Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Neuromancer by William Gibson

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
So begins one of the seminal works of the second half of the twentieth century, William Gibson’s vision of a cyberpunk  future, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk was always a grittier, clunkier vision than reality suggested, and it’s notable that by the time Pattern Recognition came along, Gibson was writing a future more recognisable from the present day, but what he wrote in Neuromancer was undoubtedly compelling and still feels like a kind of truth. His greatest “failure” of course, was to appreciate back then quite how quickly the size of information would mushroom – he was talking about millions of megabytes – which seemed a lot to those of us who’d just bought a machine with an impressive 48K, but laughable now, when a hard disk with a terabyte of memory is available for home use. (Out of curiosity I checked, and Amazon has one such for considerably less than the Speccy cost, a sleek black brick that would have made Gibson’s protagonist Case drool with desire. Um, I had trouble not pressing Buy Now With One-Click.)

If you don’t know Neuromancer, it’s not just a superbly dystopian vision, but also a great example of the modern gothic novel, a book of baroque descriptions where every detail counts. It’s as if he was writing in computer code, where a tiny missing element cripples the programme. It was with Gibson I developed my habit of reading three-quarters, then going back to the beginning, primarily because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but also because I love his writing, the descriptions which lead you into the matrix, the terse exchanges between characters which are laden with subtext.

One of Gibson’s strengths is in his female characters, who are memorable, but Neuromancer’s Molly is the best. Physically enhanced to hone her fighting skills, she is nonetheless human. At first she seems invincible, and by the time you discover that she’s not you are reading with your heart in your mouth. Your involvement with her is heightened by an interesting device: for much of the latter part of the book you are watching Case watching Molly’s actions through her eyes, as she virtually guides him through the Villa Straylight – Case can see what Molly can see, and can hear her voice, but is unable to communicate with her otherwise, he’s a silent passenger, unable to intervene when she encounters trouble. It lends a peculiar intensity to these chapters, as you are doubly conscious of Case’s concern for both Molly and their mission and, at the same time, you are following Molly, seeing the detail which isn’t available to Case.

The Villa Straylight is a gloriously Gormenghastly edifice, its denizens gothic grotesques, members of the ancient and inbred dynasty, Tessier-Ashpool. Well, they are clones, but they show all the genetic weaknesses of inbreeding, despite their longevity and personal modifications. They are a microcosm of the world they inhabit, where everything is multi-layered, convoluted, deceptive. In Case’s matrix, too, things may not be what they seem, or who they seem, and mistakes may be fatal. In both matrix and the real world, motives are opaque and both AIs and humans may be untrustworthy.

Although it can be read as a standalone novel, the events of Neuromancer continue, equally tortuously, in two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and thematically, throughout all Gibson’s books, though his settings are getting closer and closer to our own time. If you like Neuromancer, considerable pleasure awaits, but I have to admit that there are people who simply don’t get Gibson and his idiosyncratic writing style. Neil Gaiman says that if you grew up reading comic books their characters get into your head and become real to you; it’s the same with Gibson. I was at a reading, once, where he was asked whether he would continue to resist allowing a film to be made of Neuromancer. Well, he asked rhetorically, would you allow a scriptwriter to get their hands on Molly?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Ysabel was something of a surprise. I’m not really quite sure what I was expecting - perhaps more along the lines of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, I suppose - but what  we get is good Young Adult fantasy. I'm not sure if that was the intended audience, but it's certainly suitable.

The setting is Aix-en-Provence in southern France, a city and region steeped in Romano-Celtic history that was also a favourite with Cezanne, who liked  to paint Mont Saint-Victoire.  Sixteen-year-old Canadian Ned Marriner is visiting with his photographer father. It’s during  school termtime, so Ned is  expected to amuse himself , but also to complete school assignments including keeping up with his running. His father’s young-ish assistant Melanie keeps an eye on him alongside her other duties, and tends, Ned feels, to organise his time too thoroughly: she  not only buys him a mobile phone so that he can be kept tabs on, she programmes it with the numbers of everyone in the team, a task that Ned feels, with some justification, that he is equal to himself. So he's almost pleased when he meets a girl of about his own age in the Cathedral, since a friend no-one else knows gives him a small glow of independence.

However both Ned and Kate, his new friend, are more than a little taken aback when a man appears in the Cathedral, someone who both feels rather threatening and out-of-place. Or perhaps out-of-time. And although he tells them to stay out of his affairs, that seems easier said than done, since Ned feels a strong connection to the mysterious stranger. It begins to look as if an ancient story  - and an ancient enmity - is being played out, as it has been several times in the past, and Ned and Kate are caught up in it, as, unwittingly, are other members of his father's team. Before long, someone disappears and will be lost forever, unless the others can find them.

The first century BC history is handled with a gentle touch, enough detail to keep the story flowing but not to overload the reader. There's humour in the writing, as well as perceptiveness about relationships between teenagers and their families. The plot may remind some of The Owl Service, with its perhaps endless playing out of myth, but the feel is very different - Kay has none of Garner's grit. It's also lighter than Kay's own earlier work, and although a character from the Fionavar Tapestry makes an appearance, so that we know we are in a myth-cycle linked to that earlier trilogy, this is a standalone work.

I waited for months for the library to find a copy - it was only when I queried directly that they admitted it might have been lost, and ordered a new one that it finally turned up. Was it worth the wait? On balance, I think yes. I am counting Ysabel towards the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge and RIPV.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Well now, this is the real thing and no mistake. The Crossing Places is exactly what I want in a murder mystery. A quick warning before I start extolling its virtues, though – it’s written in the historical present, and I know some people hate that so much that they won’t even start reading. If you really can’t bear it, this is not for you, but you’re missing something.

I said the other day that perhaps it was easier to create a sense of place when you’re writing about a city, that the countryside is just too varied these days. I’m delighted to be proved wrong by practically the next book that I’ve picked up, because here we are on the North Norfolk coast. And I do mean here we are: you can feel the sand in your face and eyes, the wind whipping your hair as you cross the Saltmarsh in Ruth’s wake, as she heads for the henge that she and her fellow archaeologists discovered some years ago. Yes, we’re digging things up again, wooden posts in a circle to form a henge and, ultimately, bones. The body in question turns out to have been there for some time, to the frustration of DCI Harry Nelson, who has called Ruth in to advise, because he’s looking for the body of Lucy Downey, who has been missing for ten years.

The choice of tense gives great immediacy to both plot and people. Although the story is told in the third person the reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings of the two main characters in a way that feels natural: one of my constant gripes when I’m reading is when the point of view switches sharply between characters; relatively few authors can really pull it off, but here the tense works in Griffiths’ favour, I think. Within a few pages of the beginning I felt as though Ruth was an old friend, a strong, slightly prickly woman who could nonetheless be good company. She’s slightly frumpy, likes cats and isn’t afraid to open a bottle of wine when she’s on her own. Her behaviour as the plot develops is plausible too – she isn’t foolhardy in the face of danger as so many heroines tend to be (proponents of what I think of as the “let’s split up and search in different directions” school) but has enough imagination to make her a good archaeologist and investigator. There’s little of the suppressed but barely controlled neediness of Temperance Brennan or Kay Scarpetta, neither of whom I’d consider inviting in for a glass of something.

Harry Nelson, too, is a policeman you feel you could trust, solid and dependable, with just enough of the maverick to make him interesting. At one point we are told he likes to drive everywhere as if he’s in pursuit, and is rather pleased if the traffic cops give chase thinking he’s a member of the public (actually, you would imagine that in King’s Lynn they would pretty quickly learn to recognise his unmarked car, but it’s a nice touch).

The story of the missing child is tight and tense, the anguish of the parents well-drawn. I did guess who was responsible, but I rarely mind that anyway, and the twists of the plot kept me just uncertain enough until the last moments. I liked, too, that things weren’t wrapped up too abruptly – sometimes you are left wondering about the immediate aftermath of events, but Griffiths has the confidence to finish things satisfactorily, while leaving things very nicely set up for the next in the series. There’s a third already on its way, so I think we have a substantial series in view. Griffiths was shortlisted for the Theakston’s crime novel award this year: she didn’t win, but it’s a tremendous achievement for a first in a series, and she’d have had my vote.

There is an excellent interview with Elly Griffiths at The Book Whisperer, where I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she loves Wilkie Collins – in fact, I’d have put money on it!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Blood Pit: three books by Kate Ellis

The Blood Pit is the third book I've read by Kate Ellis, and the second which features her detective Wesley Peterson. I read the first in that series, The Merchant's House, last month. What attracted me was the discovery that they are set in South Devon, the area I visit regularly when I go to see my parents. I was intrigued to see what a murder mystery set there would be like, all the more so because there is all her plots of a historical aspect as well as a present-day one. Wesley is an incomer to Devon, doubly an outsider in the not-especially-multicultural South Hams because he's black; within the local police force he's that fish out of water, a graduate policeman, having studied archaeology. Fortunately, his boss, Gerry Heffernan, is another incomer, from Liverpool this time, and he receives a reasonably warm welcome. He's pleasantly surprised, too, to find an old friend working in Tradmouth (aka Dartmouth), Neil Watson, who is in charge of a dig at an old merchant's house in the town.

This sets up the whole series: while Wesley investigates a case, Neil finds that he is working on a related archaeological mystery. In the first book it's a body in the cellar of the house; in a much more recent one, The Blood Pit, he is digging up the remains of a mediaeval abbey when he finds a strange pit. At the same time, Wesley is called to a murder scene where the body of the thoroughly unpleasant Charles Marrick has been discovered, drained of blood (it was this scenario which made the book seem so suitable for RIPV). Neil, meanwhile, finds himself possibly caught up in modern events when he starts to receive anonymous letters talking about blood: the writer not only seems to know a great deal about the abbey and its history, but makes threatening allusions to making people bleed. Such is the nature of these stories that it's not long before a second body is found.

These are well-constructed stories with plausible characters. I am beginning to like local detective constable, Rachel, a farmer's daughter with a sensible attitude to her job (and a bit of a soft spot for Wesley). I'd like to see her develop further: her handling of a possible suspect in The Blood Pit really rang true. In some ways, I was more taken with the author's newer series, set in a thinly disguised York (here, Eborby), with a detective called Joe Plantagenet. The first, Seeking the Dead, has slight overtones of the supernatural  (there might be a ghost, but nothing to compare with Merrily Watkins). I think the atmosphere of the mediaeval city in the modern day is much easier to recreate: York is full of dark alleys and snickleways - the very word provides its own atmosphere - and we've seen in series like Morse and Rebus how a city becomes a character in its own right. It's much harder to do this with a more diverse area - South Devon has a mix of small towns, villages and the urban sprawl of Torbay. However, we've seen that Martin Edwards is mapping out a Cumbrian setting that is both distinctive and local, and it would be interesting to know what Martin himself thinks on this subject, particularly since he also has a series with a city setting, in this case, Liverpool. But it's hard to pin down what characterises South Devon these days, where hardly any locals now remain in the villages, and where towns like Totnes (Neston in Ellis's books) do from time to time show signs of the divide between the local population and the New Age incomers. Perhaps I am asking the impossible!

At any rate, both series offer plenty of potential for satisfying reading, ideal for those who don't like their crime too gritty. They deal with present-day themes, so I would hesitate to put them into the cosy class, but the historical subplots offer an element of that genre. I look forward to more of the Plantagenet series, but I'll be perfectly happy to carry on reading the Devon ones too.

A final note, I'm trying to make sure that any challenge reading I do includes - but is not limited to - books which come from our local library, and all three of these did.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Following from last week's R.I.P.V list, there is one book that is an absolute must for Hallowe’en reading this year: Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (due out 21 October). Paver has pulled off two real achievements: first, she perfectly recreates the explorer’s diary, with its combination of matter-of-fact relation of everyday detail, the excitement of discovery and the loneliness of exile; second, she has written a “classic” ghost story, a creepy, chilling tale that will linger unsettlingly with the reader.

It’s 1937, and Jack Miller’s plans to become a physicist have been hit by the Depression, so he is working in a dead-end job when he hears of an expedition to the High Arctic in need of a radio operator. He’s initially put off by the four ex-public schoolboys he meets, but realising how important the expedition might be in shaping the rest of his life, agrees to go.

From the outset, however, the expedition seems fated, and by the time they arrive in Norway, they are already one person down – the doctor of the team has had to stay in England following the death of his father. Nonetheless, the remaining members decide to go ahead – after all, how could they possibly guess that before long only Jack would be left to face the Arctic winter alone? The first obstacle is overcoming the reluctance of Eriksson, the skipper of the boat they have chartered, to land them at Gruhuken, the site they have chosen for their camp. He won’t give reasons, but insists that it’s not a good place. It’s not a virgin site, there is a ruined mine there, with the remains of a cabin, and a “bear post”, used to attract polar bears so that they could be shot.

From the very start, the bear post makes Jack uneasy, something he puts down at first to his distaste for fellow expedition-member Algie’s evident pleasure in killing animals. Gradually, however, he comes to a conviction that the post is the focus of…not a haunting – the rational Jack can’t entertain that idea – but  a memory, an echo of something from the past. And alone and afraid in the Arctic night, Jack is at risk, not just from whatever may or may not be outside the cabin, but also of the loss of routine induced by his own fear.

Paver strikes a perfect balance between describing the beauty of the Arctic and the creeping paranoia of the people at Gruhuken. The chill is cracklingly tangible as winter settles in to the remote bay, and more so when it becomes clear that even the dogs are afraid of something. Paver’s background in writing for young adults shows to the good, I think: at 200-odd pages, it’s a tightly written story, ideal for one so hard to put down and, with its pre-war setting, feels like a book from an earlier tradition of story-telling. I found myself thinking of M.R. James while I was reading, and at times, of John Buchan’s Sickheart River, or some of his supernatural tales. This is a story not just for one deliciously creepy Hallowe’en, but for many to come.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

R.I.P. V!

Now that September is here the weather has suddenly improved a little. It’s been a pretty miserable summer in the north of England, although my view might be slightly jaded whenever there has been a nice day, it seemed that I had to work. So I’m sorry it’s nearly over, and that we suddenly find ourselves shutting the chickens up straight after the washing up in the evening.

There’s one consolation, though – it’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril time again! Anyone who has read my blog for a while will know that there are two challenges each year which seem to have been made for me, and this is one of them. The other, of course, is the Once Upon a Time Challenge. They are both run by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, who does a fantastic job every year of marshalling readers and organising giveaways and prizes, and he gets a tremendously enthusiastic response for each challenge. We, the readers, get the enormous pleasure of sharing books we love, reading what others have to say about them, and discovering huge piles of new books, generally to the detriment of our bank balances. 

So one of my resolutions, this year, is to get at least two of my four books for Peril the First from the library. The first of them I have already, requested last month when I knew the challenge was coming up, and judiciously renewed so that I could wait until after the official start date to begin it. It is Thursbitch by Alan Garner –given his power to scare me when I first read his books, and his comments on writing it, this one will be really creepy. I’m going to start it this week.

One other book is already decided upon, the most recent (I think) of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series. They are usually pretty creepy too, and I don’t think I shall want to be reading it when Hallowe’en comes round. He’s one of those writers who can persuade me that supernatural events might just be going on in the real world!

Alongside my reading for the challenge I’ve got two relevant non-fiction books on the bedside table at the moment. The first is Explore Green Men by Mercia McDermott. I’ve long been fascinated by this topic, and she is the first writer I’ve come across to talk about the influence of the East on religious carving in Europe, and specifically to tie it in to a common image in Devon, that of three hares in a ring, which I first came across referred to as “the Tinners’ rabbits”. More on this anon. I’m also reading Worlds of Arthur, a study of the historical evidence for Arthur and the sites connected with him across Britain. The Arthurian legends, and their Celtic origins, are almost as much of a preoccupation as Green Men, and last night I began wading through the wreckage of the Roman Empire in quest of the once and future king.

So the reading list looks like this:
Alan Garner, Thursbitch (library)
Phil Rickman, To Dream of the Dead

Two books from a “pool” of titles which might include:
Ariana Franklin, The Death Maze (library)
Kate Ellis, The Blood Pit (library)
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Diana Wynne Jones, The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Amanda Hemingway, The Poisoned Crown

Possible re-reads:
John Fowles, A Maggot
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
John Buchan, Witchwood

Mercia McDermott, Explore Green Men
Fran and Geoff Doel and Terry Lloyd, Worlds of Arthur: King Arthur in History, Legend and Culture (library)

Happy reading to everyone taking part in R.I.P.V!