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

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.