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

Friday, January 22, 2016

2016/08: A Kind of Vanishing -- Lesley Thomson

Alice came in the day too. She was there when Eleanor's father shut the curtains in the evening, hovering in the fabric. Earlier, Eleanor had found her lying under the sofa, her face cupped in chubby hands. She was using all Eleanor's secret places. Alice was spying without taking turns, which was not fair. She was hiding really well, for only Eleanor had found her. [loc. 502]
One hot summer's day in 1968, two nine-year old girls -- Alice and Eleanor -- are playing together in a deserted village, somewhere on the Sussex coast. Eleanor has been forbidden to play there: it's dangerous, her father says.

Alice and Eleanor aren't friends, but their parents think they should be. Eleanor's vivid imagination is her secret weapon against Alice's prim nature and nasty taunts, but when their game of hide-and-seek concludes with Alice's disappearance, she is going to have to tell the truth about where they were playing. Everyone thinks Eleanor must know what happened to Alice, but she doesn't ... at least, she doesn't think she does.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s. Chris lives with her agoraphobic mother in a small London flat. She discovers the story of Alice and Eleanor, and makes contact with Alice's stil-grieving mother Kathleen, who has never quite let go of her daughter. Chris goes to visit Kathleen, on -- by some horrible coincidence --the day when Eleanor's father commits suicide by driving his car into the swimming pool. But where is Eleanor? She's estranged from her family: nobody in the village has seen her for years.

A Kind of Vanishing is a powerful novel about how differently cases of child abduction (and presumed murder) have been treated over the last fifty years. It's a novel about absence and deception. Eleanor's fate was, for me, completely unexpected: the more so because child-Eleanor is such an intricate and credible character, making her way through a world governed by the strange logics of childhood. (Weirdly, her thoughts and behaviours made her seem like an only child, despite having siblings.) Her relationship with her parents -- especially her mother -- is wholly transformed by Alice's disappearance, and her sense of injustice is strong.

Reviewing my notes and highlights, I realise there's a lot of foreshadowing, plenty of clues that I only half-noticed when reading. Thomson definitely has a knack for concealing a plot in plain sight.

Is it worth noting that pretty much all the characters in this novel -- all the characters with agency, with viewpoint -- are female? I think it is.

2016/09: Europe In Autumn -- Dave Hutchinson

So Leo ... told him a mad story of chefs and restaurants and catastrophic jumps and hot briefcases and heads in lockers, a riot in a national park, a fake barristers chambers, a year of moving from place to place incognito. [loc. 4511]

An espionage thriller with undertones of New Weird and at least one conscious nod to Douglas Adams, set in a near-future Europe which is fracturing into micro-states. Rudi, an Estonian chef, is asked to help his manager's relative escape 'the Independent Silesian State of Hindenberg -- formerly the Polish cities of Opole and Wroclaw (formerly the German cities of Opeln and Breslau)': once that mission's complete, he finds himself in the process of being recruited to a shadowy and old-fashioned spy network, the Coureurs du Bois. (Rudi notes that their operational jargon sounds like something from a John Le Carre novel.)

Rudi's career as an international man of mystery encounters a couple of sticking points, but he holds to the notion of 'keeping alive the spirit of Schengen', even when it becomes (very gradually) apparent that there is something unusual about the Trans-European Republic -- an independent state, nowhere more than 10k wide, which was once the TransEurope Express, a railway line stretching from Portugal to Siberia. The Line seems to be the root (route, haha) of the setbacks and impossibilities that Rudi encounters.

One of the things I liked most about this novel was its awareness of genre fiction: Rudi is clearly a fan of spy novels, often comparing the Coureurs' operations unfavourably to spy novels. I wish he'd also read more SF and / or magic realism: some Mieville, maybe, or Borges, or a nice chunk of Kafka. I certainly caught echoes of all those authors.

Rudi is a likable protagonist, with no major flaws (aside from an occasional tendency to experience his life as though he were in a film): an everyman. I enjoyed Hutchinson's worldbuilding, appreciated his humour, and was caught up in the intricacy of his plotting. Not all of the plots are neatly tied up at the end of Europe in Autumn: actually, the stage is set for ever more Byzantine evolutions. Interested to see where the story goes in the second volume (Europe at Midnight).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2016/07: The Man Who Rained --Ali Shaw

she had left wet footprints across the courtyard floor, which was bone dry, despite the falling rain. A transformation was happening at knee-height. She watched a raindrop break there prematurely, shattering against the thin air. Then the shape of its suspended splash became that of spread insect wings, [loc. 2045]

Following the death of her stormchaser father and an unwanted marriage proposal, Elsa flees New York for Thunderstown -- a small, isolated settlement surrounded by mountains, streets laid out in a spiral that, from the air, calls to mind a weather system. Elsa first saw Thunderstown from the air, from a plane, and became obsessed with visiting. But she couldn't have expected the town's oddities. There are wild dogs with sky-coloured eyes: she sees one killed by Daniel Fossiter, the Culler. Kenneth, who runs the B&B, tells her about the myths surrounding the mountains, and explains that the streets are named after aspects of the town's mining history. She learns of Old Man Thunder, a local legend blamed for the town's weather-related mishaps. And one day, walking in the mountains, she sees outcast Finn Munro do something utterly inexplicable.

There is a great deal of doomed love in this novel, from Daniel's helpless adoration of Finn's mother Betty to the attraction Elsa feels for Finn. Nobody in Thunderstown (with the possible exception of the nuns of St Catharine) seems especially happy: Elsa, busily ignoring her mother's gifts to her and indulging in solitary wanderings, seems intentionally disconnected from the world. The townspeople are narrow-minded and fearful, rejecting the magic around them. (They're also, to my jaundiced eye, somewhat stereotypical: cricket-mad West Indian, eccentric but jolly nun, repressive councillor.) As I recall, everyone is single: nobody loves.

It's almost as though love and weather are the same thing ...

The world Shaw describes is beautiful and tragic. There is some marvellous prose herein: and yet I can't say that the characters engaged me as much as the setting. True, Daniel becomes somewhat more likeable, and Finn has some interesting observations on human life and love: but I felt there was a two-dimensional feel to The Man Who Rained, and I didn't enjoy it as much as The Girl with Glass Feet.

Monday, January 18, 2016

2016/06: The Grasshopper's Child -- Gwyneth Jones

‘We don’t belong at school. We’re far older at fifteen than we would have been if this was, I don’t know, the year 2000. Because everything’s changed.’

‘Younger, too,’ said Clancy wryly. ‘The government says so. It’s important to be young.’ [loc. 3883]

The Grasshopper's Child isn't exactly a sequel to the 'Bold as Love' series, though it features some of the same characters and takes place in the same future, about ten years after the end of Rainbow Bridge. It's a YA novel, with a single thread focussing on a teenager, Heidi, who discovers corruption and crime in the small Sussex village of Mehilhoc when she's sent there to work for an elderly brother and sister.

English society and culture has settled into an uneasy equilibrium. England is still ruled by the Chinese, and the Welfare State has morphed into a system of indentures and forced agricultural labour. Heidi is effectively a slave, working to pay off her murdered father's debts. There are other teenaged carers in the village, too, and a well-meaning but not wholly effective system of support and education. Until the arrival of Heidi, and the mysterious 'hooded boy' Clancy, nobody seems to have questioned some of the more peculiar aspects of village life: the ghosts (are they ghosts?) that Heidi encounters in the old house; the benevolence of the local aristocrats, the Carron-Knowells; the undercover copper in the woods.

Heidi quickly finds her feet, is adopted by a smelly old cat, and unravels the many puzzles, past and present, of Mehilhoc. Meanwhile, she makes new friends, witnesses modern-day piracy, and even gets to attend the People’s Young Artist show (a horribly likely future for the X-Factor niche in popular entertainment). How cool that one of the judges is wearing an Ax Preston digital mask ...

The Grasshopper's Child was a quick read, but an interesting one. Despite the YA themes and structure, it offers insight into the future the follows the catastrophes and reversals of 'Bold as Love', and even into the future lives of the protagonists. Heidi's voice is distinctive and credible, and Jones' familiarity with and affection for the Sussex countryside is evident in the scene-setting. There's a distressing sense of hopelessness underlying the observations of Heidi and her friends. ('What's the use of history when there's no future?') and it's harder, in this setting, to write it off as adolescent angst. But the world is still changing around them, and the 'something rotten in the heart of England' is gradually rotting away.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

2016/1-5: the Bold As Love sequence --Gwyneth Jones

Bold as Love
Castles Made of Sand
Midnight Lamp
Band of Gypsys
Rainbow Bridge
'We're not their political leaders, we're more like their gods. That's what rockstars are to their public... objects of superstitious devotion. And most of them are clueless, docile cashcows, getting well fed and making the priests rich, same as most of all the gods you ever heard of. Except for the ones who are also criminally insane. It's fair enough. People choose to worship lumps of wood, they're only as fooled as they want to be.'[Bold as Love, loc. 5479]

Reread because I noticed that a new book in the same future (The Grasshopper's Child, review soon!) had appeared, and realised that I hadn't reread the original novels for quite a while. Checked bookshelf: some volumes lost during recent move(s). Luckily, it turns out they're available as ebooks now (though with some typos / formatting issues). And 2015-16 is, I think, approximately when Bold as Love is set ...

It's interesting seeing what feels right and what feels dated. On the one hand, homewrecker floods, refugees, politicians with unsavoury habits: on the other, Fiorinda being called 'babe' -- not just informally, but in printed media. That felt like something that wouldn't happen now.

The 'Bold as Love' sequence tells the story of the Rock'n'Roll Reich and its aftermath: nine years in which three rock musicians (Ax, Sage and Fiorinda) act out a rather Arthurian love story set against the decline of civilisation. For the majority of the series, England is cut off in various ways from the rest of the world, emphasising the Dark Ages ambience. (There are several references to the works of Rosemary Sutcliff, not least The Lantern Bearers, which is set just after the departure of the Romans from England.) Magic -- and / or very advanced technology -- is on the rise. The first two books focus on England (the UK has been dissolved): the third is set in California, and by the fifth the Reich has fallen, the world has changed almost beyond recognition, and England has been designated a 'Human Treasure, First Class'.

I find Bold as Love and Castles Made of Sand the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying of the series: they can be read as a self-contained diptych, even though the personal and political stories continue in the subsequent books. Perhaps that's simply because of the almost mythic feeling to the finale of Castles, where an enemy is vanquished by the last-minute reappearance of a hero, and the three protagonists are reunited after dire trials. It's the closest to a happy ending that Sage, Ax and Fiorinda can manage. But it's not the end.

The future Jones presents is, despite the rock'n'roll glitz and the whole crowd-pleasing socialism of the Counter-Culture, neither glossy nor utopian. Bad things happen to good people (and to bad): murder, rape, genocide, torture ... History repeats, and not just recent history. Science may look like magic, but real magic is less predictable, and more dangerous. It's notable that Fiorinda, who may be the only character to possess 'traditional' magical powers, is frequently imperilled: her power doesn't save her, or those dearest to her, and she doesn't regard it as a gift.

I still love the series: I still find it by turn funny, romantic, horrific, and sheer fun. And I still harbour a romantic fondness for Sage, Ax and Fiorinda: they are complex, likeable characters with realistically flawed interactions.

I'm older than at our first encounter: they're not.

Maybe I'll reread again in another decade's time.

NB: I wrote about Bold as Love for a critical anthology on winners of the Arthur C Clarke Award: The New Dark Ages.