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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012/01: Second Line -- Poppy Z Brite

...Rickey wondered if he would ever do anything as well a Bobby Hebert had thrown that eighty-four-yard bomb. He must have been put on earth to do something; certainly he had never felt purposeless. But what was his purpose? What talent lay buried in him that he didn't know about yet? Because he was not a reflective person by nature, this line of thought made him vaguely uneasy. He wished the talent would hurry up and show itself. (p. 192)

Second Line comprises two short novels by Poppy Z. Brite: The Value of X (reviewed here) which I love, and D*U*C*K, which I'd thought was only available as a pricy small-press limited edition. I really bought Second Line for the latter (though it's handy to have a copy of The Value of X to hand: mine's in the Kent annex of my bookshelf ...)

D*U*C*K is set in an alternate New Orleans which wasn't ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failures of government. (There's a mention, early in the book, of a category 5 storm veering off towards Florida.) Rickey and G-man are in their early thirties, successful but starting to slow down. Rickey, in particular, is gnawed by a kind of existential angst: what now? Then they get a commission to cook duck for Ducks Unlimited -- special guest former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, who inspired 13-year-old Rickey to discover his own purpose.

Turns out there are a lot of interesting ways to cook duck.

It's a slight story in terms of actual events, but there's definite emotional resolution -- plus the pleasure of revisiting likeable and distinctive characters. Brite takes a swipe or two at online food-snobs: there are some hilarious scenes, in and out of the kitchen.

D*U*C*K didn't charm me quite as much as my reread of The Value of X, but it's good to have more of this particular story.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

2011/66: The Magicians -- Lev Grossman

He’d wasted so much time thinking, It’s all a dream, and It should have been somebody else, and Nothing lasts forever. It was time he started acting like who he was: a nineteen-year-old student at a secret college for real, actual magic.(p.106)

Is 'postmodern' an appropriate word for a fantasy novel in which the characters are fully aware of the fantasy genre? The Magicians is packed with references to the Harry Potter books, to Tolkien, and to 'Fillory' -- a Narnia-equivalent secondary world fantasy series that's captivated protagonist Quentin since childhood.

Quentin is snatched from miserable mundanity on the eve of his entrance exam for Harvard; he's spirited away to what he first thinks is Fillory, but turns out to be upstate New York, to sit an exam that grants him admission to Brakebills, the only school of magic in North America. The first half of The Magicians covers his years at Brakebills: he makes friends, encounters something malevolent from another world, hooks up with a talented fellow student, and learns to do magic ("you don't just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin").

In the second half of the novel, Quentin and his classmates are out on their own in the real world, adrift. And then they go to Fillory and find that there's more to the stories than their author, Christopher Plover, divulged in print.

I don't want to talk about the details of the plot here, except to say that there are things Grossman can examine that would be out of place in books intended for a younger audience. This is not a novel about a magical war, about heroism, about dreams coming true and courage being rewarded. The Magicians is about what happens when you get what you want and and you're still not happy; about the paving of the road to hell; about being broken, mentally or physically or both. About how easy it is to become a monster.
Out there he had been on the edge of serious depression, and worse, he had been in danger of learning to really dislike himself. He was on the verge of incurring the kind of inward damage you didn’t heal from, ever. (p.42)

Quentin isn't a likeable character. At times it feels as though he's wandered in from a Brett Easton Ellis novel. He's never happy, seldom even content. In the passage above he's congratulating himself, or being congratulated, on having escaped that inward damage, that self-hatred: but I don't think he has escaped it. I think it's there, poisoning him and incidentally driving the plot, throughout the novel. And I don't think his perception of himself (or, indeed, of anything else) is to be trusted, because others see more in him than we are shown from his perspective. The question is not, "Why does X love Quentin?" but "What does X see that we don't?"

Lev Grossman's written a column for Tor on allusions in The Magicians: read it here.

Currently reading the sequel, The Magician King: I have a long list of things that I'd like Mr Grossman to explore.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

2011/65: The Hypnotist -- Lars Kepler

The haunted house. Those few words written on a piece of paper have the power to transport him back to the past, to the time when he was still involved with hypnosis. He knows that against his will he must walk up to a dark mirror and try to see what is hiding there, behind the reflections created by all the time that has passed. (p.267)

Lars Kepler -- inevitably compared to Stieg Larsson, and suffering by that comparison because this is a very different flavour of crime novel -- is the pseudonym of two authors of literary fiction: Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril, who are married. The dual authorship might account for some of the unevenness of the story, and perhaps for the sense that it doesn't quite gel.

Inspector Joona Linna is the brilliant but unconventional star of the National Criminal Investigation Department. When a murderer kills the entire Ek family, save for the gravely injured teenaged Josef, Linna calls on disgraced hypnotist Erik Maria Bark to help bring the boy out of his mute horror and uncover the truth of the murderer's identity. For, it turns out, there's also an estranged sister, and surely she's the next target ...

The Hypnotist is a long and many-layered novel, wintry in setting and equally bleak in tone. On one level it felt to me like an anti-Larsson: the women in this novel are all mad, or violent, or powerless. (Or some combination of the above.) Bark's wife is on the verge of separating from him; Joona Linna is attractive to women (including his ex-wife), but disappoints them all by making his work his first priority. The estranged sister is haunted by old pain. Bark's career as a hypnotist was destroyed by a woman. Bark's son Benjamin, who suffers from a disease of the blood that requires regular medication, forms a relationship with a young girl, Aida, who's extraordinarily unhelpful when he vanishes.

One doesn't expect the characters in a grim wintry crime novel to be cracking jokes or enjoying their lives, but it seems to me there is an utter lack of happiness, good cheer, hope or joy in The Hypnotist. Even before the murder of Josef Ek's family and the subsequent events, none of the characters seems to have been happy: even after the end of the novel, one can't imagine any of them rejoicing. Is this simply Scandinavian seasonal gloom?

There are a couple of plot elements that I simply don't find credible. (People are in intensive care because they're on the brink of death: they're unlikely to unhook themselves and go wandering around the city. Simone's double standards verge on the ridiculous.)

A compelling read, because I did want to know what had happened and why, and who was who: but not, in the end, a satisfactory one.

2011/64: Once A Princess: Sasharia en Garde, 1 -- Sherwood Smith

"Wait a minute, wait a minute ... so you're trying to tell me that there's tremendous treasure waiting for me?"
Both heads nodded.
"If I take up a cause, one that includes deep magic?"
Vehement nodding.
"And perhaps an ancient castle full of sinister secrets?"
"Yes!"
"And all for truth, justice and honor?"
"Yes, yes!"
My anxiety flared into anger. "Oh no you don't," I snarled. "I've been there, done that and they don't even give you t-shirts."
"Tee--"
"--shirts?" (location 21)

Sasha is an LA waitress with a penchant for fantasy novels. This is because they remind her of home: 'home' being Khanarenth, whence Sasha and her mother Sun fled fifteen years ago, leaving behind political unrest and Sasha's father Prince Mathias. Now a bunch of freedom fighters from Khanarenth are knocking on Sasha's door, and despite her bitter reluctance they take her back to the land of her birth.

Sasha -- Sasharia Zhavalieshin, again -- finds herself in a swashbuckling milieu of intrigue: there's a dashing pirate with a fondness for lurid clothing, a bunch of brigands whose hearts may be in the right place after all, a lecherous usurper who takes a shine to Sun. (Sasha's mother is definitely not about to let her daughter be snatched away without a fight.) Sasha gets to show off the fencing skills she's picked up on Earth, and finds herself inconveniently attracted to ...

But that would be telling.

One thing I'd definitely tell anyone considering this novel is that it's the first half of the story: I kept wondering how Sherwood Smith was going to wrap up all the plot-threads in an increasingly small number of unread pages, and the answer is that she wasn't. The second book, Twice a Prince, awaits: and the title of that may tell you something about the plot.

Once a Princess is light frothy exuberant fantasy, though there are serious issues playing out beneath the banter and the pretty clothes. Smith's prose is enjoyable and readable, and the world she constructs is fascinating. And, okay, the trope of 'American cultural references in fantasyland' may be a venerable one, but that doesn't stop me laughing out loud when Sasha uses a Bored of the Rings reference to distract her captors.