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

Sunday, April 02, 2017

2017/33: Crocodile on the Sandbank -- Elizabeth Peters

Men are frail creatures, of course; one does not expect them to exhibit the steadfastness of women. [loc. 2586]

Amelia Peabody, brought up in a house full of books and antiquities, has come into a substantial inheritance and decides to use it to fund her travels. Her chosen travelling companion falls ill, but fortuitously she encounters distressed gentlewoman Evelyn Barton-Forbes, abandoned and destitute in Rome, and the two quickly become friends. They journey to Egypt, where Amelia develops a passion for pyramids and encounters irascible archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his rather more amiable brother Walter. The Emersons are determined to uncover the secrets of Amarna, Akhenaten's capital, and Amelia and Evelyn become involved in the excavation.

All would be idyllic were it not for the sudden appearance of Evelyn's cousin Lucas (who wants to marry Evelyn) and an apparition of a mummy (which may also be interested in Evelyn). Fearing for her friend -- and exasperated by, well, pretty much everything -- Amelia sets out to solve the mystery of the mummy, and get to the bottom of Lucas's story.

This was great fun: it's always nice to discover a likeable series, and know that there are plenty of further adventures awaiting the characters. (I believe the Amelia Peabody series is now up to twenty volumes.) Amelia is a rational and somewhat domineering female, and Emerson an excellent foil for her. The setting -- Victorian Egypt, without the racism of Victorian novels set there -- is intriguing. I did find the plot predictable in places, and I'd like to read the alternate history in which Amelia and Evelyn 'could have lived like sisters, enjoying the domestic comforts of England, and travelling whenever we got bored with domesticity'. But overall, most enjoyable.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

2017/32: Ace, King, Knave -- Maria McCann

She begins to comprehend the mentality of such people. One need not be especially clever, and certainly not well educated. The essential thing is to conduct one’s life as war: everything is permitted except compassion. [loc. 5102]

London in the 1760s: or 'Romeville', to the 99% who don't inhabit the clean well-lit civilised world of the gentry. Betsy-Ann Blore is living with a man she despises, having been won by him in a card game with her former lover, the charmingly rakish Ned Hartry. She was once a common prostitute (ensnared by Ned's mother Kitty), but now scrapes a living by thieving and card-sharping. Her brother (the brutish Harry) is a resurrectionist, digging up fresh corpses to sell to anatomists. Betsy-Ann worries that her current fellow, Sam Shiner, will join Harry in his nocturnal adventures.

Sophia Buller, only child of wealthy parents, is newly married to Edmund Zedland, whose business affairs are opaque to Sophia but clearly very lucrative. Why won't he trust her with any of his secrets? And why does his servant, the black boy Titus, seem to hate her? And why do her parents reply so vaguely to her letters?

Sophia's life is lonely, and genteel. Betsy-Ann's quite the opposite, a narrative replete with slang and double-dealing. In Betsy-Ann's world, cruelty is a constant, especially cruelty to -- and by -- women. (The men, in this novel, seem almost peripheral: on the whole they are either well-meaning but ineffectual, or dishonest and violent.)

Sophia and Betsy -- and Titus, whose name is actually Fortunate and who was brought from (or bought in) Annapolis to serve Mr Zedland -- discover how their fates are entwined, and how each of them is the victim of deception. Which leads, in due course, to each of them practicing their own deceptions, with greater or lesser success. This is a novel in which the reader becomes aware of the great central lie before any of the characters realise how they've been duped.

I confess I found Betsy-Ann's narrative richer than Sophia's, but it was also quite breathtakingly unpleasant at times. McCann does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting her two protagonists: her depiction of 'Titus', who can barely speak English but whose interior life is sketched through memory, fancy and despair, is marvellous. And though the novel ends on what, in music, would be called an 'imperfect cadence' (there is no grand resolution) I liked that ending: it works, because it opens up possibilities.

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 fran├žaise. 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