For the life of me, I cannot remember why.
I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle — all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.
As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)
Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.
Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-
Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him. While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.
Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.
On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.
Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!
Well, I feel like I have a lot of things to say about Half-Resurrection Blues, but chances are good I’ll forget to say some of them, or possibly I will not say them as fully as they are in my head. Sometimes you get a book where there’s just a lot going on. (Sometimes this is because it’s 1500 pages, but sometimes it’s not.)
Starting with the basics: Half-Resurrection Blues is the first novel in the Bone Street Rumba “spectral noir” or “ghost noir” urban fantasy series by Daniel José Older, who I’ve seen on a bunch of panels at Readercon and Arisia, where he was always a kickass panelist. He has opinions on italicizing Spanish that I always think about whenever we have clients who are like “We’re trying to target a Hispanic market, also, italicize any term in Spanish.” He also answers all my bullshit tweets which is (a) good author marketing branding practice stuff and (b) a sign that his fanbase isn’t big enough, so go buy his book. He was also nice enough to sign my copy at Arisia so nyah nyah.
We’ll get to the ugly little fucker on the exercise bike in a bit.
So “ghost noir” turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin: It’s noir, all lyric description of gritty city streets (in this case, Brooklyn) and characters smoking a lot and doing shots because they’re in such a manly bad mood and thinking about sex and having tragic buried backstories and stuff. It’s also got ghosts. Our gruff damaged protagonist is a “half-resurrected” (meaning he died but has mysteriously come mostway back to life, no one knows how) special agent for the Council of the Dead. His name is Carlos Delacruz and he figures he’s Puerto Rican and he doesn’t know anything of his former life. Mostly he skulks around keeping shit-stirring ghosts in line and drinking rum with some of his ghost agent bros and making fun of hipsters in his inner monologue and reading, which sounds like a pretty good life for a noir protagonist. But then the plot shows up in the form of another half-resurrected guy—the first one Carlos has ever seen—who wants to bring a bunch of college bros into the Underworld, and Carlos has to kill him, and then everything gets complicated. Not least because Carlos immediately develops a ginormous crush on a photograph of the now-dead half-resurrected guy’s sister, except that he’s just killed her brother, so you can imagine how well that’s going to go.
The other immediate problem is the sudden infestation of a bunch of soul-tearingly irritating (literally) ugly little demon things called ngks, which apparently look like tiny grinning toads riding tiny stationary bikes. Somehow they are connected to whatever terrible plan involved the college bros, and Carlos and his ghost cop buddies have to set about trying to figure out and dismantle an increasingly labyrinthine situation set up by some ancient weirdo called Sarco that manages to involve (and by involve I mean screw over) pretty much everyone we’re introduced to in the entire book, as is right and proper noir/hardboiled plotting. I don’t want to talk more about the plot because spoilers.
Possibly my favorite thing about this book is the voice. It’s a first-person POV, as is also only right and proper, and man, does Carlos have certain aspects of sounding like Noir-y Protagonist Man down pat. He swears a lot and he bounces back and forth between the lyrical descriptive thing and the blunt, matter-of-fact hardboiled thing accompanied by cynical inner monologue about everybody. But while Carlos’ voice and characterization is unapologetically working within a certain tradition, he doesn’t sound like a Philip Marlowe ripoff. He’s more modern and more Puerto Rican, obviously, and the Brooklyn he moves in is a modern Brooklyn, full of communities of color getting slowly edged out by annoying white hipsters and rich people, which is precisely what’s happening in Brooklyn, from all reports. I’m wildly unqualified to have any opinions on the authenticity of the use of Spanish in this book because obviously the author is actually Hispanic and I am an Irish-American living in a mostly white section of Boston, but from some recent reports of People Having Opinions About Spanish In Fiction, I am going to say that it’s really not that difficult to read, guys, even if you don’t speak Spanish. I did not even have to use the Google machine once. Stylistically I think it lends a sense of place and a sense of specificity— you don’t feel like you’re in Anycity USA, in the I Guess People Live Here Quarter where people speak Ninth Grade Textbook English—but whether it’s accurate is up to people who have been to Brooklyn more than twice. The language overall is very playful and colloquial and makes you want to read it all out loud just for the fun of it.
Additionally, but no less importantly than any of the stuff to do with race, class, or identity, is that this book is funny. Dry cynical wisecracking is a time-honored part of noir, obviously, but the humor in this book runs much goofier than that sometimes, because why not. Carlos’ super surly noir man persona not infrequently gives way to a sort of flaily haplessness when either shit gets truly bizarre (see: demons on tiny bikes) or when he’s attempting to put together sentences about Sasha, our maybe-femme-fatale love-interest lady. There are also a handful of memorable puns, the aforementioned ridiculous ngk bikes (which are never really explained), and a ghost that shows up and says “Schmloooo” a lot during a very important and suspenseful following-people scene, apparently just to ruin the atmosphere. It could easily have not worked, but it does.
My biggest criticism of the book: It is pretty dudely. There are a handful of pretty cool but still pretty minor female characters, a secondary character who is a female house ghost, and Sasha. And I like Sasha, and I actually like most of the other female characters and think they all should totally get more page time in the sequel. Apparently the Council of the Dead and all its ghost cops have a serious gender imbalance in their line of work, though. Overall, though, considering the long history of surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny in the noir genre, Half-Resurrection Blues makes an excellent refuge for people who love gritty noiry mystery shit but are over the surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny.
Highly recommended for: Anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Chandler novel and been like “This would be perfect with a little less raging racism and sexism, and maybe some ghosts.” Fans of Castle who are always disappointed at the end of the Nerd Episodes when the vampires/zombies/ghosts/Victorian time travelers turn out not to be real. People who like urban fantasy but are bored of the same old Laurell K. Hamilton knockoff shit. Anyone who really appreciates good use of style and language in genre fiction.
And then occasionally, someone gives me a book and it looks so awesome and timely and Relevant To My Interests that I actually drop everything and read it next. This is what happened when a friend gave me a paperback copy of Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, a historical fiction police procedural murder mystery set in 1845 New York. Two very important things happened in New York in 1845: one, the NYPD was formed, and two, the Irish potato famine started, sending waves of destitute Irish flooding into the city, bringing all the misery and social upheaval of rural Ireland with them, and also typhus.
Our protagonist is a young guy named Timothy Wilde, who at the beginning of the story is doing well enough for himself as a bartender, saving up nearly enough money to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him and trying to not get too tangled up with his morphine-addicted firefighter brother Val, who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party machine. Tim and Val are orphans, as their parents had died in a house fire when they were kids, leaving both kids with all sorts of issues and the need to become independent very quickly. Unfortunately for Timothy, another fire incinerates his bar, his house, and all his money, which is how he ends up assigned to Ward Six—the slummiest ward, obviously—as one of the first “copper stars” of the NYPD.
Timothy spends some time breaking up fights and generally feeling miserable until he meets Bird Daly, a ten-year-old “kinchin-mab” (you’ll have to read to find out what that is) who leads him to a horrifying series of crimes involving dismembered children. Timothy, who cares about children more than a lot of people in the mid-nineteenth century, insists upon investigating, and follows a dangerous and convoluted path to the truth, uncovering a lot of sordid secrets about a lot of people along the way—including himself, his brother, and his beloved Mercy Underhill.
The aforementioned sordid secrets are all pulled off really well, both believable and shocking (and not repetitive), in part because the characterization in this book is brilliant. Timothy Wilde is very smart but he is often clueless about certain things that turn out to be rather important, and he’s often—but understandably—misled by his own misunderstandings of people. Valentine is a larger-than-life figure in every way, as you’d hope a guy with a name like “Valentine Wilde” would be, but is surprisingly complex. The secondary characters are hugely colorful, from the sickly children’s doctor Palsgrave to the brash, grown-up-too-fast newsboys. There is literally nobody in this book who is boring, not even Mercy Underhill.
To be frank, I expected Mercy to be boring, because she is the Designated Female Love Interest and they usually are. More so when they are dedicated charitable types—they always come off as squishy, bland, selfless constructs of idealized feminine nurturing whatever. Mercy is none of this. Mercy is a more fully realized character than our narrator has any idea of until about three-quarters of the way through the book. I would love to read a book that was entirely about Mercy Underhill.
One cool thing this book does is that each chapter starts off with a quotation—a standard enough practice these days, and one that I usually enjoy—but instead of being quotes from works of great literature or whatever, they’re all excerpts from letters and news reports and other “nonfiction” pieces of the time. A lot of them are really nasty anti-Catholic propaganda, which I think does a good job of underscoring the degree to which Catholics were considered Definitely Not Christians and to which the Irish were considered Definitely Not White People, which are both things that I think are hard for modern audiences to really grasp—I remember learning in school that yes, every new wave of European immigrants was met with fear and suspicion, but I always kind of assumed that it was only middling-level xenophobia, because the Irish and Italians and other “white ethnic” groups have since become so well-established. But no, the stuff people in the 1840s were saying about Catholics and about the Irish in particular reads today like complete batshit-crazy tin-hattery. Some of the other quotes are about things like the sanitary conditions of New York at the time and newspaper reports on the potato famine. Overall, they’re very well-chosen and really do manage to provide some background, and don’t seem tacked-on at all.
Since this is a big scary sprawling Gothic that took place at an extremely volatile time in New York’s history, I would issue a content/trigger warning for probably every single thing that could warrant a content warning, including graphic murder, child abuse, infanticide, child prostitution, attempted lynching, racism, use of the n-word, fire, gross medical stuff, and probably other things. It’s all handled well, I think, but this is definitely a book for morbid individuals with strong stomachs.
Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Rienne, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint/old god of Death. Like everyone at the convent, Ismae is supposedly one of Mortain’s actual children, and therefore has a number of odd death-related gifts, including the ability to see the “marques” of Death on her targets. She also has a couple of gifts that are less common among the convent’s occupants, such as immunity to poison.
Despite many misgivings by many parties on a number of subjects, Ismae is sent off to the court of the young Duchess Anne of Brittany, in the guise of the cousin-but-probably-mistress to Anne’s half-brother, Gavriel Duval. Her actual role is to spy, and to assassinate anyone who needs assassinating. But there are layers and layers of plots afoot, and Ismae develops suspicions that maybe the people she’s assigned to spy on might not be the people she really needs to be spying on. As the threats to Brittany’s independence build and the young but awesome Duchess is betrayed by various power-grubbing nobles, Ismae’s doubts grow and she has to set herself to some serious learning—about the plots surrounding her, about the nature of Mortain and her service to him, and about her pesky feelings for Duval.
Duval is pretty much not an asshole, even though they do the classic romantic comedy bit of getting off on the wrong foot and getting mad at each other a lot, so that’s pretty good for a romance. The romance subplot is at least actually tied in pretty closely with all the fun stuff, since the main plots are dependent on questions of people’s loyalties and principles, that sort of thing, so it doesn’t feel tacked on, even if it is pretty obvious right from the beginning.
There’s a lot of historical detail here, and fairly little magic—all the magic that we see is deeply religious in nature, having to do with Ismae’s service of her god and her relationship with him as his daughter. But much of it is historical-fiction sort of stuff, and pretty heavily researched, which is completely OK by me. I like all the snooping around and trying to untangle plots and remember everybody’s family history, and am also 100 percent OK with there only being a couple of major action scenes. This book also doesn’t dick around with how limited women’s roles were in the late middle ages/early Renaissance, especially when there’s nobody to put any sort of check on the most power-hungry men.
My biggest issue with the book is that there is one small plot hole that I made into a much bigger OH NO than I think most people would. At one point, Ismae makes plans to meet with her convent sister Sybella, who may have News about Betrayal and Shenanigans and all the general badness that’s going on. On her way to meet Sybella, Ismae is interrupted by having to have a scene with the Duchess and one of the villains. And then… there is no follow-up to her missing her meeting! Sybella does show back up, but there is no acknowledgement that they had a meeting and missed it, and Ismae doesn’t go to any effort to make contact with Sybella again or wonder what information Sybella was going to give her that she now doesn’t have or freaking anything, like she completely forgot she had ever been supposed to meet with Sybella at all. I kept waiting for this to come back up because I thought missing the meeting was going to be important, and it just… didn’t.
The second book in the series is from Sybella’s point of view, and I think I’d like to read it, since Sybella was one of the best characters despite having little screen time.
This is the sort of book that would make a really fun movie if it was done properly and had any sort of budget, but if it were adapted, would probably be done improperly and with many stupid budgeting decisions and would at best end up as bad trashy fun like the Queen of the Damned movie or something.
Since I am a very busy adult person these days, Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan took me two whole nights of staying up too late on a work night reading and drinking comforting drinks.
Unmade is not all pain and tears, of course. We have the specific strains of signature sass from all of our signature sassmasters, mainly Kami, Jon Glass, Rusty, Jared, and Angela. Holly gets a couple of good one-liners in there too, something that she is very proud of and which melted my cranky little heart. Jon Glass in particular sassed so sasstastically well that I was afraid he was going to get killed off. (And Lillian quoting Jon’s sass without comprehending why it’s funny… I was afraid I was going to get killed off!) At one point, Jon and Rusty sass each other and then the universe collapsed in upon itself. Jon Glass wins the Best Literary Dad award.
I also think I spotted a small shout-out to Mark Oshiro, who is reading Unmade starting quite shortly in October. (I have commissioned the first three chapters already.)
The jokes, of course, are but the lighter half of the experience that is any Sarah Rees Brennan book. A lot of the jokes that Kami tells (and sometimes that other people tell) are basically psychological defenses, refusing to take things seriously either out of insecurity or just because stuff has gotten too serious.
And stuff gets very, very serious indeed. The first two books had some pretty serious stuff in them, with murderous sorcerers taking over the town murdering people, and Kami’s parents’ marriage falling apart, and lots of emotional distress about nasty psychic tetherings, and also The Terribly Gothic Thing That Happens At The End. But this installment definitely turns it up to eleven, as a final installment should, and succeeded in me not being able to guess any plot twists ahead of time (except possibly “oh god, shit’s about to go up to eleven”). This is the bit where it gets hard to write a review because I don’t want to spoiler anybody even the tiniest bit—I just want to rock back and forth and cackle a lot. And so I will. *rocks back and forth* *cackles*
This book, like the rest of the series, continues to be deeply and fabulously informed by both the traditions of Gothic literature and the tradition of intrepid girl reporter/sleuth mysteries, often gleefully subverted. The story is still quite entertaining if you're not familiar with these tropes, but it has added layers of awesomeness if you’re a big enough genre nerd. It also explores a lot of issues of identity, sexuality, family, and fate, way the hell better than 99% of “literary” books about professors having midlife crises or whatever. It’s easy to write it off as fluff since it’s fast-paced and fun and full of ridiculous sarcasm and evil sorcerers, but there’s really quite a lot of depth and Exploring the Human Condition stuff buried in there. What does it mean to have a legacy, and what do you do if that legacy is fucking awful? Where is the line between honoring your cultural heritage and being goofy about it? (I am not the person to ask about this; this weekend I went to IFest Boston and bummed free cheese off of a Kerrygold marketer.) What price is it acceptable to pay to keep your loved ones safe? Serious questions here! Also boob jokes!
Obviously, I recommend the crap out of this book and the whole series to just about everybody.
The book club meeting was last Thursday, and I finished the book tonight, so it turns out I missed that book club meeting too. Oh well.
The reason this book took me goddamn forever to read is 100% due to crazy life hecticness that leaves me no time for reading, and not at all due to the book being not good. I know some people think it starts off slow, but I think it starts off a good kind of slow that I love in procedurals/mysteries/that sort of thing... jumping right into everything being totally batshit and continuing that way is good sometimes, but in a book where the worldbuilding is such a huge part of how the crime is put together, I like the sort of slow frustrated poking around in the beginning. It really picked up a lot at the end, and honestly, I thought the end was maybe even too rushed, so apparently I like slower-paced mysteries than the people in book club who were posting about it.
Our protagonist is a middle-aged homicide detective dude named Tyador Borlú, of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. Beszel is a vaguely Eastern European post-Soviet sort of city, located in the exact same spot as another city, called Ul Qoma. These cities operate simultaneously by splitting up the area, by street and patch of grass, and in some places "crosshatched," using a variety of colors and mannerisms and all sorts of little signifiers to keep them separate and different. Being in one city but crossing into, or even acknowledging stuff going on, in the other is called breaching, and will bring down a shadowy authority called Breach upon you, and then you may get disappeared. The plot happens when Borlú is called to investigate the murder of an unknown woman, and they finally figure out that she was actually from Ul Qoma. This leads first Borlú and his junior cop buddy, Corwi, and later Borlú and his Ul Qoman inspector partner, Dhatt, into a series of increasingly bizarre conspiracies involving political extremists of both the nationalist and unificationist varieties, a lot of confused archaeologists, and a discredited archaeological theory about a secret third city called Orciny.
As far as police procedurals go, this is SUPER POLICE PROCEDURAL-Y. There is lots of swearing and drinking coffee and complaining about paperwork, and everyone generally being gruff and hard-boiled and cranky. Female representation is fairly low, although not that bad by hard-boiled-detective-story standards--Corwi, the junior cop, is pretty badass when she's around, and never develops any tiresome romantic or sexual tension with Borlú, although she does get relegated to the background in the second half of the book when he goes over to Ul Qoma. The dead girl, obviously, is dead before the story even starts, but even so, she ends up being a pretty fascinating character. The other girl mixed up in this conspiracy also winds up dead, unfortunately. Borlú has two girlfriends, because of course he does, although they both very sensibly stay off-page for most of the book, which I am actually pretty OK with as it means the book features exactly zero sex scenes, which is something I think more non-children's-books should do. Overall it is still a pretty dude-heavy book. That is probably my biggest complaint about it, although it is a half-hearted complaint considering the number of dudely crime books where the women who are there are all terrible and oversexualized. So this is a non-gross dudely crime book, stuffed full of all the fun bits of crime-bookiness, like sharp punchy sentence fragments and always leaving it to the next chapter to tell you what it is that the narrator just figured out that is super important.
If you like police procedurals and noir and all that gritty shit, The City & the City is a fantastic addition to that genre, lovingly squishing in everything that makes a good police mystery a good police mystery into the weird knots and cracks of really fascinating "new weird" worldbuilding. If cranky foulmouthed homicide detectives aren't really your thing, though, I would probably not recommend it unless you're SUPER into urban worldbuilding to make up for it.
For my writing group's book club, we followed up the summer's Coldest Girl in Coldtown with another fabulous YA Brat Pack read, Sarah Rees Brennan's Unspoken, the first book in her Lynburn Legacy trilogy. I read this book for the first time back when I had fabulous red hair, and my copy is signed, and bearing a note that Ms Rees Brennan liked my fabulous red hair. Man, I miss that hair.
Words cannot express how much I miss being this fabulous.
It really was, wasn't it, Sarah?
Anyway, my review for the first time I read this book is here, and my review for the fabulous second book, Untold, is here.
Upon reading the book for the second time, I still love all the stuff I loved about it the first time basically, particularly the way the series plays with goofy old British Gothic tropes. I'm a little more aware of some of the author's tics--words she uses a lot or jokes that she makes in multiple works, that sort of thing--but I don't really mind them that much. Since some of the big plot reveals no longer surprise me, they don't have quite the punch that they did the first time (like, yes, I already know there are evil sorcerers), although they were still enjoyable to read.
This is a sad excuse for a review but we just spend three hours talking about this book in book club (seriously, it was such a long book club, there was so much to say!) and I don't really want to go over it all again so I'm just leaving this at THIRD BOOK COMES OUT SOON AND THEN SARAH REES BRENNAN IS COMING TO BOSTON YAY.
Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.
Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.
Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.
There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.
The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.
One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.
On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.
Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.
Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)
Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.
Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.
In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.
The Finishing School series is a YA series that takes place in the same universe as the Parasol Protectorate series, perhaps some thirty years earlier. The first book, Etiquette and Espionage, follows fourteen-year-old tomboy and klutz Sophronia Angelina Temminick as she is packed off to Madame Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, or Quali-Tay, depending on how annoyed the speaker is. Sophronia soon discovers that she is a “covert recruit”, which basically means that she didn’t know about the true nature of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s until she got there. The true nature, of course, is that the young ladies of quali-tay are actually being trained in espionage and subterfuge, of which “learn all the expected social graces of proper useless ladies” is an important part of their cover.
At finishing school, Sophronia makes friends, such as the bubbly Dimity—descended from a line of evil geniuses, but who actually wants to just be a regular proper lady—and a younger Sidheag Maccon, Lady Kingair (who is, if possible, even more awesome than in the other series), and Sophronia makes enemies, such as the beautiful but absolutely petty Monique de Pelouse, a senior who got demoted to debut after Sophronia had to rescue her during her “finishing” assignment. Monique has also hidden something known only as “the prototype,” and they keep getting attacked by flywaymen who want it, so Sophronia takes it upon herself and her friends to figure out what the prototype is of and where it is hidden.
If you know anything about Gail Carriger’s other novels you know there will be at least one dandy vampire, at least one hot werewolf, some dirigibles, and a lot of food. All these are indeed here in abundance. There are also a lot of robot maids and butlers. I really, really want a robot maid, by the way. I refuse to do all the cleaning for three adults myself, but it’s wildly annoying to come home every day to three people’s worth of mess. (Ideally the other two adults would clean but we’re only fifty years or so into that societal revolution, so I can’t really plan on that for the next several decades, apparently.)
The novel also continues Carriger’s gift for comedy-of-manners style absurdist humor, mimicking the affected tone of the best in awkward Victorian humor.
There is also a mechanical sausage dog called Bumbersnoot.
Underneath the seemingly random assortment of awesome nonsense, this is a good solid entry into the tradition of fun, feminist-friendly YA books that I am particularly devoted to. The secret agent finishing school setting provides an opportunity to have lots of different female characters with lots of different opinions on what they want to be doing with their lives, and in which they are encouraged to get up to all sorts of interesting doings of stuff. (This includes one girl who is not a student—a nine-year-old Genevieve Lefoux, niece of mad scientist teacher Beatrice Lefoux. Vieve is already cross-dressing and already having fabulous taste in hats.) Sophronia also breaches questions of class and race when she makes friends with a bunch of the sooties, the working-class boys who run the engine room in the enormous dirigible that constitutes the school. The head of the sooties and possible romantic interest for later in the series is Soap, a Black boy from South London who is always up for Sophronia’s ill-advised adventures and engages in friendly street fighting with Sidheag.
Overall this was the sort of book that makes me want to make friends with the author and have tea parties with her, although I’d be worried about not making the tea well enough. Alternately, I’d love to attend Madame Geraldine’s, although I’m not sure how good I’d be at the fighting stuff (I am terribly bad at fighting) and I might be too Irish to really be considered “of quali-tay.”
At any rate, it is time to check out the sequel, Curtsies and Conspiracies!
Like all the best crime novels, this story actually focuses on two cases, which are related. In a deviation from the usual formula, we actually find out how these cases are related pretty early on: the Shadow Snake, the child murderer who kidnaps small children to extort treasures from their families, has killed the grandson of Crookshank, a neighborhood crime lord who seems to be doing some sort of hidden mining operation involving fire opals, and killing off his diggers. It’s the murder of baby Rolond that kicks off investigations into both of these plotlines.
Beka Cooper is just starting out as a trainee member of the Provost’s Guard, which is basically the city watch/rudimentary police force. She is assigned to the two very best and most well-known and awesome pair of Dogs (as they call themselves) on the Evening Watch, which is the interesting one. These are Mattes Tunstall, the laid-back goofy one, and Clary Goodwin, the hardass sarcastic one. They are both great, great characters as well as great Dogs. Beka, having moved out of Lord Gershwin’s house where her family lives, is also living in her very first own apartment (which is apparently a one-bedroom, as there are other people in her lodging-house but they’re not in her “rooms”, which makes me super jealous! My first apartment was an eight-bedroom. I would love a one-person apartment. On the other hand, apparently medieval apartments do not have kitchens, which would make me sad). She makes FRIENDS!! with a bunch of other Puppies (trainee police) and also some “rushers” (persons on the other side of the law) from Scanra, who are all darlings despite two of them being professional killers. Rosto in particular is like a bizarre mashup of Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland in the terrible TMI movie and Jamie Campbell Bower as Slutty Playboy King Arthur in that terrible Camelot show. He’d definitely be bad news for Beka but as a character he’s hilarious and weird and there is lots of very bizarre UST between him and Beka and it’s just gloriously awkward.
The journal format seems to have bugged a lot of people, but I have a giant soft spot for journal format books. I also love the extra-old-fashioned language—I remember it throwing me off a bit the first time I read the book, but it’s just so fun! The swears in particular! Every time I read a Beka Cooper book I remember that I have to call more people terrible medieval names like “sarden cankerblossom” in real life instead of just being like “What an asshole” every time someone’s an asshole, but alas, I keep forgetting.
Reading this with the MR commentariat also meant I learned a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including recipes, and that twilsey is a real thing that you can make with fruit vinegar because fruit vinegars are also a real thing. (My foodieism needs serious work. I must become a proper foodie; they know how to have fun. Especially in Paris.) (By the way, does anyone know what you actually do with vanilla butter? I bought some…)
Thumbs up A+ would read again, I freaking love Tamora Pierce.
Doll Bones is told from the protagonist of a middle-school boy named Zach, who plays an awesome sort of pirate adventure fantasy game with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, using various dolls/action figures. In their game, an antique doll that Polly’s mom keeps locked in a cabinet serves as the Queen.
Stuff gets weird when Zach’s dad, an occasional proponent of the “teach kids that life is hard by deliberately making their lives hard” school of childrearing, declares that Zach is too old for this make-believe stuff and throws all of Zach’s action figures away. Zach, too embarrassed and upset to admit that this happened, tells Poppy and Alice that he doesn’t want to play the game anymore. So when Poppy starts telling him that the Queen is talking to her, Zach thinks he’s just trying to lure him back into the game. When Poppy and Alice actually show up at his house in the middle of the night telling him they have to go to somewhere in Ohio to bury the Queen doll because the bone china of the doll is actually made from the bones of a murdered girl, Zach decides to go with them, if only to shut Poppy up. But as the quest continues and weird things start to happen, Zach becomes increasingly convinced that the Queen really is a restless spirit.
Mostly, though, Zach and Poppy and Alice fight, and keep secrets from each other, and generally put all their friendships through the wringer, as they all try to work through what’s a game and what isn’t, and what’s really important to all of them. This is definitely one of those stories that’s largely about stories, which is totally fine by me. It’s also very much about friendship and the importance of being honest with your friends, which I am generally inclined to find heartwarming and adorable.
The thing here that I am MOST impressed about is the doll’s backstory. HOO-EE. That is some hardcore shit and no mistake. It’s gruesome and heartbreaking and sort of morbidly beautiful because ~art~ and it’s got some real Victorian and Romantic novel tropes woven in there very effectively, and certainly much more subtly than any Victorian novel actually used them (I guess you can’t ever really do “grief-stricken mad genius artist” that subtly, but… I’ve seen worse). The doll itself is giantly creepy and gruesome and just gets more so every time you learn something else about how it was made; and the Queen’s… characterization? Ghost powers? They kinda run together—are pretty unsettling.
The thing I felt the least impressed with might have been the very end? This may just be me getting unused to standalones or shorter books, but I remember being surprised that I had reached the end, not because it was a dreadful cliffhanger or anything, which I’m getting rather used to, but because everything had seemed to wrap up neatly, so I was waiting for one more twist or something weird to pop up and be not actually settled or something like that… I think I’ve gotten used to “Oh look we’ve finished our quest, we can go home now” as being the fake-out to a story ending instead of, like, how books actually end. Even though that’s kind of the standard way for stories to end and has been for much of the history of Western storytelling and I should know this because I have a goddamn degree in this sort of thing.
Overall I found this to be a good, cutely Gothic kind of read and I’m sure I would have gotten all obsessed with it and had a whole Phase if I’d found it when I was in late-elementary or middle school. Also I’m glad the only doll I have in my room is a nice goofy mass-produced Monster High doll (don’t judge meeee we didn’t have Monster High when I was the right age for it) or I might have been creeped out for reals and not slept for a week.
It didn’t take me so long to finish Farewell, My Lovely because it was bad! Indeed, it was very good, despite the viewpoint character being an asshole. Farewell, My Lovely is told from the point of view of “hard-boiled” (i.e., casually sexist and racist, alcoholic, kind of an asshole but in a quietly grouchy way that makes you like him better than you should) private detective Philip Marlowe, a man who attracts getting concussions like honey attracts flies.
Oddly, Marlowe first gets enmeshed in plot not due to his actual occupation as a private investigator, but just from hanging around on the street somewhere, where he witnesses a gigantic dude named Malloy, on his first day out of prison after an eight-year stint for bank robbery, wander in a bar looking for his ex-girlfriend and promptly shoot the manager upon not finding her there. The police are cranky about Marlowe doing anything except be a witness, which he initially chafes at, but he is distracted in a timely fashion by being hired to be a bodyguard for a rich playboy named Lindsay Marriott, who is buying some jewels back from the thieves who took them in a stickup. Marlowe thinks something is weird but he doesn’t figure out what it is until he goes to the meeting and gets a concussion, and wakes up to find Marriott murdered.
From then on there is a lot of detective-ing and smoking of cigarettes and having people get mad at him, plus a few more concussions, and some dangerous attractive women, because of course. A lot of it is in really old-school gruff forties detective talk; most of the time I could figure out what they were talking about but about ten percent of it all I heard was “I heard you like noir, so I put some noir in your noir so you could noir while you noir” and then I had a mental image of Humphrey Bogart in a greatcoat and fedora.
You’re not giving me one more damn concussion until Lauren Bacall shows up, okey?
The book is written in first person POV, and the style is really interesting to me—mostly it trundles along in very stark and serviceable prose, sometimes almost police-report-y in its mundanity—“The man did thing X and then thing Y and then thing Z”—and then every now and again a darkly hilarious quip or beautifully apt metaphor suddenly pops up and socks you in the face. It’s a master class in understated, gruff sass.
For all the getting concussed and people dying, this isn’t really a very action-packed book. The middle is a bit, most notably featuring an exciting escape from being drugged and fraudulently imprisoned in a possibly-illegal private rehab clinic, but most of it is Marlowe and various cops and the aforementioned dangerous beautiful women standing around theorizing gruffly and drinking a lot, or questioning old ladies and drinking a lot, or philosophizing about bugs and drinking a lot.
With Marlowe trying to do two things in one novel—the first thing being to look for Malloy’s ex-girlfriend Velma while the cops look for Mallow, and the other is to figure out who killed Lindsay Marriott and why—it is somewhat inevitable that the two cases would wind up being connected, so I was not particularly shocked when this happened, but I admit to finding it quite satisfying and suspenseful figuring out how they were connected. It’s not at all obvious, but it doesn’t rely on hiding important stuff Marlowe knows from the reader until the reveal, either. So I feel it was a structurally sound mystery story.
I will admit that at no point did I get super excited about this book, even though I usually love noiry stuff with gangs and murders and mysteries and drinks, but this may have been a result of me having to read it in tiny drips and drabs of time around a massively increased work schedule and all the prep I needed to do before going to Paris tomorrow (eeeee!). It’s a sharp quiet dark little book about a sharp quiet dark little PI, and I’m glad I read it, although I wish I’d been able to give it the time I suspect it deserves.
In this one, a heavily pregnant Alexia Maccon, Lady Woolsey, is trying to manage her domestic life, which largely involves buying a town house for the pack next to Lord Akeldama’s house so that Akeldama can adopt the baby and Alexia can live in one of his closets. This is all to make the Westminster Hive of vampires stop trying to kill Alexia and the baby, because vampires are chronically incapable of minding their own business. Then a half-crazy ghost shows up at the new town house and vaguely warns Alexia that there is a plot afoot to kill the queen.
From then on there is a bunch of the usual delightful Gail Carriger-style nonsense involving cravats, naked werewolves, mad scientists, and Alexia being cranky at people. There is a rather touching subplot about Biffy, formerly Lord Akeldama’s drone but now a werewolf and member of Woolsey Pack, and his difficulties adjusting to pack life. Alexia does some investigating of the area mad scientists, the Order of the Brass Octopus, which involves a lot of investigating the past, as well—specifically, the last plot to kill the Queen, which originated out of Conall’s former pack in Scotland. We learn more stuff about Alexia’s father, Alessandro Tarabotti, who has been an interestingly mysterious figure throughout this whole series. And we get to hang out with Countess Nasdasdy and the Westminster Hive, who are thoroughly interesting characters. Carriger’s vampires have some interesting bits of mythology to them that you don’t see much elsewhere, such as that a vampire queen is permanently tethered to her home, and will only leave in grave danger—a practice called swarming—in which she will take all her vampires and drones with her and must find a new home posthaste or she will die. Ultimately, Carriger’s vampire social structure seems to be based off bees.
There is also a good deal of Ivy Tunstell being very Ivy but also very awesome and useful, which made me very happy, because I like it when we get to like Ivy. Possibly the most hysterical scene in the whole books is Ivy’s on-the-fly introduction to the newly official Parasol Protectorate, Alexia’s private spy network. Ivy insists upon ritual and theatrics, and she gets them, and so does the reader.
In other news, I like Conall better this time around, if only because he has the same attitudes about Victorian melodrama as I do (i.e. that it is THE FUNNIEST SHIT IN THE WORLD). Also we see him being a genuinely good Alpha, rather than Lyall having to cover his ass the whole book.
My biggest issue with the book is that the climax of the plot relies upon Genevieve Lefoux doing something that is somewhat unsubtle and basically just plain stupid, which I don’t feel is very Genevieve. The ramifications of the stupid thing are fabulous, though, neatly upending a lot of the social dramas in the book, and Alexia rearranges everything in a way that would make Flora Poste proud.
The new baby also promises to be a thoroughly interesting addition to the series, being a “skin-stealer,” and I am quite looking forward to learning more about “skin-stealing” and what kind of havoc it can cause.
The Westing Game is a murder mystery, although it is a bit iffy whether or not anyone has been murdered, which made me think of that odd old movie with Truman Capote, Murder by Death. Other than that… well, it’s not very much like Murder by Death at all, so ignore me.
Sam Westing is the prototypical American self-made man, the son of immigrants who worked himself up from a poor background to found and grow a multi-million-dollar paper products corporation. Nobody has seen him in years, ever since his terrible car accident. He apparently just stays in his mansion and leaves the running of the corporation to its chairman of the board, Julian Eastman.
Sunset Towers is a shiny new apartment building that has just been built within view of the Westing house. A bunch of carefully hand-selected people are invited to move into it. Shortly afterwards, Sam Westing is found dead in the Westing house, and sixteen people—most of the apartment denizens, plus the building’s doorman and its delivery boy—are invited to the Westing house and told they are all Sam Westing’s heirs. They are also told that one of them is responsible for Westing’s death, and whoever figures out who the murderer is will inherit the entire Westing fortune.
Cue a whole fabulous complex puzzle game, where the heirs are paired off and given cryptic clues, and much character building ensues as the heirs all try to find stuff out about each other. They are a very diverse bunch and they all (except one) have some sort of connection to Sam Westing. I’d give a rundown of the heirs but there are sixteen of them. (Turtle and Judge Ford are the best ones, though.)
This is a very difficult book to talk about without giving stuff away because the puzzle unfolds in very particular ways and I don’t want to discuss any of the clues! I will say that I did very abysmally at trying to guess what came next or what most of the clues meant, although I called a few key things shortly before they were revealed.
While I am always impressed at an intricate puzzley plot—mainly because I suck at coming up with them—the thing I am actually most impressed about in this book is how much character development there is. I mean, there are sixteen main characters, which is kind of a lot for a children’s book. (But it is the necessary amount because there is an ongoing theme about chess.) (Not in an Alice Through the Looking-Glass kind of way, though—this theme about chess makes sense.) But they all have their own story—and all of their stories tie into the Westing murder mystery game. They’ve all got some sort of personal problem, and all of them learn stuff through the game that helps them change their lives and start being happier and/or better people. (For some of the characters, their problem is basically that they are terrible shallow people. I am looking at you, Grace Windsor-Wexler, and also you, Dr. Denton Deere.) Somehow none of this is trite or twee; it all fits very neatly together but because it’s so complicated the neatness is very impressive rather than sounding like a cop-out. Overall it may be the happiest murder mystery I’ve ever read! It’s full of small children playing the stock market and possibly nobody being murdered at all.
Reading this with a group was extra fun; watching other people also fail at puzzling out the clues made me feel less silly (although probably the people who had read it before who were cackling at the rest of us had the most fun. They certainly sounded like it!) Also, one of the mods provided us with daily logic puzzles, of which I only did the last few because I came to the discussion a bit late.
The Technologists is a historical fiction/mystery/thriller concerning several members of the first graduating class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, back in 1868. At this time, the school was known as Boston Tech, and rather than occupying its current stretch of Cambridge, its first location was in the then-newly-filled-in Back Bay area. The first main buildings of the Boston Tech campus, the Rogers and Walker buildings, were part of a lot between Boylston and Newbury streets, between Clarendon and Berkeley. These buildings were later torn down to build the New England Mutual Life Insurance Building at 501 Boylston Street, which currently houses Pearson Education’s Boston headquarters, and where I worked for most of two years. Needless to say, I think this is very exciting! It is particularly exciting to me because The Technologists is one of those books that is very, very intimately tied into the place it takes place in, and Matthew Pearl does an excellent job of showing us nineteenth century Boston in vivid, meticulously researched detail. It’s really fascinating to hear about all these streets and gardens and buildings that I know pretty well from living here for the past three years, and to hear about what they were like 150 years ago (some of which I am already familiar with), and to, for once, be able to actually have a good geographical sense of where the action of the story is taking place, the way that people who actually know their way around New York must feel about 95% of the rest of American storytelling.
It’s also very interesting to me to hear about how very controversial MIT was, and the degree of disdain that so much of the establishment had for it—particularly the recurring sentiment that technological studies weren’t real education, and that MIT was for dunces who couldn’t manage to get into a real college. Basically the exact opposite of MIT’s reputation now.
The premise of The Technologists is that someone is somehow engineering crazy mad science disasters around Boston and throwing everybody into a panic, and nobody is able to figure out how. The Boston police, being the BPD even back then, are loathe to admit they are in over their heads, and when they do decide to have a scientific consultant, they go to a pompous biology teacher at Harvard who is more concerned with mocking evolution than actually solving the mystery, because it would be politically dangerous to consult “Tech,” even though “Tech” is the school that actually studies this sort of thing. The administrators at Boston Tech/MIT, facing funding issues and an increasingly hostile public perception, vote not to take any initiative to investigate or offer help to the BPD.
This doesn’t sit well with Marcus Mansfield, our protagonist, a charity scholar who served in the Union army during the Civil War and then worked as a machine engineer in a locomotive shop. Marcus and a couple of fellow students—handsome and charming Bob Richards, the first non-Harvard man from a family of Harvard men; quiet and nervous Edwin Hoyt, who actually transferred to Tech out of Harvard; Ellen Swallow, Tech’s only female student; and Hammie, eccentric genius and son of the owner of the locomotive shop Marcus used to work at—begin their own investigation into the events, under the guise of being a regular college society, called the Technologists. Their investigation leads them to discover lots of cool science and engineering things, but it also brings them into the line of fire of a wealthy but maddened burn victim, a supposedly disbanded and very douchebaggy Harvard secret society and its entitled twit of a leader, a traitorous professor, the BPD again, some very self-centered captains of industry, and, of course, the evil mastermind behind the whole thing.
One thing I particularly liked about this novel was that it’s not just a straight whodunit; the big engineered disasters—compasses failing so boats crash into each other in Boston Harbor in the fog; all the glass in the Financial District melting at once, mass ergot poisoning, industrial boilers bursting simultaneously—are intricately woven into the political and social issues the characters are dealing with, from the fallout of the Civil War to academic squabbling over university funding, plus the never-ending peculiarities of the very nineteenth century restriction on Ellen Swallow. (The ergot poisoning bit, for instance, only happened after someone stole Miss Swallow’s notes studying rye—that it was the disaster engineer who had stolen them was not immediately apparent, due to the degree of harassment and sabotage Miss Swallow was subjected to regularly.) The students’ investigation is also very tied up with the Institute’s president, William Rogers, who suffers a stroke or something like it early in the novel, thus leading Marcus to steal a bunch of his papers and strike up a flirtation with his chambermaid Agnes, who helps out doing what is essentially spy work for their investigation. I found Agnes to be a pretty compelling character, particularly for a designated love interest who is a secondary character; she is a pragmatic, good little Irish Catholic girl who mourns having had to abandon her “unladylike” girlhood interest in science in order to secure a respectable position. She is also the only character who just thinks Ellen Swallow must be the bee’s knees before even meeting her.
Ellen Swallow was always going to be my favorite character because pioneering lady scientist, and she did not disappoint! Miss Swallow is eccentric in a stiff, very Puritan sort of fashion, although she is affectionate toward her cat, Baby. She is an excellent analytical chemist and has an interest in food science (she was a real person, who did go on to become a pioneer in food science and food safety and that sort of thing, go Wikipedia her right now); her introduction to the story is off-puttingly weird in the tradition of all the best major supporting characters, and while we eventually get to know her and find her more sympathetic and comprehensible, she never loses the curt stiffness and Puritanism that initially characterize her. She is extremely New Englandy, even in a book full of extremely New Englandy people.
I think my biggest issue with this book was probably the pacing; it starts off at a nice leisurely pace that might bore a lot of readers of thrillers but which I found to be perfectly fine—the initial disaster at the Harbor opens the book and then we get a lot of characterization and backstory and academic politics before anyone really even starts figuring out how it happened, let alone who did it or why. Near the end, though, the story picks up to an almost frenzied pace, cycling quickly through about four different suspects before landing on discovering the final bad guy. I also was somewhat disappointed with who it actually turned out to be; it was a character I had liked, and his reasoning for turning out all evil and stuff didn’t really make that much sense to me. I had my own guess about who the bad guy was, and while it would have been a bit more obvious, I feel like my guess would have made more sense.
The book features a lot of philosophical discussion about technology and its role in society and questions of scientific ethics, access, that sort of thing—all the questions that people in the nineteenth century were up in arms about, many of which are similar to the questions people ask about technology today (sometimes unfortunately… the anti-evolutionists might have finally left Harvard but it looks like they’ve all moved to Congress and the Texas school board instead). There are also a lot of questions about technology and labor, although not a lot of answers are given, other than that everyone hates trade unionists but that doesn’t always mean the guy hating on trade unionists with you is on your side. (The trade unionists in this book are also engaging in PETA-like levels of Bad Activism.)
I was surprised to learn that the author of this novel went to Harvard, considering that Harvard is here portrayed as unmitigatedly assbaggy. The most satisfying moments in the novel are like five different variations of punching Harvard dudes in the face and/or exploding things in their face. They’re pretentious, entitled, and belligerently behind the times in all things. It makes 1868 Harvard sound like a college populated entirely by clones of Mitt Romney, which is quite possibly historically accurate.
The ebook of The Technologists comes with a not-very-short short story called The Professor’s Assassin, which is a dramatization of a real event, the murder of University of Virginia President Davis. The protagonist here is William Barton Rogers, a professor at the University at the time, who would go on to found Boston Tech/MIT. The murder takes place during a spate of riots on the University campus where a bunch of very gentlemanly Southern gentlemen wish to be able to go about armed in the classroom, and, much like gun nuts today, decide to prove themselves totally responsible and absolutely to be trusted with deadly weaponry by going about masked and anonymously smashing things up and threatening people with guns. After somebody threatens Rogers with a gun and somebody else murders President Davis, Rogers teams up with a couple of other characters around the campus to be all detective-y and solve the murder, eventually finding the culprit and turning him into the police. It’s a short and satisfying little murder mystery, although the reader must wonder how all these dead people would feel about being fictionalized.
I would recommend The Technologists and The Professor’s Assassin to people who don’t mind books that can’t really be fit neatly into one genre, who like dealing with multiple kinds of nerdery at once, and who love Boston.
The book was The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders.
The subtitle is a little misleading as it makes the book sound like it has a stronger thesis than it really does; it’s not really arguing a point so much as dumping lots of fun information on the reader. The book covers about fifty murders that took place in the UK in the nineteenth century. For each one, it describes the murder, gives some historical background about how it fits into general fears of the time or trends in murders (poison panic, burial-club panic, etc.), then discusses how the murder was dealt with in the, um, ‘nonfiction’ press, and lastly discusses instances in which the murder shows up in nineteenth century fiction. There is also some discussion of the development of the police, and particularly detectives, as a professional and cultural institution. The book’s thesis, essentially, is just that the Victorians were SUPER INTO murder, and that the ways in which they were SUPER INTO murder laid the groundwork for modern crime entertainment like murder mystery novels and TV procedurals. I, for one, am willing to accept this argument as being pretty well supported.
I was already familiar with some of the issues discussed here; I had the good fortune to do a short unit on “sensation novels” in undergrad as part of a nineteenth-century British novel course, and a few years ago I read an excellent, in-depth book about the Road Hill House murder and early Scotland Yard, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. I also remember gawking over the Jack the Ripper crime scene photos at CrimeLibrary like a proper little babybat sometime in high school.
This book introduced me to so many more murders, though, including some really weird ones. I found it fascinating to compare which murders caught the public’s imagination, and which ones didn’t, even when it seemed like they should have—and I was particularly interested to see how the ones that did get turned into entertainment for mass consumption got written and rewritten, with the victims or, sometimes, the murderers getting cleaned up to be more sympathetic, class and political attitudes grafted on to the “narratives”, sometimes narratives being created nearly out of whole cloth from a handful of sensational details (Jack the Ripper may be the most egregious offender in this category), newspapers picking this side or that—the victim, the murderer, the detectives, the family, the press itself.
For me, most of the fun in this book comes from the excerpts of plays, newspaper articles, interviews, etc., particularly the really trashy ones. Trashy Victoriana is very, very trashy; in many cases, it is also quaint and badly spelled. Awkwardly scanned verse abounds (“We beat him dreadfully upon the floor,/We washed our hands in his crimson gore” –from a broadside reporting on murderess Maria Manning). There are a lot of awkward Victorian line drawings of dismemberments and public executions, which have to be seen to be believed. Judith Flanders has an excellent talent for summarizing penny-blood and melodrama plots in a sort of snarkily affectionate tone that makes me really want to read these pieces even though they are clearly laughably dreadful. (I am sure this is partly because I am the sort of person who just purchased a copy of Varney the Vampire.) Flanders is a social historian, and the weird historical tidbits she gives us paints a great picture of just how weird the Victorian era was—excerpts from Punch & Judy shows, magazine advertisements for arsenic soap, and the solidly shameless behavior of the highly respected Madame Tussaud’s waxworks company, who never met a piece of murder memorabilia they didn’t try to buy. I finished this book kind of wishing I could time-travel to the Victorian era but also being really glad I don’t live there, which is just as it should be.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in weird history or Gothic fiction.