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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017/31: Bring Up the Bodies -- Hilary Mantel

'Strike first, before she strikes you. Remember how she brought down Wolsey.' His past lies about him like a burnt house. He has been building, building, but it has taken him years to sweep up the mess.

Second in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy: I wonder when the third volume will appear.

I didn't like this as much as Wolf Hall: it seemed overlong, a detailed examination of the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour. There's more sense of the tightrope Cromwell is walking, of his precarious position as the man upon whom a notoriously temperamental monarch relies. He reflects on the notion that he is 'a man whose only friend is the King of England': he thinks, still, that he will see the end of Henry's reign. Indeed, when rumours of Henry's death at Greenwich reach Cromwell, it seems that he has outlasted the King. (One problem with historical novels, assuming they adhere to the facts: a great disaster for the characters is obviously, to the reader, a false alarm.)

Much of the novel concerns the whispering, machinations and back-biting of Henry's court, and especially of the miasma of women who surround his second queen, Anne Boleyn. Rumour and superstition do as much to topple Anne as her failure to produce a son, or her husband's preference for plain, virtuous Jane Seymour. It is Cromwell, however, who weaves together those fragments of gossip to bring about Anne's execution: and it is Henry's desire to dissolve the marriage that drives Cromwell's actions.

Cromwell is as isolated, himself, as Henry's England after the English Reformation. Most of Cromwell's family are dead: only his bright and curious son, Gregory, remains. The noblemen among who he moves -- not least the Duke of Norfolk and his circle -- look down on him as a commoner. He has, of course, no friends: though he finds himself missing Thomas More, and Wolsey. His whole life is devoted to Henry, and to Henry's will.

Mantel's writing is full of resonant images: that irritating 'he, Thomas' tic is still there, and sometimes seems unnecessary since it's Thomas Cromwell whose eyes we are seeing through. But, wait: who is the 'we' who (for instance) 'will not have many more days such as this'? Is this Mantel fostering a sense of unity? Or is it Thomas, emphasising his feeling of unity with his audience, or England, or the English, or the King with his 'royal we'?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

2017/30: Finding Philippe -- Elizabeth Edmondson

Daydreamed for a moment of a life that could be led in a land where they didn’t have a word for pea-souper fogs. Where National Bread would be an impossibility. Where summer came every year.

At eighteen, Vicky Hampden's oppressive father made her a ward of court to curtail her wartime love affair with the dashing French Philippe. Now Vicky is twenty-five, and her favourite aunt has left her an inheritance. She decides to use some of the money to visit France and try to discover Philippe's fate: she's been told he's dead, and she hasn't seen or heard from him since 1943.

Aided by an amiable lawyer, Julius (who's also keen to escape the dullness of ration-bound post-war Britain) -- and, later, by her niece, who has run away from school -- Vicky uncovers a web of intrigue while enjoying la vie française. It gradually becomes apparent that Philippe was a man of mystery -- not only an operative for the SOE, but also the scion of an ancient and wealthy family. And, of course, Vicky has a secret of her own, which she keeps as close as the gorgeous Gothic butterfly that Philippe bequeathed to her ...

Not my favourite of Edmondson's books, I have to say, despite the art theft, psychoanalysis, espionage, wicked relatives et cetera: few of the characters really came alive for me; the romance felt abrupt; and I cannot believe that anyone, even in 1949, would countenance a fifteen-year-old girl running off with a Frenchman ten years (?) her senior.

Friday, March 24, 2017

2017/29: 11.22.63 -- Stephen King

We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.
Jake Epping, divorced schoolteacher, is a man who doesn't weep over anything -- until one day he's reading an account by one of his students of the night his siblings and mother were murdered by his father.

Serendipitously, Jake's friend Al has a time portal in his diner. It leads to 11:58am on the morning of September 9th, 1958: every trip is a reset, Al says, so you can visit the past again and again. Al himself had attempted to prevent JFK's assassination in November 1963, but late-stage cancer prevented him. Maybe Jake can help. Though the past is obdurate: it doesn't want to be changed ...

Jake has read Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder' -- though he keeps using the term 'butterfly effect', which is not the same thing as the idea that changing the past alters the future -- and indeed there are frequent 'sounds of thunder' in 11.22.63. But Jake is still convinced that he can fix everything -- Harry Dunning' s father, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Vietnam War -- and return to a rosy future.

Not that the past is so bad. Jake is enthusiastic about food that tastes better; about Sadie, who he falls in love with; about his teaching job (acquired using fake credentials); about his personal wealth, courtesy of some informed gambling. Sure, the Fifties and Sixties are racist, sexist and lack the comforts of technology. But petrol's cheap and the natives are mostly friendly -- and if he makes a mistake he can always come back and run through those years again.

This novel is far too long: possibly to emphasise the sheer slog of Jake's five years in 'the past', working towards a single moment in Dallas, possibly just because it hasn't had a good edit. There are some exceptional scenes -- not least Jake's visits to Derry, the setting for IT -- and plenty of evocative descriptions of the early Sixties. And King's prose is ... transparent, in a good way: very readable, competent, seldom repetitive. Sadly, there is just too much of it in 11.22.63.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

2017/28: All the Birds in the Sky -- Charlie Jane Anders

...she felt like her whole history was taking on a whole new focus, the landscape of her past rearranging so that the stuff with Laurence became major geographical features and some other, lonelier, events shrank proportionately. Historical revisionism was like a sugar rush, flooding her head.
Patricia Delfine discovers that she's a witch at the age of six: however, she loses her magical abilities when her parents lock her in her bedroom, and spends the rest of her childhood trying hard to get birds to talk to her again. She's the target of the school bullies -- as is Laurence (never Larry), a protogeek who creates a 2-second time machine and truants from school to watch a rocket launch.

They become friends, despite their very different varieties of geekness -- Patricia loves nature because it's 'not like people', Laurence loves science because it promises control -- and save one another's lives: and then don't meet again for ten years.

Patricia has become part of a group of magic-users who are working to combat various ecological and natural disasters: Laurence is working for maverick tech investor and engineering genius Milton Dirth, whose Ten Percent Project aims to get 10% of the population off-planet in the next few years. Patricia's time at a magical school (strongly reminiscent of Lev Grossman's Brakebills) has taught her to use her powers wisely, for the good of others, and not to overreach (beware Aggrandizement!). Laurence has helped to develop what is essentially a doomsday machine, which might destroy the Earth (but hey, the odds are good). They both want to change the world, but have very different approaches: 'fantasy' and 'science fiction' might be appropriate labels for those approaches.

But there is a third character, an AI which they have effectively, though unwittingly, co-parented: and that third character may be able to align Patricia's and Laurence's world views ...

This novel is immense fun, passionate and funny and brimming with ideas. (I liked the Nameless Order of Assassins; Lars Saarinian's educational models, which are based on pigs in the slaughterhouse; the distinction between, and synthesis of, Trickster and Healer magic ...) The San Francisco milieu in which the two protagonists reconnect has a horrid verisimilitude: hipsters singing madrigals, graduates suffering imposter syndrome, omnipresent personal technology (which one character describes as '[making] serendipity happen more often' ...

Though occasionally All the Birds in the Sky feels as though it's falling over itself in its rush to the denouement, it's a cracking read. I'm looking forward to more from Anders.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017/27: A Quiet Life -- Natasha Walter

... she has been cleverer than all of them, she thinks to herself. No one suspects her. Valance even thinks that she will work for him, if he needs her. Even Mother, even Ellen, even Winifred; nobody thinks that she was anything but an innocent wife. Her mask has been a good one. Has her face stayed intact behind it?

Based on the life of Melinda Marling, the wife of Donald McLean, A Quiet Life tells the story of Laura Leverett who travels from America to London just before the outbreak of the Second World War. On board ship she meets some Communists, including the charismatic Florence: in London she pretends to her relatives that she has a secret boyfriend, so as to slip out to Party meetings. Then she meets Edward, a sophisticated chap who works at the Foreign Office: he turns out to be a spy. They marry. Now Laura is a spy too. Edward and Laura go to Washington after the war: then Edward's double life is uncovered, they return to England, and Edward flees his house in Surrey and his pregnant wife.

This could have been so much better than it was. Laura seems to have little personality and no real direction. She overhears various damning comments about herself but, if she's upset or angry, we don't see it. She is also oblivious to her husband's homosexuality, and to her own romantic / sexual impulses towards Florence and other women of her acquaintance. Which is not to say that Edward and Laura have a platonic relationship: on the contrary, sex is the glue that holds them together, though it is presented in a transactional way: did they both climax? Did they climax together?

Walter may have heard the axiom 'show, don't tell' but she is having none of it. Far too many conversations are summarised, rather than given in full: "in their comments on her, which moved from the admiring to the moralising, they hinted at their own desires. After that the conversation led on to other things, but they felt more warmly now towards one another..." This technique makes Laura feel more distant. I don't know how much of her behaviour is in service of the mask she must present, the pretty silly American wife: but there doesn't seem to be anything much behind the mask. True, there's a secret that she's kept since her teenaged years: I'm not sure if the nature of this secret was ever indicated, though I suspect it is something to do with her family, from whom she attempts to distance herself throughout the novel. Only once abandoned by Edward is she forced to accept that her mother's fidelity is in fact love: it's not clear whether Laura reciprocates at all.

I did like the descriptions of wartime London -- and there are occasional flashes of excellence, like the description of London seen from a fast car 'rolling past the windows with a kind of emphatic repleteness'. On the whole, though, I would rather have read an actual biography.

I may have missed something: much more positive review

Thursday, March 16, 2017

2017/26: Dark Eden -- Chris Beckett

‘Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that’s all about them. There will always be a few of them, and once one of them starts, another one of them will want to fight with him.’

The premise of this award-winning novel -- descendants of stranded spacefarers on a planet with no sun, atavistic society -- did not appeal to me at all, but Dark Eden was recommended by two readers whose opinions I value, so I dived in.

There is a lot to like. The worldbuilding is fascinating: the alien life of Eden, from the trees that are the main source of heat and light to the two-hearted, six-limbed animals with flat eyes that never close, is beautifully and intriguingly described, and the sheer strangeness of this dark world (lit only by harsh starlight when there's no blessed cloud-cover) comes across strongly. The inhabitants are all descended from two individuals, five or six generations before the novel begins: birth defects are common, and few children know who their father is because it hardly matters. Language has simplified (in particular, they seem to have lost the word 'very', so when it's extra-cold it's 'cold cold', or even 'cold cold cold'). The people of Eden, living in a more-or-less matriarchal society, now number over five hundred: and they know that they need to stay near the Circle, where their long-awaited rescuers from Earth will know to find them. Trouble is, local resources are running out. The children no longer have a school, because they can't be spared from foraging. There's talk of a rota system for fishing the lake ...

But one boy, John Redlantern, has radical thoughts. He thinks they should range further, set up other settlements outside the Valley (there must be other valleys which could support life); he listens hard to the old stories and is sure he's noticing elements that nobody's noticed before; he's frustrated with doing things the way they've always been done; he is, in short, a rebel. And he's bored.

In short order John becomes an innovator; an iconoclast; an outcast; a leader of a breakaway community; a criminal of a kind that Eden's never known; and, frankly, the kind of man who makes the story all about him. (Though actually I think that trait's there from the beginning.)

The plot's strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and Clan of the Cave Bear: it's the setting that makes this novel so interesting. There are some significant female characters, too, though many of them are ineffectual or worse. Tina Spiketree, John's girlfriend, is intelligent and observant -- she gets a considerable portion of the narrative -- and she realises that a time is coming when the women will have less power and the men will be running things. One can't help wondering what would have happened if she, rather than John, had had all those bright ideas.

I enjoyed this a great deal more than I'd expected, and found it a truly original setting. I'd like to read more about Eden, but I'm less enthusiastic about the ways in which Eden's society will change after the events of this novel.

Chris Beckett on the science (PDF)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017/25: The Elegance of the Hedgehog -- Muriel Barbery

... pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.
Mme Renée Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, a fifty-four-year-old widow with bunions and bad breath. As far as the residents know, she is a typical concierge, watching television and reading tabloids, alone except for her cat Leo. In secret, though, she is passionate about philosophy, art and language (a misplaced comma in a note from one resident drives her to distraction), and she observes her employers with a clear and critical eye.

One of the block's residents is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old girl who has surveyed the life set out for her and decided, instead, to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. She is alienated from her vacuous family, who don't appreciate her need for silence or intellectual conversation.

Then another resident, an elderly food critic, dies: and his apartment is bought by a mysterious Japanese gentleman, who transforms the lives of both Paloma and Mme Michel.

There is a lot of philosophy here, leavened by humour and by vignettes of the lives of wealthy Parisians. The snobbish pretensions of the moneyed residents are set against Renée and Paloma's desire for beauty, truth and meaning. Both have given up hope: both have hope restored to them.

In absolute terms, very little happens in The Elegance of the Hedgehog until the end of the novel: in terms of the mental lives of the characters, though, a great transformation is wrought -- quietly, secretly, without fuss. I found myself caught up in Renée's boundless appetite for learning (and for patisserie!), in her journalling ('I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know') and in her reminiscences and friendships. I'm less interested by Paloma, because I find her arrogant: but towards the end of the book she shows signs of relaxing into a more likeable, and less miserable, human being, one who's better equipped to appreciate the random beauty of the world. And the novel's ending, though sudden and wholly unexpected, does feel right in hindsight.

Also, I found the translation transparent: that is, the prose felt French but there were no infelicities of phrasing or idiom. It flowed naturally, which is an enviable quality in a translated work.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

2017/24: City of Blades -- Robert Jackson Bennett

Mulaghesh stops and looks up into the face of Voortya. The world goes still. There is someone in the statue. It’s the strangest of sensations, but it’s undeniable: there is a mind there, an agency, watching.

It's five years since the events of City of Stairs. Turyan Mulaghesh has kept her promise and retired to a (rather squalid) beach house in Javrat. A request comes from Shara Komayd, who is now Prime Minister. Could Mulaghesh investigate the disappearance of an agent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who vanished from the city of Voortyashtan -- formerly the stronghold of the Divinity in charge of war and death -- whilst investigating reports of a marvellous substance.

Of course it's not as simple as that. For one thing, the regional governor of Voortyashtan is Mulaghesh's old CO: while serving under him as a teenager, Mulaghesh did some things that she still has nightmares about. For another thing, the harbour of Voortyashtan is being dredged by the Southern Dreyling Company, whose Chief Technology Officer is the daughter of Shara Komayd's secretary and factotum, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson. The 'marvellous substance', which seems to conduct more electricity than should be possible, comes from mines which have been destroyed. There have been some suspicious, almost ritualistic murders. And somebody may be trying to resurrect the feared Voortyashtani sentinels, with their living armour and the swords that always return to the hand that wields them.

I didn't love this quite as much as City of Stairs: but that may just be because it's a darker book, or that the protagonist is less appealing to me than Shara Komayd was. Mulaghesh is haunted by her past -- we might diagnose PTSD -- and by the injury she sustained in the Battle of Bulikov. Voortya, the Divinity who was worshipped in Voortyashtan, is a Kali-esque figure, a warrior goddess (how apt for Mulaghesh) whose major innovation seems to have been the creation of an afterlife for her followers. And there are dark deeds afoot, and old feuds burning new, and a ritual that opens a way to Voortya's City of Blades.

But there are also -- as before -- strong female characters and intriguing world-building. I did begin to wonder, though, if the trilogy's arc is going to turn out to be focussed on Sigrud: I do find him fascinating, but I would hate to discover that Shara and Mulaghesh and Signe are peripheral to his story. And I'm not wholly convinced by Mulaghesh as a character -- or possibly as a female character. How different would the character be, would the novel be, if Mulaghesh were a man? ... I suspect these are captious and bloody-minded criticisms, and they may well stem from the slump after finishing City of Blades and realising I have to wait until May for the final volume of the trilogy.

Friday, March 03, 2017

2017/23: City of Stairs -- Robert Jackson Bennett

while no Saypuri can go a day without thinking of how their ancestors lived in abysmal slavery, neither can they go an hour without wondering – Why? Why were they denied a god? Why was the Continent blessed with protectors, with power, with tools and privileges that were never extended to Saypur? How could such a tremendous inequality be allowed?

The Continent used to be powerful, magical, and blessed by the Divinities. Now it's occupied by the Saypuri, who used to be the Continentals' slaves. City of Stairs is set a generation or so after the Blink -- a moment in which, after a Divinity was killed by a Saypuri rebel (the Kaj), the works of all six Divinities were ... unmade, causing devastation across the Continent as the things that they built and maintained crumble away. Some miracles still persist: there are smooth opaque walls around the city of Bulikov, which nevertheless allow the inhabitants to see the sunrise. But the Worldly Regulations prohibit the Continentals from any public mention of the Divine, and stray miraculous artifacts are kept locked away in a secret repository.

Governer Turyin Mulaghesh is overseeing a Worldly Regulations trial when she receives news that a Saypuri scholar has been found murdered. Shortly thereafter, the new Saypuri Cultural Ambassador arrives: a woman calling herself Shara Komayd, accompanied by her 'secretary', the taciturn and violent Sigrud. Shara's aunt Vinya is Minister of Foreign Affairs: Shara and Sigrud have spent years cleaning up traces of the Divine in the half-ruined cities of the Continent. Shara is more than just a Cultural Ambasador, and she and Mulaghesh set out to solve the mystery of Dr Efrem Pangyui's death. The situation is complicated by the rise to power of Vohannes Votrov, who happens to be Shara's ex-boyfriend; the Restorationists, who resent the Saypuri occupation and are very interested in the production of steel; an assassin who disappears mid-leap; a fearsome mythical monster in the river; and the glimpses of a gleaming cityscape of white and gold. Perhaps the Divinities are not as dead as the Saypuri would like them to be.

I'm glad this is the first of a trilogy, because I'm eager to find out more about the world. The Saypuri, quite aside from mourning and raging over centuries of slavery, are still arguing about why it was the Continent which got the Divinities, and not them. And why did the Divinities need the Saypuri to provide labour and produce resources? Why not just work a miracle or two?

It's worth noting that the Saypuri are dark-skinned, the Continentals pale; also that the two main characters are both middle-aged women. (In this world, it is unremarkable that women occupy positions of power.) Continental society is considerably more conservative than Saypuri society. Bennett has plenty to say about colonialism and post-colonialism, and it's refreshing to have a setting that feels less European than Indian. I'm not wholly convinced by the technological level, which seems inconsistent (railways but very little steel?) and there were moments where the characterisation seemed to falter. Also, I was unhappy with the off-stage fate of a homosexual character. Overall, though, I enjoyed this so very much that I immediately bought and read the second book. Review tomorrow :)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

2017/22: Occupy Me -- Tricia Sullivan

With clever beaks and wingtips the beings who made me compile masks made of human skin, made of feathers, made of biological circuits: mitochondrial turbine engines and electron pumps. Their masks are made of darkness pregnant with radio, the slow deep turning of long wavelength light. They wear these masks and they hop around a ragged fire that drinks up the foreign atmosphere.

Pearl is a flight attendant: also, an angel, though her wings are usually hidden in a higher dimension. She doesn't need to eat or to sleep, but she does need to move heavy things: the heavier the better. She works for the Resistance, a shadowy movement that tries to advance humanity by tiny, targetted acts of kindness. Pearl had another mission once, but she can't recall what it is. She's lost something, or something's been stolen from her.

Dr Kiri Sorle is a respected orthopaedic surgeon who's currently employed as personal physician to Austen Stevens, a dying oil tycoon. Sorle grew up in -- and was 'rescued' from -- one of the African states most severely affected by the oil trade: he hates Stevens. But he has other problems: for instance, the sudden appearance of a briefcase he can't open, which he doesn't remember acquiring. And the sense of someone stepping into him from deep within, as though he's 'no more than an extra set of clothes'.

Sorle's story is part of Pearl's, or vice versa: also involved are an extinct pterosaur and a rather charming Scottish vet. The story swoops from a plane over the Atlantic, to the deep past, to a junk yard, to a North Sea oil rig: from colonialism and exploitation to higher dimensions and hypercivilisations. Sullivan's imagery is striking, and I was impressed by her use of first-, second- and third-person narratives.

Occupy Me is clever and funny and moving (and needs Muse as a soundtrack: 'Love is our resistance ...') And it's splendidly, vividly inventive. But I have to admit I didn't fully engage with it -- possibly due to illness -- and finished it with a sense that the multiple plot strands hadn't quite woven together.