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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

2017/69: Christopher Wild -- Kathe Koja

The will is honed, trained, playful, relentless, the mind its twin in dark exuberance and nerve; and the body breathes in and out, one with the breathing world,rapt and glorying in even the smallest things -- the feel of breeze on bare skin,the vagrant scent of smoke, pink glitter of rain on a neon sign,the humble heat of bodies massed together on the train -- and all the vehicle and joy and habitation of Chris Marley, Christopher to his friends, his name a dare and a beacon, symbol and sigil, the poet's name, X04. [p. 195]
Any new novel about Marlowe is relevant to my interests, and Kathe Koja's more so than most. I'd seen the trailer and read the blog posts ... but I wasn't sure what to expect apart from poetic, visceral prose.

The first third of the book ('The Skinner's Trade') covers Marlowe's known life. He's working on a play, 'The English Agent', that the Service has requested, though they are unlikely to be happy with the results: his fellow intelligencers are thinly disguised, inept, corrupt. But Marlowe is trying to write himself a door, a way out.

The middle third of the book ('Night School') has Christopher Wyle, or Wild, tutoring a Miss Sloan in poetry; the setting is an unnamed American city in the middle of the twentieth century. A time of war, of subterfuge -- Chris becomes involved with the Free Speechers, resists recruitment by a shadowy import/export company (or do they have some deeper purpose?) and works on a poem about Icarus and Orpheus.

The final third ('Quod Me Nutrit') is set somewhere in Europe in a dystopian near future, a surveillance state where Chris Marley, tracked by the cuff on his wrist, goes by the tag 'X04': he's a poet, an activist, something akin to a rapper. State Security -- 'the Red House' -- would like him to write for them. He's disinclined.

Each section starts with the words 'he comes to himself in the alley'. He's been beaten, but doesn't recall his assailant. There are other resonances: the month of May, a song about mermaids, thunderstorms, birds in flight, Saint Sebastian. Resonances of names, too: a fellow named Deering, or Reeder, or Reed; a lover named Rufus or Rudy or Ruby ... they're caught up in the resonances, too. 'Why did you call me Kit?' 'I ... don't know.'

The poet -- he is always a poet -- writes by hand, one knee propped up; smokes tobacco; can't, and won't, be controlled by the men who think he serves them. He lives light, always ready to run, to move on: his only treasures are his own words, the notebooks in which he's written. He is, by his own admission, not a careful man.

This is a book that rewards a second reading, not least because the final quotation (from Marlowe's own translation of Lucan's Pharsalia) alters our perspective on the tripled selves of the novel. That said, I suspect this is a work I'll be returning to again and again.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

2017/68: The Lawrence Browne Affair -- Cat Sebastian

Sodomites had been a favorite subject of his father’s rage-fueled tirades... lumped in with other crimes against nature, such as Catholicism and being French. [p. 154]
Lawrence Browne, Earl of Radnor, is mad. (He's not technically the Mad Earl: that sobriquet was given to his elder brother, who's now dead.) Lawrence, who has sensory perception problems (loud noises make him anxious: he likes his environment to be predictable), is perfectly happy living hermit-like in Penkellis, his crumbling ancestral home, doing Science. Most of the servants have left (a small matter of an explosion or two) but the vicar visits several times a week. One day he suggests that Lawrence might benefit from a secretary.

Enter Georgie Turner, younger brother of the more ruffianly Jack (one of the protagonists of The Soldier's Scoundrel. Georgie has got on the wrong side of a London crime lord and, for his own safety and that of his friends and family, decides that Cornwall is an excellent career move. He arrives at Penkellis with the intention of doing a little work, determining whether the Earl is really mad, and absconding with any portable souvenirs that catch his eye.

It is, however, not that simple.

Lawrence has a conscience, and believes that he is inherently bad and broken. Georgie is also, irritatingly, developing a conscience: not a success factor for a professional conman. Lawrence is gratified by Georgie's interest in, and growing understanding of, his scientific labours (they are inventing something rather like a telegraph); Georgie discovers a new-found passion for learning and intellectual challenge. Also a, possibly not as new-found, passion for strong men chopping wood in their shirtsleeves.

Add a Cornish smuggling ring, a doomed marriage, an orphaned child, and a notorious rake (see The Ruin of a Rake) ... a very entertaining read, and an emotionally satisfying romance that's founded on mutual respect and consideration.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

2017/67: The Ruin of a Rake -- Cat Sebastian

... to combine scientific pursuits with actual orgies struck Julian as excessive in all directions.[loc. 63]
Julian Medlock is a shipping heir, the epitome of a Regency gentleman, whose carefully-polished exterior that armours him against the world and hides a number of secrets. Lord Courtenay is a notorious rake, penniless despite his aristocratic name, who has become bored of being bad. Courtenay is widely acknowledged to be the inspiration behind lurid bestseller The Brigand Prince of Salerno -- a novel which Julian knows rather well.

Eleanor, Julian's sister, is unhappy despite her unladylike scientific pursuits: she has surrounded herself with what appears to be a circle of reprobates, Courtenay chief among them. Julian feels responsible for his sister, whose unsuccessful marriage he helped arrange. Summoned by his sister's butler to 'rescue' her from the perceived depravities ensuing from her friendship with Courtenay, he finds himself involved in a scheme to improve Courtenay's reputation -- ideally without wrecking his own. He is uncomfortably aware of Courtenay's good looks: now he begins to realise that he's misjudged the man.

Charming, funny, and notable for having a protagonist who is good at accounts. Julian is, perhaps, his own worst enemy: but he and Courtenay mellow one another's less admirable traits, and even manage to communicate effectively. I think this is my favourite so far of Cat Sebastian's novels: and it's the third in the linked trilogy which began with The Soldier's Scoundrel. I realised I'd missed out the middle volume, The Lawrence Browne Affair, so set out to remedy that omission.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

2017/66: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen -- Lois McMaster Bujold

"So, how long has my mother had this questionable fetish for bisexual Barrayaran admirals? I don’t think even the Betans have earrings for that one." [loc. 4825]

Three years have passed since the death of Aral Vorkosigan. His wife Cordelia, being Cordelia, has not resigned herself to a faded life of mourning: she is Vicereine of Sergyar (the planet where the two first met, back in Shards of Honour) and is pursuing a number of projects. One of these involves Admiral Oliver Jole, who has appeared -- fleetingly -- as Aral Vorkosigan's aide in several previous novels, and is now revealed to have been Aral's lover for many years, in a polyamorous relationship which shivered to pieces after Aral's death. Cordelia and Jole have remained close friends, though, and at the beginning of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Cordelia returns from Barrayar with a freezer-case full of genetic material and a very interesting offer for Jole.

This novel focusses on Cordelia and Jole's renegotiation of their relationship, and of their lives. Jole is about to celebrate his fiftieth birthday: Cordelia is in her seventies (though Betan lifespans are typically well over a century): they have both lived full and worthy lives, and they have both grieved the same man. Now, perhaps, it's time for a change of direction.

Which is obviously when Miles and Ekaterin and their six children show up.

I find I don't have a great deal to say about this novel, though I enjoyed it immensely. My first great crush on the Vorkosigan Saga is two decades in the past: I was only vaguely aware that Aral had died, since I haven't read the last couple of novels in the sequence. But I returned to Cordelia like an old friend; I'm saddened by the death of Aral; and I am quietly pleased that he had Jole, as well as Cordelia. (In the early books it was clear that, while bisexual, he preferred men: Cordelia was the exception, because she was nothing like a typical Barrayaran wife.)

I'm happy, too, that characters past the first flush of youth are written as romantic and sexual beings; that they communicate well with one another, rather than having the kind of difficulty that comes from mutual incomprehension and is so common in flimsier romantic fiction; and that Betan technology gives Jole a chance at parenthood with the person he loved.

I strongly recommend Foz Meadows' post on this novel, which I found fascinating -- not least because it references a work of fan fiction which could be seen as predictive -- and which also has a comment from Bujold.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

2017/65: Untamed -- Anna Cowan

The Duke’s transformation was absolute, down to the very marrow of his bones. There wasn’t a single hint of self-consciousness about him. His demeanour, the set of his mouth, the lazy sway of his hand, all belonged to Lady Rose. The ease with which he changed his skin was frightening. [loc 812]
Regency romance in which the Duke of Darlington flees London disguised as a woman: this is a factual but useless description.

Untamed is set in something like the Regency period (see below for qualifiers); it is a romance; the Duke does dress up, gloriously and in the outmoded style of the previous generation, as 'Lady Rose'. He does leave London to stay with Katharine ('Kit') Sutherland -- sister of one of his many, many conquests -- and is horrified to discover that she works hard, morning to night, to keep the household fed and the money coming in.

None of that is especially useful either.

I think I must have heard about Untamed when it first came out: apparently I bought it four years ago, though have only just got around to reading it. And rereading. It is a glorious novel, suffocatingly intense and sensuous in the broadest usage of the term. Kit and the Duke are utterly fascinating, as is the changing detente between them. At times I was reminded of Dunnett's heroes, vulnerable and vicious and too clever for their own good: at times of Heyer's tougher and more practical heroines (and heroes, for that matter). And while on first reading I was rudely flung out of the novel by a scene that I simply could not believe in (the ball, with Kit's grand entry: I stopped reading at that point and set the book aside for a couple of days) I couldn't stay away.

So my approach to some of the more anachronistic, less credible moments -- there are a few, though nothing on the level of that particular scene -- is to treat the novel as an alternate history, possibly even a fantasy (sans magic). There are certainly aspects that jar horribly with the conventional Regency setting, and turns of phrase, or thought, that sound disconcertingly modern: but those potential flaws make perfect sense for the characters. (And yes, there are Corn Laws, and a potential rival for the Duke's title, and glancing mentions of a more familiar nineteenth century: but these are background.)

The secondary characters in Untamed are well-drawn -- especially brother Tom with his secret hobby -- but nobody feels quite as real as Kit. I find her pragmatic approach to life thoroughly satisfactory, and the perfect foil to the beguiling Duke.

I like Anna Cowan's prose: simple, evocative phrasing -- 'his heart alight with hopeful anticipation' -- blended with rawly specific descriptions of emotion and its outward effects. I'd like to see what she does next.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2017/64: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal -- KJ Charles

“I believe that each haunting is an unfinished tale, of some kind,” Simon said. “If the story can be concluded, so is the ghost’s presence. The untold story is agony, whether it is the fact of a murder or the location of a will, or simply…unfinished business." [p. 58]

Simon Feximal is a ghost hunter and occult detective: Robert Caldwell, the ostensible author of the 'case notes', encounters him when the mansion he's inherited turns out to be haunted by a lustful, frustrated ghost. Feximal, whose skin is patterned with literal ghost-writing, is bad-tempered and taciturn. Caldwell believes he can see past Feximal's dour exterior to the man within. But his association with Feximal exposes him to dangers both supernatural and chillingly mundane.

There are many familiar names here: the Diogenes club, Carnacki the Ghost Hunter, the occultist Karswell (who gave Simon Feximal the runes on his skin), Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, Caldwell describes himself as 'your chronicler, your humble assistant, your John Watson'; and Feximal is the same species of brilliant eccentric as Holmes. This partnership, though, is explicitly a sexual and romantic one as well as a professional relationship, and Caldwell in his role as chronicler has written that 'secret' aspect out of their history.

I returned to this novel -- or, rather, anthology of connected stories -- after reading Spectred Isle, which is set in the same timestream and features some of the same characters. Secret Casebook is perhaps my least favourite of Charles' works and I think it's because it's told in the first person. Not that Caldwell is an unlikeable narrator: but Feximal is, despite Caldwell's insights, an almost impenetrable wall of silence, and that unevenness gave the book quite a different flavour to KJ Charles' other works.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

2017/63: Spectred Isle -- KJ Charles

"...when dawn comes, am I going to find myself bare-arsed on Burwell Castle’s remains, and a lady antiquarian belabouring me with her parasol?”
“I can only pray you will. First it would mean we were home, and second, I’d pay to see that.” [loc. 1815]

Disclaimer: I had an advance copy because I'm interviewing KJ at Nine Worlds, and it will be Fun.

First in a new trilogy, The Green Men, which is set in the same 'world' as The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. (I bounced off that book on first attempt, so didn't get around to reading it until after Spectred Isle.) Unlike many of KJ Charles' other novels, it's set in the twentieth century -- in the 1920s, in fact, in an England which is still recovering from the horrors of a World War -- and where the Green Men have been defending England against occult forces since well before the Archduke's assassination. Though the War made things rather worse ...

Saul Lazenby is a former archaeologist and military man, disgraced and discharged: he used to work with Leonard Woolley, but is now employed by Major Peabody, an enthusiastic amateur (or nut job, depending on point of view) who's keen on 'magical powers, haunted temples and secret societies'. Saul is grateful for the employment, and keeps his reservations to himself.

Then one day he's walking along, minding his own -- well, Major Peabody's -- business, and an oak tree bursts into flames.

This event sparks his first encounter with Randolph Glyde, an irascible aristocrat with a glinting smile. (Lazenby does not take to him). Glyde, it turns out, is a Green Man, a magician charged with the investigation of a recent upsurge of unpleasant occult activity in London. After their encounter against a backdrop of spontaneously-combusting oak, Glyde doesn't expect to see Lazenby again: but Lazenby keeps turning up at occult flashpoints. Can it be coincidence? Or could there be something to Major Peabody's theories?

Both men are profoundly affected by the War: Glyde lost almost all his arcane colleagues, Lazenby his profession and his reputation. Glyde is staggering under the burden of his family's twenty-three generations of service: Lazenby's family has disowned him. ("Disowning, indeed. How bourgeois," remarks Glyde.) More than anything, perhaps, what they need from one another is empathy: they want to be understood, they need kindness.

The secondary characters are well-rounded, in particular Glyde's fellow Green Men, Sam Caldwell, Barney and Isaacs: I am furiously intrigued by the latter two, soldiers who are the sole survivors of a military experiment. And the War Beneath continues, with fen-grendels, a medieval turncoat, and an outclassed British Government who'd really like the Green Men to work for them.

Absolutely gripping, and also very funny, largely because Lazenby and Glyde share a dark and caustic sense of humour: one of my top five KJ Charles novels.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

2017/62: Touch not the Cat -- Mary Stewart

'Only you were reading my thoughts. Do you often do that?'
A pause, as long as four quickened heartbeats. Then he said, easily: 'Twin and I do it as a matter of course. Shades of Bess Ashley, the gipsy, didn’t you know?'
'It must save a lot of telephone calls,' I said lightly. [loc. 2067]
Bryony Ashley has grown up with an invisible friend: a member of her own family (though she's not sure which one) who communicates directly with her, mind to mind. The two start as friends, and come to love one another, though it is -- for the time being -- a necessarily unconsummated love.

Then Bryony's father dies in a hit-and-run, and her mysterious lover calls her home from Madeira to the crumbling splendour of Ashley Court, and the company of her twin cousins James and Emory. Still puzzling over her father's puzzling final words -- a cat on a pavement, a letter in the brook -- Bryony becomes aware of two things: firstly, that her father was murdered; and secondly, that the murderer might be her secret lover.

This is a charming and well-paced novel, with an element of the Gothic and the ability to laugh at itself. It's hard to tell when it's set (possibly the mid-Seventies, when it was written?) at least partly because of the sense that little ever changes at Ashley Court. There are flashbacks, too, to an earlier time in the family's history: 1835, when two lovers are trying to keep their relationship secret.

Though the romance is threaded through the novel (the chapter headings are quotations from Romeo and Juliet) it's not the sole plot: there is the mystery of Bryony's father's dying words, the identity of the person or persons who arranged his murder, the family's failing finances, the American tenants of Ashley Court, the overgrown maze in the middle of the garden, and the risk of further flood damage. A satisfying mystery and a comfortable romance, though I confess I didn't warm to the characters.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

2017/61: Single and Single -- John Le Carré

'...what the hell happened next?’ He was so warm! He could feel it! It was here in the room. It was across the packing case from him. It was inside Massingham’s skull and begging to come out – till at the very last second it turned and scurried back to safety. [p. 282]
Single and Single opens with the execution of a London banker, employed by Single and Single, on a windswept Turkish hillside. He has no idea why he's being killed: some idea why the killing is being filmed.

Back in the UK, a children's entertainer named Oliver Hawthorne is summoned to his own bank because over five million pounds has been deposited in his young daughter's trust fund. Can he explain this? No. But he knows a man who can help: a Customs and Excise officer named Brock, who has been after the charismatic Tiger Single (head of Single and Single) on charges of fraud and money-laundering.

Back in the golden days of the early 1990s, Oliver worked for Single and Single: he became aware of the firm's valuable Russian clients, and -- after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempted coup -- the slow restructuring of their import/export business as a crime syndicate. Oliver's left all that behind: he betrayed the firm, and his father, and went into hiding. But now the tables are turned and the Russians have a blood debt to repay.

Lovely writing, stereotyped secondary characters (a housekeeper weeps and wrings hands; a gay man says 'darling' a lot). Oliver tends to feel that women need protection, even when they are evidently at least as capable and competent as he is. The last few chapters felt very rushed, but then Oliver was rushing too ... I didn't enjoy this as much as other novels by Le Carré, but it's interestingly structured, well-written and full of fascinating psychology and spycraft.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017/60: Touch -- Claire North

Everyone needs a hobby, and everyone was mine. [p. 67]
Somewhere in London, in a dark alley, in the past, a woman is murdered. But she doesn't want to die alone: she reaches out and touches her murderer ... and becomes him, looking down at the corpse of his victim.

Now the entity known as Kepler is a ghost, moving between -- 'wearing' -- bodies, generally benevolent. A former host won't be able to remember the past few minutes, or days, or years: but chances are they'll have benefitted, either financially (Kepler likes to leave behind cash) or in other ways. Kepler can get a nervous patient to the hospital; get a terrified witness into court to testify; sit an exam; leave a lover ... Sometimes the 'host-ghost' arrangement is consensual, such as the arrangement that Kepler has with Josephine Cebula, a Polish prostitute. In exchange for three months' use of Josephine's body, Kepler will give her a new passport, a new identity, a fresh start and ten thousand euros. Oh, and Josephine will no longer be a smoker.

And then Josephine is killed in Istanbul: and Kepler, 'travelling by touch', fleeing from body to body, knows that they were the intended victim. But why kill Josephine when Kepler's already left?

Kepler's pursuit of the assassin -- and then of the mastermind behind the assassination -- takes them from Istanbul to Bratislava, Vienna, Berlin, Paris. Along the way, old friends and enemies are encountered, and it becomes increasingly obvious that somebody is killing ghosts.

I've read quite a few novels about body-swapping -- body snatchers, if you like, or possession if you're feeling old-fashioned. (A few that come to mind are Iain Banks' Transition, David Levithan's Every Day, Stephenie Meyer's The Host, David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks.) I can't recall an entity so physically embodied as Kepler. Kepler notices, and loves, the flaws and graces of each body they inhabit: the gum disease, the tension in the shoulder blades, the bite of an over-tight bra strap, the dry itch of lesions. And Kepler's love for human beings, in all humanity's glorious variation, informs their former career: that of 'estate agent', or provider of carefully-selected hosts to other ghosts.

Touch is a labyrinthine novel: Kepler's story is told in frequent flashbacks (with a virtuousic ear for period- and setting-appropriate dialogue) and it takes a while for their character, and the experiences that have shaped them, to become clear. Each glimpse of another body's life, or of Kepler encountering another, effectively immortal, ghost, adds clarity and perspective.

Claire North explores many aspects of ghost-life. Gender issues are ... not ignored, but Kepler doesn't have much of a gender identity, and seems less interested in sex than some of their peers. More attention is given to the issues of immortality: suicide, death, murder, boredom, madness -- and offspring of the body versus those of the soul. Intriguing vignettes illustrate why 'normal' humans might want to hire a ghost to inhabit themselves, or someone close to them. The fight scenes, with Kepler flitting from body to body, are amazing. And some of the ways that Kepler devises to get around the problems of their situation (how do you carry something with you when you go? how do you keep a host from raising the alarm? how do you make yourself known?) are brilliant.

I really enjoyed this novel. It's beautiful, tragic, inventive and provocative: and it made me mindful, in several senses, of my own physical reality.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

2017/59: An Unnatural Vice -- K J Charles

Conscience makes flats of us all, Justin thought. How lucky I don’t have one. [loc. 1231]
Nathaniel Roy is an investigative journalist, the atheist son of an archbishop, and desperately lonely despite the good friends who've stood by him through love and loss. Justin Lazarus is the Seer of London, one of the most successful (and most expensive) spiritualists in the city, and determined that he'll never again be obligated to anybody. Nathaniel, of course, is keen to expose Justin Lazarus as a fraud. But Justin knows how to find a client's weaknesses, and he promises something that Nathaniel, against all reason, wants to believe in. As the two are thrown together by their shared involvement in a true-life melodrama of aristocracy, murder and disguise, each finds something unexpected -- and unexpectedly admirable -- in the other.

This is the second in the trilogy that began with An Unseen Attraction, and it weaves around the latter half of that novel, focussing on different characters. The melodrama advances; we see Clem and Rowley from a different perspective; the role of the Jack -- a place where men like Nathaniel can go 'to be true' -- is expanded; and the romance here has an entirely different, and much sharper, flavour.

I confess I like Justin Lazarus, even though he is objectively a fraudster who preys on the bereaved and needy: he is also intelligent, observant, and often very funny. (It's all right: Nathaniel likes him too, and makes the distinction between 'a bad man' and 'a good man doing bad things'.) And I sympathise more than I probably should with Justin's vow that he'll never again be indebted to anyone, never again have to beg or be grateful. I didn't warm to Nathaniel as quickly, but he is one of the most humane characters I've encountered in recent fiction: and his impressive self-knowledge, coupled with the gradual realisation that he's living his life around absences, makes for a satisfying emotional arc.

And as usual, I loved all the little details: the daily routine of a Victorian medium's household; the nervousness with which Justin ventures out on the first solitary country walk of his life; Polish Mark and his no-nonsense approach to Nathaniel's emotional turmoil; and Justin's sense of humour, which is as spiky as he is, and produces the immortal line 'my spirit guide's a fucking tart'. You can get it on a t-shirt now.

Also, though Nathaniel and Justin's story is ... well, not finished, but resolved -- there is a frightfully teasing conclusion. Is it time for An Unsuitable Heir yet?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

2017/58: All Systems Red -- Martha Wells

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. [p. 9]

All Systems Red is the first-person narrative of Murderbot, a self-hacked security cyborg -- 'SecBot' -- who, due to having disabled their governor module, is no longer forced to obey the commands of the Company . (Note the pronouns: Murderbot may not have what they primly refers to as 'sex parts' but they are very much a person, possibly more so than some of their human clients.)

Murderbot's current job is as security for a small group of scientists who are exploring newly-discovered planet. The expedition is facilitated by the Company, who monitor the team's conversations and communications, broker life insurance, and provide the equipment. Most of that equipment -- Murderbot included -- is supplied by the lowest bidder, so when a team member is attacked by an undocumented hostile lifeform, everyone assumes it's just a glitch in the info pack.

It's not just a glitch in the info pack.

Without Murderbot's sardonic commentary, cynicism and gallows humour, this would be a fairly routine piece of pulp fiction, albeit with a more diverse cast than is usual. But Murderbot is a delight: they would really much rather watch episodes of Sanctuary Moon than interact with clients (though they do have a strong protective streak towards 'their' humans). They're accustomed to being treated as equipment, and they like things that way. (Commenting on the cultural depiction of emancipated bots -- all those soap operas have given Murderbot a detailed, if not always accurate, understanding of human society -- they remark, 'If it showed the bots hanging out watching the entertainment feed all through the day cycle with no one trying to make them talk about their feelings, I would have been a lot more interested'. )

The humans, in turn, are not initially used to treating Murderbot as a person: they don't even recognise Murderbot without the helmet and the armour. How each of the team reacts to Murderbot is a fascinating sociological study: from 'ah, so we can punish you by looking at you?' (Murderbot is described as 'shy', but exhibits habits that could be labelled as autistic, abuse-survivor or simply introverted); to invasions of Murderbot's private personal log, to Dr Mensah, the leader of the expedition, who regards Murderbot as an equal and a person of value.

Murderbot has a shadowy past, too. They hacked their governor module for a reason: and I'm looking forward to reading the next novella, which sounds as though it might explore that backstory a little more.
More Murderbot from Martha Wells! [Tor]

Anyway: highly recommended, vastly enjoyable, funny and poignant and thought-provoking.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon. [p. 102]

Monday, May 29, 2017

2017/57: American Gods -- Neil Gaiman

"Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?"
"Different woman," said Mr. Nancy. "Same deal." [loc 6102]

Reread sparked by the Amazon TV series -- which is a very different animal,
'based on' rather than a straightforward adaptation of the novel.

I still like American Gods and enjoyed this reread; it turned out that I'd forgotten whole swathes of plot, while managing to retain single sentences and the secret of Shadow's cellmate's identity. I don't find Gaiman's prose in this novel especially noteworthy ('Chicago came on like a migraine' is great, but its greatness is partly because it stands out from the surrounding text) but it has a transparency that makes it an excellent vehicle for the plot.

This isn't a review of the TV series, but I will note:
- Shadow, without his viewpoint and a window into his thoughts (as in the novel) is rather passive and not hugely engaging
- possibly because they're filtered through Shadow's perception, the female characters in the novel are trivialised*, marginalised, sexualised: less so in the TV version.

* a word that is actually derived from one of the names of Hecate, who's far from inconsequential.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

2017/56: Spandex and the City -- Jenny Colgan

He almost certainly had no idea that the fact that he was rich was as strange to me as the fact that he could lift up a truck with one hand. [loc. 1255]
Holly lives in Centerton, an American city, though she grew up in Britain. Centerton has its very own vigilante hero, Ultimate Man, who Holly encounters when she gets caught up in a meticulously-planned robbery conducted by Frederick Cecil and his henchmen. Holly, with typical lack of forethought, stands up to Cecil and ends up rescued by Ultimate Man. As if that weren't bad enough -- Holly is not a fan of Ultimate Man -- she encounters him, and Frederick Cecil, again, when Cecil targets a party at an art gallery.

But this time Holly discovers Ultimate Man's secret identity ...

Spandex and the City is a witty love-triangle romance -- Holly finds herself attracted to both hero and villain -- with rather more in the way of underlying philosophy than that capsule categorisation might suggest. None of the characters are especially happy. Holly has problems finding a suitable date, and is alienated from her family: she thinks they don't care about her. Ultimate Man also has problems dating (see 'Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex' for one of the reasons) and is isolated by his wealth and his powers. Frederick Cecil's mission is wholly philanthropic and well-argued (I do feel he has a point) but he's the product of an unpleasant childhood and hinted-at abuse.

Nevertheless, Spandex and the City is a witty and entertaining read. It's also a perceptive exploration of the pervasiveness of social media and the internet, typified by Holly's dependency on her smartphone and the social crises caused by a telecomms failure.

Also features a namedrop for Spiderman -- "We meet at, you know, trade conferences and so on". Colgan knows her genre: Spandex and the City is in part a critique of the superhero genre, but an affectionate and well-informed one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

2017/55: Lord of All Things -- Andreas Eschbach (translated from the German by Samuel Willcocks)

the digested version of a story already squeezed to bursting, a story of Arctic islands, Russian subs, and a steel fortress that fell to dust.

A book of two (unequal) halves: a promising beginning, but the rest is weakly plotted, gruesomely sexist and poorly characterised.

It starts well. Hiroshi is the half-Japanese, half-American son of a cleaning woman. He likes fixing things, and befriends Charlotte -- daughter of the French ambassador -- after fixing a broken doll. Hiroshi has grand plans for solving the world's inequalities with robotics; Charlotte has a unique gift, manifested when she touches an object.

Abruptly, Charlotte's father is posted to Buenos Aires, and the two lose touch. Some years later, Hiroshi's long-lost father reconnects with his son, and Hiroshi ends up at MIT -- where he meets Charlotte again, although both Hiroshi and Charlotte are now in relationships with other people.

While Hiroshi's experiments near fruition, Charlotte visits a remote island in the Russian Arctic which is reputed to harbour a mysterious but menacing force. Only gradually do Hiroshi and Charlotte both come to understand the deadly underside of Hiroshi's marvellous creation -- and its universal impact.

I have missed out a lot of the plot in that summary, because it vexes me. Hiroshi is envied by his peers (of course!) but perseveres and triumphs. Charlotte does very little except drift through life: occasionally she wonders if she should have a baby. There is very little indication of what she does with her gift. Or why she stays with a rich-but-repulsive fiance. While Hiroshi is acting on the world -- making terrible mistakes, with the best of intentions -- Charlotte has minimal impact on anyone or anything (despite being beautiful, presumably intelligent -- though we are given little evidence -- and well-dressed).

Eventually Hiroshi realises that his invention and the Arctic menace are connected -- part of a bigger picture that includes a prehistoric skull with a bullet wound, a knife that's older than human civilisation, and the Fermi paradox. Having worked marvels -- including curing Charlotte's cancer -- his final creation is a Sierpinski knife made of the four grammes of iron in his own blood.

There are some lovely ideas in here, and some well-visualised scenes: but the sexism really bothered me, and the characterisation seemed flat. Maybe if the book had been half the length, everything would have been sharper. Maybe if there had been no women in it at all, it would have been less sexist.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

2017/52-4: The Moon in the Cloud, The Shadow on the Sun, The Bright and Morning Star -- Rosemary Harris

The pyramids were almost as white by night as by day. They burned with a malignant whiteness barely distinguishable from a white sky. They had a fierce beauty, fed by what lay around them: hundreds of thousands of men had toiled all day in the burning eye of the sun to raise them, and been worn and thirsty; and many had died. Their bones lay beneath the desert. Great kings had laid them there: the bones of the labourers, white, and buried in a gold casing of sand, near the bones of the kings encased in gold, buried in a white casing of stone. And in the night the bones of the buried men and the bones of the kings help speech together. [The Moon in the Cloud, page 147]
Reread, because the Amelia Peabody books made me yearn for some quality fiction set in Ancient Egypt. I adored these books as a child and am pleased to report that they are just as enjoyable some decades later. And I was happy to see Barbara Mertz' Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

In The Moon in the Cloud, Reuben, a Canaanite animal tamer, is sent by Noah's son Ham to retrieve a cat and two lions from Kemi (Egypt). Reuben is enslaved, and becomes the musician of the (imaginary) Pharoah Merenkere: Reuben escapes during a riot, with the help of a friendly tomb-robber, and fulfils his quest.

The Shadow on the Sun is the darkest, and I think weakest, of the trilogy. It focuses on Meri-Mekhmet, who is courted by a mysterious young man but rejects him when he turns out to have a wife and multiple concubines. She is, in turn, courted by the Prince of Punt, who abducts her. Reuben and his cat Cefalu, back in Egypt with Reuben's wife Thamar, become involved.

On rereading I found the characterisation of the Prince of Punt and his people rather racist, and Reuben's victory trivial and hastily described. Still, some lovely scenes in the Chamberlain's water garden and the King's palace, and on the waterfront of Menofer.

The Bright and Morning Star focusses on the children of previous books' protagonists. Merenkere's children -- Ta-Thata and Sinuhe -- are, of course, due to be married to one another. Neither is especially keen on the idea, and Sinuhe's tutor, the priest No-Hotep, has plans of his own. Ta-Thata's friend, the Chief Royal Architect Hekhti, becomes involved in the treatment of Reuben and Thamar's son Sadhi, who is deaf and dumb.

These novels (published in the late 1960s / early 1970s) don't read like modern children's books. The vocabulary is quite advanced, some weighty concepts are explored, and Harris isn't afraid to kill off her characters. There are multiple plot strands, elements whose significance isn't spelt out but left for the reader to deduce, and characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly villainous. (The King behaves very badly when rejected, for example.) And while the novels do, technically, feature 'talking animals', this is on the basis that their human associates understand their body language, rather than the animals speaking any form of human language.

A lovely reread: I appreciate the evocation of ancient Egypt more now than I did as a child.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

2017/51: Chalk -- Paul Cornell

I stuck to what was true, except that I didn’t include anything impossible. I wrote about what it was like on the playing field. How there were no teachers. How anything could happen. How anything had been happening for a long time now. I mentioned the lightning because there would be the patch of black glass on the ground ...

A horror novel about growing up in the 1980s: cod in butter sauce, Feast lollies, Bananarama, school discos. These things, in hindsight, are horrific in their own right, but Paul Cornell weaves a truly chilling story around the mundane details of Andrew Waggoner's school and home life, 1982-3.

The Amazon blurb describes this as 'a brutal exploration of bullying in Margaret Thatcher's England': well, yes, in the sense that the Bible is an exploration of God saying 'let there be light'. There is a lot more to the story than bullying, though that's where it starts: Andrew Waggoner is set upon by a group of bullies, after the Halloween disco, and maimed. He goes home -- can't tell his parents, because it would mean the end of their hopes for him, and also because he's embarrassed and simultaneously protective -- and washes the blood from his clothes, and stares out of his bedroom window into the night, out to the Downs with their earthlights and chalk figures.

And something sees him.

It's possible to read Andrew's new doppelganger, Waggoner, as a psychological rather than a magical manifestation. Waggoner occupies the same space as Andrew, and nobody but Andrew can see him. Waggoner behaves badly, and Andrew has to restrain him. Sometimes Andrew fails, and Waggoner enacts a series of bloody reprisals on Andrew's behalf.

As the year circles round to Halloween, there are indications that something bigger is happening around the edges of Andrew's story. The sense of creeping wrongness is subtly and effectively introduced. (I'd have liked just a little more about what was happening, what had happened long ago, on the downs: but the story doesn't need it.) Meanwhile, Andrew is trying to get through his mock exams, work out which music he's supposed to like, and befriend Angie, who is cool and interesting and who scries using the week's number one hit single. (Oh Lord, Rene and Renata.)

The finale felt slightly too rushed, though otherwise very satisfactory on both mundane and extraordinary levels. But what will stay with me about this book is the portrayal of what it was like to be an unpopular kid in the early 80s: Andrew's mingled embarrassment and protectiveness towards his parents, who only want the best for him; the fear of being seen by schoolmates outside school, where you can be judged; the sense that the adult world is an alien place from which no help should be sought, for it won't come; the way parents lie to their children, to be kind. Andrew doesn't know or care about politics, but he's acutely aware of class tensions. His mother, and especially his father, are at once central and peripheral to the story: like politics, they are incomprehensible and he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to them.

The bad thing that happens to Angie felt, on one level, like a false note: it's almost a cliche. But on the underlying mythic level, it makes a horrible kind of sense.

Highly recommended but not always nice.

Friday, May 05, 2017

2017/50: City of Miracles -- Robert Jackson Bennett

The conclusion I draw is not, as you suggested, that miracles fade as their existence goes on, causing fluctuations in their function. Rather, I believe that miracles changed and mutated just as any organism might: the Divine Empire was a teeming ecosystem of miracles and Divine entities, all with varying levels of agency and purpose, all shifting and altering as the years went by.
Conclusion of the Divine Cities trilogy (previous volumes were City of Stairs and City of Blades). I wondered, reviewing the latter, if the third book would focus on Sigrud the mysterious Viking Dreyling berserker: and it does, in that he is the primary viewpoint character. However, it's not primarily his story. The real protagonist of City of Miracles is Tatyana Komeyd, Shara's adopted daughter. Sigrud is just one of the people who gets Tatyana to where she needs to be.

The novel begins with the assassination of a former Prime Minister, by a killer working for a controller he's never met. Only after this does Sigrud reappear: he hasn't seen Shara for thirteen years, and hoped that she would reach out to him again, but now she never will. Vengeance is all that is left to him.

He calls on Mulaghesh, who has a cryptic message from Shara that she recites to him. And that message leads him in search of Tatyana, and thence (with the help of several formidable women) in search of the possibly-Divine being who arranged Shara's death. A being who, it transpires, has every reason to hate and fear the Komayd family.

I still like Sigrud as a character, and City of Miracles adds depth to some of his backstory, explaining why, and how, he has become so good at what he does. I'm happy to report that some good things happen to him in this novel, too. It is, in parts, thoroughly swashbuckling: in other parts, quite horrific. Bennett writes about the dismal underside of battle, the orphaned children and the refugees; the ways in which they forget, and then remember, what has happened to them, and why. It's the weaponisation of grief and pain, and it is horribly effective.

The children are important: Shara knew that, and was working with wealthy friends to provide for them. Sigrud is still mourning his own daughter (the dead one: strangely, he doesn't seem that interested in the surviving one or her offspring) and marvelling at the ways the world has changed -- with remarkable rapidity -- while he wasn't paying attention. It is worth noting, as several of the people he meets remark, that he hasn't aged a day since they first met him.

I didn't find this as satisfactory a read as City of Stairs. The events are momentous, the staging epic: but Sigrud's blend of bloodthirsty competence and quiet despair has a flattening effect. There is a rushed, unedited feel to some of the writing: 'neither of them' when there are three people in a situation; 'such weapons should not be trusted with governments'; 'a small, tiny mirror' ... It is, though, a nicely-rounded conclusion to the trilogy, with plenty of closure and simultaneously a sense of new beginnings.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

2017/49: Death by Silver -- Melissa Scott, Amy Griswold

He threw a satisfied glance at Ned, looking momentarily very much like one of the heroes of an adventure novel. Ned felt rather like one himself, and wished there were any chance of Julian putting his arms around him in an admiring way on the spot. [loc. 5335]
Death by Silver is set in an alternate London, probably in the local equivalent of the Victorian period: carriages not cars, telegrams rather than 'phones, cricket at Lords. Ned Mathey is a newly-qualified metaphysician, still trying to establish himself as a practitioner and curse-breaker. Edgar Nevett, whose son was at school with Ned, engages him to deal with a curse on the family silver. Ned can't detect any such curse -- but the next day, Nevett is dead, killed by an apparently-enchanted candlestick.

Ned enlists the help of his friend (-with-benefits) Julian Lynes, who is a detective. Both Ned and Julian were brutally bullied by Victor Nevett, the dead man's son: neither of them especially relishes the necessity of dealing with him now. But the case brings the two of them together more than casual visits have done, and as well as identifying the means, motive and method of the murderer -- in a satisfyingly complex plot -- they discover one another's misapprehensions about their relationship. (As in our own world, miscommunication is all too common in matters of romance.)

Death by Silver is a charming detective story with a romantic subplot, or possibly vice versa. It's strongly reminiscent of Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' stories (Julian is the one who extrapolates from detailed observation: Ned is the professional with the social skills) with the added dimension of an intricate and well-described system of magic. Magic's taken for granted: there are spells to keep the lid on a tea-pot if it's tipped over, spells to stop a gate admitting salesmen, love charms, contraceptive charms ... There is also, as mentioned by Ned's redoubtable clerk Miss Cordelia Frost, a London School of Metaphysics for Women: and Miss Frost hints at a whole sub-culture of women's magic based on domestic arts.

I should like to read more of Miss Frost's story, whether or not it intersected with Ned and Julian's. (There's a sequel, A Death at the Dionysus Club: it's on my list.)

Monday, May 01, 2017

2017/48: The Hippopotamus Pool -- Elizabeth Peters

Careers for women! That is a favourite theme of yours, I believe? Why, then you should commend my efforts, for I have given gainful employment to women – downtrodden, oppressed females of this and other countries, who work not for men but for themselves – and for me. A criminal organization of women![loc. 5712]
Amelia and her family are in Cairo to greet the 20th century (technically a year early) when a mysterious visitor produces an ancient gold ring, some hints about an undisturbed tomb, and -- shortly thereafter -- his own inexplicable disappearance. There are other mysteries, too: in the absence of Sethos (a.k.a. The Master Criminal), who has taken over the thriving trade in forged antiquities? Could there be two factions? If so, which faction is trying to prevent Emerson from finding and excavating the rumoured tomb? And is the forger Abd el Hamed's sullen juvenile apprentice, David, to be trusted?

Also features another fat villain; a Theosophist; Nefret being awesome; the return of Walter and Evelyn, and the latter regaining some verve; the cat Bastet obeying a command; Amelia's narrative shading into smugness.

There were quite a few typos in this Kindle edition ('pouring over the message', 'a wealthy window') as well as sentences where the words ran together without spaces, and at least one missing line. Still, very enjoyable, and has rather more history and archaeology than some of the others in the series.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

2017/47: The Last Camel Died at Noon -- Elizabeth Peters

It is impossible to give a proper impression of Ramses by describing his characteristics. One must observe him in action to understand how even the most admirable traits can be perverted or carried to such an extreme that they cease to be virtues and become the reverse. [loc. 305]
In which the Emerson family. having planned to excavate in Sudan, find themselves heading further into the desert with insufficient supplies and a guide who abandons them. ... Luckily, they are entering H Rider Haggard territory, and find themselves the guests -- or prisoners -- in a hidden city that has isolated itself from the rest of the world for some three thousand years, and harbours a thriving Meroitic society with a priestly ruling caste and a servant class that is considered barely human.

This is also the last known address of explorer Willoughby Forth and his young wife, who disappeared fourteen years before the events of the novel, and have been presumed dead. Willoughby's nephew Reggie was keen to renew the search for the missing couple -- he even has a rough map, sketched on a page from one of Emerson's own notebooks -- but does he have reasons other than familial ties for wanting to know the truth behind their disappearance?

Add to this a great deal of interesting speculation about what ancient Egyptian society might look like if it had been permitted to grow, without outside influence, for another few millennia, and this becomes a fascinating novel on several levels. Also, it introduces Nefret, a teenaged girl whose superpower is the ability to render Ramses silent.

Incidentally, H Rider Haggard truly is an influence, not only on Peters' novel but on the characters in that novel. Amelia happens across a book owned by Tarek, one of the princes of the city:
‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ I read. ‘By H. Rider Haggard.’ ‘I should have known,’ Emerson said in a hollow voice. ‘Known what?’ ‘Where Tarek got his high-flown style of talking and his sentimental notions. He sounds exactly like one of the confounded natives in those confounded books.’ Emerson [loc. 5000]

Friday, April 28, 2017

2017/46: The Deeds of the Disturber -- Elizabeth Peters

"... your – how shall I put it? – your panache, your disregard for convention, your remarkable talent for criminal investigation –"
"I prefer the term 'panache'," I interrupted. [loc 624]
The only novel in the series to be set wholly in London, Deeds of the Disturber opens with a mysterious death at the British Museum. With remarkable alacrity, the popular press start on about curses, and Amelia teams up with journalist Kevin O'Connell to find a murderer -- and uncover the identity of rival reporter M. Minton.

Meanwhile, peace has forsaken the Emerson household, as Amelia's unpleasant brother has asked her to look after his two repulsive children. Percy is a bully, Violet is greedy and sullen. Ramses loathes them both, but is already, at nine, too much of a gentleman (in this respect, at least) to reveal their nasty schemes and general dishonesty. Amelia is oblivious, for most of the book, to the torments inflicted by Ramses' cousins: when she does realise the truth, she is swift to apologise, which pleased me disproportionately. ('although he was wise enough not to say so, I could see he felt I had been a trifle too quick to assume he was at fault. I had to agree; but I would like to point out that Ramses’ past history tended to confirm such an assumption.' [loc. 5532])

Also features a mysterious woman (she is no lady) from Emerson's past; 'vices natural and unnatural', a distinction which Emerson declines to explain to Amelia; escape via corset; and some unflattering observations about Queen Victoria.

Pretty damned good, though Percy (who we do meet again) is vile, and Violet (who doesn't seem to feature in any other books) is, despite her appetite, somewhat two-dimensional.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017/45: A River in the Sky -- Elizabeth Peters

Americans had never established a political foothold in the Middle East. They were regarded as guests, sometimes annoying but not threatening. England bestrode the region like a colossus – one foot in India, one in Egypt, its influence stretching into large parts of Africa. England imposed her own laws and controlled every aspect of government, from education to trade.[loc. 1479]

Although, in terms of internal chronology, this comes between The Ape Who Guards the Balance and The Falcon at the Portal, it was written quite a lot later: I believe it was the last novel that Peters published before her death in 2013.

Sadly, a decline is tangible. There's some clumsy writing, a lot of exposition, and flawed characterisation. (Ramses is unable to escape from his captors; Amelia rushes in where angels fear to tread; nobody identifies the blatantly villainous spy.) It doesn't help, either, that the setting is Palestine before the First World War: excavation rules are different there -- not that anyone does much excavating -- and the historical and archaeological points of interest are considerably more controversial, and politically significant, than those of Egypt. The Emerson tribe seems a little out of its depth, and the villains of the tale have religious motivations as well as political ones.

Not my favourite of the Amelia Peabody novels by a long way. There are moments of interest, but the plot seems flimsy and the characters pastiches of themselves.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017/44: Thunder in the Sky -- Elizabeth Peters

"It isn’t always easy to distinguish right from wrong, is it? More often the choice is between better and worse . . . and sometimes . . . sometimes the line between them is as thin as a hair. One must make a choice, though. One can’t wash one’s hands and let others take the risks . . . including the risk of being wrong." [loc. 1941]

Set in 1914 in Cairo (again, I would love to read about what happened between Falcon at the Portal and this novel). The First World War is rumbling in the background, Cairo is under martial law, and the Ottoman Empire is building up to the first Suez Offensive. The Emersons have won the Giza firman (permit) since Germans are no longer welcome in Cairo: it's a bittersweet blessing, because some of those Germans were personal friends.

Everyone is in disguise in this novel. Amelia impersonates a lady of the evening and a married woman embarking on an illicit assignation. Emerson pretends to be hopeless with a gun (and does also get to wear a disguise). Nefret -- who has used her fortune to open a womens' hospital, catering to women from all walks of life -- pretends romantic interest in someone she suspects to be a villain, possibly even a traitor. And Ramses ... well.

This is Ramses' novel, more than any of the others I've read so far. At the start of the book he's being loudly pacifist and collecting white feathers from outraged ladies. Of course, being Ramses, he has several other personae on the go, and some very good reasons for risking life and liberty. Various intelligence agencies are eager to acquire his services: unsuccessfully. David Todros, meanwhile, is in prison in India, having spoken out about Egyptian independence. (David's wife Lia, who is expecting their first child, is back in the relative safety of England.) And Wardani, the revolutionary, is gathering arms and men for a rebellion.

The Master Criminal is also in Cairo: Amelia is certain that she's identified him, despite his disguise -- but surely he'd make an effort to keep out of her way? Even though he doesn't know about the best Christmas present either?

But at the heart of the novel is the family: Amelia, Emerson, Ramses and Nefret. The novel would be a great deal shorter (and much less exciting) if they were better at talking to one another: but, by the last page, a great many things that needed to be said have been said aloud.

I opened the book to check a couple of details and found myself rereading half of it. It really is a splendid novel, and feels like a culmination -- though I know there are quite a few books set after this one.

Also, Amelia advising Ramses on matters of the heart? Sheer delight.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

2017/43: The Falcon at the Portal -- Elizabeth Peters

‘We are only demonstrating the qualities for which our superior caste is famous,’ Ramses drawled. ‘British phlegm, noblesse oblige, coolness under fire . . . What have I left out?’
‘Don’t be hateful,’ Nefret snapped.
‘That’s the part I left out,’ said Ramses. ‘Hatefulness.'[loc. 5871]
At the beginning of this novel (set in 1911-2) Nefret is finding great amusement in reading from a 'true memoir' penned by Amelia's vile nephew Percy. Unfortunately, Percy -- having written a somewhat embellished account of his own heroism -- fails to identify the person who saved him; Nefret finds out who it was, and lets the information slip; and Percy wreaks a sordid and heartbreaking revenge.

David is about to get married and is also involving himself with the independence movement in Egypt; he, too, finds himself targetted, accused of marketing fake antiquities (all too believable, considering his previous trade). Nefret makes some very poor decisions, possibly under the strain of Percy's continued proposals of marriage. But things turn out badly for her, and it's hard to see how they can be mended.

Ramses has a horrible time in this novel, too. He is also the recipient of unwanted attentions -- and his heart is still given elsewhere, still apparently unrequitedly. He's not quite as solemn as before, at least in the first half of the novel: later he has plenty of reasons for solemnity. As do others. I felt for Amelia and Emerson, watching helplessly as 'the children' -- now all full-grown adults, embarking on lives of their own which they don't share with the older generation -- move beyond their protection.

Also some murders, some brothels and some tombs.

This novel is a masterful study of Amelia's extended family, love and friction and secrets and the urgent need to protect one another at all costs. It definitely ends on a minor key: I am so very glad I had the next book, Thunder in the Sky, to hand. [Actually, I'm fairly sure that C gave me that book, long ago, as a lure into the series. It didn't work: either the time wasn't right, or I felt adrift because I didn't know or care about the characters. Sorry, C!]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2017/42: The Ape Who Guards the Balance -- Elizabeth Peters

Nefret had been Priestess of Isis in a community where the old gods of Egypt were worshipped, and I had a nasty suspicion she had not entirely abandoned her belief in those heathen deities. Perhaps she shared the views of Abdullah, who was something of a heathen himself: ‘There is no harm in protecting oneself from that which is not true!’[loc. 3470]

Set in London and Egypt in 1906-7 -- another big gap in the timeline, which I wish had been filled. (There are allusions to events during that period in this and later novels.)

The Ape Who Guards the Balance begins in London, where Amelia has, of course, joined the Women's Social and Political Union. She is hoping to chain herself to the railings, but instead finds herself witnessing the Master Criminal's latest theft. A little later, someone attempts to abduct Amelia, but is foiled by her husband and son. Ah well! Egypt is bound to be safer, as well as warmer and with cleaner air.

Once in Egypt, Ramses, Nefret and David acquire a rare papyrus of the Book of the Dead: but it seems someone else is after it. Meanwhile, the Emersons -- having offended several key players in the archaeology game -- are relegated to clearing the dullest tombs in the Valley of the Kings, whilst a rank amateur makes a hash of an important find.

During the course of the book both Ramses (who's flitting around Cairo in a variety of unsavoury disguises) and Amelia are taken captive; David confesses his love for a young woman, sparking an unpleasantly racist reaction in Amelia (to her credit, she does immediately question her prejudice, and is determined to overcome it); and a recurring character dies.

I do like the way that Peters combines archaeology, crime and social commentary in this and subsequent novels. And Ramses' clear-eyed affection for, and knowledge of, his parents is refreshing after Amelia's self-assured and sometimes overly-confident narrative.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

2017/41: Seeing a Large Cat -- Elizabeth Peters

"...your Western talk about love confuses me a great deal. You make such a fuss about such a simple thing!"
"It really cannot be described," Ramses said, staring abstractedly at the cat, now lying across his stomach. "It must be experienced. Like being extremely drunk."[loc. 6797]

This novel is set in Egypt in 1903. Ramses and David return, somewhat swashbucklingly, from six months with Sheik Mohammed (in which time Ramses has grown a moustache) and Nefret returns from her medical studies in London. We're also treated to excerpts from 'Manuscript H', being an edited third-person narrative based on Ramses' journal: it contrasts piquantly with his mother's first-person account of events.

Enid, nee Derbyshire, and her husband Donald Fraser have also returned to Egypt. This is because a spiritualist, Mrs Jones, has put Donald in touch with the spirit of an Ancient Egyptian princess who claims to be his soulmate. Enid, unsurprisingly, is not best pleased by this. When she and Ramses first met he offered to help her if she ever needed it: she's calling in the debt.

Meanwhile the Emersons are being warned away from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings: naturally this just encourages them to excavate, and they discover a mummified corpse dressed in modern clothing.

There is also a silly debutante who fancies herself in love with Ramses (whose affections are given elsewhere, unrequitedly), and the debutante's father, a veteran of the American Civil War, who has lost his wife. (But she has been found -- though not under the best of circumstances.)

With hindsight -- reading out of order -- I do wish that Peters had written another novel between The Hippopotamus Pool and this one: I'd have liked to see the developing relationships between Ramses, Nefret and David as they move towards adulthood, and I can't help wondering if there was a particular event that sparked Ramses' lengthy visit to Sheik Mohammed. Imagination provides ample possibilities for an exasperated Amelia and an unrepentant Ramses ...

Monday, April 17, 2017

2017/40: Lion in the Valley -- Elizabeth Peters

I felt like one of the heroes of Anthony Hope or Rider Haggard, dashing to the rescue. (Their heroines, poor silly things, never did anything but sit wringing their hands waiting to be rescued.)[loc. 16494]

In which Ramses is revealed as a Sherlock Holmes fan, the cat Bastet is seduced with chicken, and Amelia learns the name of the Master Criminal. There is also another opportunity for Amelia to flex her matchmaking muscles: in search of a minder for Ramses, she encounters a young man who calls himself 'Nemo' and is fond of hashish, and of a young woman named Enid.

Needless to say there are also pyramids, murders, cunning disguises, upper-class British twits, and plenty of opportunities for Amelia's particular brand of modesty. ('I will frankly admit – since candour is a quality I prize, and since my errors in judgment are so infrequent as to be worthy of mention – that I was mistaken as to the cause of her reticence.')

The Master Criminal is a charming villain, with an unusual motivation. (Well, he has at least as many motives as he has nefarious schemes: but one motive is especially relevant.) At least he will know better than to attempt abduction of Ramses in future ...

Great fun. But I skipped the next few and went directly to Seeing a Large Cat, due to rumours of teenaged ninja Ramses.

Watch this space ...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017/39: The Mummy Case -- Elizabeth Peters

my spirits rose – not, as evil-minded persons have suggested, at the prospect of interfering in matters which were not my concern, but at the imminence of the exquisite Dahshoor pyramids.[loc. 11925]

Emerson and Amelia (and their irritating son Ramses) are sulking about not being permitted to excavate proper pyramids. Instead, they are digging over some mounds of rubble. But everyone perks up when an Egyptian antiquities dealer is found hanged in his shop: not because he is an especially worthy individual, but because all the signs point to murder and mystery, which are as meat and drink to the Emerson family. Yes, even their darling child. (I blame the parents.)

Meanwhile, a village near the dig seems to have been overrun by American missionaries; a German aristocrat with more money than taste appears on the scene, accompanied by her pet lion-cub; Ramses carries out some excavations of his own; and the Egyptians are, in general, morally superior to the Americans, British and European characters.

This is the book where I began to see potential in Ramses (who is, as one character says, 'catastrophically precocious'). His interactions with the cat Bastet are delightful. And Amelia's very Victorian parenting -- even Emerson seems to think she is rather hard on her son -- is, though troublesome to a modern reader, exactly the environment in which a child of intelligence, curiosity and courage thrives. (Besides, she does turn out to have a violently maternal streak.) And it's Ramses whose actions turn the tide of the novel.

Also features a Master Criminal.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

2017/38: The Curse of the Pharaohs -- Elizabeth Peters

I was flattered that the cat stayed with me; always before she had seemed to prefer Emerson. No doubt her keen intelligence told her that the truest friend is not always the one who offers chicken.[loc. 9086]

Amelia Peabody Emerson and her redoubtable husband are off to Egypt again, after five years in England. They leave their little son Ramses in the tender care of Emerson's brother Walter and his lovely wife Evelyn. Both leap at the opportunity to excavate what might be an undisturbed royal tomb -- and given Amelia's predilection for crime-solving, it probably doesn't hurt that the discoverer of the tomb, Sir Henry Baskerville, died in mysterious circumstances.

Egypt is certainly a contrast to their sedate life in Kent. There is a vexing reporter, an American Egyptologist, the bereaved Lady Baskerville, a young man who spends most of the novel in a coma, and Madame Berengeria, who drinks a lot to assuage the Eternal Pain stemming from being the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian Queen. (Emerson is apparently her long-lost love.) There is a great deal of skulduggery, a romance that seems to be doomed, and a number of superstitious individuals --
Egyptian and otherwise -- who would rather Emerson and Amelia did not excavate the tomb, which is (of course) cursed.

Amelia is as delightfully cynical as ever ('the fact that she had not yet exterminated her mother proved that she was incapable of violence') and manages to retain her air of competence by never quite admitting when she's wrong.

I have to say I didn't enjoy this as much as Crocodile on the Sandbank: but I had already committed myself, via the four-book omnibus edition, to the series. Curse of the Pharaohs is entertaining, fast-paced and often very funny: it introduces characters who will be significant later in the series: but Amelia did not charm me quite as much as on first acquaintance.

Also, I note that in Elizabeth Peters' books, overweight individuals are seldom on the side of good -- whether neutral or actively villainous.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

2017/37: Grave of Hummingbirds -- Jennifer Skutelsky

Gregory stood still, aware of circumstances closing over his head in a flood, images pouring in: the body in the highlands, laid out on his table under a scalpel; the tattoos and their scabs; Alberto’s beatings at the hands of the police; the woman at the café, who resembled Nita too closely, who seemed an afterthought of Nita or a memory made whole in flesh and bone.[loc. 1552]

Grave of Hummingbirds begins with a mysterious murder and mutilation in Colibrí, a remote Andean town. The local doctor, Gregory Moreno, notes the victim's resemblance to Nita, the dead wife he's still mourning. (Several other men in Colibrí seem to have been in love with Nita too.) Then two American tourists arrive in town: forensic anthropologist Sophie -- who also bears a remarkable resemblance to Nita -- and her teenaged son Finn. They have come to witness an ancient, savage ritual that involves tying a condor (symbolising the native population) to a bull (symbolising the Spanish invaders). Gregory, who loves animals, is against this. So is his young protégé Alberto, though not for the same reasons.

There are some beautiful phrases in this novel, but on the whole it felt unfinished, in need of a further edit. Sophie and Finn have an air of the white saviour about them. Their arrival in Colibrí precipitates major changes. They are the only ones who can see or hear the ghosts of Colibrí's disappeared. Both are the focus of desire and fascination from the townsfolk. And only with their appearance can the poor folk of Colibrí find justice, understanding and closure.

I'm unhappy about the characterisation, too. Sophie, who is a single mother and has visited many of the world's most troubled locations as a forensic anthropologist, crumbles into near-hysteria under pressure. Finn's great dream is to be a ballet dancer, but he decides to postpone his ambitions at the drop of a hat. And Nita turns out to have been harbouring a tragic secret -- a concealment that, given other characters' perception of her, seems improbable.

The novel's ending seems hurried, abrupt: everything (well, most things) wrapped up neatly, regardless of whether it makes narrative or logical sense. Skutelsky has a gift for lyrical writing, but it doesn't show to best advantage in this, her first novel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017/36: Our Game -- John le Carré

‘Such an inconsistent man you are. One minute you are looking for Emma, the next you are looking for your friend. You know what? I don’t think you wish to find your friend, only to become him. ’[loc. 4325]
Tim Cranmer, retired 'civil servant', receives a visit late one Sunday night: his friend -- or associate -- Dr Lawrence Pettifer has gone missing, and the police wonder if Cranmer can help with their enquiries.

Cranmer, of course, is not the middle-aged Treasury economist turned winemaker that he seems. And Larry is not simply an eccentric lecturer in Global Security. They are former intelligence operatives, bound closer than friendship by secrets and loyalties -- and by their shared regard for Emma, Cranmer's girlfriend, who is a composer.

Panicked, Cranmer heads to London to meet with his former employers, and learns that Larry has been up to no good. But is he still alive? And where is Emma? Cranmer, finding himself as suspect as Larry, sets out to discover what Larry has really been up to.

Cranmer does not seem to be wholly sure of his own emotions; or perhaps the habit of secrecy is so engrained that even in this first-person, non-sequential narrative, he won't admit to them. I'm not sure I'd call him a likeable character, but his competence -- wonderfully contrasted with his mental turmoil, which sometimes seems tinged with hysteria -- is fascinating.

On first reading, I thought this was Larry's story: but I wonder now if it's the story of Tim Cranmer finding new purpose after being severed from the career that gave him meaning. Not at all the ending I expected, but a very satisfactory conclusion.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

2017/35: Paradise Lost: The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance -- Giles Milton

When the screams from the distant quayside grew too loud to be ignored, the captain ordered the ship’s band to strike up tunes.

This is not a cheerful book: but it is fascinating, brilliantly written, cautionary and informative. Giles Milton examines life in Smyrna before and during The Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. Milton's especially good at picking out individuals who illustrate aspects of life in his chosen milieu: the first part of Paradise Lost focusses on the (mostly American) Levantines who made their homes in Smyrna because of the cosmopolitan, tolerant, mercantile nature of the city. Many of them seem to have been unusually benevolent employers: when the inhabitants of one village fled, fearing invasion, Edmund Giraud watered, harvested and sold their crops, and sent the proceeds to the displaced farmers.

The city -- populated by almost as many Greeks as Turks, together with Armenians, Jews, and Europeans -- remained relatively unscathed by World War One. Smyrna's Ottoman governor, Rahmi Bey, seems to have been instrumental in fending off the more bellicose initiatives of the Ottoman Empire: he even attempted to strike 'a private truce between Smyrna and the British government, offering to withdraw his city from the war in order to safeguard its numerous different minorities'. Sadly, the British were vehemently opposed to the Ottoman Empire -- who were allies of Germany -- and refused.

After the end of the First World War, Greece invaded: and three years later, the Greco-Turkish War was effectively ended by the Turkish army regaining control of Smyrna. Subsequently -- according to Milton's book -- the Turks set fire to much of the city, driving Greeks and Armenians to the quayside, where they remained trapped for three weeks; many were murdered, many more died, and most of the men were marched away to the interior. Although there were many Allied battleships in the harbour, all seem to have been under orders not to intervene (though, unsurprisingly, the wealthy Levantines were able to seek sanctuary on one ship or another). Hero of the hour: Asa Jennings, an unprepossessing American missionary, who commandeered a flotilla of (mostly Greek) ships and oversaw the evacuation of hundreds of thousands from the quayside. '‘All ships in the Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.’ Asa Jennings had been appointed an admiral of the Greek navy. '

After reading Paradise Lost, I realised that I'd read fictionalised accounts of -- or at least references to -- the fall of Smyrna in various novels, for example Middlesex (Eugenides) and Birds Without Wings (de Bernieres). None of those moved me, or engaged me, or enraged me to the extent that Milton's book did. Part of the success of this book, for me, was that Milton focussed on a relatively neutral group rather than either Greek or Turkish factions; part is his excellent pacing, alternating charming, and often quite gossipy, vignettes with examinations of the political situation. Milton is good at fleshing out historical characters, and merciless when describing the failings of politicians.

A note of caution: I read Paradise Lost on Kindle, and then went hunting on the Internet for illustrations and maps. It took me a couple of days to realise that the paperback is lavishly illustrated with photos, maps etc: I swiftly returned my Kindle book for refund, and bought a dead-tree version.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

2017/34: The Little Stranger -- Sarah Waters

Arriving at that crumbling red house, I’d have the sense, every time, that ordinary life had fractionally tilted, and that I had slipped into some other, odder, rather rarer realm. [loc. 1151]
Set in post-war rural Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel that echoes with inequality: sexism, social class, family secrets and a creeping sense of horror. Everyone in this novel is scared of something, but most of them won't (or can't) put a name to their fear. For Dr Faraday -- I don't believe his forename is ever revealed -- it's the imminent National Health Service, which he fears will destroy his practice. For the once-wealthy Ayres family -- Mrs Ayres and her two grown children, who live at isolated Hundreds Hall with their few remaining servants -- it's the Labour government that's taxing rural landowners into penury. But those are fears that can be spoken of, and laughed about. There are others.

Dr Faraday is a working-class lad made good, though he has a chip on his shoulder and a constant sense of not quite belonging. His friendship with the Ayres family -- and especially with Caroline -- give him glimpses of a different world, and the reclusive family who inhabit the crumbling ruins of a bygone age. He's keen to suggest experimental treatments for Roderick Ayres, who is scarred, physically and mentally, by his wartime experiences. Rod is an amiable sort, joking about the servants getting better treatment than the family -- though he seems to be struggling with the management of the estate. Rod's sister Caroline seems cheerful and competent, devoted to her elderly Labrador Gyp: she and Faraday become good friends.

But Rod himself is becoming increasingly distressed -- he talks of keeping something at bay, and recounts an outlandish tale of an evil presence -- so Dr Faraday, diagnosing nervous illness, arranges for his removal to a nursing home. Once Rod is out of the picture, the Ayres women turn to Faraday for help and support -- and, on Caroline's part, perhaps more.

There is a delicious creeping sense of horror here: nothing quite glimpsed or explained. Faraday's first-person narrative reveals more than he knows: his insistence on rational explanations and psychoanalytic theory blinds him to much of what is happening. Waters' descriptions are precise, as though she's viewing each scene through a magnifying-glass and picking out the details one might not notice: the dirt on each hair on the bare leg of a young woman, a drop of blood on a silk blouse. Throughout the novel there's a sense of disrepair, decay, things that are stained or marked or charred.

I should read more Waters ...

Sunday, April 02, 2017

2017/33: Crocodile on the Sandbank -- Elizabeth Peters

Men are frail creatures, of course; one does not expect them to exhibit the steadfastness of women. [loc. 2586]

Amelia Peabody, brought up in a house full of books and antiquities, has come into a substantial inheritance and decides to use it to fund her travels. Her chosen travelling companion falls ill, but fortuitously she encounters distressed gentlewoman Evelyn Barton-Forbes, abandoned and destitute in Rome, and the two quickly become friends. They journey to Egypt, where Amelia develops a passion for pyramids and encounters irascible archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his rather more amiable brother Walter. The Emersons are determined to uncover the secrets of Amarna, Akhenaten's capital, and Amelia and Evelyn become involved in the excavation.

All would be idyllic were it not for the sudden appearance of Evelyn's cousin Lucas (who wants to marry Evelyn) and an apparition of a mummy (which may also be interested in Evelyn). Fearing for her friend -- and exasperated by, well, pretty much everything -- Amelia sets out to solve the mystery of the mummy, and get to the bottom of Lucas's story.

This was great fun: it's always nice to discover a likeable series, and know that there are plenty of further adventures awaiting the characters. (I believe the Amelia Peabody series is now up to twenty volumes.) Amelia is a rational and somewhat domineering female, and Emerson an excellent foil for her. The setting -- Victorian Egypt, without the racism of Victorian novels set there -- is intriguing. I did find the plot predictable in places, and I'd like to read the alternate history in which Amelia and Evelyn 'could have lived like sisters, enjoying the domestic comforts of England, and travelling whenever we got bored with domesticity'. But overall, most enjoyable.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

2017/32: Ace, King, Knave -- Maria McCann

She begins to comprehend the mentality of such people. One need not be especially clever, and certainly not well educated. The essential thing is to conduct one’s life as war: everything is permitted except compassion. [loc. 5102]

London in the 1760s: or 'Romeville', to the 99% who don't inhabit the clean well-lit civilised world of the gentry. Betsy-Ann Blore is living with a man she despises, having been won by him in a card game with her former lover, the charmingly rakish Ned Hartry. She was once a common prostitute (ensnared by Ned's mother Kitty), but now scrapes a living by thieving and card-sharping. Her brother (the brutish Harry) is a resurrectionist, digging up fresh corpses to sell to anatomists. Betsy-Ann worries that her current fellow, Sam Shiner, will join Harry in his nocturnal adventures.

Sophia Buller, only child of wealthy parents, is newly married to Edmund Zedland, whose business affairs are opaque to Sophia but clearly very lucrative. Why won't he trust her with any of his secrets? And why does his servant, the black boy Titus, seem to hate her? And why do her parents reply so vaguely to her letters?

Sophia's life is lonely, and genteel. Betsy-Ann's quite the opposite, a narrative replete with slang and double-dealing. In Betsy-Ann's world, cruelty is a constant, especially cruelty to -- and by -- women. (The men, in this novel, seem almost peripheral: on the whole they are either well-meaning but ineffectual, or dishonest and violent.)

Sophia and Betsy -- and Titus, whose name is actually Fortunate and who was brought from (or bought in) Annapolis to serve Mr Zedland -- discover how their fates are entwined, and how each of them is the victim of deception. Which leads, in due course, to each of them practicing their own deceptions, with greater or lesser success. This is a novel in which the reader becomes aware of the great central lie before any of the characters realise how they've been duped.

I confess I found Betsy-Ann's narrative richer than Sophia's, but it was also quite breathtakingly unpleasant at times. McCann does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting her two protagonists: her depiction of 'Titus', who can barely speak English but whose interior life is sketched through memory, fancy and despair, is marvellous. And though the novel ends on what, in music, would be called an 'imperfect cadence' (there is no grand resolution) I liked that ending: it works, because it opens up possibilities.