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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017/114: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes -- Adam Rutherford

One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today ... the remaining 80 per cent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century. [loc 1941]
A fascinating and very readable book about genetics, full of anecdotes and asides. I had no idea that the Romans had left behind so few traces in the modern British genome. Or that Charles II of Spain was more cumulatively inbred than the child of a brother and sister. Or that Icelanders have an app to check how closely they are related to one another, with a feature called Sifjaspellsspillir or 'incest spoiler' to alert them to shared grandparents. Or that two black people are likely to be more genetically diverse than a black person and a white person.

Genetics offers good counter-arguments to racism, and to issues of caste in India (not just a product of colonisation); however, as Rutherford points out, a lot of the insights promoted by companies such as 23andme is little more than 'genetic astrology'. (My own genome still fascinates me though: it is one thing to know that one is descended from people in the distant past, quite another to be told of the traces they've left in my body.)

Rutherford is occasionally wrong though ...
If by some incomprehensibly reality-defying mutation a child was born with the nascent power of flight... their freakishness would probably render them an unlikely sexual partner. [loc. 4601]
Now google 'wingfic' and reflect on 'unlikely sexual partner'.

2017/113: The Night Bird -- Brian Freeman

"People can change their own memories without even being aware that they're doing so. The danger — and the opportunity — is that memories can also be deliberately altered." [p. 64]
Thriller about memory, therapy and psychosis, featuring homicide detective Frost Easton (who lives in a house that belongs to his cat) and psychiatrist Francesca (a.k.a. Frankie) Stein (ahahaha), whose controversial therapeutic technique helps people to forget the memories that are troubling them.

Which is all well and good unless somebody else remembers them ...

The Night Bird is a gripping page-turner, though I kept feeling that the characters were making incredibly unwise decisions, albeit with (mostly) the best of intentions. It was an interesting exploration of how false memories can be created out of real events, and of how real memories, erased, could come back to bite.

Frankie, despite her name, is a well-rounded character, as is Frost. I was less convinced by the villain, by the sister, and by one of the victims.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017/111: The Woman In Blue -- Elly Griffiths

Nelson takes a step back. "Who says we've found a woman?"
He half-expects Cathbad to say something about spiritual energies and cosmic vibrations, but instead he says, "I heard the milkman talking about it." [p. 8]
Ruth's Druidical friend Cathbad is cat-sitting for a friend in Walsingham, 'England's Nazareth', a small Norfolk town which many believe has a brooding atmosphere. One night the cat (who is named Chesterton: this is significant) escapes, as they do, and Cathbad sees a woman in a white dress and blue cloak standing in the graveyard. Next day, a blonde woman is found dead, wrapped in blue cloth: is she the woman Cathbad saw? Meanwhile, Ruth's old friend Hilary has momentous news: she's become a priest -- and is receiving hate mail. Then one of her fellow female priests is also found murdered, and Nelson's wife Michelle is attacked on her way through the graveyard.

Ruth's somewhat belligerent atheism, and her no-nonsense feminism (she thinks the girls in Frozen should wear anoraks, not plunging necklines), is refreshing and often funny. She also does some Serious Thinking about her relationships (though she tells the women priests, over cocktails, "I don't need a man. I've got a daughter and a cat."). She doesn't, however, get to do much in the archaeological line this time around.

Not my favourite of the Ruth Galloway books, although there is progress in several of the soap-opera plots concerning her associates. (Nelson even admits, albeit to himself, that he is not good at talking or thinking about his feelings.) The murder mystery, though, was weak, and the religious elements (women priests, fashions in Catholicism, everyday life in a pilgrim town) didn't engage me.

2017/110: In Great Waters -- Kit Whitfield

Let the Switzers be ruled by landsmen, let nations with no sea borders keep their old ways if they wished, but there were navies to maintain, and the deepsmen of the sea were no longer neutral, no longer sailors' yarns, but an engaged force with loyalties of their own. [p. 43]
Europe reimagined, with merfolk -- 'deepsmen' -- in alliance with the nations of dry land. It's set, I think, in Tudor times, several centuries after the first deepsman-landsman hybrid, Angelica, walked up out of the water on the Venetian coast and proposed a mutually-beneficial arrangement. Since then, deepsmen have interbred with the royal families of Europe (though the penalties for unauthorised miscegenation are grim and bloody) and any country with a coast has a ruler with some deepsman blood.

And just as in our history, this has led to problematic inbreeding: imbecility, deformity, unfitness for the throne ... and marriages of desperation.

In Great Waters focusses on two young people: Henry, formerly 'Whistle', who's left on the beach by his deepsman mother; and Anne, the younger of two princesses, who has watched her half-deepsman mother negotiate the royal court, and seen that she and her sister Mary are pawns in the game.

Some elements of this novel work better than others. I'm not convinced that the history would be so similar to our own after several centuries of deepsman-landsman interaction. What about colonies, trade by land and sea, anti-deepsman sentiment? And I never really warmed to any of the characters -- though this might be intentional on the author's part, given that the deepsmen are depicted as unsentimental and violent, driven by instinct more than intellect. Henry is certainly an arresting character, but not really a likeable one: when Anne crosses him he looks at her and thinks of eating her tongue.

I found the interpersonal, rather than international, elements of the novel more satisfying. Henry's deep-borne sensorium (he loathes straight lines and corners, thinks the air too thin to carry sound, has poor long-distance vision because he grew up underwater where distance is a 'blue-green blur') is vividly conveyed. Anne's half-crippled state on land -- deepsmen, and those who share their blood, have webbed feet and their legs are 'jointed with vertebrae rather than shin bone and thigh bone' -- contrasts beautifully with her agility and freedom in the sea.

On the whole, though, I didn't enjoy this as much as Whitfield's previous novel, Bareback: strip away the fantasy, and the plot is standard historical fare; strip away the history, and there is an intriguing idea -- a strongly-realised race of merfolk -- that could have been explored more convincingly in a different story, perhaps one set at an earlier stage in the deepsman-landsman entente.

2017/112: Black Swan Green -- David Mitchell

birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can't find if you're not alone. Time in woods's older than time in clocks, and truer. Ghosts of Might Be run riot in woods, and stationery shops and messes of stars. [p. 234]
This is a book about an adolescent boy growing up in the early 80s, who writes poetry, thinks Thatcher is great and the Falklands War will never be forgotten, and is so focussed on his own problems that he's oblivious to the momentous changes happening around him.

Why no, his name is not Adrian Mole. It is Jason Taylor, and Black Swan Green is considerably less humorous -- and more profound -- than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Jason lives in the rural village of Black Swan Green, where there are, apparently, no swans at all. His parents and his elder sister are more or less mysterious to him: he has a better understanding of his friends and foes at school.

Superficially this is the story of the year when he breaks his grandfather's Omega Seamaster watch, and panics, and tries to raise the money to replace it before his parents find out. On a deeper level, it's about Jason growing up -- and growing as a poet, under the tuition of old Mrs Crommelynck (who curses the British with 'twenty years of Thatchers') -- and of the secrets he keeps, the secrets he tells, the secrets he doesn't even recognise. There is a great deal happening in the background which never really became clear, at least to me, but had a fantastical ambience: the old woman in a dark house by a frozen lake where many children have drowned; mysterious tunnels under the hills; of the part of the woods that 'just isn't good'; the secret society, Spooks, which may be more than it seems ...

There were a couple of things that rang false: would Jason have known about Goth culture in 1982? was there really such excitement about the end of the Falklands War? (Several friends say 'yes there was'; and it seems to have been the week I was doing my O levels and worrying about my mother having been admitted to hospital for surgery, so maybe it passed me by.)

I liked Jason a lot. He is a thoughtful character, prone to parentheses and moments of lyric clarity, and like many adolescents (especially the male ones) he's obsessed by and ignorant about sex. The main focus of his world, though, is bullying, and the way it expands to fill a child's world until everything else is pushed aside. Yet he doesn't lose sight of the principle that being good to other people matters: that it's more important than being right.

The supporting cast is good too, including the girls. And some of the characters appear in other novels by Mitchell: Hugo in The Bone Clocks, for example, and Eva van Crommelynck in Cloud Atlas.

"Wish I could be thirteen again." Then, I thought, you've obviously forgotten what it's like. [p. 169]

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017/108: The Midnight Queen --Sylvia Hunter

[The temple] might just as well have been dedicated to the Breton sea-queen Dahut as to Neptune. This Gray supposed to be the reason the Professor had described Duke Gaël's refurbishments as insufficiently ambitious; a man more convinced of the superiority of Roman worship, law, and custom he had never yet encountered. [loc. 638]

A fascinating alternate history, set in an early nineteenth century comparable to the Regency period, but with no Napoleon and with Henry XII on the throne of Britain -- a Britain which does not include Alba or Eire, but comprises the provinces of Cymru, England, Kernow, Normandie, Maine and Breizh. Magic may be studied at Merlin College in Oxford, where Graham ('Gray') Marshall is an undergraduate, tutored by Professor Callender, Regius Professor of Magickal Theory.

A fracas between town and gown sends Gray into exile at the Breizh home of his tutor, where he makes the acquaintance of the Professor's daughters: elegant Amelia the eldest, mutinous Joanna the youngest, and Sophia, the middle sister, who tries to avoid notice. This chameleon quality is so effective that Gray suspects her of having magickal talents, but Sophie protests that her father has always told her she has no magick.

The Winter Queen is in the same general territory as Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer: perhaps the earliest of the Regency-romance-with-magic genre), but it's more Gothic. It lacks several of the usual trappings of the pseudo-Regency romance: Sophie is not especially interested in fashion (though Amelia is); there are dastardly conspiracies; there is a shadowy plot involving the Midnight Queen, the Breton second wife of King Henry; the mysterious Mrs Wallis, Sophie's guardian, knows more than she says; and of course there is magick, and counter-magick.

The plot is byzantine, the characters (especially the women) have distinct and rounded personalities: but what I found most interesting was the worldbuilding. This is a Britain with Romano-Celtic, rather than Judeo-Christian, roots: Ivor (not Isaac) Newton's Principia alchemica is a standard text; Oxford boasts temples to Minerva and Apollo, though Sophie's offering is left at the temple of Mercury and Epona; a knowledge of Cymric is essential for any scholar; and Joanna struggles to comprehend the monotheistic Judæi's insistence on a single deity. 'How peculiar. He must be terribly busy.'

This enjoyable novel is the first in a trilogy: I expect I'll read the other two, not least to find out more about this particular variant of history.

2017/109: The Beauty of Murder -- A K Benedict

'I feel more alive standing next to something dead. Don't you?' [p. 57]
Stephen Killigan, newly arrived philosophy lecturer at a Cambridge college, stumbles home one drunken evening via the kebab van on Market Hill, and discovers a corpse. Unfortunately, when he leads the police to it, it's no longer there.

This does not do his career any good. Nor does it endear him to Inspector Jane Horne -- even before another impossible corpse (this one recently disinterred) turns up in the Fellows' Garden of Killigan's college. Killigan, who is aware that this all looks highly suspicious, turns for help to his friend Satnam, and to librarian Lana Carver. He also gets to know Robert Sachs, an academic with an interest in the aesthetics of death, and meets the eccentric Iris Burton, who gives him a copy of her book on time travel.

The Beauty of Murder captures Cambridge's ambience: the way the stone walls sometimes seem to emanate cold, the dankness of the fens, the plague pit underneath the bus station, the bohemian roughness of Mill Road. (I am not altogether convinced that 'a lecturer from the University of East Anglia' inscribed the words Reality Checkpoint on the lamppost at the centre of Parker's Piece, given that UEA is 65 miles away in Norwich. Perhaps Benedict means Anglia Ruskin?)

Killigan is a charismatic and witty narrator: a former goth, tattooed, prone to melancholy memories of his drowning mother. He becomes less likeable later in the novel, but I think that's simply that the plot ensnares him -- both in terms of the character becoming mired in unpredictable and acausal events, and of the author focussing more on those events, and on the other characters, than on Killigan's interior life.

I also liked Jane Horne a great deal: indomitable, prickly, secretive, and unwilling to tolerate stupidity.

Benedict's writing is gorgeous, full of lovely turns of phrase and surprising metaphors. Even when Killigan's being a tad pretentious ('a library is a sanctuary, a paper city where the emotionally homeless can find haven between the pages') his part of the narrative is interesting, and when he's less epigrammatic his turn of phrase is a delight.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017/106: The Man Who Remembered The Moon -- David Hull

He suffers a first-order false belief: the belief that there was once a thing called a moon, which disappeared and sucked the evidence that it had ever existed into the black hole of its absence.
[loc. 518]
This is an odd novella, deceptively simple: the premise is that the moon no longer exists, has never existed, and Daniel Hale is the only person who remembers the world where there was a moon.

This plays out logically: first Daniel, and later his doctor (Marvin Pallister), examine all the inconsistencies, possibilities, misapprehensions et cetera that follow from such a premise. Hale, desperate to prove himself sane, looks in poetry books; notes that the other planets now have satellites, rather than moons; rants at the local newspaper for leaving moon phases out of the astronomy column. Pallister takes a certain relish in the more nonsensical of his patient's pronouncements: "Let me get this straight. Everyone knew about it. It was huge. And nobody noticed if it was there or not." [loc. 46]

Then, one afternoon, Daniel sits down with the book that Pallister has written about his case.

I had to reread the last few pages several times to appreciate their full weight. (My first thought was that they made a nonsense of the rest of the story: later, I understood it better.) The last page, in particular, is carefully crafted: punctuation, paragraph breaks, repetition all precise.

Brief, thought-provoking and oddly humorous. It's a story, I suppose, about mental illness, about whether a problem is internal or external, about fighting to hold onto a belief: but one would not wish for Marvin Pallister as a therapist.

I'll look out for more of Hull's fiction.

2017/107: Dzur (Vlad Taltos Book 10) -- Steven Brust

With cooking and murder, there really shouldn't be a "good enough." You need to get as close to perfect as possible, otherwise find another line of work. [loc. 3998]
Reread, though I didn't realise it and nothing seemed familiar: only when I tried to add the book to LibraryThing did I realise it was already there ... Apparently I enjoyed the novel very much when I read it in December 2006: eleven years later, it felt rather less satisfying.

See that earlier review for plot details: I came away this time reminded that cooking and murder both require patience; that with any Vlad Taltos book it's wise to review the story so far, from notes or Wikipedia or whatever (perhaps some people rely on their memories?); and that I become irritated with long conversations where I have to count lines to work out who's talking.

I do like this series, though: must work out where I'd actually got to, so I can carry on from there.

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017/105: The Pearl Thief -- Elizabeth Wein

What's your proper work, Julie? I would like to be a theatrical escape artist, I think, like Houdini, or a circus owner like Bertram Mills. I want to dazzle people and be applauded for it. I am good at it, and it is thrilling. Walking a tightrope when you've had too much to drink – dangerous and wonderful. [loc. 1992]
A prequel, of sorts, to Code Name Verity: the heroine of that novel, Julie Beaufort-Stuart, is fifteen in The Pearl Thief, returning to her ancestral home for one last visit before the house is sold. It's a time for farewells, not least to the McEwens, a family of travellers who -- despite the class disparity -- have been part of Julie's life ever since she can remember. Now they're being hounded by the local council, and blamed for the disappearance of archivist Dr Hugh Housman. Julie may have been the last person to see Housman alive, and immediately after that someone hit her on the head ... possibly the same person who's stolen a jar of freshwater pearls.

Not just a whodunnit (though that aspect of the novel is well-structured and kept me guessing) but also a fascinating depiction of an interesting character. Julie never does anything by halves: not only does she kiss a girl, she kisses a traveller girl. (She's also mistaken for one, for 'a dirty tinker', in the hospital after her head injury.) She kisses a man, too. And takes a friend to see a variety show featuring 'Le Sphinx', who is black and wears a white satin dress, and tells Julie 'I'm a more exciting performer as a woman'.

Julie is a likeable, courageous and energetic character, and Wein gives us the sense of a childhood among books: Julie is reading the latest novel by Lisette Romilly (from Wein's novel Rose Under Fire) and is told -- delightfully for Sayers fans -- that she gets her ideas about crime scenes from 'a Harriet Vane novel'. She apparently spent weeks as a child going around in a kilt and insisting that she was David Balfour. And it's possible that her heroics have their roots in literature.

The Pearl Thief is quite different from, much lighter than, the other Elizabeth Wein novels that I've read: but it has the same deft touch, a varied cast of female characters, and a sense of a young woman finding a place for herself in the world. Delightful.

2017/103: Rotherweird -- Andrew Caldecott (illustrated by Sasha Laika)

"...we're forbidden to study old history – by law."
"Why?"
"Ha, ha, that's a good one – I'd have to study old history to find out, wouldn't I! So just remember to keep it modern. 1800 and after ..." [loc. 420]
The town of Rotherweird has been isolated from the rest of England since Elizabethan times. It is a small town in a quiet rural setting, located on an island in the River Rother (not the Rother in Sussex, though), and featuring gorgeous Italianate architecture, a highwalk known as the Aether Way, twisting cobbled alleyways, and a main street called the Golden Mean.

Rotherweird also has History Regulations, a fact which at first dismays and later intrigues the school's new history teacher, Jonah Oblong. The Regulations prohibit any teaching of pre-1800 history, and any teaching at all of the valley's own history. Oblong collects scraps of knowledge from the townsfolk, who have Dickensian names and peculiar habits: he observes customs and lore that seem to hearken back to an earlier age, and pieces together the story of this peculiar enclave, which has no MP, no police, no cars, very little technology, and a dire secret.

Oblong's arrival in the town coincides with the arrival of Sir Veronal Slickstone (and his fake family): also, curiously, with the discovery (by municipal gardener Hayman Salt) of four small coloured stones in the mysterious Lost Acre. Sir Veronal is keen to acquire these stones: but why?

Rotherweird is delightfully eccentric, though occasionally overstuffed with strangeness. The description of a fiercely insular community that has persisted for four hundred years, full of clever and innovative people yet isolated from the larger world, is packed with details and subplots: they do all contribute, I think, to the larger arc, but some seem less relevant than others. (On the other hand, this is book one of a trilogy.)

Some of the characters seem like ciphers, with a single role and little character development. (There are some interesting female characters, though, which is a favourable sign.) And speaking of ciphers, I'm at once vexed and amused by the puzzles -- like crossword clues -- that serve to advance the plot, reveal another layer of mystery, at various points. These puzzles are created by an especially opaque character, who may well prove pivotal to the trilogy.

The reviews assure me that Rotherweird is reminiscent of Gormenghast, which [confession] I have never actually read: perhaps the time is right for another attempt. Instead, I'm reminded of James Treadwell's Advent trilogy, for reasons that are not yet clear to me: perhaps the Englishness, the sense of a pagan underswell? And also of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy novels: perhaps the sense of an isolated English town with idiosyncratic characters and a hint of magic?

A note: the illustrations I've seen online look gorgeous, but they don't display well in the Kindle edition.

2017/104: The Muse -- Jessie Burton

"I thought London would mean prosperity and welcome. A Renaissance place. Glory and success. I thought leaving for England was the same as stepping out of my house and onto the street, just a slightly colder street where a beti with a brain could live next door to Elizabeth the Queen. ... There's the cold, the wet, the rent, the lack. But – I do try to live." [p. 26]
The Muse is set in London in 1967, with a backstory that takes place fifty years earlier in the south of Spain, just before the Spanish Civil War.

The protagonist of the London thread is Odelle Bastien, a graduate and a poet who came to London from Trinidad five years earlier, and has been working on the shop floor at Dolcis. She's offered a position as a typist at an upmarket gallery, and is befriended by Marjorie Quick, the co-director, who recognises Odelle's intelligence and believes that she has potential. Odelle, meanwhile, is subject to a great deal of casual racism, and her only friend from home, Cynth, is about to marry, leaving Odelle alone in the flat they shared. At the wedding reception, though, Odelle meets a nice young man -- Lawrie -- and uses her position at the gallery to introduce him to Marjorie: he has a painting he thinks might be worth something.

The painting -- 'Rufina and the Lion' -- is the link (or one of the links) between Odelle's story and that of Olive Schloss, an art dealer's daughter and an artist in her own right, though her parents have no interest in or appreciation of her paintings. Olive is befriended by Teresa and Isaac Robles, a local brother and sister who like her and admire her art: but Isaac (who's also an artist) is a secret revolutionary, hoping to raise funds for a local uprising that the Schloss family believe will never happen.

There is romance in both stories, and betrayal: other themes include issues of identity; a female creator struggling for recognition, and being helped by another woman; the equation of creative satisfaction and personal satisfaction, and whether they are the same; thoughtless prejudice; creative integrity; self-sabotage; social change.

When I read the sample chapters, I wondered if Odelle might end up as someone else's muse, inspiring an artist or a poet: instead, she is the catalyst for the resolution -- inasmuch as it can be resolved -- of Olive's story. Though perhaps Odelle is, in a sense, a muse for Marjorie (who I liked more than the other characters, though (because?) she is irascible and independent and determined).

I haven't yet read Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist: reading The Muse has edged that novel higher in the virtual TBR pile.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017/102: Five Children on the Western Front -- Kate Saunders

"I saw a couple of pictures of ladies who looked a bit like Mother, and might have been me or Jane. But I didn't see any grown-up men who looked a bit like you boys – I wonder why not."
Far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying. [loc 123]
A fine example of the genre I like to call 'literary fan fiction': this is a sequel of sorts to E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, in which the eponymous 'five children' (Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother, known as the Lamb) encounter a Psammead, a grumpy being that claims to be a sand fairy, and grants wishes which seldom turn out as the children intend.

Nesbit's novel was published in 1902: these children will grow up and come of age just in time for the First World War. Kate Saunders' novel deals with that, and with the Psammead's own past. Five Children on the Western Front opens with a Prologue set in 1905 -- within the timeframe of the original novel -- in which the children ask for another trip to the future, and the Psammead takes them to 1930. (That's where the quote above comes from.) It's a nice way of foreshadowing the events of the main part of the novel, which begins in October 1914 with Hilary (formerly known as the Lamb) and Edie (who wasn't even born when her older siblings met the Psammead) stumbling across the 'sacred sleeping place' of an ancient, irritable desert creature.

The Psammead is especially irritable, it transpires, because it's been through 'some sort of violent magical upheaval' and has been transplanted from its 'proper hole' by powers unknown. ('You're a refugee,', says Anthea.) The nature of that upheaval, and the solution to it, occupies Edie, the Lamb and Jane for the rest of the book. Cyril is in the army, Robert's at university, Anthea at art school, but their stories are as much a part of the plot as the immediate interactions of the younger children with their new friend, the retired desert god.

Saunders won the Costa Children's Book of the Year for this novel, though I do wonder how well Modern Children will get along with it: the style is evocative of Nesbit's (though the story's somewhat faster-paced) and the characters very much of their time. There are weighty themes (moral relativity, war, women's suffrage, class inequality) running through the story, though they don't overwhelm the charming, and often funny, fantasy elements.

I couldn't help mentally comparing Five Children on the Western Front to A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, although the two novels are doing very different things: Saunders is exploring the characters and their futures (and in the Psammead's case, its past), while Byatt is more concerned with the author behind the story. Yet both are concerned with the way that the First World War was a crashing full stop to a myth of an idyllic golden age of childhood. ... And now I want to read the Byatt again!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017/101: The Stars My Destination -- Alfred Bester

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. [loc 247]

A classic of the genre which I had either never read, or read at an early age and forgotten: I decided it was about time I did read it, primarily because Bester is an author cited by Ada Palmer as an influence.

It's an epic space opera, with a huge canvas -- the Solar System of the twenty-fourth (or twenty-fifth*) century -- and a(a anti-) hero whose need for vengeance is worthy of Greek tragedy. Gulliver 'Gully' Foyle, marooned in a wrecked spaceship, thinks his salvation is at hand when another ship approaches: but it ignores his distress signal and leaves him to die.

Rage is an energy. Foyle, in short, rescues himself; transforms himself; learns self-control (not least because when he's in the grip of any strong emotion, his face displays a 'hideous' tiger-mask, legacy of an enforced tattoo); and discovers who gave the order not to rescue him -- and the secret of why he alone survived in the first place. There is also a fortune in rare metals, a recurring vision of a Burning Man, a radioactive detective who's after Foyle, a one-way telepath, and some glorious synaesthesia. Oh, and jaunting, personal teleportation over distances of up to a thousand miles.

In other words, there is a great deal happening in this novel. It's well-paced, occasionally melodramatic, sometimes very funny, sometimes (as for instance the descriptions of synaesthesia) gorgeously poetic. I liked Foyle's single-mindedness, self-transformation, and sheer competence; was interested to see Bester's predictions about which commercial clans remain in power (Kodak?); was unimpressed by some of the sexism (Foyle is a rapist and doesn't treat women well: jaunting has brought back the days of the harem where women are locked away). And it does have that sense of wonder, that epic sweep, of old-school space opera. Despite the flaws, and the sometimes dated feel of the society in which Foyle moves, I think I'll be returning to this novel.

"Why reach out to the stars and galaxies? What for?"
"Because you're alive, sir. You might as well ask: Why is life? Don't ask about it. Live it." [loc 3789]

*"Our UK editor also thoughtfully changed 'twenty-fifth century' to 'twenty-fourth century' throughout, while leaving the prologue's one actual date ('the 2420s') untouched." From Dave Langford's excellent piece on Bester

Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017/100: The Dark is Rising -- Susan Cooper

Then he was flying again, at large in the blue-black sky, with the stars blazing timeless around his head, and the patterns of the stars made themselves known to him, both like and unlike the shapes and powers attributed to them by men long ago. The Herdsman passed, nodding, the bright star Arcturus at his knee; the Bull roared by, bearing the great sun Aldebaran and the small group of the Pleiades singing in small melodic voices, like no voices he had ever heard. Up he flew, and outward, through black space, and saw the dead stars, the blazing stars, the thin scattering of life that peopled the infinite emptiness beyond. And when he was done... he knew the mystery of Uranus and the despair of Mercury, and he had ridden on a comet's tail. [p. 105]

Reread, with the intention of joining in with the seasonal read-along: in the end I didn't, but wallowed in fond memories, tinged with a wistful sense of 'if only real-world evil were that simple'.

The Dark is Rising opens on the day before Will Stanton's eleventh birthday: it's midwinter, nearly Christmas, and he is a happy, normal, excited boy. Then the Dark comes looking for him -- and so does the Light, for he is the seventh son of a seventh son (something he didn't realise, his mother having omitted to mention a sibling who died young), and he has a duty to perform.

You can't say no to the Light. "If you were born with the gift, then you must serve it, and nothing in this world or out of it may stand in the way of that service, because that is why you were born and that is the Law," says Merriman Lyon, his mentor [p. 43]. And the Light is not always kind to those who serve it: a subplot concerns a Light-allied human, once Merriman's servant, who turns to the Dark when he realises that Merriman would willingly sacrifice him in service of the Light. In a way, that's worse than the Dark, who 'cannot kill those of the Light'.

There are other elements that I read differently now than when I first read this book as a child. Back then, I was charmed by the sense of island-nation Englishness: now I find chilling echoes in a mention of invaders 'attacking [Will's] island country, bringing each time the malevolence of the Dark with them' [p. 106]. And there is something improbably cosy about the terrible snowstorms that cripple the country (the London docks shut down, the transport network crippled).

But there is such beautiful writing here, such lovely imagery: that's what I remembered before I started my reread, and that's what I'll continue to remind myself of, when this old favourite seems tarnished by my own adult experience.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017/99: The Will to Battle -- Ada Palmer

Grounded by conscience, the Utopians are not brave enough to let billions die while they hide away to safeguard everything. They won't abandon this world to destruction, not even to protect all better ones. They bind their fate to Earth's. No second chance. [p. 309]
This third novel in the Terra Ignota series (preceded by Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders) will make little sense to anyone not familiar with the first two books. It does suffer somewhat from 'middle book' syndrome: the bridging section between wrongness and resolution. Yet it's not the larger plot that enthralls me: it's the small-scale interactions between the characters (some of whom are more real than others.)

The world is on its way to war, a war that will be shaped by Homer's Iliad. Global peace, it turns out, has been maintained by a programme of assassination, and underpinned by the machinations of Madame and her lovers, wards, and (self-termed) gender perverts. Meanwhile, several interesting theological issues, usually the domain of philosophers and sensayers, have become matters of fact.

And it is, anyway, an age of wonders: the fantastical U-beasts, fireworks on Mars, Olympic Games in Antarctica -- oh, but all those wonders have been birthed by the Utopian Hive, and all signs point to the Utopians (whose mission statement is "to redirect the path of human life away from death and towards the stars") being the focus of the fourth novel.

The labyrinthine intricacies of inter- and intraHive conflicts are painstakingly thought out, and delightfully complex (which is to say there is a lot of world-building and society-building), but I'm more interested in Mycroft and his decline. It becomes clear in this volume that Mycroft -- who asserts his own suitability as chronicler thus: 'My great merit as an historian is that I am known to be insane' (p. 14) -- is an even less reliable narrator than had previously seemed the case. Increasingly prone to vagueness and conflation, he converses with dead philosophers and friends, and two versions of his hypothetical Reader. To further muddy the plot, it becomes apparent that several incidents recounted in the previous books did not occur as described. Or perhaps they did, but with a dramatically different context. Or perhaps -- for this volume's Reader is not the same as the Reader we encountered at second hand before -- the audience has changed, and they require a different dimension of the truth.

Mycroft is a self-confessed monster, a sadistic parricide whose defining moment is the 'beautiful rampage' of murder he committed aged seventeen. One can't condone his crimes, and his servile manner sometimes grates. But I ached for him in The Will to Battle: his desperate hope of atonement, his grief, his disintegrating sense of self, his weariness. I would love to read more about his youth, before his 'beautiful rampage': I think a lot of answers might lie there, at Alba Longa. Though Thisbe may have a lot to answer for, too: Mycroft's visit to her, and a couple of remarks by Martin Guildbreaker, intrigue me mightily, because of what they imply about Mycroft's personality.

Palmer sets up, then sidesteps, a massive cliffhanger (well, it's still a cliffhanger, just not such a harrowing one). I'm not sure how I feel about this. It is definitely a kindness to this reader, who would have found the wait for Perhaps the Stars (scheduled for summer 2019) interminable. The novel might have ended on a stronger note, though, if the uncertainty had remained.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017/98: Artificial Condition -- Martha Wells

What does it want?
To kill all the humans, I answered.
I could feel ART metaphorically clutch its function. If there were no humans, there would be no crew to protect and no reason to do research and fill its databases. It said, That is irrational.
I know, I said. If the humans were dead, who would make the media? [p. 132]
In which Murderbot finds a friend (who loves human media just as much as our narrator, and would like to recommend this new show); revisits the scene of the crime; and confounds corporate machinations.

This is a real delight, and it's just as good (if not quite as fresh and groundbreaking: how could it be?) as All Systems Red, the first in the series. Murderbot is an autonomous agent in this novella, and is fortunate to fall into good company -- company that can help them deal with some practicalities which had previously eluded them.

Murderbot has a complicated relationship with authority: now they're assuming the authority role themself, which doesn't help with the sense of responsibility programmed into their software. They acquire a certain degree of self-knowledge simply by interacting, and disagreeing, with ART (short for Asshole Research Transport: one of Murderbot's new friends): further knowledge, about their own past and about the environment which they inhabit, is acquired from human clients and from sexbots -- more properly Comfort Units, a class of cyborg about which Murderbot has previously been dismissive. Turns out Murderbot was misinformed. (I really hope there will be more Comfort Units in subsequent books. Also more ART.)

Wells expands the Murderbot universe considerably in Artificial Condition: there are further hints of long-vanished alien civilisations (and the 'strange synthetics' left by those aliens), and more sense of the economy, society and ambience of human (and cyborg) culture. There is more of Murderbot's history, and a lot more of its stubborn, sarcastic, fragile personality.

A delight: I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Humans are nervous of me because I'm a terrifying murderbot, and I'm nervous of them because they're humans. [p. 65]

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017/97: The Convenient Marriage -- Georgette Heyer

Mr Walpole's face wore an approving smile, though he regretted that his god-daughter should be marrying a Tory. [p. 32]
Another Heyer Georgian novel, reread: when I first read The Convenient Marriage I was mostly interested in the heroine's feckless brother Pelham, but this time I found myself appreciating the Earl of Rule rather more than before.

The heroine of this novel, Horatia (named after her godfather Mr Walpole, and known as Horry) is a delight, too. She is the youngest of three sisters. The eldest, Elizabeth, is in love with another but resigns herself to marrying Rule to save the family's fortunes: Horry has the bright idea of offering herself in Elizabeth's place. And does so ('the Indelicacy, the Impropriety, the – the Forwardness ...!' (p. 27) with the promise that she will not interfere with her husband's, er, affairs. (Especially his long-standing association with Lady Caroline Massey.) Rule, amused and charmed by Horry's Forwardness, accepts her offer.

Lady Caroline is initially unimpressed, and vents her feelings to her old friend Lethbridge, a dyed-in-the-wool rake who has previously attempted to elope with Rule's sister. Lethbridge befriends Horry, and even stages a hold-up so that he can 'rescue' her: Horry, who is doing her best to sail through her loveless marriage serenely, welcomes his attentions. Matters escalate: there are masked balls, disguises, duels, abductions, and some thoroughly farcical 'assistance' from Horry's brother Pelham (who proves to be quite ruthless when sober) and his friend Mr Pommeroy.

Deliciously frothy, witty and featuring some very well-researched scenes of the London aristocracy at play in the 1770s.

Friday, December 08, 2017

2017/96: Clockwork Boys - T Kingfisher

"Oh, come on, if your friends aren't willing to strangle you, what kind of friends are they?" [p. 123]
A forger, an assassin, a paladin and a scholar ride through a war zone in search of a solution to the secret of the Clockwork Boys -- an unstoppable army of centaur-like soldiers whose very nature is a conundrum.

So far, so RPG. Kingfisher (a pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, award-winning childrens' author) fleshes out her characters interestingly, and with more depth and variety than the standard gaming stereotypes. The paladin, Sir Caliban, is a holy knight who's been deserted by his god, and who committed horrendous crimes while possessed by a demon. (The demon is dead, mostly.) The scholar, Edmund, is very young and very misogynistic, at least to start with. Slate, the forger, has a cannibalistic tattoo which ensures her loyalty to what's effectively a suicide mission: she doesn't expect to survive once they reach Anuket City, because her past will come back to bite her much harder than that tattoo. And Brennan, her former lover ... is a bit of a blank thus far, though his jealousy of Caliban provides some comic relief.

There is also a gnole named Grimehug, who may know a great deal about the Clockwork Boys. I am not quite clear as to why none of the others have asked him about this.

Which is my main problem with the book: too many unanswered questions, all of which I'm sure will be resolved in the second volume (coming soon) but some of which really should have been resolved in this, the first half of the story. Why is Grimehug so amenable, and why has nobody asked him about the Clockwork Boys? Where did the shaman's demon end up? And what exactly happened when Caliban fell prey to his own demon?

Quibbles aside, I found this an enjoyable and amusing read, though the pacing is occasionally uneven. I'll definitely read the second half of the story.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

2017/95: The Black Moth: A Romance of the 18th Century -- Georgette Heyer

"It suited you that Jack should be disgraced? You thought I should seize his money. You— you—"
"Rogue? But you will admit that I at least am an honest rogue. You are — er — a dishonest saint. I would sooner be what I am." [p. 163]
The Black Moth, set in England in the 1750s, is Georgette Heyer's very first novel, which I reread after becoming aware that it was effectively a prequel to These Old Shades and Devil's Cub -- albeit a prequel in which the characters had different names and rather less rounded characters. Tracy 'Devil' Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, shares many of the Duke of Avon's less savoury habits, not least a taste for abducting innocent young women. The lovely Diana Beauleigh is his latest victim, but is saved by the sudden appearance of highwayman 'Sir Anthony Ferndale' who is, of course, a disgraced aristocrat in disguise. He is, in fact, Lord Jack Carstares, who chose exile rather than expose his brother Richard for cheating at cards: and he and Diana fall in love. Richard, meanwhile, has just inherited the family title and fortune, but is increasingly crippled by guilt, and his wife Lavinia is thoroughly fed up with him. And Lavinia's brother is ... Tracy 'Devil' Belmanoir, probably the most intelligent of the characters and certainly the wittiest.

Unlike Heyer's later novels, this focusses on the relationships between the male characters: poor Diana is little more than a Quest Object, and while Lavinia has a more central role she is far from a romantic heroine. There's a great deal more swashbuckling than in the Regency novels -- duels, dramatic gestures, ridiculous behaviour and passionate declarations abound. Great fun, amusing and well-paced, with typically sardonic dialogue and plenty of arch observations. Even at this point, Heyer is subverting the tropes of the genre: see, for instance, the title of chapter 28, 'In Which What Threatened to be Tragedy Turns to Comedy'.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

2017/94: A Sword, a Star, a Flame -- Helen Lerewth

"...he is a doughty warrior."
She gave me a hard, piercing look. "I thought you were such a great warrior," she said, "and he’s womaned you." [loc 1076]
Alternate-world fantasy, set in a medieval Europe analogue where the Teutonic-flavoured Order of the Star fights against the Mongol-flavoured pagan Shee. Oglive, an heiress of the Shee, is brought up in the Order, disguised as a boy: the Order is somewhat misogynist, and also would very much like to get their hands on Oglive's inheritance. She watches the dashing Adal, the best of the knights, trounce his fellow Brothers, and falls in love. Luckily it is mutual and they plan to elope. Amidst popular revolt, they escape to the Shee, where everything becomes rather less predictable: polyamory, matriarchy, same-sex relationships, and maybe magic.

Much of the fun of this novel comes from the framing narrative: Oglive, Adal and some of the other characters are writing 'a proper record' of events that are in their pasts, and their friends and associates are transcribing and commenting on the original accounts. Those editorial conversations are delightful, and their complicity in obfuscating the steamier aspects of the story ('that would certainly make the bishop have fifty fits') adds an extra dimension to the story.

A warning, though, for several instances of dubious or absent consent to sexual intercourse between male characters. ("I dealt with my captive as the men of the Shee always treat their male prisoners.") As per the standard bodice-ripper trope, these relationships end up happily and romantically -- and the characters joke with one another about how much of a fight they actually put up -- but they are based on rape.

There are several more novels in this sequence, with (I believe) rather more explicitly fantastical content: I did enjoy this one, and will likely read the sequels at some stage -- not least because the framing narrative gives some intriguing hints of how things have changed between the events of A Sword, a Star, a Flame and the time at which the characters are writing and editing their accounts.

Monday, November 13, 2017

2017/93: The House at the End of Hope Street -- Menna van Praag

"The eyes of others are our prisons; their thoughts our cages."
Alba frowns. "Really?"
"Dismiss that warning at your peril," Dorothy says. "Literature is strewn with the wreckage of writers who have minded the opinions of others." [p. 176]
Alba Ashby is (was?) a PhD student whose world is falling apart. She ends up on the doorstep of a house on Hope Street that she's never noticed before, and is invited in by the mysterious Peggy, who tells her that -- like every other woman who's come to the house at a moment of desperation -- Alba can stay for 99 nights, and the house (and its current and former inhabitants) will help her to change her life.

Alba has plenty of problems to resolve. She's the child of an adulterous affair, has never met her father, and is estranged from the rest of her family; her PhD supervisor, on whom Alba has a crush, has plagiarised Alba's notes; and Carmen and Greer, the other residents of the house, seem intent on drawing her into their own lives, even though Alba would vastly prefer to be left alone to read. (I empathised.) Also, the pictures on the walls of the house are talking to her ...

This was a sweet and charming novel with a magical-realist flavour. The underlying philosophy (do what you love; be true to yourself; romantic love conquers all) is occasionally cloying, but within the frame of the story it works nicely: this is not a gritty documentary, but a book about achieving happiness.

The author, in an afterword, notes that despite having lived in Cambridge for thirty-five years, she didn't know there was an actual Hope Street. Me, I used to walk down it most days. I've never noticed that house, either.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

2017/92: Slouch Witch -- Helen Harper

If I could make him believe that I wasn’t quite as lazy as he thought, I reckoned I’d be able to get away with more  – by which I actually meant less – in future. [p. 118]
Ivy Wilde is a witch -- or, perhaps, was a witch. Expelled from the Order for cheating, she makes a living driving taxis in Oxford, and her primary ambition is to spend more time doing less -- watching TV, eating, and talking to Brutus, her feline familiar. (The feline familiar might disappoint some: "he can talk but he only has a vocabulary of about twenty words and most of them aren’t very nice." [p. 32]) Unfortunately, a bureaucratic cockup causes Ivy to become magically bound to Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter, a high-ranking workaholic with a magical mission and a pronounced lack of patience for Ivy's slacker lifestyle.

You can probably see where this is going, and you're not wrong. It's an enjoyable journey though: Ivy snarks and is competent, Winter is not quite as stiff-upper-lip as he initially appears, and the magical mission throws all kinds of ingenious nasties at the pair.

First in a series (The Lazy Girl's Guide to Magic), and I will probably read the next one at some point when I want cheerful, entertaining urban fantasy. Plus, I'd like more of Brutus, as I find this particular talking animal horribly credible.:
From somewhere above me, there was an irritated hiss. "Food."
"Hi, Brutus."
"Food, bitch."
I sighed. "I've told you time and time again, if you call me that I'm not going to feed you."
"Food."
"Give me a minute."
"Food."
"I'd like the chance to get a cup of tea first."
"Food."
"Piss off."
"Food."

Saturday, November 11, 2017

2017/91: The Cold Calling -- Phil Rickman

... by daylight, the whole idea of a cross-dressing actor-ventriloquist who believed he was into a mystical tradition with a direct line to the megalith-builders seemed a whole lot less convincing than it had last night. [p. 239]
DI Bobby Maiden dies in a hit-and-run -- but is revived. He remembers the terror of being dead, and his experiences somehow link him to the Green Man, a serial killer who murders his victims (apparently randomly chosen) at sacred sites. Is the Green Man really protecting Britain's sacred heritage? Did Bobby Maiden really encounter a primal force in the time when he lay dead? Can New Age journalist Grayle Underhill (I blame the parents), lately arrived from New York, unravel the mystery of her sister's disappearance? And will shaman and detective Cindy Mars-Lewis be able to discover the murderer's identity before he strikes again?

This was an enjoyable read. Rickman writes about paganism and New Agers without mockery or patronisation (though some of the characters are a bit rude about others). There is clearly something supernatural going on, though it may not be quite as supernatural as certain individuals believe it to be. Interesting characters, alternating viewpoints, and a whodunnit that -- while not wholly unpredictable -- did keep me guessing for quite a while.

I had issues with the Kindle edition, though: throughout the book, random letters were replaced by full stops mid-sentence. For instance, "letting him exp. rience the p. rverse ecstasy of unsp. akable, self-righteous cruelty" [p. 430].

Friday, November 10, 2017

2017/90: That Old Black Magic -- Cathi Unsworth

"Used to be the Variety circuit, before the war," said Lexy. "Now all the beaches are full of mines and barbed wire. The people who’re left there aren’t having a good time any more. Vulnerable to Jerry attack from the sea and where the Luftwaffe get rid of all their unused bombs on their way home. Easy prey for spook racketeers." [loc 1818]

That Old Black Magic (review copy received from Netgalley in exchange for this honest review) begins in January 1941, when medium Helen Duncan apparently channels the spirit of a woman who is being murdered in a wintry wood. Later that same month, the hapless Karl Kohl, on a spying mission from Germany, breaks his ankle and is captured by the security services. He doesn't tell them much -- but what he does confess is enough to involve MI5, and in particular the shadowy section known as 'Triple-U' -- witches, warlocks and wizards.

Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner, who grew up in a 'rare and occult' bookshop in Aberdeen, is assigned to trace the woman who was Karl Kohl's contact. His investigation takes him into a bohemian world of musicians, actors and circus performers -- and, later, into the equally theatrical world of seances and spiritualism. He meets historical characters such as ghost hunter Harry Price, journalist Hannen Swaffer and medium Helen Duncan: the latter was the last person to be tried under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in the UK, in 1944, and though Spooner is well aware of the trickery behind her performance, he also experiences the inexplicable.

This novel ties together historical events (Helen Duncan's trial, the bombing of arms factories in Birmingham, the discovery by four boys of a woman's bones in a hollow tree) with fiction. Spooner is a good protagonist, at once sceptical and eager to believe, determined to root out potential traitors, and beguiled by the mysterious musician Anna. What I found most interesting, though, was Unsworth's depictions of the spiritualist circuit, and the theatrical world, in World War II.

The narrative did jump around a lot: typically, Spooner would be walking somewhere; then he'd reflect on the circumstances that prompted his walk; then he'd get to his destination. A plethora of dream sequences, too (and Spooner is prone to bad dreams). There's a sense of fading, rather than closure, at the end of the book: I didn't find the ending wholly satisfactory. And I sometimes felt that too much information and too many subplots were being shoehorned in. Overall, though, this is an interesting, well-researched and well-paced read.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

2017/89: First Person -- Richard Flanagan

What do you mean lies? Heidl said. His tone had altered. Being with Heidl was like eating an ice cream that turned into underarm deodorant that turned into an echidna. [loc. 2505]
Kif Kehlmann, a penniless young writer, is approached by notorious corporate fraudster Siegfried Heidl, who proposes a deal: $10,000 to ghost-write Heidl's biography, in six weeks. Kif, whose wife is pregnant and whose bank account is nearly drained, would like to be able to afford to refuse. He wants to write a great Australian literary novel, not a conman's life story. But he has to make some money somehow, soon, and Heidl has already produced an outline. How hard can it be?

Very hard indeed. The 'interviews' Kif has with Heidl turn into rambling, structureless reminiscence and philosophising, and Kif finds it impossible to extract any usable content from them. Worse, his failure to produce a draft for the publisher is draining his confidence. It's been his ambition since childhood to be an author, but all he has is a heap of disconnected notes, evidence that he can't write a book. Worst of all, Heidl's cheerily nihilistic utterances ("You should give up writing, he said. Have some fun while you can. Before you’re sacrificed.") are having an insidious effect on Kif's own psyche.

And who is Heidl, anyway? It becomes apparent that 'Siegfried Heidl' is the latest in a series of identities, the persona of a master manipulator. Heidl doesn't really change over the course of the novel, although we learn more about his unsavoury past. Perhaps at heart there's nothing there, no first person: a hollow man without the principles, creativity or individuality that Kif values in himself. Kif does change, or rather is changed. Heidl hollows him out.

There is some glorious prose here, and some very funny scenes (some of which are also very dark). I didn't engage with it, though: Heidl is slippery and evasive and seems to have no actual personality, and Kif is self-pitying, ineffectual and all too easily warped by Heidl's company.

According to Flanagan, this novel draws heavily on his own experience of ghost-writing the biography of John Friedrich, a notorious Australian conman who apparently committed suicide rather than face trial. I'm not sure if that means that Kif's reflections on the Australian publishing world ("Though I had nothing to say, I had read enough Australian literature to know this wasn’t necessarily an impediment to authorship") mirror Flanagan's own early experiences. And I hope the denouement of the novel is not written from life.

Read for review, via NetGalley: I have to say that the ARC I received was so poorly formatted (no capital Gs or Ds, random line breaks, etc) that reading it was hard work.

Monday, October 23, 2017

2017/88: These Old Shades -- Georgette Heyer (reread)

"I thought to use you as a weapon to – er – punish him for something – he had once done to me."
"Is – is that why – why you made me your ward...?" she asked in a small voice.
He rose, and went to the window, and stood looking out. "Not entirely," he said, and forgot to drawl. [p. 394]
This is a very early Heyer, and rather chilling in its premise: the Duke of Avon, a notorious rake nicknamed Satanas, purchases a young boy, 'body and soul', to serve as his page. His friends and his brother are horrified -- doubly so when they realise (as Avon has known all along) that 'Léon' is in fact Léonie. Avon has plans for Léonie, and Léonie is passionately convinced that she belongs to 'monseigneur'. Can this end well?

Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is wicked and charming and witty and very elegant: he's one of those characters whose appeal is plain on the page, but who would be insufferable -- or intolerable -- in reality. His reputation is appalling, and he lives up to it, but he does also have a strong sense of honour, and his machinations on Léonie's behalf seem oddly selfless for a man with a history of very public amours.

I didn't care for Léonie much on first reading. She's a survivor, and she's beautiful and charming and funny -- she wins the hearts of the Duke's family and friends -- but I don't find her temper or her forthrightness especially attractive. Still, hurrah for a spirited heroine and a happy ending!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2017/87: Devil's Cub -- Georgette Heyer (reread)

"You are not in the least afraid of what I may do to you! Are you?"
"Not at the moment, sir," she admitted. "But when you have broached your second bottle, I own to some qualms."
"Let me inform you, ma’am, that I am not considered dangerous until the third bottle."
Miss Challoner looked at him with a faint smile. "My lord," she said frankly, "you become dangerous immediately your will is crossed. I find you spoiled, impetuous, and shockingly overbearing."
"Thank you," said his lordship. [p.116]
I confess I prefer Heyer's Georgian romances (typically written early in her career) to her Regencies, mostly because the setting allows for more swashbuckling and opera-going. There are no trips to the opera in Devil's Cub, but there is a badly-behaved Marquis (son of the Duke of Avon, who features prominently in These Old Shades) and a determined young woman of tragically mundane origins.

Mary Challoner, intercepting a mis-addressed missive, decides that her vacuous sister should not become one of the Marquis of Vidal's conquests, and allows herself to be abducted in her sister's place: surely the Marquis will throw her back, as it were, when he realises he's caught the wrong girl?

Vidal, however, is not used to being tricked: he assumes Mary is no better than her sister, and behaves badly, whereupon she shoots him. (I remember reading this scene for the first time many years ago and laughing out loud in amazed admiration.) Then there are some misunderstandings, and Mary flees: encounters an older gentleman in an inn, who is strangely familiar and very charming: eventually, happy endings all round.

Vidal is really very vexing, and Mary initially a little dull: I wonder how they will get along together? But she does temper his wildness, and he recognises her quality despite her (not really very) lowly origins: and Vidal's family, many of whom are prone to passionate behaviour, are a delight.

There are times when rereading a cheerful, charming and witty romance is just the thing: this was my comfort whilst preparing to move house and working long days, and it worked so well that my next read was another Heyer.

Friday, October 13, 2017

2017/86: Seven Surrenders -- Ada Palmer

Gender they called a universal language which we’re all supposed to pretend we can’t read. Most just play blind or try (as we know we ought) to eliminate the traces of it, and the ancient inequalities those traces threaten to revive. But, they said, cunning folk can use that language to attack targets with body rhetoric we can’t acknowledge, let alone resist. [p. 22]

This review necessarily contains spoilers for the preceding volume, Too Like the Lightning: both books form a single narrative spanning seven days, and I'm very glad I was able to read the whole of that narrative at once, rather than waiting for the second volume to appear. (Now I am extraordinarily eager to read the third, Will to Battle, out on December 19th.)

A quick recap: it is 2454, a peaceful world which perhaps imagines it's a utopia (no disease, no war, little crime, 20-hour work week, rapid transit et cetera). Religion and gender are now treated on a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' basis (sexuality seems mostly to be regarded as irrelevant, and I don't think it's an accident that a good deal of Mycroft's (mis)gendering relies on parental rather than sexual archetypes: maternal caring and ferocious protection, paternal authority).

Spoilers start here:

Parenthood, seldom examined in Too Like the Lightning -- the 'bash' model, in which groups of friends rather than nuclear families form the household unit, seems likely to diminish the importance of the parent-child relationship -- becomes more important in Seven Surrenders. On the one hand there's Bridger, a child who can perform miracles such as animating toys and drawings, and who seems to have self-generated: he has no belly-button and appears to have nursed himself by sucking his thumb. On the other hand, there's J.E.D.D. Mason, known to Mycroft as Jehovah, who may be a god (albeit the god of another universe) but whose powers are merely those that a very talented human might acquire. Jehovah's parentage is a major plot element in this second novel, as is his nature: plenty of theology here, as a divine child and a disempowered god ask questions about the purpose of one another's existence, and how each relates to the other.

One might also ask how exposure to these individuals (and indeed to the self-styled 'witch' Thisbe) might have affected our narrator Mycroft Canner, self-described 'orphan, parricide, traitor, wanderer, fool'. Mycroft was revealed as a monster, a serial killer with a taste for torture and cannibalism, in the first volume: here we see them through other eyes. "... the beast I call True Mycroft pokes its nose above the surface. It’s not a prisoner in there, not fighting to break free, just resting inside Slave Mycroft like a ship in harbor" (p. 14). We learn more, too, about the reason(s) for Mycroft's two weeks of slaughter. And much more about the O.S. and the ways in which the world has been changed by their actions.

The climax of the novel (of the duology?) is hammer-blow after hammer-blow: a character is assassinated; the assassin is not who they appear to be (but who is pulling the strings?); the victim, miraculously, is saved; the saviour ... makes a choice, and introduces a new character -- or rather renames an existing one, though not in the same way as at the end of the first volume, and not in a way that I felt was entirely foreshadowed, though other characters seemed to feel that all the clues were there.

Right at the beginning of Too Like the Lightning, Mycroft defends (but does not explain) his decision to write this account in the style of the eighteenth century. In Seven Surrenders the reason for that choice becomes apparent. "I love the Eighteenth Century... that great moment when humanity realized experiments didn’t just have to be done with sciences, they could be done with morals and religion, too." [p. 336] Several of the characters in these novels could be said to be running experiments: I wonder if others (and not just the obvious ones) are the unwitting experimental subjects. And I find myself caring about them, liking them, and wondering about them: Mycroft's childhood, Sniper's sex and sexuality, Papa's relationship with his most infamous quarry. ('Papa' is short for 'Papadelias', the Police Commissioner's surname: but see above under 'absent parents'.)

Seven Surrenders ends in a dark place. I fear the third volume, Will to Battle, will be at once darker and more illuminating. Is it December the 19th yet?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

2017/85: Too Like the Lightning -- Ada Palmer

Animals may hunt by speed, by trap, by disguise, by ambush, but name for me another beside mankind that hunts by trust. [loc 7596]
A novel about the Twenty-Fifth century, told in a style that owes much to the Eighteenth, by a self-reported unreliable narrator: this is one of the most immersive and engaging SF novels I've read in a long time, and every time I've revisited this review I've found myself rereading chapter after chapter, fascinated by foreshadowing, characterisation and world-building, and admiring the layers of Palmer's prose.

A brief history of this future: rapid transit has more or less abolished the geographical nation; the Church Wars (which seem to have left a few uninhabitable zones behind) have more or less abolished religion; the standard work-week is twenty hours; poverty, famine, disease and crime are almost unknown. People choose to belong to one of seven Hives, and live in 'bash's' (families of choice). The few, atavistic criminals become Servicers when caught and sentenced: a lifetime of community service with no right to property. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner (the name derives from that of Sherlock Holmes' older brother) is a Servicer, for crimes initially undescribed but clearly horrific in the extreme.

No more nationalism, no more religion, all the old curses banished: Utopia, then? Of course it is not, quite, that simple. Mycroft, who is not only a criminal but a genius, is in possession of many secrets: some theological, others pertaining to the unseen bonds and alliances forged between the leaders of this brave new world. It should be noted that many important people put a great deal of trust in Mycroft, which initially is jarringly juxtaposed with Mycroft's uncomfortably servile behaviour. Recruited (though he has no choice) to investigate the theft of a physical document representing social capital, Mycroft is also instrumental in the exposure of secret engines that drive and shape the world.

Too Like the Lightning is not an easy read: it failed to keep my attention when I first attempted it, during a stressful and busy month. There is a large cast, a lot of worldbuilding, the aforementioned unreliable narrator, and a great deal of Plot. Palmer plays, too: with language and gender (the narrator is deemed -- by their anonymous, but not absent, Reader -- contrary and archaic for using 'he' and 'she' rather than the generic 'they': there are good reasons for this, but it does also allow some trickery) and with structure and style. That unknown Reader, who is definitely a contemporary, interpolates observations: Mycroft abases himself (and only towards the end of this volume, the arc of which continues in Seven Surrenders, did I begin to feel more comfortable with Mycroft's persona): different languages are signified with different typography and punctuation: sometimes the narrative shrinks to script format. There are frequent references to the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment, from Voltaire ('the Patriarch') to de Sade. And there are a lot of toys, some of them mined from ancient rubbish dumps.

But I reiterate: Too Like the Lightning is a delight. I could ramble about the little details (Frankenstein! Cannerbeat! Mars! the Nobel Peace Prize! the Exponential Age!) for hours, and every time I dive back in I find something new. I'm glad I returned to it after initially being overwhelmed, and actually I'm very glad I didn't read it until the second volume was available: there are so many unresolved plot threads and themes that Too Like the Lightning alone would feel like half a novel. (Still want to know about the 'Nemean lion', though: mentioned very early on, and never again, and only on a reread did I begin to question that omission ... That's the problem with unreliable narrators: you can't trust a word they say.)


Monday, October 09, 2017

2017/84: Chomp -- Carl Hiaasen

Although the bat that had chomped him wasn’t carrying rabies, the germs from its saliva were toxic enough to blur his pampered sense of reality. In his fevered mind, the Night Wing vampire movies now loomed as true-to-life as a National Geographic nature documentary. [p. 190]

Mickey Cray runs an animal sanctuary / zoo in Florida, making a living by hiring out the animals for film and TV work. His son Wahoo is worried about Mickey, who hasn't worked for a while after being knocked out by a frozen iguana. Money's tight, and Wahoo's mother is away in China (she teaches Mandarin), when Mickey is approached by Derek Badger, a reality TV star whose show, Expedition Survival!, features Derek being dumped somewhere wild and having to make his way back to civilisation, living off the land and generally being tough.

(Derek, it must be said, may remind you of someone else, with his craving for money and fame, and his 'shiny chin, big oval mouth and vivid, orange-tinted hair.' I am sure any resemblance to a major public figure is purely coincidental.)

Derek and his team would like to employ Mickey and Wahoo -- accompanied by Wahoo's new friend Tuna, a girl from his class at school who's escaping a tricky home situation -- to accompany them on their latest Expedition, providing an alligator and 'a major python' (charged by the metre) for Derek to defeat. But of course it's not quite that simple ...

Vampire bats, a drunkard with a gun, and an alligator with attitude all contribute to the decline and fall of Derek Badger, while Hiaasen does low-key riffs on ecological and environmental themes, rural poverty, child abuse, the shallowness of reality TV, and a popular teen vampire series. Wahoo is considerably more mature and sensible than his dad, though one does get the sense he's quite lonely. (And I'm still not sure how old he is, apart from 'old enough to get the job done', as he says to one of the production assistants.) Great fun: definitely lighter in tone and plot than his novels for adults, but still had me laughing out loud.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

2017/83: Babylon Steel -- Gaie Sebold

Previous coughed, and said, “So. You’re sort of an ex-goddess of war, then.”
“Not quite. Avatar. And ex, yes. Definitely ex.” [loc. 7,430]
Former mercenary Babylon Steel (not the name she grew up with) runs the Red Lantern, the best brothel in Scalentine, a cosmopolitan city that sits at a cosmic crossroads -- it's accessible from multiple planes, and thus is inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient beings. The Red Lantern's motto is "All tastes, all species, all forms of currency", and all its employees are there because they want to be: it's a safe space, despite the Vessels of Purity (misogynist religious fanatics) who have been protesting in the street outside.

But it's a week until the festival of Twomoon, some working girls have been attacked, and an heiress is missing too: and Babylon, already concerned by the disappearances (and by the Lantern's cashflow: she's behind on her taxes), is engaged by the devastating Darask Fain to find the heiress -- whose very existence could start a religious war on her home plane.

Turns out that Babylon's past is catching up with her, too: before she came to Scalentine she was recruited by the Avatars of the absent gods of her home plane, Tiresana, which she left under something of a cloud. The Avatars are keen to see her again, but Babylon is far from enthusiastic about the prospect.

Sex, religion and a complex and colourful setting give this novel an almost comic-book feel, but there's plenty of depth in its entwined plots, and though the religious elements are generally negative, Sebold does balance them out to some extent. Babylon is an enjoyable protagonist, too, practical, good at people, and courageous: she's very much the focus of the novel, and we see the other characters -- several of them quite intriguing -- through her eyes.

Hard to say whether Babylon Steel is SF or fantasy: hard to care. It's sweet and well-paced and often funny; it's sex-positive, features families of choice, and the ending is open enough that I'll look forward to the second novel without feeling that I know what to expect.

Friday, October 06, 2017

2017/82: Strange Meeting -- Susan Hill

Don’t go back to London, to England, don’t go and listen to what they say and read their papers, don’t try and talk to them as you are talking to me, for there is nobody, no one knows. Don’t go. [loc. 635]
Strange Meeting is set during the early part of the First World War. John Hilliard returns from medical leave, and the distant and chilly company of his relatives, to his battalion in France. He's shocked to find that many of the men he previously served with have been killed: his commanding officer, Colonel Garrett, is embittered, drinking whisky to insulate himself from the incompetence of his superiors and the despair of his subordinates. Hilliard's natural tendency is to keep to himself, not to get involved with any of it: but he finds himself drawn to new officer David Barton, whose emotional honesty and natural warmth is quite alien to Hilliard. Barton hasn't seen combat, and Hilliard is at once envious and protective of him.

It's hard to describe this novel adequately, or at least I am finding it so: at its core, it's the account of a close and loving friendship and how it transforms -- one might even say rescues -- a man who has frozen himself away to protect himself from a situation, a world, in which he's starved of meaningful human connections.

I don't mean that this is a romance, or a story of a clandestine sexual relationship: while it's certainly possible to imagine those elements, Hilliard and Barton's relationship makes perfect sense without sex or romance. Indeed, these would alter the story, making it a novel about secrecy, or blackmail, or guilt. (Hill says that she didn't intend the relationship to be read as a physical one, too.)

Instead, the friendship between the two men, and their love (a word each uses to the other), is unexceptionable. Their fellow soldiers accept that Hilliard cares about Barton, and vice versa: there is no indication of any sordid rumours. Barton's family -- to whom he writes long, emotional letters -- semi-adopt Hilliard, and begin writing to him as well as to Barton: their letters are an antidote to the hasty, dismissive notes he gets from his sister and his mother. Barton teaches Hilliard to connect with others: Hilliard, perhaps, teaches Barton to deal with his first brushes with carnage.

It's a beautiful account of the blossoming of a friendship, one which could perhaps only happen in a battlefield setting when all normality is stripped away. Hill's depiction of trench warfare, of battle, are neither heavy-handedly grim nor cheerily patriotic: she is more concerned with how the war affects those who fight.

Friday, September 29, 2017

2017/81: Bellman & Black -- Diane Setterfield

What little there had been to frighten or pain him was left behind in the forgotten days of childhood: as a man he saw no reason to be afraid. Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet
Young William Bellman, aged ten, aims his slingshot at a distant rook and -- improbably -- kills it. He's full of regret: he didn't mean to ... but then a fever strikes, and he begins the process of forgetting.

This is Victorian England, and death is a fact of life. A stranger in black appears, first at Will's mother's funeral, and then at every other funeral Will attends. Nobody seems to know who the stranger might be. But one night Will, drunk and grieving after the death of someone close to him, encounters the black-clad stranger in a graveyard and makes a deal. True, he can't quite recall the details the next morning: but there was a deal, surely there was?

Will -- already a successful businessman, due to a series of convenient though much-mourned deaths that have catapulted him to ownership of the textile mill -- exerts all his commercial acumen, and ferocious self-discipline, to fulfil his part of the deal. The result is Bellman & Black: an emporium of funerary wares.

But there's this deal, or this opportunity ...

I didn't engage with this novel as much as I'd expected. Will is not an especially interesting character; the mysterious Black (whose nature's never explicitly stated) is a shadowy background figure until the denouement; the 'rook' vignettes between the chapters were fascinating and lyrical, but insufficient. There's a very Gothic feel to this novel, and some almost hallucinatory passages, but I found it strangely mundane despite its subject matter.

Also, despite marketing / categorisation, it is not a ghost story, and only very marginally 'horror'.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

2017/80: The Furthest Station -- Ben Aaronovitch

It was no use pointing out that we were actually policemen, not gentlemen, because Nightingale has a very clear idea where one ends and the other begins. One day, I’m hoping, he’ll show me where that line is. [loc. 159]
Commuters on the leafier parts of the Metropolitan line are being abused by ghosts: the trouble is, nobody remembers their encounters for very long. Enter Jaget Kumar (British Transport Police) and Peter Grant (the Folly), who -- with the help of Peter's teenaged cousin Abigail, and minimal supervision from DCI Nightingale -- apply modern policing methods to the mystery, and find that the ghosts may have a mission that's a matter of life or death.

This is a slight novella, though it does contain multiple plot strands (not all of them resolved): I think it fits between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree chronologically, but there's little reference to the larger arcs of the series (Lesley, the Faceless Man, Tyburn et cetera). The Furthest Station (Cheshunt, for those without a Tube map to hand) is a nicely self-contained Rivers of London novella, with some tantalising hints of Nightingale's past (but, as usual, not enough of Nightingale's present) and some foxy friends for Abigail.

When is the next full novel due?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017/79: Thin Air -- Michelle Paver

‘...the Big Stone’. That’s all Kangchenjunga is. ... It might possess a semblance of animation, because of the wind, and the crack of canvas, and the distant rumble of an avalanche on the Saddle – but that’s all it is, a semblance. There is no life up here. And no menace, either. The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is. [loc. 1382]
Thin Air is set in the mid-1930s. Stephen Pearce, who's just broken with his fiancee, is glad to have been recruited by his brother Kits as the doctor for a mountaineering expedition. The expedition's goal is to climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, which has never been successfully summitted. Over them all hangs the heroic shadow of the Lyell expedition of 1906, in which most of the men died. (Well, most of the British men. Quite a lot of coolies and Sherpas survived.)

Stephen and Kits don't really get along: there is a great deal of sibling rivalry and ill-will. This makes Stephen even less willing than the others to speak of his premonitions, of the glimpses of a dark figure that he sees, of the sudden silences that cut him off from 'earthly things' and leave him with a sense of appalling loneliness. He's a man of science, damn it! He doesn't believe in ghosts, or psychic energies, or warding off the dead. His odd mental state must be the thin air altering his perceptions, or some kind of altitude sickness ...

Stephen comes to believe that there is something malevolent with them on the mountain. And as he discovers, and remembers, and discusses more about the Lyell expedition, he begins to realise that the official account doesn't tell the whole story. But why is he the only one of the five mountaineers -- apart from the dog Cedric, who will no longer share Stephen's tent -- who is experiencing the strangeness?

This is one of the more unnerving ghost stories I've ever read: I suspect that images from the novel will stay with me for a long time. It's very similar, in many respects, to Paver's Dark Matter, which I read earlier this year and found equally chilling: but perhaps the ways in which it's similar -- first-person narrative; complex, repressed emotions; isolated 'frontier' landscape of dangerous physical extremes; dogs that sense more than humans do; journals -- are also the ways in which it's effective.

And, like the best historical novels, Thin Air sparked a fascination with its setting: in this case, early twentieth century mountaineering, which is dangerous and frightening (and exhilarating) even without supernatural elements.

Any recommendations for novels which might have the same emotional impact on me?