Year of Wonders

Category: Historical fiction

Age: Adult. Some violence, non-graphic sex, graphic descriptions of the effects of the disease.

The year is 1665. Bubonic plague is sweeping through London. Further to the north, in Derbyshire, the plague comes to the mining village of Eyam through a delivery of flea-infested cloth. The journeyman tailor sewing the cloth sickens and dies, but the villagers ignore his pleas that they burn the clothes he made for them, and the disease spreads.

The arrival of the plague in Eyam is historical fact. So are the events that follow, making this such an unusual story. The current Church of England rector and the former Puritan minister together persuade the villagers to quarantine themselves, allowing no one to enter or leave the village until the disease has run its course, to prevent the plague from spreading further and potentially killing many more. The quarantine does, however, mean that many who might otherwise flee and survive, instead stay and die. Before the quarantine is lifted, more than a year after the first death, at least 260 people die, out of a population somewhere between 350 and 800 (the records don’t all agree).

These are the bare dry bones of history. In the novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, that story meets literature and becomes art. Those bones take on flesh and blood, and become living people. This is a beautifully written, moving account narrated by a young widow, Anna Frith, who works as a servant for the rector and his wife. It is a tale of grief and loss, anger and horror, fortitude and endurance. It is about loss—of friends, family, and faith—and about self-discovery and finding new reasons to live when the worst that could happen has come and gone. It is a bit slow-moving, but there’s plenty of drama along the way: love, lust, jealousy, murder, madness, opium-infused dreams, a witch hunt, and a harrowing descent into a lead mine.

The story starts near the end, after the quarantine has been lifted, with the heroic rector non-functional, having lost his religion along with his wife. It then steps back a year earlier, before the plague arrived, travels forward linearly, and comes back to the narrative starting point about thirty page from the end.

For the majority of the book—up until the last fifty pages—it was a lovely story, telling the tale of ordinary people under extreme pressure, with both villains and heroes, selfishness and generosity. The main complaint I had—a minor one I was more than willing to forgive—was that the narrator’s voice was too sophisticated, and with far too large a vocabulary and too modern a mindset, for the woman she was supposed to be: an 18-year-old miner’s widow who had never been far from her village, and who had only lately learned to read.

And then, unfortunately, in the last 50 pages (out of 308), the story went off the rails. Perhaps the author couldn’t figure out how to build to a climax rather than having the story just end or peter out, but the result is not a satisfying conclusion. Drama turns into melodrama, characters behave out of character, and the story morphs into some sort of action-adventure/bad romance mashup. The epilogue, in particular, came out of nowhere and was completely unbelievable. I’m taking a star off my Goodreads rating for that alone.

Some other reviewers felt that the ending ruined the whole book. I didn’t. I feel the rest of the book has enough merit before to make up for the disappointing ending. Just be forewarned.

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The Five Hundred Kingdoms

Category: Fantasy

Age: Varies. Minimal violence, but a few sex scenes.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for fairy tales. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series appeals to me. In this fantasy world, the magic system is The Tradition: a mindless force that tries to push people’s lives down familiar pathways: Sleeping Beauty, the Crystal Mountain, etc.

Unfortunately, The Tradition doesn’t care if the story has a happy ending or a tragic one, and sometimes the pressure pushing someone in one direction builds to the breaking point when the story doesn’t quite fit. Like Elena in The Fairy Godmother who should have been Cinderella, if her prince hadn’t been eleven years old.

This is where the godmothers and other intermediaries between the humans and the fae come in, to steer stories towards happy ending by manipulating or diverting The Tradition, or even occasionally breaking the old patterns and creating new ones.

The Tradition is a clever idea, and the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms gives Lackey free rein to have fun exploring and combining a wide assortment of fairy tales.  Beauty and the Werewolf, for example, is a mashup of werewolf stories, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. The sources are mostly northern European, but she also draws from Greek and Japanese traditions, and possibly others that I didn’t notice.

There are a half-dozen books in this series, starting with The Fairy Godmother, and they are all light, fluffy fun with happy endings. Or maybe not so light—The Fairy Godmother is nearly 500 pages—but they are easy reads, and after blogging about the Children of the Black Sun in the last post, I needed that.

They do, however, have a few problems:

  • They remind me of this quote: if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. Lackey is a very prolific author, publishing at the rate of five or six books a year, and it shows. They could all have used another editing pass, trimming out redundancies and tightening the story by fifty to a hundred pages. Catching some of the internal consistency errors, sloppy writing, and typos would have been nice, too.
  • Beauty and the Werewolf is really annoying, mainly because it rather misses the point of both the werewolf and Beauty and the Beast stories. The beast should be a riveting and, at least initially, morally ambiguous character; this one is dull, and upstaged by his half-brother.
  • And finally, there are sex scenes in at least two: The Fairy Godmother and Fortune’s Fool. (There may be others. I don’t remember; it’s been a while since I’ve read the whole series.) The scenes are short and easily skipped, but seemed jarringly out of step with the tone of the rest of the material, which would otherwise have been suitable for even pre-teens. Moreover—and more unforgivably—the romance in The Fairy Godmother equates lust with love and glosses over sexual assault. (So does Beauty and the Werewolf.) I realise this is not uncommon in the romance genre, and this series is published by Luna Books, an imprint of Harlequin, but this may be part of why I don’t read much in that genre, despite loving a good romance.
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Children of the Black Sun

Category: Fantasy

Age: Adult. Violence, gore, sexual abuse, physical and psychological torture. Lots of it.

What choices can you make when there are no acceptable choices left? That seems to be the question raised in Australian author Jo Spurrier’s Children of the Black Sun trilogy.

This is one of the best fantasies I have read in years, and deserves a wider audience outside of Australia than it seems to have gotten, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Engrossing? Yes. Gory? That, too. Dark and gritty? Absolutely.

Once protected by powerful mages, the Ricalani people abandoned magic a century ago, making them ripe for plunder. In a three-way war, the Ricalanis are struggling against cultural obliteration as they are slowly overwhelmed by the conquering Mesentrian’s encroaching settlers, or are carried off as slaves to the neighbouring Ashkarian empire.

The main characters are all, in one way or another, badly damaged, both physically and emotionally. There is Sierra, a natural mage and former slave, who draws power from the sensations, both pleasure and pain, of others. Isidro, a fugitive nobleman, was a warrior until the villains of the story crippled him, a cruelty compounded by the unforgiving landscape that gives the inhabitants no resources to spare for unproductive adults. And finally there is Rasten, both abuser and abused, awaiting his opportunity to turn on his master, the king’s chief torturer.

I can’t, in a few paragraphs, do justice to the plot, but in a nutshell, it was about underdogs standing up for themselves and the people they cared about. What else was it about? Pain and endurance. Revenge, forgiveness, and redemption. Betrayal and trust. Teamwork, leadership, and brotherly love. Sadism and compassion. Oh, and did I mention pain?

One of the aspects of this story I liked is the nuanced view of the parties in the conflict. There is one unredeemable villain but most are somewhere on the spectrum, neither entirely good nor evil. They are simply human beings, on all sides, all caught in brutalising circumstances that leave them few options. Actions that might seem despicable are sometimes, in context, rational.

Spurrier has done a superb job of world-building. Her writing abounds with sensory details, from the crunch of snow underfoot to the smell of freshly cut spruce, that make her subarctic world believable. You can almost feel the cold creeping into your bones as the protagonists skulk through the woods in their winter whites.

And then there are the women: Sierra, Delphine, Mirasada, Nirveli, and other minor characters, all terrific.

There are three books in this series: Winter Be My Shield, Black Sun Light My Way, and North Star Guide Me Home. (Love those titles!) But don’t be fooled by the packaging; this is one long story (~1300 pages of it) in three volumes. The first book ends in a cliffhanger, and there is only a partial resolution at the end of the second. If I had realised that before I started, I might not have read the first book then, but a hundred pages in, I was committed. I had to find out how it turned out.

It is fair to say they are not consistently page turners. I read them in fits and starts, at some points flying through the pages and staying up too late reading; at other times I got bogged down in the political manoeuvrings or repetitious misery. There were several times when I had as much as I could stand of the agonies these poor people suffered, and I set the book aside for a week or three until I could face them again. I started Winter Be My Shield in September, and finished North Star Guide Me Home in December—not quite four months. Even though I put them aside a few times, I kept coming back because I couldn’t get this story out of my head.

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Happy Holidays

It’s warm summer weather here in Wellington, with the pōhutukawa trees (also known as Kiwi Christmas trees) in full bloom.

I don’t expect to be posting as regularly for the next couple of months—I’ve been working too hard, and want to relax a bit and enjoy the fine weather while it lasts. So, for now, I wish everyone reading my blog a safe and happy holiday season, whatever holiday it is you celebrate.

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Turning over a new Leaf

I’ve turned over a new Leaf, and will no longer be burning fossil fuels on my daily trek to work.

To be accurate, my all-electric Nissan Leaf is not new; it’s a 2014 model with 40,000 km on the odometer, but it’s new to me, and I’m enjoying it. It’s fun to drive. Due to technology limitations and trade-offs between battery weight and range, older electric cars had a reputation for being a bit pokey, but that’s no longer true. If you don’t believe it, watch this video of the first electric car to win the Pikes Peak Hill Climb (2015). Don’t watch if you’re prone to motion sickness. (I’ve been up Pikes Peak, by the way. That road gave me the willies even at a crawl.)

The car in that race was a one-of-a-kind, to be sure, but these days high-end electric cars perform as well as high-end conventional cars. My family sedan isn’t a Tesla, but when I stomp on the accelerator, it moves. It’s got more than enough pep for a commuter car, and it sails right on up Tinakori hill, at the end of my homeward journey, with much less obvious effort than my old car did.

Electric vehicles (EVs) may be pricier up front, but are less expensive to run, especially when you factor in lower maintenance costs from fewer moving parts. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that even in the U.S., where gasoline is cheaper than the global average*, EVs are a good economic choice as well as being better for the environment. As the cost of solar power continues to drop, battery technology continues to improve, and as more EVs become available, the cost of ownership will keep doing down. Here in New Zealand, where most of our electricity comes from renewable sources, the choice will soon be a no-brainer. EVs are the future.


* Fuel prices: at around 2 NZD per litre for petrol (gasoline) here in Wellington, and an exchange rate of 1.00 NZD == 0.70 USD, that’s about 1.4 USD per litre, or $5.30 US per gallon. The current global average is about 1.10 USD per litre.

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Gaudy Night

Category: Mysteries

Age: Teen and up. No sex, minimal violence.

I’ve already written about Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but Gaudy Night, the penultimate book in the series, deserves a post of its own. Gaudy Night does not conform to genre conventions. Yes, it is a mystery, but it is also much, much more: a literary novel containing a story of a woman coming to terms with both her past and her future, a reflection on a writer’s role in giving life to fictional characters, and one of the best romances I’ve ever read, between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane.

Although Lord Peter appears in it, it’s really Harriet’s story. Returning to her alma mater at Oxford for an alumnae reunion (the titular Gaudy Night), Harriet is apprehensive about how she will be received. She has, after all, in the years since she graduated, been on trial for murder and had her scandalous personal life splashed across the tabloid headlines. (Remember that in the 1930s an unmarried woman living with a man would be a social outcast.) On her arrival, she is surprised to find that the dons (the teachers) are glad to see her. Shortly afterwards, when a nasty prankster with a poison pen begins making trouble at the college, they ask for her help. Harriet returns and takes up residence, ostensibly doing research for a book, but really to nose out trouble. She turns to Lord Peter for his advice as the malicious behaviour escalates, and she herself is attacked with murderous intent.

Anyone looking for a fast-paced thriller with lots of gore, forget it, and if you value plot over character development, this probably isn’t for you either. By modern crime novel standards, Gaudy Night is slow-moving and almost non-violent. One character is driven to attempt suicide and Harriet is injured, but no one dies.

Personally, I remember characters, not plots. If a writer’s work doesn’t include memorable characters, I won’t be back for more, no matter how intricate or surprising the plot is, but this book is one I have reread several times. Part of the appeal, particularly for aspiring writers, is watching Harriet struggle to bring her fictional characters to life, to make them well-rounded, believable human beings. Harriet Vane can be seen as Sayers’ alter ego, wrestling with the same problems Sayers wrestled with, and, we might hope, succeeding as well as Sayers did.

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Reality intrusions

This has been a spectacular week.

First my car broke down. The muffler fell off on Evans Bay Parade on my way to work, the battery died and needed a jump start, and the mechanic said it wasn’t worth replacing the muffler since the car would fail its WoF (Warrant of Fitness) inspection, due in December. Fixing the rust problems would cost more than the car was worth. My husband had been saying we were going to have to replace it; I just hadn’t wanted to recognise it had become so urgent. But then, you never do, do you?

Then the plumber we called in to deal with our drainage problems said they’d have to cut a trench across our patio to dig up and replace the decades-old crumbling clay sewer pipe.

And finally, we got to bed this morning (Saturday) at 4am, after having spent the previous eight hours of Friday night in the emergency room of Wellington Hospital. (We’re all fine now, if rather sleep-deprived.)

None of this has helped keep my writing on schedule…

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Dorothy L Sayers

Category: Mysteries

Age: Teens and up

Dorothy L Sayers is the writer most responsible for my ongoing love affair with British mystery novels. Her primary protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, may not be my favourite fictional detective—Brother Cadfael wins that honour—but he runs a close second. Written between the two World Wars, the dozen or so novels plus a number of short stories featuring him were set contemporaneously in the U.K. The cultural backdrop would have been familiar to Sayers initial audience, but was far enough removed in both space and time to fascinate me, when I first encountered them as an American teenager in the 1970s. I enjoy these books as mysteries, but as novels of manners and windows into the world of the British upper classes in interwar period, I enjoy them even more.

Lord Peter is, like some other fictional meddlers, sufficiently well off he can afford to be an amateur detective. He has a good working relationship with the police, but solves mysteries for his own amusement or when called on by friends or family. (His brother, the fictional Duke of Denver, is accused of murder in Clouds of Witness.) Lord Peter hides a sharp mind behind a silly, Bertie Wooster-like persona. He is, perhaps, an upper-class British counterpart to Columbo, lulling the suspects into complacency by his bumbling manner.

Sayers’ prose is rich, polished, and full of understated humour. She is a highly literate and intelligent writer, who trusts her readers to be literate and intelligent, too, and she doesn’t deal in plot-induced stupidity—a trait that in my household often earns a book a quick trip to the giveaway box by the back door. Her plots are intricate and detailed, although perhaps a bit too detailed sometimes; The Five Red Herrings gets too bogged down in train schedule minutia to be interesting. Aside from that lapse, the plots are generally good, but plots are not generally what I get excited about. Character-driven novels thrill me more, and characterization is Sayers’ strength.

One aspect of the books I most appreciate is seeing how she develops as a writer over the course of a decade and a half. I’m not fond of the first novel, Whose Body? It’s a fairly standard mystery, and Lord Peter is a rather shallow character, coming across as too supercilious and artificial, with affected speech patterns that quickly become irritating. As the series progresses, she tones that aspect down, and adds emotional depth to him, particularly after Harriet Vane enters the picture in Strong Poison. The characterizations are better in Strong Poison, by Gaudy Night they are excellent. The last few—The Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon—are stories I still enjoy, decades after first reading them, and it doesn’t matter that I already know who did it. Other readers enjoy them, too; The Nine Tailors was on the Crime Writers’ Association’s shortlist for their 2013 poll for best ever crime novel.

If you haven’t read any of Sayers’ books, start with Strong Poison, the short stories in the collection Lord Peter, or The Nine Tailors. Go back and read the earlier ones only if, like me, you get hooked.

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Answers breed more questions

We made a short trip down to the South Island last weekend, and started off with a question: how do we get from Christchurch to Picton, with Highway 1 still out of commission after last year’s earthquake? The standard answer is to swing out to the west via Lewis Pass, drive up Route 65, and head back east via Route 63 along the Upper Buller River. Our answer was to go a little further west, through Reefton, almost on the west coast. It was a bit off the beaten path, but it’s a nice drive up the Buller Gorge, and we had the road to ourselves on Sunday morning, until we rejoined the main flow of traffic near Murchison.

This is where we stayed Saturday night, in part of the Alfresco Historic Villas B&B:

It’s not a great picture—it was early morning, and the sun hadn’t yet peeked over the tops of the mountains—but this house had character, with stained glass panel in some of the windows, polished wood railings on the staircase, and fireplaces in the bedrooms. There was more fodder for the imagination here than in the typical anonymous motel room, and I find myself wondering about the people who built the house. Who were they? What were they like? And what would they have thought of the guests passing through their house a hundred years later?

They were clearly well off; did they make their money in the Reefton gold rush in the 1870’s? The house is across the street from a small building labeled “School of Mines”; was the first owner a miner, or a merchant supplying the miners, or something else? Were they natives or immigrants? Odds are, at that time, they were immigrants from the UK. Did New Zealand live up to their expectations? Were they happy here?

What stories would they have told about Reefton’s early years? If a writer makes up stories about them, will the stories be wildly off the mark exaggerations of ordinary, mundane lives, or would they pale in comparison to the stories the inhabitants could tell of adventures at sea or upheavals in this rugged wilderness?

I’ll probably never know. For every historical character whose life is recorded, there are millions of others whose stories are lost, or not widely disseminated. That doesn’t mean the stories aren’t worth telling.

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Rivers of London

Category: Urban fantasy / Mystery

Age: adult. Gore, lots of it, and adult situations.

In the first chapter of Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, probationary constable Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police Service tries to take a witness statement from a man he doesn’t realise at first is a ghost. Pretty soon Grant finds himself assigned to a secret branch of the police force dealing with magic and the supernatural, apprenticed to a wizard, and witnessing a man dying after his face falls off. When the author throws in Londoners going berserk, a series of brutal murders, vampires, a turf war between the minor demigods Mother and Father Thames, and more faces falling off, things get even weirder. And then there’s Molly. I don’t know what kind of a being she is, but she’s awesome, and she’s got teeth.

This urban fantasy, published in the US under the title Midnight Riot, is by turns gory, strange, sad, puzzling, imaginative, geeky, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It is also deeply immersed in contemporary London, larded with British slang and references to London neighbourhoods and 21st-century culture. I love London, but I’ve never lived there; I know the city only as a foreign tourist, so I’m sure there were some jokes and references that went right over my head. Even so, it’s approachable by someone who isn’t familiar with the city.

The story bogged down a bit in the middle, and some of it was confusing, but it kept me entertained, despite the faults, and most of it moves along at a brisk pace. Aaronovitch is a master of throwaway lines and understatement, and sometimes the scenes he describes are better for what he doesn’t say than for what he does. He trusts us, his readers, to be willing to work a bit to read between the lines and fill in the gaps, especially for emotional content, and I appreciate that.

Rivers of London is the first in a series, with another six or seven entries so far, plus several related graphic novels. Be warned that it is rather dark, and this entry in the series does not have a happy ending for one of the main characters. Whether that character recovers or not I don’t know; so far I’ve only read the first book, but like it enough to put the second book, Moon Over Soho, on my holiday wish list.

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