Review: Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

Okay, I know you remember that I said no more books I can get at home. I know I know I know. I realize this post means that Diary of a Provincial Lady was not my last exception to the rule. Actually the rule was, I will only read books that I cannot get when I am at home, unless the author gives his or her name as two initials followed by a surname. Please do not be perturbed by my Orwellian alteration of a previously established rule.

P.D. James, acclaimed writer of detective fiction, has a number of things to say about the genre, as you may imagine. She spoke of Agatha Christie and of Dorothy Sayers, and of how detective writers enjoy (as they should) a lovely country house mystery, with a finite number of suspects to play with. I liked it when she complimented Agatha Christie. I appreciate compliments to Agatha Christie’s cleverness at mysteries: James gave an example of a book in which a butler peers at the clock; and you are given to understand that this is a clue relating to times and dates, when in fact the clue is that the butler is short-sighted. That is clever! Agatha Christie! She’s clever!

I don’t read that much detective fiction, actually, and thus I have very little to say about this book. Agatha Christie (for the cleverness) and Dorothy Sayers (for the superb writing and for Harriet Vane) and Elizabeth Peters (for being hilarious) and that, I believe, is it. But I like reading books about books – I have made a special section on my TBR list for books about books, although it is rather short because there are not enough books about books. I am contemplating renaming the section and including books about words in it as well.

What I do have to say about this book: P.D. James said something about the “reprehensible expedient” of reading the end of a book. Reprehensible expedient! I do not do it as a reprehensible expedient! I do it because it is joyful! P.D. James hurt my feelings when she said that. I snapped the book shut and said “YOU are a reprehensible expedient!” And then I remembered that P.D. James is ninety, and it’s not nice to call ninety-year-old women a reprehensible expedient. Or anyone really. In my defense, it is unbelievably hot this week, and being hot all day every day makes me a less nice person.

My method of reading is perfectly valid and I stand by it. But I have been considering doing an experiment later on this year, maybe in September, where I take one whole month, and throughout that entire month, I don’t read ahead in any book whatsoever for any reason. What do you think? Attempt the experiment, in a spirit of true scientific inquiry, risking the possibility that I won’t enjoy any single book I read in September? Or maintain my customary reading methods without a sustained effort to appreciate the other side’s view?

Other people that read it:

A Striped Armchair
A Work in Progress
Fleur Fisher Reads
Lost in Books
A Bibliophilist’s Reading List

Did I miss yours?

Review: After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell

After You’d Gone begins at the end: our protagonist Alice sees something nasty in the woodshed (as it were; it’s not really a woodshed) and shortly thereafter gets hit by a car (possibly on purpose) and lapses into a coma.  The rest of the book goes circling and swooping around what happened and why and what it meant to Alice, exploring her past and her mother’s and her grandmother’s, shifting points of view and tenses every few pages.  I know I complained recently about rapidly-shifting narrative focus.  It’s disorienting here too, and there’s no reason to be changing tenses every two seconds, but I forgive Maggie O’Farrell because she makes me feel accepted and understood.

The end, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, happens first.

Not just that, but when I would begin to have a complaint about the way the plot was going, Maggie O’Farrell had already anticipated it and veered away from the danger zone.  LIKE SHE WAS INSIDE MY HEAD.  I read the end and thought, Well, that nasty thing in the woodshed is a bit anticlimactic and predictable, if the whole book’s building up to that revelation it’s going to be rather lame.  But then the something nasty got revealed for the first time midway through the book and left me wondering what further revelations could be forthcoming.  Each time I felt that a certain incident implied that the plot was going to move in an unsatisfactory direction, it swiftly proved otherwise.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I like to have the action of a book spoiled for me, but not the emotional moments, not the psychological motives that underpin the whole thing.  I want to know that (I’m about to spoil Jane Eyre, and I’m warning you because Ana is always heaping fury upon blurb-writers who assume everyone knows the end to all the Classics) Jane and Mr. Rochester end up together, but I don’t want to know what leads Jane to ditch St. John and head back to Thornfield.  To put it another way, I like to know the what and slowly find out the why, rather than getting all the whys before reaching the what. It is like having a black-and-white outline to start with, and slowly coloring it in with all different colors until, ta-da!, you have an entire picture.

After You’d Gone is just like that.  She tells us the what from the beginning: Alice sees something bad, and steps in front of a car, and ends up in a coma.  Events happen out of chronological order.  They happen in a complicated, twisty, emotional order.  You have to be giving the book your reasonably undivided attention, but as long as you do that, it’s very satisfying.  Especially to me, skipper-arounder-in-books.

Other reviews:

Leafing Through Life

That’s it, only two?  Surely there are more.  Tell me if I missed yours!

An open letter to Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Wow, Patrick Ness, color me super impressed.  Way to create a distinctive, consistent, memorable voice for your protagonist.  That isn’t easy.  I have not read a book where I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much since, mm, The Book Thief, and before that The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  Which are two of my all-time favorite books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is based on a fantastic premise, that the aliens in this settled world have given the settlers the disease of Noise, which killed all the women and left the men able to hear each other’s thoughts; and then the youngest boy in the settlement of Prentisstown finds a girl.  A live girl!  The book is fast-paced and exciting and frightening.  The title is perfect.  The relationship between Todd and Viola is utterly real – all the relationships are, actually, and even though this is a plot-driven book, damn, Patrick Ness, you just nail those emotional moments every single time.  Like this?  (Major spoilers in the block text below, so skip to the subsequent paragraph if you haven’t read the book.  Even if you don’t care about spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know how great this is because all the context isn’t there, but trust me, it is great.)

Ben nods again, slow and sad, and I notice now that he’s dirty and there’s blood clotted on his nose and he looks like he ain’t eaten for a week but it’s still Ben and he can still read me like no other cuz his Noise is already asking me bout  Manchee and I’m already showing him and here at last my eyes properly fill and rush over and he takes me in his arms again and I cry for real over the loss of my dog and of Cillian and of the life that was.

“I left him,” I say and keep saying, snot-filled and coughing.  “I left him.”

“I know,” he says and I can tell it’s true cuz I hear the same words in his Noise.  I left him, he thinks.

Ouch.  Also, chills.

And you know what else, Patrick Ness?  Since I have gotten started talking about the good things about your book, and how it’s just everything that’s great about being great?  What else is, hooray for you, portraying a gay couple without making a big thing of it – we know they’re a couple because they act like a couple, not because you (the author) gets all THESE ARE TWO GAY PEOPLE THAT ARE GAY; they are just a couple, and that is nice, and it is normalizing, and there should be more of that going on in literature.  Oo, and, okay, also?  Aaron was about the dreadfullest villain I ever read about in my life.  (That isn’t a spoiler – you can always tell he’s insane.)

Here’s the thing, Patrick Ness.  You already did it!  You already created Todd’s voice!  You did it using only your words!  Your achievement is a remarkable achievement, because it is damn hard to create a voice like that, and you did it ever so beautifully.  Why, why, why did you need to do that silly dialect thing?  “Yer” is not necessary!  “Cuz” is not really necessary either!  And I can assure you that there is no possible world in which “conversayshun” would ever be necessary, because that is how the word is already pronounced.  It’s not an accent.  It’s how you say the word.  And “an asking” instead of “a question” is both silly and jarring.  It mildly chagrins my dazzle to see you relying on dialecty crutches this way, when Todd’s voice, and the atmosphere of the world you’ve created, are already just about perfect.

Since I am having a moan anyway, here’s my other (teeny-tiny) gripe, which contains massive spoilers.  I feel like the Big Prentisstown Reveal could have happened sooner.  At least part of it could have happened sooner.  I say, tell about how they killed all the women earlier on in the book (have one of the townspeople tell Todd, or something) – we pretty much figure that out anyway, right?  It’s part of the emotional arc of the story, but it’s not the central part.  The reveal you want to save for close to the end is that Prentisstown keeps on killing their own, to allow the boys to become men.  That is what’s crucial to the events that occur immediately after Ben tells it to Todd – plotwise and emotional-story-arc-wise.  Plus, if we already had the reveal about the women, we would think, okay, we’re done, now we know why nobody likes Prentisstown, and then the other thing would really slap us in the face, because it is pretty chilling.

(I mean, it wouldn’t slap me in the face.  I would already know because I would have read the end (as indeed I did!) and found out what was what.  This was helpful to me in making judgments about where each reveal should have occurred.  Reading the end: the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye.)

Once I get started complaining, I can’t stop, so here’s my last complaint.  Patrick Ness, WHY ARE YOU BRITISH?  And also WHY DID I NOT READ THIS BOOK SOONER?  My sister has just now returned from Ireland, and if I had read this book like, like two days sooner, I could have told her to buy me the sequel, which is out in the UK now but not out in the US until September.  I really loved the books I read last week, but I would have loved them a few days later, and then I could have had The Ask and the Answer on Thursday when my sister comes all the way properly home.

To conclude, Patrick Ness, you are awesome, and future books would not suffer if you eighty-sixed the fakey dialect bit.  Also (spoilers!  Spoilers!), given that this book turned me into an emotional wreck, you, um, you could go ahead and have it turn out that Ben is still alive.  And, um, I mean, Cillian too.  That would be fine.  It wouldn’t mess up anything!  I would be happy!  Todd and Ben would be happy!  We would all be happy!  I wouldn’t feel like you had cheated!  Just if you wanted to have it turn out that way.  I only mention it.

Kisses and hugs,

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Bart’s Bookshelf
books i done read
Becky’s Book Reviews
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Fantasy Book Critic
Librarilly Blonde
The Well-Read Child
Wands and Worlds
YA Reads
YA Fabulous
Karin’s Book Nook
The Page Flipper
Reading the Leaves
Lisa the Nerd
Kids Lit
Bitten by Books
Books and So Many More Books
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Fire Fighter, Francis Cottam

The Fire Fighter is about a guy who is good at putting out fires, so good in fact that he gets taken away from the front in Africa, and has to come back to London and protect these five buildings in London, during the Blitz.  He is not best pleased about this as it’s not clear to him what’s so good about these five buildings, and the mysterious Military Intelligence people are extremely vague and un-forthcoming.  He has a painful past, worries about his mother and brother, and falls in love with a German woman who works as a translator for the British (OR DOES SHE?).

I got this at the library without really wanting to, and I only started reading it this one night because I didn’t want to start reading a book that would be totally absorbing and would keep me up late; and once I’d started reading it I wanted to see it through to the end.  Often I will abandon books about which I feel this blah, but I read the end of the book after I’d gotten about twenty pages in (early even for me), and it seemed a singularly unsatisfying ending, and I wanted to read the rest of the book to see if contextual things in the rest of the book would make it better.  They did not however.

It’s not that Francis Cottam is a bad writer, but this is a first novel, and it shows.  There are all these disparate elements – his family life, his Dark Past, his relationship with the military intelligence folks, the buildings he’s protecting, his relationship with Rebecca Lange, the German woman – so many, in fact, that they never really come together.  No one element gets dealt with comprehensively or effectively, and there’s not much there thematically to bind all of them together anyway.  Except a general notion that life is bleak, bleak, bleak.  I should’ve quit reading it when I read the end.  That’s what reading the end is for.  Will I never learn?

Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

I liked Night Watch enough that I got all of Sarah Waters’s other books out of the library in the hopes that I would be getting a grand new favorite author.  Tipping the Velvet was evidently her first, and I didn’t like it as much as Night Watch, sadly, but I still totally enjoyed it.  So much I stayed up until three last night finishing it even though I have a paper to write today.  I’m doing that straightaway after I write this.

Lots of interesting Victorian underworld in this book.  I spent a lot of this book trying to work out what all that mad Victorian slang was about, which was jolly.  Though I did get fed up with Nancy when she was window-shopping at the tobacconist and the dude came up and talked to her and she was dressed as a boy and she like totally talked back.  I was in my room going “Well that’s just GREAT, Nan, you WINDOW-SHOPPING HUSSY.  Hope you’re enjoying offering that UNEQUIVOCAL SEX INVITE with all that crazed WINDOW-SHOPPING TALKING you are doing.  He is OBVIOUSLY trying to pick you up and that might be okay if you weren’t a GIRL, you humongous MORON.”  Not really fair to get so cross about it.  She didn’t know.

I got seriously worked up about Nancy’s behavior and what I wanted to happen.  Like Florence?  I was against Florence from the beginning.  Why’s everyone always ending up with snotty righteous uninteresting people?  It was like that time Dorothea married Casaubon, only more ugh and no dashing young Will for her to hook up with later.  What if Jane Eyre had married St. John?  Ugh.  About forty pages into the book I went and read the end, and there was this random-ass Florence character I’d never met, so I took against from the beginning, and when she finally showed up I was like PFFT, Florence, I hate that bitch.  So it was good really that she was such an aggravatingly virtuous character and I didn’t have to reconsider my early unfriendly assessment of her.

Well, that’s neither here nor there.  Sarah Waters is a good writer.  Tipping the Velvet was good.  We’ll see, won’t we, whether my fondness for her survives reading her other two books.  I’m saving Affinity for last because it’s about spiritualism.  I like spiritualism.  Hester Whatsherface received a whole play all from Oscar Wilde.