Westlake, Donald E.: (06) Good Behavior

Thank goodness for Donald E. Westlake.

Friday morning, I spent a ridiculous amount of time staring at my bookshelves. I just didn’t feel like reading anything I had. Finally, my eye lit on Good Behavior, which was sitting off to the side. With a sigh of relief, I swooped down upon it and then sped out the door to work.

I’d re-read Good Behavior within the last six months or so, but Westlake is almost infinitely re-readable, particularly his Dortmunder books. To paraphrase the opening of the most recent, Bad News, Dortmunder is a man upon whom the sun only shines when he needs darkness. Good Behavior opens with him dangling from the rafters of a convent after a burglary gone awry; the nuns look upon him as proof of divine intervention, as their newest member has been kidnapped by her father (who’s trying to deprogram her out of the Catholic Church). If only Dortmunder will get her back—from the seventy-sixth floor penthouse of an office building with very tight security—then they won’t tell the cops about his nocturnal activities.

These books are consistently entertaining, witty, and smoothly plotted. I particularly like Good Behavior, because, well, how can you not like a caper with nuns? The only small flaw on this re-read is that my paperback reprint had been subjected to a copyeditor with no sense of humor: when Dortmunder is given the way to pull off the caper, in the Mother Superior’s office, he says, “Let us prey,” not “Let us pray.” It was still perfect subway and before-bed reading, though, and I highly recommend the Dortmunder books to just about anyone. (Do ignore the movies, though; as far as I can tell, the movie What’s the Worst that Could Happen? has precisely three things in common with the book: the title, the ring, and some of the names. The book is hysterical.)

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Wells, Martha: Death of a Necromancer

Oddly, Sabriel is the second book about necromancers I’ve read in a week, the other being Martha Wells’ fantasy Death of a Necromancer. I’d read her City of Bones, which I picked up used, and just bounced hard off it; I’m not sure why and I don’t really care enough to re-read and find out. Death of a Necromancer was the Wells book I’d been recommended, though, and I enjoyed it fairly well; it was satisfyingly creepy (with a title like that, you expect it . . . ), moved quickly, and had a nice setting, a elegant and refreshingly non-quasi-medieval city. Apparently her Element of Fire is recommended by some as well, though I haven’t yet read it.

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Nix, Garth: Sabriel

Today’s book was Sabriel by Garth Nix. I’d vaguely heard good things about this on Usenet, so bought it on a whim. It’s nominally a YA (Young Adult) novel, so you may have to look in that section for it. (At least go look: the cover is pretty cool.)

This was good. Sabriel is training to follow in her father’s footsteps as a necromancer—but unlike every other necromancer except her father, she binds the dead, according to the Charter that holds together the Old Kingdom, and doesn’t raise them with Free Magic. When the book opens, she’s in Ancelstierre, a vaguely British—or Australian, which is where Nix is from—country with an early-mid 20th century tech level. Her boarding school is near enough to the Wall that magic leaks over from the Old Kingdom (she’s about to graduate, and took a First in Charter Magic to match her Firsts in English and Music). She gets a disturbing message from her father, who has apparently been trapped over the border of Death; he hands over the tools of a necromancer, his sword and his bells, to her. (The seven bells each have a name and a function; if you’re like me and can’t remember names, bookmark the page that they get introduced.)

Sabriel sets out to find out what’s happened to her father, which turns out to be part and parcel with the corruption of the Charter in the Old Kingdom. The quest/coming-of-age format remains durable, and the world she’s questing through as she comes of age is vivid and intriguing. Those who like their magic to be just a little inexplicable will probably like this one; it has some very faint, indefinable flavor of John Bellairs about it. The story’s self-contained, but there’s definitely more to be told, and Lirael is out now (set a generation later). I probably won’t buy it in hardcover, but I’ll certainly look for it in paper.

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Kagan, Janet: Hellspark

After reading Mirabile, I grabbed Kagan’s Hellspark when I saw it in the library. I finished it last night. While not as cheerful and comfort-book-like as Mirabile, it’s still a good read.

Hellspark is the story of a survey team on a new planet, internally split over whether the major animal life form is sentient or not. Adding to the tension, a team member has died—murder? accident? No-one knows. Into this situation comes Tocohl Susumo, whose planet of Hellspark emphasizes linguistic and cultural fluency. Since everyone on the team is from a different culture, and they were briefed by an idiot, and since one marker of sentience is language, well, she’s quite welcome. (Her extrapolative computer doesn’t hurt; I don’t read many AI stories, but Maggy seems like a good one to me.)

Some of the cultural tics presented seem a little extreme to me, and while I don’t doubt that body language is a very important component of language, I was starting to get a little jaded by the nth time some problem was solved by Tocohl’s noticing that a movement was wrong. Overall, though, it was a solid, entertaining, imaginative book.

[Hellspark has been reprinted by Meisha Merlin.]

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Block, Lawrence: (201) No Score

I just read another subway book, one that I started on the subway to work and finished over my morning bagel at my desk—it was a very short book. It also wins my prize this year for “Most Misleading Cover Copy.” The book is No Score by Lawrence Block, the first in the Chip Harrison series. Now, Block is a well-known mystery writer; I’ve been reading his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries all summer and enjoying them greatly. (The made-up Sue Grafton titles are a hoot.) Block does first-person smartass narration really well, and after having exhausted the Bernie books, I decided to try some of his other stuff. (Light stuff. Apparently some of his other books are very dark.)

The Chip Harrison books looked pretty promising, at least according to that back cover copy I mentioned. To quote: “IT IS A MYSTERY why a big man with a big gun turns Chip’s dream of desire into a nightmare of danger . . . IT IS A MYSTERY that Chip has to solve fast and furiously in a sizzling and suspenseful adventure . . .”

Well, no, it’s not. Chip’s an inch away from getting laid in Chapter One (which is not what I was expecting, as Bernie always draws a discreet curtain over his own affairs, but then, this isn’t Bernie), the guy with the gun bursts in, and then we get most of a book’s worth of backstory on how he got there. And when we get back to the guy with the gun—there’s absolutely no mystery about it.

To be fair, I’ve just gone to Block’s website and he admits that the first two Chip Harrison books “are not mysteries at all (although you couldn’t tell that from the packaging of the Signet paperbacks). They’re erotic coming-of-age novels.” (I’d link right to the page, but it’s annoyingly framed, so I can’t. The original version of this post had a link that skipped the Flash intro, but there’s some odd things going on with the URLs, so rather than have you get a 404 . . . ) The third apparently turns into a mystery novel.

No Score is a very fast, light read. Just don’t expect a mystery out of it.

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Lackey, Mercedes: Storm Rising; Storm Breaking

I’d mentioned that the most recent books I’d read were subway books from the library; the first was Lost and Found. The other two were paperbacks, Mercedes Lackey’s Storm Rising and Storm Breaking. These are the final two books in a trilogy (the first is Storm Warning) set in her popular Valdemar universe. I’d read these before, which is why I took out them out even though the branch library didn’t have the first volume.

Lackey has approximately a gazillion books in this world, most of which are your basic misunderstood/abused teen goes through much nastiness, but wins through to a place in the community. (The Arrows trilogy were her first, and seem to be thought of the most highly by her fans.) Lackey also has prolific-author syndrome, unfortunately, and the Storm books are one of the few later Lackey trilogies that I re-read. The plots still suffer from author-induced stupidity (if you’re going to explore someplace completely unknown, on a really important mission, and you have people around who are telekinetic, don’t you think it would be a good idea to bring one of them in case you find something unexpected, or even something on a really high shelf?), some glaring continuity errors, and a fair lack of subtlety, but I happen to particularly like the characters in this trilogy and find their company soothing. Karal is a young priest of a land that’s been at war with Valdemar for generations, trying to make sense of a world where suddenly it was his religious hierarchy that was evil in the past, not Valdemar—while on a diplomatic mission to Valdemar itself. If that weren’t unsettling enough, then weird things start happening—magical storms, as the titles imply. The other major new character is Tremane, head of an Imperial Army that invaded the next country over from Valdemar, with some buried shreds of decency and conscience in a culture that rewards only expediency. Anyway, lots of stuff happens, Karal and Tremane plug along doing what has to be done, the World Is Saved, and more subway rides have passed harmoniously. (Though stickily. It’s pretty miserable in New York City right now, and though the subway cars are air conditioned, none of my stations are.) Hooray.

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Kagan, Janet: Mirabile

A great book I read recently, though before I started this log, is Mirabile by Janet Kagan. It was mentioned prominently in a thread on rec.arts.sf.written about “Cheerful SF,” and so when I spotted it on the shelf at the library, I grabbed it.

It certainly lives up to its billing. Mirabile is about a planet colonized by people from Earth, whose plant and animal gene banks have some unusual twists—literally, as the geneticists on Earth had a fetish for redundancy and encoded secondary and tertiary DNA helices in everything. Thus, when the conditions are just right, a few of your petunias might seed ladybugs—or poisonous ants. And your kangaroos might give birth to carnivorous kangaroo rexes, which might be an intermediate step on the way to something useful (or at least Earth-authentic), or might just be Dragon’s Teeth, mutations that affect the backup helices to produce very strange things indeed.

It’s a full-time job keeping these stable, and Mirabile is told by one of these geneticists, called “jasons” after the premier first-generation geneticist. Annie Jason Masmajean has a dry and thoroughly enjoyable way of telling a story, and the types of problems she faces lend themselves well to stand-alone chapters, perfect for the subway or just before bed. Mirabile‘s got humor, a bit of suspense, a bit of romance, lovely characters (and creatures; Mabob is strangely charming, even if he’d be deafening in person), and even a thoughtfully science-fictional approach to the problem of Dragon’s Teeth (I can’t vouch for the plausibility of encoding secondary helixes in DNA, though). It’s a great read, but out of print, so if you spot a copy, grab it.

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Krentz, Jayne Ann: Lost and Found

There’s a certain class of book I get out of the library when I’m using mass transit to commute to work. For one thing, when I’m commuting via New York City’s subway system, paperbacks are a definite plus, as holding a hardback in one (not very large) hand, in a crowd of people, while hanging for dear life onto a pole with the other hand, is, well, not optimal. But in addition, at the end of a sweaty trip on the subway, after a long day at work, sometimes I just feel like something not terribly challenging over dinner, to rest before working out, reading that law journal piece I’m supposed to be editing, writing that law school paper I’m supposed to be writing . . .

The most recent three books I’ve been reading were checked out of the library with this in mind. Only one of them is new to me, Jayne Ann Krentz’s Lost and Found; though currently in hardcover, it otherwise fits the mold well, though a little more brainlessly than most.

I suppose I should back up a little. In my adolescence, I read genre romance novels indiscriminately—in much the same way I read everything else then, really. There are a few authors that I still get out of the library, as part of my “guilty pleasure” stack: Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Linda Howard are the major ones. Unfortunately, it seems that when romance novelists make the move into mainstream hardcover fiction, they feel obliged to throw in murders and paranormal stuff and goodness knows what-all else to justify the removal of that killer word “Romance” from the spines of their books. I’ve never quite understood this, but it seems rather a pity, particularly in Jayne Ann Krentz’s books, which I read for the characters and family dynamics.

Lost and Found is set in the decorative arts and antiques world; Cady Briggs is an expert on authenticating pieces, Mack Easton runs a company that traces and retrieves lost and missing pieces, and they end up working together to investigate a death in Cady’s family. The book follows the general pattern of a Krentz novel: Her protagonists are generally business men and women, stubborn, loyal, a bit wary after being burned in the past, with a tangle of demanding, complicated, and, dare I say it, quirky, familial relationships and friendships. They meet, sparks fly, they fall into bed (for really rather brief bouts of sex; I’d quote, but I don’t know who might come across this. All I can say is I had no idea there were so many people satisfied by wham-bams, such that they keep showing up in these books.), they have spats, they fall into bed some more (for even briefer bouts), they figure out whatever external problem brought them together, they smooth out the longstanding tensions in their familial relationships with the aid of the other’s insight, and then they live happily ever after.

This sounds cynical, but they’re soothing and fairly entertaining reads. Krentz does have a sense of humor, and the emphasis on family is a good touch; many of the romance novels I devoured in my misspent youth (TM) seemed to imagine that the protagonists existed in vacuums, with other characters appearing solely as plot devices or convenient receptacles for exposition. Unfortunately, as with many prolific authors, the energy level and freshness of recent books has declined. If the general pattern described above sounds appealing, I recommend reading one of Krentz’s early books, like The Golden Chance. Lost and Found certainly served the purpose of occupying my mind during a Sunday morning when I was feeling slightly ill, though, so I don’t regret carting it home from the library. (I regret having to go back to the library because I’d left my wallet there, but that’s another story.)

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