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Catching up on book reviews

The Game of Kings (The Lymond Chronicles, #1)Top-notch historical fiction is hard to find. Top-notch adventure fiction is hard to find. Well-written witty anti-hero protagonists are hard to find. Good historical adventure fiction with a well-written witty anti-hero protagonist is...well, you see where I'm going with this. Game of Kings gets two thumbs up and five stars -- once I started it I couldn't put it down. I can't remember who told me I should read these books; I wish I could because I would send them lots of presents in deepest gratitude.

The story arc is not entirely original: a brilliant but dissolute younger son and a stolid older one with bad blood between them, dissolute younger son turns out to be not so dissolute after all (I shall say no more for fear of spoilers). But Dunnett executes the tale with flair, energy, inventiveness, and a remarkable level of historical detail. The 1500s is one of my favorite time periods for historical fiction -- so much going on in politics, religion, philosophy, science, an immensely active and fertile time so she's got lots to work with.

Part of my love for the book is of course due to the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter. Accused traitor and leader of a band of outlaws, yet somehow one can never quite believe the worst of him; one suspects there is more (oh how I do love a misunderstood hero). If the facts did not prove me wrong I would suspect Dorothy Dunnett of being Dorothy L. Sayers, because Lymond is very much like Lord Peter Wimsey. Lymond is less high-strung and more physically active (as you'd expect in the 16th century!), but both are aristocratic, highly (perhaps over-) educated, single-minded in pursuit of a goal, prone to quotation, chronically underestimated by their opponents, and exceedingly intelligent with a fierce sense of honor and loyalty. Both are also excellent musicians and their own harshest critic.

The supporting cast is just as much fun, particularly Will Scott, younger son of the Earl of Buccleuch, whose evolving relationship with Lymond forms one of the more interesting strands of the book. Will has been off at school in France with detrimental results:

"Moral Philosophy, that's the trouble," said Janet with gloomy relish. "They've taught poor Will moral philosophy and his father's fit to boil...He's quoting Aristotle and Boethius and the laws of chivalry and the dreicher spells of the Chevalier de Bayard on loyalty and the ethics of warfare. He's so damned moral he ought to be standing rear up under a Bo tree. And he won't keep his mouth shut. I grant," said Lady Buccleuch with a certain grim amusement, "that the pure springs of chivalry may be a little muddy in the Hawick area, but that's no proper excuse for calling his father an unprincipled old rogue and every other peer in Scotland a traitorous scoundrel."

As you can perhaps tell from Will's mother's speech above, the book's female characters are also excellent: intelligent, active, strong-willed, sensible, and perfectly willing to go behind their menfolk's backs if that's the most efficient route to the most sensible solution. (Mary Queen of Scots has a cameo as an inquisitive four-year-old to whom Lymond teaches a naughty riddle!)

The interweaving of the adventures of the Master of Culter as he tries to clear his name with the Byzantine twists and turns of Scottish, English and French politics makes for a swashbuckling story complete with duels, spies, pitched battles, cattle raids, explosions, murders, archery contests, mysterious lovers, and more. There's at least one death that will make you cry and the conclusion -- which is in doubt up until about the last ten pages -- will make you cheer.

And yay, there are five more!!

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That HappenedThe subtitle is "unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened" and yup, they're all here.

I've been a regular visitor to Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half blog for several years and many a visit has ended with me in tears and unable to speak for laughing so hard, so I was delighted to hear she was publishing a book. I was not disappointed :)

About half of the stories had been previously published on her blog, the other half are new for this book. "Depression" parts one and two, where Brosh recounts her struggle with depression, introduces a more serious note than, say, "The God of Cake" but manages to be both funny and poignant, particularly in its blunt illustration of why well-meaning friends and family are so often utterly unhelpful in the case of true depression.

As always, Brosh's artwork (done in Paint, which if you've worked with it you will know the crudeness of the medium!) is primitive but energetic and engaging, at time truly hilarious -- much livelier and more original than the vast majority of graphic novel/comic artwork which all looks very much the same. Nobody would mistake Brosh's alien-looking self-portrait, with its bug eyes, tentacular arms, pink dress, and blonde horns of hair for anyone else's work, ever, likewise her dogs with their tilted heads and mildly panicked gazes.

The stories that accompany the illustrations are endearing, funny, self-mocking, and most of all very human -- her foibles, flaws and difficulties are easy to identify with. Unfortunately I recognized a lot of myself in "This is Why I'll Never Be an Adult"!

Painted DevilsEerie, atmospheric, almost Victorian, Aickman's stories are all about hints and omens, tension and suspense. Very few of the mysteries in these stories are solved; instead one is left with an uneasy sense that there are some Very Nasty Things out there. Just around the corner or down the alley. In the dark.

I think my favorite was "The View," in which a man recovering from some unspecified illness goes on holiday, on his doctor's recommendation. On the boat over to the island that is his destination he meets a young woman who invites him to stay with her in her huge estate; he accepts and, although initially installed in a guest room, they are soon sleeping together. However, the ony fly in the ointment is that the view from his window keeps...changing. Between one day and the next things appear and disappear, or move from on place to another...

This collection also includes a classic "living dead" story ("Ringing the Changes"); a ghost story ("The Houses of the Russians"); one, or possibly two, "monster children" stories; the title story, an unnerving tale of a painter, an old woman and her daughter; and several more.

Aickman's stories share with those of H.P. Lovecraft a delicate balance between too much information and not enough -- too much and you get gore/splatter with nothing left to the imagination, too little and you get ho-hum, a story that doesn't compel or intrigue. There is a difference between horror and terror; Aickman is a master of the latter. He takes you by the hand and leads you to the very doorstep of seeing what's lurking out there in the dark...and then turns out the light.

(Bonus: The dust jacket is illustrated by Edward Gorey!)

The Fox WomanThis was a beauty of a book, a mix of myth, fairy tale, love story, and cautionary tale. The kitsune, the fox-woman, is a well-known figure in Japanese folklore and myth; here, Johnson places the story of a fox who wishes to become a woman against that of a young couple whose marriage is faltering under the weight of artifice and constraint. Above, in the house, Yoshifuji and his wife Shikujo communicate by writing each other haikus open to multiple interpretations, neither knowing what the other wants or thinks; beneath the floor Kitsune, the young fox, comes into season and mates with her brother because, well, that's what animals do. Kitsune wants (or thinks she wants) the trappings of humanity: to learn to read, to write, to understand art, to wear beautiful clothes and speak from behind a screen. Yoshifuji watches the foxes from his window and wishes he had their freedom.

Telling the story in diary form allows you to see through the eyes of each of the three main characters in turn, which gives the story both the immediacy of first person and the complexity of a multiple POVs.

Of all of them, though, I felt sorriest for Kitsune's mother and brother, dragged into this transformation mostly against their will; if I had one complaint about the book it's that Johnson doesn't offer a compelling explanation for why they have to pay the price for Kitsune's obsession with Yoshifuji.

Although the ending is left open, leaving me uncertain as to what if anything Yoshifuji or Kitsune learned from their experience (are they wiser? or more determined?), this was a real pleasure to read. Johnson is an artistic writer with a gift for description, evoking seasons, settings and the life and attitudes of Old Japan with a light touch and a painterly eye for detail.


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Nov. 11th, 2013 03:24 am (UTC)
I checked out the Hyperbole and a Half blog.... I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard! Tears were streaming down my face, I was coughing, my stomach hurt... I had to leave the room for a while because I thought I was going to pass out. But I came back and continued reading and laughing. Eventually I managed to laugh so hard I coughed up an internal organ. *Pokes at it with a pen and frowns* Looks like it may be a spleen.
Nov. 11th, 2013 12:47 pm (UTC)
Yup, that's how I get when I read it! I hope any injuries sustained are not permanent and that your spleen goes back without incident ;)
Nov. 11th, 2013 05:21 am (UTC)
You write the best reviews.

I love "Hyperbole and a Half" -- or at least most of it. But I have to say, I've always been pissed off by the cake story. Maybe because my younger sister was like that: as Allie says of herself, "stubborn and spiteful" and glad to make others miserable for the crime of daring to say "no" to her. I can't tell you how many family events were ruined for all of us by my sister's determination that everything was going to be HER way and no other. Taking all the cake for herself is exactly the sort of thing she would have done. So I identify far more with the beleaguered mother than with the bratty little girl.
Nov. 11th, 2013 12:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, I can't help but wonder how her parents survived her youth -- she must have been a terrible trial to them. The book includes another story about a dinosaur costume and how when she wore it she felt like she BECAME a dinosaur, with predictable catastrophic results...
Nov. 11th, 2013 08:23 am (UTC)
I liked Hyperbole and a half as a web comic and digesting a story a week or a month, but taking it all together... I sort of want to slap her a bit.

Kij Johnson looks interesting through so I'll give her a try. Doesn't look like she's going to finish the trilogy that Fox Woman is book one of.
Nov. 11th, 2013 12:52 pm (UTC)
Trilogy? Aha, I didn't know that... Johnson also has a story in the 2013 Nebula Awards Showcase which is quite good, so I plan to track down some of her other work too.
Nov. 11th, 2013 09:22 am (UTC)
The Lymond series is superb, I think Lymond is much more engaging than Niccolo, the main character from her other series. The level of detail is fantastic, though the quotes in medieval French and Latin leave me cold, they do emphasise what the educated person used then.

Have you read King Hereafter? Possibly my favourite of her books, but the last two Lymonds are also contenders...it's so tricky when there are so many good books to choose from!
Nov. 11th, 2013 12:59 pm (UTC)
The Latin and French are a bit of a challenge; thank god for Google translate! So far this is the only Dunnett I've read, but I'm thrilled there are so many more. Must hit the bookstore tonight to see if I can find the second and third ones.

I must admit to being a bit horrified though entirely unsurprised to discover that there's Lymond fanfic out there. Dunnett is just so good, and Lymond is so superb just as he is it almost feels like sacrilege to mess with him :)
Nov. 11th, 2013 11:54 am (UTC)
I just ordered Painted Devils on Amazon. It's more than I usually spend on a used book, but from your review and those I read online, it sounds like it's my sort of book! Thanks, as always for your delightful reccies!
Nov. 11th, 2013 01:04 pm (UTC)
I'd read somewhere that he was hard to find (he's a Brit, so maybe not to many copies made it across the pond?). A friend loaned me this one; she's also going to loan me Aickman's Cold Hand in Mine which includes one story for which he won a World Fantasy Award, so am looking forward to that.

Edited at 2013-11-11 01:05 pm (UTC)
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Nov. 11th, 2013 11:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Buck-LOO
Thanks for the link -- but aw, I missed the First International Dorothy Dunnett Day!
Nov. 12th, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
These all lo excellent! I am a big fan of Hyperbole and a Half as well. If I'm feeling adventurous I might check out the short story collection! Thank you for the thoughtful and detailed recs :)
Nov. 12th, 2013 11:35 pm (UTC)
I didn't always write reviews like this, but lately I've been trying to apply what I read to improve my own writing, so I try to think about what worked and what didn't. It's an interesting exercise. I was afraid it would distract me while I was reading, turning it into an analytical exercise instead of a pleasure; luckily that hasn't happened -- I do all my analysis post-enjoyment :)
Nov. 12th, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
What an interesting batch of books! You're already aware of my love for the Lymond Chronicles and its amazing ride. Dunnett was so brilliant; I have no idea how she managed to keep that much information and that many plot twists sorted out while blending incredibly complex characterization with actions scenes and comedy with really heart-wrenching disaster. And thank you for the Dunnett blog link in comments! I just watched an interview the blogger posted, conducted shortly after Dunnett published the third of eight volumes in the Niccolo series. It was fascinating to hear her talk about, well, everything, and to be told that once she'd marshalled all her information, she could sit down and write an entire chapter in one day. Good heavens. But somehow not surprising. Neither was it surprising that she was involved in discovering some of the little-known facts concerning the life of Anselm Adorne (possibly my favorite character from the Niccolo series and one of the actual historical figures she occasionally used). And you know the interview is barely skimming the surface. *headshake* It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that, prior to Game of Kings, Dunnett had never written a novel.

By the way, if you're interested, there are two volumes entitled "The Dorothy Dunnett Companion" that identify sources, give the background on historical figures, and provide translations of quotes, among other things. Book One is nice to have on hand while reading (or re-reading) the Lymond Chronicles.

Oh, I remember Aickman! It's been years decades (eek!) since I picked up one of his books, but I still recall the distinct, unsettling atmosphere of his stories. He's very good and not at all heavy-handed. Gorey's style is a perfect match for him.

I've seen The Fox Woman come across the counter, but I've never stopped to browse through it. You may have given me the incentive to winkle it out next time and add it to my towering TBR stack.
Nov. 12th, 2013 04:12 am (UTC)
Thanks for the tip about the Dunnett companion! I don't suppose you have any of the Lymond chronicles in stock at the moment?? You were right, by the way, about having to give it 50 pages or so for things to click -- she really does dump you right in the middle of a whole lot of people. It helped that I've read a lot of history from that time period, so I knew who at least some of them were.

I have to say one of my favorite moments in the book was when Will and Lymond are at the Ostrich drinking in the common room; Molly says to Lymond, "Your room's ready" and hands him a key, and Lymond says to Will, "Well, shall we?"...and then Will is so disappointed when they get upstairs to the bedroom and it turns out to be a political meeting :D I totally laughed at the slashy undertones (and was a tiny bit disappointed myself, to be honest!).
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