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Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Since John M. Ford and Neil Gaiman will both be at Boskone, I thought I should re-read their latest novels before then. I started with Ford's The Last Hot Time (although maybe Ford isn't going to be at the convention, because I don't see his name on the preliminary program any more. Bummer; hope he's well.). In a way, I think this is the silver lining of having the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome in my left wrist and having to cut way back on typing: I really like this book, but it's oddly difficult for me to be coherent about it, so I have an excuse to make this short. Short-ish, at least.

The Last Hot Time is connected to the Bordertown shared universe, but does not take place in Bordertown. (The connections are ambiguous enough, to my reading at least, that I will not venture to say whether the book is set in the same world or a similar one.) Elfland came back sometime in the 1990s; the book is set the Levee, the part of Chicago that borders Elfland. Danny Holman is a paramedic escaping his small-town life in Iowa for the big city; he is given a job by Mr. Patrise, the Levee's leader, who also dubs him Doc Hallownight. Though the book is set, as best I can tell, in the equivalent of the near future, the style is very much of an earlier era: wide-lapel suits, snap-brim hats, big cars and Tommy guns and smoky nightclub singers and gang wars and all the rest. (Cf. Doc Sidhe.)

That's the setup. I'm reluctant to talk about the plot, because it sort of unfolds and ties together in a way that might be easy to spoil. There is a plot, let's just say, though the direction of it might not be obvious at first. And, of course, if a young man runs off to the big city, he's going to learn a lot about life and himself, which Doc does indeed.

Why do I like this book so much? It's very strange, but I can't point to one thing; there are a lot of great things about it, but even naming them all seems oddly insufficient. I will point out that it's a book that requires careful attention to who the viewpoint character is and how events get filtered through his eyes; I don't know, maybe I like it so much because it's a Ford book where I understood all of the key points on my first read! I think, though, that it probably just hit me in just the right time, place, and manner to really resonate. It's very finely done (and short), so I certainly recommend it, even if I can't be coherent about it.

(In case you were wondering: my wrist is feeling much better than it was at the end of last week, thank you; I'm just trying to be careful.)

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Saturday, February 9, 2002

I found Neil Gaiman's latest novel, American Gods, extremely frustrating the first time I read it. I thought perhaps I would like it better upon re-reading: perhaps my high expectations, or my narrative expectations, got in the way unfairly. I regret to report that I do not, in fact, like it any better now that I've re-read it. (This seems to be the week for frustration in this book log.)

Why is it frustrating? Oh, lots of reasons. I did have high expectations for this book, and justifiably so, I think. Since the amazing Sandman comic series concluded its 75-issue run, Gaiman's novels had been enjoyable but slight, lacking the kind of power and depth Sandman displayed. The tale of a war between the old and new gods of America was just the kind of project I'd hoped to see Gaiman take on.

It may be unjust to compare American Gods to Sandman, since a ten-year monthly epic and a 400+ page novel are quite different formats. But too much of American Gods invites me to do so, to the book's detriment. There are, of course, the gods, whose incarnations in America are quite different from the ones who dealt with Dream, which is somewhat disorienting, at least at first. (The other disorienting thing about the gods in this book is that Bast's feline form is exactly what I've always pictured myself as in the "If you were an animal, what would you be?" game.) There's the very basic theme of belief and story, painted over a broad canvas with stories embedded inside the larger tale.

More importantly, there's the main characters. It's been observed that Gaiman apparently has a thing for passive protagonists; Dream was passive, but for interesting and ultimately tragic reasons. Shadow just is. He is, in fact, one of the major sources of my frustration; it's very annoying to be mad on behalf of someone who doesn't appear to care.

The other main (and related, in spoilery ways) source of frustration is the plot. I don't object to violating narrative expectations, but I want there to be a payoff for it. Here, I ended up saying, "That's it? So what?" which is not what you want to do after 400 pages. To be sure, those 400 pages were a very smooth and easy read, with some great stories, characters, and lines (of which my favorite is probably, "Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?" "Different woman. Same deal."). But they don't, to me, add up to anything: the plot's resolution, its effect on Shadow—they just leave me frustrated.

A lot of people seem to really like this book, and it's received quite a lot of critical attention. That's great; Gaiman has an impressive body of work and deserves the attention. But whatever it is that people are seeing in this, I'm missing it.

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Sunday, February 10, 2002

The good news is that I've finished the last big paper required for graduation (handing it in tomorrow, and good riddance). The bad news is that my wrists hurt again; I've clearly pushed my recovery too hard. So, very briefly: The Sanctuary Sparrow is the seventh Cadfael novel; a little darker than most of them, I think, in its claustrophobic portrait of a rather messed-up family, but still enjoyable. (And hey, if anyone out there wants to read 20K words on special verdicts in criminal jury trials, just let me know . . . )

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Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Arrgh. Sharply limited typing + being ahead on school reading = lots of time to read, but also = limited ability to update book log. (I'm tempted to slide into secret diaries writing style. "Wrists update: somewhat painful. School v. boring. Classes *so* silly. Still not employed.")

Last night, I finished Doris Egan's (writing as Jane Emerson) City of Diamond. When I brought the Ivory books up on sf.written, opinion was mixed—but everyone recommended this. They were right; it rocks. Thanks to Pam for sending me a spare copy.

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Today I was practically crackling with cranky restless energy and thought maybe a nice serial killer novel would do the trick. Unfortunately, I ended up just skimming Patricia Cornwell's Post-Mortem; I like procedurals, but its narrative voice fell rather flat for me.

Bah. I'm going to work out now; maybe that will help.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Since I was still feeling kind of cranky, I decided to re-read Janet Kagan's Mirable, on the theory that maybe I'd feel right at home with another cranky person. Worked just fine; it remains a good comfort book. I think my favorite bit is "Getting the Bugs Out"—I loathe mosquitos, and they are all too fond of me. (And how did I miss that this was a fixup the first time through?)

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Friday, February 15, 2002

Re-read Caroline Stevermer's When the King Comes Home; I'd been fighting off the urge ever since the winter holidays (something about the time of year; maybe it's just that I first read it around then), but since I was kind of on a roll with cranky narrators, I decided I might as well give in.

I really, really like this book, as I said in my review. A few, very random, additional comments:

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Monday, February 18, 2002

At Boskone this past weekend, I picked up the latest Liaden book by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, I Dare. (I didn't happen to meet the authors or hear them speak, though Chad did attend a panel they were on.) This concludes the "Agent of Change" sequence, picking up where Plan B left off.

I found this an enjoyable but slightly disappointing book. I should say that I read the Liaden books for the people: Shan, Miri, Val Con, Priscilla, Sheather, and all the rest are fabulous, vivid, living-and-breathing characters and I really like spending time with them. So, okay, I'll swallow the happy coincidence that allows the dramatic big set-piece confrontation at the end, and the utter one-dimensional stupidity of the villains, and whatever. (However, I do object to the cliffhanger ending. I don't mind life-goes-on endings, like Tigana's, and if the book had stopped just three pages earlier, it would have been fine. Throwing those pages in, though, when the next three books are going to be about other people, seemed gratuitous.) And yup, the lifemates thing still bothers me, but I was expecting that.

I think my real problem with the book is that it feels unbalanced. It largely splits its focus between Miri, Val Con, and the rest of the people on Lytaxin on the one hand, and Pat Rin on the other. Which is all well and good, but Pat Rin's part of the story covers about six months from the opening to the climax, while the Lytaxin crowd's covers four days—in what feels like about the same number of pages, though I admit I didn't count. I'm happy to see these characters, but a lot of the Lytaxin stuff seemed not to advance the story that much, and the contrast with Pat Rin's very busy life was striking.

Pat Rin's part of the story, by itself, posed another balance (small "b") problem for me. Don't get me wrong; I was quite pleased to see Pat Rin take center stage. Gordy asked, way back [*] in Carpe Diem, "Then why's he like that?" Shan's response, "Well, I suppose, that like most of us, he's not finished yet," both indicates why I like Shan so much and why spending more time with Pat Rin was interesting. I happen to like becoming-human stories, which I think it's fair to characterize this as. But part of Pat Rin's becoming human is his falling in love, and his growing love affair—plus his lover—are just sketched. I don't object to subtle love stories; at one level, that's what The Last Hot Time is, after all. But it's quite a contrast with the other Liaden stories, where the relationships and the characters are central and thoroughly developed.

Okay. Two more gripes and then I'm done. One is a gripe about the physical book, not the writing: the copy editing was just bad. Sure, I'm probably unusual in being bothered by random extra spaces between words and around punctuation, or curly quotation marks going the wrong way, or periods sometimes being inside quotes, sometimes outside; but I notice and it distracts me. The other is actually a rehash of one of my American Gods complaints: maybe Val Con can forgive what he learns on Lytaxin, but I found it morally repugnant and I'm both annoyed at the person who did it and at him for not being madder about it. (In the coincidence department, we learn in this book that another of Val Con's nicknames is—Shadow.)

Hmm. If I'm complaining about balance, I should have spent more words talking about the things I liked, but they 1) require less explanation and 2) are mostly spoilers, anyway. Besides, even stretching this typing out over a few days (yay, backdating posts on Blogger Pro), my wrists are hurting. Overall, I did like it; I just didn't love it the way I did some of the earlier Liaden books.

[*] Maybe someone out there can help me. In the following quote, what is the apostrophe before "way" standing for: "tucked all tidy and peaceful into a pretty little cave that was 'way to small for them"? It's not a usage I've come across before, and it's used more than once in the book.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics is set in the same world as When the King Comes Home. I don't think I re-read it when I reviewed When the King . . . , but I was in the mood for it after this re-read.

My prior impression of A College of Magics was that it was quite good but went a little weird at the end. Upon re-reading, it felt a lot smoother, I think for a few reasons. First, this time I knew that (despite the title) only the first third of the book is a school story, so I wasn't faintly disoriented by the shift. (Of course, had I actually looked at the table of contents, it would have been incredibly obvious that yes, this is a three-volume novel and doesn't confine itself to Greenlaw.) Similarly, I was much better at spotting the continuous thread of plot this time, now that I knew what it was. What's more, When the King . . . in a way gives a precedent for some of the weirdness at the end of A College of Magics; I almost wonder if it wouldn't be better to read them in non-publication order for that reason. (People may well have to do that, since A College of Magics is currently out of print.)

A College of Magics is set sometime early in an alternate version of our 20th century (the cover blurbs are amusingly contradictory on the precise date). Faris Nallaneen, the umpty-great-niece of Ludovic, has been packed off to Greenlaw College by her wicked uncle "to age, like cheese," until she reaches her majority and can take her place as Duchess of Galazon. I shall refrain from talking about the plot, because it doesn't become overt until the second volume, but there's magic and intrigue and romance; friends are made, swashes are buckled, hats explode, lions are fed crab puffs, and oh yes, Faris comes into her own. Overall, the book's a delight; not quite as good as When the King Comes Home, but more fun.

Jane caught at Faris's poplin sleeve. "Are you going to find Menary now? It's tea time."

Faris froze, staring at Jane's hand as though it were made of raw liver. "Of course."

Jane's voice held only calm interest. "What will you do when you find her?"

Faris met her eyes. "I don't know. Deliver the same lecture to her, I suppose."

"Dry work. I'd hate to miss the spectacle but I'm perishing for my tea. Just sit with me for a moment while I drink a cup and then let me come along to watch you murder Menary." She closed the study door and led Faris back to the table. "Though of course, we'll have to queue up for the privilege. She does love to do an ill turn when she sees the chance."

"Do you speak so highly of all your friends?" asked Faris, coldly.

"Menary doesn't have any friends. She doesn't want any. She's more interested in servitors. I merely asked her a few questions. And don't snipe at me for my shocking geography," Jane added. "If it isn't the Empire, it's all the same to me: Galazon, Aravill, Graustark, or Ruritania. You really can't expect me to keep all those little countries straight. I'm not ignorant, just English. Milk? Sugar?"

"Can you tell Wales from Finland?"

"Don't sulk, it's not becoming. The tea's a bit stewed, I'm afraid, but that's your fault for distracting me. The milk may render it palatable. Now tell me about this wicked uncle of yours."

Faris glared at Jane but accepted the cup and saucer Jane offered. "If you were in my place, would you sit here and drink your tea?"

"In your place, I would challenge Menary to pistols at dawn."

"May I call on you if I should need a second?"

Jane inclined her head graciously. "I am at your service. Now sit down. I have a ginger cake from Fortnum's."

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Friday, February 22, 2002

A quote from The Last Hot Time sent me browsing through the Yale Library catalog the other day: "[Danny] got a book from the library, a Rafael Sabatini swashbuckler with brave, kind heroes and the certain promise of a happy ending." I only recognized two titles in the catalog, and picked Scaramouche over The Marquis de Carabas mostly at random. Since I still felt like reading about buckling of swashes, this seemed a natural choice.

I can't really say I would consider Scaramouche a comfort book. A tale of revenge during the French Revolution (yeah, there's a happy setup), it features a protagonist who, we are told in the first line, "was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." That laughter tends to be rather cynical, or else affected; André-Louis is an instinctive actor, and though he certainly has feelings, he is almost always playing a role, even after almost an entire book's worth of upheaval:

When understanding came at last André-Louis' first impulse was to cry out. But he possessed himself, and played the Stoic. He must ever be playing something. That was his nature. And he was true to his nature even in this supreme moment. He continued silent until, obeying that queer histrionic instinct, he could trust himself to speak without emotion.

I tend not to find people like this very good company, at least if they remain this way over the whole book, and it's the company I keep that makes a comfort book for me. I can see why this book was and is popular, but it wasn't really what I was looking for.

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Sunday, February 24, 2002

For swashbuckling that's certain to satisfy, I turn to Steven Brust's The Phoenix Guards. In one of the "About the Author" pieces, Brust says that "Paarfi of Roundwood [the narrator] is the creation of a writer who, at first, wished the style of the French Romantics (Dumas, Sabatini, etc.) was still popular, then decided he didn't care, and he'd bloody well write like that anyway." (The other "About the Author" is by, yup, Paarfi about Brust. Hey, in Five Hundred Years After Brust and Paarfi actually argue with each other . . . ) Having now read Sabatini, and previously read Dumas, I have to say I like Brust-as-Paarfi better. (I wonder what Brust would think of that—flattered, appalled? Both?)

Regular readers of this book log will be unsurprised to hear that it's the characters that make the difference. Besides André-Louis in Scaramouche, the characters in The Three Musketeers had sufficiently different moral systems that I couldn't really sympathize with them. I just plain like the people in The Phoenix Guards better, even though they're obviously modeled on Dumas':

And so it was on this basis that the household was erected, with four personalities at such variance: Pel planned out his life in careful stages of which he didn't speak, and, if one might suspect that he had more affairs of the heart than any ten normal men, at least no one could prove any of them. Tazendra never planned, but always attacked life as if the world existed purely for the pleasure it afforded her to tramp through it, laughing and gambling and loving; doing all of these far less, be it understood, than she claimed, but nevertheless enjoying the claims as much as another would have enjoyed the deeds. Aerich was of a dark disposition that seemed to thrive on the pleasures of his friends, as if pleasure for its own sake was impossible for him; yet he could take a certain measure vicariously, as it were, so that when his friends were happy, he was happy, and when his friends were sad, he was sad. Khaavren, we know, only rarely planned anything; his preference was neither to sculpt life, nor to attack it, but rather, to take everything, a blow or a kiss, just as it came, and to contrive as best he was able to take as much joy or opportunity, or as little pain or damage, as he could.

Brust says on his web page that he giggled all the way through this book, and the reader does indeed get that impression. Besides your standard (and quite fun) swordplay, court intrigues, secret identities, quests, and romances, you get delightfully silly and involved dialogue—alas, far too long for me to type at present, particularly since my favorite bit is, well, all of Chapter Six. There are also historical asides like Bengloarafurd Ford's name, and Paarfi, who is fully a character in his own right:

And while it would be possible for us to simply relate all that followed the casting of this simplest of spells, we must admit that we would find it more amusing to delay this revelation; or rather, to find an indirect method of describing it. While the amusement of the historian may be insufficient reason to take such a circuitous route to relation of facts, rest assured we have another reason as well, that being the necessity of describing another conversation in which these very events are announced.

It would seem, therefore, that if we are to allow our readers, by virtue of being in the company of the historian, to eavesdrop on this interchange, we will have, in one scene, discharged two obligations; a sacrifice, if we may say so, to the god of Brevity, whom all historians, indeed, all who work with the written word, ought to worship. We cannot say too little on this subject.

For my own sacrifice to Brevity, I'll just say if you can't stand the style of the prose I've quoted here, or the dialogue when you flip through the book, then don't read it. However, if it sounds at all appealing or amusing, do go seek it out.

(One does wonder if this "history" was published while Khaavren was still alive, since we know he was still active just some sixty years earlier (via Alexx's excellent Dragaera Timeline)—and if so, just what his reaction was . . . )

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Monday, February 25, 2002

After finishing The Phoenix Guards, I was in a bit of a fix as to what to read next. I wouldn't be able to get my hands on a copy of its sequel, Five Hundred Years After, until the weekend; the same for Swordspoint or anything else I could think of that might scratch the same itch. So, with some trepidation, I got Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda out of the library. Yes, it's a classic adventure novel, and it appears in A College of Magics, but I haven't had good luck with classic adventure novels, after all.

I found this moderately enjoyable. It's a touch hard to view the plot seriously, because the basic premise (random person forced to impersonate monarchy; hijinks ensue) has become so thoroughly part of the basic toolbox of plot (as has its reverse, monarchy impersonates random person). They are pretty good hijinks, though, and there's a nifty villain. The narrator's tone is sometimes a bit light and detached, and he is not unaware of life's absurdities, but his emotional involvement comes through towards the end (making it a more serious book, I think, than The Phoenix Guards). I got pulled in enough to speed through the book, which wasn't too hard as it's quite short. (Alas, the narrator is also a sexist pig, and though the heroine does get a shining moment, it just points out how restricted women's options were at the time.)

Unfortunately, I can't read the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (the nifty villain). I avoided reading my copy's academic introduction until I was done the book, being well aware of the tendency of academic introducers to cheerfully spoil books left and right—but I didn't expect it to spoil the sequel, too. Hmmph.

[Both The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau are in the public domain and can be found online in a number of places, such as at the Literature Network.]

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Wednesday, February 27, 2002

I grabbed Pride and Prejudice by (of course) Jane Austen on the same trip to the library that netted The Prisoner of Zenda, on the theory that I might want more good dialogue in my immediate reading future. Being one of the most famous novels in the English language, I won't belabor its virtues, or explicate its plot, or what-have-you; I will just note the things that I found myself noticing this time through.

The first time I read this was for a class (summer program at Phillips Andover; in six weeks I learned more about writing than in the rest of high school put together). We talked a lot about the social context, the use of complexion color changes to signal emotions (rather like hands in Bujold), the contrasting marriages, the importance of economics, etc. This time, I was particularly struck by the elegance of the pacing, which is very precisely done, and by the acutely observed depiction of the characters—it all just rings true right through. (I have this fancy of taking the book—not the physical volume, but the book—and tapping something against it to hear it chime, like a fork against heavy crystal; solid and graceful and tangibly wonderful all the way through.)

Other people (including Pam in her book log) have commented on how funny they find the book. I can't say that I find most of the characters or situations that funny, but that's because I find embarrassing situations just, well, embarrassing (I tend not to watch sitcoms, either). I did find many of the narrator's observations amusing and witty; I've become more attentive to narrative voice as I've grown older, though I'm not sure why. I have also learned to pay more attention to character development, but that seems as much a function of experience as age.

A final thought: I wonder how many writers have taken inspiration from the famous first line of the novel. I know I've seen several, but I can only think of one right now, the delicious opening of Madeleine E. Robins's forthcoming Point of Honour (sample chapters available about Tor): "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom."

Anyway, I'm quite glad I re-read this; I enjoyed it a great deal, and am glad to see that my prior good opinion was, if anything, supported by more than I'd realized.

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