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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015/44: Orfeo -- Richard Powers

Music forecasts the past, recalls the future. Now and then the difference falls away, and in one simple gift of circling sound, the ear solves the scrambled cryptogram. One abiding rhythm, present and always, and you’re free. But a few measures more, and the cloak of time closes back around you. [loc. 421]

Peter Els is 70, with a lifetime of avant-garde composition behind him. Music has always been the most important thing in his life -- family, friends, lovers, collaborators not excepted -- but now the physical cruelties of old age are robbing him of his enjoyment. The death of his dog, Fidelio, triggers a comedy of errors: no, wait, what might have been a comedy of errors in less paranoid times. For Els has been creating music in his back room, using an instrument that nobody's explored before: DNA.

Most of Orfeo is told in flashback as Els flees the consequences of his compositions. As a child, Els is blown away by Mozart but doesn't 'get' rock'n'roll; as a (chemistry) student he's beguiled by a composition course; as a graduate, besotted with Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, he writes for and marries his muse -- then leaves her (and his daughter) to write controversial avant-garde operas with his hippie friend Richard Bonner. (It's unfortunate that their final collaboration, an opera based on the 1530 siege of Munster, echoes the contemporary siege of Waco: well, Els thinks it's appalling. Bonner thinks it's brilliant publicity. "Come See the News That the Past Already Knew".)

And in the end, with patches of silence growing in his brain and news agencies nicknaming him 'the Biohacker Bach', Els realises that he has unfinished business.

This is primarily a novel about art -- music -- and how it informs life. It's packed with aphorisms and observations, theories and examples. Reading it (which took me a long while: it's a very dense novel) reminded me of reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia: which I note that I have never actually finished. Els is fascinated by how music affects the human (and the canine) brain; by how musical tastes shift; how ageing affects musical appreciation; most of all, by how music can make sense of life. Does he unriddle it? I'm not sure. I think I will probably return to this book again -- perhaps with a playlist of all the music Powers mentions (even though much of it is waaaay too modern for me). Not because Orfeo is a 'good read': because it opens doors.

There was nothing more pressing to do all day, every day, except think about the question that his whole life had failed to answer: How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul? [loc. 4631]

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015/43: Karma Girl -- Jennifer Estep

“We all know that villains cheat and steal and lie, but the heroes do it too. They lie to their friends and families. They make excuses and let down those closest to them time after time. That’s bad karma. One day, all that lying is bound to catch up with them. I just make sure it happens sooner rather than later. What goes around comes around. It’s karma.” [loc. 270]

Carmen Cole discovers her fiance Matt and her best friend Karen in bed together -- on what was supposed to be her wedding day. Furious and hurt, she discovers and unmasks their secret identities. Matt (unsuspected by Carmen) is the Machinator, a local superhero: Karen is Crusher, the corresponding supervillain. Carmen is determined to unmask every 'super' out there: 'No woman would come home to find her boyfriend slipping into a neon pink codpiece. No man would be puzzled over why his wife had a strange collection of whips and an odd affinity for black leather' [loc. 196]. She turns out to be very good at this, and ends up working at The Expose, a major newspaper in a thinly-disguised New York.

Then Carmen finds herself caught up in a power play between the Fearless Five (heroes) and the Terrible Triad (villains). Can she discover the identities of the villains in time to save herself? More to the point, will she ever unravel the secrets of Striker, the masked superhero with whom she's having a steamy affair?

Carmen is something of a Mary Sue: she's even red-haired, and she single-handedly saves the day. She also fails to notice that all the superheroes and supervillains (not to mention Carmen herself) share one very obvious characteristic. This does, oddly, add to the reader's enjoyment: we can see the plot unfolding well before its protagonists do.

Karma Girl is more of a romance than a superhero novel, though it does make some astute observations about the genre and its tropes. There's a moment, too, where Carmen -- who's already been captured by, and escaped from, a group of supervillains -- is attacked and sexually assaulted by common-or-garden lowlifes. She's rescued by Striker, but the experience shocks her. It's too real, too personal, too basal. ' Malefica and Frost’s tubs of radioactive goo had frightened me. Now, their threats seemed petty, almost cartoonish, in comparison to the attack tonight.' [loc. 1654] I appreciated the juxtaposition of comic-book violence and the real threats faced by women every day.

Less ironic, and less humorous, than some of the other superhero novels I've read lately: but a quick, light, entertaining read.

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015/42: Boxer, Beetle --Ned Beauman

When I am in a stressful situation, I often like to ask myself: what would Batman do in my place? I find Batman so inspiring – his intelligence, his tenacity, his self-sacrifice – that it sometimes makes me slightly tearful. But the trouble is, it’s hard to imagine Batman in a Little Chef. I don’t mean that flippantly: it’s a fundamental problem. Most of the places where I spend most of my life – NHS doctors’ waiting rooms, the local twenty-four-hour corner shop, Happy Fried Chicken, my ex-council flat, the tarmac playground down the road where I go when I want to sit down in the fresh air – seem to distill their peculiarly English ambience from that feeling you get when your mother wipes snot from your nose with her sleeve on the bus. [loc. 1973]

Boxer, Beetle is a dark and occasionally vicious comedy (and a tragedy): it entwines the stories of Kevin Broom, collector of Nazi memorabilia and sufferer of an unpleasant disease, and Seth 'Sinner' Roach, gay Jewish boxer with 'unusual physiology'. Kevin's narrative is contemporary, and frames Seth's story, which is set in the Thirties, in London's East End. Yet the two are intimately connected, by an aristocratic entomologist who admires Hitler, and by Kevin's employer Grublock, who is eager to discover the location of Seth Roach's grave.

This is a tightly-plotted novel: even the most outre details turn out to be germane to the story. Kevin, despite being someone you would absolutely not want to meet in real life (see above under 'unpleasant disease') is oddly likeable: Seth, who lacks social graces and whose dialogue is a stream of profanity, nevertheless seems the most principled character of all. And Erskine's marvellous beetles -- which, at the climax of the novel, reappear in a scene reminiscent of a horror film -- do have standards.

I find I don't have much to say about Boxer, Beetle, despite finding it a very enjoyable (and weirdly educational) read. Beauman gives good description, from East End boxing dens to Futurist conventions and country house parties before WW2. The characterisation is intriguing: the characters are far from stereotypical.

Beauman's appeared on various 'best new / young writers' lists. Boxer, Beetle was his first novel: I think I'd like to read his other work to see if the promise of this book is fulfilled.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015/41: A Symphony of Echoes -- Jodi Taylor

One event leads to another, which triggers something else and before you know where you are, the ramifications spread far and wide throughout History. Echoing down the ages. Getting fainter and fainter, but never completely dying away. They talk of The Harmony of the Spheres, but History is A Symphony of Echoes. [loc. 2625]

In which Max encounters Jack the Ripper, mocks some dodos, adjusts Mary Stuart's love life, and witnesses the assassination of Sennacherib. ('Standing on a small, grassy knoll at the site of an assassination is never good in any language.') Her affair with Leon Farrell takes a couple of unexpected turns, and the enemies of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research (who have the unique advantage of possessing actual time machines) come up with new and horrible ways to interfere with St Mary's personnel -- and with history itself.

This was a headlong read: Max barely gets a moment to breathe, and I read the novel straight through on a delayed flight. Only in hindsight did I notice that a couple of the episodes seem totally disconnected from the rest of the plot. The 'Jack the Ripper' incident seems to have no lasting effect: the visit to Niniveh ditto. The primary plot, concerning a forged Shakespeare play that reflects an altered history, threads through the whole novel: perhaps we're just being shown that it isn't the only matter on Max's plate.

Max does some pretty nasty things in the course of this novel. She is not the only one. As a character, I find her llikeably fascinating -- and I can absolutely relate to her refusal to take any more, even when she's wallowing in self-loathing and guilt. (I'm not entirely convinced I'd like her if we met, though. And her refusal to discuss her feelings is ... vexatious in the extreme.)

Jodi Taylor writes good history, and good time travel, and doesn't shy from the nastier or more complicated aspects of either. Always a good read.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015/40: Season of the Witch -- Árni Þórarinsson (trans. Anna Yates)

"...he said to me once: What Loftur did by old-style sorcery, I’m doing with modern-day sorcery. If Loftur were alive now, he’d be doing the same as me. Loftur and I are human beings who become our own gods."

"And it destroyed both of them?" [loc. 4860]

Einar is a crime reporter with a history of alcoholism, working for a Reykjavik-based newspaper: he's assigned (or banished) to the small northern town of Akureyri, which initially seems quiet and old-fashioned. Einar -- who is not impressed with all this new-fangled technology, cellphones and laptops -- quickly finds that as well as the hoary journalistic staples of missing dogs, student theatre and 'question of the day', there is plenty happening in Akureyri. The charismatic teenage star of Loftur the Sorcerer, Skarphédinn, is murdered: a middle-aged woman drowns (surely an accident?) on a corporate away-day: the local youth gang are increasingly out of control, and nobody seems able to rein them in.

I rather liked Einar. Though he constantly complains and initially seems to dislike practically everybody, he's a compassionate, sometimes self-effacing, and self-aware man. More pertinently, he works through the murder mystery at the heart of Season of the Witch by wit and logic alone: he's a journalist, not a detective, and his methods reflect his trade. And he knows that truth and justice are seldom black and white.

This novel was originally published in 2005, before the Icelandic financial crash. The pre-crash boom is underway and society is changing, with increased industrialisation and the spread of social problems from the capital to the remoter parts of the country. It's well-written, neatly plotted and -- as far as I can tell -- the translation is good. (It certainly flows well!)

2015/39: Fangirl -- Rainbow Rowell

“There are different kinds of talent. Maybe your talent is in interpretation. Maybe you’re a stylist.”

“And you think that counts?”

“Tim Burton didn’t come up with Batman. Peter Jackson didn’t write Lord of the Rings.” [loc. 4174]

Cath is a BNF (Big Name Fan), internet-famous for writing Simon Snow slash fiction. (In Fangirl, the Simon Snow series is analogous to the Harry Potter books, of which you may have heard.) Cath, and her extrovert twin sister -- and former co-writer -- Wren, are starting college, and as Wren's path diverges from Cath's, Cath begins to realise that her life is off-balance. While Wren makes friends, gets drunk and attempts to rebuild a relationship with their mother (who walked out on September 11th, 2001), Cath becomes increasingly isolated. Her high-school boyfriend dumps her; her roommate Reagan apparently hates her; Reagan's boyfriend Levi doesn't hate her; her partner in Creative Writing, Nick, takes her suggestions on board but doesn't give much back ... and her Creative Writing tutor finds it necessary to explain the concept of plagiarism to Cath.

I'd had the impression that this novel presented the creation and reading of fanfiction as 'just a phase': fortunately, that is far from the truth. Rainbow Rowell illustrates a fanfic author's frame of mind with accuracy, sympathy and humour. Everything from the pressure of readers' comments to the joy of writing in a familiar world to the fear of not finishing a work-in-progress before canon catches up ... Cath is pretty open about her fic-writing, which lets Rowell cover a range of responses that many fanfiction types will recognise: the girl in the library who gushes about 'Magicath' without realising it's Cath's nom de plume; the guy who extricates himself from a relationship with the immortal words, 'You have stronger feelings for Baz and Simon'.

A lot of the story is about Cath's writing -- fanfiction and original fiction -- and her gradual relaxation into college life, complete with friends and boyfriends and interaction. (Early on she says "There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact." [loc. 1951]. I can relate.) But weaving through that is the story of Cath's family: Wren's increasingly wild behaviour, their father's bipolar disorder, their absent mother, and Cath's inability to communicate with any of them.

Cath's story is punctuated by excerpts from Simon Snow canon (as by 'Gemma T. Leslie') and Cath's own fanfiction, both perfectly convincing, and definitely comparable to Rowling-level canon and HP fan-writing. Just one niggle: this is a universe in which the Harry Potter books are also a Thing (as evinced by a throwaway comment), but it seems unlikely that two very similar series could co-exist.

Fangirl is a very enjoyable read for anyone who's active, as reader or writer or both, in the world of fanworks. I imagine it's especially engaging for Harry Potter fans: I'm pretty sure there are a lot of allusions and references I missed. It's also an intriguing novel about growing up and leaving home, and a convincing portrait of a socially-awkward teenager. Recommended.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015/38: Wanting -- Richard Flanagan

Lady Jane had requested in writing a scientific specimen—a skull from what she termed ‘the vanishing race’—and this the Protector had been happy to accommodate. But as he had decapitated, flensed, boiled up and rendered down his friend’s skull, glad to know that it was going to such fine people of keen scientific mind, he had not anticipated the request now made across the dinner table. As a further course of roast black cygnets was served, Lady Jane announced she wished to adopt a native child, as though it were the final item to be ordered off a long menu. [loc. 764]

In 1854, nine years after her husband's disappearance in the Arctic, Lady Jane Franklin visited Charles Dickens and asked him to respond to a recent article accusing Franklin and his crew of cannibalism. Dickens promptly produced a racist diatribe, 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers': you can read it here.

That historical fact is the germ of Richard Flanagan's Wanting. The novel entwines parallel stories: Jane Franklin's marriage and widowhood; Charles Dickens' mourning for his dead daughter and his love affair with an actress; and the life and death of Mathinna, a young aboriginal girl from Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) who survives a massacre and is adopted by the Governor -- Sir John Franklin -- and his wife.

Mathinna and Dickens are both defined by what they want -- by their wanting -- as, to a lesser extent, are the Franklins. Jane Franklin wants a child. John Franklin wants the cold white spaces of the far North, 'a world of lost children whose failures were celebrated as the triumphs of men'. Dickens wants absolution for his child's death. Mathinna wants to belong somewhere, to be loved -- and because her old life has been destroyed by the British, she tries hard to make a new life in the Governor's household. Everybody wants: none of the characters are sufficiently introspective to understand the wants of others.

Wanting is a powerful condemnation of racism, imperialism and colonialism. Mathinna is perhaps the single likeable character in it -- and she's not always especially likeable. Flanagan's writing is sensuous and rich: the novel's full of evocative phrases such as 'the summer morning heat was raising a chutney of odours'. And his portrayal of the inherent cruelty of Victorian attitudes (see the quotation above) is masterful.

I cannot say that I enjoyed this novel, but it is extremely well-written, savagely critical, and emotionally wrenching.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015/37: Uprooted -- Naomi Novik

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. [loc. 43]

Agnieszka has grown up in the shadow of the Wood, which is a source of malevolence and monsters. She and her dearest friend Kasia have also grown up knowing that a girl of their age will be chosen by the Dragon -- not an actual dragon, but a powerful and reclusive sorcerer, who chooses a girl every ten years and takes them away to his tower. It's always the most 'special' girl who is chosen. This time around, it's sure to be pretty, charming, neat Kasia. So Agnieszka -- prone to clumsiness and with a knack of attracting any dirt in her vicinity -- is horribly wrongfooted when the Dragon chooses her.

Despite the fairytale trappings -- an isolated Tower, an antagonistic and bad-tempered man, a young woman out of her depth -- this is far from 'Beauty and the Beast'. There is a romantic element, but it's far from the primary focus of the novel. When Agnieszka's story begins, she's ignorant in many ways: her education, and her gradual realisation of the nature of the Wood (a fascinating because non-human foe) and the ways in which it can be combatted, form the main arc of the story. There's plenty, too, about the roles into which women in this world are shaped, and the ways in which those roles trap and stifle them. Agnieszka may be the Dragon's protege, but that doesn't grant her much protection from casual misogyny or sexual harassment.

Like most of the other characters, she's well-rounded: certainly not defined either by her relationship with the Dragon, or by the skills she learns from him. Agnieszka's main quest is, at least for a while, to rescue her friend Kasia from the Wood: she, rather than the Dragon, is the agent of change here. And her perceptions of the flow of magic, the metaphors she uses for it, bring the magical system to life. (That said, I could have done with fewer lengthy descriptions of magical battle. Yes, it's a relentless war, but whether battle is magical or physical, repeated accounts of it pall.) Uprooted focusses on the female characters: Agnieszka. Kasia, the Queen, the ... other Queen.

An enjoyable read: it reminded me somewhat of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic (which I note I read almost exactly a year before Uprooted), but in Novik's novel the magic, and the magical, are foregrounded, and there's no secondary world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015/36: Every Day -- David Levithan


The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning. It’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp. [loc. 71]

The nameless, genderless narrator ('A') of Every Day wakes up in a new body each morning. It might be male or female, black or white, overweight, ill, blind, suicidal ... However, it will be sixteen, and it will be in Maryland, USA. A's life has been like this for as long as they can remember (which may be considerably more than sixteen years: it's hard to tell). Every day is a challenge; every day is a new life. "The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent every life has in common." [loc. 926] Well, every teenage life in America ...

One major downside of A's condition is that, when A meets Rhiannon (the girlfriend of an arrogant lout named Justin, whose body A wakes up in one morning) and falls in love, there are ... complications.

Every Day is a teenage love story with more obstacles than most. It's also a profoundly human story about the similarities of different lives, the artificial nature of gender, race and class distinctions ("There were days I felt like a girl and days I felt like a boy", loc 2786), and the human urge to have one's life known, recognised and accepted by another human being. What would A do to stay in a single body? Can Rhiannon love an individual who will be a different person -- at least from the outside -- every day?

Soul transference, or body-swapping, is a hoary SFnal theme (Wikipedia quick ref): if you include possession (demonic or otherwise), it's a trope that goes back thousands of years. Levithan doesn't explain the mechanics of A's condition, but he does explore a plethora of variations on the theme. Can A change someone's life? Do A's unwilling hosts remember A's presence? Is A doomed to be a lonely drifter, living in the moment, forever? Is the body just a vessel? Can A 'make a deal with God', as that song that plays again and again on car radios suggests?

I really liked Every Day: it's funny, painful, incisive and well-observed. I especially liked the ending, which was surprisingly low-key and not what I had expected. Tempted to read the companion volume, Another Day, which tells Rhiannon's side of the story. Also tempted to read Levithan's other novels -- YA, yes, but I enjoyed Dash and Lily's Book of Dares too, so that's a 100% success rate thus far.

... Gosh, he's written a lot ...

Here's A on depression:

Some people think mental illness is a matter of mood, a matter of personality. They think depression is simply a form of being sad, that OCD is a form of being uptight. They think the soul is sick, not the body. It is, they believe, something that you have some choice over. I know how wrong this is. When I was a child, I didn’t understand. I would wake up in a new body and wouldn’t understand why things felt muted, dimmer. Or the opposite – I’d be supercharged, unfocussed, like a radio at top volume flipping quickly from station to station. [loc. 1355]

Monday, December 21, 2015

2015/35: Wylding Hall -- Elizabeth Hand

"...You know that feeling you get, that time is passing faster or slower? Well, it really is moving differently. When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways into a different space that’s inside the normal world. It’s folded in. Do you see?” [loc. 355]

Short but powerful, Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall is a dark rural fantasy. It's told by members and associates of the folk band Windhollow Fayre, in excerpts from interviews forty years after the disappearance of lead singer Julian Blake. In the summer of 1972, following the death of former lead singer Arianna, the band (with new singer Lesley, an American teenager) retreat to a secluded country manor house to work on their second album. The house is huge and rambling, and there is a constant smell of fresh woodsmoke. Several of the characters lose their way -- and find inexplicable, or unnerving, rooms -- at various times.

The interpersonal relationships of the band, their friends and lovers are complicated and intense. Julian and Lesley hook up, but it doesn't last. Nancy, who's been guitarist Will's girlfriend for a couple of years, arrives on a visit and starts screaming in terror -- though she doesn't explain her behaviour to the others. Like several incidents in the book, it's clear that the individual concerned hasn't told anyone about what happened, until now. This, I think, is an important part of Wylding Hall's effect: that the reader, with all these snippets of information from various perspectives, can piece together more of the story than any of the characters. And as the story builds, our perceptions of the people in it change. They don't know they're in a dark fantasy, after all. They just want to get stoned and have sex and make music.

We never get the whole story: only Julian could tell that, and his narrative isn't part of this book. We hear his voice at one remove, recounted by his friends: a technique that at once distances and draws in the reader.

The eeriness is awesome -- and very English. A bird battering itself against a window; a village pub (The Wren) with pictures of 'quaint folk traditions' in cheap frames; an earthen mound in the woods that is higher than it seems; a mysterious figure who appears in photos ... At Wylding Hall, time seems fluid: is that because of the blurring effects of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, or the timelessness of creative space, or is there something less commonplace going on?

There are a couple of anachronisms that jolted me. Billy gets his photos developed at Snappy Snaps (founded in the 1980s); the music papers mentioned are 'Rolling Stone ... and Mojo and NME', but Mojo was founded in 1993, while the early Seventies were the heyday of Melody Maker and Sounds. These are petty niggles but could easily have been avoided.

I like this best of the Elizabeth Hand books I've read. Because of the music? Maybe. Because of the English eerie? More likely.

2015/34: Witches of Lychford -- Paul Cornell

“Just like my first time,” she said. “Only without the lesbianism. Probably no time for that now.”

“No,” agreed Autumn, alarmed.

“Right,” nodded Lizzie quickly, then seemed to feel compelled to add, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

“You don’t have to, I found out, afterwards,” said Judith. “But they didn’t tell me at the time. It was the sixties.” [loc. 796]

Lychford is a small English town with the usual small-town problems, including Sovo, the multinational supermarket chain who propose to build a new store -- and thus disrupt the delicate geography of Lychford, the centre of which marks and enforces ancient boundaries. Judith, a widow with eccentric tendencies, is rightly suspicious of Sovo and its Chief Executive in Charge of New Development, David Cummings. Judith reluctantly joins forces with the new Vicar, Lizzie (more recently widowed, and still blaming herself for her husband's death) and Autumn, who was Lizzie's best friend before she disappeared for a year, only to pop up running a magic shop in Lychford. The witches are determined to maintain the balance, drive out Sovo (and Cummings, who given his habits is worse than he looks) and stop Lychford from the incursions of the other worlds. None of the three expect help: but help does come, from an unexpected quarter ...

This novella is great fun, nicely plotted and well-written: superficially a cosy rural fantasy, with some pretty nasty stuff lurking behind the scenes. Judith is the sort of old woman one might like to end up as: a cantankerous crone with a dark past and a nice line in sarcasm. I'd like to read more about all three of the witches, and about the mysterious Finn ("you realised I wasn’t so attractive without my makeup. Because I’m not a young white male.” [loc. 544]). There's scope for considerable development of setting and characters: The Witches of Lychford does resolve, but there's plenty of hinted backstory and unfinished business.

A great deal of potential but far too short! However, I see Mr Cornell is writing more Lychford ...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

2015/32: Moon Over Soho -- Ben Aaronovitch

‘There’s more to life than just London,’ said Nightingale. ‘People keep saying that,’ I said. ‘But I’ve never actually seen any proof.’ [loc. 1402]

Constable Peter Grant (who's also an apprentice wizard) is called in to investigate the murder of a jazz musician. Minimal research indicates that there have been a number of unexplained deaths in London's jazz world -- each occurring soon after a live performance. Peter's father is (or was) a jazzman himself, so Peter has an excellent source of historical detail as well as a handy stalking-horse.

The jazz murders are the focus of Moon over Soho, but there is plenty more going on at a higher, or possibly deeper, level: events that tie into those of the previous novel, Rivers of London. There's clearly an arc of narrative that spans the whole series: unresolved threads from the first novel are caught up -- though not necessarily tied off -- in Moon over Soho, and new aspects and characters introduced. I'm increasingly interested in the history of British wizardry, as filtered through the old-school elegance of Peter's mentor Nightingale: no doubt we'll be hearing more of that ...

Aaronovitch is good at horror (cat-girls, severed heads) but far from solemn: there are a few laugh-out-loud moments in this novel, and some profoundly poetic observations (checking out a murder victim's home 'to see whether there was anyone who loved him enough to kill him' [loc. 188]). Aaronovitch has a good ear for dialogue, and he gives Peter a refreshing blend of cynicism and openmindedness.

I'm tempted to binge-read Aaronovitch's urban fantasy series, especially now that I'm living in London again: I love the way that he ties together legend, history, street life and police procedural into supernatural crime novels that are profoundly rooted in London life. I suspect the glamour might fade if I overindulged, though, so I'll limit myself to one or two a year for now.

2015/33: Rook -- Jane Rusbridge

‘Sometimes, when our present is a little too empty, our past moves in to fill the gaps. We have no room for our future to take root. [loc. 1063]

Nora, an accomplished cellist, has returned to her childhood home on the Sussex coast after the end of a love affair. There is friction between her and her dipsomaniac mother Ada, fuelled by the secrets they both keep. (These secrets are also, for the most part, kept from the reader.) Nora's life is quiet and solitary, enlivened only by the young rook she rescues from teenage yobs. She names the bird 'Rook', and -- with the help of local artist and handyman Harry -- nurses him back to health.

Change comes to the village in the form of a documentary maker, the young and dashing Jonny, who wants to make a programme about the church. Local legend -- reinforced by Rook's prequel -- has it that King Harold (of 1066 fame) and / or King Cnut's drowned daughter are buried somewhere beneath the floor of the church. Nora, whose father was involved in an earlier excavation of the church, is drawn to the mystery, and to the rakish Jonny. (Rook, however, hates Jonny.)

Secrets are unearthed, the present opens out into the future ...

Rook is tremendously atmospheric, often lyrical, and full of beautiful description: yet I didn't actually like it very much. Rook is by far the most interesting and likeable character. Nora and Ada's relationship felt more painful than anything, and I found myself sharing Ada's irritation and frustration with her melancholy, secretive child. I'm not sure whether Rook was somehow a mirror of the black raven of Cnut's banner; and Cnut's famous 'turning back the tide' gesture (the whole point being that he couldn't) could have been compared less obliquely to modern-day concerns about rising sea levels and coastal floods. (But still, I'd rather read something too oblique than heavy-handed.)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

2015/31: A God in Ruins -- Kate Atkinson

‘But what about the war?’ Nancy said. The war? he thought, secretly amazed that she could think that something so shattering in its reality could be rendered so quickly into fiction. ‘Life then,’ she said. ‘Your life. A Bildungsroman.’

‘I think I would rather just live my life,’ Teddy said, ‘not make an artifice of it.’ And what on earth would he write about? If you excluded the war (an enormous exclusion, he acknowledged) then nothing had happened to him. [loc. 1385]

A God in Ruins complements Atkinson's Life After Life, which was the story of Ursula and her many lives. A God in Ruins focusses on her brother Teddy, the golden boy who becomes an RAF pilot in WWII. Rather than describing a multiplicity of lives, this novel focusses on a single life, and on the simultaneity of incidents in that life: the past is present, inescapable, and -- perhaps as an illustration of the confused time-sense of dementia -- more vivid than 'reality'.

Teddy is getting old, but he has his family: his daughter Viola, her offspring Bertie and Sunny. He has loved and lost. He is the kind of man (the generation?) who sees no point in unburdening himself of the past, of speaking to others about pain and guilt and suffering. As the mosaic of his life is built up -- scenes from his childhood with the aunt who uses him as template for her books about a mischievous schoolboy; scenes from the war, his marriage, family life -- the picture they make becomes clearer. It's evident that Teddy was most alive in wartime, and afterwards his life is, at least externally, rather dull. (Meanwhile a whole universe exists in his head.)

The structure of the novel, that freeform skipping around in time, lets Atkinson play with foreshadowing and recollection, interjecting authorial asides in a way that, in a more linear novel, would jar. "Teddy supposed his own son would have to go there too, although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn’t even begin to imagine. He didn’t need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter, Viola" [loc. 91]. But, in a sense, everything is happening at once. Teddy's wartime memories, beautiful and horrific, are as immediate to him as the 'care home' in which Viola visits him.

I found this a powerful and distressing novel, because so much of it brought to mind my father and my relationship with him as dementia set in. (Not to mention my mother, and the fact that I read this soon after a landmark birthday, having survived beyond the age at which my mother had a personality-changing cerebral hemorrhage.) I saw far too much of myself in the unlikeable Viola. A God in Ruins is captivating, splendidly written and yet not a book I think I will wish to reread for a while.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

2015/30: Travel Light -- Naomi Mitchison

"What kind of game has All-Father been having with me?”

“What did he say to you, Halla?”

“He said,Travel Light.”

“If you did that, if you travelled light, you might travel through the years and travel faster than some. Would you have it otherwise, Halla?”

“I think he might have told me.” [p. 134]

Travel Light begins in the realm of fairytale, moves into history, and ends in mythology. Halla's mother dies and the new Queen decrees that Halla must be 'got rid of at once'. Halla's nurse Matulli, transformed into a bear, steals her away: but when winter approaches, Matulli -- now almost entirely ursine -- longs to hibernate, and Halla is adopted by a dragon, Uggi. Dragons are excellent economists, and Halla learns a great deal about gold and treasure -- and about heroes, who are the natural foes of dragons.

Heroes, in Travel Light, are not glamorous or admirable. They are those who devote their lives to murder and violence. Steinvor, a Valkyrie of Halla's acquaintance, has to deal with a lot of heroes in her role. She is most disparaging about their intellectual faculties. And she swoops in to Halla's rescue before a king's son can make good his promise to 'teach [her] the ways of women'.

Halla encounters Odin All-Father, in one of his more benevolent depictions, and ends up in Micklegard -- Byzantium -- some time around the turn of the first millennium. She falls in with a trio of men from Marob (the small town where much of The Corn King and the Spring Queen is set: one of Halla's companions is the descendent of Erif and Tarrik) who are petitioning the Emperor for a new governor. Halla's talents, gifts from the bears and the dragons, turn out to be extremely useful, and turn the tide for the men from Marob. They also enable her to break an ancient curse -- a curse laid on the descendants of the king and queen who banished a baby girl to her death in the forest.

Halla is a likeable, independent, and decidedly feminist heroine, a perpetual outsider who has a profound effect on those she meets. Though she starts life as a 'fairytale' princess, there is no heteronormative happy ending. Given that many of the men she meets are heroes -- or at least men of violence -- this is hardly surprising. A recurring theme is that of corruptive power: the governor of Marob, the Holy Roman Emperor, the king's son who steals Halla's foster-parent's hoard. (There is a passing mention of 'Fafnir, who was rudely awakened and brutally stabbed by a young man called Siegfried, who, however, came to no good end himself'. Despite the historical setting of the latter parts of the book, it's steeped in Norse mythology.) The powerful do terrible things to the powerless, in many places and times.

Mitchison's prose is simple and lyrical and quietly witty. Sometimes not so quietly: Halla's 'assumption to heaven', witnessed by startled nuns, is a gem. Travel Light is not the story of somebody changing the world: but it is the story of someone refusing to be changed by the world, or as the world changes around her. And it has a profoundly satisfactory ending.

How I wish this book was better-known! How I wish I'd read it as a child!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

2015/27-29: Soldier in the Mist / Soldier of Arete / Soldier of Sidon -- Gene Wolfe

"I have scanned the stars for you,” he said, “and they speak of wars and long and hazardous journeys. For years you will walk in a circle, following the path left by your own feet.”[Soldier of Sidon, loc. 3666]

The urge to reread these novels was inspired by Ben Wishaw as Dionysus in Bakkhai at the Almeida ... Sadly, at that point, most of my books were in boxes. I acquired Arete and Sidon as ebooks: Soldier in the Mist is, sadly, unavailable in ebook format, which is a shame, because it's the kind of book I'd like to search.

The first in the sequence, Soldier in the Mist, is still my favourite. The setting is ancient Greece, at the time of the Persian Invasion (~480BC). Latro has suffered a head injury and wakes each day with no memory of the day before. He has been advised to write down everything that happens to him. This journal is the substance of the novels.

Latro's amnesia confers the ability to see, and communicate with, supernatural beings: gods, nymphs, ghosts, et cetera. In Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete, he travels around Greece in search of his own identity -- a picaresque in which he encounters slaves, slavers, pirates, bawds and priests; assumes a variety of roles; and encounters a great many intriguing characters. There's a resolution of sorts at the end of each novel. In Soldier of Sidon he travels to Egypt and up the Nile, in search of goldmines and -- perhaps -- healing. Old friends reappear (not that Latro can remember them in any intellectual sense) and new enigmas (a waxen woman, a monkey that nobody else can see, a panther) complicate Latro's life.

My earlier review of Soldier of Sidon is here. I find myself disagreeing with my younger self, not least because I think I expected a fourth volume which would tie together the threads and themes of Soldier of Sidon: no fourth volume has appeared and it now seems very unlikely that it ever will. Rereading the novel, it feels inconclusive, somewhat repetitive, unfinished. That circular journey mentioned in the quote above? It needs an end.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

2015/26: The Corn King and the Spring Queen -- Naomi Mitchison

Was it part of the order of nature to work magic, steal sun and rain for your own seasons and crops, almost to alter the courses of the stars? He thought not. Perhaps it had been — before people like himself had begun to question it. Once upon a time it had been part of the order of nature for men to eat the enemies they had killed; there was nothing wrong or abhorrent about it. But now that would be a pitfall in a clear road. [loc. 4384]
The Corn King and the Spring Queen is set in Scythia and Greece, around 220BC. Erif Der is a young Scythian witch, caught up in her father Harn Der's plot against Tarrik, the current chief and Corn King of Marob. They marry, and Erif becomes the Spring Queen. Tarrik would be truly in Erif's -- and Harn Der's -- power, if he hadn't rescued a Greek philosopher from shipwreck and found himself intrigued by the principles of Stoicism and rationality. Magic, such as Erif's, doesn't work on Greeks, who are 'too plain and too real to be twisted about': Tarrik's growing appreciation of Sphaeros' teachings grants him a kind of immunity to Erif's wiles. But that immunity, in turn, makes Harn Der ever more determined to oust Tarrik. In the process, the ancient rituals of Corn King and Spring Queen are corrupted.

As another Greek philosopher says towards the end of the novel, "these two began to question, and, before they understood what was happening or could retrace their steps, they were out of their community and had to stand up unhelped and face a world of apparent chaos and pain and contradiction and moral choices which, being so thoroughly disturbed by old Sphaeros, they could not deal with." 'Out of their community' takes Tarrik, Erif and Erif's brother Berris -- separately -- to Sparta, to Delphi and to Alexandria. In Sparta, they become acquainted with King Kleomenes; his queen Agiatis; Kleomenes' eromenos Panteus; and Philylla, one of Agiatis' ladies-in-waiting. [What an anachronistic term!] Tarrik and Berris end up fighting in Kleomenes' army; Erif befriends Philylla, and Berris falls in love with her. Some History occurs. ...

There is a great deal of plot in this novel, with Erif, Tarrik, Philylla and Berris's stories playing in counterpoint to the campaigns and defeats of the Spartan king. There's also a great deal of philosophy and theology (mythology?), a discussion and exploration of ideas from Frazer's Golden Bough: kings who die for their people; a Delphic prophecy that is -- despite the cynicism of the Greek philosopher whom Erif rescues from fellow supplicants -- fulfilled; Erif's magic, corruption and cleansing. And, for a novel first published in 1931, The Corn King and the Spring Queen feels fresh and modern. Mitchison (by no means a conservative) presents homosexual and heterosexual relationships, fertility rites, murder and battle with the same even-handed, clear-eyed emotional honesty.

It's also a remarkably feminist novel. Erif and her spiritual journey are, to my mind, very much the focus of the novel. Though the term 'Amazon' is never mentioned, it's clear that Erif is a true heroine, a capable warrior as well as a witch and a kind of goddess. We first meet Philylla practising archery. Agiatis is a powerful ruler, respected and loved. All three have agency: all three are as powerful as their male counterparts, albeit in different ways. On the darker side, there's discussion of rape, female infanticide, arranged marriage, incest: these aren't glossed over, and the reactions of the characters seem credible for the historical setting.

And there's a substantial sub-plot about art. Berris is a craftsman, at first influenced by Hellenistic notions; later, inspired by Kleomenes and Agiatis, creating an artistic idiom of his own, the effects of which are long-reaching.

I don't know if Mitchison was an influence on Rosemary Sutcliff, whose historical fiction I have loved for decades: certainly some of the descriptive passages, with their timelessness and their emotional resonance, reminded me of Sutcliff's prose. "They went out by twos and threes; as they pushed back the leather curtain from the door, great waves of frosty air blew in and shook the flame of the lamps and chilled the room. Outside it was starry — a calm, deeply arched sky with that familiar closing inward and upward of mountains on each horizon, the valley of Sparta like a cup to hold so many stars." [loc. 2034]

The Corn King and the Spring Queen has flaws. I could have done with slightly less military strategy, and would have enjoyed more detail about some of the religious practices of Marob. (No, not the fertility rites.) And the final section seems irrelevant, unnecessary to the story of Erif and Tarrik. (I may change my mind about this next time I read the novel, though.) Immersive and glorious, often amusing and profoundly human: a delightful experience.

A note on the text: I think it was OCR'd. There are a few very annoying typographical errors, for instance the character name 'Linit' appearing as 'Link'.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015/25: Slade House -- David Mitchell

"If you're smart enough to discover immortality, you're smart enough to ensure your own supply and keep very very very shtum indeed." [loc. 2125]

The door to Slade House is small and made of iron: it's down an alleyway in a nameless town -- likely Reading, from various clues -- and it isn't easy to find. (Indeed, few people know where it is, even locals who've lived in the area all their lives.) Every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, a visitor is summoned to Slade House.

In 1979, thirteen-year-old Nathan Bishop and his mother are invited to a musical soiree. They have difficulty finding the house, but after that all seems well, until Nathan notices that the garden is melting. He has just taken a Valium to suppress the more exuberant aspects of his behaviour: perhaps that would explain it?

In 1988, windowcleaner Fred Pink wakes up after being in a coma for nine years. He was the last person to see the Bishops alive, and his account reopens their case. Disagreeable DI Gordon Edmonds, who fancies himself as the new Columbo or Bergerac, arrives at Slade House to investigate.

Come 1997, a group of students from the university's Paranormal Society (organised by Fred's nephew Axel) show up for a Halloween party and a horror-movie ambience. The Slade House disappearances are notorious, and each student has a reason for attending. Sally Timms (who has a crush on Todd, another member of the group) is among their number.

2006, and Sally's journalist sister Freya is determined to discover Sally's fate. She meets up with Fred Pink in the local pub, and is spun an incredible tale of immortality and vampirism. Hard to believe ('it's all a bit Da Vinci Code'), except ...

And in 2015, conspiracy theorist 'Bombadil' and a mysterious psychiatrist (who's written a paper on the case of Fred Pink) join forces to investigate the mysteries of Slade House. (I have only just discovered, with glee, that Bombadil has a Twitter account: if I were you I would resist reading until you've finished Slade House, though it's not exactly spoilery.)

Slade House interweaves its narrative, and its characters, with Mitchell's earlier work. It's directly connected with The Bone Clocks (my review), but I also spotted references to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas and [possibly] Black Swan Green. In structure, too, it's a continuation of earlier work: the interlinked stories which resolve into a greater whole.

What I enjoyed most about this short novel was Mitchell's characterisation. Nathan, who's probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, was a delight ("Mr Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter"); Edmonds thoroughly sleazy in a very 80s way; Sally and Freya both strong and fragile in different ways; Slade House's inhabitants bright and brittle, cruel and carefree; and Iris? Iris rocks.

Monday, October 19, 2015

2015/24: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps -- Kai Ashante Wilson

A number of petty miracles lay within Demane's power. His reflexes, his strength, were rather better than even the most gifted of athletes; and his sense of sight and smell, and so on, could wax exceedingly keen at times. But the blood of TSIMtsoa ran thin in him, and it seemed he could not manage the metamorphosis into great power. Even so, provoke him enough, and the provoker would catch a glimpse -- radiant, dark -- of the stormbird.[loc. 502]

The blurb made this short novel sound like fantasy, but it's very much towards the sfnal end of that genre. Demane is an 'earthbound demigod', I suppose: or, to put it another way, he's somewhat more evolved (or engineered?) than most of the people he encounters on the road through the Wildeeps.

The plot of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is slight: Demane is engaged as 'Sorcerer' to a travelling caravan composed of wealthy merchants and the brothers who protect them from the perils of the road. The brothers speak colloquially, are strong and violent; the merchants keep themselves to themselves, speaking a different language (in which Demane is not fluent). And then there's the Captain, who Demane loves, who is a heliovore and a fearsome warrior and speaks mostly in musical tones.

Demane and the Captain are both outsiders, set apart by their heritage. Their ancestors have left Earth, abandoning them: 'the gods could only carry away Homo celestialis with them... because the angels had already learned to make their bodies light. When a magical predator (a jukiere, or wizard-cat) menaces travellers on the road through the Wildeeps -- where 'all the worlds .. touch and overlap' -- it's up to Demane and the Captain to defeat it.

So much for plot: what stands out in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is language, from Demane's inability to express himself to anyone save the Captain, to the rich patois of the brothers, to Wilson's lush, vivid, idiosyncratic prose. At times his style reminded me of Zelazny or Wolfe: he really is that good. Plus, the relationship between Demane and the Captain is wholly credible: they love one another but they don't always understand, or agree with, or have the same beliefs as one another.

In some ways this novel is a disappointment: it's too short, it stops rather than ending (there is an ending, but it's abrupt and I don't like it: though I'm all in favour of brevity over verbosity, I feel Wilson could have written just a little more. But I am extremely keen to read more of his work.

Here's a great article on 'Language and Code Switching in Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps' -- Leah Schnelbach.

Monday, September 28, 2015

2015/23: The Night Life of the Gods -- Thorne Smith

...she could flirt with Perseus or Apollo, but, after all, she was not really interested in them. They were the sort that appealed to the ordinary run of women. They were great big beautiful boys with hearts of gold and all that. Her long-legged scientist was different. He was homely and nervous and refreshingly bitter about things in general. [loc. 2769]

Prohibition America. Hunter Hawk, a wealthy and eccentric inventor, develops a ring which can turn people to stone -- and bring statues to life. Quickly petrifying his obnoxious relatives (though he spares his niece Daphne, whose sardonic humour is a good foil for his own).

One drunken moonlit evening Hawk encounters a leprechaun, and more to the point the leprechaun's charming 900-year-old daughter, Megaera (Meg for short). Hunter Hawk, of whom his housekeeper says 'He's not ruined a maid since I've kept house for him, and that's been all of his life. He's been a great disappointment to me in that direction' belatedly discovers Love. He and Meg head to New York City, pay a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and bring a whole pantheon of Greek deities to life. With, as the Radio Times used to say, hilarious consequences. The Olympians 'put their whole life into whatever they chanced to be doing', and their zest for the modern world is charming and infectious.

The Night Life of the Gods has humour in abundance, much of it involving alcohol, disregard for social and legal mores, and the joys of liberty. What it lacked, for me, was depth. Sure, everyone has fun; everyone drinks a lot; everyone escapes the confines of their mundane (or, indeed, monolithic) existences. The characters muse, from time to time, on the nature of sin or the chains of paid labour. (They do not, as far as I recall, discuss the morality of Hawk's petrification of his relatives, or of some inconvenient law enforcement officials.) It's a carefree novel, and surprisingly modern in some respects (Smith's female characters are independent and opinionated -- though there is more than a whiff of racism in a couple of scenes) but I suspect it was much more fun to read when it was first published in 1931.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

2015/22: Blood Feud --Rosemary Sutcliff

So Thormod went to Valhalla alone – no, not alone; he went in good company, but without me. It did not come to me until long after, that that must have been the way of it in any case, for if I had died that day on the Thracian hillside, I would have had another road that I must follow – unless, indeed, I had lost that road for ever when I took my oath with the rest of the old Red Witch’s crew on Thor’s Ring at Kiev. [loc. 1818]

Reread: I am very fond of this novel, and had cited it as an example of how to write historical fiction. My argument is approximately this: that details about the characters' meals, or how long a particular style of clothing has been worn, are far less important than the brief bright glimpses of timeless experience. When Jestyn notices the pattern of reflected light on the roof of a boathouse, I recognise that. It brings the past to life for me in a way that infodumps about tunic styles or recipes for fish sauce never will. Sutcliff's knowledge of the period -- and this is tenth century Europe, not Roman Britain -- is clearly extensive, but she doesn't labour that learning. Exemplary.

Anyway: what more can I say? Still just as good as when I last read it [review here] -- and I still respond to the same aspects, though I also picked up some more information about the Varangian Guard this time around, possibly due to reading Tom Holt's Meadowland recently.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

2015/21: The Twyborn Affair -- Patrick White

She was too disgusted with herself, and human beings in general, ever to want to dabble in sex again, let alone aspire to that great ambivalence, love. [loc. 6383]

A novel in three parts, with three protagonists: or three parts played by one protagonist.

In the first third of the novel, set on the French Riviera some time before the First World War, we encounter the sophisticated and beautiful Eudoxia. Her lover of Angelos Vatatzes believes himself the heir of Byzantium: they live as man and wife, and fascinate a visiting Australian, the rather vulgar Joanie Golson (who turns out to be very well acquainted with 'Eudoxia's' mother, Eadie Twyborn).

Lieutenant E. Twyborn, DSO, washes up at a sheep station in Australia some time in the 1920s. Eddie spends some time with his parents in Sydney -- the Judge and Eadie, the former detached and the latter unmaternal -- but the focus is on country matters: he is seduced by the bored and voluptuous Marcia Lushington, and ... well, not exactly seduced by the virile Don Prowse.

The final third of The Twyborn Affair takes place in London during the Second World War. Eadith Trist is the madame of a London brothel, 'the tail end of a dream nobody ever succeeds in arresting', the focus of romantic (or erotic) overtures from more than one man. But then Eadith encounters the recently-widowed Mrs Twyborn, and everything changes.

The Twyborn Affair is often very funny, but it is also bleak and bitter. Whichever form Eudoxia / Eddie / Eadith -- let's just say 'E' -- takes, there are always secrets to be hidden, half a life to be concealed: and E cannot or will not believe in love. Angelos Vatatzes knows the truth (or some of it) about E, but it's unclear whether any of the other characters do. Indeed, I'm not sure what motivates E, apart from the desire to escape the stifling confines of convention, and to allow at least some part of E's personality to flourish.

I read this because it was mentioned in Elizabeth Knox's Black Oxen -- The Twyborn Affair was the third I read in a couple of months which presented a triptych of protagonists who turned out to be the same person. Though I admire this novel -- and acknowledge that White's aims are quite different to those of Knox or Jemisin -- I cannot say I enjoyed it, or engaged with it, as much as the other two.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

2015/20: Black Oxen -- Elizabeth Knox

Surely it's better to be human and live with grief, than outgrow your humanity and learn to raise the dead too late to raise your own. [p.269]

I'd owned this novel since 2007: I'm not sure why it took me so long to read it, given my admiration and enjoyment of Knox's other novels.

This was the second novel I'd read within a month with the same central conceit: multiple viewpoint characters, who turn out to be the same person. The effect here was quite different, though. Black Oxen felt, at times, like a novel whose major events happened off-stage, off-page.

Apart from a brief prelude set in Scotland, the novel takes place in three imaginary worlds. 'Eden' is the most archetypally fantastic, but we only catch glimpses of the characters' lives there. Lequama is an imaginary South American republic, replete with black magic and political posturing. And the framing story, that of the narrative therapist whose newest patient is a frustrating enigma, is set in a near-future California. (It should be noted that 2022 is rather closer now than it was when the novel was first published in 2001.)

There's a list of characters at the beginning of the novel ('poets, foundlings, prostitutes, revolutionaries, escaped convicts, torturers, psychotherapists, entomologists, child film stars and billionaires', to quote the Guardian review) which includes one significant morsel of information. What would really have helped would have been a timeline, possibly at the end to minimise spoilers: I made my own, and found myself admiring Knox's craft all over again as the stories meshed together and another, more profound story was revealed at their intersections. [Also a couple of inconsistencies: but this is fiction, dammit, and fiction of a magical and flexible sort.]

I'm circling around the plot, because it's difficult I feel this is more a novel about character than about events. At its core is Carme Risk's father, who is beautiful and mysterious, 'morally unencumbered' and possibly not wholly human. (Carme's narrative therapy is an attempt, or so she claims, to make sense of her father's stories, and of the worlds through which he's passed.) When we first meet Carme's father, in the mid-1970s, he is a nameless foundling: his self-appointed guardian Carlin Cadaver names him Abra. Abra discovers a portal to another world; lives there a while, undocumented; finds himself amnesiac in La Host, Lequama's capital, where he seems to have a somewhat mystical history and is known as Ido; disappears again, leavng only a journal or two.

Abra, or Ido, is a compelling and charismatic character. None of his doctors or therapists can make sense of him: nor, for many years, can he make sense of himself. Yet his story emerges from between the threads of Carme's own story, of the political and personal machinations of the post-revolutionary movers and shakers in Lequama, and of the sketchy details of life in Eden. Abra's emotional landscape is as complex as his personality: he is far from heroic, especially to himself, but his gifts (which might be called curses) compel him to act as an agent of change wherever he goes.

After I'd read Black Oxen (twice) I turned to Knox's collection of essays, The Love School, and discovered that the novel's roots are in the storytelling game she's played with her sister and their friends since the early 1970s. I'm fascinated by co-writing, co-creation, and all too aware of how hard it can be to set down one's inner universe -- that ongoing narrative with a cast of thousands -- in a form that others, lacking the nuances of the story's evolution, will understand. I felt I understood rather better why Eden was never described; why Abra and Dev's relationship, though it precipitates the main events of Black Oxen, was backstory; why Knox chose Carme to bind the stories together.

The title refers to a street in La Host, where sacrificial black oxen were led to the temple in pre-Conquest days, and where key characters find themselves again and again. Early in the novel, Carme produces a drawing of a line of oxen: but are there many oxen, or is there just a single black ox at different stages of that doomed journey? Black Oxen provoked a great many questions of this kind. Nothing is here without purpose: any image may hold a key, and any gesture might reveal another thread of the story.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

2015/19: The Crane Wife -- Patrick Ness

Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.[loc. 1697]

One night George, a middle-aged divorced man living in Bromley, wakes to an unearthly keening. In his garden he finds a huge white crane, with an arrow through its wing. He removes the arrow, and the crane flies away.

Perhaps it is coincidence that Kumiko, a mysterious and beautiful Japanese artist, comes into George's print shop the next day. She makes exquisite art from feathers: George, as it happens, makes origami figures. The combination of their artistic creations makes something greater than the sum of its parts -- illustrations to a story about a volcano in love with a crane -- and George finds his life transformed. He is one half of a fashionable artistic collaboration, and he is in love.

George's daughter Amanda has troubles of her own (her workmates are vile; she's a single mother still in love with her son's father; she's not that good with people, including herself), and she is amazed and appalled to find that her father has a new lover. George tries to reassure her, but in the process realises that he actually knows very little about Kumiko. He's never even visited her home.

Tensions escalate, old secrets boil up, and the story of the crane and the volcano -- which is interposed with the chapters of George and Amanda's stories -- rushes on to its conclusion.

There are some beautiful images in this novel, and the central story of George and Kumiko is at once romantic and pragmatic. I was less taken by Amanda's story, not least because its tone was more humourous and colloquial, and it sat oddly with the mythic elements. (Print shop employee Mehmet, and even Amanda's bitchy and apparently vacuous colleague Rachel, have more gravity than Amanda.) The way that the story of the crane and the volcano twist around and into the 'mundane' parts of the story, though, is intriguing and accomplished.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

2015/18: Vicious -- V. E. Schwab

By the time the first bell rang, signaling the end of Victor’s art elective, he’d turned his parents’ lectures on how to start the day into: Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin. be lost. Be lost And then you will not care if you are ever found. He’d had to strike through entire paragraphs to make the sentence perfect after he accidentally marked out ever and had to go on until he found another instance of the word. But it was worth it. The pages of black that stretched between if you are and ever and found gave the words just the right sense of abandonment. [loc. 141]

Victor and Eli are roommates at college. Victor is somewhat introverted, prone to brooding and scheming and taking a Sharpie to the pages of books by his self-help guru parents. His friendship with Eli (political-candidate smile and general wholesomeness) seems mostly founded on the moments where Eli's cheerful, normal facade seems to crack. They are both intelligent, arrogant and competitive. And kind of doomed.

It's time for the two to declare their senior theses. Victor picks 'adrenal inducers' (fight or flight etc) but Eli, more ambitiously, decides to study ExtraOrdinaries: "An argument for the theoretical feasibility of the existence of ExtraOrdinary people, deriving from laws of biology, chemistry, and psychology". EOs are, effectively, superheroes: people with unusual gifts. None of them are familiar by name, though Spiderman and Superman are cited as examples of nurture and nature. Eli thinks that there is a very specific set of circumstances that will create an EO. Victor, more or less on the spur of the moment, offers to be the first experimental subject.

Vicious alternates between the events of a decade ago -- when Victor and Eli performed their experiments and Victor was imprisoned for murder -- and the 'now' in which Victor is ... keen, shall we say ... to meet up with his old college friend. Cue much discussion of heroes and villains, and the recruitment of former cellmate Mitch and 12-year-old runaway Sydney Clarke to Victor's team. We don't get to see much of Eli and his cohorts, which is a shame, because the novel does occasionally feel imbalanced. But Vicious is nevertheless a well-paced, well-plotted novel with a lot of dark humour (and dark stuff that isn't at all funny) and an interesting spin on the notion of the superhero -- and the inevitable inverse, the supervillain. Is Victor a villain? He does some things that are not at all nice. Is Eli a villain? But he seems so wholesome.

I think I probably picked this up as part of my 'pictureless books about superheroes' kick. I'm glad I got around to reading it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

2015/17: The Fifth Season -- N. K. Jemisin

"That we’re not human is just the lie they tell themselves so they don’t have to feel bad about how they treat us—" [loc. 4197]

The Fifth Season is first in the new 'Broken Stone' trilogy by Jemisin, whose Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods -- links to my reviews) was met with critical acclaim. Here, the setting is a world regularly ravaged by seismic activity. (Islands and coasts are regarded as dangerous places to live: geological hotspots threaten the former, tsunami the latter.) The world is littered with the remnants of 'deadcivs', many of which were destroyed by Seasons -- periods of natural catastrophe, various in form (supervolcanoes, floods, gasses) but all geological in origin, which are inimical to human life. Notably, people refer to Father, rather than Mother, Earth.

The geological instability is partially controlled by orogenes -- the derogatory colloquial term is 'roggas' -- who 'take movement and warmth and life from [their] surroundings, amplify it by some indefinable process of concentration or catalysis or semi-predictable chance, push movement and warmth and death from the earth. Power in, power out'. [loc. 902] Orogenes are a minority, both valued and feared: many are controlled by the Empire, and by the Guardians who can contain and absorb an orogene's power. It is depressingly unsurprising that orogenes are subject to inhuman -- dehumanising -- treatment in order to further the power of those who control them.

The Fifth Season tells the stories of three orogene females: Essun, whose son has been killed because he showed signs of being an orogene; Damaya, a small girl who is sent away by her parents because she shows signs of being an orogene; and Syen, short for Syenite, a six-ringed orogene who encounters the much more powerful Alabaster (she's supposed to conceive a child by him) and begins to realise the horror and cruelty that underpins her world.

Wired recently featured an interview with Jemisin, in which she said that The Fifth Season was inspired in part by the Ferguson shooting and by the Black Lives Matter: "This novel is, in a lot of ways, my processing the systemic racism that I live with, and see, and am trying to come to terms with". Oppression in The Fifth Season has more to do with ability than skin colour, but the techniques of oppression are horribly familiar: dehumanisation, selective breeding, the lie that if you just behave nicely you'll be all right.

Jemisin's world-building is stupendous, and her authorial voice -- which interjects occasionally, always parenthetically, always to the point -- light and dry. There's a lyric, oral quality to her prose, and she pulls off a narrative sleight-of-hand which I had not expected. (Surprisingly, though, I did guess the identity of the thing that's missing: 'who misses what they have never, ever even imagined?' [loc. 1780]. To explain why I guessed correctly, though, would be to spoil the surprise.) Well-paced, interesting plot, and credible, likeable, changeable characters: a very accessible and enjoyable novel that is also, I think, a strong contender for next year's Hugo.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

2015/16: Dash and Lily's Book of Dares -- David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

I was attempting to write the story of my life. It wasn’t so much about plot. It was much more about character. [loc. 2579]
Dash and Lily are teenagers in New York City. Their 'Book of Dares' is a red Moleskine notebook which Dash finds on a bookshop shelf next to his favourite author's books. The notebook sets out some puzzles, which Dash solves: then they begin a correspondence -- and courtship -- via the notebook, and an increasingly apt set of challenges.

This is very much 'Odd Couple' territory. Dash is an introvert, Lily an extravert. Dash loathes Christmas ('This was the miracle of the season, the way it put the fuck off so loud in our hearts' [loc. 387]), Lily adores it. Both are spending Christmas more or less alone, but in Dash's case it's intentional (he's told each of his divorced parents that he's staying with the other) while in Lily's it's very much not (her parents are away on a belated honeymoon, her brother has locked himself in his room with his new boyfriend).

They bring out the best in one another. Writing in the notebook helps Dash realise that he's lonely: Lily discovers, meanwhile, that she has a wilder side.

This was a light read but a very entertaining one. I felt a fondness for both characters (though much more sympathy with Dash than Lily), and I enjoyed the vignettes of Christmastime New York. The supporting cast (elderly relatives, school friends, members of the NYPD) are suitably clear-eyed when it comes to the protagonists, and Dash and Lily's backgrounds are sketched out in brief, anecdotal asides instead of being used to explain or excuse. A small, sweet delight.

Friday, August 28, 2015

2015/15: The Three-Body Problem -- Cixin Liu

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. … It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. [loc. 348]

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and immensely popular in China: this novel was recommended to me as 'good hard SF with believable characters', and I'd second that.

As a student during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie saw her father beaten to death for refusing to recant his belief in science. Struggling to reconcile physics and morality, she accepts a post at a top-secret research base.

Wang Miao is a nanotech researcher in present-day China, who's asked to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, the Frontiers of Science group: there's been a spate of suicides in the scientific community and the police are at a loss. After some inexplicable occurences (a timestamped countdown on photos; a flicker of the universe to confirm a threat) Wang Miao is introduced to an online game, Three Body, populated by characters from history. In the game, flying stars herald Stable Eras (when civilisation can flourish) and Chaotic Eras (in which the laws of nature become unpredictable). The goal of the game is to predict the pattern of the sun, and perhaps thus the onset of Chaotic Eras. With sufficient warning, the world's inhabitants can dehydrate and be stored during a Chaotic Era, to be resurrected when stability is restored. Thus far, nobody has solved the riddle. Wang Miao has some ideas, though ...

Enter Ye Wenjie, whose account of her work at Red Coast Base shows the Three Body game in a very different, and much less innocent, light. Meanwhile, modern physics is being called a 'lie'; weird results are popping up in experiments all over the world; and popular opinion is turning against the scientific community.

The scientific ideas in The Three-Body Problem were explained clearly enough for this non-scientist to feel that she understood them -- though that obviously does require a certain degree of infodump. Equally interesting was the depiction of Chinese society, both in the Cultural Revolution and in the present day.

The first of a trilogy: I understand that the second and third are each different in ambience to this, but I'm intrigued to see how things work out.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2015/14: White Cat -- Holly Black

We are, largely, who we remember ourselves to be. That’s why habits are so hard to break. If we know ourselves to be liars, we expect not to tell the truth. If we think of ourselves as honest, we try harder. [loc. 3621]

Cassel Sharp is seventeen, and it's three years since he killed the girl he loved.

He's the outsider in his family, the rest of whom are curse-workers: his older brother Barron manipulates luck, while the middle brother Philip can turn someone's body against them, and their mother -- currently in jail for fraud -- performs emotional workings. Cassel's grandfather has a more fearsome gift: he's a death-worker, murdering people with magic. Every working has a price: a worker, or magic user, who works someone to amend their memories will lose a memory of their own, and Cassel's grandfather has blackened stubs where some of his fingers used to be.

White Cat, the first in a trilogy, opens with Cassel waking up mid-nightmare to find himself teetering on the roof of his college dorm. Was he sleepwalking, or has he been 'worked'? The school, quite sensibly, want him to be someone else's problem, so they pack him off to his grandfather.

Cassel is not wholly without resources. He deputises his roommate Sam to take over the betting pool he runs (his fellow students will bet on anything and everything, including the eventual fate of a mouse in the common room) and fakes a psychologist's letter for the school. Mundanities taken care of, he can turn his attention to the real issue: why he's sleepwalking, losing his memories and dreaming of a white cat.

I'd expected -- not sure why -- something considerably less gritty than the novel I actually read, and I was very happy to have my preconceptions proved wrong. Cassel is not always a likeable protagonist but he has wit and courage, and is surprisingly vulnerable behind his tough-guy facade. That facade is a survival mechanism, not just teen machismo. The world in which he lives is one where magic is a criminal activity (at least in the US): hence, it's run by crime families, which makes it a dangerous game and a treacherous career. Some of Cassel's friends -- who aren't workers -- are campaigning for worker rights and better legislation. But that's probably not going to help Cassel, who finds himself caught up in the harsh realities of illegal magic.

White Cat is first in a trilogy: I ordered the other two as soon as I'd finished the first.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

2015/13: After Z-Hour -- Elizabeth Knox

I wanted to learn something, and felt that this might be my only opportunity in an age of noise, distractions, proscribed imagination and inattention, an age where as an intelligent, educated person I was only sufficiently powerful. This — house, storm, closed road — was my element. Out in the world I was at ease. But here I was alive, surrounded by a warm crowd of ideas and possibilities, knowing that even to surrender myself to the circumstances would not endanger me — I couldn’t be endangered, not just because I have a strong will and, inside myself, a great hinterland of anger from which strength flows like an endless army, but because here I was whatever could endanger me. [loc. 956]

After Z-Hour is Elizabeth Knox's first novel, originally published in 1987 and reissued in 2014. It begins with a tremendous storm, and landslips that strand six travellers overnight in a house that is not as abandoned as it seems. There is much debate between the travellers -- three of whom (Kelfie, Jill and Basil) share the narrative -- about whether the house is haunted. Meanwhile, another voice gradually coalesces: Mark Thornton, a New Zealand soldier who served in the First World War. Whatever channel has opened, it flows both ways: Jill dreams Mark's dreams, Mark catches glimpses of Kelfie, Kelfie wakes from a swoon to speak in 'quaint' slang.

This is not a straightforward novel. It is certainly not a traditional ghost story with creeping fear, revelation, and a culmination of exorcism or escape. Instead, the pasts (and presents) of each character are slowly revealed: Jill the bereaved step-mother, Kelfie the abandoned teenager, Simon with the secret in the boot of his stranded car. It's clear that they are all changed by their night in the house, but their futures remain implicit, beyond the scope of the novel's Aristotelian unities. Except Mark: Mark's future is already past, though his dreams and memories -- vividly resurrected -- are as immediate as Jill's grief or Simon's guilt.

Come to think of it, most of the characters carry their own ghosts with them, either literal dead or figurative losses. I'm unsure about Hannah and Ellen: of all the characters, they are the two I felt I still didn't know well by the end of the book. But Basil's disappearing house, Jill's dead stepdaughter, even the presence of a dead friend in Mark's narrative ... they are all haunted.

Several of Knox's recurring themes -- mourning, dreams, the importance of community -- make an appearance here: so does her gift for precise, lapidary metaphor. ("Rain says, ‘this, this, this, this …’ Snow says nothing." [loc. 1278]) Her characters are all fully rounded, perhaps more self-aware than the average individual -- or perhaps they are simply in a situation which promotes that self-awareness. I was especially intrigued by Kelfie -- Knox describes him in the foreword as 'Machiavellian' -- who is perceived by the others as something not quite human but whose secrets are at once commonplace (in their roots) and profound (in their effects). It's interesting to speculate what he would become, as an adult.

I had to read After Z-Hour twice before I felt that I understood it. This was, however, no hardship.

Afterword: this anecdote of Kelfie's is me to a T. Except for me it was willows and reeds.

‘When I was a kid—’

‘You still are.’

‘—I found a narrow, crescent-shaped gully, in the middle of some low hills, cut by a stream which emerged from the ground, ran for a little way in the open air, then went underground again. I used to spend a lot of time there. I made mud idols and put them in the branches of trees. I made shrines. When the land was sold for a subdivision some guys in bulldozers scraped the top off a hill and pushed all the earth into the gully, filling it up. They never climbed down to look at the tarata, hawthorn, mahoe, and the shallow brown stream. I always wanted to go back there—and it took me a long time to realise I could. Not only am I walking among the trees now, through sunspots on the stream, also I’m buried, still immersed and still unearthing myself.’ [loc.3383]

Friday, July 03, 2015

2015/12: To Kill a Mockingbird -- Harper Lee

Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step – it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.’ [loc.4230]

Read in advance of seeing the Barbican Theatre production [my review here]: I'm one of the few people I know who wasn't forced to read this at school, and I am glad of it because I suspect a lot of the subtleties would have passed me by in my early teens.

Scout Finch is an intriguing narrator, who sees more than she is aware of seeing: her account of events in the little Southern town of Maycomb in 1935 -- when her father defends a Negro against a white woman's accusation of rape -- is gripping because unsensationalised. Scout is (at least initially) more interested in the mysterious recluse Boo Radley, and in her Aunt Alexandra's visions of Scout's deportment (dresses! playing at tea parties!). It's clear that her father is her hero, but she only gradually begins to understand the strength and nature of that heroism.

I found To Kill a Mockingbird quite educational: I had no notion of the Ladies' Law (basically, a man could be jailed for swearing or using offensive language in front of a woman) and little understanding of the culture and morality of the South in the Depression, before WW2. "‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,’ Atticus said." [loc.1483]

There are some aspects of the novel that I suspect were less contentious when it was first published. Mayella's clearly been repeatedly abused by her father, and Lee offers little hope for her or other 'white trash' -- illiterate, impoverished, deprived. And I'm still not convinced that Atticus' muddying of the truth about Bob Ewell's murder is consonant with his ideals of justice.

I read the sample chapter of Go Set a Watchman, and a couple of reviews: I don't feel that I need to read the whole of that novel to understand this one, nor do I wish to read Lee's earlier take on the characters.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

2015/11: A Company of Swans -- Eva Ibbotson

Had she always been wanton? Edward asked himself as he leaned his aching head against the trunk of a tree, uncaring of the ants, the termites, the poisonous spiders it might harbour. Was it just this damnable climate or had it gone on all the time? Had she crept out at night in Cambridge to come out of cakes in Trinity ... out of seashells in Sidney Sussex ... out of cornucopias in St Cat’s? A gigantic moth flew into a lantern; it was new to science, but he let it pass[...] He had meant to marry this girl whose ankles had been gaped at by three dozen gentlemen at dinner ... He had meant to commit his life to her in Great St Mary’s and approach her reverently in a honeymoon hotel in Bognor Regis ... He had meant to introduce her to the Mater! [loc.3053]
Reread: it's a long time since I enjoyed the gentle pleasures of an Eva Ibbotson romance, and I had forgotten how hilariously funny (and precisely observed) Ibbotson's novels can be.

A Company of Swans is set just before the First World War. Though it begins in Cambridge (which I'd forgotten), most of the action takes place in Manaus, a city deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest.

Harriet Morton's mother is dead, and her father -- the Professor -- does not approve of education for women. Oppressed by her father and her miserly aunt (who 'kept in her bedroom a box labelled ‘String too short to tie’'), Harriet's one solace is her ballet class. (She has a fiance, Edward, but he is .. dismal.) When she's offered the opportunity of a role with the corps de ballet in Manaus, her father forbids her to go: but Harriet's iron will prevails, and she runs away.

The corps de ballet is made up of a number of fascinating characters: the gorgeous and chaste Marie-Claude, who is saving up to marry; Simonova, the fading but indomitable prima ballerina who sees in Harriet something unique; fiery Olga Narukov, with a kick like a mule. But there is life outside the ballet, too. Before Harriet left England, she promised a small boy that she would find his uncle Rom, a rubber-planter in Manaus. Rom turns out to be fabulously wealthy and darkly handsome, his playboy demeanour concealing strong principles and a tragic past. He finds himself strangely intrigued by plain, serious, innocent Harriet -- who in turn falls deeply, devastatingly, joyously in love.

Reversals, coincidences, betrayals and mistaken identities abound: happiness is achieved, mostly: old wounds are healed. A delightful novel.

Somewhat surprised to find these novels now marketed for teenagers: when I first read them, they were aimed at adult readers. That said, there's nothing especially explicit, though Harriet does display an enthusiasm for being ruined that some parents might find disturbing.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

2015/10: Meadowland -- Tom Holt

Home’s such a bloody delicate thing, one slight change or one thing missing and it’s screwed up for ever; and a man’s better off blind or missing a hand or a leg than being away from his home. Greeks I’ve talked to since I’ve been here, they think we Icelanders are soft because the most a court of law can do to you back home is make you an outlaw, so you’ve got to leave your house and move away to another part of the country, or overseas. Soft; I don’t think so. I think it’s the cruellest thing you can do. I mean, everybody dies sooner or later, but having to live in the wrong place, in a place that’s not meant for you to be in - that’s cruel. And I never even did anything wrong. [loc.5957]

It's 1037, and John Stethatus, an elderly Byzantine civil servant, finds himself stranded in the mountains with a great deal of gold and a trio of Varangian guards: Kari, Eyvind and young Harald. Kari and Eyvind are veterans, and they regale the company with their stories of the Viking colonisation of Vinland. ("It’s not Wineland, it’s Meadowland.’ Easy mistake to make, of course, specially for an Easterner, with an accent. See, in our language, it’s almost the same word: vinland. Only, if it means ‘wine’ it’s pronounced vin, but if it’s ‘meadow’ it’s more like veen." [loc.3494])

Readers of K. J. Parker will recognise some tropes here: grumbling veterans, the minutiae of everyday life (hey, now I know how to clean a chainmail shirt), strong but shrewish women, unreliable -- or possibly just misguided / thick-skinned -- narrators, the general air of neglect and brokenness around failing settlements, the odd hint that something vaguely weird, or fated, is going on ...

Holt's version of the two surviving Vinland sagas (Eiríks saga rauða and Grænlendinga saga) is a tale beset by ill chance, poor judgement and internecine conflict. Both Kari and Eyvind -- who tell the same story, more or less, but from very different points of view -- sailed on all the voyages recounted in the sagas: Kari may have been the first person to set foot in Vinland. They describe the meeting with the skraelings and Freydis Ericksdottir's reaction to same; the feuds back in Iceland, the navigational errors, the tension between Christianity and 'the old ways': and their story convinces Stethatus that Vinland is 'a place that takes your strengths and turns them into weaknesses'. Armed with this insight, he dispenses some good advice to young Harald ...

I like Holt's writing a lot, though I dislike his treatment of female characters: still, with Freydis he does have a point, and he doesn't have much to say about the rather more likeable Gudrid (see my review of Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, a novel which covers similar territory from a very different perspective). Holt's depiction of the easy discomfort of Eyvind and Kari's codependency produces some of the novel's most entertaining moments: and his knack for crafting apt similes ('asking a tricky question’s just like splitting timber. You tap the nose of your wedge into a little thin shake in the wood') is impressive. That said, Meadowland is really just a novelisation of the sagas, wrapped in a comic frame. I think I prefer Holt's historical work when it's prefixed pseudo-.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

2015/09: Dogsbody --Diana Wynne Jones

Glimmering, frantic, frosty, the cold hounds came pouring into the open. Everything was helter-skelter gleaming eyes, gleaming coats and the wild pattering of feet, as hundreds of white dogs raced after the dim shape. [loc.2913]

A reread, latest but not first: I think this may have been the first Diana Wynne Jones novel I ever read, back at secondary school. I loved it then and love it still.

There are two 'dogsbodies' here: Sirius, the Dog Star, who is incarnated in the body of a puppy as punishment and atonement for a crime; and Kathleen, a young girl who has been taken in by her aunt while her father is in prison, and who ends up doing almost all of the housework. Kathleen adopts Sirius, who eventually remembers that he is searching for the weapon with which the alleged crime was committed: with the help of humans and others -- including the Wild Hunt and its Master -- all is finally made right.

I am amazed at just how much is packed into this novel. Jones' trademark humour (Sirius' interactions with the household cats), Kathleen's isolation (her interactions with her two male cousins are a darker, unhappier mirror of Sirius and the cats), the beauty of Earth, the chilling Wild Hunt and its mysterious Master. He is a fascinating figure, and I suspect he's a synthesis of a number of mythic hunters and lords of the underworld:

The Master said uneasily, “Don’t look too closely. The truth has no particular shape.”
“I know that,” Kathleen sad, rather impatiently. Her eyes stayed watching the space above the Master’s head for all that. “But you’re not Arawn, are you?” she said.
The boys had seen the Master for the first time. They were both terrified. Robin’s teeth chattered and he said, “But he could be Orion or Actaeon, couldn’t he?”
“Or John Peel,” Basil said, very derisively because he was so scared.
Sirius wondered what the three humans had understood about the Master that he had not. It was clear that the Master knew they had understood it, by the way he changed the subject.

I found myself more intrigued by the Hunt, this time around, than by the galactic society (not that sort of galactic society) of luminaries and effulgents that's only lightly sketched. The Master's dual nature as hunter and hunted; the 'tender terror', 'savage sorrow', 'fierce pity' that Sirius feels towards him; most of all, perhaps, Jones' refusal to explain him, in a way that's all too rare these days in children's and YA fiction.

[just found an interesting blog post about the Master, https://onceonatyme.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/hunting-the-hunter/]

“No, darkness is not movement,” he said sombrely. “Nor is the other part of my power, which comes from things as they must be. I’m stronger than you are, luminary..." [loc.3091]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

2015/08: The Invisible Library -- Genevieve Cogman

Her life was more than just airship chases, cyborg alligator attacks, and hanging out with this alternate universe’s nearest analogue to Sherlock Holmes. She was a Librarian, and the deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out, and have nothing to worry about, except the next page of whatever she was reading. [loc. 3694]

Irene works for the Library, a vast mysterious place outside time and space from which any alternate world can be reached. Her job is to retrieve specific books for the Library: texts vary from alternate to alternate, and some books are inextricably bound to the alternates in which they were written.

We first encounter Irene as she burgles a School of Magic ("ANY KIDNAPPERS WILL BE TORN TO BLOODY RAGS BY OUR PROFESSIONALLY MAINTAINED HISTORICAL ARTEFACTS!") for a memoir about necromancy. On returning to the Library, she is swiftly assigned another mission -- and a new assistant, the mysterious and aesthetically pleasing Kai.

Their new quest takes them to an alternate London in search of a unique edition of Grimm, which turns out to contain a couple of extra stories that are important to the Library. This London is a smoggy, steampunky variant, with Leichtensteinian zeppelins, cyborg alligators, vampires and werewolves ('the Whitechapel Roaring Boys'), an infestation of chaotic Fae, a Great Detective ... and a rogue Librarian, whose outrages are the stuff of legend and whom Irene is very definitely not qualified to deal with. Her new apprentice turns out to have some secrets of his own, and to cap it all her own former mentor, the sleek and snide Bradamant, seems to be after the very same book as Irene and Kai.

The Invisible Library is an absolute delight. It's very fast-paced -- something is always happening, and Irene is always in the thick of it -- and full of literary allusion and warped versions of familiar London landmarks. It is also very funny in parts, and quite philosophical to boot: and it sets up admirably for a sequel or three. Irene is a likeable, intelligent and competent protagonist, and most of the supporting cast are pleasingly characterised.

I enjoyed this novel immensely and have pre-ordered the next volume: my only qualm is that the author may end up focussing on the alternates to the exclusion of the Library itself.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

2015/07: The Girl With All The Gifts -- M. R. Carey

Yesterday she thought that the hungries were like houses that people used to live in. Now she thinks that every one of those houses is haunted. She’s not just surrounded by the hungries. She’s surrounded by the ghosts of the men and women they used to be. [loc.3177]

Melanie is top of her class. She's ten years old. She lives on a military base and is studied by scientists. She has a crush on her teacher, Miss Justineau, who reads Greek myths to the children, and shows some affection for Melanie. Sergeant Parks, on the other hand, dislikes and fears her. Melanie doesn't know why.

This is post-apocalypse Britain, variant zombie: the 'hungries' infest the cities, mindlessly devouring any living beings. If the victims survive, they too become infected. Ophiocordyceps, a parasitic fungus, alters their behaviour to propagate more effectively, but it only does so in blood. Otherwise there'd be nothing at all, instead of a few remnants, left of global civilisation.

The Girl with all the Gifts reminded me of old-school science fiction, H. G. Wells and Jack London and so on, though I suspect they wouldn't have considered a little girl an engaging protagonist. I think the novel works because of Melanie's initial ignorance, and subsequently her determination to live and to soak up the new-found world outside the base:
The world pours in through her eyes and ears, her nose, her tongue, her skin. There’s too much of it, and it never stops coming. She’s like the drain in the corner of the shower room. [loc.1245]

Melanie isn't quite like a normal ten-year-old girl. She certainly has different interests, and different life experience. But her upbringing enables her to confront some unpleasant facts courageously and inventively -- and, in doing so, she changes the people around her. A really resonant moment for me was Parks' epiphany: "He has a sense, for the first time in his soldiering career, of what a war crime might look like from the inside." [loc.4534]

I still can't decide if I liked this novel, but I found it compelling and provocative reading.

NB: a friend and I were discussing whether this is a feminist novel. It's true that it has a female protagonist; that the three most important characters are all female; that none of these are defined by their relationships with men. (Indeed, the resolution is pretty much a denial of sexual relationships!) But K argues that there is a lack of embodiment, and I think I agree.