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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

#40: My Death -- Lisa Tuttle

This is an odd, circular little story, a chapbook rather than a novel. (Some authors would probably have spun out the story to novel-length. Tuttle doesn't waste words.)

The narrator (I'm not sure she is ever named) is a widow, a writer who wasn't written a word since the sudden death of her husband. After a visit to an art gallery, she's taken with the idea of writing the biography of Helen Ralston -- Muse to renowned Scottish artist Willy Logan, and an artist and writer in her own right. The narrator of the tale admits strong influence from Ralston's books, especially In Troy, and is intrigued by the account of what happened to Logan and Ralston on a small island just off the coast, where Logan was struck blind. And now it turns out that Helen Ralston is still alive ...

The story's an unsettling blend of horrific and mundane. Something magical does happen: Logan's blindness is explained. But the gaps in Helen Ralston's narrative, and the connections between the two women, have a logic that is simple and compelling, never mind the happy ending. (That last para sits oddly for me, too.)

#39: The Courage Consort -- Michael Faber

This is a quick read but a lasting one. The Courage Consort is a five-piece vocal ensemble, specialising in avant-garde music: Roger Courage, the founder, his wife Catherine, mezzo Dagmar (German, twenty-something, will illegitimate baby), Ben Lamb (bass), and Julian (tenor, waspish). They're being given two weeks in a Belgian chateau to rehearse their next performance, the fiendishly difficult Partitum Mutante, by slimy Euro-composer Fugazza.

Roger and Catherine's marriage is not a happy one, though the lack of happiness is not to blame for Catherine's depression. Catherine, who forgets to pack her anti-depressants, who drifts off to sleep contemplating -- no, idly wondering about the practicalities of -- suicide; who hears voices, cries, in the forest that no one else can hear. Roger scarcely hears her. Beside the others, Catherine seems colourless and silent, but the focus of the novella remains on her throughout. I doubt it's coincidence that she carries the long, high final note in Partitum Mutante.

Something happens to, or within, Catherine in the forest one night, something that's never described or even alluded to. Something's changed, and there is only the slightest hint of it before a choice she might have made is permanently denied. But Catherine is changed.

The more I think about The Courage Consort, the more I suspect it's a study of the ensemble and how they work together: not only in the obvious sense of making music, or the secondary layer of rubbing each other the wrong way, but in how they cope with intrusions (the cleaning lady, Fugazza, etc) and, eventually, with crisis.

#38: Vellum -- Hal Duncan

There is so much in Vellum that it's hard to consider the book as a whole: doesn't help that the sequel, Ink, won't appear until 2007. Time, in this novel, is three-dimensional, which makes causality a whole new ballgame. Characters slip in and out of summer 1970; relics from a lost civilisation come to light in 1921; the hands of the clock run backwards; "It's August 4th, 2017. Sort of."

Space, though, is flat -- or at least looks that way, a world without end depicted on the map that Guy Reynard Carter steals from a university library. (This first scene starts off horribly like my vague impression of The Da Vinci Code , though unarguably better-written.)

It's not space, as such. It's the Vellum. a limitless landscape of possibility that can be traversed by those in the know. When Guy first opens the book, he finds a map of the city (Glasgow, more or less) that's subtly different from the world he knows. Turning the page, the scale increases, the map zooms out. And out. And out. "A world where Greenland was an island in a river's mouth ... Asia and the Americas were mere promontories ...". The world Guy knows is a fleck in the middle of the Vellum (for the map, like a crypto-GPS, centres itself on the observer): and, knowing this, he can flee the suddenly-empty city, can run and keep running after meaning.

Spoilers from here on in.

There are a lot of narratives in Vellum, though sometimes they're iterations of the same basic story. There's the tale of Phreedom (hippie parents) and her brother Thomas, who discover they're unkin, more than human. There's a war in heaven, or for heaven, and the angels of the Covenant (the good guys, allegedly: they want an end to chaos and change) come calling, demanding that the two 'hatchlings' choose a side. Metatron, the voice of God, the author of the Book of All Hours, is black as shadow, and the 'book' he carries, with details of every unkin and the ways in which their lifelines cross, is a PDA.

Phreedom's story echoes Inanna's, a tale from Sumerian myth of a goddess who goes to the underworld to bring her betrayed lover back. Seamus Finnan, friend to Phreedom and Thomas (looks about 20, acts a hundred years older) has a role in that myth too, and in other stories. No one in this novel -- except, perhaps, Guy -- is singular: everyone is bound to everyone else by love, betrayal, death. Jack Carter is a university friend of Guy's; an angel of fire; a terrorist (Jack Flash) in a steampunk Empire; a body on the beach; a wild man encountered by Guy and Puck (green-haired and horned; but 'Puck' is Thomas's nickname, sometimes) on a post-apocalyptic veldt; a student reading his eponymous grandfather's account of a lost city in Anatolia; a man who mutilates himself after his lover (Puck again) is murdered ... and possibly Phreedom's son.

There's familiar and fictionalised accounts of Scottish socialism, war in the Middle East, the murder of Matthew Shepard; there are nanotech bitmites created by the Covenant but beguiled by an old-new Prometheus; there are richly baroque landscapes (a couple reminded me, for no good reason, of early Banks), and exotic vehicles in which to travel over them; there are some truly savage scenes that would be horrific even if they weren't firmly rooted in the real.

Hal Duncan's prose is, on the whole, magnificent (there were a couple of passages where polemic or exuberance overwhelmed, and a couple more when I was thrown by what was probably a proofreader's oversight). He switches narrative voices with ease and assurance. (But should insist that, if different fonts are being used to distinguish between threads -- a largely unnecessary technique here, I'd say -- they're sufficiently different that the reader doesn't get distracted by examining the hooks of y's, the slant of hyphens.) His knack for showing past and present in the same scene makes me grind my teeth with envy. Vivid images are still fermenting in my head, and probably will be even when Ink appears. I can't wait to see how all the threads come together: the road north, the skin-books, the gravings, the Republic of Heaven.

Or, you know, whatever new comes in instead.

I liked this book so much that I'm not going to complain about 'off of'. <g>

Monday, April 24, 2006

#37: The Tourmaline -- Paul Park

The Tourmaline follows A Princess of Roumania (reviewed for Vector here), and will make no sense to anyone who hasn't read the previous instalment. Even those who have read Princess may flounder: this is the second half of a book intended as a single volume, split at what initially seems an awkward point. The end of Princess has great dramatic impact, but the logical division seems to be about 100 pages into The Tourmaline.

I'll be reviewing this for Vector, too, so I'll restrict myself to subjective reactions here. Things I won't necessarily say in a formal review, such as the irritation I feel when Park tells us that a character speaks for a long time, but doesn't tell us what he said. Ten out of ten for obfuscation and po-mo narrative devices: nil points for seamlessness. Or the indulgent thrill I feel when Park layers his cosmologies: not only is this a pre-Copernican universe with the Earth at its centre (or so I deduce from the first volume) but those aren't planets, whirling 'round the alternate Earth. (Or perhaps they are. Trust no one in this novel.)

Park's prose still has that crystalline quality, but now I'm thinking of distorting lenses and ghost images. I like his scientific magic, with its discredited key texts. I like his villainess. I revel in not especially liking Miranda, or Peter. I guessed the twist on the penultimate page. I'm looking forward to Andromeda, Abyssinia, the false son and the true. I can't begin to imagine how Park will tie up the story, or how many more books are to come.

#36: The Five People You Meet in Heaven -- Mitch Albom

I bought this book just after my father died, and am relieved that I didn't read it then: Eddie, Albom's protagonist, is an oily-handed maintenance man like my dad was, and he's just a little older, it being his 83rd birthday that's his last.

Eddie is the maintenance man at Ruby Pier, a faded seaside fairground somewhere on the east coast of America. He's still working, still enjoying his work, though he's crippled by arthritis and a war wound. He's a lonely old man who takes pleasure in doing his job well, and -- never having had a child of his own -- in entertaining the children who come to the pier.

On his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies. And the rest of the novel is what it says on the front: The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Heaven, at least to start with, looks a lot like Ruby Pier, and Albom's concise, lucid, unselfconscious prose is strong on evocative sensory description. Each of Eddie's five people is waiting to teach, or remind, or explain to him a simple truth, and while these are suitably life-affirming and positive, Albom doesn't over-sugar the narrative. Some things can't be fixed. Some events scar for life.

There are some suitably philosophical one-liners ("No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.") and some heart-wrenching exchanges (your mileage may vary), but the novel is not nearly as mawkish or sentimental as I'd feared. Neither is it overtly religious. Although there are references to God, this is a heaven without angels -- at least, without angels of the traditional sort.

Interwoven with the five people and their five heavens -- including a heaven made of marriages, and one that makes sense of the soundtrack to Eddie's dreams -- are snapshots of Eddie on various birthdays, and those, as much as the post-mortem explanations and understanding, comprise a portrait of a quiet yet meaningful life.

Perhaps it only seems so to me because I'm still grieving, but this is a very calm novel, very thought-provoking and reflective ... not only in itself but in the sense of reflecting whatever's on the reader's mind.

Once she'd gone, he let the days go stale. He put his heart to sleep.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Review for Vector: A Princess of Roumania, by Paul Park

This review appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, #243 (November / December 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 Ceausescu. 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 Ceausescu 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

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Review for Strange Horizons: Living Next-Door to the God of Love (Justina Robson)

Originally published here: Some remarks by the author (and others) at Eastercon make me wonder if I have missed a vital aspect of Plot at the end of the novel!
My original review here:

In Natural History, Justina Robson gave us a tale of alien contact with a happy ending: a brave new world where the lost and rootless, the restless and adventurous, were offered the opportunity to become one with a benevolent consciousness, Unity, that offered them a kind of transcendence. Living Next-Door to the God of Love opens some thirty years later. It deals with what happens after that happy ending, with the dark lining of that silver cloud. It's about what people—humans, Forged, and others—choose to do, and what is forced upon them.

In order to explore the ramification of humanity's interactions with Unity, Robson has assembled a cast of characters as compelling as any she's created before. The protagonist of the novel—its hero—is far from human, however. When we first encounter Jalaeka, he's perched on a ledge high above a wind-swept alternate Manhattan: a twelve-foot night-black frictionless hermaphrodite, holding very still so that Unity's agents, currently sliding invisibly through the same space that he's occupying, won't notice him.

This is the Sidebar universe called Metropolis, a four-dimensional enclave where a fifth of the population are comic-book superheroes. Many of the other inhabitants of Metropolis are not human at all, but are made of Stuff. Stuff is, well, the stuff of dreams—a substance that is part of Unity, that is sentient and compassionate, that welcomes humanity to advance and to become. Not everyone wants to subsume their self in Unity, though. Jalaeka's dead set against the idea.

Fleeing Unity and the darkness that's encroaching upon Metropolis, Jalaeka becomes something quite other: he washes up in Sankhara, a "high-interaction" Sidebar, and makes himself at home. Chance, apparently, brings him (or her: the hermaphrodite body's gone, but Jalaeka, as Cadenza Fortitude, makes an unnaturally convincing woman in drag) to the dressing room that Francine, a teenaged runaway from Leeds, is scrubbing clean.

Francine is a Genie, a genetically engineered human, designed by her mother to be attractive, socially adjusted, and very, very bright. Having had her fill of the kind of teenage rebellion that involves behaving like an adult (stealing, drinking too much, and sleeping around) she flees her safe suburban home and her evil stepfather, stows away in an unmanned taxi, and ends up in Sankhara. She falls, somehow, into dull-but-safe company, handing out leaflets for the Love Foundation ("Do you ever wonder what the point of life is now that you can be young, beautiful, wealthy, educated and long-lived?") and befriending Greg Saxton, lecturer in Unity Studies at the University, who's studying Sankhara and the stories and myths that are encoded within it.

Jalaeka and Francine fall in love, immediately and irrevocably, like something out of a fairy tale. Their romance is a key strand of the novel: in a sense it's what the novel's about. Jalaeka is made (and written) to be loved. It's not only Francine who adores him. Greg finds himself drawn to Jalaeka too, not least because of the puzzle he represents: he's not human, and he's not Stuff. And Unity is out to get him.

Unity is not quite omnipotent nor omniscient, but close enough that many humans think of it as a god. It's surely no coincidence that its ambassador to humanity is named Theodore, the "gift of God." Theo is simultaneously drawn to humanity, to bodies—how vile to be nauseated by one's appetites—and repelled by the whole notion of living a physical incarnation, separate from Unity. And yet the power, the freedom and the sheer sensation of his new role are seductive. Gradually he becomes more physical, more human, like an angel falling very slowly from Heaven. Gradually, he and his minion Rita (a creature made of Stuff, but humanly aware and resentful of Theo's control) draw closer to Sankhara, and their prey.

Jalaeka being what he is, he's vulnerable not in himself but through those he loves. Francine becomes Theo's prey: so does Greg. Both of them have their choices taken away from them in ways that, though different, are equally brutal. There's something very primitive about Theo's attack on Francine, something that foreshadows (or echoes) events from Jalaeka's history. But the trap he lays for Greg frames the two of them—the student of Unity and Unity's human agent—as mirror images of one another. Theo rejects humanity, yet he wants to know and live and understand it in a way that Unity's vast store of information, experience, and memory can never grant him. Greg fears and resists Unity, the focus of his studies, but he's forced into intimacy with it; the ultimate in participant observation. The gods begin to talk to him in the regular noises of his environment: the creak of the door, the clatter of balls on a pool table.

Luckily there's another god with whom Greg's on pretty good terms, by now.

Jalaeka's tale is a simple one, at least the way he tells it. He was brought into being on a pre-industrial world as a Champion opposing Unity; embarked upon a series of picturesque (and picaresque) adventures, from piracy to studying physics and biology at MIT in the mid 1990s—half a millennium before Voyager Lonestar Isol's encounter with Stuff and with Unity, but then Jalaeka's experience of time is not quite like anyone else's—and finally came to Sankhara, where he and Francine were brought together as surely as magnets.

That's his version. Greg spends a great deal of the novel working towards an understanding of Jalaeka's true nature. Jalaeka, according to Unity, is a Splinter of Unity itself—perhaps one that became separate as a result of Unity's initial encounter with humanity. He's a self-aware fragment that has all the power of the original, plus a determination not to lose itself—himself—in some immersive golden void. He lives in a fantastical reproduction of the Winter Palace, deep within a snow-covered forest hidden inside a pocket universe at the heart of Sankhara—a universe that came into being on the day that he arrived. He's beautiful and generous, gracefully bisexual (or more likely omnisexual), utterly devoted to Francine, and able to bestow something called darshan, the grace of god, upon those he deems worthy. To all intents and purposes, he's a god, as powerful as Theo and Unity but in opposition to them. As Greg undergoes his own transformation, he begins to understand just what that entails.

Every god must have worshippers. Francine has become Jalaeka's high priestess without realising the responsibilities that come with the position. If that were the sole force shaping their relationship, there'd be little space for Francine (or Jalaeka) to grow and change. It's the romantic cliché of love at first sight, but the process of falling in love, of discovering one another, is more gradual and, ultimately, much richer and more meaningful. It is Francine who learns, at last, about some of the brutally primitive events that shaped and created Jalaeka; Francine who realises that not even a god is necessarily free to choose.

Jalaeka's nature allows him to experience time in a decidedly non-linear manner. If, as is implied, he sprang fully formed from Unity when Corvax and Isol and Zephyr first became Translated, he's packed a great deal of living into a scant thirty years. But then, there's no evidence that he ever had a childhood. That's not to say that he hasn't changed. More than most people, Jalaeka has been continually shaped and guided and transformed by those around him; by lovers, by kings and queens hungry for power, by his friends, by his foes. There's a hint of legend about him, a sense that he is constantly remade according to the prevailing myths and memes of the time. He is the archetypal hero, the fairy tale prince.

Living Next-Door to the God of Love doesn't rely on symbolism, imagery and cultural reference for effect, but there's plenty to be found. Wolves howl in the vast, expanding forest that surrounds the Winter Palace; an oak tree grows in the attic; there are stills from Apocalypse Now on the walls; and the view from the window is of Wuthering Heights, as recreated by the Yorkshire Tourist Board. If Jalaeka seems strangely powerless in his current incarnation, there's a stained-glass window at the Cathedral—a girl like Francine all in white, cradling the body of Cadenza Fortitude—to remind him of his potential.

The drawback of a setting with all this richness and complexity—of protean Stuff that can assume any form, and massively powerful entities that can control how the universe is perceived—is that anything might be a metaphor. The Engine that controls Sankhara is experienced by Greg as exactly that: a mighty engine, vast wheels turning, steam and smoke and cacophony. Its security agents manifest as grotesque vampires that are paid off in blood. It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing is what it seems in this novel: yet the reader must continually be aware that reality is in the eye of the observer.

Robson's supreme strength as a writer of science fiction has always been her ability to create characters whose point of view offers a new perspective on the world in which they exist and act. In Living Next-Door to the God of Love, she handles her characters' voices with confidence and wit, weaving together multiple stories to produce an elaborate whole that's somehow, finally, compacted into a simple seed, a timeless myth of death and resurrection.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

#35: Eagle's Honour -- Rosemary Sutcliff

This book, aimed at younger readers, comprises two short stories set in Roman Britain. 'A Circlet of Oak Leaves', written in 1965, is set in Isca Silurium (Caerleon) and tells a story of friendship, lies, cowardice and bravery on the northern frontier. 'Eagle's Egg' (1981) is set in Eburacum (York) and is the tale of a young standard-bearer in the Ninth Legion, in the days of Agricola.

There's a great deal of difference between the two stories. I much prefer 'A Circlet of Oak Leaves', and I think it's also a better story, though the second has a humour and warmth that's lacking from the rather melancholy 'Circlet of Oak Leaves'. I'm not sure if this is because the expected audience changed between 1965 and 1981, or whether the author herself mellowed -- I don't want to say 'declined', but 'Eagle's Egg' is not vintage Sutcliff.

Both protagonists are unusual heroes; Aracos the Thracian because his heroism's been, perforce, hidden from his peers, Quintus because he knows how to defuse a dangerous situation. And Sutcliff's evocation of Roman Britain, from the advantages of Dacian cavalry against the Picts to the craft of the mosaic-layer to the rules and regulations of the Roman Army, is vivid in both tales. But there's a sharp stained edge, a complexity of story, in 'A Circlet of Oak Leaves' that isn't apparent in the later story.

A pleasant evening's read, though.

#34: Britain BC -- Francis Pryor

This has been my bedtime reading for months now: there's only so much detailed analysis of hut-circles and ditches that I can imbibe at a time. And I didn't even know that Francis Pryor was famous (or perhaps notorious) for his work on Time Team and other pop archaeology projects.

I bought Britain BC for the first few chapters, really: Britain during and after the last Ice Age, the excavations at Boxgrove, life before metal. Pryor's enthusiasm for his subject, and his anthropological perspectives -- he returns again and again to the spiritual, magical implications of various sites -- kept me hooked. And I learnt a lot, though some of it is inevitably closer to speculation than to fact.

Pryor's explanations are accessible, colloquial, couched in layman's terms. He compares Neanderthal thought processes (deduced from brain capacity, probable maturation period and relatively static technology) to "the overfocussed approach of obsessive trainspotters or stamp collectors". His digressions -- mostly in footnotes rather than endnotes, a distinction I appreciate -- are wonderfully entertaining:

Timber, a word unique to English, defines a form of wood which has been trimmed up and sometimes split, sawn or further subdivided, with the intention of being used in a structure of some sort. A felled tree is not timber (despite what lumberjacks shout as warning) but its trimmed-up trunk is.

He's pretty rude about some of the 'restorations': Newgrange is a 'grotesque hatband', Neolithic tombs defaced by 'Ministry mortar'. He's a little more tolerant of those who have gone before. His passage on Dean Buckland, the 19th-century clergyman who excavated a Paleolithic burial under the impression that he was digging up a Roman prostitute surrounded by the bones of beasts who'd drowned in the Flood, is almost affectionate. (That burial is like something from a Robert Holdstock novel: it took place during the last great glacial maximum -- 26,000 years ago -- right on the edge of the habitable part of Britain, in a cave that now overlooks the sea but would have been high in the mountains. The cave had been used for thousands of years before that burial, and would be used again. A liminal zone.)

There's a recurrent theme of Place, here: of sacred -- or at least somehow 'special' -- sites being used again and again, often hundreds or thousands of years after they first became significant, and sometimes after a long period of disuse. It's not so much continuity of purpose, as perhaps a new set of people happening upon the remains of an older set, not understanding them but recognising that they held some importance. In the early modern age, antiquarians attributed Neolithic monuments to folk heroes or devils; how did earlier ages interpret the relics of their ancestors?

Pryor draws upon recent anthropological work to suggest simple equations that, whether or not they are true, are credible. Stone for the dead, wood for the living; buildings erected so that the use of them mirrors the diurnal and seasonal cycles; ritual landscapes with definite boundaries; the spiritual dimension of even the most mundane tasks. He really gets into his stride in the Bronze Age, writing about lake villages -- in particular Flag Fen (near Peterborough), a site he's spent years excavating. His enthusiasm is infectious.

As his sweeping overview of history draws to a close, it's clear he also has an agenda: an argument that pre-Roman Britain was by no means a land of heavy-browed savages, but rather a surprisingly sophisticated collection of tribal kingdoms with legal and civil systems firmly in place. "It would be tempting to suggest that the British love of democracy and instinctive mistrust of all politicians is rooted in prehistory, but I shall try to resist it."

Fortunately for the entertainment of the reader, he doesn't try too hard.

Monday, April 10, 2006

#33: 9Tail Fox -- Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Apart from the central concept -- the 9tail fox, if you like -- which could be either supernatural or scientific, there's little overtly science-fictional about this novel. It's a crime novel allegedly set in the near future, in a San Francisco where the police departments are slightly different to those of our own world, but it's a future that is, for all intents and purposes, the present.

Bobby Zha is an SFPD detective who ends up investigating his own murder. He discovers almost as much about himself and his, often dysfunctional, relationships with others as he does about the crime, and the convoluted motives behind it. It's a novel about identity, its loss, its persistence, its nature. Besides Zha, there's a homeless black man who claims he served in Vietnam -- clearly a delusion, except that the numbers scratched on his dog-tags open some surprising avenues -- and a mad scientist (er, probably not mad) who's taken his name from a character in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. There's a missing Russian oligarch and the assassins sent to track him. Oh, and a crack-addicted kitten.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of Zha's relationships -- pre- and post-mortem -- with colleagues and other SFPD officers. (I do wish the author would write a sex scene that wasn't hasty, rough and slightly sordid: it got old around NeoAddix and he hasn't stopped yet.)

The ending feels hasty, though I think it ties up the plot-essential threads: there are quite a few loose ends, but I think they're there to add Atmosphere. Or perhaps I missed their resolution.

Badly proofed / edited: I gave up counting errors after the first hundred pages ('... such a group included one of their member'; '"I've head of it"; any number of stray apostrophes) and I'd run out of fingers before that. Grimwood has some neat ideas, but he is not above cliche and lazy prose. Quite an entertaining read, but I'm getting pickier about prose quality, and this doesn't compare well with the literary fiction I've been devouring lately. No reason that it should, of course, but to me it felt like a lack.

And Another Thing: The author's descriptions of Bobby's teenaged daughter -- Goth makeup (hey, this is the Future, isn't it?), ecological concerns etc -- sound terribly middle-aged at times, almost to the point of cliche ...

#32: True History of the Kelly Gang -- Peter Carey

I didn't have much of an interest in Australian history until quite recently: Carey's Jack Maggs resonated with vague memories of Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish (which I mean to reread) and impressed me with Carey's craft. Jack Maggs was a distinctive voice, and Ned Kelly is another. I was much more aware, reading this novel, of the post-colonial themes -- the wild colonial boys (first-generation Australians rather than transported Irish), their intimate relation with the land, the alienation from Empire, etc.

It's also a cracking story, and I'm almost certain that it glorifies crime, if not terrorism. The story is told entirely from Ned Kelly's point of view, in an idiosyncratic style that's recognisably based on the Jerilderie Letter: allegedly written by Kelly himself, with or without the assistance of his mate Joe Byrne, this 58-page document was published decades after Kelly's execution. It's referred to in True History of the Kelly Gang, but not included there because, unlike the conceit of the parcel of papers spirited away just before the Kelly Gang's last stand at Glenrowan, it's declared to have been lost.

Carey magnifies the sense of character in that document. In this novel, Ned Kelly's voice is vivid and honest: he's not exactly arrogant, but certainly never humble, though there is a simplicity (and even sentimentality) to his prose that makes the tale all the more poignant.

The novel is built around the true history of the gang, all right, but it expands that history -- the story of a poor boy driven to the bad by poverty and by the bias and corruption of the authorities -- with credible details and wild speculation. There's a strong Oedipal thread in here, and some allusions to especially savage or perverse aspects of Irish history that I'm not qualified to judge as truth or invention. There's more than a tinge of the supernatural (changelings, curses, banshees) that fits with the traditional superstition of uneducated Irish. There's a compelling explanation for the infamous Kelly armour: based, according to Carey, on yellowing newspaper reports of the Monitor, the Civil War's iron-clad submarine. And there is a very real sense of a man living in, and on, the land. No evocative descriptions here, apart from the odd phrase -- 'the vast ancient stars', the sound of a tree about to fall 'at the hinge of life' -- because this is not a novel about people coming to a magnificent new landscape but about people inhabiting that land and making it their own.

All of it's told in a style which at first seems wilfully perverse. The newspapers describe the Jerilderie letter as the work of a 'clever illiterate person', but though Kelly (by which I mean Kelly's voice transcribed by Carey) disdains punctuation, there's a clarity and simplicity to his prose that has the rhythm of speech without the need to enforce that rhythm:

All my life I had stood by her when I were 10 I killed Murray's heifer so she would have meat when our poor da died I worked beside her I were the eldest son I left school at 12 yr. of age so she might farm I went with Harry Power that she might have gold when there were no food I laboured when there were no money I stole and when the worthless Frost and King closed round her like yellow dingoes on a chained up bitch I sought to protect her.

Kelly and his gang are not immigrant Irish, or transported convicts: they are first-generation Australians, rattling around in a country at once too large for them and too constricted by land-ownership and by the geographical borders imposed by great rivers and the Great Divide. They all have a shared Irish identity, built from anti-Irish bigotry and gilded by the legends of Cuchulain and Maeve that Ellen Kelly weans her children upon. It takes Mary Hearn (entirely fictional, as far as I can tell) to tell them what Ireland is 'really' like, to puncture their romantic fantasies about the old country and the old ways.

That is the agony of the Great Transportation that our parents would rather forget what came before so we currency lads is left alone ignorant as tadpoles spawned on the moon.

The novel does not rose-tint the undoubted benevolence of the bushrangers, and of the Kelly Gang themselves -- payers of overdue rent, workers in the fields of men who've gone to prison -- but rather focusses on the injustices perpetrated by the police (the 'traps') and the respectable settlers of Victoria. There's a strong sense of unfairness, a clear chain of cause and effect that links Ned Kelly's first encounters with authority to the last desperate days before his death. Yet for all the grudges and the occasionally petty attention to detail, there is also a strong sense of personality, of humour and charisma. Carey makes this horse-thief and murderer into a hero: but more, into a likeable and potentially gentle man who's prisoner of his own fate. It's a grand and epic tale and I fear that when I finally get around to watching the recent movie version, I'll find it a pale shadow of this book.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

#31: The Ship Thieves: The True Tale of James Porter, Colonial Pirate -- Sian Rees

I seem to have read quite a few books, lately, about 19th-century penal Australia. (Just embarquing on The True History of the Kelly Gang ...) This one could have been more interesting than it was, and I don't think the problem is in the subject matter -- recidivist James Porter and the most audacious of his plans to escape from penal servitude in Van Diemen's Land -- as the format. I think I prefer Giles Milton's approach to popular history: in White Gold, for example, chapters focussing on an individual are alternated with overviews of the historical context.

Which is not to say that Rees can't write or that this is a dull book. Her depiction of convict life (though not as vivid as Richard Flanagan's fictionalised version in Gould's Book of Fish) is stark and forbidding, drawing on contemporary accounts and dry bureaucratic reports and fleshing them out with credible imagined detail.

James Porter seems the sort of criminal who can't bear to be deprived of his freedom. He batters against the walls of his cell (metaphorically, most of the time) in a sort of dumb panic, though he's not stupid: he always has an escape plan on the boil. This book focuses on a well-planned escape in 1834, when -- in the company of nine other convicts, most with some nautical experience, and the ship's cat -- he stole a newly-built brig from the officers in charge of it and sailed over 6000 miles to Chile. The cat wandered off into the jungle (I was most impressed that they left some seal-meat for it, having failed to lure it back!) and the escapees passed themselves off as ship-wrecked sailors.

The deception lasted for over a year, during which a series of increasingly undiplomatic despatches shuttled between the governments of Britain and Chile. Much of the argument hinged on whether the escaped convicts had committed an act of piracy (a capital crime) or not. Was the river where they'd stolen the brig really the 'high seas'? Didn't the fact that there had been no bloodshed, and that they'd made considerable efforts to leave the marooned officers provisions and supplies, count in their favour? Had any of them been thinking of 'profitable plunder'? Were they not escaping from an intolerable regime? (Various reform and anti-slavery Acts were underway at the time.)

Meanwhile, oblivious to all this paperwork, the men found work, wives (or, at any rate, women) and a kind of respectability. Then it all went wrong.

Rees occasionally sounds rather exasperated by her subject. "Porter himself was doubtless an irritating little so-and-so," she says at one point, "with his boasting and swaggering and always knowing best." She worked from Porter's original writings, and notes dryly at one point that "the prominence he accords himself in retrospect does not quite square with other accounts."

Porter fell on his feet at last. Returned to Norfolk Island, he came under the purview of Captain Maconochie, a philanthropic and well-intentioned commandant whose letters and reports would do a great deal to improve conditions for the transported convicts. Porter, perhaps tiring of the constant battle for freedom, did well; was treated well; was, finally, given his liberty. His happy ending is oblivion.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

#30: Prime -- Poppy Z Brite

I've probably overdosed on this series, but there isn't another one until July ... Prime was the ideal read for a sunny afternoon spent on the sofa, dazed with lack of sleep and the lingering after-effects of travel sickness. (I look forward to reading it again when I'm more awake!)

Set two years after the events of Liquor, Prime is the story of what happens when Rickey is recruited as a consultant chef to bail out a Dallas restaurant where Cooper Stark, a shady figure from Rickey's cookery-school past, is failing to make an impact. Meanwhile Lenny Duveteaux, the backer of Liquor, is in legal trouble; his lawyer is thinking of running for DA; dodgy deals are being struck right, left and centre. It is as corrupt as the Floridean politics in a Carl Hiaasen novel, though not as laugh-out-loud funny.

As in Liquor, the actual climax -- the Plot -- seems a little abrupt, a little more extreme than the build-up suggests. And Rickey is going to have to live with something pretty nasty. But there's still a sense of easy, comfortable fun to his relationship with G-Man: the two of them are splendidly vivid characters, and there's something very honest, very straightforward, about the way they're written. ... That sounds bland and imprecise. Do I mean 'credible', or 'pedestrian', or 'prosaic'? No. But there is no side to them, either of them, and for that matter no campness either. Two Blokes In Love.

"'I'm not interested in iconoclasm.' Rickey hoped he'd pronounced the word right. He'd actually stopped at a bookstore and looked it up in a dictionary to make sure it meant what he thought it meant, but he had never used it in conversation before." [p. 159]

Saturday, April 01, 2006

#29: Birds Without Wings -- Louis de Bernieres

It took me a while to get into this novel, a fictionalised account of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The first few chapters seemed very dry, despite some excellent writing. If I hadn't actually been in Turkey, less than a hundred miles from Eskibahçe -- the (probably fictional) village that is the focal point of the novel -- I might not have persevered. But I did, and I'm glad of it: I understand a bit more about the bloody and violent history of Turkey, about the conflicts that have torn the region, and about the reforms instituted by Ataturk in the early 20th century.

Eskibahçe is home to Christians, Muslims and Armenians, to a Greek courtesan passing herself off as Circassian, to the stunningly beautiful Philothei and to Drousoula, her plain friend, who appears in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Drosoula is not the only connection between the two novels: deliberate comparisons are drawn between the Italian occupation in this novel and Corelli's presence in Cephalonia, and some scenes seem to mirror episodes in the earlier novel. Above all, there's that same sense of the effects of the outside world on a small, close-knit community. This, however, is a much darker novel than its predecessor (much longer, too, and not necessarily in a good way): the descriptions of Gallipoli, Smyrna, and the death-marches are savagely precise without sensationalism. De Bernieres doesn't catalogue atrocities, but he does use specific incidents to illustrate the horrors perpetrated by the Greeks upon the Turks, and vice versa.

As well as the horror of war, and the irrevocable changes wrought upon Eskibahçe and its inhabitants, there are moments of humour, of love, of gentleness. There's a strong sense of Eskibahçe being cocooned, isolated from the outside world: most of the people (goatherds, potters, farmers, leech-gatherers) have only a very sketchy notion of the European powers that surround them. None of it matters as much as one villager's toothache, another's infidelity, a boy's red shirt. They live in a landscape that is smooth with use. Drosoula marvels at a pair of statues she sees, near the end of the book: growing up in southern Turkey, she's used to statues being partial, ruined, fragmentary. Earlier, there's a wry reference to Allied officers digging for antiquities in shell-craters, too eager to take sensible precautions before they venture out from cover.

This novel achieves something that I'm only just consciously learning to admire: the use of individual characters to illustrate history. I suspect that a lot of my favourite historical novels do it well, but I've never really thought about it before. Perhaps de Bernieres' large cast -- not all of whom have distinct voices -- brings this to the fore. Perhaps I've noticed it here because there's one character, at least, who I don't think is brought to life: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose tale is told in the third-person present tense, in 22 chapters. His story and his accomplishments are laid out clearly, but I never had a sense of the man behind them.

Birds Without Wings isn't as bleak as, for example, Birdsong: but it doesn't have the playfulness of de Berniere's other novels, and the weight of the more factual passages -- Ataturk, the death of King Alexander, and so on -- unbalances the lighter, simpler tales of the villagers.

In lots of ways Philothei was nobody at all and she only lived in a very little world, and she was destined to be ordinary. I expect that if she had lived to old age, you could have written her biography in half a page, and I expect that if she had never been born, it would have made no difference to the world at all.

But in a way the whole of the novel is about what happens to Philothei.