Some reviews that are united by being... written. And since this site ain't around for much longer, it is now or never! Featuring Margaret Millar's Fire Will Freeze, Bill Beverly's Dodgers, Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and Lucas Dale's First Watch. Something for everyone and/or no one, I suspect.
Utterly bonkers ‘sealed room’ mystery - think of it as punk-Christie, with an emphasis on surreal dialogue, backhanded character development, and a (surprisingly) fair use of the Detection Club rules. A busload of skiiers - of variable ages, backgrounds and levels of outdoor experience - find themselves stranded in rural Canada when their bus-driver, quite literally, runs away. When the squabbling tourists finally go chasing off after him, they instead find a ramshackle mansion, tended to by a pair of (violently) unwelcoming women.
The mystery unfolds through a series of snarky conversations (everyone is barely holding it together) and accidental discoveries (there are a fair number of bodies about). Millar has one primary protagonist, a young busybody with an overactive imagination. The point of view changes frequently and, as with the best mysteries of its type, everyone is a suspect. The weirdness ramps up quickly, not aided by the frequent shifts in perspective, but Fire is well worth the initial effort.
Dodgers by Bill Beverly (2016)
A quick review of a book that deserves better (and, fortunately, has already received it).
Dodgers was really not what I expected. East and his teenage compatriots are sent from the city they know into the ‘heart’ of America: a rural town in Wisconsin, where they are to kill a judge. The set-up, including the harrowing opening scenes in Los Angeles, led me to believe this was a West Coast Wire - a gangland heist novel featuring a group of underaged sociopaths. In practice, this wound up being a very different book. The plot qua plot is quickly resolved. Things, of course, go awry. Instead, Dodgers is about the aftermath: East, abandoned, in middle of an unfamiliar country, learning how to fit in - and open up - in essentially alien territory. The banal geniality of the Midwest is foreign country to East and East, is, by all standards, a complete outsider.
As a discussion of nature versus nurture, Dodgers clearly has a lot to say about the impact of environment - what happens when East is removed from LA and his influences there, and shown a different way to live. But Dodgers is also a damning tale of two Americas. It is easy to judge the violence and ideological chaos of East’s upbringing, but that is because, as the book points out, it is remote - and - contained from the rest of the country. The happy-clappy white-majority heartland as presented by Dodgers is far from perfect, and, more important, not as separate as it pretends to be. Dodgers implies a broken responsibility: artificial divisions between two parts of the same whole. These are, and can be, healed - but not without effort. A rather wonderful book that deserves all the praise it has received.
Regency romance meets slapstick spy thriller, and the result is like a Carry On film - but good.
There are two storylines here: the primary one (and the one worth reading) follows Amy, a French exile in England, who is determined to find - and aid - the elusive ‘Purple Gentian’ in foiling Napoleon’s plans. Amy is a noisy goofball with a knack for making things far more complicated than they need be. She’s enthusiastic (and not all that bright), but she’s got a good heart and it is easy to see why her love interest, Lord Richard (SPOILER HE’S THE GENTIAN) falls for her. Their espionage attempts are pretty pathetic, but that’s the point: the tension is around the romance, not any sense of actual threat. Any possible danger is deliberately downplayed, and moments of ‘action’ are quickly followed by comedic reassurance that no one was actually hurt in the making of this rom-com. As far as regency romances go, it isn’t particularly saucy, but it is very cute.
The other storyline is set in the modern day: Eloise is a PhD student doing research into the mysterious identity of the ‘Pink Carnation’ and other floral spies. Something something wears Jimmy Choo shoes (a PhD student?!) something something British chocolate is so addictive! something something chilly/hot British aristocrat that presumably looks like Colin Firth. As anachronistic and untenably goofy as the Regency portions are, they aren’t ever as jarring and alienating as the present-day counterparts. Possibly because the historical portions are clearly signposted as screwball comedy, while the modern ones attempt Bridget Jones-style quasi-realistic empathy. It doesn’t work. Still worth reading, but expect to skip a third of it.
A buddy cop story in a secondary world setting. What else do you need to know? The First Watch is inarguably by the numbers, but there’s something familiar about the formula: Rem is a newcomer to the gritty city of Yenara. He’s got no money, no prospects and some skill with a blade. So when the “opportunity” arises of joining the Watch, well, he takes it.
Rem’s buddied with - of course - a grumpy, grizzled veteran of the force. A family man, naturally. With firm divisions between his personal and professional life, and no time for naive newcomers. In this case, also a dwarf: Torval.
Together, they go through rocky patches, forge a bond, uncover hidden corruption and do manly cop stuff (punctuated with moments of offbeat humour).
If the formula is familiar, so is the fantasy: dwarves are dwarves, orcs are orcs, magic is magic. There’s not a lot of movement from the Gygaxian norms here. But, to Watch’s credit, it doesn’t try to flog the dead horse. In fact, it is a case study of how (very) familiar tropes can be used to great effect without veering into revisionism.
Watch assumes that the reader understands what a dwarf is, what an orc is, hell... it essentially stipulates that the reader knows exactly what is going to happen throughout the book. That messy ‘world-building’ and ‘plot’ established, Watch gets on with the important thing: having fun.
And this book is fun. It is a series of action-packed set-pieces, punctuated with unchallenging moral dilemmas and heart-warming dude-bonding moments. No beat lasts longer than a few pages, which is, all things considered, is all it needs. There’s something unnecessarily judgmental about the phrase “brainless fun”, but The First Watch is the brighter side of that coin: it is romp that lets you read on autopilot, weaving in substance, plot, world all in the aid of page-turning entertainment.