25 July 2012

Broken Harbor (Tana French)


Broken Harbor is now called Brianstown, but Mike "Scorcher" Kennedy remembers it as it used to be, from childhood holidays camping by the sea with his parents and sisters. Now, it's a ghost town, a planned development abandoned when the recession struck, littered with half-built houses sliding into ruin. In one of the few occupied units, Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie Curran, report to the scene of a devastating crime: two small children dead in their beds, their parents stabbed on the kitchen floor. Patrick Spain, the recently laid-off father, is dead; his wife and high school sweetheart Jenny is barely alive.

While Pat himself is the obvious prime suspec, family annihilation being an all-too-common scenario when a breadwinner goes broke, disturbing details suggest there's more to the story: the investigating team finds multiple holes in the walls, with the camera halves of video baby monitors trained on the openings. And Jenny's sister tells the detectives that she was terrified by a series of bizarre break-ins, which left all doors locked and strange, tiny things missing: half a packet of ham, some rubber bands. As the case unfolds, Kennedy finds himself juggling his memories of Broken Harbor, the possibility that Richie may be the first partner he wants to stick with, and his mentally ill sister, Dina, whose mind is once again going off the rails.

Honestly, what can I say about this book, besides the premise, that I haven't said already? French is just so good at picking up the thread of a new first-person narrator and diving Marianas-Trench-deep into their psyche, it would be repetitive it weren't such a joy to inhabit these detectives--the kind of joy that is sometimes a burden, because you hurt for them, and the victims, and sometimes even the murderers. She's so good with character that the plot could be an afterthought if she wanted it to be, and these would still be first-rate mysteries. But since they're also (as they say) meticulously plotted? I'm happy as Maru in a big ol' stack o' boxes.

21 July 2012

Timeless, Parasol Protectorate #5 (Gail Carriger)

N.B. As Timeless is the final (*sniff*) volume in the Parasol Protectorate series, this'll be more or less a (rave) review of the whole shebang. Which is to say: there may be spoilers.

So, plotwise, how does this final installment wrap things up for us? With enough ribbons and ruffles to please even Ivy Tunstell (née Hisselpenny), and enough neat, logical conclusions for Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon's ultra-rational nature. (Gotta love that our heroine is so coolly analytical, especially with her werewolf husband being so passionate in all his emotions. Turnabout fair play, and all that.) Said couple, and toddler daughter, Prudence, travel to Egypt with husband, Tunstells, Tunstell offspring, and acting troupe in tow in response to a mysterious summons from the ancient vampire queen of the Alexandria Hive (who turns out to be Hatshepsut herself!). Prudence is neither supernatural like her father nor preternatural like her mother--rather, she's a new creature entirely, dubbed "metanatural"--whereas Alexia's touch renders a vampire or werewolf mortal while she maintains the contact, Prudence's sucks it right out of them and into her, leaving them human till sunrise--and herself an itty-bitty vampire or, adorably, a wolf pup. (I had a pretty awesome time on Google image search looking for reference photos to better picture the latter. Lookit Mr. Howly Pants among the dandelions!!!!!) Meanwhile, in London, an unexpected romance develops.

Allow me to indulge in comparison: reading this series is as delicious, light, piquant, and satisfying as eating a whole box of macarons and washing them down with Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA (which my brother-in-law describes as a "punch-you-in-the-face beer"). If I were forced to pick my two favorite aspects? 'Twould be, first, the effortless mix of genres: mystery, romance, steampunk, alternate history, fantasy, comedy . . . any I'm forgetting? Second, Carriger's wit, sharp and sweet by turns, wonderfully dependent on elevated vocabulary and meandering sentence structure, a la Austen, a la Wodehouse, a la awesomesauce. I'm sad to bid adieu to this particular narrative arc, but giddy with glee that the author is planning to spend more time exploring the world she's created, first in a four-book YA series which begins with Etiquette & Espionage in February 2013, and then in a sequel adult series called The Parasol Protectorate Abroad, scheduled for fall of next year. I'll read all of 'em.

Oh, and I also love that the cover art for all these books actually depicts costumes described in the text. Such an oddly unusual harmony!

15 July 2012

12 Who Don't Agree (Valery Panyuskin)

I had jury duty a couple of weeks ago, which was simultaneously fascinating and tedious. The best part, though, was hours and hours of uninterrupted reading! Valery Panyushkin's 12 Who Don't Agree, collected portraits of modern Russian dissidents, was a beneficiary of this idyll, months after I'd added to my list (it came up in discussion at WORD's Classics Book Group during our year o' Russians). Panyushkin himself is an anti-Kremlin, anti-Putin journalist (which can still get you mysteriously shot), with an easy narrative style. He's picked a wide range of folks to profile: young, old, male, female, even famous (former chess champion Garri Kasparov, now an opposition leader).

Many of the harrowing stories center around the Beslan massacre, an incident in 2004 when Chechen separatists seized a school in the Caucasian province of North Ossetia (Russia has something like 200 different ethnic groups, and the former Soviet republics just add to the total. It gets confusing almost immediately). After a three-day hostage crisis, heavily armed Russian troops stormed the building, killing most of the terrorists and fully a third of the hostages. The government responded by consolidating federal power, including changes to election law (eliminating direct gubernatorial elections, e.g.). It was the last straw for many former Kremlin supporters, especially as they saw the differences between what eyewitnesses said of the crisis and what the official media reported.

12 Who Don't Agree (the Russian title, 12 nesoglasnykh, I think means literally "dissenters," though I was sorely tempted to ask the folks from Moscow & Ukraine sitting behind me in the jury room) confirmed my belief that it's pretty much never not been awful being a rank-and-file Russian. I suspect this explains their literature. Also, that people still use the word muzhik in casual conversation, which is adorable; and that there's a Russian candy bar called Hematogen that (as the name implies) contains processed cow's blood. GAH

08 July 2012

The Shirley Letters (Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe)

In my (now-completed) quest to actually read the awesome books I got for Christmas, I finally hit The Shirley Letters. It's possibly the most obscure tome in my library: a collection of 23 epistolary essays published in The Pioneer, California's first literary magazine, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe's accounts of her experiences in gold mining towns in 1851 and '52. Clappe was an educated New England woman and aspiring writer who came to the wilds of California with her doctor husband, where she fell in love with the wild beauty of the Sacramento Valley and the make-do life of the homesteader. While I'm using her letters as invaluable primary source material for my Gold Rush-set romance (fallow though it may currently be), I think they're worth seeking out as a forgotten masterpiece of creative nonfiction, and a feminine perspective on a masculine time and place.

Though Clappe is a wonderful, witty writer, who casts her eye in turn on social life, mining techniques, and vivid portraits of natural settings, for my money her powers of description are never better (or funnier) than when she details her domestic environment. At first, she and her husband Fayette lodged in Rich Bar at the Empire--"the hotel of the place," which boasted the "dazzling splendor" of two or three glass windows and a second story, and a primary decorative motif of an "eternal crimson calico--which flushes the whole social life of the 'Golden State' with its everlasting red." The building itself, however, was little more than a rough wooden frame with walls and roof of canvas; she calls it "just such a piece of carpentering as a child two years old, gifted with the strength of a man, would produce, if it wanted to play at making grown-up houses." Yet she's fully aware that the Empire really is top-notch accommodations in comparison to the other residences in Rich Bar, many of which were hovels made of pine branches covered with old shirts.

Soon, though, they've moved to their own log cabin at Indian Bar, on the Feather River. This 400-square-foot edifice featured a fireplace of mud, stones, and sticks, with a mantlepiece of wood covered with flattened old tin cans. The floor is so uneven that "no article of furniture gifted with four legs pretends to stand upon but three at once, so that the chairs, tables, etc., remind you constantly of a dog with a sore foot." The only window is "yet guiltless of glass," her toilet table is "a trunk elevated upon two claret cases," their bookcase is a candle-box, the library consisting of "a Bible and prayer-book, Shakespeare, Spenser, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Lowell's Fable for Critics, Walton's Compleat Angler, and some Spanish books." And the walls? While they've escaped the trademark red calico, they are instead lined with
a gaudy chintz, which I consider a perfect marvel of calico printing. The artist seems to have exhausted himself on roses; from the largest cabbage, down to the tiniest Burgundy, he has arranged them in every possible variety of wreath, garland, bouquet, and single flower; they are of all stages of growth, from earliest bud-hood up to the ravishing beauty of the 'last rose of summer.' Nor has he confined himself to the colors usually worn by this lovely plant; but, with the daring of a great genius soaring above nature, worshiping the ideal rather than the real, he has painted them brown, purple, green, black, and blue.

And she loves it. That's what amazes me most about her writing (and that of other pioneer women I've read)--that she doesn't miss the relative civilization and comfort of the East Coast, that she embraces the hardships of her rustic surroundings with humor and delight. Here's another long quote for you, because I just can't say it better:
[M]y new home [is] a place where there are no newspapers, no churches, lectures, concerts, or theaters; no fresh books, no shopping, calling, nor gossiping little tea-drinkings; no parties, no balls, no picnics, no tableaux, no charades, no latest fashions, no daily mail (we have an express once a month), no promenades, no rides, nor drives; no vegetables but potatoes and onions, no milk, no eggs, no nothing? Now I expect to be very happy here. This strange, odd life fascinates me. . . . In good sooth I fancy that nature intended me for an Arab or some other Nomadic barbarian, and by mistake my soul got packed up in a Christianized set of bones and muscles. How I shall ever be able to content myself in a decent, proper, well-behaved house, where . . . every article of furniture, instead of being a make-shift, is its own useful and elegantly finished self, I am sure I do not know. However . . . [I] trust that when it is again my lot to live amid the refinements and luxuries of civilization, I shall endure them with becoming philosophy and fortitude.

04 July 2012

The Wild Marquis (Miranda Neville)

Been a few months since I read a straight-up romance novel--actually March, whoa! But Miranda Neville's The Wild Marquis reconfirms the genre as one I'll keep coming back to.

I had to read this first in the series of which The Dangerous Viscount is a part after learning the heroine is a bookseller. I do so love historical heroines with jobs, and one so close to my own is nigh-irresistible. Juliana Merton is a widow who's struggling to keep her murdered husband's rare book shop open despite the London bibliophiles' prejudice against a woman in the trade. She learned about books at the feet of the man who raised her as his ward, whom she believes to be her true grandfather. He drove himself to ruin buying expensive volumes, and sold off his collection to the unscrupulous Sir Thomas Tarleton, whose recent death has left his vast collection at auction to settle Tarleton's own book-driven debts.

The showpiece of the collection is the Burgundy Hours, a fifteenth-century illuminated masterpiece--and the Marquis of Chase is mystified as to how it ended up in Tarleton's hands, since it was an heirloom of his own family. Ejected from the house of his fanatical and cruel father at the age of sixteen, Chase has led the proverbial life of dissipation, boinking actresses and hiring former prostitutes as servants. But now he's inherited his father's title and wealth, and one of the things he wants to do with it is get the Burgundy Hours back. To this end, he hires Juliana to represent him at the auction.

This book is great! There are mysteries to be solved (Joseph Merton's murder, Tarleton's acquisition of the hours, who tries to frame Juliana for theft by hiding a volume from the auction--a Romeo & Juliet folio she believes belonged to her mother, Juliana's true parentage), two wounded leads, believable misunderstandings--and my favorite, some laughing during lovemaking. I love couples that can be goofy together even in amorous circumstances; it's such a good sign for a relationship. And of course, there's tons of book talk and interesting facts, bolstered by Neville's real-world years in Sotheby's rare books department (man, there's a job, huh?). Excited for the other two titles in the series--The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (AAH BEST TITLE) and Confessions from an Arranged Marriage--already sitting happily on my shelf. (And, thanks to my co-worker Stacey, signed by the author!)


Look, I know it's totally square that I'm not that interested in gritty superheroes. Or at least antiquated. (And probably inconsistent, since I love me some Buffy.) But darn it, I want my tales of magic folk who fly around in tights to be FUN rather than soul-crushingly bleak--which is why I'm happy to have discovered the least gritty superhero imaginable (barring the existence of, say, Superkitten), Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel is the alter ego of teenage orphan and newscaster Billy Batson, who acquires the powers of six ancient heroes by uttering the word SHAZAM (the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury). His real-world history is rife with intrigue: debuted by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s, he was the most popular superhero of the decade in terms of sales--but then DC sued, viewing the character as a rip-off of Superman. (Which is kinda fair.) Anyway, by the time DC, now the owner of the character, relaunched him in the 70s, Marvel Comics existed, and they had their own Captain Marvel, so subsequent DC comics have been titled Shazam!

The two volumes I read were a massive black-and-white compilation of the 70s reboot, Showcase Presents Shazam!, and 2007's Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, by Bone creator Jeff Smith. (Chris has picked up the first three volumes of Bone, and they're definitely on my list.) The former is good-times 50s-style gee-whizzery through and through, with Marvel and his cohorts (sister Mary Marvel, newsboy friend Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel, Jr.) drawn in a cartoonish style markedly different from the more realistic minor characters. It introduces his regular nemeses, the best of which is Mr. Mind, a malevolent alien supergenius who appears here as a worm wearing glasses with a radio around his neck (which allows him to convert telepathic communication into sound, or something). Mr. Mind is a great mix of totally goofy--he's a WORM WITH GLASSES--and legitimately terrifying, as he's certainly smarter than Captain Marvel (who, no offense, in this incarnation can be slow on the uptake), and near-omnipotent. I get the feeling the only thing preventing him from full-on murder sprees is that the comic's aimed at a single-digit demographic. Also loved the last few issues' bicentennial celebration, which saw Marvel etc. tracking down his rogues' gallery in different American cities, always with local flavor--in Pittsburgh, for example, the nefarious Dr. Sivana calls forth Serbo-Croatian steelworker folk hero Joe Magarac, who's AWESOME (though stupid Wikipedia says he's probably fakelore, boo). Unfortunately, the volume cuts off before they make it further west than Indianapolis; apparently the comic was overhauled in the next issue, and then went again defunct in the next, so possibly the stories where he visited Chicago and Kansas City and Texas and so on were never written. Sad face.

Monster Society of Evil retells Captain Marvel's origin story, and while it is somewhat grittier--Billy Batson's younger, and wholly homeless, before he follows a stranger into the subway and discover the ancient Egyptian wizard who gives him his powers (because of course an Egyptian has access to Hebrew, Greek, and Roman heroic archetypes, duh)--it remains long on "charm," as Alex Ross brilliantly puts it in his introduction, "a quality that few comics deliver these days." Smith brings in the expected characters, including Dr. Sivana, Mary Marvel (also younger, like five, which makes her totally adorable when she starts flying around), and Mr. Mind (more snake-y than worm-y here). And oh man, I forgot to mention Billy's friend Tawky Tawny! He's a TALKING TIGER! KITTY! I really loved Smith's art (the color helps) and his ability to tell a kid's story with scary bits that's not going to overwhelm anybody.

So Captain Marvel is totes my favorite superhero now. Of course, DC's New 52 reboot thingy has elected to mess with him by officially renaming him Shazam, making him "darker" (ARGH), and putting him in a dopey wizard's cloak. But I'm just gonna pretend that version doesn't exist, which I think is a classic comics-nerd gambit. FINALLY I'M ONE OF THEM
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