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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

2010/47: Rude Mechanicals -- Kage Baker

It would never be exactly as Reinhardt dreamt. nothing could. How lucky mortals are, thought Lewis, that they never live long enough to learn it. (p.23)
California, 1934: Max Reinhardt is staging a spectacular production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Literature Specialist Lewis (an immortal cyborg, for those unfamiliar with the Company) has been charged to retrieve Reinhardt's prompt-book for 'some billionaire up in 2342'. Meanwhile, Joseph -- who is even older, even wilier and considerably more prone to the ridiculous -- is on a quest of his own, to recover a priceless gem that's been unearthed by Reinhardt's workmen and is being passed around as an amusing piece of costume jewellery.

This novella (114 pages) is a light-hearted caper, with car chases, lewd movies, all-night parties and a number of famous or soon-to-be-famous names (Mickey Rooney, Harold Lloyd) making fools of themselves. It's very much in the spirit of Shakespeare's frivolous comedy -- albeit with dark undertones, for Lewis frequently despairs of mortals and Joseph's world-weariness can't always be hidden beneath his (mostly metaphorical) jester's mask. Great fun, a delightful sense of place and time, and a bittersweet joy to read following the author's recent, untimely death.
"...Travel light, Lewis, and keep your mind on the job."
"And carry only memories?" said Lewis.
"Not if you can help it," Joseph replied. "They weigh more than ten years' worth of National Geographic Magazine, sometimes. (p.38)

2010/46: Zorro -- Isabel Allende

Until that moment Diego had not been conscious of his dual personality: one part Diego de la Vega, elegant, affected, hypochondriac, and the other part El Zorro, audacious, daring, playful. He supposed his true character lay somewhere in between, but he didn't know who he was: neither of the two nor the sum of both. (p.232)

Isabel Allende was approached by the owners of the rights to Zorro, in search of someone who could bring a Latin sensibility and a track-record in historical research to the character's backstory. Allende fits in plenty of swashbuckling, as is only proper considering her subject matter. There are pirates, zombies, gypsies; there are duels, secret societies, and elegant soirees; there are a number of resourceful females and dastardly villains.

Zorro describes the early life of the masked adventurer, from his birth to a Spanish Don and a warrior-princess of the Shoshone, through his youthful adventures with his blood-brother Bernardo (with whom he shares a mysterious, but seldom-referenced and underused, telepathic bond), to his exile from California and his life in Spain as a young nobleman with an overdeveloped sense of justice and a regrettable tendency to prolong adolescence. Zorro (who takes his name from a fox he meets during a Shoshone initiation ceremony) falls in love, avenges wrongs, joins the circus, poses as a pilgrim, encounters notorious pirate Jean Lafitte (from whom he picks up some sartorial inspirations), acquires his horse Tornado ...

There are some lovely passages, and the prose is very much in the style of a 19th-century romance. I do have a few issues with the translation: a ship takes a week to make a voyage, not 'a week's time'; 'waked' instead of 'woke' jars; 'as he doubtlessly deserves'.

Allende's narrator (who appears only gradually as a first-person voice, and whose identity is concealed until the last part of the book) may be why the novel lacks a certain spark: it's bound by the narrator's style, experience and social position. Did this novel actually need a narrator?

Zorro was ultimately a disappointment. Perhaps it's the narrative voice; perhaps it's the lack of dialogue; perhaps it's a lack of immediacy due the narrator learning of the events from others. It hangs between being a historical novel with social concerns, a third-hand narrative, a meditation on identity, and a swashbuckling adventure story -- and doesn't quite succeed as any of these.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

2010/45: A Canticle for Leibowitz -- Walter Miller

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas. We march in spite of Hell, we do --
Atrophy, Entropy and Proteus vulgaris,
telling bawdy jokes about a far, girl name of Eve
and a travelling salesman called Lucifer.
We bury your dead and their reputations.
We bury you. We are the centuries ...
Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with bloodstained vestments and nailtorn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. (p.259)

One of those classics I always meant to get around to reading -- bookclub gave me a reason to do so.

A Canticle for Leibowitz consists of three linked novellas, all focussing on the monastic Order of Leibowitz. Fiat Homo is set 600 years in the future, after nuclear holocaust (the Flame Deluge); Fiat Lux is set in 3174; Fiat Voluntas Tua in 3781. The message, rather grimly, is that history repeats itself.

The eponymous Leibowitz was a technician, involved in weapons development during nuclear war, who later repented of his work, was persecuted for his learning, and was martyred. Fiat Homo focusses on the bureacracy surrounding his canonisation -- complicated by Brother Francis's encounter with an old man who leads him to a lost Fallout Shelter and to relics of Leibowitz himself. Is the old man somehow Leibowitz? Is he the Wandering Jew? Is he both? Neither? Anyway, Brother Francis gets what's coming to him, and so does Leibowitz.

Fiat Lux centres on the frustration felt by scientists and technicians -- the best they can hope for is to recover what's been lost. There is a Poet with a glass eyeball, and a melange of feudal politics mirroring and complicating theological affairs. If the first section had the feel of the early Christian era -- desert saints, simplicity, theological debate -- this second novella is more reminiscent of the late medieval period. The old man is still wandering the desert. He claims to be over three thousand years old.

Fiat Voluntas Tua is by far my favourite of the three novellas, and the one I feel is most successful as a story in itself. By 3781 humanity has regained space flight: it has also regained nuclear weapons (referred to as Lucifer). There are colonies on distant planets. There are mutants (actually, there have been mutants all the way through, but here they're part of the story). There is the kind of socio-legal structure which prioritises due process of law over human suffering. And there is a potential miracle, the raising of a creature of primal innocence, a promise of resurrection. And a one-way trip to the Centauri Colony.

Miller's prose is occasionally poetic and often light-hearted, despite the gloominess of his setting. Or apparently light-hearted: there's an underlying bitterness throughout. Easy to see, with hindsight, just how much influence A Canticle for Leibowitz has exerted over the field.

Monday, May 24, 2010

2010/43,44: The Language Of Bees and The God of the Hive -- Laurie R. King

‘My brother permits few people inside his guard. Four people in his first sixty-three years, I should say: myself, Dr Watson, Irene Adler, and you. For those inside his affections, Sherlock’s loyalty is absolute. In another man, one might call it blind. Any one of us four could commit cold-blooded murder, in Trafalgar Square, in broad daylight, and he would devote every iota of his energy and wit to proving the act justified.’ (The Language of Bees, ch. 27)
These two books form a single continuous story, so I'm reviewing them together -- this may mean the review becomes vague! I read them as ebooks (for reasons of price and availability), which might also affect the balance of the review: it's harder to flip through an ebook than a paperback novel.

On returning from San Francisco (Locked Rooms) Holmes and Russell barely have time to find Sussex claustrophobic and overly quiet before the arrival of an unexpected visitor -- Holmes' son Damien, 'the offspring of two divas' and a successful Surrealist artist. Cue flashback to a period just after the close of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, when Holmes and Russell (still master and apprentice at that time) spent some time on the Continent: "I need to go to France and Italy for six weeks. Would you care to come with me?"

Context established, it quickly becomes clear that Damien is in trouble, and -- to his shame -- has been forced to come to his father for help. Holmes and Damien head to London: Mary Russell stays in Sussex for a while, investigating a problem with Holmes' beehives and trying to convince herself that she's enjoying the solitude, though it's obvious that she is not on form. The game is afoot, though, and Russell is gradually drawn into a web more complex and far-reaching than even her husband could have expected. The trail leads Holmes and Russell, separately and together, through the bars and studios of Bohemian London, to Oxford and York, round an assortment of Neolithic sites, to attend religious meetings and visit art galleries, by train and boat and aeroplane, to a fairytale dwelling in a forest, and ultimately to the heart of power.

The books are firmly rooted in the mid-Twenties: the difficulties of international communication, the novelty of passenger flight (‘Imperial Airways has been in existence since March ...Not all that many flights, to be sure, but air travel is the way of the future.’). The shadow of the First World War still hangs over society and individuals alike. There's a sense of hectic frivolity -- the Roaring Twenties -- underpinned with madness. Andre Breton is referenced; Augustus John holds court at the Cafe Royal; Aleister Crowley's name appears more than once. (There's a veiled reference to Peter Wimsey, too.) But this is not the world of Doyle's Holmes: London is changing beyond recognition. Holmes and Mycroft are starting to feel their age, and Inspector Lestrade (son of the original) is increasingly exasperated by Holmes' methods. "[I]t was high time to let Holmes know that a Twentieth-Century Scotland Yard would no longer tolerate his meddling and deceptions."

Not that Holmes, even in his sixties, has lost his touch. He's still a master of disguise, amongst other forms of deception. "Reminding himself that there was no virtue like necessity, [he] performed his third virtuous act in twenty-four hours, stooping to theft of the lowest kind." He might not know London as well as he did in his heyday, but he remains a student of human nature and how it may be manipulated.

Mary Russell, child of the century, knows herself rather better than she did at the outset of the series. She's also coming to understand her husband, and why he left London, and something of his past. Though she frequently doubts her own abilities -- and, as mentioned above, is certainly not firing on all cylinders at the beginning of the story -- she becomes, over the course of these two novels, more assured, astute and decisive than before. For reasons of his own, Holmes is happiest to let her take the lead in certain areas of their investigation. Indeed, the two of them follow divergent paths for most of the story -- both operating on the wrong side of the law, but where Mary's wondering "How many books was one permitted in a gaol cell?", Holmes is debating whether to call on the Palace for a reference. Happily, there are also scenes where the partnership (and camaraderie, and even intimacy) surfaces.

In The Language of Bees there are interludes composed solely of dialogue, between Holmes and Damien. In The God of the Hive, King goes further and gives us whole chapters told from different viewpoints, which flesh out Russell's perception of events, and begin to explore the other characters -- both original and canon -- who inhabit Laurie King's milieu. These multiple viewpoints are an effective way to build suspense: when one person's about to discover something that another already knows, the tension rachets up.

There are occasional infelicities of style, possibly more than I've noticed in previous Mary Russell novels ('three people came out of the front door, including the woman, her dog Bubbles, and the man who looked like her brother'). I made a conscious effort to ignore Americanisms such as 'off of'. There are a few apparent non-sequiturs (perhaps I just missed the explanations; perhaps it's intuition on the part of one character or another). And there are several character-threads that, though not essential to the denouement, would've been better if resolved. (Though I wonder if a couple of them might be caught up in a future novel). And there are a couple of cliffhangers that reek of red herring.

But on the whole, a complex and fascinating read that leaves me wanting to see how King stretches herself (and her characters) next. The story told in The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive ends in something of a minor key. Things will never be the same -- in good ways and bad. I want to see how Holmes and Russell work through that situation.

A note on the titles: keeping an eye on bee-related imagery, metaphors and references added another layer of complexity to the story, as well as harking back to the first book in the series. (When Mary Russell, abandoned in Sussex, reads Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen, she gets rather more out of it than she did at fifteen.) Who's the god? And how do the bees talk?

Monday, May 10, 2010

2010/42: Locked Rooms -- Laurie R. King

Like an object so familiar to the eyes it goes unseen, I had habitually walked past my own history ... my entire childhood had become a self-inflicted blind spot -- I had complacently passed by the locked rooms of my past for so long, fingering the key in my pocket, that I no longer knew where to find the door. (p. 279)
After leaving India, Holmes and Russell set sail for San Francisco, where Mary Russell's former home requires her attention. She is beset, on board ship, by three recurrent nightmares: objects flying towards her, a man with no face, a house with hidden rooms to which she holds the key. Holmes suggests that they are memories of her past, but Russell refuses to accept this. She'd had a happy childhood, she hadn't been in San Francisco during the earthquake of 1906, and there is no mystery -- though, for Russell as sole survivor, a great deal of guilt -- about the car accident that killed the rest of her family.

The process of re-membering her past -- the Chinese couple who were cook and gardener to Mary's parents; her childhood friend Flo, now a flapper and just the sort of bad influence Mary needs; the cryptic legal injunction that prohibits anyone unrelated to the family gaining entry to the house; the psychiatrist who helped her after the accident -- leads Russell to question many of her assumptions about herself. It also gives Holmes the opportunity to turn his considerable psychological talents upon his wife -- not merely by asking all-too-perceptive questions concerning her childhood, but also by a wickedly accurate process of emotional manipulation.

There are indications that Holmes is being mellowed by marriage, but it doesn't prevent him being thoroughly competent when it comes to investigation. He encounters (and gets the drop on) one Dashiel Hammett, aspiring crime writer, and enlists his aid in unravelling some of the mystery. There's also feng shui, some exploration of coincidence versus fate ("those who perceive the dragon's path may alter it"), and a car chase through Chinatown.

I think this may be my favourite of the Mary Russell novels: possibly because of the psychological elements, possibly because for the first time there are sections of narrative from Holmes' point of view (albeit in third person). Russell's smooth competent fa├žade crumbles; Holmes uses his knowledge of human nature, not before time, on the conundrum he married. Issues raised in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which have coloured Mary Russell's character and behaviour throughout the series to date, are finally in the foreground, and make as compelling a mystery as any that the partnership has investigated.

2010/41: The Game -- Laurie R. King

Amber, when warm, gives out a faint aroma, the odour of slow time. I put the spilling double-handful up to my face and inhaled its trace of musk, laced with the tang of betrayal. Sunny Goodheart gave me the necklace because it looked pretty on me; I accepted the gift because it would remind me of consequences. (p. 203)

Holmes and Russell journey to India at Mycroft's behest, to investigate the unexplained deaths of several undercover agents -- and the disappearance of Holmes' old friend Kimball O'Hara, the eponymous hero of Kipling's novel Kim . (Yep, this is crossover fanfic.) Russell finds herself jealous of Holmes' first apprentice, who Holmes "taught so assiduously and [came] to admire so warmly, nearly a decade before I was born" (p. 60). Holmes reveals a considerable amount about his activities during the Great Disappearance (1891-4).

The journey to India is not without incident: when the pair arrive they're swift to don disguises and insinuate themselves into the country, aided and abetted by a precocious child who's far too clever for his own good. Holmes and Russell head north to the small but strategically-located state of Khanpur, ruled by a Westernised maharajah who's extremely wealthy and dangerously bored. He's assembled a court of people who intrigue him -- including an American Communist and his naive young sister, a pair of lesbian artists, a Sikh flapper, and a frustrated novelist -- and he doesn't appreciate ingratitude in his guests. Russell's visit to Khanpur poses several new challenges, including dancing girls, clockwork toys, the ancient sport of pig-sticking (hunting wild boar, with spears) -- and, later, a hunt for the most dangerous quarry of all.

This is India a generation before independence, with the British uneasily aware that their time is drawing to a close, and wary of the Russian Empire to the north. King has a good eye for telling detail, and Mary Russell's almost claustrophobic sensory overload is vividly drawn. "This is a land that gives one little of what is expected or desired, but an abundance of what proves later to have been needed," observes Holmes after one outburst: but then, he's been there before ...

The Game is more of a swashbuckling spy story than a murder mystery: some scenes could've come straight out of an (early) Indiana Jones film, and there's considerably more risk and mayhem than in earlier novels. Perhaps because of the danger, there's also more sense of the intimacy of Holmes and Russell's relationship: never cloying or explicit, but much more present.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

2010/40: Justice Hall -- Laurie R. King

Seldom have I enjoyed myself more with another person than on that long day's hike across the hills with the lesbian wife of the Seventh Duke of Beauville ... (p.109)
Hours after returning from The Moor, a bloodstained and battered stranger arrives at Holmes' and Russell's door. On closer inspection, he's not a stranger after all: he's the scion of an old and distinguished family, seeking help in a tangled matter of succession. The old Duke of Beauville is dead; his younger brother, the heir, is disinclined to claim the dukedom; the dead Duke's son Gabriel died in France during the war. However, Holmes and Russell uncover some irregularities in Gabriel's war record ...

This is on one level a classic country-house mystery (hunting parties, backstabbing dinners, hide-and-seek, and a spectacular fancy-dress ball themed around the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb): on another, it's an intriguing exploration of the sexual and social behaviour of the British aristocracy in the Edwardian era. (Mary Russell is an excellent observer of this, given her American origins: she's comfortable in the milieu, but views it as an outsider, envious of the sheer weight of history and liable to ask questions that nobody else would contemplate.)

I made a conscious decision to review this without spoilers: otherwise there'd be a great deal more discussion of identity (imposed and chosen), clash of cultures, race and racism. It's not my favourite Russell novel, but there are some very likeable and interesting characters helping and hindering Holmes and Russell. Also some children. And a joke about the Daily Mail which may be slightly anachronistic (am not up to date on newspaper history) but made me laugh anyway. And a happy ending -- with Justice, as per title -- for a change.

2010/39: O Jerusalem -- Laurie R. King

Five weeks earlier I had been a maturing apprentice who was moving away into another field, but the events of the last month, both at home and here in Palestine, had shaken that comfortable relationship to its core. (p. 203)
O Jerusalem is set two-thirds of the way through The Beekeeper's Apprentice, when Russell and Holmes flee England and their mysterious opponent, and end up in disguise in Palestine, investigating a series of murders which have escalated the tension in a post-war peace that is already fragile.

Accompanied by Ali and Mahmoud, two apparent Arabs who work for Mycroft -- and who Holmes claims are actually English -- Mary Russell, disguised as an Arab youth, wanders the land at the heart of her religion and her academic studies. She has to prove her worth to Ali and Mahmoud, who are initially scornful of being landed with 'a girl and an old man'. She also begins to reassess her relationship with her mentor: the state of play between them at the end of the novel is rather more textured than at the beginning.

This is a novel where Russell's theological and historical studies are of considerable importance. Whether exploring the undercity of Jerusalem or travelling roads where Samaritans, disciples and prophets have walked, Russell puts her surroundings into context, and manages to convey a sense of the precarious balance between Jew, Moslem and Arab, as well as a sketch of the political processes underway.

I couldn't help but contrast this with Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day, in which a wealthy American woman visits Egypt and Palestine, interacts with politicians and generals, and comes away changed. Laurie King's Mary Russell is immersed in the people, the culture and the politics of the Holy Land in a way that Agnes Shanklin could never be: her level of comprehension is different, her engagement whole-hearted. O Jerusalem was, for me, a more vivid and immediate depiction of setting and character, and Mary Russell's a more engaging viewpoint.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

2010/38: Lavondyss -- Robert Holdstock

She stared across the wood. It had swallowed Harry, then breathed out Scathach. It had filled her head with legend, then sucked her in, a fish sucking in a fly. (p.317)
Reread for book club: this is a book which I adore, which I used to read often, and I still retain some sentences word for word. ("There is old memory in snow.") Odd what I remembered and what I didn't: I remembered the time loop, and Vaughan Williams, and the cloud shadows, and Bird Spirit Land, and of course the masks; I'd forgotten the hollyjacks, the gaberlungi, Wynne-Jones and Tig and above all Harry. Perhaps I was so focussed on Tallis's journey that I didn't pay attention to the fact that it was also a quest.

Some of the points that came up in book-club discussion were interesting. We talked about whether or not the whole story's a time loop. I found the idea that Tallis was doomed to repeat her journey incredibly depressing, both on first read and on rereads, but if she's broken the loop, broken the story, and freed herself then there's resolution. Or maybe that last coda is not as real as the rest of the tale: maybe it's all in Tallis's dying mind.

We couldn't work out what happened to Harry. I don't think it's specified in the book, and the internet didn't know either*. We're left with him losing Tallis and yelling "I've lost everything!" That's sharp and raw.

It's a story about siblings -- Tallis and Harry, Scathach and Morthen. Tallis's mother is emotionally absent (something of a theme in Holdstock's books); her father is warmer, but ineffectual, though the night of her departure is a harrowing scene.

And it's a story about how lives become stories become myth, and mythago. Someone asked "Is Tallis a mythago by the end of the book?" It is, of course, rude to answer a question with another question: nevertheless I countered, "Is she a mythago at the beginning of the book?" (I'm still thinking about that one.) (Wish I could ask Rob.) What Tallis is, is something more powerful than anybody else who's come into the wood; her mind engenders older myth(ago)s than Robin Hood or Guinevere. She and her brother share this ability to bring into being ancient, primal myths.

I must have read The Hollowing -- though I remember only scattered fragments -- but rereading Lavondyss has sent me back to it, not right now but very soon.

*except that Rob Holdstock's cat was named Harry.

2010/37: The Moor -- Laurie R. King

Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to have a husband whom I might astonish. (p.249)
Mary Russell is summoned to Dartmoor by a terse telegram from her husband, Sherlock Holmes. Apparently a phantom coach has been spotted; apparently a corpse was discovered, huge canine pawprints in the surrounding mud; apparently everyone on the moor knows all about Mary and remembers Holmes' previous visit very well, thank you. (See The Hound of the Baskervilles for details.) But it's many years since that notorious case, and things have changed. Baskerville Hall is now the property of an American, and the last of the Baskervilles is living the high life in Plymouth. (No, really. These things are relative.)

Russell and Holmes -- guests of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, who turns out to have a connection to Holmes -- find themselves wandering the Moor in variously damp, gloomy or otherwise unpleasant weather, together and apart, and encountering a fascinating array of characters, including a tender-hearted witch and an amateur archaeologist who waxes lyrical about the Druidical origins of various bits of rock.

I could really have done without King's transcriptions of dialect. "I shall not even attempt to transcribe the words as they were spoken," claims Russell, "since an alphabet soup such as 'Yar! Me luvvers, you mun vale leery, you cain't a' ated since bevower the foggy comed' makes for laborious, if picturesque, reading." (p. 83) But all too often she does attempt to transcribe said dialect, and it is indeed laborious.

I didn't really engage with The Moor as I've engaged with the other Mary Russell novels: Mary's involvement (though key to the resolution) is seldom demanding or exciting; she doesn't spend as much time interacting with Holmes as in previous novels; though she is fascinated by the Moor (and by Sabine Baring-Gould's proliferous and eccentric writings) she feels more of a spectator than usual. There's a nice sense of atmosphere, though: the Moor is very much a presence, though I'm slightly uneasy with Russell's sense of Presence and Holmes' pontifications on the Moor as 'focussing device' for the impulses of incomers.

2010/36: A Letter of Mary -- Laurie R. King

"Many years ago, in my foolish youth, I thought I should never marry. I was quite convinced that strong emotion interfered with rational thought, like grit in a sensitive instrument ... However, I begin to suspect that -- I shall say this quietly -- that I was wrong, that there may be times when the heart sees something that the mind does not. Perhaps what we call the heart is simply a more efficient means of evaluating data." (p.144)
Mary Russell, recently married to Holmes and somewhat disturbed by the ennui she perceives in his behaviour, is visited by an old friend from Palestine, who gives her an ornately-carved box containing a letter written on papyrus. Mary -- fully engaged with her own theological research -- is fascinated by the manuscript, which seems to have been written by Mary Magdalene in AD70. Theology irritates Holmes ('he judged it a tragic waste of my mental abilities') but all too soon there's a crime to investigate, and the Holmes-Russell partnership turns its focus, and the complementary skills of detective and academic, on a confusion of misogyny, mental illness, hidden memories and murder.

King drops hints of hitherto-unknown Holmes cases (services rendered to the Royal Order of Nigerian Blacksmiths; snowed in near the Khyber Pass) and cameo appearances of the famous and / or fictional (Mary encounters 'an odd man named Tolkien' in a pub, and I'm sure that's Peter Wimsey playing the clavier). There are also some observations on advances in forensic science since Holmes' heyday: "Things he did that looked crazy thirty, forty years ago are now standard procedure with us," says a police inspector. (p.96)

A Letter of Mary shows Russell in her academic milieu, as well as in a variety of roles and disguises: it also shows the gradual accommodation between a young woman and her much older husband. Holmes is learning to be half of an equal partnership: after running roughshod over Russell's theories, he lauds Watson's 'doglike devotion' but notes that (p.265) "I did not consider this a strength when it came to a permanent partnership". ("Woof," says Russell.)

Mary Russell is very much the focus of the novel, but there's a pleasing sense of cameraderie between her and Holmes, and the investigation is very much a joint effort.