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

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.