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

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010/85: The Amethyst Child -- Sarah Singleton

"I shall tell you what Amethyst children are like ... and you tell me if this matches up. First of all, they feel out of place. They see the world in a different way to ordinary people and they are so acutely aware of the problems we face they want to be part of changing it. They are creative people who have difficulty fitting in with anyone else and they have different aspirations. They don't like conforming ... they have psychic and spiritual powers ..." (p.34-5)

Amber is a teenage girl with Goth tendencies and a long, dull summer ahead of her. Then she meets Dowdie, an unconventional girl from a commune who challenges her nice middle-class assumptions and beliefs, says that Amber's different from the others (instant win!) and introduces her to charismatic James Renault, leader of the commune. James confirms that Amber is an Amethyst Child, 'part of a new wave of consciousness ... chosen to incarnate in these difficult times because they will lead us into a new era' (p. 54).

Amber is hooked: yet her natural caution (she bemoans her lack of bravery and aversion to risks) prevents her from becoming fully immersed in the world that Dowdie, James and the rest of the community are inviting her to share. She's also distracted by another new friend, Johnny, who has a DeviantArt account and creates artwork of Amber that reveals another side of her she didn't expect.

Despite the packaging, this isn't a dark fantasy: it's a gritty real-world story about trust, friendship and betrayal, with elements that could be read as fantastic or simply as delusional. The main narrative is framed and interrupted by an account of a police interview, which keeps the reader guessing as to what's gone wrong.

Singleton's writing is lovely and lyrical, and she sketches Amber deftly, avoiding stereotype whilst making it clear that she isn't quite as unique as she'd like to be. Johnny is fascinating and will make an excellent romantic hero when he grows up a bit. And Dowdie, perhaps the most rounded and individual character, is rough-edged and not always likeable. All three characters experience significant change: what's considerably rarer is that their parents, families et cetera are also changed by the events of the novel.

2010/84: The Crossing Places -- Elly Griffiths

"Marshland is very important in prehistory ... It's a kind of symbolic landscape. We think that it was important because it's a link between the land and the sea, or between life and death."
Nelson snorts. "Come again?" (p.24)

First in the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological whodunnits. I discovered this quite by chance: Anne and I went to the Bodies in the Bookstore event at Waterstones, back in the summer, where we paid £5 each to hang out with authors and drink decent Chardonnay. We also got goodie-bags: this was in Anne's, and I nabbed it because I like marshes, prehistory and the Norfolk coast.

Dr Ruth Galloway is a successful academic, single at nearly forty, living alone with two cats on the edge of the north Norfolk saltmarsh. She's called in by brusque, no-nonsense Northerner DC Harry Nelson to examine a body that's been found in the marsh. Nelson hopes that it's the body of Lucy Downey, missing for ten years, whose case he's still obsessed with. Ruth disillusions him: the remains are those of an Iron Age sacrifice.

But as Ruth gets drawn into the Downey case -- and another local child, four-year-old Scarlett Henderson, goes missing -- she begins to discover a web of lies, deceit and bad behaviour that seems to be centred on her mentor and hero, dashing Scandinavian archaeologist Erik Andersen. What really happened at the henge excavation ten years ago? What's happening out on the marsh now?

There are anonymous letters with a distinctly mythological tone; there's a druid, Cathbad (not his real name); there's the student who died in prison after (possibly) being framed by the police for a murder; there's a gruesome corpse on the doorstep, some fascinating observations on Iron and Bronze Age archaeology (though I'm unable to find any corroborative evidence for ancient North American timber being discovered on the Norfolk coast). Despite some irritations -- Ruth's obsession with her weight, though she's not what I'd term obese; DC Nelson's improbable ignorance of carbon 14 dating; the fact that the whole book's written in the present tense, a form I don't find as appealing at novel-length as I do in short stories -- The Crossing Places really gripped me, and I'm looking forward to reading more by this author.

NB Not all single people are (a) sad and lonely (b) psychotic.

2010/83: The Mermaid Chair -- Sue Monk Kidd

We sat in a globe of light, the smell of burning everywhere, and no one considered how a fire blazing right there beside the water might affect a woman for whom fire and water meant nothing but tragedy and death, a woman who could not look seawater in the face, who'd boarded up her fireplace. We were blinded by nostalgia for the woman she'd been before all of that. It makes me weep now to think how hard Mother must have been trying that night. (p. 243)

Jessie is forty-two, happily married but restless now that her daughter has gone to college. She has spent over thirty years blaming herself for the death of her father, killed instantly when a spark from the pipe she'd bought him ignited the fuel line on his boat.

Turns out her mother Nelle has also been blaming herself for Jessie's father's death -- and perhaps with more reason. Now madness seems to be creeping up on Nelle, despite the concern and care of the monks for whom she cooks. Now Nelle has cut off her own finger. Jessie, summoned to Egret Island -- the small island off the Carolina coast where she grew up -- has to deal not only with her mother's secret fear and guilt but also with her own.

The story's mostly told from Jessie's point of view but there are passages in other viewpoints: Brother Thomas, the monk to whom Jessie is drawn and with whom she explores the peaceful solitude of the marsh; Hugh, Jessie's husband, a successful psychiatrist who finds recourse in his professional skills. These add to the narrative, especially Brother Thomas -- whose voice gradually becomes that of Whit, the person he was before he was a monk.

The Mermaid Chair explores infidelity, despair, crisis of faith, mental illness and death: it also examines how a happy life may become a claustrophobic one, and how the limits of that life can be pushed at. Kidd's portrayal of island life -- the small community, the beauty of the natural world, the restrictions of geography -- is at once mirror and contrast to the emotional arc of the story: mirror because claustrophobic, contrast because Jessie's inner despair (or possibly just desperation) finds solace in the friends she left behind and the slow easy rhythms of life on Egret Island. And by the end of the novel she's made a commitment to the most important person in her life: herself.

This novel receives a lot of praise from readers who've hit a similar point in their own lives. I wonder how many of them find solace in the blunt reality of acceptance:
I had come to the irreducible thing, just as I had with my father, and there was nothing to do but accept, to learn to accept, to lie down every night and accept. (p.315)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

2010/82: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin

I certainly wasn't happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognise at the time; I mean joy. (p. 241)
Reread for bookclub: I first read this novel as a teenager, and have reread it a couple of times since, though not for a while. I was surprised by just how much I'd forgotten, and by what had stuck with me. (My recollection focussed on the trip across the ice, which is actually less than a third of the book. I'd forgotten about Estraven's son. I'd forgotten, or possibly not even registered, the allusions to Soviet-era communism.)

I still think this is one of the finest SF novels I've ever read: for atmosphere, for characterisation, for plot, for invention and for Le Guin's prose, which is so deceptively simple that it's easy to miss the precision and power.

There is a lot in this novel about self and other: about how patriotism's dark underside is fear of the other. The Gethenians, being both male and female (and, most of the time, neuter, so they're not driven by the sexual urge), necessarily have novel definitions of 'other'. Their society displays some marked differences to other known human societies that Genly Ai, a solitary emissary from the Ekumen (a confederacy of over eighty worlds, all inhabited by the 'normal' -- Le Guin uses 'bisexual' -- human species), struggles to comprehend. There is no war (which he interprets as a lack of masculine organisation). There are true and accurate prophecies which don't 'seem to matter' (aha, thinks Ai, that's feminine passivity). The Gethenians, inhabiting a planet without other mammals, without domesticated animals of any kind, are a race alone: they have addressed this situation by defining themselves as the centre of things. It's always Year One: they live in a continual present.

The word shifgrethor, which describes the underlying code of conduct that governs Gethenian society -- "prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship" (p. 14) -- is rooted in a word for shadow: and The Left Hand of Darkness is about shadows and light, from the bland Orgota ('it was as if they did not cast shadows', p. 147) to the depthless disorientation of a snowscape without sunshine -- without shadow, which aids perception.

Genly Ai gradually learns to see the Gethenians as people, rather than trying to force his (somewhat misogynist) gender-based dichotomies on them. Near the beginning of the novel, he uses 'effeminate' as a perjorative; describes somebody as 'graceful as a girl'; tries to force individuals into gender-based roles ('my landlady'). The prejudice isn't unidirectional: the Gethenians think of him as a pervert, someone who's permanently stuck in a single gender, and is permanently in a state of sexual potency. Eventually, through his friendship with Estraven, he begins to realise that he has more in common with any Gethenian than he has with a human female.

There are some interesting observations on gender roles and stereotyping: Gethenians spend the majority of their lives in a state of somer, sexual inactivity, thus sex is separate from everyday life, 'a room apart'. Plenty, too, on Genly Ai's growing realisation of his own gender biases.

As I said above, what I remembered most clearly from this novel was the trip across the ice. Now I'm wondering if Le Guin had read the same accounts of Antarctic exploration that I encountered some years later: if those narratives felt familiar and right to me because I'd experienced them before, filtered through Le Guin's spare, elegant writing.

I seem to recall that Le Guin was criticised for using the masculine pronoun throughout: as she has Genly Ai explain:
lacking the Karhidish 'human pronoun' ... I must say 'he', for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman. (p.94-5)

Le Guin later revised a short story set on Gethen, 'Winter's King' (in The Wind's Twelve Quarters), using the feminine pronoun to refer to Gethenians throughout the story. I remember reading this and finding it more consciously odd than The Left Hand of Darkness.

(There's also an essay by Le Guin, somewhat poorly OCR'd, on The Gender of Pronouns)

Le Guin's introduction is an excellent essay on why science fiction is not escapist, predictive, prescriptive:

Yes, indeed the people in [this novel] are androgynous, but that doesn't mean that I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. ... I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist's way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies. (frontmatter)
I think it's about time I reread all the Le Guin novels that I haven't revisited for years. I wonder what new things I will find in them.

(And I note that this review, or collection of thoughts, barely mentions Estraven: but I find him one of the most likeable, intriguing and rounded characters in fiction, and I would love to read his backstory in more detail than Le Guin gives it.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

2010/81: Runemarks -- Joanne Harris

Seven o'clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the End of the World, and goblins had been at the cellar again. (p.3)
... which gets my award for the best opening line I've read all year.

Maddy Smith, fourteen and restless, lives in the small village of Malbry, just a couple of miles from goblin-infested Red Horse Hill. She's a misfit, accused of witchcraft (though that same witchcraft comes in handy when goblins sour the milk or break into the church) and ostracised for the 'ruinmark' on her hand: her only true friend is a mysterious vagabond, One-Eye, who has spent many summers teaching Maddy the history of the world, abridged. It's five hundred years since the 'final battle' of Ragnarok, when the old gods (the 'Seer-folk') were defeated and the puritanical Order came into being.

Your average fantasy-savvy teenager (this book's published as YA) will recognise One-Eye and Lucky before Maddy does. There are quite a few surprises along the way, though, as Maddy finds herself on an Epic Quest (TM) to rescue the oracle known as the Whisperer and aid the gods in their efforts to prevent the Nine Worlds from descending into chaos.

Runemarks has its roots in Harris's very first novel, the sprawling and 'unpublishable' Witchlight which she began while at school. It seems, from interviews and essays (e.g. this, on the author's site) to have been one of those projects that's the author's secret love, even while that author is writing best-selling novels with a touch of magic. Harris's sheer enthusiasm for her setting, and the depth of her characterisation (for characters do evolve considerable depth when they're being written over decades) makes Runemarks compelling, pacy and incredibly good fun. It's also extremely funny, and features my favourite character from the Norse pantheon in all his 'volatile ... and nasty' glory.

"So what you're saying is I shouldn't play with fire," [Maddy] said at last.
"Of course you should," said One-Eye gently. "But don't be surprised if the fire plays back." (p.35)

Maddy is likeable, quick-witted and competent: her discoveries about her friend, the world, and herself drive one layer of the book. There's a parallel thread concerning the Order and the ineffable Nameless, and their attempts to enforce their own kind of magic (the Word) on the world(s). There is also plenty of darkness -- Harris doesn't shy from the nastier bits of Norse myth -- and a pot-bellied pig. Absolutely delightful, and I'm already eager to read the sequel.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

2010/80: The Dream Master -- Roger Zelazny

... no neuroparticipant will ever undertake to treat a full-blown psychotic. The few pioneers in that area are all themselves in therapy today. It would be like driving into a maelstrom. If the therapist loses the upper hand in an intense session he becomes the Shaper rather than the Shaped. (p.33)

Reread after seeing Inception: I can't remember exactly when I first read this, or whether I read the original novella (He Who Shapes) before I read the expanded version. I've certainly been familiar with the story since my mid-teens.

And yet there is a great deal that I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten that it's set in the 1990s -- a future with exploration of the solar system, fully-automated cars, oddly dated computers: a future that's passed. I'd forgotten the casual misogyny ("Diagnosis: Bitch. Prescription: drug therapy and a tight gag"). I'd forgotten just how flawed Render, the protagonist, is.

The science in this science fiction novel is psychiatry: Render enters, controls and guides the dreams of his patients, using mythic archetypes and brute force as therapeutic devices. His latest patient is also a mental health worker -- a blind psychiatrist who wants to learn what it is to see the world. Eileen Shallott happens to be gorgeous, needy and powerful in her own right. Render, predictably, falls in love. But there are several obstacles: his ongoing relationship with Jill, his over-protectiveness of his son, and the antagonism of Eileen's seeing-eye dog Sigmund, who has been genetically altered to permit him limited speech and considerable intelligence.

It cannot end well.

The Dream Master dates from early in Zelazny's career, before the Amber books and the science-fictional reworkings of Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Native American mythology. There are already signs of some classic Zelazny themes: the solipsism of the man who creates the world around him (albeit only in dreams), the arrogance of somebody who's at the top of their game, the use of myth to illustrate and reinforce the primary thread of story. There's some glorious (if occasionally florid) prose, as usual: there's black humour and fine dining and visual spectacle.

Because it's nearly half a century since this was published, it's difficult to be sure just how groundbreaking Zelazny's vision of the future of psychiatry read when it was new.
Physical welfare is now every man's right, in excess. The reaction to this has occurred in the area of mental health. Thanks to technology, the reasons for many of the old social problems have passed, and along with them went many of the reasons for psychic distress. But between the black of yesterday and the white of tomorrow is the great gray of today, filled with nostalgia and fear of the future ... (p. 41)

The Dream Master is a short novel (182 pages) and a deceptively simple one, in comparison to the complex epics that now seem to be the norm for SF and fantasy. It does feel dated, but the story -- hubris, myth, a doomed love affair and the temptation to meddle and play Pygmalion -- still works.

Monday, November 01, 2010

2010/79: Room -- Emma Donoghue

"He's a very special boy."
Ma shrugs. "He's just spent his first five years in a strange place, that's all."
"You don't think he's been shaped -- damaged -- by his ordeal?"
"It wasn't an ordeal to Jack, it was just how things were." (p. 236)

Room, based on the Josef Fritzl case, is Emma Donoghue's seventh novel: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is being described as her breakthrough work. I've very much enjoyed previous works (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Life Mask), which have featured historical settings, lesbian relationships, a darkly comic streak. Room is not a novel that one enjoys, precisely, though the surgical precision and the careful restraint of the prose is amazing. I am astounded by this novel, and found it profoundly affecting and surprisingly upbeat, but I don't think I ever want to read it again.

Room tells the story of a young woman abducted, imprisoned in a converted garden shed ('Room') for seven years, and repeatedly raped by her captor, by whom she has a son. The story is told from the point of view of the boy, Jack, who is celebrating his fifth birthday as the book opens.

Times are hard. Turns out the unnamed captor has lost his job, and is struggling to pay his mortgage. 'Ma' (she's never named) realises that if he believes he's going to lose his house, she and Jack are in grave danger. She's tried, of course, to escape before: she's attacked 'Old Nick', she's signalled in Morse code, she and Jack have stood under the skylight screaming as loudly as they can. Now she has to persuade Jack to help. There's one major problem with this: Jack has grown up believing that nothing outside the walls of Room is real. Everything he sees on the TV, everything in books, is made up.

They do escape, and the second part of the ordeal begins: the media circus, the medical tests, the reunion with family. The construction of the legal case against 'Old Nick', and Jack's unwilling adjustment to life outside, a life in which he's no longer the centre of his mother's existence, a life in which he has to rebuild every one of his beliefs about reality:
When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I'm in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn't real at all. (p.277)
The fact that the novel's told from Jack's viewpoint sets it apart from the average crime novel: Donoghue makes his voice credible, but never sentimental or cute. Jack is a child, as curious and accepting and selfish as any other: if anything, the most harrowing moments were those of unthinking cruelty on his part. We only see 'Ma' through his eyes: she doesn't even get a name of her own, but her courage and resilience and sense of humour are plain as day.

After I'd read this, I didn't read another novel for nearly a month: even then, I felt the need for something 'easy'.

Report of reading and Q&A session with Emma Donoghue

Monday, October 18, 2010

2010/78: Started Early, Took My Dog -- Kate Atkinson

Schrödinger, whoever he was, and his cat, and anyone else that felt like it, had all climbed inside Pandora's box and were dining on a can of worms. Jackson felt the beginnings of a headache, another one, on top of the one he already had. (p.144)

Another twisty, witty, knotted plot from Kate Atkinson (whose work I've read and enjoyed before). I don't want to dive into details of the plot, not least because it would ... well, it'd take a novel to explain and explore, and Atkinson has already written it.

Jackson Brodie, familiar from Atkinson's other novels, is on the trail of the biological parents of Hope McMaster. (Her name is probably not coincidence: Jackson and Julia discuss Pandora's box more than once, and as another character points out, a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen (p. 293). That's a useful mantra to keep in mind whilst reading Started Early, Took My Dog. The novel is strewn with apparent coincidences, minor intersections, that make or break lives: a lost USB stick, a birthmark shaped like Africa, a half-finished sentence.

Jackson, on impulse, acquires a dog: ex-DI Tracy Waterhouse acquires, in comparable circumstances, a child. One is slightly more trouble than the other. One attracts the attention of Tilly, a once-successful actress who's falling prey to senility. One attracts the attention of Brian Jackson, who's investigating a client's background and could do with some more context. And everything seems to come back to the murder of a prostitute in 1975, and the discovery three weeks later of her corpse and her filthy, starving child.

For a novel about murder, abuse, senility, abduction and deception, this is a remarkably cheerful read. Atkinson has a lovely wry sense of humour (not least in Jackson's blithe acceptance of his flaws) and while there's plenty of desperation herein, there's also a strong sense of hope -- not only for the children (and dogs) who are rescued, but for those who aren't, for those individuals who 'live their lives against all the odds.'

There are a few loose ends, which may or may not be picked up in future novels (who was Kitty Winfield's famous ex?), and some connections that are never made explicit (who killed the woman whose corpse Tracy finds?) but resolution's achieved, happy endings abound, and hope is fulfilled.

2010/77: The Knife of Never Letting Go -- Patrick Ness

There ain't nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you, ever since the spacks released the Noise germ during the war, the germ that killed half the men and every single woman, my ma not excepted, the germ that drove the rest of the men mad, the germ that spelled the end for all Spackle once men's madness picked up a gun.(p.13)
Todd, who's twelve years old, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, a solitary colony on a distant planet ('New World'). His mother was the last woman in Prentisstown: all the women are dead from a sickness that's made the men (and animals, native and exotic) able to hear one another's thoughts.

They call this Noise. It never, ever stops.

Todd can't wait for his thirteenth birthday, when he'll officially become a man. Ben and Cillian, who've raised him, won't tell him what happens on his birthday, only that it's a surprise. Meanwhile Todd mooches around with his dog, Manchee, who's the closest he has to a friend despite rather limited interests ("Need a poo, Todd ... Squirrel! Squirrel! Squirrel!")

Then Todd encounters a patch of silence in the marsh, and his life changes with alarming rapidity. He ends up questioning everything he's grown up believing, everything he's been told, everything that seems obvious. He begins to learn what he's capable of, and what he's missing. (How do you lie if everyone can hear your thoughts? How do you understand someone whose thoughts you can't hear?) He finds out how hard it can be to do the right thing. He grows up fast.

It's hard to discuss the plot of this book in any depth without spoilers. (Though I couldn't help but wonder if Patrick Ness had read Harlan Ellison's A Dog and His Boy at an impressionable age.) Easier to talk about the language -- reminiscent of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, an effective mash of colloquial speech, repurposed vocabulary and oddly poetic imagery, sky as blue as fresh meat (p. 111) -- and the world-building; the ecology of an alien planet, the rough pioneer mentality, the insidious lies that uphold what was intended as a utopia. Easier to praise the pacing (breakneck but never out of control), or the gradual backstory, or the elements that are left implicit.

Warning: The Knife of Never Letting Go ends on a hell of a cliffhanger. And it's not a cheerful book. Nevertheless, I have the rest of the trilogy and will be reading it just as soon as I've cleared my palate with something frivolous.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

2010/76: The Children's Book -- A S Byatt

The woods, the Downs, the lawn, the hearth, the stables were a real reality, kept in being by continuous inventive willpower. In weak moments [Olive] thought of her garden as the fairytale palace the prince or princess must not leave on pain of bleak disaster ... She could not, and did not, imagine any of the inhabitants of this walled garden wanting to leave it or change it, though her stories knew better. And she had to ignore a great deal, in order to persist in her calm, and listen steadily to the quick scratch of the nib. (p. 301)

It's taken me over a year to finish reading The Children's Book -- not because it's a bad book or because I didn't like it, but because I wanted to give it the degree of concentration, absorption, focus that I felt it deserved. It's a very dense book: social and economic history, arts and crafts, the Fabian Society, anarchist attacks, women's education and suffrage, the rise of literature written specifically for children, the English public school system, folk and fairy tales ... The late nineteenth century isn't a period I know well: I learnt a lot from this novel.
The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to. Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed ... the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent, lives ... they roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees ... with no other company than that of other children. (p. 29)
That makes it sound worthy, erudite, educational: and it's far more than that, it's joyful and celebratory, dark and treacherous. It is a book about storytelling, about the ways in which parents betray children, about the dark underside of Victorian society (fallen women, child abuse, adultery) and how these may be escaped or survived. There are a lot of lies and deceptions amid the play-acting, writing, creativity and benevolence. And there's a very strong sense of the ephemeral nature of this 'golden age' of childhood, of the idyllic lives of a generation of middle-class children who become adults in the first decade of the twentieth century, and face the ultimate betrayal of war.

Byatt manages a huge cast of characters, both original and historical, with exquisite balance and telling detail. There are the almost-obligatory cameos -- Oscar Wilde old and broken at the Exposition Universelle in 1900, Marie Stopes in fancy dress as a Valkyrie, 'Jane Harrison and her lovely student, Hope Mirrlees', Rupert Brooke. But the characters at the heart of the novel are all Byatt's own: children's author Olive Wellwood and her spinster sister Violet, teenaged Philip Warren who's fled the potteries in search of Art, Olive's daughter Dorothy who wants to become a doctor, Herbert Methley who is keen on 'the sex problem'. Most captivating and poignant of all is Olive's son Tom, whose story encompasses the major themes of the novel: story-telling, treachery, the natural world, social privilege and its inverse, purposelessness. Tom alone is reason enough to read the novel. But he is not the only reason.

There is so much in this novel that I'd like to discuss: each of the ten or so major characters deserves examination in their own right, bitter Violet and somnambulist Pomona, heroic Geraint and 'Maid Marion', Julian and his changing views on sex and love, Dorothy discovering herself, Gabriel whose dreams are too timid for his psychoanalyst parents ... Byatt's prose is often very beautiful -- which balances the more didactic passages -- and her sense of place and time is tremendously evocative. I felt I'd lived a lifetime, reading The Children's Book, and I suspect it's a novel I'll return to again and again.

Byatt says, in an interview for the Guardian:
"I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family - how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy-story writers."

Wikipedia page, listing the characters and linking to a couple of reviews

Friday, October 15, 2010

2010/75: Blue and Gold -- K J Parker

I'd finally given her what she wanted, the elixir of eternal youth, effected by the removal of her internal fire (the catalyst of change) through the agency of death. She'd have been so pleased, if only she'd been there to see it. Still, you can't have everything ... (p. 70)
Saloninus, philosopher and alchemist and the 'greatest living authority on ethical theory', is on the run. His wife is dead (having imbibed one of Saloninus' experimental concoctions) and his brother-in-law Phocas, the Prince Regent, is keen to keep Saloninus around, to harness that alchemical genius for his own ends. If Saloninus can transmute base metal to gold, Phocas might finally forgive him for the death of his own wife, executed for adultery...

Blue and Gold, set in the same world as The Folding Knife -- I'm unsure whether it's contemporaneous: there doesn't seem to be obvious crossover -- is a novella about another individual who's amoral, dishonest and too clever for his own good. Saloninus is unexpectedly charming, and always several steps ahead of his own narrative (which is, he warns us, thoroughly unreliable). Parker teases us with scraps of alchemical theory, allusions to Saloninus's philosophical works (Ethical Dilemmas, On Form and Substance) and discussions of the real challenges on the table: explosives, the gold standard, the impossibility of the colour blue.

Short, erudite and witty: great fun.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010/74: The Folding Knife -- K J Parker

"I think that if someone tried to rob you in the street, you'd pick his pocket, sell him a better knife and probably offer him a job as a tax collector."
Basso raised an eyebrow. "I choose to take that as a compliment." (p. 353)

Bassianus Arcadius Severus -- Basso to his friends, of whom he has few -- is notorious for his luck: not that it's all good, but that it all works, eventually, in his favour. Not necessarily in the favour of friends, family, country: but Basso seems a born survivor.

Basso's life story -- arranged marriage, a job in a bank, children, adultery, murder, political rise, legal reform and eventual retreat -- plays out in a world that's reminiscent of Ancient Rome. (If my classical history was better, I could probably name some of Parker's inspirations.) The Vesani Republic mirrors Roman culture and society. The Mavortine Confederacy (nineteen tribes, some nomadic, very loosely linked by an expired alliance) has been thoroughly subjugated. The Eastern Empire was once a substantial threat: now it's nearly a millennium past its prime. It's time to do a little empire-building ...

Though The Folding Knife is marketed as a fantasy novel, there isn't any magic in it; no fantastical beasts, no gods, no spells. It could be argued that Basso's luck is preternatural: it could even be argued that the eponymous knife -- which Basso inherits from his mother, who acquires it on the day of his birth from a woman who tries to rob her -- bestows some arcane protection, or glamour, or fortune upon the bearer. (The first scene of the novel is Basso's loss of the knife. The rest of the novel explains why this matters.)

Parker's writing captivates me, as usual. It's intelligent, sardonic and vivid, awash with detail and alive with dialogue. (Though, yes, there's still an over-reliance on personal pronouns, the elision of a few key facts, and some apparently out-of-character behaviour that only makes sense if the reader adopts an almost paranoid perspective.) A lot of plot is packed into this single-volume story, some of it so tightly compressed that it's easy to miss. The tagline on the cover is 'Even great men make mistakes': it's inevitable that the reader will be watching out for the single terminal mistake that's implied by the blurb. I'm not sure if it's the mistake about his sister, or an oversight regarding a military man, that's more terminal: I'm not sure if the latter is a mistake at all. Basso, after all, frequently claims to be stupid but is generally considered to be very clever indeed: if he didn't spot the inconsistency that I spotted, maybe it's not there. Or maybe it's easily explicable. But, as Basso repeatedly reminds us, 'there's always another reason'.

Parker has a knack for portraying credible, dysfunctional relationships: Basso, though essentially a solitary man, is revealed by his relationship with his estranged sister, the tragically-misnamed Tranquillina (a.k.a. Placidia, in at least one early reference); his nephew Bassano, who's almost too good to be true; Aelius, a career soldier born in the Mavortine Confederacy and all too happy to make war against it; Antigonus, the slave who teaches Basso the basics of economics.

I'm not wholly satisfied by the finale: it seems hasty. But I suspect that all the necessary material, all the clues, are there -- have been there from the first chapter -- and that, for once, it's Basso who hasn't seen it coming.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

2010/73: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- Stieg Larsson

"Which is worse -- the fact that [he] raped her out in the cabin, or that you're going to do it in print? You have a fine dilemma. Maybe the ethics committee of the Journalists Association can give you some guidance." (p. 461)

An ageing Swedish industrialist engages a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, to investigate the 1966 disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. He'd also like to know which of his relatives has been trying to drive him mad these last forty years by sending him birthday reminders of Harriet. In exchange, he promises information that will redeem Blomqvist, who was jailed for libel after an exposé that proved to be a set-up.

In the process of investigating Harriet's disappearance, Blomqvist (who is apparently irresistable to women) encounters various family members, uncovers evidence of a series of violent crimes, and meets Lisbeth Salander, a young female security specialist with a murky past, 'a rather trying attitude' and a photographic memory.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is tremendously evocative of Sweden. (Or so it seems to me: but I've never visited the country.) There's a marvellous sense of place, lakeside cabins and desolate flatlands: but Larsson pulls no punches about the dark underside of society, endemic misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, Nazism. Each section of the novel is preceded by a statistic relating to sexual crime: "92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police" (p. 399).

Lisbeth Salander is one of these women, though she has no trust in the system -- which has failed her comprehensively, from the unexplored 'All the Evil' in her childhood to the fact she's still classified as 'legally incompetent' -- and resorts to an alternative solution. Salander is the reason I was so engaged with this novel: she's a fascinating character, neither sentimental nor self-pitying. She is competent, and she may be the character who displays most integrity: she does not compromise.

Read for book club: I've actually owned a copy for some time ... and have now acquired the other two in the trilogy. (£7 for both at Sainsburys).

When we discussed this at book club someone raised the point that it wasn't an especially novel crime novel, in terms of the crime: but I don't read a lot of contemporary crime/thrillers, so the crime element worked for me. Yes, the violence in the novel is unpleasant, distressing: but it's not sensationalised, and Larsson doesn't focus on suffering.

I did work out what happened to Harriet, and the identity of the primary criminal: but that wasn't because the plot is simplistic, it's because the novel does present all the necessary evidence for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. There are quite a few red herrings and a couple of useful coincidences to keep things uncertain.

The translation seems good to me, though some of the dialogue is slightly clunky: there are also points where the difference between Swedish and English terminology ("In English they call it 'new evidence', which has a very different sound from the Swedish 'new proof material'" (p.268)) are highlighted. I like this evidence of the translator's presence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

2010/72: Margarettown -- Gabrielle Zevin

She was born Margaret. As a girl, she was May; as a teenager, Mia; as an adult, Marge. When she dies, dhe was Margaret once again. There were other iterations along the way: Old Margaret with the grey hair, the sexy and impossible Maggie whom I adored, the manic depressive Greta, and others, so many others. There were so many Margaret Townes. Sometimes I ask myself, how could Margaret have been so many women at once? And the answer is, Jane, that your mother was either a most extraordinary woman or a most ordinary one. (p. 32)
Margarettown is the story of the love affair of Maggie and the narrator, named only as N___. Maggie isn’t like the other girls: when she says so, N___ writes it off as a typical early-twenties statement. Then, visiting the family home (Margaron), he meets Maggie’s family and realises that she’s really not like other women.

Or is she? Or is N___ lying? (His uncle tells him he’s ‘’sexually unethical’ like my mother and ‘a pathological liar’ like my father. (p. 105)).

There are plenty of fairytale elements in this novel. When N___ first meets Maggie, he finds her lying on a heap of mattresses, beneath which is, not a pea, but a pen. The child May draws a picture of the frog prince, and tells N___ that the original story has the princess throwing the frog against a wall, ‘beating the prince out of him’. And there’s another story, of a girl bewitched: the enchantment would split her into multiple ages until she found true love. When the daughter found true love, the spell would be broken and she would become one again ... I just made all that up, of course. (p. 85)

Most of the novel is N__’s narration, but part is a third-person account of the first years of Maggie’s marriage, and part is told from the perspective of prenatal twins. Maggie’s secrets, and her past, are explored by allusion: little is explained, but explanations are unnecessary. Maggie’s multiplicity fascinates.

This is a quietly impressive novel. It reminded me at times of Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife -- for the romance, for the unsentimentality, for the unquestioned mundane magic of it.

2010/71: Cards of Grief -- Jane Yolen

The specification is that you, Aaron Spenser, did wilfully and unlawfully violate the Cultural Contamination Act in regards to your relationship with an inhabitant or inhabitants of the newly opened planet Henderson's IV in such a way that you have influenced -- to the good or to the bad -- all culture within their closed system forever. How say you to the specification, guilty or not guilty?
I have been more changed than they by the contact, Lieutenant Malkin.
Guilty or not guilty to the specification?
Guilty -- and not guilty, Lieutenant. (p.93)

2132 A.D.: humankind is exploring the galaxy and encountering a variety of alien races, including the might-as-well-be-human inhabitants of Henderson's IV, 'known in the common tongue as L'Lal'lor, the Planet of the Grievers'. L'Lal'lor is a matriarchal society [it was a nice change, after Xinran's Miss Chopsticks, to read a novel where mothers are pitied for bearing sons] where there is no word for love, but where the act of formal grieving has been raised to an art.

The inhabitants are suspicious of the strangers from the sky, 'the men without tears': but the arrival of the exploration party coincides with the discovery of a new Griever, Linni / the Gray Wanderer, who is assumed to be the subject of a prophecy indicating great change.

Aaron Spenser's initial investigations indicate some important differences. The males are only fertile for five years; the population comprises six 'worker' tribes and a aristocracy of Royals (tall, slim, fair of face, golden-eyed), whose byblows are brought back to the capital whenever they are found; the Royals in particular display some unsettling biological idiosyncrasies, such as increased body temperature when bonding with somebody.

Spenser, being an anthropologist, has a good working knowledge of folklore and fairy tales: he realises very quickly that singing 'Tam Lin' -- the tale of a thwarted Queen -- to the assembled nobles isn't going to go down well. He slips up anyway, with a chance remark about having nobody to grieve that leads to an impromptu re-enactment of a well-known fairytale.

But Aaron Spenser is (literally) the blue-eyed boy who can do no wrong, so he's befriended by B'oremos, the young prince who brought Linni to the capital. Cue more fairytale tropes: distortion of time (which runs faster on the ship in orbit than on the planet, due to the Hulanlocke Rotational Device), a lost child, doomed love. And yes, there is great change.

This is a short novel (remember when novels were under 200 pages long?), told from several viewpoints -- Linni, B'oremos, Aaron Spenser -- and interspersed with transcripts of traditional tales which supply context for the Grievers' social structure and traditions. The different viewpoints add dimension: it's possible to triangulate them to arrive at a more objective perception of plot and setting. (And sometimes the differences in interpretation are hilarious.)

At first I thought this was Linni's story, and it is Linni who is the pivot for events: but it's as much Spenser's story, and B'oremos who is the first of his people to understand what 'love' means. Cards of Grief isn't a cheerful tale, but it has the structure of a fairytale if not the unequivocal 'happily ever after'.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

2010/70: Miss Chopsticks -- Xinran

Imagine coming to a city like Nanjing when you have never seen a television or a car... Her heart is like a blank sheet of paper, ready to absorb whatever lands there. (p. 183)
Miss Chopsticks, which tells the stories of three country sisters who go to Nanjing to find work, is based on the true stories of three young women -- not actually sisters, but Xinran (a successful journalist in China and now in Britain) felt that their stories ‘seem to speak for so many others’. (p.2) Set in the early years of the 21st century, Miss Chopsticks vividly illustrates the rise of commerce and the massive social changes that have resulted from economic reforms.

“.... girls are called chopsticks and boys are called roof-beams. They all say that girls are no good because chopsticks can’t support a roof ...” (p. 12)

The girls come from a family of six children, all female. “Their father had been so disappointed by his lack of sons that he had never given his children real names, and so they became known by the order in which they had been born.” (p. 6). Three, the first to flee the village due to the imminence of an arranged marriage, goes to work in the ‘Happy Fool’ restaurant, where her skill in arranging and displaying fresh produce makes the place very popular. Five, who is illiterate and naive, finds work in the Water Dragon’s Palace, a therapeutic spa which uses traditional Chinese medicine and state-of-the-art plumbing to attract a wealthy clientele. Six, who was the only girl in the village to finish middle school, ends up working in the Book Taster’s Teahouse, where she is surrounded by books and has the opportunity to meet foreigners and improve her English.

Each of the girls experiences considerable culture shock. City life is utterly unlike anything they could have imagined, and each must change her way of thinking, her behaviour and her dreams to fit with what she finds. ‘Stone-hearted’ Three falls in love; ‘stupid’ Five reveals a talent for engineering; ‘too-clever’ Six learns a great deal about the world, and about China’s place in it, and becomes rather cynical.

Reading Miss Chopsticks felt like opening a window onto a society with very different rules, mores, goals. Xinran’s Nanjing is more alien than many SF settings I’ve read. This impression is heightened by the girls’ culture shock as they encounter city ways. “‘In many ways,’” Six’s employer tells her, “‘people in the countryside are living in a different century from those in the city, and it will take them many years to catch up.’ She did not feel able to tell Six that in her view the Chinese countryside was as much as five hundred years behind the city.” (p. 86)

The translator, Esther Tyldesley, explains in a foreword some of the difficulties of translating Chinese to English: the prevalence of puns and classical references in Chinese prose, the huge variation of dialects, the densely-layered sense of history and culture. There’s often a sense that a line of dialogue is funnier in the original Chinese: there are also passages which expand upon idiosyncrasies of language and dialect. (Five is bemused by a northern girl who uses different words for ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘her’.)

Xinran provides an afterword in which she recounts her attempts to track down the girls whose stories she’d borrowed. Contacting anyone in modern China (where cellphones and email are only for the rich, the Westernised, the politically adept) isn’t easy. Eventually Xinran discovered that the ‘Happy Fool’ restaurant had closed, and that the Book Taster’s Teahouse had been shut down for distributing ‘banned books’. The girl whose story inspired Three ended up in an arranged marriage after all. ‘Six’ could not be traced. The girl encoded as ‘Five’, though, had had more success: she’d been sent on an advanced training course, despite her illiteracy.

I’m sobered by the girls’ acceptance of their feminine inconsequentiality: I’m heartened by their sheer determination and refusal to give up hope. And I’m appalled that millions of women are still enduring the layers of oppression and discrimination described here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2010/69: The Mislaid Magician -- Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

I can find no observations on the effect of running a steam locomotive in the vicinity of a ley line. The stationary steam engines used in mines have, to date, not been located near enough to ley lines for any difficulties to become apparent. I found, however, any number of papers regarding the tapping of ley energies. Most of them warn of inadvisable methods of attempting it, or deal with the catastrophic results of applying such techniques. (p.73)

The subtitle of this, the third in the sequence that began with Sorcery and Cecelia, is Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Families Regarding a Scandal Touching the Highest Levels of Government and the Security of the Realm. There is, indeed, a great deal of political discussion and speculation in the letters of Kate, Cecelia, James and Thomas: there is also a lot of family gossip and commentary. The younger generation are variously afflicted with colds, kidnapping and a excess of curiosity regarding their parents’ magical enterprises; Cecelia’s feckless sister Georgy turns up at Kate’s house, having apparently fled her husband.

The Mislaid Magician is set in 1828, eleven years after Sorcery and Cecelia. The main plot concerns the disappearance of Herr Scheller, a Prussian railway surveyor-magician, while assessing the route of the Stockton-Darlington railway. James, still a favourite of Wellington (who is now Prime Minister), is sent north to investigate, in company with Cecelia: Thomas and Kate find themselves embroiled in a different aspect of the intrigue. There are ley lines, stone circles (though actually, no, these are not found ‘all over England’), steam engines, echoes of fairytale villains, knitted cryptography, and a kidnapped heiress who refuses to speak. (I should have spotted who this was, but hadn’t realised she used her middle name in later life.)

I loved Sorcery and Cecelia, and though the later books haven’t had quite the same impact I very much enjoy the combination of frothy frivolity, well-thought-out magical practices, and alternate history. There’s a nice set-up for further books at the end of The Mislaid Magician, and I look forward to them.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

2010/68: London Bridges -- Jane Stevenson

She stopped and gestured at the pub they were passing, very ordinary-looking apart from its bright blue paintwork, with a flat, tiled frontage. “Look at this notice beside the door. It says it’s been here since 1462. Shakespeare probably drank here. See what I mean? Even the bars turn out to be historic.”
“I never noticed that. But why shouldn’t it still be here?” objected Dil. “Getting thirsty’s one of those things that just goes on happening. ‘S not really worth noticing. If we come back at opening time, we won’t find a bunch of Elizabethan actors quaffing sack, it’d be the guys from the wholesalers tipping down lager.”(p. 206)

London Bridges is a thriller set in contemporary London, though the plot ranges from seventeenth-century Greece to the wilds of Somerset. Jeanene is an Australian graduate student, studying classical Greek: while working in a Mayfair pharmacy she encounters Dr Sebastian Raphael, an ebullient academic specialising in the history and culture of Byzantium. Sebastian, it turns out, is off to Mount Athos in Greece, to visit the abbot of St Michael’s, in search of the sole surviving copy of the Alexiad, a sixth-century Greek poem which might make Sebastian’s name in the cut-throat world of the Institute. He traces the manuscript to London, to the church of St Michael which was destroyed in the Blitz: and then to the sole surviving representative of a small Greek merchant bank, Mr Eugenides, who lives a reclusive life in the heart of the City and is only too glad to help Sebastian.

Mr Eugenides has another new friend, a young lawyer named Edward Lupset, for whom the term ‘Yuppie Scum’ might have been invented. Edward, with the help of an unscrupulous Greek solicitor, has discovered a legal loophole concerning the bombed church, and confidently expects to make his fortune from it. Unfortunately Edward has neither respect for nor knowledge of history (morality also seems to be a closed, burnt and buried book to him) and his cunning plan goes awry.

There’s a sub-plot concerning a community garden built on the bombsite, and an interesting cast of supporting characters (including Hattie, who is introduced in a prefatory passage quoted from Margery Allingham’s The China Governess, and who is involved with a charity that derives its funds ‘from the chantry charities of the old London bridges’ (p. 86): this seems the only connection with the novel’s title, unless you take into account the frequent shuttlings between the City and Southwark). Because of a structural idiosyncrasy -- the book opens with a chapter that, chronologically, occurs about half-way through -- there’s less mystery for the reader, and more frustration as the characters thrash about in their ignorance. But London Bridges is atmospheric, very firmly rooted in modern London despite Jeanene’s constant awe at seeing Literature 101 all around her, and nicely paced. The final denouement didn’t fit with the feel of the rest of the novel (geographically or emotionally) but it did echo the occasional echoes of farce and slapstick.

I had to look up Godscall Palaeologue, the subject of a portrait that Sebastian admires, and was relieved to find that she only actually exists in Jane Stevenson’s novels: now I want to read the trilogy that culminates in The Empress of the Last Days, because I’m pretty sure it’ll have the same blend of humour, characterisation and genuine love for history that I found in London Bridges.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010/67: Memoirs of a Muse -- Lara Vapnyar

A muse ... doesn’t simply entertain. She inspires, she influences the great man’s work. ... He, the great man, would be sitting frozen in front of a blank sheet of paper, empty canvas, silent piano, and I would walk in. Five feet five, flat-chested and skinny, but with a great fire in my eyes, or a strange remarkable gait or carriage, or speaking in an especially melodic voice, and he -- the writer, artist or composer -- would snap his fingers and say, “Yes!” and hit his piano, slab of marble or creaky typewriter, and create with great fire in his eyes an enormous, magnificent work. And then generations of people would admire that work and see the fire that would still burn behind it centuries later. And it would be I who had lit that fire! (p. 48-9)

Tatiana Rumer (Tanya) is a young historian from the collapsing Soviet Union, who emigrates to New York with the sole ambition of becoming the muse who’ll inspire some as-yet-unknown artist to magnificent works. She dreams of Dostoevsky, and is inspired by his passionate relationship with his mistress Polina (Appolinaria Suslova): who’d want to be Anna Grigorievna, Dostoevsky’s wife whose diaries barely mention the great novels her husband wrote while married to her?

In New York she works hard on finding a struggling artist, and settles on Mark, a middle-aged writer whose novel After the Beginning is stalled due to writer’s block. Gradually, Tanya -- who learns to read English from the romance novels supplied by a canny neighbour -- realises that from Mark’s point of view, she is not Polina but Anna: she does not inspire him. (Gradually, too, she begins to recognise that his work is banal in the extreme.) Mark and I were very much alike, if you thought about it. Two people with immense aspirations and limited abilities, except for our one great gift -- the belief that we were what we wanted to be ... (p. 201)

Memoirs of a Muse is often very funny, and Tanya’s growth from pretentious adolescent to thoughtful, cosmopolitan (and inspirational) adult is interesting. I can’t say I found her a likeable protagonist, though, and the final pages felt as though she’d given up -- although the end of the novel could also be read as another, more adult and realistic, form of success. She seems dismissive of the artist she has inspired, because that person is as different from her daydreams as is possible.

Memoirs of a Muse makes a window on modern Russian life, and on the experience of Russian immigrants in New York -- an experience shared by the author. There’s an interview here that gave me much more perspective on the novel, and made me revisit some of my impressions. There’s also more detail on the relationship between Polina and Dostoevsky, which Tanya tries so hard to emulate but which perhaps is less practical in modern America than in 19th-century Europe.

2010/66: A Map of Glass -- Jane Urquhart

People like me are supposed to have next to no attention span. But in fact, in my case, quite the opposite is true: my attention span is limitless; it's just a matter of where my focus settles: a buried hotel, a butter press, the salt shaker, the County atlas, the genealogy and then, and then him, him, him. (p. 134)

Jerome, a young artist, discovers the body of a dead man in the ice of Lake Ontario, where he's spending time in solitary artistic retreat. Fast-forward a year: Sylvia, a middle-aged doctor's wife, is venturing alone to the city -- despite her nameless 'condition', which has enforced a sheltered life -- to seek out Jerome and speak of the dead man, Andrew, who was her lover.

At first Jerome isn't enthusiastic about talking to this 'old woman': his girlfriend Mira smoothes the way. Soon enough he's drawn into Sylvia's story and her innate strangeness. Sylvia tells of watching Andrew gradually forget her even when they were in the same room; she speaks of his fascination with historical geography -- "the mistakes of his ancestors had made this a kind of dynastic necessity" (p. 77) -- and the energy he poured into unravelling the stories of those ancestors. His journals, which Sylvia has kept (this is important) and lends to Jerome and Mira, describe the lives of Branwell and Annabelle, brother and sister, who grew up on that lake-island in the late nineteenth century. Branwell became a prosperous hotelier; Annabelle remained unmarried, painting scenes of destruction wholly disconnected with the quiet vistas of the lake. Around them, the economy changed from wood to shipping to barley; the land changed, and broke; the sand rose and swamped the hotel.

The characters in A Map of Glass are flawed, startling, doing their best. Sylvia's 'condition' is never named, though her husband discusses it with Jerome. Andrew's illness is only named at the end of the novel: until then it's eerie, limitless, strange and estranging. Jerome hauls his own past (and especially his relationships with his parents) out for inspection. And back in the heyday of the shipping business, Annabelle roots herself in the land, holds on, carves herself a quiet life. (She is not a romantic, as is evidenced by her remarks on Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot: “She should have stuck to her loom, or better still, she should have gone outdoors into the fresh air and got some exercise.” (p. 232))

Sylvia -- "Haven’t I always been a missing person?" -- is at the heart of the novel. She sees how the past is layered -- buried -- beneath the present, both literally (decades of wallpaper covering a beautiful and painstakingly-executed mural) and figuratively. Though she has seldom ventured beyond the confines of the County where she lives, she knows her territory intimately, and moves through a landscape that has a temporal dimension.

Each aspect of the County ... had been named, filled, emptied, ploughed and planted long ago; all harvests belonged to the dead who insisted on their entitlement. "I cut the trees, built the mills, sawed the boards, made the roads, fenced the fields, raised the barns," they had told her in the dark of her childhood bedroom. (p. 147)

A Map of Glass -- the title has several resonances, including the textured maps that Sylvia makes for her blind friend Julia, and the tale of a melted glass floor, and Robert Smithson's artwork Map of Broken Glass -- is, I suppose, a love story: but the love story is as much between Andrew and landscape, between Jerome and art, between Sylvia and her intimate focus on the world, as it is between Sylvia and Andrew.

Another wintry novel, and a quietly thought-provoking one. I'll look out for more by this author.

2010/65: The Slynx -- Tatyana Tolstaya

I only wanted books -- nothing more -- only books, only words, it was never anything but words -- give them to me, I don’t have any! ... What do you mean there’s nothing? Then how can you talk and cry, what words are you frightened with, which ones do you call out in your sleep? Don’t nighttime cries roam inside you, a thudding twilight murmur, a fresh morning shriek? There they are, words -- don’t you recognise them? They’re writhing inside you, trying to get out! From wood, stone, roots, growing in strength, a dull mooing and whining in the gut is trying to get out; a piece of tongue curls, the torn nostrils swell in torment. That’s how the bewitched, beaten, and twisted snuffle with a mangy wail, their boiled white eyes locked up in closets, their vein torn out, backbone clawed; that’s how your pushkin writhed ...(p. 268)

The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya’s post-apocalypse novel, is as notable for the translation (I don’t read Russian, but I recognise lyricism and wordplay) as for the original text. It’s a very Russian novel, packed with allusions to Russian literature -- especially Pushkin -- and resonating with images from Russian folk tales (a princess in a tower on an island, braiding her gold and silver hair) and with an air of good-humoured endurance under oppression.

The Slynx is set in the town that was once Moscow, two centuries after the Blast which shattered civilisation and drove the survivors back into primitive ways. Those who were alive at the time of the Blast do not age: they are prone to sitting around decrying modern life and saying things like “What concrete benefit did you derive from your strength? Did you accomplish anything socially beneficial to the community?” (p. 7) The rest of the Golubchiks (comrades) -- many afflicted with Consequences, such as horns / tails / cox-combs / extra eyes -- are more concerned with the grim realities of subsistence. The economy is based largely on mice, which make a tasty soup and can be skinned for furs, though it does take rather a lot to make a winter coat. There are also succulent, though poisonous, rabbits roosting in the treetops. And worms can be stewed.

Benedikt, the protagonist of The Slynx, is a young clerk who makes a living copying out the works of Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader, though not to Benedikt, that Fyodor Kuzmich is passing off great literature as his own creation, a deception made possible by his edict forbidding the Golubchiks from owning pre-Blast literature. This edict is enforced by the Saniturions, who seize any forbidden works. Benedikt, who is besotted by books, marries into a family of Saniturions and discovers what happens to all the confiscated books. All is bliss until he finds he’s read everything there is to read.

The eponymous Slynx is (according to the old folk) a forest monster that attacks wanderers, snaps their spines and picks out the big vein: “all the reason runs right out of you ... you don’t even know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon” (p. 3). The Slynx never really appears in this novel; at least not in the form that Benedikt expects.

The Slynx is marvellously inventive, satirical, full of black humour and allusion. The prose -- which reminded me in places of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker -- kept me hooked, but the story became less compelling in the latter third of the novel, and the resolution didn’t support the weight of what had gone before. Beautiful, bookish, and funny, but ultimately not wholly satisfying.

Monday, August 16, 2010

2010/64: The Girl with Glass Feet -- Ali Shaw

”Maybe you noticed something different. When you returned to St Hauda’s Land. A taste on the air. A mannerism the birds have. A peculiar snowfall, making almost mathematical patterns. A white animal that’s not an albino... for the most part, people are either born here and are used to these things, or they move away. There aren’t many people who come here.” (p. 108)
Midas Crook lives on the remote northern archipelago of St Hauda’s Land, perfectly accustomed to the almost incestuous tangle of island life, and the strangeness all around him. His father committed suicide in a grandiose Viking-style burning boat; his mother lives, lamed and maimed by a luminous jellyfish, in the tantalisingly-named hamlet of Martyr’s Leap. Somewhere in the woods is an animal of pure white (except the blue patch on the back of its neck): every living being that sees this unnamed beast becomes bleached, colourless, white as snow. (This is a very wintry novel.) When Midas makes the acquaintance of Ida Maclaird -- who first visited the islands the previous summer, as a tourist -- and discovers that she is slowly, feet-first, turning to glass, it surprises him but does not shake his world view.

This is a beautiful book -- beautifully written, and a beautiful physical object. (the hardcover has mirror-bright page edges). Shaw’s prose sings; the island’s stark monochromatic landscapes made me shiver on a hot summer’s day; there’s a sense of interconnectedness, of hidden meaning, from the glass body in the bog to the possible use of the local jellyfish as a cure for vitrification. (I loathe jellyfish, am quite phobic about them: but the jellyfish in this novel are marvellous, lovely, alive.)

Unfortunately too much of that meaning remains hidden. I found myself hoping for revelation if not resolution: instead, I came away with a sense of having forgotten the salient details of a beautiful but disturbing dream. The key to this novel is transformation, but by the last page only Midas really seems likely to metamorphose into something better -- and that’s by no means certain. Other characters seem trapped, literally or figuratively: frozen, drowned, imprisoned.

St Hauda’s Land reminds me of Margaret Elphinstone’s islands: Hy Brasil, Ellan Vannin. The strangeness, the little mysteries presented as mundane, remind me more of Patricia McKillip. I’ll look forward to more of Shaw’s fiction.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

2010/63: Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it. (p. 112)

Wide Sargasso Sea is a transformative work: it tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre -- the 'madwoman in the attic' -- from a feminist post-colonial angle.

The first part of the novel describes the childhood of Antoinette Cosway, a young Creole heiress whose life is changed (and not for the better) by the abolition of slavery in Jamaica. The family's home is burnt down, Antoinette's brother Pierre dies and their mother descends into madness, leaving Antoinette lost and alone. Then she marries an Englishman (Mr Rochester, though he's never named) who is recovering from fever.

The middle section of the novel is from Rochester's point of view: he is entranced by Antoinette's beauty, but disturbed by the rumours that reach him. Bad blood on both sides? A coloured lover? Witchcraft? Rochester tries to make Antoinette into a suitable wife: he calls her Bertha, because 'Antoinette' was her mother's name and her mother was mad; he attempts to quash her enjoyment of sex; he takes her away from everything she knows, to England.

The final section of the novel overlaps the narrative of Jane Eyre: Antoinette / Bertha, descending into madness, dreaming of fire.

Wide Sargasso Sea is beautifully written, and I admire it: I don't think I like it, simply because the relationship it describes is so dysfunctional, painful, doomed. It's a marvellous portrayal of mental instability -- both Antoinette's and Rochester's. (His narrative is increasingly fragmentary, and increasingly irrational.) Rhys certainly adds depth and dimension to Bronte's original story: in Wide Sargasso Sea, marriage is not a metric of female success, and 'madness' is not a simple case of bad blood.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

2010/62: Wicked Widow -- Amanda Quick

"An interesting bargain, is it not? A pact of honesty between a woman said to have murdered her husband in cold blood and a gentleman who conceals the truth about himself from the world."
"I am satisfied with it." (p. 86)

Madeline Deveridge is the eponymous Widow, and now she is apparently being haunted by the ghost of the husband she's alleged to have murdered. She applies to Artemas Hunt, brilliant recluse and owner of the Dream Pavilions (London's favourite pleasure emporium), for help -- well, actually, she blackmails him, because no gentleman would wish it to be known that his wealth comes from trade.

Hunt is engaged in a labyrinthine vengeance against the men who killed his lover: at first he has little interest in Madeline's woes, but soon enough he begins to respect her sharp wits and general competence. Besides, she has further blackmail material: her father's journals, which record a great deal of information about the members of the Vanzagarian Society, including Hunt himself.

Madeline, blithely oblivious to the thousand-pound bet that no man can survive a night with her, is busy with a translation of an ancient book that's come into her possession. It can't be the notorious Book of Secrets that's lately gone missing: but perhaps it is equally valuable, to somebody.

This is Regency Lite -- set in London, but a London with none of the usual familiarities. Indeed, it's possible that this is also Fantasy Lite: much of the plot revolves around the mysterious Vanzagarian Society (ladies not admitted) based on the esoteric philosophy of an ancient sect. It's an easy, frivolous read, with some unexpected twists and a satisfactory romance.

Yes, I did read it solely because the author's surname began with 'Q': but I don't regret discovering Ms Quick's writing.

2010/61: Losing Larry -- Elizabeth Pewsey

Meanwhile, Jennifer Brown has been arrested for taking drugs at a rock and roll club and is in the Tower waiting for the police to do her over. Ronald Brown, the son, has been beaten again, I'm not sure what for, but the class suspect an older boy has been corrupting him into the English vice, as they call it. Mrs Brown is still concerned about conditions at the local factory ... It's such a farrago of nonsense, what they make up, but having invented it, they're quite ready to believe it's how life in England actually is. (p. 75)

London, 1959: Larry Dunne is an idealistic Communist with a massive chip on his shoulder. He writes bad poetry, works in a bookshop, hangs out in Joe's Cafe (with a big poster of Stalin on the wall) and wonders what his upper-class girlfriend Pamela is up to when she's not with him. The publication of a friend's book catalyses his envy and resentment, and he decides to take up a teaching post in Budapest.

Hungary in the Cold War is not at all what Larry expects. Instead of joyful socialism, he finds paranoia, corruption and deprivation. His students are entertaining enough (especially Angelika, a ballerina who Larry can't quite bring himself to mention in his letters home) and they have great fun imagining the private lives of the Brown family who feature so heavily in their set texts.

Then a woman is murdered in a neighbouring apartment, and Larry finds himself suspected of the crime. "Everybody is under suspicion," Major Nagy informs him. Larry promptly, though not deliberately, disappears: and the second part of the novel concerns the attempts, in England and in Hungary, to track him down and find the murderer. The plot, as they say, thickens: Major Nagy is keen to discover the true identity of the operative calling himself 'Mr Brown'; in London, Pamela meets Larry's friend Imre and finds herself in trouble with the police; the Foreign Office sits up and takes notice of a Swedish businessman who befriended Larry at the Hungarian border. Nobody is quite what they seem -- or quite what they seemed to Larry, at any rate.

I'm very fond of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series: Losing Larry didn't engage me as much, because I didn't connect with any of the characters, but the writing is still witty and Pewsey has a nice eye for detail -- and a good sense of the ridiculous -- especially in the Budapest scenes.

Monday, August 02, 2010

2010/60: The Icarus Girl -- Helen Oyeyemi

"Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up. It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one. You understand?"
"Yes, grandfather." She was scared, now, because she knew he wasn't talking about food-hungry...
"Only two people who are full up can be friends. They don't want anything from each other except friendship." (p. 226)

Jess is eight years old, and lives in Cranbrook: her mother (Sarah) is Nigerian, her father (Daniel) English. She's a little bit strange, given to sitting in the linen cupboard for hours, and crossing out the bits she doesn't like in books.

On a visit to Nigeria, Jess meets her maternal family. She also meets a strange girl named Titiola -- TillyTilly for short. TillyTilly seems to live in the abandoned servants' quarters at Jess's grandfather's compound. She is the first real friend that Jess has made. And, marvellously, she shows up in Bromley not long after Jess and her family return to England.

TillyTilly is the best friend ever: time is elastic when she's around, and she can make the two of them invisible so as to spy on the classroom bully. (Jess doesn't really fit in at school: they say she's 'attention-seeking' but really they think she's weird. And Jess doesn't like to be seen, doesn't like attention at all. She is very firm about this.)

Bad things start to happen: Sarah's computer is smashed, Jess finds herself saying things she doesn't mean, TillyTilly is keen to get people who upset Jess. Jess is sent to a psychologist, and makes friends with his daughter Siobhan, a.k.a. Shivs. TillyTilly doesn't approve. She hints darkly that she and Jess are connected; that Jess, whose twin died when they were born, is more like her than like this cheerful white girl.

And Shivs experiences TillyTilly for herself: This was not another girl. This was not the kind of imaginary friend that you'd mistakenly sit on. She was a cycle of glacial ice. (p. 257)

The Icarus Girl is Helen Oyeyemi's first novel, written when she was still at school. It doesn't work quite as well as White is for Witching but several of the same themes are evident: twins, race, mother/daughter relationships. I was fascinated by the way that Jess's seldom-acknowledged Yoruba heritage was catalysed by her inner rage. I'd have liked more exploration of TillyTilly's true nature (though the rationale for this omission is good). And the novel ends very suddenly, with resolution implicit rather than explicit. That said, I enjoyed The Icarus Girl: it's genuinely chilling in places, and an excellent examination of growing up mixed-race in the suburbs.

2010/59: Sherlock in Love -- Sena Jeter Naslund

Holmes was dead: to begin with. And had been dead for well onto two years. And who was I without Holmes? He had been my dearest friend. He had served as that fixed point around which my life as a storyteller revolved. (p. 3)

The story begins in 1922, when an elderly Watson (widowed again, living in the Baker Street apartment, lonely and beginning to lose his grip on his memories) decides to write the definitive biography of Sherlock Holmes. A notice placed in the Times garners unexpected responses: a note warning him to 'beware the ghost of Sherlock Holmes', the silhouette of Holmes in a window, the removal of significant pages from Holmes' notebooks, and the appearance of two women -- a mysterious figure in red, and a ragged old woman with a dog.

Wiggins shows up, too: he's now a consultant psychiatrist at St Giles, and is on the trail of an escaped patient. This turns out to be the ragged woman, who calls herself Nannerl and whose first words to Watson ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive?") are enough to make him 'faint dead away'.

From his own notebooks ('the dreadful experiment of writing in the present tense'), Holmes' private diaries and the unpublished manuscript of 'The Adventure of the Mad King', Watson pieces together the story of Holmes and the dead violinist Victor Sigerson -- not forgetting Sigerson's twin sister Violet, a woman who Holmes held in the highest regard.

The different sections of the novel -- Watson as an old man, Watson writing for himself, and Watson writing for an audience -- have markedly different tones: in particular, the framing narrative of 1922 is a poignant and credible version of canon Watson, albeit one who's a little too comfortable in his assertion that he and Holmes had 'very few secrets from each other'. The doomed romance between Holmes and Violet is sober, restrained, constrained and thus credible: Holmes is perfectly in character, the man who never speaks of the softer emotions.

Naslund is fond of name-dropping: Holmes and Watson encounter "Sir Leslie Stephens and his daughters, Stella, Vanessa and a chubby girl of four named Virginia" (p.113), the latter of whom will marry Leonard Woolf; Holmes returns from Europe claiming to have met one interesting person, "A boy of seven named Albert ... Little Einstein has the most determined and objective mind ..." (p. 134). There are some niggling Americanisms ("we walk on down Regent till our German stops beyond Piccadilly Circus"); and I'm not convinced that trains to Edinburgh have ever run from Charing Cross. But overall, the novel complements the tone and style of canon, and the measured pace fits the unfolding mystery very well.

2010/58: Cycler -- Lauren McLaughlin

"I don't see people as male or female. I just see people ... Don't you think the world has expended enough energy keeping men and women separate, trying to convince us we're from Mars or Venus? For what? We're from Earth. Why does it have to matter so much?"
I have no answer, only a deep, almost physical aversion to the idea. (p. 116)

Jill McTeague is a perfectly normal seventeen-year-old American high school student, except for her unusual pre-menstrual syndrome: instead of the usual cramps and snarls, she turns into a boy (Jack) for four days before her period. Jack's developing an independent existence, possibly as a result of Plan B -- a series of meditations and visualisations (and possibly hormone treatments) developed by Jill's parents to affirm that Jill is "all girl".

Jill keeps her condition secret, even from her best friend Ramie. Jack doesn't get a say in the matter: he's confined to his room (Jill's room) for the brief interludes of his existence. But instead of suppressing the memories of his alternate self as Jill does, Jack's keen to get a glimpse of real life. He sees Jill's memories of Ramie. He sees Jill's crush on Tommy Knutson (who, rumour has it, is bisexual) and her plans for prom night. He's sick of being a dirty secret, locked away with a stack of porn DVDs and some peanut butter sandwiches. And he's got a crush on someone, too.

Cycler is immense fun: humorous, fast-paced and surprisingly deep when it comes to gender politics, sexuality and honesty. The two characters have distinctive voices and attitudes: the supporting cast, from Jill/Jack's ineffectual father to fashion-obsessed Ramie, are sketched in sharp detail.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

2010/57: Spiderweb -- Penelope Lively

When Stella contemplated her own progress through time and space, she saw lines -- black lines that zig-zagged this way and that, netting the map of England, netting the globe ... and sometimes these lines crossed one another. The intersections must surely be points of significance -- these places to which she had been twice, three times, many times, but as different incarnations of herself, different Stellas ignorant of the significance of this site ... Stella thought of those spiderwebs that form an airy complex density of minutely connected strands. Her space-time progress was something like that, the whole thing shimmering with these portentous nodes at which the future lay hidden. You walk blindly past the self that is to come, and cannot see her. (p. 19)

Stella Brentwood has lived in Greece, Egypt, Orkney, Turkey: as an anthropologist specialising in kinship networks and lineage patterns, her work has taken her to many different countries, though she's never felt part of the cultures she's observed. Her mission has always been to understand, not to belong. Now, retired, she's bought a cottage in Dorset, and is determined to put down roots. She speaks to the local history society; she acquires a dog.

Down the lane are her neighbours, the Hiscoxes: confused grandmother, silent dour father, two lawless and sullen teenage boys, and Karen Hiscox, who manages and manipulates her way through life. "Their mother could cope all right. She coped everyone else into the ground. She coped them out of her way." (p. 160) The boys are, effectively, rootless and without history: they don't even know where they were born, or where they lived before they came to Dorset. They provide a unified viewpoint that's very different to that of Stella (who they term 'the old woman'), even when they're narrating the same events.

The novel builds slowly, a series of vignettes and memories. Stella, for the most part, reexamines her past: she has no regrets, but she looks back wistfully on times of happiness. Despite her inclinations, her life is not a 'self-contained capsule'. Her dead friend's husband, with whom she's never really connected, pops round from time to time. Judith, a lesbian archaeologist, uses Stella's house as a refuge from domestic strife. Meanwhile the Hiscox boys expend their energy in surviving their mother's verbal attacks, mercurial temper and mutable truths. Sometimes, for light relief, they set fire to litter bins.

Stella, the eternal voyeur, doesn't find it easy to root herself in the oddly claustrophobic rural life she observes. When the Hiscox boys' chaos -- and her friends' lonelinesses -- intrude into her new life, she's cornered. A choice must be made.

I liked Spiderweb for its keen-eyed, unsentimental portrayal of a woman growing old alone without regrets: I recognised in it some aspects, and a specific incident, from my own experience, which I found at once unsettling and redemptive. (It wasn't unique: it wasn't us.) It's a beautifully-written novel, and the sense of growing menace counterbalances the brightness of Stella's memories, and sits well with the green gloom of muddy lanes.

Friday, July 30, 2010

2010/56: Daylight -- Elizabeth Knox

He thought of the glow on Eve Moskelute's face as she said, "Someone had seen the butcher ... someone had followed the soldier." "There's always someone," she'd said. The butcher killed the soldier, and someone broke a chamois's neck and placed it on the butcher's doorstep, as though in payment. Bad wondered, Who was 'someone'? (p. 110)

Two men are visiting Monaco independently, both in search of meaning, explanation and resolution. Brian Phelan (known as 'Bad') is a New Zealander, a policeman and a born survivor: he's walked away from a viewing-platform collapse that killed several of his friends, a flash flood in a French cave, and most recently a bomb in an underground carpark. Recuperating from this incident, he takes a holiday to his old caving haunts, swiftly parting company with his sensible (and rather controlling) girlfriend. By chance, Bad becomes involved in the retrieval of a body from the sea: despite the blistered skin, the dead woman -- with her striking hair, blonde at the roots and dark at the ends -- bears a strong resemblance to the woman who rescued him from the cave nine years before.

Also in the area is Father Daniel Octave, mixed-race, Canadian, Jesuit: he's hoping to gather sufficient evidence to progress the canonisation of Martine Dardo, a nun who, during the German occupation of the area, led a group of villagers through a dark cave to safety and was subsequently executed. Daniel doesn't know what to make of the fact that the body in Martine's tomb is not Martine at all, but a Nazi officer.

There's a third protagonist, Eve Moskelute, though less of the story is seen from her point of view than from those of Bad and Daniel. Eve is a writer, most famous for her translation of an obscure work of French literature, an eighteenth-century novel called Lumiere du Jour (in English, Daylight): 'a romance with a touch of the infernal' (p. 101). Eve is the widow of Jean Ares, a celebrated painter, old enough to be her grandfather, who immortalised her in his art. Now she lives quietly fends off her dead husband's would-be biographers and curious admirers, and keeps the secret of her twin sister Dawn, who's generally believed to have died in 1969.

The dark 'world beneath the world' of caves, tunnels and medieval passageways is explored and examined as thoroughly as Knox's perennial themes of God, mortality, belonging and looking in from outside. Daniel and Bad are both outsiders, without roots, in search of meaning. It's through their eyes -- and their emotions -- that this unusual variation on the vampire theme plays out.

Knox's The Vintner's Luck is one of my favourite novels. Daylight, in which vampires lurk in the subterranean caves and tunnels of the French-Italian border, didn't engage me as much. This is not a horror novel (though there are unsettling passages); it's not a murder mystery; it's not a romance. It's not a philosophical treatise, though the theological debate underpins the narrative like a bass line. Daylight brings together many elements, but it never quite gelled for me: I didn't engage.

Knox's prose is by turns poetic, startling, deliberately remote. (There are passages where most of the speech is reported -- "Daniel must have said something ... because Ila answered him." (p.339) -- which technique distances the reader from the characters, deadens the emotional affect.) The landscape Knox describes is as alive, as real, as the characters -- and frankly more appealing.

Oh, and I wish the copy-editor had corrected 'Alan Turling' to 'Alan Turing'.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2010/55: Havemercy -- Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

I volunteered at the right time, just when Havemercy was fresh off the table, and she was being real picky and real precise about not having anyone fly her no matter how they coaxed, until she took one look at me and it was love at first sight, only we both knew the other one didn't have any heart for loving to speak of. She was beautiful then and she's still beautiful now, though there's a clip off her left wing from getting in too close to the real fighting one time, but we turned the tide of the skirmish and sent the Ke-Han packing ... so I guess we did all right by that. (p. 73)

Steampunk dragons, wizardry, lost love and wild romance: what's not to love?

For a hundred years Volstov and the Ke-Han empire have been at war, neither power's magical or military might sufficient to conquer the other. Now something seems to be tipping the balance -- but there's something odd about the way the war's being won. Magicians are falling ill, dragons are malfunctioning, the Esar (Volstov's ruler) isn't being wholly honest with his advisors, and the Ke-Han aren't behaving like the losing side.

Havemercy is told from four different viewpoints. Royston is a magician, exiled from court to his brother's country estate; Hal is the tutor of his brother's children and an avid reader of novels ('romans') and legend; Thom is an academic, volunteered by his mentor to reform the notoriously lawless Dragon Corps; and Rook is the reckless and arrogant bad boy of said Corps. Each of the characters has lost something; each is an agent of change; each passes through danger, finds love, makes a difference, ends up somewhere he didn't expect. Each is affected, changed, by his relationships with one or more of the other protagonists. And each man's story is different, distinct, grounded in his character.

This is a world with an eighteenth-century sensibility. Volstovian society values both arts and science (magic very firmly in the latter camp: those steampunk dragons are masterpieces of engineering with a touch of magical power). A man's wit, style and attire are as important as his wealth or prowess. With four protagonists, we're given a representative cross-section of society, from Royston's cynical charm ("it would not do to offend my brother's wife all at once. There would be no sport left for later on" (p. 21)) to Rook's rough contempt for a social order that would ordinarily have doomed him to poverty.

I'd have liked to see more female characters: I know these authors can write strong, fascinating women. And the last few chapters felt hasty after the measured (though never sluggish) pace of most of the book. But I liked this very much indeed, and would recommend to anyone who enjoyed Melusine, Swordspoint, The Well-Favored Man, Temeraire ... Or, indeed, anyone who enjoys well-written, humorous and pacy fantasy, with or without a steampunk dimension.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

2010/54: Still She Wished For Company -- Margaret Irwin

"But London," said Lucian, "is a sad, irreligious place, where there is no longer any true respect for the Infernal Majesty. And that is an important power to conciliate in invoking shades of the dead, since the only shades one would ever desire in company must necessarily come from below. You should visit Paris, cousin -- with your understanding of history you would find it entertaining, as many a French Court lady has done, to dine with the shade of Lucretius or Petronius at Count Cagliostro's house in the Rue St. Claude." (p. 68)
First published in 1924 and apparently out of print for decades, this short novel feels astonishingly modern. Jan Challard is a young woman who's working to support her family. Her fiance Donald is disconcerted by her habit of mental absence: he is 'not the chief thing in her life, not even for the present moment'. Jan reveals that since her school days she's been fascinated and infatuated by the portrait of an unknown eighteenth-century gentleman -- and that she longs to meet her ideal, 'a man of easy ironic wit, assured composure impossible to ruffle, and yet of fancies as fantastic as her own' (p. 19). But such a man cannot exist in 'an age that hurries and scrambles and pushes'. Absurdly romantic, diagnoses her sister, the night before Jan leaves for a long holiday in the country village of Chidleigh.

That's merely the prologue, the framing narrative. The meat of the novel is in 'Time Past': 1779, when a young lady named Juliana Clare frets genteely at the dullness of her quiet country life, and struggles to find improving thoughts to write in her journal. Dullness is banished when her rakehell brother Lucian, absent nine years and notorious for all manner of bad behaviour, returns to Chidleigh House to assume the dukedom. Lucian is also in love with someone he's seen in a dream: he calls her Incognita, and finds in Juliana a way of reaching out to her, bringing her closer, making her more real. Juliana is happy to participate in her brother's experiments -- he has a gift for mesmerism, but cannot be mesmerised himself -- and writes in her journal about the 'ghost' she's seen, and the visions of some future time that become more frequent and more distressing. And there is one night in the library, after the arrival of the French Duc who Lucian wishes her to marry, when ... something happened. But Juliana cannot remember what might have occurred: only that the Duc was found dead.

Lucian is fascinating: more vividly alive than any of the other characters, and though little of his history is stated, his complexity, melancholy and gradual moral evolution is compelling. Lucian changes, over the course of the novel, more than the other characters. Though Jan and Juliana (the one reading the other's journal, but never connecting the 'rather dull diary' with the visions she's having) both experience dramatic change (and Juliana's two oafish brothers come to appreciate that blood is thicker than water), it's Lucian who is the impetus behind those changes.

Still She Wished for Company is not exactly a ghost story: nor is it a tale of the supernatural, though there is certainly a supernatural element. It's incredibly atmospheric: it's measured, restrained, subtle and elegant, beautifully written and a thoughtful exploration of the romantic concept of the dream lover.

2010/53: Verdigris Deep -- Frances Hardinge

Ryan pulled out one of the sweetcorn cans and hefted it to shoulder height, but the muscles in his arms seemed to have gone slack. What was he hoping to do, scare them away like stray dogs? The trolleys juddered their plastic child seats with a wet paddling sound and jangled their chains. Ryan was reminded of a snake's rattle. Feeling sick, he decided to come quietly.
Ryan's mother and father noticed nothing as their only son was taken into custody by a host of supermarket trolleys and herded to the far side of the car park. (p. 158)

Verdigris Deep is set somewhere in suburban England. Three kids (Chelle who doesn't know how to be bad, Ryan who is too smart and perceptive for his own good, Jake the cool kid) miss a bus, and the only way they can get home from the dodgy, edgy village of Magwhite (it's the usual story with saver-ticket restrictions) is to fish some coins out of an old wishing-well. Clearly they have not been reading the right kind of books, and do not realise that No Good Can Come Of It.

No Good swiftly ensues. Ryan ends up seeing more than he wants to; Chelle finds herself verbalising the thoughts of strangers; Jake makes televisions, lightbulbs, anything electrical malfunction. Also, they seem to have ended up in the business of granting wishes: there's a strict economy of wish-granting, and because they took the coins they've incurred the debt, the wishes made and paid with those coins.

This is a very damp book. Well-dwelling spirits do tend to have an affinity for water. It's also a book about the nature of wishes, and how even when people make wishes they don't necessarily know what they want. (Chelle says that wishes are like conkers -- the green spiky bit is all that people see, but the real wish, the hard inner core, might be quite different. Will really thought he wanted a Harley-Davidson, but he didn't ... that was just the green, spiky bit of the wish. Inside there was this shiny nut bit of wish. Which was 'I wish I was the kind of person who had a Harley-Davidson'. (p. 221)) People change, and wishes can be granted in unexpected ways.

Verdigris Deep reminded me more than anything of mid-period Diana Wynne Jones: key resonances included the contract between adults and children ("if she would not treat them as children, why should they treat her like an adult?" p.175), the Sorcerer's Apprentice-style escalation of small lies and misdeeds, the adult undercurrents seen but not necessarily understood by the children (I was especially taken with Ryan's mum, the 'unofficial biographer' who is revealed as a huge fan of the people whose lives she writes about), and the shifting balance between the three juvenile protagonists. There are some stunning images in here, and some very eerie writing (The letters were bitter and funny and there were holes of unsaid where you could feel the demons breathing. (p.328)): and some passages so dark that many (not just children) will find them unsettling.

It is also extremely funny, and there are feral shopping trolleys. Very highly recommended.