Sunday, July 21, 2024

Romance and alt-history

The House of the Red Balconies, A.J. Demas (2024 TBR)

I very much enjoy A.J. Demas's romances set in an AU ancient world with echoes of Greece and Sparta, rather like the world in Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series. (The gods do not intervene in Demas's world as they do with the Thief and his compatriots.) Her stories usually revolve around a romance between two men, often from different countries who have to negotiate their differences, and sometimes solve a mystery, on their way to a happy ending. My favorite are the Sword Dance trilogy, with retired soldier Damiskos and dancer/intelligence agent Varazda; and One Night in Boukos, set in the city of that name, where an ambassador goes missing during a riotous festival, and two couples set out separately to find him.

It has been a while since A.J. Demas published a new story, because she also writes urban fiction as Alice Degan. I was very happy when her newsletter arrived with an announcement of this new book. It is a different, quieter story than some of her others, and I loved it. Hylas has come to the island of Tykanos to build an aqueduct. But once he gets there, he finds Governor Loukianos rather vague about the details of the project, and about his salary. The Governor is much more interested in the tea houses, which draw tourists to the island and provide important income. The houses are places of entertainment, with geisha-like staff who offer conversation, poetry and music. The houses are not brothels, though the entertainers hope to attract patrons who may become their lovers.

Hylas is from a country that doesn't have tea houses, and he has rented a room in The House of the Red Balconies without knowing what it is. His room shares a garden with a beautiful young man named Zo, one of the entertainers, who suffers from a chronic illness that often leaves him unable to walk. Zo is at first suspicious of Hylas, who is shy and uncomfortable around strangers, particularly one as beautiful as Zo. But they begin to bond over breakfasts in their garden. Meanwhile, since Hylas can't build his aqueduct, he keeps busy with other small projects like fixing the town's plumbing issues, working in what has become their garden, and figuring out ways to help Zo navigate his illness. He quickly endears himself to the house's residents, and to the town at large.

It was fun to explore Tykanos, and to watch Hylas find his way to friendship and love. He takes good care of Zo, and people take care of him in return, and (spoiler alert) he finally gets to build the aqueduct! It was a lovely story, one I know I'll come back to.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Two very different train trips

First, Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome (TBR stacks, 2016)

I have no idea what finally inspired me to pick this up, after so many years on the TBR stacks. Orginally published in 1891, it is an account of a trip Jerome K. Jerome took with his friend "B" to see the Oberammergau Passion Play. I first learned about this play, presented every ten years since the 17th century, from Maude Hart Lovelace. In Betsy and the Great World, the title character visits the small town in an off-year, when the play is not being presented, meeting the villagers who play the different characters and enjoying the town's hospitality. Jerome's story begins in England with B's invitation. It reads like a travel journal, detailing their mishaps and adventures. The tone is familiar from To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I found it funnier and more engaging than his later account of a bicycle tour through Germany, Three Men on the Bummel. I was surprised by a sincere meditation on churches and religious faith, and a serious discussion of the Passion Play. Unlike the fictional Betsey, he was there in a presentation year (1890). He also had the chance to meet the villagers/actors, and some of the names were familiar from the fictional visit.

After I finished the book, I checked for biographical information on Jerome. I learned that he published an autobiography called My Life and Times in 1926, the year before his death. I also learned that on an American tour, he was horrified by the lynching of African Americans and protested during his talks, even in the South; and that he drove an ambulance in France during the Great War, after being declared unfit for service. I promptly located a copy of the book, and I am determined not to let it languish unread.


Second, The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White (2024 purchase)

One of my favorite podcasts is Shedunnit, hosted by Caroline Crampton, which covers Golden Age detective fiction. I think I have said before that I don't read much modern crime fiction lately. The cosies often seem too twee, and the police procedurals have too many serial killers. Martin Edwards through his collections of Golden Age stories, and the British Library reprints, have introduced me to new authors, as has the podcast. One I have been anxious to read is The Wheel Spins, which inspired Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. I saw the film years ago and remembered the basic plot, but not well enough to see where book and film diverge.

In the novel, Iris Carr has been on holiday in the Balkans with a groups of Bright Young Things. The rest of the groups leaves for England two days before she does (to the relief of the other British visitors, tired of their shenanigans). While Iris is waiting for her train on her own day of departure, she has an episode of sunstroke in the station. She is helped on to the overcrowded train, and in her compartment is a "tweedy spinster" named Miss Froy, who takes her to the dining car for tea, chattering about her work as a governess and the home she is returning to for a holiday. Afterwards, Iris falls asleep in her seat. When she wakens, Miss Froy is not in the compartment, and everyone else asserts she was never there and doesn't exist. Iris searches for her frantically, while being dismissed as ill and hysterical.

It is a very tense story, with Iris feeling very alone and vulnerable, particularly since she doesn't speak the language. She has one ally, who isn't actually that much support, since he doesn't completely believe her. I found his transition to her love interest the weakest part of the story. Despite having a general idea of how the story ended. I did read the ending early on to make sure it was a happy one. I don't know that I'll look for more of Ethel Lina White's books, especially since one of them features a serial killer, but I'll keep my eyes open for copies turning up.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

A mystery on Mars

 The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, Malka Older

This is the second book in a series set on Mars. The "Giant" has been settled by refugees fleeing an Earth that became uninhabitable. They live on platforms girded together by rings, railways that connect settlements and even towns. There are agricultural platforms, both on Mars and on its moons. Scholars are studying not just how to sustain life on Mars, but also how to re-establish life on Earth.

The first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, introduced Mossa, an Investigator looking into the disappearance of a man on a remote platform. The story is narrated by Pleiti, a Classical scholar at Valdegeld University, whom Mossa turns for help in her investigation. Pleiti plays Watson to Mossa's Sherlock, complicated by their past history when they were students and lovers at the university.

That story was action-packed, leading to an explosive ending. This story is quieter but just as enjoyable. It did take a couple of tries for me to settle into it. The language is formal and feels a bit opaque, which seems a marker of the differences. These aren't 21st century people plopped down in Mars. Malka Older makes you feel the distance and the difference, and also the precariousness of life on Mars.

Here Mossa returns to ask Pleiti's help, as she is again investigating a disappearance, this time a student from Valdegeld. Pleiti is shocked when she learns that the student is one of 17 missing from the university - students, faculty, support staff. Their investigation will take them into university politics, as well as a trip to Io, Mossa's home planet, and a trip around the rings to the dark side of the Giant. There was a fascinating bit of backstory in that Io was settled first, by rich people with the means to escape Earth in comfort. But Io has active volcanoes, and it has become difficult to sustain life there. Those who settled Mars had a much harder time, but now the mother planet is thriving, and residents tend to side-eye the Ionians.

I enjoyed the mystery, but even more learning about Mars and Io, and particularly life on the Giant. It was also lovely to see Pleiti and Mossa settle more deeply into their relationship. There is a lot of care in this book, with tea and scones available via demand in Pleiti's rooms, as well as hot baths (one of the benefits of living on a gas planet). There are also delightful insights into the culture: this planet has a Murderbot opera, and I would pay good money just to read the libretto.

I hope that we will have more mysteries for Mossa and Pleiti to solve, maybe even on the other moons. I read a library copy of this, but I will be adding a copy to my shelves.

Monday, July 8, 2024

The Five Year Lie

The Five Year Lie, Sarina Bowen (library book)

I have enjoyed Sarina Bowen's romance novels, those set around family orchards and breweries in Vermont (I haven't read her hockey stories). When I learned from her newsletter that she had written her first suspense novel, I wanted to read it. The cover labels it "A Domestic Thriller," but I haven't parsed the nuances between suspense and thriller - and this one could have been labeled a mystery as well.

The book opens with a nervous mother helping her young son in a bus station restroom. By the end of the short prologue, her face has been captured on the station's surveillance cameras, and while the security guard watching passes right over her, AI software is analyzing and then identifying her. The first chapter then jumps to Ariel, a single mother taking her young son to pre-school. She goes on to her job at her family's tech company, Chime Co., a major distributor of doorbell cameras. In a meeting that morning, she gets a text. It is from her son's father, Drew, who disappeared out of her life five years ago (before she knew she was pregnant). It's a shock to get the text, because she knows that he died shortly afterwards, she has his obituary - pretty much all she does have from him, aside from her son.

The chapters that follow alternate between Ariel's narration (first person present), and an account of Ariel and Drew's relationship five years ago (third person present). It turns out that the text was actually sent five years ago, part of a cache of texts that was held up and then suddenly released, creating havoc in different people's lives. For Ariel, it spurs her to begin looking for Drew, trying to figure out what happened. The reader knows much more than she does, from the chapters that include Drew's perspective. 

I found the story interesting, though I don't like jumping between dual time lines, especially when there is a gap of time. It's a complicated story, with characters helping Ariel and hindering her. Technology plays a major role in it, particularly the family's cameras and how they can be used. The author brings it to a neat conclusion, though I had a couple of questions about the solution and the ending for the characters. I'll continue to read Sarina Bowen's romances, but I hope she writes more suspense stories as well.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Two novellas, continuing favorite series

I had the great pleasure of reading two novellas this week, both fantasy stories, and both continuations of series I really enjoy. 

The first is The Brides of High Hill, by Nghi Vo, from my 2024 TBR stack. This is the fifth book in the "Singing Hills Cycle," about clerics who travel around telling and collecting stories. The new stories they hear are brought back to archive at the Singing Hills abbey. Clerics are aided in their work by neixin, spirits that take the form of a hoopoe and help the clerics remember. The main character in these stories, which can be read in any order, is Cleric Chih, who travels with their companion Almost Brilliant.

In The Brides of High Hill, Chih is traveling with the Pham family but without Almost Brilliant, to bring their daughter Nhung to her wedding. Her future husband, Lord Guo, is the master of a fortress-like estate, Doi Cao. When they arrive, Chih finds that Lord Guo is at least thirty years older than his bride, and his estate is crumbling around him. The servants are nervous, his son is unstable, and no one wants to talk about any previous wives. Nhung asks Chih to help her explore the many buildings scattered around the grounds, to try to figure out what's going on. I honestly thought I knew what was going on, but then there was a major twist to the story that came as a complete surprise. It is really cleverly done, with both the set-up and the denouement. This is a great addition to the series.

The second book is Penric and the Bandit, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is part of her "Five Gods Universe," which started with three novels set in a medieval-Renaissance world with echoes of our own, and a remarkable theology. The first of these, The Curse of Chalion, is one of my desert-island books. I had hoped for more books in that series, but instead Lois Bujold began writing novellas about a young man named Penric, who inherits a demon from a dying sorcerer. In this world, there is a Holy Family of five gods. The Bastard, my favorite, is a god of chaos and untimely events, and of demons. Demons can only exist in the world of matter if they attach themselves to a person or animal. If the demon has control, then it can do a lot of damage in its physical form. But it can be mastered, and then its powers can be used for good. One who possesses and controls a demon is a sorcerer, and usually a divine of the Bastard. Penric's demon, Desdemona, has had twelve previous "riders," all women, and so she is a demon of great age and power. The story of her partnership begins with Penric's Demon, and the books should be read in order. They are a delight.

Lois Bujold describes herself as retired from traditional publishing. The Penric books are self-published, and she writes when she has a story to tell, never on a schedule. So it was a lovely surprise to find her posting on Goodreads last month about a new Penric & Desdemona story. Penric and the Bandit opens with Penric sitting in a roadside inn, with a map. Roz, who needs money and to get far away, picks him out as a likely mark and starts chatting him up. He thinks Pen is a treasure-hunter who might be relieved of his treasure, but he has a lot to learn about the man he labels "Goldie." This was another great adventure, with a surprising treasure to be found (Roz is certainly surprised). I admit to a slight disappointment that the Bastard didn't make an appearance this time. As I said before though, he does tend to take over the story a bit when he appears, much like DEATH in Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

The Fixed Period - the last Anthony Trollope novel

This novel, the last Anthony Trollope wrote, was published first serially and then in novel form in 1882 - ironically, given its subject matter, the year that he died. I don't think I will be a Trollope completist, because I don't plan to read his historical fiction set in France, or all of his travel writing. But as weird as this last novel was, I'm glad to have read it.

The Fixed Period is set in the late 20th century. Narrated by John Neverbend, it is the story of Britannulia, whose citizens seceded from New Zealand to settle an island in the Pacific, as an independent republic. Neverbend, the founding president, has a dream the implementation of which he believes will make him a great benefactor of humanity: state-run euthanasia. On their 67th birthday, a citizen of Britannulia reaches their Fixed Period. He or she is then to be escorted to the government-run College - named to Mr. Neverbend's dismay the Necropolis. The newly-deposited resident spends the next year preparing herself or himself for their 68th birthday, at which point they are given laudanum, put into a warm bath, and killed, after which the remains are cremated.

This is the law of Britannulia. However, in this June of 1980, the first resident about to celebrate the milestone birthday does not want to be deposited. Neither do the four people in line behind him. The population is divided over the question, while the President keeps insisting that the law must be upheld, and that Gabriel Crasweller's example will bring glory to the country and their plan. As the reader learns in the first chapter, Great Britain has sent out a steam launch stuffed with troops to prevent this from taking place, and an ambassador to turn the republic into a Crown Colony - and to take John Neverbend back to England.

This story was first serialized in Blackwood's Magazine, with no author listed. I wonder if I would have known it was Anthony Trollope if I'd read an uncredited version rather than the Penguin edition I found years ago. There is a weird parallel between this and his first novel, The Warden, with its ancient residents of Hiram's Hospital, who are at least allowed to live out their unfixed period of years in peace. There is also a chilling parallel that Trollope could not have seen. The grounds of the college include a crematorium, where the bodies of those killed will be cremated. One of the objections to living at the Necropolis is the ash and smell from the bodies (though the only test was done with pig carcasses). Even Neverbend realizes this was a mistake. It was hard not to think of Nazi death camps reading that.

There are typical Trollope tropes, such as a beautiful young woman who must choose among suitors. The fact that she is Crasweller's daughter, and her husband will inherit her father's property after the older man is disposed of, adds more than one complication to the story. There is conflict between father and son, husband and wife, as Neverbend's family oppose the Fixed Period (Mrs. Neverbend does not even accompany her husband in exile, though she does send him off with flannel drawers). There is an extended sports scene - cricket rather than fox-hunting, and with steam-powered bats. That's another weird thing about this book, Trollope doesn't seem to have spent much time on developing his future world. It's pretty much 19th century Britain. Women of course don't vote in Britannulia, even in 1980.

I did learn from the brief introduction that Trollope was a strong supporter of cremation, and there is a conversation cited where he supposedly spoke in favor of euthansia. It is ironic then that he died, at age 67, having reached the Fixed Period of the story.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

The Marquis Who Mustn't

The Marquis Who Mustn't, Courtney Milan (2024 TBR stack)

This is the second book in Courtney Milan's Wedgeford Series - with a third book coming in July. The setting is a small town in Kent in the 1890s, where a community of Asians (some recent immigrants, some natives of England) have settled. The town is best known for an annual competition called The Trials, which draws people from all over the kingdom to play. According to the author's note in the first of the series, The Duke Who Didn't, it is based on "The Royal Shrovetide Football Match" held in Ashbourne in Derbyshire since the Middle Ages. The first book is centered around The Trials, with the titular Duke returning to take part.

In this second book, another former resident returns home. Liu Ji Kai lived in Wedgeford as a child, while his father systematically conned the residents out of their savings. He claimed an ancient Chinese title, and he told the town that he had the secret to creating priceless works of ceramic pottery. One night he abandoned the six-year-old Kai in the village, returning later to drag him off to learn his part in the family's real inheritance: fraud. Twenty years later, Kai is coming back to restore what his father stole.

On his way to Wedgeford, he meets Naomi Kwan, who works her family's inn (Naomi played a key part in the first book). She desperately wants to take ambulance classes, since the town has no doctor. Her parents have talked her out of it year after year, but when she finally makes her way to register, she is told that she must have permission from her father or husband. Naomi quickly presents Kai as her fiancé, and he plays along, though he doesn't tell her that they were betrothed as children. Since this is a romance, it shouldn't be a spoiler to say that their fake (second) engagement starts to become more real. But Kai still needs to face his past and his father's actions, and Naomi has her own family complications to deal with. It's lovely to see them stand up for each other as they are learning more about themselves and each other.

I really enjoy Courtney Milan's historical romances. My only quibble is that they can be a bit repetitive, with people asking the same questions or having the same mental conversation more than once. Her books are self-published, and someone recently asked on Goodreads if she has an editor, who might catch some of this. I also saw some typos in this book. But these are quibbles, and I am looking forward to the third book next month, The Earl Who Isn't.