NESFA Press, 1995
Finished: early August 2010
Source: library browsing
Genre: fantasy
On the Scales: mixed

I wish I had been able to post my review of this book during actual Diana Wynne Jones Week (as opposed to the perpetual Diana Wynne Jones Week in my heart), since my sole purpose in reading it was to make everyone jealous.

No, no!  I swear it wasn’t!  Before I was even thinking about Diana Wynne Jones Week I was strolling through the adult fiction section of the library.  I spotted her name on the shelves at eye-height.  “What’s this?” I said cleverly (knowing Jones has only written two books my library might shelve in the adult section, and that it doesn’t own either of them), “A new book I haven’t heard about?  An old UK-only release that has finally come out in the States?  Or has a sensible magid taken pity on us for only having twenty- or thirty-odd books by Diana Wynne Jones to read in this particular dimension, and imported one by her counterpart in his home world?”

I knew I would want to read it, whatever it was, so I put it in my bag without opening it, checked it out without looking at it, and took it home.  That’s where I figured out it was a rare book.

Contents include:

Two novellas:
Everard’s Ride
The True State of Affairs

One essay:
The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings

Five short stories:
nad and Dan and Quaffy
No One
Dragon Reserve, Home Eight
The Master
The Plague of Peacocks

The title novella strikes me as an early work because of its style.  Jones typically externalizes her characters’ thoughts and feelings, either through hints in the things they choose to say or through their facial expressions, manner, and movements.  Everard’s Ride employs authorial asides and makes forays into the characters’ thoughts.  This busy style is in keeping with the setting: high Victorian England, where a teenaged brother and sister make trips to an island accessible via a causeway at low tide.  The island is also the access point for a 15th century kingdom which (sometimes) occupies the same landscape.  One character is recognizable as serious version of Wild Robert, while the ever-so-slightly-sent-up Victorian family life is reminiscent of the Chrestomanci books.

It’s fun to spot the Jonesian details in the not-so-Jonesian prose.

Miss Gatly came back after taking the teapot to the parlour and told them some of the stories.  She sat by the range, knitting socks, needles clicking, cap rattling, and talked in the strange, formal way old country-people still use when they tell stories which may not quite be true.  She told them how the ghost-lights flitted through the island on foggy nights and were seen to go winding through the bay where no-one else dared to go for fear of quicksands.  She told of the dangerous kingdom of Falleyfell out in the bay and how those who saw it were as good as dead.

“And if,” she said, “a wise man hereabouts sees aught of this on a clear night, he will shut his eyes and turn away, making the sign of the cross for safety. . .”

Alex put his thin greasy hand under his pointed chin and leant forward with an eager sigh.  Cecilia had tucked her feet up under her green tartan skirt, with one hand holding down the bulging crinoline.  With the other hand she was absent-mindedly twirling and pulling a bright gold ringlet.  The draught sighed in the chimney and a sheep coughed outside.  Cecilia signed too, because the best part of the tale was coming.

You can find most of the short stores here in the collection Believing Is Seeing.  “nad and Dan and Quaffy” is DWJ tripping on I mean paying tribute to coffee and word processing in the life of the science fiction writer.  As with The Homeward Bounders and A Tale of Time City you’ll have to step lively if you want to keep up with her on this one.  “No One” is the name of a household robot I am pretty sure must have been a prototype for Yam in Hexwood.  “The Master,” is a frightening, dreamlike tale set in a wood, a rose garden, and a futuristic sorcerer’s den.  “Plague of Peacocks” features a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek revenge on some neighborhood busybodies.  I particularly enjoyed “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” which takes place on a frontiersy Nordic-themed planet with matriarchal steadings.  Non-anthropomorphized dragons are kept in game parks and witches (while fairly common) are illegal, so I’m thinking this may be the same world mentioned as “Lind” in Hexwood.  “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” is not Jones’ usual sort of thing, and I would very much like to see it expanded into a novel.

I can’t say the same for The True State of Affairs because it is perfect as it is.  Unless you have begged, borrowed, or stolen Everard’s Ride (or can get your hands on the UK-only collection Minor Arcana), you will not find it easy to get a copy of this story, but it’s worth a try!  At just 90 pages, this is (I’m dead serious) one of the best things Diana Wynne Jones has ever written.  It is simply masterful.  If you don’t think of Diana Wynne Jones as a “literary” writer, you are wrong.  The True State of Affairs is a study of power, personality, communication, love, and loneliness that compares favorably to work by the likes of Eudora Welty or Katherine Anne Porter for emotional depth.

The plot is simple.  A modern day Englishwoman finds herself, through no real fault of her own, a political prisoner in a fantasy world (Dalemark).  The action takes place in her tower room–she is not allowed to leave it–in a medieval-style fortress.  Her confusion with the language, her privations, her desperation, and her growing dependence on her journal and her daily over-the-rooftops glimpses of a fellow prisoner who is allowed a brief walk in a distant courtyard, all come together in a pressure-cooker of personal narrative, scribbled on a diminishing supply of paper that is always in danger of being confiscated…

Strong stuff.  Actually, on second thought, I do want it to be a full length novel.  I’m greedy and willful that way.

Next to The True State of Affairs, “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” was my favorite piece. One of the the things that pleases me most about Tolkien is the shared arena he provides for people who want to hash out the theory and practice of fantasy.  Having read this essay, I reeeeeealy wish I could put Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones in a room, and then they would start talking about Tolkien, and I could be a fly on the wall.  I could listen to either one of them for days.  I could listen to both of them for weeks.

Diana Wynne Jones studied at Oxford when, according to her online biography, “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing . . . Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others.”  Tolkien’s mumblings failed to reveal his narrative intentions, but Jones draws them brilliantly from his books.  “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” reminds me more of an energetic guided tour than a scholarly dissection.  Like an actor giving you a backstage tour of a theater, Jones knows what she’s talking about, and her excitement is contagious.

To make your envy complete, I leave you with her thoughts on the Elves:

. . . Legolas has been there for some time now, hinting at these mysteries, and yet, since he is one of the Fellowship, kidding you that Elves can be human and approachable.  This is not the case.  Tolkien lets you see much, but still leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw it.  They are genuinely not human.  Their concerns seem other, even when they help.  The reason seems to be their intense, abiding melancholy . . . The Elves are dwindling, we are told.  The dwarves awakened evil and forced many Elves over the Sea.  This could be the explanation, but it is not really.  You get the real reason by hints, which you pick up mostly subconsciously: the Elves, by reason of their apparent immortality, are widowed from history.  They are forced back on their own, which is merely living memory, unimaginably long.  Tolkien conveys quietly, without ever quite centering your sights on it, the immense burden immortality would be.  He uses women to do it: the Morning Star, Arwen Evening Star, and Galadriel herself.  I daresay Women’s Lib could make destructive points here, but it is entirely appropriate in a Romance, in which woman grieves for ever.  Women are generally more often widowed than men.  But this stands for the situation of all the Elves.  When they enter the temporary brawls of history, they pay for it by having to endure its horrors for ever.  So they are forced for the most part to stay withdrawn among their yellow trees, never dying, but never quite coming to maturity either.  The yellow trees vividly express their state.  Are mallorns the yellow of spring, or autumn?  Both, but not summer or winter.  I find them profoundly saddening.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

sequel to The Hunger Games
Read by Carolyn McCormick
Scholastic audiobooks, 2009
Finished: late march 2010
Source: the aether
Genre: dystopic YA novel
On the Scales: welterweight

“Katniss, Katniss!  Just when we thought you’d made up your mind!”

I must have said this twenty times while I was listening to the audio version of Catching Fire.  Well, not actually said it; I was thinking it, groaning and holding my hands over my ears and wagging my head from side to side.

Katniss emotes a lot in Catching Fire, which is different from having emotions.  She emotes more than in the Hunger Games.  Strange, because it seems to me she’s forfeited some of her emoting rights by not facing mortal danger the whole time.  I’m no longer a fan of Carolyn McCormick.  She gives Katniss this throb in her voice, as though every decision puts her into complete bewilderment, and every conflict inspires her to desperate pleading.  It made some sense in the arena, but not anymore.

I can’t write a review of Catching Fire that isn’t a spoiler.  It’s very existence is a spoiler for The Hunger Games: by now you know that Katniss survives the arena in that book.  I wasn’t sure she would.  I didn’t know if she’d show up in the sequel, and I purposely didn’t find out.  I like to come to a book totally raw.  My atrocious memory helps me with this, since I can read a review, and as long as there are no earth-shattering spoilers, the plot details are all gone in a couple of weeks.  How about you?  Do you mind knowing the plot ahead of time, even when it’s a popular novel?

While I enjoyed Catching Fire, I found I couldn’t listen to it while I was eating dinner because I was apt to snort and cringe.  The Hunger Games was a very tightly focussed story, whereas Catching Fire covers a lot of time and space.  This is often a problem for me.  It is hard for an author, unless she is Jean Webster, to write the kind of chapter that begins “It was a chilly spring,” then proceeds to cover several months in several pages, and do it well.  As a reader I usually feel alienated by this device.  I can’t believe nothing much worth mentioning happened in a whole three months.  And if it didn’t, that’s your fault, author lady, for not making every moment count!  You’re the one who decides when character-developing incidents take place, and how!  You could have done a lot more with that spring than just making it chilly, and having a lot of people get whipped half to death!

Oops.  Spoiler.  Sorry.

Well, not so much of a spoiler, because if you read Hunger Games you knew the Districts of Panem were a powder keg.  That’s the way trilogies go:  First book: personal.  Second book: personal and political.  Third book: political with frantic action, then personal at the very end.

Yeah, it’s a trilogy.  At least.  I didn’t know that for sure, coming in.  Not on a conscious level, but I soon realized there wasn’t going to be time to wrap everything up in Catching Fire–beside the fact that publishers don’t believe in duologies when the first book is a smash-hit-sensation.  Then I kept thinking, “How is there going to be a third book, the way things are going?  The pacing is all wrong.”  Then right at the end it became pretty clear how there was going to be a third book, and just what it was going to be about.

Half an hour after we popped out the last CD, Der Mann and I looked at each other.  “It’s just like Star Wars.”  And then I had an uncontrollable urge to go listen to “Fists Up” by the Blow because of the lines:

The vigilantes can’t agree on who’s in charge.
They gave their souls for the cause,
but the love that they were after’s still at large.
See this faith in which they found allegiance
Ripping at the seams as hope is running its course.
The rebels just can’t muster the force…

Really, the whole song is perfect for the Hunger Games series.  I am listening to it now.  I proclaim it the official Katniss anthem.  Or maybe Suzanne Collins’.

I don’t want to come to the point of this song, because the point of this song would have to be so long (long long long long long long long)…

Tor, 2008

Finished: late February 2010

Source: end of year reviews on Nymeth’s blog

Genre: YA near-future dystopic adventure

On the Scales: middleweight

I’ve sat down to review this and I’m having a hard time.  It’s about the kind of privileged teenagers I’ve never met, in a city I’ve never visited, with consuming interests that overlap very little with my own.  Why did I love it so much?

Here’s me trying to explain it to myself:  Even though this book is set in San Francisco, instead of using things you already know about San Francisco or being a teenager or politics to grab your sympathies, reel you in, and get you interested in the story, Doctorow builds everything from scratch like a fantasy world.

It helps that he’s not from the U.S.  As a Canadian currently living in Europe, Doctorow’s own culture runs parallel to the one he’s using for his near-future dystopia.  He’s got that insider knowledge / outsider objectivity I always enjoy so much in an author’s voice.

It works for the narrator, too.  Marcus is a popular, well-adjusted techno-geek with a past weakness for live action role playing games.  He has a keen sense of fairness–something his his loving parents have clearly had a hand in.  He is part of a close knit group of friends.  By the end of the book he is a hunted revolutionary facing prison and worse.

Doctorow is saying, put someone normal like Marcus in the furnace of injustice and he may very well come out red hot.  He’s saying, understanding and caring what the system is doing right now is the first line of defense when people start making it a tool for evil.  I don’t think evil is too strong a word.  Doctorow unfolds all the little ways apathy and paternalism erode freedom.  Most of all: blind trust.  In Marcus’ world, the ones who don’t trouble themselves to understand the ways technology is being used by those in authority, and who rely on the established media for information, are the adults.  They tend to assume everything that’s being done is okay, because isn’t it being done to protect us?  The teenagers in Little Brother get their information from each other.  They are used to questioning authority and thinking about the world not in terms of what’s safe, but what’s right.  They are the ones who see Big Brother taking over.

Yes, this is a politically charged book.  It’s about the teenagers of San Francisco against a DHS gone wild in the aftermath of another terrorist disaster.  But there are silly, fun parts too.  In the midst of a surveillance nightmare there are rock concerts, LARP, Mexican food, and interviews with clockwork pirates.  Little Brother is also a fascinating introduction to privacy ethics and cryptology.

Or, in this case, statistics:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first.  It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-Aids.  Only one in a million people gets Super-Aids.  You develop a test for Super-AIDs that’s 99 percent accurate.  I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result–true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy.  You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people will have Super-AIDS.  One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive”—the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t.  That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000 / 100 =10,000.

One in a million people has Super-AIDS.  If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS.  But your test won’t identify one person as having Super-AIDS.  It will identify ten thousand people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

I knew about the paradox of the false positive–vaguely–but I never heard it explained so well, or it’s implications framed as incisively as Doctorow does in his novel.  Actually, he’s doing a ton of different things at once in Little Brother, and it’s seamless.  That rarely, rarely happens!  The mini-lectures are never misplaced as interruptions.  The humor is perfectly timed.  The romance doesn’t feel sappy or tacked-on.  The violence could easily become a caricature of itself, destroying our empathy for the sufferers, but it doesn’t.  His ideology isn’t heavy handed.

If Little Brother were a preachy book, Marcus’ parents would be the enemy and Marcus would be a bronze statue of a revolutionary hero.  I love how Marcus makes convincingly teenager-y miscalculations.  And when his movement gains its own momentum, we get to see how he responds to that.  Doctorow doesn’t gloss over the stupidities inherent in blind rebellion any more than the ones in blind trust.

“This is California Live and we’re talking to an anonymous caller at a pay phone in San Francisco.  He has is own information about the slowdowns we’ve been facing around town this week.  Caller, you’re on the air.”

“Yeah, yo, this is just the beginning, you know?  I mean, like, we’re just getting started.  Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner.  We’ll jam them all!  And like, all this crap about terrorists?  We’re not terrorists!  Give me a break, I mean really!  We’re jamming up the system because we hate the Homeland Security, and because we love our city.  Terrorists?  I can’t even spell jihad.  Peace out.”

He sounded like an idiot.  Not just the incoherent words, but also his gloating tone.  He sounded like a kid who was indecently proud of himself.

The Xnet flamed out over this.  Lots of people thought he was an idiot for calling in, while others thought he was a hero.  I worried that there was probably a camera aimed at the pay phone he’d used.  Or an arphid reader that might have sniffed his Fast Pass.  I hoped he’d had the smarts to wipe his fingerprints off the quarter, keep his hood up and leave all his arphids at home.  But I doubted it.  I wondered if he’d get a knock on the door sometime soon.

I even liked the ending: bringing in the adults and discovering they’re good for something after all.  Thank heaven they are, since when the last door gets knocked on, as Marcus would say, “it’s a doozy.”