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

Monday, May 23, 2016

2016/27: The Messenger of Athens -- Anne Zouroudi

'There are no gods.'
'Why so certain? Look.' He gestured towards the hillsides, and at the open sea. 'This is their terrain. They're not far away. Some say when the people stopped believing in them, they ceased to exist. But this view's still what it was when Jason built the Argo and the Minotaur was eating virgins in the labyrinth. Two thousand years, and nothing's changed; and don't think they’ve gone! Orthodoxy is just a fa├žade, a veneer. If you look around, really look' – he pointed to the centre of his forehead – 'using this eye, then you start to see. They're here. They’re watching. And interfering.'
Far inside his stomach came a shot of pain, as if a spiteful finger had found and poked at the heart of its disease. [loc. 764]

A young woman's body is found at the base of a cliff on a remote Greek island. Suicide, says the new Chief of Police indifferently: but the stranger who's just arrived from Athens, a fat man who calls himself 'Hermes Diaktoros', is determined to discover the truth. In the course of his conversations with the islanders, he discovers several unexpected truths. Every life he touches is affected by his visit.

The Messenger of Athens is a slow, leisurely novel, a gradual discovery of the facts about Irini's life and death. It's also a vivid depiction of the supposedly idyllic island life: a web of honour, deception, appearances and misogyny. Love and death, loneliness and self-imposed isolation, material and emotional poverty are displayed here. Zouroudi shows, rather than telling. One could make a case for the presence of the mythological: but nothing is definite.

Measured prose, some marvellous descriptions: but I didn't much like the novel, possibly just because the lives it described seemed so lacking in satisfaction or happiness.

2016/26: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? -- Paul Cornell

The Sight made Greenwich into somewhere that smelt of the sea, and overwhelmed you with the knowledge of time. She could feel, in this hill, the small weight of her own years, the steady decay of everything, how short a while was left to her. From the hill she could see, above London, constellations, a web of lines actually drawn in the sky, making the stars feel trapped. As they walked higher, the feeling got more and more intense, like they were inside an enormous clock, and she knew it was about to strike the hour. It felt like the grandeur above them was locked, by this hill, into the notion of Britishness, that here was somewhere that connected the eternal to Empire. This feeling was still at play in London below, but it was complicated, worrying. Here was displayed, for all to get nervous about, one of the grand certainties that nobody felt certain of anymore. [loc. 2925]

Quill's team are variously broken by the events of The Severed Streets, and it's affecting their performance. But duty calls, and when a fictional detective is apparently murdered, Quill's lot are first in line for the investigation. They already know that London perpetuates, immortalises, particular figures who are Remembered -- a kind of ethically sourced immortality. Three different versions of Sherlock Holmes are being filmed in London: could the coincidence have brought something into the real world? And are the actors themselves -- Gilbert Flamstead who plays Sherlock Holmes in a BBC production; Alice Cassell, a female version of Holmes in an American TV series; Ben Speake, the star of a series of comedy Holmes movies -- involved: or, worse, at risk?

DS Rebecca Lofthouse, Quill's nominal boss, continues to investigate the Continuing Projects Team, who trod the same beat as Quill's team but disappeared mysteriously (how else?) a few years before the events of London Falling. Turns out, though, that Lofthouse herself is being investigated: but by whom? The unwrapping of Lofthouse's history was a high point of the novel for me: she's been a mystery until this book.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? is full of London colour -- sometimes too full, as at the denouement where it can't quite decide if it's happening in Shoreditch or in Southwark. And the plot is truly Holmesian :) Most of the characters do end up a little happier than at the beginning of the novel, and we certainly get to know quite a bit more about the entities / deities / memories that underlay this darker London. Lots of fun allusions, and interesting and credible character development. Also features the Radisson Edwardian, and something nasty happening to a character named Lassiter who is not apparently related to the Lassiter in The Severed Streets. Lassiters beware!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

2016/25: The Severed Streets -- Paul Cornell

To be part of a city was to be a cell in a bigger animal, an animal large enough to have a conversation with the sea, which the river moderated, and the sky, which the river reflected. To be part of a city was to have an index of your mortal life right in front of you: as you got older you’d start saying you remembered when it was all different around here. [loc. 2813]

Summer in London: riots, trade fairs, a masked mob, the threat of a police strike, and a series of murders that, though reminiscent in method and affect of the C19 Ripper murders, target the 1% -- politicians, bankers and the like. Male oligarchs.

Quill's team, fresh from their initiation into the supernatural in London Falling, are uniquely qualified to address the murders, and the various other magical crimes and dodgy deals that surface during their investigations. But each member of the team has an additional agenda, no two the same. Ross wants to rescue her dad from Hell: Costain wants to cheat his fate: Sefton's trying to cement his relationship with Joe and enhance his occult knowledge, and Quill ... Quill needs some help with his enquiries.

He bumps into Neil Gaiman in a pub.

I confess I was disconcerted to encounter Mr Gaiman, and more so by his role in the novel. Yes, Neil Gaiman has form with London-based urban fantasy: but he's not the only author who has explored the darker side of London. (Hmm, I wonder if I'd have been happier with China Mieville in this role?) And the intrusion of a real person into a fictional setting felt imbalanced, adding an extra dimension that made the story itself somehow shallower.

The Severed Streets is well-paced, gruesome and often genuinely scary. The revelation of the identity and history of the 'Ripper' was satisfactory, and the sacrifices made by Quill and his team were significant and unsettling. More exploration of hidden London and its myths, makers and outer boroughs, too. And the notion of 'ostension' -- seeding an idea, giving it strength -- made a lot of sense, especially in the context of mobs and riots and the madness of crowds. Though The Severed Streets didn't appeal to me quite as much as London Falling, it's packed with interesting characters, insights and developments. And the last line's a killer.

Luckily I had the next book to hand (having only got around to reading this when Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? automagically appeared on my Kindle) ...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

2016/24: Kolymsky Heights -- Lionel Davidson

He had not moved his skis as he turned, and when he started again he kept on in the same straight line, and he also kept on counting. His paces on the skis were just about a metre, so after a thousand he had done a kilometre; the air black; the blackness now all roaring. [loc.5755]

Johnny Porter is a Gitxsan Indian, a professor of anthropology with a knack for languages and the ability to adopt a plethora of identities: as a Korean seaman he infiltrates an isolated research base in the dark and frozen waste of Siberia, and as a Lapp trucker he carries out the mission requested of him -- in code, naturally -- by a former acquaintance. It is all highly dangerous and thrilling stuff, and yet curiously disappointing. There's far too much about car mechanics: far too little about the landscape, the astonishing scientific / archaeological discovery at the heart of the story, or Porter's inner life (if indeed he has one).

I found polymath Porter an improbable protagonist -- he has no discernible flaws (or indeed personality) and I find his irresistability to women (a) sordid and (b) inexplicable. (Does he have to sleep with every female he encounters? Ludmilla excepted ...) He endures hardships which would distract anyone from their quest -- with little apparent motivation. The plot is full of reversals and twists -- Philip Pullman's introduction lauds its classic quest structure and the intelligence of the storytelling -- but somehow manages to plod. Perhaps it's Porter's imperturbability that flattens the affect. Even fleeing for his life across Siberia in winter, Davidson only mentions his 'anxiety'.

Coincidentally, a couple of days after finishing the book I found this photoessay about Siberian truck routes: On Thin Ice: Guardian, 11 May. It illustrates the landscape of the novel very well.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

2016/23: Indexing: Reflections -- Seanan McGuire

If you dug deeply enough into the Snow White story, what you found was blood on the snow, and the sacrifice at the heart of winter. There had to be something similar in all the narratives, something dark and enduring and cruel. It gave them the strength to feed, generation upon generation, on the hearts and lives of children. It gave them the strength to create people like me. [loc. 1338]

In this sequel to Indexing, McGuire explores more aspects of the narrative -- the driving force behind fairy stories, with the power to reshape reality to fit those stories. Henrietta Marchen (known as Henry) works for the ATI Management Bureau, which aims to track and contain the narrative's incursions into the mundane world. Not everyone can be a fairytale heroine: which is fortunate, because for every triumphant hero or heroine there are numerous villains, sidekicks, wicked sisters and hapless bystanders. Once upon a time doesn't imply happy ever after for everybody.

Henry and her team encounter a young woman who has learnt to subvert the narrative by rewriting and recasting her own story. In brief, she starts off as one Disney heroine and ends up as quite another. Elise breaks all the rules, but ends up with more power and more choice than anybody else who's been touched by the narrative. Does she use her powers for good? I'll give you three guesses. And those who have struggled to shape their archetypal roles into something they can live with -- Henry with her Snow White looks and entourage of suicidal bluebirds, Sloane with her Wicked Stepsister habits and, ah, offputting manner -- have to delve deep into the hearts of their own narratives to deal with the chaotic potential that Elise represents.

I'm most fascinated, here, by McGuire's unpacking of the monomyth at the heart of the Snow White story: the 'whiteout wood' where it's always winter, where blood on the snow heralds the hope of spring. Sloane's story, though, is unfolded more gradually and in unexpected directions. And we encounter a new character, Ciara Bloomfield, who's keeping her husband's Bluebeard story in abeyance by happily agreeing not to open that door ...

As with Indexed, Reflections was initially published in serial form, and it shows: the first few chapters feel relatively standalone, though the overarching story does cohere quite quickly after that. Plenty of old tales told new, including Puss in Boots (pretty grim(m), when you think about it), Hansel and Gretel, Godfather Death. And there are a couple of strong themes that hold Reflected together as a novel: the idea that a character can shape their own story (Sloane, Ciara); the Bureau's dirty laundry and underhand techniques (Sloane again, Elise, Demi); the nature of love, and its many forms. We meet Henry's brother Gerry again, and note that the narrative doesn't misgender Gerry, even when the characters do: some interesting asides on how the original story might have played out if Gerry had been gay, too. Reflections is fun, thought-provoking and occasionally pretty nasty -- just like all the best fairytales.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016/24: Medusa's Web -- Tim Powers

I can't stay here—spider visions, ghost cats, keyboards typing a dead woman's last-person novels! Back here at Caveat! It's my childhood, perversely served up as a living nightmare. I don't want to—I can't—walk any further into this impossibly animate decay. Vast forms, that move fantastically to a discordant melody ... [loc. 1486]

Scott and Madeline are orphans: their parents abandoned them back in 1991. They've had little to do with their cousins Ariel and Claimayne for years, but now their Aunt Amity has committed suicide (by hand-grenade, on the roof) and one of her last wishes involves the cousins spending a week together in Caveat, the decaying family mansion in Los Angeles, before the reading of the will.

Neither Scott nor Madeline is what you would call a success. Scott used to be an artist but descended into alcoholism. Madeline is an astrologer who's all too aware of the expired cosmology behind her trade. It probably doesn't help that, as children, both were exposed to 'spiders' -- in this instance, abstract multi-limbed images that can propel the beholder's awareness forward or backward into other times, seeing through the eyes of their past or future selves or of other observers.

A whole counterculture has grown up around the spiders, with 'spiderbit' shops where one can buy special glasses to protect themself against even a glimpse of a spider; tarantella MP3s, whose listeners can use the fast 18/8 beat to ward off the spiders' influence; rumours of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood which could exorcise a spider ... There's a mosaic of Medusa on the garden wall, and a lug wrench painted gold in the basement. And Aunt Amity's keyboard is still in use.

Medusa's Web is the best kind of horror story: there's a sense of growing menace which only gradually reveals its true nature and the extent of its influence. Though Powers references mythology, folklore and the occult, there's nothing supernatural about the villains of the piece. As in Declare, an assortment of unusual anecdotes and incidents -- Rudolf Valentino's last confession heard by two priests, the history of the Garden of Allah hotel, the tarantella in Ibsen's A Doll's House -- are shaped into a story that's more than the sum of its parts.

The 'old Hollywood' atmosphere reminded me strongly of something else, though I'm not sure what: perhaps Peter Delacorte's Time on my Hands, perhaps Kage Baker's Hollywood novels. (Perhaps, hmm, actual films set in prewar Los Angeles?) I expect there are a great many film references I missed, too. But Medusa's Web was a captivating and satisfactory read, a novel I finished in a day.

Friday, March 25, 2016

2016/22: Scat -- Carl Hiaasen

Jimmy Lee Bayliss chose not to admit that a lunatic with a rabid parrot had tried to remove his lips with a pair of pliers.[loc. 2646]

Eco-thriller set in Florida, targetted at the YA market: a quicker and more straightforward read than Hiaasen's novels for adults, but the crazy is still there.

Nick and his best friend Marta are in Mrs Starch's biology class. So is Duane, the class problem, who has a history of arson and who would, he says, prefer to be known as 'Smoke'. Nobody is impressed when Mrs Starch makes fun of Smoke during class: she's overstepped the mark.

A field trip to the Black Vine Swamp is interrupted by a wildfire: Mrs Starch heads back into the swamp to find a pupil's inhaler, and does not emerge. The next day, a letter arrives at the school, ostensibly from Mrs Starch: she requests leave of absence for 'a family emergency'. But she has no family ...

Nick's captured a few minutes of video, just before the fire: he'd hoped that the moving shape he glimpsed might be a Florida panther, but it turns out to be a human figure. Could it be the person who started the fire? And is Mrs Starch's disappearance part of a larger conspiracy? Nick could do with some distraction from his worries about his father, a soldier who's been badly injured in Iraq. (And he still yearns to see a panther.)Together, he and Marta investigate, finding unexpected allies and dangerous foes.

Scat has nearly all the classic Hiaasen ingredients: corrupt big business, eccentricity galore (worth noting that the eccentrics are usually more decent than the businessmen), disregard for the ecosystem, the commercialisation of modern America. (All that's 'missing' in terms of Hiaasen's usual -- and I didn't especially miss it -- is the tawdry sex and most of the violence.) It's also hilarious, touching, thrilling and well-paced. Great read, and I know more about the Everglade ecology than I did.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

2016/21: The Wicked and the Divine: The Faust Act -- Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson



Every ninety years, twelve members of the Pantheon incarnate. They merge their spirits with 'ordinary' people, carefully chosen, who get two years of power and fame -- for instance, as rock stars -- followed by an early (and likely unpleasant) death. This ninety-year cycle is known as the Recurrence.

The Faust Act opens with fangirl Laura going to see the goddess Amaterasu perform. Laura meets Luci(fer), incarnate as female, who introduces her to soe other members of the Pantheon -- and to Cassandra, a sceptical reporter who mocks the Pantheon members and says the Pantheon's nothing but an elaborate hoax. Assassins attack, and Luci kills them by snapping her fingers. Unfortunately, when she's up before the judge for murder, she demonstrates the gesture and the judge's head explodes. Luci claims it wasn't her, but the circumstances are against her.

Laura -- who's crushing on Luci -- teams up with Cassandra to investigate the Pantheon. Did one of them frame Luci? Did one of them send the assassins? Their investigations are interrupted by Luci's escape from prison (which obviously she could have done at any point). She is not happy. There are violent disagreements with others of the Pantheon -- and then, despite Laura's help, Luci finds herself written out of the story. Temporarily? I have volumes 2 and 3 ...

Though the members of the Pantheon go by the names of figures from mythology -- Lucifer, Ananke, Amaterasu, Morrigan -- it's by no means clear to me whether they are, in any meaningful sense, those ancient deities. On the other hand, plenty of mythology is based on gods behaving like teenagers. In The Wicked and the Divine, each god's persona is a blend of mythology and the life-story of the original 'ordinary' person who's been subsumed into the myth.

That said, The Faust Act felt very much like an introduction, an opening chapter, so my interpretations may be modified once I've read further.