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.
Book – Mackie Doyle is different. Then again, so is Gentry, the decaying steel town he lives in. Things are pretty good there, except when they aren’t, but mostly it’s a town where people have an unnatural ability to pretend that everything is OK. People pretend they don’t notice that Mackie is weird, and they pretend not to care when their children go missing on a startlingly regular schedule. Things start to change when Tate, a girl at Mackie’s school, loses her little sister, and refuses to pretend that it’s all OK.
I really enjoyed this dark and creepy YA interpretation of the myth of the changeling, babies stolen away by the faeries with alien children left in their place. Mackie is a wonderfully relatable character, a boy who knows he’s strange but doesn’t know how normal he is at the same time, and Tate is a fierce companion. Recommended for fans of Maggie Stiefvater and Holly Black.
Book – Tyador Borlú is a detective in Beszel, charged with investigating the murder of an unidentified woman found in one of their slums. His case would be much simpler if he did not believe she was murdered in Ul Quoma, the neighboring city and other half of Beszel, a city which intertwines with his own but whose borders are strictly policed by a shadowy force known as Breach. To unwind the mystery, he must travel across and between these borders, but carefully, because the murderers appear to be extremely powerful – and Breach is always watching.
Miéville’s books always revolve around cities, from the fantastical cities of Bas-Lag to a mystical London, but Beszel and Ul Quoma are perhaps the strangest yet, although there is almost fantastical about them, strictly speaking. This book also features two of the greatest chase scenes I’ve ever read, enabled by the cities’ particularly peculiar geography.
Book – Dashiell Hammett is considered the father of the hard-boiled detective genre, and if his “gritty and realistic” characters seem slightly less so to modern eyes, at least they’re still great fun to read about. Hammett himself worked as a Pinkerton detective before the First World War, so he comes by his colorful characters honestly. And it’s not hard to see a little bit of Hammett in the hard-drinking, hard-partying Nick Charles of Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man.
When Nick and Nora Charles head to New York City for the holidays, they’re expecting to spend their time at glamorous parties and social events. But much like in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the detective is never allowed to rest. Nick’s past insists on catching up with him when a young woman he has paternal feelings towards asks him to investigate her father’s disappearance. So much for holiday fun: Nick spends the rest of the novel trying both to avoid doing any real work and to avoid disappointing his young friend. Of course things get nasty, but when Nick tries to protect his wife, Nora only complains that he never wants her to have any excitement. Nick and Nora’s relationship is such a delight that after the rousing success of the film version starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, the studio went on to make five more.
TV series – There’s nothing the BBC does better than a good period drama, and their adaptation of the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester is, in my opinion, one of their best. Produced in the early years of the 2000′s, it stars Welsh actor Ioan Griffudd as Hornblower and co-stars Jamie Bamber (more recently of Battlestar Galactica fame) as his friend and fellow officer Archie Kennedy – a part much expanded from the books, but to great effect.
In eight episodes, the series follows Hornblower from his first posting as a midshipman (at nearly twice the age most young officers started in that position), just at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, through his tenure as a lieutenant under an abusive captain, and up to his promotion to Captain at last. Of the series, the two episodes based on the book Lieutenant Hornblower, Mutiny and Retribution, are by far my favorite, adding Paul McGann to the regular cast as Lieutenant Bush, and featuring an excellent performance by David Warner as the dangerously unstable Captain Sawyer.
TV – It’s New York City in 2012, and Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) has just been released from rehab where he finally managed to kick his cocaine addiction. His father, however, thinks he needs some additional looking after. Enter Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), former surgeon, current sober companion. Her plan is simple: she’ll live with him, escort him to NA meetings, and try to keep him on the straight and narrow. But Holmes is convinced that he needs an assistant.
It’s been a while since I loved a new TV show as much as I love Elementary. It really isn’t fair to compare this to the other currently-running modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation, BBC’s Sherlock; the two shows are doing completely different things. While Sherlock is adapting Doyle’s stories directly, Elementary is using the framework of a familiar set of characters to talk about the importance of friendship and loyalty, and it does so beautifully.
Book – Whatever assumptions you might have about fantasy novels, you can put them aside when reading something by Elizabeth Bear, because she will certainly do something different. Bone and Jewel Creatures packs a whole lot of different into a very few pages. The story revolves around Bijou the Artificer, an old, tired wizard who is ready to retire when she is given a feral child who has been poisoned by a mysterious agent. In healing the child, Bijou begins to unravel a plot rooted deep in her own past that threatens her home, the City of Jackals.
At only 136 pages, Bone and Jewel Creatures is slim, but not slight. Bijou and the feral child are both wonderfully realized characters with whom it’s a delight to spend an afternoon. My favorite part of the story, though, are Bijou’s artifices – creatures made up of bits and pieces, metal and bone and gemstones, to serve some purpose and then kept around long after their original use. There’s definitely a steampunk aesthetic, but it’s an unusual one. This is an engrossing short novel that offers a tantalizing glimpse of a unique world. The prequel, Book of Iron, was published in September, and both novellas are also set in the same universe as her Eternal Sky trilogy, which begins with Range of Ghosts.
Book – Johannes Cabal has a problem with his soul. Namely, he doesn’t have it – he sold it to Satan some time ago in exchange for the secrets of necromancy. He’s decided that it was a bad deal, and he wants his soul back. Satan, of course, isn’t letting any souls go that easily, so he proposes a challenge: if Cabal can acquire 100 souls within a year, he can have his soul back. The Devil will even throw in a diabolical carnival to help. It’s not a great deal, but it’s the only one on offer, so Cabal enlists the help of his estranged brother and sets out across the countryside, carnival in tow, to race against the clock. Er, hourglass.
For the first fifty pages or so I kept trying to figure out what time period and what country this book was set in; eventually I realized that it just doesn’t matter, and I settled back to enjoy the ride. Johannes Cabal is delightfully deadpan and almost entirely unconcerned with the fates of other people. It’s the almost that makes it great: he shows flashes of humanity at the most inopportune times. This is the first in a series; the latest, Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, was published in October.
Book – What would happen if magic came back into the world? That’s the driving question behind James Treadwell’s ongoing trilogy, which starts with Advent. Hundreds of years ago Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age, locked all the magic of the world away in two precious objects. In the present day, Gavin Stokes is fifteen, and he sees things that other people don’t. Unlike most teen protagonists, he refuses to shut up about it, and when it gets him suspended from school his parents send him his aunt in the country, where he finds that he is far from the only one.
I loved Advent for the feeling it has, a sense that magic is something very old and mysterious and dangerous which, though wonderful, might not actually be something that you want. This is magic by way of horror – too powerful to be simply charming. It reminds me a little of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, a little of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and a little of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The sequel to Advent, Anarchy, was published in the US in September, and the third book in the trilogy is forthcoming.