Sunday, August 27, 2017

Certain Prey

Certain Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

When I wrote in my review of Secret Prey that I couldn't wait to get back to reading this, the next and 10th book in the now-27-book Lucas Davenport/"Prey" series, I was lying a little bit. I wanted to mention the fact that this was the next book, and that I was eager to get back to my couch to read more Prey, but in actual truth, I had already finished this book and was on to book 11, Easy Prey. But there is some truth in the lie, since I would have written that previous review sooner if I hadn't spent an entire, agoraphobic Saturday camped out on the couch, reading Lucas Davenport mysteries. I finished Secret Prey in the morning, stayed up until late at night to read all of this book, and was a chapter into Easy Prey before the day was out. No checking email, no blogging reviews, no minor housekeeping chores or shopping trips, no poking my head outside to see what the weather is like. I didn't even raise the blinds. I took full advantage of a rare weekend with no urgent responsibilities to absolutely pamper myself, and broke from reading this book only to use the bathroom and to fix myself a few things to eat or drink. I probably put on five pounds reading this book. I hope you appreciate the sacrifice I'm making to inform you of all the great reading entertainment that's out there.

If you've read at least a few books in this ongoing series, in which almost every book has a two-word title ending with "Prey," I suppose the first thing you want to know is: This is the one in which Sex and the City meets Thelma and Louise. Kinda.

Carmel Loan is a powerful Twin Cities lawyer who is used to getting things her way. One day, she decides she wants a gorgeous, though not too bright, real estate lawyer named Hale Allen. Small problem: He's married to an heiress. He may fool around on her, but he's not going to leave her. Solution: Squash the heiress like a bug. Carmel does this by going to one of her clients, a lowlife Hispanic drug dealer with ties to the St. Louis mafia, and calling in a marker. Accordingly, Rolo sets things up with a nice girl named Clara Rinker, a Wichita bar owner who is finishing her college degree, and who has a thriving side business putting six or seven .22 slugs into the brain of anyone her clients want. She is very careful, very quick, and very elusive; the FBI wants her for at least 27 killings. But the one she does for Carmel, in the stairwell of a downtown Minneapolis parking ramp, goes just wrong enough to send both their lives spinning out of control.

Perhaps their mistake is trying to get away with murder in the same city where Lucas Davenport is the deputy police chief in charge of investigations. Davenport has a great team, including mild-mannered interrogation genius Sloan, the hard-driven Marcy Sherrill - a former flame of Lucas's, who (unless I'm mistaken) first gets her nickname "Titsy" in this book from Carmel Loan - and Sherrill's semi-closeted gay partner Tom Black, among others. They almost don't need Davenport's help, but he willingly joins them; anything to get out of having to read a 600-page anti-discrimination policy for a departmental committee.

Once he is involved, however, things get really messy. When Rolo attempts to blackmail them, the hit-girl and her client go on a rampage of torture, terror, and murder to try to cover up their previous crime, only to get mired even deeper - a situation Clara aptly likens to the tar baby from the tales of Br'er Rabbit. Now their lives are on the line, not only because being convicted of murder would be bad, but also because Clara's mafia connections will come after her as soon as they see her as a liability. With Davenport little more than a step behind - and in one thrilling scene, considerably less than a step behind - you almost sympathize with these killer women; especially since Davenport is not above pulling some ethically iffy stunts to find out who done it. As he has pointed out in previous installments, finding that out is the biggest part; making the charge stick, however, is what makes this a twisty, dangerous, unpredictable thrill-ride.

Though it's the 10th book in an ongoing series, Certain Prey shows no sign of losing energy or slackening tension. And though it's only the 10th in a series that has grown to 30 installments, it already seems to be going full speed, with a mature main character in full command of his crime-solving assets, and a mature author in full-command of whatever makes a book sexy, creepy, suspenseful, and in all other ways fun. You might not be able to remember, a year from now, whether this particular mystery was the fourth, or the 14th, or the 24th book in the series; but canon-order issues only matter so much. The formula, "At first the crime seems to be about one thing, and by the time they reealize it's really this other thing, the lead detective and those close to him find themselves personally in danger," could describe literally hundreds of books, and is pretty much the recipe by which this entire series has been cooked. But one seldom finds an author who more regularly and reliably does it to a turn.

Secret Prey

Secret Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In his preface to a relatively recent re-issue of this book, novelist John Sandford (a.k.a. sometime journalist John Camp) recalled this ninth of currently 27 "Prey" novels featuring Lucas Davenport as having the most complicated plot of them all. If he hadn't mentioned it, the reader wouldn't have noticed, since the book seems effortlessly structured, so that one is caught up in its twists and turns. For the author, it was secretly "brain prey." For the reader, it's simply brain candy - a completely satisfying thrill-ride of crime and detection, with something enjoyable on every page.

For the benefit of any confirmed John Sandford readers who can't keep all these Prey novels straight - and let's face it, their titles aren't much help - this is the one in which the chairman of the board and CEO of a major Twin Cities bank takes a load of buckshot in the back while hunting with four of his top executives. With the bank about to be swallowed up by a corporate merger, and thousands of jobs on the line, there is no shortage of possible suspects, but the four most obvious ones were right there in the woods with him, toting guns. Nevertheless, Sandford keeps us guessing about which one done it until the chairman's death proves to be only the latest in a series of murders by the last person anyone would have suspected of being a psychopath. Although, to be precise, it doesn't stay the latest murder for very long.

Minneapolis Police Chief Lucas Davenport - a dangerous hunter to have stalking you, if you're a killer - is on the hunt, joined by several of his regular cronies, such as incurable sad-sack Del Capslock, whose discomfort is hilarious as he finds himself forced to bust an opium ring of nice old ladies; mild-mannered Detective Sloan, who is frequently described as the best interrogator in the department; and Marcy Sherrill, whose 40-day affair with Davenport takes place during this installment, during a cool-down in his relationship with then-fiancee Weather Karkinnen (for reasons better understood if you have read Sudden Prey). Between these two subplots, the creepy, violent, gruesome murder mystery is livened up by sexy romance and laugh-out-loud comedy, not to mention a gentle exploration of Lucas' struggle with depression.

Because I have been reading this series out of order, I happen to know things aren't really as "over" between Lucas and Weather as they appear in this book; also, I know how and when Sherrill and Sloan part company with the series. I have not yet seen Lucas's career take him to some the places I know it goes. It's a little weird to be finding out what role they played in it after seeing their role end, so I would recommend the "read straight through the canon" approach, starting with Rules of Prey, rather than my "catch as catch can" reading order. But I can bear witness that in whatever order you read them, each Lucas Davenport novel is a gripping mystery, full of shocks and fumbles, battles and chases, intriguing puzzles and astonishing discoveries. I'm torn between wanting to read them all right now and dreading to run out of them. But for the moment, I'm just looking forward to getting back to my couch and the next book in the series, Certain Prey.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sudden Prey

Sudden Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Minneapolis-based cop Lucas Davenport is kind of a scary guy. In this book, his plans to marry microsurgeon Weather Karkinnen hit a snag when she gets a good look at how scary he is, but people are constantly noticing it: the cold way he smiles, the hard gleam in his eye, the way he just lights up when he's on the scent of a bad guy. You might think he is the protagonist of a series of books that all have the word "Prey" in their title because he so often goes up against predators of the worst kind. But the fact is, those predators are the Prey. And Lucas Davenport is the most dangerous predator - the apex predator who hunts other predators, and likes it. When the chase is on, he comes alive. And sometimes, it looks scarily as though he means for it to end in death, and gets a charge out of it - like the way he manages the hunt for a pair of female bank robbers at the beginning of this book, maneuvering them into a situation from which they cannot escape alive.

Even though he doesn't fire a shot in the gun battle that follows, a lot of people read the situation as though he killed the two women. Among those people is a prison inmate named Dick LaChaise, who happens to be the husband of one of the women and the brother of the other. Dick takes advantage of their joint funeral to escape, plotting vengeance against the cops who cornered his late and lamented. He gathers two nut-job accomplices, a female hostage, and a crooked cop who has been blackmailed into feeding him inside information, then goes to war against Davenport's team and their families. And because they're insane, LaChaise and friends are hard to stop. There's no predicting what they'll do next, where they'll strike; and they don't particularly care whether they live or die. You know what drops out of all that, don't you? Yes, indeed: a bloodbath.

While Dick LaChaise is at war with Lucas Davenport, nowhere is safe. Not the homes or workplaces of anyone on the police payroll. Not the hospital where Weather works, nor the other hospital where the victims who survive their attacks lie injured, nor the neighborhood where Lucas's ex-girlfriend is raising their daughter. Even when the nut-jobs are holed up in their lair, bodies continue to drop because there's a cop involved, who needs to cover up his involvement. And caught in the middle is a desperate woman who needs to escape from her insane captors, but who is afraid to take the chance of running into some unknown cop who needs to silence her. Count on one thing, and one thing only: the violence and danger will only increase as the case rushes to its disturbing conclusion.

This is the eighth of currently 27 "Prey" novels featuring Lucas Davenport, back when he was a mere Deputy Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, and before the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was even a gleam in his eye. If my verb tenses seem strange, it's because of the fact (which I have repeated a nauseating number of times) that I'm reading this series in more or less random order. To-date, this is the 12th book that I have read in the series, but the first in canon order, part of a group of books from the early-middle Davenport period that I recently picked up at a used bookstore, after exhausting the late-late Davenport books I started with, and then the late-middle books I found at the local library. It's an interesting way to progress through a series, but I would recommend starting at the beginning, with Rules of Prey. The next book after this, however, both for me and in publication order, is Secret Prey.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Reamde

Reamde
by Neal Stephenson
Recommended Ages: 14+

What do Islamist terrorists, Chinese hackers, Russian gangsters, British spies, mountain militiamen of the American northwest, and creatures from a medieval sword-and-sorcery fantasy world have in common? Improbable as it may seem, they all get caught up in one big, complicated, deadly mess when a piece of low-rent ransomware (bascially, "Pay us $73 and we'll send you the decryption key so you can have your computer files back") targets users of a massively multiplayer online role-play game called T-Rain.

T-Rain was designed by its founder, Richard Forthrast, to make the most of a fact resisted by the proprietors of other online games, such as World of Warcraft: the tendency of certain users to try to monetize their game-play. Underlying all the game-world's medieval combat simulation stuff is a detailed geological structure purpose-built to allow young Chinese operators to mine virtual gold and turn it into real-world money. That isn't the only thing the game has going for it, though. It also has a mythology designed by not one, but two bestselling fantasy authors, and a user interface so true to life that it has actually been used to beef up airport security. But thanks to some technobabble that is not within my powers of description, it also exposes some of its users to a cyberattacker calling himself the Troll, who requires his victims to transfer the ransom money for all their saved files via an in-game cash drop. When thousands of characters suddenly show up at a certain place in the fantasy world of T-Rain, loaded with gold, hordes of bandits take advantage and a chaotic melee breaks out.

As generally happens in a situation like this, one of the first victims is an associate of a Russian mob boss named Ivanov, who instantly blames Forthrast's adopted niece Zula and her slightly dodgy, internet security consultant boyfriend Peter. Held at gunpoint, Zula narrows down the Troll's whereabouts to the Chinese city of Xiamen, where the couple is illegally whisked forthwith, joined by a Hungarian hacker named Csongor, a former Soviet special forces soldier named Sokolov, and the latter's team of armed bodyguards. There they use wardriving to narrow down the Troll's location even further. But at the last moment, Zula lies to Ivanov about which of two possible apartments houses the hive of hackers who have inconvenienced Ivanov. As a result, Sokolov and his men find themselves in a firefight against a jihadist cell headed by Interpol's most wanted terrorist, a black Welshman named Abdallah Jones. When the building blows up around them, Zula falls out of the frying pan into the fire - which is to say, she becomes Jones' hostage in a madcap flight from China to Canada.

A stupendously complicated plot then unfolds, with several groups, pairs of people, and individuals converging at a point on the border between British Columbia and Idaho, where it all ends in blood. Along the way, we meet a member of the Hakka tribe of "big-footed women," a CIA snake-eater in a remote corner of the Philippines, an icky busload of white male sex tourists and their very young Asian escorts, a motley crew of Islamists from a variety of backgrounds, and a female spy who goes off the reservation to hunt down the most dangerous man on earth. Also, there's a man-eating cougar in there somewhere. Get used to flinching. You'll be doing a lot of it.

Three brief phrases in this book stuck in my mind, illustrating why the language-mad side of me fell in love-at-first-book with its author. Two of them came from the same chapter, around the middle of the book: "repurposed cuisine" and "sous-novelists." The third popped up closer to the end: "vehicular mosh pit." Even without knowing anything else about the book, I would be interested just to see what a writer who thinks up phrases like that will do. They aren't very big spoilers, considering the audio-book version consisted of 32 CDs and lasted me more than one and a half round trips between southern Missouri and northern Minnesota.

Neal Stephenson, whose fantasy novels I understand are pigeon-holed alternately as "cyberpunk" and "baroque," is also the author (or at least co-author) of the "Baroque Cycle" of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, and such novels, spanning from the mid-1980s to the present day, as Zodiac, Snow Crash, Interface, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, Seveneves, and most recently The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I tend to balk at diving into a very long novel by an unfamiliar author, but after making his acquaintance through the easy-to-take medicine of an audio-book, I'm eager to read more of his stuff.

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

Is it ironic that an adventure inspired by the tales of the 1,001 Arabian Nights begins with its main character setting off on an adventure inspired by the tales of the 1,001 Arabian Nights? Irony is certainly well-represented in this book's rich variety of textures and hues, along with romance, comedy, magic, sickening violence, and suspense.

Carlo Chuchio, the orphaned nephew of a fat merchant on an island somewhat like pre-19th century Sicily, is widely considered a fool by those who know him. Impractical, accident-prone, and given to daydreaming, he is finally given his marching orders and sent to the mainland to make his own fortune, carrying with him a tattered book of tales in which he found a mysterious treasure map. He is joined on his search by a grumbling, idle camel puller, a wise old man, and a lovely but terribly serious girl who has sworn revenge on the slave merchant who abducted her, possibly after killing her whole family.

Together they witness deadly battles with bandits, explore caves painted by a hermit with the ability to see the future, purchase dreams, face seemingly certain death, and (in more than one couple's case) fall in love. Do they find the treasure? Well, that would be telling. All you need to know for now is that there is a laugh, a sigh, a thrill, or a gasp of wonder on every page.

This was the last book published by Lloyd Alexander, published in the year of his death, 2007. A winner of both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, he was the author of many folklore-based pieces of original fiction, including The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, The Fortune-Tellers, The Arkadians, The Iron Ring, Gypsy Rizka, The Rope Trick, and the five-book "Chronicles of Prydain" series. I have loved many, many of his books, and there are still lots of them I haven't read yet, including the Westmark trilogy and the Vesper Holly sextet.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

Rownie is an orphan living in the bizarre, magical city of Zombay, where it is forbidden to wear masks or act in a play, and where coal is made by stealing people's hearts. After their mother drowned in the river that divides the city in half, Rownie and his older brother Rowan stayed with Graba, a "grandmother" to many of the city's most desperate urchins, who also happens to be a witchworker on giant, clockwork bird's legs. But now Rowan has disappeared, and Rownie runs away to join a troupe of goblin actors who have invited them to play a role in their strange, magical drama.

While traveling with the goblins, who call themselves Tamlin, Rownie learns that masks have power, a different kind of power from that practiced by Graba. While the witchworker uses spells and curses, wearing children as masks and sending pigeons as her spies, the goblins are enacting make-believe stories that alter reality. They hope Rownie will lead them to Rowan, who they believe was destined to wear the mask of the city, acting out a scene that must be acted out to prevent the river from flooding and washing away half of the city. But just when so much depends on Rownie, the jealousy of Graba and a heartbreaking betrayal may spell doom for all of Zombay.

Goblin Secrets is a refreshingly original book, with an innocence, oddness, and transparently direct style sure to appeal to young readers, combined with an emotional depth and perfectly-measured lyricism that may take a jaded adult's breath away. This debut novel by a Minneapolis-based educator and author won the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Since then, Alexander has written a sequel, Ghoulish Song, and three more novels, Ambassador, Nomad, and A Properly Unhaunted Place.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Frederica

Frederica
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

This book dates from 1965, considerably later than the previous two Regency-period romantic comedies by Heyer that I have read. She evidently hadn't lost her feel for the genre, though. The twist in this book is that my lord the Marquis of Alverstoke, 37, has reached the point where his title will almost certainly pass to his dim-witted but handsome male cousin Endymion Gauntry, because he isn't likely to make a successful marriage. After flirting with an entire generation's most beautiful heiresses, he has developed a tendency to become quickly bored with them. Also, he doesn't promise to be much use to his three matronly sisters and the brood of nephews and nieces with which they plague him. He doesn't seem capable of caring about anyone but himself. Enter a very distant cousin named Frederica Merriville, the de facto head of her household of fatherless siblings, appealing to his lordship to help her launch her blindingly beautiful younger sister Charis into the ton.

At first, Alverstoke only seems interested in gratifying Frederica's wish so he can aggravate his pushy sister Louisa and Endymion's histrionic mother Lucretia, who both have launch-ready daughters, and who both have begged his lordship to launch them with a ball at his house in London. The two matrons' smiles turn to scowls when they realize how far Charis outshines their daughters, which mightily tickles Alverstoke. But to the amazement even of himself, he continues to act as a protector of the Merriville family, and it gradually dawns on him that he really cares about youngest sibling Felix, too-serious-for-his-years brother Jessamy, and most of all, the no-nonsense older sister Frederica. As he comes to their rescue in a series of crises, each more serious than the last, the Marquis must admit to himself that he loves Frederica - but how to declare his love to her, he doesn't know.

Between a chocolaty under-layer of emotionally satisfying romantic drama and an effervescent surface of zest and humor, this book is held together by a cast of engaging characters and a wealth of rare linguistic marvels, such as the words "thatchgallows" and "snatchpastry." It is the type of romantic comedy that gives full strength to both ingredients listed on the label. It has the intoxicating flavor of a historical period that impresses all the mind's senses with a conviction of its authenticity. It is laced with dialogue that includes some of the most crushing "set-downs" in the annals of high-class snobbery, along with a lot of pure fun.

A partial list of Georgette Heyer's works, different from but almost as long as the one I gave in my last review, would include Devil's Cub, The Talisman Ring, The Corinthian, Cotillion, Sprig Muslin, April Lady, Arabella, Venetia, Charity Girl, The Great Roxhythe, Barren Corn, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, and They Found Him Dead. I am beginning to think that if I read them all, they wouldn't find me dead of boredom.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday's Child

Friday's Child
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you like your novel-length romantic comedies to have a Regency-period setting, but you've already pretty thoroughly surveyed everything by Jane Austen - which doesn't take long, actually - Georgette Heyer is the right shop to come to. She was the reigning queen of Regency restoration throughout the middle 50 years of the 20th century; she was a credible authority on all things authentic to that period; and more than half of her 50-odd books fit the bill - the remainder being mostly mysteries and historical novels set in other periods. My first exposure to Heyer's work was The Grand Sophy, which cleaves pretty closely to the pattern set by Austen, with an unconventional female arriving at her cousins' London residence and giving the place a full shake-down, including arranging the love-affairs of everyone in sight, before finally finding the love of her life practically under her nose.

Surprisingly, but not disappointingly, this 1944 book, one of Heyer's earlier works of Regency romance, departs from that relatively predictable story-shape right from the beginning. The lucky couple have already found each other and gotten married, practically at the starting gun. The trouble is, they don't realize they truly love each other until almost the end. Meantime, they endure misunderstandings, social blunders, jealousies, affairs of honor, moral and financial misgivings, and close scrapes with a cast of wacky friends, including a ridiculously romantic young buck, an adventurer who ruins decent people for a living, and an heiress who takes a bit too much enjoyment out of having a few too many ardent suitors.

Young Anthony "Sherry" Verelst, a.k.a. Viscount Sheringham, is set on course for romantic hijinks when the Incomparable Isabella refuses point-blank to marry him. Further exasperated by an interview with his passive-aggressive dowager mother, Sherry swears to marry the first young lady he sees. It so happens that turns out to be Hero Wantage, a girl of scarcely 17, who has adored Sherry all her life. Hero, soon nicknamed Kitten, has been living a Cinderella-like life on the grudging charity of her cousin and that lady's three ugly daughters. Terrified of being sent to Bath to serve as a governess, she willingly joins Sherry's crazy enterprise, and the two of them are swiftly hitched. But at once it becomes clear they should have given this more thought, since Hero really isn't ready to mix in the most fashionable circles of London society, and Sherry isn't grown-up enough to be the husband she needs. With each new adventure, they skate closer to disaster, with always entertaining but not always helpful contributions from their friends, frenemies, and one certifiably Bad Man.

Readers who don't like to see a husband give his wife a slap across the face may not find this novel to their taste. It isn't a feminist novel; it is, rather, a novel set in a scrupulously faithful reconstruction of a historical period. I think it succeeds pretty well in making that period come credibly to life. Where it needs strong female characters to capture the sympathy of today's readers, it gets them by giving Hero a good excuse for not understanding what is and isn't proper for a woman of her class, period, and marital status, and by letting the shark tank of 19th-century London's "Marriage Mart" shove Isabella to her wits' end. It has imperfect but endearing characters, scintillating wit, richly transporting language, and at bottom, a heart-touching drama of a marriage on the razor-edge of failing, all worked into a dramatic shape that achieves a spectacular climax. It's the kind of book that one can imagine being a terrific movie, even though one knows better than to trust the movie industry to make it. So, I guess that's a long way of saying it's a terrific book.

The titles of some of Heyer's other Regency romances are An Infamous Army, The Spanish Bride, The Reluctant Widow, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, The Unknown Ajax, False Colours, Black Sheep, and Lady of Quality. In other genres, her interesting-sounding titles include The Convenient Marriage, Simon the Coldheart, Royal Escape, Instead of the Thorn, Why Shoot a Butler?, Duplicate Death, and the short story collection Pistols for Two.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Grand Sophy

The Grand Sophy
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Rivenhall family of Berkeley Square has fallen on hard times. Lord Ombersley, the father of the household, is a man of weak character, whose debts have all but bankrupted them. Lady Ombersley is a nervous wreck. Their oldest son Charles has inherited a fortune from his uncle, putting him in position to save the family's fortune, if he really works at it; but as a side effect, he has become so tyrannical, the whole family is afraid of him. Also, he is engaged to a moralizing bore named Miss Wraxton, who disapproves of everything. Add to these characters a younger brother at Oxford, who is also struggling with debts; a sister named Cecilia, who has fallen in love with a completely useless fellow, breaking the heart of a man far more worthy of her hand; and several younger siblings, who haven't enjoyed themselves in ever so long; and you have a household just crying out for a visit from a fearless, forceful, frequently interfering female named Sophy.

Sophy is the daughter of Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy. An important diplomat, Sir Horace has raised his daughter abroad, during a most dangerous and exciting time for English folks to be abroad. Now it is up to Lady Ombersley to look out for a prospective husband for this strong-willed, rough-around-the-edges young woman - if Charles can refrain from strangling her first. The two cousins butt heads frequently, as Sophy tries the boundaries of what is considered proper for young ladies to do, and interferes in everyone else's affairs. Luckily for her, she is also highly intelligent, nervelessly brave, and driven by the purest motives - otherwise, someone would certainly strangle her, sooner or later.

At first, it seems Sophy is going to get into the same kind of romantic-comedy scrapes as Jane Austen's Emma. But then, her escapades begin to top anything in Austen, and each successive one tops the last, until you find her in the middle of a scheme of un-looked-for quirkiness and daring. There is no chance of getting bored with this heroine or her hijinks; they build to a climax more exciting and hilarious than one generally expects from a Regency romance, or at least one unadulterated by zombies or Steampunk paraphernalia. Some readers, I imagine, pick up a book like this as though digging in for a night-long struggle to wring the least drop of enjoyment out of a book full of old-fashioned manners. But Georgette Heyer brings the fun right to the reader, and then draws him or her into it.

Published in 1950, this book is only as old as my parents. Nevertheless, it fizzes with energy, as if in the prime of its life, while at the same time guiding you through a captivating mental time-warp to London, circa 1815. It's a perfectly charming piece of light entertainment that, on the one hand, rollicks along in a romantic-comedy rumble full of perils, surprises, and laughs; it is also, on the other hand, a finely crafted work of literary art, written in a style that conjures an immersive, if not addictive, imaginary world around you, then otherwise stays out of the way of its striking characters or their convoluted concerns.

Georgette Heyer, who wrote approximately 50 novels in a more than 50-year career (1920s to 1970s), more or less invented the Regency romance sub-genre of period fiction, which is still bowling along almost a century later. Her passion for scenic and fashion details, her study of the way people talked and behaved at that period in English history, lend her writing a convincing realism and sensuous vividness that transcend the predictable formulas of romantic fiction. But what gives her writing zip is, most of all, her understanding of character, her knack for inventing marvelous people like the Grand Sophy, her cousin Charles, and others, and playing them off each other to sparkling effect. Also, perhaps, the fact that she is looking back on the Regency period allows her to pull stunts Jane Austen never would have dared, and that's all right with me. I look forward to reading at least a few more of Heyer's books, which I picked up with this one at a Half-Price Books store in the Twin Cities during a recent, long-overdue vacation. Their titles include Friday's Child and Frederica.