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

Sunday, May 27, 2007

#22: The Tenderness of Wolves -- Stef Penney

The Tenderness of Wolves is set in the wilds of 19th-century Canada, in a society of trappers, voyageurs and Indians that's already familiar to me from Margaret Elphinstone's Voyageurs. It's a murder mystery, as is clear from the very first page: Laurent, a reclusive Frenchman, is found jugulated and scalped, and suspicion falls upon Francis, the adoptive son of Mr and Mrs Ross, who's coincidentally gone missing.

Mrs Ross (this is how she thinks of herself) is a character of considerable depth: she's spent time in a lunatic asylum, and she understands human nature, and power games, better than anyone else realises. Her husband, Angus, doesn't understand her especially well: it's debateable whether she has any friends. She finds allies, however: Moody, the young Company agent who's sent to investigate, and Parker, half-Indian trapper who may have been in business with the murdered man. Thomas Sturrock, who has a reputation for tracking missing persons, arrives in town. Who will he follow?

I prepare to go into the wilderness with a suspected killer. What's worse, a man I haven't been properly introduced to.

Everything, everyone, in this novel seems connected by an intricate web of hinted backstory. Many lives touched by Francis' flight, by Laurent before his death, by Mrs Ross and Parker as they attempt to solve the crime, by Moody as he discovers new evidence concerning the disappearance of two girls, years before, by Sturrock as the secret of his famous failure (the Seton girls again) is gradually revealed. Things happen, too, because of Francis and Laurent and Mrs Knox and Sturrock. A Norwegian woman flees the refuge she sought after her husband's death. A mysterious bone tablet of immense significance is lost and found. Laurent's legacy endures even as his secrets are revealed.

Some secrets are carried to the grave. Some secrets never come to light at all. Not every death can be explained, not every survival will make sense. The wolves of the title may be more tender than the humans who encounter them. Or they may be wolves in sheeps' clothing.

(One of Laurent's secrets, which isn't only his, seemed ... wrong for that culture and society. Not what happened but how it was regarded by the protagonists and by others.)

This book received considerable publicity for its marvellous depiction of the Canadian wilderness, since the author has never visited Canada. (In the trade we call this 'imagination'.) I'm not entirely convinced. It feels accurate, and engaging, and credible: but I missed the surprising observations, the unique off-kilter perspectives, that come from life.

There are also times when I felt the grammar was getting away from me. A lot of the novel's written in first-person present tense, and combining that with past-tense flashbacks gave rise to some sentences that needed unravelling.

A pacy read, though the ending's quite open -- and bleak, in a sense, as Brokeback Mountain.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

#21: Five from Me, Five from You -- Shelagh MacDonald

Mystery with mythological elements, set on the Greek island of Serifos: Pethi, a Greek boy who's grown up never knowing his father, and Tini, an English girl whose father's an archaeologist, decipher an ancient riddle and find themselves racing towards a treasure that's lain hidden for many centuries.

Reread after about thirty years: I recall enjoying this as a child, and I'm pleased to find that it's stood the test of time. The characters are as distinctive, the plot as intriguing, the setting as vivid as I remembered.

I remembered the answer to the riddle of that title; I remembered the cat who liked to drape himself over his owner's shoulders; I remembered the gliding handmaidens. But not much else: and half of what I thought I remembered wasn't in this book at all, which means it must be in A Circle of Stones -- the book that precedes this one, which I didn't recall ever having read.

I'd completely forgotten the mythological elements, and didn't spot the resonances with a certain myth until I read the author's afterword. This is how mythic elements are best handled: strong, simple tales retold in trappings that don't give them away. If I'd known which myth the story was (partly) based upon, I would have guessed a few aspects of the ending that came as a surprise to me all over again.

#20: The Testament of Gideon Mack -- James Robertson

This is the story of a modern-day Scottish minister who encounters the Devil. Probably.

It's a rather slow book. We're told what has happened right at the beginning, in the framing narrative and the first few pages of Gideon Mack's own Testament. But it's more than two hundred pages before the significant event finally occurs.

In the space of those two hundred-odd pages, we've learnt a lot about Gideon. The first half of the book is a memoir, covering his early life as a 'son of the manse' with a repressive, emotionally unavailable father and a weak mother; his escape to university and the changes that he experiences there; his marriage, his taking orders, his charitable works (he runs marathons to raise money for good causes) and the emptiness of his faith.

Then things start to change again. There's an ancient standing stone in the wood, where none stood before; a dear friend is dying, and another is committing adultery; and Gideon begins to question every unthinking restriction that he's used to prop up his life.

Then he falls into a gorge and meets someone who saves his life -- and simultaneously dooms him.

I do like Scotland. I like the miserable weather. I like the miserable people, the fatalism, the negativity, the violence that's always just below the surface. And I like the way you deal with religion. One century you're up to your lugs in it, the next you're trading the whole apparatus in for Sunday superstores.

Hard to say whether Gideon Mack is utterly mad, or terrifyingly sane. Harder still to say what it is he wants from his new friend.

There are passages which feel a little self-indulgent (Gideon discussing with a friend the rise of celebrity ghost-writing; his patronising observations concerning his fellow ministers; a gleefully obscure passage purporting to be an excerpt from a 19th-century work on folklore, apostrophes all over the place as if someone's slammed the book shut on a plague of corn lice) but the prose is smooth, wryly witty, with a distinctly Scots flavour.

Slow, but intriguing. Reminds me of Lolly Willowes (Sylvia Townsend Warner) except without the certainty.

#19: The Girls -- Lori Lansens

I love my sister as myself. I hate her that way too.

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, though I didn't have high hopes of it.

It's the story of two sisters, Rose and Ruby. Imagine having a sister who's quite different to you, who doesn't always understand you, who keeps secrets from you, who fancies the same boys (though sometimes fancies men you don't especially like), who's shared every significant experience of your life and yet doesn't share your goals: imagine trying to write a book with that sister.

Now imagine that you have never been apart from that sister in your life. That you are, literally, joined -- not at the hip but at the head.

Rose and Ruby are approaching their thirtieth birthday. If they make it that far, they'll be the oldest living craniopagus twins in history. If they make it.

Rose is the literary one: Ruby's dismissive of her own writing, and her chapters make up less than a third of the narrative. (It's in a different typeface, too.) Rose is trying to tell the story of herself and her sister, and their adoptive parents, and their wider family: the mother they never knew, the nurse (Aunt Lovey) who helped deliver them and raised them as her own, her husband (Uncle Stash) and his Slovakian family, the neighbour who lost her little boy to a tornado on the day the girls were born. The small town where they grow up, find work, live their lives. The friends who help them: the doctors who keep them alive.

The Girls is not only the story of Rose and Ruby's life, but also the story of how they write that life. Though they're not reading one another's chapters as they write, Rose is suspicious of Ruby's notions of pacing: Knowing Ruby, she wouldn't have considered how to present that crucial bit of information about her main characters. And it's from Ruby that we learn some vitally important facts about Rose.

But Rose is learning how to be a writer: 'don't finish, stop'; the joy of writing something that is 'rare and imperfect', instead of yearning for perfection and polish; how it feels when it flows.

Words leak from my brain. Seep out my ear. Burble from my crooked mouth. Splash on my shirt. Trickle onto my keyboard. Pool on my warped parquet floor. At least they're not gushing from my heart. Or, God forbid, my ass. I catch the words as they fall. My hands smell. And the place is a wreck. From all our spilled words.

The story doesn't linger on the less pleasant aspects of the girls' situation, though there is mention of various medical problems (and Rose's vivid recollection of one doctor calling her sister a 'parasite'). Instead, they celebrate their difference: the almost supernatural quality of being not only twins, but two-as-one. When Ruby speaks, Rose doesn't just hear the words: she feels them in the conjoined bones of their skulls. When something falls on Rose's head, it's Ruby who's dazed. When Ruby's kissed ...

There is some alienation, of course, in being so different, but it's also been fascinating, and a unique opportunity to have observed our generation without fully participating in it.

The novel's an interesting experiment in first person plural, too -- they fiercely resist singularisation (hate being called 'a mascot') yet think of themselves as 'we'. Neither can live without the other; neither can die alone.

The Girls is a marvellous novel: deeply-felt without sentimentality, a thought-provoking description of the writing process, a love story, a tale of two sisters. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

#18: Bourbon Street Blues -- Greg Herren

Some years ago I suggested that there was a particular subset of contemporary crime writing that relied, in the main, on the maxim 'write what you know'. The formula's simple: write about your life (and possibly even your friends and enemies, cunningly disguised). This will provide a sturdy and coherent framework on which to hang a standard whodunnit plot, complete with local colour and rich characterisation.

I don't know Greg Herren, so I really couldn't say if this is that sort of book. It's certainly a rich and vivid evocation of the gay scene in New Orleans -- and, very distinctly, a pre-Katrina New Orleans. Writing about a plot to break the bayou would be seen, now, as gross bad taste. Writing about right-wing politicians, homophobia, tantric sex and hippie parents, on the other hand ... well, that's what New Orleans is all about, no?

Bourbon Street Blues is mostly set during Decadence, the gay festival held every Labour Day weekend in the city. Scott Bradley is a personal trainer by day, a bartop dancer by night. An acquaintance stumbles across suspicious activities, and pays the price: Scott, with the help of a gorgeous bloke from out of town, uncovers evidence of a really nasty plot.

I couldn't help feeling that Scott was a little naive at times. And I'm not convinced that Frank could hide his lifestyle from his employers. There's perhaps too much detail, too much scene-setting, in the first half of the novel too. But I did enjoy it and will be looking out for more from Herren -- whose evocation of flashy trashy fickle gay life is a refreshing change from gothy teens alone and palely loitering in French Quarter bars.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

#17: The Care and Feeding of Pirates -- Jennifer Ashley

Pirate-hunter James Ardmore's frosty sister, Southern belle Honoria, turns out to have a steamy past with ... gasp ... a Pirate. Christopher Raine, in fact: an ex-pirate who was apparently hanged by the neck until dead, years ago -- at the behest, indeed, of one Mr J Ardmore -- but has reappeared to haunt Honoria. Or is he only after that scrap of paper she's cherished for so long?

More swashbuckling fun: Raine's long-lost half-sister turns up clad only in a leopard-skin and looking pretty pissed off about it; Honoria's new sister-in-law Diana, and her friend Alexandra who's notorious for wild parties and for having married a pirate (see The Pirate Next Door) are full of good advice, and Honoria wastes no time in following it. (You may interpret that sentence however you wish.) There are shopping expeditions in Greenwich, sea-chases in search of buried treasure, importunate suitors, opium-laced drinks and dastardly villains. There is a more prominent role for Henderson, English gentleman turned Ardmore's henchman. (I like Henderson.) In the end justice is done, reputations redeemed, swashes buckled and plenty of furniture put to unintended uses. Hurrah!

#16: The Dream Quake -- Elizabeth Knox

The Rainbow Opera is half a book. It creates a magical world similar, but markedly different to, our own: a world where Lazarus is a significant feature in religion / mythology, in which a country reminiscent of New Zealand was populated by refugees from an island that'd vanished beneath the waves ... and in which the Place, which occupies a small geographical area but is a polder, stretching many days' walk from either border, confers on those who can enter the ability to partake of location-specific dreams. A small percentage of those who can enter the Place -- like Laura, and her father and her aunt, but not like her beloved cousin Rose -- become dreamhunters who can replay the dreams afterwards, for an audience. At the climax of The Rainbow Opera, what was unleashed upon the aristocratic audience was not a gentle dream but a nightmare of being buried alive. And it was Laura's doing.

The Dream Quake picks up the pieces and knits them together. Why the Place sprang into being; whose dreams are being dreamt so powerfully; the nature of Laura's affinity with the place; all are explained, and come clear as part of the same story. Though it's not entirely Laura's story -- and, in a way that reminds me of Philip Pullman's female characters, Laura is a flawed and occasionally unlikeable protagonist, rather than one of the sweet-but-strong heroines who pervade YA fantasy.

Perhaps it's the story of Laura's golem, her sand-man (not to be confused with her friend Sandy, oh no!), as much as it's Laura's own tale. The story of the doggerel spell that Laura chanted to make him, and the letters that she inscribes on his body -- to give him free will, speech and self.

It's also the story of the original dreamer, and of the messages that are surfacing in telegrams and coded signals -- messages that weren't there when the telegram was sent.

It's the story of Lazarus, who died and lived again.

And the story of Rose, who may not be a dreamhunter, but nevertheless possesses a talent that her cousin lacks.

As Laura and her family try to make sense of the dreams, and simultaneously foil the repressively conservative plans of politician Cas Doran, a whole new future appears like a shadow overlaying the narrative of the book. It's not a nice future, but a desolate one: a future reminiscent of the American Depression ...

I got into trouble because people did, in the years when things were at their worst, with the bread lines and the men walking the roads looking for work.

Somewhere there's a shallow grave. Somewhere there's a bleak future. Somewhere, there's dreams that show not just the injustices, but the beauty of human life that injustice is a blasphemy against. Perhaps that future can be prevented: perhaps fate isn't immovable.

I keep finding more allusions -- is the earthquake a reference to the quake that levelled Napier in 1931? If I turn the map just so, does it mirror the actual geography of New Zealand? There are dreams mentioned, or mapped, but never described: what's in those? And what happens in the history of the dreamer?

Knox's prose is straightforward and plain, but with the most amazingly succinct poetry to it. Her teenaged girls are stroppy teenagers. Her characters make mistakes. I loved the scenario of The Rainbow Opera: The Dream Quake fulfils my hopes of the plot.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

#15: Dead Deep -- Justin Somper

Dead Deep, published for World Book Day, is a novella set between the first two Vampirates novels, Demons of the Deep and Tide of Terror. Connor, Jez and Bart get some shore leave, and spend it in most surprising company. (Though if they knew a bit more about mythology, they'd have had second thoughts about boarding the Lorelei.) Fun, thoughtful and an interesting take on 'disability': and the narrative, with its twist, doesn't alter the events of either of the main-series books.

Somper hits a good balance between the realities of 'a pirate's life' (Connor, who's 14, gets accosted by a raddled whore) and sensibilities of target YA readership (he rejects her for being raddled, not for .. professional reasons). There is strong drink aplenty, and pleasurable company too, yet the general mood is more of a bunch of teenage lads out on the town -- and, optimistically, on the pull -- than of mayhem and murder and black-hearted wickedness.

One major snipe, though:

Two fathoms below the surface of the ocean, [character] takes his rest. It's a place as far removed from light as you can find on this planet.

Oh no it isn't. I can dive two fathoms without trouble. Two hundred fathoms? Two miles? A silly mistake but an irritating one. A decent proofreader should've spotted this, even if the author overlooked it.

#14: At Swim, Two Boys -- Jamie O'Neill

At Swim Two Boys

A boy says to his friend, "Come swimming in the sea. It's different in the sea, don't ask me why, but you don't find the same anywheres else. There's a freedom I can't explain, like your troubles was left in your pile of clothes." The friend agrees, and one naked leap from the Forty Foot later a pact is made -- that next Easter, the two boys will meet to swim the treacherous path from the Forty Foot to the beacon of light at Muglin's Rock. "Are we straight?" asks Doyler. "We're straight as a rush," says Jim.

The focus of this novel, set in Dublin during the First World War, is the relationship between two teenage boys, Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle. It's not, or not just, a coming-of-age novel, or a gay novel, or an Irish novel. All of the above and much more: the language is rich and playful enough to inspire (require?) comparison with James Joyce, the characterisation vivid and intriguing, and most of the cliches about twentieth-century Ireland are avoided.

It's a difficult novel to write about because there's so much in it, and it works at so many different levels. The growing admiration (first friendship, then more) between Jim and Doyler; the gathering tension in the community; the rigid hierarchy of the class structure, and the penalties enforced for undermining it.

If that sounds dark and grim, it's not: or not at first. (To me, the first half of the novel is daylit, the second half takes place under cover of darkness. A massive and inaccurate generalisation, but the atmosphere does change: and the pivotal phrase is right at the end of Part One, when for the first time the year is plainly stated. "Next Easter," says one, and, "Easter 1916," says the other. And, despite all the contextual detail (Jim's brother away in the Army in Turkey; Jim's father knitting socks for soldiers; hints of socialism) I hadn't registered the date: hadn't realised that history was not on their side.

Nothing is stated, nothing is spoken between Jim and Doyler for a long while. But Brother Polycarp, in charge of the marching band at the school they both attend, is keen on praying with his arm 'round Jim; and Doyler, it transpires, has been noticed -- and is avidly pursued -- by MacMurrough, scion of local nobility who's just been released from two years' hard labour for the crime of having sex with a chauffeur-mechanic. Or possibly the crime of having been found out. (One can't help wondering if he'd have been prosecuted for the same crime with a member of the upper classes.)

MacMurraugh's borderline schizophrenic, with aspects of his character manifesting as distinct personalities. 'Scrotes', based on an aged academic he befriended in prison, epitomises his intellect: 'Nanny Tremble' takes care of his emotions and his need for comfort; and his libido, unfettered by custom or moral concerns, is known as Dick.

Dick has a lot to say for himself.

I've said that the novel focusses on Jim and Doyler, but sometimes I think it's also the story of MacMurrough's redemption, of him learning again to do the decent thing, how to rise above his baser instincts: of seeing in Jim and Doyler's relationship something precious and valuable that's to be nurtured rather than abused or sabotaged.

At Swim, Two Boys is also a novel about fathers. Mr Mack's very name (Mac-who?) is a signal that he's cut himself off from his ancestors, perhaps to climb that social ladder. Doyler Doyle (whose forename, mentioned only in passing, is actually Danny) is his mother's son, a bastard of unknown paternity; he has his step-father's name forced upon him, forename and surname both, but that's not who he is. Perhaps his growing politicisation, his involvement with the rebellion, is a quest for identity as much as his search for sexual identity. And MacMurraugh, whose family is represented only by his elderly and aristocratic aunt, has shamed his name -- a famous one in Irish history, at least within the scope of the novel -- by his 'selfish' indulgences.

Not to mention the MacMurrough household's maid Nancy, pregnant by Jim's brother, who's not coming back.

The novel could have finished a chapter or two before it did and still been complete, in terms of one of the narrative arcs. That it does not end with that reunion is harrowing but somehow right: fits the story into its wider context much better than an insistent focus on the interpersonal elements would have done.

And, did I mention, glorious prose? Visual and lyric and with each voice distinct and almost audible. Mr Mack, walking up to the big house: Mess of nettles, cow-parsley, could take a scythe to them. Light green frilly leaves would put you in mind of, ahem, petticoats. A blackbird scuttled off the path like a schoolboy caught at a caper.

I'd love to hear this read aloud -- and there are some audio files via the author's site for the book, as well as an unused passage that's oddly delightful.

The bay was blue as the sky, a tinge deeper, and curiously raised-looking when viewed dead on. The way the sea would be sloping to the land.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

#13: The Pirate Next Door -- Jennifer Ashley

Alexandra Alastair, recently widowed (and insincerely mourning her cruel and unpleasant husband), is on the hunt for an eligible bachelor, but bites off more than she can chew when she takes a fancy to her new next-door neighbour, Grayson Finley, Viscount Stoke. Who is every inch a pirate: tanned, haphazard in his dress sense, setting up household with a grimly scarred black valet and a half-caste child who's apparently his daughter.

Everyone (despite his irritating and less-than-credible name) is after Grayson Finley: the Pirate Hunter James Ardmore out to avenge his brother's death; an elegant French spy; the wicked and grudgeful pirate Zechariah Burchard ... and the ones who aren't directly out to get him regard Alexandra as fair game, the Achilles Heel of a ruthless (yet honourable) pirate.

Generic romances tend to have happy endings: and because I'd already read The Pirate Hunter, which features some of the same characters and is set after The Pirate Next Door, I was sure of the Romantic Resolution in this one. Didn't matter. Seeing how they got there was fun.

Fast-moving, pacy, well-plotted and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Besides: pirates! Cross-dressing! Naked men with cutlasses! Dashing rescues and shameful behaviour! And a heroine who not only encodes her Sekrit List of Fanciable Men, but has a sharp retort for the man who remarks upon his rating. Great fun, though rather racier (and slightly less convincing, historically) than Georgette Heyer ...

#12: The Stolen Child -- Keith Donohue

"Don't call me a fairy. We don't like to be called fairies any more. If you must give me a name, call me hobgoblin."

Keith Donohue's debut novel, The Stolen Child, boasts a cover quote from Audrey Niffenegger: and there's a translucency of prose, a sometimes deceptive plainness of language -- not to mention a literary approach -- that does remind me of The Time Traveller's Wife.

The novel begins with some erudite (and slightly offputting) notes on the natural history of the sublunary spirits -- but soon settles into the story. It's the tale of two boys: Henry Day, a.k.a. Aniday, who is stolen away by the fairies, and 'Henry Day', the changeling who takes his place. Which of them's the stolen child?

'Henry' has a role to play: accustomed to sleeping in burrows in the forest and to the company of the changeling gang, he has to pay attention to every detail in order to become Henry, to become himself. Meanwhile, Aniday has to adjust to life at the bottom of the changeling hierarchy, a rigidly FIFO system where the changeling who's been with the band for longest is the next to swap places with a human child. And that human child will, in turn, become a changeling, frozen at the age at which he or she was stolen. Aniday will remain seven years old -- the ultimate Lost Boy -- until his turn comes around. It could take years, or centuries.

As 'Henry' starts to discover whose life he's taken over, who he is, he also begins to wonder -- apparently for the first time, for the changelings don't talk about their human childhoods -- who he was. He even enlists the help of a barfly hypnotist, the con-artist McInness who's actually a former professor of folklore, specialising in 'the pre-psychology of parenting'. (I am, given the alternating first-person narratives, especially impressed with the way this is written). He has a love of and talent for music that the original Henry never displayed, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that his dual nature can find its clearest expression through music.

While 'Henry' is exploring his past and settling into the life he's stolen, Aniday is trying to make sense of his present life, hiding out in a den beneath the town library with his friend Speck and writing his life story on stolen notepads. Change is coming to the changelings, though: twentieth-century urbanisation is encroaching upon their forest home, and a failed abduction leads to disaster. Indeed, almost every meeting between changelings and humans seems to end in tragedy, though perhaps it doesn't have to be that way. There's a sense that the times they are a-changing: Henry is stolen away in the late 1950s, but by the end of the novel it's twenty years later. "Our kind are few, and no longer deemed necessary. Far greater troubles exist for children in the modern world," says Aniday rather wistfully.

Each Henry grows and lives, in a sense, as half a person. 'Henry Day' falls in love with and marries local girl Tess, but is neurotically protective of their child. 'Aniday' feels that only Speck truly understands him -- but doesn't understand her at all. How can he? He doesn't understand, or know, himself. And the two approach the world from very different perspectives -- as is superbly illustrated by the encounter below the library, the same scene seen through two pairs of eyes.

This is a novel about identity and how it's created: about growing up and leaving childhood behind. Speck tells Aniday sometimes it's better not to know who you really are. Tess asks 'Henry', "who are you? where are you?" And Ruth Day, Henry's mother, tells 'Henry' "I've known all along" -- though he never asks her what she means, what she knows.

'Henry' writes a symphony, 'The Stolen Child', about a child trapped in silence -- 'the inner life and the outer world in counterpoint' -- in which both child and changeling persist. The conflict over that symphony -- the tricks of the changelings, the transcendence of music that can bridge the gap between their worlds -- provides a conclusion which, though it's certainly not a happy ending, might be a hopeful beginning. The last line: "I am gone and am not coming back, but I remember everything."

My favourite line, though, has little to do with the plot and a great deal to do with something that I was thinking about when I read the novel. McInness's explanation for abandoning his academic career and turning to the life of the professional drinker: "It's the mind, boys. The relentless thinking machine. The incessant demands of tomorrow and the yesterdays piled up like a heap of corpses." That's it, that's it exactly.

Highly recommended.