Saturday, January 19, 2013

3: Harriet Steel - Becoming Lola

Lola Montez was a 19th-century dancer, courtesan, free spirit, and, if Harriet Steel's novelised version of her early life is to be believed, not remotely afraid to fight her corner. Her real name wasn't Lola Montez. She wasn't Spanish. She wasn't even much of a dancer, it seems. But she had a determination to live a certain kind of life and the beauty, charisma, and slapdash attitude to monogamy to make sure that was what happened. During her lifetime, she was one of the most famous women in the world, and a truly modern celebrity, in that she was famous mostly for her relationships and her fame, rather than for anything more concrete.
I'm surprised Madonna hasn't made a film of her life at any stage, but I suppose Madge wouldn't like to be reminded of the fact that, unlike her, when Montez turned to acting, she turned out to be good at it.
The problem with novels about real people is that real people sometimes do things without the kind of rock-solid motivation you would give a fictional person, which can sometimes make for a frustrating read. This is especially true if, like me, you're a pretty contented person by nature. The idea of being so restless, so jealous, so frustrated with the way the world works (especially as a Victorian woman), that you assault your lovers when they fail to provide for you, push people into impossible positions, compromise them and yourself in the eyes of society, and eventually end up being almost killed by a mob of disgruntled citizens because you're having a highly unpopular affair with their king, is somewhat alien to me. Maybe that's the fault of the story, but maybe it's a fault of the writing. The upshot is that I'm not sure I ever understood or got to like Montez, even though the story is told well enough that I always wanted her to succeed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2: Scott Lynch - The Lies of Locke Lamora

In one of those worlds where everything is made of obsidian* and everything is slightly magical, a conman, thief, and gang member in good standing called Locke Lamora* hatches a plan to relieve some wealthy people of their money, while at the same time, unbeknownst to him, he has become a key component of someone else's plan to do Very Bad Things to a great many people within the city state of Camorr. Sounds very exciting, doesn't it? And it probably would be if was a 300-page caper full of cut and dash.
But it isn't. Instead it's a 500-page slog where every single clever idea that pops into the author's head gets spun out into a lengthy description, and every detail of clothing, furnishing, and location is laid out in forensic detail (stop telling me that the buildings were made by a giant race who were there before people. You've told me five times now, and believe it or not, I can remember it from the first time you told me). Some of these ideas are pretty clever, but others just don't work, and the ones that don't work grew to annoy me pretty quickly.
(For example, the world Lynch has built has 12 gods, or 13 if you're one of the Right People. So instead of saying "oh my god," people swear by saying, "gods!" Which is fine. But they also say "gods-damned" a lot, where Earth people would say "goddamn." Now, I don't know if you've tried saying "gods-damned" out loud, but it doesn't work as an exclamation. It's too hard to say. But there it is, scattered throughout the book, annoying me.)
Locke Lamora's plan is also pretty dull, as is a lot of the talk about guilds and pacts between various lawless or religious factions within the city state. The annoying thing about this is that you can't really skim it because some of it turns out to be important later on.
However, if you're prepared to wade through the setup stuff in order to get to the far more exciting second half, you're richly rewarded with dastardly baddies, a confused and imperilled protagonist (the best kind), some serious revenge motivation, a couple of exciting fight sequences, and a sickeningly vertiginous escape before everything gets wrapped up in a highly satisfactory manner. Oh, if only the whole thing could have been like this. I get the awful feeling it was written backwards, with things happening in the exciting second half that then needed to be tediously set up in the first, like Bill and Ted's escape from jail.

* "Why do people in these books make everything out of obsidian? What's wrong with steel? Steel's much stronger." - Husband's response to my observation about the language in the book.

* Whenever I say The Lies of Locke Lamora out loud, I always have to do it in an Oirish accent.

Friday, January 04, 2013

1: Patrick O'Brian - Treason's Harbour (or, the one with the diving bell)

Sometimes people ask me what would be a good starter Aubrey/Maturin novel, so that a person could just see if they liked them without having to commit to anything very serious. (I think people really only do this to shut me up, to be honest, but sometimes it's just nice to chat.)
If you don't mind jumping in almost exactly at the middle of a series, thereby spoiling some earlier storylines for yourself, you could do worse than starting with Treason's Harbour, I think. It's got a lot of the elements that make the series great, it's pretty easy to follow the action without a lot of prior knowledge, and it's not overburdened with nautical talk.
Just for the record, some of the elements that make the series great are:

  • Intrigue!
  • Spying!
  • Daring escapes from the French (boo, the French)!
  • Illicit liaisons with ladies!
  • Stephen looking and smelling like some kind of mythical hermit (an honest-to-god plot point)!
  • Prizes!
  • Sea battles (although there aren't the lengthy and detailed descriptions of nail-biting close actions in this one, but there's enough to let you know if it's your thing or not)!
  • That scrub Harte showing away!
  • Jack being an excellent commander, a discreet and loyal friend, and freakishly strong!
  • Killick complaining!
  • The Surprise!

I could go on. And no doubt I will, the next time I see you.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

New Year's Resolutions: quitting a thing, reading some things

For 2013, I decided to quit the third worst habit I've ever had.
To celebrate this decision, I gorged myself on my third worst habit for hours last night. In fact, I stayed up doing it till two in the morning, and then woke up with a sore arm because of it. I'd like to tell you this had never happened to me before, that it was a goodbye binge, but that would be a lie. I've often given myself a cramp in my right hand in the service of my third-worst habit.
Well, never again. I have played you for the last time, Bejeweled Blitz.*
Oh, also I have decided to read fifty books, because this worked out great for me the last time I tried it. So, watch this space for amazing insights about books everyone else was reading and talking about five to ten years ago, and for books with pictures of ships on the covers. I think that's a good mix.
(*I am by no means certain I can keep this resolution. This is about the fifth time I have deleted everything to do with this awful game from my Facebook account only to come crawling back when I get bored. But I suppose the first step is admitting I have a problem.)