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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2010/35: A Monstrous Regiment Of Women -- Laurie R. King

I had told Holmes that I wanted Margery Childe to be someone who talked with God, someone actually doing what I and countless others had spent lifetimes scrutinising, and at that moment at any rate I was convinced that this was what I was witnessing. It was galvanic. Electrifying. I wanted to take notes. Yet it was also troubling, to see before me living evidence that the limpid stream I studied could become this crashing, unruly, primal force. (p. 111)

Following a pointed and opaque argument with her mentor (did he really work out her motive for paying a visit before she'd said a word?) Mary Russell takes to the streets of London and bumps into an old friend, who introduces her to Margery Childe, charismatic leader of the New Temple of God. The movement, rooted in suffragism and feminism, offers Mary (who's graduated with a degree in theology and chemistry, and has shed her aunt and inherited her fortune) a fascinating new angle on religion: moreover, Margery Childe seems truly touched by the divine.

A series of inexplicable deaths amongst wealthy young women connected to the Temple demands the investigative skills of the Russell and Holmes partnership (thus allowing them to repair their friendship): but Mary finds herself involved more deeply than she'd intended, and an unpleasant aspect of her past comes back to haunt her.

There's one exchange, in the last ten pages, that jarred me and seemed out of character ("I've wanted to do that since ...") but overall: yes, this is Mary Russell growing up, true to herself; this is Holmes, standing back (he's absent for quite a bit of the book) and observing, often all too acutely, as Mary exercises her independence and her intellect; and A Monstrous Regiment of Women also provides a fascinating mystery and an intriguing setting.

2010/34: The Beekeeper's Apprentice -- Laurie R. King

This self-contained individual, this man who had rarely allowed even his sturdy, ex-Army companion Watson to confront real risk, who had habitually ... held back, been cautious, kept an eye out and otherwise protected me; this man who was a Victorian gentleman down to his boots; this man was now proposing to place not only his life and limb into my untested, inexperienced and above all female hands, but my own life as well. (p. 257)

One day in 1915, a teenage girl with her nose in a book practically trips over a retired detective on the South Downs. It's not an auspicious meeting: he mistakes her for a boy, earning the scornful rejoinder that it's probably a good thing he's retired, then.

Despite their initial antipathy, it quickly becomes clear that this is a meeting of minds. In Mary Russell (fifteen, feminist, brilliant, independent, Jewish, orphaned, and unhappy), Sherlock Holmes finds an equal partner of a kind he's never had: Russell, for her part, finds a father-figure (which sits slightly uncomfortably with me, given developments in later books), a mentor and a friend.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice spans the first four years of their association, and a variety of cases (from local robbery to German spies to a slow-cooked revenge). Mary Russell soon discovers that Holmes's retirement is more of a polite fiction; she gets to know the man behind the stories, which have been somewhat embellished ("I deduce, Miss Russell: Watson transforms") and, in the process, comes to understand herself rather better too.

The characters are true to canon, though I'm not keen on King's Watson, who is as bumbling and slow as any of the early film/TV adaptations that made him a comic foil for Holmes. Mrs Hudson is delightful. (And sharp.) And I can certainly extrapolate this Holmes -- ageing gracefully but in full command of his formidable skills, doing intelligence work for Mycroft, bored to distraction once the war's over and he's left without purpose -- from Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.

If I call this 'fan fiction' it's not in any derogatory sense. It takes canon, shares the author's knowledge, affection and joy therein with the reader -- who may well know more about Holmes than Mary Russell does, at least initially -- and uses that canon as the foundation of something new. I confess when I first heard of Mary Russell, I did pointedly enquire if her middle name was by any chance 'Sue': but Russell is a well-rounded individual in her own right, and though she is an excellent counterpart to Holmes, it's Russell herself rather than her mentor (or her relationship with him) who is the focus of this and subsequent novels.

Monday, April 26, 2010

2010/33: Enchanted Glass -- Diana Wynne Jones

"I myself discovered I could grow roses as soon as I came here ... It strikes me that this area is further into the occult than most other places. Stuff comes welling up -- or out -- from somewhere, and it was Jocelyn Brandon's job to cherish it and keep it clean, so that it does no harm." (p. 85)

Andrew Hope, a thirtysomething academic, has inherited his grandfather's house. Like many inheritances, it comes with strings attached, in this case old Jocelyn Brandon's magical 'field of care', centred on the building and -- though not marked on any map -- encompassing most of the village of Melstone.

Andrew would, of course, be busy exploring this, and going through his grandfather's papers: possibly even working on his own magnum opus, a book about the nature of history. Instead, he's distracted by a cast of characters as colourful as one would expect from Diana Wynne Jones: a territorial housekeeper; a one-legged Irish chap; a beautiful but bossy young woman, Stashe (short for Eustacia), who employs herself as Andrew's assistant; a simple but mechanically-gifted youth; and a runaway adolescent, one Aidan Cain, who's come to Andrew seeking protection. Though Aidan is not entirely clear who he needs to be protected from ...

As Andrew watches Aidan discover Melstone and the field of care, he finds himself remembering his own childhood -- and recovering some of what his grandfather tried to teach him. Forays through the voluminous paperwork left by Andrew's ancestors begin to reveal a long-standing bargain with local bigwig Mr O. Brown, resident of the manor, whose two ex-wives are both out to get him.

Though Enchanted Glass feels calm and occasionally rather slow, it packs in plenty of matter-of-fact, pragmatic, comfortably worn-in magic. The glass in question is the beautiful stained glass in the kitchen door, where Andrew has always imagined he can see faces. Stashe uses the racing results as an oracle, and helps Andrew boost his wards ("You can do it on the computer these days"). There's a great deal made of the importance of accurate naming: Aidan escapes one set of pursuers because they get his name wrong, and Mr Brown, queried about a threatening security guard in the woods, sidesteps the question with "I can give you no other name for him than Security".

The ending felt somewhat hasty to me, but perhaps that was just by contrast with the gradual build of tension and mystery. Enchanted Glass isn't up there with my favourite Diana Wynne Jones novels*, but it's a perfect example of something the author does very well: a book with appeal for a wide readership. There is romance and friendship, magic and machinery, comedy and tragedy, a strong sense of place and a very English resonance. Also, a talking animal.

*off the top of my head and in no particular order, my top five are Hexwood, A Sudden Wild Magic, Dogsbody, Eight Days of Luke and Howl's Moving Castle

Sunday, April 25, 2010

2010/32: The City and the City -- China Mieville

... pass through Copula Hall and he or she might leave Beszel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude and longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now that they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home. (p.86)

The City and the City is, on one level, a police procedural. The setting is a city somewhere on the eastern edge of Europe, near Turkey and Bulgaria and Hungary: a city that's somehow split into two different, conterminous cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. Though Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same geographical area (some streets exist only in one city or the other; others are crosshatched with alterity, patches of both), they are ontologically divided. A man may watch a woman walking down the street in front of him before realising -- through subtle distinctions of dress, mannerism, behaviour -- that she isn't in the same city as him: that he 'should not have seen her'.

The two cities are wholly independent, with their own government, police forces, legal systems. The division between the two cities, though, is policed by the mysterious Breach, a body which is responsible for keeping the two cities apart: for punishing those who stray from one to another without traversing official borders, and preventing any interaction between the inhabitants of the two cities. The body of a murder victim is found in a Beszel park, but Inspector Borlu discovers that she was murdered in Ul Qoma. Surely a case for Breach? But instead Borlu finds himself working with his Ul Qoman counterpart Qussim Dhatt, walking the streets of the other city and unseeing his own.

And gradually the two of them come to realise that the murdered woman was on the trail of a deeper mystery: a force opposed to Breach, a city that's neither Beszel nor Ul Qoma, an explanation for the muddled archaeology of Ul Qoma, a revolution in the making ...

Mieville's worldbuilding is exquisitely detailed without being obtrusive. Beszel and Ul Qoma have their own internet domain suffixes (.zb and .uq).
The colour known as Beszel Blue is illegal in Ul Qoma. Beszel was once more modern, more advanced, than its twin: now Ul Qoma is enjoying an economic boom. Immigrants who hoped to reach Ul Qoma are bitterly disappointed when they're picked up by Beszel's patrols. Tourists from abroad have to undergo training and pass an entrance exam (theoretical and practical role-play) before they're granted visas. Those who pass from one city to the other wear visitor's marks, so that they may legitimately be seen. The two cities, countries, have different scripts, different histories, significantly different archaeology. They appear in travelogues, in novels (I wonder if the in-story novel by Pahlaniuk, concerning those who live between the interstices of the two cities, is a sly reference to Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club, another work concerning identity and division); they are compared to other more traditionally divided cities such as Jerusalem and Berlin. The highway codes must be a nightmare.

But the glorious inventiveness of the setting tends to overwhelm the novel's plot. A crime has been committed: that crime is solved, because Borlu is a man who will do the right thing even if it's forbidden by law, by custom, by ontology. But that crime -- its victim, her family, the investigators, the colleagues -- seems shallow, flimsy, ultimately incomprehensible.

The narrative voice is Borlu's throughout, and perhaps that's why he stands out as a person, an individual with emotions and dimensions, in a way that none of the other characters quite achieve. We witness the arc of his transformation, but there's no sense of closure. I felt I was missing something in this novel: perhaps an explanation for the city/ies' nature, perhaps a drawing-together of hints and echoes (the 'questionable physics' of ancient artifacts, for instance), perhaps just a resolution of the pervasive sense of disequilibrium. An unsettling novel in more ways than one -- but it's beautifully crafted, with dreamlike images hammered firmly home with Borlu's dogged pragmatism and gritty detail.

2010/31: The Bridge -- Zoran Živković

It would be years before her son was born. She wasn't married, and had yet to meet the boy's father. She knew nothing about him except what she'd just found out. Her future husband would be a redhead. Her son couldn't have inherited that fiery-coloured hair from her. (p. 65)

This short book consists of three linked tales set in a nameless city with an East European feel (the author is Serbian). I picked up The Bridge on recommendation from a friend -- having set myself the target of reading authors A through Z, I ended up at Eastercon with a book by Z___ which I wasn't in the mood to read at the time. Instead, I bought this: I'm not wholly convinced it's representative of Živkovic's work, but it has an unsettling, Borgesian dream-logic to it, and resonates with images and symbolism that are opaque yet laden with significance.

In each of the three sections, the narrator follows someone who can't be there -- a doppelganger, a dead woman, an unborn son grown to maturity -- or, perhaps, follows someone who, in the way of dreams, stands for somebody else. Each narrator (a middle-aged man, a single woman of indeterminate age, a young girl) is nervous, compelled to follow, unwilling or unable to turn to anyone for support or help. Each narrator visits an unexpected place hiding in the heart of the city; acquires a peculiar object (a raincoat with mismatched lapels, a scarf that resembles a snake, a pair of trainers); engages in or witnesses a game of chance that is also a surreal theatrical performance; sees a man with lurid red hair ... Each narrator ends up at a bridge across the river, their quarry suddenly lost.

The Afterword by Slobodan Vladusic discusses The Bridge with reference to Kafka, humanism and posthumanism, and the riddle-solving ontology of video games. 'Kafkaesque', he suggests, is 'part of the process of becoming accustomed to the irrational appearing in places where ... the rational would have had to prevail' (p.93); it also implies a level of threat to the protagonist, which is absent in The Bridge. Živkovic, says Vladusic, is more concerned with the possibility of new life, the interconnectivity of the world, than a dehumanising threat to the individual.

I confess that if The Bridge is a series of riddles, I failed to unravel them: if there was closure, explanation, resolution I missed it. The dreamlike surrealism is intriguing; the text seems well-translated; but I came away with the sense of there being something I didn't see.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010/30: The Brothers Bishop -- Bart Yates

Love attacks. It sneaks up like a pride of lions or a pack of hyenas and eats your heart out while you watch. Love is the bully on the playground who takes your lunch money and gives you a black eye in return, the arsonist who burns your house down with you in it, the witch who lures you into her house with candy and boils you alive for dinner. Love is raw, and violent, and instantaneous. You don't fall in love; you get trampled by it. (p. 210)

Nathan lives, reclusive and celibate, in a small New England town. He teaches high school, tries to ignore the (male) student who's flirting with him, and tries to pretend that he is more than a response to his past. Then his brilliant, loveable younger brother Tommy descends, with his lover Philip and a married couple in tow, and turns Nathan's quiet bitter life upside down.

Nathan and Tommy are dissimilar -- Tommy craves connections, Nathan thinks that 'loneliness is a small price to pay for peace and quiet' -- but they're bound by more than blood: their earliest sexual experiences were with one another, and they spent their youth surviving their widowed father's depression, rage and emotional absence. Though they now lead very different lives, they've been shaped by the same experiences, and the same things matter to them both: love, sexuality, betrayal, rage.

Tommy's presence, and the way he acts towards his friends and Nathan's acquaintances, forces Nathan to reappraise his own relationship with, and memories of, their father. As he revisits memories of his youth, the reader sees what Nathan only gradually begins to acknowledge -- that Nathan takes after his dad in more than just looks, that his rage and despair and vindictive streak is as unhealthy as Tommy's footloose and fancy-free hedonism. And, more, that the two of them together -- unable to let go of one another, even after all this time -- are a recipe for tragedy and disaster.

Nathan is not, exactly, unlikeable. His mordant humour and refusal to comply with others' expectations has an honesty that Tommy (seen through the distorting lens of Nathan's POV) lacks. Nathan's pain, and his unacknowledged grief and love, makes him a compelling character. As he begins to unravel the tangle of his own emotions, he begins to understand his brother rather better, and learns some harsh truths about himself and his family.

There's a subplot concerning archaeological excavations in the field behind Nathan's cottage -- local historian eager to discover lost Indian settlement -- that never quite gelled for me, though it may be a metaphor for Nathan's gradual excavation of his emotions. The relationship between Kyle and Camille, the married couple who accompany Tommy, has more parallels with Nathan and Tommy's uneasy balancing-act than is at first obvious. But the core of the novel is the relationship between the brothers Bishop, and what they know about each other and themselves.

Fascinating, dark, unsettling and tragic: beautifully written, too. Don't come to this novel if you want happy endings: read it, instead, for an insight into the breaking and mending of souls.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010/29: Shadows Over Baker Street ed. Michael Reeves and John Pelan

"My dear Lestrade. Please give me some credit for having a brain. The corpse is obviously not that of a man -- the colour of his blood, the number of limbs, the eyes, the position of the face -- all these things bespeak the blood royal ... I would hazard he is an heir, perhaps -- no, second to the throne -- in one of the German principalities."
..."This is Prince Franz Drago of Bohemia. He was here in Albion as a guest of Her Majesty Victoria. Here for a holiday and a change of air ..."
"For the theatres, the whores and the gambling tables, you mean." ('A Study in Emerald', Neil Gaiman: p.8)

An anthology of fanfiction transformative works bringing together Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and various of H. P. Lovecraft's creations. The list of contributors is impressive, including Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, Poppy Z Brite, Brian Stableford and Barbara Hambly.

The quality of the stories is variable. I bought this on the basis of my admiration for Gaiman's Hugo-winning 'A Study in Emerald' (available at Gaiman's site as an illustrated PDF). Sadly, few of the other stories display the same playful inventiveness, though all capture the spirit, or tone, or style of one or other original. I did like Bear's 'Tiger! Tiger!' which features Irene Adler in India. And Steven-Elliot Altman's 'A Case of Royal Blood' is notable for pairing Holmes with that other intrepid Victorian, H. G. Wells.

Given the supreme rationality of Holmes and his disdain for superstition, there could've been more made of the resounding clash of world-views implicit in the premise of this anthology. Some authors confront this directly, with Holmes encountering some new (though ancient beyond the ken of humanity) evil: some, like Gaiman, are effectively writing in an alternate universe where supernatural horror is and has always been part of the warp and weft of the world.

Incidentally, Shadows over Baker Street -- which I enjoyed, though suspect is better taken in small doses -- reminded me of another book that features Holmes and Lovecraftian horror: Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October, in which the Great Detective pulls off his most ambitious disguise ever. That's a novel with the same sense of play as Gaiman's story -- I don't mean that the subject's (necessarily) humorous, but rather that there's a sense of the author's relish in another creator's sandbox. That's something I enjoy in transformative works and I didn't find as much as I'd hoped in Shadows over Baker Street.