Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Wicked Business by Janet Evanovitch

I said in my last review that Headline has been extending my reading beyond its usual boundaries. Janet Evanovitch is an author I've never read, so when Wicked Business turned up I didn't really know what to expect. I've seen lots of people enthusing about her books but mentally consigned them to the category "books-I-don't-read", thinking, I guess, that they would be too chicklit-y. I'm rather snobbish about chicklit but the worst thing about it, I usually feel, is that it's written for people younger than me, and is mostly about airheads. I mean, I don't exactly need fiction to always include a discussion of the categorical imperative, but I do like characters to be able to recognise a moral dilemma if they trip over one, and not simply to whine that they're not wearing suitable shoes to deal with it. In fact, if shoes get mentioned at all I'm likely to ditch a book - I hate the damn things, I only wear them if I absolutely have to, and I cannot abide having to buy them. Oh, and I don't believe anyone can actually run in heels (cf. Castle).

Right, divagatory rant over, let's turn to the book. Wicked Business in the second (I think) in the Lizzy and Diesel series that begin with Wicked Appetite (spot the theme). Lizzy is a cupcake baker (imagine, someone whose job is to make fairy cakes all day, what has the world come to?) living near Cambridge MA, which is nice, because it's a bit of the US which doesn't turn up too often in my reading. She's unusual in that she has the power to detect magical energy in objects, which has brought her to the attention of Gerwulf Grimoire (Wulf), who wants her to find seven magical stones associated with the seven deadly sins - not sure why, some plan for world domination, I guess. There's also a woman called Anarchy following her to get the stones, and that's definitely about world domination. Lizzy is protected by Wulf's cousin, Diesel, who seems to have some sort of guardian angel role, except that lust plays a considerable part in it. Perhaps this is just because it's the lust stone they're looking for in this instalment, but Lizzy certainly fancies him before the stone shows up, so perhaps not. There are a number of other regular characters - Wulf's intellectually challenged "minion", Hatchet, who wants to be a medieval squire (I couldn't decide whether the cod olde Englishe was Hatchet getting it wrong or the author!), a pet monkey with a vulgar turn of gesture, a rather unsuccessful witch, and so on. If I sound a little hazy about some of the details it's because, unlike in Kiss the Dead, there is so little exposition that I simply had to let it flow over me and hope for the best. This pretty much matches the plot, which is thin, and the characterisation, which is nearly non-existent, although Lizzy comes over as likeable enough. I did wonder if the monkey, Carl, mightn't be the most interesting person, although he certainly needs to learn about what's appropriate in human company - too much of the humour was really rather juvenile, I found. The mystery which starts the book - why should someone have pushed a professor off his balcony? - doesn't really hold anyone's attention, even the people supposed to be curious about it.

And that's the crux of the matter, really - is there enough here to hold your attention? If you want a bit of fluff to occupy you while you wait for a train, or light relief to take your mind off an imminent dental appointment, then it's enjoyable and silly. (If you're fifteen and reading it when you're meant to be doing your homework, maybe more so.) There is a place in life for silly books, it's just a matter of finding the right time for them. If you're in the mood for amiable fun, but lack the attention span for something a little weightier - say, Tom Holt -  then Lizzy and Diesel are your guys. Just don't blame me if you get indigestion.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Kiss the Dead by Laurell K. Hamilton

It's been several years since I read any of Laurell K. Hamilton's books and it was with slight trepidation that I approached the 21st in the Anita Blake series, Kiss the Dead, which arrived recently courtesy of Headline, who are certainly expanding my reading horizons! Would I remember, I wondered, enough about the settings and characters to be able to get involved with the plot, or would I do that thing where you simply flounder about wishing you could remember why so-and-so was intent on a particular kind of action, or quite what the political complexities meant for such an action. Well, there was no need to worry - Anita may have progressed from animator (zombie raiser) to US Marshal in the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, and she may have gained all sorts of powers since the last book I read, but there's quite enough recapitulation to make sure that the intermittent reader is never too far adrift. If anything, there's too much explanation, and quite a lot of digression, but it's usually entertaining, since the story is told by Anita herself in a pithy, forthright style which parallels her decisiveness in combat situations and makes her the kind of person the cops she works with admire and respect. Despite her efficiency as a vampire executioner, she's aware of the moral dimension of her work, and appreciates the needs for changing rules as preternaturals begin to gain the same kind of rights that humans have.

The plot of Kiss the Dead, briefly, is that there's a new kind of vampire in town, one who holds no allegiance to a vampire master (such as Anita's lover, Jean-Claude). These vampires are recruiting indiscriminately, and they are harming humans - in fact, they've kidnapped a young girl. It's hard for the St Louis vampires to believe that this can be happening - it's unthinkable to make vampires and them leave them to their own devices because they can't control their appetites. Jean-Claude thinks this might have happened because the new vampires simply don't appreciate how democratic American vampires are these days, but the important thing is that they have got to be stopped, and that's Anita's job. She'll try to talk them into giving themselves up, but if necessary, she'll kill them.  Cue action.

I'm guessing that regular readers of the series are probably going to be pretty happy with this latest offering. There's quite a bit of action, with appropriate weaponry and the occasional whiff of holy water. There's a new angle on Anita's growing powers which is going to cause some difficulty for her various lovers. There's a good deal of angst about the role of the vampire executioner and the heavy responsibility of caring for all the people bound to her in by some means or other. And there's way to much sex. Well, that last is probably a matter of opinion, and I'm sure lots of readers adore it, but frankly, I'm a believer in closed bedroom doors. I don't mind at all that she's sleeping with vampires, weretigers, wererats and what-have-yous, but keep it to yourselves, guys! One sex scene went on for three chapters, which says much for the characters' endurance, but it was beyond mine - I skipped it. What's worse, the concentration on the pleasures of the flesh (yawn) doesn't leave a lot of room for plot, which was slender, and was itself interrupted much too frequently by long explanations about the now huge cast of characters. As each lover appears, his or her relationship to Anita, and consequently to the rest of the tribe, has to be covered in detail, which slows everything down again. Some of this detail appeared more than once, suggesting that the author, too, has begun to find her path being impeded by the depth of treacle that has to be waded through.

But, as I've suggested, Laurell K. Hamilton has a devoted readership and she wouldn't be on book 21 if there weren't plenty of people out there simply gasping for the next instalment. And I did finish it, and I wasn't bored by the action part of the story, even if I did skim over all those slippery bodies. And it's a hell of a lot better written than that nonsense which is doing the rounds at the moment (you know, that 50... thing).

So, if this sounds like your cup of tea, happy reading! If you haven't read any of the earlier Anita Blake books, though, I'd start with the first, Guilty Pleasures. There was definitely more action (as opposed to sex), more fun, and much less soul-searching.

Kiss the Dead is out now in hardback and for Kindle; the paperback edition will be published in the UK  on 8 November.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

I'm really grateful to Annabel for encouraging me to read this book for her Beryl Bainbridge reading week. I'd been thinking I might read it sometime, but this persuaded me to bring it to the top of the pile. I'd chosen it because my mother mentioned it recently - we'd been talking about her own experiences as an ASM in the fifties, her initial interview not being so very different from Stella's. Since the events are based on Bainbridge's early career in the theatre, the detail throughout is perfect, right down to the sheer seediness of repertory theatre of the time.

Sixteen-year-old Stella is one of those people not really cut out for dealing with reality - she's too  much of an oddity, precocious (she's spent years chatting to the the lodgers but you have a strong feeling that she has probably never been comfortable with her contemporaries) but with no ambitions educationally, at once grown-up for her years and alarmingly naive. Her Uncle Vernon, foreseeing that there are very few options but a lifetime as a shopgirl, decides that the theatre is the answer, and arranges an interview for her at the local rep. By the time she arrives for the interview the reader is quite clear that, left to her own devices, she would never have got there:
She jumped out of the taxi and was through the door in an instant. If she had given herself time to think, paused to thank the driver or comb her hair, she might have run off in the opposite direction and wasted her moment for ever.
The trouble is, no one understands Stella: Uncle Vernon says that she's just like her mother, Renée, who abandoned her when she was a baby. She doesn't fit in with her peers or her family, she lives in her imagination and she often fails to realise what is going on around her. There's a wonderful moment when she describes one of the company in a most unfortunate way, because she has completely misunderstood the meaning of the word she's used - my mother has a story about a similar faux pas made when she was being introduced to someone's girlfriend at a party, and I can't help thinking she must have been rather like Stella, especially since I was the outcome of her convent-educated ignorance about certain matters. And if, sixteen years on, it had still been possible to go straight into rep from school, no doubt I'd have been another Stella. She seems intensely real to me as a character, masking her insecurities with stubbornness and courting experience with such determination that disaster is bound to ensue. I read a review somewhere which described Stella simply as a ghastly teenager, but I think that's unfair - she's a teenager thrust into an adult world, expected to behave as part of it but ill-equipped to do so. And if the theatre seems in some ways like the perfect environment to and for an intelligent young person, in other ways it is utterly unsuitable, full of frail egos who will offer no quarter when something goes wrong. Bainbridge shows that world in all its guises: the cosiness of the actresses knitting in their dressing rooms, the discomfort of digs, the predatoriness and spite, late nights, bad food, rehearsals which never end, it's all there in a story so satisfying I don't want to leave it, despite the tragedy we know from the beginning will await us at the end.

I'd class An Awfully Big Adventure along with Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as an apparently modest novel that quite simply gets better and better the more I think about it. Wonderful. I'll be reading more Bainbridge, that's for certain.

Published 1989

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Turned out cold again....

After some rather grudging sunshine yesterday, I woke to the sort of greyness which makes it very hard to get out of bed, so I picked up my book so that I could defer the dreadful moment. It made me smile to find Dandy Gilver feeling exactly the same way in An Unsuitable Day for a Murder, the sixth in the series:
"...the bedrooms at Gilverton are amongst the chilliest bits of that chilly house and June is always the coldest month of all; we give up on the groaning, clanking radiators after Easter whenever it falls and the servants have an unshakeable penchant for throwing windows wide as part of their big spring cleaning. I sometimes think, in a spirit of mutiny, that if we hoarded the hard-won warmth of winter fires a little more jealously we might, in those odd years when the weather is kind, float all the way to summertime with the house snug about us like a tippet, instead of spending May and June noting that every day a little more comfort seeps out of the old stone walls until at last it is colder inside than out in the garden.
Mrs Tilling, briefed by Hugh one assumes although I cannot imagine the scene, sent up supper in the shape of egg and bread in a cup and a flask of cocoa and Grant, heaven be praised, left my clothes overnight on a chair. All in all, I do not think I have been so comprehensively coddled by the members of my household in the entire course of my life, and as the the dire warnings always have it, it very quickly spoiled me: the next morning, lying stretching deliciously in my warm bed with [the dog] Bunty rolling and moaning just as deliciously beside me, the thought crossed my mind that if only I had a telephone in my bedroom as they do in pictures from Hollywood I could ring Alec and begin to chew things over without the nasty preliminaries of cold floor, uncertain bath water, wet neck and draughty corridors. In my imagination my bedroom was flooded with light, my bed jacket trimmed with swansdown and my bed itself was oval in shape and raised up on a platform like a sacrificial altar in a jungle clearing. I looked around and sighed. My bedroom faced due west and was gloomy as a cave in the morning, my dressing gown hanging on the back of the door was best tartan felt with buttons from neck to ankle and my bed was one I rather suspected Hugh might have been born in; I had always been very careful not to find out for sure.

'Anyway,' I said to Bunty, who recognised my tone of voice and slithered to the floor, stretched and shook herself all over, 'what possesses a person to sleep on a platform? And how does one tuck in the sheets on an oval bed?' "

How indeed?  I wish I could share the whole book with you, really, especially my pleasure that Dandy's long-suffering husband Hugh, who rarely lifts his nose from a grim perusal of the household finances long enough to do more than grunt disapprovingly, has just come storming onto the scene in satisfactorily heroic fashion. Good old Hugh - that cheered my morning up considerably!

(My own dog is still in bed....when I got up she rolled her eyes at me and stayed firmly put.)

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Neverwhere group read - final week

For the final week of the group read, Carl asked about what stood out about the book, and particularly about our feelings about the characters now it's over. Although I'd read it before, I like to let go of what I know about a story while I'm reading, and try to bring a fresh eye to it, so my heart was in my mouth when Richard went back to London Above - could he really be happy there? We'd seen him grow so much as a person and, while even without its arch-villains I don't think London Below would ever be the safest place to live (the shepherds are still there, and who knows what else the erratic timeflow might throw up), Richard is much less naive. He might still be a little too inclined to be trusting, but that's because he's a nice guy. I'm going to miss him and Door and Old Bailey.

But the standout character for me is the Marquis - he's the one whose history I most want to explore. Surviving in London Below takes wit and skill, and the ability to create one's own identity, to manipulate the stories that are told and the Marquis has shown himself to be astute in this respect: his personality is mutable and adapts to circumstances, he's sly and devious and has amassed considerable power and even wealth of the kind worth having in London Below (for instance, the tune he gives to Lear). He's named himself for Puss in Boots' "master", but since, in the fairytale, Puss's master is really a complete catspaw, it's appropriate that our Marquis has appropriated both roles to himself. He's also decisive, entrusting his hidden life to Old Bailey from the outset in the expectation that saving Door will put him at great risk. Even this is done as a matter of an exchange of favours, the most valuable currency in the world below - the Marquis is thoroughly pragmatic and doesn't do anything without favours. His failing, perhaps, is arrogance, but it doesn't make him foolhardy - generally, I think, he knows his limitations and works safely within them, and I guess he's weighed the risk he's taking with Croup and Vandemar pretty carefully, and decided that the information gained will be worth it - as he says, no one bothers to be discreet when there's going to be no witness. That's a familiar trope from endless films and novels, where the murderer explains everything to the victim because the victim is going to be dead any minute and it tends to feel contrived - I just love the way that Gaiman does it here: their victim really is going to be dead. The Marquis is the "knowing" trickster par excellence, elegant, dangerous (but not in a crude way), self-serving, but somehow always true to himself. Now we're at the end of the book, I think he's sublime - oh, and I loved the way he was portrayed in the TV series.

The only other thing I'd say is to reiterate what I said last week: that I love the way Gaiman can make a simple story carry a much greater significance by adding the sort of details that map onto our own experience in a way that stops you short and makes you think, oh, I'm not the only person who sees the world that way, or by taking a common experience and giving it a little twist to make you see it anew. Neverwhere isn't the most profound book ever written, nor even the best told, and it doesn't work for everyone - but, for those who love it, it has a feeling of authenticity, that sense that you really might wake up one morning and see a door where there hasn't been one before, or stumble through the back of a wardrobe, or, if you look in the mirror long enough, you just might find yourself on the other side of the glass in that tantalising room that looks both familiar and different. These things happen . . . don't they?