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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016/80: Golden Hill -- Francis Spufford

It had been his study to fit whatever part of the honeycomb housed him. But here – though it would suit him now... to fall in with the merchants’ preferences, whatever they might be, or at least not to flout them too scornfully – he must study not to fit. He must remain the mercurial, the unreckonable stranger.[loc. 619]

New York, 1746: the mysterious Mr Smith arrives from London, with a bill of exchange for a thousand pounds and a smiling disinclination to reveal anything whatsoever about himself, his purposes, or the purchases he hopes to make.

Smith -- handsome, competent, eloquent and amiable -- is taken up by New York society, and makes a number of friends and acquaintances. He attracts the attention of the Governor; of banker's daughter Tabitha Lovell; of Septimus Oakeshott, who knows more about a recent theft than he admits; of Mrs Terpsichore Tomlinson, a former actress who is now an officer's wife. And meanwhile the sixty days between the bill of exchange being presented and its falling due are ticking past.

In the best traditions of the picaresque novel, Smith finds himself duelling; escaping over the rooftops; wooing a difficult woman; seduced in a bathhouse; gambling for high stakes, feasting, appearing in a play; observing, at every moment, the social mores and institutionalised iniquities of New York life. Golden Hill, indulging these traditions, also plays with their conventions. There are three passages -- a card game, a duel and the bathhouse seduction -- where we're shown the novelist's exasperation at trying to describe their character experiencing something of which they, narrating, have no first-hand knowledge. There are also occasional observations on Smith's naivete and impetuous behaviour: hints, perhaps, that the author of this picaresque has mixed emotions about Mr Richard Smith.

I was, I think, expecting something along the lines of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle: certainly, at least for the first few chapters, Smith is very much concerned with matters of economics, currency and trade. But it gradually became clear that this was an altogether different kind of novel: and though Spufford gives us all the information necessary to contextualise Smith's behaviour, I confess I didn't foresee the denouement. Nor -- because of my ignorance of this period of history -- did I realise just how catastrophic a certain revelation would be.

Golden Hill is clever, witty, compassionate and splendidly written. There are a lot of likeable characters (I think I actually cried at the fate of one of them), and plenty of complex motivations. Smith, in particular, is most interesting when he's at his lowest: his miserable anger at losing his right to chose, his self-flagellation for making the wrong decisions. (" – It will be observed that these realisations were coming rather late," remarks the novelist dryly.) The immediacy of Spufford's descriptions of eighteenth-century New York is breathtaking, and I seldom felt that he was including anything merely for the sake of including it. Delicious.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016/79: More Than This --Patrick Ness

Isn’t dying once enough? he thinks. Am I going to have to keep doing it? But then he thinks, No. Because you can die before you’re dead, too.[loc. 1132]

The book opens with a detailed description of Seth's death, drowning in an ice-cold sea. Then he wakes up, and is, as far as he can tell, in Hell.

It looks a lot like England, where he grew up. His family moved to Washington state after the bad thing that happened to his little brother Owen: but now he's back in his childhood home, and the town is deserted, and he is, he must be, in hell.

He's not entirely alone. He meets Regine and Tomacz, who warn him about some of the hazards of the place, and help him make sense of some of his memories. There was a boy he loved, who he thinks betrayed him: there was his difficult relationship with his parents, who neglected him in favour of Owen.

Or did they?

After a certain point in this novel, I was unable not to think of it as a variant on a well-known SF film of the 1990s: however, given that it's a YA novel, it's possible that the target audience won't make that association. And anyway, there are different issues being addressed here: teen suicide, relationships, sex and race and immigration, the nature of reality, the fallibility of memory, and why you should be careful about taking intimate photos on your phone.

Ness is an excellent writer, and his prose and the deceptive simplicity of Seth's experience carried me through the passages that I found less credible or less engaging. Seth's Hell may be in his own mind, but it's harrowing: Regina and Tomacz' experiences are just as grim, and just as grittily real.

I'd like to know which book Seth was reading, though:
he takes a book from the bookcase. It’s one of his father’s, one Seth has already read part of years ago, sneaking it from the shelf in America when his father wasn’t looking. It was far too old for him at the time and, he smiles wryly, is probably too old for him now. There’s large quantities of good-spirited sex, metaphors that run on just for the hell of it, and plenty of philosophical musing about immortality. There’s also a satyr who features heavily... He looks at the cover again. A satyr playing pan pipes, far more innocent-looking than what it got up to in the story. [loc 1457

This is bugging me! Any suggestions? John Fowles?

2016/78: The Age of Miracles -- Karen Thompson Walker

After the slowing, every action required a little more force than it used to. The physics had changed. Take, for example, the slightly increased drag of a hand on a knife or a finger on a trigger. From then on, we all had a little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel? Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret?[loc. 525]

The Earth's rotation slows, making days longer: ecological and sociological disaster ensue, as crops fail, the magnetosphere thins, and the US Government decrees that America will run on 'clock time' -- meaning that noon might be the middle of the dark hours.

This is not the plot, though: this is the background. The plot revolves around Julia, an eleven-year-old girl living in California, who observes the world changing from the self-absorbed perspective of an adolescent. Her best friend is taken away by her family, who believe that the slowing is a sign of God's wrath; Julia's mother starts hoarding food and showing signs of 'the syndrome'; their neighbour Sylvia rejects clock time and asserts that humans can adapt to the new rhythms of nature; and Julia's grandfather restocks his nuclear-proof bunker.

Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story, set in a world that is slowly disintegrating: nothing can be trusted to remain the same, a sound metaphor for adolescence. It's a beautifully-written book, and Walker's choice of narrator means that any flaws or fallacies in the science can be glossed over as a product of the character's ignorance. (I did get annoyed when she referred to astronauts on the space station -- stranded because all the equations have changed -- as being 'ten thousand miles higher' than hot air balloons. Nope, two hundred and fifty miles higher, give or take. Or is this poetic hyperbole?)

Julia witnesses the breakdown of the modern world -- a kind of slow apocalypse -- with the same fascinated semi-comprehension that she turns on the people around her. Her father may be having an affair; her own budding relationship with Seth Moreno has more, and more surreal, hurdles to overcome than the typical pre-teen romance. Julia is (though she doesn't admit it) painfully lonely: her first-person narrative, looking back from the vantage point of her late teens, is focussed more on the relationships around her than on the invisible catastrophe that is changing everything.

The Age of Miracles is a compelling read. I didn't know, when I read it, that it had been sold for a record-breaking advance ($1m). I'm not sure that it's that good: but the juxtaposition of slow catastrophe and adolescent angst worked for me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016/77: Company of Liars -- Karen Maitland

Once, half-submerged in a sodden field, we saw the statue of St Florian, his millstone tied around his neck. Since their saint was unable to protect them from the rains, the parishioners had stripped his statue of his scarlet cloak and golden halo, beaten him and cast him out to face the elements. Many of the cottagers were no longer begging God for mercy, they were angry with him. They felt betrayed...[loc. 2898]

Set in 1348, just after the Black Death has reached England: 'Camelot', a hawker of relics, decides to head north to avoid the plague. Camelot is joined by Cygnus, a swan-winged story-teller; Zophiel, a travelling magician with a wagonful of heavy boxes; Venetian musician Rodrigo and his pupil Jofre; painter Osmond and his wife Adela, who is expecting their first child; Pleasance, a midwife; and a strange white-haired child, Narigorm, who reads runes and is given to doom-laden pronouncements.

As Doctor House says, 'everybody lies'. All of these travellers are lying, concealing their individual, desperately important, secrets: and many of them are doomed by their lies.

Around them the fabric of society is falling apart. The weather is abominable, the harvest has failed; the people feel betrayed by God and take refuge in superstition and xenophobia; there are outlaws roaming the roads, and wolves in the forests, and the pestilence lays waste to whole villages. Somebody -- or something -- is following the little company of nine. And then the deaths begin...

Company of Liars is not a cheerful read, but it's a strangely compelling one: I found myself eager to unravel the lies and deceptions of each member of the company, and knotting together hints and allusions to stay one step ahead of the narrator. There is definitely something uncanny going on, and it seems to centre on Narigorm -- the only character whose motivation ('because I can') I found less than convincing. The other characters felt familiar to me from medieval literature, and novels set in the period: you could read this as a modern variation on The Canterbury Tales (where, remember, not everyone is wholly honest about their past), or as a critique of those Decameron-esque works where aristocrats retire to a secluded villa to eat and drink and tell stories to one another. But the stories in Company of Liars are rather more brutal.

I see why people have an issue with the ending of this novel: it feels ... unnecessary. Cheap, even. But it does indicate that even Camelot's lie has been unravelled.

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016/75: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet -- David Mitchell

"Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?"
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply.
"Yes."
"Then where . . ." Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton ". . . is it?"
"The soul is a verb," he impales a lit candle on a spike, "not a noun."[loc. 3042]

The year is 1799. Jacob de Zoet has been packed off by his prospective father-in-law to Dejima, the manmade island in Nagasaki Bay that is the sole point of contact between Japan and the rest of the world. Jacob is there to make something of himself: the Dutch East India Company is there to make a vast profit, ideally without letting on just how precarious its own position is. Tensions run high on Dejima, both between the various European factions and between the Europeans and the Japanese. De Zoet does his bit to make himself unpopular by uncovering evidence of past corruption and dishonesty. He is also in possession of an illegal book -- and befriends the translator, Uzaemon, who helps him conceal this crime.

Meanwhile, a young midwife named Orito Aibagawa has (by saving the lives of baby and a mother in a difficult birth) been granted the exclusive, extraordinary privilege of studying with one Doctor Marinus, Dejima's resident physician and a thoroughly Enlightenment fellow. De Zoet encounters Miss Aibagawa a couple of times, and falls recklessly in love with her. But their love is (of course) doomed: she is sent, against her will, to be a Sister in the remote temple-compound of Abbot Enomoto. There, she discovers a horrific cult and a fragile calm that's built on lies.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a large cast and a sprawling plot, though all (or most) of the elements do come together in the end. There is romance and swashbuckling, in both Japanese and European modes, and plenty of intrigue and double-dealing from all concerned. Themes of imprisonment and sacrifice -- literal and metaphorical in both cases -- permeate the novel, and Mitchell uses that large cast to demonstrate many and varied ways in which human beings can be captive, free and both at once.

It's also immensely readable. I love Mitchell's writing here, full of jewel-like phrases ('Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting' [loc. 1162]), profound discussions and humour that ranges from earthy to refined. I admire the transition from the Dutch / European chapters to the Japanese, and back. The characters, whatever their moral alignments, are generally interesting (though Mitchell doesn't always flesh them out as much as I'd like) and their interactions credible.

Reading this after The Bone Clocks is ... a weird kind of tantalisation. Would I have picked up all those little hints?

2016/76: Rebel of the Sands -- Alwyn Hamilton

"How long had it been since you’d seen a First Being before the Buraqi came into town? Magic and metal don’t mix well. We’re killing it. But it’s fighting back." [loc. 993]

Amani Al’Hiza is sixteen, good with a gun, and being lined up as her uncle's next bride. She is unenthusiastic about the idea, and disguises herself as a boy to enter a sharpshooting contest. The prize money will be enough to help her escape Deadshot (a backwater, deadend desert town which has accreted around a munitions factory) and make for the city, where she believes a better life can be had.

Then Amani meets an enigmatic stranger, Jin, who is up to no good. He sees through her disguise, and offers to help her if she'll help him. Boom! goes the munitions factory. Amani and Jin flee by train ... and Jin offers her the opportunity to be part of the rebellion against the Sultan and his allies.

The rebellion's motto is 'a new dawn, a new desert,' and Amani is intrigued. Especially when Jin explains to her about the First Beings, the magical creatures such as Buraqi and Djinni that are being driven away by iron and gunpowder but are fighting back ... and the Demdji, the offspring of human and Djinn.

I'd have been happier with this novel if I'd stopped reading after the first half. The world-building is excellent -- Wild West meets Arabian Nights, to summarise in cliche -- and Amani and Jin are fairly interesting while they're getting to know one another. But the second half of the novel (the rebellion, and the evaporation of Jin's mystique) didn't appeal as much: though plenty was happening, it felt much less immediate and interesting than that first flight from Deadshot. And though I was pretty much expecting the romantic subplot -- Amani and Jin having been snarking and bantering since pretty much the moment they met -- its development was curiously flat and unsatisfying.

There are a lot of aspects of Rebel of the Sands that I like: grimly determined feminist heroine with wit and courage; non-European roots (there are no white people in this novel); intriguing world-building (for instance, the stars and moon 'going out' at midnight, a phenomenon which has been embedded into religious belief); the shadowy hints of the First Beings and the possibility that humans colonised a world which already had sentient inhabitants; and, of course, Amani's heritage. I'm interested enough in those aspects that I'll probably read the rest of the trilogy at some point.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016/74: Medicus -- Ruth Downie

Ruso closed his eyes briefly and dreamed of a world where women stayed quietly at home and sewed things and understood the value of Modesty and Obedience–not to mention Not Turning Up Dead Under Suspicious Circumstances. When he opened them again, he was still in Britannia.[loc. 2317]

Gaius Petreius Ruso has family obligations, debts, an ex-wife about whom he's still bitter, and a new posting as an army doctor at the fort of Deva, in north-west Britannia.

He's hoping that his move to Britain will signal a change in his fortune: and so it does, though perhaps not quite in the way he hopes. Rescuing an injured slave-girl, Tilla, from her abusive owner is the first step on a path that leads Ruso to investigate a number of deaths in, or connected to, the local brothel. (Also a nasty case of food poisoning.)

I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped: I didn't especially like any of the characters (though Tilla and Chloe have potential), and wasn't entirely convinced by the changing relationship between Ruso and Tilla. Medicus does explore the less-heroic aspects of colonial Roman life, and there are some interesting interactions between Romans and locals. And it's well-written. But for all its merits as a historical novel, I just wasn't in the mood to enjoy reading a story about multiple women being murdered.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016/73: Inflight Science: A Guide to the World from Your Airplane Window -- Brian Clegg

We aren’t entirely sure why Newton came up with the number seven, including those obscure shades indigo and violet, but there’s a strong feeling that he was drawing a parallel with music. In the musical ‘spectrum’ there are seven notes, A to G, before completing the octave and returning to the next A up. Newton, it’s thought, felt that there also ought to be seven colours in the visible spectrum.[loc. 1323]

Entertaining pop-science, just the right length for a 4-hour flight: Clegg explores cloud formation, fractal coastlines, the physics of flight, airport security technologies, volcanoes, oxbow lakes ... It's a light read, with plenty of anecdotes and examples: possibly I was not the target audience, but it passed the time and some of the information was new to me.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016/69: Jackdaw -- KJ Charles

"He's not an evil man, unfortunately ... That makes him all the more harmful. If he as evil, we'd kill him. No, he's ... chaotic."

Ben Spenser has come to London for one purpose: to track down Jonah Pastern, windwalker and thief, and punch him in the face. Ben loved Jonah, and Jonah betrayed him and wrecked his life. Ben's career in the police force is over, his parents have disowned him, his landlord evicted him, he's done ten weeks' hard labour for gross indecency. He has nothing left except the desire for vengeance.

Except, of course, that it's never that simple. And Jonah Pastern, once caught and roundly punched (after which he saves Ben from a police raid), claims that he loved Ben too, and wants to explain his poor life choices. Ben is determined not to be fooled again, but then he discovers that at least some of Jonah's crimes were perpetrated in order to protect Ben himself. Maybe it was all lies, but Ben can't help wondering if Jonah -- illiterate Jonah, whose first instinct when trouble looms is to run -- might be worth saving from police forces magical and ordinary, and even from himself.

Another good, thoughtful fantasy with M/M romance from KJ Charles, who writes about poverty, destitution and gaol and about windwalking (levitation), fluence (mind control) and how to have a conscience. Jackdaw (which is set during and after The Magpie Lord) is a good read, though somehow darker -- and more focussed on the protagonists' relationship -- than others in the series.