Placeholder: review coming in April 2018
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Thursday, February 08, 2018
We were really very normal people, despite ...the curse and the way we were so solitary. I wondered if all monsters were so ordinary in their day-to-day lives. [p. 82]
Sidwell does have monsters, too: they keep showing up on the graffiti around town, with the message 'Don't take our home away'. And there are disturbing rumours of a flying creature glimpsed by night. And of course there's the Sidwell Witch, memorialised in a play that's performed annually by the children of Sidwell.
Twig, who is horribly lonely at the beginning of the novel, blossoms in her new friendship with Julia Hall: and it turns out that Julia and her sister Agate, and the mysterious Mr Rose, may hold the keys to several Sidwell mysteries.
This is a short, sweet novel about friendship, magic, unspoken secrets and the power of the past. It's also, if you look sideways at it, about parental pressure -- perhaps even mental health issues -- and how they can affect parent and child alike. Twig's upbringing has shrivelled her social confidence: she's as much a victim of the family curse as anyone.
Hoffman's writing is simple and evocative. I think this novel may be aimed at a young adult audience: I found it a delightful read, though it was over too quickly.
Saturday, December 30, 2017
One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today ... the remaining 80 per cent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century. [loc 1941]
Genetics offers good counter-arguments to racism, and to issues of caste in India (not just a product of colonisation); however, as Rutherford points out, a lot of the insights promoted by companies such as 23andme is little more than 'genetic astrology'. (My own genome still fascinates me though: it is one thing to know that one is descended from people in the distant past, quite another to be told of the traces they've left in my body.)
Rutherford is occasionally wrong though ...
If by some incomprehensibly reality-defying mutation a child was born with the nascent power of flight... their freakishness would probably render them an unlikely sexual partner. [loc. 4601]Now google 'wingfic' and reflect on 'unlikely sexual partner'.
"People can change their own memories without even being aware that they're doing so. The danger — and the opportunity — is that memories can also be deliberately altered." [p. 64]
Which is all well and good unless somebody else remembers them ...
The Night Bird is a gripping page-turner, though I kept feeling that the characters were making incredibly unwise decisions, albeit with (mostly) the best of intentions. It was an interesting exploration of how false memories can be created out of real events, and of how real memories, erased, could come back to bite.
Frankie, despite her name, is a well-rounded character, as is Frost. I was less convinced by the villain, by the sister, and by one of the victims.
Friday, December 29, 2017
Nelson takes a step back. "Who says we've found a woman?"
He half-expects Cathbad to say something about spiritual energies and cosmic vibrations, but instead he says, "I heard the milkman talking about it." [p. 8]
Ruth's somewhat belligerent atheism, and her no-nonsense feminism (she thinks the girls in Frozen should wear anoraks, not plunging necklines), is refreshing and often funny. She also does some Serious Thinking about her relationships (though she tells the women priests, over cocktails, "I don't need a man. I've got a daughter and a cat."). She doesn't, however, get to do much in the archaeological line this time around.
Not my favourite of the Ruth Galloway books, although there is progress in several of the soap-opera plots concerning her associates. (Nelson even admits, albeit to himself, that he is not good at talking or thinking about his feelings.) The murder mystery, though, was weak, and the religious elements (women priests, fashions in Catholicism, everyday life in a pilgrim town) didn't engage me.
Let the Switzers be ruled by landsmen, let nations with no sea borders keep their old ways if they wished, but there were navies to maintain, and the deepsmen of the sea were no longer neutral, no longer sailors' yarns, but an engaged force with loyalties of their own. [p. 43]
And just as in our history, this has led to problematic inbreeding: imbecility, deformity, unfitness for the throne ... and marriages of desperation.
In Great Waters focusses on two young people: Henry, formerly 'Whistle', who's left on the beach by his deepsman mother; and Anne, the younger of two princesses, who has watched her half-deepsman mother negotiate the royal court, and seen that she and her sister Mary are pawns in the game.
Some elements of this novel work better than others. I'm not convinced that the history would be so similar to our own after several centuries of deepsman-landsman interaction. What about colonies, trade by land and sea, anti-deepsman sentiment? And I never really warmed to any of the characters -- though this might be intentional on the author's part, given that the deepsmen are depicted as unsentimental and violent, driven by instinct more than intellect. Henry is certainly an arresting character, but not really a likeable one: when Anne crosses him he looks at her and thinks of eating her tongue.
I found the interpersonal, rather than international, elements of the novel more satisfying. Henry's deep-borne sensorium (he loathes straight lines and corners, thinks the air too thin to carry sound, has poor long-distance vision because he grew up underwater where distance is a 'blue-green blur') is vividly conveyed. Anne's half-crippled state on land -- deepsmen, and those who share their blood, have webbed feet and their legs are 'jointed with vertebrae rather than shin bone and thigh bone' -- contrasts beautifully with her agility and freedom in the sea.
On the whole, though, I didn't enjoy this as much as Whitfield's previous novel, Bareback: strip away the fantasy, and the plot is standard historical fare; strip away the history, and there is an intriguing idea -- a strongly-realised race of merfolk -- that could have been explored more convincingly in a different story, perhaps one set at an earlier stage in the deepsman-landsman entente.
birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can't find if you're not alone. Time in woods's older than time in clocks, and truer. Ghosts of Might Be run riot in woods, and stationery shops and messes of stars. [p. 234]
Why no, his name is not Adrian Mole. It is Jason Taylor, and Black Swan Green is considerably less humorous -- and more profound -- than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Jason lives in the rural village of Black Swan Green, where there are, apparently, no swans at all. His parents and his elder sister are more or less mysterious to him: he has a better understanding of his friends and foes at school.
Superficially this is the story of the year when he breaks his grandfather's Omega Seamaster watch, and panics, and tries to raise the money to replace it before his parents find out. On a deeper level, it's about Jason growing up -- and growing as a poet, under the tuition of old Mrs Crommelynck (who curses the British with 'twenty years of Thatchers') -- and of the secrets he keeps, the secrets he tells, the secrets he doesn't even recognise. There is a great deal happening in the background which never really became clear, at least to me, but had a fantastical ambience: the old woman in a dark house by a frozen lake where many children have drowned; mysterious tunnels under the hills; of the part of the woods that 'just isn't good'; the secret society, Spooks, which may be more than it seems ...
There were a couple of things that rang false: would Jason have known about Goth culture in 1982? was there really such excitement about the end of the Falklands War? (Several friends say 'yes there was'; and it seems to have been the week I was doing my O levels and worrying about my mother having been admitted to hospital for surgery, so maybe it passed me by.)
I liked Jason a lot. He is a thoughtful character, prone to parentheses and moments of lyric clarity, and like many adolescents (especially the male ones) he's obsessed by and ignorant about sex. The main focus of his world, though, is bullying, and the way it expands to fill a child's world until everything else is pushed aside. Yet he doesn't lose sight of the principle that being good to other people matters: that it's more important than being right.
The supporting cast is good too, including the girls. And some of the characters appear in other novels by Mitchell: Hugo in The Bone Clocks, for example, and Eva van Crommelynck in Cloud Atlas.
"Wish I could be thirteen again." Then, I thought, you've obviously forgotten what it's like. [p. 169]
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
[The temple] might just as well have been dedicated to the Breton sea-queen Dahut as to Neptune. This Gray supposed to be the reason the Professor had described Duke Gaël's refurbishments as insufficiently ambitious; a man more convinced of the superiority of Roman worship, law, and custom he had never yet encountered. [loc. 638]
A fascinating alternate history, set in an early nineteenth century comparable to the Regency period, but with no Napoleon and with Henry XII on the throne of Britain -- a Britain which does not include Alba or Eire, but comprises the provinces of Cymru, England, Kernow, Normandie, Maine and Breizh. Magic may be studied at Merlin College in Oxford, where Graham ('Gray') Marshall is an undergraduate, tutored by Professor Callender, Regius Professor of Magickal Theory.
A fracas between town and gown sends Gray into exile at the Breizh home of his tutor, where he makes the acquaintance of the Professor's daughters: elegant Amelia the eldest, mutinous Joanna the youngest, and Sophia, the middle sister, who tries to avoid notice. This chameleon quality is so effective that Gray suspects her of having magickal talents, but Sophie protests that her father has always told her she has no magick.
The Winter Queen is in the same general territory as Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer: perhaps the earliest of the Regency-romance-with-magic genre), but it's more Gothic. It lacks several of the usual trappings of the pseudo-Regency romance: Sophie is not especially interested in fashion (though Amelia is); there are dastardly conspiracies; there is a shadowy plot involving the Midnight Queen, the Breton second wife of King Henry; the mysterious Mrs Wallis, Sophie's guardian, knows more than she says; and of course there is magick, and counter-magick.
The plot is byzantine, the characters (especially the women) have distinct and rounded personalities: but what I found most interesting was the worldbuilding. This is a Britain with Romano-Celtic, rather than Judeo-Christian, roots: Ivor (not Isaac) Newton's Principia alchemica is a standard text; Oxford boasts temples to Minerva and Apollo, though Sophie's offering is left at the temple of Mercury and Epona; a knowledge of Cymric is essential for any scholar; and Joanna struggles to comprehend the monotheistic Judæi's insistence on a single deity. 'How peculiar. He must be terribly busy.'
This enjoyable novel is the first in a trilogy: I expect I'll read the other two, not least to find out more about this particular variant of history.
'I feel more alive standing next to something dead. Don't you?' [p. 57]
This does not do his career any good. Nor does it endear him to Inspector Jane Horne -- even before another impossible corpse (this one recently disinterred) turns up in the Fellows' Garden of Killigan's college. Killigan, who is aware that this all looks highly suspicious, turns for help to his friend Satnam, and to librarian Lana Carver. He also gets to know Robert Sachs, an academic with an interest in the aesthetics of death, and meets the eccentric Iris Burton, who gives him a copy of her book on time travel.
The Beauty of Murder captures Cambridge's ambience: the way the stone walls sometimes seem to emanate cold, the dankness of the fens, the plague pit underneath the bus station, the bohemian roughness of Mill Road. (I am not altogether convinced that 'a lecturer from the University of East Anglia' inscribed the words Reality Checkpoint on the lamppost at the centre of Parker's Piece, given that UEA is 65 miles away in Norwich. Perhaps Benedict means Anglia Ruskin?)
Killigan is a charismatic and witty narrator: a former goth, tattooed, prone to melancholy memories of his drowning mother. He becomes less likeable later in the novel, but I think that's simply that the plot ensnares him -- both in terms of the character becoming mired in unpredictable and acausal events, and of the author focussing more on those events, and on the other characters, than on Killigan's interior life.
I also liked Jane Horne a great deal: indomitable, prickly, secretive, and unwilling to tolerate stupidity.
Benedict's writing is gorgeous, full of lovely turns of phrase and surprising metaphors. Even when Killigan's being a tad pretentious ('a library is a sanctuary, a paper city where the emotionally homeless can find haven between the pages') his part of the narrative is interesting, and when he's less epigrammatic his turn of phrase is a delight.
Tuesday, December 26, 2017
He suffers a first-order false belief: the belief that there was once a thing called a moon, which disappeared and sucked the evidence that it had ever existed into the black hole of its absence.
This plays out logically: first Daniel, and later his doctor (Marvin Pallister), examine all the inconsistencies, possibilities, misapprehensions et cetera that follow from such a premise. Hale, desperate to prove himself sane, looks in poetry books; notes that the other planets now have satellites, rather than moons; rants at the local newspaper for leaving moon phases out of the astronomy column. Pallister takes a certain relish in the more nonsensical of his patient's pronouncements: "Let me get this straight. Everyone knew about it. It was huge. And nobody noticed if it was there or not." [loc. 46]
Then, one afternoon, Daniel sits down with the book that Pallister has written about his case.
I had to reread the last few pages several times to appreciate their full weight. (My first thought was that they made a nonsense of the rest of the story: later, I understood it better.) The last page, in particular, is carefully crafted: punctuation, paragraph breaks, repetition all precise.
Brief, thought-provoking and oddly humorous. It's a story, I suppose, about mental illness, about whether a problem is internal or external, about fighting to hold onto a belief: but one would not wish for Marvin Pallister as a therapist.
I'll look out for more of Hull's fiction.
With cooking and murder, there really shouldn't be a "good enough." You need to get as close to perfect as possible, otherwise find another line of work. [loc. 3998]enjoyed the novel very much when I read it in December 2006: eleven years later, it felt rather less satisfying.
See that earlier review for plot details: I came away this time reminded that cooking and murder both require patience; that with any Vlad Taltos book it's wise to review the story so far, from notes or Wikipedia or whatever (perhaps some people rely on their memories?); and that I become irritated with long conversations where I have to count lines to work out who's talking.
I do like this series, though: must work out where I'd actually got to, so I can carry on from there.
Monday, December 25, 2017
What's your proper work, Julie? I would like to be a theatrical escape artist, I think, like Houdini, or a circus owner like Bertram Mills. I want to dazzle people and be applauded for it. I am good at it, and it is thrilling. Walking a tightrope when you've had too much to drink – dangerous and wonderful. [loc. 1992]Code Name Verity: the heroine of that novel, Julie Beaufort-Stuart, is fifteen in The Pearl Thief, returning to her ancestral home for one last visit before the house is sold. It's a time for farewells, not least to the McEwens, a family of travellers who -- despite the class disparity -- have been part of Julie's life ever since she can remember. Now they're being hounded by the local council, and blamed for the disappearance of archivist Dr Hugh Housman. Julie may have been the last person to see Housman alive, and immediately after that someone hit her on the head ... possibly the same person who's stolen a jar of freshwater pearls.
Not just a whodunnit (though that aspect of the novel is well-structured and kept me guessing) but also a fascinating depiction of an interesting character. Julie never does anything by halves: not only does she kiss a girl, she kisses a traveller girl. (She's also mistaken for one, for 'a dirty tinker', in the hospital after her head injury.) She kisses a man, too. And takes a friend to see a variety show featuring 'Le Sphinx', who is black and wears a white satin dress, and tells Julie 'I'm a more exciting performer as a woman'.
Julie is a likeable, courageous and energetic character, and Wein gives us the sense of a childhood among books: Julie is reading the latest novel by Lisette Romilly (from Wein's novel Rose Under Fire) and is told -- delightfully for Sayers fans -- that she gets her ideas about crime scenes from 'a Harriet Vane novel'. She apparently spent weeks as a child going around in a kilt and insisting that she was David Balfour. And it's possible that her heroics have their roots in literature.
The Pearl Thief is quite different from, much lighter than, the other Elizabeth Wein novels that I've read: but it has the same deft touch, a varied cast of female characters, and a sense of a young woman finding a place for herself in the world. Delightful.
"...we're forbidden to study old history – by law."
"Ha, ha, that's a good one – I'd have to study old history to find out, wouldn't I! So just remember to keep it modern. 1800 and after ..." [loc. 420]
Rotherweird also has History Regulations, a fact which at first dismays and later intrigues the school's new history teacher, Jonah Oblong. The Regulations prohibit any teaching of pre-1800 history, and any teaching at all of the valley's own history. Oblong collects scraps of knowledge from the townsfolk, who have Dickensian names and peculiar habits: he observes customs and lore that seem to hearken back to an earlier age, and pieces together the story of this peculiar enclave, which has no MP, no police, no cars, very little technology, and a dire secret.
Oblong's arrival in the town coincides with the arrival of Sir Veronal Slickstone (and his fake family): also, curiously, with the discovery (by municipal gardener Hayman Salt) of four small coloured stones in the mysterious Lost Acre. Sir Veronal is keen to acquire these stones: but why?
Rotherweird is delightfully eccentric, though occasionally overstuffed with strangeness. The description of a fiercely insular community that has persisted for four hundred years, full of clever and innovative people yet isolated from the larger world, is packed with details and subplots: they do all contribute, I think, to the larger arc, but some seem less relevant than others. (On the other hand, this is book one of a trilogy.)
Some of the characters seem like ciphers, with a single role and little character development. (There are some interesting female characters, though, which is a favourable sign.) And speaking of ciphers, I'm at once vexed and amused by the puzzles -- like crossword clues -- that serve to advance the plot, reveal another layer of mystery, at various points. These puzzles are created by an especially opaque character, who may well prove pivotal to the trilogy.
The reviews assure me that Rotherweird is reminiscent of Gormenghast, which [confession] I have never actually read: perhaps the time is right for another attempt. Instead, I'm reminded of James Treadwell's Advent trilogy, for reasons that are not yet clear to me: perhaps the Englishness, the sense of a pagan underswell? And also of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy novels: perhaps the sense of an isolated English town with idiosyncratic characters and a hint of magic?
A note: the illustrations I've seen online look gorgeous, but they don't display well in the Kindle edition.
"I thought London would mean prosperity and welcome. A Renaissance place. Glory and success. I thought leaving for England was the same as stepping out of my house and onto the street, just a slightly colder street where a beti with a brain could live next door to Elizabeth the Queen. ... There's the cold, the wet, the rent, the lack. But – I do try to live." [p. 26]
The protagonist of the London thread is Odelle Bastien, a graduate and a poet who came to London from Trinidad five years earlier, and has been working on the shop floor at Dolcis. She's offered a position as a typist at an upmarket gallery, and is befriended by Marjorie Quick, the co-director, who recognises Odelle's intelligence and believes that she has potential. Odelle, meanwhile, is subject to a great deal of casual racism, and her only friend from home, Cynth, is about to marry, leaving Odelle alone in the flat they shared. At the wedding reception, though, Odelle meets a nice young man -- Lawrie -- and uses her position at the gallery to introduce him to Marjorie: he has a painting he thinks might be worth something.
The painting -- 'Rufina and the Lion' -- is the link (or one of the links) between Odelle's story and that of Olive Schloss, an art dealer's daughter and an artist in her own right, though her parents have no interest in or appreciation of her paintings. Olive is befriended by Teresa and Isaac Robles, a local brother and sister who like her and admire her art: but Isaac (who's also an artist) is a secret revolutionary, hoping to raise funds for a local uprising that the Schloss family believe will never happen.
There is romance in both stories, and betrayal: other themes include issues of identity; a female creator struggling for recognition, and being helped by another woman; the equation of creative satisfaction and personal satisfaction, and whether they are the same; thoughtless prejudice; creative integrity; self-sabotage; social change.
When I read the sample chapters, I wondered if Odelle might end up as someone else's muse, inspiring an artist or a poet: instead, she is the catalyst for the resolution -- inasmuch as it can be resolved -- of Olive's story. Though perhaps Odelle is, in a sense, a muse for Marjorie (who I liked more than the other characters, though (because?) she is irascible and independent and determined).
I haven't yet read Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist: reading The Muse has edged that novel higher in the virtual TBR pile.