The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney is another murder mystery with no science fictional elements to it at all. I know! How crazy for me. This one is set in England in the 1980s but not very obviously. Ray Lovell is the private detective who’s hired to find a Romany woman who disappeared 6 years ago after her wedding. He has some of “the strong black blood” in him himself, which is, in the mind of his client, supposed to give him an edge in finding her.
The other point of view character is a young Romany boy who lives in a group of trailers with his mom and extended family, including his uncle, who was the missing girl’s husband and the father to their sickly young boy.
It’s a good story, with a protagonist who is his own enemy (but not worst) and some interesting investigation goes on. There’s sort of a framing device of Ray being in the hospital after a car crash, but I don’t know how necessary it really was.
All in all, not a bad story, and I quite enjoyed the conclusion, even though it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be clever. Hard to hold that against a whodunnit though.
Jo Walton’s book Among Others is a librarian’s dream book. It’s about a 15-year-old Welsh girl in a terrible English boarding school in 1979. But Mor loves science fiction. The book is about reading science fiction and fantasy and the power that these stories have. And holy shit does she read. The book is full of commentary on Zelazny and Delany and Tolkien and who might have actually seen elves and known something about how magic really was.
Because Mor’s mother is a witch. At least, she’s alluded to as being a witch. And her twin sister died trying to stop their witchy mother from doing witchy things. But Mor is not an entirely reliable narrator in this story about magic that can always be explained by coincidence.
The librarians in the book are heroes. They help Mor meet other bookish people and place countless interlibrary loans for her. It’s the kind of book that makes me happy when I fill out those forms for my library members.
I believe it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards, but a lot of that has to be because of its near complete immersion in classic science fiction which would be near to the hearts of those prize-selectors. But still. A very good book about books.
The Man Within My Head is Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene. I think it would have had more of an impact on me if I had read more than a couple of Graham Greene books in my life. But Iyer writes about travel and globalism in a way that speaks very well to me, and a big part of this book was about how certain writers get in your head. I guess I’m saying I understood what he was talking about even though I don’t feel the same way about Greene.
The book was filled with stories about growing up in English boarding schools and how they were trained to spread Empire, but also about Iyer’s travel, and about California wildfires taking his homes, and looking for a father, and the way Greene wrote about the goodness in fallen priests. I liked it, but it wasn’t the same kind of thrill as something like Sun After Dark.
Tim Powers’ historical fantasy The Stress of Her Regard is a deeply cool gothic romance of a doctor named Crawford whose bride is killed on their wedding night because he mistakenly wed something inhuman at his bachelor party. He runs from the law, and his now dead wife’s twin sister, who assume he murdered her, but in France he learns that he’s part of a terrible jealous and predatorial family.
Crawford makes his way across the Alps and finds his life interwoven with John Keats, Percy Bysse Shelley and Lord Byron. All of them are tied to these creatures and some are trying to deal with them, while others try to free themselves.
It’s an excellent book, especially because there are so many things the characters try and are successful at, but then they backslide on their victories. It’s a tale of friendship and self-destruction. Because these are the Romantics, everything is done melodramatically, but for grand tragic purposes.
Powers also brings in the ideas of randomness and determinism (a la Last Call, my favourite book by him) and even a bit of quantum physics. I like it a lot and am glad it’s back in print (which is why even though it’s from the 1980s I hadn’t ever read it before).
I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen because Neil Gaiman talked about what an influential writer of fantasy Alan Garner was. While it does feel influenced by Lewis and Tolkien (with its very English kids off visiting the romanticized countryside), it’s much better than most knockoffs. It’s written for children and thus does focus more on a clear plotline than on character development, but man, does it do a great job of it.
Garner describes terrifying creatures and situations so well. Hell, he describes everything so well. The story moves surprisingly quickly, eschewing faux mystery for having the kids do more stuff. There’s an underground chase scene that has hard choices foisted on them at every turn and they don’t do everything exactly perfectly and it hurts them. A lot of the story is about hiding from bird spies for three days trying to meet up with the wizard to return the stone to him, and getting rejuvenation from elves, which yes, is very Tolkieny, but the language he uses never feels like an academic writing it (though if you hate made-up words, or words from old European languages that sound made-up you will hate this book).
There are more books in the series, but the book does have an ending (though it’s a touch abrupt). This is the kind of thing I’d been hoping The City of Ember would be (and wasn’t). It is vastly superior to most traditional fantasy tales. I really liked it.
Holly got some DVDs from the library the other day, and one of them was The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), based on the book by John Fowles, which I’d read in China. I remembered that there was a Victorian gentleman and he ends up sort of ruined because of his interest in a woman not his fiancee, and I remembered that it had an intriguing double ending.
What they did to bring the book to the screen was pretty awesome. There are two stories in the movie: the story of the French Lieutenant’s Woman and the story of the two lead actors in the film adaptation of the book they’re shooting and their romantic entanglement with each other. It’s kind of awesome.
Early on we see them rehearsing scenes that meld into the story. They talk about the statistics behind how many Victorian prostitutes there were in their offtime. Late in the movie, the lead actress’ partner asks the lead actor what they decided to do about the ending of the book. “Which ending are you going to use?” he asks. It’s all very meta and Harold Pinter’s adaptation adds so much in kind of the same way Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002) does (and Holly’s just pointed out to me that Meryl Streep is in both films). Adaptation’s the only movie I can think of that does this kind of thing, but I’d love to hear about more.
I feel like I should read something non-science fiction soon because it seems I’ve been on a bit of a tear here. Too bad though, because In the Garden of Iden is a Kage Baker book about immortality, time travel and the idiot romanticism of being young.
So the protagonist of the story is Mendoza, a young girl who’s rescued from the hands of the Inquisition back in the 16th century and is turned into an immortal genius botanist working for an ominous megacorporation from the 24th century called Doctor Zeus (which I alternated between pronouncing like Seuss and Zaius; I don’t know which is correct) to preserve things that history records as having gone extinct but will be found in weird isolated niches all over the planet. That’s the setup.
Mendoza’s in 16th century England posing as the 19 year old daughter of a Spanish doctor (which is convenient because she is 19 – the workers for the company don’t travel through time any differently than the rest of us, at least not in this book), trying to preserve these extinct plants with awesome medicinal properties no one’s noticed yet and she falls in love and there are complications.
There’s a lot of neat tech and anachronism in the book but my favourite part is how appropriate the ending is.
So yes, very cool book. Timetravel, immortality, romance and religion. What more do you need?
I’m not gonna lie to you Marge; it took me a long time to get through Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. It was eventually interesting in what it did, but was remarkably tedious in getting there.
The book, written in 1826, was set in the end of the twenty-first century, but as far as fiction about the future goes, it’s pretty unimaginative. Everything is exactly like the early 19th century except England is considering becoming a republic, and there is an airship. The wars between the Turks and Greeks are fought with cavalry charges and there are loads of peasants who know their place and yeah. It would be difficult to get to that future from our present, but it was kind of fun to speculate about as a distraction during the first half of the book (which needs distraction). The frame I put into it is that the reason everything feels like 1830 in the year 2070 is because of some sort of unmentioned apocalypse which happened in the 2010s and been forgotten by the time the novel begins.
In that first half of the book we follow our protagonist and his boon companions through political intrigues about who shall become the lord protector of England and who shall engage in stupid idiot romance plot shenanigans to cause drama. I hated the first half of the book so much. A big plot point is that one character does something that could be taken the wrong way but because he keeps secrets it looks worse and then no one will talk about anything and then he goes off to war to die because his wife didn’t trust him enough when he was being an asshole. It was the kind of scenario that requires one sentence of communication to resolve but everyone is too puppeted by the author to say it. Terrible shit. Though this was the Romantic period so what did I think was going to happen?
Anyway. Halfway through the book the world is struck by a deadly plague and then it turns into a kind of slow post-apocalyptic story that I could get behind. People just die and die and die. You get inured to it. The plague comes from Asia and wipes out the entire human race in something like 8 years (and 200 pages). There’s lots of whining and moping about it (granted, everyone is dying so it’s a bit justified) and heroism and terrible religious groups sprouting up and general awfulness. It’s all a bit melodramatic, but what can you do?
It takes till the last 15 pages or so before the narrator actually is the last man on earth, so if you’re looking for a 19th century I Am Legend, this isn’t it. But if you read it as a cyclical story of the death of a world and arising of another it’s kind of neat. The ending is pretty optimistic for the entire human race but one being dead.
I guess A.A. Gill is a food writer in England, but all I’ve ever read of his stuff are his travel essays, which Previous Convictions is a collection of. He writes about hunting and America and some guy from a show called Top Gear who can’t stand hanging around gearheads. You’d think from the back of the book blurbs that he was insanely cantankerous and mean, but the essays come off as from an interested person writing without pulling too many punches. If I remember the other book of his that I read, A.A. Gill is Away, it had many more sweeping judgments on cultures. I remember Japan being fundamentally psychologically disturbed in that book.
The weirdest essay was about him taking his kids to Oman for Spring Break. The idea was to go somewhere an eight hour flight away (from London) but that was totally different. I guess the essay wasn’t that weird but the amount of money involved in living a life like that kind of amazed me.
Alan Moore, as far as I know, has withdrawn from comics and is now a zine producing magic lurker in the dark. Good for him. His historical novel, Voice of the Fire, is about the place where he does most of his lurking, Northampton, England. It spans about 6000 years and many linguistic quirks.
The first chapter is told with great difficulty. You can feel that language is a new thing as you read sentences about “I’s gleaning heat water foot mother.” The entire first chapter is a test. There is a story there. It is the basis for everything that comes after. It is very difficult.
As history proceeds the stories are told by witchy women and murderers and templars, judges and a head on a spike. All different but unified by fire and shagfoals and unattached legs.
This book was finished in 1995 or so and was really difficult to find for years. Now though Top Shelf has done a paperback version that you can get anywhere. If you like Alan Moore’s work, it definitely works even without the pictures.