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

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.