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

Saturday, April 30, 2005

#39: River of Gods -- Ian McDonald

OK, now I see what all the fuss is about.

I only finished reading this novel a couple of hours ago: it hasn't sunk in yet, so this 'review' will be a little disjointed. But I want to buy lots of copies and press them upon those of my friends who haven't already read it. This is science fiction at its best -- not to say that there are not other subgenres that I enjoy, but River of Gods is wide-screen, cast-of-thousands SF with joy and verve and excellent writing and an apparently endless wellspring of Plot. If it had just been Plot, I would've admired it immensely: but McDonald's cast of ten protagonists are so finely drawn, so multi-dimensional and uniquely damaged, that I wanted to weep for a couple of them. A lot of SF disappoints me because of its lack of that human dimension, or because of clunky writing. This novel did neither.

What's it about?

Incarnation and reincarnation: popular culture and the cult of Celebrity: artificial intelligence: gender issues: emergent evolution: pocket universes: gods and mortals: Balkanisation: survival on the streets: betrayal and abandonment: parents and children: escape.

And all the other things that are bubbling up in my head as I assimilate it.

I want to quote huge chunks of the prose, because it's so very clear and poetic and precise. Let me leave you with this:

Abandonment, that tastes like sick in the back of your throat, always on the edge of coming up; it feels like dizzy, like walking along the edge of a high stone harbour over a sea that glimmers and moves so far below you cannot be certain where it is, but brown, brown; abandonment is empty dull brown...
Incomprehension feels like a hair on the tongue.
And anger is heavy like a hammer but so light it can fly with its own wings, and the darkest, darkest rust.

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

#38: 1688: A Global History -- John E. Wills

I bought this because it has a chapter on Dampier: have only just got around to reading the rest of the book. Wills, Professor of History at USC, aims to set out a picture of the world in 1688. He resists the temptation to focus on Europe (the Glorious Revolution is towards the back of the book) or on big names. Instead, he starts with the slave trade; then the Dutch East India Company, which I've just been reading about in the novel Islands (reviewed here); Tsar Peter's Russia, the Jesuits in China, Versailles, Aphra Behn, the Great Sultan, Janissaries, the Jews in exile ...

This book is just at the right level for the informed general reader. Inevitably there's a lot of speculation about the individual characters who people these pages, but there are also plenty of quotations from contemporary texts. Wells has an eye for metaphor: the vagabonds in Amsterdam, punished by being put in a cellar and having to work the pump or drown, for example. He's good at drawing parallels between different societies -- slavery, piracy, abuse of rank and the ways in which women could wield power. (Occasionally, he refers forward to something he hasn't yet covered, which was a little annoying; I'd rather he'd referred back from subsequent cases.)

Very readable, and with a tendency to be compassionate rather than judgemental. Recommended.

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

#37: The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque -- Jeffery Ford

New York, 1893: the artist Piambo, at the height of his career, takes a commission to paint Mrs Charbuque, the twist being that he is not allowed to see her: he must build up a picture of her from the stories she tells him. Meanwhile, a series of grotesque murders is baffling the police, and Piambo's friend Shenz, once a successful painter himself, is sowing the seeds of his own fate.

This is the sort of novel that had me continually advancing theories about what was happening. Mrs Charbuque herself is fond of deception, so there are plenty of red herrings. No one is what they seem, and there are many layers of truth and untruth. I'm not sure I've disentangled them all yet.

Piambo's sin is hubris: he repeatedly compares his art to God's. Of course he is brought low.

There are echoes of Greek mythology -- the Sibyl, and Medusa -- and of various 19th-century novels: portraits in the attic, the beast that walks amongst men, etc etc. There are tricks and entrapments and themes that recur: eyes that no longer see (Piambo's particular fear), the scent of nutmeg ("the smell of self-satisfaction: a pervasive aroma of nutmeg and mold"), hands that are not, or not just, hands.

I'm not sure how to classify this novel: it's not quite fantasy, because I don't think there's any magic in it, yet it has a fantastical sensibility. It's a very good read, and Piambo, though not exactly likeable, is a fascinating character.

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

#36: Islands -- Dan Sleigh

This is the closest I'm likely to come to sympathising with those who've found Neal Stephenson's recent Baroque Cycle novels long-winded and boring. It's taken me five days to read this 750-page novel (Amazon claims 256pp: it lies) and only grim determination (and the thought that there might be Historical Gems hidden within) kept me going. A weight -- metaphorical as well as literal -- has lifted from me now that I've reached the end.

The novel, set in the Cape and Mauritius between about 1640 and 1710, deals with seven men whose lives are affected by the Dutch East India Company. (Not, as the blurb claims, men whose lives pivot about Pieternella, the first mixed-race child to be born in the new colony. I'm not sure she's the first, and she certainly isn't a focal point: she's not even born for about 200 pages, and doesn't have a speaking part for about another 200.) I'm not sure why Sleigh focusses on men: don't women count? Some of the female characters mentioned in the novel have profound effects on the whole story -- if you can call it a story. The title refers to Donne's line, 'no man is an island': the story takes place around the edges of the VOC and the Cape colony, at outposts and on frontiers.

The prose is dry and peculiarly passive: there's not that much direct dialogue, and little insight into the characters' thoughts. It reads rather like the drier sort of history book, unenlivened by humour or anecdote. None of the characters seem to have much of a sense of humour: the author likewise. (There is a Joke. It is about how porcupines mate. It is on page 714.)

The novel was translated from the Afrikaans by Andre Brink, twice nominated for the Booker prize. I have to say I'm not impressed. Yes, the rhythm of the language -- and some of its idioms, for example 'carried on the back' rather than 'carried on his back' -- is retained. But there are so many clunky sentences, reminiscent of a beginner's literal translation: how can any writer let through something like this?
"It is also known, you hear, that not only animals scavenged in the graveyards, but in those days it was easier for animals than for people to find food."

I'd like to castigate the proofreader while I'm at it. I do understand that it's a big, dull book: but wimper? easern? a ship departing in June 1864 and arriving in November 1684? At least spell-check the thing.

There are a lot of loose threads, too, though I probably wasn't paying as much attention as I could have been.

In conclusion: I just don't get it. This book won awards in its native Afrikaans: was that really just for the wealth of historical fact (the author works in the National Archives) contained within? True, I've learnt a great deal about the VOC and the factors involved in its decline -- climate, politics, ambition, harsh laws -- but if that's all I'd wanted, I'd have learnt it more quickly from a history book. Islands doesn't indicate that the author's brought his material to life, or even connected the different narratives with any degree of craft or originality.

A big book, but one which I feel no need to make space for this on my bookshelf.

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

#35: Jigs and Reels -- Joanne Harris

This is a collection of Harris' short stories, some published and some not. I have to say that I doubt this anthology would exist were it not for the author's reputation, built on her best-selling novels. Few of the stories stand out, and there's a sameness to them. This is fantasy-lite, J K Rowling for Daily Mail readers: there's a conservative Little England feel to many of them. Where Harris is writing for a particular magazine (two of the stories appeared in Woman and Home, this is understandable. And it's not that she isn't adventurous. There's an interesting, if slight, SF story (undermined by her reference in the introduction to a character of hers who writes 'second-rate sci fi'), and some well-crafted vignettes. Actually, quite a few of the stories are first-person narratives, with little interaction; quite a few of them are Humorous; and quite a few of them have a Twist.

I've been reading the stories one at a time, over dinner, for the last couple of weeks: my rather negative view may simply be due to the fact that I overdosed on them last night, reading half a dozen as punctuation in an evening spent ticking off tasks from the to-do list. I'm being too harsh, really, because the stories are perfectly competent and aren't pretending to be anything they're not. But I much prefer Harris's writing at novel-length, when she has free rein to play with language and images and plot.

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

#34: The Powerbook -- Jeanette Winterson

I haven't quite made up my mind about this book yet: not sure whether it's deeply profound or somewhat hollow.

It's about love and passion, writing, identity, history: about pretence and assumption, about control over one's own story and stories, about story-telling. Winterson's writing is gorgeous, spare and wry and rich. The Powerbook is a quick read -- some of the chapters are less than a page long, and it's been padded with chapter-heading pages, and still only around 230 pages.

The lead-in, the hook, is that the narrator (Ali or Alix) will write you into a story: you'll enter as yourself but may leave as someone else. That might've ended up being pretentious, but the conceit is not rammed home -- just left for the reader to recall. At the heart of the book are two stories: one a romance between the narrator and a married woman (I seem to recall discussion, when this was published, about whether it was autobiographical), and one about the narrator's own self-construction. "You can change the story. You are the story." But threaded through are meditations on history -- Capri, London, Paris -- and tales that at first seem separate from the narrative. (I was especially taken with Ali, the ingenious 17th-century tulip smuggler.)

The novel felt slightly dated: plenty of refs to time, to the millennium, to the balance of history and the future. But it's a glorious read, and I'm looking forward to reading it again, cover to cover, and focussing on the language and the technique.

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

#33: The Last Deception of Palliser Wentwood -- Imogen de la Bere

Gleaned in a Greenwich remainder shop ages ago: a delightful read that I wish I'd got around to before now.

It's 1959. Two strands to the story: Salome Wentwood, abandoned wife, bringing up four daughters on a shoestring (actually, on a marshy plot of reclaimed land) in New Zealand's South Island; Palliser Wentwood, middle-aged rake, seeking gainful employment (and whatever opportunities may come his way) amid the lonely rich of Hertfordshire, UK. Both of them have quite remarkable luck, both good and bad.
It's not a romance. If anything, it's about the lies that underlie the romantic myth (quite literally in this case) and about what happens after you've met, and lost, your True Love.

I do like the characters, even the reprehensible Palliser (who the author admits to having a soft spot for -- as is all too evident). Salome rocks: "I admit I do often wish I was an 18th-century lady explorer, but I don't think they were particularly upright, except in posture." Even her admirer Philip ("when he decided the amorous episode was ended, he took out his handkerchief and wiped any traces of lipstick off his mouth") is affectionately portrayed.

I'm not entirely keen on the authorial intrusions (though they're few): and I think there's a certain smugness in the way the author handles (or, rather, doesn't handle) events towards the end of the book. But I love the voice, the language, the sly asides. Reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and (for some reason) Flannery O'Connor.

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

#32: She's Gone Country -- Kyle Spencer

'Based on a true story', according to the blurb: I am surprised that any of her family are still on speaking terms with her.

At first this looks like another book about a burnt-out NY journalist finding new life outside the Big Apple: in this case Raleigh, North Carolina. After a while, it becomes evident that she's also husband-hunting. And gradually there's more and more of the story of her dysfunctional family and her parents' divorce. Somehow the three strands, though never quite even, balance one another.

There's some very nice writing, and some shrewd insights: you can tell Spencer was (is?) a good reporter. (Of one suitor, she says "he smelled of sweat, or cow manure, or something really masculine like lawn fertilizer. He was the kind of guy who probably read Playboy on the john and patted women on the ass.")

It's entertaining as a species of chick-lit with more wry wit and less romantic success than most fiction, and for its insights in the day-to-day life of an ambitious, but unproved, reporter. The family-related passages are honest and harrowing, albeit in a way that I think of as 'very American'. Enjoyable.

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

#31: Metallic Love -- Tanith Lee

The Silver Metal Lover is one of my favourite Lee books -- an SF romance set in a near future where Earth is threatened by a captured asteroid, where a rich teenager falls in love with a robot and ends up concluding that he's ensoulled. This is a sequel, and a successful one. Twelve years after the events in the previous book, a new range of humanoid robots has been manufactured. And a different teenage girl becomes involved with one of them. But the robots aren't the same, and Loren (a sassy street brat) is no Jane. Again, Lee blends SF themes and a convincing ... well, it's not a romance, not in the same sense. The ending's happier, though, Very much enjoyed.

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

#30: On Stranger Tides -- Tim Powers

Nearly impossible to get hold of, yet with strangely familiar plot elements (zombie sailors, the Royal Navy and a mad pirate with the initials JS): this was first published in 1987, and it's been in my book database for quite a while though the original volume seems to have been borrowed and not returned.

Powers does some things extremely well: darkly magical plots with tortuous twists and reversals, naval battles enhanced with voudon, ghosts in the jungle. He does some things less well: I didn't really connect with any of the characters, and the prose did not sparkle. A very enjoyable read, though.

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