Review Fridays: Bad Machinery, Volume 1

I am a fan of webcomics, and my current favorite is Scary Go Round/Bad Machinery. I found John Allison’s comics in the time between the end of Scary Go Round and the start of Bad Machinery through a link on Kate Beaton’s Hark, a vagrant (which is also lovely). Bad Machinery follows the next generation of Scary Go Round characters, detective youths in the fictional English town of Tackleford. Each case has a supernatural component, but the best part is the characters.

Lottie is a “noisy Miss Marple” who thinks that a lemon, a lime, and an orange are the same fruits in different stages of ripeness. Shauna is the brainy one from a bad part of town. Mildred is raised in a vegan household but will exchange juicy gossip for decidedly non-vegan chocolate. Jack is the cute one, Linton is the rude one, Sonny is the sunny optimist. Side characters include “Little Claire” (who is short and adorable and has the unfortunate last name of Little) and carryovers from the Scary Go Round universe of Mr. Ryan Beckwith (now playing grown up in fake glasses and elbow patches as a teacher), Amy Beckwith-Chilton (his wife, antiques dealer and eventually Shauna’s boss), and reporter Erin Winters (whom no one remembers because of something that happened in the previous comic series).

The first volume, the print form of which includes extra pages from what is published online, is called “The Case of the Team Spirit.” When Mr. Beckwith assigns the class to interview an elderly person, Lottie and Shauna decide to talk to a woman Shauna knows named Mrs. Biscuits. Which isn’t really her name, but she would give Shauna biscuits (cookies, for Americans) and a cute nickname evolved. They find an interesting story when they talk to her. The Tackleford football club is trying to take her house in order to build a new football pitch. The story attracts the notice of Erin, a reporter at the local newspaper. There’s also a mysterious, supernatural creature roaming Tackleford. The mystery girls and boys, of course, figure out a solution for everything.

The humor is always completely on point, and John Allison keeps up a frenetic update schedule that makes me suspect he has a time reversing teapot. The website includes side projects such as the current one, Destroy History, featuring Scary Go Round’s Shelley Winters. I highly recommend both the online comic and the print form.

Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings

In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram has “Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings.” Maria is not the heroine. She does not even get a very happy ending, but I think that many people can relate to that feeling of being torn asunder between two options. Rushworth is the very practical option, the one which excites only the blandest of emotions, dull, stable, boring, and faintly ridiculous. The Crawford feelings are the irrational impulses. They call one irresistibly to do something without considering the consequences.

The Rushworth feelings and Crawford feelings swirl about, waiting for the right answer, but it all comes down to preference. Maria Bertram tries to choose both and as a result loses her reputation. It is not the wrong decision to act on Rushworth feelings, to marry the rich fool in order to gain social position and have fancy houses and carriages and such. On the other hand, that is not the right decision either. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, would not have picked such a choice. Neither would Jane Austen’s other heroines, particularly Elizabeth Bennet, who declines the ridiculous Mr. Collins and even the proud Mr. Darcy the first time around.

It is merely a decision, an act without distinctions between correct and incorrect.

When making a big decision, it seems easier to reduce every aspect into purely analytical terms. Make a pro/con list, add up the tally, and decide that way. Such processes can make it possible to assign each option with Right and Wrong. But it does not really work that way, does it? Even if it ticks off all of the right boxes, the list is more about fine tuning what it is you really want. The list is unique to you. It is not any more analytical than taking stock of your values and feelings and deciding that way.

I turn to works of fiction for advice more often than is good for me, but Jane Austen has taught me, more than any other writer, about the importance of following one’s inner guide. There is no universally acknowledged compass to follow. There is no glory in making a decision because another person thinks it is what you ought to do, because it is the most practical option, because you made a list and analyzed and reduced things to the coldest terms. Life is not a contest you can win. It is a series of episodes and choices and endless branching off, and your own ability to internally decide what is best for you.

Perhaps life is a multiple choice quiz where all of the questions are impossible and written in a language you do not know. There is no absolutely right option. There are simply a multitude of options without rank, the ability to take one option, and the resulting consequences, whatever those might be. Picking an option is all about personal preference and discovering which choice aligns best with one’s values. No decision is objectively worse or better than another. Each choice simply leads off to a separate path. There are no certainties, no matter the choice one makes.

Villette

Jane Eyre is the most famous work by Charlotte Brontë, the one which is taught in high schools and which appears regularly on lists of great works of literature. I first read Jane Eyre when I was in my early teenage years. My library had no other works by Charlotte Brontë on the open stacks, but, as if by fate not long after reading its more famous sister-novel, I received a gift card and found Villette at a bookstore. The small paperback is still one of my most beloved books, even if, at the age when I first read it, I did not completely understand it.

Lucy Snowe is a difficult heroine, as cold as her name suggests. Jane Eyre is easy to connect with. She is open and passionate. If the reader does not know something, it is because Jane does not know it either. However, Lucy Snowe intentionally keeps secrets from the reader. When she recognizes a face from her past, she waits until the absolute last minute to reveal this to her audience. Unlike Jane, Lucy builds her narrative on secrets, on hiding her emotions, on trying to convince the reader that she does not feel a certain way. Something tragic and undefined has happened in Lucy’s past, and therefore she feels it is necessary to hide.

My first reading of Vilette, to be frank, was muddled. I did not fully appreciate all of the nuances of emotion. Nothing seemed to happen for a long time. In terms of plot, it is less exciting than Jane Eyre. There is no one hiding in the attic, the hero is not in possession of a dark secret, there are no secret cousins to give the heroine an instant family in the end. Lucy Snowe does not readily mingle with her fellow teachers. She prefers solitude, quiet, her own company. She spends far too long trying to convince the reader that she does not love. In Lucy Snowe, Charlotte Brontë created a character who demands distance, who unwillingly accepts our company to tell us her story.

Yet, Villette is the book I return to and read and re-read compulsively. The heroine is self-reliant and reserved, and it is that enforced solitude that leads her on occasional downward spirals, into scenes which crackle with repressed emotion. At times, the very scenery around her seems disorienting due to her emotional state. In many ways, she is an unreliable narrator, but that is her nature, that is what makes her Lucy Snowe. She is not beautiful, is in fact deeply aware of her own external shortcomings, and finds herself in a strange land where she does not know the language, cannot communicate even basic things. Nonetheless, she does not want our sympathy.

In spite of all of her flaws, of the truths she refuses to tell, Lucy Snowe is a great favorite of mine. Even at the end, she cannot bear to give us a concrete explanation of her fate. She would rather let the reader decide, and it is in that decision that one can finally see that she hides things not to be cruel but as a means of protection. She leaves us space to imagine whatever happiness we would like, if we are so inclined, regardless of what actually happened. Although she often seems melancholy and repressed, Lucy is really hiding behind a protective barrier, meant to keep out additional pain and suffering. Villette is a much more complex book than Jane Eyre, with a heroine who it is at times hard to understand, and is deserving of more fame than it receives.

Review Fridays: The Name of the Star

There are currently three books in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, all of which I have read, but this review will focus only on the first book, The Name of the Star. Rory is a normal American teenager, or about as normal as anyone from the quirky town of Benouville, Louisiana, can be. Her parents are university professors, who, on a sabbatical year, decide to go to England. Rory is enrolled in a fictional London boarding school called Wexford where the cold weather and the headmistress’s love of hockey make for an interesting beginning to her school career.

There are also mysterious murders happening in London which mimic the Jack the Ripper killings of over a century ago. The problem is that none of the surveillance cameras focused on the crime scenes capture the murderer. It is almost as if someone invisible committed the murders. The entire city gets caught up in Rippermania, including Rory’s boyfriend, Jerome. After Rory has a near-death experience, she starts seeing people that no one else can see. There is a connection between the two, Rory’s new sight and the murders, and the remainder of the book sets up the suspenseful confrontation with a murderer most people cannot see.

There are some real gems in the supporting cast of characters. Rory’s roommate, Jazza, is adorably kind to and accepting of her new American friend. Their other roommate, Boo, who arrives after the semester starts, is bursting with energy and is maybe hiding something. Stephen, a police officer, is a reserved, shadowy figure who would do anything to protect the people he cares about.

Rory is also not the typical, bland, swooning high school girl often found in young adult literature. She is quirky and funny, telling story after story about her life back home and her eccentric family. It is extremely difficult to do humor well, and nothing is worse than a book with joke after joke that falls flat. However, Johnson achieves no small feat in creating a narrator who can tell a good joke, who is brave and actually takes action instead of waiting for the action to come to her.

As I have found with other books by Maureen Johnson, there is romance, but romance is never the point of the book. Instead, the characters are allowed to live and interact independently of any potential for instant attraction, building relationships that could eventually turn romantic, or not. Shipping is permitted with her books, but with the understand that the pairing will actually be built upon a real foundation of characters who talk and know each other well.

I highly recommend this book and the rest in the series. The second book ends on a big cliffhanger, and, luckily for any new readers, the third book was released in February of this year. There will be a fourth book, title and publication date yet to be determined. It is also worth the time to check out Maureen Johnson’s Twitter account, where readers can easily see the source of Rory’s sense of humor.

Dorothy L. Sayers

When readers think of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the first name that comes to mind is inevitably Agatha Christie. Christie’s books are some of the bestselling of all time. She is a mainstay of pop culture, from a portrayal on the time-travelling TV show Doctor Who to the longest initial run of any play in history for The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 and is still on stage today. However, Christie is not my favorite mystery writer. I much prefer Dorothy L. Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey series.

Sayers lived an unconventional, fascinating life. She was one of the first women to earn a degree from Oxford, was a noted scholar, and translated Dante in addition to her own fiction. She worked in advertising for many years and authored some brilliant ad campaigns. Much like her heroine Harriet Vane, Sayers had a troubled romantic relationship which greatly influenced the direction of the Lord Peter series. Some see Vane as a Mary Sue stand-in for Sayers, but, like any good writer, she used her experiences and personal suffering to create a rich inner life for a character she must have strongly identified with.

Lord Peter Wimsey is a wealthy man-about-town and expert in everything who, in his free time, amuses himself by solving mysteries. Perhaps amuse is not the right word. Lord Peter sometimes struggles to accept solutions to the mysteries, to balance his personal feelings for the murderer against the horrible deed committed. At times, what he uncovers causes mental breakdowns, exacerbated by his flashbacks to service in World War I, when he suffered a traumatic event and subsequent shell-shock.

A few books into the series, Lord Peter meets the woman whom he believes could be his match. He finds her in unpleasant circumstances. She is on trial for her life, accused of murdering her boyfriend, and the fact that Lord Peter saves her affects the nature of their ensuing relationship. Harriet feels that she ought to be grateful, but she is prickly and bitter and has difficulty accepting the idea of marriage.

My favorite in the series is Gaudy Night, which is not a murder mystery, and maybe not even a particularly good mystery. The thing that distinguishes Gaudy Night is that it is a good novel in its own right, examining issues of scholarship and confronting the past, the differences between mature love and youthful passion. It is a feminist work about the importance of education for women and finding one’s equal, the serious issues interspersed with humor and excellent dialogue and character development. This is a mystery that is more character-driven than plot-driven, and as I prefer the former anyway, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books of all time.

The books can be read in any order, though I would recommend reading in chronological order, particularly the Harriet Vane books. This list does not include short stories featuring Lord Peter.

  1. Whose Body? (1923)
  2. Clouds of Witness (1926)
  3. Unnatural Death (1927)
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
  5. Strong Poison (1930) *Features Harriet Vane
  6. The Five Red Herrings (1931)
  7. Have His Carcase (1932) *Features Harriet Vane
  8. Murder Must Advertise (1933)
  9. The Nine Tailors (1934)
  10. Gaudy Night (1935) *Features Harriet Vane
  11. Busman’s Honeymoon: A Love Story With Detective Interruptions (1937) *Features Harriet Vane

That’ll do, Pig

Forget self-help books. Fictional books and TV shows offer a wealth of information about how to better live one’s life. After moving on from a re-read of Cold Comfort Farm, which is the ultimate introvert’s guide to rationally ordering one’s life, I turned to Gilmore Girls.

For anyone who has never seen it before, the show focuses around Lorelai Gilmore, her daughter, Rory, and their life in the almost-perfect and very quirky town of Stars Hollow. Lorelai had Rory when she was in high school, and their relationship is much closer than the typical mother and daughter. Rory is bookish and brainy and has dreams of attending an Ivy League university. Lorelai runs an inn and has a series of doomed relationships because every viewer knows she is meant to be with Luke, the grumpy diner owner. Basically, it is a perfect show, balanced with humor and great characters and emotionally charged moments.

“That’ll do, Pig” is the title of season 3, episode 10 of Gilmore Girls. Lorelai’s mother, Emily, is dealing with her impossible mother-in-law, and Lorelai gives her some advice gleaned from years of dealing with Emily and every other difficult person in her life:

  1. Find the humor in every situation
  2. Remember that it’s not personal (the reverse of the classic excuse: it’s not me, it’s you)
  3. Do what you want to do anyway

Following this advice, you will find that it annoys controlling people. They revel in making others miserable, in imposing their will, but if you smile and do just as you please, you will find your life immeasurably improved. Although you cannot control the actions of other people, you can control your own reactions. Seeking approval from controlling people is a frustrating exercise of running in perpetual circles. The other people in your life will never be satisfied, there will always be something more they want you to do, and you will never be happy following someone else’s path instead of your own.

There is a time in one’s life where drama feels interesting and fresh, where slammed doors and yelling might seem exciting. But drama has a way of wearing thin very quickly. Give yourself a nice, “That’ll do, Pig,” and, if you are Emily Gilmore, eat very, very slowly to annoy your mother-in-law.

Review Fridays: Finding Audrey

I had never read anything by Sophie Kinsella before Finding Audrey. She is a wildly popular writer in the genre that is, sometimes pejoratively, referred to as chick lit, and Finding Audrey is her first foray into young adult literature. Although I did not pick up the book because she wrote it, as some of her fans might have, I quite like YA and books about mental illness, so I wanted to give this one a chance.

When I finished reading, my first impressions were that Kinsella latched onto buzzwords and hit them all in an effort to create a bestselling book. Young adult genre, which is very popular at the moment? Check. Mental illness in the form of social anxiety, or maybe just general anxiety or depression, it is never quite clear? Check. Mother obsessed with the amount of time her son is spending on video games and completely oblivious father? Check again. These would not be problems if they were handled in a sensitive way and not merely as rather convenient, but not fleshed out, plot devices.

As someone who greatly empathizes with the stigma of mental illness, I felt like it was dealt with too superficially. Audrey is a teenager who, after a never completely explained incident with some schoolmates, is going through a tough time. She has dropped out of school, is afraid to go outside, and wears sunglasses at all times to avoid eye contact. With the help of her therapist, she is making baby steps. This therapist tells her to make recordings of her life. It is never quite clear how this is supposed to help, but it lets Kinsella write a few scenes from a slightly different perspective, through transcribed dialogue and stage directions as if reading a play.

Audrey’s brother, Frank, is obsessed with video games, and her mother, with nothing else to do now that she has quit her job to care for Audrey, has decided to crusade (rather annoyingly) against this. There is a lot of cliché parent-child fighting which goes on and on. This video game subplot brings one of Frank’s friends, Linus, into the story. According to Frank, Audrey has to get used to Linus or else their mom will not let Linus visit anymore. If Audrey freaks out around Linus, Frank will be upset with her. He needs Linus so that they can practice to win the big video game tournament.

Yes, it is really that improbable.

The Male Savior comes in the form of Linus, who, again, Audrey has to get to know better because otherwise there would be no video game practice for Frank. There is the requisite instant attraction between Linus and Audrey. They exchange notes, which is cute and one of my favorite parts of the book. Where Audrey is afraid, Linus is the sort of completely socially adept, understanding teenage boy that one only finds in YA novels. Audrey quickly improves under his guidance. She can go outside! She can ask strangers random, unnecessary questions! She goes to Starbucks!

The ending stays on the same too easy resolution route set up by the rest of the book. I do not think it is giving anything away by saying (*spoilers*) everything ends up happily. Audrey stops taking her medications, overdoes it when she starts feeling anxious again, runs away, and is found in the park without her sunglasses. But guess what? Just like that, she doesn’t need the sunglasses anymore! Remember how her mother was so dead-set against video games? Well, she comes around to it and even starts encouraging it! High fives all around!

Finding Audrey was a quick read and superficially entertaining, like eating an entire bag of mini-candy bars. However, there was not enough substance for me to recommend it to others or to seek out other books by Kinsella.

Review Fridays: Cold Comfort Farm

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic, and prolonged. –Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons wrote over 20 novels, but her most enduring is Cold Comfort Farm, the tale of Flora Poste, who loves things to be ordered and neat, and her quest to impose that sense of rationality on her relatives. After her parents die, Flora decides that, instead of finding a job, she will go to live with family. She writes them all letters. The response from the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm promises both horror and interest. Addressing her as “Robert Poste’s child”, her cousin Judith writes that her man once did a wrong to Flora’s father and that she always knew Flora would be after her rights at last. Flora has no idea what this means, but she is intrigued, so she resolves to go to them.

The book is a satire of dark, rural novels of the time. Aunt Ada Doom, the aptly named matron of the farm, once “saw something nasty in the woodshed” and now uses that excuse to keep the inhabitants of the house under her control. Gibbons is making fun, but, through Flora, she helps the characters to realize that everything need not be so doom and gloom, that they are not trapped, that it is good and right to follow happiness wherever it might lead. All one needs is a bright attitude and a sense of purpose, and one can order things as one likes.

The novel embraces a lively use of language, names, and plot situations. There are cows named Aimless, Feckless, Pointless, and Graceless (the latter of which loses a leg), a bull called Big Business, a landscape marked by sukebind, and a congregation of Quiverers. While reading, the immense amount of fun Gibbons must have had writing the book comes across. Nothing is safe from her sharp observational powers. She even laughs at the idea that important landmarks can be reduced to a number of stars in travel guides, using a rating system to point out the really exceptional sentences in the book to make life easier for the critics.

The relationship of the characters is suitably confusing and hilarious, having a Wuthering Heights feel to it, but taking it a step farther. Don’t bother trying to make a family tree of the Starkadders. The exact blood relationship matters less than trying to sort out the personal relationships, to heal old hurts, and to get the characters acting in a way that makes better sense. There is no point in being miserable. One should not stay unhappy merely to please a miserable relative. Flora sees how the characters could be put to better use and sends them on their ways.

Cold Comfort Farm is a brilliant and very funny book. Flora mentions, at one point of the novel, that she wants to eventually write a novel as good as Persuasion except set in the present day. In the meantime, if anyone asks what she does for a living, she can say she is collecting material. Isn’t this the dream of every writer, expressed so concisely and rationally?

Underneath the humor, there is a wonderful sense of optimism. If you’re unhappy, simply reorder things in the way you like. And don’t forget to feed the parrot!