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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011/15: Farthing -- Jo Walton

[He] could just drift into murder and fascism, but I refused that entirely, for myself and for the future. It was the way I'd thought before, about living in a tiny flower garden in the midst of fields of manure. I couldn't close my eyes to the fact that keeping the flower garden meant pushing other people off into the manure. (p.306)
  1. 1949, but not as we know it: 'the border of the Third Reich stops at the Channel' (19) and this is not least because of the efforts of Sir James Thirkie, who in 1941 negotiated "Peace with Honour" with Hitler.
  2. George Orwell's latest novel is called Nineteen Seventy-Four, because he wrote it a year earlier ...
  3. A country-house murder: Farthing House has given its name to a COnservative clique who dominate British politics. The interpersonal relationships of the Farthing Set are as complex and sordid as anything from a Sayers novel, with Bognor and Macedonia -- sorry, adultery and bisexuality -- complicating matters at every turn.
  4. The rigid class system, in our reality smoothed away by the war and its aftermath, is still going strong. It still amazed Carmichael sometimes that this kind of luxury should exist side by side with the world he usually saw where most people barely had enough to eat. (p.127)
  5. Anti-semitism is endemic. Lucy, one of the two narrators, is married to David who's a Jewish banker. It turns out she doesn't know quite as much about him as she thought, but that works both ways.
  6. Homosexuality is illegal, but a great many characters are gay or bisexual (and thus easily blackmailed). Possibly there are disproportionately many gay characters: it detracts from the impact.
  7. Part of the novel concerns getting Jews out of Europe -- to Canada, since America has thrown in its lot with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and closed its borders to Jewish refugees.
  8. Two viewpoint characters, Lucy and Carmichael -- she sees through him, he doesn't understand her at all
  9. Ultimately, Farthing is about how easy it is for even the well-intentioned to stand aside while injustice and genocide are perpetrated
  10. Ends on something of a cliffhanger, but not one that pertains to the plot: I'm not sure it will be resolved in the subsequent volumes of the trilogy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011/14: The House at Sea's End -- Elly Griffiths

"I am now 86 and in poor health, and the memory of a particular event in 1940 has haunted me all my life ... A great wrong was done many years ago ... and unless we tell the truth to the generations that follow, the evil will lie waiting beneath the earth." (p.116)
  1. The archaeology featured in The House at Sea's End is more recent -- Second World War -- than in Griffiths' previous novels: I missed Ruth's insights into the remote past.
  2. The plot revolves around the discovery, on a rapidly-eroding beach, of six skeletons dating from the Second World War. The men were executed: someone still alive knows why, and by whom.
  3. Entwined with current events is the story of Ruth's Bosnian friend Tatjana, who she met whilst excavating mass graves in Srebrenica in 1996. Tatjana enlisted Ruth's help in finding the bones of her family, and also the man who killed them. Now Tatjana's in England, bringing with her some memories Ruth's tried to forget.
  4. Ruth's utterly devoted to her daughter Kate, and worries about juggling career and single motherhood. Tatjana, herself a bereaved mother, seems to be the first person who's confronted her about her duty to her daughter; Ruth now understands her friend's grief a great deal better, and the novel charts her growing understanding of the strength of the maternal bond.
  5. Plenty of soap-opera character interaction: will anyone guess the identity of the man who fathered Ruth's baby, Kate? (Yes, if he carries on being so bloody obvious.)
  6. I'm becoming increasingly interested by Cathbad, the erstwhile druid, who has struck up an improbable friendship with DCI Nelson and who seems to have a knack of showing up at just the right moment.
  7. Broughton, the (fictional) Norfolk coastal village that's gradually falling into the sea, reminded me a lot of Happisburgh: the author confirms in an afterword that Happisburgh was an inspiration.
  8. One of the victims bequeaths some books, and a list of numbers indicating 'the order in which they should be read', to a friend. Ruth and Nelson (and other members of the police force) struggle with the code, yet my cat could decode the Secret Message: it was incredibly obvious, and I wasn't convinced by their inability to work it out.
  9. There are too many red herrings in this novel, and not enough information for the reader to spot the murderer on their own. Even DCI Nelson admits that there are loose ends, but he lets them go.
  10. Hurrah for local libraries, without which I would not have been likely to read this recently-published novel. (I don't usually buy books in hardcover.)

2011/13: The Liar -- Stephen Fry

"You must face the fact that many members of staff are beginning to lose their patience. Perhaps you feel that they don't understand you?"
"I think the problem is that they do understand me, sir."
"Yes. You see that is exactly the kind of remark that is guaranteed to put certain masters' backs up, isn't it? Sophistication is not an admired quality. Not only at school. Nobody likes it anywhere. In England at any rate." (p.32-3)
  1. The Liar follows Adrian Healey, a decorative young man who is far too clever for his own good, through public school ("this was 1973 and girls had not yet been invented" (p.13)) to London streetlife and thence to the University of Cambridge, where he encounters the redoubtable Professor Trefusis and becomes involved in international espionage.
  2. Or not.
  3. "Not one word of the following is true." That's the opening sentence of the book. Caveat emptor.
  4. Adrian is an accomplished liar, fancies himself as a wit in the Wilde mode -- not the only sphere in which he emulates Wilde -- and has something of a problem with authority figures.
  5. Professor Trefusis (familiar from other works in Fry's oeuvre) is one of the few who appreciates Adrian's creativity, duplicity and amorality. Adrian is, in fact, exactly the kind of chap who can help Trefusis pull off a particular coup.
  6. Adrian isn't wholly content to exist in a meaningless void. There's a rich vein of self-disgust: "he was one of a long line of mimsy and embittered middle-class sensitives who disguised their feeble and decadent lust as something spiritual and Socratic." (p. 104) In some ways he seems as emotionally blank as he's morally void, failing to connect, never loyal: then he'll reveal a fleeting glimpse of bleak romanticism.
  7. The Liar isn't a linear novel: even if the reader can keep track of what's true and what's not, working out the sequence of events can be a challenge. However, pretty much everything knits up neatly at the end, albeit perhaps at the expense of (a small portion of) Adrian's pride.
  8. There are some extremely funny one-liners and some scenes where the humour, excessive or dark, verges on tastelessness.
  9. Adrian is not a likeable chap. However, he's a fascinating protagonist, who'll go to considerable lengths to plaster a camp and flamboyant mask over the Existential Void within. I'm not quite sure whether this counts as a waste of talent or its epitome.
  10. Hard to say just how much of The Liar is autobiographical: certainly some scenes ring with heartfelt bitterness. Then again, this was Fry's first novel (published in 1991) and first novels are always fair game for the 'autobiography' approach. Fry's later novels indicate considerable range: maybe The Liar's closest to the bone, or maybe it's just an intense debut.

2011/12: Fast Women -- Jennifer Crusie

It's a terrible thing to be married to the wrong man... It's like being trapped at a bad party that never ends. The voices are always too loud and the jokes are dumb and you end up standing against a wall, hoping nobody notices you because it's so much easier that way. It's like you're trying to avoid somebody who's the only other person at the party. (p. 329)
  1. Recently-divorced Nell Dysart is starting to believe that she'll never feel anything again. Her ex-brother-in-law sets her up with a job at a small detective agency, and Nell winds up as secretary to Gabe McKenna. It is most definitely not love at first sight.
  2. Fast Women focusses on the importance of female friendship. Nell hangs out with Suze and Margie, formerly her sisters-in-law, still her closest (possibly her only) friends. Apart from Suze and Margie, Nell seems isolated: no family except her teenage son, no parents, no siblings.
  3. Suze is married to a man fourteen years older than her, and lives in constant fear of being replaced by a younger model. Her overwhelming fear -- for herself, and Nell, and Margie -- is of being alone.
  4. Margie's easily written off as a ditzy doormat, but that isn't just milk she's drinking, and her obsession with china (she panics when Nell won't unpack her Clarice Cliff teaset) originates in her observations of her own mother.
  5. None of the womens seem to be interested in having children. Nell has a teenaged son: Gabe has a teenaged daughter. But none of the three female protagonists seems to want (more) children, or be unhappy about being childless, or even to consider pregnancy as a way of prolonging a marriage.
  6. Fast Women is not (or not just) a celebration of female independence, but also a convoluted murder mystery full of family secrets and women who got in the way of them. "You really have to think, are those our choices? Sit still and be nice, or get killed?" (p.382)
  7. The core of the novel is the difficulty of being an independent, strong woman in the modern world. Not all of the women see men as the enemy (though some do): not all of the men are criminals who haven't been found out yet (though some are). Even the Dachshund Nell rescues (or steals) is a victim of oppression -- her abusive male owner named her SugarPie. Nell renaming her 'Marlene' is a nice little allegory about female empowerment.
  8. Even the most co-dependent characters strive to do things alone, make their own decisions, juggle work and home and love and obligation without being swamped by any aspect of life. They aren't teenagers, but competent adults whose occasional lapses in 'grown-up behaviour' are all the more necessary and deliberate.
  9. Gabe and his male relations have a history of being undone by secretaries -- marrying them, divorcing them, being the victims of theft. "Why do I always fall for the insane women?" one of them asks. "Why do you always drive them insane?" retorts Nell. (p.441)
  10. A fast and frivolous read, despite the grimy underside: not exactly chick-lit (at least as I understand it), not exactly post-feminist, but far more than just a workplace romance or a simply murder mystery.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

2011/11: Aegypt -- John Crowley

Star temples and ley-lines, UFOs and landscape giants, couldn't they see that what was really, permanently astonishing was the human ability to keep finding these things? ... That's the interesting thing, that's the subject: not why there are ley-lines, but why people find them; not what plan the aliens had for us but why we think there must, somehow, always have been a plan. (p.286)
  1. Set in the mid-Seventies in upstate New York: Pierce Moffat, a teacher of history, is between jobs and on his way to an interview when the bus breaks down in a small town, Blackberry Jambs. Pierce bumps into an old friend, Spofford, herding sheep; decides he wasn't too keen on the interview anyway; ends up staying in Blackberry Jambs, researching dead author Fellowes Kraft, planning a book on the mystical science/magic of Aegypt -- that far old country that was sort of Egypt but not Egypt (p. 101) -- and falling in love.
  2. It's not at all clear, either from the cover or the contents, that this is the first volume of the Aegypt quartet. The edition I've read is titled Aegypt, but the book, first published in 1987, was reissued as The Solitudes in 2007, and (allegedly) "Completely revised by the author to further the power of the series as a whole". This phrase comes up all over the place in reviews, but I can't find an original source for it. Nor can I find a list of revisions.
  3. Most of the story focusses on Pierce, solitary as a pinball but Pierce is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable observer: he doesn't always know what (or who) he's seeing.
  4. Crowley veers into the historical with episodes from the lives of John Dee and his sidekick Kelly, a.k.a. Talbot; a young Will Shakespeare (shown a photograph of himself taken by Doctor Dee); Giordiano Bruno, eventually to be burnt at the stake. These vignettes are tremendously evocative: for instance, Dr Dee standing on Glastonbury Tor, showing Talbot the Glastonbury Zodiac. The sun was sinking into the sea. [He] could almost hear it hiss. (p. 281)
  5. Crowley's prose is poetic, precise, vivid. Occasionally, though, it overflows: sentences that run on with wild enthusiasm, recondite phrases that, unpacked, seem (but perhaps aren't) paradoxical. Nowadays history is made of time: but once it was made of something else. (p.87) It's easy to go with the flow and feel one is achieving enlightenment: harder if one stops to think.
  6. There's a great deal on the science-ness of Renaissance magic and the arcane: that sense that a rigorous framework was in place, that knowledge rather than power was the Grail, that the universe was governed by rules and laws and forces beyond the world.
  7. Is it coincidence that the woman Pierce loved and lost is nicknamed the Sphinx? Given the Zodiacal elements, I think not.
  8. Nor is it a coincidence that several female characters have variations on the name Rose. (At least none has the surname Mundi).
  9. For all th weight of its matter, Aegypt has a subtle quiet humour rooted in the interplay of characters and the juxtaposition of sublime and mundane: I laughed aloud at Pierce's subvocal iterations of sentences in a book review he was writing, and his friend Julie's insistence on ordering dinner while he was trying to tell her about Aegypt.
  10. "For it wasn’t a good book at all, Pierce supposed, considered as a book, a novel; it was a philosophical romance, remote and extravagant, without much of the tang of life as it really must have gone on in the world — as it really had gone on if you meant this world, this only one in which, metaphors aside, we all have really and solely lived in ..." (p.388)
    I could not have put it better myself.

2011/10: The Poison Throne -- Celine Kiernan

In the fifteen years of her life Wynter had come to understand and accept that most human beings were unpredictable and untrustworthy, faithful only for as long as the wind fared well. But ... ghosts and cats had always just gone their own way, and although you could never trust a cat to serve anyone's purpose but its own, you always knew where you stood with them. (p.14)
  1. Set in the early Renaissance of an alternate Europe where there was no Moorish invasion and no Crusades: there are many small European powers, rather than two or three major ones. Until now, racism wasn't an issue. (one of the protagonists is half-Arab).
  2. This is the last kingdom in Europe where cats still talk to humans -- or did. But the cats are not simply being rude. They want revenge. So do (some of) the ghosts.
  3. Wynter Moorehawke, daughter of skilled artist and inventor Lorcan, returns to her home after five years' absence: much has changed: what had happened here, that cats wouldn't reply to a simple greeting and ghosts were afraid to converse with a friend? (p.13)
  4. The Poison Throne features an intriguing trio of young protagonists: Wynter (feisty female, a young woman being successful in the traditionally male-dominated profession of carpentry); Razi (bastard heir who wants to be a doctor and is determined not to let harm come to those he loves); Christopher (charming rogue with a dark past and missing fingers). The interplay between them has more vibrancy than the larger story. Overall, the characterisation is more convincing than the worldbuilding, which feels vague.
  5. The novel is told from Wynter's point of view, and her relationships with Razi, Christopher and especially her dying father Lorcan form the heart of the novel. She sometimes seems mature beyond her years, but she does have depth.
  6. There's a strong sense of what Clute calls Wrongness; a sense that, only yesteryear, the world was a happy golden peaceful place. Then came the Great Changes ...the King (Jonathon) has become a bitter, cruel despot, and the whole kingdom is under a shadow.
  7. A terrible weapon of war, the Bloody Machine, built by Wynter's father when he was young: more recently it's been used to quell civil disobedience, 'every living man dead in minutes'. (433) Wynter thinks this might be a good thing, an end to war.
  8. I'm going to be reviewing the whole trilogy elsewhere, which will be the place to discuss story arc. I think it's unreasonable to criticise the omissions in the first volume of a multi-volume work. But nonetheless ...
  9. Many sentences run on to an extent which makes me wonder if some of the commas used to be semi-colons but were cruelly decapitated.
  10. Almost all the women in this novel are absent or dead. (Out of the three protagonists, one is an orphan and the other two had mothers who died when they were young.)

Monday, March 07, 2011

2011/09: Gentlemen of the Road -- Michael Chabon

"I am not overly encumbered by principle, as you know," Zelikman continued. "I am a gentleman of the road, an apostate from the faith of my fathers, a renegade, a hired blade, a brigand, a thief ..." (p. 119-20)
The working title of this short novel, according to the author, was Jews with Swords: it's a pretty accurate description, though it fails to mention Chabon's baroque joy in language, or the illustrations that lend an air of Boys' Own Adventure, or the clear, credible evocation of the tenth-century Khazar Empire.

Amram is an massive Abyssinian mercenary who wields a Viking axe but is quite capable of slaying his opponents on the game-board or in philosophical discourse; Zelikman, his skinny companion, is a Frankish physician whose rapier, 'Lancet', was forged specifically to circumvent the laws that prevented Jews bearing weapons even in self-defense. Both men have lost loved ones; both have lived by their wits -- as evidenced by the opening scene, a rigged tavern brawl in which they abscond with the proceeds of the betting pool -- and are competent warriors as well as practicing Jews.

The two find themselves taking responsibility for a fugitive Khazar prince, Filaq, who is not all that he seems. (His secret may well be more evident to the reader than to his travelling companions.) By the time they part ways from Filaq, all three have been party to brutality, revelation and deception.

Gentlemen of the Road can be read as a straightforward swashbuckling adventure story, and satisfies on that level: it's also an examination of the lives of two vastly different men united by their faith, and by a flexible morality that rests on that faith and an innate ... virtue, for lack of a better word. Their relationship is complex. Both have lost much that they cared for, but they've encompassed loss in very different ways. Amram had lost much and had fared widely alone, but Zelikman was simply born lonely (p.103) Amram finds joy in battle and discourse; Zelikman, a melancholy type, smokes his hash pipe and tries to use his skills as a physician to offset the havoc and slaughter he sees all around him.

Despite their solitude -- two figures moving through a vast wasteland replete with danger -- there's a sense of Jewish ... community, solidarity. At every turn Amram and Zelikman encounter other Jews: for instance, a band of Radanites (Jewish merchants, credited with keeping the Roman Empire's trade routes running) who give Zelikman news of his family in Regensburg, and provide invaluable assistance.

Chabon's afterword is an interesting essay on why he chose to write an adventure story:
For better and worse it has been one long adventure -- a five-thousand-year Odyssey -- from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure. This long, long tradition of Jewish adventurers may look a bit light on the Conans or D'Artagnans; our greatest heroes less obviously suited to exploits of derring-do and arms. (p.203)