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

Thursday, March 31, 2005

#29: The Family Trade -- Charles Stross

I acquired this after hearing about it from the author. It's a departure from his more usual hard SF (a subgenre which doesn't presently enthuse me much), being a worldwalking fantasy somewhat along the lines of Zelazny's Amber series, the first few of which remain amongst my favourite fantasy novels ever.

This is different. Instead of the Amberites' neo-Renaissance machinations and aristocratic feuds, tinged with magic and Weird Stuff and drowning in Zelazny's edgy, toughly poetic prose, Stross has updated plot and setting to present us with an alternate Earth (rather than an infinite variety of worlds) with a strongly Norse influence, and a Clan who wheel and deal between the two worlds, laundering a great deal of money via an illicit import/export business. His protagonists: a business journalist and a development economist.

No one in this novel has jewel-coloured eyes.

Am not clearing aside the Zelazny to make room for The Family Trade, but I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#28: Coram Boy -- Jamila Gavin

This novel, set in 18th-century England, is aimed (I'd guess) at older children and young adults. Its protagonists are all under 18, and the harsh realities of their lives are not bowdlerised. The title refers to the Coram Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Foundling Children, the focal point of the novel, an institution which is viewed very differently by the different characters. For Meshak, who's mentally retarded, it's a place which has offered him sanctuary after escaping his blackguard father. For Toby and Aaron, it's their home: as orphans they have no other. For Otis Gardiner, Meshak's father, it's just a name: a name which can charm orphans and foundlings from their guardians, and into his villainous clutches.

I bought this book because it's about music, and music-making, and musical talent: Handel's Messiah, written for the Coram Boys, is featured strongly, and Thomas and Alexander start off as choristers before they're overtaken by adult responsibilities and Plot. I did feel that the book ended rather abruptly, and that climactic events -– deaths and marriages -– were all dealt with in unseemly haste, compared to the joys of witch-baiting and apple-scrumping so lavishly described earlier in the novel. An entertaining and evocative read, though, with thoughtful and credible characterisation.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#27: Not Before Sundown -- Johanna Sinisalo (trans. Herbert Lomas)

This novel, by one of Finland's foremost fantasy / science fiction authors, has just won the Tiptree Award for 'gender-bending' fiction. I'd been meaning to read it anyway, after glowing recommendations from Finnish and American friends. I suppose this novel counts as an AU, for it's a world in which trolls -- descended from the cat-ape Felipithecus -- roam the wilds of Scandinavia, though they are extremely rare. Mikael, a young gay photographer in present-day Finland, finds an adolescent troll outside his apartment; he takes it in, feeds it catfood and names it Pessi. The novel deals with how the two of them are affected by one another's presence. It's 'about' outsiders, from Pessi to Mikael to Palomita, the Filipino woman downstairs. It's 'about' territory.

Sinisalo presents many of the pertinent facts in the form of news reports or excerpts from other (real and imagined) texts, ranging from scientific journals to children's stories: it's not always clear whether Mikael has access to the same information as does the reader.

I'm presuming this is a good translation of the original Finnish: it has the same rhythm and flow as English written by Finns of my acquaintance. A very quick read and a powerful plot, though there is plenty left unsaid at the end: recommended.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#26: Riddley Walker -- Russell Hoban

I can't remember why I didn't read this when everyone else was talking about it. I've read it now. The language is even more difficult than the first chapter of Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire: but it's not just bad spelling for the sake of it. Moore was trying to reverse-engineer dialect speech to the Neolithic. Hoban's playing with how language (and society, and the myths that drive it) might evolve in the future, after the apocalypse.

In some ways it's a dated future: the book was originally published in 1979, and there are references to the Computer Elite, to printouts, and so on; the apocalypse is a Cold War nuclear winter. It feels as though (to quote Jack Womack) that future's behind us.

It's about shamanism, and alchemy; sulphur-smuggling; how a picture might have a myth built up around it; how language and society might evolve from the ruins of what we know. Hoban twists and shapes language, metamorphosing it until at first sight it's a hard read. Easy enough, though, if you let the words sound in your head. "Ter morrer all ways comes up the thing is to be 1 of them as comes up with it."

There are bits where the language doesn't quite work, for me; bits that remind me of Molesworth, other bits that seem like echoes of dumbed-down Hoban (measured, slightly old-fashioned speech) rather than his creation. Never mind: there aren't many.

This book made me want to write something.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#25: Route 66AD -- Tony Perrottet

Perrottet, a seasoned traveller, travel writer and classicist, decided to try to emulate the Grand Tour made by wealthy Romans at the height of the Empire. Accompanied by his pregnant girlfriend, he went from Rome itself to the Bay of Naples, to Greece, to Turkey and finally to Egypt, in search of the monuments visited (and often defaced) by the people he describes as the first tourists.

Perrottet's an amusing and erudite writer; he knows how to handle uncooperative hoteliers and guards, and he's clearly wealthy enough that, though not happy about it, he can afford to cover the occasional $400-a-night hotel bill. He brings the ancient world to life -- 'crowds are ancient, crowds are good' is his mantra, and one I should probably adopt -- and the book's full of fascinating minutae. There are accounts of executions staged as mythological events ('Orpheus' set upon by bears in the arena, etc) and of Classical medicine; of Egyptian sorcerers and singing statues. Wherever possible he backs up his writing with plenty of references -- and usually avoids the 'We know better now' trap when he's talking about the beliefs of the agents.

I warmed to him most for an episode that was very much in the style of the superstitious Romans; though as a sensible modern man he doesn't believe in ancient curses, etc, he couldn't help wondering if he'd been the victim of a vexed Pharoah, and made his apologies, just in case, in a suitably theatrical style.

Very amusing, with real affection for (and only gentle mockery of) his subjects; also an excellent book about travelling around the eastern Med.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#24: A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance -- Marlena de Blasi

Non-fiction, which I hadn't realised until I was about halfway through: it was a present from a friend, and I hadn't checked the classification.

The author -- a middle-aged American with passions for food, interior design and living life to the full -- met and married a Venetian banker. This is her account of the first three years of their marriage: Fernando, the man she agrees to marry mere weeks after meeting him, gradually becomes less 'the stranger' who she doesn't understand, and more 'my husband'. De Blasi's style is rich and baroque, occasionally to excess, and she writes her life as though she were living in a novel, with an eye for detail and vignette. There's a faint, annoying whiff of American superiority, and a coyness that can be vexing (she tells us it's a grand passion, but there's little evidence of that). But on the other hand, she includes gourmet recipes that made me, lying on a Cyprus beach, wish I was within 100 miles of an Italian delicatessen; and her depictions of the people she meets in Venice, and of Venice itself, are vivid and interesting.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#23: The Jane Austen Book Club -- Karen Joy Fowler

I enjoyed this very much: six characters, six points of view, plus a ubiquitous 'we' that doesn't seem to be spoken by any individual. Some of the characters aren't entirely likeable people, but the affectionate, wry, very Austenesque way in which they're described is witty and enjoyable. The book's full of the sort of observations and experiences familiar to many -- well, to me at least. There's a recurring theme of writers stealing ideas from other people's lives. Fowler (author of Sarah Canary, which was widely praised by the SF community) has plenty of gently acerbic observations of the genre -- authors who people their fantasy novels with jewel-eyed characters, fans who act in ways quite impenetrable to the outside world -- and of each of her characters, whose lives all change, directly or indirectly and quite unpredictably, as a result of the book club and the people they meet through it.

I occasionally quibbled with her language (the past tense of 'spit' is not 'spit', but 'spat'): but far more often I smiled or laughed out loud at her observations. Married life as a life without plot, just the same events repeating; Patrick O'Brian as the next potential author for the bookclub ("When we needed to cook aboard ship, play a musical instrument, travel to Spain dressed as a bear, Patrick O'Brian would be our man."); the simple truths. What if you had a happy ending and didn't notice?

Delightful, and reminiscent of Austen without slavish imitation.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#22: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break -- Steven Sherrill

This wasn't quite what I was expecting, and I think it's a book I admire, rather than one I actually enjoyed reading. Not that it's a bad book, not at all: the prose is clear and understated and unsensational. But it's not a cheerful book: Sherrill is writing about loneliness and failure and poverty, and he does it very effectively. Even at the end there's no more than the hope of a new beginning.

The Minotaur (having struck a deal with 'ashen-faced Theseus') is alive and well, living in a trailer park in North Carolina, working as a chef in a fast-food restaurant. It isn't easy being half-man, half-bull. It isn't easy, either, being a 5000-year-old immortal with a history of devouring virgins: but he doesn't dwell on this. His colleagues call him M, and don't remark on his appearance. Neither, directly, does anyone else: there are a few hints of discrimination, a few hints that he's notably different, but that's it. Which, OK, works well on a surreal level, but is a little jarring.

There's one little element, one side-story, in the book which intrigues me immensely: the indication (though it's never explicitly stated) that there are several other mythological beings living in the southern states. I was especially caught by an allusion to Medusa, and I wish Sherrill would write her story.

I'm glad I read this, and I'm very impressed by it. But I don't think I'd read it again for simple enjoyment.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#21: Inkheart -- Cordelia Funke

A good holiday read, well-paced and with plenty of adventure: Funke is the second most popular children's author in Germany (after J K Rowling) and she knows how to tell a story. Meggie is a bookbinder's daughter, brought up to adore and cherish books. She finds herself embroiled in a villainous plot to turn a particular book, Inkheart, into reality. There's danger and death, an intelligent animal, plenty of references to favourite books (each chapter's headed with an excerpt from another book, ranging from Watership Down to The Lord of the Rings -- indeed, a lot of my enjoyment was from the nostalgia and happy memories these evoked!), death and darkness and bad things. Anyone who loves books and reading (and rereading) will see a little of themselves in Meggie.

Where the book failed, for me, was in the language. I don't know whether that's because of a fairly prosaic (and occasionally clunky) translation, or because it's aimed at a fairly young audience -- early teens, at a guess. Easy to pick up and put down, but I wouldn't have minded a little more depth: unfair of me, though, because the book's very good at what it is, which is an entertaining and pacey story for children.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#20: Sunshine -- Robin McKinley

This novel has restored my faith in the vampire genre. The cover quotes Neil Gaiman as saying Sunshine "exists more or less at the unlikely crossroads of Chocolat, Interview with the Vampire, Misery and the tale of Beauty and the Beast." He also says it's 'pretty much perfect': I'm less sure about that, but it's a very good read.

Good reads, around here, score highly on three scales: plot, character and setting. The plot, essentially 'battle evil and get in touch with your dark side', isn't really anything new -- it's vaguely reminiscent of Buffy, Anita Blake, Tanya Huff's books, various Anne Rice etc -- but it's handled well and has some clever twists. The eponymous Sunshine -- real name Rae Seddon, or maybe not -- is a delightful character: a high school not-quite-dropout who works in her stepfather's bakery, dates the cook, and enjoys making up new dessert recipes. Unusually for this sort of book, I don't think there's more than a very brief description of her looks -- and she is far from fashion-obsessed. She's sharp, funny and takes no nonsense. She's the girl next door.

Except that, as the setting is gradually revealed (McKinley’s pacing is superb) we realise that this isn't our world, and that Rae isn't exactly normal. This is a world where Others -- demons, angels, vampires, weres etc -- wage varying levels of Cold War with humanity; where one-fifth of the world's wealth is in undead hands; where people routinely buy or make charms, wards and cantrips to ward against all the evil around them; where SOF (Special Other Forces) are an omnipresent 'war against terror' police force ... Where the waitress at the coffee-shop has peri blood, and whenever she pours coffee it's always hot. That's the sort of detail that I adore about this book.

I think the novel's aimed at young adults. McKinley doesn't flinch from the dark stuff (sexy or gory) but she doesn't dwell on it either, with the result that when she does go into detail it's all the more effective.

Without going into details, I especially like the ending of the book, which some readers seem to regard as horribly unfinished. On the contrary: the best sort of ending.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place