Fingersmith

Fingersmith, Sarah Water’s neo-Victorian crime novel, is the lesbian daughter of Oliver Twist and The Woman in White, fostered by Jane Eyre. Got your attention? There is a romance, between two people who happen to be women, but ‘lesbian’ is a less significant nugget of information than ‘neo-Victorian crime’. If you like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins[1], or the Brontë sisters, there’s a good chance you’ll like Fingersmith.

Susan Trinder, the narrator of the opening section, is a young woman raised in a den of thieves. (A fingersmith is a pickpocket.) When a con man in their extended family, affectionately known as Gentleman, asks for Susan’s help with a plan to persuade an heiress to marry him, she agrees. In exchange for a promised share of the proceeds, she sets off for Briar, the heiress’s home, to serve as lady’s maid and go-between with Gentleman. That Gentleman intends to commit the heiress to an insane asylum as soon as he’s secured her money doesn’t bother Sue. Not, that is, until she finds herself falling in love with the heiress, Maud Lilly. Gentleman bullies Sue into carrying out his plan despite her growing misgivings, he and Maud elope, and the first section of the book closes with a bang on the novel’s first major plot twist. Other plot twists follow, leading up to a rather gory murder and it’s aftermath.

The story is broken into three parts, with Maud narrating the middle section before returning to Sue in the third. Maud is not the plump and innocent pigeon Sue initially took her for, but then, no one in this novel is quite what they appear. This is more a story more about camouflaged emotions, betrayal, and misplaced love than a whodunit. By the time Sue begins to unravel the why, the who had long since been given away.

Waters does a fine job of bringing some of the nastier aspects of Victorian society to life: the casual cruelties inflicted on children and servants, the ease with which a man could have an inconvenient woman incarcerated, the baby farms where infants were dosed with gin to keep them quiet… If the injustices inflicted on Jane Eyre raise your hackles, this book can send you into a rage. Maud’s uncle is a particularly nasty specimen. Life at Briar makes Sue’s thieves look like a normal, loving family in comparison.

I confess I would have liked Fingersmith better if it had been 450 pages or less rather than 550. The pacing is uneven; sometimes it moves right along, but there are other times, when Waters indulges in showing off her knowledge of Victorian England or focuses on atmosphere, that we lose sight of the plot. The section on the tortures in the madhouse, painful for both the victim and the reader, goes on for about 60 pages, most of it peripheral to the plot. And as for creating a bleak, claustrophobic atmosphere, Waters does a superb job, but I could only take so much of it at a time, especially when the narrative doubles back on itself to give us Maud’s point of view on events Sue already covered. Some of that was necessary for understanding the two main characters, but it did get a bit tedious.

In short, 3.5 stars instead of 4 or 5. It’s an impressive piece of story telling, but a bit too melodramatic and grim for me to rave about, and the plot, though entertaining, doesn’t hold up to hard scrutiny. Mouse over for spoiler. Am I glad I read it? Now that I’ve had a few weeks to recover, the answer is yes, but in reaction to it my next read was light and fluffy.

Audience: Mature, mainly for the pervasive psychological abuse. Some violence and bad language, and one rather mild sexual encounter.


[1]Wilkie Collin’s 1860 novel The Woman in White is one of the founding novels in the mystery genre, and is still a good read. Fingersmith makes some obvious nods to it. If you like Fingersmith and haven’t read The Woman in White or The Moonstone, check them out.

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Pay Dirt

The ghoul claims he’s cursed. Ozzy Turner tells him he isn’t, and Ozzy ought to know. He makes a living breaking curses and finding lost items, and every test he knows has come up empty. He’s right; when the ghoul turns up dead—decapitated—the next day, it wasn’t a curse that killed him. The ghoul’s death comes hard on the heels of a message from an old friend asking for Ozzy’s help—a friend appearing to be involved in the same business, whatever it is, as the ghoul—and Ozzy dives in without second thoughts. He soon finds himself, once again, in serious trouble. With his mentor Early missing, his undead girlfriend Lillian going berserk, and a deadly wraith on a rampage through the town of Lost Falls, the odds are not looking good for Ozzy surviving another journey deep underground.

Pay Dirt, Chris Underwood’s second novel in the Lost Falls series featuring cunning man Ozzy Turner, is as good as the first, Cunning Devil. This urban fantasy, with a likeable protagonist and sympathetic portrayals of the town’s oddball preternatural residents, takes us on a fast-paced ride through their world. The fractured community of Strangers, held together by mutual fear of exposure, is under attack by a group of fanatical witch hunters intent on slaughtering them all.

I won’t give any more away, but the end, while resolving the immediate crisis, leaves enough plot threads dangling to spin out several more Lost Falls stories. I’m looking forward to them.

Audience: Adults and older teens. No sex, but plenty of gore, violence, and foul language.

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George

In most ways, Melissa is a typical fourth-grade girl: she likes to wear pink, she cries when upset, she has a BFF, and she loves Charlotte’s Web. She loves the character of Charlotte so much that she’s devastated when she is rejected for the part in her school’s play, even though in the audition she read the part with more depth of feeling than any of the other girls. Her teacher even reprimanded her for reading the part, saying she can’t possibly be cast as Charlotte when there are so many girls that want the role.

Because, you see, Melissa is also George. That’s the name her parent gave their biologically boy baby, and that’s the name her teachers and classmates know her by. Only Melissa knows she’s really a girl, and her struggle to claim her identity as a girl is the story told with empathy and compassion in George, by Alex Gino.

I picked George out of the American Library Association’s list of the ten most challenged books in 2017, to read for this year’s Banned Books Week. It’s easy to see why it upsets some people; the idea that gender identity does not always align with a person’s biologically assigned sex is one that our society as a whole is just beginning to grapple with. Does that make it inappropriate for preteens? Not in my opinion. Better, in fact, that the preteens who do not have gender identity issues should be introduced to the idea that others might before puberty’s raging hormones kick in.

And as for the children that are transgender people? They’re the ones who need it the most, to know that they’re not alone, that they do have options, and that there are people who will support them in their choices. Many transgender people are aware of the discrepancies between their assigned sex and perceived gender from an early age. The discrimination transgender people face is huge; no one proclaims they are one on a whim. It just seems silly to worry that a story like George would make little boys who aren’t already experiencing gender dysphoria decide they must be girls, or vice versa.

Nor do I expect most children will get more than momentarily confused by the pronoun usage in George. They’re more likely to adapt and get on with the story than the adults whose preconceptions have hardened.

Is George a great book? No. The prose is mostly OK, neither outstandingly good nor bad. Some of the action and dialog seems a bit off-kilter or too old for the characters, it’s a little slow, and the acceptance Melissa gets when she confesses to her best friend is too immediate to feel real. On the quality of the writing alone, I’d call it average: three stars. I also found Melissa’s absorption in stereotypical female behaviour a bit off-putting. (As a woman who dresses in jeans, usually forgets to apply makeup, and was the first girl in my high school to take machine shop, I wonder just what it is that makes a woman a woman. But not having experienced gender dysphoria, I have to accept that the author, who has, is speaking from experience, and that experience is valid for some transgender people.)

Are George and the few other books like it necessary? Yes. The good work they do in encouraging open minds and empathy is priceless. George may save someone’s life someday. Five stars.

Audience: Preteens, or anyone struggling to understand transgender people.

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Resurrection in Progress

You would think, wouldn’t you, that a computer science professional who’s been in the business for decades would know the value of backups? I do, and I have most of the content of my blog backed up on my home computer, so I didn’t lose nearly as much as I could have when the host server went belly up. The configuration and administrative data is another matter. We were relying on the company hosting us to do their part in backing up the host server, and when they admitted, after nearly a week of providing non-answers, that the machine was completely fried and they had no backups, we had to rebuild the website from scratch.

My husband, bless his heart, is doing most of it. System administration is the aspect of dealing with computers I like the least. The fact that the server died right before my stepdaughter’s wedding didn’t help. We’ve had a busy few weeks.

I’m not sure what lessons we can take away from this fiasco. Always do our own backups of critical administrative data, even if it means duplicated work, is probably one. Keeping detailed records of the steps needed to set things up is probably another. (And don’t look to us for help or advice with backup and recovery issues. There are plenty of people out there who are better at it than we are.)

It will take some time yet to get things back the way they were (I do, after all, have a day job), but we are and will continue making progress.

Thank you for your patience.

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Rendezvous with Rama

The year is 2131. Aboard the Solar Survey ship Endeavour, Commander Bill Norton and a team of scientists are on a mission to intercept and glean what information they can from an alien spacecraft as it hurtles through our solar system. The alien ship, dubbed Rama after the Hindu god, is a gargantuan hollow cylinder. The Endeavour lands on one end and the crew enter Rama through a series of airlocks to explore the interior of what appears to be a dead world. It’s a shame the ship is derelict, but not surprising; projecting its trajectory backwards to find the nearest star it could have launched from suggests it has been in flight for at least two hundred thousand years, perhaps longer.

The explorers are competent professionals, dealing with one problem after another as they penetrate further into Rama’s secrets. They are awed but not terrified of it, and take care not to inflict unnecessary damage.

But as they draw closer to the sun, Rama comes to life…

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is a hard science fiction classic. (Hard meaning grounded in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences. Don’t be put off by that; the language is accessible to the average person. I first read this in high school, and later to my daughter when she was ten. We frequently went off on tangents explaining things, but she understood it well enough to enjoy the story.) Published in 1973, this First Contact novel has been a strong influence on many others written since.

This novel is all about world building, although not in the sense of that term as it is so often used to justify interminable descriptions and boring backstory. Clarke’s prose is lean—my copy is only 274 pages—but he gives us enough sensory details to capture the explorers’ experiences and enough explanations from physics and the other sciences to underpin the validity of his imagined world. Characterisations are weak, and there’s hardly any plot to speak of. The journey of exploration is the destination here.

Wonder and optimism are essential components of this story. Wonder at the technological prowess and long-term thinking of Rama’s builders. Optimism that we humans, given enough time and resources and the will to overcome our divisions, could do something equally grand. The story ends with unanswered questions—Who built Rama? Where did it come from? Where is it going?—but that’s fine. This is a book to feed the imagination, and to stretch our sense of scale. Not to make us feel wretched for our insignificance; rather to broaden our horizons and nudge us out of our egocentrism.

Audience: Everybody. A few hints at off-screen sex, but no violence or bad language.


Rendezvous with Rama was intended to be a stand-alone novel, and is fine to be read that way. About fifteen years later, another author wrote several sequels, with some input from Clarke, but the sequels are dismal and disappointing. They are more about human shortcomings than aspirations, and take the story in a direction that is, to my mind, in conflict with the original. Mouse over for spoiler. Don’t bother with them.

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Thirteen Orphans

Years ago in the Land Born of Smoke and Sacrifice, a China-like alternate reality, the winners in a war exiled the losers into our reality. The exiles—the young emperor and his twelve advisors, each personifying an animal in the Chinese zodiac—went first to China, but most eventually arrived in the United States, where their oddities were less apparent, and settled down, blending in but not forgetting.

But now, something is attacking the 21st-century descendants of those exiles. The ones attacked are not dead, but have had memories stolen, and it is evident to those who knew them that they are not the same people they once were.

Gaheris Morris, the Rat, is one of those attacked. His 19-year-old daughter, Brenda,  joins forces with the other exiles as the Tiger—Pearl, an elderly half-Jewish former actress—calls them together to defend themselves. Their battles play out among the shopping malls and suburban streets of San Jose, California, with weapons ranging from swords to thrown spell papers. Brenda, who had known nothing about her father’s heritage, receives a crash course on magic and history. If she is going to restore her father’s memories and protect her new friends, she will have to grow into the role of the Rat, and she’ll have to do it fast.

The urban fantasy Thirteen Orphans, by Jane Lindskold, is slow moving and much too talky. Aside from that, there’s a lot to like. The cast is intelligent, diverse, and well-drawn, with both Brenda and Pearl formidable women. The book is filled with details that ground the story in modern America, San Jose in particular, and the Chinese culture-based magic, like divination using personalised mah-jong sets, was appealing. (Lindskold has gotten some flak, I believe, for cultural appropriation. I can’t say whether or not that’s justified. I just know I found it a nice change from the seemingly ubiquitous medieval European-based fantasies.)

But most of all I liked that the Orphans acted like rational adults, banding together and working as a team, something that doesn’t seem to happen often in modern fantasy. (Yes, I know, conflict is necessary for dramatic tension, but some writers throw in so many personality quirks and conflicts that I want to shake their characters and say, “Grow up!”) Even their opponents, once revealed, are mostly honourable people dealing as best they can with a bad situation. That made for a more complex and satisfying conclusion than banishing yet another one-dimensional evil villain would have.

Thirteen Orphans is the first in a trilogy. I haven’t read the others yet, but the second book, Nine Gates, is waiting in my To Be Read pile.

Audience: Adults down through mid-teens. No sex or bad language. Some violence but no gore.

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The Lord of Dreams

Be careful what you wish for, as you will surely get it.

Claire Delaney, normal American teenager, wishes she could be a hero. She is immediately snatched out of her bedroom by a delightfully dangerous figure, transported into the world of the fae, and sent on a mission to rescue an imprisoned fairy. In the next few chapters of The Lord of Dreams by C J Brightley, we follow the disoriented Claire as she wanders randomly through a kaleidoscopic and strangely barren dreamscape. Nothing makes much sense; the fae king who sends her into this world calls himself her villain and the other few characters she interacts with seem determined to insult her and avoid telling her anything useful. She does eventually find and rescue the fairy, without understanding who he is or why he was imprisoned.

I struggled with that bit, the first 20% or so of the book. I didn’t like not understanding what was going on, and it annoyed me that Claire never stopped to ask herself why she should obey the fae king’s order if he was the villain. She seemed passive, letting herself be pushed around and not thinking things through. I was about to toss the book on the Did Not Finish pile, when things changed. For a few chapters the story bounces back and forth between strange dreams and normal life. Claire grows up and is in grad school when the fae come to her again, asking for her help. They are at war, their king—the nightmare figure from her dreams—has been captured, and he had predicted that she would be the one to rescue him.

From then on, the story’s focus is more clear, and I devoured the rest of the book in one Sunday afternoon and evening. It’s a nice combination of heroic quest, self-discovery, and gentle romance set in the world of the Seelie and Unseelie from the folklore of the British Isles.

Claire improves, acting with more agency, learning to ask the right questions, and overcoming her initial prejudice against the fae king. By a third of the way through, I had also learned to roll with unanswered questions. I did eventually get answers, but some of them were a long time coming. That was OK, as the gist of the story was about Claire making sense of this strange world she’s been thrown into, and understanding the full import of the breathtaking gamble the king has made. If we’re not a bit disoriented, too, how can we appreciate the mental leaps she has to make?

The story was not entirely successful. In particular, Claire’s relationship with her family was unsatisfying. I wish that plot thread had either been given more attention or dropped. Concern over the deprivations she was suffering from being unable to eat or drink anything in the world of the fae kept pulling me out of the story, too. In Chapter 4 she’s about to collapse from dehydration, but then trudges on for hours (days?) more. (Magical sustenance? Yeah, sure.)

Despite those quibbles, it was a satisfying adventure. Perhaps I liked it as much as I did because I kept seeing parallels with my own novel, The Locksmith: Something valuable is hidden so well its existence is forgotten. A magical entity may or may not be sentient. Magic is shaped by imagination and willpower. Powerful wishes take on a life of their own. Men in peril are rescued by women.

And finally, I learned that if I’m ever pulled into the world of the fae, I should bring along a butter knife…

Audience: Teens and up. Some pain and violence (there is, after all, a war on) but no sex or bad language.

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Have His Carcase

What would you do if you came across the body of a man with his throat cut, so recently dead that the still-liquid blood is running in a glistening stream down the side of the rock he is lying on?

This is the situation facing Harriet Vane in the opening chapter of Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers. Harriet, Sayer’s alter ego and a fictional writer of crime fiction, is on a solitary walking tour of the southern English coast, having finished one novel and not yet ready to start the next. The corpse and its perch are below the high-tide line, and the tide is coming in. Harriet, being a sensible sort, takes several photographs of the corpse and the footprints leading to the rock—hers and the dead man’s are the only ones visible—retrieves the razor responsible for the deed, and sets off to summon the police. (Sayers was writing in the 1930s. There were no cell phones, even landlines were uncommon along a sparsely populated region of the coast, Harriet was on foot, and the nearest town was eight miles away. The corpse was carried away by the tide before she was able to reach the police. If she hadn’t taken pictures they might not have believed her story.)

Have His Carcase is a classic plot-driven story from the “Golden Age” of detective fiction. It is slower moving and more complex, plot-wise, than most mysteries being published now, but many people still enjoy those mysteries for the puzzles they present. Sayers plays by the rules, giving us the clues to match wits with Lord Peter Wimsey and the police as they seek answers to questions: Is Paul Alexis’ death suicide or murder? And if murder, who did it? We discover early on that there is a someone who had good reason to want Alexis dead, and he has been acting suspiciously, but the investigators can’t figure out how he could have had a hand in a murder. In fact, the more they dig, the more they seem to solidify his alibi.

I first read Have His Carcase decades ago, shortly after reading Gaudy Night, where Sayers shifts her focus and delves more deeply into character, making Vane and Wimsey much closer to living, breathing people. Compared to that gem, Have His Carcase was a disappointment. I have reread Gaudy Night several times since, but only recently picked up Have His Carcase for the second time. I admit to being pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. Not as good as Gaudy Night, but fine in its own right. I only have two quibbles with it:

  • There is a chapter describing, in eye-glazing detail, how Wimsey and Vane crack a cipher. If you’re keen on ciphers, you can get the gist of it in a few pages. If you’re not, the entire chapter can be skipped without missing anything important.
  • The exchanges between Wimsey and Vane are entertaining, as one might expect. I just wish there were more of them. In fact, after a strong beginning, focusing on Harriet as an active and intelligent participant in the investigation, she rather fades from view. By the end, the focus has shifted to Lord Peter, and he ultimately unravels exactly what did happen with Harriet listening. Sigh.

I mentioned a strong beginning. The opening paragraph has to be one of the all-time classics:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Audience: Adult or older teens. No sex or bad language and the one violent act takes place offscreen.

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Léon and Louise

Léon and Louise, by Alex Capus, is a charming love story, but is not a formulaic romance. The book spans decades and two wars, and the two title characters spend far more time apart than they do together. They meet in the final year of World War I, and are both gravely injured in the German final offensive. Léon, believing Louise dead, goes on with his life. The story skips ahead a decade, and he has a wife and children before discovering Louise alive on a passing train in the Paris Metro. From there on, Léon’s wife, Yvonne, is as strong a presence in the book as is Louise, and it becomes a story more about three people discovering the complexities of love and coming to terms with their own and their partners’ idiosyncrasies than it is about youthful passion.

It is also a story about ordinary people struggling to carry on normal lives under extraordinary circumstances. While Louise travels to Africa during World War II as part of the Bank of France contingent safeguarding the French gold reserves from the Nazis, Léon and Yvonne remain in Paris under the thumb of the occupying Germans.

I was left with several indelible images, among them Louise, with no hands on the handlebars, pedalling a rusty, squeaking bicycle and easily passing Léon puffing away on his. Léon searching station after station of the Paris Metro for Louise while the strawberry tarts he had bought for Yvonne slowly disintegrate. Léon stuffing 100-franc notes into strangers’ letterboxes, dispersing the bribes forced on him by his despised German overseer.

Written in German by a Swiss author, based on events in his French grandfather’s life, the book has been beautifully translated into English. The story is told with a light touch, almost breezy in places, with only glancing references to the emotional weight of some of the events. Because we must read between the lines and fill in the gaps from our own experience, different readers may have widely varying perceptions of the emotional depth of the story. For example, when an SS agent coerces Léon into line through deliberate cruelty to his daughter, all we are given of Léon’s reaction is that he pushed his chair back with a jerk. Some readers may think him cold and detached. Others, like me, who have had a visceral reaction to the threats expressed in the previous paragraph and who know what we would do for our own children in such circumstances, approve of his self-control in not giving voice to the hot rage and cold horror he must have been feeling.

Like any story where there is as much going on under the surface as above, Léon and Louise benefits from a slow reading. This is a book to savour, not rush through.

Audience: Adults and older teens. A little mild sex and impersonal violence.

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A Short Rant About ‘Home’

I recently started reading a book where the otherwise fine opening scene was marred, for me, by one little detail: the narrator kept referring to the place she lived as a treehome. This irritated me for a couple of reasons. First, she lived in a village of tree houses. Everyone she knew lived in a tree house. When one option dominates the market, and may be the only option available, you don’t need to qualify it. It’s the oddballs that earn the qualifiers. It’s of interest when a friend or neighbour buys an electric car, but who talks about buying a gasoline-powered (or petrol-powered) car? Or who mentions that their new car has four wheels? You assume it has four wheels unless told otherwise.

In this case, by describing her home as a tree house from the start, the author deprives us of that little thrill of discovery that we might get from figuring out for ourselves from context that the narrator lives in a tree house. Think how much more satisfying that would be.

And there’s another thing: that word, treehome. I don’t like the term townhome either, used to describe the type of structure I call a townhouse. In both cases the writer has fallen victim to the realtors’ spin that tries to make the products they sell (land and physical buildings) more appealing by getting the customers to imagine them as homes. But as the adage goes, a house is not a home. That’s not quite true; it may be a home, but it’s not yours, not until you move in with the expectation of staying awhile.

A house is something tangible, a building that may or may not be someone’s home. A home is intangible; it’s a place where someone lives, which may or may not be a house. A dwelling is only a home in relation to one or more people—my home, your home, our neighbours’ homes—so don’t use it to describe structure, please.

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