Friday, 29 October 2010

Jobs and books

Tavistock Square, taken by C Ford March 04

Simon at Stuck in a Book asked today whether people really like to read books about their jobs? His post and the subsequent comments reminded of one of my favourite extracts, discovered not long after I had started my present job, and treasured ever since. By one of my favourite authors, it elegantly sums up the possible pitfalls of my role. Every time I read it, I think there but for the grace of God… Pym’s elegant prose always fills me with delight, but the book this comes from, Less Than Angels, with its impoverished postgrads anxiously hoping for travel grants, meagre receptions that take place in the same room as the lecture, and academic backbiting, is especially dear to me:
Esther Clovis had formerly been secretary of a Learned Society, which post she had recently left because of some disagreement with the President. It is often supposed that those who live and work in academic or intellectual circles are above the petty disputes that vex the rest of us, but it does sometimes seem as if the exalted nature of their work makes it necessary for them to descend occasionally and to refresh themselves, as it were, by squabbling about trivialities. The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did not seem to have been seriously at fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed…whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt

This is the third of Hunt’s books set in the Kingdom of Jackals (I talked about the first here). It’s a while since I read the first two, and it took me a little time to get back into the convoluted politics of Hunt’s steampunk world. And now this whole world is under threat from an external foe, the terrifying Army of Shadows with its vat-grown slat soldiers, invincible as they sweep across the land draining its power and harvesting its inhabitants.

Molly Templar and Oliver both return in this book, Molly as the successful author of celestial fiction and Oliver as the sinister Hood o’the Marsh, a sort of dark Robin Hood in thrall to his brace of pistols. They are joined by an escapee from the royal breeding house, Purity Drake in a wild and desperate plan to defeat the Army, gathering together an unlikely cohort to embark on their mission: Coppertracks the steamman, Molly’s old friend, whose theories about the mysterious comet which has recently appeared in the skies above Jackals have been ridiculed; Commodore Jared Black, who led the u-boat expedition to search for Camlantis; Lord Rooksby, an autocratic scientist with a bitter antipathy towards Molly and her friends; Keyspierre and his daughter Jeanne, envoys from the neighbouring country of Quatérshift whose harshly utilitarian politics has long been the cause of tension between it and Jackals; and Duncan Connor, rescued after the Army of Shadows' first dramatic attack on Jackals. Assistance comes from the King of the Steammen in the form of a sentient – and short-tempered – rocketship, Lord Starhome.

As I approached the end of the 450-odd pages, I wondered how on earth Hunt was going to resolve matters in so little time, and recalled similar sensations from the two previous books. Were we going to be left with a cliff-hanger this time, I wondered, and would anyone survive? After three books I have some firm favourites among the regular characters, and would hate to lose any of them.  But I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m not even going to tell you who they are, let alone whether they survive. I will say, though, since it’s clear to anyone who looks up Hunt’s books, that there is another in the series already published, and it’s going to be high on my TBR pile, because there is something very beguiling about the world he has created. It’s frequently harsh and cruel, even in the relatively peaceable Jackals, but it’s full of people you can care about. They are best read in order, by the way: worldbuilding of this complexity needs quite a bit of explanation, but in the later books Hunt keeps it to a minimum and new readers might find themselves adrift. Tom Holt describes Hunt as Philip Pullman on benzedrine; I thought more Jules Verne on acid, myself, though I continue to detect influences. I’ve already suggested Sterling, Gibson and Miéville.  Here are elements of Dune alongside a bit of Star Wars and Michael Moorcock, all woven together to make something new and original. Such riches!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Thursbitch by Alan Garner

Garner has never been the easiest of authors. Even his most accessible books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, contain a visceral energy that whirls the reader into an intoxicating world of magic and fear and then dumps then, breathless and dissatisfied with the real world, at the end. In the startlingly bleak Elidor, the power of myth to invade the prosaic everyday world brings an element of real terror, as all the electrical equipment in the Watsons’ new home switches itself on, buzzing away remorselessly throughout the night, even when unplugged. The Owl Service builds claustrophobic tension to an almost unbearable pitch, and Garner’s readers polarised into those who loved it and those who no longer wanted to know.

Then came Red Shift, an immensely powerful intertwining of three timelines, Roman, Civil War and present, violent and angry, a bitter, desperate book ambivalently ending in a probable suicide. The abandonment of hope exemplified a modern youth, adrift and frustrated in a world which was spiralling towards the three-day week, while the interwoven timelines suggested strongly that humankind was born to grief – if there had been a possible redemption at the end of Elidor, it was looking increasingly tenuous here. However much you might admire Red Shift as a piece of literature, reading it left a sour taste. Many readers only noticed the sour taste, and there were loud complaints about its impenetrability, with some justification, since lots of its threads and meanings can only be fleetingly grasped. Through several readings I have always felt that something was eluding me, the point being, I think, that it’s eluding the characters too. They know that all is not well with their world, but even the exceedingly articulate Tom has no power to put it right. Where is magic when you need it?

Thursbitch feels very much like a sequel to Red Shift to me, although the only connection is the intensity of its sense of place, and a setting geographically close, since Garner likes to write about the area around his home. It starts with a real story (just as Weirdstone began with a local legend): in 1755 salt-trader John Turner was found dead by the roadside after a heavy storm, and by his body was the print of a woman’s shoe. That he should have died so close to home, on a road he knew intimately, intrigued Garner, who began to tease out the reasons why his death might have occurred. His own explorations of a landscape that he had recently identified as being a possible site of the Green Chapel where Sir Gawain sought the Green Knight one legendary Christmas suggested a significance to the Christmas death of John Turner, and Garner's packman, traveller of the Cheshire drove-roads, is a shaman, one of the last initiates of the rites of the Bull god. Pagan custom and legend are inscribed across the wild areas of Britain, evident to the walker today, and it’s not impossible to believe that there were secluded valleys where Christianity had never really caught on. And the coming of the Christian faith to Thursbitch is a painful transition, borne of grief, a contrast to the natural easiness of the bull rites.

Touching intermittently, like the firing of synapses, is the present-day story of Sal, suffering from degenerative disease (Huntingdon’s?), and Ian, her carer. Like Jan and Tom in Red Shift their conversation is a struggle, full of undercurrents and awkwardnesses – as in reality, the significance is often in what is not said, or in the misunderstandings or even wilful misinterpretations, exacerbated by the confusion symptomatic of Sal’s condition.  Sal, a geologist, is angered by their fellow “users” of the countryside (indeed, she would deny any fellowship with them) but her own relationship with it is tenuous, eroded by the rifts in her memory and only retained in geological description. Nevertheless, where the synapses fire across time, there is the possibility of redemption.

Thursbitch is at once rooted in the earthiness of the Cheshire landscape and its language and lyrical in its evocation of a faith which is bound to the land. The language may be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with English dialects, but it’s possible, I believe, to listen to the music of the speech and still reach enough of the meaning.* I was conscious again of the visceral response to myth and legend that I mentioned earlier and have talked about in other posts, a sensation that an author is reaching some kind of universal truth about the nature of our relationship with our surroundings, even if the detail isn’t accurate. I’d go so far as to say that the exact detail doesn’t really matter, if the feeling is there – it has much to do, I suppose, with the overall similarity of religious belief, and the predisposition we have to explain certain kinds of thing is particular ways, as Karen Armstrong discusses in A Short History of Myth. As Sal’s descriptions resonate with geological time, Turner’s verses and words resonate with prehistoric time.

I knew, as soon as I opened my library copy, that I’d made a mistake here: like Garner’s other books, it’s one to go back to again and again, with meaning to accrue from each reading. It’s an elegiac work, part of a remarkable tradition of English writing about the land from Piers Plowman, to Victorian writers such as John Cowper Powys  and Kipling and as strong as ever in the present day.

* While writing this I discovered a useful section on the Unofficial Alan Garner website entitled Thursbitch Tangents, which offers a glossary of links for some of the more difficult allusions, and I have tracked down a site offering Cheshire dialect words for you as well. I can’t vouch for the latter, as I didn’t use it, but the former is good, and also offers photographs of the various sites, links to interviews and blog reviews and so on.

Later: I missed the opportunity to add that 10 October saw the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which has been continuously in print ever since. There's a lovely post about it here.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Playing with Bones by Kate Ellis

This is the second in the DI Joe Plantagenet series, set in Eborby (York). A strong element in Kate Ellis's work is the awareness of influences from a world of ghosts - it's left very much up to the reader whether to take them into account or not, but they do seem to play a part in the lives of her characters. In this one, a little girl has a friend who may or may not be imaginary, and a murderer believes that he hears the taunting voices of children.

The body of a young woman has been found in Singmass Close, and the murder seems to imitate a spate of killings that took place in the Close in the 1950s. Could it be the same person? There were certain details not released to the public at the time of the first murders which are present here, but Joe and his boss Emily don't intially have much success following up the people involved at the time, and the killer was never caught. Meanwhile, another young woman has gone missing from home, although her mother doesn't seem to be taking her disappearance very seriously, and a convicted murderer has escaped from custody.  To add to the overwork and strain, Joe is having trouble with his love life, and Emily is worried about her small daughter.

This series in settling in well, I think, continuing to draw on the author's evident interest in local history, and the two main characters and their working relationship are developing nicely. There is room to flesh out some of the other police officers, and I'd like to see more of Joe's friend, Canon Merriweather. These are gentle mysteries, with just a little otherworldly frisson and some mildly spooky settings in Eborby's medieval streets and closes. I might not sound quite so complacent if I were reading them alone in a medieval city at night, so I think they continue to earn their place on my RIPV reading list!

Monday, 4 October 2010

French Fried by Chris Dolley

Our Northumbrian farm cottage was built by a Northumbrian farmer and modernised by his son. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a farmer to build a dog kennel, so not surprisingly, over the years one or two features of the cottage have proved something of a challenge, particularly the stone fireplace the previous inhabitants (aforementioned son and family) were so proud of that they built another when the moved into the farmhouse. It was ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and took days to demolish (I believe the farmhouse version was equally recalcitrant). Inside this massive edifice was quite the meanest grate imaginable; it was a pig to light and smoked badly when the wind was in the wrong direction (that is, prevailing), so we were very happy when we could finally afford to replace it all with a woodburner. The prevailing wind, however, still comes from the same direction, so it’s not much easier to light than it ever was, although by the third winter we felt we were getting the hang of it.As you can imagine, then, my sympathy was readily roused when I found that Chapter 5 of French Fried by Chris Dolley dealt only with the difficulties he and his wife had experienced when they moved into their new French home with its unfamiliar fireplace. How could I not read the chapter with bated breath, as though I too was choking in the smoke which billowed into their living room? How could I not shiver empathically (you  might put it down to a draughty train, but I know it was the power of suggestion) as winter sets in with no solution found? Did I recognise the fruitless search for suitable fuel? You bet I did! although happily, ours was conducted in a familiar language. Unfortunately, it was all too grimly familiar for me to laugh at. I felt rather the same way about their trouble with the plumber, the vagaries of our own water supply having recently caused me to be exceedingly sharp with an employee of Scottish Water, although it was hardly their fault that the previous owner of the farm had, for 15 years, left two large holes in the water supply, albeit thoughtfully marked with pilfered traffic cones. As Dolley remarks of his French home, “Heath Robinson could have taken notes.”

I did rather better with Dolley’s description of their journey to France which entailed a concerted battle with an unwilling horse and two horse boxes. Similarly with the lurcher Gypsy’s unwillingness to pass up the opportunity to attack a passing ankle, let alone a foreign dog. Mind you, after a summer of helping our neighbour with her horses, younger son would recognise the bitter experience behind this comment:
I've often wondered how Rhiannon would have fared in the Wild West. And where cowboys found horses that could be left loosely tied outside saloons? Every horse I've ever come into contact with would have disappeared before the first foaming pint came sliding down the saloon bar. And as for riding through gunfire – none of our horses would have made it past the first oddly shaped haystack let alone ridden into danger.
If there is a problem with this sort of “how we moved to France and how it all went wrong” book, it is that the tone of frenetic hilarity begins to feel a bit forced after a while, and you wish you could have a few pages when the author isn’t trying to make you laugh. No, honestly, you want to protest, just tell me about it, a few pages of description is fine, you must have liked to France to want to move there, but right now I haven’t a clue why you did because your relentless xenophobia is getting in the way. It’s the sort of writing which is taught by correspondence course – pile on the escapades, the deprecatory comments and long-suffering tone without pause, nice short, pithy sentences and paragraphs please, so that the pace never flags, keep up at the back there and put your kiss-me-quick hat back on, you’re not joining in the fun. It all becomes a bit exhausting.

When, in the second half of the book, things suddenly look at bit bleak for Chris and Shelagh, because all their savings had disappeared in a case of identity theft, the style of writing ought to be markedly different, but it all sounds a little too much the same. The short, pithy paragraphs continue unabated, the tone – slightly puzzled, slightly ironic, distinctly facetious – is still there. It’s an easy one for the British writer to adopt – perhaps our besetting sin, familiar right across the board at the lighter end of literary endeavour. We court approval with it in school and many of us never lose it.

You’ll probably have gathered from the foregoing that I have mixed feelings about this book, probably enjoying it more than I feel I ought to have done. The detective story – following up the trail of the identity thief – does lift it out of the run-of-the-mill moving-to-a-foreign-country-disaster story and contains some genuine surprises and twists. Evidently, Dolley realises that there is really is no more mileage in the awfulness of plumbers, and at least takes some responsibility for his own inability to communicate in the language of his chosen home. But I have to admit that the obligatory farcical set-piece (in this case, a football match) was skipped by this less-than-intrepid reader. Sometimes an author just goes too far. Similarly, having read the chapter in which his mother-in-law arrives, I can only imagine that either she is now deceased or Dolley divorced. As she was 80 at the time of the visit (sometime in the 1990s), though, he probably no longer has to fear a libel suit.

French Fried came to me via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers. My world would have been no different if I  hadn’t read it, but it helped to while away a long and dreary train journey, as did writing my review.

* Edited later to add this link to LindyLouMac's review of French Fried, which adds some interesting tidbits about its route to publication.