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

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.