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

Monday, October 31, 2005

#96: Old Magic -- Marianne Curley

It's not stated, but this novel -- a teenage supernatural romance, for lack of a better description -- is set in Australia, though I don't know which part. Doesn't make any difference, except that vague sense that there should be a difference, a sense of place that's lacking. Perhaps that's because Old Magic focusses almost claustrophobically on Ash Mountain, home of Kate and her grandmother Jillian. They're witches: well, Jillian is a witch, and Kate's learning.

There's a new boy in class, Jarrod, and Kate can tell at once that there's something special, different, about him. He denies it, of course -- and he's soon made plenty of new friends who're all keen to tell him what a weirdo Kate it. Yet there's a connection between them, and when Weird Stuff starts happening -- localised earthquakes, winds out of nowhere, et cetera et cetera -- it's Kate who can help.

There's a curse. They deal with it. The ending is not unqualified happiness, but suitably positive.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The writing is adequate, but nothing special. There are a couple of errors that should have been picked up by any decent editor ("We glance alarmingly at our hands thinking they must somehow give us away" ... alarmingly? And, er, first-person present tense throughout: not my favourite narrative voice. Also, horses do not snigger. Although I suppose the ones in this novel might.)

Some nice ideas but a bland read.

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

#95: Beyond Black -- Hilary Mantel

This is an odd book, and I'm not entirely sure I like it: but I do admire it.

Alison Hart is a medium, touring the venues of (mostly) south-east England and putting the living in touch with the dead. There's never any doubt about her powers: the dead are with her constantly, especially her spivvy spirit-guide, Morris, who has some unpleasant habits and is a constant reminder of Al's childhood. Her manager and friend, Colette, never really seems to realise what it's like: she's full of sensible advice (mostly pertaining to Al's weight and health, and the paraphernalia of her stage-show) but increasingly hostile towards Alison herself. Colette has a past, too: after an encounter with the spirit of her mother-in-law, she left her dull husband to look after Alison.

It's never quite clear how much Colette knows about her friend. Alison's past is literally horrific: her mother a prostitute, her childhood populated by an endless succession of her mother's clients, small-time criminals and worse. It's not clear whether Colette knows any of the details: it's only gradually, and indistinctly, that they are revealed to the reader.

The afterlife, in this book, is a grim and dreary place, an endless replay of all the most humdrum and unpleasant aspects of life. The dead are lost, and are always seeking something. Some of them even remember what, or who, is missing. There are hints that it's not this way for all spirits: but the ones who are drawn to Al are unquiet, unpleasant, uninterested in moving on. There may be a reason for this: by the end of the book Al's learnt something significant about her heritage, something that paradoxically made me think of her, and of the whole book, in a rather more positive light.

There are some fascinating incidentals. Modern interpretations of the Tarot (Four of Swords governing the Internet, Two of Pentacles for the self-employed); the pastimes and hobbies of the malevolent dead (making crop circles, unscrewing screws on fairground rides); the idiosyncrasies of various flavours of pagan, medium and New Age types.

The reviews of Beyond Black praise its wit and imagination. I can't fault the latter, but much of the former escaped me, unless they meant that black humour that comes from describing people as they really are. I'll certainly be looking out for more by Mantel, though: from the interview at the back of the book, it sounds as though several of her books have supernatural elements.

Moral of Beyond Black? Sometimes it's not enough to think nice thoughts.

"At some point on your road you have to turn and start walking back toward yourself. Or the past will pursue you and bite the nape of your neck, leave you bleeding in the ditch. Better to turn and face it with such weapons as you possess."

Some might think this an odd choice of reading matter for the journey home after my father's funeral. It didn't bother me in that respect. Alison's world is not mine, thank heavens.

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

Friday, October 21, 2005

#94: Popes and Phantoms -- John Whitbourn

I don't think the individual chapters of this novel were ever published as standalone stories, but they have that episodic feel. And, like a collection of linked stories, some hit and some miss. (One, in which Admiral Slovo averts the onset of modern business, is based on an appalling pun.)

Slovo himself is an intriguing character: a Stoic by inclination, fighting not to be affected by the events that surround him, his detachment is aided by having half of his life-force stolen when, in his youthful pirating days arrrrr, he picks on the wrong victim. Stoicism serves Admiral Slovo well, since he is fated to live in the interesting times of the Italian Renaissance. Removing inconvenient bodies for the Borgias, acting as gun-runner for the last of the Elves [er, yes, this is fantastical alt.hist], encountering most of the heavyweight players in European history (Luther, Henry VII plus princely ghosts, Michelangelo etc etc) and hardly assassinating anyone, much, Slovo only slowly realises that he's a pawn -- or perhaps a more significant piece -- in a long game played by the Vehme, an ancient and shadowy organisation who keep some very interesting prisoners.

There's something not quite satisfactory -- perhaps just a feeling that there's a lot more to tell? -- about the novel, for me. An enjoyable read, though, and Whitbourn's wit doesn't feel half as intrusive here as in Downs-lord Dawn.

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

#93: The Meaning of Tingo -- Adam Jacot de Boinod

This book has been much promoted lately: I bought it because it sounded rather like They Have a Word for It -- Howard Rheingold. Yes and no. Both authors share a fascination for weird and wonderful words, but Rheingold is more interested in discussing the concepts and finding potential uses in everyday (American) life: de Boinod includes many more words, but usually in simple definition lists. Though not always ...

Example: mamihlapinatapei
"...from the Fuegian language found in Chile, meaning that shared look of longing where both parties know the score yet neither is willing to make the first move." (The Meaning of Tingo, p. 64)

"The Guinness Book of World Records lists this as 'the most succinct word' and defines it as 'the act of looking into each other's eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence'. Whether this is the most succinct word in the world is arguable, but there is no doubt that the word describes a relatively rare sensation that just about everyone experiences at some point in life. The eye is both the window of the soul sand the primary erogenous zone; our species was exchanging meaningful glances long before we started compiling lexicons. And anyone who has ever fallen in love or out of love knows that the word can apply equally well to any of these tension-laden situations.
"And here is the answer to precisely what one says in such a situation: by the very nature of the encounter, it is impossible simply to ask whether the other person has in mind precisely what you have in mind. But you could always ask if you have both just engaged in a moment of mamihlapinatapei, and thus approach the matter indirectly. If you want to be suave about it, you had better spend some time practising your pronunciation before you actually try this on someone. Since it is highly unlikely that a Tierra del Fuegan will be around to correct you, it is probably better for you to make up your own pronunciation." (They Have a Word for It, p. 80)

Actually, a surprising number of Rheingold's words appear in The Meaning of Tingo, often with very similarly-worded definitions that, no doubt, indicate a shared source: I'm surprised that de Boinod hasn't (as far as one can tell from the references) encountered the earlier book.

The Meaning of Tingo is a fascinating book. There are plenty of concepts that don't have clear formulations in English, though whether they need them (geragas, Malayan for 'to comb one's hair in anger') is a moot point. Interesting to see some of the distinctions drawn in other cultures -- there are languages which divide the colours of the rainbow quite differently, and of course there are all those Eskimo Inuit words for snow -- and to think about the world view they imply. (If you don't have a word for something, how do you think about it?)

I think I prefer Rheingold's approach, but there are so many more words in de Boinod's compendium. Though none of them relates to something that I'm sure some language must have a word for: the moon seen by day.

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

#91-92: Howl's Moving Castle / Castle in the Air -- Diana Wynne Jones (rereads)

Howl's Moving Castle -- Diana Wynne Jones
Castle in the Air -- Diana Wynne Jones
Rereads, after watching the film. There are whole pages of HMC that I know almost by heart: it's still one of my very favourite DWJ books. And there's a great deal that they left out of the film (Wales! Miss Angorian!) that I think is extremely well-done.
Less keen on CitA: it's never quite worked, for me, and the ending feels rushed.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

#88-90: The Viscount of Adrilankha (trilogy) -- Steven Brust

The Paths of the Dead -- Steven Brust
The Lord of Castle Black -- Steven Brust
Sethra Lavode -- Steven Brust

Though published in three volumes, this is very definitely a single novel: the chapter numbering, if nothing else, makes this clear. Some might say that it could easily have been slimmed down to a single volume without significant loss of content -- this is Brust at his most mannered, with characters who treat etiquette as a competitive sport, and who might spend two pages asking a question. Either this will drive you mad, or you will enjoy the measured pace and the social subtleties. The first time I picked up The Paths of the Dead, I fell into the former category: lately, I have relocated to the latter.

Though sometimes I do think that Brust takes the whole mannerist style a step too far. There's an ur-conversation something along these lines:
A (after appropriate greetings, enquiries as to health, etc): Could you tell me X?
B: Ah, X; a subject about which I know things that you do not.
A: Hence my enquiry.
B: Ah, so you wish to know X?
A: That's why I asked.
B: So you'd like me to tell you?
A: [sound of grinding teeth]

The first time, it's amusing; the next few times, vaguely humorous; the hundredth time, not. I grind my teeth, and remember that Brust is a player of games, and loves to tease his audience. The pacing is frustratingly marvellous; Brust's narrator, Paarfi -- a historian whose frequent interjections add spice to the tale -- plays cat-and-mouse with the plot, reaching a pivotal point at the end of a chapter only to pick up a different plot strand in the next.

If you can get past the stylistic idiosyncrasies, you may find the plot a little disappointing. It deals with a plot to overthrow the Dragaeran Empire; with the past of several characters familiar from the Vlad Taltos books -- characters who are perceived in quite a different light in those books -- and with the fates of other characters from Brust's, or Paarfi's, earlier Dumas-inspired duology, The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After. There are unexpected deaths, explanations for events which by Vlad's time are legend, and frustrating omissions. (It is really about time Mr Brust told us more about Sethra Lavode, and I believe the enthusiast might be forgiven for expecting him to do so in the third volume of this novel.)

It's plain that The Viscount of Adrilanka was vastly enjoyable to write, and I certainly found it enjoyable to read. I'm not sure I'd recommend them to someone who wasn't already familiar with Brust's Dragaera, a fantasy world that is extra-special because it hardly ever uses the 'e' word*: but if you appreciate either the 'Khaavren' books (Phoenix Guards / Five Hundred Years After) or the Vlad Taltos books (starting with Jhereg, most recently Issola) then there will be something here for you. However, I now suffer an urge to reread Brust's entire Dragaera sequence, and they're all in storage ...

*elf.

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

#87: Anansi Boys -- Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's prose style becomes more definite with every novel he writes: the marvellous told in simple words, repetition for comic (or dramatic) impact, the occasional dazzling simile all the more dazzling for the author's restraint.

This is the story of Fat Charlie. He's not fat, but his father gave him the nickname, and because his father is -- was -- a god, Anansi (the same incarnation as appeared in American Gods), the name stuck. Charlie only discovers this fact about his heritage when attending his father's funeral: a little later, he also learns that he has a brother. And then things go rapidly downhill. For Charlie, anyway.

One thing that doesn't seem to be mentioned in the reviews is that Gaiman, a Caucasian male, has written a novel in which very few of the characters are Caucasian. Is it somehow racist to say this? From my (white, female) perspective it feels as though he's done a good job with the British parts, at least.

The story's a simple enough one, in the way that myths and legends and folklore are simple. Charlie and his brother must learn to accept one another. A deal's made and then unmade. There is magic. There is also one of the most engaging ghosts I've seen in literature for a while, and some marvellously dark animal magic.

This reminds me more of Neverwhere than of American Gods, despite the fact that it shares its general theme (son of a god seeking heritage) with the latter. I think it's the journey, the maturing, that Fat Charlie undertakes: the sense, by the end, that he's arrived where he's supposed to be.

Did I mention? Also very funny. Darkly funny, in places: laugh-out-loud funny in others.

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

#86: Hunting Pirate Heaven -- Kevin Rushby

Picked this up in the local remainder shop, not expecting such an entertaining read. Rushby's journey starts in Deptford, on the swing bridge over the creek and at St Nicholas' Church -- very familiar territory for me. (The River Ravensbourne, which becomes Deptford Creek, runs past the window of my old flat.) Inspired by a conversation with an Indian gentleman who claims to've been a victim of piracy, Rushby decides to seek out the legendary pirate utopias of the Indian Ocean.

He travels in a motley assortment of craft, from Portuguese cargo ships to vintage yachts to local pirogas and dhows: meets an equally motley assortment of characters, including a sorcerer who provides him with a magical insurance policy (which, hey, must've worked: he survived to write the book), a pair of German ex-pats alone on a desert island, an ex-soldier invalided out of the Foreign Legion, a French palm-reader who conducts her work via faxed photocopies of people's hands, et cetera et cetera. Rushby is clearly one of those people who enjoys striking up conversations with strangers, and if even half of the stories he recounts are true, he has a talent for drawing tales out of the people he meets.

But there's a sense of spiritual journey too, of one man's quest for (and ultimate turning away from) the concept of an earthly paradise. The Germans are quick to assure him that it's bloody hard work, carving a living out of paradise. There are misunderstandings over women and money, and one gets the feeling that Rushby is duped more than once.

He's a very evocative writer, though: not just when he's writing about the places he visits and the people he meets, but also in his frequent historical asides. (This is a man who travels with a copy of 'Captain Johnson's' History of the Pirates, and looks for loopholes and connections everywhere.) He also has a delightfully dry sense of humour. Touring the ruins of a Portuguese fort in Madagascar, he learns that the plaster is made with egg-white. "The entire fort," he notes, "was no more than a defensive souffle."

I think what I liked most about the book is that Rushby was not judgemental about any of the people, places, cultures he visited. Some of his feelings are evident from the tone of his writing, but he doesn't attempt any heavy-handed morality, even when discussing the French mercenary invasion of the Comores.

No, scratch that: what I liked most was the immersiveness of the book, the wealth of detail and minutae that make up an experience I don't exactly envy, but find utterly fascinating.

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

Saturday, October 08, 2005

#85: The Algebraist -- Iain M. Banks

It's probably heresy, in some circles, to say so, but I don't think this is anywhere near Banks's best. Oh, it has all the ingredients: interesting (and interestingly flawed) characters, a long game of revenge, some spectacular battle-scenes, deus ex machinas [er, is that the right plural? probably not] and extravagantly-scaled set pieces, some horribly imaginative tortures and deaths, and a hearty seasoning of sfnal tropes (wormhole portals, failing portals, gas-giant ecologies, military tech that's indistinguishable from magic, robots, evil AIs, peculiar-looking aliens). It's a very enjoyable read.

But it's not, in my opinion, as good a book as Use of Weapons, or Against a Dark Background, or Excession. Perhaps I'm missing something: or perhaps it's over-full of digressions, repetitions -- difficult to tell if these are purposeful, but I can't see a good reason for them -- and pointless trailing around. This last is almost certainly deliberate, but I found it overly long-winded. And after all that, after hundreds of pages, two or three major plot threads are wrapped up far too quickly and not very effectively. (I don't mind the zero: that works very well.) The ending felt hurried: perhaps that was only in contrast to the chase sequence.

This book needed to be shorter: to be better-edited (I may be missing allusions, references, in-jokes: but, as example, 'here, here' rather than 'hear, hear'?): to be more balanced. Too much Fassin: not enough everyone else. Certainly not enough Taince, or Gardener, or Ko.

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

#84: The Ventroloquist's Tale -- Pauline Melville

I suspect I bought this book when it first appeared in paperback: 1998. Melville's short stories are a delight. They're not quite fantasy, not quite magic realism, usually oriented around female characters but not feminist, not mythological ...

So much for the short stories. As far as I can tell this is Melville's only novel, and I wish she'd written more, for The Ventroloquist's Tale has a first-novel feel.

It's set in Guyana, in the Indian (Wapisiana) population, partly in the 1920s and partly 'contemporary', though no later than mid-1980s. There's a framing first-person narrative which is immediately arresting:
Spite impels me to relate that my biographer, the noted Brazilian Senhor Mario Andrade, got it wrong when he consigned me to the skies in such a slapdash and cavalier fashion. I suppose he thought I would lie for ever amongst the stars ...

And, later, "I am the one who can dig time's grave".

[Andrade, I've just found out, is the author of Macunaima, the definitive guide to a Brazilian trickster-god. There: you now have more information than I did.]

That framing narrative has a more accessible voice than either the modern protagonist -- Chofy McKinnon, half-Wapisiana, half-Scots -- or Beatrice and Danny McKinnon, his ancestors, growing up in the Guyanan savannah in the early part of the 20th century. Each story provides a different twist on doomed romance. Chofy goes to Georgetown, falls instantly in love with an English historian who's researching Evelyn Waugh (who mentions the McKinnons, allegedly, in his diary) and almost leaves everything behind. Beatrice and Danny, who are the core of the story, fall in love and have a child, but they're brother and sister: the child is an idiot, Beatrice is sent away to Montreal, Danny lives the life of a reprobate and lies with his last breath.

The minor characters are vivid to the point of stereotype: Father Napier, the priest with an eye for his young Indian converts, sent mad by fever or poison and setting fire to every church he's founded; Alexander McKinnon, trying to photograph the stars during an eclipse after reading about Eddington's 1919 experiment; Maba and Zuna, his Wapisiana wives.

The two threads of the story -- and that sly framing voice -- are interrelated in all sorts of ways, but sometimes it's hard work to spot the connections. There's the 'carnal, dirty' moon, and the myth of how the moon came to be marked. There are unwanted children, mysterious animal-noises (that ventroloquist), mistaken identities in the dark. I think there's a point at which all three stories intersect (is this truly the ventroloquist's tale? do I have to believe the title of the book to understand it?) but when I went back to find the relevant passage, I couldn't.

Melville's writing is clear and clever, and markedly original, though at times I felt she wrote Beatrice as though she were a modern European. There are some lasting images in this novel, and some similes that had me mentally applauding the author's perception.

One note: if I were producing this book, I don't think I'd have prefaced it with quotations about incest. That aspect of the plot would work better if not so directly signalled: it's a mystery at first to Beatrice, but not to the reader.

Recommended, though, for anyone who enjoys novels that aren't centred around the white Western mindset; for anyone who enjoys reading good prose.

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

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Princess of Roumania -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in November 2005.

"I used to love those stories where the girl feels she doesn't belong, and she's having some kind of problems, and she wakes up in a different country -- just like this. ... This isn't that kind of story."

This isn't that kind of story: but at first you might think that it is. A Princess of Roumania introduces Miranda, a teenage girl living in small-town Massachussetts, who's haunted by memories of her early childhood. She has been told that she was adopted from an orphanage in Romania at the age of three, after her parents disappeared during the uprising against Ceaucescu. She remembers playing on a beach, and travelling on a train, and a cottage in a forest; and these vividly visual memories, together with a bundle of keepsakes (a bracelet, some antique coins, a book -- The Essential History -- in a language she can't read), are all that she has of her parents and her origins.

These mementos, these symbolic quest-objects, draw the reader's attention. It's simple to construct a plot around them: a tale of a princess snatched from her home to be reared by common folk until she is adult enough to claim her inheritance, right wrongs, overthrow the oppressor and free her country. It's easy to think that we're reading that story, and Park knows it, is complicit in it.

But the tale is not entirely Miranda's. The Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu sits in a tall house in Bucharest, in (we are told) 'a different time'. She has sent her servants, spirit-children under her magical control, after Miranda. She sits reading the other copy -- there are only two in all of time and space -- of The Essential History, and marvelling at the convoluted history (Hitler, Stalin, Communism) of the world it describes. "Such a tangle of invention, and for what?" This is not her world. The Baroness's world is at the centre of a pre-Copernican universe, the planets turning around it in concentric spheres. In her world England was destroyed by a tidal wave in the 17th century: some of the survivors fled to the Continent. (Newton was made welcome in Berlin.) In her world, Massachussetts is a wilderness.

Opposing the Baroness is the Princess Aegypta Schenk von Schenk, author of The Essential History: nobility reduced to poverty by the machinations of the Empress Valeria and her party. Aegypta is Miranda's aunt, and it is she who arranged for the infant Miranda to be hidden in a place of safety. The Baroness, though, has discovered that safe place, and Miranda is being drawn back to her homeland.

Miranda does not come willingly, or alone. She is accompanied by Peter Gross, a one-armed boy to whom she's drawn despite her thoughtless rejection of anyone who isn't clever and popular, and by her best friend Andromeda, who is smart and tough and feisty. But when they pass from this world to that other, Andromeda and Peter are dramatically, physically changed. And Miranda changes too, though it's not so obvious. She loses her certainty, her understanding, her confidence: and the reader flounders with her.

The story's told from a number of viewpoints (Miranda, Peter, the Baroness, the Elector of Ratisbon) yet never immerses the reader fully in any one character's perceptions. For example, during Miranda's narrative, we recognise her adoptive father's flash of joy when she quotes his own advice back at him. Scattered throughout the novel are observations and remarks that at first glance seem transparent. The metaphor that springs to mind is panning out: the author drawing back to show the reader some context.

Yet the context that's revealed is not necessarily the obvious one. There are subtleties of tone and shading, and of narrative pace, that steer the reader towards one understanding, and then another. This blurring of reality, this lack of definition, mirrors Miranda's own confusion. It bestows unexpected, and not necessarily reliable, insights into the characters' motivations, beliefs, and identities.

Park's achievement lies in the clarity of his prose, and in his careful, precise rendition of character. Many young heroines behave like grown women, but Miranda is credibly teenaged, utterly rooted in the world she's grown up in (transported to the North American wilderness, she still thinks of Albany as 'forty-five minutes' drive away') and not always very likeable. Peter is perhaps less believable an American teenager, but there are hints that he is, at heart, neither American nor teenaged. And the Baroness Ceaucescu, whose villainy is made explicit at her first appearance, has depth and dimension to such an extent that by the end of the book -- the first, damn, of a series, though it's not clear how many volumes this will comprise -- I began to wonder if this was her story, and not Miranda's at all.

This book will be compared to Pullman's His Dark Materials, and to the works of Jonathan Carroll and Gene Wolfe (and, inevitably, to the Harry Potter series, with which the sole consonance seems to be the fact that Miranda and her friends are teenagers). All these comparisons are in some sense valid, yet all fall short. Interestingly, too, every review I've seen seems to find a different interpretation of the events, the setting and the characters. A Princess of Roumania is like nothing except itself: bittersweet, clear and cold and complex.