Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Naked Sun

The planet Solaria's population is low and widely scattered, and there has never been a murder there until now. The Solarian government requests a specific detective from Earth, Elijah Baley, and in spite of Baley's ingrained agoraphobia he has no choice but to go; his own government wants him to keep an eye out for any weaknesses of the Spacers of the Outer Worlds, who have kept Earth isolated for centuries. On Solaria Baley is met by his sometime Spacer associate, R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot who can pass for human, and together they learn the problem inherent in the case: only one person could possibly have committed the murder, but that person couldn't possibly have done it either.

My mystery book club at the nearest public library had a crossover meeting with the science fiction book club this month, and this far future whodunit was the book that suited both of us. I know I'd read it before, probably when I was in high school; I was reading a lot of Asimov back then.

The Naked Sun was first published in 1956, so it was already nearly 30 years old when I first read it and it's over 50 years old now.  It has dated in odd ways; the thing that struck me was Lije's references to and use of "book-films," a type of recording that has to be threaded into a reader that the user then wears on his head. Back in high school, before anybody had heard of e-books, I probably just accepted that as part of the science fictional trappings, but now it seems implausibly cumbersome.

I was also struck by how Lije treats Daneel; even though he's thrilled to see his former partner when he arrives on Solaria, Lije never forgets that that initial R stands for Robot, and he rarely misses an opportunity to emphasize that Daneel is a thing, not a person. To me, the reader, Daneel is a character every bit as sympathetic as Lije, maybe more so; this isn't the only book Daneel appears in, and having read them all I'm pretty attached to him.  He, of course, does not indicate at any time that he thinks Lije is treating him badly, but I am a little bit hurt on his behalf.

So, thought-provoking as well as entertaining, 50 years after publication! Asimov has been one of my favorite writers for a long time, and remains so.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Among Others

After the death of her twin sister, Mori Phelps, having run away from her mad and arguably evil mother in Wales, finds herself sent to live with her estranged father in England. Her father's half-sisters, who support him financially and keep him on a short leash, arrange for Mori to go to their old boarding school, Arlinghurst, where she (of course) belongs not at all; even the fairies, when she does eventually see a few, don't talk to her as the ones in Wales often would.  And then she starts to get letters from her mother, containing photos of the twins with Mori carefully burned out of them.

I'm such a big fan of Jo Walton's blogging at that I'm a little embarrassed to admit this is the first book of hers that I've read.  She says that Among Others began as an attempt to mythologize some real events in her life, and I have to think, given what she has posted about her own reading habits as a young person, that Mori is 15 in 1979 and reading a lot of science fiction because Jo was 15 then and had read all those books. It's a coming of age story about finding what I call my tribe and Mori, after Vonnegut, calls her karass; it's a book about what happens when you prepare yourself to die saving the world, and survive; and most of all it's about how if you love books enough, books will love you back.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ghost Story

Who shot Harry Dresden?

When we last saw our hero, the only professional wizard in the Chicago phone book, he had just been shot and left for dead in the cold water of Lake Michigan. Six months later, supernatural Chicago is in bad shape, with the good guys struggling to make up for Harry’s absence and maintain a certain amount of peace in spite of the mad scramble to fill the power void left by the eradication of the Red Court of vampires. Harry finds himself on the wrong side of both life and afterlife, asked to return as a shade to solve his own murder and told that three people he loves will surely suffer if he does not. But a shade is only memory: invisible and inaudible to most people, unable to affect the physical world, and (Harry learns to his horror) unable to work magic. How can he do anything to help his friends if he can’t actually do anything?

What I really liked about the answer to that question was that Harry had to use a method he has frequently been able to get away with ignoring: he has to think. He is, after all, a detective, even if his favorite way of getting answers has always been to blow stuff up until someone starts talking. And because a shade is only the sum of its memories, we get to see Harry remember events that have previously only been alluded to. I read this book in one fell swoop the afternoon it came in the mail, and really enjoyed this glimpse of a more reflective Harry Dresden. I have some concerns about the implications of the ending, but I’m quite interested to see where Jim Butcher takes the series next.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Brother Cadfael, now the herbalist at the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury after wide travels as a younger man, is more interested in a chance to leave the abbey walls behind for a time and speak his native Welsh again than in his prior's mission to retrieve the relics of a little-regarded Welsh saint for the greater glory of their abbey. When the villagers where Saint Winifred is buried object strongly to the prospect of her bones being carried away into England, Cadfael's sympathies lie more with them than with Prior Robert or Brother Columbanus, a young monk whose fits were apparently cured by water from the saint's holy well and who now has an oddly proprietary interest in her remains.  The death of the main landholder in the area, found with an arrow through his chest, removes the main obstacle to Prior Robert's plans, a fact not lost on anyone present, and Cadfael must work to discover the murderer and devise a solution to the argument over the saint's bones.

One of the branches of the library system where I work has a monthly mystery reading and discussion group, and this month's book was A Morbid Taste for Bones, first of the excellent Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.  I brought my own copy, which I've owned since 1994.  I own the whole set, in fact, and now I'm probably going to go through and reread a bunch of them, if maybe not every one.

I didn't initially read them in order, but I like to reread them that way. This may actually be the series that convinced me that even the kind of series where each novel stands on its own is still best read in order; with this series, you can follow the progress of the Anarchy, the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, in the background of the separate mysteries Cadfael has to deal with.

In the discussion this week, someone commented that this series seemed to be the one that launched the trend of historical mysteries, especially medieval mysteries, that is still going strong and shows no signs of falling off.  This one was originally published in 1977, but I remember the series taking off in the late 80s or early 90s, and the television adaptations with Derek Jacobi certainly didn't hurt.  I still compare all medieval mysteries to these; and most of them don't measure up, either in terms of plot or character, and especially not in terms of historical accuracy.  The benchmark of the genre, even today.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Essential Bordertown

Some time not too long ago, no one knows how or why, the Border between the human World and the faerie Realm bisected a modern city, which was soon renamed Bordertown.  Neither technology nor magic is entirely reliable in the Borderlands; anything powered by electricity or internal combustion has to have a spellbox for backup power, while spells should only be undertaken with caution, in the knowledge that not only may they fail, they may fail spectacularly. Quickly abandoned by many residents who couldn't cope with the sudden infusion of weirdness, B-town just as quickly became a magnet for disaffected youth on both sides of the Border, and developed a musical and artistic culture of misfits powered by the runaways squatting in the slums of the district called (what else) Soho.  This book offers a sort of home-grown travel guide for malcontents, with illustrative examples of everything you need to know to survive on the Border.

I stumbled across editor Terri Windling's shared world of Bordertown kind of late in the game, when the second anthology of short stories (also called Bordertown) was reprinted in 1996, ten years after its original publication. Or maybe it was Emma Bull's 1994 Bordertown novel Finder that I read first? I forget, now that I try to pin it down, and that's okay, because Bordertown is kind of unpinnable anyway.  I do know that I scoured the new and used book stores of Chapel Hill trying to track down the other anthologies and novels; the first and third, Borderlands and Life on the Border, I got used, but the novel Nevernever I bought new, and I never did track down a copy of Elsewhere to buy (though I did read it, thank you Chapel Hill Public Library). It was also the library that provided me with a copy of this book when it came out in 1998.

I recently learned that after 13 years there's finally a new Borderlands book coming out later this month, Welcome to Bordertown. On learning from the Bordertown Series website that the books I didn't own were still in print, I ordered them just as soon as I finished my fangirl squee; I've got a pre-order in for the new one as well.

This series is one of the foundations of modern urban fantasy, and I can't recommend it enough if you like that kind of thing.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Midnight Riot

At the end of his two years' probation as a beat constable, Peter Grant is judged too easily distracted to make a good copper, and faces the awful prospect of assignment to the Case Progression Unit—doing all the paperwork to free up better cops to do their work out on the streets. Then, while guarding a crime scene in the early hours of the morning until it gets light enough for forensics to do their work, Peter talks to an eyewitness who saw the whole murder. The fact that the witness was a ghost brings Peter to the attention of Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last practicing wizard on the Metropolitan Police force.

I spotted one of the major plot twists about half the book in advance of the narrator, and I'm not even English, but I still knew within the first chapter that I would really enjoy this book, and I really did. I snapped up the sequel, Moon over Soho, the minute my library got a copy. The First Person Smartass narrative voice was great, and I kept having to read particularly funny lines out loud to whoever happened to be nearby. The main character is wonderfully appealing, the supporting characters are equally interesting, and a couple of them clearly have a lot of backstory to unpack in subsequent volumes. The author, Ben Aaronovitch, has a background in TV writing, and I read an interview with him where he said he had originally thought of his Magic Cops story as a TV project; you can tell it would work great on the screen.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The King's Speech

While it is a source of embarrassment to himself and his family, in the larger scheme of things it doesn't seem like too much of a disaster that Prince Albert, Duke of York, known to his family as "Bertie," suffers from a crippling stammer.  When elocution lessons using the methods of Demosthenes fail, Bertie simply resigns himself to withdrawing from public appearances.  His wife Elizabeth is less inclined to leave it at that, and hunts up an unconventional Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, whose approach combines physical exercises with a kind of psychological probing that affronts the buttoned-up prince. But Lionel gets results, and when Bertie's older brother is pushed into abdicating the throne, Bertie unexpectedly becomes King George VI.  And the King must speak to his people.

I knew as soon as I heard about this movie that it was going to be right up my alley.  I didn't know much about the storyline; I'd heard quite a bit about the romanticized story of King Edward VIII, but not much about the younger brother who had to pick up the pieces after the abdication. And of course, I'll watch just about anything if it has Colin Firth in it.

I loved this movie.  For a while I was afraid that it wouldn't even play in my town; we only have a couple of multiplex theaters, and a lot of the time it seems they can't spare even one screen for a small period drama.  But when The King's Speech started getting all those award nominations and Oscar buzz, we finally got it here.  And I finally found a friend who also wanted to see it; she's British, as it happens, and was glad that the film presented Edward VIII as kind of a jerk.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unnatural Death, AKA The Dawson Pedigree

A chance meeting with a doctor who feels there was something not quite right about the unexpectedly sudden death of an elderly cancer patient leads Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate whether or not a crime was committed.

When I read these books for the first time, this was the last one I tracked down, and one of the few where I figured out the answer before Lord Peter did, albeit only just before.  It also introduces Lord Peter's operative Miss Climpson, whose breathless style of letter-writing (with much underlining, capital letters for emphasis, and many, many exclamation points) would get on my nerves in real life but illustrates her character wonderfully in a novel. 

This is one of the two Lord Peter novels that have never been adapted for drama; of the other nine, Ian Carmichael did five in the 1970s, Edward Petherbridge did three in the 1980s, and the last started out as a play before it was novel and was made into movies a couple of times in the 1940s and 1950s.  Unnatural Death and Whose Body? have never been dramatized, as far as I and the IMDb can discover.

Not to give too much away, but one principal reason Unnatural Death seems unfilmable is that so much of the obfuscation depends on the detectives not realizing that two apparently separate characters are actually the same person: Parker and Wimsey meet one persona, while Miss Climpson only knows the other.  This works great on the page, but would be tough to pull off on screen without cheating; when Miss Climpson finally runs across the alter ego, she realizes who it is immediately, and if the same person played both roles, so would the audience. 

I suppose there could be other ways to confuse the issue, but there's another reason why TV and film might shy away from both these books: the casually open prejudices of the 1920s, when they were written.  There's no evidence that Dorothy Sayers herself subscribed to the anti-Semitism of Whose Body? or the racism against blacks in Unnatural Death; if anything, the characters who do make racist remarks are subtly ridiculed by the narration.  But it's still there all the same, openly using names we're not allowed to call people on TV any more.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clouds of Witness

Lord Peter Wimsey returns from an extended visit to Corsica to find his family's name all over the police reports: his sister Mary's fiance has been found shot dead, and their brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for the murder. Lord Peter and Inspector Parker attempt to find the real killer, or at least to clear Gerald, but they find the problem with the case is too many clues.

I have read this book as well, but what I really want to talk about is the BBC production with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.  Mark Eden played Parker, Rachel Herbert was Mary, and Glyn Houston played Lord Peter's indispensible manservant Bunter with wonderful aplomb.  It has the look of 1970s BBC drama, filmed mostly on unconvincing sets but wonderfully acted, especially by Carmichael and Houston.  One of the extra features on the DVD is an interview with Ian Carmichael, in which he disarmingly admits up front that he was always a good 20 years too old for the role.  Indeed he was, but he certainly had the attitude right!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Whose Body?

or, the Singular Adventure of the Man with the Golden Pince-Nez.  When the vicar's wife tells the Dowager Duchess of Denver that the architect supervising the reconstruction of the church roof has discovered the dead body of a stranger, naked except for a pair of pince-nez eyeglasses, in his bath, Her Grace promptly calls on her younger son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to leave off his hobby of buying rare books at auction and take up his other hobby of unofficial detection.  Meanwhile, Lord Peter's good friend Detective Inspector Parker is looking for the missing Sir Reuben Levy, who apparently vanished from his home overnight taking none of his clothing, not even his spectacles.  Although the two incidents are, to all appearances, unconnected except by the coincidence of having happened the same night, Parker and Lord Peter jointly investigate both.

It's interesting reading Whose Body? (which had a contemporary setting when it was published in 1923) so soon after The Attenbury Emeralds (set in the 1950s with a flashback to the 1920s, but published in 2010, and therefore a piece of historical fiction probably requiring a good deal of research).  Lord Peter's silly-ass-with-an-eyeglass persona is in full bloom in his first appearance, and he talks a good deal of nonsense; it's hard to picture this affable upper class twit in the situation Paton Walsh puts him in towards the end of her latest book about him, though his episode of PTSD here does indicate there's more behind that monocle than a vacant look.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds

Bare days after Lord Peter Wimsey recounts to his wife Harriet the story of his first effort as a detective, the finding of the Earl of Attenbury's missing emerald some 30 years before, the current Earl comes to him for help in resolving a problem: the provenance of the emerald, kept safely in a bank vault, is now under dispute, as someone else is claiming ownership.  If it is the same emerald, how can that be proven?  If it has been switched for another, similar stone, who can have done it and when, and where is Attenbury's jewel?  And are the seemingly random, apparently accidental deaths that have occurred every time the emerald was removed from the bank actually cases of murder?

Hard to believe it's 12 years now since Jill Paton Walsh took the fragments of Dorothy Sayers' last, unfinished Lord Peter story and published Thrones, Dominations with the approval of Sayers' literary executors.  A subsequent Peter and Harriet novel, A Presumption of Death, also built on Sayers' own work in "The Wimsey Papers," short pieces published during World War II.  This new one, The Attenbury Emeralds, appears to be all Paton Walsh.  I've had mixed reactions to this kind of pastiche ever since I first ran across The Seven Per Cent Solution, but I think I've finally figured out how to enjoy them without fretting over the differences from the original works: I just regard them as fan fiction.*  And this is really good fanfic, let me tell you.

The mystery is intriguing and multi-layered, the characters are charming in just the right way, and Paton Walsh has a very nice touch with the tone: a light surface shading into darker undertones.  It has made me decide to go back and read all of Sayers' own Lord Peter stories.  Recommended for fans of the character.

*When Neil Gaiman was asked if his Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Emerald," made him a fanfic writer, he thought it over and replied that no, it made him a Hugo-Award-winning fanfic writer.  Love that man.