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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#75: The Minotaur -- Barbara Vine

Unusually talkative, Ida said to me in the kitchen that she wouldn't mind things being worse as long as they were different. ... "Sometimes I think I'd do anything for a change," she said. (p. 282)

It's the Sixties, though they are not especially Swinging in rural Essex. Kerstin Kvist, 24 years old, Swedish, has taken a position with an aristocratic family to care for their son John -- in his late thirties but with the emotional range of a child, the result of schizophrenia -- or so it's said. Kerstin is determined to help John, and manages to form a bond with him, and with his sisters Ella (who likes pink: everything in her room is pink) and Winifred (who is engaged, so there). Their mother Mrs Cosway is dry and disapproving; the oldest sister, Ida, quite worn down by the strain of living in a dark, decaying mansion miles from anywhere. There's a fourth sister, Zorah, who married an elderly millionaire and is now a merry and glamorous widow, arriving suddenly in her Lotus and zooming off without warning.

And soon after Kerstin arrives at Lydstep Old Hall, another stranger comes to the village: Felix, a disreputable (but soon to be famous) artist, with an eye for the laydeez and especially for Ella. Winifred, engaged to be married to the Rector, disapproves. Kerstin, who has a boyfriend with a flat off the Portobello Road, doesn't trust Felix. And John is happy in his maze -- a maze of books -- and with his facility for numbers, and in sitting and staring at beautiful things, like the Roman glass vase in the drawing-room.

Kerstin, trained as a nurse, gradually becomes convinced that John is not a lunatic or a schizophrenic, but merely suffering from Asperger's Disease (which nobody in 1960s Essex has heard of). She can't help feeling that the 'sleeping pills' Mrs Cosway insists on him taking are detrimental to his well-being. And she's determined to help him regain his faculties, his life ...

The Minotaur is a book full of foreshadowings, hindsight, rationalisation. There's a framing narrative, a chapter at each end of the book set 'Now', in which Kerstin meets a member of the family and is reminded of those distant events. She keeps a diary (in which she also sketches) and that becomes a matter of considerable importance towards the end of the book -- though the narrative is not in diary form, and it's clear that even with hindsight Kerstin doesn't always understand what is going on around her.

I liked the oppressive gloom of the novel, the sense of something about to happen, the vague mythic overtones, the psychological drama acted out between members of the family and those unfortunate enough to come within their reach. And I'd say it wasn't just John who had Asperger's.

#74: Kindred -- Octavia E. Butler

I don't have a name for the thing that happened to me, but I don't feel safe any more. (p. 17)

Dana finds herself thrown back in time to 1815, to encounter a distant ancestor Rufus, whose life she seems destined to save over and over again. Because otherwise what will become of her?

Simple premise, vastly complicated by the fact that Dana is Black and Rufus is white, the son of a Southern plantation-owner; that Dana is a modern woman (though for 'modern' read '1976', which feels like a very long time ago when one reads a novel set partly in, and written in, the mid-Seventies) and Rufus is a racist, sexist, elitist product of his time. That Dana's husband Kevin is white, too, and when he time-travels he ends up complicit in her oppression, becoming increasingly like the white men who represent all that Dana is not.

And Dana herself finds she's increasingly a part of the violent, unjust past: that every day she's less an observer, more accepting, another step closer to being what any Black woman in the South must be, a slave, a less-than-human. Every day she has more respect for her Black ancestors and their powers of endurance, their strength. Butler's depiction of Dana's emotional journey -- very much shown, not told -- is masterful: the reader understands more of Dana's situation than anyone in the novel.

Dana's very much a victim of apparently-random weirdness: there is no objective reason for the time-travel, and none (except ... justice? punishment?) for what she suffers on her return from her last trip. Has she changed the past? It's certainly changed her.

Compelling, disturbing, powerfully-written: I understand why it's a classic.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

#73: The Demon's Lexicon -- Sarah Rees Brennan

Mum did not look at him even then. She was doing her trick of pretending not to know Nick was in the room, even though her whole body was tense with awareness of him. She had her eyes turned away, and he could see her schooling her face into blankness in case he spoke to her. (p. 277)

Right from the beginning it's clear that there's something odd about teenage brothers Nick and Alan and their family arrangements. They've moved house a lot; their father's dead and their mother shuts herself away upstairs; she's a magician, but so are the people they're fleeing. Oh, and Nick has a sword and knows how to use it. Alan prefers a gun.

One night a couple of kids from school turn up: Mae (whom Alan has a crush on) and her brother Jamie, who has been visited by an incubus and marked by a demon. When Nick and Alan -- against Nick's better judgement -- start trying to help Mae and Jamie, a whole tangle of secrets and suspicions begins to unravel. Who's the girl in the photo that Alan's kept hidden? Why is Nick different? And is he going to eat the fruit at the Goblin Market again, and dance for the demons, and let them taste a few moments of life?

I loved this book: I've been following the author's blog for quite a while, and the headlong humour of her posts is definitely there amid the darkness and magic. It's also very well paced. (There's one scene that felt too abrupt, but it's very much the exception.) Nick, a misfit at school, dyslexic and violent, is very much the focus of this novel -- though it's told in third person -- and his discoveries about his heritage, and the secrets Alan's kept from him, build slowly to a climax that skews the whole story and surprised me a lot.

There are a lot of likeable characters in this book: Nick so damaged and determined, Jamie innocent and brave, Mae, Alan ... Plenty of good strong female characters, too, though the focus is on the brothers and their relationship. Brennan's prose is deceptively light -- there's some very fine writing here, but no purple prose or showy pyrotechnics -- and she has a good ear for dialogue. And I am looking forward very much to the second and third books in the trilogy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

#72: Song of Kali -- Dan Simmons

I am used to Americans and their reaction to our city. They will react in either one of two ways: they will find Calcutta 'exotic' and concentrate only on their tourist pleasures; or they will be immediately horrified, recoil, and seek to forget what they have seen and not understood. Yes, yes, the American psyche is as predictable as the sterile and vulnerable American digestive system when it encounters India. (p. 131)

1977: Robert Luczak, journalist and critic, travels to Calcutta with his Anglo-Indian wife Amrita and their baby daughter Victoria in search of the poet M. Das -- declared dead in 1969, but allegedly the author of a savage, obscene poem that's recently come to light.

Luczak is not a likeable fellow. He's racist, sexist, hypocritical and selfish in the extreme. He's a caricature of the American abroad (or perhaps of the whole colonial/imperial era), impatient and intolerant and all but blind to the different beauty of India.

The poverty on the streets, the interminable bureaucracy, the heat and the humidity are only the beginning of Luczak's disenchantment. His quest for the mysterious poet leads him into Calcutta's darkest side -- an undercity where religious rituals are enacted, where something waits in the darkness, and where Luczak is forced to remember some unsavoury episodes from his own past.

And yet it all seems facile: his life changes, but his essential nature does not. Even right at the end, when he's found a kind of healing in writing a bedtime storybook (a talking cat, a fearless and precocious mouse, a gallant but lonely centaur, and a vainglorious eagle who is afraid to fly. It is a story about courage and friendship and small quests to interesting places (p. 311)) there's a sense that he's just papering over the cracks, trying to block out the horror and violence of the real world.

On reflection, I wonder if there's a layer of subtlety that I missed on first reading: a friend remarked that Kali's the only god apparent in the story, but I wonder if some of the other characters are more than they seem -- the mysterious not-niece, the various guides ... Amrita, who saw herself as a ghost when she was seven and was happy, after that, to leave India behind.

This is Simmons' first novel, and I'm glad I became familiar with his later work first: I wasn't impressed by Song of Kali. It feels, sometimes, as though the author's missed the target -- I was hooked by Amrita's thoughts on different realities framed in terms of mathematical models, but that's never really picked up. And sometimes it feels all too grounded in personal experience, as though written by someone who'd been to India and had a bad trip (in one way or another) and was trying to exorcise it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

#71: Measuring the World -- Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)

After six months in New Amsterdam, Trinidad, Humboldt had examined everything that lacked the feet and the fear to run away from him. He had measured the colour of the sky, the temperature of lightning flashes, and the weight of the hoarfrost at night ... [he] dug holes, dropped thermometers on long threads down wells, and put peas on drumheads. The quake would certainly begin again, he said cheerfully. Soon the whole town would be in ruins. (p. 56)

Alexander von Humboldt grows up in the shadow of his brilliant elder brother: their father is carrying out an experiment, raising one son as a man of culture and the other as a man of science. Young Alexander quickly works out that whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them. (p. 16). As a teenager, he's his own experimental subject for studies involving Galvinism (it wasn't easy to explain to the doctor what had been going on): from an early age, he goes through life certain that the trick of it is not to let anything get to him. Humbolt lives a swashbuckling life on the frontiers of science and geography: climbing mountains, rowing up the Orinoco, discovering oceanic currents, observing silver-miners at work beneath the unsettling mask of an ancient god.

Carl Friedrich Gauss is another infant prodigy, though born rather than moulded: he counts prime numbers when he's nervous. Numbers didn't seduce one away from reality, they brought reality closer, made it clearer and more meaningful in a way it had never been before. (p. 71) Awkward with people, he's wholly at home in the mathematical world: he finds himself wondering if the occasional anomalies he notices in physical laws are a sign of God's negligence.

The novel's mostly told from the two men's viewpoints, plus that of Humboldt's assistant the long-suffering Bonpland ("Oh hallelujah," he says when Humboldt interrupts a bout of altitude-induced vomitting to announce that they have now climbed higher than anyone in human history). It's a fascinating account of two very different lives in science, of two men gripped by scientific fervour and the need to know who go about their quest for knowledge in very different ways. There are parallels, congruences, differences and similiarities. Humboldt is uninterested in women (there's a hint, late on, that he's homosexual, but he doesn't do anything about that either): Gauss marries, but finds himself thinking of orbital eccentricities on his wedding night.

Humboldt's science is eighteenth-century science, with outmoded ideas: the sun would never burn out, it would renew its phlogiston and shine for ever (p. 187). He lectures on light-extinguishing ether and regards evolution as the greatest insult to mankind. Gauss, by contrast, seeks eternal truths: Whatever was hiding out there in holes or volcanoes or mines was accidental, unimportant. That wasn't how the world would become clear. (p. 212) And later, One didn't need to clamber up mountains or torment oneself in the jungle. Whoever observed the needle [an iron needle suspended in a galvanometer] was looking into the interior of the world. (p. 233)

Humboldt is the celebrity scientist, a supreme self-publicist: see to it that you get it into the newspaper. The world needs to learn of me. I doubt very much that I am of no interest to it. (p. 41). He's lauded in courts and sent on expeditions to distant lands, though he seldom has the freedom he craves, the freedom to study whatever captures his interest. Gauss, meanwhile, sits in a dark room in Göttingen, watching his needle, boxing his son's ears when the boy opens the door and disturbs the air.

Gauss enlists Humboldt's help in measuring magnetic variations: the two men strike up a kind of friendship, though neither understands the other, and indeed they grow to feel sorry for one another -- Gauss for Humboldt's lack of freedom, Humboldt for Gauss's hermit-like, confined existence. Only gradually, though, does Humboldt begin to appreciate that Gauss's mathematical certainties, his laws and rules and numbers, enable him to see further:
... all of a sudden he could no longer have said which of them had travelled afar and which of them had always stayed at home. (p. 252)

This is a rivetting insight into the scientific mind, and into the characters of two very different men. It's also beautifully written: kudos to the translator for a smooth, poetic, subtle rendition.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#70: Lavinia -- Ursula Le Guin

His words were all the music of it, his words were its drumbeat, clack of the loom, tread of feet, oarstroke, heartbeat, waves breaking on the beach at Troy away across the world. (p. 44)

This is Le Guin's self-confessed 'act of gratitude to the poet, a love offering' to Vergil, whose Aenead this explores and transforms. In Vergil's poem, Lavinia -- Aeneas's last love, mother of his son -- is blonde and more than a little hysterical. But the poet's idea of Lavinia has given her a kind of life, distinct from any real Lavinia ("it confuses me to think about her") and not quite real enough. So she says. Le Guin's Lavinia is startlingly real, present, close: she reminds me of something I read (maybe Christa Wolf?) about the past, the people of the past, being so close, just in the next room or around the next corner ...

Which is not to say that Lavinia's any kind of anachronism. What impressed me most (though I am neither classicist nor historian) was the sense of a distant and different society, a world where religion (though not necessarily belief) was a part of everyday life, where the aristocracy were 'those who speak for [the] people to the powers of the earth and sky ... go-betweens' (p. 189). Where there's little distinction between that aristocracy and the other people of the city. Where 'city' is what we might term 'village'. Where a young girl in the woods might fear wolf and bear, but not man. Where Mars is first and foremost the god of boundaries, the god who sets the sword in the farmer's hand so that farmer can protect what is his.

That said, the gods are absent from this tale. Aeneas' mother (Venus) is never mentioned by name or nature. Aeneas himself doesn't speak of divine interventions at Troy. There is no sense that prayer is answered, or that the land is alive. At a point where something slightly supernatural might be going on, a bystander is confused: "he doesn't know if he saw an owl ... or if he saw something Turnus was seeing, that wasn't actually there." (p. 174)

There is a mystical element, the element of prophecy and foresight: primarily Lavinia's oracle, and the visions she sees in the dazzle of Aeneas's shield. Lavinia, like many of her father's lineage, can hear the voice of the local oracle. One evening the oracle brings her a vision of a poet, who speaks to her of Aeneas and her fate, and of how fate is what should happen, 'in spite of need. In spite of love.' It's not her only encounter with Vergil, and he is as important to her, when she looks back on her life, as Aeneas her husband and beloved.

something passed us perfectly silently and lay still ... A bird, I thought, they shot a bird, but I saw it was an arrow. It lay there with its long, bright bronze point and stiff clipped feathers, motionless. (p. 145)

Aeneas is a warrior, a man who murders like a butcher and is called 'hero': Lavinia knows the emptiness and the futility of war. (I don't know if the symbolic and ceremonial War Gate, standing alone in a field, opened as an announcement of the outbreak of war, is a real thing or not: "the gate that led nowhere, whether open or shut" (p. 164). It's a powerful image.) Knowing that to embrace Aeneas as her fated husband will bring war (in specific, with Turnus whom she's due to wed; in general, because Aeneas is a warrior) Lavinia follows her fate.

A friend asked why I'm so impressed with a book that's 'basically a feminist retelling of part of the Aenead'. No no no. I mean: yes, possibly, but the feminist twist isn't what draws me in, isn't the appeal. It is the utter verisimilitude of Lavinia, and simultaneously her own sense that she's not quite real, that she's a creation of the poet. The book is filled with her voice, first-person narration, and every word rings true: the calm simplicity of the language, as when she hears 'the poet's voice overlapping his as a sea wave running up the shore overtakes and overlaps the wave before it' (95). Nothing jars, nothing is wrong, but it's not all placid and comfortable either: defying her mother, she's 'false, frightened, incredulous, scornful and alone'. (101). The scorn makes her real: the loneliness makes us empathise.

I like Lavinia a lot. I like Le Guin's Aeneas (enough to want to go and read Vergil). I love Le Guin for writing this love-offering, this transformative work, this fan-fiction in the purest and most wholesome sense. And I like Vergil, still confused about some man he guided: "I met him in a wood ... a dark wood, in the middle of the road. I came up from down there to meet him ..." (p. 59)

in truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself. (p. 241)

#69: The Light Ages -- Ian MacLeod

...aether is like no other element, and it shuns all physical rules. It is weightless, and notoriously difficult to contain. Purified, its wyreglow fills the darkness, but spills shadows in bright light. Strangest of all, and yet most crucial to all the industries and livelihoods it helps sustain, aether responds to the will of the human spirit ... with it, we are able to make things more thinly, more cheaply, more quickly and — it has to be admitted — often more crudely than the harsh and inconvenient rules of simple nature would ever allow. Boilers which would otherwise explode, pistons which would stutter, buildings and beams and bearings which would shatter and crumble, are borne aloft from mere physics on the aether-fuelled bubbles of guildsmen's spells. (p.30)

I liked Song of Time so was keen to read more of MacLeod's writing. The Light Ages didn't hook me to the same extent: I was fascinated by the worldbuilding, by the complexity and creativity, but ultimately felt there was too much going on and not enough happening. (If that makes any sense.)

The Light Ages is set in an England that isn't our own. I'd got the impression, from the blurb, that this was an alternate 17th-century: though quickly amending that assumption, it took me a while to work out just when it was set. (I'm guessing mid-to-late 20th century, though MacLeod's London feels more Victorian, more Dickensian.) Why should the period setting matter? It shouldn't -- except for the desire to ground oneself in time if not in other ways: because Light Ages England, after the discovery of aether, is vastly different to our own reality. (There is, for instance, no Father Christmas: instead, there's the hooved and masked Lord of Misrule who comes down from the moon on Christmas Eve with his cloak of leaves (p. 386). I can make sense of that in a world where the Industrial Revolution was shorter and stranger, where the last king was executed three centuries ago, where England is more insular.)

This is a novel about social change: about the changes wrought by aether (and the damage it does to individuals, possibly on a genetic level as well as more overtly) and about the changes wrought on society by aether, and the ills of that society and how they might be remedied. The economics of aether underlie the interactions of the characters: Robert Burrows, born in a northern town of parents who met at the Works; Annalise, changeling; Sadie, warm-hearted aristocratic daughter of a Greatgrandmaster of the Guild; George, another aristocrat with revolutionary leanings. For -- surely, they whisper on the streets, in the dreamhouses -- surely it's the end of the Third Age, surely it's time for a new age to dawn ...

There's a great deal in here about change, about appearance and reality, about living myth and magic and what might replace them: it's all beautifully written (I do love MacLeod's prose style) and strikingly inventive. I'm still trying to work out why it didn't hook me, and I suspect it's because I didn't click with any of the characters. I'm still looking forward to reading House of Storms, though!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

#68: Boating for Beginners -- Jeanette Winterson

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young the very heaven. Ur of the Chaldees looked less and less like an inhabited spittoon and more and more like Milton Keynes as the hours ticked by. Neighbours made friendly gestures and lent one another their lawnmowers, the dustbin men volunteered to return to work without their extra ten per cent, and the Socialist Worker Party Magazine painted their offices. It's extraordinary what Art can do. (p. 22)

The tale of Noah, his Ark and his God as you've never seen it before ... The Book of Genesis is translated to a modern(ish) setting, the Unnameable to a blasphemous joke and Noah himself to a entertainment entrepreneur with designs on famous romantic novelist Bunny Mix, noted for her improbable maquillage and her insistence on No Sex Before Marriage.

But the heroine is Gloria Munde, who has read just enough Northrop Frye (she was too naïve to understand that when a serious work is issued in paperback the publishers always use a misleading cover (p. 44)) to be dangerous and wants to start thinking in paragraphs, in joined up sentences, in metaphors.

they could play Charades, but not I Spy because it would have to begin with W after a while and everyone would guess the answer. (p. 136)

I confess Boating for Beginners made me laugh out loud: there's a great deal of arch, wry humour in here, though at times it's hard not to be caught between amusement and repulsion at the tawdry Seventies suburban feel of it all. There is a serious dimension to the satire, though: Winterson on the joy of non-linear texts, the stages of being and the almost-mythic powers of those who don't distinguish between themselves and the world; whether or not one should write books that '[fix] themselves into time, or books which [flout] the usual notion of time' (p. 100); an orange demon that pops out of nowhere to teach Gloria to be poetic as well as analytic ...

In further proof that Boating for Beginners doesn't take itself too seriously, it gets extra points for featuring, on the back cover, reviews that are ... differently good. "I could have done with a bit more of this" [Winterson 'seriously explaining the power of myth'] "and less jokes about fast food..." quoth Time Out: "If you find the Monty Python Life of Brian amusing, this is your comic book of revelations," The Times praised with faint damns.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

#67: The End of Mr. Y -- Scarlett Thomas

Real life is physical. Give me books instead: give me the invisibility of the contents of books, the thoughts, the ideas, the images. Let me become part of a book: I'd give anything for that. Being cursed by The End of Mr Y must mean becoming part of the book; an intertextual being: a book-cyborg, or considering that books aren't cybernetic, perhaps a bibliorg. Things in books can't get dirty, and real life is, well, eventually it's dust. Even books become dust ... but thoughts are clean. (p.147)

The End of Mr Y seems at first to be another of those novels about ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies: luckily, it's much smarter, wittier and thought-provoking.

Ariel Manto is a damaged, self-destructive drifter who's ended up as a post-grad student studying the works of little-known nineteenth-century author and nutcase Thomas Lumas, author of the eponymous book The End of Mr Y. Lumas presented his work as fiction, though Ariel's sure it was based on fact: a method for transferring one's consciousness into that of others, and a way of entering the Troposphere (a 'world-of-minds' where he finds peace). Ariel, having acquired a copy of the book via an improbable set of coincidences, sets about recreating Lumas's experiments: she finds herself searching for her missing supervisor, Saul Burlem, and questioning history, causality and the nature of the world(s) around her.

It's hard to know where to start discussing this novel. It's intelligent and provocative -- plenty of big ideas, from Lamarck to quantum physics to Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their gang -- but Thomas doesn't try to blind the reader with science or philosophy: she has a knack for apt metaphor and parable, and each Big Idea is explained clearly without infodumping. (I admire her more mundane metaphors, too: for instance, a collapsing building like one of those toys with a wooden model of an animal, where you press the button and the animal -- elasticated -- collapses to its knees.)

There's a lot in this book about philosophy and the discipline of intellectual work: Ariel is fond of thought experiments, which are all stories (if they're not stories then they're hard science, and not actually thought experiments at all. (432)) and her work on Lumas gives her a plethora of opportunities for these experiments. (I can't help wondering if she's familiar with Thomas Nagel's What is it like to be a bat?: there's a marvellous passage about a cat, and a distressingly vivid chapter about mice.)

I find Ariel a compelling character, though I'm not sure she's always honest with or about herself. Self-destructive habits, pushing her own limits -- I wonder if the reason I tend to say yes to everything is because I deeply believe that I can survive anything, but that I'm still looking for the definitive proof. (111) -- an unpleasant childhood (but did she abandon her family, or did they abandon her?), a tendency to sleep with unsuitable men, a sense that she's only incidentally anchored in the real world.

There is a conspiracy theory (or two) and The End of Mr Y (Lumas's book, not the meta-book that Thomas has written) has its own fansites and internet discussion. (Actually, Thomas's book has a couple of really nice sites, too: here (unfinished?) and here.) Ariel is not afraid to use the internet, though she prefers books for research: the internet would tell me quickly, but it might not tell me accurately .. I also need to know what a nineteenth century writer would have meant by [a homeopathic term] (124).

I'm not wholly convinced by the ending, but it does make sense in terms of the metaphors Ariel's accustomed to, and some aspects of the Troposphere and its interaction with the world. If the last page is taken literally, I'm with Ian Stewart (whose objection is reported in the author's afterword): however, I don't think it's a literal objective truth, just Ariel's perception.

This is a novel about ideas, about story-telling, about how consciousness and matter mesh together. There's plenty of darkness, but there's also joy: Ariel's joy in the world of the mind, the author's joy in philosophy and the history of science. I liked it very much and will be reading more by Thomas.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

#66: Halting State -- Charles Stross

You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars, a Final Solution to the human condition, an answer to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it's a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you're a sucker for it: isn't story-telling what being human is all about? (p.111)

Halting State is the story of a bank heist with a difference, a heist where nothing (physical) is stolen and there's no (physical) crime scene, though there's a fine recording of the actual theft being carried out by a band of Orcs and a dragon ... Sergeant Sue Smith, called in by Hayek Associates (who 'stablise the economies of seventeen imaginary worlds' and have recently made their IPO) to investigate the crime, is flummoxed: forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby (a keen fencer) is beginning to suspect that her bosses have an agenda they haven't mentioned: and Jack Reed, unemployed programmer with two embarrassing secrets, has to wonder how a job opportunity like this dropped into his lap at just the right time ...

The novel is told from three viewpoints, all second-person present-tense, with distinctive voices: a technique which fixes the reader in the moment, in the characters, though it can occasionally feel claustrophobic. Despite being partly set in gamespace -- the virtual environments of Avalon Four, Zone, Spooks and others -- It's also very firmly rooted in post-independence Edinburgh, 2018. And it's rooted in the genre, with nods to Discworld, to Forgotten Futures, to Neuromancer ('the colour of the night sky above a Japanese city', 208)

Stross has found the perfect way to insert high fantasy into a hard Sf setting -- and to have space marines with BFGs taking out Oberon the Warlock. The plot focusses on the borderlands between reality and virtuality: characters hiding behind avatars, individuals whose real-world skills and knowledge map in unexpected ways, people whose interactions with the virtual are more meaningful, more real than anything they do when they're not logged in. The virtual is not the real world, but it's most definitely real.

There's some sharp observation here too, not least about the ongoing conflict and mutual misapprehension between geeks and businessmen:
after seventy years of data processing, they still think that coders can be hired and fired; that the engineers who ripped out the muscles and nerves of the modern world and replaced it with something entirely alien under the skin are still little artisans who will put their tools down and go home if you tell them to leave the job half-done. (p. 335)
And there are some extremely funny scenes -- not least when Jack's contemplating 'the information transfer going on ... via some kind of sub-verbal mammalian protocol layer' (203). I liked this a lot: it's fun, funny, thought-provoking and multi-layered, and it's a future that I find familiar and comfortable, in the broad sense if not in the detail.

Friday, September 04, 2009

#65: The Time-Traveller's Wife -- Audrey Niffenegger

Reread after seeing the film (link goes to my review) which I liked: suspect I am in a minority again.

- they're both trapped, helpless, incapable of free will. Henry's timetravel makes him uniquely vulnerable. The story of his life with Clare is basically "This woman came up to me in the library, said we were meant to be together, seduced me and told me all this stuff I haven't yet done. So now I've got to do it because I can't change anything."

- much darker than I remembered, with Henry being an animal that does what it must to survive.

- the prose is gorgeous, lush and poetic but also edgily brittle -- fits Henry and Clare's alternative/punk lifestyle, social circle etc.

- it's a book about growing up.

- Clare is the woman, waiting -- patient Griselda -- Marianna in the moated grange -- and pretty much her entire life is spent waiting for Henry. (At least in the book her art is important too.)

- most devastating line on reread: "If anything ever happens to my feet you might as well shoot me." (p.163)

Intriguingly, only after I'd written this post did I realise I had a previous review on here: from January 2005. And this is why rereading is worthwhile, because I feel quite differently about the last few chapters now. Though I stick with my assertion that 'at least one scene' (9/11) feels like an afterthought.

#64: White is for Witching -- Helen Oyeyemi

I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I'm the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read -- I tell you where you are. Don't turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don't look. (p.68)

A powerful and disturbing novel of pica, twins, race, malevolence and myth. Amongst other things ...

Miranda Silver and her twin brother Eliot live with their father in their dead mother's old house in Dover, now an upmarket B&B. They are white, privileged, middle-class teenagers. Miranda spends a long time off school, ill: suffers from pica, and eats strange things, chalk, dirt, plastic. Her brother tries helplessly to connect with her. Then Miranda goes to university (Cambridge) and meets Ore, a Nigerian girl who falls in love with Miranda -- or thinks she does.

Miri is the older twin. Maybe she has seen things that craned their necks to look at her and then withdrew before I was born, thinking that to consider one of us is to consider both. (p.7)

Miranda's father Luc is a keen cook, trying to tempt his daughter to eat real food. Eliot starts trying to make some distance between himself and his twin. MIranda is attacked by a group of Kosovan girls who hold her responsible for attacks on boys in their community. There's a woman in the garden covering her face, a black couple staying in the house who never go out, and some indication that Sade, their housekeeper, is not just a housekeeper. Also, the house has a narrative voice.

Oyeyemi's language is powerful and poetic: she writes Miranda as an often-unlikeable but oddly sympathetic character, and the other voices in the book (Eliot, Ore, Luc, the house) are distinctive without pastiche.

There is a strong undercurrent concerning the relationships between members of a family -- between twins, and especially between mothers and daughters. I wholly sympathise with Miranda's urge not to be 'herself plus all her mothers'.

I was (from various comments and reviews) expecting a difficult, meandering novel about race: this is not it. Race (specifically race in Britain, with the subtleties of class and immigration and first-, second-, third-generation) is a major theme but not in obvious or apparent ways, at least for the first half of the book. (Later, when Ore's narrative, and her cultural heritage, take centre stage, it's more explicit.) And I found the plot, the events of the novel, straightforward though not simplistic.

white is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do. (p.108)

There is a great deal of whiteness in this book, from Dover's cliffs to the chalk that Miranda eats to her surname (Silver) to the bleach ... There is also a great deal of darkness, and darkness holds some of the answers.

Having borrowed this novel, I can't go back and attempt to find a pattern to the idiosyncratic paragraph indentation: I noticed that some first lines were indented, others not, but I don't know what (if anything) this signifies.

Will definitely look out for more by Oyeyemi.

#63: Doors Open -- Ian Rankin

"You're telling me you think Chib Calloway is a man to be trusted?"
"He's got more to lose than any of us. With a record like his, the law would come down on him like Carl Andre's bricks." (p. 103)

Self-made man Mike Mackenzie is bored: when a friend suggests the 'perfect crime', the 'repatriation of some of those poor imprisoned works of art' -- paintings by Scottish artists, locked away as investments or in gallery storage -- Mike leaps at the chance to inject a bit of excitement into his life. Everything revolves around 'Doors Open Day', when corporations, galleries and banks open the doors of interesting buildings to the public.

Whilst plotting the crime, Mike renews his acquaintance with an old schoolmate, 'Chib' Calloway, now a major player in Edinburgh's murky underworld. Chib (who is uncannily like Mike himself) has fallen foul of a gang of Norwegian drug-dealers, whose representative comes to pay a visit. Chib could do with some ready money -- or something more negotiable -- and Mike finds himself backed into a corner by a series of coincidences and improbable connections, all avidly watched by Detective Inspector Ransome, who's keen to see Chib where he belongs.

Mike and his friends are ... well, not very proficient at this 'crime' stuff. They print out maps from the Internet (apparently unaware that search history can be traced); employ a dope-smoking art student with a bolshy girlfriend and a taste for transformative work; don't think of listening in to police radio ... There is a perfect crime in this novel, or at least a better-constructed one than the plot Mike thinks he's part of: seeing how that secondary crime is constructed and played out is part of the fun, and the shift in focus between the two crimes is the pivot-point of the novel.

There is one excessively annoying thing about this book -- Rankin seems to've got hold of one of those 'said-books' that offers a plethora of synonyms for the word 'said'. (Ref: Turkey City Lexicon.) I really hope this is some perverse stylistic experiment. There are whole pages where the word 'said' is omitted in favour of 'asked', 'intoned', 'queried', 'noted' etc etc ad nauseum. (Illustrated at right: click for larger version, potential spoilers blurred out.)

And frankly, it was hard to immerse myself in the plot when the prose was so annoying. If an experiment, moderation is key: if a trait, please to be stopping now.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

#62: Salt -- Jeremy Page

... these storms never blow themselves out, but instead drift into some eternal vortex of the North Sea, waiting to return one day. So the storm that hit North Norfolk a thousand years ago, drowning Vikings by the boatful, could return a few hundred years later to add herring fishermen and Dutch traders to its grisly cargo. In her time she claimed she'd heard shouts in Old Norse across the marsh, heard chainmail thrashing in the breakers, had listened to the sickening crack of wood as longboats hit the banks off Blakeney Point. Danish sailors crying like babies in the mist, and she'd smelled their last meal of herring and oats as the galley-pot tipped when the boat went down. (p.41-42)

I found this a difficult novel to read -- not because it's a bad book, but because it cuts rather close to the bone. (My parents eloped to an isolated house; there were marshes; my mother, whose family were and are prone to fleeing difficult situations, was mentally ill.) The fact that I persevered should give you some idea of how much I liked the novel despite its resonances.

The writing is superb: Page captures the rich glow of the light, the bleakness of the winter landscape, the taste of samphire pulled fresh from the marsh, the thin high call of wading birds. The setting sun has made all the colours seem unnaturally saturated. The gunwale looks like lipstick has been run round it, the rust-red sail looks as bright as blood, and Elsie's hair has the colour of ripe corn. .. All along the coast, Norfolk is sinking into the North Sea with incredible softness, a landscape made entirely of lavender greys, chalk blue and dull green. (p. 241)

Salt is also firmly rooted in time: the poverty, financial and cultural, of rural life in the 1970s, the slow decay of deserted farms, the burning of trees afflicted with Dutch Elm Disease. Pip's father is entranced by the grainy TV images of the crew of Apollo 11 passing under the grey southern hemisphere of the moon (p. 89), and Pip watches a small Norfolk town become a destination for tourists.

But there's also a strong mythic element -- a very English twist flavouring tales that might've come from Greek tragedy. (Pip gets hold of a book of Greek mythology at an impressionable age.) There are oak trees, rotting elms, wrecked boats rediscovered. Storms whirl in from the North Sea, with a burden of shipwrecked sailors and other detritus. Or is it the same storm, again and again?

It's a slow and subtle book, with the seasonal rhythm of coastal life: mostly it centres on Pip, the narrator, who seems perpetually perplexed by his family -- not only his parents, but his grandmother and his uncle -- and drawn to an older girl, Elsie, who drifts in and out of the story like a storm. Pip, remember, comes from a family of bolters: his solution to it is devastating, heralded and foreshadowed but not something that could be expected. And the finale does seem hasty, but that may just be because I was reeling from the sudden rapid succession of events after the slow burn of the preceding pages.

Unsettling, to me anyway, but recommended for gorgeous light-filled prose.

#61: The Bones of the Earth -- Michael Swanwick

The air is richer and the greens are greener and at night there are so many stars in the sky that it's terrifying. The Mesozoic swarms with life. You can't appreciate how thinned-out and impoverished our time is until you go back. Rain forests are nothing ... With my own eyes, I have seen a plesiosaur give birth. This hand stroked her living neck as she lay quivering in the shallows afterward. (p. 41)

The Bones of Time is that rare thing, a time-travel novel in which the time-travel makes (a certain amount of) sense. It's also a tightly-written, well-paced and, at times, richly comedic story, with a cast of credible characters -- not all likeable, but all deftly portrayed and carefully observed. (Swanwick's eye for the tells of body language is enviable. He pins down the silent tics that give away an individual's hopes and fears.) Also, there are dinosaurs. Yay!

It's a pacy adventure novel with a lot of twists, some clever ideas and a prose style that's occasionally poetic but never too purple. There's always a question to be answered: who's the Old Man? Why won't Griffin look at his watch? Is there really a Creationist mole working on the programme? Who are the Unchanging? And about this time-travel paradox thing ...

But there's also a lot of depth here. What does it mean to be human? What's the defining characteristic of the human race? How much does an individual change over time? Does belief really justify the means? Does it trump evidence?

Swanwick's affection for and awareness of the genre in which he's writing is evident: there are references to Jurassic Park, to 'A Sound of Thunder', to 'All You Zombies' and One Million Years BC and a lot of other mass-market dinosaur extravaganzas. Step on as many butterflies as you like: the present is safe. (p. 29) He's good on the ephemera of time-travel, too: Can you imagine wearing such hideous clothes? And yet they didn't seem so bad at the time. (p. 21)

I like the subtle differences of Swanwick's near future, and the vast scope of time covered by the novel. Travel in time -- not a human invention, and not subject to the laws of physics as currently understood -- is not limited to the past, though excursions into the future are made only under exceptional circumstances. And yes, there is a kind of paradoxical twist, one that I found wholly surprising and rather sad.

There's an intriguing palaeontological theory mooted by a member of the expedition: that Tyrannosaurus Rex 'farmed' herbivores, using ultrasonics, and that the *clang* of asteroid impact, setting Earth's crust ringing for many years, screwed up the system. I'd love to know more about that.

I picked this up (on recommendation, following a request for a novel where modern humans and dinosaurs coexist) expecting a cheerful, sciency romp. I did get it, but what impressed me most was the depth of the book, the memorability of the characters, the complex pacing that Swanwick does without apparent effort.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

#60: The Fire -- Katherine Neville job, these past four years, had provided me a lot more than structure or diligence or discipline. Living with the fire as I did -- looking into those flames and embers day after day so I could manage their heat and height and strength -- had taught me a new way of seeing. (p.61)

Sequel to the wildly successful The Eight (which did the ancient mysteries / modern thriller thing 15 years before The Da Vinci Code, and in my opinion considerably better): The Fire was slightly disappointing, though I haven't yet worked out why.

The point-of-view character (modern times) is Alexandra, daughter of Sasha and Cat: summoned to her mother's isolated Colorado home for a birthday party, she finds the birthday girl missing and a motley assortment of (eight) guests gathered from around the world. She also finds a series of Mysterious Puzzles, including the last chess game she played before the collapse of her proto-career as chess prodigy ...

The Fire is packed with esoterica (Freemasons, Native American mythology, the White Goddess, astrology, Hestia the Hearth-goddess, shamanic lore, the Firebird and the Phoenix, and hermetic town-planning) as well as historical characters (Byron, Talleyrand, Thomas Jefferson, Ali Pasha, Napoleon's mother). There are a plethora of cliff-hangers and provocative clues. But perhaps it's overstuffed with ideas, at the expense of the plot -- or at least of the protagonist's understanding thereof. Alexandra spends a lot of the novel being confused and overwhelmed by the events spinning out around her: I knew I had too many ingredients interacting with one another. And each new idea only seemed to ignite more questions. (p.116)

In some ways it feels very contemporary (characters affected by 9/11; the invasion of Baghdad; Basque separatists; a roller-blading lesbian named Leda) but in other ways it's curiously dated. Mostly due to paranoia, the characters eschew the Internet: technology is regarded with suspicion. Indeed, there's an emphasis on the old-fashioned, the primitive, the elemental. Alexandra works at a restaurant famed for cooking everything over an open hearth: her friend Key (one of the most appealing characters) prefers to fly old-fashioned aeroplanes; healing is provided by shamans rather than hospitals.

One of the stories woven into The Fire is that of Cinderella: and it should be no surprise that the kitchen-maid gets her prince. But many of the other threads seem to be left dangling: Nim, familiar from The Eight, just fades out of the novel, and Key likewise.

I did enjoy reading The Fire, and I found the twisty plot and intertwined threads -- past and present -- fascinating. But though it's pacy, exciting and clever, it just didn't grab me as The Eight (or even A Calculated Risk) did: perhaps it's simply that I didn't like Alexandra in the way I liked Cat. Alexandra felt weak and helpless: most of what happened in the novel happened to, rather than because of, her, and I can forgive her frequent complaints and protestations of incomprehension, because from her point of view it's pretty hard to make sense of everyone's motives.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

#59: The Game -- Diana Wynne Jones

As the boy crashed past Flute and Hayley the foremost dog almost caught him and then lost ground because it had a bloodstained piece of the boy's trousers in its mouth. The rest chased on furiously.
Hayley clutched Flute's hand. "Do they catch him?"
Flute nodded. "I'm afraid so."
Hayley was horrified. "Why?"
"He managed to be really offensive to a goddess," Flute told her. "Things like this happen on every strand, you know. The mythosphere is not an entirely happy place."
"But it looks so beautiful!" Hayley protested.
Flute laughed a little. "Beauty isn't made of sugar." (p.56)

This short novel -- more of a novella -- revolves around some lesser-known elements of Greek mythology, recreated and reimagined in a way that I've come to associate with DWJ. (Luckily for me and others who don't recall the intricacies of these myths, there's a cheat sheet and glossary at the back of the book.)

Hayley, apparently orphaned and being raised by her grandparents, is exiled to an aunt's house in Ireland after doing something disgraceful. Here she becomes involved in the family Game, a kind of mythological treasure hunt through the mythosphere, a realm which is made up of all the stories, theories and beliefs, legends, myths and hopes that are generated here on earth. (p.30) Hayley encounters some unexpected characters, discovers the truth about her parents and helps outwit the fearsome Uncle Jolyon.

It's very funny, full of references that smarter readers will spot and others won't feel the lack of, and Jones' take on the legends is insightful and inventive. I did feel this could've been a far longer book -- it feels like a padded-out short story rather than a short novel, and some of the threads weren't really picked up. A quick delightful read, though.

#58: Mr Allbones' Ferretts -- Fiona Farrell

The smell of violets is overpowering.
How could he have missed it, and the port, the cigars, the oil of Macassar? The stink of wealth is as strong as the markings of fox or cat. As strong as the musky stink of the badger sett that has been here for as long as Allbones can remember, and a hundred years or more before him no doubt ... (p.26)

Subtitled 'An historical pastoral satirical scientifical romance, with mustelids', this novel is based on scant facts from historical documents: in 1885 Mr Riddiford, a landholder in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand, ordered a consignment of nearly four hundred stoats from England to help control the burgeoning rabbit population. Mr Allbones and Mr Metcalfe collected them and endured the four-month voyage to deliver them to Riddiford.

Farrell, an acclaimed New Zealand novelist whose word I hadn't previously encountered, tells a story considerably more complex than the facts would suggest. Mr Allbones is not precisely what he seems: nor is Eugenia, the granddaughter of the local squire, obsessed with Darwin and natural philosophy.

I bought this book in Auckland Airport, wanting a little more of New Zealand when I left (though reeling at the price of a new paperback novel: NZ$31, or about £12): so I was initially disappointed by the realisation that most of the novel is set in rural England and on board the Adam and Eve, and that Allbones and Metcalfe and their associates are dyed-in-the-wool English peasants. But there is a New Zealand sensibility to the novel, which looks askance at the colonists' cavalier treatment of their new country's ecology, and contrasts Allbones' experience of the rich, centuries-deep traditions of English life with the untouched world he expects to find.

I also learnt a great deal about ferrets, stoats and weasels. And a new word: merrythought.

Farrell's writing is gloriously sensual -- there are some vividly gruesome scenes (nature red in tooth and claw) and an unsentimental depiction of cottage life in the 19th century. The novel is permeated with smell: not literally, though there were times when I imagined I caught the sharp odour of animals, but Allbones lives by his nose, and his sense of smell is far sharper than, I suspect, any modern city-dweller's.

I wasn't wholly happy with the obliqueness of the ending, and I would have loved to read more: but the story stopped in the right place for the characters, and the new life that some of them are set to enter is a different tale.

#57: Flying too High -- Kerry Greenwood

Phryne inspected her bed-hangings, which were black silk embroidered with green leaves, and her mossy sheets, which were dark to show off her white body. Her carpet was green and soft as new grass, and her mirrors appropriately pink, and framed in ceramic vine leaves. All she needed now was a bacchanalian lover to match the room. (p. 23)

The second Phryne Fisher mystery, located by C on her Australian travels, shipped to New Zealand to await my arrival, and read on the plane from Auckland to Shanghai.

Phryne, her reputation preceding her courtesy of Melbourne's aristocracy, is engaged to investigate a murder: quite by chance she also becomes involved in a kidnapping case. There are beautiful young men, pilots agog at Phryne's unfeminine capabilities, and breakfast and tea at the Queenscliff Hotel in what can best be described as mixed company.

The novel's very firmly rooted in its time (1928): the excavations at Luxor are in the news, women pilots are beginning to break records, and Phryne's household staff aren't quite sure what to make of their wayward mistress.

Perhaps some of the swashbuckling is a little over the top, a tad unnecessary: but Phryne enjoys herself (and solves both cases, of course) and Greenwood has a nice touch with dialogue, which on several occasions had me laughing out loud.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

#56: The Electric Telepath -- Jan Mark

"Telepathy," said Elijah. "What is the still small voice if not telepathy -- the exchange of feeling -- not thought," he added. God forbid that they should believe that anything so profane as a thought had crossed their minds. (p. 92)

The Electric Telepath is set in 1894. Elijah Briggs has grown up in a small English town under the benevolent rule of the Congregation of Mount Horeb, a strict but kindly Christian sect. His father is an Elder of the Horebites, and much of Elijah's time is spent spreading the word to the inhabitants of the Trident, a demographically mixed area of the town. Elijah asks them to listen for the still small voice but he's never heard it himself, and his ambitions are scientific rather than religious. He's inspired by Faraday, Maxwell and Lodge, and he's determined to replicate and build upon their work. Unfortunately, the Horebites value faith and feeling over science and thought: Rationalism is the enemy of faith ...

When Elijah's secret project is discovered, he manages to persuade the Elders that it's a work of faith, designed to transmit holy thoughts via electromagnetic waves. Like many lies, this one grows grander and more complex very quickly, and Elijah finds himself praying for the failure of his experiment.

The Electric Telepath has a simple plot: more complicated, and more intriguing, are the character interactions, with minor characters (the bellicose Aubreys, Lily Roper who Elijah's helplessly attracted to, the widow Mrs Gilstrap) as richly drawn as Elijah and his family. I wasn't quite convinced by the finale: it seemed rushed. And I didn't enjoy this nearly as much as Mark's previous novel, Useful Idiots. Overall, though, it's an unsensational, unjudgemental examination of the tension between religion and science, with a wealth of affectionate observation.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

#55: The Pirate's Daughter -- Margaret Cezair-Thompson

She was conscious of the poetry of it all and wished she had the ability to write something that would capture what was in and around her: the eyeless, surging sea, the tree-cutter's stare, the blue skirt, and the strain of her unfulfilled hopes. In his letter Errol hinted at a muddle of lies. Let that be his portion, then. She had her child. (p. 169)

The Pirate's Daughter is the story of two Jamaican women, Ida -- who at sixteen has an affair with Errol Flynn -- and her daughter May. Both are light-skinned, mixed-race, beautiful and unwise. Ida loves Flynn much more, and for much longer, than he loves her: May takes up with a variety of unsuitable men, older or married or unmarriageable. Around them, Jamaica is changing: independence, change of government, rioting and racial tension.

I'd have liked this novel much more if there'd been more first-person narration: Ida's letters from New York to friends and family, and later May's letters from Switzerland, were the most compelling sections of the book, each woman having a distinctive voice. The rest of the prose is understated and occasionally clumsy: there's too much told rather than shown, for instance when a friend's son takes up music lessons and Ida spends a paragraph remembering how he's always been musical. Flynn's portrayed as a rather unlikeable character -- which I find credible at that stage in his life -- but there's little of the famous charm and wit as balance, and the scenes from his point of view are lacklustre: perhaps fair for a man who's bored, vain, fears ageing and is constantly on the lookout for new thrills, but it felt superficial.

Much of the novel is set on Navy Island, a small isle just off the coast of Jamaica, formerly home to Captain Bligh (of Bounty fame) and then to Flynn. Inspired by her father's films and by pirate lore, May starts writing the story of Sabine, the daughter of pirates, abandoned when young and eventually walking the island as a ghost. I Sabine will tell you how I came to be on this desolate island ... I'd have liked more of May's writing, more of the coded story she tells.

Though there's plenty of coded story in the novel. Ida's friends name-drop 'Noel' -- Ida knew they were talking about the writer Noel Coward, who lived not far from there along the coast. (p.76) -- but 'Nigel Fletcher', author of a series of best-selling thrillers featuring secret agent Jack Blaze, is surely based on Ian Fleming.

Ida's grandmother Oni remembers her African heritage, warns her daughter against pirates (like Flynn, well-known for The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood) and tells May she's 'a real African'. Her influence is the most visible aspect of the women's liminal state, neither white (they both think of themselves as coloured) nor black (they're both accepted as white and become part of white society). The racial discrimination they encounter varies: Ida loses a restaurant job in New York because she doesn't recognise the segregation around her, and doesn't realise that telling her boss she's coloured can do her any harm. A generation later, in Switzerland, May is perturbed to be called 'une negresse' and uncomfortable with others' insistence that she recognises the racism and exploitation in her own family:
One day when he saw me putting sugar in my coffee he asked me if sugar didn't remind me of the cane fields where my white ancestors forced my slave ancestors to work. (p. 373)

The Pirate's Daughter is an increasingly compelling read -- the scenes between May and her stepfather near the end of the book, when secrets are revealed and identities remade, are immensely powerful -- but left me wanting more connections, more emphasis on echoes and parallels, more tying up of loose threads. Who's the ghost who walks Bella Vista? Errol Flynn, Captain Bligh, Sabine, Ian? What influence does Oni have? How does Ida know when people die? Is there gold, are there shipwrecks, where Karl's been searching?

Fascinating, readable but it was on the verge of being so much better!

Monday, July 13, 2009

#54: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- Jonathan Safran Foer

I thought about all the things that everyone ever says to one another, and how everyone is going to die, whether it's in a millisecond, or days, or months, or 76.5 years if you were just born. Everything that's born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they're all on fire, and we're all trapped. (p.245)

Oskar Schell is a precocious nine-year old boy dealing with the loss of his father in the 9/11 bombing, and with the emotional withdrawal of his mother. Finding a mysterious key (labelled 'Black') in his father's closet, he resolves to unravel the mystery -- which of New York's 162 million locks does it open? -- and he plans to do this by visiting every Black in the New York phone book in alphabetical order. (No, he does not seem to have heard of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. Or Winston Churchill.)

Oskar's father is an absence at the centre of this novel -- a blank space, a man who does nothing but whose absence affects a surprising number of people. His wife and son, obviously; his mother, who lives across the street. But also the father who fled New York before he was born, and Black, to whom the key belonged ...

The novel's not only very readable (Oskar is precocious but not incredibly so: he reminds me of Louis Drax) but typographically innovative: there are pages that replicate the paper pads on which art-shop customers test pens, pages where the text gets more and more cramped til it's just an intense inky blur, pages where the crackle of static in a cellphone conversation becomes white space ... pages where Oskar's grandfather's daybook (Oskar's grandfather doesn't speak, hasn't since he came to America from Dresden: he writes everything down in notebooks) has been edited with a cold emotionless red pen ... (Also, vexingly, two and a half pages entirely in 'phone-dial' code -- 2 for A B or C, 3 for D E or F ... I don't mind decoding a couple of sentences but nooooo. But! Does the author expect the reader to decode? Or is this a way of hiding more narrative -- or, given the circumstances, more honest, predictable, human communication -- in the heart of a written novel?)

Oskar thinks it's all about him, and he does have a terrible secret which he's unable to tell to his counsellor or his mother or his grandmother. But his simple self-centred observations (I use the adjectives descriptively not perjoratively) sometimes miss the hidden truth of the situation.

There's plenty in here about saying goodbye, about always telling the people you love that you love them: about the instant unpredictable destruction of bombing, whether Dresden (the paper made the house burn better ... descriptions of that bombing moved me more than reportage of 9/11, which I watched as it happened) or the Twin Towers: about how we all die and we never know when ...

Why didn't I learn to treat everything like it was the last time, my greatest regret is how much I believed in the future ... (p.281)

NB: Oskar is full of Facts. The one about '230 years of peace in the last 3500 years' (p.161) seems credible though I am unable to trace the actual calculation (would be grateful for more detail). I am, however, unconvinced by 'more people alive now than have died in all of human history'. (p. 3): I think it's the other way round by a large margin. ... Just saying!

#53: The Angel's Cut -- Elizabeth Knox

It was cold and dark under the water. Far away the ships' propellers whined like bees caught behind a curtain. Xas hung beneath the surface and looked up through murky transparency at that surface in reverse -- the gleam of light on the backs of the waves. After a moment he saw the ragged star of Lucifer's form pass above him. The sea turned momentarily smooth in the downblast of the angel's wings. Then Lucifer banked and drove upward ... (p.7)

Sequel to The Vintner's Luck, which I adore and am now eager to reread: not yet sure if I love this one as much but it's taken up residence in the back of my mind. The Angel's Cut, unlike the earlier novel, is told predominantly from the point of view of unwinged angel Xas (though there are other, more human and equally compelling narrators), and Xas is distinctly different, preternatural, strange. The multiple voices triangulate Xas's experience of the world, showing us the strangeness of his everyday behaviour (walking like a drunkard, each step a caught fall) and the invisibility of his inner turmoil.

Sobran, Xas's true love, is long-dead, and Xas -- following a brief career as navigator on a German airship in World War I -- winds up in California, in the nascent Hollywood film industry. He's drawn to fascinatingly broken people: to eccentric producer and aviator Conrad Cole (perhaps modelled on Howard Hughes); to Flora MacLeod who's survived a horrific accident and endures chronic pain with grace and style; to Millie Cotton, woman of colour and stunt pilot who has a sense of which jobs to take and which to leave.

Xas is also pursued by his nemesis / brother Lucifer, who needs him: the nature of the compact between Xas, Lucifer and God is explored more thoroughly, and Xas's unique state explained.

The Angel's Cut is a term relating to winemaking; it refers to the portion of a barrel of wine that evaporates during ageing. The novel, though, is firmly grounded in the world of film, with discussions of the difference between conversation and dialogue, the inadequacy of flashbacks as a method of character development, the shape of a story. Flora's a film editor, and she's constantly looking for the flow, the shape of her own story: perhaps she also helps to give shape to Xas's history.

And Xas has some hard lessons to learn: about the nature of love, about speech and silence, about broken souls. He loves a lot -- Cole, Flora, his captain Hintersee, Alison -- and he's fearlessly submissive, ready to give everything and still suspecting that it's not enough, that it -- that he -- is irrelevant to human life. Is there anything that can bring him closer to being human, to being 'people'?
... harm or homage, he deserved both. He let it happen. He'd think about what it meant some other time... He took what hurt but couldn't harm him. It was better than being dropped out of a plane into the sea. It was more personal. And afterwards they weren't so far apart. (p.290)

This novel made me cry (O'Brien) and laugh and marvel at Knox's use of language -- though some especially resonant sentences take a surprising amount of unravelling.

#52: Tampa Burn -- Randy Wayne White

I sometimes wonder if focussing on marine biology as a life's work isn't a way of justifying, or at least validating, a specific and unsentimental view of existence. From biology's elemental view, human beings ... are not only guided by the tenets of natural selection, we are mandated. In such a world, eliminating enemies or behavorial anomalies isn't a decision to be made. It is a necessary process.
I've participated in that process. I can do it again if required. (p.119)

Rather later in the series, and rather darker than the others I've read lately. Doc Ford's past comes barrelling into his present: his long-lost love Pilar reappears, appalled by the revelation (from an anonymous party) that Ford was once a political assassin, but nevertheless demanding his help in rescuing their son from Incendario, a kidnapper with a taste for torture.

A twisty plot with plenty of reversals. Ford doesn't behave very well to his friends or family -- but then few of those closest to him are wholly as he believes them to be. His friend Tomlinson's amnesia is clearing just enough to reveal tantalising hints of past events. His girlfriend Dewey is not at all impressed with Pilar's presence. Ford's son Lake is mature and capable for his years, possibly the most likeable character in the book though he's got a couple of surprises for Ford too.

Ford (or possibly the author) is somewhat sexist -- thinks women can't get satisfaction from a career or life's work the way a man can, but only from having children. Bah.

Good pacy read with some excellent scenic description and interesting insights into carnie life: but I'm less eager to read more than I have been after the last few Doc Ford novels. Luckily there are plenty left.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

#48-#51: Sanibel Flats, Captiva, Shark River, Twelve Mile Limit -- Randy Wayne White

Sanibel Flats -- Randy Wayne White
Captiva -- Randy Wayne White
Twelve Mile Limit -- Randy Wayne White
Shark River -- Randy Wayne White

I can't really review these individually, because I've read 'em at breakneck speed: they are not trashy airport thrillers by any means, but they're lighter reading than I've been tackling lately, and they were just what I needed.

I discovered White's Doc Ford novels with The Man Who Invented Florida a couple of years ago: liked it a lot -- covers similar territory to Hiaasen's eco-thrillers, but it's different in tone: more reflective and less headlong, and rather more character-driven, it says here -- and gradually acquired others in the series, and just lately the time's been right to read them.

Basic premise: Marion 'Doc' Ford (you can see why he doesn't use his first name) is an ex-Special Ops operative turned marine biologist; makes a living selling sealife supplies to educational institutions, and has a lacksadaisical attitude to the women who seem to find him irresistable. He's proud of not being governed by emotion (despite the fact that at least once per novel he's almost certainly swayed by, eww, feelings): meanwhile, his friend Tomlinson is very much in tune with the mystical, with auras and reincarnation and past life and hefty doses of ganja. A lot of the fun of these novels is the interplay between the two, and from the supporting cast of Dinker's Bay denizens -- boat and marina people, people who'd rather live a happy lazy low-key life on the Gulf Coast of Florida than be anywhere else.

Sanibel Flats is the first in the series, with a plot somewhat reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie (Mayan emeralds! moving lakes! mystic riddles!) but rather more in the way of character development and sense of place. (All the Doc Ford novels evoke the Florida coast, and the environmental and cultural issues that affect those who live there.) Ford's past is more obvious in this novel than in later ones: also, it's written in third person, and the others I've read are first person. I wonder why the author decided to switch? First-person definitely gets us inside Ford's head, and I think it makes him less stereotypically heroic ...

Captiva is about the feud between pro-net and anti-net factions, and there's some excellent social observation in there. Enjoyed but little to say about it!

Shark River reveals quite a bit more about Ford's murky past as a secret government operative. Again, enjoyed but have little to say.

Twelve Mile Limit is based on a true story of four divers whose boat sunk out in the Gulf: one swam to a light tower and survived, the other three vanished without trace. White's afterword notes that he's tried to explain their disappearance, what could have happened to them in the peculiar wind and water conditions of the Gulf -- basically a thousand-mile-wide lake with two narrow outlets. I found this novel unsettling, but compulsive reading: it did, though, seem to become a little too headlong near the end.

I have one more on hand, Tampa Burn, after which I may have to acquire more. Or maybe the urge -- is it perhaps just an urge for beaches and colourful characters and descriptions of good food?! -- will mellow ...

#47: A Song for Nero -- Thomas Holt

When you're the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, heir to the likes of Tiberius and Caius Caligula, you're pretty well obliged to measure up to a fairly high standard of debauchery. It's expected of you, like wearing the toga and being able to recite your Homer. When they bring on the Libyan eunuchs on all fours dressed in goatskins, you can't turn round and say, No, thanks, I'd rather read a book. (p.38)

I don't read much comic fantasy, so I'm not familiar with Holt's better-known work (though I did enjoy Expecting Someone Taller and Who's Afraid of Beowulf?). A Song for Nero is a historical novel: what if Nero didn't die by his own hand as everyone thought, but switched places with a boyfriend who strongly resembled him, and went on the run with his dead boyfriend's brother Galen? What if Nero and Galen have been roaming around the Mediterranean for ten years, living on their wits as not-very-successful conmen and hustlers? And what if Nero's ready to rediscover himself? His great crime, according to the establishment, was to sing and play an instrument in public. Lucius Domitius -- as he's always known in these pages -- still yearns for recognition of his artistic talent, though he's terrified of being recognised if he actually performs his own work.

A Song for Nero is a pacy romp through the seamy underside of Roman life: slavery, brothels, crime syndicates, disgustingly bad wine, Queen Dido's fabled treasure and Virgil's Georgics (a.k.a. 'On Farming'). There's more than a few similarities to Homer's Odyssey, too, especially as the novel moves towards its conclusion. Galen and 'Lucius Domitius' are oddly likeable characters, considering their lack of morals, general bad behaviour and sleazy pasts. (Holt has Seneca delivering a speech about the virtues and achievements of Nero as Emperor: there's a certain amount of exculpation here. But it's not all hagiography by any means: several characters have very good reasons for wishing Nero properly dead.)

There are few women in this novel -- something I didn't notice until the first female speaking role, if you see what I mean, around page 200 -- and mostly they're rather unpleasant. Luckily Galen and Lucius Domitius don't seem to be greatly interested in any flavour of carnal pursuit: Galen does fall for someone, but this does not turn out well. And Lucius Domitius may have had all the carnal pursuits he can handle for one lifetime. Also, though there's no hint of sexual attraction between the two, it's clear that they are codependent: I hesitate to tag Galen's feelings for Nero as 'love', but there is a strong attachment.

Holt's prose, and some of his imagery, reminds me strongly of K J Parker. There's the colloquial, cynical tone; a certain fatalism; an emphasis on the randomness of life; the sense that there might or might not be something slightly odd, supernatural-type odd, going on, but that it's really not important, just one of those things the universe dreams up to confound humanity. There are some insights into family history at the end of the book that cast both Galen and Lucius Domitius in quite a different light. Reading Holt's description of returning to a familiar house, now run-down and ruinous, felt so familiar that I was sure I'd read that part of the novel before, perhaps in a review: then I remembered similar scenes in several of Parker's novels.

There was the gate, probably the same bit of mouldy old string holding it onto the post as when I'd left; there was the mounting-block, half crumbled away, with weeds growing up through the cracks. There was the well, and the staked-off rectangle of gravel we tried to grow beans in, and right next to the back door, the midden -- maybe a tad taller and nastier-smelling than it'd been in my day, but you can't really call that progress ... (p453)

But maybe it's just that they've read the same books. Or that I'm manufacturing similarities in the prose of two authors I like very much.

And once or twice I thought, this is a better ending than the one in all the books. Far better this way than the big fight scene, stringing the great bow and shooting down the noble lords of Ithaca like stray dogs. So much more sensible, if you will insist on coming home, to settle down in a quiet way, do an honest job of work, raise a good crop of corn and grapes and beans, and not worry about who rules over who, or what the rights and wrongs of it all are. ... the trouble with Ithaca is, when you finally get there, you find out it's moved on, and the place where it used to be is called something else now, and strangers live there who don't hold with your sort. (p. 498)

#46: Fathom -- Cherie Priest

I knew when I took you that you were evil. That's why I pulled you under the waters and held you against myself. That's why I saved you, because you were formless and void, and I thought I could bend you to join and assist me. I brought you in as a daughter, and as a companion to my son. I received and restored you knowing that you were made of bile and nails, so I suppose the fault is mine after all. I did not frighten you enough while I had the opportunity. (p. 304)

Cherie Priest's latest novel (the only other of her books I've read is Four and Twenty Blackbirds) is a dense, rich elemental tale that I think I'll need to read again to appreciate in full. It has something of the same feel as Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides: the fury of tropical storms, ancient horrors concealed beneath the sun and sand of Florida, pirates (pirates!), magic, the stifling lushness of the land and the blue waters that, for all their clarity, hide a great deal.

I think there are echoes and overtones of Shakespeare's The Tempest in here, though it's far from a direct remapping of that tale. Still: there are individuals (not quite people, not exactly human) who correspond to the four elements -- Earth, Water, Fire and (at a stretch) Air: a girl trapped in a form not her own, a water-witch, a Greek smith ...

And pirates! Specifically, José Gaspar -- a popular figure from Floridan folklore, the island Gasparilla named after him -- who turns out to've failed at the task appointed to him: for punishment, says Arahab, I removed from the face of the earth every trace that he'd ever lived. There remains neither note nor relic to confirm he ever breathed before I claimed him. (p. 56). Now Gaspar (one of the more likeable characters in the novel) has work to do, and a new companion: the young, modern and amoral Beatrice. Arahab the water-witch deems it time to wake a slumbering god: against her stands a creature with no name, and Beatrice's cousin Nia, and an insurance adjustor named Sam.

Fathom feels like being at sea: it's a novel full of movement, pursuit, violence and change. Some beautifully evocative scenes and some shocking volte-faces: Priest has the power to surprise and shock, to catch the reader in her characters' reactions.

It's a distinctively American fantasy, and a Southern Gothic fantasy, and though it's a world away from the Florida-set thrillers I also enjoy, the landscape is the same -- albeit lashed by huger waves and lit by a weirder light. I liked this a lot, though there were occasional phrases or paragraphs that made me want to edit ...

#45: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science -- Mary Roach

Orgasm appears to be a state not unlike that of the alien abductees one always hears about, coming to with messy hair and a chunk of time unaccounted for. (p. 241)

Subtitled 'The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science', this pop-science book is an enthusiastic, idiosyncratic survey of the scientific study of sex. It is incredibly funny, warmly human and full of fascinating factoids: the premarital medical examinations that took place in a majority of US states during the fifties and sixties, which often involved a medical practitioner breaking the hymen; bisexuality in farm animals; observations of fetal masturbation; the percentage of young American males reporting sexual activity with animals in Kinsey's groundbreaking surveys.

Chapter titles include "The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?"; "The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring: Creative Approaches to Impotence"; "Re-member Me: Transplants, Implants and Other Penises of Last Resort". Truly, this is an important reference work for anyone writing about sex.

Roach adopts a no-nonsense approach to the subject, but Bonk is far from clinical: contacting Dr Deng, a lecturer in medical physics who's doing ground-breaking work in coital imaging, Roach receives a reply asking if her organisation can recruit volunteers 'for an intimate (but non-invasive) study'.

My organisation gave some thought to this. What couple would do this? More direly, who wanted to pay the three or four thousand dollars it would cost to fly them both to London and put them up in a nice hotel? My organisation balked. It called its husband.
"You know how you were saying you haven't been to Europe in twenty-five years?" (p. 113)

It's hard to review a book that's so packed with facts, with humour and with humanity. I like Roach's style a lot -- she has fun researching and writing about this, and she manages even the most graphic sections with grace and tact -- and I learnt a lot about Kinsey's findings, about the medicalisation of impotence, about genital anatomy and about some of the modifications that are made to it in the causes of fertility, pleasure and repression.

And most importantly, Roach doesn't lose sight of the non-scientific aspects of these studies. Though they no doubt have their uses, ultrasound movies are a superficial rendering of the complex and varied mind-body meld that we call sex. Sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts. (p.128)

Excellent bibliography, which made it very easy to find this:
underpants worn by the rat
Dr Shafik's work on the effect of different types of underpants on the sexual activites of rats

#44: Nova -- Samuel R. Delany

Colours sluiced the air with fugal patterns as a shape subsumed the breeze and fell, to form further on, a brighter emerald, a duller amethyst. Odours flushed the wind with vinegar, snow, ocean, ginger, poppies, rum. Autumn, ocean, ginger, ocean, autumn: ocean, ocean, the surge of ocean again, while light formed in the dimming blue that underlit the Mouse's face. Electric arpeggios of a neo-raga rilled. (p. 22)

An old favourite, reread: I love Delany's early novels, and I marvel anew at his prose style. Nova is the Grail Quest in a space-opera setting, with Captain Lorq von Ray (space pirate!) recruiting a motley crew of drifters to grab seven tons of the element Illyrion -- 'source of untold wealth and key to the shifting balance of Galactic power' -- from a star that's going nova.

Nova is rich in symbolism -- especially the Tarot Major Arcana -- and in prose: the characters are vivid, especially the Mouse (gypsy kid with a rare talent for the sensory-syrynx he stole at the age of ten) and Katin (intellectual, socially maladept, devoted to moons). On this reread I noticed how distinctively each of the crew is sketched -- and how each of them has a personal space, an object or skill or habit, that's invaded by the others. And, too, how each of them has lost something and is searching.

I like Delany's future, too: a thousand years from now (though with frequent references to life in the 20th century!) when the means of production have become immediate once more, and workers with cerebral sockets plug directly into all manner of machinery. There are three major factions -- Draco, the Outer Worlds and the Pleiades -- and plenty of double-dealing, piratical behaviour and violence: but there's also art and grace and beauty. Astonishingly detailed for such a short novel, and I realise how much this shiny future has influenced and inspired me.

#43: Fly by Night -- Frances Hardinge

Since the burning of her father's books, Mosca had been starved of words. She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavourless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them. (p. 13)

Read on B's recommendation: this novel, in 22 chapters ('A is for Arson' through to 'V is for Verdict', via an abecediary of criminal and legal terms), tells the story of orphan Mosca Mye's flight from the soggy village of Chough where she grew up, in the company of conman Eponymous Clent and Mosca's fearsome goose, Saracen. They travel to the city of Mandelion, and proceed to become involved in a tortuous maze of murder, beast-fights, illegal printing-presses, mad aristocrats, marriage-houses, floating coffee-shops and espionage.

The country is recovering from civil war of a religious flavour: most people still say their prayers to one or more of the Beloved, small gods in charge of specifics. But one day, according to legend, a glowing heart had appeared in the chest of every Beloved shrine and beaten three times. From that day all the little religions became one ... (p. 41) The priests of the Heart are known as Birdcatchers, and feared for their destruction -- their literal demonisation -- of the Beloved. Finally the populace rose against the Birdcatchers. Now the conflict is between the Stationers (the only organisation licensed to print) and the Locksmiths. As Mosca unravels the schemes and plots that weave through the city, she discovers unexpected facts about her dead father.

Mosca's a complex and likeable character: twelve years old, but doesn't think of herself as, or behave like, a child. Nor does she regard herself as inferior because of age or gender. She's fearsomely independent but her weakness is words: I'd been hoarding words for years, buying them from pedlars and secretly carving them onto bits of bark so I wouldn't forget them, and then he turned up using words like 'epiphany' and 'amaranth'. (p. 260)

The secondary characters are rounded and interesting: the Cakes, a young lady responsible for catering at the marriage-house where Clent and Mosca lodge; Miss Kitely, firm and sensible coffee-shop proprietor; Captain Blythe, the highwayman ...

The star of the book is language, words, the power of words to make people think (and to stop them thinking), all tied up with Mosca's logophilia. I suspect younger readers will struggle with some of the vocabulary herein: there were a couple of words I had to look up. But Hardinge's prose sings, and I'd love to hear it read aloud:

A mighty heave on a lever, and the machine stressed and pressed the paper down on to the type. Mosca could almost feel the flexing of the metal, forcing words into the world. (p. 117)

I like this book very much for a number of reasons: the language is glorious, the setting strongly reminiscent of Restoration London (Hardinge acknowledges a debt to Maureen Waller's marvellous 1700: Scenes from London Life), and though there's no overt explicit magic, this reads like a fantasy. There's some fairly serious discussion of religion, atheism and free thought: it is also extremely funny.

This novel doesn't have a sequel, which is a shame: like Mosca at the end, I don't want a happy ending. I want more story. (p. 435) Definitely looking out for Hardinge's other novels, though.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

#42: Boudicat -- Robin Price

Witches often tell the future by 'reading the bones'. In fact, bones are a popular read in this island, where books are rare as a rainless summer. (p. 16)

Fourth in a series ("set in Roman times in a world ruled entirely by cats, where humans have never existed"), but there's an introduction for those who haven't read the preceding books. Spartapuss is a former slave of the emperor Clawdius, who freed him; later, he accompanies Clawdius to the Land of the Kitons and meets some Mewids.

Boudicat opens rather later, with Spartapuss taking pen to paw (just don't think about opposable thumbs) for the first time in eighteen years. The tribes are restless, especially the Micini ...

Can you guess which well-known historical figure is the basis for this story?

It's a very quick read and very funny, with plenty of sly asides for an older audience -- "Give me my bow of gold!" "I'm afraid it's burning, but I've got some arrows if you desire?" (p. 127) -- though the books are marketed for the 9-12 age group. Spartapuss is a coward, a cynic and a cantankerous old beast, but he ends up showing unexpected courage and resourcefulness.

Could do with better proof-reading, though ... ('peaked' in place of 'peeked', 'found' instead of 'fond', some sentences that just don't make sense.)

Great fun!

Monday, June 08, 2009

#41: Cambridge Blue -- Alison Bruce

First in a new series of crime novels set in Cambridge -- a realistically grim and dirty Cambridge rather than the pretty college town As Seen On TV.

DC Gary Goodhew is the new boy at Parkside police station. His boss, DCI Marks, doesn't approve of Goodhew's methods -- okay, he's brilliant and intuitive but not so much the team player. And Goodhew's colleage Kincaide is old school, old-fashioned and morally rather grubby.

Goodhew is first on the scene when a corpse is found on the common. The novel follows his unravelling of the tangled strands of Lorna Spence's life: Richard the boyfriend who's also her boss, Richard's smart sister Alice, Richard's other sister Jackie, Lorna's glossy bitchy friend Victoria ...

It all interconnects neatly and unprettily (Bruce doesn't pull punches either in autopsy rooms or in human nature) and though I was pretty sure I knew who the murderer was by about page 130, I kept second-guessing myself -- a sign of a suspenseful mystery.

There are a few annoyances. The viewpoint slips occasionally, so we get authorial observation about Alice's fashion sense in the middle of someone else's viewpoint. The prose slipped by me, except for the occasional clunky dialogue. And disguising an individual's gender by avoiding pronouns is seldom effective and almost always irritating: plus, if anything, it drew my attention in a way that less mystery wouldn't have.

I did enjoy reading this, though, and the portrayal of real-world Cambridge -- plus outlying villages, M11 speed cameras, cheery cyclists and riverside cafes -- is nicely done.

#40: Galapagos -- Kurt Vonnegut

Why so many of us a million years ago purposely knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a shove in the right direction -- in the direction of smaller brains. (p. 208)

Galapagos is a tale from the far future, with ghostly narrator Leon Trout (son of the famous SF writer Kilgore Trout) looking back one milion years to events that occurred in 1986, when a cruise liner was shipwrecked on Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos Islands, changing the course of human history ...

The book's twistily non-linear, with random snippets of information dropped in all over the place: "on her eighty-first birthday, two weeks before a great white shark ate her". It's clear from the beginning that the Bahia de Darwin is doomed: what's less clear is how the wreck will happen, and how the various characters will be affected. (Vonnegut uses a star before a character's name to indicate that they'll soon be dead: this mutes the dramatic impact, but adds to the feeling of arbitrary fate.

The passengers on board the ship aren't quite as elite as preliminary publicity suggests. There's a widowed school teacher; a blind teenage girl and her guide-dog; six young prostitutes of the Kanka-bono tribe who speak no English; a pregnant Japanese woman very recently widowed (her husband was an inventor of genius, and his latest invention, Mandarax, a simultaneous translation device with a library of world literature and a medical diagnosis app, ends up on Santa Rosalia too); and the ship's captain, Adolf von Kleist.

These people are the future of humanity.

Vonnegut makes much of 'big brains' and the ways in which humans waste and torment themselves, ruin their world and commit atrocities due to all that intellectual capacity. So much simpler, perhaps, if we evolved back into something more suited for catching fish, basking in the sunshine and being happy ...

Every character's story -- those who survive to reach the island, and those who don't -- is sketched in a handful of telling details. The Captain's brother is suffering from Huntington's chorea (luckily, the Captain is not a carrier); the Kanka-bono girls are on board because of an act of kindness by a pilot, and an act of cruelty by a tycoon; Hisako Hiroguchi's mother was exposed to radiation when Hiroshima was bombed; Selena's guide dog never barks.

There are so many details, and such a meandering structure, that it took me a while to notice what was missing: an account of the first days on the island. I don't think the book needs that scene: I think it's easily extrapolated from character and situation. But it seems an odd omission.

And I'm still thinking about Leon Trout, and his purpose, and whether this is some penance.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

#39: Thirteenth Child -- Patricia Wrede

We'd studied the animals of the North Plains Territories in natural history in school. They were divided into two sorts, the ordinary and the magical. The ordinary ones were things like mammoths and dire wolves and saber cats and terror birds and the magical ones were steam dragons and Columbian sphinxes and spectral bears and swarming weasels, and all of them were deadly dangerous, magical or not. And those were just the plains animals; there were other things just as bad in the northern forests, and no Great Barrier magic to keep them off, either. (p. 68)

Thirteenth Child is the first in a new trilogy, Frontier Magic. It's told from the viewpoint of Eff (short for Francine), the thirteenth child in a large family, and the elder twin of her brother Lan -- a "double-seventh" (seventh son of a seventh son) to whom magic comes naturally, powerfully and in unexpected ways.

The thirteenth child, on the other hand, is regarded as unlucky, sure to bring doom and badness on herself and everyone around her. From an early age Eff is victimised by cousins, aunts and uncles. Eventually, her parents decide to move out West, away from the rest of the extended family, to make a new start.

Quite aside from the everyday use and acceptance of magic, this is an Earth unlike our own. Columbia has been settled by emigrants from the Old Continent, Avropa -- "Albion, Gaul, Prussia". (Hard to say when the Roman Empire fell, but it did exist and did plunge Avropa, at least, into a kind of Dark Age.) Byzantium endured until at least the early 1700s. Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras were magicians as well as philosophers. Benjamin Franklin was a double-seventh son.

Columbia (also referred to as the United States) is governed by an Assembly, of which the first three Presidents were Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the next two weren't Madison and Monroe. The Secession War in 1838 was won by the colonists. Before that, Aphrikans were traded as slaves, but slavery was abolished with the help of people from the Aphrikan colonies in South Columbia. By Eff's time people of Aphrikan descent don't seem to be subject to racial discrimination. What year is it? Hard to say. There are railways, universities, policemen in uniform, grain mills. And there is a magical Great Barrier, near the Mammoth River, that protects the settlers to the east from the dangerous wildlife to the west.

Apart from the wildlife -- both magical and 'natural', sphinxes and saber-tooths, but seemingly united in a desire to attack humans -- Columbia was unpopulated until the colonists came. (The wildlife, incidentally, is not endemic to Columbia: there are references to nests of dragons in Ashia and Avropa, wiped out by magic. Only magic is regarded as a reliable protection against the 'monsters', though the Rationalists are founding well-fortified settlements where the use of magic is forbidden.) None of the expeditions bound for the Pacific Coast have returned: out of fifteen parties, only three men made it back, all mad. Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition vanished, though traces of their journey have been found.

This novel has attracted a great deal of criticism for its omission of the Native Americans: it would be dishonest to pretend that I wasn't aware of the discussion, or that I didn't read the novel with that and other criticisms in mind.


I'm not wholly convinced by the absence of the Native Americans. True, the western part of Columbia is inhabited by dangerous beasts. True, nobody ever comes back sane from beyond the Rockies. But there's something out West that scares even steam dragons. There's a strong smell of smoke on the wind. And there's something changing the natural balance, with attacks on settlements increasing and strange new creatures appearing and multiplying. I wonder if the Native Americans are simply not visible to the settlers. They don't have our world as a yardstick: they don't expect to see people living here amid the monsters. Given that this is the first book of three, I'm keeping an open mind on the subject and waiting to see what Wrede presents in the next two books.

A certain degree of vagueness in the worldbuilding is to be expected in the earlier part of the book, when Eff is a small child and doesn't seem to think much about the wider world -- at least not in terms of her place, her people's place, in it. Later, though, I'd have liked more context: don't they teach them history and geography in that school, as well as magic?

Eff, though, is a very self-centred narrator. She's caught up in her own miserable secret, in the fear of being discovered and ostracised as a thirteenth child. At one point early on, with a sibling ill, she wonders if Sharl died then maybe I wouldn't be a thirteenth child any more. Then I ... wondered if I was really as evil as Uncle Earn said, to have such thoughts. (p. 42) She's also utterly convinced that she'll 'go bad', though she's not entirely sure when this is due to happen. And as she enters adolescence, her magic begins to manifest in ways she can't control and is afraid to accept.

Eff is beginning to come to terms with her own magic -- quite different from her beloved brother's -- by the end of the book. There are three systems of magic in use: Aphrikan, Avropan and Hijero-Cathayan. Eff and her brother are instructed in Avropan magic at school (standard fourth grade syllabus) and, along with rather fewer other children, in Aphrikan magic by their teacher Miss Ochiba. The Aphrikan tradition is quite different to the strictures of the Avropan system. It teaches them to use their world-sense, to seeing different aspects of a thing and not to judge by first impressions. When Eff is finally confident and motivated enough to use her own magic instead of repressing it for fear of hurting others, she's doing something new, something that is a mix of traditions. "You're Columbian born and bred," Wash Morris tells her. The American Columbian melting-pot! I suspect that this new 'Frontier Magic' will become the focus of the trilogy -- perhaps there are additional ingredients yet to be added to the blend.

I'm not altogether satisfied with the world-building, though it'd be hard to shoe-horn sufficient detail into the viewpoint of the young, repressed, self-centred Eff. I'd like to know about religion in this world: there's Christmas, and churches with bells, but no mention of God or Christ or prayer. There's nothing about communication with the Old Continent, on personal or societal levels. (No Parisian fashions here.) Has anyone got around to exploring Australia and New Zealand?

Thirteenth Child feels very much the first part of a longer story, with many sub-plots left hanging and much unexplained. I trust Wrede to explain it all. I hope she won't disappoint.

A couple of observations on my position regarding the controversy this book has sparked:
- I suspect that, as a European, there is a whole dimension to this book that I don't relate to in the same way as an American. Not better, not worse: different, in the way that an American reviewer might miss class-related ambience in a British novel.
- I don't believe any alternate-history situation is unacceptable, or should not be written.

I welcome civilised debate: ad hominem attacks -- actually, attacks of any sort, as opposed to discussion -- will be deleted or frozen.