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

Friday, October 06, 2017

2017/82: Strange Meeting -- Susan Hill

Don’t go back to London, to England, don’t go and listen to what they say and read their papers, don’t try and talk to them as you are talking to me, for there is nobody, no one knows. Don’t go. [loc. 635]
Strange Meeting is set during the early part of the First World War. John Hilliard returns from medical leave, and the distant and chilly company of his relatives, to his battalion in France. He's shocked to find that many of the men he previously served with have been killed: his commanding officer, Colonel Garrett, is embittered, drinking whisky to insulate himself from the incompetence of his superiors and the despair of his subordinates. Hilliard's natural tendency is to keep to himself, not to get involved with any of it: but he finds himself drawn to new officer David Barton, whose emotional honesty and natural warmth is quite alien to Hilliard. Barton hasn't seen combat, and Hilliard is at once envious and protective of him.

It's hard to describe this novel adequately, or at least I am finding it so: at its core, it's the account of a close and loving friendship and how it transforms -- one might even say rescues -- a man who has frozen himself away to protect himself from a situation, a world, in which he's starved of meaningful human connections.

I don't mean that this is a romance, or a story of a clandestine sexual relationship: while it's certainly possible to imagine those elements, Hilliard and Barton's relationship makes perfect sense without sex or romance. Indeed, these would alter the story, making it a novel about secrecy, or blackmail, or guilt. (Hill says that she didn't intend the relationship to be read as a physical one, too.)

Instead, the friendship between the two men, and their love (a word each uses to the other), is unexceptionable. Their fellow soldiers accept that Hilliard cares about Barton, and vice versa: there is no indication of any sordid rumours. Barton's family -- to whom he writes long, emotional letters -- semi-adopt Hilliard, and begin writing to him as well as to Barton: their letters are an antidote to the hasty, dismissive notes he gets from his sister and his mother. Barton teaches Hilliard to connect with others: Hilliard, perhaps, teaches Barton to deal with his first brushes with carnage.

It's a beautiful account of the blossoming of a friendship, one which could perhaps only happen in a battlefield setting when all normality is stripped away. Hill's depiction of trench warfare, of battle, are neither heavy-handedly grim nor cheerily patriotic: she is more concerned with how the war affects those who fight.

Friday, September 29, 2017

2017/81: Bellman & Black -- Diane Setterfield

What little there had been to frighten or pain him was left behind in the forgotten days of childhood: as a man he saw no reason to be afraid. Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet
Young William Bellman, aged ten, aims his slingshot at a distant rook and -- improbably -- kills it. He's full of regret: he didn't mean to ... but then a fever strikes, and he begins the process of forgetting.

This is Victorian England, and death is a fact of life. A stranger in black appears, first at Will's mother's funeral, and then at every other funeral Will attends. Nobody seems to know who the stranger might be. But one night Will, drunk and grieving after the death of someone close to him, encounters the black-clad stranger in a graveyard and makes a deal. True, he can't quite recall the details the next morning: but there was a deal, surely there was?

Will -- already a successful businessman, due to a series of convenient though much-mourned deaths that have catapulted him to ownership of the textile mill -- exerts all his commercial acumen, and ferocious self-discipline, to fulfil his part of the deal. The result is Bellman & Black: an emporium of funerary wares.

But there's this deal, or this opportunity ...

I didn't engage with this novel as much as I'd expected. Will is not an especially interesting character; the mysterious Black (whose nature's never explicitly stated) is a shadowy background figure until the denouement; the 'rook' vignettes between the chapters were fascinating and lyrical, but insufficient. There's a very Gothic feel to this novel, and some almost hallucinatory passages, but I found it strangely mundane despite its subject matter.

Also, despite marketing / categorisation, it is not a ghost story, and only very marginally 'horror'.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

2017/80: The Furthest Station -- Ben Aaronovitch

It was no use pointing out that we were actually policemen, not gentlemen, because Nightingale has a very clear idea where one ends and the other begins. One day, I’m hoping, he’ll show me where that line is. [loc. 159]
Commuters on the leafier parts of the Metropolitan line are being abused by ghosts: the trouble is, nobody remembers their encounters for very long. Enter Jaget Kumar (British Transport Police) and Peter Grant (the Folly), who -- with the help of Peter's teenaged cousin Abigail, and minimal supervision from DCI Nightingale -- apply modern policing methods to the mystery, and find that the ghosts may have a mission that's a matter of life or death.

This is a slight novella, though it does contain multiple plot strands (not all of them resolved): I think it fits between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree chronologically, but there's little reference to the larger arcs of the series (Lesley, the Faceless Man, Tyburn et cetera). The Furthest Station (Cheshunt, for those without a Tube map to hand) is a nicely self-contained Rivers of London novella, with some tantalising hints of Nightingale's past (but, as usual, not enough of Nightingale's present) and some foxy friends for Abigail.

When is the next full novel due?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017/79: Thin Air -- Michelle Paver

‘...the Big Stone’. That’s all Kangchenjunga is. ... It might possess a semblance of animation, because of the wind, and the crack of canvas, and the distant rumble of an avalanche on the Saddle – but that’s all it is, a semblance. There is no life up here. And no menace, either. The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is. [loc. 1382]
Thin Air is set in the mid-1930s. Stephen Pearce, who's just broken with his fiancee, is glad to have been recruited by his brother Kits as the doctor for a mountaineering expedition. The expedition's goal is to climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, which has never been successfully summitted. Over them all hangs the heroic shadow of the Lyell expedition of 1906, in which most of the men died. (Well, most of the British men. Quite a lot of coolies and Sherpas survived.)

Stephen and Kits don't really get along: there is a great deal of sibling rivalry and ill-will. This makes Stephen even less willing than the others to speak of his premonitions, of the glimpses of a dark figure that he sees, of the sudden silences that cut him off from 'earthly things' and leave him with a sense of appalling loneliness. He's a man of science, damn it! He doesn't believe in ghosts, or psychic energies, or warding off the dead. His odd mental state must be the thin air altering his perceptions, or some kind of altitude sickness ...

Stephen comes to believe that there is something malevolent with them on the mountain. And as he discovers, and remembers, and discusses more about the Lyell expedition, he begins to realise that the official account doesn't tell the whole story. But why is he the only one of the five mountaineers -- apart from the dog Cedric, who will no longer share Stephen's tent -- who is experiencing the strangeness?

This is one of the more unnerving ghost stories I've ever read: I suspect that images from the novel will stay with me for a long time. It's very similar, in many respects, to Paver's Dark Matter, which I read earlier this year and found equally chilling: but perhaps the ways in which it's similar -- first-person narrative; complex, repressed emotions; isolated 'frontier' landscape of dangerous physical extremes; dogs that sense more than humans do; journals -- are also the ways in which it's effective.

And, like the best historical novels, Thin Air sparked a fascination with its setting: in this case, early twentieth century mountaineering, which is dangerous and frightening (and exhilarating) even without supernatural elements.

Any recommendations for novels which might have the same emotional impact on me?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

2017/78: Tremontaine: Season One -- Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese

It was a fairy tale, they said—a Riverside fairy tale. The fair maiden Tess needed a protector, and so the foreign princess had fought every pretender until she found the one Riverside swordsman who was honest and true. [loc 3991]
Serialised fiction, like the renaissance of the novella, is one of those publishing trends that's increased in popularity with the rise of the e-reader. Personally I prefer my fiction in complete chunks, so -- after sampling the first 'episode' of this SerialBox series -- I held off until the complete 'first season' was available in a single volume. True, I missed out on cliffhangers and suspense: but I was rewarded by a long day's delightful reading.

Tremontaine is set in the world of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings -- all of which I now want to reread, but none of which is required reading for Tremontaine. In Tremontaine, Kushner's let other authors into her world to play, and the results are surprisingly seamless and unsurprisingly delightful.

I pitched this to a friend, before reading, as 'little or 0 heteronormativity' which is, it turns out, quite accurate. (There is some: but this is a society which is apparently free of homophobia, and there are a number of same-sex relationships, and at least one character I'd class as asexual.)

The plots revolve around William, Duke of Tremontaine; Rafe, a student at the university who's convinced the world is round and enlists Micah, a vegetable-selling mathematical prodigy, to help him prove it; Ixkaab, a trader-princess trying to live down an unfortunate misstep; Tess, an artist and forger; and their assorted families, friends, foes. But at the heart of it all is Diane, Duchess of Tremontaine, who sits at the centre of the web and spins. Here is a woman who is determined that Tremontaine will thrive: that aim underlies everything she does, and she does it all very capably. Though she is not the only clever, scheming individual herein.

Tremontaine is exquisitely mannerist, often very funny, utterly compelling. There are enough ongoing threads to make me eager for Season 2, and almost tempted to read Season 3 as each episode is published. A delight.

This is my thousandth post on this blog! I had no idea when I started this that it would become such a habit.
If you're reading, do drop me a comment ...

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2017/77: The Painted Queen -- Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

'Shall I tell you where we went this afternoon?’ Ramses said, unable to bear my cheerful prattle. It is a trait (or a weakness) inherited from his father. I have been known to take advantage of it when warranted.
‘If you must,’ I said in a pained voice. (p. 81)
Final novel in the Amelia Peabody sequence, set in 1912: begun by Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters) before her death and completed by her friend Joan Hess. Unfortunately it's not a seamless collaboration, and I didn't feel Ms Hess had a grasp on the characters or the setting. Nefret has become quite foul-mouthed; Ramses succumbs to whims; Amelia has acquired an improbable new skill; Emerson suffers unusually poor impulse control. There are also a number of anachronisms ('the butler must have retreated downstairs for a shot of Jagermeister', twenty years before its invention) and continuity errors; some errors that should have been picked up by the editor ('after more than three centuries interred beneath the sand' -- er, I think you mean millennia in this instance); and a major plot point that revolves around the use of a chemical compound only discovered in 1912.

There are some nice moments, and some passages that evoke fond memories of earlier books. Amelia's admiration of the Nefertiti head (the 'painted queen' of the title) is wholly in character. But I didn't find this a satisfactory read, and am relieved that I still have some of Peters' original novels on the to-be-read pile.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

2017/75: Penric's Mission -- Lois McMaster Bujold

... physician, sorcerer, divine? Which of his bewildering multiplicity of selves had laid itself down in such hope-starved humility? [loc. 1624]
Penric, at thirty, is quite different from the generally light-hearted protagonist of Penric and the Shaman and Penric's Fox. There have been several important changes -- only gradually revealed -- in his circumstances, and at the opening of this novella he's en route to Cedonia with letters from the Duke of Adria, who would like General Adelis Ariseydia to come and work for him.

Unfortunately, Penric is quickly betrayed and imprisoned. This novella is the story of his escape, and his attempt to save Ariseydia (and the general's charming widowed sister Nikys) from the doom that Penric believes himself partially responsible for bringing down upon them.

Of course it's not that straightforward. Ariseydia doesn't especially want to be rescued, at least not by this disreputable demon-ridden sorcerer; Penric's good deeds are driven by a well of misery; Desdemona's fierce protectiveness of her host is stronger, and more loving, than ever. And Penric's attitude to religion -- from cheerfully raiding temple strongboxes (an advance on his pay) to the miracles he'd rather nobody noticed -- is pragmatic, unfussy and mature.

I found the backstory as engrossing as the main plot -- and my major complaint is that the story simply stops, after a major and potentially disastrous confrontation. Luckily I was able to go straight on to Mira's Last Dance, which picks up immediately after the end of Penric's Mission.

2017/76: Mira's Last Dance -- Lois McMaster Bujold

Mira, what are you about? asked Penric in panic. Are you out of my mind?
Come, come, Penric ... We have sat through any number of your bedroom ventures over the years. Turnabout is fair play. She added after a moment, Also, you will learn some new things. That should appeal to the scholar in you. [loc. 778]
This novella follows directly from Penric's Mission, and will make little sense if read without knowledge of the events therein. It opens a few days later, with Penric recovering -- under the watchful eye of Nikys and the less physical, but no less concerned, attention of Desdemona -- from a near-fatal attack. He is still determined to see Adelis and Nikys to safety, or the nearest local equivalent: this involves overnight stays in a variety of unusual havens. Luckily Penric is accompanied by a ten-selved chaos demon, whose previous hosts (all female) have a range of talents -- while it's Desdemona's demonic pest-control skills that win the trio sanctuary in the town of Sosie, it's the long-dead courtesan Mira who makes their escape possible. With, of course, hilarious consequences -- sadly, these occur 'off-stage', but seem not nearly as dire as Penric initially fears.

Meanwhile, Pen and Nikys are circling one another, attracted but (in Nikys' case, at least) aware of a number of practical difficulties. 'When a woman marries a man, she marries his life. And it had better be the life she wants to lead'. And given Penric's own lack of direction -- it feels more than ever as though this mission may, paradoxically, have saved his life in removing him from an untenable situation -- as well as his demonic companion, one can understand that a woman who wants a quiet life might hesitate.

I enjoyed this a great deal, and am happy with the lack of romantic resolution: I do think Pen (and Desdemona) deserve happiness, but I didn't think it likely in this particular circumstance.

I read all five novellas in under a week, whilst in Helsinki in the sunshine: I feel Mira's Last Dance would have been a good place to stop for a while even if there were more books in the sequence -- which there aren't, yet. I shall look forward to encountering Penric and Desdemona again, though!