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

Sunday, October 29, 2006

#99: Voyageurs -- Margaret Elphinstone

I think this was my third attempt at reading Voyageurs: on previous tries, I got stuck before I'd really got to know Mark Greenhow, Elphinstone's personable first-person narrator. This time I devoured the book: perhaps because I was more able to relax into the slowness of the prose, the bleakness of the setting; perhaps because James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder covered a little of the same territory from a markedly different angle.

Canada, 1810: Rachel Greenhow, a young Quaker woman, goes missing in the wilderness after the death of her child. When news of her presumed death reaches her family in Cumberland, her parents are devastated: but Mark, her brother, is determined to discover his sister's fate, and he sets out alone on an epic voyage.

Mark is fascinating because he's so firmly rooted in two things: his faith and the landscape in which he grew to manhood. His narrative's presented as the work of an older Mark, annotating and editing the travel journal of his twenty-three year old self, sitting at his desk and looking out over the fells. There's much made of the difference between the wilderness of Western Canada and the high clean places of the Lake District: Mark reminds us, again and again, that he is used to a landscape from which one can look out. The endless forests and dark woods, the Indian trails, the bitter winters and rough company of voyageurs -- fur trappers and adventurers, conveying their spoils and trade goods by canoe and portage across distances that seem vast to Mark -- are as unknowable and forbidding to Mark as they must have been to his sister.

But he's not alone on his quest. Rachel's husband, Alan -- a Scotsman, with several strings to his bow -- agrees to accompany Mark. In the end it's Mark's nature, and his faith, that produce results: but he couldn't have made his journey without the aid of Alan, who's at home in the wilderness: who becomes a staunch and lifelong friend to his newfound brother-in-law despite the vast gulf of belief, of temperament, of experience between them.

In some respects it's a simple narrative -- yet there are so many unanswered questions, so many issues that Mark skirts or merely presents as reasonable fact but which have questionable morality. I'm not convinced that he actually likes his sister very much: as a symbol, a cipher, she's important to him, but there's a strong sense of ... not quite rivalry, but awkwardness.

In the end Mark triumphs because of what he is -- Nigigwetagad, the man in grey, the pacifist who won't fight (except with good cause), the polar opposite of incendiary Alan. His faith informs everything he does, even the writing of his journal, which is interspersed with rueful observations about his own failings. Vanity, lust, anger. Pride. He spends a lot of time thinking about his faith; wondering why, when the Society of Friends allows women to speak out in a way that's unheard of elsewhere, Rachel still felt silenced. "To begin with," says Alan, "I loved her capacity for silence." And later, "I respected her silence since I had no means to break it." Not all silences, Mark learns, are good silences, the silence of Meeting where truth comes in.

There's a certain coyness to Mark's 'footnotes': they keep us guessing as to the identity of his wife, right until the end of the novel, and there's no real reason (save literary suspense) for her name to be omitted. And the framing narrative, in which 'M.R.E.' discovers the journal hidden away between the rafters, allows a trick to be played with the ending.

Mark, despite his travels in Canada, never loses his Cumbrian accent. He writes of the 'glisky rime' of ice on Lake Michigan; of his memories of being 'a little lad', and of his sister's bairn; of thee and thou, in a way that never seems quaint or forced. I like Mark a great deal.

#98: Outside the Dog Museum -- Jonathan Carroll

People have been recommending this book to me ever since it was published: but I never do as I'm told. I probably enjoyed it more now than I would have ten years ago.

Or perhaps I'm just drunk on Carroll's prose. His writing is, literally, inspirational: I marvel at the acuteness of his focus, and find myself verbalising my own experiences and observations much more (and more intelligently) than I usually would do.

Harry Radcliffe is a brilliant architect who's just come through a bout of madness, out of which he was guided by the shamanic Venasque. Venasque passed out of Harry's life before the beginning of the novel, but he's as present as Harry's two girlfriends (Claire and Fanny), or Harry's new friend Morton Palm, a carpenter who specialises in doors and ladders.

Harry is approached by the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Saru to design a billion-dollar dog museum. Gradually he allows himself to be persuaded: the Sultan is a very ... unusual ruler. His son Hassan (engaged in an affair with Fanny) is a different kind of man altogether. And, it turns out, the Dog Museum is not what it seems, either.

As the novel progresses, Harry becomes more in touch with the world around him; sees things he can scarcely believe (magic and otherwise) and learns, in a sense, how to be alive again. He comes to terms with some unpleasant truths about himself, and acquires a number of interesting new skills. And he begins to make the right choices.

There's a dream-logic to even the most unnatural scenes (man eats car; child channels shaman; one individual acquires instant telepathic knowledge of what it's like to be that passer-by), and though there is certainly magic it's not the showy hand-waving stuff. There are no magic spells. (Come to think of it, there's one.) The supernatural's there all along, whether or not Harry is aware of it, but it sits quietly in peculiar forms and doesn't draw attention to itself.

But oh, the prose! Of a man being stripped back to essentials by adversity: "he poisoned down into a cowardly, selfish SOB". Of an optimist: "she believed in life and considered it her friend". Of being in the company of someone who's terminally ill: "Years later in a biology class, I watched a snake devour a live mouse bit by wriggling bit. That is what it was like to be with [him] that single day, knowing that something was killing him even as we stood there looking at his red onions."

Many people tell their stories, like parables, to Harry. It seems to me, looking back, that each one of those stories illuminates Harry's own story from another angle: but when I read the novel this passed me by, so subtly is it achieved. I'm already looking forward to rereading Outside the Dog Museum: already suspecting that the subtleties of its construction and technique will pass me by again.

#97: Vampirates 2: Tide of Terror -- Justin Somper

Second in the series, aimed (I think) at juvenile / young adult readers. This is perfect reading for the morning after the night before: fascinating characters, good pacing, adventure. And pirates. And vampires. And .. vampirates.

Grace and Conor Tempest, orphaned twins, were reunited at the end of the first book. Following a shipwreck, Grace had been rescued by the Vampirates: Conor, meanwhile, had ended up on a more traditional pirate ship. ('Traditional' is perhaps not the right word: this is the 26th century, when the waters have risen and the world has a different shape. Also, there is a Pirate Academy.)

This volume explores and explains some of the moral issues. Vampirates aren't inherently bad: pirates not inherently good. Conor learns about loyalty (and spends a lot of time at the Academy: in some respects this is mostly a school story). Grace begins to learn about love. There are quite a few new plot threads, some of which might have been better introduced in the previous book. And the ending, again, feels rushed -- though perhaps that's just because of the frantic pacing.

I like Somper's sense of humour, his slight tongue-in-cheek voice, and his ability to write a good seafaring story. A modicum of Australian slang, a definite Antipodean feel to it: I want to find out more about the wider world. A fun read.

#96: Keeping It Real -- Justina Robson

The first in a new series (Quantum Gravity), which I believe the author's said she wrote for fun. It shows -- which is not to say that it's slipshod or structurally or thematically lazy. I expect it'll be called 'self-indulgent', and yes, to some extent it is: but why shouldn't a writer do what she's good at and enjoys?

It's 2021, six years after the Quantum Bomb that changed everything. There are six realities, the human world (Otopia, nee Earth) being only one of them. The others include a realm populated by Elementals; Alfheim, where the Elves live, which has implemented an exclusionary policy for a year; Demonia (demons); Thanatopia (the dead); and Faery, which has been issuing tourist visas for three years.

That's Common Knowledge, outlined in the prologue. Robson sets out to illustrate the multiverse she's created by introducing Lila Black, half-cyborg (and half AI) after an unpleasant event in Alfheim, to the decadent and backstabbing world of the elves. Lila (another cyborg-woman with self-image problems, but somewhat more mature than Robson's earliest protagonists) becomes bodyguard to Zal, elvish lead singer of new rock sensation The No Shows. ("Elves don't rock," claims someone early in the novel. Zal is the epitome of rock. Though he's pretty sick of the lembas jokes and Tolkien references.)

It shouldn't come as any surprise to readers of Robson's earlier novels to hear that there's excitement and adventure and really wild things. I can't think of a contemporary writer who produces such cinematically vivid images -- not just action scenes but the literary equivalent of long-range panning shots that give context. And of course there's a lot of music, and Faerie vocalists in extravagant make-up, and duplicitous Elves, and a sense of Game that comes straight out of all those old ballads about Elves versus Mortals.

Oh, and according to the Elves, there have always been six realms: it's not a recent thing. All those ballads? Accurate historical reportage.

There are a few places where I felt more editing would have helped -- apparent mistakes such as 'filial' for 'fraternal'; over-dense info-dumps -- but Robson's prose is hip and sharp and admirably suited to her subject. Given the subject matter, I was surprised at how very different the novel felt to the Bordertown books.

Also, good use of fonts for the various races: the difference between speakers is visually as well as verbally striking. And some gloriously measured prose:
Elfheart machine-woman and demonheart elf-man. Walking four worlds inside the forfeit bond. Sing the two, eight, eighteen canticle, the shape of things, the weird of breaths, the soft hand in hand dance, and, as all water is one across the worlds and sings each to each unbroken the lowest notes of sweet lament, we shall bend our mind to thy curious measure.

Read that aloud: gorgeous.

This is patently the first in a series -- Lila's backstory is gradually, though not entirely, revealed as the novel progresses, while Zal's intriguing family background is not yet fully explained. I'm looking forward to the next in the sequence. The Quantum Gravity books, despite their sfnal scenario, cross genres (fantasy, romance, crime), and the playfulness conceals considerable depth. Not as deep, as weighty, as philosophical as Living Next Door to the God of Love, but in some respects an even more exhilirating ride.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

#95: The Double Tongue -- William Golding

Golding's last novel, left in draft at the author's death in 1993, tells the story of Arieka, a plain peasant girl with a divine gift. Arieka (whose first-person narrative this is) lives in the last century before Christ, the days of Roman dominion over Greece. She is chosen to become the Pythia -- the Delphic Oracle of Apollo. Despite the High Priest Ionides' secular views and worldly wiles (he uses an early pigeon-post to glean news from distant lands, and hopes that Arieka will give voice to his thoughts on current affairs) she is no fake, but a vessel for the god. The godss. They speak through her. They turn their backs on her. They utter and abuse. Golding's description of divine channelling is more reminiscent of rape than of rapture:
Suddenly my whole body began to shudder, not the skin with its surface movements but the deep flesh and bone, a repeated convulsion that turned me sideways, then around. My knees struck solid earth and I felt cloth and flesh tear. .. It was the god. He had come. What was this? A yell, my chest pumping out air, the muscles convulsed again.... I spoke to the god who had laughed: 'Have mercy!' and it was so strange to feel that same mouth which had opened and bled at the passage of the god's voice could now make words for a poor woman on her knees. (p87-88)

Ionides plans to use the oracle network to persuade mainland Greece to free itself from Roman rule. Arieka may be the gods' tool but she refuses to be the priest's --- is at first bewildered by, and later quietly dismissive of, his disbelief. The Propraetor Lucius Galba (an atheist, by his conduct) insists that priests and oracles confine themselves to 'religious duties' -- and, unlike Ionides, he does not perceive those duties to include wider concerns of patriotism, nor the reinstatement of theocracy.

But that's only one level of the plot. The novel also deals with Arieka's relationship with the god, or gods, she serves: her ignorance of what she speaks in trance, her dismay at the gods turning away from her (from Greece), the way that she and Ionides become like an old married couple without ever being anything but Priest and Oracle to Apollo.

The supernatural, the divine, is never explained, for Arieka accepts it for what it is: as real and vivid as any other aspect of her life. There's more mystery, for her, in finding a chest of tablets inscribed with Hittite characters -- left untouched since the early days of the Oracle -- than in swaying upon her tripod and speaking in a voice that isn't her own.

There's a section missing halfway through the book, and I can't help feeling that Golding would have polished and tightened and smoothed the text, possibly at considerably more length: the final chapters seem less 'finished' than the rest of the novel. Fascinating, though.

Monday, October 23, 2006

#94: Martha Peake -- Patrick McGrath

This is a prime example of modern Gothic -- a novel strongly reminiscent of Dickens (dank misty marshland, crumbling mansion with terrible secrets in the cellar, withered retainers, noble heroines etc) in both content and style, yet with a pomo twist of untrustworthy narrative and layered text. Without the latter, I'd have been wondering what the point was, for the Gothic novel's heyday has been and gone and I'm not sure that a Gothic novel set in The Past is likely to bring anything new, in terms of content and effect, to the genre.

Ambrose Tree, fancying himself the heir to Drogo Hall (inherited by his aged uncle from the great surgeon Lord Drogo) sits by the fire night after night, hearing his uncle William's version of the story of Harry and Martha Peake. Harry Peake was a smuggler in mid-18th century Cornwall, son of a whore and a fisherman; he caused his wife's death, and broke both his family and his spine, in a drunken lapse of sense. Setting out for London, accompanied only by his daughter Martha, Harry forged a sober new life amid the radicals and free thinkers. But drink would be the undoing of him again -- and of Martha, who fled to New England alone.

There the tale divides, and Ambrose becomes more the creator than the narrator, piecing together Martha's story from her letters and his own fervid imaginings. Meanwhile, his uncle continues the tale of Harry Peake -- but the tale Ambrose believes he's hearing is very different to the one that the elderly William is trying to tell him. Martha becomes a heroine of the Revolution; but what becomes of Harry, with his deformity and his craving for gin? Ambrose fears he knows: but one night in the cellar, a hand falls on his shoulder ...

Martha Peake is a tale of deception and self-deception. Martha weaves a new identity for her father, unwilling to confront his decline; Ambrose finds himself driven to write the tale of Martha's life in America; William, and his manservant Percy, have another tale to tell, and an oblique approach to it. And there's an ancient poet who wants his story told true at last.

McGrath evokes 18th-century London vividly, as well as the seven-week passage to America and the quiet, close life of an isolated fishing-port on the New England coast. And he evokes revolutionary fervour and human frailty, cleverly shaded but not obscured by Ambrose's prejudices.

Ambrose is a little too much the cipher -- hints at 'worshipping in a different church', an agenda that's never clarified, and an epilogue that raises more questions than it answers -- but he's a fascinating lens through which we view the Gothic melodrama of Harry and Martha Peake's lives.

#93: The Apple -- Michel Faber

A collection of short stories, focussing on various characters from Faber's monumental bestseller The Crimson Petal and the White. His introduction quotes, at length, several of the letters he's received from readers eager to find out what happened to the novel's protagonists. Do any of these stories provide that closure? Well, no, not really. And Faber says he has no interest in writing a sequel. But these were the stories that 'demanded to exist'. Intriguingly, there's one character who doesn't appear here despite Faber's best efforts:

I offered him an opportunity to live again, as a younger person, even as a child; I urged him to seize the chance to say the things he'd been too shy to say the first time round. He remained too shy.
Such things must be respected.

I take such author-character interaction with a pinch of salt. On the one hand, hello? Made up? On the other, any character worth writing about is going to achieve an independent existence in one's head -- in much the same way as pre-literate humans allegedly took right-brain notions as the speech of gods, writers' characters can take on an independent life in which the hard work of logical construction and extrapolation happens behind the scenes, behind the curtain of consciousness, and events and reactions and behaviour spring fully-formed into the mind.

The stories themselves? Some work better than others. Mostly they're set before or during The Crimson Petal and the White: glimpses of the lives of Sugar, Emmeline, Christopher; Mr Bodley (for once without his friend Ashwell) suffering existential crisis due to a fly; William Rackham revising his personal history, bitter and remarried and sure he's seen the body; and the tale of Henry, an old man recalling his boyhood in a household best described as Bohemian.

Henry keeps saying 'you read sex into everything'. But Faber's disingenuous. The sex is there, in almost every story.

Monday, October 16, 2006

#92: Soul Kitchen -- Poppy Z Brite

The latest in Brite's 'Liquor' series, featuring Rickey and G-man: a story about love, jealousy and addiction, with a garnish of murder mystery. As a whodunnit, I have to say, it doesn't really work: I spotted the villain more or less as soon as he appeared. The ending of the novel seemed a little rushed, a little abrupt: although all the threads were tied up, there wasn't really a sense of closure.

It's very much Rickey's novel -- I suppose they've all been, but this seems almost claustrophobically focussed on his POV -- as he comes to terms with addiction (to Vicodin and to work), and wonders whether he and G-man have lost their way. They're still home to one another, but is that just habit?

That said, I did enjoy Soul Kitchen, not least for the loving and lavish passages about food -- good food, bad food, soul food, tourist-trap food. And it's so very evocative of New Orleans, a New Orleans that I recall from a trip in the early 90s: a New Orleans that was washed away by Hurricane Katrina, which swept in just after this novel was delivered. I'm looking forward to Brite's next, to reading an insider's view on the wreckage of a city that's loved by author and characters alike.

#88-#91: The Saga of the Exiles -- Julian May (reread)

I discovered Julian May's Saga of the Exiles [The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King, The Adversary] during my second year at university, and fell for May's blend of SF and myth: I still think her characterisation, dialogue and pacing is exemplary, at least in these books. (I haven't enjoyed her most recent novels nearly as much.)

Some years later, I read Intervention and the Galactic Milieu trilogy, and they sent me back to Exiles, particularly the second half of the quartet, The Non-Born King and The Adversary. This is SF on the grand scale, though the focus remains firmly on individuals. And it's SF with a happy, or at least hopeful, ending; a conclusion, a resolution, a redemption.

Rereading Exiles recently (having acquired them in plain text format) I was surprised to find that I was appreciating them in quite a different way. Back in my early twenties (and in the middle of a comparative literature degree) I was busy recognising concordances and resonances. Stein, the deep miner who's well-acquainted with the internal geology of the earth, falls in love with Sukie (brought up in a satellite colony) who believes that the earth is hollow. Richard Vorhees is the Flying Dutchman, and he's redeemed by the love of a woman. Some of the Exiles become legends all unwitting: some impose legend on their own Pliocene existence.

This time round I noticed less of the structure and appreciated more of the detail. More, it must be said, of the nasty bits: Felice's ordeal; her relationship with Amerie (and Amerie's reaction, which I had subconsciously interpreted as homophobic, but which doesn't seem so this time 'round); cannibalism as a spectator sport; the geology of the wider world; the atrocities of physical and psychic warfare.

And I noticed one very important omission. May's Pliocene is a refuge for all sorts of misfits: opera singers (who know Wagner's mythology inside out), reenactors, historians, criminals. But where are the SF fans, eh? (There are plenty in the Milieu trilogy! And May, a BNF herself in her day, is familiar with the species.)

I think we should be told.

Monday, October 09, 2006

#87: Bel Canto -- Anne Patchett

Bel Canto explores two improbable romances and an unlikely state of bliss. In an unnamed South American republic, a world-famous soprano sings at the birthday party of a wealthy Japanese industrialist, hosted by the Vice-President of the country. (The President has cried off: it's the evening for his favourite soap opera.) Suddenly the lights go out -- that's the opening of the novel. And when they come on again, the party guests discover that they are being held hostage by a terrorist group. Negotiations begin almost immediately, and all the women, save Roxane the soprano, are freed within hours: but somehow the terrorists are not given what they demand, not least because their demands, conveyed by loudspeaker and telephone, change almost daily. Their sole face-to-face contact with the world outside is via Messner, a Swiss Red Cross worker who's holidaying in the country, and Messner's an enigma to the end.

In part, I suppose, it's about Stockholm syndrome -- the sympathy and respect that hostages may begin to feel for their captors. Or maybe, in this instance, it's simply that the terrorists (many of them teenaged, two of them female, and the majority so poor that they've never seen a working television) aren't actually all that terrifying. At any rate, a curious detente ensues, as the southern hemisphere's summer advances and the spring rains stop. There are random acts of kindness on both sides: Gen, Mr Hosokowa's translator, teaches English to a young woman; Roxane sings her scales, and her arias, for an audience more avid than she'd ever expected; there are football games, and talk of what will happen afterwards. By the end of the siege, even the victim of the most violent act is joking about it. And everyone in the Vice-President's house has revealed some soft underbelly, some dimension of humanity, that those around him (or her) could not have suspected. General Benjamin, the terrorist leader, suffers from shingles; the French ambassador sleeps with his wife's shawl in his arms; Cesar longs for singing lessons, afterwards.

Then the siege ends, and we begin to see the picture from the outside -- not the cosy claustrophobia of a fine house filled with 'victims' and 'oppressors' who are rich or poor, and who've discovered how small (how large) their differences are, but the way that the press has reported the situation, the hysteria whipped up by the President (does he feel guilty for watching his favourite television programme?), the negotiations attempted by Messner.

The last few pages of the book didn't ring quite true to me at first, but I'm beginning to view them in a different light: a sense of people turning to their companions in adversity, because there is no one else who can understand what it was like when their lives changes.

Patchett's writing is clear, crisp, understated: she does not waste her observations. There's a sense of, not exactly magic, but connection, that I first noticed in The Magician's Assistant (and found lacking in A Patchwork Planet). Everything happens for a reason, and with hindsight the plot seems inevitable.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

#86: Cup of Gold -- John Steinbeck

This is the tale, 'with occasional reference to history', of that most infamous of pirates, Captain Morgan. But the story starts in the Welsh valleys, long before Morgan's march on Panama or his years of fortune and favour: starts with a young lad who finds himself determined to go to sea, to leave behind all he knows, leave behind the turn of the seasons for the changeless heat of the Caribbean, leave behind his parents, and old Merlin on the hill (whose interior decor consists of harps and spear-heads, and who talks of sailing on a Spanish ship a thousand years before). Henry must leave behind the cold house, and the young and beautiful Elizabeth whom he loves, or hates.

(Years later, he'll tell stories of being dragged away by raiders at night, or of leaving behind some high-born lady who was his love. But Cup of Gold is all about the stories men like Morgan tell, and the stories that grow around them.)

Henry Morgan finds himself duped: sold as an indentured servant, he thrives but chafes at the bit. When the opportunity to go a-pirating presents itself, he leaps at it. ('Not a clever man,' said Merlin, 'so he will be a great one'.) His reputation grows, and with it his power and puissance. He becomes the subject of stories that have originated elsewhere, and sometimes those stories are older and oddly familiar. And gradually he comes to believe that he's a figure in a great and ancient myth -- a new Troy, with Helen personified by the mysterious Santa Roja, a beauty wed to a tyrant. Afire with story, he leads a buccaneer army on Panama; but his encounter with La Santa Roja is the pivot of his life, the end of boyhood and the beginning of adulthood, the end of the stories and the end, too, of any point or purpose to the legend he's created. Morgan loses his joy in what he is, and soon enough it's all crashing down around him, while he looks at the pieces and wonders why he doesn't feel more.

The rest of his life we see in fragments: a tissue of lies woven for the King and John Evelyn, so many versions of his legend and his triumph that he can scarcely recall what's truth and what's invention -- only that nothing is quite right, even though he tells himself over and over that he's true, still, to himself. Isobel, who sees him for what he truly is, calls him a bungling romantic rather than a realist. Her tale's an intriguing one: she has only ever loved one man, a Vagabond, but he's long gone and she has set aside passion in favour of icy disdain.

At the end, Morgan's on his deathbed, forgetting everything, forgetting each of his deeds. Forgetting the wife who bullies him and the woman he loved and lost himself to. Forgetting everyone except Elizabeth.

Steinbeck's first novel: there's a spare starkness to the prose, which sometimes sits oddly with the rich decadence of the golden age of piracy. This is no adventure yarn, though, but an exploration of fame, legend and myth: and from another angle, a cautionary tale concerning the effects of a romantic imagination.