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

Monday, July 25, 2016

2016/46: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street -- Natasha Pulley

‘Well, I know that light is fascinating and full of scientific mystery, but mostly I use it for not walking into objects, and mostly I use ether for not walking into events. It’s there, it’s useful, it’s … not something I can study for more than ten minutes at once without falling asleep. I like mechanics. I’m not the right person to ask for mathematics.’ [loc. 4163]

Victorian London: Thaniel Steepleton is a humble telegraph clerk (capable of transcribing with one hand and sending messages with the other) who's given up his dream of being a pianist to support his widowed sister and her children. He hangs on in quiet desperation, until a reverse-burglary leaves him with a mysterious gold pocket watch, found on his pillow after a break-in. Attempts to sell or return the watch are fruitless: Thaniel thinks nothing more of it until, some months later, the watch turns out to have an alarm function that saves him from a Fenian bomb.

The watch, it turns out, is a miracle of mechanics, which has tracked Thaniel's precise location. Thaniel, in turn, tracks down the watch's maker: reclusive Japanese craftsman Keita Mori, the eponymous Watchmaker. His growing friendship with Mori, and his gradual courtship of Grace Carrow -- an Oxford physics student who is attempting to prove the existence of ether (the substance once thought to conduct light and magnetism) -- transform Thaniel's life. But Grace is wary of Mori, around whom coincidences seem to cluster, and who seems to know what other people will do before they do it.

Though The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is marketed as steampunk, it didn't match my notion of that subgenre. To be honest, it's not that firmly grounded in Victorian London either: there is little mention of religion or royalty, and (Fenians, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Japanese Village at Knightsbridge aside) the setting could have been any time, any where. That said, I was impressed by the minutae through which Mori unfolds London's attitude towards the Japanese. The bigger picture may be out of focus, but the details are clear.

I didn't read this novel for the sense of place: I read it for the characters, and the tensions between them, and the plot -- which did not go at all the way I expected. The blossoming friendship between Mori and Thaniel is fragile and lovely: Grace's esoteric studies, and her resolution to avoid marriage, demonstrate a steely determination which is tempered by her humour: and Mori's clockwork octopus is a delight. I smiled a lot and almost wept at certain points: that, for me, is a success.
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016/43-45: All For the Game [trilogy] -- Nora Sakavic

The Foxhole Court
The Raven King
The King's Men
Neil realized he was happy. It was such an unexpected and unfamiliar feeling he lost track of the conversation for a minute. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this included or safe. It was nice but dangerous. Someone with a past like his, whose very survival depended on secrecy and lies, couldn't afford to let his guard down. [The Raven King, loc. 1050]

Neil Josten is eighteen. His mother is dead: he hasn't seen his crime-lord father for years. Through multiple countries and as many identities, he's fled his past, moving from school to school. His luck's about to change, though: he's been recruited to Palmetto State University's Exy team, the Foxes -- a bunch of misfits and delinquents which happens to include a friend from his former life.

Exy (if you were wondering) is a fictional team game, 'an evolved sort of lacrosse on a soccer-sized court with the violence of ice hockey'. It's the one part of Neil's childhood that he hasn't been able to give up, and he's very good at it. So are the other members of his team. They're just not very good at being people.

There are three major story arcs in this trilogy: the rise to glory of the Foxes; a conflict between rival crime families (some of who are involved in sponsoring and funding Exy teams); and the relationships between the team members, and especially between Neil and the 'sociopathic' Andrew. Pretty much all of these relationships are more or less dysfunctional: the trilogy features rape, murder, torture, characters being drugged against their will, characters not being drugged despite a court mandate, bullying, theft, hatred ...

And yet, there is a hopefulness, a sense of something greater than the sum of its parts: the relationships between characters aren't always nice, but they are heartfelt and vivid. Sakavic's writing is fast, staccato and well-paced, which I think is what kept me reading (the first book was free!) despite my dislike of several characters and my disinterest in the game of Exy. She doesn't make the mistake of infodumping: the characters know more than the readers about their world, and this sense of secrets waiting to unfold was also a powerful motivator.

There were plot elements that I didn't find convincing, and others that made no sense from the viewpoint of one or more participants. I do think the third novel was weaker than the others. It was interesting, though, to read a YA work with no supernatural or fantastical elements, and a distinct lack of heteronormativity.

Final note: I read this trilogy because it was being recommended by people who'd read Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Chronicle (see here for reviews) and who found similarities in characterisation and relationships. My mileage varied: I found All for the Game considerably darker and less humorous, and I didn't like the characters as much.

Monday, July 18, 2016

2016/42: The Silence of the Sea -- Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Ægir had become fired up by the idea; this might be their only chance to sail the ocean in a luxury yacht, and the voyage would also solve a specific problem that had been troubling him. [loc. 373]

A repossessed luxury yacht crashes into the harbour wall at Reykjavik. It turns out that there's nobody on board at all. So what has happened to the crew of three, and to the family of four -- banker Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin four-year-old daughters Arna and Bylgja -- who have sailed from Lisbon to Iceland? Thora Gudmundsdottir, engaged by Ægir's parents, is determined to find out: not just because it's an intriguing case, but because she wants to secure the future of the third daughter, Sigga Dögg.

It's a classic locked-room mystery and Sigurdardottir unravels it in two parallel strands: the events on board the yacht, and the investigations of Thora and her team in Iceland. Is the yacht cursed, as some believe? Is there some supernatural force at work? Why did nobody radio for help? And where are the missing persons?

The mystery unravels slowly and in a generally satisfactory way (though I have to say I found Ægir, in particular, annoyingly stupid). I was less interested in Thora and her domestic, social and professional relationships: perhaps if I'd read other novels in the series I'd be keener to see how these evolved. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016/41: Arcadia -- Iain Pears

The English were a different matter. As their lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval. [loc. 2553]

The novel begins with a young boy in a simple farming community. He is known as Jay. He goes to fetch water, and sees a vision of a fairy or a spirit. 

Zoom out: Jay's experience is an episode from a fantasy novel that Henry Lytten is reading out to his writing group. (‘Where are the dragons? A whole chapter, and not a single dragon?' Lytten scowled. ‘There are no dragons.' ‘No dragons?' said the other in mock astonishment. ‘What about wizards?' ‘No.' ‘Trolls?' ‘No. Nothing of the sort.' ‘Thank God for that. Go on.' [loc. 100]) It's Oxford, 1960, and Professor Lytten is still tangentially involved in espionage. So, perhaps, is his friend and erstwhile lover, the mysterious Angela Meersum, who has left some of her effects in his cellar, including something that resembles a battered garden pergola. Rosie, who feeds Lytten's bad-tempered cat, discovers that beyond Angela's 'pergola' there is a different world ...

Pan left to Angela, whose narrative is first-person and altogether delightful ("That was my opinion and I admit that others thought differently. But they were idiots." [loc. 382]) is actually a visitor from a technocratic dystopia, several hundred years in the future. But is it 'the' future, or simply 'a' future? And why does it bear such a resemblance to the SF novel being workshopped by Lytten's colleague Persimmon?

I found Arcadia an engaging and provocative read. It plays with various fantasy and science fiction tropes; offers a critique of Tolkien and Lewis, and sly nods to other authors, including Le Carré, who makes an anonymous appearance, and Shakespeare, whose As You Like It proves to be one of Lytten's major influences. There are a number of interesting female characters, none of them defined by their romantic or sexual behaviour; there are echoes and foreshadowings aplenty. And at heart, Arcadia is a novel about story-telling: about the role of the Storyteller, the power he or she wields, and the perils of inconsistency.

Apparently there is also an Apple App for this novel. It has more words in it than the book (hmph), and it allows the reader to follow each thread -- the bucolic, non-magical fantasy of Anterworld, the quiet life with occasional subterfuge of Oxford, and the dystopian world which Angela has fled. Frankly, I'd rather read the novel as Pears intended it, and let the author control the shape and pacing -- both of which I feel worked very well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

2016/40: Carry On -- Rainbow Rowell

"I thought it was a myth."
"One would think, after seven years, you'd stop saying that out loud."
"Well, how am I supposed to know? There isn't a book, is there? All the Magickal Things that Are Actually True and All the Ones that Are Bollocks, Just Like You Thought."
"You're the only magician who wasn't raised with magic. You're the only one who would read a book like that." [loc. 834]

In Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell wrote about fanfiction, and a girl named Cath who was obsessed by the fictional world of a best-selling series, featuring tyro wizard Simon Snow, evil-seeming Baz Pitch, and their doomed, swoony romance. (The romance, of course, does not feature in the original series, but it is the focus of Cath's fanfic.) Cath was writing a novel-length fic called 'Carry on, Simon', which she was desperate to publish before the final book of the canonical series came out.

So: Carry On. I'm pretty sure it's not intended to be the fanfic that Cath wrote: the style is more that of Cath's favourite author, Gemma T Leslie, than of Cath herself. It is not much like J K Rowling's style, either, though Rowell would be the first to admit that Fangirl is largely based on the phenomenon that is Harry Potter fandom. Carry On's hero, Simon Snow, is definitely a Chosen One: the Mage, who never seems to tell him what he wants to know, has been guiding and shaping Simon's life since he was eleven, moving him from one children's home to the next during summer holidays. Simon's arch-enemy, Baz Pitch, is sophisticated and sneery and very probably a vampire. Penny, Simon's best friend, is Anglo-Indian. ("I didn't know someone like you could be named Penelope", Simon recalls saying to her, 'stupidly', when they first met). Agatha, Simon's girlfriend (or is she Baz's?), is gorgeous and very girly.

Rowell's variation on the theme doesn't make as much of the politics of the magical-mundane divide as Rowling's: she does, however, address some of the issues that Rowling doesn't focus on. For instance, the Mage's treatment of Simon is depicted as more problematic than Dumbledore's behaviour towards Harry; the elitism of the wizarding world is questioned by several characters; Agatha is less of a cipher than Ginny Weasley, and more of an independent character with agency of her own. Perhaps most tellingly, Simon's nemesis -- the Humdrum, a force that leaves holes in the intrinsic magic of the land -- is intimately connected to Simon himself. Correlation or causality?

Instead of focussing on one character's narrative, with reportage of events at which he's not present, Rowell tells her story from several different first-person viewpoints: Simon, Penny, Agatha, Baz, the Mage, the mysterious Lucy. And though there is plenty of backstory -- Carry On is framed as the final novel in an eight-book series -- it's sketched in lightly, by allusion rather than flashback or laboured 'do you remember' exchanges.

I did enjoy Carry On: it's astutely observed, often very funny and has a fascinating system of magic based on catchphrases and cliche. I'd probably have enjoyed it more, and in different ways, if I were a bigger fan of the Harry Potter franchise. However, it did prompt me to read some HP fanfic!

Monday, July 11, 2016

2016/39: The Good, The Bad and The Furry: Life with the World's Most Melancholy Cat and Other Whiskery Friends -- Tom Cox

Nobody ever asked the question ‘Who Let the Cats Out?’ in a pop song because the answer is obvious: it was the same person who let them in again two minutes later, and out again two minutes after that. Doors are a classic example of that ‘I hate this – it’s fucking great!’ mantra that seems to be part of the permanent internal monologue of all cats. [loc. 1350]

Occasionally very moving, frequently very funny, and capable of bestowing a warming sense of schadenfreude on any reader who lives in a household where cats do not outnumber humans. Also, several instances of 'thank god it's not just me / my cat'.

What can one say about a book of cat observations, interspersed with anecdotes about the author's (delightful) parents? Reminds me of the best fan writing. This is a compliment.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

2016/38: The Outcast Dead -- Elly Griffiths

... bodies and treasure are often found buried in marshes, to mark that boundary. Was Liz stuck in her own liminal zone, dazed from sadness and lack of sleep, unable to distinguish between dreams and reality? [loc. 1405]

Ruth Galloway is excavating the remains of executed prisoners at Norwich Castle when she discovers a skeleton with a hook for a hand. Could it be the notorious child-killer Jemima Green, who was known as Mother Hook? Her boss Phil would certainly like to think so: he's excited at the prospect of appearing on television, and by the attention of the documentary team working on 'Women Who Kill'. Meanwhile, DC Nelson is investigating the death of a child. He suspects the mother, not least because her other two children died -- apparently of natural causes.

The Outcast Dead is about children and mothers, childcare and neglect and the lengths to which some will go to in defence of their beliefs, or when driven by maternal love. It's not the most enthralling of Griffiths' forensic archaeology novels -- I missed the archaeology, of which there's very little -- but it's a well-paced read with some interesting character development and a hint of the supernatural.

Norwich has changed a great deal since I was at university there and I confess I didn't recognise many of the locations. I really should go back for a visit some time.