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

Thursday, June 29, 2006

#66: Lucid Stars -- Andrea Barrett

Barrett is one of a handful of mainstream authors (having said which, I've blanked on other examples!) who can construct a robust metaphor for some aspect of human life from scientific theories. Her collection of short stories, Ship Fever, illustrates this beautifully. Lucid Stars takes its chapter headings from astronomy, and part of its plot from the conflict between astronomy and astrology. The central character, in a sense, is Ben -- real estate developer, husband, father -- but we learn of him only gradually, from observing those who are affected by him. There's no Ben-focussed narrative: just 'Penny' (wife number one), 'Cass' (Ben and Penny's daughter), 'Diane' (wife number two), and the final section, 'Two mothers, two daughters'. To be fair, Ben and Penny's son Webb doesn't warrant a section of his own either: but he's distinctly under his father's influence, and Cass's story is also his.

Penny's an astronomer, and she passes on her love of stargazing to her daughter. Diane is the daughter of an astrologer -- "they don't really tell your future, but sometimes they help you decide what to do," she rationalises to Cass when they first meet -- and finds herself increasingly lost as Cass takes on the role of Problem Stepdaughter and Ben retreats from this marriage too.

The novel is about how each woman reclaims or becomes herself. How Penny deals with a loveless marriage (teaches herself to sail); how Cass deals with a father who's emotionally, and a mother who's physically, not available.
'The region of perpetual occultation ... where we can never see the stars rise ... not lost, just invisible to us. People who live in other places can see them, but then they can't see the ones we can.'
Like everything, Cass thinks. Everything important in her life seems to be hiding in that region, lost from sight. No matter how hard she works to understand the things she can see, she'll never see the parts, just as important, that are hidden from her.


Although the novel focusses on the female characters (and the male characters, for all their effect -- Ben's compared to a black hole, 'lying in wait until love touches the edge of his gravitational field... love falls in. It, and the person doing the loving, vanish forever' -- are scarcely visible) none of them turn against men. Diane says something, at the end, about not learning anything from men (meaning Ben). And Penny says gently, "That's not fair. Just because you can't choose what you learn from someone, doesn't mean you don't learn."

I liked this book very much, as much for the atmosphere -- life on the New England coast, rooftop dinners, cats named after stars -- as for the events. It could be argued that nothing much happens: but it happens very vividly, from Diane's myriad letters scribbled on scraps of paper and shoved under the mattress, to Cass's secret parties in the house next door, to Jordan's attempts to bring the two halves of her family together.

#65: Dead Air -- Iain Banks

Banks' '9/11' novel, or so one might be forgiven for believing, given the cover illustration (an aeroplane passing the towers of Battersea Power Station) and the blurb. But the opening scene, which shows party-goers throwing things off a roof, and then hearing the news of the fall of the Twin Towers, is misleading: although events, and themes, do circle back round, the post-9/11 atmosphere is mere wallpaper to the plot.

Protagonist Ken Nott ('ken not', 'don't know', geddit?) is a radio DJ notorious for his leftish rants. He is a thoroughly dislikeable protagonist. He embarks on an affair as lavish as it's unwise, with a woman who bears the scars of a lightning strike and believes that at the moment of the strike, she became two people in two different universes. This belief may be what enables her to talk her way out of a tight corner, but we only have Nott's word for that.

On reflection, I think the real story in Dead Air is Nott's gradual understanding and appreciation of perspective. He begins to realise that friendship is more important than money or status: that the law doesn't have much to do with ethical right and wrong:
I'm not a particularly good person. I've lied and I've cheated and it's no consolation that little of it was illegal ... none of that means very much compared with betraying the people you're closest to; that's the stuff to really be ashamed of.

It's a relentlessly physical novel: sex and violence everywhere, and Nott's abortive career as Man of Action -- ok, one nail-bitingly tense break-in which teeters on the edge of farce. And, for a Scottish author, it's a peculiarly Londonish novel, with a real sense of place: a houseboat in Chelsea, Soho clubs, Docklands penthouses ... Scotland, in Dead Air, is where people escape to, where they go when they're offstage.

I didn't find the ending effective -- too trite, too facile, not enough questions asked -- and I didn't care for Nott, or his rants. And couldn't help but feel occasionally (as with the rant on the use of sound in SF films) that the author was indulging a personal whim, rather than furthering either plot or character.

Banks is a fine and witty writer, and this is an engaging book, on some levels: but I can't say I actually liked it.

#64: A Thread of Grace -- Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is one of the SF novels that renewed my enthusiasm for the genre: its sequel, Children of God, didn't move me as much, but was just as clearly the work of a writer with a gift for characterisation, telling details and dramatic pacing. For a long time I was wary of reading A Thread of Grace, in case it disappointed me. It's a very different book, after all: set in the past rather than the future, our world rather than an alien planet ...

It didn't disappoint.

A Thread of Grace tells the entwined stories of the people of a small (imaginary) town in North Italy during WWII. Some are Jews, trying to escape occupying German forces: some are Catholics: some are Germans. Some are collaborators, some are partisans. What they all are, each in a different way, is human, three-dimensional: real people with flaws, delusions, petty animosities. (Angelo thinks he's been sent away from his parents because he was too noisy and made his baby sister cry: doesn't realise that if he doesn't go into hiding he's doomed by his faith.)

The most fascinating of the protagonists was, for me, Renzo Leoni, a Jewish veteran of Italy's colonial war in Abyssinia, where he flew bombing missions and let passion overtake reason. Everything he does can be read as a kind of atonement: but (like Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow) he does it all with grace and ease and humour.

The novel doesn't flinch from atrocity, but neither does it dwell upon the horrors of war. Deaths are, as often as not, mentioned in passing: they happen off-stage. And Russell is not afraid to confront death in all its randomness. In an afterword, she explains her method:
So many survivors tell us it was blind dumb luck, not courage or decision, that got them through the war. I wanted that element of chance in the story, so I made a list of the characters, and my son flipped a coin. Heads, the character lived. Tails, the character died. How and why and when -- that was up to me as the storyteller.

An unusual technique, but a very effective one, because quite early on it becomes clear that none of the characters are safe. I mean, obviously they're not safe: they're in the middle of a war. But they're not safe from their author: a pivotal character on one page might well die on the next.

There's just enough of the other side's perspective -- a German doctor who's deserted, a commandant who's trying to govern fairly -- to provide a context that's probably more familiar to many readers than the struggles of Italian partisans during Occupation. (It's novels like this, and Captain Corelli's Mandolin -- to which I'm surprised it's not more generally compared, though the cast is much larger and the focus different: there's a shared humanism -- that make me realise how patchy my own knowledge of WWII, beyond Great Britain, is.)

Which all sounds terribly grim and earnest: but there's humour aplenty, of the triumph-in-adversity sort as well as the quiet sly humour of the oppressed, throughout the book. And some very nice touches:

Opera, too, has been dragooned. On Radio Berlin, Siegfried sings of reforging his father's broken sword: a German counteroffensive is cleared to begin twelve hours later. Tonio declares his love for the Daughter of the Regiment on Radio London: some partisan band can expect an airdrop this time tomorrow night.

A really gripping and highly recommended read, with characters who've stuck in my mind several weeks after I finished reading the novel.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

#63: Knowing Max -- James Long

Miles grows up in the stifling atmosphere of a big house in Worthing, alienated by his mother and oppressed by his stepfather the Colonel. His escape route is via the speed trials at Brighton. One year, via a random act of kindness, he meets the beautiful Ginny, who lets him steer her car to the start line and urges him to come and seek her out next year. Miles does his utmost to keep the appointment, but it ends in tragedy.

Interwoven with the story of what happened to Ginny is the tale of Miles's increasing disaffection with his family. He falls in with a bad crowd, ends up in court ... by the time of the main narrative, he's living in London, concealing his privileged background and trading engine parts and Dinky toys: his current girlfriend, Cat, is a free-spirited hippie who treats Miles' possessions as her own, and is happy to share her vices with him.

One day Miles buys a trunk full of letters and photographs at auction, which turn out to have belonged to Max Birkin Owen. Max, by his own account, was a war hero, an intimate friend of post-abdication Edward Windsor, a keen racing-driver; a free spirit misunderstood by his brother and his sister-in-law. Max has adventures in post-war Europe, mixes with the rich and fabulous at Cannes, smuggles vintage cars disguised as tanks, conducts a long-distance affair with an American girl named Natalie ... Gradually, Miles -- increasingly ensnared by troubles of his own -- begins to piece together Max's life, and discovers that it's connected to his own, his parents', and even Ginny's.

There's a great deal in this novel about the power of memory, and the things that evoke it: about how stories are built up of layer after layer, and how the past reaches into and affects the present. In coming to know Max, Miles is also forced to 'know', to confront, the person he's become.

I'd have enjoyed this novel more if I'd liked any of the characters! The layering, and the unreliability not only of Max but of Miles as narrators, is masterful, and I'm struck by how different the various eras feel, from Fifties to Seventies, and back to Max's what-ho memoirs of the Thirties.

#62: James Miranda Barry -- Patricia Duncker

A fictionalised account (Duncker explains what's invention and what's fact in an afterword -- for example, shifting birth and death dates for General Francisco di Miranda, who'd 'have liked to see more of the 19th century') of the life of Dr James Miranda Barry (1795-1865), a noted military surgeon for over 40 years, who was found after death to be female.

This is the story of a mask that never slips, from the moment that Mary Ann Barry (sister of the painter James Barry, whose self-portrait I had on my wall for years) concocts a plan to ensure that her fatherless daughter's intelligence and drive aren't wasted on a mundane, feminine life. The child -- I don't think she's ever named -- goes willingly: she's already reluctant to assume the demure behaviour and pretty dresses of a little girl, but dresses up as a soldier for a country-house ball, and is androgynous enough to confuse the gypsyish house-maid, Alice Jones. She idolises her de facto stepfather, the General, who tells her tales of distant lands and strange peoples: he calls her 'soldier' and denies her nothing. Together with David Erskine, a Scottish laird who provides mother and daughter with a summer home, and James Barry himself, the General is responsible for getting the new-made 'James Miranda Barry' into medical school in Edinburgh, where 'he' -- I'll omit the quotes from now on, as JMB henceforth self-identifies as male, without the slightest exception, for decades -- proves to have a stronger stomach and a better brain than most of his classmates.

The novel, in six sections, follows Barry's life from childhood to death: postings in the West Indies (during a slave rebellion), and in the Mediterranean (where there are duels and intrigues: Barry is notorious for a hot temper and a certain belligerence. But he never forgets Alice -- last seen on stage in a Greenwich production of The Siege of Troy, having run away to join the theatre and discovered a fondness for breeches roles -- and they meet again, in London, after a separation of many years.

Each section of the novel presents new perspectives on gender and sexuality, from the bored Miss Charlotte Walden (an example, surely, of Barry's life had she lived as a woman) to the death of Mary Ann; we see Barry through other eyes, and see his own perspective change as he becomes more weary of the world. Again and again the unanswered questions surface: parentage, relationship with mother, relationship with the General, relationship with the old painter ... Most of all, throughout, there's loneliness, coupled with a brisk unpitying self-sufficiency.

However far he is from England, Barry's heart belongs to it: "think of the fresh dew on cow parsley, lacing the hedgerows. Think of purple foxgloves on the woodland floor. Imagine the squirrels racing across your lawns. Breathe the smell of cut grass. Remember the candles of the horse chestnuts, pink and white, gaudy and elegant, swaying above the green, this year's green, the new spring green, folded like napkins high above you. Think of that fine soft rain, delicate as a woman's silk sleeve, touching your face. Remember the late white frosts? Just a faint crust of white amongst the daisies. .. Remember those long summer evenings, of blue shadows and thick gold, that long evening sun you only see in the north..."
"Good lord, Barry, you're a poet, not a doctor! But I could certainly do with a drink."


And later, "one single track, wolfed down by green."

Clear, rich writing, a certain dry humour, and a fascinating protagonist: explorations of sex and gender, the life of a military surgeon (I'd have liked more detail here, but it's not really the focus of the novel) and cross-dressing in the theatre and elsewhere. Compelling and beautifully written.

Monday, June 12, 2006

#61: Fog of Doubt -- Christianna Brand

The working title of this was London Particular: first published in 1953, it's a whodunnit, of which the murder takes place on a night when London's drowned by one of the old pea-souper fogs.

Raoul Vernet is a Belgian, visiting his old flame Mathilda, who's now married to a doctor named Thomas. Thomas's teenaged sister Rose has just confessed that she's pregnant, though she tells a different story to each listener: Mathilda, the live-in help Melissa, her Gran old Mrs Evans (much given to reenactments of desert abductions, and to chucking cushions out of the window), and to Thomas's partner in practice, Tedward. And lurking around the scene are two additional male suspects, the mysterious Stanislaus and the somewhat less mysterious Communist Damien.

The pieces are cleverly put together and the novel kept me guessing -- this was a one-sitting read -- and the characters all came to life, though in a rather dated way that's only to be expected given the book's vintage. It's a good portrait of middle-class life in 1950s London -- assignations in phone boxes, the difficulties of locating an address before the A-Z of London streets was available, the options open to an unmarried mother before abortion was legal: and it's a very competent and tightly-plotted murder mystery, though I found myself losing interest and patience towards the end.

#60: How to be Lost -- Amanda Eyre Ward

This is a novel that doesn't hammer home its themes or its message: it avoids sensationalism, and has a quietness, a restrained (though not humourless) quality that reminds me of early Annie Proulx.

It's the story of three sisters, and the choices that affect them: some are choices that they consciously make, some are subconscious, and some are other people's choices forced upon them.

Caroline is the eldest. It's her idea, as a teenager, to run away to New Orleans. Fifteen years later, she's a cocktail waitress there: single, lost, dreading the Christmas holiday and the claustrophobic company of what's left of her family.

The middle sister is Madeline, who doesn't approve of Caroline; who wants closure; who wants, it seems, to recapture the past.

The youngest sister is Ellie. Was Ellie. Ellie was all packed and ready to go to New Orleans, but then she disappeared. No one's seen Ellie Winters for fifteen years.

Other characters' stories weave in and out of the tale of the sisters. Bernard, the man their mother was due to marry before she ran off to New York and met their father, contemplates his own lost choices and mistakes. Roxie, a teenage runaway, tells Caroline that the girl in the photo she carries doesn't want to be found. Anthony, the liquor store owner, knows about loss: his wife was a victim of 9/11. (Perhaps it's because I don't read much contemporary fiction, but references to 9/11 in fiction seem remarkably sparse: I can only think of two others.) Agnes, a librarian in Montana, writes long and surprisingly intimate letters to a pen-pal she's never met.

I rather like Agnes:

On Friday, I came home after work to find a crisp brown envelope in my mailbox. (I have a snazzy mailbox, Johan. It's a regular metal box, but then I've added a fish head and a fish tail, made out of wood. I conceived of the whole project one night after four glasses of Chardonnay. Quel succes! I speak French.)

I admired the author for stopping when she did, and for leaving the underlying story as an exercise for the reader rather than telling us straight out what happened to Ellie Winters. And when she stops, the story's over, even though several new ones are beginning.

#59: Sabriel -- Garth Nix

Sabriel was pubished to great acclaim in Australia in 1995: despite that acclaim, and the awards it won, it didn't make it to UK publication for another five years. And I've owned a copy for several years, and only just got around to reading it.

The novel (marketed now as YA, but apparently aimed at a general adult market) opens with a glimpse of life in the Old Kingdom, a land of magic and walking Dead: the necromancer Abhorsen and his baby daughter join a caravan of travellers. Then the action cuts to Wyverly College, where Sabriel -- now an assured sixth-former -- is studying. This land, Ancelstierre, is far closer to our own world, though somewhat less advanced: the college is lit by electricity, private cars are just becoming a reality, and the troops stationed along the Wall, guarding against incursions from the Old Kingdom, have machine guns and tanks. Those don't always work, along the Wall, though: they wear mail and carry swords in case of magical attack.

Sabriel enters the Old Kingdom on a mission to find her father: instead, she finds his house, and a white cat named Moggett which is actually a fearsome creature, magically bound to serve. Sabriel skis, flies, sails and sprints from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, learning more about the nine gates of death, and the Dead who cross back over into life, and an ancient, evil enemy of royal blood.

Nix's writing is plain and occasionally plodding -- I wasn't really carried away by his descriptions -- but I found Sabriel a surprisingly enjoyable read. It's well-paced (though the regularity of the cliffhangers begins to pall) and the people that Sabriel encounters are interesting individuals rather than stereotypes (though occasionally theey're archetypes). Sabriel herself does her growing-up very quietly, and her transition from proper schoolgirl (albeit one given to resurrecting roadkill) to sword-wielding necromancer seemed unnaturally smooth and painless. Perhaps because the novel's told from her point of view, she's not an especially engaging character, though her ability to get on with the task at hand (and occasionally to succumb to impetuousity) is a nice change from dithery Romantic heroines.

As soon as I'd finished the book, I ordered the two sequels, Lirael and Abhorsen: as good a gauge as any of my opinion of this volume!

#58: Bone House -- Betsy Tobin

A murder mystery set somewhere in England, in 1603: there's little sense of time or place, but that might just be a comment on the timelessness of rural life. Tobin presents the corpse -- that of a 'great woman', Dora, the village prostitute -- and sets up various suspects. Her narrator is a rather humourless young woman, a maid at the manor house, who makes it her business to discover the reason for Dora's murder. She's aided by a young painter who has arrived from Holland to paint the Dowager, an elderly but sharp-witted woman who has plans for our narrator.

I found the author's reluctance to bestow names on her characters rather irritating. I can make a case for not naming a first-person narrator: but was it necessary to keep referring to 'the painter', 'my mistress', 'my master', 'my mother'? I couldn't detect rhyme nor reason to the characters who were named: Dora herself, the doctor Lucius, the lord of the manor (who becomes 'Edward', at least to his mother, towards the end of the book) and Dora's son, who doesn't exactly have a name but is always referred to as 'the Long Boy', on account of having grown to adult size by the age of eleven.

So much for the names. The language seemed lifeless, a prime example of the approach to historical fiction where slang, colloquialisms, contractions and humour are all regarded as newfangled nonsense, to be avoided when writing about The Past. There were scenes that were remarkably powerful, but that was in spite of the prose. The narrator never really came to life; the ending seemed rushed, and not solidly supported by the rest of the story; and the nameless narrator felt somehow unfinished throughout, full of potential but never quite realising it. The ending did nothing to realise or redeem her, either.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

#57: Prozac Nation -- Elizabeth Wurtzel

What on earth makes a woman in her mid-twenties, thus far of no particularly outstanding accomplishment, have the audacity to write a three-hundred-page volume about her own life and nothing more, as if anyone else would actually give a shit?

More to the point, what stroke of luck got that book published?

Ten years after its first publication, Prozac Nation -- 'Young and Depressed in America: A Memoir' -- is still being reprinted: my copy has a new afterword by the author. Wurtzel says "I wanted to write like rock'n'roll," and she's captured a certain destructive quality that's there in stereotypical rock'n'roll behaviour: Wurtzel's depressive episodes very much the equivalent of smashing guitars, taking too many drugs, all those excesses that are already passing into legend. Perhaps she was born too late: perhaps she should have been a child of the sixties or seventies. But then she probably wouldn't have lasted long enough to get Prozac: she started taking it in the late 80s and was one of the very first people to have it prescribed.

I can't deny, as a depressive, that it's heartening to find someone else describing with wit and bitter humour the broad outlines of what's been happening in my head. The black wave of depression? Tick. The way that depressive episodes have nothing at all to do with external events? Tick. And so on and so forth. It's not all the same, either in cause or effect, but there's enough there to reassure anyone who's been in that state: to reassure anyone who thinks it is just them, that there isn't any hope. Because Elizabeth Wurtzel felt like that, and she was wrong.

Wasn't she?

Wurtzel, clearly a veteran of many years of therapy, analyses her depression and attributes it to her parents' divorce and her father's subsequent refusal to have anything to do with her. And over and over again, her relationship with her mother triggers self-destructive behaviour. Wurtzel makes the very good point that there is nothing special about her: lots of people live through similar events and don't become depressed, don't have breakdowns, don't want to die. A lot of the book is about her learning to accept that, never mind the others, that's the way it is for her, and (reading between the lines) it's not because of anything she's done. (Interestingly, no one seems to ever tell her to take responsibility for her mental problems.)

Perhaps it's a cultural thing. Wurtzel seems to live her depression much more in the open than many English people I know. Not just in the book -- which, it seems to me, is therapy as well as memoir -- but in fact. If she's ashamed of her behaviour (which I'm certainly not saying she should be) there's no sign of it: a series of public breakdowns, overdoses, neediness, demands, screaming rages.

Wurtzel writes honestly about suicidal urges; about getting on with life despite the pain; about the distinction between chemical and emotional causes of depression, and her suspicion that if the emotional stuff persists for long enough it produces long-lasting chemical changes; about wanting tangible reasons to feel miserable; about depression being the only thing that defines a self; about going into overdrive to stop thinking; about growing up and not fitting in; about never being good enough; about wasted potential, and unrecognised potential; about the fragility of love, and the way it doesn't fix anything; about having the same therapist as Patti Smith. I don't always like the person she's writing about, and I don't see myself in her, but reading this book it's very easy to understand how close she came, not to suicide but to self-destruction.

As she says in her afterword, there are far worse problems in the world. But depression affects so very many people, blights so many lives, costs so much financially and emotionally ... and perhaps is triggered, more and more frequently, by the disintegration of the whole idea of family in modern America.

Worth reading if you are or have been or know someone who is depressed.

#56: A Dead Man in Deptford -- Anthony Burgess

Burgess's last novel, written in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Marlowe's death: I think it's the first of Burgess's novels that I've read and enjoyed, after sampling him at too early an age and not appreciating the wit, the wordplay or the subject matter.

The Marlowe (Marley, Merlin, Morley) of A Dead Man in Deptford has the passions of a young man: for tobacco and boys, as the apocrypha has it, but also for learning, for the theatre, for poetry. He's a proto-heretic, in that he questions divine teaching, and never quite seems to lose the mindset that he acquires at Cambridge: the notion that it's all a game of rhetoric and argument, that the worst that can come of any discussion about religion is to be outwitted on a point of theology. He's too free with his talk of heresies and sin, and that would be enough to damn him. But he's also involved with Walsingham and Poley, with a network of spies and infiltrators and trouble-makers, and it's his distaste for that work that leads him to an inn in Deptford.

Step back. The narrator, never-named, is one of the actors who Marlowe consorts with 'in a very palpable sense': and he begins "You must and will suppose (fair or foul reader, but where's the difference?) that I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowledge of or concerning." All right, our narrator is unreliable: he supposes and perhaps invents: but he is present just often enough to remind us that he's there, pretending omniscience.

There are all sorts of games and sports with language in this novel. Perhaps the finest is a sex scene, which has to be a contender for Best Fictional Sex Ever, though I reckon it could also vie for a place in Private Eye's 'Pseud's Corner', depending as it does on a working knowledge of Latin: Oscula, oscula, engagement of light beards and oscula oscula elsewhere, amplexus, complexus, and also sugere of this and that, and then interjectus and also insertio and great clamores gaudii, laetitiae, voluptatis.

Here too is Walter ('Water') Raleigh, and his new-found Vice of smoking: his courtly gossip and his unsanctioned marriage. Here's Shakespeare, a mild-mannered acquaintance of our narrator who sucks him mildly dry of all he knows about plays. Here are diverse and horrid executions -- a good show if the victim's alive to see his entrails torn out -- and rumours that the Queen's hounds are fed on human flesh. Here's hothouse rumours and the sense of paranoia and oppression that comes from a regime teetering on the edge of tyranny.

And here at the end is 'your true author, I that die these deaths, that feed this flame, mourn as if it all happened yesterday.' I think it's that love, that engagement, that shines through this whole novel, that brings it to vivid life: that and Burgess's love of language. Oh, I have learnt a deal from this book.

#55: The Conjuror's Bird -- Martin Davies

This novel tells two stories, and manages to maintain suspense despite the fact that they are being told in the same book, and thus clearly connected. In fact there's a third tale nested within the present-day narrative, and the roles in that aren't as clear-cut as they appear at first. And yet, I didn't find the novel a success. It should have worked better than it does, and I think the lack is in the prose, and perhaps in the marriage of fast-paced thriller with measured historical love story.

Davies links a few historical facts -- the mysterious Ulieta bird, of which only a single drawing exists; a 'gentleman' who waited at Madeira for Joseph Banks, and was clearly female; Banks' broken engagement, and his nameless mistress -- and weaves them into a story which is compelling and credible. Banks doesn't really come to life, but his mistress is tenderly drawn and her story unfolded at a measured pace.

Meanwhile in the present, there's John 'Fitz' Fitzgerald, an expert in extinct birds; his lodger Katya, a Swedish student; his ex, Gabby, a dedicated ecologist and conservationist; and Karl, Gabby's new lover, who is determined to track down a rumoured specimen of the Ulieta bird -- one known to have been in the possession of Joseph Banks -- and make his fortune. Does he want it for a DNA bank being put together by a reclusive Canadian millionaire, or for the personal glory of finding it? Either way, he enlists Fitz's help: and so does Mr Potts, an American whose agenda has more to do with money than with rarity or conservation.

The prose never really comes to life. The modern sections read like a run-of-the-mill thriller, with occasional sloppy writing: "feet in black tights had crept from their shoes and were curled up discreetly on the red leather sofas", et cetera. The historical sections are written in a solemn, rather bland style, no contractions and few commas. There are occasional brilliant images, but on the whole they merely distract from the surrounding material.

The plot is clever enough, revolving around letters and sketches and chance meetings: Davies also offers a very credible explanation for Banks' famous fit of temper, refusing to join Cook's second expedition over a matter of cabin space. But there are at least two elements which only work, only surprise, because information has been withheld that could reasonably have been expected to be revealed. (For example, Banks knows his mistress's surname, but never uses it when thinking or speaking of her or her family.)

Entertaining and thought-provoking, but could have been so much better.

#54: Innocence -- Kathleen Tessaro

This is the story of Evie, who comes to England from America, aged 18, to study acting: befriends the girls she shares a house with, Robbie and Imogene, who are both also drama students: falls in love with Jake, a rock musician: and ends up turning away from her dreams.

Interwoven with that thread is the story of Evie in her mid-thirties, a single mother with a four-year-old son (Alex), an eccentric landlady, and a career teaching drama at the City Lit. Robbie is dead, knocked over by a taxi in New York City: but they'd grown apart anyway.

Gradually the events that led from drama school to the City Lit are unfolded, and Alex's origins become clear. And suddenly, a blast from the past, Evie encounters an old friend in very unexpected circumstances: an old friend with a message.

I didn't like this book nearly as much as Tessaro's previous, Elegance: I don't know if it's simply that I'm not at the right point in my life to read it. It's very much a wake-up-and-take-stock novel, a book for women in their thirties who've spent their twenties living life (possibly living it a little too hard) and now start to wonder where they are and what they have. There are two 'morals', two lessons, in this book -- two that really stand out, anyway -- and I'm not sure I agree with either of them.

The first is, possibly predictably for this genre (I suppose this is what they call 'chick lit', though it's better-written and better-plotted than other examples I've read), that it's never too late, that there are opportunities -- not only of the romantic sort -- everywhere if you just open your eyes. And the second is that there are no mistakes, no accidents: that we end up where we're meant to be.

Evie does find closure, and new beginnings, and a new lease of life: and I'm happy to say that there is a happy ending that doesn't depend on romantic fulfilment.

There's a big Plot Device in this novel that's never really explained. How does the old friend reappear? But if you can accept that, and suspend disbelief at a couple of outrageous confidence tricks (in which no one is hurt, though an ego or two might be bruised), then this is an enjoyable read, whether or not you buy the moral at the end:

There's a peace that comes from the integrity of self that the rough fortunes of happiness can't touch. But it can only be paid for in acts of courage.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Tourmaline -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in July 2006.

The Tourmaline follows A Princess of Roumania, and will make no sense to anyone who hasn't read the previous instalment. Even those who have read it might 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 had great dramatic impact, but the logical division seems to be about a hundred pages into The Tourmaline, when Peter and Andromeda -- last seen on a river-bank in upstate New York -- undergo a transformation, a translation, as radical as Miranda's own.

In The Tourmaline, the focus changes from the wilderness of North America to Europe; to Roumania, a country torn by war and looking to the White Tyger for salvation. Miranda, reeling from an abrupt arrival, doesn't know what's expected of her, or even what she's capable of doing. And perhaps everything she's been told is false, because there is already a White Tyger in Roumania; Nicola Ceasescu has claimed her country's love and loyalty, and is determined to prevail by any means necessary, magical or mundane.

Peter, still travelling with Andromeda (who's also been transformed by her experiences) is no longer the rather diffident teenager of A Princess of Roumania. With the help of a mysterious African woman -- she seems a child, but there is nothing childish about her -- Peter's found his way to Europe, and he and Andromeda are making a living, searching for Miranda, searching in fact for some meaning to this extended stay in a world that's not their own.

Park draws back, showing us a broader world: a world in which Africa is technologically superior to Europe; in which barrels of a secret substance, labelled 'nepenthe', come north by train to aid the former Baroness Ceasescu in her covert war against the Germans; in which King Jesus crucified the generals before the walls of Rome, and remnants of an older race of humans roam the forests of Roumania. Magic works, here, though it's a strict and rigid discipline as full of theories and standard texts as any science. Nicola Ceasescu's methodology, her scientific magic, gives new dimension to the pre-Copernican cosmology of the first novel: she sets a spell that's also a trap, asking for help, and it seems that she is answered.

Yet all the world's a backdrop for Miranda's story, and the stories of Peter and of Andromeda. None of the three is especially likeable, as a character: that's one way in which Park subverts the tropes of genre fantasy. He's iconoclastic, too: the Magic Jewel? A fake. The letter from Miranda's dead aunt Aegypta? Lost before it's read. There's no logic to the Subterranean Portal (the weakest element of the novel, but I trust the author to explain it when the time's right). And the white tyger, that rare and special creature of the Roumanian countryside, turns out not to be a fearsome legend: it's no larger than a lynx.

Many readers seemed to misunderstand A Princess of Roumania, reading it as a YA novel (which it isn't, though it concerns Miranda's coming-of-age) or a historical fantasy (it's almost certainly set in the present day, albeit in another universe). I suspect this novel, with its broader view of the world in which Miranda, Peter and Andromeda find themselves, will confuse the issue further. Paul Park's clear, precise prose doesn't prevent him from clouding the issue with maddening scene-changes just as some vital crux is reached; with occasionally-clumsy obfuscations ("the soldier talked for a long time," without reporting what was said) and a presentation of this new world as is, unexplained. Something's hidden in plain sight, here, and I'm very much looking forward to finding out what it might be.