CBR / 4&5 Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) and Raising Steam (2013)

I love Terry Pratchett’s books. They’ve got me through the first raw days after breakups, through long train and plane journeys away from people I love, through the gloom of having a cold at the beginning of spring when the world is bursting with light and colour. I love the eerie technology of the clacks in Going Postal,  the blood and fire of Carpe Jugulum, the pain and anger and sweetness of the Tiffany Aching sequence, the terrible beauty of Lords and Ladies, and the molten rage and darkness of The Fifth Elephant, the hilarious apocalyptic mayhem of Good Omens . It’s hard for me to review Pratchett, in other words–I hold some of his books in such elevated corners of my heart that it’s both hard for me to let any new ones in, and also hard for me to realise that they don’t deserve to be there. It’s also hard to be objective because of the tragedy of the Alzheimer’s Disease that Pratchett has lived with since 2007–it’s hard not to make reviews sound like elegies–and unfair to make them elegies as well. There are plenty of authors whose brilliance fades as their output continues, even without any debilitating medical conditions, and perhaps all authors are owed an honest opinion, whether they’re dead or new at it or falling stars. Or, indeed, perhaps all texts are owed honesty.

And Pratchett on a bad day is still on a par with a lot of people on a good day.

So, to begin with Dodger.

Dodger is a street urchin in early-Victorian London, who makes his living by finding things in the sewers as a tosher. One day he emerges from the smelly depths to encounter an altercation–two men are beating up a girl. Dodger manages to chase them off, and two passers-by, Henry and Charlie, take them to Henry’s home. The girl turns out to have a mysterious past and identity, and Dodger soon finds that the world above the sewers–both literally and in the homes of the rich and powerful–can be as dark and treacherous as the stinking trenches below the city. Driven by the desire to help the girl, Dodger rapidly rises beyond the community of petty thieves and toshers he’s known his whole life, helped by his mentor Solomon Cohen and the quizzical newspaperman Charlie Dickens.

Dodger is a rollicking read; it’s fun spotting the cameo appearances by Victorian figures, there’s a sense of the uncanny in the sewer-world, the intrigue is interesting, with echoes of Wilkie Collins as well as Dickens, and the city and its denizens are lovingly evoked. It’s very enjoyable–but. It lacks edge and genuine peril. It is aimed at non-adult readers, which is fair enough, but the Tiffany Aching books are scary enough, even when their heroine is nine years old. Although Dodger’s relationship with his grownups is amusing enough, they almost protect him too well, and Dodger himself is a more than capable adversary. There just could be more of everything–more verve, more danger, more cameos, more smells. What there is, though, provides a very pleasant and amusing read.

The same issues dog Raising Steam. Moist von Lipwig in Going Postal is an effervescent liar, cheat and conman, who thinks on his feet (usually as he’s running away), and doesn’t lose his fizz when he decides to use his sneaky powers for good. In Raising Steam, he’s an established businessman, and financial resources and social status seem to have replaced his powers of cunning and persuasion. At the heart of the novel is the invention of the steam locomotive by an earnest Dick Simnel, a Northern lad with a flat cap, which shortly becomes all the rage in Ankh-Morpork–and causes rage in Dwarfish fundamentalists who resist progress. The machine seems to have uncanny powers of its own, but the focus of Raising Steam is getting planning permission to build railways between Ankh-Morpork and Sto-Lat–Moist’s job, which he accomplishes through blunt force and trading agreements rather than wheeling and dealing. Although Simnel himself is a trusting, innocent lad, with overtones of Corporal Carrot at times, the fact that he has Moist, Vetinari, Blackboard Monitor Vimes and the power of his own engine behind him again means that there’s little sense of genuine peril.

So Raising Steam is neither eerie nor exhilarating. It is, again, a pleasant read, it espouses Pratchett’s laudable philosophies of tolerance and general humaneness, even towards goblins, dwarves and trolls, and there are some chuckles to be had from wordplay and the occasional absurd situation. The boom of the railroad and the culture of travel that emerges around holds a jolly mirror to Victorian England, and it’s always nice to be back in the Discworld.

CBR 6/3: J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements (2013)

The Engagements is one of those books that jumps around in time, but instead of focusing on the secrets and passions of a single family or group of friends, it views the post-World War II era through the prism of a diamond ring, passed down through the decades not as an heirloom but by accident, coincidence and carelessness…and in one case crime. This ring unites different couples and families, serving as a symbol of both hope and disappointment, and providing a window on shifting concepts of marriage and sexuality, as well as the different challenges couples faced in the years following the war. One family faces divorce, another poverty, another couple deal with differences in age and worldview, and another tries to navigate the problems of trying to live ethically in a world dominated by capitalism and commodity fetishism.

The diamond ring sparkles hard through all of these narrative strands, even if we’re sometimes kept in suspense about when or how it will appear…or disappear. But why are diamonds synonymous with engagement, with marriage, with unity and eternity?  The most interesting story of the book appears all too seldom, including the prologue, so what follows is hardly a spoiler. In 1947,  Frances Gerety is one of the few female copywriters at N. W. Ayer & Son, the first advertising agency in the United States, based in Philadelphia. Tasked with inventing a slogan for the de Beers account, one late night, she comes up with the tagline “A Diamond is Forever.” This spawns a massive advertising campaign that includes some of the first product placement deals with movie studios, promotional magazine articles, and other elements that we take for granted these days, even as we take for granted the link between engagements and diamond rings. The Frances sections include fascinating details such as how the idea of the man paying two months’ salary on a ring was invented by the company, how diamonds were marketed to all levels of class and wealth–and what it was like to be one of the few female employees at a male-dominated firm during an age when single women were refused entrance to country clubs and business dinners, and married women were expected to give up their jobs, and there was something wrong with women who didn’t want a large sparkling diamond ring.

The other sections are slightly lacklustre in comparison–the other women lack Frances’s swagger, and seem driven by anxiety rather than determination. Sullivan is skilled at including a lot of vivid emotional and historical detail in a way that doesn’t seem cramped or rushed, and although the novel deals to some extent in stereotypes, particularly when it shifts to Paris for no discernible reason, it’s a thoughtful and enjoyable read.


CBR 6/2: Charlaine Harris’s Real Murders (1990)

I read this book a year or two ago, but I completely forgot that I had, picked it up from the library for some light entertainment, and got about three-quarters of the way through before I realised that the gory crimes and girly characters and burgeoning love triangles seemed strangely familiar. So…it’s basically unmemorable–generic in all senses of the word; indeed, it attempts to play with how closely it follows the procedures and developments of detective novels by being set among a group of avid murder fans, but that doesn’t make it any cleverer.

A group of people interested in Real Murders meet monthly to present a “classic crime”–until one day things get All Too Real. The conventions of the detective novel are infused with the cliches of the romance genre, making the novel a brew stirred by a mysterious stranger, a sinister stalker, a shy librarian with a confident mother who doesn’t realise how attractive she is, and the perfectly ordinary folks of a small town in Georgia. Said librarian is Aurora “Roe” Teagarden–Harris does have a genius for coming up with eccentric names for her heroines–and she and the mysterious out-of-towner and a solid police officer team up to solve a murder, their detection accompanied by plenty of oddly decorous friction of the emotional/lustful kind. While the murders are bloody and graphic, the sexual tension is more about lingering glances and stolen kisses than the hot vampire shower scenes of Harris’s later work, in case anyone is wondering.

Real Murders was written in 1990, and the fashion and gadgetry have a retro feel that fans of Sue Grafton’s earlier stuff might enjoy–perhaps the saddest sign of the times is that the library where Roe works is busy enough to require extended evening openings. It’s a slight but vaguely entertaining read, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find it or recommend it.

CBR 6/1: Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995)

A friend of mine had enjoyed the film, so when I saw Wonder Boys available very cheaply in a January sale, I snapped it up, thinking that a disillusioned and satirical take on academia would be fun to read while waiting for the last stage of my own studies to begin. It’s the story of a wild weekend in the life of Grady Tripp, a professor of creative writing at a small American college, who has been writing the same novel – Wonder Boys - for years. The Wonder Boys within Wonder Boys is over two thousand pages long when Wonder Boys opens; it has sprawled and spread out into subplots within subplots. Over the course of a single weekend, the various narrative strands of Tripp’s own life suddenly spiral out of control–the midlife crisis he has been haphazardly brewing for himself bubbles over with venom and acid and occasional bursts of sweetness.

Tripp is almost permanently stoned, which gives his narration a hazy feel, studded with images of startling clarity when he manages to lock onto a person or an object or the emotional temperature of a room for longer than a couple of seconds. It also makes his careening from one disaster to the next not terribly interesting. His long musings on the toil and trouble he brought upon himself undercut both poignancy and comedy–and that, perhaps, is their point. Tripp’s tragedy is perhaps that his tragedy is a series of small, pathetic, everyday sins he committed rather than the thunder and lightning of true passion and the torture of being marked and blasted by the fates. If the same unlikely concatenation of events had happened to someone sober and sympathetic, it would, perhaps, have made the novel both darker and funnier, adding a desperation and peril to the weird small-town odyssey of the story.

Chabon’s commentary on the academic world and the publishing industry is bleak but amusing, and there are some interesting supporting characters. His take on symbols of American modern mythologies and the possibilities people have for creating their own myths of themselves is a cool aspect of the tale, and perhaps they does need Tripp’s corrosive insight to do them justice. And even though it’s distressing to think that 1995 is an age of which the words “period detail” can be used, an extra level of amusement is provided through the lack of mobile phones and the significance of the typewriter and the vulnerability of typewritten pages. I’d recommend Wonder Boys for people who like books about books and campus novels.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #13: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Rachel Samstat is a chef who’s been on TV, and a bemused but witty heroine/narrator. She finds out that her husband is having an affair…and she happens to be pregnant. From these simple beginnings emerges a frothy but sharp lemon cheesecake of a novel–light and creamy on top, infused with tartness, and grounded in the buttery biscuits of warmth and insight which evoked the nods, smiles and sighs of recognition, a meaningful encounter with a book or a character.

In Heartburn, divorce doesn’t lead to discovery and life-changing experiences Eat Pray Love-style, or graphic sexual odyssey à la Fear of Flying. It’s a quieter, more humorous take on the muddles that people get themselves into, and the ways in which they survive heartbreak and separation. The book is set among the upper-middle-class, if such a designation is appropriate for American literature set in artistic New York and the political circles of Washington, but the emotional resonance of the novel, the pain and confusion of adultery and divorce and the split-second moments of clarity, as well as its commentary on the behaviour of the entitled male, is amusing and perhaps, to some extent, universal.

I’d recommend it if you like Julie and Julia (the book or the film), or Sex and the City (the series, not the films *brrr*). It’s a niche sort of book–less saccharine than some of the films she was involved in–the most acerbic bits and crackle from When Harry Met Sally come closest to the tone. Heartburn gains added interest because it was based on her second marriage and the fallout that followed, and it also contains recipes which look rather tasty.


Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #12: Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown is at the edge of the “immer”, an outpost of the Bremen empire, and at the border between the Ariekei and the humans on the planet Arieka. It is clearly science fiction, verging towards dystopian science fiction, but it’s also about colonialism, about the alien and the other, and about words and signs and truth and lies and revolutions that change the meaning of all of these. Negotiating between the Ariekei, or Hosts, who are the aliens, and the mostly-human community are the Ambassadors, who we gradually find out are sets of doubled, identical beings who speak “Language” with two voices but one brain, the only form of communication that the aliens, who are alien to the point of not even breathing oxygen–or being physically or mentally capable of lying, of saying that something is not what it is but something else–can understand.

Drifting among the power structures, danger zones and levels of communication in Embassytown, is Avice, a girl who made an unusual contact with the alien race early in her life, and who becomes a Navigator in the “immer,” able to transport vessels in a nebulous, shifting space among the stars and planets that make up the universe. On one planet she finds Scile, a linguist obsessed with the Host alien language and way of communication, and brings him in her wake back to Arieka. Scile’s investigation and idealism happens to coincide with the appearance of an impossible Ambassador from Bremen, and the results are ultimately disturbing and destructive in metaphysical as well as physical ways.

Embassytown is a trippy read. A lot of it makes more sense if you’re familiar with the sign and signified and other Derridean stuff, or if you’re used to reading or watching science fiction in which obscure or made-up words describe technology, environment and aliens. It takes a while to get into, but I was gripped when I finally did. Although the novel is more about ideas than people, there is some relatable emotion and experience, particularly as events unfold, but I found it hard to get a sense of Avice and the other characters as more than ciphers–I basically admired it greatly and enjoyed it as an intellectual rather than emotional or escapist read. It’s a weird, thought-provoking novel without any easy answers.


Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #11: Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson

The gaps in Saving Mr Banks scream to be noticed — what happens between the sweet, imaginative, tremulous Ginty Goff, and Miss Travers, the crotchety, chic and red-lipsticked dame who holds the keys to something Walt Disney very much wants and refuses to release them for mere filthy lucre? While the film links Miss Travers to Ginty through (some might say excessive) flashbacks, a great deal must have occurred between the ages of 10 and 60, between the Australian drawl of Ginty and the clipped upper-middle-class accents of Miss Travers, between the blazing red dust of the Australian outback and the twee terraced house with the cherry tree outside it.

Apparently, between Allora and Los Angeles, Travers fell in with various spiritual gurus, travelled the world, was a published journalist and poet, had a stint acting, and did a great deal more with her life than write about a stern governess and whimsical adventures that  she always insisted were not “children’s books”–and the people she knew, her triumphs and suffering, and her accomplishments and ambitions far exceed the brief list I have given as well.  She was, as everybody is, a person of contradictions, who tried to hide her past (including her name and nationality) but gave hints of it in her work, and wanted no biography but meticulously kept records and sold them to public archives. (Lawson uses this last as a justification for breaking Travers’s command to have no biography, which is a bit tenuous.) Suggestions of the author’s vulnerability and powers appear in Emma Thompson’s marvellous performance in the film, but unfortunately the gaps in the film don’t allow her to fulfil the full potential of the role and the story.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote goes some way towards connecting the dots, but unfortunately–or perhaps inevitably–draws some of its lines out of conjecture and flights of fancy, trying to recreate Travers’s process and imagery–”she might have felt this” or “she probably remembered that.” Nevertheless, it’s a persuasively argued biography, with the evidence it produces going a long way towards sharpening a great deal of the sugar of Saving Mr Banks. I won’t spoil all the revelations, but I must say that if Disney did indeed use this biography as a basis for the film, it’s an extraordinary case of double-think at work; Travers’s experience with Disney did not end in a heartwarming scene of reconciliation between Walt and P. L., and she publicly criticised the film for the rest of her life. I recommend Mary Poppins, She Wrote to anyone who loves the books (not children, though!) and was left wanting by the film.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I accidentally left The Corner That Held Them (Virago Modern Classics 2012) on a train, but fortunately only after I’d finished it. And I’m glad I did finish it because it would have been very hard to be cut off from it in the middle – not because so many important things happen, but because so many unimportant things flow so steadily in such a stream of gentle vitality that not reaching the end would be like a river dammed and ruined at its most limpid and beautiful.

Published in 1948, the story begins around 1153 when Brian de Retteville catches his wife Alianor in bed with her lover Giles. Giles is summarily and bloodily killed, as is the old woman who was supposed to stand guard. Alianor lives for another ten years, and when she dies de Retteville, in an excess of grief, founds a convent by the Waxle river, presumably somewhere in the fens and moors of East Anglia. From these beginnings of sex and murder springs the tale of a community of (theoretically) chaste and (theoretically) benevolent ladies, who must manage the lands belonging to their convent, maintain their religious ceremonies, and negotiate with various bishops and businessmen for funds and recognition. Meanwhile, the world between 1349 and 1382, when the bulk of the story takes place, is a dangerous and unstable site of conflicting religious theories, rebellious peasants, fraudulent friars and an occasional anxiety about the apocalypse which must surely loom very near. The nuns themselves reflect this turmoil – their superstition, jealousy, and worldly concerns are not expunged with holy water, and the various power struggles and secrets threaten to upset the entire convent and their relationship with God.

The Corner That Held Them is masterfully written. The narrator displays evenhanded insight – no one nun emerges as a heroine, no one man of God as a complete villain, and the various preoccupations of this community of women ranging from the very old to the barely pubescent are told in realistic detail – there are pustules and plagues as well as heavenly visions and vocations, worry about harvests and decay as well as the aspiration of building a new spire for the glory of God. Curiously for such subject matter God and religion are left shadowy; masses and prayers are such a matter of rote that little special attention is paid to them, which I think enhances the immersion of the reader into the novel – historical novels are often written with big signs pointing to “period detail” instead of it emerging naturally from the narrative. New philosophic and spiritual ideas of man’s place in the world and by extension women’s place in relation to man are woven skilfully into the mundane events of the rural community, and the hostility of peasants and Lollards is also made real. Overall, this is a great book; the nuns themselves become very real the further you read.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also wrote Lolly Willowes, reviewed here.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #09: Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone by Catriona McPherson

My review of Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder is available on Pajiba.com. Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone occurs a few years later, set in 1929 just before the stock market crash. Dandy Gilver is the wife of a country gentleman,  the mother of two teenage boys, and a detective in the partnership of Gilver & Osborne, which illustrious agency has aided in the solving of several murders as well as insurance scams and jewel robberies between books.

The deadly measure of brimstone, with its associations of hellfire and witchcraft, is in fact the foul-tasting mineral waters of a spa in the tiny town of Moffat near the Scottish border, where people came during the Victorian era to “take the waters” and more recently to enjoy steamrooms and massages–and possibly other, more illicit–and as well as supernatural–goings on. What the comfortable and well-fed patrons don’t realise, however, is how desperate the owners of the spa are to make a profit. The doctor and manager of the spa are brother and sister, but have differing ideas of what to do with the place they inherited, and a patient was found dead under awkward circumstances… Dandy and Alec Osborne arrive into the town to solve a mystery, and Dandy’s family accompanies them to convalesce from pneumonia and whooping-cough. Soon even the family realises that something is rotten, quite apart from the sulphur in the drinking water.

Brimstone is a great read–the chemistry between Dandy and Alec crackles with familiarity and respect, the subplots are slightly unlikely but well-written and good fun, and seeing a maternal Dandy interact with her children–in previous novels away at boarding school or busy with estate managers brings a new dimension to the lady detective. I’ve really enjoyed the whole series of Dandy novels, and I hope there are more to come.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #08: Swan Song by Edmund Crispin

I like old-school detective stories, and I like Oxford, and I have liked detective stories set in Oxford, and I enjoy Lewis occasionally, but I did not enjoy Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song (1947) very much. Starring Gervais Fen, in a nebulous sort of way, the plot centres around an odious opera singer and the drama behind the scenes–when Edwin Shorthouse is found dead in a locked room after a conversation in which several people expressed murderous intent, could it possibly be suicide as the police suspect?

Gervais Fen is an academic, but it’s unclear, at least from this novel, in what field. He is considered witty, and has, as is right and proper, an ambivalent relationship with the more conventional forms of law and order, i.e. Inspector Mudge. He lacks much personality beyond the occasional quip and leap of logic. In this particular investigation, he is aided by Adam, also an opera singer, but of a pleasant, non-primadonna type, and his new wife Elizabeth, who writes about crime and is well read up on poisons. The action takes place in Oxford just after the war, which is indicated not only by street names and references to random colleges, but the use of the “Bird and Baby,” which Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings called The Eagle and Child pub, and the occasional splash of local colour: ‘There goes C.S. Lewis,’ said Fen suddenly. ‘It must be Tuesday.’ And this may be overly persnickety, but if someone’s familiar enough with Oxford and its literary scene to call the Eagle and Child the Bird and Baby, they should know that C.S. Lewis usually went by “Jack.” 

Anyway. It’s a pleasant enough read, despite irritations, but it suffers in comparison with the Other Oxford detective novel – Fen seems a pale Wimsey, Elizabeth a non-descript Harriet Vane, the solution to the crime, although ingenious, contains both heavily signposted elements (“he was not to know that someone else knew where the revolver was” and that kind of thing)and elements that the reader, i.e. me, could see coming from miles off but do not become clear to the celebrated detective until the final denouement. Overall, disappointing, but passes the time. I might try another of his books at some point.