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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016/54: We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- Shirley Jackson

... all during those days when the change was coming Jonas stayed restless. From a deep sleep he would start suddenly, lifting his head as though listening, and then, on his feet and moving in one quick ripple, he ran up the stairs and across the beds and around through the doors in and out and then down the stairs and across the hall and over the chair in the dining room and around the table and through the kitchen and out into the garden where he would slow, sauntering, and then pause to lick a paw and flick an ear and take a look at the day.[loc. 679]

Mary Katherine Blackwood -- Merricat -- is eighteen. She lives with her cat Jonas and her elder sister Constance in a grand old house. All the rest of her family are dead, except for enfeebled Uncle Julian, confined to his wheelchair and obsessed with the events of the night when the rest of the family died. To Merricat falls the task of going to the village to buy food: the villagers hate her, and it's mutual. Merricat has also assumed responsibility for protecting the house: her methodology includes burying teeth and jewellery, nailing a book to a tree, establishing magic words, et cetera.

But one day her efforts fail, and Cousin Charles shows up. He has their best interests at heart, but he and Merricat take a more or less instant dislike to one another. Cousin Charles is an agent of change, and Merricat does not want anything to change: so Cousin Charles will have to go.

I have never really understood why We Have Always Lived in the Castle is described as a horror novel. There's certainly that sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, that I associate with the genre. It is true, too, that an act of mass murder looms large in the background of the novel: but that is not the focus of the story. Nor is magic: Merricat, for all her rituals and observances, is probably not really a witch (though I could make a case for a degree of solipsism). She is not a reliable narrator, either: the slow unfolding of this novel is especially intriguing because of the things that Merricat never thinks to tell her audience.

This was a reread after many years: I was (as usual) surprised by what I remembered -- Jonas' stories, the spider in the sugar bowl, the house on the moon -- and what I'd forgotten. I think when I first read this novel, I felt as though I might have a certain amount in common with Merricat. Those familiar with the novel will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel that way.

Friday, October 07, 2016

2016/53: Kingfisher -- Patricia A. McKillip

Rituals with letters, rituals with cauldrons, a bloody gaff, a missing knife, everyone in a time warp, looking back at the past, wishing for the good old days, hinting of portents, speaking in riddles, knowing things but never saying, never explaining — [loc. 760]

Pierce Oliver is sorting crabs on the pier, for his mother's restaurant Haricot. Along come three knights in a black limo. Their shadows reveal their ancestry, though they seem surprised that he can see those shadows. They're somewhat bemused, too, about where it is they've ended up. Cape Mistbegotten, says Pierce. If it's not on the map it's because my mother hid it.

This encounter, and the knights' invitation -- "Look for us if you come to Severluna. You might find a place for yourself in King Arden's court" -- prompts Pierce to go home and announce to his mother, the sorceress Heloise, that he is leaving home to seek his fortune. Heloise is not happy, but tells him enough about his father (also a knight at King Arden's court) to whet his appetite. Pierce charges his phone, gets in his car and drives south.

On the way to Severluna he stays the night at the Kingfisher Inn, whose owner is crippled and estranged from his wife, but who hosts the famous Friday Nite All-U-Can-Eat Fish Fry. There is something very odd about the Kingfisher Inn, its staff and its clientele. And something odd about the kitchen knife that Pierce feels compelled to steal as he leaves.

Pan out to Severluna, a cosmopolitan city where the younger royals are frequently in the headlines, and the king's bastard son is enamoured of a mysterious young woman who may have a hidden agenda. Skim sideways to the quest announced by King Arden (which pretty much boils down to 'go and look for something special -- you'll know it when you see it') and the ensuing adventures of the motorcycle-riding Knights of the Rising God.

Kingfisher has a large cast and a complex plot -- or, rather, a complex layering of plots plural, from Pierce's search for his father to the knights' quest for a bowl which may belong to their god or to a goddess; from the legendary Friday Nite Fish Fry to Stillwater's legendary restaurant where exquisite morsels leave the customers as hungry as before; from Dame Scotia Malory, intellectual and warrior, to Carrie Teague, exasperated daughter of the rather shamanic Merle; from plush limos to ancient shrines ...

It's easy to tease out threads of Arthurian and Greek myth, but the blend of Americana and arcane, all laced with McKillip's rich prose (not quite a lush as in some of her work, but though the lyricism may be sparser it still glows) and some images that reminded me of her earlier works, especially the Riddlemaster books. I liked the ways in which the characters accepted and worked around the occasional incursions of the magical, the mythic and / or the antique into their lives: the ways in which the material and spiritual worlds interwove. At times the novel feels overfull, with too many strands and characters and levels: at others, I'm delighted by that same complexity. I don't think I've enjoyed one of McKillip's novels this much since Fool's Run.

Friday, September 23, 2016

2016/52: The Trespasser -- Tana French

I was doing exactly the same thing as Aislinn: getting lost so deep inside the story in my head, I couldn’t see past its walls to the outside world. I feel those walls shift and start to waver, with a rumble that shakes my bones from the inside out. I feel my face naked to the ice-flavoured air that pours through the cracks and keeps coming. A great shiver is building in my back. [loc. 7950]

Detective Antoinette Conway: young, female, mixed race and single. She takes no shit about any of this, especially the last ('if you don’t exist without someone else, you don’t exist at all') but is the target of practical jokes and insidious gossip from her colleagues on Dublin's Murder Squad. Even her partner, Stephen Moran (first encountered in Broken Harbour) may be part of the problem. There's definitely something going on behind Conway's back, something she's not privy to, and she doesn't like the feel of it.

Conway has exactly two things in common with the victim in their latest case: she is female, and her father abandoned her and her mother. In every other respect, they are apparently worlds apart. Aislinn Murray writes and reads fanfic, 'the sappy kind, not the sexy kind' -- the kind that tries to fix things (Jo March marries Laurie, Juliet wakes up to marry Romeo). Aislinn reinvented herself as Dream Date Barbie: the man she'd invited for dinner on the night she died -- who of course claims he's innocent -- is besotted with her. Aislinn had a best friend, Lucy, who thinks there might have been someone else on the scene. And one of Ash's stories might hold the clue.

I was disappointed with The Trespasser at first: it didn't, for me, have the charm or the weirdness of most of French's previous novels, and I didn't especially like Antoinette Conway. (I have been the woman who doesn't fit in, with a chip on my shoulder.) But I found myself thinking about it for days after I'd finished reading, and that's usually a sign of a good book. The murder mystery is just one strand of the plot, and there's nothing supernatural or inexplicable about it. Deeper in the text lies the story of Antoinette and her father, and perhaps a story about men deciding what is best for women. And at the novel's core there is a theme of vengeance, of fixing the past.

The Trespasser is a novel about the stories we tell and the stories told about us: who writes the scripts, who rescues and is rescued: (If someone rescues you, they own you. Not because you owe them [but] because you’re not the lead in your story any more.[loc. 4749])

Monday, September 12, 2016

2016/51: A Darker Shade of Magic -- V.E Schwab

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible. The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. [loc. 66]

There are several Londons, in different worlds: the one we might think of as 'ours' is Grey London. Kell, an Antari blood-magician raised as a prince's foster-brother in Red London, is one of the few who has travelled to Grey London (where mad King George III reigns) and White London (the latter a starving post-apocalyptic wasteland) and knows the stories of Black London, destroyed by the magic it embraced. Kell is a courier between the rules of the different cities: he's also a collector and smuggler of the unique, from Grey London music-boxes to thaumaturgical texts.

On one of his expeditions to Grey London Kell meets Lila, a pickpocket who's convinced she was born to be a pirate. The two of them are thrown together when Kell is set up by an enemy and finds himself in possession of a dark artifact -- one which threatens the boundaries between the worlds, and the nature of reality itself.

I very much enjoyed V. E. Schwab's Vicious, a tale of superhero origins and friendship betrayed. I'm not as interested by this fantasy novel, though the characterisation is good and the world-building fascinating. It's a good read -- Schwab is good at dialogue and pacing, and her prose flows nicely -- but feels less innovative. That said, I will probably read the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, even though -- thankfully -- there are no cliffhangers in this first volume baiting me to do so.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016/50: The Obelisk Gate -- N. K. Jemisin

It shouldn’t work at all, that willpower and concentration and perception should shift mountains. Nothing else in the world works this way. People cannot stop avalanches by dancing well, or make storms happen by refining their hearing. And on some level, you’ve always known that this was there, making your will manifest. This … whatever it is. [loc. 1543]

The Obelisk Gate starts where The Fifth Season stopped: Jemisin doesn't provide a recap, so it is worth reminding oneself of what happened in that novel. This middle volume of the trilogy introduces Nassun, Essun's daughter, but the focus is still very much Essun and her various emotional commitments: to Nassun, to her former mentor Alabaster, to the people of the hidden sanctuary Castrima.

We learn a great deal more about the nature of orogeny, the ways in which it manifests in the young, and the consequences if it's not controlled. Jemisin also reveals the nature of Alabaster's great plan, and the motivations of those ranged against him. Vast, planet-shaking events are in train. Yet, though the plot advancement was gripping, I found I wasn't as emotionally engaged as by The Fifth Season, and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps the wider focus, perhaps just 'middle book' syndrome. I did feel that some fairly major acts by various characters (for instance, someone being accidentally turned to stone) were inconsequential: that those affected, and those who witnessed the events, didn't react as much as I would have expected. On the other hand, this is not our world. Many of the characters have grown up being treated as non-human: others have rebelled against the established order, and have lived with the hard decisions, life and death, that that implies.

There are a few instances of inaccurate word choice: 'ostensibly administers the syringe’s contents' [loc. 911] for instance, when 'conspicuously' or 'deliberately' might have worked better. And I'm still not entirely sure about the second-person voice: it can draw the reader in, but also alienate when the character's views, reactions, individuality don't make sense to that reader. I did enjoy The Obelisk Gate, but I think I'll enjoy it more when I reread it immediately before the third volume of the trilogy.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

2016/49: The Essex Serpent -- Sarah Perry

'It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!’
‘You think – you really think – that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
‘Not only my reason – there’s not enough of that to set against my soul! – but my liberty.' [loc. 1604]

Strange news out of Essex in the last years of the nineteenth century ... Recently widowed -- her husband's death something of a relief -- Cora Seaborne is swept up by wealthy friends and taken off to the Essex coast, where it is hoped the sea air and the change of scenery will prove uplifting for Cora, her son Francis, and her companion Martha. In the small village of Aldwinter, Cora meets and befriends the vicar, Will Ransome, and his amiable, ethereal wife Stella.

Cora is a keen amateur naturalist, and when she hears stories about a mythical monster (the eponymous Serpent) which may have been released from some muddy abyss by the recent Colchester earthquake, she's excited by the prospect of discovering a living fossil. Her love of science clashes with Will's bone-deep faith, though not at the expense of their growing friendship.

I find it hard to summarise the plot of this novel, and I think that's because it is so much more about the changing relationships between the protagonists than it is about the events which befall them. Luke Garrett, brilliant surgeon, in love with Cora; Martha, stalwart freethinker and admirer of Eleanor Marx; Stella, increasingly obsessed with the colour blue; Francis, whose obsessive curiosity we might now term 'autistic'. Perry writes evocatively of the landscape and light of the Essex coast (where I grew up) and she has a knack for imbuing even minor characters with backstory in a few lines of prose. Cora's and Will's letters, with their descriptions of the natural world (the colour of a hare's fur 'like almonds just out of the shell') are a delight.

I heard Sarah Perry, interviewed with Frances Hardinge (whose The Lie Tree is also set in the Victorian era, and also deals with the friction between religion and science, and the treatment of women) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was fascinated by her comparisons of the Victorian urban life with our own: work, home, leisure ... Perhaps the tragedy at the core of The Essex Serpent is that Cora is too modern for the time in which she's born.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016/48: The Many Selves of Katherine North -- Emma Geen

The shiver of my cheeks is slowly becoming more pronounced. When I turn my head from side to side, it’s as if the water varies in excitement. And there – my whiskers fizzle, hitting the zenith of a gradient but what that means, I don’t know. Understanding a new sense can take hours, sometimes days; in the end all you can do is get on with the work. I push along the line of agitation. About me, water dances in a lime glow; the disturbed silt a cascade of stars. [loc. 1948]

Kit is nineteen, and has been a phenomenaut for nearly seven years. None of her colleagues have lasted as long. Phenomenauts use technology to project their consciousness into animals (well, ResExtendas: vat-grown copies of animals, without a consciousness of their own, 'nothing higher than a thalamus'), hoping to understand their interactions with the human world.

But Kit's employers, ShenCorp, have some exciting new initiatives on the table -- and Kit, as the most experienced and resilient of their staff, is the obvious choice of figurehead and trailblazer.

Kit is suspicious, though. She's uncomfortable with the notion of the technology -- and the ResExtendas -- becoming a money-making leisure product. When she discovers that ShenCorp are growing human ResExtendas, she's determined not to be involved: but her neuroengineer, Buckley -- the guy who watches over her when she's being other than human -- seems much more enthusiastic.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is a fascinating read. Geen's at her best when describing Kit's varied non-human experiences -- as a fox, an octopus, a spider, a whale, et cetera -- and the alienation she feels amongst other humans. The near-future British setting (flooding, refugees, spineless politicians) is sketched in broad strokes, but they're sufficient: ditto the vague descriptions of the technology behind Kit's phenomenautism. This is not, at heart, a techno-thriller or a dystopia, but a novel about being -- or trying to be -- human.

Kit's personality (and probably her neurology) make her a somewhat unreliable narrator, and she doesn't always notice things that are apparent to the reader. Though she's in her late teens, she is a child in some important respects (which is why I find one aspect of the novel weak and ethically uncomfortable). She is, however, in the habit of thinking a great deal about her inner experience, and Geen gives her a powerful and often poetic narrative voice.

A minor quibble re proofreading: why so many sentences with missing capitalisation?

I very much enjoyed this, and will be looking out for Geen's next novel -- this is her first, and an impressive debut.