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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

#106: Dzur -- Steven Brust

Dzur is the tenth Vlad Taltos novel. Do not start here! Go back to, well, one of the others!

The action of the book takes place straight after the events in Issola: you may also wish to reread Teckla to familiarise yourself with Vlad's recent history. And you will miss a few of the jokes if you have forgotten certain key elements of (I think) Orca. And while you're there, might as well read the others: I think they're all referenced one way or another ...

The book is framed by an elaborate meal at Valabar's, during which Vlad entertains a (Dzur) guest and casts some light on his current situation. Each course of the meal (and there are many) leads into another chapter of the narrative. In a sense, then, all this happens over dinner. But not really.

Vlad is still wanted by the Organisation he used to work for. The rackets he once ran are under the control of the Left Hand of the Jhereg (a.k.a. the Bitch Patrol). His ex-wife Cawti needs his help (and has an ace up her sleeve with which to persuade him). Morrolan, who does not appear in this novel, is not best pleased with Vlad. The Demon Goddess may be messing around with his memories, suppressing some and permitting others to return, newly vivid. And, oh yes, someone's trying to kill him. Business as usual, really.

There's a sense of imminence throughout the novel, the sense that something big is about to happen: and I don't think that's ever quite resolved. Vlad has come into an enormous amount of power, but he hasn't had time to adjust to it. And though he's a character whose life is enriched (not to mention saved) by his friends, they're mostly absent from this instalment. Apart from Sethra. And Kiera.

I enjoyed the novel very much, but it left me desperate to eat a large, indulgent, gourmet meal accompanied by a selection of fine wines reread the rest of the series -- not practical right now, as they're in a box in a loft in another county. And I'd like the next one now, please.

#105: Life Mask -- Emma Donoghue

Life Mask is based on the true story of three 18th-century Londoners: actress Eliza Farren, sculptress and aristocrat Anne Damer, and nobleman Lord Grey. Working within the facts – Eliza ended up marrying Lord Grey; Anne Damer (Horace Walpole’s niece) was reputed to harbour Sapphic tendencies – Emma Donoghue has created a plausible and poignant love triangle.

There are plenty of masks in this novel. No one’s entirely honest (even with themselves) about what they want, what they feel, what they think. Eliza’s manipulative and steely-nerved: Anne’s haunted by a single kiss, years since: Derby is ugly, emotionally stunted and probably deserves better than he gets.

Donoghue strikes resonances with contemporary affairs: Fleet Street hacks who hound the nobility, a cult of celebrity, scandal-sheets and anonymous reportage, the threat of war and the power of rumour. In pointing out the similarities, Donoghue’s occasionally heavy-handed: it’s not necessary to use modern phrases like ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ to hammer home the point.

Some of the info-dumps are a little too blatant, too: “only 200 of the 558 members of parliament” ... a reminder that Walpole’s the author of that lurid Gothic romance The Castle of Otranto ... ‘editorials’ from the fictional Beau Monde Enquirer, illuminating the wider issues of the day in language that’s plain to a modern reader.

But this is still an immensely readable novel, packed full of observations on human nature, on friendship (between two women, between men, between men and women) and on love, sexuality and repression. Anne, apparently devoid of an impulse towards erotic love, wonders if she’s unsexed herself for her art like the castrato she’s heard sing. This is as much her story as it’s Eliza’s, and the happy ending that she achieves is unexpected but just.

#104: The Privilege of the Sword -- Ellen Kushner

The Privilege of the Sword is sequel to Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner's deliciously mannerist novel that's wholly fantastical, though it's one of the few fantasy novels I can think of where there's no sorcery, no magic, no magecraft.

The Privilege of the Sword is a swashbuckling tale, all the more delightful because its protagonist is Katherine Talbert, teenaged niece of the Mad Duke Tremontaine - Alec Campion, noted for his decadence and his wealth. He's made a deal with Katherine's mother, his sister: a long-standing legal dispute will be resolved, and the Talberts will have their lands and wealth again, if she'll just give him Katherine for six months.

Katherine is not keen on the notion: little does she realise that the Duke has Plans for her that don't involve marriage, or a Season, or pretty frocks. Far from it. Katherine is to learn to use a sword: she's given breeches and boots, jackets and cloaks: she's taught by a master swordsman, and then by a mysterious friend of the Duke's who lives at his country estate. She forges a friendship with the pretty and well-born Artemisia Fitz-Levi - and vows vengeance on the man who's dishonoured her friend. And she falls in love with a book (a swashbuckling romance called The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death), and the play based on it, and maybe even with the actress who plays the lead. And ...

Oh, it's all too delicious. Wit, and subterfuge: the Mad Duke in all his sardonic elegance: the beautiful Lucius Perry and his dark secrets: Katherine's growing comprehension of the rules that really govern Riverside, and her own role - noblewoman, swordsman, socialite? - in that society.

Kushner's style is admirably suited to her theme: light and witty, delicately sketching complex relationships. The world she writes of is reminiscent of 18th-century London, packed with scandal and drama and intrigue, peopled with strong and fascinating characters. It's also, notably, a world where sex and gender are expressed rather differently. The Mad Duke's depravities are disapproved of because of their sheer excess, not because he beds men as well as women. Katherine's masculine attire and martial skill raises eyebrows because it's an eccentricity (and because she's the Mad Duke's niece) rather than because it's an affront against femininity. Oh, women are still property in several legal senses: Artemisia's honour is not her own concern, but her father's and her brother's. But it's legitimate for Katherine to come to her aid.

As soon as I'd reread this, I had to surf on over to Amazon and order another copy of Swordspoint (I have at least one, possibly two, but they're in storage) because I absolutely have to reread it and review the past history of some of the characters in Privilege of the Sword.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

#103: English Passengers -- Matthew Kneale

The eponymous passengers -- embarking on this voyage in 1857 -- are a mixed bunch. The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is looking for the Biblical Eden; Dr Thomas Potter is after evidence of Aryan supremacy; Timothy Renshaw is fleeing a dissolute lifestyle. They arrange passage on the Sincerity with Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a Manxman whose smuggling operation has gone badly wrong. Meanwhile in Tasmania, the penal colony is thriving; the natives are being oppressed, hunted, converted; and Peevay, son of an Aboriginal mother raped by a convict father, is trying to win his mother's love and find his own place.

The novel's told in different first-person voices, each quite distinct -- none more so than Peevay's, which the author states is intended "to portray someone intellugent and interested in words, who is from a culture wholly remote from that of white men but who has been educated by them, absorbing English phrases, both formal and informal, that were common in the 1830s".

Peevay's voice resonated with me, because it's a literary experiment that I've tried myself, and I was surprised to find that Kneale and I had used similar methods to attempt to convey a voice that is foreign, and naive, but far from stupid.
Of course I knew it wasn't really this fellow God who made us. It was other ones who are secret, like everybody knew. I never did say this to Robson, though, as I didn't want to grieve him when he was kindly saving us. ... Robson's God was a puzzle to confound. Everybody knew where our real ones were as they could see them every night shining in the sky, but when I asked Robson where God was, he just said 'He is everywhere'. He even said he was three people, which seemed some grievous mystery to confound. Also he told that if we didn't believe God was everywhere, then God would get angry and send us to some piss-poor place to get burnt, which was heinous, I did ponder. Our real ones never did care if you knew they were in the sky. They were just in the sky.

If there's a voice that doesn't quite work, it's Potter's, which is too modern, too abbreviated, and doesn't seem to follow its own internal rules. Also, reminds me of B. Jones' Diary. Content-wise, though demonstrably mad and deluded, he's all too evidently based on a number of 19th-century philosophers and naturalists.
Mules slipping, selves likewise, til all = greatly begrimed, boots heavy w. dirt. Only one little affected = half caste (no shoes) who = scampering through oblivious. This = further instance of his speedy reversion to aboriginal savagery.

Potter revises his book with each new plot twist, from perfidious Celts (when Kewley catches him out) through degenerate overbred Normans (Wilson and his increasingly ludicrous quest) to the baffling, impenetrable ways of the Aborigine -- is it 'some peculiar primitive instinct' that makes Peevay 'steal' Potter's treasured Aborigine skeleton? Like all of the characters to some extent, Potter's a caricature: one gets the feeling that the author is gently mocking everybody, even as he brings out their individual tragedies with a sure hand.

Given the wealth of voices (as well as the five protagonists, there are many subsidiary voices getting a word in edgeways: Jack Harp, Peevay's father; Mrs Gerald Denton, Wife of the Governor of Tasmania; Julius Crane, a prison inspector ...) it's admirable that Kneale ties up all the threads of his tale with dramatic justice.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

#102: The Island of the Day Before -- Umberto Eco

I bought The Island of the Day Before in 1996, when it was first published in paperback. It took me ten years to get around to reading it, but eventually I decided that it would be ideal reading to accompany me on my first crossing of the International Date Line.

I was right, and wrong. It is a fine aid to sleep on a long flight. And it's a long, and rather dense, novel that nevertheless can be read in short bursts. But my primary reaction was baffled irritation, and I was relieved when I made it to the end. Not least because Eco, in true po-mo style, doesn't actually end his novel, and I like the idea of his characters existing in Limbo for all eternity.

The novel is set in 1643, and tells the story (according to the back cover) of "Roberto, a young nobleman ... survives war, the Bastille, exile and shipwreck as he voyages to a Pacific island straddling the date meridian. There he waits now, alone on the mysteriously deserted Daphne, separated by treacherous reefs from the island beyond: the island of the day before. If he could reach it, time - and his misfortunes - might be reversed. But first he must learn to swim..."

Now, if the book within the pages had been the book described on the cover, all would have been well. Or better, anyway. But instead of that swashbuckling, romantic, plotty story, much of the novel consists of Roberto's life story told in flashback (born; convinced he had a double who did all the naughty things; in love with a peasant girl, possibly; takes part in the siege of Casale; gets on the wrong side of the wrong people, and is sent to investigate the principles of longitude). And much of the rest of the book is taken up with a jumble of incoherent philosophy, mind games, gleeful catalogues of theories, emblems, ailments, cures, cartographical errors, ornithological collections, novelistic misconceptions and obscure terms. (Versipellous, nielloed, hircocern ...I wonder whether they were as obscure in the original Italian? If not, the translator -- William Weaver -- has a lot to answer for.)

Yes, there is some plot in there too, but it's overshadowed by what seems to be cleverness for its own sake. The wordplay is almost obsessive, and the whole scenario seems to be an excuse to set up various philosophical arguments -- Roberto is a thoughtful young fellow -- and then mock them.

And this whole thing about the date line ...
Father Caspar had erred to such an extent that he found himself, unwittingly, on our 180th meridian, I mean the one we calculate from Greenwich, the last place on earth he would have thought of, because it lay in the land of schismatic antipapists ...

Well? Is it the 'date line'? Or is it not? Because a great deal of the book seems concerned with mind-games about looking into the previous day, changing the past, Judas' suffering going on forever and thus taking place in a location where time doesn't pass. If this isn't the date line (or a date line: it was a very indefinite construct before the 19th century) then ...

We have the author's voice to remind us that this is a Novel, a tale told, a construct in itself. And perhaps the whole thing is some elaborate joke about narrative. Perhaps we are as trapped within the tale as Roberto is trapped on the ship: perhaps we are distracted by the scintillation of the prose, the pretty pictures and the clever jokes (there's a dog named Hakluyt), in the way that Roberto is distracted by the caged birds, or by his own phantasies.
Is it possible he did not realise that he was planning to land in reality on the Island to rescue a woman who was arriving there only through his narration?

Is it possible that the reader has not realised that he has read to the end of The Island of the Day Before to find the ending of a story (man is shipwrecked, gets fever, goes mad) that has no ending?

Well, is it?

#101: Blood and Sand -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite writers of historical fiction as a child, and I've continued to enjoy her novels -- most of which I've reread again and again -- in adult life. I wasn't even aware of this novel -- published in 1987 -- until I read a LiveJournal post about it.

It's an adult novel: I don't mean that it's full of sex and violence, though there's some of each, but the language is more mature, and the descriptions of warfare more intricate and strategically detailed. Yet at the heart of the novel, as at the heart of so many Sutcliff books, is a close friendship between two young warriors -- in this case Thomas Keith, Scots armourer captured in battle and a willing convert to Islam, and Tussun Bey, the Viceroy's charismatic younger son. The novel is set in Napoleonic times: 1807, in Egypt and the Holy Land, with Napoleon and Wellington passing in the background like the shadows of giants behind a painted screen. In many respects the setting, though exotic, feels little different to Sutcliff's depiction of Roman Britain. The military detail seems less compelling, either because of the lack of that familiar setting (and the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of same) or because, with its mature target audience, it focusses more on politics and double-dealing.

Based (including some of the most swashbuckling elements) on a true story, but I haven't been able to find out very much more about Thomas Keith. There's one element that Sutcliff specifically mentions inventing -- Keith's marriage -- and his wife Anoud is not as compelling a character as the other protagonists. At the close of the novel, her thread of the story seems very much an afterthought. It fits the unexpected ending, but makes her role in the tale equivocal.

Recommended, though certain readers will revel more in the subtext than in the story that Sutcliff tells.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

#100: Emotionally Weird -- Kate Atkinson

Emotionally Weird could be said to be 'about' the act of story-telling, in all sorts of different ways. On one level it's an ongoing argument between Effie (the narrator) and her allegedly-virgin mother Nora: an argument that's almost a game ("I bet you a pound we don't hear of Davina again" and 100 pages later, "you owe me a pound"). On another, it's the story that Effie tells herself about her origins -- about her mother, and her family, and her noble ancestors. (Why else would the two of them be sitting in a decaying mansion on a wet and windy Scottish isle?) On yet another level, it's the entwined stories of the members of a creative writing group at Dundee University -- not just the stories of the individuals (each of whom is neatly and economically sketched, three-dimensional and unlikeable as anything) but the wildly different novels that they're writing.

Those novels are a neat conceit. They're all genre fiction (if you count 'pretentious literary fiction' as a genre, which I do) and each -- with deliberately, and distinctively, awful prose -- is shown in a different font: gothic for the fantasy novel, serif-italic for the Romantic novel, and so on. And each character's novel says more about its writer and his or her aims than is at first apparent. (If there's one thing that didn't quite work for me about Emotionally Weird as a whole, it's the afterword, in which the commercial successes and Booker wins of some of the minor characters are revealed.)

Effie's story is an intriguing one, because it's perfectly reasonable (though not inevitable) for the reader to work out the twist before Effie herself does. She, by the way, is not the Emotionally Weird one: she thinks of herself as normal, and she probably is more normal than the other characters -- boyfriend Bob, for example, with his TV-SF references (it is, by the way, possible to date the action of the novel precisely, by reference to episodes of Doctor Who). But then again, she's writing and rewriting and commenting on her own story, even while Nora argues with her about the details, and reveals twists and turns of which Perfectly Post-modern Effie (help, I just wanted to diverge into word-play about 'ineffable') is wholly ignorant.

It's also a very, very funny book -- not just because of the setting (1970s student life in Dundee) but because of the characterisation, the cleverness, the quiet affectionate mockery of every single character including Effie herself. A joyful book, too, because of a complicit enjoyment in the prose, a sense of the author grinning and inviting you to share the joke, to write yourself in.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

#99: Voyageurs -- Margaret Elphinstone

I think this was my third attempt at reading Voyageurs: on previous tries, I got stuck before I'd really got to know Mark Greenhow, Elphinstone's personable first-person narrator. This time I devoured the book: perhaps because I was more able to relax into the slowness of the prose, the bleakness of the setting; perhaps because James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder covered a little of the same territory from a markedly different angle.

Canada, 1810: Rachel Greenhow, a young Quaker woman, goes missing in the wilderness after the death of her child. When news of her presumed death reaches her family in Cumberland, her parents are devastated: but Mark, her brother, is determined to discover his sister's fate, and he sets out alone on an epic voyage.

Mark is fascinating because he's so firmly rooted in two things: his faith and the landscape in which he grew to manhood. His narrative's presented as the work of an older Mark, annotating and editing the travel journal of his twenty-three year old self, sitting at his desk and looking out over the fells. There's much made of the difference between the wilderness of Western Canada and the high clean places of the Lake District: Mark reminds us, again and again, that he is used to a landscape from which one can look out. The endless forests and dark woods, the Indian trails, the bitter winters and rough company of voyageurs -- fur trappers and adventurers, conveying their spoils and trade goods by canoe and portage across distances that seem vast to Mark -- are as unknowable and forbidding to Mark as they must have been to his sister.

But he's not alone on his quest. Rachel's husband, Alan -- a Scotsman, with several strings to his bow -- agrees to accompany Mark. In the end it's Mark's nature, and his faith, that produce results: but he couldn't have made his journey without the aid of Alan, who's at home in the wilderness: who becomes a staunch and lifelong friend to his newfound brother-in-law despite the vast gulf of belief, of temperament, of experience between them.

In some respects it's a simple narrative -- yet there are so many unanswered questions, so many issues that Mark skirts or merely presents as reasonable fact but which have questionable morality. I'm not convinced that he actually likes his sister very much: as a symbol, a cipher, she's important to him, but there's a strong sense of ... not quite rivalry, but awkwardness.

In the end Mark triumphs because of what he is -- Nigigwetagad, the man in grey, the pacifist who won't fight (except with good cause), the polar opposite of incendiary Alan. His faith informs everything he does, even the writing of his journal, which is interspersed with rueful observations about his own failings. Vanity, lust, anger. Pride. He spends a lot of time thinking about his faith; wondering why, when the Society of Friends allows women to speak out in a way that's unheard of elsewhere, Rachel still felt silenced. "To begin with," says Alan, "I loved her capacity for silence." And later, "I respected her silence since I had no means to break it." Not all silences, Mark learns, are good silences, the silence of Meeting where truth comes in.

There's a certain coyness to Mark's 'footnotes': they keep us guessing as to the identity of his wife, right until the end of the novel, and there's no real reason (save literary suspense) for her name to be omitted. And the framing narrative, in which 'M.R.E.' discovers the journal hidden away between the rafters, allows a trick to be played with the ending.

Mark, despite his travels in Canada, never loses his Cumbrian accent. He writes of the 'glisky rime' of ice on Lake Michigan; of his memories of being 'a little lad', and of his sister's bairn; of thee and thou, in a way that never seems quaint or forced. I like Mark a great deal.

#98: Outside the Dog Museum -- Jonathan Carroll

People have been recommending this book to me ever since it was published: but I never do as I'm told. I probably enjoyed it more now than I would have ten years ago.

Or perhaps I'm just drunk on Carroll's prose. His writing is, literally, inspirational: I marvel at the acuteness of his focus, and find myself verbalising my own experiences and observations much more (and more intelligently) than I usually would do.

Harry Radcliffe is a brilliant architect who's just come through a bout of madness, out of which he was guided by the shamanic Venasque. Venasque passed out of Harry's life before the beginning of the novel, but he's as present as Harry's two girlfriends (Claire and Fanny), or Harry's new friend Morton Palm, a carpenter who specialises in doors and ladders.

Harry is approached by the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Saru to design a billion-dollar dog museum. Gradually he allows himself to be persuaded: the Sultan is a very ... unusual ruler. His son Hassan (engaged in an affair with Fanny) is a different kind of man altogether. And, it turns out, the Dog Museum is not what it seems, either.

As the novel progresses, Harry becomes more in touch with the world around him; sees things he can scarcely believe (magic and otherwise) and learns, in a sense, how to be alive again. He comes to terms with some unpleasant truths about himself, and acquires a number of interesting new skills. And he begins to make the right choices.

There's a dream-logic to even the most unnatural scenes (man eats car; child channels shaman; one individual acquires instant telepathic knowledge of what it's like to be that passer-by), and though there is certainly magic it's not the showy hand-waving stuff. There are no magic spells. (Come to think of it, there's one.) The supernatural's there all along, whether or not Harry is aware of it, but it sits quietly in peculiar forms and doesn't draw attention to itself.

But oh, the prose! Of a man being stripped back to essentials by adversity: "he poisoned down into a cowardly, selfish SOB". Of an optimist: "she believed in life and considered it her friend". Of being in the company of someone who's terminally ill: "Years later in a biology class, I watched a snake devour a live mouse bit by wriggling bit. That is what it was like to be with [him] that single day, knowing that something was killing him even as we stood there looking at his red onions."

Many people tell their stories, like parables, to Harry. It seems to me, looking back, that each one of those stories illuminates Harry's own story from another angle: but when I read the novel this passed me by, so subtly is it achieved. I'm already looking forward to rereading Outside the Dog Museum: already suspecting that the subtleties of its construction and technique will pass me by again.

#97: Vampirates 2: Tide of Terror -- Justin Somper

Second in the series, aimed (I think) at juvenile / young adult readers. This is perfect reading for the morning after the night before: fascinating characters, good pacing, adventure. And pirates. And vampires. And .. vampirates.

Grace and Conor Tempest, orphaned twins, were reunited at the end of the first book. Following a shipwreck, Grace had been rescued by the Vampirates: Conor, meanwhile, had ended up on a more traditional pirate ship. ('Traditional' is perhaps not the right word: this is the 26th century, when the waters have risen and the world has a different shape. Also, there is a Pirate Academy.)

This volume explores and explains some of the moral issues. Vampirates aren't inherently bad: pirates not inherently good. Conor learns about loyalty (and spends a lot of time at the Academy: in some respects this is mostly a school story). Grace begins to learn about love. There are quite a few new plot threads, some of which might have been better introduced in the previous book. And the ending, again, feels rushed -- though perhaps that's just because of the frantic pacing.

I like Somper's sense of humour, his slight tongue-in-cheek voice, and his ability to write a good seafaring story. A modicum of Australian slang, a definite Antipodean feel to it: I want to find out more about the wider world. A fun read.

#96: Keeping It Real -- Justina Robson

The first in a new series (Quantum Gravity), which I believe the author's said she wrote for fun. It shows -- which is not to say that it's slipshod or structurally or thematically lazy. I expect it'll be called 'self-indulgent', and yes, to some extent it is: but why shouldn't a writer do what she's good at and enjoys?

It's 2021, six years after the Quantum Bomb that changed everything. There are six realities, the human world (Otopia, nee Earth) being only one of them. The others include a realm populated by Elementals; Alfheim, where the Elves live, which has implemented an exclusionary policy for a year; Demonia (demons); Thanatopia (the dead); and Faery, which has been issuing tourist visas for three years.

That's Common Knowledge, outlined in the prologue. Robson sets out to illustrate the multiverse she's created by introducing Lila Black, half-cyborg (and half AI) after an unpleasant event in Alfheim, to the decadent and backstabbing world of the elves. Lila (another cyborg-woman with self-image problems, but somewhat more mature than Robson's earliest protagonists) becomes bodyguard to Zal, elvish lead singer of new rock sensation The No Shows. ("Elves don't rock," claims someone early in the novel. Zal is the epitome of rock. Though he's pretty sick of the lembas jokes and Tolkien references.)

It shouldn't come as any surprise to readers of Robson's earlier novels to hear that there's excitement and adventure and really wild things. I can't think of a contemporary writer who produces such cinematically vivid images -- not just action scenes but the literary equivalent of long-range panning shots that give context. And of course there's a lot of music, and Faerie vocalists in extravagant make-up, and duplicitous Elves, and a sense of Game that comes straight out of all those old ballads about Elves versus Mortals.

Oh, and according to the Elves, there have always been six realms: it's not a recent thing. All those ballads? Accurate historical reportage.

There are a few places where I felt more editing would have helped -- apparent mistakes such as 'filial' for 'fraternal'; over-dense info-dumps -- but Robson's prose is hip and sharp and admirably suited to her subject. Given the subject matter, I was surprised at how very different the novel felt to the Bordertown books.

Also, good use of fonts for the various races: the difference between speakers is visually as well as verbally striking. And some gloriously measured prose:
Elfheart machine-woman and demonheart elf-man. Walking four worlds inside the forfeit bond. Sing the two, eight, eighteen canticle, the shape of things, the weird of breaths, the soft hand in hand dance, and, as all water is one across the worlds and sings each to each unbroken the lowest notes of sweet lament, we shall bend our mind to thy curious measure.

Read that aloud: gorgeous.

This is patently the first in a series -- Lila's backstory is gradually, though not entirely, revealed as the novel progresses, while Zal's intriguing family background is not yet fully explained. I'm looking forward to the next in the sequence. The Quantum Gravity books, despite their sfnal scenario, cross genres (fantasy, romance, crime), and the playfulness conceals considerable depth. Not as deep, as weighty, as philosophical as Living Next Door to the God of Love, but in some respects an even more exhilirating ride.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

#95: The Double Tongue -- William Golding

Golding's last novel, left in draft at the author's death in 1993, tells the story of Arieka, a plain peasant girl with a divine gift. Arieka (whose first-person narrative this is) lives in the last century before Christ, the days of Roman dominion over Greece. She is chosen to become the Pythia -- the Delphic Oracle of Apollo. Despite the High Priest Ionides' secular views and worldly wiles (he uses an early pigeon-post to glean news from distant lands, and hopes that Arieka will give voice to his thoughts on current affairs) she is no fake, but a vessel for the god. The godss. They speak through her. They turn their backs on her. They utter and abuse. Golding's description of divine channelling is more reminiscent of rape than of rapture:
Suddenly my whole body began to shudder, not the skin with its surface movements but the deep flesh and bone, a repeated convulsion that turned me sideways, then around. My knees struck solid earth and I felt cloth and flesh tear. .. It was the god. He had come. What was this? A yell, my chest pumping out air, the muscles convulsed again.... I spoke to the god who had laughed: 'Have mercy!' and it was so strange to feel that same mouth which had opened and bled at the passage of the god's voice could now make words for a poor woman on her knees. (p87-88)

Ionides plans to use the oracle network to persuade mainland Greece to free itself from Roman rule. Arieka may be the gods' tool but she refuses to be the priest's --- is at first bewildered by, and later quietly dismissive of, his disbelief. The Propraetor Lucius Galba (an atheist, by his conduct) insists that priests and oracles confine themselves to 'religious duties' -- and, unlike Ionides, he does not perceive those duties to include wider concerns of patriotism, nor the reinstatement of theocracy.

But that's only one level of the plot. The novel also deals with Arieka's relationship with the god, or gods, she serves: her ignorance of what she speaks in trance, her dismay at the gods turning away from her (from Greece), the way that she and Ionides become like an old married couple without ever being anything but Priest and Oracle to Apollo.

The supernatural, the divine, is never explained, for Arieka accepts it for what it is: as real and vivid as any other aspect of her life. There's more mystery, for her, in finding a chest of tablets inscribed with Hittite characters -- left untouched since the early days of the Oracle -- than in swaying upon her tripod and speaking in a voice that isn't her own.

There's a section missing halfway through the book, and I can't help feeling that Golding would have polished and tightened and smoothed the text, possibly at considerably more length: the final chapters seem less 'finished' than the rest of the novel. Fascinating, though.

Monday, October 23, 2006

#94: Martha Peake -- Patrick McGrath

This is a prime example of modern Gothic -- a novel strongly reminiscent of Dickens (dank misty marshland, crumbling mansion with terrible secrets in the cellar, withered retainers, noble heroines etc) in both content and style, yet with a pomo twist of untrustworthy narrative and layered text. Without the latter, I'd have been wondering what the point was, for the Gothic novel's heyday has been and gone and I'm not sure that a Gothic novel set in The Past is likely to bring anything new, in terms of content and effect, to the genre.

Ambrose Tree, fancying himself the heir to Drogo Hall (inherited by his aged uncle from the great surgeon Lord Drogo) sits by the fire night after night, hearing his uncle William's version of the story of Harry and Martha Peake. Harry Peake was a smuggler in mid-18th century Cornwall, son of a whore and a fisherman; he caused his wife's death, and broke both his family and his spine, in a drunken lapse of sense. Setting out for London, accompanied only by his daughter Martha, Harry forged a sober new life amid the radicals and free thinkers. But drink would be the undoing of him again -- and of Martha, who fled to New England alone.

There the tale divides, and Ambrose becomes more the creator than the narrator, piecing together Martha's story from her letters and his own fervid imaginings. Meanwhile, his uncle continues the tale of Harry Peake -- but the tale Ambrose believes he's hearing is very different to the one that the elderly William is trying to tell him. Martha becomes a heroine of the Revolution; but what becomes of Harry, with his deformity and his craving for gin? Ambrose fears he knows: but one night in the cellar, a hand falls on his shoulder ...

Martha Peake is a tale of deception and self-deception. Martha weaves a new identity for her father, unwilling to confront his decline; Ambrose finds himself driven to write the tale of Martha's life in America; William, and his manservant Percy, have another tale to tell, and an oblique approach to it. And there's an ancient poet who wants his story told true at last.

McGrath evokes 18th-century London vividly, as well as the seven-week passage to America and the quiet, close life of an isolated fishing-port on the New England coast. And he evokes revolutionary fervour and human frailty, cleverly shaded but not obscured by Ambrose's prejudices.

Ambrose is a little too much the cipher -- hints at 'worshipping in a different church', an agenda that's never clarified, and an epilogue that raises more questions than it answers -- but he's a fascinating lens through which we view the Gothic melodrama of Harry and Martha Peake's lives.

#93: The Apple -- Michel Faber

A collection of short stories, focussing on various characters from Faber's monumental bestseller The Crimson Petal and the White. His introduction quotes, at length, several of the letters he's received from readers eager to find out what happened to the novel's protagonists. Do any of these stories provide that closure? Well, no, not really. And Faber says he has no interest in writing a sequel. But these were the stories that 'demanded to exist'. Intriguingly, there's one character who doesn't appear here despite Faber's best efforts:

I offered him an opportunity to live again, as a younger person, even as a child; I urged him to seize the chance to say the things he'd been too shy to say the first time round. He remained too shy.
Such things must be respected.


I take such author-character interaction with a pinch of salt. On the one hand, hello? Made up? On the other, any character worth writing about is going to achieve an independent existence in one's head -- in much the same way as pre-literate humans allegedly took right-brain notions as the speech of gods, writers' characters can take on an independent life in which the hard work of logical construction and extrapolation happens behind the scenes, behind the curtain of consciousness, and events and reactions and behaviour spring fully-formed into the mind.

The stories themselves? Some work better than others. Mostly they're set before or during The Crimson Petal and the White: glimpses of the lives of Sugar, Emmeline, Christopher; Mr Bodley (for once without his friend Ashwell) suffering existential crisis due to a fly; William Rackham revising his personal history, bitter and remarried and sure he's seen the body; and the tale of Henry, an old man recalling his boyhood in a household best described as Bohemian.

Henry keeps saying 'you read sex into everything'. But Faber's disingenuous. The sex is there, in almost every story.

Monday, October 16, 2006

#92: Soul Kitchen -- Poppy Z Brite

The latest in Brite's 'Liquor' series, featuring Rickey and G-man: a story about love, jealousy and addiction, with a garnish of murder mystery. As a whodunnit, I have to say, it doesn't really work: I spotted the villain more or less as soon as he appeared. The ending of the novel seemed a little rushed, a little abrupt: although all the threads were tied up, there wasn't really a sense of closure.

It's very much Rickey's novel -- I suppose they've all been, but this seems almost claustrophobically focussed on his POV -- as he comes to terms with addiction (to Vicodin and to work), and wonders whether he and G-man have lost their way. They're still home to one another, but is that just habit?

That said, I did enjoy Soul Kitchen, not least for the loving and lavish passages about food -- good food, bad food, soul food, tourist-trap food. And it's so very evocative of New Orleans, a New Orleans that I recall from a trip in the early 90s: a New Orleans that was washed away by Hurricane Katrina, which swept in just after this novel was delivered. I'm looking forward to Brite's next, to reading an insider's view on the wreckage of a city that's loved by author and characters alike.

#88-#91: The Saga of the Exiles -- Julian May (reread)

I discovered Julian May's Saga of the Exiles [The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King, The Adversary] during my second year at university, and fell for May's blend of SF and myth: I still think her characterisation, dialogue and pacing is exemplary, at least in these books. (I haven't enjoyed her most recent novels nearly as much.)

Some years later, I read Intervention and the Galactic Milieu trilogy, and they sent me back to Exiles, particularly the second half of the quartet, The Non-Born King and The Adversary. This is SF on the grand scale, though the focus remains firmly on individuals. And it's SF with a happy, or at least hopeful, ending; a conclusion, a resolution, a redemption.

Rereading Exiles recently (having acquired them in plain text format) I was surprised to find that I was appreciating them in quite a different way. Back in my early twenties (and in the middle of a comparative literature degree) I was busy recognising concordances and resonances. Stein, the deep miner who's well-acquainted with the internal geology of the earth, falls in love with Sukie (brought up in a satellite colony) who believes that the earth is hollow. Richard Vorhees is the Flying Dutchman, and he's redeemed by the love of a woman. Some of the Exiles become legends all unwitting: some impose legend on their own Pliocene existence.

This time round I noticed less of the structure and appreciated more of the detail. More, it must be said, of the nasty bits: Felice's ordeal; her relationship with Amerie (and Amerie's reaction, which I had subconsciously interpreted as homophobic, but which doesn't seem so this time 'round); cannibalism as a spectator sport; the geology of the wider world; the atrocities of physical and psychic warfare.

And I noticed one very important omission. May's Pliocene is a refuge for all sorts of misfits: opera singers (who know Wagner's mythology inside out), reenactors, historians, criminals. But where are the SF fans, eh? (There are plenty in the Milieu trilogy! And May, a BNF herself in her day, is familiar with the species.)

I think we should be told.

Monday, October 09, 2006

#87: Bel Canto -- Anne Patchett

Bel Canto explores two improbable romances and an unlikely state of bliss. In an unnamed South American republic, a world-famous soprano sings at the birthday party of a wealthy Japanese industrialist, hosted by the Vice-President of the country. (The President has cried off: it's the evening for his favourite soap opera.) Suddenly the lights go out -- that's the opening of the novel. And when they come on again, the party guests discover that they are being held hostage by a terrorist group. Negotiations begin almost immediately, and all the women, save Roxane the soprano, are freed within hours: but somehow the terrorists are not given what they demand, not least because their demands, conveyed by loudspeaker and telephone, change almost daily. Their sole face-to-face contact with the world outside is via Messner, a Swiss Red Cross worker who's holidaying in the country, and Messner's an enigma to the end.

In part, I suppose, it's about Stockholm syndrome -- the sympathy and respect that hostages may begin to feel for their captors. Or maybe, in this instance, it's simply that the terrorists (many of them teenaged, two of them female, and the majority so poor that they've never seen a working television) aren't actually all that terrifying. At any rate, a curious detente ensues, as the southern hemisphere's summer advances and the spring rains stop. There are random acts of kindness on both sides: Gen, Mr Hosokowa's translator, teaches English to a young woman; Roxane sings her scales, and her arias, for an audience more avid than she'd ever expected; there are football games, and talk of what will happen afterwards. By the end of the siege, even the victim of the most violent act is joking about it. And everyone in the Vice-President's house has revealed some soft underbelly, some dimension of humanity, that those around him (or her) could not have suspected. General Benjamin, the terrorist leader, suffers from shingles; the French ambassador sleeps with his wife's shawl in his arms; Cesar longs for singing lessons, afterwards.

Then the siege ends, and we begin to see the picture from the outside -- not the cosy claustrophobia of a fine house filled with 'victims' and 'oppressors' who are rich or poor, and who've discovered how small (how large) their differences are, but the way that the press has reported the situation, the hysteria whipped up by the President (does he feel guilty for watching his favourite television programme?), the negotiations attempted by Messner.

The last few pages of the book didn't ring quite true to me at first, but I'm beginning to view them in a different light: a sense of people turning to their companions in adversity, because there is no one else who can understand what it was like when their lives changes.

Patchett's writing is clear, crisp, understated: she does not waste her observations. There's a sense of, not exactly magic, but connection, that I first noticed in The Magician's Assistant (and found lacking in A Patchwork Planet). Everything happens for a reason, and with hindsight the plot seems inevitable.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

#86: Cup of Gold -- John Steinbeck

This is the tale, 'with occasional reference to history', of that most infamous of pirates, Captain Morgan. But the story starts in the Welsh valleys, long before Morgan's march on Panama or his years of fortune and favour: starts with a young lad who finds himself determined to go to sea, to leave behind all he knows, leave behind the turn of the seasons for the changeless heat of the Caribbean, leave behind his parents, and old Merlin on the hill (whose interior decor consists of harps and spear-heads, and who talks of sailing on a Spanish ship a thousand years before). Henry must leave behind the cold house, and the young and beautiful Elizabeth whom he loves, or hates.

(Years later, he'll tell stories of being dragged away by raiders at night, or of leaving behind some high-born lady who was his love. But Cup of Gold is all about the stories men like Morgan tell, and the stories that grow around them.)

Henry Morgan finds himself duped: sold as an indentured servant, he thrives but chafes at the bit. When the opportunity to go a-pirating presents itself, he leaps at it. ('Not a clever man,' said Merlin, 'so he will be a great one'.) His reputation grows, and with it his power and puissance. He becomes the subject of stories that have originated elsewhere, and sometimes those stories are older and oddly familiar. And gradually he comes to believe that he's a figure in a great and ancient myth -- a new Troy, with Helen personified by the mysterious Santa Roja, a beauty wed to a tyrant. Afire with story, he leads a buccaneer army on Panama; but his encounter with La Santa Roja is the pivot of his life, the end of boyhood and the beginning of adulthood, the end of the stories and the end, too, of any point or purpose to the legend he's created. Morgan loses his joy in what he is, and soon enough it's all crashing down around him, while he looks at the pieces and wonders why he doesn't feel more.

The rest of his life we see in fragments: a tissue of lies woven for the King and John Evelyn, so many versions of his legend and his triumph that he can scarcely recall what's truth and what's invention -- only that nothing is quite right, even though he tells himself over and over that he's true, still, to himself. Isobel, who sees him for what he truly is, calls him a bungling romantic rather than a realist. Her tale's an intriguing one: she has only ever loved one man, a Vagabond, but he's long gone and she has set aside passion in favour of icy disdain.

At the end, Morgan's on his deathbed, forgetting everything, forgetting each of his deeds. Forgetting the wife who bullies him and the woman he loved and lost himself to. Forgetting everyone except Elizabeth.

Steinbeck's first novel: there's a spare starkness to the prose, which sometimes sits oddly with the rich decadence of the golden age of piracy. This is no adventure yarn, though, but an exploration of fame, legend and myth: and from another angle, a cautionary tale concerning the effects of a romantic imagination.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

#85: Not the End of the World -- Kate Atkinson

Thirteen linked tales (or possibly eleven linked tales and a framing narrative): recommended by several friends, and I can see why. Atkinson's stories don't always have a beginning, a middle and an end -- at least not on the page -- and, though they echo Greek myth, they don't precisely mirror it. The Persephone figure is a mother: Atalanta's immortality draws as much on modern myths as ancient ones: Artemis is a nanny, and really rather good at it.

Most (though not all) of the stories are told from the point of view of a female character, and the same characters appear again and again: Hawk, the seducer of older women (who may also be the Egyptian sun-god, who falls prey to a rather unusual cat); Heidi and Trudi, the twins; the myriad Zane women; Pam McFarlane, English teacher and ineffectual mother ...

And there are recurrent themes too: wedding favours, the number five, twins and doppelgangers, a soap opera called Green Acres, a rare beast called the wolfkin, a striped grey cat, Buffy, Playstation games, and rosy-fingered Dawn.

Though the stories are influenced by, rather than derived from, Greek myth, there's a strong sense of a familiar setting: as though, if I sat down and mapped all the relationships, the dysfunctional families and absent fathers and metamorphoses, and then filed off the names, the shape of the tree would be familiar.

Not all the stories would be as effectual without the supporting structure of the others. I'm especially intrigued by the post-apocalyptic city (possibly, as in so many of the stories, Edinburgh) that's the backdrop to the first and last stories in the book, 'Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping' and 'Not The End of the World'. Atkinson's definitely of the 'never apologise, never explain' school of writing, which can lead to confusion: but her cultural references and recurrent motifs provide enough context for the engaged reader.

Monday, September 25, 2006

#84: Margery Kempe -- Robert Gluck

Some stories, threaded together in a single narrative, illuminate each other. Some don't. The tales of Margery Kempe and L., 'Bob's' aristocratic young (male) lover, fall into the latter category.

I don't recognise the Margery here, whining rather than roaring, perpetually running after a Jesus who looks and acts, not like the divine ecstasy of her visions, but like a spoiled, modern-day brat. Margery seems defeminised, too: her experience of womanhood feels very much an outsider's view. She, and the other women who feature in the medieval parts of the novel, seem acutely aware of their sexual organs at all times. There's little sense of Margery as wife or mother: come to think of it, there's little sense of Margery as anything other than a woman -- well, a person in a woman's body -- who makes a fool of herself over a young man who eventually abandons her.

I suspect I'd have got more from the novel if I'd been reading Margery's tale as an allegory of the state of affairs between 'Bob' and L: a tale of unrequited love, imbalance, a person who doesn't fit into his lover's life but can't give him up. But I've been fond of, and intrigued by, Margery since I first read her Book at university -- she was something of a local celebrity in Norwich, and some of her possessions are on show in the Castle Museum -- and I couldn't step back far enough to read her as a cipher.

Some of the prose is beautiful, though a few phrases -- "the ostler's in-a-blue-dress daughter" -- jar. And Gluck is not dishonest about what he's writing:
I kept Margery in mind for twenty-five years but couldn't enter her love until I also loved a young man who was above me ...I asked my friends for notes about their bodies to dress these fifteenth-century paper dolls. I clothe the maid, Willyam Wever, the Archbishop of Lincoln in Camille's eruptions of physicality, Ed's weekend of tears, Dodie's tangled nerve endings, Steve's afternoon nap. My story proceeds by interaction. (p.12, p. 90)

It's the story of a failed love affair, but it never engaged me enough to sympathise with any of the characters.

Friday, September 22, 2006

#83: Conundrum -- Jan Morris

Jan Morris was born James Morris: Conundrum is the autobiographical account -- first published in 1974, and reprinted with new introductions that reflect the changing times in 1986 and 1997 -- of that transition. From the very first sentence the author's viewpoint is clear: "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl."

I've admired Jan Morris's travel writing for years, but this is a more intimate journey (though never crude and seldom explicit). It deals in the higher forms of love (though the lower forms are present too: as James, the author fathered several children). Morris writes of the 'fierce calculating love' that, even unrequited, binds things to the lover:

"Whole cities are mine, because I have loved them so. So are various pictures scattered through the art galleries of the world. If you love something hotly enough, consciously, with care, it becomes yours by symbiosis, irrevocably. I love Wales like this, I love Admiral Lord Fisher (d. 1920), and the greatest pleasure I get from my Abyssinian cat Menelik is the feeling that I have, by the very magnetism of my affection, summoned him from some wild place ..."

Morris makes interesting points about the differences between the sexes, though there's a certain arrogance to them simply because this woman is born not made. Speaking of the peak of physical fitness (climbing Everest in 1953) and admiration of one's own body and strength as a 'machine of quality', Morris notes: "Women, I think, never have quite this feeling about their bodies, and I shall never have it again." I suspect that female athletes do have similar feelings about their bodies: perhaps Morris lost it from being well past peak by the time he became she.

"Women are more self-contained than men, and at heart less gregarious." Or maybe it's just a reaction, conscious or not, to Morris's ambiguity. Or maybe it's the older generation.

Morris is more interesting when less general: on the subject of penis envy:
"It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive and stimulating. My body then was made to push and initiate, it is made now to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences." (p. 143)

And there's a poignant passage towards the end of the book, where Morris admits that 'the androgynous condition was a positive asset in reportage, [but] disqualified me for fiction', going on to say that she's now capable of more liberated self-expression, because of feeling less isolated from the human race. It's easier to imagine how others feel, and easier to know her own feelings.

Divorced from Elizabeth (who was James' wife), the two remain close, a meeting of minds that transcends sex. "One recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency and sexual incongruity." Indeed, Morris is of the opinion that transsexuality isn't primarily about sex: she wonders, in the final chapter, whether 'by denying physical sex a supreme importance in my life ... I am ahead of my time.' Indeed, as noted above re the higher forms of love, it's travel that engages Morris most intensely: she writes of "the most truly libidinous of a lifetime's various indulgences -- the lust of Venice."

Overall, this is a fascinating account of a transition that most of us will never make -- and one that, I think, reflects a world that's already gone, already lost.
"Sometimes the arena of my ambivalence was uncomfortably small. At the Travellers' Club, for example, I was obviously known as a man of sorts -- women were only allowed on the premises at all during a few hours of the day ... but I had another club, only a few hundred yards away, where I was known only as a woman, and often I went directly from one to the other, imperceptibly changing roles on the way -- 'Cheerio, sir,' the porter would say at one club, and 'Hullo, madam' the porter would greet me at the other." (p.114)

A difficult transition, made gracefully and elegantly: that's Conundrum encapsulated.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

#82: The Devil You Know -- Poppy Z Brite

An anthology of short stories with no central theme, though many are set in New Orleans, and several in the restaurants (and kitchens) of that city. Like many anthologies, this is interesting as much for the author's introduction, which discusses the 'writer's fatigue' that saw her turning her back on a 'serious' novel and writing for fun, the result of which was Liquor, as for the stories themselves.



Quick catalogue as much for my own reference as anything: 'The Devil You Know' is influenced by Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and looks at Carnival krewes. 'O Death Where is Thy Spatula?' is a Doc Brite story (Doc Brite being the author's 'alternate life' as coroner of New Orleans), with a voodoo element and a modern twist. 'Lantern Marsh' is an old-fashioned horror story. 'Nothing of Him That Doth Fade' is probably my least favourite in the anthology: it's Open Water territory, but somehow never rises above the mundane. 'The Ocean' is an everyday tale of rock'n'roll folk, with mythic resonance. 'Marisol' (based on a real New Orleans restaurant) is another Doc Brite tale. 'Poivre' is a deliberately pretentious take on food snobs. 'Pansu', a tale of demonic possession in a Korean restaurant. 'Burn, Baby, Burn' is backstory for Liz Sherman from Mike Mignola's comic Hellboy. 'System Freeze' is set in the world of The Matrix, though the characters don't appear elsewhere (and if I hadn't read the introduction I doubt I'd have recognised the setting). 'Bayou de la Mere', 'The Heart of New Orleans', and 'A Season in Heck' all feature characters from Liquor and its sequels, in one way or another: 'The Heart of New Orleans' is also a Doc Brite story. And a ghost story. And it's set in New Orleans.



The quality's uneven. There are moments of simple human truth as delicious and understated as anything in Liquor, Prime etc. There's a nice wry humour that pokes fun at, but doesn't mock, eccentricities and has ample space for the surreal. Those passages make up for the competent but somehow lifeless tales -- perhaps just the ones that didn't stir me -- and they're in a minority to start with.

#81: The Astronomer's Garden -- Kevin Hood

(Playscript, published with Beached, which I didn't read)

The year is 1717: the setting, observatory at Greenwich. Dramatis personae include Halley, Flamsteed (the Astronomer with the Garden), Mrs Flamsteed, Sir Philip Anstey, a manservant-cum-astronomer named Abrahams, and Lizzie the maid. Flamsteed is embittered at Halley's success; Mrs Flamsteed embittered at her husband's detachment; Ansty, apparently after anything in a skirt but revealing more dimension as the play proceeds; Abrahams, a good man wasted ...

The dialogue's witty and irreverent (Mrs Flamsteed to Halley, as her husband lies dying on New Year's Eve: "His last reference to you was, and I quote, 'Halley, the laptop that licks Newton's ...' the precise anatomical detail escapes me"). Mrs Flamsteed's first kiss is utterly and wholly unexpected, and rather more pleasant than her second: her happy ending neither traditionally happy nor an ending. Ansty accomplishes his transformation from libertine to scientist -- "merely a shift of emphasis" -- and Flamsteed's memory lives on, poisoning them all. It's not a very nice tale, really.

I would have liked to see The Astronomer's Garden staged: unlike some plays I've read, it didn't quite come to life on the page.

Monday, September 04, 2006

#80: The Lies of Locke Lamora -- Scott Lynch

This is a rather belated write-up -- I read the novel over a month ago -- but I do remember enjoying this much-publicised book more than I'd expected to, though I'm not convinced it is the Next Great Fantasy Epic.

Camorr lies, conceptually, on the trade route from Venice to Bas-Lag. It's a maritime city with nasty things in the harbour; magic that works; elderglass towers that glow at dusk, relics of a forgotten elder race help, I'm stuck in a 70s rock lyric!; a cast of vividly eccentric, almost Dickensian characters (criminals, noblemen or both); and a great deal of apparently-irrelevant digression that reminded me, more than anything, of Pratchett's footnotes.

Locke Lamora is an orphan who, through an innate talent for deception, tricks his way into an education as a thief, and a career as one of an elite band of confidence-men -- the Gentlemen Bastards. Locke is not a hero in any traditional sense: his crimes are selfish and self-serving -- 'He robs the rich. And that's it', to quote the Plunkett and Macleane tagline -- and he doesn't really fit the heroic mould, being short and unmuscular, and not especially accomplished with any weapon except his wits. That weapon, though, is sharp indeed, and Locke talks himself out of (and, to be fair, into) a number of risky situations.

Lynch's pacing is excellent, switching between Locke's childhood and his adult adventures (though there's still a teasingly mysterious gap between one thread and the other), building up expectations and then switching perspective, endearing us to characters and then ... well, there's some pretty nasty events in this tale. Plenty of bad language, too, which gives the prose a very modern feel (compare and contrast Fritz Leiber's career criminals, Fahrd and the Gray Mouser) and, though plentiful, is never superfluous -- always in character. And there's a broad streak of farce which reminds me of classic B-movies: escaping via a window only to discover that another fellow's doing the same one floor below; improvised disguises that don't quite cut the mustard; double- and triple-dealing that blurs an already complex plot.

I like Lynch's prose, his characters, his world: I'm hoping he doesn't prolong this 'sequence' (an unsettling term for a series, in that it offers no concrete expectation of arc and finale) beyond the point where it ceases to entertain and becomes merely (if enjoyably) indulgent.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#79: The Sculptress -- Minette Walters

I bought this novel from TSP when it first came out in 1993: I'd read an excerpt somewhere and liked the sound of it. Since then it had sat on the shelf waiting to be read. (The author's position near the end of the alphabet may have had something to do with this: the book was always low down at the far right of the bookshelves.) Finally read it: wonder if I'd have been more impressed thirteen years ago.

Olive Martin is nicknamed the Sculptress in prison because of her habit of making little wax models of women. She is tall, fat and ugly. Six years before the story opens, she was jailed for murdering her mother and sister and chopping their bodies up with a blunt axe. It wasn't at all like cutting up chickens. I was tired by two o'clock and I had only managed to take off the heads and the legs and three of the arms.

Roz Leigh is a freelance writer commissioned to write a book about Olive's crime. At first she's terrified of the woman, but gradually grows to be fond of her. Olive isn't entirely sane and stable: but Roz has a horrible secret in her past, too, that's revealed in teasing snippets.

The plot is wonderfully convoluted -- Roz investigates tirelessly, with many false starts, before she uncovers the truth and elicits a confession rather different from the one that Olive gave to the police. There's a fairly large cast and plenty of Means and Motives. Also, sadly, plenty of stereotypes: the Elderly Bigot, the Welfare Mum, the Happy Slapper, the Sophisticated Editor, the Rough-Diamond Ex-Copper.

What irritated me most was the wavering of narrative perspective. The story's told from Roz's point of view (though she's very good at not thinking about uncomfortable, personal things.) But occasionally the illusion of Roz-as-narrator is thrown:

Roz crossed her legs and relaxed into the chair. She was unaware of it but her eyes betrayed her. They brimmed with all the warmth and humour that, a year ago, had been the outward expression of her personality. Bitterness, it seemed, could only corrode so far. (p. 46)

And she's not even with someone who knew her a year ago and could spot that change.

As a murder mystery, it's a good read: as a novel, its style leaves something to be desired. I might try another Minette Walters -- I know she has a good reputation and this was her first novel -- but maybe not yet.

#78: Jack Holborn -- Leon Garfield

This is another of the books that I remember always being on the shelf in our local library when I was growing up: right next to Moonfleet, it was, and it had a dark, rather offputting cover. I liked some of Garfield's other books (especially the retellings of Greek mythology that he wrote with Edward Blishen, for instance The God Beneath the Sea) but Jack Holborn never tempted me. And I probably wouldn't have appreciated it then as much as I do now. Pirates! Swashbuckling! A Heyeresque plot of mistaken identity and last-minute reprieves!

Jack Holborn is a foundling -- named for the London parish in which St Bride's, the church where he was found, stands -- who runs away to sea as soon as he's old enough. He picks the wrong ship: the Charming Molly is taken by pirates before Jack's even crawled out of his hiding place, and he finds himself at the mercy of a cutthroat bunch. Only the Captain is kind to him, and promises that if Jack saves his life thrice, he'll reveal the boy's true parentage. Then the Captain is grievously wounded in a fight ashore ... and a mysterious stranger, another fellow 'on the account', is picked up from the raft on which he's been set adrift by his crewmates. Solomon Temple, it seems, knows the Captain: and the Captain knows him.

Mutiny, shipwreck, pygmy-ridden jungles, a diamond named the White Lady, Arab slave-traders, and the revelation of the Captain's true name: Jack's introduction to Economic Realities, via a bag of jewels and six hundred slaves: a return to England, and an unexpected welcome: Jack taking responsibility for his actions -- he's only fourteen, but by the end of the book it's a mature fourteen -- and thereby dooming a man. And a happy ending for most of those concerned.

Garfield's style is quirky and headlong, lots of ellipses, an irreverent and conversational tone: he's not afraid to gently mock his narrator, and Jack's heroism is often unappreciated (in a way that all resentful teenagers, or anyone who's been a resentful teenager, will relate to all too well). An enjoyable read, and well-paced.

#77: Lighthousekeeping Jeanette Winterson

Every time I read a novel by Jeanette Winterson, I resolve to read more. Yet her prose is rich, and poetic, and addictive, and infectious: so it's probably a good thing that I read plenty of other books as well.

Lighthousekeeping is the narration of Silver ('part precious metal, part pirate') who, orphaned, is taken in (with her dog, DogJim) by Pew, keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew tells Silver stories, and tells her about story-telling: there's no such thing as an ending; all stories are worth hearing, but some aren't worth telling; the lighthouse as a metaphor for stories, for narrative, for the oral tradition. A lighthouse is 'a known point in the darkness'.

Every light had a story -- no, every light was a story, and the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comforts and warnings. (p.41)

Silver is a likeable protagonist, young and confused and not ashamed to admit to her crimes. She steals a book: she steals a bird. She falls in love (and I'm not sure her lover's gender is ever explicitly stated: the sex scenes are tasteful to the point of vagueness). She learns to tell her own story: "Don't wait. Don't tell the story later."

In the tale of the nineteenth-century clergyman Babel Dark (alias Mr Lux) and his wife 'Mrs Tenebris', she discovers the consequences of not telling the story. That 'light and dark' dichotomy is echoed in references to Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and to Stevenson himself: there are borrowings aplenty from Stevenson's best-known work, Treasure Island. Tristan and Isolde, doomed lovers, become part of the story: Darwin, with his ideas about evolution and the ape inside man, pays a visit to Pew at the lighthouse. ("There has always been a Pew at Cape Wrath. But not the same one?" That question-mark does so much!)

Winterson's prose really draws me in. I want to quote something from every page -- "tripping over slabs of sunlight the size of towns", "Suppose the unpredictable wave was God?", "In the fossil record of my past there is evidence that the heart has been removed more than once. The patient survived." This is a novel that I couldn't put down, simply because that would mean losing the flow and the rhythm and the dark, maritime, claustrophobic sense of the lighthouse. (It's not a long book: as Winterson has Silver say, "a long story. But a very short book".) Her metaphors are often original, almost always thought-provoking, sometimes achingly familiar as though she's put into words an association I've never dragged far enough into my conscious mind to codify: the 'that's it, that's it exactly' moments.

Every time I read a novel by Jeanette Winterson, I resolve to read more.

#76: The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits -- Emma Donoghue

In the Foreword, Donoghue says, "My sources are the flotsam and jetsam of the last seven hundred years of British and Irish life: surgical case-notes; trial records; a plague ballad; theological pamphlets; a painting of two girls in a garden; an articulated skeleton." Some of the stories are slight, a moment from a life, the punchline of a ballad. Others are carefully-constructed miniatures that illustrate more of the protagonist's life and times than simply the events recounted in the story itself. None of the stories is very long: there are seventeen stories in just over 200 pages.

The earliest of the stories, historically speaking, is 'The Necessity of Burning', set in Cambridge in 1382 during the Peasants' Revolt: the latest is 'Looking for Petronilla', which begins in contemporary Ireland. The stories tend to cluster in the 17th and 18th centuries. I think this is partly because there are so many more sources available, and partly because human experience -- society, psychology, religion, science, urban life -- were (or could be portrayed as) more like our own than in medieval times.

Each of the stories has a female protagonist, though she is not always the narrator. 'Acts of Union' (Ireland, 1798) tells the tale of a spinster from the point of view of a drunken English captain who wakes up with more than he bargained for. 'Dido' (England, 1770s) is a tale about slavery, and the argument that led to Lord Mansfield's opposition to it. 'Account' (Scotland, 1496) is a story in the form of a list:

  • Number of daughters of Lord Drummond: 3 (Margaret, Euphemia, Sibilla)

  • Number of languages in which Lord Drummond's daughters could say 'Yes, Sire': 3.

  • Number of Lord Drummond's daughters invited to and installed in Stirling Castle, two months after the King's visit to the Drummonds in 1496: 1 (Margaret)



There are stories that can be read as lesbian romances: for instance, 'How a Lady Dies' (Bath, 1759) in which a young woman turns up at her female friend's house, crying that she cannot live without her. Stories that illuminate some of the nastier moments in history: witch-burnings, exhibition of freaks, scientific fraud, slavery, clitorodectomy. Stories that describe the many facets of female friendship and sexuality.

Many of the characters in these stories have only the vaguest notion of the world around them, of their location either geographically or temporally: some of the stories gain meaning and context from the explanatory afterword that follows each, though each story can certainly be read alone without context being required.

Sometimes there's a righteous rage simmering under Donoghue's simple prose: sometimes there's a wry humour, as in the first story, 'The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits'. The overall impression is of an author with a magpie mind, who retains and reworks the fascinating footnotes that proliferate in any decent history book.

#75: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian -- Marina Lewycka

How did they live the rest of their lives with that terrible secret locked away in their hearts? How did they grow vegetables, and mend motor-bikes, and send us to school and worry about our exam results? ... But they did. (p.273)

This novel won the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction, and was described by The Economist as "uproariously funny". I don't get the joke.

The plot would certainly make a good sitcom. Nicolai, Kolya, is an engineer by trade, a Ukrainian emigre in his eighties, recently widowed: the narrator, Nadezhda (Nadia) is his younger daughter, in her forties and engaged in permanent Cold War with her older, richer, more glamorous sister Vera. One day Kolya announces that he's getting married, to a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee, Valentina. Valentina is thirty-six, has a son by her previous marriage and will stop at nothing (boil-in-the-bag meals, green satin underwear, physical and mental cruelty) in order to buy into her dream of Western wealth.

Vera and Nadia must join forces to get rid of the unsympathetic Valentina, despite their father's protests. And as they finally come to know one another better, tales of the past -- their family history -- interweave with the sordid tale of the Ukrainian gold-digger and her multiple husbands.

There is some fine writing in this novel (written in English, and not a translation: the author was born in a refugee camp of Ukrainian parents and grew up in England). But there is far too much tragedy for me, at least, to be able to sit back and laugh at the comic moments. Kolya is especially well-drawn: an elderly man, no longer really in control of his health or his life, bullied and confused but still sweet-tempered. He's working on that Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: his world has contracted into a span of one room, but his mind still roams freely across the ploughed fields of the world (p.128). He doesn't tell Nadia the stories: it's mostly Vera who reveals, and conceals, the events that shaped their current lives.

"Mother was engaged to a submarine commander?"
"Didn't you know? He was the love of her life... Sometimes it's better not to know." With a snap, Big Sis closes the door to the past and turns the key. (p.123)


The novel is partly about the fusion of Ukrainian incomers and Middle England, but the dark core of it is the tale of the family's experiences during the Second World War, as captives in a German concentration camp. Nadia, born in 1947, is a child of freedom: Vera, ten years her senior, remembers the camp. See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries? (p. 236) Even at the end of the novel, a key event is unexplained. Nadia, though, has finally grown up, grown to accept her sister, grown to understand. When I was a child I wanted my father to be a hero... Now as an adult I see that they were not heroic. They survived, that's all. (p.311)

Is this novel supposed to be funny because the family are foreign, and -- especially in Kolya's case -- don't necessarily understand English law and custom? Or because Kolya is old and infirm and losing his mind? Or because Valentina is such a caricature? (Even she becomes human, gradually: and, before that, pitiable.)

A thought-provoking read, but not a comfortable or an especially enjoyable one. Perhaps, as the daughter of a recently-deceased emigre engineer who took up with a younger woman after my mother's death, I'm just a little too close to the subject matter to get the right perspective.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

#74: The Plague and the Fire -- James Leasor

What it says on the box, really. This is a straightforward compilation of the events of those two great London disasters. The section on the Plague is rather longer, telling of the rapid rise of the epidemic, the treatments that were proposed and the desperate measures taken to control, or contain, the disease. There are some chilling anecdotes: healthy individuals boarded up in their houses with dying plague-victims; the symptoms of bubonic plague; a plethora of nostrums including philosophical gold, 'of Elizabethan coins if you can, it is of ye best'; the determination of some towns to keep the Plague out at any cost; and even hints of necrophilia (but only hints: this was written in 1961). Apparently, this is the book that first suggested a connection between the nursery rhyme 'Ring o'Roses' and the Plague.

The account of the Fire is rather shorter, and relies more heavily on Pepys' Diary. Leasor gathers a variety of sources and concludes that not enough was done in the early stages:
The night burned far brighter than the day; the fire was many times stronger than it had been only a few hours earlier, yet still nothing drastic was attempted to quench it; and still those not immediately affected did not realise that it could possibly affect them. There have been worse cases of official inertia and private folly, but not many and not much. (p. 213-4)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

#73: The Atrocities of the Pirates -- Aaron Smith

The first-person account of a young sailor's run-in with pirates in 1822. Smith was captured by a pirae ship, captained by a man known only as Antonio, and forcibly recruited as navigator. He was brutalised and tortured (though in other ways allowed a surprising degree of freedom) and eventually, though enlisting the help of a young noblewoman, escaped by his own cunning. His ordeal wasn't over, though: back in London he was tried for piracy and acquitted, and later rearrested. This book is an expansion of his defense, with an afterword by his descendent Robert Redmond.

Reading the afterword, there's apparently some doubt as to how innocent he truly was, and whether he was at all complicit in the 'atrocities' of which the pirate crew were undoubtedly guilty. Several witnesses claimed to have seen Smith giving orders and being obeyed, or acting as a free individual: naturally, his side of the story was rather different, and involved 'fear of my life' and duress. Redmond makes it clear that the family regarded Smith's experiences, and his trial, as a grave embarrassment. There's surprisingly little sympathy for his situation.

#72: The Accidental -- Ali Smith

This novel appeals to me on all sorts of levels. There's the structure: three parts (Beginning, Middle, End), each with four sections that begin and end mid-sentence (beginning with 'beginning' or 'middle' or 'end'), narrated by each of the four members of the Smart family. There is Magnus, aged 17, waiting to be found out after a joke email goes horribly wrong; Astrid, aged 12, addicted to watching life through the viewfinder of her camcorder; Eve, their mother, who makes her living writing imaginary biographies of real people (what would've happened if they hadn't died when they did), but is currently blocked; and Eve's second husband Michael, a university lecturer who is also waiting for his sins to find him out.

The Smart family are on holiday in Norfolk. It's summer 2003. And into their claustophobic web of family comes Amber -- Alhambra -- a young woman whose impact on the family is greater than her marginal, framing, irrelevant narrative would suggest.

It's 2003, the year the war got going: the year that Love Actually was showing in the cinemas; the year that Damilola was murdered. These events are all out of focus, all alluded to rather than foregrounded -- but all there. (Magnus's account of the plot of Love Actually is hilarious.) There's a very strong period sense to this novel. I wonder what it'll be like to read in ten years' time? To reread in ten years' time? Will it age well? Will it make any sense? Will the story, as opposed to the setting, age?

One mark of a good book is that it leaves you thinking; noticing new connections weeks after reading the last page and closing the novel. I'm still thinking about The Accidental, a month after finishing it.

It's a novel about cause and effect, and its absence: when causality breaks down, when mathematical certainties and logical proofs fail. When Chekhov's gun ("if there's a gun on stage in scene one, it must be used by the end of the play") isn't there for a reason. Or when the reasons aren't what they seem.

It's about responsibility and facing up to the consequences of one's actions. Each of the Smarts has to do that, in a different way.

Amber enters into a close, intimate (not necessarily sexual) relationship with each Smart. She tells each of them a different story. At one point it seems that she's finally told the truth: then, questioned, it turns out that she can't remember which story she's told. (Or is that another story that she's telling, to mess with their heads?) Everyone makes up a different story about Amber, too: Eve assumes that she's one of Michael's students, Magnus that she's a quasi-spiritual saviour. But Amber, when it comes to it, is a child of the silver screen:

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She'd slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun...I used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dancefloor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you're sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp...I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn't just me, on the Orient Express.

What hooked me more than anything was the clarity of each voice. Magnus is a very credible, borderline-dysfunctional teenager: Astrid's sullen contempt and prickliness, and her devotion to her Art, rings a bell with my adolescent self. Eve's constant subterfuge and quiet desperation rings more of a bell now. And Michael's voice -- half-drunk and finding beauty and wonder in the blurring of the world, wholly intoxicated and penning sonnets in his Middle section -- feels so familiar that I'm sure I know him.

There are some aspects of the story that I'm still puzzling over. The Smarts' cleaner, Katrina (the butt of their middle-class jokes) seems to know Amber better than any of the rest of them do. Does that mean she knew her before? Or simply that, unhindered by the woven veil of her own stories about Amber, she's more receptive to the truth?

And who the hell is this Amber person anyway? Con artist or Zen guide? Thief or saviour? After all, she's the one the story's about, and yet I still know less about her than about any of the people she touches between Beginning and End.

Very highly recommended, even if some of the observations are too truthful not to sting.

#71: The Last Witchfinder -- James Morrow

This book was recommended to me by several friends: they knew I'd a fondness for the period in which it's set (17th-18th century); the heroine is a strong and intelligent woman; the narrator is a book; and though this is a very different novel to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (for one thing, it's about a fifth of the weight), its themes and setting -- even its dramatis personae -- are similar enough to invite comparisons.

The title is a little misleading; this isn't really the tale of Dunstan Stearne (son and heir of Walter Stearne, the Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia) as much as it's the tale of his sister, Jennet, and her adventures in the New World. Step back: it's the tale of the witch craze. Another step back: it's the tale of the Enlightenment. Step back again, and it's the timeless tale of reason versus superstition, Principia Mathematica versus Malleus Maleficarum, open-mindedness versus ignorance.

The best answer to a malicious idea is a bon mot, not a bonfire ... The proper way to defeat the agents of darkness is not to burn down their houses, but ... to let in the sunlight.

Considering that The Last Witchfinder is narrated by Newton's Principia Mathematica, we see surprisingly little of Newton. The focus is on Jennet, who has inherited not her father's compulsively medieval mindset, but her aunt's Enlightened open-mindedness and devotion to the scientific method. Her aunt Isobel, burnt as a witch, has also bequeathed to her A Woman’s Garden of Pleasure -- a book that bestows upon Jennet sexual enlightenment and liberation to match her intellectual emancipation. And Aunt Isobel's last request, quite understandably under the circumstances, is that Jennet should devote her life to discovering a scientific refutation of witchcraft.

This is a quest that takes her to the New World, to life amongst the Indians (I was very happy to see Morrow citing John Demos' The Unredeemed Captive as a primary source: it's one of the books that persuades me that history can be at least as compelling as a novel) and to a series of romantic affairs. Jennet reminds me somewhat of Stephenson's Eliza: all right-minded men who meet her fall in love with her, although she has a somewhat cavalier touch with family members. Even Newton's Principia Mathematica is in love with Jennet (a relationship that is consummated ingeniously, if not altogether ... logically).

For the Principia Mathematica is very much a character in this novel -- a character, and the author. The precise metaphysics by which a book goes about writing another book need not concern us here, handwaves Morrow. Or possibly the Principia: it's a personable narrator, satirical and scathing, principled and high-minded, at once inhuman and profoundly aware of what it is to be human:

While e=mc2 ultimately gives you 177,000 dead Japanese civilians, F=ma lets you skate across a frozen lake on a winter's night, the wind caressing your face as you glide towards the hot-chocolate stand on the far shore.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of The Last Witchfinder, for me, was the physical conflict, the Battle of the Books, between Principia Mathematica and Malleus Maleficarum -- a battle that takes place, not on any ethereal plane, but in vacant lots and warehouses where armies of bibliophagic insects devour pritned copies of the Hammer of Witches. It's almost trivial, against the literally life-or-death ideological conflicts of Jennet's age.

Set against that, though, is the way this novel is about science (though it's 'about' ever so many other things: parents and children, nature versus nurture, the impotence of physical violence against superstition). Newtonian physics are mapped to the four elements of the ancient world: Attraction, acceleration, radiation, resistance: earth, air, fire and water. And in the end, it is no unseen agent but the world itself that delivers the deus ex machina. This is a book that counters creationism, superstition, credulousness: a book that argues, in its own terms, that "God got it right first time."

Rationalism disconnected from decency, deliberation and doubt -- a triad that, were I human, I would call humanism -- leads not to Utopia but to the guillotine.

Friday, July 14, 2006

#70: Slammerkin -- Emma Donoghue

'Slammerkin' denotes 'a loose gown or a loose woman'. The story of Mary Saunders, an eighteeenth-century girl with a reckless spirit and all-too-modern Attitude, illustrates both.

Peripheral to Mary's tale, but compelling in their own lesser stories, are the people she meets: Abi, the Angolan slave; Caesar, the free black pimp with a knife; Doll, the London whore; Mrs Ash the wet-nurse; Daffy the man-servant; Thomas Jones, and his wife Jane, tailors of Monmouth. Each individual illustrates a different aspect of choice, and of commerce; all are traders, or goods, or customers -- are any combination of these roles -- in the human commodities market.

Mary's problem might well be that she doesn't know her own worth: she sells herself low, at least to start with. There's a sense of her careering headlong: having once fallen, there's no way back, there's no mending it. And it's not that she doesn't attempt to save herself, not once but several times, in a series of reversals that lead inexorably to her final fate. Falling pregnant after a single encounter, she's cast out by her mother; set upon, she's rescued by Doll; sickening, she's taken in by the Magdalenes, and taught to stitch.

"Mary owned nothing with a colour in it, and consequently was troubled by cravings."

The theme of colour -- often red -- and its converse, pristine whiteness, recurs throughout the novel. Mary doesn't just crave colour, but it's colour -- redness -- that's her undoing, from the red ribbon which occasions her fall to the crimsoned gown that's proof of her guilt.

"London was the page on which she'd been written from the start: she didn't know who she was if she wasn't there."

Leaving London, determined to make a new start -- a reversal of the usual 'off to London to seek her fortune' trope -- Mary finds herself in the suffocating environment of Monmouth, then a small town. She finds employment with Jane Jones, a friend of her mother's: is gainfully employed as a 'prentice dressmaker, helping to embroider a white velvet slammerkin for the wife of a member of the local gentry. But her past's like an addiction, a stain: she can't leave it behind. Only right at the end of the novel does she seem to know what she wants.

Reading this so soon after The Crimson Petal and the White was interesting, not least for the contrast between Mary and Sugar. There's much less period detail in Slammerkin, but it's still evocative of the dirt and noise and mundanity of urban and rural life in the late 18th century. Donoghue's style is deceptively plain: a nice turn of phrase, especially in dialogue, but no purple flights of fancy. Mary (based on a real person) is a fascinating character, though not always likeable: her strength of purpose reminds me of Becky Sharp, but there's an underlying brutality too.

Monday, July 10, 2006

#69: Moonfleet -- John Mead Falkner

Dorset, 1758: 15-year-old John Trenchard, raised by his pious aunt, falls in with smugglers and goes from bad to worse, from Dorset to Carisbrooke (Isle of Wight) and on to the Hague and slavery.

There are shipwrecks, smuggling, cheating Jews (Moonfleet was published in 1898, and is very much a novel of its time), plenty of local colour and period detail, and a full set of adventuresome ingredients, from the ghost of a Civil War colonel to a cryptic message hidden in a tomb. Every detail, from the going-price for a contraband matchlock to the colloquial name for strong spirit, rings true: the sheer noise of a shipwreck on a shingle beach is memorably evoked. The novel is occasionally heavy-handed in its Message: friendship is a priceless treasure and should not be betrayed; love triumphs over all; virtue wins in the end, and repentance means salvation. Elziver, one of the protagonists, is a little too good to be true: and John could do with a bit more guilt. But, overall, a pacy adventure story and a light, entertaining, melodramatic read.

This book (I have a Puffin edition from the early 1970s) is 'recommended for children of 9 and above, especially boys'. It's good sturdy competent prose, full of adventure, slightly sub-Stevenson but a well-plotted read, even if the pacing would be rather slow for today's readers.

#68: Double Whammy -- Carl Hiaasen

A double whammy is not, in this instance, the thing that the Conservatives accuse Labour of dishing out: it's a kind of fishing lure, used for catching big-mouth bass. Bass fishing is a massive growth industry in the USA, apparently, and big-name fishermen will stop at nothing to win competitions and the sponsorship deals that go with 'em.

The stage is set for another eco-thriller set in Florida, another appealing and eccentric cast of characters, another outing for Andy Garcia. Hiaasen's writing is as light-hearted, witty and clever as ever: he reminds me of Chandler without the noir, though there's plenty of (Heart of) Darkness here. His women are sassy and independent, his men are clever (even when villainous), and his eco-terrorists are never two-dimensional.

This one has a pet bass and fingerprints that set off all sorts of alarms.

Very enjoyable read, though I wouldn't want to read another Hiaasen for a while: there's a sameness of style and theme to his novels (though perhaps I haven't read enough of them, in chronological order of writing, to see the evolutionary process). But when something works this well, why fix it?

#67: Rainbow Bridge -- Gwyneth Jones

I read Rainbow Bridge while laid low with a viral infection, and found that I couldn't think very clearly about it at the time. I put off writing this review, and hindsight hasn't improved my perception very much: but I'll now be reviewing the novel for Vector, so will reread before I write a 'proper' objective review ... which leaves me free to ramble, and to mention minor plot-point spoilers, here.

DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVEN'T READ BAND OF GYPSYS.

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are you sitting comfortably?
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then we'll begin.


Following the invasion at the end of Band of Gypsys, England is settling into subjugation. Thirty thousand people were executed: the Triumvirate -- Ax, Sage and Fiorinda, who've narrowly escaped becoming puppets / corpses / weapons -- are living rough in the Ashdown Forest.

Rainbow Bridge is the story of how they reach an accommodation of sorts with the invaders, whose objective is not to destroy England. "This country has been identified as a human treasure, first class." Even that statement's code, and only by untangling the formal politeness and the elaborate deceptions of the generals and their aides can the deposed rock royalty discover who's really in control.

And it's never that simple. This isn't a two-sided battle, good versus evil. All sides are capable of morally dubious behaviour; all's fair in love and war. Ax, Sage and Fiorinda have as much to fear from their own partisans as from the massive armies of the East. And in the end, as it turns out, what's most important of all is loyalty and love: it's only when something dear to the Triumvirate is threatened -- in a horribly elemental, dark, and yet sfnal way -- that their true potential becomes clear to the new owners of England. That potential cannot be allowed to realise itself. All that can be allowed is to nurture the seed of the Good State.

This is a world where magic is increasingly part of everyday life. Fiorinda, seeing a vision, is resigned to it now:
Things like that would happen more often, to everyone. The aberrant observations had been validated, and their power would grow. Maybe we can erase the superweapon, but the genie's not going to go back in the bottle. She had sweated blood and fought with all her power against the rise of the magic world -- how irrational can you get? She learned acceptance, and made her peace.

There's a wonderful forlorn post-bellum sense throughout, though in some senses the 'war' is still in progress. England endures, in carol-filled woodland churches; in the Shield Ring collective in Cumbria, and their 'appalling economic miracle'; in Ax and Sage's vision of themselves as the Lantern Bearers, keeping the light lit. (The Rosemary Sutcliff echoes are no coincidence: her novel The Lantern Bearers is another rework of the Arthurian myth.)

This is, I believe, the last in the arc that began with Bold as Love -- though there are plenty of loose ends left hanging, like promises or hope. It would be unrealistic to expect a happy ending, but the ending rings true without melodrama.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

#66: Lucid Stars -- Andrea Barrett

Barrett is one of a handful of mainstream authors (having said which, I've blanked on other examples!) who can construct a robust metaphor for some aspect of human life from scientific theories. Her collection of short stories, Ship Fever, illustrates this beautifully. Lucid Stars takes its chapter headings from astronomy, and part of its plot from the conflict between astronomy and astrology. The central character, in a sense, is Ben -- real estate developer, husband, father -- but we learn of him only gradually, from observing those who are affected by him. There's no Ben-focussed narrative: just 'Penny' (wife number one), 'Cass' (Ben and Penny's daughter), 'Diane' (wife number two), and the final section, 'Two mothers, two daughters'. To be fair, Ben and Penny's son Webb doesn't warrant a section of his own either: but he's distinctly under his father's influence, and Cass's story is also his.

Penny's an astronomer, and she passes on her love of stargazing to her daughter. Diane is the daughter of an astrologer -- "they don't really tell your future, but sometimes they help you decide what to do," she rationalises to Cass when they first meet -- and finds herself increasingly lost as Cass takes on the role of Problem Stepdaughter and Ben retreats from this marriage too.

The novel is about how each woman reclaims or becomes herself. How Penny deals with a loveless marriage (teaches herself to sail); how Cass deals with a father who's emotionally, and a mother who's physically, not available.
'The region of perpetual occultation ... where we can never see the stars rise ... not lost, just invisible to us. People who live in other places can see them, but then they can't see the ones we can.'
Like everything, Cass thinks. Everything important in her life seems to be hiding in that region, lost from sight. No matter how hard she works to understand the things she can see, she'll never see the parts, just as important, that are hidden from her.


Although the novel focusses on the female characters (and the male characters, for all their effect -- Ben's compared to a black hole, 'lying in wait until love touches the edge of his gravitational field... love falls in. It, and the person doing the loving, vanish forever' -- are scarcely visible) none of them turn against men. Diane says something, at the end, about not learning anything from men (meaning Ben). And Penny says gently, "That's not fair. Just because you can't choose what you learn from someone, doesn't mean you don't learn."

I liked this book very much, as much for the atmosphere -- life on the New England coast, rooftop dinners, cats named after stars -- as for the events. It could be argued that nothing much happens: but it happens very vividly, from Diane's myriad letters scribbled on scraps of paper and shoved under the mattress, to Cass's secret parties in the house next door, to Jordan's attempts to bring the two halves of her family together.