Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Douglas Adams (may he rest in peace) is probably best known for his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series, but I have just finished an unrelated but equally funny and imaginative novel by this talented author. Despite being written in 1987, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency seems completely at home in 2012. It’s a mystery, with equal parts dark humor and legitimate scientific and literary references. Not all the humor is dark, though; plenty of the ridiculous situations that arise throughout the book are funny in that airily outrageous way that seems unique to Adams’ work.

I have to admit up front: I had very little notion of what was going on for roughly the first fifty pages of this novel. It was amusing, but I couldn’t tell how things were connected or where the plot was going. We are introduced to a somewhat faulty Electric Monk, a horse with an inner monologue, fed-up cellist Susan Way, computer and music enthusiast Richard MacDuff, and Reg, a professor with a penchant for magic tricks. All of these characters eventually prove to be related to one another, though Adams at first explains only how Reg and Richard know one another. Their dinner together at the fictional St. Cedd’s College is the starting point for what becomes the main story, though much happens behind the scenes that the reader will not know about, much less understand, for a hundred pages or so.

The lack of understanding is irritating at times, to say the least. The only comfort as a reader is the knowledge that the aforementioned main character Richard is equally in the dark. Of course, as we the readers become less befuddled, his predicament on page becomes worse. Actually, Richard’s shared confusion is not the only comfort: there is also the comedy and promise of a revelation to come.  Adams had many skills, among them the ability to hold readers’ interest even when nothing seems clear and almost any other book would be abandoned. His humor cuts through every scene, even those dealing with a most bizarre murder.

All of the wild strands begin to come together courtesy of Dirk Gently, holistic detective. Though seemingly absent-minded and genial, Dirk possesses a keen investigative skill and a willingness — even enthusiasm — for bending the rules. Dirk is also rumored to be capable of paranormal feats, though he himself much denies these claims. His denials, however, only serve to fan the flames and increase his notoriety. This puts Dirk in the perfect position to unravel the mysterious events, with Richard and Reg as more or less willing co-conspirators and investigators. With the three men on the case, things begin to come together and make sense (or as much sense as they ever do in the delightfully quirky Adams universe).

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a fun little oddball of a book, a world apart from its Hitchhiker’s Guide brethren but definitely part of the same family. Fans of Douglas Adams will definitely enjoy this read. Those unfamiliar with Adams’s work will likely be fans by the halfway point of this novel. Enjoy a little ridiculous escapism!

Happy reading!

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Review: The Blind Assassin

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing. She has a really elegant style, evocative and emotional without being flowery. Atwood doesn’t sugar-coat the way she sees the world, even as she fictionalizes it in her novels. She tends to refuse the neatly-packaged happy endings that many readers have come to expect. Her books are believable, though sometimes it nearly makes you sick to your stomach to believe in them. The Blind Assassin is one of those novels that leads you, so gradually, to the unavoidable truth that you can’t refuse it; you want to push away and deny the conclusions you are left with, even as your more practical brain reminds you that you’re just a reader, the book is just fiction.

But “just fiction” has great power in Atwood’s hands, as she has shown over the decades. The Blind Assassin is narrated by Iris, an octogenarian that is seeking to set down the truest version of her (and her family’s) life that she is capable of writing. Be warned: this is a serious tome, 521 pages of family dirt, from the boring to the scandalous. Her personal history is interspersed with newspaper clippings from major events throughout her life, spanning from before the Great Depression up through current times. Autobiographical chapters are alternated with chapters from a novel called The Blind Assassin, which newspaper clippings tell us was written by Laura Chase, Iris’s younger sister. The novel begins, however, with Iris receiving word of Laura’s suicide, though her husband’s power and money ensure that the papers report it as an accident.

Iris tells her story in small bursts, mostly linearly, though she often refers to things that will happen in the future of her narrative without explaining them. Eventually, when she does come to that incident, the event explains many of the odd little moments that readers likely noticed in her story that Iris had glossed over. It is not a happy life, overall. Iris and Laura grew up in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, isolated by their family’s money and importance in the town. Their mother passes away when the girls are young, so much of their upbringing is left to their housekeeper, Reenie, and a succession of ineffectual tutors. Their father is a war veteran and an alcoholic. It is no secret that he wanted sons, and was disappointed that he ended up with two daughters instead. Iris is matter-of-fact about these aspects of her childhood. She neither asks for nor expects pity; the reaction of whoever finds and reads her account of her life is not the issue she is concerned with. Iris only wants someone, even if it’s only one person, to know the truth of her life and the choices she made along the way.

Atwood does an impeccable job of weaving major world events into the novel. The Depression, along with World Wars One and Two, do not simply occur in the background of Iris’s story. We see the very real impact of these eras on the Chase family, Iris, and Laura, as well as all those around them. It’s not the world history, however, that captivated me while reading this novel. It’s Iris. She is the heart of this novel, flawed and unhappy in many ways but still beating on. It’s fascinating to watch the strands of this novel come together, to see the differences in how Iris remembers an event versus the way the newspapers at the time reported on it. On top of this, the reader inevitably begins looking for parallels between The Blind Assassin and the life history Iris describes. The two major revelations of the book are not entirely unexpected: I suspected both plot points well before Iris confirmed them. Atwood drops many hints, though many more clues can also be seen in retrospect. The twists (though they aren’t twists, really — they’re just the hidden driving force behind the novel) are linked, though Iris is responsible for one and Laura for the other. Laura’s secret is the one  that basically did me in. I correctly guessed it about a hundred pages before Iris confirmed it, but that did not lesson the emotional blow.

Atwood paints her characters beautifully, to the point that the awful things that come to pass don’t seem out of keeping with what we as readers know about them. Iris and Laura are both tragic figures in their own way, and the respective villains they battle are horrific without being caricatures. Iris and Laura’s sister-in-law Winifred in particular is dreadfully familiar: the vast majority of women know a woman like her, a petty tyrant that hides her cruelty behind designer clothes and superficial friendships. Iris and Laura themselves are also familiar, and anyone with siblings can empathize with their complicated relationship. It’s not hard to imagine knowing them or someone like them. Many people can also relate to the ever-present notion in the novel of “family business,” of secrets kept and lies told in the name of keeping up appearances.

As I mentioned, Atwood does not give readers fairy-tale endings, nor anything resembling closure. I am used to this from her other novels (including three of my favorites: The Handmaids’ Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood). The open-ended nature of this novel didn’t bother me. What has me unhappy, however, is the bleakness of The Blind Assassin. There is the sense that the sacrifices made and the battles fought were all for nothing. That there might have been small victories, but they will be rendered useless by later actions. Iris herself feels this to a certain extent, though she does not dwell on it. Instead, she prefers to hope that her own story will set right some of the awful wrongs that have been committed over time. As a reader, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling of melancholy that settled over me after finishing this novel. I am still as big an Atwood fan as ever, but I don’t know that I will come back to this book in the future. It was well written and an excellent read, but the futility of the ending is hard to deal with. I think it would be for any reader that got emotionally engaged with this novel.

If you’re an Atwood aficionado, you’ll probably like this book for her style and storytelling. If you’re coming to Atwood for the first time, I might suggest one of her other works, perhaps of the speculative fiction variety. At least with those, you can console yourself with the knowledge that — while not impossible — those events have not yet come to pass. The Blind Assassin‘s storyline is all to easy to conceive as having happened before, with the potential to happen again.

It’s hard to sign off with my usual cheery salutation after finishing so weighty a novel, but nonetheless: happy reading!

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Review: Mr. Darcy, Vampyre

[Warning: contains minor spoilers. Nothing major, though — promise!]

What’s this rolling toward me? It’s a bandwagon! I do believe I’ll hop on for a little while.

As much as my inner book snob hates to admit it, I just read (and liked!) a total pop culture riff on a classic. I didn’t mean to, at first. I was in the check-out line at Bookmans, and the hugely popular “Austen + Monsters” genre table caught my eye. I picked up Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, ready to rant about the desecration of Pride and Prejudice, but damned if the blurb on the back didn’t kind of sound awesome. It began, “A married man in possession of a dark fortune must be in want of an eternal wife…” I have to admit, I was amused by the play on the famous first lines of the original novel. I also liked that it wasn’t a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice itself, but rather a continuation of Austen’s work, with the additional “What if…?” of Darcy being a vampire. (Or, as the Regency-era spelling throughout the books insists, “vampyre.”)

The book begins in October of 1802, on Jane and Elizabeth Bennet’s joint wedding day. Jane, of course, marries Mr. Bingley, while Elizabeth is wed to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth is overjoyed to be married, but senses that Darcy has misgivings. The feeling that her new husband regrets marrying her troubles Elizabeth immensely, despite Darcy doing all he can to allay her fears.

Now, given the title, any reader who has in fact looked at the cover can guess what’s going on here. The point of the novel is not the mystery of whether Darcy is a vampire or not. Instead, it’s a question of whether Elizabeth will realize it, and when she does, what will happen. Grange drops an absurd number of clues in front of Elizabeth, who seems to go back and forth between guessing the truth and willfully deluding herself. Darcy cancels their planned honeymoon in the Lake District of England, and instead whisks Elizabeth off to Paris. She meets more of Darcy’s family (i.e., fellow vampires) and mingles with Parisian society. Darcy vacillates between being attentive and loving, versus brooding, cold, and distant. Elizabeth is constantly surprised and puzzled by his actions, especially his announcement that they must go visit a distant relative that lives in a remote castle in the Alps. The situation becomes even worse when Darcy’s formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, shows up to once again rail on about how the wedding was a mistake and Darcy should never have married Elizabeth. While Elizabeth is simply hurt because she feels that Lady Catherine disapproves of her family and lack of money, the reader senses a much darker undertone, knowing what Darcy and his family are. Lady Catherine does not simply refer to social class when she tells Darcy that Elizabeth does not belong in their world.

Darcy and Elizabeth travel through the Alps, staying briefly at the castle of the mysterious Count. Their time there is not happy however,  as Elizabeth has terrible nightmares and the castle overwhelms her. Finally, unexpected violence forces them to flee the castle. The couple, despite their obvious strain, cling to hope as they travel over the mountains to Italy. Their adventures continue in Venice, especially when they meet an Italian prince who takes a great liking to Elizabeth. The prince invites them to Rome, but things take an extremely dark turn soon after they arrive at his villa. Elizabeth is forced to come to terms with the reality of her marriage, as well as the fact that outside forces are seeking to tear her from Darcy at any cost. Elizabeth must decide how far she is willing to go for the love of her life, regardless of whether or not she might get her dreamed-of happy ending.

This novel is well written, and I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by Grange’s level of commitment to the time period and Austen’s original work. Pride and Prejudice is not cheapened by this sequel of sorts; in fact, it was kind of fun to read Mr. Darcy, Vampyre and look back at the events of Austen’s novel and analyze them with the new notion of Darcy, Georgiana, Lady Catherine, and Anne all being vampires. It certainly would explain a lot about the way they acted (and why Anne never died, despite her poor health). I have also come to terms with the widespread revisiting and re-imagining of classic novels. Though not all of the new alterations are for me, I have realized that they’re at the very least keeping the classics alive, and using the modern trends to hook new readers who might not have read them otherwise. Obviously, I hope that reading a zombie/vampire/monster novel based on a classic would eventually lead a reader back to the original work, but even if not, at least people are reading. That’s what’s most important to me, at the end of the day.

Happy reading!

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