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

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Curse of Chalion -- Lois McMaster Bujold (reread)

I reread this in anticipation of reading the second in the trilogy, Paladin of Souls Had forgotten how much I liked it. Had forgotten how very readable Bujold's prose is: there's little that I want to quote directly for beauty of expression, but whole passages that I'd like to point to for their rhythm and progression.

Had also, conveniently, forgotten the ending. (I remembered two key plot points but not their significance in the greater scheme.)

The Curse of Chalion reminds me of why I used to devour fantasy novels by the pound: in the hope of finding truly likeable (and by this I may simply mean 'credibly human and three-dimensional') characters. All too often this hope is unfulfilled: in The Curse of Chalion, though, I have a real affection for the protagonist. Cazaril is not a hero, or doesn't mean to be. He's not some brave young prince riding towards a perilous fate. He's mature enough to be vulnerable and frightened: he curses the gods for intervening in his life. His despair is not an epic one, but a human one, and Bujold paints it vividly.

Or, another aspect: this is a fantasy novel that starts where many novels would end. The hero, a brave young nobleman, is betrayed and sold into slavery; risks death for another; is finally rescued, and makes his way home. End of story? Start of story. (Hmm, have just noted a striking resemblance to A Game of Kings.)

Bujold's often labelled as a romantic writer and yes, there's a romance in here: but it doesn't take centre stage, because there are more important things going on. Indeed, the glorious wedding that takes place is brokered for steely-calm political reasons. At the centre of it all is the curse, and the Five Gods, and a land divided by war: and it reads more realistically, with more emotional depth, than many works of contemporary fiction.

Monday, July 23, 2007

#37: The Sons of Heaven -- Kage Baker

However immortal we are, we still wear human shapes, live in human patterns. The values of humanity are the only ones we know.
9th July 2355: the Silence, the point after which none of the immortal employees of Dr Zeus, Inc ('the Company') know any future. Their time-travelling mortal masters go back and forth in time via time transference fields: the immortals go the slow way, being made immortal as children -- five hundred, a thousand, twenty thousand years before the present day -- and living and working through all the long years, salvaging treasures (biological and artistic) for the Company.

In The Sons of Heaven Baker finally reveals the events of that July day when history apparently stops. Almost casually, she spins in the threads of all the characters in all the novels and stories that have come before now: Lewis the Literature Specialist, noted for his encounter with Robert Louis Stevenson and last seen in the realm of the little people under the Hill; Budu and his army of Enforcers who sleep in deep caves the world over, ready for the final battle; cunning Joseph; sickly-white Victor; Kalugin the marine salvage specialist; and Mendoza, who has had the very special fortune to fall in love with three men, in three centuries, who are somehow one and the same.

All momentous and epic stuff, so I should also say that the zest of Baker's writing, her knack for one-liners and her taste for surreally cinematic presentation are all present and correct. This is a thoughtful exploration of the immortal's (not to mention the Recombinant's) lot, the loneliness, the spiritual emptiness, the quest for purpose; it's also laugh-out-loud funny and more tortuously plotted than any of the previous Company novels. Not least because one of the central characters, an artifical intelligence in part created by Alec Checkerfield, goes by the name (and increasingly the manner) of Captain Morgan.
"You've got to work harder at your personality when it's artificial. You think it's been easy being a pirate all these years?"
"Good thing I wasn't into dinosaurs, then ..."

Some of the funniest (and some of the most poignant) episodes of the novel focus on the Captain, and his relationship with Edward Bell-Fairfax, who's emerged as the dominant incarnation of the three. (Nicholas the Protestant martyr is still howling at the 'senseless universe'; Alec the hedonist is just along for the ride, trying to forget that he has a debt to pay and redemption to earn for his part in the Mars Two catastrophe. The two are not entirely side-lined, though, and Edward has some remarkably Victorian ideas...)
So ... yer giving me an order to sail about, hither and yon, la-de-da, looking for islands what ain't there until we runs aground on one that is, only it ain't? You see, Commander, sir, me being only a machine and all, I'd like orders what ain't quite so open to interpretation and semantic confusion. Otherwise I'm liable to conclude you're a God-damned idiot and mutiny.

There's music throughout, most notably at an especially barbed dinner party where the first course is served to the strains of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, followed by 'Brophy's Discworld symphony' and climaxing, over dessert, with the doomy dinner scene from Don Giovanni, where the statue's calling on the Don to repent. Out of time, indeed ... But the novel resolves to a major key (indeed, that's made explicit) and there's music to provide a framework of balance, harmony, order: lute-music to soothe not only savage mortals but their suddenly-aware machines.

More and yet more, questions played out to find answers: how do you kill an indestructible immortal? (Badu favours flint axes; untraceable and easily made.) Are mortals worth saving merely for their ability to create art for the immortals who walk amongst them? (Why was Lewis's novel so bad?) How do you stop history? Are time and matter simply a matter, ha ha, of perception? Does humanity exist only to give meaning, beauty, harmony to a purposeless yet balanced universe? And are the immortals really going to leap upon their gift-wrapped Theobromos selections (the best chocolate ever and then some) with cries of delight, especially when the chocolate boxes are presented as gifts from the Company in recognition of long service?

(There's some wonderful pacing in this novel; scenes that are headlong without being hectic, scenes that work like clockwork, scenes that move like falling dominoes. I keep rereading to see how she does it. And the chocolate-factory scene springs to mind for pacing, as the dinner party does for plot and structure.)

The conclusion is not exactly deus ex machina -- quite the opposite, really -- but there are elements that are wrapped up suspiciously neatly, with a firmness that doesn't (to Joseph, anyway) ring true. It's hard to tell if Baker had these conclusions in mind when she first wrote some of the pendant stories, but what the hell: they work. And there's a sense of new beginning, of immanence and potential and a parting of the ways. The future's bright, unknown, unknowable.

This is a rare thing, a Company novel in which someone is 'happy, as though nothing could touch her any more' -- and yet alive. And this is a book in which I confidently expect to find something new at every reread.

#36: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- J. K. Rowling

Is a review of a much-reviewed book any less worthwhile than a review of a book that has attracted little attention?

Is a review of a much-reviewed book easier to write, or more difficult?

As this is not, in any sense, a 'professional' review I shall sidestep those questions and write for myself. This will be a rather fragmentary review because I'm still assimilating, and I'd rather latch onto specific passages and plot elements than attempt an assay of the overall book -- or, even more ambitious, the whole series.

WARNING: It is likely that there will be spoilers below ...



I read the book in one sitting (with frequent refreshment breaks and stretches): it was a strangely companionable feeling, sitting alone on my patio and knowing that thousands of other people were reading the same book, maybe even the same page, at the same time. Knowing that if I wanted to discuss the book, I could, pretty much instantly. That's quite a rare feeling for me.

I got through a whole pack of index stickers, all for plot points or foreshadowings. I'm increasingly appreciative of Rowling's craft as a writer -- complex plots with plenty of clues, echoes and omens, elements of myth and legend, sly wit -- but I don't read her for poetic prose.

It's a novel full of strong women, from Lily Evans to Narcissa Malfoy to Hermione. I liked Hermione more than ever in this novel (anyone who calls Ron Weasley an arse gets my vote). She's matured into a heroine. The way she Charmed her parents a new life in Australia 'they don't know they have a daughter', seemed to me one of the bravest actions in the book, because the decision wasn't made in the heat of battle or in grievous peril but in the cold light of day by a seventeen-year-old girl. She's orphaned herself, for all intents and purposes.

I still can't decide whether Narcissa's willingness to lie to Voldemort (after Harry's told her Draco's alive) is in contrast to Lily (who didn't have to lie, and would doubtless have refused to) or an echo. It's not as if all the parents we encounter are paragons of virtue. Xeno Lovegood is prepared to betray Harry rather than see Luna threatened.

There's a lot about parents and children in there ... Harry ends up as a godfather to Teddy Tonks, just as Sirius was to him. (And Teddy's parents meet a similar fate to Harry's own, though it's off-stage, almost casually dropped into the flow of events, and little is made of it.) Earlier, Harry gets angry at Remus for being so eager to leave his wife and unborn child: "Parents shouldn't leave their kids unless they've got to." In the final battle, Molly Weasley goes for Bellatrix (yay Molly!).

And there are passages and scenes ("Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?") that make me curious about Rowling's previous experiences of depression and therapy. She's said that the Dementors are embodiments of severe depression, the crushing weight of despair. With the emphasis on self-confidence (the Patronus), really meaning things (the Unforgivable Curses), and visualisation (Riddikulus), I'm reminded of some standard therapeutic methods (which might've worked better with me if they'd been as effective as they are in a spell-casting sense!) Has anyone written an essay on echoes of depression and therapy in the series? They should.

There's some solid philosophy in there too, from the true master not seeking to run away from death to Harry's decision not to race for the wand: "he could not remember, ever before, choosing not to act". And the climactic scene reminded me of passages in The Golden Bough*: the sacrifice must be willing.

Voldemort's increasing influence is described in terms that evoke the rise of the Third Reich ("People won't let that happen," said Ron. "It is happening ..."). There are freedom fighters, an underground resistance and stirring sentiments: "Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving." Bravery and heroism, individual and collective. "Sometimes you've got to think about the greater good." Though it's notable that the person Harry later calls 'the bravest man I ever knew' meets his death alone and unlauded.

I was surprised, though not disappointed, by Rowling's light touch with the death scenes. There are plenty of 'em, but in almost every case the death is skimmed -- not taken lightly, but simply not the focus. Perhaps it's because (more convincingly and effectively than in previous books) we're seeing through Harry's eyes, and Harry's grown up and toughened up.

Good thing too, since he's in the middle of a tortuous and long-sighted plot, and has to discover that not only his father and godfather, but Dumbledore too, had feet of clay; that others knew, all along, the price that Harry would have to pay; that others have to pay that price as well. That he's in possession of things (symbolically and concretely) that have immense significance. That people have died and are dying -- being tortured -- living lies -- because of him.

Though it's a tremendous page-turner, I did feel the pacing could have been adjusted a little. Far more pages were devoted to the All-Britain Camping Trip than it really deserved: not nearly enough to what happened after. (So how does Harry occupy himself, in the epilogue? Is he the new Gideon Lockhart?) And maybe there were slightly too many new threads, from the eponymous Hallows (first mentioned on page 328, more than halfway through) to the goat-fancying barman (p. 451) to the cloning charm, the name of which I've forgotten, but surely someone would have mentioned it?

I was pleased to finally discover the Bloody Baron's story; completely flummoxed by Charity Burbage; unconvinced by some of Harry's logic ("I'm descended from the third brother! It all makes sense!" Er, no, it doesn't ...); dead impressed with Neville; elated by Professor Trelawney's crystal ball methodology; wistful about Sirius; and, really, extremely entertained throughout. I read another long-awaited seventh volume within 24 hours of this: it's deeper and more demanding and energetically inventive, and I enjoyed it very much: but Deathly Hallows was the one I picked to re-skim for review. 'Fun' is a strange word for a book with so many deaths, disasters, betrayals and cruelties, but .. yeah, a fun read, and a gripping one.

*not to mention The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the New Testament; The King Must Die; The Return of the King; Watership Down; The Mark of the Horse Lord; Return of the Jedi ....

Sunday, July 22, 2007

#35: One Good Turn -- Kate Atkinson

A novel like a set of Russian dolls (matroyshka, as we're reminded throughout): each character's story intersects with many others.

It begins with what seems to be an everyday case of road-rage outside an Edinburgh Festival venue: a Honda hits a Peugeot, and the Honda driver goes for the Peugeot driver with a baseball bat -- only to be deflected by the laptop of a passing crime writer. The police are called, the 'victim' carted off to hospital, and a chain of events is set in motion that includes adultery, murder, corruption, prostitution and Matalan underwear.

Yes, really.
The dead woman's clothing .. displayed Matalan labels. This was why you should wear matching underwear, Louise reminded herself, not for the off chance of a sexual encounter but for eventualities like this. The dead-on-a-fishmonger's-slab scenario where the whole world could see that you bought your oddly matched underwear in cheap shops.

One Good Turn is subtitled 'A Jolly Murder Mystery', and -- inasfar as such a thing's possible -- that's what it is. Those who die are either richly deserving of their fate, or oblivious to it, or victims of mistaken identity.

The 'jolly' tag is also applied by Martin Canning's literary agent to his wholesome series of post-war crime novels starring Nina Riley. Martin has ambitions, though:
[He] imagined writing a story, a Borges-like construction where each story contained the kernel of the next and so on. Not Nina Riley obviously -- linear narratives were as much as she could cope with -- but rather something with intellectual cachet (something good).
Is Martin voicing Atkinson's own ambitions here? The novel is certainly replete with unexpected connections (see fig. 1, though don't peer too closely or you'll find spoilers). It makes Edinburgh seem like a small town where everyone knows everyone else -- though it's essential to the plot that there are enough other people on-stage, as it were, to provide red herrings, alibis and concealment. And there are a few unresolved sub-plots.

Most interesting was the contrast between those who've left behind their personal tragedies -- three of the four protagonists have lost a sibling -- and those whose dark secrets lurk behind every action they take. The contrast, in fact, between the four central characters: crime writer Martin, ex-detective Jackson, newly-promoted DI Louise Munroe, and middle-aged middle-class Gloria. Their fates are entwined, and deliciously dramatic, and all pivot on that incident of road-rage and its repercussions.

Some lovely writing (Gloria imagines the mysterious Russian Tatiana to taste "of raw reindeer meat and smoky black tea and the iron tang of blood. Someone else's.") and a plot that twists and turns (echoing the title) right up to the last line. Impressive and engaging.

#34: The End of Harry Potter? -- David Langford

Mr Langford ('27-time Hugo Award winner', as we're reminded on the front cover: gosh, I'd lost count) provides a handy guide to the first six Potter books and a series of predictions and speculations about the seventh. I'm especially pleased to have read this before I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (a title revealed only after the publication of The End of Harry Potter?, so there's no discussion of whatever the Hallows might be). Not only did it serve as a useful reminder of some unfinished business, it prompted me to read the first six novels again: and I enjoyed them very much.

There are two possible reviews of The End of Harry Potter?. I've chosen to write the one that contains spoilers for 1-6 but not for 7, though omg nail-on-the-head page 179 it is tempting to applaud / deride / goggle at some of Langford's speculation in the cold light of the morning after ...

It'd be tricky to avoid all spoilers, though:
"When you're trying to look at every detail of the ingenious way in which J. K. Rowling leads up to letting a particular cat out of the bag, it's difficult to conceal the identity of the cat. Though usually, I think it's safe to reveal at this point, the cat is not Mrs Norris." (p.3)

Langford's evidently an admirer of Rowling's craft, her ability to construct a thrilling and plotty novel (though he also draws our attention to improvements in style and structure over the first six books.) There are chapters on 'Guns on the Wall' (items casually introduced which turn out to have immense significance); 'Smoke and Mirrors' (misdirection); on names, foreshadowing, the genetics of the wizarding world, and on Unfinished Business. There's also an affectionately mocking chapter on slip-ups (though he doesn't point out that it took JKR three books to learn how to spell 'minuscule'). And there's a fascinating section on the subjects that JKR has avoided discussion of: Lily's profession, Sirius' motorbike, cats, scars ...

All of which lead up to the meat of the book, Langford's predictions of how the series might end. After a wickedly funny LOTR pastiche (in which Harry and Neville lug the last Horcrux towards Voldemordor, followed by Kreacher who "makes little gulping noises in his throat that sound like gollum, gollum. Harry has not read enough twentieth-century fantasy to be worried by this") and some cutting-room floor possibilities (the Star Wars climax, the Gone With the Wind version, and Some Like It Hogwarts in which Ginny turns out to be polyjuiced Draco) Langford draws on all the detail he's noted in previous chapters to make some predictions, in eighteen sections. A lot of them are right. Though not the one about shouting in CAPITAL LETTERS at xxxxx another character.

There is also a section on likely fates of major characters (in which I gaze sadly at the word 'surely'). Less accurate speculation here, but still convincing.

And the last section, 'The Ultimate Secret', is spot on: "J K Rowling is still going to surprise us all."

Impressive detective work, the usual Langford wit and evident enjoyment of the HP books: an interesting read.

#33: Oddfellows -- Jack Dickson

Oddfellows is an extremely unsentimental look at gay life in the criminal twilight of Glasgow. It's told from the point of view of Joe Macdonald, dishonourably discharged from the army after assaulting an officer, and now the employee and lover of Billy King, nightclub owner and crime lord, who plucked Joe from destitution and disgrace.

Joe's personal relationships are complex. He's a father-figure to his dead brother Michael's teenage son Sean; he's beginning to realise that King's activities are far nastier than he'd thought; and he's attracted to Andy Hunter, the policeman investigating a series of especially unpleasant crimes.

Dickson's style is distinctive: a staccato narrative that, while detailing every action, frequently drops prepositions and pronouns.
Joe lifted eyes.
Smile. "I thought it was you." Bushy eyebrows raised.

Much of the dialogue takes the form of painstakingly-transcribed Glaswegian dialect:
That was when ah hit him ... when the MPs pult me aff, the guy oan the flair was deid an' ah'd hauf-kilt some ... captain.
Though it's notable that Joe's dialect becomes stronger when he's in the grip of some emotion.

The pacing's admirable: we get the facts early on, but their context only becomes apparent late in the novel. And even then, the nuances of Joe's relationship with his brother -- a relationship that has to be played out again with Sean, to teach him that some things don't belong in the real world -- simmer under the surface. Joe learns about himself, and his attraction to Billy (who smells, as Michael did, of Oddfellows sweets) throughout the novel.

There's some clumsy or lazy prose ("Sean's eyes met his. Blue pools overflowed onto scarlet cheeks.") but the unusual mix of compacted narrative and rich dialect blends into a surprisingly fluent and readable style.

#32: Water for Elephants -- Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is ninety. Or ninety-three. He's not sure what year it is. He's in a nursing home, and the circus has come to town: the old ladies are staring out of the window, watching the tent go up. And it takes Jacob back to his youth, when he walked out of his final exams at Cornell and jumped aboard a moving train -- when he ran away to join the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and witnessed a murder that he's kept mum about for seventy years.

The contrast between Jacob's life in the home and his circus days is vividly brought out in minute details: the food he doesn't want versus the illicit drinking parties (his circus days were during Prohibition); his irritated distaste for the old ladies in the nursing home versus his guilty love for Marlena and his difficult relationship (not quite friends, not quite enemies) with her husband August; the dangerous freedom of a life lived cheek-by-jowl with freaks and misfits, human and otherwise, versus the sane sameness of the home, and the friendship of one sympathetic nurse. Throughout the contemporary scenes there's a fear of being left, forgotten, abandoned: Jacob's circus days, by contrast, are a headlong progression of new towns, quasi-legal activities and strong personalities -- not all of them human. There's enough veterinary science in the circus episodes to contrast cruelly with Jacob's failing health in the nursing home.

The relationships of the past are more real to Jacob than anything in the present, and no wonder: the beautiful Marlena, Rosie the elephant who doesn't understand English, Kinko the dwarf are all larger-than-life, almost caricatures except that they have flaws and depths and fates.

I set this book aside one chapter from the end because it reminded me so acutely of visiting my father in a nursing home, of watching his gradual deterioration and his outbursts of helpless rage. I couldn't see how Jacob's tale could end happily in the present, even though it seemed likely that there'd be a happy ending in the past.

I was wrong, and I'm so glad I read the last chapter.

In an afterword, the author provides some context for the circus tales: some of the most improbable elements of the tale are based on actual events. The photographs that head each chapter help evoke that world, too, before anyone had really questioned the ethics of putting animals on display or teaching them tricks. A world in which the circus came to town by train, and everyone went to see the latest Greatest Show on Earth.

#31: Louisa the Poisoner -- Tanith Lee

A novella rather than a novel, Louisa the Poisoner (77 pages including illustrations) was published in 1995. I hadn't even heard of it until recently ...
Louisa lived with her aunt in a cottage on the mire and for nineteen years knew no other life.

The (nameless) aunt, a nasty piece of work, raises Louisa to behave like a gentlewoman, even though her rings are made of bark and rushes and her cultured tones have been taught to her phonetically. One night, the aunt concocts an especially deathly poison: one drop ensures a painless death, two drops an agonising one; 'three drops and there's fire'.

Well! What can a poor girl do?

The aunt despatched (with a single drop: Louisa's not grudgeful), the girl sets out to seek her fortune. Finds her way to Maskullance Manor, home of a noble family who are variously intrigued or enraged by Louisa's beauty, humility and obvious breeding. Only the butler, Sheepshead, has a healthy suspicion of her, and questions the accidents which befall the members of the family at regular intervals.
Something protected him, something divine or demoniac. Louisa did not perfectly believe in such things, for in her world she had found no need of them, either for help or blame.

Eventually the inscrutable newcomer is hauled up before judge and jury. Witness for the defense: Sheepshead. Can Louisa's art win her freedom? And where will she go then?

Somewhat slight, but vintage Lee.

Monday, July 16, 2007

#30: The Wave Runners -- Kai Meyer

Jolly ran across the ocean, striding freely. Her bare feet only just dipped into the water.

It's 1706, in the tropical waters and jungly islands of the Caribbean. This is a world not only of bloodthirsty (though also some well-mannered) pirates and freebooters, but of the supernatural: and from that very first line, whereJolly's introduced as something rich and strange, the magic is present in every dimension of the tale.

It would be remiss of me to blurb this book as Pirates of the Caribbean meets China MiƩville's The Scar, so I won't. But it is.

The Wave Runners, first in a trilogy, contains the ingredients for a classic fantasy adventure -- a dashing pirate captain, somewhat down on his luck; a Pirate Princess who looks just like a Mary-Sue but,cheeringly, picks her nose; a dreadlocked teenage stowaway blessed with good luck and a gift for fencing; a Mysterious Elder with one eye and two coal-black parrots, Hugh and Moe; a ship crewed by ghosts; a dog-headed man; an Oracle of questionable provenance; the imminent destruction of life as we know it; strong spirits; explosions; creepy-crawlies.

And that's without mention of the two protagonists, Jolly (named after the Jolly Roger, a namesake she's determined to live up to) andMunk. Jolly was bought in the Tortuga slave market and raised by pirates; Munk has lived his fourteen years quietly on a small island somewhere off the main seaways of the Caribbean. That quiet life, naturally, comes to an abrupt end when Jolly turns up, determined to wreak vengeance on those who've sunk the only home she's ever known.

Jolly's a polliwiggle -- hence the walking, running, on water, and a decided aversion to spending very long on land -- and her gift (magically bestowed only on children born just after the Port Royal earthquake of 1692) may yet be the salvation of all who dwell upon dry land. For the Ghost Trader (he of the single eye and Gothic parrots) tells of the MareTenebrosum , 'a sea that knows no bounds, where there is no land': freak storms and shipwrecks are signs of this world breaking through into our own, and now thepowers of the Mare Tenebrosum want to conquer land, and have conjured a Maelstrom through which to make their entrance ...

It would be easy to dismiss this as formulaic fantasy (take one setting, spice with supernatural, add Archetypal Characters at regular intervals, separate out one set of protagonists at end of book one ...) if it lacked the sheer enjoyment that carries the plot along, the pacey writing and confident characterisation, the eldritch nastiness of the Bad Things and the sordidness of the more human villains. The reader isn't kept entirely in the dark; secrets are revealed and discoveries made, and the complex plot is sturdy enough to admit small mysteries and at least one question that I'm amazed Jolly hasn't asked herself. There's a cliffhanger ending to keep us all waiting for the second book, due this summer, and the third.

A note on the language: I couldn't believe this was a translation! All too often I find a novel translated so clumsily that any sane publisher would surely reject the translation if it were submitted as an original work. Certainly not the case here! Though there was one translation that really niggled, perhaps because the rest was so fluent: 'cyclone'. Why not 'hurricane'? I thought (andWikipedia / BBC site confirm) that 'cyclone' was a local name (Indian Ocean, apparently also West Pacific) for hurricane, and the latter term is more familiarly used forbiiiig Caribbean storms. Also, according to Wikipedia, 'cyclone' did not come into use until 1845. But I am not going to nit-pick about anachronology when there is so much else going on!)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

#29: The Man Who Invented Florida -- Randy Wayne White

The first of White's 'Doc Ford' books that I've read: I picked it up mostly because the plot revolves around the possible discovery of the Fountain of Youth in Mango, a small coastal town in Florida.

Ford is a marine biologist who thinks he might be on the verge of discovering a solution to turbidity, the murkiness of the once-clear Florida waters. Meanwhile, his Uncle Tucker claims to have discovered a well of healing water on his land. Apparently his gelding has regrown its testicles, and -- after Tuck smuggles a hefty dose of the water into a local rest home -- his Native American friend Joseph also experiences a new lease of life, one that takes him out of the rest home and back to his old haunts in the Everglades.

All would be simpler if three incomers (an environmental consultant, a surveyor and a TV personality) hadn't gone missing in the area. White gradually reveals their fate (and their unexpected resilience) in a masterful and amusing way. En route, there's the issue of who owns the land where the Fountain founts; whether the State will succeed in expanding the Everglades National Park; and whether the average tourist would be more appreciative of Fountain water if it were cherry-flavoured rather than sulphurous.
It was sunset, the pearly after-time, and the sky over Sanibel Island was wind-streaked with cantaloupe orange, purple swirls of cloud. Beyond the docks, mangroves settled charcoal black, blurring into smoky hedges as light drained from the bay. The lights of the marina bloomed on, and out of the closing darkness came the squawk of night herons hunting crabs on the mudflats and the mountain-stream sound of tidal current dragging past the pilings of Ford's house.

White has an excellent eye for landscape and detail: the mosquito-ridden swamps, the mazy creeks and islands, the suddenness of a squall on open water. He's also good on the historical aspects; the Calusa nation that may or may not have had its capital in Mango (there are Indian mounds on a lot of the islands), the early Hispanic explorations of the area, and Joseph's murky genetic background.

There's a deeper philosophical thread, too, about scams and self-promotion, Disney and the National Enquirer, ecology and environment and the power of the dollar.

The Man Who Invented Florida covers similar territory to Hiaasen's eco-thrillers, but it's different in tone: more reflective and less headlong, and rather more character-driven. Ford, Tuck, Ford's hippie friend Tomlinson and the rejuvenated Joseph Egret are all solid, three-dimensional and fascinating characters, and the backstory between Ford and his uncle, though only hinted, is dark enough to make me eager to read more in the series.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

#28: Cat Confidential -- Vicky Halls

Subtitled 'The Book Your Cat Would Want You to Read', or in my case 'The Book Your Cat Would Want To Sit On When You're Trying to Read'.

A friend's been recommending this for ages -- she found it helped her understand Oscar's many problems. (Oscar, as in Wilde, is a rescue cat and has mellowed considerably from Psycho Kitty.) I finally caved and read it, and was amazed and amused; what's more, I did learn quite a bit from the book.

Cat Confidential is a series of case studies in feline psychology by 'cat counsellor' Vicky Halls, who provides therapy for cats with problems and their owners. The book is well-written and very readable, packed with weird and fascinating characters. And that's just the cat-owners ... One thing I did learn from this was that there are some very odd people out there (actually, I think I knew this already) and that I have a long way to go before I achieve the zen state of Crazy Cat-Lady.

I like the way Vicky Halls writes: suitably self-deprecating, as when she's describing the onslaught of a 'ferocious' kitten. It's a perfect illustration of hubris: 'oh, sweet little -- aaaargh!!!" Ruefully, she admits to having framed the bloodstained notebook page as a reminder not to underestimate her clients.

Halls doesn't regard cats as 'small people in fur coats', but she does convey the complexity of the feline psyche: fierce, solitary furry predators forced to be cuddly and affectionate objects of devotion. No wonder cats are screwed up, especially when their owners aren't entirely sane. And some of the cat-owners described in this book go to extreme lengths because of their cats. I have learnt what to do about cats that masturbate*, and how to prevent some truly revolting forms of attention-seeking behaviour. This is information I hope I shall never need.

More prosaically (am so grateful that my cats are relatively normal, and elderly too!) I've worked out why S&S wouldn't drink out of the water bowl next to their food (cats in the wild aren't used to finding food and drink in the same place: a bowl of water in the bedroom has fixed this problem) and why Sam's so much happier now there's an extra litter tray with newspaper. I am reassured to read that the average cat is more than a match for the average fox (though this has also been demonstrated to me lately by Shiva).

The author has an excellent website. And there are two other books, Cat Detective and Cat Counsellor.

*Tesco carrier bags. Actually, mine are already scared of these ...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

#27: Scandal Takes a Holiday -- Lindsay Davis

A novel that has it all: Romans! Pirates! Heiresses! Murder! and Scandal!

Falco and family head to the seaside -- Ostia -- where 'Infamia', a gossip columnist, has gone missing. Falco, true to form, uncovers a number of other criminal activities: corruption, murder, ransoming and traffic in stolen goods. Though piracy has been thoroughly quashed a century before by Pompey, it's beginning to look as though some of the pirates didn't really notice ...
It depends on how you look at it. Let us land and beat up the locals: you are a pirate; I am a heroic warrior with expansionist pretensions on behalf of my city-state. Goes back at least to Athens ... Piracy was the fast alternative to diplomacy.

Or, to put it another way, pirates are a filthy rash that will always reappear.

Davis is entertaining on Roman history (I'm not sure whether to believe her potted history of the term 'columnist', but I'm pretty convinced by Pirates of the Mediterranean) and as deft with characterisation as ever. I think I'd have enjoyed this novel more if I'd kept up with the series: I flagged somewhere around Last Act in Palmyra, feeling that the later volumes didn't have the freshness or edge of the first few, and as a result I've probably missed a lot of the undercurrents in Falco's family politics. And I have no idea what Petro's up to.

Enjoyable, though, and inclines me to dig out a few of the older ones and submerge myself in gossipy sociable dangerous human Ancient Rome.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

#26: 100 Great Short Short Science Fiction Stories -- Isaac Asimov (ed.)

I had fond memories of a couple of stories in this book, so was pleased to track down a copy. It's perfect for dipping into -- the longest stories are only three or four pages, and some are much shorter. (Contents listed here.)

Rereading, though, I find the editorial one-liners that introduce each story rather lame and occasionally irritating. (Karen Anderson's delightful 'Landscape with Sphinxes', one of the stories I remembered exceptionally well, is introduced simply 'And then there were none' - which doesn't seem to have much at all to do with the content.)

This anthology was published in 1978, but some of the stories date back to the 1950s, and before: real Golden Age stuff, with all that that implies: occasionally bland or clunky prose; extravagant and now discredited predictions for the future; reliance on a punning punchline; and a healthy dose of sexism. (Even when they aren't human, females are mysterious and unpredictable, and over-emotional, and flirtatious ...)

Asimov's introduction clearly stuck when I first read it:
In the short story, there can be no subplots; there is no time for philosophy; what description and character delineation there is must be accomplished with concision the short short story, everything is eliminated but the point. The short short story reduces itself ot the point alone and presents that to you like a bare needle fired from a blowgun; a needle that can tickle or sting and leave its effect buried within you for a long time.

There are stories I wouldn't bother reading twice, because they rely (like a joke) on a punchline, and when you know it the story's purpose is complete. There are others that are masterful capsules of what-if; Stephen Goldin's 'Stubborn', in which a stubborn fellow gets what he deserves, for instance, or Frederik Pohl's 'The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass', an alt-history classic. And there are stories that are gems, so tightly packed that there might be a whole novel in there -- the aforementioned Karen Anderson story, for instance. (This is one reason I write short fiction from time to time -- to get the idea out and into some shape, rather than expanding and filling up my head.)

A good antidote to the current trend for long and wordy novels ...

#25: Shooting Elvis: Confessions of an Accidental Terrorist -- Robert Eversz

"I don't have any experience writing things down. I like to take photographs. That's how I see things." That's the opening line, and it's deceptive, like so much in this novel.

Mary Anne Baker, the narrator of Shooting Elvis, is an all-American girl: matching lipstick and nail-polish, blue-collar family, difficult relationship with her father, working as a photographer at a Baby Photo Studio, having an off-again-on-again relationship with Wrex who -- with his leather jacket, tattoos and piercings -- knows 'how to accessorise danger'.

Then Wrex asks her to drop off a parcel at LAX, and everything changes.

Mary Anne Baker, responsible for blowing up a major international airport, is no more. She's become Nina Zero, post-punk bohemian chick, one step ahead of the law and trying desperately to find out what the hell is going on, and what's so important about the heavy black suitcase she's acquired. (A stolen artwork is involved, though the piece in question is never named -- there are plenty of hints though.)

Nina falls in with Cass, an artist and scriptwriter, whose interest in her is not wholly altruistic. "If I bring you in I'll get first shot at the script, maybe get a chance to direct... It's what all the really interesting criminals are doing now. Television movies."

The novel's about role-playing, reinventing yourself, acting ("we think we can get Madonna to play you") and art. Nina's voice comes across very clearly despite that disclaimer at the beginning: bad grammar, Valley-girl idiom, honest and wry. And her reinvention isn't skin-deep: only once she's come to terms with who she was can she face up to who she is.

The novel was written in 1996: it seems like another era, a pre-9/11 world, where blowing up an airport is -- well, not quite a minor offense, but more akin to a Hollywood movie than a news report.