No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, September 08, 2016

2016/49: The Essex Serpent -- Sarah Perry

'It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!’
‘You think – you really think – that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
‘Not only my reason – there’s not enough of that to set against my soul! – but my liberty.' [loc. 1604]

Strange news out of Essex in the last years of the nineteenth century ... Recently widowed -- her husband's death something of a relief -- Cora Seaborne is swept up by wealthy friends and taken off to the Essex coast, where it is hoped the sea air and the change of scenery will prove uplifting for Cora, her son Francis, and her companion Martha. In the small village of Aldwinter, Cora meets and befriends the vicar, Will Ransome, and his amiable, ethereal wife Stella.

Cora is a keen amateur naturalist, and when she hears stories about a mythical monster (the eponymous Serpent) which may have been released from some muddy abyss by the recent Colchester earthquake, she's excited by the prospect of discovering a living fossil. Her love of science clashes with Will's bone-deep faith, though not at the expense of their growing friendship.

I find it hard to summarise the plot of this novel, and I think that's because it is so much more about the changing relationships between the protagonists than it is about the events which befall them. Luke Garrett, brilliant surgeon, in love with Cora; Martha, stalwart freethinker and admirer of Eleanor Marx; Stella, increasingly obsessed with the colour blue; Francis, whose obsessive curiosity we might now term 'autistic'. Perry writes evocatively of the landscape and light of the Essex coast (where I grew up) and she has a knack for imbuing even minor characters with backstory in a few lines of prose. Cora's and Will's letters, with their descriptions of the natural world (the colour of a hare's fur 'like almonds just out of the shell') are a delight.

I heard Sarah Perry, interviewed with Frances Hardinge (whose The Lie Tree is also set in the Victorian era, and also deals with the friction between religion and science, and the treatment of women) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was fascinated by her comparisons of the Victorian urban life with our own: work, home, leisure ... Perhaps the tragedy at the core of The Essex Serpent is that Cora is too modern for the time in which she's born.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016/48: The Many Selves of Katherine North -- Emma Geen

The shiver of my cheeks is slowly becoming more pronounced. When I turn my head from side to side, it’s as if the water varies in excitement. And there – my whiskers fizzle, hitting the zenith of a gradient but what that means, I don’t know. Understanding a new sense can take hours, sometimes days; in the end all you can do is get on with the work. I push along the line of agitation. About me, water dances in a lime glow; the disturbed silt a cascade of stars. [loc. 1948]

Kit is nineteen, and has been a phenomenaut for nearly seven years. None of her colleagues have lasted as long. Phenomenauts use technology to project their consciousness into animals (well, ResExtendas: vat-grown copies of animals, without a consciousness of their own, 'nothing higher than a thalamus'), hoping to understand their interactions with the human world.

But Kit's employers, ShenCorp, have some exciting new initiatives on the table -- and Kit, as the most experienced and resilient of their staff, is the obvious choice of figurehead and trailblazer.

Kit is suspicious, though. She's uncomfortable with the notion of the technology -- and the ResExtendas -- becoming a money-making leisure product. When she discovers that ShenCorp are growing human ResExtendas, she's determined not to be involved: but her neuroengineer, Buckley -- the guy who watches over her when she's being other than human -- seems much more enthusiastic.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is a fascinating read. Geen's at her best when describing Kit's varied non-human experiences -- as a fox, an octopus, a spider, a whale, et cetera -- and the alienation she feels amongst other humans. The near-future British setting (flooding, refugees, spineless politicians) is sketched in broad strokes, but they're sufficient: ditto the vague descriptions of the technology behind Kit's phenomenautism. This is not, at heart, a techno-thriller or a dystopia, but a novel about being -- or trying to be -- human.

Kit's personality (and probably her neurology) make her a somewhat unreliable narrator, and she doesn't always notice things that are apparent to the reader. Though she's in her late teens, she is a child in some important respects (which is why I find one aspect of the novel weak and ethically uncomfortable). She is, however, in the habit of thinking a great deal about her inner experience, and Geen gives her a powerful and often poetic narrative voice.

A minor quibble re proofreading: why so many sentences with missing capitalisation?

I very much enjoyed this, and will be looking out for Geen's next novel -- this is her first, and an impressive debut.

Monday, August 15, 2016

2016/47: It -- Stephen King

Home is the place where when you go there, you have to finally face the thing in the dark. [loc. 1605]

In 1958, at the peak of one of the twenty-seven-year cycles of violence in the small Maine town of Derry, seven young children (aged ten to twelve, though some are more mature than others) realise that the violence is caused by something terrible lurking beneath the town -- something that sometimes takes the form of a macabre clown, but can assume the shape of whatever scares you most. They are determined to stop it before there are any more deaths.

In 1985, the adults who those children became are called back to Derry to finish what they started. They are all childless, wealthy, and successful. And they are all haunted by nagging scraps of memories from that summer long ago. Gradually, the haze clears, and they recall the events of the Bad Year.

These two threads alternate throughout the novel, and are enriched by scenes and asides giving the history, sociology and community of Derry. Those cycles of violence have plagued the town since it was founded: a lynching, a racially-motivated arson attack, an explosion at the ironworks ... Derry has six times as many murders as comparable towns; forty to sixty children disappear each year; the townsfolk, seeing a violent act, will look away.

King is astonishingly good at atmosphere, at evoking the cameraderie between pre-pubescent gang members and the shared joys of father-son relationships; he's also horribly good at depicting abusive behaviour, from a mother's over-protective insistence that her son needs his medicine, to a father beating his child. The rough wasteland of the Barrens, where the gang make their (well-constructed and astutely-planned) den, is familiar to me though I grew up decades later in another country. Familiar, too, are the feuds and fears that loom large in a child's mind: bullies, misheard scraps of conversation, shadows where there shouldn't be.

This was truly an epic read (it's over 1100 pages in print, so ideal for the Kindle!) and for 90% of it I was completely engaged by the story (or stories) and the setting. The final tenth of the book, however, seemed to collapse into a more standard and formulaic horror novel. I firmly believe that the power of this novel is in the telling and not the plot, in the characters and King's slow-build exploration of how those children became those adults. But it was the telling that felt drained and faded in those final chapters. One character (in the 1958 strand) did something I found disagreeable and improbable: several characters (in the 1985 strand) seemed to behave in out-of-character ways.

I did, however, like the epilogue a lot, even though I couldn't at first work out how it fitted. It closed the circle, though, in a way that the Grand Denouement(s) did not.

Monday, July 25, 2016

2016/46: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street -- Natasha Pulley

‘Well, I know that light is fascinating and full of scientific mystery, but mostly I use it for not walking into objects, and mostly I use ether for not walking into events. It’s there, it’s useful, it’s … not something I can study for more than ten minutes at once without falling asleep. I like mechanics. I’m not the right person to ask for mathematics.’ [loc. 4163]

Victorian London: Thaniel Steepleton is a humble telegraph clerk (capable of transcribing with one hand and sending messages with the other) who's given up his dream of being a pianist to support his widowed sister and her children. He hangs on in quiet desperation, until a reverse-burglary leaves him with a mysterious gold pocket watch, found on his pillow after a break-in. Attempts to sell or return the watch are fruitless: Thaniel thinks nothing more of it until, some months later, the watch turns out to have an alarm function that saves him from a Fenian bomb.

The watch, it turns out, is a miracle of mechanics, which has tracked Thaniel's precise location. Thaniel, in turn, tracks down the watch's maker: reclusive Japanese craftsman Keita Mori, the eponymous Watchmaker. His growing friendship with Mori, and his gradual courtship of Grace Carrow -- an Oxford physics student who is attempting to prove the existence of ether (the substance once thought to conduct light and magnetism) -- transform Thaniel's life. But Grace is wary of Mori, around whom coincidences seem to cluster, and who seems to know what other people will do before they do it.

Though The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is marketed as steampunk, it didn't match my notion of that subgenre. To be honest, it's not that firmly grounded in Victorian London either: there is little mention of religion or royalty, and (Fenians, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Japanese Village at Knightsbridge aside) the setting could have been any time, any where. That said, I was impressed by the minutae through which Mori unfolds London's attitude towards the Japanese. The bigger picture may be out of focus, but the details are clear.

I didn't read this novel for the sense of place: I read it for the characters, and the tensions between them, and the plot -- which did not go at all the way I expected. The blossoming friendship between Mori and Thaniel is fragile and lovely: Grace's esoteric studies, and her resolution to avoid marriage, demonstrate a steely determination which is tempered by her humour: and Mori's clockwork octopus is a delight. I smiled a lot and almost wept at certain points: that, for me, is a success.
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016/43-45: All For the Game [trilogy] -- Nora Sakavic

The Foxhole Court
The Raven King
The King's Men
Neil realized he was happy. It was such an unexpected and unfamiliar feeling he lost track of the conversation for a minute. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this included or safe. It was nice but dangerous. Someone with a past like his, whose very survival depended on secrecy and lies, couldn't afford to let his guard down. [The Raven King, loc. 1050]

Neil Josten is eighteen. His mother is dead: he hasn't seen his crime-lord father for years. Through multiple countries and as many identities, he's fled his past, moving from school to school. His luck's about to change, though: he's been recruited to Palmetto State University's Exy team, the Foxes -- a bunch of misfits and delinquents which happens to include a friend from his former life.

Exy (if you were wondering) is a fictional team game, 'an evolved sort of lacrosse on a soccer-sized court with the violence of ice hockey'. It's the one part of Neil's childhood that he hasn't been able to give up, and he's very good at it. So are the other members of his team. They're just not very good at being people.

There are three major story arcs in this trilogy: the rise to glory of the Foxes; a conflict between rival crime families (some of who are involved in sponsoring and funding Exy teams); and the relationships between the team members, and especially between Neil and the 'sociopathic' Andrew. Pretty much all of these relationships are more or less dysfunctional: the trilogy features rape, murder, torture, characters being drugged against their will, characters not being drugged despite a court mandate, bullying, theft, hatred ...

And yet, there is a hopefulness, a sense of something greater than the sum of its parts: the relationships between characters aren't always nice, but they are heartfelt and vivid. Sakavic's writing is fast, staccato and well-paced, which I think is what kept me reading (the first book was free!) despite my dislike of several characters and my disinterest in the game of Exy. She doesn't make the mistake of infodumping: the characters know more than the readers about their world, and this sense of secrets waiting to unfold was also a powerful motivator.

There were plot elements that I didn't find convincing, and others that made no sense from the viewpoint of one or more participants. I do think the third novel was weaker than the others. It was interesting, though, to read a YA work with no supernatural or fantastical elements, and a distinct lack of heteronormativity.

Final note: I read this trilogy because it was being recommended by people who'd read Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Chronicle (see here for reviews) and who found similarities in characterisation and relationships. My mileage varied: I found All for the Game considerably darker and less humorous, and I didn't like the characters as much.

Monday, July 18, 2016

2016/42: The Silence of the Sea -- Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Ægir had become fired up by the idea; this might be their only chance to sail the ocean in a luxury yacht, and the voyage would also solve a specific problem that had been troubling him. [loc. 373]

A repossessed luxury yacht crashes into the harbour wall at Reykjavik. It turns out that there's nobody on board at all. So what has happened to the crew of three, and to the family of four -- banker Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin four-year-old daughters Arna and Bylgja -- who have sailed from Lisbon to Iceland? Thora Gudmundsdottir, engaged by Ægir's parents, is determined to find out: not just because it's an intriguing case, but because she wants to secure the future of the third daughter, Sigga Dögg.

It's a classic locked-room mystery and Sigurdardottir unravels it in two parallel strands: the events on board the yacht, and the investigations of Thora and her team in Iceland. Is the yacht cursed, as some believe? Is there some supernatural force at work? Why did nobody radio for help? And where are the missing persons?

The mystery unravels slowly and in a generally satisfactory way (though I have to say I found Ægir, in particular, annoyingly stupid). I was less interested in Thora and her domestic, social and professional relationships: perhaps if I'd read other novels in the series I'd be keener to see how these evolved. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016/41: Arcadia -- Iain Pears

The English were a different matter. As their lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval. [loc. 2553]

The novel begins with a young boy in a simple farming community. He is known as Jay. He goes to fetch water, and sees a vision of a fairy or a spirit. 

Zoom out: Jay's experience is an episode from a fantasy novel that Henry Lytten is reading out to his writing group. (‘Where are the dragons? A whole chapter, and not a single dragon?' Lytten scowled. ‘There are no dragons.' ‘No dragons?' said the other in mock astonishment. ‘What about wizards?' ‘No.' ‘Trolls?' ‘No. Nothing of the sort.' ‘Thank God for that. Go on.' [loc. 100]) It's Oxford, 1960, and Professor Lytten is still tangentially involved in espionage. So, perhaps, is his friend and erstwhile lover, the mysterious Angela Meersum, who has left some of her effects in his cellar, including something that resembles a battered garden pergola. Rosie, who feeds Lytten's bad-tempered cat, discovers that beyond Angela's 'pergola' there is a different world ...

Pan left to Angela, whose narrative is first-person and altogether delightful ("That was my opinion and I admit that others thought differently. But they were idiots." [loc. 382]) is actually a visitor from a technocratic dystopia, several hundred years in the future. But is it 'the' future, or simply 'a' future? And why does it bear such a resemblance to the SF novel being workshopped by Lytten's colleague Persimmon?

I found Arcadia an engaging and provocative read. It plays with various fantasy and science fiction tropes; offers a critique of Tolkien and Lewis, and sly nods to other authors, including Le Carré, who makes an anonymous appearance, and Shakespeare, whose As You Like It proves to be one of Lytten's major influences. There are a number of interesting female characters, none of them defined by their romantic or sexual behaviour; there are echoes and foreshadowings aplenty. And at heart, Arcadia is a novel about story-telling: about the role of the Storyteller, the power he or she wields, and the perils of inconsistency.

Apparently there is also an Apple App for this novel. It has more words in it than the book (hmph), and it allows the reader to follow each thread -- the bucolic, non-magical fantasy of Anterworld, the quiet life with occasional subterfuge of Oxford, and the dystopian world which Angela has fled. Frankly, I'd rather read the novel as Pears intended it, and let the author control the shape and pacing -- both of which I feel worked very well.