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

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016/81: The Three -- Sarah Lotz

He also expressed concern that Jess could be an alien being, but I assured him that aliens don’t exist and he was more than likely dealing with a bad energy influx.[loc. 4863]

On a single December day, four planes crash in different parts of the world, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people. There are just three survivors -- all children aged around six -- and The Three takes the form of a collection of interviews, news cuttings and transcripts of the coverage of those children (Bobby Small, Hiro Yanagida and Jessica Craddock) after the crash.

Evangelists claim they are three of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, heralding the end of the world. Paul Craddock, Jessica's uncle, believes they are something ... strange. One man believes that Bobby has cured a neighbour's Alzheimer's. And the children themselves? We don't get a great deal of insight into their experience, their perception, their memories.

I can't say I enjoyed this. The writing occasionally felt lazy, and it was sometimes hard to distinguish the characters. While The Three was an interesting take on the gradual alienation of the adults closest to each child, it didn't really deliver on its initial premise, and the hints of the supernatural (3am, the Japanese 'ghost hour'; ghosts with no feet; the suicide forest) remained mere hints.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016/80: Golden Hill -- Francis Spufford

It had been his study to fit whatever part of the honeycomb housed him. But here – though it would suit him now... to fall in with the merchants’ preferences, whatever they might be, or at least not to flout them too scornfully – he must study not to fit. He must remain the mercurial, the unreckonable stranger.[loc. 619]

New York, 1746: the mysterious Mr Smith arrives from London, with a bill of exchange for a thousand pounds and a smiling disinclination to reveal anything whatsoever about himself, his purposes, or the purchases he hopes to make.

Smith -- handsome, competent, eloquent and amiable -- is taken up by New York society, and makes a number of friends and acquaintances. He attracts the attention of the Governor; of banker's daughter Tabitha Lovell; of Septimus Oakeshott, who knows more about a recent theft than he admits; of Mrs Terpsichore Tomlinson, a former actress who is now an officer's wife. And meanwhile the sixty days between the bill of exchange being presented and its falling due are ticking past.

In the best traditions of the picaresque novel, Smith finds himself duelling; escaping over the rooftops; wooing a difficult woman; seduced in a bathhouse; gambling for high stakes, feasting, appearing in a play; observing, at every moment, the social mores and institutionalised iniquities of New York life. Golden Hill, indulging these traditions, also plays with their conventions. There are three passages -- a card game, a duel and the bathhouse seduction -- where we're shown the novelist's exasperation at trying to describe their character experiencing something of which they, narrating, have no first-hand knowledge. There are also occasional observations on Smith's naivete and impetuous behaviour: hints, perhaps, that the author of this picaresque has mixed emotions about Mr Richard Smith.

I was, I think, expecting something along the lines of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle: certainly, at least for the first few chapters, Smith is very much concerned with matters of economics, currency and trade. But it gradually became clear that this was an altogether different kind of novel: and though Spufford gives us all the information necessary to contextualise Smith's behaviour, I confess I didn't foresee the denouement. Nor -- because of my ignorance of this period of history -- did I realise just how catastrophic a certain revelation would be.

Golden Hill is clever, witty, compassionate and splendidly written. There are a lot of likeable characters (I think I actually cried at the fate of one of them), and plenty of complex motivations. Smith, in particular, is most interesting when he's at his lowest: his miserable anger at losing his right to chose, his self-flagellation for making the wrong decisions. (" – It will be observed that these realisations were coming rather late," remarks the novelist dryly.) The immediacy of Spufford's descriptions of eighteenth-century New York is breathtaking, and I seldom felt that he was including anything merely for the sake of including it. Delicious.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016/79: More Than This --Patrick Ness

Isn’t dying once enough? he thinks. Am I going to have to keep doing it? But then he thinks, No. Because you can die before you’re dead, too.[loc. 1132]

The book opens with a detailed description of Seth's death, drowning in an ice-cold sea. Then he wakes up, and is, as far as he can tell, in Hell.

It looks a lot like England, where he grew up. His family moved to Washington state after the bad thing that happened to his little brother Owen: but now he's back in his childhood home, and the town is deserted, and he is, he must be, in hell.

He's not entirely alone. He meets Regine and Tomacz, who warn him about some of the hazards of the place, and help him make sense of some of his memories. There was a boy he loved, who he thinks betrayed him: there was his difficult relationship with his parents, who neglected him in favour of Owen.

Or did they?

After a certain point in this novel, I was unable not to think of it as a variant on a well-known SF film of the 1990s: however, given that it's a YA novel, it's possible that the target audience won't make that association. And anyway, there are different issues being addressed here: teen suicide, relationships, sex and race and immigration, the nature of reality, the fallibility of memory, and why you should be careful about taking intimate photos on your phone.

Ness is an excellent writer, and his prose and the deceptive simplicity of Seth's experience carried me through the passages that I found less credible or less engaging. Seth's Hell may be in his own mind, but it's harrowing: Regina and Tomacz' experiences are just as grim, and just as grittily real.

I'd like to know which book Seth was reading, though:
he takes a book from the bookcase. It’s one of his father’s, one Seth has already read part of years ago, sneaking it from the shelf in America when his father wasn’t looking. It was far too old for him at the time and, he smiles wryly, is probably too old for him now. There’s large quantities of good-spirited sex, metaphors that run on just for the hell of it, and plenty of philosophical musing about immortality. There’s also a satyr who features heavily... He looks at the cover again. A satyr playing pan pipes, far more innocent-looking than what it got up to in the story. [loc 1457

This is bugging me! Any suggestions? John Fowles?

2016/78: The Age of Miracles -- Karen Thompson Walker

After the slowing, every action required a little more force than it used to. The physics had changed. Take, for example, the slightly increased drag of a hand on a knife or a finger on a trigger. From then on, we all had a little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel? Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret?[loc. 525]

The Earth's rotation slows, making days longer: ecological and sociological disaster ensue, as crops fail, the magnetosphere thins, and the US Government decrees that America will run on 'clock time' -- meaning that noon might be the middle of the dark hours.

This is not the plot, though: this is the background. The plot revolves around Julia, an eleven-year-old girl living in California, who observes the world changing from the self-absorbed perspective of an adolescent. Her best friend is taken away by her family, who believe that the slowing is a sign of God's wrath; Julia's mother starts hoarding food and showing signs of 'the syndrome'; their neighbour Sylvia rejects clock time and asserts that humans can adapt to the new rhythms of nature; and Julia's grandfather restocks his nuclear-proof bunker.

Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story, set in a world that is slowly disintegrating: nothing can be trusted to remain the same, a sound metaphor for adolescence. It's a beautifully-written book, and Walker's choice of narrator means that any flaws or fallacies in the science can be glossed over as a product of the character's ignorance. (I did get annoyed when she referred to astronauts on the space station -- stranded because all the equations have changed -- as being 'ten thousand miles higher' than hot air balloons. Nope, two hundred and fifty miles higher, give or take. Or is this poetic hyperbole?)

Julia witnesses the breakdown of the modern world -- a kind of slow apocalypse -- with the same fascinated semi-comprehension that she turns on the people around her. Her father may be having an affair; her own budding relationship with Seth Moreno has more, and more surreal, hurdles to overcome than the typical pre-teen romance. Julia is (though she doesn't admit it) painfully lonely: her first-person narrative, looking back from the vantage point of her late teens, is focussed more on the relationships around her than on the invisible catastrophe that is changing everything.

The Age of Miracles is a compelling read. I didn't know, when I read it, that it had been sold for a record-breaking advance ($1m). I'm not sure that it's that good: but the juxtaposition of slow catastrophe and adolescent angst worked for me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016/77: Company of Liars -- Karen Maitland

Once, half-submerged in a sodden field, we saw the statue of St Florian, his millstone tied around his neck. Since their saint was unable to protect them from the rains, the parishioners had stripped his statue of his scarlet cloak and golden halo, beaten him and cast him out to face the elements. Many of the cottagers were no longer begging God for mercy, they were angry with him. They felt betrayed...[loc. 2898]

Set in 1348, just after the Black Death has reached England: 'Camelot', a hawker of relics, decides to head north to avoid the plague. Camelot is joined by Cygnus, a swan-winged story-teller; Zophiel, a travelling magician with a wagonful of heavy boxes; Venetian musician Rodrigo and his pupil Jofre; painter Osmond and his wife Adela, who is expecting their first child; Pleasance, a midwife; and a strange white-haired child, Narigorm, who reads runes and is given to doom-laden pronouncements.

As Doctor House says, 'everybody lies'. All of these travellers are lying, concealing their individual, desperately important, secrets: and many of them are doomed by their lies.

Around them the fabric of society is falling apart. The weather is abominable, the harvest has failed; the people feel betrayed by God and take refuge in superstition and xenophobia; there are outlaws roaming the roads, and wolves in the forests, and the pestilence lays waste to whole villages. Somebody -- or something -- is following the little company of nine. And then the deaths begin...

Company of Liars is not a cheerful read, but it's a strangely compelling one: I found myself eager to unravel the lies and deceptions of each member of the company, and knotting together hints and allusions to stay one step ahead of the narrator. There is definitely something uncanny going on, and it seems to centre on Narigorm -- the only character whose motivation ('because I can') I found less than convincing. The other characters felt familiar to me from medieval literature, and novels set in the period: you could read this as a modern variation on The Canterbury Tales (where, remember, not everyone is wholly honest about their past), or as a critique of those Decameron-esque works where aristocrats retire to a secluded villa to eat and drink and tell stories to one another. But the stories in Company of Liars are rather more brutal.

I see why people have an issue with the ending of this novel: it feels ... unnecessary. Cheap, even. But it does indicate that even Camelot's lie has been unravelled.

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016/75: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet -- David Mitchell

"Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?"
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply.
"Yes."
"Then where . . ." Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton ". . . is it?"
"The soul is a verb," he impales a lit candle on a spike, "not a noun."[loc. 3042]

The year is 1799. Jacob de Zoet has been packed off by his prospective father-in-law to Dejima, the manmade island in Nagasaki Bay that is the sole point of contact between Japan and the rest of the world. Jacob is there to make something of himself: the Dutch East India Company is there to make a vast profit, ideally without letting on just how precarious its own position is. Tensions run high on Dejima, both between the various European factions and between the Europeans and the Japanese. De Zoet does his bit to make himself unpopular by uncovering evidence of past corruption and dishonesty. He is also in possession of an illegal book -- and befriends the translator, Uzaemon, who helps him conceal this crime.

Meanwhile, a young midwife named Orito Aibagawa has (by saving the lives of baby and a mother in a difficult birth) been granted the exclusive, extraordinary privilege of studying with one Doctor Marinus, Dejima's resident physician and a thoroughly Enlightenment fellow. De Zoet encounters Miss Aibagawa a couple of times, and falls recklessly in love with her. But their love is (of course) doomed: she is sent, against her will, to be a Sister in the remote temple-compound of Abbot Enomoto. There, she discovers a horrific cult and a fragile calm that's built on lies.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a large cast and a sprawling plot, though all (or most) of the elements do come together in the end. There is romance and swashbuckling, in both Japanese and European modes, and plenty of intrigue and double-dealing from all concerned. Themes of imprisonment and sacrifice -- literal and metaphorical in both cases -- permeate the novel, and Mitchell uses that large cast to demonstrate many and varied ways in which human beings can be captive, free and both at once.

It's also immensely readable. I love Mitchell's writing here, full of jewel-like phrases ('Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting' [loc. 1162]), profound discussions and humour that ranges from earthy to refined. I admire the transition from the Dutch / European chapters to the Japanese, and back. The characters, whatever their moral alignments, are generally interesting (though Mitchell doesn't always flesh them out as much as I'd like) and their interactions credible.

Reading this after The Bone Clocks is ... a weird kind of tantalisation. Would I have picked up all those little hints?

2016/76: Rebel of the Sands -- Alwyn Hamilton

"How long had it been since you’d seen a First Being before the Buraqi came into town? Magic and metal don’t mix well. We’re killing it. But it’s fighting back." [loc. 993]

Amani Al’Hiza is sixteen, good with a gun, and being lined up as her uncle's next bride. She is unenthusiastic about the idea, and disguises herself as a boy to enter a sharpshooting contest. The prize money will be enough to help her escape Deadshot (a backwater, deadend desert town which has accreted around a munitions factory) and make for the city, where she believes a better life can be had.

Then Amani meets an enigmatic stranger, Jin, who is up to no good. He sees through her disguise, and offers to help her if she'll help him. Boom! goes the munitions factory. Amani and Jin flee by train ... and Jin offers her the opportunity to be part of the rebellion against the Sultan and his allies.

The rebellion's motto is 'a new dawn, a new desert,' and Amani is intrigued. Especially when Jin explains to her about the First Beings, the magical creatures such as Buraqi and Djinni that are being driven away by iron and gunpowder but are fighting back ... and the Demdji, the offspring of human and Djinn.

I'd have been happier with this novel if I'd stopped reading after the first half. The world-building is excellent -- Wild West meets Arabian Nights, to summarise in cliche -- and Amani and Jin are fairly interesting while they're getting to know one another. But the second half of the novel (the rebellion, and the evaporation of Jin's mystique) didn't appeal as much: though plenty was happening, it felt much less immediate and interesting than that first flight from Deadshot. And though I was pretty much expecting the romantic subplot -- Amani and Jin having been snarking and bantering since pretty much the moment they met -- its development was curiously flat and unsatisfying.

There are a lot of aspects of Rebel of the Sands that I like: grimly determined feminist heroine with wit and courage; non-European roots (there are no white people in this novel); intriguing world-building (for instance, the stars and moon 'going out' at midnight, a phenomenon which has been embedded into religious belief); the shadowy hints of the First Beings and the possibility that humans colonised a world which already had sentient inhabitants; and, of course, Amani's heritage. I'm interested enough in those aspects that I'll probably read the rest of the trilogy at some point.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016/74: Medicus -- Ruth Downie

Ruso closed his eyes briefly and dreamed of a world where women stayed quietly at home and sewed things and understood the value of Modesty and Obedience–not to mention Not Turning Up Dead Under Suspicious Circumstances. When he opened them again, he was still in Britannia.[loc. 2317]

Gaius Petreius Ruso has family obligations, debts, an ex-wife about whom he's still bitter, and a new posting as an army doctor at the fort of Deva, in north-west Britannia.

He's hoping that his move to Britain will signal a change in his fortune: and so it does, though perhaps not quite in the way he hopes. Rescuing an injured slave-girl, Tilla, from her abusive owner is the first step on a path that leads Ruso to investigate a number of deaths in, or connected to, the local brothel. (Also a nasty case of food poisoning.)

I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped: I didn't especially like any of the characters (though Tilla and Chloe have potential), and wasn't entirely convinced by the changing relationship between Ruso and Tilla. Medicus does explore the less-heroic aspects of colonial Roman life, and there are some interesting interactions between Romans and locals. And it's well-written. But for all its merits as a historical novel, I just wasn't in the mood to enjoy reading a story about multiple women being murdered.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016/73: Inflight Science: A Guide to the World from Your Airplane Window -- Brian Clegg

We aren’t entirely sure why Newton came up with the number seven, including those obscure shades indigo and violet, but there’s a strong feeling that he was drawing a parallel with music. In the musical ‘spectrum’ there are seven notes, A to G, before completing the octave and returning to the next A up. Newton, it’s thought, felt that there also ought to be seven colours in the visible spectrum.[loc. 1323]

Entertaining pop-science, just the right length for a 4-hour flight: Clegg explores cloud formation, fractal coastlines, the physics of flight, airport security technologies, volcanoes, oxbow lakes ... It's a light read, with plenty of anecdotes and examples: possibly I was not the target audience, but it passed the time and some of the information was new to me.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016/69: Jackdaw -- KJ Charles

"He's not an evil man, unfortunately ... That makes him all the more harmful. If he as evil, we'd kill him. No, he's ... chaotic."

Ben Spenser has come to London for one purpose: to track down Jonah Pastern, windwalker and thief, and punch him in the face. Ben loved Jonah, and Jonah betrayed him and wrecked his life. Ben's career in the police force is over, his parents have disowned him, his landlord evicted him, he's done ten weeks' hard labour for gross indecency. He has nothing left except the desire for vengeance.

Except, of course, that it's never that simple. And Jonah Pastern, once caught and roundly punched (after which he saves Ben from a police raid), claims that he loved Ben too, and wants to explain his poor life choices. Ben is determined not to be fooled again, but then he discovers that at least some of Jonah's crimes were perpetrated in order to protect Ben himself. Maybe it was all lies, but Ben can't help wondering if Jonah -- illiterate Jonah, whose first instinct when trouble looms is to run -- might be worth saving from police forces magical and ordinary, and even from himself.

Another good, thoughtful fantasy with M/M romance from KJ Charles, who writes about poverty, destitution and gaol and about windwalking (levitation), fluence (mind control) and how to have a conscience. Jackdaw (which is set during and after The Magpie Lord) is a good read, though somehow darker -- and more focussed on the protagonists' relationship -- than others in the series.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016/67: A Queer Trade -- KJ Charles

also 2016/68: Rag and Bone -- KJ Charles
"You act by writing. That is not a crime, and you are not a criminal. It is extraordinarily rare... What's wrong with you is that you've been taught to draw your power down the wrong way. Blood writing is impractical if you use your own blood, and illegal if you don't." [Rag and one, loc. 615]

Ned Hall, purveyor of waste paper to the markets of London, is visited one afternoon by a frantic Crispin Tredarloe, whose late master's house has been cleared. Crispin desperately needs to track down some of the papers that Ned might have bought: they're scripti, spells written down, and they could be dangerous. Ned, though initially suspicious of this madman raving about magic, decides to help: after all, there's that noise he can't quite hear, from somewhere in the paper store, and he wishes it would shut up. (It also doesn't hurt that Crispin is attractive, in a fey sort of way.)

Crispin has been apprenticed to Mr Marleigh for years, and Marleigh's taught him how to write his own spells, with a rather unusual pen. He knows his dead master thought that the laws restricting blood magic were fussy and old-fashioned, so he can't exactly go to the justiciary (magical police) for help. Ned, though: Ned is strong, practical and handsome, and seems inclined to believe Crispin when he says it's a matter of life and death. Also, Crispin has never spoken to a man of colour before ...

A Queer Trade sets up Crispin and Ned's relationship: Rag and Bone threatens it, and presents a truly nasty plot. Again, KJ Charles combines a plotty (and really quite scary) fantasy novel with a credible M/M romance. She doesn't shy away from the mundane moralities of probably-Victorian London: homosexuality is still illegal, Ned is still the victim of casual and institutional racism -- and she explores some of the ethical and practical issues of having an understaffed magical justiciary attempting to control magical practice. The books are very firmly grounded in London (nobody here is turning west on Leadenhall Street to get to Aldgate) and there's a good sense of lower-class London life. And we catch glimpses of the characters from other books in the same world: Stephen Day, Jenny Saint, Esther Gold. Competent writing, fun pacy plots, and likeable characters: recommended.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

2016/72: The Soldier's Scoundrel -- Cat Sebastian

Everywhere he looked there were women trying to help one another in dubious ways when there didn’t seem to be any other solution. [loc. 3585]
Jack Turner, formerly a valet and something of a ruffian, makes a living helping aristocratic ladies resolve personal matters. (He won't work for noblemen.) Oliver Rivington, invalided from the army, is curious as to why his sister has paid Jack Turner a large sum of money. Visiting Turner's office at an inconvenient time, he finds himself embroiled in Jack's latest case: the theft of some potentially-incriminating correspondence from Lydia Wraxhall's jewel box.

They are both good men who don't necessarily think of themselves in positive terms, and who have a great many misconceptions about the other's social class. Jack, having seen how badly the aristocracy treat their servants (much is made of a kitchen maid having a spare pair of shoes for church on Sunday), is something of a reformer: he perceives that well-born ladies often have no more real power than their maids. Oliver, who's drifting through life aimlessly as a member of the monied classes, is innately decent with a strong sense of honour and nobless oblige, and nowhere to put it.

Neither is inclined to marry.

The period detail is good, though the language occasionally anachronistic: there is a developing relationship between the two protagonists, but there's plenty of other plot to buttress that. Excellent characterisation, of minor characters as well as Jack and Oliver. Most notably, this was published with a typical romance-novel cover -- handsome chap standing behind love interest who's baring a lot of chest, each engrossed in the other -- which is quite an achievement for an M/M romance.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016/71: Widdershins -- Jordan L. Hawk

I lied all the time. My life had been nothing but a fable, told to keep society happy, or at least keep it from noticing me. I'd lied about my feelings for Leander, I'd hidden away any spark or sign of passion after coming to manhood, and now I pretended Griffin was merely a good friend. What did one more lie matter? [loc. 3284]

First in a series (eight books so far) featuring Percival Endicott Whyborne (reclusive, repressed scholar) and Griffin Flaherty (handsome, angst-ridden detective). Together, they fight Lovecraftian horrors.

Widdershins is set in the eponymous town, which was founded by Theron Blackbyrne after he fled Salem 'one step ahead of the witch hunters'. Now Blackbyrne's descendants are up to no good, and their secret cult has grown to embrace many of the town's most prominent figures -- including members of Whyborne's own family. Whyborne's ability to decrypt an ancient text, and to use the information he translates, is an exemplary geek-makes-good narrative: his growing regard for Griffin, and their initially prickly working (and extracurricular) relationship, brings to mind Holmes and Watson. Though Hawk does take things rather further than Conan Doyle did.

I was greatly taken with Christine, lady Egyptologist and Whyborne's one true friend, and with the Lovecraftian setting. However, I didn't engage with this novel as much as I'd hoped, and I wonder if that might be due to the first-person narrative. (Again, very Holmesian.) I don't have a problem with this in general, but I'm considering whether I find it offputting in romances ... Or perhaps it's because Whyborne doesn't like himself very much... But I shall persevere with the series, because the setting and the dialogue and the prose style work very well.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

2016/70: The Haunting of Hill House -- Shirley Jackson

"When I am afraid, I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful not-afraid side of the world, I can see chairs and tables and windows staying the same, not affected in the least, and I can see things like the careful woven texture of the carpet, not even moving. But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things. I suppose because things are not afraid." [loc. 1984]

Eleanor Vance is invited by Doctor Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, to stay for the summer in Hill House, an allegedly-haunted country mansion. She becomes friends with Theodora, an extrovert and empathetic artist with a decidedly bohemian bent. Both of them, as well as Dr Montague and Luke Sanderson (the latter being heir to the house), are amused by the refusal of the caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, to stay overnight at Hill House.

And yes, there is definitely something strange going on. There are sounds at night; there is writing on the walls, in bright red; Eleanor holds Theodora's hand for comfort, only to find that Theodora is nowhere near her. Even more strangely, when Montague's wife and her friend Mr Parker arrive with their spirit-writing and seances, they experience nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Eleanor is being shaped by the house -- or perhaps she's shaping it. Perhaps the house recognises lawful prey. Perhaps Eleanor is just very impressionable: she is haunted, in the usual natural sense, by the memory of her invalid mother banging on the wall to summon her. She has led a sheltered life: no wonder she turns towards Theodora's friendship like a flower towards the sun. Perhaps Hill House's oddities are a product of Eleanor's imagination.

Perhaps they are not.

The Haunting of Hill House is chilling precisely because so little happens: and the person to whom it does not happen is Eleanor, who is the focus of the book. Only gradually do we realise that her viewpoint may not be entirely reliable: that she is not necessarily experiencing the same events as the other guests.

Shirley Jackson's writing is restrained, almost claustrophobic, and deceptively plain. I suspect this is another novel which will reward rereading. For one thing, I want to see how that sense of building horror is done.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

2016/64-66: A Charm of Magpies (trilogy) -- KJ Charles

"There’s power in the Magpie Lord’s bloodline. It’s in the blood, bone and birdspit, as they say, and yes, birdspit is a euphemism." [loc 2160]

Lucien, Lord Crane, returns to England after two decades' exile in China. He is accompanied by his manservant Merrick (whose past is as lurid as his lordship's) and harbours a strong distaste for the dull weather and repressive laws of the land of his birth. His father and brother, whom he does not mourn -- they were responsible for his exile -- both committed suicide: and Crane finds himself overtaken by fits of inexplicable despair in which he attempts the same act.

Enter Stephen Day, justiciar: 'a kind of magical policeman'. Stephen, in the first book, is recovering from a magical draining, and blames Crane's family for the destruction of his own: the late Lord Crane destroyed Stephen's father's law practice and drove his mother to an early grave. Nevertheless, he agrees to track down the source of the curse that's been placed on Crane and on his ancestral home.

And then Day discovers that Crane is the descendant of one of the most powerful magicians ever to have lived: and that the power of that bloodline, inaccessible to Crane himself, may be accessed by others ...

The Magpie Lord is a well-plotted fantasy novel, a magical whodunnit, with an appealing and credible romance between two dangerous and strong-willed men. The setting is nineteenth century, though there's little to narrow down the period: no mention of king or queen or current affairs. I'm tempted to say Victorian, but it may be earlier. Social class is an issue, both in mundane terms and in the elitism of some of the magical practitioners: Crane and Day are both very aware of the damage their relationship might do to their social standing.

A Case of Possession deals with an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (yes, there's a Sumatran connection) and is, unlike the first novel, set primarily in London. Charles is to be commended for writing about the Limehouse Chinese community without resorting to period-typical racism or xenophobia: the cast of this novel, somewhat expanded from the last, also includes a Jewish couple (both magical practitioners), and a number of people from all walks of life. Crane and Day's relationship is more settled in this novel, and there's more of Merrick, whose rough (and irreverent) friendship with his nominal lord and master is a delight.

Flight of Magpies shows the strain setting into the core relationship -- Crane would love to return to Shanghai, while Stephen's overdeveloped sense of responsibility makes him unable to quit his job as one of London's few justiciars -- and introduces more new characters, including a levitating thief with something of a conscience, and a love interest for the redoubtable Merrick. The magic really gets going in this one, with spectacular results.

This series is definitely a light read, but it's effervescent with wit and well-observed characterisation. The relationship between Stephen Day and Lucien Crane is complex, adult and constantly evolving: the 'magical crime' plots are intricate and interesting in their own rights. Charles writes nineteenth-century London with competence, liveliness and accurate geography, and her characters (or most of them) have depth and history, whether or not we get to see any of it. (I'd love to read more about Esther Gold's past. Or Leo Hart's future.) And her protagonists are competent, dangerous and equal: that last is a quality I rate very highly in M/M romance.

Monday, December 05, 2016

2016/63: Think of England -- KJ Charles

The actual life of a gentleman spy, it seemed to him, consisted of sneaking about, breaking the rules of hospitality and generally being anything but a gentleman, and the only mysterious foreigner around was da Silva. He was probably the closest thing Peakholme had to offer to a sultry seductress, come to that.[loc. 556]
The year is 1904, and Boer War veteran Archie Curtis (nephew of Sir Henry Curtis, who appears in King Solomon's Mines) is attending a country house party in search of answers about the disaster that ended his military career and killed his friends. Was it bad luck, or sabotage?

His dislike of fellow guest Daniel da Silva -- foreign, dark-eyed, flamboyant and a poet -- is immediate and apparently mutual. But this is a romance, and while it eschews many of the more annoying tropes, opposites definitely do attract.

Think of England is utterly charming. The growing respect and friendship (as well as attraction) between Archie and Daniel is nicely paced, and Charles doesn't shy away from the difficult issues of same-sex attraction in Edwardian England. Archie doesn't identify as queer, and struggles with his urge to treat Daniel as more than just a furtive liaison.

Meanwhile, the two become embroiled in a dastardly plot that involves blackmail, hidden cameras (it's a very modern country house), the defense of the realm, corruption in high places. Daniel's frivolous exterior turns out to conceal nerves of steel, and Archie discovers new purpose in life.

Also there are canonical lesbians.

I read this on a friend's recommendation, and was impressed enough to read several more novels by the same author in quick succession. I have to say I like Think of England, with its discussions of poetry and lockpicking and psychotherapy and Boys' Own adventures, more than the others: I think it's because I like Daniel and Archie as characters.

Friday, December 02, 2016

2016/62: Fencing with Death: A Vintage Mystery -- Elizabeth Edmondson

'You did brilliantly in the written papers, I have to tell you, but the interviews let you down.'
'Why?'
'Chip on your shoulder a yard high and ridiculous left-wing fancies sprouting out all over you.'[loc. 317]

It is not to my credit that it took me about half the book to work out that I'd read it before, albeit under a different title: Losing Larry. Yep, pretty much everything I wrote back then still stands. I liked Larry a bit more this time around (possibly because I'm six years further removed from my own youthful idealism?), and I still think Edmondson is* a warm and witty writer. The ending of Fencing with Death is not wholly satisfactory, but it does grant a kind of freedom to the novel's protagonist.

* or was: I was sad to read of her death in 2016.

2016/61: Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder -- Evelyn Waugh

'...It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.'
'It's arguable,' said Brideshead. 'Do you think he will need this elephant's foot again?'[loc. 2198]

Incredibly, I had never actually read this: having been deterred at an early age by the 'classic' label (for which I blame an education system that inflicts 'classics' on adolescents before they are mentally or emotionally ready to appreciate them), and never having seen the classic BBC adaptation (beloved of many of my university friends) I just ... didn't. After all, there were so many other books to read.

Sebastian Flyte was born into privilege and acts, on occasion, like a spoilt child. Middle-class Charles Ryder is drawn to his company, but can't help (and possibly isn't aware of, at the time) judging him. It's an affair as intense as any grand romance, whether or not it is actually a sexual liaison. Charles sets himself (again, perhaps not consciously) against the Flyte family, and loses. Later in life -- though before the framing narrative of Brideshead in wartime -- he begins to appreciate just how profoundly Sebastian's Catholicism has shaped his life.

If I'd read this sooner, I might not have appreciated the growth of Charles Ryder as a character: I might have been too fascinated by the golden youths basking in the idyllic Twenties [yes, I know they weren't actually idyllic] and dismissed the more sober and mature reflections of Charles the husband, Charles the soldier, Charles the convert as a fading or lessening of the person he had been. Instead, I found myself thinking about Brideshead Revisited for quite a while after I'd finished reading. Perhaps I'm still thinking about it.