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

Friday, September 23, 2016

2016/52: The Trespasser -- Tana French

I was doing exactly the same thing as Aislinn: getting lost so deep inside the story in my head, I couldn’t see past its walls to the outside world. I feel those walls shift and start to waver, with a rumble that shakes my bones from the inside out. I feel my face naked to the ice-flavoured air that pours through the cracks and keeps coming. A great shiver is building in my back. [loc. 7950]

Detective Antoinette Conway: young, female, mixed race and single. She takes no shit about any of this, especially the last ('if you don’t exist without someone else, you don’t exist at all') but is the target of practical jokes and insidious gossip from her colleagues on Dublin's Murder Squad. Even her partner, Stephen Moran (first encountered in Broken Harbour) may be part of the problem. There's definitely something going on behind Conway's back, something she's not privy to, and she doesn't like the feel of it.

Conway has exactly two things in common with the victim in their latest case: she is female, and her father abandoned her and her mother. In every other respect, they are apparently worlds apart. Aislinn Murray writes and reads fanfic, 'the sappy kind, not the sexy kind' -- the kind that tries to fix things (Jo March marries Laurie, Juliet wakes up to marry Romeo). Aislinn reinvented herself as Dream Date Barbie: the man she'd invited for dinner on the night she died -- who of course claims he's innocent -- is besotted with her. Aislinn had a best friend, Lucy, who thinks there might have been someone else on the scene. And one of Ash's stories might hold the clue.

I was disappointed with The Trespasser at first: it didn't, for me, have the charm or the weirdness of most of French's previous novels, and I didn't especially like Antoinette Conway. (I have been the woman who doesn't fit in, with a chip on my shoulder.) But I found myself thinking about it for days after I'd finished reading, and that's usually a sign of a good book. The murder mystery is just one strand of the plot, and there's nothing supernatural or inexplicable about it. Deeper in the text lies the story of Antoinette and her father, and perhaps a story about men deciding what is best for women. And at the novel's core there is a theme of vengeance, of fixing the past.

The Trespasser is a novel about the stories we tell and the stories told about us: who writes the scripts, who rescues and is rescued: (If someone rescues you, they own you. Not because you owe them [but] because you’re not the lead in your story any more.[loc. 4749])

Monday, September 12, 2016

2016/51: A Darker Shade of Magic -- V.E Schwab

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible. The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. [loc. 66]

There are several Londons, in different worlds: the one we might think of as 'ours' is Grey London. Kell, an Antari blood-magician raised as a prince's foster-brother in Red London, is one of the few who has travelled to Grey London (where mad King George III reigns) and White London (the latter a starving post-apocalyptic wasteland) and knows the stories of Black London, destroyed by the magic it embraced. Kell is a courier between the rules of the different cities: he's also a collector and smuggler of the unique, from Grey London music-boxes to thaumaturgical texts.

On one of his expeditions to Grey London Kell meets Lila, a pickpocket who's convinced she was born to be a pirate. The two of them are thrown together when Kell is set up by an enemy and finds himself in possession of a dark artifact -- one which threatens the boundaries between the worlds, and the nature of reality itself.

I very much enjoyed V. E. Schwab's Vicious, a tale of superhero origins and friendship betrayed. I'm not as interested by this fantasy novel, though the characterisation is good and the world-building fascinating. It's a good read -- Schwab is good at dialogue and pacing, and her prose flows nicely -- but feels less innovative. That said, I will probably read the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, even though -- thankfully -- there are no cliffhangers in this first volume baiting me to do so.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016/50: The Obelisk Gate -- N. K. Jemisin

It shouldn’t work at all, that willpower and concentration and perception should shift mountains. Nothing else in the world works this way. People cannot stop avalanches by dancing well, or make storms happen by refining their hearing. And on some level, you’ve always known that this was there, making your will manifest. This … whatever it is. [loc. 1543]

The Obelisk Gate starts where The Fifth Season stopped: Jemisin doesn't provide a recap, so it is worth reminding oneself of what happened in that novel. This middle volume of the trilogy introduces Nassun, Essun's daughter, but the focus is still very much Essun and her various emotional commitments: to Nassun, to her former mentor Alabaster, to the people of the hidden sanctuary Castrima.

We learn a great deal more about the nature of orogeny, the ways in which it manifests in the young, and the consequences if it's not controlled. Jemisin also reveals the nature of Alabaster's great plan, and the motivations of those ranged against him. Vast, planet-shaking events are in train. Yet, though the plot advancement was gripping, I found I wasn't as emotionally engaged as by The Fifth Season, and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps the wider focus, perhaps just 'middle book' syndrome. I did feel that some fairly major acts by various characters (for instance, someone being accidentally turned to stone) were inconsequential: that those affected, and those who witnessed the events, didn't react as much as I would have expected. On the other hand, this is not our world. Many of the characters have grown up being treated as non-human: others have rebelled against the established order, and have lived with the hard decisions, life and death, that that implies.

There are a few instances of inaccurate word choice: 'ostensibly administers the syringe’s contents' [loc. 911] for instance, when 'conspicuously' or 'deliberately' might have worked better. And I'm still not entirely sure about the second-person voice: it can draw the reader in, but also alienate when the character's views, reactions, individuality don't make sense to that reader. I did enjoy The Obelisk Gate, but I think I'll enjoy it more when I reread it immediately before the third volume of the trilogy.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

2016/49: The Essex Serpent -- Sarah Perry

'It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!’
‘You think – you really think – that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
‘Not only my reason – there’s not enough of that to set against my soul! – but my liberty.' [loc. 1604]

Strange news out of Essex in the last years of the nineteenth century ... Recently widowed -- her husband's death something of a relief -- Cora Seaborne is swept up by wealthy friends and taken off to the Essex coast, where it is hoped the sea air and the change of scenery will prove uplifting for Cora, her son Francis, and her companion Martha. In the small village of Aldwinter, Cora meets and befriends the vicar, Will Ransome, and his amiable, ethereal wife Stella.

Cora is a keen amateur naturalist, and when she hears stories about a mythical monster (the eponymous Serpent) which may have been released from some muddy abyss by the recent Colchester earthquake, she's excited by the prospect of discovering a living fossil. Her love of science clashes with Will's bone-deep faith, though not at the expense of their growing friendship.

I find it hard to summarise the plot of this novel, and I think that's because it is so much more about the changing relationships between the protagonists than it is about the events which befall them. Luke Garrett, brilliant surgeon, in love with Cora; Martha, stalwart freethinker and admirer of Eleanor Marx; Stella, increasingly obsessed with the colour blue; Francis, whose obsessive curiosity we might now term 'autistic'. Perry writes evocatively of the landscape and light of the Essex coast (where I grew up) and she has a knack for imbuing even minor characters with backstory in a few lines of prose. Cora's and Will's letters, with their descriptions of the natural world (the colour of a hare's fur 'like almonds just out of the shell') are a delight.

I heard Sarah Perry, interviewed with Frances Hardinge (whose The Lie Tree is also set in the Victorian era, and also deals with the friction between religion and science, and the treatment of women) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was fascinated by her comparisons of the Victorian urban life with our own: work, home, leisure ... Perhaps the tragedy at the core of The Essex Serpent is that Cora is too modern for the time in which she's born.