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

Friday, December 26, 2014

2014/47: The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning -- Hallgrimur Helgason

I’ve finished my first week in exile. Even though I’ve not killed anyone for the past seven days, except one small dog, this has to count as one of the most interesting weeks of my life. For seven days and seven nights the sun has not set. I’ve had five different nationalities and held down two jobs. I’ve appeared on live television. I watched the European Song Contest for the first time in six years. I broke into two apartments, stole one car, three beers, some bread and bacon and six eggs. I also find myself in love with two different girls. One Icelandic and one Indian-Peruvian.[loc. 1618]

Toxic (a.k.a. Tomislav Bokšić) is Croatian, but lives in New York: America is the land of opportunity and he's built up a formidable business as a hitman for the Croatian mafia, priding himself on a recent 'six-pack' -- six bullets, six funerals. Then it all goes horribly wrong, and Toxic ends up in Iceland (or, as he calls it, Easeland) disguised as an American televangelist.

With hilarious consequences.

Toxic really shouldn't be a likeable character, but his attempts to come to terms with his past (as a soldier in the Croatian war of independence, then as an assassin) and ensure his future (which is unnecessarily complicated, in part by Toxic's unreconstructed attitude to women). He is, to be frank, a bit of an arse. But I like his predictably dark sense of humour, and he has an outsider's eye for the absurber aspects of Icelandic society, and some interesting and profound observations on war and killing. ("A nation is the sum of our strengths, as well as of our collective stupidity. War makes the former obey the latter."[loc. 961])

The author is Icelandic, but wrote this novel in fluent and colloquial English. (I'll blame the publisher for spelling 'heroin' as 'heroine', twice.) However, it has possibly the worst closing line of any book ever: 'then I'm not sure what happens'.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014/46: Ship of Souls -- Zetta Elliott

I never imagined ghosts could be racist.[loc. 1047]

Dmitri, known as 'D', is an orphan: he' black, but is being fostered by Mrs Martin, who's elderly and white. He's struggling to make an identity for himself. D makes two good friends at his new school: Keem, a basketball jock who's struggling with his grades, and Nyla, a punk girl whose upbringing in a military family has left her self-sufficient and worldly-wise.

Oh, and there's Nuru, a spirit manifesting as a talking bird. Nuru's mission is to free the ghosts who linger in Prospect Park, unable to leave.

Ship of Souls is a very short novel that nevertheless manages to bring together the American Revolutionary War, the African slave trade and 9/11. While D's narrative voice sometimes reads as rather more mature than his stated age (11), his motives and emotions are clear and credible. Keem's problems -- he's a Muslim in post-9/11 America -- are also depicted sensitively and believably; and I liked Nyla's tough brand of feminism. ("I’m proud of who I am and how I look. But I got a right to be myself and be respected when I’m out in the street.")

This would be an excellent novel(la) for younger teens: it deals with some big themes sympathetically and accessibly.

2014/45: Anarchy -- James Treadwell

There was a kind of clarity to it. The girl who wouldn’t talk, walking out of a locked cell, paddling away into the mist; the boy on the beach where the whale had been, huddled around that extraordinary mask; the messages from the rest of the world announcing that all was not well [...] No, she thought, I don’t know what’s going on; but so what? It was kind of like unpacking. You just did what was in front of you. Or like walking in the fog: you kept on putting one foot in front of the other, even though you couldn’t see where you were headed.[loc. 2354]

In Advent, teenaged Gavin travelled (or was exiled) to Cornwall to stay with his aunt Gwen, and became friends with the mysterious and sheltered Marina -- as well as a young Anglo-Chinese boy, a crow-spirit, a dryad and a professor of anthropology. Though it's only October, the snow comes down steadily, and the world is changing ...

Anarchy picks up where Advent left off, more or less: Jennifer Knox, suspected murderer, disappears from a locked cell at a small police station on Vancouver Island. RCMP officer Marie-Archange Séverine Gaucelin-Maculloch (known as 'Goose') feels responsible, and tries to find the girl: meanwhile in the wider world, a computer virus -- the Plague -- is crippling government and industry. There are rumours from England of occult events, and an unending winter. A ferry is found drifting, abandoned by all on board. But Goose's world narrows to the search for Jennifer, even when she's told to let it go.

Female disobedience is something of a theme in this novel. As well as Goose, there are two other viewpoint characters: Izzy, Gavin's stepmother / aunt, and Marina, a naive teenager who's never left the family estate. Both refuse to stay at home and wait. Izzy gets on her bike and cycles from London to Cornwall through apocalyptic conditions; Marina decides to go out into the world.

In a fairy tale the women's initiative, their boldness and courage, would be rewarded with success in their quests. But this is not that kind of story, and each woman's reward is a savage loss.

One might expect Gavin's self-appointed quest to be at the core of Anarchy, and in a way it is: but he passes through unrecognised (as does the BT engineer who visits Izzy: I only realised who he was on second reading). No, Anarchy is the story of three women who incur the displeasure of magical beings. Treadwell writes female characters with astonishing depth, warmth, and subtlety: each has a distinctive voice and a complex psyche. It's a shame they're all doomed ... the plot of these novels depends on a great deal of cruelty, often to women. I don't believe it's authorial misogyny, though -- and certainly there are plenty of male casualties of the resurgence of magic.

Dark, obscure, haunting (this novel gave me bad dreams: this is an excellent sign!) and with stunning prose: as soon as I'd finished this, I pre-ordered Arcadia, the trilogy's conclusion ...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014/44: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic -- Emily Croy Barker

Nora still felt the bite of envy. She used to be able to do that—sit in a clean, well-lighted room, choose a book from hundreds, start reading, and effortlessly take herself to another world. And now she was actually in another world, and she might never read another book again.[loc. 1916]

Nora Fischer's life isn't quite as she'd like it. Her last relationship ended badly; her dissertation supervisor isn't happy with her thesis (on John Donne and Emily Dickinson); she's still torn up about the death of her brother, four years ago. She is totally not in the mood for her friends' wedding. So she wanders off for a walk, and discovers a deserted graveyard ... and then finds herself in the garden of a splendid mansion, where the beautiful Illisa seems only too happy to welcome Nora. Illisa's son Raclin is romantic, mysterious and attentive. Perhaps a break from quotidian monotony is just what Nora needs: it's certainly what she's wished for...

Suffice to say, no good can come of it. Raclin is not what he seems. The mansion is on the border between contemporary America and a very different world. And Nora, fleeing a monster, crosses the border: it's a one-way trip that leads her to a country straight out of medieval fantasy. The old kind of medieval fantasy, with rampant sexism and insanitary living conditions and hard labour from dawn til dusk.

Nora is rescued, sort of, by the magician Aruendiel, who is scarred, melancholy, sarcastic and misogynistic. Obviously women can't do wizardry (which relies on spirits), much less real magic. Nora must call on her considerable inner reserves (hates Tolkien: loves Jane Austen, and indeed a copy of Pride and Prejudice is her sole memento of her former life) to resist despair.

Actually she doesn't resist despair that well. And I have to say she is not the most likeable of protagonists. (*This* is the 'thinking woman' of the title? Admittedly she has an excuse for being dense in the first part of the novel, but later on I did find myself wanting to cognitively recalibrate her. Still, she does some pretty smart things now and then. And has a nice line in wry asides.)

It *is* a romance (though not a particularly traditional or honeyed one), but it's also a novel about the importance of literature and imagination, and about feminism, and about fairies and demons and ghosts, oh my. I enjoyed it immensely, and didn't mind that the plot sometimes sprawled or that it could have been cut by a fifth without detriment to said plot. Looking forward to Barker's next novel, though the internet is silent on when, or what, that might be.

"...real magic comes out of what is around you, it is born from the long conversation, negotiation, fellowship that human beings have with the things of the world. A god would never give us such a valuable gift. Humans had to learn it for themselves." [loc 7434]

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014/43: Therapy -- Sebastian Fitzek

‘She wanted to know why her story only had two chapters. She said, “I want to be well again. What happens next?” She told me to finish the book.’

‘In other words, you were instructed to keep writing by a character created by you?’

‘Precisely. In any case, I was perfectly honest with her. I told her I didn't know how the story ended, so there was nothing I could do.’

‘What did she say to that?’ ‘She took me by the hand and promised to show me where the story started. She said, “Maybe you'll think of an ending when you see where it all began.”’ [loc. 956]

Viktor Larenz, a reputable psychiatrist, has retreated to an isolated North Sea island in an attempt to recover from the disappearance of his adolescent daughter Josy and the subsequent separation from his wife Isabell. A mysterious woman, Anna Glass, arrives, hoping for help: she’s an author and the characters she writes about come to life. There’s a story she’s been working on about a young girl with a strange illness, who has disappeared. Can Larenz help her to unravel her delusions?

Josy was ill: she disappeared from the doctor’s consulting room, and nobody would believe that she’d been there at all. And the little girl in Anna’s story has more than just illness and disappearance in common with Josy. There has to be some connection, some solution … Larenz realises that he is hoping for healing for himself, and not for Anna: a terrible betrayal of the doctor-patient relationship. But his confusion and mental deterioration might make him more susceptible to delusions of his own.

Therapy is translated from the German, and the prose is serviceable though seldom lively. Fitzek evokes the windswept desolation of the island, and the ominous encounters between Larenz and the locals, admirably. But I did not like this book: it felt at once vague and heavy-handed, and I could find nothing sympathetic in Larenz. Anna is a cipher, barely a character at all (for reasons that do actually make sense in this context) and none of the other characters make more than a brief appearance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014/42: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August -- Claire North

the Cronus Club … like the Illuminati without the glamour, or the Masons without the cufflinks, a self-perpetuating society spread across the ages for the infinite and the timeless.[loc. 619]

Harry August is born on New Year’s Day 1919, at a railway station. He grows to adulthood, enlists in WW2, contracts bone cancer, dies.

And … repeat.

Unlike Ursula in Life after Life, Harry remembers his previous lives: and unlike Life after Life, he is not alone. About one in every half-million children is born a kalachakra, an ‘ouroboran’, with the gift (or curse) of living the same span of life over and over, and the ability to remember previous lives. (The term ‘kalachakra’ comes from Buddhism, and refers to the wheel of time.)

The possibilities are immense, and North explores a good many of them: the increasing pace of technological advance as ambitious kalachakra use knowledge from earlier lives to shape their world; the ennui of the effectively immortal; the temptation to kill Hitler, or bomb New York (“you can do whatever you like so long as you don’t bugger it up for the next lot. So no nuking New York, please, or shooting Roosevelt, even if for experimental purposes. We just can’t handle the hassle.”[loc. 1143]). Each kalachakran’s point of origin – birthday – is fixed, but their lifespan overlaps with those of others. They devise a method of communicating up and down the time-stream: to talk to earlier generations, a child in, say, 1925 speaks to a dying man, then that man is reborn in 1850 and repeats the question to a different dying man … In this way a body of knowledge (and the single inviolate rule of ‘not buggering it up for the next lot’) is built up.

Turns out that someone down the line is buggering things up very thoroughly: the end of the world is nigh, and nigher with each life. Somebody is subtly altering the world in tiny increments: small technological advances with immense consequences. Kalachandrans are dying, or rather never being born. (Some are simply forced to forget previous lives, so may as well not be reborn for all the good it does them.) Victor Rankis, who is Harry’s closest friend (in some lives, at least), may hold the key to the mystery. He is certainly the most important person in many of Harry’s lives.

I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August a great deal: the complexity of the world-building, the credibility of the alternate histories that come and go as the cycle repeats, the depth and emotion of Harry’s various relationships, the grandiose plots of the characters, the wry asides and observations. (“I wondered if Senator McCarthy would do so well in this new world, now the vivid flushes of his skin could be seen in such glorious technicolour. Black and white, I concluded, lent a certain dignity to proceedings that the proceedings themselves probably lacked.”[loc. 4317]). I especially liked that – despite what Amazon’s categorisation engine (which puts this as #1 in ‘Romance > Time Travel’) might think – this is not a romance in any traditional sense. There are romantic elements, but they are not the focus of the story.

Claire North also writes as Kate Griffin, author of the Matthew Swift novels. [source] I’ve bounced off the first Matthew Swift novel before, but am now tempted to give it another go.

“the past is the past. You are alive today. That is all that matters. You must remember, because it is who you are, but as it is who you are, you must never, ever regret. To regret your past is to regret your soul.”[loc. 2447]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

2014/41: Cuckoo Song -- Frances Hardinge

... you woke up one day and found out that you couldn’t be the person you remembered being, the little girl everybody expected you to be. You just weren’t her any more, and there was nothing you could do about it. So your family decided you were a monster and turned on you…. let me tell you – from one monster to another – that just because somebody tells you you’re a monster, it doesn’t mean you are. [loc. 3769]

Triss wakes up after an accident that she can’t recall clearly. Her sister Pen is acting suspiciously, as though she knows more than Triss does about that accident: as though Triss has the power to hurt her. Their parents, respected architect Piers Crescent and his lovely wife Celeste, seem to have secrets of their own. One of those secrets might explain why, or at least how, letters from their son Sebastian are delivered almost daily to Sebastian’s desk drawer – even though he died in Flanders five years ago, in a bitter winter.

And Triss is ravenous, can’t eat enough. She sleepwalks, too. And someone’s ripped out half the pages in her diary. The doctor is unsympathetic and her new friend Mr Grace has an agenda of his own. And Triss’s parents wholly disapprove of Violet, Sebastian’s former fiancée, “all her angry, grimy inner workings visible to the eye”. But perhaps Violet, whose windows are icy only on the inside, can help Triss uncover a secret or two ...

This is a novel that’s at once chilling (in several senses) and uplifting. Hardinge is especially good at describing Triss’s state of mind: a young girl who suddenly feels that her life is not her own, that she’s doing everything wrong, that she’s become (or has always been?) something terrible. Cuckoo Song conveys the claustrophobia of a loving family, the rigour with which that family’s rituals are maintained, and the price of freedom both within and outside the family home. It’s also a darkly subversive evolution of the Victorian fairytale, filtered through the aftermath of the First World War. Not everyone comes home: some refugees are stranger than others.

Hardinge’s turn of phrase continues to glitter: eyes are ‘cold and hard like those of a thrush’; a cry ‘sounded the way a scar looks’; the night is ‘curled around the world, dispassionate as a dragon’.

At times Cuckoo Song reminded me of Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss, and not just because of the wintry elements.Maybe it’s Triss’s relationship with the brother she hardly remembers; maybe it’s the sense of shadows that aren’t cast by anything, things ‘half seen and half heard’. I think, though, that Hardinge’s novel is ultimately more hopeful: the ice can melt, the lost be saved.

“The War crushed faith. All kinds of faith. Before the War, everybody had their rung on the ladder, and they didn’t look much below or above it. But now? Low and high died side by side in Flanders Fields, and looked much the same face down in the mud. [loc. 2935]

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

2014/40: Seed -- Ania Ahlborn

At what point do parents back away from something they love more than their own lives, put up their hands, and admit defeat? [loc. 906]

Jack Winter lives in a Louisiana backwater with his wife Aimee and his daughters, Abigail and Charlotte. They’re poor but happy. Aimee’s mother thinks Jack’s a lazy good-for-nothing, playing in a band and working as a mechanic. But Jack knows -- though he'll never tell Aimee -- that he’s escaped a great evil: the thing that he encountered (summoned?) in the old cemetery behind his childhood home, the thing that’s tattooed on his back as a reminder. He reckons he deserves some peace.

Turns out Jack doesn’t remember everything that happened to him, even when he sees two glowing eyes on the road one night: even when his younger daughter, Charlie, undergoes an unnerving change of personality.

Seed is, in places, truly scary: there’s a sense of looming, growing menace that builds gradually to a horrific climax. But I found it an unsatisfactory and depressing experience, and I think that’s because of the utter helplessness of the Winter family: the sense that there’s no point in the novel at which they could change the outcome, escape what’s coming for them. It’s written in blood, carved in stone, generation after generation, and there’s no fixing it.

Which got me thinking about the horror novels that I like, and why I like them. Yes, I like there to be some possibility, at least, of a happy ending for one or more characters; I like some explanation of what and why and how; I like characters who have strength or charisma. Poor Jack’s a-broken, and though he does the best he can, he’s damned before the story starts.

2014/39: Cooking with Bones -- Jess Richards

With her enhanced mirror neuron pathways making her empathic, with her reflective skin that lets everyone project what they want to see, everyone she’s ever met must have left their trace in her very cells. All these traces have become the layers of who Maya is. Peel the layers off an onion, and at the heart of an onion … At the heart of an onion there’s nothing left but a sharp living smell. And the person who’s peeled away an onion is left with tears stinging their eyes and a pile of dead layers of skin. [loc. 2455]

Amber and Maya live a privileged life in the city of Paradon, where it’s eternally summer, until their parents decide that it’s time they were separated, time they went out to work. Unable to face the thought of separation, the girls run away to the coast. They find a cottage, apparently deserted, in the village of Seachant. Every morning, there is an offering of produce – dried fruit, honey, flour, spices, flowers – on the doorstep. All the clothes in the wardrobe are black, and the previous occupant has not taken her hairbrush with her.

In Seachant, it’s ten-year-old Kip’s turn to do the fair – the daily delivery of the village’s offerings to Old Kelp, in exchange for which they receive honeycakes, one per villager. Old Kelp is rumoured to be a witch: you mustn’t peer in through the windows, or speak about anything you’ve seen at the cottage, or you will be cursed.

Amber falls easily into this new life. She follows the guidance of a cookbook left behind by the cottage’s previous inhabitant. Amber notes, without melodrama, that the utensils in the kitchen are made from human bone, and that the recipes are as much about emotion as nutrition (“remember that the cooking of a Nameless Pie may result in something or someone being named, and their identity brought to the fore …Cramp the edges with the prongs of a fork, constrict the surface with milk, and restrict with caster sugar.” [loc. 4294]) Maya, though, finds life outside the city much harder. She is a ‘formwanderer’, a ‘mirror of want’: engineered to reflect (literally and metaphorically) the desires of anyone she meets. Here in Old Kelp’s cottage, she has only Amber’s wants to mirror, and Amber doesn’t seem to want Maya at all any more.

And there’s Dead Red in the shed …

Cooking with Bones is a complex and fascinating novel, though on reflection I suspect it could have been blended a bit better, or baked a little longer: it feels as though there are too many ingredients. There is Kip’s exclusion by the other children, Amber’s joy in the increasing weight and softness of her body, and Maya’s bleak, lyrical confusion. (“All of the stars are alive. There are smells that are the clang of great bells, and music made from dark blue. There are clouds of echo-pulses and the tastes of winter frost.” [loc. 4811]) There is the mystery of a dead woman in a crimson dress whose disappearance has gone unnoticed. There are graves among the whispering fir trees behind the house, rumours of an epidemic that hit the countryside much harder than the city, fragments of future history that explain Seachant’s isolation, stories about the policeman who came once…

I’d have liked fewer plot threads and more examination of the future in which Cooking with Bones is set. Richards barely acknowledges the dangers of creating a person who has to be what each person, meeting her, really wants. There’s little, once the sisters have left Paradon, about the sterile, glossy city life or how it meshes with the country around it. (The passage from Paradon-summer to the world’s winter is a powerful image: I want more.) In some ways Seachant feels post-apocalyptic: in others, it could be a remote contemporary seaside town, complete with holiday cottages and small-town scandals and a plethora of craft shops.

But I liked Cooking with Bones a great deal: for all its flaws, it is beautiful, and poetic, and wise. Maya the mirror, paradoxically, is a truly original character, prone to unexpected observations and insightful aphorisms: perhaps this book is simply about her learning to be herself for the first time. If so, it’s about Amber learning to do the same, and Kip, and even some of the villagers.

… hope. It’s not found in a place, or in anyone else. It isn’t anything we can imagine or design. It’s found when there are no mirrors reflecting what we believe we want to see. [loc. 4813]

Sunday, November 02, 2014

2014/38: The Magician's Land -- Lev Grossman

This was a double game: he was trying to save his childhood, to preserve it and trap it in amber, but to do that he was calling on things that partook of the world beyond childhood, whose touch would leave him even less innocent than he already was.

Two months after the US publication of Lev Grossman's eagerly-awaited The Magician's Land, third in the 'Magicians' trilogy, a legitimate UK Kindle edition finally became available. I wish I hadn't had to wait …

At the end of The Magician King, Quentin Coldwater was expelled from Fillory for taking responsibility for Julia's actions. The first chapter of The Magician's Land shows us Quentin six months later, embarking on a magical heist of dubious morality in order to accrue personal wealth. Only when we discover what's happened to him in the intervening period does his motivation become clear -- and, because nothing in these novels is straightforward, the heist acquires considerably more significance when he discovers that the item he and his con-conspirators are to steal is a suitcase that formerly belonged to Rupert Chatwin, one of the children who originally discovered Fillory.

Quentin, slumming it in mundane contemporary America, suffers bereavement and betrayal, and finds himself revisiting past failures. The things he gains – a Discipline, a job, a page of arcanum – seem at first small recompense for what he's lost: but he's learning to accept responsibility, and he finds meaningful work that enables him to make a positive difference.

Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot is being High King as hard as he can ("At times like this he wanted to look as much as possible like Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, from The Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t think he was a million miles off base") but he, and his fellow monarchs Janet, Josh and Poppy, can't deny that something is amiss in Fillory. There's an endless summer, an army invading despite magical barriers, and a series of doomy pronouncements from the ram-god Ember.

Perhaps there's something in Rupert Chatwin's suitcase that can help ...

The Magician's Land examines the dark underside of the Narnia Fillory stories, and how they've torn apart the Chatwin family. We learn more about Martin Chatwin and his loss of innocence, and about what became of the other Chatwin children (though, oddly, there's no mention of their parents' return or fate). There's more magical theory, theological debate and cosmological description. There's plenty more of the kind of black humour you get when hip young things from New York City encounter the fantastic. And, from time to time, we get to see Quentin as others see him, which is in a considerably more positive light than his own narrative suggests. (Apparently he is even good-looking.)

Most of the primary characters from the previous two novels appear, and most achieve some kind of resolution or closure. There's even a kind of closure -- or at least a change of state -- for the world (land?) of Fillory.

I found this a thoroughly satisfactory finale to the trilogy, and though I'm sad that there (probably) won't be more about these characters -- especially Janet, who really came into her own here -- I'm pleased that Lev Grossman has concluded the story he set out to tell.

2014/37: The Bone Clocks -- David Mitchell

...a terrible wasting disease called mortality. There’s a lot of it about. The young hold out for a time, but eventually even the hardiest patient gets reduced to a desiccated embryo, a Strudlebug … a veined, scrawny, dribbling … bone clock, whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.

I have bounced off a few of Mitchell's novels, but now am inclined to try them again, because I adored this – and I'm fairly sure, given a few references I recognised (to Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), that it's entwined with at least some of his previous work.

It does feature one of the elements that exasperated me in Cloud Atlas: a section told by a pompous and petty-minded middle-class, middle-aged male novelist. Crispin Hershey, at least, has enough of a nasty streak that he affects events quite drastically -- and I do feel some kinship with a man whose idea of a vicious takedown is to expose a fellow novelist as having purchased a Dan Brown novel. "‘And don’t say it was “just for research”, Aphra, because it won’t wash.'" Plenty of roman a clef here, too, with thinly-disguised literary figures popping up all over the place.

The Bone Clocks deals, in part, with Dan Brown territory (ancient wisdom! Cathars! Labyrinths! Conspiracies! Weird thingies!) but with a wholly different affect: the mystical elements are presented as matter-of-factly as Holly Sykes' argument with her mum, and with considerably less fireworks than Hugo Lamb's splendidly-rhymed visits to assorted (imaginary) Cambridge pubs.

The novel begins in 1984 with Holly Sykes, 16, who discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her and runs away from the pub in Gravesend where she lives, out along the Thames estuary towards the distant sea. It ends sixty years later, on the west coast of Ireland, in a credibly dystopian, post-oil future. Holly is a constant: so are others (Hugo Lamb, Marinus, Esther Little), though they may not always be wearing the same faces or using the same names.

The Bone Clocks weaves together several different characters and their stories, exploring many different themes: the war reporter who puts his work before his family, the novelist who plays a trivial joke on a colleague with unexpected repercussions, the sociopath who accidentally acquires the knowledge that will save him, the poet who believes that Crispin Hershey's patronage can help her save the world … Everything is connected, everything is part of the larger story, and even the cryptic utterances of Esther and her colleagues ("When Sibelius is smashed into little pieces, at three on the Day of the Star of Riga, you’ll know I’m near …") slot neatly into place in a great, inhumanly long Game. If there's an overarcing theme, it might be 'what we sacrifice to remain human'... or possibly just 'what we sacrifice to remain'.

SF or fantasy? Hard to say. The near future, the Endarkenment, that Mitchell predicts, with its gigastorms and pandemics and refugees, certainly has elements of the former: the Anchorites and the Sojourners seem more fantastical, though their origins are explained clearly enough. That said, it's no less Sfnal than, for instance, Iain no-M Banks' Transition. Mitchell's not afraid to coin neologisms, though I'm not convinced 'device' as a verb (to replace 'phone' and possibly 'email') will ever catch on. But what do I know? I live in the present.

Why did I like The Bone Clocks so much? Possibly simply because it's jammed -- no, packed tightly and neatly, Tetris-style -- with cool ideas, well-rounded characters and thoughtful examination, leavened with plenty of humour. (A character seeks his daughter in a Brighton hotel and inadvertently finds himself in the midst of an SF convention: "I pass a Dalek blasting out the lines ‘Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’".) Not every thread is neatly tied off; some themes aren't examined in sufficient depth; some plot elements remain unexplained. Amidst the fine writing, wordplay and innovation are metaphors that puzzle me ('the wood is Bluetoothed with birdsong': er, what?) But … I loved it: I found it moving at times, annoying at others (see above under 'Crispin Hershey') and unexpectedly chilling. And, as a writer, inspirational because it reminded me of how words can be wielded.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

2014/36: All the Truth that's In Me -- Julie Berry

What do I care if it’s shocking? I am shocking. What was done to me was shocking. I am outside the boundaries for ever, no longer decent. I will leave grapes for you in your own home.

This is a novel for young adults (it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal) set in Puritan revolutionary America, somewhere in New England. Four years ago, two girls went missing from the small town of Roswell Station: two years ago, Judith Finch stumbled home, unable to speak of what had happened to her. Half her tongue had been cut out.

Judith, the narrator of this novel, is forced to silence, but she observes those around her with a keen eye. The townsfolk eye her askance: they believe that she was abducted and abused by a stranger, and they punish her for her perceived impurity. There's no pity here. “You’re only alive because you’ve got no tongue,” he says. “Otherwise you’d be punished for adultery." Judith alone knows the truth of what happened to her, and to Lottie Pratt whose naked body washed up in the river. And she's unable to tell anyone: unwilling, too, to recount her story, even if she could.

The novel is effectively a love letter to Lucas Whiting, the boy who Judith loved before she – before. Though much of the narrative is first-person, we never lose sight of the 'you' to whom it's addressed. Lucas isn't as suspicious of Judith as most of the townsfolk are: her own mother regards her as a nuisance, a disturbance, and never shows any warmth. (She seems to blame Judith for her father's death, which occurred while Judith was missing.) Judith's brother Darrel, though initially falling in with their mother's opinion, grows up over the course of the novel, and begins to share his books with her. Judith is especially taken with the story of Joan of Arc: 'There’s a lesson in it for would-be heroes. The people you save won’t celebrate you. They’ll gather the wood and cheer while you burn.' Another ally is Maria, Lucas' fiancee, who befriends Judith and helps her to reclaim her voice.

Which would be a novel in itself: silenced women, female friendship, unrequited love. But there's more. When Roswell Station is attacked, Judith realises that there is only one man who can help defend the town: her captor, who lives in a hidden cave in the woods …

Often poetic and sometimes very moving -- especially when Judith speaks out to the assembled townsfolk -- All the Truth That's In Me is a complex story told in an unusual voice, with excellent pacing and just enough information to keep the reader guessing about what might have happened to Judith.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

2014/35: Silt -- Robert Macfarlane

I subdued the alarm my brain was raising at the idea of walking out to sea fully clothed, as only suicides do.

Silt, sold as a 'Penguin Special' for under a pound, is a single chapter from Macfarlane's The Old Ways, illustrated with photographs taken on the Broomway by David Quentin. I bought this on a whim whilst sitting on a beach about three miles from where the Broomway (an ancient track that leads across estuarial mudflats from Wakering to Foulness Island) begins: I read it while savouring the light and space of that corner of coast. Unlike many of the Broomway's victims over the years -- it can only be traversed when low tide and daylight align -- I grew up knowing that the tide comes in over those sands faster than a man can run, and that the weird light and silence can disorient even an experienced mud-walker.

Quentin is also a lawyer and in his afterword, he discusses the legal quagmires that surround ancient pathways such as the Broomway. "Just as Rob is fascinated by the historic and topographic characteristics of ways in the real world and in the world of the human soul, I am fascinated by the jurisprudential characteristics of ways as they subsist only in the legal overlay; the characteristics of your ongoing status as non-trespasser as you pass and repass lawfully over what would otherwise be private land." I hadn't known that there is no public right-of-way on the foreshore (the bit between high tide and low tide) … except where there is a public highway, such as the Broomway. Over the years, there have been various attempts to modify this law: does a 'public highway' have to lead somewhere, or can it be (as the Broomway effectively is, public access to Foulness Island being restricted by the Ministry of Defence) a dead end?

A quick, evocative read: now I must dig out and read The Old Ways in full.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

2014/34: Numb -- Sean Ferrell

She said, “I never want to see you again.” She said it without any edge or tone. It was the most perfect thing anyone had ever said to me. I remained surrounded by strangers who couldn’t get enough of me, and intimate friends who couldn’t stand the sight of me.

The nameless, amnesiac protagonist of this novel is nicknamed 'Numb' because he doesn't feel pain. This, and the happenstance of his encounter with Mr Tilly's Circus one scorching day in Texas, provides him with a new career: a circus performer who pounds nails through his own flesh, becomes a human dartboard, and wrestles with an elderly lion.

It's the lion (weary and sick) that makes him leave: he runs away from the circus, heading for New York City in search of his past. He's accompanied by Mal, a fellow circus artiste: but Mal quickly becomes peripheral to Numb's new life, and jealous of the success –- a beautiful girlfriend, a swift ascent to celebrity on the media carousel, intriguing leads that might reveal his past life –- and ends up pushing his own limits further than is wise.

There's a point at which Numb wonders whether his knowing Mal is bad for his girlfriend Hiko. I'd go one step further and say that knowing Numb is bad for everyone. He's immune to pain, but he's also apparently immune to human emotion. Oh, he gradually realises that he needs pain, needs to be able to feel, that being numb is no kind of life at all: but that's too late for most of the people who've become close to him.

There were some interesting ideas in this novel, but on the whole I can't say I enjoyed it, or that I liked any of the characters.

2014/33: The Secret Place -- Tana French

...they barely know he’s there. They feel someone, the green fizz and force of him, the same way they feel hot patches of it pulsing all across the Field; but if you closed their eyes and asked them who it was, none of them would be able to name Chris. He has six months, three weeks and a day left to live.

It's a year since Chris Harper's body was discovered in the grounds of St Kilda's, an elite girls' school. He was sixteen when he was killed: a pupil at Colm's, the neighbouring boys' school: well-liked, popular, good-looking, average. His murderer has never been identified.

Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (who's featured in previous Tana French novels), pays a visit to her father's colleague Stephen Moran, with new evidence. St Kilda's has a 'Secret Place', a board where girls can pin anonymous confessions and thoughts. Last night, someone put up a photo of Chris Harper with 'I know who killed him' pasted across it.

Moran is desperate to get into the Murder Squad, so ingratiates himself with Antoinette Conway, the prickly and unpartnered detective in charge of the case. Both from working-class backgrounds, the two are oddly vulnerable to, easily wrongfooted by the privilege and elitism they encounter at St Kilda's. Over the course of a single day, though, they untangle a very knotted web of deceit and motivation to reveal who wielded the murder weapon.

Alternating with their investigations are chapters covering the last months of Chris Harper's life, though -- as in the excerpt quoted above -- he's not a protagonist. Holly and her three close friends (Selena, Julia and Becca) navigate the peaks and troughs of teenage life in the claustrophobic, mercurial atmosphere of the school. Their nemeses, Joanne Heffernan, and her three cronies, discover that Holly's group like to sneak out at night and visit a cypress grove in the grounds. (Another 'secret place': and of course there's the girls' own bodies, suddenly becoming attractive to the opposite sex.) Blackmail, viciousness and rumour proliferate. It doesn't help that Holly & co have sworn off relationships after Julia is targetted by a boy she turned down. In the eyes of their classmates, they have committed the cardinal sin of not being Normal. From there to accusations of murder and witchcraft is a small step for a teenage drama queen.

Tana French captures the loving friendship -- and its converse, the spiteful animosity -- of teenage girls. Their sense of outrage as they discover the 'mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them'; the feeling that, as a young woman, you should be scared of and worried about every aspect of your life; the ecstatic intimacy of a shared secret – all sharply and crisply conveyed. God, I'm glad my teenage years are far and firmly in my past.

So, 'who wielded the murder weapon'? Because this is a Tana French novel, I've phrased that very deliberately. As in French's previous novels, there are strange things happening -- most of them unknown to Moran and Conway, and only revealed in the alternating chapters that focus on Holly and her friends -- and, again as in previous novels, much is left unexplained. If you read The Secret Place as a straightforward murder mystery, I suspect it'll be a beautifully-written disappointment*. If, like me, your mind pricks up when someone mentions the hyacinths left on Chris Harper's body (and if, like me, you suspect that naming your daughter 'Selena' is asking for trouble) then you'll find this a fascinating and chilling account of the mythic colliding with mundane life.

*a quick glance at reviews on Amazon confirms this. Though some people didn't like the prose either.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

2014/32: The Islands of Chaldea – Diana Wynne Jones with Ursula Jones

The Lady Loma seemed to cast a shadow across the beasts as they came near her, and that shadow showed another shadow inside each donkey, a shadow bent and skinny, with only two legs. I was pretty sure those donkeys had once been men and women. And I was very frightened indeed. I just hoped my aunt would be a bit more polite when she saw the shadows too. But Aunt Beck didn’t seem to notice.

Diana's last novel features many of the themes familiar from her earlier work: young women with self-esteem issues, ancient secrets, apparently mundane companions who aren't what they seem, animals with attitude, and a lot of humour.

Aileen, like all the women of her family – the Wise Women of Skarr, who marry off their male children outside the family -- went to the Place when she turned twelve. Unlike her relatives, she didn't have a vision: her only surviving female relative, Aunt Beck, will just have to carry on being the Wise Woman. Aileen's mother is dead and her father is lost. He may be on one of the other Islands -- Bernica, or Gallis, or Logra – though Logra has been unreachable for the last decade due to murky sorcery. This means, too, that the magical Guardian of the East has become separated from the other Guardians, which does not bode well for anybody.

Aileen ends up accompanying her aunt, and a motley collection of followers, on a mission to rescue the kidnapped High Prince from Logra. It quickly becomes apparent that their pre-mission briefing was somewhat incomplete: why else would the money-bag be full of stones, the ship's captain over-keen to maroon them on a deserted island, and the evil stepmother's attempt to poison Aileen's cousin, young Ivar …

Aileen's true powers, and the fate of her father (not to mention the natures of several of her travelling companions) are revealed gradually, and the ending of the novel is satisfying unless you are rooting for the other side.

I couldn't spot the joins where Ursula Jones, Diana's sister, had picked up her unfinished draft: I did wonder if the climax was a little more abrupt that DWJ would have written it, but then I remembered plenty of counter-examples. The Islands of Chaldea isn't in my top five DWJ novels*, but there is stiff competition and it's by no means the least appealing of her works.

*If you're interested: Eight Days of Luke, Dogsbody, Hexwood, Howl's Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

2014/31: Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein

I WILL TELL THE WORLD. I say that so fiercely. I say it with such conviction, such determined anger. But I couldn't even tell Mother, could I? A few pages ago I vowed I wouldn't tell Mother. How can I possibly tell the world?

I enjoyed Code Name Verity immensely, despite the grimness of Julie's story: on visiting an airshow this summer and seeing Spitfires and a Lancaster, I was reminded that I had an e-copy of Elizabeth Wein's second novel about women in WW2.

It is considerably more harrowing than Code Name Verity, being set largely in a concentration camp (I'm not sure I would have started reading if I'd known / remembered this!): but it is also unexpectedly hopeful, with themes of redemption and atonement and compassionate humanity to counter the bleak cruelty of the camp. Again, the main characters are all young women: Rose, an American pilot; Ró?a, a camp inmate; and Anna, a guard at the camp. The story's told from Rose's point of view, and is punctuated by poetry, very much in the style of Edna St Vincent Millay (whose works are also quoted). It takes her from the wedding of her friend Maddie (who featured in Code Name Verity) to the Nuremberg Trials. But really, it begins with the funeral of Celia, another ATA pilot who died trying to take down a V-1 flying bomb with her wingtip.

The memory of that lingers in Rose's mind: she attempts to emulate it (and succeeds), which leads to her own downfall. And later, in a German factory, she finds herself unable to work on the assembly line, making fuses for those bombs.

The scenes in the Ravensbruck camp are appalling: they are based on survivors' accounts. In her afterword, Elizabeth Wein writes 'My book is fiction, but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses - those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.' In such a situation even the smallest acts of humanity, whether from the guards or other prisoners, are treasured. And despite the horrors of the regime, love and selflessness are not wholly absent. Hence Rose's survival.

The descriptions of flying are as evocative and magical as in Code Name Verity, and I was fascinated by the glimpses of everyday life during wartime: London buses without their windows ('they take the glass out on purpose - people would rather sit in the wind than risk windows exploding in their faces'), small boys hunting for souvenirs at crash sites, buzzing the Eiffel Tower on VE Day. And the darker side of war, too: Wein does not gloss over brutality. It's apparently intended for young adults, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to a younger teen. The moral landscape is far from monochrome: Anna, in particular, is certainly not a caricature. And perhaps it would have been easier to end on Rose's departure from Ravensbruck: but there is so much more after that.

Made me cry, beautifully written, brought home just how grim the prison camps were. (My previous mental pictures were drawn largely from war films such as The Great Escape.) Rose Under Fire also made me want to research the internment camps in France in WW2: my grandmother and father were interned in one, and I don't even know which.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014/30: Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

The country for miles, under the blanket of the dark which brought no peace, was in its annual tortured ferment of spring growth; worm jarred with worm and seed with seed. Frond leapt on root and hare on hare. Beetle and finch-fly were not spared. The trout-sperm in the muddy hollow under Nettle Flitch Weir were agitated, and well they might be. The long screams of the hunting owls tore across the night, scarlet lines on black. In the pauses, every ten minutes, they mated. It seemed chaotic, but it was more methodically arranged than you might think. [p.45]

Reread, because it is lovely and witty and dry. Flora, orphaned and impecunious, throws herself on the mercy of her Starkadder relatives, who farm at Cold Comfort (somewhere in the South Downs) and incarnate a great many stereotypes of rural life. "'...highly-sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like.' Mrs Smiling said sombrely: 'I hope there will be a bathroom. ' "[p. 22]

Flora is a practical young woman with no time for the dreary romantic meanderings of young Elfine, or the mollocking ("What does mollocking mean?? No, you need not tell me. I can guess.") Seth, or the tragic Miss Judith laying out her cards in the attic. Not given to metaphor or melodrama, Flora bursts upon the Starkadders and - apparently immune to the bestial forces of nature, and the emotional excesses of the Romantics - transforms their lives. The mundanity of their secret hopes and dreams revealed, Seth and Elfine leave the cloying confines of their ancestral home, and Aunt Ada emerges from the attic at last ?

Cold Comfort Farm, written in 1932, is set in The Future: there are video phones (though public callboxes are not fitted with a 'television dial'); Flora's suitor, Claud, is a veteran of the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46; postal deliveries arrive by air. In other ways, though, it's very much a novel of the interwar period. There's a general sense of placid contentment. Seth's secret vice is Hollywood movies, which he sneaks out to the village to see at the cinema. Elfine, without Flora's intervention, will likely 'keep a tea-room in Brighton and go all arty-and-crafty about the feet and waist'. Despite the mod cons of London life (and I have a special love of Mrs Smiling's brassiere collection, 'the largest and finest in the world') technology doesn't really impinge on the Starkadders. They still, after all, wash the dishes with twigs. Rural life, as portrayed in Cold Comfort Farm, is carnal and covert and full of dark looks. There is a great deal of mollocking.

Gibbons' prose is often hilarious, but she has the gift of insightful metaphor: the novel's full of vivid images, for instance 'the wet fields fanged abruptly with flints'. She takes (and gives) pleasure in luxuriant sentences: 'the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables.'

One day I must read her other novels.

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014/28: The Grass King's Concubine – Kari Sperring

She had come to the steppe in search of her past and of her shining place, of the line and deeds that had begotten her wealth, her status and of the dream she had clung to. She had expected to find records, memories, old tales. Instead… The past, the myths she dreamed of, had been looking for her, too. [p. 271]

Aged six, Aude Pèlerin des Puiz catches a glimpse of a shining world during an earthquake. The vision haunts her as she grows to adulthood, counterbalancing the humdrum privilege of her quotidian life. Aude is, if you like, one of the 1%: her family is wealthy, and she lives in her uncle's Silver City house for years before she begins to take an interest in the Brass City working class whose labour provides her luxuries.

Falling in with Jehan Favre, a Brass City soldier with revolutionary tendencies, Aude flees the city (and imminent marriage to a scrawny, sallow young nobleman) in search of her family's history. Somewhere out on the steppes is the secret to their success. And perhaps she can also find the shining world she glimpsed as a child, which the writings of the scholar Marcellan have told her is the domain of the Grass King: WorldBelow.

But the Grass King has his own agenda: his concubine, Tsai, who controlled the waters, is fading. The Grass King and his Cadre – inhuman warriors, each with his or her own affinity – seek restitution. Aude is abducted and taken to the Grass King's court in the Rice Palace.

Fortunately, Jehan has attracted the attention of two individuals who wish to free Marcellan himself from the Grass King's court. Yelena and Julana are not witches: they are (delightfully) ferret-women, quick and cunning and prone to bite, and they are willing to act as Jehan's guides in exchange for his help. Marcellan's writings, it turns out, have been more widely read than he could have hoped. Between Aude's ancestors' land-grabbing and river-damming in WorldAbove, and Marcellan's introduction of human technology and rationality into WorldBelow, everything is imbalanced, withering in unnatural drought.

That summary omits a great deal: The Grass King's Concubine is a many-layered book told from three viewpoints (Aude, Jehan, the ferret women) and constructed from (at least) two distinct timelines. It's a complex and slow-paced novel, tremendously atmospheric: from the clamorous mills of the Brass City (reminiscent of revolutionary France) to the sewers of the distinctly Oriental Rice Palace, every scene is rich with sensory detail.

As in Living with Ghosts, water plays a vital role in this novel: but here it's the lack of it, drought rather than flood, that drives the narrative. There are folk-tale resonances and echoes of mythology, entwined with the introduction of technology – I was especially fascinated by Liyan's clepsydra, or water-clock – into the dreaming peace of WorldBelow, and with the religious observances of WorldAbove.

The characters have distinctive voices, and their motives and actions, as in the mundane world, lead to unforeseen outcomes. Good intentions are no excuse: the sins of the ancestors shall be visited on their descendants. And yet, amends can be made. On one level the novel's ending feels incomplete: on other, deeper levels, closure is achieved. The Grass King's Concubine is not a quick or an easy read, but I found it thought-provoking and beautifully written.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

on Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

This essay originally appeared in Pete Young's Big Sky fanzine, August 2014.

The Left Hand of Darkness reveals something new on each reread. The first time I read it, I was fascinated by Gethenian androgyny: the second time, the narrative of the journey across the glacier drew me in. (Years later, I'd wonder why I felt such a sense of familiarity on first reading Shackleton's South and Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, both accounts of Antarctic expeditions.) On subsequent readings, I became engrossed in the politics of Karhide, and the concept of shifgrethor (face, pride, prestige); in the parallels between Orgoreyn and the USSR; on religion and the nature of Foretelling, the 'tamed hunch' which produces accurate prophecy; on Genly Ai, the primary narrator, and his innate prejudices.

But again and again I return to Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, whose fall from King's Ear to political exile forms one arc of the novel. Genly Ai's mission, to persuade Gethen to join the interplanetary coalition of the Ekumen, succeeds because of Estraven: I think it's significant that the novel begins not with the beginning of Ai's mission, but with the initial rumours of Estraven's fall from grace.

Estraven's background is lightly sketched. His brother Arek, whom he loved dearly, has been dead for fourteen years; Estraven left home because of him. He has three sons: two by Ashe Foreth, and one, Sorve, who still lives in Estraven's ancestral home with Estraven's parent, Esvans.

To complicate matters, there's a 'hearth tale' which recounts the story of another Arek and another Therem, mortal foes who vowed kemmering (as close as Gethenians get to marriage). The first Therem bore a child; the first Arek was slain by Therem's kinsfolk. Unsettlingly, the name of the first Therem's father was Sorve. One can't help but wonder what Esvans was thinking when he named them. That story is hardly auspicious.

The concept of 'parent-in-the-flesh' is a necessary consequence of Gethenian physiology. All Gethenians are androgyne, neuter, except for the few days per month when they're in kemmer. Hormonal secretions determine whether an individual adopts the male or female role during kemmer. ('No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more'.) If conception occurs, the person in the female role will bear the child, and will be the 'parent-in-the-flesh'.

The two children Estraven and Ashe had together were 'born of [Ashe's] flesh': I don't believe they're ever named, and Estraven's contact with them is minimal. In contrast, he writes long letters to his other son Sorve (whose name, of course, reflects the parent in the old hearth-tale). Why the inconsistency? We learn in the final pages of the novel that Sorve is the child conceived by Estraven and his brother Arek. Incest isn't prohibited, but full siblings can't vow kemmer: which is probably the cause of Estraven's first exile, from his homeland. Is Estraven's attachment to Sorve simply an attachment to the child of his dead brother, or is there something more? If Estraven is Sorve's 'parent-in-the-flesh', perhaps Le Guin is using their relationship to demonstrate the aspect of Estraven that Genly Ai struggles to see: his femininity.

"Impossible to think of him as a woman," muses Genly in the first chapter of the novel, yet Estraven -- like all Gethenians -- is both man and woman. Only when Genly accepts his friend's nature does he realise how little he understands women, half of humanity. (One hopes that the views he expresses in his journal are more indicative of the novel's publication date than future in which it's set.) It's Estraven's profound humanism that drives him to support Genly Ai's attempt to integrate Gethen with the rest of the human species: and it's a tragedy on the grandest scale that Estraven doesn't live to see his hopes fulfilled, to learn about 'the other worlds out among the stars, the other kinds of men, the other lives'.

Monday, July 07, 2014

2014/27: Wake -- Elizabeth Knox

And whose thought was that anyway—about the trigger being an open quote? Dan might occasionally use air quotes, but he wasn’t very confident about how to use quote marks on paper. It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg. [loc.2613]
One weekday morning, almost all of the inhabitants of Kahukura are plunged into madness. Silently, they commit nonsensical atrocities upon themselves and one another. Then they go still. Then they die. And then the survivors, dazed, find that they are locked in with the bodies of the dead: there is an impermeable barrier around the town.

Knox knows her precedents, as we're reminded by teenager Oscar, who has recently 'watched a whole season of Lost; played Oblivion, and Bioshock, and Mass Effect—' [loc.1328]. There is a rag-tag group of survivors -- though, really, their 'survival' is more a case of being immune to the phenomenon -- including a star athlete, an American lawyer, a capable but overwhelmed policewoman, an intellectually-disabled (or mentally ill?) care worker, a fisherman. There is a Mystery: the 'No-Go', the invisible bubble that separates them from the rest of the world. Isolation and confusion, the grim work of burial, the need to share resources, the interpersonal frictions: all standard. Wake might initially seem to be another take on the zombie trope, but once the initial mania has passed it's more science-fictional than that. (One character is described as being 'like Superman, or the Doctor; one of those judicious, sequestered aliens of fiction' [loc.3787]).

It's a very New Zealand novel. Disclaimer: I am not a New Zealander. But I've visited Mapua, which in the novel is near Kahukura and which has the same ambience; and I've talked at length with New Zealand friends about their culture and society. Wake features a kakapo preserve with predator-proof fencing (the No-Go bulges slightly, so that the preserve is wholly within the quarantined area). Maori words, untranslated, are scattered through the novel: one of the characters is Maori. And Kahukura's cats are all being fed by the survivors. These are not just shades of local colour: they are all germane to the plot.

Knox's writing is compelling. Her images are clear, precise and surprising ('it seemed to him that he’d spent his life with his back to the sun and his face to a wall, writing on its white surface, working in his own shadow' [loc.4526]; 'his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall' [loc.122]; 'a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire' [loc.70]). And the gradual unfolding of the novel -- the secrets that everyone's kept close, the mysteries that have divorced them from the rest of the world -- is masterful. Best? worst? most tragic? of all is the revelation of the trap that has been laid. That's the aspect I couldn't stop thinking about: and I have decided not to write about it here.

Wake is a novel about what you hold onto when you have lost almost everything; about what you give up, when you have already given up hope.

We are creatures who learn, and something we learn is to fear for what we love. After the worst has happened our fears are retrospective. We keep trying to warn ourselves. Our now useless fears come and fly around our heads. They circle us, crying. The island they might have landed on, to roost, has vanished beneath the waves. What are our fears? They’re the only birds left in the air. The birds of drowned nests. [loc.905]

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

2014/29: The Calling -- Alison Bruce

‘I have this book too, and most of these in fact, and that picture, and at least half of your videos…’
‘And so does [my boyfriend].’
‘But I had them first. And I’ve watched him with you, and with your replacement, and now with the latest one. And he’s taken us all to the same places and tried to make us the same.’ [loc.2280]
Another novel in the DC Gary Goodhew series, which I started reading because of its Cambridge setting. Alison Bruce is a competent writer who constructs twisty plots with red herrings aplenty. The Calling is less Cambridge-oriented than some of the others, but there were plenty of familiar landmarks (the Flying Pig, Parker's Piece).

Kaye Whiting is found dead, drowned, bound and gagged. Tests show that she was alive for a couple of days after being abandoned at the lakeside. Goodhew's certain that there have been other similar cases of young women left where they might or might not be found in time. As usual, he interprets his orders in a way that lets him get on with what he thinks is relevant: and, as usual, he's right.

The mindset of the murderer is intriguing, nasty and all too credible: the supporting characters are distinct, with their own motivations and interpretations. A compelling, if not exactly cheerful, read.

2014/26: A Monster Calls -- Patrick Ness

Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both. [loc. 1727]
Conor O'Malley, whose mother has cancer, whose father has emigrated to America with his new family and no place for Conor, whose best friend told everyone at school about Conor's mum being ill, which isolated him ... Conor is visited, at seven minutes past midnight, by a monster. It's not the nightmare-spawned monster he was expecting, though: it's something like a yew tree, something like an old god, and it wants to tell Conor three stories and have him tell one, truthful, story in return.

It's too early for grief, so Conor is fuelled by rage. He hates his grandmother; hates his dad's new family; hates his schoolmates, who -- in an acutely painful episode -- taunt him that they don't (won't) see him. The monster teaches him some important lessons about loss, and faith, and love: and in the end Conor does come up with the truth.

Patrick Ness wrote this, but it was Siobhan Dowd's idea -- perhaps inspired by her own cancer, which killed her in 2007. Apparently the illustrations are dark and grim: reading the Kindle deprived me of, or spared me from, those. (C'mon, Amazon: book illustrations aren't difficult.) The book itself is pretty harrowing: it took me back to the winter I was 10, when my mother was in hospital and nobody would tell me what was really going on. I'm not sure I would have benefitted from reading A Monster Calls at that age, though it's assigned reading in Year 7 in some schools. I think it would just have made me angrier.

I'm not sure I recognised how angry I'd been, that winter, until I read A Monster Calls.

Ness's style is plain and unsentimental, but never dull. The monster's voice is clear and poetic: Conor's is colloquial, credibly a teenage boy's. And, admirably, there is no happy ending, except for the calm that comes with acceptance.

2014/20-25: The Mountjoy books -- Elizabeth Aston

There’s an England that lurks in the imagination as much as in reality; an England of villages nestling among green hills, each with its inn, a church, a splendid manor house, Georgian houses and tiny thatched cottages, grouped around a village green.
The England of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. The England of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle, with imposters lurking within its imposing walls, of Downton Abbey with its family tensions and Gosford Park, full of scheming servants.
Trollope’s England, too, with sly or eccentric clerics, dangerous bishops and gentry families leading tranquil lives on the surface, but seething with disharmony and emotional turmoil within.
And also the England of Evelyn Waugh, of Nancy Mitford and Patrick O’Brian, a land that readers love to visit, an enchanting, deceiving landscape, rich with intrigue and scandal and a life so different from ours.
Imperfect, intriguing, full of ghosts and eccentrics and family values that startle modern minds – this is the England I’ve created for the Mountjoy novels. [from the author's website]

I had a sudden urge to reread these, and Kindle books make it easy to indulge such urges. True, the books are published under the name 'Elizabeth Aston' rather than 'Elizabeth Pewsey'; there are some conversion errors ('nave' instead of naïve, 'corning' instead of coming); and Amazon have unaccountably retitled Divine Comedy as The World, the Flesh and the Bishop (which, come to think of it, is slightly spoilery). But I do still love the slightly supernatural, often ironic portrayal of the English gentry. "Fresh from a hot bath she looked young, squeaky-clean and, thought Seton, very attractive. His feelings towards her were perhaps not a lot stronger than those he felt for a favourite dog; but then he liked dogs very much indeed." [Children of Chance, loc. 1924] And it's hard not to feel sympathy for those involved with the Mountjoy family -- with "their total lack of interest in the rest of the human race, and their unconcern for what other people thought about them" [Unholy Harmonies, loc. 900] -- as well as a masochistic fascination with the Mountjoys themselves.

Last time I reread these novels I was wondering when they were set -- and was misled by a description on Amazon of Children of Chance, which referred to the long hot summer of 1976. I think that's wrong. In Unaccustomed Spirits Cleo heads off to Hungary, which is experiencing political unrest (Hungarian uprising, 1959?), via the Air Terminal in Cromwell Rd (which closed in 1973). On the other hand, she's been sharing a house with two ghosts (one Elizabethan, one from the Civil War) whose favourite TV programme is Star Trek (first broadcast 1966). I have to conclude that the historical period in which the Mountjoy novels are set is simply The Past.

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014/19: Tigerman -- Nick Harkaway

He shouted ‘Stop!’ the way people do when something utterly awful is happening and will continue to happen whatever they say. There was no expectation that it would change anything, but it must be said. The human throat could not keep it inside. People said it to bombs and hurricanes and tsunamis and wildfires. The Sergeant had seen video footage, in 2001, of a woman standing on the street bellowing it at the Twin Towers. It never made any difference, and no one expected it to. It was the soul’s voice, in hell. [loc. 835]

Mancreu, a former British colony in the Arabian Sea which has earned the dubious privilege of being the first 'UNO-WHO Interventional Sacrifice Zone, a place so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire'. The island is plagued by Discharge Clouds -- spawned by mutant bacteria and toxic waste -- that transform everything they touch, not necessarily for the better. The island's days are numbered; the inhabitants are Leaving (always capitalised) one by one; and in the bay, a 'strange zone of legal limbo' has drawn a mass of unaffiliated shipping, from casinos to floating torture facilities, known as the Black Fleet.

Britain's sole remaining representative in Mancreu is Lester Ferris, better-known as 'the Sergeant'. The Sergeant's job is to do nothing, and be seen to be doing it. His amiable oversight and laissez-faire attitude takes a hit when his friend Shola is gunned down in the bar. The Sergeant is determined -- with the help of his 'kid partner', known only as 'the boy' -- to bring Shola's murderers to justice. The boy is a comics fan, and perhaps it's simply his constant talk of superheroes and cultural icons that sparks the invention of Tigerman.

you were chosen by the tiger[...]! There is no justice, there’s just us! When it is necessary ...’ The boy waved his arms again, now in a gesture which was either movie kung fu or the tricky business of changing costumes in a phone box. ‘When it is necessary: Tigerman!’ [loc. 1366]

Tigerman's adventures (far from heroic) uncover some truly nasty business that's conducted on the island: but his encounter with Bad Jack, who's initially presented as a malicious supernatural being but turns out to be horribly real, is perhaps the most damaging.

It was interesting to read this novel with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay still fresh in my mind. The comics / fandom culture of Tigerman is eighty years on from that of Kavalier and Clay, and thus more familiar to me: Harkaway peppers his novel with genre references (Hitch-Hiker's Guide, Captain America, Blade Runner, Space Invaders) and scenes that could come straight out of a comic. But there's deeper darker stuff going on here too: one of the themes this novel shares with Kavalier and Clay is that of the father. The Sergeant, having seen what becomes of refugees, would like to adopt the boy, but isn't sure whether the boy has living parents with a better claim. The relationship between the two -- weary soldier and exuberant child -- twists and morphs through the core of the novel.

Possibly that all sounds rather grim. Tigerman is also extremely funny, even when the humour is black as night: and when the boy's riffing on popular culture, there's a deceptively innocent enthusiasm that sparks from the page.
If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of 50 Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, the boy said, because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch. If you asked the boy, personally, he would say that Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes possessed fractionally more win, although no one could replace Basil Rathbone because he was entirely the godhead. [loc. 4457]

2014/18: Indexing -- Seanan McGuire

Everyone thinks of them in terms of poisoned apples and glass coffins, and forgets that they represent girls who walked into dark forests and remade them into their own reflections. Worse, they forget that we’re still remaking those reflections. The whole “woodland creatures” thing is a relatively recent addition to the tale, borrowed from Disney and internalized by so many children that it has actually modified the narrative itself. Even as the narrative drives us, so do we drive it. [loc. 3473]

The premise of Indexing is simple. Narrative is a powerful force that enforces fairy-tale archetypes by playing out the stories over and over again. Anyone can be shaped into a character from a story: memetic incursions can mould a child into a Wicked Stepsister or a Goldilocks. The ATI Management Bureau is dedicated to tracking and containing the incursions, and it uses the Aarne-Thompson classification system to categorise the stories as they manifest.

So: our narrator, Henrietta Marchen (known as Henry), is a seven-oh-nine -- Snow White, and also the daughter of a Sleeping Beauty -- and looks the part. White skin, red lips, black hair: "like a modern-day interpretation of Death," she says wryly, in a nod to Gaiman's Sandman. She has never tasted an apple.

Henry's team members are Jeff, a shoemaker's elf who likes to keep busy; Sloane, a Wicked Stepsister who likes to be a glorious bitch; and Andy, who isn't on the ATI spectrum at all, but who discovered the Bureau after an uncontrolled four-ten (Sleeping Beauty) caused the death of his brother. Together they fight crime subvert the power of story.

Indexing was originally published as a Kindle Serial, and there's an episodic feel to early chapters: first a Snow White incursion, then a Pied Piper, then a Goldilocks ... However, the overall story arc of Indexing encompasses the whole book, and the denouement brings all the stories together in unexpected ways. I was especially taken by the Snow White / Rose Red subplot, which involves Henry's identical twin brother Gerry, and with the Cheshire Cat. (Psychotropic claws, naturally.)

Indexing is entertaining -- occasionally laugh-out-loud funny -- but it's also an interesting take on metafiction and the ways in which stories are shaped and warped by the culture in which they're told. I especially liked Sloane's determination to recast her own story: "Maybe some kid was already dreaming up a Cinderella remix with guerilla fighters in place of stepsisters, and she could tap into that sweet vein of potential story." [loc. 4555]

2014/17: The Golem and the Djinni -- Helene Wecker

"Everyone else walks differently at night than during the day. Have you noticed?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “As though they’re fighting off sleep, or running away from it, even if they’re wide awake.”
“But not you,” he said. “You were lost, but you were walking as though the sun was high overhead.” [loc. 3320]

New York, 1899: a city that welcomes the huddled masses yearning to be free. Among the influx of immigrants are two exiles whose relationship with freedom is more complex than most.

The Djinni is a creature of fire and magic who has been imprisoned in a metal flask for the last millennium. Freed from the flask by a Syrian tinsmith -- though still bound in human form -- he adopts the name Ahmad and the profession of metal-worker: but this does not delight his mercurial spirit.

The Golem was created to be the perfect wife, but her husband died on the ship that was to bring them to their new life. Discovered by a kindly old Rabbi who suggests that she name herself Chava, she becomes a baker: this employment allows her to fulfil her primary function, which is to respond to the wishes of others.

Both pass for human, and both find partners: the Golem marries the Rabbi's idealistic nephew Michael, while the Djinni delights in seducing a young socialite who yearns for adventure. But the most important relationship each has is with the other. Neither needs to sleep, so they take long nocturnal walks together, debating theology and philosophy. The Djinni is tormented by his inability to recall the circumstances surrounding his capture, and by the magic that constrains him to his human form. The Golem is acutely aware of the danger she presents to others: she yearns for a master, finding freedom too terrifying a prospect.

Wecker presents a large cast of viewpoint characters, though the Golem and the Djinni remain the focus throughout. There's Saleh, a prosperous doctor in the old country until he encountered a very real case of possession, who's now a homeless ice-cream seller and can't look anyone in the eyes; there's the delightful Maryam Faddoul, who runs the coffeehouse that's the hub of Syrian social life in New York; there's the adventurous young heiress Sophia Winston, who is not the first woman to fall under the Djinni's spell; and there is the mysterious Joseph Schall, whose past holds secrets pertaining to both the Golem and the Djinni.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal: it reminded me, in places, of Helprin's A Winter's Tale. The two protagonists are a study in contrasts: male and female, fire and earth, liberty and duty, old world and new. They also share a well-founded distrust of (and fascination with) the humans they encounter: and both are bound by the need to conceal their true natures.

2014/16: The 10PM Question -- Kate De Goldi

“You’ve got to admire the technical skill,” said Uncle George, looking down at it too. “The precision really is magnificent. And then, it’s render unto Caesar—” “Okay, okay,” said Frankie. The Fat Controller had left a perfectly cleaned rat kidney and one complete rat eyeball. Her best work yet, Frankie noted with one part of his mind, even as he shuddered at the revoltingness of it. The kidney was a deep red-black, tiny and delicate as a semi-precious stone. It had the look of something licked to a high polish. [loc. 1593]

Set in a small South Island town in New Zealand, The 10PM Question is the story of 12-year-old Frankie. Frankie lives with his mother, his Uncle George, his older sister Gordana, and the Fat Controller (who is the family cat). He spends his time worrying: whether the batteries in the smoke alarm need changing; whether he really does have 'excessive female hormones' as his sister suggests; 'whether blowing a sustained forte passage on the trombone might accidentally trigger a brain haemorrhage'; whether his maths ability is on par for his age. But underneath it all, he is determinedly not worrying about the most important thing: why his mother Francie hasn't left the house for years. Every night at 10 p.m. Frankie goes into his mother's bedroom and asks her about his latest anxiety. Some of her answers are insightful; some are simply amusing.

Into Frankie's small, anxious world bursts new girl Sydney, a blithe extrovert who is curious about Frankie's home life. Sydney's approach to life makes Frankie question his own: and Sydney's questions frame Frankie as a person with answers, which helps to balance his own world view. And, as it turns out, Frankie isn't the only one with a problem parent.

This was an unexpectedly lovely read: some gorgeous lyrical writing, some extremely funny scenes, and an utterly credible protagonist. Frankie's 12 going on 50: his mind leaps from topic to topic in that disconnected way of pre-teens, but underlying it all there's a grinding sense of his burden of responsibility. The 10PM Question deals sensitively with mental health issues and doesn't pretend there are easy answers. (I was so glad the novel didn't end with a miraculous recovery or cure for Francie!) I'll look out for more by De Goldi.

2014/15: Soon I Will be Invincible -- Austin Grossman

When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes. [loc. 693]

Doctor Impossible, victim of a freak science accident, has tried to conquer the world twelve times and counting. At the start of the novel, he is incarcerated in a ridiculously high-security prison, reflecting on his achievements to date and fine-tuning his latest plan for world domination (and invincibility).

Meanwhile, the Champions -- a semi-retired bunch of media-savvy superheroes -- are welcoming a new recruit, Fatale. Terribly injured in a random accident, Fatale was recreated as a cyborg by a mysterious company called Protheon. She dreams about assembler code and wonders why she hasn't heard from Protheon in a while.

Doctor Impossible's latest plan for world domination is as grandiose as ever: but the Champions have another problem. Who killed Corefire, the mightiest of them all? And has Lily -- a woman of glass from the 35th century, once Doctor Impossible's lover -- truly switched sides?

I enjoyed this novel on a number of levels. It's an entertaining riff on superhero tropes (the supervillain island lair, the convoluted origin stories, the improbable science, the overprotective parents); there are sly references to real-world comics canon (Doctor Impossible's therapist is 'Steve, a sad-eyed Rogerian' [loc. 179]); Doctor Impossible himself is the uber-nerd, the sullen teenager eating lunch in the corner on his own, the revenge fantasy of everyone who's ever been shunned by the popular kids. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Soon I Will Be Invincible is that all the superpowered characters, heroes or villains, have mental health issues. (Though not all of these are what they first appear: Damsel's not bulimic, she's half-alien.) Grossman explores the notion that great power can stem from damage, that it can be a survival mechanism. 'There's a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.' [loc. 2085]

It's become a cliche to focus on the people behind the masks, but Grossman never loses sight of the human stories that underlie the larger-than-life, technicolour conflicts of heroes and villains. The Champions regularly slip up and use real names, rather than coded identities: Fatale nurses a helpless crush on Blackwolf: Doctor Impossible still wonders whether he ever really had a chance with his old schoolmate Erika.

There are some flaws in this book, and in its content. The characters' voices -- apart from Fatale and Doctor Impossible, dual narrators -- aren't especially distinct: at times they feel two-dimensional. There's a lot of backstory that's hinted at just enough to distract. And, content-wise, there are way too many typos. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book (or I'm the kind of reader) where you look for a pattern, a coded message, in the omitted letters.

No message found: so I'll stick with the metaphor of heroes as survivors.

When you can't bear something but it goes on anyway, the person who survives isn't you anymore; you've changed and become someone else, a new person, the one who did bear it after all.[loc. 1938]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2014/14: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Michael Chabon

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. "To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing... It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation." [p. 1]

I've owned this novel, in paperback, since about 2003. When I first tried to read it, I couldn't connect: I neither knew nor cared about the early years of the American comics industry, or the superhero phenomenon, or the Comics Code.

Fast-forward a decade or so, past Iron Man and Avengers and the Coursera Comic Books and Graphic Novels course and the mainstreaming of comics culture ... and suddenly, yes, the time is right for me to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Sam Clay is a first-generation New Yorker, fascinated by comics and by science, scraping a living as an illustrator for a novelty products company. One October night in 1939, his cousin Josef Kavalier turns up: Joe's come from Prague, fleeing the rise of Nazism. A student of magic and escapology, Joe's own escape to America riffs on the story of the Golem of Prague. And when he and Sam get together and start talking about comics, they quickly come up with the idea of a superhero of their own: the Escapist.

The Escapist, 'Champion of Freedom', is reminiscent of Captain America, of Batman, of the Scarlet Pimpernel: he's violently anti-fascist (why, yes, he does punch Hitler) and works with the League of the Golden Chain to free the oppressed and imprisoned. In parallel, Joe uses his (paltry) earnings from the comic to fund travel for refugee Jewish children. His aim is to bring his young brother to America, but this ends tragically, and Joe enlists with the hope of fighting Nazis hand-to-hand. This does not work out as he planned.

Meanwhile, Sam (increasingly successful as a comics artist) is wrestling with relationships of his own. He's gay (illegal at the time) and his sexuality blossoms in a brief, glorious affair with the star of the Escapist radio series and movie, but ultimately Sam opts for the safety of marriage. Though it's not actually as simple as that.

A theme that permeates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is father-son relationships. Chabon's response to Wertham's Comics Code -- which suggests that superheroes such as Batman have paedophilic relationships with their teenage sidekicks -- is that Robin, Bucky etc are looking not for sex but for father-figures. Joe and Sam both have complex relationships with their fathers; Joe's relationship with his own son (who he didn't know existed for many years) triggers resolution and reunites the eponymous pair.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a sprawling novel that eventually resolves all its characters and themes. It's occasionally very funny; more often, sad. I'm glad I didn't attempt to power through it before I was ready: I'm glad I still owned my copy when the time was right to read it.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

2014/13: God's War -- Kameron Hurley

... cutting women out was like cutting out a piece of yourself too. A society needed balance, Khos thought, but a society at balance was harder to control, and Umayma had been founded and built on the principles of control. You controlled the breeding, the sex, the death, the fucking blood that ran in your veins. [loc. 3859]
I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Umayma has been terraformed, and colonised for three thousand years, but is still only marginally habitable. The two suns blaze down on a heterogenous human population that has adapted to frequent skin cancers, stifling heat and giant bugs. The bugs, it must be said, serve a multitude of purposes: controlled by pheremone-producing 'magicians', they're used for energy, for communication, for processing. (It's unclear why 'traditional' technologies aren't in use.)

There are several nations on Umayma, two of which (Chenja and Nasheen) are engaged in a dirty chemical / biological war that has lasted for centuries. Nasheen is a matriarchy, where fourteen year old boys are sent off to the front: if they live to forty, they're allowed to come home. Chenja is considerably more conservative, where a woman's place is in the home. A Chenjan woman wouldn't dream of behaving like a Nasheenian -- especially not like Nyx, the protagonist of God's War, who is lewd, violent, and stubborn to a fault.

At the start of the novel Nyx is a bel dame, an authorised bounty hunter, but then an off-the-books job goes wrong, she's betrayed, and the bel dame Sisterhood casts her out. Fast-forward to Nyx's career as an unauthorised bounty hunter: she has a good team, including the Chenjan magician Rhys (the other protagonist), and Khos, a shape-shifter from Tirhan. At the behest of the Queen, Nyx and her crew hunt down a missing alien, a woman named Nikodem who may hold the secret to ending the war.

The plot of God's War is convoluted (and due to a freak Kindle accident I've lost my highlights): I won't discuss it further. It's the worldbuilding that fascinates me: Umayma has been colonised primarily by Islamic groups, but also by Christians and possibly Jews. One of the stated reasons for the presence of aliens on Umayma is 'they were very interested in finding other followers of the Kitab and its sister books. They have offered an exchange of technologies in the spirit of our shared faith' [loc. 1678]. A little later, they refer to the Umayman interpretation of 'the Kitab and its sister books' as 'exceeingly unique' [loc. 1720]. Nasheen and Chenja are both aspects of the same belief system, and Hurley does an excellent job of showing the pros and cons of both. Better still, this is not the main focus of the novel. Nor is the apparent gender inversion of Nasheen, where the women are dominant and the men (well, 'boys', presumably in the same sense that grown women are referred to as 'girls' in our own culture) who've avoided the draft are concubines or possessions. If the whole of Umayma was a matriarchy, it might count as reversal: but it's not, and the frequent conflicts between Nyx and Rhys (and to some extent Nyx and Khos) demonstrate the damage caused by the gender roles their cultures have imposed.

In summary: people argue a lot in this novel.

I'm most fascinated by the shifters, in particular Khos. Shapeshifting (which sounds much more gruesome than the average CGI depiction: the pictures are always better in prose) is a human mutation unique to Umayma. ('the First Families used to call them angels' [loc. 2696]) The aliens have spotted this too, though they're just as interested in the magicians. And while shifting is not the apparent focus of God's War, I'm keen to read the other books in the trilogy to discover whether it becomes a central concern.

I can't honestly say that I liked any of the characters in God's War, but I am drawn to Nyx's indomitable spirit and to Rhys' Secret Past. And yes, I want more Umayma.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014/12: The Machine -- James Smythe

The Machine contains all that is left of who he once was. Already it’s processed his story, the speech-to-text system inside it turning his spoken, quivering memories into data and patching them. Filling in the cracks in his story. Somewhere, inside the Machine, are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be. [loc 1726]
I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Beth's soldier husband Vic isn't on a tour of duty abroad, though that's what Beth tells people. He's confined to a care home in London, helpless and silent, after an experimental treatment for PTSD went horribly wrong.

A teacher's salary has condemned Beth to a solitary, frugal life on the Isle of Wight, while every spare penny has been saved up for an illegal Machine -- an obsolete model of the device that stole Vic's painful memories and stored them as data. Beth is determined to get her husband back. After all, his current state is partly her fault.

Life on the Isle of Wight is not a pleasant experience. Gangs of feral teenagers roam the streets; climate change has baked the landscape to desert. Beth swims in the sea every morning, the only way she can cool down. She's been planning Vic's return for a while, stockpiling food and supplies: soon the school holidays will start and she can put her plans into action. The Machine, huge and black and impenetrable, looms in the spare room, waiting. But her new friend Laura realises that something's afoot ...

The Machine is well-paced, deals with PTSD sensitively, and is horribly accurate about the unease which a woman alone might feel when verbally abused by a group of teenagers. The sense of imminent doom increases gradually, and the desolate landscape outside Beth's window is a good metaphor for the aridity and emptiness of her life: she might as well be in the desert with Vic. But when I'd finished reading and started reflecting, the novel seems somehow empty. Having Beth as the sole narrative voice is very effective in terms of suspense, but it's harder to suspend disbelief when certain plot twists become clear. And it's ultimately a very depressing story.

(Irritatingly, the last 15% of the Kindle version is taken up with notes and an excerpt from another book: so, just when you think you've reached the final twist, you 'turn' the 'page' and realise the novel's over.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

2014/11: Nexus -- Ramez Naam

Evolution and human cleverness were cast against filter daemon cleverness. Bit by bit, crowdsourced evolution pulled ahead.
NSA agents were slow to grasp the enormity of the new outbreak. When they did, they pulled the plug on all peer-sharing traffic within the United States, [loc.5486]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Nexus is a drug that's also an operating system: it connects people to each other and to the web, and enhances their senses. The narrator of Nexus, Kaden Lane, has just upgraded to the latest version when he is apprehended by the security services and pressured into helping them investigate a Chinese variant of the same technology.

Kade is an idealist: Sam, the other protagonist, is a hard-boiled government agent with a Tragic Secret. She's adamant that Nexus is dangerous and flawed. Sam and Kade, with three of Kade's stoner friends (each espousing a different agenda regarding Nexus) have plenty of arguments whilst fleeing those who want to use Nexus as a method of enslavement. Ranged against the more conservative forces are the wannabe posthumans, who believe that Nexus holds the key to future evolution.

It's clear from various remarks about open source, compilation, development environments etc that the author has previous in the IT business: turns out he's worked for Microsoft, and for Apex Nanotechnologies. And his afterword is informative: "it's still fiction. The research to date has been a great proof of principle. It's shown that we can get data in and out of the brain. It's shown that we can interpret that data to make sense of what the brain is doing, or to input new data in a way that the brain can make sense of." [loc.5736]

Nexus is a fast-paced cyberpunk thriller that somehow, despite reflecting cutting-edge neuroscience, feels a little dated. Kade and Sam, separately and together, spend a lot of time either fighting (it's a pretty violent book) or fleeing. The pace of the novel is breathless, but slowing down reveals some fundamental inconsistencies in the way that Nexus works. Interesting, but (for me, anyway) unfulfilling.

2014/10: The Adjacent -- Christopher Priest

‘Quantum technology has been declared toxic. There are known to be occasional health risks for the user, and for anyone else in range. Too many side-effects.’
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. How can a camera have side-effects? [loc.860]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

I am not a faithful reader of Christopher Priest's novels, so suspect I have missed a plethora of references to his previous work: from what I did spot, I'm tempted to describe this as a 'Greatest Hits' compilation. There are magicians, the Archipelago, World Wars I and II, multiple variants of the same character (or are they), amnesia, misunderstood / insufficiently pragmatic scientists, et cetera. The different sections of the novel are interrelated in odd and unexpected ways: names connected with water (Flo, Torrence known as Floody); variants on the names Melanie Roscoe and Tibor Tarent; a weapon that leaves only equilateral black triangles; a camera that uses a quantum lens, based on the work of a scientist named Rietveld -- an echo of Wilhelm Reich? -- who invented adjacency technology.

Adjacency, as explained in the novel, is a standard technique of stage magic. 'the audience... should become interested and look away in the wrong direction. An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.' [loc.1676] I'm still not sure that I understand how this relates to quantum photography, except that 'the adjacency defence' relocates an incoming missile to an adjacent dimension. But is that the same as a magician's adjacency? And does the quantum camera record adjacent realities, or enable (or force) the photographer to slip between them?

The Adjacent is a novel in eight parts, each set in a distinct reality: the near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain, ravaged by superstorms; a Lincolnshire airfield in World War II where a female ATA pilot is delivering a plane; the island of Prachous in the Dream Archipelago, where refugees are banished to a shanty town named Adjacent ... and France, 1916, where a stage magician discusses new technology and warfare with H. G. Wells.

Every time I think about this book I note another connection, another congruence. I suspect that to reach understanding would be to internalise Priest's entire oeuvre and to familiarise myself with every sentence. I suspect this would be unsettling, but I believe it would be rewarding.