Book – Oscar is doing pretty well for himself. He’s found his way to Cambridge, working his way through his degree as an aide in a nursing home, where he meets the most interesting characters. He never loses his head, though, until he meets Iris Bellwether at one of her brother’s church services (he plays the organ). A little light church music isn’t all Eden Bellwether is interested in, though, and before he knows it, Oscar is drawn into Eden’s circle of admirers, accomplices and experimental subjects. Eden believes that his music has the power to heal. He might be right.
This spectacular Gothic novel by debut author Benjamin Wood sucked me in from the wonderful two-page prologue. It’s been repeatedly compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but as I’ve read neither of those, I couldn’t tell you how accurate the comparison is. I can tell you that I fell in love with all the characters, who are by turns symbolic and wonderfully genuine, and that the tense, surreal atmosphere was sustained well throughout the book. I’d recommend it for a book club – there’s lots to talk about.
– For the past several years I’ve been attending the awards ceremony for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award
, “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Sometimes I’m already familiar with the winner, but usually I get a list of great new books to read. This year the only one of the nominees I’ve already read is Sea Change
, a fairytale by S.M. Wheeler about a girl and her octopus.
Lilly lives a sad and miserable life as the only child of parents who hate each other, perched in their castle by the sea. Her best friend is Octavius, a kraken; the two of them talk about friendship and morality. Then one day Octavius is captured and sold to a circus, and Lilly sets out on a quest to rescue him.
This is an incredibly poetic book, written more for the beautiful language and the sense of a fairy-tale than for ease of reading. Lilly’s story is a hard one, but the way she perseveres and changes is inspiring. I’d recommend it for fans of Caitlín R. Kiernan
and Catherynne M. Valente
Book – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.
This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.
Book – Two girls are waiting for a bus but, impatient, they decide to hitch a lift instead. Later that night one of them is found murdered outside a pub. Enter Detective Inspector Morse, unhappily middle-aged, cranky, romantic, and (as his supervisor will say in a later novel), entirely too clever for his own good. No one is telling the whole truth, and Morse runs himself in circles second- and third- and fourth-guessing everyone’s motives in an attempt to find out what really happened that night on the way to Woodstock.
Last Bus to Woodstock shows its age in a lot of ways, not least the extremely dated attitudes toward sex and rape that nearly all the characters express, but it’s still a good, solid mystery with an engaging detective. I particularly liked the way Morse keeps getting things wrong: he makes lots of wild guesses and assumptions and follows lots of trails that lead only to dead ends before finally (of course) hitting upon the solution.
Written from the mid seventies through the late nineties, Colin Dexter’s popular Inspector Morse series was also made into a TV show that continues to be popular on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, and has spawned two spinoff shows of its own.
Book – Divorce in England became available to the middle class for the first time in 1858, and one of the first cases was that of Robinson v. Robinson & Lane. Henry Robinson had read his wife’s diary while she was ill, and discovered it full of stories about her passionate love affair with a handsome young doctor. He sued for divorce as soon as he was able. Isabella Robinson’s defense argued that the diary was a work of fantasy and none of the affairs had actually happened. The court took three months to reach a verdict, and meanwhile the case became a sensation. Excerpts of Mrs. Robinson’s diary were printed in the papers – a lucky stroke for historian Kate Summerscale, as the actual diary has vanished.
Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace immerses you in the world of a middle-class Victorian housewife who desperately longs for something more in her life. The book reads almost like a novel, following first the events of Isabella Robinson’s diary and then those of the trial, while also describing the surrounding world – the mania for diary-writing, the salaciousness of the press, the nervousness about the new divorce courts. For those who want more of the same, Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter is a fictional tale of Victorian divorce which references the Robinson case.
TV Show – Before he was a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter was a psychiatrist.
Actually, that’s not quite right. He’s already a serial killer, it’s just that nobody knows it yet. Not even FBI profiler Will Graham, who’s being treated by Dr. Lecter for the depression and instability he suffers as a result of his work with deranged minds. Graham is obsessed by the hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper, a serial killer who’s been taunting him for some time but continues to escape his grasp.
While it’s based on characters from the books by Thomas Harris, Hannibal is set before any of those books take place. It’s a gruesome show, definitely not for everyone – even I, a veteran Criminal Minds fan, have to look away from some of the murder scenes. But there’s a grim kind of humor to the show, too, courtesy of producer and writer Brian Fuller, creator of such whimsical series as Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. If you enjoy serious psychological drama (and cannibal puns) you should love Hannibal.
Season two of Hannibal premieres tonight on NBC at 9pm.
Book – I don’t make a lot of universal recommendations, but I’ll make one now: if you like science fiction, read Ted Chiang. Short stories can be a difficult form for SF, because SF is all about ideas, and how many ideas can you cram into ten pages? The answer appears to be a lot, if you’re good enough. And Chiang is really good. In twenty-four years he’s produced only fourteen stories, but each one of those is a polished gem.
“Tower of Babylon” follows one man’s ascent through the celestial spheres and into heaven. The multiple-award-winning “Hell is the Absence of God” describes a universe where miracles, angelic visitations, and proof of hell are daily occurrences. “Seventy-Two Letters” combines science, biology, and the legend of the golem in unexpected ways. Each single story is incredible, and incredibly different from the others. And lucky for us, Chiang has continued writing since the publication of his only collection to date. The Lifecycle of Software Objects won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2010, and his latest story, “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” is available online from Subterranean Press.
Graphic Novel – Wasteland is the kind of story that drops you into a new world and expects you to just get to swimming in it. Or walking, as the case may be – and there’s a lot of walking in Wasteland. Michael and Abi are on a quest, after all, to find the mythical land of A-Ree-Yass-I, which legend says was the origin of the poisoned world they now live in. Michael is a scavenger who’s been wandering this desert world for longer than he can remember. When he saves her town from raiding sand eaters, healer Abi decides to trust him, and to join him on his journey.
A lot of the enjoyment of this series is piecing together the history of the Big Wet and the world it destroyed. The comic is advertised as “Post-Apocalyptic America,” but the characters have forgotten so much of their history that as a reader, you know just a little bit more about their world than they do. Fans of dystopias and political science fiction will find a lot to enjoy in Wasteland. (For a really immersive experience, read each volume while listening to the accompanying soundtrack!)
TV Show – The Bletchley Circle is a new British crime drama, premiering on ITV in 2012 and on PBS in America in 2013. The main character, Susan, was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II, and although nine years later she’s now a housewife, she’s also been following the news reports on the murders of several young women in the area. She enlists the help of three of her old friends from Bletchley to help her decipher the pattern she’s sure is buried in the crimes to stop a killer the police can’t seem to catch up with.
I wasn’t expecting to love this show as much as I did. I tore through all three episodes in a day and a half. The show was a little more graphic than I expected – not gory, but they don’t shy away from describing the horrible things the killer does to his victims. It’s a delight, though, to watch a serious crime drama so completely focused on women that most of the men have only a few minutes of screen time. For any fan of British crime drama, this is a must-see.
Book – Although I’ll read just about anything, I primarily consider myself a science fiction fan. I love the experience of exploring new worlds full of strange and unfamiliar things, people, and attitudes. Patrick O’Brien’s excellent series of Napoleonic War naval adventures scratches the same itch for me. There’s the technology, certainly – antiquated rather than futuristic, but the attention to detail is the same, and just like you don’t need to know how faster-than-light travel works in order to enjoy a science fiction story, neither do you need to understand the finer points of sailing against the wind in order to follow one of Aubrey’s fantastic chases. But there’s also the characters, a tightly-knit cast, constantly changing, of people facing physical and emotional danger of all description. The characters are what keeps me coming back to this series, again and again. (Well, and the sloth.)
The series really acts as one long book, telling the story of Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin’s friendship, from the time they meet at a concert in 1800, through a final, unfinished novel set after the Battle of Waterloo. But although the series is best appreciated in sequential order, I do sometimes recommend that for a first attempt, the reader starts with something other than the first book – Post Captain, perhaps, or The Fortune of War (one of my favorites, set during the War of 1812), or even Far Side of the World, as I did when the movie came out and I didn’t know any better. You can always go back and start over again at the beginning, and if you fall in love with the characters, you’ll probably want to anyway.