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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

2011/08: The Janus Stone -- Elly Griffiths

11 June: Day Sacred to Fortuna Virgo ... When I read Pliny or Catullus the gods are not just names to me, they are real. Their power and might overshadows all that comes after -- the puny love-feast of Christianity, the ridiculous modern gods of horoscopes and hypnotism and moving pictures. The Roman gods are logical and that is why I like them. If you kill, you must make amends in blood ... (p. 85)

The second novel featuring Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist. (The first is The Crossing Places.) Ruth spends rather less time in this novel worrying about her weight, but that's mostly because she's pregnant. This doesn't stop her becoming involved in what initially seems to be a routine case of Celtic or Roman child sacrifice.

Workmen in Norwich discover bones buried under the doorway of a former children's home that's being demolished and replaced by luxury flats. Turns out that the bones date back a mere fifty years or so: whatever the reason for their burial, it's not an authentic pagan sacrifice. DCI Harry Nelson is convinced that the bones are those of a child who disappeared, with her brother, in the early 1970s. He tracks down the priest and nun who used to run the children's home, but the answers they give don't fit the timeframe. Meanwhile Ruth is involved in another excavation down the road at Swaffham, where relics of Janus (god of doorways) and Hecate (goddess of the crossroads) are being unearthed. There are nastier discoveries too, and Ruth begins to suspect that someone -- someone familiar with the BBC production of I Claudius -- is trying to, literally, scare her to death.

As in the previous novel, Griffiths includes excerpts from the writings of the actual murderer, and the tone of these is quite chilling. The murderer's identity came as a surprise, though with hindsight there were enough clues to indicate the culprit -- as well as plenty of red herrings and obscure connections between characters.

Enjoyable, pacy crime novel with well-rounded characters (I'm increasingly fascinated by Cathbad, who's prone to Druidical pronouncements and the wearing of a purple cloak, but seems remarkably astute and pragmatic) and an excellent sense of location, from the marvellously bleak Norfolk coast to the streets of Norwich to the seafront at Southport. There's lots of fascinating detail (the age of one set of bones is determined by reference to a particular brand of toothpaste that was only sold between 1949 and 1955) and plenty of humour -- Harry Nelson's trip to the theatre stands out -- to balance the unsettling sense of ancient evil.

2011/07: Soulless -- Gail Carriger

"You only wiped off the 'I'?" said Lord Maccon, looking thoughtfully at the puddle of homunculus simulacrum residue ... "So you turned VIXI -- to be alive -- into VIX -- with difficulty. Thus the automaton could still move, but only barely. In order to destroy it entirely, you needed to remove the word and the activation particulate completely, breaking the aetheromagnetic connection."
"Well," huffed Miss Tarabotti, "how was I supposed to know that? It was my first automaton." (p. 263)
Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster of 26, half-Italian and wholly misunderstood by her mother, stepfather and two younger half-sisters. She dresses well and knows how to wield a buckshot-weighted parasol. She has, literally, no soul -- a state which makes her less prone to sentimentality than many another heroine, and negates the supernatural powers of vampires, werewolves and ghosts. London in the 1870s is simply teeming with such types, and some of them have appalling manners.

All over London, vampires are disappearing and new vampires are being created in a mysterious, unnatural fashion. Drawn into the investigation, Alexia finds herself working with the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR)and especially with its chief, Lord Conall Maccon, who happens to be a werewolf. Alexia would like not to find him fascinating. This is probably mutual.

Soulless is set in a steampunk nineteenth century, with dirigibles, scientific lectures, vampire queens, mysterious disappearances (for which Alexia is initially blamed) and vile bonnets. Quite aside from the aforementioned supernaturals, I don't think this world is wholly identical to our own: repeated reference to the British Isle, singular; Canterbury as a port city (and yes, this could be an error, but it could also indicate an alternate geography).

There are some delightful characters (camp vampire Lord Akeldama, Lord Maccon's second-in-command Professor Lyall, and Alexia's best friend Ivy in particular) and some wry asides on the more nonsensical aspects of Victorian society. Most of all, Soulless is immense fun. I'm looking forward to reading more in this series -- sequels are Blameless, Changeless, and Heartless (coming in July).

Friday, February 11, 2011

2011/06: The Dig -- John Preston

"And how about events in the wider world?" Stuart asked. "How do you think they might affect us? ... The Germans ..."
"Germans?" said Phillips in surprise. "I don't recall a ship-burial ever being discovered in Germany."
"No, no. I meant the possibility -- likelihood, even -- of war."
"Oh," said Phillips. "That." (p.128)
A fictionalised account of the Sutton Hoo excavations in the summer of 1939, The Dig is one of those quietly deceptive books that seldom confronts its emotional concerns head-on. Each of the narrators in this novel -- widowed landowner Edith Pretty, local archaeologist Basil Brown, Peggy Piggott who's just married her university tutor, and an epilogue 26 years later by Robert Pretty, Edith's son -- is lonely, isolated, ineffectual, unmoored. Edith mourns her dead husband and fears she's a bad mother. Basil is unable to stand up to professionals with more breeding and education than he ever had the chance at. Peggy (who has to deal with the brunt of those professionals' sexist behaviour) is beginning to realise that there's something missing in her marriage; Robert, so long afterward, just gets to pick up the pieces, but it's clear that the summer of the dig is a fond and vivid memory.

The casual way the finds are treated -- ooh, a lump of leather! let's put it in boiling water, watch it unfold into a shoe-shape, then see it disintegrate before our eyes! -- is painful: but Preston's also captured the sense of touching the past, the stillness of the moment when something lost (or buried) is found again.

And over it all looms the oncoming war. Barrage balloons; aeroplanes overhead (including an impudent pilot who skims the top of the mounds at a sherry party); Mr Brown -- whose knowledge of Suffolk soil is unparallelled -- put to work digging an air-raid shelter. There's a distinct sense of imminent change: this world is about to end.

The novel's ending feels abrupt, though I suspect that's an intentional reflection of the suddenness of war. Only after I'd finished reading did I realise just how many stories remained half-told: Mrs Pretty's maid, Mr Brown's marriage, the excavation itself.

2011/05: Beasts -- John Crowley

If there had been more of a man's soul in either Sweets or Painter they would have seen the partnership they had entered on as astonishing, the adventures they had as tales at once thrilling and poignant... They remembered none of this; or if they did, it was in a way that men would never be able to perceive. (p.113)
Set a century in the future -- though it was published in 1976, and that future's now closer and less probable -- Beasts takes place in a partitioned America greatly changed by another civil war. Genetic modification has produced various enhanced animals and chimerae. The leos are 'half man half lion'; there are dogs engineered to have greater intelligence, and there is Reynard, the sole representative of his kind, a fox with the power of speech and with an intelligence that's at least as great as the average human's. It is, however, not human intelligence; nor are the emotions experienced by the protagonist Painter, a leo, human emotions.

The story's told in eight chapters which often have only an oblique, allusive relation to the major events. (We don't always get direct accounts of pivotal scenes, such as Sten and Mika's humanitarian mission). Each chapter focuses on a single character -- though viewpoints may change -- and a particular aspect of the human : beast relationship. Caddie, a young woman working in a bar, is purchased as an indentured servant by Painter; Loren lets his falcon fly and watches for its return; Meric, in an enclave where humans attempt to live without touching the earth, watches the leos come south to poach; Reynard arranges a martyrdom.
"He is King of Beasts. Or Pretender, anyway. But that never applied to men, did it? Men are Lords of Creation." ...
"I suppose ... a person could stop being a Lord of Creation. Surrender that. And be a beast." (p. 36)
Painter's a Messianic figure; there are frequent references to the life of Christ, with Reynard comparing himself to both Judas and Barrabas. But if this is any one character's story, it seems to me that it's Reynard's: Reynard, with his inhuman intelligence and animal cunning, his unique nature, his lack of conscious planning which seems (but ultimately, I think, isn't) at odds with his foresight.

Crowley's prose is stunning; he coins words, scatters startling images almost incidentally, and makes his non-human characters both credible characters and credible Others.