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

Monday, February 28, 2005

#19: Richard Dadd in Bedlam, and Other Stories -- Alan Wall

Collection of short stories, some vaguely SFnal, some historical; many concerned with art. Like a lot of anthologies the overall effect can take some time to come on: there are a couple of stories in here that're likely to stick around in my mind for a while, but many of the others didn't seem to say much. Some are more vignettes or character studies than stories per se. First, longish story reminiscent of Ackroyd for cultish goings-on in London: a story dealing with the abolition of time tries to be SFnal but is too heavy-handed (and possibly rather ignorant of the genre).

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#18: A Scholar of Magics -- Caroline Stevermer

Alternate Edwardian England. This novel (sequel to A College of Magics) is set in Glasscastle, a three-college academic institution (males only) somewhere in the west of England: the colleges include Wearyall and Holythorn, which should give you an idea of the geography. Took a while to get into, but it has two marvellous conceits: firstly, an Earth-centred cosmology as a magical (rather than physical) truth; secondly, the notion that, since witches can't cross water, all colonials are genetically disposed to have no magical talent, since any emigrant who had it wouldn't have survived the initial voyage.

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

#17: Cloud Atlas -- David Mitchell

I've heard so much about this novel, from SF fans and readers of literary fiction, and I was fascinated by the premise: six different voices (the earliest from around 1850, the latest in a post-apocalyptic future) in narratives that nest like Russian dolls. I held out for the paperback edition (technically out today, but my Amazon order arrived on Saturday) and ... was it worth the wait?

The bare bones of the story -- the rollercoaster ride towards that apocalypse -- don't seem especially novel to me, though I suppose they might to a reader who's unacquainted with genre tropes. And the links that join the six narratives are sometimes tenuous in the extreme. (Mitchell did something similar, stylistically, in Ghostwritten: it seems to work better here, though I'm still not sure that Timothy Cavendish fits into the cycle as well as any of the other narrators.)

What I especially admired (and what made me want to write something, anything) was the distinction between the voices. Adam Ewing, somewhere in the Pacific in the 19th century, is as stiff and stilted as a caricature, but he has sufficient depth of emotion not to be a stick-figure. SF readers may find the assimilation of brand names in Sonmi's narrative ('nikon', v. = to photograph; 'disney', n. = an audio-visual entertainment , etc) stale, but it's rather nicely done. Robert Frobisher is sly and wry, and his fatally flawed character is redeemed, for me, by the way Mitchell writes his all-consuming passion for music. Zachary's 'voice', all untaught and colloquial, hooked me on the rhythms of the words.

Sometimes I think Mitchell's touch is too light: I read almost all of the novel in one day, which made it easier to spot allusions and echoes, and yet I feel I've missed a lot of the hair-fine web of references that link the six narrators. I'm not even sure if the whole story arc makes more than vague sense to me: but the writing, and the conceit, and a couple of the characters, are spectacular.

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

#16: Lost Nation -- Jeffery Lent

I kept thinking that Lost Nation would make a wonderful film. Unfortunately it might also be used as the basis for a very bad one. And anyway, the prose is so sharp and vivid and accurate: that'd be lost on screen.

The Nation in question is the Independent Republic of Indian Springs: most of the action takes place in 1838: the book opens with the arrival of a man named Blood and a fifteen-year-old girl named Sally in a small wilderness settlement. Blood is not what he appears, as becomes clear as the story progresses; more intriguingly, he's not what he thinks he is, either.

It's not a cheerful romantic book. There's a great deal of violence, cruelty, bitterness and stupidity. But despite that I felt ... uplifted, I suppose ... when I finished reading. Happy to have read it. Happy to have it in my head, where I think it'll stay for a long time. And jealous of Mr Lent's writing, which has such clarity and originality.

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#15: Across the Nightingale Floor -- Lian Hearn

Fantasy world based on ancient Japan, complete with samurai, assassins etc. The writing is impressively spare and clean -- very visual, too; it's like watching Hero. Perhaps because of the setting, there's an emotional distance to the characters, too. I'll read the other volumes (I believe it's a trilogy), but I won't seek them out. Not yet, anyway.

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#14: Jack Daw's Pack / A Crowd of Bone -- Greer Gilman

Not technically a book (one short stort, one novella) but included here because it should be. I understand the author's working on a third Cloud story: keenly anticipated. Gilman could be writing about the most mundane life, and I wouldn't care as long as she kept on with the words: dense, allusive language that requires careful reading (and a good dictionary), with a distinctly Northern / Germanic tang. The setting's Cloud, a darkly vivid place reminiscent of what Terri Windling (I think) refers to as Balladland: grim and bloody and full of the nasty logic of folksongs and faery-tales. Gilman's mythology is an original one, and none of her deities are pleasant, or noble, or nice. It's grim up North. This sort of writing makes me dither between chopping off my fingers and never writing another word, or writing incessantly, day and night (like a folktale punishment) until the words come out this well.

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#13: Lost in a Good Book -- Jasper Fforde

I read and enjoyed The Eyre Affair years ago -- but don't recall enough of it to appreciate Lost in a Good Book, which seems to follow straight on, fully. I kept wanting to go back and check details in the previous book: the plot's quite convoluted enough without vague references to the previous (or perhaps subsequent) events. Having said that, Fforde's an inspired if occasionally clunky writer. His 'significant details' are usually pretty easy to pick out, and yet their significance can be quite baroque. And I loved some of the literary in-jokes -- and the adjectivores, which gobble up stray description. I think I'd like one as a pet.

Will probably get around to The Well of Lost Plots sooner rather than later, while this is still fresh in my head: depends on finding a cheap copy.

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#12: Coalescent -- Stephen Baxter

First in a series, not always a good thing ... I'm always impressed by the sweep of Baxter's ideas, though he's no literary stylist: the content kept me turning pages even when the prose seemed dry. What impressed me most about this novel (and what urged me to pick it up in the first place) was his depiction of the slow inward collapse of Roman Britain; the towns gradually abandoned, the Saxons invading from the east, the gathering of the tribes beyond the Wall .. His modern-day plot thread is also intriguing, dealing with a lost twin, and family tensions, and a conspiracy theorist who's obsessed with dark matter ... I'd have liked more resolution for a couple of the plot strands, but I enjoyed this enough to want to read the next, even though I understand it's more a thematic sequel than a continuation of these threads.

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#11: The Clerkenwell Tales -- Peter Ackroyd

A medieval thriller with obvious literary antecedents (there are 22 chapters, each titled after a character in the Canterbury Tales, though they're not the same individuals that Chaucer wrote of) and the usual Ackroyd themes. It's an interesting read, and Ackroyd wears his learning lightly: I found his archaic vocabulary (bonchief as the opposite of mischief, and a number of others that I've scribbled down to check later) very clearly presented. The conceit of 22 characters, each with a different point of view on a different part of the action, works very nicely, and the characters have distinct voices -- though those voices are all much more similar to one another than any of them to a modern voice: there's a clear sense of how foreign the London of 1399 was. Shame I read this just after reading the Alan Wall anthology (see below), the first story of which deals with a series of ritual events, corresponding to the wounds of Christ, played out across London ...

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