Archive for September, 2006

Stout, Rex: (31) Champagne for One

In Rex Stout’s Champagne for One, Archie Goodwin attends a party and is warned that one of the attendees is carrying poison and might kill herself. The woman dies shortly after, and though Archie couldn’t prevent it, he can swear that he was watching her and she did not put the poison in her own glass. Since his evidence is all that turns a neat suicide into a messy murder, this naturally fails to endear him to everyone at the party (and some people outside it, too).

I re-read this over a few breakfasts in New York City last weekend, more because I had it on my Palm than because I’d chosen it as a New York-specific book. I rather like this one, as it has some fun detecting sequences. Others may have less favorable reactions to it, particularly if they find Archie annoyingly sexist: the dinner is attended by selected graduates of a charitable program for unmarried mothers (this is the 1950s), which gives him some opportunity to discuss the women—though, now that I think of it, not really much more than usual, unless they’re off in the wilds somewhere. (Archie doesn’t bother me; I never get the sense that he thinks less of women because he has opinions about their looks. I’m aware this opinion is not universal, however.)

As I recall, the A&E TV adapation of this book was also quite good.

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O’Brian, Patrick: (09) Treason’s Harbor (audio)

Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth book of the twenty-book Aubrey-Maturin series, appears to occupy a slightly complicated place in the development of the series. On one hand, I suspect it of being a duology with the prior book, The Ionian Mission, as it also concerns a political mission from the Mediterranean command—and it doesn’t take spoilers to know that the next book, The Far Side of the World, will be set elsewhere. On the other, I suspect it of setting up a longer plot arc, as it introduces elements that are unlikely to be resolved before the characters ship off to the far side of the world in the next book (unless O’Brian splits the action, which seems unlikely as I don’t believe he’s done so before without Jack or Stephen to follow).

This is a relatively land-based book, and a bit more lively than the previous one. It also has a second-hand recounting of Jack’s opinions on literature that’s nearly as good as his comments on Hamlet in The Surgeon’s Mate:

[Stephen] was writing now . . . the letter had begun the day before, when the Surprise, steering for Santa Maura . . . had been forced away by stress of weather, forced away almost to Ithaca. ‘To Ithaca itself, upon my word of honour. But would any amount of pleading on my part or on the part of all the literate members of the ship’s company induce that animal to bear away for the sacred spot? It would not. Certainly he had heard of Homer, and had indeed looked into Mr Pope’s version of his tale; but for aught he could make out, the fellow was no seaman. Admittedly Ulysses had no chronometer, and probably no sextant neither; but with no more than log, lead and lookout an officer-like commander would have found his way home from Troy a d—d sight quicker than that. Hanging about in port and philandering, that was what it amounted to, the vice of navies from the time of Noah to that of Nelson. And as for that tale of all his foremast hands being turned into swine, so that he could not win his anchor or make sail, why, he might tell that to the Marines. Besides, he behaved like a very mere scrub to Queen Dido — though on second thought perhaps that was the other cove, the pious Anchises. But it was all one: they were six of one and half a dozen of the other, neither seamen nor gentlemen, and both of ’em God d—d bores into the bargain. For his part he far preferred what Mowett and Rowan wrote; that was poetry a man could get his teeth into, and it was sound seamanship too; in any case he was here to conduct his convoy into Santa Maura, not to gape at curiosities.’

(Though Stephen changed his mind about including that passage in his letter.)

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Christie, Agatha: Murder in Mesopotamia (radio play)

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia is a Hercule Poirot mystery with a non-Poirot first-person narrator, Amy Leatheran, a nurse engaged to keep a nervous archaeologist’s wife company. Her patient has been receiving threatening letters signed with her dead first husband’s name, and when she turns up dead, suspicion falls on the other members of the archaeological dig.

I’d read this one years ago, too young to realize how implausible the last twist of the ending is. Worse, it’s unnecessary; it would have been a much more interesting book without it. Well, at least Nurse Leatheran is a sensible person to spend time with.

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O’Brian, Patrick: (10) The Far Side of the World (audio)

The novel The Far Side of the World is really very much different than the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I greatly enjoyed the movie, but I think it was a poor decision to burden it with that subtitle; not only is it unwieldy in the extreme, but it creates some odd expectations. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers took the very general skeleton of The Far Side of the World—a journey into the Pacific after an enemy ship that’s preying on whalers—and fleshed it out with episodes from Master and Commander. (And the hapless Hollom, though his entire story is different as well.)

In itself, The Far Side of the World feels much more exciting than the past couple of books. It’s a return to the single-voyage, single-mission volume that was last seen in Desolation Island, which I think I may have a slight preference for as a structure. Or perhaps I just happen to like this book a lot; I’ll probably have to finish the whole series to really decide. At any rate, it has lots of exciting things happen and a fine rhythm and range of emotion. It even withstood a couple hours’ worth of listening late, late at night while waiting for tests to be run in the emergency room (I’m fine, don’t worry), which I doubt would be true of a lot of books.

In closing, I like this mini-portrait of Jack Aubrey:

There were two chief reasons for this steady preparation: the first was that Jack Aubrey thoroughly enjoyed life; he was of a cheerful sanguine disposition, his liver and lights were in capital order, and unless the world was treating him very roughly indeed, as it did from time to time, he generally woke up feeling pleased and filled with a lively expectation of enjoying the day. Since he took so much pleasure in life, therefore, he meant to go on living as long as ever he could, and it appeared to him that the best way of ensuring this in a naval action was to fire three broadsides for his enemy’s two, and to fire them deadly straight. The second reason, closely allied to the first, was that his idea of a crack ship was one with a strong, highly-skilled crew that could outmanoeuvre and then outshoot the opponent, a taut but happy ship, an efficient man-of-war — in short a ship that was likely to win at any reasonable odds.

Have I said recently how much I like Jack and Stephen?

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Ford, John M.: From the End of the Twentieth Century

John M. Ford’s From the End of the Twentieth Century is a 1997 anthology from NESFA Press; it overlaps only slightly with the recent Tor anthology Heat of Fusion (having in common “Preflash” and “The Lost Dialogue”). Ford died this week (many links and tributes at Making Light), and I’m writing this from memory, to complement Rachel Brown’s posts about his novels (Part I, Part II (forthcoming)). As this is by way of being a memorial post, I am breaking with my tradition and cross-posting it between my booklog and LiveJournal, where my other comments were posted.

You can get an idea of the breadth of the collection, and of Ford’s work generally, by reading Neil Gaiman’s Introduction. As a way of organizing my own thoughts, I’m going to approach the collection by type of piece.

Essays first. The opening essay, “From the End of the Twentieth Century,” is subtitled “A Discursion on Trains, Theatre, and Fantasy,” which tells you a great deal about what’s to come: connections all over the place, sometimes surprising ones, and an interest in approaches to storytelling. That interest is further developed in “Rules of Engagement,” which considers how readers approach words on a page and provided me with a lasting metaphor for my experience as a reader: “Every book is three books, after all; the one the writer intended, the one the reader expected, and the one that casts its shadow when the first two meet by moonlight.”

Trains are another interest demonstrated by the opening essay and then expanded upon, in “To the Tsiolkovsky Station: Railroads in Growing Up Weightless” (a hard sf novel set on the moon). I don’t think one would need to have read Growing Up Weightless to understand the essay, as Ford sets out his assumptions and extrapolations clearly. I’m not particularly interested in trains, but I found this an interesting read.

Finally, I’m going to lump “Roadshow” in with the essays. Ford also designed role-playing games, and “Roadshow” is a scenario for a science fiction game where the players bodyguard an incredibly-famous rock band. I don’t role-play and am thus not qualified to comment on whether it’s a good scenario.

I’m going to pass over the song lyrics completely, because I am incapable of judging song lyrics in the absence of music. They’re there; if you can read song lyrics and evaluate them, let me know what you think.

In contrast, I do have a lot to say about the poems, which is unusual because it’s a genre where I’m much, much more likely to miss than to hit. But any fame Ford gained outside the SF and RPG communities was probably through his September 11 poem “110 Stories”, and one of his two World Fantasy Awards was for the poem “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” [*], so it’s not just me.

[*] I suspect this was the first thing of his I read, in a Datlow-Windling Year’s Best anthology. It’s in Heat of Fusion and itself justifies the purchase price. (I haven’t finished Heat of Fusion yet, which is why it’s not here.)

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “All Our Propogation,” regarding which I can’t improve on Neil Gaiman’s description in his Introduction: “A prose-poem meditation on the dreams of satellites, moving and transcendentant, very high over Milk Wood.”

You can read another of my favorites, “Troy: the Movie,” at Strange Horizons. Obviously given the dates, it has nothing to do with Brad Pitt, but is instead an imagining of episodes from the Trojan War as movie scenes: Achilles and Hector as a Western showdown, the duel of Paris and Menelaus as a silent comedy, and so forth. It’s brilliant. In a similar vein, equally as good, is “A Little Scene to Monarchize,” which condenses Shakespeare’s version of the War of the Roses into—well, I think they’re all Gilbert and Sullivan parodies as done by Elizabethan playwrights, but I am (a) sadly ignorant of musical theater and (b) reluctant to re-read. Ford posted one section to a comment thread at Making Light (what turned out to be his last comment). Anyway, I’m sure my appreciation would be increased if I recognized all the layers of parody instead of just the top one, but Ford’s writing is like that.

I have less to say about the other two poems, “The Lost Dialogue” and “Restoration Day”; I remember liking them, but they didn’t hit me as hard as those three. Which, considering the length of this already, probably causes a sigh of relief rather than disappointment. Any particular partisans of those two are welcome to sing their praises in the comments.

And at last, we come to the short stories. These are a little more mixed for me, but still contain a very high percentage of things I really like. For instance, I don’t usually hear “1952 Monon Freightyard Blues” talked about, but it always makes me tear up. I can’t even give a coherent description of it, not having read it for a few years, but I know: always makes me tear up. So does “The Dark Companion,” about an astronomer who’s losing his sight. It sounds cutesy or contrived, I know, but there’s no melodrama to it.

Then there are some stories I respect but don’t love: “Amy, at the Bottom of the Stairs,” which is another take on the death of Amy Robsart (though I suspect it, with its focus on meeting death, might read differently to me now that I know Ford expected to die young, much younger than he did); “Riding the Hammer,” which is a Liavek story, and I just keep bouncing off every Liavek story I try; and “As Above, So Below”, a dialogue with a dragon about paradigm shifts. And there’s “Preflash,” which I’m sorry to say is the one story in the collection that I don’t understand. Anyone who knows what’s going on is invited to comment (in ROT-13, please).

Two of the stories I quite like are retellings of much older stories, though alas to say which would spoil the plots: “Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” which I suppose might be thought of as a trial run for The Last Hot Time, one of my favorite novels, and “Walkaway Clause,” which I find particularly moving. (In retrospect, and this may just be recent preoccupations colliding, I feel it has a faint whiff of something Stephen Maturin-like. Or possibly I’m making it up.)

Another two stories, “Mandalay” and “Intersections,” are linked, part of an incomplete “Alternities” series about a company that created (or found) pocket universes for vacations, until the system broke down. (Two more were written (bibliography by NESFA), and according to Neil Gaiman’s Introduction another three would have completed the cycle.) They’re very good, I’m getting bogged down again in contemplating the fact that there won’t be any more of them, it’s time to move on.

Last, there are two stories that strike me as similar in tone, first-person tales that feel somehow loose, improvisational riffs on a theme—though I suspect I wouldn’t find an extraneous word. In “Waiting for the Morning Bird,” our author watches a shuttle launch along with some figments of his imagination, archetypal science fiction characters. Which completely fails to do it justice, but I don’t know how to. Maybe if I go on to the next one, “Scrabble with God,” which is just what it sounds like:

I made OXYGEN, and got a triple word score. He made a grumbling noise. Outside, a cloud blotted out the sun . . . .

“It’s oxygen,” I said. “It’s all around us.”

He said, “You sure about that?”

I took a couple of deep breaths, just in case. (You think I’m kidding, right? Do you remember when the sky was dark with skazlorls? Double word score, fifty-point bonus, phfft. And then He challenged me on it.)

(I’m quoting this bit rather than the zweeghb bit because then I can link to Jo Walton’s Skazlorls post.)

I’ve hand-sold a couple of copies just by handing people a copy open to this story. And if I can do the same virtually for just one person, then I will count this as a job well done.

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