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

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.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

2017/52-4: The Moon in the Cloud, The Shadow on the Sun, The Bright and Morning Star -- Rosemary Harris

The pyramids were almost as white by night as by day. They burned with a malignant whiteness barely distinguishable from a white sky. They had a fierce beauty, fed by what lay around them: hundreds of thousands of men had toiled all day in the burning eye of the sun to raise them, and been worn and thirsty; and many had died. Their bones lay beneath the desert. Great kings had laid them there: the bones of the labourers, white, and buried in a gold casing of sand, near the bones of the kings encased in gold, buried in a white casing of stone. And in the night the bones of the buried men and the bones of the kings help speech together. [The Moon in the Cloud, page 147]
Reread, because the Amelia Peabody books made me yearn for some quality fiction set in Ancient Egypt. I adored these books as a child and am pleased to report that they are just as enjoyable some decades later. And I was happy to see Barbara Mertz' Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs mentioned in the Acknowledgements!

In The Moon in the Cloud, Reuben, a Canaanite animal tamer, is sent by Noah's son Ham to retrieve a cat and two lions from Kemi (Egypt). Reuben is enslaved, and becomes the musician of the (imaginary) Pharoah Merenkere: Reuben escapes during a riot, with the help of a friendly tomb-robber, and fulfils his quest.

The Shadow on the Sun is the darkest, and I think weakest, of the trilogy. It focuses on Meri-Mekhmet, who is courted by a mysterious young man but rejects him when he turns out to have a wife and multiple concubines. She is, in turn, courted by the Prince of Punt, who abducts her. Reuben and his cat Cefalu, back in Egypt with Reuben's wife Thamar, become involved.

On rereading I found the characterisation of the Prince of Punt and his people rather racist, and Reuben's victory trivial and hastily described. Still, some lovely scenes in the Chamberlain's water garden and the King's palace, and on the waterfront of Menofer.

The Bright and Morning Star focusses on the children of previous books' protagonists. Merenkere's children -- Ta-Thata and Sinuhe -- are, of course, due to be married to one another. Neither is especially keen on the idea, and Sinuhe's tutor, the priest No-Hotep, has plans of his own. Ta-Thata's friend, the Chief Royal Architect Hekhti, becomes involved in the treatment of Reuben and Thamar's son Sadhi, who is deaf and dumb.

These novels (published in the late 1960s / early 1970s) don't read like modern children's books. The vocabulary is quite advanced, some weighty concepts are explored, and Harris isn't afraid to kill off her characters. There are multiple plot strands, elements whose significance isn't spelt out but left for the reader to deduce, and characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly villainous. (The King behaves very badly when rejected, for example.) And while the novels do, technically, feature 'talking animals', this is on the basis that their human associates understand their body language, rather than the animals speaking any form of human language.

A lovely reread: I appreciate the evocation of ancient Egypt more now than I did as a child.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

2017/51: Chalk -- Paul Cornell

I stuck to what was true, except that I didn’t include anything impossible. I wrote about what it was like on the playing field. How there were no teachers. How anything could happen. How anything had been happening for a long time now. I mentioned the lightning because there would be the patch of black glass on the ground ...

A horror novel about growing up in the 1980s: cod in butter sauce, Feast lollies, Bananarama, school discos. These things, in hindsight, are horrific in their own right, but Paul Cornell weaves a truly chilling story around the mundane details of Andrew Waggoner's school and home life, 1982-3.

The Amazon blurb describes this as 'a brutal exploration of bullying in Margaret Thatcher's England': well, yes, in the sense that the Bible is an exploration of God saying 'let there be light'. There is a lot more to the story than bullying, though that's where it starts: Andrew Waggoner is set upon by a group of bullies, after the Halloween disco, and maimed. He goes home -- can't tell his parents, because it would mean the end of their hopes for him, and also because he's embarrassed and simultaneously protective -- and washes the blood from his clothes, and stares out of his bedroom window into the night, out to the Downs with their earthlights and chalk figures.

And something sees him.

It's possible to read Andrew's new doppelganger, Waggoner, as a psychological rather than a magical manifestation. Waggoner occupies the same space as Andrew, and nobody but Andrew can see him. Waggoner behaves badly, and Andrew has to restrain him. Sometimes Andrew fails, and Waggoner enacts a series of bloody reprisals on Andrew's behalf.

As the year circles round to Halloween, there are indications that something bigger is happening around the edges of Andrew's story. The sense of creeping wrongness is subtly and effectively introduced. (I'd have liked just a little more about what was happening, what had happened long ago, on the downs: but the story doesn't need it.) Meanwhile, Andrew is trying to get through his mock exams, work out which music he's supposed to like, and befriend Angie, who is cool and interesting and who scries using the week's number one hit single. (Oh Lord, Rene and Renata.)

The finale felt slightly too rushed, though otherwise very satisfactory on both mundane and extraordinary levels. But what will stay with me about this book is the portrayal of what it was like to be an unpopular kid in the early 80s: Andrew's mingled embarrassment and protectiveness towards his parents, who only want the best for him; the fear of being seen by schoolmates outside school, where you can be judged; the sense that the adult world is an alien place from which no help should be sought, for it won't come; the way parents lie to their children, to be kind. Andrew doesn't know or care about politics, but he's acutely aware of class tensions. His mother, and especially his father, are at once central and peripheral to the story: like politics, they are incomprehensible and he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to them.

The bad thing that happens to Angie felt, on one level, like a false note: it's almost a cliche. But on the underlying mythic level, it makes a horrible kind of sense.

Highly recommended but not always nice.

Friday, May 05, 2017

2017/50: City of Miracles -- Robert Jackson Bennett

The conclusion I draw is not, as you suggested, that miracles fade as their existence goes on, causing fluctuations in their function. Rather, I believe that miracles changed and mutated just as any organism might: the Divine Empire was a teeming ecosystem of miracles and Divine entities, all with varying levels of agency and purpose, all shifting and altering as the years went by.
Conclusion of the Divine Cities trilogy (previous volumes were City of Stairs and City of Blades). I wondered, reviewing the latter, if the third book would focus on Sigrud the mysterious Viking Dreyling berserker: and it does, in that he is the primary viewpoint character. However, it's not primarily his story. The real protagonist of City of Miracles is Tatyana Komeyd, Shara's adopted daughter. Sigrud is just one of the people who gets Tatyana to where she needs to be.

The novel begins with the assassination of a former Prime Minister, by a killer working for a controller he's never met. Only after this does Sigrud reappear: he hasn't seen Shara for thirteen years, and hoped that she would reach out to him again, but now she never will. Vengeance is all that is left to him.

He calls on Mulaghesh, who has a cryptic message from Shara that she recites to him. And that message leads him in search of Tatyana, and thence (with the help of several formidable women) in search of the possibly-Divine being who arranged Shara's death. A being who, it transpires, has every reason to hate and fear the Komayd family.

I still like Sigrud as a character, and City of Miracles adds depth to some of his backstory, explaining why, and how, he has become so good at what he does. I'm happy to report that some good things happen to him in this novel, too. It is, in parts, thoroughly swashbuckling: in other parts, quite horrific. Bennett writes about the dismal underside of battle, the orphaned children and the refugees; the ways in which they forget, and then remember, what has happened to them, and why. It's the weaponisation of grief and pain, and it is horribly effective.

The children are important: Shara knew that, and was working with wealthy friends to provide for them. Sigrud is still mourning his own daughter (the dead one: strangely, he doesn't seem that interested in the surviving one or her offspring) and marvelling at the ways the world has changed -- with remarkable rapidity -- while he wasn't paying attention. It is worth noting, as several of the people he meets remark, that he hasn't aged a day since they first met him.

I didn't find this as satisfactory a read as City of Stairs. The events are momentous, the staging epic: but Sigrud's blend of bloodthirsty competence and quiet despair has a flattening effect. There is a rushed, unedited feel to some of the writing: 'neither of them' when there are three people in a situation; 'such weapons should not be trusted with governments'; 'a small, tiny mirror' ... It is, though, a nicely-rounded conclusion to the trilogy, with plenty of closure and simultaneously a sense of new beginnings.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

2017/49: Death by Silver -- Melissa Scott, Amy Griswold

He threw a satisfied glance at Ned, looking momentarily very much like one of the heroes of an adventure novel. Ned felt rather like one himself, and wished there were any chance of Julian putting his arms around him in an admiring way on the spot. [loc. 5335]
Death by Silver is set in an alternate London, probably in the local equivalent of the Victorian period: carriages not cars, telegrams rather than 'phones, cricket at Lords. Ned Mathey is a newly-qualified metaphysician, still trying to establish himself as a practitioner and curse-breaker. Edgar Nevett, whose son was at school with Ned, engages him to deal with a curse on the family silver. Ned can't detect any such curse -- but the next day, Nevett is dead, killed by an apparently-enchanted candlestick.

Ned enlists the help of his friend (-with-benefits) Julian Lynes, who is a detective. Both Ned and Julian were brutally bullied by Victor Nevett, the dead man's son: neither of them especially relishes the necessity of dealing with him now. But the case brings the two of them together more than casual visits have done, and as well as identifying the means, motive and method of the murderer -- in a satisfyingly complex plot -- they discover one another's misapprehensions about their relationship. (As in our own world, miscommunication is all too common in matters of romance.)

Death by Silver is a charming detective story with a romantic subplot, or possibly vice versa. It's strongly reminiscent of Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' stories (Julian is the one who extrapolates from detailed observation: Ned is the professional with the social skills) with the added dimension of an intricate and well-described system of magic. Magic's taken for granted: there are spells to keep the lid on a tea-pot if it's tipped over, spells to stop a gate admitting salesmen, love charms, contraceptive charms ... There is also, as mentioned by Ned's redoubtable clerk Miss Cordelia Frost, a London School of Metaphysics for Women: and Miss Frost hints at a whole sub-culture of women's magic based on domestic arts.

I should like to read more of Miss Frost's story, whether or not it intersected with Ned and Julian's. (There's a sequel, A Death at the Dionysus Club: it's on my list.)

Monday, May 01, 2017

2017/48: The Hippopotamus Pool -- Elizabeth Peters

Careers for women! That is a favourite theme of yours, I believe? Why, then you should commend my efforts, for I have given gainful employment to women – downtrodden, oppressed females of this and other countries, who work not for men but for themselves – and for me. A criminal organization of women![loc. 5712]
Amelia and her family are in Cairo to greet the 20th century (technically a year early) when a mysterious visitor produces an ancient gold ring, some hints about an undisturbed tomb, and -- shortly thereafter -- his own inexplicable disappearance. There are other mysteries, too: in the absence of Sethos (a.k.a. The Master Criminal), who has taken over the thriving trade in forged antiquities? Could there be two factions? If so, which faction is trying to prevent Emerson from finding and excavating the rumoured tomb? And is the forger Abd el Hamed's sullen juvenile apprentice, David, to be trusted?

Also features another fat villain; a Theosophist; Nefret being awesome; the return of Walter and Evelyn, and the latter regaining some verve; the cat Bastet obeying a command; Amelia's narrative shading into smugness.

There were quite a few typos in this Kindle edition ('pouring over the message', 'a wealthy window') as well as sentences where the words ran together without spaces, and at least one missing line. Still, very enjoyable, and has rather more history and archaeology than some of the others in the series.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

2017/47: The Last Camel Died at Noon -- Elizabeth Peters

It is impossible to give a proper impression of Ramses by describing his characteristics. One must observe him in action to understand how even the most admirable traits can be perverted or carried to such an extreme that they cease to be virtues and become the reverse. [loc. 305]
In which the Emerson family. having planned to excavate in Sudan, find themselves heading further into the desert with insufficient supplies and a guide who abandons them. ... Luckily, they are entering H Rider Haggard territory, and find themselves the guests -- or prisoners -- in a hidden city that has isolated itself from the rest of the world for some three thousand years, and harbours a thriving Meroitic society with a priestly ruling caste and a servant class that is considered barely human.

This is also the last known address of explorer Willoughby Forth and his young wife, who disappeared fourteen years before the events of the novel, and have been presumed dead. Willoughby's nephew Reggie was keen to renew the search for the missing couple -- he even has a rough map, sketched on a page from one of Emerson's own notebooks -- but does he have reasons other than familial ties for wanting to know the truth behind their disappearance?

Add to this a great deal of interesting speculation about what ancient Egyptian society might look like if it had been permitted to grow, without outside influence, for another few millennia, and this becomes a fascinating novel on several levels. Also, it introduces Nefret, a teenaged girl whose superpower is the ability to render Ramses silent.

Incidentally, H Rider Haggard truly is an influence, not only on Peters' novel but on the characters in that novel. Amelia happens across a book owned by Tarek, one of the princes of the city:
‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ I read. ‘By H. Rider Haggard.’ ‘I should have known,’ Emerson said in a hollow voice. ‘Known what?’ ‘Where Tarek got his high-flown style of talking and his sentimental notions. He sounds exactly like one of the confounded natives in those confounded books.’ Emerson [loc. 5000]

Friday, April 28, 2017

2017/46: The Deeds of the Disturber -- Elizabeth Peters

"... your – how shall I put it? – your panache, your disregard for convention, your remarkable talent for criminal investigation –"
"I prefer the term 'panache'," I interrupted. [loc 624]
The only novel in the series to be set wholly in London, Deeds of the Disturber opens with a mysterious death at the British Museum. With remarkable alacrity, the popular press start on about curses, and Amelia teams up with journalist Kevin O'Connell to find a murderer -- and uncover the identity of rival reporter M. Minton.

Meanwhile, peace has forsaken the Emerson household, as Amelia's unpleasant brother has asked her to look after his two repulsive children. Percy is a bully, Violet is greedy and sullen. Ramses loathes them both, but is already, at nine, too much of a gentleman (in this respect, at least) to reveal their nasty schemes and general dishonesty. Amelia is oblivious, for most of the book, to the torments inflicted by Ramses' cousins: when she does realise the truth, she is swift to apologise, which pleased me disproportionately. ('although he was wise enough not to say so, I could see he felt I had been a trifle too quick to assume he was at fault. I had to agree; but I would like to point out that Ramses’ past history tended to confirm such an assumption.' [loc. 5532])

Also features a mysterious woman (she is no lady) from Emerson's past; 'vices natural and unnatural', a distinction which Emerson declines to explain to Amelia; escape via corset; and some unflattering observations about Queen Victoria.

Pretty damned good, though Percy (who we do meet again) is vile, and Violet (who doesn't seem to feature in any other books) is, despite her appetite, somewhat two-dimensional.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017/45: A River in the Sky -- Elizabeth Peters

Americans had never established a political foothold in the Middle East. They were regarded as guests, sometimes annoying but not threatening. England bestrode the region like a colossus – one foot in India, one in Egypt, its influence stretching into large parts of Africa. England imposed her own laws and controlled every aspect of government, from education to trade.[loc. 1479]

Although, in terms of internal chronology, this comes between The Ape Who Guards the Balance and The Falcon at the Portal, it was written quite a lot later: I believe it was the last novel that Peters published before her death in 2013.

Sadly, a decline is tangible. There's some clumsy writing, a lot of exposition, and flawed characterisation. (Ramses is unable to escape from his captors; Amelia rushes in where angels fear to tread; nobody identifies the blatantly villainous spy.) It doesn't help, either, that the setting is Palestine before the First World War: excavation rules are different there -- not that anyone does much excavating -- and the historical and archaeological points of interest are considerably more controversial, and politically significant, than those of Egypt. The Emerson tribe seems a little out of its depth, and the villains of the tale have religious motivations as well as political ones.

Not my favourite of the Amelia Peabody novels by a long way. There are moments of interest, but the plot seems flimsy and the characters pastiches of themselves.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017/44: Thunder in the Sky -- Elizabeth Peters

"It isn’t always easy to distinguish right from wrong, is it? More often the choice is between better and worse . . . and sometimes . . . sometimes the line between them is as thin as a hair. One must make a choice, though. One can’t wash one’s hands and let others take the risks . . . including the risk of being wrong." [loc. 1941]

Set in 1914 in Cairo (again, I would love to read about what happened between Falcon at the Portal and this novel). The First World War is rumbling in the background, Cairo is under martial law, and the Ottoman Empire is building up to the first Suez Offensive. The Emersons have won the Giza firman (permit) since Germans are no longer welcome in Cairo: it's a bittersweet blessing, because some of those Germans were personal friends.

Everyone is in disguise in this novel. Amelia impersonates a lady of the evening and a married woman embarking on an illicit assignation. Emerson pretends to be hopeless with a gun (and does also get to wear a disguise). Nefret -- who has used her fortune to open a womens' hospital, catering to women from all walks of life -- pretends romantic interest in someone she suspects to be a villain, possibly even a traitor. And Ramses ... well.

This is Ramses' novel, more than any of the others I've read so far. At the start of the book he's being loudly pacifist and collecting white feathers from outraged ladies. Of course, being Ramses, he has several other personae on the go, and some very good reasons for risking life and liberty. Various intelligence agencies are eager to acquire his services: unsuccessfully. David Todros, meanwhile, is in prison in India, having spoken out about Egyptian independence. (David's wife Lia, who is expecting their first child, is back in the relative safety of England.) And Wardani, the revolutionary, is gathering arms and men for a rebellion.

The Master Criminal is also in Cairo: Amelia is certain that she's identified him, despite his disguise -- but surely he'd make an effort to keep out of her way? Even though he doesn't know about the best Christmas present either?

But at the heart of the novel is the family: Amelia, Emerson, Ramses and Nefret. The novel would be a great deal shorter (and much less exciting) if they were better at talking to one another: but, by the last page, a great many things that needed to be said have been said aloud.

I opened the book to check a couple of details and found myself rereading half of it. It really is a splendid novel, and feels like a culmination -- though I know there are quite a few books set after this one.

Also, Amelia advising Ramses on matters of the heart? Sheer delight.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

2017/43: The Falcon at the Portal -- Elizabeth Peters

‘We are only demonstrating the qualities for which our superior caste is famous,’ Ramses drawled. ‘British phlegm, noblesse oblige, coolness under fire . . . What have I left out?’
‘Don’t be hateful,’ Nefret snapped.
‘That’s the part I left out,’ said Ramses. ‘Hatefulness.'[loc. 5871]
At the beginning of this novel (set in 1911-2) Nefret is finding great amusement in reading from a 'true memoir' penned by Amelia's vile nephew Percy. Unfortunately, Percy -- having written a somewhat embellished account of his own heroism -- fails to identify the person who saved him; Nefret finds out who it was, and lets the information slip; and Percy wreaks a sordid and heartbreaking revenge.

David is about to get married and is also involving himself with the independence movement in Egypt; he, too, finds himself targetted, accused of marketing fake antiquities (all too believable, considering his previous trade). Nefret makes some very poor decisions, possibly under the strain of Percy's continued proposals of marriage. But things turn out badly for her, and it's hard to see how they can be mended.

Ramses has a horrible time in this novel, too. He is also the recipient of unwanted attentions -- and his heart is still given elsewhere, still apparently unrequitedly. He's not quite as solemn as before, at least in the first half of the novel: later he has plenty of reasons for solemnity. As do others. I felt for Amelia and Emerson, watching helplessly as 'the children' -- now all full-grown adults, embarking on lives of their own which they don't share with the older generation -- move beyond their protection.

Also some murders, some brothels and some tombs.

This novel is a masterful study of Amelia's extended family, love and friction and secrets and the urgent need to protect one another at all costs. It definitely ends on a minor key: I am so very glad I had the next book, Thunder in the Sky, to hand. [Actually, I'm fairly sure that C gave me that book, long ago, as a lure into the series. It didn't work: either the time wasn't right, or I felt adrift because I didn't know or care about the characters. Sorry, C!]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2017/42: The Ape Who Guards the Balance -- Elizabeth Peters

Nefret had been Priestess of Isis in a community where the old gods of Egypt were worshipped, and I had a nasty suspicion she had not entirely abandoned her belief in those heathen deities. Perhaps she shared the views of Abdullah, who was something of a heathen himself: ‘There is no harm in protecting oneself from that which is not true!’[loc. 3470]

Set in London and Egypt in 1906-7 -- another big gap in the timeline, which I wish had been filled. (There are allusions to events during that period in this and later novels.)

The Ape Who Guards the Balance begins in London, where Amelia has, of course, joined the Women's Social and Political Union. She is hoping to chain herself to the railings, but instead finds herself witnessing the Master Criminal's latest theft. A little later, someone attempts to abduct Amelia, but is foiled by her husband and son. Ah well! Egypt is bound to be safer, as well as warmer and with cleaner air.

Once in Egypt, Ramses, Nefret and David acquire a rare papyrus of the Book of the Dead: but it seems someone else is after it. Meanwhile, the Emersons -- having offended several key players in the archaeology game -- are relegated to clearing the dullest tombs in the Valley of the Kings, whilst a rank amateur makes a hash of an important find.

During the course of the book both Ramses (who's flitting around Cairo in a variety of unsavoury disguises) and Amelia are taken captive; David confesses his love for a young woman, sparking an unpleasantly racist reaction in Amelia (to her credit, she does immediately question her prejudice, and is determined to overcome it); and a recurring character dies.

I do like the way that Peters combines archaeology, crime and social commentary in this and subsequent novels. And Ramses' clear-eyed affection for, and knowledge of, his parents is refreshing after Amelia's self-assured and sometimes overly-confident narrative.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

2017/41: Seeing a Large Cat -- Elizabeth Peters

"...your Western talk about love confuses me a great deal. You make such a fuss about such a simple thing!"
"It really cannot be described," Ramses said, staring abstractedly at the cat, now lying across his stomach. "It must be experienced. Like being extremely drunk."[loc. 6797]

This novel is set in Egypt in 1903. Ramses and David return, somewhat swashbucklingly, from six months with Sheik Mohammed (in which time Ramses has grown a moustache) and Nefret returns from her medical studies in London. We're also treated to excerpts from 'Manuscript H', being an edited third-person narrative based on Ramses' journal: it contrasts piquantly with his mother's first-person account of events.

Enid, nee Derbyshire, and her husband Donald Fraser have also returned to Egypt. This is because a spiritualist, Mrs Jones, has put Donald in touch with the spirit of an Ancient Egyptian princess who claims to be his soulmate. Enid, unsurprisingly, is not best pleased by this. When she and Ramses first met he offered to help her if she ever needed it: she's calling in the debt.

Meanwhile the Emersons are being warned away from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings: naturally this just encourages them to excavate, and they discover a mummified corpse dressed in modern clothing.

There is also a silly debutante who fancies herself in love with Ramses (whose affections are given elsewhere, unrequitedly), and the debutante's father, a veteran of the American Civil War, who has lost his wife. (But she has been found -- though not under the best of circumstances.)

With hindsight -- reading out of order -- I do wish that Peters had written another novel between The Hippopotamus Pool and this one: I'd have liked to see the developing relationships between Ramses, Nefret and David as they move towards adulthood, and I can't help wondering if there was a particular event that sparked Ramses' lengthy visit to Sheik Mohammed. Imagination provides ample possibilities for an exasperated Amelia and an unrepentant Ramses ...

Monday, April 17, 2017

2017/40: Lion in the Valley -- Elizabeth Peters

I felt like one of the heroes of Anthony Hope or Rider Haggard, dashing to the rescue. (Their heroines, poor silly things, never did anything but sit wringing their hands waiting to be rescued.)[loc. 16494]

In which Ramses is revealed as a Sherlock Holmes fan, the cat Bastet is seduced with chicken, and Amelia learns the name of the Master Criminal. There is also another opportunity for Amelia to flex her matchmaking muscles: in search of a minder for Ramses, she encounters a young man who calls himself 'Nemo' and is fond of hashish, and of a young woman named Enid.

Needless to say there are also pyramids, murders, cunning disguises, upper-class British twits, and plenty of opportunities for Amelia's particular brand of modesty. ('I will frankly admit – since candour is a quality I prize, and since my errors in judgment are so infrequent as to be worthy of mention – that I was mistaken as to the cause of her reticence.')

The Master Criminal is a charming villain, with an unusual motivation. (Well, he has at least as many motives as he has nefarious schemes: but one motive is especially relevant.) At least he will know better than to attempt abduction of Ramses in future ...

Great fun. But I skipped the next few and went directly to Seeing a Large Cat, due to rumours of teenaged ninja Ramses.

Watch this space ...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017/39: The Mummy Case -- Elizabeth Peters

my spirits rose – not, as evil-minded persons have suggested, at the prospect of interfering in matters which were not my concern, but at the imminence of the exquisite Dahshoor pyramids.[loc. 11925]

Emerson and Amelia (and their irritating son Ramses) are sulking about not being permitted to excavate proper pyramids. Instead, they are digging over some mounds of rubble. But everyone perks up when an Egyptian antiquities dealer is found hanged in his shop: not because he is an especially worthy individual, but because all the signs point to murder and mystery, which are as meat and drink to the Emerson family. Yes, even their darling child. (I blame the parents.)

Meanwhile, a village near the dig seems to have been overrun by American missionaries; a German aristocrat with more money than taste appears on the scene, accompanied by her pet lion-cub; Ramses carries out some excavations of his own; and the Egyptians are, in general, morally superior to the Americans, British and European characters.

This is the book where I began to see potential in Ramses (who is, as one character says, 'catastrophically precocious'). His interactions with the cat Bastet are delightful. And Amelia's very Victorian parenting -- even Emerson seems to think she is rather hard on her son -- is, though troublesome to a modern reader, exactly the environment in which a child of intelligence, curiosity and courage thrives. (Besides, she does turn out to have a violently maternal streak.) And it's Ramses whose actions turn the tide of the novel.

Also features a Master Criminal.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

2017/38: The Curse of the Pharaohs -- Elizabeth Peters

I was flattered that the cat stayed with me; always before she had seemed to prefer Emerson. No doubt her keen intelligence told her that the truest friend is not always the one who offers chicken.[loc. 9086]

Amelia Peabody Emerson and her redoubtable husband are off to Egypt again, after five years in England. They leave their little son Ramses in the tender care of Emerson's brother Walter and his lovely wife Evelyn. Both leap at the opportunity to excavate what might be an undisturbed royal tomb -- and given Amelia's predilection for crime-solving, it probably doesn't hurt that the discoverer of the tomb, Sir Henry Baskerville, died in mysterious circumstances.

Egypt is certainly a contrast to their sedate life in Kent. There is a vexing reporter, an American Egyptologist, the bereaved Lady Baskerville, a young man who spends most of the novel in a coma, and Madame Berengeria, who drinks a lot to assuage the Eternal Pain stemming from being the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian Queen. (Emerson is apparently her long-lost love.) There is a great deal of skulduggery, a romance that seems to be doomed, and a number of superstitious individuals --
Egyptian and otherwise -- who would rather Emerson and Amelia did not excavate the tomb, which is (of course) cursed.

Amelia is as delightfully cynical as ever ('the fact that she had not yet exterminated her mother proved that she was incapable of violence') and manages to retain her air of competence by never quite admitting when she's wrong.

I have to say I didn't enjoy this as much as Crocodile on the Sandbank: but I had already committed myself, via the four-book omnibus edition, to the series. Curse of the Pharaohs is entertaining, fast-paced and often very funny: it introduces characters who will be significant later in the series: but Amelia did not charm me quite as much as on first acquaintance.

Also, I note that in Elizabeth Peters' books, overweight individuals are seldom on the side of good -- whether neutral or actively villainous.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

2017/37: Grave of Hummingbirds -- Jennifer Skutelsky

Gregory stood still, aware of circumstances closing over his head in a flood, images pouring in: the body in the highlands, laid out on his table under a scalpel; the tattoos and their scabs; Alberto’s beatings at the hands of the police; the woman at the café, who resembled Nita too closely, who seemed an afterthought of Nita or a memory made whole in flesh and bone.[loc. 1552]

Grave of Hummingbirds begins with a mysterious murder and mutilation in Colibrí, a remote Andean town. The local doctor, Gregory Moreno, notes the victim's resemblance to Nita, the dead wife he's still mourning. (Several other men in Colibrí seem to have been in love with Nita too.) Then two American tourists arrive in town: forensic anthropologist Sophie -- who also bears a remarkable resemblance to Nita -- and her teenaged son Finn. They have come to witness an ancient, savage ritual that involves tying a condor (symbolising the native population) to a bull (symbolising the Spanish invaders). Gregory, who loves animals, is against this. So is his young protégé Alberto, though not for the same reasons.

There are some beautiful phrases in this novel, but on the whole it felt unfinished, in need of a further edit. Sophie and Finn have an air of the white saviour about them. Their arrival in Colibrí precipitates major changes. They are the only ones who can see or hear the ghosts of Colibrí's disappeared. Both are the focus of desire and fascination from the townsfolk. And only with their appearance can the poor folk of Colibrí find justice, understanding and closure.

I'm unhappy about the characterisation, too. Sophie, who is a single mother and has visited many of the world's most troubled locations as a forensic anthropologist, crumbles into near-hysteria under pressure. Finn's great dream is to be a ballet dancer, but he decides to postpone his ambitions at the drop of a hat. And Nita turns out to have been harbouring a tragic secret -- a concealment that, given other characters' perception of her, seems improbable.

The novel's ending seems hurried, abrupt: everything (well, most things) wrapped up neatly, regardless of whether it makes narrative or logical sense. Skutelsky has a gift for lyrical writing, but it doesn't show to best advantage in this, her first novel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017/36: Our Game -- John le Carré

‘Such an inconsistent man you are. One minute you are looking for Emma, the next you are looking for your friend. You know what? I don’t think you wish to find your friend, only to become him. ’[loc. 4325]
Tim Cranmer, retired 'civil servant', receives a visit late one Sunday night: his friend -- or associate -- Dr Lawrence Pettifer has gone missing, and the police wonder if Cranmer can help with their enquiries.

Cranmer, of course, is not the middle-aged Treasury economist turned winemaker that he seems. And Larry is not simply an eccentric lecturer in Global Security. They are former intelligence operatives, bound closer than friendship by secrets and loyalties -- and by their shared regard for Emma, Cranmer's girlfriend, who is a composer.

Panicked, Cranmer heads to London to meet with his former employers, and learns that Larry has been up to no good. But is he still alive? And where is Emma? Cranmer, finding himself as suspect as Larry, sets out to discover what Larry has really been up to.

Cranmer does not seem to be wholly sure of his own emotions; or perhaps the habit of secrecy is so engrained that even in this first-person, non-sequential narrative, he won't admit to them. I'm not sure I'd call him a likeable character, but his competence -- wonderfully contrasted with his mental turmoil, which sometimes seems tinged with hysteria -- is fascinating.

On first reading, I thought this was Larry's story: but I wonder now if it's the story of Tim Cranmer finding new purpose after being severed from the career that gave him meaning. Not at all the ending I expected, but a very satisfactory conclusion.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

2017/35: Paradise Lost: The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance -- Giles Milton

When the screams from the distant quayside grew too loud to be ignored, the captain ordered the ship’s band to strike up tunes.

This is not a cheerful book: but it is fascinating, brilliantly written, cautionary and informative. Giles Milton examines life in Smyrna before and during The Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. Milton's especially good at picking out individuals who illustrate aspects of life in his chosen milieu: the first part of Paradise Lost focusses on the (mostly American) Levantines who made their homes in Smyrna because of the cosmopolitan, tolerant, mercantile nature of the city. Many of them seem to have been unusually benevolent employers: when the inhabitants of one village fled, fearing invasion, Edmund Giraud watered, harvested and sold their crops, and sent the proceeds to the displaced farmers.

The city -- populated by almost as many Greeks as Turks, together with Armenians, Jews, and Europeans -- remained relatively unscathed by World War One. Smyrna's Ottoman governor, Rahmi Bey, seems to have been instrumental in fending off the more bellicose initiatives of the Ottoman Empire: he even attempted to strike 'a private truce between Smyrna and the British government, offering to withdraw his city from the war in order to safeguard its numerous different minorities'. Sadly, the British were vehemently opposed to the Ottoman Empire -- who were allies of Germany -- and refused.

After the end of the First World War, Greece invaded: and three years later, the Greco-Turkish War was effectively ended by the Turkish army regaining control of Smyrna. Subsequently -- according to Milton's book -- the Turks set fire to much of the city, driving Greeks and Armenians to the quayside, where they remained trapped for three weeks; many were murdered, many more died, and most of the men were marched away to the interior. Although there were many Allied battleships in the harbour, all seem to have been under orders not to intervene (though, unsurprisingly, the wealthy Levantines were able to seek sanctuary on one ship or another). Hero of the hour: Asa Jennings, an unprepossessing American missionary, who commandeered a flotilla of (mostly Greek) ships and oversaw the evacuation of hundreds of thousands from the quayside. '‘All ships in the Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.’ Asa Jennings had been appointed an admiral of the Greek navy. '

After reading Paradise Lost, I realised that I'd read fictionalised accounts of -- or at least references to -- the fall of Smyrna in various novels, for example Middlesex (Eugenides) and Birds Without Wings (de Bernieres). None of those moved me, or engaged me, or enraged me to the extent that Milton's book did. Part of the success of this book, for me, was that Milton focussed on a relatively neutral group rather than either Greek or Turkish factions; part is his excellent pacing, alternating charming, and often quite gossipy, vignettes with examinations of the political situation. Milton is good at fleshing out historical characters, and merciless when describing the failings of politicians.

A note of caution: I read Paradise Lost on Kindle, and then went hunting on the Internet for illustrations and maps. It took me a couple of days to realise that the paperback is lavishly illustrated with photos, maps etc: I swiftly returned my Kindle book for refund, and bought a dead-tree version.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

2017/34: The Little Stranger -- Sarah Waters

Arriving at that crumbling red house, I’d have the sense, every time, that ordinary life had fractionally tilted, and that I had slipped into some other, odder, rather rarer realm. [loc. 1151]
Set in post-war rural Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel that echoes with inequality: sexism, social class, family secrets and a creeping sense of horror. Everyone in this novel is scared of something, but most of them won't (or can't) put a name to their fear. For Dr Faraday -- I don't believe his forename is ever revealed -- it's the imminent National Health Service, which he fears will destroy his practice. For the once-wealthy Ayres family -- Mrs Ayres and her two grown children, who live at isolated Hundreds Hall with their few remaining servants -- it's the Labour government that's taxing rural landowners into penury. But those are fears that can be spoken of, and laughed about. There are others.

Dr Faraday is a working-class lad made good, though he has a chip on his shoulder and a constant sense of not quite belonging. His friendship with the Ayres family -- and especially with Caroline -- give him glimpses of a different world, and the reclusive family who inhabit the crumbling ruins of a bygone age. He's keen to suggest experimental treatments for Roderick Ayres, who is scarred, physically and mentally, by his wartime experiences. Rod is an amiable sort, joking about the servants getting better treatment than the family -- though he seems to be struggling with the management of the estate. Rod's sister Caroline seems cheerful and competent, devoted to her elderly Labrador Gyp: she and Faraday become good friends.

But Rod himself is becoming increasingly distressed -- he talks of keeping something at bay, and recounts an outlandish tale of an evil presence -- so Dr Faraday, diagnosing nervous illness, arranges for his removal to a nursing home. Once Rod is out of the picture, the Ayres women turn to Faraday for help and support -- and, on Caroline's part, perhaps more.

There is a delicious creeping sense of horror here: nothing quite glimpsed or explained. Faraday's first-person narrative reveals more than he knows: his insistence on rational explanations and psychoanalytic theory blinds him to much of what is happening. Waters' descriptions are precise, as though she's viewing each scene through a magnifying-glass and picking out the details one might not notice: the dirt on each hair on the bare leg of a young woman, a drop of blood on a silk blouse. Throughout the novel there's a sense of disrepair, decay, things that are stained or marked or charred.

I should read more Waters ...

Sunday, April 02, 2017

2017/33: Crocodile on the Sandbank -- Elizabeth Peters

Men are frail creatures, of course; one does not expect them to exhibit the steadfastness of women. [loc. 2586]

Amelia Peabody, brought up in a house full of books and antiquities, has come into a substantial inheritance and decides to use it to fund her travels. Her chosen travelling companion falls ill, but fortuitously she encounters distressed gentlewoman Evelyn Barton-Forbes, abandoned and destitute in Rome, and the two quickly become friends. They journey to Egypt, where Amelia develops a passion for pyramids and encounters irascible archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his rather more amiable brother Walter. The Emersons are determined to uncover the secrets of Amarna, Akhenaten's capital, and Amelia and Evelyn become involved in the excavation.

All would be idyllic were it not for the sudden appearance of Evelyn's cousin Lucas (who wants to marry Evelyn) and an apparition of a mummy (which may also be interested in Evelyn). Fearing for her friend -- and exasperated by, well, pretty much everything -- Amelia sets out to solve the mystery of the mummy, and get to the bottom of Lucas's story.

This was great fun: it's always nice to discover a likeable series, and know that there are plenty of further adventures awaiting the characters. (I believe the Amelia Peabody series is now up to twenty volumes.) Amelia is a rational and somewhat domineering female, and Emerson an excellent foil for her. The setting -- Victorian Egypt, without the racism of Victorian novels set there -- is intriguing. I did find the plot predictable in places, and I'd like to read the alternate history in which Amelia and Evelyn 'could have lived like sisters, enjoying the domestic comforts of England, and travelling whenever we got bored with domesticity'. But overall, most enjoyable.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

2017/32: Ace, King, Knave -- Maria McCann

She begins to comprehend the mentality of such people. One need not be especially clever, and certainly not well educated. The essential thing is to conduct one’s life as war: everything is permitted except compassion. [loc. 5102]

London in the 1760s: or 'Romeville', to the 99% who don't inhabit the clean well-lit civilised world of the gentry. Betsy-Ann Blore is living with a man she despises, having been won by him in a card game with her former lover, the charmingly rakish Ned Hartry. She was once a common prostitute (ensnared by Ned's mother Kitty), but now scrapes a living by thieving and card-sharping. Her brother (the brutish Harry) is a resurrectionist, digging up fresh corpses to sell to anatomists. Betsy-Ann worries that her current fellow, Sam Shiner, will join Harry in his nocturnal adventures.

Sophia Buller, only child of wealthy parents, is newly married to Edmund Zedland, whose business affairs are opaque to Sophia but clearly very lucrative. Why won't he trust her with any of his secrets? And why does his servant, the black boy Titus, seem to hate her? And why do her parents reply so vaguely to her letters?

Sophia's life is lonely, and genteel. Betsy-Ann's quite the opposite, a narrative replete with slang and double-dealing. In Betsy-Ann's world, cruelty is a constant, especially cruelty to -- and by -- women. (The men, in this novel, seem almost peripheral: on the whole they are either well-meaning but ineffectual, or dishonest and violent.)

Sophia and Betsy -- and Titus, whose name is actually Fortunate and who was brought from (or bought in) Annapolis to serve Mr Zedland -- discover how their fates are entwined, and how each of them is the victim of deception. Which leads, in due course, to each of them practicing their own deceptions, with greater or lesser success. This is a novel in which the reader becomes aware of the great central lie before any of the characters realise how they've been duped.

I confess I found Betsy-Ann's narrative richer than Sophia's, but it was also quite breathtakingly unpleasant at times. McCann does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting her two protagonists: her depiction of 'Titus', who can barely speak English but whose interior life is sketched through memory, fancy and despair, is marvellous. And though the novel ends on what, in music, would be called an 'imperfect cadence' (there is no grand resolution) I liked that ending: it works, because it opens up possibilities.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017/31: Bring Up the Bodies -- Hilary Mantel

'Strike first, before she strikes you. Remember how she brought down Wolsey.' His past lies about him like a burnt house. He has been building, building, but it has taken him years to sweep up the mess.

Second in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy: I wonder when the third volume will appear.

I didn't like this as much as Wolf Hall: it seemed overlong, a detailed examination of the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour. There's more sense of the tightrope Cromwell is walking, of his precarious position as the man upon whom a notoriously temperamental monarch relies. He reflects on the notion that he is 'a man whose only friend is the King of England': he thinks, still, that he will see the end of Henry's reign. Indeed, when rumours of Henry's death at Greenwich reach Cromwell, it seems that he has outlasted the King. (One problem with historical novels, assuming they adhere to the facts: a great disaster for the characters is obviously, to the reader, a false alarm.)

Much of the novel concerns the whispering, machinations and back-biting of Henry's court, and especially of the miasma of women who surround his second queen, Anne Boleyn. Rumour and superstition do as much to topple Anne as her failure to produce a son, or her husband's preference for plain, virtuous Jane Seymour. It is Cromwell, however, who weaves together those fragments of gossip to bring about Anne's execution: and it is Henry's desire to dissolve the marriage that drives Cromwell's actions.

Cromwell is as isolated, himself, as Henry's England after the English Reformation. Most of Cromwell's family are dead: only his bright and curious son, Gregory, remains. The noblemen among who he moves -- not least the Duke of Norfolk and his circle -- look down on him as a commoner. He has, of course, no friends: though he finds himself missing Thomas More, and Wolsey. His whole life is devoted to Henry, and to Henry's will.

Mantel's writing is full of resonant images: that irritating 'he, Thomas' tic is still there, and sometimes seems unnecessary since it's Thomas Cromwell whose eyes we are seeing through. But, wait: who is the 'we' who (for instance) 'will not have many more days such as this'? Is this Mantel fostering a sense of unity? Or is it Thomas, emphasising his feeling of unity with his audience, or England, or the English, or the King with his 'royal we'?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

2017/30: Finding Philippe -- Elizabeth Edmondson

Daydreamed for a moment of a life that could be led in a land where they didn’t have a word for pea-souper fogs. Where National Bread would be an impossibility. Where summer came every year.

At eighteen, Vicky Hampden's oppressive father made her a ward of court to curtail her wartime love affair with the dashing French Philippe. Now Vicky is twenty-five, and her favourite aunt has left her an inheritance. She decides to use some of the money to visit France and try to discover Philippe's fate: she's been told he's dead, and she hasn't seen or heard from him since 1943.

Aided by an amiable lawyer, Julius (who's also keen to escape the dullness of ration-bound post-war Britain) -- and, later, by her niece, who has run away from school -- Vicky uncovers a web of intrigue while enjoying la vie française. It gradually becomes apparent that Philippe was a man of mystery -- not only an operative for the SOE, but also the scion of an ancient and wealthy family. And, of course, Vicky has a secret of her own, which she keeps as close as the gorgeous Gothic butterfly that Philippe bequeathed to her ...

Not my favourite of Edmondson's books, I have to say, despite the art theft, psychoanalysis, espionage, wicked relatives et cetera: few of the characters really came alive for me; the romance felt abrupt; and I cannot believe that anyone, even in 1949, would countenance a fifteen-year-old girl running off with a Frenchman ten years (?) her senior.

Friday, March 24, 2017

2017/29: 11.22.63 -- Stephen King

We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.
Jake Epping, divorced schoolteacher, is a man who doesn't weep over anything -- until one day he's reading an account by one of his students of the night his siblings and mother were murdered by his father.

Serendipitously, Jake's friend Al has a time portal in his diner. It leads to 11:58am on the morning of September 9th, 1958: every trip is a reset, Al says, so you can visit the past again and again. Al himself had attempted to prevent JFK's assassination in November 1963, but late-stage cancer prevented him. Maybe Jake can help. Though the past is obdurate: it doesn't want to be changed ...

Jake has read Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder' -- though he keeps using the term 'butterfly effect', which is not the same thing as the idea that changing the past alters the future -- and indeed there are frequent 'sounds of thunder' in 11.22.63. But Jake is still convinced that he can fix everything -- Harry Dunning' s father, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Vietnam War -- and return to a rosy future.

Not that the past is so bad. Jake is enthusiastic about food that tastes better; about Sadie, who he falls in love with; about his teaching job (acquired using fake credentials); about his personal wealth, courtesy of some informed gambling. Sure, the Fifties and Sixties are racist, sexist and lack the comforts of technology. But petrol's cheap and the natives are mostly friendly -- and if he makes a mistake he can always come back and run through those years again.

This novel is far too long: possibly to emphasise the sheer slog of Jake's five years in 'the past', working towards a single moment in Dallas, possibly just because it hasn't had a good edit. There are some exceptional scenes -- not least Jake's visits to Derry, the setting for IT -- and plenty of evocative descriptions of the early Sixties. And King's prose is ... transparent, in a good way: very readable, competent, seldom repetitive. Sadly, there is just too much of it in 11.22.63.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

2017/28: All the Birds in the Sky -- Charlie Jane Anders

...she felt like her whole history was taking on a whole new focus, the landscape of her past rearranging so that the stuff with Laurence became major geographical features and some other, lonelier, events shrank proportionately. Historical revisionism was like a sugar rush, flooding her head.
Patricia Delfine discovers that she's a witch at the age of six: however, she loses her magical abilities when her parents lock her in her bedroom, and spends the rest of her childhood trying hard to get birds to talk to her again. She's the target of the school bullies -- as is Laurence (never Larry), a protogeek who creates a 2-second time machine and truants from school to watch a rocket launch.

They become friends, despite their very different varieties of geekness -- Patricia loves nature because it's 'not like people', Laurence loves science because it promises control -- and save one another's lives: and then don't meet again for ten years.

Patricia has become part of a group of magic-users who are working to combat various ecological and natural disasters: Laurence is working for maverick tech investor and engineering genius Milton Dirth, whose Ten Percent Project aims to get 10% of the population off-planet in the next few years. Patricia's time at a magical school (strongly reminiscent of Lev Grossman's Brakebills) has taught her to use her powers wisely, for the good of others, and not to overreach (beware Aggrandizement!). Laurence has helped to develop what is essentially a doomsday machine, which might destroy the Earth (but hey, the odds are good). They both want to change the world, but have very different approaches: 'fantasy' and 'science fiction' might be appropriate labels for those approaches.

But there is a third character, an AI which they have effectively, though unwittingly, co-parented: and that third character may be able to align Patricia's and Laurence's world views ...

This novel is immense fun, passionate and funny and brimming with ideas. (I liked the Nameless Order of Assassins; Lars Saarinian's educational models, which are based on pigs in the slaughterhouse; the distinction between, and synthesis of, Trickster and Healer magic ...) The San Francisco milieu in which the two protagonists reconnect has a horrid verisimilitude: hipsters singing madrigals, graduates suffering imposter syndrome, omnipresent personal technology (which one character describes as '[making] serendipity happen more often' ...

Though occasionally All the Birds in the Sky feels as though it's falling over itself in its rush to the denouement, it's a cracking read. I'm looking forward to more from Anders.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017/27: A Quiet Life -- Natasha Walter

... she has been cleverer than all of them, she thinks to herself. No one suspects her. Valance even thinks that she will work for him, if he needs her. Even Mother, even Ellen, even Winifred; nobody thinks that she was anything but an innocent wife. Her mask has been a good one. Has her face stayed intact behind it?

Based on the life of Melinda Marling, the wife of Donald McLean, A Quiet Life tells the story of Laura Leverett who travels from America to London just before the outbreak of the Second World War. On board ship she meets some Communists, including the charismatic Florence: in London she pretends to her relatives that she has a secret boyfriend, so as to slip out to Party meetings. Then she meets Edward, a sophisticated chap who works at the Foreign Office: he turns out to be a spy. They marry. Now Laura is a spy too. Edward and Laura go to Washington after the war: then Edward's double life is uncovered, they return to England, and Edward flees his house in Surrey and his pregnant wife.

This could have been so much better than it was. Laura seems to have little personality and no real direction. She overhears various damning comments about herself but, if she's upset or angry, we don't see it. She is also oblivious to her husband's homosexuality, and to her own romantic / sexual impulses towards Florence and other women of her acquaintance. Which is not to say that Edward and Laura have a platonic relationship: on the contrary, sex is the glue that holds them together, though it is presented in a transactional way: did they both climax? Did they climax together?

Walter may have heard the axiom 'show, don't tell' but she is having none of it. Far too many conversations are summarised, rather than given in full: "in their comments on her, which moved from the admiring to the moralising, they hinted at their own desires. After that the conversation led on to other things, but they felt more warmly now towards one another..." This technique makes Laura feel more distant. I don't know how much of her behaviour is in service of the mask she must present, the pretty silly American wife: but there doesn't seem to be anything much behind the mask. True, there's a secret that she's kept since her teenaged years: I'm not sure if the nature of this secret was ever indicated, though I suspect it is something to do with her family, from whom she attempts to distance herself throughout the novel. Only once abandoned by Edward is she forced to accept that her mother's fidelity is in fact love: it's not clear whether Laura reciprocates at all.

I did like the descriptions of wartime London -- and there are occasional flashes of excellence, like the description of London seen from a fast car 'rolling past the windows with a kind of emphatic repleteness'. On the whole, though, I would rather have read an actual biography.

I may have missed something: much more positive review

Thursday, March 16, 2017

2017/26: Dark Eden -- Chris Beckett

‘Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that’s all about them. There will always be a few of them, and once one of them starts, another one of them will want to fight with him.’

The premise of this award-winning novel -- descendants of stranded spacefarers on a planet with no sun, atavistic society -- did not appeal to me at all, but Dark Eden was recommended by two readers whose opinions I value, so I dived in.

There is a lot to like. The worldbuilding is fascinating: the alien life of Eden, from the trees that are the main source of heat and light to the two-hearted, six-limbed animals with flat eyes that never close, is beautifully and intriguingly described, and the sheer strangeness of this dark world (lit only by harsh starlight when there's no blessed cloud-cover) comes across strongly. The inhabitants are all descended from two individuals, five or six generations before the novel begins: birth defects are common, and few children know who their father is because it hardly matters. Language has simplified (in particular, they seem to have lost the word 'very', so when it's extra-cold it's 'cold cold', or even 'cold cold cold'). The people of Eden, living in a more-or-less matriarchal society, now number over five hundred: and they know that they need to stay near the Circle, where their long-awaited rescuers from Earth will know to find them. Trouble is, local resources are running out. The children no longer have a school, because they can't be spared from foraging. There's talk of a rota system for fishing the lake ...

But one boy, John Redlantern, has radical thoughts. He thinks they should range further, set up other settlements outside the Valley (there must be other valleys which could support life); he listens hard to the old stories and is sure he's noticing elements that nobody's noticed before; he's frustrated with doing things the way they've always been done; he is, in short, a rebel. And he's bored.

In short order John becomes an innovator; an iconoclast; an outcast; a leader of a breakaway community; a criminal of a kind that Eden's never known; and, frankly, the kind of man who makes the story all about him. (Though actually I think that trait's there from the beginning.)

The plot's strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and Clan of the Cave Bear: it's the setting that makes this novel so interesting. There are some significant female characters, too, though many of them are ineffectual or worse. Tina Spiketree, John's girlfriend, is intelligent and observant -- she gets a considerable portion of the narrative -- and she realises that a time is coming when the women will have less power and the men will be running things. One can't help wondering what would have happened if she, rather than John, had had all those bright ideas.

I enjoyed this a great deal more than I'd expected, and found it a truly original setting. I'd like to read more about Eden, but I'm less enthusiastic about the ways in which Eden's society will change after the events of this novel.

Chris Beckett on the science (PDF)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017/25: The Elegance of the Hedgehog -- Muriel Barbery

... pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.
Mme Renée Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, a fifty-four-year-old widow with bunions and bad breath. As far as the residents know, she is a typical concierge, watching television and reading tabloids, alone except for her cat Leo. In secret, though, she is passionate about philosophy, art and language (a misplaced comma in a note from one resident drives her to distraction), and she observes her employers with a clear and critical eye.

One of the block's residents is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old girl who has surveyed the life set out for her and decided, instead, to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. She is alienated from her vacuous family, who don't appreciate her need for silence or intellectual conversation.

Then another resident, an elderly food critic, dies: and his apartment is bought by a mysterious Japanese gentleman, who transforms the lives of both Paloma and Mme Michel.

There is a lot of philosophy here, leavened by humour and by vignettes of the lives of wealthy Parisians. The snobbish pretensions of the moneyed residents are set against Renée and Paloma's desire for beauty, truth and meaning. Both have given up hope: both have hope restored to them.

In absolute terms, very little happens in The Elegance of the Hedgehog until the end of the novel: in terms of the mental lives of the characters, though, a great transformation is wrought -- quietly, secretly, without fuss. I found myself caught up in Renée's boundless appetite for learning (and for patisserie!), in her journalling ('I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know') and in her reminiscences and friendships. I'm less interested by Paloma, because I find her arrogant: but towards the end of the book she shows signs of relaxing into a more likeable, and less miserable, human being, one who's better equipped to appreciate the random beauty of the world. And the novel's ending, though sudden and wholly unexpected, does feel right in hindsight.

Also, I found the translation transparent: that is, the prose felt French but there were no infelicities of phrasing or idiom. It flowed naturally, which is an enviable quality in a translated work.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

2017/24: City of Blades -- Robert Jackson Bennett

Mulaghesh stops and looks up into the face of Voortya. The world goes still. There is someone in the statue. It’s the strangest of sensations, but it’s undeniable: there is a mind there, an agency, watching.

It's five years since the events of City of Stairs. Turyan Mulaghesh has kept her promise and retired to a (rather squalid) beach house in Javrat. A request comes from Shara Komayd, who is now Prime Minister. Could Mulaghesh investigate the disappearance of an agent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who vanished from the city of Voortyashtan -- formerly the stronghold of the Divinity in charge of war and death -- whilst investigating reports of a marvellous substance.

Of course it's not as simple as that. For one thing, the regional governor of Voortyashtan is Mulaghesh's old CO: while serving under him as a teenager, Mulaghesh did some things that she still has nightmares about. For another thing, the harbour of Voortyashtan is being dredged by the Southern Dreyling Company, whose Chief Technology Officer is the daughter of Shara Komayd's secretary and factotum, Sigrud je Harkvaldsson. The 'marvellous substance', which seems to conduct more electricity than should be possible, comes from mines which have been destroyed. There have been some suspicious, almost ritualistic murders. And somebody may be trying to resurrect the feared Voortyashtani sentinels, with their living armour and the swords that always return to the hand that wields them.

I didn't love this quite as much as City of Stairs: but that may just be because it's a darker book, or that the protagonist is less appealing to me than Shara Komayd was. Mulaghesh is haunted by her past -- we might diagnose PTSD -- and by the injury she sustained in the Battle of Bulikov. Voortya, the Divinity who was worshipped in Voortyashtan, is a Kali-esque figure, a warrior goddess (how apt for Mulaghesh) whose major innovation seems to have been the creation of an afterlife for her followers. And there are dark deeds afoot, and old feuds burning new, and a ritual that opens a way to Voortya's City of Blades.

But there are also -- as before -- strong female characters and intriguing world-building. I did begin to wonder, though, if the trilogy's arc is going to turn out to be focussed on Sigrud: I do find him fascinating, but I would hate to discover that Shara and Mulaghesh and Signe are peripheral to his story. And I'm not wholly convinced by Mulaghesh as a character -- or possibly as a female character. How different would the character be, would the novel be, if Mulaghesh were a man? ... I suspect these are captious and bloody-minded criticisms, and they may well stem from the slump after finishing City of Blades and realising I have to wait until May for the final volume of the trilogy.

Friday, March 03, 2017

2017/23: City of Stairs -- Robert Jackson Bennett

while no Saypuri can go a day without thinking of how their ancestors lived in abysmal slavery, neither can they go an hour without wondering – Why? Why were they denied a god? Why was the Continent blessed with protectors, with power, with tools and privileges that were never extended to Saypur? How could such a tremendous inequality be allowed?

The Continent used to be powerful, magical, and blessed by the Divinities. Now it's occupied by the Saypuri, who used to be the Continentals' slaves. City of Stairs is set a generation or so after the Blink -- a moment in which, after a Divinity was killed by a Saypuri rebel (the Kaj), the works of all six Divinities were ... unmade, causing devastation across the Continent as the things that they built and maintained crumble away. Some miracles still persist: there are smooth opaque walls around the city of Bulikov, which nevertheless allow the inhabitants to see the sunrise. But the Worldly Regulations prohibit the Continentals from any public mention of the Divine, and stray miraculous artifacts are kept locked away in a secret repository.

Governer Turyin Mulaghesh is overseeing a Worldly Regulations trial when she receives news that a Saypuri scholar has been found murdered. Shortly thereafter, the new Saypuri Cultural Ambassador arrives: a woman calling herself Shara Komayd, accompanied by her 'secretary', the taciturn and violent Sigrud. Shara's aunt Vinya is Minister of Foreign Affairs: Shara and Sigrud have spent years cleaning up traces of the Divine in the half-ruined cities of the Continent. Shara is more than just a Cultural Ambasador, and she and Mulaghesh set out to solve the mystery of Dr Efrem Pangyui's death. The situation is complicated by the rise to power of Vohannes Votrov, who happens to be Shara's ex-boyfriend; the Restorationists, who resent the Saypuri occupation and are very interested in the production of steel; an assassin who disappears mid-leap; a fearsome mythical monster in the river; and the glimpses of a gleaming cityscape of white and gold. Perhaps the Divinities are not as dead as the Saypuri would like them to be.

I'm glad this is the first of a trilogy, because I'm eager to find out more about the world. The Saypuri, quite aside from mourning and raging over centuries of slavery, are still arguing about why it was the Continent which got the Divinities, and not them. And why did the Divinities need the Saypuri to provide labour and produce resources? Why not just work a miracle or two?

It's worth noting that the Saypuri are dark-skinned, the Continentals pale; also that the two main characters are both middle-aged women. (In this world, it is unremarkable that women occupy positions of power.) Continental society is considerably more conservative than Saypuri society. Bennett has plenty to say about colonialism and post-colonialism, and it's refreshing to have a setting that feels less European than Indian. I'm not wholly convinced by the technological level, which seems inconsistent (railways but very little steel?) and there were moments where the characterisation seemed to falter. Also, I was unhappy with the off-stage fate of a homosexual character. Overall, though, I enjoyed this so very much that I immediately bought and read the second book. Review tomorrow :)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

2017/22: Occupy Me -- Tricia Sullivan

With clever beaks and wingtips the beings who made me compile masks made of human skin, made of feathers, made of biological circuits: mitochondrial turbine engines and electron pumps. Their masks are made of darkness pregnant with radio, the slow deep turning of long wavelength light. They wear these masks and they hop around a ragged fire that drinks up the foreign atmosphere.

Pearl is a flight attendant: also, an angel, though her wings are usually hidden in a higher dimension. She doesn't need to eat or to sleep, but she does need to move heavy things: the heavier the better. She works for the Resistance, a shadowy movement that tries to advance humanity by tiny, targetted acts of kindness. Pearl had another mission once, but she can't recall what it is. She's lost something, or something's been stolen from her.

Dr Kiri Sorle is a respected orthopaedic surgeon who's currently employed as personal physician to Austen Stevens, a dying oil tycoon. Sorle grew up in -- and was 'rescued' from -- one of the African states most severely affected by the oil trade: he hates Stevens. But he has other problems: for instance, the sudden appearance of a briefcase he can't open, which he doesn't remember acquiring. And the sense of someone stepping into him from deep within, as though he's 'no more than an extra set of clothes'.

Sorle's story is part of Pearl's, or vice versa: also involved are an extinct pterosaur and a rather charming Scottish vet. The story swoops from a plane over the Atlantic, to the deep past, to a junk yard, to a North Sea oil rig: from colonialism and exploitation to higher dimensions and hypercivilisations. Sullivan's imagery is striking, and I was impressed by her use of first-, second- and third-person narratives.

Occupy Me is clever and funny and moving (and needs Muse as a soundtrack: 'Love is our resistance ...') And it's splendidly, vividly inventive. But I have to admit I didn't fully engage with it -- possibly due to illness -- and finished it with a sense that the multiple plot strands hadn't quite woven together.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

2017/21: An Unseen Attraction --KJ Charles

Clem had listened with fascination the other week as Gregory and Polish Mark and the journalist Nathaniel had discussed how “you could just tell” about men’s tastes, or their guilt, or if they were hiding something that could make a good story. Clem didn’t seem to have whatever ability it was that let other people “just tell,” and it felt as if there was an entire world of communication going on at a pitch he couldn’t hear.

London, 1874. Clem Tallyfer, son of an English father and an Indian mother, runs a lodging house in Clerkenwell: the role suits him, because he's not that good with crowds or noise or thinking in a straight line. His brother (well, half-brother) Edmund owns the house, and insists that Clem tolerate one particular drunken, ill-mannered lodger, Lugtrout by name.

Clem gets along well with his other lodgers -- especially the taxidermist, Rowley Green, who Clem takes tea with in the evenings -- and relies on the redoubtable housekeeper Polly to manage what he can't. But when Lugtrout goes missing, and Edmund shows up to berate Clem for his lack of care, matters become more complicated, and far more dangerous.

I particularly admire the way Charles shows, rather than telling: she doesn't explain too much, but her descriptions and observations are more than sufficient to give insight and understanding into her characters. There's some excellent pacing in this novel, too: the gradual revelations of Rowley's and Clem's secrets.

Clem's friends, too, are a delight: 'Polish Mark' is a South Londoner whose mother's an anarchist; Nathaniel is a journalist, and Gregory's a stage manager. And Rowley Green's devotion to the art and practice of taxidermy -- he aspires 'to snatch something from the wreckage, to keep something back from the worms', and loathes the kind of set piece exemplified by dead kittens in suits playing cards -- is fascinatingly and eloquently described.

Looking forward to the next in this series, which should expand on the dark deeds and betrayals that Clem and Rowley discover during An Unseen Attraction.

Oh, and it's also a slow-burning romance between 'two such odd-shaped men, [who] fit together so naturally'.

2017/20: Murder Must Advertise -- Dorothy L Sayers

Unlike the majority of clients who, though all tiresome in their degree, exercised their tiresomeness by post from a reasonable distance and at reasonable intervals, Messrs Toule & Jollop descended upon Pym’s every Tuesday for a weekly conference. While there, they reviewed the advertising for the coming week, rescinding any decisions taken at the previous week’s conference, springing new schemes unexpectedly upon Mr Pym and Mr Armstrong, keeping those two important men shut up in the Conference Room for hours on end, to the interruption of office-business, and generally making nuisances of themselves.
Ah, plus ça change ... First published in 1933, this novel depicts middle-class life in London -- work and play -- in familiar terms. Though Sayers' characters (most of them employed at an advertising agency, as was Sayers for seven years) live in a very different time, their concerns are eminently relatable. Work-life balance, the risks of falling into bad company, where to eat at lunchtime, the paradox of the poor spending money they can't afford on 'luxury' items ... Sayers' observations on the advertising industry are acute, witty and cynical.

The plot, in brief: an advertising executive suffers a fatal fall in the office, leaving an unfinished letter detailing his suspicions of wrongdoing in the firm. A new copywriter appears, one 'Death Bredon', and proceeds to ask a great many probing questions while projecting an aura of harmless frivolity. Why yes, it is Lord Peter Wimsey; and yes, that fatal fall was not the accident it appeared to be.

Reread, for the first time in about 20 years: I remembered how secret messages were passed in advertisements, but didn't recall much of the rest of the plot. This time round, though, I was reminded strongly of Francis Crawford of Lymond circa Queen's Play: perhaps it was the Harlequin costume, the frenetic and somewhat decadent nightlife, the sense that he is constantly in disguise (and that we're introduced to his disguise before his identity is revealed). And, like Lymond, Wimsey ends up giving himself away due to his inability to do a thing badly.

Also, though this novel does not feature Harriet, it does have some of the most delightful interactions between Parker and Wimsey:
‘Your narrative style,’ said Parker, ‘though racy, is a little elliptical. Could you not begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, and then, if you are able to, stop?’

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017/19: Black Dog -- Neil Gaiman

It’s daylight, said Shadow to the dog, with his mind, not with his voice. Run away. Whatever you are, run away. Run back to your gibbet, run back to your grave, little wish hound. All you can do is depress us, fill the world with shadows and illusions.

This novella is a sequel to American Gods: it's set in the Peak District, where Shadow Moon takes shelter in the village pub during a rainstorm. He encounters a cheerful couple, Moira and Oliver, who recount some jolly episodes from local folklore. There's also a woman, Cassie, who Shadow meets next morning on the hillside. She points out the Gateway to Hell. A number of cats arrive ...

This is a simple tale, with a sense of mythic -- or perhaps fairytale -- justice: kindness repaid, wrongs avenged, ancient stories coming full circle. Shadow's equanimity balances Moira and Ollie's brittle cheer, and makes the story less gloomy than it might have been.

2017/19a: The Monarch of the Glen --Neil Gaiman

‘Well, I don’t think you’re a monster, Shadow. I think you’re a hero.’ No, thought Shadow. You think I’m a monster. But you think I’m your monster.
Another American Gods novella (it and Black Dog, both sold as standalone Kindle books, are so short that I am counting the two of them as one 'read', and that's pushing it, frankly.) Shadow Moon's wanderings take him to the Scottish Highlands, where he is asked to work as security for a rich man's annual party. The party is an institution: it's goes back 'almost a thousand years'. And it soon becomes apparent that Shadow's role is more than just that of a security guard.

The construction of this story -- Shadow's encounters with the people who will become significant, before he understands his part in the story; the constant questioning of whether he is a monster -- is like a jigsaw: Gaiman fits a great deal into The Monarch of the Glen, and also sets Shadow up for a return to the States and a greater understanding of his own nature and destiny. (I don't know whether Gaiman is still working on the sequel to American Gods. I do hope so.)

2017/18: Dark Matter: A Ghost Story -- Michelle Paver

I’ve also flicked through this journal, which was a mistake. I’m shocked at how my handwriting’s changed. I used to write a neat copperplate hand, but since I’ve been alone, it’s degenerated into a spidery scrawl. Without reading a word, you can see the fear.
The novel begins in London in 1937. Jack Miller has a chip on his shoulder, a physics degree from UCL, and a job he hates. When a group of wealthy young men advertise for a radio operator to form part of an expedition to the Arctic, Jack jumps at the chance: he has nobody to leave behind, nothing -- apparently -- to lose.

The expedition is beset by trouble from the start. One man drops out after the death of his father: another breaks a leg and has to return to England before ever setting foot on the beach at Gruhuken. Maybe he's the lucky one: the skipper of the boat that takes them there is keen to dissuade them from setting up base in that particular location. It's bad luck, he tells them. Things happen there.

The little expedition is now down to three men (Jack himself, the 'golden boy' Gus, and Algie, who is beginning to display some unsettling behaviour) and a number of huskies. Jack doesn't like the dogs: he isn't very keen on the traces of previous human occupation at Gruhuken -- a half-ruined trappers' hut, a 'bear post' where food would be hung away from the sleeping quarters. And he doesn't feel at ease with his companions.

The Arctic night is coming --months of darkness -- and Gus falls ill: he and Algie head for civilisation, leaving Jack alone. Or ... not alone. From time to time he glimpses another figure: he smells paraffin: the dogs are nervy.

The meat of Dark Matter is Jack's journals. We see, as Jack does not, that the darkness and solitude are affecting him: that he is making errors of judgement, and that his determination to put on a brave face, in his infrequent radio conversations with Algie and Gus ("JACK YOU ARE SO BRAVE! EXPEDITION OWES ALL TO YOU!"), is ... unhealthy.

With only the dogs for company -- well, he's visited by a trapper, who tries to convince him to leave Gruhuken -- Jack becomes increasingly aware of his environment. He bonds with Isaak, the most intelligent and loyal of the dogs: but Isaak is scared too.

Dark Matter builds slowly and chillingly. I found myself startling at shadows while I read: Jack's unease, sharpening to fear, was simply and effectively told. He's not, to be honest, an especially likeable character (that chip on his shoulder, his desperate need for approval, an underlying bitterness at the iniquities of life) but his solitary terror does evoke a very human response of compassion. And the climax of the novel is genuinely terrifying: words on a page, first person past tense, yet it terrifies.