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

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

#107: The Anvil of the World -- Kage Baker

I'm a great fan of Kage Baker's Company novels, but have been less impressed with her fantasy. Nevertheless (in search of a cheapish item to round up an Amazon order to £15, thus entitling myself to free delivery!) I decided to give this a try.

Baker's pacing is admirable, and she has a deft comic touch. One of the quoted reviews compares this novel to Pratchett (no) and calls it 'European' in flavour: despite my reservations about the value of this literary term, I can see what they mean. It's less in-your-face than a lot of humorous fantasy -- wry rather than ROFL.

The Anvil of the World reads a little like a set of connected short stories. (Which, after brief investigation, I find that it is: at least the first part, 'The Caravan from Troon', appeared in Asimov's, though I can't identify the other parts of the novel in story titles.) The novel opens with Smith -- ex-assassin looking for a quiet life -- becoming the master of a trade caravan from Troon to Salesh-by-the-sea, a trip involving a gross of glass butterflies, a screaming baby and several other characters who share his (assumed) surname. (Describing the story this way reminds me of the practice of commissioning a magazine cover, then requiring an author to write a story that fits the picture. Do they still do that?) Everyone is suitably heroic, though this isn't heroic fantasy and the violence is incidental. And no one is what they seem.

The second part of the novel is a murder mystery of sorts, with many of the same characters. (I am especially fond of Lord Ermenwyr, the decadent, drug-addicted, hypochondriac teenaged son of a demon and a saint, and his demonic nursemaid Balnshik.) There is romance, sex and intrigue, though one can't help but feel that the resolution of the murder is something of a cop-out.

In the final third of the novel, Smith (or whatever his real name is) takes centre stage. This part of the tale is most definitely epic fantasy, but it never loses sight of the individuals at its heart. There's an ecological dimension to the story, and some nice metaphors about gardening. And it has a happy, hopeful, new-beginning finale.

This was the ideal book to read during a busy week -- the plot's not so detailed that one loses track, and the overall tone is immensely cheerful. Light reading, but good writing.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

#106: Dragon Blood -- Patricia Briggs

Sequel to Dragon Bones. Was woken this morning by the thud of this package on the doormat: but what a perfect excuse to go back to bed with a large cup of coffee and read!

This is much darker than the previous book, and it's very much to Briggs' credit that she can handle episodes of rape, torture and slavery in a way that gives them weight, without destroying the balance of the overall plot. She's not explicit, and she doesn't focus on her characters' suffering, but it isn't denied either.

Dragon Blood doesn't feel like a direct sequel to the earlier book: it features most of the same characters, but the plot is driven by new elements. Some of the loose ends from the previous novel are tied up: more potential continuation-points are introduced.

I still find the prose annoyingly lacking: needs a better proof-reader or editor ("a millenia", "a narrow grove between A and B", etc). Suspect that I'd feel the same about a lot of the books I read as a teenager -- that ability to turn a blind eye to the actual text, in favour of the content. I'm less forgiving nowadays, but the content of these novels kept my irritation in check!

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Monday, December 05, 2005

#105: Haunted -- Kelley Armstrong

Sequel to Industrial Magic and Dime Store Magic, which I haven't read. Haunted is told from the POV of Eve Levine, a black witch (with a demon lord for a father) who's been dead three years, but is keeping busy. She's incurred a debt to the Fates -- who seem to be the major power controlling life and death -- and the favour's being called in: Eve's task is to locate and contain the Nix, an evil spirit who's made a career of inhabiting, or possessing, female murderers. Eve has plenty of help: she's teamed with an angel, and aided and abetted by her (equally dead) romantic interest, Kris, and by her daughter Savannah's foster-parents, Paige and Lucas. Problem is, Eve's her own worst enemy at times, with an agenda that complicates her task and her relationships with those around her. She can't let go.

I found this a surprisingly enjoyable read. The prose is unobjectionable (and given the percentage of novels with prose that I do object to, this is no mean feat!) Eve's far from perfect, and I suspect will get labelled as 'feisty' by some reviewers: but I found her confusion of cynicism and love quite compelling. There's a truly nasty scenario in here, a really hellish hell: sometimes, having a heroine who can't die is not a good thing ...

The ending felt a little anticlimactic, not the absolute that Eve / the reader had been led to expect But I'm intrigued enough (mostly by some of the characters) to want to read more by this author.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Saturday, December 03, 2005

#104: Four and Twenty Blackbirds -- Cherie Priest

I'm not sure whether I'd have interpreted the 'flaws' (mostly pacing / loose-thread issues) as 'features' if I hadn't known that this was the author's first novel. Read for review -- where I'll be saying more, and not starting out by praising with faint damns! -- but I'd certainly recommend this.

Southern Gothic is as good a tag as any. Eden, growing up in a kind of liminal zone on the outskirts of Tennessee, sees ghosts. She sees them often enough to take them for granted: only gradually begins to realise that their story is also partly hers.

Eden's quest for her identity, and the story of her parents and her more distant ancestors, uncovers black magic and slavery, madness, double standards and a peculiar sibling rivalry. Family feuds, ancient prophecy and the past seeping into the present: Priest writes clear, precise prose, without the purpleness that this genre often invites.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Friday, December 02, 2005

#103: Dragon Bones -- Patricia Briggs

I'd call this standard genre fantasy -- complete with map at the front, characters with jewel-tone eyes, dragons, dwarves etc -- except that there's something that, for me, sets it apart from the run of genre fantasy. Perhaps it's simply that I like the cast. The prose makes my brain itch: I want to scribble suggestions, and circle repetitions, and liven up the writing a little. But the story is a good one, with a couple of well-telegraphed twists and one that I truly didn't see coming. I'm very much looking forward to reading the next one.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

#102: The Barbary Pirates -- Stanley Rogers

Utterly out of print; this copy came to me courtesy of a friend. An 1939 Boys' Own Adventure retelling of various encounters with the Barbary pirates. Full of derring-do and extreme political incorrectness. The corsairs ("swarthy-skinned, turbanned devils, striking down with their curved scimitars any who dared to oppose them") were lazy, cowardly and not very good at sailing: also, prone to broken English, acts of random violence and devious thinking. (The Spanish weren't much better: Rogers entitles one chapter "A Brave Spaniard", clearly feeling that de Vargas' defence of Algiers is a headline-worthy highlight in an otherwise benighted national history.) The English, of course, were good and brave and noble, and only ever killed their opponents when it was necessary, or if they felt like it.

All that said, Rogers does provide an interesting set of vignettes, and is not incapable of portraying some of the 'Turks' (a term that includes Moors, Arabs and Muslims in general) in a more flattering light -- though he feels the need to stress that those captains who acted honourably, those slave-owners who were kind to their slaves, were the exception rather than the rule. Some of the tales here come from Hakluyt: others were less familiar. (I hadn't known that Murad Reis sacked Reykjavik, for example.) I did get the feeling that the author's biases were even stronger than those of his original sources. But it was a fascinating read.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#101: The Libertine -- Stephen Jeffreys

Play script, reread in anticipation of the film, which sticks fairly closely to mood and content of the original in dealing with the decline of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and his death of syphilis (or boredom). I saw the stage play at the Battersea Arts Centre back in 1998 (I think), and was very impressed: but I'd forgotten what a grim picture Jeffreys paints. Rochester is out to shock, desperately trying to enjoy life as he once did, but he's jaded and weary -- and, worse, those around him are accustomed to his, ah, eccentricities. Some stunning dialogue and excellent interweaving of Rochester's poems. Also contains the original musical setting of 'Signior Dildoe', which led me to the piano, which turns out to be out of tune.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#100: Three Turk Plays -- Daniel Vitkus (ed)

Actually only read two of these -- Massinger's "The Renegado" and Daborne's "A Christian Turned Turk" -- as "Selimus", the tale of an especially unpleasant Sultan, wasn't really relevant to my quest for information on the experience of European renegades in Barbary.

"The Renegado" tells the tale of two Europeans -- the renegade Grimaldi (who, after being betrayed by his perfidious master, redeems himself by switching sides again) and Vitelli, a Venetian gentleman who pretends to be a shopkeeper and falls in love with the niece of the Ottoman Emperor. There are some eunuch jokes.

"A Christian Turned Turk" is much more fun. It's a dramatised history of Captain Ward, an oyster-boy turned pirate who (in 1606) converted to Islam for love of a woman. The play tells the tale of his entanglements with a French merchant and his fiancee, his friendship and falling-out with fellow pirate Dansiker, and his eventual disgrace and death. There is something in this play to offend everyone: Jews, Muslims, women, merchants and pirates.

I don't think I'd recommend either of these plays for sound plot, stageability or deathless verse: but they're an interesting insight into how European renegades did business with, and within, the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries: they gave me an idea of how these renegades might've regarded themselves, and been regarded by others, and of how the issue of apostasy was approached. Vitkus' edition is valuable for its extensive footnotes and excellent introduction, which discusses Othello and The Jew of Malta, amongst other plays of the period that dealt with the English experience abroad.

There is also an excellent tip on how to fake a public circumcision.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Sunday, November 06, 2005

#99: Die for Love -- Elizabeth Peters

I've heard good things about Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books. This isn't part of that sequence: the protagonist is Jacqueline Kirby, a librarian with some experience of solving crimes. Looking for a tax-deductible holiday, she attends a convention of romance writers. Someone is killed. She works out the identity of the murderer. The end.

Sounds brusque, and omits all the things I enjoyed -- the convention scenes, the idiosyncracies of writers and agents, Jacqueline's healthy disdain for most of the books. (Though by the end of the convention she's convinced that she can write a best-selling historical romance.) It was an enjoyable read, but I did feel from time to time that it was writing-by-numbers: introduce victim, introduce characters A-K, provide Motive for each character, describe Murder, then loop through random-order list of potential murderers, clearing the name of each. I know that's how crime novels work, but in this one the mechanics seemed too close to the surface. Or maybe I'm just cynical.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#98: Fire, Bed and Bone -- Henrietta Branford

A children's book, telling the story of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt from the point of view of an old dog whose master becomes a revolutionary. (That's a word that seems quite out of place, here, yet is wholly accurate: revolutionary, one who revolts.)

The dog-ness of the narrator (I don't recall her having a name -- the humans refer to her as 'old dog') is never overplayed, but it's a very canine perspective. She lives wild for a time, but is always drawn back to humans and especially to Rufus, her master, and his much younger wife Comfort. There's an especially evocative bit about how she can't not come when he whistles for her, and how it's hard to resist the orders of a crueller master, because she's a working dog and when he hunts, she must hunt too.

The dog understands human language -- otherwise this book would have little plot, save for puppies and rabbit-hunting and the natural landscape -- but other than that, she's not humanised. The events that play out around her, some of which are pretty grim, are described because of their effect on her.

Very well-written, and paints a convincing picture of medieval rural life in England. Recommended for, hmm, older children -- 10 and above, at a guess.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Thursday, November 03, 2005

#97: The Year of Our War -- Steph Swainston

For a book that could, cruelly, be retitled Invasion of the Giant Ants, this is a wonderful read. Now I come to think of it, many of the ingredients of a superhero comic -- X-Men, Fantastic Four -- are there: but rendered in marvellously rich, poetic (occasionally over-poetic) language. This is a world that had a god, whose god is temporarily absent, and that metaphysical Problem adds a great deal of weight to the narrative.

Jant Shira, the first-person narrator, is not a nice person: but he's a very engaging character. The War of the title is interwoven with more personal conflicts, and nearly all of the other major characters are deftly drawn, with enough detail to make them rounded individuals -- though all seen through Jant's biased and embittered viewpoint. Jant has a particular gift: he's the Circle's Messenger, the only man alive who can fly. There are many sentient flying beings in the genre, but I don't think I've ever encountered one whose physical experience of flying is so very evocatively (and brutally) described.

I especially admire the way that the author introduces the myriad facts that make up her world: for example, it's only about half-way through the book that the significance of the title is revealed. I don't think there's a single info-dump in this novel: the downside of which is that it can be difficult to keep track of who's who, and of the geography of the Fourlands. (What, no map?)

Swainston writes with horrible accuracy about addiction: I think that's one of the most powerful aspects of the novel. She's not above playing games, either: for example, though this is a world quite separate from our own, there was a Great Exhibition in 1851, and decadence in the 1920s, and so on. Sometimes -- especially in the scenes set in the Shift, which is either a drug-induced hallucination or an alternate world -- the games feel a little self-indulgent: problemmings, fibre-toothed tigers. But hey, that's drugs for you.

The ending felt sudden -- not exactly rushed, but as though the book simply stops. Hoping she has more to say about this world, these characters. [checks Amazon. Yep, No Present Like Time is the second of the trilogy.]

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Monday, October 31, 2005

#96: Old Magic -- Marianne Curley

It's not stated, but this novel -- a teenage supernatural romance, for lack of a better description -- is set in Australia, though I don't know which part. Doesn't make any difference, except that vague sense that there should be a difference, a sense of place that's lacking. Perhaps that's because Old Magic focusses almost claustrophobically on Ash Mountain, home of Kate and her grandmother Jillian. They're witches: well, Jillian is a witch, and Kate's learning.

There's a new boy in class, Jarrod, and Kate can tell at once that there's something special, different, about him. He denies it, of course -- and he's soon made plenty of new friends who're all keen to tell him what a weirdo Kate it. Yet there's a connection between them, and when Weird Stuff starts happening -- localised earthquakes, winds out of nowhere, et cetera et cetera -- it's Kate who can help.

There's a curse. They deal with it. The ending is not unqualified happiness, but suitably positive.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The writing is adequate, but nothing special. There are a couple of errors that should have been picked up by any decent editor ("We glance alarmingly at our hands thinking they must somehow give us away" ... alarmingly? And, er, first-person present tense throughout: not my favourite narrative voice. Also, horses do not snigger. Although I suppose the ones in this novel might.)

Some nice ideas but a bland read.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#95: Beyond Black -- Hilary Mantel

This is an odd book, and I'm not entirely sure I like it: but I do admire it.

Alison Hart is a medium, touring the venues of (mostly) south-east England and putting the living in touch with the dead. There's never any doubt about her powers: the dead are with her constantly, especially her spivvy spirit-guide, Morris, who has some unpleasant habits and is a constant reminder of Al's childhood. Her manager and friend, Colette, never really seems to realise what it's like: she's full of sensible advice (mostly pertaining to Al's weight and health, and the paraphernalia of her stage-show) but increasingly hostile towards Alison herself. Colette has a past, too: after an encounter with the spirit of her mother-in-law, she left her dull husband to look after Alison.

It's never quite clear how much Colette knows about her friend. Alison's past is literally horrific: her mother a prostitute, her childhood populated by an endless succession of her mother's clients, small-time criminals and worse. It's not clear whether Colette knows any of the details: it's only gradually, and indistinctly, that they are revealed to the reader.

The afterlife, in this book, is a grim and dreary place, an endless replay of all the most humdrum and unpleasant aspects of life. The dead are lost, and are always seeking something. Some of them even remember what, or who, is missing. There are hints that it's not this way for all spirits: but the ones who are drawn to Al are unquiet, unpleasant, uninterested in moving on. There may be a reason for this: by the end of the book Al's learnt something significant about her heritage, something that paradoxically made me think of her, and of the whole book, in a rather more positive light.

There are some fascinating incidentals. Modern interpretations of the Tarot (Four of Swords governing the Internet, Two of Pentacles for the self-employed); the pastimes and hobbies of the malevolent dead (making crop circles, unscrewing screws on fairground rides); the idiosyncrasies of various flavours of pagan, medium and New Age types.

The reviews of Beyond Black praise its wit and imagination. I can't fault the latter, but much of the former escaped me, unless they meant that black humour that comes from describing people as they really are. I'll certainly be looking out for more by Mantel, though: from the interview at the back of the book, it sounds as though several of her books have supernatural elements.

Moral of Beyond Black? Sometimes it's not enough to think nice thoughts.

"At some point on your road you have to turn and start walking back toward yourself. Or the past will pursue you and bite the nape of your neck, leave you bleeding in the ditch. Better to turn and face it with such weapons as you possess."

Some might think this an odd choice of reading matter for the journey home after my father's funeral. It didn't bother me in that respect. Alison's world is not mine, thank heavens.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Friday, October 21, 2005

#94: Popes and Phantoms -- John Whitbourn

I don't think the individual chapters of this novel were ever published as standalone stories, but they have that episodic feel. And, like a collection of linked stories, some hit and some miss. (One, in which Admiral Slovo averts the onset of modern business, is based on an appalling pun.)

Slovo himself is an intriguing character: a Stoic by inclination, fighting not to be affected by the events that surround him, his detachment is aided by having half of his life-force stolen when, in his youthful pirating days arrrrr, he picks on the wrong victim. Stoicism serves Admiral Slovo well, since he is fated to live in the interesting times of the Italian Renaissance. Removing inconvenient bodies for the Borgias, acting as gun-runner for the last of the Elves [er, yes, this is fantastical alt.hist], encountering most of the heavyweight players in European history (Luther, Henry VII plus princely ghosts, Michelangelo etc etc) and hardly assassinating anyone, much, Slovo only slowly realises that he's a pawn -- or perhaps a more significant piece -- in a long game played by the Vehme, an ancient and shadowy organisation who keep some very interesting prisoners.

There's something not quite satisfactory -- perhaps just a feeling that there's a lot more to tell? -- about the novel, for me. An enjoyable read, though, and Whitbourn's wit doesn't feel half as intrusive here as in Downs-lord Dawn.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

#93: The Meaning of Tingo -- Adam Jacot de Boinod

This book has been much promoted lately: I bought it because it sounded rather like They Have a Word for It -- Howard Rheingold. Yes and no. Both authors share a fascination for weird and wonderful words, but Rheingold is more interested in discussing the concepts and finding potential uses in everyday (American) life: de Boinod includes many more words, but usually in simple definition lists. Though not always ...

Example: mamihlapinatapei
"...from the Fuegian language found in Chile, meaning that shared look of longing where both parties know the score yet neither is willing to make the first move." (The Meaning of Tingo, p. 64)

"The Guinness Book of World Records lists this as 'the most succinct word' and defines it as 'the act of looking into each other's eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence'. Whether this is the most succinct word in the world is arguable, but there is no doubt that the word describes a relatively rare sensation that just about everyone experiences at some point in life. The eye is both the window of the soul sand the primary erogenous zone; our species was exchanging meaningful glances long before we started compiling lexicons. And anyone who has ever fallen in love or out of love knows that the word can apply equally well to any of these tension-laden situations.
"And here is the answer to precisely what one says in such a situation: by the very nature of the encounter, it is impossible simply to ask whether the other person has in mind precisely what you have in mind. But you could always ask if you have both just engaged in a moment of mamihlapinatapei, and thus approach the matter indirectly. If you want to be suave about it, you had better spend some time practising your pronunciation before you actually try this on someone. Since it is highly unlikely that a Tierra del Fuegan will be around to correct you, it is probably better for you to make up your own pronunciation." (They Have a Word for It, p. 80)

Actually, a surprising number of Rheingold's words appear in The Meaning of Tingo, often with very similarly-worded definitions that, no doubt, indicate a shared source: I'm surprised that de Boinod hasn't (as far as one can tell from the references) encountered the earlier book.

The Meaning of Tingo is a fascinating book. There are plenty of concepts that don't have clear formulations in English, though whether they need them (geragas, Malayan for 'to comb one's hair in anger') is a moot point. Interesting to see some of the distinctions drawn in other cultures -- there are languages which divide the colours of the rainbow quite differently, and of course there are all those Eskimo Inuit words for snow -- and to think about the world view they imply. (If you don't have a word for something, how do you think about it?)

I think I prefer Rheingold's approach, but there are so many more words in de Boinod's compendium. Though none of them relates to something that I'm sure some language must have a word for: the moon seen by day.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#91-92: Howl's Moving Castle / Castle in the Air -- Diana Wynne Jones (rereads)

Howl's Moving Castle -- Diana Wynne Jones
Castle in the Air -- Diana Wynne Jones
Rereads, after watching the film. There are whole pages of HMC that I know almost by heart: it's still one of my very favourite DWJ books. And there's a great deal that they left out of the film (Wales! Miss Angorian!) that I think is extremely well-done.
Less keen on CitA: it's never quite worked, for me, and the ending feels rushed.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

#88-90: The Viscount of Adrilankha (trilogy) -- Steven Brust

The Paths of the Dead -- Steven Brust
The Lord of Castle Black -- Steven Brust
Sethra Lavode -- Steven Brust

Though published in three volumes, this is very definitely a single novel: the chapter numbering, if nothing else, makes this clear. Some might say that it could easily have been slimmed down to a single volume without significant loss of content -- this is Brust at his most mannered, with characters who treat etiquette as a competitive sport, and who might spend two pages asking a question. Either this will drive you mad, or you will enjoy the measured pace and the social subtleties. The first time I picked up The Paths of the Dead, I fell into the former category: lately, I have relocated to the latter.

Though sometimes I do think that Brust takes the whole mannerist style a step too far. There's an ur-conversation something along these lines:
A (after appropriate greetings, enquiries as to health, etc): Could you tell me X?
B: Ah, X; a subject about which I know things that you do not.
A: Hence my enquiry.
B: Ah, so you wish to know X?
A: That's why I asked.
B: So you'd like me to tell you?
A: [sound of grinding teeth]

The first time, it's amusing; the next few times, vaguely humorous; the hundredth time, not. I grind my teeth, and remember that Brust is a player of games, and loves to tease his audience. The pacing is frustratingly marvellous; Brust's narrator, Paarfi -- a historian whose frequent interjections add spice to the tale -- plays cat-and-mouse with the plot, reaching a pivotal point at the end of a chapter only to pick up a different plot strand in the next.

If you can get past the stylistic idiosyncrasies, you may find the plot a little disappointing. It deals with a plot to overthrow the Dragaeran Empire; with the past of several characters familiar from the Vlad Taltos books -- characters who are perceived in quite a different light in those books -- and with the fates of other characters from Brust's, or Paarfi's, earlier Dumas-inspired duology, The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After. There are unexpected deaths, explanations for events which by Vlad's time are legend, and frustrating omissions. (It is really about time Mr Brust told us more about Sethra Lavode, and I believe the enthusiast might be forgiven for expecting him to do so in the third volume of this novel.)

It's plain that The Viscount of Adrilanka was vastly enjoyable to write, and I certainly found it enjoyable to read. I'm not sure I'd recommend them to someone who wasn't already familiar with Brust's Dragaera, a fantasy world that is extra-special because it hardly ever uses the 'e' word*: but if you appreciate either the 'Khaavren' books (Phoenix Guards / Five Hundred Years After) or the Vlad Taltos books (starting with Jhereg, most recently Issola) then there will be something here for you. However, I now suffer an urge to reread Brust's entire Dragaera sequence, and they're all in storage ...

*elf.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Monday, October 10, 2005

#87: Anansi Boys -- Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's prose style becomes more definite with every novel he writes: the marvellous told in simple words, repetition for comic (or dramatic) impact, the occasional dazzling simile all the more dazzling for the author's restraint.

This is the story of Fat Charlie. He's not fat, but his father gave him the nickname, and because his father is -- was -- a god, Anansi (the same incarnation as appeared in American Gods), the name stuck. Charlie only discovers this fact about his heritage when attending his father's funeral: a little later, he also learns that he has a brother. And then things go rapidly downhill. For Charlie, anyway.

One thing that doesn't seem to be mentioned in the reviews is that Gaiman, a Caucasian male, has written a novel in which very few of the characters are Caucasian. Is it somehow racist to say this? From my (white, female) perspective it feels as though he's done a good job with the British parts, at least.

The story's a simple enough one, in the way that myths and legends and folklore are simple. Charlie and his brother must learn to accept one another. A deal's made and then unmade. There is magic. There is also one of the most engaging ghosts I've seen in literature for a while, and some marvellously dark animal magic.

This reminds me more of Neverwhere than of American Gods, despite the fact that it shares its general theme (son of a god seeking heritage) with the latter. I think it's the journey, the maturing, that Fat Charlie undertakes: the sense, by the end, that he's arrived where he's supposed to be.

Did I mention? Also very funny. Darkly funny, in places: laugh-out-loud funny in others.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#86: Hunting Pirate Heaven -- Kevin Rushby

Picked this up in the local remainder shop, not expecting such an entertaining read. Rushby's journey starts in Deptford, on the swing bridge over the creek and at St Nicholas' Church -- very familiar territory for me. (The River Ravensbourne, which becomes Deptford Creek, runs past the window of my old flat.) Inspired by a conversation with an Indian gentleman who claims to've been a victim of piracy, Rushby decides to seek out the legendary pirate utopias of the Indian Ocean.

He travels in a motley assortment of craft, from Portuguese cargo ships to vintage yachts to local pirogas and dhows: meets an equally motley assortment of characters, including a sorcerer who provides him with a magical insurance policy (which, hey, must've worked: he survived to write the book), a pair of German ex-pats alone on a desert island, an ex-soldier invalided out of the Foreign Legion, a French palm-reader who conducts her work via faxed photocopies of people's hands, et cetera et cetera. Rushby is clearly one of those people who enjoys striking up conversations with strangers, and if even half of the stories he recounts are true, he has a talent for drawing tales out of the people he meets.

But there's a sense of spiritual journey too, of one man's quest for (and ultimate turning away from) the concept of an earthly paradise. The Germans are quick to assure him that it's bloody hard work, carving a living out of paradise. There are misunderstandings over women and money, and one gets the feeling that Rushby is duped more than once.

He's a very evocative writer, though: not just when he's writing about the places he visits and the people he meets, but also in his frequent historical asides. (This is a man who travels with a copy of 'Captain Johnson's' History of the Pirates, and looks for loopholes and connections everywhere.) He also has a delightfully dry sense of humour. Touring the ruins of a Portuguese fort in Madagascar, he learns that the plaster is made with egg-white. "The entire fort," he notes, "was no more than a defensive souffle."

I think what I liked most about the book is that Rushby was not judgemental about any of the people, places, cultures he visited. Some of his feelings are evident from the tone of his writing, but he doesn't attempt any heavy-handed morality, even when discussing the French mercenary invasion of the Comores.

No, scratch that: what I liked most was the immersiveness of the book, the wealth of detail and minutae that make up an experience I don't exactly envy, but find utterly fascinating.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Saturday, October 08, 2005

#85: The Algebraist -- Iain M. Banks

It's probably heresy, in some circles, to say so, but I don't think this is anywhere near Banks's best. Oh, it has all the ingredients: interesting (and interestingly flawed) characters, a long game of revenge, some spectacular battle-scenes, deus ex machinas [er, is that the right plural? probably not] and extravagantly-scaled set pieces, some horribly imaginative tortures and deaths, and a hearty seasoning of sfnal tropes (wormhole portals, failing portals, gas-giant ecologies, military tech that's indistinguishable from magic, robots, evil AIs, peculiar-looking aliens). It's a very enjoyable read.

But it's not, in my opinion, as good a book as Use of Weapons, or Against a Dark Background, or Excession. Perhaps I'm missing something: or perhaps it's over-full of digressions, repetitions -- difficult to tell if these are purposeful, but I can't see a good reason for them -- and pointless trailing around. This last is almost certainly deliberate, but I found it overly long-winded. And after all that, after hundreds of pages, two or three major plot threads are wrapped up far too quickly and not very effectively. (I don't mind the zero: that works very well.) The ending felt hurried: perhaps that was only in contrast to the chase sequence.

This book needed to be shorter: to be better-edited (I may be missing allusions, references, in-jokes: but, as example, 'here, here' rather than 'hear, hear'?): to be more balanced. Too much Fassin: not enough everyone else. Certainly not enough Taince, or Gardener, or Ko.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#84: The Ventroloquist's Tale -- Pauline Melville

I suspect I bought this book when it first appeared in paperback: 1998. Melville's short stories are a delight. They're not quite fantasy, not quite magic realism, usually oriented around female characters but not feminist, not mythological ...

So much for the short stories. As far as I can tell this is Melville's only novel, and I wish she'd written more, for The Ventroloquist's Tale has a first-novel feel.

It's set in Guyana, in the Indian (Wapisiana) population, partly in the 1920s and partly 'contemporary', though no later than mid-1980s. There's a framing first-person narrative which is immediately arresting:
Spite impels me to relate that my biographer, the noted Brazilian Senhor Mario Andrade, got it wrong when he consigned me to the skies in such a slapdash and cavalier fashion. I suppose he thought I would lie for ever amongst the stars ...

And, later, "I am the one who can dig time's grave".

[Andrade, I've just found out, is the author of Macunaima, the definitive guide to a Brazilian trickster-god. There: you now have more information than I did.]

That framing narrative has a more accessible voice than either the modern protagonist -- Chofy McKinnon, half-Wapisiana, half-Scots -- or Beatrice and Danny McKinnon, his ancestors, growing up in the Guyanan savannah in the early part of the 20th century. Each story provides a different twist on doomed romance. Chofy goes to Georgetown, falls instantly in love with an English historian who's researching Evelyn Waugh (who mentions the McKinnons, allegedly, in his diary) and almost leaves everything behind. Beatrice and Danny, who are the core of the story, fall in love and have a child, but they're brother and sister: the child is an idiot, Beatrice is sent away to Montreal, Danny lives the life of a reprobate and lies with his last breath.

The minor characters are vivid to the point of stereotype: Father Napier, the priest with an eye for his young Indian converts, sent mad by fever or poison and setting fire to every church he's founded; Alexander McKinnon, trying to photograph the stars during an eclipse after reading about Eddington's 1919 experiment; Maba and Zuna, his Wapisiana wives.

The two threads of the story -- and that sly framing voice -- are interrelated in all sorts of ways, but sometimes it's hard work to spot the connections. There's the 'carnal, dirty' moon, and the myth of how the moon came to be marked. There are unwanted children, mysterious animal-noises (that ventroloquist), mistaken identities in the dark. I think there's a point at which all three stories intersect (is this truly the ventroloquist's tale? do I have to believe the title of the book to understand it?) but when I went back to find the relevant passage, I couldn't.

Melville's writing is clear and clever, and markedly original, though at times I felt she wrote Beatrice as though she were a modern European. There are some lasting images in this novel, and some similes that had me mentally applauding the author's perception.

One note: if I were producing this book, I don't think I'd have prefaced it with quotations about incest. That aspect of the plot would work better if not so directly signalled: it's a mystery at first to Beatrice, but not to the reader.

Recommended, though, for anyone who enjoys novels that aren't centred around the white Western mindset; for anyone who enjoys reading good prose.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Princess of Roumania -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in November 2005.

"I used to love those stories where the girl feels she doesn't belong, and she's having some kind of problems, and she wakes up in a different country -- just like this. ... This isn't that kind of story."

This isn't that kind of story: but at first you might think that it is. A Princess of Roumania introduces Miranda, a teenage girl living in small-town Massachussetts, who's haunted by memories of her early childhood. She has been told that she was adopted from an orphanage in Romania at the age of three, after her parents disappeared during the uprising against Ceaucescu. She remembers playing on a beach, and travelling on a train, and a cottage in a forest; and these vividly visual memories, together with a bundle of keepsakes (a bracelet, some antique coins, a book -- The Essential History -- in a language she can't read), are all that she has of her parents and her origins.

These mementos, these symbolic quest-objects, draw the reader's attention. It's simple to construct a plot around them: a tale of a princess snatched from her home to be reared by common folk until she is adult enough to claim her inheritance, right wrongs, overthrow the oppressor and free her country. It's easy to think that we're reading that story, and Park knows it, is complicit in it.

But the tale is not entirely Miranda's. The Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu sits in a tall house in Bucharest, in (we are told) 'a different time'. She has sent her servants, spirit-children under her magical control, after Miranda. She sits reading the other copy -- there are only two in all of time and space -- of The Essential History, and marvelling at the convoluted history (Hitler, Stalin, Communism) of the world it describes. "Such a tangle of invention, and for what?" This is not her world. The Baroness's world is at the centre of a pre-Copernican universe, the planets turning around it in concentric spheres. In her world England was destroyed by a tidal wave in the 17th century: some of the survivors fled to the Continent. (Newton was made welcome in Berlin.) In her world, Massachussetts is a wilderness.

Opposing the Baroness is the Princess Aegypta Schenk von Schenk, author of The Essential History: nobility reduced to poverty by the machinations of the Empress Valeria and her party. Aegypta is Miranda's aunt, and it is she who arranged for the infant Miranda to be hidden in a place of safety. The Baroness, though, has discovered that safe place, and Miranda is being drawn back to her homeland.

Miranda does not come willingly, or alone. She is accompanied by Peter Gross, a one-armed boy to whom she's drawn despite her thoughtless rejection of anyone who isn't clever and popular, and by her best friend Andromeda, who is smart and tough and feisty. But when they pass from this world to that other, Andromeda and Peter are dramatically, physically changed. And Miranda changes too, though it's not so obvious. She loses her certainty, her understanding, her confidence: and the reader flounders with her.

The story's told from a number of viewpoints (Miranda, Peter, the Baroness, the Elector of Ratisbon) yet never immerses the reader fully in any one character's perceptions. For example, during Miranda's narrative, we recognise her adoptive father's flash of joy when she quotes his own advice back at him. Scattered throughout the novel are observations and remarks that at first glance seem transparent. The metaphor that springs to mind is panning out: the author drawing back to show the reader some context.

Yet the context that's revealed is not necessarily the obvious one. There are subtleties of tone and shading, and of narrative pace, that steer the reader towards one understanding, and then another. This blurring of reality, this lack of definition, mirrors Miranda's own confusion. It bestows unexpected, and not necessarily reliable, insights into the characters' motivations, beliefs, and identities.

Park's achievement lies in the clarity of his prose, and in his careful, precise rendition of character. Many young heroines behave like grown women, but Miranda is credibly teenaged, utterly rooted in the world she's grown up in (transported to the North American wilderness, she still thinks of Albany as 'forty-five minutes' drive away') and not always very likeable. Peter is perhaps less believable an American teenager, but there are hints that he is, at heart, neither American nor teenaged. And the Baroness Ceaucescu, whose villainy is made explicit at her first appearance, has depth and dimension to such an extent that by the end of the book -- the first, damn, of a series, though it's not clear how many volumes this will comprise -- I began to wonder if this was her story, and not Miranda's at all.

This book will be compared to Pullman's His Dark Materials, and to the works of Jonathan Carroll and Gene Wolfe (and, inevitably, to the Harry Potter series, with which the sole consonance seems to be the fact that Miranda and her friends are teenagers). All these comparisons are in some sense valid, yet all fall short. Interestingly, too, every review I've seen seems to find a different interpretation of the events, the setting and the characters. A Princess of Roumania is like nothing except itself: bittersweet, clear and cold and complex.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

#83: Leopard in Exile -- Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill

I ordered this after reading and enjoying the first novel in the 'Carolus Rex' sequence, The Shadow of Albion. Perhaps it's just me -- perhaps this was the wrong time to read this novel, or something -- but I'm decidedly less impressed by Leopard in Exile.

Partly it's the proof-reading and editing. There are portions of the novel where characters speak in dialect -- and the authors have attempted to replicate this. ("I console myself, me, dat if I canno' take him from dere, 'Charenton canno' do so eit'er.") Fair enough, though I rather wish they hadn't gone to such lengths to make it clear that some people are speaking in non-standard English. But I don't require a summary, immediately following, of what's been said: and if the editor felt that it wasn't clear, perhaps it would have been better to insist that the 'dialect' speech was written more plainly?

THere are assorted typos and idiosyncrasies. That small handbag carried by Regency ladies is not a 'ridicule'. (And this occurs not once but twice, at least twice.) The phrase 'not at all' does not require hyphenation.

And I'm afraid that when I encounter a sailing ship named Jahrtausendfeier Falke* in alternate 19th-century America, I lose a great deal of faith in the tone of the novel.

I might have forgiven such lapses if I'd enjoyed the novel more. But the plot feels considerably more muddled than the plot of the previous book: most of the action takes place in a resolutely alternate America, losing the fun faux-Regency setting: the two protagonists of The Shadow of Albion, who spent the first book falling in love, spend almost all of the second book on separate continents: and though Leopard in Exile features the pirate Jean Lafitte, there is not nearly enough nautical mayhem.

The ending, again, feels rushed, and there are several unresolved plot elements. I don't know how much of the third novel was written before Andre Norton's death, but there's no sign of it having been published. A shame, because there is so much potential in the setting, and Edghill is certainly capable of better.

*'Thousands of years celebration falcon,' explains Babelfish.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

#82: Song for a Dark Queen -- Rosemary Sutcliff

A Sutcliff novel that I hadn't read before: this tells the story of the Iceni rebellion in AD60, during which Colchester and London were burnt to the ground and the inhabitants slaughtered by a British coalition in revenge for the Roman refusal to acknowledge Boudicca's queenship after her husband's death, and for the rape and beating of her daughters. Tens of thousands died on both sides: the British army, a hundred thousand strong, was finally defeated by a vastly outnumbered but tactically superior Roman force.

Cheerful stuff. Sutcliff doesn't gloss over the sheer nastiness of it all -- rape, torture, genocide, slow death from sword-wounds -- though, this being a children's book, she doesn't go into explicit detail.

The novel's narrated by Cadwan, the Queen's Harper, and there's a sense of tension throughout the book: as with any first-person narrative which recounts dire events, the reader wants to know the vantage point from which the tale's told. All the way through, there's a thin fragile thread of hope. Right up until the very end: and I knew how it would end, in terms of historical fact.

Throughout the book Sutcliff intersperses excerpts from a young tribune's letters home: the tribune, aide to British Governor Suetonius Paulinus, has a soldier's hard-nosed mind, but a human side as well. His name is Gnaius Julius Agricola, and he'll be governor of Britain himself later. In the end, he doesn't send his letters to his mother: they're 'too bloodstained'.

Oh, it's a melancholy book, but full of period detail, though not as steeped in the strange imagined world of the Celts as some of Sutcliff's other novels.

And now I need something light, dammit ...

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Sunday, September 11, 2005

#81: Band of Gypsys -- Gwyneth Jones

Latest in the sequence that began with Bold as Love, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award. Fiorinda, Ax and Sage are back from America, if not (at the beginning of the novel) quite back in England. In America, an experimental team of magic-users have pulled off an astounding feat; the repercussions are still echoing around the globe. The Triumvirate are focussing on more personal matters -- Fiorinda's possible pregnancy, Ax's mother's virtual imprisonment -- and are uneasily aware that much has changed in their absence. There are accusations of witchcraft and lycanthropy, talk of weaponised magic, useless harmful premonitions: a causal connection between magic use and schizophrenia ...

Rather like reading the news lately, this book heaps problem on disaster on tragedy. At first the set-backs are encountered with gallows humour and witty subversion, but that won't work for ever. By the time I'd reached the end of the book -- incredibly sad, bitter-sweet and yet this is not the end, this is (it says so) the nadir -- I was stunned by just how wrong everything had gone, in Jones' near-future world.

And yet the army still believe their king will come again; there's life amid the ruins; there's poached rabbit and foraged food for breakfast, and old songs sung new, and people gone missing when the executioners come ...

I can hardly wait for the next book. (The more I think of it, the more I am very perturbed by Marlon, Sage's son, who's all grown up now.)

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Monday, September 05, 2005

#80: Skinny Dip -- Carl Hiaasen

It's a funny sort of novel, because it's the reverse of a whodunnit. The villain's identity is plain from page 1, and the blurb tells us that his intended victim survives. So where's the plot? Revenge -- hot, cold and every state in between. I'd forgotten how witty Hiaasen is, and how astute an observer of human foibles. The cast is delightful, from Chaz the would-be widower, through feisty (I'm sorry, but she is) Joey, his wife, to Mick Strahahan, ex-PI who loathes crowds / cities / noise / his fellow Americans with a vengeance. Also a detective who's more devoted to his snakes than to anything else, a dim-but-golden-hearted thug, and a woman with terminal cancer who has the most positive outlook of any of them.

Hiaasen, I'm told, returns to the same themes again and again -- pollution and eco-damage, corruption, misue of prescription drugs, strong female characters who hold the moral high ground and aren't afraid of consequences -- but I've only read one other novel by him, on my sole Florida trip, and didn't find it that similar. Skinny Dip was a very enjoyable read, dry and sly and entertaining: I've bought myself a compendium trilogy for my next holiday. Though if I were going to Florida I might've picked something less worrying ...

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Thursday, September 01, 2005

#79: Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast -- Charlie Connelly

Charlie Connelly is a lifelong afficionado of the Shipping Forecast. (For non-UK readers, this is a maritime weather report broadcast on BBC Radio at intervals throughout the day; the sea around Britain is divided into 31 sections with evocative names such as German Bight, Fisher, Shannon.) He decided to travel to each area, and write about it, in one year. And this is the result.

Early on, he has a rather irritating habit of stating an 'obvious' assumption that isn't that obvious, then contradicting it with an Amazing Fact or two, often gleaned from a characterful individual who 'knows more about [insert subject here] than most'. But later, he seems to get into his stride, and writes the sort of travelogue that makes you look twice at places you know (Plymouth, the Isle of Man, Cromer) and open your mind to thoughts of places you don't (Sealand, the Isle of White, Finisterre).

Connelly, a professional travel writer, has the contacts and the experience to facilitate visits, activities and interviews that most of the rest of us would be unable to access. He visits Sealand, the independent principality (and now data-haven) based on a Maunsell fort out in the Thames estuary. He attempts to cycle around the TT course on the Isle of Man, and has what I can only call an epiphany. He visits Rockall, the Faroes, the Scillies. He gets around a bit.

There are a few shortfalls. Listening to the Manx anthem (which I don't think I ever heard in five years of visiting the island) he wonders at the line 'Built firm as Barool [sic]', but doesn't bother to find out that North and South Barule are mountains on the island. He thinks that wormcasts on the beach are left by 'burrowing amphibians' (true only in the most generalised sense). But he's rude about Land's End, and right about the best pub in Greenwich. And he enjoys his travels -- and when he doesn't, as with the rough crossing to Lundy or the climb up Smeaton's Tower on Plymouth Hoe, he's ruefully self-deprecating.

Fascinating book, highly recommended.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#78: Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme -- Chris Roberts

This book (impulse buy, retail therapy) is a mass-market (Granta) edition of a small-press publication that caught the attention of the public, and was an unexpected success. It explores the 'true history' of 40 nursery rhymes -- from 'Ring-a-Roses' (which may not be all about the plague, as everyone 'knows') to 'London Bridge' -- and provides a witty commentary on the history and social framework concealed in each.

'Goosey Goosey Gander' turns out (possibly) to be about venereal disease; 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' is about the wool tax; 'Ladybird, Ladybird' is about witch-burnings. Or possibly not. A lot of what's said is fairly obvious, and the heavier historical discussions ('Sing a Song of Sixpence' as a roman-a-clef of Henry VIII's wives) are clustered towards the beginning of the book, making me wonder if the original idea ran out of material before there was enough for a full volume.

You have to like a man who describes Loki as the Norse god of taking the piss, though.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#77: Blood Feud -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Another Sutcliff reread. I first read this book fairly recently -- I remember buying it in Greenwich Market -- and yet I didn't recall it very clearly at all. Set in the late 10th century, it's the tale of Jestyn, a Cornish farm-boy who's captured by a stray Viking band and sold in the slave-market in Dublin to another Viking, Thormod, who's almost the same age. Jestyn saves Thormod's life, Thormod frees him: and that might be story enough, but it's only scene-setting. Thormod takes Jestyn back to Norway with him, where the two become embroiled in a blood-feud that takes them all the way to Byzantium, via Kiev and Thrace.

Unusually for Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a first-person narrative: Jestyn's an old man writing his memoirs, remembering first friendship and first love. By writing in the first person, Sutcliff can concentrate on the sort of irrelevant details that stick in the memory: looking over a Viking ship that's about to be brought out of winter storage, Jestyn remembers not the ship but the silvery light reflected from the rippling river. His memories are studded with two kinds of images that I'm coming to associate very strongly with Sutcliff: flame as flowers, flowers as flame. (A lit lamp burns like a bright new crocus: fig-leaves are like green flames on the branch: a spray of blossom is like winter stars.) The prose is evocative and simple and somehow timeless (to the extent that the word 'crazy' really jarred, though it's probably no more of an anachronism than half a hundred others) and shows a quiet attention to detail -- especially the detail of the natural world -- that I envy.

This novel is also a love story: I don't mean the mutual respect that develops between crippled Jestyn and Alexia, the physician's daughter, but the love between Jestyn and Thormod. It's not sexual love, though Sutcliff doesn't take pains to rule this out, as Mary Renault does in The King Must Die: she simply doesn't go there. That element is irrelevant (never mind Alexia's telling remark, 'For you, also, there was a Patroclus). This is the love of two good friends, based on loyalty and affection and a sense of equality that belies the origins of their association.

The edition I own is a TV tie-in: I'd like to see the TV series (made by Thames TV in 1990) but I can't imagine it doing justice to the story.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

#76: Warrior Scarlet -- Rosemary Sutcliff (reread)

I was inspired to reread this by walking on the South Downs, watching cloud shadows and the folds of the land, wandering around the ancient quarries and earthworks on Wollstonbury Hill. This is Rosemary Sutcliff's Bronze Age novel, set around 900BC: a tale of a crippled boy who proves his right to wear warrior scarlet and be accepted as a man of his tribe. The story's simple, the wealth of detail enthralling, but best of all is Sutcliff's talent for evoking landscape.

Below him the turf of the steep combe-side was laced with criss-cross sheep-tracks, and the faint formless cropping sounds of the flock at the bottom came up to him along the ground. ... A little warm wind came up from the south, trailing the cloud shadows after it across the Marshes and up the slow-gathering slopes of the Chalk, thyme-scented and sea-scented and swaying the heads of the blue scabious flowers all one way.

Rereading this novel (published nearly 50 years ago) I'm struck by the complexity of the prose; the way that a great deal of the emotional events are alluded to, rather than described; and the rich vocabulary. I suspect that it'd be too 'difficult' for a lot of children today. (I remember reading a teacher's account of his class's reaction to The Mark of the Horse Lord, my favourite Sutcliff: a lot of the children had difficulty understanding the book.) And I wonder if young readers would now find this distressingly violent: a swan is killed, there's a lot of fighting (humans and animals), and the whole point of the novel is that Drem must kill a wolf, armed with no more than a spear and a knife. I can, unfortunately, imagine a reader feeling sorry for the wolf ...

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Monday, August 22, 2005

#75: A Princess of Roumania -- Paul Park

Ever get the feeling that different reviewers are reading different books with the same title?

I've just read this novel for review: I'll be reading it again before I write the piece, and what appears here will be more in the way of notes and observations. But I've flicked through the first ten Google results for the novel, and found that the heroine and her friends travel into a book (not really); that they travel to an alternate 18th-century Romania (no); that Miranda, the heroine, 'never really comes to life' (I don't think the Romantic Times Book Club got this novel); that it's all the work of Miranda's aunt Aegypt, Egypt, Aegyptia (third variant is right); that Peter is the son of a great hero (no), that the Baroness is 'fiendish' ...

Actually, that last observation is likely to be a pivotal point of my review: that although the Baroness Ceausescu (name quite deliberately used) is painted as Villain all over the blurb, she's one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters in the book -- and this, it turns out, is quite intentional. No black and white in here (except the stark wintry landscapes of uncolonised North America, Bucharest on the eve of invasion, etc) but a moral landscape in shades of grey that shift as they're examined.

Worst thing about this novel: drawing closer to the end, feeling the thinness of the remaining pages, and wondering how the author's going to pull it all together. Only by searching online did I discover that this is the first of a series ...

Park's prose is clear and cool, peppered with odd similes ('dead as kittens') and marvellous metaphors, and the book's complex and demanding: not for children, despite the coming-of-age themes. As someone said of Gene Wolfe recently, Park 'demands your attention and repays it'.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Friday, August 19, 2005

#74: The Rainbow Opera -- Elizabeth Knox

Knox, the author of The Vintner's Luck, turns her hand to YA fantasy. Seeing her name on the cover, I had to buy it, and now I have to wait for the second in the Duet. Oh, this is a wonderful book!

The setting is a world more than a little like ours, in the year 1905. They have Jesus, The Mill on the Floss, rifles, movie cameras. But in this world, Lazarus was a saint and wrote a Gospel: they celebrate his saint's day in spring. And in this world, in a country called Southland that was settled by refugees from a sinking island, there's the Place.

The Place is a fold in space, a polder (if I'm using the terminology correctly), a pocket universe. Not everyone can enter it: 'normal' people just walk through another tract of countryside. But to the Dreamcatchers, the Place -- marked with boundaries and warning notices -- is a limitless desert with a featureless white sky, with ruins, without water ... and with location-specific dreams. If you lie down at A18, you dream 'Starry Beach'. And the best Dreamcatchers can then go and, literally, sleep with their audience and share the dream with them. Some dreams are therapeutic, some are adventures, some are romances ... (In proof that this book is not intended for the very young, there's a dream on the map named 'Big Member', and a passage describing a senior Dreamcatcher devoutly hoping that none of the new intake will ask about it.)

The Place hasn't been there for ever. Tziga Hame discovered it (by falling into it) twenty years before the opening of the novel. He and his sister-in-law, Grace Tiebold, are amongst the most esteemed Dreamcatchers. Their daughters, Laura and Rose, are set to Try -- that is, to find out whether they, too, can reach the Place.

But not everything is as idyllic as it seems.

I am not going to write about the plot: it's beautiful and complex and this is the first part of a two-part tale. It contains golems, romance, exploitation, new and delicious sweets (no, not chocolate frogs), a boy racing a schooner along a sandy peninsula washed by the ocean, love and betrayal and corrupt politicians. If this is not your sort of thing, move along ...

"The boy climbed up onto the eucalyptus stump. He got sap on his hands and feet. He stood on the stump and looked about. The sunset was so violent that it should have been making a noise. The light cast the shadows of the far hills upward across the sky, bristling rays of opaque blue in a huge, bright, slicing pane of orange light."

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#73: The Wish List -- Eoin Colfer

I've never read the Artemis Fowl books -- something didn't click -- but I picked this one up and liked the look of it.

Meg, 14, has died and gone to Hell. Except not quite, because her last act before dying was a very good one, and now she's perfectly balanced 'twixt Beelzebub and St Peter (the latter bewailing the lack of proper IT facilities at the Pearly Gates). Meg gets to return as a ghost and help a lonely old man complete tasks on his 'wish list' -- if she racks up enough points, she'll go to Heaven. Meanwhile, Belch (whose lack of forethought led to Meg's death, and his own) is also dead but not gone: his task is to prevent Meg from achieving Good.

All very Wonderful Life so far. But this made me laugh out loud. Meg's a likeable character: so's Lowrie McCall, the old man she's helping, who gets to look at a few key episodes in his 'wasted' life with new clarity. Belch (and his infernal / holographic assistant, an AI called Elph) are hilarious. And best of all, it's a really nicely paced novel -- we discover at the beginning that Meg's done something truly dreadful to her stepfather, but only gradually are the details disclosed.
Not too heavy-handed, and nicely observed, and very funny.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Thursday, August 18, 2005

#72: Sabine -- A. P.

Purporting to be a tale of "forbidden schoolgirl love in 50s France", this paperback even has faux-aged tattered corners and creased cover, and a suitably pulp-style cover illustration. I picked it up because I couldn't quite believe that Books Etc had a lesbian porn novel* in their 3-for-2 offer: read a random page, and liked the style, which had the same racy, smoke-roughened confidence that I associate (for some reason) with Marianne Faithfull's later writings.

The thing is, amidst all the evocative details -- gramophones, Gitanes, Renoir films in smoky cinemas, and the eponymous Sabine all cool in her rebellious denims at a hunt meet -- this book is not what it says it is, at all. It turns into quite another sort of book near the end, and the change of gear is pretty sudden, quite credible and left me wrong-footed for the rest of the novel. I'm not sure whether the ending is rushed or whether the book just judders to a halt for effect.

I've spent a while trying to guess who 'A.P.' might be. But if I tell you my guesses, that'll give away the nature of the twist ...

*one that wasn't by Sarah Walters, anyway

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

#71: Temeraire -- Naomi Novik

Advance reading copy: the novel's due for publication in January. The cover sports a quote from Stephen King, who calls it a 'cross between Susanna Clarke and Patrick O'Brian': I would actually be more inclined to cite McCaffrey than Clarke ...

The setting is the Napoleonic Wars; the world, much like ours except for the fact of dragons. There are various species, bred and managed by various nations: dragon-handlers form an elite Aerial Corps, rumoured to indulge in excessively libertine pursuits. Captain William Laurence, the protagonist of the novel, is a successful naval captain who accidentally becomes handler to a rare Oriental dragon named Temeraire -- thus ruining his maritime career, not to mention his chances of marrying Miss Edith Galman. Fortunately, there are compensations.

I haven't quite made up my mind about this novel yet. I found it very readable, extremely enjoyable, playful and (mostly) competently written, though there are some inexcusable Americanisms bandied by the author's British characters. There are some powerfully affecting passages which border on the sentimental -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I think what's missing is a certain edge. There's plenty of warfare, dramatic aerial combat, etc etc; there's loss and treachery. That darker side, though, seems more backdrop than anything; a curtain of plot against which to project more personal events, which can seem trivial against Napoleonic invasion etc -- though Laurence's growth and change, as a character, is very well handled, and Temeraire is one of the most likeable and intriguing dragons I've encountered in literature. (Or, oddly enough, anywhere else.) Nevertheless, it feels slight: perhaps that's because there is room for so much more depth to the story, more background, more of a resolution. There's certainly space for continuation.

All that said, it's competently written, charming, enjoyable and inventive. Do look out for it. And don't believe Stephen King.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#65-70: Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series (rereads)

Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series (rereads)
Children of Chance
Divine Comedy
Unholy Harmonies
Volcanic Airs
Brotherly Love
Unaccustomed Spirits

Rereading all six of Pewsey's Mountjoy novels -- in about five days, pre-Worldcon -- was exceedingly self-indulgent, but just what I needed.
At first glance the books look like chick-lit, or perhaps Aga sagas: pretty pastel covers, the occasional musical instrument or chunk of architecture, not too many pages. At best, they resemble upmarket romances. But appearances, in this case, deceive.

I was lying in bed the other day trying to work out why these are romantic, rather than romances. I think it's because most of them end with the first kiss, and often the first indication of a romance, between two characters who we're surprised to find ending up together. (By the next book, they'll often have blended into the supporting cast as a couple.) In at least one of the novels, the 'happy ending' is secondary to the heroine's ambitions: it's all very well running away to London with a dark, intriguing, intellectual music-lover, but she's really going for voice training.

The setting for most of the novels is the imaginary Northern city of Eyot (county town of Eyotshire) and its surrounding villages. Eyot hosts an internationally-famous annual music festival, which accounts for the number of musicians, artists and creative types who make their home in the area. It doesn't, however, count for the local aristocracy, the Mountjoys (Valdemar, the head of the family during the timeline of most of the books, is thoroughly 18th-century in his behaviour); nor for the inexplicable nature of Lily, housekeeper to a world-class cellist, and much given to gnomic pronouncements and sense that only looks common with hindsight; nor the ghostly protagonists in Unaccustomed Spirits and Brotherly Love; nor, in one novel, for a visit from a dancer who's apparently channeling a Greek god. There's a touch of magic to Eyot, but it's never explained: just the way things are.

Rereading all six novels with a rather more critical eye, I did notice one aspect of them which jars: the question of when they're set. All of them were published in the 1990s and seemed more or less contemporary: there's very little sense of current events, or the wider world (though in one novel the heroine travels to Prague, where there's political unrest and a very Cold War atmosphere). I'd always assumed they were set no earlier than 1980. But there are some indications that they're actually set in the 1970s: one character, aged 45, describes her first marriage 'at the age of 19, just after the war'. I'd be hard-put to identify anything that actually contradicts a date of, say, 1976 (and in fact the first novel takes place in an extraordinarily hot summer), and yet the feel of the books -- cheap and easy air travel, cashpoint cards etc -- seems later.

Ah well. They really are immensely enjoyable books, and Pewsey's depiction of bucolic bliss -- this is rural life where the real crimes are intolerance, narrow-mindedness, refusal to embrace change, and denying one's artistic leanings -- are truly delightful. And she makes me smile a lot, and sometimes even laugh. Lightweight but delicious.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Thursday, July 28, 2005

#64: Mr Darwin's Shooter -- Roger McDonald

I'm extremely impressed by this book -- its poetry and its subtlety, as well as the characterisation.

The novel focuses on Syms Covington, the butcher's boy who becomes Charles Darwin's field assistant. (He's a historical character, and McDonald has used Covington's diaries -- rather sketchy, available online -- as well as Darwin's writing as sources for his portrait.) Covington goes to sea early, following the failure of the leather company at which he was training as a clerk. He's a committed Christian, a Congregationalist who's memorised whole pages of The Pilgrim's Progress, strong in his faith; that, of course, leads him to ask question after question of Darwin (here a rather milk-and-water character without any of Covington's vigour or joie de vivre) as he and Darwin discuss their findings and explore the implications of the birds and animals they observe.

That makes it all sound rather dry, and it isn't. It's a vividly physical novel: long voyages in dangerous waters, collecting expeditions on the pampas, all the trials and rigours of life at sea and in the unmapped territories of the mid-19th century world.

There are two alternating threads: one, set in the 1860s, concerns Covington in Sydney, an ageing sailor, deaf as a post, who strikes up a friendship with MacCracken, a doctor who saves his life. Covington gives nothing away, and it's up to MacCracken to puzzle out this man who's clearly lived a turbulent life and who speaks, sometimes, of matters that he surely cannot understand. The other thread follows Covington as he becomes a sailor, makes and loses friends, meets Darwin, and appoints himself the man's assistant while still pursuing his own projects. There's always something missing, and it's still missing in the later timeframe. This is a novel about love and loyalty, class and breeding, as much as it's about natural philosophy or evolution or religion or the perils of the wide world.

"Seas black, wind raw, timbers wet, faces pink, lips chapped, sails ripping, stays torn asunder. After sighting Cape Horn it took them three weeks to sail thirty miles."

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#63: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- J K Rowling

I suspect a significant percentage of LJ traffic since 16th July has concerned this book, and I doubt I'm going to say anything new about it. It's better-edited than the previous one, and there are less irritating tics -- use of capitals for raised voices, etc, which annoyed me. Nice to see some characters developing (Draco now three-dimensional, which is good); and I was impressed with the way she handled the whole business of Adolescent Urges, and Teenaged Behaviour, and so on. And top marks to the author for throwing in a couple of massive surprises. (Was most amused to find that some fans are already rewriting parts of the story to suit their own prejudices.) I'm really looking forward to seeing how she resolves all the ongoing strands of plot in book 7.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#62: A Conspiracy of Paper -- David Liss

London, early 18th century, financial fraud and skulduggery: but I'm afraid that Mr Neal Stephenson has spoilt me for this sort of thing. A Conspiracy of Paper is not a bad book, but it drags and droops and is devoid of humour. Or perhaps that's its narrator, Benjamin Weaver, a former boxer born Benjamin Lienzo to a mercantile Jewish family. Weaver is hired to investigate the apparent suicide of a man whose son suspects foul play: he's also working on the theft of some letters of an intimate nature from a gentleman about to be married to an innocent bride. Meanwhile, his friend Elias, physician and playwright, always seems to have time to listen to his theories, even while producing a new play at short notice.

Plenty of action, murder and mayhem, a charming cameo from Jonathan Wild ... but too many of the characters felt two-dimensional, and some of them seemed quite anachronistic (an unmarried Jewish girl playing the nascent stock market, for example). I'll probably return to this writer for period colour, but not for characterisation -- or for plot, the climax of which seemed rather muddled.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

#60: Conrad's Fate -- Diana Wynne Jones

This book was the perfect antidote to a day spent travelling, hearing bad news and visiting my father, who's ill.

It's a Chrestomanci novel -- chronologically somewhere after The Lives of Christopher Chant, and geographically somewhere in Series Seven; it's set in the English Alps, mainly in Stallery Hall where the universe seems to shift randomly, and 12-year-old Conrad Tesdenic finds himself looking into other realities where the Hall is a ruin, or a castle of glass, or an Escher-esque maze.

He's there as part of a plan to redeem his Fate, or karma, by taking care of some business that he neglected in a previous life. According to his uncle, anyway: his mother, busy writing feminist tracts in her room, doesn't seem too concerned. Conrad has to bear his guilty secret alone: but his colleague, Christopher, has secrets too. He's searching for his friend Millie, who's run away from her exclusive Swiss finishing school. And there are strange goings-on, and romantic intrigues, and arranged marriages, and all sorts of delightful drama.

I read this in rather an odd frame of mind, so it hasn't really fallen into place yet: oh, happy endings for those who deserve them, and the usual DWJ wit and whimsy. (When did 'whimsy' become an insult? I certainly don't mean it as one.) Shall no doubt reread at some stage, and hopefully with more clarity of thought. Very enjoyable, though: like the spell in C S Lewis' 'Narnia' series that's a story that you read to restore a happy frame of mind.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#61: My Little Blue Dress -- Bruno Maddox

The novel starts off in the early years of the 20th century, with the narrator -- then a small girl -- finding herself oddly at odds with her family and friends. Her grandfather (before conveniently dying) tells her she's allergic to the Past. Even as a little girl, the narrator sees the flaw in this argument ('but it's the Present!') ... so far, so good, in a sort of sub-Fforde way. Reader, I did not like the narrator at this point.

Rather later -- somewhere around the Twenties (the book is arranged, in earlier parts at least, by decade) -- it becomes obvious that the book we're reading is not the memoir of a woman as old as the century. There are notes-to-self from the 'author', in a different voice (and a different font), which indicate that something rather more macabre is going on.

And gradually we catch glimpses of the Author, a young man who's caring for an old lady in a New York tenement. And we catch glimpses of the rest of his life, too, as imagined by the old lady. Or are they?

And then there's another shift; and another. And by the end of the book there's a great deal of doubt as to what's real, who's real, and who's who.

I really, really disliked the middle part of this book: only stubbornness kept me going. I should have been relieved when things changed, but instead I felt cheated.

It is cleverly done -- and there's some interesting takes on remix culture, blending past and present, the endless quest for novelty -- though there's some clunky writing in there too. But I didn't like any of the narrative voices, and I didn't think it went anywhere. Does that make it Art, then?

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Sunday, July 10, 2005

#59: The Shadow of Albion -- Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill

Another book that I've had for ages but only just rediscovered while clearing bookshelves.

Andre Norton, who died recently, was the first SF author I discovered for myself (around the age of 7). I find some of her writing stiff and over-purpled, but she knew how to tell a story. Rosemary Edghill (who writes crime, SF and Regency romance under a number of pen-names) is a more recent favourite. When I heard of this collaboration -- an alternate-history romance -- I was intrigued.

I'm a little disappointed. There are pacing issues, especially towards the end of the novel (the first in a series, published 1999), where some key scenes are disposed of in a couple of sentences: the last couple of chapters feel terribly rushed, in marked contrast to earlier parts of the book.

The plot's sound, though. England, 1805: but there's a Stuart King on the throne, and America is still a colony. Dying of consumption, the Marchioness of Roxbury makes a pact with the faery folk to bring a replacement from another world to complete a mysterious Task. The replacement, Sarah Cunningham of a Baltimore more nearly resembling the one in our own history, is duly summoned and takes her place -- not only as haughty aristocrat but as the fiancée of the Pimpernel-like Duke of Wessex. Heyeresque intrigue -- cut with weightier affairs, such as the abduction of the Danish Princess who was due to marry the heir to the throne, and the rumoured reappearance of the lost Dauphin -- ensues.

I'll be acquiring the rest of the series, I think: I want to know more of how the story resolves itself. And there are some charming characters, though mostly among the supporting cast. And there's enough wit and invention to make up for most of the lapses.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

#58: Dark Fire -- C J Sansom

Historical whodunnit, set in 1540 London; slightly earlier than the period I'm currently interested in, historical-fiction-wise, but this novel features Greek Fire, so it was a must-read.

The prose is a little bland, and Sansom could do with the sort of editor who spots favourite phrases and ruthlessly excises them. Some of his characterisation seems a little stereotypical, and he's a little too fond of showing off his learning -- either that, or he doesn't trust his readers to know anything at all about the period. (It's what annoyed me most about Jill Paton Walsh's tribute to Sayers, Thrones, Dominions: too full of details about London in the 1930s, which Sayers took for granted.) I'm not an historian, but I can generally pick up meaning from context -- perhaps because I'm an SF reader? -- and I find constant fact-insertion rather distracting.

Oh, and Sansom (describing a boat journey to Deptford) seems to have forgotten (a) Greenwich, just beyond, and (b) Rotherhithe. Though in the latter instance I feel he can be forgiven.

Those quibbles aside, I enjoyed the book very much: excellent pacing, a nice braiding of at least three separate plot threads, some fairly credible Renaissance science (I've been reading the same books as Sansom!) and an intriguing core cast. Matthew Shardwell, the hunchback lawyer protagonist, spends a little too much time feeling sorry for himself: but his acquisition of a new assistant, Barak (Jewish ancestry, poor boy made good and then made bad again) is interestingly disruptive.

This is the second in a sequence: I'll keep an eye out for the first, but am looking forward more to the third.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

#57: Tamburlaine Must Die -- Louise Welsh

Finished this the other day, but have been wondering why I didn't like it more. The language is splendidly rich and evocative: every sentence has a poetic resonance, and the imagery is vivid and fresh. So's the evocation of 16th-century London -- dirty and disease-ridden and full of violence, decay and double-dealing.

I think my problem's Marlowe himself -- and I don't think it's a failing of the book (as some reviewers seem to feel) that he's portrayed as a man who lives his life in a consciously theatrical manner. He has an eye for a scene, and it often feels as though he's dramatising an event even as he (ostensibly) sets it down for posterity. There's a hollowness at the heart of Marlowe; we're never quite sure what he feels about the events that happen to him. His desperate wish to live, to survive a meeting in Deptford (the novella takes place over the last three days of his life) does come through, but there's not much sense of anything else affecting him more than superficially. He's rueful and world-weary and ever so arrogant; not an especially likeable character.

All that said: this is a quick read (it's only just over a hundred pages long) and the prose is wonderful. Worth a read.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Sunday, July 03, 2005

#56: Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean -- Justin Somper

I was in the mood for something frivolous, easy and light, and this was exactly right. It's also well-written, enviably well-paced, and witty.

It's 2505 (though in fact there doesn't seem much evidence of it being The Future, or any special reason why it should be). Twins Connor and Grace Tempest are brought up by their reclusive lighthouse-keeper father, but when he dies they flee orphanage and adoption in favour of an escape by boat. Best-laid plans, etc: a storm comes up, their boat is wrecked and the two are separated.

Connor ends up on the Diablo, an old-fashioned pirate ship (the captain wears a blue velvet frock-coat and has a snake in his hair) with some management issues. First Mate Cheng Li is a graduate of the Pirate Academy and has all sorts of peculiar notions about rules (but they're more guidelines) and proper pirate behaviour. Conorr takes to her anyway, though his other friends are more traditionally piratical.

Grace is pulled from the water by a midshipman on the infamous Vampirates ship (what it says on the tin: there's an old sea shanty about pirates and vampires which the twins' father used to sing to them: if pirates are danger and vampires are death, etc). She's treated well, makes friends with the figurehead (who's only a figurehead by day: at night she is Miss Darcy Flotsam), and learns some of the history of the crew -- including Sidorio, who in life was one of the pirates who captured Caesar.

There's a happy ending which sets the scene for the next book -- in fact it's a bit of a cliffhanger, which is slightly annoying.

The writing is nice: well-paced, nice use of metaphor (and none of it hammered home), plenty of unresolved mysteries, and some really interesting characters. Suspect this is aimed at teenagers: there's drinking, smoking and what looks suspiciously like a brothel.

I hate to say it, but:
If you liked Pirates of the Caribbean, you'll like this book.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Saturday, July 02, 2005

#55: Downs-Lord Dawn -- John Whitbourn

Thomas Blades, a meek 17th-century curate, finds a magical portal and steps through into an alternate England where humans live in burrows underground, oppressed by the quasi-human and beastly savage Null. Blades has two advantages: education, and a few muskets that he brings back on his second trip. Empire ensures. Messily.

Whitbourn's a little too fond of his own jokes, and finds plenty of time for wordplay and sly asides. The plot is well-paced and witty, though, and there are some interesting extrapolations. I didn't especially like Blades until the end, when he realises that amid all the empire-building and war -- against the Null, against some technologically-superior strangers from across the western ocean, against his own family -- he's left himself behind.

This is the beginning of a trilogy, and I'll probably hunt down the other two books at some stage -- it'd be interesting to see how some of the foreshadowing plays out -- but it didn't grab me the way I was hoping to be grabbed once I'd read the first page.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

#52, #53, #54: The Magicians' Guild, The Novice, The High Lord -- Trudi Canavan

Canavan's characters redeem an otherwise formulaic fantasy trilogy. I don't especially like her protagonist, who is far too serious, worthy and virtuous for her own good (and doesn't ever seem to enjoy anything), but she faces and works out her moral dilemmas very credibly. I'd've liked more backstory for the villain, Akkarin, and more subplot for other major characters -- Canavan's motto seems to be 'tell, don't show', but she doesn't indulge in back-plotting enough!

I really, really wanted to edit her prose at times: there are repetitions (one word is OK, a favourite descriptive phrase is not); there's some very clunky phrasing; and she has a tendency to belabour the point. (Some of this may be deliberate: I wonder if these books were originally aimed at a YA market. They're published as adult fiction in the UK, though.)

The most annoying thing, though, is the way she assigns exotic new names to birds and animals that look strangely familiar -- the habit that someone (Damon Knight?) referred to as 'calling a rabbit a smeerp'. There are not-chickens, not-foxes, not-spiders, not-oxen and not-mice. (Don't have the books to hand, can't recall names.) Why not just use the familiar English name? None of these creatures have plot-relevant differences, as far as I can tell. And -- after keeping me guessing for ages about what creature would turn out to be drawing the carriages that everyone travels in -- she called them 'horses'.

I did like some of the characters (Ceryni, Dannyl, Rothen, Akkarin) and wish she'd concentrated on them rather than on the dull-but-worthy Sonea. And despite the aforementioned flaws, I kept turning the pages -- the pacing is excellent. Too many words, though, and not enough of the right ones.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Friday, June 03, 2005

#51: Billie Morgan -- Joolz Denby

Billie Morgan is a woman in her mid-forties, running a jewellery shop in Bradford and perpetually trying to accommodate her past. She's a working-class lass who's at odds with her family, a former biker chick, divorced, adores her godson Natty, tries her best to look after Natty's heroin-addict mother Jas, wears a lot of black. She's hounded by the Black Dog of depression.

Billie Morgan is a murderer.

I bought this book because on first glance I couldn't work out why it had been shortlisted for the Orange Prize. The writing is plain and vividly characterised: I have to read something else by the author now, to see just how different her style is when she's writing from a different point of view, because it's the sort of book that makes you feel you really are reading a diary: it's that intimate, that unfaltering.

From the very first page (and indeed the blurb) the fact that Billie's a murderer is foregrounded. That's not a secret: but there are secrets, equally terrible, that are only gradually revealed. The events that unfold -- not just in the past, in Billie's youth, but in the present day -- have the scale and resonance of Greek tragedy. Denby's writing, earthy and straightforward (if occasionally over-adjectival) pulls no punches.

Negative points? I'm never keen on writing that tries to transcribe the patterns of an accent: but at least she only does it in dialogue. And set against lines like "a grey-muzzled old dog fox, lithe and wick as a dusty russet flame", I'll forgive her.

The obligatory "this book is 'about'" line: it's about closure, about coping, about missing fathers and wicked mothers; it's about new perspectives on the past, and coming to terms with unpleasant truths.

I bet Billie Morgan would drive me up the wall in real life: but I liked her a lot in this book, and I'm very highly impressed with the novel.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

#50: I Was a Teenage Fairy -- Francesca Lia Block

Bought this on the strength of the author's 'Weetzie Bat' books: not sure I like it as much, though it's a thought-provoking and empowering book.

The pubescent protagonist, Barbie Marks (yes, named for the doll), has an Imaginary Friend: but her imaginary friend, a minute fairy named Mab, doesn't think she's at all imaginary. She's a very American fairy, smart-talking and snappy and prone to providing therapy sessions. She is Barbie's only real friend.

In the first part of the book, that's more or less it. A few metaphors about imprisonment. A few about image. (Barbie is a child model, and her mother the epitome of rapacity.) Some refs to the Cottingsley fairy photographs; some refs to Peter Pan.

Fast-forward five years. Barbie's borderline anorexic: there's a Bad Thing in her past that she refuses to think about. Mab (who is as lewd and rude as Tinkerbell in the recent Peter Pan film) is still with her, and shares in a number of adventures -- some of them quite unsensationally (though erotically) described. (Being handbag-sized doesn't mean she doesn't appreciate pretty, sexually-ambiguous young men.)
But it's Barbie alone who reinvents herself, who triumphs over evil and frees herself from her past. And that liberates Mab too.

I nearly put this book down when I discovered from the blurb that the author was voted one of the coolest people in LA: but, as well as a clever, street-smart style (by now probably terribly dated - this was published in the 1990s), she has a gift for metaphors of a concrete sort. (LA as a reclining billboard model: the San Fernando Valley as her teenybopper sister.)

Some fine writing and some raw emotion. Shallow: but with depths. if that doesn't sound too utterly pretentious: this teen stuff is catching!

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Sunday, May 29, 2005

#49: The Ambitious Stepmother -- Fidelis Morgan

I only managed to finish reading this because it's a quick, undemanding read.

Set some time around 1700 (I don't think the year is ever specified), it's an historical whodunnit featuring, as detectives, the Countess Ashby de la Zouche and her maid Alpiew. This is the third novel in a sequence, though there's little reference to backstory so it stands alone. The Ambitious Stepmother takes the pair to Paris and Versailles, the court of the Sun King, in search of a husband for a young woman whose stepmother wants her out of the way.

I've two three several major gripes with the book.
- dodgy historical background. (Difficult to know whether the author is inventing alternate history, or just sloppy with her research.)
- major plot elements that are skipped in the main narrative and then referred to, repeatedly, later on. Subplots come and go. The book feels unbalanced.
- knowingness. The book's full of anachronistic jokes at the characters' expense: the Countess meets a fellow-writer who keeps suggesting titles to her, only to be mocked for thinking that, e.g. a novel called 'Pride and Prejudice', or 'War and Peace', would sell. There's a sub-plot about the origin of Bechamel sauce.
- the author's often rather unkind to her protagonists, and resorts to shorthand in describing them. I have no idea what Alpiew looks like, except that she has large breasts. Ditto the Countess, except that she's fat (gleaned from many, many refs to 'pudgy hands', 'waddling' etc).

And sometimes verisimilitude is sacrificed for pure farcical excess:

Do you know, Alpiew, if a playwright put such a scene in a play, the audience would think his mind was in a frenzy and ... he would be dispatched instantly to Bedlam.

Yes, well, quite.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Saturday, May 28, 2005

#48: Indigo: or, Mapping the Waters -- Marina Warner

I've owned this book for a long time -- its premise, a tale of 17th-century colonialism and 20th-century post-colonialism inspired by The Tempest, intrigued me -- but have only just got around to reading it. It's splendid, though occasionally a little too conscious of its erudition, a little too studiedly Literary.

The 17th-century scenes, set on Enfant-Beate (a pair of imaginary Caribbean islands), are splendidly baroque. Shakespeare's witch Sycorax is a healer: Ariel and Caliban her adopted children, both from elsewhere. The animals are tame, the springs are hot and transform everything to pearl, the English -- when they come -- are credibly brutal, ignorant and yet often well-meaning.

The 20th-century scenes -- London and Paris, focussing on the close-knit family descended from the original Kit Everard, and their 'family retainer' Serafine, a native of Enfant-Beate -- are rich in detail, though their style is quite different. The central character is Miranda, from her presence at the post-war christening of her 'sister-aunt' Xanthe to her eventual happy ending in the 1980s. She's doomed (or blessed) to feel too much: Xanthe, by contrast, is given a christening-wish by a genuine Princess, who blesses her with a lack of emotion. The story follows the girls from childhood in the shadow of Miranda's grandfather -- surely Prospero, in the guise of an ageing sportsman (Warner has invented Flinders: a marvellous game, a little like cricket but far more complex, which encodes key episodes in the colonisation of Enfant-Beate) -- to Miranda's brief escape to 1960s Paris, and their business venture in Enfant-Beate itself, peddling the hot springs as a modern-day Fountain of Youth to rich American tourists.

Warner's very good at evoking atmosphere -- from the stench of indigo production to the miasma of a London pea-souper, from a cheap hotel in Paris to the depths of South Kensington tube station. I'm only realising now how much she's left the reader to guess at, in terms of characterisation.

I do like the way she writes.
The emptiness in which all things revolve is blue ... Time was no other colour but blue, since distances were blue and water too. But when you enter into them, she saw now with sorrow, the blueness evaporates. It has no more substance than a smell.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place