Monday, 13 September 2021

Review: Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Vague spoilers follow, mostly for things that are fairly predictable if you know the author/genre.)

Published during, but set presumably before, World War I, this book is one of the best of the early Wodehouse novels I've read lately. It still has the besetting fault of overuse of coincidence, so that both London and New York feel like villages because key characters keep meeting each other by chance when the plot requires them to, but it's not quite as strained as in some of the others.

Also, the couple (most of these early Wodehouse novels are, or at least prominently include, romances) are more appealing than some of the others I've read. The woman in The Girl on the Boat is silly and flighty, the woman in The Intrusion of Jimmy a blank screen onto which the hero projects his desires without actually knowing her, but this heroine, Ann, is both more developed than the latter and more appealing than the former. She's more like the heroines of Jill the Reckless , The Adventures of Sally or Uneasy Money in that regard.

We meet Ann first, and get our first impressions of the title character through her memories of him acting in a thoughtless and cruel way towards her five years previously; it seems he's a typical young Wodehouse waster, except that he's not amiable. I was braced for a bad time, in which he won Ann's hand somehow despite continuing to be a toad, because most of Wodehouse's characters change very little. However, he did manage a heel-face turn, motivated by someone he cared about (not Ann), relatively early on, and stuck to it.

Along the way, we get some of the complicated, farcical scheming and multiple intersecting plots that Wodehouse was later known for; Jimmy ends up impersonating himself, his father impersonates a butler, aunts and uncles abound, there are criminal and technically-criminal-but-well-intentioned schemes afoot (with a couple more impersonations and some ordinary posing), worms turn, a repellant child (also featured in the earlier book The Little Nugget ) gets his comeuppance, and an exciting time is had by all.

Apparently there were movie versions made in 1919, 1936, and 2004. I haven't seen any of them, but it seems the 1936 movie changed the plot considerably, while the 2004 version was all over the map in terms of the time it was apparently set in and the tone, and lost what is, to me, the saving grace of the novel, Jim's reformation, while also making him a womanizer.

The Project Gutenberg version, which I read, has taken the odd editorial decision to follow the original US edition (rather than the UK edition) in not capitalizing "aunt" and "uncle" when they form part of a name (so, "aunt Nesta" rather than "Aunt Nesta"). This is now considered incorrect usage on both sides of the Atlantic, and it annoyed me mildly throughout. Otherwise, the copy editing was mostly not bad.

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Monday, 6 September 2021

Review: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles [Boxed Set]

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles [Boxed Set] The Enchanted Forest Chronicles [Boxed Set] by Patricia C. Wrede
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to my Goodreads records, I had read all of these previously in 2012 - nearly 10 years ago, so I had largely forgotten them. I enjoyed the re-read.

They are firmly in the genre of fairy-tale retelling in which practically the whole of society apparently consists of royalty, with the odd knight, the very occasional steward or other upper servant, and maybe a farmer when the plot requires one, plus witches, wizards, sorceresses, non-human talking creatures of various kinds, and a very vaguely implied merchant class who never actually enter into the story. You needn't bother to think about the economic basis of all of this, where the food is coming from or who is paying the taxes that provide the king's income or even who makes the swords and jewellery. That's not what the story is about. It also consciously plays with tropes and characters out of fairy tales, with a bit of a spin, and also adds in a few original touches that fit into the world well enough.

The four books, while complete in themselves for the most part, do have an overall arc, and some characters recur across several books.

Cimorene, the protagonist of the first book, is exactly the kind of pragmatic, sensible, capable young woman I enjoy as a protagonist. She can't see the sense in conforming to what's expected if there's no actual good reason to do so, and so she volunteers to be a dragon's princess and then firmly sends away the knights and princes who try to rescue her. That, by itself, wouldn't be a plot, though; she discovers that the wizards are up to no good, and, by being courageous and level-headed and making good use of allies and resources, brings about a satisfactory conclusion.

The second book centres on the King of the Enchanted Forest, who joins forces with Cimorene to thwart the wizards' next gambit. Compared with Cimorene, he's not as vividly drawn, but he's courageous and determined and, importantly, open to considering Cimorene as an equal partner.

The third book's protagonist is Morwen, a witch who has nine cats (none of them black; she doesn't care for convention any more than Cimorene does). The author has given the cats distinct personalities, and conveyed them so successfully that I could remember clearly which was which and what they were like, which is something that a lot of authors can't manage with human characters. One thing I didn't particularly enjoy in this book; the magician character is given to explaining magic in somewhat complicated terms, and Cimorene, who has shown herself previously to be intelligent and well-read and capable with magic, has to keep asking Morwen for a plain-language translation. I suppose someone had to, as a reader proxy, but really the explanations aren't that complicated in their vocabulary for the most part, and it seemed out of character for Cimorene to be the one who didn't follow them.

The fourth book was actually the first to be written, as a standalone, though when you read them all together the first three books are very necessary backstory for it. Cimorene's son Daystar must go on a deliberately ill-defined quest, and he does so by meeting a series of obstacles and overcoming them largely through politeness (Cimorene has trained him to be almost comically polite) and firm perseverance, plus the help of people he meets along the way. He mostly doesn't solve difficult problems by intelligence, though he sometimes comes to correct conclusions when he needs to. I didn't feel that he had a lot of development as a character, nor was the plot as satisfying as in the other books. Daystar is too sensible to succumb to the usual temptations to leave the path that fairy-tale heroes are often faced with, and it means his quest is mostly linear.

This one-volume edition is worth having for the author's introductions, which talk about how and why she wrote the books.

Overall, recommended.

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Monday, 30 August 2021

Review: The Intrusion of Jimmy

The Intrusion of Jimmy The Intrusion of Jimmy by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really, really wish that early Wodehouse had used some other tool for progressing his plots apart from blatant coincidence (which, in narration, he justifies as "fate" favouring the hero). Protagonist agency, for example, would be an excellent choice.

But that isn't the main reason this gets three stars from me. That would be the love interest.

It's a classic love-at-first-sight scenario for the otherwise sensible and capable Jimmy, who spots Molly on a transatlantic liner. She's in first class and he's in second, so they can't even interact; he just stares at her, probably a little creepily, over the railing that separates them.

Then, by a series of unlikely events, he participates in a home invasion of her father's house, and meets her again, creating a misunderstanding in the process that will come back to bite him later.

And then, as by now I was expecting, out of absolutely nowhere he meets her again in a completely different country, just walks round the corner and finds that she's staying at the same English country house, by massive coincidence. And now they actually start to have conversations, though not very extensive ones; not that they really need to, from his perspective, because he already knows he's in love with this woman who he's spoken to once, briefly, and knows absolutely nothing about.

And we don't know much about her either. We're told that she's a determined, independent, capable woman, but what we're shown is her being bullied, first by her father, and then by Jimmy, into courses of action that she resists ineffectually. The first course of action is obviously a bad idea; we're supposed to think that the second is not, but I didn't think that.

So, for me, the romance side was a bit of a dud. The complications around it, though, showed hints of the intricate plots that Wodehouse would later perfect, rife with misunderstandings, agendas, people learning to stand up for themselves, twists, ironies, idiocies, and concealed identities.

A couple of historical notes that struck me. One was the way in which it was just taken as read that New York cops were hopelessly corrupt on a massive scale. The other was the use of the expression "because of reasons," which I had thought had a recent origin. ( The Girl on the Boat includes a scene in which a young New York girl is addressed as "queen," also a current usage a hundred years later.)

I'm finding these early Wodehouse books a mixed bag. I haven't yet read one that is good enough to go on my Best of the Year list, though there are some I've enjoyed more than others. This, though, despite the more intricate plotting, falls down in a couple of key areas and isn't a favourite.

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Review: Wish You Weren't Here

Wish You Weren't Here Wish You Weren't Here by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I requested a pre-release copy from Netgalley for review because I'd enjoyed one of the author's other books. I didn't particularly enjoy this one, though.

It falls into the "Britain is so grey and depressing, ha ha, the weather is completely crap, ha ha, and the bureaucracy and just society in general makes you want to kill yourself, isn't that hilarious?" school of British black comedy, which is not my favourite by a long way. The central family is dysfunctional; Brenda, the mother, is rude and controlling and engages in maladaptive coping using alcohol, without any real compensating virtues, and her husband is one of those people who is always smoothing things over because their partner is awful but he doesn't want a scene. Their son is moody and ineffectual, their adoptive daughter dramatic and snarky, and the only person I would want to spend any time with is the son's husband, who is, in many ways, the true hero of the group, despite having no supernatural abilities.

Rather than satisfactorily resolving the situation, the ending just leads on to the next book. It's not a cliffhanger, strictly speaking, but I certainly didn't find it satisfying and complete in itself. I won't be reading future books in the series.

There's some talent here. I was engaged enough to keep reading to the end. The humour is, though too dark for my taste, still genuinely funny at times. But it just wasn't the book for me.

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Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Review: The Girl on the Boat

The Girl on the Boat The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to this book after Uneasy Money , in which the hero and heroine were both instantly likeable people, so it was a disappointment to me that this book's heroine was instantly dislikeable and the hero quickly became so.

For me, real-life attraction requires that I know and like someone, and so when I read a romance I want the people involved to be people I want to cheer for. If they're not, I won't care about whether they succeed in getting together or not; I may actively hope they don't, or reflect that at least the miserable life they'll live together is well deserved. So it was with The Girl on the Boat.

When we meet the girl of the title, whose name is Billie, it's immediately established that she has a nasty, undisciplined little dog who bites people, and who she has named Pinky Boodles. This put me off her at once; her prettiness and red hair meant nothing in the face of these facts. As the book goes on, she gets engaged six times in a three-week period to three different men (she alternates between two of them for a while); her father, hearing about the first three of these occasions, accurately remarks that she shouldn't be allowed to run around loose.

Meanwhile, the apparent hero, Sam - we assume he's the hero because we largely get his viewpoint - is a man who the author openly admits is without a conscience, who practices deception and manipulation at every turn in order to gain his goals (which at least fits him well for his prospective career as a lawyer). It would be cruel and heartless to say that the two of them deserve each other, but I'm still tempted to do so.

The minor characters, to me, were much more interesting. The ugly but good-hearted law clerk Jno. Green, a kind of anti-Uriah Heep; the African hunter Jane Holloway, who wants nothing more than a gentle, fragile husband to look after; Mr Bennett, the hypochondriac American businessman with a love of natural beauty; his manservant, who reads very like Jeeves, down to his style of speaking and his offering of solutions (though he lacks Jeeves' competence in scheming); all of these, to me, had much more potential than the superficial and unpleasant main characters.

This book was originally published in 1920, by which time Wodehouse had begun to write Jeeves and Wooster stories. What he eventually realized, I think, is that when you write a romance, bringing it to a successful conclusion means having to start afresh in the next book with a new couple; but writing an anti-romance, in which the goal is to end up not engaged, is something you can keep going indefinitely with the same central character. Honestly, this romance would have been better as an anti-romance; it ends up feeling like the author is shoving the couple together despite the fact that they are a poor fit for each other or, indeed, anyone else. Not that Wodehouse would be the last author to do that; plenty of authors are still doing it today, more than a century later.

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Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Review: The Quantum War

The  Quantum War The Quantum War by Derek Künsken
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've kept reading this series because the storytelling is so good, because I'm so captured by the dilemmas of the characters and their strivings to deal with a universe that's too big and too cruel (but rather amazing). But it's not at all the kind of thing I usually like, and with this instalment I think I'm out.

In particular, I'm turned off by the high squick factor of the Puppets, people genetically engineered to be addicted to the pheromones produced by their enslavers, which fill them with artificially generated religious awe; they are childishly naïve (even their names are often childish diminutives), fanatical to the point of becoming suicide bombers, unreliable, and utterly creepy, even to most of the other characters. I don't love this as a characterization of religious people, and the only other religious person (the AI who believes himself to be a reincarnation of St Matthew) talks about his convictions, but never appears to act on them in any detectable way, or even act in accordance with his supposed delusion very much. Meanwhile, even though Catholicism has supposedly died out years ago, Catholic-based swearing persists.

I'll also mention that, in the pre-release review copy I received via Netgalley, the number of copy editing issues was epic, seemingly (at least in part) because the pace of the typing had matched the frenetic pace of the story.

Because the story is well-paced, a relentless dark SF thriller that, even though it doesn't once slow down in order to infodump, manages to use quantum physics and other sufficiently advanced science indistinguishably from magic to pull off a complex-but-understandable plot driven by believable human (and human-adjacent) motivations. These motivations range from the absurd fanaticism of the Puppets through the paranoid, but understandable, misapprehensions of an intelligence officer to the moral disquiet and guilt of the series hero, Belisarius, who, in this third book, is trying to make up for and in some cases reverse the consequences of his decisions and actions from the first two volumes. His unique talents mean that his striving continues to have far-reaching political and personal consequences, costing a number of lives and wreaking widespread property damage, and putting entire sub-races of humanity, including his own, under increasing threat.

(view spoiler)

There's a scene partway through in which the intelligence officer is talking about how she despises her grandmother for her crimes against humanity while, at that exact moment, committing the absolutely identical crime against humanity in order to motivate a captive scientist to commit yet further crimes against humanity (which wouldn't be his first). It's utterly believable, and truly awful. And that, for me, was the problem; this book is meant to be disturbing, and it absolutely is. It does such a tremendous job of being disturbing that it's disturbed me right out of the readership for both the series and the author.

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Sunday, 22 August 2021

Review: Uneasy Money

Uneasy Money Uneasy Money by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading a few of the Wodehouse books from his early New York period (roughly 100 years ago), and if they have a fault it's that, in a city of four million people, the same half-dozen keep bumping into one another by pure chance, at times, and in ways, that transparently serve the progression of the plot.

This particular book has that fault to an especially high degree, but it doesn't have many others.

Detailed plot summary follows in the spoiler tags:

(view spoiler)

Apart from the over-reliance on coincidence, it's a pleasant, sweet romance, with the right degree and number of trials, two appealing people as the couple, a truly nasty alternative love interest in the mercenary Claire, and sound work on the minor characters. This is from the period where Wodehouse was doing relatively straightforward plots and drawing his characters a bit less from stock, where the language and the humour were already enjoyable, but not as foregrounded as they would be later on, and where there were real economic and emotional stakes for the characters and some serious emotional beats and genuine conflicts.

The Project Gutenberg text is in good shape, and all in all it encourages me to continue reading these early Wodehouse works. None of them have quite risen onto my Best of the Year list, but a couple have been close, and this is one.

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