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

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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

2010/52: Earthly Delights -- Kerry Greenwood

You have to forget everything you ever saw on Silence of the Lambs and read in Patricia Cornwell. Serial killers aren't masterminds. They're nasty little mean-minded bastards with dreams of blood. They act out of obsession, not out of deep planning ... they're as boring as people who describe the tuppeny Norwegian unfranked blue stamp, except that they're talking about corpses. (p.125)

Having read and enjoyed several of Greenwood's 'Phryne Fisher' books, I was intrigued to discover she'd written a sequence of contemporary crime novels set in Melbourne's alternative culture. Earthly Delights turns out to be what I like to call 'lifestyle crime' -- it's as much about the narrator and her life as it is about the crimes she investigates.

Corinna Chapman is 38 years old, separated from her husband, lives in a mock-Roman apartment building (Insula), owns the titular bakery, adores her cats, and knows some very interesting people. The supporting cast includes a witch, a homeless ex-junkie, a tall dark handsome mystery man, a pair of model-thin teenagers, and a dominatrix. One morning Corinna discovers a heroin addict collapsed in the alleyway behind her bakery, and her cat wanders in with a syringe in his paw. Then there are threatening messages, a dastardly property-development plan, a man mourning his missing daughter, and considerable insight into the Goth / fetish scene in Melbourne (so unlike the home life, etc).

Corinna is a bit of a geek (references to Andre Norton, Red Dwarf, Anne Rice, Discworld) and genuinely interested in people. She also has a good brain for mystery -- though there's one scene where Greenwood deliberately obfuscates a clue, something that tends to annoy me if it's not done subtly.

There is plenty going on in this novel: at least three different, albeit connected, sets of crime, as well as a measured romantic subplot. What makes it enjoyable is Greenwood's eye, and Corinna's affection, for the disparate characters, their lives and beliefs and secrets. I'll probably read more in this series, simply to find out what happens to everyone: crime novel as soap-opera?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

2010/51: A Book of Tongues -- Gemma Files

... there he was again -- right smack back in the same place, slogging through black river water to his knees under the jaundice-yellow sky. Skulls to the left of him, flowers to the right, the very air itself an obsidian storm through which knives swirled by, drawing blood 'til it felt like all he had left for skin was a single walking wound.(p.14)

Read for review for Strange Horizons: this is not the review I shall be submitting there (which I'll add a link to when it's up), but a more subjective and less critically-oriented discussion.

A Book of Tongues is the first in the Hexslinger sequence (there's no indication of how long this sequence will be, though I suspect trilogy): it's set in the 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, in a Wild West where magic works.

Hanged by the neck for mutiny and murder, Confederate chaplain Asher Rook finds himself snatched back from death by a mysterious power, the Lady of Traps and Snares to whom all hanged men belong. "Graphic physical insult can cause talent for hexation to express," according to the report prepared by the Pinkerton Agency, and Rook finds himself possessed of the power to level a town, summon a whirlwind, turn a man to a pillar of salt. Unsettlingly -- and surely because of his previous, albeit half-hearted, vocation as the Reverend Rook -- his medium of expression is Biblical quotation. (The Book of Exodus is good for summoning a plague of ants.)

Rook and his lover, the gorgeous, arrogant and amoral Chess Pargeter ('queer to the bone', in his own words), accrete a gang of outlaws and terrorise the West. Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow infiltrates the gang with the Manifold -- a thoroughly steampunk device made by a professor of Experimental Arcanistry at Columbia, with which Morrow hopes to determine the nature and extent of Rook's power. The Agency's ultimate goal is to understand the nature of magic so that it can be used for less nefarious purposes: ideally, they'll persuade Rook to change his allegiance.

Unfortunately, the Lady of Traps and Snares also wants to turn Rook's powers to her own ends, and she has rather more clout than Pinkerton's. As quickly becomes clear -- to the reader if not to the characters -- the Lady is, or was, a Mayan goddess, with all the (literal) bloodthirstiness that implies. She has been waiting for a long time in the Sunken Ballcourt, gathering power and scheming, and now her plans are coming to fruition. Rook is warned that following the Lady is a dangerous choice, not only for him but for Chess, and for the whole world: does he heed the warning? Guess.

A Book of Tongues does a masterful job of showing Rook's transformation from morally-upstanding preacher to outlaw and magician: in particular, the relationship between Chess and Rook evolves from wary stand-off to seldom-voiced but deeply-felt love and devotion. (Also, to a plethora of graphic descriptions of rough sex: this may deter some readers, as may the body-count and the endemic casual violence of the setting.) However, this is very obviously the first of a series: there are a great many loose ends, a major cliffhanger on the last page, and a sense of the scene being set for resolution -- though very likely with things getting worse before they get better.

I want to see how that resolution works out: and I want to read more of Files' prose, which is sharp and slick and colloquial and unexpectedly poetic.

I've been trying to think what A Book of Tongues reminds me of, and it's Storm Constantine's first Wraeththu trilogy: themes of love, sacrifice, apotheosis; a passionate love-affair that isn't enough to keep the lovers together; protagonists who are used by greater forces. ('Chess' and 'Rook': gaming-pieces.)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

2010/50: Light -- Margaret Elphinstone

"I am Mrs Geddes. My late husband was the lightkeeper."
Every word she spoke made it seem the more extraordinary that she was here. She was a lady. She spoke the King's English. Her skin was as brown as a hazelnut. She wore gold studs in her ears, and a sacking apron stained with soil. He saw that her hands were dirty, covered with earth in fact. (p. 97)
Lighthouse surveyor Archie Buchanan has come to realise, working for Robert Stevenson, that no further advancement in his career is possible. Fortunately he has other employment lined up: in four months he will be sailing on HMS Beagle.

One of the last projects of his current employment takes him to the Isle of Man, and onward across dangerous waters to the tiny (and mythical) island of Ellan Bride, sixteen acres of rocky land that lies to the southeast of the Calf of Man. Accompanied by his assistant Ben Groat (another assistant, Drew Scott, is left to languish in the Castletown gaol after a drunken affray), Archie flees the objections of the Water Bailiff and the Governor with relief -- he's only the surveyor, after all -- to assess the island with an eye to replacing the outmoded, privately-owned lighthouse that has stood there, tended by the same family, for half a century.

What's left of that family -- two women, two girls, a boy -- lives hand-to-mouth on £18 per annum, two-thirds of the wage that was paid to the previous lightkeeper, Jim Geddes, before he was swept away and drowned one stormy night. His sister Lucy tends the light: his widow Diya, mixed-race daughter of an East India Company official, tends the family, and dreads losing this home that she has won at such cost after being taken from her childhood home in India, and then being left penniless on the death of her grandmother.

The arrival of two young men on Ellan Bride -- though they only remain on the island for a few days -- changes the lives of the inhabitants, and of the surveyors. Lucy accepts her past; Diya thinks of the future. Breesha acknowledges loneliness; Billy, encountering adult males for the first time since his uncle died, starts to have ambitions; Mally, Diya's younger daughter, is horrified by the idea that, as a female, she is somehow inferior. Archie begins to believe he'll have something to come back to. And Ben starts to think that perhaps he doesn't want to be footloose and fancy-free for ever.

Not all change is good. Everyone on the island knows that Archie and Ben are presagers of their own departure: when the new light is built, they will no longer be needed. Diya and Lucy argue, viciously, for the first time since Jim's death. Mally and Billy fight over whether to help the surveyors. And Breesha, little mystic, is driven by a dream to an act of wickedness. But all change is part of the process of life.

Elphinstone's writing is as changeable and magical as the island itself. Each character's voice is at once distinct and rooted in that character's upbringing and experience. Billy's narrative is especially compelling: he's fascinated by everything he observes on the island, and simultaneously full of frustrated rage and bitterness. Lucy's mindset has been formed by having spent almost all her life on the island: You seem to look at everything backwards. Why would I be wanting a chronometer when it's the light and the tides that give me the time? I'm never needing a clock to tell me it's sunset, but when it's sunset I can read off the number in the almanack, and that way I always know what time it is.

Though Ellan Bride is mythical, Elphinstone brings it to a reality rooted in her own time on the Isle of Man. Ancient keeills, puffins, monstrous waves, seals at play, shipwrecks and treacherous tides: all with the ring of truth, all marvellously evocative.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

2010/49: The Mistress of Spices -- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Pebble-hard fenugreek lies tight and closed in the centre of your palm, colour of sand at the bottom of an old creek. But put it in water and it will bloom free.
Bite the swollen kernels between your teeth and taste its bitter sweetness. Taste of waterweeds in a wild place, the cry of grey geese. Fenugreek Tuesday's spice, when the air is green like mosses after rain. Spice for days when I want to huddle into a quilt stitched with peepul leaves and tell stories like on the island. Except here who would I tell them to. (p. 47)
Tilo runs a spice shop in Oakland, California: outwardly she seems an elderly Indian lady, but in fact she is a Mistress of Spices, able to work magic with the spices she stocks. While she's advising her customers on how to make a really good biriyani, she also provides subtle, often unrequested help with less tangible problems: love, loss, rejection, the heart's desire. One day a lonely American whose name she doesn't know enters the store, and Tilo finds herself prey to the feelings -- and the sense of self -- that she's been forced to set aside by her vocation. Such a shift is dangerous. The spices whispering to Tilo, the spices of whom she seems more servant than mistress, will have their revenge: Tilo will be cleansed anew in Shambati's fire, whether she wills it or not.

Each chapter is titled after a different spice, and the trail of those spices -- ginger, fenugreek, red chili, lotus -- follows the shape of the story. Divakaruni's prose is sensual, full of images that speak of somewhere other than the grimy dangerous streets of Oakland, and seems to me to have the rhythm of a solitary woman's stream-of-consciousness muttering. (Tilo's questions to herself, as in the quotation at the head of this review, never have question marks. There is nobody to answer.)

If this were simply a romance, the story of Tilo getting to know the lonely American ("so you think I'm white"), it would be a novel to read and reflect upon. There is more to it, though: the troubles of Tilo's customers are bound up in the expatriate Indian experience in California ("all who have suffered from America"), racist attacks and arranged marriages and the disjunction between women's roles -- and metrics of success -- in Western society and within the family. The characters are not mere stereotypes, though each of them embodies a different aspect of the India-in-America experience. And though the lonely American is not (by definition) Indian, he too has something to teach Tilo, if only that "perhaps we can see each another better than we can ourselves".

Or perhaps it is that Tilo's greatest weakness is her pride: perhaps her lesson is humility.

A beautiful book: again, one I've owned for years and somehow not read until now, and one that I wonder if I'd have appreciated as much when I first acquired it as I do now.

Monday, June 07, 2010

2010/48: Nights at the Circus -- Angela Carter

In Berlin, her photograph was displayed everywhere in the newsagents' windows next to that of the Kaiser. In Vienna, she deformed the dreams of that entire generation who would immediately commit themselves whole-heartedly to psychoanalysis. Everywhere she went, rivers parted for her, wars were threatened, suns eclipsed, showers of frogs and footwear were reported in the press and the King of Portugal gave her a skipping rope of egg-shaped pearls, which she banked. (p.11)
Shameful confession: a friend gave me a copy of this book in the mid-Eighties, and for some reason I didn't read it, and didn't read it ... until now, when it's a bookclub selection. (I am beginning to understand how ... organic my to-read stack has become. And how it evolves.)

1899, a new century banging at the door: the cusp of the modern age, the hinge of the nineteenth century. Fevvers (née Sophie, a foundling) is the world's only winged woman: Nights at the Circus opens with Fevvers being interviewed by intrepid young reporter Jack Walser, who finds himself falling under her spell. In more ways than one as she recounts her picaresque life, from doorstep to brothel to May sacrifice to the high trapeze. Walser is lost. He runs away to join the circus, and travels to and through Russia with Fevvers, her foster-mother Lizzie -- to whom there's considerably more than meets the eye -- and a cast of disparate and desperate characters: a former ghost-impersonator, a troupe of (over-)educated apes, the Princess of Abyssinia whose tigers dance to her piano-playing ...

This is a novel packed with surreal and magical images. Time runs faster, slower, stops: there is a clock stuck at the 'shadowless' hour of noon, or possibly midnight: there is a figure of Father Time abandoned by escaped prisoners who intend to form a lesbian commune in which there'll be no place for fathers. There are other ways in which reality, or at least realism, are subverted. Fevvers boards a train that can't be boarded. The apes, oppressed, revolt and take the means of production into their own hands. (Paws?) There is Lizzie's handbag and the secrets within. There is class warfare (nobility of spirit hand in hand with absence of analysis, that's what's always buggered up the working class). There are several distinct flavours of feminism: it has to be said that the men in this novel are seldom as successful, as fortunate or as good-hearted as the women, but the women have their own kind of magic that is rooted in strength, purity of purpose, determination, independence. There are themes of imprisonment and of escape. And it's all wrapped up in the most superlative writing, with images that are quietly stunning: 'pupils grown fat on darkness', 'the shadowless hours'.

A beautiful book and one I wish I'd read sooner: though I do wonder if I'd have found it as marvellous at 25 as I do now.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Fathom -- Cherie Priest

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Summer 2010.

Fathom, something of a departure from Cherie Priest's earlier works (though not from her Southern Gothic roots) has something of the flavour of Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides. It melds furious tropical storms, the earth-quaking dreams of ancient gods, the stifling lushness of the forest and the sense of something ominous lurking beneath the calm surface of the sea. There are ghosts, witches, pirates and a shark-mouthed ingenue; there are elements of Greek myth, alchemy, urban legend and Shakespeare's Tempest.

Nia (short for Apollonia) is visiting her cousin Beatrice when she witnesses a brutal murder. Fleeing the scene, she plunges into the sea -- only to be dragged beneath the waves, along with Beatrice, by something ancient and evil.

But Nia is spared, in a sense: washed up like driftwood, she finds herself with plenty of time to reflect. Meanwhile, life on the little island of Anna Maria goes on without her, until the arrival of Sam, a harmless and likeable insurance adjustor, sparks transformation, change and a desperate race against the water-witch whose ambition is to waken a slumbering god.

While not a feminist novel in any meaningful sense, Fathom is full of strong, dangerous female characters. The men are less effectual, though somewhat more sympathetic. José Gaspar -- generally believed to be mere legend, puffed up by local tourist boards -- is portrayed as a former pirate who failed to discharge an errand and was punished for it: "I removed from the face of the earth every trace that he'd ever lived. There remains neither note nor relic to confirm he ever breathed before I claimed him." (p. 56) That's the vengeance of an angry goddess bound by her promise not to harm him; instead, she hits Gaspar where it hurts, in his reputation.

Fathom is a curiously timeless novel: it's set some time in the twentieth century, but it's hard to be more precise. There are Coke cans and cars, but most people on Anna Maria still get around on horseback; Nia wonders whether it's acceptable for a woman to wear trousers and bob her hair; Beatrice smokes 'to look smooth'.

Fathom is also rather unevenly paced, with long slow passages followed by frantic chases and abrupt reversals. The final few chapters, in particular, feel rushed and somehow unfinished, though perhaps that's more a product of Nia's detached point of view. On the other hand, that very detachment lulls the reader into a sense of complacency that's shattered by casual violence and character death.

There's something hollow at the heart of Fathom: perhaps it's the sense that we share with Nia, of moving -- or being guided -- through a world with rules and relationships that are never made clear. Perhaps it's the weight of reference and allusion that makes the novel top-heavy, so freighted with images and characters and ideas that it founders in confusion. Perhaps it's just the way the novel seems to simply stop, rather than finish: there's a lack of closure. Still, I'd recommend this. Priest's prose is robust, poetic, precise: she's adept at evoking atmosphere, and her flavour of horror is unique.