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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

2017/07: Hekla's Children -- James Brogden

"... how do you go back to mucking around in your garden with your, your petunias and your water features and whatever, when you know that two hundred and fifty thousand years of darkness is right under your feet, waiting to swallow you up?" [loc 1205]
Nathan Brookes's career as a teacher is ruined when, during an orienteering event in Sutton Park, four teenagers disappear into thin air. Nathan, who'd abandoned them briefly to talk to the colleague he was having an affair with, is blamed -- even when one of the four, Olivia, reappears. But she remembers nothing.
Ten years later Nathan is working as an outdoor pursuits instructor. He's haunted by visions of the three lost teenagers; he's lonely, directionless, messed up. When a body is found in Sutton Park he hopes that it will bring closure: but it's a Bronze Age 'bog body', not one of the missing pupils. Further investigation reveals something strange about the corpse. It seems to have been made up of parts from different people. It may have been a kind of ritual guardian. And one limb shows evidence of something unaccountable.

Like the corpse, this is a novel of different parts. The first half reminded me strongly of Tana French's In The Woods, one of my favourite novels. Then, after a brief, unpleasant discursion into gory Stephen King territory, it becomes more like Robert Holdstock's Lavondyss (another favourite). The author acknowledges a debt to Alan Garner; there are elements, too, of Mark Twain.

I found this a gripping read. It's not poetic or meditative, but it has a twisty plot and a lot of prehistory, anthropology and mythology. The second half of the novel feels rather rushed, as the focus (and the narrative's sympathy) turns away from Nathan and towards another character. But I didn't especially like or empathise with Nathan (though his fate is disproportionate to his actions). Brogden's female characters are interesting and distinct -- especially osteoarchaeologist Tara Doumani, daughter of Lebanese refugees, and Liv the survivor -- and in general more likeable than most of the males.

Note: the Hekla reference in the title refers, not to Mt Hekla's reputation as a gateway to Hell, but to the Hekla 3 eruption, circa 1000 BCE, which may have caused the Bronze Age collapse.

Friday, February 23, 2018

2018/06: Taste of Marrow -- Sarah Gailey

"You feel bored by the murders. And you wonder who you are, that you can say that about yourself—that you're bored by the murders." [p. 114]
A direct sequel to River of Teeth, this picks up a couple of weeks later -- but is dramatically different in tone and structure. Where the previous novella was a heist caper, Taste of Marrow is about the emotional (and legal) fallout of that caper: about the survivors, and how each of them is affected by their acts during River of Teeth. This is a darker novella, and it focusses on two pairs of fugitives: Archie and Houndstooth, and Hero and Adelia. All four are looking for something that has been taken from, or has eluded, them: all four handle their situation very differently: all four are scarred by what happened when the dam came down. And they have all changed, though the changes are wholly in character. The person you'd expect to fall apart doesn't, because their goal is clear and their mind made up. The person who does fall apart is dangerously obsessed with what they've lost. A couple of new characters are introduced: another, from very early in River of Teeth, turns up unexpectedly.

If that all sounds confused, it's because I don't think I've fully processed Taste of Marrow. It is a different sort of story to River of Teeth: more thoughtful, more about emotion than action (though in fact there's a fair bit of action), and considerably darker.

2018/05: River of Teeth -- Sarah Gailey

Hovering in the doorway was a sleek little stoat of a man, his pencil moustache slicked across the top of his lip like a drunk draped across a chaise longue. [p. 59]
An alternate history set in a late nineteenth-century Louisiana, where the Mississippi has been dammed to form the Harriet -- an area of swampy bayou which is home to many ranchers and many feral hippopotami. For this is an America where the government imported hippos as an alternate meat source, and where, instead of cowboys, there are hippo-wranglers, or hoppers. One such is Winslow Houndstooth, who gathers a team of mavericks for the job of a lifetime -- ridding the Harriet of ferals -- and, incidentally, for revenge on the man who destroyed his ranch and his livelihood.

In other hands this might have been a straightforward, unexceptional historical thriller: but Houndstooth and his associates are a diverse band (a pregnant Latina assassin, a female con artist, a non-binary demolition expert, a British-Korean bisexual, and a Token White Man) and there are enough internecine conflicts to fuel many, many heists. There's also humour, romance, violence and a surprising amount of information (or an amount of surprising information) about hippos. Great fun, fast-paced: it's a novella, and as soon as I'd finished it I bought the sequel, Taste of Marrow. Because yes, cliffhanger ending.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

2018/04: Summer in Orcus -- T. Kingfisher

She took a step back, knowing that if they came for her, there was no point in running. Her throat and her heart and the nerves along the backs of her arms said we will try to run anyway, and Summer, still in the grip of her strange new emotion, said I know. She found that she loved her heart and her nerves for their willingness to try to save her, even in the face of futility. [loc. 4043]
Summer is eleven years old and lives with her mother, who loves her very very much: so much that Summer, offered her heart's desire by the witch Baba Yaga, finds herself wondering if that desire is to be an orphan. She loves her mother, of course, but she isn't allowed to do anything even mildly risky (riding a horse, going on the Ferris wheel, going to a sleepover) because she's all her mother has.

Baba Yaga does grant Summer's heart's desire, but she doesn't tell Summer what it actually is. Instead, Summer finds herself in a mysterious forest, which turns out to be in Orcus. Summer, who has grown up reading a great deal of fantasy (her mother, amusingly, thinks that books are safe) is disappointed not to be met by fauns and presented with a quest. All she has is a nameless, talking weasel.

Summer's adventures in Orcus are highly entertaining. There are three princesses (Boarskin, Bearskin and Donkeyskin); Glorious the wolf, who is a were-creature of an unusual kind; Reginald, who is an aristocrat straight out of a Regency romance (including a flock of valets) but with one major difference; and the fearsome Queen-in-Chains and her seneschal Zultan Houndbreaker, who may know something about 'the cancer at the heart of the world'.

Summer may only be eleven, but her mother's mental health issues have forced her to learn some hard lessons: they turn out to be very useful in Orcus. As do the words in the stained-glass window, in a book that was held by a saint wearing purple sneakers: "Don’t worry about things that you cannot fix. Antelope women are not to be trusted. You cannot change essential nature with magic." Summer also learns that you should be careful what you wish for, and that it's important to be true to your nature (even if your nature is not especially nice).

So many little details in this book! Kingfisher teases with phoenix hedgehogs, real-estate hunters, mouse-trees, the sun's shadow ... and an open ending that is at once satisfactory and leaves the door ajar for more story. I do hope there's more: I'm sure it would be a delight. Though I would be entirely happy to read a novel about this version of Baba Yaga, who snacks on salesmen, who 'sees all the way through time and chews off the bits she doesn't like.'

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.