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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

#49: Jhegaala -- Steven Brust

I didn't think my people -- humans -- would be a serious threat. There is an entire family dead because I didn't start asking the right questions soon enough. I have to live with that. You think I'm bad because I killed those responsible. I think I'm bad because I didn't kill them earlier. (p. 295)

Jhegaala is the eleventh Vlad Taltos novel: chronologically, it comes after Phoenix and before Athyra. Vlad is on the run and heads east to the land of his ancestors (Fenario, setting of Brust's standalone novel Brokedown Palace), initially seeking his mother's family. He tracks them to the odorous paper-mill town of Burz, but whenever he mentions his mother's maiden name -- Merss -- people react oddly, either professing ignorance or reacting as though he's threatened them. (Since Vlad is a professional assassin and crime-lord, generally armed as well as being accompanied by two flying reptilian familiars, one can hardly blame them).

Then an entire family is murdered, burnt alive: and, despite the fact that the Jhereg organisation is tracking Vlad for a bloodthirsty vengeance, he decides to stick around and uncover the truth behind the deaths of his (probable) relatives. In the process, some pretty bad things happen to him: well, you do things and there are consequences; I ought to know. I can live with consequences. (p. 221)

Brust fans won't be surprised that there are seventeen chapters (plus a prologue) or that the chapters are headed by quotations from a play called 'Six Parts Water', apparently a comic murder mystery staged over several days; each section of the book is also introduced with an excerpt from a natural history text describing the life-cycle of the jhegaala, which is -- sadly -- as close as we get to seeing either the actual animal (a venomous winged toad-like amphibian) or any Dragaerans of that House. However, the jhegaala's decidedly unusual life-cycle makes an excellent Structural Metaphor for the development of the plot. ... as is the case with all organisms, it is never so much itself as when under intense pressure (p. 175)

I didn't enjoy this novel as much as some of the other Vlad Taltos books, and I think it's because Vlad is a stranger in a strange land: everyone looks odd to him, and that's because they're humans like Vlad himself, rather than Dragaerans (i.e. elves). None of the recurring characters from the other books make an appearance, save for Vlad's familiars, Loiosh and Rocza: much of the humour and character development is provided by Vlad's interaction with Loiosh (who thinks Vlad's 'pretty smart, for a mammal'). Perhaps I'm more fascinated by the Dragaerans, and Dragaeran society (an intriguing blend of courtly and sordid) than by Vlad himself, despite his edge and depth and instinct for survival, and his black humour. Without the Dragaerans to give context to the tale of a man living, surviving, thriving where he doesn't belong, Jhegaala seems just another thriller-with-magic.

Yes, there is Deverra.

#48: The Book of Atrix Wolfe -- Patricia McKillip

He saw the wood again in two worlds: one lifeless, dark, blanched with winter, the other drenched with light, green leaves trembling in a sweet soundless wind, and both on the edge of Hunter's Field. (p.132)

McKillip blends myth, fairytale and history in a tale of the aftermath of magical war: the eponymous mage Wolfe, under pressure from a king, uses magic to end war in Pelucir, but conjures a Hunter darker and more terrifying -- and more persistent -- than anything he could have imagined. From the wood on the hill, the Queen of the Wood watches with her consort and their child: Atrix Wolfe's magic whirls wide to include them too.

Fast-forward twenty years. The King is dead, killed on Hunter's Field, and his son Burne rules in Pelucir: Burne's younger brother, bespectacled Talis, is studying magic in Chaumenard when -- during a game of magical hide-and-seek -- he discovers a spellbook in a broom-cupboard. Returning to Pelucir, his forays into the book wreak domestic havoc, as when a spell to extinguish candles breaks all the mirrors in the castle: 'Words don't seem to mean themselves ... the spell in the book dealt with mirrors. But it said candles. And fire. So I was confused.'.

Then Talis falls from his horse, meets a woman in the wood on the hill:
"... she let me see her face. She was very -- she was more beautiful than --"
[Burne] grunted. "They always are."
(p89)
And within days, Talis has disappeared in a sliver of moonlight, and Burne turns to the mages while Talis tries to reach back through to his own green world.

Meanwhile, in the kitchens, a mute girl scrubs pots and watches passively as creative, indulgent and mouth-watering feasts -- very much in the medieval style, pastry in bird-shapes, birds stuffed with other birds, mulled wine and cold meats -- are prepared for King and Court. When the black cauldron is empty of pots, she sees visions in the water ...

I'd reread the Riddlemaster trilogy (my very favourite novels when I was about 15: they've stood the test of time pretty well) and started wondering why I hadn't really connected with McKillip's later works. The Book of Atrix Wolfe is beautifully-written, and I love the central conceit that if one's writing of one thing but thinking of another, that other will flavour the writing; it doesn't move me as the Riddlemaster books did, and yet I admire the construction of the plot, shiver at the Hunter with the black moon between his antlers, am caught up in the poetry of the wood: and, yes, had to eat, and eat, while I read the kitchen scenes.

#47: The Way We Are -- Margaret Visser

In our consumer culture, we are constantly confronted with crowds of objects and with changing fashions in behaviour. The simulaneity and repetitiousness of the bombardment, the multiplicity of the things and the speed with which they reach their targets, serve to make them inscrutable to us, and exhausting in their apparent self-sufficiency and dynamism ... My project is to grab some of them as they hurtle by. I seize one of them at a time, hold it still, and look at it closely to see where it comes from and what it might be hiding. (p. xix)

Visser's Much Depends on Dinner -- subtitled 'The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal' -- is one of those books that I regularly give as a gift: her blend of history, sociology, anthropology and cookery, leavened with dry wit, engages me. In The Way We Are, a selection of her columns for Saturday Night magazine, she turns her attention to the paraphernalia of everyday life. Father Christmas ('he is obviously phallic, dressed in red, coming down the chimney, leaving a present in the stocking. Some analysts have suspected that he is, at the same time, pregnant'); the psychology of the blush; the fashion for stripes, whether vertical or horizontal, and the visual effects these produce; the avocado ('Indian claims for aphrodisiac powers in the fruit were hotly denied when it was first introduced ... the reputation is no longer thought by the industry to be a liability'); the history of the umbrella, which made me sad; synaesthesia; a discussion of Eskimo words for snow, and their usefulness; baths versus showers ...

Everything's footnoted: Visser (a classicist by profession, I believe) is not afraid to indulge her scholarly side, and -- for example -- discuss Seneca's satire Apocolocyntosis, in which the Emperor Claudius turns into a gourd, whilst examining the cultural history of the pumpkin. She writes about the enculturation of objects: that is, the ways in which, beginning as utalitarian items, they acquire meaning and a burden of folklore. And there's an immediacy to these articles, a sense of engagement: she invites us to examine our own clothing, our own habits; our laughing flinch at 'Bright-Eyed, Bushy-Tailed, Serves Six' (a discussion of why we don't eat squirrels) or the last time we blushed (at someone else's 'exposure') or the cloth we're wearing.

Fascinating, erudite and funny; the article format makes this the perfect book for dipping into, which is what I've been doing for months.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

#46: The Company -- K J Parker

... as long as 'A' Company was still alive and together, as long as the five of them were together, the war could never end. It was part of them, their core, their reason, what they were for; they kept it alive and it kept them alive, which was why it, they, had lasted so long, against all the odds. 'A' Company could no more die in war than a fish could drown in the sea. (p. 344)

Parker's first stand-alone novel -- previously s/he (the publicity material indicates a female author, but there is something masculine about the style) has committed the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies -- is distinctly Parker and yet oddly disappointing.

The war is over. General Teuche Kunessin ('the most devastating fighting man on either side of the war') returns to his homeland, intent on reuniting his comrades and fulfilling the dream that kept them alive: the colonisation of an abandoned island, which he's ensured will not be of interest to the military. There'd been six of them, but one died right at the end of the war. (The Company is, as much as anything, a thriller about how the sixth man, Nuctos, died.) The remaining veterans, despite their arguments and objections, all leap at the opportunity. Supplies (including wives) are acquired. Sphoe is colonised: and turns out to have rather more resources than they'd been expecting.

As ever, Parker's eye for the gritty realities of a (pseudo)medieval society is impressive. When Kunessin was a boy, his family fell on hard times, because a battle was fought on their field, leaving a harvest of corpses: we can't bury them all, not in time. Can't burn them: there's not enough timber in the valley to fire this lot ... They'll start to rot, and they'll breed worms and flukes: the stock'll pick them up and they'll die. ... It'll be three years, soonest, before this land's fit to be grazed again. (p. 63) And Parker's a master at showing what's said and what's not -- the male characters, in particular, are masterfully drawn as men who'd sooner die than talk out loud about emotions, but nevertheless very clearly have and are driven by said emotions -- and at showing us the world through an individual's eyes, slanted and skewed with their perspective. Kunessin sees the sun 'slanting down over the roofs ... like a shower of pitched-up arrows'. Aidi analyses the profit and loss of each transaction. Menin has a sharp eye for nature's bounty.

In a series of flashbacks, we slowly discover how Kunessin amassed the fortune that enabled him to buy Sphoe, a ship, supplies. There are other flashbacks, illuminating the pasts of the other colonists: early on we discover that a couple of the wives have secrets in their pasts. All rumour and conjecture of course, nothing ever proved. And -- in a quintessentially and aggravatingly Parker twist -- there's an account of the betrayal of Nuctos, carefully crafted using only the third-person pronoun. It's several hundred pages before we can put a name to the viewpoint character of that section, and I cannot help but feel that this is cheating.

'A' Company ('the biggest bunch of underachievers the world had ever seen') are connected by more than chance: they've survived years of war together, and the sense of 'us against the rest of the world' -- something darker and more codependent than mere camaraderie -- is one of the strongest threads in the novel. Given that focus, the finale is successful, but it feels hasty and unfinished, as though there might be more going on than a bunch of soldiers surviving against all odds.

Overall: very much enjoyed, not least for Parker's dry humour and the careful construction of plot and backstory, and for another fantasy in which there's no magic, no music and beauty only in the eye of the beholders.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

#43-45: The Riddlemaster trilogy -- Patricia McKillip (rereads)

He dropped into the wild current of the Cwill, let it whirl him, now as a fish, now a dead branch, through deep, churning waters, down rapids and thundering falls until he lost all sense of time, direction, light. The current jarred him over endless rapids before it loosed him finally in a slow, green pool. He spun awhile, a piece of water-soaked wood, aware of nothing but a fibrous darkness. The gentle current edged him toward the shore into a snarl of dead leaves and branches. He pulled himself onto the snag finally, a wet, bedraggled muskrat, and picked his way across the branches onto the shore. (Harpist in the Wind, p.133)

I discovered McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy in my teens -- I have a vivid memory of reading the books instead of studying for 'O' levels -- and have reread the books several times over the intervening ~30 years. Remembering the intensity with which I used to immerse myself in favourite books, I'm not really surprised that I can remember whole paragraphs almost word for word. These were a quick reread, because so much of the text is set in memory!

I love the rich tapestry colours and the vivid visual descriptions; the blend of Celtic and Scandinavian myth; the elements of archetype, legend, emblem (I hadn't read Campbell's The Hero's Journey when I first read McKillip). The whole 'riddle' framework -- where history and a kind of spirituality are conveyed within fables that remind me of Sufi parables as much as of the Mabinogion -- appeals intellectually. I'm fascinated by the openness of the characters: even when they have hidden secrets, there's a level of emotional honesty (and complexity) that's (or that was) rare in genre fantasy. And I like the characters -- though now they mostly seem very young to me.

I admire McKillip's other novels, though increasingly I've found them subtle, multi-layered, allusive and elusive: by comparison, the Riddlemaster trilogy reads like -- and is now, I believe, published as -- young adult fiction. It's a more straightforward tale, a hero's coming-of-age, not quite a quest fantasy but with a great deal of travelling as the protagonists learn the Realm.

And I'm starting to wonder, half-frivolously, if it could be read as science fantasy, comparable to McCaffrey's Pern books: those are 'obviously' fantasy at first, what with the dragons and Holds and feudal society, but increasingly sfnal with allusions to colonisation, genetic engineering and the like. McKillip's Realm, ruled by a High One, formerly the domain of the Earth-Masters, riddled with wizards and ghosts and shapechangers: clearly a fantasy world, and yet there's talk of the years of Settlement (that is, the current occupants arrived there from elsewhere). And if one's going to seize on tiny details*, how about 'the old moon with a lost star drifting between its horns'? (Heir of Sea and Fire, p.158) That, to me, implies something shiny between moon and viewpoint: too close to be a star or a planet, but just right for an artificial satellite ...

Anyway: always worth a reread for me, always comforting, always something new: the best kind of favourite book!

*as elsewhere, for example, a capital 'c' on the word 'culture', or a reference to a 'falling star', might serve as key to unlock a novel by Banks or Fowler ... just sayin'.

#42: Under an English Heaven -- Robert Radcliffe

...there was another, much bigger, much closer, ear-poppingly loud. He felt its shock, its heat pass right through him, like a wave, the ground shuddering beneath his feet. At the same instant, a house at the end of the street jumped between its neighbours, sprang upwards and outwards amid a huge cloud of blood-red dust and smoke. The cloud rose, lifting into the sky before him. There it hung like a vast filthy curtain, before sinking slowly to the rubble-strewn ground where it spread, rolling, wave-like, down the road towards him. He saw that the bombed house had gone. Vanished. Even though its neighbours appeared untouched. (p. 233)

I picked this up from a stack of free books in a local church hall, mostly as atmosphere-research for a writing project set immediately after WW2. (See also A World to Build).

Under an English Heaven is a well-paced and evocative novel of life on and near a USAF base in East Anglia in 1943. Radcliffe is a pilot, and he knows his military history: there's a heartfelt critique of some ill-advised command decisions here. But mostly it's the story of various lost souls searching for meaning, home, a sense of belonging: Billy Street, the London evacuee, who knows how to make the most of his new home; John Hooper, sole survivor of one bomber crew, leading another; schoolteacher Heather Garrett, whose husband is missing in Burma ... The secondary characters are as vividly drawn as the protagonists, and their experiences are exceptionally vivid: the cloud of orange brick-dust hanging where a bombed house stood, the prostitutes in Piccadilly, the cramped and icy conditions on board a B17 bomber, the children asking "Got any gum, chum?" of every American serviceman they meet.

And Radcliffe shows the birth of a team, the strengthening bonds between the crew of Misbehavin' Martha: the war-weariness, the camaraderie, the affection. Radcliffe's descriptions of aerial combat have a real immediacy, and his evocative descriptions of still, misty East Anglian mornings remind me of home. But Hooper's care for his crew (and his 'plane), and their mutual respect, made this more than just another war novel. Hooper, the broken hero trying to do his duty as well as what's right, sick of war but in love with the sky, may be a type: but he's a very real and rounded character, and I cared what happened to him.

Not all the endings are happy, but they are Right.

Radcliffe's second novel, Upon Dark Waters (Royal Navy, WW2), is on its way to me ...

He sits, relaxed and comfortable in his seat at the top of his empty aeroplane. They are both spent, both finished. Spiritually, mechanically, it is the same thing. But they have accomplished with dignity that which has been asked of them, and are now free to travel the last few miles together ... Unencumbered is how he pleases, suddenly. Empty. Stripped bare. He pulls the headphones from his head. (p. 410)

#41: Much Ado About Something: A History of the Othona Community -- Norman Motley

There is no doubt that Bradwell is what some call a 'holy place'. There is a silence and a stillness. Even in midsummer one can walk in a southerly direction along the sea wall without meeting another soul and with only the wail of the seagulls overhead. The great skyscapes and the spread of the saltings bring an immense degree of peace to mind and heart. (p.19)

The Othona community is an open Christian community, founded just after WWII by former RAF chaplain Norman Motley. I've been aware of the original Bradwell community since my childhood: it's located right out on the east coast of the Dengie peninsula, next to St Peter's Chapel (built by St Cedd in 654, most recently restored in the 1920s) which is partly constructed from the ruins of the Roman fort Othona. It's a wonderfully silent, bleak, peaceful place. (Robert Macfarlane writes wonderfully about it here.)

I hadn't really paid much attention to the Othona community until a visit this year, when my companion pointed out that it'd been founded just after the end of the war, and that several similar communities were founded by ex-servicemen. That intrigued me, so I sent off for the book.

Motley writes briefly of his time as a curate in Spitalfields (then a slum and ethnic melting-pot) before the war, and of his wartime experiences, providing a sense of community and a forum for discussion of the 'fearful equation' of a loving God and a genocidal war. One gets the sense that he trod on a few toes by refusing to confine his work to the RAF and / or to Anglicans.

After the war, Motley's wife mentioned 'a chapel in the marshes' and -- after the first visit, the day that the field in front of the chapel had been cleared of mines -- Motley realised that this was an excellent location for the community he wanted to found. Initially, there were weekend meetings and a summer camp, attracting a wide range of attendees: German POWs who hadn't yet been repatriated, refugees, members of the International Voluntary Service for Peace, local parishioners, Borstal girls ... Motley's account of the tribulations faced by the proto-community (conflict with the neighbouring farmer, the lack of a mains water supply, building the community from Nissen huts and tents, paying the rent) is entertaining and without recrimination, though it must have been an extremely frustrating period.

The common desire of the survivors of both wars was for a fuller personal understanding between people, an understanding so strong that if manifest on a large enough scale -- at home and internationally -- would at least contribute to a climate in which further war would be unthinkable and in which society within the nation could grow without rancour and violence. Such was the hope. (p. 28)

After some years the community founded a second site at Burton Bradstock in Dorset. Both sites operated on the same principles: forcing people to live on their own resources ('transistors and televisions are not available or encouraged') and providing a space for them to engage in meaningful worship, good discussion and spiritual refreshment. There's a good deal of outreach, within Britain and abroad, and the community runs 'family weekends' which combine rural / wildlife pursuits with more spiritual activities. Motley died in 1980, but Othona continues to thrive and to attract those of all faiths and none.

I'm not a Christian and I haven't attended any of the events at Othona, but I was struck by the strength of Motley's mission, his vocation: I have nothing but admiration for his achievement, and I am comforted that a community like Othona has endured and grown for so long.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#40: A World to Build: Austerity Britain 1945-48 -- David Kynaston

Bought for research: this is a period I remember my parents talking about, but I realised I didn't know much about daily life in the immediate post-war period. Kynaston is an engaging writer (which didn't stop me skipping some of the political analysis): he presents a social history peppered with anecdotes and recollections, from people's diaries and memoirs as well as from newspapers, magazines and Mass Observation.

I hadn't really been aware of the Mass Observation project and it strikes me as slightly creepy: I have an image of people in pubs, queues, buses, surreptitiously jotting down overheard conversations, tagged with social class identifiers.

"I've been queuing ever since eight o'clock this morning, what with one thing and another," says F40D. "I'm about done for. I'd like to take that Atlee and all the rest of them and put them on top of a bonfire in Hyde Park and BURN them." "And I'd 'elp yer," says F65D." (p. 115)

There's a lot about rationing, about the sense of relief from oppression and about the social ills (housing shortage leading to the rise of the squatting movement; the cost of medical care just pre-NHS) besetting a nation of survivors. I learnt about the way that ex-servicemen were treated with suspicion, and about the thriving black market ("My husband insists that anything one gets over and above the ration is morally a black market transaction. I prefer to call it grey ...")

Yes, there's a sense of a world to build, but that world is already under the shadow of the atomic bomb ("it's to do with redirecting the energy from the sun, or something") and has a whole new set of problems -- loss of community, agricultural reform, newly independent females -- to contend with. By contemporary standards, the vast majority of people lived in poverty: from the accounts in this book, there was considerably more interest and involvement in politics than there is now.

A good snapshot of a period of massive change.

Monday, September 15, 2008

#39: Unwelcome Bodies -- Jennifer Pelland

"...You all see your bodies as so permanent."
"But they --"
"-- aren't." (p. 161)


Read for review: [EDIT: Strange Horizons review is here] eleven short stories by a relatively new author (the first was published in 2003). The title is apposite: these are stories about bodies, about touch, about sex and death and apocalypse. About ways in which the body can be changed -- willingly or unwillingly -- and about how we define ourselves by our bodies.

I'll do a story-by-story analysis here, though not in the 'official' review (which this complements, and which I'll link when it appears).

For the Plague Thereof was Exceeding Great (2003)
Death, the fear of sickness, the hunger for touch: two women, one a librarian fearing plague (she'd 'gotten a degree in library services because she loved books. Now she was afraid of them'), one on a holy mission to infect as many as she can.

Big Sister / Little Sister (2005)
This is the story that'll stay with me, lurk in the back of my mind. Like a dark remix of Lori Lansen's The Girls: the story revolted me, not least because both characters are victims. There isn't a way out, or an option of a happy ending. Very powerful.

Immortal Sin (2005)
This felt to me like one of those 'tales with a twist' that surface so often in anthologies of SF from the Forties and Fifties. It's a story about Catholic guilt and the fear of hell.

Flood (2006)
Suicide, tides, twins: craving water in a dried-up world. "The clutter of the former oceans makes its way across the land. Bleached-out bath toys bounce off the train's windows in a rubbery hail." Naming a secondary character 'Marina' felt heavy-handed.

The Call (2006)
A tale told entirely in second person, in questions. "Would you?" There's a story in there, all right, but the form made it feel like a writing exercise.

Captive Girl (2006)
Nominated for the Nebula and shortlisted for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, this is the story of a girl who's made cyborg to defend her planet, and the woman who loves her -- or loves her disability. Again, very powerful and unsettling: the theme of utter captivity, the claustrophobic relationship between cared-for and carer. Yes, this would have been a very different story if either character had been male.

Last Bus (2006)
The author's notes tell us that this is the earliest of the stories in the book, although it wasn't published until 2006. I do think it's one of the weakest: and again, it feels old-fashioned. Nothing wrong with the writing, but it just didn't click.

The Last Stand of the Elephant Man (2007)
Joseph Merrick, the Victorian 'Elephant Man', is brought forward to a post-apocalypic world where diversity and difference are rare and celebrated, and extreme body modification is the height of fashion. He sees himself from the outside -- and from the inside. This story seems to crystallise some ideas about body and identity. Possibly the best story in the book.

Songs of Lament (not previously published)
On learning to understand whale-song. "I wonder what they're saying? I can't wait to find out." A short, chilling, unnerving tale.

Firebird (not previously published)
Njeri's college roommate turns out to be her idol, a teenage popstar who made a grand gesture of protest against environmental damage. Again, a theme of body/identity: who's burnt, who's burning, what's burnt away. The characterisation of Njeri as inspired fangirl is wickedly accurate.

Brushstrokes (not previously published)
I liked this very much indeed, though (?because) it feels like slash fiction of the best kind: plenty of plot and rich world-building, with just enough romance and sex to clarify the characters and their motivations. Another post-apocalyptic world, another world in which identity is defined by the body and its decorations: at the bottom of the caste system are the Masked; right at the top is the Skinless Empress. On a distant world, media broadcasts from Earth permeate every level of society. (The news from Earth -- "Madonna! Osama! Obama!" -- feels very ... current.)

Those big themes -- sex, death, bodies, the human need for contact -- recur throughout. But there's a strong undercurrent, to me, of fairytale, myth and legend. Seph's journey down to the Masked levels, in 'Brushstrokes', feels like Campbell's 'hero's journey'. Suze, in 'Songs of Lament', wants to be a Prometheus for the whales she loves. Callie's stagename, in 'Flood', is Undine, and I keep feeling that this is a mermaid story I should recognise. Time and again, echoing the myth of Psyche, there are masks that need to be removed before the lover can see the beloved. Pelland's style is clear and sharp: very little elaboration, but the occasional singing phrase, and imagery that resonates long after details are forgotten.

Pelland's notes on the stories are often illuminating ("you should write about things that fascinate you to the point of scaring you"), and while the stories appear as published she's included deleted material, leaving it to the reader to decide whether editorial decisions were justified.

I've been reading some of Pelland's other fiction online and am surprised at the inclusion of weaker stories ('Last Bus', 'The Call') over, for instance, 'MarsSickGirl' or 'Clone Barbeque'. Unwelcome Bodies does showcase Pelland's progress as a writer, and her increasing facility with the short-story form, over the course of a few years: I expect there'll be another collection pretty soon. Meanwhile, much of Pelland's fiction appears online: see her Bibliography page for links.

#38: The Servants -- M. M. Smith

... a way of seeing a world which has been stripped bare of all its blurring comforts and made very, very clear -- a seared vision which poured a strange, black light into all its corners and showed you, at last, how much of a balancing act it all was, and had always been -- how you rolled forward through time, faster and faster, until you came to the precipice which you knew was ahead somewhere but never saw until it was too late ... (p.208)

Mark is 11 years old, and has just moved with his mother and stepfather to Brighton. Mark, rejected by his father, does not like his stepfather, David, and has developed a repertoire of brattish behaviour. His mother, meanwhile, is dying quietly on the sofa. (Cancer? I don't think it's ever stated.) His mother's illness is presumably the reason why Mark, unlike the other kids his age, is not in school.

Mark spends a lot of time falling off his skateboard on the seafront. One day, he encounters the other inhabitant of David's house, an old lady who lives in the basement flat. She unlocks a door in her flat to reveal a dark, dank maze of rooms, the original servants' quarters: and something happens to time when Mark's in there, because he sees (and is seen by) the servants.

The Servants is full of intimations of mortality: the decay of the West Pier, the sense of Brighton simply stopping at the beach rather than going on 'forever' like London, and Mark's mother lying on the sofa, more ill than Mark realises. But then, he only gradually comes to see her (and David) as people in their own right. Once he starts to understand that, he begins to understand what the house, the servants, the filth and decay in the kitchen downstairs are for.

There's a strong, significant thread of images and scenes focussed on food. The theme of eating, the family eating together, finishing a meal resolves on the beach. The food and drink that matters to Mark is what he finds or chooses for himself -- and what he chooses to share. And it's no accident that the kitchen of David's house is where the first fleck of blackness appears. Nobody cooks in that house -- not upstairs, anyway.

I'm still undecided about this novel. For one thing, I don't know who it's aimed at. (Presumably not Michael Marshall Smith's science fiction audience, or Michael Marshall's thriller audience. It's been spotted in bookshops under 'horror', 'sf' and 'children's'.) It could be for children, though there are some dark themes: it could be for a YA audience: it could be for a mature audience. The central conceit, and its mechanism, are never really explained: the old lady is never named: when the servants and the real world seem to collide, what's happening?

But there are some glorious images and wry similes (the Odeon 'looked as though it had been built in the dark by someone who didn't like buildings very much'). There is a scene on the beach that brought tears to my eyes; there's a sequence of time-slip images of Brighton that sparked my sense of wonder. And on a personal note, this novel brought some deep-hidden memories and emotions to mind: my mother was dangerously ill when I was ten, and I found Mark's incomprehension, anger and resentment utterly credible.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

#37: Vacant Possession -- Hilary Mantel

The town was in itself a universe, a universe in a closed box. There was no escape, no point of arrival, and no point of departure. Every action, however banal, opened into a shrapnel blast of possibilities; each possibility tail-ended or nose-dived into every other, so that there was no thought, no wish and no perception that did not in the end come home to its begetter.

Despite the various plaudits from the quality press ("Filled with fiendish glee" - New Statesman: "macabre and wonderfully funny" - Standard) the humour here is of the blackest kind. Vacant Possession is scathingly funny, but the plot would make an excellent Greek tragedy. ("It's like the house of Atreus," says Colin, quite late on, though mostly in reaction to the breakdown of the washing machine.) There are few, if any, characters, whose lot improves.

Colin Sidney, head teacher and family man, lives at 2 Buckingham Avenue. They bought the house surprisingly cheaply: it had been the home of two women, Mrs Axon and her daughter, who didn't maintain the property. When the mother (prone to seances and to confronting Social Services) died, the daughter left. Not that the house was exactly ... vacant.

The Sidney family is not a happy one. Colin is still beating himself up about an affair he had ten years ago with a social worker (the very social worker who confronted old Mrs Axon on the day she died). Sylvia has thrown herself into community work, and into domestic strife. Their son Alistair spends most of his time in his room, apparently experimenting with Satanism. ("It's better than him joining the Young Conservatives," says Colin helplessly.) Elder daughter Suzanne is, when the novel opens, away at university. The two younger girls, Karen and Claire, seem set to become excoriating social critics, if their behaviour en famille is anything to go by. Quiet desperation is the English way. It's 1984, York Minster has just burnt down (funnily enough, there's been a fire in the Sidney's kitchen: their cleaning lady claims to know nothing about it) and the Sidneys struggle on the genteel edge of poverty, never quite enough money to set themselves free.

This is a novel that needs to be mapped. The cleaning lady ("Some rooms have no talent for cleaning. Some rooms will never be clean.") is a nexus. So's Isabel, Colin's ex-fling. There's a skeleton in the canal, and a baby that becomes barter. There's a woman who believes herself to be a changeling and to have given birth to another. ("Most of Muriel's thoughts were quite unlike other people's.") There's arson, adultery, murder and madness and sweet cold revenge.

I've worked out what Nicola Barker's Darkmans reminded me of: it's Hilary Mantel's writing. Coincidence and repetition, synchronicity and echoes: in Vacant Possession the characters eat eggs, go out through the wrong door, suffer delusions of being forgotten royalty. A phrenologist's head becomes an icon of dread import. And there's a constant thrum of something uncanny, something malevolent.

The house was full of what she had conjured up; a three-bed two-reception property on a large corner plot, all jostled and crammed with the teeth-bearing dead, stranded souls whistling in the cavity walls, half-animated corpses under the flagstones outside. One bedroom, which they called the spare room, had its special tenants. Without eyes and ears, they made themselves known by shuffling; by the soft sucking of their breath, in and out; but they had no lungs. They were malign intentions, Mother said, waiting to be joined to bodies; they were the notions of the dead, expecting flesh.

That said: yes, it is a funny book, because though one might care about the characters it's hard to like any of them. When the whirl of vengeance coalesces into prop-swaps and sleight-of-hand that wouldn't disgrace a three-room farce, the sheer cleverness of the plot (and the odd wit of the plotter) is more immediately admirable than any of the abortive efforts towards niceness, ethical behaviour, decency that one character or another may occasionally make. The Sidneys and their ilk are not bad people. They are simply trapped.

Utterly bleak, cruelly funny and with dryly measured prose that has the precision and rightness of Mozartian chamber music, Pseuds' Corner here I come I liked this very much, though I think it appealed to the worst parts of me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Interview: Gwyneth Jones, August 2008

This interview took place in August 2008, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #260, July 2009), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: You have a new novel coming soon. Why's it called Spirit?
GJ: Because Gollancz didn't like The Princess of Bois Dormant -- maybe they thought it was difficult to pronounce. I'd just finished reviewing Iain Banks's Matter so I immediately suggested Spirit. And it just so happens that there is an Aleutian pod in this book, which is called the Spirit of '89, and so it gets called Spirit for short. As some of you may vaguely remember, Aleutian artifacts are sentient, so it's a person. And so Spirit it is, though I shall try to rescue The Princess of Bois Dormant when I get to proofs.
TB: Perhaps Gollancz thought that title sounded like a fantasy novel -- but this is SF, isn't it?
GJ: Yes, I think so. It's got spaceships, starfighters ...
TB: A princess?
GJ: It's certainly got a princess.
TB: And Aleutians: what are the Aleutians doing here?
GJ: Not to mention Li Xi-Feng. Ever since I wrote Escape Plans, a bit more than 20 years ago, I've been thinking about the problem of getting out of here. It's a common science fictional theme, and I do not believe that conventional space travel can do it. If you have a lot of money and thousands and thousands of years, maybe you can terraform Mars. So I've been thinking about how to traverse those ridiculous distances, and trying to come up with a fantasy mechanism, that would do that, and a series of events that would explain why and that would cover the how: how do we get there from here. I was brought up by cyberpunks, and cyberpunks taught me that you must not write science fiction that does not have a conceivable backstory. So I had to think of a way. I started in Escape Plans and then I worked on it through the Aleutian trilogy, White Queen and North Wind and Phoenix Cafe, figuring out the ideas of instantaneous transit which are invented by somebody called Peenemunde Buonarotti. Having figured out how it would operate, I wrote Bold as Love. In the Bold as Love sequence, I track through all five books the development of mind/matter tech. The main scientific idea in that sequence is breaking the mind/matter barrier. After writing the Aleutian trilogy, I'd always intended to go on and describe the world after the Buonarotti transit, but I didn't actually have to make it continuous with the previous books. It could have been some completely different future with instantaneous transit that was the Buonarotti transit under another name.

There are many things that have from time to time annoyed me about space opera, but the one thing that has always got me down as a reader and as a prospective writer is that gap. It's not the foreseeable future, it's way over the horizon: hundreds of years away, sometimes thousands of years away. There's this massive discontinuity, and I can't pretend it's not there. You could invent a potted history -- this is the Dune solution, pages and pages of italics explaining what happened in the 300 years between here and there. I didn't like that, and neither did I like the thing where there's a discontinuity but nobody in the book recognises it: they're all quoting Bob Dylan and A level physics from the 20th century.

So when I came to write the Buonarotti book, after having done a little suite of Buonarotti stories to get myself into the frame, I decided that hell, I've got this backstory, I'll use it. Nobody who hasn't read the Aleutian books or the Bold as Love books will even notice. they'll just get a few names which are unfamiliar to them because they're the history of these people. But I'll know and it'll save me from falling into that gap or getting niggled by having to quote Bob Dylan. So when you read Spirit (or The Princess of Bois Dormant) you will find that the history of the Aleutians ruling Earth, the human renaissance and how humans first invented the Buonarotti transit and then 300 years later rediscovered it. You'll find that far back in the distant past the Earth -- which is known as the Blue planet for obvious reasons -- was united by the first emperor, a woman called Li Xi-Feng who is possibly still living at the time of Bibi's adventures. And that's why the Aleutians are in the book.

TB: You mentioned the suite of stories: one of those generated a certain amount of controversy.


GJ: 'The Fulcrum', yes. 'The Fulcrum' is set on the Kuiper Belt station called the Panhandle, which will eventually become Speranza. It hasn't got Aleutians in it, because I decided that was too much weight for a short story, but it's set at the changeover between conventional spacers who have been struggling along -- asteroid miners, B-movie actors doing virtual avatar stuff on Mars -- they've been struggling along through the Aleutian empire and the Aleutians' disinterest, and now the Buonarotti transit is being developed and all the conventional spacers are doomed. They're slaves of microgravity, they can't afford to go back to Earth because they can't afford the hospital fees to get them up and running again. 'The Fulcrum' is the story of that tradition. I think of it as a Hemingway sort of story but I also think of it as a Light sort of story. If I had the nerve I would have dedicated it to Mr Harrison, because I read Light and I thought of 'The Fulcrum'. The story was quite popular and it appeared in lots of venues. And one day I found a review of it on a site called Guns and Gangstas, which is a UK gun lobby site, which spooked me considerably. (There was another review on a porn site, but the review was all about oral sex and I didn't think it was that offensive.) But the Guns and Gangstas review was tearing into 'The Fulcrum' because it didn't have any guns in it. It kind of spooked me because I thought, 'this has to be a science fiction fan who is also a gun lobbyist and who got annoyed enough at my story -- which isn't exactly non-violent -- that they reviewed it at length on this non-SF site': and so, as I said in my blog, I took to sleeping with my water pistol under my pillow. And after I wrote that blog post the review disappeared.
TB: That leads us on to a more expansive question about the new space opera: whether or not space opera does support the big military machine. It's something you discussed in your review of Iain M. Banks' Matter.
GJ: As I said in the review of Matter, people now think that Iain Banks' Culture novels were an immediate critical and popular hit. They were not. They were unfashionable. But the thing about space opera coming back into fashion is that I saw it as very much a retrograde step. The conventional space opera certainly takes as its premise, in most cases, an environment of permanent warfare. The characters are either military or mercenary, or they are on the fringes of the military / mercenary world. I didn't like that view of the distant future. I'd previously concentrated on the near future; I didn't want science fiction to return to the Gernsback continuum.
For a while I didn't take to it and then, y'know, everybody's doing it. It's like miniskirts. When miniskirts first came out I thought 'never in a million years', and then, y'know, the hem of your skirt starts creeping upwards because everybody's doing it. In the end, I was thinking, 'I'd quite like to write space opera'. And of course the Buonarotti device meant that eventually I would have to write a space opera, but it wouldn't be such a full-on space opera if space opera had not become fashionable in the meantime. If you should come to read Spirit (or The Princess of Bois Dormant) you'll find out what I mean. There's no pretending that it's anything else.
TB: OK, so you're addressing the inherent themes of space opera in Spirit, but you're also reinterpreting them, approaching them from the non-fiction side as a critic. This year the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) recognised your criticism by conferring the Pilgrim Award. Congratulations! As you said on your blog, you hadn't really expected any sort of critical acclaim for your criticism.
GJ: I don't know when I became a respected critic!
TB: Do you see the fiction and the criticism as two ways of addressing issues in science fiction? What's the relation between the two?
GJ: In a recent SFX poll I was described as a hippie, and I think that's the politest thing they could think of to say about what I am. What I am is an intellectual. Whatever I was doing I would be thinking about it, thinking hard and getting into it. So naturally since I write science fiction, I also think about science fiction, and occasionally I write about what I'm thinking about. I didn't ever set out to write criticism, it was always triggered by something. I've often wanted to be a fly on the wall at conferences where things interesting to science fiction are happening, and a good way to do that is to present a paper. So I've presented papers at a Computers and Writing conference; at a conference about the governance of cyberspace; at a conference about biopolitics. This is the way you get to sit there and listen, and if you're lucky you get to hear the corridor talk as well. There was always something like that behind my critical work: somebody gave me a nudge and I wrote something.
When I reviewed Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, as I said in my Pilgrim acceptance speech, I didn't know that I was breaking any boundaries. It would be impossible now, but when I wrote that review in 1994 I didn't know what I was supposed to think. It would nowadays be well-nigh impossible for a science fiction writer to pick up a significant new novel and not know what they were supposed to think about it. That's the internet explosion for you. You can turn off your broadband and shut down your email and be pure, but if you're living in the internet world you're bound to know what other people think because, to a great extent, that's where science fiction and the science fiction community happens now -- on the internet. My review of Snow Crash may have poked fun at it a little, and it was a cat among the pigeons review.
TB: You've said that criticism and fiction come from exploring the same areas. What do you think is the difference between criticism and reviewing?
GJ: Reviewing is part of the publishing machine. It's a means of promoting and selling books. That's what publishers believe, that's what a great many writers believe, and that's what the public tacitly accepts. Criticism is a disinterested commentary on the genre. It lives in the chinks of the reviewing machine.
Reviewing books is a shockingly corrupt business: it always has been and it always will be. You can't blame the publishers and the writers. The gateway to success is very narrow and many writers and many publishers take it for granted that schmoozing the reviewer, trashing the opposition, c'est la guerre. You can try to be as honest as you possibly can. You try to be clean. I think to try and see yourself as cleaning the Augean stables, that's an error. Reviewing will go on being corrupt whatever people do. Some people love writing critical studies of novels, and they will be honest because it's what they enjoy. If you've got a reviewer or a critic who really likes the sound of their own voice then they're going to have more respect for the integrity of their own writing than they have for the commercial interests involved.
All reviewers are biased. If you are a person who likes to read reviews then you soon discover a person's bias by reading a few of their reviews.
TB: There's fiction and there's criticism: there's also a strong thread in your work of science.
GJ: I've been a long-time science groupie. If I'd been able to pass my Maths 'O' level I would probably have gone into plant biology. That's the trade I gave my scientist heroine in Life, because I knew something about it and I could lead her through the first steps of it without killing myself with research. I'd have been a scientist, and by now I'd probably be some sort of administrator, pushing paper around. I'm good at it. Since I didn't go into science I remained a groupie, and I like reading scientific papers and books, like thinking about the next big thing: and this is where I have a disagreement with Geoff Ryman and his Mundane SF because I think anybody who has the slightest acquaintance with modern beliefs about cosmology ... I mean, mundane just does not cover it. The things that people believe about how the universe was formed, whether it was formed, are just completely bizarre. As I tried to discuss in the Bold as Love books, new science gets buried in the applied technology and we never think about it. If you actually thought about what a transistor is and does, you'd be spooked, because it's weird. Unimaginable strangeness seems to me to be unavoidable in science. Of course you don't have to think about it. You can just use it as cookery; put the ingredients, shake 'em around, see whether you've got the right kind of particles. But if you actually think about it then it's very bizarre. I like science for that reason, and I like trying to think about things like mind/matter tech. The state of high-energy physics at the moment is ludicrous, it seems likely that it's ripe for a revolution. My imaginary version of this revolution is breaking the mind/matter barrier, getting to a point where there's some kind of experiment that will prove that our perception of the universe and the material universe itself are on some level continuous.
TB: Can you say a bit about the 'When It Changed' project?
GJ: I don't actually know much about it yet myself. Geoff Ryman works for Manchester University now, and this summer he started a project: the net result is supposed to be an anthology of stories which are triggered by several different science fiction writers shadowing several different scientists. I can't remember who else in it apart from Geoff himself. If you picked up anything about how the Buonarotti transit works, you'll see it makes sense for me to have picked on the chap that does particle accelerators. Whether he'll think it makes sense is a very big part of the question! You couldn't really expect the scientists to choose their science fiction writers -- most of them may have read Asimov, and they may like Doctor Who, but modern print science fiction would be a totally closed book to them. Each of the writers picked a scientist we liked (Geoff moderated somehow so that nobody got scrappy) and the idea is that you study your scientist's work insofar as your tiny brain allows you to do so, you take a trip to visit your scientist and then you write a story. Your scientist in some way moderates this story -- I don't know how that's going to work -- and then it goes into this anthology. That's all I know so far. I haven't actually made second contact with my particle accelerator chap. He's got a lot of stuff, PowerPoint presentations, on the web, and I am going to look at them and see if I can make anything of them, see if I can pick up a few key words before I go and see him. And then we'll see what happens. I haven't got a story in mind. I feel that in this instance it would be a mistake to have a story in mind, especially since I don't know why Geoff called the anthology 'When It Changed'. 'When It Changed' is a highly significant ancient feminist science fiction story. (When I say ancient, more than five years ago.)
I don't usually write short stories: usually it takes me a year to write a short story. But I'll think of something: a wing and a prayer.
TB: What else do you have in progress?


GJ: There's Spirit, which is allegedly being published 29th December. I've also got a short story collection called Grazing the Long Acre with PS Publishing. Grazing the Long Acre is the title of a story which was in Interzone about 20 years ago, and it involves whores on the roadsides of one of the great roads of Europe. 'Grazing the long acre' is a term which I know from Ireland, but it's also known in pretty much the same words -- Polish words -- in Poland, which is where the story is set. What it means is, if you've got a cow and you ain't got a field then you take her out to graze the long acre, the verges of the road. It's like living in the chinks of the world's machine only different, less whiny. I was going to call the collection Gravegoods because that was the most ancient Buonarotti device story, but Gravegoods is such a conventional name it started to annoy me, so I changed it to Grazing the Long Acre. That's supposed to come out at the end of 2008.
TB: What about non-fiction, and critical works?
GJ: I keep a blog intermittently. It isn't a proper blog, it doesn't have anything remotely blog-like about it, it's just occasional diary entries. Occasionally I'm accepting books for review from Strange Horizons, and that's about it. As far as I can remember I haven't got any non-fiction I'm working on at the moment. I'm working on an Ann Halam novel, a Gothic novel with a spooky house and happenings which may be supernatural but really they aren't.
[Audience] You referred to an extraordinary novel you wrote a few years back, Life, which had a bit of a problem finding a UK publisher despite winning awards in America. Yet suddenly you're releasing a space opera which seems very far removed from what you normally write.
GJ: I haven't found a UK publisher for Light and I think it's too late now, it'll never be published here. Writing a space opera is ... what can I say, it's all the same to me. I have to come to like the idea of writing a space opera so I wrote one. My last project was a rock'n'roll fantasy: before that it was the Aleutian trilogy, and I don't know what you'd call that: then Kairos, Escape Plans, Divine Endurance. All my books are different, I don't have a specialism: I suppose in some ways I'm a dedicated follower of fashion. Space opera's fashionable, write space opera.
[Audience] One of the things I like about the Aleutian trilogy and the Bold as Love sequence was how tightly bound they were to the present, to this planet Earth now, the ways people think and live on this planet now. Are you trying to escape from that in Spirit?
GJ: The second book I wrote was called Escape Plans: I'm always trying to escape! But I spoke earlier about establishing continuity. To be comfortable writing Spirit I needed social continuity. When you read it, you will or should find it mentally continous with the worlds that I'd imagined, with the futures I'd imagined in the Aleutian trilogy and in the Bold as Love sequence -- in reverse order of course.
[Audience] Some scientists believe there isn't a continuity, that we can't get there from here
GJ: I've made myself more comfortable as a writer by using my previous fiction to give myself a fictional continuity.
[Audience] When you were last here talking about Bold as Love, you admitted committing trilogy or worse. Are you doing the same for Spirit, or is it a one-off?
GJ: It won't necessarily be a one-off. This is a space opera. There won't be a sequel to Spirit but there could easily be books set in the same universe. It's got legs, it's an experiment. There's five central worlds: I could write a book set on each. I could do Culture-novel continuity.
TB: Are you planning on writing any more stories in the Bold as Love series?


GJ: Originally I thought that I would write a four-volume novel and the fifth volume would be long afterwards. As it happened, it ended up a five-volume novel and I don't know if I'll ever get the chance to write the 'long afterwards' story. But there's a long short story that I probably will write called 'Stone Free' and featuring the same characters and some new ones.
[Audience] How independent is Ann Halam from Gwyneth Jones?
GJ: Not really independent at all. I can't tell the difference between the books. I know one way in which they are very different. I get very little editorial assistance with Gwyneth Jones books, and I never have since Rainer Unwin and I spent a really long time -- before some of you were born -- duking it out over the body of Divine Endurance. Since then the Gwyneth Jones books haven't had much editorial input. The Ann Halam books are committee books. It's a cooperative venture. I pitch an idea, and we go to and fro with it, and at every turn I'm saying 'what d'you think, shall I do this?' and my editor, my American editor, my agent -- on one occasion my American editor's cleaning lady, I tell no lie -- say 'but why don't do you do this?' and I say 'I'll think about it'. I'm very happy writing that way, it's very interesting, but that's the difference, and if the difference between the voice of Ann Halam and that of Gwyneth Jones is small then maybe it's because I have multiple personality disorder and all my books are written by committee anyway, I'm just not aware of it except with the Ann Halam ones.
[Audience] Back in 2003 you said you thought SF was 'claustrophobic': do you still believe that?
GJ: I certainly can't remember saying it. Science fiction can be claustrophobic because it's such a small world. 'Sci-fi' is a major part of mainstream culture. Everybody loves 'sci-fi'. But SF is a very small world and it's got this oppositional relationship with sci-fi, and I think that's probably what I meant: it's a ghetto mentality. Writing the Bold as Love books I didn't feel claustrophobic as a writer. I didn't feel I was constrained by the difference between science fiction and fantasy, or the rules about writing about the near future, and writing Spirit -- there *is* something, I hate to have to admit it, about those wide open spaces between the stars that's very liberating. People flying around ... not really all over the galaxy, much less all over the universe, but there's a lot of space, and space opera is a place where you can play and not feel constrained.
[Audience] One of your talents as a writer is showing other ways of looking at what's happening.
GJ: This is something that has dogged my footsteps or my typewritten words since White Queen, at least, when I decided that I would make the Aleutians speak with my voice, and I found them called the most alien beings that had graced science fiction in years. So that maybe answers your question: I don't make it up, I do see the world differently, and asking me how to calibrate how exactly I see the world differently -- well, that's why I write the novels, to try and find out for myself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

#36: Gods Behaving Badly -- Marie Phillips

I didn't have great expectations of this novel -- the third in a 3-for-2! -- but was pleasantly surprised, though I'm not sure the premise of Greek gods hacking out a mortal living in North London is quite as original as the blurbs from the mainstream press insist. They're right about it being funny, though.

The Olympian gods are sharing a run-down, filthy house in North London. Artemis is a professional dog-walker: her brother Apollo is hoping to make a fortune as a TV psychic: Athena runs conferences: Aphrodite is a sex phone worker (her ringtone is 'Venus', the Bananarama version). Dionysus DJs in a squalid Kings Cross club, and makes his own wine. Hermes comes and goes. Eros has become a committed Christian. And nobody has seen Zeus or Hera for years, but then nobody goes to the attic ...

Everyone is bored, embittered and desperate for novelty. Things had all been so much easier in the years they were now obliged to refer to as BC. And voila! Into the tense unhappiness of their domestic arrangements (where is Hestia?) comes Alice, their new cleaner: in Alice's wake comes Neil, who's nursing a hopeless crush on her. Unfortunately the gods have considerable experience with all aspects of Lurve, hopeless crushes and unrequited passions and smiting from afar. Alice and Neil will soon wish that myth was just that.

Aside from [Hades and Persephone], the only other god who's ever been to the underworld is Dionysus, and I wouldn't recommend going on any kind of a journey with him -- he'd just get drunk and forget what he was doing there in the first place. That's probably OK for what you mortals call a stag weekend, but not so good when you're trying to save the planet.

Neil doesn't play the lyre, Alice doesn't tread on a snake. But aspects of their story may well be familiar from other tales.

There's a Pratchettesque feel to the novel, possibly because Alice and Neil are unheroic nerdy underdogs. There are images and themes that reminded me of Neil Gaiman's work, and of Diana Wynne Jones' tales of myth's intrusion into everyday life. There are one-liners (and a certain bleakness of outlook shared by several characters) that are reminiscent of Douglas Adams. On the other hand, Gods Behaving Badly is marketed as mainstream fiction rather than fantasy, so I suspect it'll attract a different readership.

Phillips has a nice eye for imagery (this'd make a great TV series) and I like her take on the gods. Witty, slightly dark, happy endings for most though not all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#35: Heart-Shaped Box -- Joe Hill

Don't give up on yourself. The dead win when you quit singing and let them take you on down the road with them.

Ageing rock-star Judas Coyne (real name Justin Cowzynski) buys a ghost on the internet. It'll be great for his collection of the weird and occult. It arrives in the shape of the dead man's best black suit, with silver-dollar buttons, packed up in a heart-shaped box. And Jude's got his money's worth, for the goods are definitely as advertised.

Jude doesn't just collect occult paraphernalia. He collects girlfriends (a succession of young girls who he names after their state of origin: the present incumbent is Georgia, and her deceased predecessor was Florida). He collects admirers, drawn to his 'melodies of pain and hate' -- though by the start of the novel all that's behind him: 'Jude didn't care if there was any more music' -- and his brooding air of menace and darkness. He's haunted in more mundane ways by the ghosts of his past: dead bandmates, an abusive father who Jude hasn't seen for over three decades and who's slowly dying in the old house in Louisiana, the girls who he's left broken by the wayside.

That said, Jude's life is remarkably wholesome. His two German Shepherds, Bon and Angus, are his constant and most loyal companions: his secretary Danny is devoted to him: he lives in an old farmhouse in New York State, rebuilds cars, namedrops Trent Reznor and Jimmy Page, mocks My Chemical Romance and goth girl groupies.

Then Craddock, the ghost -- who is not an 'accidental ghost': a hypnotist and psychic in life, he came back on purpose -- begins his work.

This was an odd reading experience: very pacy, immediate, evocative, but once I'd put it down it all faded very quickly. The plot, a tale of supernatural revenge with plenty of twists (some more surprising than others) is well-constructed and builds ominously to its finale. There's enough of the supernatural to make this a gothic (small-g) tale -- Southern gothic, perhaps, because Jude's inner Southerner becomes more present as his layers are peeled away -- and enough rock'n'roll, sharp edges, drama to reel in the goths, despite all the nasty things Jude (or is it Mr Hill?) says about them: their taste for the weird, their emotional neediness, their embarrassing sincerity.

In terms of theme, I could say that this is a book about fathers. (I expect there's already plenty of analysis on this level, given that the author is Stephen King's son). There's Jude's relationship with his father, who punished him for running away to play in a band; there's Craddock's relationship with his family; there are shadows of abuse everywhere, from Georgia's great-aunt's abduction as a child (her ghost haunts the garden) to the used-car salesman who Jude punches out in the parking lot. And there's Jude's father, dying in a bed in a dark Louisiana house.

I think it's also a novel about loyalty -- not just loyalty to friends, lovers and family, but to one's ... I want to say 'vassals', it fits better than 'dependents' -- and about staying true to oneself. And perhaps about growing up, learning what to leave behind and what to keep. It's not just Jude who learns that lesson.

Heart-Shaped Box is cool and competent: the prose is clear, unpretentious and vividly visual. That said, sometimes it felt shallow, like a film: but in the horror genre I'd rather have shallow and arresting than deep and melodramatic.

Friday, August 01, 2008

#34: Sin Cities -- Ashley Hames

I think my own motivation is a selfish need to seek out kicks, put myself outside my comfort zone and feel the endorphin rush of a new and anonymous encounter. And I don't think having such a drive for sexual thrills is an entirely uncommon thing.

Saw this book reviewed in one of the free papers, and thought it sounded fascinating: Hames' increasingly extreme sex-related adventures as he roams the globe in search of audience-grabbing footage for LIVE TV. (Disclaimer: I do not have a TV, I do not watch 'Sin Cities', I did not know.)

Hames makes some interesting observations about a dominatrix's clientele ("I don't think it's any coincidence that a high proportion of paying customers tend to be from the upper reaches of society, often with highly-powered jobs ... the dominatrix helps [them] to fill a vacuum and find a balance in life." He doesn't, however, go on to make the connection between the price and the income.) And there are some fascinating details, the kind of information that might come in handy one day: porn directors keep a microwave handy to destroy the film if they're raided; a viewer's report on the Paris Hilton sex tapes; the best way to nail the male anatomy to a piece of wood. You never know.

There were points, though, when I wondered if Hames had ever actually talked seriously to any actual, non-professional women about sex. On the rise of homemade porn: "It can't be just the boyfriend who wants to do these things, can it? No, it takes two to tango, and my hunch is that girls can be just as naughty when they're shown enough trust and respect." Woof! Er, that is, as a woman I rolled my eyes and made an exasperated noise. But perhaps it isn't that obvious to the average young British male. Or perhaps I' ve become accustomed to greater openness about and enthusiasm for sex than Hames has encountered. (I'd recommend a read of Kerry Sharp's Women's Sexual Fantasies before his next conversation with a porn actress. Maybe he'll get past the 'but surely you can't be enjoying that' stage.)

I'm not this book's intended audience. I'm female, not easily shocked, and I can spell minuscule. That said, the book didn't really live up to my hopes. Hames's style is a peculiar mash of laddishness, confessional and occasional glimpses of a rather narrow-minded outlook. I suppose it goes with the territory -- he's looking for extreme sexual habits, so he needs to be somebody who finds them extreme. Though he says at the end of the book that he's been 'freed from the very British mistrust of sexual difference, and liberated ... from a fear of the unfamiliar', it seemed more like acceptance than understanding or enthusiasm. Not a bad thing, and probably as much as the target audience would be willing to accept.

Mr Hames could do with a better editor / proof-reader, too. And if he is that keen on having a larger penis (thank you, dear author, for so very many details) then I can forward him some emails. I won't be needing them.

Quite an entertaining read but ... unfulfilling.

#33: Cocaine Blues -- Kerry Greenwood

Lydia hinted, dabbing at her unreddened eyes with a perfectly white, perfectly dry handkerchief, at sexual perversions too grim for words. Phryne pressed a little, hoping that words might be found, but Lydia just shook her head with a martyred expression, and sighed.

It's the end of the 1920s and the Honourable Phryne Fisher, born to poverty in Australia and unexpectedly elevated to the British aristocracy, is bored of the social whirl. Foiling a jewel theft, she attracts the attention of an elderly Colonel who's worried about his daughter Lydia, unhappily married in Melbourne. Phryne (named after a Greek courtesan with beautiful breasts, due to her father being hungover at her christening) decides to try her hand at sleuthing in Australia.

Acquiring a set of loyal followers (and a gorgeous and passionate Russian dancer), Phryne sets about her task with energy, wit, enthusiasm, and a coolly decadent style that's all her own. She's worldly-wise enough to evade traps both intentional and otherwise, and elegant enough to do as she pleases -- the prerogative of the upper classes, though of course it helps if you can scatter largesse as you go. Phryne has a taste for strong cocktails and gaspers, carries a gun as well as devices supplied by the Marie Stopes Clinic in her luggage, and is generally thoroughly Modern.

Lydia's predicament is tangled up in a mess of illegal abortion, the cocaine trade, dodgy stock trading, communist cabbies and Turkish baths. It should surprise nobody that Phryne proves herself more than adequate to the untangling, though she does at one point wish she'd made a will: "I should have liked to have left my money to the Cats' Home."

This was a present from a friend, to cheer me up, and it's marvellously effective medicine: witty, dry, and vividly evocative of the period -- via telling details (shops and tea-rooms staying open late into the evening, Nellie Melba singing at a private party, dirty streets and dyed feathers) rather than heavy-handed comparisons with contemporary life. The whodunnit isn't transparent, and the pacing is excellent. I have another Phryne Fisher book and am saving it for a low day: shall, however, be on the lookout for more.

#32: The Host -- Stephenie Meyer

That's how we realised you were here, you know. When the evening news was nothing but inspiring human-interest stories, when pedophiles and junkies were lining up at the hospitals to turn themselves in, when everything morphed into Mayberry, that's when you tipped your hand (p. 106)

Meyer, author of the successful teen vampire romance series 'Twilight', turns her hand to SF for a mature audience -- though The Host will almost certainly appeal to a teenage reader as much as to an adult.

The Host (which could be summed up as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers from a body-snatcher's point of view) is set in the near future, some time after the discovery of Earth by souls. Souls are small, silvery creatures with a thousand hair-fine limbs or tendrils, who can be transplanted from body to body, taking control and experiencing the host's sensorium. Most humans on Earth have been 'civilised' by the pacific souls, who are horrified by the violence and hatred endemic in human society. A few bastions of free-living humans survive, but they are hunted down by Seekers.

The Host is the tale of Wanderer, who comes to Earth after the colonisation and is inserted into the body of Melanie, a young woman who was a member of the human resistance, and who suffered appalling injuries while seeking her cousin. Melanie isn't dead, though, and she's terribly strong: her thoughts and emotions keep surfacing, until the Wanderer fears for her own sanity, her integrity, her self. She leaves her job as a teacher and heads into the desert, hoping to discover the fate of those Melanie loved, and thus give Melanie some closure.

Despite Wanderer's long experience -- she's thousands of years old, and has inhabited bodies on seven planets, including a sentient form of seaweed and a bat-like creature that sang -- she's never encountered anything, anyone, like Melanie. Human emotions are much stronger and more varied than those of other host species. And she comes to know Melanie more intimately than anyone, anybody, else ever could.

Meyer examines the philosophy, psychology and biology of self. Is sexual attraction a product of body or of mind? What about familial affection? What about violence, and violent impulses? Can one separate oneself from one's body's wants and needs? What does it mean to take a life? Is the host/soul transaction theft, murder, rape? What does it mean to belong? Can one learn to be selfish, or to be selfless? What happens when 'I' becomes 'we'?

Early in the novel I wondered if Meyer was creating a parable about mental illness. There's a Comforter who feels like a therapist: "Get involved with life rather than with her," she advises Wanderer. "You're struggling so hard with your problem that it's all you can concentrate on." The difference, of course, is that there really are two people, two individuals, in the body that was once Melanie's: as the novel progresses, Melanie emerges as a person in her own right -- rather abrasive, angry, scared, desperately searching for the people she loved -- and because we see her through alien eyes, we also see the alien. Wanderer, too, is afraid and lonely, and finds herself in the midst of humanity at its worst -- and its best. Drawing on her past experience, her other lives, Wanderer sees more than Melanie might.

There are elements of The Host that remind me of YA literature: youthful good-looking protagonists, a strong romantic thread, and an ending that ... well, there are two endings, and I was surprised (and a little disappointed) by the second, which modifies and resolves the first. The Host is a gripping read, well-paced and emotionally engaging, and there are moments of lyricism and astute observations which flesh out an occasionally soft-focus sfnal setting.

Monday, July 21, 2008

#31: Storm Front -- Jim Butcher

I walked through a spectral landscape littered with skulls, into the teeth of the coming storm, to a house covered in malevolent power, throbbing with savage and feral mystic strength. I walked forward to face a murderous opponent who had all the advantages, and who stood prepared and willing to kill me from where he stood within the heart of his own destructive power while I was armed with nothing more than my own skill and wit and experience.
Do I have a great job or what?


The first novel in the Harry Dresden series, Storm Front sets up a great deal of backstory for the protagonist: I'm sure this will be picked up in subsequent novels, but it does make Storm Front itself feel somewhat unfinished.

Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden (named after three magicians) is a freelance wizard working the mean streets of Chicago. He's called in to solve a gruesome double murder that was almost certainly committed using black magic. Problem is, very few magic-users could pull this off, and Harry is one of the suspects ...

Harry Dresden is more than a little chauvinistic: together with his problems with technology (his very presence causes things to malfunction) this made for some confusion about when the novel's set. It has a noir ambience, and I'd initially thought it might be set in the Forties or Fifties: then, quite a way in, another character used a cellphone and I had to rethink my assumptions. (Never a bad thing.)

It's a competent whodunnit, with a well-constructed theory of magic and a supporting cast who are vividly drawn but do, unfortunately, tend towards the stereotypical. A couple of plot points bothered me (a discarded film canister provides a major clue -- but if they have cellphones, why not digital cameras? And if Harry's a magic-user, surely he'd be able to contact other magic users while they were away from home?). And there was evidence of poor proofing (stray apostrophes) and editing ('whatever contents they contained'). On the whole, though, it was an enjoyable read, and while I'm not hooked I'll probably read more of the series sooner or later.

By the way, am fairly convinced that Dresden's cat is much smarter than Dresden himself.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

#30: The Road to Samarcand -- Patrick O'Brian

"Impress ... an archaeologist, huh? Well, Ay reckon Ay would strike him just behind the shoulder with a twenty-four pound harpoon. Strike hard and fast, not too far back, see? My old man, he chanced on one of them things north-east of Spitzbergen in the fall of, lemme t'ink, 1897 was it, or 1898? It chawed up his long-boat something horrible, but they got fifty-three barrels of oil out of it."

This little-known early novel by O'Brian was first published in 1954, before The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore and well before the first Aubrey/Maturin novel, Master and Commander: I'd never heard of it, and snapped it up as soon as I noticed it in a Cambridge remainder shop.

It's a boy's own adventure, set some time in the 1930s (from internal evidence: the year is never stated). Protagonist Derrick, the orphaned teenage son of American missionaries, is learning seamanship aboard his uncle's schooner, the Wanderer, as they roam the South China Sea. He's all set for a life on the ocean wave until his elderly academic cousin appears with plans to send him off to school in England, sugaring the pill by promising that they'll journey by way of Samarcand.

Samarcand is, of course, about as landlocked as you can get: fans of O'Brian's nautical writing be warned. Apart from the first couple of chapters, the action is relentlessly terrestrial. Derrick and his companions (his uncle Sullivan, and Sullivan's good friend Ross; the Wanderer's Chinese cook, Li Han; three Mongol brothers, direct descendants of Genghis (or Chingiz) Khan; Professor Ayrton, Derrick's cousin and a great authority on Oriental archaeology; Olaf, Svensson, a Swedish sailor; and Chang, a disreputable hound rescued from shipwreck) encounter Mongol warlords, perfidious -- yet stupid -- Russians, bellicose lamas, priceless jade treasures and unseen monsters above the snowline. It's all very wholesome and heroic.

O'Brian's gentle mocking of idiosyncrasy, verbal and otherwise, is already there: the Professor describing himself as a 'hep cat' and gently correcting Derrick's attempts to teach him actual (i.e. non-grammatical) American slang; Li Han's surprising, self-taught English vocabulary; Olaf's long Swedish vowels and knack for anecdotes (there's a lovely one about a camel). There are aspects of the Professor that remind me of Stephen Maturin, and aspects of Sullivan (and Ross) reminiscent of Jack Aubrey, though they're at best prototypes.

It's a quietly bloodthirsty novel, informed by the attitudes of the period: physical punishment, quiet courage, perhaps a hint of racism. O'Brian's prose, though not as polished as it later became, is measured, and his dry wit is evident. An entertaining read, but a shadow of what the author later achieved.

Can't help wondering why The Road to Samarcand was never reissued, or even really mentioned, during O'Brian's lifetime (presumably he objected?) and why it's taken rather longer than his other early works (Hussein, Caesar: both published under his birth-name, Richard Russ) to appear posthumously.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Margarets -- Sheri S. Tepper

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Winter 2008.


Margaret Bain, born 2084, grows up as the only child on Phobos. Earth is over-populated, ecologically devastated and governed by draconian reproductive laws. Those who come from large families (the calculation is based on number of children and number of siblings) are shipped out to one of the colony worlds, or indentured as bond-slaves to various unpleasant alien races. Not all the aliens are bad guys: the Gentherans, small besuited bipeds who made contact with Earth in 2062, seem to feel indebted to humanity, and have provided ships, assistance and galactic good will.

Like many solitary children, Margaret invents alter egos: a spy, a queen, a shaman, a linguist. Unlike most children, though, her fantasy selves become real: they split off at critical junctures, and go off to have adventures (and narratives) of their own. At nine, a version of Margaret leaves Phobos with a woman in a red dress whose spaceship looks like a dragonfly. At twelve, multiple selves leave Earth for different fates. At twenty-two ...

Margaret ends up seven-selved, each self on a different world and usually known by a different name. One self is male. One self is much older than the others, having passed through a time anomaly to reach the colony for which she's bound. Each self is only vaguely, if at all, aware that there are other versions of Margaret out there. And each berates herself for making the wrong choices, or bewails fate stacked against her.

Pan back from the Margarets. There's a plan millennia in the making, and a shadowy Order of the Siblinghood to implement it: there's a cosmic gathering-place, like an ocean or a forest or a galaxy, where the gods of all mortal races dwell. (Well, they say they're gods, but they would, wouldn't they?) The gods can only think, only do, what their followers are capable of thinking and doing; but this does not limit them in any useful way. Humankind's pantheon includes Mr Weathereye (a one-eyed gentleman of indeterminate age), Lady Badness, and the Gardener. There are other, less balanced entities in this assembly, notably a triptych of bloodthirsty Quaatar gods: the Quaatar harbour an innate loathing of humanity, and their gods are hatching a dreadful plot.

Now, blend in Tepper's big themes: population control (at all levels from intra-familial to racial); ecology and the fragile biome of Earth; inscrutable aliens; the need for rescue. Throw in a pinch of kindness-to-animals (in a kind of fairytale morality, this is a gift that benefits the giver), lost children, lost memories, some truly nasty religious practices, slavery and human trafficking, conjoined twins and the misuse of religion. And season with a new take on 'the human problem' -- not the problem perceived by various alien races, of the galaxy (and the pantheon) being overrun by humanity, but the more basic issue of humanity's appetite for wasteful destruction, and whether this appetite can ever be removed.

Stir well.

The Margarets is less about the roles and rights of women, and more about humanity regardless of gender, than in some of Tepper's earlier novels. There's a strong undercurrent of outrage at aspects of contemporary life: the dumbing-down of education, the ineffectuality of environmental policies, the pro-life movement. There's also humour, and something that I suspect an antagonistic reviewer might term 'whimsy', though I found it heart-warming. The seven-fold Margarets give Tepper ample room to indulge other favourite themes (shamanism, medicine, linguistics and a rather swashbuckling romance) without upsetting the balance of the novel. Which is, in a sense, about balance.

There's a certain amount of handwaving at the end of the novel ("The how is less important than the why," insists the Gardener). And readers who've followed Tepper's career may experience a sense of déjà vu from time to time. But this is a complex, cleverly-plotted novel, and a vastly entertaining read.

My personal review of The Margarets is here

Thursday, June 26, 2008

#29: The Margarets - Sheri Tepper

The Quaatar bother easily. Some time in the remote past, they may have encountered humans under adverse circumstances. Perhaps a Quaatar tried to eat a human and got an upset stomach. That would have been enough. (p. 278)

I'm a great fan of Tepper's earlier novels (Grass, Sideshow and others) but my interest faded in the mid-90s, because I didn't find her later novels as captivating. (On the other hand, I'm of the camp that admires the twist in the middle of The Family Tree.) Nevertheless, I leapt at the chance to review The Margarets, and I've enjoyed it immensely: perhaps this is because, though I'm sure she's revisiting themes and tropes she's explored before, I haven't had time to get bored with her take on them.

The Margarets is set at the end of this century, more or less. Margaret Bain, born 2084, grows up as the only child on Phobos. Earth is over-populated, ecologically devastated and governed by draconian reproductive laws. Those who come from large families (I'm simplifying) are shipped out to one of the colony worlds, or indentured as bond-slaves to various unpleasant (arachnid / reptilian / generally vile) alien races. Not all the aliens are bad guys: the Gentherans, small besuited bipeds who made contact with Earth in 2062, seem to feel indebted to humanity, and have provided ships, assistance and galactic good will.

Margaret is a self-possessed child, and like many solitary children she invents personalities: a spy, a queen, a shaman, a linguist ... Unlike most children, though, her fantasy selves become real: they split off at critical junctures, and go off to have adventures (and narratives) of their own. At nine, a version of Margaret leaves Phobos with a woman in a red dress whose spaceship looks like a dragonfly. At twelve, multiple selves leave Earth for different fates. At twenty-two ...

Margaret ends up seven-selved, each self on a different world and usually known by a different name. One self is male. One self is much older than the others, having passed through a time anomaly to reach the colony for which she's bound. Each self is only vaguely, if at all, aware that there are other versions of Margaret out there. And each berates herself for making the wrong choices, or bewails fate stacked against her.

Pan back from the Margarets. There's a plan millennia in the making, and a shadowy Order of the Siblinghood to implement it: there's a cosmic gathering-place, like an ocean or a forest or a galaxy, where the gods of all mortal races dwell. Well, they say they're gods, but they would, wouldn't they? The gods of humankind include Mr Weathereye (a one-eyed gentleman of indeterminate age), Lady Badness, and the Gardener. There are other, less balanced entities in this assembly, notably a triptych of Quaatar gods (the Quaatar being vast, multi-limbed lizards who can only count to six -- it's unclear how many limbs they do have! -- and who harbour an innate loathing of humanity for reasons that are lost in the mist of time, or 'the first chapter') brewing hatred and bloodshed against the human menace. The gods can only think, only do, what their followers are capable of thinking and doing. This does not limit them in any useful way.

Now, blend in Tepper's big themes: population control (at all levels from intra-familial to racial); ecology and the fragile biome of Earth; inscrutable aliens; the need for rescue. Throw in a pinch of kindness-to-animals (in a kind of fairytale morality, this is a gift that benefits the giver), lost children, lost memories, some truly nasty religious practices, slavery and human trafficking, conjoined twins and the misuse of religion. And season with a new take on 'the human problem' -- not the problem perceived by various alien races, of the galaxy (and the pantheon) being overrun by humanity, but the more basic issue of humanity's appetite for wasteful destruction, and whether this appetite can ever be removed.

Stir well.

The Margarets is less about the roles and rights of women, and more about humanity regardless of gender, than I recall from earlier Tepper. There's a strong undercurrent of outrage at aspects of contemporary life: the dumbing-down of education, the ineffectuality of environmental policies, the pro-life movement. There's also humour, and something that I suspect an antagonistic reviewer might term 'whimsy', though I found it heart-warming. The seven-fold Margarets give Tepper ample room to indulge other favourite themes (shamanism, medicine, linguistics and a rather swashbuckling romance) without upsetting the balance of the novel. Which is, in a sense, about balance.

I confess I was irritated by aspects of the actual, physical book. (Gollancz trade paperback edition: 505pp, rather than the 384pp that Amazon claim.) I think the page numbers are supposed to be grey rather than black: they're almost unreadable. There's a map at the front of the book (no, this is not a fantasy novel!) and some of that's printed in Invisible Grey as well. And having the map, and the dramatis personae, at the front of the book is irritating in a different way: even casual perusal reveals plot twists and developments that are better handled by the narrative.

That said, I enjoyed The Margarets very much, though the plot seemed to become vaguer at the end. "That is one of the ways it could have happened," says the Gardener in response to a hypothesis, and maybe I'm imagining her defensive tone. "The how is less important than the why." The 'how' is complex and cleverly plotted, the 'why' is an interesting speculation, and together they make a vastly entertaining tale.

My Vector review of The Margarets is here

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

#28: Darkmans -- Nicola Barker

"I've often found that my most successful lies ... generally benefit from the addition of the odd loose screw. If all the facts add up, if everything feels too neat and pat, if all the elements fall too readily into place, then you automatically arouse suspicion, because life simply isn't like that. ... Put it this way, if the truth was a woman she'd be a whore. She'd be an extremely supple, highly sinuous, ridiculously wanton slut." (381-2)

I've been looking forward to reading Nicola Barker's Darkmans since it was shortlisted for the Booker and I read a sample chapter. Then I went through a reading-drought and the paperback (the thick paperback) sat on the shelf for months. Once I'd started, though, I found it hard to set the book aside for long.

The novel's plot spins out over just a few days, starting and ending in media res: we're dropped into the midst of dysfunctional family relations, illegal activities, historical research and a case of possession, or haunting, or psychiatric illness. Or all of the above.

Key characters include Kane, twenty-something slacker and dealer in illicit prescription drugs; his father Beede, an upstanding member of the community; chiropodist Elen, object of fascination to father and son; Elen's husband Dory, who has some very odd (and old-fashioned) ideas; their son Fleet, who's building an precise scale model of a medieval cathedral he's never seen; Kelly, Kane's chavvy ex-girlfriend, and her formidable mother; Gaffar, the Kurdish immigrant with a salad phobia who may be a devil-worshipper; Peta, forger and antique dealer ...

"This day just keeps on getting better," Kane mused, to no one in particular, "first ambushed by my dad, then blandished on my own sofa by a Goth nymphomaniac."
He returned to his paperback.


I am not even going to attempt to summarise the plot. "Just wait a while," says Beede very early on, "and everything will become clear. I promise." Yeah, right: though that promise is what kept me going ...

There is so much here, all woven -- all heaped -- together. Recurring images of jokers and jesters; the smell of burning; tiles falling or being thrown from a roof (and subsequently going astray); burn-scars; peacocks; the contrast of water and fire; sore feet. There's a thread to do with the evolution of language, and the way that written language can make something concrete or pin it down. Another thread about being forbidden, prohibitted from speaking. There are extravagant, humorously exaggerated metaphors: the beach road at Dungeness "slithered through the plain landscape like a contorted mamba searching for a nook in which to shed its skin". There are some truly nasty moments, mostly (though not all) off-stage: some, the building-blocks of the characters' lives, are dropped in well after the events or actions they explain.

As if I am the only one who feels history, who sees the storm of pure emotion raging away behind everything. The buzz and clash of the atom. This awful friction. This urge to truth. This urge to destruction.

Aspects of the plot are rooted in medieval history, with particular reference to Huizinga's wonderful The Waning of the Middle Ages and the medieval mindset, with all its symbolism and form -- and how the medieval mindset is reflected in modern life. (I've just noticed that the character who discusses medieval history -- and makes the remark quoted at the beginning of this review, about truth being a whore -- stands outside the story as a whole. She's like a Greek chorus. She might be the voice of the author. It'd be interesting to reread the novel with close attention to what she says, thinks, does.)

The page layout is eccentric, and sometimes seems illogical. (The book'd be much shorter if it was laid out more traditionally.) There are rather too many double-space breaks between paragraphs that don't need to be separated. Thoughts are parenthesised, italicised, given separate paragraphs. It took me a while to work out what this reminded me of, and I think it was the frequent italicisation in dialogue that made it click: it's like reading a comic graphic novel, short and snappy and full of emphasis.

It's also a very funny book, on multiple levels. There are farcical scenes and black humour, jokes that aren't funny (because out of context). There is the sly complicit humour of Gaffar's dialogue -- mostly in Turkish (indicated by a different font) with the occasional word in English -- which plays on the language barrier, with Gaffar's clever rudeness quite impenetrable to those around him.

I've avoided reviews of the novel -- I wanted to record my own reaction first -- but I'd bet good money that there's dissatisfaction with the ending. I liked it. It works. Listen:
Life's too short. Just enjoy the mystery. Take from the situation what you need. Be selective. Pick and mix. ... The truth is that there is no truth. Life is just a series of coincidences, accidents and random urges which we carefully forge -- for our own sick reasons -- into a convenient design.

And the funniest thing? While she's speaking, coincidences and accidents are rattling and multiplying and making sense of it all. There's hubris to Barker's mischief and it makes me very happy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

#27: The Steep Approach to Garbadale -- Iain Banks

I've spent my life waiting for my life to start. It's as though one needs permission from somebody ... to finally take responsibility for one's own actions, one's own life. Only the permission never comes, and gradually you realise that it will never come, that the way you've lived your life, stumbling through it, winging it half the time, is all there really is, all there ever was. I feel cheated because of that. I feel, sometimes, like I've cheated myself.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale is classic Iain no-M Banks, which is a polite way of saying that I recognised recurrent themes in it. Odd relationship with sister-figure? Check. Dark family secrets? Check. Rich bloke pretending / arranging to be poor? Check. Suicide? Check. Drug-fuelled bad behaviour? Check. Games? Check. Peculiar injuries or infirmities? Check.

Nobody gets turned into furniture which is always a plus.

Alban Wopuld, self-exiled from his family -- who've apparently built a fortune and a dynasty on a single product, the boardgame Empire! -- is summoned back to Garbadale (the family's Highland estate) for an Extraordinary General Meeting. The stated purpose of said meeting is to decide whether to sell Empire! to an American company, or not. From Alban's point of view, the agenda's more than a little muddled by the possible attendance of his cousin Sophie, with whom he had a brief but intense fling in their mid-teens; the disapproval of the aged Win, matriarch and iron fist; his own return to the house where his mother killed herself; the unexpected company of his girlfriend, exotic and likeable mathematician Verushka.

It's a novel about growing up in the Eighties, about developing ethics and ideals in a wicked world. About learning to take responsibility, to grow up, to accept one's adult self. About doing the right thing, I suppose.

And it's funny, and poignant, and there are many moments of verbal clarity -- finely-observed tics, the telling details of a landscape, a discarded coat as a ghost -- that make me stop and reread the sentence and nod, yes, that's the way it is. It's not a bad book by any means: it just seems to be revisiting old ground. Perhaps this is an older / wiser / more reflective Banks. I'd need to reread Espedair Street, The Crow Road, maybe even The Wasp Factory to see how differently he's handling those recurrent motifs.

But then I'm older, more reflective, than I was when I read them first.