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.