Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

This fantasy novel, first published in 1983, was reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series, so I thought I really ought to have read it. It starts intriguingly with a young American historian, and expert on obscure poet William Ashbless, who has been sent for by a famous and wealthy entrepreneur to give a lecture on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A number of other candidates have already been rejected; time travel will be involved and a degree of flexibility is required. It turns out that Brendan Doyle will need to be very flexible indeed, since he finds himself trapped and penniless in the early nineteenth century. Regency London would be dangerous enough, you might think, to a stranger, but Doyle not only becomes the prey of rival gangs of beggars, but finds himself pursued by gypsies and sorcerers. Worse still, Doyle knows that he will soon encounter Dog-Faced Joe, a werewolf who can swap bodies.

The juxtaposition of Egyptian sorcery with the squalor and shambles of Regency London was interesting, and offered plenty of opportunities for luridly gothic settings, from Romany tents to the thieves' den. I found the book increasingly problematic, however: the proliferation of Dog-Faced Joe's victims meant that I became uncertain who inhabited whose body, while the kas of the various sorcerers began to add to my confusion: there are too many characters and too much doubling. The plot didn't quite hold up under these complications, and my attention wandered a little in the later chapters – since there were times when something straightforward looked more attractive, I left it at home while I went away, and it was harder than ever to pick up the threads on my return. I also found a number of historical inaccuracies to be a mild irritant, though I appreciate that this is a fantasy work and not a historical novel.

Bearing in mind the date of publication, however, I think this an interesting piece of writing and I'm glad that it is still in print and therefore an accessible part of the canon. On reflection, I can see that the reason it sat for so long on my shelf was that I always viewed it with some suspicion. Nonetheless, it probably deserves a closer re-read at some point, and there were certainly aspects I enjoyed enough to make that possible.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Ouhanderfoule Jacques Ferron: Selected Tales

Jacques Ferron writes modern fairy tales. These stories, many of them very short, are set in Quebec and generally follow the conventions of the conte, commenting on society through a combination of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic. Ferron's writing spanned the period before and after the Quiet Revolution, and much of it is concerned with the transition from the rural society of the habitants to the modern world, yet they also offer wry and witty comment on la condition humaine in general. They are often told from the point of view of a village doctor - as Ferron himself was, as a young man in the Gaspésie - with his privileged view of the troubles of both the wealthy and the poor.

Selected Tales is translated by Betty Bednarski, who offers the only route to enjoying the stories for many readers: Ferron's writing is clearly too idiosyncratic for non-francophones, employing such gems as his own transliterations of English with words such as "cuiquelounche" (quick lunch). Happily, Bednarski, who is a wonderfully thoughtful translator, leaves these in the text, supplying the translation in a footnote, so that we can feel we are in on the joke). Even in English, though, the style is quirky and informal: "The Sirens" begins:

And then, one day, the blacksmith cum garage-man, who was beginning to have a bellyful of the Odyssey, said to Ulysses: "You've been back in Ithaca [that's Ithaca Corner, Ontario] all of fifteen years. Why not take a little trip down East? Montreal isn't that far...."

Ulysses is kindly allowed to go by Penelope: "[A]fter all, a weekend was not the Trojan War."

Many of the stories present a vignette of village life, while others, such as "The Bridge" describe the urbanisation of a rural population. This story is typical in its construction, being in the form of a memoir. It begins, with a twist on "once upon a time" - "This was some time ago." and tells how the narrator has been used to seeing an old woman carrying scrap metal across the bridge from Couteau Rouge to Montreal. The woman, her home and her journey are described, as is the birth of her third child. And then, the narrator observes, she simply disappears without explanation.

Not all stories are so brief. My favourite is "The Dead Cow in the Canyon", a rather lugubrious story of a young habitant who moves to the "Farwest" to farm like his father. In Calgary, distracted by meeting a putative cousin, he is persuaded into marrying the daughter of a Chief, before setting off to farm in a canyon with his new wife and a heifer. The heifer is as easily distracted as the young man has been, and pines for a mate, but while her rather feckless owners return to the city to find her one, she dies of thirst. Her subsequent story is poignant and whimsical and, I would say, fairly representative of Ferron in both style and theme. Ferron set up the Rhinoceros Party (so-called because politicans are "thick-skinned, slow-moving, dim-witted" creatures) to promote humour rather than violence as an agent of political change, and this shows in his distinctive and quirky writing. His work as a psychiatrist, too, informs his understanding of human nature, and the "lost" voice of the psychiatric patient can be heard transformed, in stories which are often concerned with the poor, the mad, or the fantastic. With his pleasure in the nuance of language, and his attention to the traditional elements of the conte, Ferron offers us something which seems simple and at times even naive, yet is imbued with rich veins of humour and social comment. Highly recommended.

Cross-posted at The Short Story Reading Challenge, this was also one of my books for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Friday, 15 February 2008

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Other nations had dark gods and wild-eyed prophets that demanded obedience, child mutilation, slavery, and poverty for the people while wealth flowed to an all-powerful priest class. Jackals had its deity-free Circlist philosphy, quiet meditations and a wide network of oratories. A Circlist parson might drop round and request a quick brew of caffeel, but never call for the beating heart of the family's firstborn to be ripped out of its chest.

This is a book to linger over. Two young orphans, Oliver and Molly, are being hunted by ruthless assassins, apparently for who they are, although neither of them knows why. Help on their separate journeys comes from those on the fringes of society, outlaws, thieves, and exiles and steammen, mechanised and manufactured creatures which come in many forms, yet which have a soul. The young heroes are intelligent and thoughtful – Molly has been raised in a poorhouse by a Circlist who believed in education, Oliver has been forced by isolation to be bookish. These are qualities which are often ignored by novelists of late, apparently in the belief that young people are characterised by being difficult and sulky, kicking against duty and responsibility. These orphans accept the roles which seem to have been thrust upon them, their only reluctance born of their uncertainty that they might be unequal to their tasks.

I detect in Hunt's fluent and elegant writing the influence of Iain Banks's Culture novels, in the richness of the different societies, with their separate philosophies and religions, and particularly in the steammen, whose wisdom and age-old experience is reminiscent of the Culture's AIs in range and complexity. Hints, too, of Gibson and Sterling's underrated The Difference Engine, with its darkly gothic steampunk setting, and of Gibson's eclectic mix of religions (notably in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), ninja side by side with voodoo; here, as in Gibson, they are transformed into something plausible and compelling, while the old gods of Wildcaotyl are pure Lovecraft. Also reminiscent of Gibson is the cast of minor characters with strong and distinctive voices. I was very taken with Mother Loade and her assistant, and the Gear-gi-ju master, Redrust. It's a creditable pedigree for a YA novel, though no less than one might expect from the founder of www.SFcrowsnest.com, a science fiction and fantasy website.

Absorbing and readable in its own right, as a YA novel, The Court of the Air may well encourage other reading in the same genre, especially among the authors mentioned above, while the underlying ideologies of the book's various cultures, well-stated as they are, should provoke some consideration of what constitutes a well-governed state. There is a good deal that is shocking in the story, and its quiet and matter-of-fact handling serves to accentuate the horror – the hideous plight of the King of Jackals, with his arms surgically removed so that he may never lift them against his citizens, will linger long after the book is finished. I liked the way in which detail is built up gradually, small pockets of information creating the bigger picture of a complex world. It's a book which demands close attention and some work on the part of the reader, which makes it all the more absorbing. The lasting impression is of a gripping adventure, warmly and compassionately told, and of two engaging young heroes. I am delighted to see that there is another book set in the Jackelian world due in May, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Swans and roses

More cultural events as I went recently to see Amjad by Montreal dance company, La La La Human Steps. This modern ballet by Edouard Lock is in part based on classical ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, which are, he suggests, part of our collective memory. I'd question how much, myself, since I have met many people who regard watching ballet as the most outré of pastimes and wouldn't dream of giving it five minutes of their time, even on television. But there are those who are reasonably ballet-literate, and they are, I guess, Amjad's intended audience. Certainly, the applause at the end was pretty rapturous, so I imagine the Sadler's Wells audience thought they had picked up the references.

I found myself at times wondering of there was more going on than I had realised, but a quick trawl through the reviews shows that I seem to be in accord with the critics. Lock expects us to recognise elements of the two ballets – though there was more swan than Aurora – both in dance and music, but story and movement are deconstructed and fragmentary, the pas de deux full of conflict rather than harmony. The delicate wafting arms of the swans become frenzied and angular flapping, and we were reminded that, for a realistic representation of a swan, a man is better. A prince en pointe, though, looked constrained and "tight" beside the more graceful elasticity of his partner. Lighting which made frequent use of alternating spots added to the fragmentation of movement and story.

Gavin Bryar's score reworks themes from both to create a work in its own right, powerful and lyrical. The musicians are worthy of particular note – playing for super-fast dance must be exacting but interpretation lost nothing to choreographical demands. I like least the use of video screens, which for me seemed to add little beyond reinforcement of references to the geometry of classical ballet (rings of pearls for circles of swans?) and fairy tales, where the thicket of briars has not merely surrounded the castle but physically trapped the princess (or prince). The dancers are individualised only by their physical differences, but their movement is always focused and their speed at times staggering. It's a long performance, for dancers as well as for audience, and the latter might benefit from both a little more elucidation and a bit less video, but I would nonetheless recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to see it. Indeed, I'd like to see it again myself (the UK tour takes in several more venues) having re-watched Sleeping Beauty first.

If you are interested you can see a clip of them in action, in an earlier work.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

January's books and catching up....

I'm not going to make any jokes about penguins, but I do enjoy the sight of all this orange; my favourites are the old-fashioned ones. Last week I was re-reading Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, and the descriptions of "new" (in 1949) books in the back sent me off on a trawl through Abebooks to see what I could find. The results? Two books by Angela Thirkell, The Brandons and August Folly, one by Anne Bridge, Illyrian Spring, two more Mitford re-reads, Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred (either of which may yet turn up in the book depository that is our upstairs room) and an extra, E.Nesbit's The House of Arden, which Harriet Devine was writing about recently. (Oh dear, I just nipped over to check the URL to link from here, and I see she's mentioned another Nesbit, one I'm pretty sure I haven't read!) None of which are the books I meant to buy in early 2008, namely those Barbara Pym I haven't got and some more of Michael Gilbert's delightful crime novels.

January's books are listed here. There is a lot of catching up on reviews to do, with those for challenges being the most urgent - they are flagged here. My itinerant lifestyle ought to be conducive to writing reviews, except that I would then have to carry even more books about with me than I already do.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (review pending)
  • Journey into Spring by Winston Clewes
  • To Let by John Galsworthy (review pending)
  • The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  • Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai
  • Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much by G.K. Chesterton
  • Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura (review pending)
  • The Children of Shallowford by Henry Williamson - re-read
  • The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
  • The Last Guardian of Everness by John C. Wright
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (review pending)
  • The Traitor's Sword by Amanda Hemingway
  • Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Dark Companion by Andre Norton (review pending)
  • Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry
Canadian Book Challenge (ends 1 July 2008): 4 of 13 completed (1 review -still - pending)
Outmoded Authors Challenge (ends 29 February 2008): 7 of 9 completed
Young Adult Challenge (runs 1 January-31 December 2008): 1 completed (review pending)
From the Stacks Reading Challenge: 4 out of 5 completed (3 reviews pending)
I'm also participating in the Short Story Reading Challenge, extending my six months' of story reading to a year.

Last year's books are here.

Links are mainly to reviews on this site; the occasional book on country topics (including novels and cookery books) is reviewed on Cat Musings.