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.