Stuff and Nonsense: May 2010


Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

"See what a rent the envious Casca made."

Nathaniel Herriard -- old, monied, and always contrary -- has been badgered by his excessively congenial brother into hosting a family Christmas party at his large country house. His guests include the presumed heir and his vapid fiance, a ditzy actress/niece and her desperate playwright, an old business partner, and a commonsensical cousin. Despite amiable Uncle Joseph's best attempts, the guests drive each other batty and Christmas with the Herriard Clan, it seems clear, will not be very jolly.

And then contrary old Nathaniel Herriard is found dead in his locked bedroom -- a clear victim of foul play! Who has murdered the old crank and how? It's up to Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard to solve the case.

If the title of the novel means anything to you, then you probably will figure out who killed Nathaniel (and how) well ahead of everyone else. If you aren't, Heyer will indeed identify the killer to you in the end, but you will need to consult an encyclopedia or biographical dictionary to find out how -- a rather cheap trick, I feel, and it killed some of my good feeling toward Envious Casca. A pity, as all of the snide remarks, insults, and general horribleness of the Herriards to each other had given me much pleasure!

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (Sourcebooks, 2010)


Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

One fine morning, Gregory Matthews is found dead in his bed. Now, as the man was a bit of a tyrant and suffered from high blood pressure, his death is neither a surprising nor unwelcome event for the family members trapped under the same roof with him. The doctor is preparing to sign a death certificate, when Matthews' married sister bursts onto the scene and insists upon a post-mortem as it is impossible her brother could have died from a weak heart.

And wouldn't you know it? The old tyrant was poisoned!

Behold, Here's Poison was my first Heyer mystery and I thought it was quite an enjoyable read -- light and fun with lots of shenanigans and interesting characters. Randall Matthews was especially amusing, as his delight in being objectionable made him an excellent foil for his tiresomely silly and twittery aunts.

I was chuffed to deduce the means of poisoning and guess the poisoner's motive before the detectives (but probably not Randall) did. I could not, however, determine the identity of the poisoner and the ending came as a nice surprise.

I not know what a symphony in brown would look like, but I liked this quote:

It was at this quite inauspicious moment that the door opened again, and Randall, looking like a symphony in brown, came languidly into the room.

Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer (Sourcebooks, 2009)


Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew is a sixty-eight-year-old widower, living on his own in the village of Edgecombe St Mary since his wife passed away six years ago.  After his brother dies unexpectedly the Major is rather shaken and in his grief finds himself confiding in Mrs. Ali, a widow who runs the village shop.  The two begin a shy sort of friendship which quickly deepens into love.  Their neighbors and families are, of course,  quite scandalized.

A quiet love story set against a background of family strife and societal upheaval, this novel is strongly recommended to readers who enjoy Joanna Trollope and/or E.M. Forster.

Some of my favorite passages include:
"Well, it's quite all right." He gave her hand a quick squeeze.
"You are a most astonishing man," she said, and he realized he had inspired a sense of trust and indebtedness that would make it entirely impossible for an honorable man to kiss her anytime soon. He cursed himself for a fool
"I will do anything you ask," he said. He read gratitude in her face. He wondered if he might also be seeing some happiness. He turned away and made himself busy poking at a large weed with the tip of his stick as he added, "You must know that I am entirely yours to command."
"They are a motley and ragged bunch," she said, "but they are what is left when all the shallow pretense is burned away."
"Will it do?" said the Major, laying his hands over her cooled fingers. "Will it be enough to sustain the future?"
"It is more than enough for me," she said. "My hear is quite full."
I loved Major Pettigrew's cover art -- the coats and hats snuggled up next to each other on the coat stand as if they are kissing. Such a sweetly simple image and so well-suited to the story it decorates.

Watch Helen Simonson read an excerpt from the first chapter:

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2010)


Graphic Novel: Pride and Prejudice

Butler has done a fine job adapting Pride & Prejudice into a graphic novel. Yes, some characters have been lost and the story moves along at a surprisingly fast clip, but Butler has still managed to capture the essence of the novel. Having said this, I must admit that Pride & Prejudice was never my favorite Austen novel -- I might have a decidedly different opinion of Butler's skills if she had adapted Persuasion!

Sadly, the illustrations left me cold. The Bennett Sisters made me think of Barbies tarted up in historical dress -- über hotties with glistening Botox lips and scarily white teeth.

Seriously, those toothy smiles! It's like a damned ad for Crest.

I know, you're looking at the cover and wondering what I'm talking about. Botox? Hotties? The cover art is misleading. This is what the inside art looks like:

Oh, the terrible toothy smiles of these toothsome maids.

Marvel Illustrated's Pride & Prejudice adapted by Nancy Butler & Hugo Petrus (Marvel Enterprises, 2010)


Horns by Joe Hill

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the anniversary of his girlfriend's murder getting good and pissed, so it is no surprise he wakes up the next morning with what feels like a horrible hangover and a vague feeling of having done something terrible. No, what's surprising is the pair of horns growing out of his head! People who see the horns seem to immediately forget them and want, desperately, to tell Ig all the unspeakable desires tucked away in their wicked hearts. Worse, when Ig touches people, he can see the terrible things they have done.

Signs Ignatius Perrish is a devil:
  • horns
  • goatee
  • drives a Gremlin
  • last supper w/ Merrin was at The Pit
  • doesn't mind the heat
  • spends time brooding in the furnace of an abandoned foundary
  • wields a pitchfork
  • snakes have a thing for him
  • fire talks to him
  • and many other signs I am probably forgetting
But does Ig's devilry make him Evil? Certainly, everyone believes he is a depraved sex murder who killed sweet Merrin in the woods beyond the old foundry. Even his own parents think he killed her!

Horns isn't a book I would have picked up on my own -- my Reader's Advisory librarian thrust it upon me and I owe her a great deal of thanks, because I really enjoyed this novel. While Horns can be violent and grotesque it is never scary and, more often than not, it is just plain funny. Hill's (usually) clever use of black humor tickled me -- Merrin and her sister are so obviously named after characters from Blatty's novel The Exorcist, Terry drives a Viper and plays the devil's music, Lee (who is the true devil) works for a right-wing politician, etc.

If I have any complaint against Horns, it is that Merrin seems to exist merely as a plot device and not as an actual person -- she's a madonna, a whore, a cancer diagnosis, a victim. Aside from the letter she leaves, we only know Merrin through the stories men tell of her. Which is, maybe, Hill's point?


Horns by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2010)


Magician's Ward by Patricia Wrede

"A wizard is the social equal of anyone."

Set a year after Mairelon the Magician, Kim has a comfortable life in London as Mairelon's ward, living in the family townhouse, studying magic. Alas, Mairelon's crotchety Aunt Agatha has other plans for Kim -- if she has her way, Kim will marry the first respectable cit willing to overlook her "interesting" background. Kim is, understandably, not thrilled with the idea. Thankfully, some toff tries to break into the townhouse's library, Mairelon's mother comes to stay, and enough Stuff Happens to foil Aunt Agatha's plans.

Overall, I enjoyed Magician's Ward and found it to be an entertaining blend of skulduggery, romance, and comedy. Happily, the plot was less complicated than that of Mairelon the Magician with a smaller cast so it was a bit easier to keep track of who was who and which plot line they related to -- no time lost flipping back and forth going "who the heck is he?"

Sadly, my paperback copy has the worst cover art possible. It looks like Kim, dressed as a boy, is running down an alley in the London rookeries toward a man, presumably Mairelon, who waits for her. Fine, but the rookery isn't slummy enough and why does Mairelon look like, I don't know, a riverboat gambler?  The hardcover's art was much better -- mysterious cloaked intruder rummaging through a library is discovered by a young woman in her night dress. Much more atmospheric and it represents a more significant scene from the novel.

But see for yourself:

Magician's Ward by Patricia C. Wrede (Tom Doherty, 1997)

Cats On A Rainy Day

Hedwig snoozes while Shadow plots ...


Meaningless Versification

In Unseen Academicals, the goddess Pedestria inspires a chant based upon the poem "Brahma" by Emerson. Pedestria is in good company as this poem has spawned many parodies since its publication. Indeed, the New York Times called this poem "such an exquisite piece of meaningless versification, that no sooner is it read than the desire to parody it becomes irresistible" (November 12, 1857).
IF the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanish'd gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

"Brahma" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


Give Me That Olde Tyme Hooliganism

Just finished chortling my way through Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals. As usual, there were quite a lot of inside jokes and asides which tickled me pink. While I'd like to think I spotted them all, I am not really that clever. Proof in point -- I did not recognise Emerson's "Brahma" lurking in Pedestria's chant.

Googling around for a copy of "Brahma," I became a little side-tracked and found a whole slew of interesting NYT articles from the late 1880s and early 1900s discussing hooliganism and the evolution of football. One article, from 1909, even talked about how the old way of playing football with its "sledge-hammering tactics" no longer worked and described a "new" football which sounded a lot like something Mr. Nutt would recognise.

The hooliganism article ("Foot-Ball Fighting" November 21, 1881) was probably my favorite as it describes a match not unlike the one Mr. Nutt attended in his bobble hat. Also, the article reads like something I would expect to read in the Ankh-Morpork Times.

It goes on to talk about how Something Must Be Done. Lawks, yes! "Let them fight with rifles, like civilized beings." Really, that is what it says!


Mairelon the Magician by Patricia Wrede

Sixteen-year-old Kim has been living on the streets of Regency London, pretending to be a boy while snooping for strangers, ever since the nabbing culls got Mother Tibb and made her dangle from the nubbing cheat. For five pounds from a gentry cove, Kim has a look around a travelling magician's wagon ... and is caught in the act.

Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Sorcery & Cecelia books remain some of my favorite young adult fantasy novels so I was totally chuffed to come across Mairelon. Her books tend to be a nice blend of historical fantasy and farce with just enough romance worked in to make me feel warm and fuzzy.  To me,  they are a bit like literary comfort food.

Mairelon did not disappoint! The novel moved along at a gallop with lots of highly entertaining double-crossing and skulduggery. It was also pretty darn funny and the romantic subtext between Kim and Mairelon was rather sweet.

My only complaint regarding Mairelon is a small one -- there were just too many secondary characters to keep track of and I couldn't keep them straight. It didn't help that, sometimes, a character would be referred to by his given name and, other times, by his surname. During the long denouement in the Sons of the New Dawn's clubhouse (when it seemed almost all the characters in the novel came together and nattered about the platter)  I had to keep flipping back and forth in the novel trying to figure out who was who. Unfortunately, it detracted from what I suspect was supposed to be a hilariously farcical ending.

However, that will not stop me from reading the sequel, Magician's Ward, as soon as some nice library sends it through inter-library loan!

Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede (Tom Doherty, 1991).


The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

A biracial coming of age story set in 1980s Portland -- the daughter of a white Danish mother and an African-American soldier, Rachel is raised by her mother to identify as white. After a disaster befalls her family, Rachel finds herself in the custody of her paternal grandmother who expects her to act black.

The flash-back-flash-forward structure of novel seemed to get in the way of the story at times and the fabulous happenstance of Brick finding Rachel after all those years was a little too precious for me. Also, I was frustrated by Durrow's handling of Aunt Loretta. Why did Aunt Loretta die off-stage like an afterthought when she seemed to be such a vital character? Why is her death never addressed? For that matter, why is the death of Rachel's mother and siblings never addressed? In The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, death is the elephant in the room.

We lie to ourselves in many ways; we write down only what we want to understand and what we want to see.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (Algonquin Books, 2010).