Book review overload

A quick flit through my first quarter of reading, before I forget the details. It’s been a book-heavy year, with lots of opportunities to get some quality reading time in during the Christmas break in Australia and my boy’s month-long absence in India (not to mention my time off in March). I’ve put this to good use and read like the bookworm I am, devouring 20 books to date – most of them fresh reads rather than old favourites.

Jose Saramago – The Elephant’s Journey
A fictional account of the true story of an Indian elephant who was given to the King of Portugal – and then gifted on to Maximilian of Austria. Sadly, this vaunted literary masterpiece did very little for me – although introspective and gently humorous at times, and containing some lovely dialogue, the narrative voice was unwieldy (echoing the spoken word, with the narrator becoming an invisible additional party in the novel, self-deprecating and irritating). Thankfully very short.

William Gibson – Pattern Recognition / Spook Country / Zero History
My first re-visit for Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, but I felt I needed to re-read them before approaching Zero History. I loved Pattern Recognition on original publication – it resonated with me in its locations, preoccupations and views on advertising (I was working in an ad agency in London, focused on digital communication, viral and social media, and visiting Camden regularly). It resonates less now, but remains a cracking read.I initially hated Spook Country, which I found slow, intangible (like its locative art) and anti-climactic. However, time has passed and I found it more approachable and enjoyable (if still flawed) – perhaps because I am now

familiar with geo-caching and augmented reality, giving me the context I needed for at least part of the story; I’ve also got a great deal more sympathy with the old man, and better recognised the subversive impact of his actions. However, this is at best a bridging novel, and I’d be happier if it skipped Gibson’s beloved Santeria (and Tito) entirely, and devoted less time to Milgrim. It shows that the novel was not originally intended as a sequel to Pattern Recognition – the two stand largely separate to one another, with only Bigend providing a tenuous link (and his nature makes it very tenuous indeed).Having a history of loving the first novel in a Gibson trilogy, hating the second, and being indifferent to the third, I approached Zero History with some trepidation. Although I found it slightly unwieldy and slow to build, the return to the core world of Blue Ant, Bigend and the familar locations of London and Paris went a long way and I largely enjoyed it – even if I missed the (in retrospect) glaringly obvious Easter egg. Skirting Harkaway territory with its AR drones, uber-talented sexy assistants, paranoid outsiders (Milgrim redux) and insane sets (the Club),

Zero History exhibits more humour and affection than most Gibson – almost approaching a romp at times, most notably where Heidi (or, inevitably, Bigend) gets involved.The key problem with the trilogy is the switch in point of view from Cayce Pollard to Hollis Henry. Hollis is actually a lovely character and blossoms once surrounded by her own cast – but as a second lead, she inevitably feels like an allergy-free Cayce; there isn’t enough definition to separate them, and it takes time to warm up to her in her own right. However, Bigend is the real joy here – amoral, unpredictable, and given to philosophies about talent (and how to harvest it) that currently ring all too true to me, it’s almost impossible to tell whether to consider him a larger-than-life maverick entrepreneur or a true Bond villain in need of a white cat.

Michel Faber – The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

I’m not going to add to my brief rant on LibraryThing. There’s absolutely nothing to redeem this book. Move along, and we’ll pretend he never wrote it.
Sarah Waters – Tipping the Velvet
Reading this straight after Faber only served to underline how well he did in The Crimson Petal, and how poorly in the book we’ve just agreed he never wrote. Tipping the Velvet begins innocently enough, with a Whitstable oyster-girl looking forward to a trip to the local music hall. We benefit from Nan’s provincial upbringing, as we see the action through her inexperienced eyes – and become her sympathetic co-conspirators as she rapidly falls in love with cross-dressing female starlet Kitty. Told in three acts, the first focuses on Nan’s slow loss of innocence as she follows Kitty to London as her (sexually frustrated) dresser, onto the stage herself as part of Kitty’s act, and finally happiness as Kitty’s lover. However, in Victorian London such things are frowned upon – the affair ends as Kitty is concerned for her reputation. Act Two puts Nan on the streets and delves into the darker recesses of Victorian lusts in back alleys and behind closed doors. Emotionally at sea after her turbulent affair, Nan loses herself in the pleasures of the flesh – for a while. Ultimately overstepping the mark, she finds herself on the streets again, and Act Three serves as a redemption arc for her as she moves in with a family of political activists in the East End. Lush from start to finish, the novel is – much like The Crimson Petal – explicit, uncomfortable and captivating. Nan is naive, foolish, selfish and at times unlikeable, but her journey is fascinating as are the characters she meets along the way. Whether this is remotely historically accurate, I have no idea – and I don’t much care. However, it made a perfect end to my Victorian triptych (with The Crimson Petal and the White / The Somnambulist)Andrea Gillies – The White Lie

I’ve not much to add to my LT review, other than to comment that this novel is driven in equal parts by the rich complexity of its characters and the unreliability of its narrator – in spite of the narrator’s assertion from the outset that whatever else is true, it is certain that he is dead, I found myself continually second-guessing this as the narrative wove through the stories and lies his family tell and retell. It’s difficult to like any of the characters – each representation of them reveals a new aspect that makes them more or less sympathetic by turns – but it’s hard not to be dragged into the slow-moving drama.

John Wyndham – The Day of the Triffids
There is no limit to how often I can re-read this old favourite. I have a big soft spot for apocalyptic drama – and a great deal of affection for Wyndham’s jolly hockey stick style. The irony of reading plantocalypse fiction to cheer myself up isn’t lost on me.

Andrew Xia Fukuda – Crossing

The more distance I get on this book, the more I doubt my reading of it. I took it initially as a look at the victimisation of the Outsider / Other in the face of adversity (following serial kidnappings / killings in a small town, suspicion falls on quiet Chinese immigrant Xing), but looking back I wonder whether this is another unreliable narrator. Told entirely from his perspective, the narrative reveals his isolation, his self-hatred, and the seething resentment that lurks beneath the calm exterior. Smart, obsessive and disaffected, it’s easy to see why – racism aside – he’d be a strong suspect. As the murders mount up – and the deaths begin removing obstacles from his life (the bully, the rival) – our attention is diverted by Xing’s unwilling romantic encounter with fellow outsider Jan, his struggles to reveal his affections for his best friend Naomi and his attempts to overcome his shyness and step into the limelight as a singer. If we take the narrative at face value, there are innocent explanations for the evidence against him; he is the innocent victim of circumstance and of his jilted girlfriend’s desperation, and the unexpected conclusion is difficult, tragic and dissatisfying. But should we take it at face value? Regardless of race, it would be very difficult to find Xing innocent in the face of the evidence. I didn’t find the novel a gripping read, but I may have to revisit it at some point to satisfy myself on whether I’m guilty of revisionism in memory, or whether there really is a second reading beneath the surface. Regardless – bleak stuff.

Philip Pullman – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Part of the Canongate Myths series, in which modern authors present new interpretations of legends and religion, it will surprise few that Pullman chose to tackle The Greatest Story Ever Told. Taking the radical departure of suggesting that Christ and Jesus were twin brothers, he creates a device that perfectly explains the resurrection and then re-tells the tale from start to finish – whilst remaining surprisingly true to the narrative of the Bible. Needless to say, I found this fascinating (yes yes Internet, I’ll be burning in Hell along with Pullman, I know). Christ comes to personify the Church – gifted, bright, given to hearing voices (and possibly seeing angels), he instinctively understands that people respond to stories and leadership, and equally instinctively doubts their ability to do the right thing; down-to-earth Jesus is the headstrong rebel, rejecting authority and preaching the Gnostic vision, uncomfortable with his growing fame and influence. I found the novel surprisingly sympathetic and moving. Fascinating stuff – I am intent on digging out more of the Myths series now.

China Mieville – The City and the City

I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt that I didn’t like my first taste of Mieville. Yes, it’s very ingenious, and yes, it’s well-written – but it left me absolutely cold. Full review on LT.

Mark Chadbourn – World’s End
Comfort-food re-read after my Mieville experience. This is a guilty pleasure – Chadbourn’s debut novel is both apocalypse drama (hurray!) and faerie tale – and Chadbourn is absolutely clear (hurray!) that Faerie is unknowable, unpleasant and inhuman. Humankind don’t notice when the doors to Faerie swing open for the first time in millennia, and the saviours of prophecy are 5 jaded misfits who are clearly doomed to fail. Chadbourn’s tale is dark, gory and frankly silly, but he knows his locations well enough (or maybe I know his locations well enough?) to evoke them perfectly; his prose is strong enough to push iconic visuals into the mind’s eye (dragons attacking the M4); and he keeps the technically absurd action tripping along. There are tractors for those plot holes and the cast are a little too white Anglo-Saxon (bar one), but I can’t resist the Pokemon plot to collect the major myths of the British Isles before night falls. Warning: triggers a-go-go – across the trilogy, there’s pretty much no stone left unturned in terms of triggers. Chadbourn is pretty heavy-handed on emphasising just how awful inhuman can be.

Julian May – The Many-coloured Land
As I didn’t fancy a full trilogy of evil faerie badassdom, I thought I’d swing by The Saga of the Exiles and see how it bore up. I first read this in Dutch (for the record, reading a book full of made up words will not do your confidence any good at all), and remember enjoying it immensely (in English). I reread the Galactic Mileu recently, and still (mostly) enjoyed it – the narrator is a likeable old codger – but I found The Many-Coloured Land plodding, awkward and unappealing this time around. Possibly it picks up, but I couldn’t be bothered to persevere with the sequence.
Sarah Moss – Cold Earth
Instead, I treated myself to Sarah Moss’ debut novel. I enjoyed her follow-up, Night Waking, immensely last year – it made my top reads – and happily Cold Earth is likely to do so this year. It is told as a sequence of diary entries or letters home, written by a small team of archaeologists who are attempting to excavate a mediaeval Viking farm during the short summer season. Lots for me to like here – archaeology, the arctic, Vikings, and ghosts – as the only non-archaeologist in the group (Nina, present only because the PI is her friend) is a pretentious and neurotic English Lit student who promptly starts having nightmares. I loved the tone throughout – Moss’ great talent for me is her knack for tone of voice, unpicking the turns of phrase and twists of mind that make a character feel real. She is unflinching in showing her characters warts and all, and the tension through the novel comes from the reader’s – and increasingly the archaeologists’ – uncertainty as to whether there is any substance to Nina’s visions, as she is quite clearly a self-absorbed nutcase (although a very funny narrator).LT reviewers often compare this to Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, which is slightly unfair. Dark Matter is a fairly straightforward (if unpleasant) ghost story that reaches for thrills and shocks. Cold Earth is more interested in the living; how they interact as strangers, and how relationships buckle under pressure – as Nina gets crazier than a sackful of badgers, the group is split between those who begin to share Nina’s fears and those who are entirely more terrified by the fact that a pandemic is sweeping the globe, and their satellite links to the outside world appear to have gone down. There is a question here of whether the characters will survive, but the novel focuses on state of mind rather than Darwinian struggle. I found it entertaining and gripping from start to finish, and particularly enjoyed the unfolding of each character in turn through their letters – like opening gifts at Christmas.

Theresa Tomlinson – A Swarming of Bees
Again, I think I’ll let the LT review stand on this one. Such a disappointment – perhaps forgivable if it were pitched as YA (apparently the author’s forte), but it was sold as grown up historical fiction, which it doesn’t deliver.
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
I thought I’d mark Achebe’s passing by finally reading one of his classics. Things Fall Apart delivers a vision of a long lost Nigeria, intensely tribal and  spiritual, where ghosts and gods are responsible for all ills except laziness and a man’s rule in his home is absolute. The narrative follows an ambitious young man determined to overcome the burdens placed on him by his lazy father, fighting tooth and nail to rise through the tribal hierarchy – until he makes an unforgivable error and is banished for seven years. The story dwells on father/son relationships and the conflict that arose from the coming of the white missionaries – who promised freedom from superstition and tribal customs, and a vision of equality for all (as long as they were subservient to the white chiefs). Fascinating as a glimpse into the past, I enjoyed this more as a historical artefact than as a novel.
Daniel Defoe – A Journal of the Plague Year 1665
Another intriguing historical artefact, I thought this was Defoe’s personal account of the plague, but it is actually fiction. That said, he would recall the plague and be surrounded by survivors, so while purporting to be the diary of an East End merchant, it gathers many accounts that I assume came directly to Defoe (rather than being entirely fictional)
Michael Marshall – Killer Move
I’ve loved Michael Marshall (Smith) for years – my kind of escapist potboiler. Bring an unhealthy paranoia, an angst-ridden introspective streak and a strong dose of hopeless romantic, suspend your disbelief and ride it out. I loved his early alternate reality works – Only Forward, Spares, One of Us – but I’d forgotten how much I generally enjoy his writing. As with the Straw Men sequence, Killer Move depends on mistrust of the internet and a fear of identity theft, and then goes full throttle on the conspiracy pedal – one ordinary Joe’s life spirals rapidly out of control when a couple of innocuous if odd happenings are followed by the disappearance of a key client and then his wife. Nothing is what it seems, but it certainly seems like he did it although, unlike Crossing, a secondary third person narrative makes it quite clear that he didn’t. It’s been years since I indulged in my MMS affections; I’m going to have to remedy that and revisit some of his other works this year.
Maxence Fermine – The Black Violin
Another reminder that reptiles don’t really get on with high-faluting literature. I thought this was simplistic and dull, and either the translation or the original language did nothing for me stylistically (again: over-simplified). Not a lot happens, nothing much is learnt, and there are no great insights. I’ll chalk this one up into the same bracket of much European cinema: clearly I just don’t get it.
Colin Meloy – Wildwood
I bought this on a whim, largely because it was beautifully illustrated. Set in an alternate reality in which a magical Impassable Wilderness co-exists with a perfectly normal Canadian town, Wildwood sees two children on the cusp of adolescence venture into the woods to rescue a younger brother. Populated by talking animals, a warrior queen and (briefly) featuring an ineptly bureaucratic police state, this is clearly influenced by Narnia and the Neverending Story, but just about holds its own as an entertaining – if rather long – children’s fantasy. It wobbles in places – and a few castaway references will hit home with adults, but go over younger readers’ heads – but it carefully treads the very fine line between its darker elements (child sacrifice! killer ivy! secret police!) and its youthful target market (tree-hugging mystics; simple resolutions; moving swiftly past the odd outbreaks of bloodless violence) to champion being true to oneself and doing the right thing in spite of the obstacles. Unlike Narnia, this is about accountability rather than religion, although adults (and especially parents) come out of it rather badly (apparently when you grow up you just accept the shit and stop fighting for what matters to you. Best hope you have a feisty daughter). I wouldn’t rush to read others in the sequence.