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

Sunday, May 29, 2005

#49: The Ambitious Stepmother -- Fidelis Morgan

I only managed to finish reading this because it's a quick, undemanding read.

Set some time around 1700 (I don't think the year is ever specified), it's an historical whodunnit featuring, as detectives, the Countess Ashby de la Zouche and her maid Alpiew. This is the third novel in a sequence, though there's little reference to backstory so it stands alone. The Ambitious Stepmother takes the pair to Paris and Versailles, the court of the Sun King, in search of a husband for a young woman whose stepmother wants her out of the way.

I've two three several major gripes with the book.
- dodgy historical background. (Difficult to know whether the author is inventing alternate history, or just sloppy with her research.)
- major plot elements that are skipped in the main narrative and then referred to, repeatedly, later on. Subplots come and go. The book feels unbalanced.
- knowingness. The book's full of anachronistic jokes at the characters' expense: the Countess meets a fellow-writer who keeps suggesting titles to her, only to be mocked for thinking that, e.g. a novel called 'Pride and Prejudice', or 'War and Peace', would sell. There's a sub-plot about the origin of Bechamel sauce.
- the author's often rather unkind to her protagonists, and resorts to shorthand in describing them. I have no idea what Alpiew looks like, except that she has large breasts. Ditto the Countess, except that she's fat (gleaned from many, many refs to 'pudgy hands', 'waddling' etc).

And sometimes verisimilitude is sacrificed for pure farcical excess:

Do you know, Alpiew, if a playwright put such a scene in a play, the audience would think his mind was in a frenzy and ... he would be dispatched instantly to Bedlam.

Yes, well, quite.

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

Saturday, May 28, 2005

#48: Indigo: or, Mapping the Waters -- Marina Warner

I've owned this book for a long time -- its premise, a tale of 17th-century colonialism and 20th-century post-colonialism inspired by The Tempest, intrigued me -- but have only just got around to reading it. It's splendid, though occasionally a little too conscious of its erudition, a little too studiedly Literary.

The 17th-century scenes, set on Enfant-Beate (a pair of imaginary Caribbean islands), are splendidly baroque. Shakespeare's witch Sycorax is a healer: Ariel and Caliban her adopted children, both from elsewhere. The animals are tame, the springs are hot and transform everything to pearl, the English -- when they come -- are credibly brutal, ignorant and yet often well-meaning.

The 20th-century scenes -- London and Paris, focussing on the close-knit family descended from the original Kit Everard, and their 'family retainer' Serafine, a native of Enfant-Beate -- are rich in detail, though their style is quite different. The central character is Miranda, from her presence at the post-war christening of her 'sister-aunt' Xanthe to her eventual happy ending in the 1980s. She's doomed (or blessed) to feel too much: Xanthe, by contrast, is given a christening-wish by a genuine Princess, who blesses her with a lack of emotion. The story follows the girls from childhood in the shadow of Miranda's grandfather -- surely Prospero, in the guise of an ageing sportsman (Warner has invented Flinders: a marvellous game, a little like cricket but far more complex, which encodes key episodes in the colonisation of Enfant-Beate) -- to Miranda's brief escape to 1960s Paris, and their business venture in Enfant-Beate itself, peddling the hot springs as a modern-day Fountain of Youth to rich American tourists.

Warner's very good at evoking atmosphere -- from the stench of indigo production to the miasma of a London pea-souper, from a cheap hotel in Paris to the depths of South Kensington tube station. I'm only realising now how much she's left the reader to guess at, in terms of characterisation.

I do like the way she writes.
The emptiness in which all things revolve is blue ... Time was no other colour but blue, since distances were blue and water too. But when you enter into them, she saw now with sorrow, the blueness evaporates. It has no more substance than a smell.

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

#47: The Zigzag Way -- Anita Desai

This book tells the story of Eric, the odd one out in a family of Maine fishermen, and his Mexican quest to find his roots. Interwoven with his story is that of Donna Vera, ageing expert in the native Indian culture, and the past of which she never speaks. The third thread is the story of Betty, Eric's grandmother, who travels from Cornwall to Mexico to marry her sweetheart, a miner, in the early years of the 20th century. All the threads are plaited together on Dios dos Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when Eric sets aside book-learning for an evening.

The novel is 'about' being rootless, I suppose: about making a new life, or seeking to make sense of the old.

It's a slim novel (under 200 pages) and somehow, despite its themes, slight. Some gorgeous writing, though: I'm especially struck by image of a net of flies around a corpse.

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

Saturday, May 21, 2005

#46: Useful Idiots -- Jan Mark

I've literally just finished reading this book and I'm overwhelmed. It's a book I wish I'd written, packed full of the little details that captivate me in real life -- the way that people still throw coins into water but don't know why, the shapes of the frozen sea, the joy of snow, light pouring over a city at sunrise. Green burials. Fenlands. The scream of a skull.

I can't recall who recommended this to me: I thought it might've been in the BSFA's Best Books of 2004 (Vector March/April '05) but can't find it there. But a while back I wrote down the title, and when I saw it in paperback I bought it.

It's juvenile SF: no, don't stop reading. It's not a book for children, though there's nothing too dreadful in it.

It's 2255, in a United States of Europe somewhat reshaped by rising seas and changing climate. The former British Isles are now the North Rhine Delta islands, and there's a group who call themselves Aborigines, who've turned to the past -- readopting ancient English names such as Shepherd, Turner, Mason -- and live in isolation on a reservation that used to be part of East Anglia.

The Europeans call them Oysters, when they're not listening.

A hurricane has swept the reservation, exposing human remains. Merrick Korda, a graduate assistant in an archaeology department (archaeology being 'the lost science', discredited for racialist and nationalist leanings) is involved in the dig, and in the subsequent politics centred on the skeleton of Parizo Man. Gradually he uncovers an unpleasant, deliberately-forgotten piece of history: gradually he realises that there is a way to prove the nature of Parizo Man and to accord the Aborigines more rights, protection, status. He's helped (at first grudgingly) by his boss; by an Aborigine ballerina named Frida Mason; by her uncle, the mayor of the Aborigine township of Briease.

So far so good. I'm not going to detail the plot. (I want to talk about the ending, but not to anyone who hasn't read it.) The setting is just as intriguing: this is a very credible, and not over-detailed, future. There's enough detail to sketch in the outlines of the world, without overwhelming the action. There aren't infodumps (well, there's a good summary of how the world changed, but that's more than halfway through) and a great deal is only hinted at: is there still space travel? What's happened to the USA? What's the city where Korda lives?

The thrill of archaeology, the solitary nature of Korda's life (privacy as a name for something less pleasant, oh yes), the loss of the past, the rise of anti-federalism -- all are there, occasionally hammered home but not generally obtrusive. There are a few places where the plot's a little wispy, a little improbable, though I found it easy to suspend my disbelief. What caught me was the atmosphere, and the descriptions. Mark's prose is crisp and clean, not cluttered with subjectives or with clunky comparisons to the world we know.

This is a stunning book.

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

Friday, May 20, 2005

#45: The Blighted Cliffs -- Edwin Thomas

Napoleonic thriller. Lt. Martin Jerrold, disreputable cad with good family connections, finds himself dispatched to Dover to deal with smugglers. Uncovers Dastardly Plot. Foils it. The end.

Jerrold isn't an especially likeable character (though his misadventures are occasionally amusing) and no one else -- except possibly the mysterious Post Office employee, Nevell -- stands out. There's some nice period detail, though, and it's quite readable.

Worst thing about this book: having finished it, I read the teaser for the second one, which sounds ever so much more fun.

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

#44: White Gold -- Giles Milton

Milton's previous books -- Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Samurai William etc -- show his gift for exploring an historical event or situation by focussing on an individual. Here, it's Thomas Pellow, who in 1716, at the age of 11, was captured by Barbary corsairs. Enslaved, he was abused and tortured until he converted to Islam: this freed him from the daily drudgery experienced by the thousands of Christian slaves imprisoned by the sultan Moulay Ismail. Instead, he ascended a rickety and perilous ladder of promotion -- harem guard, military commander, slave-trader -- and lived as well as an English renegade could; he married a Moorish woman and had a child by her, and was esteemed by those he served. He never settled to the life. After several escape attempts, he made it back to England in 1738.

Milton intersperses episodes from Pellow's life with more general discussion of the white slave trade, the court politics of Morocco, and the dithering of the British government. There's a splendid epilogue which tells the tale of Pellow's relative, Sir Edward Pellew, who led the bombardment of Algiers in 1816 and succeeded in stopping the corsairs preying on European ships. Milton's also at pains to remind the reader that the trade in black slaves was viewed quite differently, even by Pellow himself and certainly by most Europeans.

It's a well-written and well-researched, though occasionally repetitious, book: recommended for anyone who enjoys first-hand historical accounts without wishing to wade through the originals.

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

Friday, May 13, 2005

#43: Jarhead -- Anthony Swofford

This ranks up there with Dispatches as a book about one man's experience of military service in foreign combat. I don't care for bellicose memoirs that glorify or excuse the realities of combat. Swofford doesn't. This book worked for me on two levels: firstly, Swofford can really write (after serving in Iraq in 1990, he studied literature and creative writing), and secondly, he is unflinchingly honest.

Jarhead isn't only about the author's experiences as a scout-sniper in the Gulf. It's about his family; the father upholding a tradition of military service (and never speaking about his time in Vietnam), the sister spending extended periods in an institution for the insane, the brother's self-aggrandisement (and the sense that Swofford early evolved an unusually mature self-awareness as a kind of balance for that). It's about the friendship and cameraderie of his platoon, and what they do to those amongst them who screw up. It's about (of course) military incompetence, and boot-camp brutality. It's about the underside of war: weeping when the rockets start coming in, feeling angry at a captain for taking over an attack, wandering alone through a group of corpses and thinking he can hear them screaming. About what happens when another Marine comes in and finds Swofford with a gun in his mouth.

The moment in the book that stands out, for me, is the image of Swofford sitting on the back of a truck, surrounded by wrestling / card-playing / arguing Marines, reading the Iliad.

Of course a book like this is layered with pretence, but he doesn't apologise, or excuse, or gloss over the grim stuff. And he conveys the desperation and loneliness of a man who keeps, who can't stop, thinking about where he is and what he's doing and whether that cloud of smoke rising from an explosion consists of the last breaths of the men it killed.

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

#42: Affinity -- Sarah Waters

I finished this book a few days ago, but I'm still thinking through my reaction to it. I'd say it's a very good book, well-written and tightly plotted and affecting, but I don't like it.

Affinity is set in the 1870s. It tells the story of Margaret Prior, spinster, who's become a prison visitor at Millbank after a breakdown that is only gradually explained. She befriends Selina Dawes, imprisoned for assault and accused of being a fraudulent medium. Margaret's tale -- the antagonism between her and her mother, her grief for her dead father, her brother's marriage -- unfolds in parallel with excerpts from Selina's diary, covering the period just before her arrest. Margaret's past leads, it seems inevitably, to her present: to her growing affection for Selina. All this against a Turneresque backdrop of Victorian London at its smoky, foggy, gloomy theatrickal best. Oh, this is a dark book.

I think what bothers me most is how easily I was drawn into Margaret's credulity: she wants to believe in Selina and everything she represents, and marvels at the evidence of supernatural intervention that's presented to her. I missed some clues as to what was really going on, just as poor Margaret does: and the climax of the book (a neat double twist) hit hard.

Waters writes beautifully and perceptively about the human heart, about loss and grief and solitude, about depression. Her evocation of the Thames at Battersea on a winter's night made me shiver. (I used to walk across Chelsea Bridge twice a day.) I want to read more by Sarah Waters: but I don't think I want to read this one again for a while.

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

Sunday, May 01, 2005

#41: To The Baltic With Bob -- Griff Rhys Jones

According to the blurb there are 'at least three good jokes on every page".

Oh no there aren't ...

I grew up watching Griff Rhys Jones in Not the Nine O'Clock News. I'm not sure that really qualifies him, even in my mind, to write a travel book -- but, flipping through it in the bookshop, To The Baltic With Bob did seem to contain some evocative descriptions of fair-weather sailing in the Baltic.

Quite a bit of the book is taken up with petty on-board squabbling and trips ashore in search of Local Colour. (Where is the rule that says this is infallibly interesting? Yes, there are fascinating people everywhere, but often the story of meeting them is rather thin.) GRJ seems to dwell on the mishaps. Early on, he says he's terrified by the prospect of boredom, and that long-distance sailors love it when something goes wrong: "otherwise it's just sea". I don't get this. Isn't the point of sailing -- especially sailing in a beautiful 1950s yacht, 'the Chippendale of boats' -- to appreciate the sound of wind and water, the silence, the emptiness, the absence of Civilisation?

It's a shame he doesn't spend more time describing the actual sailing: the passage about night sailing from Gothenburg to Elsinore is evocative enough to make me shiver, and there are some beautiful descriptions of the Turku archipelago and of yacht-racing in Germany. GRJ's love of (or, perhaps, 'masochistic affair with') sailing stems from long grey weekends spent on the Essex coast as a child, and from reading too much Arthur Ransome at an impressionable age: he's good with the introspection, too. But the rest of the book -- with the exception of Bob, who sounds irritating but delightful -- is rather flabby and repetitive.

Made me want to go sailing, though.

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

#40: The Confessions of Max Tivoli -- Andrew Sean Greer

This is a novel dealing with a man displaced in time, learning to cope with the fact that his life doesn't follow the human story of birth-youth-ageing-death. It's about the woman he loves, and how he meets her for the first time again and again. It's available in various 3-for-2 promotions in UK bookstores. And it's not The Time-Traveller's Wife (reviewed here).

The narrator, Max Tivoli, is living his life backward: the how of it seems fuzzy, but when he's born he's effectively a baby in an old man's body, and by the end of the book he's an old man masquerading as a young boy. Handily, the sum of his actual age and his apparent age is seventy. (His grandmother, with unbelievable precision, decides that he's seventy years old at birth, and has a necklace made for him with his predicted year of death on it.) Naturally this causes problems: when he's 17 (on the inside) he falls in love with Alice, the girl downstairs, who thinks he's a middle-aged father-figure. There's a great deal of pathos in the contrast between external appearance and internal self -- a magnification of the 'but I don't feel grown up' that many of us experience. (Or is it just me?)

The book fails, I think, because of its setting (Max is born in 1871, so gets to experience the San Francisco earthquake and World War One). Max is a product of his time, and he's very well written as a rather pompous and narrow-minded type: sympathetic, but not exactly likeable. And because it's first person throughout -- with Max often missing the bleedin' obvious -- there's little sense of perspective. Perhaps it would have worked better with a few chapters from other points of view.

Having said that, it did make me think -- a lot -- and I did almost cry, though probably not for the right reasons. And there is some beautiful writing in it.
The sun alternates between throwing deep shadows behind the children and trees and then sweeping them back up the moment a cloud crosses the sky. The grass fills with gold, then falls to nothing. The whole school yard is being inked with sun and blotted, glowing and reaching a point of great beauty, and I am breathless to be in the audience. No one else notices.

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