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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013/41: The Ghost Bride -- Yangsze Choo

This practice of arranging the marriage of a dead person was uncommon, usually held in order to placate a spirit. A deceased concubine who had produced a son might be officially married to elevate her status to a wife. Or two lovers who died tragically might be united after death. That much I knew. But to marry the living to the dead was a rare, and indeed dreadful occurrence. [loc. 65]

Malacca, 1893: Li Lan's mother died of smallpox years ago, and Li Lan has grown up in genteel poverty with her scholarly father. One day Li Lan's father receives an offer of marriage for her, from Lim Tian Ching, the heir of the Lim family. The former heir, to be accurate: he died -- rumour has it that he was poisoned -- quite recently.

Li Lan is torn: this would repair her father's fortunes and save her old nurse from poverty, but she is repulsed by the thought of being married to a ghost -- especially as she's developed a crush on his cousin, Tian Bai. In a turmoil, she consults a medium, whose advice (and mystical powder) send Li Lan on a journey she is wholly unprepared for. She falls in with a young woman named Fan, whose agenda is rather ... offputting: but Li Lan needs all the allies she can find. Fortunately, she encounters the mysterious Er Lang, who seems to travel between life and afterlife without difficulty, and who takes an interest in Li Lan because her predicament connects to a case of corruption he's investigating.

Before Li Lan's life rights itself again, she becomes a servant; meets her dead mother; learns about how spirits can drain life from the living; and helps to uncover bribery and blackmail at the highest level.

I had only a vague idea of Chinese / Malaysian notions of the afterlife, and was fascinated by the bureaucracy of the Chinese hells. Er Lang's nature was apparent to me well before Li Lan realised just who he was: Fan, on the other hand, was quite a surprise.

There are some delightful turns of phrase ('My heart felt as hard and dry as a salted apricot' [loc. 3658]) and some truly evocative descriptions. Li Lin seems overly naive at times, but she's younger than her years, at least at the beginning of the story, so this can be forgiven. Most of the other characters, it has to be said, are somewhat one-dimensional (though this might be simply how Li Lin sees them): but the setting, and the glimpse of a vanished world, are interesting enough to compensate.

2013/40: Midnight in Havana -- Peggy Blair

The dead man hovered nearby. It seemed rude to leave him waiting indefinitely. “My day off,” Ramirez whispered, his hand over the mouthpiece. The man looked disappointed but showed himself out. An honest mistake, thought Ramirez. Christmas Day, unlike Christmas Eve, was a working day in Cuba. For the first time in years, however, Ramirez had the day off. [loc. 486]

Inspector Ricardo Ramirez is head of the Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police; his career has not been appreciably fast-tracked by his ability to see ghosts. After all, they're the messengers of Eshu, the trickster-god: and anyway, what can ghosts do that could counter Cuba's rampant poverty, deprivation and corruption?

Ramirez' latest case involves another detective: Canadian Mike Ellis, who's on holiday with his wife in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. Ellis' partner was killed recently, and Ellis blames himself. His wife Hilary, unable to cope with her husband's mood swings, heads back to Canada: Mike goes out to a bar, has a drink with a pretty woman and wakes up in bed some hours later, unable to remember anything -- and then finds himself under arrest for the rape and murder of a child.

Ramirez's gift -- actually a kind of curse, since he's convinced it's the same dementia that his grandmother suffered, and that she's passed to him -- is of limited help, because the dead don't speak. They are restricted to sign language, metaphor, and pointing at things. Ramirez has seventy-two hours to find the real murderer, or Ellis will go to prison for life: and frankly, his own efforts are more effective than any number of supernatural clues.

Midnight in Havana (originally published as The Beggar's Opera, which presumably accounts for the otherwise-irrelevant infodump about the opera's plot) has a great sense of atmosphere, albeit occasionally reading like a tourist guide. ("Jones passed the San Carlos y San Ambrosio seminary, a beautiful stone building constructed by Jesuits in the mid-1800s. Behind it, on the other side of the harbour, stood the Castillo, a Spanish fortress built in 1589 to guard the entrance to Havana Bay." [loc 2198]) Several of the characters are interesting, but I didn't find any of them especially engaging. And the crime at the heart of the novel is vile, but somehow impersonal: probably for the best, but it left a vacuum.

2013/39: The Invisible Ones -- Stef Penney

‘Had a sister, you know. Christina. She gave her life for me.’
I stare at him – presumably what he intended. ‘I thought she died in a road accident?’
Ivo shrugs. ‘If it wasn’t that, it would’ve been something else. ... Dad wanted a miracle. For me. But you have to pay for that, if you’re a Gypsy. It’s a life for a life, isn’t it? That’s what the Bible says.’ [loc. 3590]
Ray Lovell wakes up in hospital, clinging to a fleeting impression of a terrifying woman: that's the only thing he can initially remember. It appears that he's ingested sub-lethal quantities of one or more hallucinogenic plants. He doesn't mention that the last meal he remembers eating was prepared by the charismatic Ivo Janko, whose wife Rose disappeared shortly after giving birth to their son Christo. It's presumed that her departure was due to the discovery that Christo -- like many of the Janko men -- had inherited the family disease, which kills boys before they reach manhood. Ray, who's of Gypsy descent himself (though he protests 'I was brought up in a house'), has been called in to find the missing Rose. But why now, six years after her disappearance?

There are two narrators in The Invisible Ones: the second is JJ, Ivo's nephew, who's 14 and hasn't inherited the disease. His perspective is razor-sharp, and he's more aware of prejudice, snobbery and family secrecy than anyone else in the novel. JJ isn't unhappy with his life, but he's acutely aware of how different it is to the lives of his schoolmates: no privacy, few possessions, barely socialising with anyone you're not related to. Moving on, moving on.

It turns out that Rose's disappearance isn't the only secret that the Janko family have wrapped themselves around. JJ's mum, Sandra, seems unusually close to her cousin Ivo. Ivo's sister, Christina, died in a car crash on the way back from Lourdes, where they'd all gone to pray for a miracle to save Ivo from the family disease. Little Christo has that disease (it's Barth syndrome), and is expected to die of it. Tene Janko, Ivo's father, is in a wheelchair after a near-fatal car crash. And bones have been discovered at a traveller site once frequented by the Jankos. It's as though they are cursed.

And Ray curses himself for taking on another 'missing girl' case, because he screwed up his last one very badly indeed.

The Invisible Ones is set in the mid-1980s: Penney explains in an afterword that " in the 80s we didn’t have the internet or mobile phones, and that has a great impact on the way a detective works and speeds things up. I wanted things not to progress too fast, or for the characters to communicate too easily." [loc. 5426] It's worth noting that in the 1980s Barth syndrome had only just been identified.

Though this novel has the elements of the crime genre, it isn't (or isn't just) the story of a detective investigating and solving a cold case. Indeed, it's not entirely clear whether the resolution of the case is ever explained to those concerned. It is, instead, a novel about outsiders, and keeping secrets, and how those secrets can rot a family from the inside.

Rereading my review of Penney's first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, I see some recurring themes ... but I think I liked The Invisible Ones more, and wonder if that's simply because I remember the period in which it's set.

2013/38: Desperation -- Stephen King

doing never once in the world stopped dying ... not even kids were exempted from the horrorshow that roared on and on behind the peppermint sitcom façade your parents believed in and wanted you to believe in. [loc. 2168]

A drawback to Kindle reading: if I'd realised Desperation was ~750 (paper) pages long, I probably wouldn't have started reading it when I did. (But once I'd started, I was drawn in.)

An advantage to Kindle reading: at least I didn't strain my wrists :)

Desperation, Nevada, is an isolated mining town with a small population. Collie Entragian, Desperation's surviving police officer, is in the process of reducing that population still further, though he does also round up some random travellers and take them to the Desperation Municipal Building. Or kill them. Not necessarily in that order.

The first viewpoint character in Desperation survives for a single chapter. Some of the others last a lot longer. There's Johnny Marinville, an acclaimed writer who may have run dry, touring the country on a Harley; Steve Ames, Johnny's assistant, who's following Johnny at a distance of no less than seventy-five miles, on the lookout for trouble; Cynthia, a hitch-hiker picked up by Steve; the Carver family, Ralph and Ellen and their son David, 12, who has a special relationship with God; Tom Billingsley, an alcoholic veterinary surgeon; poet Mary Jackson ...

King's characterisation is good, though occasionally heavy-handed (how many times did Johnny need flashbacks to his rock'n'roll lifestyle?) and each individual has a distinct narrative voice. However, the current events they're narrating are rather less diverse. There is clearly something badly wrong with Entragian (when asked about police presence in 'a little place like this', he smiles and says 'there were two others ...but I killed them.' [loc 813]) and it quickly becomes clear that Weird Stuff is going on. Could it be something to do with the old China Mine, where -- local legend has it -- a number of miners were buried alive, back in the boom days?

This would be just another supernatural horror story -- albeit better-plotted and pacier than many -- if it weren't for David Carver, who seems to me to be the hero of this story. (He also has the most lyrical narrative voice.) David's best friend Brian was hit by a drunk driver and not expected to live: David prayed, made a deal with God, told God he'd do anything if ... and lo! Brian woke up.

A deal's a deal: turns out God has a job for David -- and, by extension, for everyone who's come (been brought) to Desperation at the same time. A deal's a deal, even when it might also be a setup.

I was concerned that this was going to be another 'ancient Indian Native American evil', but it's not. ("The Indians may not have even known it was here" [loc 7847]). The Bad Thing is supernatural, and horrific; King also makes it intriguing. In that back story, at least, King has a light touch.

2013/37: The Uninvited -- Liz Jensen

As an anthropologist I read the phenomenon more as a sick fairy tale, a parable of dysfunctional times. None of us got it right. The message was written in letters too big to read, letters that could only be deciphered from a vast distance or an unusual angle. We were as good as blind. This, by the way, is a figurative expression. Unlike many on the spectrum, I can deploy those. [loc. 132]

Hesketh Lock is an anthropologist, employed as a cross-culture specialist by legal firm Phipps & Wexman. He is very good at his job, and attributes this to his autism spectrum disorder. When asked "Isn’t a problem with social interaction quite a handicap in your field?" he replies, "When it comes to gauging human behaviour, it’s an asset. It’s like colour-blind people being deployed by the military to detect camouflage... They look for the shapes rather than the colours." [loc. 1060]

When The Uninvited opens, Hesketh is investigating a series of sabotages, apparently unrelated, thousands of miles apart. In each case the saboteur blames supernatural forces -- trolls, ancestors, djinni. In each case, too, the saboteur has acquired a sudden craving for salt.

Back in the UK, there's another unusual 'epidemic': young children are committing acts of extreme violence on adults, often their own parents. When questioned, the children refuse to speak. This fascinates Hesketh, not least because of his complex relationship with his stepson, Freddy. (Freddy's mother left Hesketh for one of his colleagues. "Whenever I think about her no amount of mental origami can counter the damage she inflicts on my nervous system. [loc. 753]) At first Hesketh is worried that Freddy will succumb to the wave of violence: later, he begins to wonder whether Freddy can offer some insight into the phenomenon that is affecting adolescents world-wide.

The Uninvited deals with population growth and environmental catastrophe, but its focus remains firmly on Hesketh and his difficult relationships with other human beings. It's a cosy catastrophe, if you like: a background, slow-mo apocalypse, with Freddy and Hesketh retaining the focus of attention and engagement. And there is something very British, at once humdrum and monstrous, about the adult world's reaction to their increasingly feral children: condom sales soar, people queue up to be sterilised, and there are "parents driving their children out to the motorway or into the countryside and just ... dumping them." [loc. 2808] Which last gave me the shivers, because that's what people do to unwanted pets.

But The Uninvited was, despite its apocalyptic setting, more cheering than not. I like Hesketh, and his perspectives on the world. A man's scalp is 'the distinctive yellow-grey of Dulux’s 1997 River Pearl' [loc 260]. Hesketh likes countries where everyone has black hair; "running people resembled matches being scattered by a giant hand." [loc. 368] He does mental origami (folding cranes) whenever he becomes distressed. And he's constantly aware of himself, and others, as physical constructs: "I’m excited. I can feel chemical changes in my brain." [loc. 859] And while his story is not exactly a tragedy, his hard-won, fiercely-held sense of self is inevitably changed:

it is beginning to seem that there are two worlds: the world I have known and inhabited all my life, and still cling to, and the world beneath it, which I have glimpsed through myth and legend, but never perceived as a whole and never believed to be anything other than one of the multiple explanations man gives to ascribe meaning to his existence. But now this shadow-world – vivid, irrational, primitive – has begun to take a grip. Not just on those around me, but now, in a way that defies all I know – on me. [loc. 3238]

2013/36: Newt's Emerald -- Garth Nix

She was uncertain on the theology of whether someone of fay parentage actually had a soul, but thought it better to err on the side of caution. [loc. 2673]
The cover reminds me of Joan Aiken's Hanoverian books: the content, of Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecilia, though Newt (a.k.a. Lady Truthful Newington) hasn't quite the depth of Kate or Cecilia. On the other hand, she does masquerade as a man -- as the dashing French Chevalier Henri de Vienne -- in order to search Regency London for the Newington Emerald, which was stolen from her father during a storm of magical provenance. Not only is the Emerald her ancient birthright, it's also a magical artifact powerful enough to rescue Napoleon from his immurement half a mile deep in the solid granite of Gibraltar ...

Newt's Emerald has all the ingredients of a swashbuckling romance: mistaken identity, dashing soldiers, women dressed as men, desperate chases and gallant (but impractical) promises from upper-class youths. It's a short, frothy, cheerful read: not especially deep, but entertaining and witty.

I was pleased to note that the author, in his Afterword, notes that "one of the great 'research' pleasures I engaged in during the rewriting of this book was to re-read all of Heyer’s Regency romances, most of Austen, and the entire Aubrey-Maturin series." [loc. 2849]. And I'd still like to read the original novel of which this was part: "[Newt's Emerald] was a book within a book, a thriller set in a publishing house that receives a Regency romance manuscript which contains clues to a criminal conspiracy. "[loc. 2838]

2013/35: After Life -- Rhian Ellis

It was the end of the world; it was an ordinary day. This was a lesson I should have learned ten years ago, when Peter died. The worst thing in the world can happen, but the next day the sun will come up. And you will eat your toast. And you will drink your tea. [loc. 2902]

Naomi Ash lives with her mother in the small, weird town of Train Line. Naomi is a medium; so is her mother, who has a radio show; so, in different disciplines, are many other inhabitants of Train Line. None of them are portrayed as frauds: that is, some deceptions are practiced, but only to enhance the impact of the genuine article. Naomi's glimpses into the spirit world, the voices she channels, the séances she runs with her mother -- all are recounted as simple, straightforward, mundane. Talking to and speaking for the dead is just another job.

After Life begins with her burying a body: the very first line is "First I had to get his body into the boat." The rest of the novel tells us how that person came to die, how Naomi is haunted (clue: not in the obvious way, given the premise of the novel) and how -- ten years later -- the discovery of human bones changes Naomi's life. The spectrum of guilt and innocence is explored, as is the nature of justice. Another theme is mothers and daughters: the dysfunctional relationship between Naomi and her mother, and the love between Naomi and Vivian, the child she babysits. Love is present in many forms: Ellis has an uncomfortable knack for isolating the little details that demonstrate how Naomi -- desperate to be loved -- fails to love herself.

I was most fascinated, though, by the ramifications of Naomi's cozy relationship with the dead. "I wasn’t afraid of my grandparents, who came to me occasionally with kind if vague words" [loc. 645]". Naomi's father was married to somebody else, and isn't in their lives: Naomi pities her mother, who'd have found it easier if he was dead, because "she had special access to the dead" [loc. 246]. When Naomi thinks of her own death, she takes it for granted that she (or her spirit) will come back to attend her mother's séances.

The everyday eerieness of life in Train Line reminded me of Tana French's novels, though the supernatural is more explicitly present -- or at least more generally accepted as part of life -- in After Life than in, for instance, The Likeness. I've said above that, in the world of the novel, spiritualism is real and true: still, Naomi does question her gift, and wonders whether she's been deluding herself all along. Unsettlingly, I ended up with more belief in her than she had in herself.

I understood, then, the true horror of the world: it is that once a thing is done, it can never be undone. [loc. 3770]

2013/34: Codex -- Lev Grossman

He was starting to see what people found so addictive about these games. Momus had none of the slapdash inefficiency of reality: every moment was tense with hushed anticipation, foreordained meaning. It was a brighter, higher-grade, more compelling, better-engineered version of reality. (p. 80)
I think this novel is best described as 'opaque', mostly because it would be bad to say what I really think about all the negative reviews from people who ... perhaps didn't pay as much attention as they might have.

Codex has a premise that might've come from a Dan Brown novel: successful young banker (and former chess champion) is drawn into labyrinthine plot concerning secrets in old books, which may correlate with his weird experiences in a video game. The Wents -- the Duke and Duchess of Bowmry -- seem to be at cross-purposes: the Duchess wants to find a rare medieval manuscript, 'Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians' by Gervase of Langford, but the Duke's employees are foiling every attempt to locate the book. It's not just Edward who is looking for it: Margaret Napier, a research scholar whom Edward encounters in a library, helps him catalogue the Wents' extensive book collection.

But this is not a Dan Brown novel, thankfully.

When Edward isn't out of his depth in the library, he's flailing around in 'the heart of dorkness' with his geekier friends, who've introduced him to the MMORPG known as Momus. It is rapidly established that Edward, despite his childhood as a chess prodigy (he lost the gift suddenly) is not accustomed to playing games: when confronted (in the virtual world) with a letterbox containing a pistol and an envelope, he ignores them in favour of gawping at the scenery. Increasingly obsessed with the sheer detail -- and possibly the post-apocalyptic New York -- of Momus, Edward finds himself in areas of the game that, logically, shouldn't even exist.

Meanwhile, the story of Gervase of Langford and his Cimmerian Viage progresses apace. There is something very post-modern, as well as fantastical, about the plot of that Viage: time loops, a stag-headed knight who is killed and reincarnated, a page of the book that is totally black ... And perhaps there is another story between the lines.

The last few pages of Codex are ... shocking: I don't mean in a gory or horrific way, but in a literary way. They are utterly surprising and utterly right.

And then I had to read the book again, because it was completely different.

2013/33: Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) -- Jodi Taylor

"...whatever happened to the crew on this assignment."
"How do you know something happened?"
He sighed. "They're historians. Something always happens." [loc. 235]

I'm very happy that this novel has leapt the gulf from free / cheap e-book to paperback. True, I wouldn't have discovered it if the Kindle edition hadn't been free: but now I'm aware of the series I can pay good money for subsequent books!

Madeleine Maxwell is an historian who's recruited by her former teacher, Mrs de Winter, to the St Mary's Institute of Historical Research. St Mary's 'inclines more towards the practical side of historical research': that is, time travel.

Max jumps at the chance, and becomes part of a team. They're trained up appropriately: self-defence, archaeology, specialised areas, and the avoidance of explosions (of which there tend to be rather a lot at St Mary's). The usual provisos and exclusions, of course, are discussed and applied: you mustn't change history; you can't bring anything back; you should try not to become attached to anyone you might meet in the past.

And needless to say, Max ends up doing all three. (Possibly.) She witnesses some truly nasty events, experiences treachery and violence at first hand, and uncovers some very dubious goings-on. And drinks a lot of tea. There's an ending which concludes this part of the story, but sets the scene for future books in the series (A Symphony of Echoes, already available for Kindle). There are also hints at Max's back-story which I'd certainly like to know more about.

Just One Damned Thing After Another is sheer fun. It does have a few grammar / typo problems (stray commas and 'postrophes, homonyms, et cetera), but there was nothing that threw me out of the story. An immensely enjoyable read: I'm reminded of how the first Kage Baker book (In the Garden of Iden) made me feel, though Taylor's setting and premise differ considerably from Baker's Company.

Highly recommended, even if it's no longer free!

2013/32: Alison Wonderland -- Helen Smith

The next day, a little too late to be of any use, the psychic postman writes a message on one of a stack of cheap postcards with views of London he carries with him and he pushes it through Alison’s letterbox. DANGER, he writes, BEWARE. Taron’s mother has taken the precaution of communicating through him in case Taron was listening to loud music yesterday, mistook the words her mother was sending for a subliminal message from the musicians, and ignored them. [loc. 918]

This novel -- which reminded me at some points of Martin Millar, and at other points of Scarlett Thomas, but didn't quite live up to either comparison -- focusses on the eponymous heroine and her best friend Taron, who is ... rather less sweet and supportive than the average Best Friend in fiction. But that's okay, because Alison likes her anyway, and accepts her many flaws.

Which is presumably why Taron ends up accompanying Alison (who's a private detective: highlights of her career include the discovery of stealth crayfish fanciers in Clapham) on a trip to the coast, to investigate an unpleasant case of animal eugenics. Halfway through, their mission morphs into a quest for an abandoned baby, because Taron's mother wants one.

There are some hilarious observations, and Alison's deadpan narrative voice is an excellent counterweight to her occasional lyricism. (On her next-door neighbour, Jeff: "If he ever stops loving me, I’ll have to start loving him to get him back. [loc. 778]) But plot-wise, Alison Wonderland seems to peter out: I didn't feel that anyone's story arc had really ended, though there might've been a glitch or an epiphany in there somewhere.

2013/31: The Men Who Stare At Goats -- Jon Ronson

Most of Ed’s colleagues in the secret unit at Fort Meade spent their time psychically viewing extremely boring things, mostly map coordinates. Ed, meanwhile, was psychically concluding that the Loch Ness Monster was the ghost of a dinosaur. [loc. 1128]

Jon Ronson's investigation of the First Earth Battalion -- an American military unit, or agency, specialising in psychic warfare -- is somewhat uneven. The first half of the book, which deals with the weirder techniques explored by the US Army: remote viewing, stopping goats' hearts -- goats in particular, because apparently nobody forms an attachment to them -- and walking through walls, or at least into them. All very entertaining, if slightly alarming because people in power apparently believe(d) in this stuff.

The second half of the book, on the other hand, is an investigation of some of the methods used post-9/11: that's where The Men Who Stare at Goats stops being funny (mostly) and starts being truly unsettling. There are some graphic accounts of 'alternative' torture techniques, both psychological and physical, as well as discussions of various conspiracy theories.

Ronson's prose is humorous, and he doesn't spend much effort mocking the post-Vietnam military or their desire for alternative methods of warfare. He has a light touch with the nastiness, too: doesn't stray over the thin line between wit and tastelessness.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

2013/30: Rituals: Rhapsody of Blood vol 1 -- Roz Kaveney

The sort of godhood that comes from the Rituals of Blood is usually, but not always, something people do to themselves; they eat the flesh of innocence and drink its blood and they fix the mask of monster on their face and their face rots away until mask is all there is. But there is something worse: the cunning monster who takes innocence and forces it to eat until there is a puppet that dances for him, dances the deaths of thousands more innocents while a saint or a child screams inside it. [loc.1059]

Mara is incredibly ancient and effectively immortal, but absolutely not a goddess: she strongly discourages anyone who describes her as divine. No, her longevity and strength and magic are all for 'the work' -- and Mara's job is to prevent people becoming deities.

The fact that Mara reveals this whilst drinking with Aleister Crowley in a bar in Sicily gives some idea of the flavour of Rituals, the first in the Rhapsody of Blood sequence. It's an immensely eclectic (and erudite) (and occasionally plain rude, in a good way) novel, packed with references to myth, literature, classical music, theology and world history. And if Mara can occasionally seem somewhat ... intimidating, Emma -- the other protagonist, whom we first encounter as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1980s -- is entirely down to earth. Which is more than can be said for her girlfriend Caroline. ("'I am immaterial girl'. 'Ouch,' said Emma." [loc 350])

There is a heck of a lot of plot in this novel, and I'm not going to attempt to encapsulate it here. Suffice to say that there are gods and goddesses, as well as (including?) elves and vampires and drag queens and Marilyn Monroe and Morgan le Fay. There are unflinching examinations of the extremes of cruelty to which greed and hubris can drive human beings; there are comic set-pieces, tender love scenes, and the annual Festival of Lost Opera. And there are moments of casual lyricism ("one of those gorgeous Brahms cello and viola meanders, the music of rivers thinking to themselves" [loc.2047]) and more snark, banter and irreverence than you can shake a spear at.

It would not be a proper review if I did not gripe about something, even though the author is a friend: there are occasional clunky bits, and a couple of typos / inconsistencies. Nothing that got in my way.

Did I mention? I liked this book very much: its exuberance, its invention, and its pacing. (And I have an advance copy of the next in the sequence, mwa ha ha ha ha...)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2013/29: Rivers of London -- Ben Aaronovitch

'Are they really gods?'
'I never worry about the theological questions,' said Nightingale. 'They exist, they have power and they can breach the Queen's peace – that makes them a police matter.' [loc.1523]
A cold night in Covent Garden. PC Peter Grant, still wet behind the ears from police college, has been left to guard a murder scene. A stroke of luck, perhaps, because it's the ever-curious, open-minded Grant who encounters a ghost who claims to have witnessed the crime.

He quickly finds himself seconded to a branch of the Met that specialises in magical matters. Apparently this branch is a bit of an embarrassment to the Establishment, who had been led to believe that This Sort of Thing was 'in decline'. Nope, apparently magic has been on the rise since the mid-Sixties, and now PC Grant is one-half of the department tasked with dealing with magical disruptions. His magical training takes place under the watchful eye of Nightingale, who is older than he seems and has a very peculiar housekeeper. I was pleased to find that Grant has a hard time learning even simple spells: it's not just about chanting pig-Latin and waving wands.

Rivers of London has a marvellous sense of place. (I was amused, during a recent conversation, to note that friends less familiar with Covent Garden took longer to work out the, er, mythic aspect of the initial crimes.)
Aaronovitch evokes the ceaseless mad rush and babble of Cambridge Circus; the leafy exclusivity of Hampstead; the guttural stockbroker accents of operagoers on Drury Lane, where an evening of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd (how many other operas have a hanging scene? okay probably plenty) has been supernaturally disrupted. Oh, and "'We think he's hiding in Walthamstow,' she said. Many would say that was punishment enough." [loc.2958]

I was drawn in by the ambience, the local detail and the depth of London lore: I was also most taken with Grant's attempts to apply the scientific method to his new skills. And the rivers! The two Thameses, with their boundary at Teddington (a liminal zone where the river's flow meets the tide), London Bridge, Effra (who which flows past the bottom of a friend's garden), the 'murdering bastard' Bazalgette who diverted so many rivers underground, into the new sewer system.

Aaronovitch blends police procedural and magic in a way that's reminiscent of, but not really similar to, Paul Cornell's London Falling. I like his humour, and his characterisation. Grant's a bit sexist, has a chip on his shoulder, and is far from being a Chosen One. Nightingale is fascinating, but Grant's steadfast refusal to simply accept all this new information sets him head and shoulders above many urban fantasy protagonists.

I read this novel whilst sitting on a beach just east of Southend, occasionally pausing to swim in the Thames ... by the end of the book I felt as though I should perhaps ask permission, or make propitiation.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

2013/28: The Silence -- Alison Bruce

The word 'murder' sounds so extreme that I hesitated before using it. Could that really have happened? I sat on the fence a bit with my reply: 'Someone made it happen,' I said.
'Someone made them kill themselves?'
... 'Someone killed them.' [loc.1531]

Another in Alison Bruce's DC Goodhew series, set in Cambridge. Opening with an apparently-random murder in the car park of the Carlton Arms, the story picks up some years later, and is told from multiple viewpoints. Libby is an A-level student, writing long emails to a Facebook friend in which she tries to make sense of the suicides of her older siblings; her best friend Matt still blames his father for his mother's death from cancer; Matt's older sister Charlotte has adopted the role of the sensible housewife. Then one of Libby and Matt's housemates, American student Shanie, apparently commits suicide, and the police are brought in. Gary Goodhew quickly decides that there's something odd about Shanie's death. None of the other occupants of the house on King Street are telling the whole truth, including Libby and Matt. And without knowing the truth, how can anyone predict whether there'll be another death?

I have a couple of minor quibbles: a key plot item is not named until Goodhew figures it out; a typo in the name of Libby's childhood home obfuscates a clue. But I really liked the pacing, the connections that gradually became clear, the sense of a group of people who've grown up together and share secrets. Good local colour, and some interesting insights on Goodhew, Kincaide and Gully.



Monday, August 26, 2013

2013/27: The Gift of Stones -- Jim Crace

Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh -- and cough -- and roll her eyes? People are like stones. You strike them right, they open up like shells. [p. 48]
The Gift of Stones is one of Crace's shorter novels, but -- as in the quotation above -- he packs a great deal into a small space. (Rereading that quotation, I realise that the two words 'and cough' reveal more about one of the characters in the novel than I'd noticed when I first read it.)

It is the late Stone Age. In a nameless village of flint-knappers, a nameless child is shot by strangers. The arrow is poisoned: after half a day's agony while a suitably sharp knife is crafted, the boy loses his arm. Unable to work stone (the sole trade, and sole pride, of the village) he turns to story-telling. Hunting far afield for new tales, he encounters the woman nicknamed 'Doe', whose husband and sons have been slaughtered by strangers, leaving her to barter sex for food. The storyteller takes her and her infant daughter back to his village, and watches as she learns to mine flint -- and then to not mine flint.

Anyway, the flint trade is dying, though nobody can work out why. The mongers, who sell worked flint artefacts to strangers who pass through, can't explain it. Nor can the stoners, the folk who work the stone. The storyteller cannot say why trade is falling off, but he can tell of what he's seen. Change is coming.

Economic oppression, craftsmanship, art and inequality: also, a deceptively simple style, a rhythm that calls to mind oral tradition (much, though not all, of it breaks nicely into iambic pentameter), and a vividness of image that adds immediacy to the ancient past. It's easy to believe that these people -- ignoble, quarrelsome, pragmatic, cruel -- were our ancestors.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

2013/26: The Alchemist of Souls -- Anne Lyle

One more thing that Walsingham would never hear from his own lips. Perhaps he should make a list, as Cecil was reputedly so fond of doing:
Item: one treasonous letter from the Spanish.
Item: one initiation into an illegal secret society.
Item: one murder of a skrayling, witness to. [p.176]
London, 1593: Kit Marlowe is dead (and warrants only a passing mention in this novel); Queen Elizabeth is mourning the death of her husband Robert Dudley; their son, Robert, is looking forward to the birth of his own second son; as ever, the clandestine business of politics and preference continues apace.

Maliverny Catlyn is the son of a diplomat, down on his luck and reduced to sharing lodgings with scrivener Ned Faulkner. Mal's twin brother, Sandy, is in Bedlam, and any money Mal makes goes to the warders there, in the hope of making his brother more comfortable. The two share a frightful secret concerning the skraylings, whose ambassador has arrived in London.

'Skraeling' is the term used in the Norse sagas to refer to the original inhabitants of Greenland, more commonly known as Inuit. In Anne Lyle's alternate history they're non-humans, fanged and blue-skinned and considerably more advanced than any European society. Mal, who has reason to avoid the skraylings, finds himself employed (for an immense wage) as bodyguard to Kiiren, the Skrayling ambassador. Little by little it becomes clear that this career opportunity is not as random as it first appears.

Meanwhile Ned Faulkner is pining after gorgeous actor Gabriel Parrish, and aggravating the third viewpoint character: Coby Hendricks, tireman to player-troupe Suffolk's Men. Coby has successfully concealed, for five years, the fact that she is actually a girl, rather than the shy youth she appears to be.

The three are drawn into a spidery, treasonous plot. There are masks (and masques) everywhere -- obvious enough in the theatre that is Coby's and Ned's livelihood, but there are plenty of deceptions in the upper echelons of society. Mal isn't the only gentleman down on his luck, nor the only one keeping a Frightful Secret concerning the skraylings ...

The Alchemist of Souls is richly detailed, with a complex layered plot and some real surprises. I liked the skraylings, and the (mundane, unexceptional) xenophobia they elicit from the English. Lyle does an excellent job at portraying a race who are not only non-human (they can't 'see' the colour red; they are fanged; they have mysterious powers) but individuated: Kiiren, the ambassador, is markedly different to other skrayling characters, and a likeable person to boot. His developing friendship with Mal is one of the highlights of the book.

The more I think about this novel, the keener I am to read the sequel, which is now out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

2013/25: The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- Neil Gaiman

'...Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.’ [loc. 1580]
The Ocean at the end of the Lane is much darker, on reflection, than its surface suggests. Our nameless first-person narrator, returning to the place where he grew up, recalls his childhood, and his friendship with Lettie Hempstock and her 'mother' and 'grandmother'. (It's probable that the relationships here are rather more complex than the narrator's interpretation of them.) The Hempstock women mention their previous home ('the old country') in passing, but the narrator isn't able to form a coherent impression. The reader, though, might end up suspecting that they're mcuh, much older than they seem. Maiden, mother, crone? These aren't moon goddesses -- vice versa, if anything.

The plot? A hole in Forever is torn: something, uninvited, comes through: it must be banished. There is always a price to pay.

There is much more to it than that, of course. Gaiman's writing is so emotionally authentic that it's easy to slip into reading it as autobiography. ("I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them." [loc. 91]) This is a layered novel, the child-narrator's memories overlaid by the adult-narrator's sense of loss. Much has been forgotten -- but the realisation that he has forgotten a great deal already, more than once, is no comfort.

Part of what makes this chilling, melancholy story so effective is Gaiman's evocation of the joy and powerlessness of childhood. Children have no agency: things happen to them. Children can take pleasure in small, ephemeral things while the world around them crumbles. Children think that one day they'll be all grown up and confident and different. Adults -- at least the adults who still remember what it was really like to be a child -- know that isn't true.

"How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time..." [loc. 1948]

Friday, July 26, 2013

2013/24: The Element -inth in Greek -- Alison Fell

On the basis of something she can’t yet define, she feels a strong affinity with the place. No amount of scepticism can diminish the sense of being brushed by microscopic vibrations from the past, as though atoms of ecstasy have been stamped on the very air. [loc. 4363]
Ingrid Laurie, Scottish archaeologist, is working on a biography of linguist Alice Kober, who died at 43 before her monograph, The Element -inth in Greek. was published. That monograph laid the basis for the decipherment of Linear B: it also, for Ingrid, reveals ancient goddess-worship practices in Crete.

Ingrid is in Crete to progress her research: she's untroubled by the unspoken disapproval of the locals. ("The Sheely Valentai. This is what they call them now, these women without family, belonging to no one. Women with dyed hair who wear the bright revealing clothes of the young. Women who come to Greece to look for men. "[loc. 268]) She encounters local policeman Yiannis Stephanoudakis, who's investigating a curious death. The body of a young man has been found on the hillside, naked, opium-drugged, covered in honey, crawling with bees. Ingrid's knowledge of pre-Minoan Crete casts surprising light on the man's death, and on the activities of the commune up the road.

This is a difficult novel to encapsulate, because it has so many levels. There's a murder mystery, though not an especially straightforward one; there are discussions of misogyny (including some mockery of Freudian therapy: Ingrid's been told that she smokes because she "want[s] to bite and tear at the penis" [loc. 4112]). There is the biography of the real Alice Kober, and a subtle comparison of Kober with Ingrid's difficult mother, Greta. Themes of sensory deprivation and excess, sex versus intellect, the joys of philology, imagination in archaeology, the sudden prickle of the hairs on the back of the neck, bulls and bees, goddesses and eunuchs, the labyrinth and the thread ...

Alison Fell's prose is gorgeous. I frequently found myself staring into space, turning over a single sentence in my mind. (On a child's experience of learning to read, connecting the letters C-A-T with the beast: "...quite suddenly, like the sun, an animal entered the room, graceful, four-footed, and entire." [loc 158].) Substance isn't sacrificed to style: the novel is pacy, the threads of the plot knitting together to make a coherent, intelligent (and intellectual) whole.

I could, however, have done with a Greek dictionary whilst reading: I don't think it's necessary to know what 'eniautos' or 'tavrokatharpsia' or 'melipnois' or 'kerinthophagia' signify, beyond what's clear from context, but it would have been useful to understand the modern Greek words with which the dialogue is sprinkled.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

2013/23: A Dying Fall -- Elly Griffiths

"...He’s a funny bloke, a bit prone to black moods."
He’s a druid, Ruth wanted to say, of course he’s odd. He wears white robes and leaves gifts out for a witch who died four hundred years ago. But she didn’t say any of this because, despite being a druid, Cathbad had unblocked the sink that morning. [location 1707]

Fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, this is something of a return to form after the somewhat disappointing A Room Full of Bones. Ruth, with her daughter Kate and her Druid friend Cathbad, are on a working holiday in Blackpool (of all places), where an old friend of Ruth's has just died in what turn out to be suspicious circumstances. Detective Inspector Harry Nelson and his wife Michelle are also visiting Blackpool. Coincidence? I think not.

Dan, Ruth's deceased friend, had made a discovery that would make headline news and could solve the university's funding problems. However, it might also upset a few people, not least local neo-Nazi group the White Hand. It's all tied in with the folklore of the Raven King, and the discovery of a Roman grave ...

As usual, a couple of minor niggles: in Blackpool, Ruth's toes would be cooled (and irradiated) by the Irish Sea, not the North Sea; and any archaeologist who can't 'work out' a translation of 'Britannorum Rex' should probably be sent for remedial training. But the archaeological mystery -- and the wealth of context, detail and discussion that surrounds it -- is intriguing and carefully paced. Harry Nelson's glowering observations on the changing demographic of Blackpool are an excellent foil to Ruth and Kate's enjoyment of the Pleasure Beach; Cathbad is as intriguing as ever, and has an active role in the story. A good read.

2013/22: The Sense of an Ending -- Julian Barnes

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? [location 2229]

Julian Barnes' first novel Metroland was one of the first mainstream 'literary' novels I enjoyed: I must've read it soon after its publication in 1980, and I've reread it several times over the years, each time finding something new. As a teenager, I found Chris and Tony enviably sophisticated; as an adult, I found them entertainingly pompous. It's a book that's grown with me.

The setting and premise of The Sense of an Ending are comparable: it begins, again, with the narrator and his schoolfriends; progresses through first love and betrayal; is told from a perspective of advanced age. Narrator Tony and his friends still believe that Suffering confers Soul, or possibly Love; are still desperate to have sex; still find themselves gradually retreating from the passions of youth; still settle into a comfortable life. But there are differences, of course there are differences: this is not a young man's novel, and the 'advanced age' from which Tony looks back is the wrong side of sixty, rather than Chris' thirtysomething.

Most significant of the differences is that Tony realises -- slowly, gradually, painfully -- how much of the story of his own life he's missed or misinterpreted. "...what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed." [location 62]. He's (eventually) harsher on his younger self than Chris ever is. And the events set in motion by Tony's youthful rejection of his (ex)girlfriend Veronica and his best friend Adrian, who've begun a relationship of their own, are more tragic, more complex and more consequential than anything in Metroland.

Though I am not wholly convinced that the novel explicitly states those consequences.

There's a pair of equations (hey, Adrian is a Serious Intellectual, given to philosophising) which seem to hold the key to events, to be the pivot-point of the whole novel. Characters are encoded as initials. And life (well, The Sense of an Ending) would be much simpler if 'Tony' wasn't short for 'Anthony'.

The Sense of an Ending is, structurally, a marvellous artifice: it's short, unshowy, but packs an amazing amount of plot and character. Unpacking everything that happens, and the motives of the various characters, may require one or more rereads. Here, on first reading, I wish to record that it's a novel that repays close attention; that left me slightly queasy; that riffs on Metroland -- and possibly on Barnes' other work, with which I don't have as close an engagement -- in interesting and poignant ways.

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. [location 1286]

2013/21: Mortal Gods -- Bonnie Quinn

"...while many people believe that we are truly gods – especially the younger generations - the reality is quite different. We aren't omniscient. We have limits. The only reason we didn't become superheroes is because the first gods were mythology buffs."
"And we don't have a kryptonite," I added.
"That could change." [location 1024]

It's twenty years since the first of the new gods manifested. Formerly human, they have become immortal, able to exert their will to shape reality. Each god has adopted a name from mythology (Morrigan, Ishtar, Mannannan, Cupid) though that name may not wholly reflect their ... interests. And, of course, their interests are not always in harmony.

Mortal Gods is the story of Loki, formerly a human woman and now a genderless trickster. Though there are several parallels with the Loki of Norse myth -- unpredictability, playfulness, shapeshifting, cleverness -- this is emphatically not a retelling of old tales. Instead, Loki is caught up in the petty squabbles and sabotages of the gods. There are philosophical issues, too. Would it be better for the human population (who 'worship' the gods as celebrities) to forget that their deities were ever human? Is it best to guide humanity by example, or to assist human scientists? Can anyone, god or mortal, escape their fate?

I bought this self-published novel on spec and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a few typos ('taunt' rather than 'taut', 'discrete' rather than 'discreet') but the prose is well-written and well-paced. It's also frequently very funny. I liked Loki's vulnerability -- far from omniscient, even in the sphere of self -- and was fascinated by the variety of identities and repertoires selected by the other gods. At times Mortal Gods is a little self-conscious (for example, in discussion of pronouns) but that's wholly in-character for Loki, so forgivable.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

2013/20: A Good and Useful Hurt -- Aric Davis

A tattoo is an energy exchange that can be addictive for both client and practitioner, and those two tattoos with ashes carried wild energy—lightning crackling and popping on clear-skied days—and made Mike’s hands wobble in a way they hadn’t wobbled in twenty years. His breath was high and greedy in his chest, and just the emotion, the connection of it, was unreal. [location 299]

Mike believes that tattooing, done right, is an art: it's a philosophy that he insists his employees share. When a customer comes in with the ashes of a deceased relative and asks Mike to mix them into the ink, Mike discovers that there's more to tattooing than art. Maybe there's closure; maybe there's comfort; maybe there's justice.

Phil sees himself as a god. There's an art to what he--

Actually, Phil is a sociopathic serial killer who profoundly hates women. There is a creeping horror woven through his narrative voice. He's nauseatingly convincing.

A Good and Useful Hurt has strong characterisation, a twisty plot that surprised me at several points, and an emotional rawness that really resonated. There's more than a touch of the fantastical about it, and some powerful imagery. And closure, and justice: and, yes, comfort.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

2013/19: Code Name Verity -- Elizabeth Wein

‘Fräulein Engel, you are not a student of literature,’ he said. ‘The English Flight Officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing.’ Golly, Engel stared at him. I of course took the opportunity to interpose wi’ pig-headed Wallace pride, ‘I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT.’ Engel dutifully slapped me into silence and said, ‘She is not writing a novel. She is making a report.’ ‘But she is employing the literary conceits and techniques of a novel. And the meeting you speak of has already occurred – you have been reading it for the past quarter of an hour.’ [loc.839]
Code Name Verity is told in two halves: the first half is the confession of Flight Officer Beaufort-Stuart, a.k.a. 'Queenie', a.k.a. 'Verity', a.k.a Julie, a young woman who is being interrogated by the Gestapo. In that half of the novel, there are several passages told from the point of view of Julie's best friend Maddie, who's an ATA pilot. Julie is a Scottish aristocrat; Maddie, the Jewish granddaughter of an immigrant tradesman. "She and I would not ever have met in peacetime." [loc.1708]

The second half of Code Name Verity is Maddie's account of her first encounter with 'Queenie', her wartime experience as a female pilot, her involvement with the French Resistance, and the ultimate test of her friendship with Julie.

If it wasn't already evident from hints and inconsistencies in Julie's narrative, it quickly becomes clear that Julie is not a reliable narrator -- not to the Germans, and not in her own confession. (The latter is unsurprising, given that the journal is being read by Fräulein Engel, the Gestapo translator and occasional torturer.) There are several scenes that are presented first from one point of view, then -- with completely different significance and emotional weight -- from another's.

The shadings of morality in Code Name Verity are as difficult to distinguish as the elements of truth. Von Linden, the Gestapo captain in charge of extracting Julie's confession, is not a stereotypical villainous Nazi but a cultured man who is caught up in his prisoner's story. Some of the Resistance fighters have feet of clay (or worse). Nothing is simple: nobody's loyalty is predicated upon their nationality or their military rank: no one acts only for a single reason.

It's hard to discuss the plot without revealing key aspects. Instead, I'll write about how engaged I was by both Julie and Maddie: by Julie's blend of (self-professed) cowardice and (evident) courage; by Maddie's love of flying and of the machinery that lets her do it; by their friendship, which is much more important to them than any romantic liaisons. (Indeed there are very few of those, and they're mentioned only in passing.) I like Julie's wildly emphatic, almost schoolgirlish, prose style, and Maddie's lyricism when she describes flights over wartime England: "whole and fragile from the air in the space of an afternoon, from coast to coast, holding its breath in a glass lens of summer and sunlight. All about to be swallowed in nights of flame and blackout." [loc.411]

I think this might be one of the best novels about female friendship that I have ever read.

It made me cry. But it also made me smile.

2013/18: Advent -- James Treadwell

Terrifying as Holly was, as the hell-dog was, terrifying as was his utter ignorance in the face of whatever he was heading towards, none of them were as frightening as the old habitual fear that he’d accidentally made it all up. [location 7565]

First in a trilogy, Advent is firmly rooted in the English fantastic tradition (echoes of Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock) and in mythology, both British and other. I suppose in a way it's an alternate history (alternate mythology?), where Faust, when Mephistopheles granted him a vision of Helen, fell in love not with her but with another.

Gavin's story opens on the First Great Western train from London to Cornwall (on which I have spent far too much of my life). Recently suspended from school after confiding his visions of a 'Miss Grey' to one of the teachers, Gavin's been sent into exile, to the care of his aunt Gwen. When she's not there to meet him at the station, he accepts a lift from Hester Lightfoot, a middle-aged academic whom he met on the train. Gwen, it turns out, lives on the Pendurra estate, which is also the home of Tristram Uren and his weirdly naive daughter Marina. Gavin has absolutely no idea what to make of Marina, but he mistrusts her friend Horace Jia, who lives in the town across the river. Horace, in turn, is brutally pedestrian, blind to most of the weirdnesses around him and mocking those he can perceive.

In parallel with Gavin's story, Advent recounts the history of an arrogant, immortal magician and his dealings with the supernatural. He too is at Pendurra, and is fascinated by the well in the chapel, the guardian at the gate, the rose that blooms in November -- and with Gavin...

Advent contains some marvellous prose -- such as Holly's alliteration ("I am haled here, cleaved to this tree, and my roots riven earthwards. I am weaker than a word of yours ..." [loc 7611]) -- and several excellent, sustained passages of exposition. I was jarred by the occasional intrusion of an authorial, or at least omniscient, voice: "the sky was more brilliant than anyone alive in Gavin's day could imagine" [loc. 3041]; "things they'd later look back on with helpless nostalgia, as one looks back from the far side of a catastrophe" [loc 8128]. But I found these flaws easy to forgive, because the story is powerful, the characters engaging and (apart from a dry, clunky infodump in the middle of the book) the pacing is excellent if occasionally alarming.

The final chapter leaves Cornwall for Alaska and an Inuit girl, Jen, who's abruptly drawn into the killer-whale dance: I'm looking forward to reading more of her story, and the story of Corbo (who reminds me of nothing as much as a character in Paul Hazel's Finnbranch).

And Advent's end is sheer exuberance:
Light the hearth. Open the door of the house. Let the ancestors in. The world’s coming back! The world, the world!’ [location 8962]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

2013/17: Feersum Endjinn -- Iain M. Banks

To treasure each moment, to savour every experience, to evaluate individually one's multitudinous feeling and sensations with the knowledge lodged within that events were hurrying to a close, that there was no longer a seeming infinitude of time stretching ahead of one: that was truly to live. [p149]

This review is a placeholder. I ... can't write about this book right now. Or the fact that it took me twenty years not to bounce off it. Or the reason why I finally persevered.

2013/16: The Flowers of Adonis -- Rosemary Sutcliff

...thinking of what might happen if Agis did not come back, thinking of what might happen if he did. The lamp flame burned blue at the heart as a hyacinth flower; the turnover of the wick wa sparked and seeded with red in the way that foretells rain. [p. 104]

One of Sutcliff's relatively few novels for adults, The Flowers of Adonis is an account of the last 11 years of the life of Alcibiades, from 415BCE to 404BCE. Disclaimer: I wouldn't have appreciated this novel as much as I did if I hadn't recently taken a course in ancient Greek history.

The Flowers of Adonis has multiple narrators, though we never hear the voice of its central character. Nobody, including Alcibiades himself, has the whole picture: nobody except the reader. The characters are referred to by profession or defining quality, rather than by name: The Citizen, The Seaman, The Rower, The Queen, The Dead -- and, problematically, The Whore. I would much have preferred 'The Flute Girl', which is more apt: but The Flowers of Adonis, first published 1969, is of its time, and is peppered with casual racism and sexism in a way that might be less authentic than anything else about the novel.

The identities of the narrators, and the connections between them (aside from all loving and / or hating Alcibiades in some way), are gradually revealed over the course of the novel. The Seaman is Antiochus, the closest Alcibiades has to a friend; the Whore is Timandra; The Rower, Theron, and the Citizen, Timotheus, are old friends. Each has a distinct voice, and an interesting perspective on the story of Alcibiades. Sutcliff, in her Afterword, offers what she describes as "a possible explanation for Antiochus's insane foolhardiness when left in command of the Athenian Fleet, because Thucidides's bald account is so unbelievable (unless one assumes that both Antiochus and Alkibiades were mentally defective) that any explanation seems more likely than none." (But none of the characters are privy to this explanation: only the reader, who is given the necessary pieces of the puzzle.)

The Flowers of Adonis brings to life contemporary accounts of Alcibiades' trajectory, and weaves in mythic echoes of Adonis. Some knowledge of this period of Greek history is definitely an advantage, and helped me appreciate scenes such as the Spartan flute-girls playing at the destruction of the Long Wall. But Sutcliff's gift for evocative detail (a lamp-wick sparking red, presaging rain), and her ability to convey the sheer charisma of a flawed hero, is enough to carry the novel without any prior knowledge of the events described therein.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

2013/15: Wendy -- Karen Wallace

George Darling clanged the decanter again and poured what was left in it into his glass. "I could have had any woman I wanted," he muttered to himself. "And I chose a fairy-tale princess who can't grow up." (p. 192)

Wendy lives in London with her father and mother, Mr and Mrs Darling, her younger brothers John and Michael, and the family's beloved dog Nana (who may be more than she appears). Wendy's life may seem privileged, but she's miserable: Nanny Holborn's regime is cruel and abusive, Wendy's playmate Letitia Cunningham is mean-tempered and manipulative, and Wendy sees her father kissing Lady Cunningham.

Wendy doesn't understand adults, and doesn't want to, but she finds herself drawn into the deceptions and white lies of the grown-ups around her. There's some respite when the three children are sent -- without Nanny Holborn and her cod liver oil! -- to stay with their aunt and uncle in the countryside. But Wendy discovers a secret about her friend Thomas (an autistic boy who loves to paint) that makes her question everything she thinks she knows.

Though based on the characters, and to some extent the plot, of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Wendy is set firmly in the real world. There's no Neverland, no Tinkerbell, and though Thomas will 'never grow up' this is not by his own choice. If there's a magical element, it's Nana, who occasionally remarks upon the behaviour of the humans around her. But nobody listens to Nana.

Wendy deals with the idea of 'growing up' in a number of ways. Esther Cunningham, elder half-sister of the repulsive Letitia, is a suffragette; she also realises that she has to leave her father's house, not only for her own sake but to help her father let go of the memory of his dead wife. George Darling, with his shiny motor car and ill-advised flirtation, seems to be having what we might now call a mid-life crisis. And Wendy learns that adults are peculiar and incomprehensible beasts, and that you can hate someone and love them at the same time.

I find I don't have much to say about this novel. I didn't really engage with it: there was nothing especially wrong, but also nothing especially right.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

2013/14: Naomi's Room -- Jonathan Aycliffe

...everywhere the problem is the same problem: how do we keep them dead, how do we prevent the categories of life and death from becoming confused? The dead do not refuse to die, they are willing accomplices in their own disposal. But they will not rest unless the living rest as well. [loc 526]

Purchased on whim, this is a horror story set in Cambridge and London in the 1970s. Charles and Laura are academically successful, happily married, and have a beautiful five-year old daughter named Naomi. One Christmas Eve Charles takes Naomi to London, to Hamley's. The little girl is abducted: days later, her body is found in Spitalfields.

The couple struggle with their grief and shock. They clutch at straws; an odd aspect of the murder, a newspaper photographer who's noticed something unexpected in some of his pictures, a face in the background of an old holiday snapshot. There are hints of a family secret, signs that their house holds hidden spaces. And steadily the sense of menace rises, chilling and melancholy and terrifying.

If the final third of the novel had been in the same key as the preceding chapters, I might have slept with the lights on for weeks. However, events pivot around a single moment, and after that moment nothing can ever be the same. I found myself re-examining the narrator's account to date, seeking foreshadowings and connections. (To Aycliffe's credit, these are present, and admirably subtle: though there are a few aspects of the story which don't seem to fit together, such as the narrator's relationship to the doctor.)

I can't say I liked the last third of Naomi's Room; it took the story from the psychological to the gory, and I prefer the former. But it's an effective shift, all the more so because of the continuity of narrative voice.

2013/13: Alif the Unseen -- G. Willow Wilson

"...I believe that with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized. It doesn’t mean the Alf Yeom will make any more sense to you, but it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information." [loc. 2343]

Set in an unnamed (and probably fictional) Emirate, Alif the Unseen combines elements of cyberpunk and folktale: the Arab Spring meets the Arabian Nights, if you want a pithy tag. There are echoes of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson here, but there's also a strong theological component. Wilson explores feminism, Islam, the East-West schism, censorship, and revolution -- and does so by telling a story about princes, djinni and mystics.

Imagine the tale. There's a poor boy in love with a rich girl. She rejects him; he acquires a cloak of invisibility, but endangers himself in the process. All looks grim until he is befriended by a djinn. Subsequently he is helped by a prince for whom he's performed a favour; he falls in love with a girl he has known since childhood; he travels to a mystic place where he finds himself fixing an efreet's laptop --

Stop. Reload. Alif is 23, half-Indian and half-Arab, a renowned hacker who provides security workarounds for anyone who can pay. He's in love with an upper-class Old Quarter girl, Intisar, but she tells him she never wants to see his name again. Heartbroken and embittered, Alif creates his masterwork: a program that will recognise Intisar's 'digital fingerprint' -- the unique combination of language, word choice and grammatical tics that identify her online activities -- and 'filter any Internet user who fit her specs, making them invisible to each other' [loc 509].

Unfortunately this does not go unnoticed, and Alif, together with his childhood friend Dina, has to flee the censors. The two of them fall into improbable company: a hitman who may not be human, an American woman who's converted to Islam, and Alif's old hacker buddy NewQuarter1, whose pedigree is rather better than those of Alif or Dina.

Alif the Unseen is full of likeable and well-rounded characters. None are without their flaws. Alif, despite being surrounded by strong women -- Dina, Intisar, the American, Azalel, Sakira -- is still surprised when Dina shows intelligence or initiative, ("She really was as smart as a man" - loc 1129) and bemoans his "agony at the quiet female rhythms that encompassed him, prompting him to flee back into his computers, the cloud, the digital world populated by men" (loc 3832). The American (whom I made a conscious effort not to read as authorial self-insertion despite the similarities between the character and Wilson herself) voices a sense of entitlement, whilst viewing her adoptive culture through a soft-focus, rose-tinted post-colonial haze.

The changing world in which Alif, Dina and the rest find themselves is very recognisable. Wilson examines the ways that technology can empower the poor, elide class structures and be used both to preserve and to attack social and political structures. Woven through the tale of a revolution, too, are threads concerning the nature of knowledge, the fuzzy edges of modern science, and non-Western spins on Western pop culture. ("[Pullman's] The Golden Compass! It’s full of djinni trickery!" [loc 1279])

I liked Alif the Unseen a great deal, despite the flaws of the characters -- which aren't flaws in the characterisation -- and a sense that the finale is over-simplified. It has the exuberance of some early cyberpunk novels, and a philosophical dimension that I found thought-provoking. (Mostly provocative of thoughts about djinni: I may need to reread Declare.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2013/12: The Far West -- Patricia Wrede

The Far West -- Patricia Wrede

I wasn’t Aphrikan, and I wasn’t Avrupan, not really. I was Columbian, born and raised, for all my grandparents weren’t. I didn’t have to do things one way or the other. I could do either, or both, or mix them up until something worked. [loc 1564]

The conclusion to the Frontier Magic trilogy that began with The Thirteenth Child and continued with Across the Great Barrier. Disclaimer: I read The Far West straight after Across the Great Barrier [the joys of Kindle: instant next-book-in-series gratification!], so may have blurred the two together.

The Columbian government is keen to map the Far West of the continent, and Eff -- together with her twin brother Lan, their friend William, Eff's mentors Professor Torgeson and Professor Ochiba, and circuit rider Wash -- leaves 'civilisation' behind to spend a hard winter on the frontier.

There are plenty of adventures to keep them occupied: new species, both magical and mundane; the mysterious Cathayan delegation, who are part-funding the expedition; improbable readings from thaumaturgical instruments; a prairie winter. Eff also finds herself dealing with admirers in the plural -- and with the prejudices and expectations of her family. ("you think that just because I’m going on the expedition, I’ll turn into some kind of tart?” [loc. 2364]).

The plethora of new magical predators, and the peculiar build-up of magic along the Grand Bow River, indicate that more is at stake than Eff's virtue. But her magical skillset -- still a source of bemusement to her teachers and friends -- might prove more important than her brother's 'seventh son of a seventh son' geomancy, Professor Ochiba's Aphrikan magic, or the Cathayan Adept Alikaket's holistic approach.

It's a very American novel: the wild frontier, the pioneer spirit, the vastness of the landscape and the cultural melting-pot. There's also that sense that what you can do is more important than any accident of birth: personal qualities will get you further than a good name or a pale skin.

One of the aspects of this trilogy that I admire most is that it's not Epic Fantasy. There's no Big Bad or Evil Overlord; Eff is not a Chosen One. Instead, the threat comes from ecological imbalance, and it's countered by a team effort. Eff's role has nothing to do with gods or destiny. True, she has strong magic of her own (though even at the end of the trilogy she's still struggling to control and understand it) but it's her non-magical qualities -- helpfulness, willingness to learn, patience, amicability -- that qualify her as a member of the expedition, and bring her to the point where she can make a difference.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

2013/11: Across the Great Barrier -- Patricia Wrede

"...it’s one thing to refuse to use spells ourselves, and it’s another thing entirely to talk of deliberately bringing in a lot of grubs in order to destroy the natural magic in our settlement lands forever." [loc 1522]

Across the Great Barrier picks up almost immediately after the events of The Thirteenth Child, in which Francine 'Eff' Rothmer learnt that she wasn't cursed or wicked, and that the trouble she was having with magic wasn't a flaw, but indicative of a new methodology. In the previous novel, Eff was instrumental in dealing with an infestation of magic-draining mirrorbugs. Now, the people of Wrede's Columbia have to cope with the ecological aftermath.

The Thirteenth Child, set on a North American continent empty of human life until the arrival of 'Avrupans', was criticised for its erasure of Native Americans: but how do you -- how can Eff -- explain the absence of something that's never been there?

However, Eff is growing up (she celebrates her twentieth birthday in Across the Great Barrier) and her perspective is broader than it was in the first novel. There's more discussion of the rest of the world, and of the history of Columbia. It's interesting to examine Wrede's worldbuilding, the chains of cause and effect that produce Eff's world. Here, the 'last' Ice Age never happened, so there was no Bering land-bridge by which humans could cross to the American continent. The magical wildlife of the far West is fierce enough that dragons flee it, never mind mere humans. Lewis and Clark's expedition was utterly lost. Men who attempt to cross the Rockies come back mad, if at all. And only the Great Barrier Spell, created by Franklin and Jefferson, preserves the east of the continent from the worst of the magical perils.

Eff finishes school, works awhile in the university's menagerie, and then volunteers to head west as assistant to Professor Aldis Torgeson, a Vinlander and a biologist, who becomes something of a role model for Eff. Their expedition also includes the Aphrikan Washington Morris -- a.k.a. 'Wash' -- who acted as guide on the journey to discover the mirrorbugs.

Meanwhile Eff's twin brother Lan has returned early from boarding school, after an incident he won't discuss which has clearly shaken him to his core. His (and Eff's) friend William has been disowned by his father. Both young men join the expedition. Needless to say, they find adventure aplenty beyond the Great Barrier Spell -- not to mention traces of a mysterious threat which menaces the peaceful pioneer settlements east of the Mammoth River. The risk is compounded by the fact that some of those settlements, including one where Eff's sister and her husband live, are Rationalist: they disapprove of using magic, and the more extreme among them are even talking about deliberately reintroducing mirrorbugs to drain the natural magic from the land. Eco-crisis ahead!

And as though the ecology of magic, and the wild frontier itself, aren't enough, Eff finds herself being courted ...

One vexing profreding issue: someone had performed a number of global search/replace operations in the source for this book, leading to such infelicities as "I could see he liked being the indent of attention" [loc 3917] and "I saw a bump in the crt of the lizard’s forehead" [loc 4229].

But that didn't stop me going straight on to the final volume of the trilogy.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2013/10: Marco and the Blade of Night -- Phil Rickman (writing as Thom Madley)

"...she was given a GLASBO.’
Marco blinked. ‘Glasbo?’
‘Glastonbury’s version of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order,’ Woolly said. ‘They hung one on Eleri for disturbing the peace by making prophesies of doom late at night down by the Abbey gatehouse. She ain’t allowed to stand there after 6 p.m. for the next year.’ [loc 1204]

Occult thriller for children set in contemporary Glastonbury. No, really. And it's ace.

Marco is spending the summer with his grandparents, Woolly and Nancy, who are firmly of the Avalonian persuasion: ageing alternative types who believe in mystery and magic, and are in a perpetual detente with the Glasties (the more, er, conservative townsfolk). Marco has already encountered the true magic at the heart of Glastonbury, and his friend Rosa has an 'understanding' with the ghost of the last abbot. (Marco's friend Josh, psychoanalyst-in-training, is another matter.)

But now the Glasties are reporting marvels and visions, and are very put out about it all. ("How do you think this feels for me?" Mr. Cotton howled. "Having to come to a notorious crackpot like you and admit to having seen something one simply can’t explain?" [loc 123]) There's a distinctly Arthurian tone to the portents, especially Rosa's discovery of a rusty old blade that could date back to the Dark Age. And the makers of the best-selling computer game Arturus Rex are looking for a site for their new factory ...

The plot's fine, but what really makes Marco and the Blade of Night worth reading is Rickman's wicked, witty depiction of Glastonbury and its inhabitants. I kept recognising places, and expecting to recognise specific people (rather than just types). Marco, Rosa and Josh are likeable enough teenagers with rounded characters: but Woolly, Nancy, Eleri and Granny Goldman feel comfortably, affectionately familiar.

Marco and the Blade of Night is the sequel to Marco's Pendulum. It does stand alone, but I'm now very tempted to read the first book.

2013/09: Witch Eyes -- Scott Tracey

Most kids took Math, English, American History. Mine was more Demons 101, AP Magical Defense, and Advanced Sorcery for Slackers. [location 87]
Braden was born with the ability to see through illusion and lies to the truth. At seventeen, he's naive and inexperienced: home-schooled by the uncle who raised him, he is totally unprepared for modern American high school culture. Fleeing a vision that warns of terrible danger for his uncle, he winds up alone in Belle Dam, a small town which is ruled by two rival families. The Lansings and the Thorpes -- "two of the most powerful magical dynasties to cross over into the New World" [loc 1222] -- are both keen to get their hands on Braden and his untapped power, hoping that he'll prove the key to unlocking Belle Dam's secrets.

His loyalties, it turns out, are already divided. He's attracted to a (male) member of one family; he's related to a member of the other. (Unlike the blurb, I won't reveal which is which.) Braden's going to have to choose a side, and his new friends -- possibly the first friends he's ever made -- can't make that choice for him.

Witch Eyes is a YA novel with a fairly straightforward (though not predictable) plot: what I liked about it was the characterisation. Braden's sense of being out of his depth in social matters, but expert in magical ones, is an interesting balancing act. Because the book's told from his point of view, it's easy to understand the ways in which his first impressions of people are tempered by subsequent events.

I especially liked that, though Braden is gay, it's not a big deal. He isn't a stereotype or a symbol: he's a teenager who can't afford to be distracted by his attraction to another boy, but would really like to have a chance at said distraction. Once he's mastered his own magical gifts and used them to solve the mystery at the heart of Belle Dam, anyway.

2013/08: New Amsterdam -- Elizabeth Bear

The blood was only a metaphor. It was that strength—and the lightness of body of the dead, freed of the weight of the grave by having passed through it—that gave Sebastien the ability to thrust his fingertips into the mortared cracks between the bricks, flex and press until fingertip ridges caught, and rise effortlessly along the hotel’s soot-stained facade. He felt, for the moment, a right bastard of a cliché. [loc. 3829]

Six linked novellas concerning the affairs of Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic sorceress and dedicated officer of the Crown. Though not quite the Crown as we know it: this is an alternate fin de siecle where North America is still governed by the British; where New Amsterdam was only ceded to the British during the Napoleonic Wars; where vampires -- well, Dom Sebastien de Ulloa -- travel by dirigible; where Nikola Tesla has illuminated Paris with broadcast energy.

Abby Irene is at the centre of these stories. She refuses to fade quietly into the background as society hints that a lady of advancing years should do: instead she drinks, takes lovers, associates with criminals and doesn't give a fig for the opinions of her intellectual inferiors, i.e. pretty much everybody else. Dom Sebestian -- more than a thousand years old, fighting furiously to remain detached from the mayfly mortals who surround him -- fascinates her. And her association with the vampire opens up a whole new set of supernatural crimes requiring solutions.

There are a number of striking characters in New Amsterdam (Jack, the fearless young revolutionary who is Dom Sebastien's dinner-and-date, is especially likeable). Elizabeth Bear's evident enjoyment of plot, world and cast is infectious, too: so much so that it's easy to overlook the moral complexity, and emotional depth, of the stories.

But there's a great deal more to these stories than the superficial love triangle, or the tangles of sorcery. The whole of New Amsterdam is threaded with meditations on loyalty and treachery, independence (both personal and political) and the many flavours of love. When (not if) I return to this book, it'll be for the shifting allegiances and emotional ties between the characters.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

2013/07: Dotter of her Father's Eyes -- Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot

Early in Dotter of her Father's Eyes, Mary explains her fascination with Lucia Joyce to a fellow student:
"When I discovered [James] Joyce had a daughter I was curious. My parents were named Norah and Jim too!"
"So you're finding parallels?"
"I bloody hope not! She spent most of her life in mental institutions..." [p. 15]

There are parallels, though. Mary's 'cold mad feary father' -- a noted Joycean scholar -- is distant, sarcastic, emotionally abusive: Lucia's father is wound up in his own genius, thinking it sufficient that his daughter knows 'how to walk into a room', brushing aside her burgeoning career as a dancer in 1920s Paris. Both fathers love, but do not respect, their daughters. Both are blind to their daughter's individuality, to Mary's intellect and Lucia's talent for dance.



Dotter of her Father's Eyes, which won the Costa Prize for Best Biography in 2012, is a graphic novel which uses different palettes (blue for Lucia's life, sepia for Mary's memories, with colour creeping in as Mary escapes her claustrophobic adolescence) to distinguish two closely-entwined stories. It's beautifully drawn, with some very striking pages: I found the text equally beautiful, and I laughed out loud at the occasional authorial aside ('NB Bryan's wrong again. In my school boys were seated on one side of the classroom, girls on the other.' [p.18])

Lucia's story is certainly a tragedy. Depressed, ashamed and angry at the discovery that her parents aren't even married to one another, she lashes out, and is confined to a clinic. Mary, by contrast, escapes. But it's clear that her father's influence extends beyond childhood. There's a panel of Sylvia Plath introducing her poem 'Daddy' on the radio "It's about a girl with an Electra complex. He died while she thought he was God." Mary observes 'mine came down from that pedestal while he was very much alive'. [p. 36] And even after Mary's father dies, she has to attempt to reconcile his public persona with her own experience.

Beautiful, moving and intimate: I will return to this, I think.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

2013/06: Dark Places -- Jon Evans

Another notch on their travel belt, that they had walked with a murdered man. Another story for their friends when they returned to their safe European homes. He wasn't really a dead man to them; he was another element in their life-enriching trip, just another Travel Experience, like an animatron on a Disney ride. [location 200]

Paul Wood is a self-confessed 'mild-mannered computer programmer' who doesn't know how to be happy in his comfortable Californian life, so spends four months a year travelling. Trekking in the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, he discovers the body of a murder victim, another backpacker. This is more than usually unnerving for two reasons: one, the murderer can't have got far, because the corpse is still warm; two, there's a Swiss army knife in each of the corpse's eyes, which is exactly what was done to Paul's girlfriend, murdered two years before in Cameroon.

Since the local authorities aren't interested in solving 'white men's murders' (and indeed would rather suppress any news that might put future tourists off visiting the region), Paul takes it upon himself to investigate the murders, and to find out if there have been others with a similar modus operandi. It's a way of coming to terms with Laura's death, but it exposes Paul to more danger than he expects.

Jon Evans is very good at evoking a sense of place: a shabby internet cafe in Bali, a desert road in central Africa, the empty heights of the Himalayas. He's not quite as good at characterisation: Paul, as narrator, is a complex and interesting (if often exasperating) individual, but most of the other characters are one-dimensional. That might be as much to do with Paul's egocentric world view as with the author's skill, though! Evans certainly captures Paul's sense of being lost and alienated, as well as his arrogance and privilege.

Dark Places is also very much a book set in the past: in this case around the turn of the millennium, when the DotCom bubble hadn't yet burst and the internet was all about Yahoo, web cafes and cable modems. It's interesting to think about how differently the events of the novel might play out now, in a more connected decade.

2013/05: Seraphina -- Rachel Hartman

Music is one thing dragons can't do better than us. They wish they could; they're fascinated; they've tried and tried again. They achieve technical perfection, perhaps, but there's always something missing. [location 957]

One of the most enjoyable novels I've read in a while: so far I've bought two copies for friends, and am wondering if I should stock up for the year ...

Seraphina is set in the kingdom of Goredd, a society reminiscent of eighteenth-century Europe. It's forty years since humans and dragons brokered an uneasy peace: now dragons are permitted to live amongst humans, as long as they (mostly) keep themselves folded into their human forms, known as saarantrai. The dragons pride themselves on logic, objectivity, clarity: they are excellent mathematicians, and the core of their society is ard, a philosophy of order and correctness that informs every aspect of their long lives.

Dragons dismiss most human culture, but are absolutely fascinated by music. Enter Seraphina Dombegh, the gifted young musician and would-be Court Composer, whose uncle is a dragon.

You do the maths.

Seraphina's father has spent a lot of time and effort reinventing his dead wife, Seraphina's mother. Truth will out, though, and Seraphina is desperate to keep her secrets from those to whom she's closest -- her student and friend, the Princess Glisselda, and Glisselda's fiance, the personable and intelligent Kiggs. Unfortunately, secrets spawn more secrets, and Seraphina finds herself amidst court intrigue, religious unrest, imaginary friends, interspecies tension (“The treaty forbids us biting off human heads ... but I won’t pretend I’ve forgotten what they taste like” [loc. 382]) and a plethora of those inconvenient emotions that the dragons so despise.

Never mind the plot (which occasionally -- this is a compliment -- reminded me of one of Georgette Heyer's more swashbuckling romances); Seraphina is a delightful narrator, with a dry wit and a depth of compassion and empathy that's remarkable in one so young. Orma, her dragon uncle, is distinctly non-human: the dragons are as alien as anything in SF. Hartman's Goredd is an interesting -- though as yet sparsely-detailed -- setting, perhaps most notable for its religion. There are various saints, on whom the populace call in prayer and blasphemy: St. Ogdo (fervently anti-dragon); St. Capiti (patron of learning, usually depicted with her severed head); St. Yrtrudis, the heretic whose motto is "No Heaven but this". There is, however, no God, no omniscient being to whom mortals must answer. I found this refreshing, and it certainly added to the Enlightenment ambience of the novel.

Seraphina is marketed as YA, but apart from the single-strand first-person narrative (and the youth of the narrator) I didn't find it in any way juvenile. There is a happy ending, of sorts, but there's plenty of trouble ahead for our heroine, and another novel due in 2013.

Note to publisher: please profrede the index as well as the text when converting to Kindle.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

2013/04: After Brock -- Paul Binding

Pete, on the other hand, positively welcomed the badger. And in retrospect was to welcome it even more heartily. This sight of this animal, eager to get over the road, to reach the safety and warmth of his or her sett on a raw yet damp night on which extra-terrestrials might or might not have visited the planet, gave him a needed sense of perspective: there was clearly satisfaction to be found just accomplishing little tasks essential to preserving existence. [location 2506]

After Brock opens with Nat Kempsey waking in his own bedroom, having recently been rescued by helicopter after getting lost in the Berwyn mountains for five days. But was Nat really missing? Local reporter Luke Fleming asks Nat some hard questions -- for instance, whether Nat's disappearance was connected to a similar episode in his father's youth, back in the 1970s.

Pete, Nat's father, is the real protagonist of this novel. His freakishly high IQ as a child, his feelings of alienation from his middle-class family, his claustrophobically close friendship with the charismatic Sam, and Sam and Pete's shared obsession with UFO sightings; these are all ingredients in a situation that spirals out of control and into tragedy. Not that Nat knew any of this 'til he himself went missing. It's Pete who has a story to tell, and After Brock reveals it gradually through newspaper reports, letters, diaries, and dialogue.

I found some of the prose clunky -- though, to be fair, that fits with the conceit of teenage diaries -- and the emotional tone curiously flat. Binding's descriptions of the Welsh mountains, and of rural life in the early 1970s, are very evocative. The novel is pacy, yet ultimately disappointed me: it's not that I expected actual UFOs, but there was a recurring shimmer of something numinous that never quite resolved.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013/03: The White Trail -- Fflur Dafydd

She was always showing him the light in things, the whiteness. When they first met it would pain him when she left the room, as though the light were leaving too. The day she disappeared happened to be the shortest day of the year.
[location 88]

Cilydd and Goleuddydd are expecting their first child any day: then Goleuddydd apparently vanishes into thin air at the supermarket. Cilydd turns to Arthur, a private investigator who happens to be his cousin (the axiom that blood is thicker than water being the only explanation of why Cilydd would turn to a PI who'd never solved a single case) in the hope of tracking down either his missing wife, or the son he's never seen.

Goleuddydd -- or, rather, her body -- turns up in a pigsty, with a macabre message scrawled in blood on the wall. The child is not found.

Cilydd, at a loss without his fiery and tempestuous wife, becomes involved with a charity that supports people who've lost a loved one to that liminal 'missing persons' state: he also becomes involved, more intimately, with Gwelw, a woman whose husband just happens to be the stranger who Cilydd 'inadvertently pushed... off a cliff'. The two marry, and all seems well, until Cilydd receives an anonymous phonecall from someone who knows exactly what happened to Gwelw's previous husband. And meeting the caller opens up a whole new web of happenstance: a child who realises he's adopted, and the girl he's fallen in love with, who leaves a white trail wherever she goes ...

The White Trail retells the story of Culhwch and Olwen, from the Welsh Mabinogion. (It's one of a series of 'New Stories from the Mabinogion': I purchased several in Amazon's post-Christmas Kindle sale.) I might have noticed more of the allusions and references in the novel if I'd known the original better: as it was, the twists of the plot were surprising. I did feel the novel lost focus near the end, when the dastardly schemes of Ysbaddaden (and the hidden agenda of Arthur) are revealed: those revelations felt jarring, insufficiently signalled. But the imagery of the novel resonated with me, and the author's afterword made me want to go back to the beginning and read through the story again with new understanding.

I realised that I was concentrating too dutifully on what was present in the text, rather than searching for what was absent. I should, after all, have been looking for the gaps, the silences, for those things that didn’t quite make sense, things dense with meaning, well hidden – waiting to be brought to light. Those still, curious moments, where the action subsided and the characters lay exposed, flawed, human even. [Author's afterword: location 1548]

2013/02: London Falling -- Paul Cornell

... not being able to control things is why people started doing stuff like Losley does, way back when. That’s why it’s town stuff. Everyone going back and forth in the city, doing deals, getting one up on each other, when maybe you were used to how it was in the country, just working your land and stuff, same thing happening every year ... The city makes you want it now, makes you want it easier. But the bureaucracy of the city also grinds against that, makes you look for a way to get round it.’ [location 3856]

Whoever described this as 'Buffy meets the Sweeney' wasn't far off the mark. Yes, it's London coppers versus the forces of darkness -- but the doom and gloom is leavened with humour, rounded characters and a profound appreciation of London-as-phenomenon.

Everything's normal to start with. (Possibly for a little too long: would I have kept reading if I hadn't known there were Weird Thingies ahead? Though I can't actually imagine a world in which I remained ignorant of this novel, what with Twitter and word-of-mouth.) But then DI Quill's prime suspect Toshack, hauled in for drug-related crimes, dies in a suspicious and inexplicable fashion; and Quill ends up with a rag-tag team, and a horrifying (and literal) new insight into the underpinnings of Toshack's criminal empire.

Suddenly there are ghosts amid the crowds, ghosts following Quill's colleagues; there are mysterious spirals of earth appearing in apparently-random locations; there are screaming plague-pits, and a fortune-teller whose divinatory method of choice is the London A-Z. Also, a statistically-improbable incidence of death amongst football players who score hat-tricks against West Ham. And the Sekrit Historie of Anne Boleyn. And a talking cat which, in my head at least, has the Received Pronunciation of early BBC broadcasts.

There are some very cool ideas in this novel, and some fascinating characters (a category into which I think London itself might fall). Cornell manages to write about a team that includes a self-confessed 'shit', a woman and a gay man without drawing from central casting's handy basket o' stereotypes. He also manages an oddly sympathetic villain. With those factors in the novel's favour, I can easily forgive the occasional clunkiness (one does not 'run into close quarters').

I am really looking forward to the next book in this series.
If this is the Old Bill versus Old Nick, we’ll have him too, sunshine. [location 6097]