This Christmas, I did what all good Christians do: I read. A lot. And so, a rapid-fire review of everything I plowed through during that week.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death; Strong Poison
These are both strong, witty, workmanlike mysteries (although, as a Brit, it probably would have killed Sayers to be described as “workmanlike”). The main character, Lord Peter Wimsey, is highly likeable in that “crazy aristocrat” sort of way, and the side characters-from stern police officer Parker to odd-but-efficient spinster Miss Climpson-serve as an excellent accompaniment to his eccentricity. The mysteries themselves aren’t that astounding: Unnatural Death is over eighty years old by this point, so it’s a little unfair to expect shocking twists and turns. Reading these, I couldn’t help but think about how circumstantial cases had to be in the days before DNA testing, how based on supposition and-frankly-snap judgments made about someone else’s character. Which leads me to the major gripe I had with both of these: they are very, very much products of their time, in that Lord Peter makes no bones about judging people based on their gender, their race, their social class, and their jobs. Oh, and the assumptions he makes based upon these factors? As fun as it would be to see him lose a case because he couldn’t see past his own prejudices, the truth is that in Sayer’s work, bias always works to the hero’s advantage. The snap judgments he makes always turn out to be correct.
Racist, sexist, classist-the “-isms” are out in full force in these. Still, it’s fun to bask in the old-timey Britishness.
Recommended for: obsessive readers of mysteries, people who are reading up on the ‘20s and ‘30s, and/or people who find excessive Britishness soothing.
Bill Willingham, et al., Fables Vol. 1-9
A series of graphic novels based upon the premise that fairy tale characters are real and are living among us, having been forced to flee from their home worlds by an evil being known as the Adversary. To give you an idea of how awesome these things are, consider this fact: Prince Charming has apparently been married to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella (although not all at the same time). I always suspected it! Anyway, pros: a strong central storyline that unfolds slowly, steadily, and satisfyingly; characters that you can love, love to hate, and actually imagine knowing; often lovely art. Cons: from what I understand, these are serialized as comics, and so they have some of the classic comic problems-the most egregious example are the side plots that don’t really matter (“Oh, shit! I forgot I had to write something this month”). Also, it has a rotating cast of illustrators, so the style isn’t as consistent as it might be and there’s occasionally a chapter that’s outright fugly. These are minor quibbles, though, and relatively easy to get past. This series does have a strong Western slant, which the author acknowledges and which has been worked into the plot with some grace and sense. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the treatment of non-Western fairy tales within the novels: it makes me a little uneasy in a way I can’t quite articulate. I’d love to hear reactions from anyone else who’s read it.
Recommended for: People who like comics, people who like fairy tales, people who like watching their childhoods perverted and destroyed.
Tracy Grant, Secrets of a Lady
Originally published as Daughter of the Game (which was a much more accurate title, not to mention less of a lameass one), this book is about Charles and Melanie Fraser, an aristocratic couple in Regency England whose son is kidnapped. They must use their skills as former spies(!!1!) to get him back. I read this and enjoyed the shit out of it; my sister read it as Daughter of the Game and still curls her lip whenever it’s mentioned. I can see why: I enjoyed this book immensely because it’s fast-paced, the heroine is way more badass than the hero (who is no slouch himself), and because the poor kidnapped kid is written pretty well. Also, I have a weakness for A.) Regency romances and B.) Suspense. Plus it was the first night I went without Ambien, and I really appreciated the fact that it kept me entertained enough so that I could mostly ignore my HORRIBLE, TERRIBLE AWAKENESS. But there are serious problems with this book. The biggest one is simply that Charles Fraser accepts things that a man of that day and age almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to. I mean, there have always been exceptional people who have been exceptionally open-minded (George Eliot’s “husband” was himself a bastard, and we’re reasonably sure that he never knew it because his mother’s husband just quietly accepted him). But it’s one thing to write a character who is exceptional but still a product of his time-he accepts that his wife had premarital sex, for example, but still believes that non-whites are inferior-and another thing to write a nineteenth century character whose ideas are all straight out of the modern day. I can’t get too into specifics without giving away the plot, but Charles is very sanguine about certain aspects of his wife’s past that would have given a man of his day and age absolute fits, and he accepts the fact that his mother was mentally ill and couldn’t be held responsible for her actions. I mean, honestly, he’d be a saint in our time, but back in the days when they routinely transported people for stealing, he’d have been looked upon as the Second Coming.
My other big gripe with this book has less to do with it by itself and more to do with it as part of the historical fiction genre. Charles’ mother is pretty clearly meant to be suffering from bipolar disorder: for the record? I am tired of BPD. That is, I am really, seriously fucking sick of historical fiction authors always making one of their characters bipolar–it’s gotten to the point that if someone acts a wee bit “off,” I know I can expect a manic period any page now. Stop. It. There are other mental illnesses out there–have you ever heard of Borderline personality disorder? Or schizophrenia? It’s an oldie, but a goodie. I love manic depression as much as the next reader, but this is getting really old, guys. It was kind of cool when Judith Merkle Riley did it in The Water Devil, but that was well over a decade ago now. It’s time to move on. Bust out your copy of the DSM-IV and start reading up, okay?
Recommended for: Regency fans who don’t mind a complete absence of sex scenes.
Meg Cabot, Every Boy’s Got One
Okay, I’ll fess up: I have a terribly conflicted relationship with Meg Cabot. When she’s on, she is on, but when she’s off, she gets on my last fucking nerve. After due consideration, though, I have to admit that while this book made me throw up in my mouth a little, that is almost certainly not Cabot’s fault this time around. I just have an irrational hatred for the premise-that the heroine believes in love and marriage and the hero doesn’t. My fucking sweet Lord in heaven, I hate that plot with every fiber of my being. It always starts off with two cardboard cutout characters (because they are not actual people, they are merely vehicles for ideas) woodenly stating their respective positions. And it always ends with the hero spewing sap everywhere. WE HATES IT SO MUCH.
Recommended for: People who like that shit. And don’t tell me who you are, because I’ll fucking punch you.
Oh, and one book I purposely didn’t finish-
Dashiell Hammet, The Thin Man
I got sixty pages into this shit-which was blurbed as being “deeply romantic”-and had to stop because it was just…wow. The bitter, alcoholic cynicism was more than I could stand. I have never encountered a main character with a bigger, more completely unacknowledged drinking problem; and until now, I had never read a book with a lead couple I’d more gladly spit on in the street. I felt my heart shriveling and my liver pickling as I read this. Golden age of mystery my ass.
Recommended for: Noir fans. If you like bitter alcoholic heroes and heroines who cheerfully take all the shit they get handed because they’re just that “cool and collected,” then this is the book for you. You sick, sick fuck.
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