Monthly Archives: September 2011

Special Review: Instructions, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Instructions
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Charles Vess
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 40 pages
Genre: children’s – fairy tale
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 5 stars

I finally treated myself to this book, and I’m so glad I did. “Instructions” is one of my all-time favourite poems, and it’s among my favourite things that Neil Gaiman has ever written. Charles Vess always does such fine work, such detailed and quirky illustrations, and so I knew the marriage of the two would be brilliant.

The poem itself is beyond charming. In it, Gaiman gives advice on how to survive if you find yourself plunked down inside a fairy tale. The advice is part tradition, part instinct, all heart. The poem isn’t very long (which makes it perfect for adapting to a fairy tale), but I’ll resist the temptation to post the whole thing here — it’s freely available on the Internet, for anyone who wants it. My favourite bit is this:

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.

Vess brings delightful whimsy and colourful atmosphere to Gaiman’s words. His protagonist, a gender-inspecific feline creature, marches confidently through the tale. Vess’s images are touching, haunting, and brilliant, almost breath-catching in places. The accompanying images to riding the eagle, the fish, and the wolf are some of my favourites. The real fun of the book, though, is the marginalia, all the details of Faerie that Vess includes. The detritus of a hundred tales graces the pages, references to the stories that must have inspired Gaiman to write the poem in the first place, but which aren’t directly part of the narrative.

I recommend this book to just about anyone. It’s a children’s book, but it doesn’t have to be. The advice is timeless, and will likely push nostalgia buttons for adult readers. The art is quality no matter what age you are. And the idea of believing in yourself and in your story is something you’re never too old to need reminding of.

I generally don’t like book trailers, but this one’s different — it shows off Vess’s art while it was still in-progress, and Gaiman himself is doing the voiceover. So I can recommend that you enjoy this one:

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The Darling Strumpet, by Gillian Bagwell

Title: The Darling Strumpet
Author: Gillian Bagwell
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 376 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 enthusiastic stars

Now this was the novel about Nell Gwyn I was waiting for!

The Darling Strumpet is definitely a grittier version of her story than Exit the Actress was. Here she is, unapologetically, a whore. And, while Bagwell doesn’t flinch away from some of the nastier elements of the profession (including disease, alcoholism, beatings, and rape), she comes to quite enjoy aspects of her life between the sheets — particularly once she’s servicing delightfully decadent noblemen rather than common folk. The line between prostitute and mistress is drawn in silk, but it also comes with a lot more security, both physical and financial. Bagwell presents Nell’s sex life vividly and without judgment, and it’s enough to make more vanilla readers squirm, I’d imagine. Fortunately, I am no vanilla reader. I loved that Bagwell was willing to go to some saucier places, to indulge so fully in the libidinous excesses of the time period. The morals (or, perhaps, lack thereof) embraced and celebrated in the wake of the Protectorate were not nearly so straight-laced as we tend to think of English history (nor, come to it, as our own). Bagwell presents the world of Restoration London in all its dubious glory: gilt-edged and soot-stained at the same time.

Bagwell also follows through on the story, taking Nell from childhood all the way through her death, and she does so in a way that feels quite true to life. Nell changes over time — not dramatically, not suddenly, but with the sort of ebb and flow that comes with age and experience. She starts out a reckless child, throwing her virginity away for a pittance, and then she learns some street-smarts, aided by her sister. When she takes to the theatre, first as an orange-girl and then as an actress, that’s another major change for her life. She very nearly settles down, first with an early patron, then with the actor Charles Hart, but practicality and passion win out — she can make more money and have more fun keeping her options open. She learns valuable lessons from her interactions with Johnny Rochester and Charles Sackville, though they’re lessons of different kinds — Johnny teachers her many bedroom tricks and introduces her to new pleasures, and they remain friends, but Sackville’s careless treatment teachers her to be wary and keep her wits about her. When she finally lands the greatest prize of all, King Charles II himself, she has to learn how to keep him by carving out a niche for herself in his heart. Charles has many lovers, of course, and the ones who stay are the ones who can stake out unique territory. Nell manages it by mastering her jealousy (though we do see French Louise get under her skin no little bit) and through her total disinterest in politics. Then, as she grows older and becomes a mother, her objectives change. She no longer flings herself so heedlessly into excitement and intrigue; she finds that she quite prefers the company of an intimate few and the quiet charm of her own home. It’s a natural progression, and it’s nice to see it handled so well; Nell’s still the same person, but we get to see her change over time.

My major criticism of this book is that Bagwell doesn’t quite seem know what to do with action sequences. Her sections on the plague and the Great Fire lack some punch, which is a shame, because those are two major events in this time period, and they have a lot of dramatic potential. Bagwell sort of rushes through them. There are also places where the story feels a bit disjointed. She’s much better with character than with plot, and the personal bits — the interactions between characters, the internal contemplations — are where this story shines. She also includes a great many of the popular anecdotes and witty quips attributed to Nell, but they don’t always fit in neatly with the narrative. Sometimes it feels like she was shoehorning them in, either because she liked them too much to leave them out or because she thought they were expected.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed The Darling Strumpet. It’s refreshingly honest about both history and human sexuality, and it covers its topic quite nicely. I’m looking forward to Bagwell’s upcoming book, The September Queen, which focuses on another woman in Charles II’s life, though this is one I know very little about — Jane Lane, who helped a very young Charles escape England during the Civil War. I’m interested to see how Bagwell approaches less well-known subject matter.

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Dance of Death, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Dance of Death
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 592 pages
Genre: suspense thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoilers: for Brimstone‘s ending

Dance of Death picks up not too long after Brimstone leaves off, with Aloysius Pendergast presumed dead and Vincent D’Agosta left to assume a troubling legacy: the charge of stopping Aloysius’s brother, Diogenes, from committing the perfect crime. He has the assistance of Pendergast’s ward, a major player in this book for the first time, though her history stretches back to Cabinet of Curiosities. Constance Ward is an improbable creature, her life unnaturally prolonged since the late 19th-century by the mad scientist schemes of Pendergast ancestor Enoch Leng. A century of secluded life has left Constance old-fashioned and socially inept, but has given her time to hone a brilliant mind, making her an ideal research assistant. Such is the state of events when the book begins.

And then people start dropping dead. A professor at Tulane. An artist in New York. An FBI agent . At first, there’s little to connect them, but eventually — and then Aloysius turns back up, not at all dead. As was implied in the epilogue to Brimstone, Diogenes freed Aloysius from Count Fosco’s entombment and nursed him back to health; his triumph wouldn’t be complete without his hated older brother there to witness it. Aloysius soon figures out that not only is Diogenes killing people from his past, but he’s murdering them in ways that emulate the gruesome deaths of Pendergast ancestors — and aiming to frame Aloysius for the murders.

This mayhem is set against the backdrop of events back at the Museum of Natural History, yet again. Nora and Margo are back. Nora’s working on a Sacred Images exhibit; Margo is editing the magazine’s journal. They clash a bit over an interesting repatriation issue regarding some Native American artifacts, but decide that their professional disagreements on such matters shouldn’t be a bar to friendship. Unfortunately, Margo’s desire to make sure that the Sacred Images exhibit is at least presented respectfully leads her into the exhibit alone at night, where Diogenes attacks her. P&C pull off a masterful move here, and I won’t spoil it for anyone, but it’s a good one. Margo’s death enhances the feeling that no one is safe, and it alarms Pendergast, who realises that Diogenes is speeding up his timetable.

The book’s endgame is magnificent, involving chases, a jewel heist, a kidnapping, and Aloysius’s total entanglement in the web that Diogenes spun. It definitely sets up The Book of the Dead, and so it’s not quite a stand-alone novel in that regard, because I don’t know how you could read this one and not want to know what happens next. Dance of Death is one of the more compelling Pendergast novels, and it’s also the first to feature almost no sci-fi or supernatural element. The tension here comes entirely from the characters, from their personal histories and harrowing situations. Pendergast’s vulnerabilities begin to show, which is strangely nice to see, and Vincent D’Agosta ends up having to balance his personal life and professional responsibilities against his loyalty to and respect for Aloysius. The plot is tightly and intricately woven, and manages to keep up a clipping pace of action while still introducing us to new facets of familiar characters — making it a success, in my judgment.

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Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, by Chris Roberson

Title: Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love
Author: Chris Roberson
Illustrator: Chrissie Zullo
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 144 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoilers: Up through at least Fables 11

This is a spinoff from the Fables graphic novel series, focusing on the character of Cinderella — to most eyes, a flighty socialite whose shoe-selling business funds her obsession with designer brands and jet-setting travel. In truth, Cinderella is a spy for Fabletown, a covert operative constantly in and out of danger. If you’ve read the rest of the Fables series, you know this already, because you’ve seen her at work already. She’s ideal for the job because, as the heroine one of the world’s most popular and enduring stories, her legend is strong enough to make her nigh-invulnerable. She can take a point-blank shot to the head and be back on her feet in a matter of hours.

This collection makes reference to some recent happenings in Fabletown, which is why I put up the spoiler alert, but it doesn’t rely heavily on the main series. The plot is self-contained. The sheriff of Fabletown needs Cinderella to stop a black market trade in magical goods, which are in danger of finding their way into mundy hands. Her search leads her to Dubai, where she is first attacked by Arabian Fable Aladdin, then teams up with him when they realise they’re on the same mission, just dispatched from different groups. Aladdin is a pretty smooth charmer — which doesn’t impress Cinderella. As the infamous Prince Charming’s third (and thus-far final) wife, she’s jaded and now impervious to that particular power. As they work together, though, and he proves his prowess as a secret agent, he does start to grow on her a bit. I quite like him as a character — although I thought he was cuter before he lost the goatee. We also get to meet Cinderella’s three associates, agents who work for her without even the knowledge of her boss, the Fabletown Sheriff: Puss in Boots, Jenny Wren (of nursery rhyme fame, and lover of the slain Cock Robin), and Dickory Mouse (of Hickory Dickory Dock). Each has special talents, and she can summon each one once during her mission, wherever she is, thanks to a charm bracelet provided to her by the famed witch Frau Totenkinder — in exchange for an as-yet unnamed favour. Frau Totenkinder, after all, has her own agenda and keeps her own counsel.

I liked this collection, but there’s nothing super-special about it. The art was a bit plain, and I found myself wanting it to be a bit more sophisticated, to give that sultry, scandalous spy-thriller feel. I did like that we got a bit of jet-setting and plane-hopping (quite literally, in fact). It gave the story the chance to show off some different locales, and I enjoyed the surprise in the endgame. This is a nice supplement to the main storyline and a fun quick read, but overall, I prefer the more detailed, connected arcs.

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Brimstone, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Brimstone (Pendergast #5)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 752 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

There is a lot going on in this book. Brimstone throws out more side plots and red herrings than the other P&C novels tend to, which makes for an exciting read, but which also gives the book a bit of an uneven pace.

Brimstone opens with our old friend Vincent D’Agosta, who we learn is now with the Southhampton PD, after leaving the NYPD to try to make it as a mystery writer. When that doesn’t pan out, he can’t make it back into the NYPD thanks to a hiring freeze, so he has to take a less vigorous duty in a beach town. A bizarre murder brings him back into contact with everyone’s favourite FBI agent, Aloysius Pendergast. The victim has been burned alive, but with no trace of accelerant — or, indeed, of any fire whatsoever. The only hints are the smell of brimstone in the air and a hoof-shaped mark scorched into the floor.

Two more murders happen in New York, with similar — though not precisely identical — trappings. The psuedo-religious nature of the crimes gets attention (thanks to hack reporter Bryce Harriman, nemesis of Bill Smithback, who doesn’t appear in this novel thanks to being on his honeymoon), and eventually, a crowd of hippies, anarchists, Satanists, pagans, and fundamentalists start gathering in Central Park, near the scene of one of the crimes. Their unofficial leader is a lost soul with a Messiah complex, and when his following gets a little too large and rowdy, it’s up to another old friend, Captain Laura Hayward, to try and sort things out. Unfortunately, not everyone’s willing to give her way of doing things a chance, and the situation rapidly spirals out of control. And then, on top of all of that, we get the first hints about Pendergast’s alarmingly adroit brother, Diogenes — a psychopath who faked his death, but is resurfacing in order to commit the ultimate crime, and taunting Aloysius along the way.

Pendergast and Aloysius find themselves at a loss as to connecting the dots between the crimes. When they finally do piece some bits together, the lead takes them across the ocean, to Florence, Italy, where thirty years ago, a group of young men attempted to summon the devil and make a pact with him in exchange for fortune and glory. Pendergast and D’Agosta take several twists and turns in Italy, and the story there is quite gripping (even if the villain’s ultimate motive seems a little odd and improbable). Unfortunately, as soon as Pendergast and D’Agosta depart for Italy, the plot back in New York sort of gets the short end of the stick. Which is a shame, because there was good material there, but it’s definitely a side plot at that point, no longer tied to the main stream of events. Everytime they return to New York City, it feels like getting jerked out of one book and dropped down into another.  It sort of feels like P&C started this thread and then weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Preston handles the concept of religious fervor boiling over into violence a lot better in his solo book Blasphemy.

Overall, I really enjoy this book, and it’s definitely a good setup for Dance of Death and The Book of the Dead. I knock a little off the score for the jumble of plotlines and the flagging nature of the Central Park events. It does meander a bit, but there’s a whole lot of juicy material, and I like that they took more chances with the red herrings than in previous books. The endgame is heart-thumpingly good. You see the full force of the villain’s diabolical machinations, Pendergast suffers a miscalculation that keeps him out of “too-perfect” territory (which, admittedly, he can veer near sometimes), and you see some wonderful if slightly shocking growth in D’Agosta’s character. And then, the cliffhanger finale segues directly into the next book, Dance of Death.

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Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Maskerade
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 384 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is probably my least favourite of the Witches of Lancre books. I’m not sure why, but I just don’t find it as compelling as the others. There’s no reason I shouldn’t. It’s based fairly heavily on The Phantom of the Opera, which was one of my favourite musicals when I was younger, so familiarity and nostalgia should both be working more in my favour. And yet — something doesn’t take.

The story begins with Agnes Nitt, sometimes known as Perdita, leaves Lancre to escape the fate of becoming a witch — a destiny that she can feel creeping up on her from behind, particularly with Esme Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg on the lookout for a new junior member of their group to fill in for Magrat, who recently became queen. She strikes out for Ankh-Morpork and auditions at the Opera House. Agnes is a large girl with a lovely personality (unfortunate circumstances which she bemoans) and an incredible voice. Not only is her range unfathomable, but she’s practised in ventriloquism, so she can throw her voice almost anywhere. This talent gets her into the chorus — though she finds herself asked to act as the voice for pretty, popular, utterly empty-headed Christine, who has an unremarkable voice but possesses “star quality”. Agnes agrees, though the Perdita in the back of her head makes plenty of unkind comments (about both Christine and Agnes). Just as Agnes is adjusting to life in the admittedly bonkers Opera House, things there start changing — there’s new management, for one, a man with the strange idea that producing opera should actually make money, but more troubling than that, the Opera Ghost, up till now a harmless character, has apparently begun to commit random homicides.

Esme and Gytha find themselves in Ankh-Morpork as well, initially with the idea of forcing the publisher of Gytha’s cookbook to cough up more money (since her “special” recipes have made it an instant bestseller), but they look in on Agnes and wind up entangled in the mystery of the Opera House. We also start to see in Maskerade some twinges in Esme’s character that will play out more fully in Carpe Jugulum — hints that she’s starting to test the limits of her powers, and perhaps the boundaries guarding her own morality, as well as some indications of dangerous dissatisfaction. These hints draw the thread between Esme and the infamous Black Aliss again:

But Aliss, up until that terrible day, had terrorized the Ramtops. She’d become so good at magic that there wasn’t room in her head for anything else.

They said weapons couldn’t pierce her. Swords bounced off her skin. They said you could hear her mad laughter a mile off, and of course, while mad laughter was always part of a witch’s stock-in-trade in necessary circumstances, this was insane mad laughter, the worst kind. And she turned people into gingerbread and had a house made of frogs. It had been very nasty, toward the end. It always was, when a witch went bad.

Sometimes, of course, they didn’t go bad. They just went… somewhere.

We heard of her back in Wyrd Sisters, famed for putting an entire kingdom to sleep, the feat which gave Esme the idea about projecting Lancre into the future, and she’s popped up in reference in the other novels as well. Esme is, at least in the chain of teachers to students, a descendent of sorts from Black Aliss, and the correlation will become more important in Carpe Jugulum.

Lots of good ingredients, and yet somehow this book just doesn’t sparkle quite the way the others do. It doesn’t have the same balance of absurdity with profound truth that I like from Pratchett. I also feel like Maskerade, somehow, doesn’t have quite enough struggle in it. The stakes aren’t ever quite high enough. The Opera House is a world unto itself, and while there’s a lot of metaphoring that you can do with that, it means that nothing ever seems too terribly dire. It also drags a bit towards the end — the endgame is a little haphazard and takes a while to play out.

That said, there’s a lot of good humour in here, still. Nanny Ogg grappling with the idea of being fabulously wealthy — and then having Esme take the decision entirely out of her hands — is good for quite a few laughs, as is her attempt at a little revenge on her friend. And if you know much about opera or its descendant, musical theatre, there are an abundance of great inside jokes. I confess, I don’t catch as many of them here as I do with the Shakespeare-themed books, but, well, that’s what the L-Space is for. I do also thank this book for giving me the concept of the catastrophic curve — that point of right before everything goes to hell, a point that has no small amount of power in it:

Salzella sat back. He seemed to relax a little. “On edge? Mr Bucket,” he said, “this is opera. Everyone is always on edge. Have you ever heard of a catastrophic curve, Mr Bucket?”

Seldom Bucket did his best. “Well, I know there’s a dreadful bend in the road up by—”

“A catastrophic curve, Mr Bucket, is what opera runs along. Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong, Mr Bucket. It works because of hatred and love and nerves. All the time.”

Though Salzella implies this is more true of opera than normal theatre, in my experience it’s remarkably true of most forms of art, especially the collaborative kinds. So, as with “narrative causality”, Pratchett’s added a valuable new phrase to my vocabulary.

This book leans more to the fluff side than the other Witches novels. Pratchett’s talent for accessible writing is fully apparent, however, as is his ability to draw incredibly distinct characters even with just short descriptions. From excitedly monotone Walter Plinge to overly exclamatory Christine to the not-so-inconspicuous “undercover” agents of the Night’s Watch, the cast of characters rounding out Maskerade are full of delights. Just because I find it the weakest of the Witches series doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of good material here. This is still well worth the read, a great way to spend a few hours, and a nice link between the other books.

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Still Life with Crows, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Still Life with Crows (Pendergast #4)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 592 pages
Genre: mystery-thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

If anyone ever asked me to play “one of these things is not like the other” with the Pendergast series, this would be the book I would choose. (Well, perhaps this and also Wheel of Darkness, which we’ll get to later). It has a very different feel to it than the other books do, thanks in large part to its very different setting, and also, ultimately, to its very different criminal.

Still Life with Crows finds Agent Pendergast in Medicine Creek, Kansas — of all places. Medicine Creek is a dying town, suffering from lack of jobs, lack of tourism, lack of, well, anything. Its one hope hinges on some experiment cornfields that Kansas State University might plant in the town’s territory — unless they choose neighboring town Deeper. The situation infuses the characters native to Medicine Creek with a certain desperation in a very different way than the characters in the New York books typically have.

With the review for the KSU cornfields underway, it’s pretty much the worst time ever for a serial killer to crop up. Admittedly, there’s never a good time for that, but you take my meaning. It’s attracting attention of the wrong sort, particularly because the nature of the gruesome killings suggests a correlation to the vengeful ghosts of local Native Americans. One victim is found naked in a cornfield, surrounded by the arrow-impaled bodies of crows. Another is boiled alive, buttered and sugared. Another is cut open and has creepy-crawlies sewn up inside of him. The killings are clearly deranged, but Pendergast struggles with getting a profile on the killer, because he seems to be neither the “organised” nor the “disorganised” variety of serial killer. There’s no recognisable pattern to his murders, yet the ritual nature of several of them suggests some kind of underlying order, at least in the killer’s mind. Thus is Pendergast’s challenge: to figure out the inscrutable mystery behind these strange murders. His job isn’t made easier by the local PD, who, resentful of his intrusion into the town’s matters, decides that the killer must be from Deeper, trying to scare the KSU rep into not choosing Medicine Creek. He barrels on with this idea despite a lack of evidence, threatening Pendergast if he keeps getting involved, and generally causes a lot of trouble.

I honestly find a lot of this book forgettable. On re-reading it, I had trouble remembering the sequence of events and the endgame. I had a vague awareness of how everything was interrelated, but the finer details escaped me. Overall, this book has less to do with the overall Pendergast series than any of the others, and there’s never really any good explanation for why Pendergast even ended up there in the first place. I do thank this book, though, for giving us Corrie Swanson. Corrie is a disaffected teenager with Goth affectations, desperate to get out of Medicine Creek and away from her alcoholic mother forever. She ends up Pendergast’s assistant, and he demonstrates a faith in her intelligence and abilities that no one’s ever really shown her before — and with that, and her salary for helping him with the investigation, he also gives her hope for a way out.

Overall, this isn’t one of the better Pendergast novels, in my opinion. It’s the odd duck out, the plot meanders a bit too much, and it’s not quite as gripping a premise as some of the others. It’s worth a read if you’re in it for the whole series, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it in isolation.

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