The Book Adept

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory, by Carl Sagan

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Vicious and Vengeful

ViciousVicious, by V. E. Schwab, was a confusing, frustrating, sensational book. The hero/protagonist was definitely not a hero, not likable, had no redeeming qualities, and yet you root for him. The villain terms himself the hero, and you see his vulnerability and his delusion and want to like him, and yet you can’t. The secondary characters are all compelling—fully fleshed out, insinuatingly engaging, and also impossible to pigeonhole.

On the surface, the premise is a comic book—ExtraOrdinary people (EOs) who have special abilities—but there the comparison ends, because they go around using their abilities, not for good, but for their own advantage and to others’ detriment, unless they are in the mood to be lenient or merciful, or the person is useful to them. This isn’t what we’ve been taught to believe “superheroes” would do, but…why not, really? If you woke up from a coma and discovered that you could tell everyone around you what to do and they would do it, would you refrain? If you were able to heal from any wound, no matter how grievous, would you still act like a normal human being fearful of death, or would you take any risk, pull any stunt, knowing you couldn’t be hurt?

It’s a fair question. No one ever says, What impulse supplies the moral certitude of a Superman to always do good, never evil? Where is the moral ambiguity in these tales? This book is true science fiction, because the job of science fiction is always to ask, What if? and then try to supply the answer, and Schwab has done a superb job of going where seemingly no one has wanted to go before (at least to my admittedly limited knowledge). Bravo.

Praise, also, for the writing, and the construction of the tale. It was elegant and spare, and both well plotted and well plotted.

VengefulVengeful, the continuation of the story, did not disappoint. Having said that, I don’t think it was quite what I was expecting, either. The parts I was expecting: She continued to write from her head-spinning stance of the first book, which is to say she jumped back and forth in time at will, reorienting the reader with every chapter heading. She also randomly switched perspectives between multiple characters. Not many authors can pull that off, and those who try sometimes actively irritate me, but Schwab can do anything she decides to do, it seems. She gave us the next chapters for each of her major characters from the first book, while further developing Stell’s campaign against the EOs, and she also introduced some kick-ass new ones, notably the powerful women, Marcella and June.

The new characters are part of what I wasn’t expecting. I thought this book would be the resolution of all the story lines among Victor and Eli, Sydney and Mitch, and this resolution is largely accomplished; but we also get a pretty thorough development of these two new people to the EO panoply. Marcella in particular is a gripping portrayal of what happens when a woman is consistently appreciated only as arm candy and she decides to let the world (husband first) know exactly what’s wrong with that picture. June is more of a picaresque character, popping in and out and supplying (dark) whimsy and intrigue; but Marcella is a force of nature, and we’re talking hurricane.

Ultimately, what makes this book as gripping as the first is that they are all terrible people, unmoored to any sense of absolute right or wrong, and Schwab makes you simply not care; or rather, she makes you care deeply, despite how horrifyingly cruel and brutal they may be. The juxtaposition of violence and murder with sweet family scenes incorporating mac and cheese and hot chocolate further solidify the irony.

The ultimate thing I wasn’t expecting is that this may not be the end. This was billed as a duology, but so many loose ends were left as possibilities; people walk off into the sunset, and where are they going? Who will stay together, who will be riven forever from one another, how will they live, what will they do? Now that some of them have achieved their objectives, what will be their life’s purpose? I felt like the characters who walked away at the end could be trusted to disappear out there and never resurface in fiction, but for one: The fact that we know so little about June—her back story, how she became the way she is, and her future intentions—gives me a suspicion that we haven’t seen the last of this world.

Shall we hope for a third tale?

Louise Penny

stilllifeI was emailing with a former co-worker from the library the other day. She shares my love of a good mystery, and we were doing the usual “Have you read…” conversation, wherein I discovered that she had not yet read any of Louise Penny’s series set in the mythical Three Pines, somewhere in the snowdrifts below Montréal, Canada, and starring the inimitable Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec.

I immediately encouraged her to drop everything and start reading with the first book, Still Life, and then…I paused. I love this series almost unreservedly, and yet it is not a series that you can recommend to just anyone. It has quirks.

The first quirk is that the development of the characters is far more instrumental to the reader’s love of this series than are the individual mysteries/murders/cases pursued in each volume. With a few standout exceptions, I have released from my memory the specifics of the cases, and yet I retain every detail about the inhabitants of Three Pines and the officers  of the Sûreté who make recurring appearances or simply loom as brooding, somewhat intangible threats over Gamache’s future.

The second quirk is that the mysteries themselves are weird. Victims are shot by arrows, electrocuted in the middle of a village fair, die of fright in the midst of a séance. Penny seems determined to come up with deaths so out of the ordinary that the reader must struggle a bit with “the willing suspension of disbelief” in order to continue with the book or the series.

The third quirk is more a matter of degree or intensity than it is anything unusual, and that is the level of psychological and personal involvement one develops with the character of Armand Gamache with each subsequent book. I phrased that last sentence purposefully, because the character of the man is what draws me to these books and keeps me reading. He is the hero you could wish for as the head of any police department, and yet because of his high standards and philosophical rigor, his expectations are hard to meet, and in fact many of the officers of the Sûreté not only don’t try to meet them, but purposely flout them. Those within his magic circle realize that he is as deeply flawed as they are, and that his flaws are what drew them to him as a mentor and eventually as a friend. But even those who claim friendship have never plumbed the depths of Armand Gamache, and this is what makes him forever fascinating.

blindI began this intending to give a review of the latest book, Kingdom of the Blind, number 14 in the series. It is true to form, in that the initial mystery is puzzling and offbeat—Gamache, Three Pines bookstore owner Myrna, and Benedict, a young builder unknown to either of them, have been summoned by a notary to discover that they have been designated liquidators (executors) of a will, but for a woman none of the three has ever met. Becoming somewhat reluctantly involved with this duty ends up leading them to a murder, and to the puzzling facts of the will itself, which bequeaths possessions not actually owned by the deceased. Running alongside this new conundrum is the leftover entanglements from the last book, in which a powerful new drug was released onto the black market, partially as a result of controversial actions by Superintendent Gamache, with the consequence that he has been suspended from his position at the Sûreté, temporarily replaced by his close associate and son-in-law, Jean-Guy de Beauvoir.

A few commenters on Goodreads expressed the feeling that the familiar characters in Three Pines are becoming redundant, and that Penny should start fresh with a new project. Although I can’t agree with this, I do think that this was not one of the 40 percent of standout books in the series. I wasn’t a big fan of the story line with the will and the historical puzzle contained within it; but I did breathlessly follow the events in this book that played out the contentious actions from the last, and watched with intrigue Gamache’s desperate attempts to remedy his daring ploy that put a dangerous drug on the streets. And an exceedingly surprising plot twist at the end may do something significant for those readers bored with the inhabitants of Three Pines….

In her afterword to this book, Penny confessed that she thought she had already written the last Armand Gamache book, and had expected to confess as much and default on her commitment of another to her publisher. Penny’s beloved husband, Michael, passed away in 2017, and she had believed that his embodiment of Gamache and his constant participation in all aspects of her writing life would keep her from going further once he was gone. But one morning, she woke up with an opening sentence in her head, and realized that, far from being unable to go on, the continuation of this series kept her husband’s integrity, courage, and good humor present in her life and in her writing.

I ended up reiterating my recommendation to my friend about the series, with the caveat that the mysteries are weird and not always satisfying, but that it is the community in which you live while you read them that will keep drawing you back. I plan to check in with her after she’s read a few, and see if she has invested in them as I have. The series is about kindness, humor, wit, love, and affection. The fact that it’s sometimes also a window into despair and inhumanity simply points up the contrasts.

 

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Procedurals

I recently caught up with the Bill Slider mysteries by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles; I had inadvertently read numbers 20 and 21 in the series without having read 18 and 19, so I bought them for my Kindle and settled down for a rainy day’s read.

oneunderThe first book, One Under, has a chilling plot. The opening scene is of a middle-aged man inexplicably throwing himself under a tube train at Shepherd’s Bush station, an obvious suicide. Soon after, a report comes in of a hit-and-run incident that has killed a teenage girl in a country lane far away from where she lives on the White City estate.

Normally, Bill Slider and his homicide team wouldn’t concern themselves with either of these sad but obvious deaths; but during a slack period, they are assigned to double-check that the hit-and-run was just that, and Bill Slider’s discovery that it might not be leads to all the rest.

First, he finds a case of another teenager who was found in the river but who didn’t drown; and then, as his team pursues small bits of information about these two girls, strange linkages begin to appear between them and some extremely unlikely people. Slider ultimately discovers a scene of widespread corruption amongst the upper level of British government, including the police department, and finds himself both out of his depth and persona non grata as he doggedly pursues the evidence.

Contrary to her usual practice of one mystery to one volume, Old Bones begins a new mystery while still dealing with the dangling strings of the old one. A young couple moves into a new house and, doing some renovations, discovers a skeleton buried at the bottom of the garden. The medical examiner determines that it must have been there for at least two decades; Slider’s boss, Detective Superintendent Porson, leaps upon this opportunity to keep Slider and his team simultaneously occupied and out of trouble. After all, it’s a very cold case; the likelihood of them even solving it is negligible, and the passions surrounding a missing person from that long ago are probably spent. But he reckons without the single-minded persistence of his best but most exasperating DCI.

oldbonesI don’t know exactly why I find police procedurals such as these so appealing. Perhaps it is because, of all kinds of mystery or crime fiction, the police procedural is the most realistic. After all, when a murder occurs in real life, it is most likely that the police, rather than your local personal trainer or some other amateur sleuth, will be the ones to respond to the call and attempt to solve the crime.

I also enjoy the variations present when you have a team of criminal investigators, rather than one lone guy, cooperating to find the killer. A good procedural may include uniformed cops, police detectives, medical examiners, forensics experts, psychologists, sketch artists, and so on. It’s an ensemble piece, and although certain protagonists will necessarily take the lead as the more developed and therefore more interesting people, the methodology of detection is based on real police work.  I enjoy the gradual ferreting out of each tiny detail that, added to a big pile of other tiny details, mounts up into irrefutable evidence.

Part of it, of course, is admiration for the character and ethics shown by the lead detective, Bill Slider. Harrod-Eagles has created a complex man with a complicated back story, and these personal details give humanity and depth not just to him but to all her characters to a lesser degree. I love the “team” the way Harrod-Eagles has written and continues to write them. And speaking of the writing, it’s clever, literate, and deliberate. Last but not least, DS Porson’s nonsensical malapropisms make me laugh out loud at least a few times per book, and I have a feeling that if I had a more comprehensive understanding of British humor, that would increase significantly.

OrchDeathThe first book in this series is Orchestrated Death, in which the set-up for the series gives the reader a satisfying amount of detail into the back story of this obscure policeman; I have read all 21 subsequent volumes, and can only think of one that wasn’t quite up to the standard of the rest. It’s a consistent and immersive collection.

 

Book Power

BOOKS FEED AND CURE AND
CHORTLE AND COLLIDE

In all this willful world
of thud and thump and thunder
man’s relevance to books
continues to declare.

Books are meat and medicine
and flame and flight and flower,
steel, stitch, and cloud and clout,
and drumbeats in the air.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Pastiche

The definition of “pastiche” is “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.” I am not accusing B. A. Shapiro of ripping off another author; rather, I am praising her skill in presenting the fictional story of an art forgery within the confines of an actual historical event.

Being a Sunday painter who has had occasion to try copying the art of another artist in the course of a school assignment, I have always been in awe of the art of the forger. While not an admirable profession—since you’re deliberately trying to fool people into paying millions for a Van Gogh that you created in your kitchen—it is nonetheless an accomplished profession, given the extreme difficult of getting each color and brushstroke so close to identical that the imitation is undetectable by experts from the great art collections of the world.

artforgerGiven this interest, I eagerly chose The Art Forger, a novel by B. A. Shapiro, as a representative work of mainstream fiction, so I could join my readers’ advisory students in their reading assignment this week.  My favorite quote from amongst the reviews is from Amazon’s editors’ picks:

“The most absorbing story every written about watching paint dry.”

It truly was absorbing, and yes, there was quite a bit about drying paint in its pages! The thing that is so difficult about the forger’s craft is that in addition to making a painting look right in terms of style and color, it also has to test as a work of its era, which means using a canvas of the proper age, and getting the paint to dry in such a way as to duplicate the craquelure, which is “a network of fine cracks on old paintings caused by the deterioration of pigment or varnish” (Free Online Dictionary). Author Shapiro manages, by alternating the details of this craft with a taut mystery/thriller, to make it fascinating.

A summary of the story:

Accomplished painter Claire Roth was previously involved in an art-related scandal that has made her name mud and sidelined her career. To support herself while she continues to paint in obscurity, she has signed on with Reproductions.com, a company that produces high quality reproductions of masterpieces for sale. After extensive training in all the anomalies of “reproduction,” she is their specialist on the works of Edgar Degas.

The story is set in Boston for an important reason: In 1990, there was a legendary art heist in which 13 master works were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, never to be seen again. Soon after the story opens, Boston’s most prominent gallery owner brings a Degas that went missing in the heist (not disclosing the details of how or from whom he has acquired it) to Roth, and asks her to make a copy of it for him. The trade-off is that she will receive a one-woman show of her own paintings at his gallery. Claire is engaged and challenged, and can’t resist the temptation, but as she begins this arduous task, she makes some interesting discoveries about the painting’s provenance and origins that lead her to investigate the personal life of art collector Isabella Gardner and her possible relationship with the artist, Edgar Degas, as well as pointing her towards some contemporary scandals.

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I appreciated the multiple levels of this novel: mystery, art, and moral dilemma. It’s always fun to put yourselves in the shoes of the protagonist and say to yourself, What would I do if presented with this Faustian bargain? Claire is at once ambivalent and determined, and the stages she goes through are enlightening to observe, as she struggles with whether it is acceptable to do something wrong for all the right reasons. The art world itself is equally exposed as Claire questions whether her art is popular because it is good, or because she is notorious and people are buying it as a result of the “famous factor” and not because they love it. Ultimately, the book is about ambition and obsession, in work and in love. The historical element gives it an extra fillip of verisimilitude, and the revelation at the end is unexpected. A truly engrossing and engaging read.

 

Fantasy’s best

I hereby nominate Laini Taylor as best fantasy writer of the year. I was going to say for best young adult fantasy, but there is no need to make that distinction: Muse of Nightmares, the sequel to last year’s Strange the Dreamer, is the quintessential fantasy that everyone else wishes he or she had written, and everyone who loves high fantasy will want to read.

When Strange the Dreamer came out in 2017 and I read it, I declared it my best book of 2017, saying this was the book I had been waiting for Taylor to write. If you would like to read the entire review, go here to the young adult blog of Burbank Public Library, for which I lately wrote and edited. The essence of that book was Lazlo Strange, the foundling librarian’s assistant with his head full of stories, and he continues near the center of this book, but his tale is expanded to embrace all those—humans, gods, and monsters—he has encountered along his way, across the great desert Elmuthaleth to the city now known as Weep, cowering in the shadow of a giant metal seraph with nightmares at its heart.

MuseNightmaresMuse of Nightmares picks up almost exactly where Strange the Dreamer left off, although it begins by introducing two new characters (one of whom we will discover that we already knew), and it proceeds to both fulfill and exponentially advance my opinion of Laini Taylor’s skills—as a lyrical and expressive writer, as a masterful storyteller, as an imaginative genius. Lush language carries you into the hearts of her characters, where you discover complexities of emotion and conflicts of conscience not often found in any story, particularly in a genre that follows specific tropes and often fails to deviate much from them. This is truly sophisticated fiction, dealing with large issues, and yet it also manages to be a blue whale of a good story, with so much content, so many conflicts and twists, and such gripping love for and between its characters that you simply can’t conceive of it ending!

It does, as all stories must, but the author is charitable to both her characters and her readers by putting out there the possibility that somewhere, between worlds, we may encounter Lazlo and Sarai, Minya, Feral and Ruby (the “gods”) and Thyon, Calixte, Tzara, Suheyla, and Ruza (the “humans”) yet again.

Do yourself a favor: Read these books.

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“Alex” on fiction

MAEdwards1Margaret A. Edwards (nicknamed Alex by her friends) is considered the very first teen librarian, and her purview was the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore for about 30 years, beginning in 1932. In her time, she trained innumerable young adult librarians by making them read 200 novels and report back on them to her, 10 books at a time, in preparation for talking to teens about them. She book-talked in the public schools (unheard of in the 1930s), and rented a horse and wagon to bring books to neighborhoods that didn’t make regular use of “her” library. Edwards’ love of reading, and conviction that only through literature would young adults move beyond themselves into a larger world, became the hallmark of her professional life. Here is one of my favorite quotes from her, about the value of fiction, which in her time was disputed as not nearly so important as “informational” reading:

“Certainly we get essential information from factual books, but it is experience we need most.
If we would live richly, we can expand our lives more by sailing down the Nile with Cleopatra, looking at the cherry trees with Housman, or sweating it out to triumph at long last with Moss Hart than we can by gathering all available information on Egypt, raising cherries, or writing for the theater.”

Noir

Before teaching this class, I never had to differentiate between the sub-genres of mystery to such a fine point. Yes, I knew the difference between a “cozy” and a police procedural, but the distinctions between hard-boiled and noir escaped me, and I didn’t really worry about them, since people who like one bleed over into people who like the other. But now, after reading up on it and then re-examining an example of noir, I get the difference.

Although both are dark, stark, and unsentimental, the hard-boiled mystery stars a detective, bent on solving a crime, defending the innocent and righting wrongs, while noir fiction has a different kind of protagonist—a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Although both sub-genres may feature a particular villain, often in the person of an evil femme fatale, in the hard-boiled book the detective is fighting against the corruption perpetrated by the villain or the system, while in the noir, the protagonist is just trying to survive. What they have in common is inevitability.

fungamesIn Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski, former contractor to the Philly P.D. Charlie Hardie’s latest job is house-sitting an isolated mansion in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills. But when he arrives to start the gig (his description of the specifications of the job include making sure the house doesn’t burn down, while drinking bourbon and watching old movies on DVD), he is surprised to discover an unwanted guest hiding out in the house—a B-movie actress who says she’s being hunted by professional hitmen.

Charlie thinks she’s just high and paranoid. But he’s wrong.

The killers are real. They’ve tracked her to the house. And they’re not letting anyone out alive—including Charlie.

I decided on a re-read, since Mr. Swierczynski is going to be a guest speaker in my class at UCLA next week. This is classic noir: The protagonist, Charlie Hardie, is a self-destructive, hapless victim, caught in a situation he doesn’t understand and didn’t seek out. He just wants to be left alone, to drink and try to forget about the disaster he made of his former life. He’s relateable, but not particularly likeable. His co-victim, B-movie actress Lane Madden, is likewise set up for failure, driven by guilt but with a visceral need to survive. The “bad guy” is a femme fatale, and boy, is she conscienceless and mean! The only way in which it isn’t so noir is that Charlie is turned, willy nilly, into a hero, simply because there is no one else. I’m curious to find out whether “noir” is how Duane characterizes his own book. I also now want to read the two sequels, Hell & Gone, and Point & Shoot!