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

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.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

2015/06: The Ghost Fields -- Elly Griffiths

"If there's something buried there, it'll come to the surface one day," says Ruth. "That's one thing I've learnt in my job. Nothing stays buried for ever." [loc.6107]

The Blackstock family has lived in rural Norfolk since time immemorial -- Ruth Galloway's done some DNA testing on Bronze Age remains, and the living Blackstocks share the genes of those who inhabited the area more than two millennia ago. In recent decades the family has become somewhat diminished: Lewis was a POW, 'never the same again', and vanished around 1950; Frederick emigrated to America and died during the Second World War; the surviving brother, George, inherited Blackstock Hall. An American TV crew wants to make a programme about Norfolk's myriad WW2 airfields -- the eponymous 'ghost fields' -- and would like to film at George's son's pig farm. But their plans are thrown into disarray by the fact that there are human bones where human bones shouldn't be ...

Enter forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway.

It's the mark of a good series that one can read each novel as a standalone: I realised only after finishing this that I'd missed the previous novel in the series! But there's a whole other layer separate from the murder mystery: the evolving relationships between Ruth and her friends and loved ones. Cathbad the Druid and some of his friends make an appearance here, as does taciturn DC Nelson and his immaculate, civilised wife Michelle -- and of course Ruth's daughter Kate, just starting school. (They grow up so fast.)

Griffiths describes the sun-baked Norfolk countryside in terms that resonate with me, and I'm fascinated by the archaeological aspects of the story. The crime elements were sufficiently twisty to hold my attention too -- and there were some interesting developments on the interpersonal front. A good, well-paced read.