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

Sunday, November 14, 2021

2021/137: No One Is Talking About This -- Patricia Lockwood

“A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has—I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.” Then, almost angrily, “What was I doing with them before?” [loc. 1981]

This is a dense, concentrated novel, a challenge to review. Part One is about life online, specifically 'the portal' (which may be the whole of the internet, or just social media, or just Twitter which demands compact pithy posts). The nameless narrator has achieved fame via a viral meme, and travels the world talking about the portal and interacting with people, especially those who are exactly the same amount of online. It's a life lived more on-screen than off, artificial and self-referential, magnifying the importance of the portal, divorcing its afficionados from reality and from honest emotion. 'This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?' [loc. 289]

Part Two, which is 'autofiction' (i.e. based on actual events experienced by the author), is equally intense, more harrowing, and utterly real. A child is born with severe genetic defects: she is not expected to survive: the narrator devotes her time and attention to the child. Is it facile to say that the narrator regains a sense of proportion regarding her online life, her portal persona(e)? Is it naive to say reality, with all its messiness and pain and anguish, trumps the glossy superficialities of the internet?

Lockwood's prose is rich, precise, sometimes ringing with self-mockery and sometimes soberingly sincere. I found the first half hilarious and horribly relevant to my interests: the second half was distressing, though often beautiful. Individual sentences captivated me: I'm still pondering whether the novel as a whole did so.

Handy guide to all the memes!

Why had she entered the portal in the first place? Because she wanted to be a creature of pure call and response: she wanted to delight and to be delighted. [loc. 2932]

Saturday, November 13, 2021

2021/136: The Night Hawks -- Elly Griffiths

'...the body will turn out to be thousands of years old.’
‘It might not,’ says Judy. ‘Stranger things have happened.’
‘They certainly have,’ says Nelson. ‘And mostly to us.’ [loc. 231]

I'm in that strange reading mood where the familiar is best, and where if I like something I want more of the same thing: hence reading this novel straight after the previous one in the series ...

The eponymous Night Hawks are a group of metal detectorists who prefer to roam the countryside after dark. One night they discover a dead body on the beach, almost on top of a tangle of bones and metal. The skeleton is Bronze Age: the more recent corpse might be an illegal immigrant. Ruth Galloway, who's now back in Norfolk (minus Frank) and Head of Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, attends the scene with her obnoxious new colleague David Brown, who's full of stories about how the Beaker people almost wiped out the original Neolithic population of Britain by introducing a 'new virus'. (Why, yes, this novel was published during the Covid pandemic.) Ruth does not feel that blaming migrants for disease is wise -- even when an apparently-healthy young man, one of the Night Hawks, dies suddenly of an unknown illness. When the Night Hawks are involved in more suspicious deaths (an apparent murder-suicide at an isolated house) Ruth and Nelson -- with the usual supporting cast -- begin to uncover an unsettling conspiracy and a lot of unexpected connections.

Again, a good and well-paced read: there's much more sense of place in this novel, with its familiar Norfolk saltmarsh setting, than there was in the previous Cambridge-focussed novel. Some high-stakes events here, and some very topical issues. And Michelle gets the spotlight for a change! I'm looking forward to the next in the series, due in 2022.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

2021/135: The Lantern Men -- Elly Griffiths

'...I got the idea from the Lantern Men. We were a light in the darkness, guiding women onto the right path. Sometimes the kindest thing is to save the women from the world.’ [p. 335]

Set two years after The Stone Circle: Dr Ruth Galloway is now living in Cambridge with Frank the American, plus Katie and Flint. She's teaching at a Cambridge college and has just finished her latest book at Grey Walls, a writers' retreat, where she found a friend in serene Crissy, who runs the place. Meanwhile, back in Norfolk, DCI Harry Nelson is sulking about Ruth's departure, and vexed by a murderer -- Ivor March -- who has never confessed to his crimes, and who will only disclose the location of more bodies if Ruth is in charge of the excavation ...

This was an enjoyable read, and my vague notions of whodunnit and what they actually did all turned out wrong, which is always refreshing. As usual with this series, the focus is as much on the recurring characters as on the crime and archaeology: Nelson, Ruth, Michelle, Phil, Shona, and Katie have all changed over the years (Katie is turning into an interesting young woman) and there's more, in this novel, of Nelson's daughters, and his domestic life.

The murder mystery is well-plotted and features some intriguing characters and some uncannily accurate intuitions: there is also a strong sub-plot concerning Grey Walls and the artistic commune at its core. I found The Lantern Men very readable, with an ending that had me immediately starting to read the next in the series.

One minor gripe: bisexual erasure. "Why would an older, gay man socialise with a young woman? ... Ailsa married Leonard, even though she must have known that he was gay. ..."

Monday, November 08, 2021

2021/134: A Drop of Ink -- Megan Chance

“Your story isn’t about spells and magic. It’s about sisters. When you focus on them, you are quite brilliant. Curses don’t belong to you, Mr. Calina. You should take them out of the story.”
“And leave them to you,” I said.
A nod. “I understand them better.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m under one,” she said, meeting my gaze. “Can’t you tell?” [p. 256]

Sixty years after the rainy summer holiday by the shores of Lake Geneva -- the venue for the famous ghost-story competition which spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and John Polidori's The Vampyre -- another group of five passionate artists gathers at the villa. The famous writer Bayard Sonnier is there with his secretary, Giovanni Calina, who grew up in the slums of Bethnal Green but is hoping for Bayard's help and patronage. Descending on them comes a party of three: American sisters Adelaide and Louisa Wentworth, and Adelaide's lover, the poet Julian Estes.

Personally I would not like to spend a rainy weekend, much less a fortnight, with any of these people. Bayard is smug, self-indulgent and hypocritical; Calina (known as Vanni, one of the two narrative voices) is blind to how little Bayard thinks of him, and to how others view him as a way of getting close to his employer; Louisa is mercurial, selfish and immature; Julian is a laudanum addict, unfaithful to Adelaide (for whom he left his pregnant wife) and arrogant; and Adelaide, the other narrative voice and probably the most likeable of the protagonists, is deeply depressed after a miscarriage. (She was also accused of murdering Julian's wife Emily: I'm not sure we ever discover how Emily did die.) But this volatile gathering does provide a great deal of drama, some of it echoing incidents in the lives of Shelley and Byron's group.

I found this quite a harrowing read, because the dual viewpoints gave an overview of the situation which I don't think was available to any of the individuals caught up in it. I felt immense sympathy for Vanni and Adelaide, and wonder if I would have felt more kindly towards Louisa or Bayard if they'd been given voice. (Pretty sure I would not have liked Julian.) Adelaide, whose own writing has been suppressed by Julian's insistence that she's his muse, finds a friend -- and maybe more -- in Vanni; Vanni, meanwhile, is writing furiously, illicitly, both inspired by and fighting against Bayard.

It's gloriously Gothic, with mistaken identities, treachery, fearsome weather and a laudanum flask that's as much a symbol as an actuality. The codependence of the Wentworth sisters is horribly claustrophobic, and Vanni's resentment of the others' privileges is acutely sour. This really drew me in, and I'll read more by this author -- though I note I didn't have the same reaction to her earlier novel, Bone River, read last year.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

2021/133: The Book of Atrix Wolfe -- Patricia McKillip

...the Hunter lifted a fistful of torn pages to his teeth, bit into them. Blood ran down his mouth, as if words bled. Talis swallowed, his throat paper-dry. [loc. 1400]

Twenty years ago, the mage Atrix Wolfe created a monster to stop a war. Peace came at a terrible cost: death, infertility, a mute child scrubbing pots in the castle kitchen. Atrix Wolfe eschewed magic and shapechanging, and turned away from humanity, working as a healer of animals in an isolated mountain village. But then Talis, heir to one of the kingdoms saved and doomed by Atrix Wolfe, discovers an ancient spell book, where the words on the page don't mean what they say.

I am not generally an afficionado of high fantasy, but I've loved McKillip's prose since I discovered the Riddle-Master trilogy at an impressionable age. This is very much in the same style -- lush, rich, allusive, mythic -- and though I didn't especially empathise with any of the characters (except possibly the mute, amnesiac Saro, staring into the cauldron as she washes saucepans) I enjoyed the sensory richness of the world in which the story plays out. The tangle of stories -- Atrix Wolfe, Talis, his brother Burne, Saro, the Hinter -- resolves in a satisfactory way. Justice is achieved; there is a brighter future for the kingdoms of Pelucir and Chaumenard; Saro remembers herself; the Hunter, who is truly terrifying and who echoes many forest-myths, finds mercy.

An intriguing allegory for weapons of mass destruction, and a moral story about the power of words and the need for precision: I don't think it will end up as one of my favourite of McKillip's novels, but in several ways it feels more mature, and more grounded in the 'real' world, than her earlier work.

A note for non-American readers: pronounced with an American accent, 'Saro' and 'sorrow' are homonyms. I was confused by the characters' confusion until I realised this!

Thursday, November 04, 2021

2021/132: One Day All This Will Be Yours -- Adrian Tchaikovsky

...it’s horrible out there, in history. It always was, even before we shattered it to bits. It’s full of war and plague, starvation, intolerance and misery. [loc. 529]

A cheerful tale of the postepochalypse, narrated by an unnamed veteran of the Causality War, which destroyed time itself. Our narrator is determined to maintain world peace forever, despite the many visitors he receives -- time travellers like himself, trying to see how far forward they can travel, who reach 'this last perfect day before the rest of time happens'.

Our narrator is not in favour of time travel, despite the many pleasures of messing around with time: Wordsworth writing about trilobites instead of daffodils, 'that peculiarly tangled timeline where William Shakespeare, Helen Mirren and Orson Welles got together to make a Transformers movie', meeting notable figures from history, and acquiring exotic pets. Miffly is an absolute delight, especially when she chases Hitler round a field. (Allosaurs can run faster than Hitlers.)

There is also a delightful enemies-to-lovers / arranged marriage romance, some splendid genre in-jokes ('a mint-in-box set of Ticket to Ride, the rare Hutchinson Games edition from where Europe split into a thousand different states'; a meeting highly reminiscent of 'All You Zombies'; a Wellsian chap with an excellent moustache), and, beneath the snark and cynicism, a profoundly damaged and melancholy character.

I find Tchaikovsky something of a Marmite author: I certainly don't love everything he's written, and have been disappointed in the past. This was the opposite of disappointment, though, a novella that I enjoyed much more than I'd expected, and shall read again when I need an appealing villain and a playful plot.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

2021/131: The Haunting Season: Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights -- Pulley / Collins / Hurley et al

...his haste had nothing to do with the man’s glinting eyes, or the way the shadows huddled and plotted on the wall behind him. [p. 9: 'A Study in Black and White', Bridget Collins]

A collection of eight ghost stories -- well, are they all ghost stories? They're all wintry, all chilling, and all quite different from one another. The stories are mostly by women (Andrew Michael Hurley being the exceptioon) and are all set in Britain: some are contemporary and, I think, none are set earlier than the nineteenth century.

I bought this for Natasha Pulley's 'The Eel Singers' (featuring characters from The Watchmaker of Filigree Street) and was not disappointed: this was the story that appealed most to me, with ancient lore and desolate Fens and quaint folk customs. I also found 'Monster' by Elizabeth Macneal (Victorian fossil-hunting with a dark twist) very effective, and Andrew Michael Hurley's 'The Hanging of the Greens' (Christmas, a vicar, an alcoholic and a desolate farmhouse), though it felt slight on first reading, has stuck in my head: more about the ritual than the ghost-flavoured wrapping.

This is not to say that the other stories are weak. The Haunting Season is very much the kind of anthology where one dips in between other reading, rather than reading start to finish: I think the stories I remember less about are the ones I did not read 'in isolation'. But I do remember images: a deadly game of chess, an out-of-control wheelchair, a woman crouched over a crib, a reflection in a blinded window ... Some splendid writing and deliciously chilling atmosphere: odd humour, Gothic tropes and several female protagonists. I bought this at full price and feel it was worth it.

For added entertainment, here's Amazon's categorisations for The Haunting Season, one of which is appropriate:
1 in Literary Victorian Criticism
2 in Historical Fiction Short Stories
2 in Religious Fiction Classics.