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

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.