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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

2017/61: Single and Single -- John Le Carré

'...what the hell happened next?’ He was so warm! He could feel it! It was here in the room. It was across the packing case from him. It was inside Massingham’s skull and begging to come out – till at the very last second it turned and scurried back to safety. [p. 282]
Single and Single opens with the execution of a London banker, employed by Single and Single, on a windswept Turkish hillside. He has no idea why he's being killed: some idea why the killing is being filmed.

Back in the UK, a children's entertainer named Oliver Hawthorne is summoned to his own bank because over five million pounds has been deposited in his young daughter's trust fund. Can he explain this? No. But he knows a man who can help: a Customs and Excise officer named Brock, who has been after the charismatic Tiger Single (head of Single and Single) on charges of fraud and money-laundering.

Back in the golden days of the early 1990s, Oliver worked for Single and Single: he became aware of the firm's valuable Russian clients, and -- after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempted coup -- the slow restructuring of their import/export business as a crime syndicate. Oliver's left all that behind: he betrayed the firm, and his father, and went into hiding. But now the tables are turned and the Russians have a blood debt to repay.

Lovely writing, stereotyped secondary characters (a housekeeper weeps and wrings hands; a gay man says 'darling' a lot). Oliver tends to feel that women need protection, even when they are evidently at least as capable and competent as he is. The last few chapters felt very rushed, but then Oliver was rushing too ... I didn't enjoy this as much as other novels by Le Carré, but it's interestingly structured, well-written and full of fascinating psychology and spycraft.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017/60: Touch -- Claire North

Everyone needs a hobby, and everyone was mine. [p. 67]
Somewhere in London, in a dark alley, in the past, a woman is murdered. But she doesn't want to die alone: she reaches out and touches her murderer ... and becomes him, looking down at the corpse of his victim.

Now the entity known as Kepler is a ghost, moving between -- 'wearing' -- bodies, generally benevolent. A former host won't be able to remember the past few minutes, or days, or years: but chances are they'll have benefitted, either financially (Kepler likes to leave behind cash) or in other ways. Kepler can get a nervous patient to the hospital; get a terrified witness into court to testify; sit an exam; leave a lover ... Sometimes the 'host-ghost' arrangement is consensual, such as the arrangement that Kepler has with Josephine Cebula, a Polish prostitute. In exchange for three months' use of Josephine's body, Kepler will give her a new passport, a new identity, a fresh start and ten thousand euros. Oh, and Josephine will no longer be a smoker.

And then Josephine is killed in Istanbul: and Kepler, 'travelling by touch', fleeing from body to body, knows that they were the intended victim. But why kill Josephine when Kepler's already left?

Kepler's pursuit of the assassin -- and then of the mastermind behind the assassination -- takes them from Istanbul to Bratislava, Vienna, Berlin, Paris. Along the way, old friends and enemies are encountered, and it becomes increasingly obvious that somebody is killing ghosts.

I've read quite a few novels about body-swapping -- body snatchers, if you like, or possession if you're feeling old-fashioned. (A few that come to mind are Iain Banks' Transition, David Levithan's Every Day, Stephenie Meyer's The Host, David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks.) I can't recall an entity so physically embodied as Kepler. Kepler notices, and loves, the flaws and graces of each body they inhabit: the gum disease, the tension in the shoulder blades, the bite of an over-tight bra strap, the dry itch of lesions. And Kepler's love for human beings, in all humanity's glorious variation, informs their former career: that of 'estate agent', or provider of carefully-selected hosts to other ghosts.

Touch is a labyrinthine novel: Kepler's story is told in frequent flashbacks (with a virtuousic ear for period- and setting-appropriate dialogue) and it takes a while for their character, and the experiences that have shaped them, to become clear. Each glimpse of another body's life, or of Kepler encountering another, effectively immortal, ghost, adds clarity and perspective.

Claire North explores many aspects of ghost-life. Gender issues are ... not ignored, but Kepler doesn't have much of a gender identity, and seems less interested in sex than some of their peers. More attention is given to the issues of immortality: suicide, death, murder, boredom, madness -- and offspring of the body versus those of the soul. Intriguing vignettes illustrate why 'normal' humans might want to hire a ghost to inhabit themselves, or someone close to them. The fight scenes, with Kepler flitting from body to body, are amazing. And some of the ways that Kepler devises to get around the problems of their situation (how do you carry something with you when you go? how do you keep a host from raising the alarm? how do you make yourself known?) are brilliant.

I really enjoyed this novel. It's beautiful, tragic, inventive and provocative: and it made me mindful, in several senses, of my own physical reality.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

2017/59: An Unnatural Vice -- K J Charles

Conscience makes flats of us all, Justin thought. How lucky I don’t have one. [loc. 1231]
Nathaniel Roy is an investigative journalist, the atheist son of an archbishop, and desperately lonely despite the good friends who've stood by him through love and loss. Justin Lazarus is the Seer of London, one of the most successful (and most expensive) spiritualists in the city, and determined that he'll never again be obligated to anybody. Nathaniel, of course, is keen to expose Justin Lazarus as a fraud. But Justin knows how to find a client's weaknesses, and he promises something that Nathaniel, against all reason, wants to believe in. As the two are thrown together by their shared involvement in a true-life melodrama of aristocracy, murder and disguise, each finds something unexpected -- and unexpectedly admirable -- in the other.

This is the second in the trilogy that began with An Unseen Attraction, and it weaves around the latter half of that novel, focussing on different characters. The melodrama advances; we see Clem and Rowley from a different perspective; the role of the Jack -- a place where men like Nathaniel can go 'to be true' -- is expanded; and the romance here has an entirely different, and much sharper, flavour.

I confess I like Justin Lazarus, even though he is objectively a fraudster who preys on the bereaved and needy: he is also intelligent, observant, and often very funny. (It's all right: Nathaniel likes him too, and makes the distinction between 'a bad man' and 'a good man doing bad things'.) And I sympathise more than I probably should with Justin's vow that he'll never again be indebted to anyone, never again have to beg or be grateful. I didn't warm to Nathaniel as quickly, but he is one of the most humane characters I've encountered in recent fiction: and his impressive self-knowledge, coupled with the gradual realisation that he's living his life around absences, makes for a satisfying emotional arc.

And as usual, I loved all the little details: the daily routine of a Victorian medium's household; the nervousness with which Justin ventures out on the first solitary country walk of his life; Polish Mark and his no-nonsense approach to Nathaniel's emotional turmoil; and Justin's sense of humour, which is as spiky as he is, and produces the immortal line 'my spirit guide's a fucking tart'. You can get it on a t-shirt now.

Also, though Nathaniel and Justin's story is ... well, not finished, but resolved -- there is a frightfully teasing conclusion. Is it time for An Unsuitable Heir yet?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

2017/58: All Systems Red -- Martha Wells

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. [p. 9]

All Systems Red is the first-person narrative of Murderbot, a self-hacked security cyborg -- 'SecBot' -- who, due to having disabled their governor module, is no longer forced to obey the commands of the Company . (Note the pronouns: Murderbot may not have what they primly refers to as 'sex parts' but they are very much a person, possibly more so than some of their human clients.)

Murderbot's current job is as security for a small group of scientists who are exploring newly-discovered planet. The expedition is facilitated by the Company, who monitor the team's conversations and communications, broker life insurance, and provide the equipment. Most of that equipment -- Murderbot included -- is supplied by the lowest bidder, so when a team member is attacked by an undocumented hostile lifeform, everyone assumes it's just a glitch in the info pack.

It's not just a glitch in the info pack.

Without Murderbot's sardonic commentary, cynicism and gallows humour, this would be a fairly routine piece of pulp fiction, albeit with a more diverse cast than is usual. But Murderbot is a delight: they would really much rather watch episodes of Sanctuary Moon than interact with clients (though they do have a strong protective streak towards 'their' humans). They're accustomed to being treated as equipment, and they like things that way. (Commenting on the cultural depiction of emancipated bots -- all those soap operas have given Murderbot a detailed, if not always accurate, understanding of human society -- they remark, 'If it showed the bots hanging out watching the entertainment feed all through the day cycle with no one trying to make them talk about their feelings, I would have been a lot more interested'. )

The humans, in turn, are not initially used to treating Murderbot as a person: they don't even recognise Murderbot without the helmet and the armour. How each of the team reacts to Murderbot is a fascinating sociological study: from 'ah, so we can punish you by looking at you?' (Murderbot is described as 'shy', but exhibits habits that could be labelled as autistic, abuse-survivor or simply introverted); to invasions of Murderbot's private personal log, to Dr Mensah, the leader of the expedition, who regards Murderbot as an equal and a person of value.

Murderbot has a shadowy past, too. They hacked their governor module for a reason: and I'm looking forward to reading the next novella, which sounds as though it might explore that backstory a little more.
More Murderbot from Martha Wells! [Tor]

Anyway: highly recommended, vastly enjoyable, funny and poignant and thought-provoking.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon. [p. 102]

Monday, May 29, 2017

2017/57: American Gods -- Neil Gaiman

"Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?"
"Different woman," said Mr. Nancy. "Same deal." [loc 6102]

Reread sparked by the Amazon TV series -- which is a very different animal,
'based on' rather than a straightforward adaptation of the novel.

I still like American Gods and enjoyed this reread; it turned out that I'd forgotten whole swathes of plot, while managing to retain single sentences and the secret of Shadow's cellmate's identity. I don't find Gaiman's prose in this novel especially noteworthy ('Chicago came on like a migraine' is great, but its greatness is partly because it stands out from the surrounding text) but it has a transparency that makes it an excellent vehicle for the plot.

This isn't a review of the TV series, but I will note:
- Shadow, without his viewpoint and a window into his thoughts (as in the novel) is rather passive and not hugely engaging
- possibly because they're filtered through Shadow's perception, the female characters in the novel are trivialised*, marginalised, sexualised: less so in the TV version.

* a word that is actually derived from one of the names of Hecate, who's far from inconsequential.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

2017/56: Spandex and the City -- Jenny Colgan

He almost certainly had no idea that the fact that he was rich was as strange to me as the fact that he could lift up a truck with one hand. [loc. 1255]
Holly lives in Centerton, an American city, though she grew up in Britain. Centerton has its very own vigilante hero, Ultimate Man, who Holly encounters when she gets caught up in a meticulously-planned robbery conducted by Frederick Cecil and his henchmen. Holly, with typical lack of forethought, stands up to Cecil and ends up rescued by Ultimate Man. As if that weren't bad enough -- Holly is not a fan of Ultimate Man -- she encounters him, and Frederick Cecil, again, when Cecil targets a party at an art gallery.

But this time Holly discovers Ultimate Man's secret identity ...

Spandex and the City is a witty love-triangle romance -- Holly finds herself attracted to both hero and villain -- with rather more in the way of underlying philosophy than that capsule categorisation might suggest. None of the characters are especially happy. Holly has problems finding a suitable date, and is alienated from her family: she thinks they don't care about her. Ultimate Man also has problems dating (see 'Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex' for one of the reasons) and is isolated by his wealth and his powers. Frederick Cecil's mission is wholly philanthropic and well-argued (I do feel he has a point) but he's the product of an unpleasant childhood and hinted-at abuse.

Nevertheless, Spandex and the City is a witty and entertaining read. It's also a perceptive exploration of the pervasiveness of social media and the internet, typified by Holly's dependency on her smartphone and the social crises caused by a telecomms failure.

Also features a namedrop for Spiderman -- "We meet at, you know, trade conferences and so on". Colgan knows her genre: Spandex and the City is in part a critique of the superhero genre, but an affectionate and well-informed one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

2017/55: Lord of All Things -- Andreas Eschbach (translated from the German by Samuel Willcocks)

the digested version of a story already squeezed to bursting, a story of Arctic islands, Russian subs, and a steel fortress that fell to dust.

A book of two (unequal) halves: a promising beginning, but the rest is weakly plotted, gruesomely sexist and poorly characterised.

It starts well. Hiroshi is the half-Japanese, half-American son of a cleaning woman. He likes fixing things, and befriends Charlotte -- daughter of the French ambassador -- after fixing a broken doll. Hiroshi has grand plans for solving the world's inequalities with robotics; Charlotte has a unique gift, manifested when she touches an object.

Abruptly, Charlotte's father is posted to Buenos Aires, and the two lose touch. Some years later, Hiroshi's long-lost father reconnects with his son, and Hiroshi ends up at MIT -- where he meets Charlotte again, although both Hiroshi and Charlotte are now in relationships with other people.

While Hiroshi's experiments near fruition, Charlotte visits a remote island in the Russian Arctic which is reputed to harbour a mysterious but menacing force. Only gradually do Hiroshi and Charlotte both come to understand the deadly underside of Hiroshi's marvellous creation -- and its universal impact.

I have missed out a lot of the plot in that summary, because it vexes me. Hiroshi is envied by his peers (of course!) but perseveres and triumphs. Charlotte does very little except drift through life: occasionally she wonders if she should have a baby. There is very little indication of what she does with her gift. Or why she stays with a rich-but-repulsive fiance. While Hiroshi is acting on the world -- making terrible mistakes, with the best of intentions -- Charlotte has minimal impact on anyone or anything (despite being beautiful, presumably intelligent -- though we are given little evidence -- and well-dressed).

Eventually Hiroshi realises that his invention and the Arctic menace are connected -- part of a bigger picture that includes a prehistoric skull with a bullet wound, a knife that's older than human civilisation, and the Fermi paradox. Having worked marvels -- including curing Charlotte's cancer -- his final creation is a Sierpinski knife made of the four grammes of iron in his own blood.

There are some lovely ideas in here, and some well-visualised scenes: but the sexism really bothered me, and the characterisation seemed flat. Maybe if the book had been half the length, everything would have been sharper. Maybe if there had been no women in it at all, it would have been less sexist.