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

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

#76: Warrior Scarlet -- Rosemary Sutcliff (reread)

I was inspired to reread this by walking on the South Downs, watching cloud shadows and the folds of the land, wandering around the ancient quarries and earthworks on Wollstonbury Hill. This is Rosemary Sutcliff's Bronze Age novel, set around 900BC: a tale of a crippled boy who proves his right to wear warrior scarlet and be accepted as a man of his tribe. The story's simple, the wealth of detail enthralling, but best of all is Sutcliff's talent for evoking landscape.

Below him the turf of the steep combe-side was laced with criss-cross sheep-tracks, and the faint formless cropping sounds of the flock at the bottom came up to him along the ground. ... A little warm wind came up from the south, trailing the cloud shadows after it across the Marshes and up the slow-gathering slopes of the Chalk, thyme-scented and sea-scented and swaying the heads of the blue scabious flowers all one way.

Rereading this novel (published nearly 50 years ago) I'm struck by the complexity of the prose; the way that a great deal of the emotional events are alluded to, rather than described; and the rich vocabulary. I suspect that it'd be too 'difficult' for a lot of children today. (I remember reading a teacher's account of his class's reaction to The Mark of the Horse Lord, my favourite Sutcliff: a lot of the children had difficulty understanding the book.) And I wonder if young readers would now find this distressingly violent: a swan is killed, there's a lot of fighting (humans and animals), and the whole point of the novel is that Drem must kill a wolf, armed with no more than a spear and a knife. I can, unfortunately, imagine a reader feeling sorry for the wolf ...

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

Monday, August 22, 2005

#75: A Princess of Roumania -- Paul Park

Ever get the feeling that different reviewers are reading different books with the same title?

I've just read this novel for review: I'll be reading it again before I write the piece, and what appears here will be more in the way of notes and observations. But I've flicked through the first ten Google results for the novel, and found that the heroine and her friends travel into a book (not really); that they travel to an alternate 18th-century Romania (no); that Miranda, the heroine, 'never really comes to life' (I don't think the Romantic Times Book Club got this novel); that it's all the work of Miranda's aunt Aegypt, Egypt, Aegyptia (third variant is right); that Peter is the son of a great hero (no), that the Baroness is 'fiendish' ...

Actually, that last observation is likely to be a pivotal point of my review: that although the Baroness Ceausescu (name quite deliberately used) is painted as Villain all over the blurb, she's one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters in the book -- and this, it turns out, is quite intentional. No black and white in here (except the stark wintry landscapes of uncolonised North America, Bucharest on the eve of invasion, etc) but a moral landscape in shades of grey that shift as they're examined.

Worst thing about this novel: drawing closer to the end, feeling the thinness of the remaining pages, and wondering how the author's going to pull it all together. Only by searching online did I discover that this is the first of a series ...

Park's prose is clear and cool, peppered with odd similes ('dead as kittens') and marvellous metaphors, and the book's complex and demanding: not for children, despite the coming-of-age themes. As someone said of Gene Wolfe recently, Park 'demands your attention and repays it'.

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

Friday, August 19, 2005

#74: The Rainbow Opera -- Elizabeth Knox

Knox, the author of The Vintner's Luck, turns her hand to YA fantasy. Seeing her name on the cover, I had to buy it, and now I have to wait for the second in the Duet. Oh, this is a wonderful book!

The setting is a world more than a little like ours, in the year 1905. They have Jesus, The Mill on the Floss, rifles, movie cameras. But in this world, Lazarus was a saint and wrote a Gospel: they celebrate his saint's day in spring. And in this world, in a country called Southland that was settled by refugees from a sinking island, there's the Place.

The Place is a fold in space, a polder (if I'm using the terminology correctly), a pocket universe. Not everyone can enter it: 'normal' people just walk through another tract of countryside. But to the Dreamcatchers, the Place -- marked with boundaries and warning notices -- is a limitless desert with a featureless white sky, with ruins, without water ... and with location-specific dreams. If you lie down at A18, you dream 'Starry Beach'. And the best Dreamcatchers can then go and, literally, sleep with their audience and share the dream with them. Some dreams are therapeutic, some are adventures, some are romances ... (In proof that this book is not intended for the very young, there's a dream on the map named 'Big Member', and a passage describing a senior Dreamcatcher devoutly hoping that none of the new intake will ask about it.)

The Place hasn't been there for ever. Tziga Hame discovered it (by falling into it) twenty years before the opening of the novel. He and his sister-in-law, Grace Tiebold, are amongst the most esteemed Dreamcatchers. Their daughters, Laura and Rose, are set to Try -- that is, to find out whether they, too, can reach the Place.

But not everything is as idyllic as it seems.

I am not going to write about the plot: it's beautiful and complex and this is the first part of a two-part tale. It contains golems, romance, exploitation, new and delicious sweets (no, not chocolate frogs), a boy racing a schooner along a sandy peninsula washed by the ocean, love and betrayal and corrupt politicians. If this is not your sort of thing, move along ...

"The boy climbed up onto the eucalyptus stump. He got sap on his hands and feet. He stood on the stump and looked about. The sunset was so violent that it should have been making a noise. The light cast the shadows of the far hills upward across the sky, bristling rays of opaque blue in a huge, bright, slicing pane of orange light."

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

#73: The Wish List -- Eoin Colfer

I've never read the Artemis Fowl books -- something didn't click -- but I picked this one up and liked the look of it.

Meg, 14, has died and gone to Hell. Except not quite, because her last act before dying was a very good one, and now she's perfectly balanced 'twixt Beelzebub and St Peter (the latter bewailing the lack of proper IT facilities at the Pearly Gates). Meg gets to return as a ghost and help a lonely old man complete tasks on his 'wish list' -- if she racks up enough points, she'll go to Heaven. Meanwhile, Belch (whose lack of forethought led to Meg's death, and his own) is also dead but not gone: his task is to prevent Meg from achieving Good.

All very Wonderful Life so far. But this made me laugh out loud. Meg's a likeable character: so's Lowrie McCall, the old man she's helping, who gets to look at a few key episodes in his 'wasted' life with new clarity. Belch (and his infernal / holographic assistant, an AI called Elph) are hilarious. And best of all, it's a really nicely paced novel -- we discover at the beginning that Meg's done something truly dreadful to her stepfather, but only gradually are the details disclosed.
Not too heavy-handed, and nicely observed, and very funny.

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

Thursday, August 18, 2005

#72: Sabine -- A. P.

Purporting to be a tale of "forbidden schoolgirl love in 50s France", this paperback even has faux-aged tattered corners and creased cover, and a suitably pulp-style cover illustration. I picked it up because I couldn't quite believe that Books Etc had a lesbian porn novel* in their 3-for-2 offer: read a random page, and liked the style, which had the same racy, smoke-roughened confidence that I associate (for some reason) with Marianne Faithfull's later writings.

The thing is, amidst all the evocative details -- gramophones, Gitanes, Renoir films in smoky cinemas, and the eponymous Sabine all cool in her rebellious denims at a hunt meet -- this book is not what it says it is, at all. It turns into quite another sort of book near the end, and the change of gear is pretty sudden, quite credible and left me wrong-footed for the rest of the novel. I'm not sure whether the ending is rushed or whether the book just judders to a halt for effect.

I've spent a while trying to guess who 'A.P.' might be. But if I tell you my guesses, that'll give away the nature of the twist ...

*one that wasn't by Sarah Walters, anyway

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

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

#71: Temeraire -- Naomi Novik

Advance reading copy: the novel's due for publication in January. The cover sports a quote from Stephen King, who calls it a 'cross between Susanna Clarke and Patrick O'Brian': I would actually be more inclined to cite McCaffrey than Clarke ...

The setting is the Napoleonic Wars; the world, much like ours except for the fact of dragons. There are various species, bred and managed by various nations: dragon-handlers form an elite Aerial Corps, rumoured to indulge in excessively libertine pursuits. Captain William Laurence, the protagonist of the novel, is a successful naval captain who accidentally becomes handler to a rare Oriental dragon named Temeraire -- thus ruining his maritime career, not to mention his chances of marrying Miss Edith Galman. Fortunately, there are compensations.

I haven't quite made up my mind about this novel yet. I found it very readable, extremely enjoyable, playful and (mostly) competently written, though there are some inexcusable Americanisms bandied by the author's British characters. There are some powerfully affecting passages which border on the sentimental -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I think what's missing is a certain edge. There's plenty of warfare, dramatic aerial combat, etc etc; there's loss and treachery. That darker side, though, seems more backdrop than anything; a curtain of plot against which to project more personal events, which can seem trivial against Napoleonic invasion etc -- though Laurence's growth and change, as a character, is very well handled, and Temeraire is one of the most likeable and intriguing dragons I've encountered in literature. (Or, oddly enough, anywhere else.) Nevertheless, it feels slight: perhaps that's because there is room for so much more depth to the story, more background, more of a resolution. There's certainly space for continuation.

All that said, it's competently written, charming, enjoyable and inventive. Do look out for it. And don't believe Stephen King.

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

#65-70: Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series (rereads)

Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series (rereads)
Children of Chance
Divine Comedy
Unholy Harmonies
Volcanic Airs
Brotherly Love
Unaccustomed Spirits

Rereading all six of Pewsey's Mountjoy novels -- in about five days, pre-Worldcon -- was exceedingly self-indulgent, but just what I needed.
At first glance the books look like chick-lit, or perhaps Aga sagas: pretty pastel covers, the occasional musical instrument or chunk of architecture, not too many pages. At best, they resemble upmarket romances. But appearances, in this case, deceive.

I was lying in bed the other day trying to work out why these are romantic, rather than romances. I think it's because most of them end with the first kiss, and often the first indication of a romance, between two characters who we're surprised to find ending up together. (By the next book, they'll often have blended into the supporting cast as a couple.) In at least one of the novels, the 'happy ending' is secondary to the heroine's ambitions: it's all very well running away to London with a dark, intriguing, intellectual music-lover, but she's really going for voice training.

The setting for most of the novels is the imaginary Northern city of Eyot (county town of Eyotshire) and its surrounding villages. Eyot hosts an internationally-famous annual music festival, which accounts for the number of musicians, artists and creative types who make their home in the area. It doesn't, however, count for the local aristocracy, the Mountjoys (Valdemar, the head of the family during the timeline of most of the books, is thoroughly 18th-century in his behaviour); nor for the inexplicable nature of Lily, housekeeper to a world-class cellist, and much given to gnomic pronouncements and sense that only looks common with hindsight; nor the ghostly protagonists in Unaccustomed Spirits and Brotherly Love; nor, in one novel, for a visit from a dancer who's apparently channeling a Greek god. There's a touch of magic to Eyot, but it's never explained: just the way things are.

Rereading all six novels with a rather more critical eye, I did notice one aspect of them which jars: the question of when they're set. All of them were published in the 1990s and seemed more or less contemporary: there's very little sense of current events, or the wider world (though in one novel the heroine travels to Prague, where there's political unrest and a very Cold War atmosphere). I'd always assumed they were set no earlier than 1980. But there are some indications that they're actually set in the 1970s: one character, aged 45, describes her first marriage 'at the age of 19, just after the war'. I'd be hard-put to identify anything that actually contradicts a date of, say, 1976 (and in fact the first novel takes place in an extraordinarily hot summer), and yet the feel of the books -- cheap and easy air travel, cashpoint cards etc -- seems later.

Ah well. They really are immensely enjoyable books, and Pewsey's depiction of bucolic bliss -- this is rural life where the real crimes are intolerance, narrow-mindedness, refusal to embrace change, and denying one's artistic leanings -- are truly delightful. And she makes me smile a lot, and sometimes even laugh. Lightweight but delicious.

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