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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

2018/03: Swordspoint -- Ellen Kushner

Let the fairy-tale begin on a winter's morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff. And it therefore follows that evil lurks behind each broken window, scheming malice and enchantment; while behind the latched shutters the good are sleeping their just sleeps at this early hour in Riverside. Soon they will arise to go about their business; and one, maybe, will be as lovely as the day, armed, as are the good, for a predestined triumph.… [p. 1]
Reread, for a panel item at Follycon: it's ... quite a long time since I last read this novel (over ten years, in fact), and I still find new facets to it.

The unnamed city which contains Riverside, the University and the Hill has a decidedly eighteenth-century ambience, a sense of decadence and danger. The nobles drink chocolate and wear lace; the underclass of Riverside drink beer and play cards; the theatre is a spectacle for all. Swordsmen are pawns in political and personal games: they're also highly-paid professionals, and Richard St Vier is the best of the current generation. His lover Alec, a former University student, revels in Richard's protection, and in the lethality at his disposal. But Alec's past, and his familiarity with the nobles on the Hill, intrudes into Richard's professional and personal life.

Especially interesting to see Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, through the kaleidoscope lens of Tremontaine, the SerialBox series (now up to season 3) set a generation before Swordspoint. Diane's past adds a fascinating dimension to her actions and motivations in this novel. I liked her rather more for it.

Swordspoint is that delightful thing, a fantasy novel without magic. What, then, makes it fantastical? I still don't have an answer to that one. Unless it's the sex'n'gender elements: most characters are bisexual, and this time round I observed that the only avowedly heterosexual (monosexual?) character is a villain.

Note regarding this e-book version: not only does it omit the three short stories I was so pleased to find in my previous, vanished paperback edition, but it shows signs of imperfect OCR ('Marie! Mane!' ... Helms-leigh usually, though not always, hyphenated).

Still a delight to read: and after this I found myself eager to reread the other two novels in the main sequence, The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings. I don't think I'd ever read them in sequence before: it was a revelation. Watch this space!

Thursday, February 08, 2018

2018/01: Nightbird -- Alice Hoffman

We were really very normal people, despite ...the curse and the way we were so solitary. I wondered if all monsters were so ordinary in their day-to-day lives. [p. 82]
Twig Fowler is twelve years old and lives in Sidwell, an idyllic small town somewhere in Massachussetts that's famous for its apples. Twig lives with her mother, and the brother who she's forbidden to mention to anyone -- especially the Hall girls, who are descended from the witch who cursed the Fowler family two hundred years ago.

Sidwell does have monsters, too: they keep showing up on the graffiti around town, with the message 'Don't take our home away'. And there are disturbing rumours of a flying creature glimpsed by night. And of course there's the Sidwell Witch, memorialised in a play that's performed annually by the children of Sidwell.

Twig, who is horribly lonely at the beginning of the novel, blossoms in her new friendship with Julia Hall: and it turns out that Julia and her sister Agate, and the mysterious Mr Rose, may hold the keys to several Sidwell mysteries.

This is a short, sweet novel about friendship, magic, unspoken secrets and the power of the past. It's also, if you look sideways at it, about parental pressure -- perhaps even mental health issues -- and how they can affect parent and child alike. Twig's upbringing has shrivelled her social confidence: she's as much a victim of the family curse as anyone.

Hoffman's writing is simple and evocative. I think this novel may be aimed at a young adult audience: I found it a delightful read, though it was over too quickly.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017/114: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes -- Adam Rutherford

One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today ... the remaining 80 per cent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century. [loc 1941]
A fascinating and very readable book about genetics, full of anecdotes and asides. I had no idea that the Romans had left behind so few traces in the modern British genome. Or that Charles II of Spain was more cumulatively inbred than the child of a brother and sister. Or that Icelanders have an app to check how closely they are related to one another, with a feature called Sifjaspellsspillir or 'incest spoiler' to alert them to shared grandparents. Or that two black people are likely to be more genetically diverse than a black person and a white person.

Genetics offers good counter-arguments to racism, and to issues of caste in India (not just a product of colonisation); however, as Rutherford points out, a lot of the insights promoted by companies such as 23andme is little more than 'genetic astrology'. (My own genome still fascinates me though: it is one thing to know that one is descended from people in the distant past, quite another to be told of the traces they've left in my body.)

Rutherford is occasionally wrong though ...
If by some incomprehensibly reality-defying mutation a child was born with the nascent power of flight... their freakishness would probably render them an unlikely sexual partner. [loc. 4601]
Now google 'wingfic' and reflect on 'unlikely sexual partner'.

2017/113: The Night Bird -- Brian Freeman

"People can change their own memories without even being aware that they're doing so. The danger — and the opportunity — is that memories can also be deliberately altered." [p. 64]
Thriller about memory, therapy and psychosis, featuring homicide detective Frost Easton (who lives in a house that belongs to his cat) and psychiatrist Francesca (a.k.a. Frankie) Stein (ahahaha), whose controversial therapeutic technique helps people to forget the memories that are troubling them.

Which is all well and good unless somebody else remembers them ...

The Night Bird is a gripping page-turner, though I kept feeling that the characters were making incredibly unwise decisions, albeit with (mostly) the best of intentions. It was an interesting exploration of how false memories can be created out of real events, and of how real memories, erased, could come back to bite.

Frankie, despite her name, is a well-rounded character, as is Frost. I was less convinced by the villain, by the sister, and by one of the victims.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017/111: The Woman In Blue -- Elly Griffiths

Nelson takes a step back. "Who says we've found a woman?"
He half-expects Cathbad to say something about spiritual energies and cosmic vibrations, but instead he says, "I heard the milkman talking about it." [p. 8]
Ruth's Druidical friend Cathbad is cat-sitting for a friend in Walsingham, 'England's Nazareth', a small Norfolk town which many believe has a brooding atmosphere. One night the cat (who is named Chesterton: this is significant) escapes, as they do, and Cathbad sees a woman in a white dress and blue cloak standing in the graveyard. Next day, a blonde woman is found dead, wrapped in blue cloth: is she the woman Cathbad saw? Meanwhile, Ruth's old friend Hilary has momentous news: she's become a priest -- and is receiving hate mail. Then one of her fellow female priests is also found murdered, and Nelson's wife Michelle is attacked on her way through the graveyard.

Ruth's somewhat belligerent atheism, and her no-nonsense feminism (she thinks the girls in Frozen should wear anoraks, not plunging necklines), is refreshing and often funny. She also does some Serious Thinking about her relationships (though she tells the women priests, over cocktails, "I don't need a man. I've got a daughter and a cat."). She doesn't, however, get to do much in the archaeological line this time around.

Not my favourite of the Ruth Galloway books, although there is progress in several of the soap-opera plots concerning her associates. (Nelson even admits, albeit to himself, that he is not good at talking or thinking about his feelings.) The murder mystery, though, was weak, and the religious elements (women priests, fashions in Catholicism, everyday life in a pilgrim town) didn't engage me.

2017/110: In Great Waters -- Kit Whitfield

Let the Switzers be ruled by landsmen, let nations with no sea borders keep their old ways if they wished, but there were navies to maintain, and the deepsmen of the sea were no longer neutral, no longer sailors' yarns, but an engaged force with loyalties of their own. [p. 43]
Europe reimagined, with merfolk -- 'deepsmen' -- in alliance with the nations of dry land. It's set, I think, in Tudor times, several centuries after the first deepsman-landsman hybrid, Angelica, walked up out of the water on the Venetian coast and proposed a mutually-beneficial arrangement. Since then, deepsmen have interbred with the royal families of Europe (though the penalties for unauthorised miscegenation are grim and bloody) and any country with a coast has a ruler with some deepsman blood.

And just as in our history, this has led to problematic inbreeding: imbecility, deformity, unfitness for the throne ... and marriages of desperation.

In Great Waters focusses on two young people: Henry, formerly 'Whistle', who's left on the beach by his deepsman mother; and Anne, the younger of two princesses, who has watched her half-deepsman mother negotiate the royal court, and seen that she and her sister Mary are pawns in the game.

Some elements of this novel work better than others. I'm not convinced that the history would be so similar to our own after several centuries of deepsman-landsman interaction. What about colonies, trade by land and sea, anti-deepsman sentiment? And I never really warmed to any of the characters -- though this might be intentional on the author's part, given that the deepsmen are depicted as unsentimental and violent, driven by instinct more than intellect. Henry is certainly an arresting character, but not really a likeable one: when Anne crosses him he looks at her and thinks of eating her tongue.

I found the interpersonal, rather than international, elements of the novel more satisfying. Henry's deep-borne sensorium (he loathes straight lines and corners, thinks the air too thin to carry sound, has poor long-distance vision because he grew up underwater where distance is a 'blue-green blur') is vividly conveyed. Anne's half-crippled state on land -- deepsmen, and those who share their blood, have webbed feet and their legs are 'jointed with vertebrae rather than shin bone and thigh bone' -- contrasts beautifully with her agility and freedom in the sea.

On the whole, though, I didn't enjoy this as much as Whitfield's previous novel, Bareback: strip away the fantasy, and the plot is standard historical fare; strip away the history, and there is an intriguing idea -- a strongly-realised race of merfolk -- that could have been explored more convincingly in a different story, perhaps one set at an earlier stage in the deepsman-landsman entente.

2017/112: Black Swan Green -- David Mitchell

birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can't find if you're not alone. Time in woods's older than time in clocks, and truer. Ghosts of Might Be run riot in woods, and stationery shops and messes of stars. [p. 234]
This is a book about an adolescent boy growing up in the early 80s, who writes poetry, thinks Thatcher is great and the Falklands War will never be forgotten, and is so focussed on his own problems that he's oblivious to the momentous changes happening around him.

Why no, his name is not Adrian Mole. It is Jason Taylor, and Black Swan Green is considerably less humorous -- and more profound -- than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Jason lives in the rural village of Black Swan Green, where there are, apparently, no swans at all. His parents and his elder sister are more or less mysterious to him: he has a better understanding of his friends and foes at school.

Superficially this is the story of the year when he breaks his grandfather's Omega Seamaster watch, and panics, and tries to raise the money to replace it before his parents find out. On a deeper level, it's about Jason growing up -- and growing as a poet, under the tuition of old Mrs Crommelynck (who curses the British with 'twenty years of Thatchers') -- and of the secrets he keeps, the secrets he tells, the secrets he doesn't even recognise. There is a great deal happening in the background which never really became clear, at least to me, but had a fantastical ambience: the old woman in a dark house by a frozen lake where many children have drowned; mysterious tunnels under the hills; of the part of the woods that 'just isn't good'; the secret society, Spooks, which may be more than it seems ...

There were a couple of things that rang false: would Jason have known about Goth culture in 1982? was there really such excitement about the end of the Falklands War? (Several friends say 'yes there was'; and it seems to have been the week I was doing my O levels and worrying about my mother having been admitted to hospital for surgery, so maybe it passed me by.)

I liked Jason a lot. He is a thoughtful character, prone to parentheses and moments of lyric clarity, and like many adolescents (especially the male ones) he's obsessed by and ignorant about sex. The main focus of his world, though, is bullying, and the way it expands to fill a child's world until everything else is pushed aside. Yet he doesn't lose sight of the principle that being good to other people matters: that it's more important than being right.

The supporting cast is good too, including the girls. And some of the characters appear in other novels by Mitchell: Hugo in The Bone Clocks, for example, and Eva van Crommelynck in Cloud Atlas.

"Wish I could be thirteen again." Then, I thought, you've obviously forgotten what it's like. [p. 169]

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017/108: The Midnight Queen --Sylvia Hunter

[The temple] might just as well have been dedicated to the Breton sea-queen Dahut as to Neptune. This Gray supposed to be the reason the Professor had described Duke Gaël's refurbishments as insufficiently ambitious; a man more convinced of the superiority of Roman worship, law, and custom he had never yet encountered. [loc. 638]

A fascinating alternate history, set in an early nineteenth century comparable to the Regency period, but with no Napoleon and with Henry XII on the throne of Britain -- a Britain which does not include Alba or Eire, but comprises the provinces of Cymru, England, Kernow, Normandie, Maine and Breizh. Magic may be studied at Merlin College in Oxford, where Graham ('Gray') Marshall is an undergraduate, tutored by Professor Callender, Regius Professor of Magickal Theory.

A fracas between town and gown sends Gray into exile at the Breizh home of his tutor, where he makes the acquaintance of the Professor's daughters: elegant Amelia the eldest, mutinous Joanna the youngest, and Sophia, the middle sister, who tries to avoid notice. This chameleon quality is so effective that Gray suspects her of having magickal talents, but Sophie protests that her father has always told her she has no magick.

The Winter Queen is in the same general territory as Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer: perhaps the earliest of the Regency-romance-with-magic genre), but it's more Gothic. It lacks several of the usual trappings of the pseudo-Regency romance: Sophie is not especially interested in fashion (though Amelia is); there are dastardly conspiracies; there is a shadowy plot involving the Midnight Queen, the Breton second wife of King Henry; the mysterious Mrs Wallis, Sophie's guardian, knows more than she says; and of course there is magick, and counter-magick.

The plot is byzantine, the characters (especially the women) have distinct and rounded personalities: but what I found most interesting was the worldbuilding. This is a Britain with Romano-Celtic, rather than Judeo-Christian, roots: Ivor (not Isaac) Newton's Principia alchemica is a standard text; Oxford boasts temples to Minerva and Apollo, though Sophie's offering is left at the temple of Mercury and Epona; a knowledge of Cymric is essential for any scholar; and Joanna struggles to comprehend the monotheistic Judæi's insistence on a single deity. 'How peculiar. He must be terribly busy.'

This enjoyable novel is the first in a trilogy: I expect I'll read the other two, not least to find out more about this particular variant of history.

2017/109: The Beauty of Murder -- A K Benedict

'I feel more alive standing next to something dead. Don't you?' [p. 57]
Stephen Killigan, newly arrived philosophy lecturer at a Cambridge college, stumbles home one drunken evening via the kebab van on Market Hill, and discovers a corpse. Unfortunately, when he leads the police to it, it's no longer there.

This does not do his career any good. Nor does it endear him to Inspector Jane Horne -- even before another impossible corpse (this one recently disinterred) turns up in the Fellows' Garden of Killigan's college. Killigan, who is aware that this all looks highly suspicious, turns for help to his friend Satnam, and to librarian Lana Carver. He also gets to know Robert Sachs, an academic with an interest in the aesthetics of death, and meets the eccentric Iris Burton, who gives him a copy of her book on time travel.

The Beauty of Murder captures Cambridge's ambience: the way the stone walls sometimes seem to emanate cold, the dankness of the fens, the plague pit underneath the bus station, the bohemian roughness of Mill Road. (I am not altogether convinced that 'a lecturer from the University of East Anglia' inscribed the words Reality Checkpoint on the lamppost at the centre of Parker's Piece, given that UEA is 65 miles away in Norwich. Perhaps Benedict means Anglia Ruskin?)

Killigan is a charismatic and witty narrator: a former goth, tattooed, prone to melancholy memories of his drowning mother. He becomes less likeable later in the novel, but I think that's simply that the plot ensnares him -- both in terms of the character becoming mired in unpredictable and acausal events, and of the author focussing more on those events, and on the other characters, than on Killigan's interior life.

I also liked Jane Horne a great deal: indomitable, prickly, secretive, and unwilling to tolerate stupidity.

Benedict's writing is gorgeous, full of lovely turns of phrase and surprising metaphors. Even when Killigan's being a tad pretentious ('a library is a sanctuary, a paper city where the emotionally homeless can find haven between the pages') his part of the narrative is interesting, and when he's less epigrammatic his turn of phrase is a delight.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017/106: The Man Who Remembered The Moon -- David Hull

He suffers a first-order false belief: the belief that there was once a thing called a moon, which disappeared and sucked the evidence that it had ever existed into the black hole of its absence.
[loc. 518]
This is an odd novella, deceptively simple: the premise is that the moon no longer exists, has never existed, and Daniel Hale is the only person who remembers the world where there was a moon.

This plays out logically: first Daniel, and later his doctor (Marvin Pallister), examine all the inconsistencies, possibilities, misapprehensions et cetera that follow from such a premise. Hale, desperate to prove himself sane, looks in poetry books; notes that the other planets now have satellites, rather than moons; rants at the local newspaper for leaving moon phases out of the astronomy column. Pallister takes a certain relish in the more nonsensical of his patient's pronouncements: "Let me get this straight. Everyone knew about it. It was huge. And nobody noticed if it was there or not." [loc. 46]

Then, one afternoon, Daniel sits down with the book that Pallister has written about his case.

I had to reread the last few pages several times to appreciate their full weight. (My first thought was that they made a nonsense of the rest of the story: later, I understood it better.) The last page, in particular, is carefully crafted: punctuation, paragraph breaks, repetition all precise.

Brief, thought-provoking and oddly humorous. It's a story, I suppose, about mental illness, about whether a problem is internal or external, about fighting to hold onto a belief: but one would not wish for Marvin Pallister as a therapist.

I'll look out for more of Hull's fiction.

2017/107: Dzur (Vlad Taltos Book 10) -- Steven Brust

With cooking and murder, there really shouldn't be a "good enough." You need to get as close to perfect as possible, otherwise find another line of work. [loc. 3998]
Reread, though I didn't realise it and nothing seemed familiar: only when I tried to add the book to LibraryThing did I realise it was already there ... Apparently I enjoyed the novel very much when I read it in December 2006: eleven years later, it felt rather less satisfying.

See that earlier review for plot details: I came away this time reminded that cooking and murder both require patience; that with any Vlad Taltos book it's wise to review the story so far, from notes or Wikipedia or whatever (perhaps some people rely on their memories?); and that I become irritated with long conversations where I have to count lines to work out who's talking.

I do like this series, though: must work out where I'd actually got to, so I can carry on from there.