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

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010/28: Retribution Falls -- Chris Wooding

He'd been brave enough to look into the unknown ... he could do things that powerful men would marvel at. Shortly before they hanged him.
To return to the grey unknowing, the humdrum day-to-day, was unimaginable. He'd tasted grief and despair and the highest terror, he'd made the most terrible mistakes and he bore a shame that no man should have to bear, but he'd stared into the fires of forbidden knowledge, and though he might look away for a moment, his gaze would always be drawn back. (p.99-100)

Darian Frey is captain of the Ketty Jay, once a Navy aircraft and now a pirate vessel. (Arrr!) He is untrustworthy, darkly handsome, lazy, something of a womaniser, and utterly self-centred. Despite these traits, he's gathered together a rag-tag crew of misfits and criminals, all of whom are running from something, all of whom have a Dark Secret or two in their pasts. There is also a bad-tempered cat, named Slag: Slag probably has some Dark Secrets too, which may even justify his presence on board the Ketty Jay.

Frey and his crew are offered the opportunity of a lifetime: just take out a single freighter, the Ace of Skulls, and they'll all be rich beyond their wildest dreams, set for lives of luxury. Naturally they jump at the chance. Naturally, it doesn't play out quite as advertised.

On one level Retribution Falls is a pacy swashbuckling steampunk tale: plenty of brass and chrome, scientific(k) daemonology, dastardly plots, a secret pirate city (the eponymous Retribution Falls), elegant balls steeped in political intrigue, exhilirating air-battles, treachery, vengeance, et cetera. It's immense fun and full of provocative world-building: I want to know more about the Samarlans, about the unexplored continents, about the forgotten ancients whose civilisation was swallowed by the polar ice, about the physics of daemonology and just how you make a golem.


This is, though, very much a boys' own adventure. There are a couple of strong, solid female characters, but they feel like fantasy women. Also, they are (in different ways) dead -- as is (in yet another way) the third female character who springs to mind. A fourth, Amalicia, has been confined to a convent (which is, from Frey's POV, full of 'sex-starved adolescent girls'). These women are strong enough to have survived what's been done to them: the men around them treat them as equals, more or less. (Perhaps 'less': why does nobody care about Jez's awful secret? Surely it's mysterious enough for them to be curious?) They have been victims of irrevocable damage, and yet that damage seems somehow trivialised.

The softer emotions don't get much of a look-in. The emotional arc of the story focusses on various characters' redemptions, and Frey's gradual assumption of the role (as opposed to mere title) of Captain. In the end, several people do the decent thing, and the stage is set for sequels -- which, yes, I'll probably read through sheer fascination with this piratical steampunk world.

Retribution Falls is well-written, eminently readable and great fun, and though I found it flawed this might've been because I was hoping for (even) more.

2010/27: The Conjurer Princess -- Vivian Vande Velde

[Her hair] looked palest silver, an old woman's hair to go with the old woman's voice. Something's not right, she thought, even before she lifted her hand to brush the hair out of her eyes, even before she saw the distended veins, the brown spots of age, the cracks and wrinkles. (p. 40)
Lylene's sister's wedding didn't go according to plan: the groom, Randal, was murdered and the bride, Beryl, abducted by armed men. Lylene vowed to rescue her sister, and became a sorceror's apprentice until such time as she could acquire power of her own. Power that came with a price ...

The setting for this novel is reminiscent of Malory's Morte d'Arthur: an Olde England replete with sorcery and witchcraft, mistrustful villagers, knights in shining armour, castles and princesses and prophecies.

Lylene is far from all-powerful, and she makes plenty of mistakes. She has some interesting moral choices to make, and some difficult dilemmas to solve. After a misunderstanding involving magical gold, she takes up with a pair of outlaws, Shile and Weiland, who reluctantly help her on her quest to save her sister. Or, as it turns out, to reveal the truth about what really happened on her sister's wedding day.

I didn't really engage with this book: it's fast-paced at the expense of depth, and the ending's rather abrupt. I suspect the most interesting character in it is Weiland, who gets a book of his own (The Changeling Prince, of which there's an excerpt at the end of The Conjurer Princess).

Monday, March 29, 2010

2010/26: Montmorency -- Eleanor Updale

Though ignored by everyone until it was time for his scars to be exhibited before them, he heard of major advances in medicine, engineering, mathematics and natural philosophy. A habitual thief, he continued to steal. With no pockets for his booty, he stole ideas and facts, committing to memory each detail of every lecture. (p.3)

One night in Victorian London a common thief, fleeing police, falls through a skylight: gravely injured, he becomes the pet project of master surgeon Dr Farcett, who saves his life. Charged under the name 'Montmorency' (from the brand name on his stolen bag of tools) he spends the next few years in prison -- the sheer monotony of it relieved by the occasions when he's taken to meetings to illustrate Dr Farcett's pioneering techniques. During one of these excursions he hears a lecture by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, father of London's sewer systems, and has an Idea.

Once released from prison, Montmorency -- who is a sharp one -- is determined to leave his former life behind. Not the crime, of course: just the grinding poverty. He embarks on an ingenious scheme involving two personae: Scarper, a greasy-looking fellow who can pass as a commoner or a servant, and Scarper's employer Montmorency, apparently a titled gentleman, who quickly becomes known as a man of (stolen) wealth and (borrowed) taste.

Despite this being a book for children, Updale doesn't flinch from the less salubrious aspects of Victorian life. Scarper takes lodgings with a mother-and-daughter team of prostitutes; Montmorency witnesses and experiences man's inhumanity to man (and animals), in prison and beyond. And of course both are criminals ... Yet Montmorency changes and grows over the course of the novel, to the point where he finds himself choosing to do what's right rather than what's merely expedient, profitable or entertaining.

Very readable, nice short chapters, and plenty more in the series: recommended for children, and for adults who want a quick easy read with good pacing and quiet wit.

2010/25: The Queen of Attolia -- Megan Whalen Turner

She was the shadow princess, dull and quiet. She waited with every appearance of passivity as a funeral was arranged for her father and a wedding for herself. Then, at the wedding feast, while the lords and ladies of her court looked on, Attolia poisoned her bridegroom. (p.227)

Second in the trilogy* that began with The Thief, whose hero Gen (Eugenides) finds himself, at the beginning of The Queen of Attolia, the captive of the eponymous ruler -- a cruel and merciless young woman who cannot afford compassion if she's to maintain her position as ruler of Attolia and rival to Eugenides' cousin, the queen of Eddis. (Rulers take the names of their countries, so the queen of Attolia is referred to throughout simply as 'Attolia'.)

Eddis, on Eugenides' return to his homeland, won't permit him to sink into apathy. She bids him steal her something precious: peace. What she doesn't realise (and probably nor does he) is that he has already stolen something else, something that will affect the changing balance of power between Attolia, Eddis and the other nations vying for supremacy in this quasi-Mediterranean world.

There are some grim scenes in this novel, and some thoroughly twisty plotting: it's a far darker book than The Thief. In a world where the gods are, if not omnipresent or omnipotent, at least accessible to their human worshippers, Eugenides has plenty of questions to ask them. Is he merely their puppet? Is there a purpose to all he's lost and what he's gained?

The two queens, Eddis and Attolia, are well-balanced counterparts: both strong and powerful women in different ways, both fairly young but already experienced in statecraft, and both concerned with Eugenides and his fate. Perhaps the nature of Attolia's concern, when revealed, comes as too much of a surprise -- but I'd rather be surprised than find a novel predictable, and it does make sense, both for the character(s) and for the plot.

Turner's writing is smooth and unpretentious: it fits well with the classical flavour of the setting. It's not the Greece of myth and legend: the geography, politics, gender roles are different, but there's still a Helen who provoked a devastating war.

*actually a quartet now -- A Conspiracy of Kings, following The King of Attolia, was published ... er, last week.

Friday, March 05, 2010

2010/24: The Lovely Bones -- Alice Sebold

Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day I knew I wanted to tell the story of my family. Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun: it cannot be contained. (p. 182)

The Lovely Bones begins when Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by a neighbour: Susie, in heaven, watches her family and friends as they try to come to terms with what happened to her.

Susie's omniscient viewpoint means that every nuance of her family's grief can be examined. She's also obsessed with her murderer: she comes to understand him very well. She watches Ruth, a schoolmate given to poetry -- she was standing in my path that night when my soul shrieked out of Earth. I could not help but graze her. (p. 32) -- and Ruth's friendship with Ray Singh, who might've been Susie's first boyfriend.

I enjoyed this more than I expected: books as popular as The Lovely Bones are often disappointing, and there is something both sensationalist and sentimental about the novel's angle on a brutal crime. Right from the beginning we know that something of Susie survives: we know (we're told) that she's in heaven. Her murder becomes a life cut short, cut free from change, rather than something fragile and full of potential being destroyed for ever.

I'm not convinced that Susie is in heaven. Her heaven doesn't sound especially heavenly. I wonder if it's actually purgatory. (Also, in what sort of heaven is 'how to commit the perfect murder' a popular game?)

And I am uneasy about Ruth, whose whole life is changed by the 'graze' of Susie's soul against hers that night. Ruth becomes psychic; she is forced to bear witness to the ethereal echoes of crimes against women; she gives herself up -- however willingly -- to a loss of control, a lack of will, that borders on rape.

There is no religion, no higher power, evident here. The nature of Susie's survival is never explained; nor are Ruth's visions, or Grandma Lynn's pronouncement 'that's him', nor the mechanism by which Susie can affect physical objects. I don't think it needs explanation, though, and I'm relieved that Sebold didn't attempt theology.

Some beautiful writing and some poignant observations: Susie's mother punished for never really wanting to be a mother, Susie's father always loving his dead daughter, Susie's sister jolted into becoming her own person, an adult person. The Lovely Bones is a thoughtful meditation on the changes wrought -- and the scope of those changes -- by a violent death: it doesn't offer explicit closure, but by the end of the novel Susie may be ready, at last, to let go of the world.

All I could do was talk, but no one on Earth could hear me. (p.28)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

2010/23: The Girls of Slender Means -- Muriel Spark

The weeks had passed, and since in the May of Teck Club they were weeks of youth in the ethos of war, they were capable of accommodating quick happenings and reversals, rapid formations of intimate friendships, and a range of lost and discovered loves that in later years and in peace would take years to happen, grow and fade. The May of Teck girls were nothing if not economical. Nicholas, who was past his youth, was shocked at heart by their week-by-week emotions. (p. 95)

London, 1945: the May of Teck Club, a Kensington hostel, provides accommodation for 'girls of slender means': a bevy of girls in the dormitory, gossipping about their Air Force boyfriends, and a number of slightly older women who have separate rooms but intricately-connected lives. Poverty and post-war euphoria define this novel. The girls share a Schiaparelli dress, and a fascination with young avant-garde poet Nicholas Farringdon. Jane, who works in publishing -- 'the world of books' -- is fascinated by his worldiness and his words. Joanna, who teaches elocution and has vowed never to love again, wonders if she might make an exception. Nicholas, though, is more interested in the beautiful and accessible Selina.

The Girls of Slender Means evokes an almost frantic sense of carpe diem, a pervasive relief that the war's over and simultaneously a sense of foreboding, of imminent change. This is a London of unexploded bombs, quiet violence, rationing and the black market.

I read this because a friend remarked on its similarities to Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love. There are similarities: the girls living together almost claustrophobically, the fire at the end, perhaps the framing of a character looking back much later. The Mantel novel, though, is a much darker book. While some of the events may be comparable, the tone and flow and focus are not.

Monday, March 01, 2010

2010/22: Dreamers of the Day -- Mary Doria Russell

If we are timid or rebellious or both, then travel -- by itself and by ourselves -- forces us to leave our old lives behind. Travel can overcome habitual resistance and set the soul in motion along magnetic lines of attraction. On foreign soil, desires -- denied, policed, constrained at home -- can be unbound. What lies beneath the skin-thin surface of the domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult. (p. 138)

At the end of the First World War Agnes Shanklin is 38 and certain that all the big questions of her life have been answered: she'll remain unmarried, carry on teaching, eventually move back home to look after her domineering mother in her old age. Then comes the flu epidemic, and Agnes loses her whole family and gains a substantial inheritance. Suddenly, there's nothing to stop her doing ... what?

At a seance (just in case she can hear the voices of her dead again) Agnes encounters, apparently, the spirit of Mark Twain, who advises her to travel to Egypt. (Coincidentally, the medium's gentleman friend runs a travel agency just down the hall.) Accompanied only by her Dachshund Rosie, Agnes sets off for Cairo: and finds herself swept up in a milieu of charismatic political movers and shakers -- T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and some fellow named Churchill. Though ignorant of the issues affecting the Arab world, Agnes is neither stupid nor shy, and ends up as sounding-board and Voice of Reason to her new friends. While she learns about the history and religion of the region and witnesses the shaping of the modern Middle East, Agnes also learns a great deal about herself (and her relationship with her mother), and incidentally falls in love.

Dreamers of the Day (the title is from Lawrence: the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible) is beautifully written and impeccably researched: I'd expected no less. But it didn't engage me the way Russell's other novels have done: too much information about the politics and the political process, not enough engagement with the characters. Agnes is fascinated by Lawrence's charisma and charm, but he is not the focus of the novel: if anyone is, it's Agnes herself. I wonder if earlier shades of this Lawrence appear in Emilio Sandoz (of Lawrence's experience of rape: some say it never happened as he described it, but something awful did: it scarred him deeply (p. 241)). And Agnes' situation as she tells her story is vague and indeterminate: she doesn't understand it herself, and it seems as though the sole reason for her persistence is to lecture the present-day reader on the machinations that underlie the political tensions of the twenty-first century.

2010/21: Galveston -- Paul Quarrington

Maywell's concept of the globe was based in large part on his reading, and rereading, of William Dampier's A New Voyage Round the World. So in Maywell's mind there was the Atlantick Sea, and Dampier Cay was in the Caribee. He thought of the largest island to the southwest as Hispaniola, although he was grudgingly aware that it had at some time been divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. [He] knew his unique reference points made him an object of curiosity. Fishing clients often grilled him about the immediate geography: Maywell might refer to New Andalusia, which would earn him a look of confusion, then as much laughter as the clients thought they could get away with. (p.132)

A Category Five hurricane is heading for the (fictional) Caribbean island of Dampier Cay. All right-thinking people have abandoned the island. Nevertheless, visitors are arriving: Gail and Sorvig, a pair of feckless females looking for sun, sea and sex (they picked the wrong week for their holiday but will not be dissuaded); Jimmy Newton, veteran storm-chaser; Beverly, who's lost parents and child and husband; Caldwell, a lottery winner who has become detached from the world. And there are the die-hards who won't leave the island: Maywell Hope, who likes to think he's descended from one of the pirates who sailed with Dampier -- his family have a history of ne'er-do-wells and mavericks -- and who has only ever read one book (Dampier's New Voyage); his common-law wife Polly who runs the Water's Edge hotel; the hotel's handyman, Lester, given to writing psalms.

The storm is coming, and it shakes a lot of things up.

It's not a novel about the Galveston floods of 1900, though Beverly and Caldwell find a shared fascination with that day of devastation. It's not even a novel about serious weather. It's a novel about the moments of grace and courage that are created by the pressure of the natural world's ferocity. The humour here is wry and dark and unobtrusive: you could read this as a tragedy. But there is beauty and redemption, and people overcoming their secret losses and griefs without ever stating them aloud. Most of all, it's about people who've grown numb rediscovering what it means to feel alive.

Quarrington died earlier this year. He was 56.