The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman:
She had asked: What is he? A friend or an enemy?
The alethiometer answered: He is a murderer.
When she saw the answer, she relaxed at once. He could find food, and show her how to reach Oxford, and those were powers that were useful, but he might still have been untrustworthy or cowardly. A murderer was a worthy companion. She felt as safe with him as she’d felt with Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear.
I read The Golden Compass for the first time after seeing the movie. Now I’m wondering why they chose such a lame-ass ending for the movie version, when they could have had a simple voice-over announce that Lyra was about to find a gateway into a strange new dimension, a world much different from her own. A world called...EARTH. That would have captured everyone’s attention and have them begging for the sequel.
The second book in the series has an entirely different (and better, it seems to me) flavor and texture than Golden Compass, as Lyra joins up with a new boy pal and a scientist pal as she continues down her fate as Chosen One Who Must Fight The Great Evil By Finding the Magic Doodads. Lyra is one of the few girl heroes I’ve found in the genre who is actually brave and tough, instead of just “spunky”. Also, I’m starting to figure out what it was all the Christians were fussing about, and I definitely enjoy the concept so far. I can’t decide whether I want to read the third and final installment right away, or wait a while and savor the series a bit more.
The Travels of Ibn Battutah:
Subsequently, this qadi acted dishonestly, and the Sultan banished him to the country of the Infidels Who Eat the Sons of Adam. He spent four years there, then the Sultan brought him back to his own country. The Infidels had not eaten him because he was white, for they say that eating a white man is harmful because he is unripe. They claim that a black man is ripe.
I almost didn’t finish this one. It’s the travel journal of the Islamic equivalent of Marco Polo, who pretty much left his wife and family to travel through the entire 12th century muslim world, plus briefly described sojourns to the infidel barbarian strongholds of black Africa, Hindu India, China and (shudder) Christian Europe. At one point early on, he receives a message that his wife back home has borne him a son; 22 years later, he is informed that the son has died without ever knowing his father.
Everywhere Battutah goes, there are various sultans and emirs, apparently having contests to outdo themselves in the cruelty of their punishments. One woman was taken to a prison where, by the Sultan’s order, “men copulated with her until she died”. Someone else was buried to the neck in a privy and eaten by manure-dwelling vermin. Almost as bad as the graphic descriptions of the sufferings of the condemned are Battutah’s adoring praise for how good and just it is of the Sultans to do these things. Perhaps he was worried he’d be sent to the cornfield for complaining.
There are also improbable events described as facts, more appropriate to Herodotus or the Arabian Nights than to someone’s actual travel journal. Tales of “holy people” who fast for 40 days at a time, and pearl divers who can hold their breath for hours, and who create pearls out of oyster meat.
Those of you on the horror writers’ boards might like this. The rest of you, not so much.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer :
”We can’t be in Heaven...I know, oh my God, I know!...There was Giuseppe Zomzini and you know what a wicked man he was...he ought to burn in Hellfire! I know, I know...he stole from the treasury, he frequented whorehouses, he drank himself to death...and yet, he’s here!”
Another woman was running and screaming in German, “Daddy! Daddy! Where are you? It’s your own darling Hilda!”
A woman said, “I wasted my whole life, my whole life. I did everything for them, and now...”
A man, swinging the metal cylinder before him as if it were a censer, called out, “Follow me to the mountains! Follow me! I know the truth, good people! Follow me! We’ll be safe in the bosom of The Lord! Don’t believe this illusion around you; follow me! I’ll open your eyes!”
The story in which everyone who ever lived on Earth suddenly awakes, naked and hairless on a lush planet with no animal life other than themselves took me by surprise. I was expecting something more along the lines of the Archetype Cafe, with Socrates discussing ethics with Charles Dickens, and Rabelais and Dorothy Parker trying to drink each other under the table. Instead we get Sir Richard Burton in an action-adventure role, in which he and the villain from Nazi Germany keep dying and coming back, over and over again, while facing mysterious forces on the planet itself. I kept waiting for them to discover a secret hatch or for their children to be kidnapped by the Others (who are called “ethicals” here). Oh, and the main female character kept reminding me of vixyish for some reason...
Waverly, by Sir Walter Scott :
If I had rather chosen to call my work a “Sentimental Tale”, would it not have been sufficient presage of a heroine with a profusion of auburn hair, and a harp, the soft solace of her solitary hours, which she fortunately finds always the means of transporting from castle to cottage, although she herself be sometimes obliged to jump out of a two-pair-of-stairs window, and is more than once bewildered on her journey, alone and on foot, without any guide but a blowzy peasant girl, whose jargon she hardly can understand?”
The more Walter Scott I read, the more I appreciate what an anomaly Ivanhoe is, being medieval and filled with familiar characters from literature and not even in Scotland. The lesser-read books are a different dish entirely. This one involves a forgettable protagonist from England who, on a visit to Scotland, becomes involved with some very memorable highlanders and Charles Stuart’s war for the crown.
A little bit Braveheart and a little bit of real history, with a couple of side dishes of flamboyant romance and larger than life moral characters. Supposedly highbrow literature, but I ate it like it was candy, humming March of Cambreadth to myself for a good deal of it.
School Days, by Robert B. Parker : ”What kind of dog do you say she was?” DiBella said.
“German shorthaired pointer,” I said.
“And why has she got her head in my wastebasket?”
“Looking for clues,” I said.
Pearl straightened from her explanation of Dibella’s wastebasket with an empty yogurt carton in her mouth.
“See, now we know what you were eating,” I said.
Pearl took the carton to the corner of the office and settled down with it.
“She gonna eat the fucking carton?” DiBella said.
“She’ll probably chew it and spit it out,” I said.
“On my fucking floor?”
“I’ll pick it up,” I said.
Well, damn. I had a vague idea for a gimmick to use in a school-shooting scenario. I probably would have used it in a RPG rather than trying to publish it, but still. And it turns out Robert B. Parker thought of it, too, and used it to good effect.
Usually Spenser doesn’t do much actual detective work so much as follow people around until some big guy with a gun comes along to move the plot. Here’s one where he actually uses his brain.
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins :
I paid the cabman exactly his fare. He received it with an oath, upon which I instantly gave him a tract. If I had presented a pistol at his head, the abandoned wretch could hardly have exhibited greater consternation. He jumped up on his box, and, with profane exclamations of dismay, drove off furiously. Quite useless, I am happy to say! I sowed the good seed, in spite of him, by throwing a second tract in at the window of the cab.
They say this is the first detective novel, and that could be so. It also has a famous plot gimmick that I had assumed was the main point of the plot. It isn’t. Turns out there’s about two or three other plot gimmicks, which together make the solution to the theft from an English country estate of the huge diamond with the Indian curse impossibly contrived.
The biggest surprise was the amazing humor of the story. The servant who uses Defoe for divination, the caddish suitor with no shame in his body, the quack doctor and especially the old priggish relative with her arsenal of 19th century Jack Chick tracts are actually laugh-out-loud funny in their foibles and prejudices.
I say, don’t bother trying to solve it; just let the plot wash over you.
He who Whispers, by John Dickson Carr :
We KNOW that Mr. Howard Brooke was unhurt, in the best of health, when I left him alone on the top of the tower at ten minutes to four o’clock.. Following that, the murderer must have visited him on the top of the tower. This person, when his back was turned, must have drawn the sword-cane from its sheath and run him through the body. Indeed, the police discovered that several fragments of crumbling rock had been detached from one of the broken battlements on the river-side, as though someone’s fingers had torn them loose in climbing up there. All of this must have occurred between ten minutes to four and five minutes past four, when two children discovered him in a dying condition......yet the evidence shows conclusively that during this time, not a living soul came near him!
A classic whodunnit/howdunnit from the golden age of detective stories. Unlike The Moonstone, this isn’t much of a tale apart from the challenge of the underlying puzzle. But the puzzle is a great one, if you join me in my love of the genre. The solution is improbable, but completely fair, and the clues are there all the way through. I was fooled, and these days, that’s unusual. Very high recommendations.
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens :
There was an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable yard in Duke Street, St. James’s, when not in use, to whom the Veneerings were a source of blind confusion. The name of the article was Twemlow. Being first cousin to Lord Snigsworth, he was in frequent requisition, and at many houses may be said to represent the dining table in its normal state. Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, for example, arranging a dinner, habitually started with Twemlow, and then put leaves on him, or added guests to him. Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half-a-dozen leaves; sometimes, of Twemlow and a dozen leaves; sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves.
A lot of editions of Dickens begin with a descriptive table of contents, including not only chapter titles but captions to illustrations and lists of characters such as “Sloppy, a foundling” (really). I like to look this part over at the beginning of a new dickens book to get me in the right mood, kind of like studying the menu at a restaurant. You lose a couple of surprises that way, as when the illustrations include Beadle McSurley, revealed as Princess NutraSweet (p. 688) (not really; just as an example and all). But the main character “surprises” here are the sort of things telegraphed at you from six miles away.
Our Mutual Friend is not going to be on anyone’s top two or three best of Dickens lists, but it’s maybe top ten. The characterizations are excellent, as are the transitions across the entire spectrum of London stock characters, from snooty upper crust to ragamuffin and anything in between. My personal favorites are the dolls’ dressmaker, the taxidermist with the deliciously ghastly window displays, and the Jewish moneylender who, in utter defiance of literary tradition, is one of the most moving and big-of-heart featured characters in the novel. Additionally, while many Dickens characters are two dimensional, several of the ones in this book change over the course of the story arc.
And now I’ve read something that Desmond Hume hasn’t. I also know something that may well be an inside joke about what’s going to happen on Lost involving Hume. Obsessive fans of the series may want to take a close look at some of the other books mentioned on the show.