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

Sunday, September 25, 2005

#83: Leopard in Exile -- Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill

I ordered this after reading and enjoying the first novel in the 'Carolus Rex' sequence, The Shadow of Albion. Perhaps it's just me -- perhaps this was the wrong time to read this novel, or something -- but I'm decidedly less impressed by Leopard in Exile.

Partly it's the proof-reading and editing. There are portions of the novel where characters speak in dialect -- and the authors have attempted to replicate this. ("I console myself, me, dat if I canno' take him from dere, 'Charenton canno' do so eit'er.") Fair enough, though I rather wish they hadn't gone to such lengths to make it clear that some people are speaking in non-standard English. But I don't require a summary, immediately following, of what's been said: and if the editor felt that it wasn't clear, perhaps it would have been better to insist that the 'dialect' speech was written more plainly?

THere are assorted typos and idiosyncrasies. That small handbag carried by Regency ladies is not a 'ridicule'. (And this occurs not once but twice, at least twice.) The phrase 'not at all' does not require hyphenation.

And I'm afraid that when I encounter a sailing ship named Jahrtausendfeier Falke* in alternate 19th-century America, I lose a great deal of faith in the tone of the novel.

I might have forgiven such lapses if I'd enjoyed the novel more. But the plot feels considerably more muddled than the plot of the previous book: most of the action takes place in a resolutely alternate America, losing the fun faux-Regency setting: the two protagonists of The Shadow of Albion, who spent the first book falling in love, spend almost all of the second book on separate continents: and though Leopard in Exile features the pirate Jean Lafitte, there is not nearly enough nautical mayhem.

The ending, again, feels rushed, and there are several unresolved plot elements. I don't know how much of the third novel was written before Andre Norton's death, but there's no sign of it having been published. A shame, because there is so much potential in the setting, and Edghill is certainly capable of better.

*'Thousands of years celebration falcon,' explains Babelfish.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

#82: Song for a Dark Queen -- Rosemary Sutcliff

A Sutcliff novel that I hadn't read before: this tells the story of the Iceni rebellion in AD60, during which Colchester and London were burnt to the ground and the inhabitants slaughtered by a British coalition in revenge for the Roman refusal to acknowledge Boudicca's queenship after her husband's death, and for the rape and beating of her daughters. Tens of thousands died on both sides: the British army, a hundred thousand strong, was finally defeated by a vastly outnumbered but tactically superior Roman force.

Cheerful stuff. Sutcliff doesn't gloss over the sheer nastiness of it all -- rape, torture, genocide, slow death from sword-wounds -- though, this being a children's book, she doesn't go into explicit detail.

The novel's narrated by Cadwan, the Queen's Harper, and there's a sense of tension throughout the book: as with any first-person narrative which recounts dire events, the reader wants to know the vantage point from which the tale's told. All the way through, there's a thin fragile thread of hope. Right up until the very end: and I knew how it would end, in terms of historical fact.

Throughout the book Sutcliff intersperses excerpts from a young tribune's letters home: the tribune, aide to British Governor Suetonius Paulinus, has a soldier's hard-nosed mind, but a human side as well. His name is Gnaius Julius Agricola, and he'll be governor of Britain himself later. In the end, he doesn't send his letters to his mother: they're 'too bloodstained'.

Oh, it's a melancholy book, but full of period detail, though not as steeped in the strange imagined world of the Celts as some of Sutcliff's other novels.

And now I need something light, dammit ...

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

Sunday, September 11, 2005

#81: Band of Gypsys -- Gwyneth Jones

Latest in the sequence that began with Bold as Love, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award. Fiorinda, Ax and Sage are back from America, if not (at the beginning of the novel) quite back in England. In America, an experimental team of magic-users have pulled off an astounding feat; the repercussions are still echoing around the globe. The Triumvirate are focussing on more personal matters -- Fiorinda's possible pregnancy, Ax's mother's virtual imprisonment -- and are uneasily aware that much has changed in their absence. There are accusations of witchcraft and lycanthropy, talk of weaponised magic, useless harmful premonitions: a causal connection between magic use and schizophrenia ...

Rather like reading the news lately, this book heaps problem on disaster on tragedy. At first the set-backs are encountered with gallows humour and witty subversion, but that won't work for ever. By the time I'd reached the end of the book -- incredibly sad, bitter-sweet and yet this is not the end, this is (it says so) the nadir -- I was stunned by just how wrong everything had gone, in Jones' near-future world.

And yet the army still believe their king will come again; there's life amid the ruins; there's poached rabbit and foraged food for breakfast, and old songs sung new, and people gone missing when the executioners come ...

I can hardly wait for the next book. (The more I think of it, the more I am very perturbed by Marlon, Sage's son, who's all grown up now.)

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

Monday, September 05, 2005

#80: Skinny Dip -- Carl Hiaasen

It's a funny sort of novel, because it's the reverse of a whodunnit. The villain's identity is plain from page 1, and the blurb tells us that his intended victim survives. So where's the plot? Revenge -- hot, cold and every state in between. I'd forgotten how witty Hiaasen is, and how astute an observer of human foibles. The cast is delightful, from Chaz the would-be widower, through feisty (I'm sorry, but she is) Joey, his wife, to Mick Strahahan, ex-PI who loathes crowds / cities / noise / his fellow Americans with a vengeance. Also a detective who's more devoted to his snakes than to anything else, a dim-but-golden-hearted thug, and a woman with terminal cancer who has the most positive outlook of any of them.

Hiaasen, I'm told, returns to the same themes again and again -- pollution and eco-damage, corruption, misue of prescription drugs, strong female characters who hold the moral high ground and aren't afraid of consequences -- but I've only read one other novel by him, on my sole Florida trip, and didn't find it that similar. Skinny Dip was a very enjoyable read, dry and sly and entertaining: I've bought myself a compendium trilogy for my next holiday. Though if I were going to Florida I might've picked something less worrying ...

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

Thursday, September 01, 2005

#79: Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast -- Charlie Connelly

Charlie Connelly is a lifelong afficionado of the Shipping Forecast. (For non-UK readers, this is a maritime weather report broadcast on BBC Radio at intervals throughout the day; the sea around Britain is divided into 31 sections with evocative names such as German Bight, Fisher, Shannon.) He decided to travel to each area, and write about it, in one year. And this is the result.

Early on, he has a rather irritating habit of stating an 'obvious' assumption that isn't that obvious, then contradicting it with an Amazing Fact or two, often gleaned from a characterful individual who 'knows more about [insert subject here] than most'. But later, he seems to get into his stride, and writes the sort of travelogue that makes you look twice at places you know (Plymouth, the Isle of Man, Cromer) and open your mind to thoughts of places you don't (Sealand, the Isle of White, Finisterre).

Connelly, a professional travel writer, has the contacts and the experience to facilitate visits, activities and interviews that most of the rest of us would be unable to access. He visits Sealand, the independent principality (and now data-haven) based on a Maunsell fort out in the Thames estuary. He attempts to cycle around the TT course on the Isle of Man, and has what I can only call an epiphany. He visits Rockall, the Faroes, the Scillies. He gets around a bit.

There are a few shortfalls. Listening to the Manx anthem (which I don't think I ever heard in five years of visiting the island) he wonders at the line 'Built firm as Barool [sic]', but doesn't bother to find out that North and South Barule are mountains on the island. He thinks that wormcasts on the beach are left by 'burrowing amphibians' (true only in the most generalised sense). But he's rude about Land's End, and right about the best pub in Greenwich. And he enjoys his travels -- and when he doesn't, as with the rough crossing to Lundy or the climb up Smeaton's Tower on Plymouth Hoe, he's ruefully self-deprecating.

Fascinating book, highly recommended.

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

#78: Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme -- Chris Roberts

This book (impulse buy, retail therapy) is a mass-market (Granta) edition of a small-press publication that caught the attention of the public, and was an unexpected success. It explores the 'true history' of 40 nursery rhymes -- from 'Ring-a-Roses' (which may not be all about the plague, as everyone 'knows') to 'London Bridge' -- and provides a witty commentary on the history and social framework concealed in each.

'Goosey Goosey Gander' turns out (possibly) to be about venereal disease; 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' is about the wool tax; 'Ladybird, Ladybird' is about witch-burnings. Or possibly not. A lot of what's said is fairly obvious, and the heavier historical discussions ('Sing a Song of Sixpence' as a roman-a-clef of Henry VIII's wives) are clustered towards the beginning of the book, making me wonder if the original idea ran out of material before there was enough for a full volume.

You have to like a man who describes Loki as the Norse god of taking the piss, though.

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

#77: Blood Feud -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Another Sutcliff reread. I first read this book fairly recently -- I remember buying it in Greenwich Market -- and yet I didn't recall it very clearly at all. Set in the late 10th century, it's the tale of Jestyn, a Cornish farm-boy who's captured by a stray Viking band and sold in the slave-market in Dublin to another Viking, Thormod, who's almost the same age. Jestyn saves Thormod's life, Thormod frees him: and that might be story enough, but it's only scene-setting. Thormod takes Jestyn back to Norway with him, where the two become embroiled in a blood-feud that takes them all the way to Byzantium, via Kiev and Thrace.

Unusually for Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a first-person narrative: Jestyn's an old man writing his memoirs, remembering first friendship and first love. By writing in the first person, Sutcliff can concentrate on the sort of irrelevant details that stick in the memory: looking over a Viking ship that's about to be brought out of winter storage, Jestyn remembers not the ship but the silvery light reflected from the rippling river. His memories are studded with two kinds of images that I'm coming to associate very strongly with Sutcliff: flame as flowers, flowers as flame. (A lit lamp burns like a bright new crocus: fig-leaves are like green flames on the branch: a spray of blossom is like winter stars.) The prose is evocative and simple and somehow timeless (to the extent that the word 'crazy' really jarred, though it's probably no more of an anachronism than half a hundred others) and shows a quiet attention to detail -- especially the detail of the natural world -- that I envy.

This novel is also a love story: I don't mean the mutual respect that develops between crippled Jestyn and Alexia, the physician's daughter, but the love between Jestyn and Thormod. It's not sexual love, though Sutcliff doesn't take pains to rule this out, as Mary Renault does in The King Must Die: she simply doesn't go there. That element is irrelevant (never mind Alexia's telling remark, 'For you, also, there was a Patroclus). This is the love of two good friends, based on loyalty and affection and a sense of equality that belies the origins of their association.

The edition I own is a TV tie-in: I'd like to see the TV series (made by Thames TV in 1990) but I can't imagine it doing justice to the story.

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