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

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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

#26: Incendiary -- Chris Cleave

London's like me it's too piss poor and ignorant to know when it's finished. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better I am a woman built on the wreckage of herself.

If you've heard of Incendiary it's probably for the wrong reasons. Incendiary, a novel about a terrorist attack on London, was published on 7th July 2005 -- the day that suicide bombers targetted public transport in London. I remember seeing the poster for this book on the Circle Line platform at Victoria, just before the station was evacuated.

The posters disappeared pretty quickly.

I'm glad I didn't read this when the bombings were fresh in my mind, because the scenes of violence and panic, and the shivery-vivid depiction of London under a kind of siege, would have been nightmarishly upsetting. Cleave's terrorist attack is the bombing of a football stadium, and his death toll is over a thousand: his London reacts by raising a Shield of Hope, a thousand barrage balloons each bearing the image of one of the victims. His London reacts by trying to heal over as quickly as possible, never mind the cracks underneath. I find this horribly credible.

Incendiary is phrased as a letter to Osama bin Laden from a nameless woman whose husband and child were killed in the bombing. The narrator, who could be read as the personification of London, suffers internal injuries when she forces her way into the disaster area to look for their bodies. The physical damage eventually heals, but that's only half -- not even half -- the story. She's prone to hallucination, to taking risks, to drinking too much and sleeping with (a) her neighbour, yuppie scum and Torygraph journalist Jasper (and implicitly also with Jasper's girlfriend Petra) and (b) Terence Butcher of Scotland Yard, who confides a terrible truth.

The narrator's voice is distinctive working-class East End, bit of a chav, slightly -- defensively -- stroppy, wrenchingly sad: Cleave's transcription of idiom and rhythm is pretty much flawless, and the idiosyncratic punctuation works surprisingly well. You can hear her. And because of this comfortably common-place voice, the moments of poetry and anguish hit harder. Wandering the streets, she sees her dead son in every little boy: I don't know how you did it Osama but you didn't just blow my boy to bits you put him back together a million times. There are some truly gruesome passages that remind me of eye-witness accounts of the Blitz more than anything more recent. And there are wry asides that made me laugh out loud (at least partly for light relief):
She stood there [after a Lady Di haircut] trembling and looking like the things you want to forget about the 1980s. Actually I suppose what I mean Osama is the things we want to forget like Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins not the things you want to forget like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Our narrator's a survivor, flexible and driven and capable of the most astonishing moral, physical, emotional extremes. She carries on when everything else is falling apart. You could do worse as a personification of London's Blitz spirit.

I'm fascinated to see that nearly all the Amazon reviews are one star or five stars: it's apparently a book that readers love or hate. I loved it: found it disturbingly fascinating, not a little unsettling and distinctively written.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

#25: Tourniquet: Tales from the Renegade City -- Kim Lakin-Smith

Renegade City. So morbidly exotic: like the dark side of Eden. But what is it really? Nottingham reincarnate. A fairy-tale of flawed ideals?

Tourniquet: Tales from the Renegade City is Kim Lakin-Smith's first novel, published by Storm Constantine's Immanion Press. It's reminiscent of a Gothic Bold as Love, an alternate present or near future where rock music (in this case, gothic rock, with smatterings of punk) is really as important as it's always thought it should be.

The 'renegade city' is recognisably Nottingham, and it's been pretty much colonised by the fans and followers of Origin, a goth supergroup who left behind the trappings of fame and retired to the city to (a) subvert local government (b) drive out decent, Mail-reading folk (c) rule as vampyric demi-gods over an enthralled populace (d) all of the above.

The Renegade City is not quite the happy hippie utopia that Origin might have hoped for. Years before the opening of the novel, Origin's lead singer, Roses, died in a fire that may not have been as accidental as was reported. The inhabitants of the Renegade City have fractured into tribes: Skinwalkers, Trawlers, Castclan, Fae ... The city's as riddled with what one character terms 'apartheid' as any playground, and the murky, shiny city streets -- this is cybergoth territory, not some pretty glittering faerie realm -- are dangerous for anyone who doesn't belong.

Tourniquet revolves around two quests: Origin's drummer, Druid, is trying to solve the murder of his brother Roses, and a young Fae woman, Jezebel, is in search of her lost brother Harish, last seen mid-mob pursuing Jezebel. Together, and with the help of various colourful supporting characters (including witch-eyed street-kid IQ and his redoubtably Boadicean grandmother Queenie) the two embark on an epic quest, or pub-crawl, or both.

Lakin-Smith's language is rich and spiky as wrought iron, and occasionally teeters on the brink of purpleness. There are some tremendously evocative passages and some vivid imagery -- I'm reminded of both Tanith Lee and Steve Aylett.

The novel seems to lack conclusion and resolution, to dissolve in a smoky haze rather than provide closure for reader or characters. I imagine there is more of this tale to come. I'd like to see more of the rest of England, beyond the city limits; I'd like to learn more about the other tribes, the infrastructure, the economy (there are definitely tourists, and more live music than you could shake a stick at).

Read for review, for Vector: VECTOR REVIEW HERE

Monday, June 02, 2008

#24: The Ninth Circle -- Alex Bell

The Ninth Circle brings together angels, assassins and amnesia: it's part thriller and part dark fantasy and the two don't always blend well together. Protagonist Gabriel Antaeus wakes in a Budapest apartment one hot summer day, not knowing his own name or recognising his reflection. There's a huge sum of money on the kitchen table and a complete but unpublished manuscript, apparently by Gabriel himself, purporting to be a theological study of Dante's Hell.

Trying to reconstruct his lost life, Gabriel befriends pregnant teenaged neighbour Casey and cosmopolitan ex-theologian Stephomi. Both have something to offer him in terms of self-knowledge; both have parts to play in the larger tale that's playing out around them. Two tales, in fact: a grandly Miltonian epic of good and evil, and a more mundane story of international skulduggery. Gabriel is the axis round which both pivot, but they don't mesh as well as they might.

I read The Ninth Circle for review (which I'll link from this post when it appears), and doubt I'd have picked it up otherwise -- though it's apparently the focus of a major marketing campaign, perhaps because the author is 'frighteningly young and talented'. She has potential, but I didn't find this an especially good read. My advance review copy contained multiple errors and typoes that should have been picked up by a competent proof-reader: 'pouring' over manuscripts, for example. The characterisation feels flat: Gabriel's amnesia explains his current lack of depth but there's a sense that there was never much more there. Casey only comes to life when she's a mouthpiece for Gothic and alternative teens everywhere. Stephomi, with his games and secrets and his coruscating humour, is probably the most interesting of the three major characters. There are some imaginative twists and the pacing is good, but the prose is lacklustre, and sometimes tries too hard to be poetic.

(I've been reading quite a bit of fanfiction lately, cherry-picking the best: most of that was better-written than this novel.)

I hate to slam a young writer's first book, but it is possible to publish too soon in one's career. I'm very glad I didn't manage to get my first completed novel into print!

EDIT, 01 AUG 08 my review at Strange Horizons