Strange Practice

61KZB80mVgLAnyone who spends ten minutes reading this blog would be able to tell pretty quickly that Strange Practice was going to be right up my alley. This initial entry in a series of magical mystery stories by Vivian Shaw follows Greta Helsing (yes, yes, her family dropped the van some time ago), a London physician dedicated to treating the city’s magical inhabitants. Mummies with feet problems? Vampire anemia? Ghouls who need psychiatric assistance? She herself may be human, but she has a calling to provide health care for mystical creatures likely to have issues accessing the NHS. There is an actual mystery here (crazy monks are murdering people, there’s a sort of nameless power from the dawn of time, etc.) but the real draw of this book is the assortment of characters that end up surrounding Greta. Some of the magical creatures she knows fit better into the modern world than others, but they all have to work together to save London and protect the secrets of its less-well known inhabitants.

This is Shaw’s first novel and the writing isn’t always effortless–there were definitely times when it felt like she was trying too hard to be clever and was getting in her own way. And I found that the point of view switched around too much for me to ever really feel settled into the story. Greta is nominally the main character and she is definitely the reader’s entry point into this world, but other characters (vampires, humans, demons, the villains of the story) also get so many chapters told from their perspectives that the ratio felt off to me. I’m hopeful that Shaw was trying to cram as many cool ideas and cool characters as she could into this first book, but that as she goes along she’ll start letting things breathe a little more.

But despite those quibbles about some elements of execution, I really enjoyed the book. The overall world created here was fascinating and very specific. I was left with the impression that this version of London has many more creatures with complex lives ad backstories that need Greta’s help, and that the group of vampires, demons, and humans that circles around her is well on the way to be becoming an odd little family. My Kindle version of this book included a teaser for the next one in the series, so it looks like I’ll have the chance to see what Greta and her team are up to next.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Entertaining urban fantasy

You might also like: Anything by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews–I think the official Biblio-therapy position is that we are strongly in favor of those series. But Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural mysteries, also set in London, would be good companions to this.

The Essex Serpent

61U76uN5PHLI was in London earlier this summer and the book of the moment, the book piled up in store displays and advertised in posters around town, was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I was worried that this would be another of those Kinsey Tells You About an Already Wildly Popular thing entries, but I haven’t heard much about The Essex Serpent here in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s really quite a good book.

I suppose you could call this a neo-Victorian novel–it’s set in England in late 1800s, and focuses on a woman named Cora. Her husband has just died–not a terribly sad occasion for her–and being a widow has allowed her the freedom to start walking the marshes and looking fossils and getting muddy and generally ignoring nice society. In the course of all this she meets the vicar of a small town on the English coast and they strike up a friendship, which is at least partly based on Cora’s interest in rumors of a sea monster (the Essex Serpent) that has been plaguing the town. What will this relationship bring? Will they ever find the serpent?

This description makes it sound like plot-driven, exciting tale! But it’s not, really–it’s not a romance, and it’s not a supernatural mystery/adventure. The basic plot description doesn’t account for how the story’s point of view moves from character to character, not only Cora and the vicar, but also their children, the vicar’s wife, and a doctor friend of Cora’s, among others. The book is really a character study, illuminating the inner lives of a variety of people that, for various reasons (gender, class, intelligence), are marginalized or limited within society.  Plus, the tiny villages and marshes of English seaside basically serve as one of the characters, giving the whole book a sort of damp, salty feeling to it. All this makes it seem odd, honestly that this is such a book of the moment in England–it’s about as far from The Girl on the Train as you could get, but it’s a lovely book and I’m glad it’s gotten so much attention. The cover is also just gorgeous.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Atmospheric Victorian tale

You might also like: The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale; or Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton; or Sarah Waters’s books, especially Fingersmith.

online comics / graphic novels

I never quite know what term to use for comic strips or comic books or graphic novels now that the medium has expanded so wildly beyond what those terms originally referred to. But I’ve got two online comic strips that I highly recommend because they’re charming and delightful and I just love the characters and the stories and the artwork.

First up:

WildelifeWilde Life
by Pascalle Lepas
2014 – ongoing

The plot is: “A graphic novel about a writer who rents a haunted house from Craigslist and makes not-friends with a werewolf.”

It’s essentially a series of short stories set in a rural town around the main guy who’s rented a house for a while to just get away from his previous life that’s mostly not mentioned. The illustrations are excellent (and just keep getting better) but the characters are where this really shines. Every character is so very much themselves and so very delightful. (And don’t forget to check for roll-over text comments from the author on later pages because they’re pretty darn funny too.)

The author has just finished the sixth chapter / plot arc, and it’s so incredibly delightful and I really hope she does another kickstarter so I can order hardcopy versions. In the meantime, you, gentle reader, should immediately go check this out: http://www.wildelifecomic.com/comic/1

Second up:

powerballadPower Ballad
by Molly Brooks
2017 – ongoing

This only has eight issues out so far but it’s scheduled to be updated weekly and those eight issues are an utter delight!

Meera is the personal assistant to international pop star / masked vigilante Carina. So while Carina does music videos and fights crime batman-style, Meera tries to make sure appointments are made and kept. And they both have adorable pining crushes on each other but neither have said anything (yet!) and it’s just too cute for words.

Also, the illustrations are amazing and doing some really interesting things, because first they’re working with the online medium by displaying each issue as a single page down which the reader scrolls rather than trying to mimic a hardcopy comic book (at some point I think it would be really interesting to see if hardcopy comics can be made on scrolls to mimic websites), and second, they’re illustrated with just a couple of colors in a handful of shades, which gives it a sort of quick-sketch first impression while still being amazingly effective and detailed.

So check it out here: http://www.webtoons.com/en/drama/power-ballad/list?title_no=987

 

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

61ku6qro0cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2016

Bujold is one of the few authors who I absolutely trust. I enjoy every single thing she has ever written. Some more than others, of course, but everything is good. One of the amazing things about her is that she clearly refuses to let herself or her writing stagnate. She’s constantly exploring new styles and genres.

This is particularly obvious in her Vorkosigan series, which is currently at sixteen books (of which this is the most recent) plus a number of short stories and novellas. They’re all in the same science fiction universe and to a large extent about the same characters and yet they are often written as wildly different genres: light science fiction, hard core science fiction, murder mystery, psychological exploration, comedy of manners…. Bujold has tried it all and succeeded at it all.

Most of the books follow Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in his various adventures around the universe, getting himself into and then out of a variety of troubles. The first two books that I read, however, are about his mother, Cordelia Naismith, before and immediately after having Miles. This book returns to Cordelia, giving an interesting perspective on what has gone on before that Miles just never noticed, but focusing on where she is going now.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Memory, the eleventh book in the series, in which Miles, age 30, must confront a drastic change in his life and decide how to deal with it (while investigating shenanigans in the capital city!). Except that this time, it’s Cordelia at 76 who is looking at changing her life while in the center of small town life. Admiral Jole, who has previously been an extremely minor character, is also brought into focus as he is confronted with a crossroads of his own as he is swept up in the changes she is making.

One of the really amazing things about this book is that it reads more as character-driven non-genre literature than science fiction. While it’s set in this science fiction universe, it’s also set in what is essentially a backwater boomtown. There are a large number of moderately eccentric but utterly relatable characters. Our two main characters are both mature adults with successful careers. This isn’t high adventure, it’s living your life and making choices and dealing with other people.

It’s beautiful and I loved it.

The Man in the High Castle Book vs. Movie Showdown

It often feels like people set up book readers and movie watchers as adversaries, especially when it comes to adaptations of written works to movies (or TV). “Are you mad that they’re turning this into a movie?”  “How bad will the movie be?” “If you didn’t read the book, you’re not really a fan! You can possibly appreciate the story!” And as a self-proclaimed reader who loves books, people seem to think that my loyalty will lie with books and I will be offended by any adaptation. But I actually love watching movies or TV versions of books and short stories! I find it fascinating to see how something from one medium is changed to another. What characters have to be cut or combined to make something work on screen? How does a plot need to be condensed or modified to work visually? Rather than take the changes personally, I find the adaptation process to be like watching someone work out a logic problem and I like seeing the solutions people come up with. For example, when I heard they were making a movie of the Cheryl Strayed book Wild, I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to turn that very introspective story into a movie. But the movie did a fabulous job of weaving in flashbacks while using silence to communicate Strayed’s loneliness and solitude on her hike. After I saw the movie Brokeback Mountain I went and read the source material–in that case, the movie was based on a short story, so the screenwriter had to create new material to fill out the story. If I had read the story first, I would not have believed it could be successfully expanded to a two-hour movie, but that movie is beautiful and, I think, very true to the original story. Adaptations don’t always work, of course–Little Women  is one of my very favorite books of all time, and pretty much every movie version has serious problems with casting (Winona Ryder as Jo, really?) and issues with the (admittedly) serial plot. But I also once saw a stage production of Little Women that was a failure in almost every way, EXCEPT they totally fixed Professor Bhaer by making him the same age as Jo and writing him as an absent-minded young man. He instantly went from creepy to cute. My point here is, I like comparing different media versions of the same material and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but I don’t always feel like I have to rule that one is better than another.

Having said all that, let’s talk about The Man in the High Castle. In late 2015 Amazon released a ten-episode season of an original drama based on the Philip K. Dick novel. I had never read the book, so I went into the show knowing only that it was an alternate history about a world where the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. was now divided into a West Coast occupied by the Japanese, an East Coast occupied by the Nazis, and an independent, lawless Rocky Mountain region. It’s now the early 1960s and the story follows, among other characters, members of a resistance group that are working to smuggle newsreels that seem to show the Axis losing the war to a mystery “man in the high castle” who provides them anti-Axis intel in return. The show definitely has some issues. The most primary characters–young people caught up in both the resistance and a love triangle–are the dullest on the show. Things move slowly at times, and it is dark. Really dark. Like, there were several times when I thought, “Well, surely they won’t go that far.” But, they’re Nazis! Of course they will go that far! But I really enjoyed the show overall. The world building is excellent–the scenes in San Francisco show all sorts of subtle ways that Japanese culture has been woven into the American city–and Rufus Sewell is chilling as a New York-based Nazi leader. And the newsreels that seem to show the U.S. winning the war raise all sorts of interesting questions that introduce a sci-fi element to the story (Are these fake newsreels? Are they showing our world? Is some sort of time travel happening?). By episode 10, the plot was moving along at a good pace and it ended on a cliffhanger than makes me very eager to check out (the yet-to-be-announced) Season 2.

As I was watching I heard, either online or on podcasts, that the plot of the show branched off from the book very quickly, and that in the book the newsreels were actually books themselves. This kind of change–changing a book to a film so it plays better in a visual medium–is exactly the sort of thing that fascinates me, so I decided to read The Man in the High Castle and see how the book compares. WELL. Look, I know that Philip K. Dick is a highly-regarded giant of science fiction, and I’m sure there are people out there railing about how the TV show completely ruined the book. But as far as I am concerned? DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

First of all, the plots of the two versions are wildly different, and the characters just barely even line up. The Rufus Sewell character (probably the most compelling on the show) isn’t in the book at all, and most of the other characters bear little resemblance to their TV versions. The plot does involve a mysterious book and a resistance movement, but that’s about it–it feels as if the TV writers took the basic premise of an occupied U.S. and the character names, and then went off and did their own thing. And for the most part, that new thing is more complex, with more moving parts and more people, than the book. The TV show did drop a few things that could have been interesting–in the book the Nazis are in the process of colonizing Mars–but that were presumably too complicated for TV. But overall I found the multiple plot threads of the TV show more twisty and fun. However, none of that is why I am telling you not to read this book. My issue is that the book was horribly, terribly, sexist and racist. Every female character is both stupid and mean, and Dick makes a disturbing number of “dumb, like all women” comments. And there are plenty of cases where the book will use a racial slur, and it’s obviously because that is what a particular Nazi character would say or how a white man living under Japanese occupation would feel. But there were also lots of times where it seemed pretty clear that Dick was using a slur because he himself did not realize it was a slur. It all made me feel icky and I almost gave up on the book entirely because it was so gross.

So, although I generally don’t feel the need to decide whether the book or the movie (or TV show) wins, or to tell people that one version is definitive, in this case I am clear: the TV show is better. The move down the scale of racism and sexism would be all that I needed to make that call, but I actually also thought that the TV show’s expansion of the plot and characters and the visual world building were significantly more interesting than in the book. So, as long as you have a high tolerance for darkness, I would say watch the show, and don’t feel a single bit of guilt about ignoring the book altogether.

 

 

The Gods of Tango

carolina-de-robertis-book-the-gods-of-tangoThe Gods of Tango
By Carolina de Robertis
2015

This is a switch from my usual reading in that it’s general literature rather than genre, but I ran across some recommendation for it that I can no longer recall and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did because it’s really very good.

The writing is very lush. Very poetic. And generally a style that I enjoy a lot and Anna dislikes to the point of finding it unreadable. But it’s an appropriate style, too, for a story set in Beunos Aries in the early 1900s, as the immigrant communities ballooned and the tango developed as a music style, a dance, and a culture in the cross cultural whore houses that catered to that population.

The story line follows Leda, who at seventeen marries by proxy her cousin Dante and sets out on her own from Italy to join him in Argentina. The marriage and trip is entirely by her own decision as she longs to escape the small, traditional Italian town where everything is proper and no one acknowledges the horrors that happen behind closed doors. Upon reaching the massive immigrant city of Buenos Ares, Leda discovers that her husband died at a union strike just days before she arrived. She is now a widow in a city overrun by male immigrants from around the world, where women are divided into two groups: pure women supported by husbands or fathers and whores.

In her new city, refusing to return to her family in Italy, Leda considered her options along with her growing passion for tango music (and the thought of playing on the violin her father gave to her husband) and makes the dangerous decision to avoid both paths available to women, and to dress herself as a man instead.

I particularly liked how, while Leda is the main character and the story line follows her experiences, periodically there’s sections that show the events from another character’s perspective – and that perspective includes whole histories of who that person is and what they have experienced to bring them to this point. Even as the characters may have shallow views of one another, we the reader see how much the actions and interactions of the characters are driven by their pasts.

It is all very literary. Which is not something I generally say as a compliment. Normally I find “literature” just tries too hard to be “real” and misses both realism and story line, but this was actually really well done.

One warning though, is that the book is extremely graphic in its discussion and presentation of sexuality. The Buenos Aires culture is full of machismo, the demographics have many more male immigrants than female immigrants, and prostitution is the only job priced without the assumption that a woman is merely supplementing her husband or father’s income. Sex is discussed and had in a variety of permutations on a regular basis and described with physical, mental, and emotional detail. In addition to this, one of the driving themes throughout the book is Leda’s struggle to come to terms with what happened to her girl cousin but never acknowledged when she was twelve and her cousin thirteen.

But that said, it is a really good book that I almost skipped reading, but instead stayed up way too late finishing three days after I started.