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

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?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

2017/78: Tremontaine: Season One -- Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese

It was a fairy tale, they said—a Riverside fairy tale. The fair maiden Tess needed a protector, and so the foreign princess had fought every pretender until she found the one Riverside swordsman who was honest and true. [loc 3991]
Serialised fiction, like the renaissance of the novella, is one of those publishing trends that's increased in popularity with the rise of the e-reader. Personally I prefer my fiction in complete chunks, so -- after sampling the first 'episode' of this SerialBox series -- I held off until the complete 'first season' was available in a single volume. True, I missed out on cliffhangers and suspense: but I was rewarded by a long day's delightful reading.

Tremontaine is set in the world of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings -- all of which I now want to reread, but none of which is required reading for Tremontaine. In Tremontaine, Kushner's let other authors into her world to play, and the results are surprisingly seamless and unsurprisingly delightful.

I pitched this to a friend, before reading, as 'little or 0 heteronormativity' which is, it turns out, quite accurate. (There is some: but this is a society which is apparently free of homophobia, and there are a number of same-sex relationships, and at least one character I'd class as asexual.)

The plots revolve around William, Duke of Tremontaine; Rafe, a student at the university who's convinced the world is round and enlists Micah, a vegetable-selling mathematical prodigy, to help him prove it; Ixkaab, a trader-princess trying to live down an unfortunate misstep; Tess, an artist and forger; and their assorted families, friends, foes. But at the heart of it all is Diane, Duchess of Tremontaine, who sits at the centre of the web and spins. Here is a woman who is determined that Tremontaine will thrive: that aim underlies everything she does, and she does it all very capably. Though she is not the only clever, scheming individual herein.

Tremontaine is exquisitely mannerist, often very funny, utterly compelling. There are enough ongoing threads to make me eager for Season 2, and almost tempted to read Season 3 as each episode is published. A delight.

This is my thousandth post on this blog! I had no idea when I started this that it would become such a habit.
If you're reading, do drop me a comment ...

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2017/77: The Painted Queen -- Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

'Shall I tell you where we went this afternoon?’ Ramses said, unable to bear my cheerful prattle. It is a trait (or a weakness) inherited from his father. I have been known to take advantage of it when warranted.
‘If you must,’ I said in a pained voice. (p. 81)
Final novel in the Amelia Peabody sequence, set in 1912: begun by Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters) before her death and completed by her friend Joan Hess. Unfortunately it's not a seamless collaboration, and I didn't feel Ms Hess had a grasp on the characters or the setting. Nefret has become quite foul-mouthed; Ramses succumbs to whims; Amelia has acquired an improbable new skill; Emerson suffers unusually poor impulse control. There are also a number of anachronisms ('the butler must have retreated downstairs for a shot of Jagermeister', twenty years before its invention) and continuity errors; some errors that should have been picked up by the editor ('after more than three centuries interred beneath the sand' -- er, I think you mean millennia in this instance); and a major plot point that revolves around the use of a chemical compound only discovered in 1912.

There are some nice moments, and some passages that evoke fond memories of earlier books. Amelia's admiration of the Nefertiti head (the 'painted queen' of the title) is wholly in character. But I didn't find this a satisfactory read, and am relieved that I still have some of Peters' original novels on the to-be-read pile.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

2017/75: Penric's Mission -- Lois McMaster Bujold

... physician, sorcerer, divine? Which of his bewildering multiplicity of selves had laid itself down in such hope-starved humility? [loc. 1624]
Penric, at thirty, is quite different from the generally light-hearted protagonist of Penric and the Shaman and Penric's Fox. There have been several important changes -- only gradually revealed -- in his circumstances, and at the opening of this novella he's en route to Cedonia with letters from the Duke of Adria, who would like General Adelis Ariseydia to come and work for him.

Unfortunately, Penric is quickly betrayed and imprisoned. This novella is the story of his escape, and his attempt to save Ariseydia (and the general's charming widowed sister Nikys) from the doom that Penric believes himself partially responsible for bringing down upon them.

Of course it's not that straightforward. Ariseydia doesn't especially want to be rescued, at least not by this disreputable demon-ridden sorcerer; Penric's good deeds are driven by a well of misery; Desdemona's fierce protectiveness of her host is stronger, and more loving, than ever. And Penric's attitude to religion -- from cheerfully raiding temple strongboxes (an advance on his pay) to the miracles he'd rather nobody noticed -- is pragmatic, unfussy and mature.

I found the backstory as engrossing as the main plot -- and my major complaint is that the story simply stops, after a major and potentially disastrous confrontation. Luckily I was able to go straight on to Mira's Last Dance, which picks up immediately after the end of Penric's Mission.

2017/76: Mira's Last Dance -- Lois McMaster Bujold

Mira, what are you about? asked Penric in panic. Are you out of my mind?
Come, come, Penric ... We have sat through any number of your bedroom ventures over the years. Turnabout is fair play. She added after a moment, Also, you will learn some new things. That should appeal to the scholar in you. [loc. 778]
This novella follows directly from Penric's Mission, and will make little sense if read without knowledge of the events therein. It opens a few days later, with Penric recovering -- under the watchful eye of Nikys and the less physical, but no less concerned, attention of Desdemona -- from a near-fatal attack. He is still determined to see Adelis and Nikys to safety, or the nearest local equivalent: this involves overnight stays in a variety of unusual havens. Luckily Penric is accompanied by a ten-selved chaos demon, whose previous hosts (all female) have a range of talents -- while it's Desdemona's demonic pest-control skills that win the trio sanctuary in the town of Sosie, it's the long-dead courtesan Mira who makes their escape possible. With, of course, hilarious consequences -- sadly, these occur 'off-stage', but seem not nearly as dire as Penric initially fears.

Meanwhile, Pen and Nikys are circling one another, attracted but (in Nikys' case, at least) aware of a number of practical difficulties. 'When a woman marries a man, she marries his life. And it had better be the life she wants to lead'. And given Penric's own lack of direction -- it feels more than ever as though this mission may, paradoxically, have saved his life in removing him from an untenable situation -- as well as his demonic companion, one can understand that a woman who wants a quiet life might hesitate.

I enjoyed this a great deal, and am happy with the lack of romantic resolution: I do think Pen (and Desdemona) deserve happiness, but I didn't think it likely in this particular circumstance.

I read all five novellas in under a week, whilst in Helsinki in the sunshine: I feel Mira's Last Dance would have been a good place to stop for a while even if there were more books in the sequence -- which there aren't, yet. I shall look forward to encountering Penric and Desdemona again, though!

Friday, August 11, 2017

2017/74: Penric's Fox -- Lois McMaster Bujold

Did demons mourn? Oh, yes, breathed Des. It is not something we come into the world knowing, as elementals. But we learn. Oh, how we learn. [loc. 1662]
This novella begins some eight months after the events of Penric and the Shaman: Penric has become friends with Inglis, and is visiting him -- and trying to learn shamanic magic -- when both are sought out by Senior Locator Oswyl. A local sorceress has been murdered, and he needs to find the murderer. Penric, though, is more interested in the fate of the dead sorceress' demon ...

Bujold explores the system of shamanic magic, which also features in The Hallowed Hunt (a novel I confess I didn't get along with) throughout this novella. Penric's fascination -- he's still ravenous for knowledge -- is infectious, and I think Inglis' explanations are rather clearer than in the earlier work.

But what I found most interesting was the depiction of demon-host relationship(s) from the outside: not Penric and Desdemona (who would be the first to admit that they're not an exemplar of the phenomenon), but the murdered Learned Magal and her demon -- and that demon and their new host. We've previously only seen Desdemona as Penric sees her (as she allows herself to be seen), but the fate of Magal's demon makes her unusually forthcoming.

It was actually the publication of this novella -- and a friend's anticipatory delight -- that prompted me to start reading the 'Penric and Desdemona' series. Thanks, V!

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

2017/73: Penric and the Shaman -- Lois McMaster Bujold

I take my first duty to be to souls, not laws. And to learn as well as teach, or what else do the gods put us in this world for? [loc. 856]
Four years have passed since Penric acquired, or began to host, the chaos demon he calls Desdemona. Now a fully-fledged Divine of the Bastard's Order, he is living in the palace of the Princess-Archdivine Llewen, sorcerously crafting printing plates, and studying greedily.

This pleasant existence is interrupted by the arrival of Senior Locator Oswyl, who is in pursuit of a murderer and would like to avail himself of Penric's sorcerous skills. The victim had been friends with a shaman, who has disappeared: and so has the soul of the murdered man. In short, the shaman may have taken not only the man's life, but his ghost -- and his promised afterlife.

It's not quite that simple, of course. This novella opens with a chapter from the point of view of the shaman Inglis, injured in the snow and rescued by villagers who have secrets of their own. Inglis carries a heavy burden of guilt and grief.

I do like these novellas: they're gentle, thoughtful, often very funny, and they deal with some interesting features of Bujold's quintarian theology. Penric is rather less callow than in Penric's Demon, and his relationship with Desdemona has clearly evolved over the intervening years. Oswyl, an honourable and conscientious investigator, has burdens of his own, and at first finds Penric hard work. And Inglis, with his ambition, his damaged powers and his loneliness, is an intriguing character. Another enjoyable read.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

2017/72: Penric's Demon -- Lois McMaster Bujold

When he glanced up at the mirror, his mouth said, “Yes, let’s get another look at you.” [loc. 331]
Penric kin Jurald, scion of a minor noble house, is on his way to his betrothal when he accidentally acquires a chaos demon.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, chaos demons are usually passed from Learned Divine to Learned Divine -- not from Learned Divine to clueless teenager. Secondly, this demon has had only female hosts before Pen. Thirdly, the acquisition of a chaos demon automatically makes one a sorcerer: and Pen knows nothing about sorcery. And fourthly... well, fourthly, Pen's body is home to a demon as well as to Pen himself, and nothing in his life so far has prepared him for this.

What makes all the difference -- and what makes this novella so charming -- is that Pen is a decent and compassionate young man. He grants 'his' demon a name -- Desdemona -- and attempts to get along with his unsought companion as best he can. With, it has to be said, some amusing consequences. But by the end of the novella -- after threats to both Penric and Desdemona -- it's clear that the two of them have a workable partnership.

Luckily Bujold has written more novellas in this sequence: they were the perfect post-con pick-me-up.

Monday, August 07, 2017

2017/71: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. -- Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Photography breaks magic by embalming a specific moment—one version of reality—into a recorded image. Once that moment is so recorded, then all other possible versions of that moment are excluded from the world that contains that photograph.” [p. 35]
I was really looking forward to reading this: perhaps that's why this is such a negative review, reflecting the depth of my disappointment.

The premise of the novel is simple: time travel exists, and magic existed in the past but fizzled out with the rise of industrialism, and especially photography. Our intrepid protagonists would like to bring magic back. Of course it is not that simple. 750 pages later ...

Sorry, where was I?

'You will thank me for sparing you the details' one character assures us early on, after brief mention of a database. This gave me hope that Stephenson might have refrained, or been persuaded to refrain from, his habit of wordy exposition. But reader, 'twas not to be: later on we get pages and pages depicting the effects of bureaucracy on a small, innovative startup. That this startup is commodifying time travel does not make the bureaucracy-mockery any more entertaining.

Some of the most egregious flaws:
- a character from the twenty-first century is stranded in Victorian London. She self-censors her 'modern' turns of phrase, and her obscenities, in a journal she believes will not be read for over a century. Why?
- a character from the sixteenth century is Irish. Naturally her letters home include phrases such as 'Gráinne it is who’s writing this' and 'I’m after meeting a gentleman' -- peppered with a plethora of 'sures' and 'indeeds'.
- very few of the characters get a physical description, except the blond blue-eyed 'hero'.
- many of the characters are from central casting (though I did rather enjoy the Vikings)
- a child is forced by her parents to cooperate in a ghastly scheme. She never mentions this to anyone, despite being quick to develop, and expound upon, any grudge.
- features a rather spineless Christopher Marlowe, who is then (possibly) removed from history. [GRRRRRRRR]
- Norwich is not actually in, or near, Surrey
- the ending. What ending?

It's not all bad. There is a rather good, entertaining, swashbuckling novel -- of probably around 250 pages -- cunningly secreted within this tome. (I am so thankful to have read it on Kindle: I doubt my wrists could take it in dead-tree format.) The Viking plan is neat; Melisande an interesting protagonist (more interesting than her male counterpart: perhaps it's Nicole Galland's input, but there are a lot more interesting women in this book than in Stephenson's other works); the tilting balance between science and magic interestingly analysed. It's made clear (repeatedly) that one can't tamper with the past and expect the present to remain unchanged. As the novel progresses, it emerges that there are multiple sides to the story; that DODO (Department of Diachronic Operations) is up against a number of antagonists, some with more skin in the game than others.

But it is too long, and I did not especially like any of the characters: and if I had had the actual book, rather than the e-book, I would have hurled it across the room when I came to THE END.

Adam Roberts liked it more than I did.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

2017/70: An Unsuitable Heir -- K.J. Charles

"...How do I look?”
Greta surveyed him. “Handsome and beautiful.” [loc 1525]
The concluding volume of the 'Sins of the Cities' trilogy: see An Unseen Attraction and An Unnatural Vice for my reviews of the previous two novels. Also, this review may contain spoilers for the events of those novels.

Pen and Greta, who perform a trapeze act as the famous Flying Starlings, are alarmed to discover that one Erasmus Potter is offering a reward for the whereabouts of 'Repentance and Regret Godfrey' -- the names their mother gave them. They thought they'd escaped the Potters' repressive 'rustic sect', but their nine years of freedom and success in London might be about to run out.

Mark Braglewicz has his own reasons for approaching Pen Starling: but he finds himself fascinated by Pen's looks and character, and the fluidity of Pen's identity. Pen is strong and broad-shouldered from all the trapeze work; he also likes to wear his hair long, paint his face and wear silks and frock coats. He's sick of people thinking his gender is an either/or: but Mark seems to understand.

But Mark knows something that Pen and Greta don't, and it's a dangerous secret to keep...

I spent a lot of this novel commiserating with Pen, because I couldn't see how the situation could end happily for anyone. In the final chapters, when the protagonists of all three novels are gathered at Crowmarsh, the ancestral home of Clem's family, the tension ratchets up and up. But, like clockwork -- like a trapeze act -- the pieces all fall into place.

One of the things I like most about this series is that each novel has different viewpoint characters. It's interesting to see them through one another's eyes. In An Unsuitable Heir, we have Mark's and Pen's perspectives on Justin Lazarus and on Clem, and Pen's initial impressions of the Jack and Knave regulars -- though Clem is already familiar to Pen and Greta as the 'Mysterious Stranger' who's a regular at their shows. Characters who made only brief appearances in the previous novels assume more significant roles; and the murderer known (to Mark and Nathaniel, at least) as the Fogman is more of a threat than ever.

And it's good to have a female character who's the equal (socially and in terms of plot) of the male characters. Greta, Pen's twin (she's described as looking more like Pen than he does) is more pragmatic and practically-minded than her twin, and is fiercely protective of him. She's aware that they can't be trapeze artists for the rest of their lives: she has a plan, and it doesn't involve Pen compromising his identity.

Pen's genderqueerness feels wholly credible for Victorian England. He (the pronoun Pen uses: “I’m not a she and I’m not an it, and at least 'he' doesn’t cause trouble") sometimes feels masculine, sometimes feminine. Circus life gives him considerable freedom in matters of dress and behaviour: on the other hand, he's stood trial for unnatural offences before, and he's never been to a safe space like the Jack where queer people can be themselves in public.

Pen's hair -- waist-length, chestnut-coloured, the subject of Mark's fantasies -- becomes a symbol of his refusal to fit in with society's expectations. "He would have to cut his hair if there was a trial. ... He’d have to cut away and ignore every part of himself that didn’t fit the box, and he felt the nauseating lurch of a dizzy spell at the thought." Mark -- son of a Polish anarchist -- points out how differently Pen's behaviour would be treated if he were a member of the aristocracy: "they are foibles, not offences, when the man doing ’em pays the wages. One law for the rich, another for the poor.” [loc 1089].

I haven't said much about Mark: Mark is delightful. Early in the book, Phyllis (the landlady at the Jack) tells him that he's 'penny-plain' while Pen is 'tuppence-coloured': and that's true, but not the whole truth. Mark loathes being termed 'incapable' or 'cripple' despite being born with only one arm -- a very visible difference. He's also competent, bisexual, protective, considerate, and has a slanted humour that meshes well with Pen's. And he's a very credible Sarf London bloke.

This is a romance with multiple layers: a murder mystery, a Gothic tale of aristocratic scandal, an exploration of gender and sexuality, a convincing romance, and a homage to Victorian literature. I applaud K J Charles -- and am very happy to have scored a free ARC from NetGalley, in exchange for this honest and appreciative review.

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.