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

Thursday, July 28, 2005

#64: Mr Darwin's Shooter -- Roger McDonald

I'm extremely impressed by this book -- its poetry and its subtlety, as well as the characterisation.

The novel focuses on Syms Covington, the butcher's boy who becomes Charles Darwin's field assistant. (He's a historical character, and McDonald has used Covington's diaries -- rather sketchy, available online -- as well as Darwin's writing as sources for his portrait.) Covington goes to sea early, following the failure of the leather company at which he was training as a clerk. He's a committed Christian, a Congregationalist who's memorised whole pages of The Pilgrim's Progress, strong in his faith; that, of course, leads him to ask question after question of Darwin (here a rather milk-and-water character without any of Covington's vigour or joie de vivre) as he and Darwin discuss their findings and explore the implications of the birds and animals they observe.

That makes it all sound rather dry, and it isn't. It's a vividly physical novel: long voyages in dangerous waters, collecting expeditions on the pampas, all the trials and rigours of life at sea and in the unmapped territories of the mid-19th century world.

There are two alternating threads: one, set in the 1860s, concerns Covington in Sydney, an ageing sailor, deaf as a post, who strikes up a friendship with MacCracken, a doctor who saves his life. Covington gives nothing away, and it's up to MacCracken to puzzle out this man who's clearly lived a turbulent life and who speaks, sometimes, of matters that he surely cannot understand. The other thread follows Covington as he becomes a sailor, makes and loses friends, meets Darwin, and appoints himself the man's assistant while still pursuing his own projects. There's always something missing, and it's still missing in the later timeframe. This is a novel about love and loyalty, class and breeding, as much as it's about natural philosophy or evolution or religion or the perils of the wide world.

"Seas black, wind raw, timbers wet, faces pink, lips chapped, sails ripping, stays torn asunder. After sighting Cape Horn it took them three weeks to sail thirty miles."

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

#63: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- J K Rowling

I suspect a significant percentage of LJ traffic since 16th July has concerned this book, and I doubt I'm going to say anything new about it. It's better-edited than the previous one, and there are less irritating tics -- use of capitals for raised voices, etc, which annoyed me. Nice to see some characters developing (Draco now three-dimensional, which is good); and I was impressed with the way she handled the whole business of Adolescent Urges, and Teenaged Behaviour, and so on. And top marks to the author for throwing in a couple of massive surprises. (Was most amused to find that some fans are already rewriting parts of the story to suit their own prejudices.) I'm really looking forward to seeing how she resolves all the ongoing strands of plot in book 7.

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

#62: A Conspiracy of Paper -- David Liss

London, early 18th century, financial fraud and skulduggery: but I'm afraid that Mr Neal Stephenson has spoilt me for this sort of thing. A Conspiracy of Paper is not a bad book, but it drags and droops and is devoid of humour. Or perhaps that's its narrator, Benjamin Weaver, a former boxer born Benjamin Lienzo to a mercantile Jewish family. Weaver is hired to investigate the apparent suicide of a man whose son suspects foul play: he's also working on the theft of some letters of an intimate nature from a gentleman about to be married to an innocent bride. Meanwhile, his friend Elias, physician and playwright, always seems to have time to listen to his theories, even while producing a new play at short notice.

Plenty of action, murder and mayhem, a charming cameo from Jonathan Wild ... but too many of the characters felt two-dimensional, and some of them seemed quite anachronistic (an unmarried Jewish girl playing the nascent stock market, for example). I'll probably return to this writer for period colour, but not for characterisation -- or for plot, the climax of which seemed rather muddled.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

#60: Conrad's Fate -- Diana Wynne Jones

This book was the perfect antidote to a day spent travelling, hearing bad news and visiting my father, who's ill.

It's a Chrestomanci novel -- chronologically somewhere after The Lives of Christopher Chant, and geographically somewhere in Series Seven; it's set in the English Alps, mainly in Stallery Hall where the universe seems to shift randomly, and 12-year-old Conrad Tesdenic finds himself looking into other realities where the Hall is a ruin, or a castle of glass, or an Escher-esque maze.

He's there as part of a plan to redeem his Fate, or karma, by taking care of some business that he neglected in a previous life. According to his uncle, anyway: his mother, busy writing feminist tracts in her room, doesn't seem too concerned. Conrad has to bear his guilty secret alone: but his colleague, Christopher, has secrets too. He's searching for his friend Millie, who's run away from her exclusive Swiss finishing school. And there are strange goings-on, and romantic intrigues, and arranged marriages, and all sorts of delightful drama.

I read this in rather an odd frame of mind, so it hasn't really fallen into place yet: oh, happy endings for those who deserve them, and the usual DWJ wit and whimsy. (When did 'whimsy' become an insult? I certainly don't mean it as one.) Shall no doubt reread at some stage, and hopefully with more clarity of thought. Very enjoyable, though: like the spell in C S Lewis' 'Narnia' series that's a story that you read to restore a happy frame of mind.

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

#61: My Little Blue Dress -- Bruno Maddox

The novel starts off in the early years of the 20th century, with the narrator -- then a small girl -- finding herself oddly at odds with her family and friends. Her grandfather (before conveniently dying) tells her she's allergic to the Past. Even as a little girl, the narrator sees the flaw in this argument ('but it's the Present!') ... so far, so good, in a sort of sub-Fforde way. Reader, I did not like the narrator at this point.

Rather later -- somewhere around the Twenties (the book is arranged, in earlier parts at least, by decade) -- it becomes obvious that the book we're reading is not the memoir of a woman as old as the century. There are notes-to-self from the 'author', in a different voice (and a different font), which indicate that something rather more macabre is going on.

And gradually we catch glimpses of the Author, a young man who's caring for an old lady in a New York tenement. And we catch glimpses of the rest of his life, too, as imagined by the old lady. Or are they?

And then there's another shift; and another. And by the end of the book there's a great deal of doubt as to what's real, who's real, and who's who.

I really, really disliked the middle part of this book: only stubbornness kept me going. I should have been relieved when things changed, but instead I felt cheated.

It is cleverly done -- and there's some interesting takes on remix culture, blending past and present, the endless quest for novelty -- though there's some clunky writing in there too. But I didn't like any of the narrative voices, and I didn't think it went anywhere. Does that make it Art, then?

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

Sunday, July 10, 2005

#59: The Shadow of Albion -- Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill

Another book that I've had for ages but only just rediscovered while clearing bookshelves.

Andre Norton, who died recently, was the first SF author I discovered for myself (around the age of 7). I find some of her writing stiff and over-purpled, but she knew how to tell a story. Rosemary Edghill (who writes crime, SF and Regency romance under a number of pen-names) is a more recent favourite. When I heard of this collaboration -- an alternate-history romance -- I was intrigued.

I'm a little disappointed. There are pacing issues, especially towards the end of the novel (the first in a series, published 1999), where some key scenes are disposed of in a couple of sentences: the last couple of chapters feel terribly rushed, in marked contrast to earlier parts of the book.

The plot's sound, though. England, 1805: but there's a Stuart King on the throne, and America is still a colony. Dying of consumption, the Marchioness of Roxbury makes a pact with the faery folk to bring a replacement from another world to complete a mysterious Task. The replacement, Sarah Cunningham of a Baltimore more nearly resembling the one in our own history, is duly summoned and takes her place -- not only as haughty aristocrat but as the fiancée of the Pimpernel-like Duke of Wessex. Heyeresque intrigue -- cut with weightier affairs, such as the abduction of the Danish Princess who was due to marry the heir to the throne, and the rumoured reappearance of the lost Dauphin -- ensues.

I'll be acquiring the rest of the series, I think: I want to know more of how the story resolves itself. And there are some charming characters, though mostly among the supporting cast. And there's enough wit and invention to make up for most of the lapses.

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

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

#58: Dark Fire -- C J Sansom

Historical whodunnit, set in 1540 London; slightly earlier than the period I'm currently interested in, historical-fiction-wise, but this novel features Greek Fire, so it was a must-read.

The prose is a little bland, and Sansom could do with the sort of editor who spots favourite phrases and ruthlessly excises them. Some of his characterisation seems a little stereotypical, and he's a little too fond of showing off his learning -- either that, or he doesn't trust his readers to know anything at all about the period. (It's what annoyed me most about Jill Paton Walsh's tribute to Sayers, Thrones, Dominions: too full of details about London in the 1930s, which Sayers took for granted.) I'm not an historian, but I can generally pick up meaning from context -- perhaps because I'm an SF reader? -- and I find constant fact-insertion rather distracting.

Oh, and Sansom (describing a boat journey to Deptford) seems to have forgotten (a) Greenwich, just beyond, and (b) Rotherhithe. Though in the latter instance I feel he can be forgiven.

Those quibbles aside, I enjoyed the book very much: excellent pacing, a nice braiding of at least three separate plot threads, some fairly credible Renaissance science (I've been reading the same books as Sansom!) and an intriguing core cast. Matthew Shardwell, the hunchback lawyer protagonist, spends a little too much time feeling sorry for himself: but his acquisition of a new assistant, Barak (Jewish ancestry, poor boy made good and then made bad again) is interestingly disruptive.

This is the second in a sequence: I'll keep an eye out for the first, but am looking forward more to the third.

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

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

#57: Tamburlaine Must Die -- Louise Welsh

Finished this the other day, but have been wondering why I didn't like it more. The language is splendidly rich and evocative: every sentence has a poetic resonance, and the imagery is vivid and fresh. So's the evocation of 16th-century London -- dirty and disease-ridden and full of violence, decay and double-dealing.

I think my problem's Marlowe himself -- and I don't think it's a failing of the book (as some reviewers seem to feel) that he's portrayed as a man who lives his life in a consciously theatrical manner. He has an eye for a scene, and it often feels as though he's dramatising an event even as he (ostensibly) sets it down for posterity. There's a hollowness at the heart of Marlowe; we're never quite sure what he feels about the events that happen to him. His desperate wish to live, to survive a meeting in Deptford (the novella takes place over the last three days of his life) does come through, but there's not much sense of anything else affecting him more than superficially. He's rueful and world-weary and ever so arrogant; not an especially likeable character.

All that said: this is a quick read (it's only just over a hundred pages long) and the prose is wonderful. Worth a read.

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

Sunday, July 03, 2005

#56: Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean -- Justin Somper

I was in the mood for something frivolous, easy and light, and this was exactly right. It's also well-written, enviably well-paced, and witty.

It's 2505 (though in fact there doesn't seem much evidence of it being The Future, or any special reason why it should be). Twins Connor and Grace Tempest are brought up by their reclusive lighthouse-keeper father, but when he dies they flee orphanage and adoption in favour of an escape by boat. Best-laid plans, etc: a storm comes up, their boat is wrecked and the two are separated.

Connor ends up on the Diablo, an old-fashioned pirate ship (the captain wears a blue velvet frock-coat and has a snake in his hair) with some management issues. First Mate Cheng Li is a graduate of the Pirate Academy and has all sorts of peculiar notions about rules (but they're more guidelines) and proper pirate behaviour. Conorr takes to her anyway, though his other friends are more traditionally piratical.

Grace is pulled from the water by a midshipman on the infamous Vampirates ship (what it says on the tin: there's an old sea shanty about pirates and vampires which the twins' father used to sing to them: if pirates are danger and vampires are death, etc). She's treated well, makes friends with the figurehead (who's only a figurehead by day: at night she is Miss Darcy Flotsam), and learns some of the history of the crew -- including Sidorio, who in life was one of the pirates who captured Caesar.

There's a happy ending which sets the scene for the next book -- in fact it's a bit of a cliffhanger, which is slightly annoying.

The writing is nice: well-paced, nice use of metaphor (and none of it hammered home), plenty of unresolved mysteries, and some really interesting characters. Suspect this is aimed at teenagers: there's drinking, smoking and what looks suspiciously like a brothel.

I hate to say it, but:
If you liked Pirates of the Caribbean, you'll like this book.

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

Saturday, July 02, 2005

#55: Downs-Lord Dawn -- John Whitbourn

Thomas Blades, a meek 17th-century curate, finds a magical portal and steps through into an alternate England where humans live in burrows underground, oppressed by the quasi-human and beastly savage Null. Blades has two advantages: education, and a few muskets that he brings back on his second trip. Empire ensures. Messily.

Whitbourn's a little too fond of his own jokes, and finds plenty of time for wordplay and sly asides. The plot is well-paced and witty, though, and there are some interesting extrapolations. I didn't especially like Blades until the end, when he realises that amid all the empire-building and war -- against the Null, against some technologically-superior strangers from across the western ocean, against his own family -- he's left himself behind.

This is the beginning of a trilogy, and I'll probably hunt down the other two books at some stage -- it'd be interesting to see how some of the foreshadowing plays out -- but it didn't grab me the way I was hoping to be grabbed once I'd read the first page.

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