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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

2017/21: An Unseen Attraction --KJ Charles

Clem had listened with fascination the other week as Gregory and Polish Mark and the journalist Nathaniel had discussed how “you could just tell” about men’s tastes, or their guilt, or if they were hiding something that could make a good story. Clem didn’t seem to have whatever ability it was that let other people “just tell,” and it felt as if there was an entire world of communication going on at a pitch he couldn’t hear.

London, 1874. Clem Tallyfer, son of an English father and an Indian mother, runs a lodging house in Clerkenwell: the role suits him, because he's not that good with crowds or noise or thinking in a straight line. His brother (well, half-brother) Edmund owns the house, and insists that Clem tolerate one particular drunken, ill-mannered lodger, Lugtrout by name.

Clem gets along well with his other lodgers -- especially the taxidermist, Rowley Green, who Clem takes tea with in the evenings -- and relies on the redoubtable housekeeper Polly to manage what he can't. But when Lugtrout goes missing, and Edmund shows up to berate Clem for his lack of care, matters become more complicated, and far more dangerous.

I particularly admire the way Charles shows, rather than telling: she doesn't explain too much, but her descriptions and observations are more than sufficient to give insight and understanding into her characters. There's some excellent pacing in this novel, too: the gradual revelations of Rowley's and Clem's secrets.

Clem's friends, too, are a delight: 'Polish Mark' is a South Londoner whose mother's an anarchist; Nathaniel is a journalist, and Gregory's a stage manager. And Rowley Green's devotion to the art and practice of taxidermy -- he aspires 'to snatch something from the wreckage, to keep something back from the worms', and loathes the kind of set piece exemplified by dead kittens in suits playing cards -- is fascinatingly and eloquently described.

Looking forward to the next in this series, which should expand on the dark deeds and betrayals that Clem and Rowley discover during An Unseen Attraction.

Oh, and it's also a slow-burning romance between 'two such odd-shaped men, [who] fit together so naturally'.

2017/20: Murder Must Advertise -- Dorothy L Sayers

Unlike the majority of clients who, though all tiresome in their degree, exercised their tiresomeness by post from a reasonable distance and at reasonable intervals, Messrs Toule & Jollop descended upon Pym’s every Tuesday for a weekly conference. While there, they reviewed the advertising for the coming week, rescinding any decisions taken at the previous week’s conference, springing new schemes unexpectedly upon Mr Pym and Mr Armstrong, keeping those two important men shut up in the Conference Room for hours on end, to the interruption of office-business, and generally making nuisances of themselves.
Ah, plus ça change ... First published in 1933, this novel depicts middle-class life in London -- work and play -- in familiar terms. Though Sayers' characters (most of them employed at an advertising agency, as was Sayers for seven years) live in a very different time, their concerns are eminently relatable. Work-life balance, the risks of falling into bad company, where to eat at lunchtime, the paradox of the poor spending money they can't afford on 'luxury' items ... Sayers' observations on the advertising industry are acute, witty and cynical.

The plot, in brief: an advertising executive suffers a fatal fall in the office, leaving an unfinished letter detailing his suspicions of wrongdoing in the firm. A new copywriter appears, one 'Death Bredon', and proceeds to ask a great many probing questions while projecting an aura of harmless frivolity. Why yes, it is Lord Peter Wimsey; and yes, that fatal fall was not the accident it appeared to be.

Reread, for the first time in about 20 years: I remembered how secret messages were passed in advertisements, but didn't recall much of the rest of the plot. This time round, though, I was reminded strongly of Francis Crawford of Lymond circa Queen's Play: perhaps it was the Harlequin costume, the frenetic and somewhat decadent nightlife, the sense that he is constantly in disguise (and that we're introduced to his disguise before his identity is revealed). And, like Lymond, Wimsey ends up giving himself away due to his inability to do a thing badly.

Also, though this novel does not feature Harriet, it does have some of the most delightful interactions between Parker and Wimsey:
‘Your narrative style,’ said Parker, ‘though racy, is a little elliptical. Could you not begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, and then, if you are able to, stop?’

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017/19: Black Dog -- Neil Gaiman

It’s daylight, said Shadow to the dog, with his mind, not with his voice. Run away. Whatever you are, run away. Run back to your gibbet, run back to your grave, little wish hound. All you can do is depress us, fill the world with shadows and illusions.

This novella is a sequel to American Gods: it's set in the Peak District, where Shadow Moon takes shelter in the village pub during a rainstorm. He encounters a cheerful couple, Moira and Oliver, who recount some jolly episodes from local folklore. There's also a woman, Cassie, who Shadow meets next morning on the hillside. She points out the Gateway to Hell. A number of cats arrive ...

This is a simple tale, with a sense of mythic -- or perhaps fairytale -- justice: kindness repaid, wrongs avenged, ancient stories coming full circle. Shadow's equanimity balances Moira and Ollie's brittle cheer, and makes the story less gloomy than it might have been.

2017/19a: The Monarch of the Glen --Neil Gaiman

‘Well, I don’t think you’re a monster, Shadow. I think you’re a hero.’ No, thought Shadow. You think I’m a monster. But you think I’m your monster.
Another American Gods novella (it and Black Dog, both sold as standalone Kindle books, are so short that I am counting the two of them as one 'read', and that's pushing it, frankly.) Shadow Moon's wanderings take him to the Scottish Highlands, where he is asked to work as security for a rich man's annual party. The party is an institution: it's goes back 'almost a thousand years'. And it soon becomes apparent that Shadow's role is more than just that of a security guard.

The construction of this story -- Shadow's encounters with the people who will become significant, before he understands his part in the story; the constant questioning of whether he is a monster -- is like a jigsaw: Gaiman fits a great deal into The Monarch of the Glen, and also sets Shadow up for a return to the States and a greater understanding of his own nature and destiny. (I don't know whether Gaiman is still working on the sequel to American Gods. I do hope so.)

2017/18: Dark Matter: A Ghost Story -- Michelle Paver

I’ve also flicked through this journal, which was a mistake. I’m shocked at how my handwriting’s changed. I used to write a neat copperplate hand, but since I’ve been alone, it’s degenerated into a spidery scrawl. Without reading a word, you can see the fear.
The novel begins in London in 1937. Jack Miller has a chip on his shoulder, a physics degree from UCL, and a job he hates. When a group of wealthy young men advertise for a radio operator to form part of an expedition to the Arctic, Jack jumps at the chance: he has nobody to leave behind, nothing -- apparently -- to lose.

The expedition is beset by trouble from the start. One man drops out after the death of his father: another breaks a leg and has to return to England before ever setting foot on the beach at Gruhuken. Maybe he's the lucky one: the skipper of the boat that takes them there is keen to dissuade them from setting up base in that particular location. It's bad luck, he tells them. Things happen there.

The little expedition is now down to three men (Jack himself, the 'golden boy' Gus, and Algie, who is beginning to display some unsettling behaviour) and a number of huskies. Jack doesn't like the dogs: he isn't very keen on the traces of previous human occupation at Gruhuken -- a half-ruined trappers' hut, a 'bear post' where food would be hung away from the sleeping quarters. And he doesn't feel at ease with his companions.

The Arctic night is coming --months of darkness -- and Gus falls ill: he and Algie head for civilisation, leaving Jack alone. Or ... not alone. From time to time he glimpses another figure: he smells paraffin: the dogs are nervy.

The meat of Dark Matter is Jack's journals. We see, as Jack does not, that the darkness and solitude are affecting him: that he is making errors of judgement, and that his determination to put on a brave face, in his infrequent radio conversations with Algie and Gus ("JACK YOU ARE SO BRAVE! EXPEDITION OWES ALL TO YOU!"), is ... unhealthy.

With only the dogs for company -- well, he's visited by a trapper, who tries to convince him to leave Gruhuken -- Jack becomes increasingly aware of his environment. He bonds with Isaak, the most intelligent and loyal of the dogs: but Isaak is scared too.

Dark Matter builds slowly and chillingly. I found myself startling at shadows while I read: Jack's unease, sharpening to fear, was simply and effectively told. He's not, to be honest, an especially likeable character (that chip on his shoulder, his desperate need for approval, an underlying bitterness at the iniquities of life) but his solitary terror does evoke a very human response of compassion. And the climax of the novel is genuinely terrifying: words on a page, first person past tense, yet it terrifies.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2017/17: The Hanging Tree -- Ben Aaronovitch

We’d been reluctant to employ a forensic psychologist because of the well-founded fear that they might section us for believing in fairies.
Following the events of Foxglove Summer, Peter Grant has returned to London. Lady Tyburn (one of the river goddesses of London) calls in a favour: her daughter Olivia was at a party where a young woman died in suspicious circumstances, and Lady Ty wants Peter to ensure that Olivia is not implicated in the investigation.

Turns out the dead girl has traces of magic about her: which might, thinks Peter, be another lead in his ongoing investigation of the Faceless Man. Working with DI Sahra Guleed, he uncovers some troubling connections that date back to the 'Tyburn Tree' executions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and to the lost ledger of 'Thief-Taker General' Jonathan Wild. Reynard the Fox pops up again: so does Lesley: there is more Nightingale. And there is progress, at last, on the mystery of the Faceless Man.

The Hanging Tree addresses the institutionalised sexism of British magic, and introduces more female characters. There's more sense of the wider world, too, with discussion of American practitioners and their views on European matters.

I'm not sure that reading four Aaronovitch novels back to back was the best way to appreciate them, but it distracted me from illness and kept me entertained and intrigued. And I'm looking forward to The Furthest Station, due in September ...

Friday, February 17, 2017

2017/16: Foxglove Summer -- Ben Aaronovitch

Nightingale calls them the fae but that's a catch-all term like the way the Greeks used the word 'barbarian' or the Daily Mail uses 'Europe'. [loc. 260]
Foxglove Summer is quite a departure from the previous novels in the series. After the traumatic events at the end of Broken Homes, Peter Grant is sent to rural Herefordshire to investigate whether a local wizard (retired) is involved in the disappearance of two young girls. Nightingale -- who barely appears in this novel, boo -- may also be giving Peter a break from 'the usual' for compassionate reasons; and there are new threats facing the Folly, which Peter may not be ready to deal with.

So off Peter goes to the surprisingly unmagical countryside. He speaks to the parents of Nicole Lacey (who had an imaginary friend, Princess Luna) and Hannah Marstowe: he encounters some of the local watercourses: he talks to the retired wizard (who provides more backstory on Nightingale's past) and to his granddaughter, who has a way with bees. He's joined by Beverley Brook, who encourages him to face up to the grief and rage he's been suppressing. And he solves the case -- for values of 'solves' that include 'works out what happened'. We don't get to find out why it happened.

As a Rivers of London book I think I'd find this slightly disappointing: two of my major interests (Nightingale and London itself) are absent. But as an admirer of Tana French's In the Woods, I was fascinated: this novel, in some respects, was the inverse of that one, and though it has a happier ending and a great deal more overt magic, the same sense of brooding fear is there.

Also, Princess Luna? Yay!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2017/15: Broken Homes -- Ben Aaronovitch

Either Stromberg had discovered something in the locality – an ancient temple, a stone circle, site of a massacre or iron age industrial site – or he'd been planning to extract magical power out of the everyday lives of council flat tenants. No wonder he was waiting up on his roof with his telescope until the day he died. [loc. 3019]

A suspicious-looking suicide and a burnt body in an unburnt house: another case for Peter Grant and the Folly. Broken Homes is largely set in a fictional council estate, the Skygarden, in Elephant and Castle (modelled on the Heygate Estate), which was unaccountably listed even though the council would like to tear it down. Why was it important that the Skygarden remain standing? And can the recent crop of suspicious deaths be linked to the Skygarden and its architect, the (unsuspiciously) late Erik Stromberg?

Nightingale plays a bigger role in this novel, and we get some more of his backstory. Another fascinating character, Varenka Debroslova, is introduced, and there's a chap walking around at the Thames' deities Summer Court who is referred to as a fox. Peter, who wanted to be an architect but didn't get the grades, impresses Lesley and Nightingale with his knowledge of brick course patterns. There are allusions galore, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nightingale and Peter venture beyond the M25, to Essex. There is further evidence that the Faceless Man is up to no good. And Broken Homes culminates in a shocking denouement which I confess I did not see coming.

I think this was the first of Aaronovitch's novels in which I recognised how he depicts race and culture. In this novel, and I think the others too, skin colour is typically mentioned only if the person is white: a great difference from 'establishment' news reporting, for example. Many of the major characters are POC, and they come from different backgrounds: and it's clear that they are all Londoners, regardless of those backgrounds.

Funny, entertaining and more interesting than Whispers Under Ground: I finished this one and picked up the next ... [Ill health hath some benefits].

2017/13: A Taste of Honey -- Kai Ashante Wilson

At her finger's touch, the world's richness and vividity doubled; it trebled and redoubled again. Aqib's perception expanded into a whole other dimension. Bees' buzzing, locust-chatter, the birds singing: no longer was this empty noise. It was lyric'd music, song with words. In a distant courtyard of the Sovereign House, a bitty lapdog barked and barked. Welcome home, I love you, Whee, Yay, Hurrah. Aqib had always . . . guessed? some of this: now he knew. Now he heard it plain. [loc. 559]
Aqib bgm Sadiqi is the son of the Olurumi Master of Beasts -- the keeper of the menagerie -- and fourth cousin to the royal family. He meets a handsome foreign soldier (Lucrio) and falls in love, or lust, or both. But Olorum culture is not accepting of homosexuality, and Aqib's family doubly so.

Aqib and Lucrio have ten days together: then Lucrio leaves, and Aqib marries the Blessèd Femysade, a princess of the royal house -- an act which elevates his family's standing, and produces a daughter, Lucinda, who attracts the interest of the gods. Or 'gods'... One of them corrects Aqib gently, asking him to call them ''children of the Tower Ashê.' Not that his recollection of that meeting with two gods, and his wife and daughter, is at all clear. Yet he keeps dreaming of it, wistfully, waking with the sense that something has been lost.

A Taste of Honey deals with identity, sexuality and memory, and the ways in which these are shaped by one's culture. They can, too, be manipulated: for one's own good, of course. But if Aqib were free to choose, to make his own decisions about his life, what would those decisions be?

I didn't find the language in this novella as rich and fascinating as in The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante's first novella, which is set in the same world. The setting, however, was more intricate in A Taste of Honey. Wilson contrasts the matriarchal, conservative Oloru and the more liberal Daluçan culture; the mysterious powers and qualities of the gods, which seem to be scientific in nature, with the quotidian realities of Aqib's life; the passion of his affair with Lucrio and the calm respect of his marriage. And the way in which it's all brought together -- and the title made sense of -- made me want to cheer.

At novel length, the characters might have been explored in greater depth, and we might have learnt more about the Blessèd Femysade and her perspective on the matter. There might have been more about the gods, too. (I'm looking forward to further stories in this world. ) But as a novella, this was very satisfactory: dense with detail, poetic without being overindulgent, and brilliantly structured.

2017/14: Whispers Under Ground -- Ben Aaronovitch

...just chalk it [magic] up to pixie dust or quantum entanglement, which was the same thing as pixie dust except with the word quantum in it. [loc. 203]

Peter Grant and team are called in to investigate the murder of an American student at Baker Street tube station. The weapon is a potsherd, and Peter notices that it carries magical vestigia: clearly a case for the Folly, the Met Police department dedicated to magical crime.

There are other weird things happening on the Tube. Peter's mum's neighbour shows him a ghost caught in the act of writing graffiti: the murder victim's flatmate isn't wholly human: someone is weaponising ghosts: and there are delays on the Central Line. (Oh, wait.)

Lesley Marsh, who lost her face to Mr Punch, is back on the team,and Peter is having trouble adjusting to her mask. He's working more closely with other people, too: Kumar (British Transport Police), Stephanopoulos (Murder Squad) and Special Agent Kimberley Reynolds (FBI, and not your typical tourist). Sadly, we don't get as much of Nightingale as I would have liked, and though the Faceless Man -- lead villain for the series so far -- is definitely up to something, it's not the focus of the story.

I read this and the following three novels in a short space of time due to ill health, and I think this was my least favourite of the four. The trope of 'something uncanny in the Underground' is a familiar one -- Aaronovitch references a few other instances -- and I didn't feel this broke new ground. There's less magic than in the two preceding books: it's more of a police procedural. Often funny, and there's some more worldbuilding, but didn't quite hit the mark for me.

Stay tuned for three more Aaronovitch reviews!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

2017/12: The Rest of Us Just Live Here -- Patrick Ness

The indie kids, huh? You've got them at your school, too. That group with the cool-geek haircuts and the charity shop clothes and names from the fifties. Nice enough, never mean, but always the ones who end up being the Chosen One when the vampires come calling or when the alien queen needs the Source of All Light or something. They're too cool to ever, ever do anything like go to prom or listen to music other than jazz while reading poetry. They've always got some story going on that they're heroes of. The rest of us just have to live here, hovering around the edges... Having said that, the indie kids do die a lot. Which must suck. [loc. 170]

A YA paranormal, at least if you go by the chapter headers: "CHAPTER THE FIRST, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate." Except that The Rest of Us Just Live Here isn't about the Chosen One(s), or the end of the world, or vampires (sparkly or otherwise) or the Hellmouth. The teenage heroes of this story -- Mel, Henna, Mikey and Jared -- have other foes to conquer: OCD, sexual identity crises, anorexia, that new kid in school, Mikey's mum's campaign to be senator, prom, and the imminent performance by boy band Bolts of Fire (which Mikey's little sister really wants to see).

There's weird stuff happening, for sure: zombie deer, the God of Cats, et cetera. But the focus is on Mikey and his friends and their difficult relationships with their parents. Turns out you can be just as misunderstood whether you're battling vampires or washing your hands seventeen times. "What happens to you when you get older? Do you just forget everything from before you turned eighteen? Do you make yourself forget?" [loc. 297]

I enjoyed this a great deal, not least because it takes mental illness seriously. There are no miraculous cures (magical or otherwise) to be found here: there is no grand denouement after which everyone's problems are resolved and a bright future awaits all. Instead, it's about coming to terms with what and who you are, choosing your own story, and finding ways to deal with the world.

It's also very funny in places, and very emotional in others: and the two are not mutually exclusive. One of the best YA novels I've read recently.

2017/11: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe -- Kij Johnson

She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it. "Women don't dream large dreams," he had said, dismissively. "It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams." Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. [loc. 604]
Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the Women's College of Ulthar University. Clarie Jurat, daughter of one of the College's trustees, is one of her best students: when Clarie elopes with her lover -- a dreamer from the waking world -- Vellitt Boe realises that Clarie's disappearance might mean the closure of the College, and so she sets out to find Clarie.

It gradually becomes apparent, though, that Clarie's family is rather more influential than Vellitt could have suspected: much more is at risk than the Women's College. Vellitt, who spent much of her life travelling before settling at the University, embarks on an epic journey through the Dreamlands, and begins to reevaluate the choices that led her to her sedentary life in the College.

Disclaimer: I am not that familiar with Lovecraft, and though the title rang a vague bell I didn't recognise that what it echoed was Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Forgotten Kadath. Certainly my unfamiliarity with this source text didn't impede my enjoyment in any way. (Johnson's afterword: "I first read it [The Dream-Quest of Forgotten Kadath] at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it." [loc. 1527]) However, reading the Lovecraft story and then rereading The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe gave me more insight into the transformative art of Johnson's novella. Instead of a man from 'the waking world' (our own), the protagonist is a native of the Dreamlands; instead of a hero in his prime (Randolph Carter), a middle-aged academic. She accepts some aspects of her world, questions others, and displays a mild contempt for Randolph Carter's sexism.

There is a joyfulness to this novella: Vellitt Boe is open-minded, aware of the dangers of her world (ravenous ghouls, mad gods, shifting geographies, terrors in the deep) yet still able to appreciate its beauty and strangeness, and very ready to embark upon new journeys. I finished reading with a huge smile on my face, for Vellitt and Clarie and for Kij Johnson's reimagining of Lovecraft's original.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2017/10: Doc -- Mary Doria Russell

Belle Wright undoubtedly believed that his courtesy to Johnnie Sanders and China Joe stemmed from an admirable democratic conviction that they were every bit as good as he was. In reality, he thought himself no better than they: a significant distinction. It was not a surfeit of brotherly love that informed John Henry Holliday's egalitarianism. It was an acute awareness of the depths of disgrace into which he himself had fallen. [loc. 3214]
Mary Doria Russell, author of one of my very favourite SF novels (The Sparrow) and a number of other books that I have enjoyed and / or admired, has turned her attention to the Western. Sort of. Doc is a novel about a single year in the life of John Henry 'Doc' Holliday, mostly famous for his involvement with Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral. This novel is set well before that, but the shadow of Tombstone -- literally and figuratively, since Holliday was dying slowly from tuberculosis for all of his adult life -- looms over the events of 1878 in Dodge City, Kansas.

The novel's structured like a poker game, and framed by passages of more prosaic biography to set the scene. Instead of (as well as?) celebrating the male friendships and loyalties that are the focus of many Westerns, Doc deals with the other people who matter to Doc: his girlfriend Kate Harony, a well-educated Hungarian who's fallen on hard times and turned to prostitution; Johnnie Sanders, a half-black, half-Native American youth whose murder Doc investigates; Jau Dong-Sing (known as China Joe), a Chinese man who has made a life for himself in Dodge but is well aware of the perils of being an outsider; and Father Alexander von Angensperg, whose work with the Native Americans in the Jesuit mission school provides background for Johnnie's story. (He's also one of the very few people to whom Doc can talk about music and literature.)

As in previous novels, Russell's characterisation carries the story. Their emotions and motivations are revealed simply and with compassion: they have a ring of truth, whether or not they're based on historical fact. There are authorial interjections that highlight turning points in Doc's life and remind us of Doc's eventual fate. Also as in previous novels, faith matters: Father Alex's confident hope of a miraculous cure, and Doc's own silent prayer as he plays Beethoven: "John Henry Holliday was praying too, just as earnestly and to any god who might listen. Now. Now. Now. Take me now. Now: with this music beneath his hands. Now: while he was still a gentle man who might have made his mother proud. Now: while beauty could still beat back the blind and brutal disease that was eating him alive." [loc. 6779]

I cannot recommend reading this novel whilst suffering from a painful chest infection: the descriptions of Doc's tuberculosis are uncomfortable at the best of times. But I do recommend Doc highly: it's a thoughtful examination of a life, told from a different perspective than the familar macho-Western mythologising.

Looking forward to reading Epitaph, a kind of sequel, if it ever makes it to Kindle ...

Monday, February 13, 2017

2017/09: Wanted, a Gentleman -- K.J. Charles

I make my money from hopes and dreams laid bare, and those are too important, too revealing, to be treated with anything except scorn." [loc. 716]

A Heyeresque romance, with two main differences: both of the leads are male, and one is black.

Martin St Vincent is a freed slave, now a successful businessman. His former owners have asked him to help with a delicate matter: the daughter of the house, Miss Jennifer Conroy, has apparently eloped with a man who had been sending her secret messages via a 'lonely hearts' periodical, the Marriage Advertiser. Martin has always been fond of Jennifer, and despite his anger at the imbalance of power between the Conroys and himself, he agrees to help.

His investigation leads him to Theo Swann, proprietor of the Marriage Advertiser, who is burdened by a debt incurred when he was young and foolish. (He is now older.) Theo agrees to help Martin, for a fee. But can he be trusted? And will Jennifer and her mysterious beau make it to Gretna Green before Martin and Theo can catch them?

This is a delightful Regency romance with, as usual from KJ Charles, plenty of social conscience to set against the inherently frivolous conventions of the genre. Theo is a shady characters with a number of intriguing secrets: Martin has done his best to rise above the injustices of his station, but feels that he must conceal the deep-rooted anger that drives him to help others. As the two get to know one another -- and discuss romantic novels, which play a key role in the plot -- it becomes apparent that, though neither is a typical Regency gentleman, both have elements of the heroic.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

2017/08: The Marlowe Papers -- Ros Barber

'All those who love not tobacco and booze are fools.' 'Tobacco and boys?' Nashe laughed. He was half deaf,
the close ear dull. 'Dear post, tobacco and booze!
But boys go just as well with sweet Virginia
pressed into a pipe.'
            Misheard, offstage,
the quote that would define me for an age. [loc. 1816]

A novel in iambics, which infect
the mind and make me think in doggerel.
Though Barber's lines are mightier than these
that I am spewing forth in my review.
Ros Barber starts with Marlowe faking death
and fleeing to the Continent to live
in horrid exile, mourning his lost love
(Tom Walsingham, in this case: though this Kit
is comfortable with loves of either sex)
and reminiscing on his vivid life.
He's desperate to return to London, where
the plays he writes are new-performed on stage
though bear another's name. Some glover's son
from Staffordshire, who takes the credit for
Kit Marlowe's work. Kit terms him 'Turnip', finds
no comfort in his friends' assurances
that some day the true authorship of these
posthumous plays will be revealed. Yep,
Ros Barber's a Marlovian: but 'The
Marlowe Papers' isn't simply
another argument in that long war.
Barber's examination of Kit's life --
his lonely travels on the Continent,
his memories of London tavern life,
of spycraft, subterfuge and double deals,
and several inadvisable amours --
is nicely done, and fits with all the facts.
(Or most, at least.) The footnotes were a feast
of scholarship and theory that I had
not previously come across: e.g.
the misheard 'booze/boys' that I quote above.
There are occasional anachronis-
ms (a word that sabotages this
iambic nonsense): and I did not find
Marlowe's finale satisfactory.

But I do like the Kit that Barber paints
and, too, the wit which she imbues him with.
And her iambic lines are weightier
and more poetic than this 'ere review.
In short: the novel's beautifully writ
and scholarly, and I recommend it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

2017/07: A Dead Man in Deptford -- Anthony Burgess

— Listen to me, Kit said, and he knew, saying it, that the me to which he referred was one of a parcel of many within, and he felt a manner of despair or at least desperateness in not knowing well which was to speak.

Reread, for a paper on Christopher Marlowe in Historical Fiction that I was unable to give (due to ill health) at the Historical Fiction Research Network conference. My original review from 2006 is here.

This is an incredibly dense and intricate novel: I was lucky to be able to immerse myself completely in it for a day. On this reading, I think I understood more of Burgess's perspective on Kit's character, and (having been reading a fair amount of Marlowe biography) I was able to appreciate just how cleverly Burgess joins up the facts with credible motivations and human frailties. Burgess' Marlowe is a poet as well as a spy, a man who wants nothing to do -- sexually, at least -- with women, a man who finds his luck turning against him and his old allies becoming foes. Very little Shakespeare here, and no miraculous spiriting-away from Deptford. A masterful and demanding novel.

Monday, February 06, 2017

2017/04-06: Society of Gentlemen trilogy -- KJ Charles

Richard's exclusive society of gentlemen gave them a safe place and a degree of private freedom, but sometimes, as their limited company turned in on one another, it felt as though they'd agreed to share a cage. [A Fashionable Indulgence, loc. 1473]

A trio of Regency M/M romances that also address some of the social inequalities of the age: furthermore, these are romances that bear rereading -- possibly because there is so much else going on in each of them.

The basic premise is that Richard Vane, aristocrat, has used his wealth and influence to create a safe place for a small group of Regency homosexuals to meet and socialise without having to pretend heterosexuality. The Society of Gentlemen trilogy focusses on three of these men -- Richard himself, his former lover Dominic (a civil servant), and fashionable exquisite Julius (ex-cavalry) -- and how each of their lives is transformed by the arrival of a rather less gentlemanly sort.

In A Fashionable Indulgence, one of Richard's relatives is plucked from his life as a bookseller's assistant and 'returned' to the aristocracy, from which his parents' reformist tendencies exiled him as a child. Julius is recruited to turn Harry into a gentleman and quash his revolutionary tendencies -- no easy feat when the Peterloo Massacre is being discussed at every dinner table and gentlemen's club in London. It's a typical Pygmalion story: except that Julius, too, has a painful past, and Harry changes Julius as well as being changed.

In A Seditious Affair, Dominic's life focusses on his Wednesday nights, when he heads off to a secret club for a few hours of hot BDSM sex -- 'On your knees, Tory' -- followed by conversation and wine and literary / political argument. Dominic, who works for the Home Office and is involved in rooting out sedition, doesn't know that his Wednesday-night hookup is a notorious agitator. And Silas (formerly Harry's boss) doesn't know that the man he's beginning to think of as a friend is, in a very real sense, the enemy.

A Gentleman's Position is the story of Richard and his valet, David Cyprian -- the latter a notorious fixer who's instrumental in the maintenance of the Society of Gentlemen, and who has managed to survive four years in Richard's service without revealing his feelings for his employer. When those feelings are revealed -- and possibly reciprocated -- which of them will behave better?

KJ Charles excels in picking point-of-view, and in examining those views. None of her characters prioritise romance (or sex) above the other aspects of their lives -- but all of their stories begin with an absence of love, and end with a resolution to that lack. The romance elements are never used to gloss over the iniquities of nineteenth-century life: there are many injustices here, and many characters (not all of them protagonists) who've found ways around the restrictions imposed on them by society. A trans man, a former sex worker with syphilis, people of colour, feminism, domestic abuse, blackmail, murder, treachery ...

Charles' novels are well-written, mazily interconnected, often very funny, and emotionally satisfactory. No, nobody solves those big social problems: but they do find ways to lessen their effects, and to live better lives within the confines of an unequal and repressive culture.