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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

2011/62: The Charioteer -- Mary Renault

Darling Mother,
I have fallen in love. I now know something about myself which I have been suspecting for years, if I had had the honesty to admit it. I ought to be frightened and ashamed, but I am not. Since I can see no earthly hope for the attachment, I ought to be wretched, but I am not. I know now why I was born, why everything has happened to me ever; I know why I am lame, because it has brought me to the right place at the right time. (p.56)
Set in autumn 1940 and published in 1953 (1959 in the USA), The Charioteer is not a historical novel in the usual sense of the term: Renault was writing of England in the recent past, an England at once transformed and defined by the state of being at war. Sixty years later, that wartime setting has a cliched familiarity born of decades of film, TV and literature. But Renault is not interested in writing another story about home-front heroism -- at least, that isn't the focus of the story. The Charioteer is primarily a story about love.

The protagonist, Laurie Odell, is male; so are the two people with whom he falls in love.

Homosexuality was illegal, regarded as a mental illness and as morally objectionable. (Mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, convicted for homosexual conduct in 1952, was given the choice between a prison sentence or treatment with female hormones: he opted for the latter in the hope that it would be less disruptive to his work. Within a year he was dead.) Laurie, and the other gay men in the story, are outsiders, keeping their selves secret, having to be 'sure' about someone before they can allude, however indirectly, to anything sexual.

And Laurie, though he realises that he is 'different', is pretty much an innocent. How could he not be? How could he discover himself?

The title of The Charioteer derives from Plato's Phaedrus: the charioteer drives two horses, one black and one white. As Laurie describes it to Andrew, "Each of the gods has a pair of divine white horses, but the soul only has one. The other ... is black and scruffy, with a thick neck, a flat face, hairy fetlocks, gray bloodshot eyes, and shaggy ears. He's hard of hearing, thick-skinned, and given to bolting whenever he sees something he wants." (p.101). The white horse is the moral urge; the black horse is base lust and mindless passion. Or, perhaps, the white horse is pure, intellectual love, founded on morality and respect; the black horse is sexual indulgence, succumbing to the body's urges, hedonism.

On the one hand, there's Andrew, a Quaker, a conscientious objector who's working in the hospital where Laurie is taken after being severely wounded at Dunkirk. Laurie's instantly drawn to Andrew, fascinated by him, but Andrew (a man of integrity, trying to live an ethical life) seems oblivious.

On the other hand, there's Ralph Lanyon, who was at school with Laurie and was expelled for inappropriate behaviour with a younger boy. (This, it seems, was Laurie's first glimpse of the possibility of homosexuality. Ralph gave him his own copy of Phaedrus, which Laurie keeps with him for the next seven years.) Ralph, it turns out, was captaining the ship that brought a doped-up and hallucinating Laurie back across the Channel from Dunkirk. The two meet again through a string of coincidences (an air raid, a chance encounter, a birthday party doubling as a gay social -- 'we can't offer you any girls', says the host guardedly, not yet wholly sure of Laurie -- and the mention of a name).

Laurie finally has someone with whom he can talk, "a speaker of his own language; another solitary still making his own maps". He begins to realise that he needs to keep Andrew safe; that Andrew doesn't know, and doesn't need to know, anything about the way in which Laurie loves him.

Laurie also rejects the exclusive / excluded coterie of gay men to whom he was introduced at that party -- a group who've 'identified themselves with their limitations', who are promiscuous and melodramatic and jealously possessive.

What's left? Can he accept his own nature and have a meaningful relationship? Will he have to close the door on love and sex?

There's a lot more to The Charioteer than I've mentioned here. The ways in which Laurie's friends and acquaintances react to him (especially Reg, a working-class bloke who's in the next bed at the hospital, and has to square his prejudices with his knowledge of Laurie as an individual). The allusions -- this is not an explicit novel -- to the dark underside of the homosexual 'scene' in wartime Britain; the compromises that must be made. Laurie's relationship with his mother, who's about to marry a noxious clergyman. The peace that Laurie finds in Andrew's company; the tension between him and Ralph. And throughout, Renault's fine, subtle (sometimes opaque) prose, the prose that hooked me on her historical novels in my teens.

I think I'll be coming back to this novel again and again.

It can be good to be given what you want; it can be better, in the end, never to have it proved to you that this was what you wanted. (p. 291)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

2011/61: The Flood -- Ian Rankin

Why would he sit there? To experience, and so that afterwards he could curse his maker for creating the incident. he believed in God now, but it was a malevolent thing and he would speak of it with a small, vehement 'g'. He believed in god. He believed in the cruelty and the inevitability of suffering. And he believed that he was doomed. As if to reassure him, thunderclouds gathered above the Firth of Forth ... He knew that it was all because of him. (p.221-2)
Rankin's first novel, published when he was a 25-year-old student, is not a crime novel but an attempt to mythologise his hometown, a dark fairytale of rumoured witchcraft, uncertain parentage and prejudice.

Mary Miller, age ten, is pushed into the 'hot burn' (a steaming outflow of chemical run-off from the local coal mine) by Matty Duncan and his mates. She survives, but her hair turns white overnight. Soon afterwards Matty Duncan dies in an explosion at the mine, and the whispers of 'witch' begin.

By fifteen, Mary is something of an outcast. Then she compounds the problem by falling pregnant and refusing to reveal the father's identity. Her beloved brother Tom emigrates ('hastily', say the whisperers) to Canada. Walking home drunk one night, her father is struck and killed ('suicide') by a car.

Fast forward to the mid-Eighties. Sandy, Mary's son, is fifteen, and thinks of himself as the man of the house. He's accustomed to his mother's strange ways (talking to her mother and father at their graves, attending church despite the stares and whispers, dating Sandy's English teacher) and is making a place for himself in the community. Then he falls in love with Rian, a gypsy girl, whose brother Robbie may or may not have rather too much influence over her. His mother's sure to approve: after all, she knows what it's like to be an outsider, like Rian ...

I didn't find this a very satisfactory read. It's very much a young man's book: the older characters, and the women, seem one-dimensional. Sandy acts, thinks and exists in a teenaged maelstrom of melodrama. (More than once his choices are explicitly influenced by 'Hollywood films'.) Perhaps the most vivid depiction is that of the town itself: Carsden is small, close-knit (apart from those it shuns) and very much a victim of the changing economic climate. Carsden, of course, not being an actual person, doesn't get any closure or resolution: but then, neither do Sandy or Mary or Rian.

I'm not very familiar with Rankin's later, better-known work, but I get the impression that The Flood is not typical.

2011/59-60: The Sharing Knife: Beguilement / Legacy -- Lois McMaster Bujold

"Groundsense. It's a sense of everything around us. What's alive, where it is, how it's doing ..."
"Magic?"
"Not the way farmers use the term. It's not like getting something for nothing. It's just the way the world is, deep down." (Beguilement, p. 68)

Again, books I've owned for a while but only just got round to reading. I'm a fan of Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, and I like the first two of her Chalion novels (not so keen on the third), but these two volumes -- really two halves of a single long novel -- weren't as enjoyable a read, for me, as I'd expected.

Some elements are familiar from Bujold's other works. The maimed hero (like Miles); the  vulnerability and strength of a pregnant woman (like Cordelia); the quiet feuds of domestic life (nothing quite as hilariously awful as the dinner-party scene in A Civil Campaign); the tension between the peaceful majority who must be protected and the warrior-class who protect them (ImpSec, Simon Illyan); a protagonist set apart by their ability to see through superficial appearance to the underlying essence of a person (Ista, Miles ...) Other elements seem new: The Sharing Knife has a distinctly rural ambience, drawing on the trope of pioneers settling an empty land; there's a romance between two characters at greatly different stages of their lives; there's an enemy that seems wholly evil.

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement and Legacy fall further towards the 'romantic' end of the 'SF&F Romance' spectrum than Bujold's other works. There's a strong fantastical element, but the plot is more focussed on the relationship between Dag (a Lakewalker, or magic-user, half in love with easeful death, who's spent many years combatting malices -- beings of pure magic, or 'ground', who enslave and corrupt mortal life) and Fawn (teenaged farmgirl runaway, feisty as all get-out, who finds that life on the road holds more hazards than brigands and sore feet).

The emotional weight isn't in the magical conflict or the mystery of the malices, but in the interactions of Fawn and Dag with one another and with their respective families. There's a striking contrast between Dag's 'family', the Lakewalkers, who respect but don't truly love him, and Fawn's farmer-folk, who love her but don't respect her.

And in the end, the finale of Legacy doesn't feel like any kind of ending: Dag and Fawn step back from their situations and choose a third path. I expect that there's much of interest in later books about malices, about the ancient history of this world, about the gods and their absence: but I'm not intrigued enough, nor fond enough of the protagonists, to rush to read more.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011/56-8: Arthur trilogy -- Kevin Crossley-Holland

Sometimes what happens in my life echoes what happens in the stone, sometimes it's the other way round. But my stone also shows me people and places I've never seen before -- the fortress of Tintagel, King Uther, Ygerna, the hooded man. (The Seeing Stone, p. 301)


I've owned these books for many years, and only read them recently (enforced inactivity plus Indian summer). The first volume was lauded for the quality of the prose and the format (one hundred short chapters): it was awarded the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, the Tir na n-Og prize, and the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize bronze medal, and shortlisted for the Whitbread Awards.

The trilogy begins in the year 1199. Arthur de Caldicot is thirteen years old, living in a castle in the middle Marches (English / Welsh border) at the heart of a community of sixty. He fights with his elder brother Serle, comforts younger sister Sian when her cat goes missing, trains to become a squire and eventually a knight, and cherishes dreams of marrying his cousin Grace.

Merlin, a mysterious and unholy wanderer who comes and goes as he pleases, gives Arthur a piece of polished obsidian, telling him it's the most valuable thing he will ever have. Arthur sees visions in the stone: he watches, and recounts, the story of the legendary king whose name he shares, colouring what he sees with his own experience, perception and perspective.

The first novel, for me, is the most successful and the most interesting: it contrasts an intimate and vivid description of medieval life, the rhythm of the seasons and the equalities and inequalities of feudal society, with the glories of King Arthur's birth, youth and ascension to the throne.

The second novel, At the Crossing-Places, is about the imminence of change. Arthur, now wiser as to his own heritage, is preparing to go on crusade with Lord Stephen de Holt. He's becoming more aware of the wider world, and thinking more rigorously about his place in it. And in the stone, he sees the glory that was the legendary Camelot -- and begins to wonder if he, too, might bring about an age of justice and honour.

There's a long hiatus, in story-time and in Arthur's personality, between the second and third novels. Some of the events that occur in that hiatus are described, with benefit of hindsight, by Arthur: others are merely alluded to, or left implicit.

King of the Middle March -- the title itself is the spoiler -- mostly deals with Arthur's experiences abroad. There's a great deal of frustration: Crossley-Holland really brings to life the sheer logistic challenge of mounting a crusade; recruiting tens of thousands of fighting men, feeding and watering and transporting them, and keeping them spiritually pure.

Arthur comes to question the morality of war against the 'infidel': he meets Saracens, sees the horrors perpetrated against them in the name of God, and watches as Arthur-in-the-stone strives for, and fails to achieve, peace.

King Arthur is standing on the beach at Dover, under the white chalk cliffs. He's up to his knees in water, and around him pairs of men are locking, arrows are whirring, pikes are jabbing, swords are swinging, soldiers are lurching, landing-skiffs are bobbing, blood is staining, words are cursing and praying, ordering, threatening, begging... (King of the Middle March, p. 311)


The language is lovely, with Anglo-Saxon rhythm balanced by Arthur's own lyricism and knack for the detail that unlocks a description and makes it real. (Ocean waves make 'short sounds without memories'.) The parallels between his story and that of Arthur-in-the-stone aren't always as clear as they might be, but over the course of the three novels Arthur progresses from wondering if Arthur-in-the-stone is himself to turning away from the blood-stained history he perceives in the polished obsidian. Crossley-Holland ties in myth, folklore and superstition -- hunting the hare on Easter Sunday, turning back from a journey if there are too many bad omens -- with Arthur's own Christian beliefs and the pervasive influence of religion in his world. That contrast brings to life the medieval period, and makes for an absorbing and fascinating read.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

2011/55: Ombria in Shadow -- Patricia McKillip

Mag never told Faey that she knew she was other than made. Human being what it was -- raging, messy, cruel, drunken and stupid -- she decided to remain wax. If, she reasoned, she did not say the word, no one would ever know. Saying 'human' would make her so. (p.20)

Ombria is a bright city sparkling with the decadent seeds of its own downfall. Its Prince is dying and Domina Pearl, the malevolent Regent, sets courtier against courtier and banishes the Prince's mistress Lydea to the streets from whence she came. Beneath those streets lies the city's own shadow, a maze of forgotten alleyways, disused cellars, sunken houses and gardens buried beneath dead leaves. The undercity is the realm of Faey the sorceress, who has a thousand faces and sells her magic to whoever might buy. Her waxling, Mag -- who Faey makes out to be a made thing, a magical construct, but a spell goes astray and Mag discovers the truth -- runs Faey's errands, slipping through Ombria's streets, watching and reporting and helping those who Faey makes her business. Among those she watches are Ducon Greve, the dead Prince's bastard nephew; Kyel, the young heir, who misses his friend Lydea; and Kyel's tutor Camas Erl, who's fascinated by the legends of a catastrophe that will transform Ombria from a city of despair and fear into something light and full of hope.

McKillip's prose often feels, to me, like a medieval tapestry, rich with colour and detail and odd, precise glimpses of magic. (The mirrors in Faey's sanctum are old, 'overused, shadowy with images'. Outside the palace gates, a garden of sunflowers stands guard.) Ombria in Shadow is beautifully written, and the protagonists rounded and realistic, heartsore with grief but not incapable of action. Despite the urban setting and the convolutions of shadow and light, the ambience of this novel brings to mind McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy in ways that some of her more recent fantasy novels don't: perhaps it's the comfortable and credible quasi-medieval setting, without much overt magic, where characters are as likely to do laundry or visit a brothel as they are to cast spells or fight enemies.

The ending, which I shan't spoil here, felt sudden and hollow on first reading, but on reflection I find it wholly satisfactory. I'd love to encounter these characters again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

2011/54: The Celtic Ring -- Bjorn Larsson

I then perceived that what I had discovered myself about the sea amounted to no more than fragments of an unsuspected whole. For MacDuff the seagoing was not merely a way of life, it was the very basis of how he looked at reality. It meant learning to live with perpetual change, never taking anything for granted, being trained continually in humility and respect for what you have not mastered, for what you must safeguard at every instant. (p. 281)

One dark January night in a Danish harbour, Swedish sailor Ulf encounters a fellow sailor, Pekka, who hands him a secret log-book and then disappears. The voyage recorded in the log -- Pekka's flight, with a woman named Mary, from a shadowy organisation calling itself the Celtic Ring -- inspires Ulf and his friend Torben to follow in Pekka's wake. They set out across the North Sea, and through the Caledonian canal, one step ahead of their pursuers and one step (at least) behind a gentleman named MacDuff, who seems to know more than a little about the Celtic underground, its ancient history (Druids!) and its goals.

I very much enjoyed Larsson's Long John Silver, but the prose of The Celtic Ring doesn't sing: the translation's stolid and rarely poetic (and jars, with phrases such as 'I said spontaneously'), though there are some fine passages about sailing.

As a book about a sailing trip, this is excellent reading: I was drawn in by the precision and vividness of Ulf's seacraft, and fascinated by the accounts of how sailing in fiercely tidal Scottish waters challenges a sailor who's accustomed to the almost-tideless Baltic. The plot never quite gels, and the characters -- Ulf with his refusal to embrace mainstream society, Torben the dilettante, Mary who believes her life is mapped out by fate, MacDuff who inspires Ulf but whose charisma doesn't sparkle on the page -- didn't engage me. In particular, Mary felt like a cipher, a plot token, passing from one man to another: even when she gains agency we're not clear on her motives. Fate, probably.

There were some interesting references to Celtic lore, for instance the triple death, Ludlow Man, Life and Death of a Druid Prince etc. (On the other hand, Beltane is not on 4th May!)

The Celtic Ring was published in 1992 (first English translation 1997), when Eastern Europe was in turmoil and former states were declaring independence. MacDuff (who reveres Erskine Childers, author of The Riddle of the Sands and fervent Irish nationalist) seems certain that Scotland and Wales would never be granted any form of self-government by the British. Ah, hindsight ...

Could have done with more maps, too.

2011/53: Black Swan -- Farrukh Dhondy

The play is so great a success that the company immediately commissions Master Shakespeare to write a second part and even a third. Master Lazarus gets down with quill and candle to compose them each day and night while the drunkard from Warwickshire plays bowls at Newington Butts, drinks at the Mermaid and is now and again entertained by my Lord Essex. (p.139)

Rose Hassan is a mixed-race schoolgirl, living in Brixton with her mother and hoping to study drama at university. Her mother falls ill and Rose has to take over her job as carer and amanuensis to the elderly Mr Bernier. Mr B, as Rose calls him, needs Rose to be his eyes and ears, visiting a churchyard in East London and transcribing the diary of Elizabethan alchemist Simon Forman. Within the pages of that diary is concealed the secret identity of the man who authored Shakespeare's plays, and the true fate of Christopher Marlowe. And out in the real world -- riots in Brixton, a burglary, Mr B's shady past as Education Minister for a small Caribbean republic -- Rose finds herself targetted by people who want to know Mr B's true identity.

Black Swan was a quick and somewhat unsatisfactory read. There's a marvellous story in there -- Lazarus, the former slave who fakes his own death and finds love, learning and liberty in London -- but it never seems to become wholly clear.

I was surprised to find that this novel was published as YA: I found it complex, with a confusing finale, and younger / less experienced readers could find the Elizabethan passages dull. Few of the characters come to life (though Rose is vivid and likeable, despite being remarkably sanguine about the dangers she's in) and the voices aren't distinct enough. Neither Elizabethan nor contemporary London felt real, and the language never really sang.

Monday, September 26, 2011

2011/52: Human Croquet -- Kate Atkinson

The rooks are coming home late, hurtling on their rag wings toward the Lady Oak, racing the night, caw-caw-caw. Maybe they’re afraid of being transformed into something else if they don’t get back to the tree in time, before the sun dips below the horizon that saucers blackly beyond the tree. Perhaps they’re frightened of shifting into human shape.

What's it like to be a caw-cawing crepuscular rook ripping through the sables of night? (p.64)
Not my favourite of Kate Atkinson's novels, though it's growing on me as I reflect on the story and the way it's told.

It's 1960: Isobel is sixteen, and lives with her geeky science-fiction-reading brother Charles, her father Gordon, her stepmother Debbie and Aunt Vinnie in a house named Arden on 'the streets of trees', a housing estate built where once a forest grew. (Isobel's ancestors were lords of the forest; Isobel's glamorous fairytale mother Eliza was, possibly, last seen in the small remaining patch of woodland.)

Isobel begins to experience what she believes are time-slips: visions of earlier times, messages from the past. But do they actually mean anything? Are they simply dreams and nightmares? Is her adoration of Malcolm Lovat (who's inexplicably oblivious to the bond between them) really doomed to end in tragedy? Is Charles onto something when he claims that aliens abducted their mother? And maybe Debbie's not so mad after all, talking about how every object in the room moves as soon as she turns her back ...

There are a lot of fairytale motifs in Human Croquet, more than initially met my eye. Hansel and Gretel lost in the wood, of course; but there's a lost girl and a telltale slipper (Cinderella), and Eliza is described as having 'rook-hair, milk-skin, blood-lips'. Charles, fostered by a nice couple, is returned with a thin-lipped 'he bites'. The greasy lodger, Mr Rice, might be victim of a rather more modern transformation. Isobel holds onto Malcolm through transformation after Tam-Lin-esque transformation. At the root of it all is the myth of the faery bride, who came out of the forest to old Sir Francis Fairfax and vanished back into the greenwood before his eyes. And like all good fairytales there's an underlying current of human nastiness: concealed pregnancies, mistaken identity, incest, rape, murder, betrayal.

The twist at the end doesn't quite work for me, and lessens what's gone before: but Atkinson's writing is as joyful, poetic and witty as ever, and again she manages to transform a grim (or Grimm) tale into a light, amusing and thought-provoking story.

Also, unsure why Ms Atkinson mis-spells Yggdrasil as 'Ysggradil' throughout ...

2011/51: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy -- John le Carre

I once heard someone say morality was method. Do you hold with that? I suppose you wouldn't. You would say that morality was vested in the aim, I expect. Difficult to know what one's aims are, that's the trouble, specially if you're British.

I'm fairly sure I read this as a teenager, but on rereading in advance of new movie version I remembered nothing: so perhaps it was a first read after all.

This is not James Bond territory: this is careful, slow, painstaking brain-work done in smoky rooms and rainy doorways by unglamorous individuals, mostly male. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has considerably more depth than the plethora of spy stories inspired by Fleming's Bond: it is, at heart, a story about love and betrayal, on the personal as well as (or, perhaps, at the root of?) the patriotic level.

George Smiley, forcibly retired from a career in espionage after the death of Control, is trying to discover the identity of the mole who's betrayed various British agents to the Russians. Jim Prideaux, the invalided former spy whose career as a teacher at a minor public school frames the narrative, is also keen, for rather more personal reasons, to find whoever set him up on his last mission. There are a number of possible traitors, and an equal if not greater number of loose cannons. And beneath it all lies the grinding conflict of the Cold War, and the receding memory of World War II preceding it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is very much of its time: the older characters (Smiley, Jim Prideaux, Bill Haydon, Oliver Lacon) grew up in the 1930s when espionage had a kind of glamour; then they fought in that war and saw their friends die. For the younger characters (Ricki Tarr, Peter Guillam, Percy Alleline) the war is mere history, and the intelligence game has always been slightly sordid.

The character who fascinates me most is probably Jim Prideaux, with his background of minor European nobility, his peripatetic lifestyle, his sheer endurance and his capacity for emotion. I'd read whole novels about him.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

2011/50: The Seas -- Samantha Hunt

...one night just before my father disappeared, I heard him tell my mother, "I remembere how the moon shines into the ocean and the pattern it makes on the sea floor." [...]
He meant that we were from the ocean. "You're a mermaid," he told me at the breakfast table. "Don't forget it." A corner of toast scraped the roof of my mouth when he said it. The cut it made helped me to remember. So I don't think he's dead. I think he is in the sea swimming and that is kinder than imagining his boots filling up with water and then his lungs. (location 198, Kindle)

The Seas is the first-person narrative of an unnamed nineteen-year-old woman growing up in a bleak northern town (the opening sentence is "The highway only goes south from here"). She lives with her mother and grandfather, both inveterate hoarders, but her emotional focus is balanced between two men: her father, who disappeared when she was eight, and Gulf veteran Jude, discharged with PTSD and apparently oblivious to her love for him.

The narrator is still uncertain as to whether she's a mermaid. If she is, she's in the right town: also nameless, this is a settlement built on fishing, sustained and destroyed by the ocean that batters houses and piers. The local motel, "The Seas", has rooms named after famous storms. The narrator first encounters Jude on the beach: he's swimming in the icy waves. It turns out that he has something of a history with water himself. But (she wonders) does he know the truth about mermaids? Does he know what she'd have to give up, what he'd have to risk, for them to be together?

This is a short novel, and not a simple one: like water, it's hard to hang onto anything, it slips through the fingers and the mind, leaving only traces -- like the wet footprints that the narrator finds in odd places, like the pool of water on Jude's floor.

Hunt's prose is lyrical, tough and bleak: the narrator's sense of humour is black ("All mermaids do is swim around and kill sailors. Not a great job.") and her perceptions and perspectives unique. It's increasingly clear that she's moving through a world that differs from that experienced by the other characters, yet Hunt doesn't take lazy shortcuts: the character herself is what convinces, or doesn't.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

2011/49: M is for Magic -- Neil Gaiman

"There has been a meeting of the Epicureans every month for over a hundred and fifty years [...] there is nothing left that we, or our predecessors in the club, have not eaten."
"I wish I had been here in the Twenties," said Virginia Boote, "when they legally had Man on the menu."
"Only after it had been electrocuted," said Zebediah. "Half-fried already it was [...]"
"Oh, Crusty, why must you pretend you were there? [...] You can't be more than sixty, even allowing for the ravages of time and the gutter."
"Oh, they ravage pretty good," said Zebediah T. Crawcrustle. (p. 167-8)
Short stories by Neil Gaiman, some already familiar to me ('Troll Bridge', 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties') and some that I hadn't encountered before.

What to say about this collection? It contains short stories by Gaiman, who tends to work on larger canvases. His short-form works are compact and well-rounded: at their best, typically Gaiman; at their, er, 'differently best', competent and well-written.

There are ten stories and a poem ('Instructions'), diverse in style and subject matter (and, at least to me, in quality). 'October in the Chair' reminds me, for some reason, of G K Chesterton: 'Sunbird', my favourite in this collection, feels like a homage to R A Lafferty, while 'Chivalry' is firmly in the territory of Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones. And 'The Price', about a black cat and the Devil, still makes me very sad.

2011/41-48: The House of Niccolo -- Dorothy Dunnett

From Venice to Cathay, from Seville to the Gold Coast of Africa, men anchored their ships and opened their ledgers and weighed one thing against another as if nothing would ever change. Or as if there existed no sort of fool, of either sex, who might one day treat trade (trade!) as an amusement. [Niccolo Rising, opening]

I first read Niccolo Rising while I was home for my mother's funeral, in 1986. I read each of the subsequent seven volumes as they were published, culminating with Gemini in late 2000.

Recently I reread the whole sequence in 8 days. [Unemployment and insalubrious weather have their advantages.]

The 'House of Niccolo' sequence -- even more than the Lymond books -- forms a single narrative, and given Dunnett's love for detail, for obscure connections and playful puzzles, it made absolute sense to read them as a single, multi-part novel. There's a great deal I didn't pick up when I first read the novels. I don't think I ever attempted a reread of the series to date before leaping upon the newest and devouring it in a couple of days.

It's intriguing to note what I remembered and what I'd forgotten. I had, fortuitously, forgotten the precise details of who the major villain was, and why. I'd forgotten deaths, births, marriages and revelations. I'd forgotten the circumstances of Nicholas' birth; I don't think I'd ever recognised exactly what befell him at Tzani-Bey's hands in Race of Scorpions. (I did remember the cats.)

Nicholas is an interesting protagonist because he remembers everything he reads or hears. Everything. That, coupled with an innate talent for music and mathematics, propels him from lowly apprentice to wealthy merchant. I find Nicholas more credible a hero than Lymond: he's certainly less neurotic, and more resilient. And he's considerably less heroic.

Dunnett's descriptive passages still delight me: she has an eye for local light, the way the sun hits a mountain-face, the way light reflects from a canal or bonfire-glow illuminates a snowscape. I'd forgotten just how visceral some of her battle-scenes are. And her dialogue -- often hilarious, generally witty and drenched in characterisation -- remains exemplary. (Mary Doria Russell describes Dunnett as 'a masterclass in dialogue'.)

I don't think the Niccolo books are as well-constructed as the Lymond sequence: there's a distinct falling-off in quality after Scales of Gold, and far too many pages of political history. That history does inform and affect the lives of the characters, but does it need to be so foregrounded?

And there's something rather frantic about the gathering-up of loose threads, the forcing of congruence, in Gemini. I can't decide whether she was teasing her considerable fanbase (she'd already promised that the end of the Niccolo sequence would tie into the Lymond books) or whether she felt that she was running out of time and had to pull everything together, smoothly or otherwise. I'm exasperated by a revelation that depends on the author deliberately referring to a character as 'So-and-so of such-a-place' rather than by surname, or to another character solely by his baby-name.

I am also not comfortable with the supernatural / psychic elements, which are considerably more heavy-handed here than in the Lymond books.

And I am not wholly convinced that there are sufficient clues to identify the villain who's been on the scene from the first book. There are quite a few; but I don't think they're sufficiently damning, or unique to that individual.

And, and ... yes, I have quite a few quibbles and questions and doubts and criticisms. Whose line is to be continued? Why? Does nature trump nurture? Who is that mystery woman in the convent? Is Lady Dunnett really weaving in threads from King Hereafter, her novel about the historical Macbeth?

That said: I adore these books, despite occasional lapses and the sheer misery of much of The Unicorn Hunt and To Lie with Lions (misery from a couple of characters' viewpoints, not overall). I like Nicholas; I marvel at Dunnett's evocation of the fifteenth century, from Icelandic fishing-ports to Mount Sinai, Danzig to Timbuktu. I'm fascinated by the way she weaves history, and historical personages, into her tapestry. And above all I'm awed by the way that even minor characters come to life (and, frequently, to death) on the page, regardless of race or creed or age.

I look forward to knowing this series as well as I know the Lymond Chronicles. At least there's less poetry ...

From Venice to Caffa, from Antwerp to the Gold Coast of Africa, merchants anchored their ships and unloaded their cannon and flipped open their ledgers as if in twenty years nothing had changed, and nothing was about to change now. As if old men did not die, or younger ones grow up, eventually. There was no fool in Europe, these days, who treated trade as a joke. All that sort were long sobered, or dead. [Gemini, opening]

2011/40: Avilion -- Robert Holdstock

"... how can it be that when we come alive we are not just the legend, but we know what we are as well? Is that unusual?"
"No. Not unusual at all. I live in a Roman villa, surrounded by caves, fortresses, other places, and the mythagoes that inhabit them believe they're in the real world." (p. 62)
Avilion, Robert Holdstock's last published novel, returns to characters introduced in 1984's Mythago Wood. At the end of Mythago Wood, Steven Huxley waited at the place called Imarn Uklyss, 'where the girl came out of the fire', for the mythago Guiwenneth, his lost love. Avilion, 'a tale of blood and the green', is the story of their children Jack and Yssobel: half-human (the red), half-mythago (the green), both seeking something that is lost. For Jack it's the world of his father, the house (Oak Lodge) swallowed up by Ryhope Wood, the ghost of his grandfather George whom he believes sent Yssobel on her quest. Yssobel has ridden inwards, seeking her lost mother, her murderous uncle Christian, and Avilion itself, the heart of the mythic forest.

Jack finds Oak Lodge, and watches as the wood 'spits it out', receding until the house -- which only the very old believe in -- stands once more outside the wood. He meets two lads fishing, one of whom won't tell his name. He meets Julie, who is terrified by and drawn to the wood in equal measure. He summons the ghost -- the mythago -- of his grandfather, and leans over the ghost's shoulder to read as he writes. And he meets the vicar of Shadoxhurst, Caylen Reeve, who knows more about 'wood-haunters' than might be expected.

Jack's journey is tangled with an elven raid; Yssobel's becomes entwined with the Morte d'Arthur and with a young Odysseus, unwilling to accept his fate. Fate and story are two sides of the same coin (or mirror, or polished shield) and as Yssobel journeys deeper into the wood, the constraints of story are more evident.

And in stories, much is possible. Deaths can be stolen and repaid; names confer power; memory is the only immortality; time is fluid, but fate is not. "In this world we don't follow our dreams: dreams are the paths we take."

Like Lavondyss (possibly my favourite of the 'Mythago' sequence), this is a wintry book: out in the world of Shadoxhurst it may be (rainy, British) summer, but within the wood the snow lies deep and crusted. And yet, at the heart of the wood lies Avilion, lies Lavondyss, where men's spirits are no longer tied to the seasons. Perhaps Avilion is about breaking the cycle, escaping fate and myth and story.

Avilion has a feeling of resolution to it, not least in terms of family dynamics. The savage father/son conflicts of Mythago Wood are countered by the affection between Steven and Jack; siblings aren't fated to lose one another. (The mother, however, is still absent.) There's also a strong sense of homecoming; of making a home, of finding a home, of realising that a particular place is not just a gateway or a staging-post, but a home: a place of beginnings and endings.

I wish there could be more Mythago books: but Avilion -- which I found a much more satisfactory read than some of the cycle -- is a good place to end in.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

2011/39: Faithful Place -- Tana French

All my signposts had gone up in one blinding, dizzying explosion: my second chances, my revenge, my nice thick anti-family Maginot line. Rosie Daly dumping my sorry ass had been my landmark, huge and solid as a mountain. Now it was flickering like a mirage and the landscape kept shifting around it, turning itself inside out and backwards: none of the scenery looked familiar any more. (p.121)

The third novel by Tana French, author of Into the Woods and The Likeness: I confess I didn't like this as much as the previous two, but it's still considerably better than most of the crime novels I've read in the last year or so.

Frank Mackey, a minor character in the previous novels, takes centre stage for this reopening of a cold case. Frank, one of five children growing up in a poor Catholic household in the 1980s, planned as a teenager to elope to England with his girlfriend Rosie Daly. But Rosie never showed up at their rendezvous -- a deserted house in Faithful Place, the street where they both lived -- and Frank was left with a few scribbled words of farewell that might not even have been meant for him.

Twenty years pass. Frank leaves anyway; grows up, joins the police, rises to a senior position in the Murder squad, marries Olivia and had a daughter, Holly. He's more or less estranged from his family, but when his sister Jackie phones him in a panic he returns to the house where he grew up.

Rosie's suitcase has been found, and suddenly it seems likely that she never left at all ...

If this were simply a tale of a murdered teenager it would still be a compelling read: Tana French levers a great deal more into Faithful Place, from an examination of the dark underside of the myth about 'poor but cheerful' Irish family life (alcoholism, violence, feuds that last for generations) to the ways in which tragedy freezes the heart: the ways in which losing Rosie has defined Frank Mackey's life. Most of all, perhaps, it's about the impossibility of escape: escape from your roots, escape from your family, escape from what's happened to you.

I was 90% sure that I'd identified the murderer about halfway through: it's a mark of French's deftness with detail that I wasn't entirely sure until the revelation. (And then, of course, as in the previous books, French doesn't stop as soon as the crime's solved: she explores the consequences. There are no easy answers here, no scatheless escapes.)

Compelling and beautifully written, but read one of French's other novels first or you won't appreciate the scope of her talent.

2011/38: Kraken -- China Mieville

Of course, they're all over, gods are. Theurgic vermin, those once worshipped or still worshipped in secret, those half worshipped, those feared and resented, petty divinities: they infect everybloodywhere. The ecosystems of godhead are fecund, because there're nothing and nowhere that can't generate the awe on which they graze...
The streets of London are stone synapses hardwired for worship. Walk the right or wrong way down Tooting Bec you're invoking something or other. You may not be interested in the gods of London, but they're interested in you. (p.96)

I enjoyed this much more than I've enjoyed other recent novels by China Mieville: the conjunction of London, a surreally carnival occult and sheer lexical exuberance hooked me at once.

Billy Harrow is a curator at the Natural History Museum, occasionally troubled by the distant sound of glass on stone but otherwise content: then the specimen with which he's most engaged, the giant squid, disappears from the museum.

How do you steal a squid? Who steals a squid? A cult, of course: and who better to investigate than the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit -- 'we're the bloody cult squad' -- who should really have an NCIS-style TV series of their own. Though the dialogue would probably need to be bowdlerised.

Billy, with the assistance of former Kraken-cultist Dane, finds himself in a London he was never allowed to see before: a mashup of the sublime and the ridiculous, liberally peppered with genre in-jokes (why, yes, of coursethe magician's familiar is called Tribble) and squid puns. Really. There are police-functions, summoned by burning videos of classic police shows (The Sweeney, The Professionals), who think they're the ghosts of dead policemen. There are morse-coded messages in a streetlamp's flicker, a Marxist golem, and a family photo with bonfire that brought Powers' Declare to mind. And beneath it all the age-old dispute between faith and science.

Kraken is a quintessentially London novel: the forgotten corners and improbable angles of the city, its statues and landmarks, its relationship with the river that runs through it, the sheer weight of meaning that's imbued by inhabitants past and present. It's also delightfully and deliriously playful -- not necessarily cheerful or happy, but ludic and sly and inventive.

2011/37: Murder in Montparnasse -- Kerry Greenwood

"Where did you learn to elude pursuit like that? You're very good."
"John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps," said the girl, with spirit. "Who taught you to burgle houses?"
"A burglar," said Phryne, as though surprised at the question. (p. 206-7)
Another Phryne Fisher mystery, set in 1920s Melbourne. Phryne (who frequently features in the local scandal rag as 'High Class Girl Dick', to her delight) is approached by two friends, Bert and Cec, who believe that someone's targetting a small group of Aussie ex-soldiers, all of whom spent an eventful post-liberation break in Paris in 1918. So far two of the seven are dead, under very suspicious circumstances.

There's also the case of a missing heiress, whose father is a racing name and whose sister is the epitome of dumb blonde. Seems to be a simple case of blackmail, except that some of the facts don't quite add up.

Phryne welcomes both cases, not least because her household staff are up in arms: her lover, Lin Chung, is about to marry a Chinese bride who he's never met, and Mr and Mrs Butler, who've turned a blind eye to her carrying-on thus far, aren't willing to be party to adultery. And she, too, was in Paris in 1918, though there's something she's forgotten about her time there. Something she doesn't want to remember ...

She pieces together bright fragments: arguments with Sylvia Beach and Djuna Barnes, drunken evenings in the company of Phryne's lover Rene, and afternoons spent modelling for artist Pierre Sarcelle, who'd subsequently met a grisly end at the Gare du Nord.

Nothing's quite as Phryne expects, from her encounter with Lin Chung's bride-to-be to the identity of French chef Anatole's new kitchen help: there's a certain amount of guesswork involved in at least one plot-thread's resolution, but overall a nicely-plotted mystery.

Note to readers: this is, I think, the 12th Phryne Fisher book, and I haven't read all of the previous novels, so there were quite a few, clearly well-established, secondary characters who were unfamiliar. Greenwood gives plenty of context for each of them, though, so confusion's avoided.

Friday, August 05, 2011

2011/36: Restless -- William Boyd

Sally Gilmartin was as solid as this gatepost, I thought, realising at the same time how little we actually, really know of our parents' biographies, how vague and undefined they are, like saints' lives almost -- all legend and anecdote -- unless we take the trouble to dig deeper. (p. 33)

Oxford, 1976: Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother with a five-year-old son, studying for a PhD and supporting herself by teaching English to foreign students. Her mother, Sally, seems unusually nervous, almost paranoid. She gives Ruth some papers to read -- The Story of Eva Delectorskaya -- and confesses that it's actually her own story.

Restless switches between the story of Eva (born in Russia, not Bristol; a British spy, not a secretary, during the war) and Ruth's matter-of-fact, somewhat indignant reaction to her mother's revelations. Ruth, it has to be said, is not an especially interesting character in herself: however, Sally (or rather Eva) is tired of waiting to be found out, weary of being afraid, and determined to call to account the person who trapped and betrayed her half a century earlier. She can't accomplish this alone, and she already believes that someone's trying to assassinate her. She needs Ruth's help: and Ruth, her perspectives altered by her mother's autobiography, realises that she is willing to help.

Ruth, as I said, didn't much interest me: her relationship with her mother, a prickly loving intimacy, was fascinating. And Eva's wartime experiences -- her glamorous lover, her work in inventing and disseminating misinformation, her abnegation of her moral code in the cause of a greater good -- were rivetting.

I stumbled occasionally on Boyd's grammar and sentence construction. Eva enters a cafe: "three other elderly couples" (p.84) are already there. Is Eva elderly, or a couple? No. Or someone's briefing her: "Mason told her a few bland facts, except for the information that Hopkins had had half his stomach removed" (p.161). So he didn't tell her that? I was also a little surprised to find 'a computer with a screen like a television' (p.190) in an Oxford academic's office in 1976, and to find punks already endemic in Oxford. And the subplots about the Germans and the Iranians, despite showing how Ruth's ideas were changing, didn't realy come together.

A very readable book, though, and the wartime passages had the feel of a classic movie.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

2011/35: Desdaemona -- Ben Macallan

This was the backlash of loneliness. The mortal version had at least a certain terminus: you could only be lonely for a lifetime. In an immortal body, it could last forever. A boy could be stranded like this, in the prow of something strong and unstoppable, eternally alone, eternally aware ...
He could be pathetic and self-pitying, and aware of that too, and equally unable to change it. (p. 266)
The first urban fantasy from 'Ben Macallan', possibly better-known as Chaz Brenchley. Jordan looks like a 17-year-old homeless boy, but he's been seventeen for a very long time. He treads a fine line between the supernatural heritage he's rejected, and the human world in which he's able to do some good: helping people who are lost, showing them their way home. He's acquired the reputation of being able to find anything. That's why Desi -- Desdaemona -- seeks him out: she wants him to find her sister Fay, who had an affair with an immortal and ended it very badly.

Jordan isn't entirely enthusiastic about working for Desi. For one thing, the line between 'boss' and 'girlfriend' is somewhat blurry. For another, Desi isn't exactly human any more, and she's attracted some enemies who have never been human. Fortunately, the two find an ally in Jordan's estranged brother Asher. Did I say 'fortunately'? No, wait ...

Desdaemona features some truly creative (and distractingly unpleasant) opponents, mostly drawn from English folklore -- the Green Man, a Henley undine, the nastiest Nine Men's Morris ever -- as well as a stunning drag-queen Sybil and the more mundane malevolence of vampires, werewolves et cetera. For a first-person narrative, it also manages to keep Jordan's secrets hidden away for a remarkably long time: we know something is strange about him, but we don't know what.

Macallan doesn't deal in black and white. (Jordan occasionally does, but it's clear when he's doing so). The major villains, the ones who aren't mere henchmen or ... morris-men, are faceted, interesting, likeable. Jordan is far from heroic: he's spent his teens (his very elastic teens) running away, and he's neither physically strong nor supernaturally powerful. His charm is in his vulnerability, his ability to mock himself, and his steadfastness of purpose.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of the author, and afraid of his cats. Nevertheless, I shall whine about the ending. (It is not weak or bad: it is merely incredibly frustrating.) Thankfully, a sequel is in the works.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011/34: Cooking with Fernet Branca -- James Hamilton-Paterson

I looked forward to being neither a wage slave nor a tycoon. But that was before British culture slumped to an infantile consensus obsessed with cash and fashion. New Labour and wall-to-wall football have left only exile, the stoic's way out. If one is not allowed to be serious one might as well emigrate. Even mockery is an art form requiring discipline and sacrifice. (p.56)
The first Gerald Samper novel (preceding Amazing Disgrace, a recent read): here, Samper is somewhat less likeable, probably because his narrative ("a cetain refinement of manner and mind", p.8) alternates with that his neighbour Marta (she describes Gerald as "petty and snobbish with a kind of dandyish disdain", p.31), thus leavening our hero's amour propre with a healthy larding of realism.

The plot ...

The plot. There is one. It concerns Gerald and Marta's mutual suspicion -- he doesn't believe that she is East European nobility, composing the soundtrack for a famous Italian director's latest film; she doesn't believe that he ghost-writes celebrity biographies for a living -- and the comedy of errors that ensues when Marta's younger sister attempts to elope, Gerald's latest subject (a bald boy-band singer with a degree in Counter-cultural Studies) sees a UFO, and Gerald realises that he has unwittingly provided inspiration for Marta's score.

This summary does not convey the novel's charm, though it does grossly simplify the events therein. I like Gerald, even if he is vain, misanthropic, excessively right-leaning and chronically insecure. (I like Gerald even though his recipe for Alien Pie involves smoked kitty: "any cook knows that a subtle and delicate meat like cat will not easily blend with the stolid, Calvinist flavour of root crops", p.165) I like Marta's wickedly dry humour and the way that she never resists the temptation to tease Gerald. And Gerald's frightful puns and wordplay are very cheering.

Do not read this book if you are on a diet. Gerald is a true gourmet, and manages to make even garlic ice-cream (with Fernet Branca) sound appetising. Also, I really want to know if the thing about mussels, soy sauce and chocolate is true. possibly not enough to try it for myself though.

2011/33: Sword at Sunset -- Rosemary Sutcliff

... we rode into a ghost town, the roofs long since fallen in and the walls crumbling away, the tall armies of nettles where the merchants had spread their wares and the Auxiliaries had taken their pleasure in off-duty hours, where the married quarters had been, and children and dogs had tumbled in the sunshine under the very feet of the marching cohorts, and the drink shops had spilled beery song into the night, and the smiths and sandalmakers, the horse-dealers and the harlots, had plied their trades; and all that moved was a blue hare among the fallen gravestones of forgotten men, and above us a hoodie crow perching on the rotting carcass of what had once been one of the great catapults of the Wall ... (p. 147)

When I was in primary school The Lantern Bearers was my favourite book: I read it again and again, far more than either The Eagle of the Ninth or The Silver Branch. I didn't realise for many years that the story continued: that Sword at Sunset, as well as being an account of a Romano-British King Arthur, actually begins mere days after the end of The Lantern Bearers.

Thirty-five years after falling in love with The Lantern Bearers, I finally read Sword at Sunset.

I don't like it.

I don't mean that it's a bad book (it's not) or that I was sad because my favourite characters died (I was, but that wouldn't make me dislike a book). Nor do I think my problem with the novel is simply the change of tone -- though, unlike the other books in the sequence, this is very distinctly not a book for children. (Incest, rape, murder, prostitution, treachery, adultery, homosexuality, torture: none of it sensationalised, but all perfectly clear, without obfuscation or allusion.)

I think my problem is with the narrative voice, that of Ambrosius' adoptive son Artos. While the previous books were in third person, which lends itself to description and world-building, Sword at Sunset is first-person -- almost claustrophobically so. It's not the most promising of voices:
It is all without life in my mind as a badly tempered blade ... so far as might be, I stopped feeling, in those years, and the things that enter only by the head, no man remembers as he does the things that enter by the heart. (p.450)

Artos' focus, and his suppression of emotion, produces a narrative where deaths (human and animal) are mentioned in passing; where battle-strategy is set out in grim and bloody detail, but joy is mostly absent; where, because it's a familiar myth and because it's framed as the retrospective of a dying man, we already know there are no happy endings.

There is still a great deal of beautiful prose, and Sutcliff still draws our attention to the telling detail: a flower crushed and thrown into the fire, the streaked malachite on a whore's eyelids, two boys tending one another's briar scratches. This is the Matter of Britain stripped down to its core. Artos, the warleader who is born between the Roman world and the British, and never quite belongs to either; Medraut, the son conceived in treachery, who will be his doom; Guenhumara, the wife who falls in love with her husband's best friend (Bedwyr rather than the medieval Lancelot-come-lately). No magic, no Merlin, no Ancient MysteriesTM except for the secrets of the 'little dark people'. There are echoes of the earlier books: Trimontium, 'the place of three hills'; the emerald ring carved with a dolphin; the seven stars of Orion; the image of the lights going out, one by one.

It's a beautiful novel in many respects, but a very cold one.

Friday, July 22, 2011

2011/32: The Likeness -- Tana French

... if you've seen a dead body, you know how they change the air: that huge silence, the absence strong as a black hole, time stopped and molecules frozen around the still thing that's learned the final secret, the one he can never tell. Most dead people are the only thing in the room. Murder victims are different; they don't come alone. The silence rises up to a deafening shout and the air is streaked and hand-printed, the body smokes with the brand of that other person grabbing you just as hard: the killer. (p. 20)

Lexie Madison never really existed. Now she's dead.

Detective Cassie Maddox, still fresh from her brush with a psychopath and the loss of her best friend (see Into the Woods) is the only person who can unravel Lexie's murder, because she (and her boss Frank Mackey) created Lexie Madison, years ago, as Cassie's undercover persona. The dead girl is the spitting image of Cassie, who's presented with an undercover operative's dream: be the victim of the crime, slide into that vacated life and discover who might have wanted Lexie Madison dead.

Lexie lived with four fellow PhD students in Whitethorn House, the huge old mansion inherited by Daniel, the leader of the group. They're an odd bunch: outsiders, possibly trying to recreate the family experience that all, in one way or another, have missed out on. Theirs is a life without boundaries, strangely old-fashioned in some ways (no computers in the house; no TV; evenings spent sewing, playing the piano, telling stories). Cassie thinks of them at first as being 'like spies from another planet who had got their research wrong and wound up reading Edith Wharton and watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie' (p.97). She's quickly drawn into the strange self-contained world of the group, and though she's wired for sound and reports nightly to Frank Mackey, her loyalties -- and other aspects of her selfhood -- shift dramatically over the course of the story.

There are many mysteries for Cassie to resolve: who was the young woman who assumed Cassie's cast-off identity? Who stabbed her? Why? What is Daniel's agenda? Why can't she pick up any sexual 'vibes' between the four housemates? And can she keep up the pretence of being someone she isn't, someone with likes and dislikes and indifferences?

And we have a very clear sense of Lexie herself, although she's dead, although she never really existed. Cassie feels sometimes that she's being watched. She believes, on a fundamental level that has nothing to do with objective truth, that Lexie wants her fate to be told.

I found The Likeness utterly compelling -- stayed up past 2am reading, something I rarely do any more -- and the interplay between the four (or five) friends both credible and claustrophobic. There are strong similarities (or perhaps parallels) with Donna Tarrt's The Secret History: the small, elite group in self-imposed isolation from the real world, the hints of something preternatural (perhaps it's only the narrator's suggestibility?) in the background, the crime that must be covered up. But French's novel is very much a novel about Ireland: about the economy and the housing market, about pregnancy and abortion, about feuds that last for generations, about everyday superstition.

There's a strong theme of sacrifice throughout the book. Daniel quotes a Spanish proverb: "Take what you want and pay the price, says God". He and Cassie both learn the hard way that the price of what you want is not always something you can afford.

I did have a few minor problems with the plot, not least when Cassie was unable to unravel Lexie's 'secret code' of 'LHR, CDG, AMS'. And, especially towards the end, a couple of the characters (previously complex and three-dimensional) folded down, in crisis, into stereotypes: the prissy homosexual, the unrequited lover. But: crisis. It's forgiveable.

Many reviewers had a problem with the end of In the Woods: The Likeness redresses the balance, and then some. The novel could have ended fifty pages sooner and the crime(s) would have been resolved -- "the happiest ending we were ever going to get" (p.534) -- but Cassie herself has unfinished business, loose ends, and those too are brought into the light.

The final paragraph of The Likeness is a moving and powerful passage, the perfect conclusion for a novel of such stark beauty and unashamedly poetic prose. It made me cry.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

2011/31: In The Woods -- Tana French

Most people have no reason to know how memory can turn rogue and feral, becoming a force of its own and one to be reckoned with.
Losing a chunk of your memory is a tricky thing, a deep-sea quake triggering shifts and upheavals too far from the epicentre to be easily predictable. From that day on, any nagging little half-remembered thing shimmers with a bright aura of hypnotic, terrifying potential: this could be trivia, or it could be the Big One that blows your life and your mind wide open. (p. 212)
Ireland, August 1984: two children go missing in a wood. Their friend Adam Ryan is found hours later, catatonic, his shoes filled with blood. He remembers nothing of what happened to him and his friends.

Twenty years later Adam is still haunted by survivor's guilt and the feeling that, in all the ways that matter, he never left the wood. Adam goes by the name Rob now; he's a Murder detective in Dublin. A little girl has been murdered in that same fateful wood, her body laid out on an ancient altar-stone. Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox, investigating the case together, encounter a tangle of corruption and deceit. Pagans, property developers, the family of the dead girl and the neighbours who remember that other disappearance -- all have something to add to the patchwork. Ryan's greatest challenge, though, is the tantalising flicker of his own suppressed memories.

In the Woods deals with two cases; the murder of Katy Devlin and the unsolved disappearance of Peter Savage and Jamie Rowan. Neither case is neatly wrapped up, much to the dismay of several reviewers on Amazon. Yet the clues are there, and Rob Ryan is the first to admit that he's not a trustworthy narrator. "What I am telling you, before you begin this story, is two things -- I crave truth, and I lie." (p.4) In the Woods, if read with an open mind and a willingness to think outside the genre, contains solutions to both cases -- one of the characters even voices that solution (or at least what I think is the solution!)

It's also a novel that deals with friendship on several different levels: the friendship between young men (witnessed but not comprehended by Adam and his friends); the wordless synergy between Rob and Cassie; the lost friends for whom Rob Ryan still mourns.

I liked In the Woods immensely (enough to immediately read the other novel I own by the same author: watch this space for a review of The Likeness). French's writing is beautiful, passionate and evocative, and she's skilful enough to create a first-person narrative that privileges the reader: we know, we understand, more of the story than Ryan does. I'm glad French didn't feel the need to spell out what had happened: I'm glad she left Ryan lost.

2011/30: The Thirteenth Tale -- Diane Setterfield

"Do you know why my books are so successful? ... It is because they have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the right order. ... I shall have to tell you the end of my story before I tell you the beginning."
"The end of your story? How can that be, if it happened before you started writing?"
"Quite simply because my story -- my own personal story -- ended before my writing began. Storytelling has only ever been a way of filling in the time since everything finished." (p. 54)

The Thirteenth Tale is structured as the account of Margaret Lea, bibliophile and biographer, who has been summoned to a remote house in Yorkshire to learn the truth about reclusive author Vita Winter. Miss Winter, gnawed by the 'wolf' of cancer, is notorious for never giving the same answer twice when asked about her past. 'Mere scraps from the bottom of my ragbag,' she says. But now (whenever 'now' might be: the setting's indeterminate, mid-20th century* maybe?) it's time to tell the truth.

Margaret is not without her own story, though she's never told it to anyone: she was born joined to her twin, who died when they were separated. Margaret sometimes feels like a ghost -- for example, on seeing her own reflection in a window at night -- and thus fits perfectly with the Gothic aesthetic of The Thirteenth Tale, which draws heavily on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in Whiteand The Turn of the Screw.

It's a story about twins: two sisters, sharp abrasive Adeline and soft passive Emmeline, co-dependent and functionally feral. They have their own language, and their own morality. Then comes governess Hester Barrow, who with the help of the local doctor is determined to socialise the girls.

It's also a story about violent passion: the twins' uncle Charlie's passion for his own sister Isabelle, Emmeline's fierce adoration of her twin, Adeline's increasingly destructive impulses, and the madness that seems to haunt the family.

And it's a story about pronouns: Margaret keeps hoping for 'I', 'me', when listening to Miss Winter's accounts of the past, and gradually Margaret -- and the reader -- become aware that Miss Winter ('the disappearing point at the heart of the narrative', p. 114) was an integral part of the events she's recounting. Later, much is made of the twins' language, and their tendency to use first-person plural ("we saw a rabbit") even when speaking of events experienced by only one of them. Gradually, even Margaret begins to tell her own story, from her point of view: for much of the novel, though, she's a shadowy presence, narrating but never letting us inside herself.

The level at which I most enjoyed this book, though, is that of the bibliophile. Margaret the reader and Vita the writer are very different, but their joy in the written word, in great literature and its creators, resonates with me on a visceral level. Like Margaret, 'when I was a child books were everything' (p. 37). Like Vita, I nurture the compost-heap of my imagination: I plant ideas there and let them grow.

The Thirteenth Tale -- the title refers to an anthology by Vita Winter which only contains twelve stories -- is an immensely readable novel, very atmospheric, well-paced and replete with mirrors, diversions, red herrings etc. Despite its epic scale and Gothic sensibility, I'm not wholly convinced that it has depth: there's something two-dimensional about the larger-than-life figures who strut and fret and roar through its pages.

But then, that's what books do ...


*On when the novel's set, including comments by the author

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

2011/29: A Week in December -- Sebastian Faulks

...Veals believed it was important for him to be aware of other people, natives and visitors alike, however partial and bizarre their take on life. Since his own reality derived from numbers on a computer terminal, he thought it wise to keep an eye on flesh and blood; there might still be something he could profitably learn from them. (p. 39)

Set in London in December 2007, A Week in December reminds me of a contemporary Dervish House: the interconnectness of apparently disparate characters, the richly-drawn urban setting, the sense of impending calamity. Faulks deals with questions of identity, of self-image, of real life and online / virtual life. The major characters share particular random experiences: they pass one another in the streets, they encounter each other's avatars online, they're obsessed with the same soft-porn model, they're forced to leap out of the way of a cyclist (the same one each time?) with no lights.

There are seven major viewpoint characters: John Veals, a hedge fund manager; Veals' son Finbar, who spends his days getting high and surfing the web; Jenni, a Circle Line tube driver; R. Tranter, an embittered literary critic (or possibly Faulks getting his own back on the broadsheets); Hassan, newly involved in radical Islam; Polish footballer Spike Borowski; and barrister Gabriel Northwood.

I wish Faulks had limited himself to these viewpoints: we get occasional passages from other points of view, such as Hassan's father Farooq 'Knocker' Al-Rashid, a businessman about to be awarded an OBE, or Veals' wife Sophie, the only person who has ever made Veals laugh. On the other hand, these subsidiary characters, drifting in and out of the edges of the major narratives, cast light on the protagonists.

Faulks plays games with names: Parallax is pretty much Second Life, YourPlace ('this parody of a human world' (p.47)) is Facebook, the Pizza Palace Book of the Year prize bears considerable resemblance to the Costa Book Awards. One can't help but suspect that some of the characters, too, have real-world counterparts: but if A Week in December is a roman a clef, it's one that works on multiple levels, no decoder ring needed.

Every character finds meaning somewhere, whether it's Jenni's online avatar in Parallax, Gabriel's visits to his brother in hospital, Tranter's retreat into 19th-century literature. The things we choose to do, the kinds of meaning we search for, are what matters.

It feels to me as though part, at least, of the point of the novel is the importance of passion, of subjectivity. There are two characters (well, at least two) who could be interpreted as villains: one is hot-headed and somewhat misguided, one is cold and emotionless. Faulks doesn't hammer home the comparison, but by the end of the novel it's clear where his sympathies lie, and where he's led the reader.

This novel has very mixed reviews, tending towards the negative from fans of Faulks' previous work. I liked it rather more -- or enjoyed it more -- than, for instance, Birdsong: perhaps it's the familiarity of the contemporary UK setting, the in-jokes of platform art on Underground stations, Tranter's anonymously vitriolic online reviews, Finbar's fantasy football team ... A Week in December is blackly comic, minutely observed and utterly engaging.

Monday, July 04, 2011

2011/28: Amazing Disgrace -- James Hamilton-Paterson

Many miles away on the far side of an immense gulf of air the Mediterranean is visibly frittering its time away, lying glazed and inert in its bed at two o'clock in the afternoon like a teenager who has been out clubbing all night.(p.4)
The louche and misanthropic Gerald Samper, iconoclastic gourmet cook and ghost-writer to illiterate stars of sport and stage, is living in dread of his imminent fortieth birthday. It's time he moved up in the world, and Samper has high hopes of collaborating on the biography of conductor Max Christ, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of a rather charming oceanographer of Samper's acquaintance.

Meanwhile, he's stewing gently in his vine-shrouded Tuscan eyrie, sipping Prosecco and wondering whether he'll ever complete his biography of plucky amputee yachtswoman Millie Cleat. Wondering, too, whatever can have happened to his exotic and aggravating neighbour Marta, who's apparently vanished off the face of the earth. And wondering if his sixty-day supply of ProWang's PowRTabs (bought on the Internet, of course) might possibly be doing more harm than good.

I feared Tom Sharpe territory, but Gerald Samper is a delight: endlessly inventive in the kitchen ('Death Roe', a 'sable meal for a discoloured mood' that marries cod roe, black rice, squid ink and nutmeg); creatively vindictive (Millie Cleat is forcibly united with her spiritual side as a result of screwing up an oceanographic experiment off the Canaries); utterly unreliable as a narrator, but with sufficient charm to make up for any lapses in, well, the actualité. Also, absolutely hilarious -- in that very English way that's seasoned with embarrassment and a soupçon of disgust. Am now keen to read Hamilton-Paterson's other novels.

2011/27: The Hotel Under the Sand -- Kage Baker

One day a storm came and swept away everything that Emma had, and everything that Emma knew. When it had done all that, it swept away Emma too.

It might have been a storm with black winds, with thunder and lightning and rising waves. It might have been a storm with terrible anger and policemen coming to the door, and strangers, hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. It might have been a storm with soldiers, and fire, and hiding in cellars listening to shooting overhead. There are different kinds of storms. (p.11)

The Hotel Under the Sand is the late Kage Baker's first (and as far as I know only) novel for children / young adults. It's less morally murky than most of her other fiction, and it has a single clear plot-line, but it's undeniably Kage Baker; sidelong humour, stereotypical characters drawn anew, a strong female protagonist.

Emma, sole survivor of a storm that destroyed everything she held dear, is washed up on a desolate beach, a 'golden wilderness of sand dunes'. She survives her first night only with the help of Winston, a bellboy -- or rather the ghost of a bellboy -- at the Grand Wenlocke Hotel. The hotel itself was buried beneath the dunes after a catastrophic equinoctial storm. Now another storm is uncovering the hotel, which was designed to provide the perfect seaside holiday. As Winston points out, the perfect holiday is one that's as long as you want it to be: Mr Wenlocke's ingenious solution was the Temporal Delay Field, which stretches time within the hotel (except in the wine cellar: it's vital that the port ages properly).

Emma somehow ends up running the hotel, though not single-handedly: there's Mrs Beet, the cook, and her dog Shorty; Winston the bellboy; Captain Doubloon, who comes ashore in search of hidden treasure and is determined to solve the clues hidden within the hotel; and Masterman Wenlocke, the last of his line, a small boy with something of an attitude problem.

And then the guests begin to arrive ... Mr and Mrs E. Freet; an assortment of beautiful people with odd names (Orion, Arcturus, Cassiopeia); the rambunctious 'D. Eleutherios and party'.

This is a simple, upbeat tale of bravery and fortitude, finding friends and getting through the bad times. It's not sugar-coated: Emma has lost everything, and there are no easy answers. But there is a happy ending, in which evil is vanquished and good hearts rewarded.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

2011/26: The Rapture -- Liz Jensen

What has happened to us? How is it that we, the inventors of devices that fly across oceans, hurtle to other planets, burrow underground, and kill from a distance; we, the atom-splitters, the antibiotic-discoverers, the computer-modellers, the artificial-heart-implanters, the creators of GM crops and ski-slopes in Dubai, have failed to see five minutes beyond our own lifetimes? (p. 302)

Summer, heatwaves, storms and the Faith Wave: The Rapture is set in near-future Britain, a couple of years after the 2012 Olympics, in a south-coast town that reminds me more than a little of Folkestone.

Psychotherapist Gabrielle Fox is broken, physically and emotionally, after a car crash that claimed her lover's life. She applies for -- and, against the advice of former colleagues, gets -- a job at Oxsmith, an institute for teenage psychiatric patients. Gabrielle, who specialises in art therapy, finds herself working with Bethany Krall, a sixteen-year-old girl who murdered her mother with a Philips screwdriver.

Bethany, daughter of a charismatic Christian preacher, claims that she can predict natural disasters. She's scornful of Gabrielle's attempts to convince her that it's sheer randomness. As prediction after prediction is fulfilled, Gabrielle gradually begins to take Bethany's visions more seriously: scribbled sketches of a falling statue; an image of a crane-operator's cab, complete with porn on the wall; a warning about the Tribulation, 'something we've never seen before'.

Gabrielle's new relationship with physicist Frazer Melville (who, irritatingly, is referred to by his full name or his occupation throughout) gives her some insight into possible mechanisms behind Bethany's gift, or curse. Van Gogh's skies, especially those painted while he was suffering from epilepsy, apparently depict accurate models of turbulence: Frazer Melville suggests that the electro-shock therapy Bethany's undergoing is producing a similar effect in her brain. In which case, it should be possible to elicit more predictions, to discover the nature of the catastrophe that Bethany believes will destroy the human race ...

The Rapture -- which I read in a single day, May 21st (Rapture Day as predicted by Harold Camping) -- feels like a novel of two halves. The first half explores Bethany's illness and her visions, and has a sense of gathering force: the second, though, is much more concerned with Gabrielle's paranoia and self-doubt, and the romance between her and Frazer Melville.

Not a happy ending: there are no happy endings here. But if you squint, Bethany and Gabrielle both get what they want, and what they need.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011/25: Hallucinating Foucault -- Patricia Duncker

"Are you asking me if I am a lonely man? Or are you asking me to tell you some more about my writing?"
I realised that the two, which I had always held in my mind distinct and apart, were now no longer separate. Paul Michel and the hidden drama lived in his texts were utterly and terribly fused. And this process was not of his making, but mine. He was the end of my quest, my goal, my grail. He had himself become the book. Now I was asking the book to yield up all its secrets. (p. 112)

A short, somewhat disquieting novel about love in many guises: especially, and pivotally, the bond between an author and the person for whom they write.

The narrator is twenty-two, a Cambridge post-grad consumed by his thesis on once-famous French writer Paul Michel, when he falls in love with 'the Germanist'. (Many of the characters in this novel remain nameless: the Germanist refers to her father as 'the Bank of England', though his male partner, a doctor, does merit a full name.) The Germanist turns out to know more than a little about Michel, former enfant terrible of French literature who shared an intimate reader/writer bond -- as well as a very public homosexuality, and the 'outsider' mentality which our narrator thinks intrinsic to that sexual nature -- with Michel Foucault. Paul Michel, we learn, was a schizophrenic who was subject to fits of violence, and is now incarcerated in a mental hospital outside Paris.

Prompted by the Germanist, the narrator seeks out his subject, and wins his trust; wins, too, the trust of the staff at Sainte-Anne, who permit him to take Michel out for the day, and eventually to take him away for the summer, to the Midi.

In the blazing heat of the South of France, Michel seems quite restored: he wins over his would-be biographer, tantalisingly revealing a series of insights into the nature of art, writing for, writing against. Both Michel and the narrator are driven by forms of madness: but what tips the balance is Michel's account of meeting a child on a beach, and the narrator's realisation that he's really nothing more than a go-between.

The novel (written in 1996, set in 1993) feels remarkably dated -- not a criticism, but perhaps a sign of verisimilitude, of how well it evokes the time in which it's set. The Bank of England (the Germanist's father, not the institution) is clearly wealthy and tech-savvy, as evidenced by his car-phone; there's no such thing as the Internet or Google; the Germanist bought her Cambridge flat for £27K.

I don't think I like anyone in this novel, with the possible exception of the Bank of England and his partner. But it's a fascinating, chilling, emotionally overwhelming read, and left me with a lingering sense of hidden complexities, unsuspected connections, and untrustworthy accounts. Hallucinating Foucault begins with, to put it kindly, a misperception: I suspect the rest of the novel teems with them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

2011/24: Case Histories -- Kate Atkinson

Even the police had brought a clairvoyant in, but they hadn't briefed him properly and he had thought they were looking for a body when, of course, they already had one. The clairvoyant said the girl's body was 'in a garden, within walking distance of a river', which pretty much narrowed it down to half of Cambridge ... How many girls were out there, unturned by the plough, unseen by the passerby? If only you could lock girls away, in towers, in dungeons, in convents, in their bedrooms, anywhere that would keep them safe. (p. 141)

Case Histories starts by setting out the details of three murders: Olivia, a little girl who goes missing from a tent in the family garden, Cambridge 1970; Laura, a young woman murdered at random whilst working in her father's office, Cambridge 1994; and Michelle, a woman in a remote farmhouse suffering post-natal depression, who finds herself watching her baby daughter screaming as her husband lies dead. Typically for a Kate Atkinson novel, these three crimes are linked by a complex cobweb of circumstance, coincidence and hidden connections. The man who brings them all together? Private Investigator Jackson Brodie, divorced, ex-military, ex-police.

Atkinson brings Cambridge to life, and she's refreshingly rude about tourists, foreign-language students and local eccentricities. ('Madness was endemic in Cambridge', p. 110) There's a punt expedition to the Orchard Tea Rooms, during which Julia expounds at length about Rupert Brooke and nude bathing. There are nudists on the riverbank (reading Principia Mathematica) and adulterers in the bland estates of Cherry Hinton.

The novel is full of lost girls -- not all of them dead, but all of them uprooted, cut off from their pasts. Julia and Amelia, sisters of lost Olivia, are both stuck, psychologically, at the ages they were when Olivia vanished from the garden. (Their elder sister Sylvia ran away to a convent.) Michelle's daughter keeps running away, and stops coming back. Theo, Laura's father, defines his whole life by the fact that his daughter -- one of his daughters -- was murdered. When he succumbs to a life-threatening asthma attack on Christ's Pieces, it's a homeless girl who helps him. (The woman of whom she demands an inhaler is Amelia. That's coincidence.)

Jackson agonises about his own daughter, who is about to be taken away from him. He'd seen too many crimes to be complacent about her safety. And he knows what it's like to be left behind when someone's murdered. Jackson's life, like Julia's and Amelia's, like Theo's, falls into 'before' and 'after'.

Jackson does have some other problems, which he deals with by pretty much ignoring them: they're mostly alluded to after the fact, rather than described as they happen. Suffice to say, taking pity on bigotted old widows in search of their lost kitties isn't the sinecure it might appear.

At first I wasn't sure how Michelle's story fitted with the two other threads, both of which are set in Cambridge and both of which concern the grief and guilt of survivors. Gradually it became clear that Michelle's story is intimately entwined, albeit at one remove, with Theo's and Jackson's and Amelia's.

Not only are all the cases resolved (albeit not in the 'book him, Danno' mode) but there are some surprising happy endings. I was especially happy that Amelia, spinsterish and miserable, found joy on the banks of the Cam.

NB: I haven't been watching the TV adaptation, but I'm inclined to agree with that the story makes much less sense, sheerly for meteorological reasons, transposed to Edinburgh.

2011/23: When Will There Be Good News? -- Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie had cared about missing girls, he wanted them all found. Louise didn't want them to get lost in the first place. There were a lot of ways of getting lost, not all of them involved being missing. Not all of them involved hiding, sometimes women got lost right there in plain sight. Alison Needler, making accommodations, disappearing inside her own marriage, a little more every day. Jackson's sister stepping off a bus and stepping out of her life one evening in the rain. (p.170-1)

Thirty years before the start of the novel, Joanna Mason was six years old. A stranger murdered her mother and brother as they walked back from the bus stop: her mother's last words were "Run, Joanna, run!" She ran: she survived.

Now the murderer is due to be released from prison -- the event that precipitates everything that happens in When Will There Be Good News?.

Jackson Brodie is travelling north when his journey's interrupted in the most catastrophic of ways. As he wavers in and out of consciousness, his fragmented memories patch over the events subsequent to Case Histories. Jackson's life has changed drastically: yet, as in Atkinson's other novels, everything is connected and one of his earliest triumphs, his earliest 'lost girls', is about to re-enter his life.

There's a plethora of mistaken identities: there are kind lies (it's easier for one character to describe her mother without mentioning that she's not actually alive), and deceptions more cold-blooded and considered. Atkinson's characters are richly individual (and that includes their narrative voices: Louise Monroe's run-on sentences in the quotation that heads this review reveal a personality quite different to hard-boiled orphan Reggie or Jackson Brodie's protective armour.

There's also a great deal about parents and parenthood: Joanna Mason lost her mother in the most appallingly abrupt way, and that experience has altered her own attitudes to motherhood. Reggie lost her mother in a ludicrously random accident: she never lets her mother-figures realise what they are. Possibly doesn't realise it herself.

I'm not 100% sure I made sense of the logistics of the final twist, but all the better: it'll keep me thinking. Not that there's a dearth of thought-provoking material -- connections, observations, coincidences that aren't wholly random -- in any Kate Atkinson novel: that's what makes her one of my favourite contemporary crime writers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

2011/22: The Dervish House -- Ian McDonald

"...it all began with this woman in Ereğli who started to see into souls and tell fortunes: the peri were whispering it to her, apparently. Then there's this businessman in Nevbahar: he's very interesting, very up to day; it's not fairies or djinn; it's robots. Those swarm-robots that build up into all kinds of different robots. But at some level it's the same; he finds lost things and gives prophecies." (location 4648, Kindle doesn't give me page number)

The Dervish House takes place over five days in Istanbul, summer 2027, soon after Turkey's admittance to the EU. The novel's six protagonists, all living in or near the eponymous Adem Dede 'dervish house', react to an apparent suicide-bombing on the local tramline. That bombing kick-starts a chain of events that feature djinn, nanobots, microcalligraphy, junk DNA, terrorism-trading, energy scams, family ties, the Green Saint and a Mellified Man.

The six protagonists -- ranging from nine-year-old Can Durukan to elderly Georgios Ferentinou -- are distinct voices, each with his or her own concerns and preoccupations. It took me a while to crystallise the thought that each protagonist's thread typifies a different genre, as well as a different perspective. There's a Dan Brown-style treasure hunt; a Boy Detective with his trusty sidekick(s); a country girl making good; a romantic tale of lost love and betrayal; a fast-paced techno-thriller with cyberpunk overtones; and a young man who comes out of the fire and experiences redemption and revelation.

The joy of The Dervish House, for me, is in how intimately connected the different threads are. The connections aren't always clear -- not least to the protagonists, whose brains aren't wired to recognise what's happening around them -- but everywhere there are patterns within patterns, and everything converges towards a denouement that is as much beginning and middle as ending.

It's an incredibly complex book, lush and sometimes overwhelming with texture and detail: McDonald's prose is rich and precise, and he's got the gift of encapsulating a moment, a character, a cityscape in one sentence. (Adem Dede Square is "small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries": Leyla's family "gave her gold and had their eyes closed in every single photograph".) It's a novel about Istanbul, a city poised at the interface of Europe and Asia. It's also 'about' economics and trade; about the ways that history interpenetrates and defines the present and the future; about patterns, and how the human brain can see them.

Though The Dervish House addresses some of the same themes, and features some of the same entities, as Brasyl and River of Gods, it stands alone , and it's a very different novel, reflecting the ambience of the culture in which it's set. And now I want to go to Istanbul ...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2011/21: Lightborn -- Tricia Sullivan

"... I've learned to trust myself. I've learned that people --". Well, that wasn't quite right. She corrected herself: "Adults. Are just loosely connected. They're just a bunch of compulsions and stuff. Rationalisations. Seriously. Even before the Fall. Small things could break them. They're not like kids." (p. 128)

Shine was introduced as a revolutionary new medium for neurological directives: 'it makes you want something and it activates the neurochemicals to support the directive' (p. 145). It's the 'lightborn' of the title (though it seems to me that lightborne', carried by light, would be more accurate) and can confer both knowledge and ignorance: one of the characters uses it to conceal parts of buildings. The dissemination of Shine, which only works on adults, was controlled by an AI: then the AI went rogue, leaving the adults 'trapped by mental patterns they couldn't escape' (p. 39). That was the Fall, which happened on 19th July 2004.

Two years after the Fall: Los Sombres, a city somewhere in America, is allegedly inhabited solely by flesh-eating zombies and militant DJs. Or so Xavier is told. On a quest for a new supply of kisspeptins -- which delay puberty, and thus protect against the bad Shine which has zombified all the adults of Los Sombres -- he discovers that things aren't quite the way that the adults in his life have presented them. For one thing, his faith in machines -- "too honest to fuck around with your head" -- is severely shaken by his first encounter with the evacuator robots.

The other protagonist, Roksana, is in her late teens (past puberty) but is impervious to Shine. Perhaps this is somehow connected to the identity of her father, a pioneering researcher in the Field of Shine. Roksana -- and her sidekick, the precocious Elsa -- are engaged in a kind of guerilla warfare against Shine and its agents, trying to help the afflicted adults help themselves as well as protecting them from the robot (and human) guards who enforce the quarantine.

And into the refugee community, which is organised by the local Native American tribe, comes a stranger from Los Sombres, and following his arrival everything starts to change.

Sullivan doesn't believe in easing the reader into her alternate 2006: we dive straight in at the deep end, almost overwhelmed by strangeness and slang. All (or most) becomes clear as we read on.

It's a small apocalypse, and extremely localised. The rest of America -- the world? -- waits, unaffected (their Shine hasn't gone rogue) and apparently happy to keep Los Sombres quarantined until all the zombies are gone.

There's a lot here about parents and children, and children parenting their parents. Sullivan's focus on her adolescent protagonists makes this rather more than 'just another zombie apocalypse'. Roksana and Xavier are tougher and less broken than most of the adult characters. Their voices are convincing.

This isn't my favourite of Sullivan's work -- in particular, I find the ending rather weak -- but it's full of gorgeous pacy writing, cool ideas and cinematic descriptions of everyday life after the Fall.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2011/19 and 20: The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men -- Patrick Ness

That's the secret of this planet, Todd. Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand each other for once.
I clear my throat. "Women don't got Noise," I say. "What'll happen to them?"
He stops. I'd forgotten ... if there's a way for men to stop having Noise, there must be a way for women to start. (Monsters of Men, p.453)
I'm discussing both novels in a single post because I read them back to back, and it's hard to separate out some aspects.
  1. These two novels, following The Knife of Never Letting Go, complete the Chaos Walking trilogy. They tell the story of Todd and Viola, two teenagers on New World who find themselves in the middle of a war. Possibly more than one war: the native population (called Spackle by the colonists) are rising against the invaders, but there is also conflict between the Mayor's party and those loyal to Mistress Coyle. Todd, who at the start of The Ask and the Answer is plotting to kill the Mayor, finds his beliefs and integrity shaken by the realities of war. Viola, who was sole survivor when a scout ship crashed, brings an external perspective and a few home truths.
  2. The trilogy as a whole is immensely readable -- well-paced, plotty, with plenty of reversals. The books are also a remarkably quick read, full of staccato sentences and creative typography, though not as much as in the first book).,Todd and Viola's voices are utterly distinct (and printed in different fonts). In the third volume there's a third viewpoint character who gets a font of his own: again, a very distinctive voice.
  3. On reflection, I'm inclined to think that the Chaos Walking trilogy is not -- despite Ness's choice of narrators -- primarily the story of Todd and Viola, or even of the conflict between humans and Spackle. Todd and Viola, despite the epic events in which they're instrumental, would very much like their story arc to be a typical teenage romance: they're besotted with one another, they act and justify those actions because of one another, and despite their youth (he's 14, she's 13) they move through the typical dance of romance: love, jealousy, doubt, apparent betrayal. But perhaps the 'real' story is that of David Prentiss, the Mayor (he elects himself President), a former military man who knows a great deal about the allure and corruption of power, and even more about social engineering. Chaos Walking could be read as the Rise and Fall of David Prentiss: he's a complex and credible character.
  4. One of the themes of the trilogy is communication. The Spackle communicate predominantly (only?) via Noise: to take away a Spackle's capacity for generating Noise is to silence that Spackle. ("It makes them better slaves." (A&A, p.100)) The Mayor learns to use Noise as a weapon, and as coercion: apparently this is a teachable skill. But so's reading: the illiterate can become literate if someone who can read 'shares' their skill -- rather than guiding word-by-word -- via the (rather fuzzy) mechanism of Noise. A society used to Noise doesn't expect stealth attacks, because an attacker's Noise would give them away. And Viola, who's become accustomed to Todd's Noise, is disturbed when she can't hear it any more; when he's become the same as the men she grew up with.
  5. I'd have liked more detail about how Noise works. It's audible over a communications link, so it's not traditional telepathy. It's also audible from underwater: the fish of New World are hungry, and have a small but precise vocabulary (eat) which is remarked upon by people on the beach. And I would very much like to know why women don't have it. Human women, anyway: Spackle females, who we never really encounter, have Noise.
  6. There are plenty of good, strong, three-dimensional female characters: Viola, Mistress Coyle, Simone, Todd's dead mother whose present in her journal. The women talk to one another about things other than men. Yet there's no specific, credible explanation of why all the women of the first colony are dead. (David Prentiss tells one story; Mistress Coyle tells another. Neither is a trustworthy source of information.) Given that a considerable part of the emotional content of the novel is about the conflict between men and women -- ranging from attempted 'femicide' to Viola's complaints when she can't hear Todd's noise -- it feels as though we're missing an important part of the story.
  7. Todd's essential decency -- his capacity for empathy, his desire to do the right thing (if only to make Viola happy), and the ways in which he protects himself against a world in which he's forced to be brutal -- is evident throughout the books. It's a catalyst for the actions of others, including the Spackle who wants revenge because Todd ('the Knife') knew that he was doing wrong but still did it, and the Mayor, who says that Todd is making him into a better person -- and, later, that until he met Todd he thought he himself was morally good.
  8. Given that many of the adult humans are either torturers (the Ask) or terrorists (the Answer), it's a relief that one of the more traditional themes of the trilogy is the transition of power from the older generation to the younger. Occasionally this seems slightly too neat, but the three young protagonists have endured a great deal in order to be qualified and competent to pick up the reins when they must.
  9. The Spackle are an intriguing alien race, though they have a damning tendency to speak without contractions (I'm reminded of various TV 'sci-fi' shows, and any number of Noble Savages in popular literature. There's just enough detail about their society to make me want more explanation.
  10. I was pleased to find The New World, a novella that tells the story of Viola's journey to New World, free as an ebook on Amazon. It shows just how quickly Viola has to grow up after the ship crashes, and offers some insight into her character.