Thursday, February 28, 2013

Black Fforde Hornung Horowitz Polidori

by Holly Black
Recommended Ages: 14+

Subtitled "A Modern Faery's Tale," this companion-book to Tithe and Valiant brings back characters from the previous two books in a climactic tale of magic, romance, court intrigue, and hard-hitting action. Once again, the Bright and Night Courts of Faerie collide against the urban backdrop of New York City and its down-and-out New Jersey suburbs. Once again, a spotlight shines on the spine-chilling side of fey creatures—the child-stealing, pain-dealing, backstabbing, amoral side of beings that are just like sociopathic killers except that they are unnaturally beautiful, they can't endure the touch of iron, and they cannot lie. Fun, right?

Kaye, who only lately found out that she is a pixie who swapped places with her human mother's real child, figured that things would go smoothly once her boyfriend Roiben became king of the Unseelie (or Night) Court. But really, her troubles have just begun. Tricked into declaring her love for him, Kaye is dispatched on a seemingly impossible quest: to find a faery who can lie. Since she cannot see Roiben again until she fulfills this task, this seems to be a cruel way to break up. Not that her life "ironside" (i.e. in the human world) is flowing any better. After Kaye reveals the truth to her mother, she fears her family life may be over too. Now she must make a deal with the devil—well, all right, the Seelie Queen—to bring the real Kaye back to the mother who never knew her.

Meanwhile, Kaye's best friend Corny is still doing his best, without magical powers of his own, to exact revenge on the world of Faerie for the death of his sister, drowned by a kelpie. Corny's anger issues get him in trouble when a faery whom he roughs up in a nightclub bathroom puts a curse on him. Now everything he touches with his bare hands, withers. On the upside for Corny is a gay romance with Luis, the boy who can see through magical glamours; which reminds me—in case you haven't already picked up on this—that an "adult content advisory" is in order.

It's just another service you can expect from the author who draped the dark, edgy, needle-scarred, smog-stained mantle of ghetto-ness around the shoulders of Faerie. It's a story set in the no-man's-land between things ancient and modern, grown and cast in iron: a borderland of shadow and conflict, of pain and change, of the small daytime struggles of ordinary people caught up within the epoch-making motions of mythical, magical beings. It won't be everybody's cup of tea. Rather, it is a stiff shot of an unusual viewpoint on fairyland folklore. Some day I would be interested to discuss, and maybe debate, with the author her take on this lore, the purpose it serves, the values it promotes. For now I can only appreciate the twistiness of the plot that unravels in this book, as befits the twisted characters vying for control of Faerie. If you find this trilogy to be all that and more, check out Holly Black's other titles, including Doll Bones (coming in May 2013) and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (coming in September 2013).

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you haven't read the first five "Thursday Next" fantasy-comedy-mystery-thrillers, or at least my reviews of them, I'm not sure how to begin to describe Book 6 to you. There's just so much going on in them. Whether it is worth your while to find out what you're missing, you may judge from a personal anecdote: While listening to Emily Gray reading the audio-book edition of this book during a car trip, I once had to pull over until I could regain my composure, I was laughing so hard. Only once, to be sure; but laughs of one size or another crowded thickly into this brainy, zany, complex, amazing book.

Some fans of Thursday Next may be disappointed to find out that the "real" Thursday barely appears in this installment. The narrator and main protagonist is actually the "written" Thursday—which is to say, the character in Bookworld who headlines the cast of the Thursday Next series in the reader's imagination. You see why I said this was going to be hard to explain.

Thursday—I mean the "real" Thursday, who lives in a somewhat daft alternate-history version of present day Swindon, U.K.—is a woman of many parts. As a Spec Ops detective, she used to investigate the really weird crimes, such as those involving time travel, extraterrestrials, and (her specialty) fictional characters running loose in the real world. In Bookworld, meanwhile, she is a top-tier agent of Jurisfiction, one of the few who can move freely between the two worlds. Besides all this she moonlights as a wife, mother, carpet salesperson, cheese smuggler (please don't ask), slayer of the undead, nemesis of the evil Goliath Corporation, and championship croquet team manager. She has saved the world multiple times and eluded about six dozen attempts on her own life. But now she has disappeared somewhere in Bookworld, and it couldn't happen at a worse time.

The written Thursday, meanwhile, doesn't seem to be cut out of the same cloth. Less assertive, more tree-huggy, and plagued by relationship problems—such as being in love with the husband who exists only in the real world but not in the books. She washed out of Jurisfiction training and now, when not appearing in her out-of-print and seldom-read series, serves as a Bookworld accident investigator who can be counted on when a lousy investigation is needed. She gets just such a case when an unidentified book in transit over fictional airspace crashes and leaves a swath of debris across the thriller genre. All she needs to do is find that it is an unprecedented and unrepeatable accident, but instead she picks up the scent of a conspiracy that could rock the whole Bookworld.

Meanwhile, she has to find the real Thursday in time for sensitive peace talks with Speedy Muffler, the renegade leader of Racy Novel. And as the case progresses, she grows less and less sure that she isn't the real Thursday herself, suffering from delusions of being the written one. She would like it to be true—after a tantalizing but confusing visit to the real world and a near-kiss with her beloved Landen, oh! doesn't she!—but a nagging intuition persists in telling her that hear real-world counterpart is hurt but alive, somewhere in Bookworld.

As each new clue brings written Thursday closer to understanding how her two cases fit together, she increasingly wishes that she had the real Thursday's detection chops—because the more she knows, the less it makes sense. And that's even taking into account the cracked logic of life as a text-based life-form, in a world where buildings, landscapes, and people—rather than pages—exist between the covers of each book, where raw metaphor is mined and smuggled, where a wind-up butler and a deputy boyfriend with a hideous (but transferable) backstory share space with Men in Plaid driving 1949 Buick Roadmasters, where fan-fiction characters live in a ghetto guarded by game-show hosts armed with eraser-tipped ordnance, where the perception of time is based on length of description, and where participants in a conversation may lose track of who is saying what in the absence of dialog cues. The only thing weirder than Bookworld, from our point of view, is how our world appears to a visitor from Bookworld. And the character who guides us through it all has confusion of her own, as she works out who she really is and what she is capable of.

I have learned, just now, that this is really Book 2 of what is meant to be the second four-book series of Thursday Next novels, starting with First Among Sequels and continuing (after this book) with The Woman Who Died a Lot. A release date has not yet been announced for Book 4, currently titled Dark Reading Matter. Meanwhile, author Fforde (which, according to Emily Gray, is pronounced "Ford") is also working on two other series of novels, titled "Last Dragonslayer" and "Shades of Grey."

A Thief in the Night
by E. W. Hornung
Recommended Ages: 13+

In this third and final collection of short stories about gentleman burglar A. J. Raffles, the criminal mastermind's sidekick and chronicler—known to us only by his schoolboy nickname "Bunny," until the final story in this book reveals his given name to be Harry—looks back over both halves of his idolized friend's house-breaking career. You'll have already read how it began in The Amateur Cracksman, from the start of their partnership until Raffles escapes justice over the side of a ship and is presumed dead, leaving Bunny to pay for their crimes in prison. Then, in the second collection, The Black Mask, you'll have been introduced to their later career, after Bunny gets out of the clink and Raffles returns from the drink, up to the latter's death in the Boer War.

Obviously there could never be a third phase of Raffles' development of the art of burglary. So in this collection, Bunny fills in some episodes he previously skipped over—mostly in their earlier phase, when Raffles was still cracking safes under the cover of a professional cricketer. As in the earlier sets, these stories are the antithesis of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries created by Hornung's close friend Arthur Conan Doyle. We know from the start "who done it," but the interest of the story lies in whether and how they got away with it.

The collection starts with "Out of Paradise," an early heist in which Bunny's romantic entanglement with one of the victims put a strain on his friendship with Raffles. "The Chest of Silver" is a trunk that Bunny deposits in his bank's strong-room at Raffles' request, supposedly to keep their swag from drawing police notice while the master thief is lying low. In actual fact, the trunk contains Raffles himself, in perhaps his daringest heist ever. In "The Rest Cure," Raffles and Bunny hide out in a house whose owners are summering in Switzerland. The man of the house comes back unexpectedly and catches Bunny in the middle of a cross-dressing prank, putting the pair in peril of becoming murderers as well as house-breakers. In "The Criminologists' Club," Raffles outwits a group of drawing-room sleuths, seemingly pulling off a burglary in one room while they're interrogating him in the other. "The Field of Philippi" takes Raffles and Bunny back to the old school, where they first rob a banker and then trick him into donating to a fund he vehemently opposed.

"A Bad Night" relates Bunny's disastrous attempt to do a job on his own, while Raffles is supposedly occupied with cricket. "A Trap to Catch a Cracksman" tells how Bunny and Raffles turn the tables on a prizefighter, even after Raffles falls right into the boxer's burglar trap. "The Spoils of Sacrilege" is a heist of the upstairs region of Bunny's boyhood home, while the family now living there is having a party downstairs. In this case, Bunny's intimate knowledge of the house's layout plays against his last lingering moral qualms. Moving forward to the end of Raffles' career, when the celebrated thief is widely believed to be dead, "The Raffles Relics" relates a raid on a museum collection of his break-in tools—at Scotland Yard! And finally, "The Last Word" closes the loop with a letter from the Bunny's ex-fiancĂ©e, who last saw him fleeing the burglary of her own house—now suggesting, after Bunny's war-wounded homecoming from South Africa, that they may yet have a future together.

These ten stories fill in the gaps between Raffles' celebrated crimes with more eye-sparklingly clever, funny, surprising, suspenseful, and action-filled adventures. Some of them have a touch of melancholy as well. If you haven't made Raffles' acquaintance yet, you may be surprised at what light reading they make. Other than a few lines of sporting slang vintage 1905 or so, which you may find frankly incomprehensible, these tales are still quite readable—built to last, and full of appeal. You may want to check them out, at least, so as to better understand other authors' references to Raffles, especially British writers in the early 20th century. He is, after all, the proverbial paragon of the gentleman burglar, paving the way for such entertainments as the "Dortmunder" series by Donald E. Westlake. Any of Hornung's three short-story collections would be an equally good place to start. All of them are available for free on Kindle. Plus, there is also a Raffles novel, titled Mr. Justice Raffles.

The House of Silk
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Ages: 14+

As most loiterers in library or bookstore children's and young adult fantasy sections are aware, there's a whole series of sequels to Peter Pan authored by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson—a series backed by Disney. What fewer readers know is that the owners of J. M. Barrie's original book and play commissioned only one sequel to Peter Pan: Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan in Scarlet. In a similar way, Laurie R. King's "Mary Russell" mysteries and Carole Nelson Douglas' "Irene Adler" mysteries are successors to the Sherlock Holmes canon created by Arthur Conan Doyle. But no official Holmes sequel was ever sanctioned by the estate of Conan Doyle—until this 2011 book by the author of the "Alex Rider" adventures and the creator of the BBC detective series Foyle's War. McCaughrean's authorized "Peter Pan" sequel, though excellent, is overshadowed by the endless array of glitzy Disney productions, including an upcoming movie. Can Horowitz's authorized "Sherlock Holmes" novel do better? At this writing, he is up against a formidable array of cultural white noise, ranging from a series of blockbuster movies starring Robert Downey Jr. as a flamboyantly un-Holmesian Holmes, to a matched pair of TV series (BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary) transposing Holmes to the key of now. But after hearing Derek Jacobi perform an audio-book reading of The House of Silk, my thought was: "Just this once, the real Holmes lives again."

Horowitz builds his original Holmes novel on what must be an amazingly detailed knowledge of canon Holmes, organized so well that he makes it seem simple. Even though his narrator—Sherlock's sidekick Dr. John Watson—admits that the present case is unlike any other that he has chronicled; even while he points out the limitations of the type of tidy detective stories represented by Conan Doyle's work; even while he admits that in real life, the story of a crime does not end when a sleuth deduces who done it; even while the detecting duo explores a darker, drearier side of London life than Conan Doyle ever touched on—nevertheless the personality of this novel's hero is distinctively Holmes. The instant deductions, based on minutely observed clues, are totally Holmes. The misdirections, the complications, and the revelations of Holmes's infallible reasoning—often delayed until the moment of maximum dramatic effect—are Holmes all over. Imperfect, introspective, vulnerable (though perhaps not as vulnerable as he seems), tortured by the consequences of a rare miscalculation, sometimes callous toward his faithful Watson and sometimes given to surprising displays of warmth, the Holmes of Anthony Horowitz comes across most vividly as the Holmes we know and love.

The cases of "the Flat Cap Gang" and "the House of Silk" seem, until almost the end of this book, to be separate and only coincidentally related affairs. The "flat cap" case opens when an art dealer named Carstairs hires Holmes to protect him from an Irish-American hoodlum who—due to a small misunderstanding involving a train robbery and a blood-drenched, bullet-riddled hideout—seems to have followed Carstairs across the Atlantic with revenge on his mind. The case grows more bizarre when the hoodlum, after summoning his victim to an ominous meeting, stands him up, then burgles his house, then turns up murdered in a fleabag hotel. Even as his client declares the case closed, Holmes can't make heads or tails of it.

Plus, the discovery of the hoodlum's corpse dovetails with the disappearance of one of Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars—the grubby waifs he sometimes hires to run errands. The search for Ross Dixon leads Holmes and Watson first to a charity school for unwanted boys, then to a seedy inn called the Bag of Nails, and finally to the bodies of two gruesomely murdered children. As soon as Holmes begins to investigate what these deaths have to do with a mysterious organization called the House of Silk, he begins to feel pushback from high places. His well-connected brother Mycroft advises him to drop the matter. Instead, Holmes takes out an ad requesting information about the House of Silk, and promptly gets scrobbled by the denizens of an opium den and framed for murder. Just when Watson is worried that the charge may stick, the great detective stages a brilliant jail-break and, pursued by vicious killers as well as a nasty Scotland Yard detective, pursues his investigation to its wrenching conclusion.

What the House of Silk turns out to be, may not be so shocking today. Evil, yes; scandalous even. But perhaps the real horror is that such a vile secret does not seem at all implausible today. Nevertheless Conan Doyle could never have written about it, and even Horowitz's Watson consigns the mystery to a sealed pouch that is not to be opened for a hundred years. So here we are, in good time to see what comes out of the pouch, and perhaps to consider our present world as an example of what comes of protecting such secrets. Or perhaps it is an example of why it might be best to let the mystery end, Conan Doyle-style, with the sleuth announcing his solution. What happens after that can only be more or less sordid and grim. Apart from the outcome of some thrilling chases and gun battles, justice may not be done regardless of what the sleuth finds. But Holmes and Watson soldier on, and while they do, hope lives on that a few more "untold stories" of Sherlock Holmes may yet come to light.

The Vampyre
by John Polidori
Recommended Ages: 12+

Fourscore years before Bram Stoker's Dracula, give or take a couple, this short story laid the foundation of English literature's growing obsession with all things vampire. Based in part on an unfinished novel that Lord Byron conceived during the same evening of ghost-story-telling that inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, John William Polidori's tale was long misattributed to Byron—indeed, it first appeared under his name in an 1819 issue of the New Monthly Magazine. After its true authorship was revealed, speculation ran rampant that the sinister character of Lord Ruthven was based on Lord Byron, prompting its author to append a disclaimer in which he praised Byron's misunderstood character.

Together with two rather dry introductory essays—one about the origin of the story, the other about the background of vampires in Greek folkore—these documents add up to a slender 50 pages or so, frisking along the borders of the novella. Taken by itself, it is quite a short story and, understandably given its nearly 200-year ripeness, its style now seems rather faded and old-fashioned. The abundance of typos in the free Kindle edition does not add much to its appeal. And there is no mistaking it for a work of real genius. Nevertheless, it is a very striking and effective story in its way—full of dread and suspense, exquisitely paced so that the ending comes as a sudden shock, and enlivened by the strange magnetism of the figure of Lord Ruthven.

He seems like such a strange specimen of a vampire that one often has to remind oneself that he embodied the idea of vampires, at least in the literate Western European mind, more than any other character until Dracula came along in 1897. (It was Dumas, by the way, who drew my attention to Lord Ruthven, by putting in his characters' mouths so many comparisons between Lord Ruthven and the Count of Monte Cristo.) In contrast to Count Dracula's depiction as a creature of overwhelming charisma, Ruthven turns heads in society precisely by means of his complete lack of personal charm. Somehow the originality of such a repulsive being seems to draw notice from a certain set of spoiled aristocrats who are desperate for something new. Everything he does seems calculated to do the most harm, whether he wins at cards or loses, gives money to a beggar or refuses. He destroys the fortunes, lives, and families of men, the honor and virtue of women, and can scarcely conceal his pleasure at their ruin.

And then, now and again, he drinks someone's blood. And he comes back from the dead. So yes, now and then he acts just like your common, or garden, vampire.

In his most dastardly deed of all, Lord Ruthven exacts an oath from a young fop named Aubrey, a promise on gentleman's honor not to reveal what he knows about Lord Ruthven's character... then proceeds to hold this promise over Aubrey's head while wooing the latter's sweet, innocent sister. The result is a frenzied crescendo of desperation, madness, and death. Even after nearly two hundred years, it remains a tale that can raise the fine hairs on your body. And that's without any mention of sunlight, crucifixes, garlic, or wooden stakes. Generations later, Dracula still makes westerners shudder—even though his enemies took him down at the end. For all Polidori tells us, Lord Ruthven is still out there. Shouldn't we be concerned?

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