Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer Agnes and the Hitman

This is an unusual book in the genre of gothic, which I had thought defunct.

The gothic is what Jane Austen was mocking in Northanger Abbey and I believe the first examples were The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto. It continued to thrive until the seventies, with examples being written by Mary Stewart (Nine Coaches Waiting) and Joan Aiken (The Ribs of Death). Then, for some reason, it abruptly went away. As well as Northanger Abbey, gothics have been mocked by Margaret Atwood (Lady Oracle) and Gail Godwin (Violet Clay).

In the classic form the gothic concerns a heroine who goes to a house, and in the house is something mysterious, dangerous and connected with the history of the family who own the house. In the course of the story the heroine (a) meets scary mysterious strangers who threaten her life, (b) discovers the truth of the mysteries (c) has everyone fall in love with her, including at least one villain masquerading as a good guy, (d) falls in love with one of the scary strangers, who eventually returns her love despite having never loved before, because she is just so wonderful and the danger has brought them together.

For some reason, after being a thriving genre for a long time, the gothic abruptly disappeared. There have been no new gothics for quite some time. Maybe people got fed up with secrets in mysterious houses and the romanic adventures of innocent heroines?

However, while Agnes and the Hitman has a cover suggesting chick-lit, and while kate_nepveu's recommendation of it was as a romance, I was delighted to discover it is a gothic.

Agnes writes syndicated food columns for newspapers. She has recently bought a mysterious old house with her fiance, who is behaving very oddly. The previous owner of the house, her best friend's mother, is still around, and has agreed to let her off the first three months mortgage in return for organizing her grand-daughter's wedding at the property. Then a man comes through the door with a gun.

The house, unsurprisingly, is full of secrets. The best-friend's mother and the fiance are not what they seem. Everyone has dark family secrets, all of which are eventually revealed. (I guessed some of them, but who cares.)

The dialogue is smart and funny, the sex scenes are relatively unembarrassing, the characterisation is good, the secrets are, if not exactly plausible, at least adequate, and best of all it's an absolutely classic gothic. Really!

Kim Stanley Robinson 40 Days of Rain, 50 Degress Below, 60 Days and Counting

Robinson's always hit and miss for me: love Years of Rice and Salt, hate the Mars books. Love Icehenge hate Kathmandu.

So, this trilogy. In a nutshell, global warming gets worse, there is a disaster, it is prevented by left-thinking scientific Americans not afraid to intervene, a jerk becomes a Buddhist.

Can we say preaching to the choir, boys and girls?

The odd thing is, I am in this choir, but I still found it offputting. It's an odd mix of disaster and utopian, and for me it skates the edge of working in the first two books but fails in the third.

Also the economics is weird to the point of woo woo -- if Reagan did voodoo economics, this is clearly Buddhist economics. Also, what's with the Buddhism? And Collapse )

The third book broke my suspension of disbelief. I kept rolling my eyes and saying "Oh come on!"

Nicola Griffith Ammonite

Most of the stories that have societies made up only of women are explicitly contrasting them to societies made up entirely of awful rough men (Shore of Women, The Gate to Women's Country) or of our historical societies made up of both men and women (Venus Plus X, Whileaway). Ammonite is in a class of its own in being set a planet where a virus kills all men and transforms all women but without seeming to be interested in men at all. Men are irrelevant to Ammonite as they are to the planet "Jeep". (="GP", merely an example of Griffith's tin ear for names that led her to call one of the major characters Hannah Danner and to use ridiculous unpronouncable Gaelic spellings for the names of illiterate savages. This is hands down the worst thing about the book.)

Ammonite is the story of a female anthropologist who comes to the planet with an experimental vaccine, has adventures, suffers, opens herself to the planet and eventually the virus, and comes to understand and sort out everything. It's similar in some ways to The Left Hand of Darkness and in others to The Broken Chain. It's the closest thing we have to a novel in which all the characters just happen to be women, and of course they're lesbians, what else could they be? Despite, or because of, the matter of fact acceptance of a world made up only of women, it does make one rethink gender and gender expectations.

It's also very well written and immensely readable. The cultures of the planet are interesting, the backstory is revealed at just the right time, and in an anthropological way it's a lot of fun. The genetics and the virus may not be science, but the anthropology definitely is.

This won a Lamdha and a Tiptree Award, quite deservedly, and was nominated for the Clarke, BSFA and Locus Awards.

Austin Grossmann: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Told in alternating chapters from the points of view of an old supervillain and a new superheroine, this is a one note joke that plays its one note very well.

Doctor Impossible has twelve times tried to conquer the world, and is in a maximum security prison waiting for his thirteenth chance. He has Malign Hypercognitive Disorder: he's an evil genius. There's a line near the beginning something like "In the end, everyone's problems are the same: fortifying your island and hiding your power source." So far, so brilliant -- regrettably, that's as far as it goes.

This reminded me of Martin's old Wild Cards series, but it's nothing near as subtle or self-aware. (I hear there's a new volume coming out soon. While they started off brilliant, I got very bored with them towards the end. I'll definitely wait for reviews of the new beginning.)

Elizabeth Lynn Watchtower

This won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and very well deserved it was.

You know how fantasy books often start with a map, and then a plan of a castle? If they do, I usually look at them first and try to sort things out. The castle plan, in Watchtower makes a lot of sense, and gives quite a lot of information and sets up certain expectations, such that it's quite surprising when the first line of the book shows the place taken in war and burning. This isn't the last expectation Lynn violates.

There's a standard sort of story you might expect, about a watch commander of a watchtower who takes oath under the conquerer to protect his lord's son, and on the surface this is that story, but underneath it's something quite different. The world is very solid, the characters and their dilemmas are absolutely believable from the first second they're introduced. There's barely any magic, and the conflict is small scale -- retaking a castle, not saving a world.

I could wish for more fantasy like this.

P.D. James, Cordelia Grey novels

An Unsuitable Job For a Woman
The Skull Beneath the Skin.

As with Adam Dalgliesh, but instead of "Adorable poet detective" read "Adorable private eye".

The main thing wrong with these is that Cordelia's class status and background knowledge wavers around too much depending on what the plot requires.

I found the solution in "An Unsuitable Job" risible, but enjoyed "The Skull Beneath" much more.

These are not good books. In fact, they are trash. But they're readable trash for all that. I feel a little disgusted with myself for reading so many of them so fast, and that makes me feel more negative about them than I probably would be otherwise.

P.D. James Innocent Blood

This book is brilliant.

There's a girl who was adopted by generous middle-class liberals, and she finds out that her real parents were rapists and murderers, and that her real mother is about to be released from prison, and decides to spend the summer living with her.

There's a man whose daughter was raped and murdered and who wants to get revenge.

The balance and psychology of this book is absolutely stunning. I was deeply impressed and couldn't put it down.

This is streets ahead of the rest of James.

P. D. James, the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries.

I cannot recommend reading the complete works of P.D. James (less two books the library didn't have) in a fortnight. One comes to notice certain repetitions and obsessions (what is it about modern bacon?) and also to dislike Adam Dalgliesh, her far-too-perfect detective.

James has one really good trick, which is to make the victim someone so eminently dislikable that you'd kill them yourself. In Death in Holy Orders I found myself muttering "Oh good!" when I came to a chapter entitled "Death of an Archdeacon". Sometimes the murderer's reasons, when revealed are implausible, but the person was usually so horrible you're just relieved someone got rid of them already.

Once or twice James cheats, with "Of course, it had been obvious all along to Almighty Adorable Adam Dalgliesh, the poet detective, that the harmless inoffensive X was the most likely suspect..." while not having had this be the slightest bit obvious to the reader. This is done to disguise Dalgliesh's stupidity, without which there would be no plot. But apart from that, they play pretty fair with the reader.

On the whole these are pretty decent cosies, and would probably have benefitted from having been read at a more sane pace.

Lloyd Biggle Jr. Monument (1974)

Cerne Obrien, the "Langri" a spaceman stranded on a planet that's paradisial but marginal and inhabited by low-tech natives, realises that if the planet is ever discovered by the rest of the universe, it'll be exploited for vacations. Therefore he makes a plan and teaches it to the natives, who put it into practice after he dies and the planet is discovered.

This isn't a deep or complex book, and while it is a reflection on colonialism, the Third World, and what "primitive" means, it isn't especially thought-provoking in those directions. Nevertheless, it's deeply engaging and just chock full of charm -- everything about this book is charming, the characters, the planet, the wiles of the lawyers, and the Plan.

Maybe this is a book you have to read for the first time when you're twelve, which in fact I did. I still find it remarkably charming and cheering, just the thing for a wintry weekend.

Robert Charles Wilson Axis, Karl Schroeder Queen of Candesce

Both of these books are by Canadian writers, both of them recently came out from Tor, both are sequels to books I love, and both have the same problem -- the original books (Spin and Sun of Suns) are wide open books that present and explore a universe, while the sequels are smaller scale books set in that universe.

I enjoyed reading both of them, but neither of them struck me as brilliant the way their predecessors do.

They're also both middle books of trilogies. With Axis I can hope for a third book to be a satisfying conclusion. Queen of Candesce, however, makes me fear that as there's no reason the Virga setting couldn't consist of an infinite number of perfectly enjoyable stories in that weird setting, Schroeder might settle down and churn these out instead of coming up with weird and brilliant new universe after weird and brilliant new universe as he has been doing so far in his career.

Mark me down as disappointed.