The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss ★★★★

The Many Pop-Geek References of Dahlia Moss

This book is a cute fun romp. I feel like it’s the perfect mix of Phryne Fisher and Ready Player One, a mystery series with a heavy theme of geekery and a definite sense of time and place. It’s as if someone took Sharyn McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun and updated it to match geek culture today (and removed most of the worst awkwardly sexist bits). If none of those references made any sense, then just know that its a light hearted mystery featuring a post-college woman who appreciates a good video game and is trying to find her way in the world.

The book is very full of geeky video game references, and I feel is sort of constantly walking the line of pandering to its audience. But somehow it didn’t irritate me in the same way that Ready Player One did. Perhaps it’s Dahlia’s constant self-deprecation. Perhaps it’s that the author does it with a nod and a wink. Perhaps it’s just me and my fondness for sassy protagonists a la Buffy and Veronica Mars and all the rest. Regardless, it is definitely a book with a certain attitude who know’s its audience.

Dahlia Moss does not have a job, or a boyfriend, or a plan. She does have a wacky roommate, a penchant for video games of all descriptions, and around $10. And once upon a time, she spent about a week as a receptionist for a detective agency. When one of her roommate’s even wackier friends misconstrues this as actual detecting experience and offers her $1000 to retrieve a stolen weapon in an MMORPG game, she figures why not take the easy cash? When her erstwhile client ends up dead, stabbed by a real-life replica of the digital weapon, things get a bit more interesting…

The author chose to follow the time honored tradition of all murder mystery writers. It’s never the first person you think it is, and the Least Likely Suspect rises up to catch you from behind. But that doesn’t make the story any less fun to read.

All the characters in this book are fully realized slight exaggerations of someone you probably already know. You can’t help but say to yourself “yep, I know someone just like that.” Are they real people, with real problems, messy and disjointed and confused? No. But they are fun, and lucky, and plucky, and adventurous caricatures of people you like.

The best part of this book? There’s already one sequel, and another on the way to be released in January. I fully expect them to be much like the first, and if the author continues to write another 10 books that follow the exact pattern of this one I’ll be more than satisfied. There is nothing wrong with potato chip books that fill you up in just the right way, but you always want just one more.

Of course, I’m already waiting for the announcement that this series being turned into a tv show. And if someone picks it up and does it the right way, I think it’d be a huge success. I’d certainly watch it. This series has emerged in the right time and place, and I don’t see why it wont end up being the next popular hit.

The Rivers of London ★★★

Midnight Riot(US) or The Rivers of London(UK): A Book of Two Misleading Titles

Before I even opened it, this book had a pretty conflicting set of first impressions. In the negative column: 1. A quote by Charlaine Harris appears on the front cover. Yes, I’ve read most of the Sookie Stackhouse series, but that doesn’t mean I trust her taste in literature. Lets just say that its not a ringing endorsement. And 2. It was described to me as similar to the Harry Dresden series. I very much did not like that series.

However, to balance those facts… Positives: 1. A quote by Peter F. Hamilton appears on the back cover. I am much more likely to trust his opinion on books. 2. It may be just a repeat of the Dresden Files, but this one is set in London. Its true, London is almost always a more interesting setting for a mystery than some random American city. (I think Harry Dresden might have been Chicago, but I would also believe New York. If I can’t even remember, that tells you something about how well the setting was written…) 3. It was suggested to me on my blog. That doesn’t happen often enough, and it still makes me happy and excited when it does. I probably never would have come across this book without intervention on the internet, and in the end I very much enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was suggested to me.

Right, so, those were my thoughts as I cracked open this book. It is the story of Peter Grant, a recent graduate of London’s Metropolitan Police Academy. He wants to be a detective, but his superior thinks he is an ideal candidate for the desk job side of the force. Luckily, he sees a ghost who claims to have been the only witness to a violent murder, and he ends up being apprenticed to an old (who knows how old?) detective (Chief Inspector Nightingale) who is part of a secret agreement to use magic to keep the Queens Peace within the city’s supernatural forces. They proceed to solve a series of murders that seem to have been committed by an enraged ghost.

The book still has some of the same flaws I find unappealing about the Dresden files. First of all, it is written in first person perspective. I really don’t like first person, it’s extremely difficult to do well. The main character always comes off as self-involved and shallow. I always wish I could be reading the thoughts and impressions of some more interesting side character instead. In this case specifically (though not as badly as in the Harry Dresden series), the voice of the writing is so unsubtly male that I find it (unsurprisingly, I suppose) hard to identify with the main character. There are some authors who I’d never be able to guess their gender without looking at their name, and then there are some authors who have an equally female voice. And yes, sometimes that annoys me just as much as the male authors. Whichever way it goes, heavily gendered writing usually makes characters of the opposite gender feel flat and stereotyped. Peter is a nice, competent man, who is just awkward enough to be “adorable” to his coworkers and female friends. Most of whom he has a passive crush on, and would sleep with given the chance. In fact, that applies to just about any female he meets, whether that be his fellow constable Leslie, or a supernatural girl who happens to be a personification of a river “Beverly Brook.” (Pun much?)

One thing I really did like about this novel was the way Aaronovitch created his magic. Which is saying something, because that is usually what turns me off of books in the “urban fantasy” genre. Magic is hard to blend with the modern world: is it just a form of science we don’t understand, or is it the anti-science, powered by ritual and belief? Both of those choices come with solid stereotypes and giant plot-holes. And this is just a personal pet peeve, but I don’t understand why everyone uses Latin as the go-to language for magic. They try to say that magic is old old old, and so they name the oldest language they can think of. Latin? Really? No one says Greek, or Hebrew, or ancient Egyptian? Mandarin? Sumarian? Anything?

The magic in this series seems to have bee mostly developed during the Baroque Era, and that sort of birth of the golden age of science. In fact one of the main books used by Peter is Sir Isaac Newton’s secret second book on the principles of magic. (I guess that sort of justifies the use of Latin in this case, any sort of scholastic works of that time were based in Latin. But I still grate my teeth.) His teacher Nightingale seems to be more interested in the history and tradition of magic, than in the why and how of it. But that fits his character as a who-knows-how-old gentleman who was definitely alive in the Victorian era and doesn’t own a cellphone. Even given its mysterious and unexplained roots (and the apathy of his teacher), Peter Grant does not take the use of magic for granted. He has no idea how it works in our world driven by science, but at least he is curious. He develops tests (they even vaguely follow the scientific method) to better understand the effect of magic on technology. Which, by the way, is not good. Magic seems to negatively affect most higher technologies we use today, and Peter ruins several cell phones figuring this out.

I like that this magic has several rather important flaws built into it. It’s not a catch-all problem solver; it’s not as easy as say this word and no lock will stop you, say that word and you instantly find the one important clue, memorize enough special words and you can rule the world. It is difficult and time consuming to train your brain to appropriately use magic, and spells have limited uses that build on each other. Nightingale tells Peter it will take about 10 years to graduate beyond apprenticeship. And if someone is exposed to more magic than their brain can handle, the inside of their head turns to mush.

Also not following the usual cliches are the supernatural beings that Peter runs into. There are vampires, but they’re not sexy blood sucking cults. (*cough Dresden Files, and a billion other urban fantasies cough*). We don’t have werewolves yet, but I’ll be interested in seeing how Aaronovitch makes them different. (Though the second book is titled “Moon over Soho” and if that’s a blatant werewolf reference I might get annoyed.)

What we do have are the personifications of localities: Mother and Father Thames, and their children the various tributaries and branchings of the rivers of London. (Evidently the UK version of the novel is titled “The Rivers of London,” which has a much prettier ring to it, but has less to do with the full plot of the book. Though now that I think about it the midnight riot isn’t exactly the plot of the book either, but is closer, I guess… However, the rivers are definitely my favorite side-plot.) I like the characterizations of the rivers, and how they have their own family drama they’re dealing with. And if there are personifications of the rivers and sewers of London, what about the old historical buildings? That would be interesting. Do each of the outlying villages and suburbs have their own protector? Perhaps someday we will meet the goddess of London, herself?

All in all, I can’t call this book an enthralling masterpiece of fiction, but I’ll be interested to see if the series improves on the few flaws it has. I hope the characters start to gain a little bit of depth and non-stereotyped-personality. I hope we continue to see creativity in the layers of supernatural life in London. I hope we get to find out more about Nightingale’s past, and his strange maid Molly, with the sharp teeth, taste for blood, and extreme protection of her master. I hope Peter gets some taste and doesn’t try to sleep with two new women in each book (even if he does do it in an endearing and passive way.)

NOTE: After reading back over this review, I definitely took a little too much pleasure in bashing The Dresden Files. That probably wasn’t necessary because this book can stand on its own perfectly fine without being constantly compared to that series. I guess its just because so many people have recommended the Harry Dresden books to me, that when I finally got around to reading them, they were rather a big disappointment. I have trouble seeing why people who’s taste in books is usually so similar to my own actually enjoy those books. Maybe I had too high expectations, or maybe I should have given them more time (though I did get all the way through book one, and halfway through book two before giving up. I’m not going to read six books just to find out if the seventh might get better.) Anyways, the chance to voice exactly what I didn’t like about the series, and the opportunity to compare it to someone who did something similar, but did it RIGHT, was too good to give up. So if you’re a fan of the Dresden series, I’m sorry for bashing your books, and you’ll still probably really enjoy this series because there are lots of similarities. If you’re not a fan of the Dresden series, feel free to give these books a try and see if its any better for you. If you’ve never read the Dresden series, you can certainly enjoy these books all on their own, uninfluenced by any previous bias one way or the other.

My overall rating compared to similar Supernatural Urban Mysteries (Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, etc): * * * * *
(Considering that this is a genre I’m not in love with, this book deserves a great rating. This book proves that the genre has potential, if only people would stop screwing it up.)
Characterization: * * (Still better than Harry Dresden)
Creativity: * * *
Will I continue to follow the series: Yep, unless the author make some stupid plot move that’s too annoying to read. If the second book is all to do with werewolves, or if there starts to be too much Relationship Drama, I’m out.

A Fine and Private Place ★★★★★

I absolutely loved Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place. I was first introduced to Beagle as a child, in the form of the animated movie of The Last Unicorn. Ever since then, I can’t resist a book by him. Especially if its sitting on the shelf in a dusty old used book store; which is how I ran into this one.

A Fine and Private Place is the story of an anthrophobic older gentleman who has been living and hiding in a graveyard for the last eighteen years. Jonathan Rebeck has not once crossed the boundaries of the graveyard in nearly two decades. In so completely removing himself from society, Jonathan has found himself able to see and converse with the recently dead characters he finds in his graveyard. A misanthropic raven has befriended him, and brings him food and other survival items he is able to steal out of the nearby city.

The story is also about two recently dead people, Laura and Michael. Both were unhappy and unlucky in love in their lives, and are completely unsure about what to do with themselves in death. Michael is convinced that his wife murdered him. Laura got hit by a city bus, but seems not entirely convinced that she didn’t step out in front of it intentionally. Laura craves the silence and forgetfulness of true death, but can’t seem to reach that inner peace. While Michael is determined not to let go of a single emotion or memory of life, even though Jonathan warns him that all the ghosts forget everything and fade away eventually.

Jonathan reaches out to the outside world for the first time when he encounters a widow visiting the gravesite of her husband. He befriends her, and suddenly finds himself wondering about the normal things again. He worries about his appearance, and wants to impress her, but he still can’t force himself to step beyond the boundaries of his graveyard.

Eventually, Laura and Michael decide that though they couldn’t find love in life, they have found it after death, in each other. They pledge to love each other, for as long as they can remember what love is. But then it is revealed that Michael’s wife has successfully defended herself in court. She is not a murderer, Michael committed suicide. Since Michael was catholic, his body is going to be disinterred, and moved to a non-catholic graveyard. Michael the ghost is tied to his body, and will not be able to stay with Laura in this graveyard. Laura appeals to Jonathan, as the only living person she knows. She wants Jonathan to secretly dig her up, and transport her to the same graveyard Michael now resides in. But Jonathan still can’t leave the graveyard, he can’t find it in himself to even look beyond the gates. Eventually, Jonathan overcomes his fear, and asks his widow friend for help. With the assistance of a strange night guard at the graveyard (who can also see ghosts; Beagle implies it is because he is mentally ill) Jonathan and the widow dig up Laura’s coffin and take it across the city, to bury it in an unmarked grave within the boundaries of the other graveyard.

The moment the truck passes through the gate of the graveyard, Jonathan can no longer see or hear Laura. He knows she is there, but he also knows that he will never be able to go back to his graveyard. It was not the boundaries of the graveyard that gave him this ability, but his removal from living society. He was only half-alive before, and so walked the line between the living and the dead. But now that he has once again begun to care about the future, and interact with the world outside, he has lost that connection to the dead. He will not be able to sense the reunion between the dead lovers, his friends. But he will return with the widow, and begin a new life with her, and be alive again.

I think what really made this book work for me was the quiet and subdued style that Beagle wrote in. It was not full of drama and emotion, even though the actual events were fairly traumatic. But the dead don’t have strong emotions, and a graveyard is a quiet and private place.

I was also struck by the similarities between this graveyard, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I know Gaiman has said he’s always been a fan of Peter S. Beagle, and I like to think he drew inspiration from this story. Both stories focus on the choices people can make after death, to forget and let go, or to desperately hold onto what made them who they thought they were. Both books show time continuing after death, but not change. The dead are not alive, even if they move and speak, they are frozen in who they were, they cannot change. Life comes through change. Both books also have the unusual perspective of viewing the living world from the outside, from the line between death and life, from inside the graveyard.

In the end, this was a lovely story about overcoming fear, and about living for as long as you can. Not being alive for as long as you can, but about reaching for experiences, and love, and life.

Mutant Message Down Under ★★

While I was right in that this book definitely wasn’t my norm, and while I may not have liked it in the end, it was definitely worth reading and stepping outside of my box for.

First, I’d like to preface this review by saying I know absolutely nothing about real aboriginal culture or history. I can’t possibly tell you what is fact and what is pure creation by the author. This book is apparently extremely controversial because while some people love it as the tale of a spiritual journey amongst a mysterious native population, other people say that the author didn’t accurately portray the culture truthfully, and was actually blatantly offensive.

I also have no idea if the author actually wanted this book to be taken as a mostly true story, or as just an extensive metaphor, a spiritual fable. It is written in the style of a memoire, and the author writes that it is based on real events, but it is shelved as fiction. Personally, I think that if any of it is actually “based in reality,” its really just an extrapolation of one night she spent camping in the desert and probably got a bit high. Wikipedia states that eventually she conceded that she made the story up, but… well… its wikipedia.

All of that said, I’m not going to evaluate this book on the intentions of its author, or the dubiousness of its origins, but only on the story and the message itself.

This is the story of a typical middle aged american woman who is on business in Australia teaching methods of holistic healing (she mentions acupuncture, therapeutic massage, etc). She is invited to a “meeting” by a native aborigine, and she thinks its her big moment. She thinks she’s going to be recognized for all the good work she’s done trying to help the lower-income mixed race young adults. At heart she is a city woman, and she sits on her high horse expecting to receive a pretty little plaque, a big thank you, and maybe a lunch buffet with some “authentic cuisine.”

Maybe predictable, she quickly finds out that true aboriginal culture isn’t anything like she expected. Still dressed in her business suit, heels and make-up she’s driven out to the edge of the desert, told to remove all her clothing, jewelry and belongings and instead put on a rag dress so that she can be cleansed. Which she does. They then burn all of it, tell her she’s going on a walk-about across Australia to “become one, and experience true beingness,” and promptly head out into the desert on foot. Which she does. She’s afraid and confused, but she follows them, and naively expects to back in the city by check out time at her hotel tomorrow.

What ensues is three months worth of ramblings, physically across the width of Australia, and mentally through various memories she has and spiritual realizations she comes to. It turns out that native aborigines can communicate telepathically, can heal broken bones overnight, and perform illusions to either disappear from sight, or to make one man look like 50 men. What is also mentions, and that I believe may actually be closer to the true culture, is that they can find water nearly anywhere within the desert, can eat just about anything, and have been using natural remedies that are completely unique and unknown to the rest of the world to cure various health problems that keep them surviving and able-bodied to an incredibly old age.

Eventually she finds out that she really is on her way to a meeting, of sorts. When she was born, a similar spirit was born in the exact same moment on the exact opposite side of the earth. She and her kindred spirit made plans to meet again in 50 years and share their experiences. It was her destiny that brought her here. A destiny that even a mysterious fortune teller in the tea-shop in the city told her, but that she just didn’t understand until this moment… Right. It turns out that her companion spirit is the tribal elder, and they share many different things about their cultures, finding similarities and differences in elaborate metaphors. My favorite one: “It seems Mutants [their names for non-aborigines] have something in their life called gravy. They know the truth, but it is buried under thickening and spices of convenience, materialism, insecurity and fear. They also have something in their lives called frosting. It seems to represent how they spend almost all the seconds of their existence in doing superficial, artificial, temporary, pleasant-tasting, nice-appearing projects, and spend very few actual seconds of their lives developing their eternal beingness.”

Eventually they share with her their true secret. The aborigines are leaving the world. When they die, they will become one with the world, they already are one with the world. But the mutant world holds no place for them anymore, so they have stopped having children. They need her to go out into the world, and take to the rest of the Mutants a message, teach them the things she has learned about being and oneness and the true intent of the universe. And so she does.

To be perfectly honest, this book was not for me. I found it over-written, and over-moralizing. It was a soap box of very little support, and distinctly unbalanced and prone to wobbling. I don’t entirely disagree with its message, as a culture we most definitely place too much emphasis on materialistic gain within the short frantic time-span of our own lives. But I believe that taken seriously, this is a fanaticism of the opposite extreme. Growth and change are good and necessary. As well as personal identity, ambition to create, and not to mention will to survive.

In the end, the main character gallops out of the outback on a higher horse than the one she rode in on (metaphorically of course, though she does describe her now calloused feet as “hooves” several times). She is distressed that the local Mutants she tells her story to seem uninterested in her grand philosophies of reincarnation and the one-ness of the universe. She encounters meanness and ugliness in the world that she hasn’t had to deal with in the last three months, but proves to herself that she has grown in “beingness” by not being hurt and instead blessing the person that wronged her. She makes her way home, to a family that wants to hear her story, and with a willingness to tell it to the world.

Basically, if I take this book too seriously, it bothers me very deeply. But if I take a step back, and instead look at the silliness of the adventure of it, at a woman in a situation she is utterly not prepared for but willing to take a go at, its not so bad. I think maybe this story would have been greatly improved if the author had not claimed it was based in reality from the beginning. If she had rather decided to create a completely fictional native culture on a completely fictional world, and instead focused on making the message a subtly built piece of art that didn’t have to worry about offending anyone on the planet we already live on, it might have actually held more meaning. Instead I just felt like she was bashing me in the head with a two by four carved with the message “you suck! aborigines rule!” … or maybe not quite that obviously violet. Maybe instead this book made me feel like I was walking down the street and a slightly graying middle aged new-age hippie is sitting under a tree. And she reaches out her hand, and tries to lure me close with “Come, come smoke pot with me and feel at one with the universe! Here, eat this worm, its good for you. The aborigines do it! They’re right about everything. They’re One. They are Beingness. They’re sooooooo smart and soooooo ancient. I remember this one time….”