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

Thursday, November 09, 2017

2017/89: First Person -- Richard Flanagan

What do you mean lies? Heidl said. His tone had altered. Being with Heidl was like eating an ice cream that turned into underarm deodorant that turned into an echidna. [loc. 2505]
Kif Kehlmann, a penniless young writer, is approached by notorious corporate fraudster Siegfried Heidl, who proposes a deal: $10,000 to ghost-write Heidl's biography, in six weeks. Kif, whose wife is pregnant and whose bank account is nearly drained, would like to be able to afford to refuse. He wants to write a great Australian literary novel, not a conman's life story. But he has to make some money somehow, soon, and Heidl has already produced an outline. How hard can it be?

Very hard indeed. The 'interviews' Kif has with Heidl turn into rambling, structureless reminiscence and philosophising, and Kif finds it impossible to extract any usable content from them. Worse, his failure to produce a draft for the publisher is draining his confidence. It's been his ambition since childhood to be an author, but all he has is a heap of disconnected notes, evidence that he can't write a book. Worst of all, Heidl's cheerily nihilistic utterances ("You should give up writing, he said. Have some fun while you can. Before you’re sacrificed.") are having an insidious effect on Kif's own psyche.

And who is Heidl, anyway? It becomes apparent that 'Siegfried Heidl' is the latest in a series of identities, the persona of a master manipulator. Heidl doesn't really change over the course of the novel, although we learn more about his unsavoury past. Perhaps at heart there's nothing there, no first person: a hollow man without the principles, creativity or individuality that Kif values in himself. Kif does change, or rather is changed. Heidl hollows him out.

There is some glorious prose here, and some very funny scenes (some of which are also very dark). I didn't engage with it, though: Heidl is slippery and evasive and seems to have no actual personality, and Kif is self-pitying, ineffectual and all too easily warped by Heidl's company.

According to Flanagan, this novel draws heavily on his own experience of ghost-writing the biography of John Friedrich, a notorious Australian conman who apparently committed suicide rather than face trial. I'm not sure if that means that Kif's reflections on the Australian publishing world ("Though I had nothing to say, I had read enough Australian literature to know this wasn’t necessarily an impediment to authorship") mirror Flanagan's own early experiences. And I hope the denouement of the novel is not written from life.

Read for review, via NetGalley: I have to say that the ARC I received was so poorly formatted (no capital Gs or Ds, random line breaks, etc) that reading it was hard work.

Monday, October 23, 2017

2017/88: These Old Shades -- Georgette Heyer (reread)

"I thought to use you as a weapon to – er – punish him for something – he had once done to me."
"Is – is that why – why you made me your ward...?" she asked in a small voice.
He rose, and went to the window, and stood looking out. "Not entirely," he said, and forgot to drawl. [p. 394]
This is a very early Heyer, and rather chilling in its premise: the Duke of Avon, a notorious rake nicknamed Satanas, purchases a young boy, 'body and soul', to serve as his page. His friends and his brother are horrified -- doubly so when they realise (as Avon has known all along) that 'Léon' is in fact Léonie. Avon has plans for Léonie, and Léonie is passionately convinced that she belongs to 'monseigneur'. Can this end well?

Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is wicked and charming and witty and very elegant: he's one of those characters whose appeal is plain on the page, but who would be insufferable -- or intolerable -- in reality. His reputation is appalling, and he lives up to it, but he does also have a strong sense of honour, and his machinations on Léonie's behalf seem oddly selfless for a man with a history of very public amours.

I didn't care for Léonie much on first reading. She's a survivor, and she's beautiful and charming and funny -- she wins the hearts of the Duke's family and friends -- but I don't find her temper or her forthrightness especially attractive. Still, hurrah for a spirited heroine and a happy ending!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2017/87: Devil's Cub -- Georgette Heyer (reread)

"You are not in the least afraid of what I may do to you! Are you?"
"Not at the moment, sir," she admitted. "But when you have broached your second bottle, I own to some qualms."
"Let me inform you, ma’am, that I am not considered dangerous until the third bottle."
Miss Challoner looked at him with a faint smile. "My lord," she said frankly, "you become dangerous immediately your will is crossed. I find you spoiled, impetuous, and shockingly overbearing."
"Thank you," said his lordship. [p.116]
I confess I prefer Heyer's Georgian romances (typically written early in her career) to her Regencies, mostly because the setting allows for more swashbuckling and opera-going. There are no trips to the opera in Devil's Cub, but there is a badly-behaved Marquis (son of the Duke of Avon, who features prominently in These Old Shades) and a determined young woman of tragically mundane origins.

Mary Challoner, intercepting a mis-addressed missive, decides that her vacuous sister should not become one of the Marquis of Vidal's conquests, and allows herself to be abducted in her sister's place: surely the Marquis will throw her back, as it were, when he realises he's caught the wrong girl?

Vidal, however, is not used to being tricked: he assumes Mary is no better than her sister, and behaves badly, whereupon she shoots him. (I remember reading this scene for the first time many years ago and laughing out loud in amazed admiration.) Then there are some misunderstandings, and Mary flees: encounters an older gentleman in an inn, who is strangely familiar and very charming: eventually, happy endings all round.

Vidal is really very vexing, and Mary initially a little dull: I wonder how they will get along together? But she does temper his wildness, and he recognises her quality despite her (not really very) lowly origins: and Vidal's family, many of whom are prone to passionate behaviour, are a delight.

There are times when rereading a cheerful, charming and witty romance is just the thing: this was my comfort whilst preparing to move house and working long days, and it worked so well that my next read was another Heyer.

Friday, October 13, 2017

2017/86: Seven Surrenders -- Ada Palmer

Gender they called a universal language which we’re all supposed to pretend we can’t read. Most just play blind or try (as we know we ought) to eliminate the traces of it, and the ancient inequalities those traces threaten to revive. But, they said, cunning folk can use that language to attack targets with body rhetoric we can’t acknowledge, let alone resist. [p. 22]

This review necessarily contains spoilers for the preceding volume, Too Like the Lightning: both books form a single narrative spanning seven days, and I'm very glad I was able to read the whole of that narrative at once, rather than waiting for the second volume to appear. (Now I am extraordinarily eager to read the third, Will to Battle, out on December 19th.)

A quick recap: it is 2454, a peaceful world which perhaps imagines it's a utopia (no disease, no war, little crime, 20-hour work week, rapid transit et cetera). Religion and gender are now treated on a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' basis (sexuality seems mostly to be regarded as irrelevant, and I don't think it's an accident that a good deal of Mycroft's (mis)gendering relies on parental rather than sexual archetypes: maternal caring and ferocious protection, paternal authority).

Spoilers start here:

Parenthood, seldom examined in Too Like the Lightning -- the 'bash' model, in which groups of friends rather than nuclear families form the household unit, seems likely to diminish the importance of the parent-child relationship -- becomes more important in Seven Surrenders. On the one hand there's Bridger, a child who can perform miracles such as animating toys and drawings, and who seems to have self-generated: he has no belly-button and appears to have nursed himself by sucking his thumb. On the other hand, there's J.E.D.D. Mason, known to Mycroft as Jehovah, who may be a god (albeit the god of another universe) but whose powers are merely those that a very talented human might acquire. Jehovah's parentage is a major plot element in this second novel, as is his nature: plenty of theology here, as a divine child and a disempowered god ask questions about the purpose of one another's existence, and how each relates to the other.

One might also ask how exposure to these individuals (and indeed to the self-styled 'witch' Thisbe) might have affected our narrator Mycroft Canner, self-described 'orphan, parricide, traitor, wanderer, fool'. Mycroft was revealed as a monster, a serial killer with a taste for torture and cannibalism, in the first volume: here we see them through other eyes. "... the beast I call True Mycroft pokes its nose above the surface. It’s not a prisoner in there, not fighting to break free, just resting inside Slave Mycroft like a ship in harbor" (p. 14). We learn more, too, about the reason(s) for Mycroft's two weeks of slaughter. And much more about the O.S. and the ways in which the world has been changed by their actions.

The climax of the novel (of the duology?) is hammer-blow after hammer-blow: a character is assassinated; the assassin is not who they appear to be (but who is pulling the strings?); the victim, miraculously, is saved; the saviour ... makes a choice, and introduces a new character -- or rather renames an existing one, though not in the same way as at the end of the first volume, and not in a way that I felt was entirely foreshadowed, though other characters seemed to feel that all the clues were there.

Right at the beginning of Too Like the Lightning, Mycroft defends (but does not explain) his decision to write this account in the style of the eighteenth century. In Seven Surrenders the reason for that choice becomes apparent. "I love the Eighteenth Century... that great moment when humanity realized experiments didn’t just have to be done with sciences, they could be done with morals and religion, too." [p. 336] Several of the characters in these novels could be said to be running experiments: I wonder if others (and not just the obvious ones) are the unwitting experimental subjects. And I find myself caring about them, liking them, and wondering about them: Mycroft's childhood, Sniper's sex and sexuality, Papa's relationship with his most infamous quarry. ('Papa' is short for 'Papadelias', the Police Commissioner's surname: but see above under 'absent parents'.)

Seven Surrenders ends in a dark place. I fear the third volume, Will to Battle, will be at once darker and more illuminating. Is it December the 19th yet?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

2017/85: Too Like the Lightning -- Ada Palmer

Animals may hunt by speed, by trap, by disguise, by ambush, but name for me another beside mankind that hunts by trust. [loc 7596]
A novel about the Twenty-Fifth century, told in a style that owes much to the Eighteenth, by a self-reported unreliable narrator: this is one of the most immersive and engaging SF novels I've read in a long time, and every time I've revisited this review I've found myself rereading chapter after chapter, fascinated by foreshadowing, characterisation and world-building, and admiring the layers of Palmer's prose.

A brief history of this future: rapid transit has more or less abolished the geographical nation; the Church Wars (which seem to have left a few uninhabitable zones behind) have more or less abolished religion; the standard work-week is twenty hours; poverty, famine, disease and crime are almost unknown. People choose to belong to one of seven Hives, and live in 'bash's' (families of choice). The few, atavistic criminals become Servicers when caught and sentenced: a lifetime of community service with no right to property. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner (the name derives from that of Sherlock Holmes' older brother) is a Servicer, for crimes initially undescribed but clearly horrific in the extreme.

No more nationalism, no more religion, all the old curses banished: Utopia, then? Of course it is not, quite, that simple. Mycroft, who is not only a criminal but a genius, is in possession of many secrets: some theological, others pertaining to the unseen bonds and alliances forged between the leaders of this brave new world. It should be noted that many important people put a great deal of trust in Mycroft, which initially is jarringly juxtaposed with Mycroft's uncomfortably servile behaviour. Recruited (though he has no choice) to investigate the theft of a physical document representing social capital, Mycroft is also instrumental in the exposure of secret engines that drive and shape the world.

Too Like the Lightning is not an easy read: it failed to keep my attention when I first attempted it, during a stressful and busy month. There is a large cast, a lot of worldbuilding, the aforementioned unreliable narrator, and a great deal of Plot. Palmer plays, too: with language and gender (the narrator is deemed -- by their anonymous, but not absent, Reader -- contrary and archaic for using 'he' and 'she' rather than the generic 'they': there are good reasons for this, but it does also allow some trickery) and with structure and style. That unknown Reader, who is definitely a contemporary, interpolates observations: Mycroft abases himself (and only towards the end of this volume, the arc of which continues in Seven Surrenders, did I begin to feel more comfortable with Mycroft's persona): different languages are signified with different typography and punctuation: sometimes the narrative shrinks to script format. There are frequent references to the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment, from Voltaire ('the Patriarch') to de Sade. And there are a lot of toys, some of them mined from ancient rubbish dumps.

But I reiterate: Too Like the Lightning is a delight. I could ramble about the little details (Frankenstein! Cannerbeat! Mars! the Nobel Peace Prize! the Exponential Age!) for hours, and every time I dive back in I find something new. I'm glad I returned to it after initially being overwhelmed, and actually I'm very glad I didn't read it until the second volume was available: there are so many unresolved plot threads and themes that Too Like the Lightning alone would feel like half a novel. (Still want to know about the 'Nemean lion', though: mentioned very early on, and never again, and only on a reread did I begin to question that omission ... That's the problem with unreliable narrators: you can't trust a word they say.)

Monday, October 09, 2017

2017/84: Chomp -- Carl Hiaasen

Although the bat that had chomped him wasn’t carrying rabies, the germs from its saliva were toxic enough to blur his pampered sense of reality. In his fevered mind, the Night Wing vampire movies now loomed as true-to-life as a National Geographic nature documentary. [p. 190]

Mickey Cray runs an animal sanctuary / zoo in Florida, making a living by hiring out the animals for film and TV work. His son Wahoo is worried about Mickey, who hasn't worked for a while after being knocked out by a frozen iguana. Money's tight, and Wahoo's mother is away in China (she teaches Mandarin), when Mickey is approached by Derek Badger, a reality TV star whose show, Expedition Survival!, features Derek being dumped somewhere wild and having to make his way back to civilisation, living off the land and generally being tough.

(Derek, it must be said, may remind you of someone else, with his craving for money and fame, and his 'shiny chin, big oval mouth and vivid, orange-tinted hair.' I am sure any resemblance to a major public figure is purely coincidental.)

Derek and his team would like to employ Mickey and Wahoo -- accompanied by Wahoo's new friend Tuna, a girl from his class at school who's escaping a tricky home situation -- to accompany them on their latest Expedition, providing an alligator and 'a major python' (charged by the metre) for Derek to defeat. But of course it's not quite that simple ...

Vampire bats, a drunkard with a gun, and an alligator with attitude all contribute to the decline and fall of Derek Badger, while Hiaasen does low-key riffs on ecological and environmental themes, rural poverty, child abuse, the shallowness of reality TV, and a popular teen vampire series. Wahoo is considerably more mature and sensible than his dad, though one does get the sense he's quite lonely. (And I'm still not sure how old he is, apart from 'old enough to get the job done', as he says to one of the production assistants.) Great fun: definitely lighter in tone and plot than his novels for adults, but still had me laughing out loud.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

2017/83: Babylon Steel -- Gaie Sebold

Previous coughed, and said, “So. You’re sort of an ex-goddess of war, then.”
“Not quite. Avatar. And ex, yes. Definitely ex.” [loc. 7,430]
Former mercenary Babylon Steel (not the name she grew up with) runs the Red Lantern, the best brothel in Scalentine, a cosmopolitan city that sits at a cosmic crossroads -- it's accessible from multiple planes, and thus is inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient beings. The Red Lantern's motto is "All tastes, all species, all forms of currency", and all its employees are there because they want to be: it's a safe space, despite the Vessels of Purity (misogynist religious fanatics) who have been protesting in the street outside.

But it's a week until the festival of Twomoon, some working girls have been attacked, and an heiress is missing too: and Babylon, already concerned by the disappearances (and by the Lantern's cashflow: she's behind on her taxes), is engaged by the devastating Darask Fain to find the heiress -- whose very existence could start a religious war on her home plane.

Turns out that Babylon's past is catching up with her, too: before she came to Scalentine she was recruited by the Avatars of the absent gods of her home plane, Tiresana, which she left under something of a cloud. The Avatars are keen to see her again, but Babylon is far from enthusiastic about the prospect.

Sex, religion and a complex and colourful setting give this novel an almost comic-book feel, but there's plenty of depth in its entwined plots, and though the religious elements are generally negative, Sebold does balance them out to some extent. Babylon is an enjoyable protagonist, too, practical, good at people, and courageous: she's very much the focus of the novel, and we see the other characters -- several of them quite intriguing -- through her eyes.

Hard to say whether Babylon Steel is SF or fantasy: hard to care. It's sweet and well-paced and often funny; it's sex-positive, features families of choice, and the ending is open enough that I'll look forward to the second novel without feeling that I know what to expect.