Monthly Archives: January, 2016

The Einstein Intersection

3629457.jpgOh Delany. You continue to impress and stagger me. And I don’t think I got some of the more subtle stuff that was going on here.

SLIGHT spoilers. I don’t think it would compromise your enjoyment of the book.

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s got such a clash of styles – sometimes the main character, Lobey, out-innocents Garion from the Eddings’ Belgariad series, and sometimes he participates in intense discussions of genetics. It’s got remarkable meta stuff going on, with excerpts at the start of each chapter from a really broad range of sources including, apparently, the author’s own diaries (are they real? were they really written in a diary but with the intention to include it in the novel? Just how meta and sneaky can Delany b- oh wait. Pretty sure the answer to that is obvious).

Delany is doing all sorts of sneaky things here with myth and legend. The AI whose acronym spells PHAEDRA, found at the end of a labyrinth… plus Christian stuff, plus American Old West stuff, plus I suspect some other stuff that I did not pick up on. And then there’s the meta-discussion ABOUT myth and legend and their place in society and 147 pages SERIOUSLY?

I ADORED the revelation that these are non-humans literally taking on the skins and myths of humans for some unrevealed purpose. It’s almost a cliche to talk about books where you’re just dropped into the middle of a much, much bigger story but by golly that’s true here. The level of opacity is breathtaking AND YET the story is still so very compelling.

Delany. Man.

Masks and Shadows

25893822.jpgThis book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

The important thing to know about this book before reading it is that it is influenced by opera – eighteenth century opera, no less. So if noble ladies with fair arms and negligees, dramatic love affairs, and sinister secret societies – with generous serves of lavish description – is not your cup of tea, then this novel is not for you. And that’s ok; just pass it by, or pass it on.

The novel is set on the real-life estate of the Esterhazys, which I had to look up to check its historical authenticity. The Prince really did employ Haydn to work there, as depicted in the story, so it’s intriguing to know that it’s based on, or at least using, some aspects of fact (and the ruler at the time was Marie Theresa – Marie Antoinette’s mother. Can’t get away from those revolutions.)

There’s lots of different narrators and a few different narrative threads that weave through this story. There’s the musico (indelicately, a castrato), the young widow, the cast-off husband, the singers, the alchemists… and ultimately everything comes together. I quite liked the young widow, who was really the focus overall; she was sympathetic and made sense. Some of the others were a bit more opera-character-ish: amusing but less believable. Also less believable was the central (although not completely overwhelming) love story; not that the two people involved were unlikely, just the way it played out.

Overall this is a well-paced, fairly light read with some charming, and some dastardly, characters. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it all only happens over a week or so, so it doesn’t have a chance to get bogged down.

The Oxford History of the French Revolution

2142776.jpgOverall this is a very readable book about the French Revolution. I’m not sure it would work for the complete novice – because I’m not, so I can’t judge that anymore. But it gives a generally thorough overview of the French Revolution and, interestingly, its impact on the wider world; Ireland and Poland both get mentions as being inspired by the Revolution itself during the Revolution, and the rest of Europe by virtue of conquest, with Latin America being mentioned in passing. Haiti also gets a few mentions in terms of the uprising there inspired by the Revolution.

I have two complaints; one stylistic, the other content. The first is that some of the writing is a bit obscure, in that sentences could definitely have been better formulated to avoid confusion. The second is Doyle’s attitude towards women. On the first page he mentions ‘an empty-headed queen’, and doesn’t really walkabout Marie Antoinette much except in terms of being anti-revolution. On one of the last pages he mentions that equality between men and women was never going to be a thing, despite women’s contributions to the revolution – which he’s mentioned about once, with the Women’s March to Versailles, which would be hard to avoid – but there he talks about women pushing matters to extremes, and Mme de Stael as ‘Necker’s busybody daughter’ (!!), and Theroigne de Mericourt and Olympe de Gouges and Claire Lacombe only once each. I found this very disappointing. Of course you can’t mention everyone in one book, but surely these women deserve more than just the one line dismissal of their contributions.

I would still recommend this a very good overview, keeping in mind that no single book is going to be perfect.

The Emperor’s Railroad

26883409I received this from the publisher at no cost.

I’m not a huge zombie-story fan, so this story wasn’t really aimed at me. That said, turns out I can be quite a fan of your post-apocalyptic, back-to-vaguely-old-west-America stories, so that aspect was quite enjoyable. I do like the image of human creations being subsumed into nature.

Quinn, the hero of the story, is intriguing, and through him we get glimpses into the rest of the world that the story is set in. There are angels and dragons – I kept wondering whether this would turn out to be a fantasy or a science fiction story, and it’s not entirely resolved – and Quinn is a knight, commissioned by an angel but now on his own sort of quest. It’s a long time since I’ve read them but I was put in mind of the Terry Brooks Word&Void series; the child narrator, Abney, is fully aware that his world has extraordinary things in it but is still something of an innocent of the realities, while Quinn has seen too much.

Despite my not loving zombies, I did read and enjoy the whole story, so that says something for the characters and for the fairly fast-paced style.

The Jewel and her Lapidary

This was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.

I haven’t read it in a very long time, but I was immediately put in my mind of Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series, because part of the point of this story is that people can talk to, and be influenced by, gems. I seem to recall that things didn’t always go well for Killashandra and her friends, and of course this story only exists because things go wrong for the two main characters, and indeed their entire world (well, valley).

The good thing about this story is that it focuses on the relationship between two young women: a Jewel, youngest scion of the royal family, and her lapidary or bound servant. Their discussions about duty and oaths and what to do when faced with crisis were interesting enough.

However. There were a few things where the book just misses its mark.

For a start there’s no discussion about the morality or not of having a (literally) bound servant. Sima is not a slave, but it’s a near run thing. That made me uncomfortable.

Additionally, there were narrative aspects that could have worked but just didn’t quite get there. Firstly, there are some breaks in the narrative where a ‘modern’ travel guide apparently describes the area where the actual story is taking place – a tactic that can add unexpected depth or twists to stories, I’ve found – but these break-ins didn’t do that. They didn’t seem to match the story parts they were paired with, and they were too superficial to add much to the story. Secondly, while I’m not a reader who demands every part of a story be filled in, I felt like there were too many gaps in this story; too many times where I think the idea was that lucanae are alluring and tantalising but this was just frustrating and confusing.

Overall I didn’t mind the story but I didn’t feel that it had much substance to completely make up for the bits that frustrated.

The Golem and the Djinni

This post should be read in conjunction with Mondy’s review, because I read it when he first posted it which is, clearly, a long time before I read the book, and it influenced my reading of the Jewish (and by extension Muslim) bits quite a lot. Also, this is another book given to me by Katharine, because she is a great big book nerd.

And this post is pretty much spoiler-filled. You’ve been warned.

Unknown.jpegOver on Goodreads, I gave this four stars, because I rounded up; I would have given it 3.5 for preference.

On the good side, this is really nicely written – it wasn’t a chore to read it, I generally enjoyed the switches of narrative perspective, and the Golem and Djinni both provide interesting perspectives on humanity. In fact I think this is the strength of the book (… and this is interesting given I read it very soon after The Just City): these two characters give Wecker the opportunity to think about volition and control and desire through two creatures whose natures are intended to be opposites. The Golem is created to be obedient, and lacking a master means that she has to think through controlling herself, and how not to respond to every whim she encounters, and it’s really hard. When at liberty, the Djinni was accustomed to doing exactly what he wanted and when, indulging any whim he might feel without reference to any consequences. Now restricted by the iron cuff, he’s unable to take any form he wants – so there’s an external restriction – and living as a human means that at least to some extent, he needs to learn about consequence and responsibility. So it’s a bit like watching two toddlers learn about how to be responsible human beings, when those toddlers have superhuman strength or the ability to liquify metal, and who already look like adults and so are treated as such by those around them – no leeway like actual toddlers get. I really felt for the Golem as she wanted to restrict herself and not lash out; I sympathised with the Djinni for feeling imprisoned and also that he wanted to encourage the Golem to actually explore who she is.

I really liked the way that Wecker always referred to the Golem and the Djinni in those terms. As Mondy points out, this is a good way of showing that they’re outsiders. Although they have been given names by those around them, they do not fit in.

I don’t know why Wecker chose the end of the 19th century for her story; it could just be that it was a period that she liked. Post-WW1 could have worked, I think, because living in the Roaring 20s would have allowed all sorts of interesting discussions. (Clearly post-WW2 would have required too many other discussions that would get in the way of the story Wecker was trying to tell.) Anyway that aspect mostly worked; I’m no expert so I have no idea whether it was accurate or not.

On the more negative side, there were a couple of things that really bummed me. Sophia Winston is a big part of that. She gets seduced by the Djinni and doesn’t appear to regret it – fine. She gets pregnant to the Djinni and then loses it in a mystical manner and then her body doesn’t recover and then the Djinni is taken to her house to warm up post-suicide by cooling attempt (… because she’s got the closest fireplace or something? Saleh’s thinking was a bit of a stretch there). And then apparently this is a sign to her family that her reputation is ruined and so her engagement is called off and she goes off on a tour of Warmer Climes (the Mediterranean) aaaannddd… that feels like a really raw deal and I didn’t much like how she was basically just used as a toy by the Djinni and then kinda left, lost, by Wecker.

And the ending really didn’t work for me. Constant reincarnation because the nasty magician is bound to the Djinni? It was sprung on me too quickly, with no prior suggestion of spirits being reborn, so it felt really jarring. Although I did like the eventual taking of the copper flask back the djinnis to look after, getting the magician into the flask was also dubious. And finally, the suggestion at the end that the Golem actually Has Feelings for the Djinni? nonononono. I do not like this suggestion at all. Not because I don’t think she should be allowed to have feelings, but because a romantic relationship there destroys what I thought was interesting about their relationship. These are two completely opposite non-humans trying to live in human society. A romantic relationship just weirds things out.

I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.

The Just City

I hadn’t even heard of this book until Katharine mischievously sent me a copy because she wanted to know how I would feel about it. And my initial feels are: omg THERE BETTER BE A SEQUEL.

Is that what you were expecting, K?

JustCity_150-206x300.jpgThe premise: Athene (yes, she who sprang fully formed) wonders what would happen if humans attempted to put Plato’s Republic into action – with a little help from her, of course. So she gathers together a bunch of people from across time who have all prayed to her, perhaps inadvertently, after reading The Republic and wanting themselves to put it into practise. And they’re going to collect slave children, and they’re going to try out their city on a certain island that will eventually be destroyed by a volcano… (yes Athene is aware of how recursive this is I LOVE YOU JO WALTON).

Apollo, meanwhile, is confounded by Daphne wanting so much to get away from his tender advances that she was happy to be turned into a tree, so he decides to become mortal to explore ideas of volition and equal significance. And hanging out in the fledgling Republic of the philosopher-kings seems like an interesting and pragmatic way of doing so.

The book’s chapters switch between a few different characters. Apollo gets a few, but not most, which is good because I liked his perspective and seeing what life was like for a being with godly knowledge but human limitations, but it would have got old to have him as the focus. Instead, most of the chapters are from female perspectives. Lucia, renamed Simmea, is from what I take to be the early Christian period; she’s bought as a slave and taken to Thera, destined to be brought up in the first generation of true Republicans. Maia, originally Ethel, was born in Yorkshire in 1841. Well educated for a girl at the time she appears destined for the standard gloomy life of struggling middle class woman, until she happens to cry out to Athene… and she’s transported to Thera to act as one of the guardians, teaching the new generation how to be their best selves and eventually develop into Plato’s philosopher-kings (… well, some of them).

I’ve not read The Republic. In fact, I’ve never read anything of Plato’s in much depth or at much length (I’ve taken some Classics subjects so I must have read a bit… right?). This is not, however, a problem for reading this novel because Walton does a wonderful job of having her characters discuss the various issues and conundrums and ideas that Plato raises – all without it seeming like an info-dump. Just as setting up the city is an experiment for Athene, this book is a thought-experiment itself. This book reminded me in some ways of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, because so much of it is conversation- and ideas-driven. There is some action, but it is not the focus – and most of the action is connected to the ideas, showing them in action in some way. And I never once found it boring.

Issues confronted:

Slavery, good or bad? And can you have the perfect society as suggested by Plato without slaves to do at least some of the jobs?

Individuals as ‘fit for purpose’: should someone else get to determine what you do for your images.jpegentire life? Should your worth be entirely determined by the work that you do?

How to be one’s best self: I could not help but think of Bill and Ted, of course. But it is also a deeply intriguing question: how do we help ourselves and those around us be excellent?

Censorship: can it be a good thing?

Who can you trust? How do you know? Are there levels of trust, or areas in which someone is trustworthy and others in which they aren’t?

There is JUST SO MUCH in this book I have only scratched the surface IT IS EXCELLENT.

Slight spoiler

The one off-note that didn’t really work for me was the rape early on of one of the guardians. While it was occasionally referenced later on and certainly had some impact on the woman involved, I didn’t really see why it needed to be a part of the narrative. And it seems weird to say that this is a minor quibble, given the topic, but overall I think it’s dealt with mostly ok; it just didn’t quite sit right with me.

Aaaaand in finding the image for this post I’ve just discovered that the second book already exists in the world AAAAAAAH *buys*. (Also buys a hard copy of The Just City, for re-reading and shoving into people’s hands. My mother MUST read this.) You can get The Just City from Fishpond.

Deadman’s Hand and Pieces of Hate

I received these from the publisher at no cost; the first was a freebie with the second.

Deadman’s Hand

The scene: Deadwood. I have no idea whether this was actually a real town but it appears to have become That Place Where Westerns Happen. The plot: a bad man needs killin’. This bad man happens to be some sort of demon, or shapeshifter, or something, named Temple; the one to do the killing is Gabriel, who seems to have been hunting Temple for a long time.

My favourite part about this story is the narrator. He’s not an entirely convincing Watson, all naive and stuff, but he does provide a really interesting perspective on the clash of two basically inhuman forces. It means that we get to see Gabriel as genuinely hurt and and hurting, which emphasises his grit when he gets back up again to confront Temple. It also means that we see the consequences for this sort of clash happening in a relatively normal little town. It’s a town that’s seen its share of killings, but nonetheless their appearance has an impact; and it has an impact on our narrator on a personal level, too. All of that made the story that bit more approachable, where otherwise it would have felt quite divorced from possibilities of empathy.

Written well enough, fast paced.

Unknown.jpegPieces of Hate

I was expecting another with an uninvolved narrator. So when it turned out to be Gabriel himself, I was surprised and a little disappointed. I can see why Lebbon did this; this story, which certainly felt much longer than the first (not sure if it really was), gave Gabriel’s backstory and motivation for his quest to kill Temple. But I think that this could have been done in discussion with someone else, perhaps while on the voyage to Port Royal (the scene this time: en route to, and briefly in, Port Royal). That would have made it seem a bit less like Gabriel was moping around, and simultaneously wallowing in his fury and hate which were a little distasteful. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be angry for what happened, just that I got impatient and a little bored with all of the WOE FOR ME bits.

There was a lot going on in this story that didn’t involve the search for Temple. Some of it was showing Gabriel to be a bad-ass, which actually I didn’t need; it’s clear he is, and I think it would have been more impressive to have the clash between him and Temple show his chops, rather than killing maiming… well, not innocents, but not-Temple. Gabriel knows that he’s no saint and doesn’t claim to be, but it is hard to really be on the side of someone who is not-quite-as-bad-as the villain.

It wasn’t a bad story, although the pacing felt a bit off; I’m not sure I care enough to read the third in the series.

 

Cadence: a memoir

Dear Mum

Unknown.jpegYou gave me Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence a year ago. It’s only taken me a year to get around to reading it, which let’s be honest isn’t a bad turn around when it comes to your gifts and my reading them.

Anyway, you gave me this book for a number of reasons. I think you knew that Classic FM was our choice of alarm-clock-station; after quarrelling over whether it should be Triple M (him) or Triple J (me), and anyway then we both grew up. So for a long time it was Emma’s dulcet tones that let me know it was time to drag my carcass out of bed. Then there was the bicycle aspect: one of the chief points of the book is that Emma rides her bike from England to Hong Kong, and that reminded you of our bicycle trip around the UK. And then there was the music aspect, which clearly had nothing to do with me but I guess you thought might appeal to my trumpeter (but she’s viola and cello, and brass players and string players have something of a mutual animosity I think).

The first thing to note about this book is that it made me immensely grateful for my stable, boring childhood. Boring in that sense is a good thing. Because Emma did not have a boring childhood. Her father left the family when she was very young; her mother struggled immensely to provide for the family; her middle sister was very troubled/ bordering on dangerous. None of them issues I had to deal with. Also her mother signed her up for violin instead of cello, thus breaking her heart. You on the other hand allowed me to experiment with flute but probably were not surprised when I gave it up pretty quickly. Let’s be honest; I’m not exactly flautist material.

The book has a lot of potential… which phrase may be a clue to the fact that I didn’t adore it. Sorry.

The potential is in Emma’s life: the life of a musician isn’t inherently interesting but Emma did a lot of interesting things – studied in Berlin, played in Hong Kong – and she has a nice turn of phrase that makes even a non-musician interested in the learning to play music bits. Plus she keeps agonising about whether she wants to try her hand at cello, as an adult, which is a fairly major change to consider.

Then of course there’s the trip across Europe and Asia by bicycle, and all that entailed. She did it solo, and she attributes the many, many interesting conversations she had to this fact – and the fact that she was cycling with a violin strapped to her back. Turns out that even if you don’t speak the same language you can indicate your desire for a bit of Brahms with your lunch fairly easily.

In the last half or so of the book, Emma starts talking about the idea of cadence, which is apparently a big deal in music. (I must admit that there were a few bits that I skimmed over… because I just don’t get music-speak, so when she’s waxing lyrical about majors and minors and tones and fifths, my eyes glaze and I start thinking about lunch.) There’s perfect cadences and interrupted cadences and so on. Cadence is also important in cycling, and when you get a good cadence riding is a bit like flying. I think that what Emma was trying to convey in this memoir is that life has its cadences. Interrupted cadences can add to the richness of life, and so on. But… she only started talking about that towards the end. So it didn’t really work as a framing device.

I think this is the problem with the book overall. There’s a distinct lack of structure and form. Is it a book about her cycling adventure? Well, yes, but not entirely. In fact I felt a bit betrayed in the last chapter where she mentions that actually she got to Lahore, was so stuffed that she went home for a while, then flew back to Lahore to finish. Which is SO fine, I’ve got nothing invested in her finishing in one go, but… why not mention that say, chronologically? It’s also only at the end that you find out she’s been raising money for a charity. Which is weird. Anyway. It’s also about her making major life choices… but it’s not always framed around those, either. So I was frustrated by the meandering from childhood story to 20-something story to 30-something story with a lack of obvious connection. Like going from Brahms to Limp Bizkit and then to Howlin’ Wolf without an explanation as to why.

ANYway. Thanks for buying us this book. It’s not one I would have bought myself but I definitely don’t regret reading it. It only took me a day to read while I was camping.

Love

A

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

This was… not what I was expecting.

If I was being unkind, I would be tempted to use the word ‘interminable.’ But that’s not really fair because after all, I did finish it, and I mostly enjoyed reading it too. So it wasn’t unbearable. But it did go on for far longer than I thought made sense.

Unknown 11.13.54 AM.jpegIt’s not what I was expecting because this is, in a way, much more like a history book than a novel. It didn’t have the beats that I was expecting; there’s not really that much of a climax, in the end, which was deeply surprising. To be honest I’m a bit surprised that this won quite so many accolades when it was released. Is it because it was doing something quite new, and this is like kids today watching The Matrix and being all “yeh, so?”? Because I’m feeling a bit… yeh, so?

I was intrigued early on by Mr Norrell, unpleasant as he is… and yet, not that unpleasant. I wondered about Mr Childermass… who ended up being a bit surprising, which I appreciated, but somehow was still quite a muted character. Sir Walter Pole was a bit flat. Jonathan Strange… well. I was somewhat bemused that we got his childhood story, since that seemed out of character for the novel overall – no one else gets that sort of background. I understand Strange is meant to be the focal character, but it still felt odd, coming after so many chapters of Mr Norrell. I liked him overall – more than Mr Norrell, which is to be expected, since Strange gets a lot more action and is presented more sympathetically; I really liked him over in Spain. Stephen Black did feel like a rounded character, but it was quite uncomfortable to see him bullied by the man with the thistledown hair.

That’s the men. As for the women… there was a serious lack of agency going on here. Lady Pole is, I think, a catalyst for an enormous amount of the action, but she doesn’t do anything. She just… exists. Arabella Strange has a bit more action, but is still not an instigator. And that about does it for the women.

I think one of the things that felt odd is that there is no clearly discernible villain. Now I don’t mind a story without a villain, but I think I was expecting one – so that’s another way this story isn’t what I was expecting. Which is therefore partly my fault. But also the story appears to be setting itself up to have a villain, and then wrong-footed me. I don’t think it’s surprising that I was unbalanced.

Also, I wanted a lot more about the Raven King. For me, that figure just ended up being too mysterious, such that I felt a bit frustrated.

I did like the world that Clarke created – using the real 19th century England and adding a detailed and convincing history of magic. I loved the idea of northern and southern England having been ruled by different kings, and that the north still sees itself as separate; this is believable. That practical magic would have been allowed to fall by the wayside basically makes sense if it’s been dwindling anyway… and that the existing ‘magicians’ would all be these pompous greybeards who wouldn’t touch real magic is brilliant. The glimpses into the politics were interesting although I didn’t feel that they added much.

I’m glad that I’ve read it. I can’t imagine that I’ll re-read it. I guess I might lend my copy to someone at some point… maybe if I know someone who’s got a real thing for Napoleonic stories? Hmm, perhaps my mother, now that I think about it.