but also because Reynolds occasionally reads my blog and my saying this makes him blush, and I'm just sadistic enough to enjoy making him blush. Especially when, for reasons that blast out my logic circuits, right now Britons can enjoy Harvest of Time, but I as an American not legally do so for another month. Harrumph.

**Heh.

***For those who will surely ask, my current (because they fluctuate, because I'm only human (heh) order of favorite Doctors is: Ninth, Third, Eleventh, Sixth, Fourth, First, Seventh, Second, Tenth, Fifth. Usually Eleventh is higher, and he's like to regain a higher spot on my list after the bravura performance in the most recent Neil Gaiman-penned episode in which Matt Smith got to pull a Gollum/Locutus of Who thing. But I'm all about the Pert right now because of Alastair Reynolds. Duh.

****And there I've outraged all the Rose partisans out there. Bring it. I've been dealing with people who aren't down with my dislike of Perpugilliam Brown for decades now, and Al Bruno III and I are still even friends.
I wasn't going to nerd out quite so much for this post, but dudes, trying to choke the life out of Peri on his very first day beneath Colin Baker's blonde curls is a huge part of why the Sixth Doctor is so high on my list. That and I'm just generally a bit partial to Bastard Doctors.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Louis L'Amour's JUBAL SACKETT

Each of Louis L'Amour's Sackett novels becomes my new favorite as I read along, but I'm starting to see a bit of a pattern forming of which I might tire. That pattern being that each novel is, in no small part, about its chosen Sackett's quest for a wife with whom to make more Sacketts to be waiting there to greet the rest of the white folks when they finally get around to settling the interior of the North American continent.

So far, though, there is plenty of variety within that narrative, and Jubal Sackett has the most interesting twist on that basic plot, in that our man Jubal, the youngest son of dynastic founder Barnabas Sackett, really doesn't think he's looking for a wife when he takes off wandering, itching to see unknown lands and explore mountains farther west than those his father had once itched to explore. And explore he does, for a while, in the company of a native companion he picks up, a Kickapoo called Keokotah, who feels similarly ill at ease hanging around his own people -- he met and became fascinated by an Englishmen when he was just a lil' Kickapoo.

Soon the pair encounter a Mississippi River tribe, the Natchez (often referred to, in this book, as "Natchee"), who are having a bit of a territory crisis, and also a crisis of leadership. Their chief is dying, their territory being encroached on by other, stronger tribes, and their medicine man has heard of the legendary Sackett family and what a bunch of stand-up guys they are, for white men, and would Jubal mind heading west to find their exploration party that was sent out a while ago to find a new place for them to live? Oh, and find their crown princess, Itchakomi, and ask her to come home and lead her people since the chief is dying and all?

Well, Jubal and Keokotah were going that way, anyway, so why not?

Oh, by the way, there's this half-breed Natchez jerk who thinks he's going to marry Itchakomi and take power among us, and like we said, he's really a jerk and we'd rather he didn't but it's really up to her whom she marries because she's that important and all. Anyway, he's probably going to be trying to hunt her down and he already doesn't like you because he's that guy over there that tried to pick a fight, mmmkay?

Sure, whatever.

Of course, we all know who is really going to get to marry Itchakomi, but it's still fun watching Jubal be the last one to realize it, especially since he spends most of the first half of the novel just trying to find her out in the great unknown and mostly unexplored wilds between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Which is really quite a vast territory in which to be trying to find anyone and anything. But duh, this is like no spoiler at all, he finds her. Just as his brother found Carrie and Diana in the Caribbean last novel. Just as Keokotah, from whom Jubal becomes separated when he chooses to seek out some caves (maybe Mammoth in Kentucky?*), still manages to find him even when Jubal is unexpectedly hampered and delayed from making their agreed rendezvous. These people are awfully, awfully good at finding each other, these Louis L'Amour characters. Like Dickensianly good. I find this hard to swallow at times, but, yannow, Romance.

What really sold this book to me as my new favorite Sackett novel, though, is the scenery porn and attendant displays of survival skills in solitude Jubal constantly displays. To read Louis L'Amour (for me anyway) is to come to resent the year of one's birth; mine was a good 150 years too late**; I am forever deprived of the sight of the country through which Jubal travels as it was before it got covered in pavement and gas stations and tract housing and big box stores. L'Amour is a pretty good nature writer, and gives Jubal a unique and lyrical narrative voice that marks out his mystical, solitary character as very different from his brothers Yance and Kin-Ring, and from his father Barnabas.

I have one pet peeve though, and it's both insignificant and hugely annoying. For no good reason except to make sure we know that Itchakomi digs Jubal, two-thirds of the way through the book we get a single chapter from her first person perspective. And it's all about her romantic dilemma of how to make him "see" her without sacrificing her pride or losing face. And then it's back to Jubal's narration for the rest of the novel. This seems a clumsy and amateurish thing to do in a book that otherwise flows so beautifully (and I assure you, willfully blind as Jubal is, there are plenty of hints for us readers to pick up to clue us in to Itchakomi's feelings. Really, we spend quite a bit of time watching Jubal's mental gymnastics and contortions via which he preserves his ignorance of the fact that he and Itchakomi are in lurve. It's quite amusing). I hope it's not a sign of things to come, I really do.

But for now, I'm still on board, especially since the next novel, Ride the River, has my curiosity already; its protagonist is female. Can L'Amour handle that well? His silly Itchakomi chapter argues against the idea, but we'll see. We'll see.

*Part of these novels is working out where our characters are, based on purely geographical clues; no modern names for anything are used in these novels. Thus the Mississippi is "the Great River" and the Rockies are "the Shining Mountains" but the more southerly part is already called the Sangre de Christos because the Spaniards who so named them are already there and using the name at the time of this novel.

**Funny because, as mostly a science fiction fan, I'm more likely to grouse about being born 150 years too early. There's just no pleasing me, I guess.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

David Wong's THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SPIDERS

There are surely worse worlds in the multiverse than the one in which David Wong gets to write all of the books.

The podunk white trash Lovecraftian worlds David Wong writes about, for instance. Worlds which might closely resemble our own but for the presence of Shadow Men and titular parasitic eyeball spiders that get up in people's brains and manipulate first their brains and then their biology and turn them into monsters of various imaginative sorts. Those.

John Dies at the End (JDATE to fans) was one of the silliest, weirdest, most messed-up and entertaining books I've ever read (the film adapted from it somewhat less so, but it was still a lot of fun), so my expectations going into this sequel were pretty high, perhaps unreasonably so. They were sort of met, but only sort of.

This Book is Full of Spiders, having a first act like JDATE to follow, did, alas fall short of delivering the same quality of guffaws and jaw-dropping inventiveness JDATE had but I don't think that's what Wong was going for here. For This Book is Full of Spiders gets surprisingly somber at times. Which is all right as far as it goes; while chucklehead slacker heroes John and Dave are terribly amusing to follow, it would be a mistake not to let them learn from their experiences and develop as characters. Which they have done, sort of, at least inasmuch as Dave is a boyfriend now with duties, responsibilities, lots of hand holding and sighing and oh wait, that's Bernard Black. But anyway, you get the idea.

John, thank goodness, is still John, which might surprise people who have the title of the first John and Dave book in mind, but there he is. He's not making cell phone calls that are unstuck in time this go-around, but he still has plenty of stupid ideas that somehow manage to keep the plot from turning into a straightforward bit of disaster porn (but that also mocks the fans of disaster porn, witness the bunch of college hipsters who load up and RV with a whole gun shop's worth of crap and drive it right into the teeth of the crapstorm and insist that videogames have prepared them for apocalyptic good times and they're the only heroes anybody needs, but I digress).

For disaster there most certainly is, in the form of the aforementioned parasitic spiders from another dimension that crawl into people's heads and take them over, spiders that only John and Dave can see as a residual effect of last novel's unwitting experimentation with the multidimensional drug they call Soy Sauce. It starts off small, the spider problem. One is discovered in Dave's bed in the wee hours of one fateful morning, chewing on his leg. He reacts Davishly. He gets John involved. Everything goes wrong and spirals out of control. Because John and Dave.

Along the way, we are treated to more than a bit of pop evolutionary psychology, not all of it coming from Dave's therapist-nemesis, Dr. Tennet; we could read this book as a white trash excursis on the consequences of primate neurology and the fact that our brains are wired to be able to handle a max of about 150 real social connections, but with gunfire and explosions and monsters. This is pulled off pretty well, actually.

What isn't pulled off so well this time around is the narration. JDATE was all first-person, from the entertaining point of view of Dave, who is an undereducated but wickedly intelligent smart ass of a guy with a talent for undercutting the grandiosity of what is around him by boiling a lot down to fart jokes and the like. TBIFOS, however, intercuts his first person narrative with long stretches of third person omniscient whenever the action goes to John or to Dave's girlfriend, the wonderfully down-to-earth and sensible Amy. That all of these sections are often in anything but chronological order -- we frequently get chapter headings telling us that the next bit is, say, eight hours earlier and the like -- is not as annoying as the shift from first to omniscient third is, to me, but then I like my stories to be a bit wibbly wobbly timey wimey once in a while. What I don't like is when they feel lazy or sloppy, and the narration choices here feel a lot like both. Harumph.

Still, I had a good time. If there's another sequel in the works, I'll have a look. If a film gets made of this, I'll watch it. Because John and Dave.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Winston Graham's DEMELZA: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL

This 1970s version of the cover of Winston Graham's second Poldark novel, Demelza, keeps cracking me up. I wouldn't have touched it in a million years, with its emphasis on lustiness and defiant love and whatnot. I would though, have been missing out.

As I observed recently, I was sold on the idea of reading these by the BBC TV adaptation (America's Grandest New TV Saga the little green label on this book cover says), but even so was not quite prepared for how much I would like these books, like Graham's writing, like the characters and their world.

It's a small world, is late 18th Century Cornwall, populated by struggling tin and copper miners, struggling farmers and the odd ridiculous bastion of Georgian gentility, but it feels the effects of the wider world in its own way, as last novel showed us in the hard homecoming of Captain Ross Poldark after Britain's loss of its American colonies, and this one shows us in its tiny echoes of the nascent French Revolution happening just across the water from its wind-and sea-swept shores -- mostly in the form of food riots in the bigger towns, but still, rumblings all the same.

But for our purposes, the biggest stirring is still Ross's decision to marry his kitchen wench Demelza, who has turned out to be the perfect wife for him and, in her own novel here, to be a fascinating character all on her own. Unbelievably happy in her marriage and motherhood, she thinks everybody should be so, and so a lot of the plot of Demelza spins out from her efforts to secure her kind of happiness for Ross's cousin Verity, long separated from her man by family and social disapproval of his past as a wife-beater, violent drunk and all-around less-than-ideal prospect for any daughter. But it's true love! Can't anyone see it but Demelza? No, apparently not, so off she goes on her errand, with surprising and far-reaching results.

For while Demelza is off match-making, Ross is busy trying to do his bit as a social reformer, trying to keep his workers' offspring out of trouble, their livelihood from going belly-up, and to keep himself from decking every ponce in a powdered wig who winks at his wife, cheats him at cards, or outmaneuvers him in business. Oh, and to do all of this mostly in secrecy, which is hard to do in a small world with a busybody wife running around playing cupid and touching off family and social drama.

And again, there are lots of lovely moments, poignant and well crafted, like when the great old Grambler mine, on which the Poldark fortune seems largely to have originally been built, closes down and the gentlemen gather around the huge steam pumps that keep its galleries more or less clear of water to watch their last ups and downs and Ross's cousin Francis chalks the word "Resurgam" ("I shall rise again") on the side of the biggest of them to express the hope that someday what's still down in the Grambler will be economically worth digging for again. I hope it will, I do! But those darn Warleggans, the upstart banking family who are always on the verge of becoming the Poldarks' nemesis but never quite manifest as same, seem destined to keep copper prices low and the mine owners and their employees poor and dependent, those bastards!

Thrown into the mix is a High Romantic sub-plot involving a fancy lass who marries an honest, big-but-dim mining man and regrets it to the ruin of, well, just about everybody in some fashion or another. It's this sub-plot that raises a lot of modern eyebrows, because of course it all ends tragically, but then, oh, what's this? All of these characters we have come to love and sympathize with are loving and sympathizing the guy who killed his wife! To quite an extraordinary degree. Because the fancy lass had it coming, I guess? Um.

So no, I didn't like that bit either, but such has been the way of the world. If there's one thing a reader of novels learns over and over again, it sure do suck to be a girl. But then again, it mostly seems to suck to be a guy, too, though the old saw about being laughed at versus being murdered still comes to mind. Or at least until everybody is up against bigger problems, like rampant deadly disease, economic ruin and shipwrecks with pickings for all to fight over!

ALL THE MELODRAMA.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Walter Moers' THE ALCHEMASTER'S APPRENTICE


Every new-to-me Walter Moers book I pick up immediately becomes my new favorite Walter Moers book, and thus one of my favorite books, full stop. This has happened ever since I first stumbled across a somewhat battered copy of Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures several years ago at my local public library and wondered what the hell was going on with that. One is always going on with the mix of over-the-top imaginative fantasy, adorable illustrations, sophisticated plotting and outrageous wordplay that is Walter Moers. Oh, do I love this man. And his translator into English, the wonderfully named John Brownjohn, who has the unenviable task of turning all of those invented and ordinary compound German nouns and verbs into something intelligible in English without losing any of the original's wit and charm and, as far as I can tell, succeeds brilliantly.

Or at any rate, if Brownjohn is in any way not hitting Moers' mark, then I'm not sure I could handle more Moers. As such. Feel free to throw something at me now.

The Alchemaster's Apprentice is another Zamonia book, Zamonia being, of course, a lost continent that once took up most of the Atlantic Ocean and was home not only to sentient and literate dinosaurs who achieved a very high standard of culture indeed (at least a high Middle Ages standard), but to a myriad of other astonishing creatures as well, including the new-to-this-fifth-novel Crat. A Crat being a sort of cat who can speak every language, human or animal, in the known world, and whose body fat is an alchemist's, well, I would say an alchemist's philosopher's stone, but everyone knows that the philosopher's stone is the alchemists' philosopher's stone, so something just short of that. At any rate, very desirable indeed.

Enter one Succubius Ghoolion*, titular Alchemaster, who is a sort of Jean-Baptiste Greouille through Moers' funhouse mirror in that, like the perfidious perfumer of Suskind's most famous novel, he is obsessed with capturing the essences of things in the most durable possible form, that form being the rendered fat of rare and fabulous creatures like Crats. Of whom Ghoolion suspects our adorable little hero, Echo the Kitty Crat, to possibly be the very last one. Um.

What follows from this state of affairs is another deliciously daffy Moers adventure -- perhaps the most delicious of all because, when Ghoolion finds Echo, Echo is starving to death and has no fat on him, but Ghoolion is a culinary genius and so sets about fattening his foundling in outlandishly opulent ways. If one doesn't drool through at least a few of these chapters, one is obviously some kind of icky ascetic who subsists on room temperature water and celery sticks or something.** Echo befriends a cyclopean owl-type thing who speaks in spoonerisms (Brownjohn must have had a heck of a time with those. He needs all of the awards for translating. All of them, do you understand me?) and is dedicated to helping Echo escape the terrible fate that awaits him, learns a lot of alchemical secrets, eats a lot of absurdly delicious food, and develops a charmingly weird relationship with Ghoolion in the process.

Along the way he picks up some other weird allies, such as a Cooked Ghost (which Echo helps to cook himself as part of his education), a couple thousand Leathermice (like extraordinarily ugly vampire bats with extremely strange habits of thought. Nobody understands Leathermice, dude. Not even Leathermice), and the last remaining Uggly in the city -- an Uggly being, of course, a sort of gypsy practitioner of a natural/homeopathic/herbal medicine that is pretty much the absolute antithesis of what Ghoolion does. Who despite Ghoolion's long history of persecution of Ugglies in every horrible way imaginable, has a crush on Ghoolion. Yeah, it's complicated.

It all builds to a thrilling and insane climax, Moers' best yet! So yeah, The Alchemaster's Apprentice is my new favorite Walter Moers. At least until the next one.

But yeah, I'm still puzzled about that roast wildfowl Echo was sort of tricked into eating mid-story. That's a head-scratcher of a loose end. But Echo does spend a lot of this novel tripping balls on some hallucinogenic meal or other... so... umm... yeah, I've got nothing.

*The character names are part of the fun of Moers, most of them being anagrams of popular authors' names, though so far I can't figure out whose name became Succubius Ghoolion, and I have tried. Oh, have I tried. But I'm a poor hand at anagram solving.

**Seriously, the food porn in this book is completely off the hook. Imagine Lewis Carroll and China Mieville collaborating on a cookbook and you might just get a hint of the flavor. WOW.